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The Constitutional Crisis Has Arrived

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Robert Kagan has a lengthy piece in the Washington Post that’s well worth reading — and that link is gift article that skips the paywall. His essay begins:

“Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.”  — James Madison

The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves. The warning signs may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial. But about these things there should be no doubt:

First, Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president in 2024. The hope and expectation that he would fade in visibility and influence have been delusional. He enjoys mammoth leads in the polls; he is building a massive campaign war chest; and at this moment the Democratic ticket looks vulnerable. Barring health problems, he is running.

Second, Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary. Trump’s charges of fraud in the 2020 election are now primarily aimed at establishing the predicate to challenge future election results that do not go his way. Some Republican candidates have already begun preparing to declare fraud in 2022, just as Larry Elder tried meekly to do in the California recall contest.

Meanwhile, the amateurish “stop the steal” efforts of 2020 have given way to an organized nationwide campaign to ensure that Trump and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020. Those recalcitrant Republican state officials who effectively saved the country from calamity by refusing to falsely declare fraud or to “find” more votes for Trump are being systematically removed or hounded from office. Republican legislatures are giving themselves greater control over the election certification process. As of this spring, Republicans have proposed or passed measures in at least 16 states that would shift certain election authorities from the purview of the governor, secretary of state or other executive-branch officers to the legislature. An Arizona bill flatly states that the legislature may “revoke the secretary of state’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election” by a simple majority vote. Some state legislatures seek to impose criminal penalties on local election officials alleged to have committed “technical infractions,” including obstructing the view of poll watchers.

The stage is thus being set for chaos. Imagine weeks of competing mass protests across multiple states as lawmakers from both parties claim victory and charge the other with unconstitutional efforts to take power. Partisans on both sides are likely to be better armed and more willing to inflict harm than they were in 2020. Would governors call out the National Guard? Would President Biden nationalize the Guard and place it under his control, invoke the Insurrection Act, and send troops into Pennsylvania or Texas or Wisconsin to quell violent protests? Deploying federal power in the states would be decried as tyranny. Biden would find himself where other presidents have been — where Andrew Jackson was during the nullification crisis, or where Abraham Lincoln was after the South seceded — navigating without rules or precedents, making his own judgments about what constitutional powers he does and doesn’t have.

Today’s arguments over the filibuster will seem quaint in three years if the American political system enters a crisis for which the Constitution offers no remedy.

Most Americans — and all but a handful of politicians — have refused to take this possibility seriously enough to try to prevent it. As has so often been the case in other countries where fascist leaders arise, their would-be opponents are paralyzed in confusion and amazement at this charismatic authoritarian. They have followed the standard model of appeasement, which always begins with underestimation. The political and intellectual establishments in both parties have been underestimating Trump since he emerged on the scene in 2015. They underestimated the extent of his popularity and the strength of his hold on his followers; they underestimated his ability to take control of the Republican Party; and then they underestimated how far he was willing to go to retain power. The fact that he failed to overturn the 2020 election has reassured many that the American system remains secure, though it easily could have gone the other way — if Biden had not been safely ahead in all four states where the vote was close; if Trump had been more competent and more in control of the decision-makers in his administration, Congress and the states. As it was, Trump came close to bringing off a coup earlier this year. All that prevented it was a handful of state officials with notable courage and integrity, and the reluctance of two attorneys general and a vice president to obey orders they deemed inappropriate.

These were not the checks and balances the Framers had in mind when they designed the Constitution, of course, but Trump has exposed the inadequacy of those protections. The Founders did not foresee the Trump phenomenon, in part because they did not foresee national parties. They anticipated the threat of a demagogue, but not of a national cult of personality. They assumed that the new republic’s vast expanse and the historic divisions among the 13 fiercely independent states would pose insuperable barriers to national movements based on party or personality. “Petty” demagogues might sway their own states, where they were known and had influence, but not the whole nation with its diverse populations and divergent interests.

Such checks and balances as the Framers put in place, therefore, depended on . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — and no paywall.

Written by Leisureguy

24 September 2021 at 2:12 pm

ShadowDragon: Inside the Social Media Surveillance Software That Can Watch Your Every Move

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Michael Kwet reports in the Intercept:

A MICHIGAN STATE POLICE CONTRACT, obtained by The Intercept, sheds new light on the growing use of little-known surveillance software that helps law enforcement agencies and corporations watch people’s social media and other website activity.

The software, put out by a Wyoming company called ShadowDragon, allows police to suck in data from social media and other internet sources, including Amazon, dating apps, and the dark web, so they can identify persons of interest and map out their networks during investigations. By providing powerful searches of more than 120 different online platforms and a decade’s worth of archives, the company claims to speed up profiling work from months to minutes. ShadowDragon even claims its software can automatically adjust its monitoring and help predict violence and unrest. Michigan police acquired the software through a contract with another obscure online policing company named Kaseware for an “MSP Enterprise Criminal Intelligence System.”

The inner workings of the product are generally not known to the public. The contract, and materials published by the companies online, allow a deeper explanation of how this surveillance works, provided below.

ShadowDragon has kept a low profile but has law enforcement customers well beyond Michigan. It was purchased twice by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in the last two years, documents show, and was reportedly acquired by the Massachusetts State Police and other police departments within the state.

Michigan officials appear to be keeping their contract and the identities of ShadowDragon and Microsoft from the public. The Michigan.gov website does not make the contract available; it instead offers an email address at which to request the document “due to the sensitive nature of this contract.” And the contract it eventually provides has been heavily redacted: The copy given to David Goldberg, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit had all mentions of ShadowDragon software and Microsoft Azure blacked out. What’s more, Goldberg had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the contract. When the state website did offer the contract, it was unredacted, and I downloaded it before it was withdrawn.

Last year, The Intercept published several articles detailing how a social media analytics firm called Dataminr relayed tweets about the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests to police. The same year, I detailed at The Intercept how Kaseware’s partner Microsoft helps police surveil and patrol communities through its own offerings and a network of partnerships.

This new revelation about the Michigan contract raises questions about what digital surveillance capabilities other police departments and law enforcement agencies in the U.S. might be quietly acquiring. And it comes at a time when previously known government social media surveillance is under fire from civil rights and liberties advocates like MediaJustice and the American Civil Liberties Union. It also raises the specter of further abuses in Michigan, where the FBI has been profiling Muslim communities and so-called Black Identity Extremists. In 2015, it was revealed that for years, the state police agency was using cell site simulators to spy on mobile phones without disclosing it to the public.

“Social media surveillance technologies, such as the software acquired by Michigan State Police, are often introduced under the false premise that they are public safety and accountability tools. In reality, they endanger Black and marginalized communities,” Arisha Hatch, vice president and chief of campaigns at civil rights nonprofit Color of Change, wrote in an email.

Michigan State Police spokesperson Shanon Banner said in an email that “the investigative tools available to us as part of this contract are only used in conjunction with criminal investigations, following all state and federal laws.” The founder of ShadowDragon, Daniel Clemens, wrote that the company provides only information that is publicly available and does not “build products with predictive capabilities.”

A Shadowy Industry

Kaseware and ShadowDragon are part of a shadowy industry of software firms that exploit what they call “open source intelligence,” or OSINT: the trails of information that people leave on the internet. Clients include intelligence agencies, government, police, corporations, and even schools.

Kaseware, which is partnered to ShadowDragon and Microsoft, provides a platform for activities that support OSINT and other elements of digital policing, like data storage, management, and analysis. Its capabilities range from storing evidence to predictive policing. By contrast, the two ShadowDragon products acquired by the Michigan State Police are more narrowly tailored for the surveillance of people using social media, apps, and websites on the internet. They run on the Kaseware platform.

To understand how Kaseware and ShadowDragon work together, let us consider each in turn, starting with ShadowDragon. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

23 September 2021 at 8:14 pm

“Not Who We Are”? This Is All America Has Ever Been.

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This article from May 2020 that Natalie Baptiste wrote in Mother Jones is worth rereading:

A couple of days after the death of a 25-year-old Black man in Georgia named Ahmaud Arbery became widely known, a Mother Jones editor suggested to a group of reporters of color that we should publish something on the shocking video that was soon to go viral. It showed two white men chasing Arbery, who was jogging down a rural road in his own neighborhood, and gunning him down.

Our responses were identical: We were all so tired.

Is there anything new to be said about the killing of young Black men who are engaged in everyday activities until they attract the attention of white people who feel threatened and decide to kill them? How many times can we decry racism and beg to be seen as fully human? But while my colleagues and I felt exhausted, well-meaning people of all races littered my social media feeds with a rallying cry that is a variation on a theme as familiar as it is fundamentally empty. It boiled down to the old trope: “This is not who we are!”

Soon my exhaustion turned to frustration: In fact, this is who we are. And yet, by treating every single senseless death, every single racial profiling incident, every attack on Black people, every example of the disproportionate vulnerability of people of color to economic and now coronavirus devastation as some aberration, America is given a kind of absolution. Our racist society is off the hook.

First, consider what happened to Ahmaud Arbery. On February 23, Arbery, an avid runner, went for a jog in Satilla Shores, a majority white town in rural Georgia. He lived just two miles away with his mother. While he was jogging, several people called 911 to report that a Black man was running down the street. Gregory McMichael and his son Travis decided that a young Black man wearing shorts and running peacefully in their neighborhood must have been a burglary suspect. They chased him down and three shots are heard in the video, with the third fired at point-blank range. His death was caught on tape.

The case is now on its third prosecutor. The first one recused herself because she previously employed Gregory McMichael, who is a former investigator in the district attorney’s office. The second recused himself because his son works in the district attorney’s office that once employed Gregory McMichael. But before his recusal, he wrote a letter saying the father and son were innocent because of Georgia’s stand-your-ground laws and other laws that allow a private citizen to attempt an arrest if an offense is committed in his presence, or if he has immediate knowledge of it.

