Truthout Stories Mon, 08 Feb 2016 12:09:34 -0500 en-gb Trump Leads GOP Charge Embracing Torture: "I'd Bring Back Worse Than Waterboarding"

In the final debate before Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, Republican presidential contenders battled it out Saturday night at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. While much of the post-debate coverage focused on Marco Rubio for repeatedly reciting the same talking points about President Obama, less attention was paid to how the candidates embraced the use of torture and expanding Guantánamo. We air highlights and speak to Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. She represents current and former Guantánamo detainees.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Mon, 08 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda: The US Military Bombs in the 21st Century

(Photo: John M. Cropper)(Photo: John M. Cropper)

Here's my twenty-first-century rule of thumb about this country: if you have to say it over and over, it probably ain't so. Which is why I'd think twice every time we're told how "exceptional" or "indispensable" the United States is. For someone like me who can still remember a moment when Americans assumed that was so, but no sitting president, presidential candidate, or politician felt you had to say the obvious, such lines reverberate with defensiveness. They seem to incorporate other voices you can almost hear whispering that we're ever less exceptional, more dispensable, no longer (to quote the greatest of them all by his own estimate) "the greatest." In this vein, consider a commonplace line running around Washington (as it has for years): the US military is "the finest fighting force in the history of the world." Uh, folks, if that's so, then why the hell can't it win a damn thing 14-plus years later?

If you don't mind a little what-if history lesson, it's just possible that events might have turned out differently and, instead of repeating that "finest fighting force" stuff endlessly, our leaders might actually believe it. After all, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it took the Bush administration only a month to let the CIA, special forces advisers, and the US Air Force loose against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's supporters in Afghanistan. The results were crushing. The first moments of what that administration would grandiloquently (and ominously) bill as a "global war on terror" were, destructively speaking, glorious.

If you want to get a sense of just how crushing those forces and their Afghan proxies were, read journalist Anand Gopal's No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, the best book yet written on how (and how quickly) that war on terror went desperately, disastrously awry. One of the Afghans Gopal spent time with was a Taliban military commander nicknamed - for his whip of choice - Mullah Cable, who offered a riveting account of just how decisive the US air assault on that movement was. In recalling his days on the front lines of what, until then, had been an Afghan civil war, he described his first look at what American bombs could do:

"He drove into the basin and turned the corner and then stepped out of the vehicle. Oh my God, he thought. There were headless torsos and torso-less arms, cooked slivers of scalp and flayed skin. The stones were crimson, the sand ocher from all the blood. Coal-black lumps of melted steel and plastic marked the remains of his friends' vehicles.

"Closing his eyes, he steadied himself. In the five years of fighting he had seen his share of death, but never lives disposed of so easily, so completely, so mercilessly, in mere seconds."

The next day, he addressed his men. "Go home," he said. "Get yourselves away from here. Don't contact each other."

"Not a soul," writes Gopal, "protested."

Mullah Cable took his own advice and headed for Kabul, the Afghan capital. "If he somehow could make it out alive, he promised himself that he would abandon politics forever." And he was typical. As Gopal reports, the Taliban quickly broke under the strain of war with the last superpower on the planet. Its foot soldiers put down their arms and, like Mullah Cable, fled for home. Its leaders began to try to surrender. In Afghan fashion, they were ready to go back to their native villages, make peace, shuffle their allegiances, and hope for better times. Within a couple of months, in other words, it was, or at least shoulda, woulda, coulda been all over, even the shouting.

The US military and its Afghan proxies, if you remember, believed that they had trapped Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda fighters somewhere in the mountainous Tora Bora region. If the US had concentrated all its resources on him at that moment, it's hard to believe that he wouldn't have been in American custody or dead sooner rather than later. And that would have been that. The US military could have gone home victorious. The Taliban, along with bin Laden, would have been history. Stop the cameras there and what a tale of triumph would surely have been told.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

Keeping the Cameras Rolling

There was, of course, a catch. Like their Bush administration mentors, the American military men who arrived in Afghanistan were determined to fight that global war on terror forever and a day. So, as Gopal reports, they essentially refused to let the Taliban surrender. They hounded that movement's leaders and fighters until they had little choice but to pick up their guns again and, in the phrase of the moment, "go back to work." 

It was a time of triumph and of Guantánamo, and it went to everyone's head. Among those in power in Washington and those running the military, who didn't believe that a set of genuine global triumphs lay in store? With such a fighting force, such awesome destructive power, how could it not? And so, in Afghanistan, the American counterterror types kept right on targeting the "terrorists" whenever their Afghan warlord allies pointed them out - and if many of them turned out to be local enemies of those same rising warlords, who cared?

It would be the first, but hardly the last time that, in killing significant numbers of people, the US military had a hand in creating its own future enemies. In the process, the Americans managed to revive the very movement they had crushed and which, so many years later, is at the edge of seizing a dominant military position in the country.

And keep in mind that, while producing a recipe for future disaster there, the Bush administration's top officials had far bigger fish to fry. For them and for the finest fighting force etc., etc., Afghanistan was a hopeless backwater - especially with Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein there in Baghdad at the crossroads of the oil heartlands of the planet with a target on his back. As they saw it, control of much of the Greater Middle East was at stake. To hell with Osama bin Laden.

And so, in March 2003, less than a year and a half later, they launched the invasion of Iraq, another glorious success for that triple-F force. Saddam's military was crushed in an instant and his capital, burning and looted, was occupied by American troops in next to no time at all. 

Stop the cameras there and you're still talking about the dominant military of this, if not any other century. But of course the cameras didn't stop. The Bush administration had no intention of shutting them off, not when it saw a Middle Eastern (and possibly even a global) Pax Americana in its future and wanted to garrison Iraq until hell froze over. It already assumed that the next stop after Baghdad on the Occident Express would be either Damascus or Tehran, that America's enemies in the region would go down like ten pins, and that the oil heartlands of the planet would become an American dominion. (As the neocon quip of that moment had it, "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.")

It was a hell of a dream, with an emphasis on hell. It would, in fact, prove a nightmare of the first order, and the cameras just kept rolling and rolling for nearly 13 years while (I think it's time for an acronym here) the FFFIHW, also known as the Finest Fighting Force etc., etc., proved that it could not successfully:

  • Defeat determined, if lightly armed, minority insurgencies. 
  • Train proxy armies to do its bidding.
  • Fight a war based on sectarian versions of Islam or a war of ideas.
  • Help reconstruct a society in the Greater Middle East, no matter how much money it pumped in.
  • Create much of anything but failed states and deeply corrupt ruling elites in the region.
  • Bomb an insurgent movement into surrender.
  • Drone-kill terror leaders until their groups collapsed.
  • Intervene anywhere in the Greater Middle East in just about any fashion, by land or air, and end up with a world in any way to its liking. 

Send in the...

It's probably accurate to say that in the course of one disappointment or disaster after another from Afghanistan to Libya, Somalia to Iraq, Yemen to Pakistan, the US military never actually lost an encounter on the battlefield. But nowhere was it truly triumphant on the battlefield either, not in a way that turned out to mean anything. Nowhere, in fact, did a military move of any sort truly pay off in the long run. Whatever was done by the FFFIHW and the CIA (with its wildly counterproductive drone assassination campaigns across the region) only seemed to create more enemies and more problems.

To sum up, the finest you-know-what in the history of you-know-where has proven to be a clumsy, largely worthless weapon of choice in Washington's terror wars - and increasingly its leadership seems to know it. In private, its commanders are clearly growing anxious. If you want a witness to that anxiety, go no further than Washington Post columnist and power pundit David Ignatius. In mid-January, after a visit to US Central Command, which oversees Washington's military presence in the Greater Middle East, he wrote a column grimly headlined: "The ugly truth: Defeating the Islamic State will take decades." Its first paragraph went: "There's a scary disconnect between the somber warnings you hear privately from military leaders about the war against the Islamic State and the glib debating points coming from Republican and Democratic politicians."

For Ignatius, channeling his high-level sources in Central Command (whom he couldn't identify), things could hardly have been gloomier. And yet, bleak as his report was, it still qualified as an upbeat view. His sources clearly believed that, if Washington was willing to commit to a long, hard military slog and the training of proxy forces in the region not over "a few months" but a "generation," success would follow some distant, golden day. The last 14-plus years suggest otherwise.

With that in mind, let's take a look at what those worried CENTCOM commanders, the folks at the Pentagon, and the Obama administration are planning for the FFFIHW in the near future. Perhaps you won't be surprised to learn that, with almost a decade and a half of grisly military lessons under their belts, they are evidently going to pursue exactly the kinds of actions that have, for some time, made the US military look like neither the finest, nor the greatest anything. Here's a little been-there-done-that rundown of what might read like past history but is evidently still to come:

Afghanistan: So many years after the Bush administration loosed the US Air Force and its Special Operations forces on that country and "liberated" it, the situation, according to the latest US general to be put in command of the war zone, is "deteriorating." Meanwhile, in 2015, casualties suffered by the American-built Afghan security forces reached "unsustainable" levels. The Taliban now control more territory than at any time since 2001, and the Islamic State (IS) has established itself in parts of the country. In response, more than a year after President Obama announced the ending of the US "combat mission" there, the latest plans are to further slow the withdrawal of US forces, while sending in the US Air Force and special operations teams, particularly against the new IS fighters.

