Truthout Stories Tue, 30 Sep 2014 12:02:36 -0400 en-gb The Obvious Relationship Between Climate and Family Planning - and Why We Don't Talk About It

Several years ago, Bill Gates keynoted a breakfast for Seattle-based Climate Solutions, a nonprofit focused on advancing the clean energy economy and driving practical, profitable solutions to climate change. Gates opened his speech with an equation. To paraphrase: Our carbon problem = persons x services x the energy intensity of services x the carbon intensity of energy. The number of people is growing, Gates observed, and we all want more services. While Americans arguably consume too many goods and services, billions of people currently living in dire poverty need more. He then spent the rest of the time discussing the last two factors in the equation.

Recently, Robert Engelman and Samuel Codjoe published an article at Grist titled, “Hey, UN: Climate Change and Population are related.” They pointed out the fact that the United Nations would soon be hosting back-to-back conferences about population and climate change respectively, and they lamented that neither conference would likely address the concerns of the other. “That will be a missed opportunity,” they said, “because scientific research increasingly affirms that the two issues are linked in many ways.”

Engelman and Codjoe are not the only ones asking for a more open conversation about the relationship between family planning, population, and climate change. Articles in The New York Times and The Huffington Post also call for an increased focus on this nexus, both as a climate-resilience strategy and a means of reducing atmospheric carbon. The Aspen Institute has estimated that voluntary family planning for all who want it could provide 8 to 15 percent of needed carbon reductions. David Wheeler and Dan Hammer at the Center for Global Development argue that putting climate dollars into family planning programs (to make up for expected shortfalls) compares favorably to many investments in low-carbon technologies.

It doesn’t take scientific research or the brain of Bill Gates to figure out that our impacts grow as our numbers grow — that gains in the efficiency of, say, air conditioners or cars can be swamped by the growing number of air-conditioned houses and cars on the road. Analysis of population trajectories and effects seems like an obvious and necessary part of the climate dialogue. But in recent decades, public talk about population has been taboo, even among people who are keenly aware of the issues. If we are to foster a broader conversation about global warming, one that includes discussion of population, it is important to remember why the topic has been largely off limits for so long.

During much of history, male-dominated governments and patriarchal religions have treated a woman’s childbearing capacity as means to a societal or economic end. During the Iron Age, when the Bible and Koran were written, females, including daughters and wives as well as slaves, were literally chattel. To writers of these texts, a woman’s primary value lay in her ability to produce offspring of known lineage for her husband and his family. Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation, echoed this sentiment: “Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children … If woman grows weary and, at last, dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing, she is there to do it.” Some Christian leaders echo it still. America’s Quiverfull movement, as exemplified by the Duggar family, is a striking example.

As culture evolved, nation-state superseded kin and creed in terms of who or what might lay claim to a woman’s uterus. To this day, authorities sometimes exhort or coerce women to bear children as a service not only to husband and deity, but to country. Leaders may decide they want more workers, for example, or cannon fodder. Pronatalist policies are most common when leaders feel threatened by the economic or military strength of a neighboring region.

In the 20th century, a peak of pronatalist coercion occurred under Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, whose government (1965-1989) outlawed contraception, banned most abortion, and sometimes enforced these rules via mandatory gynecological exams. The movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a gut wrenching window into the lives of two young college friends under Ceausescu’s regime. Quasi-religious, quasi-political entities including Muslim theocracies and the Vatican also may pressure or coerce constituents to increase the birthrate. In August, after Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei expressed alarm over declining birthrates, the national parliament responded by banning surgical procedures to prevent pregnancy.

Since modern contraception first was developed, governments have also used intimidation, coercion, and force on the other side of the equation. China’s one-child rule is a well-known example, as is India’s early attempt to set and meet population targets with enticements including transistor radios and cash incentives and, when those failed, deceit. Less known is the fact that in the 1990s, Peru’s government sanctioned the coerced sterilization of close to 350,000 poor and indigenous women. In the United States, poor and minority women and inmates have been sterilized without free and full consent, or, sometimes, when they were too young to give consent. This is not ancient history; abuses like these have been documented as recently as 2013.

Today, state-of-the-art family planning methods called LARCs (long-acting reversible contraceptives) are rapidly growing in popularity. These methods offer women an unprecedented ability to manage their fertility — to have children when they feel ready and only when they feel ready. On the Pill, which is 1960s technology with a few updates, one in 11 women gets pregnant each year. With a state-of-the-art “fit and forget” method like an IUD or implant, that drops below one in 500. Recent research in St. Louis and Colorado showed that when women are offered the method of their choice with no co-pay, most choose one of these LARC methods, and the rates of rapid repeat pregnancy, teen pregnancy, and abortion plummet.

Evidence keeps growing that these better contraceptives transform lives by improving maternal and child health, increasing education opportunities for young women and men, and helping families to thrive financially and psychologically. Based on this evidence, doctors, educators and social service providers are increasingly enthusiastic about these options. But women haven’t forgotten the dark and all too recent history of coercion, especially poor and minority women, and some communities and advocates are wary of the new methods and the enthusiasm. They are especially wary of any enthusiasm for solving societal problems by limiting women’s choices.

What if a woman wants to use a less effective method? What if she doesn’t know what she wants? It may be tempting for a provider to push whatever he or she thinks is best. And in the urgent press to solve enormous problems like poverty, hunger, or global warming, it may be tempting to treat a woman’s family-planning decisions as a means to a bigger end. It may be tempting, but it is wrong, and it doesn’t work. Yes, governments can and have forced the birthrate up or down, but only at a high cost in human rights and suffering, and with the added cost of undermining voluntary family-planning services.

The good news is that coercive population policies and targets are not only wrongheaded, they are not needed, because hundreds of millions of women want access to better family-planning methods that will let them delay, space, or limit their childbearing. In developing countries, more than 220 million women want to avoid pregnancy but are not using modern contraceptives. In developed countries, removing barriers to top-tier, long-acting contraceptives like IUDs and implants dramatically changes the rate of unintended pregnancy. Women have their own reasons for wanting contraceptives they can count on. They want to learn and grow, explore and contribute to the world around them, attain financial independence, and give their children the best possible shot in life. To borrow a phrase from poet Mary Oliver, each woman’s “one wild and precious life” is her own, and so are her reasons and goals for managing the wild and precious gift of her fertility.

This is not to say that health providers should be passive prescribers of whatever a woman might request, or that they should wait for clients to initiate family-planning conversations. It’s a provider’s job to be the expert on what technologies are available, including the risks and benefits of each, and it is a provider’s job to raise awkward and difficult topics. Every family-planning method has trade-offs and no one method works for all women, and ordinary women rely on their doctors to keep abreast of the options and make recommendations just as they would do in any other field of health.

Also we know that today, even in developed countries, many pregnancies result from inertia, impulse, inebriation, or some other factor that gets in the way of thoughtful, intentional life management. (Unfortunately, the fertility default setting is “on,” which means that when we aren’t paying attention or are dragging our feet or can’t decide, pregnancy can be the result. Some of the best modern contraceptives are game-changers precisely because they toggle the default, making protection the default and pregnancy an active choice.)

By using counseling techniques like “motivational interviewing” or “One Key Question,” providers can help women clarify their own preferences and even crystalize their long-term dreams and plans. Since so many births are simply the result of “go-with-the-flow” childbearing, it is important that educators and providers step up the conversations about family planning, opening this sometimes awkward topic in primary care visits, for example.

But all of these are client-centered approaches that respect the autonomy, dignity, agency, and intelligence of reproductive-age women. With women in the driver’s seat, improvements in care do produce a lower birth rate. But that is very different from providers or governments, even with the best of intentions, trying to force an outside objective. Vyckie Garrison, former leader in the Quiverfull movement, speaks eloquently about what it was like to have her childbearing be part of a social agenda (in her case driven by religion) and how this was abusive.

Human population has grown from 2 billion to more than 7 billion in the last 85 years, and policy makers do need to talk about the trajectories and the impact of population on war, food, water, health, fuel, climate, and more. They need to recognize that family-planning policies affect a host of other issues — that the question of whether women have reliable, safe, affordable, appealing contraceptive tools is a factor in infant health, family prosperity, education of girls and women, government budgets, and the functioning of our planetary life-support system. They need to be mindful about whether public policies or the structure of social services inadvertently nudge people to have more babies. They need to recognize that family-planning dollars are an upstream investment with known dividends and that empowering young women to make thoughtful, intentional childbearing decisions is a smart, cost-effective way to help ensure sustainable abundance for all. And they need to know that even in places like the U.S. and Canada, there’s a lot we can do right now to make a difference.

But as those policies are implemented, it is critical that we not forget how very wrong humanity has gone in the past when the life-giving power of a woman’s body became a tool in the hands of men on a righteous mission.

News Tue, 30 Sep 2014 11:52:03 -0400
Mobilizing Youth Through Hip Hop to Fight Climate Change

Please check back later for the full transcript.

News Tue, 30 Sep 2014 11:44:09 -0400
The Radicalization of Phil Donahue


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, and welcome to Reality Asserts Itself. I'm Paul Jay.

Our guest today is probably someone that helped create this show in a sort of way, Phil Donahue. He's not just a legend in broadcasting. He's one of the more important figures politically, I think, at least in terms of media. There's very few people in American media that stand up and stick their neck out and take a risk and even suffer the consequences for it. Well, Mr. Donohue's one of those people. And it's a privilege for us for him to join us here.

Thanks very much.


JAY: So here's a little bit of introduction. Phil Donahue's an Emmy Award-winning media personality. He's best known as the creator and host of the Donahue Show, which ran for 29 years on cable TV and I think was the longest-running talk show on TV, or still is. Still is? That's a funny way to phrase it. It is not on the air anymore, but it's still the longest running. Nobody has caught up to you yet, I believe.

DONAHUE: To my knowledge. I'm not sure.

JAY: So Wikipedia says, anyway. He also was the host of Donahue, which ran from July 2002 to March 2003, before msnbc canceled it because of his vocal opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. This was despite it being the most highly rated show at the time on msnbc network. He's also the codirector of Body of War, a documentary film about the struggles of an Iraq War veteran and antiwar activist, Tomas Young.

So, for those of you at home that don't know, although I think most of you that watch do know, we usually start with a personal segment, and that's what we're going to do with Mr. Donahue, kind of more about what helped shape his view of the world. And then we'll talk about his views on more recent events.

So you're born in 1935 in Cleveland.


JAY: You sort of come of age, consciousness of sorts, about nine, ten years old. I think that's about at the end of one war and the beginning of another. It's not very long before the Cold War begins, with McCarthyism and House Un-American Activities Committee.


JAY: What was the politics of your household like?

DONAHUE: We weren't desperately political. My parents certainly supported Roosevelt, although I recall my mother leaned Stevenson.

But I was totally American. I thought we were the best in all things. I thought I was blessed. I lived in a country that stopped Hitler's advance in Russia. I didn't really understand the help we had from Russian soldiers, but it was America who defeated Hitler and it was America who defeated the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. I wore a bill that said "Remember Pearl Harbor". My uncle was in the Battle of the Bulge. And I was a member of the one true church. I was Catholic. I was not only Catholic; I was Irish Catholic. So I'm born—by accident, at birth I'm born in the greatest nation on earth that wins everything, all its wars, is all good in all things—the Marshall Plan, Lend-Lease. And I'm a member of the one true church. Holy cow.