Eventually a video of the attack went viral, sparking a national outcry and demands for justice. Politicians across the ideological spectrum tweeted out statements decrying the killing of Arbery, and, naturally, vowing to fight for justice.  . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

The reason it came up today was this column by Michael Mechanic. In it, he writes:

. . . The sharing of Baptiste’s piece was occasioned by a CBS Mornings appearance in which White House press secretary Jen Psaki, confronted with images of Border Patrol agents on horseback riding down a group of Haitian migrants, declared, “This is not who we are. That’s not who the Biden-Harris administration is.”

I can’t speak for the administration, but it’s damn well who America is. We are a nation where many states today are enacting laws designed to make it harder for certain groups of people to vote, and, worse, laws that empower state officials to challenge election results they dislike. We are a nation that deploys Predator drones to Muslim nations, sometimes murdering innocent men, women, and children based on laughable intelligence—and lying about it until we are caught red-handed.

We may aspire to do right as a nation, but we cannot ever seem to agree on what that means. In the meantime, people—usually white people—tell themselves stories to avoid confronting our dreadful, racist past: Oh, but slavery ended so long ago. Listen, my grandparents came to America way later; my family wasn’t part of all that. Hey, nobody ever gave me a handout. We white Americans get uncomfortable when confronted by the idea that, regardless of whether we harbor racist intent, we have all benefitted from racism, socially and financially.

In a review of Clint Smith’s recent book about how America is dealing with its slavery legacy, I wrote about how a well-educated white acquaintance had expressed annoyance to me that Black Americans couldn’t just get over it. After the review ran, several readers tracked down my personal email to make their case for why slavery reparations were not in order. (I’d never explicitly said that they were.) Their arguments, though lengthy, had logical flaws, and lacked a full accounting of our past—which isn’t yet fully past. I didn’t have the time or the energy to engage, in part because I’m pessimistic that presenting a more comprehensive view of race in America—the sort of history some state legislatures are busy banning from school curriculums—would change these people’s minds. As James Baldwin wrote, “Someone once said to me that people in general cannot bear very much reality.”

And yet the rest are forced to live with the consequences.

Written by Leisureguy

22 September 2021 at 7:10 pm

This Is Why Cops Shouldn’t Handle All Domestic Violence Calls

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Melissa Jeitsen writes in New York:

Weeks before Gabby Petito, a #vanlife influencer on a cross-country road trip, was reported missing, and before her remains were discovered in a national forest in Wyoming, the 22-year-old found herself crying uncontrollably in the back of a police car. On August 12, she and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, had fought in front of a grocery store in Moab, Utah. A concerned bystander called 911 to report a domestic dispute after witnessing Laundrie strike Petito. According to the caller, “the gentleman was slapping the girl.” Another witness said it appeared Laundrie had taken her phone and locked her out of the van. He told police that he saw Petito hitting Laundrie as she fought to get back inside the van — her home at the time.

But when police pulled over the couple in the now-infamous white van to investigate further, they came to a very different conclusion about what had transpired. After separating and talking with both parties — one of whom was hyperventilating, and one of whom was calm and jovial — they made the determination that it was Petito who was the abuser and Laundrie the victim. Laundrie got a fist-bump from a police officer and was told he did nothing wrong before being driven to a hotel for a free night’s stay. Petito was left with the van and made to spend a night alone in an unfamiliar place while experiencing an apparent mental-health crisis.

The hour-plus body-camera footage of the incident, released by the Moab City Police Department, offers some insight into why the officers came to the determination they did and provides a striking lesson about how the legal mechanisms ostensibly put in place to protect domestic-violence victims over the past few decades can be used against them. Above all, it shows why police are not really the best people to be intervening in domestic-violence incidents in the first place.

Utah is one of 22 states with legislation that requires officers to arrest someone when responding to reports of domestic violence, as long as certain conditions are met. Mandatory arrest laws, as they’re called, first appeared in the 1980s, and were pushed by women’s rights advocates as a way to force law enforcement to take domestic violence seriously. “Absolutely nothing was being done when DV calls came in,” says Rita Smith, former head of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who has been working on this issue for more than 40 years. “They’d show up at the call, walk the guy around the block, cool them off, and walk away as soon as they could. It didn’t matter what they saw or what they heard.”

But mandating that officers make an arrest meant that law enforcement was also tasked with determining which person was causing harm, a fraught responsibility complicated by conflicting stories and biases around victim behavior. “You cannot determine who a primary aggressor is based on one incident,” Smith says. “It’s not what they see right in front of them. They’ve got to get some kind of a historical perspective of this interaction to know who really is in danger here.” As a result of mandatory arrest laws, she says, arrests of domestic violence survivors went up, as did dual arrests. When police cannot determine who the primary aggressor is, they may simply arrest both people. “That was not a good outcome and was not our intention as advocates,” she says.

The challenges of asking police to quickly determine which party is causing harm is evident in the video footage of Petito and Laundrie. When officers arrive on the scene, Petito is teary, unstable, apologizing, and blaming herself for the conflict. She explains that she was upset because Laundrie locked her outside the van and says he pushed her and grabbed her face. But she admits that she got physical too; she says she slapped him and hit his arm to get his attention when the police were driving behind them. Her fiancé, on the other hand, comes off as the more reliable narrator. In a friendly, relaxed tone, he tells police that he was only trying to get her to calm down. That’s why he took the keys — so that she’d take a walk and get some air. She scratched him while she was trying to get the keys back, he says. He only pushed her to get her off of him.

Faced with this evidence, the police officers discuss what they must do. As one cop explains to Laundrie, “one of the things that the state legislature doesn’t give us discretion on is charges when it comes to a domestic assault.” Because Laundrie is the one with visible injuries — the scratches — the officer concludes that he is the victim. Petito, then, is the aggressor.

The officers decide to separate the couple for the night. In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the footage, one of the cops asks a domestic-violence advocate over the phone if it would be possible for Petito to spend the night at the shelter, even though she is the suspect in the incident. The answer is no.

“What the body-cam footage really reinforces is this binary that exists when we’re talking about intimate-partner violence,” says Leigh Goodmark, law professor and director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland. “There can only be an aggressor and a victim. And once you’ve been labeled the aggressor, police and prosecutors have no capacity to see that you have been victimized, either on that occasion or on any previous occasion.”

Ultimately, police declined to charge Petito with domestic battery, determining that she did not intend to cause physical harm. Still,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 September 2021 at 2:57 pm

Calvin, Man of Action

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Written by Leisureguy

21 September 2021 at 11:36 am

At Rikers Island, Inmates Locked in Showers Without Food and Defecating in Bags

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The US is really amazing. New York City is supposed a city of wealth and culture and represents to much of the world what the US is. In the Intercept Nick Pinto reports on how New York City treats those entrusted to its care:

JAIL OFFICIALS KNEW that state legislators were going to be touring Rikers Island on September 13. But if they made any effort to disguise the degree of degradation and danger that pervades New York City’s jail complex, it didn’t show. Lawmakers and the people who accompanied them returned from their visit visibly shaken.

“There’s a segregated intake unit that we walked through where they have people held in showers,” said Alice Fontier, managing director for Neighborhood Defender Services, who toured one Rikers building, the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, with lawmakers. “It’s about 2 feet wide by 6 feet. There is no toilet. They’ve given them plastic bags to use for feces and urine. And they’re sitting in the cells with their own bodily waste locked into these conditions. This is the most horrific thing I’ve seen in my life. I’ve been coming to this jail since 2008. This is unlike anything that has ever happened here.”

Rikers has been a festering wound in New York City for about as long as it has existed as a jail complex. Cut off from the rest of the city by water on all sides and accessible only by a long causeway, New York’s island gulag has always been out of sight and out of mind. Periodically, a snapshot of conditions inside will escape the island’s event horizon, as in 2014 when then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued a scathing report describing Rikers as a place “more inspired by ‘Lord of the Flies’ than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.”

Bharara’s report helped buttress the movement to close Rikers once and for all, a movement to which Mayor Bill de Blasio was a late joiner in 2017, during his reelection campaign.

Since that time, de Blasio has responded to alarms about conditions on Rikers Island by falling back on his commitment to close the complex — but only closing it sometime years in the future, long after he has left office. The mayor has not visited the island jails at all since winning his second term.

Recent events, though, forced de Blasio to pay closer attention. In the last eight months, 10 people have died in custody on the island, five of them taking their own lives. Covid-19 is once again on the rise on Rikers. On September 10, the chief medical officer on Rikers wrote a letter to New York City Council, warning that “in 2021 we have witnessed a collapse in basic jail operations, such that today I do not believe the City is capable of safely managing the custody of those it is charged with incarcerating in its jails.”

As de Blasio belatedly rolls out a plan for addressing the crisis on Rikers, he is casting responsibility for the condition in his jails variously on the Covid-19 pandemic, prison guards, state government, prosecutors, and the judiciary. But while the unfolding human catastrophe is indeed a tragedy with deep origins and many authors, it is also the predictable conclusion of de Blasio’s own policies and politics.

Even as he has taken credit for the long-term plan to eventually close Rikers, the mayor has embraced a pressure campaign by his police commissioner that seeks to roll back carceral system reforms and re-entrench bail and gratuitous pretrial detention in New York’s criminal system.

In the conscience-shocking crisis on Rikers Island, de Blasio is reaping the whirlwind for his acquiescence to an agenda of mass incarceration.

MUCH OF THE coverage of the crisis on Rikers has focused on a cascading staffing crisis. In recent weeks, accounts circulated of housing units going whole days without any guards at all. By the city government’s estimates, on any given day, fully 35 percent of staff are unavailable to work. On September 15, according to New York City officials, 789 jail employees called in sick, 68 were out for a “personal emergency,” and 93 were simply absent without leave.

As guards sick out, their colleagues find their own working conditions declining even further. Corrections officers increasingly work double, triple, and even quadruple shifts. On many housing units, there are no officers on the floor. The number of assaults — against incarcerated people and staff alike — is going up. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more and no paywall.

