Truthout Stories Wed, 02 Sep 2015 11:00:44 -0400 en-gb The Pentagon Persecutes a Political Prisoner

Supporters of Chelsea Manning rallied to her defense after the Army threatened the whistleblower with indefinite solitary confinement for "crimes" that included possessing an issue of Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover and "expired" toothpaste.

Public pressure - including more than 100,000 signatures on a petition demanding the charges be dropped - helped push back the threats of a maximum sentence of indefinite solitary for these disciplinary violations. However, a three-person military board ruled on August 18 that she was guilty of four charges and gave her 21 days of recreational restrictions - no gym, library or outdoors.

The board's ruling could have a more far-reaching impact. Manning's lawyers are concerned that now that the convictions are on her permanent record, they could be used in future parole or clemency hearings, and could delay her transition to minimum security custody status. Manning explained via Twitter, "Now these convictions will follow me thru to any parole/clemency hearing forever. Was expecting to be in min custody in Feb, now years added."

During the four-hour, closed-door hearing, Manning's was not allowed to have legal counsel present - another of the many injustices Manning has faced in the US Army's years-long campaign to persecute and silence her.

The transgender Army private was sentenced to 35 years in Fort Leavenworth military prison in 2013 for espionage after she went public with hundreds of thousands of top-secret military documents exposing, among other things, the US responsibility for thousands of previously unreleased civilian casualties.

The 700,000 documents and videos made public by the watchdog website WikiLeaks showed that the Pentagon failed to investigate reports of torture, rape and abuse committed by the part of the US military in Iraq--including the killing of 700 civilians, pregnant women and children among them, at border checkpoints. Video of a US air attack in Baghdad in 2007 showed the killing of two Reuters war correspondents by US Apache helicopters.


From Behind the bars of a military prison, Manning - who was first diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2010 - is an outspoken opponent of the crimes of the US military and advocate for transgender rights. She has a column in Britain's Guardian newspaper in which she takes up the military, civil liberties and trans issues.

The Pentagon has thrown up obstacles to Manning every step of the way, including unrelenting harassment and psychological abuse. After she was arrested, it threatened her with the death penalty and forced her languish in the torture of solitary confinement in Kuwait, and again while she awaited trial at Quantico in Virginia.

Only after months of protest did military officials say that they would allow Manning to undergo hormone therapy, which began in February. The ACLU has also filed a lawsuit demanding that the military respect Manning's requests to grow her hair out. The military continues to force her to shave her head to the Army's grooming standards for males.

In July, Manning was written up for medicine misuse, for having expired toothpaste; disorderly conduct, for brushing food onto the floor; disrespect to an officer; and having prohibited property, such as magazines and books, in her cell. She was sent to solitary confinement for 24 hours, while guards searched her cell and confiscated her property.

The prohibited reading materials, totaling 21 books and magazines, confiscated from her cell included: the issue of Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover, Advocate, OUT Magazine, an issue of Cosmopolitan with an interview of Manning, Transgender Studies Quarterly, a novel about trans issues called A Safe Girl to Love, the book I Am Malala about the Afghan school girl who was shot by the Taliban and became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, legal documents including the Senate Torture Report, and a book about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791.

Prior to the hearing, Manning says that she was refused access to the prison's law library. The military itself refused to release any information on Manning's disciplinary hearing, citing the Privacy Act of 1976, according to the Associated Press. The results of her hearing are only known because Manning released the details herself.

The military would prefer that the inhumane treatment of Chelsea Manning go unreported - just like the war crimes revealed by the documents she leaked five years ago. Officials would prefer that she is isolated, stripped of her right to free speech and never heard from again. Unfortunately for the US Army, Chelsea's supporters are watching.

Manning lawyer Chase Strangio told the Associated Press, "When I spoke to Chelsea earlier today she wanted to convey the message to supporters that she is so thankful for the thousands of people from around the world who let the government know that we are watching and scrutinizing what happens to her behind prison walls." Strangio added that it was this support that played the key role in keeping Manning out of solitary confinement.

"Chelsea's ridiculous convictions today will not silence her," Manning's other attorney, Nancy Hollander, tweeted after the hearing. "And we will fight even harder in her appeal to overturn all her convictions."

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Criminalization of the Hunger Strike

Officials portray hunger strikes as crimes rather than as protests of last resort, but Guantánamo detainees, Palestinian political prisoners and Chicagoans challenging the closure of a local school see hunger strikes as the best way to challenge the status quo.

Israeli police break up a demonstration in support of hunger striking prisoners, outside of Ramle Prison in Ramle, Israel, May 3, 2012. Scores of Palestinian prisoners have joined a hunger strike that officials say now counts more than 1,500 participants. (Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times).Israeli police break up a demonstration in support of hunger striking prisoners, outside of Ramle Prison in Ramle, Israel, May 3, 2012. Scores of Palestinian prisoners have joined a hunger strike that officials say now counts more than 1,500 participants. (Photo: Rina Castelnuovo / The New York Times).

Seven years ago, Barack Obama pledged to close down the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, telling the crowds that flocked to his campaign speeches that the United States must "restore habeas corpus" in order to "lead by example." Though the Department of Defense is still weighing options on how to close the facility before Obama leaves office, the process seems to be going nowhere. Some of this blame rests on Congress, which has repeatedly refused to lift restrictions on moving detainees despite the fact that nearly half of them are cleared for transfer.

Despite Obama's professed concern for civil liberties, his administration is currently challenging the habeas corpus petition of a Guantánamo detainee on hunger strike. Tariq Ba Odah has spent 13 years at Guantánamo and is now on the verge of starvation. The 36-year-old currently weighs 74 pounds. In 2009, the Obama administration cleared Ba Odah for transfer due to lack of evidence that he posed a threat to national security, yet he remains imprisoned due to his Yemeni citizenship.

From the United States to Israel, hunger strikes like Ba Odah's are often portrayed as crimes rather than as protests of last resort. According to a recent Guardian report, an anonymous US official claims that certain members of the Defense Department believe that hunger strikes are "functionally a method of warfare."

"We are undeterred, even if we are weaker physically. Our mental determination gets stronger with each day."

On the South Side of Chicago, 12 parents are currently on a hunger strike to protest the closure of Dyett High School. One of the hunger strikers has been arrested twice for trying to talk to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who shut down 49 public schools in 2013 alone and whose name has become synonymous with the toxic effects of corporate education reform.

The parents in Chicago, who are midway through the third week of their hunger strike, have received support from Jesse Jackson and the Chicago Teachers Union. Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the teachers union, said that without a solution from Mayor Emanuel in the next month, "someone's going to die." Those who are putting their lives on the line to fight school privatization remain steadfast despite headaches, fatigue and at least one hospitalization. "We are undeterred, even if we are weaker physically," said elementary school teacher and union activist Monique Redeaux-Smith. "Our mental determination gets stronger with each day."

Meanwhile Will Burns, alderman of Chicago's Fourth Ward, released a statement in which he insisted he "will not be bullied into submitting to the special interests and scare tactics of one group." Here we see the same criminalizing logic at play - a mentality that allows government officials to feel "bullied" by ordinary citizens refusing to eat.

Criminalizing portrayals of hunger strikes in the US echo the stance of the Israeli government, which passed a bill in June allowing the force-feeding of hunger strikers regardless of whether it poses a threat to their lives. The "Law to Prevent Harm Caused by Hunger Strikes" has been heavily promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while drawing condemnation from the Israeli Medical Association. In a letter to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Israeli Medical Association chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman wrote that the law "contradicts and is in opposition to the standards of medical ethics accepted in Israel and by the entire world.... Parenteral (intravenous) nutrition administered to a patient capable of judgment against his will isn't ethical and requires humiliating means bordering on torture." Erdan was unswayed, claiming, "Security prisoners are interested in turning a hunger strike into a new type of suicide terrorist attack through which they will threaten the State of Israel."

According to the Council for European Economic Relations, an estimated 6,800 Palestinian prisoners are being held in Israeli jails. Palestinians are routinely taken from their homes in the middle of the night and held indefinitely without being charged; as of 2012, 309 prisoners are being held under administrative detention. Each six-month sentence can be renewed without trial.