JAY: So this is deeply part of your identity.

DONAHUE: Absolutely, in the '40s, yes, when my wheels began to turn.

And I came of age really in the '50s. My Notre Dame college days extended from 1953 to 1957. I wasn't really savvy to McCarthyism till later. And I carried this superiority to my college education.

And then, around ten years later—I'm a slow learner, I have to say. I'm not proud of this. I remember I had a Ohio State University professor on my program for something I don't remember, on my television program. We were a local show in Dayton, Ohio. We began in 1967. And I remember I'm in the green room talking to him, and we must have been—we were probably talking about the war or something. And he said there's not a professor at Ohio State who supports this war.

JAY: Vietnam.

DONAHUE: Yeah. And that stunned me. I mean, at least this is how I remember it.

JAY: And how old are you?

DONAHUE: Well, let's see—'35, '45, '55, '60—I'm 30.

JAY: So the official—.

DONAHUE: Or 29, 30. Twenty-eight, probably.

JAY: The rah-rah American narrative is still your narrative.

DONAHUE: I'm suddenly thinking—yes. And I'm thinking, are we going to lose a war here? This can't be. Eisenhower, the '50s, I mean, MacArthur, Roosevelt. And suddenly this guy from Ohio State.

And after a while I looked up to suddenly realize that in many ways I was prepared for a world that never materialized. Nobody told us they were going to assassinate our president. Nobody told us we were going to lose a war. Nobody told us the Japanese were going to overtake us in automotive superiority. All of—and then the cities began to explode. The whole civil rights movement began violently. And in the first year we were on the air, 1968—we premiered in November '67. Nineteen sixty-eight, Bobby is assassinated, Martin is assassinated, and the cops beat up the kids in Chicago at the convention.

JAY: So what does that do to you?

DONAHUE: Well, first of all, we're doing shows on all of this. I mean, we were smart enough to grab these issues.

JAY: But you're learning as you go.

DONAHUE: Oh, my. And then I had Noam Chomsky on my program.

JAY: Actually, hang on for sec. We're going to show little clip of Noam Chomsky on Phil's show, 'cause Noam gives this analysis of the media. And you can see—you're not sure whether Phil looks a little skeptical or not at this, and it's interesting to—I want to hear you talk about that moment. So here's just a minute or so of Chomsky.


[Source: Pozner/Donahue]

NOAM CHOMSKY, LINGUIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Now, in order to maintain those contacts, you'd better present the world a certain way, or those contacts are going to be cut off. You'll lose your opportunity to appear to have special insight, to have leaks, to be able to come across with a story a couple of hours before the next person, and so on. Now, there's an interplay here which requires power in order to maintain your own power. That's another factor over and above the just structural and institutional properties.

DONAHUE: Go along to get along.


JAY: What was that sounding like to you at this time?

DONAHUE: Well, I was rattled. You know, I didn't—at this time I wasn't aware of the importance of dissent and how American it was. And I sure didn't know the pushback that you got if you dissented. I was totally naive. But I remember saying to Chomsky, what are you trying to say? In some inelegant way like that. And he looked right at me and he said, never ever trust the state. And I'm thinking, what? I mean, I grew up in a church that prayed for America, prayed for the conversion of Russia.

JAY: It to some extent blessed the war in Vietnam,—

DONAHUE: Absolutely.

JAY: —and even blessed the dropping of the atomic bomb.

DONAHUE: And absolutely so. And Catholics voted for Nixon. And so I'm beginning to—my wheels are starting to turn. I mean, really I'm ashamed to admit how long it took.

But I also look back and realize how really blessed I was, really. I mean, if I were in the junior training program at Sears, I would never have been exposed to Black Panthers, to Louis Farrakhan, to Noam Chomsky. I mean, I was a very lucky man. I got an education available at no university.

JAY: It's also interesting that you could actually put people like that on your show back then,—


JAY: —'cause on mainstream media, there's very few shows that would even dare to have those kinds of guests today.

DONAHUE: Well, we're very proud of that history, and it is born out of my awareness that Dayton, Ohio, was not the crossroads of America. This is where we began as a local television show in November 1967. And so I concluded the only way we were going to—and we were visually dull. We had two talking heads. And we're competing with Monty Hall, who's giving away $25,000 to a woman dressed like a chicken salad sandwich and the spinning wheels, "Come on down!" and people screaming. And here I am talking to a guest, one guest per hour. So for that reason we put on Madalyn Murray O'Hair, for example, for our first—a Baltimoran: there is no God, there's no heaven, there's no hell, there are no angels. You know, my God, I mean, the building fell in in Dayton, Ohio. But everybody knew there was this show on.

JAY: And what about you yourself listening to this? I mean, you grew up in the one true church.

DONAHUE: Well, that's true. It wasn't easy. Locally we were—thankfully, we were local, so my mother couldn't see this in Cleveland, where I was raised.

But I was fascinated by the questions she raised. You can worship a pet rock. I don't care what you do. But you pay for it! I'm tired of paying higher taxes because you get tax benefits because of your so-called church. I mean, she would just—. And she was a guest—. You know, nobody goes for a beer during a hockey fight, and nobody left the Donahue show when Madalyn was on the program. And in many ways I admired her. I agreed with her. I don't think you should have a crucifix on the wall of a public school.

JAY: Now, you're now opening yourself, in terms of considering, exploring, thinking, ideas that challenge everything that goes to the core of who you were.


JAY: So—.

DONAHUE: Well, remember, I don't want to fail on the air here. And, by the way, the ratings went through the roof. No one had ever seen anything like this. We put a gay guy on on the third show.

JAY: Ordinary America wanted to hear these ideas.

DONAHUE: Women especially. I think, you know, ours was a mostly female audience, remember, 1967. And nobody was out in 1967. And I'm 16 years of Catholic education, including four in Notre Dame (I'm a graduate of Notre Dame University), where we were taught that we love the sinner but hate the sin, in the most—I later realized, a very condescending thing, in that the church was promoting homophobia more virulently than [any] other institution. And here comes this gay guy, and I am scared to death. I'm figuring they're going to think I'm queer, which is what we called them then. And I remember going to high school with guys who wanted to beat up queers. I never wanted to beat up a queer, but I didn't want to be with any queers. And now I got a queer right here on my program. And, of course, the phones are going crazy. The mail is coming in to the general manager. Mothers thought their children would catch it. Why are we aggrandizing this man? You know, you put him on television, it's like there's nothing wrong with being queer. I mean, this was how we—.

But the audience—the only thing that made us survive were two things. One, we were a local show. If we had started on the network, we never would have survived. Freedom is another word for nothing left to lose. We had no place to go but up. We couldn't go down. We were already down. And sponsors canceled and we had a real pushback. But the audience was so large that even the blue suits, who were terrified—and I was, too. I thought my career would be in jeopardy if—you know. And sure enough, the third call on the gay show, the caller said, "How's Phil look to you?"

JAY: So '68, '69, we're now getting to the height of the Vietnam War, the height of the civil rights movement, assassinations of not just Martin but many leaders of the Black Panthers. And as you're interviewing, you're starting to become aware of what the state, as Chomsky says, is doing to the antiwar movement.


JAY: So at what point do you say, yeah, what I grew up with ain't the truth?

DONAHUE: Yes, I did start to see the warts in all the—you know, Chomsky helped me with this—in all the institutions, including my own church, and certainly my government.

But I still was hiding behind my job. I remember watching the American Friends Service Committee in Dayton. The Quakers would stand downtown every Tuesday at noon at 3rd and Ludlaw, downtown Dayton, Ohio, just silently—I'm not sure they even had signs—just to silently stand there to protest the Vietnam War. And I remember admiring them and wishing that I could join them, sort of, but not really wanting to. I had already begun to develop a kind of a lefty image, which is not what you want to have if you're in media. And so I was able to say, well, I can't do that, because I have to keep my—I have to walk down the center of every issue and never reveal.

As the years went by and the show became much more successful—it took a while, but we finally grew, and from Dayton, Ohio, we wound up in over 200 American cities.

JAY: You said something a little earlier—I still could kind of hide behind my journalism hat or face. There's a point somewhere where you have to—I'm assuming the coin has to drop for you, where it's, you know what? I actually agree with these guys. I'm not just interviewing them anymore.


JAY: They're actually more right than they're wrong.

DONAHUE: Yes. I don't know exactly. I was active in a protest against the construction of a church in our suburban Centerville, Ohio, neighborhood. And we argued that Jesus isn't into stained-glass windows. We bused our kids. We sent our kids to a mostly black school downtown, where the paint was peeling off the walls. The textbooks were old, with Cardinal Spellman's imprimatur. And I remember because our school, Catholic school in the suburbs, had Martin Luther King in them. But certainly there were no blacks. We felt Catholics were raising another generation of racists. We were very committed and very righteous, probably, if I recall.

JAY: Who's "we"?

DONAHUE: The people who joined—the group with whom I was allied in, for example, the busing effort. We had to get a bus and we had meetings. People in our neighborhood thought we were going to sell to a black family, and we had to deal with that. And so my kids went downtown Dayton to St. James. We had black kids over to the house and scared everybody in the neighborhood. This would be—you know, you're talking late '60s, early '70s. My show had just begun.

JAY: So were you concerned? There's two things happening at the same time here. There's the radicalization of Phil Donahue politically,—


JAY: —and Phil Donahue is becoming a star. You've got what feels like a hit show coming here. And you must have known you might be getting a point where you might go on network, you might be going national. Is there a point where you have to decide, how far can I go, how can I stick my neck out?

DONAHUE: Well, remember, we were syndicated, which I came to understand and believe is the most honest way to distribute a television program. If they don't like me in Peoria, I'm still on the air in Indianapolis, or vice versa. In other words, one vice president while he's shaving can't cut me off the network coast-to-coast, goodbye, never see you again. Each station that carried the Donahue Show made the decision on their own, by themselves, free of any—. Will this bring in revenue for us?

JAY: When you start the show, you would self-identify, to use the terminology, as a true-blue American. Then, by the end of the '70s—I'm not saying you don't consider yourself an American, but would you call yourself a progressive American? Have you kind of become, politically,—

DONAHUE: I guess so.

JAY: —that you've come to some conclusions?

DONAHUE: I never—I didn't know—honestly, I never thought of conservative/liberal. I just didn't. And again another evidence of my own slow learning here. I found these programs, these issues to be fascinating.

JAY: Well, maybe if you'd been a little more savvy, you wouldn't have had the guts to put all these people on your show.

DONAHUE: That's possible, you know? I enjoyed talking to Louis Farrakhan. I enjoyed discussing religion and more war caused by the Prince of Peace than in any other—how was religion involved in this, and how, you know, religion makes you feel superior. I remember as a child thinking, I'm glad I'm not Episcopalian. Why do I have these divisions? And if I think I've got God and you don't, I can do terrible things to you.

JAY: And God loves America.

DONAHUE: Yeah. And I can patronize you. You know, I will say how much I love you, but I really don't respect you, because I have God and you don't. All of these attitudes and how they're shaped. What jingoism is. And much later I learned about the First Amendment and the Jehovah's Witnesses who wouldn't salute, and became fascinated with that issue and how the Supreme Court, after coming down and saying, you've got to salute, and expelled kids that didn't, came down and said, hey, this is—you obey your parents.

