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No Protection for Protectors: The GOP effort to kill the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

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Gary Rivlin and Susan Antilla report in The Intercept:

Shortly after 10:00 p.m. on a Tuesday in late October, Vice President Mike Pence was summoned to the Senate floor. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau had finalized a landmark new rule in July banning the forced arbitration provisions that banks and credit card companies commonly tuck into the fine print of agreements, barring their customers from joining class-action suits. House Republicans quickly voted to nullify the new rule, but weeks later, with a deadline looming, it was still unclear if the Senate would act in time. After intense pressure from industry and the Trump administration, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was finally able to muster 50 votes, and Pence was parachuted in to break a 50-50 tie. Politico called the vote “a blow to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau” and “Republicans’ most far-reaching victory yet this year in their effort to roll back financial regulations.” CFPB Director Richard Cordray was even more blunt: “Wall Street won and ordinary people lost.”

The rule’s spectacular defeat marked a rare Wall Street victory over an agency created by Dodd-Frank, the sweeping financial reform law Barack Obama signed in 2010. The CFPB was barely five years old when Donald Trump was elected, promising to “do a number” on financial regulations. Just weeks into the new presidency, Sen. Ted Cruz declared the CFPB “an out-of-control bureaucracy” and introduced a one-page bill to abolish it outright. McConnell, then minority leader, had told a gathering of bankers in 2013, “If I had my way, we wouldn’t have the agency at all.” A dead or severely injured CFPB seemed a certainty in those early days. If nothing else, surely Cordray would get pink-slipped. “It’s time to fire King Richard,” exclaimed Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., shortly before Trump’s inauguration.

Yet Cordray is departing on his own terms, amid speculation that he will run for governor of Ohio. He announced on Wednesday that he expects to step down before the end of the month, and when he does, he’ll leave behind a vibrant, if profoundly embattled, agency.

His departure will be “a huge loss,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform. If Trump appoints a new director who is indifferent, or even hostile, to consumer issues, she said, “It will be incredibly costly to the American public.”

This past summer, Cheklist, a trade magazine for check cashers and payday lenders, published a cover story about the frustration roiling fringe financial players. The CFPB was still a “nettlesome bureau,” its editor wrote, and not a single bill aimed at weakening the bureau had reached the president’s desk. Meanwhile, its aggressive enforcement actions against debt collectorscredit repair companies, and online payday lenders were continuing unabated. Just three weeks before Congress reversed the arbitration rule, the CFPB finalized another new rule that tightened restrictions around high-interest, small-dollar loans to stop what Cordray called “payday debt traps.”

Yet it’s not just smaller financial players who have felt cheated over the past year. Richard Hunt, who has been paid more than $1 million a year  by the Consumer Bankers Association, a trade group representing the country’s largest banks, including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase, expressed delight after the Senate killed the “ill-conceived” ban on mandatory arbitration clauses. But mostly, his organization has been left expressing disappointment. Thoughts of halting the CFPB have been replaced by angry pronouncements about its unregulated powers. “It’s a fact,” Hunt said in an interview. “It’s the most unaccountable agency in our government, period.”

In fact, the CFPB has emerged as that rare beast — a fast-moving agency that actually chalks up wins for average Americans. By the end of 2016, shortly before Trump took office, the 5 1/2 -year-old bureau’s enforcement actions against everyone from the country’s biggest banks to small-time debt collectors had already returned $11.9 billion to 29 million consumers. The CFPB had created a public database of consumer complaints against banks and other lenders, and had issued new rules governing everything from mortgages to student loans to the prepaid cards that millions of “unbanked” Americans carry in their wallets. A year ago, the bureau finalized new rules giving prepaid customers some of the same protections enjoyed by those who use credit cards. Pressure from the bureau also resulted in the end of several onerous practices by lenders, such as demanding full repayment on student loans if the parent who co-signed the loan died.

Through its complaint database, the CFPB has secured redress for more than 160,000 individual complainants, such as Gene DeSantis, a former TD Bank customer near Albany, New York. DeSantis, a consumer lawyer himself, nevertheless registered one of the 800,000-plus complaints the CFPB has received. While he was away for the winter, DeSantis had mail forwarded to his Utah home. But TD, he found, does not forward its bills unless a customer contacts the bank directly, even when a customer like DeSantis has arranged for the post office to do so, and so he missed a payment. After a surprise call from a debt collector, DeSantis said he called customer service but “never got anywhere.” Meanwhile, his late charges ballooned to $235 on his $136 missed payment. “If a person like me is rendered helpless, God forbid what the average person faces,” DeSantis said. Within a week of filing his CFPB complaint, TD dropped interest and penalties. (A TD spokesperson declined to comment on the bank’s refusal to waive the fees until the CFPB got involved.)

