Hurricane Dorian Now a Category 3, With 10 Million in Florida in Its Path

MIAMI— An increasingly dangerous Hurricane Dorian menaced a corridor of some 10 million people — and put Walt Disney World and President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in the crosshairs — as it steamed toward Florida on Friday with the potential to become the most powerful storm to hit the state’s east coast in nearly 30 years.

Becoming more alarming with every update from forecasters, the storm strengthened into an extremely perilous Category 3 in the afternoon and was expected to become a potentially catastrophic Category 4 with winds of almost 140 mph (225 kph) before blowing ashore late Monday or early Tuesday.

The National Hurricane Center’s projected track showed Dorian hitting around Palm Beach County, where Mar-a-Lago is situated, then moving inland over the Orlando area. But because of the difficulty of predicting a storm’s course this far out, forecasters cautioned that practically all of Florida, including Miami and Fort Lauderdale, could be in harm’s way.

They warned, too, that Dorian was moving more slowly, which could subject the state to a drawn-out and more destructive pummeling from wind, storm surge and heavy rain.

Trump declared a state of emergency in Florida and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster-relief efforts.

As Dorian closed in, it played havoc with people’s Labor Day weekend plans. Major airlines began allowing travelers to change their reservations without a fee. The major cruise lines began rerouting their ships. Disney World and the other big resorts in Orlando found themselves in the storm’s projected path.

Jessica Armesto and her 1-year-old daughter, Mila, had planned to have breakfast with Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy at Disney World. Instead, Armesto decided to take shelter at her mother’s hurricane-resistant house in Miami with a kitchen full of nonperishable foods.

“It felt like it was better to be safe than sorry, so we canceled our plans,” she said.

Still, with Dorian still days away and its track uncertain, Disney and other major resorts held off announcing any closings, and Florida authorities ordered no immediate mass evacuations.

“Sometimes if you evacuate too soon, you may evacuate into the path of the storm if it changes,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said.

Homeowners and businesses rushed to cover their windows with plywood. Supermarkets ran out of bottled water, and long lines formed at gas stations, with fuel shortages reported in some places. But the governor said the Florida Highway Patrol would begin escorting fuel trucks to help them get past the lines of waiting motorists and replenish gas stations.

At a Publix supermarket in Cocoa Beach, Ed Ciecirski in the customer service department said the pharmacy was extra busy with people rushing to fill prescriptions. The grocery was rationing bottled water and had run out of dry ice.

“It’s hairy,” the 69-year-old Ciecirski said. But he said he was used to commotion after working for years as a supervisor for the post office.

As of 2 p.m. EDT, Dorian was centered about 625 miles (1,005 kilometers) east of West Palm Beach with winds of 115 mph (185 kph) and was moving northwest at a slowed-down 10 mph (17 kph).

Dorian could prove to be the strongest hurricane to hit Florida’s east coast since Andrew, a Category 5 that obliterated thousands of homes south of Miami with winds topping 165 mph (266 kph) in 1992.

An estimated 10 million people live in the 13 Florida counties with the highest likelihood of seeing hurricane-force winds from Dorian by Wednesday morning. After passing through Florida, it is expected to rake the Southeast coast through the Carolinas.

Coastal areas in the Southeast could get 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) of rain, with 18 inches (46 centimeters) in some places, triggering life-threatening flash floods, the hurricane center said.

Also imperiled were the Bahamas, where the sound of hammering echoed across the islands as people boarded up their homes. Canned food and bottled water were disappearing quickly. The storm was expected to hit by Sunday.

Florida’s governor urged nursing homes to take precautions to prevent tragedies like the one during Hurricane Irma two years ago, when the storm knocked out the air conditioning at a facility in Hollywood and 12 patients died in the sweltering heat. Four employees of the home were charged with manslaughter earlier this week.

“I’m glad these people are being held accountable,” DeSantis said, “because that sends the message going into this storm that if you have vulnerable people in your care, it’s your responsibility to make sure you have a plan in place to protect those folks.”

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, NASA began slowly moving a 380-foot-high mobile launch platform to the safety of the colossal Vehicle Assembly Building, built to withstand 125 mph wind. The launcher is for the mega rocket that NASA is developing to take astronauts to the moon.

The hurricane season typically peaks between mid-August and late October. One of the most powerful storms ever to hit the U.S. was on Labor Day 1935. The unnamed Category 5 hurricane crashed ashore along Florida’s Gulf Coast on Sept. 2. It was blamed for over 400 deaths.


Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein and Michael Balsamo in Washington; Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Freida Frisaro and Marcus Lim in Miami; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; and Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.


For AP’s complete coverage of the hurricane:

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Is America Finally Waking Up to Its White Nationalism Problem?

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

Late in 2017, ProPublica began writing about a California white supremacist group called the Rise Above Movement. Its members had been involved in violent clashes at rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, and several cities in California. They were proud of their violent handiwork, sharing videos on the internet and recruiting more members. Our first article was titled “Racist, Violent, Unpunished: A White Hate Group’s Campaign of Menace.”

More articles followed, and another neo-Nazi group, Atomwaffen Division, was exposed.

Michael German, a former federal agent who spent years infiltrating white supremacist groups, said the work of the groups constituted “organized criminal activity,” and he asked, in so many words, “Where is the FBI?”

Federal authorities wound up arresting eight members of the Rise Above Movement, and five of them have since pleaded guilty to federal riot charges. This summer, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that, over the last nine months, the bureau’s domestic terrorism investigations had led to 90 arrests, many of them involving white supremacists. And in recent weeks, there have been additional arrests: a Las Vegas man said to be affiliated with Atomwaffen and a young man in Chicago affiliated with Patriot Front, another white supremacist group.

The activity concerning the threat of white racists has gone beyond arrests. There have been a variety of proposals making their way through Congress aimed at creating federal criminal statutes that might make prosecuting domestic terrorism threats more effective. The FBI Agents Association has supported new laws.

We went back to German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program and the author of the forthcoming book “Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy,” to inquire about the significance of the seeming burst of enforcement efforts.

The FBI, made aware of German’s observations and arguments, declined to comment, but it provided a link to recent testimony by bureau officials before Congress.

There have been a handful of arrests of alleged white supremacists in recent weeks. What do you make of them? A temporary reaction to the El Paso, Texas, massacre? Evidence of a deeper commitment by the FBI? Coincidence?

First, the arrests of several white nationalists allegedly planning acts of violence since the El Paso attack demonstrate beyond question that the FBI has all the authority it needs to act proactively against white supremacist violence. Claims from the FBI Agents Association and other current and former Justice Department officials that the government needs new laws to target this violence are false. I worked successful domestic terrorism undercover operations against white supremacists in the 1990s, and no one ever suggested we didn’t have all the authority we needed.

It is hard to know if these arrests mark a new increase in attention to far-right violence because the Justice Department doesn’t keep reliable data about how many investigations and prosecutions it conducts against white supremacists. It sometimes categorizes them as domestic terrorism, other times as hate crimes or even gang crimes, obscuring the true scope of the violence they inflict on our society. And since the Justice Department defers the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes to state and local law enforcement, the FBI doesn’t even know how many people white supremacists kill each year.

The Justice Department and FBI de-prioritize the investigation and prosecution of far-right violence as a matter of policy, not a lack of authority. These recent cases are a result of increased public pressure to do something about these crimes. But the Justice Department and FBI have done nothing to amend their policies that de-prioritize the investigation of white supremacist crimes. Maintaining public pressure and focusing on changing the biases that drive these policies is essential to forcing a change in priorities at these agencies.

At least two of the arrests appear to have involved a certain infiltration of white hate groups online. Noteworthy? Overdue?

Many researchers have suggested that the internet fuels white nationalist violence and therefore suppression of these online communities is necessary. But white supremacists have been killing people in this country for more than a 100 years before the internet was created. They use the internet more to communicate today than 20 years ago, just like all the rest of us do, but that doesn’t mean there is more violence. In fact, as the recent cases suggest, internet communications make them far easier to track and infiltrate, so it is more a boost to law enforcement more than to violent militants.

But mass monitoring of social media for clues isn’t an effective strategy, as there are far more people expressing racist ideas online than committing violence. The FBI would be very busy chasing down false leads, which would only dull the response. Instead, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies should work from reasonable criminal predicates. Where there is objectively credible evidence that someone is planning to do harm they should act. The number of homicides in the U.S. has fallen significantly since the 1980s and 1990s, but so has the clearance rate. Even though there are fewer homicides now, fewer are being solved. I think it is because we are spending so much time and resources on suspicion-less surveillance and intelligence gathering rather than traditional evidence-based law enforcement tactics.

There is a variety of proposed legislation aimed at creating more specific federal domestic terrorism statutes. Worthy? Wrongheaded?

Congress shouldn’t pass broad new laws or stiffer penalties, as there are already dozens of federal statutes outlawing domestic terrorism, hate crimes and organized violent crime that carry significant sentences. There are bills that demand better data collection by the Justice Department, which would reveal where counterterrorism resources should be devoted and where they are being wasted. This is the better approach. Proper policies can’t be developed without a better understanding of the crime problem.

In the meantime, Congress should explore mechanisms to fund and implement community-led restorative justice practices that would redress the communal injuries hate crimes are designed to inflict. White supremacists try to intimidate and marginalize the communities they attack. Making sure these communities are cared for, protected and supported after an attack frustrates that goal. More policing isn’t always the right answer, and certainly not the only one.

There was recently news coverage of leaked FBI threat assessments listing the promotion of an array of political conspiracy theories as a domestic menace. What did you make of that?

The FBI intelligence assessment declaring conspiracy theorists a domestic terrorism threat should worry all of us. It had a line defining conspiracy theorists as those who do not hold the “official” or “prevailing” view on a particular topic. Given that the intelligence community has often been the promoter of false narratives, particularly about the lawfulness of its own conduct, giving them license to target people who disagree with the “official” view is chilling. It is basically a declaration that the government will treat dissent as dangerous.

There was a recent case that has to puzzle the public. A Coast Guard lieutenant was arrested with guns and a target list of politicians and others, and held on firearms charges. At least one federal magistrate thought he deserved bail because the government had failed to provide evidence of terrorist acts and the simple gun charges didn’t merit him being held without bail. A judge overturned the magistrate and kept the lieutenant held. All that can be hard to follow for an American public concerned about safeguarding its rights and its citizens. Thoughts?

It’s difficult to talk about cases that have not yet gone to trial because there is little information available outside the government’s allegations, which haven’t been proven yet. But there are some principles of our legal system that should be applied in all cases, including this one, even though we seem to have moved far from them over the years. First, people are innocent until proven guilty. That means, absent government evidence that a defendant poses a threat to the public or to abscond, that person should be released until trial, and bond should only be used to guarantee appearance. Of course, many people with allegations that seem less serious than those against the Coast Guard officer don’t receive bond, but that is a question for those judges and prosecutors, not the ones involved in this case.

They train to fight. They post their beatings online. And so far, they have little reason to fear the authorities.

Obviously the government initially failed to present evidence that justified pretrial confinement, so based on the charged conduct the judge considered bond. This result should happen more often, not less. When the government got its act together, added charges and presented evidence of a potential threat to the public, the judge ordered him held. The burden is on the government and shouldn’t be met through sensationalized press releases but through reasonable evidence presented in court.

Second, prosecutors can only charge people with crimes they committed, not crimes the government thinks they might commit in the future. Lots of people stockpile weapons in this country. And if keeping a creepy diary is against the law, plenty of people will go to jail. Where the government has evidence that laws were broken, they have the power to act, which — ironically given the hyperbolic news coverage of this incident — they did here. The officer was arrested and is being prosecuted for crimes the government alleges he committed, so there seems to be no problem.

The Justice Department seems to have tried to make this into a test case for demanding new authorities, even though prosecutors obviously had enough evidence to address the threat. Compare this case to the Larry Hopkins case in New Mexico. There the FBI received a tip in 2017 that a formerly incarcerated felon who was the “commander” of a border militia group that harassed migrants was also planning to assassinate Hillary Clinton, George Soros and Barack Obama. The FBI went to Hopkins’ trailer and recovered nine firearms he was not permitted to own due to his previous felony convictions, which included weapons charges and impersonating a police officer. The FBI did not arrest Hopkins and instead let him continue to operate with his militia group for 18 months, harassing migrants in the desert, until a video of his group pointing weapons at a group of migrants they detained went viral and sparked public outrage. Only then did the FBI take action.

Comparing the two cases, the FBI had much more significant evidence of potential dangerousness from Hopkins than from the Coast Guard officer, yet they took no action against Hopkins. I think they saw the Coast Guard officer’s case as a ready-made scandal near D.C. that they could sensationalize to pressure Congress into passing a broad new domestic terrorism law. Obviously, they already had enough authority to arrest him on the drug and weapons charge, and his possession of illegal silencers. So there was no lack of authority to arrest him in the first place. It was a manufactured scandal.

What, if anything, is different today than two summers ago in Charlottesville concerning the threat of white supremacists and the government’s response at all levels to it?

I think the violence in Charlottesville was a wake-up call for everyone. The media finally recognized that white supremacists were engaging in terrorism, too. The level of violence these far-right groups inflict has been persistent over time, but studies show that the media gave terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslims 350% more coverage than violence committed by other terrorists. The increased reporting post-Charlottesville eventually caused policymakers to take notice, which in turn compelled the FBI and Justice Department to begin to take these crimes more seriously. The media coverage drives public perception, which causes policymakers to act. It remains to be seen whether they react in a way that improves the situation and builds a more inclusive society, or makes it worse by giving law enforcement broad powers to continue targeting marginalized communities agitating for civil rights and changes in government policies.

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Trump Eyes Mental Institutions as Answer to Gun Violence

WASHINGTON — When shots rang out last year at a high school in Parkland, Florida, leaving 17 people dead, President Donald Trump quickly turned his thoughts to creating more mental institutions.

When back-to-back mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, jolted the nation earlier this month, Trump again spoke of “building new facilities” for the mentally ill as a way to reduce mass shootings.

“We don’t have those institutions anymore and people can’t get proper care,” Trump lamented at a New Hampshire campaign rally not long after the latest shootings.

Now, in response to Trump’s concerns, White House staff members are looking for ways to incorporate the president’s desire for more institutions into a long list of other measures aimed at reducing gun violence.

It’s the latest example of White House policy aides scrambling to come up with concrete policies or proposals to fill out ideas tossed out by the president. And it’s an idea that mental health professionals say reflects outdated thinking on the treatment of mental illness.

Trump sometimes harks back to his earlier years in New York to explain his thinking on preventing future mass shootings. He recently recalled to reporters how mentally ill people ended up on the streets and in jails in New York after the state closed large psychiatric hospitals in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Even as a young guy, I said, ‘How does that work? That’s not a good thing,’” Trump said.

As the White House looks for ways to fight gun violence, officials have looked at Indiana as one potential model in addressing mental illness.

The state opened a new 159-bed psychiatric hospital in March, Indiana’s first in more than 50 years. The hospital is focused on treating patients with the most challenging psychiatric illnesses and then moving them into treatment settings within the community or state mental health system.

Plans for the hospital were announced when Vice President Mike Pence was the state’s governor.

“Our prisons have become the state’s largest mental health provider,” Pence said in 2015. “Today, that begins to change.”

But Trump’s support for new “mental institutions” is drawing pushback from many in the mental health profession who say that approach would do little to reduce mass shootings in the United States and incorrectly associates mental illness with violence.

Paul Gionfriddo, president and chief executive of the advocacy group Mental Health America, said Trump is pursuing a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.

“Anybody with any sense of history understands they were a complete failure. They were money down the drain,” said Gionfriddo.

The number of state hospital beds that serve the nation’s most seriously ill patients has fallen from more than 550,000 in the 1950s to fewer than 38,000 in the first half of 2016, according to a survey from the Treatment Advocacy Center, which seeks policies to overcome barriers to treatment.

John Snook, the group’s executive director, said Trump’s language “hasn’t been helpful to the broader conversation.” But he said the president has hit on an important problem — a shortage of beds for the serious mentally ill.

“There are headlines every day in almost every newspaper talking about the consequences of not having enough hospital beds, huge numbers of people in jails, homelessness and ridiculously high treatment costs because we’re trying to help people in crisis care,” Snook said.

While Snook is not advocating a return to the 1950s, when there were 337 state hospital beds per 100,000 people in the U.S., he says states went too far in reducing facilities. He said the 2016 level of 11.7 beds per 100,000 people is inadequate.

Gionfriddo agreed more resources for the mentally ill are needed, but said any beds added should go to local, general hospitals, where patients would receive care for a full range of physical and mental illnesses.

That will require more federal money and loosening Medicaid’s restrictions on mental health funding, he said. The first part is highly unlikely in the current fiscal environment, with the federal government expected to run a $1 trillion deficit in the next fiscal year.

But the administration has taken steps on the second part of the equation. A longstanding federal law has barred Medicaid from paying for mental health treatment in facilities with more than 16 beds to prevent “warehousing” of the mentally ill at the expense of federal taxpayers.

The administration in recent months said it will allow states to seek waivers from that restriction, provided they can satisfy certain requirements. Such waivers often take years to wind their way through the regulatory process.

The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors has a different suggestion. After the El Paso and Dayton shootings, it recommended that Congress add $35 million for a block grant program to help states provide more community-based care to people in a mental health crisis.

When he ran for president, Trump issued a position paper on his gun positions that was more in line with what many mental health experts say: “We need to expand treatment programs, because most people with mental health problems aren’t violent, they just need help,” the paper said. “But for those who are violent, a danger to themselves or others, we need to get them off the street before they can terrorize our communities.”

Marvin Swartz, a professor in psychiatry at Duke University, said research has shown that even if society were to cure serious mental illness, total violence would decline by only about 4 percent. He said he’s seen no evidence that more psychiatric beds would reduce mass homicides or individual homicides.

“It would be a good thing to have more treatment resources, but the effect on gun violence would be minuscule,” Swartz said.


Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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Does the New York Times Want Democrats to Lose in 2020?

Thomas Edsall’s demographic analysis is almost always misleading (FAIR.org2/10/1510/9/156/5/163/30/187/24/19)—and his latest column for the New York Times (8/28/19) is no exception.

