Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Obama administration’ Category

The drug industry’s control of Congress led to the opioid epidemic

leave a comment »

Scott Higham and Lenny Bernstein report in the Washington Post:

In April 2016, at the height of the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history, Congress effectively stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most potent weapon against large drug companies suspected of spilling prescription narcotics onto the nation’s streets.

By then, the opioid war had claimed 200,000 lives, more than three times the number of U.S. military deaths in the Vietnam War. Overdose deaths continue to rise. There is no end in sight.

A handful of members of Congress, allied with the nation’s major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to a more industry-friendly law, undermining efforts to stanch the flow of pain pills, according to an investigation by The Washington Post and “60 Minutes.” The DEA had opposed the effort for years.

The law was the crowning achievement of a multifaceted campaign by the drug industry to weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market. The industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than a million dollars into their election campaigns.

The chief advocate of the law that hobbled the DEA was Rep. Tom Marino,a Pennsylvania Republican who is now President Trump’s nominee to become the nation’s next drug czar. Marino spent years trying to move the law through Congress. It passed after Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) negotiated a final version with the DEA.

For years, some drug distributors were fined for repeatedly ignoring warnings from the DEA to shut down suspicious sales of hundreds of millions of pills, while they racked up billions of dollars in sales.

The new law makes it virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the companies, according to internal agency and Justice Department documents and an independent assessment by the DEA’s chief administrative law judge in a soon-to-be-published law review article. That powerful tool had allowed the agency to immediately prevent drugs from reaching the street.

Political action committees representing the industry contributed at least $1.5 million to the 23 lawmakers who sponsored or co-sponsored four versions of the bill, including nearly $100,000 to Marino and $177,000 to Hatch. Overall, the drug industry spent $106 million lobbying Congress on the bill and other legislation between 2014 and 2016, according to lobbying reports.

“The drug industry, the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and chain drugstores, have an influence over Congress that has never been seen before,” said Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who ran the DEA’s division responsible for regulating the drug industry and led a decade-long campaign of aggressive enforcement until he was forced out of the agency in 2015. “I mean, to get Congress to pass a bill to protect their interests in the height of an opioid epidemic just shows me how much influence they have.”

Besides the sponsors and co-sponsors of the bill, few lawmakers knew the true impact the law would have. It sailed through Congress and was passed by unanimous consent, a parliamentary procedure reserved for bills considered to be noncontroversial. The White House was equally unaware of the bill’s import when President Barack Obama signed it into law, according to interviews with former senior administration officials.

Top officials at the White House and the Justice Department have declined to discuss how the bill came to pass.

Michael Botticelli, who led the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy at the time, said neither Justice nor the DEA objected to the bill, removing a major obstacle to the president’s approval.

“We deferred to DEA, as is common practice,” he said.

The bill also was reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“Neither the DEA nor the Justice Department informed OMB about the policy change in the bill,” a former senior OMB official with knowledge of the issue said recently. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of internal White House deliberations.

The DEA’s top official at the time, acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg,declined repeated requests for interviews. A senior DEA official said the agency fought the bill for years in the face of growing pressure from key members of Congress and industry lobbyists. But the DEA lost the battle and eventually was forced to accept a deal it did not want.

“They would have passed this with us or without us,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Our point was that this law was completely unnecessary.”

Loretta E. Lynch, who was attorney general at the time, declined a recent interview request.

Obama also declined to discuss the law. His spokeswoman, Katie Hill, referred reporters to Botticelli’s statement.

The DEA and Justice Department have denied or delayed more than a dozen requests filed by The Post and “60 Minutes” under the Freedom of Information Act for public records that might shed additional light on the matter. Some of those requests have been pending for nearly 18 months. The Post is now suing the Justice Department in federal court for some of those records.

Hatch’s spokesman, Matt Whitlock, said the DEA, which had undergone a leadership change, did not oppose the bill in the end.