“Because of the bureau,” said Mike Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, “we’ve gone from, ‘Where does it say I can’t do that?’ to ‘You have a duty to treat customers fairly.’”

Even without Cordray at the helm, the problem that confronts Hunt and his frenemies running other financial industry trade associations is that the CFPB is simply too popular to eliminate. A 2017 poll by Americans for Financial Reform and the Center for Responsible Lending showed that 78 percent of likely voters believe we need tough rules and enforcement to prevent another financial crisis. Even among Republicans the ratio was 2-to-1. A poll conducted at the end of 2016 showed that, by that same 2-to-1 margin, Trump voters want the bureau left alone or strengthened. Its popularity seems to be one reason the White House has not waged the frontal war on the CFPB that its allies so sorely wanted. With Wells Fargo and Equifax exploding in scandal and their CEOs marched before Congress, anger toward Wall Street is almost as strong on the right as it is on the left. How, in that context, do you shut down an agency called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?

Industry’s answer has been a multimillion dollar, multi-front battle to discredit and defang the bureau, a war declared even before the enemy officially existed. Almost immediately after Dodd-Frank became law, a  . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more. It’s a lengthy and well-written article giving a history of the effort, strongly resisted by the GOP, to protect consumers.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 November 2017 at 8:51 am

Is Roy Moore Guilty Beyond Reasonable Doubt?

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Mark Kleiman comments on the case against Roy Moore, but he does not mention that for years Moore repeatedly and flagrantly lied that he received no money from his charity, when in fact it has been confirmed that he was paid $180,000 a year for part-time work for the charity. So we know that Moore will not hesitate to lie, and to lie repeatedly, to make himself look good. That’s worth keeping in mind.

Kleiman writes at the Washington Monthly:

Leigh Corfman says that she was fourteen years old and waiting with her mother outside a courtroom before a custody hearing when Roy Moore, then thirty-two and an assistant district attorney, offered to stay with Corfman while her mother went into court. Corfman says Moore used that opportunity to get her phone number, and subsequently took her out on several dates. On one of those occasions, he took her to his home, undressed her down to her underwear, undressed himself to the same extent, fondled her through her bra and panties, and attempted to put her hand on his genitals.

If what Corfman says is true, Moore committed a felony under Alabama law (which hasn’t changed in the meantime). Moore says that none of it happened: “I never knew this woman. I never met this woman.”

Moore’s defenders say that he ought to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and that a “mere accusation” (as Donald Trump called it) shouldn’t block Moore’s election to the U.S. Senate. “It’s just he-said, she-said” is the favored phrase. (Moore and his friends also want to ignore the three other juvenile but barely legal girls who say he took them out and kissed them.)

As Mitt Romney among others has pointed out, this is absurdly confused; it’s an attempt to apply courtroom standards outside their proper realm. No one thinks an ordinary political charge needs to be proven beyond reasonable doubt before voters take it into account, and there’s no reason why a charge that happens also to be felony should be any different. (Moore’s attempt, and that of his supporters, to blame the Washington Post for concocting “fake news,” while it might be effective political rhetoric, lost all of its logical force when the Wall Street Journal re-interviewed the Post‘s sources and found that all of them confirmed that the Post had accurately reported their statements.)

Even if this were a criminal trial, Moore might well be convicted. Leigh Corfman’s sworn testimony would be sufficient to establish a prima facie case. It would then be up to the jury to weigh the credibility of the accusation against the credibility of the denial and decide whether they were convinced, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Moore was guilty. Sometimes the jurors decide that they are so convinced, even if it’s simply the bare word of the accuser against the bare word of the complainant: in a mugging, for example, there may be no other witness or physical evidence. If the victim has no apparent motive to lie—while the accused has the strongest of motives, the desire to escape a felony conviction—it may not be unreasonable for a jury to decide that the accusation is convincing enough to convict.

But Moore’s position is actually much worse than that of our hypothetical robbery suspect.

Leigh Corfman is the only person who says Moore fondled her. But she’s not the only witness to the pickup outside the courtroom; her mother, Nancy Wells, was also there. And Nancy Wells corroborates that part of her daughter’s story; she recalls thinking how nice it was for this young gentleman to offer to take care of her daughter.

