Truthout Stories Wed, 01 Oct 2014 12:15:31 -0400 en-gb As US-Afghanistan Sign Troop Deal, CIA-Backed Warlord Behind Massacre of 2,000 POWs Sworn-In as VP

Afghanistan has inaugurated its first new president in a decade, swearing in Ashraf Ghani to head a power-sharing government. Joining him on stage Monday was Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan's new vice president. Dostum is one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords, once described by Ghani himself as a "known killer." Dostum's rise to the vice presidency comes despite his involvement in a 2001 massacre that killed up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war. The victims were allegedly shot to death or suffocated in sealed metal truck containers after they surrendered to Dostum and the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. The dead prisoners — some of whom had been tortured — were then buried in the northern Afghan desert. Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll, has been widely accused of orchestrating the massacre and tampering with evidence of the mass killing. For more than a decade, human rights groups have called on the United States to conduct a full investigation into the massacre including the role of U.S. special forces and CIA operatives. We speak to Jamie Doran, director of the 2002 documentary "Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death," and Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy at Physicians for Human Rights, the group that discovered the site of the mass graves of the Taliban POWs.


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

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to Afghanistan, which has inaugurated its first new president in a decade, swearing in Ashraf Ghani to head a power-sharing government. During his inaugural speech on Monday, the former World Bank executive called on militants to join peace talks.

PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: [translated] We are tired of this war. Our message is a message of peace, and the message of peace doesn't mean we are weak. I call on Afghan government enemies, particularly the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami, to prepare for political negotiations.

AARON MATÉ: Afghanistan's new president, Ashraf Ghani, speaking Monday. Joining him on stage was Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan's new vice president. Dostum is one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords, once described by Ghani himself as a, quote, "known killer." Dostum's rise to the vice presidency comes despite his involvement in a 2001 massacre that killed up to 2,000 Taliban POWs. The prisoners were allegedly shot to death or suffocated in sealed metal truck containers after they surrendered to Dostum and the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. The dead prisoners, some of whom had been tortured, were then buried in the northern Afghanistan desert. Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll, has been widely accused of orchestrating the massacre and tampering with evidence of the mass killing.

AMY GOODMAN: For over a decade, human rights groups have called on the United States to conduct a full investigation into the massacre, including the role of U.S. special forces and CIA operatives. The Bush administration blocked three investigations into the alleged war crimes, and the Obama administration quietly closed its own inquiry last year without releasing its findings. After the massacre, Abdul Rashid Dostum left Afghanistan but returned in 2009 to help Hamid Karzai win re-election. Since then, he has served in a largely ceremonial role as commander-in-chief of the Afghan National Army.

We're joined now by two guests who have closely followed the story of the 2001 massacre as well as the rise of Dostum. Jamie Doran is with us, independent documentary filmmaker who directed the 2002 film, Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death. In 2003, Democracy Now! became the first U.S. news outlet to air the film. He joins us by Democracy Now! video stream from England. And with us in Boston, Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy at Physicians for Human Rights, the group that discovered the site of the mass graves of the Taliban POWs.

Susannah, let's start with you. Talk about what happened back in 2001, why you're so deeply concerned about the new vice president of Afghanistan, Dostum.

SUSANNAH SIRKIN: Yes, well, a large group of fighters, mostly Taliban, surrendered to General Dostum's Northern Alliance, which was working as an ally of the United States at a time when indeed U.S. special forces, as you mentioned, were on the ground. And these surrendered prisoners were loaded like sardines into trucks, according to a lot of testimony and evidence that we have, and transported across the desert. Many of them suffocated, probably within days, because they were not given water. They were locked up in these, essentially, coffins, packed in. We have reports of gunshots being fired into the trucks, possibly to create air holes, but indeed the way in which they were fired indicates that they were fired straight into the trucks, so killing some of the surrendered prisoners. And then, reportedly, they were all brought across to this area now known as Dasht-e-Leili near the Sheberghan prison.

Physicians for Human Rights sort of came upon this site when we were visiting the horrific conditions—or, discovered the horrific conditions in Sheberghan, which is near the northern capital of Mazar-e-Sharif, the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. And we found that prisoners in Sheberghan were dying, dozens a day, for lack of food, illness, horrible sanitation. And we noticed that there were bodies on the surface, or remains, bones, etc. And within a month or two, under United Nations auspices, we did a mapping of this grave and went back and exhumed a number of bodies and indeed documented that the deaths were consistent with suffocation.

And it appears that U.S. forces were certainly cognizant of these deaths. We know this because Physicians for Human Rights actually filed a Freedom of Information Act query in 2006, and eventually we had to sue to get the information. And when it came out, we have reports from U.S. officials that indeed they knew that as many as 2,000 surrendered prisoners had died in this—what we call a "convoy of death," and also that witnesses were reportedly tortured and executed, eyewitnesses to these crimes. And we've been advocating for a full-out investigation by the international community and by the United States, and of course by the Afghan government itself, ever since. Now it's 12 years and counting, and we still do not know what really happened at Dasht-e-Leili.

AARON MATÉ: Well, can you lay out how these investigations have progressed, in terms of how this went down under the Bush administration, and then, when Obama took office, calling for an investigation, and then one concluding last year but not being made public?

SUSANNAH SIRKIN: Yes, well, Physicians for Human Rights and other human rights groups have repeatedly called for an independent investigation. And in 2008, when we uncovered evidence that there had been apparent tampering of the site, we were able to obtain satellite imagery that showed that the pieces of the site had actually been destroyed. And when that was revealed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jim Risen in a front-page New York Times story, CNN's Anderson Cooper asked President Obama if the U.S. government was finally going to investigate this apparent major war crime, and President Obama said, "If this has happened, we will certainly find out all the facts, and we must, if there are allegations of serious crimes in which our forces may have been involved, and certainly our allies." And I have to say that, since then, we have absolutely no evidence of any serious investigation conducted by the Obama administration.

What Jim Risen's New York Times piece also revealed is that, under the Bush administration, three separate federal investigations were basically shut down, and that includes FBI agents on Guantánamo who were interviewing detainees who had been brought from Sheberghan prison to Guantánamo and who had started talking about this massacre. They were told not to pursue those queries any further and not to gather that information. And the war crimes ambassador at the State Department also wanted to go up to Dasht-e-Leili and was prevented from doing so. And the Senate investigation was also stopped. So, that was under Bush. And the president, the current president, has basically a year ago said, "We've completed an investigation, and we are satisfied that the U.S. was not involved." End of story, full stop, no transparency whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2009, as you said, New York Times reporter James Risen, who's now being prosecuted by the Obama administration for another story he broke, not wanting to give up a source on that—Risen spoke about his findings on Democracy Now!

JAMES RISEN: The evidence was overwhelming that something had happened and that it was the responsibility of the Bush administration to look into this or at least to push for an international investigation, because Dostum had been on the CIA payroll, was part of a U.S.-backed alliance that was taking over Afghanistan. And what I found was, time after time, in different agencies and as far—and in the White House, Bush administration officials repeatedly ignored evidence or just decided or discouraged efforts to open investigations into the massacre.

AMY GOODMAN: Soon after James Risen's report was published in The New York Times in 2009, CNN's Anderson Cooper asked President Obama about opening a new investigation.

ANDERSON COOPER: It now seems clear that the Bush administration resisted efforts to pursue investigations of an Afghan warlord named General Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll. It's now come out there were hundreds of Taliban prisoners under his care who got killed.


ANDERSON COOPER: Some were suffocated in a steel container. Others were shot, possibly buried in mass graves. Would you support—would you call for an investigation into possible war crimes in Afghanistan?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, the indications that this had not been properly investigated just recently was brought to my attention, so what I've asked my national security team to do is to collect the facts for me that are known, and we'll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all the facts gathered up.

ANDERSON COOPER: But you wouldn't resist categorically an investigation.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think that, you know, there are responsibilities that all nations have, even in war. And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that we have to know about that.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama on CNN in 2009, actually, interestingly, in Ghana. Jamie Doran, you have been following this story for well over a decade. What about President Obama's response and what's happened since? You were just recently in Afghanistan. And your response to Dostum, the general, becoming the vice president of the country?

JAMIE DORAN: Yeah, well, I think it's kind of a picture of Afghan politics that you can have a man, as you said at the very beginning of your program, where the president, the new president, described him as a murderer and then appoints him as his vice president simply for pragmatism purposes to get 13 percent of the vote. Uzbeks represent 13 percent of the entire electorate. Dostum leads the Uzbeks. [Ashraf] Ghani needed Dostum by his side in order to win that election.

AARON MATÉ: Jamie Doran, when we had Jim Risen on our show, he was skeptical that U.S. special forces were involved in this massacre. What's your take on that?

JAMIE DORAN: Well, first of all, you probably don't know this, but I actually gave Jim Risen the FBI contacts that led to his story and his front-page news. So, you know, let's clear that up right away. And the FBI agent was in fact a man called Dell Spry, an extraordinary man, who reported his findings from Guantánamo to his bosses in Washington. He was told, "Don't"—you know, "Get away from that. Don't let us—don't continue investigations. Don't file any report." Dell refused to buckle, if you like, and insisted in filing yet another report, even under threat from his superiors.

I think it's been a great shame that Obama, we thought—you know, we understood Bush would want to hide as much as possible. We thought Obama might be a fresh broom. It's not been the case. He, too, has not got involved. He has not pushed it in any way. Dostum is now the vice president of the country. It's quite bizarre. You know, I don't know if you're aware that Dostum actually apologized for his war crimes last year in the run-up to the election—again, an example of pragmatism. He apologized, but wasn't specific. He just tried to give a kind of general apology for all the terrible things he had done. And the Afghan people seem to have bought that.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2011, Jamie, WikiLeaks published a classified cable from then-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry about Dostum's return to Afghanistan. Eikenberry wrote in a 2009 cable, quote, "Dostum's return would endanger much of the progress made in Afghanistan over the past five years, create a source of friction in the Afghan government's relations with the international community, and could well cost Karzai's government the continued support of the United States and most of the international community." Your response?

JAMIE DORAN: Well, you know, I'm still waiting for the massive protest from the White House or elsewhere over the fact that a murderer has been appointed vice president of Afghanistan. I mean, it really is that simple. It was fascinating during the election that [Ashraf] Ghani did not even bring a single photograph of Dostum when he went south to kind of to the Pashtun areas. And as everyone—if you go down there, everyone down there knows what Dostum did. Most of them, or many of them we've met, have relatives who were in that convoy and who died in the most horrific circumstances.

And one of the questions that, you know, doesn't seem to come up too often is: Why were they there for up to 10 days in those containers? And my information is: Because Americans on the ground demanded that every single person coming off the containers had to be identified to ensure that no Qaeda—no al-Qaeda slipped through. And so, these men were forced to stay in those containers for all those days in searing heat, suffocating, biting into each other's limbs to try and get fluid of any kind, because, as far as I've been told, the Americans needed to know the identity of every single person.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is where, at Sheberghan prison, is this right, that John Walker Lindh was discovered? Can you explain who he is and the significance of this?

