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Corporate Media Get the Story Wrong on the Amazon Fires

Intercept (7/6/19)

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More and more media are reporting on fires tearing through the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. There has been a marked increase in fires in Brazil concurrent with an increase in illegal—and climate-disrupting—deforestation, concurrent with President Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to open the Amazon to mining and logging interests. Criticism of media is coming in, too—mostly for being late to cover fires that have been burning for three weeks in a uniquely critical place. But whenever they do it, corporate media addressing modern day crises like the Amazon fires will never do them anything approaching justice.

Not as long as they refuse to sustainedly challenge anti-democratic powers like Bolsonaro: When the guy who jokes about being called Captain Chainsaw was emboldening illegal land-grabbing in indigenous and protected territories, the New York Times (10/26/18) was busy worrying if he would “deliver” on his promise to cut social security. (“Markets are optimistic,” we were told.)

More important, given that failure, is the refusal to hand the mic to those who are fighting. Like the Apurinã chief who told the Intercept‘s Alexander Zaitchik (7/6/19) they had seen landgrabs before, but “with Bolsonaro, the invasions are worse and will continue to get worse…. Unless he is stopped, he’ll run over our rights and allow a giant invasion of the forest.” Or the signatories to the Bogota Declaration to the 14th UN Biodiversity Conference, who offered a plan  from 400 ethnic groups across the Amazon basin to form a “sacred corridor of life,” to share ancestral knowledge and showcase alternative modes of development and ways of living (Common Dreams, 11/21/18).

It doesn’t matter so much how many reports corporate media write; if the same people stay at the center of them, the story won’t change.

The post Corporate Media Get the Story Wrong on the Amazon Fires appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

The Rich Will Not Be Exempt From the Worst of Climate Change

By the close of the century, the United States could be more than 10% poorer, thanks to the economic loss that climate change will impose.

There is bad news too for Japan, India and New Zealand, which will also be 10% worse off in a world that could be 3°C hotter than any temperatures experienced since humans began to build cities, civilisations and complex economies.

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And the news is even worse for Canada, a northern and Arctic nation that could reasonably have expected some things to improve as the thermometer rose: under a “business as usual” scenario in which nations go on burning fossil fuels at ever increasing rates, the Canadian economy could shrink by 13%.

A new study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts warns that overall the global economy will shrink by 7%, unless the world’s nations meet the target they set themselves at an historic meeting in Paris in 2015, when they agreed an ambition to keep global warming to no more than 2°C above the levels maintained until the Industrial Revolution.

“The idea that rich, temperate nations are economically immune to climate change, or could even double or triple their wealth as a result, just seems implausible”

The factor that tends to govern how bad an economy may be hit is not the global average thermometer rise, but the level of deviation from the historical normal: farmers, business people and government planners tend to bank on more or less foreseeable conditions. But conditions in a hotter world are less predictable.

“Whether cold snaps or heat waves, droughts or floods or natural disasters, all deviations of climate conditions from their historical norms have adverse economic effects,” said Kamiar Mohaddes, a co-author based at the faculty of economics at the other Cambridge, in the UK.

“Without mitigation and adaptation policies, many countries are likely to experience sustained temperature increases relative to historical norms and suffer major income losses as a result. This holds for both rich and poor countries as well as hot and cold regions.

“Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. There are risks to its physical infrastructure, coastal and northern communities, human health and wellness, ecosystems and fisheries – all of which has had a cost.”

Familiar refrain

The planet has already warmed by around 1°C in the last century, with ever more intense and frequent extremes of heat, drought and rainfall. The news that climate change could impose massive costs is not a surprise.

Researchers have been warning for decades that although the switch away from fossil fuels – along with other steps – will be costly, doing nothing will be even more expensive and, for many regions, ruinous.

Studies have warned that both Europe and the United States will pay a heavy price for failing to meet the Paris targets, and the poor in America will pay an even heavier price.

In the latest study, researchers from California, Washington DC, the UK and Taiwan started with data from 174 nations going back to 1960 to find a match between variations from normal temperatures and income levels. They then made computer simulations of what could happen under two scenarios.

Paris makes sense

They made the assumption that nations would adapt to change, but that such adaptations would take 30 years to complete. They then looked at 10 sectors of the US economy in particular, and found that across 48 states, every sector in every state suffered economically from at least one aspect of climate change.

They also found that the Paris Agreement of 2015 – which President Trump proposes to abandon – offers the best business sense. Were nations to contain global warming to the ideal of 1.5°C, both the US and Canada could expect their wealth to dwindle by no more than 2%.

“The economics of climate change stretch far beyond the impact on growing crops. Heavy rainfall prevents mountain access for mining and affects commodity prices. Cold snaps raise heating bills and high street spending drops. Heat waves cause transport networks to shut down. All these things add up,” Dr Mohaddes said.

“The idea that rich, temperate nations are economically immune to climate change, or could even double or triple their wealth as a result, just seems implausible.”

The post The Rich Will Not Be Exempt From the Worst of Climate Change appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

The 400-Year-Old Wound Wrenching At the Heart of America

Four hundred years ago this month, the first enslaved people from Africa arrived in Virginia.

Slavery is often reduced to a crime of America’s long-ago past. But enslaved labor created the backbone for America’s capitalistic economy, allowing it to grow into — and remain — the world’s leading economy today.

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The effects of this reliance on unpaid African slave labor is still felt in America’s current racial wealth divide. Today the racial wealth divide is greater than it was nearly four decades ago, and trends point to its continued widening.

Although slavery officially ended in 1865, the unequal treatment of African Americans continued through Jim Crow, red lining, and mass incarceration, among many public policies. Our country’s historic racial wealth disparities continue to be perpetuated and increased by the trend towards extreme inequality in the United States.

To further paint a dire picture, a report released earlier this year by the Institute for Policy Studies found that between 1983 and 2016, the median black family saw their wealth drop by more than half, compared to a 33 percent increase for the median white household.

Our economy is still thriving off the backs of African Americans and other poor people. While black wealth plummets, the number of households with $10 million or more skyrocketed by 856 percent during those years.

On the other end, 37 percent of black families have zero or “negative” wealth, meaning their debts exceed the value of their assets. Just 15 percent of white families are in the same position.

The racial wealth divide is an issue that affects all Americans — and the overall health of our economy.

As the black population increases, low levels of black wealth play a key factor in the overall decline in American median household wealth — from $84,111 in 1983 to $81,704 in 2016. Across all races, the number of households experiencing negative wealth has increased from one in six in 1983 to one in five households today.

Many conversations around the depletion of black wealth point towards false narratives about the work ethic of African Americans. This is a myth — studies show that college-educated black families have less wealth than high school-educated white families. And single-parent white families are twice as wealthy as two-parent black families.

The Institute for Policy Studies concludes that these outcomes are not the result of individual behavior, but the result of black Americans having fewer resources to begin with — resources they’ve been denied for 400 years, ever since the first slaves were kidnapped from Africa and brought to America to provide free, strenuous, and valuable labor.

Employment, income, homeownership, stock ownership, entrepreneurship, and virtually all other economic indicators show stark divides around race. To truly overcome these divides, we need a massive, targeted investment similar to the massive, targeted investments that historically appropriated wealth to white communities.

It’ll take bold structural reform and the political will to finally achieve economic justice for African Americans, because clearly ending slavery wasn’t enough.

By creating a formal commission to study the issue, lawmakers can take a serious look at what reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans in America could look like. Inaction — or worse, repeating the same mistakes that led to this situation — will simply widen the divide and create greater economic instability for the country at large.

Four hundred years later, it’s time to stop putting a temporary bandage on the painful and relevant history of American slavery. It’s time to heal the deep wounds of racism and inequity once and for all.

Not only to finally provide African Americans with the economic equity they deserve, but to ensure the health of our economy for generations to come.

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Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal Is the Hail Mary This Planet Needs

This piece originally appeared on Informed Comment

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ breathtaking Green New Deal, with an advertised price tag of $16.3 trillion, is aimed at nothing less than saving the planet from the worst consequences of global heating.

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The plan aims to create 20 million new, well-paying jobs. It should be noted that one possible outcome of big Federal R&D monies and a rapid shift to renewables would be to revivify the US industrial sector, which has fallen to only 12 percent or so of the US GDP. Although the price tag seems formidable, Sen. Sanders points out that climate inaction will cost $34 trillion (I would add, at the very least) by 2100.

Yuval Rosenberg at the Fiscal Times quotes the response of the centrist Third Way think tank, which appears to represent mainly investment bankers, as criticizing Sanders’ plan on a number of points. They lament that he sidelines nuclear energy and carbon capture, and that his goal of getting rid of gasoline vehicles by 2030 is not realistic. If you reason back from these positions, what is being said is that moving quickly off coal, oil and gas is undesirable. Who would say that? Big coal, big oil and big gas, the profits of which are beloved of investment bankers. Likewise, big nuclear.

So let me explain why the critique from Third Way is pernicious. First, there is no such thing as affordable, safe, carbon capture. It is a unicorn. Even if CO2 could be captured, storing carbon dioxide gas would be extremely dangerous. When CO2 leaked from under a lake in the Cameroons, it killed thousands of people living on its shores.

Second, nuclear energy is useless in our new energy regime. Wind and solar will be the backbone, and they are intermittent. The sun doesn’t shine at night, wind often calms during the day. Until we get Big Battery capacity (which is coming rapidly), you need a baseline source of power that can be easily phased in and out. That is either hydro where it exists, or natural gas. It takes way too long to power down a nuclear plant and then power it back up. It is useless. Not to mention that the nuclear waste cannot be safely disposed of and poses very long term contamination problems. Not to mention that the plants can melt down and damage riparian ecosystems. Worst of all, nuclear-generated electricity costs 11 cents a kilowatt hour. New solar and wind bids are being let for less than 3 cents a kilowatt hour, even cheaper than coal.

As for taking transportation electric quickly, of course that can be accomplished. Maybe it won’t happen in a US dominated by Big Oil, but Sanders intends to push those corporations aside and institute a Federal industrial policy that can make things happen. The analogy is what Franklin Delano Roosevelt accomplished during World War II, when US industrial capacity vastly expanded and 16 million men were mobilized and Social Security was implemented.

These things aren’t as hard as they look, though admittedly it is a massive undertaking. In the US, 17.2 million light vehicles are sold annually, so in ten years that is 172 million. There are 272 mn. light vehicles on the road. So I conclude that the market replaces 64% of the vehicle stock every decade (helped by planned obsolescence). Therefore, if you require that all new vehicles be electric, you’d switch out 64% of the gasoline cars in a decade. (Chine already today makes an $8000 EV; so can Detroit if they’re incentivized). Putting in more public transportation and incentives for using it would make many of the other vehicles redundant. Trade-in incentives could mothball those that are left. The Obama administration already did a small version of this sort of buy-back, taking older polluting gas guzzlers off people’s hands for a rebate on a new vehicle. Trump’s tax cut on billionaires cost trillions, and over a decade his increase in the war budget will also cost trillions. The US spends more on war than the next 14 countries combined, and is expected to spend $7 trillion on “defense” over the next decade, even though we have no peer powers. Nobody thought those things impossible or fantastic.

Britain spends $45 bn. a year on defense and it has 1/4 the population of the US, so that is as though the US spent less than $200 billion a year on the Pentagon. We could go down to that and save a trillion dollars every two years for useful and productive things instead of for bombs to sell the Saudis to drop on Yemeni children. The US military is among the biggest carbon-emitting organizations in the world, so maybe we could cut those emissions, too. Bernie’s plan would be paid for in this way alone in about 32 years.

The plan is set to pay for itself over 15 years in these ways:

Making the fossil fuel industry pay for their pollution, through litigation, fees, and taxes, and eliminating federal fossil fuel subsidies.

Generating revenue from the wholesale of energy produced by the regional Power Marketing Authorities. Revenues will be collected from 2023-2035, and after 2035 electricity will be virtually free, aside from operations and maintenance costs.

Scaling back military spending on maintaining global oil dependence.

Collecting new income tax revenue from the 20 million new jobs created by the plan.

Reduced need for federal and state safety net spending due to the creation of millions of good-paying, unionized jobs.

Making the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share.

The selfish and greedy elites of the US Establishment will attempt to kill this plan just in the same way that they are killing the planet. It will only succeed if the public rallies to it, urgently seeking to limit the damage to their children’s and grandchildren’s lives done by carbon dioxide, methane, and the rest.

 

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68 Protesters Detained as Leaders Gather at G-7 Summit

BIARRITZ, France—The Latest on the Group of Seven summit (all times local):

11:05 p.m.

French authorities have detained 68 people taking part in a tense protest near the G-7 summit.

The regional administration says those detained are accused of throwing projectiles, concealing their faces or possessing objects that could be used as weapons.

Police fired tear gas, water cannon and dispersion grenades at a crowd of about 400 mostly peaceful anti-capitalism demonstrators Saturday in the town of Bayonne. The regional administration says no injuries were reported in the skirmishes.

World leaders gathered in nearby Biarritz on Saturday to open the Group of Seven summit.

Security is high, and some yellow vest protesters angry at the French president and economic injustice have threatened action Sunday.

___

7:40 p.m.

A French diplomat says President Emmanuel Macron tried to reduce the pressure exerted by President Donald Trump over a new digital services tax the country is imposing on internet giants.

The official, who spoke anonymously in accordance with the French presidency’s customary practices, said Macron told Trump the tax is not an anti-American policy.

During a two-hour working lunch with Trump, Macron stressed the need for every country to be able to tax digital activities.

Trump repeatedly vowed to retaliate against France for the new digital tax the country is imposing on big tech companies that sell online advertising by placing tariffs on French wine imports to the U.S.

The French diplomat said Macron told Trump there was no link to be made between the digital tax and the wine tariffs and tried to convince him there was no point in opening a trade war on that issue.

—By Sylvie Corbet

___

7:30 p.m.

France’s Basque country is on the menu for the G-7 summit informal dinner of leaders.

Saturday night’s dinner in the seaside resort of Biarritz features local specialties of the Basque country. According to the menu released by the French president’s office, dinner starts with a contemporary take on a piperade, a dish typically made with tomatoes, onions, green peppers and a dose of the local dried red pepper, known as piment d’Espelette.

The appetizer will be followed by line-caught red tuna, prepared in a style known locally as Marmitako, something like a stew cooked in an earthenware dish traditionally with tomatoes and other vegetables.

