Truthout Stories Tue, 27 Jan 2015 11:51:43 -0500 en-gb "Selma" Director Defends Film's Portrayal of LBJ-MLK Dispute on Voting Rights Legislation

As we continue our interview with "Selma" director Ava DuVernay, she responds to the controversy around her film’s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson and his relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The film depicts him as a reluctant, and even obstructionist, politician who had the FBI monitor and harass King. "I’m not here to rehabilitate anyone’s image or be a custodian of anyone’s legacy," DuVernay says. She expresses dismay that the debate has shifted attention from the film’s focus on protest and resistance that continues today over police brutality. DuVernay also describes how she screened "Selma" at the White House for President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama 50 years after D.W. Griffith was there to screen the notoriously racist film "Birth of a Nation" for President Woodrow Wilson.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Tue, 27 Jan 2015 11:47:12 -0500
"One Person Can Make a Difference": Ava DuVernay Remembers Film Critic Roger Ebert's Early Support

As Ava DuVernay considers her next steps after "Selma," her first big budget feature film, she offers advice to aspiring filmmakers. "We have to work without permission. Especially as women in this industry. Who are we asking for permission to do what we want to do? That should be eradicated. You need to set a path and start walking." DuVernay discusses her next feature film, which will be a love story and murder mystery set in New Orleans amidst the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and recalls the impact acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert had on her life, who raved about one of her first projects, "I Will Follow." "He lifted that film from nowhere, and lifted me up with it," she says.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Tue, 27 Jan 2015 11:42:47 -0500
Curious Cure: WI GOP Injects Partisan Politics Into Nonpartisan Elections Board

After a scorching two-year controversy involving a "John Doe" criminal investigation into potential illegal coordination between Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's campaign and outside big money groups, state GOP leaders are readying a legislative package to dismantle the nonpartisan elections board.

State Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson) is proposing a curious cure. He announced that he will author a bill to add partisan appointees to the Government Accountability Board (GAB), now governed by a nonpartisan board of retired judges.

Why add partisan members to a nonpartisan board that is supposed to act as an independent arbiter of elections, campaign finance law, and ethics? Because the board is currently too partisan, says Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

"I've been looking at the board structure, and whether there would be some advantage to continue to have judges, but also add on some additional members that may have strengths, knowledge, background that would be different from the judges. What I would call a hybrid board," Knudson told the State Journal.

Prior to 2008, the GAB was governed by a partisan board that was ceaselessly deadlocked. Knudson's proposal would turn back the clock and usher in the bad old days, say critics.

Rare Chance to Dismantle "Pernicious Regulatory Machine," Says Wall Street Journal

Republicans, who have newly expanded majorities in the Assembly and Senate, have been fuming about the GAB's authorization of the John Doe investigation into potentially illegal campaign coordination that conservatives call a "partisan witch hunt," but the Center for Media and Democracy's (CMD) legal team has found to be well-grounded in Wisconsin law and precedent.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board scolded Governor Walker for even considering a settlement to the case and suggested instead in a May 2014 editorial that "the legal backlash to the John Doe probe offers a rare chance to dismantle" what it calls Wisconsin's "pernicious regulatory machine."

The GAB's lawful and appropriate role in the investigation has inspired Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to claim that "the GAB routinely doesn't follow the law and there's no accountability whatsoever" and Sen. Alberta Darling to call the GAB a "rogue agency."

Especially telling, Sen. Darling said at a recent hearing that she thinks the GAB "staff really stepped on our toes and I'm very concerned about that."

Jay Heck, Executive Director of Common Cause Wisconsin -- a good government watchdog non-profit -- was involved with the creation of the GAB in 2008 in the wake of another campaign financing scandal. Heck told CMD, "The GAB is doing their job when nobody really loves their work, at least through a partisan lens. They're not supposed to please partisan leadership.... Democrats, when they were in power, didn't much care for the GAB.... The recent vociferous opposition by Vos and Fitzgerald [and others] is really, I think, centered on the fact that this is one part of state government that they can't exercise total control over."

Retired Judge Gerald Nichol, who has been part of the GAB since its creation and recently became its chairman, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that no board reforms are needed. "It truly is independent and in my experience ... the six members come at all the issues honestly," he told a reporter. "We're not always in lockstep, and we function well."

GAB board members Timothy Vocke and Harold Froehlich -- a former Republican Congressman -- testified recently that they believed the GAB board was functioning well and exercised proper supervision of the staff.

Former GAB judge Michael Brennan opined in state newspapers, "Obviously, the plan Knudson has in mind is, 'We want our people running things.'... Political hacks are no substitute for (mostly old and usually cranky!) retired judges."

Legislative Leaders Anxious to Dismantle the Board Voted to Create it in 2008

The GAB, whose six non-partisan retired judges are already appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature, was created in 2008 in response to the Legislative Caucus Scandal of 2001 and 2002, which rocked the state when top Democratic and Republican legislative leaders were charged and convicted of felony and misdemeanor misconduct in public office.

The idea for an independent, nonpartisan elections and ethics board is attributed to former Republican Senate President Mike Ellis. He sat down with members of both parties, as well as good government advocates like Jay Heck of Wisconsin Common Cause, to envision what would become the first -- and still the only -- independent nonpartisan elections entity in the country.

As Heck noted, "The whole key to having it work would be to make sure they had at least independent authority to investigate corruption in the capital, and so funding for that had to come from an independent source, not subject to the legislative approval of leaders of the joint finance committee."

Another essential element was that the board had to consist of nonpartisan retired judges, Heck says, "because the appointment process in place for the [previous] state elections board often led to partisan votes on every issue without regard to the merits of the issue." All too often, the board was deadlocked.

Rep. Knudson was not yet in office when the caucus scandal upended business as usual in the capitol building, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald were. The two legislative leaders who appear most eager to dismantle the GAB in fact voted to create it, along with every Republican in the legislature in the Special Session of early 2007.

Since its creation, the GAB has been hailed as "America's Top Model" for election administration by Ohio State University law professor Daniel Tokaji, among other awards and accolades. It was placed in the extraordinary position of overseeing nine recall elections -- including those of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor -- in 2011 and 2012, and it did so in a manner that held the public's trust.

GAB Audit Being Used as a Weapon

Hoping to dig up dirt on the respected board, the legislature demanded an audit of the GAB's performance over the last four years. The recently completed audit report was substantially positive: "In recent years, GAB was responsible for completing a number of tasks that increased its workload. These tasks included helping to administer recall elections in 2011 and 2012, administering a statewide recount, implementing redistricting legislation, and working on photo identification issues." At the same time, "GAB's expenditures decreased from $5.8 million in fiscal year (FY) 2009-10 to $5.6 million in FY 2013-14, or by 3.0 percent."

Nowhere in the audit report was there a suggestion that the GAB engaged in partisan behavior. Nonetheless, the GOP-controlled legislature will continue to hype audit bureau suggestions on how GAB can improve its performance and pound the GAB over minor details.