Written by Leisureguy

19 September 2021 at 4:51 pm

New Evidence of Corruption at Epa Chemicals Division

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Sharon Lerner reports in the Intercept:

Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency have provided The Intercept with new information showing that senior staff have made chemicals appear safer — sometimes dodging restrictions on their use — by minimizing the estimates of how much is released into the environment.

The EPA gauges the potential risk posed by a chemical using two measures: how toxic the agency considers it and how much of the substance the public will likely be exposed to. Whistleblowers from the EPA’s New Chemicals Division have already provided The Intercept with evidence that managers and other officials were pressuring them to assess chemicals to be less toxic than they actually are — and sometimes removing references to their harms from chemical assessments.

Now new documents, including meeting summaries, internal emails, and screenshots from the EPA’s computer system, along with interviews with whistleblowers and other EPA scientists, show that the agency’s New Chemicals Division has avoided calculating the exposure to — and thus the risk posed by — hundreds of chemicals and have repeatedly resisted calls to change that policy even after scientists have shown that it puts the public at risk.

Call It “Negligible”

Since 1995, the EPA has operated under the assumption that chemicals emitted below certain cutoff levels are safe. Whether a toxic chemical is emitted through the smokestacks of an industrial plant, via leaks in its machinery, or from a leaky landfill into groundwater, the agency requires scientists to quantify the precise risk posed by the chemical only if the release (and thus likely human exposure) reaches certain thresholds. If the releases from both smokestacks and leaks are below the thresholds, the chemical is given a pass. In recent years, however, scientists have shown that some of the chemicals allowed onto the market using this loophole do in fact present a danger, particularly to the people living in “fence-line communities” near industrial plants.

In 2018, several EPA scientists became worried that the use of these exposure thresholds could leave the public vulnerable to health risks. Their concern was heightened by an email that a manager in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics sent in October of that year, instructing the scientists to change the language they used to classify chemicals that were exempted from risk calculation because they were deemed to have low exposure levels. Up to that point, they had described them in reports as “below modeling thresholds.” From then on, the manager explained, the scientists were to include the words “expects to be negligible” — a phrase that implies there’s no reason for concern.

Several scientists who worked on calculating chemical risks believed that there was in fact reason for concern and that the use of the thresholds leaves the public vulnerable to health effects, including cancer. And after being instructed to refer to exposures they hadn’t actually measured or modeled as “negligible,” the scientists proposed dropping or lowering the cutoffs and running the calculations for each individual chemical — a task that would add only minutes to the assessment process. But the managers refused to heed their request, which would have not only changed how chemicals were assessed moving forward but would have also had implications for hundreds of assessments in the past.

“They told us that the use of the thresholds was a policy decision and, as such, we could not simply stop applying them,” one of the scientists who worked in the office explained to The Intercept.

The issue resurfaced in May 2020 when a scientist presented the case of a single chemical the agency was then considering allowing onto the market. Although it fell into the “negligible” category using the cutoffs that had been set decades previously, when the scientists calculated the exposure levels using an alternate EPA model, which is designed to gauge the risk of airborne chemicals, it became clear that the chemical did pose a risk of damaging the human nervous system. The chemical is still going through the approval process.

In February, a small group of scientists reviewed the safety thresholds set by the EPA for all of the 368 new chemicals submitted to the agency in 2020. They found that more than half could pose risks even in cases in which the agency had already described exposure as “negligible” and thus had not calculated specific risk. Again, the scientists brought the exposure threshold issue to the attention of managers in the New Chemicals Division, briefing them on their analysis and requesting that the use of the outdated cutoffs be stopped. But they received no response to their proposal. Seven months later, the thresholds remain in use and the risk posed by chemicals deemed to have low exposure levels is still not being calculated and included in chemical assessments, according to EPA scientists who spoke with The Intercept.

The internal struggles over exposure present yet another example of managers and senior staff working to undermine the agency’s mission, according to the EPA scientists. “Our work on new chemicals often felt like an exercise in finding ways to approve new chemicals rather than reviewing them for approval,” said one of two scientists who filed new disclosures to the EPA inspector general on August 31 about the issue. The detailed account of corruption within the New Chemicals Division that four whistleblowers previously submitted to members of Congress, the EPA inspector general, and The Intercept also included information on the ongoing problems caused by the use of the exposure thresholds.”

“It all comes down to money,” said Kyla Bennett, director of science policy for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, the organization representing the whistleblowers, who pointed out that risk values above the agency’s accepted cutoffs require the EPA to impose limits that may make a chemical harder to use — and sell. “Companies don’t want warning labels, they don’t want restrictions.”

It’s unclear why some senior staff and managers within the EPA’s New Chemicals Division seem to feel an obligation not to burden the companies they regulate with restrictions. “That’s the $64,000 question,” said Bennett, who pointed out that EPA staffers may enhance their post-agency job prospects within the industry if they stay in the good graces of chemical companies. She also noted that managers’ performance within the division is assessed partly based on how many chemicals they approve. “The bean counting is driving their actions,” said Bennett. “The performance metrics should be, how many chemicals did you prevent from going onto the market, rather than how many did you get onto the market.”

In response to questions about this story, the EPA  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and no paywall.

Written by Leisureguy

19 September 2021 at 4:42 pm

When Wall Street came to coal country: how a big-money gamble scarred Appalachia

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Mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia

Evan Osnos reports in the Guardian:

Once or twice a generation, Americans rediscover Appalachia. Sometimes, they come to it through caricature – the cartoon strip Li’l Abner or the child beauty pageant star Honey Boo Boo or, more recently, Buckwild, a reality show about West Virginia teenagers, which MTV broadcast with subtitles. Occasionally, the encounter is more compassionate. In 1962, the social critic Michael Harrington published The Other America, which called attention to what he described as a “vicious circle of poverty” that “twists and deforms the spirit”.

Around the turn of this century, hedge funds in New York and its environs took a growing interest in coalmines. Coal never had huge appeal to Wall Street investors – mines were dirty, old-fashioned and bound up by union contracts that made them difficult to buy and sell. But in the late 1990s, the growing economies of Asia began to consume more and more energy, which investors predicted would drive up demand halfway around the world, in Appalachia. In 1997, the Hobet mine, a 25-year-old operation in rural West Virginia, was acquired for the first time by a public company, Arch Coal. It embarked on a major expansion, dynamiting mountaintops and dumping the debris into rivers and streams. As the Hobet mine grew, it consumed the ridges and communities around it. Seen from the air, the mine came to resemble a giant grey amoeba – 22 miles from end to end – eating its way across the mountains.

Up close, the effects were far more intimate. When Wall Street came to coal country, it triggered a cascade of repercussions that were largely invisible to the outside world but of existential importance to people nearby.

Down a hillside from the Hobet mine, the Caudill family had lived and hunted and farmed for a century. Their homeplace, as they called it, was 30 hectares (75 acres) of woods and water. The Caudills were hardly critics of mining; many were miners themselves. John Caudill was an explosives expert until one day, in the 30s, a blast went off early and left him blind. His mining days were over, but his land was abundant, and John and his wife went on to have 10 children. They grew potatoes, corn, lettuce, tomatoes, beets and beans; they hunted game in the forests and foraged for berries and ginseng. Behind the house, a hill was dense with hemlocks, ferns and peach trees.

One by one, the Caudill kids grew up and left for school and work. They settled into the surrounding towns, but stayed close enough to return to the homeplace on weekends. John’s grandson, Jerry Thompson, grew up a half-hour down a dirt road. “I could probably count on one hand the number of Sundays I missed,” he said. His grandmother’s menu never changed: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn and cake. “You’d just wander the property for hours. I would have a lot of cousins there, and we would ramble through the barns and climb up the mountains and wade in the creek and hunt for crawdads.”

Before long, the Hobet mine surrounded the land on three sides, and Arch Coal wanted to buy the Caudills out. Some were eager to sell. “We’re not wealthy people, and some of us are better off than others,” Thompson said. One cousin told him, “I’ve got two boys I got to put through college. I can’t pass this up because I’ll never see $50,000 again.” He thought, “He’s right; it was a good decision for him.”

In the end, nine family members agreed to sell, but six refused, and Jerry was one of them. Arch sued all of them, arguing that storing coalmine debris constituted, in legal terms, “the highest and best use of the property”. The case reached the West Virginia supreme court, where a justice asked, sceptically, “The highest and best use of the land is dumping?”

Phil Melick, a lawyer for the company, replied: “It has become that.” He added: “The use of land changes over time. The value of land changes over time.”

Surely, the justice said, the family’s value of the property was not simply economic? It was, Melick maintained. “It has to be measured economically,” he said, “or it can’t be measured at all.”


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To their surprise, the Caudills won their case, after a fashion. They could keep 10 hectares – but the victory was fleeting. Beneath their feet, the land was becoming unrecognisable. Chemicals produced by the mountaintop mine were redrawing the landscape in a bizarre tableau. In streams, the leaves and sticks developed a thick copper crust from the buildup of carbonate, and rocks turned an inky black from deposits of manganese. In the Mud River, which ran beside the Caudills’ property, a US Forest Service biologist collected fish larvae with two eyes on one side of the head. He traced the disfigurements to selenium, a byproduct of mining, and warned, in a report, of an ecosystem “on the brink of a major toxic event”. (In 2010, the journal Science published a study of 78 West Virginia streams near mountaintop-removal mines, which found that nearly all of them had elevated levels of selenium.)

This was more than just the usual tradeoff between profit and pollution, another turn in the cycle of industry and cleanup. Mountaintop removal was, fundamentally, a more destructive realm of technology. It had barely existed until the 90s, and it took some time before scientists could measure the effects on the land and the people. For ecologists, the southern Appalachians was a singular domain – one of the most productive, diverse temperate hardwood forests on the planet. For aeons, the hills had contained more species of salamander than anywhere else, and a lush canopy that attracts neotropical migratory birds across thousands of miles to hatch their next generation. But a mountaintop mine altered the land from top to bottom: after blasting off the peaks – which miners call the “overburden” – bulldozers pushed the debris down the hillsides, where it blanketed the streams and rivers. Rainwater filtered down through a strange human-made stew of metal, pyrite, sulphur, silica, salts and coal, exposed to the air for the first time. The rain mingled with the chemicals and percolated down the hills, funnelling into the brooks and streams and, finally, into the rivers on the valley floor, which sustained the people of southern West Virginia. 