The meal ends with local cheeses, and dessert featuring hand selected peaches and a selection of Basque cakes.

___

7:10 p.m.

Police have fired water cannon and tear gas at about 400 anti-capitalist protesters blocking roads in a town near the venue of the G-7 summit in southwest France.

A few protesters threw rocks at police but the crowd in Bayonne was largely peaceful, with some activists dancing.

Police responded with warning shots and then water cannon. The incident took place near a bridge barricaded by police as part of extensive security measures around the Group of Summit meeting that opens Saturday.

Earlier Saturday thousands of demonstrators marched peacefully from the area to the Spanish border to demand more action against climate change and economic inequality. U.S. President Donald Trump is among leaders at the summit that runs through Monday.

___

6:45 p.m.

A French diplomat says French President Emmanuel Macron outlined details of a French plan to ease tensions with Iran during his working lunch with President Donald Trump at the G-7 summit.

The official, who was speaking anonymously in accordance with the French presidency’s customary practices, said France has been working for several weeks on the plan.

The diplomat said France and the United States share the same interests: preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.

France’s plan would allow Iran to export oil for a limited amount of time. In exchange, Iran would need to fully implement the 2015 nuclear deal, reduce tensions in the Gulf and open talks.

Macron has taken a lead role in trying to save the nuclear accord, which has been unraveling since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement. Russia, along with Britain, Germany and China, remains a part of the accord.

—By Sylvie Corbet

___

6:20 p.m.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he’ll push Donald Trump to de-escalate the American trade war with China.

As he touched down at the G-7 summit in the French resort town of Biarritz, Johnson was preparing for what will be a closely watched first meeting with the U.S. president. He said he planned to push back particularly on the Amazon fires and would press Trump on the trade dispute with China.

Britain’s economy has taken a beating over Brexit and relies heavily upon global trade, including with China.

___

6 p.m.

With Brexit at the top of their agendas, European leaders took advantage of a small window of time before the official start of the G-7 summit.

Boris Johnson, under pressure with the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline approaching, sat down at a small table facing the men and woman whose agreement he needs no avoid a no-deal departure from the European Union.

Already Johnson had traded barbs with the EU Council President Donald Tusk over who would earn the ignominious title Mr. No Deal. Later, he sat with Tusk, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s caretaker leader Guiseppe Conte.

Johnson has already met separately this week with Merkel and Macron, who have challenged him to come up with a better alternative to the main sticking point, the deadlock on the Irish border question.

___

3:10 p.m.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has touched down in the French seaside resort of Biarritz for his first Group of Seven summit, a gathering where he will meet U.S. President Donald Trump for the first time.

The meeting between the two men is expected to be crucial as Johnson prepares to pull Britain out of the European Union.

Johnson spoke earlier this week with French President Emmanuel Macron, the host of the summit of leaders of the world’s rich democracies, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Responding to European Council President Donald Tusk’s comment earlier that he didn’t believe Johnson wanted to go down as “Mr. No Deal,” referring to Britain leaving the EU without an agreement, Johnson effectively said their fates were tied over the issue of Ireland.

Johnson said that “if Donald Tusk doesn’t want to go down as Mr. No Deal Brexit, then I hope that point should be born in mind by him too.”

___

2:45 p.m.

A march against the Group of Seven summit has ended peacefully, after thousands of activists for various causes walked from southwest France into Spain under heavy security.

Regional police said no arrests or incidents were reported during Saturday’s march from Hendaye in France to Irun in Spain, and estimated some 9,000 people took part.

Protesters came from multiple countries to demonstrate for more action against climate change, for indigenous peoples, free trade deals and other causes. Some wore masks representing G-7 leaders meeting in nearby Biarritz.

Protester Gael Gilles, 30, told The Associated Press, “there is too much inequality in this world and I am here to demonstrate peacefully against this G7 … to tell (the leaders) that they do not go into the good direction on the climate and other things.”

___

1:35 p.m.

French President Emmanuel Macron says he’s launching an appeal to all world powers to help Brazil and other South American countries fight the fires burning in the Amazon.

Before the Group of Seven summit, which begins Saturday, Macron thrust the rainforest fires to the top of the agenda. He touched on it again in a national address, which took place just as U.S. President Donald Trump touched down in the French seaside resort of Biarritz.

Macron also called for an end to the trade wars he said are “taking hold everywhere.” Just before Trump left the United States, he again threatened tariffs on French wines in retaliation for a French measure taxing technology companies.

___

12:40 p.m.

European Council President Donald Tusk has promised EU retaliation if the U.S. makes good on its threats to impose tariffs on French wine.

Just before leaving for the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, U.S. President Donald Trump again threatened new taxes on French wine in response to a French measure taxing internet companies.

Tusk said that “the last thing we need and want is confrontation with our best ally, the United States.” But he said France can count on EU loyalty for one of its most valuable exports.

___

12:35 p.m.

European Council President Donald Tusk says this year’s Group of Seven summit will be an “unusually difficult” meeting of the leaders of some of the world’s most powerful democracies.

The summit begins Saturday in the southern French resort town of Biarritz. Tusk warned in particular against trade wars, which he said could lead to a global recession. Other threats include climate change, and technology that is developing more quickly than the ability to regulate.

He warned that it could be the last moment to restore unity among the G-7 countries.

___

12:25 p.m.

France is pressing the White House to endorse a global pledge at the Group of Seven summit to better fight against the spread of hate speech on the internet.

Cedric O, a French official in charge of digital economy, told reporters that the other six nations in the G-7 have already backed the pledge, as have Google and Facebook.

The U.S. didn’t endorse a similar pledge after the mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this year. O said the pledge includes a commitment to fight terrorist and hate speech on the internet, transparency on the process, and defense of freedom of expression.

___

11:50 a.m.

Hundreds of protesters are marching as Group of Seven leaders arrive in the French resort town of Biarritz.

Protesters planned to cross into Spain from the French border village town of Hendaye. As the march began, they held cardboard signs aloft with pictures of Earth, protesting against climate policies they blame on the world’s G-7 countries.

French President Emmanuel Macron, the host, put the Amazon fires at the top of the agenda for the weekend meeting.

___

11:30 a.m.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has arrived for the Group of Seven summit amid escalating tensions with South Korea.

South Korea canceled a deal to share military intelligence, mainly on North Korea, after a trade dispute between the two countries.

Relations between two countries, both allies of the U.S., are at their lowest point since they established diplomatic ties in 1965.

Abe’s plane touched down in the French seaside resort on Biarritz on Saturday morning.

___

11:05 a.m.

Germany says that impeding a trade deal between the European Union and South American trade bloc Mercosur won’t help reduce the destruction of rainforest in Brazil.

On Friday, Group of Seven summit host French President Emmanuel Macron threatened to block the recently agreed trade deal with Mercosur, which also includes Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Ireland joined in the threat.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made clear she shares Macron’s concern about the fires. But her government said in an emailed response Saturday to a query about the threat to the Mercosur deal that its trade section “includes an ambitious sustainability chapter with binding rules on climate protection,” in which both sides committed to implementing the Paris climate accord.

It added: “the non-conclusion (of the deal) is therefore from our point of view not the appropriate response to what is currently happening in Brazil.”

___

10:55 a.m.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the Group of Seven leaders “cannot be silent” in the face of fires sweeping parts of Brazil’s Amazon and will call for everything to be done to stop fires in the rainforest.

Germany is backing French President Emmanuel Macron’s call to discuss the fires at the weekend’s French-hosted G-7 summit. Merkel said in her weekly video message released Saturday: “Emmanuel Macron is right — our house is burning, and we cannot be silent.”

She said leaders are “shaken” by the fires and that they will discuss “how we can support and help there, and send a clear call that everything must be done so that the rainforest stops burning.”

Amid a series of policy and trade disagreements, which she didn’t address explicitly, Merkel said that “talking to each other is always better than about each other — and the G-7 is an excellent opportunity for that.”

___

10:30 a.m.

World leaders and protesters are converging on the southern French resort town of Biarritz for the G-7 summit.

French President Emmanuel Macron is the host of the summit, which begins Saturday and has emptied out the town famed for its beach on the last week of the summer break. He has downplayed any expectations of a unified front from the leaders of the Group of Seven democracies.

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives later in the day. At last year’s meeting, Trump left early and repudiated the joint statement from Air Force One.

At the top of the agenda are climate change – and especially the fires burning in the Amazon – and a global economy teetering on the edge of recession.

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Brazilian Troops Deploy to Fight Amazon Fires

RIO DE JANEIRO— Backed by military aircraft, Brazilian troops on Saturday were deploying in the Amazon to fight fires that have swept the region and prompted anti-government protests as well as an international outcry.

President Jair Bolsonaro also tried to temper global concern, saying previously deforested areas had burned and that intact rainforest was spared. Even so, the fires were likely to be urgently discussed at a summit of the Group of Seven leaders in France this weekend.

Some 44,000 troops will be available for “unprecedented” operations to put out the fires, and forces are heading to six Brazilian states that asked for federal help, Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo said. The states are Roraima, Rondonia, Tocantins, Para, Acre and Mato Grosso.

The military’s first mission will be carried out by 700 troops around Porto Velho, capital of Rondonia, Azevedo said. The military will use two C-130 Hercules aircraft capable of dumping up to 12,000 liters (3,170 gallons) of water on fires, he said.

An Associated Press journalist flying over the Porto Velho region Saturday morning reported hazy conditions and low visibility. On Friday, the reporter saw many already deforested areas that were burned, apparently by people clearing farmland, as well as a large column of smoke billowing from one fire.

The municipality of Nova Santa Helena in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state was also hard-hit. Trucks were seen driving along a highway Friday as fires blazed and embers smoldered in adjacent fields.

The Brazilian military operations came after widespread criticism of Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis. On Friday, the president authorized the armed forces to put out fires, saying he is committed to protecting the Amazon region.

Azevedo, the defense minister, noted U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer in a tweet to help Brazil fight the fires, and said there had been no further contact on the matter.

Despite international concern, Bolsonaro told reporters on Saturday that the situation was returning to normal. He said he was “speaking to everyone” about the problem, including Trump, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and several Latin American leaders.

Bolsonaro had described rainforest protections as an obstacle to Brazil’s economic development, sparring with critics who say the Amazon absorbs vast amounts of greenhouse gasses and is crucial for efforts to contain climate change.

The Amazon fires have become a global issue, escalating tensions between Brazil and European countries who believe Bolsonaro has neglected commitments to protect biodiversity. Protesters gathered outside Brazilian diplomatic missions in European and Latin American cities Friday, and demonstrators also marched in Brazil.

“The planet’s lungs are on fire. Let’s save them!” read a sign at a protest outside Brazil’s embassy in Mexico City.

The dispute spilled into the economic arena when French leader Emmanuel Macron threatened to block a European Union trade deal with Brazil and several other South American countries.

“First we need to help Brazil and other countries put out these fires,” Macron said Saturday.

The goal is to “preserve this forest that we all need because it is a treasure of our biodiversity and our climate thanks to the oxygen that it emits and thanks to the carbon it absorbs,” he said.

In a weekly video message released Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Group of Seven leaders “cannot be silent” and should discuss how to help extinguish the fires.

Bolivia has also struggled to contain fires that swept through woods and fields. A U.S.-based aircraft, the B747-400 SuperTanker, is flying over devastated areas in Bolivia to help put out the blazes and protect forests.

On Saturday, several helicopters along with police, military troops, firefighters and volunteers on the ground worked to extinguish fires in Bolivia’s Chiquitanía region, where the woods are dry at this time of year.

Farmers commonly set fires in this season to clear land for crops or livestock, but sometimes the blazes get out of control. The Bolivian government says 9,530 square kilometers (3680 square miles) have been burned this year.

The government of Bolivian President Evo Morales has backed the increased cultivation of crops for biofuel production, raising questions about whether the policy opened the way to increased burning.

Similarly, Bolsonaro had said he wants to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms. Brazilian prosecutors are investigating whether lax enforcement of environmental regulations may have contributed to the surge in the number of fires.

Brazil’s justice ministry also said federal police will deploy in fire zones to assist other state agencies and combat “illegal deforestation.”

Fires are common in Brazil in the annual dry season, but they are much more widespread this year. Brazilian state experts reported nearly 77,000 wildfires across the country so far this year, up 85% over the same period in 2018.

More than half of those fires occurred in the Amazon region.

___

Associated Press journalists Juan Karita in Robore, Bolivia; Victor Caivano in Porto Velho, Brazil; Christopher Torchia in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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Putin Orders Russia to Respond After U.S. Missile Test

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military on Friday to work out a quid pro quo response after the test of a new U.S. missile banned under a now-defunct arms treaty.

In Sunday’s test, a modified ground-launched version of a U.S. Navy Tomahawk cruise missile accurately struck its target more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) away. The test came after Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Speaking at a meeting of his Security Council, Putin charged that the U.S. waged a “propaganda campaign” alleging Russian breaches of the pact to “untie its hands to deploy the previously banned missiles in different parts of the world.”

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He ordered the Defense Ministry and other agencies to “take comprehensive measures to prepare a symmetrical answer.”

The U.S. said it withdrew from the treaty because of Russian violations, a claim that Moscow has denied.

In an interview this week with Fox News, Defense Secretary Mark Esper asserted that the Russian cruise missiles Washington has long claimed were a violation of the now-defunct Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces, or INF, treaty, might be armed with nuclear warheads.

“Right now Russia has possibly nuclear-tipped cruise – INF-range cruise missiles facing toward Europe, and that, that’s not a good thing,” Esper said.

The Russian leader noted that Sunday’s test was performed from a launcher similar to those deployed at a U.S. missile defense site in Romania. He argued that the Romanian facility and a prospective similar site in Poland could also be loaded with missiles intended to hit ground targets instead of interceptors.

Putin has previously pledged that Russia wouldn’t deploy the missiles previously banned by the INF Treaty to any area before the U.S. does that first, but he noted Friday that the use of the universal launcher means that a covert deployment is possible.

“How would we know what they will deploy in Romania and Poland — missile defense systems or strike missile systems with a significant range?” Putin said.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Robert Carver, disputed Putin’s assertion that the land-based U.S. missile defense system in Romania could be used to launch ground-attack missiles. He said the U.S. launch system in Romania, known as Aegis Ashore, “does not have the capability to fire offensive weapons of any kind,” including a cruise missile like the Tomahawk variant used in the Aug. 18 U.S. test.

