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NSA Secretly Helped Convict Defendants In U.S. Courts, Classified Documents Reveal

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Trevor Aaronson reports in The Intercept:

Fazliddin Kurbanov is a barrel-chested man from Uzbekistan who came to the United States in 2009, when he was in his late 20s. A Christian who had converted from Islam, Kurbanov arrived as a refugee and spoke little English. Resettled in Boise, Idaho, he rented an apartment, worked odd jobs, and was studying to be a truck driver.

But about three years after entering the U.S., around the time he converted back to Islam, Kurbanov was placed under FBI surveillance. According to emails and internet chat logs obtained by the government, Kurbanov was disgusted by having seen Americans burn the Quran and by reports that an American soldier had tried to rape a Muslim girl. “My entire life, everything, changed,” Kurbanov wrote in a July 31, 2012 email.

After the FBI assigned one informant to live with him and another informant to attend his truck-driving school, Kurbanov was arrested in May 2013. Prosecutors accused him of providing material support to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and possessing bomb-making materials.

During Kurbanov’s trial, the government notified him that his conversations with an alleged Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan associate based in Pakistan had been intercepted. The spying, federal prosecutors said, had been authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which regulates the monitoring of agents of foreign governments and terrorist organizations. Kurbanov was convicted at trial and sentenced to 25 years in prison, after which he’ll be deported to Uzbekistan. He is an apparent success story for U.S. counterterrorism officials. If there was any doubt about Kurbanov’s propensity for violence, he eliminated it by stabbing a prison warden in California, an act for which he is now facing additional charges.

But Justice Department lawyers gained their conviction against Kurbanov after failing to disclose a legally significant fact: Kurbanov’s conversations with his alleged terrorist associate had been captured through PRISM, a National Security Agency mass surveillance program whose existence was revealed in documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Under PRISM, the government obtains communications directly from at least eight large technology companies without the need for warrants, a type of practice authorized in 2008, when Congress provided new surveillance powers under FISA.

While traditional FISA authority permits spying on a particular person or group through warrants issued by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, under the new powers, codified in FISA Section 702, monitoring is approved in bulk by the court through what is essentially a recipe for mass surveillance. Once approved, such a recipe can be used against thousands of targets. Under Section 702 authority, the NSA is currently monitoring digital communications of more than 100,000 people; it swept up an estimated 250 million internet communications each year as of a 2011 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinion. The FBI frequently searches Section 702 databases when it opens national security and domestic criminal “assessments,” precursors to full investigations.

According to a slide in an NSA presentation, provided by Snowden and published for the first time today by The Intercept, the interception of Kurbanov’s conversations was a “Reporting Highlight” for PRISM. The document indicates that the NSA captured Kurbanov’s Skype conversations from October 2012 through April 2013, roughly the same period the FBI was investigating him with undercover informants. It further details how an NSA unit in April 2013 issued a report describing “how Kurbanov believed he was under surveillance (which he is by the FBI) but was cautiously continuing his work, which was not specified — could be raising money for the IMU or explosive testing.” The alleged terrorist associate with whom Kurbanov was communicating “wanted Kurbanov to set this work in motion, probably related to sending money back to the IMU,” the document added.

The government is obligated to disclose to criminal defendants when information against them originates from Section 702 reporting, but federal prosecutors did not do so in Kurbanov’s case. In fact, when Kurbanov’s lawyers demanded disclosure of FISA-related evidence and the suppression of that evidence, Attorney General Eric Holder asserted national security privilege, claiming in a declaration that disclosure of FISA information would “harm the national security of the United States.” Kurbanov’s lawyer, Chuck Peterson, declined to comment about the government’s use of Section 702 surveillance against his client.

