Later On

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Archive for May 7th, 2018

Get an Inside Look at the Department of Defense’s Struggle to Fix Pollution at More Than 39,000 Sites

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Abrahm Lustgarten reports in ProPublica:

This story first appeared in ProPublica’s monthly data newsletter. Sign up for that here.

For much of the past two years I’ve been digging into a vast, $70 billion environmental cleanup program run by the U.S. Department of Defense that tracks tens of thousands of polluted sites across the United States. In some places, old missiles and munitions were left buried beneath school grounds. In others, former test sites for chemical weapons have been repurposed for day care centers and housing developments. The oldest, dating to World War I, have faded into history, making it difficult to keep track of the pollution that was left behind.

For nearly 45 years, the Pentagon kept its program — the Defense Environmental Restoration Program — out of the spotlight, and most of these sites have never been scrutinized by the public. However, the agency has meticulously tracked its own efforts, recording them in a detailed internal database. We were the first to see it, ever. Now we’re sharing it with you.

The dataset includes details on more than 39,000 unique sites across more than 5,000 present and former military locations in every U.S. state and territory. The sites are literally in almost everyone’s backyard. And so while a few of the most notorious cleanup spots may be well-known, the tools included here can help local news outlets, the public or anyone else dive deep into the details of hidden threats that have never before seen light.

The detail is extraordinary: Contaminants — and sometimes their concentrations in both soil and water — are listed. So is the amount of money spent over decades to deal with the problems, and the budget estimated into the future to finish it. You can find managers responsible for incremental decision-making, or plot the coordinates of specific sites used for dumping or chemical spills. There are even data fields filled with comments — the wisecracks of Pentagon staffers over the years characterizing the enormity or seriousness of their tasks. And much, much more.

We used some of the data from the government’s database to plot these sites on a map of the United States, and to drill into each site with details on the contamination to be found there, including adding additional location and cost data from other sources. You may want to use the data in other ways: perhaps to focus on single sites in much more detail, charting cleanup progress and failures, funding endeavors and political turning points. For that, you can download the entire database, just as we received it from the Department of Defense. . .

Continue reading.

Interesting how the Department of Defense makes America less safe for its citizens.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2018 at 1:46 pm

Before the Blankenship-McConnell Feud, the Senator Aided the Mining Executive

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Alec MacGillis reports in ProPublica:

As the race for the West Virginia Republican Senate nomination hurtles toward Tuesday’s primary, candidate Don Blankenship, the former coal executive sentenced to a year in federal prison in connection with a 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 men, has unleashed blistering invective against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

He has taken to calling McConnell “Cocaine Mitch,” an allusion to drugs once found on a ship owned by the shipping company owned by Chao’s father, whom Blankenship calls a “wealthy China-person.” His ad hominem barrage, provoked by McConnell’s well-funded effort to deny Blankenship the nomination, culminated in an eye-popping TV ad in which Blankenship charged that McConnell has “created millions of jobs for China-people” and that McConnell’s “China family has given him tens of millions of dollars.” The ad pledged to “ditch Cocaine Mitch for the sake of the kids.”

What has gone overlooked amid this extraordinary clash, is that 18 years ago, both McConnell and Chao effectively sprang to the defense of Blankenship, sparing his company considerable cost and consequences for a disaster that unfolded in their home state of Kentucky in the middle of the night on Oct. 11, 2000. Here is how I described the episode in my 2014 biography of McConnell:

Three hundred million gallons of coal slurry, the viscous mix of mud, coal waste, and chemicals left as a by-product from purifying coal, broke through the inadequate buffer that separated the 68-acre holding pond of the Martin County Coal Corporation’s Big Branch Refuse Impoundment from the surrounding mine. The dark sludge poured through two miles of mine tunnels — a miner had left the area just moments earlier — before oozing out of a mountainside opening into the hilly landscape of eastern Kentucky. It found its way into two tributaries of the Big Sandy River — first Coldwater Creek, and then, after the pressure forced a break in the other side of the impoundment, into Wolf Creek — filling them ever higher until it overran embankments, spreading toward the homes lining the creek bottoms of Inez, the 500-person town that Lyndon Baines Johnson visited in 1964 to promote his War on Poverty, and covering their yards with a vast moat of goop that rose to six feet deep in places. Inez resident Mickey McCoy threw golf-ball-size rocks into the blackened creeks and watched as they refused to sink in the noxious pudding. “It was a slow-moving black smothering,” he says. There was no immediate effort by the company to alert the townspeople sleeping in the spill’s path — Abraham Lincoln “Linc” Chapman didn’t know about the sludge until he encountered it while heading up Coldwater Creek before daybreak to hunt deer. “It was a lot of chaos,” he says. “If you never saw a slurry spill it’s hard to describe it. It was like a lava flow coming down from the creek bed.”

