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The decline of the US empire: An interview with a veteran CIA agent

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Patrick L. Smith reports in Salon:

I first heard Ray McGovern speak on a country road in the New England hills. This was courtesy of the admirably dedicated David Barsamian, who broadcast one of McGovern’s talks on Alternative Radio in late-2013. Reception up here being spotty, I pulled over and sat watching the autumn clouds drift by for the full hour McGovern stood at the podium of a Methodist church in Seattle. I was rapt.

What a lost pleasure it is in our indispensable nation to be in the presence of someone who thinks, acts and speaks out of conscience and conviction. Even better, these were precisely McGovern’s topics that day three years back: The necessity of careful thought, of honoring one’s inner voice, of acting out of an idea of what is right without regard to success or failure, the win-or-lose of life. One way or another, these themes run through everything he has to say, I have since discovered. At an inner-city church in Washington, McGovern teaches a course he calls “The Morality of Whistleblowing.”

Born in the Bronx in 1939 and educated at Fordham (and later Georgetown and Harvard), McGovern joined the Central Intelligence Agency during the Kennedy administration, when it was still possible to think sound, disinterested analysis out there in Langley, Virginia, could be a force for good. Long story short, as McGovern likes to say, he left 27 years later, by which time the scales had fallen, and founded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence—Adams being a former colleague and one of the whistle-blowers who paid his price. Not long before that AR speech, McGovern went to Moscow to give the recently exiled Edward Snowden one of his Sam Adams Awards. This is the ex-spook’s milieu: At 76, he dwells among the truth-tellers.

After many months trying to get our act together—or mine, I should say—I finally caught up with McGovern in Moscow late last year. We were both there for a conference on cross-border media and global politics sponsored by RT, the Russian variant of British Broadcasting. The venue was perfect: Russia has been McGovern’s focus since he earned his Fordham degrees. Russia, naturally, figured prominently in our exchange—along with American politics, the “deep state,” Syria and numerous other topics.

McGovern is approachable on the way to avuncular, as readers will see, but the preference for simplicity and plain speaking masks an impressive erudition. He is a linguist well read in several languages; his grasp of history, recent and otherwise, is thorough. He is an ecumenical Catholic whose frame of political reference is defined by nothing more exotic than the Constitution—a document he sees as having less and less bearing on what we do and how we live. I have rarely heard anyone of his intelligence and background use the “f” word when describing our national direction, and I do not refer to the carnal activity.

McGovern and I spoke at length in a Frenchified sitting room at the Metropol Hotel, famed seat of the Bolshevik government for a couple of years after the 1917 revolution. What follows is the first of two parts.

In the speech that eventually put us in this room together, you talked about Kennan [George Kennan, the noted diplomat and Princeton scholar] as a one-time hero of yours and then implied a change of mind—a certain, perhaps, betrayal—and noted that remarkable quotation: “We no longer have the luxury of altruism and world benefaction…. The day is not far off when we will have to deal in straight power concepts.”

Can you talk about Kennan as hero and then the betrayal you felt as the years went by? Does the quotation explain American conduct abroad today?

The respect I had for Kennan came from his earlier books and, of course, his writing from Moscow, where he pretty much invented containment policy. It appeared to me then that the Soviet Union was enlarging its area of control not only in Eastern Europe, but elsewhere. I thought he was right on target in explaining how to deal with the Russians. Being chief of the Soviet foreign policy branch at CIA in the ’70s, that was the Soviet Union I knew. It was always an amazing thing for me to think back, “Wow, we’re talking ’47 [when Kennan published his famous “X” essay in Foreign Affairs, titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”] and here we are in ’77 or whatever. That’s a pretty good read on the way these people behave.”

At the same time, I had a respect and knowledge of Russian history. My master’s degree is in Russian studies, so I knew not only the language but a good bit of history. So it was kind of a love/hate relationship, where I had grown to know and respect the Russian people, they being very much like the Americans. When I was in Moscow, if I lost my way or needed directions, they’d get on the bus with me, for Pete’s sake! I felt sort of tormented by what had become of the rulers there.

I could understand through a glass dimly, why this was a natural reaction to what they saw President Truman and his successors do.

I think we could have done more—and could do more—to understand, from a Russian perspective, the sensation of being surrounded. This is to put the point too mildly.