Libya: Almost five years ago, the Obama administration (with its NATO allies) dispatched overwhelming air power and drones to Libyan skies to help take down that country's autocrat, Muammar Gaddafi. In the wake of his death and the fall of his regime, his arsenals were looted and advanced weapons were dispatched to terror groups from Mali to the Sinai Peninsula. In the ensuing years, Libya has been transformed not into a thriving democracy but a desperately failed state filled with competing sectarian militias, Islamic extremist outfits, and a fast-growing Islamic State offshoot. As the situation there continues to deteriorate, the Obama administration is now reportedly considering a "new" strategy involving "decisive military action" that will be focused on... you guessed it, air and drone strikes and possibly special operations raids on Islamic State operations.

Iraq: Another country in which the situation is again deteriorating as oil prices plunge - oil money makes up 90% of the government budget - and the Islamic State continues to hold significant territory. Meanwhile, Iraqis die monthly in prodigious numbers in bloody acts of war and terror, as Shiite-Sunni grievances seem only to sharpen. It's almost 13 years since the US loosed its air power and its army against Saddam Hussein, disbanded his military, trained another one (significant parts of which collapsed in the face of relatively small numbers of Islamic State fighters in 2014 and 2015), and brought together much of the future leadership of the Islamic State in a US military prison. It's almost four years since the US "ended" its war there and left. Since August 2014, however, it has again loosed its Air Force on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, while dispatching at least 3,700 (and possibly almost 4,500) military personnel to Iraq to help train up a new version of that country's army and support it as it retakes (or in fact reduces to rubble) cities still in IS hands. In this context, the Obama administration now seems to be planning for a kind of endless mission creep in which "hundreds more trainers, advisers, and commandos" will be sent to that country and neighboring Syria in the coming months. Increasingly, some of those advisers and other personnel will officially be considered "boots on the ground" and will focus on helping "the Iraqi army mount the kind of conventional warfare operations needed to defeat Islamic State militants." It's even possible that American advisers will, in the end, be allowed to engage directly in combat operations, while American Apache helicopter pilots might at some point begin flying close support missions for Iraqi troops fighting in urban areas. (And if this is all beginning to sound strangely familiar, what a surprise!)

Syria: Give Syria credit for one thing. It can't be classified as a three-peat or even a repeat performance, since the FFFIHW wasn't there the previous 14 years. Still, it's hard not to feel as if we've been through all this before: the loosing of American air power on the Islamic State (with effects that devastate but somehow don't destroy the object of Washington's desire), disastrous attempts to train proxy forces in the American mold, the arrival of special ops forces on the scene, and so on.

In other words, everything proven over the years, from Afghanistan to Libya, not to bring victory or much of anything else worthwhile will be tried yet again - from Afghanistan to Libya. Above all, of course, a near-religious faith in the efficacy of bombing and of drone strikes will remain crucial to American efforts, even though in the past such military-first approaches have only helped to spread terror outfits, chaos, and failed states across this vast region. Will any of it work this time? I wouldn't hold my breath.

Declaring Defeat and Coming Home

At some point, as the Vietnam War dragged on, Republican Senator George Aiken of Vermont suggested - so the legend goes - that the US declare victory and simply come home. (In fact, he never did such a thing, but no matter.) Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and their adviser Henry Kissinger might, however, be said to have done something similar in the end. And despite wartime fears - no less rabid than those about the Islamic State today - that a Vietnamese communist victory would cause "dominoes" to "fall" and communism to triumph across the Third World, remarkably little happened that displeased, no less endangered, the United States. Four decades later, in fact, Washington and Vietnam are allied increasingly closely against a rising China.

In a similar fashion, our worst nightmares of the present moment - magnified in the recent Republican debates - are likely to have little basis in reality. The Islamic State is indeed a brutal and extreme sectarian movement, the incarnation of the whirlwind of chaos the US let loose in the region. As a movement, however, it has its limits. Its appeal is far too sectarian and extreme to sweep the Greater Middle East.

Its future suppression, however, is unlikely to have much to do with the efforts of the finest fighting force in the history of the world. Quite the opposite, the Islamic State and its al-Qaeda-linked doppelgangers still spreading in the region thrive on the destructive attentions of the FFFIHW. They need that force to be eternally on their trail and tail.

There are (or at least should be) moments in history when ruling elites suddenly add two and two and miraculously come up with four. This doesn't seem to be one of them or else the Obama administration wouldn't be doubling down on a militarized version of the same-old same-old in the Greater Middle East, while its Republican and neocon opponents call for making the sand "glow in the dark," sending in the Marines (all of them), and bombing the hell out of everything.

Under the circumstances, what politician in present-day Washington would have the nerve to suggest the obvious? Isn't it finally time to pull the US military back from the Greater Middle East and put an end to our disastrous temptation to intervene ever more destructively in ever more repetitious ways in that region? That would, of course, mean, among other things, dismantling the vast structure of military bases Washington has built up across the Persian Gulf and the rest of the Greater Middle East.

Maybe it's time to adopt some version of Senator Aiken's mythical strategy. Maybe Washington should bluntly declare not victory, but defeat, and bring the US military home. Maybe if we stopped claiming that we were the greatest, most exceptional, most indispensable nation ever and that the US military was the finest fighting force in the history of the world, both we and the world might be better off and modestly more peaceful. Unfortunately, you can toss that set of thoughts in the trash can that holds all the other untested experiments of history. One thing we can be sure of, given the politics of our moment, is that we'll never know.

Opinion Mon, 08 Feb 2016 11:38:10 -0500
Flint Whistleblowers Who Exposed Their Poisoned Water: We're Just Getting Started

The actions of a small group of dedicated activists in the Coalition for Clean Water led to the revelation that Flint, Michigan, residents were being poisoned by lead-contaminated water. The activists had been living with the yellow, brown, and red water flowing from their taps even as government officials denied it and the same poisoned water flowed from the taps at government buildings.

The activists, whose different organizations came together to form the coalition, organized, strategized, did water research and testing to expose the government's lies. Coalition activists included Flint residents Rev. Alfred Harris of the Concerned Pastors for Social Action; Melissa Mays, a mother of three who co-founded the group Water You Fighting For; and Trachelle Young, a former Flint city attorney.

"After the switch to Flint River water, members of my congregation experienced dirty water, hair loss, and rashes," says Harris, pastor of Flint's Saints of God Church. "As a concerned pastor, I contacted city and state officials. I was told the water was OK according to these [federal] guidelines. But it was irrefutably true that the water was having an adverse affect on the people of Flint."

That truth kept the members of the coalition fighting for justice. Now the whole world knows that lead-contaminated water poisoned people in the community of 100,000 where more than 60 percent are minorities and 40 percent live below the poverty level.

It started April 25, 2014, when the city switched from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to Flint River water treated at the Flint water treatment plant as a cost-saving measure. However, the Flint treatment plant did not add an anticorrosion chemical that would have kept the pipes from leaching lead into the water.

Many blame Gov. Rick Snyder because he appointed the emergency manager who made the switch. Michigan's emergency manager law is a controversial statute allowing a state takeover - without a vote - of municipalities and school systems suffering extreme financial problems.

Intended to save Flint a reported $5 million over two years, the move will end up costing billions for long-term physical, mental, and social health care for an as yet unknown number of poisoning victims, in addition to infrastructure repair and replacement.

It could have been much worse had the coalition not stepped up when it did. Harris began acting on the issue just a few months after Flint River water began running through the pipes.

Melissa Mays began noticing health problems in late 2014. She and her three boys lost hair and developed rashes. During a nagging respiratory infection, Mays' said her phlegm tasted like bleach. One preteen son had been having bone pain; when he broke a bone, it was brittle and it shattered.

Bone pain is a symptom of lead poisoning. That's one of many science lessons Mays learned during her Flint water ordeal.

She grew suspicious after the city issued three boil-water warnings for E. Coli and other bacteria in the drinking water. The city's solution had been to add extra chlorine. Then the water tested high for trihalomethanes, a chlorine byproduct that can lead to kidney or liver problems and an increased risk of cancer.

Mays and her husband, Michael Mays, began meeting with other concerned residents and formed the group Water You Fighting For. Michael, a web designer, put together a website to share information. That immediately got the attention of others, including environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who sent a representative to Flint to help bring more attention to the crisis.

When it became clear the group would need legal help, they contacted Trachelle Young, a former city attorney  who was then in private practice as a criminal defense lawyer. Although she didn't work in environmental law, the water had been affecting her, too. Every day, Young and her daughter travel about 35 miles to bathe at her mother's or friends' homes in Flint suburbs.

"I knew I wasn't going to get paid," says Young of taking on an initial suit to force the city to switch back to Detroit water. "I was going to have to research the subject, but this is more than just a case."

Young and the coalition first sued in June 2015, unsuccessfully, to force the city to resume getting its water from Detroit.

Then the coalition decided it needed to conduct its own water tests. Members worked with Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor, to distribute 300 water testing kits among city residents.

Edwards expected to get back about 75 water test kits. He got 277.

"He was totally blown away by the number of kits that got returned," says Curt Guyette, an ACLU reporter who got involved after investigating the emergency manager who made the Flint water decisions. Test accuracy relied on high community involvement.

Their test results showed a serious problem with the lead content - well over the federal action level for drinking water. City and state officials disputed the results, but they couldn't deny them anymore when Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center released a study in September that showed high blood-lead levels in Flint children. By Oct. 16, Flint was reconnected with the Detroit water system.

On Jan. 27, 2016, the Concerned Pastors, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and activist Mays, sued in federal court to force Flint and the state to adhere to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The suit includes a demand that the city replace all lead pipes at no cost to residents. Separate county, state, and federal class action lawsuits have demanded the same.

There is still plenty to be done in Flint. Volunteers need to distribute the thousands of donated cases of bottled water. Health officials need to test children for lead poisoning and arrange for health care and rehabilitation for those who need it. Lead poisoning can cause developmental delays, learning difficulties, loss of appetite, fatigue, vomiting, and hearing loss, among other issues.

The recovery needs oversight. The government has damaged credibility with its residents.

Virginia Tech's Edwards has been appointed to the newly created Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, which is tasked with finding a way to fix the water crisis. Hanna-Attisha is also on the committee.

In the meantime, coalition members are getting on with their lives. Attorney Young's trajectory has gone from city attorney to city opponent. Pastor Harris signed up for social action a long time ago and has a hopeful sense of what this all means. "If there ever was an issue than can bring us together, the Lord has sent it to us."

Like everyone else in Flint, their new life includes a whole new way of dealing with water. And other issues are looming: An entire generation has been endangered and the cost of infrastructure repair is daunting.

And not least, the issue of environmental racism has come up continually throughout the ordeal with people asking if this would have happened to a more affluent, more white community.

News Mon, 08 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Only 10 of Scores Killed by US Drones in Pakistan Last Year Have Been Identified

Just 10 of the scores killed by US drones in Pakistan last year have so far been identified, according to data collected by the Bureau's Naming the Dead project.

The names for all 10 came from either terrorist propaganda or the US government, with officials from Pakistan's government, military and intelligence services declining to provide any names of those killed by the CIA for the first time since strikes started in 2004.

Only a minority of those killed are ever identified, but the number of those named in 2015 was particularly low. In total, according to Bureau research, of the minimum 2,494 people killed by US drones since 2004, only 729 have been named. At least 1,765 victims remain nameless.

The Bureau's Naming the Dead project is an attempt to identify more of these victims to better ensure accountability for the drone strikes. The CIA continues to carry out signature strikes in Pakistan - attacks on people it claims are terrorists from extensive surveillance and data analysis operations - but the targets' names are often not known.

In 2015, at least 60 people were killed by 13 strikes.

Of the 10 victims named, two were civilians: westerners Giovanni Lo Porto and Warren Weinstein, who were both aid workers taken hostage by al Qaeda when they were killed in a calamitous drone strike on January 15.

Five more were from al Qaeda and the remaining three were part of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP).

Of the 10, four names were provided by the US after weeks of CIA investigations, while the other six emerged from al Qaeda and TTP propaganda.

Name Nationality Group affiliation or job Source
Giovanni Lo Porto Italian Aid worker The White House
Warren Weinstein US Aid worker The White House
Ahmed Farouq US Al Qaeda The White House
Adam Gadahn US Al Qaeda The White House
Qari Ubaidullah Pakistani Al Qaeda Al Qaeda propaganda
Mohammad Ashraf Dar Indian Al Qaeda Al Qaeda propaganda
Talwar Shaheed Pakistani Pakistan Taliban Pakistan Taliban propaganda
Umar Shaheed Pakistani Pakistan Taliban Pakistan Taliban propaganda
Kharey Mehsud Pakistani Pakistan Taliban Pakistan Taliban propaganda
Burak Karlier Turkish Al Qaeda Al Qaeda propaganda

Little or nothing is publicly known about the remaining 50 people. Most were described as "militants" of varying nationalities by intelligence and government officials, and military officers who were quoted anonymously in Pakistani and international media.

In six of the 13 strikes in 2015, the unnamed sources labelled some if not all the people killed as "Uzbeks".

In four more strikes, the dead were described by their affiliation to an armed group, such as a TTP faction under a specific commander.

Although Pakistani officials were happy to brief journalists throughout last year on the nature of the drone strikes and the nationalities or terrorist affiliations of those killed, it was the first time since 2004 they did not help in the identification process.

They have previously leaked the names of those killed.

Why So Few Named in 2015?

It is unclear why 2015 was different. It could be that the identities of those killed were not known before Hellfire missiles struck and unless friends, relatives or comrades come forward their names might never be known.

Alternatively, victims' names could have been caught in the information lock down put in place in the tribal areas by ISPR - the Pakistani military's propaganda wing.

The Pakistani military has been fighting terrorists and other non-state armed groups in Waziristan since June 2014. Since then there has been a tight control on information released to the press about the campaign.

CIA drone strikes may be subject to the same strict information control.

Spies, Officials and Terrorist Propaganda: How We Get the Names

It is not unusual for the those carrying out drone strikes - nor for communities on the receiving end - to give out the names of the dead, though they have never been the only sources of names.

Terrorist propaganda has been a rich seam for identities and background information. Similarly, intelligence service and government officials in Washington have also quietly revealed to reporters the names and potted histories of some of the senior terrorists killed in the strikes.

Pakistan's premier spy agency, the ISI, may know the identities of many if not all of the dead. It is believed to have kept a record of the names of the people killed in the tribal areas, by drones and other means. Its officers have been sources of names of the dead in strikes from 2004 to 2014.

Why this stopped in 2015 is all the more confusing considering unnamed "Pakistani security officials" told the Express Tribune the first and so far only CIA strike of 2016 killed senior Taliban commander Maulana Noor Saeed, along with four others, on January 9.

Although the ISI enjoys a reputation for omniscience it is still possible even its officials do not know who died.

The same officials, intelligence officers and soldiers in Pakistan, however, told journalists the names of TTP and al Qaeda terrorists killed in US strikes across the border in eastern and southern Afghan provinces.

The Pakistani army has slowly worked its way across the tribal areas that run along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, driving the various armed groups deeper in to the mountains that run across the boundary separating the two countries.

Many of these fighters appear to have been forced across the border.

Afghan officials in Kabul and the provincial capitals also identified people killed in strikes in Afghanistan. The Bureau has recorded more than 100 names from over 700 people reported killed last year in Afghanistan.

The true death toll is higher. The Bureau's tally of people killed relates to 187 US strikes in Afghanistan last year for which there are media or other open source reports. The US says it carried out 411 air and drone strikes in total. The US will not provide individual details on each of these attacks and most of them go unreported - leaving a considerable gap in public understanding of the ongoing US war in Afghanistan.

News Mon, 08 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
When Turkeys Fight: The New Hampshire Primary and Beyond

Ann Vermette, center, looks on as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican presidential hopeful, speaks at a town hall-style event at Hills Garrison School in Hudson, N.H., Feb. 7, 2016. (Hilary Swift / The New York Times)Ann Vermette, center, looks on as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican presidential hopeful, speaks at a town hall-style event at Hills Garrison School in Hudson, New Hampshire, February 7, 2016. (Hilary Swift / The New York Times)

I awoke Thursday morning to a turkey brawl in my back yard. Fourteen wild turkeys, all hugely fattened for the New Hampshire winter, were out in my back pasture just beating the living hell out of each other, a little brown cyclone of gobbling and flying feathers and flapping wings. The dog was too astonished to bark. They battled their way to the tree line like 14 Thanksgiving dinners gone wild, abruptly broke it up, and disappeared in orderly fashion into the darkness of the woods.

If a more perfect metaphor for the 2016 New Hampshire primary and the presidential race in general has presented itself, I haven't heard of it. I watched the melee and thought, "There's Trump strutting. There's Jeb with his head down. There's Kasich being ignored. There's Carly firing all of them. And look! There's Bernie chasing Hillary, hot on her heels." If the turkey fight had left four decapitated birds in the yard, the image would have been complete. My wife found me giggling like a titmouse by the kitchen window, and I had some trouble explaining why.

Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum and Martin O'Malley have come to their nadir by the side of that dusty campaign road, cut down in Iowa like so much corn. Huckabee and Santorum had no business in the race; this was a doomed ego trip/fundraising tour for them, and it wasted everybody's time.

Paul's awful showing and early departure is the real surprise, however. A whole bunch of smart people had him bracketed as the GOP favorite not so long ago, and now? Back to the salon, to get all that Iowa chaff out of his hair. The departure of O'Malley from the race is a disappointment; he added depth to the conversation on the Democratic side regarding immigration, the environment and gun control, but was lost in the media jetwash of the Clinton juggernaut and the Sanders surge. So it goes.

Speaking of turkeys, Donald Trump didn't wait 24 hours after Iowa before freaking out. He gave a humble, thankful speech on Monday night after Ted Cruz kneecapped him, and the country went, "Wow, that was unexpected." By Tuesday afternoon he was lobbing bombs again and the country went, "Yup, he's back."

First, Trump attacked the Iowa voters themselves (again), whining that they "didn't appreciate" his campaign. Then he went after Cruz specifically and personally, accusing him of fraud and demanding that a new caucus be held, or the Iowa results be nullified completely. Beyond shushing Jeb, he hung back during Saturday's GOP debate and let the rest of the candidates chew on each other, which they did.

"The Donald" does not suffer setbacks gladly, and his vivid unspooling will continue if he keeps taking punches he can't return. Still, Trump retains a sizeable lead here in New Hampshire, with Rubio and Cruz behind, although Rubio did himself no favors on Saturday night. Chris Christie, quite simply, ate his lunch and didn't leave a tip.

How much Trump's lead has been affected by his loss in Iowa, by his subsequent tantrums and by his latest debate performance remains to be seen. That kind of stuff doesn't play well in the Granite State. He is still the smart-money bet at the moment, but then again, he was the smart-money bet last week, too.

Ben Carson's chances are on life support. The Washington Post reported on Thursday that his campaign is firing dozens of people and slashing salaries because the fundraising has dried up. There is even talk - heaven forefend! - of the candidate being financially forced to take commercial flights instead of private jets to his campaign stops.

The next time you're on a Delta or JetBlue flight, look at the passenger next to you. He might just be a soft-spoken neurosurgeon with no hope. Only if you're flying in the next week or so, though; this window of opportunity appears to be closing rapidly.

And then there's Jeb ... oh, Jeb. Whither goes the exclamation point? At a campaign spot up here in Hanover last week, Bush unleashed a tirade about killing everything that threatens us and defending the country, and was met with granite-stony silence from the audience. He hung his head, put out his hands and said, "Please clap."

It was pathetic beyond the bounds of space, time, matter, energy, everything. It was his Muskie Moment. He landed one good punch on Trump on Saturday, and that will be his campaign epitaph. Jeb is done, I think. He is getting creamed in every New Hampshire poll, and will not be on the stage much longer. At long, long last, the electorate has taken the Bush dynasty and broken it over their knee ... not with a bang, but a whimper. Literally.

On the Democratic side, there appear to be few surprises in store come Tuesday. Bernie Sanders is leading Hillary Clinton by as much as 20 points in New Hampshire. The polling site gives him a 96 percent chance of winning the state, which isn't surprising given that he lives a golf shot down the road.

Thursday night's Democratic debate, despite its feistiness, will likely do little to change those numbers. After Tuesday, it's Nevada, then South Carolina and then Super Tuesday, upon which many things will be known. Is the Sanders campaign durable enough to make up the polling deficits they're dealing with in all those states, or will the Clinton steamroller finally be unleashed? As the old radio show used to say, only the shadow knows.

On Tuesday morning, I will roll down the mountain through the blowing snow to the community center and cast my ballot, grab the mail, get some coffee and then head home to watch the returns. Like as not, I'll encounter an insouciant flock of turkeys in the road, maybe even the ones that were fighting in my yard Thursday morning. The damned things are everywhere these days, even on the TV. This, too, shall pass.

Opinion Mon, 08 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
How Do We Define Climate Pollution's Cost to Society?

This story was originally published on January 27 at High Country News.

In a 2007 ruling on a dispute concerning fuel economy standards for cars, a judge sent a clear message to federal agencies. They could no longer continue business as usual and fail to account for climate change when assessing the costs and benefits of regulations. "The value of carbon emissions reduction is certainly not zero," Judge Betty B. Fletcher wrote in her opinion for the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. And by treating it as such, her opinion declared, the government was acting in an arbitrary and capricious fashion.

So, if the cost of polluting is not zero, what it is? Fletcher's ruling challenged government officials to come up with a dollar amount that represents how much a ton of carbon pollution will "cost" society over the long run. Economists refer to this as the social cost of carbon.

The concept is still evolving and will only become more important to understand as governments grapple with how to address climate change in the most effective and least costly manner.

It was in early 2009 that White House officials decided it was time to develop a unified way for agencies to estimate the social cost of carbon. They knew passing comprehensive climate legislation during the Great Recession would be difficult. They wanted a plan B that would help President Obama address global warming through regulations if legislation failed.

But regulations would force industries to adopt low-carbon energy options, which would be costly. Thus, the administration needed a way to prove that the benefits of reducing carbon dioxide emissions would be worth it. "We needed a way to convert carbon dioxide into dollars," recalls Michael Greenstone, a University of Chicago economist who, at the time, was the chief economist on the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Greenstone led a multiagency working group to come up with the government's approach.

Calculating a social cost of carbon is complicated. First off, climate change affects many aspects of society, including public health, environment, agriculture, natural disasters and economies. Also, scientists are still figuring out many basic questions of climate science, such as exactly how much pollution it takes to increase concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and boost temperature on Earth. A puff of carbon dioxide emitted today usually stays in the atmosphere for a couple hundred years, and a portion of it more than a thousand years, continuing to contribute to climate change. The damages from the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - everything from heat waves to sea level rise - are felt across the globe. So the social cost of carbon has to reflect a stream of damages across time and around the globe.

The interagency group turned to academic researchers who had been studying the economics of climate change and calculating its social cost for decades. Their methods and outcomes differed. So, the government opted to utilize three widely-used models, taking the average of the three to derive the federal government's official estimate.

First, the models estimate how a metric ton of carbon pollution will impact concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Second, the models estimate how those concentrations will affect temperature on Earth. Third, they analyze how increases in temperature will translate into a range of impacts such as the loss of usable dry land because of sea level rise; stresses to agriculture from droughts; and increased need for air conditioning.

Discount Rate

To account for the fact that carbon emitted today will have impacts decades from now, the models require a discount rate, which tries to answer the question: How much money is it worth to today's society to avoid damages for future societies?

A discount rate works basically like an interest in a bank account, explains UC Berkeley research fellow Danny Cullenward. Imagine that climate change will result in a heat wave in 2100 that causes $1 billion in destruction, in 2100 dollars. How much would you be willing to pay now, in 2015, to avoid those damages? With a 2.5 percent discount rate, you would need to invest almost $123 million today in order to have $1 billion in 2100. With a 3 percent discount rate you would only need to invest $81 million, and with a 5 percent discount rate, $16 million. A lower discount rate calculates a higher cost of carbon.

The working group couldn't agree on one discount rate. So the group recommends that agencies consider four social costs of carbon per year, when crafting regulations. That's one for each of the three interest rates and a fourth to reflect the possibility that the planet will heat up faster and damages will be greater than currently expected.

Government agencies just need to multiply these numbers by the tons of carbon their regulations are expected to either reduce or increase. And voila, they have the carbon costs or benefits of their regulations.

For example, if the social cost of carbon in 2030 is $48, the EPA could multiply that by 413 million short tons (this regulation uses the measurement short tons instead of metric tons) of carbon dioxide, which is the amount the agency expects will be kept out of the atmosphere that year under the Clean Power Plan. That means the regulation that year theoretically will save society $20 billion.

That's with the 3 percent discount. But because the government uses four social costs of carbon, regulations designed to reduce carbon emissions show a broad range of possible benefits. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency's analysis of its Clean Power Plan cites benefits in carbon dioxide reductions in 2030 that range from $6 billion to $60 billion.


There's lot of uncertainty that goes into estimating the social cost of carbon. For instance, climate scientists still are figuring how sensitive global temperatures are to increases in carbon pollution. So, when calculating its social cost of carbon, the government ran the models thousands of times using various temperature projections. The science also continues to evolve on the many damages expected from climate change such as forest fires, floods, sea-level rise and heat waves.

The government also used five different estimates of economic and population growth.

"These models are guesses at best; there's an enormous amount of uncertainty," says David Weisbach, a University of Chicago economist. Not only are the estimates uncertain, but they evolve over time. In 2013, the government revised its estimates to reflect updates in climate science, and in 2015, made additional tweaks. To make the cost more transparent, Weisbach's research group created a website, which anyone can use to see how widely the social cost of carbon can vary depending on the assumptions applied.

Weisbach is an author of one of a handful of recent academic articles that argue that the government's numbers are far too low because the models the government uses assume that the global economy will continue to grow over the next 200 to 300 years, even in the face of extreme climate change. One of these articles, published in 2015 by the journal Nature Climate Change, found that social costs of carbon should be several times higher to reflect the impact severe climate change likely would have on economic growth.

Given these and other criticisms, the interagency working group asked advice from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which appointed a group of engineers, climate scientists and economists to review the government's estimates and consider ways to update the methodology. Its first report, in January 2016, did not recommend any major short-term changes but suggested ways to better communicate uncertainties. A more comprehensive and final report is expected in 2017.

While the government's approach to assessing the social cost of carbon is imperfect, it represents a huge improvement from 2007 when Judge Fletcher called out the government for failing to assess the cost of climate change impacts. "This is 100 percent better than zero," Cullenward says.

The University of Chicago's Greenstone argues that the government would do well to start using its social cost of carbon to set rates for royalties and leasing federal fossil fuels. His calculations suggest such a policy would have little impact on oil and gas, but huge implications for coal because its market value is a fraction of the cost of the climate damages from extracting and burning it.

News Mon, 08 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Why Are Black Girls and Women Dying in Police Custody?

Gynna McMillen, a 16-year-old African-American girl who died in a Kentucky juvenile detention facility in January, is one of a growing number of Black women and girls who have died in police custody in the US. We must hold the state accountable for their deaths.

(Photo: Prison Cell Block via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)(Photo: Prison Cell Block via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

Gynna McMillen was brought into the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, on January 10, 2016, after police were called to her mother's house about a "domestic incident." The next morning she was found unresponsive in a cell. What happened to her? Why is she dead after less than 24 hours in the detention facility? These are questions being asked by Gynna's family and others concerned about the deaths of Black people in police custody.

Slowly, investigators are releasing information, and what we know so far is horrifying. Gynna McMillen, a 16-year-old Black girl, died in a detention center where staff used martial arts to restrain her when she refused to remove her sweatshirt. Gynna McMillen died while isolated in a cell. Gynna McMillen died alone: No one followed the protocol to check on her every 15 minutes.

Violence visited upon the bodies, souls and spirits of Black girls whom society deems "defiant" is all too common.

Black children have always faced disproportionately brutal treatment in jail. "Opportunities Lost: Racial Disparities in Juvenile Justice in Kentucky and Identified Needs for Systems Change," a 2009 issue brief written and published by Kentucky Youth Advocates, details disproportionate contact with children of color at every level of the juvenile legal system, from complaints against youth to arrest and detainment. Despite representing only 9.5 percent of the Kentucky youth population, African-American youth are more than twice as likely as white youth to have complaints filed against them, four times more likely to be detained during any point in court processing and more than four times as likely to have their cases referred to adult courts.

In 2013, the rate of African-American youth detained in juvenile detention, correctional and/or residential facilities was 495 per 100,000, the highest of any racial or ethnic group, according to National Kids Count data. For African-American girls specifically, the rate was 78 per 100,000, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

While the arrest rate has declined for boys in the juvenile legal system, it has not fallen as sharply for girls. African-American girls represent 33.2 percent of girls who are detained, although they are only 14 percent of the population. Many incarcerated girls have experienced one or more traumas, including abuse, poverty, mental illness and being funneled through child welfare systems. Instead of receiving the help they need, girls are routed into the juvenile legal system because of their victimization. Sometimes, their response to trauma is itself criminalized. As Monique Morris wrote in America's Wire, African-American girls are often criminalized for qualities associated with survival, such as being loud and defiant.

Violence visited upon the bodies, souls and spirits of Black girls whom society deems "defiant" is all too common. For a Black girl, "defiant behaviors" may include refusing to leave her desk, her presence at a pool party in a white neighborhood or refusing to remove a sweatshirt. When committed by Black girls, these acts are deemed to justify brutality.

Sandra Bland, Raynette Turner, Joyce Curnell, Ralkina Jones, Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Natasha McKenna and Sheneque Proctor: All were Black women who died while in police custody. Sadly, Gynna McMillen's name now joins a growing list of Black women dead at the hands of the state.

How do we hold schools and other institutions accountable to end the arrest and incarceration of African-American girls?

The state has many apparatuses to control, discipline and finally to disappear Black people, especially those deemed most deviant by the state, including women and girls, poor folks, queer, trans and gender-nonconforming folks, sex workers and people with a disability. Whether it's through incarceration in jails and prisons, the funneling of children into the foster care system, decreasing food stamps, not expanding Medicaid eligibility or allowing a community to drink lead-poisoned water, the tentacles of state violence are far reaching. As we mourn McMillen's death, we must recognize the interconnectedness of all of these systems of control and oppression.

What might justice look like for Gynna McMillen's family and friends? For one thing, it seems, it would involve the state being held accountable and forced to reveal the truth about how Gynna wound up dead in a juvenile detention center after less than 24 hours of entering. How do we hold schools and other institutions accountable to end the arrest and incarceration of African-American girls? The African American Policy Forum, in its 2015 report, "Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected," provides recommendations to address the needs of African-American girls, including: reviewing and revising policies that funnel girls into the juvenile legal system, developing protocols to ensure school personnel enforce all students' rights to an environment free from sexual harassment and bullying, developing programs that identify that signs of sexual victimization in order to support girls who have been traumatized, and advancing and expanding programs that support girls who are pregnant and/or parenting, or otherwise assuming familial responsibilities.

The lives of Black girls matter. Let's fight alongside them to end the state-sanctioned violence that results in their premature death.

News Mon, 08 Feb 2016 11:17:21 -0500
Media Must Leave Abortion Stigma in the Past

"Violent." "Sickening." "Disgusting." "Inhuman." These are all words regularly used by prominent media sources to stigmatize and mislead on the reality of abortion.

Listening to these words used to smear and shame women who exercise the right to an abortion, it'd be easy to forget that 43 years ago the Supreme Court protected that constitutional right.

Women's access to reproductive health care is as much in jeopardy as ever, as anti-choice activists and their GOP accomplices in Congress are rapidly chipping away at that right, emboldened by the echo chamber where media figures perpetuate abortion stigma.

Abortion stigma is the "shared understanding" that abortion is morally wrong or socially unacceptable. It shows up in all facets of popular culture but is especially dangerous when it taints news coverage of abortion stories.

Abortion Stigma Takes Many Forms

Abortion stigmatization can be incredibly obvious in right-wing media, where abortion is often referred to as sickening, "grizzly," unethical, and on par with terrorism, while abortion providers are smeared as villains and compared to Nazis. But some of the most insidious perpetuations of abortion stigma are subtly pushed by mainstream media, like in news stories about abortion laden with emotionally manipulative language and images, and in popular culture, such as our favorite TV shows and movies.

When news outlets use footage of extremely pregnant women and even babies to cover abortion stories, the viewer's focus shifts from the women seeking abortions to the contents of their wombs. Stock footage that cuts off the heads of women and shows only their bodies in later stages of pregnancy is particularly egregious. These images also offer a subtle nod to the anti-choice activists who want news consumers and voters to believe that the majority of women getting abortions are 40 weeks pregnant. But that could not be further from the truth. The vast majority of abortions - 90 percent - occur during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, when it's often not visible.

The media also help carry water for anti-choice activists when they squander opportunities to correct misinformation. In the past year alone, states have introduced 45 TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers), which are deceptive measures aimed at shutting down abortion providers by imposing medically unnecessary regulations under the guise of protecting women's health. TRAP laws include requirements for abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges and rules that clinics must be outfitted like ambulatory surgical centers - measures that are not only unnecessary, but that also impede abortion access and put women's health at risk by delaying or even preventing care. When the media report on these TRAP laws without acknowledging the medical community's consensus that these rules are medically unnecessary, they further promote abortion stigma by telling women that abortion is inherently unsafe and in need of regulation.

Hollywood Is Also Part of the Abortion Stigmatization Process in Media

Rush Limbaugh is wrong - Hollywood will not do "anything" to "normalize" and "promote" abortion. In fact, it's often the opposite. Abortion stigma shows up in other media as well, like when our favorite TV shows and movies depict abortion as anything other than a routine medical procedure. A recent study conducted by University of California, San Francisco sociologists Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport of TV stories from 1916 to 2013 explained that abortion in fictional shows is often linked to death for female characters - whether they obtain the procedure or not - perpetuating the false myth that abortion frequently causes death. In reality, pregnancy is a more frequent cause of death than is induced abortion. Another study by Sisson and Kimport identified how TV depictions of abortion contribute to misconceptions about who has abortions and why. In an interview with The Washington Post's Alyssa Rosenberg*, Sisson explained that characters who get abortions on TV tend to be wealthy, white teenagers who have never given birth before. She noted that while in reality, such women do get abortions, the depictions on aggregate underrepresent the Latina and black women who obtain abortions, and distort the reasons why they obtain them. When shows emphasize women obtaining abortions when they either don't want children, or want to prioritize their careers or education, and underrepresent women who make the choice due to financial pressures, health risks, or a need to focus on their other children, they create the "perception that abortion is a want rather than a need." And when they depict a disproportionate number of women obtaining abortions because the pregnancies were the result of rape or incest, they send the message that abortion is a legitimate choice only in those horrific circumstances.

Abortion Stigma Creates Space for Anti-Choice Activists and Extremists to Justify Violence

The year 2015 saw an uptick in the number of attacks against abortion providers over previous years, culminating in the deadly November shooting attack on a Colorado Planned Parenthood by a man who called himself a "warrior for the babies" and said he was trying to ensure that there were "no more baby parts." The phrase "baby parts" had been used repeatedly in cable news coverage about Planned Parenthood in the months prior to the attacks. The deadly attack on a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood affiliate came after an FBI Intelligence Assessment reportedly concluded, "it is likely criminal or suspicious incidents will continue to be directed against reproductive health care providers, their staff and facilities." And as Vox's Emily Crockett pointed out in November, "threats, vandalism, and violence against abortion providers and clinics have escalated since this summer," when the anti-abortion organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP), "released deceptively edited videos that accused Planned Parenthood of 'selling baby parts.'" CMP's smear campaign was bolstered by the conservative echo chamber and right-wing media, which obsessively aired and backed the organization's false claims that Planned Parenthood had committed crimes. The Colorado Springs shooter's vitriol bore remarkable resemblance to the deceptively edited smear videos. It serves as a tragic reminder of the violent repercussions of pervasive abortion stigma when anti-choice activists are able to capitalize on the conservative echo chamber.

At least five other Planned Parenthood facilities were attacked in 2015 since the release of CMP's first video in July (some reports from September 2015 indicated there may have been as many as nine criminal or suspicious incidents targeting the group). Before Colorado, clinics in Thousand Oaks, CA; Pullman, WA; Aurora, IL; and New Orleans, LA, experienced attacks that in some cases impeded clinic operations.

There is no definitive evidence tying a specific attack to a specific media report, but it is crucial to note that the incidents have occurred in the midst of a prevalent smear campaign against abortion providers that has been enabled in part by abortion stigma.

Attacks on reproductive rights don't occur in a vacuum. According to RH Reality Check, "A report released in February [2015] found that threats of harassment, intimidation, and violence against women's health clinics have doubled since 2010. Reproductive rights advocates have raised concerns that radical anti-choice activists have been emboldened by a wave of GOP legislative attacks on reproductive rights."

Abortion Stigma Is Used to Justify Laws That Close Down Abortion Providers

Legislative attacks by the GOP on reproductive rights are marshaled in by media figures perpetuating abortion stigma. According to a November 2015 report from NARAL Pro-Choice America, 22 states enacted 41 anti-choice measures in 2015. These measures included medically unnecessary TRAP laws, mandatory delays that force women to wait a certain period of time before obtaining an abortion, and laws barring abortion providers from receiving public funds.

This year there will be a landmark decision regarding abortion access when the US Supreme Court hears Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt. The case is expected to determine the constitutionality of a Texas anti-choice law that, if allowed to stand, will have far-reaching consequences involving the ability to access abortion. The law is both medically unnecessary and based on the myth that abortion is unsafe and requires extra regulations to protect women's health - a myth used to stigmatize abortion and shutter providers.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's previous decisions on abortion have already echoed stigmatizing language on abortion.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has repeatedly adopted one of the right-wing media's favorite stigmatizing anti-choice abortion myths. Slate notes that Justice Kennedy has exhibited a troubling pattern of using "language straight out of the anti-abortion movement's talking points," including floating the right-wing media myth that women "regret" their choice to have an abortion. Medical experts have repeatedly debunked the stigmatizing myth, explaining that the vast majority of women receiving abortions "felt it was the right decision." Amicus briefs have been submitted to the justices in the Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt case that were meant to combat the media-encouraged stigma and ensure that justices hear from women who say access to abortion care improved their lives.

Anti-choice laws have dire consequences for women and families, causing clinic closures and restricted access to services. Texas' anti-choice restrictions have already forced about half the state's clinics to close, and some estimates predict up to 75 percent of clinics could ultimately close as a result of the law. The closures would disproportionately harm low-income women in rural areas of the state and strand nearly 1 million women more than 150 miles from the nearest abortion provider. The Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP)interviewed a number of women whose access to abortion care was severely impeded as a result of Texas' anti-choice law, and found that women's health care "was delayed, and in some cases [women were] prevented altogether" from obtaining an abortion. Investigators noted that women not only "reported a lack of information and confusion" in the wake of clinic closures, but also that once they had located an affordable provider, many "faced substantial added travel and hotel costs when seeking abortion services." Experts have warned that the Texas law could actually place more women at risk, predicting that women are more likely to self-induce abortion "as clinic-based care becomes more difficult to access."

Abortion Stigma Should Have No Place in 2016

Abortion isn't scary, but the threat that these laws and anti-choice extremists pose to women's health and basic human rights is terrifying. Imagine a potentially imminent future where women are forced back into the margins of society, and expected to sacrifice their lives, jobs, and education because they no longer control their own bodies or decision to give birth - where miscarriages can become criminalized and the basis to investigate women for self-abortions. That future sounds alarmingly like the past, like a time when women were forced to take their health care into their own hands, and risk their lives to end unwanted or life-threatening pregnancies in the shadows. When women lose control over their reproductive health, they lose control over nearly every other aspect of their lives.

*Rosenberg is married to Media Matters Research Director Matt Gertz.

News Mon, 08 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Plan Colombia Has Been a Nightmare for Women

Six women were raped every hour in Colombia during the first nine years of Plan Colombia.

That figure was taken from a joint survey done by women's rights organizations, which include Oxfam and other Colombian based groups. The study also revealed that some 489,678 women were victims of some type of sexual violence, while 7,752 had been forced into prostitution between 2000-2009 - what were integral years for the controversial deal.

Plan Colombia is a counternarcotics and counterinsurgency military aid package launched in 2000 by then US President Bill Clinton. Over the last 15 years, it contributed military personnel and billions of dollars to help Colombia fight the drug trade and left-wing guerrillas which the government had been fighting with for decades.

However, according to human rights groups in the country, the deal has been a disaster.

"What we see is that drug trafficking was strengthened and there was a lot of repression, a lot of contamination of the environment, and the level of violation of human rights of Colombians increased," Nidia Quintero, general-secretary of the campesino rights group Fensuagro, told teleSUR.

As about three-fourths of Plan Colombia's aid money has gone toward funding the military and local police, the result has been mainly unfettered militarization of the country. This is true particularly in the first seven years of the plan, from 2000 to 2007, when US assistance would routinely exceed US $600 million per year, with over 80 percent of it going to the security forces, according to numbers by the Washington Office of Latin America.

This, added to the violence, deaths and forced disappearances that already existed in high numbers because of the ongoing civil war between the Colombian army, paramilitary troops and guerrilla fighters.

And according to Quintero, those who continue to bear the brunt of the burden is women.

Sexual Violence: The Spoils of War

Sexual violence against women in the country has not just been an unfortunate consequence of war, but rather a direct military strategy, according to human rights lawyer Milena Montoya.

"Raping a woman is a spoil of war," Montoya, who is also the secretary of the executive board for the human rights advocacy group Lazos de Dignidad (Ties of Unity), told teleSUR. "To violate a woman creates terror in other women. So, this has been one of those practices that military groups, the Colombian army as well as the US army, have implemented in order to keep the population submissive and living in terror."

For instance, according to a report commissioned by the Colombian government and the FARC, US soldiers and military contractors sexually abused at least 54 Colombian girls between 2003-2007. ​The problem is, they cannot be held accountable.

"There is abundant information about the sexual violence, which occurred under absolute impunity because of the bilateral agreements and the diplomatic immunity of United States officials," said Renan Vega of the Pedagogic University in Bogota, who helped write the report.

Montoya said this makes these soldiers "untouchable" and has allowed them to exercise and maintain "further abuse of power against women and children."

She added that the increase in forced prostitution also tended to happen around US military bases. These bases were generally established around poorer rural communities where there are very little work or study opportunities for women and youth.

Women's rights studies have shown that these kinds of controls have lead to long-term psychological effects on its victims, when the very people who are mandated to protect are the ones carrying out the crimes and civilians are left with no authorities to turn to for justice.

Destruction of the Family

But even more worrying to human rights workers on the ground is the total destruction of family life.

This has mainly resulted from the mass killings of men in their communities, leaving women as the sole breadwinners for their families, but also the mass destruction of coca crops, which has left thousands of rural campesinos without a livelihood and forced to move to find work.

The long-term psychological effects of these losses for women have been immense.

"Obviously, women are left with all the burden, the emotional weight after their nuclear family has been affected, but also the economic burden that they acquire while trying to sustain their family," said Quintero.

The majority of these consequences have been felt by women in poorer rural communities, which have also been some of the war's main conflict zones. According to Montoya, almost 30 to 40 percent of women in rural areas are alone with kids, "because (armed groups) killed their dad, their husbands, their sons."

"What other options do women have in their homes ... What option do they have in their communities? Nothing. There's no work, there's no opportunity for them to study," said the human rights lawyer.

It's situations like that force women into poverty, displace them because they must find work, or force them into labor situations such as prostitution, added Montoya.

However, aside from the violence, family connections have also been ruined due to the destruction of crops, which has drastically changed the livelihoods for thousands of farming communities. This component of Plan Colombia was done through fumigation and was intended to diminish drug consumption in the US by attacking producers and wiping out the supply.

The real result was that coca farmers in Colombia were targeted and their crops fumigated and destroyed, without helping them transition to other cash crops or means of income. Officials even failed to realize that coca has a variety of uses, including nutrition, medicine and cosmetics, but rather applied a blanket ban to the product.

Some studies have also shown that women who lived in these fumigated areas are at higher risk of getting breast cancer and cervical cancer, while men are at a higher risk of contracting prostate cancer, said Fensuagro's Quintero.

Seeing how fumigation destroys the environment and your livelihood, "brings emotional and psychological consequences," said Quintero. "This has really done a lot of damage to the Colombian population, as much as the armed conflict that the country has lived for so many years."

This approach can now be considered a complete failure. Cartels continue to thrive in the country. Colombia is still considered one of the top cocaine producers in the world. And the US is still one of its top consumers.

"It was a way to chase away the small producer, not really to provide solutions to end the drug trafficking," said Quintero, adding that Plan Colombia "directly affected farmers and their right to work, their right to life and their right to health, while it also affected the environment."

However, studies on the long term impact of Plan Colombia on rural communities are few and far between. According to Quintero, governments, including the current administration of President Juan Manuel Santos, have never made funding such studies a priority.

Moving Forward

Colombia will be undergoing many changes in the next months, with the government and the FARC guerrillas expected to sign a final peace agreement in March. But much work will need to be done post-agreement in order to achieve not only peace, but justice and reconciliation.

This includes rectifying the wrongs that have been committed over the past decades, like femicide, destroying communities and the psychological terror used against the civilian population by government forces and paramilitaries.

"The conflict arose because of structural issues, which are the social problems that we have in the country," said Montoya, many of which have only been exasperated throughout the years, not fixed.

To really achieve the necessary changes in the country for a lasting peace, significant investment is needed in long term social programs that are allowed to remain in communities for years - not military force and technology, said Montoya.

The campesino members of Fensuagro have made similar pleas from governments, both local and international, for Colombia's next steps.

Their plan is fourfold: invest more in studies to identify the long-term health and psychological impacts of Plan Colombia and the war; to recognize the women who have been victimized and begin a process of reconciliation; to find new ways to combat drug trafficking, which do not include targeting the producer; and helping coca farmers create alternative products with the plant that is commercially viable or transition into other economies.

Now, on the anniversary of the Plan Colombia's implementation, US and Colombian authorities are discussing a new deal, what has been dubbed Plan Colombia 2.0.

Let's hope it is nothing like the first one.

Opinion Mon, 08 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Why Is Cornell University Hosting a GMO Propaganda Campaign?

(Photo: Microbiology lab via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)(Photo: Microbiology Lab via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

The founders of Cornell University, Andrew D. White and Ezra Cornell, dreamed of creating a great university that took a radical approach to learning.

Their revolutionary spirit, and the promise to pursue knowledge for the greater good, is said to be at the heart of the Ivy League school their dream became.

It is difficult to understand how these ideals are served by a unit of Cornell operating as a public relations arm for the agrichemical industry.

Yet that is what seems to be going on at the Cornell Alliance for Science (CAS), a program launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a goal to "depolarize the charged debate" about GMOs.

A review of the group's materials and programs suggests that beneath its promise to "restore the importance of scientific evidence in decision making," CAS is promoting GMOs using dishonest messaging and PR tactics developed by agrichemical corporations with a long history of misleading the public about science.

Communicating Science or Propaganda?

CAS is a communications campaign devoted to promoting genetically engineered foods (also known as GMOs) around the world. This is made clear in the group's promotional video.

CAS Director Sarah Evanega, PhD, describes her group as a "communications-based nonprofit organization represented by scientists, farmers, NGOs, journalists and concerned citizens" who will use "interactive online platforms, multimedia resources and communication training programs to build a global movement to advocate for access to biotechnology."

In this way, they say they will help alleviate malnourishment and hunger in developing countries, according to the video.

Dr. Evanega said her group has no connections to industry and receives no resources from industry. "We do not write for industry, and we do not advocate for or promote industry-owned products," she wrote in a blog post titled "A Right to Be Known (Accurately)" in which she pushed back against criticisms from my group, US Right to Know.

Yet the flagship programs of CAS - a 12-week course for Global Leadership Fellows and two-day intensive communications courses - teach communication skills to people who are "committed to advocating for increased access to biotechnology" specifically so they can "lead advocacy efforts in their local contexts."

The group also has unusual dealings with journalists. What does it mean, as the CAS video states, that it is "represented by" journalists?

CAS offers journalism fellowships with cash awards for select journalists to "promote in-depth contextualized reporting" about issues related to food security, crop production, biotechnology and sustainable agricultural. Are these journalists also GMO advocates? How ethical is it for journalists to represent the policy positions of a pro-agrichemical-industry group?

Messaging for Corporate Interests

One thing is clear from the publicly available CAS messaging: the context they offer on the topic of genetically engineered foods is not in depth and comprehensive but rather highly selective and geared toward advancing the interests of the agrichemical industry.

For example, the video: Brimming with hope about the possibilities of GMOs to solve world hunger in the future, it ignores a large body of scientific research that has documented problems connected with GMOs - that herbicide-tolerant GMO crops have driven up the use of glyphosate, an herbicide linked to cancer by the world's leading cancer experts; and accelerated weed resistance on millions of acres of US farmland, which makes crop production harder for farmers, not easier.

There is no mention of the failure of GMO crops designed to ward off harmful insects, or the rising concerns of medical doctors about patterns of illness in places like Hawaii and Argentina where exposures are heaviest to the chemicals associated with GMOs.

There is no recognition that many scientists and food leaders have said GMOs are not a priority for feeding the world, a debate that is a key reason GMO crops have not been widely embraced outside of the United States and Latin America.

All these factors are relevant to the discussion about whether or not developing countries should embrace genetically engineered crops and foods. But CAS leaves aside these details and amplifies the false idea that the science is settled on the safety and necessity of GMOs.

Disseminating selective information of a biased or misleading nature to promote a particular agenda is known as the practice of propaganda.

Working From Industry's PR Playbook

The Cornell Alliance for Science was supposed to present "a new vision for biotechnology communications," yet the group relies on an established set of messages and communication tactics that are familiar to anyone who follows the PR campaigns of the agribusiness industry.

The report Spinning Food, which I co-authored with Kari Hamerschlag and Anna Lappé, documents how agribusiness and food industry funded groups are spending tens of millions of dollars a year to promote misleading messages about the safety and necessity of industrial-scale, chemical-intensive, genetically engineered agriculture.

The companies that profit most from this system - Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and other agrichemical giants - have repeatedly violated trust by misleading the public about science, as Gary Ruskin showed in his report "Seedy Business." So they rely on front groups and third-party allies such as scientists and professors to spread their messaging for them.

A core industry narrative is that the science on GMO safety is settled. Pro-industry messengers focus on possible future uses of the technology while downplaying, ignoring or denying the risks; make inaccurate claims about the level of scientific agreement on GMOs; and attack critics who raise concerns as "anti-science."

As one example, Mark Lynas, political director of CAS, wrote a New York Times op-ed accusing 17 European Union countries that banned GMO crop cultivation of "turning against science." He dubbed them the "coalition of the ignorant."

The article is heavy on attack and light on science, brushing over the topic with an inaccurate claim about a safety consensus that many scientists have disputed. As molecular geneticist Belinda Martineau, PhD, wrote in response to Lynas, "Making general claims about the safety of genetic engineering ... (is) unscientific, illogical and absurd."

The World Health Organization states, "it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods." Yet, while claiming to stand up for science, CAS routinely makes general - even outlandish - claims about GMO safety.

From the group's FAQ:

  • "You are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than be hurt by GE food - and that's not an exaggeration."
  • "GE crops currently available to the public pose no greater health risks or environmental concerns than their non-engineered counterparts. This is not opinion."

In fact, it is propaganda.

Battling Transparency in Science

In the spring of 2014, CAS launched a petition attacking my group US Right to Know for filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain the emails of publicly funded professors as part of our investigation into the food and agrichemical industries and their PR operations.

CAS called the FOIA requests a "witch hunt," yet documents obtained via these FOIA requests generated news stories in several top media outlets about academics who were working with industry PR operatives on campaigns to promote GMOs without disclosing those ties to the public.

The story broke in a front-page New York Times article by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton, who explained how Monsanto, facing consumer skepticism about GMOs, "retooled their lobbying and public relations strategy to spotlight a rarefied group of advocates: academics, brought in for the gloss of impartiality and weight of authority that come with a professor's pedigree."

In one case, reported by Laura Krantz in the Boston Globe, a Monsanto executive told Harvard professor Calestous Juma to write a paper about how GMOs are needed to feed Africa.

"Monsanto not only suggested the topic to professor Calestous Juma. It went so far as to provide a summary of what the paper could say and a suggested headline. The company then connected the professor with a marketing company to pump it out over the Internet as part of Monsanto's strategy to win over the public and lawmakers," Krantz wrote.

Juma said he took no money from Monsanto but noted he has received funding from the Gates Foundation, which has been partnering with Monsanto for years on pro-GMO projects after Rob Horsch, Monsanto's veteran top executive for international development, joined the Foundation in 2006. Horsch now leads Gates' agricultural research and development team.

A 2014 analysis by the research group GRAIN found that most of the $3 billion spent by Gates Foundation to feed the poor in Africa went to wealthy nations. A new report by Global Justice Now makes the case that Gates Foundation strategies, especially on agriculture, are exacerbating global inequality and entrenching corporate power globally.

The public has a right to know if academics posing as independent sources are working behind the scenes with corporations and their PR firms on coordinated messaging campaigns to push a corporate agenda.

CAS takes the position in its petition that the public doesn't have a right to know about the ties between industry PR operatives and 14 public scientists who have "contributed to the scientific consensus about the safety of GMOs."

The Cornell petition is accompanied by a photo montage featuring Carl Sagan, Madame Curie, Albert Einstein and other deceased scientists who have not signed the petition, stamped with the slogan, "I stand with the #Science14" - a bit of PR flair that mirrors the dishonest propaganda used to oppose GMO labeling.

Aligning With Industry PR Writers

At an esteemed institution like Cornell, you might expect to find experts in science or ethics teaching communication courses that promise to restore scientific integrity to public discourse. Instead, at CAS, you will find experts in crisis management communication who specialize in opposing public health regulations.

For example, Trevor Butterworth, a visiting fellow at Cornell and director of Sense About Science (which describes itself as a "non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for sense about science!") is partnering with CAS to teach students and scientists how to communicate with journalists about GMOs.

Butterworth has a long history of communicating science for the benefit of corporations wishing to keep their products unregulated. A 2009 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article by Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust about industry lobbying efforts on bisphenol A (BPA) identified him as a "chemical industry public relations writer."

As an editor of STATS at George Mason University, Butterworth was a prolific defender of BPA who "regularly combs the Internet for stories about BPA and offers comments without revealing his ties to industry," Kissinger and Rust wrote.

"STATS claims to be independent and nonpartisan. But a review of its financial reports shows it is a branch of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. That group was paid by the tobacco industry to monitor news stories about the dangers of tobacco." (The tobacco industry, they noted, was lobbying alongside the chemical industry to keep BPA unregulated.)

Butterworth has also promoted industry positions arguing against regulations for vinyl plastic and phthalates, fracking, high fructose corn syrup and sugary sodas.

He now partners with CAS to teach students how to communicate about GMOs, and CAS political director Lynas sits on the advisory board of Sense About Science.

Lynas' work raises more questions: Why does a science group need a political director? And why would CAS choose Lynas for the role? Lynas is not a scientist but an environmental writer who rose to sudden fame after embracing GMOs, and his science has been critiqued at length by scientists, reporters and professors.

Depolarizing the GMO Debate?

Corporations have been known to deploy outrageous messaging when their products run into trouble; examples include "DDT is good for me," "More doctors smoke Camels" and the Dutch Boy campaign to promote lead paint to children.

A low point for chemical industry messaging was its PR campaign to paint Silent Spring author Rachel Carson (and environmentalists in general) as murderers of millions of children in Africa for raising concerns about DDT. That sort of messaging is making a comeback in the GMO debate.

In September 2015, the CAS Speakers Series hosted Owen Paterson, a Conservative Member of the UK Parliament, for a talk titled, "Check Your Green Privilege: It's Not Environmentally Friendly to Allow Millions to Die."

Paterson's speech was filled with hyperbolic claims about GMOs that lack scientific rigor - like the one that GMOs "are in fact safer than conventionally bred crops ... one of the most environmentally friendly advances this world has ever seen ... can save millions of lives that today are squandered by the ideology of massively supported environmental campaign groups."

The speech garnered praise from the American Council on Science and Health, a well-known industry front group, in a blog by Dr. Gil Ross titled, "Billion Dollar Green Campaigns Kill Poor Children."

Ross explained in the blog that the CAS Speakers Series was created, "to use facts to counter the perceived tendency of college students to follow the environmentalist mantra without too much thought ... the concept of being afraid of genetic engineering is akin to looking under the bed for hobgoblins such as Godzilla, awakened by the atomic tests of the Cold War."

Paterson and Ross are unhelpful to the image of scientific integrity CAS is trying to project. Ross is a convicted felon who spent time in jail for Medicaid fraud. Paterson, a former UK environment secretary, is widely seen as a climate change skeptic whose views are incompatible with science.

How Are Bloggers in Hawaii Helping Feed the Poor in Africa?

With its year round growing season, the Hawaiian Islands are an important testing ground for GMOs. They are also ground zero for concerns about pesticides associated with GMOs, and a key focus of industry's pro-GMO propaganda campaigns and allies such as CAS.

Elif Bealle, executive director of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, has been active in grassroots efforts for pesticide reporting, bans and pesticide buffer zones around GMO crops. She has also been keeping an eye on CAS, which she said has been recruiting local bloggers and has associates on several of the Islands.

"They present themselves as 'just concerned local residents' or 'neutral journalists.' They are almost full time commenting on online newspaper articles, submitting, Community Voice Op-Eds, etc. Their blog posts are regularly picked up and disseminated by the biotech trade group website in Hawaii, the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association," Bealle said.

For example, Joni Kamiya, a CAS Global Leadership Fellow, uses her blog, Hawaii Farmer's Daughter, to promote the "safety and science" of GMOs with messaging that glosses over science and disparages GMO critics.

Kamiya is also an "independent expert" for GMO Answers, a GMO PR website created by Ketchum PR firm and funded by agrichemical companies. Her articles are posted on Jon Entine's Genetic Literacy Project, which was also tapped to publish the GMO promotion papers assigned by Monsanto and written by professors.

Kamiya also writes for the Kauai Farming and Jobs Coalition, a group with unknown funding that claims to "represent a wide range of individuals and organizations in our community" and promotes the Genetic Literacy Project and other food industry front groups such as the Center for Consumer Freedom.

Other CAS allies in the Islands include Lorie Farrell, a CAS associate who writes for GMO Answers and helped coordinate opposition to the GMO cultivation ban on the Big Island for Hawaii Farmers and Ranchers United; and Joan Conrow, who has a consulting contract with Cornell and writes the confrontational blog Kauai Eclectic.

Their messaging follows a typical pattern: they claim a scientific consensus on GMO safety and attack people calling for transparency and safety as outsiders who are killing the "Aloha spirit" of the Islands.

Arming the Conflict

In his article, 'The War on Genetically Modified Food Critics', Tufts Professor Timothy Wise takes the media to task for falling for industry PR tactics and incorrectly reporting the science on GMO as "settled."

"What we're seeing is a concerted campaign to ... paint GMO critics as anti-science while offering no serious discussion of the scientific controversy that still rages," Wise wrote. One indicator of that campaign, he said, was the Gates Foundation award to Cornell to "depolarize" the debate over GM foods.

"The Gates Foundation is paying biotech scientists and advocates at Cornell to help them convince the ignorant and brainwashed public, who 'may not be well informed,' that they are ignorant and brainwashed ... It's kind of like depolarizing an armed conflict by giving one side more weapons," Wise wrote.

Instead of arming the PR wars in service of industry, Cornell University should stand up for science by convening a more honest discussion about GMOs - one that acknowledges the risks as well as the benefits of genetically engineered foods.

One that refrains from attacking and instead seeks common ground with groups calling for transparency and health and safety standards.

CAS Director Dr. Evanega said her group does share common values around right to know and access to information, and she disputes the notion that CAS was formed to promote GMOs.

"So-called 'GMOs' are not a monolithic thing," Dr. Evanega wrote in her blog. "For example, it makes no sense to cluster together such diverse technologies as bacteria engineered to produce insulin and papaya engineered to resist a virus. We support access - to innovation and the information that will help people make sound decisions based on science and evidence - not fear, emotions."

Certainly GMOs are not a monolithic thing. That's exactly why it is inaccurate and dishonest to claim that people are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than to be harmed by GMOs.

A science alliance that truly is about restoring integrity to science should illuminate a comprehensive record of research, not parrot the talking points of PR firms and corporate players.

News Mon, 08 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500