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“The Cursed Platoon”

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One of the many horrific acts of Donald Trump was to pardon a convicted war criminal. The way the US no longer heeds the rule of law is another sign of decline. Greg Jaffe has a feature report in the Washington Post:

Only a few hours had passed since President Trump pardoned 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and the men of 1st Platoon were still trying to make sense of how it was even possible.

How could a man they blamed for ruining their lives, an officer the Army convicted of second-degree murder and other charges, be forgiven so easily? How could their president allow him to just walk free?

“I feel like I’m in a nightmare,” Lucas Gray, a former specialist from the unit, texted his old squad leader, who was out of the Army and living in Fayetteville, N.C.

“I haven’t been handling it well either,” replied Mike McGuinness on Nov. 15, the day Lorance was pardoned.

“There’s literally no point in anything we did or said,” Gray continued. “Now he gets to be the hero . . .”

“And we’re left to deal with it,” McGuinness concluded.

Lorance had been in command of 1st Platoon for only three days in Afghanistan but in that short span of time had averaged a war crime a day, a military jury found. On his last day before he was dismissed, he ordered his troops to open fire on three Afghan men standing by a motorcycle on the side of the road who he said posed a threat. His actions led to a 19-year prison sentence.

He had served six years when Trump, spurred to action by relentless Fox News coverage and Lorance’s insistence that he had made a split-second decision to protect his men, set him free.

The president’s opponents described the pardon as another instance of Trump subverting the rule of law to reward allies and reap political benefits. Military officials worried that the decision to overturn a case that had already been adjudicated in the military courts sent a signal that war crimes were not worthy of severe punishment.

For the men of 1st platoon, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, the costs of the war and the fallout from the case have been profound and sometimes deadly.

Traumatized by battle, they have also been brutalized by the politicization of their service and made to feel as if the truth of what they lived in Afghanistan — already a violent and harrowing tour before Lorance assumed command — had been so demeaned that it no longer existed.

Since returning home in 2013, five of the platoon’s three dozen soldiers have died. At least four others have been hospitalized following suicide attempts or struggles with drugs or alcohol.

The last fatality came a few weeks before Lorance was pardoned when James O. Twist, 27, a Michigan state trooper and father of three, died of suicide. As the White House was preparing the official order for Trump’s signature, the men of 1st Platoon gathered in Grand Rapids, Mich., for the funeral, where they remembered Twist as a good soldier who had bravely rushed through smoke and fire to pull a friend from a bomb crater and place a tourniquet on his right leg where it had been sheared off by the blast.

They thought of the calls and texts from him that they didn’t answer because they were too busy with their own lives — and Twist, who had a caring wife, a good job and a nice house — seemed like he was doing far better than most. They didn’t know that behind closed doors he was at times verbally abusive, ashamed of his inner torment and, like so many of them, unable to articulate his pain.

By November 2019, Twist, a man the soldiers of 1st Platoon loved, was gone and Lorance was free from prison and headed for New York City, a new life and a star turn on Fox News.

This story is based on a transcript of Lorance’s 2013 court-martial at Fort Bragg, N.C., and on-the-record interviews with 15 members of 1st Platoon, as well as family members of the soldiers, including Twist’s father and wife. The soldiers also shared texts and emails they exchanged over the past several years. Twist’s family provided his journal entries from his time in the Army. Lorance declined to be interviewed.

In New York, Sean Hannity, Lorance’s biggest champion and the man most responsible for persuading Trump to pardon him, asked Lorance about the shooting and soldiers under his command.

Lorance had traded in his Army uniform for a blazer and red tie. He leaned in to the microphone. “I don’t know any of these guys. None of them know me,” Lorance said of his former troops. “To be honest with you, I can’t even remember most of their names.”

The 1st Platoon soldiers came to the Army and the war from all over the country: Maryland, California, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Indiana and Texas to name just a few. They joined for all the usual reasons: “To keep my parents off my a–,” said one soldier.

“I just needed a change,” said another.

A few had tried college but quit because they were bored or failing their classes. “I didn’t know how to handle it,” Gray said of college. “I was really immature.”

Others joined right out of high school propelled by romantic notions, inherited from veteran fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, of service and duty. Twist’s father served in Vietnam as a clerk in an air-conditioned office before coming back to Michigan and opening a garage. In his spare time Twist Sr. was a military history buff, a passion that rubbed off on his son, who visited World War II battle sites in Europe with his dad. Twist was just 16 when he started badgering his parents to sign his enlistment papers and barely 18 when he left for basic training. His mother had died of cancer only a few months earlier.

“I got pictures of him the day we dropped him off, and he didn’t even wave goodbye,” his father recalled. “He was in pig heaven.”

Several of the 1st Platoon soldiers enlisted in search of a steady paycheck and the promise of health insurance and a middle-class life. “I needed to get out of northeast Ohio,” McGuinness said. “There wasn’t anything there.”

In 1999, he was set to pay his first union dues and go to work alongside his steelworker grandfather when the plant closed. So he became a paratrooper instead, eventually deploying three times to Afghanistan.

McGuinness didn’t look much like a paratrooper with his thick, squat body. But he liked being a soldier, jumping out of planes, firing weapons and drinking with his Army buddies. After a while the war didn’t make much sense, but he took pride in knowing that his soldiers trusted him and that he was good at his job.

Nine months before 1st Platoon landed in rural southern Afghanistan, a team of Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden.

Samuel Walley, the badly wounded soldier Twist pulled from the blast crater, wondered if they might be spared combat. “Wasn’t that the goal to kill bin Laden?” he recalled thinking. “Isn’t that checkmate?”

Around the same time, Twist was trying to make sense of what was to come. “I feel like the Army was a good decision, but also in my mind is a lot of dark thoughts,” he wrote in a spiral notebook. “I could die. I could come back with PTSD. I could be massively injured.”

“Maybe,” he hoped, “it will start winding down soon.”

But the decade-long war continued, driven by new, largely unattainable goals. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more and many photos.

I wonder when President Trump will take notice of the fact that Russia has placed (and has paid) a bounty for the killing of US soldiers in Afghanistan. Trump doesn’t seem to care.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2020 at 9:54 am

She Needed Lifesaving Medication, but the Only Hospital in Town Did Not Have It

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Another report from The Best Healthcare System in the World™ (which the GOP is determined to make worse), this one by Brianna Bailey, The Frontier, and Maya Miller, ProPublica:

Mabel Garcia had just said good morning to her grandson, who slept overnight in a chair near her hospital bed. Then suddenly, she stopped talking.

The right side of her face sank and her eyes fluttered as nurses at Memorial Hospital of Texas County in Guymon, Oklahoma, surrounded her bed. Her mouth gaped open.

“Mabel. Mabel. Can you look at me?” a nurse asked.

Her grandson, Fabian Daniels, used his cellphone to record while hospital employees attempted to get the 67-year-old to respond. He quickly texted his mom, who was at work waiting to hear how Garcia was feeling a day after she checked in with dizziness and chest pains.

“Mima is not talking to them right now,” the 17-year-old wrote early that Thursday morning in April 2019.

“Why?” asked his mother, Jennifer Daniels.

“They don’t know. She was talking a little bit ago,” he replied.

Health care professionals at the hospital, which sits in a remote part of Oklahoma known as No Man’s Land, determined that they couldn’t provide the “higher level of care” Garcia required, according to medical records reviewed by The Frontier and ProPublica. They called an ambulance to drive her to an airstrip where a medical helicopter took her about 130 miles south to a hospital in Amarillo, Texas.

More than 3½ hours after her initial symptoms, doctors at BSA Hospital in Amarillo found that Garcia had a stroke. They gave her Activase, a time-sensitive medication that helps break down clots, but told her daughter that too much time had elapsed since her initial symptoms.

Garcia had suffered brain damage.

“They said the result would not have been as bad if she had been treated sooner,” Jennifer Daniels said, recalling her conversation with doctors. (BSA hospital did not return requests for comment.)

Surrounded by 2,000 square miles of prairie and dotted with small farming communities, Memorial Hospital is among at least 13 facilities in the state that hired private management companies based on promises of financial turnarounds but were instead left scrambling after sinking deeper into debt, an investigation by The Frontier and ProPublica found.

The hospital cycled through four management companies in five years, including Synergic Resource Partners, which managed the facility until days after Garcia arrived. Memorial Hospital laid off about half of its staff, shuttered its obstetrics department and stopped stocking lifesaving drugs to treat strokes, heart attacks and rattlesnake bites in the 1½ years Synergic Resource Partners was in charge, according to interviews and records.

Records do not show whether hospital staff members diagnosed Garcia with a stroke or if they determined that she needed Activase. But even if they had, the hospital didn’t have the medication, according to Maria Puebla, the drug supply room manager, and Dr. Emmanuel Barias, who served as the hospital’s interim CEO from late April 2019 to March 2020. They said the hospital ran out of its supply in March 2019.

The hospital’s board has since cut ties with the company and taken control itself. Even with new leadership, efforts to repair years of financial strain under multiple management companies have grown increasingly difficult as the hospital faces a new challenge: The county has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma. Patients have been sent to other hospitals because the facility in Guymon does not have the staff to handle the increased numbers.

Rochelle Leyva, chairwoman of the hospital board, blames a parade of management companies for the facility’s financial troubles. “I don’t think they’ve been here for the right reasons,” Leyva said.

Doug Swim, the owner of Synergic Resource Partners, declined interview requests.

Barias said he approached the supplier to try to purchase more Activase after taking the helm of the hospital but was told he would first have to pay off outstanding debts. The hospital could not afford to purchase the medication until July, Barias said.

Months earlier, in January 2019, state health inspectors released the findings of an investigation that revealed the hospital failed to provide basic emergency care, turning away one stroke patient because it did not have Activase. In response to the investigation, hospital officials said the facility kept Activase in stock but only used it for heart attack patients.

Officials pointed out that as a low-level stroke center, the hospital is only required to assess, resuscitate and provide emergency intervention for stroke patients before transferring them to hospitals with more resources. But Memorial Hospital used Activase for stroke patients before falling behind on payments and is again using the medication now that the facility is controlled by the county government.

Hospital officials declined to talk specifically about Garcia’s case, but Dr. Martin Bautista, a physician and the current chief of staff, said keeping the medication on hand to treat stroke patients is vital to achieving the hospital’s mission, which is providing access to critical care. Transferring patients to a larger facility can take more than an hour. The wait, he said, could cause permanent damage to the brain.