If you know a little bit about Russian history, you’re aware that it’s a very sad history. It starts millennia behind other histories. People don’t know that the Slavic peoples who emerged from the area in and around Kiev and what is now Belorussia—they had no written language until the 9th century! A.D.!

Remarkable. Did they have an oral literature?

They had an oral literature. “Slovo o Polku Igoreve” [“The Song of Igor’s Campaign”] was one of their major epic poems. It rivals “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad.” It’s a really beautiful thing, except they had no way to set it down in writing. And so two Greek priests, Cyril and Methodius, go up in the 9th century, and they say, “These people are incredibly bright and prosperous. They’re prosperous—and this is kind of a mind leap for most people—because the Norse, from Norway and Sweden, traded with the East all the way to Istanbul by coming through the series of rivers of which the Dnieper [which flows through Russia and empties into the Black Sea] was one. A great deal of so-called civilization and some wealth had accrued there. So they go up there and they say, “Well, that sounds like kai. Let’s make that sound a kai (or “k”). That sounds like the Latin V. That one sounds like Hebrew. That one doesn’t sound like anything, so let’s manufacture a character for that.” And they put the [written] language together. This we call “Cyrillic,” of course.

In 988, Knyaz Vladimir, the prince of Kiev, decides that, now they have a language and now they can write down their liturgy, “Let’s become Christians.” This may be a little overstated, but it happened almost like this: One Sunday he said, “All right, everybody out into the river, we’re going to get baptized.” And now they’re part of the Western world—part of the Eastern Rite, of course, but still part of civilization all of a sudden.

You go straight to the point, Ray. There’s no understanding anything without a grasp of its history—which, of course, is the American failing over and over again.

Well, what happens next? The Mongol hordes invade Russia and stay for two centuries. Two centuries and 20 more years. We’re talking Genghis Khan, right? They live under what they call “the Tatar yoke” for those centuries. As we’re coming out of the Dark Ages into the Renaissance in the West, they’re still fighting major battles with the Tatars. They finally drive them out of European Russia, and what happens? In come the Swedes! In come the Lithuanians and the Hanseatic League!

So Ivan Grozny, Ivan the Terrible, was a pretty terrible guy, but at least he got those guys together and said, “Look, if we don’t get rid of the Westerners we’re going to be in deep kimchi. He probably said it a bit differently. [Laughs]

So they did, and finally Russia proper congealed around Moscow and later Petersburg.

My point is simply this: by the time Peter the Great came along at the very end of the 17th century, he’s primed, he’s going to be the czar, but he knows about the West. That’s another little-known fact. Do you know what he does? He goes incognito down to the wharfs of Rotterdam and spends two years working on the wharfs just to see what it’s like. He finds out, “Wow! This is a pretty neat place and they’re pretty civilized.” So he comes back and, of course, he overdoes it: “Everybody shave off the beard, and we’re going to use scythes rather than sickles.” So he has a lot of opposition, but by the time Catherine the Great comes [in 1762], when we’re having our Revolution, she’s able to consolidate Russia—all the way down to, and including, Crimea—for the first Russian port that was ice-free. Sevastopol, as you’ve heard about it in the news lately.

All I’m saying here is that when you appreciate Russian history—we haven’t even gotten Napoleon and Hitler. It was mentioned just today, I’ve seen figures between 20 million and 27 million Russians perished when Hitler invaded.

I’ve understood 27 million.

Well, that’s what Peter Kuznick [director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University] used today. I think the Russians say 26 million or 27 million. And the West seems oblivious to this. The supreme indignity, in my view, was on the celebration of D-Day this past June, 70 years after D-Day, there was some discussion as to whether we should invite the Russians. Can you imagine how the Russians felt about that?

“He who is insulted is not defiled. He who insults another is the one defiled.”

Long story short, when we talk about Ukraine now, American history, in the media, begins on the 23rd of February, 2014, when, as the Washington Post headlined the article, “Putin had early plan to annex Crimea.” What are they citing? There’s a documentary out. Putin admits that he got his national security advisers around him on the 23rd.

That was just after the coup [the American-cultivated ouster of Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev].

It was the day after! So I say to my friends, some of whom are very well educated, what’s wrong with that headline? What happened on the 21st? They really don’t know! And these are educated people.

Anyhow, when I saw that happen, I said, “My goodness, not only is this a direct challenge to Russia, but it was sort of pre-advertised. They say the revolution will not be televised, well this coup was “YouTube-ized,” O.K.? Two and a half weeks before?