JAY: I'm going to do something, because, in short, you went on to have a fabulously successful show, you went on to make a lot of money, you met and knew the who's who of America, and you particularly got to know, from the inside—and you didn't grow up in the elite, but you got to know the American elite. And that's what I want to talk to you about in the next segment.

DONAHUE: Very good.

JAY: Who are they? What do they want? Are they fit to govern?

So join us for the continuation of our discussion with Phil Donahue on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.

News Tue, 30 Sep 2014 11:39:37 -0400
After Civilian Deaths, Human Rights Watch Says US Strikes on Syria May Violate Laws of War

As U.S. strikes on Syria expand, Human Rights Watch says a bombing last week on the town of Idlib should be investigated for possible violations of the laws of war. The strikes killed at least seven civilians, including five children, in the early morning hours of September 23 in the village of Kafr Deryan in northern Idlib province. Local activists at the scene of the attack collected and videotaped the remnants from the weapons used in the strikes. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage and identified the remnants as debris of a turbofan engine from a Tomahawk cruise missile, a weapon that only the U.S. and British governments possess. "Witness accounts suggest that the attack on the village harmed civilians but did not strike a military target, violating the laws of war by failing to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or that it unlawfully caused civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military advantage," HRW details. The group has called on the U.S. government to investigate the allegations and publish its findings. We are joined by Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria.


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

AMY GOODMAN: Overnight, U.S.-led warplanes hit grain silos and other targets in northern and eastern Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the attacks killed a number of civilians working at the silos. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch is calling for an investigation of possible unlawful U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria last week. According to the group, at least seven civilians, including five children, died in the early morning hours of September 23rd in the village of Kafr Deryan in northern Idlib. Local resident Abu Ossamah said the victims were displaced civilians who had fled the Assad regime.

ABU OSSAMAH: [translated] The military headquarters are far from the city, in the mountains. There are no military headquarters inside the city. All the people who were killed today were displaced civilians from Aleppo fearing the bombs of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.

AMY GOODMAN: Local activists at the scene of the attack collected and videotaped the remnants from the weapons used in the strikes. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage and identified the remnants as debris of a turbofan engine from a Tomahawk cruise missile, a weapon only the U.S. and British governments possess. Human Rights Watch put out a statement reading in part, quote, "Witness accounts suggest that the attack on the village harmed civilians but did not strike a military target, violating the laws of war by failing to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or that it unlawfully caused civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military advantage," unquote. The group has called on the U.S. government to investigate the allegations and publish its findings. On Thursday, two days after the attack on the village, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby said there had been no "credible" reports of civilian deaths from U.S.-led strikes in Syria.

Well, for more, we’re going to Beirut, to Lebanon, where we’re joined on the telephone by Nadim Houry. He is the Human Rights Watch senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria and the director of the Beirut office.

Nadim Houry, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what you have found.

NADIM HOURY: So we were able to speak with three local residents in the village of Kafr Deryan, who told us that there were actually two separate strikes that evening on the village—one that hit, actually, a Nusra group of buildings outside the village, and shortly thereafter, missile strikes that destroyed two homes in the village, that killed seven civilians, as well as two men. There is some contradictory information about the identity of these two men. One person said they may have been Nusra, while others said they were civilians. This is what we know. We also were able to review photographs and footage taken from one of the activists on the ground. We were able to speak to him on Skype. He shared with us his footage from the site where the two homes were destroyed, and we saw evidence of the remnants of the Tomahawk cruise missile that was used on those homes.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about the significance of this, Nadim.

NADIM HOURY: Well, I mean, the first step is, what we need is more clarity exactly what happened. This is why we’re calling for an investigation. Right now, we’ve got local testimonies. The area is very hard for us to reach. It’s very dangerous, so we’re not able to go there ourselves. But we believe that the U.S. should disclose what information it has and should investigate, because there is credible information that civilians were killed and that these strikes may have been illegal, because there’s no evidentiary—evidence of any military target.

Secondly, I think that there’s a very important issue here to be discussed, which is these strikes are supposed to be about protecting civilians and countering terrorists. But if they are killing civilians, they are going to actually attract more support for groups like Nusra and ISIS in northern Syria, and ultimately will be self-defeating of any initiative to protect civilians. So I think it’s very important to have full transparency about these strikes and also to remember that, you know, really, they have to—the U.S., in its strikes, has to respect international humanitarian law, distinguish between civilians and military, but also take all precautionary measures to minimize civilian harm.

AMY GOODMAN: Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the military is aware of the reports of civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes in Syria, but skeptical of their accuracy. He told the Associated Press, quote, "We don’t believe that there’s much reason to be too concerned about any collateral damage, you know, to civilian property, that kind of thing. But on the civilian casualty issue, certainly we take that seriously, and we’ll continue to look at that and review that as we work through the damage assessment process." Is that enough for you, Nadim Houry?

NADIM HOURY: Not at this stage. You know, we still don’t know—you know, so we’ve got accounts coming from local residents saying there were two different areas targeted—one outside the village, one inside the village. The U.S. still has not disclosed what they were trying to hit. You know, the sort of dismissiveness that we’ve seen over the last few days is not very encouraging. Of course it may take time, but clearly, you know, this was very expensive weaponry that was used, so clearly they were trying to hit something. And it’s important to understand what it was and what measures are being taken to minimize the civilian harm.

So we’re hoping that the U.S. administration would give more details, would conduct an investigation and actually give their answers. And we have not come out with a definite answer about what was hit. We’re saying we’ve got very credible information from three separate sources indicating at least seven civilians were killed, including five children. We’ve got their names. We’ve got images for some of the victims. And we also have a video evidence that what destroyed these homes, where these kids were, was most likely a U.S. Tomahawk missile. Now, you know, the sort of burden shifts now on the U.S. Army to sort of say, "OK, these are the precautionary measures that we took, and this is why we think, you know, there’s no credible reporting that there were civilian casualties," because clearly we find the information to be credible.

AMY GOODMAN: Nadim, this report from Reuters today: "U.S.-led air strikes hit grain silos and other targets in Islamic State-controlled territory in northern and eastern Syria overnight, killing civilians and wounding militants ... The aircraft may have mistaken the mills and grain storage areas in the northern Syrian town of Manbij for an Islamic State base," according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Do you have any more information on this?

NADIM HOURY: Not yet. We’ve seen the reports, and we’re trying to confirm the information. It’s very hard to reach people in Manbij these days. But what I can tell you is people in Manbij had—one person in particular had contacted us because they have a relative in that town, and they were very worried, because some relatives are actually being detained by the Islamic State, they’re civilians, and they were worried that the U.S. would be striking these prisons. So there’s a lot of fear in northern Syria today that some of these strikes will injure civilians. We have to investigate these particular claims about civilians being killed. But, you know, ISIS is not just present outside of towns. They have administration buildings in the middle of towns that they operate. Some of them are military installations. Others are being used by ISIS to administer the towns, including courts, including prisons, where they’re holding inmates and so forth. And we just have to, you know, gather more information.

But clearly there’s a high risk for civilian casualties, and this is why our call is for the U.S. to take maximum precautions to minimize civilian harm and to avoid, you know, any strike that would directly target civilians or a strike that would have a disproportionate impact on civilian victims versus the military advantage that would be had. I think this is very important for the lawfulness of these strikes, but also ultimately also very important for what the U.S. is trying to achieve in Syria at the end of the day. These sort of strikes will end up alienating a lot of civilians in northern Syria. But again, we still don’t know enough, and this is why we’re calling on maximum transparency from the U.S. Army.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the shifting alliances here? You have the Syrian president, Assad, voicing his support for any international antiterrorism effort. You have people struck being people who are fleeing from the Assad regime. Can you talk about what’s happening in Syria right now?

NADIM HOURY: Obviously, it’s very complicated. I think the first point to keep in mind is the issue is not just, you know, there are the good guys and the bad guys, and let’s figure out who the good guys are or not. We have seen, for example, the Assad regime, its army has committed systematic crimes against humanity. We have also seen some groups, such as ISIS and also the Nusra Front, commit crimes against humanity. We’ve also seen some rebel groups commit violations, as well, that are very grave. The key here is, you know, that a lot of these alliances are localized. What we’re seeing now is a lot of this, my enemy—you know, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. So we see the Syrian government is quite happy to see strikes coming down on ISIS, particularly Nusra, as well, while at the same time they’re clearly—you know, the U.S. government has made it very clear that they don’t consider the Assad government to be a legitimate partner in their alliance. We’ve also seen opposition groups, more mainstream groups, divided in their views. Some have welcomed U.S. strikes on ISIS, because they have also been attacked by ISIS, while others are afraid that what the U.S. strikes will end up doing is reinforcing Assad, the Assad government. So, yes, it is confusing on one level. But for us, the main guiding principle should be, at this stage, protection of civilians. I think if one keeps this principle in mind, it will actually clarify and make it easier to pursue certain priorities in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nadim Houry, I want to thank you for being with us, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria, director of the Beirut office, where he is speaking to us from in Beirut, Lebanon.

News Tue, 30 Sep 2014 11:31:23 -0400
The Global Climate Strike: Why We Can't Wait

The world’s capitals will not end the old economy or deliver the new one.  We can’t wait any longer because every day of waiting reduces our window for action. We need not wait because we already hold the knowledge needed for creating the new economy. And because a global climate strike can stop the machine responsible for creating the climate crisis, the most powerful person may be you.

You may think that Wall Street will change course and lead our economy in a new, climate-neutral direction. Or you may expect Washington D.C. — or Beijing, New Delhi, Brussels or Moscow — to decisively reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect people and the planet.

If so, read no further.

But if you are unwilling to entrust your future to the money men and the political class, then consider this: Regardless of who you are, the person who holds the most power in the world to end the climate crisis may be you.

One way to guarantee an end to the climate crisis is to stop doing the things that are heating the planet. Stop  fossil fuel production and use. Stop greenhouse gas emissions. Stop rainforest devastation. And since the corporate and political capitals of the world are unwilling to stop themselves, we must stop them ourselves.

We can stop them by refusing our participation and cooperation. We can stop them by withholding our labor. By folding our arms we can halt the machine responsible for the climate crisis and create the space for the new, green economy to take root. We should go on strike.

A Global Climate Strike for People, Planet, and Peace Over Profit

A global climate strike is a next step in the international uprising that insists that another world is possible.  That uprising has taken to the streets in the tens of millions. It has even occupied capitol buildings and the halls of capital. Yet the street demonstrations have yet to work because most global elites are not listening and will not listen. And while the occupations and blockades have succeeded here and there, the bulldozers of profit keep moving everywhere else. It is time to shock the system with a global climate strike.

What makes a strike different from mere protest? A strike is an economic stoppage. A strike does not plead. It does not demand. It simply does.

A global climate strike stops the economic and political systems responsible for the climate crisis. Workers and students stop their usual work. Machines and money stop moving. And communities step forward into the breach to build the new economy that puts people and planet over profit.

A global climate strike might last a few days, or weeks, or at some point, it might move forward without end. It will be a global strike because the climate crisis is not a national problem, it is a systems problem. The system of global capitalism dominates much of the world and it will take a worldwide movement to stop this sytem. The strike may begin in 10 or 20 countries, and in particular economic sectors, but from there, it must spread.

When a strike reaches critical mass, capitals will respond. Their bottom lines will demand it. They will try to appease us, and when they do, we should call that progress. But as we continue forward, they will attempt to divide and destroy us. For this reason, the hardest part of winning a global climate strike will not be its beginning, but its end. Nonetheless, we must begin.