“It can only launch the SM-3 interceptor, which does not carry an explosive warhead,” Carver said, adding that it would take “industrial-level construction to reconfigure it to fire offensive weapons. That reconfiguration would entail major equipment installation and software changes.”

Russia long has charged that the U.S. launchers loaded with missile defense interceptors could be used for firing surface-to-surface missiles. Putin said that Sunday’s test has proven that the U.S. denials have been false.

“It’s indisputable now,” the Russian leader said.

He added the missile test that came just 16 days after the INF treaty’s termination has shown that the U.S. long had started work on the new systems banned by the treaty.

While Putin hasn’t spelled out possible retaliatory measures, some Moscow-based military experts theorized that Russia could adapt the sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles for use from ground launchers.

The Interfax news agency quoted a retired Russian general, Vladimir Bogatyryov, as saying that Moscow could put such missiles in Cuba or Venezuela if the U.S. deploys new missiles near Russian borders.

Putin said Russia will continue working on new weapons in response to the U.S. moves, but will keep a tight lid on spending.

“We will not be drawn into a costly arms race that would be disastrous for our economy,” Putin said, adding that Russia ranks seventh in military spending after the U.S., China, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and Japan.

He added Russia remains open to an “equal and constructive dialogue with the U.S. to rebuild mutual trust and strengthen international security.”

___

Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

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Trump Never Had a Grand Strategy for China

President Trump has delayed the new tariffs he threatened to impose on Chinese imports in the early fall, and exempted some other Chinese imports altogether. The de-escalation of the Sino-U.S. trade war is especially welcome, given the markets’ renewed concerns about impending recession. Also striking was the president’s tacit acknowledgment that the tariffs threatened to harm the American consumer (which is probably the closest approximation we’ll ever get to an actual admission of error on his part).

The truth is that we’ve had more than enough time under this “stable genius” to realize that there is no long-term strategic coherence to his trade policies, let alone signs of any “art of the deal.” Rather, the Trump presidency has been characterized by arbitrary goals and capricious tariff announcements that appear to be crafted with a view to securing plaudits on “Fox and Friends.”

Unfortunately, “moderate” Democrats have not been much better on trade. Figures like former Vice President Biden continue to dismiss the competitive threat posed by China’s trade practices, and harken back to supposedly halcyon days of lobbyist-written “free trade” agreements that largely funneled income gains to the top tier. Millions of casualties from hyper-globalized trade have emerged in places like Biden’s own Scranton, Pennsylvania, where the ravages of NAFTA and other trade agreements were ignored by the political class and made proto-fascist politics more appealing.

Related Articles by by TomDispatch

Many rationales have been deployed by the president to explain his ongoing embrace of the tariff weapon. None, however, fully stack up.

Trump has been compared to previous “tariff men,” such as former Republican President William McKinley, who explicitly campaigned in the 1896 election on a protectionist platform. Like McKinley, Trump has expressed his support for tariffs in nationalistic terms. He sees them less as a tax on the domestic consumer, more a key tool to make American business great again, as well as claiming that tariffs represent a valuable source of government revenue. This appeal to historical precedent is another worn-out lie to justify a stupid policy. As the Washington Post points out, “tariffs haven’t been a major source of U.S. revenue in 100 years,” and Trump himself explicitly exempted certain products from tariff increases until December 15 because of his concern about the costs that they would impose on U.S. consumers as we head into the Christmas shopping season. The revenue generation argument is particularly laughable, coming from a man whose entire working life, both in the public and private sector, has been marked by a complete indifference to debt buildup, let alone fretting about paying it back. It’s a true perversion of history to connect Trump’s tariff legacy in any way to that of McKinley.

Conversely, is the goal to disrupt supply chains and re-domicile them back to the U.S.? If so, then where is his administration’s support for R&D, education, and other industrial policies that could enhance national development, thereby making the U.S. a more attractive place to reclaim high valued-added supply chains? For example, Apple CEO Tim Cook, justifying his company’s decision to manufacture iPhones in China, pointed to the abundance of skilled manufacturing labor in that country, along with Beijing’s decision to emphasize vocational training at a time when the idea has been virtually abandoned in the U.S. This a problem that predates Trump, but the president has done nothing to rectify the deficiency. In fact, his secretary of education is viscerally hostile to the very concept of publicly funded education (of any kind), as well as being a shill for charter schools and privatized voucher programs (in which her family has vested economic interests).

As Robert Atkinson and Michael Lind argue in a recent American Affairs article, “Trump proudly touts his tax cutting and deregulation prowess, while his budgets slash support for key national investments in building blocks like research and development, manufacturing support programs, infrastructure, and education and training.” This comes at a time when America’s infrastructure is already one of the worst in the developed world.

Does the president just want to offer American businesses a temporary respite from hostile Chinese mercantilism via tariffs? If so, his tariffs have hitherto been singularly unsuccessful in stopping Beijing’s mercantilist efforts to try to maximize global market share by dumping below cost until its foreign rivals are driven out of their home markets. Furthermore, as recent events have illustrated, there is little Trump can do if and when China devalues its currency to offset the impact of the increased tariff charges he has introduced (or threatened to revive).

Is Trump concerned about national security? U.S. lawmakers and intelligence officials have claimed, for example, that both Huawei and ZTE could be exploited by the Chinese government for espionage and sanctions-busting respectively, presenting a potentially grave national security risk. Yet the president has often appeared prepared to ignore these concerns, in the interests of using these companies as trade bargaining chips, designed to secure some additional purchases of American soybeans or, more generally, as part of a bigger trade deal.

To be sure, some of the president’s criticism of the historic status quo in trade is valid, as the post-industrial wastelands strewn across the country illustrate. China’s entry into the World Trade Organization had a profoundly negative impact on U.S. manufacturing jobs. We therefore need a national development strategy that breaks with many of the shibboleths of the so-called “Washington Consensus.” As I’ve written before, the policy goal should be to “change the labor share of the production equation, so that production vastly increases general welfare and living standards for the largest possible majority of people. By conducting policy with a view toward favoring labor over capital, the aim is to produce a larger economy, and more stable (albeit restrained) profits.”

Historically, America has not always approached things simplistically through the lens of the free market/market fundamentalist paradigm. After World War II, figures such as A.A. Berle and John Kenneth Galbraith advocated global cartels in commodities to raise incomes in developing countries, and thereby become additional sources of demand for American manufacturers. They also looked benignly on transnational industrial cartels at home in the U.S. Berle, Galbraith and others were advocates for local content requirements so as to sustain America’s industrial ecosystem. And they favored buffer stocks to reduce global booms and busts.

If Elizabeth Warren and her team better appreciated this history (and Warren is the leading Democrat offering a significant reassessment on American trade policy today), they would see that there is a rich counter-tradition that goes beyond a mindless resort to tariffs or simply breaking up successful multinational companies that are among America’s most profitable. Warren and others might reassess the virtues of selective cartelization and cooperation. She and other Democratic presidential candidates could give consideration to constructing a size-neutral regulatory framework to ensure that such companies operate in the interest of national economic strategy consistent with military security and widespread prosperity in order to obtain maximum benefits for American workers and regions. As venture capitalist Peter Thiel has recently argued, it is perverse for Google to refuse to do business with the U.S. Pentagon, while conducting artificial intelligence work in China, which uses AI to sustain its own authoritarianism and mass surveillance.

Embracing national champions does not mean supporting inefficient state white elephants that dole out political favors. There is a large body of research from Joseph Schumpeter onward to suggest that large enterprises are usually the leading avatars of innovation and productivity. Moreover, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can also reap benefits of scale by pooling R&D, exporting marketing boards, etc., as alternatives to mega-mergers. Government can also play a significant role here, at a minimum by upping research and development expenditures (at its peak during the 1960s, federal government R&D was more than 2 percent of GDP but is now less than half of that).

Likewise, Big Three tripartism—a form of economic collaboration amongst businesses, trade unions, and national governments—should be further embraced to enhance economic prosperity and cope with the challenges of state-sponsored Chinese mercantilism. Both market fundamentalists and pro-business oligarchs like Trump may dismiss collective bargaining as another kind of labor cartel (the Clayton Antitrust Act, however, exempted unions from antitrust). One can be both pro-business and pro-labor (i.e., pro-“national developmentalism”), as Warren appears to be. There is nothing inherently contradictory in terms of favoring limited pooling in employer federations that can bargain with unions, R&D consortiums, export consortiums, etc., while allowing these entities to retain their identity even as they compete with one other. Policies can also be designed to compensate for the higher cost of labor in SMEs via Fraunhofer industrial extension services that enable small producers to compete on the basis of technology, not low wages.

Enough with the “tariff tantrums.” Or the silly idea that a modern economy can forfeit manufacturing to its rivals and specialize in finance, entertainment, tourism, and natural resource industries like farming, while making empty pledges about retraining and relocation to help the “losers” of global integration (promises seldom kept). We have a domestic crisis, and must do better than simply retreat to the delusions of neoliberalism or mindless protectionism if the American people are to come out as winners in a viable future trade framework with Beijing and the rest of the world.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Marshall Auerback is a market analyst and commentator.

The post Trump Never Had a Grand Strategy for China appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Stevie Ray Vaughan: Playing as If His Life Depended on It

“Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan”

A book by Alan Paul and Andy Aledort

Almost 30 years after his untimely death, guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan’s virtuosity is widely acknowledged, but his life and career remain difficult to place. For a Texas bluesman, Vaughan seemed too influenced by rock guitarists, especially Jimi Hendrix. And though his solo on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” helped make that song a hit, Vaughan purposefully chose the blues, whose future was uncertain, over all other idioms. How exactly did Vaughan become the unique artist that he was? Alan Paul and Andy Aledort’s “Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan” answers that question with uncommon clarity and authority. Made up largely of direct quotations from those who accompanied, managed, or produced him, Vaughan’s story unfolds in surprising ways.

The temptation in such biographies is to make the subject’s success seem inevitable. Turning points are identified and cataloged, and though the story usually includes challenges and setbacks, it arcs inexorably toward greatness. But the interviews here temper that sort of mythmaking. We learn firsthand about the early gigs, shifting lineups, drug and alcohol abuse, and the vagaries of making it in the music business. And though “Texas Flood” reveals a series of transformative moments in Vaughan’s life, they are so contingent and inapposite that his success never seems predestined.

Vaughan was born in 1954 and raised in a scratchy part of Dallas. As a teenager, he dropped out of school, moved to Austin, and was known as Jimmie Vaughan’s talented younger brother. His first big opportunity came in 1976, when the owner of an Austin club begged the curmudgeonly Albert King to let Vaughan play with him. As Jimmie Vaughan said, “Nobody would ask Albert King to sit in unless you were dumb or something.” One eyewitness recalled, “Of course, Stevie just burned, like he always did. There was little Stevie up there with Big Albert killing it, and it really tickled Albert—and all of us. He started playing Albert King licks and doing it really good, and Albert looks down and shakes his head.” Another witness noted, “It really felt like a milestone for Stevie.”

Six years later, however, Vaughan was still grinding it out in local clubs. His manager sent a tape to Mick Jagger, and Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler heard Vaughan for the first time at a Texas club. It was, Wexler said, “almost an out-of-body experience.” He recommended Vaughan to the organizer of the Montreux Jazz Festival. “You gotta book this musician,” Wexler said. “I have no tapes, no videos, no nothing. Just book him.”

In April of that year, Vaughan auditioned for Rolling Stones Records by playing a private party in New York City. “As soon as Stevie started playing,” one spectator observed, “Ron Wood grabbed a chair, straddling it right in front of Stevie. He stared at Steve the entire time, hypnotized.” The label didn’t sign Vaughan because Jagger said blues albums didn’t sell well. But as Vaughan’s bandmate noted, “We were playing Skip Willy’s for four drunks, and all of a sudden Mick Jagger wanted us to play for him in New York. … This huge momentum seemed to be building.” Vaughan was impressed by another aspect of the trip. “I’ve never seen so much cocaine in all my life,” he told a friend in Austin. “I think Ron Wood had cocaine in every one of his pockets. And it was good shit—my heart was pounding!”

Vaughan’s set in Montreux went badly, but David Bowie asked to meet him in a bar and invited him to play on his next album. The next night, Vaughan was playing the same bar when Jackson Browne’s bass player walked in. He immediately called his bandmates and exhorted them to come. “We jammed until 7:00 a.m.,” Vaughan’s bandmate recalled. “When we were done, Jackson said that he had a studio in LA and we were welcome to come record tracks free of charge anytime.”

Both invitations were significant. Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” alerted fans and industry insiders to Vaughan’s talent, and a session at Browne’s studio produced “Texas Flood,” Vaughan’s first album. One admirer was Huey Lewis, who ran into Vaughan’s bandmate outside a hotel elevator, and later asked his manager to book Vaughan for his next tour. “It was all sold-out arenas, and that’s when things started taking off,” said the bandmate. Another observer likened that tour to Jimi Hendrix opening for the Monkees.

Paul and Aledort leave no doubt about Vaughan’s skill, compiling accolades from Gregg Allman, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Billy Gibbons, Buddy Guy, and other accomplished guitarists. The interviews also reveal the physical toll Vaughan’s style exacted on him. “He paid a price for being committed as he was to the kind of string bending he was known for,” said one insider. “He often had massive holes, like a quarter-inch deep, in his fingertips. Before shows, he would fill the holes with baking soda and put super glue over it.” After grafting a piece of skin on top of the hole, Vaughan would then “file it down smooth so it wouldn’t catch on the strings. He was very ingenious and inventive.”

“Texas Flood” is at its best on the subject of Vaughan’s chaotic personal life. He never kept a home, was careless with money, and abused drugs and alcohol for so long that he thought his music required it. That abuse also dominated his troubled marriage. At age 31, he was walking with a cane and blowing his solos, playing in the wrong key or in perfect time on the wrong beat. He later compared those performances to playing the guitar with boxing gloves. In 1986, he hit rock bottom in Germany, vomiting blood in his hotel room.

