Truthout Stories Fri, 09 Oct 2015 12:02:43 -0400 en-gb Disaster Capitalism From the Migrant Crisis to Afghanistan and Haiti

When disaster strikes, who profits? That's the question asked by journalist Antony Loewenstein in his new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. Traveling across the globe, Loewenstein examines how companies such as G4S, Serco and Halliburton are cashing in on calamity, and describes how they are deploying for-profit private contractors to war zones and building for-profit private detention facilities to warehouse refugees, prisoners and asylum seekers. Recently, Loewenstein teamed up with filmmaker Thor Neureiter for a documentary by the same name that chronicles how international aid and investment has impacted communities in Haiti, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and beyond.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Fri, 09 Oct 2015 11:16:00 -0400
The Corporatization of Higher Education Is Holding Back Fossil Fuel Divestment

Academics, concerned students, or our government is not deciding the future of our universities. In looking at who has the decision making power at large colleges and universities across the country it is clear that those who have the power to make decisions are never going to be affected by those decisions. When it comes to the moral direction of a university's finances the people who are making decisions have had it in their job descriptions to care about the bottom line. The fossil fuel divestment movement across college campuses is a moral question that is largely dependent upon the leadership of the schools. So when university administrators and trustees are drawn from the ranks of business tycoons, Wall Street executives, and real estate moguls, it's hard not to question their motivations, or the future of the movement.

In the private sector, success is about maximizing profits and returns to shareholders. But academia is concerned with more than the bottom line. Universities are generally nonprofit organizations that provide a public good: education. Moreover, they are economic drivers, they produce world-altering research, and they take political stances on moral issues such as apartheid.

Yes, it is important that universities remain financially healthy and solvent; however, it should be noted that any kind of investment is risky, including investments in the fossil fuel industry. In fact, pension funds in both California and Massachusetts lost billions of dollars due to investments in coal and other fossil fuels.

One would expect that those who are involved in financial markets, banking, and business have experience in deciding which transactions are likely to yield gains and which are too risky to pursue. But in practice, this has not been the case. Take Georgetown University as an example: Its board members, who include managing directors of financial firms, chief financial officers of companies, and heads of investment management groups, didn't have a problem engaging in bond swaps that are costing the university millions. Yet when students get involved or question the financial well-being of their university, the response they often hear is that they are not equipped to have an opinion on such matters.

In the University of California system, graduate students brought up risky borrowing practices and put time and energy into researching and writing a detailed report. In response, the chief financial officer, Peter Taylor, wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle talking down to the students and suggesting that they shouldn't question authority. "The students who have criticized the university's policies should understand that just because they are in graduate school doesn't mean they are experts in everything," he writes. Now, he's partly right: Students are not experts. That's precisely why they're called students. However, he fails to use this as a teaching moment - precisely what the University of California system is meant to do.

Perhaps speaking with students who are interested in higher education financial practices would allow them to feel that those who purport to have their best interest at heart actually embody the university's mission of teaching and scholarship. However, if we instead follow Mr. Taylor's example of ad hominem critique, we might question whether his previous role as Managing Director of Public Finance at Lehman Brothers has anything to do with his defense of university decisions.

At my own university, NYU, students on multiple causes have tried to question and approach the institution about practices from investments, expansion, and student debt. Each time, my university has met our efforts over the course of the past few years with prohibitive practices. Wonderful professors, peers, and campus organizations at NYU have made me feel like my thoughts are important and worth developing. For that, I am grateful. However, NYU has also been the place where I've felt most small and insignificant, because no matter how much research and effort I put into an idea, and no matter how many official channels I go through, the status quo remains unchanged. In the past few years, NYU has been accused of not prioritizing low-income students and not supporting international students who are in need. One of its previous board members served subpoenas to students who had the audacity to question his practices.

For the past three years, the NYU Divestment movement has used both official and unofficial channels to obtain a meeting with the board of trustees, but the trustees have refused to hear their presentation. Given these past instances, I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that the board will continue to resist any student input on this issue. While I hope that the trustees will side with the students, faculty, and the collective voice of NYU's university senate, which voted for divestment last year, they're under no obligation to do so. I can't help but wonder why we are so beholden to them.

The board of trustees at NYU controls the university's financial well-being, but I would argue they also make a moral statement about who and what they choose to support and listen to. Of course, I'm not saying that all members of the board act in prohibitive ways; I'm simply doing precisely what my university education has enabled me to do: question, think critically, and learn. I hope that members of the board are capable of doing the same, but I question whether they fully understand the weight of the decisions they make and how they will affect not just the students in this community but the wider world.

I hope that they will think critically about the effects of climate change, especially considering the summit in Paris later this year. And I hope that they will learn that students are worth listening to. Most of them were once in our shoes, and perhaps they have forgotten the importance of being given a seat at the table and a voice in the room.

Opinion Fri, 09 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
New Environmental Inspectors Offered Free Industry-Funded Classes on Fracking

(Photo: Simon Fraser University)In areas where shale drilling and hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands. (Photo: Simon Fraser University)

At an industry conference in Philadelphia last month, oil and gas executives gathered to hear about a little-known public relations effort with a very precise target: newly hired state and federal environmental inspectors.

At a seminar titled "Staying Ahead of Federal and State Regulations: A Partnership with Academia and Government," officials from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Texas described how gifts from companies like ExxonMobil allowed their universities, along with the Colorado School of Mines, to offer state regulators free classes on oil industry best practices, travel and accommodations included.

"We're targeting inspectors - oil and gas inspectors - who have three years or less of experience, although we do have lots of inspectors with different experiences on the course," Dr. Hilary Olson, director of Education, Training and Outreach at the College of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas told attendees at Shale Insight 2015.

The program showcases the industry's technical prowess as it conveys detailed information about the science involved in oil and gas drilling and fracking. "We don't teach them about regulations specific to their state or talk to them about policy; what we're interested in teaching them is the engineering, the science, the technology and how to communicate about that technology," Dr. Olson explained.

The five-day TopCorp course includes both time in the classroom and visits to working oil and gas sites, taught by professors from many disciplines. Sample lesson footage reveals an online course featuring slick CGI graphics as professors lecture on topic ranging from basic principles of geology to complex technological advances that the industry has made in recent years.

All three universities involved have made national headlines in the past for their "frackademia" scandals.

In 2009, a Pennsylvania State University study, which claimed Pennsylvania alone could create 175,000 jobs by promoting fracking in the state, made headlines because the study's lead author, Timothy Considine, had concealed the fact that the research was funded by the shale industry.

In 2009, questions of academic freedom were raised at the Colorado School of Mines when Prof. Geoffrey Thyne said his job was threatened after he made comments that the fracking industry found objectionable (the school's president serves as a director of a number of shale-industry companies).

And in 2012, the University of Texas found itself in hot water after the lead investigator in a study disclaiming a connection between fracking and groundwater contamination was forced to resign and had the paper retracted by the university because he failed to disclose that he sat on the board of directors of a company engaged in fracking.

In this case, the universities involved are upfront about the fact that TopCorp is company-funded. "So these different organizations gave us gifts to develop this program," Dr. Olson explained. "When a university receives a gift, it means there are no specific deliverables, so we maintain our autonomy and our independence on what material goes into the curriculum and how we deliver that."

But scientific research funded by companies tends to slant favorably towards the funder, experts say.

"[E]ven though the vast majority of scientists would never consciously allow the potential for personal financial gain or loss to influence the outcome of their research, that potential should be disclosed to the reader so that the readers can decide for themselves whether to discount the reported results," University of Texas law professor Thomas O. McGarity told The New York Times in the wake of the frackademia scandal at that university. "In that regard, dozens of studies have shown strong correlations between sponsored research and favorable outcomes for the sponsors."

The TopCorp curriculum seems to anticipate that there could be an appearance of unseemliness. "Discuss ways to react to accusations of alleged regulatory coziness" is one learning objective in a sample class module posted on TopCorp's website.

Generally speaking, scandals surrounding "frackademia" have centered on cases where new research is financially connected to the fracking industry, but those ties are concealed. Last week, a Boulder Weekly investigation, built from documents and emails obtained by Greenpeace, revealed that a University of Colorado Boulder paper was not just funded by the American Petroleum Institute, but also that API was allowed to edit the report and to write up quotes attributed to a researcher at the school.

The TopCorp program represents an entirely different tack. Instead of funding research showing fracking to be benign, the TopCorp program communicates directly with the field personnel responsible for policing the industry, helping to shape their understanding of complex - and controversial - topics like whether and how drilling and fracking can cause groundwater contamination. And while the shale industry has for years taken an aggressive approach to beating back regulators, this new program adopts a more collegial tone.

Of course, state regulators who are aware of the program's funding can be expected to take the industry's "educational" programs with a grain of  salt. But TopCorp reps told Shale Insight attendees that many regulators who start out with doubts can be won over.