Emily Bernhardt, a Duke University biologist, who spent years tracking the effects of the Hobet mine, told me: “The aquatic insects coming out of these streams are loaded with selenium, and then the spiders that are eating them become loaded with selenium, and it causes deformities in fish and birds.” The effects distorted the food chain. Normally, tiny insects hatched in the water would fly into the woods, sustaining toads, turtles and birds. But downstream, scientists discovered that some species had been replaced by flies usually found in wastewater treatment plants. By 2009, the damage was impossible to ignore. In a typical study, biologists tracking a migratory bird called the cerulean warbler found that its population had fallen by 82% in 40 years. The 2010 report in Science concluded that the impacts of mountaintop-removal mining on water, biodiversity and forest productivity were “pervasive and irreversible”. Mountaintop mines had buried more than 1,000 miles of streams across Appalachia, and, according to the EPA, altered 2,200 sq miles of land – an area bigger than Delaware.

Before long, scientists discovered impacts on the people, too. Each explosion at the top of a mountain released elements usually kept underground – lead, arsenic, selenium, manganese. The dust floated down on to the drinking water, the back-yard furniture, and through the open windows. Researchers led by Michael Hendryx, a professor of public health at West Virginia University, published startling links between mountaintop mines and health problems of those in proximity to it, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects. Between 1979 and 2005, the 70 Appalachian counties that relied most on mining had recorded, on average, more than 2,000 excess deaths each year. Viewed one way, those deaths were the cost of progress, the price of prosperity that coal could bring. But Hendryx also debunked that argument: the deaths cost $41bn a year in expenses and lost income, which was $18bn more than coal had earned the counties in salaries, tax revenue and other economic benefits. Even in the pure economic terms that the companies used, Hendryx observed, mountaintop mining had been a terrible deal for the people who lived there.


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O
ne afternoon, I hiked up through the woods behind the Caudills’ house to see the changes in the land. By law, mines are required to “remediate” their terrain, returning it to an approximation of its former condition. But, far from the public eye, the standards can be comically lax. After climbing through the trees for a while, I emerged into a sun-drenched bowl of . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2021 at 11:26 am

Louisiana: A state to avoid

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Jim Mustian and Jake Bleiberg report for AP on a state that embraces a totalitarian mentality:

The most violent videos languished for years, lost or ignored in a digital vault. Louisiana State Police troopers and top brass alike would often look the other way, even as officers took to official messaging channels to banter about their brutality.

In one video, white troopers can be seen slamming a Black man against a police cruiser after finding marijuana in his car, throwing him to the ground and repeatedly punching him — all while he is handcuffed.

In another, a white trooper pummels a Black man at a traffic stop 18 times with a flashlight, leaving him with a broken jaw, broken ribs and a gash to his head. That footage was mislabeled and it took 536 days and a lawsuit for police to look into it.

And yet another video shows a white trooper coldcocking a Hispanic drug trafficking suspect as he stood calmly by a highway, an unprovoked attack never mentioned in any report and only investigated when the footage was discovered by an outraged federal judge.

As the Louisiana State Police reel from the fallout of the deadly 2019 arrest of Ronald Greene — a case blown open this year by long-withheld video of troopers stunning, punching and dragging the Black motorist — an Associated Press investigation has revealed it is part of a pattern of violence kept shrouded in secrecy.

An AP review of internal investigative records and newly obtained videos identified at least a dozen cases over the past decade in which Louisiana State Police troopers or their bosses ignored or concealed evidence of beatings, deflected blame and impeded efforts to root out misconduct.

AP’s review — coming amid a widening federal investigation into state police misconduct — found troopers have made a habit of turning off or muting body cameras during pursuits. When footage is recorded, the agency routinely refuses to release it. And a recently retired supervisor who oversaw a particularly violent clique of troopers told internal investigators this year that it was his “common practice” to rubber-stamp officers’ use-of-force reports without reviewing body-camera video.

In some cases, troopers omitted uses of force such as blows to the head from official reports, and in others troopers sought to justify their actions by claiming suspects were violent, resisting or escaping, all of which were contradicted by video footage.

“Hyper-aggressiveness is winked upon and nodded and allowed to go on,” said Andrew Scott, a former Boca Raton, Florida, police chief and use-of-force expert who reviewed videos obtained by AP. “It’s very clear that the agency accepts that type of behavior.”

Most of those beaten in the cases AP found were Black, in keeping with the agency’s own tally that 67% of its uses of force in recent years have targeted Black people — double the percentage of the state’s Black population. AP reporting revealed that a secret panel the state police set up this year to determine whether troopers systematically abused Black motorists was just as secretly shut down, leaving the agency blind to potential misconduct.

The revelations come as civil rights and Black leaders urge the U.S. Justice Department to launch a broader, “pattern and practice” investigation into potential systemic racial profiling by the overwhelmingly white state police, similar to other probes opened in recent months in Minneapolis, Louisville and Phoenix.

“These things are racially motivated,” said Alanah Odoms, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “It doesn’t seem you could have this level of criminality going on without it being something much more sinister.”

It’s not clear how the Louisiana State Police rate of force against Black people compares to that of other states because there is no national benchmark and definitions of uses of force differ between jurisdictions. Activists, however, say it points to a clear problem.

“Driving while Black is still a crime in Louisiana,” said Eugene W. Collins, president of the Baton Rouge branch of the NAACP, adding that the numbers “prove our assertion that our communities are woefully over-policed.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s more at the link, including 3 videos and several photos, such ass the one below. Louisiana is an example of why some countries view the US as backward and dangerous.

In this August 2019 photo provided by his attorney, Darrell Smith is apprehended by Louisiana State Police troopers after fleeing a a traffic stop near Baton Rouge, La. Smith’s lawsuit says troopers shared this photo of him after a beating, with his eyes swollen shut, and the caption: “This is what happens when you run from the police.”

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2021 at 6:23 pm

The Radium Girls

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A Mighty Girl posted this on Facebook:

In the 1920s, a group of factory workers known as the “Radium Girls” fought for compensation after their work with radioactive paint made them sick — and, in honor of Labor Day, we’re sharing the story of their hard-fought legal victory which forever changed the face of labor rights in the United States. The Radium Girls had spent years painting watches and military dials with glowing radium paint, but even once the dire consequences of radium poisoning were clear, manufacturers like the U.S. Radium Corporation refused to provide help or compensation to their former employees. “They were going to die, there was no hope for them,” says Kate Moore, author of “The Radium Girls.” “[The women] are trying to speak out, and of course the radium firms not wanting that lucrative industry to be affected in the slightest, they’re silencing the women with everything they’ve got.”

When radium was first discovered in 1898, its use as a cancer treatment kicked off a craze for using the element in health and beauty products. “People were fascinated with its power,” Moore says. “It does give this illusion of good health, because it stimulates the red blood cells… [but] in the long term you’re poisoning yourself.” At first, the Radium Girls were considered lucky: not only were they paid three times what a regular factory worker received, but they spent their days surrounded by this miracle substance. Their technique to put a point on their brushes by sticking it between their lips, though, exposed them to a huge amount of radiation. “[I]t was the easiest way to get a fine point on the brush, to paint on numbers as small as a single millimeter in width,” Moore says. “The first thing they asked was [whether] the paint was harmful, but the managers said it was safe, which was the obvious answer for a manager of a company whose very existence depended on radium paint.” Radium dust was so thick in the factory, Moore notes, that “they were nicknamed ‘the ghost girls’ because… they would glow ethereally, they would literally be covered in it.”

In the early 1920s, some of the Radium Girls started having symptoms like fatigue and toothaches. The first death came in 1922: 22-year-old Mollie Maggia’s whole lower jaw had been eroded by the radiation, but her death certificate mistakenly listed the cause of death as syphilis. “[T]hat was seized upon by these companies,” Moore says. Existing laws also made it difficult for the women to force the company to act: radium poisoning was not on the list of diseases companies were liable for, and the two-year statute of limitations prevented workers from suing for a condition that often didn’t present immediately. “It’s mind-boggling,” Moore says. “We knew from the turn of the century that radium was dangerous and large amounts of it could destroy human tissue…. The radium was destroying the bone and literally drilling holes in the women’s jaws while they were still alive.”

In 1925, Grace Fryer, a worker from the original New Jersey plant, decided to take U.S. Radium Corp. to court; it took her two years to find a lawyer who would take her case. In 1927, she and four workers filed, making headlines around the world. They were backed by the New Jersey Consumers League, who helped keep up the media pressure. The case was settled in 1928, by which point companies had already stopped recommending the lip pointing technique and started providing protective gear. Survivors were given compensation and doctors were directed to start listing the correct cause of death on death certificates. Even still, companies appealed for years; the Supreme Court rejected the final appeal in 1939. The case became a key milestone in the history of workers’ rights. “It was one of the very first cases in which an employer was held accountable for the health of its employees, and so it lays the groundwork for organizations like OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) that will eventually protect many millions of other workers,” Moore says, “and I think that’s quite a legacy to leave.”

For adult readers who would like to learn more about these heroic women, we highly recommend “The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women.”

There is also a new Young Readers adaptation of “The Radium Girls” for ages 10 and up.

For a young adult mystery about a modern teen girl who uncovers the story of the Radium Girls, we recommend “Glow” for ages 14 and up.

For books for children and teens about the contributions of women to the fight for workers’ rights, check out our blog post “Fighting For Justice: 20 Books About Women and the Labor Movement.”

And for fans of the bestselling “Radium Girls,” we highly recommend author Kate Moore’s new book about a forgotten hero who helped countless women whose voice had been silenced: “The Woman They Could Not Silence.”