Why We Can’t Wait

For years now we have heard the word “wait.” Wait until the scientific consensus on the causes of climate change has increased from 90% to 99%. Wait until renewable energies are price competitive. Wait until the results of the next election.

Today the scientific consensus is nearly unanimous, renewable energies are price competitive, and elections have come and gone. Yet the world’s capitals continue to prop up the fossil fuel industries and to feed the climate crisis.

The result is an atmosphere that holds far more carbon dioxide than the ecosystems our lives depend on can tolerate. All of us are headed for a world 10°F hotter than preindustrial levels. That is a world that cannot sustain human civilization.

Every month of waiting deepens the scarcity of resources and opportunities to change course. Climate change is expensive. When food production is disrupted, food prices go up. When cities must be rebuilt, resources are expended. When millions flee their homes, space must be made for them. All of this intensifies scarcity and inequality and brings about a more dangerous global society.

In Our Hands is Placed a Power Greater than their Hoarded Gold

It is absolutely true that human beings now possess the technologies and understandings necessary to recreate our economy on a sustainable, democratic and fair basis. Today, we have the ability to shift to an energy grid that is 100% renewable by 2020. We know how to produce healthy food and healthy cities that cost less and heal the planet. The knowledge of how to do this is contained in every one of the tens of millions of people around the world currently employed in building the new economy.  

A global climate strike will open space for the new economy to expand rapidly. It will be an opportunity to innovate and showcase sustainable solutions at the community level. That expansion will mean new jobs for the unemployed and the underemployed and the overemployed. Those jobs are safer, healthier and, by definition, sustainable. Those jobs also tend to be more decentralized, and for this reason, supportive of a more democratic society.

The world’s capitals will not end the old economy or deliver the new one.  We can’t wait any longer because every day of waiting reduces our window for action. We need not wait because we already hold theknowledge needed for creating the new economy. And because a global climate strike can stop the machine responsible for creating the climate crisis, the most powerful person may be you. You may be the person who can turn the climate’s breaking point into a tipping point by bringing others around you into a global climate strike.

The authors would like to stay in contact with you. Click here to stay in contact about the global climate strike idea.

Opinion Tue, 30 Sep 2014 11:18:30 -0400
Story of a War Foretold: Why We're Fighting ISIS

As the US, UK and French governments escalate military action in Iraq and Syria against the ‘Islamic State’, in an operation slated to last “years,” they are moving fast to justify the need for mass surveillance measures at home, while neutering calls for surveillance reform. The end result could well be accelerated regional violence and increasing criminalisation of Muslims and activists in the West.

Intervention abroad, policymakers are arguing, must be tied to increased domestic surveillance and vigilance at home. But US and British military experts warn that officials have overlooked the extent to which western policies in the region have not just stoked the rise of IS, but will continue to inflame the current crisis. The consequences could be dire – while governments exploit the turmoil in the Middle East to justify an effective re-invasion of Iraq along with intensified powers of surveillance and control – the end result could well be accelerated regional violence and increasing criminalization of Muslims and activists.

Pre-Empting "Social Contagions"

In a recent article in Defense One, technology editor Patrick Tucker interviewed Dr Erin Fitzgerald, the head of the Pentagon’s controversial Minerva Research Initiative, about how Big Data analytics could have predicted the emergence of the Islamic State.

Founded in 2008, the year of the global financial crash, the Minerva initiative is a multi-million dollar programme funding social science research at universities around the world to support US defence policy. As I reported exclusively in The Guardian and, Minerva-funded projects have focused on studying and modelling the origins and trajectories of “social contagions” to track the propensity for civil unrest and insurgencies that could undermine US strategic interests at home and abroad.

This has included developing powerful new data-mining tools capable of in-depth analysis and automated threat-assessment of social media posts by nonviolent social movements, civil society networks, NGOs, and political activists, as well as potentially those by violent or extreme groups and organisations. These algorithms, according to NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, could be used, for instance, to fine-tune CIA kill lists for drone warfare at a time when the US defence industry is actively (and successfully) lobbying federal and local government to militarise the homeland with drone technology.

Even academic specialists advising the Pentagon research programme admit that a major deficiency of Minerva is its use of fluid and imprecise definitions of “nonviolent activism” and “political radicalism,” which tend to equate even peaceful activists with “supporters of political violence.” Official Pentagon responses to my repeated questions about how they would safeguard against demonising or criminalising innocent activists consistently ignored this issue.

Pentagon Spokesperson: Minerva Research Needed to Predict Groups Like ISIS

According to Tucker, the US Department of Defense’s Minerva “program managers feel that the rise of IS, and the intelligence community’s inability to anticipate it, imbues their work with a timely importance.” He quotes Fitzgerald, who tells him: “Recent security issues such as the emergence of terror groups like ISIS… highlight the type of critical knowledge gaps that Minerva research aims to address.”

Big Data, writes Tucker, has provided an ideal opportunity to innovate new ways of predicting the future. “It’s an excellent time for data-driven social science research,” he observes. “But is the military the best outfit to fund it at its most innovative?”

Citing a speech last week by CIA director John Brennan, Tucker points out that the sort of research being supported by Minerva is about closing “a big gap” in “intent intelligence” – the capacity to predict human intent.

The elephant in the room, however, is that the US intelligence community did anticipate the rise of IS. There is now mounting evidence in the public record that President Obama had been warned of a major attack on Iraq by IS extremists.

US Intelligence Long Anticipated the Rise of ISIS

According to an unidentified former Pentagon official, President Obama “was given detailed and specific intelligence about the rise of the Islamic State as part of his daily briefing for at least a year”, containing “strong and ‘granular’” data on the emergence of ISIS. The source said “[we] were ready to fire, on a moment’s notice, on a couple hundred targets,” but no order was given. In some cases, targets were tracked for a “long period of time” but then slipped away, reported Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge. The White House neither confirmed nor denied this report.

Similarly, the Daily Beast confirmed via “interviews with a dozen US and Iraqi intelligence officials, diplomats, and policy makers” that “A catastrophe like the fall of Mosul wasn’t just predictable… They repeatedly warned the Obama administration that something like this was going to happen.”

In February, then Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, delivered the annual DIA threat assessment to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He predicted that “al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) also known as Iraq and Levant (ISIL)… probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah.” Gen. Flynn also noted that “some Sunni tribes and insurgent groups appear willing to work tactically with AQI as they share common anti-government goals.” He criticised Baghdad for its “refusal to address long-standing Sunni grievances” and “heavy-handed approach to counter-terror operations” which has “led some Sunni tribes in Anbar to be more permissive of AQI’s presence.” ISIL has “exploited” this permissive security environment “to increase its operations and presence in many locations” in Iraq, as well as “into Syria and Lebanon,” which is inflaming “tensions throughout the region.”

US intelligence also appears to have been fully cognisant of Iraq’s inability to repel a prospective ISIS attack on Iraq. Gen. Flynn added that the Iraqi army has “been unable to stem rising violence” and would be unable “to suppress AQI or other internal threats” particularly in Sunni areas like Ramadi, Falluja, or mixed areas like Anbar and Ninewa provinces. As Iraq’s forces “lack cohesion, are undermanned, and are poorly trained, equipped and supplied,” they are “vulnerable to terrorist attack, infiltration and corruption.”

A senior figure in Iraq’s governing party, the Islamic Dawah Party, told me on condition of anonymity that Iraqi and American intelligence had anticipated an ISIS attack on Iraq, and specifically on Mosul, as early as August 2013. Although intelligence was not precise on the exact timing of the assault, the source said, “It was well known at the time that ISIS were beginning serious plans to attack Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey played a key role in supporting ISIS at this time, but the UAE played a bigger role in financial support than the others, which is not widely recognised.”

Yet when asked whether the Americans had attempted to coordinate with Iraq on preparations for the expected ISIS assault this year, particularly due to the recognised inability of the Iraqi army to withstand such an attack, the Iraqi government source said that nothing of the sort had happened. “Perhaps they screwed up, the same way they screwed up over WMD,” he speculated.

Algorithms "for the Field"

If Minerva research is not really about addressing a non-existent gap in assessing threats in the Middle East, what is it about? According to Fitzgerald, as reported by Tucker: “In contrast to data-mining system development or intelligence analysis, Minerva-funded basic research uses rigorous methodology to investigate the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of phenomena such as influence, conflict escalation and societal resilience.”

The reality is different. As my detailed investigation, including my interviews with senior US intelligence experts, showed, Minerva is attempting to develop new tools capable of assessing social movements through a wide range of variables many of which can be derived from data-mining of social media posts, as well as from analyses of private metadata – all informed by sociological modelling with input from subject-area social science experts.

Contrary to Fitzgerald’s statement to Tucker, and to information on the Minerva website, private Minerva email communications I recently revealed in the Guardian showed that the data-mining research pursued at Arizona State University would be used by the Pentagon “to develop capabilities that are deliverable quickly” in the form of “models and tools that can be integrated with operations.” Prof Steve Corman, a principal investigator for the ASU project on ‘radical and counter radical Muslim discourses’, told his ASU research staff that the Pentagon is looking to “feed results” into “applications.” He advised them to shape research results “so they [DoD] can clearly see their application for tools that can be taken to the field.”

Corman himself has a longstanding relationship with the Pentagon. In 2003, his ASU-spin off company, Crawdad Technologies, was awarded a $100,000 grant from the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research to analyse text streams using the company’s unique analytical methods which “transform text into networks that represent author intent.”

“We’re very happy that the United States Air Force sees potential in our technology”, said Corman at the time. “The product we’re developing will help intelligence and business analysts find information and patterns in large volumes of streaming text.”

In 2005, Corman’s company in association with ASU won a $750,000 Pentagon grant to further develop its Centering Resonance Analysis (CRA) technology – a “superior data-mining algorithm,” which “had up to five times better precision than ones based on existing technologies.” The new grant was for Crawdad to advance the incorporation of “deep analytics” capable of mimicking “expert analysis” when combined with “domain knowledge.” This would create actionable insight from a range of streaming texts, including “news media, email, and even human conversation.” The project was completed in 2007.

ASU, Minerva and the NSA

For the period 2009 to 2014, ASU won its major award from the Pentagon’s Minerva initiative to continue developing new data-mining algorithms to monitor ‘radical and counter radical Muslim discourses.’ Regional and subject-area academic specialists were asked to rate and scale the threat-level to US interests posed by purportedly Muslim civil society organisations and networks in Britain, Western Europe and Southeast Asia, in order to feed into the fine-tuning of algorithms that could automate the threat-assessment classification process in a way that mimicked expert input. When I obtained access to these scaling tools, it turned out that a significant number of organisations being threat-assessed were simply anti-war, human rights and pro-democracy groups that were not remotely Islamic organisations.

For the same period from 2009 to 2014, the ASU received its National Security Agency (NSA) designation as a ‘National Center of Academic Excellence [CAE] in Information Assurance Research’ under the intelligence community’s CAE programme run by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

According to NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, the ideal use for the ASU’s algorithms would be to feed into the US intelligence community’s capacity to conduct wide-ranging predictive behavioural analysis of groups and individuals in the homeland and abroad – with an inherent danger of categorising activists as potential terror suspects, and at worst, identifying potential targets for the CIA’s drone warfare kill lists.