"It was almost a conversion experience," said Pennsylvania State University's Jim Ladlee, describing how one skeptical government official changed her views on the course after attending. "And that's what happens with many of our regulators. They come into the class, they're slightly skeptical of what might be going on in the class. But after we start, we involve somewhere between 15 and 20 different faculty for each of the sessions that we do. We involve a lot of faculty. And as we do that, we start to see that people begin to trust what it is."

At the Shale Insight conference, the ability of academics to gain trust was emphasized repeatedly.

"You know, when you look at a lot of surveys of whom the public trusts to give them information, many times, academia is at the top of that list," Dr. Olson told the gathered oil executives.

A long list of oil and gas companies, including Anadarko, Shell Appalachia, and Halliburton, have provided resources to TopCorp and even made areas of drilling sites that are usually off-limits to visitors accessible for the program's photographers and videographers.

"Exxon Mobil and GE were the founding sponsors of our program and they helped us really spectacularly in the development phase," Dr. Olson explained.

While oil and gas companies have contributed millions of dollars to TopCorp, which Olson described as a "Cadillac version" experience, a contribution from the Environmental Defense Fund of $125,000, announced July 16th, allows program administrators to describe TopCorp as a collaboration between environmental groups, industry and academia. 

"Oil and gas inspectors need to be prepared to meet the challenges presented by the complexity and scale of industry operations," Scott Anderson, senior policy director for EDF, said in a TopCorp press release when that funding was announced. "Effective training will equip inspectors to enforce the regulations that protect our environment. That's why programs like TOPCORP are so important."

The program disclaims the idea that the oil and gas industry decides what goes into the course or how it is taught.

"What role do funding corporations or other entities have in setting the detailed curriculum content?," a Frequently Asked Questions section on TopCorp's website says. "None, the detailed curriculum is at the sole discretion of the three universities (principal investigators and instructors)."

As the shale rush swept across the US into areas with little recent history of oil booms, often-underfunded and under-staffed state regulators have repeatedly been forced to scramble to learn to police a highly complex industry with vast resources.

So far, TopCorp been very successful at attracting newly hired regulators from across the country.

"We've had people from different state agencies, we've had young people who have 18 months of experience, maybe 6 months of experience. We've had people go through who have several decades of experience with us," Dr. Olson explained. "We've had people go through from state agencies as well as from federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Bureau of Land Management."

"We also invite our sponsors to come to our training so that they can see what we are doing," she added.

The reception from many new inspectors has been enthusiastic, according to teasers for the classes posted on TopCorp's website.

"I feel like I've got a little bit more of an educated opinion, and I know my colleagues will benefit from what we've learned here," one attendee says in a promotional video for the program.

At the Shale Insight luncheon, TopCorp officials touted their ability to promote a friendly connection between the industry and those charged with policing it.

"The other thing I'd like to say is - they're all smiling," Mr. Ladlee said as he showed pictures of attendees at a recent TopCorp training. "So, great to see regulators smiling for a change."

News Fri, 09 Oct 2015 11:26:20 -0400
WikiLeaks Reveals How the US Aggressively Pursued Regime Change in Syria Igniting a Bloodbath

Knowing that the US never really abandoned a regime-change policy in Syria informs our understanding of the question of US military intervention in Syria today. The US faces a situation that it helped create.

Syrian soldiers and children at a checkpoint in the besieged and devastated city of Homs, Syria, March 23, 2014. For both sides of Syria's civil war, Homs, a central Syrian crossroads with a diverse prewar population of one million, is crucial to the future. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)Syrian soldiers and children at a checkpoint in the besieged and devastated city of Homs, Syria, March 23, 2014. For both sides of Syria's civil war, Homs, a central Syrian crossroads with a diverse prewar population of one million, is crucial to the future. (Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times)

In 2010, WikiLeaks became a household name by releasing 251,287 classified State Department cables. Now, a new book collects in-depth analyses of what these cables tell us about the foreign policy of the United States, from authors including Truthout staff reporter Dahr Jamail and our regular contributors Gareth Porter, Robert Naiman, Phyllis Bennis and Stephen Zunes. "The essays that make up The WikiLeaks Files shed critical light on a once secret history," says Edward Snowden. Click here to order your copy today with a donation to Truthout

The following is Chapter 10 of WikiLeaks Files:

On August 31, 2013, US president Barack Obama announced that he intended to launch a military attack on Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack in that country that the US blamed on the Syrian government. Obama assured the US public that this would be a limited action solely intended to punish the Assad government for using chemical weapons; the goal of US military action would not be to overthrow the Assad government, nor to change the balance of forces in Syria's sectarian civil war.

History shows that public understanding of US foreign policy depends crucially on assessing the motivations of US officials. It is likely inevitable as a result that US officials will present themselves to the public as having more noble motivations than they share with each other in private, and therefore that if members of the public had access to the motivations shared in private, they might make different assessments of US policy. This is a key reason why WikiLeaks' publishing of US diplomatic cables was so important.

The cables gave the public a recent window into the strategies and motivations of US officials as they expressed them to each other, not as they usually expressed them to the public. In the case of Syria, the cables show that regime change had been a long-standing goal of US policy; that the US promoted sectarianism in support of its regime-change policy, thus helping lay the foundation for the sectarian civil war and massive bloodshed that we see in Syria today; that key components of the Bush administration's regime-change policy remained in place even as the Obama administration moved publicly toward a policy of engagement; and that the US government was much more interested in the Syrian government's foreign policy, particularly its relationship with Iran, than in human rights inside Syria.

A December 13, 2006 cable, "Influencing the SARG [Syrian government] in the End of 2006,"1 indicates that, as far back as 2006 - five years before "Arab Spring" protests in Syria - destabilizing the Syrian government was a central motivation of US policy. The author of the cable was William Roebuck, at the time chargé d'affaires at the US embassy in Damascus. The cable outlines strategies for destabilizing the Syrian government. In his summary of the cable, Roebuck wrote:

We believe Bashar's weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real, such as the conflict between economic reform steps (however limited) and entrenched, corrupt forces, the Kurdish question, and the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarizes our assessment of these vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements, and signals that the USG can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising.

This cable suggests that the US goal in December 2006 was to undermine the Syrian government by any available means, and that what mattered was whether US action would help destabilize the government, not what other impacts the action might have. In public the US was in favor of economic reform, but in private the US saw conflict between economic reform and "entrenched, corrupt forces" as an "opportunity." In public, the US was opposed to "Islamist extremists" everywhere; but in private it saw the "potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists" as an "opportunity" that the US should take action to try to increase.

Roebuck lists Syria's relationship with Iran as a "vulnerability" that the US should try to "exploit." His suggested means of doing so are instructive:

Possible action:

PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE: There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business.

Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders) are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue. [Emphasis added.]

Roebuck thus argued that the US should try to destabilize the Syrian government by coordinating more closely with Egypt and Saudi Arabia to fan sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia, including by the promotion of "exaggerated" fears of Shia proselytizing of Sunnis, and of concern about "the spread of Iranian influence" in Syria in the form of mosque construction and business activity.

By 2014, the sectarian Sunni-Shia character of the civil war in Syria was bemoaned in the United States as an unfortunate development. But in December 2006, the man heading the US embassy in Syria advocated in a cable to the secretary of state and the White House that the US government collaborate with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to promote sectarian conflict in Syria between Sunni and Shia as a means of destabilizing the Syrian government. At that time, no one in the US government could credibly have claimed innocence of the possible implications of such a policy. This cable was written at the height of the sectarian Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq, which the US military was unsuccessfully trying to contain. US public disgust with the sectarian civil war in Iraq unleashed by the US invasion had just cost Republicans control of Congress in the November 2006 election. The election result immediately precipitated the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. No one working for the US government on foreign policy at the time could have been unaware of the implications of promoting Sunni-Shia sectarianism.

It was easy to predict then that, while a strategy of promoting sectarian conflict in Syria might indeed help undermine the Syrian government, it could also help destroy Syrian society. But this consideration does not appear in Roebuck's memo at all, as he recommends that the US government cooperate with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to promote sectarian tensions.

Note that, while Roebuck was serving in the George W. Bush administration, he was a career Foreign Service officer, a permanent senior member in good standing of the US government's foreign policy apparatus. He went on to serve in the US embassies in Iraq and Libya - in the latter as chargé d'affaires - in the Obama administration. There is no evidence that anyone in the US foreign policy apparatus found the views expressed by Roebuck in this cable particularly controversial; its publication did not cause scandal in US foreign policy circles.

So, while the sectarian character of the civil war in Syria is now publicly bemoaned in the West, it seems fair to say that in 2006 the US government foreign policy apparatus believed that promoting sectarianism in Syria was a good idea, which would foster "US interests" by destabilizing the Syrian government.