You mean the famous Vicky Nuland tape. [Nuland is Assistant Secretary for European Affairs; Geoffrey Pyatt is U.S. ambassador in Kiev.] . . .

Continue reading.

Read the whole thing. I’ll blog the second part when it’s published.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 February 2016 at 1:52 pm

Posted in Government

Kansas seems bent on self-destruction

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Kansas really seems to opposed to the way government works in a democracy, particularly a government with three co-equal branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. Lincoln Caplan writes in the New Yorker:

In his annual State of the Judiciary speech a couple of years ago, Chief Justice Lawton R. Nuss, of the Kansas Supreme Court, began with a joke about bribery. A lawyer was sure his side would win a court case because he had given the judge a lot of money. The punch line went, “We are dealing with a respectable judge. He is a man of honor. He would not think of taking from both sides.” The chief justice continued, “We chuckle, and perhaps even laugh. Because that is certainly not the way judges decide cases in Kansas. We do not take money from either side. Nor do we decide cases based on money’s distant cousins: threats and other pressures.”

A week earlier, in his State of the State speech, Kansas’s governor, Sam Brownback, had pointedly pressured Nuss and his colleagues on the state’s highest court. A trial court had found, “beyond any question,” that the state system of financing public schools was unconstitutional because it provided inadequate funding and distributed money unfairly. The Kansas Supreme Court had recently heard oral argument in an appeal of the ruling. The court was expected to decide the case soon. Brownback claimed, “This is the people’s business, done by the people’s house through the wonderfully untidy—but open for all to see—business of appropriations.” He contrasted this with the “unaccountable, opaque” decision-making of the Kansas Supreme Court.

Since 1958, Kansas has relied on a merit-selection system to choose the members of its Supreme Court: a commission of lawyers and non-lawyers nominates three candidates for an open position, and the governor picks one to appoint. Merit selection is meant to strike a balance between independence and accountability. The justices are held accountable in retention elections, but, in the fifty-six years that the system has been used, no justice has been voted out of office, because no justice has proved inept, unethical, or otherwise unfit for service on the court. The court is largely viewed as moderate, reasonable, and business-friendly. That has not kept Brownback from making regular attacks on it.

When the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the heart of the trial-court ruling on financing public schools, it devoted about two-thirds of its opinion to explaining why the court had a duty under the state constitution to decide the issue and not leave the problem to the governor and the legislature. “Determining whether an act of the legislature is invalid under the people’s constitution is solely the duty of the judiciary,” the court wrote. “The judiciary is not at liberty to surrender, ignore, or waive this duty.” The legislature and the governor’s response was to pass and sign a law that stripped the State Supreme Court of administrative power over lower state courts. And then to pass and sign another law that stripped the state’s entire court system of funding if any court struck down any part of the previous law.

This past December, the State Supreme Court ruled that the first of the retaliatory laws is unconstitutional because it usurps the “general administrative authority” that the state constitution gives the judiciary. Because of the second retaliatory law, the ruling put in jeopardy all of the judiciary’s funding.

Last week, the legislature blinked, passing a bill that would reverse the defunding law. Jeff King, the Republican chairman of the Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee, was its main proponent. On Thursday, he told me that the superseded law was not intended to defund the judiciary, but rather to give the legislature an opportunity to reconsider the judiciary’s budget if a court struck down the part of the law shifting budgetary authority from the State Supreme Court to local trial courts. “That’s what we have courts for,” he said. “We in the legislature get to rewrite the law when the court interprets it differently from what we intended.” That is a clever but unconvincing revision of recent history, to save face for the legislature while abiding by the court’s decision.

The bill is being hailed as a victory for judicial independence. It will be a victory if it becomes law—and King told me that Brownback will sign it “very soon”—but a modest and perhaps short-lived one. Republicans in the legislature have drafted bills calling for a system in which the governor would nominate and the State Senate would confirm justices. That sounds benign but could be terrible for Kansas, where the right wing holds the governor’s office and is prominent in the State Senate. There is little balance between the political branches. There is scant check of one by the other.

Republicans have also drafted bills calling for partisan election of justices. That has proved to be a travesty in many states, but particularly in Wisconsin, as I have reported. Since 2000, when spending in judicial elections jumped significantly, they have become a case study in the worst aspects of money in politics. Spending by special interests, which are clearly concerned about the decisions that judges reach rather than their capability and impartiality in reaching them, has grown dramatically as a share of total spending. An increasing portion of that spending has come from national organizations or their local affiliates, which are, again, clearly concerned about results, with most of the money coming from the political right.