“We worked collaboratively with DEA and DOJ . . . and they contributed significantly to the language of the bill,” Whitlock wrote in an email. “DEA had plenty of opportunities to stop the bill and they did not do so.”

Marino declined repeated requests for comment. Marino’s staff called the U.S. Capitol Police when The Post and “60 Minutes” tried to interview the congressman at his office on Sept. 12. In the past, the congressman has said the DEA was too aggressive and needed to work more collaboratively with drug companies. . .

Continue reading.

There’s a lot more. Read the whole thing. The Federal government is failing the American public.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 October 2017 at 8:03 am

After Four Years, IRS Finally Confirms There Was No Targeting of Tea Party Groups

leave a comment »

Kevin Drum comments on the result of an investigation into Tea Party charges of persecution by the government, and the result is that the charge is without any merit whatsoever. Read his post, and note the chart. The post concludes:

. . . Note that this audit is not based on miscellaneous PowerPoint presentations or emails. It’s based on actual cases referred for audit. Of those, only 15 percent were conservative groups. That’s it. The vast majority were liberal groups.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, who was one of the ringleaders of the original Lois Lerner lynching, is pretending that the new audit confirms what “government watchdogs” like Kevin Brady have been saying all along:“Bureaucrats at the IRS, such as Lois Lerner, arbitrarily and haphazardly administered the tax code and targeted taxpayers based on political ideology.”

No. That’s not what they were saying at the time. They said the Obama IRS was corruptly targeting conservative groups for harassment. But they weren’t. Whether or not the BOLO list was a good idea, it never had anything to do with Obama. It got its start back in 2004, and during the Obama administration it was mostly used to target liberal groups.

There was nothing to any of this. There was never anything to it. Just a couple of PowerPoint presentations that were blown up into a “scandal” that never existed. But it took four years to officially confirm that.

Back in June 2013, Jon Chait wrote this:

Do you remember how all-consuming the “Obama scandals” once were? This was a turn of events so dramatic it defined Obama’s entire second term — he was “waylaid by controversies,” or at least “seriously off track,” “beset by scandals,” enduring a “second-term curse,” the prospect of “endless scandals,” Republicans “beginning to write his legislative obituary,” and Washington had “turned on Obama.” A ritualistic media grilling of Jay Carney, featuring the ritualistic comparisons of him to Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler, sanctified the impression of guilt.

Four years later, we know even more about the “Big Three” scandals. It turns out there was never the slightest scandal associated with Benghazi. There was no IRS scandal. And Obama’s prosecution of leaks may have been unwise policy, but there was never anything remotely corrupt about it.

Oh, and Hillary Clinton’s emails? The more we found out about that, the less there was. Ditto for the Clinton Foundation. And her health. Hillary Clinton had her own Big Three scandals, and they turned out to be just as baseless as Obama’s. Imagine that.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 October 2017 at 10:44 am

How Airline Execs and Politicians Have Made Flying Even More Miserable

leave a comment »

Justin Elliott reports in ProPublica:

Three years ago, the Obama administration unleashed its might on behalf of beleaguered American air travelers, filing suit to block a mega-merger between American Airlines and US Airways. The Justice Department laid out a case that went well beyond one merger.

“Increasing consolidation among large airlines has hurt passengers,” the lawsuit said. “The major airlines have copied each other in raising fares, imposing new fees on travelers, reducing or eliminating service on a number of city pairs, and downgrading amenities.”

The Obama administration itself had helped create that reality by approving two previous mergers in the industry, which had seen nine major players shrink to five in a decade. In the lawsuit, the government was effectively admitting it had been wrong. It was now making a stand.

Then a mere three months later, the government stunned observers by backing down.

It announced a settlement that allowed American and US Airways to form the world’s largest airline in exchange for modest concessions that fell far short of addressing the concerns outlined in the lawsuit.

The Justice Department’s abrupt reversal came after the airlines tapped former Obama administration officials and other well-connected Democrats to launch an intense lobbying campaign, the full extent of which has never been reported.