As CMD's Brendan Fischer observed in a new report -- "The Assault on Clean Election Laws: The Well-Funded Campaign to Legalize Coordination in Wisconsin and Nationwide" -- the Republicans "have called for killing their own watchdog.... Elevating politics over law, unfortunately, has become routine in Wisconsin."

News Tue, 27 Jan 2015 10:39:03 -0500
On the News With Thom Hartmann: We May Have Reached a Climate Tipping Point, and More

In today's On the News segment: Human activity has compromised about half of the natural processes that maintain the stability of our planet; BP is being pressured by their investors; the Senate voted 98-to-1 that "climate change is real and is not a hoax"; and more.

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


Thom Hartmann here - on the best of the rest & green news.....

You need to know this. We may have reached the tipping point. According to new research published in the journal Science, human activity has compromised about half of the natural processes that maintain the stability of our planet. In other words, the systems that make our planet habitable have been thrown dangerously out of balance. This alarming report came from an international team of 18 researchers who documented big changes in four of the nine processes that regulate our planet. The researchers found significant disruptions in biodiversity, climate, and forestation. And, they documented serious changes in the nitrogen-phosphorus cycle, which is vital to food production and clean water. These systems make our planet liveable, and each has a point in which it cannot be saved from our destruction. Those breaking points are known as "planetary boundaries," and passing them is not good news for our species. For example, Professor Elena Bennett explained why changes to the nitrogen-phosphorus cycle are so dangerous. She said, "We will see more lakes closed, will have to pay more to clean our water, and we will face temporary situations where our water is not cleanable or drinkable more and more frequently." She added, "That's what it means to have crossed this planetary boundary. It's not a good thing for any of us." Just like the other systems that keep our planet stable, we can't survive without a functioning nitrogen-phosphorus cycle. And, just like those other systems, our actions are throwing this cycle way off its natural course. The level of carbon in our atmosphere is not the only environmental threshold that we must be concerned about, and rising temperatures are not the only danger that we face. Our consumption and pollution are destroying the very systems that keep us alive, and if we don't act now, we may not get a second chance to fix these mistakes.

If you want to earn someone's trust, a little lavender may go a long way. A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology says that the lavender plant promotes relaxation, which helps promote mutual trust. To determine this, researchers exposed one group of study participants to lavender, while another group was exposed to peppermint. Then, the participants played a game that used money to demonstrate trust. The researchers found that the "trustor" participants gave more money to their fellow players when they were exposed to lavender, and less when exposed to peppermint. This may not seem like an important experiment, but one researcher explained, "Our results might have very serious implications for a broad range of situations where interpersonal trust is an essential element." They cited examples such as a car dealership establishing a more trusting environment for a sales negotiation or sports teams using the scent to build trust between players. There are many ways that a little extra trust can have a big impact on a situation. Let's just hope that we remember that the next time we walk into a lavender-scented negotiation.

BP is being pressured by their investors. A coalition of more than 150 company shareholders are calling on the oil giant to assess and manage its climate risk. That group of shareholders, which includes the Church of England and the UK's Environment Agency, has filed a resolution to be considered at BP's 2015 annual meeting in April. That resolution asks BP to stress-test its business model against greenhouse gas emission limits suggested by the UN, and it calls on the oil giant to stop rewarding climate-harming activities. This same group of shareholders also filed an identical resolution with Shell Oil last month, and they will continue pressuring the companies to mitigate climate risks. James Thornton, the CEO of ClientEarth, one of the parties involved with the resolution, said, "Climate change is a major business risk. BP and Shell hold our financial and environmental future in their hands. They must do more to face the risks of climate change." We already know that these oil giants won't change over global warming, but maybe they'll listen to reason when it comes to their bottom lines.

Do you love the smell of the rain? Well, science has finally explained why so many people do. According scientists over at M.I.T., raindrops actually release tiny aerosols when they impact on a surface. Researchers used high-speed cameras to watch raindrops as they fell, and found that the raindrops trap tiny air bubbles at the point where they make contact with a surface. Those bubble shoot up through the rainwater and release a fizz of aerosols, which are responsible for that after-the-rain smell that so many of us enjoy. These findings were published recently in the journal Nature Communications, and include the results of about 600 experiments on 28 different surfaces. One of the scientists involved with the study said, "Rain happens every day – it's raining now, somewhere in the world. It's a very common phenomenon, and it was intriguing to us that no one has observed this mechanism before." Thanks to those inquiring minds, we finally know why things always smell fresher after it rains.

And finally... The United States Senate has finally accepted reality. Last week, the Upper Chamber voted 98-to-1 that "climate change is real and is not a hoax." Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island attached the amendment to the Keystone XL Pipeline bill, and every senator except Roger Wicker of Mississippi voted to approve it. That amendment lacked the additional wording that specified human activity contributed to climate change, but the fact that senators like Jim Inhofe and Ted Cruz approved it should still be considered a win. That vote came just days after President Obama called out Republican talking points in his State of the Union address, saying, "Well, I'm not a scientist, either. But you know what – I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA and NOAA, and at our major universities." It's a bit ridiculous that we had to hold a Senate vote to agree on common sense, but hopefully it gets us one step closer to dealing with the very real, very much not-a-hoax issue of climate change.

And that's the way it is for the week of January 26, 2015 – I'm Thom Hartmann, on Science & Green News.

News Tue, 27 Jan 2015 11:10:56 -0500
Noam Chomsky Blasts "American Sniper" and the Media that Glorifies It

Noam Chomsky had some choice words about the popularity of American Sniper, its glowing New York Times review and what the worship of a movie about a cold-blooded killer says about the American people. It's not good. During a Cambridge, Massachusetts event hosted by The Baffler, Chomsky first read the glowing recent review the New York Times gave the movie.

2015.1.27.Sniper.mainNoam Chomsky draws a disturbing parallel between the film American Sniper and the US global assassination program. (Screen grab via Warner Bros. Pictures / YouTube)Want to challenge injustice and make real change happen? That's Truthout's goal - support our work with a donation today!

Noam Chomsky had some choice words about the popularity of "American Sniper," its glowing New York Times review, and what the worship of a movie about a cold-blooded killer says about the American people.

It's not good.

During a Cambridge, Massachusetts event hosted by The Baffler, Chomsky first read the glowing recent review the New York Times gave the movie. That review begins inauspiciously by insulting, “America’s coastal intelligentsia, which has busied itself with chatter over little-seen art dramas while everyday Americans showed up en masse for a patriotic, pro-family picture which broke all attendance records in its opening days.” 

So, Chomsky wonders aloud: “What was the patriotic, pro-family film that so entranced everyday Americans? It’s about the most deadly sniper in American history, a guy named Chris Kyle, who claims to have used his skills to have killed several hundred people in Iraq.”

Kyle's first kill was a woman who apparently walked into the street with a grenade in her hand as the Marines attacked her village. Here's how Kyle describes killing her with a single shot:

“‘I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting,’” Chomsky said, quoting Kyle. “‘Savage, despicable, evil — that’s what we were fighting in Iraq. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy savages. There was really no other way to describe what we encountered there.’”