The power of the hunger strike lies not in its nonviolence but in its militancy.

The most notable recent example of a Palestinian hunger striker is Khader Adnan, a spokesman for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who has been held under administrative detention (imprisonment without trial) 10 separate times. He has never been charged with attacking Israelis, but is routinely accused of such vague offenses as "activities that threaten regional security." In April 2012, he was released after being on hunger strike for 66 days.

Adnan has been called the West Bank's Bobby Sands, and comparisons with the Irish revolutionary are apt. Sands died on the 65th day of his hunger strike, already a hero of the Irish nationalist movement. Both Sands and Adnan were fighting essentially anti-colonial battles, choosing self-starvation over car bombs not for lack of spite but out of a shared conviction that nonviolence was the most effective means of attack.

The power of the hunger strike lies not in its nonviolence (after all, there are plenty of methods of nonviolent resistance that don't command the same attention) but in its militancy. The underlying aggression is that of liberationist violence turned inward, forcing the state to confront its own inhumanity while short-circuiting any attempts to paint the prisoner as harmful or destructive. The political prisoner who can attract widespread support for his or her struggle is more dangerous to authoritarian regimes than a suicide bomber, who can easily be dismissed as a dangerous ideologue with no real base.

Conservative politicians, by condemning hunger strikes as acts of terrorism, are aligning themselves historically with the cruelty of Winston Churchill. During the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed several million, Secretary of State for India Leopold Amery asked Churchill to release food supplies to stop the wave of deaths. His response - "If food is so scarce, why hasn't Gandhi died yet?" - was typical of what Amery referred to as Churchill's "Hitler-like attitude" toward India.

Hunger strikers don't seek pity; they seek a collective rage strong enough to turn the tide against the Churchills and Netanyahus of the world. The attempt to paint this tactic as an act of violence is transparently absurd. Nonviolence does not necessarily connote a lack of anger; in fact, it is safe to assume that those who undertake hunger strikes harbor a fair degree of anger toward the objects of their protests, Gandhi's "universal love" doctrine notwithstanding. Those who invent flimsy pretexts for condemning this method of resistance are baring their true aim: compliance.

A hunger strike gives the lie to the idea that reactionary leaders are primarily concerned with preserving peaceful coexistence. It demonstrates that their aim is to preserve the existing hierarchy and to deny fair treatment to those who challenge it; arguments over the validity of a particular tactic are merely incidental. The horror over a car bomb or political assassination (often conveyed by those who approve of such actions in other contexts) cannot be easily transferred to a hunger strike, which is more likely to elicit sympathy than righteous condemnation.

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Was the Katrina Oil Spill Disaster a Harbinger for the Atlantic Coast?

When Hurricane Katrina hit the US Gulf Coast 10 years ago, it set off a disaster of many parts - and one of those parts was an oil spill catastrophe.

In fact, Katrina turned out to be the worst US oil spill disaster since the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska. The storm resulted in an estimated 8 million gallons of oil spilled onto the ground and into waterways from Louisiana to Alabama. Both of those incidents have since been surpassed by the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf, which affected some of the same areas as the Katrina spill.

The Katrina oil disaster offers important lessons for residents of the Atlantic Coast - another hurricane-vulnerable region that may soon be opened to offshore drilling. Federal regulators are now considering whether to include an area 50 miles off the coast from Virginia to Georgia in the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf drilling lease plan.

Katrina made its initial landfall in southeastern Louisiana in Plaquemines Parish, a center of the oil industry, as a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 125 miles per hour. The two single largest spills resulting from the storm occurred in Plaquemines: one involving storage tanks at the Bass Enterprises site in Cox Bay that dumped 3.78 million gallons of oil into the environment, and another from Chevron's Empire terminal in Buras that released 1.4 million gallons.

There were also spills in more populous parts of the state, including an incident involving a ruptured storage tank at the Murphy Oil refinery in St. Bernard Parish just east of New Orleans that spilled about 1 million gallons of oil, affecting as many as 10,000 homes in the surrounding neighborhoods.

In 2006, the US Minerals Management Service (MMS), since reorganized into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, issued a report on damage to oil and gas infrastructure resulting from Katrina as well as Hurricane Rita, which made landfall on Sept. 24, 2005 as a Category 3 storm along the Texas-Louisiana border. MMS found that together the two storms damaged a total of 457 pipelines, 101 of those major lines of 10 inches or more in diameter, and destroyed 113 offshore drilling platforms. A 2007 study for MMS reported that the storms also resulted in about 750,000 gallons of petroleum products spilling from offshore platforms, rigs and pipelines.

President George W. Bush's White House acknowledged the enormity of the Katrina oil disaster in the official administration report on the storm, "The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned":

Much more than any other hurricane, Katrina's wrath went far beyond wind and water damage. In fact, Hurricane Katrina caused at least ten oil spills, releasing the same quantity of oil as some of the worst oil spills in US history.

In the years since Katrina, however, politicians friendly with the oil and gas industry have tried to erase the reality of the storm's impact on the Gulf's energy infrastructure and the resulting pollution. That effort to rewrite history intensified in 2008 after President Bush, a former Texas oilman, reversed decades of presidential policy by proposing to expand offshore drilling to new areas, including the Atlantic Coast.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, now running for the Republican nomination for president, told Fox News in the wake of Bush's drilling announcement, "That's one of the great unwritten success stories, after Katrina and Rita, these awful storms, no major spills." Around the same time, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also currently running for the GOP presidential nomination, said that "not one drop of oil was spilled off of those rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico" when Katrina hit.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory - who's now leading the charge for Atlantic oil and gas drilling as chair of the industry-managed Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, despite strong opposition in coastal communities - also weighed in during his unsuccessful 2008 gubernatorial run, claiming that "we didn't have one oil spill due to Katrina."

Minor Storms, Major Spills

The claims of politicians aside, Hurricane Katrina showed that when major hurricanes hit oil-producing regions they can cause major oil spills. But another lesson storm-prone Gulf Coast communities have learned over the years is that even minor hurricanes can lead to significant spills and pollution.

Consider Hurricane Isaac. On Aug. 28, 2012, the relatively mild Category 1 storm made landfall in southeastern Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi River. A year later, the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) - an alliance of environmental advocacy groups launched to collect, share and publish data on pollution in the region - released a report examining Isaac's impacts.

"Despite the relatively unremarkable nature of the storm, GMC documented numerous examples of pollution from infrastructure failures at fossil fuel transport, storage, and refining facilities during and after the storm," the report stated. "These failures included inadequate levees which allowed contaminated water to spill into surrounding wetlands, waterways, and communities; insufficient storage capacity to handle stormwater and/or wastewater during predictable high-rain events; tanks and railroad tanker cars shifted or upset by the storm and floodwaters, and other weaknesses."

Among the spills related to Isaac that GMC documented:

* The Marathon refinery in Garyville, Louisiana dumped 12.6 million gallons of untreated stormwater runoff from its process areas into Lake Maurepas.

* Oil wastewater overflowed the collection system at the Phillips 66 refinery in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, which is located on the Mississippi River.

* Though the Valero refinery in St. Charles Parish shut down before the storm, it still experienced a spill of 47 gallons of slop oil, including 7.8 pounds of cancer-causing benzene.

* Satellite images and flyovers taken after the storm documented an oil slick from a closed Chevron offshore well as well as oil leaks at other offshore sites and from oil production and storage facilities.

"In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, it became crystal clear that companies are not taking the action necessary to safeguard their facilities," Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network, a GMC member, said at the time.

Besides causing acute oil-spill crises, hurricanes can also lead to chronic leaks - a lesson learned from the ongoing Taylor Energy oil leak a few miles off the Louisiana coast.

When Hurricane Ivan moved through the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 3 storm in September 2004, it triggered an undersea landslide that toppled an oil platform formerly operated by Taylor Energy. The New Orleans-based company has attempted to halt the leak, but it continues 11 years later.

SkyTruth, an environmental watchdog group based in West Virginia, has used satellite images and pollution reports to estimate that between 300,000 and 1.4 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf from the Taylor Energy site, and the leak shows no signs of tapering off. Federal officials have said they think it will continue for another century until the reservoir is empty.