Everyone saw that—or something worse—coming. The real surprise was Vaughan’s later commitment to sobriety. “It didn’t occur to me that Stevie would really go clean,” said his brother Jimmie, who by that time was thriving with The Fabulous Thunderbirds. “I figured that he’d do his thirty days [in rehab] to get everyone off his back, then go back to it. But he was serious and dedicated, and he showed the way for me and a lot of other people.” Bonnie Raitt was struck by his personal and musical transformation:

<blockquote>He had a furnace in his heart and was the epitome of all that is dark and sexy, brooding and compassionate. The most extreme emotions of the blues and of life were in every breath he took. And to find out that he could maintain that while sober was just a revelation. If anything, he was covering more emotions. He was playing as if his life depended on it, and it did. </blockquote>

Vaughan’s bandmates also renounced drugs and alcohol, and the years that followed were remarkably happy and productive. Vaughan filed for divorce in 1987 and enjoyed a healthier relationship with his new girlfriend. Two years later, he released “In Step,” which won a Grammy. He also toured with The Fabulous Thunderbirds and reunited with his brother on “Family Style,” which appeared in 1990. But that idyll was destroyed when Vaughan perished in a helicopter crash after a performance in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. Stevie Wonder, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne sang at his funeral.

The authors, both senior editors at Guitar World magazine, have covered similar ground before: Paul’s previous book, for example, documented the life and times of the Allman Brothers. But the authors give the last words to Jimmie Vaughan and Tommy Shannon, Stevie’s bandmate. “When Stevie played,” his brother writes in the epilogue, “his guitar talked and told his story. If you listen, you can hear it.” “Texas Flood” also tells that story—and captures the purity, simplicity, and expressive power of Vaughan’s music and message.

 

 

 

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg Treated for Tumor on Pancreas

WASHINGTON — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has completed radiation therapy for a cancerous tumor on her pancreas and there is no evidence of the disease remaining, the Supreme Court said Friday.

The court said in a statement that a biopsy performed July 31 confirmed a localized malignant tumor. Ginsburg, 86, underwent a three-week course of radiation therapy and as part of her treatment had a bile duct stent placed, it said. The court said Ginsburg “tolerated treatment well” and does not need any additional treatment but will continue to have periodic blood tests and scans.

The tumor was “treated definitively and there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body,” the court said.

The court said Ginsburg canceled an annual summer visit to Santa Fe but otherwise has maintained an active schedule during treatment.

Ginsburg underwent lung cancer surgery in December and has had two previous bouts with cancer. She had colorectal cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009. While recovering from surgery she missed arguments at the court in January, her first illness-related absence in more than 25 years as a justice.

The post Ruth Bader Ginsburg Treated for Tumor on Pancreas appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

The Latest Victim in the Persecution of Julian Assange

The case of Ola Bini, a Swedish data privacy activist and associate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, has been shrouded in mystery since his arrest in Quito, Ecuador, on April 11. He was detained on the same day Assange was forcibly removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy in the United Kingdom, inevitably raising questions about whether Bini was being held because of his connection with Assange and whether the United States was involved in the case in some form.

Bini, who initially wasn’t charged with a crime, was accused of being involved in a leak of documents that revealed that Ecuador’s right-wing president, Lenin Moreno, had several offshore bank accounts. Bini was released after two months in an Ecuadorian prison under terrible conditions but is still fighting to maintain his freedom. He was eventually charged by Ecuadorian authorities with “alleged participation in the crime of assault on the integrity of computer systems and attempts to destabilize the country,” though the evidence to support the accusations is dubious at best.

Speaking with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer, Danny O’Brien discusses why Bini’s case is so important to follow, despite a general lack of media interest in his arrest. O’Brien, director of strategy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, went to Ecuador to visit Bini on behalf of the EFF in order to learn more about the case and advocate for the Swedish activist’s rights.

“Journalists, lawyers, human rights lawyers, human rights defenders, sort of viewed broadly, are often the canaries in the coal mines in authoritarian or veering-authoritarian regimes,” O’Brien tells Scheer in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.” “I think many governments recognize that if you can either … silence, or just intimidate and chill, the key journalists or the prominent public defenders, then you have a huge sort of multiplier leverage effect on opposition groups, or groups fighting for justice in those countries.

“In the last few years,” O’Brien continues, “I think that governments around the world have recognized that technologists also fall into this category, or particular kinds of technologists.”

Scheer, whose most recent book “They Know Everything About You” is about mass data collection, highlights the threat activists like Bini pose to the powers that be at a time when big data translates to a mechanism for widespread control.

“You call him a world leader in trying to build safe places where people can communicate without being subject to government surveillance,” Scheer tells O’Brien. “And even though some people have a kinder view of the U.S. government, after all, we’re talking about a wide world that has to survive in even more overtly controlling environments, and explicitly totalitarian and authoritarian societies.”

Through his work at the EFF, an organization that has members from all parts of the political spectrum and advocates for free speech and privacy in the digital age, O’Brien has come to a harrowing conclusion that lies at the core of Bini’s case: Governments around the world are “the most clear and present threat to people’s privacy and security online.”

Listen to the Scheer and O’Brien’s full discussion as they discuss the details of Bini’s case and the origins and importance of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player and find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.

—Introduction by Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, and–where I have to point out, in due modesty, the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case it’s Danny O’Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. If you haven’t heard of EFF, you’ve missed out on the most important organization concerned with the freedom of the individual, privacy, and related issues in the world of the internet. Danny, welcome. And how long has EFF been in business, and how long have you been one of the leaders there? Your title has changed, I noticed.

Danny O’Brien: Yeah, so the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been around since 1990. So pre the web, but perhaps not pre the internet. And I’ve been there since 2005, and I’m director of strategy now, but I used to concentrate on the global side of the internet. A lot of what EFF does, and continues to do, is domestic in the United States. We sue the NSA for its mass surveillance of Americans, and we also sort of deal with the big tech companies in Silicon Valley, too. But of course the internet’s got international since 1990, and increasingly a lot of the edge cases, and maybe the indications of where things are going to go, don’t come from the cutting edge of American technology, they come from around the world.

RS: OK, but before we get lost in the weeds here of the technology, let me just explain my respect for EFF and the reason I wanted to interview you in this particular case involving Ola Bini–I hope I’m pronouncing it correctly–a renowned Swedish programmer who’s facing horrendous computer crime charges in Ecuador, the country that under a different regime supported or allowed Julian Assange to stay in their embassy in London, and then the government changed, and Julian Assange is now in jail. And what I want to really get at is the connection between the two cases. And just so there’s a little background, I haven’t seen much publicity to your trip or to this case. And one of the things I love about the Electronic Frontier Foundation is I don’t know whether you guys individually are conservative or liberal, you know, or libertarian or what have you, but I can count on you, speaking as a journalist, to really call it as honestly as you can in any of these situations. So why don’t you tell me the significance of this case, and really, why isn’t it getting more of a response?

DO: That’s a really good question. I can talk a little bit about the significance of the case, both kind of EFF as an organization and also for its wider implications. So EFF started–and I think this is why we always seem to be a bit hard to place on the political channel–as a combination of people from all over the political spectrum who all knew one thing, which was that the rise of digital technology, what we used to call the digital revolution, was going to transform people’s rights, whether for good or for ill. So our founders had John Perry Barlow, who was one of the lyricists of the Grateful Dead. We have Mitch Kapor, who was, still is, a businessman; he started Lotus 1-2-3, [which] the ancients among us will remember as the first real popular spreadsheet. [And John] Gilmore, who had a strong place both in programming and kind of the libertarian space. So our politics are all over. But one of the areas that we spent a lot of time in the early years was just trying to explain to people that–this was in the very end of the eighties–that these technologists who were coming along, especially teenage technologists with strangely colored hair, were not necessarily the horsemen of the apocalypse, right. That they had these skills, and there was a real potential here for them to create things that would be useful and powerful and good for open societies. So we spent a bunch of time in the courts explaining it to judges, sometimes actually defending hackers and technologists. So we have a long tradition of doing that. I think what’s interesting in the sort of era–the post-WikiLeaks era, you might describe it–is that that sort of model or fiction of what technologists of that kind are like has gone from being these are sort of scary teenagers, to these are people who could, are really going to disrupt society. Whether they’re the head of Facebook–you know, Mark Zuckerberg certainly describes himself as a hacker. The address, if you need to send snail mail to Facebook, is 1 Hacker Way. You have folks like Assange that definitely came from that hacker technologist community. And then you have people like Ola who are like thousands of people around the world, who really are keeping the privacy protective parts of the internet, and the stuff that keeps you safe from governments, corporations, and cybercriminals–they’re like another camp entirely. But they’re all from this community of people who understand the technology. And their politics are very varied, their impact is very varied, and their motivations are very varied. One of the challenges we’ve always had is that people look at the worst in that community, and kind of apply it to everyone else. And that’s sort of understandable if you’re trying to deal with a scary, new entrant into the power dynamics of modern society. But it can mean that you can throw out not only the good with the bad, but the people who might be solutions to the problems that the other actors are creating.

RS: And that’s one of the things that Ola Bini was a leader in. You call him a world leader in trying to build safe places where people can communicate without being subject to government surveillances. And even though people, some people, have a kinder view of the U.S. government, after all, we’re talking about a wide world that has to survive in even more overtly controlling environments, and explicitly totalitarian and authoritarian societies. And he has been one of the people–I gather he’s been a consultant to the European Union; he’s worked on your very successful sites to keep people [in] this kind of protection. So why don’t you just tell us about, you know, who this guy is, and how he connected somehow with Julian Assange. And then let me just give the punchline. You know, I only learned about this case because three of you from the EFF bothered to go down to Ecuador and find out what was going on. I know the justice minister there didn’t meet with you; you met with other people, and his defense team. And then you wrote a report when you came back. And for people who don’t get the EFF report, I would highly recommend it; we’ll cite it at the end. But you were really doing yeoman work here. And again, I beg the question: Why isn’t this of greater concern?

DO: So I think there’s two parts to this. One is sort of unpacking who Ola is, and maybe we can get to that in a moment. I think that the more pertinent question, certainly for me right now, is you know, why is there not more attention on cases like this. And I think that–I don’t think it’s new. I think that there’s a model for what we see here, which is–I used to work for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is a great organization–

RS: I was once on the board, very early in the day, I myself, yeah. When I worked at the L.A. Times, yes.

DO: Right, right. And, well, you’ll know that they do really good and similar work for journalists around the world. Because I feel like journalists, lawyers, human rights lawyers, human rights defenders, sort of viewed broadly, are often the canaries in the coal mines in authoritarian or veering-authoritarian regimes. And that if you–I think many governments recognize that if you can either tug it, or silence, or just intimidate and chill, the key journalists or the prominent public defenders, then you have a huge sort of multiplier leverage effect on opposition groups, or groups fighting for justice in those countries. What’s happened in the last few years is I think that governments around the world have recognized that technologists also fall into this category, or particular kinds of technologists. Actually, I’m sort of dealing with this right now in China; China has been building up to intimidate and scare its own community of technologists who have been primarily involved in creating tools to bypass the Great Firewall of China. Now, of course, it’s coming a little bit more to a head, to the technologists who are protecting the privacy of the Hong Kong protesters. So we see this sort of move, but I think right now we’re sort of in an era where the world–and I think this is, I’ve already talked about the post-WikiLeaks world; I think this is the post- or mid-Facebook era–where people have gone from being, you know, actually quite engaged and excited by the promises of digital technology, to really quite cautious and intimidated by them. And so when somebody comes along who has these skills, I think it’s pretty easy for a government to whip up a moral panic about them. And that’s what happened with Ola in Ecuador. He was arrested shortly after a press conference that the current minister of the interior held–hours, I think, after the U.K. police were allowed into the Ecuadorian embassy, and Julian Assange was taken out pretty forcefully. So hours after that, the interior minister in Ecuador held a press conference and said, look, we know that there are members of WikiLeaks within Ecuador, and Russian hackers who are planning to attack and bring down the country’s systems. We’re going to arrest them. And then within hours, Ola–who is Swedish, but lives in Ecuador–was picked up and thrown in jail.

RS: And what is the connection between Ola and Julian Assange?

DO: So Ola Bini has–or the government has accused him of meeting with Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy, I believe 12 to 13 times. They will know [Laughs], because they’ll see, they have the visitor’s book in the Ecuadorian embassy. Of course, apart from the fact that who you associate with isn’t actually, or shouldn’t be a crime that you can be arrested and thrown in jail for, it’s also the case–and this is after I spent some time trying to understand better who Ola Bini actually was, partly in talking to him, but mostly in talking to other technologists around the world–ah, Ola talks to a lot of people. And also, during that period of Julian Assange’s sort of exile in the embassy, a lot of people went and saw that man. From, again, all across the political spectrum, and with many different interests. So that’s the evidence that the Ecuadorian government has so far to claim–

RS: Including Google’s Eric Schmidt, right?

DO: That’s right. I’d forgotten about that, but yeah, ah–

RS: Yeah, he was in there, meeting with him and so forth, yeah.

DO: Right, and of course you’ve got to remember that, like, the arc of Julian Assange’s sort of rise and, you know, potentially fall, at least amongst the U.S. left, has meant that he has definitely ended up meeting with or associating with a huge range of different people. You know, I think he went from a point where he was a cause célèbre to now, where I think a lot of people accuse him, or certainly feel that he is implicated in the election of President Trump.

RS: Yeah, and we’re–we’re going to get to that. I already did an interview with the UN rapporteur on torture, and you’re familiar with his statement about how Assange was treated. I think it’s critical to observe here–and it is a real failure of a part of the left, or liberals, or people who care about individual freedom, whether they’re left or right–that somehow the whistleblower has gone from being an admired figure to being a scorned person. And there’s some irony in this. I’ve done some of these podcasts with Daniel Ellsberg, who I actually, you know, covered as a journalist during the Pentagon Papers trial. And now Ellsberg is remembered nostalgically as a heroic whistleblower, and somehow Julian Assange is a retrograde. And Ellsberg is very quick to point out that actually Julian Assange, in the case of the Pentagon Papers, would be in the position of the New York Times and the Washington Post as publishers. And that he, Daniel Ellsberg, was actually the person who had worked for the U.S. government, had been given these documents as an employee of the RAND Corporation, which then had a contract with the U.S. government. And so he was actually in a much more vulnerable position as a whistleblower. But I do want to stop on that for a minute. Because when you just said, oh, the guy visited Julian Assange 11 times or something in the embassy–slam dunk, guilty as charged. How did we get to this place where whistleblowers–after all, Julian Assange, whatever you think of him, revealed serious crimes on the part of the U.S. government. Deliberate shooting and targeting of civilians, journalists and what have you, and others. And yet no one’s talking about the crimes that were revealed; they’re talking about Julian Assange as if he’s the criminal.