The spill, which was vastly larger in scale than the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez, left a 70-mile path of destruction running all the way to the Ohio River, killing 1.6 million fish and countless wildlife that got stuck in the muck or drank from it, sweeping away roads and bridges, and contaminating the water systems of more than 27,000 people.

Major consequences loomed for the owner of the Martin County Coal Company: mining giant Massey Energy, which was led by Blankenship. Among the agencies that kicked into gear were the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which had issued recommendations about strengthening the holding pond walls in 1994 following a smaller spill.

A team of investigators from MSHA was on its way to alleging eight separate violations against Massey that could have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines and laid the legal basis for criminal charges of willful negligence.

But in the midst of their work, the presidency fell to George W. Bush following the Florida recount and Supreme Court ruling in Bush v. Gore. “I don’t think I have ever felt better, including my own election victories, than the night of the Supreme Court decision,” McConnell said later.

The day of Bush’s inauguration, the head of the MSHA investigative team, Tony Oppegard, got a call from superiors alerting him that the Bush administration was declining to approve the six-month extension that had been arranged for him so he could finish the investigation. The person who replaced Oppegard, Tim Thompson, arrived in Kentucky and told Oppegard’s No. 2, Jack Spadaro, to scale back the investigation. The team had 30 people left to interview, but the new manager told them they had time for only six. “We were told, ‘Boys, you need to close out your investigation,’” Spadaro told me in an interview for the book. “We said, ‘No, we’re not done.’ He said, ‘You’re done.’”

MSHA, which is part of the Labor Department, was overseen by the secretary of labor: Chao, whom Bush nominated upon taking office. Chao, who had previously led the Peace Corps and United Way, turned to her husband’s associates to fill out her office. She hired as her chief of staff Steven Law, who had served six years as McConnell’s chief of staff (and went on to co-found the super PAC Crossroads GPS with Karl Rove.) She hired as her spokesman McConnell’s former spokesman. And the new director for MSHA, a former Utah coal operator named David Lauriski, hired as one of his top aides yet another former McConnell staffer, Andrew Rajec, who began attending many of the meetings of the Martin County investigators.

In my book, I described what happened next:

Thompson pushed to have the case against Massey reduced to just two violations with a fine of $55,000 each, rather than the eight that Spadaro and his fellow investigators believed were justified. One day in April 2002, Thompson got a call from MSHA headquarters outside Washington, D.C., after which, with the investigators watching, he crossed out a section of the draft report that called MSHA to account for its lax oversight.

That was enough for Spadaro. Seeing where things were heading, he tendered his resignation in a letter published in the local papers. ‘I do not believe that the accident investigation report, as it is being developed, will offer complete and objective analysis of the accident and its causes,” he wrote. As word of Spadaro’s protest spread, Elaine Chao dismissed it by telling a reporter, “It’s time to call off the MSHA food fight over the Martin County Coal Slurry investigation.”

Soon afterward, Spadaro became the target of an internal audit. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2018 at 1:30 pm

Dr. John Plunkett, RIP. He told the truth about bad forensics — and was prosecuted for it.

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Radley Balko writes in the Washington Post:

Like a lot of other doctors, child welfare advocates and forensic specialists, John Plunkett at first bought into the theory of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). This is the theory that an autopsy on a young, recently deceased child reveals three symptoms — bleeding in the back of the eyes, brain swelling, and bleeding in the subdural space just above the brain — those injuries could only have been caused by violent shaking. The diagnosis gained popularity in the 1990s, then became more common still after the high-profile trial and conviction of British nanny Louise Woodward in 1997.

It’s a convenient diagnosis for prosecutors, in that it provides a cause of death (violent shaking), a culprit (whoever was last with the child before death) and even intent (prosecutors often argue that the violent, extended shaking establishes mens rea.) According to a 2015 survey by The Washington Post and the Medill Justice Project, there were about 1,800 SBS prosecutions between 2001 and 2015, with 1,600 resulting in convictions.

