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    America's Addiction to Torture

    Truthout - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 12:09

    Masked Guantánamo protesters kneel during the Democratic National Convention August 25, 2008, in Denver. (Photo via Shutterstock)

    State-sanctioned torture is not just a US export; it's part of a long history of domestic terrorism. We must connect the dots between the same lawlessness and culture that subjects foreign nationals to brutal violence, and provides immunity for killer cops at home.

    Masked Guantánamo protesters kneel during the Democratic National Convention August 25, 2008, in Denver. (Photo via Shutterstock)

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    The United States is addicted to torture. Not only does this savage addiction run through its history like an overheated electric current, but it has become intensified as part of a broader national psychosis of fear, war and violence. A post 9/11 obsession with security and revenge has buttressed a militarized culture in which violence becomes a first principle, an essential need, whether in the guise of a national sport, mode of entertainment or celebrated ideal.

    Foreign and domestic violence now mediate everyday relations and the United States' connection to the larger world. As such, terror, fear, war and torture, become normalized, and the work of dehumanization takes its toll on the US public as more and more people not only become numb to the horror of torture but begin to live in a state of moral stupor, a coma that relegates morality to the dustbin of history. How else to explain recent polls indicating that 58 percent of the US public believe that torture under certain circumstances can be justified, and that 59 percent think that the CIA's brutal torture methods produced crucial information that helped prevent future attacks?

    There is more at stake here than manufactured ignorance and an unconscionable flight from the truth. There is also a dangerous escape from justice, morality and the most basic principles central to a democratic society. The celebration of brutality, spectacles of violence and the affirmation of torture suggests that in a market-driven society with its unchecked individualism, sheer Darwinism and refusal to think about social costs or, for that matter, any notion of the public good, the addiction to cruelty, violence and torture becomes less difficult and almost too easy. In the age of disposability and despicable gaps in wealth, income and power, modern terror becomes normalized and points to the onslaught of a mode of totalitarianism that is more than an ephemeral moment in history. Violence is no longer marginal to American life; it is the foundation that now drives it. As Lawrence Wittner recently observed:

    When it comes to violence and preparations for violence, the United States is, indeed, No. 1. In 2013, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. government accounted for 37 percent of world military expenditures, putting it far ahead of all other nations. (The two closest competitors, China and Russia, accounted for 11 percent and 5 percent respectively.) From 2004 to 2013, the United States was also the No. 1 weapons exporter in the world. Moreover, given the U.S. government's almost continuous series of wars and acts of military intervention since 1941, it seems likely that it surpasses all rivals when it comes to international violence.

    With the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report on the CIA's use of torture, it becomes clear that in the aftermath of the loathsome terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States entered into a new and barbarous stage in its history, one in which acts of violence and moral depravity were not only embraced but celebrated. (1) Certainly, this is not to suggest that the United States had not engaged in criminal and lawless acts historically or committed acts of brutality that would rightly be labeled acts of torture.

    That much about our history is clear and includes not only the support and participation in acts of indiscriminate violence and torture practiced through and with the right-wing Latin American dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil in the 1970s but also through the willful murder and torture of civilians in Vietnam, Iraq, and later at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan. The United States is no stranger to torture, nor is it free of complicity in aiding other countries notorious for their abuses of human rights. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman reminded us by taking us as far back as 1979 that of the "35 countries using torture on an administrative basis in the late 1970s, 26 were clients of the United States." (2)

    Officially sanctioned torture was never discussed as a legitimate concern; but, as indicated by a few well-documented accounts, it seems to be as American as apple pie.

    In fact, the United States has a long record of inflicting torture on others, both at home and abroad, although it has never admitted to such acts. Instead, the official response has been to deny this history or do everything to hide such monstrous acts from public view through government censorship, appealing to the state secrecy principle or deploying a language that buried narratives of extraordinary cruelty in harmless sounding euphemisms. For example, the benign sounding CIA "Phoenix Program" in South Vietnam resulted in the deaths of over 21,000 Vietnamese. (3) As Carl Boggs argues, the acts of US barbarism in Vietnam appeared both unrestrained and never ending, with routinized brutality such as throwing people out of planes labeled as "flying lessons" or "half a helicopter ride," (4) while tying a field telephone wire around a man's testicles and ringing it up was a practice called "the Bell Telephone Hour." (5) Officially sanctioned torture was never discussed as a legitimate concern; but, as indicated by a few well-documented accounts, it seems to be as American as apple pie. (6)

    Torture for the United States is not merely a foreign export; it is also part of a long history of domestic terrorism as was evident in the attempts on the part of the FBI, working under a secret program called COINTELPRO, designed to assassinate those considered domestic and foreign enemies. (7) COINTELPRO was about more than spying; it was a legally sanctioned machinery of violence and assassination. (8)

    Read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project.

    In one of the most notorious cases, the FBI worked with the Chicago Police Department to set up the conditions for the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, two members of the Black Panther Party. Noam Chomsky has called COINTELPRO, which went on from the 1950s to the 1970s, when it was stopped, "the worst systematic and extended violation of basic civil rights by the federal government," and said it "compares with Wilson's Red Scare." (9) What characterized these programs of foreign and domestic terrorism was that they were all shrouded in secrecy and allegedly were conducted in the name of democratic rights.

    Torture also has a longstanding presence domestically, particularly as part of the brutalized practices that have shaped US chattel slavery through to its most recent "peculiar institution," the rapidly expanding prison-industrial complex. (10) The racial disparities in US prisons and the criminal justice system register the profound injustice of racial discrimination as well as a sordid expression of racist violence. As the novelist Ishmael Reed contends, this is a prison system "that is rotten to the core . . . where torture and rape are regular occurrences and where in some states the conditions are worse than at Gitmo. California prison hospitals are so bad that they have been declared unconstitutional and a form of torture." (11)

    After 9/11, the United States slipped into a moral coma as President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney worked tirelessly to ensure that the United States would not be constrained by international prohibitions against cruel and inhumane treatment.

    One of the more recently publicized cases of prison torture involved the arrest of a former Chicago police commander, Jon Burge. He was charged with routinely torturing as many as 200 prisoners, mostly African-Americans, during police interrogations in the 1970s and 1980s, "in order to force them to falsely confess to crimes they did not commit." (12) One report claims that many of these men were beaten with telephone books and that "cattle prods were used to administer electric shocks to victims' genitals. They were suffocated, beaten and burned, and had guns forced into their mouths. They faced mock executions with shotguns. . . . One tactic used was known as 'the Vietnam treatment,' presumably started by Burge, a Vietnam veteran." (13) The filmmaker Deborah Davis has documented a number of incidents in the 1990s that amount to the unequivocal torture of prisoners and has argued that many of the sadistic practices she witnessed taking place in the US prison system were simply exported to Abu Ghraib.

    After 9/11, the United States slipped into a moral coma as President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney worked tirelessly to ensure that the United States would not be constrained by international prohibitions against cruel and inhumane treatment. They furthered that project not only by making torture, as Mark Danner argues, "a marker of political commitment" but also by constructing a vast secret and illegal apparatus of violence in which, under the cover of national security, alleged "terrorists" could be kidnapped, made to disappear into secret CIA "black sites," become ghost detainees removed from any vestige of legality, or be secretly abducted and sent to other countries to be tortured. As Jane Mayer puts it,

    the lawyers also authorized other previously illegal practices, including the secret capture and indefinite detention of suspects without charges. Simply by designating the suspects "enemy combatants," the President could suspend the ancient writ of habeas corpus that guarantees a person the right to challenge his imprisonment in front of a fair and independent authority. Once in U.S. custody, the President's lawyers said, these suspects could be held incommunicado, hidden from their families and international monitors such as the Red Cross, and subjected to unending abuse, so long as it didn't meet the lawyer's own definition of torture. And they could be held for the duration of the war against terrorism, a struggle in which victory had never been clearly defined. (14)

    The maiming and breaking of bodies and the forms of unimaginable pain inflicted by the Bush administration on so-called enemy combatants was no longer seen in violation of either international human rights or a constitutional commitment to democratic ideals. The war on terror had now reduced governance in the United States to a legalized apparatus of terror that mimicked the very violence it was meant to combat. In the aftermath of 9/11, under the leadership of Bush and his close neoconservative band of merry criminal advisers, justice took a leave of absence and the "gloves came off." As Mark Danner states, "the United States transformed itself from a country that, officially at least, condemned torture to a country that practiced it." (15)

    But it did more. Under the Bush-Cheney reign of power, torture was embraced in unprecedented ways through a no-holds-barred approach to the war on terror that suggested the administration's need to exhibit a kind of ethical and psychic hardening - a hyper-masculine, emotional callousness that expressed itself in a warped militaristic mindset fueled by a high testosterone quotient. State secrecy and war crimes now became the only tributes paid to democracy. The latter is particularly evident in Cheney's morally irresponsible if not depraved response to the Senate report in which he stated, "I think that what needed to be done was done. I think we were perfectly justified in doing it and I'd do it again in a minute." (16)

    The interrogations were considered so inhumane and cruel by some CIA officers that they threatened to transfer to other departments if the brutal interrogations continued.

    Cheney went so far on NBC's "Meet the Press" to deny that waterboarding and related interrogation tactics were torture. In Cheney's dark world, there are no mistakes as long as the ends justify the means. "Asked again whether he was satisfied with a program that erroneously locked up detainees, he replied, 'I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.'" (17) This is the barbarous discourse of willful denial reminiscent of statements provided by other war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann and Pol Pot who also denied that their actions were a violation of human rights, barbaric, and sanctioned human suffering. Hopefully, Cheney's admission that he sanctioned and engineered the CIA to torture people will be repeated again in a court of law in which he is charged as a war criminal.