“That’s the difference between a for-profit and a not-for-profit community hospital,” Bautista said. “If we can’t serve our elderly people who’ve paid taxes all their lives, then we shouldn’t be open.”

Mounting Bills and Cuts to Services

Synergic Resource Partners was hired to run Memorial Hospital in October 2017 after Swim, an attorney from Oklahoma City, promised leaders in the meatpacking town of nearly 11,000 people that he could inject up to $2 million into the hospital’s coffers, according to former board members and Mike Boring, Texas County’s district attorney.

The offer from Swim, who had never run a hospital, arrived just as county officials were considering closing the facility. Across the country, rural hospitals face dwindling numbers of patients, shortages of doctors and nurses and low reimbursement rates from the federal government that place them at high risk of closure. Nearly 130 rural hospitals, including nine in Oklahoma, have closed in the past decade. . .

Continue reading.

Wealthiest nation in the world, but that’s for the wealthy.

Related:  Deep-Red Oklahoma Narrowly Passes Medicaid Expansion

Written by LeisureGuy

1 July 2020 at 1:47 pm

Lead Poisoning and Domestic Violence

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At Mother Jones Kevin Drum points out a tragedy of bad technology:

Alex Tabarrok reviews Franklin Zimring’s When Police Kill and notes the following:

A surprising finding:

Crime is a young man’s game in the United States but being killed by a police officer is not.

The main reason for this appears to be that a disproportionate share of police killings come from disturbance calls, domestic and non-domestic about equally represented. A majority of the killings arising from disturbance calls are of people aged forty or more.

I can’t fool you guys. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you? A likely explanation for this is that in 2015, when this data was collected, 20-year-olds were born around 1995 and grew up lead free. This means they were far less likely to act out violently than in the past. Conversely, 40-year-olds were born around 1975, right near the peak of the lead poisoning epidemic. They are part of the most violent, explosive generation in US history.

This is the saddest part of lead poisoning: it scars your brain development as a child and there’s no cure. If you’re affected by it and are more aggressive and violent as a result, you will be that way for the rest of your life.

The biggest villain in the lead-poisoning of a country was leaded gasoline. After it had been phased out, George W. Bush flirted with bringing it back, but fortunately rationality in that case prevailed.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 July 2020 at 11:48 am

Heather Cox Richardson on June 30, 2020

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Richardson writes:

Today’s big story was the increasing spread of the coronavirus across America. Yesterday, Anne Schuchat, director of the Centers for Disease Control (the CDC) said in an interview that the virus is spreading too fast and too far for the United States to bring it under control.

Today, when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified to a Senate committee on the coronavirus and the reopening of schools, he said he was “very concerned.” “We’re going in the wrong direction if you look at the curves of the new cases,” he said, “so we really have got to do something about that and we need to do it quickly.”

The country is now seeing more than 40,000 new infections a day while the European Union, which has more people, is seeing fewer than 6,000. About half the new cases are coming from California, Texas, Florida, and Arizona. Florida’s cases increased by 277 percent in the past two weeks; Texas’s by 184 percent, and Arizona’s by 145 percent. As our national confirmed deaths are approaching 130,000 people, Arizona recently released a new triage scoring system to help healthcare providers decide how to allocate resources if they must make choices about which patients to treat.

Nonetheless, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) did not want to hear Fauci’s evaluation of the crisis. “It’s important to realize that if society meekly submits to an expert and that expert is wrong, a great deal of harm may occur,” he lectured Fauci, who turned away Paul’s jabs with good humor. Paul told Dr. Fauci, “We need more optimism.”

I expected serious pushback today from the White House about the Russia bounty scandal, but their reaction was weirdly subdued. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany first suggested that the president hadn’t been “briefed” on the story, apparently using the word “briefed” to suggest it only means an oral report, rather than a written one. Multiple sources have confirmed that the information was indeed, in the President’s Daily Brief– the PDB– the written document of security issues he receives every morning.

Sources today also confirmed that it was a large money transfer from a bank controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to an account associated with the Taliban that alerted intelligence agencies that something was up, and that Trump was briefed on the information. This afternoon, in a press briefing, McEnany changed course, saying that “The president does read and he also consumes intelligence verbally. This president, I’ll tell you, is the most informed person on Planet Earth when it comes to the threats that we face.”

The White House tonight assured us that Trump has now been briefed on the bounty scandal, but while this story has consumed headlines since Friday—four full days ago—he has done and said nothing to condemn Russia’s actions. In a New York Times op-ed today, President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice points out that instead, Trump has dismissed the evidence as “possibly another fabricated Russia hoax, maybe by the Fake News” that is “wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!” Rice notes that if, indeed, Trump’s senior advisors thought there was no reason to inform Trump of the Russia bounty story, they “are not worthy of service.”

As a former National Security Adviser, she outlined what she would have done in their place after immediately giving the president the information. “If later the president decided, as Mr. Trump did, that he wanted to talk with President Vladimir Putin of Russia at least six times over the next several weeks and invite him to join the Group of 7 summit over the objections of our allies, I would have thrown a red flag: ‘Mr. President, I want to remind you that we believe the Russians are killing American soldiers. This is not the time to hand Putin an olive branch. It’s the time to punish him.’”

Rice called out the elephant in the room: Trump’s “perilous pattern” of deference to Russia.

He urged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016, then praised Wikileaks for publishing them. He denied Russian interference in the 2016 election, undercut Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of that interference, and accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word over that of our intelligence community when Putin denied Russian interference at a conference in Helsinki.

Trump “recklessly” pulled U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria, allowing Russian forces to take over our bases in the region. He has recently invited Putin to rejoin the international organization called the G7—from which Russia was excluded after it invaded Ukraine in 2014—and has suddenly announced that the U.S. will withdraw nearly a third of its troops from Germany, harming NATO and benefitting Russia. And now we know that Trump looked the other way as Russia paid for the slaughter of U.S. troops.

What does all this mean?

Rice doesn’t pull any punches: “At best, our commander in chief is utterly derelict in his duties, presiding over a dangerously dysfunctional national security process that is putting our country and those who wear its uniform at great risk. At worst, the White House is being run by liars and wimps catering to a tyrannical president who is actively advancing our arch adversary’s nefarious interests.”

The president’s weakness toward Russia was on the table today in another way, too, as Republicans stripped from a forthcoming defense bill a requirement that campaigns must notify federal authorities if they receive any offer of help from foreign countries. Accepting foreign money or help in any way is already illegal, as Federal Elections Commissioner Ellen Weintraub continually points out. The provision in this bill was a rebuke to the president, who told ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos a year ago he would be willing to take such help, and then set out to get it from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. It also put on notice Attorney General William Barr, who in his confirmation hearing hedged his answer to whether he believes a campaign should alert authorities to foreign interference, finally saying he only considers help from foreign governments to be problematic.

For his part, the president continued to . . .

Continue reading. She includes all relevant links following her column.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 July 2020 at 9:44 am

Has the IRS Hit Bottom?

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Paul Kiel reports in ProPublica:

It’s been almost 10 years since Republicans, riding the Tea Party wave, took control of the House of Representatives and started hacking at the IRS’ enforcement budget. Down it went, some years the cuts were steep, some not, as Republican lawmakers laughed off dire warnings about the consequences of letting tax cheats run free.

For the past couple years, ProPublica has been cataloging the descent of the IRS. We’ve watched as audits of the rich and the largest corporations have plummeted and become less aggressive, while audits of poor taxpayers have remained comparatively high.

This week, the IRS released its annual disclosure of enforcement statistics. Every year, it’s an opportunity to measure how effectively the U.S. government has sabotaged its own ability to enforce its tax laws. This year’s report, along with other data ProPublica has collected on the state of the IRS, is full of evidence that the IRS has hit a passel of historic lows.

Overall, 2019 brought the lowest audit rate in generations. ProPublica searched back to the 1950s and could not find a lower audit rate of individual returns. The story is similar for corporate audits. The largest corporations, those with assets over $20 billion, used to be audited every year. Last year, only about half were audited.

Fewer audits has meant less revenue, particularly from big businesses that pay the biggest tax bills. In 2010, the IRS collected around $28 billion from audits (adjusting for inflation). In 2019, it collected $11 billion. That’s a drop of 61%.

And then there are collections — in which the issue isn’t auditing taxpayers, but collecting what they’ve agreed to pay. One clear measure is how often the IRS simply lets tax debts evaporate because it doesn’t have the personnel to pursue them before the 10-year statute of limitations runs out. This used to happen only rarely, according to internal agency reports. But in 2019, the IRS let $6.7 billion in tax debt expire, an increase of over 1,000% from 2010. (This was actually an improvement from the peak of 2017.)

In this year’s release, the IRS has decided to muck up one measure of its performance that has drawn the most heat from lawmakers. In past years, members of Congress have pointed to our coverage and pressured IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig to increase audits of the rich. One of Rettig’s responses (other than that auditing the poor was simply much easier) has been to argue that the traditional way of measuring audit rates didn’t adequately capture all the IRS’ activities.

This week, the IRS announced that it had reformed the way it reports audit rates. The reason, it explained in a note online, is that the metrics the IRS traditionally used don’t apply anymore. In the past, the IRS was able to audit tax returns the year after they’re filed. But now, with an enforcement staff that has been slashed by 36% since 2010, it’s no longer able to do so. Things have, to say the least, slowed down.

So, while last year we were able to tell you just how far the audit rate for taxpayers with incomes above $10 million had fallen, this year, we can’t. The IRS no longer reports how many audits closed each year for that income bracket and several others. The IRS now says it takes at least three years to render any sort of verdict on just how few among the ultrarich were audited. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including some clear charts that show how the US is failing.