Chomsky also pointed out that The New Yorker loved the film, saying, "it was great, kept to the cinematic values, said it was well done." On the other hand, Newsweek's Jeff Stein, a former US intelligence officer, deferred, calling it appalling. In that review, Chomsky says, Stein remembered a visit he had made to a “clubhouse for snipers, where to quote him, ‘the barroom walls featured white-on-black Nazi SS insignia, and other Wehrmacht regalia. The Marine shooters clearly identified with the marksmen of the world’s most infamous killing machine, rather than regular troops.”

“Getting back to Chris Kyle,” Chomsky said, arriving at his larger point. “He regarded his first kill as a terrorist — this woman who walked in the street — but we can’t really attribute that to the mentality of a psychopathic killer, because we’re all tarred by the same brush insofar as we tolerate or keep silent about official policy.”

“Now, that [sniper] mentality helps explain why it’s so easy to ignore what is most clearly the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern history, if not ever — Obama’s global assassination campaign, the drone campaign, which officially is aimed at murdering people who are suspected of maybe someday planning to harm us.”

Chomsky recommends reading some of the transcripts with drone operators, calling them "harrowing" in their dehumanizing treatment of people who are targeted.

The implication is clear and chilling. Are we all, at least tacitly, American snipers?

Here's Chomsky via WGBH below.

News Tue, 27 Jan 2015 11:20:09 -0500
Special Report: Money and Lies in Anti-Human Trafficking NGOs

Money and Lies in Anti-trafficking NGOs(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Anti-trafficking organizations are said to do work both progressives and conservatives agree needs doing. Yet despite enormous budgets, and the month of January being dedicated to human trafficking awareness, it's not clear organizations can possibly be accomplishing what they claim.

Money and Lies in Anti-trafficking NGOs(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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The United States' beloved - albeit disgraced - anti-trafficking advocate Somaly Mam has been waging a slow but steady return to glory since a Newsweek cover story in May 2014 led to her ousting from the Cambodian foundation that bore her name. The allegations in the article were not new; they'd been reported and corroborated in bits and pieces for years. The magazine simply pointed out that Mam's personal narrative as a survivor of sex trafficking and the similar stories that emerged from both clients and staff at the non-governmental organization (NGO) she founded to assist survivors of sex trafficking, were often unverifiable, if not outright lies.

Panic ensued. Mam had helped establish, for US audiences, key plot points in the narrative of trafficking and its future eradication. Her story is that she was forced into labor early in life by someone she called "Grandfather," who then sold off her virginity and forced her into a child marriage. Later she says she was sold to a brothel where she watched several contemporaries die in violence. Childhood friends and even family members couldn't verify Mam's recollection of events for Newsweek, but Mam has suggested that her story is typical of trafficking victims.

Mam has also cultivated a massive global network of anti-trafficking NGOs, funders and supporters, who have based their missions, donations and often life's work on her emotional - but fabricated - tale. Some distanced themselves from the Cambodian activist last spring, including her long-time supporter at The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, while others suggested that even if untrue, Mam's stories were told in support of a worthy cause and were therefore true enough.

Despite Somaly Mam's continued vagaries, insinuations, mischaracterizations and outright lies, her career as spokesperson for the American Rescue Industry seems poised for a full recovery.

Few countered Newsweek's report, however, until Marie Claire mounted a defensive strike in September 2014, with a new interview with Mam, in which she sought to debunk the allegations against her. The piece also functioned as a PR platform for the announcement of the New Somaly Mam Foundation, a mild rebrand of the original Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF), from which the figurehead had been forced to resign before the organization folded. SMF was the primary funder for AFESIP, the NGO Mam founded to offer services to trafficked victims. In December, the Phnom Penh Post reported that AFESIP will merge with the new foundation and the Cambodia Daily added that a recent funding push has proven surprisingly successful among government officials who had publicly forbidden Mam from heading another NGO in the country after the Newsweek story broke, but later reversed their decision.

To date, none of the investigations that suggest Mam had willfully invented facts have been properly explained away or refuted. In fact, although the Marie Claire article was touted by two different PR teams suggesting it would serve as the first of many truth-revealing chats with the self-proclaimed former sex slave, many reporters never received responses to interview requests. One of the few interviews Mam did do, with Global Dispatches reporter Mark Goldberg, didn't go well. Mam told Goldberg repeatedly that she wasn't bothered by the allegations against her, yet as development reporter Tom Murphy pointed out on Twitter, she was actively participating in the PR push to "correct" them. Even worse, Mam misrepresented the clientele of AFESIP, claiming vaguely that "most of the girls are from trafficking." In fact, an independent audit of the NGO in January 2014 found that only 49 percent of the 674 women and girls in residence between 2008 and 2012 could be considered "trafficked" under any definition of the term. Many were consensual adult sex workers; others were simply deemed "at risk" of trafficking (a description the report does not distinguish from other women living in poverty.)

Today, despite Mam's continued vagaries, insinuations, mischaracterizations and outright lies, her career as spokesperson for the American Rescue Industry seems poised for a full recovery. Many may balk at the idea that her falsehoods will still generate millions, hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in donations toward murky ends. Some will write it off as Standard International Aid Procedure.

Others, however, know that in the world of anti-trafficking organizations, money and lies are deeply - perhaps inextricably - tied. The false claims, forwarded as fact, are big. So is the money that's spent and received in the service of those claims - more than half a billion dollars in 2014. That we know of.

Shedding Light and Casting Shadows

Considering their common mythical enemy - the nameless and faceless men portrayed in TV dramas who trade in nubile human girl stock - one would hope anti-trafficking organizations would unite in an effort to be less shady. With names reliant on metaphors of recovery, light and sanctuary, anti-trafficking groups project an image of transparency. Yet these groups have shown a remarkable lack of fiscal accountability and organizational consistency, often even eschewing an open acknowledgement of board members, professional affiliates and funding relationships. The problems with this evasion go beyond ethical considerations: A certain level of budgetary disclosure, for example, is a legal requirement for tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations. Yet anti-trafficking groups fold, move, restructure and reappear under new names with alarming frequency, making them almost as difficult to track as their supposed foes.

The intention here is to look at the level of transparency employed and the often outsized claims these organizations make regarding their impact.

To begin connecting the dots in this ever-shifting matrix, Truthout looked at 50 of the most prominent domestic groups founded or organized to limit or eradicate human trafficking, or to assist trafficking victims. This includes organizations that do not use the term "trafficking" in mission statements, but either designate human trafficking as a major issue area or work in a related area (such as violence against women), have a consistent history of trafficking focused projects and are regularly designated as anti-trafficking focused by other anti-trafficking organizations. Budgets of multi-issue organizations were considered as a whole, on the presumption that such organizations operate intersectionally. All organizations included were mentioned in news media or conversations with media professionals or concerned activists at least twice during this reporters' six-month study, except in cases in which the organization changed names, when the founder's name or previous organization had appeared at least twice. Not included are one-off anti-trafficking campaigns or projects of organizations that do not deal primarily with trafficking issues. The intention here is to look at the level of transparency employed and the often outsized claims these organizations make regarding their impact.