DO: Right. And I think some of this is down to the fluidity of roles that we have now. That somebody can go from being, you know, just an ordinary person to becoming a whistleblower. You know, it’s really possible for anyone who has access to corporate or government data now to be able to not only extract that, or know about it, but also broadcast it to the world, right? You could tweet a zip file, right; you could do whatever you want. And also, what does it mean for someone to be a publisher? This is definitely the thing that we’re, the EFF’s most concerned about in the U.S. side of the Assange case. Which is that the prosecutors in that case seem very keen to charge Assange with both violations of the Espionage Act, where there has been a sort of understanding that publishers would not be prosecuted under that very broad, World War I statute. And also the CFAA, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is a similarly broad law, but on the kind of technological side of things. So there we have a situation where Assange, as I said, sort of comes from this cybersecurity, technologist community. He was a familiar face in that community before he went off and became the face of WikiLeaks. But he had the skills and the ability to transform himself, or take part in what became one of the biggest publishing incidents of the last decade. And that’s something that he and millions of other people can do out of the blue now. And what that means, of course, is if you’re in a situation where–you know, the New York Times was definitely in a precarious position when it published the Pentagon Papers. You know, they were–I’m sure they were, and having read Dan Ellsberg’s books, we know that there were heated discussions about their vulnerability to prosecution in that incident. But they were also the New York Times, right? So they had some, they had some back record. And they had the resources to defend themselves.

RS: Well, let me just interrupt for a second. I mean, more than that they were–we have this freedom of the press guarantee in the First Amendment. Now, obviously you can interpret these guarantees however you want. But the idea of going after the press, as opposed to what the press is writing about, or principals or actors, was considered a very basic distinction. And that’s what The New York Times, The Washington Post, were counting on. Suddenly, that distinction has been obliterated. And I want to get back to Bini’s case, but I–so let me just put it in a more pointed way. Is this an extended way of getting at Assange and driving home a bigger political point? Why have they targeted this fellow?

DO: So I think what’s happened was that–so the current Ecuadorian administration is composed of people who were part of the Correa administration, the previous administration, but have taken a very different line. And in many ways, sort of distanced themselves from that previous administration. Part of what that involves is that I don’t think they wanted to take the consequences of holding Assange any longer. So they wanted a more American-friendly foreign policy. But that also meant that they had to change the narrative within Ecuador, where the–providing Assange with refuge was sort of a positive political step that Correa was very proud of, and talked a great deal about. So they had to shift that around pretty quickly. And one of the ways that they could do that was to implicate Assange, or create this idea that WikiLeaks people were going to directly target Ecuador itself. And we haven’t seen any evidence that any such thing was planned; we certainly haven’t seen any evidence that Bini himself was at all involved in this. I think the most important thing to say about Ola Bini is that there’s a particular set of skills that if you want to hack into governments, or extract data, or all of these things that you need, and Ola Bini is not that kind of technologist; Ola Bini builds secure systems that protect you against that kind of exfiltration. He doesn’t knock them down. But of course that’s a fine difference if a government needs to find a fall guy within 24 hours of throwing out Julian Assange from the embassy.

RS: I mean, the reason I’m doing this, aside from–you know, there’s a certain urgency. This fellow, Ola Bini, has been used as a fall guy in the effort to get Assange. And he’s been used as a political prop here. And I get back to my original question: Why aren’t more people concerned about this? I mean, this is a witch hunt. This is an effort–I mean, you came back from your trip, you know, more convinced than ever that this was basically a frame-up.

DO: Right, right. And you know, like I say, and like you said, we’re not a political organization. So it takes some steps for us to actually say that this was a political prosecution rather than a, you know, legitimate criminal prosecution. The question as to why more people don’t care about this, I think it’s happening in Ecuador; not everybody knows what’s going on in Ecuador. I think people, as I say, are often very confused and hazy about what it is that–if somebody says in a press conference, “This person is trying to bring down our government.” And then they show a photo, as they did after the arrest, of a person with shaved hair and a hacker T-shirt, and showed that he had over 10 USB sticks [Laughs], and as they said in his arraignment, he has books on cybersecurity written in English. Again, none of those are actual evidence of any malicious action, but to somebody who’s watched a lot of TV hackers and film hackers, it fits the type, right? So I think people are very hesitant–were very hesitant to doubt these statements when they were first made. And I do feel like people on the left, and more widely, are much more reticent these days to come to the immediate defense of technologists. Because they look at the big corporations that are now big tech corporations, and they see those are the people who are undermining people’s privacy and working in cahoots with repressive governments. What they don’t realize is that there’s a whole wider community of free-acting, human-rights defending technologists who look very similar, but are in fact, I still feel, the first and best hope against–for individuals to defend themselves against that kind of surveillance and that kind of insecurity.

RS: Yeah, that’s a good way to kind of–I don’t want to say wrap it up, but tie this all together. I did a book called They Know Everything About You, and in the course of it I interviewed Barlow, one of your founders. And to this day, I don’t know whether he was a conservative or a liberal or anything else; I guess he was part of the Grateful Dead organization. But when we talked–he was a really brilliant fellow–and when we talked we both agreed, and it seemed to me obvious, that the internet represents the best and worst of all worlds of communication. And that the only way to keep it from being the worst, and try to move it towards the best, is by having individual responsibility on the part of people who know how to work this stuff. That they tell us about the threats to privacy, which the EFF does; they tell us about the issues with net neutrality, they tell us about the issues of regulation of one kind or another. And that they do it in a way that is politically neutral. And so you mentioned, for instance, you have to be on guard against what the communist government of China is doing, and you have to be on guard against what the capitalist government of the United States is doing, and all forms of political activity in between. And at the core of it is, do you thrill to the act of freedom or not? That seems to me the big issue here. And the people who are upset with Julian Assange are saying that he represented an inconvenient truth. You know, he leaked material about the Democratic Party’s internal leaning towards Hillary Clinton, or he leaked material about what she said when she went to Wall Street, or that influenced the election. And then that becomes–the end is more important than the means in the debate. And what you people are about–I don’t want to characterize it, your organization–but basically, you think that if the means are free, the ends are likely to be better.

DO: I think that’s the hope. I think that sometimes that gets accused of being, and certainly Barlow was accused of being a techno-utopian. But I think that actually, it’s a recognition that we could be heading into a utopia, or we could be heading into a dystopia. And this is the moment where we choose which route we go down. This is the moment where you actually–and, talk about anybody, really; I mean, we have 40,000 supporters that pay my bills, and they’re the people who are taking action right now. And compared to many other levers that you can pull, like using technology or promoting technology or advocating for the protection of these systems, is a thing that you can concretely do now that will have a huge effect in the future. And Barlow recognized that in the early nineties. And it’s still true now, right; we’re still in the middle of determining whether we live in a world without privacy, or we live in a world where we can–we do have the freedom to think, and the freedom to do what we want.

RS: But you know, even though I wrote a book about privacy and I think it’s very critical, I think there’s something even more basic here. And it goes to the old slogan of whether the, you know, the truth will make you free. Whether it’s the truth about cops beating up protesters in Hong Kong, or beating them up in the streets of Chicago at different points. The fact of the matter is, there’s either an intrinsic utility to getting at the truth of what governments are doing, and the difference between what they claim they’re doing and what the real force is–or anybody, which is really what whistleblowers are about. Whatever their motives, whatever drives them, the very act of whistleblowing is to challenge secrecy. If you’re going to do it, do it out in the open, and let’s debate what you’re doing. And I think we’re at a pretty depressing moment where a whistleblower like Julian Assange, or even somebody who was only tangentially connected with him, Ola Bini, is without support from people who would normally value that act of the whistleblower, of the truth-seeker.

DO: Yeah. I think that–

RS: That was a–that “yeah,” tell me what’s behind that “yeah.” Is that [Laughs]–

DO: That is, it–I will unpack my “yeah” there. So I think right now, people feel very conflicted about the truth. In that they see a world where there appears to be hundreds of truths being pushed, right? “Truths” in quotation marks. Where they see people being misled by misinformation, and they begin to think, well, maybe what we need to do is to sort of quench this torrent of data at the source. Maybe the problem here is that we have too much, too many truths, too much information. And so they’re beginning to turn to the ideas of censorship, of punishing whistleblowers, of controlled and constrained sources of information. And I think you can concede one part of the world we live in, which is definitely awash with misinformation now, without coming to the conclusion that these old methods–which never worked before–are the correct response to that. I think people are turning away from whistleblowers, and turning away from the idea that finding out these secrets will help you better understand the world and better tackle the world. Because that responsibility is–feels too much to bear. And again, putting my EFF hat back on, I think that one of the things that we’re waiting for, and working towards, is to give individuals the tools to piece together what’s going on, right. Rather than have Facebook hand you what either the government thinks, or what its advertisers think, on a plate, you should have the tools to be able to pick what’s true and what’s not. And in order to do that you need both whistleblowers to, like, present the actual information that will build those conclusions, and you actually need people like Ola Bini who are, you know, complementary to that. I don’t think they’re strongly connected to it, but they allow you to have control over your own devices, control over your own communications, so that this technology you’re using is working for you, not for Mark Zuckerberg, not for Donald Trump, not for the Russian GRU. You know, not for anyone else.

RS: Yeah, let me challenge that. [Laughter] No, because I hear this all the time. The world is–what did you say, we’re now awash in false information, or misinformation. Somehow this is blamed on the internet. And I’m not always a defender of technology, but my goodness, when was the world not awash in misinformation?

DO: Right.

RS: I mean, how did the most advanced, well-educated, scientifically oriented community of the last century embrace Nazism in Germany? You know, and how did we–and I grew up in this country, I’m an old guy now. I grew up with a–always wondered, why are there no black baseball players? I mean, segregation was hardly discussed. We had a segregated armed forces in World War II; that was hardly discussed. You know, you could go down the list of controlled information, wars that were fought without reason–give me the photos, I’ll give you the story, and et cetera, et cetera. And so I think, frankly, I think this is a very dangerous argument. And it justifies the status quo of yore. You know, oh, if we could just go back to the good old days of three networks and four dominant newspapers, and you know, and Time magazine–why, we would have never had something as stupid as the Vietnam War. Or, you know, we wouldn’t have had a segregated South. But that’s garbage.

DO: Yeah.

RS: And I think right now–you know, I’m doing this from the University of Southern California, I’m going to have students in a week and a half. And I tell my students, look, thanks to the internet–and hopefully it’ll stay that way; we can get into discussions of net neutrality and freedom. But hopefully, as it is now, if I say something and you have the slightest doubt, question that it’s true, you can call me out within 20 minutes of research. You can just be googling anything I ever said, and anything I referred to, and you can get original documents. And so in many ways, this is exactly the wrong moment to be afraid of freedom. And certainly freedom from whistleblowers who add to the mix of information you can find out, you can get. And so I just wonder whether you’re–you’re losing heart here [Laughs], by entertaining this argument.

DO: I think I have to entertain it because so many people across the political spectrum feel it. Here’s what I think, is that when we look–you know, because we have to have these moments of doubt. You know, it’s like that old British comedy sketch–

RS: Doubt about freedom?

DO: Not so much about freedom, but like, what are the pros and cons of this technology, right. Is this technology–what’s our trajectory with this technology? And so we sit and, like, we do our research and we talk to people. And the conclusions that we came to, first of all, is that I think one of the biggest engines that people point to, is increasing polarization. And I think there are a couple of things about that. One, that polarization, at least in the United States, has been going on for a very long time. At least in the public space, right? Some of it may be that the public space was slowly introducing more points of view, and we went from kind of a WASP-dominated, public discourse to one that actually included the huge spectrum of opinions that exist within the United States. The other part of it, though, is that if there is a sort of greater polarization going on, it’s certainly pre-internet. And as you said, I think you have to separate sometimes what you see happening from changes in what you are able to see happening. I think that on the internet, a lot of people suddenly got to hear the things that people were saying in private, [that] perhaps they hadn’t wanted to know about, or hadn’t heard about before. And this is, you know, both positive and negative; both people who turned out to be much bigger racists than they would be in the public space, and also people who were suffering far more privation and isolation from the rest of the society than people were aware of.

RS: Let me cut to the chase here.

DO: Yeah.

RS: Let’s take, say, Edward Snowden, and what he revealed about the NSA. We didn’t know that our government was reading our emails and checking our phone conversations and doing all of these things, thanks to conventional journalism. Not the extent of it. And we didn’t know, really, what activities our government was up to, which was in violation of a number of laws, and what have you. Except that this whistleblower who had this, you know, bit of information, revealed it to us. Now, everyone’s conceded that that’s information that in a free society you should have. Right? You should know what your government’s doing; you should know what they can read. I don’t think the utility of that information can be disputed. And I don’t think even people can make an argument that it made us weaker in any way. But the fact is, it wouldn’t have happened if not for this rather rare, odd bird. Because after all, there were thousands of people who knew what Edward Snowden knew, but only one, really, who had the courage–or whatever, the motivation–to reveal it.

DO: Yeah. I mean, I–

RS: So what is the value of–we were emphasizing fake news. But the fake news was most of the news we were getting from the government.

DO: Right, right. And I think–well, so here’s the thing–

RS: And by the way, China is another example, since we don’t want to only be about the U.S. What are people getting in most of China about what’s happening in Hong Kong? They’re getting fake news. What is the alternative to it? People who can hack information and get the word out and get their own little [things] going, and so forth. That’s the only corrective we have in this state of civilization, no?

DO: So I’ll push back a little, but only to kind of agree with you more. Which is that we did actually know a huge chunk of what Edward Snowden said. I mean, we were–NSA court cases were based around evidence that we’d had, but it wasn’t the kind of evidence that gets headlines in the way that Ed Snowden was able to attract the world’s attention to this. So–

RS: Because he had–he had the thumb drive. Because he had the data–

DO: Yeah.

RS: –and they couldn’t dispute it. But let me push back. One of those cases–one of those cases involved the use of AT&T facilities in the Bay Area, right?

DO: Yes, it did.

RS: To spy on people. And the government had an agency there. And when that story came to the Los Angeles Times, where I had worked for 29 years, that story was discounted.

DO: Yeah.

RS: And in fact, I believe Dean Baquet was the editor then; I may have to check that, and now he’s the editor of The New York Times. But however that happened, I can’t hold up to that specific, somehow then The New York Times finally ran with that story. And what I’m saying is that, yes, maybe some aficionados of this world knew what was going on. But even the big–you know, Apple and Google and Facebook, they all said they didn’t know the extent. At least they claimed that.