JAMIE DORAN: Yeah, Sheberghan prison. No, well, what happened was that when that the thousands surrendered at Kunduz—I think it was 8,300 surrendered at Kunduz, a bunch of them—but 700 broke away and went to a place called Qala-i-Jangi, a fortress, which is actually controlled these days by Dostum, but went to Qala-i-Jangi, and they were held in Qala-i-Jangi. There was a revolt. Most of them were killed. American special forces, British special forces were involved in the fight. John Walker Lindh was one of the survivors of that attack. And it is quite fascinating that John Walker Lindh's private eye came to this very office to see me to ask whether or not, you know, I had come across Lindh, and had he been involved in any of the fighting, any of the trouble. Sure enough, he then showed me footage of where Lindh claimed to have been. And my cameraman was sitting beside me and said, "That's where they were shooting from." They were trying to prove that Lindh wasn't involved at all, when in fact he was directly involved, which is probably why he bought the 20 years.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to break and then come back to this discussion and a clip of your film, Jamie, this remarkable film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death; also speaking with Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

AARON MATÉ: Jamie Doran, I wanted to ask you—we're going to play a clip of your film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death. And can you set the scene for us, how you went about telling this story?

JAMIE DORAN: Well, I mean, it's funny. Just a few moments ago, you mentioned John Walker Lindh. The entire kind of press corps became fascinated by the American Taliban and literally ran to follow that story, when at the same time we had been told on the ground in Afghanistan that something very bad has happened, that some people had been tortured and maybe murdered at Sheberghan itself, which is why we ended up basically being the only journalists going in that direction, while everyone else was chasing Walker Lindh. And what we managed to do was get soldiers, first of all, to persuade soldiers, Afghan soldiers, who had been present throughout, to actually talk to us on camera and to tell us, including the one who admitted to shooting into the containers and killing prisoners—you know, they started to tell us the information. And literally, it was over a year investigation that we carried out in order to bring to the screen what we found.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to turn right now, as we continue to talk about Afghanistan's new vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum—his rise coming despite his involvement in the 2001 massacre that killed up to 2,000 Taliban POWs—we're turning to the excerpt of Jamie Doran's documentary, Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death. Jamie traveled to the site of the massacres and the mass graves. The witnesses who testified in the film are unidentified, have their faces obscured, because they're afraid. But two of them are now dead. The clip begins with our guest, filmmaker Jamie Doran.

JAMIE DORAN: Originally loaded onto trucks at Kunduz, many of these men were crammed 200 to 300 at a time into the backs of sealed containers. After around 20 minutes, the prisoners began crying out for air.

EYEWITNESS: [translated] The weather was very hot. They put too many people inside the containers. Many died because there was no air.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many containers were at Qala-i-Jangi when you were there?

EYEWITNESS: [translated] The condition of them was very bad, because the prisoners couldn't breathe, so they shot into the containers, and some of them were killed.

EYEWITNESS: [translated] They told us to stop the trucks, and we came down. After that, they shot into the containers. Blood came pouring out of the containers. They were screaming inside.

JAMIE DORAN: One Afghan soldier admits that he personally murdered prisoners.

AFGHAN SOLDIER: [translated] I hit the containers with bullets to make holes for ventilation, and some of them were killed.

JAMIE DORAN: You specifically shot holes into the containers. Who gave you those orders?

AFGHAN SOLDIER: [translated] My commanders ordered me to hit the containers for ventilation, and because of that, some prisoners died.

JAMIE DORAN: But this was no humanitarian gesture. Rather than shooting into the roofs of the containers, the soldiers fired at random, killing those nearest the walls. A local taxi driver had called in at a petrol station on the road to Sheberghan.

TAXI DRIVER: [translated] I smelled something strange and asked the attendant where the smell was coming from. He said, "Look behind you." There were three trucks with containers fixed on them. Blood was running from the containers. My hair stood on end. It was horrific.

JAMIE DORAN: Whether or not the prisoners in the containers were ever really destined to reach Sheberghan must be open to question. The jail was full, and those already incarcerated were facing hardships of a different kind at the hands of American soldiers. They were reluctant to talk, particularly when the prison chiefs hovered close by, listening to our conversation. But one Taliban, who had been filmed during the surrender, was more forthcoming when we interviewed him out of earshot of the prison guards.

TALIBAN MEMBER: [translated] They were searching for bin Laden and questioning us about al-Qaeda. They were cruel. They took some of our men to Cuba, and they did a lot of things in here which scared us. The American commandos beat many of us to scare us into talking.

JAMIE DORAN: One of the Afghan officers, present at the time, confirms his story.

AFGHAN OFFICER: [translated] They cut their hair and beards, mainly the Arab prisoners. Sometimes they chose one for pleasure, took the prisoner outside, beat them and then returned them to the prison. But sometimes they were never returned, and they disappeared. The prisoner disappeared. I was a witness. They came after two or three days. They broke some prisoners' necks and were beating others. They were crying, but everyone ignored them.

JAMIE DORAN: These things you saw specifically yourself?

AFGHAN OFFICER: [translated] Yes.

JAMIE DORAN: But for those prisoners crammed inside the containers, a quick death would have come as a blessing. Some of them remained for days in the desert before reaching Sheberghan. Accounts from survivors talk of licking the sweat off each other's bodies and even biting their fellow captives in a desperate effort to gain fluid in any form. The Pentagon has stated frequently that it knew nothing of the container convoy.

WITNESS: [translated] The Americans were in charge.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] Where were they? On the walls or near the gates of the fort?

WITNESS: [translated] They were standing at the front gates, where the prisoners were.

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] When we got to Sheberghan prison, there were some Americans and some Afghan soldiers. They wanted to unload the trucks, and they were taking charge of the area.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many American soldiers were there?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] About 150 to 160. We didn't count the number.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] What were the Americans doing in the prison?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They were there to make sure the prison was secure. There were so many Americans, and they were all armed and wearing their uniforms.

JAMIE DORAN: As the containers were opened, the full extent of the carnage became apparent. One soldier, who has since fled from Afghanistan, describes the scene in an interview with a Pakistani newspaper.

AFGHAN SOLDIER: [translated] I shall never forget the sensation as long as I live. It was the most revolting and most powerful stench you could ever imagine: a mixture of feces, urine, blood, vomit and rotting flesh. It was a smell to make you forget all other smells you ever experienced in your life.

JAMIE DORAN: For 10 days, the Red Cross tried to get access but were refused. They were told that they couldn't enter because American soldiers were working inside. And this picture taken at Sheberghan on December 1st, 2001, during the period when the containers were arriving at the prison, confirms their presence. Witnesses speak of U.S. soldiers searching the dead for identification before insisting that the Afghans remove the bodies from the prison. The Pentagon, however, will not comment.

ROBERT FOX: It was particularly important to find any identification on these bodies, because they were desperate for intelligence on al-Qaeda. They had underestimated the strength of al-Qaeda and its spread. They knew very little about it. So, human sensibilities did go out of the window.

JAMIE DORAN: The healthy captives were led into the prison and the dead packed into single containers. But many of the prisoners had not died. Some were so badly wounded they were thrown back into the containers with the dead. Others were simply unconscious following the journey to Sheberghan.

Using a small tourist camera to avoid detection, we traveled to the deserts of Dasht-e-Leili, just 10 minutes from the prison, with two drivers who agreed to show us where they were ordered to take the containers.

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Some of the Taliban were injured, and others were so weak they were unconscious. We brought them to this place, which is called Dasht-e-Leili, and they were shot there, there and over there.

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They took my truck and loaded a container onto it, and I carried prisoners from Qala-i-Jangi to Sheberghan, and after that, to Dasht-e-Leili, where there were shot by the soldiers. I made four trips backwards and forwards with the prisoners.

JAMIE DORAN: The mounds of sand show clearly where many of the bodies lie. Human bones and a few pieces of clothing with Pakistani labels are all that remain of those buried near the top of the piles.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many people were you carrying?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] About 140 to 150 each time.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] Did you bring them here?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Yes.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] What was done with these people?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They were brought here and shot.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] They were alive?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Some of them were alive. Some of these were injured, and the rest were unconscious.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] When you brought the prisoners here, were there any American soldiers with you?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Yes, they were with us.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] Here, at this spot?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Yes, here.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many American soldiers were with you?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Lots of them. Maybe 30 to 40. They came with us the first two times, but I didn't see them on the last two trips.

JAMIE DORAN: If American soldiers were involved in covering up their role at Sheberghan prison, it would border on war crimes. If they stood by as the summary execution of prisoners took place, when they could have intervened, this would be positively criminal. But could the United States argue they were not in a responsible position?

ROBERT FOX: They would not have taken orders from Afghans. They would have been in charge of security there; therefore, it is an American command, therefore it is ultimately an American responsibility for whatever went on under the eyes of those American soldiers.

ANDREW McENTEE: It's quite clear that because you have film evidence of a mass grave, people confessing, that the relevant authorities, be they American, Afghani or international, must carry out an investigation. You have identified the site of a mass grave. You've identified bodies in those graves. And it's quite clear again that pathologists, forensic pathologists, exhuming the bodies, could identify the cause of death and, I think, very importantly, could identify who these people are, because their families have the right to know. They have been disappeared involuntarily after being murdered.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Jamie Doran's film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, the film looking at how Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum orchestrated the killing of up to 2,000 Taliban POWs in 2001. Dostum was sworn in as Afghanistan's new vice president yesterday. Jamie Doran, in this minute that we have left, what does this mean for the future of Afghanistan and the Afghan relationship with the United States? Today, the new president, Ashraf Ghani, is signing the bilateral security agreement with the U.S., which will keep up to 10,000 U.S. soldiers there, something Hamid Karzai wasn't willing to sign.

JAMIE DORAN: Well, again, Dostum is quite a divisive character. The reason that [Ashraf] Ghani wanted him on board was largely the Uzbek vote, but also his representation, if you like, in the north. [Ashraf] Ghani is well known amongst the Pashtun population. He needs to carry the north with him if they're going to keep Afghanistan together and keep the battle against the Taliban going. So, in that way, you know, he had very, very little choice. The real power in northern Afghanistan is not him. It's not even Abdullah Abdullah. It's another man entirely. But Dostum is, if you like, a middleman to them who can actually keep it together. But it's, frankly, a shocking state of affairs when a man who has been accused of being a murderer by his own president is now the vice president. That's beyond my understanding.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie Doran, we want to thank you for being with us, independent documentary filmmaker. We'll link to our broadcast of the film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death.

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 11:38:21 -0400
Obama Administration Again Sides With Abusive Loan Servicers, This Time on Student Loans

A corrosive development is the ease with which lenders steal extract income which is not properly theirs from borrowers through what is at best incompetence and in far too many cases is fraud. This pattern has repeats itself again and again: in mortgage servicing, with debt collection, and more and more with student loan servicing.