SkyTruth President John Amos, a geologist, has called the Taylor leak "a dirty little secret in plain sight."

Oil and Land Loss

Polluting spills are not the only hazards created when the oil industry and hurricanes mix: The combination also drives coastal land loss, making inland communities more vulnerable to storm damage.

One of the reasons Hurricane Katrina was so destructive, causing damages estimated at $108 billion, was that the flooding and storm surges it brought were made worse by the loss of protective coastal wetlands to open waters. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of coastal lands - an area about the size of Delaware. The state's land continues to disappear into the Gulf of Mexico at a rapid pace, with an area about the size of a football field lost every hour.

Louisiana is losing land so rapidly in large part because of oil and gas industry activity: the tens of thousands of wells drilled and thousands of miles of pipelines laid and canals carved into coastal wetlands (see US Geological Survey photo of the Louisiana coast above). Every cut made in the wetlands allows the Gulf's saltwater to intrude, which in turn kills soil-anchoring plants and trees, allowing more land to slip away.

The oil and gas industry itself has acknowledged causing 36 percent of all wetlands loss in southeastern Louisiana, with other estimates putting that figure as high as 59 percent. However, the industry is fighting local governments' efforts to make it pay for restoration, which could leave taxpayers to foot the bill.

Also contributing to land loss are levees, which starve coastal lands of fresh sediment, and natural land subsidence. In addition, rising seas are becoming an increasingly important factorin coastal land loss - especially under an energy policy that encourages burning oil and gas. At the same time, the global warming exacerbated by burning fossil fuels is contributing to more intense hurricanes.

The area of the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Georgia where drilling has been proposed is already extremely vulnerable to hurricanes and sea-level rise. North Carolina is among the most hurricane-prone states in the nation, having experienced 46 hurricanes in the period from 1851 to 2004 - the fourth-most after Florida, Texas and Louisiana. In that same period South Carolina was hit by 31 hurricanes, Georgia by 20 and Virginia by 12.

Meanwhile, scientists have identified a "hotspot" of accelerated sea-level rise on the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina's Outer Banks to Massachusetts, where seas are rising three to four times as fast as they are globally. Norfolk, Virginia already experiences street flooding during ordinary high tides. Recent studies have found that North Carolina's Outer Banks face a sea-level rise of nearly 5.5 inches over the next 30 years, while an earlier study found the ocean off the state's coast would rise 39 inches in the next century. And in South Carolina's Lowcountry, up to five feet of sea level rise are expected by 2100, while Charleston is already experiencing more frequent flooding.

Atlantic Coast communities face a perilous future from a warming climate, rising seas and more destructive hurricanes. Adding oil to the mix will heighten the dangers they face, as Hurricane Katrina showed.

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
How Charles Koch Prevents Clean Energy Businesses From Succeeding

(Photo: Air pollution via Shutterstock)The Kochs use their political influence and funding for efforts to repeal laws designed to support the deployment of more renewable electricity. (Photo: Air pollution via Shutterstock)

Last week, President Obama correctly singled out the Koch brothers - Charles and David - and the Koch-funded network for standing in the way of America's clean energy future. Charles Koch responded saying he was "flabbergasted" after hearing Obama's remark. He continued, "We are not trying to prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding." This statement is, at best, highly misleading.

Charles Koch states that he believes government should be smaller and it should not subsidize businesses, including any form of energy business. But while he acknowledges that the fossil fuel businesses he owns benefit tremendously from government subsidies, he doesn't refuse those benefits or do anything to stop those policy choices.  Meanwhile, the Kochs use their political influence and funding for efforts to repeal laws designed to support the deployment of more renewable electricity. Specifically, their political network's agenda includes weakening renewable energy standards, preventing customers from installing solar panels (by charging fees on people that go solar), and protecting the government monopolized electric utilities.

The facts are indisputable.

Note: For more background, read this full briefing on the Koch's web of influence across American society.

Here are the facts:

  • Arizona Public Service Company (APS), the largest electric utility company in Arizona, admitted that it worked with the 60 Plus Association, a Virginia-based nonprofit seniors advocacy group receiving Koch money, to support the utility company's proposal to add fees on homeowners with solar panels. Here is an advertisement paid for by 60 Plus Association attacking solar energy in Arizona.
  • 60 Plus Association is now working with the utility companies in Florida to preserve the status quo and the state's outdated business model, and prevent customers from purchasing electricity from third party solar companies.
  • Americans For Prosperity has also worked in Kansas and North Carolina to repeal, weaken, or freeze those states renewable energy standards. In 2013, AFP flew Willie Soon to Kansas where he testified in front of state legislators that global warming isn't a problem as part of AFP's attempt to completely repeal the renewable energy standard. James Taylor, from the ExxonMobil and Koch-funded Heartland Institute, attended an AFP event the same year to increase support for repealing the state's standard, and he also testified against the law. Furthermore, Koch Industries' lobbyist Jonathan Small worked behind the scenes in the repeal efforts. Small held private talks with Representative Dennis Hedke (R-Wichita) about legislation to eliminate the law. In 2015, the standard was changed to a voluntary one after legislators threatened to impose an excise tax on wind energy. Mike Morgan, a lobbyist for Koch Industries, joined Rep. Hedke and Jeff Glendenning of AFP at the announcement.
  • Additionally, Koch-controlled foundations approved grants for Art Hall, director of the University of Kansas' Center for Applied Economics, to research the state's renewable energy standard. Lee Fang at The Intercept writes, "The Koch money was part of an ongoing project Hall described as an effort to develop "intellectual products" to be used "as a tool in economic policy debates… Following his grant request, Hall testified before the Kansas legislature in 2014 in favor of repealing the state renewable energy portfolio."


Last month, President Obama called out the Koch brothers for standing in the way of the clean energy future.

"But when you start seeing massive lobbying efforts backed by fossil fuel interests, or conservative think tanks, or the Koch brothers pushing for new laws to roll back renewable energy standards or prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding - that's a problem.  That's not the American way.  That's not progress.  That's not innovation.  That's rent seeking and trying to protect old ways of doing business and standing in the way of the future."

Charles Koch responded the next day by working with Mike Allen at Politico. Allen writes,

Charles Koch hit back at criticism of "the Koch brothers" during President Barack Obama's energy speech in Las Vegas earlier this week, saying he was "flabbergasted" by the attack…

 "We are not trying to prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding," Koch continued. "Any business that's economical, that can succeed in the marketplace, any form of energy, we're all for. As a matter of fact, we're investing in quite a number of them, ourselves - whether that's ethanol, renewable fuel oil. … We're investing a tremendous amount in research to make those more efficient and create higher-value products."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest hit back and said,

"I'm not sure whether to describe those comments as remarkably rich or utterly predictable… The fact is that Koch Industries has spent at least tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, lobbying Congress - these are public disclosures — in support of those kinds of policies, to say nothing of the millions of dollars that they have spent punishing those candidates that didn't side with them."

Philip Ellender, Koch Companies Private Sector's president and COO of government and public affairs, then countered via email to Nick Gass at Politico, saying,

"We think it is hypocritical that Mr. Earnest attempted to tout the merits of a free-market system while promoting a new round of taxpayer-funded loan guarantees for the Administration's politically friendly special interests. That said, Mr. Earnest's statement about Koch is inaccurate. We have not lobbied for government subsidies or mandates, and we have lobbied against subsidies that directly benefit Koch."


Republic Report is an investigative news blog dedicated to uncovering the corrupting influence of money in politics.

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
An Afghan Girl Buries Her Toy Gun and Says…

Sakina breaks a toy gun before burying it. Inam and other street kids await their turn. (Photo: Dr. Hakim)Sakina breaks a toy gun before burying it. Inam and other street kids await their turn. (Photo: Dr. Hakim)

Ten-year-old Sakina, an Afghan street kid, had this to say, "I don't like to be in a world of war. I like to be in a world of peace."

On 27th August 2015, Sakina and Inam, with fellow Afghan street kids and the Afghan Peace Volunteers, held a mock funeral for weapons and celebrated the establishment of a green space in Kabul.