This view of US policy - happy to make common cause with Saudi Arabia in fostering Sunni-Shia sectarianism in Syria, and preoccupied with Syria's relationship with Iran above all else - is buttressed by a March 22, 2009 cable from the US embassy in Saudi Arabia, "Saudi Intelligence Chief Talks Regional Security with Brennan Delegation."2

This cable summarizes a March 15 meeting including then US counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan and US ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ford Fraker with Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the head of Saudi Arabia's external intelligence agency. Ambassador Fraker's summary recounted:

7. (C) PERSIAN MEDDLING: Prince Muqrin described Iran as "all over the place now." The "Shiite crescent is becoming a full moon," encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait and
Yemen among Iran's targets. In the Kingdom, he said "we have problems in Medina and Eastern Province." When asked if he saw Iran's hand in last month's Medina Riots (reftels), he strongly affirmed his belief that they were "definitely" Iranian supported. (Comment: Muqrin's view was not necessarily supported by post's Saudi Shi'a shia sources.) Muqrin bluntly stated "Iran is becoming a pain in the ..." and he expressed hope the President "can get them straight, or straighten them out." [Emphasis added.]

Ambassador Fraker's comment that "Muqrin's view was not necessarily supported by post's Saudi Shi'a sources" was a severe understatement. Indeed, in a February 24, 2009 cable, "Saudi Shia Clash With Police In Medina,"3

Ambassador Fraker had reported in detail on the February 20 clashes between Saudi security forces and Saudi Shia pilgrims in Medina, without any mention of Iran. Fraker's February 24 cable primarily attributed the clashes to, first, Saudi police having denied the Saudi Shia pilgrims access to the Baqi'a cemetery opposite the Prophet's Mosque, and second, the Saudi Shia community's long-simmering anger over historical grievances.

This indicates that the US government knows perfectly well that the Saudi government blames Iran for things that the Iranian government has nothing to do with, and is unconcerned about this. For the US government's own internal information, the ambassador wanted to make clear that, as far as the US embassy knew, the Medina clashes had nothing to do with Iran. But as the 2006 cable makes clear, the US was happy to make common cause with Saudi Arabia in blaming Iran for things happening in Syria with which Iran had no connection. The next paragraph in the cable is also instructive:

8. (C) WEANING SYRIA FROM IRAN: Brennan asked Muqrin if he believed the Syrians were interested in improving relations with the United States.
"I can't say anything positive or negative," he replied, declining to give an opinion. Muqrin observed that the Syrians would not detach from Iran without "a supplement."

This suggests that, for the US government in March 2009, Syria's interest in "improving relations with the United States" was equivalent to its being "weaned" from Iran. Thus, the thing that the US really cared about in Syria was not, for example, the Syrian government's respect for human rights, but Syria's relationship with Iran.

Another theme that recurred in the 2006 cable focusing on Syria's "vulnerabilities" and how the US should try to exploit them was that the US should take actions to try to destabilize the Syrian government by provoking it to "overreact," both internally and externally. One of the "vulnerabilities" of the Syrian government listed by Roebuck that the US should try to exploit was its "enormous irritation" with former Syrian vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam, leader of the opposition-in-exile National Salvation Front. Roebuck wrote:


THE KHADDAM FACTOR: Khaddam knows where the regime skeletons are hidden, which provokes enormous irritation from Bashar, vastly disproportionate to any support Khaddam has within Syria. Bashar Asad personally, and his regime in general, follow every news item involving Khaddam with tremendous emotional interest. The regime reacts with self-defeating anger whenever another Arab country hosts Khaddam or allows him to make a public statement through any of its media outlets.

Roebuck proposed a means of exploiting this vulnerability:

Possible Action:

We should continue to encourage the Saudis and others to allow Khaddam access to their media outlets, providing him with venues for airing the SARG's dirty laundry. We should anticipate an overreaction by the regime that will add to its isolation and alienation from its Arab neighbors.

Note that the goal of encouraging the Saudis and others to "allow Khaddam access to their media outlets" was not to promote democracy and human rights in Syria, but to provoke the Syrian government to do things that would "add to its isolation" from its Arab neighbors. Of course, if the Syrian government acted in ways that would "add to its isolation," then the US could cite such actions as evidence that the Syrian government was a rogue government, unable or unwilling to conform to international norms, threatening to US allies in the region, and therefore that the US government had to take some action in response. But now we know that such actions by the Syrian government would not have been unfortunate developments to which the US would be reluctantly forced to respond, but the explicit goal of US policy.

For example, in August 2007 - eight months after the above cable - Khaddam told the Saudi daily Al-Watan that reported remarks of Syrian vice president Faruq al-Sharaa criticizing Saudi Arabia were "part of the policy pursued by the ruling clique, which aims at severing Syrian links with the Arab world and tying it further to Iran's regional strategy," the Beirut Daily Star reported.4 The newspaper noted that the Syrian government was actually trying to "calm the spat," saying that statements attributed to Sharaa had been "distorted." In the context of Roebuck's cable, these developments make sense: it was the US and its ally Khaddam that were trying to inflame tensions between Syria and Saudi Arabia, not the Syrian government.

Whatever one thinks of Khaddam or the Syrian government, it is not surprising that the latter would have been provoked in 2006 by countries like Saudi Arabia giving Khaddam a media platform, given what Khaddam had used such platforms to say in the past. Note that there is no question that the Saudi government controls the country's media for a purpose like this, exactly as Roebuck implied - indeed, the Riyadh embassy cable about the Medina clashes between Saudi police and Shia pilgrims noted that the Saudi government had successfully pressured Saudi media to suppress reports of the clashes.

Here is what Khaddam told the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat about his goals in an interview in Paris in January 2006:

Q: What are you[r] current priorities? Do you want to reform the regime, reform it, or topple it?

A: This regime cannot be reformed so there is nothing left but to oust it.5

One imagines that if Iran had given a former Bahraini or Egyptian vice president a platform to say about the government of Bahrain or Egypt that "this regime cannot be reformed so there is nothing left but to oust it," the US government would not have responded well. This was eleven months before Roebuck's cable, and five years before the "Arab Spring" protests in Syria. We are told in the West that the current efforts to topple the Syrian government by force were a reaction to the Syrian government's repression of dissent in 2011, but now we know that "regime change" was the policy of the US and its allies five years earlier.

Indeed, another of Roebuck's proposed actions to exploit Syria's "vulnerabilities" carried the same message:

Possible Action:


The regime is intensely sensitive to rumors about coup-plotting and restlessness in the security services and military. Regional allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia should be encouraged to meet with figures like Khaddam and Rif'at Asad as a way of sending such signals, with appropriate leaking of the meetings afterwards. This again touches on this insular regime's paranoia and increases the possibility of a self-defeating over-reaction.

According to Roebuck, if Egypt and Saudi Arabia met with Khaddam and news of the meetings were "appropriately leaked," that would send a signal to the Syrian government that these countries were plotting against Syria, perhaps trying to organize a coup.

It is revealing that Roebuck described the regime as "paranoid" for having fears that appear to have been quite rational - fears based in significant measure on the actions of the United States and its allies. The most powerful government in the world and its allies in the region aspired to overthrow the Syrian government. The US has a long track record6 of trying to overthrow governments around the world, including in the region - and, as Roebuck's cable makes clear, far from trying to allay such fears, the US wanted to exacerbate them. In 2014, the US was arming insurgents who were trying to kill Syrian government officials. Was the Syrian government's fear of the US government irrational, or was it rational?

Failure to acknowledge that US adversaries' fears of the US are rational suggests a world-view in which US threats are normal, unremarkable, an inevitable part of the landscape, which only mentally unstable people would object to, their fears serving as proof of their irrationality. During the US-organized Contra war against Nicaragua in the 1980s, Alexander Cockburn recounted the view of a visiting US congressman toward Nicaragua: "Nicaraguans tell stories about these US fact-finders with a certain wry incredulity. One congressman listened to a commandante outlining the murderous rampages of the contras and then burst out, 'Suppose 5,000 contras cross your border. Suppose you are invaded by the entire Honduran army, why should you worry. Are you that insecure?'"7

Listing resistance to economic reforms as a "vulnerability," Roebuck wrote



Bashar keeps unveiling a steady stream of initiatives on economic reform and it is certainly possible he believes this issue is his legacy to Syria. While limited and ineffectual, these steps have brought back Syrian expats to invest and have created at least the illusion of increasing openness. Finding ways to publicly call into question Bashar's reform efforts - pointing, for example to the use of reform to disguise cronyism - would embarrass Bashar and undercut these efforts to shore up his legitimacy. [Emphasis added.]

Presumably, a key goal of economic reforms would have been to "[bring] back Syrian expats to invest," so if they had that effect, then they were not ineffectual. This makes clear what Roebuck was and was not interested in. He was not interested in Syrian economic reforms succeeding in facilitating private investment, but in their failure. Even if they had some success, he wanted to present them as a failure and "undercut these efforts to shore up his legitimacy."

The notion of "legitimacy" is a key one in US foreign policy toward adversary governments in countries that the US does not fear militarily (for example, because they have nuclear weapons). In the context of US foreign policy, the term "legitimacy" is a term of art that has a specific meaning. The usual notion of government "legitimacy" in international law and diplomacy, which the US applies to its allies without question, has nothing to do with whether we like the policies of the government in question or consider them just. Either you are the recognized government of the country, holding its seat at the United Nations, or you are not. Hardly anyone in Washington would suggest that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, or Israel are not "legitimate" because they were not elected by all of their subjects or because they engage in gross violations of human rights. Nor would many in Washington suggest that the governments of Russia or China are not "legitimate," however one might dislike some of their policies, their lack of democracy, or their violations of human rights. These countries have nuclear weapons and a permanent seat and veto on the UN Security Council, so challenging their legitimacy could have dangerous consequences. The US may complain about their policies, but there is no chance that it will challenge their "legitimacy."