Written by Leisureguy

6 September 2021 at 9:31 am

Joe Manchin’s Dirty Empire

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Daniel Bogusaw reports in The Intercept:

In the early hours of August 11, the Senate voted to approve a $3.5 trillion budget resolution that would mark the nation’s most significant investment in the fight against climate change ever undertaken in the United States. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., cast the tie-breaking vote.

The resolution’s approval kicked off a legislative process likely to last months, all of it hinging on Manchin’s continued support. Not long after casting his vote, he issued a public statement warning the bill’s backers not to take him for granted.

“Adding trillions of dollars more to nearly $29 trillion of national debt, without any consideration of the negative effects on our children and grandchildren, is one of those decisions that has become far too easy in Washington,” Manchin said. The month prior, he had specified that some of the climate-related provisions were “very, very disturbing.”

“If you’re sticking your head in the sand, and saying that fossil [fuel] has to be eliminated in America, and they want to get rid of it, and thinking that’s going to clean up the global climate, it won’t clean it up all,” Manchin told CNN after a private meeting with President Joe Biden and his fellow Senate Democrats. “If anything, it would be worse.”

Manchin’s claim that climate pollution would be worsened by the elimination of fossil fuels — or by the resolution’s actual, more incremental climate provisions — is highly dubious, if not outright false. What would unquestionably be impacted, however, is Manchin’s own personal wealth.

Though Manchin’s motivations are often ascribed to the conservative, coal-friendly politics of West Virginia, it is also the case that the state’s senior senator is heavily invested in the industry — and owes much of his considerable fortune to it.

For decades, Manchin has profited from a series of coal companies that he founded during the 1980s. His son, Joe Manchin IV, has since assumed leadership roles in the firms, and the senator says his ownership is held in a blind trust. Yet between the time he joined the Senate and today, Manchin has personally grossed more than $4.5 million from those firms, according to financial disclosures. He also holds stock options in Enersystems Inc., the larger of the two firms, valued between $1 and $5 million.

Those two companies are Enersystems Inc. and Farmington Resources Inc., the latter of which was created by the rapid merging of two other firms, Manchin’s Transcon and Farmington Energy in 2005. Enersystems purchases low-quality waste coal from mines and resells it to power plants as fuel, while Farmington Resources provides “support activities for mining” and holds coal reserves in the Fairmont area. Over the decades, whether feeding tens of thousands of tons of dirty waste coal into the power plants in northern West Virginia or subjecting workers to unsafe conditions, Manchin’s family coal business has almost entirely avoided public scrutiny.

Manchin did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In 1987, the man who is now the senior senator from West Virginia chose his hometown as the fulcrum for his enterprise. He and his brothers centered their business dealings near Farmington, where their grandfather served as mayor, and established headquarters for Enersystems and Farmington Resources in the nearby city of Fairmont, on the banks of the Monongahela River. Manchin’s brokerage firm has failed to attract the same attention as the scalped mountains and blackened tap water in the southeast region of the state, where mountaintop removal mining has radically altered the once pristine landscape. But in the northern political enclave of Marion County, Manchin’s businesses are fueling environmental degradation and impacting public health with severe consequences.

Farmington is surrounded by some of West Virginia’s oldest mines, dirtiest power plants, and sprawling coal ash dumping grounds. Through these operations Manchin receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue every year.

For the first time, a Type Investigations and Intercept analysis of public records reveals the impact of Manchin’s coal firms. For decades, they have relied on mines and refuse piles cited for dozens of Mine Safety and Health Agency violations, multiple deaths, and wastewater discharging that has poisoned tributaries feeding into the Monongahela River, as hundreds of thousands of tons of carcinogenic coal ash are dumped across Marion County.

While Manchin does not own the mines, refuse piles, and power plants that have polluted Marion County, he continues to reap their financial rewards. In tracing the life cycle of Manchin’s coal, from its origin at refuse sites, to the looming plants it powers, down into the water and soil of northern West Virginia, the steep and complex cost of Manchin’s empire begins to take shape.

Deadly Work

Outside Fairmont in Barrackville, West Virginia, the Barrackville mine lies buried in the ridge rising over an outcropping of abandoned buildings in what was once the town’s bustling mining camp. In 1925, 33 miners lost their lives to a gas explosion in a mine that once supplied coal to the forges of Bethlehem Steel. As of 2019, when the latest comprehensive data was released by the Energy Information Administration, the refuse piles of low-quality coal those miners left behind serve as the second-largest coal source for Manchin’s Enersystems. (The firm moves less coal than the giants of the industry but still sold well over half a million tons from the site between 2008 and 2019.) The dangers of the Barrackville mine didn’t end with the 1925 explosion. Since 2000, the Barrackville site has been cited for five accidents and one death, when a heavy machinery operator was crushed by a bulldozer.

Over the past two decades, the Barrackville refuse pile was cited and fined for more than 30 safety violations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA. The charges include unsafe equipment, unsafe material storage, dangerous lack of lighting, unsafe brakes, failure to adequately inspect electrical equipment, failure to maintain automatic warning devices, unsafe vehicle storage, failure to complete daily safety inspections, failure to mark hazardous chemicals, failure to maintain miner training records, and failure to adequately train miners.

North of Barrackville, on the banks of the Monongahela River, is Enersystems’ largest supplier of waste coal as of 2019, the Humphrey No.7 mine, where over 40 safety violations have been recorded with the MSHA since 2000. These include  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

5 September 2021 at 4:29 pm

‘I Helped Destroy People’: Terry Albury on his FBI work

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Janet Reitman reports in the NY Times about Terry Albury’s decision that I was worth going to prison to let the public know what the FBI and other government agencies are doing. The articlee mentions that the Obama administration prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act — for revealing to the public what the government was doing — than all previous administrations combined.

I think it is an ominous sign when a government goes to great lengths to keep its citizens from knowing what it is doing.

This article can be read without the paywall — the NY Times has instituted “gift articles,” and this is one I am giving. The article begins:

Early on the morning of Aug. 29, 2017, Terry Albury awoke with a nagging sense of foreboding. It was not yet dawn in Shakopee, Minn., the Minneapolis suburb where Albury, an F.B.I. special agent, lived with his wife and two young children, and he lay in bed for a few minutes, running through the mental checklist of cases and meetings and phone calls, the things that generally made him feel as if his life was in order. He was a 16-year veteran of the F.B.I.: 38, tall and powerfully built, with buzzed black hair and a black goatee. Most of his career he had spent in counterterrorism, investigating sleeper cells and racking up commendations signed by the F.B.I. directors Robert Mueller and James Comey, which praised his “outstanding” work recruiting confidential sources and exposing terrorist financing networks. He was a careful investigator and a keen observer. “Something is going on behind the scenes that I’m not aware of,” he told his wife the night before. She told him to stop worrying. “You always think there’s something going on.” She was right. But this time he had reason to be apprehensive, even though he’d been careful. The memory card was buried in his closet, tucked into a shirt pocket under a pile of clothes. “Stop being so paranoid,” he told himself. Then he left for work.

Albury had spent the past six months assigned to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as a liaison officer. It had always amazed him how little most Americans knew about the legal netherworld of the international terminal, where federal agents from ICE or U.S. Customs and Border Protection could, at the behest of the F.B.I. or another intelligence agency, pull a person out of the customs line and interrogate him or her based solely on being from Pakistan, or Syria, or Somalia, or another country in which the U.S. government had an interest. His role was to supervise this form of intelligence gathering, a particularly unsavory aspect of counterterrorism, as he saw it, though it was better than being stuck at the sprawling, five-story edifice that was the Minneapolis field office, where he had worked since 2012.

That morning, Albury had been summoned to the field office for an interview with a group of F.B.I. inspectors from Washington. It was fairly routine — headquarters was always dispatching inspection teams to make sure agents and their managers were doing their jobs — but Albury had been at the office so infrequently that the last time his supervisor saw him, he asked him what he was doing there. “I work here,” Albury said. The encounter left him with an uneasy feeling.

Traffic was light. With any luck, he figured, he would be back at the airport before lunchtime. He pulled his government-issued Dodge Charger up to the security gate and flashed his credentials at the guard, who waved him through. The underground parking garage was nearly empty. That’s odd, he thought.

A couple of agents stood by the entrance. Albury chatted with them for a few minutes. “I thought you were over at MSP,” one agent said, referring to the airport. Albury mentioned his meeting with the inspectors. The agents rolled their eyes. “Good luck, man,” one said.

Later, Albury would replay certain moments: that the agents, frequently standoffish, seemed unusually friendly; that at 8 in the morning, the fourth floor, where Albury worked, was entirely empty, and that even though a few people began to trickle in by around 8:15, there were far fewer than were usually at the office at that hour. About 15 minutes after he sat down at his desk, the Minneapolis field office’s in-house counsel, an agent he’d seen maybe twice in his life and never off the management floor, appeared in the squad bay, walked past his desk and, Albury thought, appeared to give him a sideways glance. That, he decided later, was the tell.

After checking his email and reviewing his files, he headed upstairs to meet the inspectors. Awaiting him was the same official who weeks earlier asked him what he was doing at the office. He offered to take Albury downstairs to the interview. This also felt off.

The men rode the elevator to the first floor in silence. The interview room was down the hall. Fighting his growing sense of dread, Albury was halfway down the corridor when three F.B.I. SWAT team members appeared in front of him. “Hands on the wall!”

The agents patted Albury down, removing his Glock 23 service pistol from its holster and confiscating his spare magazines, handcuffs, badge and credentials. Then they led him into a small room. I guess this is it, he thought. Game time.

Two agents, a man and a woman, sat at a table. The woman spoke first. “Tell me about the silver camera,” she said.