    As Frank Rich once argued and the Senate Intelligence Committee report confirms, "[T]orture was a premeditated policy approved at our government's highest levels . . . psychologists and physicians were enlisted as collaborators in inflicting pain; and . . . in the assessment of reliable sources like the FBI director Robert Mueller, it did not help disrupt any terrorist attacks." (18) When the torture memos of 2002 and 2005 were eventually made public by the Obama administration, clearly implicating the Bush-Cheney regime in torture, they revealed that the United States had been turned into a globalized torture state. (19) Conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan went so far as to claim that "If you want to know how democracies die, read these memos." (20)

    The memos, written by government lawyers John Yoo, Steven Bradbury and Jay Bybee, allowed the CIA under the Bush administration to torture al-Qaeda detainees held at Guantánamo and other secret detention centers around the world. They also offered detailed instructions on how to implement 10 techniques prohibited in the Army Field Manual, including facial slaps, "use of a plastic neck collar to slam suspects into a specially-built wall," (21) sleep deprivation, cramped confinement in small boxes, use of insects in confined boxes, stress positions and waterboarding. All of this and more are now documented in the Senate report. In fact, the report claims that current disclosures about the practice of torture used by the CIA were more brutal and less effective than previously reported.

    Waterboarding, which has been condemned by democracies all over the world, consists of the individual being "bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual's feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner [and] produces the perception of 'suffocation and incipient panic.'" (22) The highly detailed, amoral nature in which these abuses were first defined and endorsed by lawyers from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) was not only chilling but also reminiscent of the harsh and ethically deprived instrumentalism used by those technicians of death in criminal states such as Nazi Germany. Andy Worthington suggests that there is more than a hint of brutalization and dehumanization in the language used by the OLC's principal deputy assistant attorney general, Steven G. Bradbury, who wrote a detailed memo recommending:

    "nudity, dietary manipulation and sleep deprivation" - now revealed explicitly as not just keeping a prisoner awake, but hanging him, naked except for a diaper, by a chain attached to shackles around his wrists - [as,] essentially, techniques that produce insignificant and transient discomfort. We are, for example, breezily told that caloric intake "will always be set at or above 1,000 kcal/day," and are encouraged to compare this enforced starvation with "several commercial weight-loss programs in the United States which involve similar or even greater reductions in calorific intake" . . . and when it comes to waterboarding, Bradbury clinically confirms that it can be used 12 times a day over five days in a period of a month - a total of 60 times for a technique that is so horrible that one application is supposed to have even the most hardened terrorist literally gagging to tell all. (23)

    The New York Times claimed in an editorial "that to read the . . . four memos on prisoner interrogation written by George W. Bush's Justice Department is to take a journey into depravity." (24) The editorial was particularly incensed over a passage written by Jay Bybee, who was an assistant attorney general in the Bush administration at the time. As The Times then pointed out, Bybee "wrote admiringly about a contraption for waterboarding that would lurch a prisoner upright if he stopped breathing while water was poured over his face. He praised the Central Intelligence Agency for having doctors ready to perform an emergency tracheotomy if necessary." (25)

    Bybee's memo is particularly disturbing, even repugnant, in its disregard for human rights, human dignity and democratic values, not only describing how the mechanics of waterboarding should be implemented but also providing detailed analysis for introducing insects into confined boxes that held suspected terrorist prisoners. In light of mounting criticism, Bybee both defended his support of such severe interrogation tactics and further argued that "the memorandums represented 'a good faith analysis of the law' that properly defined the thin line between harsh treatment and torture." (26) Indeed, it seems that Bybee should have looked carefully at the following judgment pronounced by the US court in Nuremberg to the lawyers and jurists who rewrote the law for the Nazi regime: "You destroyed law and justice in Germany utilizing the empty forms of the legal process." (27)

    As brutal as the revelations revealed in the memos proved to be, the Senate report on torture goes even further in documenting the millions of dollars spent on black sites, the amateurish qualifications of people to even conduct interrogations, the complicity of unqualified psychologists who milked the government for $81 million to develop torture techniques, and the endless lies produced by both the CIA and the Bush-Cheney administration regarding everything from the use of secret prisons established all over the world to the false claims that the use of torture was responsible for providing information that led to the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden by members of the Navy SEALs. (28) The report also stated that far more people were waterboarded than was first disclosed and that the sessions amounted to extreme acts of cruelty. Some members of the CIA choked up over the cruel nature of the interrogations and sent memos to Langley calling their legality into question, but were told by higher officials to continue with the practice. In fact, the interrogations were considered so inhumane and cruel by some CIA officers that they threatened to transfer to other departments if the brutal interrogations continued.

    The rhetorical gymnastics used by the torture squad are designed to make the US public believe that if you refer to torture by some seemingly innocuous name then the pain and suffering it causes will suddenly disappear.

    The United States was condemned all over the world for its support of torture and that condemnation, hopefully, will take place once again in light of the report. Fortunately, President Obama, when he came to office, outlawed the most egregious acts practiced by the professional torturers of the Bush-Cheney regime. Yet undercurrents of authoritarianism die hard in the circles of unaccountable power. The Senate report makes clear that the CIA engaged in lies, distortions and horrendous violations of human rights, including waterboarding and other sordid practices. The report also reveals that the CIA used monstrous methods such as forced rectal feeding, dragging hooded detainees "up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched" and threatening to kill or rape family members of the prisoners.

    In spite of the appalling evidence presented by the report, members of the old Bush crowd, including former Vice President Cheney, former CIA directors, George J. Tenet and Michael V. Hayden, and an endless number of prominent Republican Party politicians, are still defending the United States' use of torture or, as they euphemistically contend, "enhanced interrogation techniques." The psychopathic undercurrent and the authoritarian impulse of such reactions finds its most instructive expression in former Bush communications chief Nicolle Wallace who while appearing on the "Morning Joe" show screeched in response to the revelations of the Senate report, "I don't care what we did."

    As Elias Isquith, a writer for Salon, contends, as "grotesque as that was, though, the really scary part was [the implication that] . . . waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions and sexual assault is part of what makes America 'great.'" (29) Wallace's comments are more than morally repugnant. Wallace embodies the stance of so many other war criminals who were either indifferent to the massive suffering and deaths they caused or actually took pride in their actions. They are the bureaucrats whose thoughtlessness and moral depravity Hannah Arendt identified as the rear guard of totalitarianism.

    Illegal legalities, moral depravity and mad violence are now wrapped in the vocabulary of Orwellian doublethink. For instance, the rhetorical gymnastics used by the torture squad are designed to make the US public believe that if you refer to torture by some seemingly innocuous name then the pain and suffering it causes will suddenly disappear. (30) The latter represents not just the discourse of magical thinking but a refusal to recognize that "If cruelty is the worst thing that humans do to each other, torture [is] the most extreme expression of human cruelty." (31) These apostles of torture are politicians who thrive in some sick zone of political and social abandonment, and who unapologetically further acts of barbarism, fear, willful lies and moral depravity.

    They are the new totalitarians who hate democracy, embrace a punishing state and believe that politics is mostly an extension of war. They are the thoughtless gangsters reminiscent of the monsters who made fascism possible at another time in history. For them, torture is an instrument of fear, one sordid strategy and element in a war on terror that attempts to expand governmental power and put into play a vast (il)legal and repressive apparatus that expands the field of violence and the technologies, knowledge and institutions central to fighting the all-encompassing war on terror. Americans now live under a government in which the doctrine of permanent warfare is legitimated through a state of emergency deeply rooted in a mass psychology of violence and culture of cruelty that are essential to transforming a government of laws into a regime of lawlessness.

    The Senate report has brought one of the darkest sides of humanity to light and it has sparked a predictable outrage and public condemnation.

    Once the authoritarian side of political governance takes hold, it is hard to eradicate. Power is addictive, especially when it is reckless and offers personal rewards from those who have capital, benefit from human misery and are more than willing to reward politicians who follow the corporate script. Witness the support by a number of Republicans who still support the practice of torture and deny the legitimacy of the Senate report. Ignoring that torture is an element of power that is built on what can be rightly termed a willed amorality, they attack the Senate report not for its content but because they believe its release will anger the alleged enemies of the United States, as if that hasn't already been done through a range of savage military practices or diplomatic acts. Or they argue that the Senate report is simply an attempt to embarrass the Bush-Cheney administration.

    Civility has not been the strong point of a party that is overtly racist, hates immigrants, shuts down the government and caters to every whim of the financial elite. Moreover, we don't alienate our enemies; we create them by threatening to bomb them, encircling them with nuclear weapons, demonizing Muslims, torturing them and killing them through indiscriminate drone strikes that mostly kill civilians. Principles are not being defended in these arguments, only the kind of raw, naked power that has come to mark authoritarian regimes. It gets worse. The defenders of the globalized torture state are not simply confused or morally damaged; they are wedded to a finance state and the corporate machinery of social, cultural and political violence that will provide them with lucrative jobs once they finish the bidding of defense contractors and other elements of the finance and warfare state.

    To his credit, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), himself a victim of torture during the Vietnam War, broke with the moral dinosaurs in his party and, in defending the release of the Senate report, insisted that the CIA's use of torture during the Bush-Cheney years "stained our national honor, did much harm, and little practical good." Most of his colleagues disagree and are now arguing that in spite of the evidence, torture produced actionable intelligence and helped to save lives, a claim the Senate report strongly negates. Once again, empirical utility trumps the levers of justice and the principles of human rights as moral considerations give way to a kind of ghastly death-embracing dance with a debased instrumental rationality.

    Not only has the United States lost its moral compass, but it has degenerated into a state of political darkness reminiscent of older dictatorships that maimed human bodies and inflicted unspeakable acts of violence on the innocent, while embracing a mad war-like utility and pragmatism in order to remove themselves from any sense of justice, compassion and reason. This is the formative culture not simply of a society that is ethically lost, but one that produces a society that willingly becomes complicitous with the savage ethos and beliefs of an updated totalitarianism. The Senate report has brought one of the darkest sides of humanity to light and it has sparked a predictable outrage and public condemnation. Thus far, little has been said about either the conditions that made this journey into the dark side possible, or what moral, political and educational absences had to occur in the collective psyche of both the US public and government that not only sanctioned torture but allowed it to happen. What made it so easy for the barbarians not only to implement acts of torture but to openly defend such practices as a sanctioned government policy?