The nature of the campaigns is often as misleading and bad for judges and for the law as their purpose. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is the most prominent and persistent critic of judicial elections, called them “political prizefights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the Constitution.”

By all means, read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 February 2016 at 11:16 am

Posted in Business, GOP, Government, Law

The Guantánamo in New York You’re Not Allowed to Know About

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I think it’s a very bad sign when a government starts to have secret prisons (and secret laws, like those that “control” the NSA). Arun Kundnani’s report in The Intercept gives a picture of the sort of nation the US has become:

Before every phone call that Fatuma Hashi has with her brother Mahdi, FBI agents come on the line to tell her what she is not permitted to talk about. “You’re not allowed to speak about political issues. Or whatever’s happening in the outside world. Or his case,” she told The Intercept.

Mahdi Hashi, a young man of Somali origin who grew up in London, had never been to the United States before he was imprisoned in the 10-South wing of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan in November 2012, when he was 23. For over three years, he has been confined to a small cell 23 hours a day without natural light, with an hour alone in a slightly larger indoor cage. He has had no physical contact with anyone. Apart from occasional visits by his lawyer, his human interaction has been limited to brief, transactional exchanges with guards and a monthly 30-minute phone call with his family.

Yet most of Hashi’s time in solitary confinement occurred before he had been deemed guilty by the justice system. Prolonged isolation prior to or in the absence of trial, sensory deprivation, and a lack of independent monitoring are normally associated with the detention center at Guantánamo Bay and CIA black sites overseas. But the MCC’s 10-South wing, which houses terrorism suspects, is no different in these respects. A former MCC prisoner and a psychologist specializing in trauma told The Intercept that the kind of extreme isolation imposed on defendants there can pressure them to accept a guilty plea, irrespective of actual guilt.

For Hashi, who worked at a community youth organization in London, everything changed when he was approached by MI5, the U.K.’s domestic intelligence agency. He was pressured to become an informant, according to accounts he gave to rights groups and local authorities, but refused, despite being warned that doing so would make his life difficult.

In 2012, while Hashi was visiting Somalia, the British government used special powers to strip him of his citizenship, leaving him stateless. He crossed into neighboring Djibouti to visit the British consulate there, he claims, and appeal the decision. U.S. prosecutors allege he was traveling to Yemen to join al Qaeda.

Upon entering Djibouti, Hashi was arrested by agents of the secret police and forced to watch other prisoners gagged, blindfolded, and beaten for hours, he alleges in case filings, with the complicity of FBI agents and other unidentified Americans. According to defense attorneys, Hashi was threatened with physical abuse and rape if he did not cooperate.

In November 2012, he was transported to New York by the U.S. government to face charges of supporting al Shabaab, the Somali terrorist organization. Prosecutors say he traveled to Somalia to attend a training camp and fight with al Shabaab in Somalia’s civil war. They accept that Hashi poses no specific threat to any Americans and that he received “harsh treatment” in Djibouti.

In May 2015, after two-and-a-half years of isolation, Hashi entered a guilty plea of conspiring to provide material support to al Shabaab. Last week, on January 29, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. He will likely be incarcerated at a Supermax facility in Colorado or a high-security “communications management unit” in Illinois or Indiana, all of which mean ongoing solitary confinement.

Government prosecutors were seeking 15 years, but Judge John Gleeson of the Eastern District of New York said the case was “complicated,” and accepted, in part, Hashi’s position that he joined al Shabaab not to engage in violent attacks but because he thought the group could restore peace to war-torn Somalia. “I believe you believe this organization you joined was dramatically different than what you thought or hoped it would be,” Judge Gleeson said.

For Fatuma Hashi, the U.S. government’s approach is hard to understand. “He was in his own country,” she said. “It had nothing to do with the United States. Why does this country that has nothing to do with us have a say in his life?”

Fatuma cannot fully share with journalists what she knows about her brother’s treatment in the MCC, a gray slab of a building that goes largely unnoticed by the office workers and tourists walking the streets near the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn bridge. Government restrictions — known as “special administrative measures,” or SAMs — prevent prisoners, their attorneys, and family members from describing the conditions inside the high-security unit to the wider public, shrouding New York’s little Guantánamo in secrecy.