Moore, however, denies not just the fondling, but any sort of contact with Leigh Corfman at all. On that point, it’s not his word against hers; he is flatly contradicted by two witnesses, not one. And again, his motivation for lying is obvious, while theirs is obscure; Leigh Corfman, for example is a Republican who voted for Trump, which makes it less likely that she is trying to derail Moore’s political career on partisan or ideological grounds. (This is very unlike the typical date-rape case, where the defense is consent and the complainant may have strong reasons to want to deny that consent was given even if it was.)

Once a juror had convinced himself, based on the testimony of not one witness but two, that Moore was lying about the pick-up, then the maxim “Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus” would apply. As one standard jury instruction says, “If you find that any witness has intentionally testified falsely as to any material fact, you may disregard that witness’s entire testimony.” If the jury chose to disregard Moore’s testimony, then it would be left only with Leigh Corfman’s sworn word as evidence. The uncontradicted testimony of a single witness may easily constitute proof beyond reasonable doubt. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 November 2017 at 8:31 am

Posted in Election, GOP, Law

Roy Moore’s Disingenuous Defense

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“Disingenuous” in this case is equivalent to “dishonest,” but that’s a Roy Moore standard—recall how he dishonestly said that he received no salary from his charity when in fact he was paid $180,000 per year. Oops.

Charles Bethea reports in the New Yorker:

On Tuesday, Sean Hannity, who had been an emphatic supporter of the Senate candidate Roy Moore, gave the embattled Republican twenty-four hours to explain the allegations of sexual molestation and misconduct made against him by an increasing number of women in Alabama. Several women allege that Moore touched, pursued, or even assaulted them when he was an assistant district attorney in his early thirties and they were much younger—in one case, as young as fourteen. Moore allegedly approached some of these women at the mall in Gadsden, Alabama, where his behavior troubled many local residents.
“You must immediately and fully come up with a satisfactory explanation for your inconsistencies that I just showed,” Hannity said on his Fox News show. Hannity seemed particularly concerned about Moore’s fifth accuser, Beverly Young Nelson. When Nelson made her allegations public, on Tuesday, appearing at a press conference alongside her lawyer, Gloria Allred, she brought along an old high-school yearbook of hers that appeared to have Moore’s signature below a personal note. It read, “To a sweeter more beautiful girl, I could not say, ‘Merry Christmas.’ ” This yearbook note was intended to help corroborate Nelson’s claim that she and Moore knew each other, a claim that Moore has denied.
On Wednesday evening, Moore released an open letter in response to Hannity. It began by seeking sympathy. “I am suffering,” he wrote. Moore then attempted to cast doubt on the “false allegations” against him in a few different ways. Regarding Nelson, Moore referenced the accuser’s divorce, for which he was the presiding judge. Nelson, Moore wrote, “was party to a divorce action before me in Etowah County Circuit Court in 1999. No motion was made for me to recuse.” Moore went on to wonder at the notion that this “apparently caused her no distress at a time that was 18 years closer to the alleged assault,” while now, “talking before the cameras about the supposed assault, she seemingly could not contain her emotions.”
This morning, I corresponded with a prominent Alabama attorney who reviewed the filings in Nelson’s 1999 divorce case. Based on those filings, the attorney insisted, Moore’s claims in the open letter are “completely disingenuous.” Nelson, this attorney told me, “was never before Moore,” since the divorce was not litigated. Rather, as court documents show, the divorce was filed, continued, and then dismissed. “These are all unilateral actions by the lawyer for the plaintiff,” the attorney went on. “A lawyer for the other side never even appeared. It is doubtful that these documents were even given to Nelson.” In any case, the attorney told me, Moore, whose signature is only on the motion for dismissal—not the original filing or motion to continue—had no actual discretion over the case.
“When an agreed motion to dismiss is filed, Moore would have no discretion and have to sign,” the attorney continued. “Most likely, he never even looked at the parties’ names and Beverly had a different last name by then anyway.” The attorney concluded, “Moore’s lawyer’s statement that Beverly Nelson was before Moore in court and never objected to this circumstance was a lie.”
As ThinkProgress noted earlier today, the claim that Moore made in his statement was reiterated by his attorneys on Wednesday evening. “As it turns out, in 1999, Ms. Nelson filed a divorce action against her then-husband, Mr. Harris,” the lawyer Phillip Jauregui said at a press conference. “Guess who that case was before? It was filed in Etowah County, and the judge assigned was Roy S. Moore, circuit judge of Etowah County. There was contact.” ThinkProgress reviewed the case file, and concluded that there was no contact.
Nelson’s divorce attorney, Rodney Ward, still practices in Gadsden. He concurred with this attorney’s analysis of Nelson’s divorce case. “I reviewed my file, and there was no hearing set in front of Judge Moore,” Ward told me this morning. “Looking at a copy of the order, it looks like Moore didn’t sign it. It looks like it was stamped by his assistant.” Had Beverly Nelson known who the presiding judge was, Ward went on, “my client would have filed a motion to have the judge recuse himself, to have a different judge appointed. So I don’t even think she knew who the judge was. It was only, like, sixty days from the time the divorce was filed to the time it was dismissed. Maybe ninety.” Ward concluded, “If Moore is claiming that she appeared in front of him, I do not believe that’s true.”
Hannity, meanwhile,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 November 2017 at 3:28 pm