“We Aren’t Seeing White Support for Trump for What It Is,” the headline complains—with the subhead explaining, “A crucial part of his coalition is made up of better-off white people who did not graduate from college.”

Why does this matter? Edsall’s column is largely a write-up of a paper by two political scientists, Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm, who note that better-off whites without college degrees “tend to endorse authoritarian noneconomic policies and tend to oppose progressive economic policies,” and are therefore “a constituency that is now decisively committed to the Republican Party.” (By “authoritarian policies,” the researchers are mainly talking about racism and xenophobia.) Low-income, low-education whites, by contrast, “tend to support progressive economic policies and tend to endorse authoritarian policies on the noneconomic dimension,” and are therefore “conflicted in their partisan allegiance.”

What’s at stake in presenting one of these constituencies as “crucial” is how you approach the task of defeating Trump: If he’s turning out his key supporters through race-baiting and immigrant-bashing, the argument goes, then Democrats need to take care not to be too outspoken on issues of race and immigration. And so Edsall confidently concludes:

The 2020 election will be fought over the current loss of certainty—the absolute lack of consensus—on the issue of “race.”… Democrats are convinced of the justness of the liberal, humanistic, enlightenment tradition of expanding rights for racial and ethnic minorities. Republicans, less so…. If Democrats want to give themselves the best shot of getting Trump out of the White House…they must make concerted efforts at pragmatic diplomacy and persuasion—and show a new level of empathy.

(This is an argument Edsall has made before—see “What’s a Non-Racist Way to Appeal to Working-Class Whites? NYT’s Edsall Can’t Think of Any,” FAIR.org3/30/18.)

But there’s an entirely different conclusion that one can draw from the 21st century political terrain—one that is better supported by the data presented in Edsall’s column. Take a close look at the graphic he presents depicting “the shifting voting patterns of whites”:

Bear in mind that these are not equal slices of the electorate: As Edsall notes, the low-income, low-education voters are about 40% of white voters; the high-income, low-education voters are 22%; the low-income, high-education group is 14%; and the high-income, high-education make up 26% of the white vote.

So the supposedly “crucial” better-off white non–college grads are about half as plentiful as their poorer counterparts—and they have been voting Republican fairly consistently since 1972, through good years for Republicans and bad. What was actually crucial to Trump’s 2016 success is that the larger group of poorer less-educated whites, which traditionally leans Democratic or splits its vote, went decisively Republican.

And while this group was susceptible to Trump’s racist appeals, equally important (according to Edsall’s political scientist sources) was his “repeated campaign promise to protect Medicare and Social Security.” The false impression that Trump was a moderate Republican on economic issues “removed cognitive dissonance and inhibitions” that might deter such voters from supporting an economic conservative, leaving them free to be swayed by Trump’s appeal to a white racial identity.

Where the votes are: sorting Trump and Clinton supporters by views on economic and social issues (New York6/18/17; see FAIR.org10/28/17).

If that’s the truly crucial group, then Democrats will not win the 2020 election by embracing, as Edsall seems to suggest, an agnosticism on the issue of race (or “the issue of ‘race,’” as he puts it), but rather by advancing a strongly progressive, redistributionist economic message. It’s political common sense that if the voters who are up for grabs are those who are socially conservative and economically progressive, then Democrats should emphasize left-wing economics and Republicans should stress right-wing social policies—while crucially reassuring their bases that they maintain their commitments to a progressive social agenda or a conservative economic program, respectively. (See FAIR.org6/20/17.)

But this common sense runs against the New York Times‘ historic role of guiding the Democratic Party away from positions that threaten the wealthy. This is why Adolph Ochs, great-great-grandfather of the current Times publisher, was bankrolled by bankers to buy the paper in 1896 (FAIR.org10/28/17), and it’s why the paper today has an editorial page editor who proudly declares, “The New York Times is in favor of capitalism” (FAIR.org3/1/18). Edsall, it seems, has the task of providing the intellectual arguments for why the Democrats should not adopt the progressive economic agenda that would benefit them electorally—a job that necessarily involves a great deal of doubletalk and hand-waving.

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Hong Kong Protest March Banned; Democracy Activists Arrested

HONG KONG—Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong and another core member of a pro-democracy group were granted bail Friday after being charged with inciting people to join a protest in June, while authorities denied permission for a major march as they took what appears to be a harder line on this summer’s protests.

The organizers of Saturday’s march, the fifth anniversary of a decision by China against allowing fully democratic elections for the leader of Hong Kong, said they were calling it off after an appeals board denied permission. It was unclear whether some protesters would still demonstrate on their own.

The police commander of Hong Kong island, Kwok Pak Chung, appealed to people to stay away from any non-authorized rallies, warning that those caught could face a five-year jail term.

He told a daily news conference that he was aware of social media messages urging people to take strolls or hold rallies in the name of religion. Kwok urged the public to “make a clear break with all acts of violence and stay away from locations where violent clashes may take place.”

Police have been rejecting more applications for rallies and marches, citing violence at or after earlier ones. They also are arresting people for protests earlier this summer, a step they said was a natural development as investigations were completed.

Andy Chan, the leader of a pro-independence movement, was arrested at the airport Thursday night under suspicion of rioting and attacking police. Three other protesters were taken in earlier this week for alleged involvement in the storming of the legislative building on July 1, when protesters broke in and vandalized the main chamber.

A leader of the Civil Human Rights Front, which had called Saturday’s march, said that Hong Kong residents would have to think about other ways to voice their anger if the police keep banning protests.

“The first priority of the Civil Human Rights Front is to make sure that all of the participants who participate in our marches will be physically and legally safe. That’s our first priority,” said Bonnie Leung. “And because of the decision made by the appeal board, we feel very sorry but we have no choice but to cancel the march.”

Police arrested Wong and Agnes Chow on Friday morning. They were charged with participating in and inciting others to join an unauthorized protest outside a police station on June 21. Wong was also charged with organizing it.

“We will continue our fight no matter how they arrest and prosecute us,” Wong told reporters outside a courthouse after they were released on bail.

Wong, one of the student leaders of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, was released from prison in June after serving a two-month sentence related to that major pro-democracy protest.

Wong and Chow, both 22, are members of Demosisto, a group formed by Wong and others in 2016 to advocate self-determination for Hong Kong. Chow tried to run for office last year, but was disqualified because of the group’s stance on self-determination. China does not consider independence an option for the semi-autonomous territory.

Demosisto is not a leader of this year’s movement, which describes itself as “leaderless,” though Wong has spoken out regularly in support of the demonstrations.

The protests were set off by extradition legislation that would have allowed suspects to be sent to mainland China to face trial and expanded to general concerns that China is chipping away at the rights of Hong Kong residents.

The extradition bill was suspended but the protesters want it withdrawn and are also demanding democracy and an independent inquiry into police actions against protesters.

Demosisto first reported the arrests of Wong and Chow on its social media accounts, saying Wong was pushed into a private car as he was heading to a subway station around 7:30 a.m. and was taken to police headquarters. It later said Chow had also been arrested, at her home.

Chow echoed Wong’s comments, saying “we Hong Kong people won’t give up and won’t be scared … we will keep fighting for democracy.”


Associated Press writers Yanan Wang in Beijing and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and videojournalist Johnson Lai in Hong Kong contributed to this story.

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Takes Aim at Barbara Boxer

New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called out former Sen. Barbara Boxer on Twitter Thursday for helping the ride-hailing company Lyft fight against a proposed state-level bill in California that aims to expand workers’ benefits and rights.

Boxer—who retired from the U.S. Senate in 2017—revealed in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week that she had accepted Lyft’s request to “advise them on how to find a compromise” over the bill, which would reclassifying some independent contractors, like drivers who work for the company, as employees.

In the op-ed, Boxer argued the bill, known as AB 5, “could remove drivers from the road, take away their opportunity to support their goals and families, and make a service which many Californians count on less reliable.”

But Ocasio-Cortez—responding to a tweet about Boxer’s op-ed—wrote on Twitter that former government officials “should not become corporate lobbyists, in letter or spirit.”

“It’s an abuse of power + a stain on public service,” declared the freshman congresswoman. “I don’t care if it’s a Democrat doing it (both parties do). In fact, that makes it worse—we’re supposed to fight FOR working people, not against them.

Fmr officials should not become corporate lobbyists, in letter or spirit. It’s an abuse of power + a stain on public service.

I don’t care if it’s a Democrat doing it (both parties do). In fact, that makes it worse – we’re supposed to fight FOR working people, not against them.

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) August 29, 2019

Proponents of AB 5 tout it as a crucial effort to extend basic labor protections to workers in the so-called “gig economy.” Three 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidates—Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Boxer’s successor—have come out in support of it. In an op-ed earlier this month, Warren wrote that “all Democrats need to stand up and say, without hedging, that we support AB 5 and back full employee status for gig workers.”

Vox reported this week that “AB 5, which passed the state Assembly in May, presents the biggest challenge yet to the ride-hailing companies’ business models and would rewrite the rules of the entire gig economy. Hundreds of thousands of independent contractors in California, ranging from Uber and Amazon drivers to manicurists and exotic dancers, would likely become employees under the bill.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism of Boxer’s work for Lyft on the bill came in response to a tweet from journalist Avi Asher-Schapiro, a North America researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists. In a series of tweets, Asher-Schapiro outlined how gig workers often struggle to afford basic necessities like housing, highlighted the wide support for AB 5 among labor experts, and noted that the California GOP is “trumpeting” the former Democratic senator’s op-ed.

Boxer, who was hired by Lyft, claims she had “a comprehensive sit-down meeting in Los Angeles” with Lyft drivers, before she decided to agree w/the company’s position on labor regulations. Hey @_drivers_united, anyone know anything about this so-called “comprehensive sit-down?”

— Avi Asher-Schapiro (@AASchapiro) August 29, 2019

For those interested…I wrote a long piece last Spring about how labor organizing among Uber drivers fits into the broader movement among tech workers

— Avi Asher-Schapiro (@AASchapiro) August 29, 2019

For those interested…I wrote a long piece last Spring about how labor organizing among Uber drivers fits into the broader movement among tech workers

— Avi Asher-Schapiro (@AASchapiro) August 29, 2019

The post Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Takes Aim at Barbara Boxer appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

White Supremacy Is as American as Apple Pie

The remarkable story of Robin Cloud’s family gets to the heart of one of the deepest wounds in American society: racism. Cloud, a comedian, author and film director who recently spoke with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer on his podcast “Scheer Intelligence,” comes from a sizable black family with roots in South Carolina dating back to the age of American slavery. She can trace her ancestors to both slaves and slave owners, a history known and shared by the many members of the Ragin-Watson family, which comes together once a year for a family reunion.

But for years, a branch of Cloud’s family, known as to them as the “Nebraska cousins,” was missing from the photos of their annual get-together. What Cloud comes to uncover about her family is the subject of her 6-part documentary, “Passing: A Family in Black & White.” The film (you can watch the first episode at the link above, the link below, or on, follows the comedian’s reencounters with family members who descended from a cousin and her husband, both of whom were black, who decided to pass as white when they moved to Nebraska.

Their decision to pass was similar to decisions made by many others past and present: access to better jobs, better housing and a existence exempt from the often deadly racism that pervades every aspect of American life. Their dozens of kids and grandkids grew up believing they were white, despite sometimes being questioned by others about certain features and wondering whether they had other roots.

The film, which gives an honest, often uncomfortable look into Cloud’s reacquaintance with her family, paints a less-than-idyllic picture of reunion. In fact, it shows how stubbornly some people hold on to white privilege despite clear evidence of their ancestry.

“Imagine seeing a picture of your grandmother at a black family reunion,” Cloud tells the Truthdig editor in chief, “and still not believing that it’s true. Like, that’s how deep this issue is that [we’re] talking about, about white people not wanting to deal with race.”

The denial is one that can be seen in American society at large, and, as Scheer points out, can be traced to our political troubles to this very day.

“Your film really deals with an up-to-the-minute issue,” he tells Cloud on the podcast. “This is not ancient history. And the reason it’s not ancient history is that racism survives precisely because it’s good for demagogues. And it’s a way of explaining away other contradictions in the society.

“I love this quote from you: ‘Culture almost outweighs blood,’ ” Scheer continues. “And what it’s really saying is—an illusion outweighs reality.”

The inability or lack of desire to examine the contradictions our own blood can carry is illustrated in a poignant moment between Cloud and some of her young cousins in Omaha. When the film director asks two relatives if this knowledge will change their relationship to or their views of black people, they shake their heads. One answers that he essentially doesn’t see race. Cloud highlights her discomfort in the narration as well as to her cousins, telling them that in “this political climate” it’s impossible for her to ignore race and racism.

Listen to the full discussion between Cloud and Scheer as the two talk about the film and how it relates to both the painful history and current events that many Americans refuse to face. 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,” where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Robin Cloud, comedian, writer, and director. Well-known as a comedian, there are lots of clips on YouTube and elsewhere that you can watch. And as a writer, has written for major publications and what have you. But it’s in your role as a director that I really want to talk to you about, because I got to watch your six-part documentary, “Passing: A Family in Black & White.” And I actually was blown away by it. I just thought–first of all, it fits into the theme of this series; I’ve done about 170 of these, and I aim at what I call American originals. And this is a film that could–I’m sure there are counterparts, I’ll get to that later, in other cultures–but it’s a uniquely American film. And it concerns, first of all, basically a black family from South Carolina, which then moves on to the rest of the country, but experienced slavery, experienced deep segregation and what have you. And most of these people end up living the life of black people in a more northern environment. You spent much of your time in Connecticut, New York; you went to Howard University, a prestigious black legacy school, and so forth. You now are in Los Angeles, which is, I think, the center of the world, but that’s another issue. [Laughter] And but one branch of your family, which was a regular part of your family, they went off, and Willa Mae Lane ended up in Omaha, Nebraska. And they lived the lives of white people. So hence the title, “Passing: A Family in Black & White.” How do people get to watch this?

ROBIN CLOUD: Well, first, thank you for having me. “Passing: A Family in Black & White” is on Topic, so you can watch it at It’s also on YouTube, and then there are also clips on Facebook.

RS: OK. And what is–I want you to lay out the film, but what I found really interesting about it, it was a reminder of the significance of skin color, obviously, in the American experience–something we’re always debating now, we’re talking about reparations, we’re talking about a historic legacy. But you had an interesting comment in the sixth part, I believe, where you said, “Culture almost outweighs blood.” And then you even said, “it’s more important.”

Tell me what you meant about that, because after watching your documentary, I thought you know, that might be the big takeaway from this. That one branch of this family went off into a different culture; you couldn’t imagine a more different culture than Nebraska. I don’t know if they had–you know, they had Native Americans, I don’t know if they had any people who were then called “Negro,” or more derogatory terms. But let’s start with that: “Culture almost outweighs blood.”

RC: Yes. Ah, I think when I was thinking about that, that came from my experience of really wanting or hoping that my Nebraska relatives, and also the ones that live in Chicago, would be interested in embracing African American culture, to some degree. And what I found when I posed that question to them–

RS: These are the people who lived as white.

RC: Yes, who lived as white for, you know, up until I told them that they were not really white. That they felt–specifically my cousin Jeannene, you know, said to me that “I’m culturally white, and I don’t know how to be black.” You know, “I don’t know the music, I don’t know the food, I don’t know”–you know, black people talk to each other in a different way that we sometimes talk to white people. And she doesn’t know those things, and she didn’t want to try to be something that she isn’t.

RS: Well, because we’re doing radio, we can’t hold up this picture. But the folks in Nebraska, a few of them clearly look like they–

RC: Yeah, like light-skinned black people with, you know, Afros, and you know, black features.

RS: But others are blonde, blue-eyed, white and so forth. And you have kind of–and then a few of them come back to a family reunion.

RC: Yes, that’s right.

RS: I mean, people also forget, you know, we’re not talking about caricatures of human beings. We’re talking about real families, real people. And your family has a long history, and they have reunions all the time, they have–

RC: Every year, every year, yeah.

RS: Local ones every year, and then every five years they have a bigger one and so forth. And so why don’t you–because that’s sort of really the big takeaway from this film, is how interesting everybody is, how complex, how history impacts them, how culture impacts them. You know, none of us are stereotypes, none of us are simple. We come from someplace. And I think your movie is a powerful reminder of that, you know. There’s one guy who I loved, my favorite guy in the movie, I don’t remember his name. But he’s back in South Carolina–

RC: Oh, David, my cousin David, yeah. [Laughs]

RS: Yeah, and he’s doing what I like to do–in fact, what I did yesterday. I didn’t actually fish, but I was on my little electric boat out in the Marina. And I just loved this guy, because he seemed at peace with the homeland.

RC: Yeah, he made that choice. I mean, he spent summers down there as a kid, and then when he was in junior high, he decided he didn’t want to stay in Philly anymore because he liked being in the country. I mean, he’s a country boy at heart. He’s also an amazing wildlife photographer, and so he goes on trips and takes these amazing photographs. Yeah.

RS: And he brought you in touch with your own origins in that area, in that he showed you the land that the slaveowner had given back to the family, and you know, where you were fishing. And then you went to try to find your aunt’s home, or your grandmother’s home. Why don’t you put us there? Because I want to give the film its due. There’s an experience you have watching this documentary, again, that you’re reminded that none of us are cardboard figures. That we have this history, whether we’re rural, whether we’re black, whether we’re white, there’s a history. There’s a connection with nature, there’s a connection with family. And your family–just take us to the beginning.

RC: Well, I would say, this is my mother’s side of the family. We have a very large family from Summerton, South Carolina, which is just an hour northwest of Charleston. And it’s a small town; it’s really like a stereotypical Southern town, where there’s like literally one stoplight. It’s very segregated. You know, there’s like a white high school and a black high school still to this day. I mean, I think technically they’re, they can be integrated, but everyone sort of sticks to their own.

There are also white Ragins and white Watsons that are still in the family, which I’m assuming that we’re related to. Yeah, and our roots originally, you know, come from these Irish brothers that came over from Ireland and were slaveowners in the area. And obviously, I don’t know the circumstance, but I can imagine that it was not good, that they had relations with an African woman, and that’s where our family began. And the first son out of that relationship was the one that was freed by his own father and given the land that we still own today.