They used their pull in the administration, including at the White House, and with a high-level friend at the Justice Department, going over the heads of staff prosecutors. And just days after the suit was announced, the airlines turned to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first White House chief of staff, to help push back against the Justice Department.

Some lawyers and officials who worked on the American-US Airways case now say they were “appalled” by the decision to settle, as one put it.

“It was a gross miscarriage of justice that that case was dropped and an outrage and an example of how our system should not work,” said Tom Horne, the former state attorney general of Arizona, one of seven states that were co-plaintiffs with the federal government.

As a candidate in 2007, President Obama pledged to “reinvigorate antitrust enforcement,” calling that the “American way to make capitalism work for consumers.” Hillary Clinton has recently made similar promises.

But the reversal in the American-US Airways case was part of what antitrust observers see as a string of disappointing decisions by the Obama administration.

“I hoped they would be much more aggressive and much more concerned about increasing concentration and ongoing predatory conduct,” said Thomas Horton, a former Justice Department antitrust attorney now at University of South Dakota law school. “Too often they really took the business side.”

Obama’s antitrust enforcers have been somewhat more aggressive than the Bush administration in challenging mergers. But that has come in the face of a record-breakingwave of often audacious deals. Nor has the Obama administration brought any major cases challenging companies that abuse their monopoly power. It approved three major airline mergers, for example, leaving four companies in control of more than 80 percent of the market.

In the American-US Airways case, Emanuel emerged as one of the deal’s biggest champions. He was in regular contact with the CEOs and lobbyists for both airlines.

“The combination of American Airlines and US Airways creates a better network than either carrier could build on its own,” Emanuel wrote in an October 2013 letter to the Justice Department that other mayors signed onto. “American’s substantial operations throughout the central United States provide critical coverage where US Airways is underdeveloped.”

The letter was an uncanny echo of the airlines’ arguments – for good reason: It was actually written by an American Airlines lobbyist, emails obtained by ProPublica show.

The day after sending the missive, as government lawyers were racing to prepare for trial, Emanuel lunched with the CEOs of American and US Airways at a suite in the St. Regis hotel in Washington. The next stop on his schedule: the White House, for meetings with President Obama and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Later that day, Emanuel met with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, whose agency also had a hand in reviewing the merger. (The White House and Department of Transportation declined to comment on the meetings.)

Meanwhile, the airlines dispatched another valuable asset: An adviser on the deal, Jim Millstein, was both a former high-level Obama administration official at Treasury and a friend of Deputy Attorney General James Cole, the No. 2 at the Justice Department.

Millstein said Cole told him that the government was open to settling the case – a position at odds with the Justice Department’s public stance. The two spoke about the case on social occasions, such as “after finishing a round of golf,” Millstein said in an interview.

The five meetings and phone calls between Millstein and Cole – all within two months in late 2013 – shocked Justice Department staff attorneys who worked on the case, with one describing them as a sign of “raw pressure and political influence.” Cole declined to comment in detail, but said in a statement that “nothing inappropriate occurred.”

As Millstein and Emanuel pressed the administration, the airlines spent $13 million on a phalanx of super-lobbyists, including Heather and Tony Podesta, to marshal support in Washington, records show. Another Democratic lobbyist, Hilary Rosen, also reached out to the White House.

There’s no direct evidence that the lobbying worked. The Justice Department denies the pressure affected its decision-making and the White House said it was not involved. “DOJ enforcement decisions are made independently,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement. “The White House does not play a role in those decisions.”

But the abrupt move to settle was met with a backlash among the team building the case, according to interviews with four lawyers and officials who worked on the case. . .

Continue reading.