Dressed in long black coats, they broke and buried toy guns in a small spot where, over the past two years, they have been planting trees.

Sakina breaks a toy gun before burying it. Inam and other street kids await their turn.

Inam, a bright-eyed ten year old, caught the group's energetic desire to build a world without war. "I kept toy guns till about three years ago," he acknowledged with a smile.

On the same day, Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez, ex-President of Costa Rica, was in Mexico for the Arms Trade Treaty's First Conference of States Parties.

In his statement at the Conference, he told the story of an indigenous Guatemalan woman who thanked him for negotiating a peace accord 28 years ago. The mother had said, "Thank you, Mr. President, for my child who is in the mountains fighting, and for the child I carry in my womb."

No mother, Guatemalan or Afghan, wants her children to be killed in war.

Oscar Arias Sanchez wrote: "I never met them, but those children of conflict are never far from my thoughts. They were [the peace treaty's] true authors, its reason for being."

I'm confident that the children of Afghanistan were also in his thoughts, especially since he had a brief personal connection with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in 2014, having been part of a Peace Jam video message of solidarity to the Volunteers, wearing their Borderfree Blue Scarves which symbolize that "all human beings live under the same blue sky".

I thank Mr Oscar Arias Sanchez for his important work on the Arms Trade Treaty, though I sense that an arms trade treaty isn't going to be enough.

Afghan children are dying from the use of weapons.

To survive, they need a ban against weapons. Regulations about buying and selling weapons perpetuate a trade that is killing them.

I saw Inam and other child laborers who work in Kabul's streets decisively swing hammers down on the plastic toy guns, breaking off triggers, scattering nozzles into useless pieces and symbolically breaking our adult addiction to weapons.

Children shouldn't have to pay the price for our usual business, especially business from the U.S., the largest arms seller in the world. U.S. children suffer too, with more U.S. people having died as a result of gun violence since 1968 than have died in all U.S. wars combined. U.S. weapon sellers are killing their own people; by exporting their state-of-the-art weapons, they facilitate the killing of many others around the world.

After burying the toy guns, surrounded by the evergreen and poplar trees which they had planted, the youth shed their black coats and donned sky-blue scarves.

Another world was appearing as Sakina and Inam watched young friends plant one more evergreen sapling.

Inam was watching as another evergreen tree was planted. (Photo: Dr. Hakim)Inam was watching as another evergreen tree was planted. (Photo: Dr. Hakim)


Inam knew that it hasn't been easy to create this green space in heavily fortified Kabul.

The City Municipality said they couldn't water the trees (though it is just 200 metres away from their office). The Greenery Department weren't helpful. Finally, the security guards of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission just across from the garden, offered to help, after the Volunteers had provided them with a 100-metre water hose.

Rohullah, who coordinates the environment team at the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre, expressed his frustration. "Once, we had to hire a private water delivery service to water the tree saplings so they wouldn't shrivel up. None of the government departments could assist."

Sighing, he added ironically, "We can't use the Kabul River tributary running just next to the Garden, as the trash-laden trickle of black, bracken water is smelly and filthy."

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, according to figures from the National Priorities Project, a non-profit, non-partisan U.S. federal budget research group, the ongoing Afghan War is costing American taxpayers US $4 million an hour.

It is the youth and children who are making sense today, like when Nobel Laureate Malalai Yousafzai said recently that if the whole world stopped spending money on the military for just 8 days, we could provide 12 years of free, quality education for every child on the planet.

"I don't like to work in the streets, but my family needs bread. Usually, I feel sad," Inam said, looking away, "because I feel a sort of helplessness."

Oscar Arias Sanchez said at the Arms Trade Treaty's First Conference, "And we must speak, today - in favour of this crucial treaty, and its swift and effective implementation. If we do, then when today's children of conflict look to us for guidance and leadership, we will no longer look away in shame. We will be able to tell them, at long last, that we are standing watch for them. We are on guard. Someone is finally ready to take action."

That morning, I heard the voices of Sakina, Inam and the Afghan youth ring through the street, "#Enough of war!"

Sakina speaks to a T.V. reporter. Rohullah is on her right, Inam on her left. (Photo: Dr. Hakim)Sakina speaks to a TV reporter. Rohullah is on her right, Inam on her left. (Photo: Dr. Hakim)

It wasn't a protest. It was the hands-on building of a green spot without weapons, and an encouraging call for others to do so everywhere.

Through their dramatic colours and clear action, they were inviting all of us, "Bury your weapons. Build your gardens."

"We will stand watch for you!"

Opinion Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Two Years After Hunger Strike, California Settlement May Release 2,000 Prisoners From Solitary

 Robert Luca, an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison who was a gang member, looking out the grates of his cell, near Crescent City, Calif., Feb. 10, 2012.  (Jim Wilson/The New York Times) Robert Luca, an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison who was a gang member, looking out the grates of his cell, near Crescent City, Calif., Feb. 10, 2012. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Under a historic settlement reached this week, California prisoners who have spent 10 or more years in solitary confinement, and many of whom have participated in mass hunger strikes protesting prison conditions, will be able to interact with others in person for the first time in years.

 Robert Luca, an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison who was a gang member, looking out the grates of his cell, near Crescent City, Calif., Feb. 10, 2012.  (Jim Wilson/The New York Times) Robert Luca, an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison who was a gang member, looking out the grates of his cell, near Crescent City, Calif., Feb. 10, 2012. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Attorneys and family members announced on September 1 what they called a "landmark settlement" in the class-action lawsuit Ashker v. Governor of California. The settlement, stated lead attorney Jules Lobel, "is an important step in the growing movement to end solitary confinement."

The settlement comes after months of negotiations between advocates and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). It also comes after years of agitation, including a lawsuit and three mass prison hunger strikes, aimed at ending California's practice of placing prisoners in isolation for indeterminate periods of time. Advocates predict that between 1,500 and 2,000 people will be released from isolation in the coming months.

At issue is California's security housing units (or SHU) and its practice of placing those accused of gang affiliation within these units for an indeterminate time period. Within the SHU, they are locked into windowless cells for at least 23 hours per day. When taken out of their cells - for a shower, a visit or an hour of recreation alone in an exercise pen - they are handcuffed and ankle chained. Two categories of people are placed in the SHU. Those who break prison rules are temporarily sent to the SHU for up to five years. The other category includes those who have been placed in isolation on accusations of gang involvement. For them, there is no fixed end date. Until recently, accusations that have landed them in the SHU often relied on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence, such as tattoos or associations with others. Until recently, one of the few ways to be released from the SHU was to "debrief" or provide information incriminating others, who are then placed in the SHU for an indeterminate sentence. They are the ones who have written manifestoes, filed lawsuits and repeatedly gone on hunger strike to protest their conditions of confinement.

In California's Pelican Bay State Prison, 1,134 of its 1,181 prisoners were held in the SHU as of June 2015. Although CDCR insists that solitary confinement does not exist within its prison system, those within the SHU argue otherwise and, in 2012, went to court to prove it.

Todd Ashker will be able to leave his cell and be around other people for the first time in 25 years.

That year, noted Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and lead attorney on the lawsuit, more than 500 people had been isolated in the security housing unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay for over 10 years. Seventy-eight people had spent more than 20 years under these conditions. Todd Ashker, the lead plaintiff, is one of those 78 people. He arrived at Pelican Bay in 1990, less than a year after the prison opened.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Ashker will be able to leave his cell and be around other people for the first time in 25 years. Under the settlement, those who have spent 10 or more years in the SHU will be placed in either general population or a new restrictive custody general population facility. This unit is not solitary confinement, Lobel said. Instead, it will be a high-security unit in which prisoners are subject to intense supervision but will have the opportunity to interact with one another in person, participate in group programs and have contact visits with their families and loved ones. Those who have spent the longest time in the SHU will be reviewed first.