RS: And it’s beautiful land there. But even–

RC: Yeah.

RS: –even so, the–what’s his name who does the fishing?

RC: David.

RS: David made a point that somebody came up to him once and said, “You have too good a boat.”

RC: Oh, yeah. I mean, the racism is–is real. Like, even going down for the weekend, you know, it’s possible to go through and just have a nice family reunion. But if you go to any of the integrated places, you know, people still look at you. And they wonder why you’re there, and you know, they’ll give you that–it’s just that feeling, sort of. That as a northerner, growing up in Connecticut, I’m very sensitive to it. And I feel it immediately.

RS: So as I suggest, the movie is not a benign view of family life in any way. I mean, obviously, these people went through great turmoil and so forth. The gift of this land only came after civil war and everything else, and probably the owners had no choice at that point–

RC: No, it was actually early. It was in the 1700s.

RS: Oh, really?

RC: Yeah.

RS: And so why did, how did that happen?

RC: I don’t know. This was a white Irish man with some sort of conscience, I guess? [Laughs] Which is amazing.

RS: Oh, really? That’s interesting.

RC: Yeah, I mean, I would love to dive more into who this person was, because I don’t really know much about him besides this part of the story.

RS: OK. So you’re the inconvenient relative who’s bothered to trace family history.

RC: Yes.

RS: You got the scrapbook, and so forth, right? How long did this take you, by the way? Most of your life?

RC: I started–it–god, I started in 2008.

RS: But you must have been curious much earlier, right?

RC: I am a big history buff. I love history. I actually have a master’s in historic preservation; in addition to all the other creative things I do, I love restoring old buildings. So that’s something I’ve been interested in. And I worked as the director of preservation at the Weeksville Heritage Center, which is an African American historic site in Brooklyn. And we held genealogy classes for the community, and that was my first real introduction to genealogy and research. And I learned how to do it, and it just really inspired me to start diving in deeper into this story.

RS: Into your story, your family’s story.

RC: Into my family’s story, yes.

RS: And when was your first recognition that you had a white branch of the family that was in the closet, so to speak?

RC: I knew that, I would say, my whole life. You know, it was sort of growing up, at family reunions, listening to my grandmother and her sisters talk about it. As a child, it was always something that I would hear, you know, in passing. Ha, ha. But, ah–[Laughs] yeah, definitely, it was just something that the grown folks talked about.

RS: And it was all about Willa Mae and–what was his name?

RC: Johnny, her husband Johnny.

RS: Yeah, you say Johnny Boy Watson?

RC: His nickname was Johnny Boy.

RS: Yeah, Johnny Boy Watson. They were both, clearly, back north, and in the east–

RC: Yes, in New York, in Harlem.

RS: They were “Negroes.”

RC: Yes, for sure.

RS: Yes. And then what happened? They just decided to get out of town?

RC: From what I’ve heard, Johnny was an engineer, college educated. And at that time, they were not hiring black men to do–

RS: Do you know where he went to college?

RC: I don’t. That’s something that I have to–

RS: I wonder if it was City College. [Laughs] My alma mater–

RC: Yeah, I’m not sure. Wouldn’t that be amazing, I need another, I need a genealogist to help me to, like, dig even deeper. Ah, so–

RS: So they went out to–why Nebraska?

RC: Well, this is the story. And you know, that he was, one, he was looking for a job. And then two, their eldest son had asthma, and they were told by the doctor that they should probably leave New York and move west. And so they were actually on their way to Arizona, but somehow stopped in Nebraska, and he ended up getting this job there, and they just stayed.

RS: And he was quite successful there, right?

RC: Yes, he was.

RS: He was a commissioner or something? Tell us about that.

RC: That’s something that Josh has said. I haven’t been able to verify–

RS: Oh. Josh is his–

RC: Josh is his grandson.

RS: Grandson, yeah. And it’s really interesting, because when you meet these people, actually this grandson Josh, who’s been raised as a white person in Omaha, Nebraska–he has an earring, he seems to–what did you say? He’s a mixture of a hippie and a–?

RC: Oh yeah, he calls himself a–gosh. A hippie and a hillbilly. Yeah, yeah.

RS: OK. So actually, you go out there; you’ve met a few members of the family before, who came back for a reunion. But now you go out to Nebraska to meet your white relatives. You actually seem to instantly bond, because in the film they show the meeting–you show, you’re the director–your meeting with him. And you guys share a lot. You’re both sort of–I don’t want to–

RC: Yeah, we’re like, both sort of like artsy fartsy, crunchy, like–we love junk and trash, and making stuff. He loves, he like makes these amazing like glass pipes, and glass balls, and all of this stuff. And he’s like a little artisan. So, yeah, we really got along.

RS: OK. So is this where your slogan came from, “Culture almost outweighs blood?” That you and Josh actually turned out to share, what, more of a culture?

RC: Ah, no, I think that actually comes from–I mean, Josh and I did connect on those things, for sure. But I felt that it was really hard for them–it would be hard for them to embrace black culture when they’ve been raised in white culture. And making that shift is what I was saying is almost impossible.

RS: Because the culture holds.

RC: Because the culture is deeper and stronger, and that’s what your foundation is.

RS: Yeah. So let’s cut to the chase here. Were you an embarrassment when you showed up in Nebraska? Are they kind of irritated that you did this?

RC: There are a few of the older generation who are not happy about the film. I think they feel that this is old news, if their parents didn’t tell them why do we need to talk about it.

RS: Do they claim they knew?

RC: No, they don’t. They definitely did not know.

RS: Let’s just be very precise here. You’re talking to people who are the offspring of Willa Mae Lane and Johnny Boy Watson, right?

RC: Ah–no, John Lane.

RS: John Lane.

RC: Yeah, yeah. Willa Mae, her maiden name was Watson.

RS: Oh, OK. And they are out there, and they decide that they’re going to pass as white.

RC: Yes.

RS: And they’d gone through a few before; they’d been mulatto, they called–

RC: Yes, they were–depending on the census, and where they were. So like in South Carolina, in our town, they were mulatto. As a lot of my relatives were listed as mulatto, because they were very light-skinned black people. Then they moved to Philly, where they were like, OK, you’re black. And then, you know, when Willa Mae moved to New York, then she was black. And then to Nebraska, and she was white.

RS: White. And they just fit in with the white community.

RC: Yeah, for the most part. I mean, there were questions, I think, from the white people. Because they were like, well–you know, you’re not sort of blonde and blue-eyed, like the rest–I mean, Nebraska, back then in the forties and fifties, was mostly, I would say, Scandinavian, German, Polish immigrants, or descendants of those people. And so they did, they looked really different, and they stood out.

RS: But they were successful.

RC: But they were successful, because they were very determined in keeping the lie going.

RS: And taxpayers, and he’s an engineer.

RC: Yeah, and working, and part of society.

RS: And he had an official position.

RC: Yes.

RS: Right. So then, and what’s so powerful–we can’t show it, obviously, on radio; people should watch the documentary–when you see the family photo of the Nebraska people, it’s a picture of apple-pie America. You know, this is America, OK. And so suddenly you show up. And you know, you’re an artist. You’re a controversial figure. [Laughter] You perform comedy routines in nightclubs, and so forth, and you’re provocative and so forth. And you’re also a gay person–

RC: Yes.

RS: –and you don’t conceal it, right.

RC: No.

RS: Was that an issue at all?

RC: Ah, Becky Jo and I and Jeannene never really talked about that. Jeannene has a daughter that’s gay, so I think she’s–

RS: These are the Nebraska people.

RC: Yes, but Jeannene lives on the East Coast now. Well, she grew up in Chicago. But yeah, I mean, Becky Jo definitely is a Trump supporter; she’s a devout Catholic, so she’s pro-life, and would probably say she was anti-gay, but never said that directly to me.

RS: But it’s interesting in terms of what is–where are controversies. And this is one of the things I found fascinating about your movie. It seems to me–and I don’t want to minimize the hostility that gay people encounter. But we’ve had tremendous change. I just was in the–it is San Francisco, but in Terminal 1 of the airport, and there you have the whole history of gay life in San Francisco, and Harvey Milk–it’s named the Harvey Milk terminal. And people stop and they read it and everything. And it has a feeling of not being controversial, of just sort of obvious truth. Yes, we went through this dark period, and now we’re coming to our senses, and we recognize–you know, and so forth. That hasn’t happened in racial relations. Not in that way.

RC: No, and would say, like, that type of acceptance has happened on the coast. [Laughs] You know, I think the rest of the country is not exactly up to speed.

RS: I don’t want to minimize it. But even for the rest of the country, I suspect the fact that you are, were thought of as black, bringing news of black roots of the family, was far more of interest to them than that you are gay.

RC: Yes, I would say so. For sure.

RS: Right, yeah. And then you point out one of the Nebraska white people, so-called, has a gay offspring. And one of the interesting things about the gay issue is gays show up everywhere.

RC: Exactly. Straight people make gays. [Laughs] So.

RS: Yeah, and they show up as Catholics, and they show up, you know, all over the place. So you can’t–once gay people are out of the closet, you can’t dismiss them in that way, because it’s your nephew, it’s your child, what have you. OK. The sad thing–and watching your movie, it felt profoundly disturbing–this hasn’t crossed racial lines between black and white. We haven’t had that integration of ordinary life. You know, we haven’t had that acceptance, that respect. It holds.

We live in a racially deeply divided society, black-white, brown-white, and so forth. And you know, I would not have expected this if I thought back to the 1950s or something, where the treatment of gay people was in some ways worse than any other minority. But now, you know, OK, we got over that one. Even Donald Trump, he’s not particularly going to bash gay people or anything.

RC: Well, he’s, I mean, he’s going to try to take away our rights.

RS: He brought the first gay speaker to the Republican convention, Peter Thiel. I’m not going to try to make him, sugar-coat Donald Trump. But the interesting thing about your movie is it’s made by–you’re central to this film, and I should give the title again, “Passing: A Family in Black & White.” I think it’s a very powerful movie, and I’m trying to promote it here unabashedly. But what’s so interesting is the gay part, because you show up in the film with your significant other. I gather you’re getting married soon.

RC: Yes, that’s right.

RS: That’s a non-issue in this film. To the people, it seems to me. The real issue is this thing that you thought would have disappeared by now: race. Skin color. What’s that about?

RC: No, I don’t think it would have disappeared by now.

RS: Well, I thought it would.

RC: No.

RS: I actually thought as a kid–I’m much older than you are–I thought, wow, the civil rights movement, the end of segregation–you know, and all that–no. It holds. A really sharp, ugly edge–

RC: Yes, yes! Because every white person in this country is indoctrinated into white supremacy. Whether they want to be or not. Even the good liberals. You know. And it’s the work of white people to continue to undo that thinking. And read books like White Fragility, and call out their family members who are not up to speed, and still hold onto those values. Whether they think they’re holding onto them or not. They’re–it’s ever-present. So that work has to be addressed and taken on by white folks. And that’s why it still exists, because nobody wants to do it.

RS: Well, and also, I think, bringing it back to the film, one could make the argument that these folks in Nebraska want to hold onto it because it is privilege.

RC: Of course. Definitely.

RS: Right, I mean, that’s the key. And so they could say, hey, she’s a lot of fun to be with–

RC: [Laughs] But white privilege is even more fun than hanging out with Robin. That’s the key takeaway. [Laughs]

RS: Even–and you are actually, I don’t know, just eyeballing it, a successful member of this family. You have a reputation, they can look you up, you perform, you write, you make movies. You’re a success story. Probably as successful as any one of the Nebraska people, right? I don’t know.

RC: Yeah, I mean, the irony is I would say the black side of the family is more successful than the white side. Like, most of my cousins are doctors, lawyers, ah–

RS: The black cousins.

RC: Yes, yes. We are more successful.

RS: OK. But instead of embracing that and saying, hey, we come from good stock, look at these folks, you know, they’re doing great–there’s still a strong feeling that first of all, their neighbors might not feel that way. I don’t know, you’re the one who experienced it, you went to Nebraska.

RC: Right, I did.

RS: So what happened?

RC: Ah, what I found was the younger generation, like Katie and Josh, were willing to meet with me even though, you know, Katie was hesitant. And the older generation, being some of Becky Jo’s older children and Becky Jo’s siblings, were not interested in meeting me. I think that they just weren’t prepared to take on that type of conversation. Or the level of acceptance. I mean I think to this day, some of them still really don’t believe this is true.

RS: Have they done the biological testing?

RC: I think, yes, a few of them have. But the ones with the most doubt, they have not.

RS: And the ones that have done the testing, do they find–

RC: Oh yeah, for sure. You know, they’re–at this point, like, I am 66% black, like you know, 27% white or whatever. And so you know, they’re–they end up being like 15%, or like 20. It’s a small percentage, right. But like even my grandmother was probably, like, 50/50. So I mean, it’s very rare to be, like, 100% African as an African American, just because of the history of slavery.

RS: But it is interesting. And the Trump appeal is critical. You say one of your relatives in Nebraska does feel this way, or–?

RC: Yes.

RS: And the appeal, this nativist appeal, is quite dangerous precisely because it’s a way of explaining your own failures, or you know, it’s a way of trying to claim special privilege, and be opposed to anything done in society to make it fairer, whether it’s affirmative action or ending discrimination or what have you. And so it’s interesting. Your film really deals with an up-to-the-minute issue. This is not ancient history. And the reason it’s not ancient history is that racism survives precisely because it’s good for demagogues. And it’s a way of explaining away other contradictions in the society. You know, why are white workers not doing better in certain areas of Omaha or whatever, you know.

So let me–I want to–and that’s by way of an advertisement for this film. This is not an old subject of racism in South Carolina. It’s up to the minute, because it goes to–and again, I love this quote from you: “Culture almost outweighs blood.” And what it’s really saying is an illusion outweighs reality. The fact is, as you point out, we’re 60% this, 40% that, blah, blah, blah–you know, our makeup really is not traced to any particular bloodline. It’s the cultural perception of it–

RC: That makes you who you are, yes.

RS: And I tell you, one reason I got hooked on this movie of yours–I’m going to give the title just in case people are tired of hearing my voice—“Passing: A Family in Black & White.” And they can get it how?

RC: Ah,

RS: Good. And if people watch it, I really wish they would get back to me and tell me whether I read it wrong or so forth. But I had a personal connection with this, and maybe I’ll kind of wrap this up on this. And I suspect a lot of people have things in their family, wherever their family’s from, that reflect these kinds of tensions and false consciousness and everything else. But in my case, my father was a German Protestant–people who listen to these podcasts probably have heard me mention this too often, but it was a formative thing in my life–and my mother was a Russian Jew.

And I was born in ‘36. So the first 10 years, 12 years of my life, the big thing that I was aware of was there’s this horrible war going on, and the Jews were on the receiving end. And we had relatives who were killed, and all of our relatives were killed in Europe. And the people, the “krauts,” the Germans that were doing most of this–a lot of people took their anger out on the Japanese, but they weren’t doing that to the Jews. And people conveniently ignored the Italians, who were my neighbors in the Bronx. But somehow the Germans, they were doing it. And so after the war I went and found my German relatives and so forth, and tried to examine this. And there was one incident that happened, that when I was watching your movie, I thought, what you were going through–that was me. Because I found my father’s brother, who had been in the German army, and had been wounded at Stalingrad and so forth. And I finally got to, found his house, and found him.

And in my–I did study German, and I did hear Yiddish and German spoken at home, so I tried to explain who I was; his English wasn’t very good. And I tried to explain who I was, and I said–and so he suddenly said, “Oh, Arnold! Arnold!” And that’s my half-brother who’s all German Protestant. And I said, “No, nicht Arnold. Robert.” And he said “Oh, der Juden.” The Jew. And–but he didn’t mean it in some–I mean, it was a defining statement. It turned out we got along quite well, and my relatives in Germany were actually–like the guy you met in Nebraska, the younger ones were quite hip. And they were peaceniks, they supported the Greens, and everything else. And they all were quite clear about how evil the experience of the war. But nonetheless, they were Germans of another culture. And they really didn’t want to explore all this too much.

It was kind of an inconvenient truth. I’m a nice guy, I was interesting, they’d actually read my books. But you know what, Bob, don’t keep bringing this up. And for me, I couldn’t let it go. You know, I just couldn’t let it go. The question was, wait a minute, how did this happen? And the fact is, in this movie, that’s the tension that I detected. That the white part of the family really doesn’t want to examine this history any more than white America wants to examine this history, whether it’s about Native Americans, whether it’s about brown Americans, and certainly about black Americans. They just don’t want to think about it. And not just in Nebraska, but I suspect right here in Los Angeles near our school. It’s just–

RC: And it’s really sad. You know, it’s a disservice to our culture, to our world, to our communities.

RS: Well, worse than that, we keep repeating the same error. I mean, if we don’t understand that we can be–we whites–can and have been the brutes, have been the killers. And you know, one of the interesting things about Germany for me is that the German American population was the–and it still is, I think–the largest part of the white population in America. This was not the “other.” The immigrants in this country, that was the largest group, more than from England. And Germany was admired and had the highest level of science and teaching and so forth, and they were the greatest barbarians of modern time. Not some Arabs or Muslims or anybody else–no, German Christian, you know, white people. And we never examined that after. And I think the power of your film is we never really have examined racism, and that’s why it’s with us.

RC: Yes.

RS: The reality is, we don’t want to think about it. We want to think it’s an old story.

RC: Yeah, and white people are like–oh, why, you know, stop talking about slavery. Oh, another slavery movie. Oh, stop being triggered. You know, all those things.

RS: Yeah.

RC: They don’t want–like the woman who recently, you know, went to the plantation and was mad about the guide giving the detailed, you know, story from an African perspective. You know, she just wants to go and experience Southern life.

RS: But the power of your film, “Passing: A Family in Black & White”—you know, I must tell you. I give my son, Josh, who’s the producer of the show, great credit for getting guests that I wouldn’t have had–and I must tell you, as recently as yesterday, I wondered, what the hell did Josh do here, why did he have this guest?