Kurbanov does not appear to be the only defendant kept in the dark about how warrantless surveillance was used against him. A nationwide review of federal court records by The Intercept found that of 75 terrorism defendants notified of some type of FISA spying since Section 702 became law, just 10 received notice of Section 702 surveillance. And yet Section 702 was credited with “well over 100 arrests on terrorism-related offenses” in a July 2014 report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, the federal entity created to oversee intelligence authorities granted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Additional documents from Snowden, previously unpublished and dated before the Kurbanov case, provide further examples of how NSA intelligence repeatedly played an undisclosed role in bringing accused terrorists to trial in U.S. courts over the past decade and a half. They also reveal an instance in which the NSA incorrectly identified a U.S. citizen as a foreign target of a FISA warrant.

Civil liberties advocates have long suspected that the Justice Department is underreporting Section 702 cases in order to limit court challenges to the controversial law. . .

Continue reading.

This article is the seventh in a series that The Intercept has been publishing. The full list to date:

Part 1: More Than 400 People Convicted of Terrorism in the U.S. Have Been Released Since 9/11

Part 2: Terrorism Defendants With Concrete Ties to Violent Extremists Leverage Their Connections to Avoid Prison

Part 3: FBI Stings Zero In on ISIS Sympathizers. Few Have Terrorist Links.

Part 4: The Government’s Own Data Shows Country of Origin Is a Poor Predictor of Terrorist Threat

Part 5: The U.S. Has Released 417 Alleged Terrorists Since 9/11. The Latest Owned an Islamic Bookstore.

Part 6: The FBI Pressured a Lonely Young Man Into a Bomb Plot. He Tried to Back Out. Now He’s Serving Life in Prison.

Part 7: NSA Secretly Helped Convict Defendants in U.S. Courts, Classified Documents Reveal

Written by LeisureGuy

2 December 2017 at 11:05 am

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

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Gary Rivlin and Susan Antilla report in The Intercept:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by LeisureGuy

18 November 2017 at 8:51 am

The Uncounted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mayada’s gone!” he shouted.

“No, no, I’ll find her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 November 2017 at 1:37 pm

VA Delays Key Agent Orange Decisions

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Charles Ornstein reports in ProPublica. The blurb:

Since March 2016, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been weighing whether to expand Agent Orange benefits to Vietnam vets with bladder cancer and hypothyroidism, as well as other ailments. It keeps missing its own deadlines to act.

The article begins:

Days after he was sworn in as Veterans Affairs secretary this year, Dr. David Shulkin held a digital town hall meeting to take veterans’ questions.

A veteran named Jack posed a question of paramount importance to many Vietnam veterans: Would the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs expand the list of diseases that are presumed to be linked to Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide used to kill forests during the Vietnam War?

“We’re getting very close to being able to give you a final answer on that,” Shulkin said on Feb. 24, adding that he was weeks away from being presented with the data he needed to make a decision. “I’m anxious to get it so that we can begin to get answers to people like Jack, because it’s been too long that they’ve been waiting to get those answers.”

Yet more than eight months later — and after his department promised a decision by Nov. 1 — the VA essentially punted, issuing a statement late Wednesday saying it would “further explore” the issue and pushing its decision to some undisclosed point in the future.

The VA said the department would now work with others in the Trump administration to conduct a legal and regulatory review of conditions for awarding disability compensation to eligible veterans.

Many veterans said they thought that was exactly the review that has been ongoing since March 2016, when the National Academy of Medicine, then known as the Institute of Medicine, said there is now evidence to suggest that Agent Orange exposure may be linked to bladder cancer and hypothyroidism. The National Academy also confirmed, as previous experts have said, that there is some evidence of an association with hypertension, stroke and various neurological ailments similar to Parkinson’s Disease.

In the past, the VA has found enough evidence to link 14 health conditions, including various cancers, to Agent Orange, which the U.S. military sprayed by the millions of gallons in Vietnam.

The Agent Orange Act of 1991 had required that the VA secretary take action on National Academy recommendations within 60 days of receiving a report; the law expired in 2015.

“Son of a gun,” said Dick Pirozzolo, 73, when he was informed of the VA’s decision to delay. Pirozzolo served as an information officer in the Air Force in Vietnam and has had bladder cancer and a thyroid condition called Graves’ disease. “That sucks.”

