Truthout Stories Thu, 25 Dec 2014 03:40:09 -0500 en-gb How Mindfulness Could Give You the Gift of a Calmer Christmas

In the run-up to Christmas we find our to-do lists bloated with added chores: present shopping, card writing, preparing to travel or receive guests. We are bombarded with adverts telling us what to buy and where. We tackle the shopping crowds searching for the perfect gift and the juiciest turkey. Our energy and purses are pulled in all directions while we limp on at work waiting for the holiday to arrive.

As the day approaches we may dream of happy families singing around the fire or worry whether everyone will like their gifts or if there will be arguments. Media images distort our expectations of the perfect Christmas with celebrities advising us on the recipes and crafts to add extra joy to the holidays.

And then there’s the ghost of Christmas past. Maybe we are feeling that Christmases are not as good as they used to be or maybe we are dreading a repeat of an earlier disastrous year. It can be a lot to contend with and perhaps not everyone feels as festive as the songs and adverts would have us believe.

Some of us may be seeking a way to avoid being bogged down by the stress. We could try a single ticket to that Caribbean Island or perhaps embrace the spirit of Scrooge and say “bah humbug” as we lock ourselves out from the world. If these options seem a little extreme, an alternative is to take inspiration from the teachings of mindfulness.

Enter mindfulness

A modern interpretation of ancient Eastern philosophies, mindfulness incorporates guided meditation that helps us learn about the inner workings of our mind. This helps break habitual patterns of thinking and behaving that can increase distress and unhappiness.

Meditation practises that focus on monitoring the activity of the mind or cultivating compassion are familiar in both historical Eastern traditions and modern mindfulness interventions. The way in which mindfulness meditation is different is the way in which it has been packaged. Often it is taught to beginners as an eight-week course that includes a selection of meditation practises and teachings that have been brought together and adapted to address specific issues such as emotional stress or chronic pain.

A growing body of research shows mindfulness can reduce stress, depression and anxiety – and can improve attention and self-regulation (our ability to control our thoughts, actions and emotions).

It is thought that some of the effects of practising mindfulness are a result of making our reflections on our experiences more positive, reducing rumination, and lessening the extent to which we react emotionally to our environment.

How does it work?

So what is mindfulness? A common practice is to sit quietly for several minutes placing the attention of the mind on the flow of your breath, perhaps focusing on the movement of breath in your nose, throat, chest or belly, or counting the breaths, starting from one each time you lose count. The practice may sound simple but the stillness of the exercise reveals the restless nature of the mind. As we aim to focus on our breath we see the activity of mind, as it distracts us from our purpose.

Like sitting on the side of a busy road we see our thoughts, feelings and memories pass us by. It doesn’t take long before one or more of the passing cars pulls us out of our seat and away from the breath entirely and we find ourselves trying to control the traffic, stopping the thoughts we don’t like or clinging on to the ones we do. This is the natural way for our minds to behave and they do this most of the time. The result is that we are often not fully present in what we are doing right now in this moment.

Our minds can wander as we carry out our daily activities. As we approach Christmas we may be thinking about all the shopping we need to do while we are drinking a cup of tea. We may also be thinking about sitting drinking a cup of tea, while we are doing the Christmas shopping.

And regardless of whether these fantasies are pleasant or unpleasant, research has found that all mind wandering has a negative effect on our mood. This may be because our wonderful daydreams make our real lives seem like a disappointment and our unpleasant thoughts prevent us from taking pleasure in the small delights of life.

Christmas presence

During the festive season you may notice thoughts, feelings or memories interrupting you. These thoughts may be subtle and fleeting but sufficient to take the edge off your Christmas cheer. When you notice what is happening in your mind, acknowledge it, don’t criticise – be kind and return your attention to writing your Christmas cards, wrapping your gifts or standing in a queue of shoppers. Pay more attention to where you are and what you are doing, even if your mind tries to offer distractions and alternative realities that appear to be more pleasant than your real experience.

So from the time you wake up on this Christmas morning, take time to fully notice the little things, the smells, textures and tastes of Christmas. Each chocolate, cuddle and gift. Take time to savour it. How do the sweets look in your hand? How do they smell? How does it feel in your mouth? Notice the effort others have made to give you gifts. Look at the way they are wrapped. How it feels to pull off the paper. Consider that many other people you do not know have made effort to grow, make or transport parts of your present too.

Be kind and compassionate to everyone you have contact with – including yourself. And if things don’t quite go as planned or you are feeling overwhelmed by the celebrations, just take your seat by the side of the road and spend a few moments focusing your attention on your breath.

Opinion Wed, 24 Dec 2014 11:33:56 -0500
Remembering the Greediest Americans This Holiday Season

Peace on Earth, good will toward men. We honor these noble values every holiday season — and some people actually work to advance them all year long.

Other folks, by contrast, mock these values. They spend their days chasing after ever grander stashes of personal treasure.

These greedy souls love the shadows. So a few years back, the inequality weekly I edit for the Institute for Policy Studies began publishing an annual list of America’s top ten greediest. I’ve just introduced this year’s list, bringing tales of plutocrats young and old.

The oldest character on it: the 79-year-old Wall Street mover and shaker Ken Langone.

Langone began making headlines right at the start of 2014 with his advice for Pope Francis. The pontiff, he told New York’s archbishop, should cool it on the inequality front. Papal broadsides against “the powerful feeding upon the powerless,” Langone complained, could leave America’s wealthy “incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.”

Langone himself has always been a generous sort — at least for his friends. As a New York Stock Exchange director, he greased the skids for a $190-million exit package for his buddy, NYSE president Richard Grasso, in 2003.

Langone has been a bit less generous to the powerless. As a director at Yum! Brands, the home of Taco Bell and KFC, he cheered on company efforts to oppose hikes in the minimum wage. As he likes to tell regulators: “Leave us alone and let us hire people.”

Home Depot, the retail giant Langone’s financing helped propel to big-box dominance, shows what happens when you leave corporations alone. Big-box giants, notes the research group Good Jobs First, don’t create jobs. They “grow mostly at the expense of existing competitors,” many of them local businesses.

Big-box giants, on the other hand, do create massive concentrations of personal wealth. Forbes now estimates Langone’s net worth at $2.6 billion.

Among the youngest of America’s 2014 top ten greediest: the 38-year-old Travis Kalanick, the CEO and cofounder of Uber, a taxi-like service that lets travelers hail cars through a mobile phone app.

Last January, Uber was running cars in just 60 cities. Now it’s spread to 250 cities — in 50 countries. That growth has propelled Uber’s worth to $40 billion — more than long-established transportation heavyweights like Hertz and United Continental.

