Truthout Stories Mon, 30 Mar 2015 10:12:10 -0400 en-gb Wyden Shows Connection Between Rigged Trade and Rigged Government

Participating in US politics, as a citizen activist, puts you face-to-face with corruption and the ugliness of money-politics.

At least I find it ugly that a senator would be negotiating fast track legislation through Congress for secret corporate rigged trade deals while raising money from big business interests that would profit immensely from those deals. Taking money while negotiating legislation that benefits the donor should be illegal. It should be considered bribery or a pay-off, but the deep corruption of US politics has legalized that kind of bribery and made it the norm.

While this was occurring Wikileaks published the text of the Investment Chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This chapter allows corporations to sue governments in a tribunal that supersedes the  US judicial system when a law passed in the public interest would undermine their profits. Corporations can sue for the profits they were expecting to make in rigged trade tribunals where corporate lawyers play the role of judges and there is no right to appeal or take the case to another court for review. Even the US Supreme Court cannot overrule the corporate judges.

A Week With Wyden

That is what we saw this week as we focused our attention on Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). Wyden is the key Democrat on the Finance Committee. If he co-sponsors fast track with Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) then it will be harder to stop these crony capitalist rigged agreements. We'll see if the bribes he received on Wednesday from DC's big business lobbyists at his bribe-fest, err fundraiser, was enough for him to ignore what the people of Oregon have said they clearly oppose.

Polling shows that 73 percent of Oregonians oppose fast track and 63 percent oppose the TPP. Half of the voters in Oregon said they would be less likely to support Wyden if he works with Republicans to pass fast track. You would think in a representative democracy the elected official who represents that constituency would say 'no' to fast track rather than negotiate in secret with a Republican leader on how to get fast track through the Congress.

But, Senator Wyden is not listening to what the people of Oregon want. Maybe he has been in Washington, DC too long or maybe he is more comfortable in his $10 million home in New York City. Or, maybe it is just that he gets so much money in donations from big business interests that he represents them instead of the people.

From meeting with Wyden's staff, it is clear that the senator thinks the public is too dumb to vote against him because of this issue. They think trade doesn't matter to voters. But Wyden underestimates voters. In fact, because we now have the NAFTA experience, people understand how trade impacts their lives. And the TPP is much bigger than NAFTA.  We know the results: lost jobs, lower incomes, a bigger wealth divide, higher trade deficits, undermining the environment and increased migration. People now know trade agreements have created terrible consequences for their lives.

We sat-in Wyden's office for a week doing a "toast-in" to make the point that Wyden's career is toast if he co-sponsors fast track. Democratic Party aligned groups are saying they will remove Wyden from office in 2016 if he supports fast track.  The Hill reported how multiple groups are planning to oust him.  It started with Howard Dean's Democracy For America when they saw the poll results showing how out-of-step Wyden is with Oregon voters and they urged a primary challenge. The call was then taken up by the Working Families Party in Oregon. And, just this week MoveOn members in Oregon voted with 79 percent saying they would support a primary challenger against Wyden. MoveOn has 88,000 members in Oregon. The AFL-CIO is withholding PAC contributions, not just to Wyden but to all members of Congress, and is running advertisements in Oregon criticizing fast track.

Balanced against the views of Oregon voters is the money donated to him by big business. As the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, a lot of big business money comes his way and passing fast track for the TPP and other agreements rigged for transnational corporations is a top priority.  Only 3 percent of Wyden's personal contributions come from small donations, the rest come from large donations and PACs.

Open Secrets reports that over the past five years many of Wyden's industry donations come from big business interests who will benefit from the rigged corporate trade agreements that fast track would help to pass. This includes private investment firms ($824,460 in Wyden donations), the insurance industry ($379,950), pharmaceuticals and health products ($356,278), manufacturing and distribution ($203,720), business services  ($165,050), finance ($147,815), oil and gas ($129,414) and chemical and related manufacturing ($101,850).  That is more than $2 million – do those donations speak louder than voters?

This week Congressional Quarterly reported that Senator Wyden was holding a fundraiser at Bistro Bis, an upscale restaurant near Capitol Hill.  The invitation said "Friends of all industries are welcome to attend." The day before the event, we called for a protest outside the event in order to highlight that Wyden was fundraising for industries that would profit from fast track. After our call for a protest, he moved the fundraiser to a still undisclosed location. It was interesting to see how quickly he moved to hide his actions at the big bribe-fest. He's being tight-lipped not only about where it was held but who attended and how much money was raised. What's he hiding?

It is common for politicians who are considering legislation that would benefit an industry or corporate interest to hold a fundraiser while doing so. What better time to stick people up for money than when you are holding the key to future profits? This is so common that it is the norm in Washington, DC. Of course, that does not make it right; indeed what it shows is that the norm in US politics is deep corruption, and Wyden exemplifies it.

TPP Secret Exposed

Wikileaks just published one of the most important secret sections of the TPP.  Senator Wyden has been calling for transparency, but I don't think this level of transparency is what he has in mind. If it was, he would insist the text of the full agreement be made public before fast track is considered. He has not done this because he knows that if members of Congress and the people knew what was in this agreement, fast track would not even be considered; indeed the TPP would never become law. The only way for these rigged corporate trade agreements to become law is secrecy and speed, the latter so there is no time to even read them.

Secrecy is such a high priority that Wikileaks emphasized in its press release:

"The document is classified and supposed to be kept secret for four years after the entry into force of the TPP agreement or, if no agreement is reached, for four years from the close of the negotiations."

Imagine that, secret law multiplied. It is bad enough to negotiate a law in secret and pass it through Congress with no hearings but then to keep the law secret until four years after it becomes law. Imagine that, laws that will impact every aspect of our lives kept this secret.  This sounds like a dystopian science fiction novel. Would anyone think that a country that passed laws with such secrecy was a democracy? A novel about a government like this would not be about a democracy – it would be about a dictatorship of corporations where the people are serfs to corporate power.