DO: Well, I think that lots of–I mean, as you said, that’s not–thousands of people knew what Snowden knew, you know. There aren’t really secrets in the sense that, you know, no one knows it except for, like, a couple of people at Area 51. What is important is how you manage to propagate that more widely. And we have this incredible, powerful tool for doing that, for propagating. We have some parallel tools that we’re just beginning to learn to use to ascertain when somebody is propagating something, whether it is the truth or not, right? I think it’s fascinating to understand the process that journalists and the public alike had with something like the Snowden revelations. Which is, yeah, he had a USB key full of information–well, I mean, I could fill a USB key with fake information. How do we know that this is true? And part of the reason we know it’s true is because journalists went through it, and corroborated it, and double-checked it, and connected all of those dots. And also felt free to do that, right? I think that part of this is about why did the L.A. Times–you know, when Mark Klein, who was the whistleblower before Ed Snowden, came to them and came to EFF with this information. Well, they had a certain–perhaps, I’m just guessing here–a certain lack of confidence. Both in, like, their knowledge that they would have about this; maybe they were facing political pressures. Maybe, you know, there was some other story that they wanted to run that had political risks, and they had to choose the pros and cons of this. It’s great that we have millions and millions of people who have different motivations, and different inclinations, and different technical abilities to be able to get this information out. But we do also, part of that system has to also be to empower people to tell the–not the truth from the lies, but you know, the wheat from the chaff. Maybe that’s the best way of doing it. And right now we’re handing that responsibility either to Facebook or Google to do that for us, or the government is actually demanding that these big companies become the gatekeepers again. And like you say, I think this is a solution that didn’t work in the past [Laughs], and it’s a solution that demands better answers than having, you know, the moderators at YouTube or Twitter or Facebook have to decide what the truth is and what isn’t for billions of people around the world.

RS: Well, let me conclude by my own source of optimism. And that’s because even these big companies are multinational. And commerce is multinational, and travel is multinational. In fact, one could even argue the nation-state is a kind of dangerous anachronism, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion to have. But the fact is, you’re very quickly up against the argument, if we–if our government can do it here, then why shouldn’t the Chinese government or the Saudi government be allowed to do it there? And that’s an argument that no sane person would really want to argue. Because the fact is, there’s a utility to searching for contrarian views, for facts that are inconvenient, and so forth. We know that. And what’s at risk here now is that people, because their ox was gored, their election was hurt, the wrong guy won, and so forth and so on, are losing sight of what I thought the EFF–its most valuable contribution, whether it comes from a libertarian bias or what have you–I thought its most valuable contribution is, really, you don’t trust any government to make that decision. Because any government–and that’s the whole warning of our Constitution–will seek to protect its own power. And that power will corrupt. Isn’t that the assumption? At least that’s what Barlow told me.

DO: Yeah, I think it goes wider than that, though. I think that you–I think that technology is incredibly empowering. And one of the things that we’ve been very fortunate to sort of stumble into is that the bulk of that power has landed in our pockets, rather than in Washington, D.C., or even Silicon Valley, right. That we have an opportunity to take that technology and spread it–spread its empowering ability as thinly and widely as possible. And I think that that’s probably the way I’d interpret what–for a huge chunk of when we were working, or EFF was working, the government was the most clear and present threat to people’s privacy and security online. And I take your point, I’m going to–let’s say freedom online, right? That’s much broader than those two, those two characteristics. I think we shifted into a place where people understandably are just as worried about the rise of these monolithic companies based not 50 miles away from where I’m sitting right now, and their capabilities. And I think what it’s about is about making sure that they don’t get to hoard this power, but we still keep it in people’s pockets. We still make sure that you can, you know, trust your phone or trust your laptop to collect all of this information and then give you what you want or need, based on what you’ve decided you want your life to be. And that’s a, that’s a big challenge right now, because I think people really do feel overwhelmed and frightened. And I think fear is always a very, very difficult place to make an argument for freedom.

RS: Yes, except it was Franklin Roosevelt who warned us the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And I want to conclude this, after this interesting discussion, bringing it back to Ola Bini. And the reason I want to bring it back is, you know, it always turns out it’s the Tom Paines. It’s the Edward Snowdens. It’s the Ola Binis. It’s the Martin Luther Kings. There are these individuals who say, no, that doesn’t smell right, that doesn’t sound right, I’m not going to go along. You know, I’m going to reveal this. Whether it’s Chelsea Manning, or you know, you could go down the list. You may not like all these people, they may not be people you want to have as your closest friends, or what have you. But the fact of the matter is, they’re indispensable to human sanity. Because they are willing to, like the guy in Tiananmen Square who could stand in front of the tanks, it’s just a universal truth, anywhere in the world, most people will go along with power. Whether that’s power because they’re working at Facebook and they go along with it for their career, or they go along with a totalitarian government just for their safety. And what’s really at stake in this Ola Bini case–if I could make a feature film on it, maybe Oliver Stone or somebody will–here–tell us, let’s just end, and how do people get more information about this? You know, here’s a guy who, what, he just wanted to make the internet safer for dissent, for independent thought? Wasn’t that what drove him?

DO: Yeah. Yeah, and I think, you know, one of the reasons why people turn their suspicion on him is that, you know, he built things that were super-secure; he, all his software was, his laptops were encrypted. And when they asked the passwords, he said no. Well, I’m not sure everybody would do that in that situation, particularly if they were innocent. But that’s an important principle, right? That’s an important principle, to be able to be secure in your documents and effects. And–

RS: Well, it’s what the Fourth Amendment guaranteed, yes.

DO: Right, right. And they didn’t have any evidence to charge him. He made that stand. I wonder sometimes if I would be as brave and stick to my principles as well as that when I was under, you know, that kind of pressure. But that’s what it takes, I think. That’s what it takes, and it is a shame when standing on a point of principle is the thing that gets you into trouble, far more than anything that they might imagine that you’re doing that might actually cause damage to the world, rather than maybe have a chance to fix it.

RS: So for people who want to–and they should want to follow up on this, what’s the best way? What is it called, the EFF EFFector or whatever?

DO: You can sign up for EFFector. You can also go to our blog and sign up for our Twitter. We’re at EFF.org, wherever you go. The Ola Bini campaign themselves have a website called Free Ola Bini, which can give you much more information on Ola himself. I sat and talked to him; he’s a very impressive young man, and I hope more people pay attention to what he’s having to face, and what he represents.

RS: So we just need John Lennon to come up with a song to free Ola Bini. And you know, I actually, I want to criticize myself here. I routinely, every month, give money to WikiLeaks–Wikipedia, Wikipedia, not WikiLeaks. [Laughter] Wikipedia, just because I think it’s, you know, good that they’re nonprofit and everything, and should be around. I don’t give a lot, but I give, you know, just some bucks. And I realized I haven’t done that with EFF. I’ve used EFF as a journalist; I didn’t know that your support base was 40,000 people who want to help you. And I want to end this the same way I began, by saying I really admire the independence of what you guys do there, or men and women do there. And that, you know, you call it as it is without fear or favor. And that’s really what’s required here, and that should apply to the internet world.  So that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. We’ll be back next week. Our producer is Joshua Scheer. Here at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism we have Sebastian Grubaugh, who pulls it all together. And at Sports Byline in San Francisco, Darren Peck provided the services to bring our speaker to us. So, see you again next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

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Robert Reich: CEOs Have the Whole System Gamed

Average CEO pay at big corporations topped 14.5 million dollars in 2018. That’s after an increase of 5.2 million dollars per CEO over the past decade, while the average worker’s pay has increased just 7,858 dollars over the decade. 

Just to catch up to what their CEO made in 2018 alone, it would take the typical worker 158 years.

This explosion in CEO pay relative to the pay of average workers isn’t because CEOs have become so much more valuable than before. It’s not due to the so-called “free market.”

It’s due to CEOs gaming the stock market and playing politics.

How did CEOs pull this off? They followed these five steps:

First: They made sure their companies began paying their executives in shares of stock.

Second: They directed their companies to lobby Congress for giant corporate tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks.

Third: They used most of the savings from these tax cuts and rollbacks not to raise worker pay or to invest in the future, but to buy back the corporation’s outstanding shares of stock.

Fourth: This automatically drove up the price of the remaining shares of stock.

Fifth and finally: Since CEOs are paid mainly in shares of stock, CEO pay soared while typical workers were left in the dust.

How to stop this scandal? Five ways:

1. Ban stock buybacks. They were banned before 1982 when the Securities and Exchange Commission viewed them as vehicles for stock manipulation and fraudThen Ronald Reagan’s SEC removed the restrictions. We should ban buybacks again.

2. Stop corporations from deducting executive pay in excess of 1 million dollars from their taxable income – even if the pay is tied to so-called company performance. There’s no reason other taxpayers ought to be subsidizing humongous CEO pay.

3. Stop corporations from receiving any tax deduction for executive pay unless the percent raise received by top executives matches the percent raise received by average employees.

4. Increase taxes on corporations whose CEOs make more than 100 times their average employees.

5. Finally, and most basically: Stop CEOs from corrupting American politics with big money. Get big money out of our democracy. Fight for campaign finance reform.

Grossly widening inequalities of income and wealth cannot be separated from grossly widening inequalities of political power in America. This corruption must end.

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Bolsonaro May Send Army to Fight Massive Amazon Fires

RIO DE JANEIRO—Under increasing international pressure to contain record numbers of fires in the Amazon, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said Friday he may send the military to battle the massive blazes.

“That’s the plan,” said Bolsonaro. He did not say when the armed forces would get involved but suggested that action could be imminent.

Bolsonaro has previously described rainforest protections as an obstacle to economic development, sparring with critics who note that the Amazon produces vast amounts of oxygen and is considered crucial in efforts to contain global warming.

In escalating tension over the fires, France accused Bolsonaro of having lied to French leader Emmanuel Macron and threatened to block a European Union trade deal with several South American states, including Brazil.

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Small numbers of demonstrators gathered outside Brazilian diplomatic missions in Paris, London and Geneva to urge Brazil to do more to fight the fires.

Neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay have also struggled to contain fires that swept through woods and fields and, in many cases, got out of control in high winds after being set by residents clearing land for farming. About 7,500 square kilometers (2,900 square miles) of land has been affected in Bolivia, according to Defense Minister Javier Zavaleta.

On Friday, a B747-400 SuperTanker arrived in Bolivia to help with the firefighting effort. The U.S.-based aircraft can carry nearly 76,000 liters (20,000 gallons) of retardant, a substance used to stop fires.

Some 370 square kilometers (140 square miles) have burned in northern Paraguay, near the borders with Brazil and Bolivia, said Joaquín Roa, a Paraguayan state emergency official. He said the situation has stabilized.

In escalating tension over the fires, France accused Bolsonaro of having lied to French leader Emmanuel Macron and threatened to block a European Union trade deal with several South American states, including Brazil.

The specter of possible economic repercussions for Brazil and its South American neighbors show how the Amazon is becoming a battleground between Bolsonaro and Western governments alarmed that vast swathes of the region are going up in smoke on his watch.

Ahead of a Group of Seven summit in France this weekend, Macron’s office issued a statement questioning Bolsonaro’s trustworthiness.

Brazilian statements and decisions indicate Bolsonaro “has decided to not respect his commitments on the climate, nor to involve himself on the issue of biodiversity,” Macron’s statement said.

It added that France now opposes an EU trade deal “in its current state” with the Mercosur bloc of South American nations that includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne also expressed concern, saying he is “truly worried about the attitude Brazil seems to have adopted right now regarding” fires in the Amazon.

“Brazilian rainforests are vital for the world’s climate” and Brazil should do whatever it can to stop the blazes, said Rinne, whose country holds the European Union’s rotating presidency.

Bolsonaro has accused Macron of politicizing the issue, and his government said European countries are exaggerating Brazil’s environmental problems in order to disrupt its commercial interests. Bolsonaro has said he wants to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms.

Even so, Brazilian state experts have reported a record of nearly 77,000 wildfires across the country so far this year, up 85% over the same period in 2018. Brazil contains about 60% of the Amazon rainforest, whose degradation could have severe consequences for global climate and rainfall.

___

Associated Press journalists John Leicester in Paris; Juan Karita in Santa Cruz, Bolivia; Pedro Servin in Asunción, Paraguay; and Christopher Torchia in Caracas, Venezuela contributed to this report.

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Donald Trump Is Coming for Medicare and Social Security

After exploding the federal budget deficit with over a trillion dollars in tax cuts for the rich and massive corporations, President Donald Trump is reportedly considering using his possible second term in the White House to slash Medicare and Social Security—the final part of a two-step plan progressives have been warning about since before the GOP tax bill passed Congress in 2017.

The New York Times reported this week that, with the budget deficit set to surpass $1 trillion in 2020 thanks in large part to Trump’s tax cuts and trade war, Republicans and right-wing groups are pressuring the president to take a sledgehammer to Social Security and Medicare, widely popular programs Trump vowed not to touch during his 2016 campaign.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told the Times that his party has discussed cutting Medicare and Social Security with Trump and said the president has expressed openness to the idea.

“We’ve brought it up with President Trump, who has talked about it being a second-term project,” said Barrasso.

Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), the number two Republican in the Senate, echoed Barrasso, saying it is “going to take presidential leadership to [cut Social Security and Medicare], and it’s going to take courage by the Congress to make some hard votes. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road.”

All to pay for his #GOPTaxScam… Horrific. https://t.co/IiTC2EUHY1

— For Tax Fairness (@4TaxFairness) August 22, 2019

“The Trump/GOP tax cuts for the wealthy will add over $1.5 trillion in debt,” said the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “Now we know how they’ll pay for those tax cuts, by cutting Social Security and Medicare.”

According to the Washington Post, Trump has already “instructed aides to prepare for sweeping budget cuts if he wins a second term in the White House.”

“Trump’s advisers say he will be better positioned to crack down on spending and shrink or eliminate certain agencies after next year, particularly if Republicans regain control of the House of Representatives,” the Post reported last month.

The president, despite his campaign promises, has included major cuts to Social Security and Medicare in his budget proposals—while predictably demanding massive increases in Pentagon spending.

In his budget blueprint for fiscal year 2020, as Common Dreams reported, Trump called for $845 billion in cuts to Medicare and $25 billion in cuts to Social Security.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted Thursday his belief that Trump will not have a chance to carry out his “second-term project.”