More than seven months later, on April 17, 2018, Terry Albury appeared in a federal court in Minneapolis, where he pleaded guilty to charges of leaking classified information to the press. The allegations — that Albury downloaded, printed and photographed internal F.B.I. documents on his office computer, sending some of them electronically to a journalist and saving others on external devices found in his home — resulted from a 17-month-long internal investigation by the F.B.I., prompted by two Freedom of Information Act requests by a news organization (unnamed in the charging document) in March 2016. Nine months after these FOIA requests were made, a trove of internal F.B.I. documents shedding new light on the vast and largely unrestricted power of the post-9/11 F.B.I. was posted on the investigative-journalism site The Intercept. The cache included hundreds of pages of unredacted policy manuals, including the F.B.I.’s byzantine rule book, the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, exposing the hidden loopholes that allowed agents to violate the bureau’s own rules against racial and religious profiling and domestic spying as they pursued the domestic war on terror. The Justice Department, under the Trump administration’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, charged Albury with two counts of “knowingly and willfully” retaining and transmitting “national defense information” to a journalist. In October 2018, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

Albury is the first F.B.I. special agent since Robert Hanssen to be convicted under the Espionage Act, the 1917 statute that has traditionally been used to punish spies: Hanssen was arrested in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for selling secrets to the Russians. Increasingly, however, the Espionage Act has been used by the Justice Department as a cudgel against people who have leaked sensitive or classified information to the press. The Obama administration prosecuted more government officials for leaking secrets to the press than all previous administrations combined, bringing Espionage Act charges against eight people in eight years and referring 316 cases for investigation. Among those charged were Chelsea Manning, who was tried and convicted in a military court-martial in 2013 for sending hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden, whose 2013 leak of classified N.S.A. documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post alerted the public to the scope of the N.S.A.’s mass-surveillance activities.

The Trump administration referred 334 cases for investigation and brought Espionage Act charges against at least five people in four years. The first was Reality Winner, a 25-year-old N.S.A. contractor who was arrested in June 2017 and accused of leaking a classified intelligence report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election to The Intercept. The second national-security leak case of the Trump era was against Terry Albury, though unlike Winner’s case, his received little fanfare. Instead, his lawyers quietly hammered out a plea deal with the Justice Department, avoiding the unwanted media attention that would come with a formal criminal complaint.

In recommending that Albury receive a 52-month sentence, government prosecutors cast him as a compulsive leaker, recklessly endangering national security by “stealing” the government secrets he was sworn, as an F.B.I. agent, to protect. But Albury says he felt a moral imperative to make his disclosures, motivated by his belief that the bureau had been so fundamentally transformed by Sept. 11 that its own agents were compelled to commit civil and human rights violations. “As a public servant, my oath is to serve the interest of society, not the F.B.I.,” he says. “My logic was centered on the fact that the public I served had a right to know what the F.B.I. was doing in their name.”

“These documents confirmed what American communities — primarily Muslims and communities of color — and rights groups had long known or thought to be true,” says Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “For years we’ve been hearing from people who were surveilled or investigated or watchlisted with no apparent basis for the F.B.I. to suspect wrongdoing, but based primarily on their race or religion or political organizing and beliefs. And here’s someone who was trying to do the right things from inside government, and ended up either participating or being a witness or adjacent to a range of abuses that defined, and continue to define, the post-9/11 era. What are you supposed to do as a person of conscience when you see what your country is doing?”

This article is a product of close to three years of interviews with Terry Albury, whom I met for the first time in November 2018, shortly before he went to prison. Our initial, five-hour conversation took place in a hotel room in Berkeley, Calif.; subsequent interviews have been conducted through letters and email while Albury was in prison and more recently using Signal, an encrypted phone and messaging service. He has not previously spoken to the press about his case. In addition to his own account, this article is based on a review of hundreds of pages of government documents and reports by civil liberties and human rights organizations, as well as interviews with Albury’s attorney and friends; experts in national security and constitutional law; and a number of former F.B.I. officials and colleagues, several of whom insisted on anonymity out of a reluctance to publicly criticize the F.B.I. (The F.B.I. declined to comment on Albury’s case.)

“I was very idealistic when I joined the F.B.I.,” Albury says. “I really wanted to make the world a better place, and I stayed as long as I did because I continued to believe that I could help make things better, as naïve as that sounds. But the war on terror is like this game, right? We’ve built this entire apparatus and convinced the world that there is a terrorist in every mosque, and that every newly arrived Muslim immigrant is secretly anti-American, and because we have promoted that false notion, we have to validate it. So we catch some kid who doesn’t know his ear from his [expletive] for building a bomb fed to them by the F.B.I., or we take people from foreign countries where they have secret police and recruit them as informants and capitalize on their fear to ensure there is compliance. It’s a very dangerous and toxic environment, and we have not come to terms with the fact that maybe we really screwed up here,” he says. “Maybe what we’re doing is wrong.”

Albury joined the F.B.I. in 2001, one month before the attacks of Sept. 11. At 22, he had just graduated from Berea, a small liberal arts college in Kentucky, where he became fascinated with the idea of joining the bureau after completing a 10-week summer internship with the F.B.I.’s Crimes Against Children unit in Washington. He spent the summer shadowing agents as they worked cases against child sex traffickers and purveyors of child pornography, and he went back to college intent on joining the bureau immediately after graduation. That August, he was hired as an investigative specialist, an entry-level surveillance job he saw as a steppingstone to his ultimate goal of becoming a special agent and going after pedophiles. “Terry wanted to save people,” recalls his friend Felemon Belay.

Albury was an unusual candidate for the F.B.I. He grew up in . .

Continue reading — without worrying about the paywall. And there is a lot more in the article. At the link, you can also listen to an audio recording of the article.

Written by Leisureguy

1 September 2021 at 7:27 pm

USPS Has Cheated Mail Carriers for Years

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This is unconscionable. Alexia Fernández Campbell reports at the Center for Public Integrity:

ancy Campos’ back ached as she loaded more than 100 Amazon packages onto her truck. The 59-year-old grandmother, a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, had worked 13 days in a row without a lunch break, and now she was delivering on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to keep up with a never-ending flow of boxes.

At the end of her shift that January day, Campos filled out her time sheet. Then she took a picture of it — for proof.

“I knew what was going to happen,” said Campos, who delivers mail in Midland, Texas, “because it happens every pay period.”

Two weeks later, when she checked her paystub in the payroll system, she said she was missing six hours of overtime pay. That added up to about $201 in lost wages — a week’s worth of groceries.

Postal workers across the country share her frustration.

The Postal Service regularly cheats mail carriers out of their pay, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation. Managers at hundreds of post offices around the country have illegally underpaid hourly workers for years, arbitrators and federal investigators have found.

Private arbitration records tell part of the story. From 2010 to 2019, at least 250 managers in 60 post offices were caught changing mail carriers’ time cards to show them working fewer hours, resulting in unpaid wages, according to a batch of arbitration award summaries obtained by Public Integrity for cases filed by one of the three major postal unions.

Supervisors found to be cheating were rarely disciplined — often receiving only a warning or more training. In four cities, arbitration documents show, post office managers continued to alter time cards after promising union leaders they would stop.

Since 2005, meanwhile, the Postal Service has been cited by the federal government 1,150 times for underpaying letter carriers and other employees, including one case that involved 164 violations, according to Labor Department data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The agency determined that those workers lost about $659,000 in pay. But it allowed the Postal Service to pay back less than half after negotiations with the agency — a common practice at the Labor Department. About 19% of the cases did not indicate whether the Postal Service paid back employees.

These findings point to widespread wage theft at the iconic quasi-governmental institution. Yet they offer only a partial view of the problem. Not captured are any arbitration cases filed by other postal unions or wage theft grievances settled before reaching arbitration.

Cases keep cropping up as the Postal Service struggles to pay off $188 billion in debt and unfunded liabilities, accrued largely because federal law requires it to prepay retiree healthcare and pension benefits. The agency has cut nearly 142,000 jobs since 2007, and in March 2020, it needed a $10 billion emergency loan from Congress to help pay its bills.

Mail carriers say their supervisors face intense pressure to keep overtime costs down. At the same time, pandemic-fueled spikes in online ordering are overwhelming mail carriers with packages. And they can’t count on getting paid for all their work.

A spokesperson for the Postal Service, David Partenheimer, said the agency does not condone supervisors making unsupported timecard adjustments and takes such allegations seriously.

“This position is messaged to the postal workforce directly from postal leaders, including the Vice President, Delivery Operations, who periodically reissues policies regarding appropriate timecard administration for supervisors,” Partenheimer wrote in an email to Public Integrity. He declined to comment on specific cases.

Campos said the agency . . .

Continue reading. There’s much, much more — and it’s very bad. A comment in the report:

“This is a government job. Nobody should go to work and wonder if they’re going to get paid.”

Jennifer Williams, a Former Mail Carrier

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 10:42 am

The Real Story Behind the $25,000 Trump Donation to Pam Bondi

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Jose Pagliery reports in Daily Beast:

It was the personally signed $25,000 check that landed then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in hot water—the check that sparked accusations that he had bribed Florida’s top prosecutor, Pam Bondi, with funds from his charity.

Much has been written about the suspicious timing of Trump’s 2013 gift to the Florida attorney general’s political campaign. But contrary to previous claims from Trump’s presidential campaign and company executives, new records acquired by The Daily Beast show that Trump Organization employees were explicitly told this was a donation to a political group, and emails show that Trump’s own executive assistant had met in person with Bondi’s finance director in New York City.

In its 2018 case against the Trump Foundation, the New York attorney general noted how Trump broke the law by using his charity to fund Bondi’s political group. And the charity was ultimately dissolved after a state judge found Trump had “breached his fiduciary duty” to the charity in other ways, behavior that the AG’s office called a “shocking pattern of illegality.”

The donation occurred just as Bondi was supposed to be considering joining New York’s investigation of the Trump University scam. And Trump himself got off easy. His campaign and foundation executives chalked it up to a mistake. The nonprofit didn’t realize it was a political group, the campaign told The Wall Street Journal. An ignorant company clerk hadn’t known, otherwise “we would have taken it out of [Trump’s] own personal account,” Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg told The Washington Post.