Psychological damage

In an account to be published in a new book on solitary confinement — titled Hell Is a Very Small Place — a Pakistani prisoner, Uzair Paracha, gives one of the most detailed illustrations yet of incarceration at the MCC. He was held in isolation there for two-and-a-half years after he was arrested in 2003 at age 23.

“The windows were huge but the glass was frosted so we had a lot of light but couldn’t see a thing,” he said. “It was a shade of white during the day, blue in the evening and early morning, black at night, and yellow when it snowed, as the snow reflected the streetlights. This was one way to estimate the time since they didn’t allow any watches.”

Video cameras constantly monitored the inside of Paracha’s cell, including the shower and toilet areas. Lighting was completely controlled from the outside, so that guards could deliberately leave the lights on at night to make sleeping harder. With their metallic walls, the cells were like ovens in the summer and freezing in the winter.

The medical effects of Paracha’s imprisonment at the MCC were severe: a weakening of his eyesight, brought about by having his entire world just a few feet away; a deterioration of physical coordination that made walking on stairs harder; and breathing problems, especially while trying to sleep.

Dr. Kate Porterfield is a clinical psychologist at the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture. She has evaluated prisoners held at various sites in America’s war on terror, including at Guantánamo. “With isolation, there’s a severing of the orienting data of our lives — the stuff that makes us feel like we are on our feet,” she told The Intercept. “This can result in paranoia, disorientation, feeling confused about whether your perceptions match reality, and not being sure who to trust.”

“That’s very dangerous to someone’s psyche,” she added. “It’s not just about feeling depressed because you’re in prison. The defendant ought to be oriented enough in the realities of their life and world that they can contribute to their own defense. A sense of paranoia and suspicion hampers the defendant in trying to connect with his or her legal team so that they can discuss and investigate the case.”

If a person has experienced torture or coercive interrogation before being put in isolation, they are even more vulnerable, Dr. Porterfield said. “There is then a greater likelihood of psychological damage and even less chance for recovery in any real sense.”

Indeed, virtually every academic study has concluded that solitary confinement has serious mental health consequences. These begin after 60 days and resemble the acute reactions suffered by torture and trauma victims.

The average length of time that defendants in federal terrorism prosecutions spend in solitary confinement prior to trial is 22 months, according to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute. Amnesty International has stated that pre-trial solitary confinement at the MCC amounts to “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”

At least one prisoner who has been held at both the MCC and Guantánamo has described the Manhattan jail as harsher. Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who was convicted of involvement in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, told his psychiatrist that Guantánamo is “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the isolation section at the MCC. At Guantánamo, he said, prisoners were not strip-searched and could associate together for recreational activities.

Joshua Dratel, an attorney who has represented clients at Guantánamo as well as the MCC, has also said the New York jail is worse.

A tool for prosecutors

The one advantage that prisoners at the MCC are supposed to have over their counterparts in Guantánamo is that they are subject to trial in a criminal court rather than a military tribunal. However, the use of pre-trial solitary confinement has become, in effect if not intent, a tool for prosecutors to skew the judicial process in their favor.

Experts like Dr. Porterfield emphasize how extreme isolation can induce a desire to accept a plea.  . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more. In summary,

Mahdi Hashi’s prosecution provides one model of how the U.S. government deals with Western citizens accused of fighting with jihadi organizations overseas: coercive interrogation outside of U.S. jurisdiction, transportation to the isolation unit of a federal jail in New York, solitary confinement and restricted communication in conditions of secrecy until a guilty plea is made, then a lengthy incarceration at a high-security prison.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2016 at 11:45 am

Will the VA Let Doctors Recommend Medical Marijuana to Veterans?

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Philip Smith reports in Drug War Chronicles:

On Wednesday, a group of 21 US senators and representatives sent a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs calling on it to allow VA doctors to discuss and recommend marijuana as medicine in states where it is legal.

The bipartisan effort was led by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Steve Daines (R-MT), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Dina Titus (D-NY), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). All represent medical marijuana states.

Under current VA policy, embodied in VHA Directive 2011-004, which expires Sunday, VA doctors are prohibited recommending marijuana as a treatment option even in legal states. This discourages patients and doctors from being honest with each other.