The 50 organizations were located throughout the United States. California, Arizona, Washington, DC, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, New York and Washington State were each healthily represented on the list; single organizations were also located in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada, Tennessee and Virginia. (No South Dakota organizations appear on this list, although one exists; it should be noted that despite its lack of prominent anti-trafficking organizations, that state leads the nation in life sentences for traffickers.)

In recent years, trafficking has become a major domestic concern. The United Nation's International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates, worldwide, a forced labor population of 21 million people - 11.4 million women and girls and 9.4 million men and boys - 4.5 million of which, or 21 percent, they suggest are victims of forced sexual exploitation. These are not hard numbers; they are estimates. But they are the bedrock on which the global anti-trafficking movement is set.

Each of the 50 prominent anti-trafficking organizations discussed below focuses primarily on female victims of forced sexual exploitation - no more, in other words, than a slim fifth of what the ILO suggests is a global labor crisis. This distinctly salacious myopia has been noted by groups such as the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, which point out that many organizations foster moralizing legislation that downplays the human rights of sex workers and immigrants. One organization addressed below, the Polaris Project, would seem to justify the narrow focus on the sex trade, claiming to have received calls to the hotline of their National Human Trafficking Resource Center reporting 2,740 cases of sex trafficking in 2013, compared to 634 reporting labor trafficking. Yet since Polaris and many other organizations are heavily invested in "raising awareness" of the potential for human trafficking in what may well be benign or legal situations, there's no telling how accurate their findings are.

Human trafficking is the "recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation."

Despite the apparent confusion, human trafficking is quite clearly defined, at least by the United Nations. It is the "recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation." It is distinct from debt bondage, forced labor and modern slavery, and the ILO is careful to warn against slippage between these terms. However, most organizations in this study use these terms interchangeably, even occasionally substituting "trafficking" with "sexual exploitation," "prostitution," "porn" or similar terms. It would be difficult to charge that such confusion is always a deliberate act of deception, but if we consider the comparative implications of actual trafficking and legal pornography (say, Playgirl - legal porn so mild this reporter might share it with her grandmother), we can see that the lack of clarity most organizations create serves to clump a wide range of very different activities together, many of which may raise moral questions but do not raise legal ones.

As we will see, many organizations that focus on "raising awareness of trafficking" aren't providing factual information at all. In fact, given their frequently narrow interpretation of "human trafficking," as a synonym for "female sex slavery," and given the wide range of organizations spread across the United States, the anti-trafficking movement seems primarily intent on raising a moral panic. This may be a good way to push through conservative and, to some, oppressive legislation, as some have suggested. But leading a moral crusade is definitely lucrative.

Transparency and Post-Recession Funds

In all, 50 of the most prominent anti-trafficking organizations in the United States are estimated to share around $686 million - an amount that would place them approximately 184th on the UN's ranking of nations by GDP, right above Samoa. And that, as we will see, could be a very low estimate.

The organizations included three types of anti-trafficking groups: standard not-for-profits, in which organizations have 501(c)(3) status and are tax-exempt, or work under tax-exempt umbrella organizations; faith-based organizations (those affiliated with churches may have tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status, but are not required to file annual returns); and public-private partnerships. The former two may also have non-governmental organization (NGO) status if they operate internationally; a public-private partnership may consider itself an organization and use the language of nonprofits to describe its mission, vision and service, but may not have tax-exempt status (a fact which is supposed to be disclosed if the organization is soliciting donations). Tax-exempt organizations that are affiliated with public-private partnerships are bound by financial disclosure laws.

Of the 50 organizations tallied, three were public-private partnerships and the rest were not-for-profit organizations. Many stated they were faith-based, but only some claimed church affiliation. Only 33 of the 47 nonprofits - 70 percent - made their financial information publicly available, whether on an organizational website, upon direct contact with the organization or through, an online charity rating service that offers direct links to IRS 990 forms. (Several organizations announced on websites that they would provide financial data via email, but only three organizations responded to this reporter's requests ranging in dates from July 2014 to January 2015. Additionally, two groups' annual budgets were estimated based on the finances of affiliated organizations.)

The US anti-trafficking movement seems to be one of the few reliable growth areas in the United States' post-recession economy besides low-wage service work.

In sum, nine organizations failed to disclose any fiscal information whatsoever, including two of the three public-private partnerships and several organizations that may be affiliated with religious institutions. If the remaining organizations earn less than $50,000 per year, they are not subject to the same public disclosure laws. Otherwise, the IRS is fairly clear: "Tax-exempt organizations must make annual returns and exemption applications filed with the IRS available for public inspection and copying upon request."

Not included, therefore, are accurate annual incomes for the Abolish Slavery Coalition (an affiliate of Passport 2 Freedom), Bishop Outreach, Called2Rescue, Escape to Peace, Made in a Free World, No More, Red Light Rebellion, Streetlight USA and the Defender Foundation. (This last organization has a compelling membership-based financial model, in which volunteers conduct rescues following receipt of a $100 application and $480 membership fee, but an initial email bounced back). Additionally, the financial information for the Half the Sky Movement is based exclusively on its affiliated 501(c)(3) organization, which took in $2.2 million through grants and donations in 2012. This, however, does not include book sales, screening revenues and author appearance fees that Kristof and co-author Sheryl WuDunn took in during that and subsequent years, so the financial totals that follow are certainly low estimates.

Of the 50 anti-trafficking organizations examined, a total of 19 disclosed recent annual budgets of $1 million or more, most in 2012 or 2013. (Only the Association for the Recovery of Children's financial data is from earlier - 2007 - and was extremely difficult to track down.) Many organizations pulled in more; in fact, the total combined earnings from those 19 organizations were more than $677.5 million. The remaining organizations that made financial data available, combined, took in more than $8 million. Presuming that each of the nine organizations that make no financial disclosures earn less than $50,000 per year - say, $40,000 (and only two disclosing organizations made under this amount, so this seems low but plausible) - we can add another $360,000 to this total. (This number is certainly an underestimate, as many of the non-reporting organizations have more than one employee, so likely pull in more than $50,000 per year; surely, the three public-private partnerships have larger annual budgets.) This suggests the approximate annual income of $686 million split among the 50 groups.

It may not seem like much, for 50 organizations spread across a giant country, working on what may be one of the most pressing human rights issues of our day. Yet $686 million breaks down to about $13.7 million per group, per year - money most organizations of any size would be thrilled to get their hands on. And this amount doesn't include federal funds spent to fight human trafficking, rumored to be between $1.2 and $1.5 billion per year.

Considering that most of the groups were founded after Somaly Mam began appearing regularly in US media between 2006 and 2008, it's notable that the US anti-trafficking movement seems to be one of the few reliable growth areas in the United States' post-recession economy besides low-wage service work.