RC: [Laughs]

RS: Because I, you know, was having trouble getting the film to play, and what is this about, and what’s really different here. And then I watched it and I was blown away. I was blown away at precisely how relevant it is. Because you can’t dismiss it. It’s not an abstraction. It’s your family. And there you are, you’re seeing these very nice white people–you know, the ones we get to meet. They’re very nice. But they’re also awkward in this situation. They also don’t want to go there. They don’t really want to visit this thing.

You are the inconvenient truth, made all the more inconvenient by the fact that you’re quite presentable, you’re reasonable, you’re nice. You didn’t come there to guilt them, you know. You’re a very good reporter in this film. You’re reaching out to them, you’re very nonthreatening. This is not a threatening film. So they should actually, under normal human circumstances, welcome this–oh! Cousin so-and-so’s here, a relative, great! Tell us about the family–right? That’s the way we mostly–

RC: Yes, you would think, but, you know.

RS: Yes, the way we mostly receive people who show up and say, hey, you know, my aunt was your father’s second cousin twice removed. And we say, oh yeah, well what do you know about him? Well, I’ve got some pictures–you had the scrapbook. You have the data. You are the family historian.

RC: And imagine seeing a picture of your grandmother at a black family reunion and still not believing that it’s true. Like, that’s how deep this issue is that you’re talking about, about white people not wanting to deal with race. Like, here is a photograph of her, sitting next to her brother-in-law, who’s a black, brown-skinned man. And they still almost can’t believe it.

RS: Yeah, no, they’re awkward.

RC: It’s wild.

RS: Well, that’s the power of this film, really. But it’s also, as I said at the very beginning of this, I really got into this because I see America as this crazy-quilt of different cultures. And I’m interested in talking to American originals, and everyone’s got some kind of crazy history in all this, not always–very often, not positive.

And what the power of this film is, there’s an undeniable humanity to it. That’s us. And yet there’s a “banality of evil,” to quote Hannah Arendt, also woven through it. Why don’t we receive the other? Why don’t we welcome? After all, Jesus in the Good Samaritan was supposed to be welcoming to the stranger. But here, in your own family, why don’t they say–oh, great! A relative has showed up!

RC: Well, we know the answer to that.

RS: Well, do we? Why don’t we end on that. What is the answer? Because it’s–no, you know the answer–

RC: Racism. Racism! And white supremacy, and white privilege, is the answer. It prevents–

RS: But those are words. What does it really mean to–

RC: It means that, like, a white person living in this country who has all the status, the comfort of being top on the totem pole, doesn’t want to relinquish that. Even if it’s blood-related. It’s more important to hold on to your status.

RS: Yes. Well, that’s a frightening idea. “Culture almost outweighs blood”–no, culture outweighs blood. You will–this is a real issue that people face. You would probably–one would–if culture outweighs blood, you’ll turn over your mother, your sister to the Gestapo if it saves you. If it conforms to an ideology that you’ve been lectured into.

RC: Exactly. Isn’t that what we’ve seen in history?

RS: Yeah. But you have, your film provides an insight into that. Really important truth. And so then it’s not really culture, it’s opportunism, it’s greed, it’s power that’s wrapped into that word. And you don’t want to surrender your advantage, your power, your corruption, your greed. You will sacrifice your siblings. That’s the theme of your movie.

RC: [Laughs] One of them, yes.

RS: Well, I think it’s an important observation. And it’s, I want to caution people, it’s not done in a scolding way. It’s done in a loving–you actually, the film extends to these people, it wants to include them, it wants to embrace them. There’s no built-in hostility in this film. It’s great journalism, from my point of view. Because you really are curious, you really are open. Hey, look! And there’s aunt so-and-so, and there’s cousin so-and-so. And they happen, they still look pretty black, but they say they’re white–and, wow!

You know, wonder what they’re doing, and wonder whether they know this, and won’t they be excited to see this picture. Well, you know, guess what. Maybe they’re excited, but they don’t want to show it too much. Or maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re confused, right? And maybe they don’t want to confront the role of racism in our culture. That’s it for this edition of “Scheer Intelligence.” Our producer, and I got to give him particular credit here for bringing me with our guest Robin Cloud–who I must say, before I saw her film and before I watched all her great comedy and checked out her writing, did not know who Robin Cloud was. I’m blown away by this work. I think it’s a very powerful film.

RC: Thank you.

RS: So again, Joshua Scheer, the producer, creator of this show. Sebastian Grubaugh here at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, has put this all together and done the engineering. And we’ll see you next week with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.”

The post White Supremacy Is as American as Apple Pie appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

A Revolutionary Writer for Our Darkest Days

After the 2016 EU referendum that changed the United Kingdom’s political trajectory for years to come, novelist Ali Smith had a revolutionary idea: writing a series of novels set in Brexit Britain, to be written and published in time to mirror the drama unfolding in her home country. What’s known as the “Seasonal Quartet,” due to each novel carrying the name of a season, is a breathtakingly beautiful series that has been showered with accolades from the moment the first book, “Autumn,” was published. 

Each volume, while fiction, captures many of the issues facing Brits in this brave new Brexit world, as just across the Atlantic, Donald Trump rules the U.S. with the same disdain for facts that many argue was behind the campaign that led the British public to vote for leaving the European Union. And yet, despite grim circumstances, Smith uses her considerable writing talents to uncover hope for a better future, often in the form of radical ideas and activism that shake characters and readers from complacency. In “Winter,” the second book in the series, the Scottish author tackles xenophobia and family divisions over politics by placing four incredibly different characters in one imagined Cornish household, where the all-too-human interactions among them become a catalyst for healing. “Spring,” the latest installment in the “Seasonal Quartet,” depicts a crossroads between strangers that are all changed in meaningful ways by their encounter with a young girl, not too unlike the real-life teen activist Greta Thunberg. That meeting forces them to question the dark, seemingly thoughtless paths they and the United Kingdom are barreling down.  

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In a discussion about everything from refugees to Shakespeare, I caught up with Smith via email. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our exchange.

NATASHA HAKIMI ZAPATA: Why have you chosen seasons to title your novels set in Brexit Britain? What have you gained from structuring your “Seasonal Quartet” using this specific measure of time? Have you lost anything, or had moments when you wished you hadn’t chosen this framework? Did climate change and its impact on the seasons as we once knew them play a part in this creative choice?

ALI SMITH: I didn’t choose it—it just happened. In 2014 I handed in a manuscript to my publisher here in the U.K., Simon Prosser at Hamish Hamilton and Penguin, a book called “How to Be Both.” I’d missed its promised publishing deadline by a year or so, and I apologized to him. He laughed and said, “You haven’t missed the deadline, we can still bring the book out to time.”

I was amazed. “How to Be Both” is a novel with an ostensibly complex structure, one that exists in two forms that look on the surface exactly the same and are then randomly mixed in the print run, so that, depending on coincidence, when you pick up this book you might get one half at the beginning, or you might get the other half first instead. Sure enough, even given all the usual copy editing and proofing and printing schedule constraint, AND with this randomized structural print-mix thrown in, six weeks later I held the physical finished novel, in both its forms, in my hands. Not just that, it was a physical object of real care and beauty.

So then I began to wonder why the publishing process habitually takes so long, usually at least nine months, from handing in a manuscript to the finished thing. Since I began writing fiction, since roughly 1993, I’d been thinking about writing a series of books named after the seasons, and I’d always had them at the back of my head as a possibility maybe for when I was older.  This fast turnaround brought these books into focus for me in a new way. Because—what if you could write novels about time, but to time, so that you published them as close to their being written as possible and so that they held something truly contemporary somewhere in them, which would then be naturally offset by them tapping into the ever-cycling cycle of the changes and repetitions of season. And wouldn’t that be akin to what the novel actually means as a form—to when the Victorians published novels, when the novel still meant what it’s named for, something new, novel, the latest thing?

I asked Simon would it be possible—because I knew it would be asking a great deal of the publishing schedule team, who’d have to be generously on board for it or it wouldn’t work. He asked everyone who’d be working on the books. They all said enthusiastic yesses. The revelation of expertise, teamwork and galvanized spirit has been one of the most lovely and satisfying things about writing these books and bringing them to birth so succinctly—and frankly also so very beautifully—I very much love the U.S. editions too, but the U.K. editions are really something special in terms of design.

I started work on the first book, “Autumn,” at the end of 2015. 2016 brought the most unpredictable changes, all across the country here, then all across the Western world. It was another revelation to me of the way that the books we write choose their own time to come.

I couldn’t ever have planned this. But it’s right. The seasons are all about what changes and what, regardless of extreme change, stays the same. The novel is a revolutionary form too. It rolls forward, gathers its mosses.

Also, you can’t get away from the effect of global warming—let’s give it its real and alarming name—when you’re working with the seasons and watching the usual changes warp in real-time immediacy.

So the consciousness you’re asking about in your question—it’s not that I set out consciously in quite that way. But the writing of the books has been all about consciousness, about articulating what’s happening right now, in social and environmental terms and also increasingly in terms of the shifts and changes in the use of language in the public realm even just over the last couple of years, language, along with notions of time and social structure, being the physical material of any novel.

NHK: As I was reading “Spring,” I couldn’t help but see the 12-year-old protagonist Florence, who boldly enters spaces and scenarios many of her elders would not dare to in order to demand change, as a Greta Thunberg-like character. Why did you choose a child as a catalyst for change? Was Florence in some way modeled after the Swedish teen environmentalist who’s stood up to political leaders the world over? 

AS: “Spring” thieves some of its narrative from Shakespeare’s “Pericles.” Each of these novels has been as if befriended by one of Shakespeare’s late plays, the plays where, quite miraculously, he makes brand new form, one that always conjures impossible rebirth, out of a shredding and re-melding of elements of tragedy, history and comedy, the material of his earlier plays. (“Spring” is also befriended by a lot of other written and visual forms, but the workings of Shakespeare’s “Pericles” through it deliver the almost sardonic and quite blatantly impossible sense of hope.)

So Florence was already written, already a new drawn form of Shakespeare’s Marina, when I first encountered, in the news, in January this year, the brilliant shining Greta Thunberg speaking at Davos.

Marina is a child so good that Shakespeare can winkingly drop her feet first into the nastiest, seamiest of places and watch as she illuminates and scours clean those places. “Pericles” is about good and bad governance, how important the first is and how cataclysmic and catastrophic the latter—but above all it’s about an incorruptible goodness. Also, when you’re faced with what looks like an unshiftable dilemma, ask a child. Thunberg has articulated the future to us, because the future is hers and her generations’ inheritance. Her presence is the appearance on the world stage of the possible future—one of frankness and goodness and unselfishness up against the conglomerate business mindset that thinks right now that it owns and can use both us and the world. That’s the choice we face. As Thunberg says, the real power belongs to the people. I’m not surprised to see the whole world turn to listen. 

My Marina character, Florence, gets almost nothing changed. Yet what change she does achieve is downright impossible, unless we choose to change. Greta Thunberg is timely. She’s a threshold, a door open out of the dark.

NHZ: You carried out interviews with refugees and detainees at the United Kingdom Immigration Removal Centre for your latest novel. Are there stories you heard that impacted you but couldn’t quite make it onto the page in one form or another? 

AS: I had a great deal of help with information and knowledge I’d been trusted with by people who’ve been or are being illegally detained, and I also read and searched out what people who’ve been detained (the most invisible of people right now in the world, human beings rendered invisible by an industrialized system of detention) have been able to publish and voice against all the silencing odds about their time in detention. I also asked anonymous sources who work in the system to tell me about it as it is. But there’s more. There’s so much endlessly more, every day more. One man I spoke to, a man who’d been trafficked since the age of 4, and had arrived in the U.K. looking for help only to be trafficked again, until he’d escaped, and gone to the Home Office for help, and been arrested and incarcerated, said to me, “You have to tell people. People don’t know. They think it’s like the government tells them. You have to tell them what it’s like. So I have and I am.

NHZ: Some of the events you mention in your series, such as the Windrush scandal and London’s Grenfell Tower fire, are fresh out of the newspapers of the past several years. Is there ever a point when writing about contemporary events that it feels too recent to truly dissect or glean meaning from in writing? Or does the recentness help lend urgency to your work?

AS: The thing is, nothing’s really new. Windrush and Grenfell are just the latest age-old governmental selfishnesses. And one of the interesting things about the attempt at articulation of what’s happening around us right now is the sense of the metamorphic thing that can happen in the imaginative space the arts always create, personally, psychologically, socially, nationally, internationally, metaphysically—all these are of course umbilically connected. The novel genre frames reality, all our realities, brand new, ancient, in a way that asks of the imagination.

Also, I’m feeling well equipped—I’ve recently been rereading Muriel Spark; I reread everything she wrote last year around the centenary of her birth. Spark can write quite specifically about, say, Watergate, like she does in the novel called “The Abbess of Crewe,” and it can be about all the centuries of surveillance, powerplay and dodgy governmental dealings, as well as very much the specifics of a couple of years in the 1970s. Spark, merry about apocalypse, facing the 20th century’s own stormy times of rising fascism and emotional mass manipulation, always gestures toward the thinking mind, the reason we’ve a skull beneath the skin at all, as she might (given her great love of the metaphysical poets) have put it.

NHZ: While the series is set in a post-EU-Referendum U.K., I find it remarkable that you’re able to portray in detail the uncertainty of the moment without predicting what will come of the vote in terms of the U.K.’s as-of-yet undefined separation from the European Union. Do you have any predictions as to how Brexit will play out as a new autumn deadline looms and British politics remain in disarray? Do you have an ideal scenario in mind? 

AS: No. I think the current quite blatantly expedient political use of division and emotion locally and internationally has ripped a chasm and sown a neurosis and a reactive fury through almost everything—and was meant to. A small number of people have made a lot of money out of such volcanic political canyon-ing across the world.

But. We’ll sort it. We’re multifarious, and we’re astonishing. And division is a kind of lie to us, in our human multifacetedness. We won’t stand for it for long. I hope.

NHZ: There’s a layering of histories that occurs in “Spring.” For example, Culloden, the setting of the final brutal battle of the 1745 Jacobite rising, becomes the setting of a new, very different opportunity for a form of freedom. What did you hope your readers would come to understand about the time we live in with these collage-like moments?

AS: I didn’t set out to hope for anything, I just told it as it asked to be told and went with what the historic cycles provided.

But here’s an anecdote—I’d originally thought I’d maybe be writing this book partly about Switzerland, maybe based around the place where the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the great short story writer Katherine Mansfield (who grace the book fleetingly) had lived so close to one another one year in the 1920s without having ever met each other, and I’d planned a trip to see the place, Sierre, just for a couple of days. But then, on the morning before the day we were meant to leave, I put my head and shoulders inside a massive renaissance wooden chest that’s been in my partner’s family for something like four hundred years, it’s where we now keep the photo albums, I was in there looking for a photo of something I thought might be a help to the book, and that’s when history hit me hard on the head—the lid of the box came down and thumped me on the forehead and my forehead was too gashed open to allow air travel, so the planned Swiss trip was canceled. OK. We moved the dates. Then a dear friend died.  Her funeral was taking place on the new Swiss dates and there was no way we’d not be there at her service. At that service one of the pieces of music she’d chosen was a tune close to my heart, a tune called Highland Cathedral, a traditional Scottish bagpipe tune of great beauty.

With the closer-to-home mountains and sound of the Scottish highlands in my head, I sat on the floor in our front room a few days later and laughed out loud at how I’d sort of known all along that this book was meant to be set in the north of Scotland, which is a place that really feels, right now, like a quite different country is still possible, if we want it to be, both in the U.K. or out of it.

NHK: Despite the despair common in our times, and that several of your characters, such as Richard, experience, your novels still find ways to offer glimpses of radical hope. Where do you find reasons to be hopeful in today’s turbulent political and environmental context?

AS: We’re human. We’ll work it out. But we’d better get on to it. We have to move fast. Time—it’s not just of the essence. It is the essence.


The post A Revolutionary Writer for Our Darkest Days appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Comey Said to Violate FBI Policies in Handling of Memos

WASHINGTON — Former FBI Director James Comey violated FBI policies in his handling of memos documenting private conversations with President Donald Trump, the Justice Department’s inspector general said Thursday.

The watchdog office said Comey broke bureau rules by giving one memo containing unclassified information to a friend with instructions to share the contents with a reporter. Comey also failed to return his memos to the FBI after he was dismissed in May 2017, retaining copies of some of them in a safe at home, and shared them with his personal lawyers without permission from the FBI, the report said.

“By not safeguarding sensitive information obtained during the course of his FBI employment, and by using it to create public pressure for official action, Comey set a dangerous example for the over 35,000 current FBI employees — and the many thousands more former FBI employees — who similarly have access to or knowledge of non-public information,” the report said.

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The report is the second in as many years to criticize Comey’s actions as FBI director, following a separate inspector general rebuke for decisions made during the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. It is one of multiple inspector general investigations undertaken in the last three years into the decisions and actions of Comey and other senior FBI leaders.

Trump, who has long regarded Comey as one of his principal antagonists in a law enforcement community he sees as biased against him, cheered the conclusions on Twitter. He wrote: “Perhaps never in the history of our Country has someone been more thoroughly disgraced and excoriated than James Comey in the just released Inspector General’s Report. He should be ashamed of himself!”

The White House in a separate statement called Comey a “proven liar and leaker.”

But the report denied Trump and his supporters, who have repeatedly accused Comey of leaking classified information, total vindication. It found that none of the information shared by him or his attorneys with anyone in the media was classified. The Justice Department has declined to prosecute Comey.

Comey seized on that point in defending himself on Twitter, saying, “I don’t need a public apology from those who defamed me, but a quick message with a ‘sorry we lied about you’ would be nice.”

He also added: “And to all those who’ve spent two years talking about me ‘going to jail’ or being a ‘liar and a leaker’ — ask yourselves why you still trust people who gave you bad info for so long, including the president.”

At issue in the report are seven memos Comey wrote between January 2017 and April 2017 about conversations with Trump that he found unnerving or unusual.