Not bad for a company, the AP notes, “that didn’t exist five years ago.” And Kalanick himself, Forbes estimates, is ending the year worth a cool $3 billion.

How has Uber soared so quickly? The company is pumping up profits, critics charge, by taking short cuts like not running adequate background checks on drivers. Officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco have just filed suit against Uber on driver safety checks, and governments from Spain to India have also taken legal action against the company.

Other critics include customers like Leah Kappen of Indianapolis. She took an Uber ride downtown to the December 6 Big Ten football championship game. That ride cost her $30. The 18-minute trip home after the game cost her $450. This past Halloween, an 18-mile ride home ran New Yorker Elliott Asbury $539.

Uber’s “surge pricing” — a policy that ties rates to the supposed market demands of the moment — generated these outsized fees. But anyone upset by $500 cab fare, says Kalanick, needs to start “getting used to dynamic pricing in transportation.”

Uber drivers are complaining, too. One of Uber’s competitors, Lyft, gives all the extra profit from “surge pricing” to its drivers. Uber takes a 20 percent cut. Why not, the Wall Street Journal asked Kalanick, follow suit?

“We are a business,” he replied.

So much for good will.

Opinion Wed, 24 Dec 2014 11:27:18 -0500
Get Ready Now for the Fast-Track Fight

As soon as the new Congress is sworn in next year, the fight over Fast Track will begin. Start preparing now.

David Cay Johnston, explains in “Full Speed Ahead On Secretive Trade Deal”: (Note the ‘t’ in his last name. I am David C JohnSON.)

Early next year, after the 114th Congress begins meeting, a new Washington coalition will move quickly to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation trade agreement that will destroy American jobs, restrict individual liberty and burden American taxpayers. Oh, and it will do so without any real debate.

… The agreement would even let foreign companies seek damages if U.S. or state rules threaten their profits. Plaintiff companies would not have to sustain damages to collect damages from American taxpayers. They would only need to show a threat to their profits, leaks from the trade talks have revealed. Under previous trade deals, American taxpayers already have paid $3 billion in damages, with $14 billion in claims still in litigation.

Johnston explains that this will be pushed using Fast Track:

Fast track = little debate

Don’t expect a vigorous congressional debate exploring the agreement and its implications, especially for workers, before it becomes the law of the land.

Obama wants Congress to fast-track the agreement, which would mean perfunctory congressional hearings followed by an up-or-down vote within 90 days, no amendments allowed. That congressional Republicans favor fast-tracking has an “Alice in Wonderland” quality, given GOP attacks on his supposed dictatorial use of executive orders. (He has issued far fewer executive orders per year than any other president in the last century.)

Secrecy and fast track are not how democracy is supposed to work. They are also a glaring contradiction of candidate Obama’s transparency promises in 2008.

There will be a massive effort to push this through. Richard McCormack has the story on this effort over at Manufacturing and Technology News, in President Obama, Wall Street Financiers, Corporate CEOS And Members Of Congress Meet Together To Plan Strategy To Sell And Pass Free-Trade Agreements, (note that TPA is commonly know as “Fast Track.”)

The country’s top executives from Wall Street and corporate America are working directly with President Obama and members of his cabinet and appointees on passing a free-trade agenda that is unpopular among the president’s natural constituents of democrats, labor unions, environmental and consumer groups and the American public as a whole.

Obama, his staff and members of Congress met directly with CEOs of major multinational corporations in Washington, D.C., on December 11 to discuss the “ground game” — as his aides described it — needed to persuade Americans on the benefits of free trade and to lobby Congress on passage of Trade Promotion Authority [TPA] and the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP] next year.

… In joining the meeting of his Export Council, Obama sat between council co-chairs James McNerney, CEO of Boeing, and Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox Corp., and encouraged them — along with two dozen other executives from companies like IBM, Archer Daniels Midland, Dow, Pfizer and Deloitte — to help him “make the sale. . . It’s going to be very important for business to be out there and champion this and show that this is ultimately good for you, for your suppliers, for your workers,” Obama said.

Obama told Boeing CEO McNerney to galvanize his company’s suppliers “and their workers . . . presumably in every congressional district [to make] the case so [that] it’s not just a bunch of CEOs calling [members of Congress] but it’s people who understand they’ve got a stake in it.”

So there will be a massive, well-funded push by the administration and the giant multinational corporations starting early next year. They will promise jobs and prosperity. They will push Congress to pass Fast Track, which essentially pre-approves trade agreements before anyone even knows what is in them. The model for doing it this way is the recent “Citibank Budget.” Citibank snuck a provision deregulating derivative trading with taxpayer-protected funds into the budget at the last minute. So the debate was over whether voting against it would shut down the government, and not over the merits of the provision.

We Need Balanced Trade, Not More Imports

The President says he is pushing these trade deals because we need to increase exports. He is right that it is a good thing to increase exports, but the Wall Street Journal explains the problem with this, in U.S. Manufacturing Rebound Lags Behind Work Sent Abroad, “The U.S. has continued to grow more reliant on imports from China and other Asian countries despite a much-discussed trend toward “reshoring” of manufacturing, a study by the management consulting firm A.T. Kearney Inc. shows.”

In other words, the things we have been doing to gain jobs by increasing exports have cost us even more jobs than we gained, because we increased imports more than we increased exports. What we need is balanced trade, not more trade.

Fast Track essentially pre-approves trade agreements before people get a chance to read them, analyze them and rally opposition. It prevents Congress from fixing problems in the agreements. This is the wrong way for our country to do this.

Opinion Wed, 24 Dec 2014 11:18:40 -0500
It's a Wonderful Life, Comrade

Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in <em>It's a Wonderful Life</em> (1946).Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). (Photo: National Telefilm Associates)

A number of years ago, I was telling a longtime city dweller friend of mine yet another story about the small, upstate New York town in which I grew up.

Simultaneously baffled and captivated, he said, “I think you were born and raised in Bedford Falls,” the fictional burg at the center of Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Well, I wasn’t. Actually, I grew up about 27 miles west of there. Its real name is Seneca Falls, NY – yes, the same place that’s also the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement. While not absolutely certain, there’s a compelling body of circumstantial evidence that Capra had the town in mind when he created his cinematic version of Bedford Falls. The steel bridge over the canal, for example, like the one from which the hero George Bailey contemplates jumping in a suicide attempt, only to dive in to save his guardian angel, Clarence. The old Victorian homes, the design of town streets, a large Italian population, mentions of nearby cities Rochester, Buffalo and Elmira are just a few of the other similarities. There’s even the perhaps apocryphal tale of Frank Capra finding inspiration after stopping in Seneca Falls for a haircut on his way to visit an aunt.

Enough coincidences abound that Seneca Falls now holds a yearly It’s a Wonderful Life festival, and although it may not draw as many visitors as the nearby Women’s Rights National Historical Park, there’s also an It’s a Wonderful Life museum. Whatever the ultimate truth, there’s no denying that the movie is a storybook evocation of bygone small town America, places like Seneca Falls and my own hometown, right down to the underside of greed and malice that often lurks just around the corner from the film’s compassion and wholesome neighborliness. As for Frank Capra, as he prepared to make the movie, he told the Los Angeles Times, “There are just two things that are important. One is to strengthen the individual’s belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend toward atheism.”

Which makes it all the crazier that when the movie first came out, it fell under suspicion from the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as Communist propaganda, part of the Red Scare that soon would lead to the blacklist and witch hunt that destroyed the careers of many talented screen and television writers, directors and actors.

To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.

Screenplay credits on It’s a Wonderful Life went to Frances Goodrich and her husband Albert Hackett, Capra and Jo Swerling, although a number of others took turns at different times, including Clifford Odets, Dalton Trumbo and Marc Connelly – not an unusual situation in Hollywood.  But a 1947 FBI memorandum, part of a 13,533-page document, “Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry,” first went after the writers Goodrich and Hackett:

“According to Informants [REDACTED] in this picture the screen credits again fail to reflect the Communist support given to the screen writer. According to [REDACTED] the writers Frances Goodrick [sic] and Albert Hackett were very close to known Communists and on one occasion in the recent past while these two writers were doing a picture for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Goodrick [sic] and Hackett practically lived with known Communists and were observed eating luncheon daily with such Communists as Lester Cole, screen writer, and Earl Robinson, screen writer. Both of these individuals are identified in Section I of this memorandum as Communists.”

The memo goes on to cast doubt on the movie’s storyline, in which Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey and his struggling savings and loan fight on behalf of the good people of Bedford Falls against the avarice and power of banker and slumlord Henry Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore:

“With regard to the picture ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, [REDACTED] stated in substance that the film represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.

“In addition, [REDACTED] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [REDACTED] related that if he had made this picture portraying the banker, he would have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiners in connection with making loans. Further, [REDACTED] stated that the scene wouldn’t have ‘suffered at all’ in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [REDACTED] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and ‘I would never have done it that way.’”

This was part of an FBI evaluation of several Hollywood movies – others included The Best Years of Our Lives (which beat It’s a Wonderful Life at the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director), Pride of the Marines, and Abbott and Costello in Buck Privates Come Home.

Wait – it gets nuttier.  According to the media archival website Aphelis, “Among the group who produced the analytical tools that were used by the FBI in its analysis of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was Ayn Rand.”

“Abbott and Costello Meet Ayn Rand” – what a comedy horror picture that would have made, scarier and funnier than their encounters with Frankenstein or the Wolfman. Rand’s group told the FBI:

“The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism. Their purpose is to corrupt non-political movies — by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories and to make people absorb the basic principles of Collectivism by indirection and implication. Few people would take Communism straight, but a constant stream of hints, lines, touches and suggestions battering the public from the screen will act like drops of water that split a rock if continued long enough. The rock that they are trying to split is Americanism.”

But redemption of an odd sort came for It’s a Wonderful Life at the infamous October 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Just days before the appearance there of the Hollywood 10 – writers (and one director) who refused to testify and subsequently went to prison — a parade of “friendly witnesses” (including Ayn Rand, Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney) came before the committee to insinuate and weave dark tales of Communist infiltration and subversion in the movie business. One of them was a former Communist and screenwriter named John Charles Moffitt. Aphelis reports:

“When asked by HUAC Chief Investigator Robert E. Stripling if Hollywood is in the habit of portraying bankers as villainous characters, Moffitt takes the opportunity to try to clear the reputation of Frank Capra’s movie ‘It’s A Wonderful Life:’ he tries to argue that the film isn’t, in fact a Communist movie.”

MR. STRIPLING. The term “heavy” has been used here as a designation of the part in which the person is a villain. Would you say that the banker has been often cast as a heavy, or consistently cast as a heavy, in pictures in Hollywood?

MR. MOFFITT. Yes, sir. I think that due to Communist pressure he is overfrequently cast as a heavy. By that I do not mean that I think no picture should ever show a villainous banker. In fact, I would right now like to defend one picture that I think has been unjustly accused of communism. That picture is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The banker in that picture, played by Lionel Barrymore, was most certainly what we call a “dog heavy” in the business. He was a snarling, unsympathetic character. But the hero and his father, played by James Stewart and Samuel S. Hines, were businessmen, in the building and loan business, and they were shown as using money as a benevolent influence.

At this point, there was a bit of commotion in the hearing room.

THE CHAIRMAN. Just a minute. Come away. Everybody sit down. Will all you people who are standing up please sit down? And the photographers.

MR.MOFFITT. All right.


MR. MOFFITT. Well, to summarize, I think Mr. Capra’s picture, though it had a banker as villain, could not be properly called a Communist picture. It showed that the power of money can be used oppressively and it can be used benevolently. I think that picture was unjustly accused of Communism.

Since then, the movie has been more than redeemed as it slowly became a sentimental and beloved holiday perennial. And if anything, its portrayal of a villainous banker has been vindicated a thousand fold as in the last seven years we’ve seen fraudulent mortgages and subsequent foreclosures, bankers unrepentant after an unprecedented taxpayer bailout and unpunished after a mindboggling spree of bad calls, profligacy and corkscrew investments that raked in billions while others suffered the consequences.

It’s a wonderful life, alright, but not if you’re homeless or unemployed tonight, not if your kids are hungry and you can’t pay for heat. There are still a lot of Mr. Potters in the world. We know who you are and we’ll keep calling you out. God rest ye merry, gentlemen.

Opinion Wed, 24 Dec 2014 11:09:27 -0500
Torture's Time for Accountability

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, en route to the Senate floor to deliver remarks on a report released about the CIA's operation and oversight of an interrogation program carried out in secret prisons after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Dec. 9, 2014. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, en route to the Senate floor to deliver remarks on a report released about the CIA's operation and oversight of an interrogation program carried out in secret prisons after the September 11, 2001, attacks, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, December 9, 2014. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)

The United States' reputation for cognitive dissonance is being tested by the Senate report documenting the US government's torture of detainees and the fact that nothing is happening to those responsible. Ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern says the nation must choose between crossing the Delaware or the Rubicon.

I trust I was not alone in seeing irony in President Barack Obama’s public chiding of Sony on Friday for caving in to hacker demands to cancel distribution of its comedy The Interview – about a fictional CIA plot to assassinate North Korea’s real-life leader Kim Jong-Un – after a retaliatory cyber attack blamed on North Korea.

Rather than questioning Sony’s wisdom in producing a film that jokes about something as serious as assassinating a nation’s leader, Obama upbraided Sony’s producers for the decision to pull the movie from theaters. “I wish they had spoken to me first,” said Obama, warning them not to ”get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated.”

The irony that I saw was in Obama’s “tough-guy” advice just after he had been so intimidated by the real-life CIA that he could not muster the courage to fire those who managed and carried out a quite-unfunny policy of torture on an industrial scale – much less try to find some way to hold senior officials of the Bush/Cheney administration accountable. However great the financial loss to Sony’s bottom line, the costs attributable to Obama’s timidity are incalculably more damaging to the United States.

Of course, the common thread between assassinations and torture is Official Washington’s disdain for international law at least as it pertains to the “exceptional” U.S. government. I suppose it might have been even more ironic if President Obama, who has overseen an actual targeted assassination program for six years, would have voiced concern about a movie making light of a made-up assassination plot.

(There was a time, especially after the 1960s, when Americans didn’t find the notion of murdering political leaders very amusing.)

Anyway, veteran UPI editor Arnaud de Borchgrave had it right on Friday when he noted that the CIA torture abuses revealed in the report released by Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein on Dec. 9 have “given the U.S. a geopolitical black eye of worldwide dimensions. For the average Russian, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, African, Arab, Iranian, or any other race or nationality, America is now no better or worse than any other global scoundrel.”

Not amused by the U.S. government’s we’re-above-the-law arrogance, North Korea’s U.N. ambassador has called on the world body to investigate the CIA for subjecting captured al-Qaeda operatives to “brutal, medieval” forms of torture. (No, that is not a joke. North Korea is lecturing Washington on barbaric behavior.) It seems clear that the damage done by the CIA’s officially sanctioned torture and – equally important – Obama’s decision to hold the torturers harmless, leave an incalculably large, indelible stain on the U.S. reputation for defending human rights.

Crossing Our Delaware

So what happens next, after America now acknowledges having crossed the Rubicon into the practice of torture a decade ago? What to do after these abhorrent “techniques,” such as waterboarding and “rectal rehydration,” have been exposed in a redacted Senate Intelligence Committee report based on CIA cables, emails and other original documents?  (I find myself wondering whether even more sadistic outrages would be detailed in the un-redacted text of the Senate report.)

The question remains: Will the top torture criminals and their obedient lackeys – from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney down to those CIA personnel and contractors “just following orders” in the CIA’s secret prisons – continue to escape accountability? As things now stand, the sad answer seems to be, “Yes, unless.”

At this point, those responsible will continue to enjoy de facto immunity unless (1) they travel abroad and are apprehended and brought to justice under the principle of “universal jurisdiction” by governments more committed to enforcing international law than our own; or (2) unless we citizens summon the kind of courage shown by the “winter soldiers” of George Washington’s army who crossed the Delaware and turned the tide of battle at Christmastime 1776, leading – four cold Christmases later – to American freedom from British rule.

Worth noting in this connection is that Gen. George Washington imposed strong strictures against abuse of captured British and Hessian prisoners, strictures not observed by the English forces who deemed the American soldiers “traitors” and often confined them to appalling conditions aboard prison ships and in other unsanitary locations where more than 10,000 died of neglect.

Thomas Paine, one of the stalwart soldiers in Washington’s army, famously wrote during that difficult winter of 1776-77: “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of all men and women.”

It might well be said of us that “Now is the winter of our discontent,” a time when rock-ribbed American ideals have been trampled beneath the boot of thuggish behavior and all that seems left is a swaggering haughtiness more fitting the British officer corps than our courageous “rabble in arms.”

Today’s question is whether we will be discontented enough to expose ourselves to the elements, as those “winter soldiers” were exposed, albeit “elements” of a different kind, risks to our reputations, impositions on our time, commitment of our talents and resources. But it may be our turn to repay the debt to those soldiers who overcame great odds and great hardships to create a nation based on the rule of law, not the whim of men.

Though the Founders were flawed individuals themselves – and the early United States should not be idealized as a place without grave injustices – there was wisdom in many of their principles, including a prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments” in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

They also made wise observations about America’s proper place in the world – as a beacon of liberty, not as the world’s policeman. Recognizing the dangers and corruption that could come from excessive involvement in foreign conflicts, the first three presidents – George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – all warned against “entangling alliances.” And years later, President John Quincy Adams, who had watched the new nation from its birth, warned that America “goes not abroad seeking monsters to destroy.”

In my view, we dishonor the memory of those courageous patriots if we leave it to other countries to do our justice for us regarding the torturers so vividly depicted in the CIA cables revealed by the Senate report. Rather, our generation is being called on to rise up against the practice of torture and other abuses – drone killings, for example – in such a way as to force a timid President to stop calling felons “patriots” and, instead, do his duty in holding them accountable. Stern enforcement of both U.S. and international law is the only deterrent against this kind of unconscionable abuse happening again.

During the Watergate scandal, senior officials went to jail for lying and obstructing justice. Many other politicians have faced stiff prison time for relatively petty corruption. So why should government leaders and their subordinates get a walk on such a severe crime of state as torture?

Presidential Timidity

Left to his own devices, President Obama is likely to keep putting the White House stamp on the stay-out-of-jail-free cards that he issued to the torturers when he came into office six years ago, wanting to “look forward, not backward.”

I believed then – as I do now – that it was because he feared for his own hide (physically as well as politically) that he carved out an exemption for the torturers. So much for discharging his Constitutional duty to “take care that the laws are faithfully executed.”

Righting this wrong will require the kind of moral courage Obama seems to lack. True, his politically risky rapprochement with Cuba announced earlier this week provided a glimmer of hope that he can finally be his own man. But let’s take him at his word that his brand of leadership comes into play only when we citizens light a fire under him. Let us gather the kindling, start the fire, and respond to his challenge to make him do the right thing.

As is painfully obvious by this stage, the battle will be uphill, largely because our supine media provide such thin gruel that, as a result, most Americans are malnourished on the truth. I suppose one can get used to virtually any indignity. Nonetheless, for me it remains highly disturbing to watch “mainstream media” give the lion’s share of air time to charlatans like Dick Cheney who, 13 years after 9/11, continue to play on the trauma of that fateful day to elicit the kind of vengeful spirit that can in far too many minds justify the unspeakable.

No matter that ethicists have traditionally placed torture, like rape or slavery, in the moral category of intrinsic evil – always wrong – a premise embedded in the UN Convention Against Torture to which the United States is a signatory. No matter that torture does not yield reliable intelligence. No matter that CIA documents show how CIA directors Michael Hayden and Leon Panetta lied when they told us that information from “enhanced interrogation techniques” led to the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden. [See Gareth Porter’s “How the CIA Covered Up Its Lie on Torture and bin Laden.”]

The first (and, so far as I know, the last) time Obama showed any spine dealing with the CIA was just before he became president in January 2009, when he demonstrably dissed then-CIA Director Michael Hayden. Hayden had been going around town telling folks that he warned the president-elect “personally and forcefully” that if Obama authorized an investigation into controversial activities like waterboarding, “no one in Langley will ever take a risk again.” (My source for this is what we former intelligence officers used to call an “A-1 source” – completely reliable with excellent access to the information).

Consequently, Hayden did not merit a mention on Jan. 9, 2009, when President-elect Obama formally introduced Leon Panetta as his choice to replace Hayden as CIA director and Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence. Obama did announce that Mike McConnell, whom Blair replaced, had been given a sinecure/consolation prize — a seat on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. McConnell got the obligatory thank you; but not Hayden.

It was not only cheeky, but more than a little disingenuous that Hayden should think to advise Obama “personally and forcefully” against investigating the illegal activities authorized by President George W. Bush, since Hayden’s role in torture was already clear from publicly available information.

Hayden had loudly defended what he liked to call “high-end” interrogation techniques like waterboarding. (And last week, just three days after the Senate report was released, Georgetown law professor David Cole drew from it to recount “just three examples” of false and unsupported testimony” by Hayden.)

It was for services rendered that Bush and Cheney picked Hayden to head the CIA. As Director of NSA (1999 to 2005) he saluted sharply when Cheney told him to redact the words “probable cause” from the Fourth Amendment.

In sum, Hayden’s transgressions are book-length, but – as with Professor Cole’s article – space limitations prevent anything close to a complete rendering, so to speak. Apparently fearful of going beyond sending Hayden to the showers, Obama hired Leon Panetta to replace Hayden to be nominally CIA director but, in actuality, its well-connected protector.

Initially, with Panetta there seemed to be reason to expect hope and change; that expectation was short-lived. A year before Obama picked him, Panetta had written:

“We cannot simply suspend [American ideals of human rights] in the name of national security. Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise.

“We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground. We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.”

Sadly, it turns out we were not, in fact, “better than that” – and neither was Panetta. For his part, Panetta discharged his assigned role to defend CIA torturers with enthusiasm – even overreaching in making false claims about the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

On that key issue, CIA Director John Brennan, speaking on Dec. 11, 2014, was more cautious, claiming the effectiveness of “enhanced interrogation techniques” was “unknowable.” At which point Sen. Feinstein moved immediately to set the record straight, tweeting that, on the contrary, it was well known that the useful intelligence from interrogation was gained from traditional interrogation approaches, well BEFORE “enhancements” were applied.

On the day after the Senate Intelligence Community report was released, lame-duck committee member Mark Udall sharply criticized Brennan for “lying” about the efficacy of torture. Udall’s parting shot was to decry the President for his permissive attitude toward Brennan and the CIA and for “making no effort at all to rein it in.”

This appraisal has been seconded by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, who openly complained last Saturday that “Brennan has gotten away with frustrating congressional oversight. He shouldn’t have gotten away with it, but so far he has.”

Obama Agonistes

Will the President continue to do his best to hold harmless those involved in torture? I expect he will – out of the fear for the consequences if he tried to “rein in” the CIA. In other words, although Obama came into office determined not to allow himself to be intimidated by Hayden, he nonetheless seem to have taken Hayden’s threat seriously.

Whether Obama’s fateful decision only to “look forward” on the issue of torture was the result of simple cowardice or a naïve calculation that shoving torture under the rug would help him work out a modus vivendi with Republican leaders is, at this point, academic.

The reality is that Obama blew his chance to deal with this profoundly moral, as well as legal, issue of torture at a time when this was widely expected of him. As for the Republicans whose cooperation he so patently craved, they appear to have seen in his unmistakable reluctance to expose and pursue the major crimes of Bush and Cheney a welcome sign of weakness.

Now, despite his transparent attempts to keep his distance from the horrid disclosures in the Senate committee report, Obama is now enmeshed in a wide web of consequential lies. He is, ipso facto, part of a cover-up that is poisoning the minds of too-trusting Americans, while putting a big hole in what’s left of America’s reputation as a force for good in the world. He could not do this without the help of an enabling media.

What are we to make of the media? Decades ago, in an unusual moment of candor, former CIA Director William Colby was quoted as saying the CIA “owns everyone of any significance in the major media?” How much truth continues to lie beneath Colby’s hyperbole? Why is it so easy to simply mention 9/11 to evoke an attitude of vengeance? Why does that include acquiescence in horrid torture techniques, and a predisposition to believe Cheney’s lies, rather than accept the reality that our leaders ordered and conducted heinous crimes?

In my view, the polls show an acceptance on the part of most Americans for torture mostly because so many Americans simply do not read. And this is precisely why Sen. Feinstein and Sen. John McCain both appealed plaintively for us to “just read the report.”

In her trademark perceptive way, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer laments that, when the awful facts about CIA torture came out last week, President Obama shied away from the chance given him to set the record straight. She explained it this way:

“It appeared that Obama and Brennan had a single purpose, which was to not ‘lose Langley,’ … meaning that they didn’t want to alienate those still working at the C.I.A. This calculation – that C.I.A. officers … are too fragile for criticism, too valuable to fire, and too patriotic to prosecute – somehow tied the Obama Administration in knots.” Mayer might have added that CIA operatives seem to be, in Obama’s ken, “too dangerous to get crosswise with.”

Similar insights jump out of a Dec. 15 article by Peter Baker and Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times. They write that when Brennan was working at the White House, neither Obama nor Brennan was eager to take on the C.I.A. very often. “The C.I.A. gets what it needs,” Obama declared at one early meeting, according to people there. “He didn’t want them to feel like he was an enemy,” said a former aide.

Brennan, for his part, was protective of CIA interests. When Panetta, negotiated an agreement with the Senate Intelligence Committee for an inquiry into torture, Brennan erupted, “It did not take long to get ugly,” Panetta recalled in his memoir. “Brennan and I even exchanged sharp words.”

Brennan recognized at once that such an inquiry could well become a very large fly in the ointment. He was right about that, but he was unable to renege on the deal. After becoming CIA director last year, though, Brennan fought constantly with Democrats on the committee over the torture report and attempted to redact it to a fare-thee-well.

Relations worsened when senators accused the CIA of penetrating a computer network designated for the committee’s use, a charge that Brennan initially denied. In the end, though, the CIA inspector general admonished five agency officers and Brennan apologized. Relations remained raw; Obama stayed above the fray.

On Saturday, New York Times reported that the panel appointed by Brennan to investigate the CIA’s search of a computer network used by the Senate staffers investigating CIA’s use of torture will (surprise, surprise) return a verdict of not guilty. Brennan’s panel reportedly has decided to defend the CIA searchers’ actions as lawful and, in some cases, done at Brennan’s behest, in effect reversing the most significant conclusions of an earlier investigation by CIA’s own inspector general.

On the issue of torture’s effectiveness, according to Baker and Mazzetti, the President’s advisers doubt that he believes the interrogation program yielded useful intelligence, but that he was unwilling to contradict Brennan.

A Natural Ally in McCain

Does the fact that Sen. John McCain was tortured as a POW, after his aircraft was downed over North Vietnam, give him unusual credibility on the issue of torture? You bet it does. Breaking ranks with fellow Republicans, defensive CIA directors and a media (including Hollywood) enamored of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” McCain followed Sen. Feinstein to the Senate floor after she introduced and distributed the report on CIA torture. He was very supportive.

More in sorrow than in anger, he conceded,

“The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. … But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless. …

“There was considerable misinformation … about what was and wasn’t achieved using these [enhanced interrogation] methods … There was a good amount of misinformation used in 2011 to credit the use of these methods with the death of Osama bin Laden. And there is, I fear, misinformation being used today to prevent the release of this report, disputing its findings and warning about the security consequences of their public disclosure. …

“What might come as a surprise … is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow. That could be a real surprise, since it contradicts the many assurances provided by intelligence officials on the record and in private that enhanced interrogation techniques were indispensable in the war against terrorism. And I suspect the objection of those same officials to the release of this report is really focused on that disclosure – torture’s ineffectiveness – because we gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much.

“Obviously, we need intelligence to defeat our enemies, but we need reliable intelligence. Torture produces more misleading information than actionable intelligence. And what the advocates of harsh and cruel interrogation methods have never established is that we couldn’t have gathered as good or more reliable intelligence from using humane methods.

“The most important lead we got in the search for bin Laden came from using conventional interrogation methods. I think it is an insult to the many intelligence officers who have acquired good intelligence without hurting or degrading prisoners to assert we can’t win this war without such methods. Yes, we can and we will.”

Thus, Obama would not be without powerful allies were he to summon the courage to bring CIA torturers to account. It appears, however, that the President still lives in fear of the shady characters at Langley.

Hence, it is up to us to mobilize the kind of action needed to change Obama’s mind. Op-eds, speeches, interviews are fine, but without action, nothing is going to happen. We need to figure out how best to confront this issue and what action(s) seem appropriate. And then we must act – like winter soldiers.

Opinion Wed, 24 Dec 2014 10:55:36 -0500
Year in Review Part One ]]> Art Wed, 24 Dec 2014 10:02:11 -0500 A Vote for "Draft Warren" Is a Vote for a Democratic Primary

If you object to the proposition that Hillary Clinton should become the Democratic nominee for President in 2016 without having to substantially engage with Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers about what she would do as President, speak now or forever hold your peace.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) exits a caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 13, 2014. (Photo: Drew Angerer for The New York Times) Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) exits a caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 13, 2014. (Photo: Drew Angerer for The New York Times)

If you object to the proposition that Hillary Clinton should become the Democratic nominee for President in 2016 without having to substantially engage with Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers about what she would do as President, speak now or forever hold your peace. Whether this proposition succeeds or fails is likely to be largely determined in the next few months.

In 2016, if Hillary Clinton becomes the nominee without having to defend her positions in front of rank-and-file Democrats, it is certain that some people will loudly complain. Here's what I will then say: "Take away from me the noise of your songs, to the melody of your harps I will not listen." The time to act to forestall this outcome is now.

MoveOn and Democracy for America have a plan to forestall this outcome: draft Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for President.

Opposition to this plan can be sorted into two categories:

1. People who want Hillary Clinton to become the Democratic nominee without having to substantially engage Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers about what she would do as President.

2. People who think that "Draft Warren" is an imperfect vehicle for opposing "no primary."

To the advocates of "no primary," I would say this: do you think we have too much democracy in the United States right now, or too little? Do you think we have too much popular participation and engagement in the political process, or too little?

If you think we have too much democracy, participation and engagement in the political process right now, then you and I are not playing for the same team.

But if you think we have too little democracy, participation and engagement in the political process right now, how can you support the idea that the Democratic nominee for President should be chosen without a political contest? Is it defensible to complain about the role of big money in the political process, yet take a dive on "no primary"? What difference does it make what the limits on big money campaign contributions are, if we are content to have a Soviet-style election with only one candidate?

Suppose that we agree, then, that the position of "Democratic nominee for President" should not be determined without a meaningful political contest. If we know this, we should try to act upon it. To act meaningfully, we must act in concert with others.

MoveOn and Democracy for America polled their members. In each case, more than 80% supported the campaign to try to draft Warren. Who else has a plan to defeat "no primary" that can boast this level of Democratic support?

If we cannot defeat "no primary," all else is moot. You can add your voice here.

Opinion Wed, 24 Dec 2014 09:27:59 -0500
Fact Not Fiction: The Unending Korean War

The fact that the Korean War ended with a temporary cease-fire rather than a permanent peace treaty has given the North Korean government justification to invest heavily in the country's militarization. Another 50 years failed policy that needs to change?

South Korean soldiers stand guard facing North Korea at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, June 25, 2014. (Photo: Woohae Cho / The New York Times)South Korean soldiers stand guard facing North Korea at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, June 25, 2014. (Photo: Woohae Cho / The New York Times)

The fact that the Korean War ended with a temporary cease-fire rather than a permanent peace treaty has given the North Korean government justification to invest heavily in the country's militarization. Another 50 years failed policy that needs to change?

On Christmas Day, most Americans will not have the opportunity to see the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as portrayed in the Hollywood film, The Interview. Americans may have left theaters laughing at Kim and feeling morally justified that the overthrow of the dictator is just what the North Korean people want and need. What they may not have reflected on is that US-led efforts to topple regimes have not brought democracy to the world.

Washington's most recent forays into Iraq and Afghanistan make clear that US intervention, either through covert or overt military action, does not produce the peace that politicians promise us as they beat the drum for war. The Bush administration may have succeeded in toppling Saddam Hussein, but it has left Iraq in a sectarian bloodbath under the reign of warlords. Peace and democracy are similarly distant concepts for the majority of the people in Afghanistan, especially women and girls.

Whether the filmmakers understood the consequences of their film on US-North Korea relations or not, the situation has rapidly escalated. Despite President Obama's efforts to scale back accusations against Pyongyang - with no clear evidence - for committing "cyberwar" to "cybervandalism," the pundits are at work calling for a "proportional response" against North Korea.

The idea of a US military intervention, whether real or imaginary, to liberate North Koreans is dangerous in a country whose regime now possesses one or more nuclear weapons. Although it is difficult to fully know how North Koreans feel about the regime, what we do know is that the entire state is built upon their experience and memories of surviving US bombings during the Korean War.

More bombs were dropped on Korea from 1950 to 1953 than on all of Asia and the Pacific islands during World War II, with the near possibility of the deployment of an atomic bomb. One year into the Korean War, US Major General Emmett O'Donnell Jr. testified before the Senate, "I would say that the entire, almost the entire Korean Peninsula is just a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name . . . There [are] no more targets in Korea."

Nearly 4 million people were killed in the three-year Korean War, which has come to be known by historians as the "forgotten war." In 1953, North Korea, China and the United States, representing the United Nations Command, signed a temporary cease-fire agreement with a promise to sign a peace treaty. That promise was never upheld. Sixty years later, millions of Korean families are still separated by the world's most militarized border - the two-mile wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) - and are still living in a state of war.

The fact that the Korean War ended with a temporary cease-fire rather than a permanent peace treaty gives the North Korean government justification - whether we like it or not - to invest heavily in the country's militarization. Pyongyang even acknowledged last year how the unended war has forced it "to divert large human and material resources to bolstering up the armed forces though they should have been directed to the economic development and improvement of people's living standards."

North Korea's response to the film can be understood, in part, as a response to aggressive US intervention abroad that has toppled governments that impeded US national interests. In his book on US Cold War architects John Foster and Allen Dulles, Stephen Kinzer discusses the case of democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz who was overthrown by a CIA coup in 1954. Kinzer explains that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro concluded that if they were to succeed in taking over Cuba, they would have to establish a closed, dictatorial society to prevent a similar US intervention.

It was Barack Obama's realization of Washington's failed past Cuban policy that led to the historic announcement last week that it would normalize relations with Cuba, ironically on the same day that his administration accused North Korea for the Sony hacking. Like Cubans, North Koreans would greatly benefit from normalized relations with the United States. Although the North Korean regime has survived the political isolation of being the most heavily sanctioned country in the world, ordinary North Koreans have suffered the most from US-led embargoes: one in four currently face extreme hunger.

When Obama says of Cuba that "if you've done the same thing for 50 years and nothing has changed, you should try something different," the same logic should be applied to North Korea. For two countries still formally in a state of war, further belligerence and military posturing will not create the conditions for peace. Engagement and a long-awaited peace treaty will.

Opinion Wed, 24 Dec 2014 00:00:00 -0500
Shining Light Into the Dark World of US Drone Warfare

Approved at the highest levels of government, the use of US drone strikes has steadily escalated for more than a decade. These targeted killings are justified as legal and effective measures to defend the homeland. This book questions both premises.

In this anthology edited by Marjorie Cohn - law professor, Truthout contributor and human rights authority - the clarity of the case against drones used for assassinations is persuasively made. Get this book now, with an introduction by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

(Image: Olive Branch Press)(Image: Olive Branch Press)Approved at the highest levels of government, the use of US drone strikes has steadily escalated for more than a decade. These targeted killings are justified as legal and effective measures to defend the homeland. This book questions both premises.

Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues
(2014 Olive Branch Press, 296 pages)
Edited by Marjorie Cohn

This review originally appeared in the Friday, November 28, 2014, edition of the Los Angeles Daily Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.

This book is a compilation of fifteen authors' views on U.S. drone killing policy. Drones are automated, pilotless flying machines capable of seeking out and assassinating individuals or groups anywhere. U.S. drone strikes have been ongoing for over a decade and their use has steadily escalated. Approved at the highest levels of government, they are justified as legal and effective measures to defend the homeland. This book questions both premises.

The contributing authors are human rights and political activists, policy wonks, lawyers, legal scholars, a philosopher, a journalist and a sociologist, all of whom examine different aspects of U.S. drone policy. These are well-written, compelling and well-documented essays. Edited by Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor and author, Marjorie Cohn, who writes the first chapter, this is an illuminating insight into the opaque world of drone warfare.

The writers discuss so many issues, it is hard to know where to begin. We start with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who in the Foreword, notes, "Obama's drones have been killing thousands of people with no due process at all." He castigates U.S. "exceptionalism" as our justification for killing others with impunity and without legal authority. Exceptionalism is the outlandish, jingoist notion that we are better than everyone else.

I had not confronted the nasty questions about drone killing until I read this book. What follows is my takeaway. One reason many, like myself, have been largely unaware of, or insensitive to, what our drones are doing is that the government keeps as quiet as possible about the process (the proverbial lack of transparency) so that the public is kept mostly unaware. We are left to guess as to exactly how many people have been drone-killed, how many of the dead were listed as the targets of approved strikes, and the numbers of innocents killed in the process. Professor Cohn writes that of the estimated 3,000 killed by drones, the majority were neither al-Qaeda nor Taliban leaders. Most were low-level insurgents rising up against their own governments rather than taking part in an international terrorist plot. A new study published in The Guardian finds that our drone strikes killed 1,147 people in an effort to kill 41 (a ratio of 28/1).

The rest of the dead are deemed "collateral damage," the euphemism for those people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Two writers, Medea Benjamin and Alice K. Ross, document the civilian casualties of drone strikes. This is not easy given the remote and hostile tribal regions where the bombs drop and because the U.S. isn't talking. But there are the more horrendous documented cases that can't be ignored, including a 2009 cruise missile strike in Yemen which hit a tented camp in al-Majala, reportedly killing 58 people including 40 civilians, or the Hellfire missile launched at a tribal town council meeting (a jirga) in western Pakistan which wiped out 42 people including the most respected elders of the community.

One learns of the types of drone targets: individual and "signature" strikes. The latter, a form of mass killing, occurs when the intelligence assessment is that what is being seen by drone video and other asset intelligence is a "suspicious compound in areas controlled by militants." This leads to drone bombing of the location with the hope that it's not a wedding party, town meeting or other innocent congregation. We also learn of the" double tap," where a bomb is dropped and then, after a suitable delay, another is sent to the location to get the rescuers.

All of these deaths raise a paramount question: are we doing more harm than good? Are we diminishing the terrorist threat against us? Or are we increasing it multi-fold by enraging families, friends and communities by this killing from the sky? Do we think these people's hearts and minds will ever favor the United States after their villages are bombed and loved ones killed? Obviously not. We use them because they are deemed effective in the short run to "degrade" enemy leadership. We use them because we can.

Drone use for targeted killing is without mainstream media questioning or public debate so political blowback to the government is inconsequential. On the other hand, the military/CIA pressure to employ them is irresistible.

One cannot deny that terrorists pose a lethal threat to us. Fewer Americans die with drone use than if we had "boots on the ground" approach to ridding the world of terrorists who threaten us. This, and the abiding fear of another 9/11 attack, support their continued use. But in this, there is no national sacrifice, no moral commitment and no responsibility for what we do. Perpetual drone war can thus be easily employed abroad and accepted or ignored at home.

This book raises serious questions about the efficacy of the program. It surely is a failure if by killing one suspected terrorist, five or ten more spring up in outrage. Then there is the issue of killing U.S. citizens in these presidentially approved attacks. The most notable was the assassination of American citizen Anwar Al-Aulaqi in Yemen, and then three weeks later, his 16-year-old son along with five other children. Only after the government said U.S. citizens could be and would be targeted (as in this case) did the issue of drone assassinations raise the hackles of a few politicians and commentators. But mostly, the issue is not discussed. A lawsuit by an Al-Aulaqi family member was thrown out of court. Drone assassinations, at least for the U.S. public, remain under the radar. The beat goes on.

In addition to questioning the efficacy of drone killings, there is the issue of legality. We are a nation of laws. The idea of the President sitting down with his top adviser to go over an approved kill list with no more boundaries on their deployment than those they themselves make up is disturbing to say the least. Drones are approved for use not only in war theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in other nations like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and now Syria. We have self-arrogated the authority to drone bomb people to death in any nation on the face of the earth. Compliance with international law and the rules of war appears dubious at best.
Wielding such lethality poses a host of unprecedented legal questions. In May 2013, President Obama made an important speech addressing the legality of his use of drones. A 2010 DOJ white paper leaked in 2013 provided legal rationales for the killing of U.S. citizens like Al-Aulaqi. It is a thoroughly unconvincing document. The national and international legal norms documented here contradict the authority of one country to invade the airspace of another to kill its citizens absent the threat of imminent attack. These laws have not posed any constraint on U.S. drone killing. Might makes right.
The United States published a policy for its lethal drone use in May 2013. These are the U.S. standards for drone killing: a basis for lethal force exists; it involves a "continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons"; there is a "near certainty" the terrorist target is present where the bomb will be sent and that non-combatants will not be injured or killed; capture is not feasible; the local government authorities will not address the threat; there is no other reasonable alternative; and the U.S. will respect national sovereignty and international law in the process.

The polite response to the above is that the documented accounts of drone killings do not reflect compliance. In fact, as I read these government procedures requiring compliance with U.S. and international law, I was reminded of what Sir Francis Bacon said about great power compliance with law: "laws are like cobwebs, where the small flies are caught and the great break through." Our policies today are fragile strands incapable of holding back the hydraulic pressures of the CIA and military to erase perceived terrorists with the push of a button.

International legal scholar Richard Falk, who writes that drones are more dangerous that nuclear weapons, says that with the rise of non-state political actors having international agendas (terrorists), the use of drones is too attractive an alternative to ever expect cessation. The best we can hope for are agreed-upon guidelines. That will not happen in the foreseeable future. The United States and a few other Western nations have a monopoly on militarized drones and there is little push to force internationally respected regulation.

President Obama has quoted James Madison who wrote: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." Drones make easier never-ending wars against terrorists. We may now confidently look forward to a Terminator-like future with flying robots battling each other in efforts to drop their lethality upon humanity. What impact this will have on us is anyone's guess, but I don't think it will be good.

This is a thought provoking, informative book on an important issue. It is well worth reading, sharing and discussing.

Progressive Picks Wed, 24 Dec 2014 00:00:00 -0500
A Lump of Coal for Fossil Fuels

2014.12.23.Greco.mainPlunging oil, gas and coal stocks make it a fine time to divest. (Image: Troy Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted From: d-b and Natalie Johnson / flickr)The fossil-fuel divestment movement got the perfect holiday gift in 2014: tumbling stocks.

Founded only two years ago by experts and students fed up with the glacial pace of climate action, this global effort is already liquidating more than $50 billion of the oil, gas, and coal assets owned both by individuals and institutions like colleges and dioceses.

What's moving that mound of money? For the most part, divestors heeded moral questions of the "how will your grandchildren survive once the seas swallow Florida" variety. But they're also wagering that fossil fuel investments aren't the sure bets they used to be.

Eventually, as the movement's "unburnable carbon" logic goes, governments — even our own — will realize that they can't afford a climate crisis.

Authorities will then force companies in dirty-energy businesses to keep their oil, gas, and coal underground by some combination of steep taxes and strict regulations. Once the world stops burning climate-changing carbon, dirty-energy stocks and bonds will become worthless.

In other words, move your money before it's too late.

I strongly support this effort and devoted some time to helping word a personal divestment pledge a few months ago. I also became one of the first 700 individuals who have promised to rid our personally held investments of oil, gas, and coal exposure within five years and channel that money into better things, like solar power and organic food.

The movement's naysayers claim that investors will suffer without exposure to fossil fuel assets. Really?

Investing your life savings in coal these days is as effective as flinging gold coins down a mine shaft. Thanks to crumbling demand and weak prices, the industry's stocks, as measured by the Market Vectors Coal exchange-traded fund (KOL), have plummeted by 60 percent over the past five years. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 63 percent over that period.

Lackluster forecasts suggest that anyone investing in coal will lose even more money next year.

What about swearing off oil and gas stocks? Mainstream advice counsels owning some because of the industry's historically good performance and big dividends.

Not in 2014. Investors who bet on oil and gas lost big.

Oil prices have slunk below $60 a barrel for the first time in more than five years, dragging stock and bond values along with them. OPEC's Thanksgiving Day announcement that it wouldn't cut production to shore up oil prices sent them hurtling downward.

The decision gave Black Friday a new meaning for the dirty-energy business.

As of mid-December, shares in the broad oil and gas industries had tumbled about 15 percent for the year, as measured by the Energy Select exchange-traded fund (XLE). The Dow, in contrast, inched up around 5 percent. Over the past five years, oil and gas stocks have made some gains, yet severely under-performed the rest of the stock market.

What about shares in companies mostly engaged in fracking? They've fared way worse, sinking more than 20 percent over the past five years.

With OPEC predicting that low demand may sweep oil prices to 11-year lows — somewhere in the $40-per-barrel neighborhood — don't hold your breath waiting these stocks to rebound.

Divestment foes also claim that the movement probably won't directly hurt asset prices for fossil fuels. That's beside the point now. The oil, gas, and coal industries are pulling the rug out from under their own assets by drilling and mining more than the market can bear.

The fact is, anyone who stopped investing in the fossil fuel industries had an inherent financial advantage in 2014 over people and institutions that failed to take that step. There's never been a better time for investors to scrub the dirty energy out of their portfolios.

Opinion Tue, 23 Dec 2014 11:22:54 -0500