Hard Numbers and Malleable Data

Numbers throughout the murky world of human trafficking are notoriously hard to verify. How many traffickers? Uncountable! How many victims? So many! How old are they? Too young! How much money changes hands? Zillions upon gajillions of dollars, daily! "Scarily lucrative," Time declared it in a May 2014 headline. Sound unbelievable? It is, and aid groups will claim it's because the unvarnished truth of human slavery is incomprehensible to most living Americans today.

Many of the most frequently cited statements are easily disputed, if factual at all. Demand Abolition, a part of the $4.4-million Hunt Alternatives group of nonprofits based in Massachusetts, calls a section of its homepage, "Know The Facts." "Zero men should be purchasing sex," says one (actually an opinion), and similarly, "Prostitution is not a victimless crime."

"Prostituted" individuals is anti-trafficking code for consensual sex workers, filtered through a definition of trafficking that defines all sexual labor as necessarily forced.

Another reads, "About 10 percent of men in the US buy sex from prostituted or trafficked individuals." The statistic is difficult to verify, since few reliable studies have ever been done on consumers of commercial sex - fewer can be done now, as "end demand" campaigns and anti-trafficking legislation make customers less willing to come forward. One study in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology suggests that only 1 percent of men in the US purchase sex in a year, but that 14 percent of the male population have done so over the course of their lives. More dubious is whether they did so from trafficked persons, as such studies have never been conducted, or from "prostituted" individuals. This last phrase is anti-trafficking code for consensual sex workers, filtered through a definition of trafficking that defines all sexual labor as necessarily forced.

"The average age a girl enters prostitution in the US is 13," reads another of Demand Abolition's facts. Scholar and activist Emi Koyama has pointed out the logical fallacy in this statement, on her blog and in independently published works, where she has also tracked the gender and age of folks caught in the FBI's Operation Cross Country raids. When The Atlantic investigated, Koyama noted that most of the young people detained in raids are 16 or 17. "There are rarely any under the age 13," she said. "For the average age to be around 13, there needs to be many more 5-12 year olds that are forced into prostitution than are empirically plausible."

The DC-based Polaris Project, with a $7.3 million budget, is slightly more careful to word unverified statements, but rarely offers any corroboration. "In street-based sex trafficking, victims are often expected to earn a nightly quota," one reads, "ranging from $500 to $1,000 or more, which is confiscated by the pimp. Women in brothels disguised as massage businesses typically live on-site where they are coerced into providing commercial sex to 6 to 10 men a day, 7 days a week." The uses of "often" and "typical" are cues that the numbers are shady, but the only resource cited on the page is Polaris' own National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which makes no claims regarding sex work earnings or numbers of clients. The "nightly quota" may have come from The Urban Institute, which notes that 18 percent of the pimps they spoke to in major US cities set quotas between $400 and $1,000 per night. But most of the pimps they spoke to didn't set quotas and sex workers often distinguish certain pimps from traffickers in the first place. A 2011 study by the Young Women's Empowerment Project (YWEP) found that, of 205 interviews with sex workers in the street economy, fewer than 7 percent of their experiences were with pimps; even fewer report having been trafficked.

Of 205 interviews with sex workers in the street economy, fewer than 7 percent of their experiences were with pimps; even fewer report having been trafficked.

Reliable studies on the wages or labor practices of street-based sex workers and massage parlor employees in the United States are hard to come by, although writer and researcher Brooke Magnanti debunked similar numbers tossed around the UK recently for The Baffler. In 2014, the Office for National Statistics in London announced plans to add estimates of earnings by sex workers of 10 billion pounds to its GDP, a number it appeared to have arrived at by multiplying a single nonprofit's estimate of the number of sex workers in the country by an online escort website's listed prices, which would not incorporate, say, the lower earnings of street workers or dancers. On top of which, the wages appear to be multiplied by a very high 25-client-per-week estimate, which Magnanti, a former escort, calls "eye-watering." (Polaris' above suggestion that massage parlor workers see 42 to 70 clients per week could be similarly side-eyed.)

As for the full scale of the problem at hand, the California-based group Not For Sale, with a $3.5 million budget, claims that "there are more than 30 million people around the world affected by slavery - more than at any point in history," a figure that comes from the Global Slavery Index (GSI), but doesn't stand up to basic logic. GSI has since upgraded their estimate to 35.8 million slaves, although both OpenDemocracy and The Guardian challenge the methodology behind the index. (The latter suggests that extrapolating a tiny amount of available data across hundreds of nations - GSI's basic methodology - "verges on the ludicrous.") The phrase "affected by" seems intended to soften the hardness of the dubious number, yet the statement is still difficult to defend.

Aiming to address the question of scope, the "Awareness" section of the Defender Foundation's website asserts, "Human Trafficking is the 2nd largest criminal enterprise in the world. . . . It is growing so fast, it is quickly heading to the number one spot." The ILO does suggest that forced labor generates $150 billion annually and adds that $99 billion of that may come from commercial sexual exploitation. But to label this as anything other than an estimate is unfounded. Magnanti's takedown of wage estimates of sex workers in the UK should indicate how difficult it is to reliably predict criminalized economies, but the drug trade, the illegal arms trade and the trade in counterfeit goods have all, in recent years, been thought to pull in more than $150 billion.

There's also no real evidence that human trafficking is growing.

There's also no real evidence that human trafficking is growing - by law enforcement logic, in fact, the means by which perpetrators are being investigated and prosecuted are actually advancing. Even GSI admits that rising numbers don't seem to point to rising numbers of slaves. Instead, the website states, "the increase [from 30 million to 35.8 million] is due to the improved accuracy and precision of our measures and that we are uncovering modern slavery where it was not seen before."

Yet challenging faulty data in a field that offers great economic incentive to exaggerate truth gets to be like a rousing game of Whac-a-Mole. Organizations habitually link to or cite other groups' dubious lists of facts (the $48 million International Justice Mission in DC and $235,000 Colorado-based Truckers Against Trafficking, for example, both attribute statistics to the Polaris Project), or recycle the same disproven or vague statistics without citation. Ronald Weitzer, in the May 2014 Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, states the matter cleanly: "None of the trafficking claims - huge magnitude, growing problem, ranking among criminal enterprises, most prevalent type - have been substantiated. It is impossible to satisfactorily count (or even estimate) the number of persons involved in or the magnitude of profits within an illicit, clandestine, underground economy at the macro level - nationally or internationally."

Indeed, there is no agreed-upon manner by which to describe the problem. Victim tallies seem simplest and the US Department of State in 2003 began requiring foreign governments to report identified victims, criminal prosecutions, convictions and new policies to ensure increased protections under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. The 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIPR) lists 9,460 prosecutions (only 1,199 of which were labor trafficking cases); 5,766 convictions (470 labor trafficking cases); 44,758 identified victims (10,603 labor trafficking cases); and 58 new laws passed - nearly triple the previous year's new legislation. Those are international numbers and only from friendly nations, but it's useful to compare approximately 45,000 identified trafficked persons around the world to the ILO's estimates of 21 million people living in forced labor: Already the numbers don't track.