The settlement also requires CDCR to review all prisoners placed in the SHU for gang affiliation, prohibits future SHU placement based solely on gang affiliation and prohibits indeterminate SHU placement. It also limits placement in Pelican Bay's SHU to five years. The Step Down program, which has been criticized by advocates and prisoners, has been revised to last only 24 months instead of three to four years. Those who fail to complete the Step Down program will be sent to a restricted custody general population facility, not back to the SHU. Those who complete the Step Down program will be placed in general population. The settlement gives CDCR one year to make these changes. But attorneys expect that people within the SHU will be seeing changes sooner than that. In addition, the settlement also includes at least two years of compliance monitoring by a federal magistrate.

CDCR officials also view the settlement as a step in the right direction. "This proposed settlement is a key milestone for CDCR as we continue to reform our gang management and Security Housing Unit policies," stated CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard. "We started this important work several years ago, successfully reducing the use of segregated housing for gang-validated inmates. That foundation allows us to safely and efficiently make the changes announced today."

"Peaceful Protests Made This Settlement Possible"

Attorneys and advocates are quick to point out that the settlement is the result of organizing by those within the SHU and their family members and supporters outside prison walls.

On July 1, 2011, Ashker and thousands of other prisoners went on hunger strike to protest prison policies, particularly those that kept them in the SHU indefinitely. They issued five core demands:

  1. Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
  2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
  3. Comply with the recommendations of the 2006 US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
  4. Provide adequate food;
  5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

The strike lasted for three weeks, spread to 13 other state prisons and its height involved at least 6,600 people incarcerated throughout California. In September 2011, prisoners resumed their hunger strike. Again, the strike lasted three weeks, but this time involved nearly 12,000 people, including California prisoners held in out-of-state private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The strike ended after CDCR officials guaranteed a comprehensive review of every person placed in the SHU on charges of gang affiliation.

"I am hoping that this is just the beginning of an end of a practice that has gone on for far, far too long."

The following year, in 2012, CDCR changed its criteria for SHU placement from gang affiliates to those who are identified as part of "security threat groups" (STGs) and have participated in gang-related behavior. Its new policy prohibited SHU placement based solely on allegations of gang affiliation or information from confidential informants. It also released a Step Down program, in which SHU prisoners are reviewed and assigned to one of five steps, with each step allowing more privileges and contact with other people. Terry Thornton, CDCR deputy press secretary, has noted that, under the Step Down program, those in the SHU are no longer required to debrief, or even drop out of their gang. However, debriefing was not eliminated; those who choose to debrief are moved from the SHU to a transitional housing unit.

These changes did not satisfy prisoners in Pelican Bay's SHU. On July 8, 2013, they began another hunger strike. On the first day, over 30,000 people incarcerated throughout California refused meals. Although the numbers decreased over time, the strike lasted 60 days, making headlines and bringing the issue of solitary confinement onto evening news segments. It ended only after California legislators Loni Hancock and Tom Ammiano promised to hold hearings around the issues raised by the hunger strikers.

"These peaceful protests put the spotlight on these practices," stated Carol Strickman, staff attorney for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and co-counsel on Ashker. "They made this settlement possible."

"I Am Hoping That This Is Just the Beginning"

Dolores Canales' son Johnny has been in the SHU at Pelican Bay for the past 14 years. He participated in the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes, hoping to draw widespread attention to the realities that he and many thousands faced behind prison walls. For Canales, the settlement agreement comes as welcome news. "I am hoping that this is just the beginning of an end of a practice that has gone on for far, far too long," she stated.

Marie Levin's brother Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa has been in the SHU for the past 31 years. He is also a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. In May 2014, he was reviewed under the Step Down program and assigned to step three, which was a SHU in the state prison in Tehachapi in the southern part of California. His visits continued to be behind glass. Levin's voice begins to crack as she relays the impact of the settlement on her and her brother. "It will be a blessing to give him a hug, give him a kiss," she said.

For Canales, the announcement - and its implications for prisoners and their family members - is bittersweet. "I'm reminded of family members that I have befriended along the way," she said, as she reflects on the actions of Johnny and others locked within the SHU and her own activism in their support. "Some of them have died without ever being able to hold their loved ones' hands. They have only been able to see their loved one from behind glass."

For Todd Ashker, currently in his 25th year inside Pelican Bay's SHU, the settlement "should be viewed as a victory we can build on in our protracted ongoing struggle to end long-term solitary confinement."

News Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Thomas Edison Was Right About Solar Power

Solar powerIt's time to tap the earth's inexhaustible sources of energy in the nuclear fusion reactor 93 million miles away that we call our sun. (Image: Solar power via Shutterstock)

Famed inventor Thomas Edison brought us electric lights, phonographs, movies and even the first research and development laboratory.

But in 1931, he also was one of the first promoters of renewable energy - especially solar.

That year, he described our approach to energy to two industry magnates of the day: Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone.

He told them, "We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using nature's inexhaustible sources of energy - sun, wind and tide."

That was more than 80 years ago and we're still living the same way.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

In 2014, just over 13 percent of US electricity production came from renewables in some form or another.

That's not terrible, but it means that we're still getting nearly 90 percent of our electricity production from "chopping down the fence around our house for fuel."

And if the fossil fuel companies, lobbyists and the 21st-century fossil fuel tycoons (like the Kochs, who inherited their oil company from daddy) have their way, that's not going to change anytime soon.

They're still fighting for ways to bring Alberta's tar sands to the US to be processed and burned - and they're still chomping at the bit to drill in the Arctic's deep seas.

They're even using our precious fresh water reserves to shatter Earth's shale just to get to the natural gas - making Earth unstable and much of our water poisoned in the process.

Even as we run out of fenceposts to burn, the fossil fuel barons still point to more of our farm's property to chop down and burn.

Edison even gave Ford and Firestone a little bit of investment advice to go with his criticism: "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that."

Unfortunately, the fossil fuel companies don't have any interest in folding up operations and letting our 19th-century energy regime join the likes of whale-oil lamps as a historical curiosity.

But according to a new report from Citibank, large-scale investments in renewables are still a smart investment move for both the planet and the global economy.

The report is called "Energy Darwinism," and it looks at the predicted cost of energy over the next several decades - compared to the costs of developing and implementing low carbon energy sources.

And then the researchers looked at the implications of global energy choices in terms of expected climate impacts.

The bottom line?

If we invest in low-carbon energy sources now - like solar, wind, tidal and geothermal - the global economy would save $1.8 trillion through 2040.

And the cost of inaction? The cost of carrying on business as usual? The cost of trying to adapt to the negative effects of climate change instead of reducing the risks by transforming our energy system?

Well - that could cost as little as $20 trillion - or as much as $72 trillion.

And that's a decrease in global GDP of between 0.7 percent and 2.5 percent.

In other words, we can expect a global economic contraction if we continue to rip our carbon reserves out of the earth and burn them into the atmosphere.

Or, through investing in a mix of renewables while reforming our energy system, we can avoid many of those costs and grow the global economy by $1.8 trillion.

The thing is, this isn't really new information. This is basically just a reiteration of the 700-page Stern Review, which pointed out back in 2006 that strong early action on climate change will save money for the global economy in the long run.

It's been nearly a decade since Sir Nicholas Stern concluded that taking bold action sooner rather than later will save money and ultimately grow the global economy.

And in the meantime, the status quo fossil fuel interests have funneled money into researchers willing to lie for a paycheck, while they've fought responsible reporting on climate change in the corporate media, and they've bought our politicians.

All to make sure that people think that climate change isn't real, and that people think that fossil fuels are more affordable than renewables.

But that's not what the bankers, the economists or the scientists say.

Just back in June, a team of researchers from Stanford and UC Berkeley published research showing how every state can go 100 percent renewable by 2050.

And they showed that the states would save money and create jobs by doing it.

We've ignored Edison's words to Ford and Firestone for far too long.

It's time to stop burning our fence posts for fuel. It's time to tap the earth's inexhaustible sources of energy in the nuclear fusion reactor 93 million miles away that we call our sun.

Opinion Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Rep. Mike Quigley: Iran Deal Is the Best Possible Option

Rep. Mike Quigley speaking at an event in 2014.Rep. Mike Quigley speaking at an event in 2014. (Image: Argonne National Laboratory)

On Monday, August 31, I went to the City Club of Chicago to see a speech by Democrat Mike Quigley, who represents Illinois' Fifth Congressional District in Congress. I went for three reasons: to support a vigil outside the talk by supporters of the Iran deal, urging Quigley to back it; to deliver petitions to Quigley signed by more than 2,000 of Quigley's IL-5 constituents urging him to support the deal; and to hear what Quigley would say about how he planned to vote on the deal.