    With the release of the report, the supine US press finally has to acknowledge that the United States had joined with other totalitarian countries of the past in committing atrocities completely alien to any functioning democracy. The United States is no longer even a weak democracy. The lie is now more visible than ever. Nonetheless, the usual crowd of politicians, pundits and mainstream media not only have little to say about the history of torture committed by the United States at home and abroad, but also about their own silence, if not complicity, in this dark side of US history. The possibility of a politically and morally charged critique has turned into a cowardly and evasive debate around questions such as: Does torture prevent terrorist acts from taking place? Is waterboarding really an act of torture? Is torture justified in the face of extremist attacks on the United States? Is the CIA being scapegoated for actions promoted by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld crowd? And so it goes. These are the wrong questions and reveal the toxic complicity the mainstream press has had all along with such anti-democratic practices. War crimes should not be debated; they should be condemned without qualification.

    For a society to treat torture as a reasonable practice worthy of informed debate reveals a cancer deeply embedded in the American social and political psyche.

    In an incredible act of bad faith, those responsible for state-sanctioned acts of torture are now interviewed by the mainstream media and presented, if not portrayed, as reasonable men with honorable intentions. Rather than being condemned as agents of a totalitarian state and as war criminals who should be prosecuted, those who both gave the orders to torture and those who carried out such inhuman practices are treated as one side of a debate team, anxious to get the real story out in order to provide the other side of the narrative. There is more than a hint of moral depravity here; there is also what I have called elsewhere the violence of organized forgetting.

    Torture is not about the cowardly appeal to balance. The only reasonable approach any democracy can take toward torture is both to condemn it and to prosecute those responsible for it as well as those who practice it. In this case, that would include the highest elected officials such as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, members of the CIA, the subcontractors who tortured and all those others who engaged in such despicable acts such as hanging people upside down, raping them rectally, subjecting them to freezing temperatures while chained to a floor, and in some cases killing them.

    For a society to treat torture as a reasonable practice worthy of informed debate reveals a cancer deeply embedded in the American social and political psyche, partly produced by the carcinogenic culture of the mainstream media, the spectacle of violence and unchecked militarism of US society, and those commanding cultural apparatuses that believe that the only value that matters is rooted in acts of commerce and the accumulation of capital at any cost. Ideas matter; education matters; morality matters and justice matters in a democracy. People who hold power in the United States should be held accountable for the actions they take, especially when they violate all decent standards of human rights.

    Maybe it is time to treat the Senate torture report as just one register of a series of crimes being committed under the regime of a savage neoliberalism. After all, an economic policy that views ethics as a liability, disdains the public good and enshrines self-interest as the highest of virtues provides a petri dish not just for state-sanctioned torture abroad but also for a range of lawless and cruel policies at home. Maybe it's time to connect the dots between the government's use of waterboarding and a history that includes the killing of Bobby Hampton, a Black Panther, by the Chicago police, the illegal existence of COINTELPRO, the savage brutality of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, (32) the rise of the post-Orwellian surveillance state, the militarization of the local police, the transformation of underserved US cities into war zones, the creation of Obama's kill list, the use of drones that indiscriminately execute people, and the recent killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of militarized police forces that now act with impunity. (33)

    Is it not reasonable to argue that the lawlessness that creates the torture state and provides immunity for killer cops also provides protection for those in the government and CIA who put into play the tentacles of the globalized torture state? Is it too far-fetched to argue that Eric Garner's utterance, "I can't breathe, I can't breathe," is a reminder of the many foreign nationals under the control of the torture state who might have uttered the same words as they were being tortured? Connect these dots and there is more at play here than retreat into a facile high moralism that condemns torture as a "stain on our values." Instead, what becomes evident is that torture has become symptomatic of something much larger than an errant plunge into immorality and lawlessness, and begins to reveal a more systemic rush into what Robert Jay Lifton has described as "a death-saturated age" (34) in which matters of violence, survival and trauma inescapably bear down on daily experience while pushing the United States into the dark recesses of a new authoritarianism. The mad and naked horror of torture has now become normalized rather than thought to be unimaginable, just as radical evil fails to provoke moral outrage and degenerates into the fog of everyday banality. The Senate report reveals only one moment in an endless upsurge of lawlessness that has come to characterize the United States' long, slow plunge into totalitarianism. Americans now inhabit a society where the delete button holds sway and the ethical imagination withers. And what is being erased is not only any vestige of a sense of commitment, but public and historical memory and the foundations of any viable notion of justice, equality and accountability. That is the story that needs to be told.

    There is another story to be told about another kind of torture, one that is more capacious and seemingly more abstract but just as deadly in its destruction of human life, justice and democracy. This is a mode of torture that resembles the "mind virus" mentioned in the Senate report, one that induces fear and paralysis, and produces the toxic formative culture that characterizes the reign of neoliberalism. Isolation, privatization and the cold logic of instrumental rationality have created a new kind of social formation and social order in which it becomes difficult to form communal bonds, deep connections, a sense of intimacy and long-term commitments. Neoliberalism has created a society of monsters for whom pain and suffering are viewed as entertainment or deserving of scorn, warfare is a permanent state of existence, torture becomes a matter of expediency, and militarism is celebrated as the most powerful mediator of human relationships.

    Under the reign of neoliberalism, politics has taken an exit from ethics and thus the issue of social costs is divorced from any form of intervention in the world. These are the ideological metrics of political zombies. The key word here is atomization and it is the curse of both neoliberal societies and democracy itself. A radical democracy demands a notion of educated hope capable of energizing a generation of young people and others who connect the torture state to the violence and criminality of an economic system that celebrates its own depravities. It demands a social movement unwilling to abide by technological fixes or cheap reforms. It demands a new politics for which the word revolution means going to the root of the problem and addressing it non-violently with dignity, civic courage and the refusal to accept a future that mimics the present. Torture is not just a matter of policy; it is an addiction, a deadening mindset, a point of identification, a form of moral paralysis, a war crime, an element of the spectacle of violence, and it must be challenged in all of its dreadful registers.

    This is a revised and updated version of an article previously published in CounterPunch.

    Footnotes

    1. The report can be found here: http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/study2014/sscistudy1.pdf.

    2. Cited in Edward S. Herman, "Folks Out There Have a 'Distaste of Western Civilization and Cultural Values,'" Center for Research on Globalization (September 15, 2001). Online: http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/HER109A.html.

    3. On the Phoenix Program, see Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program, (Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse, 2000).

    4. Carl Boggs supplies an excellent commentary on the historical amnesia in the US media surrounding the legacy of torture promoted by the United States. See Carl Boggs, "Torture: An American Legacy," CounterPunch.org (June 17, 2009). Online: http://www.counterpunch.org/boggs06172009.html.

    5. Ibid.

    6. There are many valuable sources that document this history. Some exemplary texts include: A.J. Langguth, Hidden Terrors: The Truth About US Police Operations in Latin America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979); Gordon Thomas, Journey Into Madness: The True Story of Secret CIA Mind Control and Medical Abuse (New York: Bantam, 1989); Danner, Torture and Truth; Jennifer K. Harbury, Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The History and Consequences of US Involvement in Torture (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005); Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006); and Rejali, Torture and Democracy. See also Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (New York: Doubleday, 2008); and Phillipe Sands, Torture Team (London: Penguin, 2009). On the torture of children, see Michael Haas, George W. Bush, War Criminal?: The Bush Administration's Liability for 269 War Crimes (Westport: Praeger, 2009). Also, see Henry A. Giroux, Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (Boulder: Paradigm, 2010).

    7. Amy Goodman, "From COINTELPRO to Snowden, the FBI Burglars Speak Out after 43 Years of Silence (Part 2)," Democracy Now! (January 8, 2014). Online:
    http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2014/1/8/from_cointelpro_to_snowden_the_fbi.

    8. For an excellent source, see Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States (Boston: South End Press, 2001). Also see The People's History of the CIA. Online: http://www.thepeopleshistory.net/2013/07/cointelpro-fbis-war-on-us-citizens.html.

    9. Chomsky quoted in Amy Goodman, "From COINTELPRO to Snowden, the FBI Burglars Speak Out after 43 Years of Silence (Part 2)." Online: http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2014/1/8/from_cointelpro_to_snowden_the_fbi.

    10. See, for example, Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005); and Loic Wacquant, Punishing the Poor (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

    11. Ishmael Reed, "How Henry Louis Gates Got Ordained as the Nation's 'Leading Black Intellectual,'" Black Agenda Report (July 27, 2009). Online: http://www.blackagendareport.com/?q=content/how-henry-louis-gates-got-ordained-nations-leading-black-intellectual.

    12. Pepe Lozano, "Chicago Torture Probe Draws Worldwide Attention," Political Affairs Magazine (July 6, 2006). Online: http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/view/3770/1/196/. See also Susan Saulny, "Ex-Officer Linked to Brutality Is Arrested," The New York Times (October 22, 2008). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/22/us/22chicago.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.

    13. Lozano, ibid.

    14. Mayer, The Dark Side, p. 8.

    15. Mark Danner, "US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites," New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 6 (April 9, 2009), p. 77.

    16. Michel Chossudovsky, "The Senate CIA Torture Report. Dick Cheney: "The Report is Full of Crap," Global Research (December 12, 2014). Online: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-senate-cia-torture-report-dick-cheney-the-report-is-full-of-crap-highlights-executive-summary/5419604.

    17. Scott Shane, "Backing C.I.A. Tactics, Cheney Ramps Up Criticism of Senate Torture Report," The New York Times (December 14, 2014). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/15/us/politics/cheney-senate-report-on-torture.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0.

    18. Frank Rich, "The Banality of Bush White House Evil," The New York Times (April 26, 2009), p. WK14.

    19. The torture memos can be found at the American Civil Liberties Union website. Online: http://www.aclu.org/safefree/general/olc_memos.html.