Given the problematic nature of the Pentagon’s understanding of political violence, though, rather than fine-tuning the intelligence community’s capacity to meaningfully identify threats, this instead maximises the capacity to see threats where none exist.

According to a former NSA mathematician, scientists at the agency are employed on condition that they would not be told how their mathematical or scientific research would be used. “The intelligence community has a dearth in the kind of scientific expertise necessary to understand and analyse much of the data that is collected,” he said:

“Even most of the mathematicians at the NSA are ex-military. They’re already comfortable with the intelligence community using their work as it sees fit. That’s why the NSA and other agencies require mechanisms to harness the expertise in the academic community. It’s not so easy to convince independent academics whose specialised knowledge is needed to inform intelligence analysis of complex societies and foreign regions that they don’t need to know how their research will be used. But an external funding programme like Minerva makes it easier to overcome this hurdle. All academics need to know is that they’re aiding the fight against terrorists who want to kill American citizens.”

Islamic State Paves the Way to Kill Surveillance Reform

No wonder then that Western governments have moved fast on the back of the IS threat to justify the need for mass surveillance and Big Data analysis, while neutering calls for surveillance reform due to systemic violations of privacy.

The USA Freedom Act, which was supposed to restrict the NSA’s authority to spy on American citizens, has now been stalled in the Senate, ostensibly because of IS. Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University, told Foreign Policy: “There was a lot of movement on surveillance reform in Congress… but it has been totally overtaken by ISIS. The Senate will still have to pass something, but the urgency is gone.”

Now the UN Security Council is about to endorse a new resolution granting unprecedented powers to government law-enforcement agencies to monitor and suppress the travel of terror suspects, including stripping people of their passports. The resolution does not require any criminal conduct as a precondition for the use of such enforcement powers.

The problem is that neither of the main approaches to dealing with IS – mass surveillance and military bombardment – are likely to work. The New America Foundation’s detailed report, released at the beginning of this year, found that surveillance “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism”; while military action and dubious alliances with regional powers is precisely what led to the current crisis.

Unfortunately, as anthropologist Prof David Price told Defense One’s Patrick Tucker about the Pentagon’s regressive approach to the appropriation of social science: “I just don’t see Minerva funding a study of how American civilian, military, and intelligence activities in the Middle East contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.”

The Elephant in the Room Is Foreign Policy

According to security analyst Charles Shoebridge, a former British Army and Metropolitan Police counter terrorism intelligence officer, the crisis across Iraq and Syria cannot be resolved without first addressing the extent to which western policies created the crisis in the first place.

“The US, UK and France contributed to the collapse of governance [in Syria]… by funding, training and equipping ‘moderate’ rebels with little realistic consideration of with whom such funds, trained fighters and ‘non lethal’ aid (such as armoured vehicles, body armour, secure military radios and weapon sights) would end up,” said Shoebridge. “Similarly, the West did nothing to discourage vast flows of funds and arms from their allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others towards rebel groups irrespective of, or perhaps because of, their extreme interpretations of Sunni Islam.”

Shoebridge pointed out that the US and UK in particular, “through the covert work of MI6 and the CIA,” appear to have “played a key role in facilitating the flow of arms and jihadist fighters to Syria from such places as Libya, the Caucuses and Balkans, with the aim of militarily boosting those fighting Assad.”

Currently, the success of the new US-led strategy in Iraq and Syria is premised on the notion of a clear and discernible distinction between the ‘moderate’ rebels and extremists linked to al-Qaeda or IS. But according to Shoebridge, this distinction, then and now, is virtually meaningless:

“It should also be noted in this respect that the ‘moderate’ rebels the US and UK support themselves openly welcomed the arrival of such extremists. Indeed, the Free Syria Army backed by the West was allied with ISIS, until ISIS attacked them at the end of 2013. Still today, ‘moderate’ rebels backed by the US and UK are allied with Syrian al Qaeda affiliate al Nusra, despite the US and UK having banned this group at home.”

Turning a Blind Eye

By some estimates, up to 500 Britons are suspected of having gone to fight in Syria. With reports that many of them are planning to return to the UK, some of them due to being disillusioned with IS, the government is exploring new powers to prevent British terror suspects from traveling abroad or re-entering the country. But Shoebridge remarked that since 2006, UK authorities have tacitly allowed this terror-funnel to consolidate and expand, until it began to grow out of control last year. Britain, he told me:

“… turned a blind eye to the travelling of its own jihadists to Syria, notwithstanding ample video etc. evidence of their crimes there. Despite such overseas terrorism having been illegal in the UK since 2006, it’s notable that only towards the end of 2013 when ISIS turned against the West’s preferred rebels, and perhaps also when the tipping point between foreign policy usefulness and MI5 fears of domestic terrorist blowback was reached, did the UK authorities begin to take serious steps to tackle the flow of UK jihadists.”

The US-UK direct and tacit support for jihadists, he said, had made Syria the safest place for regional terrorists fearing drone strikes “for more than two years.” Syria was “the only place British jihadists could fight without fear of US drones or arrest back home… likely because, unlike if similar numbers of UK jihadists had been travelling to for example Yemen or Afghanistan, this suited the US and UK’s anti Assad foreign policy.”

Air Strikes Will Fail, Could Pave Way for Ground War

I also talked to a senior US Army official familiar with Iraq who had deep reservations about the current course of military action. “It was almost 100% certain that airstrikes alone could never ‘defeat’ ISIS. The absolute automatic, certain reaction ISIS would take has been taken: they changed the way they operate, move, and where they live. They are now more deeply embedded in the civilian infrastructure so that continued striking is going to build up more and more civilian casualties – which ISIS and other organisations will certainly publicise, making us look very bad. So it should have been known, 100%, that airpower alone wouldn’t succeed.”

The failure of air strikes to quell IS could pave the way for an inevitable ground invasion, he speculated, which however would only result in a deeper quagmire: “What do you do next?  Stop bombing? Bomb more?  What more targets do you engage; which additional targets will you engage? Or will you bring in Western ground troops to fight? That has been tried and conclusively failed.”

In much the same way that the devastation of Iraq in the context of the 2003 Iraq War, and the US-backed imposition of a repressive, sectarian regime there, have acted as a recruiting sergeant for Islamist extremists, further air strikes are likely to have a similar counterproductive impact now.

Civilians in Iraq and Syria, the US official said, “were first victimised and brutalized by ISIS, and now many of them have already been killed and wounded by the airstrikes. Their homes, businesses, and schools have been turned to rubble; their economy almost eliminated. What do we think all these people will think of the West now? Even if we eventually defeated ISIS – highly unlikely – the devastation against these innocents will engender such animosity towards us, the results might be worse than what we have now.”

Any solution to the crisis, he said, would require a dramatic change of approach to the region, including serious introspection on the west’s contribution to the conditions which have fed the grievances of groups like al-Qaeda and IS. “Neither the US or UK have been willing to even consider, much less admit, that a good chunk of the causality for this current mess originated with our actions in 2003 and ever since. In effect, the very bad policy and military actions we’ve taken in the past decade to help inflame this region – through considerable kinetic action and the funnelling in of huge amounts of weapons and ammunition – will be deepened and expanded… So long as we don’t concede our actions have contributed greatly to this instability (not all, but a significant portion), we will be doomed to deepening the situation.”

For British counter-terrorism expert Shoebridge, the sheer incompetence of the US-UK’s reactionary response raises probing questions about whether their strategies have been willingly compromised by commitments to their allies, many of whom played key roles with US and UK support in supporting Islamist extremists in Syria.

“For the US and UK, to find an answer as to a way out of the mess that is now the Islamic State one must first ask whether for their foreign policy it’s actually a mess at all,” he said. “Certainly ISIS remains a potent and useful tool for key US and UK allies such as Saudi Arabia, and perhaps also Israel, which seek the destabilisation of enemies Syria and Iraq, as well as a means for applying pressure on more friendly states such as Lebanon and Jordan. It’s understandable therefore that many question the seriousness of US and UK resolve to destroy ISIS, particularly given that for years their horrific crimes against civilians, particularly minorities, in Syria were expediently largely unmentioned by the West’s governments or media.”

Whether or not the west is serious about defeating IS, there can be little doubt that the acceleration of western military intervention in Iraq and Syria is pitched to aggravate regional crisis, while permitting policymakers to dramatically extend the unaccountable powers of the surveillance state.

News Tue, 30 Sep 2014 11:07:53 -0400
"I'm Just a Kid": Tariq's Ordeal

Last summer, Tariq Khdeir, a 15-year-old American citizen from Baltimore, accompanied his parents to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat for a six-week visit with relatives. The first friend Tariq made when he arrived was his cousin, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, whom Tariq had not seen since he was four years old. “We had so much fun,” Tariq told a gathering at the national conference of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation in San Diego on September 19, 2014.

One night while he was in Jerusalem, Tariq saw some police with Muhammad. Tariq thought they had kidnapped Muhammad. Tariq wondered, “Is he gonna come back? Is he gonna come back alive”? But Muhammad did not come back alive. In retaliation for the deaths of three Israeli teenagers, Muhammad was beaten and burnt alive by three Jewish extremists.

After Muhammad’s murder, people took to the streets in protest. Israeli Defense Force soldiers began firing rubber bullets at them. Incredulous, Tariq thought, “Is this really happening in front of me”? Then Israeli soldiers began to run after Tariq. Panicked, Tariq ran.

“There was a 10-foot drop in front of me. Everyone jumped, but they tackled me, zip-tied me, and punched me in the face,” Tariq said. “I was like a punching bag until I became unconscious.” The image of Tariq’s badly swollen, deformed face appeared on media reports throughout the world last July.

When Tariq awoke, his face felt “like a bubble, it hurt so much.” He wondered, “Are they gonna kill me”? After six hours in jail, Tariq was finally taken to the hospital. His father and his uncle told him he might come home or go to jail. Tariq thought, “How could I go to jail? They beat me up.” Tariq told the group, “I’m just a kid.”

Tariq was taken back to jail after he left the hospital. He had to remove the hospital gown and put on his bloody clothes. There were nine people in a tiny cell; it was impossible to sit down. Two days later, Tariq was released. He thought, “I’m finally going home.” But he was placed on house arrest. No charges were ever filed against him. “That’s what they do to all the Palestinians,” Tariq said. 

“They took my cousins, and they’re still in jail, because they’re not American and they didn’t have a video that showed the brutality of the Israelis,” Tariq reported. “It’s inhumane.”

Tariq’s mother, Suha, said, “I cannot begin to describe the pain of seeing my dear son in prison after his viscious beating.” When she first saw Tariq, unconscious, with his swollen face in the hospital, “I didn’t recognize him; I didn’t know if he was alive. I didn’t know if he would survive.” Tariq was handcuffed to the hospital bed. Suha worried whether they would give him his antibiotics, whether they would take care of her son while he was in their custody. “The same people that beat him were now caring for him,” she said. “They told us 300 Palestinian teenagers would be killed for the three Israeli teens.”

Suha noted, “None of this would have happened if Israelis valued the lives of Palestinian Muslims and Christians as much as Israeli Jews.”

Keynote speaker Ali Abunimah followed Tariq and Suha at the conference. He mentioned that of the more than 2,100 Palestinians the Israelis killed in Gaza last summer, 521 were children.

Most of the fatalities were civilians. More than one of every 1,000 Gazans were killed, and one percent of the entire population of Gaza were killed or injured. Most of the weapons the Israelis employed in Gaza were artillery shells, which were used in unprecedented quantities. They are very inaccurate.