These include a Trump Tower briefing at which Comey advised the president-elect that there was salacious and unverified information about his ties to Moscow circulating in Washington; a dinner at which Comey says Trump asked him for loyalty and an Oval Office meeting weeks later at which Comey says the president asked him to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

One week after he was fired, Comey provided a copy of the memo about Flynn to Dan Richman, his personal lawyer and a close friend, and instructed him to share the contents with a specific reporter from The New York Times.

Comey has said he wanted to make details of that conversation public to prompt the appointment of a special counsel to lead the FBI’s investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel one day after the story broke.

The inspector general’s office found Comey’s rationale lacking.

“In a country built on the rule of law, it is of utmost importance that all FBI employees adhere to Department and FBI policies, particularly when confronted by what appear to be extraordinary circumstances or compelling personal convictions. Comey had several other lawful options available to him to advocate for the appointment of a Special Counsel, which he told us was his goal in making the disclosure,” the report says.

“What was not permitted was the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive investigative information, obtained during the course of FBI employment, in order to achieve a personally desired outcome,” it adds.

After Comey’s firing, the FBI determined that four of the memos contained information classified at either the “secret” or “confidential” level. The memo about the Flynn interaction that Comey sent to Richman did not contain any classified information, the report said.

Comey said he considered his memos to be personal rather than government documents, and that it never would’ve occurred to him to give them back to the FBI after he was fired. The inspector general’s office disagreed, citing policy that FBI employees must give up all documents containing FBI information once they leave the bureau.

FBI agents retrieved four of Comey’s memos from his house weeks after he was fired.

The office of Inspector General Michael Horowitz also is investigating the FBI’s Russia investigation and expected to wrap up soon.

Last year, the watchdog office concluded that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe had misrepresented under oath his involvement in a news media disclosure, and referred him for possible prosecution. That matter remains open with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington.

The post Comey Said to Violate FBI Policies in Handling of Memos appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Florida Braces for Hurricane Dorian

MIAMI — Florida residents picked the shelves clean of bottled water and lined up at gas stations Thursday as an increasingly menacing-looking Hurricane Dorian threatened to broadside the state over Labor Day weekend.

Leaving lighter-than-expected damage in its wake in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the second hurricane of the 2019 season swirled toward the U.S., with forecasters warning it will draw energy from the warm, open waters as it closes in.

The National Hurricane Center said the Category 1 storm is expected to strengthen into a potentially catastrophic Category 4 with winds of 130 mph (209 kph) and slam into the U.S. on Monday somewhere between the Florida Keys and southern Georgia — a 500-mile stretch that reflected the high degree of uncertainty this far out.

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“If it makes landfall as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane, that’s a big deal,” said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. “A lot of people are going to be affected. A lot of insurance claims.”

President Donald Trump canceled his weekend trip to Poland and declared Florida is “going to be totally ready.”

With the storm’s track still unclear, no immediate mass evacuations were ordered.

Along Florida’s east coast, local governments began distributing sandbags, shoppers rushed to stock up on food, plywood and other emergency supplies at supermarkets and hardware stores, and motorists topped off their tanks and filled gasoline cans. Some fuel shortages were reported in the Cape Canaveral area.

Josefine Larrauri, a retired translator, went to a Publix supermarket in Miami only to find empty shelves in the water section and store employees unsure of when more cases would arrive.

“I feel helpless because the whole coast is threatened,” she said. “What’s the use of going all the way to Georgia if it can land there?”

Tiffany Miranda of Miami Springs waited well over 30 minutes in line at BJ’s Wholesale Club in Hialeah to buy hurricane supplies. Some 50 vehicles were bumper-to-bumper, waiting to fill up at the store’s 12 gas pumps.

“You never know with these hurricanes. It could be good, it could be bad. You just have to be prepared,” she said.

As of Thursday evening, Dorian was centered about 330 miles (535 kilometers) east of the Bahamas, its winds blowing at 85 mph (140 kph) as it moved northwest at 13 mph (20 kph).

It is expected to pick up steam as it pushes out into warm waters with favorable winds, the University of Miami’s McNoldy said, adding: “Starting tomorrow, it really has no obstacles left in its way.”

The National Hurricane Center’s projected track had the storm blowing ashore midway along the Florida peninsula, southeast of Orlando and well north of Miami or Fort Lauderdale. But because of the difficulty of predicting its course this far ahead, the “cone of uncertainty” covered nearly the entire state.

Forecasters said coastal areas of the Southeast could get 5 to 10 inches of rain, with 15 inches in some places, triggering life-threatening flash floods.

Also imperiled were the Bahamas, with Dorian’s expected track running just to the north of Great Abaco and Grand Bahama islands.

Jeff Byard, an associate administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, warned that Dorian is likely to “create a lot of havoc with infrastructure, power and roads,” but gave assurances FEMA is prepared to handle it, even though the Trump administration is shifting hundreds of millions of dollars from FEMA and other agencies to deal with immigration at the Mexican border.

“This is going to be a big storm. We’re prepared for a big response,” Byard said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency, clearing the way to bring in more fuel and call out the National Guard if necessary, and Georgia’s governor followed suit.

Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian began rerouting their cruise ships. Major airlines began allowing travelers to change their reservations without a fee.

At the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, NASA decided to move indoors the mobile launch platform for its new mega rocket under development.

A Rolling Stones concert Saturday at the Hard Rock Stadium near Miami was moved up to Friday night.

The hurricane season typically peaks between mid-August and late October. One of the most powerful storms ever to hit the U.S. was on Labor Day 1935. The unnamed Category 5 hurricane crashed ashore along Florida’s Gulf Coast on Sept. 2. It was blamed for over 400 deaths.

Dorian rolled through the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as a Category 1 hurricane on Wednesday.

The initial blow did not appear to be as bad as expected in Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria two years ago. Blue tarps cover some 30,000 homes, and the electrical grid is in fragile condition.

But the tail end of the storm unleashed heavy flooding along the eastern and southern coasts of Puerto Rico. Cars, homes and gravestones in the coastal town of Humacao became halfway submerged after a river burst its banks.

Police said an 80-year-old man in the town of Bayamón died after he fell trying to climb to his roof to clear it of debris ahead of the storm.

Dorian caused an island-wide blackout in St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands and scattered outages in St. Croix, government spokesman Richard Motta said.

No serious damage was reported in the British Virgin Islands, where Gov. Augustus Jaspert said crews were already clearing roads and inspecting infrastructure by late Wednesday afternoon.

Back in Florida, Mark and Gisa Emeterio enjoyed a peaceful afternoon sunbathing and wading in the ocean at Vero Beach. The newly retired couple from Sacramento, California, wanted to relax after spending the morning shuttering their home.

Mark, a retired pipe layer, and Gina, a retired state employee, planned to wait it out the storm with local friends more experienced with hurricanes.

“We got each other,” Mark Emeterio said. “So we’re good.”

“I told him, ‘Whatever happens, hold my hand,'” his wife joked.


Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein and Michael Balsamo in Washington; Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Marcus Lim in Miami; Ellis Rua in Vero Beach and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.

The post Florida Braces for Hurricane Dorian appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Trump Declares New Space Command Key to American Defense

WASHINGTON (AP) — Declaring space crucial to the nation’s defense, President Donald Trump said Thursday the Pentagon has established U.S. Space Command to preserve American dominance on “the ultimate high ground.”

“This is a landmark day,” Trump said in a Rose Garden ceremony, “one that recognizes the centrality of space to America’s national security and defense.”

He said Space Command, headed by a four-star Air Force general, will “ensure that America’s superiority in space is never questioned and never threatened.”

But there’s still no Space Force.

Space Force, which has become a reliable applause line for Trump at his campaign rallies, has yet to win final approval by Congress.

The renewed focus on space as a military domain reflects concern about the vulnerability of U.S. satellites, both military and commercial, that are critical to U.S. interests and are potentially susceptible to disruption by Chinese and Russian anti-satellite weapons.

The role of the new Space Command is to conduct operations such as enabling satellite-based navigation and communications for troops and commanders in the field and providing warning of missile launches abroad. That is different from a Space Force, which would be a distinct military service like the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

Congress has inched toward approving the creation of a Space Force despite skepticism from some lawmakers of both parties. The House and Senate bills differ on some points, and an effort to reconcile the two will begin after Congress returns from its August recess.

When Jim Mattis was defense secretary, the Pentagon was hesitant to embrace the idea of a Space Force. Trump’s first Pentagon chief initially saw it as potentially redundant and not the best use of defense dollars. His successor, Mark Esper, has cast himself as a strong supporter of creating both a Space Force and a command dedicated to space.

“To ensure the protection of America’s interests in space, we must apply the necessary focus, energy and resources to the task, and that is exactly what Space Command will do,” Esper said Wednesday.

“As a unified combatant command, the United States Space Command is the next crucial step toward the creation of an independent Space Force as an additional armed service,” he added.

Kaitlyn Johnson, a defense space expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she considers it likely, but not certain, that Congress will approve a Space Force in the 2020 defense bill.

The people in Space Force would be assigned to missions directed by Space Command, just as members of the Army and other services are assigned to an organization like U.S. Strategic Command.

Like other branches of the military, Space Force would be headed by a four-star general who would have a seat at the table with the other Joint Chiefs of Staff. Trump wanted Space Force to be “separate but equal” to the other services, but instead it is expected to be made part of the Air Force, similar to how the Marine Corps is part of the Navy.

Reestablishing Space Command has been a less politically contentious matter. There is a consensus that it is the most straightforward step among those proposed to shore up space defenses.

“This step puts us on a path to maintain a competitive advantage,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a National Space Council meeting last week. He also endorsed creating Space Force, saying it would make a “profound difference.”

Initially, the opening of Space Command will have little practical effect on how the military handles its space responsibilities. Air Force Space Command currently deals with more than three-quarters of the military space mission, and it is expected to only gradually hand off those duties to the new command.

Johnson, the CSIS expert, said the attention to space during the Trump administration has led some to exaggerate the scope of change reflected in the moves to create Space Command and Space Force.

These moves, she said, “seem very flashy and fun” but are not.

“It’s really just a reorganization of functions that are already happening within the military,” she said.

Air Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond will serve as the first commander of U.S. Space Command. He currently heads Air Force Space Command.

At his Senate confirmation hearing June 4, Raymond made the case for changing the way the military approaches its space mission.

“Unfortunately, our adversaries have had a front row seat into our many successes and have seen the advantages that they provide us,” he said. “And to be honest, they don’t like what they see. And they’re rapidly developing capabilities to negate our use of space and to negate the advantage that space provides.”

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Trump’s Asylum Policies Could Get People Killed

In an April roundtable on U.S.-Mexico border security, President Trump called asylum seekers and their stories a “scam.” “They’re not afraid of anything … and they say ‘I fear for my life,’ ” he said, according to The Daily Beast. “It’s a scam, it’s a hoax.” Trump also claimed, according to CNN, that “the system is full,” and there is no more room for immigrants.

As a new report from BuzzFeed shows, this means victims of domestic violence are in danger of being deported back to their abusers. Kenia, a 38-year-old mother of two from El Salvador (she gave only her first name to BuzzFeed), was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in May. Following the arrest, she applied for a U visa, which provides undocumented immigrants and their immediate families who are the victims of crimes with a path to citizenship if they work with law enforcement.

As North Texas public radio station KERA reported earlier this week, the U visa is even seen as a source of hope for undocumented residents who were victims of the Aug. 3 mass shooting in El Paso. Immigration attorney Pamela Muñoz told the station that “It is kind of implied that there will be people who are eligible for this.”

Even with likely eligibility, however, the path to actually getting the U visa is difficult, and made more so by the Trump administration.

Kenia has been in the United States since 2004, at which time she sought asylum. She’s worked at a restaurant and taken care of children with disabilities. While she did receive a notice to appear in immigration court in 2004, it had no date or time, so she didn’t show up. The result was a deportation order, one which wasn’t enforced until ICE agents came to her home this May, a full 15 years later. She’s now in an immigration detention center, and her U visa was denied on Aug. 27.

Kenia was terrified, telling BuzzFeed, “What’s the point of a U visa if it doesn’t help people like me,” and, “I just want a chance. … I’m afraid I’ll be killed if I’m sent back to El Salvador.”

Prior to the Trump administration’s immigration policies, Kenia’s deportation order would likely have been paused while her visa application was processed, her attorney, Eileen Blessinger, explained to BuzzFeed.

Unfortunately, according to documents BuzzFeed reviewed, an ICE field office director told Kenia that “in light of ICE’s mission, current ICE policies and enforcement priorities,” there is “no compelling reason” to stop the deportation.

Kenia is not the only one suffering the consequences of the current polices on U visas.

In Lancaster County, Pa., a family is suing government officials, according to local CBS station WHP-TV (CBS-21). The daughter, now 20, who declined to give her name, was brought to the United States at six years old. She was the victim of sexual assault at nine years old, and, as a crime victim willing to cooperate with law enforcement, she’s a candidate for the U visa. Her lawyers, David Freeman and Barley Snyder, told CBS-21 that suing the government was a last resort before she’s made to leave the country.

“If you are a victim of a qualifying crime, they’re very serious crimes, such as sexual assault, you have to cooperate with law enforcement or a prosecutor’s office,” Freeman explained, “and then you have to have the prosecutor or law enforcement agency certify that you’ve cooperated.”

Despite applying three years ago, the Pennsylvania woman’s application remains in limbo, and the threat of deportation hangs over her and her family’s lives. She tells CBS-21, “Our life is literally on pause.”

Attorney Freeman says he wants to know if there is a waiting list that could—at least temporarily—halt deportation.

According to the motion to dismiss, which CBS-21 obtained, U.S. attorneys are arguing that the application delay does not constitute a valid claim, the current wait isn’t out of the ordinary, and the woman will not be receiving special treatment.

In Blessinger’s experience, other of her clients who have applied for U visas have often successfully halted their deportations. They did so following an ICE consultation with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (the agency that grants visas) to confirm that they were good candidates.

Now, as BuzzFeed writer Adolfo Flores explains, “a fact sheet issued this month by ICE on revised policies stated that the agency is no longer required to request a determination from USCIS that they had met the basic requirements for a U visa.”

The fact sheet says that previous consultations with USCIS were a “simple confirmation that the petition was filed correctly and was not a substantive review of the petition. … As the number of U visa petitions submitted increased, this process became burdensome on both agencies and often did not impact ICE’s decisions.” Now that ICE isn’t required to check in with USCIS, the agency has more power in determining whether an applicant gets deported or is granted a stay.

“This is going to affect the entire judicial system, with fewer people coming forward to report crimes and more criminals remaining free,” Blessinger says. “Kenia’s story is not just about Kenia. It’s about how this is going to affect people in general.”

The post Trump’s Asylum Policies Could Get People Killed appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Insurance Companies Are Creating an Economy of Extortion

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by ProPublica

On June 24, the mayor and council of Lake City, Florida, gathered in an emergency session to decide how to resolve a ransomware attack that had locked the city’s computer files for the preceding fortnight. Following the Pledge of Allegiance, Mayor Stephen Witt led an invocation. “Our heavenly father,” Witt said, “we ask for your guidance today, that we do what’s best for our city and our community.”

Witt and the council members also sought guidance from City Manager Joseph Helfenberger. He recommended that the city allow its cyber insurer, Beazley, an underwriter at Lloyd’s of London, to pay the ransom of 42 bitcoin, then worth about $460,000. Lake City, which was covered for ransomware under its cyber-insurance policy, would only be responsible for a $10,000 deductible. In exchange for the ransom, the hacker would provide a key to unlock the files.

“If this process works, it would save the city substantially in both time and money,” Helfenberger told them.

Without asking questions or deliberating, the mayor and the council unanimously approved paying the ransom. The six-figure payment, one of several that U.S. cities have handed over to hackers in recent months to retrieve files, made national headlines.

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Left unmentioned in Helfenberger’s briefing was that the city’s IT staff, together with an outside vendor, had been pursuing an alternative approach. Since the attack, they had been attempting to recover backup files that were deleted during the incident. On Beazley’s recommendation, the city chose to pay the ransom because the cost of a prolonged recovery from backups would have exceeded its $1 million coverage limit, and because it wanted to resume normal services as quickly as possible.

“Our insurance company made [the decision] for us,” city spokesman Michael Lee, a sergeant in the Lake City Police Department, said. “At the end of the day, it really boils down to a business decision on the insurance side of things: them looking at how much is it going to cost to fix it ourselves and how much is it going to cost to pay the ransom.”

The mayor, Witt, said in an interview that he was aware of the efforts to recover backup files but preferred to have the insurer pay the ransom because it was less expensive for the city. “We pay a $10,000 deductible, and we get back to business, hopefully,” he said. “Or we go, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’ then we spend money we don’t have to just get back up and running. And so to me, it wasn’t a pleasant decision, but it was the only decision.”

Ransomware is proliferating across America, disabling computer systems of corporations, city governments, schools and police departments. This month, attackers seeking millions of dollars encrypted the files of 22 Texas municipalities. Overlooked in the ransomware spree is the role of an industry that is both fueling and benefiting from it: insurance. In recent years, cyber insurance sold by domestic and foreign companies has grown into an estimated $7 billion to $8 billion-a-year market in the U.S. alone, according to Fred Eslami, an associate director at AM Best, a credit rating agency that focuses on the insurance industry. While insurers do not release information about ransom payments, ProPublica has found that they often accommodate attackers’ demands, even when alternatives such as saved backup files may be available.

The FBI and security researchers say paying ransoms contributes to the profitability and spread of cybercrime and in some cases may ultimately be funding terrorist regimes. But for insurers, it makes financial sense, industry insiders said. It holds down claim costs by avoiding expenses such as covering lost revenue from snarled services and ongoing fees for consultants aiding in data recovery. And, by rewarding hackers, it encourages more ransomware attacks, which in turn frighten more businesses and government agencies into buying policies.

“The onus isn’t on the insurance company to stop the criminal, that’s not their mission. Their objective is to help you get back to business. But it does beg the question, when you pay out to these criminals, what happens in the future?” said Loretta Worters, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit industry group based in New York. Attackers “see the deep pockets. You’ve got the insurance industry that’s going to pay out, this is great.”