    20. Andrew Sullivan, "The Bigger Picture," The Daily Dish (April 17, 2009). Online: http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/04/the-bigger-picture.html.

    21. Ewen MacAskill, "Obama Releases Bush Torture Memos: Insects, Sleep Deprivation and Waterboarding among Approved Techniques by the Bush Administration," The Guardian (April 16, 2009). Online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/16/torture-memos-bush-administration.

    22. Ibid.

    23. Andy Worthington, "Five Terrible Truths About the CIA Torture Memos," Future of Freedom Foundation (April 22, 2009). Online: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/04/22-6.

    24. Editorial, "The Torturers' Manifesto," The New York Times (April 19, 2009), p. WK9.

    25. Ibid.

    26. Bybee cited in Neil A. Lewis, "Official Defends Signing Interrogation Memos," The New York Times (April 29, 2009), p. A12.

    27. Thomas C. Hilde, "Introduction," in On Torture, ed. Thomas C. Hilde (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008), p. 141.

    28. Mark Mazzetti, "Panel Faults C.I.A. Over Brutality and Deceit in Terrorism Interrogations," The New York Times (December 9, 2014). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/10/world/senate-intelligence-committee-cia-torture-report.html.

    29. Elias Isquith, "'I don't care what we did': What Nicolle Wallace's rant reveals about America's torture problem," Salon (December 9, 2012). Online: http://www.salon.com/2014/12/09/i_dont_care_what_we_did_what_nicolle_wallaces_rant_reveals_about_americas_torture_problem/.

    30. See the repudiations of the right-wing arguments by Rebecca Gordon, "American Torture - Past, Present, and . . . Future? Beyond the Senate Torture Report," TomDispatch.com (December 14, 2014). Online: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175934/tomgram%3A_rebecca_gordon%2C_the_torture_wars/#more.

    31. Thomas C. Hilde, "Introduction," in On Torture, ed. Thomas C. Hilde (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008), p. 1.

    32. On the Phoenix Program, see Douglas Valentine and Carl Boggs.

    33. See, for one example of this type of analysis, Chauncey DeVega, "The Culture of Cruelty is International: From Lynchings to Eric Garner and the CIA Torture Report," We Are Respectable Negroes (December 10, 2014). Online: http://www.chaunceydevega.com/2014/12/the-culture-of-cruelty-is-international.html.

    34. Robert Jay Lifton, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), p. 479

    CIA Torture Is Out in the Open - but Guantanamo Bay Detainees Are Still Going Nowhere

    Truthout - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 11:57

    The recent release of a US Senate committee’s report on CIA interrogation methods during the War on Terror has sent shockwaves around the world. Detailing the extent and sheer brutality of the enhanced interrogation techniques used during the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme after 9/11, it is a devastating exposé of the US attitude to fundamental human rights during a desperately dark era.

    The US and its allies complicit in its illegal rendition, secret detention and torture programme are now busily proclaiming that the torture described in the report was wrong, shameful and now a thing of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    We must not forget the 136 detainees remaining in Guantanamo Bay, who are still being tortured and held indefinitely without trial.

    For them, the era of abuse and injustice described in the report is far from over – and hopes of an end to the facility’s nightmarish legal story are faint indeed.

    Open and Shut

    Prior to his election, the US president, Barack Obama, vowed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and, in fact, in January 2009, he signed an executive order mandating that other venues for the detainees be found.

    To date, he has been devastatingly unsuccessful – largely thanks to the persistent blocking of his requests by Congress.

    However, there are rumours that Obama is planning to issue another executive order for the closure of Guantanamo Bay that would sidestep the bans imposed by lawmakers in Congress on bringing the detainees to the US in the event of the camp’s closure.

    But even if Obama does take a bold step like that, it’s hard to imagine how one could come to terms with the injustice of suffering years of torture while imprisoned outside the rule of law.

    Torture

    The release of the torture report comes at a time when the Obama administration is currently battling a court order, which his administration seeks to overturn, from a US federal judge who has called on the administration to make public videos of Guantanamo inmates being force-fed – an act which has been condemned by the UN as torture.

    Gruesome descriptions of the suffering inflicted upon inmates on hunger strike has gained much attention and forms part of a very long list of the systematic violation of human rights at the detention facility since its opening in 2002.

    The US has ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which not only categorically forbids it from practising torture but also requires it to prevent and hold accountable any individuals who are involved in these particular kinds of human rights violations.

    Hence the sorry saga of the US authorities' efforts to exempt Guantanamo’s inmates from the law.

    Wordplay

    In seeking to avoid condemnation and ensure that these heinous acts were somehow “legal” from the start, George W Bush’s administration sought to redefine torture to exclude some of its favourite techniques, including psychological torture and waterboarding.

    This was done by narrowing the definition to include only suffering “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”.

    Similarly, in order to sidestep its legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the United States defined al-Qaeda members as “unlawful enemy combatants” without prisoner-of-war status.

    That meant individuals subjected to torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment were understood to no longer be protected by the rights and protections enshrined in Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions, which would hold the US accountable for charges of war crimes.

    Guantanamo has also come in for criticism in relation to the rights of the child and the treatment of child soldiers because of 15-year-old detainee Omar Khadr, who was imprisoned there for eight years. But of course, the United States is one of only three countries in the world (along with Somalia and South Sudan) who have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    Left Hanging

    There is one piece of international human rights law to which the US is legally bound and out of which it cannot easily wriggle (linguistically speaking). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law, to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

    Of the total of 779 inmates ever detained at Guantanamo Bay only nine have been convicted of any crime and last year, the U.S. government identified 46 individuals on an “indefinite detainee” list – people who are thought to be too dangerous to release or move, but who cannot be tried in a civilian or military court.

    As long as Guantanamo Bay is still operating – and as long as its detainees are subjected to torture and unlawfully deprived of their various rights enshrined in international human rights and humanitarian law – any apologies from leaders in the US or its allies for the findings of the torture report cannot be taken seriously.

    CIA Torture Is Out in the Open - but Guantanamo Bay Detainees Are Still Going Nowhere

    Truthout - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 11:57

    The recent release of a US Senate committee’s report on CIA interrogation methods during the War on Terror has sent shockwaves around the world. Detailing the extent and sheer brutality of the enhanced interrogation techniques used during the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme after 9/11, it is a devastating exposé of the US attitude to fundamental human rights during a desperately dark era.

    The US and its allies complicit in its illegal rendition, secret detention and torture programme are now busily proclaiming that the torture described in the report was wrong, shameful and now a thing of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    We must not forget the 136 detainees remaining in Guantanamo Bay, who are still being tortured and held indefinitely without trial.

    For them, the era of abuse and injustice described in the report is far from over – and hopes of an end to the facility’s nightmarish legal story are faint indeed.

    Open and Shut

    Prior to his election, the US president, Barack Obama, vowed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and, in fact, in January 2009, he signed an executive order mandating that other venues for the detainees be found.

    To date, he has been devastatingly unsuccessful – largely thanks to the persistent blocking of his requests by Congress.

    However, there are rumours that Obama is planning to issue another executive order for the closure of Guantanamo Bay that would sidestep the bans imposed by lawmakers in Congress on bringing the detainees to the US in the event of the camp’s closure.

    But even if Obama does take a bold step like that, it’s hard to imagine how one could come to terms with the injustice of suffering years of torture while imprisoned outside the rule of law.

    Torture

    The release of the torture report comes at a time when the Obama administration is currently battling a court order, which his administration seeks to overturn, from a US federal judge who has called on the administration to make public videos of Guantanamo inmates being force-fed – an act which has been condemned by the UN as torture.

    Gruesome descriptions of the suffering inflicted upon inmates on hunger strike has gained much attention and forms part of a very long list of the systematic violation of human rights at the detention facility since its opening in 2002.

    The US has ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which not only categorically forbids it from practising torture but also requires it to prevent and hold accountable any individuals who are involved in these particular kinds of human rights violations.

    Hence the sorry saga of the US authorities' efforts to exempt Guantanamo’s inmates from the law.

    Wordplay

    In seeking to avoid condemnation and ensure that these heinous acts were somehow “legal” from the start, George W Bush’s administration sought to redefine torture to exclude some of its favourite techniques, including psychological torture and waterboarding.

    This was done by narrowing the definition to include only suffering “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”.

    Similarly, in order to sidestep its legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the United States defined al-Qaeda members as “unlawful enemy combatants” without prisoner-of-war status.

    That meant individuals subjected to torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment were understood to no longer be protected by the rights and protections enshrined in Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions, which would hold the US accountable for charges of war crimes.

    Guantanamo has also come in for criticism in relation to the rights of the child and the treatment of child soldiers because of 15-year-old detainee Omar Khadr, who was imprisoned there for eight years. But of course, the United States is one of only three countries in the world (along with Somalia and South Sudan) who have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    Left Hanging

    There is one piece of international human rights law to which the US is legally bound and out of which it cannot easily wriggle (linguistically speaking). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law, to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

    Of the total of 779 inmates ever detained at Guantanamo Bay only nine have been convicted of any crime and last year, the U.S. government identified 46 individuals on an “indefinite detainee” list – people who are thought to be too dangerous to release or move, but who cannot be tried in a civilian or military court.

    As long as Guantanamo Bay is still operating – and as long as its detainees are subjected to torture and unlawfully deprived of their various rights enshrined in international human rights and humanitarian law – any apologies from leaders in the US or its allies for the findings of the torture report cannot be taken seriously.

    How Big Oil Got Expedited Permitting for Fracking on Public Lands Into the Defense Bill

    Truthout - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 11:13

    The US Senate has voted 89-11 to approve the Defense Authorization Act of 2015, following the December 4 US House of Representatives' 300-119 up-vote and now awaits President Barack Obama's signature.

    The 1,616-page piece of pork barrel legislation contains a provision — among other controversial measures — to streamline permitting for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) on US public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a unit of the US Department of Interior.