The conversation is laid out in an email exchanged on Aug. 28, 2013 between Bondi campaign finance director Deborah Ramsey Aleksander and Trump’s long-serving executive assistant, Rhona Graff.

Aleksander provided Graff with the name and federal tax identification number for “And Justice for All,” a political action committee associated with Ms. Bondi’s re-election campaign. Aleksander described it as an “ECO,” which stands for “Electioneering Communications Organization.”

“Again, it was a pleasure meeting you today!!! Thanks again for always being so responsive and wonderful to work with.” Aleksander wrote to Graff. “Let Mr. Trump know that we are SO VERY thankful for his commitment of 25k and If he wants to make it 50k, that’s perfectly acceptable. 🙂 Seriously, thanks again for everything!!!”

In a subsequent email sent exactly two weeks later on Sept. 11, 2013, Aleksander mentioned their previous meeting in New York City and provided Graff with a copy of And Justice for All’s Internal Revenue Service W-9 form, which lists the group’s “federal tax classification” as a “political organization.”

Two days later, Trump sent Bondi the check with a signed letter that misspelled her name as “Pam Biondi” and read, “Dear Pam: You are the greatest!”

The signed check to the political group was issued from The Donald J. Trump Foundation, Inc., a tax-exempt nonprofit regulated by Section 501(c)(3) of U.S. tax code—which prohibits political donations by charities.

The Daily Beast showed these documents to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group that filed the initial complaint that exposed this entire ordeal. Jordan Libowitz, the CREW communications director who led this project, called the emails “a smoking gun.”

“It kind of blows up their whole story,” Libowitz said. “The Trump Organization staffers knew they were making this political donation. There are no questions about it. There is no ambiguity.”

The Trump Organization did not respond to questions about the matter on Wednesday. Bondi, who is now listed as a partner at the Washington offices of the lobbying firm Ballard Partners, did not respond to a request for comment, neither did Aleksander, who lists herself as an independent fundraising consultant for Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL).

The emails obtained by The Daily Beast also cast doubt on another explanation given by the Trump Organization when this matter came under public scrutiny in 2016.

At the time, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 10:04 am

More Trouble with Big Chicken

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In Washington Monthly Claire Kelloway writes about the continued move in the poultry industry toward a monopoly. Her article begins:

Last week, leading voices in The New Yorker and The New York Times made the case for vigorous antitrust enforcement of Big Agriculture, an issue the Monthly has covered  for  years. (Nine years ago, for instance, Lina Khan, now the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, wrote an account in the Monthly about the Obama Administration’s admirable, but ultimately failed, efforts to stand up to big meatpackers on behalf of independent farmers.) The Times, specifically, made the case for breaking up Big Chicken, as leading chicken corporations face numerous allegations and federal charges of fixing prices for consumers, farmers, and workers.

The Times column, though, failed to mention that antitrust enforcers currently face an opportunity to challenge consolidation in the criminal poultry business, and the clock is ticking. On August 9th, private protein and grain trading giant Cargill and agricultural-investment firm Continental Grain announced that they had reached a deal to jointly take over Sanderson Farms, the third-largest chicken processor in the U.S., for $4.5 billion.

If approved, this deal would merge Continental Grain’s Wayne Farms with Sanderson Farms to create a new private poultry corporation, increasing the market share of the top three chicken processors from 46% to 51%, according to data from WATT PoultryUSA, a business magazine for the chicken industry. It would also further vertically integrate Cargill’s global meat processing, animal feed, and grain trading empires. Both forms of consolidation would enhance Big Ag’s power over farmers, workers, and consumers across the food chain. Federal enforcers have 30 days from the corporations’ notice of the merger to issue what is called a second request which allows them to seek additional information to scrutinize and challenge the deal. The big question is, will the Biden administration walk its antitrust talk?

Decades of mergers and vertical integration have consolidated poultry production so that just a handful of firms source chicken from contracted farmers. Private and federal antitrust suits recently accused major poultry corporations of conspiring to rig bids, cut back production, and increase chicken prices. Pilgrim’s Pride pleaded guilty to price-fixing last fall following an investigation by the Justice Department, and federal enforcers have indicted other major corporations and poultry executives. Sanderson Farms was subpoenaed in the federal probe. Both Sanderson and Wayne Farms face numerous private price-fixing charges, including allegations of conspiring with other poultry corporations to hold down prices paid to farmers and workers’ wages. Cargill is also charged in this wage-fixing suit, as well as private beef and turkey price-fixing allegations.

As the third-largest chicken corporation, Sanderson Farms processes more than 13 million chickens a week between its 13 poultry plantsemploying 17,000 people, and supplying large chains including Walmart and distributors such as Sysco. Sanderson trails industry leaders Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride, but a merger with Continental Grain’s Wayne Farms would increase its market share to approximately 15%, just shy of Pilgrim’s 16%.

Cargill and Continental Grain will pay a 30% premium on Sanderson Farms’ shares to jointly acquire the company and take it off the stock exchange, subject to shareholder and antitrust approval. Credit Suisse stock analysts claimed the deal would not take enough national market share to raise antitrust scrutiny. But given ongoing price-fixing investigations, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) urged the Justice Department to investigate this acquisition because it poses risks of increased costs or decreased choices for consumers.

Consolidation in the national market can lead to even higher levels of regional consolidation that hurt farmers, workers, and rural communities. For instance, half of all chicken farmers report having just one or two corporations to work with. Sanderson and Wayne both primarily operate in the Southeast, but it is unclear how much they compete for farmers or workers. Sanderson’s plants are largely concentrated in Texas, Mississippi, Southern Georgia, and North Carolina, while Wayne operates primarily in Alabama and Northern Georgia.

Nonetheless, farmers worry about what a change in Sanderson’s leadership will mean for them. “Growers are very, very afraid they are going to see a pay cut,” said Reid Phifer, a former poultry grower from North Carolina and the administrator of a poultry forum representing some 4,200 growers. “They don’t know who will be giving the orders. … Everyone is afraid of the unknown.”

Workers also fear job losses in regions where Cargill, Wayne, or Sanderson facilities overlap. For instance, Cargill operates a cooked turkey products facility in Waco, Texas, employing nearly 650 people, and Sanderson operates a live chicken processing facility, also in Waco, employing 1,200. A spokesperson for Cargill told the Waco-Tribune Herald that the plants would “both likely remain open” given the current demand for poultry, but that’s hardly reassuring to workers who know that merged companies always look for savings through consolidation. Sanderson and Wayne also both operate chicken processing facilities in Laurel, Miss., Sanderson’s corporate headquarters. With the chief executive of Georgia-based Wayne Farms slated to run the combined business, the Laurel Leader Call reports some residents fear losing administrative jobs with Sanderson.

Sanderson Farms did not . . .

Continue reading.  There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2021 at 11:15 am

America’s watershed moment

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Heather Cox Richardson:

America is in a watershed moment. Since the 1980s, the country has focused on individualism: the idea that the expansion of the federal government after the Depression in the 1930s created a form of collectivism that we must destroy by cutting taxes and slashing regulation to leave individuals free to do as they wish.

Domestically, that ideology meant dismantling government regulation, social safety networks, and public infrastructure projects. Internationally, it meant a form of “cowboy diplomacy” in which the U.S. usually acted on its own to rebuild nations in our image.

Now, President Joe Biden appears to be trying to bring back a focus on the common good.

For all that Republicans today insist that individualism is the heart of Americanism, in fact the history of federal protection of the common good began in the 1860s with their own ancestors, led by Abraham Lincoln, who wrote: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”

The contrast between these two ideologies has been stark this week.

On the one hand are those who insist that the government cannot limit an individual’s rights by mandating either masks or vaccines, even in the face of the deadly Delta variant of the coronavirus that is, once again, taking more than 1000 American lives a day.

In New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has required teachers to be vaccinated, the city’s largest police union has said it will sue if a vaccine is mandated for its members.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott on Wednesday issued an executive order prohibiting any government office or any private entity receiving government funds from requiring vaccines.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has also forbidden mask mandates, but today Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper ruled that DeSantis’s order is unconstitutional. Cooper pointed out that in 1914 and 1939, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that individual rights take a back seat to public safety: individuals can drink alcohol, for example, but not drive drunk. DeSantis was scathing of the opinion and has vowed to appeal. Meanwhile, NBC News reported this week that information about the coronavirus in Florida, as well as Georgia, is no longer easily available on government websites.

On the other hand, as predicted, the full approval of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration has prompted a flood of vaccine mandates.

The investigation into the events of January 6, when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, also showcases the tension between individualism and community.

Yesterday, after months in which Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, called for the release of the identity of the officer who shot Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt, Capitol Police officer Lieutenant Michael Byrd, the 28-year veteran of the force who shot Babbitt, gave an interview to Lester Holt of NBC News.

Right-wing activists have called Babbitt a martyr murdered by the government, but Byrd explained that he was responsible for protecting 60 to 80 members of the House and their staffers. As rioters smashed the glass doors leading into the House chamber, Byrd repeatedly called for them to get back. When Ashli Babbitt climbed through the broken door, he shot her in the shoulder. She later died from her injuries. Byrd said he was doing his job to protect our government. “I know that day I saved countless lives,” Byrd told Holt. “I know members of Congress, as well as my fellow officers and staff, were in jeopardy and in serious danger. And that’s my job.”

The conflict between individualism and society also became clear today as the House select committee looking into the attack asked social media giants to turn over “all reviews, studies, reports, data, analyses, and communications” they had gathered about disinformation distributed by both foreign and domestic actors, as well as information about “domestic violent extremists” who participated in the attack.

Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) immediately responded that “Congress has no general power to inquire into private affairs and to compel disclosure….” He urged telecommunications companies and Facebook not to hand over any materials, calling their effort an “authoritarian undertaking.” Banks told Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson that Republicans should punish every lawmaker investigating the January 6 insurrection if they retake control of Congress in 2022.