Things have gone badly wrong.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2017 at 4:57 pm

The secret sharer

leave a comment »

Thomas Drake’s unwarranted persecution provides an important indication of the direction the American government government is going, one in which citizens are not free to criticize or to expose government wrongdoing. Jane Mayer reports in the New Yorker:

On June 13th, a fifty-four-year-old former government employee named Thomas Drake is scheduled to appear in a courtroom in Baltimore, where he will face some of the gravest charges that can be brought against an American citizen. A former senior executive at the National Security Agency, the government’s electronic-espionage service, he is accused, in essence, of being an enemy of the state. According to a ten-count indictment delivered against him in April, 2010, Drake violated the Espionage Act—the 1917 statute that was used to convict Aldrich Ames, the C.I.A. officer who, in the eighties and nineties, sold U.S. intelligence to the K.G.B., enabling the Kremlin to assassinate informants. In 2007, the indictment says, Drake willfully retained top-secret defense documents that he had sworn an oath to protect, sneaking them out of the intelligence agency’s headquarters, at Fort Meade, Maryland, and taking them home, for the purpose of “unauthorized disclosure.” The aim of this scheme, the indictment says, was to leak government secrets to an unnamed newspaper reporter, who is identifiable as Siobhan Gorman, of the Baltimore Sun. Gorman wrote a prize-winning series of articles for the Sun about financial waste, bureaucratic dysfunction, and dubious legal practices in N.S.A. counterterrorism programs. [Emphasis added. This is the actual reason Drake is being prosecuted: he exposed incompetency in an authoritarian bureaucracy, which makes him an enemy of the state in the eyes of authoritarians. For authoritarians, the state can do no wrong, and those who point out when something is done wrong are enemies—cf. Donald Trump. – LG] Drake is also charged with obstructing justice and lying to federal law-enforcement agents. If he is convicted on all counts, he could receive a prison term of thirty-five years.

The government argues that Drake recklessly endangered the lives of American servicemen. “This is not an issue of benign documents,” William M. Welch II, the senior litigation counsel who is prosecuting the case, argued at a hearing in March, 2010. The N.S.A., he went on, collects “intelligence for the soldier in the field. So when individuals go out and they harm that ability, our intelligence goes dark and our soldier in the field gets harmed.”

Top officials at the Justice Department describe such leak prosecutions as almost obligatory. Lanny Breuer, the Assistant Attorney General who supervises the department’s criminal division, told me, “You don’t get to break the law and disclose classified information just because you want to.” He added, “Politics should play no role in it whatsoever.”

When President Barack Obama took office, in 2009, he championed the cause of government transparency, and spoke admiringly of whistle-blowers, whom he described as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” But the Obama Administration has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness. Including the Drake case, it has been using the Espionage Act to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national-security leaks—more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous Administrations combined. The Drake case is one of two that Obama’s Justice Department has carried over from the Bush years.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book “Necessary Secrets” (2010), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history—even more so than Nixon.”

One afternoon in January, Drake met with me, giving his first public interview about this case. He is tall, with thinning sandy hair framing a domed forehead, and he has the erect bearing of a member of the Air Force, where he served before joining the N.S.A., in 2001. Obsessive, dramatic, and emotional, he has an unwavering belief in his own rectitude. Sitting at a Formica table at the Tastee Diner, in Bethesda, Drake—who is a registered Republican—groaned and thrust his head into his hands. “I actually had hopes for Obama,” he said. He had not only expected the President to roll back the prosecutions launched by the Bush Administration; he had thought that Bush Administration officials would be investigated for overstepping the law in the “war on terror.”

“But power is incredibly destructive,” Drake said. “It’s a weird, pathological thing. I also think the intelligence community coöpted Obama, because he’s rather naïve about national security. He’s accepted the fear and secrecy. We’re in a scary space in this country.”

The Justice Department’s indictment narrows the frame around Drake’s actions, focussing almost exclusively on his handling of what it claims are five classified documents. But Drake sees his story as a larger tale of political reprisal, one that he fears the government will never allow him to air fully in court. “I’m a target,” he said. “I’ve got a bull’s-eye on my back.” He continued, “I did not tell secrets. I am facing prison for having raised an alarm, period. I went to a reporter with a few key things: fraud, waste, and abuse, and the fact that there were legal alternatives to the Bush Administration’s ‘dark side’ ”—in particular, warrantless domestic spying by the N.S.A.