Obviously, if the government is inadequately funded, it will do an inadequate job, and that’s the GOP goal: poor government, which results in more power to corporations and the wealthy.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2020 at 3:59 pm

The US and its new “Can’t Do” spirit, expressed in a graph

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From this article:

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2020 at 12:53 pm

The 3 Weeks That Changed Everything; or, Botched Opportunities

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James Fallows writes in the Atlantic:

Coping with a pandemic is one of the most complex challenges a society can face. To minimize death and damage, leaders and citizens must orchestrate a huge array of different resources and tools. Scientists must explore the most advanced frontiers of research while citizens attend to the least glamorous tasks of personal hygiene. Physical supplies matter—test kits, protective gear—but so do intangibles, such as “flattening the curve” and public trust in official statements. The response must be global, because the virus can spread anywhere, but an effective response also depends heavily on national policies, plus implementation at the state and community level. Businesses must work with governments, and epidemiologists with economists and educators. Saving lives demands minute-by-minute attention from health-care workers and emergency crews, but it also depends on advance preparation for threats that might not reveal themselves for many years. I have heard military and intelligence officials describe some threats as requiring a “whole of nation” response, rather than being manageable with any one element of “hard” or “soft” power or even a “whole of government” approach. Saving lives during a pandemic is a challenge of this nature and magnitude.

It is a challenge that the United States did not meet. During the past two months, I have had lengthy conversations with some 30 scientists, health experts, and past and current government officials—all of them people with firsthand knowledge of what our response to the coronavirus pandemic should have been, could have been, and actually was. The government officials had served or are still serving in the uniformed military, on the White House staff, or in other executive departments, and in various intelligence agencies. Some spoke on condition of anonymity, given their official roles. As I continued these conversations, the people I talked with had noticeably different moods. First, in March and April, they were astonished and puzzled about what had happened. Eventually, in May and June, they were enraged. “The president kept a cruise ship from landing in California, because he didn’t want ‘his numbers’ to go up,” a former senior government official told me. He was referring to Donald Trump’s comment, in early March, that he didn’t want infected passengers on the cruise ship Grand Princess to come ashore, because “I like the numbers being where they are.” Trump didn’t try to write this comment off as a “joke,” his go-to defense when his remarks cause outrage, including his June 20 comment in Tulsa that he’d told medical officials to “slow the testing down, please” in order to keep the reported-case level low. But the evidence shows that he has been deadly earnest about denying the threat of COVID-19, and delaying action against it.

“Look at what the numbers are now,” this same official said, in late April, at a moment when the U.S. death toll had just climbed above 60,000, exceeding the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. By late June, the total would surpass 120,000—more than all American military deaths during World War I. “If he had just been paying attention, he would have asked, ‘What do I do first?’ We wouldn’t have passed the threshold of casualties in previous wars. It is a catastrophic failure.”

As an amateur pilot, I can’t help associating the words catastrophic failure with an accident report. The fact is, confronting a pandemic has surprising parallels with the careful coordination and organization that has saved large numbers of lives in air travel. Aviation is safe in large part because it learns from its disasters. Investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board go immediately to accident sites to begin assessing evidence. After months or even years of research, their detailed reports try to lay out the “accident chain” and explain what went wrong. In deciding whether to fly if I’m tired or if the weather is marginal, I rely on a tie-breaking question: How would this look in an NTSB report?

Controlling the risks of flight may not be as complex as fighting a pandemic, but it’s in the ballpark. Aviation is fundamentally a very dangerous activity. People are moving at high altitudes, at high speed, and in high volume, with a guarantee of mass casualties if things go wrong. Managing the aviation system involves hardware—airframes, engines, flight control systems—and “software,” in the form of training, routing, and coordinated protocols. It requires recognition of hazards that are certain—bad weather, inevitable mechanical breakdowns—and those that cannot be specifically foreseen, from terrorist episodes to obscure but consequential computer bugs. It involves businesses and also governments; it is nation-specific and also worldwide; it demands second-by-second attention and also awareness of trends that will take years to develop.

The modern aviation system works. From the dawn of commercial aviation through the 1990s, 1,000 to 2,000 people would typically die each year in airline crashes. Today, the worldwide total is usually about one-10th that level. Last year, before the pandemic began, more than 25,000 commercial-airline flights took off each day from airports in the United States. Every one of them landed safely.

In these two fundamentally similar undertakings—managing the skies, containing disease outbreaks—the United States has set a global example of success in one and of failure in the other. It has among the fewest aviation-related fatalities in the world, despite having the largest number of flights. But with respect to the coronavirus pandemic, it has suffered by far the largest number of fatalities, about one-quarter of the global total, despite having less than one-20th of the world’s population.

Consider a thought experiment: What if the NTSB were brought in to look at the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic? What would its investigation conclude? I’ll jump to the answer before laying out the background: This was a journey straight into a mountainside, with countless missed opportunities to turn away. A system was in place to save lives and contain disaster. The people in charge of the system could not be bothered to avoid the doomed course.

The organization below differs from that of a standard NTSB report, but it covers the key points. Timelines of aviation disasters typically start long before the passengers or even the flight crew knew anything was wrong, with problems in the design of the airplane, the procedures of the maintenance crew, the route, or the conditions into which the captain decided to fly. In the worst cases, those decisions doomed the flight even before it took off. My focus here is similarly on conditions and decisions that may have doomed the country even before the first COVID-19 death had been recorded on U.S. soil.

What happened once the disease began spreading in this country was a federal disaster in its own right: Katrina on a national scale, Chernobyl minus the radiation. It involved the failure to test; the failure to trace; the shortage of equipment; the dismissal of masks; the silencing or sidelining of professional scientists; the stream of conflicting, misleading, callous, and recklessly ignorant statements by those who did speak on the national government’s behalf. As late as February 26, Donald Trump notoriously said of the infection rate, “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero.” What happened after that—when those 15 cases became 15,000, and then more than 2 million, en route to a total no one can foretell—will be a central part of the history of our times.

But what happened in the two months before Trump’s statement, when the United States still had a chance of containing the disease where it started or at least buffering its effects, is if anything worse.

1. The Flight Plan

The first thing an airplane crew needs to know is what it will be flying through. Thunderstorms? Turbulence? Dangerous or restricted airspace? The path of another airplane? And because takeoffs are optional but landings are mandatory, what can it expect at the end of the flight? Wind shear? An icy runway? The biggest single reason flying is so much safer now than it was even a quarter century ago is that flight crews, air traffic controllers, and the airline “dispatchers” who coordinate with pilots have so many precise tools with which to anticipate conditions and hazards, hours or days in advance.

And for the pandemic? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 6:13 pm

Why does DARPA work?

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Ben Reinhardt has an interesting post:

How can we enable more science fiction to become reality?

If you want to do something, it usually pays to study those who have done that thing successfully in the past. Asking ‘what is this outlier’s production function?’ can provide a starting point.

DARPA is an outlier organization in the world of turning science fiction into reality. Since 1958, it has been a driving force in the creation of weather satellites, GPS, personal computers, modern robotics, the Internet, autonomous cars, and voice interfaces, to name a few. However, it is primarily limited to the domain of defense technology – there are DARPA-style ideas that are out of its scope.  Which emulatable attributes contributed to DARPA’s outlier results? What does a domain-independent “ARPA Model” look like? Is it possible to build other organizations that generate equally huge results in other domains by riffing on that model?

Gallons of ink have been spilled describing how DARPA works1, but in a nutshell here is how DARPA works. Around 100 program managers (PMs) with ~5 year appointments create and run programs to pursue high-level visions like “actualize the idea of man-computer symbiosis.” In these programs they fund researchers at universities and both big and small companies to do research projects of different sizes. Collectively, groups working on projects are called performers. Top-level authority lies with a Director who ultimately reports to the Secretary of Defense.

DARPA has an incredibly powerful model for innovation in defense research, and I believe an abstract ‘ARPA Model’ could yield similar results in other domains. In this piece I’ll explain in detail why DARPA works. I’ll use that description to feel out and describe to the best of my ability a platonic ARPA Model.  I’ll also distill some of the model’s implications for potential riffs on the model. Incidentally, I’m working on just such an imitator, and in future essays, I’ll explain why this model could be incredibly powerful when executed in a privately-funded context.

How to use this document

This document acts more like a collection of atomic notes than a tight essay – a DARPA-themed tapas if you will. The order of the sections is more of a guideline than a law so feel free to skip around. Throughout you will come across internal links that look like this. These links are an attempt to illustrate the interconnectedness of the ARPA Model.

There are two stand-alone pieces to accomodate your time and interest: a distillation, and the full work. The distillation is meant to capture and compress the main points of the full work. Each section of the distillation internally links to the corresponding section one level deeper so if you want more info and nuance you can get it.

I would rather this be read by a few people motivated to take action than by a broad audience who will find it merely interesting. In that vein, if you find yourself wanting to share this on Twitter or Hacker News, consider instead sharing it with one or two friends who will take action on it. Thank you for indulging me!

Distillation

Program Managers

At the end of the day the ARPA Model depends on badass program managers. Why is this the case? PMs need to think for themselves and go up and down the ladder of abstraction in an unstructured environment. On top of that they need to be effective communicators and coordinators because so much of their jobs is building networks. There’s a pattern that the abstract qualities that make “great talent” in different high-variance industries boils down to the ability to successfully make things happen under a lot of uncertainty. Given that pattern, the people who would make good DARPA PMs would also make good hedge fund analysts, first employees at startups, etc. so digging into people’s motivations for becoming a PM is important. More precise details about what makes a PM good prevent you from going after the exact same people as every other high-variance industry. When ‘talent’ isn’t code for ‘specialized training’ it means the role or industry has not been systematized. Therefore, despite all the talk here and elsewhere about ‘the ARPA Model’ we must keep in mind that we may be attributing more structure to the process than actually exists.

DARPA program managers pull control and risk away from both researchers and directors. PMs pull control away from directors by having only one official checkpoint before launching programs and pull control away from performers through their ability to move money around quickly. PMs design programs to be high-risk aggregations of lower-risk projects. Only 5–10 out of every 100 programs successfully produce transformative research, while only 10% of projects are terminated early. Shifting the risk from the performers to the program managers enables DARPA to tackle systemic problems where other models cannot.

The best program managers notice systemic biases and attack them. For example, noticing that all of the finite element modeling literature assumes a locally static situation and asking ‘what if it was dynamic?’ “The best program managers can get into the trees and still see the forest.” Obviously, this quality is rather fuzzy but leads to two precise questions:

  1. How do you find people who can uncover systemic biases in a discipline?
  2. How could you systematize finding systemic biases in a discipline?

The first question suggests that you should seek out heretics and people with expertise who are not experts. The second question suggests building structured frameworks for mapping a discipline and its assumptions.