Quigley did not address the issue during his prepared remarks. But the first question after the talk was: "What is your position on the deal?" A moderator later said something like: there were 34 questions, and 30 of them were on the Iran deal. (This was like the National Press Club where you have to write your question on a card beforehand.) The fact that so many questions were on the Iran deal certainly reflects engagement and interest from the City Club of Chicago audience; it may also reflect the fact that people who came to the event were greeted by people with "No War With Iran" and "Defend Diplomacy" signs.

Quigley said the following. This is verbatim, I recorded it on my phone. Interested reporters can contact me for the video.

"I believe - and I believe our intelligence community, and internationally, overall, the intelligence community believes, that we will know more about what's happening in Iran if we do the deal than if we don't."

Quigley is on the House Intelligence Committee, so presumably he is in at least as good a position as any other member of Congress, if not better, to judge what the intelligence community believes.

"Also, I will say this, and I know that this upsets people because they disagree, but I don't believe a better deal could have been negotiated. Which is not to say that there is not something we would have preferred, right? Total elimination of any nuclear material in Iran. But given our dance partners - and I'm not just talking about the Iranians - I think that Secretary Kerry probably did the best job anyone could. And with all due respect, if we go back to the table, I don't think they all come back to the table."

I will leave it to The Hill to judge whether they should change their assessment of Quigley from "Unclear/Undecided" to "Leaning Yes" based on these remarks. To me, the logic is clear and strong: if you support diplomacy, and if you think this is the best deal possible, what else is there to say about whether you are likely to vote yes or no? We're not voting on whether to fall in love with the deal and live happily ever after. We're voting on whether this is the best possible course of action among the realistic alternatives.

Regardless of that, I think the following is beyond reasonable dispute: Quigley, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, just exploded two key claims of Republican opponents of the deal: the claim that Obama and Kerry could have gotten a better deal, and the related claim that if Congress were to blow up this deal, we could go back to the table and negotiate a different one. No, Quigley said. Kerry got the best deal possible, and if Congress were to blow up this deal, some of our "dance partners" - countries without whose participation international sanctions cannot meaningfully hurt the Iranian government - are not coming back to the table.

With Senator Casey and Senator Coons coming out for the deal, The Washington Post is all but calling game over on Republican efforts to block the deal in Congress. But that still leaves the question of how individual Democrats who have not declared yet will vote. If we want to turn a corner in US foreign policy, if we want to show the world and show ourselves that we think we learned something important from the Iraq fiasco, it would be a very good thing if we can tell the story that when the chips were down, Democrats in Congress overwhelmingly supported diplomacy and that Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez were marginalized.

So it still makes a difference what Mike Quigley does. So far, not one Illinois Democrat in Congress has come out against the deal. Perhaps this shouldn't surprise us much: from the point of view of many Illinois Democrats, who are overwhelmingly Chicago-area Democrats, Obama is our guy, our gift to the world. And Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, organizing Senate Democrats in support of the deal? That's our other guy. And Jan Schakowsky, organizing House Democrats in support of the deal? Also one of ours. Saying the Iran deal is no good is saying that Obama is no good. Saying that Obama is no good is saying that Chicago is no good.

And when some people say that Chicago is no good - well, Chicago Democrats don't like that.

Opinion Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Despite Global Ban, Saudi-Led Forces Kill Dozens in Yemen Using US-Made Cluster Bombs

Also see: US-Made Cluster Munitions Causing Civilian Deaths in Yemen

Human Rights Watch has accused Saudi Arabia of using U.S.-made cluster munition rockets in at least seven attacks in the Yemeni city of Hajjah between late April and mid-July. Dozens of civilians were killed or wounded, both during the attacks and later, when they picked up unexploded submunitions that detonated. Neither the United States, Saudi Arabia or Yemen have joined the global convention banning the use of cluster munitions. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch criticized the U.S. stance on cluster munitions. "The U.S. thinks that cluster munitions are legitimate weapons," Roth said. "The U.S. still hasn't signed onto the landmines treaty. So, the U.S. is very much behind the rest of the world."


AMY GOODMAN: We turn right now to Yemen. We turn to Yemen because, well, a Saudi-led airstrike killed 36 civilians working at a bottling plant in the northern province of Hajjah on Sunday. Another attack on the Yemeni capital Sana'a hit a house and killed four civilians. The news comes amidst new evidence the Saudi-led forces have used cluster munitions in Yemen. Human Rights Watch said it found U.S.-made cluster munition rockets likely used in at least seven attacks in Hajjah between late April and mid-July. Dozens of civilians were killed or wounded, both during the attacks and later, when they picked up unexploded submunitions that denotated. Neither the United States, Saudi Arabia or Yemen have joined the global convention banning the use of cluster munitions.

Yesterday I spoke to Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth and started by asking him what Human Rights Watch found in Yemen.

KENNETH ROTH: As you note, the fact that the relevant countries have not ratified the cluster munitions treaty, while it would be helpful to do so, it's not decisive, because all of them have ratified the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit indiscriminate warfare. And cluster munitions are, by definition, indiscriminate. They scatter over wide areas, so they should never be used in civilian-populated areas to begin with. Plus they leave a residue. Not every munition explodes on contact with the ground, and they become antipersonnel land mines for people to just stumble upon and die. So the U.S. should be using pressure on the Saudis not to be using these weapons at all, but certainly not to be using them in populated areas where, as we're seeing, Yemenis are being killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what these weapons are and what they do.

KENNETH ROTH: They're essentially area-denial weapons. There is a canister with, you know, upwards of 200 submunitions, little bombs, inside. The canister opens in the sky and spreads these submunitions over a wide area. Each one of those is lethal, so you don't want to be in that area as these things rain down on you. You also don't want to walk through that area afterwards, but it becomes effectively a land mine field, because these cluster munitions are unreliable and a significant number don't initially explode. They only explode later, when somebody touches them or stands on them.

AMY GOODMAN: How do they affect the human body?

KENNETH ROTH: They're devastating. They're like standing on a land mine. They, at minimum, will rip off your limbs, and they very frequently are completely lethal.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a video released by Human Rights Watch featuring interviews with victims of cluster munitions in Yemen.

AZIZ HADI MATIR HAYASH: [translated] We were together, and a rocket hit us. It exploded in the air, and cluster bombs, submunitions, fell out of it. Before we left the house with the sheep, two submunitions fell down while others spread all over the village. One exploded, and the other still remains. My cousins and I were wounded.

FATIMA IBRAHIM AL-MARZUQI: [translated] Three brothers were killed—two children and one adult. It hit us while we were sleeping, and we were all wounded, including my brothers. I can't walk. My mother carries me. She gets me out, washes me, as well as my brother. My whole body is wounded. My dress was burned that night. My hands were burned, and my bones were broken.

AMY GOODMAN: Those were victims of cluster munitions in Yemen. Ken Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch, which put out this video. So, talk about what Saudi Arabia is doing right now in Yemen.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition which is fighting the Houthi rebel forces in Yemen, and it's repeatedly using indiscriminate forms of warfare. A big part of the problem has been these cluster munitions, but we've seen time and time again that even more targeted weapons are being targeted in the wrong place. These are sophisticated weapons; the Saudis should be able to target them only at military targets. But we're finding often that they're not. And that's why we're seeing such a significant civilian toll.

AMY GOODMAN: So they're being used to terrorize.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, they're being used at least without much care as to who is hit. There is a sense that, particularly in the northern areas, which are predominantly Houthi, that there's not so much concern about civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the U.S. just sealed a deal with Saudi Arabia for military weapons and jets that's the largest deal in the world.

KENNETH ROTH: The U.S. obviously views Saudi Arabia as a major supporter of the U.S. military complex, you know. And airplane producers and the like need these contracts—think they need these contracts, in order to continue to be profitable. That shouldn't be happening at the expense of civilians on the ground. The U.S. should be willing to live by the principles that it is theoretically signed up for in the Geneva Conventions and ensure that anybody it sells arms to is not using those arms to indiscriminately kill civilians, as the Saudis have been doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch is calling for a U.N. inquiry into violations on all sides in Yemen?