A big part of why servicers, who are less supposedly disreputable than kneecapping debt collectors, keep getting away with misconduct is that most borrowers are too broke to fight bogus charges and the cascading damage that results, often from interest rates ratcheting into default levels. And even when borrowers go to court, judges are often unwilling to side with consumers against large, legitimate-looking loan servicers.

But even worse is that the Obama Administration has repeatedly thrown its weight behind predatory servicers. The so-called National Mortgage Settlement of early 2012, which was a Federal/49 state attorney general pact, amounted to a second bailout of major banks. Many of the loans originated after the 2002 refi boom that were securitized hadn’t been transferred to the securitization trusts as stipulated by clear cutoff dates. The contracts were designed to be rigid, so legal after-the-fact fixes weren’t possible. Yet these trusts needed to have clear title to properties in order to foreclose.

No one in the officialdom wanted to expose that investors might be holding an empty bag, or what Adam Levitin called securitization fail, since the liability to banks was enormous. So mortgage servicers routinely submitted incomplete or incorrect documents, since judges (until some wised up) assumed homeowners were deadbeats, and later took to various forms of fabrication in order to be able to foreclose.

One might argue that the Administration had few good choices, given the systemic risk, but the one it chose, of yet again covering up for bad conduct and giving the banks a “get out of liability almost free” card was among the worst.

As a new story by Shahien Nasiripour in the Huffington Post tells us, the Administration is now giving student loan servicers the “too big to fail” kid gloves treatment. The apparent justification is that correcting the records of borrowers who may have gone into default through not fault of their own would lead schools with bad servicers to lose access to Federal student aid, which could prove to be crippling to them.

So understand what that means: the law was set up to inflict draconian punishments on schools that used servicers that screw up and/or cheat on a regular basis, presumably because the consequences to borrowers were so serious. But rather than enforce the law, which would have such dire consequences for bad actors as to serve as a wake-up call for everyone else, the Administration has thrown its weight fully behind the education-extraction complex.

The key parts of Shahien’s story:

The US Department of Education is turning its back on at least 1,000 borrowers in favor of shielding their former colleges from potentially crippling sanctions that would have resulted from high rates of default on federal student loans…

“Borrowers aren’t getting any relief or similar consideration from the Education Department,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director at the California-based Institute for College Access & Success, which advocates affordable education. “If the school isn’t held accountable for the default, then the borrower shouldn’t either.”

As many as 20 schools won’t lose access to critical federal student aid programs, an Education Department official said Wednesday. Losing access to taxpayer-provided student aid would be the equivalent of a death sentence for most colleges. The institutions that were let off the hook include for-profit schools, private and public colleges, and historically black colleges and universities, the official said on a conference call organized for news media.

“As many as 20 schools” being given a waiver they clearly don’t deserve suggests that the number of borrowers being thrown under the bus is considerably larger than 1000. Huffington Post identified 13, of which seven are for-profits and four started out as black colleges. And mind you, the schools have to be abjectly bad at making and servicing loans to be subject to the loss of Federal aid:

Schools whose former students subsequently default on their federal student loans at unacceptably high rates can cost their current and future students access to federal grant and loan programs. Penalties kick in once a school’s default rate exceeds 30 percent over three straight years.

The “get out of jail for free” card applies to servicers that screwed up by billing students for only some of their loans, and later declared the students to be in default on loans they didn’t know about. While that may sound nuts, recall that students typically sign loan agreements and the proceeds go to the educational institution. Moreover, payments are usually deferred while the student is still in school. So it isn’t hard to see that a student, having signed loan documents over the years, might not realize that they were to different lenders and hence they’d down the road be facing multiple bills. Shahien explains:

The reason has to do with so-called split-servicing, or a situation in which the Education Department has assigned a borrower’s loans to multiple specialists that collect monthly payments. In November 2011, Cynthia Battle, an Education Department official, told college financial aid administrators that some 500,000 borrowers with federal student loans were being forced to make multiple monthly payments to different loan companies….

Borrowers are forced to deal with multiple servicers for a variety of reasons. In some instances, they took out Education Department-guaranteed loans from banks under the Federal Family Education Loan program, or FFEL — before Congress ended the program in 2010 — then returned to school in recent years and took out new loans under the Direct Loan program.

Another example includes undergraduate student borrowers who entered school in the fall of 2008. These borrowers may have taken out FFEL loans from banks for the first two years of college, then got loans directly from the Education Department for their junior and senior years.

Mind you, that 500,000 figure is now nearly three years stale, and the Department of Education has refused to update it. That might be because the DoE was evidently trying to reduce the number of students who dealt with multiple servicers. One can guess it hasn’t tried hard enough. For instance, outreach efforts have excluded student borrowers subject to split servicing:

Last year, in a move celebrated by the White House, the Obama administration directly emailed millions of borrowers, urging them to consider repayment plans that would cap their monthly payments based on earnings. Borrower advocates said they were unaware of any similar efforts directed at borrowers who were behind on one set of their federal student debt, but current on their other Education Department loans.

Let us be clear on what happened: the Administration could have chosen to give the servicers on their screw-up, while also requiring them to take student loans out of default if the student hadn’t been billed for them and gotten delinquency notices prior to being told they were in default. If the side that has made the error that put the problem in motion is forgiven, why isn’t the party suffering harm also given a break? That is not how this is going down:

[Jeff] Baker [a senior official at the Education Department's Federal Student Aid office] dryly noted in his memo that even though schools were let off the hook, “the borrowers’ defaulted loan remains in its current status for collection and other purposes.”

So these students are getting a painful lesson at a tender age: financial predators have a strong and sympathetic constituency in government.

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 11:03:14 -0400
Bring Social Justice In From the Cold As We Get Closer to a Global Climate Change Deal

The UN Climate Summit in New York brought together politics, business and civil society to build up momentum for major climate change talks in Paris next year. After the disappointments of the acrimonious Copenhagen meeting in 2009, there is now a chance for a global agreement on action against climate change. Low carbon development pledges and substantial financing of the Green Climate Fund are one side of the coin.

But climate justice is also about social justice, and leaders must address the demands and respect the needs of people most vulnerable and already suffering from the impacts of climate change. The world’s poorest people are the worst affected by climate change and these groups were certainly represented in New York, but will they be listened to?

If it is to have a lasting impact, the Paris meeting must successfully integrate a “top-down” global agreement to restrict global warming to 2°C, together with a “bottom-up” strategy whereby countries set their own contributions to reduced emissions. However this latter strategy must go beyond emissions and do more to ensure that action on climate change listens to the grassroots and prioritises the world’s poorest and most vulnerable groups.

Grassroots Concern

The summit looked promising for proponents of an inclusive, “bottom-up” strategy. Its key themes included forests, agriculture and resilience to climate change, all of which have a sizable body of evidence to show that placing people directly affected at centre stage is a critical opportunity for success. There was also a thematic session on Voices from the Climate Front Lines which gave a platform to children, women and indigenous people suffering the effects of climate change.

However the outcomes don’t match the hype. There were specific examples of progress: the president of Peru outlined a strategy for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation that he said would put the country on a path to sustainability by reaching out to indigenous groups and securing a vast area of land under indigenous rights.

He won public support from both Germany and Norway, and France also pledged funds to help the poor cope with climate change, but the global commitment to social justice called for by the Rights and Resources Initiative and the World Resources Institute was largely missing.

The anticipated, voluntary New York declaration on forests was marred by Brazil’s refusal to sign up, and the seven action statements released following the summit directly address local people’s rights and roles just twice (and one of these requires action from indigenous civil society groups rather than national or international governments).

Similarly, the Global Agricultural Alliance aims to secure “climate smart” agriculture for 500m farmers by 2030. However it was left to civil society organisations to release a joint statement prioritising making food systems socially just and protecting the poorest and most vulnerable in these efforts.

The recently published New Climate Economy report outlines a vision for “better growth, better climate”, a win-win scenario that ties investment and innovation to poverty and hunger reduction. But while investment and innovation may be able to secure the 70% more calories they estimate humans will collectively require by 2050, it is unclear how it will address the political aspects of access to those calories, and whether such strategies can support the livelihoods and resilience of the poorest farmers.

Climate Justice, Social Justice

Without putting social justice at the core of our thinking on climate action, we risk harming the most vulnerable groups of people. For example environmental concerns have been used by big corporations and national governments to justify claiming land for themselves, a process known as green grabbing that threatens the well-being of groups dependent on natural resources. Perhaps we can eventually find a way to put people on an equal footing with the green economy but, judging from developments in New York, we don’t seem to be there yet.

Paris must be about much more than the pledges on emissions and the green economy that have dominated the headlines since the UN summit. It appears New York was yet another example of a big international climate forum recognising the importance of social justice (itself a big achievement) without actually clarifying how it will be built into objectives or commitments. People will remain on the agenda, but not quite centre stage.

Opinion Wed, 01 Oct 2014 10:45:35 -0400
Why An Unequal Planet Can Never Be Green

What is it going to take to save the planet from environmental devastation?

Sheer people power? We certainly saw that on the eve of last week’s UN Climate Summit in New York. Some 400,000 marchers packed the streets of Manhattan. Millions more rallied the same day in over 2,600 other actions in 162 countries.

Or can simple shaming get world leaders to start seriously addressing the climate change challenge? We saw some serious shaming last week, too.

Spoken-word poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands — the nation climate change most immediately endangers — helped open Tuesday’s UN summit with an open letter to her baby daughter that reportedly brought many of the 120 world leaders present to tears.

That letter, unfortunately, wouldn’t be enough to bring those world leaders to their senses. Last week’s summitry, a Christian Science Monitor analysis notes, left the international community “without a comprehensive strategy to fight climate change,” just the hope that maybe the next summit “would enact a plan to slow and eventually reverse the upward growth of global carbon emissions.”

People have been entertaining hopes along that line, British commentator George Monbiot has observed, ever since world leaders first started gathering for environmental summits back in 1992

“These summits have failed for the same reason that the banks have failed,” Monbiot explains. “Political systems that were supposed to represent everyone now return governments of millionaires, financed by and acting on behalf of billionaires.”

Expecting these governments to protect the biosphere, Monbiot adds, makes no more sense than “expecting a lion to live on gazpacho.”

Why should that be the case? Over recent decades, analysts and activists have made all sorts of links between the increasing degradation of our global environment and the increasing concentration of our global wealth.

The super rich, for starters, stomp out a huge carbon footprint. The best symbol of this stomping? That may be the private jet.

These high-powered playthings of the global elite emit six times more carbon per passenger than normal commercial jets. Between 1970 and 2006, the number of private jets worldwide multiplied by ten times over.

The super rich don’t just consume at rates that dwarf the consumption of mere financial mortals. Their profligate spending stimulates endless consumption all the way down the economic ladder.

“Large income gaps,” as Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill point out in their book Enough Is Enough, “lead to unhealthy status competition and consumption of materials and energy beyond what’s necessary to meet people’s needs.”

In more equal societies, analysts note, most people can afford the same things. In that environment, things don’t matter all that much.

But things become a powerful marker of social status in unequal societies where most people can’t afford the same things. In these societies, you either accumulate more and bigger things or find yourself labeled a failure.