A large part of a DARPA program manager’s job is focused network building. DARPA PMs network in the literal sense of creating networks, not just plugging into them. PMs meet disparate people working on ideas adjacent to the area in which they want to have an impact and bring them together in small workshops to dig into which possibilities are not impossible and what it would take to make them possible. The PMs host performer days — small private conferences for all the people working on different pieces of the program where performers can exchange ideas on what is working, what isn’t working, and build connections that don’t depend on the PM. J.C.R. Licklider2 is a paragon here. He brought together all the crazy people interested in human-focused computing. On top of that,  he also helped create the first computer science lab groups. PMs also build networks of people in different classes of organizations – government, academia, startups, and large companies. These connections smooth the path for technologies to go from the lab to the shelf.

DARPA PMs need to think for themselves, be curious, and have low ego. Why does this matter? When you are surrounded by smart, opinionated people the easy option is to either 100% accept what they’re saying because it’s eloquent and well-thought through or reject it outright because it sounds crazy or goes against your priors. Thinking for yourself allows you to avoid these traps. PMs need to be curious because building a complete picture of a discipline requires genuine curiosity to ask questions nobody else is asking. A large ego would lead to a program manager imposing their will on every piece of the program, killing curiosity and the benefits of top down problems and bottom up solutions.

DARPA is incredibly flexible with who it hires to be program managers. There are legal provisions in place that let DARPA bypass normal government hiring rules and procedures. Hiring flexibility is important because PMs are the sort of people who are in high demand, so they may be unwilling to jump through hoops. Bureaucracies ensure consistency through rules – minimal bureaucracy means there are no safeguards against hiring a terrible program manager so the principle that ‘A players hire A players and B players hire C players’ is incredibly important.

DARPA Program managers have a tenure of four to five years. This transience is important for many reasons. Transience can inculcate PMs against the temptation to play it safe or play power games because there’s only one clear objective – make the program work. You’re out regardless of success or failure. Explicitly temporary roles can incentivize people with many options to join because they can have a huge impact, and then do something else. There’s no implicit tension between the knowledge that most people will leave eventually and the uncertainty about when that will be. Regular program manager turnover means that there is also turnover in ideas.

Why do people become DARPA Program managers? From a career and money standpoint, being a program manager seems pretty rough. There are unique benefits though. It offers an outlet for people frustrated with the conservative nature of academia. The prospect of getting to control a lot of money without a ton of oversight appeals to some people. Patriotism is definitely a factor, and hard to replicate outside of a government. Being a PM can gain you the respect of a small, elite group of peers who will know what you did. Finally, there may be a particular technological vision they want to see out in the world and DARPA gives them the agency to make it happen in unique ways.

Incentives and Structure

Opacity is important to DARPA’s outlier success. Congress and the DoD have little default oversight into how a PM is spending money and running a program. Opacity removes incentives to go for easy wins or to avoid being criticized by external forces. Of course, opacity can also be abused in too many ways to list, so it’s important to ask: How does DARPA incentivize people not to abuse opacity? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 4:17 pm

What Next for Democracy?: Defining America’s place in the world

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David Warsh writes at Economic Principals:

The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (Princeton, 2020), by David Stasavage, of New York University, gives the impression of being an easy read. Three hundred pages of text present a powerful narrative delivered with disarming clarity, with no showier claim to authority than the precision of its arguments.

But then come 37 pages of notes and a bibliography of 850 items, adding another hundred pages to the book. Stasavage has mastered so much history, and located it so deftly in recent controversies of social science, that he covers nearly everything that I have so much as glimpsed going on as an economic journalist these past fifty years, and a great deal more that I hadn’t. No wonder I missed on the couple of previous swings I took at it. I’ve got a bead on it now.

We won’t know for a while, but my hunch is that Decline and Rise will turn out to be the most compelling work on grand strategy since The End of History, by Francis Fukuyama, and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel Huntington, in the euphoria of the early ’90s. Since then there’s been Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? (2017), by Graham Allison, but that was somehow less helpful than the much earlier The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline 1895-1905 (1988), by Aaron Friedberg. Meanwhile, Decline and Rise is differently grounded from the agendas of realists such as John Mearsheimer (The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, 2018) and Stephen Walt (The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of US Primacy, 2018). The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (2019), by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, is somewhat similar to Decline and Rise.

Stasavage begins by rehearsing the narrative familiar to anyone who has taken a course in world history:  how democracy was invented in Greece, and how it died out after a very short time – “about as much time as the American republic has existed.” Resurrected in Italian city republics like Venice and Genoa, after more than a thousand years, thanks to the rediscovery of Aristotle; and in the England of  Magna Carta, democracy then resumed its long slow evolution to the present day.

That takes no more than a paragraph.  The “problem with this story,” Stasavage writes (a phrase that occurs many times in the book) is that it is highly misleading.  When Europeans in the sixteenth century began fanning out across the world they often found themselves dealing with systems of government in which consent of the governed played a greater role  than the ones that prevailed at home. These included tribes like the Huron people of southwest Ontario, whom Jesuit missionaries studied intently; and the Tlaxcala people of Mesoamerica, whose government Hernan Cortez described as resembling that of Genoa or Pisa, because there was no king.

These early democracies, as Stasavage calls them, flourished wherever states were weak, which as recently as five hundred years ago, was most of the Earth.   They involved tribal chiefs who ruled collectively with the aid of assemblies and councils that constrained their power. These bodies were in turn responsive to the ordinary people whom they led, at least a subset of them, and they were to be found all over the world in communities that shared three characteristics:  small scale; leaders who lacked knowledge of what their subjects were producing; and an option for the disaffected to flee into the forest or otherwise “light out for the territory.” Fans of the saga of King John and Robin Hood will recognize the situation. Leaders who lacked dependable tax systems were more likely to govern consensually.

Early democracies existed in contradistinction to autocracies, which prevailed wherever a state could get a leg up on the citizenry, chiefly by knowing whom to tax and how much, in settlements  from which there  was no easy exit. China, with its fertile plateau of loess soil, was the first state.  From at least the beginning of the second millennium BCE,  dynasties in northwest China were able to support armies and build proto-bureaucracies by levying taxes on farmers whose productivity was more or less visible.  Rulers were hereditary. Councils had no say in the matter.  Other autocracies emerged out of similar geography:  the Third Sumerian Dynasty of Ur, the Aztec Triple Alliance, the Incas, the Mississippian chiefdoms, the Azande kingdom in central Africa. Islam inherited a state when it burst out of Arabia to conquer the Sasanian Empire in the Fertile Crescent.  Islam retained the local bureaucracy and converted it to its use.

Then came “the great divergence.” Everyone seems to agree that the different economic trajectory that Europe pursued began with representative government. But if the economic divergence has political origins, where did the politics come from? Representative government in Europe stemmed from the backwardness of its state bureaucracies, Stavasage argues. Rulers had no alternative but to seek consent from Europe’s growing towns. China and the Islamic world were far better off than Europe for five centuries or more; autocracy served development well. But at a certain point the Renaissance commenced, followed by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Modern democracies had their beginnings in England, not the Dutch Republic, as has often been argued, England borrowed many Dutch institutions, so what made England  different? A new kind of parliamentary government, in which representatives could be bound by voter mandates, nor were they required to report back to their constituencies before making decisions. The Dutch retained institutions that permitted vested interests to forestall technological innovations; England sprinted ahead economically.

If the English went halfway to modern democracy, building a centralized state in which kings had powers as well as the newly-animated parliament, American colonists took the process to the next level, creating the broad suffrage for white males as a means of maintaining the consent of the governed necessary to the existence of a strong executive state. But the same conditions that produced democracy for European immigrants produced slavery for Africans and disaster for native American peoples. Stasavage is especially acute on the forces binding today’s Americans together – and those driving them apart.

The picture that emerges is of a world divided into two deep traditions, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 3:27 pm

Responding to Crises

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Some advice that President Trump would have been wise to heed, from UKCivilServant.com:

Responding to Crises

by ukcivilservant

I have been waiting for a quiet period in which to publish the advice which experienced officials will bear in mind, and share with Ministers, when they face a new crisis or emergency. However … as the Government appears to have ignored pretty much all this advice when responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as there is no quiet period on the horizon, I am publishing it now, annotated with examples of the errors that seem to have been made over recent months.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

This note summarises best government practice when responding to serious crises.

The Initial Response

It can be difficult to know how to react to a rapidly growing threat.

There should be well-practised plans to help you cope with predictable emergencies, together with appropriate resources.  Even so – and more likely if not so – you may need to take strong action early in the crisis, when the threat appears small.  But you should nevertheless take the time – maybe just a few hours or a couple of days – to listen to experts, to discover, to organise, and to absorb what information and knowledge is available.  Then act decisively.

Ignore those that tell you not to ‘over-react’.  A significant proportion of the population and the media will continue to deny reality, even as things fall apart.  Others accept the new reality too easily.

  • Example:-  Well over 1,000 were dying each day at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, and yet this horrendous total seemed to be accepted with a shrug by large sections of the population.

Then Organise …

One person should be given clear, full-time cross-Whitehall responsibility for leading the response to the crisis.   That person should confine him/herself to taking strategic decisions.  Tactical decision making should be left to those on the ground.

  • Example:  It was never clear who was responsible for leading the response to COVID-19.

… and Consult

Continue consulting, intensively, as you develop your strategies in response to the crisis.  Again, consultation need not be time consuming, but it should include all those who might wish to be consulted.  This will greatly increase the chances that your strategies will be effective – and accepted by consultees, even if they had argued against them.  Modern communications, including social media, will allow you to summarise issues, suggest ways forward, and seek comments, against very tight timetables.

  • Example: The teachers unions were not properly consulted before the initial announcement that schools were to be reopened for certain age groups.

Try to identify and allow for unintended consequences.

Measures that might be seem attractive so as to ensure public safety/security do not necessarily have priority over consequences including damage to human rights …  nor do they always trump economic damage.  Ministers – and if necessary Parliament – need to make these judgments and agree the necessary compromises.

  • Non-COVID example:   The US emergency response to 9/11 led to all borders being closed.  This severely damaged companies operating supply chains over the Canadian border.

Don’t promise, unless you are near certain to be able to deliver.  Try to avoid announcing ‘targets’.  Targets are, by definition, often missed.  And they rarely yield the most effective use of resource within government.

  • They initially reassure the public that concrete steps are being taken.  But they focus media attention and destroy confidence if they are not met.
  • They can also galvanise officials.  But they can lead to excessive resource being needed at the expense of other important areas.