A spokesperson for Lloyd’s, which underwrites about one-third of the global cyber-insurance market, said that coverage is designed to mitigate losses and protect against future attacks, and that victims decide whether to pay ransoms. “Coverage is likely to include, in the event of an attack, access to experts who will help repair the damage caused by any cyberattack and ensure any weaknesses in a company’s cyberprotection are eliminated,” the spokesperson said. “A decision whether to pay a ransom will fall to the company or individual that has been attacked.” Beazley declined comment.

Fabian Wosar, chief technology officer for anti-virus provider Emsisoft, said he recently consulted for one U.S. corporation that was attacked by ransomware. After it was determined that restoring files from backups would take weeks, the company’s insurer pressured it to pay the ransom, he said. The insurer wanted to avoid having to reimburse the victim for revenues lost as a result of service interruptions during recovery of backup files, as its coverage required, Wosar said. The company agreed to have the insurer pay the approximately $100,000 ransom. But the decryptor obtained from the attacker in return didn’t work properly and Wosar was called in to fix it, which he did. He declined to identify the client and the insurer, which also covered his services.

“Paying the ransom was a lot cheaper for the insurer,” he said. “Cyber insurance is what’s keeping ransomware alive today. It’s a perverted relationship. They will pay anything, as long as it is cheaper than the loss of revenue they have to cover otherwise.”

Worters, the industry spokeswoman, said ransom payments aren’t the only example of insurers saving money by enriching criminals. For instance, the companies may pay fraudulent claims — for example, from a policyholder who sets a car on fire to collect auto insurance — when it’s cheaper than pursuing criminal charges. “You don’t want to perpetuate people committing fraud,” she said. “But there are some times, quite honestly, when companies say: ’This fraud is not a ton of money. We are better off paying this.’ … It’s much like the ransomware, where you’re paying all these experts and lawyers, and it becomes this huge thing.”

Insurers approve or recommend paying a ransom when doing so is likely to minimize costs by restoring operations quickly, regulators said. As in Lake City, recovering files from backups can be arduous and time-consuming, potentially leaving insurers on the hook for costs ranging from employee overtime to crisis management public relations efforts, they said.

“They’re going to look at their overall claim and dollar exposure and try to minimize their losses,” said Eric Nordman, a former director of the regulatory services division of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, or NAIC, the organization of state insurance regulators. “If it’s more expeditious to pay the ransom and get the key to unlock it, then that’s what they’ll do.”

As insurance companies have approved six- and seven-figure ransom payments over the past year, criminals’ demands have climbed. The average ransom payment among clients of Coveware, a Connecticut firm that specializes in ransomware cases, is about $36,000, according to its quarterly report released in July, up sixfold from last October. Josh Zelonis, a principal analyst for the Massachusetts-based research company Forrester, said the increase in payments by cyber insurers has correlated with a resurgence in ransomware after it had started to fall out of favor in the criminal world about two years ago.

One cybersecurity company executive said his firm has been told by the FBI that hackers are specifically extorting American companies that they know have cyber insurance. After one small insurer highlighted the names of some of its cyber policyholders on its website, three of them were attacked by ransomware, Wosar said. Hackers could also identify insured targets from public filings; the Securities and Exchange Commission suggests that public companies consider reporting “insurance coverage relating to cybersecurity incidents.”

Even when the attackers don’t know that insurers are footing the bill, the repeated capitulations to their demands give them confidence to ask for ever-higher sums, said Thomas Hofmann, vice president of intelligence at Flashpoint, a cyber-risk intelligence firm that works with ransomware victims.

Ransom demands used to be “a lot less,” said Worters, the industry spokeswoman. But if hackers think they can get more, “they’re going to ask for more. So that’s what’s happening. … That’s certainly a concern.”

In the past year, dozens of public entities in the U.S. have been paralyzed by ransomware. Many have paid the ransoms, either from their own funds or through insurance, but others have refused on the grounds that it’s immoral to reward criminals. Rather than pay a $76,000 ransom in May, the city of Baltimore — which did not have cyber insurance — sacrificed more than $5.3 million to date in recovery expenses, a spokesman for the mayor said this month. Similarly, Atlanta, which did have a cyber policy, spurned a $51,000 ransom demand last year and has spent about $8.5 million responding to the attack and recovering files, a spokesman said this month. Spurred by those and other cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution this summer not to pay ransoms.

Still, many public agencies are delighted to have their insurers cover ransoms, especially when the ransomware has also encrypted backup files. Johannesburg-Lewiston Area Schools, a school district in Michigan, faced that predicament after being attacked in October. Beazley, the insurer handling the claim, helped the district conduct a cost-benefit analysis, which found that paying a ransom was preferable to rebuilding the systems from scratch, said Superintendent Kathleen Xenakis-Makowski.

“They sat down with our technology director and said, ‘This is what’s affected, and this is what it would take to re-create,’” said Xenakis-Makowski, who has since spoken at conferences for school officials about the importance of having cyber insurance. She said the district did not discuss the ransom decision publicly at the time in part to avoid a prolonged debate over the ethics of paying. “There’s just certain things you have to do to make things work,” she said.

Ransomware is one of the most common cybercrimes in the world. Although it is often cast as a foreign problem, because hacks tend to originate from countries such as Russia and Iran, ProPublica has found that American industries have fostered its proliferation. We reported in May on two ransomware data recovery firms that purported to use their own technology to disable ransomware but in reality often just paid the attackers. One of the firms, Proven Data, of Elmsford, New York, tells victims on its website that insurance is likely to cover the cost of ransomware recovery.

Lloyd’s of London, the world’s largest specialty insurance market, said it pioneered the first cyber liability policy in 1999. Today, it offers cyber coverage through 74 syndicates — formed by one or more Lloyd’s members such as Beazley joining together — that provide capital and accept and spread risk. Eighty percent of the cyber insurance written at Lloyd’s is for entities based in the U.S. The Lloyd’s market is famous for insuring complex, high-risk and unusual exposures, such as climate-change consequences, Arctic explorers and Bruce Springsteen’s voice.

Many insurers were initially reluctant to cover cyber disasters, in part because of the lack of reliable actuarial data. When they protect customers against traditional risks such as fires, floods and auto accidents, they price policies based on authoritative information from national and industry sources. But, as Lloyd’s noted in a 2017 report, “there are no equivalent sources for cyber-risk,” and the data used to set premiums is collected from the internet. Such publicly available data is likely to underestimate the potential financial impact of ransomware for an insurer. According to a report by global consulting firm PwC, both insurers and victimized companies are reluctant to disclose breaches because of concerns over loss of competitive advantage or reputational damage.

Despite the uncertainty over pricing, dozens of carriers eventually followed Lloyd’s in embracing cyber coverage. Other lines of insurance are expected to shrink in the coming decades, said Nordman, the former regulator. Self-driving cars, for example, are expected to lead to significantly fewer car accidents and a corresponding drop in premiums, according to estimates. Insurers are seeking new areas of opportunity, and “cyber is one of the small number of lines that is actually growing,” Nordman said.

Driven partly by the spread of ransomware, the cyber insurance market has grown rapidly. Between 2015 and 2017, total U.S. cyber premiums written by insurers that reported to the NAIC doubled to an estimated $3.1 billion, according to the most recent data available.

Cyber policies have been more profitable for insurers than other lines of insurance. The loss ratio for U.S. cyber policies was about 35% in 2018, according to a report by Aon, a London-based professional services firm. In other words, for every dollar in premiums collected from policyholders, insurers paid out roughly 35 cents in claims. That compares to a loss ratio of about 62% across all property and casualty insurance, according to data compiled by the NAIC of insurers that report to them. Besides ransomware, cyber insurance frequently covers costs for claims related to data breaches, identity theft and electronic financial scams.

During the underwriting process, insurers typically inquire about a prospective policyholder’s cyber security, such as the strength of its firewall or the viability of its backup files, Nordman said. If they believe the organization’s defenses are inadequate, they might decline to write a policy or charge more for it, he said. North Dakota Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread, chairman of the NAIC’s innovation and technology task force, said some insurers suggest prospective policyholders hire outside firms to conduct “cyber audits” as a “risk mitigation tool” aimed to prevent attacks — and claims — by strengthening security.

“Ultimately, you’re going to see that prevention of the ransomware attack is likely going to come from the insurance carrier side,” Godfread said. “If they can prevent it, they don’t have to pay out a claim, it’s better for everybody.”

Not all cyber insurance policies cover ransom payments. After a ransomware attack on Jackson County, Georgia, last March, the county billed insurance for credit monitoring services and an attorney but had to pay the ransom of about $400,000, County Manager Kevin Poe said. Other victims have struggled to get insurers to pay cyber-related claims. Food company Mondelez International and pharmaceutical company Merck sued insurers last year in state courts after the carriers refused to reimburse costs associated with damage from NotPetya malware. The insurers cited “hostile or warlike action” or “act of war” exclusions because the malware was linked to the Russian military. The cases are pending.

The proliferation of cyber insurers willing to accommodate ransom demands has fostered an industry of data recovery and incident response firms that insurers hire to investigate attacks and negotiate with and pay hackers. This year, two FBI officials who recently retired from the bureau opened an incident response firm in Connecticut. The firm, The Aggeris Group, says on its website that it offers “an expedient response by providing cyber extortion negotiation services and support recovery from a ransomware attack.”

Ramarcus Baylor, a principal consultant for The Crypsis Group, a Virginia incident response firm, said he recently worked with two companies hit by ransomware. Although both clients had backup systems, insurers promised to cover the six-figure ransom payments rather than spend several days assessing whether the backups were working. Losing money every day the systems were down, the clients accepted the offer, he said.

Crypsis CEO Bret Padres said his company gets many of its clients from insurance referrals. There’s “really good money in ransomware” for the cyberattacker, recovery experts and insurers, he said. Routine ransom payments have created a “vicious circle,” he said. “It’s a hard cycle to break because everyone involved profits: We do, the insurance carriers do, the attackers do.”

Chris Loehr, executive vice president of Texas-based Solis Security, said there are “a lot of times” when backups are available but clients still pay ransoms. Everyone from the victim to the insurer wants the ransom paid and systems restored as fast as possible, Loehr said.

“They figure out that it’s going to take a month to restore from the cloud, and so even though they have the data backed up,” paying a ransom to obtain a decryption key is faster, he said.

“Let’s get it negotiated very quickly, let’s just get the keys, and get the customer decrypted to minimize business interruption loss,” he continued. “It makes the client happy, it makes the attorneys happy, it makes the insurance happy.”

If clients morally oppose ransom payments, Loehr said, he reminds them where their financial interests lie, and of the high stakes for their businesses and employees. “I’ll ask, ‘The situation you’re in, how long can you go on like this?’” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Well, not for long.’ Insurance is only going to cover you for up to X amount of dollars, which gets burned up fast.”

“I know it sucks having to pay off assholes, but that’s what you gotta do,” he said. “And they’re like, ‘Yeah, OK, let’s get it done.’ You gotta kind of take charge and tell them, ‘This is the way it’s going to be or you’re dead in the water.’”

Lloyd’s-backed CFC, a specialist insurance provider based in London, uses Solis for some of its U.S. clients hit by ransomware. Graeme Newman, chief innovation officer at CFC, said “we work relentlessly” to help victims improve their backup security. “Our primary objective is always to get our clients back up and running as quickly as possible,” he said. “We would never recommend that our clients pay ransoms. This would only ever be a very final course of action, and any decision to do so would be taken by our clients, not us as an insurance company.”

As ransomware has burgeoned, the incident response division of Solis has “taken off like a rocket,” Loehr said. Loehr’s need for a reliable way to pay ransoms, which typically are transacted in digital currencies such as Bitcoin, spawned Sentinel Crypto, a Florida-based money services business managed by his friend, Wesley Spencer. Sentinel’s business is paying ransoms on behalf of clients whose insurers reimburse them, Loehr and Spencer said.

New York-based Flashpoint also pays ransoms for insurance companies. Hofmann, the vice president, said insurers typically give policyholders a toll-free number to dial as soon as they realize they’ve been hit. The number connects to a lawyer who provides a list of incident response firms and other contractors. Insurers tightly control expenses, approving or denying coverage for the recovery efforts advised by the vendors they suggest.

“Carriers are absolutely involved in the decision making,” Hofmann said. On both sides of the attack, “insurance is going to transform this entire market,” he said.

On June 10, Lake City government officials noticed they couldn’t make calls or send emails. IT staff then discovered encrypted files on the city’s servers and disconnected the infected servers from the internet. The city soon learned it was struck by Ryuk ransomware. Over the past year, unknown attackers using the Ryuk strain have besieged small municipalities and technology and logistics companies, demanding ransoms up to $5 million, according to the FBI.

Shortly after realizing it had been attacked, Lake City contacted the Florida League of Cities, which provides insurance for more than 550 public entities in the state. Beazley is the league’s reinsurer for cyber coverage, and they share the risk. The league declined to comment.

Initially, the city had hoped to restore its systems without paying a ransom. IT staff was “plugging along” and had taken server drives to a local vendor who’d had “moderate success at getting the stuff off of it,” Lee said. However, the process was slow and more challenging than anticipated, he said.

As the local technicians worked on the backups, Beazley requested a sample encrypted file and the ransom note so its approved vendor, Coveware, could open negotiations with the hackers, said Steve Roberts, Lake City’s director of risk management. The initial ransom demand was 86 bitcoin, or about $700,000 at the time, Coveware CEO Bill Siegel said. “Beazley was not happy with it — it was way too high,” Roberts said. “So [Coveware] started negotiations with the perps and got it down to the 42 bitcoin. Insurance stood by with the final negotiation amount, waiting for our decision.”

Lee said Lake City may have been able to achieve a “majority recovery” of its files without paying the ransom, but it probably would have cost “three times as much money trying to get there.” The city fired its IT director, Brian Hawkins, in the midst of the recovery efforts. Hawkins, who is suing the city, said in an interview posted online by his new employer that he was made “the scapegoat” for the city’s unpreparedness. The “recovery process on the files was taking a long time” and “the lengthy process was a major factor in paying the ransom,” he said in the interview.

On June 25, the day after the council meeting, the city said in a press release that while its backup recovery efforts “were initially successful, many systems were determined to be unrecoverable.” Lake City fronted the ransom amount to Coveware, which converted the money to bitcoin, paid the attackers and received a fee for its services. The Florida League of Cities reimbursed the city, Roberts said.

Lee acknowledged that paying ransoms spurs more ransomware attacks. But as cyber insurance becomes ubiquitous, he said, he trusts the industry’s judgment.

“The insurer is the one who is going to get hit with most of this if it continues,” he said. “And if they’re the ones deciding it’s still better to pay out, knowing that means they’re more likely to have to do it again — if they still find that it’s the financially correct decision — it’s kind of hard to argue with them because they know the cost-benefit of that. I have a hard time saying it’s the right decision, but maybe it makes sense with a certain perspective.”

ProPublica research reporter Doris Burke contributed to this story.

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The Death of Arms Control

A deadly accident in northern Russia earlier this month caused the U.S. arms control community to stand up and take notice. The Russians claim they were testing “isotopic sources of fuel on a liquid propulsion unit,” and that only after the test was completed did the engine explode. There was a spike in radiation levels detected in the city of Severodvinsk, roughly 18 miles away, shortly after the accident. Seven people were killed as a result of the explosion, including at least two who died of acute radiation poisoning. Scores of others were exposed to radioactive materials, and subsequently decontaminated and placed under observation. Within days, the Russians declared that all radiation readings in and around the accident site were at normal levels.

Many Western experts believe that the Russians were testing a nuclear-powered cruise missile, the 9M730 “Burevestnik”—known in the West by its NATO designation, the SSC-X-9 “Skyfall”—and that a miniature nuclear reactor these experts believe was used to power the missile exploded. Other experts, including me, question this conclusion. But a recent report by Roshydromet, the Russian agency responsible for sampling air quality, showed the presence of four distinct isoptopes in the atmosphere after the accident that are uniquely sourced to the fission of uranium 235, strongly suggesting that a reactor of some sort was, in fact, involved (mitigating against this conclusion is the fact that no iodine 131 was detected; iodine 131 is the most prevalent isotope produced by the fission of uranium 235, and its absence would be highly unlikely in the event of any reactor explosion).

The bottom line, however, is that no one outside the Russians responsible for the failed test know exactly what system was being tested, why it was being tested, how it was being tested, and why that test failed. The Russian government has refused to provide any details about the test. “When it comes to activities of a military nature,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a press conference a few days after the accident, “there are certain restrictions on access to information. This is work in the military field, work on promising weapons systems. We are not hiding this,” he said, adding, “We must think of our own security.”

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Others were thinking about their own security as well.

“Something obviously has gone badly wrong here,” U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said after the accident. Bolton observed that Russia is seeking to “modernize their nuclear arsenal to build new kinds of delivery vehicles, hypersonic glide vehicles, hypersonic cruise missiles,” noting that “dealing with this capability … remains a real challenge for the United States and its allies.” The U.S. and Russia are currently discussing the extension of the New START treaty on strategic arms reduction, scheduled to expire in early 2021. “If there is going to be an extension of the New START,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “then we need to make sure that we include all these new weapons that Russia is pursuing.”

But this is problematic—the new Russian weapons under development are directly linked to the decision by the George W. Bush administration in 2002 to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, a 1972 agreement that limited the number and types of ABM weapons the U.S. and then-Soviet Union could deploy, thereby increasing the likelihood that any full-scale missile attack would succeed in reaching its target. By creating the inevitability of mutual nuclear annihilation (a practice referred to as “mutually assured destruction,” or MAD), both the U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear forces served as a deterrent against one another.

The deployment by the U.S. of modern ABM systems in the aftermath of its withdrawal from the ABM treaty, Russia believes, threatens its strategic nuclear force and thereby nullifies its deterrent potential. From the Russian perspective, only by building a new generation of modern nuclear delivery systems specifically designed to defeat U.S. ABM capability can Russia reassert its strategic nuclear deterrent. “We have repeatedly told our American and European partners who are NATO members we will make the necessary efforts to neutralize the threats posed by the deployment of the US global missile defense system,” Putin stated during a 2018 speech. According to him, “Nobody really wanted to talk to us about the core of the problem, and nobody wanted to listen to us.” Putin unveiled Russia’s new nuclear arsenal—which included the Burevestnik missile—and stared into the camera, declaring, “So, listen to us now!”