Ilana  Solomon, director of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program,  said: "It is outrageous that we have to continue to rely on leaked texts to expose the details of this trade pact — and that every leak confirms the threats of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to clean air and water."

What does the text show? Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa writes "corporations could sue the U.S. or other countries included in the deal if they didn't like their laws. Such challenges would be handled by an unaccountable international arbitration forum. And taxpayers would end up paying the tab if the private sector wins."

"With the veil of secrecy ripped back, finally everyone can see for themselves that the TPP would give multinational corporations extraordinary new powers that would undermine our sovereignty, expose U.S. taxpayers to billions in new liability and privilege foreign firms operating here with special rights not available to U.S. firms under U.S. law," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America describes the chapter as "worse than we imagined" and says: "These 56 pages must be a wakeup call for our nation.  We must be defenders of democracy first and push aside the special interests of multinational corporations."

Food and Water Watch, which opposes fast track and the TPP because of its threat to food and water, summarized the leak saying it will prevent "commonsense public health, environmental and consumer safeguards" by providing "special rights for corporations at the expense of the public interest, letting foreign companies demand financial compensation"

Under the TPP only foreign corporations can sue governments (domestic corporations do not share in that power), while people have no recourse. If dangerous food is imported and people are poisoned, they cannot sue in the tribunal; if fracking or a burst pipeline destroys the water supply of a community, they cannot sue; if workers lose their jobs to low-paid foreign workers, the workers have no recourse; if websites are forced off the Internet because of violation of extremist copyright provisions, they cannot sue.  On issue after issue, people will be harmed by the provisions of rigged corporate agreements but they will have no recourse, while corporations can sue thereby ensuring increased risks to all of us.

How can Senator Wyden say with a straight face that he supports transparency when he would consider co-sponsoring to fast track bill a secret agreement; a fast track bill that would not even give people enough time to read the multi-thousand page agreement?

The Moment

Now is the key moment to tell Senator Wyden that you oppose fast track. His number in DC is (202) 224-5244. You can find numbers to his six Oregon offices and submit a written comment here.  If you want to take more action visit The people have the power to defeat transnational corporations on these issues but we must take action in order to do so.

Senator Wyden and Senator Hatch hope to finish their negotiations this week and introduce a bill in mid-April. They actually wanted to do so in mid-February but have been stopped. We can stop them again, if we act now. But, no matter what Wyden does, we can defeat fast track. Momentum is on the side of the people, as are the facts.  Fast track is not a done deal. The coalition to stop fast track is the largest ever built to oppose corporate trade. We represent tens of millions of people. We can win.

Opinion Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Angry at Concessions, Teamsters Unite to Challenge Longtime President Hoffa

Are the chickens finally coming home to roost for Teamsters brass?

After a wave of anger at concessions the union forced onto unwilling members in its national contracts, some of President James Hoffa's biggest opponents are teaming up to challenge him in the 2016 race.

Running on a slate called Teamsters United, Tim Sylvester and Fred Zuckerman kicked off their campaign March 14-15 with packed rallies in Queens, New York, and Worcester, Massachusetts.

"I feel good about it," says Abel Garcia, a UPS feeder driver and second-generation Teamster in Oxnard, California. "There's a new movement, a fresh breath of air across the country."

Sylvester tops the ticket. He's president of Local 804, based in Queens, which drew national attention for its militancy last year when 250 package car drivers were fired after a wildcat walkout to protest an unjust firing. The local ran a public campaign that got all the firings reversed.

To compete with the coalition's Queens kickoff, the international sponsored an event the same morning, a few blocks away, to thank Secretary-Treasurer Ken Hall for supporting the wildcatters—though in truth, Hall didn't do much but claim credit.

Zuckerman is president of Local 89 in Louisville, Kentucky, the biggest UPS local and a center of resistance to the latest concessionary contract. He ran for vice president last time around on a rival ticket led by International Vice President Fred Gegare, a former Hoffa ally.

Package car driver Joan Elaine Miller traveled up from Philadelphia for the standing-room-only New York rally. "Our current elected officials have sadly—and we have no one but ourselves to blame—run unchecked for 17 years," she said.

"I basically got off my butt and decided to get involved."


The opposition slate is backed by the union's longtime reform caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which has run vigorous challenges every five years but so far hasn't been able to topple Hoffa.

TDU-backed Tom Leedham scored at least 35 percent three elections in a row (1998, 2001, 2006). In 2011 Hoffa's opponents scored 41 percent—split between Gegare and TDU-backed Sandy Pope.

What's different this time: members are angrier, after having giveback contracts shoved down their throats.

"There's no way in the world we should be giving concessions to a company that's making $4 billion in profits annually," Miller says. "What kind of statement is that about our union?"

Under the Teamster constitution, a national contract can only be approved once all its local supplements are ratified. In 2013, rank-and-file UPSers voted to reject 18 of 28 local supplements, covering 63 percent of members—holding up the whole national pact.

Members were angry at the deal's givebacks, especially an increase in out-of-pocket health care costs, and its failure to address the proliferation of part-time work, coerced overtime, technological surveillance, and supervisory harassment.

The union went back to the table and improved the health care a bit—but focused greater energy on pushing members to vote yes. When Teamsters continued to hold out in some locals, international officers simply declared they had the right to impose the contract unilaterally.

Activists like Garcia took heat for having backed the vote-no effort. "I worked with the shop stewards and we put together a Central Coast stewards' steering committee," he said. "From Newbury Park, California, all the way to Paso Robles, we did a no vote twice. Then the contract was imposed on us and I was removed as steward."

Teamsters outside UPS are fed up too. "Morale is terrible here," says Jimi Richards, a road driver for YRC Freight in Atlanta.

Since 2010, members working for YRC Worldwide have endured a 15 percent wage cut and a 75 percent reduction in the company's contribution to their pensions—while executives continue to rake in the stock options and bonuses.