But in the late 1990s, Plunkett — a forensic pathologist in Minnesota — began to have doubts about the diagnosis. He started investigating cases in which children had died in a manner similar to the way accused caregivers had described the deaths of the children they were watching — by short-distance falls. What he found alarmed him. In 2001, Plunkett published a study detailing how he had found symptoms similar to those in the SBS diagnosis in children who had fallen off playground equipment. It was a landmark study. If a short-distance fall could produce symptoms similar to those in SBS cases, the SBS diagnosis that said symptoms could only come from shaking was wrong. By that point, hundreds of people had been convicted based on SBS testimony from medical experts. Some of them were undoubtedly guilty. But if Plunkett was right, some of them almost certainly weren’t.

Naturally, defense attorneys began asking Plunkett to testify. He obliged. The same year his study was published, Plunkett testified in the trial of Lisa Stickney, a licensed day care worker in Oregon. She had been charged with murder for the death of a young boy in her care. According to Stickney, she was in another room when she heard a thud. She rushed over and found the boy on the floor near an overturned chair, with blood coming from his head. But according to prosecutors, an autopsy showed the boy had the symptoms that conventional wisdom held could only have come from violent shaking. Thanks in large part to Plunkett’s testimony, Stickney was acquitted.

The acquittal was another landmark moment in the SBS story. Plunkett was now a threat to SBS cases all over the country. The office of Deschutes County, Ore., District Attorney Michael Dugan responded with something unprecedented — it criminally charged an expert witness over testimony he had given in court. One of the state’s experts also filed an ethics complaint against Stickney’s other expert witness. The actual charges were filed by ssociate District Attorney Cliff Lu — four counts of “false swearing,” a misdemeanor charge related to perjury. Dugan’s office also contacted other prosecutors across the country to tell them that Plunkett was under criminal investigation. It was a pretty obvious effort to silence him — to prevent him from testifying in other cases. No defense attorney was about to call a witness if they jury would also learn that he was facing criminal charges over testimony he had given in court.

Because the charges stemmed from Plunkett’s testimony in an SBS case prosecuted by Dugan’s office, he and his assistants were eventually forced to withdraw from the case. The charges were then picked up by the office of the Oregon Attorney General. Perhaps this was just a reach by a rogue DA’s office. Perhaps once the state attorney general and his staff of professionals reviewed the case, they’d see the charges for the farce that they were. Nope. Oregon assistant Attorney General Eric Wasmann took up the case and brought Plunkett to trial.

I’ve been covering the forensics and the criminal justice system for 12 years. There have been some really bad expert witnesses to take the stand in U.S. courts. More than a few of them have been the main reason why an innocent person went to prison — and even to death row. I can only think of a couple of instances in which the expert was criminally prosecuted, and those cases were only after overwhelming evidence of really egregious misconduct, such as faking test results. The charges against Plunkett were about inconsequential details for which the worst possible explanation was simply that Plunkett had misremembered. Half the charges were dropped before trial. A judge acquitted him on the other two.

One of the remaining charges involved another expert witness named Mary Case. She was an ardent supporter of the SBS diagnosis. Plunkett was asked in court if he had ever participated in another trial in which Case was involved. He replied that to his knowledge he hadn’t. It turns out he had. But this was a man who testified in court many, many times. He had often been asked about Case’s work, even if she wasn’t testifying for the other side.  That’s an incredibly petty inaccuracy on which to pursue criminal charges. Plunkett had little to gain by deliberately giving a false answer to that question. Even Case herself — who again, believed Plunkett was wrong about SBS — told the ABA Journal in 2005, “I felt it was kind of a petty charge and I didn’t want to be involved . . .  his liberty or his livelihood could be lost for saying something slightly incorrect.” Asked why an expert witness like Plunkett could be facing criminal charges, Case responded that he must have “angered the prosecutor.”

Today, the scientific consensus on SBS has since shifted significantly in Plunkett’s direction. In 2015,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2018 at 11:51 am

Shampoo ‘as bad a health risk as car fumes’

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I blogged a comment on this article but was locked out of the article itself, since the Times allows non-subscribers to view only two articles per week. But now I can read it, and I think it’s worth blogging. FWIW, I did stop using shampoo, just rinsing my hair, and it seems to work fine.

Tom Whipple reports in the Times:

Shampoo, oven cleaner, deodorant and other household products are as significant a source of the most dangerous form of air pollution as cars, research has found.