In response to Israeli demands that the Palestinians surrender their weapons, Abunimah asked, “Why talk about demilitarizing the oppressed? Let’s talk about demilitarizing the oppressor.”

After Muhammad was killed, the Israelis called it an “honor killing.” Muhammad’s father said, “they’ve killed my son twice.”

Two hundred Palestinian children are still in jail. Abunimah cited the “racist mentality” of many Israelis who chant, “Death to the Arabs.” Abunimah recalled President Barack Obama’s remark about “the shared values of the United States and Israel.”

Do those shared values include slaughtering civilians, torturing children, and holding people in custody indefinitely without charges?

Tariq did come back alive – but only because his beating was caught on tape and because he was a U.S. citizen.

News Tue, 30 Sep 2014 10:44:06 -0400
East Asia: A Farewell to Arms

East Asia faces an enormous number of challenges. The countries of the region clash over territory, argue over history, compete for diminishing natural resources, and dispute the balance of power along the Pacific Rim.

In response to all these challenges, the United States has offered a one-size-fits-all approach: free trade and more arms. Ratification of the free trade agreement the United States is pushing in the region, known as the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), remains a long shot. In the meantime, Washington has fallen back on arms peddling and burden sharing.

The Pacific Pivot of the Obama administration is only the latest version of a militarized U.S. response to regional conflicts. For many years, Washington has been pushing its allies in the region to buy high-priced U.S. weapons systems and spend a larger percentage of their GDP on defense. Tragically, the final denouement of Washington’s military evangelism could be catastrophic conflicts that end American influence in the region.

East Asia’s thriving economy is the envy of the world. But the recent growth in military spending makes analogies to the Europe of 100 years ago no longer seem so far-fetched. The region is home to top military spenders: China is number two in the world, Japan weighs in at number eight, and South Korea has risen to number ten. Russia, the number three in military expenditures, is a significant player in the region by dint of its far east and its expanding relationships with China and North Korea. And number thirteen, Australia, is increasing its presence in the region.

The United States, which spends more on the military than the next eight top spenders combined, is thoroughly enmeshed in the region. Although the Pacific Pivot involves only a modest increase in the U.S. military footprint – primarily in the form of naval power – it has brought with it a more confrontational approach toward China and a push to significantly increase the military spending of U.S. allies.

Hawks inside the Beltway want the United States to be even more confrontational. For example, CSIS’s Michael Green and Victor Cha have argued that the United States should double the number of nuclear attack submarines that are based at Guam, increase amphibious forces in Hawaii, station littoral combat ships in South Korea, permanently base a bomber squadron on Guam, and increase manned and unmanned surveillance throughout the region. The increase in provocative surveillance flights along China’s borders has already done much to raise tensions.

The region desperately needs a plan for responding to serious security threats such as climate change and the widening disparities in wealth. Instead, U.S. engagement is driven by campaigns to convince South Korea to purchase an expensive missile defense program called THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) when Seoul’s official position is that it does not need the program. Similarly, China’s entirely legitimate concerns about the stationing of such equipment at close proximity have been dismissed without even a minimum effort at dialog.

Even more troubling is the emerging nuclear breakout in East Asia. China, which traditionally maintained a modest arsenal, is engaged in a serious modernization effort aimed at enhancing survivability, increasing striking power, and countering missile-defense programs. North Korea is expanding the capacity of its nuclear weapons, though the size and reach remains unknown, and that move is increasing pressure on its immediate neighbors to go nuclear. We now hear voices in Seoul and Tokyo urging a repeal of the prohibitions against nuclear weapons in order to counter the programs of their neighbors – with some analysts in the United States urging them to do so. And the Obama administration, despite its advocacy of nuclear abolition and its negotiations of new ceilings with Russia (whose utility have been drawn into question by recent events), has green-lighted a multi-billion dollar modernization of its own arsenal.

Maybe Washington policymakers believe that a ring of allies will pin down a rising China. But future conflicts are unlikely to follow this game plan. For example, South Korea and Japan have their own disputes over territory and history. Increases in Japanese military spending, even if ostensibly aimed at North Korea, will inevitably be perceived by both South Korea and China as a direct threat. Similarly, beefing up the Vietnamese military will likewise trigger an arms race in Southeast Asia unrelated to China.

The European Example

In the 1970s, arms control negotiations were essential to transforming Europe from the scene of multiple tragic arms races and devastating wars into a unified, peaceful region. Military leaders in both the United States and the Soviet Union realized the dangers of the arms race and entered into serious negotiations that produced concrete nuclear arms control and conventional arms control agreements during the détente period.

During the early 1970s, the two sides of the Cold War divide made a commitment to addressing their various disagreements in three ways: through bilateral nuclear agreements between Moscow and Washington, through political and economic discussions in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and through the reduction of military forces in Europe in the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) negotiations. The MBFR, after some fits and starts, eventually fed into the talks that in 1989 resulted in concrete reductions in NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe. After the Cold War ended, the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty provided a platform for negotiating further reductions of forces between NATO and Russia, although neither side fully embraced the plans.

The arms build-up in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s was no less dangerous than the situation in East Asia today. In spite of the relative success of détente, the Cold War mentality flared up again after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the resulting demonization of Moscow by the Reagan administration. Nonetheless, the nuclear and conventional arms control negotiations of the 1970s held up through all the political tests, serving as essential building blocks for a new security architecture that assured a stable and peaceful Europe.

Decades of arms control negotiations created an environment in which politicians, policymakers, and military experts dedicated their time to thinking about how to reduce tensions, rather than create tensions so as to expand military budgets. They developed sophisticated systems for confidence-building that in turn institutionalized the agreements beyond mere reductions in the level of armaments. The result was a proliferation of Track 2 and Track 3 discussions that created a wider circle of stakeholders committed to tension reduction, which ensured that arms control and disarmament agreements continued regardless of changes in political leadership.

Asia doesn’t have any comparable history of arms control and disarmament. Japan participated in the Washington Naval Conference, the first arms control meeting in history and the source of the 1922 agreement limiting battleship construction. But it was also Japan that effectively ended the agreement when it pulled out in 1936.

In the post-war era, the only arms control to speak of has been Japan’s adoption of a peace constitution that renounces the sovereign right of military action and calls for an international regime of peace and justice. Despite the promise of that peace constitution, other nations did not adopt such policies–most notably the United States, which imposed the constitution on Japan in the first place. The United States also removed tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 as part of the scaling down of the military after the Cold War, but that symbolic act was not part of an overarching policy concerning armaments.

Beyond Rebalancing

The U.S. strategy for East Asia, currently termed “rebalancing,” demands a complete reformulation.

First and foremost, the basis of foreign policy should be mutual security, not the sales of pricy weapons systems. Over the next five years the United States and its alliance partners–Japan, South Korea, and Australia–together with the major military powers of the region, China and Russia, and the ASEAN member states, should meet to draft a comprehensive plan for the limitation of nuclear and conventional weapons.

That commitment to an arms limitation agreement must go hand and hand with a security policy that recognizes climate change as the primary security threat for the region and demands systemic reforms of all governments.

There is already significant support for such an approach, as evidenced by the declaration of Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III (the leader of the U.S. Pacific Command) that climate change is the most significant security challenge. As Andrew DeWit has noted, the U.S. Pacific Command has committed itself to a concrete engagement with climate issues that opens up new vistas for future collaboration across Asia. Climate change must serve as the transformative issue in security that drives forward an arms control grand deal as part of a fundamental redefinition of the role of the military in society.

Engagement with China is a necessary condition for success. China does not categorically view the United States as an unwelcome presence in the region. Although there are hardliners in Beijing, as there are in Washington, China has consistently expressed a willingness to work with the United States on security issues, including military-to-military cooperation. China has participated in military exercises, such as RIMPAC 2014, organized by the United States.

However, the confrontational displays of military hardware in China’s coastal waters have raised concerns in Beijing that the United States is not so much a regional arbiter as a hegemon trying to subdue a potential threat. The future of the world depends as much on the United States moving away from a Cold War paradigm for diplomacy and security as it does on China accepting the norms of the international community. The decision by the United States to engage with China in a long-term arms control agreement could transform the relationship of the two countries.

The Way Forward

The United States is the world’s biggest spender on military hardware as well as the world’s biggest salesman. Therefore, the first step toward a comprehensive East Asian arms control agreement should begin in Washington. Rather than ratcheting up of the arms race in response to disputes, Washington should show leadership by embracing a commitment to arms reduction and confidence-building measures.

Any arms control agreement should be multilateral, as opposed to bilateral. It is critical to recognize that the current arms buildup in the region involves every single country, and that the underlying causes of tension are complex and do not following alliance lines. The extreme focus on North Korea’s nuclear program has blinded us to larger regional security challenges.

Such an agreement will require some form of institution, even if it is only a regular conference, as the CSCE initially was. Track One and Track Two institutions, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, could be the locus for initial conversations. A mature comprehensive arms control framework will eventually require a new inter-governmental initiative.

The Six Party Talks could serve as an initial platform to enter into serious discussions about arms control. Rather than repeat the litany of demands for North Korea to unconditionally end its nuclear program, the members–the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, and North Korea–could start negotiations about how to eliminate nuclear weapons and vastly reduce conventional weapons in the region. Such negotiations should not be limited to or dependent on Pyongyang’s actions but should rather serve as the basis of a larger security architecture that will be implemented regardless of North Korea’s actions. However, the negotiations should, in and of themselves, provide incentives for North Korea to participate as part of a larger agreement to reduce Chinese, Japanese, and Korean arms, as well as scale down the U.S. military presence.

One obvious incentive for North Korea to participate would be for the United States to offer to negotiate a peace agreement to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. Such a peace treaty, for which Pyongyang has been lobbying, could include a provision on creating a regional mechanism to ensure compliance. This mechanism could then become the core of a new regional security structure.

An initial agreement among those players would gain momentum from a declaration of U.S. support for the Limited Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone in Northeast Asia proposed by John Endicott in 1995. This proposal has been crafted with the input of military experts from all the members of the Six Party Talks (except North Korea) and can serve as a first step toward to the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons in the region. The proposed NWFZ (Nuclear Weapon Free-Zone) is effective in that it builds on the precedents of eight established NWFZs, such as the Antarctic Treaty (1959) and the Southeast Asia NWFZ (1995).

The negotiations on nuclear weapons should be paralleled by series of talks concerning the reduction of armaments in the region based on the precedents of the MBFR talks. Those discussions could develop into an on-going mechanism that generates arms reduction proposals and a roadmap for implementation following a predictable sequence. Specific agreements could be negotiated for naval vessels, tanks and artillery, aircraft and bombers, and missiles and other delivery systems. The agreements should also include active monitoring arrangements to ensure compliance and provide for strict rules concerning military drills and surveillance. A key element of these talks would be the scaling back of major military exercises in the region, with an eye toward an eventual moratorium, and a cessation of provocative surveillance programs in the region.

Moreover, because the rapid rate of technological change is making conventional arms increasingly unconventional, agreements on conventional weapons must evolve to keep up. Emerging technologies such as drones, robots, 3D printing, and cyber warfare should also be addressed directly by the protocols of these arms treaties. The disruptive nature of technological change itself should be explicitly addressed within any arms control treaty to assure its continued relevance.