KENNETH ROTH: Absolutely. In fact, there is a conference coming up reviewing compliance with the new cluster munitions treaty. And one of the problems is that the U.K., Canada and Australia, all of which had joined the cluster munitions treaty, are pushing to water down this inquiry. They're trying to put "allegedly" in front of the evidence we have that Saudi clusters have killed civilians in Yemen.


KENNETH ROTH: They're doing the U.S. bidding.

AMY GOODMAN: Why does the U.S. want to water this down?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, I mean, the U.S. thinks that cluster munitions are legitimate weapons. The U.S. still hasn't signed onto the land mines treaty. So, the U.S. is very much behind the rest of the world. As most nations of the world want to ban these inherently indiscriminate weapons, the U.S. has a huge arsenal of them, it doesn't want that arsenal limited, and it hates the idea of treaties that are restraining the Pentagon on humanitarian grounds. It lives with the Geneva Conventions because it understands that those help to fight a better war. But the add-ons that Human Rights Watch and others have pressed—the land mines treaty, the cluster munitions treaty and the like—the Pentagon hates and has prevented Obama from signing onto them, and is trying to undermine enforcement, using U.S. allies around the world to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: How much difference does mass protest make around something like this?

KENNETH ROTH: I think it makes all the difference in the world. In other words, Obama doesn't want to be seen as underwriting indiscriminate warfare, even if it is on the other side of the world. If it happens under the radar screen, if the Pentagon is able to push this quietly, there's no big political cost to Obama. But I think rabble-rousing and publicity helps make Obama responsible, and he's going to have a hard time standing up and saying, "I don't really care about indiscriminate warfare."

AMY GOODMAN: Just to be clear, the land mine treaty that the U.S. also has not signed onto, that's the one that Princess Di was pushing so many years ago, right, among many other people?

KENNETH ROTH: Precisely. And, in fact, the U.S. government is—has limited the use of land mines. And even though it hasn't joined onto the treaty, it recognizes that these are weapons that are extremely difficult to use because of public relations problems. And so, there has been a real shift at the Pentagon. We haven't seen that shift yet, in any significant way, with cluster munitions.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have this situation where people are being struck, civilians are being struck, by cluster munitions by the Saudi-led attacks on Yemen, yet Saudi Arabia continues to lead a blockade against people leaving. Can you explain what's happening there?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, there's an enormous humanitarian crisis in Yemen. It is already a country that is very dependent on international assistance for basic things like water and the like. And because the Saudis have been blockading the country, trying to prevent fuel and other things from getting into Yemen as part of its effort to fight the Houthi rebels, the Yemeni people are suffering. And we're seeing enormous numbers of people who are facing malnutrition and even starvation because of the deprivation caused by this blockade.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the figures are amazing. According to the U.N., 21 million Yemenis, a staggering 80 percent of the population, need assistance. And half the population is facing hunger, famine. More than 15.2 million people lack access to basic healthcare, and over 20 million lack access to safe water.

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah, I mean, it's absolutely horrendous, and it really underscores the importance of making clear that if you're going to go to war, yes, you shoot at the other side's combatants, but you can't use means that cause the entire civilian population to suffer. And that's what the Saudi-led coalition is doing in Yemen today.

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth speaking here in New York. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison. Stay with us.

News Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Next Not-So-Cold War: As Climate Change Heats Arctic, Nations Scramble for Control and Resources

President Barack Obama arrived in Alaska on Monday for a three-day tour during which he will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Alaska Arctic. On Monday, Obama highlighted the dangers posed by climate change in the region. "Arctic temperatures are rising about twice as fast as the global average," Obama said. "Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed about twice as fast as the rest of the United States." As the Arctic region warms, the geopolitical significance of the region is growing as new areas become reachable, spurring maritime traffic and oil drilling. Resources below the Arctic ice cap are worth over $17 trillion, the rough equivalent of the entire U.S. economy. According to investigative journalist James Bamford, the region has become the "crossroads of technical espionage" as the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark battle for control of those resources. Bamford joins us to talk about his recent piece, "Frozen Assets: The Newest Front in Global Espionage is One of the Least Habitable Locales on Earth - the Arctic."


AMY GOODMAN: President Barack Obama arrived in Alaska Monday for a three-day tour during which he'll become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Alaska Arctic. In a speech at the GLACIER conference in Anchorage, Obama highlighted the dangers posed by climate change.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our understanding of climate change advances each day. Human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we previously thought. The science is stark, it is sharpening. It proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present. In fact, the Arctic is the leading edge of climate change, our leading indicator of what the entire planet faces. Arctic temperatures are rising about twice as fast as the global average. Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed about twice as fast as the rest of the United States. Last year was Alaska's warmest year on record, just as it was for the rest of the world. And the impacts here are very real.

AMY GOODMAN: As the Arctic region warms, the geopolitical significance of the region is growing as new areas become reachable, spurring maritime traffic and oil drilling. During his trip to Alaska, Obama is expected to propose the U.S. Coast Guard acquire and build new icebreaking ships that can operate in the Arctic in efforts to keep pace with Russia and China's fleets. On Monday, Alaska Governor Bill Walker, who traveled with Obama to Anchorage, called Russia's moves in the Arctic, quote, "the biggest buildup of the Russian military since the Cold War."

To talk more about the Arctic, we're joined by investigative journalist James Bamford, who has covered the National Security Agency and U.S. intelligence community for the last, well, more than 30 years. He recently wrote an article for Foreign Policy headlined "Frozen Assets: The Newest Front in Global Espionage is One of the Least Habitable Locales on Earth - the Arctic." Bamford points out the resources below the Arctic ice cap are worth over $17 trillion, the rough equivalent of the entire U.S. economy. Bamford says the region has become the, quote, "crossroads of technical espionage," as the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark battle for control of those resources. James Bamford joins us once again from Washington, D.C.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Jim. Can you start off by, well, beginning where you began your piece, in August 2014, with two Norwegian scientists, where they headed?

JAMES BAMFORD: Yeah, thanks, Amy. Yeah, it was really fascinating doing this article because I knew nothing, almost nothing, about the Arctic before, and doing all the research, it was fascinating. And I thought one of the most fascinating little incidents was two Norwegian scientists who were placed on a little ice island for a year to sort of drift in areas where even icebreakers couldn't go, not far from the North Pole. And they were out there in the total darkness, all by themselves in an area that's hardly ever been explored. And one night, they're looking out, and they see some lights in the distance. So they go out, and they walk from their little camp area to these lights. And as they're getting closer - again, this is total darkness out there because it's the Arctic night - they see the lights, and then they start making out a shape. And it's the shape of a huge submarine that has just surfaced. And as they were getting closer, close enough for the people on the submarine to see them, the submarine then suddenly went back under the ocean - or, under the Arctic Sea.

And what they - they actually took some pictures of the sub, and what they later determined was that it was a Russian spy sub. And it had a mini sub on, attached to the bottom of it, to explore this huge ridge that goes under the Arctic, because the Russians are trying, as well as almost all the other countries abutting the Arctic, are trying to show that their continental shelf touches that ridge. And if you can show that, then you can get much more of the Arctic to your own use.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, "the Arctic has become the crossroads of technical espionage today." Explain.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, the Arctic is a place where you don't put many human spies, but it's a great place for technical spies, for spy planes, satellites, drones, everything else. So, because of all the military buildup - the Russians are building up enormously up there, they've just built one of the largest listening posts in the world, 3,000-man, 3,000-person facility - and because of all the energy underneath that people are trying to get, there's been an enormous increase in the number of spy planes, satellites and other kinds of technical intelligence, submarines and so forth. Just in the last year, the number of U.S. surveillance flights over the Russian parts of the Arctic have gone from 22 to 140. And the Russians are doing the same thing. The Russians are flying surveillance planes very close to the U.S., and the U.S. is flying surveillance planes very close to Russia. Plus there's a cat-and-mouse game under the North Pole, under the Arctic, between the U.S. and Russian submarines. We have satellites flying overhead every day. The Canadians are building drones. The Russians just built a new drone base about 400 miles from the U.S. in the Arctic. So, there's this enormous buildup, not only of the military, but what I was focusing on was also on the intelligence capabilities.