“According to the current directive, VA providers are prohibited from completing forms seeking recommendations or opinions regarding a veteran’s participation in a state-sanctioned marijuana program. This policy disincentivizes doctors and patients from being honest with each other,” the solons wrote. “Congress has taken initial steps to alleviate this conflict in law and we will continue to work toward this goal. However, you are in a position to make this change when the current VHA directive expires at the end of this month. We ask that you act to ensure that our veterans’ access to care is not compromised and that doctors and patients are allowed to have honest discussions about treatment options.”

If patients can’t get a recommendation from their VA docs and thus can’t access dispensaries, they would be tempted to go elsewhere for recommendations, to doctors “likely far less familiar with their symptoms and medical history,” the solons wrote.

Noting that there has been a “sea change” in the legal framework around marijuana since the directive was issued in 2011, they asked that “upon the directive’s expiration, any new directive remove barriers that would interfere with the doctor-patient relationship in states that have chosen to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.”

But without a new directive, even though the old one is expiring, it will be the status quo at the VA, said Michael Krawitz, a US Air Force veteran and executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access. Krawitz participated in the process that led to the production and distribution of the directive.

“VA Directives remain in effect with full force even after expiration unless they are officially replaced or rescinded,” he said. “Although I can understand that patients might not know that and might get uneasy about the expiring directive, but in practicality there should be no change in clinical practices caused by the expiration.”

While VA patients could be spooked by the expiration, the status quo is unacceptable, said Dr. Sue Sisley, MD, in clinical psychiatry and internal medicine, who has two decades of experience treating veterans and who is set to do apilot study on medical marijuana and PTSD for veterans.

“I’ve worked with veterans all over the country who are dealing with severe and chronic, debilitating medical problems,” she said. “They just want the treatment that is going to help them the most, with the least side effects. I have seen firsthand the dramatic improvement so many veterans have had while taking cannabis. Not only have they experienced relief from problems such as PTSD, chronic pain, and migraines, but many of them have also been able to break their addiction to more dangerous drugs, such as opioids and benzodiazepines.”

VA staff physician Deborah Gilman, MD, said current VA policy forces physicians to ignore the science if it conflicts with policy.

“Unlike private practice physicians, VA physicians are under a gag order regarding discussing marijuana with patients,” she said. “In other settings, doctors can be honest about their medical opinions regarding treatment options, based on science. In the VA, an administrator can write policy that you can’t disagree with without losing your job. Veterans are fearful of losing either their medical benefits or their access to health care if they acknowledge using marijuana. This causes a VA doctor to give you a medical opinion based on the VA regulation, not on the science. I knew many VA doctors whose professional opinion was that cannabis might help some of their patients, but they could never say so in their office or in public.” . . .

Continue reading.

President Obama is in charge. Isn’t he? Doesn’t the buck stop there?

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2016 at 11:03 am

NYPD is Kicking People Out of Their Homes, Even If No Crime Was Committed

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The police in New York seem to be completely out of control, and the Mayor does not in practice have the authority to control them. Sarah Ryley reports in ProPublica:

HE MORNING OF MAY 4, 2011, Jameelah El-Shabazz watched out the window of her Bronx apartment as a team of police officers fanned across the rooftop of Banana Kelly High School. The 43-year-old mother of five said she didn’t think much of the scene — drug raids were common in her neighborhood.

As she did most mornings, El-Shabazz said she went to her bedroom to feed her newborn son and to worship before a shrine of candles and carvings arranged atop her wardrobe. Her most treasured object was a wooden tray her father had brought her from Nigeria. A deity of the Ifa religion, which she practices as a high priestess, was carved on its surface and covered in a residue of finely crushed eggshells. El-Shabazz used the substance, known in her faith as efun powder, to cleanse the shrine. She took fresh clumps of the powder from a cup and began to break it up in her hands.

That’s when the narcotics officers kicked in the door.

Her baby shrieked as the gun-wielding officers tore apart rooms looking for PCP, which an anonymous informant had claimed was being sold from the apartment. They ordered everyone to lie on the ground, then turned to her eldest son, Akin Shakoor, who along with another son was having frequent run-ins with police. El-Shabazz said the officers told Shakoor if he didn’t give up the drugs, “they would take all of my children away from me and make sure that I was put out of my apartment.”

As evidence, police seized 45 paper cups of the eggshell powder, the sacred wooden tray, and a small amount of marijuana. They arrested El-Shabazz, her teenaged sister Najah El-Shabazz, and Shakoor, then 21, and took them outside past the handcuffed residents of four other apartments that were raided that morning.