Scientists studying air pollution in Los Angeles found that up to half of particles known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) came from domestic products, which also include paint, pesticides, bleach and perfumes.

These compounds degrade into particles known as PM2.5, which cause respiratory problems and are implicated in 29,000 premature deaths each year in the UK. Traffic had been assumed to be the biggest source of air pollution. The new findings, published in the journal Science, led to warnings that countries may struggle to hit pollution targets, with most tackling vehicle emissions.

The research came as another study claimed that professional cleaners suffered a decline in lung function comparable to that seen in regular smokers.

PM2.5 are one of the biggest global air pollution concerns. Scientists who had blamed them mainly on traffic realised that they could not account for measured air quality levels simply by looking at car emissions, however. They estimate that in Los Angeles as much as 50 per cent of VOCs came from domestic products and said there was no reason why the research would not be replicated in other cities.

In past decades, cars have become significantly cleaner and their PM2.5 output has plummeted. Household products, which are also often derived from petroleum, have been overlooked.

Joost de Gouw, from the University of Colorado Boulder, said to combat urban air pollution this unexpected source must be tackled. “We don’t use a vast amount of these products in our daily lives. It is pretty small compared to fuel,” he said. “But that fuel is combusted very efficiently. A small amount makes it into the atmosphere.”

With cleaning products, the impact is more significant. When the VOCs in the products enter the atmosphere they undergo reactions that form ozone and PM2.5 particles, becoming harmful to health. “The net result is it rivals that from vehicles,” Professor de Gouw said. Jessica Gilman, of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said people should cut use of the worst items or use unscented products.

The research, presented at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, came as a Norwegian study found that over 20 years cleaners had a fall in lung capacity and rise in asthma similar to that seen among regular smokers. The scientists, whose work was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, blamed chemicals in the cleaning products.

Alastair Lewis, professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of York, who was not involved in either study, said that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2018 at 11:48 am

Greenland’s Hand-Sized Wooden Maps Were Used for Storytelling, Not Navigation

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Hans Harmsen writes in Atlas Obscura:

On September 1, 1884, the Danish explorer Gustav Holm and his men set ashore at the small settlement of Ammassalik (“the place with capelin”), on the eastern coast of Greenland. They had traveled for four months, from the trading post of Nanortalik in the south, in a small armada of seal-skin boats and kayaks. Johannes Hansen, a translator on the expedition, recalled that day’s first meeting with the local Tunumiit people in his diary, “… sometimes they lined up quite far away from us and stared at us, and yelled îh and âh; and then someone said, ‘We are sorry for you poor things, for having come this long way up to our dismal land; but to us you are incredibly funny, and pleasing to look at!’”

The Tunumiit knew of the Danish missionaries and traders to the south, but very few had actually seen a European before. These East Greenlanders didn’t know it, but Holm’s arrival heralded the eventual end of a way of life going back a millennium. The meeting also generated some of the most well-known, unusual, and misunderstood artifacts from the Inuit world.

Left: a wooden map of the East Greenland coast, c. 1885.; Right: umiaq and kayaks, Ammassalik, East Greenland, 1908, by Th. N. Krabbe. GREENLAND NATIONAL MUSEUM AND ARCHIVES

Accounts describe Holm as a quiet, reserved, inquisitive man with a steadfastness hardened by years of naval service. His mission was exploratory, backed by the Danish Commission for the Direction of Geological and Geographical Investigations in Greenland, to gather as much information as possible about this unforgiving stretch of coastline, known for violent storms and impenetrable ice fields. There also appears to have been some interest among the Danish colonial administration at the time to see if any long-lost Norse colonies had somehow survived the centuries, hidden away along the northern reaches of the eastern coast.

Holm had a keen appreciation for Inuit boat design—a good instinct in an environment only the locals understood well—and was using the traditional Inuit seal-skin umiaq, which allowed him and his crew to move safely and swiftly through dangerous fog and brash ice. In addition to three Europeans tasked with charting the terrain and making scientific observations of weather and geology, the crew was made up of about 30 Greenlanders from the south, who navigated, rowed, did the heavy lifting, and provided a steady diet of seal meat. A few were on hand to act as translators and missionaries as well.