Countries like Syria, Iraq before the 2003 US invasion, and Libya before the 2011 US-NATO military campaign to over-throw Qaddafi, on the other hand, belong to a different category. If the US government thinks that their governments can be overthrown, then it may declare them to be "illegitimate." A US declaration that a government is "illegitimate" means that the United States is likely to try to overthrow it.

Roebuck underscored his point as follows:

DISCOURAGE FDI, ESPECIALLY FROM THE GULF: Syria has enjoyed a considerable uptick in foreign direct investment (FDI) in the last two years that appears to be picking up steam. The most important new FDI is undoubtedly from the Gulf.

Again, the increase in investment would seem to suggest that economic reforms were working to encourage investment. But Roebuck saw this as bad. If the most important FDI was from the Gulf, that suggested that, contrary to the US and Khaddam's claims that Syria was trying to have bad relations with the Gulf countries, it was succeeding in projecting an image of a country that was trying to get along. But in Roebuck's view, this was not a good thing; this was a bad thing, which the US should try to counteract.

Roebuck spoke glowingly of violent protests against the Syrian government:


THE KURDS: The most organized and daring

political opposition and civil society groups are among the ethnic minority Kurds, concentrated in Syria's northeast, as well as in communities in Damascus and Aleppo. This group has been willing to protest violently in its home territory when others would dare not. [Emphasis added.]

The word "daring" in English usually connotes exemplary courage. US newspapers, for example, do not generally describe the Palestinian use of violence against the Israeli occupation as "daring," because, while using violence in this instance obviously requires courage, it is not seen in the US as exemplary. This shows how US diplomats like Roebuck see the world: if you are protesting governments that are US allies, like Bahrain, Egypt, or Israel, then your protests should be nonviolent. But if you are protesting a government that the US would like to overthrow, then the use of violence demonstrates "daring." Roebuck suggested a means of taking advantage of this "vulnerability":

Possible Action:

HIGHLIGHT KURDISH COMPLAINTS: Highlighting Kurdish complaints in public statements, including publicizing human rights abuses will exacerbate regime's concerns about the Kurdish population. There is no pretense here that the goal of this action would be to encourage greater respect by the Syrian government for the human rights of Kurds - the goal would be to destabilize the Syrian government. Roebuck also made clear his attitude toward terrorism in Syria:


Extremist elements increasingly use Syria as
a base, while the SARG has taken some actions against groups stating links to Al-Qaeda. With the killing of the al-Qaida [sic] leader on the border with Lebanon in early December and the increasing terrorist attacks inside Syria culminating in the September 12 attack against the US embassy, the SARG's policies in Iraq and support for terrorists elsewhere as well can be seen to be coming home to roost.

Possible Actions:

Publicize presence of transiting (or externally focused) extremist groups in Syria, not limited to mention of Hamas and PIJ. Publicize Syrian efforts against extremist groups in a way that suggests weakness, signs of instability, and uncontrolled blowback. The SARG's argument (usually used after terror attacks in Syria) that it too is a victim of terrorism should be used against it to give greater prominence to increasing signs of instability within Syria. [Emphasis added.]

Note that, in private correspondence, Roebuck has no problem acknowledging that Syria is the victim of terrorism and that the Syrian government is trying to take action against terrorists. But if Syria is the victim of terrorism and is trying to do something about it, according to the view that Roebuck wants the US to present to the world, that is evidence that Syria is weak and unstable and is suffering "uncontrolled blowback" as its support for terrorists elsewhere "comes home to roost."

Imagine if a diplomat from a country perceived to be a US adversary suggested that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and US efforts to prevent such attacks in the future, were evidence that the US is weak and unstable, suffering from "uncontrolled blowback" as past US support for terrorists elsewhere "came home to roost." How would this be perceived in the United States?

It is not hard to speculate. In May 2007, when Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul suggested that "blowback" from US foreign policy had helped cause the September 11 attacks,8 Republican frontrunner Rudy Giuliani denounced him as a conspiracy theorist.9 When in 2010, in a speech at the United Nations, the president of Iran noted the then widespread minority belief that the US government was behind the September 11 attacks, the US led a walkout and denounced the speech.10 So it seems reasonable to conclude that, if the US put forward the view that terrorism in Syria were Syria's own fault, the Syrian government would be likely to perceive that as a very hostile act.

This cable shows that, in December 2006, the top US diplo mat in Syria believed that the goal of US policy in Syria should be to destabilize the Syrian government by any means available; that the US should work to increase Sunni-Shia sectarianism in Syria, including by aiding the dissemination of false fears about Shia proselytizing and stoking resentment about Iranian business activity and mosque construction; that the US should press Arab allies to give access in the media they control to a former Syrian official calling for the ouster of the Syrian government; that the US should try to strain relations between the Syrian government and other Arab governments, and then blame Syria for the strain; that the US should seek to stoke Syrian government fears of coup plots in order to provoke the Syrian government to overreact; that if the Syrian government reacted to external provocations, it proved that the regime was paranoid; that the US should work to undermine Syrian economic reforms and discourage foreign investment; that the US should seek to foster the belief that the Syrian government was not legitimate; that violent protests in Syria were praiseworthy and exemplary; that if Syria is the victim of terrorism and tries to do something about it, the US should exploit that to say that the Syrian government is weak and unstable, and is experiencing blowback for its foreign policy.

We also know that, in the eyes of the US embassy in Riyadh, Syria was interested in improving relations with the United States if and only if it was interested in being "weaned" from Iran.

From other cables, we know that the US was funding Syrian opposition groups. The US government acknowledged this funding after the cables were published by WikiLeaks.11 The US had previously announced funding to "promote democracy" in Syria, but what was not previously publicly known was the extent to which the US government was engaged in funding opposition groups and activities which it had internally conceded would be seen by the Syrian government as proof that the US was seeking to overthrow it. A February 21, 2006 cable noted:

Post contacts [i.e., US embassy contacts in Syria] have been quick to condemn the USG's public statement announcing the designation of five million USD for support of the Syrian opposition, calling it "na[i]ve" and "harmful." Contacts insist that the statement has already hurt the opposition, and that the SARG will use it in the coming months to further discredit its opponents as agents of the Americans.12

The cable also noted: "Several contacts insisted that the initiative indicated the US did not really care about the opposition, but merely wanted to use it as 'a chip in the game.'" Judging from the December, 2006 "vulnerabilities and actions" cable, it is hard to dispute this conclusion of the embassy's Syrian contacts.

The February 2006 cable elaborated:

Bassam Ishak, a Syrian-American activist who ran as an independent candidate for the People's Assembly in 2003, said that the general consensus among his civil society and opposition colleagues had been that the USG is "not serious about us" and that the public announcement was "just to put pressure on the regime with no regard for the opposition." "We are just a chip in the game," he asserted.

Note that the view that there could be severe negative consequences from US funding of opposition groups, including by helping the government delegitimize opposition groups and individuals as agents of foreign powers, was shared by many of the embassy's own contacts in the Syrian opposition. Some of the people who were delegitimized in this way might otherwise have been credible interlocutors in negotiations toward more inclusive governance; thus, the strategy of funding opposition groups could have the effect of foreclosing diplomatic and political options. Some of the criticism expressed of the US announcement was that it was made publicly; but, as the cables demonstrate, it was likely that the Syrian government would find out what the US was doing in the long run, and therefore that the distinction between secret and public was not meaningful.

Another critic noted that the US was already secretly funding the Syrian opposition:

MP Noumeir al-Ghanem, a nominal independent and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament, dismissed the funding plan as a stunt, saying the amount of money was small and that the US had already been funding the opposition secretly, without impact. The new initiative would make no real difference. In his view, the announcement angered most Syrians, who viewed it as interference in the internal affairs of Syria, something that the US always insisted that Syria should not do regarding Lebanon.

Al-Ghanem said the US should engage in dialogue with the Syrian regime and work for a stable, slowly democratizing country that could further US interests in the region, instead of putting up obstacles to such dialogue.

An April 28, 2009 cable, "Behavior Reform: Next Steps for a Human Rights Strategy" - from a period of "policy review" in which the new Obama administration was exploring a less confrontational policy toward Syria - outlining US government–funded "ongoing civil society programming" in Syria, acknowledged that "[s]ome programs may be perceived, were they made public, as an attempt to undermine the Asad regime, as opposed to encouraging behavior reform." It also stated: "The SARG would undoubtedly view any US funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change. This would inevitably include the various expatriate reform organizations operating in Europe and the US, most of which have little to no effect on civil society or human rights in Syria."13 It noted that the State Department's US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) had sponsored eight major Syria-specific initiatives, some dating back to 2005, that will have received approximately $12 million by September 2010.