Theater missile defense should be addressed as a part of a comprehensive arms treaty. Despite the technological questions surrounding the effectiveness of such a missile defense system, the proposal by the United States to extend a system to Korea and Japan has already resulted in reciprocal advances in China’s ballistic missile program that are inherently destabilizing. Moreover, China doesn’t accept the American position that missile defense is a defensive mechanism. As a result, although Americans might argue that missile defense would be the last element to be removed in an arms control agreement, China would argue that it should be the first to go. This issue can only be addressed by serious negotiations.

Finally, it is critical that talks on climate change mitigation and adaptation parallel the talks on nuclear weapons and conventional weapons. Reducing conventional and nuclear armaments will necessitate a transformation of the military’s focus and function. The huge bureaucracies that employ millions of people in the respective militaries must be given a stake in the battle against climate change.

Over the last year, the world has witnessed an uptick in conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, and Gaza that is deeply troubling. In each of these cases, the situation has escalated because of the choice of a military response by all sides. The crises in East Asia, meanwhile, have become muted over the last couple months. This is an ideal moment for Asia to offer a different approach to settling the myriad conflicts that have bedeviled the region for years. If Asia bids farewell to arms as a means of solving conflicts, it can set a powerful example for the rest of the world.

News Tue, 30 Sep 2014 10:29:23 -0400
Winged Warnings: Built for Survival, Birds in Trouble From Pole to Pole

Sole descendents of the dinosaurs, birds have penetrated nearly every ecosystem on Earth and then tailored their own size, habits and colors to each one, pollinating, dispersing seeds, controlling bugs, cleaning up carrion and fertilizing plants, all the while singing notes so beguiling that hearing them makes even the urban dweller pause to listen. Birds are the planet’s superheroes, built for survival. But for all their superhuman powers, they are in trouble.

2014 930 wing fwStartled by a glacier calving, the black-legged kittiwakes took to the sky in a flurry of activity, St Jonsfjorden, Prins Karls Forland in Greenland. (Photo: Marie and Alistair Knock)

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The ice of Antarctica doesn’t faze birds. Nor does the heat of the tropics. They thrive in the desert, in swamps, on the open ocean, on sheer rock faces, on treeless tundra, atop airless mountaintops and burrowed into barren soil.

Some fly nonstop for days on end. With just the feathers on their backs, they crisscross the hemisphere, dodging hurricanes and predators along the way, pinpointing scarce food, tracking down safe resting places, arriving unerringly at a precise spot, year after year.

Sole descendents of the dinosaurs, birds have penetrated nearly every ecosystem on Earth and then tailored their own size, habits and colors to each one, pollinating, dispersing seeds, controlling bugs, cleaning up carrion and fertilizing plants, all the while singing notes so beguiling that hearing them makes even the urban dweller pause to listen.

Birds are the planet’s superheroes, built for survival. But for all their superhuman powers, they are in trouble.

Globally, one in eight – more than 1,300 species – are threatened with extinction, and the status of most of those is deteriorating, according to BirdLife International. And many others are in worrying decline, from the tropics to the poles.

“If birds are having issues, you have to think about whether humans are going to have issues too,” said Geoff LeBaron, an ornithologist with the National Audubon Society based in Massachusetts and international director of the Christmas Bird Count.

In North America’s breadbasket, populations of grassland birds such as sweet-trilling meadowlarks are in a free-fall, along with those everywhere else on the planet. Graceful fliers like swifts and swallows that snap up insects on the wing are showing widespread declines in Europe and North America. Eagles, vultures and other raptors are on the wane throughout Africa. Colonies of sea birds such as murres and puffins on the North Atlantic are vanishing, and so are shorebirds, including red knots in the Western Hemisphere. Sandpipers, spoonbills, pelicans and storks, among the migratory birds dependent on the intertidal flats of Asia’s Yellow Sea, are under threat. Australian and South American parrots are struggling and some of the iconic penguins of Antarctica face starvation.

While birds sing, they also speak. Many of their declines are driven by the loss of places to live and breed – their marshes, rivers, forests and plains – or by diminished food supply. But more and more these days the birds are telling us about new threats to the environment and potentially human health in the coded language of biochemistry. Through analysis of the inner workings of birds’ cells, scientists have been deciphering increasingly urgent signals from ecosystems around the world.

Like the fabled canaries that miners once thrust into coal mines to check for poisonous gases, birds provide the starkest clues in the animal kingdom about whether humans, too, may be harmed by toxic substances. And they prophesy what might happen to us as the load of carbon-based, planet-warming gases in the atmosphere and oceans climbs ever higher.

"And No Birds Sing"

Rachel Carson was the earliest and best-known scientist to link the fate of birds to that of humans. Alerted by reports of sharp declines in birds of prey and songbirds, she began to examine the effects of the pesticide DDT. It was the first modern synthetic pesticide, in wide use after World War II to control mosquitoes and other insects.

Her book Silent Spring, published in 1962 – the title echoes the poet John Keats’ celebrated line “And no birds sing” – explained that DDT moved up through food chains, from the insects it was designed to kill to the creatures that ate them. It accumulated inexorably in tissues, organs and fat in top predators such as peregrine falcons, ospreys, bald eagles and pelicans. “Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song,” Carson wrote.

But it wasn’t just the birds. Carson reasoned that if DDT could accumulate in birds, it would accumulate in humans, too. “We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons without their consent and often without their knowledge," she wrote. By 1972, after public uproar, DDT was banned in the United States and eventually banned around the world except in malaria-prone countries, mostly in Africa.

Yet DDT’s legacy remains. Traces of the persistent pesticide, classified as a “probable” carcinogen, are still found in most people around the world today and in the land and water they depend on. And, again, it’s birds that are telling us this tale: A recent study reported that birds of prey in South Carolina still carry as much DDT and other legacy pesticides in their bodies as they did before such chemicals were banned in the 1970s, “suggesting exposure has not declined substantially over the past 40 years.” And in the town of St. Louis, Mich., near an old chemical plant, robins are still dropping dead of DDT poisoning, registering some of the highest levels ever recorded in wild birds.

The idea that birds tell us about our own health has gained even more scientific traction in the decades since Silent Spring as biochemical analysis has become more precise. Much of that work stemmed from studies conducted on the Great Lakes, the world’s first and biggest testing ground for contaminants and birds.

The work of Canadian Wildlife Service toxicologist Glen Fox and others began with tales from terns and other fish-eating birds. He found high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, in the Great Lakes and their sediments, and enlarged thyroids that were producing little hormone in the birds. Thyroid hormones are critical for ensuring proper brain development, so altering them can impair intelligence, motor skills and behavior. Building up in food webs just like DDT, PCBs were banned in the United States in 1978, with the rest of the world to follow.

By the late 1980s, zoologist Theo Colborn, then at the World Wildlife Fund, began examining the Great Lakes studies to see if she could discern a big picture. She recalls reading through stacks of academic papers and tracking the findings in a chart.

The results were stunning: The Great Lakes’ top 16 or 17 bird predators were vanishing. The problem stemmed from assaults on the endocrine system, which controls hormones and reproduction. And that, in turn, was linked to manmade substances in the water and prey. So, birds’ ability to reproduce crashed in multiple ways: Young failed to hatch; babies were deformed; male young were feminized; female young were more masculine; chicks’ immune systems were impaired; parents forgot how to parent. The concept of the “endocrine disruptor” was born.

“The birds really told the story, elegantly,” said Colborn, who co-authored the 1996 book Our Stolen Future, which chronicled the threats of hormone disruption.

Proxies for People

Once the chemicals’ effects on birds were established, scientists began looking more intensively at humans. Their studies have suggested that those same chemicals also may be altering human hormones. Part of a pregnant mother’s load of chemicals passes to her baby while it is still in the womb, with evidence mounting that suggests the chemicals can alter development of the baby’s brain and its reproductive and immune systems, leading to troubles later in life, such as lower intelligence, behavioral problems and reduced fertility. Some studies suggest a link between endocrine disruptors and a greater risk of prostate and breast cancers and other diseases. Some research even suggests chemicals can switch genes on and off, affecting grandchildren and great-grandchildren – all the unexposed generations, humanity’s future.

When it comes to chemicals and broad planetary changes, birds have shown us that they are in a unique position to tip us off to health threats. That doesn’t mean that birds are more vulnerable than humans, said Pierre Mineau, an expert on pesticide ecotoxicology and its effects on birds who recently retired from Environment Canada. In fact, amphibians such as frogs are likely more vulnerable because their thin skins draw in the chemicals and because they are in constant contact with polluted water. But they are much harder to find, count and assess than birds.

Birds, on the other hand, are highly visible. People track them, notice them, care deeply about them. Of all the non-human creatures on Earth, birds are by far the most closely scrutinized, said Nicola Crockford, international species policy officer with BirdLife International in England. That translates into a robust body of knowledge about how and where birds live, a baseline for scientists seeking to monitor change.

Looking at birds gives humans the unsurpassed ability to identify and quantify chemical threats across time and space around the globe, noted Christy Morrissey, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Saskatchewan. “Birds can tell us a lot about what’s going on around us that we might not be able to see,” she said.

Perched atop many food webs, birds of prey such as eagles and falcons soak up chemicals from the things they eat. That means looking at birds is a proxy for looking at plants, insects, fish and small mammals, over time. Not only that, but about one in five birds migrates, so those birds are sampling pollutants in many parts of the world. Scientists can capture birds, test them, band them, let them go and then catch them years later to see what’s changed. Birds normally maintain relatively stable numbers, unlike small mammals, so when their populations take a dive, it means something noteworthy is going on.

Many birds also live a long time – for eagles and owls, decades – meaning scientists can study a bird’s life cycle and then extrapolate what would happen to a human exposed to the same chemicals from birth to death, Morrissey said. Reading birds is a reasonable stand-in for a human epidemiological study, especially when it comes to the endocrine system, she added. “Vertebrates are vertebrates,” she said. “The endocrine system is so similar [in birds and mammals]. We all have circulating hormones and a thyroid that regulates the system.” Today, studies on how endocrine-disrupting chemicals affect birds is a main plank of future research that may also have implications for human health.

Beyond DDT and PCBs

On the prairies of Canada, Morrissey is trying to decipher where sanderlings, red knots and semipalmated sandpipers are picking up contaminants as they travel. Then she’s tracking those chemicals – which include PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs – through a bird’s lifespan, examining whether they affect its ability to fatten up and sustain a long migration. She's also looking at whether the chemicals have affected brain development, robbing them of the ability to navigate and learn when to molt. Early results of birds dosed in captivity in the first days of life say they do.

In other words, she’s investigating not just whether the chemicals impair the birds’ ability to reproduce, but also their ability to thrive. “If they’re not able to fatten, they won’t make it,” she said, as grackles, orioles and yellow warblers sang in the background.

Morrissey and Mineau also are at the forefront of research globally on the newest class of pesticide, the neonicotinoids or neonics for short. Mineau helped unlock the puzzle in the mid-1990s of how the organophosphate pesticide monocrotophos, which replaced DDT-like insecticides, killed off masses of endangered Swainson’s hawks in Argentina. He said he was originally relieved that neonics replaced organophosphates, which are ferocious bird-killers, but now his research on neonics, including a report for the American Bird Conservancy, has him worried. They are extremely persistent in the environment and water soluble, which means they move around, he said. They take down nearly any insect or crustacean that comes along. "The real issue is the ecosystem-wide effects," Mineau said.