    Buried on page 1,156 of the bill as Section 3021 and subtitled “Bureau of Land Management Permit Processing,” the bill's passage has won praise from both the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and comes on the heels of countries from around the world coming to a preliminary deal at the United Nations climate summit in Lima, Peru, to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

    “We applaud the Senate…and are hopeful the president signs this measure in a timely fashion,” said Dan Naatz, IPAA lobbyist and former congressional staffer, in a press release

    Alluding to the bottoming out of the global price of oil, Naatz further stated, “In these uncertain times of price volatility, it’s encouraging for America’s job creators to have regulatory certainty through a streamlined permitting process.”

    Streamlined permitting means faster turn-around times for the industry's application process to drill on public lands, bringing with it all of the airgroundwater and climate change issues that encompass the shale production process. 

    At the bottom of the same press release, IPAA boasted of its ability to get the legislative proposal introduced initially by US Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) as the BLM Permit Processing Improvement Act of 2014 after holding an “educational meeting” with Udall's staffers. Endorsed by some major US environmental groups, Udall took more than $191,000 from the oil and gas industry during his successful 2014 re-election campaign.

    IPAA's publicly admitted influence-peddling efforts are but the tip of the iceberg for how Big Oil managed to stuff expedited permitting for fracking on USpublic lands into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015.

    IPAA, API Lobbying Blitz

    According to Open Secrets, IPAA, API, ExxonMobilAmerica's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA)ConocoPhillips and private equity firm KKR — employer of former head of the CIA David Petraeus — all deployed lobbyists to ensure passage of the BLM Permit Processing Improvement Act, now Section 3021 in the NDAA of 2015.

    In quarter two and three, KKR deployed Akin Gump's Ryan Thompson, chief-of-staff for climate change denier US Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) between 2002-2010, to lobby for the bill. A self-described "mini oil and gas company,” the New York City-headquartered KKR owns numerous oil and gas assets in North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin.

    Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy, formerly known as MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company and owned by his holding company Berkshire Hathaway, also lobbied for the bill. Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), owned by Berkshire Hathaway, is a major carrier of Bakken crude-by-rail.

    Pilot Project Lifts Off 

    One of the original Senate-side co-sponsors of the BLM Permit Processing Improvement Act was US Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), who has also also served as a ringleader of other efforts to expedite permitting for fracking on public lands. First elected to the Senate in 2010, before which he was the Governor of North Dakota, the oil and gas industry has given Hoeven close to $325,000 in contributions since his preliminary Senate run.

    In 2013, a bill he sponsored — the BLM Streamlining Act — passed by Congress with only one dissenting vote between both chambers combined. It was signed into law by President Obama on the day after Christmas.

    That Streamlining Act created a pilot project for expedited permitting of fracking on public lands in the Bakken Shale. It was lobbied for by ExxonMobil, KKR, Marathon OilChesapeake Energy and IPAA, among others. 

    By comparison, the BLM Permit Processing Improvement Act of 2014 and now its equivalent Section 3021 in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, expedites permitting of fracking on all public lands.

    (Image: U.S. Government Printing Office)

    Hoeven had previously attempted to pass a bill to streamline fracking permitting on BLM public lands and “recognize the primacy of States,” calling it the Empower States Act of 2013. That bill was lobbied for by both ExxonMobil and API.

    White House Help: Heather Zichal

    The Obama White House has also long shown interest in the expedited permitting approach for fracking, portending a likely looming sign-off on the bill.

    Beyond signing the BLM Streamlining Act into law on December 26, 2013,President Obama also authorized Executive Orders in March 2012 and May 2013 calling on streamlined permitting of all energy infrastructure projects.

    During her time as Obama White House top energy and climate aide, Heather Zichal — now on the Board of Directors for fracked gas exporting company Cheniere — oversaw the signing of an April 2012 Executive Order mandating creation of an interagency working group to streamline regulatory oversight for fracking in the US

    Heahter Zichal. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)Zichal also laid the groundwork for lack of transparency on injection of fracking chemicals into the ground on US public lands, bringing the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) approach for chemical transparency to theBLM. Before inserting the provision into the BLM draft rules currently being finalized, Zichal “huddled” with the industry numerous times.

    “Zichal met more than 20 times in 2012 with industry groups and company executives lobbying on the proposed rule,” reported EnergyWire. “Among them were the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), along with BP America Inc., Devon Energy Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp.” 

    Protect Our Public Lands Act

    Despite obvious extreme odds stacked against them, two members of the US House Progressive Caucus — with the support of Food and Water Watch and several other progressive groups — have introduced a bill to ban fracking on US public lands.

    Sponsored by US Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and US Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), the two-page Protect Our Public Lands Act ”prohibit[s] the lessee from conducting any activity under the lease for the purpose of hydraulic fracturing.”

    U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)“We owe it to our children and grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren, to ensure the protection of public lands,” said Schakowsky of her support for the legislation. “This bill — in banning fracking on those lands — helps us follow through on that important promise.”

    But only one thing can really receive a promise in this case: public interest groups are in a David vs. Goliath fight. And Goliath, clearly, is well-organized and well-mobilized on the issue as 2014 comes to a close.

    How Big Oil Got Expedited Permitting for Fracking on Public Lands Into the Defense Bill

    Truthout - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 11:13

    The US Senate has voted 89-11 to approve the Defense Authorization Act of 2015, following the December 4 US House of Representatives' 300-119 up-vote and now awaits President Barack Obama's signature.

    The 1,616-page piece of pork barrel legislation contains a provision — among other controversial measures — to streamline permitting for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) on US public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a unit of the US Department of Interior.

    Buried on page 1,156 of the bill as Section 3021 and subtitled “Bureau of Land Management Permit Processing,” the bill's passage has won praise from both the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and comes on the heels of countries from around the world coming to a preliminary deal at the United Nations climate summit in Lima, Peru, to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

    “We applaud the Senate…and are hopeful the president signs this measure in a timely fashion,” said Dan Naatz, IPAA lobbyist and former congressional staffer, in a press release

    Alluding to the bottoming out of the global price of oil, Naatz further stated, “In these uncertain times of price volatility, it’s encouraging for America’s job creators to have regulatory certainty through a streamlined permitting process.”

    Streamlined permitting means faster turn-around times for the industry's application process to drill on public lands, bringing with it all of the airgroundwater and climate change issues that encompass the shale production process. 

    At the bottom of the same press release, IPAA boasted of its ability to get the legislative proposal introduced initially by US Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) as the BLM Permit Processing Improvement Act of 2014 after holding an “educational meeting” with Udall's staffers. Endorsed by some major US environmental groups, Udall took more than $191,000 from the oil and gas industry during his successful 2014 re-election campaign.

    IPAA's publicly admitted influence-peddling efforts are but the tip of the iceberg for how Big Oil managed to stuff expedited permitting for fracking on USpublic lands into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015.

    IPAA, API Lobbying Blitz

    According to Open Secrets, IPAA, API, ExxonMobilAmerica's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA)ConocoPhillips and private equity firm KKR — employer of former head of the CIA David Petraeus — all deployed lobbyists to ensure passage of the BLM Permit Processing Improvement Act, now Section 3021 in the NDAA of 2015.

    In quarter two and three, KKR deployed Akin Gump's Ryan Thompson, chief-of-staff for climate change denier US Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) between 2002-2010, to lobby for the bill. A self-described "mini oil and gas company,” the New York City-headquartered KKR owns numerous oil and gas assets in North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin.

    Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy, formerly known as MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company and owned by his holding company Berkshire Hathaway, also lobbied for the bill. Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), owned by Berkshire Hathaway, is a major carrier of Bakken crude-by-rail.

    Pilot Project Lifts Off 

    One of the original Senate-side co-sponsors of the BLM Permit Processing Improvement Act was US Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), who has also also served as a ringleader of other efforts to expedite permitting for fracking on public lands. First elected to the Senate in 2010, before which he was the Governor of North Dakota, the oil and gas industry has given Hoeven close to $325,000 in contributions since his preliminary Senate run.

    In 2013, a bill he sponsored — the BLM Streamlining Act — passed by Congress with only one dissenting vote between both chambers combined. It was signed into law by President Obama on the day after Christmas.

    That Streamlining Act created a pilot project for expedited permitting of fracking on public lands in the Bakken Shale. It was lobbied for by ExxonMobil, KKR, Marathon OilChesapeake Energy and IPAA, among others. 

    By comparison, the BLM Permit Processing Improvement Act of 2014 and now its equivalent Section 3021 in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, expedites permitting of fracking on all public lands.

    (Image: U.S. Government Printing Office)

    Hoeven had previously attempted to pass a bill to streamline fracking permitting on BLM public lands and “recognize the primacy of States,” calling it the Empower States Act of 2013. That bill was lobbied for by both ExxonMobil and API.

    White House Help: Heather Zichal

    The Obama White House has also long shown interest in the expedited permitting approach for fracking, portending a likely looming sign-off on the bill.

    Beyond signing the BLM Streamlining Act into law on December 26, 2013,President Obama also authorized Executive Orders in March 2012 and May 2013 calling on streamlined permitting of all energy infrastructure projects.

    During her time as Obama White House top energy and climate aide, Heather Zichal — now on the Board of Directors for fracked gas exporting company Cheniere — oversaw the signing of an April 2012 Executive Order mandating creation of an interagency working group to streamline regulatory oversight for fracking in the US

    Heahter Zichal. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)Zichal also laid the groundwork for lack of transparency on injection of fracking chemicals into the ground on US public lands, bringing the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) approach for chemical transparency to theBLM. Before inserting the provision into the BLM draft rules currently being finalized, Zichal “huddled” with the industry numerous times.

    “Zichal met more than 20 times in 2012 with industry groups and company executives lobbying on the proposed rule,” reported EnergyWire. “Among them were the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), along with BP America Inc., Devon Energy Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp.” 

    Protect Our Public Lands Act

    Despite obvious extreme odds stacked against them, two members of the US House Progressive Caucus — with the support of Food and Water Watch and several other progressive groups — have introduced a bill to ban fracking on US public lands.