The indictment portrays him not as a hero but as a treacherous man who violated “the government trust.” Drake said of the prosecutors, “They can say what they want. But the F.B.I. can find something on anyone.”

Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, says of the Drake case, “The government wants this to be about unlawfully retained information. The defense, meanwhile, is painting a picture of a public-interested whistle-blower who struggled to bring attention to what he saw as multibillion-dollar mismanagement.” Because Drake is not a spy, Aftergood says, the case will “test whether intelligence officers can be convicted of violating the Espionage Act even if their intent is pure.” He believes that the trial may also test whether the nation’s expanding secret intelligence bureaucracy is beyond meaningful accountability. “It’s a much larger debate than whether a piece of paper was at a certain place at a certain time,” he says.

Jack Balkin, a liberal law professor at Yale, agrees that the increase in leak prosecutions is part of a larger transformation. “We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state,” he says. In his view, zealous leak prosecutions are consonant with other political shifts since 9/11: the emergence of a vast new security bureaucracy, in which at least two and a half million people hold confidential, secret, or top-secret clearances; huge expenditures on electronic monitoring, along with a reinterpretation of the law in order to sanction it; and corporate partnerships with the government that have transformed the counterterrorism industry into a powerful lobbying force. Obama, Balkin says, has “systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush Administration.”

On March 28th, Obama held a meeting in the White House with five advocates for greater transparency in government. During the discussion, the President drew a sharp distinction between whistle-blowers who exclusively reveal wrongdoing and those who jeopardize national security. The importance of maintaining secrecy about the impending raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound was likely on Obama’s mind. The White House has been particularly bedevilled by the ongoing release of classified documents by WikiLeaks, the group led by Julian Assange. Last year, WikiLeaks began releasing a vast trove of sensitive government documents allegedly leaked by a U.S. soldier, Bradley Manning; the documents included references to a courier for bin Laden who had moved his family to Abbottabad—the town where bin Laden was hiding out. Manning has been charged with “aiding the enemy.”

Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, attended the meeting, and said that Obama’s tone was generally supportive of transparency. But when the subject of national-security leaks came up, Brian said, “the President shifted in his seat and leaned forward. He said this may be where we have some differences. He said he doesn’t want to protect the people who leak to the media war plans that could impact the troops.” Though Brian was impressed with Obama’s over-all stance on transparency, she felt that he might be misinformed about some of the current leak cases. She warned Obama that prosecuting whistle-blowers would undermine his legacy. Brian had been told by the White House to avoid any “ask”s on specific issues, but she told the President that, according to his own logic, Drake was exactly the kind of whistle-blower who deserved protection.

As Drake tells it, his problems began on September 11, 2001. “The next seven weeks were crucial,” he said. “It’s foundational to why I am a criminal defendant today.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 September 2017 at 12:37 pm

RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War

leave a comment »

Also read “Will America finally wise up to the Russian media war on our democracy?“, by Sarah Posner in the Washington Post.

Jim Rutenberg writes in the NY Times:

Martin Steltner showed up at his office in the state courthouse building in western Berlin. Steltner, who has served for more than a dozen years as the spokesman for the Berlin state prosecutor, resembles a detective out of classic crime fiction: crisp suit, wavy gray hair and a gallows humor that comes with having seen it all. There was the 2009 case of the therapist who mistakenly killed two patients in an Ecstasy-infused session gone wrong. The Great Poker Heist of 2010, in which masked men stormed a celebrity-studded poker tournament with machetes and made off with a quarter-million dollars. The 2012 episode involving the Canadian porn star who killed and ate his boyfriend and then sent the leftovers home in the mail. Steltner embraced the oddball aspect of his job; he kept a picture of Elvis Presley on the wall of his office.