Instead, explain what you are doing, and the extent to which you depend on others, and on technology being made to work.

Examples:  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 3:21 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

The US healthcare system and its inequities

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People seem to be willing to put up with it, and the GOP is determined to destroy the reforms that came with the Affordable Care Act, with Trump’s Department of Justice even now arguing that the ACA is unconstitutional and should be struck down in its entirety. And, oddly, many Americans like the current state of healthcare in the US and indeed many support abolishing the Affordable Care Act.

Sarah Kliff reports in the NY Times:

Before a camping and kayaking trip along the Texas Coast, Pam LeBlanc and Jimmy Harvey decided to get coronavirus tests. They wanted a bit more peace of mind before spending 13 days in close quarters along with three friends.

The two got drive-through tests at Austin Emergency Center in Austin. The center advertises a “minimally invasive” testing experience in a state now battling one of the country’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. Texas recorded 5,799 new cases Sunday, and recently reversed some if its reopening policies.

They both recalled how uncomfortable it was to have the long nasal swab pushed up their noses. Ms. LeBlanc’s eyes started to tear up; Mr. Harvey felt as if the swab “was in my brain.”

Their tests came back with the same result — negative, allowing the trip to go ahead — but the accompanying bills were quite different.

The emergency room charged Mr. Harvey $199 in cash. Ms. LeBlanc, who paid with insurance, was charged $6,408.

“I assumed, like an idiot, it would be cheaper to use my insurance than pay cash right there,” Ms. LeBlanc said. “This is 32 times the cost of what my friend paid for the exact same thing.”

Ms. LeBlanc’s health insurer negotiated the total bill down to $1,128. The plan said she was responsible for $928 of that.

During the pandemic, there has been wide variation between what providers bill for the same basic diagnostic test, with some charging $27, others $2,315. It turns out there is also significant variation in how much a test can cost two patients at the same location.

Mr. Harvey and Ms. LeBlanc were among four New York Times readers who shared bills they received from the same chain of emergency rooms in Austin. Their experiences offer a rare window into the unpredictable way health prices vary for patients who receive seemingly identical care.

Three paid with insurance, and one with cash. Even after negotiations between insurers and the emergency room, the total that patients and their insurers ended up paying varied by 2,700 percent.

Such discrepancies arise from a fundamental fact about the American health care system: The government does not regulate health care prices.

Some academic research confirms that prices can vary within the same hospital. One 2015 paper found substantial within-hospital price differences for basic procedures, such as M.R.I. scans, depending on the health insurer.

The researchers say these differences aren’t about quality. In all likelihood, the expensive M.R.I.s and the cheap M.R.I.s are done on the same machine. Instead, they reflect different insurers’ market clout. A large insurer with many members can demand lower prices, while small insurers have less negotiating leverage.

Because health prices in the United States are so opaque, some researchers have turned to their own medical bills to understand this type of price variation. Two health researchers who gave birth at the same hospital with the same insurance compared notes afterward. They found that one received a surprise $1,600 bill while the other one didn’t.

The difference? One woman happened to give birth while an out-of-network anesthesiologist was staffing the maternity ward; the other received her epidural from an in-network provider.

“The additional out-of-pocket charge on top of the other labor and delivery expenses was left entirely up to chance,” the co-authors Erin Taylor and Layla Parast wrote in a blog post summarizing the experience. Ms. Parast, who received the surprise bill, ultimately got it reversed but not until her baby was nearly a year old. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 12:41 pm

Sharp disconnect between President Trump’s words and actions

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Heather Cox Richardson points out some things that Trump supporters must ignore or edit out of their consciousness:

The Trump administration did not respond until almost 5:00 this evening to last night’s astonishing news that Russian operatives had offered bounties on US soldiers during the Afghanistan peace talks, and that the administration had been briefed on this development back in March and had chosen not to respond. The story was broken last night by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and confirmed today by the Washington Post.

Trump himself did not engage the story at all, although he had plenty to say today on Twitter. Late in the afternoon, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany finally said in a statement that Trump and Vice President Pence had not been briefed on the “alleged Russian bounty intelligence.” Trump’s acting Director of National Intelligence at the time, Richard Grenell, who had no expertise in intelligence before taking the post, today denied knowing anything about the story.

Is it possible that intelligence officials knew that Russia was paying militants to target US and allied troops and they chose not to tell the president, vice president, or acting Director of National Intelligence? According to Ned Price, a national security expert who worked at the CIA for eleven years and who left rather than work for Trump, the answer is no. “That’s virtually inconceivable,” he wrote on Twitter. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham seemed to agree. “Imperative Congress get to the bottom of recent media reports that Russian GRU units have offered to pay the Taliban to kill American soldiers with the goal of pushing America out of the region,” he tweeted.

That was not the only story the administration denied today. Trump also pushed back on the story that the Department of Justice is asking the Supreme Court to kill the Affordable Care Act. “Now that the very expensive, unpopular and unfair Individual Mandate provision has been terminated by us,” he tweeted, “many States & the U.S. are asking the Supreme Court that Obamacare itself be terminate so that it can be replaced with a FAR BETTER AND MUCH LESS EXPENSIVE ALTERNATIVE…. Obamacare is a joke! Deductible is far too high and the overall cost is ridiculous. My Administration has gone out of its way to manage OC much better than previous, but it is still no good. I will ALWAYS PROTECT PEOPLE WITH PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS.”

But the administration is in court right now trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act, along with its protection for people with pre-existing conditions. And while Trump ran for president in 2016 on the idea that he would replace the Affordable Care Act with something better, the Republican Party has never offered a replacement bill.

There was a lesser story, too, where what the administration said did not square with what actually happened. Yesterday, Trump tweeted “I was going to go to Bedminster, New Jersey, this weekend, but wanted to stay in Washington, D.C to make sure LAW & ORDER is enforced. The arsonists, anarchists, looters and agitators have been largely stopped….”

Today, Trump spent the day at his golf course in Sterling, Virginia.

And then there was a huge story where reality crashed into ideology. Today, the U.S. set another record for coronavirus cases, with 44,782 new infections. This is the fifth daily record in a row. Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Nevada all set new daily highs. Trump has consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic, urging governors to reopen their states and restart their economies. Governors in Florida and Texas, who had been aggressive about reopening their states, have backtracked to slow the spread of the virus. “If I could go back and redo anything,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) said, “it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars….”

Meanwhile, New York, which had been the epicenter of the virus, has dropped its new infections from almost 10,000 a day to just 673 cases statewide, and is about to enter a new phase of its reopening plan.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told CNN’s Chris Cillizza that Democrats like him had a fact-based theory about how to beat coronavirus infections: keep the state closed until metrics showed the virus was receding. Republicans, in contrast, thought: “We can reopen quickly and we can handle the virus because it will go away, or we will have a vaccine.”

Cuomo pointed out that the coronavirus highlighted the difference between reality and a narrative based in ideology. “A virus has a rate of increase and a number of deaths either goes up or goes down,” he said. “The number of people going to hospitals goes up or goes down. It’s not subject to debate because the hospital bed is either empty or it’s full, we either bury people or we don’t.”

“We tested both theories,” Cuomo told Cillizza. “We have the evidence. It’s numbers. It’s irrefutable. Why don’t we pause and recognize the undeniable reality of the situation?” “There are no Democratic facts and Republican facts,” he said. “There are just facts.”

—-

Notes: . . .

Continue reading. The notes are links to supporting documentation.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2020 at 7:43 am

Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says

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And I just started (re)reading Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon. Wonder what Trump thinks of his good buddy Putin now? Charlie SavageEric Schmitt, and report in the NY Times:

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.

Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear which killings were under suspicion.

The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.

An operation to incentivize the killing of American and other NATO troops would be a significant and provocative escalation of what American and Afghan officials have said is Russian support for the Taliban, and it would be the first time the Russian spy unit was known to have orchestrated attacks on Western troops.

Any involvement with the Taliban that resulted in the deaths of American troops would also be a huge escalation of Russia’s so-called hybrid war against the United States, a strategy of destabilizing adversaries through a combination of such tactics as cyberattacks, the spread of fake news and covert and deniable military operations.

The Kremlin had not been made aware of the accusations, said Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. “If someone makes them, we’ll respond,” Mr. Peskov said. A Taliban spokesman did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Spokespeople at the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department and the C.I.A. declined to comment.

The officials familiar with the intelligence did not explain the White House delay in deciding how to respond to the intelligence about Russia.

While some of his closest advisers, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have counseled more hawkish policies toward Russia, Mr. Trump has adopted an accommodating stance toward Moscow.

At a summit in Helsinki in 2018, Mr. Trump strongly suggested that he believed Mr. Putin’s denial that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 presidential election, despite broad agreement within the American intelligence establishment that it did. Mr. Trump criticized a bill imposing sanctions on Russia when he signed it into law after Congress passed it by veto-proof majorities. And he has repeatedly made statements that undermined the NATO alliance as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Europe.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the delicate intelligence and internal deliberations. They said the intelligence has been treated as a closely held secret, but the administration expanded briefings about it this week — including sharing information about it with the British government, whose forces are among those said to have been targeted. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 June 2020 at 1:09 pm

And the flood gates open: US Covid-19 deaths jump — UPDATE: False alarm.

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Apparently it doesn’t work to simply deny that Covid-19 is a problem. The denial does allow the US not to address the problem, particularly in states that still believe President Trump and his minions like Mike Pence, but that denial has a price:

Kevin Drum updated the chart to remove the jump. He notes:

UPDATE: I originally showed a sharp uptick in deaths, but it turns out this was because New Jersey reported a whole bunch of “probable” deaths all at once on June 25, which caused the spike. I’ve now corrected for that and the chart shows roughly the same plateau that we’ve had for the past few days.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 June 2020 at 9:57 am

How America Exports Police Violence Around the World

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America for years has been one of the biggest arms dealers in the world, and US export of violence goes beyond that. Laura Weiss writes in the New Republic:

As the protest movement responding to the police killing of George Floyd has erupted across the country in recent weeks, my now habitual encounters with police clad in full riot gear in my usually calm Brooklyn neighborhood have been a new and disconcerting experience. In certain moments, while listening to close-flying helicopters and begrudgingly following curfew mandates, as journalists are roughly arrested and beaten up by police, I’ve found myself responding to the surreal scenes with some familiar clichés. I’m not in Brooklyn anymore, Toto, “things” like this “don’t happen here.” Those of us who experience white privilege in the United States don’t typically encounter these sights. These police tactics are usually pushed out of the frame, beyond our sight lines, relegated only to poor minority neighborhoods in America as well as crisis-torn countries of the so-called “global south.”