    Sponsored by US Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and US Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), the two-page Protect Our Public Lands Act ”prohibit[s] the lessee from conducting any activity under the lease for the purpose of hydraulic fracturing.”

    U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)“We owe it to our children and grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren, to ensure the protection of public lands,” said Schakowsky of her support for the legislation. “This bill — in banning fracking on those lands — helps us follow through on that important promise.”

    But only one thing can really receive a promise in this case: public interest groups are in a David vs. Goliath fight. And Goliath, clearly, is well-organized and well-mobilized on the issue as 2014 comes to a close.

    Joseph Stiglitz: Economics Must Address Wealth and Income Inequality

    Naked Capitalism - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 10:55
    Yves here. This interview with Joesph Stiglitz is pretty subversive for a talk with a Serious Economist. Stiglitz doesn't simply talk about the problem of inequality, but the drivers that most mainstream economists choose to ignore, such as the rise of monopoly/oligopoly power, worker exploitation, and how central banks have allowed banks to engage increasingly in speculative rather than productive lending.
    Categories: political economy

    Prosecute the Prosecutors: A Way to Justice in Staten Island, Ferguson and Cleveland

    Truthout - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 10:48

    Thousands are protesting across the nation to seek justice in the Staten Island, Ferguson and Cleveland cases.  Leaders from President Obama to members of Congress to state and local officials are joining an outraged public in calling for conversations about how and why unarmed young Black men and children have been killed by police in recent weeks. Angriness with police actions in African American communities has been simmering for decades.

    There is a way to achieve justice and that is to prosecute the prosecutors. The law provides that victims and families of victims can sue in cases of prosecutorial malfeasance. Prosecutors are rarely charged criminally, and even more rarely convicted criminally by reluctant courts who work with them, but it can and should happen when merited.  The families should not be faced with a brick wall of prosecutors they think are immunized from action when lawsuits are in fact possible, especially in glaring circumstances. Civil suits against the prosecutors are another route for damages for Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice’s families.

    The three cases would be very different from one another but the most glaring is the Staten Island case, where a video shows store-owner Eric Garner first rationally asking what he had done and then gasping during a choke hold, something that was barred for over 20 years, saying many times before dying, “I can’t breathe.” Daniel Panteleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner, has several complaints of false arrests and unwarranted and unlawful strip searches, and police have had to settle.

    People believe a grand jury’s proceedings are totally secret but in fact, witnesses who testify are free to come out and say what happened inside.  Ramsey Orta, the Staten Island videographer, told the press that he was made to testify in only a cursory way, for 10 minutes, and during his testimony, the grand jury members were tweeting and texting, paying little attention.  The prosecutor, who runs the show, essentially blew off Orta, clearly wanting to get rid of him as soon as possible.

    This man had likely the most important onsite evidence proving murder.  It was the Zapruder film of the case.  The coroner had five options from “undetermined causes” on down but branded the situation specifically the most forceful —“homicide” — and stated that the “choke hold” and “pressure” on the chest killed the victim.  The man who was there, shot the video, saw it all unfold, saw the angles, saw the time durations, and saw the result was blown off.

    Ten minutes?  The jury playing around, ignoring it? The prosecutor not asking the jury to focus, and the prosecutor not asking this witness penetrating questions for several hours?  This seems a preeminent potential case of holding prosecutors accountable.

    In Ferguson, there was no video evidence (revealed to date), other than Michael Brown lying unattended for four hours after the shooting, and the case was muddied by some conflicting witnesses regardless of veracity. However, Prosecutor Bob McCulloch has asserted on many occasions he would have joined the police force if not for medical issues. His father, who was a police officer, was allegedly killed in 1964 by a Black man. Regardless, he claims it was “not something that clouds my judgment.”

    But the assistant prosecutor, Kathy Alizadeh, opened the door wide to a malfeasance case. She told the jury and handed out an old state law, right before the policeman testified, that it was legal for him to shoot a fleeing suspect, a law that was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1985, making it not legal. Two weeks later the assistant prosecutor told the jurors that “the information was incorrect” and did not explain to the non-lawyer jurors what was incorrect.   The assistant prosecutor also told the jurors that neither the difference between what they were told initially nor the Supreme Court’s power to override the earlier state law were significant.  The assistant prosecutor told the jurors these were “not important,” and said this is not “a law class.”  Here “fraud against the court” is a prosecutable offense that has been won against prosecutors.

    It wasn’t relevant that the policeman committed likely illegal acts if you know the right law? Obviously Brown got from the car to 35 feet away as he was shot further. Let alone that the policeman was never confronted about why, regardless of the earlier fight in the car, when Brown was later 35-plus feet away and he then knew he was unarmed, even if Brown was running toward him (in doubt, but say it’s true), the policeman didn’t shoot the final shots at legs to disable rather than the head to kill? Both the assistant prosecutor and chief prosecutor are culpable here for not aggressively penetrating these issues, as well as the intentional disinformation and obfuscation of the law.

    Prosecute the Prosecutors: A Way to Justice in Staten Island, Ferguson and Cleveland

    Truthout - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 10:48

    Thousands are protesting across the nation to seek justice in the Staten Island, Ferguson and Cleveland cases.  Leaders from President Obama to members of Congress to state and local officials are joining an outraged public in calling for conversations about how and why unarmed young Black men and children have been killed by police in recent weeks. Angriness with police actions in African American communities has been simmering for decades.

    There is a way to achieve justice and that is to prosecute the prosecutors. The law provides that victims and families of victims can sue in cases of prosecutorial malfeasance. Prosecutors are rarely charged criminally, and even more rarely convicted criminally by reluctant courts who work with them, but it can and should happen when merited.  The families should not be faced with a brick wall of prosecutors they think are immunized from action when lawsuits are in fact possible, especially in glaring circumstances. Civil suits against the prosecutors are another route for damages for Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice’s families.

    The three cases would be very different from one another but the most glaring is the Staten Island case, where a video shows store-owner Eric Garner first rationally asking what he had done and then gasping during a choke hold, something that was barred for over 20 years, saying many times before dying, “I can’t breathe.” Daniel Panteleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner, has several complaints of false arrests and unwarranted and unlawful strip searches, and police have had to settle.

    People believe a grand jury’s proceedings are totally secret but in fact, witnesses who testify are free to come out and say what happened inside.  Ramsey Orta, the Staten Island videographer, told the press that he was made to testify in only a cursory way, for 10 minutes, and during his testimony, the grand jury members were tweeting and texting, paying little attention.  The prosecutor, who runs the show, essentially blew off Orta, clearly wanting to get rid of him as soon as possible.

    This man had likely the most important onsite evidence proving murder.  It was the Zapruder film of the case.  The coroner had five options from “undetermined causes” on down but branded the situation specifically the most forceful —“homicide” — and stated that the “choke hold” and “pressure” on the chest killed the victim.  The man who was there, shot the video, saw it all unfold, saw the angles, saw the time durations, and saw the result was blown off.

    Ten minutes?  The jury playing around, ignoring it? The prosecutor not asking the jury to focus, and the prosecutor not asking this witness penetrating questions for several hours?  This seems a preeminent potential case of holding prosecutors accountable.

    In Ferguson, there was no video evidence (revealed to date), other than Michael Brown lying unattended for four hours after the shooting, and the case was muddied by some conflicting witnesses regardless of veracity. However, Prosecutor Bob McCulloch has asserted on many occasions he would have joined the police force if not for medical issues. His father, who was a police officer, was allegedly killed in 1964 by a Black man. Regardless, he claims it was “not something that clouds my judgment.”

    But the assistant prosecutor, Kathy Alizadeh, opened the door wide to a malfeasance case. She told the jury and handed out an old state law, right before the policeman testified, that it was legal for him to shoot a fleeing suspect, a law that was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1985, making it not legal. Two weeks later the assistant prosecutor told the jurors that “the information was incorrect” and did not explain to the non-lawyer jurors what was incorrect.   The assistant prosecutor also told the jurors that neither the difference between what they were told initially nor the Supreme Court’s power to override the earlier state law were significant.  The assistant prosecutor told the jurors these were “not important,” and said this is not “a law class.”  Here “fraud against the court” is a prosecutable offense that has been won against prosecutors.

    It wasn’t relevant that the policeman committed likely illegal acts if you know the right law? Obviously Brown got from the car to 35 feet away as he was shot further. Let alone that the policeman was never confronted about why, regardless of the earlier fight in the car, when Brown was later 35-plus feet away and he then knew he was unarmed, even if Brown was running toward him (in doubt, but say it’s true), the policeman didn’t shoot the final shots at legs to disable rather than the head to kill? Both the assistant prosecutor and chief prosecutor are culpable here for not aggressively penetrating these issues, as well as the intentional disinformation and obfuscation of the law.

    Jeb Bush v. Hillary Clinton: the Perfectly Illustrative Election

    The Intercept - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 09:15

    Jeb Bush yesterday strongly suggested he was running for President in 2016. If he wins the GOP nomination, it is highly likely that his opponent for the presidency would be Hillary Clinton.

    Having someone who is the brother of one former president and the son of another run against the wife of still another former president would be sweetly illustrative of all sorts of degraded and illusory aspects of American life, from meritocracy to class mobility. That one of those two families exploited its vast wealth to obtain political power, while the other exploited its political power to obtain vast wealth, makes it more illustrative still: of the virtually complete merger between political and economic power, of the fundamentally oligarchical framework that drives American political life.

    Then there are their similar constituencies: what Politico termed “money men” instantly celebrated Jeb Bush’s likely candidacy, while the same publication noted just last month how Wall Street has long been unable to contain its collective glee over a likely Hillary Clinton presidency. The two ruling families have, unsurprisingly, developed a movingly warm relationship befitting their position: the matriarch of the Bush family (former First Lady Barbara) has described the Clinton patriarch (former President Bill) as a virtual family member, noting that her son, George W., affectionately calls his predecessor “my brother by another mother.”