Pirozzolo said he applied for benefits based on his bladder cancer — and was denied. He is in the process of seeking benefits for his thyroid. “It’s frustrating,” he said. “The politicians all talk a good game about the VA, but then when it comes down to making a decision, they drag their heels.”

Carla Dean’s husband, James T. Dean Jr., died of bladder cancer last year at age 72, six days after his birthday. His application and appeals for VA benefits have been denied. Dean said she feels “gobsmacked” by the VA’s actions this week, especially because her husband died feeling relieved that he and his wife had helped persuade the National Academy of the link between his disease and Agent Orange exposure.

“My husband gave 11 1/2 years of his life to the United States Army willingly, 19 months in Vietnam, heavy combat,” Dean said. “Never in a million years did he dream basically that his government betrayed him.”

ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot have profiled the efforts of vets with bladder cancer to secure benefits. . .

Continue reading.

The US government seems increasingly paralyzed and enfeebled.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2017 at 3:53 pm

We’re loosening the rules for killing. This won’t end well.

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Daniel Mahanty writes in USA Today:

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” John Quincy Adams, 1821

The U.S. military is going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, and Americans should be worried. New changes to U.S. counterterrorism policy, branded as getting decisions out of the White House and into the hands of commanders in the field, are going to make it easier to kill more people, in more places, with fewer explanations.

Loosening the rules for killing may seem like a favor to those charged with fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda. But in many ways, the latest and least bounded mutation of America’s war on terror may end up complicating, rather than simplifying, the job of our nation’s spies, soldiers and diplomats, now and for decades to come.

The U.S. military and CIA already employ lethal force against armed groups in up to seven countries across the Middle East and Africa, often times in secret. And, after receiving a briefing from Defense secretary James Mattis, Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters to expect “more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less.” Niger may be next, NBC reports.

With each new country and adversary added to the list, the relationship between the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force and current U.S. operations becomes less and less recognizable. Even in places where the U.S. does not conduct strikes or raids on its own, these “train and advise” missions involving hundreds of special forces members in places like Niger, Somalia, and the Philippines may quickly escalate, thrusting U.S. forces into combat with little warning and deadly consequences. Any policy that increases the likelihood of expanding American military operations in the absence of debate and proper authorization from America’s highest legislative body, risks undermining American democracy by obscuring the truth of U.S. involvement in war and its deadly costs.

The proposed changes also risk further legitimating acts proscribed by international law, and thus weakening international norms in which the U.S. government has invested much to preserve an order which overwhelmingly serves its interests. Lowering the bar for taking the life of a person outside of (and sometimes within) a situation of armed conflict without due process should not be taken lightly. This trend could at some point cost America’s relationship with allies who support American counterterrorism operations on the basis of at least some pretense to lawfulness.

We are already seeing this play out in allied countries, such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany, where the public is increasingly calling on their government to clarify the legal basis for drone strikes. By setting rules that effectively permit killing anyone, anytime, anywhere, the United States is building a dangerous precedent for other states, many of whom are already arming drones for use as they see fit. This will certainly compromise America’s ability in the future to protest the practices of others when they begin to use lethal force against their adversaries, as they define them, and on their terms. This risk may seem acceptable when the world’s adversary is ISIS. But when the adversary is a humanitarian worker, an activist, a political opponent or even an American, it may be too late.

Perhaps most puzzling, for the many risks and costs involved, it’s hard to identify how setting fewer reasonable limits on killing really advances American interests or makes Americans safer. The administration has yet to articulate how any of its proposals serve some clear political end — other than annihilating terrorists — a goal that is as unachievable as it is dangerous to pursue.

Not all groups or individuals that profess affinity for ISIS or Al Qaeda necessarily pose a threat to the United States; even fewer present a threat that can actually be solved by launching a missile.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 November 2017 at 9:57 am

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

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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

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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

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