"None of the trafficking claims - huge magnitude, growing problem, ranking among criminal enterprises, most prevalent type - have been substantiated."

To illustrate the domestic scope of the problem, the 2006 TIPR is often cited: The State Department estimated that between 14,500 and 17,500 individuals are trafficked into the United States each year. However, this was later thought to be too high and only accounted for immigrant populations. More recently, the TIPR has taken to logging data from the three main agencies that investigate federal trafficking offenses: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); the Department of Homeland Security's US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations (ICE HSI); and the Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Human Trafficking Unit. In 2013, these agencies - plus the Department of Defense, which opened nine cases involving military personnel - investigated a potential 1,937 cases of human trafficking and an additional 100 cases were prosecuted at the state level. (A frequently cited statistic, from Polaris' National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, suggests significantly higher numbers of sex trafficking cases for that same year - 3,609. However, because these are referred to law enforcement officials for investigation, they would be included in the above official tallies.)

Given the $686 million anti-trafficking budget shared by 50 of the most prominent organizations (which doesn't count federal costs), this breaks down to an average budget of $343,000 per case - certainly enough to secure each victim a safe place to live for at least a year. Yet a 2013 report found only 682 beds available, nationwide, to victims of trafficking, with another 354 more planned for 2014.

A Surplus of Victims

Yet funding for anti-trafficking groups isn't the only disproportionate side of the equation. Judging by all credible estimates, claims made by anti-trafficking organizations about how many trafficked persons they serve are out of proportion with the actual number of people in the world considered to be trafficked by official sources.

Of the 19 anti-trafficking organizations earning more than $1 million annually, 11 claim to rescue victims from situations of trafficking, or in the parlance of nonprofits, offer direct client exit-care services. Occasionally this is coded as, "assist[ing] trafficked persons," "outreach," "intervention," or "eradicating" or "combating" slavery, or may be included in the emerging (and slightly less abrasive) notion of "restoring victims" - possibly "to justice." (Although few organizations describe their own work in such violent terms, media tend to refer to "rescue operations" from situations of sexual exploitation as "brothel raids," both of which remove women, with varying degrees of consent, from situations deemed exploitive by the organization and which occasionally end with the incarceration of supposed victims.)

All in all, the impact numbers presented by anti-trafficking organizations - their justification for existence and, of course, funding - are simply absurd.

In other words, 60 percent of our top-funded anti-trafficking organizations claim to actively remove people from trafficking situations, a percentage that, from what this reporter can see, appears to hold true for organizations earning less than $1 million as well. Eight of the top-earning organizations that claim to offer rescue services reported numbers in annual or impact reports; one organization that makes no such claims also reported having assisted a certain number of persons in leaving trafficking situations.

More than half of top-earning anti-trafficking organizations claim to rescue victims; two-thirds of them report numbers of victims "rescued." Most focus primarily on sex trafficking. (Groups like International Justice Mission, which works around a variety of issues including all forms of trafficking, lists having assisted 2,266 persons from labor trafficking and 239 persons from sex trafficking in its most recent annual report; Truthout considered only the latter figure.)

Slightly less than half of the top-earning anti-trafficking organizations in the United States claim to have saved 8,676 total individuals from sex trafficking: in other words, over four times as many victims as there were potential cases of both labor and sex trafficking investigated in the United States, at federal and state levels, in 2013. That's slightly more than 1,084 trafficked persons saved per top-earning organization, which we could use to estimate that 11 organizations might claim to save nearly 12,000 persons from sex trafficking, primarily in the United States, or speculate from there that the approximately 20 organizations that also conduct rescues but have smaller budgets freed perhaps 250 from sex slavery in 2014, to arrive at a wild, two-ballparks-away guess that the 50 most prominent anti-trafficking organizations in the United States could conceivably claim, in a year, to release nearly 17,000 individuals from sex trafficking. This figure represents about half the number of sex-trafficking cases the State Department suggests may have occurred, through the entire world, in 2014.

This purely speculative exercise only provides a glimpse of how outsized the claims made by anti-trafficking organizations are. Some of this can certainly be accounted for by human error, the overly optimistic language of annual reports or the inclusion of a group's overseas efforts (few, indeed, made national distinctions in client tallies). The overlarge figure isn't explained by the same clients accessing multiple services, however, as the organizations are spread throughout the United States.

All in all, the impact numbers presented by anti-trafficking organizations - their justification for existence and, of course, funding - are simply absurd.

Somaly's Legacy

"When you work in this world, you know fabricated stories are used by everyone to get funding," Pierre Legros told the GlobalPost in October. A co-founder of AFESIP in 1995 alongside then-wife Somaly Mam, he left the organization in 2004. A French national, he and Mam subsequently divorced.

When he speaks of Mam's fall from grace, however, Legros doesn't place the blame solely on the former partner with whom he has a famously acrimonious relationship. Media, he said, were "very pushy and wanted to show extraordinary stories." The organization was lucky to have a "beautiful, sexy, charismatic and determined" spokesperson on hand.

Sexual harassment, abuse and fraud at anti-trafficking organizations are not exclusive to Cambodia.

"Every NGO dreams of having its Somaly and every media wants her on camera," he said. AFESIP "soon became very much high profile and we welcomed a lot of journalists. They all wanted to make something sexy, to draw attention and mark everyone's mind."

But, as we've seen play out on a larger scale among US anti-trafficking organizations, the downside of the media focus on sex is that they tended to miss the point - sometimes even overlooking the safety of the supposed victims. "A lot of false stories came out, based on misunderstandings or the will to report about something extraordinary," he said. "Faces were shown, testimonies were wrong. The media just betrayed us for sensationalism and efficiency of information."

Indeed, Legros charges that in the wake of the Newsweek story, media continued to focus on Mam, as opposed to any of the larger issues in the world of anti-trafficking NGOs that had emerged.

One lingering concern is of fiscal malpractice at AFESIP: things like duplicate invoices and confusing budgets. Another, however, is worse for an organization claiming to save women from commercial sexual exploitation. A 2013 report in El Mundo reported sexual harassment and abuse by two former AFESIP employees, allegedly documented in a private investigation.

"They are responsible for forcing the residents working in the center to have sex," according to the document, El Mundo reported. Spanish officials are also quoted saying that they threatened to withhold funding unless Mam addressed the allegations; they claim Mam responded by characterizing the situation as a misunderstanding and noting her close relationship with the Queen.

In 2012, researchers at YWEP found sex workers experienced nearly as many incidents of institutionalized violence from police as they did from workers at care facilities - seven times as many, by the way, as they experienced from pimps.