How do we begin to reverse this endless consumption cycle? We can overcome “socially and environmentally destructive status competition,” social scientists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue in their just-published pamphlet A Convenient Truth, by working to “extend democracy into the economic sphere.”

Firms with worker representatives on their governing boards, employee-owned companies, and co-op enterprises “typically have much smaller pay differences within them,” note Wilkinson and Pickett, the authors of the landmark bestseller The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

We also need to work together, suggests Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor, to start evolving the “community provisioning of basic needs,” through, for instance, publicly owned utilities that provide households power and heat at sustainably reasonable prices.

All this working together won’t be easy. People, at some level, are going to have to trust each other, notes Bill Kerry of the UK’s Equality Trust. But inequality undercuts trust. The more unequal a society, research has shown, the less trust within it.

The less democracy as well. In nations where income and wealth concentrate the most severely, the wealthy can wield their wildly disproportionate political power to derail the environmental reforms that threaten their gravy trains.

Energy company CEOs, for instance, can squelch limits on carbon emissions that endanger their corporate profits — and personal rewards.

These execs are now using “their considerable financial and political power,” notes veteran activist Chuck Collins, “to block sane energy policy, extract taxpayer subsidies, thwart renewables, and limit consumer choice.”

The wealthy can also employ their wealth to end run sane resource policies that do make it into effect. In drought-ravaged California, for instance, wealthy landowners in Montecito, news reports relate, have been “paying more than ten times the going rate for water” to sidestep new local water use limits.

These wealthy landowners are having water trucked in from private wells elsewhere in the state “in a desperate bid to save their manicured lawns and towering topiary.” The trucks are destroying local roads.

Other Montecito affluents are rushing to drill private wells on their own property — at $100,000 a pop — that could eventually empty local aquifers.

“If the world can’t find a way to collectively curb emissions by its largest users,” policy analyst Jim Tankersley noted last week, “rich countries — and rich people within those countries — will buy relief that the poorest among us cannot.”

The struggle against environmental degradation and for greater equality, in short, need to go hand in hand. A deeply unequal globe can never be sustainable. The “greenest” major city on Earth, Oslo, doesn’t just happen to sit in Norway, one of the world’s most equal nations.

Environmental activists increasingly understand this connection. Spreading that understanding — and acting on it — has now become our biggest challenge. We can solve both inequality and environmental decline, as the Earth Island Journal’s Annie Leonard sums up neatly, “but only if we see the two struggles as one.”

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 10:10:29 -0400
High-Flying Drones and Basement Wages: Alarming Trends in Package Delivery

Their employer is the US Postal Service, but a few unlucky Bay Area letter carriers were hired only to find out their job is actually delivering groceries for online retailer Amazon at 4 a.m.

It’s an experimental program being staffed with City Carrier Assistants—the lowest tier of union letter carriers, permatemps who make $15-17 an hour. To find their way in the dark they’re issued miner-style headlamps.

“Some carriers hear about the program and they quit,” says longtime letter carrier Angela Bibb-Merritt. “They were under the impression they were going to be carrying mail and working in the daytime.” She worries people could be attacked and robbed, carrying groceries around at such a lonely hour.

You’ll hear no such worries in the breathless tech press, abuzz about experiments in package delivery. The grocery setup is unusual in that it relies on postal workers (though the lowest-paid ones). But most of these schemes are ways to circumvent the Postal Service and UPS.

Cuts to postal jobs and facilities are making existing service worse, helping create niche openings that for-profits are exploiting. Call it privatization by a thousand cuts.

If you work sorting, trucking, or delivering packages, are Amazon, Google, Walmart, and rideshare company Uber coming after your job next?

The Real "Drones"

E-commerce giant Amazon relies heavily on UPS and the Postal Service, but seems to be looking to change that. Its much-hyped trials of robot delivery drones (aviation regulators have put a hold on that for now) are the least of it. The company is testing out ways to replace union workers for every leg of a parcel’s trip.

For instance, it’s opening its own “sortation” plants to facilitate Sunday and holiday delivery, 15 of them this year. “When you see us announcing Sunday delivery, you can assume a sortation center is close by,” Vice President Mike Roth told the Seattle Times.

The function of these plants to sort packages by zip code so they’re trucked to the right post office for delivery—cutting out UPS and Postal Service sorting and trucking.

A lot of hype is concentrated on the “last mile” of delivery, till now mainly the terrain of UPS, FedEx, and especially the Postal Service, which completes the last mile even for roughly 30 percent of the other two shippers’ deliveries. The SurePost and SmartPost programs allow UPS and FedEx to lean on the public system by dropping off presorted packages at post offices for letter carriers to take the last mile.

Amazon already contracts with such companies as LaserShip and OnTrac, which have so far gotten away with categorizing their drivers as “independent contractors” instead of employees. A Huffington Post investigation called these drivers “the real Amazon drones.”

The piece profiled a LaserShip driver who was getting $1.50 per delivery, 150 deliveries a day. Sounds all right, $225 a day, till you start subtracting the costs drivers have to cover—car, insurance, gas, plus various mandatory paycheck deductions. Then factor in unpaid hours loading the van, and none of the protections of being an employee: overtime pay, workers’ compensation, tax withholding, health insurance, paid breaks, paid sick days, collective bargaining rights.

Rival FedEx just got zapped in federal appeals court for misclassifying as “independent contractors” 2,000 people who drive around in FedEx trucks, wearing FedEx outfits.

Taking a still lower road, taxi worker foe Uber and its copycats are bringing their ugly model of “fractional employment” to package delivery. It’s even less secure than being an “independent contractor” because each contract lasts only as long as a single delivery.


Supposedly as online replaces in-person shopping for everyday items, there’s a growing market for next-day, same-day—heck, even one-hour delivery.

Experiments concentrated in San Francisco and New York City are first targeting the spoiled-millennial demographic. Cringe along at a SiliconBeat profile of an eBay courier as she races in her own car to buy a laptop charger and ferry it to an Internet café before the 60-minute deadline.

The lucky recipient is a web designer who’d forgotten hers at home. Cost: $80 for the charger, $5 fee to eBay. The courier gets an hourly wage, undisclosed, and risks her neck all day checking the eBay app while driving.

Clearly this is wildly inefficient, as well as dangerous and eco-unfriendly. “I picture in my mind a big intersection with all these cars crashing into each other, all bringing someone’s toothpaste to them,” UPS driver Rafael Monterrosa told the tech news site Re/code.

And for this extreme version, the target demographic seems limited. As the Occupy movement taught us if we didn’t know before, most millennials aren’t rich and spoiled—they’re broke and indebted.

But retailers are pitching variations on this theme to a wider market. Walmart has floated the idea of asking in-person customers to drop off online orders on their way home, in exchange for discounts: just enough to cover the gas.

Reinventing the Wheel

It’s too bad for workers, but speedier delivery sounds like a boon for customers, right? Not so fast.

There’s a reason such experiments are clustered in cities where delivery addresses are dense, the most cost-efficient areas for any shipper. There’d be no profit in a version of Uber for, say, carrying prescriptions to rural seniors.

The beauty of the Postal Service is that it provides universal service at cheap, universal rates. Income from lower-cost services subsidizes higher-cost ones. What happens if for-profit companies skim off the lucrative business?

The results are already on display in many European countries where postal service has been partly or completely privatized. The private companies focus where the money is, but for regular people, service gets worse and prices skyrocket.

You can see a stratified system in the works here too, as the Postal Service tests its own same-day delivery program, MetroPost, in San Francisco, using lowest-tier letter carriers.

Yet “Say goodbye to next-day mail delivery” was the opening line of a recent article in the Erie Times-News.

That’s because the mail sorting plant in northwestern Pennsylvania is one of 82 the Postmaster General plans to shutter in January, just the latest round of such closings. These embattled plants do the same thing Amazon’s celebrated new “sortation centers” do, but for packages from any sender, not just Amazon.

Except when unionized, public-sector workers do it, it’s called antiquated rather than innovative.

Mail plants are busy in the e-commerce era. They should be expanding. Instead, closures have swamped remaining plants with mail. The resulting delays surely help create the demand for specialized, faster service—among those who can afford to pay. Which won’t be those of us whose jobs get Amazonized.

Package Lockers

A Bay-Area startup called Swapbox provides automated lockers in laundromats and convenience stores for shipping and receiving packages. You drop off the item you want to mail (in the promotional video, it’s a ukulele) in a locker; Swapbox packs and ships it. You can also have packages shipped to the locker.

It’s true this meets a need for apartment-dwellers who lack a stoop to receive shipments while they’re at work. But why not just pick up parcels at your local post office? There are still 31,000 of these across the country, a retail network “larger than McDonald’s, Starbucks and Walmart combined,” the Postal Service boasts.

Because real post offices are getting harder to use, that’s why—as hours are shortened, window clerk staffing is cut back, and customers wait in longer lines. Like the plant closures, it’s hard not to see post office cutbacks as sabotage from the top, creating opportunities for low-wage competitors.

In fact, Swapbox’s press release uses the cuts as a selling point: “Just last month, the USPS drastically cut hours at 21 of 39 post office stations in San Francisco. What if instead of running to your local post office, you had a ‘mini post office’ near your home—one that is open 24/7 and uses advanced robotics…”

No workers appear in Swapbox’s promotional video, as though the app itself does the work. But presumably, some invisible employee or “independent contractor” comes by with a box and a roll of tape to pack the ukelele, and a car to drive it to the post office or UPS store.

Labor Notes tried following up on the press release’s offer to interview Swapbox’s “brilliant” young entrepreneur-CEO. We wanted to know what kind of jobs these were: the pay, the hours, do you have to use your own car.

But the publicist backpedaled, suggesting the CEO could answer questions in writing. After we sent questions they both stopped responding at all.

More Than Staples

Google, eBay, and Amazon have all been testing their own versions of robotized package lockers. And the Postal Service too has launched lockers outside certain post offices in New York and D.C.

Like the self-checkout line at the grocery store, these GoPost lockers are a way of automating postal clerks’ work—instead of boosting window clerk staffing and post office open hours to meet the booming need.

Meanwhile clerks’ work is also being directly outsourced to low-paid Staples employees, at “postal counters” inside the stores. Postal unions are boycotting Staples over the deal. The Teachers (AFT) and the AFL-CIO have endorsed—and given the boycott a publicity boost for back-to-school shopping season.

In Berkeley, activists are drawing attention to the fight by occupying the sidewalk outside a Staples. They’ve maintained their tent camp and info table for two months so far, says letter carrier Bibb-Merritt. Police have come by and argued, but so far haven’t managed to run anyone off.

Turning back the race to the bottom in mail delivery may start with the Staples fight. “We have to make sure we have a movement that makes sure that post offices are not closed, period,” American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein said in January as the campaign began.

“In the long run, we fight for these expanded services to be done within those brick-and-mortar post offices, within the postal system. We aren’t afraid of efforts to try taking postal services to where the public is. But we have to do it in a way that protects the public.”