"Members were duped," Richards says. "They lied and threatened, said 'If we don't get this passed, we'll close the doors.' Come to find out they made a profit in the fourth quarter."


Rank and filers' right to vote for their national officers is now a permanent feature of the Teamster constitution. TDU's advocacy notched that win in a January settlement agreement that replaced the 1989 consent decree as a way to monitor for corruption and enforce member control of the union.

But getting onto the October 2016 ballot won't be easy. The coalition slate's first hurdle is a petition drive this summer. It takes 50,000 Teamster signatures to become an accredited candidate.

Then in early 2016, each local will elect delegates to the June convention, where a candidate must win 5 percent of delegate votes to be nominated.

That threshold is tougher than it sounds. Local officers beholden to top leaders often run unopposed for delegate. When they do face opposition, they have the edge financially and strategically. And at the convention, delegates are pressured to back incumbents.

Even so, to avoid competition, the current administration has been keen to raise the nomination threshold to 10 percent of delegates. The settlement agreement delayed the pain, keeping it at 5 percent through the 2016 and 2021 elections. But after that, delegates may vote to raise the bar.

The impending change ramps up the urgency. "It just makes it all the more important that we win this time around," says Frank Halstead, a Los Angeles grocery warehouse worker and TDU member, "because if we don't take advantage of this opportunity, Hoffa's going to do everything he can to make sure we never have this chance again."


"I'm going to try like hell to get these people through," says Garcia. He plans to run for delegate supporting Teamsters United, and also run again this year for principal officer of his local; last time he lost narrowly in a three-way race.

Richards says the Teamsters United campaign's biggest obstacle will be "obviously money, at a time when a lot of us, with the pay cuts that we got, are living paycheck to paycheck."

But challengers will get a boost from at least one improvement to the rules: a week before the 2016 election, each candidate gets a free mailing to members. In the past the cost has deterred TDU-backed candidates from mailing at all, while Hoffa has sent out multiple glossies.

And unlike the incumbents, the opposition has an activist culture. Members meet regionally and keep in touch online so they can mobilize on a dime when issues flare up.

For instance, the Cromnibus spending bill that was pushed through Congress in December contained a sneaky provision allowing cuts to the benefits of retirees in multi-employer pensions. "We found out through AARP and TDU that they were slipping that part in," Richards says.

"We used social media to round everyone up and raise hell. Members were out on their own for six days before the [Teamsters international] came out with a statement… Congress voted it in that night."

For Miller the challenge will be getting her co-workers in motion. "They're all very supportive: 'Yeah, you're right Joan, you're right,'" she says.

"I'm hoping to motivate them. An active union is a healthy union. A busy union is a good union."

News Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Elizabeth Warren Strikes Back as Citigroup Tries to Blackmail the Democratic Party

An unusual move by a thin-skinned, too-big-to-fail bank, Citigroup, to slap down the finance-skeptic faction of the Democratic party appears to be backfiring.

Reuters reported on Friday that Citigroup was making clear its displeasure with the way Elizabeth Warren had been calling out its overly-cozy relationship with the Administration by threatening to withhold its customary bribe, um, donation to the Democratic party:

Big Wall Street banks are so upset with U.S. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s call for them to be broken up that some have discussed withholding campaign donations to Senate Democrats in symbolic protest, sources familiar with the discussions said.

Representatives from Citigroup, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, have met to discuss ways to urge Democrats, including Warren and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, to soften their party’s tone toward Wall Street, sources familiar with the discussions said this week.

The story noted that the amount at issue was only $15,000 per bank, so this scheme is more a warning shot that a serious move, particularly since it is aimed at the Senate, and thus pointedly steers clear of the Big Finance stalwarts, the Clintons. But if you widen the frame a bit, there is more at stake here than you might think. Warren has declared war on the Wall Street wing of the Democratic party, including the powerful network of proteges and fundraisers affiliated with former Treasury secretary, former Goldman partner, and more recently, vice chairman of Citigroup Bob Rubin. One politically-savvy financial analyst calls this cadre “the Rubino crime syndicate”.

Warren fingered Citigroup’s extensive connections to the Executive branch when she fought the addition of a rider to a must-pass spending bill that would eliminate a Dodd Frank provisions to force banks to stop trading certain derivatives in taxpayer-backstopped entities (the so-called swaps pushout rule). As you’ll see below, not only did Warren have the bad taste to point out that the current Treasury secretary is a Citigroup alum, and that Sandy Weill, Citigroup chairman, had offered Timothy Geithner the opportunity to run the bank, she also said that Dodd Frank had come up short by not forcing Citigroup’s breakup. If you’ve not seen this speech, you need to watch it. You’ll understand why Citigroup is desperate to find a way to leash and collar Warren.

Even though Warren lost the swaps pushout rule battle, the ferocity of the fight, the attention it garnered, and her and her allies’ relentless focus on the bank tactic of using arcane-seeming provisions to shift risk onto the public, as well as their deep political connections, threw a wrench in the financiers’ plans. They’d hoped to roll what little post-crisis reform that took place by going after technical-seeming provisions that they assumed the dumb chump voter would never notice. Instead, Warren turned the tables by using the effort to inflict considerable public relations damage.

As much as the Warren attack might not seem like much of a victory, it’s important to understand what she and the other bank opponents are achieving. The banks count on the public not understanding and not caring about the more arcane aspects of finance, and furthermore assuming that bank reform is settled. On the political front, the power of the financiers doesn’t lie simply with their lavish campaign donations; it also lies in the perception that opposing them is a political death sentence.

And that is why Warren has become so dangerous to them. Remember that Obama brought her in to start up the CFPB in a classic “keep your enemies close” strategy. It’s a near certainty that they hoped to destroy her politically because she, as a Harvard academic with limited administrative experience, would flail about and fail in executing such a mammoth task. So they were stuck with her when she succeeded and was the obvious candidate to run the new agency. The Administration cast about for months trying to extricate itself from the mess it created, finally nominating Richard Cordray, a Warren hire at the CFPB, and enticing her with the bright shiny toy of a Senate seat.