Posted in Election, GOP, Law

Oklahoma Tried the GOP’s Tax Plan. Now, It’s Electing Democrats

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Eric Levitz writes in New York magazine:

The backlash to the Republican tax agenda is already getting Democrats elected — in Oklahoma. On Tuesday night, 26-year-old mental-health counselor Allison Ikley-Freeman won election to the Sooner State’s Senate, in a district that backed Donald Trump by 40 points last November.

Ikley-Freeman did not win on the strength of her fundraising or political experience. She boasted little of the former and none of the latter. But like the three other Oklahoma Democrats who have evicted Republicans from state-house seats this year, Ikley-Freeman enjoyed one decisive advantage: She bore no responsibility for the regressive tax policies that had left the state in fiscal ruin.

Oklahoma was a low-tax state even before the 2010 GOP wave crashed over it. But tea-party Republican governor Mary Fallin and her conservative allies weren’t content with the low baseline they’d inherited. Like President Trump and congressional Republicans, Fallin believed that cutting taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses was the way to grow an economy, no matter what level those taxes were currently at, or how novel circumstances might change the government’s budgetary needs.

So, when global oil prices crashed in 2014, and took Oklahoma’s budget down with them, Fallin was unfazed. Faced with giant, annual revenue shortfalls, the governor didn’t just refuse to raise taxes — she cut them even further. Last year, the Sooner State found itself with a $1.3 billion budget gap — and Fallin responded by implementing a $147 million tax cut for Oklahoma’s highest earners, and preserving a $470 million tax break for oil companies that start new horizontal wells.

Instead of asking wealthy citizens and businesses to pay a bit more (or, in the former case, to pay as much as they had been previously), Fallin decided to strip resources from the state’s beleaguered public-school system. Between 2008 and 2015, Oklahoma had slashed its per-student education spending by 23.6 percent, more than any other state in the country. But Republicans felt there was still more fat to cut: While rich Sooners collected their tax breaks, Oklahoma schools suffered a 16.5 percent funding cut in the latter half of 2016. Many of the state’s school districts now make do with four-day weeks. Others struggle to find competent teachers, as the state’s refusal to pay competitive salaries has chased talented educators out of state or into other professions. Oklahoma’s health-care and criminal-justice systems are plagued by similarly draconian cuts. Bridges in the state are literally crumbling. Potholes litter roads.

But even this austerity has not been nearly enough to plug the state’s budget holes. Fallin and the GOP have become reliant on raiding emergency reserves to make up the rest. This has left Oklahoma profoundly vulnerable to the next recession. According to Moody’s Analytics, only three states are less prepared for a downturn, based on the gap between their actual reserves and what would be required to stay afloat.

This reliance on emergency, nonrecurring revenue sources has also ensured that the state will face a new budget crisis each and every year. In 2017, the shortfall came in at nearly $900 million, and Fallin lost her nerve. The governor has pushed for (largely regressive) tax increases to restore education funding. But the state requires a three-fourths majority to impose tax hikes, and there are more than enough tea-party zealots in the legislature to block any piece of progressive taxation.

This week, Republicans in Oklahoma’s House of Representatives passed an emergency budget bill in a special session. The legislation does increase taxes on oil production. But instead of raising taxes on the wealthy, or ending the state’s exemption for capital gains — as Oklahoma Democrats had proposed — Republicans opted to cut $60 million from state agencies, and drain another few million dollars from the state’s rainy-day funds.