“Mr. Trump, you are not going to have a second term,” said Sanders.

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Justice Department Sent Anti-Semitic Post to Immigration Judges

WASHINGTON—The Justice Department’s immigration arm sent judges a morning news briefing that included a blog post from a virulently anti-immigration website that also publishes work by white nationalists.

The post by VDARE featured links that directly attacked immigration judges with racially tinged slurs and a specific anti-Semitic reference about Jews and power, according to a letter sent Thursday by judges’ union president Ashley Tabbador to James McHenry, the director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review at the Justice Department.

It was distributed to all 440 immigration judges across the country earlier this week, along with other stories from The Washington Post and Connecticut Public Radio. The inclusion of the post was first reported by BuzzFeed.

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Assistant Press Secretary Kathryn Mattingly said the daily morning news briefings are compiled by a contractor and the blog post should not have been included.

“The Department of Justice condemns Anti-Semitism in the strongest terms,” she said.

VDARE is an anti-immigration website founded and edited by Peter Brimelow. He also operates a Connecticut-based nonprofit, VDARE Foundation, that raised nearly $4.8 million between 2007 and 2015, according to IRS filings.

Brimelow has denied his website is white nationalist but has acknowledged it publishes works by writers who fit that description “in the sense that they aim to defend the interests of American whites.” Brimelow also has spoken at conferences hosted by white nationalist groups, including Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute and Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance online magazine.

Tabbador wrote that National Association of Immigration Judges fully supports the right to free speech. “However, the publication and dissemination of a white supremacist, Anti-Semitic website … is antithetical to the goals and ideals of the Department of Justice.”

She asked that the post be withdrawn and an apology issued.

Paul Shearon, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, released a statement saying, “It is shocking and outrageous that a vile, racist attack against distinguished jurists was linked and distributed from an official U.S. government publication.” The federation is the parent union of the judges’ union led by Tabbador.

The issue arose as the Justice Department, which is in charge of immigration judges, is challenging their right to be represented by a labor union. It is a move the judges said was aimed at silencing criticism.

A petition recently filed with the Federal Labor Relations Authority contended the union shouldn’t be allowed because the judges are management officials who help decide or shape the agency’s policies, a Justice spokesman said.

In recent months, the immigration judges’ union has spoken out against new performance quotas and rules for managing court dockets. The National Association of Immigration Judges has also called for the immigration courts to become independent of the Justice Department, where the judges are currently employees.

The Justice Department held a summit last month focused on how to combat anti-Semitism. In his keynote remarks, Attorney General William Barr said combating anti-Semitism was “an important priority” for the Justice Department and condemned what he called an “intolerable” rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes.

___

Balsamo reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press Writer Michael Kunzelman contributed to this report from College Park, Maryland.

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Billionaire GOP Donor David Koch Dies at 79

WASHINGTON—Billionaire industrialist David H. Koch, who with his older brother, Charles, transformed American politics by pouring their riches into conservative causes, has died at age 79.

Charles Koch announced the death on Friday, saying, “It is with a heavy heart that I now must inform you of David’s death.”

David Koch, who lived in New York City, was the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1980. He was a generous donor to conservative political causes as well as educational, medical and cultural groups.

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The Koch brothers were best known for a vast political network they built that became popularly known as the “Kochtopus” for its far-reaching tentacles in support of conservative causes. The brothers founded the anti-tax, small government group Americans for Prosperity, which continues to be one of the most powerful conservative groups in U.S. politics.

“I was taught from a young age that involvement in the public discourse is a civic duty,” David Koch wrote in a 2012 op-ed in the New York Post. “Each of us has a right — indeed, a responsibility, at times — to make his or her views known to the larger community in order to better form it as a whole. While we may not always get what we want, the exchange of ideas betters the nation in the process.”

While celebrated on the right, David Koch and his brother are demonized even today by Democrats who see them as a dark and conspiratorial force, the embodiment of fat-cat capitalism and the corrupting role of corporate money in American politics.

The Kochs invested heavily in fighting President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul; they fought to bring conservative voices to college campuses; and they developed a nationwide grassroots network pushing conservative causes and candidates at the state and national levels.

The one exception: President Donald Trump. The Kochs refused to endorse Trump in 2016, warning that his protectionist trade policies, among other priorities, weren’t sufficiently conservative.

David Koch, however, had stepped away from a leadership role in recent years because of declining health. He was a visible presence at the network’s semi-annual donor retreats, but his brother had emerged as its face and mouthpiece.

After battling prostate cancer for 20 years, David Koch told a reporter following the 2012 Republican convention that he was thinking about what he would someday leave behind.

“I like to engage where my part makes a difference,” he told The Weekly Standard. “I have a point of view. When I pass on, I want people to say he did a lot of good things, he made a real difference, he saved a lot of lives in cancer research.”

David Koch donated $100 million in 2007 to create the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also gave millions of dollars to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, the M.D. Anderson Cancer in Houston and other institutions.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History named in his honor a wing dedicated to the story of human evolution over 6 million years. He donated $15 million to fund the 15,000 square-foot hall.

“The program has the power to influence the way we view our identity as humans, not only today, but for generations to come,” he said in a statement at the time.

David Koch, an engineer trained at MIT, joined Koch Industries, based in Wichita, Kansas, in 1970 and served on its board. He also served as chief executive officer of Koch Chemical Technology Group LLC, a Koch subsidiary. He retired from the company in 2018.

Charles and David Koch, each with an estimated net worth of $50.5 billion, tied in 11th place in 2019 on the Forbes 500 list of the nation’s richest men.

Two of the Koch brothers, Frederick and Bill Koch, sued the other two, claiming in a 1998 trial that they were cheated out of more than $1 billion when they sold their stake in Koch Industries back in 1983. David and Bill Koch were twins.

The dispute stemmed from a falling out three years earlier when Bill Koch criticized Charles Koch’s management of the company, and with Frederick Koch’s support, tried to gain control of the company’s board of directors. After the takeover move failed, the board fired Bill Koch as an executive. Bill and Frederick Koch and other dissident stockholders sold their interests, and the brothers later sued claiming the company withheld crucial information that would have led to a higher sale price.

Bill and Frederick Koch lost their case, but the lengthy public trial offered a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Koch family.

The Kochs’ father, Fred Koch, guessed early, before two of his boys were out of diapers and before two were even born, that wealth might split his family apart.

“It will be yours to do with what you will,” the father wrote in a 1936 letter to his two oldest sons. “It may be either a blessing or a curse.”

David Koch and his wife, Julia Flesher, had three children.

On Friday, Charles Koch evoked the words of a famous economist as he shared news of his younger brother’s death with their network: “The significance of David’s generosity is best captured in the words of Adam Smith, who wrote, ‘to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.'”

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Noam Chomsky: Democrats Are Failing the Test of Our Time

As the Amazon rainforest burns and glaciers melt historically fast, to many Americans, Democrats are failing to rise to the occasion, particularly when they focus on such topics as the Russia investigation, according to Noam Chomsky. “It was obvious from the beginning that they were not going to find very much,” the linguist and activist tells writer David Barsamian in a wide-ranging interview published Wednesday in Truthout.

“Trump’s a crook,” he says. “We knew that already—but they’re not going to find any real collusion with the Russians, and [Mueller] didn’t.” This “laserlike focus on Robert Mueller,” as Chomsky describes it, is consuming too much of Democrats’ airtime, campaigning energy and overall electoral strategy.

He believes they should be focused on Trump’s policies, especially his environmental plans, because “Trump’s climate policy may literally be a virtual death knell for the species,” he points out. “We’ve got a couple of years to try to deal somehow with the environmental crisis. It can be controlled. It’s not easy, but it can be done. If you waste a couple of years by trying to escalate the crisis, you might just push us over the edge.”

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Chomsky’s evidence includes the fourth National Climate Assessment by the Transportation Security Administration, produced in 2018, which, he explains, revealed that “by the end of this century, global temperatures will have risen 4 degrees centigrade [7.2 F]. That’s way beyond what the scientific consensus says will make life unlivable.”

As journalist Umair Irfan explained in Vox when the report was released last November, “Global warming could cause more harm to the US economy by 2100 than even the Great Recession did”—if humans are around to bear the impact, that is.

Instead of heeding the advice of its own scientists, the Trump administration practically buried the report, releasing it the Friday after Thanksgiving. Worse, Chomsky notes, rather than use the terrifying information as the impetus to take action, the administration used the report as a reason to not limit car emissions. He says its attitude seemed to be: “Look, we’re going off the cliff anyway, and car emissions don’t make that much of a difference. So who cares?”

Democrats have done little to fight back. The day after Chomsky’s interview was posted, the Democratic National Committee voted 17-18 against hosting a climate change debate Thursday afternoon. According to HuffPost, the DNC believes that having a debate on the topic “would open the gate to a flood of requests for single-issue debates on abortion rights, health care and other hot-button issues.”

HuffPost sources believe other forces were at play as well. Alexander Kaufman and Chris D’Angelo report that some feel that “the DNC was mostly worried that a debate that incentivized the eventual nominee to declare war on the fossil fuel industry risked ceding gas-producing states like Pennsylvania to Trump in 2020.”

Read the entire Chomsky interview here.

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Is a Widely Adopted New Voting System Ready for 2020?

A new precinct-based voting system being widely acquired by states and counties before 2020 that relies on printed bar codes to record votes, not handmade ink marks, may pose problems for independent efforts seeking to double-check election results.

The Express Vote, from the nation’s largest voting system vendor, Election Systems and Software (ES&S), is a ballot-marking device. It asks voters to touch a computer screen instead of using a pen to mark a paper ballot. After voters make their choices, it prints a ballot summary card with bar codes at the top and text underneath listing their votes.

Election integrity activists have criticized this approach for redefining what constitutes a paper ballot by replacing a hand-marked record with a computer-marked record. They say that moves away from direct evidence of voter intent and creates a target for hackers.

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However, there’s another step in this process that has drawn little scrutiny, but could pose difficulties in independently verifying the results. Once the voter is finished, the summary card goes into a second machine, a scanner, which reads the bar codes to tabulate votes.

Currently, it appears that only one large jurisdiction, the state of Maryland, has tried to double-check this system’s accuracy. In a suburban county last year, where thousands of people used Express Vote after paper ballots ran out, the state’s third-party auditor found that 3 percent of the bar codes recorded by the system’s scanner, ES&S’s DS200 model, were unreadable. (The audit firm used the text below to assign those ballots’ votes.)

The audit firm, Boston’s Clear Ballot, is a competitor with ES&S. But its technology includes what are arguably the country’s most advanced tools to analyze digital images of ballots, such as those created by ES&S’s scan of its Express Vote ballot summary cards. Its ex-CEO cited the unreadable bar code rate, which Maryland officials confirmed.

When ES&S was asked how this gap was possible and to comment, its spokeswoman Katina Granger replied, by email, asking what the source of the 3 percent figure was. After this reporter recounted the 2018 experience from Maryland’s use of Express Votes and the DS200, she replied that ES&S was “still researching your question.”

“We have no immediate information at hand on this, so we are reaching out to the customer for information,” she said. “As a side note, ExpressVote paper ballots are always 100% auditable, and it’s the human text that is audited.”

That last point is debatable. Voters using the Express Vote are asked to verify the text on the summary card before turning them in. But, as ES&S’s website explains—“How are Ballots Read?”—their system reads bar codes to count votes, not text seen (and sometimes verified) by voters.

An apparent 3 percent discrepancy in official tabulation records—even among one part of the ballot data chain—is significant. Three percent is larger than the margin automatically triggering recounts in 19 states and the District of Columbia. It is also larger than margins in 23 other states that allow recounts under other circumstances. Partisans who challenge election results typically cite any inconsistency if it helps their side to win.

Currently, the number of jurisdictions acquiring the Express Vote ballot-marking device is much smaller than the 1,200 jurisdictions nationwide that use DS200 scanners, whose models date back a decade. (A higher-speed ES&S scanner, the DS850, is often found in these same jurisdictions for processing absentee ballots—those arriving by mail.)

In recent weeks, election officials have bought Express Votes in Tennessee (Nashville), New Jersey (a few counties), South Carolina (statewide), Delaware (statewide), Texas (a few counties), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Washington, D.C., and Ohio (including urban counties), according to PRNewswire and ES&S’s Facebook page. On August 23, North Carolina officials may reapprove the precinct voting system. Several weeks ago, the statewide election board modified its standards for ballot-marking devices.

However, with the lone exception of Maryland’s effort, there’s an absence of independent assessments on whether there may be audit problems with ES&S’s new precinct system, technology that may be used for years. The difficulties observed by Maryland’s auditor might be an isolated incident. Or they may point to new issues, namely, that unreadable bar code records will grow as Express Votes, paired with ES&S scanners, come online. (A similar concern could apply to other vendors’ ballot-marking devices and scanners.)

Maryland’s experience poses two big questions: Why did this happen, and do states and counties know what they are acquiring when it comes to verifying future results?

“How is it possible that 3 percent of the bar codes are unreadable?” said David Jefferson, a retired computer scientist who has worked on voting technology issues for more than two decades and is a board member of Verified Voting, a national advocacy group. “Where in this pipeline of information transfer did information get corrupted, so it was corrupted at the end [as the bar code image file]? Was it a [ballot-marking device] printer? A file copy? The scanner? Interpretive software?”

“To me, this says there is a quality issue somewhere, and until that quality issue is identified, all bets are off,” said Harri Hursti, a respected cybersecurity expert who has hacked into widely used voting systems—starting a dozen years ago. “Because, right now, it is unknown if the problem is in the Clear Ballot [auditing] side, or is this a first manifestation of a fundamental flaw in the Express Vote-DS200 architecture and how they are paired.”

A Mystery Deepens With Wide Consequences

Efforts to find an explanation from an authority not associated with any of the parties in Maryland’s independent audit raised more questions than answers.

At Maryland’s State Board of Elections, a top official confirmed that “the image itself was the problem,” referring to the bar code recorded by ES&S’s scanner. But they did not know whether the problem originated with the ballot-marking device’s initial printout, or with the later scan of the ballot summary card. (Unlike its audits elsewhere, Clear Ballot did not rescan the original paper ballots. It analyzed images created by ES&S’s scanner. If bar codes were unreadable, it used the printed text below to assign votes.)