But even Steltner found the phone calls he received that morning confounding. They came from police officers from towns far outside Berlin, who reported that protests were erupting, seemingly out of nowhere, on their streets. “They are demonstrating — ‘Save our children,’ ‘No attacks from immigrants on our children’ and some things like that,” Steltner told me when I met him in Berlin recently.

The police were calling Steltner because this was ostensibly his office’s fault. The protesters were angry over the Berlin prosecutor’s supposed refusal to indict three Arab migrants who, they said, raped a 13-year-old girl from Berlin’s tight-knit Russian-German community.

Steltner, who would certainly have been informed if such a case had come up for prosecution, had heard nothing of it. He called the Berlin Police Department, which informed him that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl had indeed gone missing a week before. When she resurfaced a day later, she told her parents that three “Southern-looking men” — by which she meant Arab migrants — had yanked her off the street and taken her to a rundown apartment, where they beat and raped her.

But when the police interviewed the girl, whose name was Lisa, she changed her story. She had left home, it turned out, because she had gotten in trouble at school. Afraid of how her parents would react, she went to stay with a 19-year-old male friend. The kidnapping and gang rape, she admitted, never happened.

By then, however, the girl’s initial story was taking on a life of its own within the Russian-German community through word of mouth and Facebook — enough so that the police felt compelled to put out a statement debunking it. Then, over the weekend, Channel One, a Russian state-controlled news station with a large following among Russian-Germans, who watch it on YouTube and its website, ran a report presenting Lisa’s story as an example of the unchecked dangers Middle Eastern refugees posed to German citizens. Angela Merkel, it strongly implied, was refusing to address these threats, even as she opened German borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants. “According to Lisa’s parents,” the Channel One reporter said, “the police simply refuse to look for criminals.”

The following day in Berlin, Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party held a protest at a plaza in Marzahn, a heavily Russian neighborhood. The featured speaker was an adult cousin of Lisa’s, who repeated the original allegations while standing in front of signs reading “Stop Foreign Infiltration!” and “Secure Borders!” The crowd was tiny, not much more than a dozen people. But it was big enough to attract the attention of RT, Russia’s state-financed international cable network, which presents local-language newscasts in numerous countries, including Germany and the United States. A crew from the network’s video service, Ruptly, arrived with a camera. The footage was on YouTube that afternoon.

That same day, Sputnik, a brash Russian-government-run news and commentary site that models itself on BuzzFeed, ran a story raising allegations of a police cover-up. Lisa’s case was not isolated, Sputnik argued; other refugee rapists, it warned, might be running free. By the start of the following week, protests were breaking out in neighborhoods with large Russian-German populations, which is why the local police were calling Steltner. In multiple interviews, including with RT and Sputnik, Steltner reiterated that the girl had recanted the original story about the kidnapping and the gang rape. In one interview with the German media, he said that in the course of the investigation, authorities had found evidence that the girl had sex with a 23-year-old man months earlier, which would later lead to a sexual-abuse conviction for the man, whose sentence was suspended. But the original, unrelated and debunked story continued circulating, drawing the interest of the German mainstream media, which pointed out inconsistencies in the Russian reports. None of that stopped the protests, which culminated in a demonstration the following Saturday, Jan. 23, by 700 people outside the Chancellery, Merkel’s office. Ruptly covered that, too.

An official in the Merkel government told me that the administration was completely perplexed, at first. Then, a few days later, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, held a news conference in Moscow. Bringing up Lisa’s story, he cast doubt on the official version of events. There was no way, he argued, that Lisa left home voluntarily. Germany, he suggested, was “covering up reality in a politically correct manner for the sake of domestic politics.” Two days later, RT ran a segment reporting that despite all the official denials, the case was “not so simple.” The Russian Embassy called Steltner and asked to meet, he told me. The German foreign ministry informed him that this was now a diplomatic issue.

The whole affair suddenly appeared a lot less mystifying. A realization took hold in the foreign ministry, the intelligence services and the Chancellery: Germany had been hit.