Najah was released, court filings say, but Jameelah El-Shabazz and Shakoor sat in cells on Rikers Island for the next week awaiting the results of police lab tests. Finally, the results confirmed what she had told the officers all along: the wooden tray and the 45 paper cups of powder were drug-free. Jameelah El-Shabazz and Shakoor were released from Rikers and fully exonerated.

But El-Shabazz’s battle with New York’s legal system was only beginning. That September, another of her sons called to say the police were back, this time with a lawyer and a court order to seal the Bronx apartment. Her entire family had to leave — immediately.

El-Shabazz was facing a nuisance abatement action, a little-known type of lawsuit that gives the city the power to shut down places it claims are being used for illegal purposes. The case against her was based on the same drug allegations that had been dismissed in May. Incredibly, the filing, signed by a New York Police Department attorney, stated: “recovered during the execution of the search warrant were forty-five (45) paper cups of cocaine.”

The nuisance abatement law was created in the 1970’s to combat the sex industry in Times Square. Since then, its use has been vastly expanded, commonly targeting apartments and mom-and-pop bodegas even as the city’s crime rate has reached historic lows. The NYPD files upward of 1,000 such cases a year, nearly half of them against residences.

The process has remarkably few protections for people facing the loss of their homes.

Three-quarters of the cases begin with secret court orders that lock residents until the case is resolved. The police need a judge’s signoff, but residents aren’t notified and thus have no chance to tell their side of the story until they’ve already been locked out for days. And because these are civil actions, residents also have no right to an attorney.

Perhaps most fundamentally, residents can be permanently barred from their homes without being convicted or even charged with a crime.

A man was prohibited from living in his family home and separated from his young daughter over gambling allegations that were dismissed in criminal court. A diabetic man said he was forced to sleep on subways and stoops for a month after being served with a nuisance abatement action over low-level drug charges that also never led to a conviction. Meanwhile, his elderly mother was left with no one to care for her.

In partnership with ProPublica, the Daily News reviewed 516 residential nuisance abatement actions filed in the Supreme Courts from Jan. 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014. Our analysis also reviewed the outcomes of the underlying criminal cases against hundreds of people who were banned from homes as a result of these actions.

  • 173 of the people who gave up their leases or were banned from homes were not convicted of a crime, including 44 people who appear to have faced no criminal prosecution whatsoever.
  • Overall, tenants and homeowners lost or had already left homes in three-quarters of the 337 cases for which the Daily News and ProPublica were able to determine the outcome. The other cases were either withdrawn without explanation, were missing settlements, or are still active.
  • In at least 74 cases, residents agreed to warrantless searches of their homes, sometimes in perpetuity, as one of the conditions of being allowed back in. Others agreed to automatically forfeit their leases if they were merely accused of wrongdoing in the future.
  • The toll of nuisance abatement actions falls almost exclusively on minorities, our analysis showed. Over 18 months, nine of 10 homes subjected to such actions were in minority communities. We identified the race of 215 of the 297 people who were barred from homes in nuisance abatement battles. Only five are white.

Runa Rajagopal of the Bronx Defenders, who leads a division that represents people in the civil courts, called the practice a “collective punishment” on the entire family of those accused of a crime, “used by the NYPD to exert power and control largely over communities of color.”

The NYPD declined to answer any questions about specific cases.

Officials emphasized that because these are civil cases, they’re handled separately from criminal cases and thus have lower standards of proof.

“The law does not require criminal conviction, does not require [a] particular disposition of a criminal case, does not even require an arrest of anyone,” said Lawrence Byrne, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters in an interview with the Daily News last year. . .

Continue reading.

It’s a lengthy article, so there is much more. And it shows the direction policing is going. There’s also a sidebar: “Nuisance Abatement Actions Almost Exclusively Target Homes in Minority Neighborhoods.” This seems to be a part of the overall war on the poor, in which (for example) in many localities it’s illegal to be poor (e.g., homeless). I don’t think when LBJ declared a war on poverty he meant that the war should be on the poor, viewing the poor as the enemy, but that is where we are now.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2016 at 10:57 am

What Eric Holder is doing now, following his stint as Attorney General

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David Dayen reports in The Intercept:

Former Obama administration attorney general Eric Holder is prominently featured in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad running in South Carolina. “If you want to make sure Republicans don’t take us backward, help Hillary move us forward,” Holder says.

Meanwhile, in his post-public service life as a partner with white-collar defense firm Covington & Burling, Holder is upholding his Justice Department’s tradition of negotiating lower fines for corporate offenses, albeit from the other side of the negotiating table.

The Associated Press reports that Holder, whose Justice Department prosecuted no major executive for the fraud that led to the 2008 financial crisis, is representing South African telecommunications conglomerate MTN in a $3.9 billion dispute with the country of Nigeria.

MTN Nigeria did not deactivate 5.2 million unregistered cell phone SIM cards after the Nigerian Communications Commission ordered them to do so by August 2015. Extremist groups operating in Nigeria use the cards for communications in kidnappings and attacks.

The commission initially imposed a $5.2 billion fine, which MTN challenged in court and got reduced to $3.9 billion. Now, Holder “is leading MTN’s legal team” in attempting to get the fine further reduced or eliminated, according to the commission’s spokesman, Tony Ojobo. The Federal High Court in Lagos has given MTN and the commission until March 18 to negotiate a settlement. Holder is negotiating directly with Nigerian officials, the AP reported.

During his Justice Department leadership, Holder specialized in negotiating settlements with corporations. The Justice Department issued a record numberof deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements, allowing corporations charged with misconduct to buy their way out of trouble without jail time or clawed-back bonuses.

Covington & Burling defends corporate clients all over the world, including telecom, pharmaceutical, and financial interests. They openly promote getting bank clients off the hook in their marketing materials.

Holder defended corporations at the firm before becoming attorney general, and immediately returned there at the end of his tenure, calling it “home for me.” A year earlier, he purchased a condo that sits 300 feet from Covington & Burling’s new headquarters in Washington. The firm even held open a corner office in that new building for Holder while he was a sitting attorney general, while he negotiated settlements with Covington & Burling clients.

But Holder bristles at the suggestion that there might be a connection between his current employer and his conduct at Justice.

Lanny Breuer, head of the criminal division at DOJ under Holder, also returned to Covington & Burling after government work. In all, six former Justice Department officials now work at the firm.

The game is indeed rigged. And note the sort of people supporting Hillary. No wonder they fear Bernie.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 February 2016 at 2:26 pm

Shkreli Was Right: Everyone’s Hiking Drug Prices

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I don’t think that “They’re doing it, too” is much of a defense for a wrongful act, but the fact that Shkreli is correct in pointing out that other companies are also profiteering by jacking up prices of drugs people must buy is an argument that government regulation is required. The free market will not fix a problem created by the free market.

UPDATE: Read this Atlantic report about Shkreli’s appearance before the House committee.

Robert Langrath and Rebecca Spalding report in Bloomberg Business:

After Martin Shkreli raised the price of anti-parasitic drug Daraprim more than 50-foldto $750 a pill last year, he said he wasn’t alone in taking big price hikes.

As it turns out, the former drug executive was right. A survey of about 3,000 brand-name prescription drugs found that prices more than doubled for 60 and at least quadrupled for 20 since December 2014.

Among the biggest increases was Alcortin A, a combination steroid and antibiotic gel to treat eczema and skin infections: The price soared 1,860 percent, or almost 20-fold, during the period. And a vial of Aloprim, a Mylan NV drug for cancer complications, more than doubled, according to the survey by DRX, a provider of price-comparison software to health plans.

Skyrocketing prices are getting increased scrutiny ahead of a U.S. congressional hearing this week: Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings, ranking member on a committee that is probing drug pricing, said Tuesday that pricing “tactics are not limited to a few ‘bad apples,’ but are prominent throughout the industry.”

Big price hikes

Even after soaring prices became an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, the cost of many drugs has continued to rise at annual rates of more than 10 percent. Drugmakers raised the prices of products as wide-ranging as erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, heart treatments, dermatology medicine and even brands that long have lost their patents. While specialty companies have had the steepest hikes, giants such as Pfizer Inc. and GlaxoSmithKline Plc kept pushing through smaller rises.

“The data shows that price increases are an integral part of the business plan,” said Jim Yocum, executive vice president at DRX.

Pharmaceutical companies often boost prices around the end and the start of the year, and the scale of recent increases was higher than what Yocum has seen in the past few years. About 400 formulations of brand-name drugs went up at least 9.9 percent since early December, according to DRX. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 February 2016 at 12:54 pm

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