The Administration (remember that Obama is still very much the party leader) again got too clever by half. It decided to exploit Warren as a major fundraiser. But that gave her an independent power base. And given the carnage in the Congressional midterms, the wisdom of following Democratic party dictates isn’t looking too hot for individual Congresscritters, unless they hail from conservative districts. The public is waking up to the party’s limousine liberalism, and voters who care about economic fairness are increasingly staying home on election days.

So given Warren’s ability to raise money on her own, the idea of getting the Democratic party to rein her in is sorely misguided. The real target would seem to be the other bank opponents, like Sherrod Brown and Jeff Merkley, and any other Senators or Representatives who might dare to oppose rule by Big Finance.

Warren struck back fast and hard, getting the attention of Bloomberg:

In a fundraising request (titled “Wall Street isn’t happy with us,”) Warren accused the banks of wanting Washington to puts its needs before Americans and “get a little public fanny-kissing for their money too.” The pitch argues that 2016 Democratic Senate candidates could lose $30,000 each, and asks for for help raising matching funds.

“The big banks have issued a threat, and it’s up to us to fight back,” Warren wrote.

If Citigroup, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America wanted to give Warren—a skilled fundraiser—a chance to bolster her image as an anti-Wall Street progressive hero and raise a few thousands, they succeeded. What this won’t do is make it easier for Democrats to soften their tone toward Wall Street.

Cynics may say that these are just range wars, and that Warren is a progressive hood ornament for the Democratic party. While we’ve criticized her for her timid student loan proposal and for her falling in line with US adventurism abroad (save the proposed intervention in Syria, where Congress refused to back Obama), Warren is nevertheless is achieving something significant. Despite what Simon Johnson called a “quiet coup” by the banks, Warren is demonstrating that the major financial firms can be defeated. The perception that they are vulnerable is critical to building an effective opposition; one of the easiest ways to discourage dissent is to say, “Why bother? You’ll never win.” But Warren, to the chagrin of the Administration, made such a stink over the nomination of Lazard M&A star Antonio Weiss that he withdrew. We know of other one other pro-bank move the Administration planned to take where Warren and two Senate allies told them they’d have a fight if they went ahead. The Administration sat pat as a result.

So while these fights individually may not seem consequential, recognize that cumulatively, the banks are finding they are incurring more costs in trying to get their way, and are even sometimes getting their noses bloodied. While this is still a long way from seeing big bank executives prosecuted, the diminishment of bank power isn’t going to happen overnight, but through steady, persistent pressure on their many vulnerable points. If nothing else, it’s great sport watching big banks score own goals when trying to beat back Warren.

Opinion Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
What Have Whistleblowers Done for Elite Journalists Lately?

Meet the Press host David Gregory's question to journalist Glenn Greenwald (6/23/13; FAIR Blog, 6/24/13) sums up much of the elite media's attitude toward whistleblowers–or what the Washington Post's David Ignatius refers to as "malcontents and self-appointed do-gooders who may get security clearances."

This attitude is documented and questioned in a piece by John Hanrahan, a former Washington Post reporter who later headed the Fund for Investigative Journalism, that appeared on the pro-whistleblower Expose Facts site (3/24/15) and was reposted as "Journalists Who Hate Whistleblowers" by Consortium News (3/25/15).

Near the end of his piece, Hanrahan asks a series of questions:

Why do these stars of the news media so readily brush off concerns about our dangerous warfare/surveillance state revealed by Snowden, Manning and the others? Why do they cheer on the government's crackdown on unauthorized leaks and tell us surveillance and the diminishment of our civil liberties is really for our own good in a scary world — rather than side with the Bill of Rights and the handful of other journalists and whistleblowers who expose secrets that people in a free society should have the right to know?

Though Hanrahan's questions  are rhetorical–their point, which I certainly agree with, is that journalists should not brush off concerns about the surveillance state and should side with the Bill of Rights–they do have answers.

The short one is that elite journalists work for elite news outlets that are designed to bolster power rather than challenge it. They are overwhelmingly huge for-profit multinational corporations, whose boards are packed with industrial magnates and whose business model is based on rounding up consumers so that they can be persuaded to buy the products of corporate advertisers. These are hardly institutions that are likely to hire and promote people who are hoping to undermine the system that has enriched them so mightily.

One of the most important things that corporate media do to shore up power is to define "news" as things that people in power want you to know but haven't told you yet. This sets up information as a kind of currency that the powerful dole out to those who cooperate with them–that is, the elite journalists that Hanrahan is talking about. They make their living by receiving bits of information from the powerful–whether it's a preview of Barack Obama's next foreign policy address or details of the upcoming iPhone–and delivering them to you, the audience.

Whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden upset this economy. They don't portion out secrets in exchange for favorable coverage–they dump out as much as they can because they believe the public has a right to know what their government is doing. They undermine the whole conceptual structure that makes being a media gatekeeper a prestigious and lucrative position because they make it obvious that most government secrecy has no purpose other than to maintain government power.

And on the most basic level, what can whistleblowers do for elite journalists? Sure, they can give you a story, or lots of stories, that will inform citizens about what their leaders are up to–but if that was your primary motivation, you wouldn't have made it to the top of the corporate media pyramid in the first place.

Whistleblowers can't get you a high-paying lobbying job after you've taken a buyout from your newspaper. Whistleblowers can't invite you to the right kind of party where you'll mingle with other powerful people.  And whistleblowers won't ensure that you'll be treated as one of the Very Serious People–the kind who will never, ever have to explain to David Gregory why they're not in jail.

News Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Iran Nuclear Talks Intensify Amid March Deadline

Sanctions are now the central issue in the negotiations.

The nuclear negotiations with Iran intensified Sunday, as the deadline to achieve an agreement by the end of March increased the prospects of over 18 months of talks.