Oklahoma’s overwhelmingly Republican voters do not like this idea. . .

Continue reading.

There’s a lot more, and it shows clearly that the Oklahoma GOP learned nothing from their northern neighbor’s disaster with lowering taxes. You’d think Huckabee’s policy failures in Kansas would have taught Oklahoma Republicans a lesson, but Republicans seem resistant to learning.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 November 2017 at 12:14 pm

The Republican Tax Strategy: Speed, Subterfuge, and Diversion

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John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker:

It is entirely conceivable that, in two weeks’ time, the Republican Party’s leaders will have largely succeeded in railroading through Congress an unpopular, regressive, and damaging tax reform. That was their plan from the beginning, and so far it has worked out much as they intended. On Thursday, the House, spurred on by Paul Ryan, voted to approve its version of the legislation. Now everything depends on what happens in the Senate.
On Thursday night, just hours after the House vote, the Senate Finance Committee passed the Senate Republicans’ version of the tax bill on a party-line vote. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, is planning to put the bill to a floor vote immediately after Thanksgiving. If the Senate approves the bill, the Republicans and President Trump will be on their way to victory. A conference committee would then reconcile the two bills, which differ in some significant details but not in their essentials. A final bill could be voted on and presented for Trump’s signature by the end of the year.
To get their tax plan through this final legislative stretch, the Republicans will try to rely on speed, subterfuge, and diversion. McConnell and Ryan have read the opinion polls. They know that there is widespread opposition to their plan’s major elements, such as its big tax cuts for corporations, unincorporated businesses, and rich people (like the President), or its new limits on popular deductions for mortgage interest and state and local taxes. That explains why the Republicans didn’t hold any hearings in the House, and why they are adopting similar blitzkrieg tactics in the Senate. The G.O.P.’s strategy is to rush this thing through before the other side has time to organize a defense.
In the days of yore, whenever a major legislative proposal was put forward, each chamber would spend a good deal of time discussing and dissecting it. Hearings would be scheduled; experts would be summoned. For example, in 2009, the Affordable Care Act took nearly five months to reach an initial vote in the House. But Ryan and Kevin Brady, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, only introduced their tax bill, which is more than four hundred pages long, on November 2nd—all of two weeks ago. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Orrin Hatch, released his version, which is equally long and complicated, just a week ago. This pace is more akin to downhill skiing than to traditional legislating.
After winning Thursday’s vote in the House, Ryan said, “This is about giving hardworking taxpayers bigger paychecks, more take-home pay.” He said practically the same thing on November 2nd. In the interim, it has emerged that fully three-quarters of the tax cuts in the House bill go to corporations and businesses. It has also been confirmed that the bill’s paltry middle-class tax cuts are temporary, and that by 2027 most middle-income families would be paying more in taxes. The Senate bill treats middle-income Americans in a very similar fashion, according to a study released on Thursday by the bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.
The Republicans cannot afford to publicly acknowledge these realities. If they did so, they’d have to resort to the old trickle-down argument that handing out prime steaks to the rich will eventually enable the masses to purchase higher-quality burgers. Outside the Heritage Foundation and the editorial department of the Wall Street Journal, this is not a winning story. So Ryan and McConnell will stick to the subterfuge and hope for some helpful diversions.
So far, they have been pretty lucky on that front. With daily developments in the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election, and famous men being outed as sexual harassers at a similar pace recently, the G.O.P.’s twin tax bills have received less media scrutiny than they usually would have, especially on television. On Thursday evening, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 November 2017 at 12:00 pm

The Uncounted

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The military routinely lies and covers up any information that it finds incriminating or even embarrassing. (The military idea of “honor” seems to have some special meaning that allows for lying and cheating, if not stealing.) Azmat Kahn and Anand Gopal report in the NY Times:

Late on the evening of Sept. 20, 2015, Basim Razzo sat in the study of his home on the eastern side of Mosul, his face lit up by a computer screen. His wife, Mayada, was already upstairs in bed, but Basim could lose hours clicking through car reviews on YouTube: the BMW Alpina B7, the Audi Q7. Almost every night went like this. Basim had long harbored a taste for fast rides, but around ISIS-occupied Mosul, the auto showrooms sat dark, and the family car in his garage — a 1991 BMW — had barely been used in a year. There simply was nowhere to go.