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News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 09:38:34 -0400
When a Cement Factory's Progress Drive Turns Deadly

The tranquility of the night in the community of Pajoques, San Juan Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, was broken in a violent escalation of the conflict between the Guatemala state’s business interests, and an indigenous Mayan community, that by the next morning left 11 dead and 20 wounded.

The violence began late in the evening on September 19, when community members reported the presence of 10 armed men that they identified as being from the San Gabriel cement factory. “It was around 9:30 pm when armed men arrived in Pajoques,” Maria López, a leader from the 12 communities in resistance, said in a phone interview. “When the community leaders approached them, they opened fire.”

Immediately one man was killed, and two others wounded.

The violence escalated when community members armed with machetes tried to block the workers’ exit from town. In the confrontation, several cars and a house were damaged. Eight more people were killed, and several others injured.

Community members began calling the National Police soon after the shooting started, but the police never arrived.

“The police did not want to accompany and assist the community in arresting the workers from the cement factory responsible for the murder of our neighbors,” López said. “They never came.”

The current escalation of violence near the San Juan Sacatepéquez project came after community-owned land had been expropriated for the construction of an access road to the cement plant. Community members who were associated with the construction of the cement factory sold their land to the road project, adding to the tension within the communities.

Pajoques is one of 12 indigenous Kaqchikel communities that organized to challenge the construction of San Gabriel cement factory, currently under construction by the company Cementos Progreso, in their territory in the municipality of San Juan Sacatepéquez.

The communities have decried the lack of transparency in the construction of the San Gabriel plant, and have expressed concern that the factory negatively affects their livelihoods and the environment. The communities have demanded that they be consulted prior to construction of the cement factory and roads in their territory.

In May 2007, a vote was held in the communities affected by the construction of the cement factory, where 8,946 community members voted against the construction of the factory, with four people voting in favor.

In their most recent statement to the press about the massacre, the leadership of the 12 communities in resistance said that they hold responsible President Otto Pérez Molina, the head of the National Civilian Police Telemaco Pérez, and the Novela family, owners of Cementos Progreso, for the violence and assault on their human rights.

“President Otto Pérez Molina has not heard or responded to the demands of the communities that have been raised on several occasions in regards to the mega-project that was installed without consultation,” the statement said.

The statement also stated that the powerful Novela family is liable for the “use of violence in the construction of this mega-project that threatens mother earth, and the rights of the community.”

According to a report from the Guatemalan Independent Media Center, published days after the violent attack on Pajoques, the Novela family and Cementos Progreso hold contracts for millions of dollars worth of development projects arranged by President Otto Pérez Molina and his Patriot Party. Cementos Progreso also made large contributions to the candidacy of Pérez Molina in the 2011 presidential election.

Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reports that the construction of the San Gabriel plant is estimated to cost as much as $720 million, and is set to be completed in 2016. Once completed, the cement factory will be one of the largest in Latin America, producing nearly 2.3 million tons of cement per year, which will be used internally in Guatemala.

The San Juan project includes the construction of the cement factory, a query, and a nine-mile highway that will connect the facility to the Inter-American Highway. The Guatemalan firm Productos Mineros Limited, a subsidiary of the Novela-owned Cementos Progreso, holds 80% of the shares of the project, with the remaining 20% owned by the Swiss multinational cement company Holcim—a company that purports to pride itself on social responsibility and respect for human rights.

Holcim declined to comment on the recent incident in San Juan Sacatepéquez for this report.

The construction of the San Gabriel cement factory comes at a time when the number of mega projects associated with Plan Mesoamerica—the rebranded Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP)—and other extractive projects have been expanding in Guatemala. In an interview with the online web-magazine Contra Poder, Cementos Progreso’s Vice President of Planning and Financing, José Raúl González, confirmed that the cement is being produced to meet Guatemala’s increasing construction needs, telling the reporter “the plan is to supply the local market.”

Yet as extractive and development projects have expanded, so too has the social conflict around these projects. Communities claim that of the 124 permits for exploration or exploitation of resources, no community has been consulted on the construction.

Across Guatemala, communities have challenged the construction of mega-projects such as San Gabriel by pointing to the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous peoples to consultation by actors prior to the beginning of development projects in their territory, of which Guatemala is a signatory. They charge that their rights have been violated, and call on businesses like Cementos Progreso and the government to respect the right to consultation.

For a country that has historically seen severe conflict over access to land, the absence of community voices in the use of community land is troubling. The failure of the Guatemalan state and business to include the voice of indigenous communities in the construction of projects within indigenous communities has ensured that social conflict will follow and intensify.

The community leaders of San Juan Sacatepéquez have faced arrest warrants and violent attacks by factory workers long before this most recent attack. In one incident, men from the cement factory threatened to kill community members at a community meeting. In yet another incident, supporters of the cement company assaulted a fact-finding mission led by Daniel Pascual of the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC) and international observers.

Despite the overwhelming intimidation, the communities have maintained their demand for dialogue, and an end to the repression.

“We have expressed our decision to dialogue and we have participated in diverse processes where we have expressed our opinion,” the community leaders declared in an August 2014 press release. “But the business, government, and mayors have not listened to our opinion, even though the law is on our side.”

The Guatemalan government has responded to the violent attack by issuing decree 06-2014, declaring a state of emergency in the 12 communities near San Juan Sacatepéquez, suspending civil liberties in the communities for 15 days.

In a press conference, Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla said that state of emergency was “for the purpose of stabilizing the area.” He also announced the deployment of 600 national police to the area.

The government announced the morning of September 22 the issuing of warrants for the arrest of 40 members of the communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez; 24 of which are for the violence of September 19. The other warrants were issued against leaders and organizers of the communities in resistance. At the time of publication, 5 arrests have been made.

1,000 military units have been deployed alongside the police forces to assist in the stabilization of the community, a degree of disproportionate use of force that has become the norm in Guatemala,

In a phone interview, Victor Hernández, a campesino in the community of Pilar I, describes the atmosphere as being “a state of fear.”

“There is no liberty,” said Hernández. “We are being occupied.”

For others, the presence of military in the communities has brought back painful memories of Guatemala’s dirty war.

“It feels as if we are returning to the era of the internal armed conflict,” says López. “The military is once again in our communities. The state is protecting the interests of the businesses, and not of the communities in struggle.”

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 09:07:55 -0400
Confronting Barbarism: ISIS, the United States and the Consequences of Torture

Instead of using ISIS's mocking use of orange jumpsuits as a pretext to continue to withhold information about US torture programs in Iraq and elsewhere, the United States should urgently confront its own barbarity in a courageous projection of democratic values.

2014 1001 suit st(Image: Troy Page / Truthout)In a televised address on August 7, President Obama announced that he had ordered "targeted" US airstrikes in northern Iraq against the self-described Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the pretext of a humanitarian intervention to help stranded Kurds and US diplomatic staff in Erbil. In his address, Obama said, "I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq." Just 47 days later, on September 23, a new phase in the war on terror had been declared, and US bombing was expanded into Syria.

There is ample reason to believe that Obama's August "humanitarian bombing" of ISIS targets in northern Iraq was equally about the protection of ExxonMobil and Chevron oil and gas production facilities in Erbil. It was a costly action. On August 19, US journalist James Foley was beheaded by ISIS in retaliation. On September 2, Steve Sotoloff, another US journalist, was beheaded by ISIS in a further act of retaliation. Both murders were accompanied by highly publicized beheading videos, with Foley and Sotoloff forced by ISIS to wear symbolic orange jumpsuits. A beheading video of British aid worker David Haines followed on September 13, with Haines also mockingly clad by his ISIS captors in an orange jumpsuit. President Obama's new war in Syria began 10 days later with full Congressional backing. British Prime Minister David Cameron quickly endorsed US bombing and received parliamentary approval for Britain to join the US campaign in Iraq.

The New Yorker's John Cassidy has labeled this Obama's "YouTube war." The carefully choreographed ISIS beheading videos, with their mocking use of orange jumpsuits, were a major factor driving both public opinion and Obama's decision-making. The actions of ISIS jihadists are barbaric, but they represent something worse than publicized incidents of terrorist inhumanity. Yasser Munif, co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, believes the moral taunting on the beheading videos was designed to lure the United States into wider war in the Islamic world, thereby elevating ISIS as the primary anti-American force in the region. It is as if the moral compass of the universe has gone tilt as the world descends into barbarism. The vertiginous sense of suspended morality is heightened by tens of millions of TV viewers and YouTube site visitors worldwide witnessing ISIS's open and brutal mockery of the United States and United Kingdom on supposedly moral grounds as they commit murder for the camera.

During September, with the ISIS beheadings and United States drive to war as background, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Obama administration have also been forced into a debate over how to respond to an August 27, District Court decision in New York ordering the release of 2,000 previously unpublished photos of US torture, brutality and death at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison and five other US detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been seeking release of the photos since 2004 in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. Obama and the DOD were opposed to the release of these photos, years before ISIS emerged, on the grounds that the images are so grisly, they would inflame anti-US sentiment in the Islamic world. However, with the ACLU's litigation on the verge of success, the photos and the war against ISIS have clearly become interrelated.

There is already a huge element of the absurd in the Obama administration's new war scenario that should provoke further debate about overall US policy in Central Asia. There are questions about the role that US and European actions played in incubating and arming ISIS in Syria, as well as clear evidence that Sunni distrust of the US-backed Shiite government in Baghdad has driven Iraqi Sunnis reluctantly into the hands of ISIS jihadists. There are open divisions and disagreements among national security experts in both parties and within Obama's military team about threat assessment, tactics, timing and the need for ground troops. Many activists on the ground in Syria question the motivation and potential efficacy of US bombing in their country.

In spite of these lingering uncertainties, Obama seemed to be responding primarily to the ISIS beheading videos in his September 24 speech to the UN General Assembly, when he described ISIS as a "network of death" and noted that their brutality "forces us to look into the heart of darkness." The clear implication is that war policy is being hurriedly thrown together without sober reflection because of a visceral reaction to globally publicized ISIS videos. With the pending court order to release the previously unpublished Abu Ghraib photos, the need for such reflection cannot be easily dismissed.

Should the photos be released? Should the United States openly look into its own "heart of darkness" while confronting ISIS? The timing of this decision follows more than a decade of official denial and obfuscation about the images. An estimated 108 captives died in US prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, including as many as 26 that the DOD has classified as homicides. Obama and Cameron are right to point out that ISIS jihadists are evil and lawless killers. Yet these photos are not about ISIS except to the extent they have tried to co-opt the symbolic imagery of orange US prison jumpsuits to rationalize their barbarity. Before Obama's new war escalates out of control or drags on for months or years with an inevitable need for ground troops, it seems advisable for the United States to finally confront its own barbaric actions and failed strategic decisions in the 13-year-old war on terror - not because of ISIS, but in spite of ISIS.