Yet sexual harassment, abuse and fraud at anti-trafficking organizations are not exclusive to Cambodia. Dan Benedict of Defender Foundation was revealed by the Florida Times-Union to have a history in weapons stockpiling, former ties to a white supremacy group and a felony child abuse conviction. An organization that did not appear in Truthout's study, the Rescue Children from Human Trafficking Foundation in California, was discovered in July 2014 to be headed by Lady Katerine Nastopka, formerly known as Lady Catarina Toumei, a con artist who claimed to be a member of the Guggenheim family and European royalty before she was forced to defend to a San Diego news crew that her organization had helped two girls escape trafficking. Even a former acting director at the US Department of Health and Human Services was convicted on child pornography charges in August 2014.

Many key figures in anti-trafficking organizations come directly from law enforcement, a field known to harbor sexual abusers and perpetrators of violence against women. In 2012, researchers at YWEP found sex workers experienced nearly as many incidents of institutionalized violence from police as they did from workers at care facilities - seven times as many, by the way, as they experienced from pimps.

However, those realities are rarely acknowledged on a broad scale and least of all by the organizations themselves. When it comes to the anti-trafficking movement in the United States, the terms of engagement seem to mandate a degree of dishonesty about the scope of the problem, as well as a lack of transparency about the money at stake. Those who are genuinely concerned about human trafficking, forced labor and sexual exploitation, it seems, may not be able to address these issues until they have quelled the rising moral panic surrounding the mythology of sex trafficking in the United States.

News Tue, 27 Jan 2015 11:26:41 -0500
State of the Union Shows Obama Still Needs Movement Pressure on Climate

2015.1.27.SOTU.mainPresident Barack Obama acknowledges applause before he delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 20, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Listening to the State of the Union, it's easy to cordon off its sections neatly. A transition statement, applause breaks or a change in tone can all signal a move onto a new topic. Looking over the transcript from the speech, it isn't hard to separate out the section about climate change, which President Obama describes as one of the nation's "pillars of leadership." After discussing trade partnerships, Obama talked about the truth behind the science, and how the 14 warmest years on record have been in the first 15 years of this century. There's even a snappy diss on Republicans who evaded the question of climate change in the mid-term race by pleading that they simply are not scientists. The president quipped, "I'm not a scientist either ... but I know a lot of really good scientists." He talks about the strides his administration has made to preserve public lands and negotiate a historic climate deal with China, and how the United States should continue these trends to provide leadership on this issue globally.

All that, combined with a nod to solar power and a brief, pointed mention of "one oil pipeline," might be summed up as the State of the Climate in the Union. It would have been better, admittedly, had it come at this time in 1992, when the United States signed onto the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. But, all in all — on climate issues — not bad. For those hoping to avoid the very worst of the climate crisis, though, there's another big section that should be included in this State of the Climate brief: middle class economics.

This is something that Republicans, in all their obstructionism and climate denial, understand all too well. It's what has, on Keystone XL, landed the Grand Old Party in an unlikely alliance with organized labor to rush its approval through the Senate. It's also what has allowed conservatives to peddle their favorite "jobs vs. the environment" meme at length, pitting working families against the other working families most impacted by climate change and extraction. Does anyone find it more than a little ironic that climate is the only issue that puts congressional Republicans on the side of the American worker?

In one of five Republican rebuttals to the State of the Union, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, accused the president of pushing through "job killing EPA regulations." He also pledged to introduce a bill that would "require the EPA to be held accountable for their rule-making." All this sounds like standard fare for Republicans, until you remember that Inhofe — author of the 2012 book "The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future" — happens to be the Senate's highest-ranking official on the environment. As chair of the Senate Committee on Public Works and the Environment, Inhofe — who said in 2003 that "increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives" — exercises considerable power over the EPA, an agency he and fellow Republicans have pledged to all but gut.

So what, then, does middle class economics have to do with the climate crisis? If there's any hope of averting the worst of it, the government will have to start providing Americans with more. More, even, than the paid sick leave, minimum wage hikes, affordable child care, free community college and public infrastructure investments that Obama pitched last night. Unlike health care, there is no Obamacare for the planet: Private industry will not innovate us out of the climate crisis or provide for all of our needs, no matter how heavily it's incentivized. Corporations are legally bound to value profits over people, the planet and virtually anything else, which creates a not-insignificant problem when a big part of acting on climate change means inverting that metric. Confronting the climate crisis and the cold, flawed logic of endless growth that created it will mean creating jobs that pay family-sustaining wages, and making sure that people have basic needs met in a way that's not dependent on whether or not a given company will profit off of it: child care, education, health care, housing and more. Unlike corporations, the government has an at least nominal mandate to provide for its citizens.

Unfortunately, "the shadow of crisis" has not passed, least of all when it comes to the climate. Given that House Speaker John Boehner and most Republicans couldn't muster the energy to applaud equal pay for men and women, creating the political will to pass comprehensive climate legislation that includes job creation, public services and maybe even a few handouts (read: a social safety net) isn't something Obama or congressional Democrats have proven capable of doing. As with most significant progressive reforms in American history, confronting both climate change and extraction will take the pressure of a popular movement that sees climate issues as part and parcel with economic ones.

Opinion Tue, 27 Jan 2015 10:04:41 -0500
Introducing Mrs. Merlin: To Prosecute Jeffrey Sterling, CIA Exposed an Asset

The government engaged in a great deal of security theater during the Jeffrey Sterling trial, most notably by having some CIA witnesses — including ones whose identities weren't, technically, secret — testify behind a big office divider so the general public couldn't see the witness.

But along the way, the government revealed a great number of secrets, including a number of secrets about how its counterproliferation programs work.

Perhaps most ironically, in a trial aiming to convict Jeffrey Sterling for revealing that the Russian scientist referred to as Merlin during the trial was a CIA asset, the government revealed that Merlin's wife was also an asset.

That possibility was first suggested in the testimony of the first witness, Stephen B, who described originally recruiting Mrs. Merlin (presumably also for information on Russia's nuclear program), not Merlin himself. Merlin's wife suggested CIA recruit Merlin.

But the exhibits make it even more clear that CIA continued to have a relationship with Mrs. Merlin as well. For example, the first of two cables describing CIA informing the Merlins the engineer appeared in James Risen's book describes them as the "Merlin assets," plural.


That January 6, 2006 cable goes on to reveal that Mrs. Merlin had been facilitating the targeting of a Russian official who was due to travel to the US.


In addition, a stipulation regarding how much the CIA paid out over the years described it as how much "CIA paid Merlin and his wife." [my emphasis] Indeed, the payments continued after CIA purportedly had to discontinue using Merlin on operations when Risen threatened to publish a New York Times story in 2003, and continued even after Merlin appeared in Risen's book in 2006, even increasing in 2007.

2015.1.27.Wheeler.3Altogether, the CIA paid the Merlins roughly $413,223.67 over the 7 years after James Risen supposedly ruined Merlin's usefulness as an asset.

It's possible that some of these amounts were just meant to keep the Merlins silent. Yet it's also clear that in 2006, Mrs. Merlin was actively providing information on Russian targets to the CIA.

None of these details — including a listing of how much nuclear engineers might expect to be paid by the CIA for a thorough debriefing then participation in a deception operation — were made public by Risen's book.