Rat-killing poisons also are causing agonizing deaths of not just rodents, but the birds that eat them. Barn owls in Canada, for example, are dying from massive stomach bleeds caused by an extra-strong class of rodenticide.

And in Southeast Asia, tens of millions of vultures have perished from feasting on carcasses of livestock treated with diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug. Three vulture species now are teetering on the edge of extinction. In a victory, hopefully not too late, the drug is no longer used for livestock in Asia. Its use is on the rise in Europe, however, particularly in Spain, where it has killed thousands of vultures, eagles and other carrion-eaters in recent years.

Traces of people's prescription drugs, washed into sewers, also are collecting in fish, which means ospreys and other birds of prey are sometimes exposed to therapeutic doses of heart medications, antidepressants and other drugs.

Adding to their burden, birds are contaminated with a whole new spate of pollutants, such as perfluorinated compounds or PFCs, used to manufacture such substances as Teflon and stain-resistant coatings. Brominated chemicals used as flame retardants in furniture foam and electronics also are collecting in bird tissues, just like PCBs. Kestrels exposed in laboratories have fewer chicks, smaller eggs and some behavior issues, such as bad parenting skills and more aggressive males. Some flame retardants seem to mimic estrogen, others mimic or block testosterone. It all adds up to a load of dozens of chemicals, many with consequences still unknown.

In Sweden, for example, ornithologists are racing to figure out why white-tailed sea eagles on the coast of the Baltic Sea, devastated by DDT and PCBs in the 1970s, are again experiencing thin shells and deformed embryos, said Cynthia de Wit, a professor of environmental science at Stockholm University who specializes in human and wildlife exposure to synthetic chemicals. “It’s very alarming; we really don’t know why,” she said, adding that it’s possible that old chemicals are being “remobilized” or that new ones are having effects not yet assessed.

Scientists are closely examining the effects of heavy metals such as mercury and lead. A recent study of Antarctic skuas showed those contaminated with mercury, a byproduct of coal-burning power plants, have more trouble reproducing. Mercury even seems to alter the singing of songbirds. Lead, sometimes lethal to birds of prey that eat it in gut piles left by hunters, also seems to have subtle effects, perhaps interfering with their ability to navigate around obstacles.

Why Do People Care About Birds?

Pragmatically, humans have relied on birds’ superpowers for millennia to let us in on their secrets. Imagine forest-dwellers of ancient times, anxious to avoid snakes and jaguars, listening for the alarm calls of sharp-sighted, high-flying, omnipresent birds. Think of medieval sailors, following fish-eating birds to find out where they should throw their nets, or rejoicing that shore was near when they caught sight of a land-loving cormorant instead of the albatrosses that favor the open ocean. Sailors of old may have even followed the paths of migratory birds to colonize new lands, said Garry Donaldson, a conservation biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service.

And throughout history, humans have considered birds to be our protectors, the vigilant sentinels, writes the Nobel laureate immunologist Peter Doherty in his 2012 book Their Fate is our Fate: How Birds Foretell Threats to our Health and Our World. "Way back to mythological times, guard duty has been part of the avian job description. Gods with the body of a man and the head of a bird, like the ibis, falcon, hawk or heron, watched over the ancient Egyptians...Sacred geese in the temple of the Goddess Juno alerted the exhausted defenders of ancient Rome to a nocturnal attack by marauding Gauls," Doherty wrote.

And to many Native American and other indigenous cultures, birds are messengers sent by the creator, or symbols of change, or protectors and healers. Today they play that role in a non-spiritual sense: They send warnings to tribes about the health risks of eating fish tainted with industrial pollutants.

Birds also herald the presence of pathogens, such as avian influenza and West Nile virus, noted Nicholas Komar, a biologist who specializes in vector-borne diseases with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colo. When birds are found dead of West Nile, it’s proof humans also are at risk. Infected birds don’t transmit the virus to humans – mosquitoes do – but they are a sign that it is present in the environment. He is pressing for more testing of dead birds as a swift means of detecting flashpoints for potential transmission to humans.

Apart from data points, birds also provide us with sheer joy – in their songs and striking colors, and from the spectacle of watching them swoop through the air. “Which of us has not wished we could do that?” asked John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. He said humans intuitively respond to birds’ colors and varied voices, which signal that the year is marching on. “They move with the seasons. It’s a major annual heartbeat we feel.”

In his “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats declares steadfastly that birds must prevail despite us, just as they always have.

But will Keats’s prophecy stand the test of time? In the past five centuries, about 150 bird species have gone extinct at the hand of humanity, including the passenger pigeon and the dodo, according to research by Duke University biologist Stuart Pimm. But that rate is speeding up and will be 10 times higher by the end of this century if trends persist, his study calculates. BirdLife’s most recent survey shows that 197 species are critically endangered, which means they are just one disease outbreak or a couple of bad breeding seasons away from extinction. Hotspots of risk are hot parts of the world: The Atlantic forests of Brazil and the islands of Indonesia are a particular worry because so many birds live there, so much of the land is being cleared and few protections are in place.

Omens of a Dangerous Future

The wild card for birds, with the potential to magnify all past and future threats, is the high-carbon world humans have created through the burning of fossil fuels for energy. Scientists are struggling to chronicle the intricate layers of fallout from climate change -- and to glimpse once again what birds foretell about humanity’s fate. Frank Gill, who wrote the textbook Ornithology and was president of the National Audubon Society, said the scientific effort has shifted dramatically from the time when Carson’s work on chemicals set the standard. Today, biologists are examining complex, continental effects of climate change on birds’ abundance and distribution.

For instance, brown pelicans, taken off California’s endangered species list in 2009, are in the throes of a catastrophic breeding failure this year, said Dan Anderson, professor emeritus of ecotoxicology and marine ornithology at University of California, Davis, who recently completed his 46th annual census of the birds. The cause appears to be an El Niño event with its strongly warmer ocean currents and high winds. While El Niños are natural and periodic phenomena, they are expected to intensify and become more common. Anderson and others are assessing what effect that could have on pelicans, noting that it would take two or three terrible breeding seasons in a row to seriously affect the population.

Already, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count has found that the “center of abundance” of more than half of North American species that stay through the winter has shifted as much as 200 miles north over the past 60 years, a response to warmer average temperatures, LeBaron said. And a study of 40 western North American songbird species found that those inhabiting the highest elevations on mountaintops are moving farther up, rather than farther north, to flee the heat, said David King, a research wildlife biologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Massachusetts. Inevitably, they will run out of places to go.

 Omens from the birds are not easy to read. So far, they are telling us that this world is shifting where they can live, forcing them to change the timing of their migrations and nesting, making their food harder to find and perhaps fostering diseases such as the West Nile virus.

Birds, People Share Superpowers

Birds have many superpowers that humans can only envy. But we have extraordinary powers, too: The ability to alter the chemistry of the air and the sea, and to create synthetic substances that live longer than we do. Yet we also have the power to make sure birds continue to sing.

Fitzpatrick pointed to the data from around the world that impassioned birdwatchers are feeding to scientists at websites such as – which is growing by 40 percent a year – so they can map birds in real time. Citizen science is part of the reason, for instance, that waterfowl numbers have been bouncing back in North America as people band together to protect and restore wetlands.

“Birds do recover,” Fitzpatrick said, “if we pay attention to what they’re saying.”

In “A Fable for Tomorrow,” the opening chapter of Silent Spring that describes a fictional, nightmarish, poisoned town, Carson wrote, “It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

Muted, perhaps, but not silenced, birds keep sending us winged warnings.

Part 1 of Winged Warnings, published in conjunction with National Geographic.

News Tue, 30 Sep 2014 11:21:03 -0400
Eric Holder: The Reason Robert Rubin Isn't Behind Bars

2014 930 holder fwAttorney General Eric Holder Jr. at the Department of Justice in Washington, February 24, 2014. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)

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The big news item in Washington last week was Attorney General Eric Holder decision to resign. Undoubtedly there are positives to Holder’s tenure as attorney general, but one really big minus is his decision not to prosecute any of the Wall Street crew whose actions helped to prop up the housing bubble. As a result of this failure, the main culprits walked away incredibly wealthy even as most of the country has yet to recover from the damage they caused.

Just to be clear, it is not against the law to be foolish and undoubtedly many of the Wall Streeters were foolish. They likely believed that house prices would just keep rising forever. But the fact that they were foolish doesn’t mean that they didn’t also break the law. It’s likely that most of the Enron felons believed in Enron’s business model. After all, they held millions of dollars of Enron stock. But they still did break the law to make the company appear profitable when it wasn’t.

In the case of the banks, there are specific actions that were committed that violated the law. Mortgage issuers like Countrywide and Ameriquest knowingly issued mortgages based on false information. They then sold these mortgages to investment banks like Citigroup and Goldman Sachs who packaged them into mortgage backed securities. These banks knew that many of the mortgages being put into the pools for these securities did not meet their standards, but passed them along anyhow. And, the bond-rating agencies rated these securities as investment grade, giving many the highest possible ratings, even though they knew their quality did not warrant such ratings.

All three of these actions - knowingly issuing mortgages based on false information, deliberately packaging fraudulent mortgages into mortgage backed securities, and deliberately inflating the ratings for mortgage backed securities - are serious crimes that potentially involve lengthy prison sentences. Holder opted not to pursue criminal cases against the individuals involved.

In the last couple of years Holder did bring civil cases against these banks that led to multibillion settlements. These settlements won big headlines that gave the appearance of being tough on the banks.

If we look at the issue more closely the rationale for these settlements gets pretty shaky. When Bank of America or J.P. Morgan has to pay out several billion dollars in penalties in 2013 or 2014, the people being hit most immediately are current shareholders and to a lesser extent top management. Since stock turns over frequently, the overlap between the group of people who hold these banks’ stock today and the people who benefited from the profits racked up in the bubble years will be limited. This means for the most part the fines are hitting people who did not profit from the wrong doing.

The same story holds for the top executives. Insofar as these are different people from those in charge in the bubble years (this is mostly the case), they can rightly tell their boards that they should not be held responsible for the wrongdoing of their predecessors. As a result, boards are likely to compensate top management if they fail to hit bonus targets due to the fines. This just means more of a hit to current shareholders. So the people who profited from criminal acts get to keep their money, while Holder can boast about nailing people who had nothing to do with the crime.

Had Holder treated this as a normal criminal matter he would have looked to build cases from the bottom up. This means finding specific examples of mortgage agents issuing obviously fraudulent mortgages, cases where these mortgages got bundled into securities at investment banks, and then marked as investment grade by the rating agencies.

The people involved would then be pressed to say whether they are either buffoons or crooks. Most probably would not pass as the former. The next question is why they decided to break the law. When you get people to admit that they were acting on instructions from their bosses, you then ask the bosses whether they want to spend many years in jail or would prefer to explain why they thought it was a good idea to commit fraud. (This is the pattern the Justice Department is pursuing in going after illegal campaign contributions to Washington Mayor Vincent Gray.)

We can never know this pattern of prosecution would have nailed big fish like Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein or Citigroup’s Robert Rubin. We do know that Holder never even tried. As a result the Wall Streeters who profited most from illegal acts in the bubble years got to keep their haul. This is the message that bankers will take away going forward. This virtually guarantees ongoing corruption in finance.

Opinion Tue, 30 Sep 2014 09:52:44 -0400