Officials in Germany and at NATO headquarters in Brussels view the Lisa case, as it is now known, as an early strike in a new information war Russia is waging against the West. In the months that followed, politicians perceived by the Russian government as hostile to its interests would find themselves caught up in media storms that, in their broad contours, resembled the one that gathered around Merkel. They often involved conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods — sometimes with a tenuous connection to fact, as in the Lisa case, sometimes with no connection at all — amplified until they broke through into domestic politics. In other cases, they simply helped promote nationalist, far-left or far-right views that put pressure on the political center. What the efforts had in common was their agents: a loose network of Russian-government-run or -financed media outlets and apparently coordinated social-media accounts.

After RT and Sputnik gave platforms to politicians behind the British vote to leave the European Union, like Nigel Farage, a committee of the British Parliament released a report warning that foreign governments may have tried to interfere with the referendum. Russia and China, the report argued, had an “understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals” and practiced a kind of cyberwarfare “reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion.” When President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia visited the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, at the palace of Versailles in May, Macron spoke out about such influence campaigns at a news conference. Having prevailed weeks earlier in the election over Marine Le Pen — a far-right politician who had backed Putin’s annexation of Crimea and met with him in the Kremlin a month before the election — Macron complainedthat “Russia Today and Sputnik were agents of influence which on several occasions spread fake news about me personally and my campaign.” . . .

Continue reading.

I will point out that protecting us from such things is exactly the job of the government, and specifically the Executive Branch of the Federal government (now under President Donald Trump), and more specifically yet it’s the job of the FBI and the US military. Can they do their jobs? Apparently not, at least no so far, and of course the President is not going to push them to take on Russia—quite the contrary, as we have seen. So the Russians are getting an enormous payoff from their modest investment in tinkering with our election through propaganda. Of course, as the article observes, they’ve invested heavily in that area over several years and now are reaping the benefits of that experience and investment.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 September 2017 at 2:35 pm

‘I Smell Cash’: How the A.T.F. Spent Millions Unchecked

leave a comment »

Matt Apuzzo reports on corrupt practices in the Department of Justice (which occurred during the Obama administration):

For seven years, agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives followed an unwritten policy: If you needed to buy something for one of your cases, do not bother asking Washington. Talk to agents in Bristol, Va., who controlled a multimillion-dollar account unrestricted by Congress or the bureaucracy.

Need a flashy BMW for an undercover operation? Call Bristol.

A vending machine with a hidden camera? Bristol.

Travel expenses? Take this credit card. It’s on Bristol.

When The New York Times revealed the existence of the secret account in February, publicly available documents made it seem like the work of a few agents run amok. But thousands of pages of newly unsealed records reveal a widespread scheme — a highly unorthodox merger of an undercover law enforcement operation and a legitimate business. What began as a way to catch black-market cigarette dealers quickly transformed into a nearly untraceable A.T.F. slush fund that agents from around the country could tap.

The spending was not limited to investigative expenses. Two informants made $6 million each. One agent steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate, electronics and money to his church and his children’s sports teams, records show.

Federal law prohibits mixing government and private money. The A.T.F. now acknowledges it can point to no legal justification for the scheme. But far from reining in the spending, records show that supervisors at headquarters encouraged it by steering agents from around the country to Bristol.

Yet no one was ever prosecuted, Congress was only recently notified, and the Justice Department tried for years to keep the records secret. The Times intervened in an ongoing fraud lawsuit over the activity and successfully argued that a judge should unseal them. The documents tell a bizarre story of how federal agents set up shop inside a southern Virginia tobacco business, and treated its bank account as their own.

At least tens of millions of dollars moved through the account before it was shut down in 2013, but no one can say for sure how much. The government never tracked it.

THOMAS LESNAK, a veteran agent, operated out of a government office building tucked behind a Burger King in Bristol, a small city near the intersection of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Colleagues regarded him as fast-talking and likable. When he met suspects, he always came off as the good cop.