AMY GOODMAN: You write that the United States is sending satellites over this icy region every 30 minutes, "averaging more than 17,000 passes every year, and [is] developing a new generation of unmanned intelligence sensors to monitor everything above, on, and below the ice and water."

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, the satellites that pass over the Arctic are the polar satellites, and they're the ones that take pictures of most of the Earth. I mean, they focus on all parts of the Earth because it's in a polar orbit. So the facility that controls most of those satellites and sends up instructions and takes down data from the satellites is located in Thule, Greenland, which is way above the Arctic Circle. So, U.S. has enormous intelligence assets up there to control these satellites that are vital to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: I'd like to ask you about Russia's position on the Arctic. In 2013, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia's military to increase its presence in the Arctic after Canada signaled its intention to claim the North Pole and surrounding waters. Putin talked about Russia, quote, "reclaiming the region." Let's go to a clip.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] I would like you to devote special attention to deploying infrastructure and military units in the Arctic. Russia is ever-more actively reclaiming this promising region, returning to it. It must possess all the levers necessary for protecting its security and national interests.

AMY GOODMAN: So, James Bamford, can you talk about everything from Russia's interest to Denmark's to Norway's to Canada's to the United States'?

JAMES BAMFORD: Sure. These are the countries that border the actual Arctic, five countries: the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway. And ironically, you have three countries that are now claiming the North Pole as theirs: Canada, Russia and Denmark - Denmark because of Greenland, which is a possession of Denmark, and it's way up above the Arctic Circle. So, you have these countries that have vested interests in the Arctic, and they're all exhibiting as much effort as possible to show that they deserve more of the Arctic than anybody else. And you can make claims to the United Nations by saying that your continental shelf is attached to this ridge. It's the Lomonosov Ridge. It's a long ridge. It's about a thousand miles. It's 12,000 - 12,000 feet high. It's an enormous mountain ridge. And if you can show that your continental shelf is connected to that, your landmass, in essence, is connected to that, then you could get much more of the Arctic. So there's this competition among these countries to show that they deserve more of the Arctic. The Russians are trying to claim half the Arctic is theirs. So, it's an enormous battle up there, a political battle as well as a military and an intelligence frontier.

So, that's where we are right now. And as the Arctic disappears, pretty soon there's going to be a total ice-free summer up there in the next few years. And that means that there's going to be a lot more activity in terms of commercial activities, ships sailing back and forth, tourist ships. There will be a lot of activity. And the problem is, the United States hasn't kept up. We have two broken-down icebreakers that are due to pretty much be out of service in five years, and we haven't been paying attention to the Arctic, so we have nothing to take their place.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what the Law of the Sea agreement is and how it relates to the Arctic?

JAMES BAMFORD: Sure. The Law of the Sea agreement was created by the United Nations and agreed to by most countries in the world. I think 170 countries in the world have signed and ratified the Law of the Sea agreement. What that is, is an agreement that - it's sort of the law of the Arctic at this point, because the Law of the Sea agreement sets out what countries can do what, and what activities can take place in the Arctic.

The irony here is that of the five countries that actually border the Arctic, and out of 170 countries in the world, the United States is the only country not to have ratified the agreement. And it's largely because of a small group of right-wing Republicans who are afraid of the black helicopters from the United Nations. They're afraid that by signing this Law of the Sea agreement, we're going to subject our country to the jurisdiction of the United Nations. So they've pretty much stood in the way of signing that. And that means that we're not going to be in any position to claim any parts of the Arctic, because in order to do that, you actually have to have signed the Law of the Sea agreement, as Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark and 170 other countries have done.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what would it take to - for the U.S. to sign on to this treaty?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, all it would take would be for the Senate to basically ratify it. And it can't do that as long as there is a small percentage that are standing in the way. I think you need - it's either a third or three-quarters of the Senate to approve the treaty. And you can't get that - you can't get there with the number of right-wing senators standing in the way. And they've been doing that for years. President Bush, for example, when he was in office, just like President Clinton and President Obama, have all been in favor of signing the agreement, but it's these sort of hardcore right-wing senators who have stood in the way for decades. And that's why we're one of the very, very few countries in the world that have never signed it, and therefore we really are out of touch when it comes to the Arctic.

AMY GOODMAN: James Bamford, can you talk about the ways different countries are trying to claim the North Pole, everything from Canada saying Santa Claus is a Canadian citizen to Russia planting the flag? The then-deputy speaker of the Duma, explain who he was and what he did.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, he was on a very small Russian submergable, that very small Russian submarine, that went to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean right under the North Pole, 14,000 feet down, and he planted a titanium Russian flag down there. I mean, it had no real meaning, just symbolic, but that's a metaphor of what's taking place. The Russians were reclaiming the North Pole. The Canadians are claiming the North Pole. After the Russians did it, they claimed the North Pole, and they said, "Santa Claus is a Canadian citizen," sort of mocking the Russians in a way. But it's very serious. And also, the - Denmark is claiming it also via Greenland.

So, it's very serious, and most of the effort is focusing on undersea, under the Arctic Ocean, where countries are trying to take little pieces of this ridge and analyze it and show that it's actually part of their continental shelf. It's a very scientific effort, more so than - well, it's political on one side, and then it's scientific on the other, and they're trying to put the two together. And if you can show that your continental shelf is connected to the ridge, then you're able to extend your continental shelf and your ability to capture parts of the Arctic well beyond your borders. And that's why this enormous effort's going on, that really few people have ever paid any attention to.

AMY GOODMAN: What would a Cold War - pardon the pun - in the Arctic look like?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, it would be certainly dominated by the Russians, since they own the vast portion of the coastline on the Arctic, and they've got the vast majority of hardware. The Russians, just last March, they had an exercise up there with almost 40,000 troops. And then the Norwegians sent up 5,000 troops on an exercise. So, you'd have submarines trailing each other and, you know, potentially getting in conflict with each other, since the U.S. and the Russians are both below the Arctic Ocean and following each other constantly. There would be the danger of aircraft incidents, just like we had in China where the Chinese shot down an American spy plane, or, actually, collided with an American spy plane, and the spy plane had to land on Chinese territory. So, you've got all these areas of potential conflict. Accidents may happen, and weapons may be fired.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts on President Obama being the first sitting U.S. president to go to the Alaskan Arctic, this coming right after he allows Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic? As they talk about sending more icebreaking ships up there, the U.S. government, are they also doing that on behalf of the oil companies?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, we don't have really hardly any icebreaking ships. We just have two, and they're almost on their last voyages or so. They've only got a few more years left. So, no, in answer to your question, the problem is, what was he doing for the previous seven years or so, previous six years? This problem has been there for a long time. The Russians have been building up along the Arctic coast for years, if not decades, and the U.S. has been paying absolutely no attention to it until just now.

So, the problem is, you've got a really hazardous situation up there, where you've authorized offshore oil drilling, such as Shell, for example - and they're just the first - but you have no infrastructure up there to protect the Arctic or the shoreline in case you have an oil spill like we had down in the Gulf of Mexico. The Russians have 41 icebreakers. I think it's at least seven of those are nuclear power. We have no nuclear-powered icebreakers, and we only have two broken-down icebreakers. So we're way out of touch when it comes to taking care of the Arctic in case there is a major oil spill or a ship disaster up there, or a search and rescue. We have very little, if any, search-and-rescue capability. We have no deepwater ports on the Arctic. So, we're way out of touch. We're years behind. And, you know, finally, in his twilight years, Obama has decided that we should start paying attention up there. It's sort of amazing to me he hasn't, or nobody in his administration has brought this to his attention before now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Jim Bamford, for being with us, columnist for Foreign Policy magazine. We'll link to your piece, "Frozen Assets: The Newest Front in Global Espionage is One of the Least Habitable Locales on Earth - the Arctic." He has covered the National Security Agency and intelligence communities for years. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.

News Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400