After Holm arrived in Ammassalik, today a town known as Tasiilaq, it was clear that the coming winter would prohibit safe passage back south, so the expedition decided to settle in for the next few months. This layover gave Holm the time he wanted to build relationships, as well as document the customs, language, and stories of the Tunumiit. Trade of goods is the currency of goodwill in many of these cultural exchanges, so Holm had brought European ironware, fabric, tobacco, and beads, which he bartered for anything and everything he could get his hands on. By the end of the winter, he had collected about 500 objects, from traditional clothing, hunting and fishing gear, and furnishings, to toys, magical talismans, masks, and ritual objects. To this day, much of the knowledge of traditional East Greenlandic art and handicrafts is informed by this collection.

At the same time, Holm was focused on mapping the coast and filling huge gaps in knowledge of the coastline’s geography. This was a foreign practice to the Tunumiit, who had a different way of seeing the world. For these seafaring people, geographic knowledge was something remembered and shared through stories and conversations of travels and hunting. “The drawing of charts and maps,” Holm wrote, “was of course quite unknown to the people of [Ammassalik], but I have often seen how clever they were as soon as they grasped the idea of our charts. A native from Sermelik, called Angmagainak, who had never had a pencil in his hand and had only once visited the East coast, drew a fine chart for me covering the whole distance from Tingmiarniut to Sermiligak, about 280 miles.” They also provided him with incredibly detailed descriptions of terrain, flora and fauna, and, in some cases, local weather patterns and lunar and solar cycles. To pass some of this knowledge on to the curious, acquisitive Holm, one hunter presented him with a set of unusual maps that have been, by turns, overlooked, discounted, misunderstood, and, eventually, admired.

On February 8, 1885, a hunter named Kunit approached Holm with a driftwood carving he had made—a representation of unbroken coastline that could be flipped around as one followed the contours of the coast. “[Kunit] had carved the chart himself and declared that it was not unusual to make such charts when one wanted to tell others about regions they did not know,” Holm wrote. The hunter produced three maps in total, now collectively referred to as the “Ammassalik maps.”

One carving, 5.5 inches in length, is highly detailed, embedded with all sorts of information and place names for the fjords above and beyond the 65th parallel. It even indicates locations where a traveler would need to carry his kayak overland to get to the next fjord. Another carving measures a little over 8.5 inches long and depicts a specific chain of islands along the coast, connected by narrow stems. These two maps could be placed next to one another to demonstrate the relative positions of the islands along the coast. A third, smaller map was also commissioned by Holm and shows the fjords stretching from Sermiligaaq to Kangerlussuatsiaq and includes valleys, shores, and inlets farther inland. Holm never actually traveled through the regions represented by the maps, but they helped him get a larger understanding of the local geography.

Remarkable though the maps are in both craft and the information they carry, they didn’t garner much attention when they were first brought back to Denmark. They were seen as just curiosities in his collection—but that quickly changed and they became a source of controversy. Some contemporaries of Holm doubted that Inuit people were capable of producing these types of maps, and that they were just the result of mimicry—classic Eurocentrism. In 1886, one Mr. Hansen-Blangsted argued in the French Minutes of the Meetings of the Geographical Society and the Central Commission that it was highly improbable that an “Eskimo” could possess the mental faculties to “invent” a three-dimensional wooden map. It was much more logical, he posited, that some shipwrecked European sailor taught the practice to the Tunumiit hunter—conveniently ignoring, of course, that no Western seafaring tradition had ever produced maps like this. Holm disputed Hansen-Blangsted’s racist claims and jumped in to defend the skill, memory, and intellectual capacity of the East Greenlanders he had gotten to know.

A century later, the carvings have proven to be remarkable time capsules that capture the perception of the land and sea—alive and with depth—through the eyes of an East Greenlander at the moment of first contact with the Western world. The maps show how the Tunumiit cognitively organized their world, and have captured the imaginations of map enthusiasts around the world for over half a century. But as time passes the maps have acquired a new mythology that doesn’t quite suit them. Anecdotal descriptions of the maps online today compare them to some sort of archaic, ruggedized handheld GPS device: waterproof, small enough to fit inside a mitten, and naturally buoyant. It’s easy to picture a lonely seal hunter in his kayak using the map to navigate through an archipelago by the light of the moon. But this is how we use modern maps, as roadside companions, and suggesting that the Tunumiit used them the same way is nearly as Eurocentric as Hansen-Blangsted’s dismissal. There is, in fact, no ethnographic or historical evidence that carved wooden maps were ever used by any Inuit peoples for navigation in open water, and there are no other similar wooden maps like these found in any collection of Inuit material anywhere else in the world.