One of those initiatives was described as follows: "Democracy Council of California, 'Civil Society Strengthening Initiative (CSSI)' (USD 6,300,562, September 1, 2006 - September 30, 2010). 'CSSI is a discrete collaborative effort between the Democracy Council and local partners' that has produced a secure Damascus Declaration website ( and 'various broadcast concepts' set to air in April."

A February 7, 2010 cable, "Human Rights Updates - SARG Budges On TIP, But Little Else," indicates that "various broadcast concepts" referred to Barada TV, a London-based Syrian opposition satellite television network. The February 2010 cable referred to Barada TV as "MEPI-supported" and said: "If the SARG establishes firmly that the US was continuing to fund Barada TV, however, it would view USG involvement as a covert and hostile gesture toward the regime."14

But while the April 2009 cable had noted that the Syrian government "would undoubtedly view any US funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change," the February 2010 cable shows that such funding continued, even though the April 2009 cable had identified "how to bring our US-sponsored civil society and human rights programming into line [with] a less confrontational bilateral relationship" as a "core issue" facing a US human rights strategy for Syria. The April 2009 cable had argued:

The majority of DRL [the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Affairs] and MEPI programs have focused on activities and Syrians outside of Syria, which has further fed regime suspicions about US intentions. If our dialogue with Syria on human rights is to succeed, we need to express the desire to work in Syria to strengthen civil society in a non-threatening manner.

It appears, however, that the shift argued for in the April 2009 cable never occurred. This apparently remained true even as the US embassy became increasingly aware of evidence that the Syrian government knew about the activities funded by the US that the April 2009 cable had warned that the Syrian government would see, if they became aware of them, as evidence of a regime-change policy, and would thus be likely to undermine US efforts to engage the Syrian government.

A July 8, 2009 cable on rifts in the Syrian opposition, "Murky Alliances: Muslim Brotherhood, the Movement for Justice and Democracy, and the Damascus Declaration," noted the "worrisome" fact of "recent information suggesting the SARG may already have penetrated the MJD [Movement for Justice and Development] and learned about sensitive USG programs in Syria."15 The cable expanded on the issue as follows:

MJD: A Leaky Boat?

8. (C) [Damascus Declaration member Fawaz] Tello had told us in the past that the MJD ... had been initially lax in its security, often speaking about highly sensitive material on open lines ... The last point relates to a recent report from lawyer/journalist and human rights activist Razan Zeitunah (strictly protect) who met us separately on July 1 to discuss having been called in for questioning by security services on June 29.

9. (S/NF) Zeitunah told us security services had asked whether she had met with anyone from our "Foreign Ministry" and with anyone from the Democracy Council [recipient of the US grant
for the MJD to run Barada TV]. (Comment: State Department Foreign Affairs Officer Joseph Barghout had recently been in Syria and met with Zeitunah; we assume the SARG was fishing for information,

knowing Barghout had entered the country. Jim Prince was in Damascus on February 25, and it is our understanding he met with Zeitunah at that time, or had done so on a separate trip. End Comment.) She added that her interrogators did not ask about Barghout by name, but they did have Jim Prince's. [Jim Prince is the head of the Democracy Council.]
11. (S/NF) Comment continued: Zeitunah's report begs the question of how much and for how long the SARG has known about Democracy Council operations in Syria and, by extension, the MJD's participation. Reporting in other channels suggest the Syrian Muhabarat may already have penetrated the MJD and is using MJD contacts to track US democracy programming.

A September 23, 2009 cable, "Show Us the Money! SARG Suspects 'Illegal' USG Funding," gave further evidence that the Syrian authorities were increasingly aware of what the US was funding:

1. (S/NF) Summary: Over the past six months, SARG

security agents have increasingly questioned civil society and human rights activists about US programming in Syria and the region, including US Speaker and MEPI initiatives. In addition to reported interrogations of the Director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression and employees of USG-supported Etana Press, new criminal charges against detained human rights lawyer Muhanad al-Hasani for illegally receiving USG funding reflect the seriousness with which the regime is pursuing these "investigations."

2. (S/NF) Over the past six months, civil society and human rights activists questioned by SARG security have told us interrogators asked specifically about their connections to the US Embassy and the State Department. As previously reported, Razan Zeitunah (strictly protect) recounted a June interrogation during which she was questioned about MEPI-funded Democracy Council activities as well as visiting State Department officials. Kurdish Future Movement activist Herveen Ose (strictly protect), brought in for questioning in August, was also asked about funding from "foreign embassies." MEPI grantee Maan Abdul Salam (strictly protect) recently reported one of his employees was called in on September 4, at which time security agents zeroed in on her participation in a MEPI- funded People In Need (PIN) seminar in Prague approximately eight months earlier.
4. (C) The ongoing case of human rights lawyer Muhanad al-Hasani took a turn for the worse on September 15 when, reportedly, the SARG introduced a new charge against him. According to a September 18 e-mail we received from his colleague Catherine al-Tali (strictly protect), the SARG accused Hasani of accepting USG funding that was routed to him through the Cairo-based Al-Andalus Center ... Embassy Cairo also informed us that the Center was not currently receiving funding from either the Embassy or MEPI, though it had in the past.
8. (S/NF) Comment: It is unclear to what extent SARG intelligence services understand how USG money enters Syria and through which proxy organizations. What is clear, however, is that security agents are increasingly focused on this issue when they interrogate human rights and civil society activists. The information agents are able to frame their questions with more and more specific information and names. The charge that Hasani received USG funding vis-a-vis the Al-Andalus Center is especially worrying since it may suggest the SARG has keyed in on MEPI operations in particular.16

The February 7, 2010 cable cited earlier, "Human Rights Updates - SARG Budges On TIP, But Little Else," gave further evidence that the Syrian government was pursuing the funding of Barada TV:

Barada TV: The Opposition in Klieg Lights?

9. (C) Damascus-based director of MEPI-supported Barada TV Suheir Attasi outlined the many challenges facing the channel in a December 23 meeting.
10. (C) Attasi confirmed reports we had heard from other contacts about the SARG's interest in chasing down the financial and political support structure behind Barada. Security agents called her in for questioning in October and repeatedly asked her about her affiliations with the US Embassy and whether she knew Jim Prince ... If the SARG establishes firmly that the US was continuing to fund Barada TV, however, it would view USG involvement as a covert and hostile gesture toward the regime. Just as SARG officials have used the US position on Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report to shut down discussions on human rights, it could similarly try to use Barada TV to diminish our credibility on the issue.17

Note that, although the July 2009, September 2009, and February 2010 cables address exactly the situation that the April 2009 cable had warned about - that the Syrian government would find out what the US was funding - there was no further discussion or concern expressed about what the April 2009 cable had warned would be the likely consequence: that the Syrian government would conclude that the US government was pursuing a regime-change policy in Syria, which would undermine US efforts to engage the Syrian government. Nor was there any further discussion of what the April 2009 cable had suggested: that this funding be reviewed to bring it in line with the policy of engagement.

What emerges from these cables is that, while there was undoubtedly a shift between the policy of the Bush administration after 2005 and the policy of the Obama administration in 2009–10 with respect to the question of regime change versus engagement, the shift was substantially less than publicly advertised. The US continued to fund opposition activities that it believed would, if known to the Syrian government, cause it to believe that the US was not serious about shifting to an engagement policy; the US continued to fund these activities as it came increasingly to believe that the Syrian government was becoming more aware of them. When they became public, the US denied that they amounted to a regime-change policy,18 but we now know from the US government's internal communication that the US did not think that the Syrian government would give credence to such a denial.

This leads us to question the extent to which the Obama administration really shifted to a policy of engagement, or how much, when Saudi Arabia and others pushed it to adopt an explicit regime-change policy in 2011 - a shift the administration eventually did make - these countries were pushing on an open door. The story that was presented to the US public was that its government had tried to engage Syria and failed, and that after the Syrian government cracked down on protests in 2011, the US had no choice but to abandon its efforts at engagement.

But reading the cables, it appears that the US was never really committed to a policy of engagement: it had one hand in the engagement policy, while keeping another hand in the regime-change policy. The Iranian government cracked down on protests in 2009, but the US did not completely abandon efforts to engage the Iranian government. Perhaps the danger of abandoning efforts at engagement with Iran were perceived to be higher, given Iran's nuclear enrichment program and the political pressure on the Obama administration to use force against Iran if diplomacy failed; perhaps the belief among the US and its allies that the Syrian government could be toppled by force, and the Iranian government could not, also played a role.

Knowing that the US never really abandoned a regime-change policy in Syria informs our understanding of the question of US military intervention in Syria today. It shows us that the US is not an innocent victim of circumstance, having to consider the use of force because diplomacy has been exhausted; rather, the US faces a situation that it helped create, by pursuing regime change for years and never fully switching to diplomacy.


1. "Influencing the SARG in the End of 2006," December 13, 2006,

2. "Saudi Intelligence Chief Talks Regional Security with Brennan Delegation," March 22, 2009,

3. "Saudi Shia Clash with Police in Medina," February 24, 2009,

4. "Khaddam Slams Syria over Row with Saudi Arabia," Beirut Daily Star, August 20, 2007, at

5. "Interview with Former Syrian Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam," Asharq Al-Awsat, January 6, 2006, at

6. See, for example, Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2006).

7. Alexander Cockburn, "Fact Finding," Village Voice, December 27, 1983, republished in Alexander Cockburn, Corruptions of Empire (London: Verso, 1987), p. 349.

8. Andy Sullivan, "Candidate Paul assigns reading to Giuliani," Reuters, May 24, 2007, at

9. Nitya Venkataraman, "Ron Paul Recruits Anonymous to Attack Rudy's Foreign Policy," ABC News, May 22, 2007, at abcnews.

10. "US Walks Out on Ahmadinejad's 9/11 Comment," CBS News, September 23, 2010, at

11. "US admits funding Syrian opposition," CBC News, April 18, 2011, at

12. "Announcement to Fund Opposition Harshly Criticized by Anti-Regime Elements, Others," February 21, 2006, plusd/cables/06DAMASCUS701_a.html.

13. "Behavior Reform: Next Steps for a Human Rights Strategy," April 28, 2009, html.

14. "Human Rights Updates - SARG Budges on TIP, but Little Else," February 7, 2010,

15. "Murky Alliances: Muslim Brotherhood, the Movement for Justice and Democracy, and the Damascus Declaration," July 8, 2009,

16. "Show Us the Money! SARG Suspects 'Illegal' USG Funding," September 23, 2009, SCUS692_a.html.

17. "Human Rights Updates - SARG Budges On TIP, But Little Else."

18. Elise Labott, Brian Todd, and Dugald McConnell, "US Denies Support for Syrian Opposition Tantamount to Regime Change," CNN, April 19, 2011, at

Copyright of (2015) of Robert Naiman. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, Verso Books.

Progressive Picks Fri, 09 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
As TPP Deal Inked, Guatemala Labor Case Unmasks Free Trade's Empty Promises

The US and 11 other nations reached an agreement October 5 on the final text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade agreement that will cover two-fifths of the world's economy.

Once President Obama gives notice of his intent to sign it, Congress will have at least 90 days to review the text before voting it up or down, without amendments. The earliest a vote could take place is January, though many predict there won't be a vote until April.

The TPP has been much criticized by unions, who say it does little to protect jobs and advances the rights of investors and corporations at the expense of workers and the environment.

As with all the previous trade deals, the president is making lofty claims about this one. Obama says the TPP will "[open] new markets to American products while setting high standards for protecting workers and preserving our environment."

But to see through the hollow rhetoric, you just have to look at the example of the first-ever labor case brought under a free trade agreement - which is about to wrap up, likely in the midst of the TPP debate in Congress.

In December, an arbitration panel will issue its ruling on a complaint brought by the US under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) against the Guatemalan government for failing to effectively enforce its labor laws.

It's taken years to bring just one case this far, and the potential penalty is a mere slap on the wrist.

Snail's Pace

It's been seven years since the AFL-CIO, together with six Guatemalan unions, first submitted a complaint to the Department of Labor. They accused Guatemala of failing to protect workers' legally guaranteed rights - to association, collective bargaining, and acceptable conditions - by not conducting inspections, registering unions, or ensuring compliance with court orders.

Only 2 percent of Guatemala's working population belongs to a union. It has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for union activists. The AFL-CIO reported that 72 Guatemalan unionists had been murdered since CAFTA went into effect, as of August 2014, with near-total impunity for their assassins.

The slow pace of the CAFTA case is "a huge detriment to workers in Guatemala," said Stephen Wishart, Central America director for the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. "Their rights are being violated in the same ways that were presented back in 2008."

The delays have simply given the Guatemalan government an opportunity to "put make-up on the problems," said Homero Fuentes, of a Guatemalan labor standards monitoring organization called COVERCO.

After deciding to accept the case, the US held consultations with the Guatemalan government, but failed to reach an agreement. In 2011 the US requested the establishment of the arbitration panel, which is supposed to protect workers' rights under CAFTA.

The panel was finally constituted in 2012 - but was put on hold six months later, when Guatemala signed an Enforcement Plan, agreeing to add more labor inspectors and increase the Ministry of Labor's budget for enforcement.

But Guatemala failed to act on most of the plan. Finally last September, the US requested that the panel be reconstituted. The first hearing was held in June.

"A lot of people would argue that the timing of that is not coincidental - we're in the middle of a huge trade debate," said Cassandra Waters, a Global Workers Rights Fellow at the AFL-CIO.

Violence Unaddressed

Anti-union violence isn't among the complaint's charges. The US government argues that's a problem that falls outside the scope of free-trade pacts.

The AFL-CIO disagrees. "There's nothing in these agreements that prevents them from taking up violence," said Waters. "Guatemala is required to enforce its laws related to freedom of association - and that would include investigating murders of trade unionists."

The violence, coupled with other failures to enforce labor law, make it extraordinarily difficult for Guatemalan workers to form unions.

For example, according to Fuentes, there are unions in only three of the country's more than 160 garment factories. Forty percent of total Guatemalan exports go to the US - and 94 percent of garment exports - are destined for the US market.

Guatemala, the largest economy in Central America, is the US's largest banana supplier. It also exports hundreds of millions of dollars of coffee, apparel, and gold each year.

Don't Even Bother

The basis for the complaint is a CAFTA provision that the parties may not repeatedly fail to enforce labor laws in a way that affects trade.

It cites palm oil plantations where workers allege they were paid $5 dollar a day - half the legal minimum - and suffered burns when they were forced to fumigate fields without protection.

It also refers to workers in a number of industries who were illegally fired for organizing on the job, and who have waited years to get their jobs back.

A major stumbling block to labor law enforcement is that the Guatemalan Ministry of Labor's cannot legally fine employers. Instead it must go through the courts, which delays sanctions.

And even then, employers often ignore court orders, and the government stands by.

"There's a large number of cases where the Ministry of Labor hasn't acted," said Waters, "but there's even more cases where the workers no longer bother to contact the Ministry because they have no hope that anything's going to happen."

Weak and Skewed

The panel has three members, chosen from a roster established under CAFTA. Each party chooses one member, and the two sides pick a chair together. Guatemala chose a constitutional law scholar who, according to some activists, has close ties to the private sector.

"For us, this is a first negative decision of the arbitral process, since as we understand it the arbitrators should be suitable, honorable, and independent professionals," said Mirna Nij of the Union of Workers in the Informal Economy (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Economía Informal). "We believe this lawyer does not have these characteristics."

If the panel finds against Guatemala, it will face a fine of up to $15 million a year. This money would go into a fund dedicated to strengthening the country's labor institutions.

"The best-case scenario is that Guatemala pays a fine to itself - which isn't a very effective deterrent," said Waters.

And as José Pinzón, of the Central General de Trabajadores de Guatemala, points out, "It won't be the government, or the business sector, who will pay it - it will be the more than 15 million Guatemalans who have to pay it."

Still, Waters said, "the fact that the US chose to take Guatemala to arbitration is good, because we should be taking these commitments seriously."

Provisions do exist that would allow the US to suspend some trade benefits, but only if Guatemala fails to pay the fine.

Trust Us This Time

Since CAFTA, US free-trade agreements have made some advances, including an enforceable obligation to adopt and maintain basic principles recognized by the International Labor Organization: freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, the effective abolition of forced labor and child labor, and the elimination of employment discrimination.

"There have been significant improvements about what rights [newer trade agreements] govern," said Waters. "But the actual reality about whether those laws are enforced hasn't gotten any better."

The Obama administration promotes the TPP as "the most progressive trade bill in history," with the highest labor standards yet.

But as a report from Sen. Elizabeth Warren's staff pointed out, similar promises have been trotted out to justify every free-trade agreement from NAFTA on.

For example, in 2005, US Trade Rep. Rob Portman said CAFTA "has the strongest labor and environmental provisions of any trade agreement ever negotiated by the US"

Wishart argues that in all these agreements, the "mechanisms are weaker than what existed under the Generalized System of Preferences," which provides preferential tariff treatment to developing countries and applied to Guatemala prior to CAFTA.

The GSP is still in effect for countries not covered by a trade agreement, like Bangladesh, which had its preferential tariffs revoked in 2013 after 1,129 factory workers were killed in the Rana Plaza disaster.

This US action "immediately triggered some reforms," Wishart said - unlike the CAFTA process that has allowed Guatemala to drag its feet for years.

Enforecement Gap

A Government Accountability Office report last year found that the US is systematically failing to monitor and enforce compliance with the labor provisions in its free trade agreements.

The agency highlighted the same problem in a similar report five years earlier.

In all five cases where the Department of Labor has accepted submissions alleging violations of labor provisions in free-trade agreements, it's missed its 180-day timeline to review them. The average lateness: nine months.

Most recently, it took over three years to review a submission from the AFL-CIO and Honduran unions alleging a systematic failure by the government of Honduras to enforce its labor laws.

Department of Labor officials expect that the TPP - which includes serial labor-rights violator Vietnam, where it is still illegal to form an independent union - will strain their resources even further.

Most of the leverage on labor rights, Waters feels, comes before an agreement is signed. "Guatemala's an excellent example of a country that wasn't even compliant with CAFTA requirements when it came into force," she said.

"The idea that these agreements are going to raise labor standards is completely false. There's been no improvement on labor rights in Guatemala - if anything things have gotten worse."

Some Guatemalan activists think unions should play a stronger role in monitoring compliance with any obligations in free-trade agreements. Fuentes said more official resources could have been allotted to Guatemalan labor to document what was happening to workers. He said a type of union-run monitoring board could have been set up.

That certainly sounds like a more effective approach than relying on the Guatemalan government, widely regarded as one of the most corrupt in the hemisphere. The country's president and vice president were both recently forced to resign in a massive corruption scandal, and are now in prison awaiting trial.

In November, the International Labor Organization will decide whether to establish a Commission of Inquiry - its highest form of supervision - to investigate Guatemala's systematic violations of workers' rights.

New book from Labor Notes: How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers tells how activists transformed their union and gave members hope. "A beacon to all rank-and-file members on how to bring democracy to their locals." Buy one today, only $15.

News Fri, 09 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Torrential Rain Raises Concerns at Duke Energy Coal Ash Dams

As record-breaking rains deluged the Carolinas over the weekend, NC environmental officials responded to reports of problems at Duke Energy dams holding back millions of tons of toxic coal ash from heavily populated areas. One was at its Belews Creek plant northeast of Winston-Salem on a tributary of the Dan River, and the other at its Marshall plant on Lake Norman, which supplies drinking water for parts of Charlotte and other nearby communities.

Here's how the NC Department of Environmental Quality described the concerns in a press release issued Sunday:

In the first incident, Duke Energy reported Saturday afternoon that clear water was coming from a 1-inch seepage at an embankment on the dam at the Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County. State Dam Safety officials in the agency's Winston-Salem offices responded quickly to the site after receiving the reports on Saturday. The water seeping was clear and does not appear to be from the coal ash facility. Officials determined there is no threat to the integrity of the dam. DEQ and Duke Energy officials are continuing to monitor the site and there have been no changes today.  

In the second incident, Duke Energy reported Saturday afternoon that a sinkhole had formed at the base of the dam at the Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman. The sinkhole was on the side slope of a roadside ditch near the dam. Duke Energy responded by excavating the site, placing a liner in the hole and then filling the sink hole with crushed stone. State Dam Safety officials responded quickly after they were notified, and reported that there appears to be no threat to the dam. Dam Safety officials continue to monitor the site and are receiving updates from Duke Energy. No changes have been reported today.

The Environmental Protection Agency has rated both the Belews Creek and Marshall coal ash impoundments as "high hazard," meaning a dam failure would be expected to cause loss of human life. The Belews Creek impoundment covers 342 acres and holds about 12.5 million tons of coal ash. The Marshall impoundment is the state's largest, holding about 20 million tons of coal ash. Both impoundments are unlined and leaking pollution to groundwater, as are all 14 of Duke's coal ash impoundments in North Carolina.

The impact of heavy rains on dams at coal ash impoundments is a real concern: Intense rains were a factor in the 2008 collapse of a coal ash dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant in eastern Tennessee. One of the worst environmental disasters ever in the US, the Kingston spill sent a billion gallons of coal ash into a residential community and the Clinch and Emory rivers.

The rain-related concerns reported at the Duke Energy's coal ash dams came just days after the company reached a controversial settlement with the state over its widespread coal ash pollution. Last week, DEQ agreed to dismiss a $25.1 million fine against the company and drop its case over contaminated groundwater at Duke's Sutton plant near Wilmington. In exchange, Duke will pay the state $7 million, which will go into a fund for public schools.

The settlement drew widespread criticism, with the News & Observer of Raleigh blasting it as a "sweet deal." Environmental advocates were also upset by the terms.

"In another typical move, DEQ is cutting Duke Energy a break and failing to demand action," Amy Adams, a former agency staffer who now works with Appalachian Voices, an environmental advocacy group, said in a statement. "The state is not only backing off the original record fine and settling for a mere $500,000 per site, it's also agreeing to limit its ability to seek enforcement of any past, present or future contamination at any of the sites."

Earlier this year, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act over its widespread coal ash pollution, including violations related to its February 2014 spill of coal ash into the Dan River from its shuttered Dan River Steam Station. In that case, the company agreed to pay $102 million in fines and environmental fees.

As part of the company's five-year probation, the US Justice Department is also requiring it to maintain a toll-free number to receive information on potential environmental violations and log and investigate any reported concerns. "Residents near Duke plants nationwide should not hesitate to assist the Department by airing their concerns about ash dumps, drinking water contamination and air quality," writes Lisa Evans with the environmental group Earthjustice.

People living near Duke's coal ash ponds might want to keep that number handy: 855-355-7042. Problems can also be reported online at The hotline and website are operated by a third-party provider.

News Fri, 09 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
One Dead, Three Wounded in Shooting at Northern Arizona University

An 18-year-old freshman at Northern Arizona University opened fire on a group of students after a late-night conflict in a parking lot, leaving one student dead and three others injured, university officials said Friday.

The shooter, identified by campus police as Steven Jones, surrendered his handgun to campus police and was taken into custody not long after the 1:20 a.m. incident, authorities said.

"He stopped his action with his handgun and everything calmed down for a few minutes as our officers arrived," campus police chief Greg Fowler told reporters in Flagstaff.

The condition of the three injured students was not known, but Fowler said "it would be safe to say [they were shot] multiple times."

All of the victims were male, he said.

Maria Gonzalez, a student at the university, told the Associated Press she heard the shots but did not initially realize it was gunfire.

"I was studying for an exam, so I looked out the window and see two people running, and that's when I realized they weren't fireworks, they were actually gunshots," she said.

"How am I supposed to feel safe where I'm learning?" she said.

The incident occurred outside Mountainview Hall dormitory, but authorities said they could not immediately say what led up to the confrontation.

"We don't know the facts yet about what brought them together, or what caused the confrontation," Fowler said.

Like other Arizona campuses, Northern Arizona University does not allow students to carry guns on campus.

"Arizona law allows you to have your gun in a car in a locked compartment on campus. That's where it has to stay. You cannot carry it around on campus," Fowler said.

He said he did not know whether the gunman had the weapon in his possession already when the confrontation first broke out.

"I appreciate the efforts of all state and local law enforcement officials, first-responders and school administrators, and continue to pray for the recovery of the injured, as well as all those in the NAU community who have been impacted by this terrible tragedy," US Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement.

"All Arizonans have the #Flagstaff community in their hearts today," Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said on Twitter.

The shooting comes as President Obama is scheduled to visit Roseburg, Ore., where eight students and a teacher were shot and killed last week at Umpqua Community College. The Oregon gunman committed suicide after a shootout with law enforcement, authorities said.

News Fri, 09 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Economic Update: Capitalism's Crimes

This episode provides updates on Planned Parenthood, and Irish and French unions' initiatives. We also respond to questions on the Volkswagen scandal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. Finally, we give an in-depth critical analysis of the ongoing Crisis in Greece.

To see more stories like this, visit Economic Update: Your Weekly Dose of Revolutionary Economics

To listen in live on Saturdays at noon, visit WBAI's Live Stream

Economic Update is in partnership with

Your radio station needs Economic Update! If you are a radio station, check this out. If you want to hear Economic Update on your favorite local station, send them this.

Visit Professor Wolff's social movement project,

Permission to reprint Professor Wolff's writing and videos is granted on an individual basis. Please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it."> to request permission. We reserve the right to refuse or rescind permission at any time.

News Fri, 09 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Kunduz Massacre Is a Brutal Reminder of US Militarism's Civilian Victims, Past and Present

The recent killing of civilians in Kunduz, Afghanistan, by a US airstrike recalls the many past incidents in which US military action abroad has resulted in civilian deaths. These atrocities are being perpetrated in our name, with our tax dollars. We must hold leaders accountable.

Soon after the bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on October 3, an MSF medic was interviewed, saying he and his colleagues had repeatedly alerted the Pentagon of the facility's precise location before the attack and had also contacted the Pentagon during the attack to urge the United States to stop dropping bombs on the hospital.

I knew immediately that this was yet another case of US military hubris. It brought up graphic memories of the results of a prior US military assault on a humanitarian refuge.

I think it's safe to say that most US residents assume the military that operates thanks to their tax dollars has a permanent, blanket order to not bomb hospitals, schools, clinics, places of worship, community centers, neighborhoods and other civilian structures. Like bomb shelters.

MSF is an internationally acclaimed - and widely beloved - organization that was honored with a Nobel Peace Prize (yes, the Nobel was also awarded to Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama and the European Union, among other unworthy recipients, but in the case of MSF, no rational person could argue it was undeserved). That alone should have ensured that calls from MSF would yield a top-level order to US bombers to steer wide of the hospital, even if a suspected terrorist or two was being treated or even, unwounded, had sought refuge there.