The Razzos lived in the Woods, a bucolic neighborhood on the banks of the Tigris, where marble and stucco villas sprawled amid forests of eucalyptus, chinar and pine. Cafes and restaurants lined the riverbanks, but ever since the city fell to ISIS the previous year, Basim and Mayada had preferred to entertain at home. They would set up chairs poolside and put kebabs on the grill, and Mayada would serve pizza or Chinese fried rice, all in an effort to maintain life as they’d always known it. Their son, Yahya, had abandoned his studies at Mosul University and fled for Erbil, and they had not seen him since; those who left when ISIS took over could re-enter the caliphate, but once there, they could not leave — an impasse that stranded people wherever they found themselves. Birthdays, weddings and graduations came and went, the celebrations stockpiled for that impossibly distant moment: liberation.

Next door to Basim’s home stood the nearly identical home belonging to his brother, Mohannad, and his wife, Azza. They were almost certainly asleep at that hour, but Basim guessed that their 18-year-old son, Najib, was still up. A few months earlier, he was arrested by the ISIS religious police for wearing jeans and a T-shirt with English writing. They gave him 10 lashes and, as a further measure of humiliation, clipped his hair into a buzz cut. Now he spent most of his time indoors, usually on Facebook. “Someday it’ll all be over,” Najib had posted just a few days earlier. “Until that day, I’ll hold on with all my strength.”

Sometimes, after his parents locked up for the night, Najib would fish the key out of the cupboard and steal over to his uncle’s house. Basim had the uncanny ability to make his nephew forget the darkness of their situation. He had a glass-half-full exuberance, grounded in the belief that every human life — every setback and success, every heartbreak and triumph — is written by the 40th day in the womb. Basim was not a particularly religious man, but that small article of faith underpinned what seemed to him an ineluctable truth, even in wartime Iraq: Everything happens for a reason. It was an assurance he offered everyone; Yahya had lost a year’s worth of education, but in exile he had met, and proposed to, the love of his life. “You see?” Basim would tell Mayada. “You see? That’s fate.”

Basim had felt this way for as long as he could remember. A 56-year-old account manager at Huawei, the Chinese multinational telecommunications company, he studied engineering in the 1980s at Western Michigan University. He and Mayada lived in Portage, Mich., in a tiny one-bedroom apartment that Mayada also used as the headquarters for her work as an Avon representative; she started small, offering makeup and skin cream to neighbors, but soon expanded sales to Kalamazoo and Comstock. Within a year, she’d saved up enough to buy Basim a $700 Minolta camera. Basim came to rely on her ability to impose order on the strange and the mundane, to master effortlessly everything from Yahya’s chemistry homework to the alien repartee of faculty picnics and Rotary clubs. It was fate. They had been married now for 33 years.

Around midnight, Basim heard a thump from the second floor. He peeked out of his office and saw a sliver of light under the door to the bedroom of his daughter, Tuqa. He called out for her to go to bed. At 21, Tuqa would often stay up late, and though Basim knew that he wasn’t a good example himself and that the current conditions afforded little reason to be up early, he believed in the calming power of an early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine. He waited at the foot of the stairs, called out again, and the sliver went dark.

It was 1 a.m. when Basim finally shut down the computer and headed upstairs to bed. He settled in next to Mayada, who was fast asleep.

Some time later, he snapped awake. His shirt was drenched, and there was a strange taste — blood? — on his tongue. The air was thick and acrid. He looked up. He was in the bedroom, but the roof was nearly gone. He could see the night sky, the stars over Mosul. Basim reached out and found his legs pressed just inches from his face by what remained of his bed. He began to panic. He turned to his left, and there was a heap of rubble. “Mayada!” he screamed. “Mayada!” It was then that he noticed the silence. “Mayada!” he shouted. “Tuqa!” The bedroom walls were missing, leaving only the bare supports. He could see the dark outlines of treetops. He began to hear the faraway, unmistakable sound of a woman’s voice. He cried out, and the voice shouted back, “Where are you?” It was Azza, his sister-in-law, somewhere outside.

“Mayada’s gone!” he shouted.

“No, no, I’ll find her!”

“No, no, no, she’s gone,” he cried back. “They’re all gone!”