Biden’s new turn is especially obvious tonight in international affairs. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a country we entered almost 20 years ago with a clear mission that became muddied almost immediately, has sparked Republican criticism for what many describe as a U.S. defeat.

Since he took office, Biden has insisted on shifting American foreign policy away from U.S. troops alone on the ground toward multilateral pressure using finances and technology.

After yesterday’s bombing in Kabul took the lives of 160 Afghans and 13 American military personnel, Biden warned ISIS-K: “We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

Tonight, a new warning from . . .

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

Her comments on how the Right has embraced malignant individualism and rejected working as a community for the common good, are IMO accurate. It’s narcissism run amok.

The Kingpin of Shanghai

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A long read, or (at the link) a long podcast. Morgan W.R. Dunn writes in Damn Interesting:

Respectable heads of state rarely admit to keeping company with gangsters. But in April 1927, about 15 years after the collapse of the last imperial dynasty, Chiang Kai-shek and China were at a crossroads. Chiang had followed a murky path to leadership of the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang. Although the Kuomintang was rivaled by an assortment of warlords who ruled the provinces as their personal fiefdoms, in Chiang’s mind the greatest obstacle between him and control of that vast and war-torn country was a young Communist Party which, he believed, would soon be nothing but lethal trouble.

So generalissimo Chiang turned to Du Yuesheng of the infamous Green Gang of Shanghai, a criminal brotherhood rooted in equal parts menace and murk. Du was the leader of this criminal enterprise, and the bloated, gleaming international city lived and died by his word. It was the power of death which most interested Chiang that spring. He wanted nothing less than complete power over all of China, and to get it, he was willing to trade the lives of thousands and allow the establishment of a vast narcotics empire. Others might have balked at trading the murder of a few thousand political opponents for this goal, but neither Du nor Chiang felt any such hesitation.

Du Yuesheng’s life began in misery. Before it was all over, it would take him through unspeakable power, obscene wealth, international infamy, and final obscurity. At the time of his birth in August 1888, the Manchurian Qing dynasty, China’s last imperial government, was rapidly waning, and Du’s birthplace witnessed one of the Qing’s greatest humiliations.

As the Qing’s power failed throughout the 19th century, foreign colonizing powers embarked on a series of wars to seize as much Chinese territory as they could get their hands on. Among them were the United Kingdom, France, Italy, the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan, each of which had steadily carved out chunks of China’s coastal cities. Officially titled “concessions”⁠—in that the Qing had formally given them up, albeit at gunpoint⁠—a string of foreign settlements soon sprouted along the length of China’s coast. In these enclaves, expatriate Westerners built their own homes, schools, factories, and governments, insulating themselves from all things Chinese while extracting staggering profits from the steady stream of labor pouring in from the surrounding regions. Foreign residents of the concessions could not be tried by Chinese courts, paid no Chinese taxes, generally held no respect for the ailing empire, and spent their days surrounded by the comforts of Europe, America, and Japan. Meanwhile, beyond their walls, China’s vast population grew ever more destitute and desperate.

Shanghai, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, was the crown jewel of these colonial cut-outs, with France holding one concession and Britain and the U.S. jointly governing another. Home to thousands of “Shanghailanders,” as the city’s foreign-born residents called themselves, it was the envy of Asia, home to the region’s wealthiest companies, and the premier destination for anyone who wanted to have a good time east of India and north of Singapore. Besides wealth, the vacuum left by the deboned Chinese legal authorities meant the city offered a limitless supply of sex, drugs, gambling, and practically any other vice imaginable. With no unified immigration system, Shanghai was the only city in the world without any bothersome need for visas or official residence permits, and free from anything like vigorous law enforcement outside of the well-preened streets inhabited by the well-to-do. Shanghailanders from the treaty powers⁠—those countries with a seat on the powerful Shanghai Municipal Council⁠—were willing to tolerate all manner of decadence outside of the residential districts, so long as they were free to take part as they pleased and it didn’t upset the all-important banks and commercial concerns which steadily filled their pockets to bursting.

In contrast, Gaoqiao, a small town which has since been swallowed up by Shanghai as the metropolis sprawled steadily outward, wasn’t much to look at in the late 19th century. Positioned on the far bank of the Huangpu River, opposite the looming skyscrapers of the International Settlements and the commercial sector, Gaoqiao was home to just a few of the many thousands of Chinese porters, servants, merchants, and others who kept the city running. The district they lived in, Pudong, was the most desperate slum in the country, home to the millions of workers who streamed into the province of Jiangsu surrounding Shanghai, without whom the most wealthy, and corrupt city in China would have ground to a halt.

When Du was a boy, his parents were among them. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

27 August 2021 at 5:10 pm

What role did the CIA play in the drug trade in the 1980s?

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Venn-diagram intersection of the circle of what the CIA does and the circle of what criminal organizations do is much larger than is comfortable (or seemly). Watch this video for an example

Written by Leisureguy

18 August 2021 at 2:59 pm

Massachusetts Police Can Easily Seize Your Money. The DA of One County Makes It Nearly Impossible to Get It Back.

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The situation in Massachusetts (supposedly a liberal state) exemplifies why Libertarians are leery of government power — and the report of the situation exemplifies why good journalism is essential for a functioning democracy (and why authoritarians want to undermine journalism and get people to distrust it as “fake news,” especially when it is real news).

Massachusetts prosecutors can hold on to seized money indefinitely, even when people are not charged with a crime. In Worcester County, it’s so hard to get one’s money back, some legal experts say it may violate due process rights.

Devantee Jones-Bernier was spending an afternoon at a friend’s apartment in Worcester, Massachusetts, when police banged on the door, looking for drugs. They found marijuana in the unit, where several people had gathered, but not on the 21-year-old college student. Police took his iPhone and $95 in cash.

The district attorney’s office charged him and seven others in May 2014 with drug offenses, but later dismissed them against Jones-Bernier and all but one person. Despite that, law enforcement officials held onto his money and phone.

Under a system called civil asset forfeiture, police and prosecutors can confiscate, and keep, money and property they suspect is part of a drug crime. In Massachusetts, they can hold that money indefinitely, even when criminal charges have been dismissed. Trying to get one’s money back is so onerous, legal experts say it may violate due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. It’s especially punishing for people with low incomes.

Four years passed before the Worcester County district attorney’s office tried to notify Jones-Bernier, as required by law, about the status of his money. The office ran a newspaper notice, three times over three weeks, listing Jones-Bernier’s name in tiny legal type alongside more than 100 others involved in separate seizures. The ads said the district attorney intended to keep their money, and those who wanted to fight back had 20 days from the final ad to respond in civil court.

Jones-Bernier had no clue about the ads so he didn’t respond.

Massachusetts is an outlier among states when it comes to civil forfeiture laws. Prosecutors in the commonwealth are able to keep seized assets using a lower legal bar than in any other state.

“It’s out of step with justice,” said Louis Rulli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in public interest law. “It produces unjust results and cries out for reform.”

Amid rising national attention to the issue, other states have rewritten their laws, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a man whose car was seized during an arrest on a small drug sale. But Massachusetts has not budged.

WBUR took an in-depth look at Worcester County, which ranks among the top counties for forfeitures in the state. An examination of all forfeitures filed there in 2018 found that of the hundreds of incidents, nearly 1 in 4 — or 24% — had no accompanying drug conviction or criminal drug case filing.

And that is likely conservative; another 9% of seizures had no publicly available court records, meaning there were no charges or courts sealed the records.

In an investigation with ProPublica, WBUR also found that Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. regularly stockpiles seized money, including that of people not charged with a crime, for years, and sometimes decades.

In more than 500 instances between 2016 and 2019, WBUR found that funds had been in the custody of the DA’s office for a decade or more before officials had attempted to notify people and give them a chance to get their money back. One case dated back to 1990.

The yearslong delays raise “obvious due process concerns,” according to Sam Gedge, an attorney at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia, a nonprofit that has studied the issue and advocated for changes to forfeiture laws across the country. “The notion that you have the government waiting even two years — but certainly two decades — to commence forfeiture proceedings is, if not unprecedented, then extraordinarily rare.”

Gedge said the latitude granted to law enforcement in Massachusetts in civil forfeitures reflects broad problems with the system nationwide. In general, he said, “It’s much easier for the government to take your cash, your car, your home, using civil forfeiture than it is to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal court.”

Early, in an interview, said his office obeys the law.

“We follow all the rules that the court gives us,” he said. As for the long delays in filing forfeitures, “We try and get these wrapped up as expeditiously as we can,” Early said.

But for hundreds of people in Worcester County, it’s been anything but expeditious. There’s no oversight by the state when it comes to how long district attorneys wait to notify people that, without a court fight, their money will stay in law enforcement’s hands. And there is no public reporting of criminal conviction rates tied to forfeitures.

In the absence of that information, WBUR set out to compile the data. To evaluate the county’s record, WBUR analyzed all the Worcester County forfeitures in 2018, a year chosen to allow sufficient time for related criminal cases to have concluded. The analysis included the review of thousands of pages of records in several courts and included forfeitures from 396 seizures.

Among those, there were more than 90 instances where people lost money or cars, taken most often during traffic stops, frisks and home searches — even though there weren’t related drug convictions or drug charges. Law enforcement still held onto the cash and property.

Civil forfeitures are big business in Worcester County, where Early has been the elected district attorney since 2006. His office brought in nearly $4 million in forfeitures in just the latest four years, from fiscal 2017 through 2020, according to analyses by the state’s trial court.

Where that money goes is notable. In almost all cases, . . .

Continue reading. It’s very interesting where the money goes — and it indicates why the system continues.

It’s notable that quite often nefarious practices are discontinued once they are reported to the public at large by investigative journalists, and ProPublica has fairly frequently caused constructive change through their reports. It will be interesting to see whether this report bears fruit.

Written by Leisureguy

18 August 2021 at 1:50 pm

Josh Hawley makes a good point

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Written by Leisureguy

12 August 2021 at 10:29 am

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