Orange Jumpsuits and the Alternative Reality of Torture

Nearly every news report explains that ISIS is making their victims wear orange jumpsuits as a mocking reference to the orange jumpsuits worn by prisoners at the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It is seldom mentioned that captives in the entire web of US prisons from Bagram in Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib in Iraq, were also made to wear orange jumpsuits. Further, the photos of torture, humiliation and death that have made it into the public domain from Abu Ghraib are even worse than Guantánamo, making it a more potent symbol of US human rights violations.

While the prison at Guantánamo is universally known, the public was unaware that the secretive prison at Abu Ghraib existed - housed in a torture facility used by Saddam Hussein before the US invasion - until a compact disc of digital photos taken by guards was accidentally discovered and reported in 2003. These images depicting widespread torture and violent abuse of prisoners by US troops were subsequently featured in investigative reports by The New Yorker and 60 Minutes II in 2004. When the story finally broke, Bush administration officials, from then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Bush himself, declared the atrocities at Abu Ghraib to be the work of "a few bad apples."

A total of 11 low-level enlisted Army soldiers were eventually convicted on charges varying from dereliction of duty to human rights abuses. A colonel was relieved of duty and a lieutenant colonel received a reprimand. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the commanding officer at the prison, was cited for "dereliction of duty and shoplifting." In essence, no one was held responsible except a few low-level scapegoats.

The abuses at Abu Ghraib did not happen in a vacuum. It quickly became clear that Abu Ghraib was the end point in a causal chain that led all the way back to the Bush White House and Justice Department, where top administration officials were rewriting US laws defining torture. Following recommendations to President Bush from then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, the United States effectively opted out of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions on the rights to humane treatment for both prisoners of war and civilians. The Third Geneva Convention "bars torture, cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, as well as outrages against the human dignity of prisoners of war, or POWs."

The Unintended Consequences of Torture

Writing in Foreign Policy, Steven R. Ratner, an expert on international law who has worked as an advisor to both the UN and the US State Department, makes it clear that torture does not work as advertised:

Seasoned interrogators consistently say that straightforward questioning is far more successful for getting at the truth. So, by mangling the [Geneva] conventions, the United States has joined the company of a host of unsavory regimes that make regular use of torture. It has abandoned a system that protects U.S. military personnel from terrible treatment for one in which the rules are made on the fly.

In losing sight of the crucial protections of the conventions, the United States invites a world of wars in which laws disappear. And the horrors of such wars would far surpass anything the war on terror could ever deliver.

The Bush administration also tried unsuccessfully to block the adoption of the UN Convention Against Torture in the General Assembly after more than 10 years of deliberation by UN member states. In spite of this failure at the UN, the United States continued to opt out of the Geneva Convention against torture. This was done by rewriting domestic laws on human rights and defining captured prisoners as "unlawful enemy combatants" who had no legal standing as prisoners of war, a decision that Obama continued to support until after his reelection in 2008. The Washington Post described the new regime of officially sanctioned torture in 2004:

In fact, every aspect of this new universe - including maintenance of covert airlines to fly prisoners from place to place, interrogation rules and the legal justification for holding foreigners without due process afforded most U.S. citizens - has been developed by military or CIA lawyers, vetted by Justice Department's office of legal counsel and, depending on the particular issue, approved by White House general counsel's office or the president himself.

In addition to the fabricated rationale for the invasion of Iraq and the invention of concepts such as "pre-emptive war" and "unlawful enemy combatants," the entire world has become aware of US practices such as extraordinary rendition (sending prisoners to countries outside the United States for torture and interrogation), enhanced interrogation techniques (e.g., water boarding and other forms of torture) and the continued operation of a string of prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq that have been repeatedly investigated for fundamental human rights violations.

Yet in August 2014, a 6,000 page, $40 million report produced by a months long investigation into US torture techniques by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was shelved after being heavily redacted by the CIA. Bowing to the CIA and pressure from the Obama administration, committee chairperson Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) issued a statement that the report is being "held for declassification at a later time."

The Long Road Back

War truly is hell. It always will be. Human rights violations occur in every war. What is new since the dawn of the ill-defined and never ending war on terror in 2001 is that the world's most economically powerful and heavily armed superpower has begun to untether itself from its foundational democratic moorings by making such violations a matter of de facto state policy - unapologetically. When moral outrage was expressed by some US senators during May 2004 hearings on the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) commented that he was "more outraged by the outrage" than by the overwhelming evidence of abuse, torture and violation of internationally sanctioned human rights.

Recent history in Central Asia makes it abundantly clear that the abandonment of democratic ideals and values by powerful nations such as the United States and Britain does nothing to stop terrorism and runs counter to the self-interests of democracies. The long road back from the past decade of state-sanctioned torture and systematic human rights violations begins with democratic openness.

The ACLU lawsuit is a timely case in point. The US Army still has more than 2,000 unreleased photos that document 400 cases of alleged abuse between 2001 and 2005 in Abu Ghraib and six other US prisons. Senators who have seen these images say that many of the photos are worse than the images that have been leaked from Abu Ghraib to date. 

The ACLU won a FOIA suit in federal District Court on August 27, 2014, in which Judge Alvin Hellerstein ordered the Department of Defense (DOD) to hand over the photos unless they can conclusively prove that their release would endanger American lives. If the judge maintains his ruling against the DOD, they will almost certainly be encouraged by the administration to appeal the decision. Obama has said that, "The most direct consequence of releasing them . . . would be to inflame anti-American public opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

The ISIS beheadings give the Obama administration a seemingly urgent rationale for continued secrecy in their refusal to release inflammatory photos of US war crimes committed in Islamic countries. This argument overlooks the fact that it is not possible to stop a descent into barbarism by consciously ignoring history.

More than 100,000 prisoners have been run through the US complex of prisons in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. Ignoring this reality is no longer an option. Releasing the photos and openly debating the actions and policies that led to their existence would be a more courageous projection of democratic values at this crucial juncture, sending a powerful signal that the United States stands by its core democratic values even when it is least convenient. It would also provide an opportunity for a much-needed reexamination of the premises for Obama's proposed bombing adventure in Syria, and by extension, of the longer-term war on terror. With Obama harking back to George W. Bush's initial Iraq war authorization in 2002 to rationalize his actions, it is a reexamination that is long overdue.

The August 27, 2014, District Court ruling on the FOIA request for the remaining Abu Ghraib photos can be downloaded at the ACLU website.

Opinion Wed, 01 Oct 2014 10:42:42 -0400
Climate Terror ]]> Art Wed, 01 Oct 2014 08:55:28 -0400 Can Civilization Survive "Really Existing Capitalism"? An Interview With Noam Chomsky

2014 1001 chom stNoam Chomsky (Photo: Haymarket Books)

For decades now, Noam Chomsky has been widely regarded as the most important intellectual alive (linguist, philosopher, social and political critic) and the leading US dissident since the Vietnam War. Chomsky has published over 100 books and thousands of articles and essays, and is the recipient of dozens of honorary doctorate degrees by some of the world's greatest academic institutions. His latest book, Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013, has just been published by Haymarket Books. On the occasion of the release of his last book, Chomsky gave an exclusive and wide-ranging interview to C.J. Polychroniou for Truthout, parts of which will also appear in The Sunday Eleftherotypia, a major national Greek newspaper.

Here, Chomsky discusses ISIS, the rise of religious extremism globally, actually existing capitalism and its incompatibility with democracy, Israel, Ukraine and the "root of all evil."

2014 1001 chom stNoam Chomsky (Photo: Haymarket Books)More than four decades of Noam Chomsky's writings are available in a new anthology from Haymarket Books. Get this collection from the master of opposing the hubris of US empire. Click here now.

For decades now, Noam Chomsky has been widely regarded as the most important intellectual alive (linguist, philosopher, social and political critic) and the leading US dissident since the Vietnam War. Chomsky has published over 100 books and thousands of articles and essays, and is the recipient of dozens of honorary doctorate degrees by some of the world's greatest academic institutions. His latest book, Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013, has just been published by Haymarket Books. On the occasion of the release of his last book, Chomsky gave an exclusive and wide-ranging interview to C.J. Polychroniou for Truthout, parts of which will also appear in The Sunday Eleftherotypia, a major national Greek newspaper.

C.J. Polychroniou: In a nationally televised address on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the United States, Obama announced to the American people and the rest of the world that the United States is going back to war in Iraq, this time against the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Is Iraq an unfinished business of the US invasion of 2003, or is the situation there merely the inevitable outcome of the strategic agenda of the Empire of Chaos?

Noam Chomsky: "Inevitable" is a strong word, but the appearance of ISIS and the general spread of radical jihadism is a fairly natural outgrowth of Washington wielding its sledgehammer at the fragile society of Iraq, which was barely hanging together after a decade of US-UK sanctions so onerous that the respected international diplomats who administered them via the UN both resigned in protest, charging that they were "genocidal."

"It's worth noting that religious fanaticism is spreading in the West as well, as democracy erodes."

One of the most respected mainstream US Middle East analysts, former CIA operative Graham Fuller, recently wrote that "I think the United States is one of the key creators of [ISIS]. The United States did not plan the formation of ISIS, but its destructive interventions in the Middle East and the war in Iraq were the basic causes of the birth of ISIS."

He is correct, I think. The situation is a disaster for the US, but is a natural result of its invasion. One of the grim consequences of US-UK aggression was to inflame sectarian conflicts that are now tearing Iraq to shreds, and have spread over the whole region, with awful consequences.

ISIS seems to represent a new jihadist movement, with greater inherent tendencies toward barbarity in the pursuit of its mission to re-establish an Islamic caliphate, yet apparently more able to recruit young radical Muslims from the heart of Europe, and even as far as Australia, than al-Qaeda itself. In your view, why has religious fanaticism become the driving force behind so many Muslim movements around the world?

Like Britain before it, the US has tended to support radical Islam and to oppose secular nationalism, which both imperial states have regarded as more threatening to their goals of domination and control. When secular options are crushed, religious extremism often fills the vacuum. Furthermore, the primary US ally over the years, Saudi Arabia, is the most radical Islamist state in the world and also a missionary state, which uses its vast oil resources to promulgate its extremist Wahabi/Salafi doctrines by establishing schools, mosques, and in other ways, and has also been the primary source for the funding of radical Islamist groups, along with Gulf Emirates - all US allies.

It's worth noting that religious fanaticism is spreading in the West as well, as democracy erodes. The US is a striking example. There are not many countries in the world where the large majority of the population believes that God's hand guides evolution, and almost half of these think that the world was created a few thousand years ago. And as the Republican Party has become so extreme in serving wealth and corporate power that it cannot appeal to the public on its actual policies, it has been compelled to rely on these sectors as a voting base, giving them substantial influence on policy.

The US committed major war crimes in Iraq, but the acts of violence committed these day against civilians in the country, particularly against children and people from various ethnic and religious communities, is also simply appalling. Given that Iraq exhibited its longest stretch of political stability under Saddam Hussein, what didactic lessons should one draw from today's extremely messy situation in that part of the world?

The most elementary lesson is that it is wise to adhere to civilized norms and international law. The criminal violence of rogue states like the US and UK is not guaranteed to have catastrophic consequences, but we can hardly claim to be surprised when it does.