The six countries — China, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and the U.S. — and Iran are negotiating in Lausanne, Switzerland, in a bid to reach a final agreement. 

Despite the fact that the initial deadline for the deal expired last Thursday, the countries have doubled their efforts to meet a new deadline set for Tuesday.

Earlier reports suggested that Iran and the six negotiating countries had reached a preliminary agreement Thursday. However, the United States said the deal has a 50 percent chance of happening.

The head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, claimed earlier this month that agreements had been reached for about 90 percent of the issues, but one major theme was blocking the progress of the agreement.

Several officials told Reuters that Tehran had indicated a willingness to cut the number of centrifuges it uses from 10,000 to fewer than 6,000, thereby slowing its program, and to send most of its enriched uranium stockpiles for storage in Russia.

The talks slowed down after the countries discussed current United Nations sanctions against Iran, which has been the biggest obstacle according to negotiators.

Many analysts believe that individual Western sanctions are also part of the issues affecting the negotiations. Sanctions have affected Iran's economy significantly.

According to Bloomberg news, as consequence of years of sanctions, Iran now holds an oil barrel stock that ranges from 7 million to 35 million, an amount that if sold after lifting sanctions would give Tehran an undisputable weight in the global oil market.

As talks intensify, U.S. Republican lawmakers have raised their objections to a potential agreement and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went as far as saying the current successes in the nuclear talks are worse than he imagined.

"This deal, as it appears to be emerging, bears out all of our fears, and even more than that," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet Sunday. 

The current negotiations are the closest the West has come to ending a 12-year diplomatic conflict regarding Iran's nuclear energy program.

]]> (Erica Moriarty) News Mon, 30 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
New York Still Charges Teenagers as Adults; Will Cuomo's Bill Change That?

In the United States, 16-year-olds can’t vote or buy beer. But there is one place where they are treated as adults: New York state’s criminal justice system. New York is one of just two states – the other is North Carolina – where 16-year-olds facing criminal charges are automatically put into the adult criminal system.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced a plan to end that policy. He has proposed a bill that would raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 and would prohibit minors from being held in any adult facility. But some critics say the bill is filled with caveats and far less than meets the eye.

Here’s a review of what Cuomo is proposing and where critics say it comes up short.


Why does New York automatically prosecute teens aged 16 or older as adults?

Because that’s been the law for almost 200 years. In 1824, New York created one of the country’s first juvenile detention centers – the House of Refuge – for kids under 16 years old. The issue was briefly revisited in 1961 when New York amended its constitution to reorganize its juvenile courts as family courts that also handle juvenile delinquency cases. But the legislative committee assigned to reorganize the courts couldn’t decide whether to raise the age of criminal responsibility. Instead the committee called for a study, which then called for more studies.

Aren’t teenagers sometimes charged as adults in other states?

Yes. Nine states automatically charge 17-year-olds as adults. And many other states give prosecutors or judges discretion to decide whether a case should be transferred to adult court for more serious charges like homicide.

What is Cuomo proposing to do?

He wants to gradually raise the age of adult criminal responsibility in New York to 18 through a budget bill. The bill would roll out in two phases. The maximum age of juvenile jurisdiction will be raised to 17 on Jan. 1, 2017 and raised again to 18 by Jan. 1, 2018. The bill would also prohibit the confinement of minors under 21 in adult jails and prisons, prevent minors with first-time misdemeanor offenses or probation violations from being held in detention, and create a separate branch of adult courts for teenagers charged with violent felonies.

The bill is based on a set of recommendations published earlier this year by a governor-appointed commission of experts and advocates.

Many advocates support the bill, including the New York City Bar Association. It is “not perfect but it would be unfortunate if we lost this opportunity to really take a step forward for young people,” said Mishi Faruqee, juvenile justice policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union. “There is a real urgency to this and I hope New York doesn’t squander this opportunity.”

What are the criticisms of the bill?

The bill has a variety of provisions that actually create stricter sentencing schemes, particularly for kids charged with violent crimes. Currently, most offenders under 19 have their records sealed. Under Cuomo’s bill, a youthful offender’s previous violent crimes would be taken into account if the person is charged with another one. The bill would also extend the amount of time a juvenile offender would have to serve before being eligible for probation. Judges would also be prohibited from moving teenagers to the juvenile system if the teen was a principal perpetrator or used a weapon.

Alexandra Cox, an assistant professor of sociology at SUNY New Paltz who has worked in juvenile facilities, wrote that the proposed changes “will actually harm the very individuals it purports to help.”

The New York State Defenders Association, which provides legal support to public defenders, has called for the bill to be withdrawn. The group wrote that the bill is “too long, too complicated and too nuanced to be rushed through in the compressed political process that is represented by budget negotiations.” The commission whose recommendations the bill is based on did not include defense attorneys.

Cuomo’s office, in turn, has defended the bill. “If somebody is unhappy or doesn’t think [the bill] goes far enough, we’ll point to the wide support the legislation has among children's and civil rights advocates and law enforcement,” said Frank Sobrino, spokesman for the governor.

What opposition or criticism does the bill face in Albany?

Plenty, and from both sides of the aisle. At a February legislative budget hearing in Albany, state officials in charge of the juvenile system fielded a slew of questions by mostly Republican lawmakers. Ahead of the hearing, Republican state Sen. Martin Golden criticized the proposal, telling the New York Daily News, “Some of the most heinous crimes are committed by kids who are 16 and 17.” A Democratic assemblyman, meanwhile, has said he plans to push competing legislation that would keep more kids out of the adult system.

News Sun, 29 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
UN Security Council Focuses on Children as Victims of Armed Groups

Twenty-four hours after the shocking kidnap of more than 400 women and children in Nigeria by Boko Haram, the United Nations Security Council discussed the safety of children as victims of non-state armed groups.

In New York, the Permanent Representative of France called the meeting to urge countries to address the issue of violations of children’s rights in conflict areas.