But woodcarving was a common activity among the Tunumiit and Holm mentions that carving maps was not out of the ordinary. The Inuit people have used carvings in a certain way—to accompany stories and illustrate important information about people, places, and things. A wooden relief map, would have functioned as a storytelling device, like a drawing in the sand or snow, that could be discarded after the story was told. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including a photo of one of the maps that can be rotated and viewed on all sides.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2018 at 10:58 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

The Man Who Hates Criminal Justice Reform

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Matt Ford reports in The New Republic:

Bill Otis doesn’t think too highly of the criminal justice reform movement in America today. Last year, the Georgetown University law professor told NPR that mandatory-minimum sentences were a “big success,” citing the drop-off in crime since the 1980s. [In fact, this decline is due to the abatement of environmental lead following the switch to unleaded gasoline, and many studies have convincingly demonstrated. Otis is making the all-too-common logic error of post hoc ergo propter hoc. – LG] In blog posts, he’s even more blunt: “Q: Where do the ideas behind sentencing reform lead?” he asked last February. “A: To the morgue.”

And don’t get him started on racial disparities in imprisonment.

“They are NOT caused by racism,” he wrote in a 2013 blog post. “They are caused by making choices. Of course the question is then asked: Well, why do blacks make, proportionately speaking, more criminal choices than whites? Isn’t that because of the damaging effects of white people’s racial bigotry? And the answer, which we must not hesitate to give, is ‘no.’”

These views, though increasingly unpopular with criminal justice policymakers, are not anathema to the current administration. In March, Otis was among four people President Donald Trump nominated to fill vacancies on the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The commission isn’t typically prone to partisan warfare. In fact, Congress created the seven-member body in 1984 precisely so it could avoid politicized battles when crafting federal sentencing guidelines. Otis’s nomination could upset that balance.

“He’s been the arch-nemesis of criminal justice reform at the federal level for a decade at least,” Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), told me. “He’s opposed basically every legislative reform—every reform the Sentencing Commission has passed—and just seems to enjoy that curmudgeonly position of saying no.”

FAMM, which advocates for sentencing reform through Congress and before the Sentencing Commission, has never endorsed or opposed a commission nominee before, preferring instead to work with those commissioners once they’re in office. But Otis’s nomination changed that. “He’s an ideologue in a position that is supposed to be driven by evidence and data,” Ring said.

The seven-member commission’s main function is to draft and revise federal sentencing guidelines, which aim to impose a degree of uniformity on federal criminal sentences nationwide. In practice, it’s been able to reduce thousands of sentences for non-violent federal prisoners. The commission also functions as a clearinghouse of sorts for criminal justice data and statistical reports.

Thanks to a 2005 Supreme Court decision, the guidelines are no longer mandatory for federal sentencing. But they still carry plenty of weight within the judiciary. “Every sentence that isn’t governed by a mandatory minimum is governed by the guidelines,” Ring explained. “They have a gravitational pull on judges. Whoever is part of the team that makes those guidelines has influence.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Otis would bring firsthand experience with the federal criminal justice system under both Democratic and Republican presidents. Among the posts he held during three decades in the government are stints as a legal advisor to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s administrator, as a special counsel in the George W. Bush White House, and as a federal prosecutor in the eastern district of Virginia, where he led the office’s appellate division.

Otis’s nomination has raised alarm among pro-reform groups that see the commission as a key ally in reining in mass incarceration in America, and it’s at odds with the reformist zeitgeist that’s swept D.C. think tanks and advocacy groups on the left, right, and center. Organizations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Koch brothers’ political network have put muscle behind the effort to reduce over-incarceration in recent years. Lower crime rates also helped spur state and federal lawmakers to rethink harsh policies from a bygone era.

Not everyone is on board with the shift away from tough-on-crime politics, including Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But few are more vocal about it than Otis. “Although I am decidedly out-of-step with my learned colleagues inside the Beltway, and despite all the puff pieces in the press running in the other direction, I don’t feel lonely in opposing the more-crime-faster proposals marketing themselves as ‘sentencing reform,’” he wrote in 2014.

Otis declined to comment for this article, citing standard practices for pending judicial-branch nominees. Those who’ve worked with him say his appointment would bring a much-needed alternative perspective to the Sentencing Commission’s work. Kent Scheidegger, a California-based attorney and legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, told me that he thinks it’s important to avoid a “uniformity of viewpoint” on the commission.