US attacks against ISIS's bases in Syria without the approval and collaboration of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad would constitute a violation of international law, claimed Damascus, Moscow and Tehran before the start of bombing. However, isn't it the case that the destruction of ISIS's forces in Syria would further strengthen the Syrian regime? Or is it that the Assad regime is afraid it will be next in line?

The Assad regime has been rather quiet. It has not, for example, appealed to the Security Council to act to terminate the attack, which is, undoubtedly, in violation of the UN Charter, the foundation of modern international law (and if anyone cares, part of the "Supreme law of the land" in the US, under the Constitution). Assad's murderous regime doubtless can see what the rest of the world does: the US attack on ISIS weakens its main enemy.

In addition to some Western nations, Arab states have also offered military support to US attacks against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Is this a case of one form of Islamic fundamentalism (Saudi Arabia, for example) exhibiting fear for another form of Islamic fundamentalism (ISIS)?

As the New York Times accurately reported, the support is "tepid." The regimes surely fear ISIS, but it apparently continues to draw financial support from wealthy donors in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, and its ideological roots, as I mentioned, are in Saudi radical Islamic extremism, which has not abated.

Life in Gaza has returned to normalcy after Hamas and Israel agreed to a cease-fire. For how long?

I would hesitate to use the term "normalcy." The latest onslaught was even more vicious than its predecessors, and its impact is horrendous. The Egyptian military dictatorship, which is bitterly anti-Hamas, is also adding to the tragedy.

"Each time, Israel has disregarded the agreements while Hamas has lived up to them (as Israel concedes) until some Israeli escalation elicits a Hamas response, which gives Israel another opportunity to 'mow the lawn.'"

What will happen next? There has been a regular pattern since the first such agreement was reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in November 2005. It called for "a crossing between Gaza and Egypt at Rafah for the export of goods and the transit of people, continuous operation of crossings between Israel and Gaza for the import/export of goods, and the transit of people, reduction of obstacles to movement within the West Bank, bus and truck convoys between the West Bank and Gaza, the building of a seaport in Gaza, [and the] re-opening of the airport in Gaza" that Israeli bombing had demolished.

Later agreements have been variants on the same themes, the current one as well. Each time, Israel has disregarded the agreements while Hamas has lived up to them (as Israel concedes) until some Israeli escalation elicits a Hamas response, which gives Israel another opportunity to "mow the lawn," in its elegant phrase. The interim periods of "quiet" (meaning one-way quiet) allow Israel to carry forward its policies of taking over whatever it values in the West Bank, leaving Palestinians in dismembered cantons. All, of course, with crucial US support: military, economic, diplomatic and ideological, in framing the issues in accord with Israel's basic perspective.

That, indeed, was the purpose of Israel's "disengagement" from Gaza in 2005 - while remaining the occupying power, as recognized by the world (apart from Israel), even the US. The purpose was outlined candidly by the architect and chief negotiator of the "disengagement," Prime Minister Sharon's close associate, Dov Weissglass. He informed the press that "The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a [US] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress."

That pattern has been reiterated over and over, and it seems that it is being re-enacted today. However, some knowledgeable Israeli commentators have suggested that Israel might finally relax its torture of Gaza. Its illegal takeover of much of the West Bank (including Greater Jerusalem) has proceeded so far that Israeli authorities might anticipate that it is irreversible. And they now have a cooperative ally in the brutal military dictatorship in Egypt. Furthermore, the rise of ISIS and the general shattering of the region have improved the tacit alliance with the Saudi dictatorship and possibly others. Conceivably, Israel might depart from its extreme rejectionism, though for now, the signs do not look auspicious.

The latest Israeli carnage in Gaza stirred public sentiment around the world increasingly against the state of Israel. To what extent is the unconditional support rendered by the US toward Israel the outplay of domestic political factors, and under what conditions do you see a shift in Washington's policy toward Tel Aviv?

There are very powerful domestic factors. One illustration was given right in the midst of the latest Israeli assault. At one point, Israeli weapons seemed to be running low, and the US kindly supplied Israel with more advanced weapons, which enabled it to carry the onslaught further. These weapons were taken from the stocks that the US pre-positions in Israel, for eventual use by US forces, one of many indications of the very close military connections that go back many years. Intelligence interactions are even better established. Israel is also a favored location for US investors, not just in its advanced military economy. There is a huge voting bloc of evangelical Christians that is fanatically pro-Israel. There is also an effective Israel lobby, which is often pushing an open door - and which quickly backs down when it confronts US power, not surprisingly.

There are, however, shifts in popular sentiments, particularly among younger people, including the Jewish community. I experience that personally, as do others. Not long ago I literally had to have police protection when I spoke on these topics on college campuses, even my own university. That has greatly changed. By now Palestine solidarity is a major commitment on many campuses. Over time, these changes could combine with some other factors to lead to a change of US policy. It's happened before. But it will take hard, serious, dedicated work.

What are the aims and the objectives of US policy in Ukraine, other than stirring up trouble and then letting other forces do the dirty work?

Immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the USSR, the US began seeking to extend its dominance, including NATO membership, over the regions released from Russian control - in violation of verbal promises to Gorbachev, whose protests were dismissed. Ukraine is surely the next ripe fruit that the US hopes to pluck from the tree.

Doesn't Russia have a legitimate concern over Ukraine's potential alliance with NATO?

"The US is at the root of the current Ukraine crisis."

A very legitimate concern, over the expansion of NATO generally. This is so obvious that it is even the topic of the lead article in the current issue of the major establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, by international relations scholar John Mearsheimer. He observes that the US is at the root of the current Ukraine crisis.

Looking at the current situation in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Ukraine, the China Sea and even in parts of Europe, Zbigniew Brzezinski's recent comment on MSNBC that "We are facing a kind of dynamically spreading chaos in parts of the world" seems rather apropos. How much of this development is related to the decline of a global hegemon and to the balance of power that existed in the era of the Cold War?

US power reached its peak in 1945 and has been rather steadily declining ever since. There have been many changes in recent years. One is the rise of China as a major power. Another is Latin America's breaking free of imperial control (for the last century, US control) for the first time in 500 years. Related to these developments is the rise of the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, China, South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, based in China and including India, Pakistan, the Central Asian states, and others.

But the US remains the dominant global power, by a large measure.

Last month marked the 69th anniversary of the US atomic bombing of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, yet nuclear disarmament remains a chimera. In a recent article of yours, you underscored the point that we are merely lucky to have avoided a nuclear war so far. Do you think, then, that it's a matter of time before nuclear weapons fall into the hands of terrorist groups?

"Nuclear weapons are already in the hands of terrorist groups: state terrorists."

Nuclear weapons are already in the hands of terrorist groups: state terrorists, the US primary among them. It's conceivable that weapons of mass destruction might also fall into the hands of "retail terrorists," greatly enhancing the enormous dangers to survival.

Since the late 1970s, most advanced economies have returned to predatory capitalism. As a result, income and wealth inequality have reached spectacular heights, poverty is becoming entrenched, unemployment is skyrocketing and standards of living are declining. In addition, "really existing capitalism" is causing mass environmental damage and destruction which, along with the population explosion, is leading us to an unmitigated global disaster. Can civilization survive really existing capitalism?

First, let me say that what I have in mind by the term "really existing capitalism" is what really exists and what is called "capitalism." The United States is the most important case, for obvious reasons. The term "capitalism" is vague enough to cover many possibilities. It is commonly used to refer to the US economic system, which receives substantial state intervention, ranging from creative innovation to the "too-big-to-fail" government insurance policy for banks, and which is highly monopolized, further limiting market reliance.

"Really existing capitalism - RECD for short (pronounced 'wrecked') - is radically incompatible with democracy."

It's worth bearing in mind the scale of the departures of "really existing capitalism" from official "free-market capitalism." To mention only a few examples, in the past 20 years, the share of profits of the 200 largest enterprises has risen sharply, carrying forward the oligopolistic character of the US economy. This directly undermines markets, avoiding price wars through efforts at often-meaningless product differentiation through massive advertising, which is itself dedicated to undermining markets in the official sense, based on informed consumers making rational choices. Computers and the internet, along with other basic components of the IT revolution, were largely in the state sector (R&D, subsidy, procurement, and other devices) for decades before they were handed over to private enterprise for adaptation to commercial markets and profit. The government insurance policy, which provides big banks with enormous advantages, has been roughly estimated by economists and the business press to be perhaps on the order of as much as $80 billion a year. However, a recent study by the International Monetary Fund indicates - to quote the business press - that perhaps "the largest US banks aren't really profitable at all," adding that "the billions of dollars they allegedly earn for their shareholders were almost entirely a gift from US taxpayers." This is more evidence to support the judgment of Martin Wolf of the London Financial Times, that "an out-of-control financial sector is eating out the modern market economy from inside, just as the larva of the spider wasp eats out the host in which it has been laid."

In a way, all of this explains the economic devastation produced by contemporary capitalism that you underscore in your question above. Really existing capitalism - RECD for short (pronounced "wrecked") - is radically incompatible with democracy. It seems to me unlikely that civilization can survive really existing capitalism and the sharply attenuated democracy that goes along with it. Could functioning democracy make a difference? Consideration of nonexistent systems can only be speculative, but I think there's some reason to think so. Really existing capitalism is a human creation, and can be changed or replaced.

Your latest book, Masters of Mankind, which came out in September by Haymarket Books, is a collection of essays written between 1969 and 2013. The world has changed a great deal during this period, so my question is this: Has your understanding of the world changed over time, and, if so, what have been the most catalytic events in altering your perspective about politics?

”Hierarchical and arbitrary power remains at the core of politics in our world and the source of all evils."

My understanding of the world has changed over time as I've learned a lot more about the past and ongoing events regularly add new critical materials. I can't really identify single events or people. It's cumulative, a constant process of re-thinking in the light of new information and more consideration of what I hadn't properly understood. However, hierarchical and arbitrary power remains at the core of politics in our world and the source of all evils.

In a recent exchange we had, I expressed my pessimism about the future of our species. You replied by saying "I share your conviction, but keep remembering the line I've occasionally quoted from the Analects, defining the 'exemplary person' - presumably the master himself: 'the one who keeps trying, though he knows there is no hope.'" Is the situation as dire as that?

We cannot know for sure. What we do know, however, is that if we succumb to despair we will help ensure that the worst will happen. And if we grasp the hopes that exist and work to make the best use of them, there might be a better world.

Not much of a choice.

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 09:42:28 -0400
Climate Disruption's "Confederacy of Dunces"

Given that over 97 percent of climate scientists agree on the matter, the fact that anyone is questioning the reality of human-caused climate disruption remains an amazing phenomenon - one which Republican officials, corporate lobbyists, the fossil fuel industry and right-wing think tanks readily take part. If your child were sick, and 97 percent of doctors recommended one treatment for them, which treatment would you use?

2014 1001 dunce st(Photo: DonkeyHotey; Edited: EL / TO)Given that over 97 percent of climate scientists agree on the matter, the fact that anyone is questioning the reality of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) remains an amazing phenomenon.

If your child were sick, and 97 percent of doctors recommended one treatment for them, which treatment would you use?

Yet this kind of reasoning need not apply, apparently, to vast sectors of the media, political apparatus and general public in the United States. Instead of an informed public and rational elected leaders, we are left with what author John Kennedy Toole so perfectly described in the title of his most famous work, A Confederacy of Dunces.

Some very special ACD denial quotes from the confederacy:

"Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you've got more carbon dioxide." John Boehner, Speaker of the House (R-Ohio).

"It could just be a shift on the axis." Bill Cassidy, Congressman (R-Louisiana).

"The new fad thing that's going through America and around the world. It's called global warming." Steve Stockman, Congressman (R-Texas).

"All voodoo, nonsense . . . a hoax." Michele Bachmann, Congresswoman (R-Minnesota).

" . . . The idea that manmade gases, CO2, are causing catastrophic global warming is the greatest hoax every perpetrated on the American people." James Inhofe, Senator (R-Oklahoma), former chair of the US Senate Committee on the Environment and Public.

"[ACD] led to the Vikings dominating Europe for several hundred years." Morgan Griffith, Congressman (R-Virginia).

"It is not proven, it's not science. It's more of a religion than a science." Steve King, Congressman (R-Iowa).

And one of my current favorites:

"The ice caps are melting, which we see over and over again. Yeah, they're melting on Mars, too!" Dana Rohrabacher, Congressman (R-California).

The reason for this lunacy is simple, and the evidence lies not far below the surface.

An Industry of Denial

In 2008, the Republican and Democratic parties were generally seeing eye to eye on ACD, as evidenced by this commercial broadcast nationally, in which Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich sat together and said that climate change needed to be addressed.

The fossil fuel industry, seeing the writing on the wall, dumped more than half a billion dollars into the coffers of their lobbyists in 2009, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The fact that there is any "doubt" about the science and reality of ACD is not happenstance - it is the direct result of a carefully orchestrated project that has included heavy lobbying, bought-and-paid-for pro-fossil fuel industry scientists and a massive amount of propaganda.

The 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, provides an excellent history on how the ACD denial apparatus came to be.

The realization that humans are fueling rapid changes in climate is not new. Scientists have been linking carbon dioxide emissions to its impact on the global climate for 150 years, and US President Lyndon Johnson, during a special message to Congress in 1965 said, "This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through . . . a steady increase in carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels."

By 1977, as climate modeling continued to progress, Robert White, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a prophetic warning about the future impacts of ACD if it went unaddressed:

We now understand that industrial wastes, such as carbon dioxide released during the burning of fossil fuels, can have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society . . . The scientific problems are formidable, the technological problems, unprecedented, and the potential economic and social impacts, ominous.

Additionally, the idea that capitalism is harmful to earth is far from new, as economists in the 1960s realized that free market economies aiming toward infinite growth and consumption were inherently destructive to ecosystems.

Action toward mitigating the impacts of carbon dioxide emissions progressed through the 1970s on a federal government level, and then again during the 1980s, when James Hansen, then head of NASA's Goddard Space Center, sounded the official alarm in 1988 that humans have definitively impacted the atmosphere.

As the climate crisis became more evident and publicized, pushback also gained steam. For example, not long after Hansen sounded the alarm, the "blaming the sun" argument for increasing global temperatures was introduced by the Marshall Institute, mirroring the strategy used by big tobacco companies to instill doubt about the harmful effects of cigarettes.

According to SourceWatch:

The George C. Marshall Institute is a "non-profit" organization funded by the profits from oil and gas interests and right-wing funders (listed later). It has received substantial funding from Exxon's Exxon Education Foundation.

Its nominal creators, aside from Exxon-related entities and others, were William Nierenberg, Frederick Seitz and Robert Jastrow. This industry and right-wing front group has described its role as encouraging "the use of sound science in making public policy about important issues for which science and technology are major considerations." The institute makes claims about "national security and the environment," generally to the detriment of the latter.

The institute purports to investigate what it calls "facts" about global climate change, which is largely attributed by others to the burning of fossil fuels. The institute also focuses its resources on making claims about the effect of the Kyoto Protocol upon "national security."

The Institute issued a "white paper" that basically claimed that since Hansen didn't precisely track historical increases in carbon dioxide, then the warming must have been caused by the sun. Conveniently overlooked was the fact that the data used in the Institute's paper was misrepresented and cherry-picked from peer-reviewed studies that pointed to the contrary, using only selected parts of studies that actually confirmed ACD - tactics which continue to be used today.

The first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, published in 1990, specifically addressed the "sun" argument put forward by the Marshall Institute, and completely debunked it.

Nonetheless, with willfully ignorant political sock puppets like the aforementioned Cassidy, who quipped about "a shift on the axis" causing ACD, it is clear where these echoes originated.

Despite the facts - or more than likely because of them - the Marshall Institute's "scientist" William Nierenberg, a chief mover behind the "white paper," went on the warpath against the IPCC and, with the backing of the World Petroleum Congress in Buenos Aires in 1992, began attacking the Panel.

As scientific evidence and consensus around ACD mounted in the early 1990s, so did the pushback from the Marshall Institute players, who began spearheading the "doubt" meme.

In 1996, the Institute's Frederick Seitz, who was not even a climate scientist, was working to undermine the IPCC completely. As chronicled in Merchants of Doubt: "'If the IPCC couldn't follow its own procedures,' Seitz claimed, 'it should be abandoned and governments should look for more reliable sources of advice to governments on this important question [ACD].' Presumably, he meant the George C. Marshall Institute, of which he was still chairman of the board." (p. 208)

Despite massive blowback from the scientific community against the baseless and outlandish claims put forth by the Marshall Institute, by the mid-1990s the Institute's claims were nonetheless being published regularly in The Wall Street Journal, where they were read by millions, and both Congress and the White House were taking them seriously.

Merchants goes on to, extremely effectively, outline the media's role in catalyzing the situation we find ourselves in today in the United States, in which ACD deniers and their "doubt mongers" are given equal time with credible climate scientists, despite the deniers and doubters now only forming, at most, 3 percent of the scientific community. (Most of that 3 percent are clearly being funded by the fossil fuel industry and other similarly biased corporate entities.)

The authors sum up the results of the denial project perfectly:

This divergence between the state of the science and how it was presented in the major media helped make it easy for our government to do nothing about global warming. Gus Speth had thought in 1988 that there was real momentum toward taking action. By the mid-1990s, that policy momentum had not just fizzled; it had evaporated. In July 1997, three months before the Kyoto Protocol was finalized, US senators Robert Byrd and Charles Hagel introduced a resolution blocking its adoption. Byrd-Hagel passed the Senate by a vote of 97-0. Scientifically, global warming was an established fact. Politically, global warming was dead.

Since 1997, that trend has not only continued - it has increased.

This explains why a poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press showed 71 percent of Americans believing there was "solid evidence the Earth is warming" in 2008, while the next year the number had dropped to 57 percent.

The tactic works. And this isn't the first time it has been deployed in the service of corporations. A mirror image of the strategy being used to maintain "doubt" about ACD was used by the tobacco industry to instill doubt about the negative health effects and addictive quality of smoking cigarettes. The same strategy was used then, when big tobacco worked to bring doubt into the argument that cigarettes are harmful to human health.

While the plan for instilling doubt around the impact of smoking on human health eventually failed, for now the project promoting ACD-related doubt continues apace, and the jury is still "out."

Between 2002 and 2010, billionaires had donated roughly $120 million to over 100 anti-climate science groups, according to The Guardian.

A similar move, as reported by the Center for Media and Democracy, revealed how a group of right-wing think tanks called the State Policy Network, affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and funded with over $83 million by companies including Facebook, AT&T and Microsoft, pushed an agenda that included opposition to climate change rules and regulations.

Furthermore, as previously reported by Truthout:

A new study from two groups, Forecast the Facts Action and the, says that since 2008, businesses have given campaign contributions to the 160 members of Congress who have rejected climate change that amount to more than $640 million. That includes Google, eBay, Ford and UPS; in fact, 90 percent of the cash came from outside the fossil fuel industry.

And So It Goes . . .

Examples of the denial project abound during any given week.

During a recent hearing on the Hill, Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Indiana) admitted that he did not accept the scientific literature on ACD. The reason he didn't, he said, was because the scientists producing the reports needed ACD to exist "in order to get paid."

Bucshon took it further by trotting out the usual tired arguments that have long since been addressed: that the global temperature hasn't changed in nearly 20 years - and then the other stroke of brilliance, that "the climate is always changing."

Meanwhile on other fronts, the ACD denial mechanisms make themselves known through other strategies. One example of this is how The Heartland Institute, an extremely right-wing "think tank" funded by the Koch brothers, has pushed a proposal for Texas to adopt new textbooks, in which ACD would be denied.

The denial-based antics of Gov. Chris Christie are ongoing as well: He recently said that a regional cap-and-trade program from which his state of New Jersey withdrew in 2011 was "a completely useless plan" and added that he "would not think of rejoining it."

Louisiana's Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential Republican presidential candidate for 2016, is taking a "soft denial" approach by admitting that ACD is real, but the extent to which humans have a role is still in "doubt."

The denial project's success is evidenced by large numbers of Americans racing to buy and develop seashore properties despite them being in areas well known to be at high-risk for rising seas and increasingly intense storms. Mike Huckabee, now apparently a chronic presidential candidate, is among those racing to build on shores that will be submerged in the not-so-distant future.

It's no coincidence that merely 3 percent of current Congressional Republicans have even gone on record to accept the fact that climate disruption is anthropogenic, according to PolitiFact, which also found that there is a grand total of eight Republican non-deniers, total, in the House and Senate.

Another interesting turn of events shows companies like GE and Google operating as large companies do in advance of elections - funding both sides to safeguard their interests. In this case, these companies, along with others, are making campaign contributions to Congressional ACD-deniers while simultaneously professing to be pro-sustainability companies.

Meanwhile the media blitz continues, as the Rupert Murdoch-owned and ACD-denying Wall Street Journal recently ran an article titled "Climate Science Is Not Settled," which was of course chock full of the usual ACD-denier talking points. The article provides us with a prime example of how the doubt-narrative is consistently slipped in as a meme: "Any serious discussion of the changing climate must begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future."

Almost needless to say, Steven Koonin, formerly with BP as that company's "chief scientist," generated the propaganda.

So stay tuned.

With major money being funneled toward projects to instill "doubt" about the science and reality of ACD, which only continues to worsen, we can only expect for these antics to both continue and increase in their hysteria.

For now, we can remain contented with ongoing quality antics:

"As Steven Guilbeault of Greenpeace explained, 'global warming can mean colder, it can mean drier, it can mean wetter,'" Ann Coulter has said. "No set of facts can disprove the environmentalists' secular religion. In 2004, former vice president Al Gore gave a speech on global warming in New York City on the coldest day of the year. Warm trends prove global warming. Cold trends also prove global warming. This is the philosophy of a madman."

News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 10:29:52 -0400