The U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said to the Council, “Since I last addressed the Council on this issue one year ago, hundreds of thousands more children have been confronted with the emergence or intensification of conflict, and have endured new and grave threats posed by armed groups.”

In 2014, it was estimated that 230 million children lived in areas where armed groups are fighting, and almost 15 million were direct victims of violence.

“The tactics of groups such as Daesh and Boko Haram make little distinction between civilians and combatants. These groups not only constitute a threat to international peace and security, but often target girls and boys,” he added.

U.N. Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, said that from Nigeria to Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali and Syria, extremist actors militarise schools, abducting and recruiting children to become soldiers, or sexual slaves. Especially girls who suffer sexual abuse and are denied education.

“Armed groups are taking controls of lands, erasing borders, using modern technology to recruit people and to expose (the world to) their brutal actions,” said Zerrougui, who in 2014 jointly launched a programme with the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), “Children not Soldiers”, aimed at ending the recruitment and use of children as soldiers by government forces by 2016.

Constructive dialogue, even if it seems a difficult task, may be one of the strategies that mediators and peacekeepers should pursue to protect children and fight extremism, she added.

“We need to think of all possibilities to engage with them…Taking into account children’s safety is essential if we want lasting peace,” Zerrougui concluded.

2015 is the 10th anniversary of Security Council Resolution 1612, which condemns the recruitment of child soldiers by parties to armed conflicts.

Among the speakers, Junior Nzita, an ex-child soldier in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, brought to light the harsh realities of growing up as a child soldier.

Speaking to the Council, Nzita said, “We had to kill, and destroy infrastructure, we did everything they demanded, violating international human rights laws. Carrying munitions, we walked with one fundamental principle: ‘we must fire on whatever moves before they fire on us’. Innocent lives were taken without reason… I continue to regret it.”


Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

News Sun, 29 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Colombian Report on US Military's Child Rapes Not Newsworthy to US News Outlets

An 800-page independent report commissioned by the US-friendly Colombian government and the radical left rebel group FARC found that US military soldiers and contractors had sexually abused at least 54 children in Colombia between 2003 and 2007 and, in all cases, the rapists were never punished–either in Colombia or stateside–due to American military personnel being immune from prosecution under diplomatic immunity agreements between the two countries.

The report was part of a broader historical analysis meant to establish the “causes and violence aggravators” of the 50-year-long conflict between the government and rebels that’s presently being negotiated to an end. As Colombia  Reports (3/23/15) would spell out:

In his report, the historian [Renan Vega] cited one 2004 case in the central Colombian town of Melgar where 53 underage girls were sexually abused by nearby stationed military contractors “who moreover filmed [the abuse] and sold the films as pornographic material.”

According to Colombia’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo, the victims of the sexual abuse practices were forced to flee the region after their families received death threats.

Other Americans stationed at the Tolemaida Air Base allegedly committed similar crimes, but possibly also never saw a day in court due to an immunity arrangement for American soldiers and military contractors agreed by Washington and Bogota.

One case that has called most attention in Colombian media was that of a 12-year-old who in 2007 was raped by a US Army sergeant and a former US military officer who was working in Melgar as a military contractor.

Colombian prosecutors established that the girl had been drugged and subsequently raped inside the military base by US sergeant Michael J. Coen and defense contractor Cesar Ruiz.

However, prosecution officials were not allowed to arrest the suspected child rapists who were subsequently flown out of the country.


Thus far, however, these explosive claims seem to have received zero coverage in the general US press, despite having been reported on Venezuela’s Telesur (3/23/15), the British tabloid Daily Mail (3/24/15) and Russian RT (3/25/15).

But why? These aren’t fringe claims, nor can the government of American ally Colombia be dismissed as a peddler of Bolivarian propaganda. Indeed, the Miami Herald (9/3/09) documented the case of US Sgt. Michael Coen and contractor César Ruiz in 2009:

The US government has made little effort to investigate a US Army sergeant and a Mexican civil contractor implicated in Colombia in the raping of a 12-year-old girl in August 2007, according to an El Nuevo Herald investigation.

The suspects, Sgt. Michael Coen and contractor César Ruiz, were taken out of Colombia under diplomatic immunity, and do not face criminal charges in the United States in the rape in a room at Colombia’s Germán Olano Air Force Base in Melgar, 62 miles west of Bogotá.


So why no coverage? Certainly one of Washington’s stanchest Latin American allies co-authoring a blistering report about systemic US military child rape of a civilian population should be of note–if for no other reason than, as the report lays out, it undermined American military efforts to stop drug trafficking and fight leftist rebels:

However, prosecution officials were not allowed to arrest the suspected child rapists who were subsequently flown out of the country.

The case has caused major indignation among Colombians for years….

The special envoy will possibly have to deal with the role of the US military and its members in the alleged victimization of Colombians.

Yet here we are, over 72 hours since the Colombian and foreign press first reported on the allegations, and there’s a virtual media blackout in America over the case.  Nothing on CNN, nothing on MSNBC, nothing in the New York Times or Miami Herald. Nothing in Huffington Post. Nothing in Fusion or Vice. Why?

As UK authorities and NATO officials stress the importance of clamping down on “false Russian” narratives in the media, perhaps our own media could stop providing a shining example as to why such anti-Western narratives are so often the only outlet for certain ugly truths.

News Sun, 29 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Attitudes and Outcomes of Sex Ed: The US vs. the Netherlands

Many people lose their virginity as teenagers. But it's not exactly a celebrated phenomenon, with most teens hiding their sexual activities from adults. Getting caught with a boy upstairs got a lot of my girlfriends grounded back in high school. Sneaking around seems to have become a staple of the American teenage experience (see almost any romantic comedy made in the early ‘80s). 

Amy Schalet, associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has spent over a decade investigating the anxiety surrounding adolescent sexuality. Her book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex focuses on the United States and the Netherlands – two countries similar in wealth and education that have, respectively, had the highest and (one of) the lowest rates of teen pregnancy in the Western world.

Schalet found that, on average, teens in the Netherlands become sexually active around the same age as their American counterparts, 17 years old. But, as of 2006, American teenage girls are twice as likely to have abortions, and eight times as likely to give birth as their Dutch equivalents.

And the issue goes beyond pregnancy. Schalet found that American teenagers collectively acquire more than 3 million sexually transmitted infections a year (more than a quarter of all STIs in the country).

So how do we explain this difference? There’s no evidence to suggest that teens in the Netherlands are having less sex than teens in the United States. It is true that poverty has been linked to high birthrates among teens, and poverty rates in U.S. far exceed those of other industrialized countries. From there, we're left with just a few areas left to explore; namely birth control and sex education, and the conversations we have about them.

I reached out to Schalet and asked her to walk me through her research. She told me, “Before the sexual revolution, there was a lot of emphasis on [the negative aspects of sex]. So why did that stay in the United States? I think one piece is the fact that, for the Dutch, they applied a concept that had existed before the sexual revolution, mainly that of having a courtship through the teenage period. So even though now you’re not seeing it as ‘these people are engaged for life,’ you’re still applying a relational concept of, ‘this is a safe, steady relationship, and these days, people have sex.’”

“In the Netherlands, one of the really famous [sex education] curriculums is called ‘Long Live Love'... Or they’re called ‘relationship lessons.’ Or, for instance, a sex education curriculum that talks about sexual orientation would have a header saying, ‘Who do you want to wake up next to in the morning.’ It’s putting it in the context of an ongoing relationship.”

“In the U.S., I think because of different ideas about the individual and a certain kind of concept of individualism, there’s a lot more ambivalence about whether or not young people at 14,15,16 can form love, whether they should. And so therefore sexuality remains this sort of unanchored force; it’s not contained in some ways within the context of an established sexual relationship. So it can seem a lot more fearful, especially when you’re dealing with young people who are in that transition period.”

In the United States, 37 states require that information on abstinence be provided when sex education is taught. Twenty-five of those states require abstinence be stressed. Nineteen states require educators to highlight the importance of sex within marriage. And 13 states require the inclusion of information on the negative outcomes of teen sex and pregnancy. In instances when HIV education is taught, only 19 states require information on condoms or contraception be provided.

Given the rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs within the United States, it’s clear the abstinence-only approach isn’t the most effective one out there. But the push for these programs stems from beyond the institutions where they’re taught. Some cultural trends specific to the United States may help explain where it originates.

Schalet said, “I think it’s not just about religious factors; it’s also about how we think about the individual, and the role of love, and the role of relationships and whether or not that’s supposed to happen at that age. That’s one piece. The second piece has to do with contraception. Are contraceptives available to young people? In the Netherlands there was a huge push to make the pill available, and it brought down the teen pregnancy rate and it gave folks less reason to be fearful. You’re [less likely to] associate teen sexuality with an unwanted pregnancy or a life derailed. The availability of abortion is also, of course, really critical.”

I would say a third factor is the religious right. Even if people aren’t extremely religious themselves, they live in a country where the religious right is like ‘keep fear alive. How can we make this thing, that doesn’t have to be dangerous, that doesn’t have to ruin lives if you educate young people, [something to be feared]? It’s not per se a ‘dangerous thing.’ So ‘how can we keep that idea that this is a very dangerous part of life alive?’ I think that has had a really profound influence on our culture and society beyond people who hold those beliefs.”

The “purity movement,” as it exists in the U.S., revolves around teaching young people the importance of abstaining from sex until marriage. Often times, the brunt of the message falls on young girls.

Last year, Officer Regina Coward, president of the Nevada Black Police Association, was approached by her church to create a community event about the importance of abstaining from sex until marriage. Coward maintains there are four outcomes of premarital sex: sexual assault, gangs, drugs and prostitution. The “Choose Purity” event took place last May in North Las Vegas. One hundred-twenty-five parents and children were shown recorded interviews with pimps and prostitutes, learned about the modern-day slave trade, and saw explicit images of people gripped by drug addiction. There were also reenactments of girls who had entered into prostitution and died from the STIs they contracted while working in the field. As the Las Vegas Sun reported, “The monologues concluded with each girl getting on a gurney and into a body bag.”

Not all events related to the purity movement are so dramatic. Many “Purity Balls” resemble the traditional father-daughter dance. The only difference is that purity balls end with an exchange of vows between father and daughter (the daughters pledge their purity to the fathers, and promise to remain chaste until marriage). In some cases, girls as young as five are encouraged to attend. This community often gravitates toward the idea that fathers must protect their daughters from the dirty, horny boys who surround them. That’s how we land at the idea that sex is a mistake teens will make, and an act parents must fear.

Schalet explained, “There’s a real gender component there, and that’s also where the Dutch, I think, do things differently. They leave room for boys to think of themselves as romantic, of having feelings. And it’s not that American boys aren’t romantic, it’s that everything in their culture tells them that they shouldn’t be. So then they have this sort of duality if they have those feelings, like ‘am I a man? Or does this make me not a man? A boy becoming a man?’”

“For girls, I think the Dutch put a lot more emphasis on the fact that women can make choices. It’s not like it’s perfect, but there’s at least a conversation about, ‘what do you want? What do you feel?’ You can also see it in the fact that the Dutch are one of the few countries that really openly talk about masturbation for both sexes [during sex education]. It’s often thought that that’s one way that women can really become empowered about their sexuality, when they know about sexual pleasure and their own bodies. That’s not usually part of American sex education.”

In her article Must We Fear Adolescent Sexuality? Schalet explains that Dutch parents have a term to describe their children’s capacity for self-regulating sexual activity: er aan toe zijn. The phrase translates to “being ready” in English. She also notes that over the past three decades the Dutch community has worked to promote acceptance of adolescent sexuality and easy access to contraceptives. Conversations about sex often take place at home, and many Dutch teens experience their first sexual encounters there as well.

She noted, “I’m continuously struck by TV shows – even ones I love – by the portrayal of girls, especially in the eyes of parents… One show that comes to my mind is Friday Night Lights. The parents in that show are portrayed as really, really good parents... But they way they give their daughter sex education is appalling… it’s all about how boys are going to use her. They make the daughter, who’s in a very loving relationship, feel so bad about [sex]. It’s really interesting, because... if some sort of sex happens, the girl is put in the position of disappointing the parents. And I guess I just always ask myself when I’m watching these shows, ‘When do you want it to happen? How do you want it to happen? What is actually wrong about this situation?’”

She added, “What’s really problematic [about abstinence-only education] is that people are actually being taught to be afraid of their sexual impulses, that they can’t regulate them and gender stereotypes. So there are a lot of [negative] things that people are being taught that are not helpful. And certainly, that needs to stop.”

“There’s also research to show that when young people have gender-stereotypical ideas, they’re much less likely to be sexually healthy. So I think there is some very harmful material in abstinence-only education, asides from the fact that young people don’t get taught about contraception. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. What young people really need is a very comprehensive form of sex education that approaches sexuality as a positive part of life that they can relate to in a positive way.”

The Dutch experience provides us with many insights. One is that perhaps educating teens on STIs, HIV and unwanted pregnancies can go a lot further than threatening them with that information.

News Sun, 29 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
We Need a Million More Bowe Bergdahls, Says a Former US Army Ranger

An undated handout photo of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive as a prisoner of war for nearly five years by the Taliban. Bergdahl, who disappeared from his Army outpost in Afghanistan in 2009, was captured by the Taliban and held by the Haqqani insurgent network until last May, is being charged with desertion, United States officials said on March 25, 2015. (Photo: US Army via The New York Times)An undated handout photo of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive as a prisoner of war for nearly five years by the Taliban. Bergdahl, who disappeared from his Army outpost in Afghanistan in 2009, was captured by the Taliban and held by the Haqqani insurgent network until last May, is being charged with desertion, United States officials said on March 25, 2015. (Photo: US Army via The New York Times)The news that the most powerful organization in the known universe, the United States military, intends to focus its coercive mechanisms on a frightened, sensitive, traumatized young man, Bowe Bergdahl, has elicited howls of delight from that section of our public arena leased at below-market prices by the guild of belligerent cowards.

Back Issues is a blog about The Nation’s archives, but one would need a magazine much older than 150 years to find archival evidence of a time when such views had the merest claim to morality, not to mention, as the guild so often and so tediously does, piety.

“I am shocked at the concerted effort led by pro-war elements to pillory this guy, rather than offer serious compassion,” Robert Musil, who wrote an article on Vietnam deserters for The Nation in 1973, told me last year. “Where is all that rhetoric about ‘we support our troops’? He has suffered a lot, as have others. Where is the understanding, the compassion, the humanity? I frankly think that’s the proper response to an American kid stranded in the middle of Afghanistan who feels he has no choice but to go away from his unit.”

After I wrote that post, I was contacted by Rory Fanning, a former US Army Ranger in Afghanistan who served in the same unit as Pat Tillman. Fanning kindly sent me a copy of his book, Worth Fighting For, published last November by Haymarket. It is a profoundly moving memoir about his trek across the United States to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation, but more importantly it is a thoughtful, historically literate and often hilarious account of Fanning’s effort to forge a new relationship with a country he worried he had betrayed and had been betrayed by: disturbed by what he saw in Afghanistan, Fanning briefly went AWOL. He likely would have suffered the same fate that Bergdahl faces had not imperial stupidity, incompetence and lying saved him at the last moment. Preoccupied by the fallout from Tillman’s death and the attempted cover-up to prevent disclosure that it was caused by friendly fire, military authorities allowed Fanning to leave their custody without charges.

Fanning returned home and a few years later embarked on his transcontinental walk, seeking (and ultimately finding) a more profound connection to the American people, past and land than he had thought possible when he was growing up.

(I cannot recommend the book highly enough.)

My first reaction upon hearing the news that Bergdahl would be charged with desertion was to unfurl a string of expletives. My second was to get Fanning on the phone.

“Clearly,” he began, “the main reason they’re going after him is because they don’t want to be responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay that they owe him. I find that ironic, as they’ve been giving millions to warlords, throwing away trillions since 2001.”

Indeed, The New York Times’ otherwise somewhat mysterious suggestion that “there appears to be little desire to see him serve time” makes a lot more sense if you reason, as Fanning does, that they are only charging him to avoid having to cough up the back pay.

“The evidence against him that he’s responsible for the deaths of six soldiers is tenuous at best,” Fanning continued. “But the bigger point is the fact that the entity to blame for these deaths is the US military, for sending these soldiers into a war that should never have happened. The Taliban surrendered months after the initial invasion. But our politicians wanted blood.”

Fanning feels for Bergdahl. “Anyone who has been in Afghanistan could clearly see that the US had nothing to do in that country,” he told me. “We were little more than pawns in village disputes most of the time.”

“To be honest with you,” Fanning said, “we need a million more Bowe Bergdahls. Anybody who has any degree of common sense or moral fortitude would say, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not gonna fight this war.’”

Fanning told me, as Musil had last year, that it is not at all easy or in some cases possible to declare yourself a conscientious objector once you are in war.

“I could totally relate to this guy,” he said. “I consider him a hero. To kill somebody for a cause you don’t believe in is potentially worse than being killed yourself, because those scars last forever. Just walking off the battlefield as Bergdahl did seems like an easier route than seeking conscientious-objector status.”

Why the wingnut feeding frenzy?

“It’s a lot of fear-mongering to prop up this state of perpetual war,” Fanning concluded. “Recruitment is down. People are realizing we’re not fighting for freedom or democracy, but for empire. They have to make an example out of someone like Bowe Bergdahl.”

Opinion Sun, 29 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400