    If this happens, the 2016 election would vividly underscore how the American political class functions: by dynasty, plutocracy, fundamental alignment of interests masquerading as deep ideological divisions, and political power translating into vast private wealth and back again. The educative value would be undeniable: somewhat like how the torture report did, it would rub everyone’s noses in exactly those truths they are most eager to avoid acknowledging.

    Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

    The post Jeb Bush v. Hillary Clinton: the Perfectly Illustrative Election appeared first on The Intercept.

    Identity and Collective Denial - Lia Tarachansky on Reality Asserts Itself (1/3)

    The Real News Network - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 09:12
    Ms. Tarachansky, TRNN Israel - Palestine correspondent and former Israeli settler, tells Paul Jay about her new documentary film, On the Side of the Road

    Billion Dollar Surveillance Blimp to Launch over Maryland

    The Intercept - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 08:18

    In just a few days, the Army will launch the first of two massive blimps over Maryland, the last gasp of an 18-year-long $2.8-billion Army project intended to use giant airships to defend against cruise missiles.

    And while the blimps may never stave off a barrage of enemy missiles, their ability to spot and track cars, trucks and boats hundreds of miles away is raising serious privacy concerns.

    The project is called JLENS – or “Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System.” And you couldn’t come up with a better metaphor for wildly inflated defense contracts, a ponderous Pentagon bureaucracy, and the U.S. surveillance leviathan all in one.

    Built by the Raytheon Company, the JLENS blimps operate as a pair. One provides omnipresent high-resolution 360-degree radar coverage up to 340 miles in any direction; the other can focus on specific threats and provide targeting information.

    Technically considered aerostats, since they are tethered to mooring stations, these lighter-than-air vehicles will hover at a height of 10,000 feet just off Interstate 95, about 45 miles northeast of Washington, D.C., and about 20 miles from Baltimore. That means they can watch what’s happening from North Carolina to Boston, or an area the size of Texas.

    Raytheon

    At one point, there were supposed to be nearly three dozen blimps. But after a series of operational failures and massive cost overruns, the program was dramatically scaled back to the two existing prototypes that the Army plans to keep flying continuously above the Aberdeen Proving Ground for three years, except for maintenance and foul weather.

    As soon the blimps are up, if you’re driving on the interstate north of Baltimore, you won’t be able to miss them. They are 80 yards long and their total volume is somewhere around 600,000 cubic feet. That’s about the size of three Goodyear blimps. Or over 3,500 white elephants

    “There’s something inherently suspect for the public to look up in the sky and see this surveillance device hanging there,” says Ginger McCall, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), an advocacy group. “It’s the definition of persistent surveillance.”

    Army officials claim they have no interest in monitoring anything other than missiles, or maybe boats. But JLENS can detect plenty more than that.

    “A lot of people may hear radar and they picture a fuzzy green screen with little blips. But today’s radar is significantly more sophisticated than that and is in some ways akin to a camera,” warns Jay Stanley, a privacy expert for the American Civil Liberties Union.

    Raytheon promotional material touts a recent test, when the JLENS radar “simultaneously detected and tracked double-digit swarming boats, hundreds of cars and trucks, non-swarming boats and manned and unmanned aircraft.”

    Aerostats like JLENS aren’t limited to radar. If equipped with extremely high-resolution video cameras, they can see and record everything for miles, with extraordinary detail. In Kabul, for example, residents are used to seeing the U.S. military’s tethered aerostat—called the Persistent Ground Surveillance system—hovering above the city, capturing video of daily life below.

    The Army insists that there will be no cameras on JLENS for now. In a test last year, however, Raytheon equipped one of the blimps with an MTS-B Multi-Spectral Targeting System that provides both day and night imaging, laser designation, and laser illumination capabilities.

    The result: JLENS operators could “watch live feed of trucks, trains and cars from dozens of miles away.” They also watched Raytheon employees “simulate planting a roadside improvised explosive device.”

    Maj.Beth Smith, the spokesperson for the JLENS program, says the Army isn’t planning to spy on anyone. JLENS “has no cameras, it has no video, nor is it tracking any people,” she says. “It does not possess the capability to see people.”

    And while it can see cars, “for the purposes of this test, we have no intent to track any vehicles. Well, any civilian vehicles.”

    A DEFLATED PROGRAM

    Back in 2005, the Army planned to have Raytheon build 32 blimps at a cost of about $180 million each. But growing doubts and hemorrhaging costs, along with the destruction of one blimp in a collision, led the Pentagon to hit the brakes in 2012. There would be no more new blimps, just testing for the prototypes that had already been constructed.

    That brings the price tag for the two remaining blimps to around $1.4 billion each, if development costs are counted. (Technically, there’s another duo mothballed in storage in the Utah desert, but there are no current plans to use them.) That’s serious money, even by federal government standards.

    Raytheon trumpets the results of several successful tests of the system, including an August 2013 demonstration in which JLENS helped an F-15 knock a mock cruise missile out of the sky. But a blistering analysis from the Pentagon’s Operational Test & Evaluation office for fiscal year 2013 found that testing had been inadequate and that JLENS needed improvement in critical areas, including “non-cooperative target recognition, friendly aircraft identification capabilities, and target track consistency” – i.e. telling the difference between friends and enemies.

    The testing report found JLENS failed to meet its goals for reliability, because of both software and hardware problems, that it was too dependent on good weather, and that it “did not demonstrate the ability to survive in its intended operational environment.”

    Indeed, one blimp got totaled at its manufacturing and test facility in North Carolina in September 2010 after it was struck by a different dirigible moored nearby that had broken loose in a storm. The Army and Raytheon sat on the news for more than six months, until InsideDefense.com saw a mention of the collision in a GAO report.

    The crash cost the Army another $168 million.

    And the money keeps on flowing. Just two weeks ago, the Army awarded Raytheon another contract, this one for $12 million simply to keep the blimps maintained for the next six months

    PRIVACY CONCERNS

    Raytheon has tried to assuage privacy concerns in a few of the “Frequently Asked Questions” from its promotional material, which insists that JLENS cannot be used to track individual people.

    “Radars can tell that something is moving, but because of the way radars work, they simply can’t determine identifying characteristics of cars, such as make, model or color,” Raytheon says. “Along similar lines, they can’t tell who is driving the vehicle or see a license plate.”

    Maj. Nelson insists that “JLENS is an elevated radar system and has no task to monitor ground targets. It does not organically store any radar data.”

    Even so, radar can track hundreds of square miles of traffic, and the real question is what the Army will do with that data.

    Extensive redactions in the hundreds of pages of contracting documents related to JLENS in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by EPIC leave the true scope of the project unclear.

    One EPIC researcher poring through the documents found an alarming passage. The Army’s contract with Raytheon, it said, will be evaluated based on its “potential to grow to accommodate new and/or alternative missions.”

    Talk to blimp experts, and they’ll tell you what blimps are good for.

    “They’re wonderful for staring at things,” says Ed Herlik, a former Air Force officer and technology analyst with a particular interest in airships. “That’s what the Israelis use them for.”

    And it’s not just their ability to document what they see that’s so valuable; it’s the psychological effect. “If you put a camera in a sky over an area where you expect a lot of unrest, the area will calm down,” he says.

    The ACLU’s Jay Stanley says the Army’s promises are not enough.

    “I’m sure that the people who are giving us these assurances mean everything they say, but the nature of government programs and government agencies is that things tend to expand and privacy protections tend to shrink.”

    What the program needs, according to Stanley, is oversight and it doesn’t have that now. “If we’re going to have massive blimps hovering over civilian areas, or within radar-shot of civilian areas, then we need some very ironclad checks and balances that will provide confidence that there’s no domestic surveillance going on,” Stanley says.

    Federal privacy regulations currently don’t apply. “JLENS does not operate under privacy rules,” Smith, the spokesperson for JLENS, explains. “It is a military radar and as such carries no electro-optical or infrared cameras, nor does it have acoustic or electronic surveillance capability. There is no ability to ‘listen’ to cellular or radio traffic, nor can it optically ‘see’ any ground objects.”

    For now, the closest thing to public oversight will be a media day at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds on Wednesday, where the Army will give reporters a chance to ooh and ah during an up-close look at one of the blimps, fully inflated with enough helium to fill about two million nine-inch latex party balloons.

    But even this blimp isn’t ready for its much-delayed launch. And the other one isn’t even inflated yet.

    Photos: Raytheon

    The post Billion Dollar Surveillance Blimp to Launch over Maryland appeared first on The Intercept.

    Links 12/17/17

    Naked Capitalism - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 07:55
    Categories: political economy

    Budget Bill's Little-Known Provisions Affecting Marijuana Users

    The Real News Network - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 06:12
    LEAP's Neill Franklin says the budget bill bans the feds from going after states with legal medical marijuana, but may prevent DC from legalizing marijuana

    Blowback from Oil Price War: Sovereign Wealth Funds Selling Investments

    Naked Capitalism - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 04:59
    While there has been ample discussion the impact of falling oil prices on the national budgets of major oil producing nations, there's been less media focus on how some of the countries that face budget squeezes are likely to react. Consider what a difference nine days makes. Moody's gave six Middle Eastern countries a thumbs up on December 8, based on the assumption that oil prices will average $80 to $85 a barrel in 2015. With WTI now at $55.33, it appears reasonable to assume a price of $60 or below for the first half of 2015. The consensus is that production cuts will lead to much firmer prices in the final two quarters,* but $70 a barrel would now seem a more reasonable forecast for the year. Here is the money part of the Moody's assessment (emphasis ours):
    Categories: political economy

    How Putin’s Fealty to the Washington Consensus Made His Currency Crisis Worse

    Naked Capitalism - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 04:55
    Who needs sanctions when intellectual capture produces such swimming results? The US-led restructuring of the Russian economy after the USSR fell is a gift that keeps on giving. Hoisted from comments:
    Categories: political economy

    Oil, Ruble and Ideology

    Naked Capitalism - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 03:52
    Yves here. Since the financial media is covering the continuing meltdown of the ruble intensely, we thought it would be helpful to add some information that seems to be missing from most reporting. This post by Jacques Sapir from the 14th (hat tip Michael Hudson) provides important detail on the importance of oil to the Russian economy (far less than typically depicted, although it is the biggest source of foreign exchange), the impact of the fall of the ruble and oil prices on the domestic budgets, and the odds of a Russian default. Note that Sapir is sanguine on the default front and does not see a rerun of 1998 in the offing, by virtue of of Russia having large foreign currency reserves. Note that Menzie Chinn of Econbrowser differs, and uses a chart from the Economist to make his point:
    Categories: political economy

    Pepe Escobar: How China’s Eurasia Maneuvers Beat Obama’s Pivot to Asia

    Naked Capitalism - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 01:13
    Yves here. We've commented occasionally on Obama's failed pivot to Asia, which is clearly an effort to contain China. The centerpiece, the TransPacific Partnership, appears to be going nowhere. A meeting between Communist party chief Xi and Japan's Abe trumped America's presence at the ASEAN conference; our Japanese press-watcher Clive says that Putin garnered as much media coverage as did the US president. But you'd get perilous little sense of how China is outmaneuvering the US in Asia, despite considerable worries among its neighbors about its aggressive territorial claims. This article by Pepe Escobar gives a fine overview of the measures China is taking to create greater economic integration with its Eurasian and European trade partners, to the detriment of US influence. And Washington appears to have been caught flat-footed.
    Categories: political economy

    New York State Official Raises Alarm on Charter Schools - and Gets Ignored

    Truthout - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 01:00

    A top official in the New York State Comptroller’s Office has urged regulators to require more transparency on charter-school finances. The response has been, well, nonexistent.

    Add another voice to those warning about the lack of financial oversight for charter schools. One of New York state's top fiscal monitors told ProPublica that audits by his office have found "practices that are questionable at best, illegal at worst" at some charter schools.

    Pete Grannis, New York State's First Deputy Comptroller, contacted ProPublica after reading our story last week about how some charter schools have turned over nearly all their public funds and significant control to private, often for-profit firms that handle their day-to-day operations. The arrangements can limit the ability of auditors and charter-school regulators to follow how public money is spent – especially when the firms refuse to divulge financial details when asked.

    Such setups are a real problem, Grannis said. And the way he sees it, there's a very simple solution. As a condition for agreeing to approve a new charter school or renew an existing one, charter regulators could require schools and their management companies to agree to provide any and all financial records related to the school.

    "Clearly, the need for fiscal oversight of charter schools has intensified," he wrote in a letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio last week. "Put schools on notice that relevant financial records cannot be shielded from oversight bodies of state and local governmental entities."

    It's a plea that Grannis has made before. Last year, he sent a similar letter to the state's major charter-school regulators – New York City's Department of Education, the New York State Education Department, and the State University of New York.

    He never heard back from any of them. "No response whatsoever," Grannis said. Not even, he added, a "'Thank you for your letter, we'll look into it.' That would have been the normal bureaucratic response."

    We contacted all three of these agencies and the mayor's office for comment. None of them got back to us.

    The charter-school debate in New York, as elsewhere, is politically fraught. De Blasio's cautious stance on charters has put him at odds with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose financial backers include some big-dollar charter-school supporters. The state comptroller's office has faced repeated lawsuits from charter groups and operators challenging its authority to audit charter schools.

    To Grannis, though, his efforts aren't about politics. His office is "agnostic on charters," as he put it. His office also audits the finances of traditional public-school districts, he pointed out.

    "We're the fiscal monitors. We watch over the use or misuse of public funds," Grannis said. "This isn't meant to be anti-charter. Our job is not to be pro or anti."

    Grannis has not yet gotten a response from the mayor's office about the letter he sent last week.

    As to the charter-school regulators who got his letter the year before? He's still puzzled why they wouldn't be more interested in a possible fix, or why the charter regulators never bothered to respond.

    "I honestly don't know," Grannis said. He said he's going to send another round of letters to them.

    New York State Official Raises Alarm on Charter Schools - and Gets Ignored

    Truthout - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 01:00

    A top official in the New York State Comptroller’s Office has urged regulators to require more transparency on charter-school finances. The response has been, well, nonexistent.

    Add another voice to those warning about the lack of financial oversight for charter schools. One of New York state's top fiscal monitors told ProPublica that audits by his office have found "practices that are questionable at best, illegal at worst" at some charter schools.

    Pete Grannis, New York State's First Deputy Comptroller, contacted ProPublica after reading our story last week about how some charter schools have turned over nearly all their public funds and significant control to private, often for-profit firms that handle their day-to-day operations. The arrangements can limit the ability of auditors and charter-school regulators to follow how public money is spent – especially when the firms refuse to divulge financial details when asked.

    Such setups are a real problem, Grannis said. And the way he sees it, there's a very simple solution. As a condition for agreeing to approve a new charter school or renew an existing one, charter regulators could require schools and their management companies to agree to provide any and all financial records related to the school.

    "Clearly, the need for fiscal oversight of charter schools has intensified," he wrote in a letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio last week. "Put schools on notice that relevant financial records cannot be shielded from oversight bodies of state and local governmental entities."

    It's a plea that Grannis has made before. Last year, he sent a similar letter to the state's major charter-school regulators – New York City's Department of Education, the New York State Education Department, and the State University of New York.

    He never heard back from any of them. "No response whatsoever," Grannis said. Not even, he added, a "'Thank you for your letter, we'll look into it.' That would have been the normal bureaucratic response."

    We contacted all three of these agencies and the mayor's office for comment. None of them got back to us.

    The charter-school debate in New York, as elsewhere, is politically fraught. De Blasio's cautious stance on charters has put him at odds with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose financial backers include some big-dollar charter-school supporters. The state comptroller's office has faced repeated lawsuits from charter groups and operators challenging its authority to audit charter schools.

    To Grannis, though, his efforts aren't about politics. His office is "agnostic on charters," as he put it. His office also audits the finances of traditional public-school districts, he pointed out.

    "We're the fiscal monitors. We watch over the use or misuse of public funds," Grannis said. "This isn't meant to be anti-charter. Our job is not to be pro or anti."

    Grannis has not yet gotten a response from the mayor's office about the letter he sent last week.

    As to the charter-school regulators who got his letter the year before? He's still puzzled why they wouldn't be more interested in a possible fix, or why the charter regulators never bothered to respond.

    "I honestly don't know," Grannis said. He said he's going to send another round of letters to them.

    How State and Local Subsidies Fuel Inequality

    Truthout - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 01:00

    Low-wage employers have received more than $3.3 billion in taxpayer subsidies from state and local governments, and companies linked to members of the Forbes 400 have received at least $19 billion -- which has the effect of using taxpayer dollars to make income inequality worse.

    "When a state or local government subsidizes a Walmart store or an Amazon.com warehouse, it is doing the most to intensify economic inequality by enriching individuals at the very top of the income hierarchy while also perpetuating poor quality jobs at the bottom," according to a new report from nonprofit taxpayer advocacy group Good Jobs First that analyzed official subsidy disclosure data nationwide.

    Walmart, for example, overwhelmingly pays low wages and offers few benefits to its workers, yet has been awarded more than $161 million in state and local subsidies. At the same time, four members of the Walton Family, who derive their fortune from Walmart's profits, are worth $35 billion each, meaning that taxpayer subsidies are helping make these astoundingly wealthy people even richer.

    "American taxpayers need to understand how many of the subsidies state and local governments award to big corporations end up enriching billionaires and reinforcing low-road employment models -- which in turn perpetuates income inequality," said Phil Mattera, research director at Good Jobs First, who co-authored the report.

    Low-Wage Employers Backed by Subsidies

    "If there were any justification for giving taxpayer funds to large private businesses, especially in the current economic climate, it would be that such subsidies are supposed to enhance prosperity, mainly through the creation of quality jobs," notes Mattera and his co-authors, Kasia Tarczynska and Greg LeRoy. Yet, companies that traffic in low wages have been awarded billions in taxpayer subsidies to create jobs that won't support families.

    Starwood Hotels & Resorts -- parent company of hotel chains like Sheraton and Westin -- have received $166 million in subsidies. And Sears has received a whopping $536 million in state and local taxpayer funds, thanks in no small part to its CEO Edward Lampert pressuring Illinois for a $275 million incentive package by threatening to relocate the company's headquarters.

    Subsidies analyzed in the report include business property tax abatements, corporate income tax credits, sales tax exemptions, training grants, or infrastructure improvements.

    The $3.3 billion in direct subsidies to low-wage employers is on top of the indirect costs that taxpayers bear in supporting a low-wage workforce through public assistance, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and housing assistance. Walmart alone costs taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion, according to some estimates.

    Taxpayers Subsidizing the Forbes 400

    Taxpayer funds are also flowing into the pockets of those who are already enormously wealthy.

    Subsidies "are supposed to promote job creation and broad-based economic growth," the report's authors state. "Yet they are often awarded to profitable, growing companies that do not need tax breaks to finance a project, meaning that the subsidies serve mainly to increase profits."

    This year, for the first time, Forbes magazine highlighted the world's wealthiest individuals who supposedly built fortunes on their own, rather than through inheritance. Yet, Good Jobs First found, many companies led by the members of the Forbes 400 have been aided by at least $19 billion in state and local subsidies -- meaning that many modern-day Horatio Algers had their fortunes boosted by taxpayers.

    More than one-third of the companies linked to individuals on the Forbes 400 are major recipients of taxpayer subsidies. Koch Industries, led by David and Charles Koch, has received $154 million in subsidies, Bill Gates' Microsoft has been awarded more than $200 million, and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has received $1.2 billion in taxpayer funds.

    "When large corporations controlled by billionaires are given lavish taxpayer subsidies, the rest of us get stuck footing more of the bill for essential public services like roads, police, and firefighters," Mattera said.

    Read the report here.

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