And if there had been a "mistake" at first, the urgent calls should have brought an immediate halt to any further bombing until the situation was clarified.

But none of this happened.

Christopher Stokes, MSF's general director, described the course of events in this way: "The US government has admitted that it was their airstrike that hit our hospital in Kunduz and killed 22 patients and MSF staff. Their description of the attack keeps changing - from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government."
I am sad to say that I'm not surprised.

Attacks on Civilians, From Afghanistan to Iraq

One of the most chilling experiences I've ever had was visiting the site of the Amariyah air raid shelter in Baghdad, Iraq - now a memorial - just a few weeks before the 2003 US invasion of that country. My husband, George Sapio, and I were catching up on a lot of history, learning about how US bombs in 1991 and throughout the Clinton years, in combination with US-imposed sanctions, had devastated Iraqi society.

What happened at Amariyah was horrific. This is what I wrote then, in a piece for Salon:

We went to the site of the Amiriya [sic] bomb shelter, where at 4:30 on the morning of Feb. 13, 1991, more than 400 people, mostly women and children, were vaporized by a U.S. "smart bomb" as they slept in this "safe place" where they'd sought refuge. The bomb caused the temperature in the shelter to rise to 900 degrees Fahrenheit in moments; the bodies were incinerated, the remains blasted into the concrete floor. We stared at the outlines of the children sleeping curled up or stretched out, some of them hugging a sister or brother or mother. One woman was standing, breast-feeding her baby, when the bombs hit. Her image is burned into the concrete wall, her mouth frozen in a scream.

A young woman and her breastfeeding baby, caught for all eternity on the wall of the Amariyah Bomb Shelter, where they were incinerated. (Photo: George Sapio)A young woman and her breastfeeding baby, caught for all eternity on the wall of the Amariyah Bomb Shelter, where they were incinerated. (Photo: George Sapio)That gruesome, heartbreaking image has stayed with me all these years, and it has been rising, unbeckoned, in my mind's eye since I learned of the Kunduz attack.

My heart remains heavy for the people of Iraq, who still have no infrastructure. (In most of the country, electricity is two hours on, two hours off, at its best, even when summer temperatures soar to the 110s Fahrenheit and higher, and winter temperatures sink into the 50s and 40s.) And for the people of Afghanistan, and Syria, and all the places where terror - much of it fomented by my own government - is the way of life for all civilians, whether they remain in their ancestral homes or have been forced into displacement in their own or strange lands.

I bow in respect and gratitude to the courageous and compassionate individuals who work with MSF and other humanitarian and human rights organizations in places where violence can come from any direction, including from one's own government.

No More Violence in Our Name

But it doesn't have to be this way. The United States was founded on lofty principles - admittedly by flawed men of privilege, but with many noble intentions. It was not established to be the scourge of the globe, although that is what it has become.

Attacks on civilians - like the ongoing drone attacks on the people of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia about which we hear next to nothing in mainstream media - are being perpetrated in our name, with our tax dollars and often with our blood, sweat and tears. Thus the buck has to stop with us. Let's hold US officials' feet to the fire.

We must find ways to stop this senseless destructiveness, both abroad and at home, where mass murder of innocents has become so commonplace we forget each incident within days after it occurs. Until we start holding our leaders accountable for these atrocities - these crimes - we will continue to slide into lawlessness on every front, at home and abroad.

Some of the 408 civilians killed in the bomb "shelter" at Amariyah, now a memorial. (Photo: George Sapio)Some of the 408 civilians killed in the bomb "shelter" at Amariyah, now a memorial. (Photo: George Sapio)

For starters, we must demand an independent investigation (MSF has a campaign you can join, here) of the attacks on the Kunduz hospital and demand serious consequences for those found guilty of perpetrating them. The consequences must be applied not only to the soldiers and air raiders who were following orders, but also to their bosses, and their bosses' bosses, and their bosses' bosses' bosses. Tweet, email and share out the demand for an independent investigation.

Find your US House of Representatives member and your US senators here. Then, please send all three of them a message. It can be as simple as this:

I'm your constituent. I want you to sponsor or cosponsor a bill to begin a swift, thorough, and thoroughly independent investigation of the Kunduz hospital bombings. This is a critically important issue to me.

Join World Beyond War, Voices for Creative Nonviolence and/or other peace-building organizations and get involved in the long-term struggle to bring sense to US foreign policy. Push for the United States to give asylum to 50,000 Syrians who have fled the violence in their country.

You might also want to join - or start - a group working to end violence in the United States, or in your own community. It all does begin at home.

We're lucky enough to still have a home country that's relatively safe. But it's naive to believe it will stay that way indefinitely if our government continues to attack innocents abroad.

Opinion Fri, 09 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Patti Smith on Pope Francis and Her Performances at the Vatican

Over the last two years, Patti Smith has twice been invited to sing at the Vatican. We air part of her performance of "People Have the Power" and talk to her about why she cheered when the new pope took the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Let's end on the issue of climate change, where we're headed, this Pathway to Paris. You'll be performing there. But also you've performed at the Vatican, and you've met Pope Francis. Can you talk about those experiences and what he means to you, this latest pope?

PATTI SMITH: Well, I was studying Francis of Assisi for quite some time, when Benedict was still the pope. And I was studying it for a song that I did for my last album, Banga. And I was so taken with the life of St. Francis, and I thought this was truly the environmentalist saint, because he called upon the people, even in the 12th century, to have appreciation and respect Mother Nature. And I thought it would be so beautiful if there was a pope named Francis, who could embrace the idea of disseminating material things, and - but becoming close to nature and understanding how important it is to respect the Earth. And I met some monks in Assisi, and they said, "This will never happen." You know, I talked to the monks because I was doing research. "We'll never have a Pope Francis, because Francis, St. Francis, was too rebellious. We're never going to have a Jesuit or a Franciscan." And I said, "Well, you know, let's hope."

And then, when Benedict stepped down, I was watching television with my daughter, and the white smoke had come up, and so we were waiting to see who would be pope. And we had to wait a long time, like 45 minutes. And in this 45 minutes, I told Jesse how much I wanted a pope named Francis and why, and I told her the story of St. Francis. And she was saying, "Oh, Mommy, I hope you get a Pope Francis." I mean, I'm not a Catholic, but I still wanted a Pope Francis. And we're watching and watching, and then they came out, and, lo and behold, they announce the new pope, and it's Pope Francis. We were like jumping up and down as if we were at the Kentucky Derby and our horse came in. So, I was quite happy, because I knew anyone who took on this name was taking on a great mantle of responsibility.

And I think that Pope Francis is doing his best, within a very intense structure, to do that. He has really simplified all the pomp and circumstance of the church. He's gone into the Vatican Bank. He is standing to - you know, in account for the violations against young people sexually. And he has written such beautiful lessons and letters to us all, and recently in concern - with concern about climate change and our environment. And so, yeah, I mean, I did - I sang at the Vatican Christmas concert. I think I was the only American.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you sing?

PATTI SMITH: I sang "O Holy Night" with the Vatican orchestra, but also a Blake - a lullaby that William Blake wrote for the Christ child, and I set it to music, and the Vatican orchestra played the music.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What was it called?

PATTI SMITH: "The Cradle Song," and a very pretty little poem. And so I -

AMY GOODMAN: Did "People Have the Power" make its way in there?

PATTI SMITH: Yes, we did perform "People Have the Power," because they requested it. It was a Christmas concert, so I wasn't going to do that, but they really wanted it. I've done it for two years, and I did this last one with my daughter Jesse.

PATTI SMITH: [singing] I was dreamin' in my dreamin'
Of an aspect bright and fair
And my sleepin' it was broken
But my dream it lingered near

In the form of shinin' valleys
Where the pure air recognized
And my senses newly opened
And I awakened to the cry

And the people have the power
To redeem the work of fools
On the meek the graces shower
It's decreed the people rule

People have the power
People have the power
People have the power
People have the power

Believe it!

Where there were deserts, I saw fountains
And like cream the waters rise
And we strolled there together
With none to laugh or criticize

There is no leopard and the lamb
And lay together truly bound
Well I was hopin' in my hopin'
To recall what I had found

I was dreamin' in my dreamin'
God knows a pure view
As I surrender into my sleepin'
And I commit my dream with you

Come on!

People have the power to dream!
People have the power to vote!
People have the power to strike!
People have the power to love!

The power to dream, to rule
To wrestle the world from fools
It's decreed the people rule
Let's decree the people rule

Listen, I believe everythin' we dream
Can come to pass through our union
We can turn the world around
We can turn the earth's revolution

AMY GOODMAN: Patti Smith, the legendary poet, author and singer, performing "People Have the Power" at the Vatican. Her new memoir, M Train, has just been published. We'll play more of our interview with Patti Smith next week. Her previous book, Just Kids, won the National Book Award.

News Thu, 08 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400