Later that same day, the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria uploaded a video to its YouTube channel. The clip, titled “Coalition Airstrike Destroys Daesh VBIED Facility Near Mosul, Iraq 20 Sept 2015,” shows spectral black-and-white night-vision footage of two sprawling compounds, filmed by an aircraft slowly rotating above. There is no sound. Within seconds, the structures disappear in bursts of black smoke. The target, according to the caption, was a car-bomb factory, a hub in a network of “multiple facilities spread across Mosul used to produce VBIEDs for ISIL’s terrorist activities,” posing “a direct threat to both civilians and Iraqi security forces.” Later, when he found the video, Basim could watch only the first few frames. He knew immediately that the buildings were his and his brother’s houses.

The clip is one of hundreds the coalition has released since the American-led war against the Islamic State began in August 2014. Also posted to Defense Department websites, they are presented as evidence of a military campaign unlike any other — precise, transparent and unyielding. In the effort to expel ISIS from Iraq and Syria, the coalition has conducted more than 27,500 strikes to date, deploying everything from Vietnam-era B-52 bombers to modern Predator drones. That overwhelming air power has made it possible for local ground troops to overcome heavy resistance and retake cities throughout the region. “U.S. and coalition forces work very hard to be precise in airstrikes,” Maj. Shane Huff, a spokesman for the Central Command, told us, and as a result “are conducting one of the most precise air campaigns in military history.”

American military planners go to great lengths to distinguish today’s precision strikes from the air raids of earlier wars, which were carried out with little or no regard for civilian casualties. They describe a target-selection process grounded in meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint. Intelligence analysts pass along proposed targets to “targeteers,” who study 3-D computer models as they calibrate the angle of attack. A team of lawyers evaluates the plan, and — if all goes well — the process concludes with a strike so precise that it can, in some cases, destroy a room full of enemy fighters and leave the rest of the house intact.

The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq.

Yet until we raised his case, Basim’s family was not among those counted. Mayada, Tuqa, Mohannad and Najib were four of an unknown number of Iraqi civilians whose deaths the coalition has placed in the “ISIS” column. Estimates from Airwars and other nongovernmental organizations suggest that the civilian death toll is much higher, but the coalition disputes such figures, arguing that they are based not on specific intelligence but local news reports and testimony gathered from afar. When the coalition notes a mission irregularity or receives an allegation, it conducts its own inquiry and publishes a sentence-long analysis of its findings. But no one knows how many Iraqis have simply gone uncounted.

Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. Between April 2016 and June 2017, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes across northern Iraq, not long after ISIS was evicted from them. We toured the wreckage; we interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors, family members, intelligence informants and local officials; we photographed bomb fragments, scoured local news sources, identified ISIS targets in the vicinity and mapped the destruction through satellite imagery. We also visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition directs the air campaign. There, we were given access to the main operations floor and interviewed senior commanders, intelligence officials, legal advisers and civilian-casualty assessment experts. We provided their analysts with the coordinates and date ranges of every airstrike — 103 in all — in three ISIS-controlled areas and examined their responses. The result is the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since this latest military action began in 2014.

We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history. Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes, people like Basim Razzo, remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.

Basim woke up in a ward at Mosul General Hospital, heavy with bandages. He was disoriented, but he remembered being pried loose from the rubble, the neighbors’ hands all over his body, the backhoe serving him down to the earth, the flashing lights of an ambulance waiting in the distance. The rescuers worked quickly. Everyone knew it had been an airstrike; the planes could return at any minute to finish the job.

In the hospital, Basim was hazily aware of nurses and orderlies, but it was not until morning that he saw . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 November 2017 at 1:37 pm

The Uranium Follies Continue

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Kevin Drum has a pointed post on the uranium “scandal,” well worth reading. From that post:

. . . In fact, what happened is this: the Obama administration allowed a Russian company to acquire a Canadian company called Uranium One, which owned about 10 percent of our uranium production capacity, not 10 percent of our uranium.¹ The actual amount of uranium it produces is about 5 percent of total US uranium production. What’s more, the Russian company has no license to export this uranium, so it’s going to stay in the United States no matter who owns the mines.

So why not just say “uranium mining capacity” and qualify it with “a modest amount”? And why not add a brief sentence saying that no actual uranium has been approved for export outside the US? Even in a quick summary graf neither one takes up a lot of room, and omitting them leaves readers with an extremely distorted view of what happened.

Everyone knows this is all that happened, and everyone knows that Hillary Clinton did nothing wrong when the State Department joined eight other agencies in approving the deal. But this is no longer about Clinton anyway.  . .

Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2017 at 12:22 pm

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