Larry Moore, Clear Ballot’s ex-CEO, who is now working on voting by smartphone, said that the unreadable bar codes were not “when ES&S attempts to read an Express Vote card with their own equipment,” as he could not speak to their process. Rather, it was “the percent of unreadable images Clear Ballot experienced when its software tried to read a monochrome (i.e., black and white) image of bar codes on Express Vote ballots rendered at, I believe, a 200 DPI resolution.”

Moore speculated that the unreadable bar codes came from ES&S’s scanner saving the images as lower-resolution files, possibly to use less computer memory and to speed the processing time. ES&S was likely using higher-definition settings to tabulate the vote, he said, saying that scanners could use different settings for different applications.

Deploying a mix of different data-quality standards—some better, some worse—made sense to technologists who have scrutinized ES&S before, saying they have seen ES&S “cut corners” in the past, whether using cheaper commercially available parts or engineering features to resist independent efforts to probe or utilize their tools.

“That would be consistent with what we have seen,” said Margaret MacAlpine, founding partner of Nordic Innovation Labs, which advises clients against hacking and organized the “Voting Village” exhibit at this month’s Def Con hackers’ conference, where one takeaway was how voting machines frequently were built from older components.

But MacAlpine, like others asked to comment, was quick to say there could be deeper systemic issues. But she could only speculate.

“The 3 percent loss rate might just be a symptom of a deeper problem, for example, is it dumping data when it gets overwhelmed? Are these crappy memory chips?” she said. “The part that is causing this problem might not be what appears on the surface. That’s why I’d call for a closer security review of these images and not just let these be an acceptable 3 percent loss that we somehow work with. That’s ridiculous, because elections often are decided by 3 percent or less, constantly.”

Stepping back, it’s important to emphasize that Maryland’s independent audit, for all of the questions and eyebrows that it raises, has gone further than any other state with trying to double-check the accuracy of ES&S’s new balloting and tabulation process. Most election officials do not attempt to completely double-check election night results before certifying winners.

Still, election technologist-critics like Hursti said Maryland’s findings are troubling.

“There needs to be an investigation,” he said. “No one has ever investigated either the Express Vote or the DS200 independently. As a result, there is no independent study that we can refer to. The only study which has been done privately, and the result has been in circulation, about DS200, was horrible. The people who did that were not professionals, and still they found the whole system to be extremely vulnerable.”

Meanwhile, ES&S Sales Are Soaring

Another unanswered question is whether the rise of ballot-marking devices will lead to a rise in problematic ballot records and auditing problems. Yet that issue does not appear to be a concern to many election officials as they are now updating their voting systems.

For example, in North Carolina’s Wake County—home to the city of Raleigh and 13 other municipalities—election officials earlier this year bought new DS200 precinct scanners and DS850 scanners. That may position the county to acquire the Express Vote in the future, said Lynn Bernstein, a local election integrity activist and aerospace engineer. She raised that scenario last spring, she recounted, saying that election board officials essentially replied, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

On August 23, the North Carolina State Board of Elections will consider an amendment that may restrict ballot-marking device (BMD) systems—or ballot summary cards that contain bar codes, like the Express Vote, as opposed to hand-marked paper ballots. Regardless of what the BOE decides—there has been fierce lobbying for weeks—Bernstein said the state board’s members are not steeped in the technical intricacies of the newest voting systems that they are poised to approve.

She noted that North Carolina requires voting system vendors to report performance issues, but she suspects that state officials have not heard about Maryland’s discovery that 3 percent of its digital bar code images were unreadable. What this means is some North Carolina counties, like other jurisdictions across the country, might be buying new systems that will bring unanticipated problems, including difficulties auditing future races.

“The story is once again we are rushing out and buying equipment and we don’t know whether or not it can even be verified, which is what happened with the DREs [Direct-Recording Electronic equipment],” said Chris Sautter, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer specializing in post-Election Day recounts.

DREs are the generation of paperless voting machines bought after computer punch card malfunctions in Florida’s 2000 presidential election. They remain in use in 14 states, but most are due to be replaced before 2020—primarily for security concerns. But whether their replacements can easily be double-checked—or audited—is another question.

Maryland’s lessons, with its discovery of unreadable bar code ballot records, are hard to assess in a larger context because, among other things, no other large jurisdiction has even tried to verify the accuracy of this system.

“They’re pushing these new machines because they want to make money. That’s the bottom line,” said Sautter, referring to the rush among election officials and vendors to upgrade voting systems as a part of a response to Russian hacking in 2016’s presidential election. “They’re pushing them over hand-marked paper ballots, which address all of the security and transparency issues that everybody is worried about.”

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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New Poll Reflects Trump’s Widespread Unpopularity

NEW YORK — About 6 in 10 Americans disapprove of President Donald Trump’s overall job performance, according to a new poll released Thursday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which finds some support for the president’s handling of the U.S. economy but gives him weak marks on other major issues.

Just 36% of Americans approve of the way Trump is handling his job as president; 62% disapprove.

The numbers may be ugly for a first-term president facing reelection in 14 months, but they are remarkably consistent. Trump’s approval rating has never dipped below 32% or risen above 42% in AP-NORC polls since he took office.

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No other president has stayed within so narrow a band. Since Gallup began measuring presidential approval, Trump is the only president whose rating has never been above 50%. Still, several — Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — logged ratings worse than Trump’s lowest rating so far at some point during their time in office.

Trump’s poor grades in the AP-NORC poll extend to his handling of several key issues: immigration, health care, foreign policy and guns. Views of the Republican president’s handling of the economy remain a relative bright spot despite fears of a potential recession, but at least 60% of Americans disapprove of his performance on other issues. The consistency suggests the president’s weak standing with the American people is calcified after two years of near-constant political crises and divisive rhetoric at the White House.

The new survey was conducted shortly after back-to-back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio left dozens dead and renewed calls from Americans for answers from their elected officials. Trump pledged immediate action in the immediate aftermath of the attacks but has since shifted back and forth on whether to push for stronger background checks on people seeking to buy guns.

“He does whatever’s politically expedient. He’s awful,” said 60-year-old Robert Saunders, a retired police officer from New Jersey who’s not registered with either major political party and vowed not to vote for Trump in 2020.

According to the poll, 36% approve of Trump on gun policy, while 61% disapprove, numbers that mirror his broader approval rating.

In response to the shootings, Trump said that he would pursue policy options with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and that he would like to see “very meaningful background checks.” Earlier this week, however, Trump said the U.S. already has significantly strict background checks in place and that many of his supporters are gun owners. On Wednesday, however, he again backed tighter background checks while speaking to reporters at the White House.

Seven in 10 Republicans express approval of Trump’s handling of gun policy in the new poll, among his lowest ratings from the GOP. Self-identified moderate and liberal Republicans were slightly less likely than conservative ones to express approval, 64% versus 74%.

Beyond guns, Trump remains overwhelmingly popular within his own party.

Nearly 8 in 10 Republicans approve of Trump’s overall job performance, while 20% disapprove. As has been the case for his entire presidency, Democrats overwhelmingly oppose his leadership: 94% of Democrats disapprove in the new survey.

Independents remain decidedly low on Trump as well, with about two-thirds disapproving of Trump’s performance.

Significantly more Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the economy, although even on that issue he remains slightly underwater: 46% approve and 51% disapprove of his performance.

Trump’s current economic rating represents a 5 percentage point drop from the same time last year, but for a president who has struggled to win over a majority of American voters on any issue, the economy represents a relative strength.

Even some Democrats approve: Just 5% of Democrats approve of his job performance overall, but 16% approve of his handling of the economy. Independents are closely divided — 44% approve and 47% disapprove — while 86% of Republicans approve of his economic leadership.

“He’s kind of a bully, but I’ve seen some improvement,” said Mandi Mitchell, a 38-year-old registered Democrat from North Carolina. “Our unemployment rate has definitely dropped.”

Mitchell, who is studying for her doctoral degree, said she didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 but might in 2020.

“I’m not going to be too hard on him,” she said. “I just think he doesn’t address America properly.”

Amid regular distractions from the president’s social media feed, Trump’s team has worked to highlight rising retail sales and the solid labor market with its 3.7% unemployment rate as sources of strength. The U.S. economy appears to be showing vulnerabilities after more than 10 years of growth, however. Factory output has fallen and consumer confidence has waned as Trump has ramped up his trade fight with China.

Trump rattled the stock and bond markets this month when he announced plans to put a 10% tax on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports. The market reaction suggested a recession might be on the horizon and led Trump to delay some of the tariffs that were scheduled to begin in September, though many others remain.

“The economy is doing OK, but he’s doing a horrible job for the country,” said 67-year-old John Sollenberger, of Philadelphia.

He said he left the Republican Party after Trump’s rise and is now a registered independent.

“To me, it’s the vitriol that comes out of him,” Sollenberger explained. “He’s obviously a racist. He’s anti-immigrant. He foments discontent with so many people it doesn’t matter what the economy’s doing really.”

Those who remain in the Republican Party do not share the negative assessment.

Greg Traylor, a 53-year-old small businessman from North Canton, Ohio, acknowledged that Trump is “rough around the edges,” but he praised his work on immigration and his support for Israel. On the economy, Traylor cheered Trump’s hard-line stance with China, while acknowledging it may cause some short-term pain.

“He’s got balls of steel,” Traylor said.

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The AP-NORC poll of 1,058 adults was conducted Aug. 15-19 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points. Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods and later were interviewed online or by phone.

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Fingerhut reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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Online:

AP-NORC Center: http://www.apnorc.org/

The post New Poll Reflects Trump’s Widespread Unpopularity appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Planned Parenthood Feels Squeeze After Quitting Federal Program

SALT LAKE CITY—Planned Parenthood clinics in several states are charging new fees, tapping financial reserves, intensifying fundraising and warning of more unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases after its decision to quit a $260 million federal family planning program in an abortion dispute with the Trump administration.

The fallout is especially intense in Utah, where Planned Parenthood has been the only provider participating in the nearly 50-year-old Title X family planning program and will now lose about $2 million yearly in federal funds that helped 39,000 mostly low-income, uninsured people. It plans to maintain its services — which include contraception, STD testing and cancer screening — but is considering charging a small copay for patients who used to get care for free.

Planned Parenthood in Minnesota is in a similar situation, serving about 90% of the state’s Title X patients, and plans to start charging fees due to the loss of $2.6 million in annual funding.

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The organization is concerned about the spread of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

“We believe there will be a public health crisis created by this denial of care,” said Sarah Stoesz, the Minnesota-based president of Planned Parenthood North Central States. “It’s a very sad day for the country.”

Planned Parenthood and several other providers withdrew from the program earlier this week rather than comply with a newly implemented rule prohibiting participating clinics from referring women for abortions.

Anti-abortion activists who form a key part of President Donald Trump’s base have been campaigning to “defund Planned Parenthood.” Among its varied services it is a major abortion provider, and the activists viewed the grants as an indirect subsidy.

About 4 million women are served nationwide by the Title X program, which makes up a much bigger portion of Planned Parenthood’s patients than abortion. But the organization said it could not abide by the abortion-referral rules because it says they would make it impossible for doctors to do their jobs.

Misty Dotson, a single mother in Utah, started going to Planned Parenthood as doctors’ bills for treating recurring yeast infections mounted. The services became even more important when she gave up her employer-sponsored health insurance because she couldn’t afford the $500 monthly bill.

She is unsure what she’d do if the family planning services she gets stop.

“It would put me in a very dangerous position,” said Dotson, who works as an executive assistant for an accounting and consulting firm. “It covers so many things: STD testing, emergency contraception, birth control, lifesaving cancer screenings … you name it, they have treated me for it.”

Planned Parenthood said it’s dedicated to maintaining its current services in Utah, but CEO Karrie Galloway acknowledged it won’t be easy and could cause some “pain on all sides.”

She said the organization plans to lean heavily on donors to make up the funding gap while staff members assess how they’ll cope. Among the possibilities are instituting copays of $10-$15 per visit, shortening hours and trimming spending. She doesn’t plan to lay off staff, but said she may not be able to fill jobs when people leave or retire.

Minnesota is planning fees as well.

“We’ll continue to offer all services, and keep clinic doors open, but we’ll be charging patients on a sliding scale who we didn’t charge before,” Stoesz said. “Vulnerable people who previously were able to access birth control and STD testing for free will no longer be able to do so.”

Elsewhere, the impact of Planned Parenthood’s withdrawal will vary from state to state.

In the Deep South there will be little impact because Planned Parenthood did not provide Title X services in most of the region’s states. Governments in some Democratic-controlled states, including Hawaii, Illinois, New York and Vermont, say they will try to replace at least some of the lost federal funding.

In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee — fresh from quitting the presidential campaign — vowed to join that group of states. His administration is pulling Washington out of Title X because of the new rule and will ask the Legislature to make up for the $4 million in federal funding that will be lost.

“We will not comply with their dangerous, unconstitutional, illegal rules,” Inslee said Thursday. “We will make sure this health care continues.”

The chief operating officer for Planned Parenthood of the Greater Northwest and Hawaiian Islands, Rebecca Gibron, said Southern Idaho could be hit hard by the changes, with other health care providers in the area saying they can’t fill the gap if the roughly 1,000 low-income women served by Planned Parenthood in Twin Falls are no longer able to receive care.

“This was not money that can simply be made up by raising dollars from donors,” Gibron said. “We have rent to pay, we have staff salaries … there are limits to what we are able to do in terms of providing free care without the Title X program.”

Among other providers withdrawing from Title X is Maine Family Planning, which oversees a network that serves about 23,000 patients per year and will be losing $1.8 million in annual funding. Its CEO, George Hill, said the organization will rely on reserves and intensify fundraising efforts to bridge the gap while seeking more aid from the state.

In anticipation of the changes, Democrats in neighboring New Hampshire added about $3.2 million in the state budget they passed earlier this year to make up for the federal funding. But that’s on hold after Republican Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed the budget in June for other reasons.

Planned Parenthood will continue to participate in Medicaid, the federal health-coverage program for low-income Americans. That’s Planned Parenthood’s biggest source of government funding — about $400 million or more annually in recent years. The Republican-controlled legislatures in Texas, Iowa and Missouri have taken steps to block that flow of funds in their states.

Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Utah Academy of Family Physicians, said most Title X clients earn slightly too much money to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford employer-based or private health insurance.

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Crary reported from New York. Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; Patrick Whittle in Portland, Maine; Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire; and Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.

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