“[Otis] has a view that the rush to lessen sentences, particularly for serious crimes, is a mistake, that it’s going too far too fast, and that people who have the contrary view necessarily are opposed to that,” he said. Scheidegger shares that skepticism of reformers’ efforts, telling me, “I think they’re largely forgetting history and condemning us to repeat it.”

The two men are regular contributors to Crime and Consequences, a blog that discusses criminal justice issues from a conservative perspective. Otis’s posts there offer brief but illuminating glimpses into how he approaches the subject. His central theme is straightforward and often bluntly expressed: that tough-on-crime policies helped bring down crime over the past 25 years, and scaling them back will cause crime to surge upwards once more.

In an address to the Tea Party Patriots in 2016, Otis cast the push for sentencing reform as part of a national malaise. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2018 at 10:16 am

Trump team hired spy firm for ‘dirty ops’ on Iran arms deal

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This has been in the news, but I finally read it—and it’s shocking, though totally consistent with Trump’s (lack of) character. Mark Townsend and Julian Borger report in the Guardian:

Aides to Donald Trump, the US president, hired an Israeli private intelligence agency to orchestrate a “dirty ops” campaign against key individuals from the Obama administration who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal, the Observercan reveal.

People in the Trump camp contacted private investigators in May last year to “get dirt” on Ben Rhodes, who had been one of Barack Obama’s top national security advisers, and Colin Kahl, deputy assistant to Obama, as part of an elaborate attempt to discredit the deal.

The extraordinary revelations come days before Trump’s 12 May deadline to either scrap or continue to abide by the international deal limiting Iran’s nuclear programme.

ack Straw, who as foreign secretary was involved in earlier efforts to restrict Iranian weapons, said: “These are extraordinary and appalling allegations but which also illustrate a high level of desperation by Trump and [the Israeli prime minister] Benjamin Netanyahu, not so much to discredit the deal but to undermine those around it.”

One former high-ranking British diplomat with wide experience of negotiating international peace agreements, requesting anonymity, said: “It’s bloody outrageous to do this. The whole point of negotiations is to not play dirty tricks like this.”

Sources said that officials linked to Trump’s team contacted investigators days after Trump visited Tel Aviv a year ago, his first foreign tour as US president. Trump promised Netanyahu that Iran would never have nuclear weapons and suggested that the Iranians thought they could “do what they want” since negotiating the nuclear deal in 2015. A source with details of the “dirty tricks campaign” said: “The idea was that people acting for Trump would discredit those who were pivotal in selling the deal, making it easier to pull out of it.

According to incendiary documents seen by the Observer, investigators contracted by the private intelligence agency were told to dig into the personal lives and political careers of Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, and Kahl, a national security adviser to the former vice-president Joe Biden. Among other things they were looking at personal relationships, any involvement with Iran-friendly lobbyists, and if they had benefited personally or politically from the peace deal.

Investigators were also apparently told to contact prominent Iranian Americans as well as pro-deal journalists – from the New York Times, MSNBC television, the Atlantic, Vox website and Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper among others – who had frequent contact with Rhodes and Kahl in an attempt to establish whether they had violated any protocols by sharing sensitive intelligence. They are believed to have looked at comments made by Rhodes in a 2016 New York Times profile in which he admitted relying on inexperienced reporters to create an “echo chamber” that helped sway public opinion to secure the deal. It is also understood that the smear campaign wanted to establish if Rhodes was among those who backed a request by Susan Rice, Obama’s final national security adviser, to unmask the identities of Trump transition officials caught up in the surveillance of foreign targets.

Although sources have confirmed that contact and an initial plan of attack was provided to private investigators by representatives of Trump, it is not clear how much work was actually undertaken, for how long or what became of any material unearthed.

Neither is it known if the black ops constituted only a strand of a wider Trump-Netanyahu collaboration to undermine the deal or if investigators targeted other individuals such as John Kerry, the lead American signatory to the deal. Both Rhodes and Kahl said they had no idea of the campaign against them. Rhodes said: “I was not aware, though sadly am not surprised. I would say that digging up dirt on someone for carrying out their professional responsibilities in their positions as White House officials is a chillingly authoritarian thing to do.”

A spokesman for the White House’s national security council offered . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2018 at 9:57 am

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