In fact, the connections between my streets and the streets of others—between policing in the United States and policing in “third world” countries—run deep. While the U.S. polices Black and brown neighborhoods within its own borders as internal colonies, it exports those same militarized and abusive policing techniques to almost every country in the world, through both the State Department and Department of Defense, as well as private contractors. Though it’s difficult to obtain a full accounting, in 2018 alone, the U.S. appropriated over $19 billion in security aid to military and police forces to 144 countries around the world, according to the Security Assistance Monitor.

The role of the U.S. in perpetuating abusive police tactics in other countries has not figured into most conversations around defunding and abolishing the police in recent weeks. But the two are inextricably linked by a common philosophy, and curbing police abuses here at home should force both changes to the way the U.S. provides assistance to police and military forces abroad and a larger reckoning with the neocolonial power structures that enable the U.S. to continue to export its policing strategies and its guns to poorer and less powerful countries in the first place.

“You pick the point in history since the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States has been bringing its national security apparatus abroad and using police in other countries to achieve its goals,” said Stuart Schrader, a historian and author of Badges Beyond Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. From its assistance to military dictatorships during the Cold War to its ongoing support of two endless conflicts with metaphysical constructs—the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror”—the U.S. has become firmly attached, Schrader points out, to a long commitment.

America’s infernal policing of the global order has manifested itself especially heavily in Latin America. There, U.S. counternarcotics aid has provided counterinsurgency training, equipment—such as tanks and Black Hawk helicopters—and tactical and intelligence support to police and military across the region. In addition to government aid, the U.S. has exported “broken windows” policing to cities across the region. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has pocketed millions from consulting with Latin American leaders on how to apply the strategy to their cities. Such policing strategies also disproportionately target both Indigenous and Black people across the Americas.

“The problem of anti-Black policing … is one that is very much alive throughout our hemisphere, and around the world,” said Christen Smith, an anthropologist whose work focuses on police violence against Black people in Brazil. “The way we police at home is also the way we police elsewhere.”


Walking home from protests in recent weeks has brought me back to my time spent living in Mexico City, where police in riot gear, carrying AK-47s, standing around passively on any given day in upper-class commercial districts, are a pedestrian sight. There, their bloated largesse is on full display, as they stare off blankly into the distance, fidgeting and picking their noses. The fact that they are holding weapons that could easily kill you is a passive, constant threat.

The U.S. government has funneled over $3 billion in security and development assistance to Mexico in recent decades, much of it in the name of stopping the flow of illicit drugs—and just as often, its people—to the U.S. This funding has involved multiple attempts to reform the police. These efforts typically amount to little more than a purge of personnel, followed by a rebranding of different “elite” police units, every time a new president is sworn into office. Other half-hearted measures involve the transfers of equipment, training, strategy, guns, and intelligence to Mexican police and military. The overall strategy, carried out in the name of the war on drugs, has chiefly involved the targeting and capturing of the heads of drug cartels. This has mostly led to a splintering and proliferation of violence across Mexico, leaving over 230,000 dead and over 60,000 disappeared since 2008.

Meanwhile, the security buildup of the U.S.-Mexico border wall has come alongside similar training and assistance to Mexico’s border patrol, notably in helping the Mexican government beef up security along its southern border to stop and deter Central American asylum-seekers before they even reach the U.S. border. Mexico’s border patrol, like our own, has been implicated in systematic human rights abuses.

The U.S. has also funded judicial reforms, as well as some nongovernmental organizations working on corruption and impunity in Mexico. But today, some 90 percent of crimes in Mexico remain unsolved. Mexicans know that the problem with the cops goes far beyond “a few bad apples.” Since the drug war began, it’s become increasingly difficult to locate exactly where the cops and the military end and where the “criminal organizations” they’ve pledged to fight begin. Despite this, the overall law enforcement strategy goes mostly unquestioned. This is largely due to the power dynamics at play: If Mexico—or any number of countries, for that matter—decided to do things differently, the U.S. would retaliate by cutting off aid, imposing sanctions, or even supporting a change to a more like-minded regime.

As in the U.S., it’s difficult for many to see an alternative to the police—though in some parts of rural Mexico, Indigenous communities have sought to expel the police from their neighborhoods and replace them with their own self-defense forces. But the police and military maintain a monopoly on authorized violence, no matter how “impervious to reform” these institutions might be, as Smith put it.

Though movements against state violence have deep roots in Latin America, the recent protests in the U.S. have reverberated in unique ways across the region, too, bringing renewed attention to racist and violent policing practices in these countries. In Guadalajara, Mexico, protests . . .

Continue reading.

I’m reminded how the US taught torture techniques and organized and supported death squads in Central America during the Reagan Administration and afterward.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 June 2020 at 5:01 pm

The Pandemic’s Worst-Case Scenario Is Unfolding in Brazil

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Julia Leite, Simone Preissler Iglesias, Martha Viotti Beck, and Ethan Bronner report in Bloomberg Businessweek:

On a recent afternoon in São Luís, the capital of Maranhão state in northeastern Brazil, Hosana Lima Castro sat on a flimsy plastic chair in front of her house as stray dogs sniffed potholes in the narrow street and a few neighborhood kids launched kites. The bar across the way, where a few months ago an acquaintance of Castro’s had been shot, was closed because of the pandemic.

Her job at a convenience store had disappeared too, so Castro, who’s 43 and shares her modest home with her father, two brothers, and two of her kids, had nowhere else to be. Although the novel coronavirus is widespread across Brazil’s northeast, she wasn’t wearing a mask. Nor was anyone else in her crowded neighborhood, where basic services have been so neglected that many residents have no access to clean water.

Castro’s brother Moises, a garbage collector, was the first in her family to get sick. Then her other brother, Luciano, did too, followed by their father, Francisco, who has diabetes. He suffered badly, struggling to breathe and running a soaring fever. But no one in Castro’s household went to the hospital—a place that some in São Luís believe makes patients sicker than when they came in, or worse. “That would be a death sentence,” Castro said.

As Asia, Western Europe, and parts of the U.S. emerge from what will hopefully be the worst of the pandemic, the virus in Brazil isn’t slowing down. Between late May and mid-June the country galloped past Spain, Italy, and the U.K. in total fatalities, which now exceed 51,000, the second-highest toll after the U.S. It’s second in overall cases too, with more than 1 million confirmed infections. With local officials now lifting quarantines despite continued growth in cases, it’s conceivable that, when Covid-19 finally recedes, Brazil will have been hit harder than any other country.

The reasons Brazil has made such a perfect host for the coronavirus are diverse and not yet fully understood. Like the U.S. it never issued nationwide rules for social distancing. Even if the government had wanted to, the rules would have been impossible to enforce in a country of 210 million where some states are larger in land area than France. That left local officials to do as they saw fit, issuing orders that varied wildly and sometimes contradicted each other. Poverty is certainly also part of the picture: In the densely packed favelas threaded through Brazilian cities, social distancing isn’t feasible, and not working means not eating, especially with the cash-strapped state unable to provide enough support. So is the dysfunction of the government. Overcrowding in public hospitals is a long-standing problem, as is graft among the people who are supposed to build new ones.

And then there’s President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who came to power with a 2018 campaign that echoed Donald Trump’s pledges to “drain the swamp.” Since the coronavirus appeared in Brazil in late February, Bolsonaro has frequently obstructed efforts to contain it, demanding local officials abandon severe tactics like shuttering businesses, firing a health minister who pushed for a more aggressive response, and at one point limiting the disclosure of epidemiological data, saying that without the numbers there would “no longer be a story” on the evening news. (The Supreme Court ordered the government to resume releasing the figures.) While in the early weeks of the outbreak Bolsonaro’s intransigence resembled what was happening in the White House, even Trump grudgingly conceded the severity of the situation once the body count started to soar. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has doubled down, insisting that the anti-malarial drug chloroquine is an effective treatment and claiming the number of cases is being exaggerated.

The president’s office did not respond to requests for comment on this story. In a written response to questions, Brazil’s Health Ministry said it’s acted aggressively to test patients and add intensive-care beds, protective gear, and ventilators across the country, spending more than 11 billion reais ($2.1 billion) so far.

Most local and state leaders have ignored Bolsonaro’s push to end lockdowns. Brazil has a federal system, and governors have wide powers over public health. But his continued dismissal of the pandemic’s seriousness has undermined distancing measures, while mismanagement and corruption at all levels of government have prevented help from getting to where it’s needed.

The consequences are severe. In Pará, a vast and underdeveloped state that neighbors Maranhão, Covid-19 has been killing about 50 out of every 100,000 citizens, more than double the national average. “I saw people getting to the hospital with family members already dead in the passenger seat, people given CPR on the sidewalks because the hospitals are full,” says Alberto Beltrame, the state health secretary. One day in April, he visited the morgue in the capital, Belém. “There were 120 bodies, scattered everywhere. It’s something you’d see in a war.” As the virus’s spread continues, Brazil may be turning into the true worst-case scenario, a laboratory for what happens when a deadly and little-understood pathogen spreads without much restriction.

Unlike past plagues, the coronavirus has spread in substantial part from the rich to the poor, with prosperous and well-connected global cities—Milan, London, New York—among the earliest hot spots outside China. The story in Brazil was similar. The first clusters emerged in São Paulo, Brazil’s financial capital, in early March as wealthy residents returned from overseas trips.

One of the first so-called superspreader events was the wedding of a social media star, held at a beach-side resort in Bahia state on March 7. A 27-year-old São Paulo lawyer named Pedro Pacífico—an Instagram personality himself, with hundreds of thousands of followers for a feed devoted mainly to literary recommendations—was one of the guests. He felt lousy when he got home, figuring he had an exceptionally bad hangover. When he found out that another guest had been diagnosed with Covid-19, Pacífico went for a test. He had it too—as, he gradually learned, did about 15 of his friends. But at that point, Pacífico says over a video call, the disease seemed more like a nuisance than a threat. He isolated at home, suggesting quarantine reading to his followers and trading virus stories with other well-off paulistanos. “It was the novelty of it,” Pacífico says. “No one saw it coming, or thought it would be so bad.”

On the weekend of the Bahia wedding Bolsonaro was in Florida, visiting Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. The two leaders’ entourages took no real precautions, shaking hands and hugging as usual. The first person to test positive after returning home was Fabio Wajngarten, Bolsonaro’s communications chief. As everyone who deals with him knows, Wajngarten is what Jerry Seinfeld would call a close talker, with a habit of leaning in when he speaks. Five of the eight people who sat at his table at a Mar-a-Lago dinner tested positive, and in all 30 people on the trip got sick. One was Alexandre Fernandes, an athletic 44-year-old who’s developing a grain-export terminal in southern Brazil. After four days isolating in his apartment, Fernandes was so weak he couldn’t walk to the bathroom. He went to the hospital, where he was placed in intensive care. “I couldn’t pull the covers up in bed,” he says. At one point doctors thought he wouldn’t make it: “The nurse had to help me hold the phone so I could Facetime with my daughters to say goodbye.”  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 June 2020 at 10:34 am

The Decline of the American World

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Tom McTague writes in the Atlantic:

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“He hated America very deeply,” John le Carré wrote of his fictional Soviet mole, Bill Haydon, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Haydon had just been unmasked as a double agent at the heart of Britain’s secret service, one whose treachery was motivated by animus, not so much to England but to America. “It’s an aesthetic judgment as much as anything,” Haydon explained, before hastily adding: “Partly a moral one, of course.”

I thought of this as I watched the scenes of protest and violence over the killing of George Floyd spread across the United States and then here in Europe and beyond. The whole thing looked so ugly at first—so full of hate, and violence, and raw, undiluted prejudice against the protesters. The beauty of America seemed to have gone, the optimism and charm and easy informality that entrances so many of us from abroad.

At one level, the ugliness of the moment seems a trite observation to make. And yet it gets to the core of the complicated relationship the rest of the world has with America. In Tinker Tailor, Haydon at first attempts to justify his betrayal with a long political apologia, but, in the end, as he and le Carré’s hero, the master spy George Smiley, both know, the politics are just the shell. The real motivation lies underneath: the aesthetic, the instinct. Haydon—upper class, educated, cultured, European—just could not stand the sight of America. For Haydon and many others like him in the real world, this visceral loathing proved so great that it blinded them to the horrors of the Soviet Union, ones that went far beyond the aesthetic.

Le Carré’s reflection on the motivations of anti-Americanism—bound up, as they are, with his own ambivalent feelings about the United States—are as relevant today as they were in 1974, when the novel was first published. Where there was then Richard Nixon, there is now Donald Trump, a caricature of what the Haydons of this world already despise: brash, grasping, rich, and in charge. In the president and first lady, the burning cities and race divides, the police brutality and poverty, an image of America is beamed out, confirming the prejudices that much of the world already have—while also serving as a useful device to obscure its own injustices, hypocrisies, racism, and ugliness.

It is hard to escape the feeling that this is a uniquely humiliating moment for America. As citizens of the world the United States created, we are accustomed to listening to those who loathe America, admire America, and fear America (sometimes all at the same time). But feeling pity for America? That one is new, even if the schadenfreude is painfully myopic. If it’s the aesthetic that matters, the U.S. today simply doesn’t look like the country that the rest of us should aspire to, envy, or replicate.Even in previous moments of American vulnerability, Washington reigned supreme. Whatever moral or strategic challenge it faced, there was a sense that its political vibrancy matched its economic and military might, that its system and democratic culture were so deeply rooted that it could always regenerate itself. It was as if the very idea of America mattered, an engine driving it on whatever other glitches existed under the hood. Now, something appears to be changing. America seems mired, its very ability to rebound in question. A new power has emerged on the world stage to challenge American supremacy—China—with a weapon the Soviet Union never possessed: mutually assured economic destruction.

China, unlike the Soviet Union, is able to offer a measure of wealth, vibrancy, and technological advancement—albeit not yet to the same level as the United States—while protected by a silk curtain of Western cultural and linguistic incomprehension. In contrast, if America were a family, it would be the Kardashian clan, living its life in the open glare of a gawping, global public—its comings and goings, flaws and contradictions, there for all to see. Today, from the outside, it looks as if this strange, dysfunctional, but highly successful upstart of a family were suffering a sort of full-scale breakdown; what made that family great is apparently no longer enough to prevent its decline.

The U.S.—uniquely among nations—must suffer the agony of this existential struggle in the company of the rest of us. America’s drama quickly becomes our drama. Driving to meet a friend here in London as the protests first erupted in the States, I passed a teenager in a basketball jersey with jordan 23 emblazoned on the back; I noticed it because my wife and I had been watching The Last Dance on Netflix, a documentary about an American sports team, on an American streaming platform. The friend told me he’d spotted graffiti on his way over: i can’t breathe. In the weeks since, protesters have marched in London, Berlin, Paris, Auckland, and elsewhere in support of Black Lives Matter, reflecting the extraordinary cultural hold the United States continues to have over the rest of the Western world.

At one rally in London, the British heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua rapped the lyrics to Tupac’s “Changes” alongside other protesters. The words, so jarring, powerful, and American, are yet so easily translatable and seemingly universal—even though Britain’s police are largely unarmed and there are very few police shootings. Since the initial outpouring of support for George Floyd, the spotlight has turned inward here in Europe. A statue of an old slave trader was torn down in Bristol, while one of Winston Churchill was vandalized with the word racist in London. In Belgium, protesters targeted memorials to Leopold II, the Belgian king who made Congo his own genocidal private property. The spark may have been lit in America, but the global fires are being kept alive by the fuel of national grievances.

For the United States, this cultural dominance is both an enormous strength and a subtle weakness. It draws in talented outsiders to study, build businesses, and rejuvenate itself, molding and dragging the world with it as it does, influencing and distorting those unable to escape its pull. Yet this dominance comes with a cost: The world can see into America, but America cannot look back. And today, the ugliness that is on display is amplified, not calmed, by the American president.

To understand how this moment in U.S. history is being seen in the rest of the world, I spoke to more than a dozen senior diplomats, government officials, politicians, and academics from five major European countries, including advisers to two of its most powerful leaders, as well as to the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. From these conversations, most of which took place on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, a picture emerged in which America’s closest allies are looking on with a kind of stunned incomprehension, unsure of what will happen, what it means, and what they should do, largely bound together with angst and a shared sense, as one influential adviser told me, that America and the West are approaching something of a fin de siècle. “The moment is pregnant,” this adviser said. “We just don’t know what with.”

Today’s convulsions are not without precedent—many I spoke to cited previous protests and riots, or America’s diminished standing after the Iraq War in 2003 (a war, to be sure, supported by Britain and other European countries)—yet the confluence of recent events and modern forces has made the present challenge particularly dangerous. The . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2020 at 9:59 pm

‘A chain of stupidity’: the Skripal case and the decline of Russia’s spy agencies

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Luke Harding reports in the Guardian:

In 2011 I was in Libya reporting on the civil war. Rebels backed by the US, the UK and France were advancing on the capital, Tripoli. The insurgents moved forward through bombed-out towns as Muammar Gaddafi’s forces retreated. Coastal cities in the west and east, oil refineries, Roman ruins and temples – all fell, one by one, as the regime lost ground.

These were dangerous times. In the town of Zawiyah I found locals celebrating victory in the main square. They were shooting in the air and doing wheelspins and skids in their cars and trucks. Gaddafi’s soldiers had left the previous night, fleeing down the road. I saw a small boy, maybe eight years old, stomping on a Gaddafi flag. “The city is ruined. No problem – we will rebuild it,” one local, Tariq Sadiq, told me.

The signs of battle were everywhere. The square’s four-star Zawiyah Jewel Hotel was a ruin. The lobby was filled with rubble. Mattresses where Gaddafi’s soldiers had slept lay strewn among crates containing mortar cases and empty plastic water bottles. The air crackled with jubilant gunfire.

The celebrations turned out to be premature. From their new positions, and without warning, Gaddafi’s army began shelling the square. I took shelter indoors. First one mortar, then six more. Each was a loud thunderclap, a sudden affirmative whomping, followed by puffs of black smoke.

At that moment, I wasn’t much interested in the types of munitions that were raining down. There was a simple urge: to escape. My role, as I saw it, was to tell the stories of those unwittingly caught up in conflict. I had brought to Libya the usual tools of a frontline correspondent: flak jacket, satellite phone and first-aid kit, carried in a rucksack.

A man named Eliot Higgins was following events in Libya, too – not from the front line, but from his home in the east Midlands. Specifically, from his sofa. It was a safer place to be – and, as it turned out, as good a perch as any from which to analyse the conflict, and to consider questions that, in the heat of battle, were interesting, but seemingly unanswerable. Questions such as: where did the rebels get their arms?


Higgins recalls growing up as a shy “nerd”. According to his brother Ross, Higgins was an obsessive gamer and early computer enthusiast. He liked Lego, played Pong on an antediluvian 1980s Atari and was a fan of Dungeons and Dragons. He spent hours immersed in the online roleplay game World of Warcraft, where participants pooled skills and collaborated across virtual borders. His instincts were completist: he wanted to finish and win the game. This would prove useful later on.

Higgins tried for a career in journalism and enrolled on a media studies course in Southampton. It didn’t work out, and he left without a degree. Next, he earned a living via a series of unlikely administrative jobs. One day Higgins logged on to the Guardian’s Middle East live blog. Libya was the centre of international attention. Higgins made his own contributions to the comment section of the Guardian blog, using the name Brown Moses – taken from a Frank Zappa song. The blog often featured videos uploaded by anti-regime fighters. There was fierce debate as to whether these images were authentic or bogus.

One such video showed a newly captured town. The rebels claimed it was Tiji, a sleepy settlement with a barracks that had been recently bombed by Nato jets, close to the border with Tunisia, and on the strategic main road leading to Tripoli. There was a mosque, a white road and a few little buildings with trees around them. The video showed a rebel-driven tank rolling noisily down a two-lane highway. There were utility poles.

Higgins used satellite images to see if he could identify the settlement and thereby win the discussion. The features were sufficiently distinctive for him to be able to prove he was correct: the town was Tiji. “I’m very argumentative,” he says. It was the first time he had used geolocation tools. He realised he could collect user-generated videos and later work out exactly where they had been filmed.

Shortly afterwards his first child was born. Higgins combined his new childcare duties with online research. Meanwhile, the uprisings in the Arab world spread. Soon Syria was at war, too.

What began as a way of scoring points over online adversaries evolved into something bigger. Smartphones with cameras, social media, Facebook, Twitter, Google Earth, Google street view, YouTube – the digital world was multiplying at an astonishing rate. This stuff was open-source: anyone could access it. By cross-checking video footage with existing photos and Google maps, it was possible to investigate what was going on in a faraway war zone.

These techniques offered interesting possibilities. Open-source journalism might be applied to the realm of justice and accountability. Sometimes soldiers filmed their own crimes – executions, for example, carried out on featureless terrain. If you could identify who and where, this could be evidence in a court of law. The shadow cast by a dead body was a strong indication of time of death.

At home, and surrounded by his daughter’s discarded toys, Higgins unearthed a number of scoops. He found weapons from Croatia in a video posted by a Syrian jihadist group. The weapons, it emerged, were from the Saudis. The New York Times picked up the story and put it on the front page – an indication of how armchair analysis could be as telling as dispatches from the ground.

Higgins documented the Syrian regime’s use of cluster bombs. He discovered that government soldiers were tossing DIY barrel bombs out of helicopters, and that rebels were fighting back around Aleppo with Chinese-made shoulder-launched missiles. His reputation spread. He launched a new investigative website: Bellingcat.

The idea was to consolidate pioneering online research techniques and to connect with a wider pool of international volunteers. In July 2014, three days after Bellingcat went live, a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane was blown out of the sky over Ukraine. Some 298 people – nearly 200 of them Dutch – died. The incident grew into Bellingcat’s first major investigation.

Higgins’s team discovered that the missile launcher had come from Russia’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade, based in the city of Kursk. Video footage showed the launcher trundling across Russia as part of a military convoy. The system was filmed again by locals inside eastern Ukraine after MH17 was brought down, heading back to Russia with one of its missiles missing.

Bellingcat got bigger. One key figure was Christo Grozev, a fluent Russian-speaker and a Bulgarian from an anti-communist family. Grozev grew up in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city; his father was fired from his job as a teacher for growing a hippie-style beard. Bellingcat joined forces with the Insider, an independent Russian news website run by Roman Dobrokhotov.

By summer 2018, the British police were confident they had identified the two Russian suspects who had tried to murder Sergei Skripal a few weeks earlier, in March. Skripal, a former officer with Russia’s GRU military spy agency, was poisoned in Salisbury, together with his daughter Yulia. The assassins’ names had not been made public. The hope was that they might travel to western countries where they could be arrested.

There were discussions inside the British government about what to do. One course was to demand their extradition – knowing Vladimir Putin would refuse, as he had with the killers of Alexander Litvinenko 11 years earlier. Another was to recognise that there was zero prospect of a criminal trial, and to publish concrete intelligence.

That September, prime minister Theresa May went with option two. She told the House of Commons that the two Russian assassins were Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov – adding that the police believed these names to be aliases. CCTV images from their trips to Salisbury were revealed. Also shown was the apparent murder weapon – a counterfeit perfume bottle containing the nerve agent novichok.

The new details were a boon for Bellingcat. During the next few weeks, its volunteers scurried all over the evidence. They would go on to inflict a series of humiliations on Russia’s GRU military intelligence spy agency that may have contributed to the fall of its chief, Igor Korobov.


In the 20th century, Soviet assassins were able to travel around Europe using fake passports. Their movements were seldom discovered. They may have been better, more professional spies – or lesser ones. It was an age before transparency.

The modern GRU was still using the old Soviet playbook when it came to covert operations such as the murder of enemies outside the country. These analogue plots now took place in a digital environment. GRU officers earned their spurs in the Soviet “near abroad” – in Tajikistan, Moldova or Ukraine, where there were few cameras to worry about, and not much of a CIA or other American presence.

Western Europe was different. Britain, in particular, was a counter-intelligence challenge. The UK had CCTV on every public corner – in railway stations, hotel lobbies and airports. Any passengers arriving on a flight from Moscow would be logged and filmed. A port-of-entry database was available to western security agencies.

Meanwhile, Russian markets sold CDs of mass official information: home addresses, car registrations, telephone directories and other bulk indexes. For £80 or so you could buy traffic police records. With the right contacts, and a modest cash payment, it was even possible to gain access to the national passport database.

Paradoxically, this low-level corruption made Russia one of the most open societies in the world. Corruption was the friend of investigative journalism, and the enemy of government–military secrets.

After the Metropolitan police published photos of Boshirov and Petrov, Bellingcat took up the hunt. It sought to unmask their real identities. The first step was to image search their photos via online search engines. This yielded nothing. They looked for telephone numbers associated with the two names. Nothing again.

And so the online investigators tried a deductive approach. They spoke to sources in Russia and asked where a GRU officer operating in western Europe was likely to have been trained. One answer was Siberia, and in particular the Far Eastern Military Command Academy in Khabarovsk, just across the Amur River from China. The men appeared to be in their late 30s or early 40s. This gave an approximate date of birth. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2020 at 2:11 pm

The authoritarian iron fist crashes down: Two Brooklyn lawyers accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail

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Murtaza Hussein recounts in ProPublica a case that would not be out of place in any country run by a dictator:

THE KILLING OF George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May ignited protests in cities and towns across the United States. These largely peaceful demonstrations have been punctuated by acts of violence, frequently committed by the police themselves. But other incidents of both violence and property destruction have also been reported. Among them was the case of two young Brooklyn lawyers accused of burning the dashboard of a New York Police Department cruiser — a case that has become a flashpoint in the Trump administration’s legal and public relations response to the protests.

Urooj Rahman, 31, and Colinford Mattis, 32, are accused by the government of tossing a Molotov cocktail through the broken window of an empty police cruiser in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The alleged incident, said to have been caught on video, took place during the early hours of May 30, amid the wave of protests.

The government has not suggested that Rahman and Mattis harmed anyone or intended to do so. According to reports, the empty police cruiser had already been vandalized and damaged amid rioting in Brooklyn that night. The device, which failed to ignite properly, burned part of the driver’s console in the abandoned vehicle.

Yet the potential punishments they now face for tossing the incendiary are staggering. Following a raft of new charges announced by federal prosecutors last week, the two lawyers — neither of whom have previous criminal records — now face a mandatory minimum of nearly half a century in prison if convicted of the charges. The maximum penalty in the case is life imprisonment.

“If you consider what these individuals are accused of doing – throwing a Molotov cocktail into an already abandoned police vehicle and charring its dashboard — the potential punishments are clearly wildly disproportionate,” said Lara Bazelon, a professor and director of the Criminal Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Clinical Programs at the University of San Francisco School of Law. “They are facing a mandatory minimum of 45 years in prison if convicted. A judge sentencing them would have no choice but to give them that amount of time.”

Rahman and Mattis’s cases have drawn attention in part due to the story’s sensational nature: two well-educated young lawyers who allegedly engaged in an act of symbolic revolution against a marker of police authority. But the case now seems to be transforming into something darker: a tool for the Trump administration to send a message to its political opponents. The government recently took the extraordinary step of appealing the accused’s bail conditions and sending them back into pretrial custody, a decision more common for prosecutions of violent organized crime and terrorism. The move prompted 56 former federal prosecutors to file an amicus brief in protest.

With the administration ominously vowing to “dominate the streets,” even relatively innocuous acts of rebellion like property damage now stand to be punished with the most draconian legal tools available to the federal government.

Thousands of people across the country have been detained amid the protests. But very few of these cases have come to public prominence the way that Rahman and Mattis’s have. In some respects, their backgrounds may seem atypical of many of those detained in recent weeks. Mattis is the son of a Jamaican immigrant who grew up in the impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York and went on to practice corporate law in Manhattan after graduating from Princeton and New York University. Rahman, the daughter of working-class Pakistani immigrants in Brooklyn, is a public interest lawyer in the Bronx. (A disclosure: I encountered Rahman at past social gatherings in New York City, though we have never spoken.)

A steady stream of provocative leaks to local tabloid news outlets following the arrests has helped make the pair widely known. An edited excerpt from a four-minute video interview Rahman gave to an independent news outlet on the night of the alleged incident was published by the New York Daily News, in which Rahman seemed to make threats of harm against police officers. The unedited version of the interview, which appeared on the YouTube page of the news site LoudLeaks, seemed to adjust the meaning of what she had said: Rather than harming officers, Rahman appeared to be referring to property damage against police department equipment as an inevitable consequence of unpunished police abuses. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and this — together with the protection offered to Michael Flynn and the pardoning of the Navy SEAL convicted of war crimes — show the direction of the US government today.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2020 at 12:15 pm

When art restoration becomes art destruction

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The Guardian article by Sam Jones includes the example above, and also has another. Jones writes:

Conservation experts in Spain have called for a tightening of the laws covering restoration work after a copy of a famous painting by the baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo became the latest in a long line of artworks to suffer a damaging and disfiguring repair.

A private art collector in Valencia was reportedly charged €1,200 by a furniture restorer to have the picture of the Immaculate Conception cleaned. However, the job did not go as planned and the face of the Virgin Mary was left unrecognisable despite two attempts to restore it to its original state.

The case has inevitably resulted in comparisons with the infamous “Monkey Christ” incident eight years ago, when a devout parishioner’s attempt to restore a painting of the scourged Christ on the wall of a church on the outskirts of the north-eastern Spanish town of Borja made headlines around the world.

Parallels have also been drawn with the botched restoration of a 16th-century polychrome statue of Saint George and the dragon in northern Spain that left the warrior saint resembling Tintin or a Playmobil figure.

Fernando Carrera, a professor at the Galician School for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, said such cases highlighted the need for work to be carried out only by properly trained restorers.

“I don’t think this guy – or these people – should be referred to as restorers,” Carrera told the Guardian. “Let’s be honest: they’re bodgers who botch things up. They destroy things.”

Carrera, a former president of Spain’s Professional Association of Restorers and Conservators (Acre), said the law currently allowed people to engage in restoration projects even if they lacked the necessary skills. “Can you imagine just anyone being allowed to operate on other people? Or someone being allowed to sell medicine without a pharmacist’s licence? Or someone who’s not an architect being allowed to put up a building?” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2020 at 3:39 pm

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