Mr. Lesnak specialized in investigating tobacco smuggling, one of the A.T.F.’s core missions. Though cigarettes are available at any corner store, they are extraordinarily profitable to smuggle. That’s because taxes are high and every state sets its own rates. Virginia charges $3 per carton. New York charges $43.50. The simplest scheme — buying cigarettes in Virginia and selling them tax-free in New York — can generate tens of thousands of dollars in illicit cash. By some estimates, more than half of New York’s cigarettes come from the black market.

The A.T.F. tried setting up front companies to infiltrate smuggling rings, but with limited success. Gangs and cartels were too smart to deal with companies that appeared out of thin air. Mr. Lesnak had a solution: Rather than pose as a real company, go into business with an existing one.

In late 2006, Mr. Lesnak persuaded Jason Carpenter, an established small-time Alabama tobacco distributor, to open a warehouse in Bristol, become an informant and let the A.T.F. operate alongside him. “We basically merged ourselves with a tobacco business,” Mr. Lesnak said last year in a confidential deposition.

“The idea was, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Mr. Carpenter said in a deposition. “And lo and behold,” he said, “they came.”

Would-be smugglers appeared, looking to buy untaxed cigarettes. Some offered cash. Others offered to trade stolen property or guns. Mr. Lesnak and Ryan Kaye, one of the agents involved in the operation, worked the floor. “It got to the point where we were, you know, warehouse workers as opposed to criminal investigators,” Mr. Lesnak said.

The A.T.F. allowed Mr. Carpenter and his business partner, Christopher Small, to conduct illicit tobacco sales in the hopes of catching criminals. Mr. Lesnak, Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Small declined repeated interview requests.

Normally, undercover operations run entirely on government money, from a government account that is reviewed by government auditors. But Mr. Carpenter was running a real company. Sometimes he worked for the government, sometimes for himself, and it was not always clear where the profits should go.

SO THE A.T.F. DEVISED A SOLUTION: When it was unclear where the money belonged, it went into a private account that Mr. Carpenter controlled. That kept the money outside the reach of Congress. Mr. Lesnak dictated all the spending and said he expected the government to balance the books at the end of the investigation. That never happened.

Mr. Kaye testified last year and was asked repeatedly who approved this arrangement and under what authority:

“I do not recall exactly who authorized that.”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘authorization.’ I would call it an ‘understanding.’”

“No authorization was needed.”

“I don’t know of a specific law that authorizes those specific activities.”

The secret fund became known as a “management account,” and word spread quickly among A.T.F. agents that if you needed something, Mr. Lesnak could get it without red tape. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 September 2017 at 11:35 am

Trump administration doesn’t want investment advisers to have to act in the best interests of their clients

leave a comment »

Now why on earth would they oppose a rule requiring investment advisers to act in the best interests of their clients? I suppose they want to make it legal for investment advisers to profit by advising bad decisions. Am I missing something?

Sylvan Lane reports in The Hill:

The Labor Department is seeking an 18-month delay of an Obama-era rule for investment advisers, according to court documents filed Wednesday.

In response to a lawsuit over the rule, agency officials told the court they have asked the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to delay implementing the rule until July 2019.

The rule places tougher standards on financial advisers, creating a legal requirement that they act in the best interests of their clients. The rule requires advisers to tell clients when they get a commission for selling certain investment products. It is intended to prevent advisers from hiding conflicts of interest that could hurt each client’s bottom line. The rule was set to go into effect in in January 2018.

Business lobbying groups and the investment industry fiercely oppose the rule issued in 2016 under former President Obama, arguing it would drive up the cost of financial advice and push many Americans out of the investment market. They have challenged the rule in court.

But progressive lawmakers and consumer watchdogs have defended the rule, which is prized by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta oversaw a review of the rule but decided earlier this year that he had no legal basis to delay or amend the rule on his own.

Investment advisers had been bracing for the rule’s implementation but could get a reprieve from the OMB.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 August 2017 at 4:10 pm

%d bloggers like this: