Truthout Stories Fri, 22 May 2015 19:45:22 -0400 en-gb A Robin Hood Tax to Pay for College for All

In Norway, students go to college tuition-free. In Denmark, students are even paid to go to higher education. In the US, college students currently face more than $1.2 trillion of education debt. If the United States wants to boost its middle class and rebuild its economy, this is something that needs to change.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) understands this dilemma. Sanders met with supporters at a press conference on Capitol Hill today and introduced two bills to address it: his College for All Act and a Robin Hood Tax.

"It is a national disgrace that hundreds of thousands of young Americans today do not get to go to college, not because they are unqualified, but because they cannot afford it," said Sanders. "This is absolutely counterproductive to our efforts to create a strong, competitive, economy and a vibrant middle class. This disgrace has got to end."

According to Sanders, "a generation ago," our public colleges and universities were "pathways for all students, no matter their background, to enter the middle class." Thirty years ago, pursuing a higher education could earn a ticket to a middle-class future. Today, going to college can earn a ticket to a future burdened by debt.

At the press conference, Octavia Savage, a graduate of Bloomfield College, explained the dilemmas that American students of higher education face. "My most important concern in school was how to pay for my education," said Savage. "Even though I worked three jobs throughout college, I graduated $26,000 in debt. For many, that's even considered lucky."

Sanders' College for All Act aims to provide free tuition at every public college and university in the United States. It also expands the federal work-study program and allows every American to refinance their student debt loans. The bill establishes a matching grant program that provides $2 in federal funding for every dollar states spend on making public colleges and universities tuition-free. This takes President Obama's plan to provide free community college to the next, more necessary, level.

The College for All Act would be solely funded by the Robin Hood Tax. The Robin Hood Tax introduced today parallels a bill (H.R. 1464) introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison. It would impose a Wall Street speculation fee on investment houses, hedge funds, and other speculators of 0.5 percent on stock trades, a 0.1 percent fee on bonds, and a 0.005 percent fee on derivatives. According to the College for All Act summary, this tax could raise "hundreds of billions a year" to make tuition free at public colleges and universities in this country. It would "also be used to create millions of jobs and rebuild the middle class of this country."

More than 172 national organizations support the Robin Hood Tax. This tiny sales tax on Wall Street speculation - a fraction of the sales tax most states and localities levy on many consumer goods - is rated as "highly progressive" by the International Monetary Fund, meaning that it is only paid "by the richest institutions and individuals in society."

We know the middle class has stagnated while Wall Street has boomed. It is time that the institutions bailed out after 2008 be asked to help restore opportunity to the same American people they left behind.

"At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, at a time when trillions of dollars in wealth have left the pockets of the middle class and have gone to the top one-tenth of one percent, at a time when the wealthiest people in this country have made huge amounts of money from risky derivative transactions and the soaring value of the stock market," said Sanders, "it's time for a fundamental change in how we approach the financing of higher education, and the legislation I will introduce today will do just that."

Opinion Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The High Cost of Low Taxes

Earlier this month, I arrived in San Diego following five days of driving across the country from Wisconsin. I pulled into my friend's driveway, brought my things inside, and went back to my car to park it on the street.

Almost immediately, a cop's siren and flashing lights went off. I'd left my license in my friend's apartment, so I was in trouble no matter what.

But I was in even more trouble because, the cop told me, my license had been suspended since September. My jaw dropped. "I take it from the look on your face that you didn't know that," the cop ventured.

No. I didn't.

The state of California hadn't gone to the trouble of telling me that it had suspended my license due to a $300 ticket from last summer - one I thought I'd already paid. I wasn't able to pay it on time, but I did make good on it eventually. Including the late fee, it had cost me a grand total of $554.

This is where the nightmare really starts.

I spent two hours at the DMV the next day, only to discover I had to call the court to settle the matter. The court only answers its phones three hours a day, Monday through Friday, and its website is confusing and unhelpful.

So for the weekend, I was stuck without a license.

Some people would start shouting about bureaucracy and inefficiency and Big Government - and I can't say they're totally wrong. The wheels of California's government turn very slowly. It's painfully inconvenient.

But I don't think it has to be this way.

I trace the problem back to 1978, when California voters decided they didn't much care for property taxes. They overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative that effectively froze the rates at 1970s levels in perpetuity.

Known as Prop 13, this ballot blunder has put the squeeze on state and local authorities ever since. Furthermore, it's extremely difficult to increase taxes in California, because doing so requires a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature.

Flash-forward to today, and the state doesn't have enough money to pay for schools or govern itself well.

When I held a state job as a software analyst several years ago, my colleagues and I were paid 30 percent less than the going rate for the field. Consequently, it was nearly impossible to recruit or retain talented employees for the job. We were extremely inefficient, working with an understaffed team.

Odds are the state could have actually saved money if it had paid more in salaries and benefited from the productivity it would've gotten in return.

The miserable quality of state services like food stamps and unemployment - both of which I've had to rely on in rough times - falls unfairly on the poor.

Traffic tickets like mine do too, since being unable to pay right away can cost hundreds extra in late fees. I had to choose between eating and paying rent or paying my ticket last summer, so the ticket had to wait.

It turns out I'm not the only one. A new report from civil rights groups found that California has slammed thousands of drivers - especially poor people and people of color - with steep fines and suspensions in an apparent bid to raise revenue.

It's no fun paying taxes, but the saying about "death and taxes" holds true. They're unavoidable. And when you try to reduce taxes irresponsibly, you end up with California-style bureaucratic shortcomings and predatory revenue schemes.

We're all paying anyway - just in tickets, suspended licenses, deteriorating school systems, and out-of-control traffic fines, instead of by just footing our tax bills.

Opinion Fri, 22 May 2015 11:52:57 -0400
Why One of the Wealthiest Countries in the World Is Failing to Feed Its People

On May 8 2015 I awoke to discover that not only were we not looking forward to a new coalition government in the UK, but that the overall collapse of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party had given the Conservative government a mandate. At an individual level I'm likely to see some benefits from the strong neo-liberalism that underpins this government's ideology, but I'm concerned about a further deepening of the division between those who have and those who have not.

This will mean the continued exponential growth in the numbers of people requiring emergency food assistance and increased numbers of children and elderly with inadequate food supply. This will also translate into higher rates of obesity, diet-related illness and malnutrition.

The Most Vulnerable

In the United Kingdom there are nearly 5m people today living as food insecure. Wendy Wills, an expert in food and public health, defines this as those who are unable to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food made available in socially acceptable ways, or who have the (regular) uncertainty that they will be able to do so.

In 2014, more than 20m meals were provided to people unable to provide for themselves. Since 2010 there has been an exponential growth in the number of households relying on emergency food aid. In 2009-10 nearly 50,000 households received three days of emergency food aid but by 2014-15 the number had increased to more than a million. Oxfam UK has estimated that: "36% of the UK population are just one heating bill or broken washing machine away from hardship".

Poor Distribution

Looking at these figures one might think the UK is not a wealthy nation. But this is not the case. Credit Suisse put the UK fifth in a ranking of nations by wealth, behind the US, Japan, China, and France. Based on 2010 UK Census figures, per capita wealth in the UK is about US$182,825, but this wealth is not distributed evenly across the population. While the wealthiest fifth of the population controls nearly 41% of the income, the poorest fifth have just 8%. And while rates of employment have increased over the last few years, pay growth has not kept up.

The new government has little in its manifesto to indicate relief, instead there are promises to cut public spending by a further £55bn by 2019 (on top of the £35bn cut during the coalition government). We have already seen cuts in work programmes that support those with disabilities in their first week in office. In the firing line are Sure Start programmes and programmes for refugees and migrants while reduced funding for local authorities will mean not only cuts to programmes that support the most vulnerable but also cuts to other services providing things such as road repairs, parks and libraries.

On top of the loss of services and support programmes, cuts also translate into bodies out of employment. So this new round of austerity will reach higher up the ladder for those living in the UK because a large proportion of the costs associated with these services is the wages for those who deliver them. The Office for Budget Responsibility indicates that by 2020 there will be a further loss of a million government jobs (compared to the loss of 400,000 government jobs over the course of the last parliament). One can only conclude that income inequality will widen, a state that already has one of the highest divisions between wealthy and poor in Europe (only lower than Turkey and Portugal in 2010).

Disposable Income

For those living in poverty in the UK today the amount of disposable income for the poorest fifth of households is about £156 per week. This is income after taxes and transfer payments and includes spending on clothing, getting to work, childcare, keeping warm, washing, communicating with others, paying for housing, celebrating birthdays, holidays, paying for school trips, uniforms and supplies, socialising and cooking (including not just the food but also the fuel to run the cooker, microwave, and refrigerator).

For many households (not just the poorest), the most flexible item in their budget is food expenditure. Families in this position are not concerned with the environmental or social implications associated with the food that they buy, but instead concentrate on "getting fed". Because it is now less expensive to feed ones family on processed food (with higher salt, sugar, and fat content) than fresh food and as the cost of food is predicted to continue to rise, we can expect to see not just increases in the numbers of people going hungry and relying on emergency food aid, but also increases in the rates of dietary-related illnesses such as obesity, diabetes and malnutrition. These health implications will, in turn, continue to place greater pressure on an already-struggling NHS.

Obligations Made

The government has an obligation to ensure that the right for all human beings to be free from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition, as specified in a UN covenant to which the UK is a signatory, is upheld. The UK is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifies a duty to provide "material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition."

At present the rolling back of social services, the decline in real wages, increases in food costs coupled with an emphasis within the Conservative manifesto to develop food production in this country as an export (as opposed to subsidising it in order to feed the nation), suggests that this obligation is not one that is being taken seriously.

If we cannot look to our national government to uphold these rights and obligations, it seems that there is no recourse but to fill the gap from within, something the Conservatives are banking on. In their manifesto, the only mention of food justice is expressed via the following phrase:

We have always believed that churches, faith groups and other voluntary groups play an important and longstanding role in this country's social fabric, running food banks, helping the homeless and tackling debt and addictions, such as alcoholism and gambling. In the short term it is evident that the public will need to rely on each other to support the most vulnerable, which includes the elderly and children.

Food banks and charity are not a long-term solution, nor are they an adequate solution. We know that food banks are an insecure form of support as they rely on gifts which can be withdrawn at any time. Their coverage is spatially uneven as they are more likely to be located in cities leaving the rural poor in a more precarious position. Donated food also tends to be non-perishable food, as opposed to fresh food free of E numbers, fat, salt, and sugar. Food banks also do not address more structural issues that give rise to food insecurity in the first instance. The Trussel Trust, which runs many food banks, does offer some ancillary support but this still focuses on individuals, not on the wider problems.

No Single Department Is Responsible

As a country we need a better understanding of the resources available to local authorities who bear the burden of addressing the inequalities associated with food and who must deliver services to the poor.

As citizens we also need to demand that the government meet its UN obligations to ensure the right to food and the rights of the child. This cannot happen within existing government departments as the focus of these rights is not embedded within any one single agency. We have the Food Standards Agency, but its remit doesn't address food access. DEFRA's focus is on food production and agriculture. The Department of Health's focus is on nutrition outcomes rather than the root causes of obesity and the structure of food system in the UK. The Department for Work and Pensions similarly only considers those elements that are employment focused.

We currently have subsidies for winter fuel, transportation, and housing, but there is nothing that ensures food affordability. What is called for is a cross-cutting governmental body, with a minister for food, who ensures that policies enacted through these departments deliver access to sufficient, healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food for all of us, not just the wealthy.

Full disclosure: Megan Blake received funding from the Leverhulme Trust for research that informed this work and from the ESRC.

Opinion Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
NAACP Accuses Baltimore Police Union of Intimidation

See The Real News Network's website for both earlier in-depth reporting and current coverage of events in Baltimore, where The Real News Network studios are located.


STEPHEN JANIS, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, TRNN: Hello. My name is Stephen Janis, and I'm a reporter for The Real News Network in Baltimore.

Since the announcement by city State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby of charges against six officers for the killing of Freddie Gray earlier this month, the onslaught of negative media has been unrelenting. Terms like rush to judgment and overcharging of officers have been prevalent, and no other organization has been more outspoken in their criticism than the Baltimore City Police Union, or the FOP. Not only have they led the media barrage against Mosby, but they have asked the federal government to investigate the mayor. Add to that their characterization of protesters as a lynch mob, and you have what some say is a group that is adding unnecessary fuel to an already volatile fire.

And now one very influential organization has put those concerns in writing. The local chapter of the NAACP has written a letter to FOP president Gene Ryan arguing the FOP's rhetoric amounts to threats against both the mayor and Mosby, and is ultimately distasteful. Here to discuss the letter are two representatives from the NAACP. Tessa Hill-Aston has served as president of the Baltimore chapter for several years, and has been a longtime advocate for civil rights in the city. Hassan Giordano is a well-known commentator on city politics and columnist along with chairman of the branch's criminal justice committee.

Thank you both for joining us.



JANIS: So first just discuss with me why you decided to send this letter. What sort of precipitated this?

HILL-ASTON: Well, we opened up a satellite office in the Sandtown community as a result of Freddie Gray's death, and we're working, we're reaching out to the community and the residents there, and bringing in resources and services. And we've been having meetings there and little discussions with the community, and they've been coming in.

Hassan is the chairperson of our Criminal Justice Committee, and we had a meeting last week, we've had two meetings with the whole committee. And it was decided upon that we needed to take some action. We were going to do a rally or demonstration, but we felt all of us together that writing a letter and having a document would be more effective. So that's what the committee came up with under the leadership of Hassan as the chairperson.

JANIS: Hassan, what were your main concerns? What's the thrust of this letter?

GIORDANO: Well when you look at the documents that were sent by the FOP, one, Marilyn Mosby raising the conflicts about Billy Murphy, of course. Trying to get this case taken out of Baltimore City. As well as the letter, as you alluded to, in terms of against the mayor regarding the DOJ's patterns and practice investigation, what was supposedly specifically for the police department. They kind of turned it into an investigation of the mayor when they knew absolutely well that it has nothing to do with that, along with the allegations it's a lynch mob. That I know Gene Ryan at one point walked back.

But a lot of the people in that community were upset about this. Our community justice members as well as a lot of African-American women were upset due to the fact that they elected both of these African-American women, the mayor and the state's attorney, and it feels like they weren't getting their just due to be able to do the process. To let the process work itself out without the influence of this very powerful police union.

JANIS: Well it raises a good question. Why is the police union so powerful and why do you think the media is sort of taking their cue on almost all these issues? Especially in terms of the personal attacks on the mayor and the state's attorney.

HILL-ASTON: Well, I think that they're very powerful because they've had good leadership and they say focused on what they're doing. Any organization is going to be powerful if they stay focused. And I think that they've had a strong arm in the community, and with the police department, and defended the police. So right now is one of the first times that a state's attorney has prosecuted, or attempting to put charges on some police, and I think they take offense to it. Which they should, that's their members. But the process has to work, and our state's attorney did the right thing.

JANIS: Hassan, you write: your intended goal is clear. To all but subtly threaten these women who are merely doing the job we elected them to do, while making borderline racist statements that you know will provoke negative perception in the minds of those in full support of law enforcement in order to tear down the fabric of our elected leadership.

That's pretty powerful words. What do - I mean, I kind of know what you mean. But give us some sense of why you wrote that.

GIORDANO: Well, I think when you look at the entire dynamic, from Freddie Gray and that whole incident that happened, and it precipitated after his death, to even before that. We have a community, a culture especially in the African-American community of distrust with police officers. Then when you add on top of that, number one, a police officer hasn't been charged in the death of many African-American - Tyrone West, Anthony Anderson, going back from 2006 when you had 69 people murdered by the hands of the Baltimore City police, not one of them has been charged. As a matter of fact, only five have been charged in the past three decades, four of them found not guilty. The one who did get found guilty got it overturned on appeal.

People are distrustful with the police and the process. So when Marilyn Mosby stepped up and said, I'm going to do what's right in terms of the law, not so much the justice. But the law, which would give the community justice. People felt that it was somewhat of a threat to the process when you have the FOP kind of taking that power away from the state's attorney which they elected them to do.

People have full support, the NAACP has full support in our, in our law and order. In our police officers. Men and women who really sacrifice their lives every day. But at the same time, we have to also realize that we have a problem that exists between the African-American community and the police department. And Gene Ryan's words, from the lynch mob to these two letters, does nothing to build the bridge that we have to do in order to get past what we saw in the past couple weeks in Baltimore.

JANIS: Given how fraught the relations are, the fact that we've had these protests, is there a way to rebuild a relationship with the police department given the history?

HILL-ASTON: I think eventually. It's going to take a long time. I think this case right here with the Freddie Gray case will make a big determination. People want someone to pay for what they do. And when an average citizen gets locked up for something they have to pay for it. And that's why people are upset, because no police, like Hassan just said, has paid a debt for harming or someone dying at their hands.

So we, I wouldn't want to be in any city without the police. I have the utmost respect for the fine work that our police do. But still, like in any profession, there's some bad apples. And when bad apples do wrong things to the citizens, then this is what happens and they have to pay for it.

In our communities, we need young people and children to see justice. That when someone dies and they feel that it was unjustly, that police even did it, that they need to go through the court process. We want, and I want, children, young adults coming up and them to have children that they grow up learning to respect the police that they see and not hate them. Some of the young children in communities now will probably be an officer one day. So we have to learn that we respect the police. But when someone does something unlawful, even if they have a uniform on, that they have to go to court and pay the price.

JANIS: Hassan, let me ask you this. I attended a press conference with the Vanguard for Justice speaking out in support of Officer Sergeant Alicia White, who has been charged. At the same time they were talking about the fact that they believed - and they wouldn't even come out and say this. But it seemed they were suggesting that the department is inherently racist, and that black officers face racism which had much to do with what happened to Freddie Gray. I mean, how can you resolve that conflict if the department, the institution itself, has issues with racism that are unresolved?

GIORDANO: Well, I think first we've got to recognize the problems that exist and stop sugarcoating. Our political leaders have got to stop trying to spin the problem that exists. People know it. People who don't even work in law enforcement know that we have racism in anything. Especially within the Baltimore City Police Department. We have it within even some of the networks that we have within the city of Baltimore.

So we have to address that problem, and that's part of the letter. Though it's strongly worded, and rightfully so, it also asked Gene Ryan to come to the table and sit down with the oldest and boldest civil rights organization in the world, which is the NAACP, and let's start the healing process. We're never going to get there by the rhetoric that's used either by Mr. Ryan or even some of the words that are used in that letter, to be quite frank. But if we can come together and say, okay, here's the issues at hand. Because we know racism exists not only in that department but throughout the city of Baltimore we see it. It's a city of neighborhoods, and it's a reason. Baltimore has a very long tradition of racism. Then we have to be able together to be able to do that.

Now, if Gene Ryan is not willing to do that, then I don't see how we begin to rebuild that confidence and that trust between his officers and the Baltimore City Police Department and the African-American or any community member in the city of Baltimore.

JANIS: Now, there was a raid on the offices. Was that a - 

HILL-ASTON: I don't want to talk about that. I'm in litigation with someone who caused that.

JANIS: I understand. Do you think it was retaliation?

HILL-ASTON: It wasn't a raid. It was not a raid. It was outside.

JANIS: And the reason I'm asking this question is because we see these kind of tactics occur during these kind of conflicts. Do you think it was polit - 

HILL-ASTON: No. No, it had nothing to do with that. I have already been to court and litigation with someone who had something to do with that. But it was not a raid. The police didn't have a warrant to come there, and it wasn't police.

JANIS: So do you think it was retaliation?

HILL-ASTON: No. No, no, no. it was just another nut.

JANIS: Okay. No, and I just wanted to ask - 

HILL-ASTON: There's lots of them out there.

JANIS: Right. I totally understand. I mean -

HILL-ASTON: The word raid was kind of, is not - it wasn't a raid.

JANIS: Right. And that's how they publicized it, so that's why I wondered about that. And I wanted to -

HILL-ASTON: Yeah. I know, yeah, I know. It was not a raid. They were outside, and...

JANIS: Well let me ask you then, going forward, what can the NAACP - have you heard from Gene Ryan? Has he reached out to you?

HILL-ASTON: Yes, I've spoken to him over the phone.

JANIS: How recently?

HILL-ASTON: Just this week.

JANIS: And so what, how do -

HILL-ASTON: Yeah, I spoke to him on the phone. Before this letter. Before he received this letter.

JANIS: So since the letter, yeah. But how as the conversation?

HILL-ASTON: It was very pleasant. I've had interaction with him months ago before the Freddie Gray thing. I have not talked to him during the, while we were going through this process, but I did talk to him about having a meeting. And we both agreed that we would talk. So no, it was very pleasant, and we both agreed that we should sit down and have communication.

JANIS: So what do you want to see come out of this letter? What do you hope will happen, going forward?

GIORDANO: Well, I hope number one that the Department of Justice's investigation is thoroughly done, number one. And it's focused on the police department and their patterns and practices, not the patterns and practice of the mayor. She'll be held accountable in April of 2016. that's called elections and that's what voters are for. Not for the Department of Justice and not for Gene Ryan.

But I think that now that we've gotten past all this, we have to begin to rebuild and heal Baltimore. That's the job of the NAACP. That's what we've been doing, that's what we'll continue to do. And we would hope to bring Gene Ryan, members of the FOP and the Baltimore City Police Department on board to help heal and rebuild Baltimore. Because there's a level of distrust not only just with officers, but with government officials and with leaders who have been around the city for a long time, but the people in the communities are not seeing what's being told on news publications about how much they're doing for the community. They don't see that. They see the NAACP because we're in their community. They don't see all these other people. So we would love to bring them on board to be able to have a co-op that all of us are lending a helping hand to whatever we can provide to the citizens of Baltimore.

JANIS: Great. Well, let's hopefully keep up to date with you on everything that's happening. We very much appreciate you coming and talking about this. Thank you very much. Thank you.

HILL-ASTON: Thank you. Thank you.

GIORDANO: [inaud.] Thank you.

JANIS: My name is Stephen Janis, I'm a reporter for The Real News Network in Baltimore, and thank you for joining us.

News Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Matt Taibbi on Baltimore, Freddie Gray and How Legal System Covers Up Police Violence

New cellphone video sheds light on Freddie Gray's fatal journey in a Baltimore police van. The footage obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows Gray lying motionless as several police officers shackle his ankles and load him into the vehicle. It appears to contradict earlier police claims that Gray was "irate" and "combative." One of the officers, Lt. Brian Rice, reportedly threatened to use his Taser on the eyewitness who was filming. We are joined by Matt Taibbi, whose latest article for Rolling Stone is "Why Baltimore Blew Up." He writes, "Instead of using the incident to talk about a campaign of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of illegal searches and arrests across decades of discriminatory policing policies, the debate revolved around whether or not the teenagers who set fire to two West Baltimore CVS stores after Gray's death were "thugs," or merely wrongheaded criminals."


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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: New cellphone video sheds light on Freddie Gray's fatal journey in a Baltimore police van. The footage obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows Gray lying motionless as several police officers shackle his ankles and load him into the vehicle. It appears to contradict earlier police claims that Gray was, quote, "irate" and combative." One of the officers, Lieutenant Brian Rice, reportedly threatened to use his Taser on the eyewitness who was filming. The footage raises fresh questions about the officers' handling of the incident and their motive for shackling Gray in the first place.

Gray died from his injuries on April 19th. His family and attorney say his voice box was crushed and his spine was, quote, "80 percent severed at his neck." His death sparked massive protests nationwide. Earlier this month, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against six police officers in connection to Gray's death.

AMY GOODMAN: Baltimore is the focus of Matt Taibbi's latest article in Rolling Stone. It's headlined "Why Baltimore Blew Up: It Wasn't Just the Killing of Freddie Gray - Inside the Complex Legal Infrastructure That Encourages and Covers Up Police Violence."

So, take us inside that, Matt. In fact, you're writing a book on this subject right now.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I first came onto the subject because of the other subject we were just talking about. I was - I had been writing a lot about why people from Wall Street don't go to jail, and I was interested in who does go to jail in this country, and I wanted to make that comparison. And in doing so, I had to learn a lot about community policing, stop and frisk, you know, what they call zero-tolerance policing tactics.

And a lot of that, I think, is behind the anger that we're seeing spill out in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, because these new modern policing strategies that we've instituted in the last couple of decades, most famously beginning here in New York with Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton, you know, the "broken windows" theory - what happens with these policing strategies is that it forces police to go out into neighborhoods and do what one police officer described to me as self-initiated contacts. In other words, you have a different neighborhood, you have the affluent white neighborhood, where police only showed up - show up when they're called. You know, if somebody falls out of a window, somebody shoots a gun in a building, they're going to show up. But in Bed-Stuy or in the South Bronx, police are getting out of their squad cars, they're stopping people on the street, they're questioning them, they're patting them down, and it creates this endless stream of hostile interactions that over time become more - that creates more and more animosity and more and more room for corruption of the process. And I think that is definitely the background for what we see in places like Baltimore.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So could you say what was the origin of the broken windows policy? And what exactly have its effects been?

MATT TAIBBI: So, broken windows was a theory that was espoused by a couple of academics in an article in Atlantic magazine in 1982, and the idea was, if you leave a broken window in a neighborhood, then, very shortly after, all the other windows nearby will also be broken. And visible signs of public disorder will lead to more public disorder. So if you crack down on the visible signs of disorder, like people jumping turnstiles, like graffiti, like, you know, the small things, it will have two impacts. Number one, it will obviously crack down on the visible signs of public disorder. People will feel safer walking around in those neighborhoods. But it will also discourage people from walking outside with a gun, and it will discourage fugitives from walking around in the streets, because they know they may be stopped for even the most minor things, and so they're less likely to commit crimes. That's the theory.

And the tactic that they used to employ this theory, which was stop and frisk, encouraged officers to go out in huge numbers into neighborhoods and essentially, without probable cause, stop people, question them, sometimes pat them down, empty their pockets, and it created, you know, thousands and thousands of interactions. Out of those interactions sprung hundreds of thousands of summonses per year. And a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have had criminal records ended up in the system because of this new policy. Now, you might argue that it curtailed crime, but it also created this other thing where lots and lots of people ended up in the system.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But is that actually the case, that crime went down in the cities where these policies were implemented?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, so, criminologists are very divided on this point. Crime did go down. Violent crime went down all across America from the early '90s on. But it went down in cities where these policies were employed, and it went down in cities where they weren't employed. The origin of the drop in violent crime is basically an academic mystery in America. And so, it's been debunked, this idea that the drop is linked to these policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Late last month, Baltimore police union attorney Michael Davey told reporters the officers were right to chase Freddie Gray after he ran away when a lieutenant made eye contact with him.

MICHAEL DAVEY: They pursued Mr. Gray. They detained him for an investigative stop. Had he not had a knife or an illegal weapon on him, he would have been released. They know what role they played in the arrest of Mr. Gray. What we don't know and what we're hoping the investigation will tell us is what happened inside the back of the van. He was placed in the transport van. Whether he was seat-belted in, I don't believe he was. Our position is: Something happened in that van; we just don't know what.

REPORTER: Do you think any of the six officers committed a crime that day?


REPORTER: Unequivocally. And what makes you say that?

MICHAEL DAVEY: Based on the information that I know, no.

AMY GOODMAN: He said, the police union attorney, that to run in a high-crime area is probable cause for arrest.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, I don't know that that's true. I don't know that legally you can arrest somebody for running away. I don't think that that's actually the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, clearly, the state's attorney, Marilyn Mosby, said it's not, because the first thing she got them on was illegal arrest.


AMY GOODMAN: At least indicted. They haven't been convicted.

MATT TAIBBI: And this is what's unique about the Mosby prosecution, is that not only did they charge the manslaughter or murder charges, but they also slapped on false imprisonment, which essentially said that the whole basis for the arrest was fraudulent. But, you know, dating back to a 1968 Supreme Court case, Ohio v. Terry, police are allowed to stop and question somebody based on what they call the articulable suspicion that the person is committing a crime. Now, what's happened over the years is that standard of articulable suspicion has been broadened to include just about anything. In Chicago, we have - the ACLU has unearthed instances where cops stopped people just because they've arrested the person before, which is, of course, not a reason to actually stop and question and search somebody. It may be a furtive movement - that's a very overused phrase. They stop people for all kinds of reasons. Studies have shown that up to half of these stops are actually baseless. And out of that results an enormous amount of frustration in the population, because they feel that they're being stopped and very often brought to jail and made to stay overnight for no reason at all, and charged with things like loitering, that eventually get dropped. And it's just an endless campaign of harassment. It's the day-to-day stuff. It's the day-to-day process of being stopped, dragged to jail, forced to go through the process, forced to sit in a cell with 16 other men, and that's what really grinds people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you talk in your piece about a number of the people who have been subjected to these policies. Could you say what happened, in particular, the story that you conclude with, Makia Smith?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: The mother, and how she was - what happened to her?

MATT TAIBBI: So, Makia is - she was driving back from a Wendy's. She had her two-year-old in the back of her car. And she saw police arresting somebody, and among other things, she saw them putting their knees on the person's head, a young African-American man. She got out of her car and started to film the incident, and because of her getting out of the car and filming, the police got upset. They focused their attention on her. They dragged her out of her car by her hair. They eventually arrested her. They took her away to jail. And they left her baby in the back of the car. She ended up having to get a stranger at the side of the road to take the baby. And she was, you know, calling out her mother's cellphone number, so that the stranger and the mother could connect.

A jury found the police, in the civil case, not negligent in that instance. But it's the kind of thing - I mean, you know, when I talked to her, she said her whole conception of the police, the government, everything changed after that incident. I mean, it's going to be changed forever now. She says she will never call the police, you know, for any reason. And I think that's what goes on a lot in these neighborhoods, is that people have a bad experience, it colors their perception of law enforcement and the government forever, and then when something like Freddie Gray happens, it gets people worked up into a frenzy, that is totally understandable.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us. We are going to link to your pieces, Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist, now with Rolling Stone magazine. His recent book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, is now out in paperback. And we're going to do a post-show with you, post it online, about another of your pieces, "Forget What We Know Now: We Knew Then the Iraq War Was a Joke," as you go after not just the politicians who are running for president, but the media, as well.

News Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Matt Taibbi: World's Largest Banks Admit to Massive Global Financial Crimes, but Escape Jail (Again)

Five of the world's top banks will pay over $5 billion in fines after pleading guilty to rigging the price of foreign currencies and interest rates. Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland pleaded guilty to conspiring to manipulate the price of US dollars and euros exchanged in the $5 trillion FX spot market. UBS pleaded guilty for its role in manipulating the Libor benchmark interest rate. No individual bank employees were hit with criminal charges as part of the settlements. We are joined by Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine.


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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the felons on Wall Street. Five of the world's top banks will pay over $5 billion in fines after pleading guilty to rigging the price of foreign currencies and interest rates. Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland pleaded guilty to conspiring to manipulate the price of US dollars and euros exchanged in the five trillion foreign exchange - $5 trillion foreign exchange spot market. UBS pleaded guilty for its role in manipulating the Libor benchmark interest rate. On Wednesday, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the deal.

ATTORNEY GENERAL LORETTA LYNCH: We are here to announce a major law enforcement action against international financial institutions that for years participated in a brazen display of collusion and foreign exchange rate market manipulation, and will, as a result, pay a total of nearly $3 billion in fines and penalties. As a result of our investigation, four of the world's largest banks have agreed to plead guilty to felony antitrust violations. They are Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Barclays PLC and the Royal Bank of Scotland PLC.

AMY GOODMAN: No one who works with the banks was hit with criminal charges as part of the settlements.

For more, we're joined by Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine. His most recent book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, is now out in paperback.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Matt.

MATT TAIBBI: Good to see you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, explain what these banks are charged with. And what does it mean when you say banks are charged, but all the people go free?

MATT TAIBBI: Right, they filed - actually, these banks, the companies, pleaded guilty to felony charges in this case, which means it was not individuals of the company, it was the actual company itself, which is actually a step forward, because for a long time in the post-2008 period we were having a lot of settlements where there was a sort of a neither-admit-nor-deny agreement between the government and these companies, and in this case they actually did have to admit to wrongdoing and did have to plead guilty to a criminal charge, in addition to the money changing hands.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the wrongdoing?

MATT TAIBBI: The wrongdoing was manipulating the prices of currencies, which is about as serious a financial crime as you can possibly get, I think. You know, you and I sat here a few years ago and talked about the Libor scandal. This is very similar.

AMY GOODMAN: In as simple terms as you can make it, because I think that's why nobody goes to jail: No one can -


AMY GOODMAN: You can understand if someone steals a candy bar.


AMY GOODMAN: And a person can go to jail for years for that.


AMY GOODMAN: But when it comes to this, what did they do?

MATT TAIBBI: They were monkeying around with the prices of every currency on Earth. So, if you can imagine that anybody who has money, which basically includes anybody who's breathing on the planet, all of those people were affected by this activity. So if you have dollars in your pocket, they were monkeying around with the prices of dollars versus euros, so you might have had more or less money fractionally, depending on all of this manipulation, every single day. And again, Attorney General Lynch went out of her way to say that this activity went on basically every single day for the last five years or so. So every single day, that $5 in your pocket was worth a little bit more or a little bit less, based on what these people were doing. And if you spread that out to everybody on Earth, it turns into a financial crime that's on a scale that, you know, you would normally only think of in Bond movies or something like that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, the Justice Department says traders used online chat rooms and coded language to manipulate currency exchange rates. One high-ranking Barclays trader chatted, quote, "If you ain't cheating you ain't trying." And another responded, quote, "Yes, the less competition the better." So, could you comment on that, Matt? And also explain why, in this particular case, the companies pleaded guilty.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I think part of it is because they had this very graphic online record of these people chatting and admitting to essentially a criminal conspiracy in writing. That's one of the things that's really interesting about this entire era of financial crime, is that you have so much of this very graphic, detailed documentary evidence just lying around. The problem is the government has either been too overwhelmed or too disinclined to go and get it and do anything with it. In this case, you have people openly calling themselves the cartel or the mafia, and then openly talking about monkeying around or manipulating, you know, the price of this or that. The CFTC, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, actually released chats from a different case involving interest rate swaps yesterday, where they - where one guy was bragging about how he was holding up the price of interest rate swaps like he was bench-pressing at. They were bragging about this, you know, in these chat rooms. So these - what you have to understand about a lot of these people, they're very testosterone-laden, souped-up young people who think that they're indestructible. They're very arrogant. And they're doing all this in chat rooms, thinking they're never going to get caught. And they got caught.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat said, quote, "The behavior that resulted in the settlements we announced today is an embarrassment to our firm, and stands in stark contrast to Citi's values," unquote. Meanwhile, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon called the investigation findings, quote, "a great disappointment to us." He went on to say, quote, "The lesson here is that the conduct of a small group of employees, or of even a single employee, can reflect badly on all of us, and have significant ramifications for the entire firm," said the CEO, Jamie Dimon.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, what's humorous about this is that virtually all of these so-called too-big-to-fail banks now have been embroiled in scandals of varying degrees of extreme seriousness since 2008. So for them to say, "Oh, it's just a few bad apples in this one instance," is increasingly absurd. They have been dinged for everything from bribery to money laundering, to rigging Libor, to mass fraud in the subprime mortgage markets and now the forex markets. It's one mass crime over - you know, after another, and there's no consequence.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, aren't these banks competitors?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, sort of. But that's the main problem in this case, is what's happening is that they're colluding, which is a far more dangerous kind of corruption than what we saw, for instance, in 2008, when you saw a lot of banks, in house, committing fraud against their own clients and against the markets. This behavior, where you have a series of major banks colluding to fix the price of a currency, that is extremely dangerous. And if that behavior is allowed to go unchecked, the negative possibilities that could stem from that are virtually limitless.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, the foreign exchange market is the largest, and yet the least regulated, market in the financial world.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you know why that is? And who would be in charge of its regulation?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, a variety of regulatory bodies would have what you would describe as a general purview over this kind of activity. Obviously, they got them on an antitrust violation, so this - it falls under the purview of the Department of Justice. The Fed, the banking regulators, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, they all have a kind of a general mandate to look out for this sort of stuff. But the problem with the forex markets is that there isn't a specific body that's specifically looking at this all the time. It's not like, let's say, you know, the commodities market, where you do have a CFTC that's specifically looking at that. This is one of many markets that simply falls between the cracks in the regulatory scheme, where there isn't a single - you know, a targeted effort to look at this all the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who's now running for president, introduced the Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The bill that I am introducing today with Congressman Brad Sherman would require regulators at the Financial Stability Oversight Council to establish too-big-to-fail list - a too-big-to-fail list of financial institutions and other huge entities whose failure would pose a catastrophic risk on the United States economy without a taxpayer bailout. This list must include, but is not limited to, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley.

It should make every American extremely nervous that in this weak regulatory environment - weak regulatory environment - the financial supervisors in our country and around the world are still able to uncover an enormous amount of fraud on Wall Street and other financial institutions to this very day. I fear very much that the financial system is even more fragile than many people may perceive. This huge issue simply cannot be swept under the rug. It has got to be addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: So that is Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, senator of Vermont, independent senator. About a decade ago, you stayed with Sanders for about a month, covering him for Rolling Stone, doing a profile.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. Sort of remarkably, he invited me to tag along and just sort of watch how the process works. I think he felt that the public should know about a lot of the nooks and crannies of the congressional bureaucracy. And I got this remarkable education into how things actually work. He didn't hold anything back. Sanders is, you know, exactly as advertised. He's a completely honest, I think, politician who is just really interested in seeing - you know, standing up for regular working people. So, his voice on this particular issue, I think, is really important, because he's one of the few politicians who understands that it's a truly bipartisan issue that affects everybody, people on both sides of the aisle, equally. And he's absolutely right about breaking up the banks. That is the most single most important thing that has to be done with this issue.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, there have been reports, Matt Taibbi, and I'm sure this is the case, that none of the significant changes that were to be put in place in the financial system since the crisis occurred several years ago - those changes have not yet taken place, and so this kind of thing is likely to recur. Could you talk about that and also the extent to which the new attorney general, Loretta Lynch, is likely to be tougher on banks and, indeed, on bankers?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I don't know if that's exactly true. I definitely hear from people on Wall Street all the time that there are - there are certain things that are different. I think, you know, trading - banks trading for their own accounts, that's been severely curtailed since Dodd-Frank. You know, there have been a number of regulations that have made it more difficult to engage in the kinds of risky activities that we saw before 2008.

But by and large, the general problem is more unwillingness to enforce existing laws. And it wasn't so much an absence of new regulations that was the problem in 2008. It was more a failure of will on the part of the government. We had laws on the books that were perfectly sufficient in the late '80s and early '90s, when we, you know, conducted over 1,800 prosecutions and put 800 people in jail after the S&L crisis. We can do the same thing now, if we want to, with this or with robo signing or with subprime mortgage fraud or any of another dozen other scandals, and we just haven't done it. And that - I think that's the main problem, and it's a failure of will. And I do hear from people that there is more serious now - seriousness now, in the waning years of the Obama administration, more willingness to go after the banks.

AMY GOODMAN: A new report from the Corporate Reform Coalition called "Still Too Big to Fail" says, since 2008, regulators have failed to enact key parts of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It found, quote, "The top six bank holding companies are considerably larger than before, and are still permitted to borrow excessively relative to the assets they hold. ... Banks can still use taxpayer-backed insured deposits to engage in high-risk derivative transactions here and overseas. Compensation incentives fail to discourage mismanagement and illegality, given that when legal fees, settlements, and fines mount, it is usually the shareholders, not the corporate executives who pay." The report concludes, quote, "Should one of these giant banking firms fail again, it appears that the damage will not be contained." So there's a lot here. One is that the US could descend again. Number two is that even with the billions that are now - these banks have to pay, who is actually paying?

MATT TAIBBI: Oh, the shareholders. I mean, that's - the pain is not going to come from the actual wrongdoers, you know, the people who actually committed these offenses - although there have been some criminal indictments in the previous Libor case, so we can't say that nobody's going to go to jail, because it is possible that that could happen. There could be a few low-level players who will get rolled up in this thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Because the non-prosecution agreement was voided because they did it again?

MATT TAIBBI: Yes, but even in the Libor case, there were people from other banks. Rabobank, there were a couple of employees who got - who were criminally indicted, if I remember correctly. But it was nothing like the roundup that should have happened. I'm just saying that there were a few individuals who got caught up here and abroad. But by and large, you know, that quote is absolutely correct.

There are a couple of points that are really important here. First, after 2008, we made the system far more concentrated. We made the too-big-to-fail banks much bigger than before. We actually did this intentionally. We used taxpayer money to merge banks together, to make them bigger and more dangerous and harder to regulate. And we saw, with episodes like the London Whale episode, that massive losses can happen in the blink of an eye, and we will have no idea when it's coming. And so, this kind of activity - we've definitely made the system riskier, harder to regulate. And all those things are certainly true, and Dodd-Frank has failed to address those.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Taibbi, we're going to break, and when we come back, you've written another piece called "Why Baltimore Blew Up," and we're going to take a look at this. You say it goes far beyond the police killing of Freddie Gray. Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine. His recent book is now out in paperback, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Stay with us.

News Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Syrian War Set to Explode Again

The Syrian war stalemate appears to be over. The regional powers surrounding Syria - especially Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan - have re-ignited their war against the Syrian government. After over 200,000 dead and millions of refugees, the US allies in the region recently re-committed to deepening the war, with incalculable consequences.

The new war pact was made between Obama's regional darlings, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who agreed to step up deeper military cooperation and establish a joint command in the occupied Syrian region of Idlib.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are now openly backing Islamic extremists under the newly rebranded "Conquest Army." The on-the-ground leadership of this "new" coalition consists of Jabhat al-Nusra - the "official" al-Qaeda affiliate - and Ahrar al-Sham, whose leader previously stated that his group was the "real al-Qaeda."

The Huffington Post reports:

"The Turkish-Saudi agreement has led to a new joint command center in the northeastern Syrian province of Idlib. There, a coalition of groups - including Nusra and other Islamist brigades such as Ahrar al-Sham that Washington views as extremist - are progressively eroding Assad's front. The rebel coalition also includes more moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army that have received US support in the past."

The article admits that the Free Syrian Army - that Obama previously labeled as "moderates" and gave cash and guns to - has been swallowed up by the extremist groups.

This dynamic has the potential to re-engulf the region in violence; deep Saudi pocketbooks combined with reports of looming Turkish ground forces are a catastrophe in the making.

Interestingly, the Saudi-Turkish alliance barely raised eyebrows in the US media. President Obama didn't think to comment on the subject, let alone condemn it.

The media was focused on an odd narrative of Obama reportedly being "concerned" about the alliance, but "disengaged" from what two of his close allies were doing in a region that the US has micromanaged for decades.

It seems especially odd for the media to accept that Obama has a "hands off" approach in Syria when at the same time the media is reporting about a new US program training Syrian rebels in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

It's inconceivable that Obama would coordinate deeply with Turkey to set up a Syrian rebel training camp on Turkish soil, while at the same time be "disengaged" from the Turkish-Saudi war coalition in Syria.

One possible motive behind the fake narrative of "non-cooperation" between Obama and his Turkish-Saudi allies is that the US is supposed to be fighting a "war on terrorism."

So when Turkey and Saudi Arabia announce that they're closely coordinating with terrorists in Syria - like al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham - Obama needs an alibi to avoid being caught at the crime scene. He's not an accomplice, simply "disengaged."

This is likely the reason why Obama has insisted that his new "moderate" rebels being trained in Turkey will fight ISIS, not the Syrian government. But this claim too is ridiculous.

Is Obama really going to throw a couple hundred newly-trained "moderate" Syrian rebels at ISIS while his Turkish-Saudi allies focus all their fire on the Syrian Government? The question answers itself.

The media has made mention of this obvious conundrum, but never bothers to follow up, leaving Obama's lame narrative unchallenged. For example, the LA Times reports:

"The White House wants the [US trained rebel] proxy force to target Islamic State militants, while many of the Syrian rebels - and the four host nations [where Syrian rebels are being trained] - want to focus on ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad."

The article simply shrugs its shoulders at the irreconcilable. The article also fails to mention that Obama's "new" training camps aren't new at all; he's been arming and training Syrian rebels since at least 2012, the only difference being that the "new" training camps are supposedly meant to target ISIS, compared to the training camps that were openly used to target the Syrian government.

Here's the LA Times in 2013:

"The covert US training [of Syrian rebels] at bases in Jordan and Turkey began months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to US officials and rebel commanders."

This is media amnesia at its worse. Recent events can't be understood if the media doesn't place events in context. In practice this "forgetfulness" provides political cover to the Obama administration, shielding his longstanding direct role in the Syrian war, allowing him to pretend to a "passive," "hands off" approach.

When it was reported in 2012 that the Obama administration was funneling weapons to the Syrian rebels, the few media outlets that mentioned the story didn't bother to do any follow up. It simply fell into the media memory hole. After the weapons funneling report came out, Obama incredulously stated that he was only supplying "non lethal" support to the rebels, and the media printed his words unchallenged.

Consequently, there was no public discussion about the consequences of the US partaking in a multi-nation proxy war against Syria, a country that borders war ravaged Iraq.

In 2013 when Obama announced that he would be bombing the Syrian government in response to a supposed gas attack, the US media asked for no evidence of the allegation, and strove to buttress Obama's argument for aggression.

And when Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh wrote an article exposing Obama's lies over the aborted bombing mission, the article didn't see the light of day in the US media. Critically thoughtful voices were not welcome. They remain unwelcome.

In 2015 direct US military intervention in Syria remains a real possibility. All the conditions that led to Obama's decision to bomb Syria in 2013 remain in place.

In fact, a US intervention is even more likely now that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are fighting openly against the Syrian government, since the Saudi-Turkish alliance might find itself in a key battle that demands the special assistance that only the US air force can offer.

Unsurprisingly, there has been renewed discussion of a US enforced "no fly zone" in Syria. ISIS doesn't have an air force, so a no fly zone would be undeniably aimed at the Syrian government to destroy its air force. The new debate over a "no fly zone" is happening at the same time as a barrage of new allegations of "chemical weapons" use are being made against the Syrian government.

If a no fly zone is eventually declared by the Obama Administration it will be promoted as a "humanitarian intervention, that strives to create a "humanitarian corridor" to "protect civilians" - the same rhetoric that was used for a massive US-led NATO bombing campaign in Libya that destroyed the country and continues to create a massive refugee crisis.

As the Syrian war creates fresh atrocities the Obama administration will be pressured to openly support his Saudi-Turkish allies, just as he came out into the open in 2013 when he nearly bombed the Syrian government.

History is repeating itself. But this time the stakes are higher: the region has already been destabilized with the wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and the regional conflicts have sharpened between US allies on one hand, and Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Russia on the other.

Such a volatile dynamic demands a media willing to explain the significance of these events. The truth is that Obama has been a proxy war president that has torn apart the Middle East as badly as his predecessor did, and if the US public remains uninformed about developing events, an even larger regional war is inevitable.

News Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Body Cameras Are Not Pointed at the Police; They're Pointed at You

Civil rights advocates say body cameras are no substitute for comprehensive police reform and could even threaten civil liberties if proper safeguards are not in place.


Something unusual happened during a Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday - the committee reached a consensus, at least informally. Although they admitted that there is no "silver bullet" for restoring the public's faith in law enforcement in the wake of several high-profile cases involving killer cops, lawmakers from both parties, along with every witness called in to testify, agreed that police officers across the country should wear body cameras.

"If you could get the right protocols to protect privacy and make sure the officer is using the camera in an appropriate manner, do you think it's best for the nation to go down this road?" Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) asked Wade Henderson, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a broad coalition of civil rights groups that have drawn up guidelines for body camera deployment.

"Without question, I think it's absolutely essential," Henderson replied.

"Does everybody agree with that? If you don't, speak up," Graham said. The room was silent.

Polls indicate that the vast majority of the public agrees, as well. The highly publicized deaths of one unarmed black man after another at the hands of police have given body cameras serious political momentum.

A 2012 survey found that 25 percent of departments are already using body cameras, and about 80 percent are actively evaluating the technology, and those numbers have probably increased in recent months as Congress and the Obama administration announced millions of dollars in funding for equipment and training. Body cameras, it turns out, tend to be popular among cops and their supervisors.

Henderson and other civil rights advocates, however, warn that body cameras alone will not solve the problem of racist and violent policing. Without the right policies and safeguards in place, body cameras could even make those problems worse.

"There is a real risk that these devices could become instruments of injustice instead of tools of accountability," Henderson told the committee.

No Substitute for Real Reform

Malkia Cyril, a prominent civil rights activist and director of the Center for Media Justice, said body cameras are no substitute for the kind of comprehensive reforms needed to curb police violence and hold cops accountable.

"Police body cameras are an unproven technology to collect evidence," Cyril said in an email to Truthout. "But this technology can't be relied upon to ensure police accountability that we, as a nation, have failed to implement."

Cyril said the focus should be on strategies to demilitarize police forces, fund education and employment programs in communities excluded by racial discrimination, and protect people from government surveillance, which could increase as body cameras are adopted on a mass scale, especially in communities of color, where police already have a heavy presence. Body cameras are pointed at the public, not the police, and could easily become another tool for surveillance.

With body cameras being rolled out across the country, Cyril said, every state must pass a "right to record" law to affirm the public's right to film the police on their own without facing harassment and the threat of arrest.

"It's bystander and civilian video, along with popular uprisings, that brought the issue of police brutality and murder to the national stage - not police body cameras," Cyril said.

Studies on local police departments have shown that the number of complaints against police officers and use-of-force incidents dropped after officers were outfitted with body cameras, and advocates agree both police and the people they interact with tend to behave better when the camera is rolling. Even law enforcement officials, however, say that body cameras alone will not mend community relations or prevent violence.

"Law enforcement agencies across this country are in desperate need [of] cultural diversity, use of force and de-escalation training," said Jarrod Bruder of the South Carolina Sheriff's Association, who called on Congress to increase funding for such programs. "Advanced training, not just basic training, is absolutely critical in our efforts to provide public safety."

Bruder said body cameras can increase protection for police officers and the public, but policy makers should not put "too much trust" in the technology. It cannot "magically" prevent tragic situations like the death of Walter Scott, the unarmed black man who was fatally shot in the back by a police officer in Charleston, South Carolina, after attempting to flee a routine traffic stop last month.

Police representatives like Bruder often request money for more training because it points the finger of accountability at lawmakers and the taxpayer, instead of at the police, who can often dodge taking responsibility for their own actions.

"On the one hand, training is a critical component of any job. On the other hand, cultural sensitivity training is counteracted by the failure of law enforcement to hold its officers accountable," Cyril said. "As a result, the first and most important step we can take to decrease police violence is demilitarize law enforcement."

Who is Under Surveillance?

Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from Charleston who has championed body cameras since Walter Scott's death, requested Tuesday's Senate hearing on body cameras. (The senator is not related to Walter Scott.) A video of the shooting taken by a bystander drew national attention to the issue, and officer Michael Slager was later charged in Scott's death.

In his testimony, Senator Scott said that body cameras can "rebuild trust and construct brighter futures in many communities," but agreed with advocates that putting cameras on cops is just one of many steps that must be taken to tackle poverty, criminal justice reform and police brutality. Scott and other lawmakers also made it clear that they only want to assist those law enforcement agencies interested in body cameras and would not make adoption of the technology mandatory.

Henderson, however, pointed out that it was bystanders, not police with body cameras, who recorded the tragic encounters that lead to the deaths of men like Walter Scott and Eric Garner.

"There is a temptation to create a false equivalence between these citizen-recorded videos and body-worn cameras operated by law enforcement," Henderson said. "I urge the committee not to give into this temptation, because body-worn cameras won't be operated by concerned citizens and won't be recording officers. They will instead be directed at members of the community."

Henderson said that body cameras would exacerbate the dramatic disparities in how different communities are policed, if the technology becomes a "multiuse surveillance tool" for law enforcement. He warned against using facial recognition and other biometric technologies, along with body cameras, which would give law enforcement unprecedented abilities to peer into heavily policed neighborhoods, where stationary surveillance cameras are already abundant.

"These cameras should be a tool of accountability for police officers - not a face or body scanner for everyone who walks by on the street," Henderson said.

There are currently no federal rules or guidelines for when police officers should turn cameras on and off, or for the handling and storage of footage after it is taken. Individual departments must grapple with questions of how to balance the need to protect personal privacy of those on video and grant the public access to evidence.

"We always want to make sure that people at their most vulnerable do not end up on YouTube," said Lindsey Miller, a researcher at the Police Executive Research Forum, a group that has studied body cameras.

Miller's organization recommends that cops be required, with limited exceptions, to turn the cameras on while responding to all calls for service and to keep them on during encounters with the public. The Forum also recommends that cops be required to ask crime victims for their consent before interviewing them on camera, and that they be allowed to turn the camera off when receiving information from confidential sources.

Henderson and civil rights advocates say they recognize that police departments must consider individual privacy concerns before making footage available to a wide audience, but that any footage of police using force should be made public soon after the incident. Footage should also be made available to anyone who was filmed and wishes to file a complaint, along with the family members of anyone whose death is related to events captured on tape.

State lawmakers in South Carolina are already moving to exempt footage from body cameras from Freedom of Information Act requests, leaving it up to police and those videotaped to decide if and when the footage is publically released. Henderson said he is "concerned" about such "unilateral declarations" that block access to police videos.

Officers should be prohibited from viewing videos before they file reports, for example, and the vast majority of interactions with the public should be recorded, with exceptions made for sensitive interactions such as attending to victims of domestic violence. Such polices should be developed in full view of the public, with input from advocates and the local community.

"Without the appropriate safeguards, we are at risk of compounding the very problems in policing we are trying to fix," Henderson said.

He added, however, that policies for body cameras are meaningless if racial profiling and excessive use of force are not prohibited in the first place.

Research on body cameras suggest that body camera footage provides learning opportunities for officers and can be used during training, but some civil rights activists doubt that providing police departments with millions of dollars in new resources will do anything to curb excessive policing. In fact, it may have the opposite effect.

"You can't train law enforcement to treat communities with respect, then arm them as if they are at war with an enemy combatant," Cyril told Truthout. "That just doesn't work."

News Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Jade Helm 15 Is Not a Federal Takeover: It's Domestic Military Expansion

8 December, 2007: U.S. Army paratroopers prepare to board a C-130 Hercules during Operation Toy Drop, Ft. Bragg, N.C. (Photo: The U.S Army)US Army paratroopers prepare to board a C-130 Hercules during Operation Toy Drop at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, December 8, 2007. (Photo: The US Army)

As military officials begin to notify the public of this summer's upcoming military training exercise in rural counties in Texas, conspiracy theories have run wild about the Obama administration's "plot" to invade the state. While the training isn't a federal coup attempt, it does fit into a larger pattern of an expanding domestic military footprint.

8 December, 2007: U.S. Army paratroopers prepare to board a C-130 Hercules during Operation Toy Drop, Ft. Bragg, N.C. (Photo: The U.S Army)US Army paratroopers prepare to board a C-130 Hercules during Operation Toy Drop at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, December 8, 2007. (Photo: The US Army)

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Some of the conspiracy theories being offered about this summer's eight-week US Special Operations Command (SOCOM)-led "Jade Helm 15" military training exercise seem stranger than fiction. The general suspicion is that the exercise is an Obama administration attempt to invade the state of Texas.

At one point, right-wing conspiracy sites speculated Walmart was "in" on the Obama administration's plan to invade the state, suddenly closing down stores to provide "food distribution centers" to the military and allowing them to use a pre-existing system of secret underground tunnels to launch the takeover attempt in the state.

It's a Tom Clancy novel on steroids, and the typical stuff of Texas' ever-growing right-wing conspiracy culture, which won a boost from Gov. Greg Abbott this month, when he directed the Texas State Guard to watch over the Jade Helm 15 exercises set to take place across several Texas counties this July.

The mainstream media and much of the independent media have been right to publicly call out (and poke fun at) Gov. Abbott and some Republican presidential candidates for giving Texas' conspiracy culture far too much credence. However, the exclusive emphasis on some of the more bizarre theories emerging out of rural Texas counties has overshadowed valid concerns from activists about a much larger ongoing domestic military expansion, of which Jade Helm 15 plays a significant part.

Truthout's Dahr Jamail has reported extensively on the Navy's ongoing use of nearly every US coastal state's land and air for its realistic training exercises and war games. In recent years, these exercises have included electromagnetic warfare training and the testing of sonar devices, despite evidence of the exercises' harmful effects on marine animals and pushback from concerned environmentalists.

"According to the Pentagon, between 1985 and 2012, the US military had completed at least 92 joint land use studies in preparation for expanding its domestic training, which proposed expansions in all but 16 US states," Jamail writes.

Several branches of the US military, including the Air Force, Army and most prominently, the Navy, are encroaching on public and private lands to expand "realistic" warfare-training exercises domestically. Despite some of the more cockeyed theories to emerge about Jade Helm 15 recently, the realistic training exercise fits into this quiet military expansion in an unprecedented way.

Jade Helm 15 is an eight-week, SOCOM-sponsored, joint-military and inter-agency, unconventional warfare training exercise, which will be conducted throughout parts of Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada and Florida running this summer from July 15 to September 15. As part of the training, Special Forces from at least four branches of the military will role-play, conducting imaginary covert missions on territories labeled "hostile" in Texas, Utah and southern California, and travel from state to state in military aircraft. (Texas' designation as "hostile" in the imaginary scenario seems to be a primary catalyst for some conspiracy theories.)

In a recorded presentation given to city council members of Big Spring, Texas, Thomas Mead, an operations planner for the exercise, told city leaders that personnel from every branch of the military will be participating in the exercise, including US Navy SEALS, US Marine Special Operations Command, US Marine Expeditionary Units, the 82nd Airborne Division, SOCOM, and agencies including the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

According to a SOCOM press release, the training isn't quite like other routine military trainings, due to its unprecedented size and scope. "While multi-state training exercises such as these are not unique to the military, the size and scope of Jade Helm sets this one apart," the SOCOM release states. Jade Helm was originally slated to take place across eight states; however, Colorado is no longer taking part in the training after activities planned there were changed to another military unit. Despite this, Jade Helm 15 will become the largest SOCOM multi-state exercise to be conducted domestically, according to a SOCOM FAQ sheet released to Truthout.

SOCOM states it's conducting the exercise to train US Special Forces to respond to an international crisis and protect the nation from foreign enemies. Military personnel are expected to engage in scenarios focused on "infiltration and exfiltration of personnel and equipment, personnel recovery operations, integration of conventional forces, airborne operations, aerial resupply, long range movements and exercising command and control elements," according to the FAQ sheet.

SOCOM has its own budget within the DoD and has requested a $10.547 billion budget in fiscal year 2016. Part of that budget is going to initiatives like Jade Helm 15, which is designed to test military personnel in an emerging Special Forces doctrine known as the "human domain," which emphasizes studying social, cultural and economic conditions of war zones.

The training will traverse public and private lands, and military bases across the seven states, with the permission from private landowners and state and local authorities, whom SOCOM officials have already begun to approach in several Texas counties, setting up public meetings this month. According to SOCOM, about 1,200 soldiers are expected to participate in Jade Helm 15 war games across 17 locations in Texas this summer, with residents seeing a military presence of approximately 60 soldiers in local towns adjacent to the training locations, some of whom may be dressed in plain clothes and carrying guns with blank ammunition.

SOCOM plans to conduct the large-scale Jade Helm 15 training on an annual basis, noting that the amount of personnel and aircraft expected to particpate may change from year to year. Mead also told Big Spring city leaders that residents there could expect noise (potentially including sonic booms) from low-flying aircraft and increased air traffic during the night, including the use of helicopters. Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria, a SOCOM spokesman for the training, also said there will be two Humvees and a tank used to carry water, called a water buffalo, which residents may see around Big Spring.

Big Spring's mayor, Larry McLellan, told Truthout the military has already contracted with some landowners in the town to conduct the exercise on their land. McLellan said the military has agreed to repair any damage to the land that may occur due to the exercise, but compensation is not part of the contract. "I've had people tell me how crazy I am, and the council, as far as allowing this," McLellan said, referring to some right-wing conspiracy theorists he's encountered.

But anti-militarization activists outside Texas - who do not share the conspiracy theorists' political leanings - point to the Jade Helm 15 exercise as just the next phase of the military's domestic encroachment. Carol Miller, founder of the nonprofit Peaceful Skies Coalition (PSC) in New Mexico, has carefully tracked such encroachment ever since the Air Force tried to turn an area near her community into "a realistic bombing initiative."

"I don't buy into the 'Obama's going to come and take our guns' - that aspect of it - but there are good reasons to actually want to look at what's happening," Miller told Truthout.

PSC has already started pushing back against the exercise in that state, sending a letter to Gov. Susan Martinez, urging her to notify the Department of Defense (DoD) that any training activity related to the Jade Helm 15 exercise should be restricted to the state's military bases - which include some of the nation's largest. According to SOCOM, the activity in New Mexico is slated for Cannon Air Force Base.

But it's the prospect of increased and unnecessary training incursions that has activists like Miller worried about the kind of precedent the changing dynamic of an annual Jade Helm 15 training may set not just in her own state, but throughout the southwest.

Across the seven southwestern states in which the exercise will take place, there have already been a number of recent expansions of military training areas. For example, in 2014, the Utah Test and Training Range had 700,000 acres added to the perimeter of a bombing range to give more space for F-35 pilots to test missiles.

Furthermore, no environmental impact statement (EIS) has been released publicly for the Jade Helm 15 training. Such environmental assessments are standard for military trainings; the National Environmental Policy Act mandates them. In its FAQ sheet, SOCOM states that, "[a]s this exercise is taking place in seven states, and several regular military training locations, there is minimal additional [environmental] impact than from regular training in that area."

While SOCOM released that statement to Truthout in its FAQ sheet, it did not respond to Truthout's specific requests for an EIS for Jade Helm 15.

"Where are the progressive attorneys that might want to intervene? They were watching Jon Stewart and laughing at the landowners in Texas," Miller told Truthout. "So our ally list is growing thin. It's really just people who have been directly impacted."

While SOCOM officials haven't publicly released an EIS for the exercise, Lt. Col. Lastoria has indicated that "risk assessment" was part of their planning process. Moreover, plenty of joint land use studies have been conducted by the military across the southwest region, which detail potential environmental impacts of military activity. Several studies lay out the particular concerns and vulnerabilities for southwestern terrain, including the impacts of water use in regions experiencing ongoing severe drought, and an increased risk of wildfire.

In fact, concerns about the potential for a wildfire run deep in Bastrop County, Texas, where the 2011 Bastrop County Complex fire has left lingering trauma in the community - a crucial part of the reason why residents there have reacted so strongly against the Jade Helm 15 operation. In the "Heart of the Pines" neighborhood, some homes are still only half reconstructed even to this day. The 2011 wildfire was one of the most destructive fires in Texas history, with many residents losing their homes to the blaze.

Lt. Col. Lastoria has reportedly told residents there will be three medics on hand, as well as fire extinguishers. Depending on conditions, he said, the military would not use smoke grenades if they could potentially spark a brush fire.

A renewed emphasis on unconventional warfare, including using noncombat techniques to win over "hearts and minds," and understanding social science to wage psychological operations in communities has followed on the heels of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2013 white paper, "Strategic Landpower: Winning the Clash of Wills," by Gen. Ray Odierno, who heads Special Forces command; Gen. James Amos; and Navy Adm. Bill McRaven, who is chancellor of the University of Texas, lays out the argument.

According to a report at the Austin-American Statesman, McRaven has been at the vanguard in the push for increasing training in the human domain. "As we look at the human domain, it's kind of the totality of the cultural, the ethnic, the social fabric that makes up the people that live in a particular area. You have to know that before you can make any decisions," he said before the US House Committee on Armed Services, while giving testimony in March 2014.

This new emphasis is one reason why SOCOM is interested in conducting training across rural swaths of the southwest, with access to towns. SOCOM has said military personnel will have to operate independently, asking help from local residents for their operations. Mead told Big Spring City Council members during his presentation that military personnel might ask residents to help secretly transport them by hiding, "in the back of a horse trailer, in the middle of the night," for example. "In the scenario that we built, [soldiers] are going to have to operate outside … normal support mechanisms and rely on the folks, the civilians that are in the area, to be able to support them."

Anti-militarization activists see this idea as problematic, playing a role in normalizing the presence of uniformed soldiers in communities amid an already-troubling trend of creeping police and federal militarization across the nation.

Such worries are not without precedent. A report in the Guardian in 2014 details how a DoD research program is funding universities to use social science to prepare for mass civil breakdown by modeling the dynamics and risks of large-scale civil unrest across the world. The program, the "Minerva Research Initiative," seeks "to improve DoD's basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of the world of strategic importance to the US."

According to the report:

Prof. David Price, a cultural anthropologist at St. Martin's University in Washington DC and author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State … has previously exposed how the Pentagon's Human Terrain Systems (HTS) programme - designed to embed social scientists in military field operations - routinely conducted training scenarios set in regions "within the United States."

Citing a summary critique of the program sent to HTS directors by a former employee, Price reported that the HTS training scenarios "adapted COIN [counterinsurgency] for Afghanistan/Iraq" to domestic situations "in the USA, where the local population was seen from the military perspective as threatening the established balance of power and influence, and challenging law and order."

Jade Helm 15's emphasis on mastery of the "human domain" fits into this context of the DoD's troubling social science research, conducted in partnership with universities across the US. This context also includes the acceleration of governmental mission creep and militarization of many government agencies' federal police forces.

Additionally, Jade Helm 15 comes on the heels of concerning Special Forces realistic urban war game scenarios in cities such as Houston, where low-flying Blackhawk helicopters and armed soldiers in camouflage descended on a Houston school, bewildering residents who weren't warned. Similar exercises involving Blackhawk helicopters have taken place in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Dallas and Phoenix.

"It's this whole process of normalizing the unacceptable, and that's what worries me," Miller said.

News Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Boondoggle HQ: The $25 Million Building in Afghanistan Nobody Needed

From start to finish, this 64,000-square-foot mistake could easily have been avoided. Not one, not two, but three generals tried to kill it. And they were overruled, not because they were wrong, but seemingly because no one wanted to cancel a project Congress had already given them money to build.

In the process, the story of "64K" reveals a larger truth: Once wartime spending gets rolling there's almost no stopping it. In Afghanistan, the reconstruction effort alone has cost $109 billion, with questionable results.

The 64K project was meant for troops due to flood the country during the temporary surge in 2010. But even under the most optimistic estimates, the project wouldn't be completed until six months after those troops would start going home.

Along the way, the state-of-the-art building, plopped in Afghanistan's Helmand province, nearly doubled in cost and became a running joke among Marines. The Pentagon could have halted construction at many points - 64K made it through five military reviews over two years - but didn't, saying it wanted the building just in case US troops ended up staying. (They didn't.)

The Pentagon brass chalked up their decisions on the project to the inherent uncertainty of executing America's longest war and found no wrongdoing. To them, 64K's beginning, middle and end "was prudent."

The $25-million price tag is a conservative number. The military also built roads and major utilities for the base at a cost of more than $20 million, some of it for 64K.

Ultimately, this story is but one chapter in a very thick book that few read. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction routinely documents jaw-dropping waste, but garners only fleeting attention. Just like the special inspector general for Iraq did with its own reports.

With 64K, SIGAR laid bare how this kind of waste happens and called out the players by name. The following timeline is based on the inspector general's report, supporting documents and ProPublica interviews.

Here's How the Story Unfolded:

First General Rejects 64K

Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills arrived at the dusty military camp in Helmand province at the start of the surge, and quickly faced decisions on what the base needed - and what it didn't.

Christened "Camp Leatherneck," the base was fairly barren with dirt-floored tents for a few thousand Marines, but would grow sizably as President Barack Obama's surge of 33,000 troops arrived in Afghanistan. The Marines were taking charge of Helmand and Nimroz provinces, an area the military called Regional Command Southwest.

They were working on creating housing, a post office, four gyms, a store and nearly 11 miles of roads - all the necessities of daily life at large bases, even in combat zones - and commanders had recently upgraded from a tent to plywood headquarters.

But in Kabul and an ocean away, at military commands in South Carolina and Florida, plans had been underway to replace the plywood with a hulking, 64,000-square-foot facility that would dwarf its surroundings in both size and sophistication. (And also suck up considerable power from a new $14-million utilities upgrade for electrical, sewage and water that planners had decided was now required on base.) Even with the growth, Mills was skeptical he needed the headquarters.

The 64K building was a part of 2010's massive, $482-million build-up for the surge. Although Obama had made clear the flood had an end date - troops would start to withdraw in July of 2011 - the military was prepping to build way past that timeframe.

In fact, despite what Obama said publicly, the military quietly assumed troop strengths would be maintained for five years and had master plans for 10, according to Army Maj. Gen. Bryan Watson, who would later be director of engineering for US forces in Afghanistan.

But, at least in the case of 64K, no one had asked the commander at Camp Leatherneck whether anyone needed or wanted a sprawling new facility larger than a football field. Marine Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, who was Mills' predecessor, said he not only didn't ask for it, he had no idea it was in the works.

"We certainly needed many things in those early days at Camp Leatherneck," Nicholson would later recall, "but we were very pleased with [current headquarters], and frankly we had many far more pressing facility issues."

That hadn't changed when Mills took over. He reviewed all planned projects for the next two years to evaluate "the relevancy of each project to the overall counter-insurgency mission" and whether the troops needed them.

The 64K building didn't make the cut.

Mills cancellation request memo

Second and Third Generals Want 64K Killed

Mills sent a cancellation request for 64K up the chain to Army Maj. Gen. Timothy P. McHale, a deputy commander for US forces in Afghanistan. McHale agreed with Mills.

The Marines have an adequate command headquarters, he wrote in a memo, so the project is "no longer required."


Later that week, a third general echoed Mills and McHale. Army Brig. Gen. William Buckler sent a memo to the US command that oversees Afghanistan, saying that given the overall Afghanistan campaign plan and its strategy for bases, the building is "no longer required."

Three generals had now come to the same conclusion: No one needed the 64K building. This was the time to stop the project.

Three "No" Votes Overruled By One Superior "Yes". 64K Moves Ahead

The cancellation requests landed on the desk of Army Maj. Gen. Peter Vangjel, deputy commanding general of US Army Central. The command was ultimately in charge of military construction in Afghanistan.

Vangjel rejected the advice of the three generals that the 64K building was superfluous. Not, SIGAR said, because he believed the building was essential, but because the money for the project was already in hand.

The previous month, funding for the surge - including $24 million specifically ticketed for the 64K building - had been signed into law. To kill the facility now and divert the funds elsewhere, the military would have to consult Congress, a bureaucratic process called "reprogramming." And no one seemed to want that.

Vangjel agreed to Mills' requests to cancel other Leatherneck projects that hadn't been assigned money by Congress already, but not 64K. Cancelling the project, "which has appropriated funds, and reprogramming it for a later year is not prudent," he wrote in a memo.


Vangjel gave no other reasons to justify spending the millions of taxpayer money.

For similar reasons, Vangjel at the same time refused to substitute the 64K building with a new request from Mills for a much smaller headquarters. Vangjel later said he was advised that a new round of approvals would delay the project too long and it might end up being too small.

But US Army Central wasn't eager to get 64K going. The command wanted to "move it to the bottom of the pile," Vangjel's staff member Lt. Col. Marty Norvel wrote in an email. They would like to push it "as far to the right as possible" on the calendar, as late as January 2012, and "ensure we time this award to support other operational needs."

SIGAR found that the correspondence "confirm[ed] there was no immediate operational need for the 64K building." Instead, "the real purpose was to retain the project for some other possible use in the future."

Military Opens Tab

Contract is awarded to build 64K for $13.5 million.

Construction Begins on 64K, Even Though No One Needs It

The military broke ground on the 64K building at an inauspicious time.

The Coalition forces had already begun handing control of the country back to the Afghans and would soon start pulling troops out of the country.

On June 22, Obama announced what everyone already knew. The drawdown of forces would begin in July. Ten thousand troops would be home by the end of the year, 20,000 more would leave by the end of 2012. And by the end of 2014, the combat mission would be over. Marines, in particular, would be headed out.

At this point, the 64K building wasn't even "12 percent complete."

It was the same story throughout Afghanistan. Construction that the military decided it needed in 2009 was just starting to come to fruition. Just like everything else in government, the projects took a long time to wind through the bureaucracy. Too long for war.

So come August, the military in Afghanistan, according to Watson, was "still building like crazy."

Tab Goes Up $109,545

A change was made to the building.

Tab Goes Up $2,661

A change was made to the building.

Military Axes $128 Million of Military Construction, But Not 64K

Five months after Obama told the country troops will "continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan Security forces move into the lead," the military suddenly realized it had to, Watson said, "take steps to get off the 'build out' program."

Marine Maj. Gen. John A. Toolan, the Regional Command Southwest commander at the time, canceled $128 million in military construction projects and wrote that "the time to stop building is now."

The 64K building wasn't on the list.

For projects already underway, Watson said, the military weighed the consequences of cancelling, including "how much was already obligated, how much could be saved after we paid the contractor termination penalties" and whether the project could be used for something else.

The Pentagon also told SIGAR that at the time 64K was required to serve as the headquarters "for an enduring presence at Camp Leatherneck." But that conflicts with the recollections of other generals who said the matter was far from settled.


Watson wrote that at this time the military construction review for Marine bases was "very contentious because there was no clear decision on whether [Leatherneck] would become an enduring base."

And the fate of the base would remain undecided for at least another year and a half. Marine Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus, an RC-Southwest commander, said in an interview with ProPublica that when he left in 2013 "there were still discussions about it."

So whether the US would keep a long-term presence in Helmand was up in the air, and thousands of Marines already were going home. Yet the military continued to build a pricey, permanent headquarters facility at Leatherneck - just in case.

Tab Goes Up $105,656

A change was made to the building.

Tab Goes Up $257,396

A change was made to the building.

Marines' Mission Shrinks. But 64K Still Grows

Once construction got rolling on 64K - after Mills was gone - the Marines embraced it. Neither of the next two commanders, Toolan and Gurganus, attempted to downgrade the plans.

Stuck with the building, the Marines modified it to their liking. From September 2011 to April 2012, they made 15 changes. Seven increased the total cost by about $1 million. And they made an assortment of pricey upgrades, spending, for example, nearly $3 million for audio and video electronics and more than $526,000 for a video teleconference suite.

All the "bells and whistles" came from the Marines, according to Watson.

64K cost sheet
Click to view the 64K cost sheet.

By this point, the Afghans had taken over security for all of Helmand, and the US had started closing bases and sending equipment home. The Marines would soon shutter dozens of outposts.

And yet construction on 64K continued apace, seemingly without regard to the changing dynamics of the war. Stopping construction at that point would have cost more, Gurganus said. It's a common dilemma with wartime contracts. Payments often are made up front and half the money can be spent before anything is built.

Though he said he "would have done fine with a tent," Gurganus planned to move into 64K once the building was finished.

Finally, five months later, in October, the 64K building was done - but problems with the fire exits kept Marines from moving in right away. Then, in December, the Marines went for yet another change, this time moving around interior walls to accommodate a large conference table. The modification added more than $341,000 to the tab and caused more delays.

By the end of December, the Marines who poured into the country during the surge had gone home - and no one had used 64K.

Tab Goes Up $1,934,658

Furniture was ordered.

Tab Goes Up $2,774,637

Audio and visual equipment was bought for $2,304,669 and a video teleconference suite for $469,968

Tab Goes Up $3,047,434

In September, a water tank was bought for $176,255, along with more audio and video equipment for $603,474,and communication equipment for $2,267,705. An entry control point was also put in at a cost of $29,655.

Tab Goes Up $88,676

Expedited shipping was ordered on the furniture.

Tab Goes Up $501,978

Construction modifications were made to walls to accommodate a bigger conference table at a cost of $341,556 and more money was spent on furniture at a cost of $160,422.

Tab Goes Up $12,480

More was spent to expedite the shipping of the furniture.

64K Is Built. Marines Decide Not to Use It

Maj. Gen. Walter Lee Miller sent an email to his bosses: He wouldn't be using the 64K building that was finished in February, but still lacked communications equipment.

"I have no intent to move in," Miller wrote. "Many reasons, we are too small...we are moving into the fighting season and it is not ready." Any further installations to the building have been halted, he continued, to "end the money drain." (Another $19,414 went toward workers for furniture assembly regardless.)

This confirmed, SIGAR wrote in its report, "what was already known back in May 2010: that the Marines at Camp Leatherneck did not require a 64K command and control facility."

Tab Goes Up $19,414

Paying for costs related to workers for furniture assembly.

Empty, Fancy Building Attracts Attention of SIGAR

Not surprisingly, the state-of-the-art building, empty except for the furniture still wrapped in plastic, caught the eye of SIGAR.

It was "the best constructed building I have seen in my travels to Afghanistan," John Sopko, SIGAR's head, told then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, after he saw the wood-panelled auditorium, reclining chairs for conferences and high-end credenzas during a tour.

Officers, well aware of the joke the building had become, had taken Sopko aside while he was in Afghanistan to ensure he saw it.

Sopko later learned that the military had been scrambling to determine what to do and say about what had become a white elephant.

The Pentagon told SIGAR there had already been one investigation in May and another was underway. The first investigation had concluded that the best thing to do was to convert the building to something else, maybe a gym or a movie theater, so it wasn't a complete waste.

But Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was Commander of US Forces-Afghanistan and who would later be nominated as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, realized those conclusions were insufficient. The building, he wrote in his order for a new investigation, "has the potential to draw significant attention from auditors and Congress, and raises questions as to its approval and construction." He had this new investigation helmed by a two-star general.

In August, a month after SIGAR began asking questions, Army Maj. Gen. James Richardson concluded no one was at fault in the construction of the building.

Vangjel was correct in refusing the Marines' request to cancel the project because he knew that 64K was part of a larger "strategic vision" for long-term use of Camp Leatherneck, Richardson wrote in his report. The Marines' request for a smaller headquarters also proved that there was a need for some sort of facility.

An email exchange from Richardson's investigation starkly displayed the pervasive military culture of nonchalance towards costs. Although "as a taxpayer [I'm] not happy with waste," Navy Cmdr. Timothy Wallace wrote Richardson, given how much the military has spent on construction in the uncertain environment of Afghanistan, "if $30 million is the worst of it, that's probably not bad in the grand scheme of things."

Click to view email excerpt.

In his final report Richardson also heaped blame on the Marines who did not attempt to "reduce or prevent costs" until three years after the cancellation request.

To bolster his finding that the building was appropriately constructed, he noted that it had progressed through the leadership of five different Marine commanders. He did not mention that three out of five had never been consulted or had deemed the project unnecessary. The first didn't know about it, the second tried to cancel it, and the fifth arrived after it was done and said he wasn't going to move in.

Richardson recommended that 64K be completely finished by adding the required communication equipment and that troops be ordered to use it as their headquarters.

This recommendation, or "viable option" as Richardson put it, would cost an additional $5 million - more than twice the cost of just demolishing it.

SIGAR Doubts Pentagon, Opens Own Investigation

Concerned that Richardson's investigation was not a "thorough and candid review," SIGAR decided to jump in.

"We were surprised that the results we saw didn't really make much sense," Sopko said.

The military was not pleased and immediately moved to quash, or at least inhibit, SIGAR's work.

Col. Norman Allen, a staff lawyer for Dunford at the US Forces-Afghanistan command, sent an email to some command staff saying he'd prefer that they "slow-roll" SIGAR, but thought they couldn't.

In February, Allen sent another email mentioning "loyalty to the command" and noting that he "would consider it inappropriate" for people to tell "SIGAR what they think of the...investigation appointed and approved by the commander."

Allen also wrote that he, personally, has a good deal of knowledge about the investigation, but he wasn't going to cooperate with SIGAR.

Three days later, the US Forces-Afghanistan inspector general - who was on those email chains - sent a memo asking that "appropriate authorities intervene to cease SIGAR's evaluation of command internal business." How the military conducted its investigation of the 64K building, he wrote, is out of SIGAR's jurisdiction.

As SIGAR discovered those documents, investigators were troubled, because as Dunford's legal advisor, Allen was in a position to discourage full cooperation.

SIGAR's Sopko said in an interview that he couldn't fathom how anyone would think that as an independent inspector general he couldn't look behind the scenes.

"That's like saying I can look at fraud, waste and abuse but I can't look at generals. Or I can look at fraud, waste and abuse, but not the reasons why" they occur, he said.

The Pentagon stalled Sopko where it could, initially withholding from SIGAR the exhibits for the second investigation done by Richardson, for example. Then officers resisted turning over any other documents related to 64K, and Allen commented in an email that he didn't think Sopko "had the authority" to force them to, and, regardless, "[we] don't think we're working on providing him more info." Forced by law to reply, some unclassified documents were turned over on a classified disc, requiring time-consuming procedures and limiting who could view them.

"I think they delayed this a long time," Sopko said.

Later in the year, during a summer visit to Camp Leatherneck as SIGAR's investigation was ongoing, Sopko said he learned his military escorts had been told not to even drive by the 64K building with him.

Marines Go Home Without Ever Using 64K

The US turned the 64K building over to the Afghans. It is wired for American voltage, not Afghan, and the sophisticated fire system, air conditioning and power generation system all require specialized training. Not even the Marines had anyone on base who could repair the A/C. The monthly cost to operate the building is $108,300. As such, the military predicted the building would fast fall into disrepair in Afghan hands.

Employing serious understatement, one Defense Department document stated: "certain technologies, such as those designed in the [64K building] are not as accessible to nations in this region, whether because of cost or lack of interest or requirement."

The document said there was "no knowledge" that Afghanistan has the "basic desire to maintain and operate" the building.

Military Bungled 64K; Training Needed in Not Wasting Taxpayer Money

SIGAR Report
Click to read full SIGAR report

SIGAR's final report blasted the military for almost every decision it made in the 64K boondoggle. The military, it charged, disregarded sound advice from three generals for seemingly no valid reason. It attempted to frustrate SIGAR's examination. And it performed a limited, ineffectual investigation of the project.

SIGAR said that 64K cost the taxpayers $36 million. But its math both fails to include some costs and sweeps in too much of others. Investigators didn't account for the $1 million worth of modifications and the $8.3 million worth of communications equipment installed in the building, but added in the full cost of the utilities infrastructure and the nearly 11 miles of roads - even though they were for the entire base that housed about 20,000 people at its peak.

The Pentagon does not consider the utilities and the roads part of the building's cost, only conceding that the building, with the modifications and communication equipment, cost $25 million.

ProPublica used the $25-million figure and did not count the utilities and roads cost even though a portion of each was for 64K. Parsing the cost wasn't possible.

SIGAR found that Richardson "mismanaged" the inquiry, failed "to carry out a fulsome investigation," and had "no reasonable basis" to recommend that the military complete and move into the 64K building at considerable additional cost.

"Not only was the surge long over," the report said, "but the US had already begun to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Camp Leatherneck's future was in doubt."

One startling discovery: Richardson never spoke to Vangjel, the man who denied the request to kill 64K. Richardson also didn't conduct any interviews or take sworn statements from other witnesses, instead posing questions over email, SIGAR's report said.

In an interview, Sopko said Richardson's explanation - that he didn't need to speak to Vangjel because he had sufficient information from documentation - "makes no sense, and particularly not from a general" who should know better.

SIGAR, however, did interview Vangjel and wasn't satisfied with his answers. He told them his decision to deny the cancellation was based on a "larger strategic plan" for Camp Leatherneck.

"However, [Vangjel] was unable to point to any documents, classified or unclassified, showing the existence of such a strategic plan," SIGAR wrote.

Further, SIGAR cited concerns that Allen had, in essence, coached Vangjel on how to respond by emailing him advanced excerpts of the military's own investigation's findings.

Allen sent Vangjel an email including language from the report that said Vangjel's decision was based on the "strategic vision of the enduring presence" in Helmand.

"Rather than simply asking General Vangjel why he thought it was prudent to approve the 64K building, Col. Allen appears to have provided him with the answer," SIGAR wrote.


Mills, the general who asked to cancel 64K and had since been promoted to lieutenant general, wrote Allen that he didn't recall being consulted about the denial - contradicting both Vangjel's claims and the military's report. If Vangjel had talked to Marines before his decision, Mills said, he did so "well below Flag Officer level."

Both Allen and Vangjel disputed SIGAR's characterization and conclusions. They each responded in writing: "I never sought to interfere with legal requirements or to coach the testimony of witnesses" and there was "no basis to question my integrity," Allen said.

Vangjel said he thought there were "significant errors throughout [SIGAR's] report and inadequate consideration of context and timing." He also denied being "coached" by Allen and repeated his assertions that there was both a need at the time for 64K and a long-term requirement.

Richardson, who is now in charge of aviation and missile readiness for the Army, didn't provide SIGAR with any comments on its report.

In its report, SIGAR recommended that Vangjel, Richardson and Allen be disciplined, and that the Pentagon do training, basically, on how not to waste taxpayer money.

The Pentagon rejected those recommendations, saying the military already has enough rules to prevent financial waste and maintaining that the decision to build the 64K building "was prudent."

The one recommendation that SIGAR and the Pentagon agreed on is a need to instruct service members on their legal obligation to cooperate with inspectors general.

But no one was disciplined. In fact, by November 2011, Vangjel had been promoted to lieutenant general and taken over a new post: He was the Army's inspector general in charge of sniffing out fraud, waste and abuse. He retired in February.

Today, the lavish project serves as the headquarters of a small Afghan regiment, according to an Afghan colonel who is a spokesman with the Ministry of Defense. Unable to make use of the high-tech "bells and whistles," it brought its own generator and occupies only a fraction of a cavernous space meant for at least 1,200 people.


Data: ProPublica interviews; reports and supporting documents from the the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and the United States Marine Corps. Additional Design & Development: Mike Tigas, ProPublica.

News Fri, 22 May 2015 09:10:36 -0400