But in the government's zeal to punish Jeffrey Sterling because it believes he revealed Merlin to the world, the government has, in turn, revealed Mrs. Merlin.

News Tue, 27 Jan 2015 09:48:25 -0500
Obama Wants You to Have Cheap, Fast Internet, but Many Cities Aren't Allowed to Provide It

2015.1.27.Broadband.mainPresident Obama watches a demonstration of fiber optic splicing during a visit to Cedar Falls Utilities in Cedar Falls, Iowa, January 14, 2015. Obama said that he wants to make it easier for local governments to get into the broadband business and will ask the FCC to strike down laws restricting local governments from providing Internet. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)

Last Tuesday evening during the State of the Union address, President Obama pledged "to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks." Obama is calling on the Federal Communications Commission to challenge a wave of state laws blocking the construction of municipal broadband networks, which are high-speed Internet services run by local communities.

Here's what you need to know about the president's proposal and what it might mean for consumers.

Why Can't Cities Just Build Their Own Broadband Networks?

Although there are about 300 municipal broadband networks across the country, laws in about 20 states create multiple administrative and financial hurdles for new networks to get off the ground. Such legislation makes it difficult, for example, for communities to issue bonds to cover the upfront costs of building a network or to lease out unused fiber as a way to offset their costs. In Florida, residential broadband networks must demonstrate how they plan to turn a profit within four years, a tall order. According to The Baller Herbst Law Group, so-called fiber-to-the-home networks often take much longer to become profitable. In Nevada, there are population restrictions. Municipalities are prohibited from providing broadband if the population exceeds 25,000; for counties, it is 55,000 or more.

Why Have Some States Put These Restrictions on Municipal Broadband Networks?

The cable lobby and some conservatives believe that the business of Internet service should stay in the private sector. Last week, Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer called Obama's plan "a new federal takeover of state laws governing broadband and the Internet." Telecom industry groups such as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association have argued that these networks are risky investments that could drive cities into debt. Telecom companies have donated millions of dollars to state and federal politicians on both sides of the aisle. Besides contributions, the cable lobby has directly submitted legislation to restrict municipal broadband networks and taken fledgling networks to court. Last year, according to a report by Ars Technica, the Kansas Legislature squashed a bill to limit municipal broadband networks that was drafted and submitted by the Kansas Cable Telecommunications Association. When Lafayette Utilities System in Louisiana announced its intention to build a municipal broadband network, they faced three years of court battles with two incumbent Internet providers, costing them $4 million, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity.

How Is Obama Going to Get Around These Restrictions to Expand Municipal Broadband?

The Obama administration is urging the FCC "to ensure that communities have the tools necessary to satisfy their citizens' demand for broadband." Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act charges the commission with encouraging "the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans." In its letter to the FCC, the administration argues that "where private investment has not resulted in adequate broadband infrastructure, communities can and should play a leading role in expanding broadband access." In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will revamp its broadband loan program to offer financing to eligible high-speed broadband carriers in unserved and underserved rural areas. The Department of Commerce will launch a new initiative to provide online and in-person technical assistance to communities that will help them address challenges in planning and implementing broadband networks.

What Obstacles Does Obama Face?

With a Republican Congress, it's likely Obama will face opposition. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., drafted a net neutrality bill that would strip the FCC of Section 706 authority. He argues that this change is "necessary to update FCC authority for the Internet Age."  

Moreover, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has said the Commission does not have the authority to preempt state bans on municipal broadband. In a statement last week, Pai recommended that the commission "focus on removing regulatory barriers to broadband deployment by the private sector."

But it's still possible for Obama's proposal to have an effect. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill on Thursday that would amend the Telecommunications Act to make it illegal for states to restrict or prohibit municipal broadband networks. And FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has already seemed to express his support for using the FCC's authority to remove barriers for municipal broadband networks in Tennessee and in North Carolina, which have submitted petitions to lift restrictions on their networks. "I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband," he wrote in a blog post in June.

The commission is expected to vote on these petitions on Feb. 26.

News Tue, 27 Jan 2015 10:43:33 -0500
In 10 Years, No One in Helsinki Will Even Want to Own a Car: Three Simple Ideas That Are Making Cities Sustainable

2015.1.27.Finland.mainHelsinki Regional Transport Authority is piloting an on-call minibus service called Kutsuplus. (Screen grab via AjeloInc / YouTube)

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1. A Bus That Will Pick You Up Anywhere in the City With the Use of a Smartphone App.

in: Helsinki

By 2025, public transportation in Helsinki will be so good that no one living in the city will have any reason to own a car.

That’s the goal the city announced earlier this year, and Helsinki is serious about it. The Helsinki Regional Transport Authority is piloting an on-call minibus service called Kutsuplus. The service uses an algorithm and a smartphone app to combine the affordability of ride sharing with the on-call service of a taxi.

Riders hail buses on a smartphone; an automated system routes and reroutes the fleet to create the most efficient service for patrons heading in the same direction. It’s cheaper than a taxi and more convenient than a bus.

Free wi-fi and storage for bikes or strollers are included, too. Compared with traffic jams, parking fees, and car maintenance, on-demand public transit in Helsinki is looking pretty good.

2. Absorbent Playgrounds That Reuse Greywater.

in: Philadelphia

At Herron Park in South Philadelphia, monkey bars and sliding poles sit on top of a recycled rubber play surface that absorbs water like a sponge. Meandering pathways direct water into gardens filled with native Pennsylvania trees and shrubs. Even the basketball court is designed with an asphalt mixture that percolates water into the soil below.

Nearby, Wharton Street Lofts offers apartments with city views from the building’s green-roof deck, while a greywater system captures and reuses rainwater on-site. Just a few years ago, both locations were almost entirely covered in concrete and asphalt.

Projects like these two in South Philadelphia are part of a network of green infrastructure that’s springing up across the city. It’s the core of the Philadelphia Water Department’s Green City, Clean Waters program. Philadelphia is the first city in the country to put green infrastructure at the center of plans to address federal Clean Water Act requirements and manage stormwater runoff.

The 2011 plan commits $2.4 billion to turn the city from grey to green within 25 years. It’s a blueprint for a new urban landscape that sends water into the soil instead of down the pipe.

3. Finally, an Easy Way for Property Owners to Invest in Renewable Energy.

in: Berkeley, California

Sometimes bold innovations on a local scale can set the stage for change nationwide. In 2008, the City of Berkeley launched a pilot program to make it easier for property owners to invest in renewable energy.

Steep installation costs often make converting to renewable energy prohibitive for property owners. To overcome this hurdle, Berkeley offered 100 percent funding for renewable energy projects. Property owners could repay the funds gradually over 20 years through a special property tax assessment.

Berkeley’s program served as a model for the nationwide Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program. Today, PACE financing is available to commercial or residential property owners in more than 800 municipalities. When property owners invest in efficiency upgrades or renewable energy, they save money, reduce carbon emissions, and supply green jobs. With the widespread success of PACE, local governments are clearing the way for investments.

News Tue, 27 Jan 2015 10:10:05 -0500