Complicating matters further is the notion put forward by Esper that the weapons Putin unveiled in 2018 would require that the New START treaty be modified prior to any extension, impeding what otherwise would simply have been an automatic extension, based upon mutual consent, for a five-year period. The Russians took umbrage over this position. “If we want to really comprehend the core of the matter,” Vladimir Yermakov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister for nonproliferation and arms control, told the Russian press earlier this month, “it should be noted that the New START Treaty covers specific categories of strategic arms, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), heavy bombers and ICBM and SLBM launchers. The Treaty,” Yermakov emphasized, “does not cover any other weapons systems.” Regarding the failed test of Aug. 8, Yermakov declared: “This also concerns the relevant research and development projects.” Yermakov categorically rejected the proposition put forward by Esper, noting that “the question of hypothetically extending the New START Treaty with certain weapons systems that do not fit into the aforementioned categories is absolutely unacceptable.”

Esper’s position, Yermakov said, did not take the Russians by surprise. “As of late,” Yermakov said, “we have been hearing US officials express doubts more and more often as to whether extending the New START Treaty makes sense. It is hard to perceive this as anything other than a conscious effort to lay the required media groundwork and to invent pretexts for declining to extend the agreement after it expires in February 2021 and to obtain absolute freedom to build up the US nuclear arsenal, even to the detriment of strategic stability and international security.”

The Russian position on the extension of the New START treaty, Yermakov said, is that it would “be a reasonable and responsible step, making it possible to prevent a complete breakdown in the area of strategic stability,” and “would also provide extra time to consider joint approaches towards new weapons systems that are currently emerging and possible new arms control treaties.” But before any extension could be considered, the Russian side insisted that the U.S. resolve an outstanding issue of treaty compliance that centered around 56 Trident SLBM launchers and 41 B-52H bombers that were “converted” from their nuclear mission in a way that does not render them incapable of accomplishing that mission. Such conversions are permitted under the New START treaty “by rendering [the Trident SLBM launchers and B-52H bombers] incapable of employing ICBMs, SLBMs, or nuclear armaments.”

For the Trident SLBM launchers, the conversion was done by removing gas generators of the ejecting mechanism from the launch tube and bolting the tube covers shut. The problem, for the Russians, is that this procedure is reversible, meaning that the launcher could still be used to launch SLBMs simply by removing the bolts and replacing the gas generators. Likewise, the B-52H modifications involve the removal of launch equipment from the aircraft. The aircraft still retains a socket that would allow the arming mechanism of a nuclear weapon to be connected to the removed equipment, which means the B-52H could be converted back to its nuclear role simply by reinstalling the equipment. According to Yermakov, “Russian inspectors are unable to verify the results of the re-equipping under the procedure stipulated by the Treaty.” From the Russian perspective, the issue of the noncompliant “conversion” of the Trident SLBM launchers and B-52H bombers is of “fundamental significance”; any extension of the New START can only be discussed, the Russians maintain, once the United States “fully return to complying with the spirit and the letter of the treaty.”

The foundation upon which U.S.-Russian cooperation regarding New START was constructed is fragile, founded as it was on the unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty in 2002, the ongoing compliance issue regarding the conversion of treaty-accountable items under New START, and the precipitous decision on the part of the Trump administration to withdraw from yet another landmark arms control agreement, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which went into effect Aug. 2. It would be the INF Treaty that would deal the fatal blow to U.S. credibility when it came to arms control.

The U.S. had, since 2014, accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty by testing a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) to prohibited ranges. According to the U.S. narrative, Russia took advantage of the existence of two other missile systems, the Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile and the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile, to try and disguise the development of a new GLCM, the 9M729, which the U.S. claims was flight-tested to ranges prohibited by the INF Treaty. “Russia probably assumed parallel development—tested from the same site—and deployment of other cruise missiles that are not prohibited by the INF Treaty would provide sufficient cover for its INF violation,” then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told Congress in January.

For its part, Russia denied that the 9M729 violated the INF Treaty. From the moment the U.S. first raised its allegations regarding the 9M729, Russia requested that they be backed up with facts that would substantiate the claims; this the U.S. refused to do. Finally, in an effort to forestall a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty, Russia displayed the 9M729 alongside its cousin, the 9M728, a similar GLCM that the U.S. acknowledges complies with the range restrictions of the INF Treaty. The Russian Ministry of Defense invited U.S. and NATO military officers stationed in Moscow to attend this demonstration; none did. The Russians were able to demonstrate convincingly that the 9M728 and 9M729 missiles made use of the same propulsion components—solid-fuel rocket motors, which meant that, all things being equal, both missiles would fly the same distance. But there was a kicker—the 9M729 missile was equipped with an improved guidance and control package, as well as a different warhead which, in their aggregate, weighed significantly more than their counterpart components on the treaty-compliant 9M728 missile. In short, the Russians demonstrated that the 9M729 could not fly further than the treaty-compliant 9M728. The U.S. ignored this demonstration.

At the same time the U.S. was accusing Russia of violating the INF Treaty with the 9M729 missile, Russia was voicing similar concerns about the Mark 41 “Aegis Ashore” vertical launch system that the U.S. had installed in both Poland and Romania as part of its ballistic missile defense shield. The Mark 41 originally was designed for service on naval vessels. In this role, its launcher system could be configured to launch either the SM-6 surface-to-air missile, or the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile. From the Russian perspective, the Mark 41, when placed in a ground-launch configuration, became an INF-capable system, since it could launch a GLCM of proscribed range. The U.S. was adamant in its rejection of these claims, noting that the Aegis Ashore systems in Poland and Romania were configured to launch SM-6 surface-to-air missiles only. The Russians, however, insisted that there was no physical way to make this determination, noting that the INF Treaty required that similar systems be denoted with unique visually distinctive features; the U.S. dismissed the Russian position as a “technicality.”

On Aug. 18, the U.S. conducted a test launch of a GLCM from a Mark 41 launch cannister that had been bolted to a flat-bed trailer, making it a de facto ground launcher. The GLCM flew to ranges greater than those permitted by the INF Treaty. Technically, the U.S. was not in violation of the INF treaty at the time of the test, because it had expired on Aug. 2, some 16 days prior. But those 16 days hold the key to understanding just how seriously Russia took this test. According to a transcript of a meeting Putin held Friday with members of the Russian Security Council, he declared that by conducting a missile test a mere 16 days after the INF Treaty ended, it was “obvious that it was not improvisation, but became the next link in a chain of events that were planned and carried out earlier.”

From the Russian perspective, they had been right all along—the U.S. had cheated on the INF Treaty, just as they were cheating on the New START Treaty. With such a dismal track record of noncompliance, it is all but certain that the New START Treaty will not be extended and, thus liberated from any vestige of constraint, the U.S. and Russia will embark on a new arms race that threatens all of humanity with the all-too-real possibility of imminent destruction.

The post The Death of Arms Control appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Neocolonialism Will Spell the Amazon’s Demise

The 2019 G7 summit in Biarritz unnecessarily handed Brazil’s Neofascist Bolsonaro a propaganda coup with which to rally his dwindling support. With his approval falling to record lows and facing international attacks of unprecedented intensity, their colonial-sounding rhetoric allowed him to appear heroically nationalistic, a defender of Brazilian sovereignty over the Amazon, when in reality he and his government are fully geared to serve the interests of foreign capital in true comprador tradition.

Jair Bolsonaro is effectively the G7’s guy. He and his Chicago School Economy minister Paulo Guedes are implementing an ultra-neoliberal economic platform from which Brazil is sold off for the price of a Banana. There should be no doubt about who the practical rather than rhetorical defenders of sovereignty are on the political spectrum.

Former PCdoB Senator for Amazonas, Vanessa Grazziotin, took aim at Bolsonaro on social media following the G7 summit:

Yet here we are, and a President whom NATO powers helped come to office via their support for the coup against Dilma Rousseff and imprisonment of Lula da Silva, has returned the favour, with an opportunity for their corporations to exploit Brazil to an extent not seen since the colonial era as depicted in Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin Americaand near future as envisaged by the subjects of Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett’s Thy will be done.

The G7’s cursory offer of $22 million US dollars is not money that Brazil actually needs, the country has $385 billion in reserves. The key failure of this thinking is the notion that the Amazon fires are some kind of tragic accident. It is not through oversight, incompetence or “failure to act” that the rainforest is in flames, it is a deliberate, planned and genocidal deforestation strategy, from which G7 companies are themselves in line to benefit.

leaked presentation by Washington DC lobbyists close to the Trump administration shows US companies being recruited to exploit the Amazon, from the Mining, Agribusiness and Gas/Chemical industries. A myriad of G7-based companies are already directly benefitting from the far-right Brazilian Government’s policies. Justin Trudeau will be unlikely to mention the Brazilian operations of Canada’s notorious Mining sector, and from the United  States – Cargill, Monsanto, Boeing, Chevron, Exxon Mobil have all gained enormously from the post-Coup governments of Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro. There is even talk from Paulo Guedes to merge Banco do Brasil with Bank of America.

Scepticism over the G7’s rhetoric is unfortunately well founded. The idea of selling off tracts of the Brazilian Amazon to corporations for its own protection (note that the proposed G7 initiatives specify the Brazilian Amazon rather than the entire Amazon) emerged in 2006. Then UK Foreign Secretary under Tony Blair, David Milliband, addressed an environmental conference in Mexico and effectively proposed a corporate-led internationalisation of the rainforest.

This had its origins earlier that year, when Swedish millionaire Johan Eliasch, an environmental consultant to Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, and former deputy treasurer of the UK Conservative Party, had bought 400,000 acres of Brazilian rainforest for £8m pounds (which has greatly increased in value since). Off the back of this initiative, Eliasch founded the organisation “Cool Earth” with the objective of finding buyers for tracts of Amazon land. This dovetailed with the concept of carbon credit, where companies buy areas of forest to offset their emissions elsewhere. (His company Gethal was later fined by environmental agency Ibama for illegal logging and use of land). In an article in the Sunday Times, Maurice Chittenden wrote: “Eliasch is part of a growing trend towards ‘green colonialism’. Rich people with chequebooks instead of pith helmets, charities and trusts, who are buying vast swathes of the Third World or ‘renting’ the timber rights to stop trees being cut down. It is a breakaway from the methods that have characterised the international conservation movement for the past 50 years.”

It was this line that caused discomfort within the Lula government, and understandably so. Worse still, they had not even been consulted on the proposal beforehand. Back then there were legal limitations on foreign ownership of Brazilian land. Bolsonaro’s Government moved immediately to abolish them during his first months in office, as he did to decimate protections for indigenous peoples’ territory.

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald posted on Twitter: “one valid grievance the Brazilian Right has about the Amazon is anger over other countries – the US and in Western Europe – who already developed industrially & are destroying the planet, now demanding Brazil save them by not exploiting its own internal resources.”

But hostility to meddling Foreign Governments and NGOs is not confined to Brazil’s conservatives. The developmentalist left echo many of these sentiments for different reasons. They believe that the G7 do not want Brazil to develop and wish it to remain an exporter of cheap commodities – a glorified plantation economy. Thus Amazonian nationalism spans political boundaries. In 2010 Lula criticised demonstrations promoted by Greenpeace and Avatar director James Cameron against the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam project, as green colonialism – gringo protest intended to hurt the electoral campaign of his successor Dilma Rousseff.

The fall in deforestation under Lula’s Workers Party was lauded internationally as a success story, yet the standoff with Greenpeace continued, and they began to campaign on non-environmental issues under Dilma Rousseff’s first mandate. This even extended to bringing activists from the US to give lectures on innovative protest strategies during the 2014 election year. The road to Bolsonaro was paved with good intentions.

The history of foreign ambitions for the Brazilian Amazon and its riches is well documented.

In 1927, Henry Ford, then the richest man in the world, bought a large tract of land, around 12,000 km², in the state of Para, deep within Brasil’s Amazon Rainforest. Greg Grandin’s excellent book on the subject depicts one man’s deluded attempt to enforce his will on the natural world. Fordlândia, as the settlement was named, quickly became the site of a struggle between an industrialist and the most complex ecological system on the planet.

Ford’s early successes in imposing routine and even American midwestern culture such as square dances on indigenous workers made way as it slowly transformed into a raucous “tropical boomtown” before falling into abandon.

Around a decade ago, a mocked up page purporting to be from US high-school textbook showed a map which labeled the Amazon as an internationally administrated area. This spread around Brazil on the social network of the day Orkut, and was never completely debunked, returning zombie-like every few years to circulate on newer platforms. For native English speakers, its spelling mistakes and strange diction left no doubt that it was fake, but the real question was: did it actually reflect international opinion?

Such “Internationalisation of the Amazon” is being dismissed as a military dictatorship-era fantasy, now revived by Bolsonaro in a desperate answer to foreign outrage over the rainforest.

The problem is that this type of Amazonian nationalist sentiment has at its core an awareness of very real historic and ongoing designs on the region’s resources which it is naive to ignore, and a “resource nationalism” abhorred by the State Department and Wall Street.

This August 2009 State Department cable, a scene-setter for National Security Adviser General James Jones’ visit acknowledges Anti-US sentiment amongst Brazilians ahead of the 2010 elections:

Thus the problem is not genuine concern over the sovereignty of the Brazilian Amazon, it is the identities of whom are now talking about it. To make a defence of Brazilian sovereignty in the current context you could appear in alignment with those you oppose politically and morally, thus few are. But it must be made.

A few weeks before the Amazon fires exploded onto every front page and news network around the world, Foreign policy magazine, which had previously run columns normalising Bolsonaro and insisting that he represented no threat to Brazil or its democracy, published an article by Stephen M. Walt headlined: “Who will invade Brazil to save the Amazon?”.

These extreme talking points have at the very least revived a trope that “Brazil cannot be trusted as guardians of the Amazon”, and this now re-emerges in countries which actually, even actively supported the torching of Brazilian democracy. Right now, as the Amazon burns, progressive Democratic Members of Congress have requested clarification from the US Department of Justice’s on its role in Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power.

In essence, do we really trust those who did nothing to help Brazil defend its democracy from fascism, foreign governments in the service of extractive corporations, or their think-tank lackeys, to protect the Amazon and its peoples?

Instead, this wave of indignation and fear around the world should be channeled into helping the inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest and progressive Brazilians defend it themselves. To do this we must support their struggle to root out and extinguish the political cause of this catastrophe.

The post Neocolonialism Will Spell the Amazon’s Demise appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Boris Johnson Is Pushing Britain Into the Abyss

What follows is a conversation between The Nation’s Don Guttenplan and Marc Steiner of The Real News Network. Read a transcript of their conversation below or watch the video at the bottom of the post.

JEREMY CORBYN, LABOUR PARTY LEADER: Suspending Parliament is not acceptable. It’s not on. What the Prime Minister is doing is this sort of smash and grab on our democracy.

REPORTER: Your critics will say, this is an insult to democracy and denying the MPs the time they need to debate and possibly vote on Brexit.

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: No. Well, that’s – that is completely untrue. If you look at what we’re doing, we’re bringing forward a new legislative program.

PROTESTORS: Save our democracy. [inaudible]. If you shut down the Parliament, we shut down the streets. If you shut down the Parliament, we shut down the streets.

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us.

Well, as you just heard, right-wing mania seems to be infecting the minds of political leaders all across the globe, and I’m not talking at this moment about anyone who resides in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This time I’m talking about the man who resides at 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who asked Queen Elizabeth II to suspend Parliament beginning next week through October the 14th, effectively shutting down any opposition to Johnson’s move for Brexit— deal or no deal. It has caused outrage with opposition members and members of his own Conservative Party. How can they just shut down Parliament? What does that mean politically? Is it legal? Where does it come from? And what could be the result?

Well, we’re joined now by Don Guttenplan. Don Guttenplan is, who for years was The Nation correspondent in London, and is now Editor of that magazine. Don, welcome. Good to have you with us.

DON  GUTTENPLAN: Great to be here, Marc. Great to be here. And yes, as you’ve said, I lived in London until June, for 25 years.

MARC STEINER: 25 years! I said a little while. That’s a long while.

DON  GUTTENPLAN: That was a long while. I saw this cliff edge approaching, but I didn’t believe we’d ever actually get there, and we’re not there yet. [crosstalk]

MARC STEINER: Talk about what you mean. What do you think politically is going on? He wants Brexit, deal or no deal, pushing this through. He told folks, as you know, we just want to push our agenda through. Talk about what the politics are here.

DON  GUTTENPLAN: Okay. There are a couple of things to bear in mind. One is that nothing’s actually happened yet.

MARC STEINER: Right, right.

DON  GUTTENPLAN: Johnson sent the queen a letter, and she said okay. And what he’s asked is for her to suspend Parliament starting next week essentially, or at the latest next week.


DON  GUTTENPLAN: Next week is next week. And as we all know in politics, a week is an eternity, so a lot can happen before then. But what he wants to do—Well, that’s the surface game. The deeper game, and this is one of the things that is worth bearing in mind about Boris Johnson, is that one of the things you learn in going to Eton, where he was educated, is to treat everything in life as a game. And that has disadvantages in terms of seriousness and purpose, or perhaps your moral bearings. But it does have an advantage in that if you treat everything in life as a game, then you always know what game you’re playing. That’s where Johnson an advantage over, for example, Theresa May, his predecessor as Prime Minister, and maybe even over the Europeans who are watching this with a mixture of horror and perhaps some [inaudible] because the Brexit negotiations have always been a game of chicken.

It’s always been about heading towards the cliff edge, for those of you who remember Rebel Without a Cause, with your foot on the accelerator, but with one hand on the door. And the first person to bail loses, except if the second person to bail ends up going over the cliff. But of course, the way to win in chicken is to convince your opponent that you are willing to go over a cliff. That’s what this letter to the queen is about. It’s about signaling to the Europeans that Johnson has his foot on the accelerator and that if they don’t want this to happen, they’d better come up with something more and better, and conspicuously more and better than the deal that took months for his predecessor, Theresa May, to negotiate.

MARC STEINER: Well, it seems that from what I’ve been reading, that Jeremy Corbyn wanted to introduce into Parliament a no-confidence vote, and that could have something to do with it as well. I mean—

DON  GUTTENPLAN: Yeah, there could be an election. That’s the other non-surface game that’s being played here, is the timing of the election. For readers who—For readers, sorry.

MARC STEINER: That’s okay.

DON  GUTTENPLAN: I edit a magazine, so I think about readers. But for viewers who want a deeper dive into all of this than we’re going to have time for today, I would look at Stephen Bush who is the New Statesman‘s correspondent, who’s been terrific on Brexit from the beginning. He points out that you have three options for timing an election. You can have an election after Brexit and after a no-deal Brexit when all of the sort of consequences begin to bite. or you can have an election before you’ve delivered Brexit. In which case, the Tory Party risks losing not only the people who don’t want to no-deal Brexit, but the people who do want Brexit and are frustrated that they haven’t delivered it.

So between those alternatives, it may be that the least worst alternative for Johnson is to have an election right after you’ve crashed out, which is probably as soon as Corbyn’s no-confidence vote would have a chance to be considered, but before the consequences have had a chance to bite. So partly, it’s about that too. But the other thing that’s worth noting is what the speaker said. So you said, is this legal?


DON  GUTTENPLAN: Well, unlike the United States, which is a constitutional republic, Britain doesn’t have a written constitution. One of the things that we Americans can be glad about this week is that we do have one because this is the kind of mess that happens when you don’t have one. So in the absence of a written constitution specifying what Parliament can and can’t do, parliament is sovereign. It can agree to do anything it wants.

The problem for Johnson is that parliament in its current make up is unlikely to agree to do what he wants, which is to exit the European Union without a deal. So part of this is about his machinations to get around that, but proroguing Parliament, which he’s asked the queen to do, is not – I mean, it has been done before. It’s not something that’s never been done, but it’s a big deal. And to do it when you don’t have a government majority, and when you are trying to avoid a vote that you would probably lose, is a bigger deal.

I mean, there is quite a bit of justification in people who see this and are labeling this as a coup. If this happens, and he is allowed to prorogue Parliament, and then Britain does crash out while Parliament is in recess, or after it’s been abolished – or not abolished, but suspended. That’s appropriate [crosstalk].

MARC STEINER: Suspended, right. Right.

DON  GUTTENPLAN: Suspended. That probably could be legitimately described as a coup. It’s certainly a way of getting around all of the parliamentary, not constitutional, but parliamentary checks that are supposed to keep things like this from happening. But speaker John Bercow called this a “constitutional outrage.” His opinion as the speaker doesn’t amount to all that much since he doesn’t have that much power, but the power he does have, which may be really important in the next five days, is the power to control Parliament’s timetable. So in other words, by calling this a constitutional outrage—And remember, Bercow, although he doesn’t get along with Johnson, and indeed a lot of Tories don’t like him, is still titularly a member of the Tory Party.

MARC STEINER: That’s what I thought. Right.

DON  GUTTENPLAN: This is not a Corbyn supporter calling it this. It’s a member of the Tory Party calling it this. By saying that, he’s essentially signaling to Brexit’s opponents that if they can get their act together and come up with a constitutional strategy for stopping this suspension, and indeed forbidding a Brexit while Parliament, for example, is suspended, that he will give them time to debate that. He is not opposed to the forces that are trying to stop this.

MARC STEINER: Two quick questions before you have to run and we have to close out here. On the one hand, I mean, because if this does go through, they don’t come back until 14th, he wants to announce the thing by the 17th of October to have this no-deal Brexit. I mean if that happened, that could have really an amazing fallout in terms of economic distress for Britain itself.

DON  GUTTENPLAN: Oh, it would be a disaster. I mean, people are talking about running out—People with diabetes may not be able to get insulin. They’re going to have to search every truck of the thousands of trucks that goes through Calais and Dover every day, which means they’re going to be lines and queues going all the way from Calais to Paris on the French side, and going all the way from Dover to London on the British side. You may see panic buying in the supermarkets. I mean, the police are preparing for civil disorder on a fairly large scale. It could be a disaster, but it’s far from certain that it’s going to happen. And again, you’re in a car and you’re heading to the cliff. What happens if you go off the cliff? It’s a disaster.


DON  GUTTENPLAN: What do you have to convince your opponent? That you’re going to go off the cliff, or that you’re more willing to risk going off the cliff than they are. And of course, it’s not just a disaster for the British economy. Remember, Britain is the market for 40% of the German car manufacturers, so that’s part of what this is about. This is about convincing the Europeans that if they don’t deliver a significant change, they’re going to go over the cliff with the British economy.

MARC STEINER: Don, you’re astute and very bright and you’ve been in Britain for 25 years. You’re not prescient though, but what are your thoughts about what might happen over the next week? I mean, how do you think this might play out? You’ve covered their politics for a while.

DON  GUTTENPLAN: Well, I still think going out without a deal is probably the most likely outcome. I don’t think that going out without a deal and proroguing Parliament is the most likely outcome. But you have to remember that there are really only three options on the table. One option is to stop the clock by rescinding the Brexit motion. There is no parliamentary majority for that and Johnson, who’s the Prime Minister, doesn’t want to do that.

The other option is to accept the deal that Theresa May already negotiated, and that the Europeans have already said yes to, so all the British have to do is say yes. That’s been tested to destruction and it’s clear that there is no parliamentary majority for that, even though the last time it came for a vote, Boris Johnson voted for it.

And then the third option is crashing out without a deal. And the problem for people who live in Britain or people who care about Britain is that that option, crashing out without a deal, is the default setting. That’s what’s going to happen if nothing else happens.

MARC STEINER: And finally here, looking into, as I talked about there in the opening, the right-wing mania. Whether you’re looking at what’s happening here with Brexit and Boris Johnson, or we had earlier today The Washington Post reporting about Donald Trump saying that he could just literally break the law to build the wall and do whatever he wanted to do, and damn the torpedoes, and I’ll pardon you if – don’t worry about it. Bolsonaro’s madness in Brazil at the moment.


MARC STEINER: There is a dynamic here politically across the globe that is fairly frightening.

DON  GUTTENPLAN: I think there is not just one dynamic, but pardon me for being old fashioned, there is a kind of a dialectical dynamic going on here.

MARC STEINER: Yes, I would say so, right.

DON  GUTTENPLAN: One thing that’s happening is that our democratic mechanisms and structures aren’t delivering to people the change that they both desperately want and feel that they desperately need, whether that’s genuine economic revival in the United States, or whether that’s a relationship with Europe that people in Britain are willing to live with, or whatever. What you have is sort of this undemocratically imposed austerity that’s been going on since – for a decade, and it shows no signs of lifting. So that’s created space.

The failure of existing institutions and representative democracy to respond to people’s desperation is what’s created the space for these kinds of shortcuts where the approach that says, damn the torpedoes, we’re going to do what we want because we’ve got to do something. That’s what Trump and Bolsonaro, and Modi in India, and Orban in Hungary, and Johnson in Britain, are all profiting from. That’s the space that’s created the opening for them.

MARC STEINER: Well, Don, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate the time. I know it’s a busy day. Don Guttenplan is the Editor of The Nation and joined us here on The Real News. Don, thank you so much.

DON  GUTTENPLAN: Great to be with you, Marc. Thanks.

MARC STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.

The post Boris Johnson Is Pushing Britain Into the Abyss appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Corporate Media Does Mauna Kea a Grave Disservice

Thousands of Native Hawaiians and their supporters have been congregating since July 15 at the base of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and mountain on the island of Hawaii. Known in Hawaiian as the kia’i, the protectors—a term the group prefers to “protesters”—seek to deter construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere. Business owners and state officials promise the telescope will provide jobs, educational opportunities and high-resolution astronomical imagery.

The protectors’ mobilization stems from a number of concerns about the vulnerability of the mountain to the effects of a new, 18-story telescope, as well as a fight for Indigenous self-determination in the face of colonialist control. Mauna Kea is an environmentally sensitive conservation district; it’s also sacred in Native Hawaiian traditions and religions, remaining one of the few bastions of Indigenous cultural preservation and sovereignty in the state.

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The current demonstrations at Mauna Kea are the culmination of decades of state land mismanagement and broken promises over the mountain, dating back to 1968, when the state leased the mountain to the University of Hawaii. Since then, Mauna Kea has been prized by astronomers for its high altitude and lack of atmospheric pollution, leading to the construction of 21 telescopes within 13 observatories. The TMT would be the 22nd telescope; the Washington Post (7/18/19), Associated Press (7/16/19) and other outlets have erroneously tallied the telescopes at 13.

National media coverage of the protectors’ struggle accelerated around 2014 and 2015, when the kia’i first assembled at Mauna Kea in opposition to the TMT, preventing its construction. Yet this reporting fell woefully short.

New York Times piece headlined “Seeking Stars, Finding Creationism” (10/20/14) called opposition to the Mauna Kea telescope a “turn back toward the dark ages.”

“In 2014 and 2015,” corporate media outlets “were obsessed with this idea of science versus culture, as if our kupuna [elders] haven’t practiced applied science,” Kaniela Ing, a Mauna Kea protector and Hawaii Community Bail Fund manager, told FAIR. At that time, as Marisa Peryer recently noted for the Columbia Journalism Review (7/29/19), CNN (8/27/15) published an article headlined “Science and Religion Fight Over Hawaii’s Highest Point.”

Other coverage was outright condescending. In 2014, the New York Times (10/20/14) called the protectors’ movement “creationism,” ridiculing activists’ claims that the telescope was a profit-seeking venture, omitting the TMT’s status as an LLC funded largely by multibillionaire Intel founder Gordon Moore’s philanthropic organization. The article dismissed the cooperation between Native Hawaiians and environmentalists as a “marriage of convenience,” condemning the protectors for “waging skirmishes against science.”

Peryer also cited a New York Times editorial (5/2/15) portraying the TMT as an innocent scapegoat caught in the middle of a battle dating back to the US’s 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. The piece lamented that “coexistence may never satisfy the core group of protesters who have been demanding the total erasure of technology from Mauna Kea’s peak.”

Many kia’i agree that media outlets have been more careful in recent months to avoid such facile binaries. Still, protectors face the challenges of specious narratives.

One of these relates to portrayals of public support of the TMT. A 2018 poll from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser indicated that 77 percent of respondents, and 72 percent of Native Hawaiian respondents, supported the construction of the TMT. The poll was referenced in various local and national media outlets, in addition to the Star-AdvertiserHawaii News Now (7/21/197/22/19), Hawaii Public Radio 7/29/19), AP (3/26/18), HuffPost (10/31/18) and the New York Times (7/10/19).

It’s imperative, however, to consider whose opinion was sought. The Star-Advertiser surveyed a total of 800 registered voters, only 78 of whom were Native Hawaiian; notably, Native Hawaiians have historically been subjected to voter suppression. “There were all these internally invalid measures of how this poll could really have any weight,” Uahikea Maile, a Mauna Kea protector and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told FAIR. “I’m fearful of the misrepresentation, because it’s obviously disproportionate to the reality of the situation.”

The Washington Post (7/17/19) adapted an AP story for its “KidsPost” feature by adding a more propagandistic headline.

Mischaracterization of the protectors took other forms. The Associated Press(7/16/19), for example, reported that protesters were “bullying” supporters of the telescope, a claim that the protest’s organizational structure and tactics directly contradict. The story was republished on NBC News (7/17/19) and in the Washington Post, under the headline “Native Hawaiians’ Protests Stop Researchers From Studying the Skies.”

The Associated Press (8/10/19) propagated a similar narrative in an article headlined “Amid Protest, Astronomers Lose Observation Time.” The story bemoaned astronomers’ reported loss of some 2,000 hours of viewing time at Mauna Kea’s existing telescopes in light of the protests. It also paraphrased astronomers’ statements that the resistance had denied them “regular, guaranteed access to their facilities, which puts their staff and equipment at risk.”

According to veteran Mauna Kea protector Kealoha Pisciotta, who was quoted in the Associated Press article, astronomers weren’t blocked by the kia’i; rather, their employers ordered them to descend the mountain. Astronomers “haven’t been blocked from the beginning. When they were allegedly blocked, it was really their own choice, because the observatories made their staffs stay down” amid the demonstrations, Pisciotta told FAIR. “They tried to argue that they were losing science because of us. How can you say it’s because of us? You’re the ones who ordered your people down. Not us.”

Pisciotta also noted that media coverage has muted the cultural and religious significance of Mauna Kea. “For a long time, the Associated Press [7/16/197/18/19], everybody,” including USA Today (8/21/19), “kept using the words ‘some Hawaiians’” in reference to who holds the mountain sacred. “At one point, we said, ‘It’s not ‘some Hawaiians.’ We are the majority.’”

She added that Native Hawaiians’ right to ascend the mountain for “subsistence, cultural and religious purposes” is enshrined in the Hawaii State Constitution. Despite this, state government temporarily denied cultural practitioners access to the mountain in mid-July, later permitting them one vehicle to ascend the mountain per day (Big Island Video News, (8/9/19).

As the protests continue, outlets report that the kia’i and TMT supporters are at an impasse, and suggest that negotiations might allow the project to proceed on Mauna Kea (Hawaii News Now, 7/25/19; NBC News8/18/19; Honolulu Civil Beat, 7/31/19). “What is tragic,” the aforementioned 2015 New York Times editorial cried, “is the missed opportunity for shared understanding.”

While proposals to compromise might appear fair, protectors say, they dismiss the historical context in Hawaii of colonialism and the usurpation of Indigenous land that continues today. Thus, these suggestions elide the stark power asymmetry between historically disenfranchised and marginalized Native Hawaiians and the billion-dollar, state-backed TMT project.

“The point that that misses is there’s not anything to negotiate. Either the Mauna is sacred or it’s not. When you talk about these issues, how do you compromise that?” said Kenneth Lawson, a Mauna Kea protector and law professor at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.

“We have shared the mountain since 1968,” said Pisciotta. “It’s our temple, it’s our church, it’s our house of worship.”

At the heart of the Mauna Kea action is thus a challenge not only to a telescope, but to capital and the pursuit of unmitigated industrial growth at any cost. It’s no wonder, then, that when corporate-owned media are tasked with examining this movement, their limitations rear their heads.

“Is the advancement of a certain field of science worth the further disenfranchisement, the pain of a marginalized group?” asked the Bail Fund’s Ing. “I think that’s a valid question for the media, but [the media] scrapes the surface of what this is really about.”

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Trump Guts Methane Restrictions in Latest Assault on Climate

Amid dire scientific warnings that the international community must act immediately to slash greenhouse gas emissions, President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is reportedly set to take another step in the opposite direction Thursday by unveiling a rule that would gut restrictions on the fossil fuel industry’s methane pollution.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the proposed rule change Thursday, the EPA’s plan would scrap regulations requiring the oil and gas industry to “install technologies that monitor and limit leaks from new wells, tanks and pipeline networks and to more frequently inspect for leaks.”

“It would also forestall legal requirements that would have forced the EPA to set rules on emissions from thousands of pre-existing wells and industry sites,” the Journal reported.

Environmentalists reacted with outrage to the new proposal. “This administration is ultimately driven by sociopathic disregard for our future,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.

Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel called the rule “reckless” and said it will “impact millions of families living with oil and gas air pollution in their backyards.”

“President Trump once again signaled his ignorance towards the science of climate crisis and his indifference towards public health,” said Pagel.

The Trump administration expects the rule, which must go through a 60-day public comment period, to take effect early next year. The rollback was immediately praised by the American Petroleum Institute, a major trade group representing the fossil fuel industry.

Because of methane’s potency—some estimates suggest the greenhouse gas has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide—environmentalists and scientists have warned the Trump administration’s efforts to gut methane regulations could have disastrous consequences.

“This is extraordinarily harmful,” Rachel Kyte, United Nations special representative on sustainable energy, said of the Trump administration’s proposed rule change. “Just at a time when the federal government’s job should be to help localities and states move faster toward cleaner energy and a cleaner economy, just at that moment when speed and scale is what’s at stake, the government is walking off the field.”

Trump administration officials, and the president himself, have gleefully touted the White House’s success in ramping up American production of methane-emitting natural gas, which Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg infamously described as “molecules of U.S. freedom.”

During the G20 summit in Japan in June, Trump said he is “not willing” to take action to curb greenhouse gas emissions because such a move would harm corporate profits.

report published earlier this year by Oil Change International in collaboration with over a dozen other environmental groups warned that U.S. fossil fuel production has the potential to single-handedly imperil global efforts to combat the climate crisis.

“Right now, we’re on a sinking boat, and instead of just scooping water out, we must take immediate action to patch the hole where it’s gushing in,” said Patrick McCully of the Rainforest Action Network. “This means we must put a full-stop to fossil fuel expansion, or we all sink into climate chaos.”

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Satellite Photos Show Burning Iran Space Center Launch Pad

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A rocket at an Iranian space center that was to conduct a satellite launch criticized by the U.S. apparently exploded on its launch pad Thursday, satellite images show, suggesting the Islamic Republic suffered its third failed launch this year alone.

State media and officials did not immediately acknowledge the incident at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran’s Semnan province.

However, satellite images by Planet Labs Inc. showed a black plume of smoke rising above a launch pad there, with what appeared to be the charred remains of a rocket and its launch stand. In previous days, satellite images had shown officials there repainted the launch pad blue.

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On Thursday morning, half of that paint apparently had been burned away.

“Whatever happened there, it blew up and you’re looking at the smoldering remains of what used to be there,” said David Schmerler, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Schmerler told The Associated Press that the images of the space center suggested that the rocket either exploded during ignition or possibly briefly lifted off before crashing back down on the pad.

NPR first reported on the satellite images of the apparent failed launch at the space center, some 240 kilometers (150 miles) southeast of Iran’s capital, Tehran.

Iranian satellite launches had been anticipated before the end of the year.

In July, Iran’s Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi told The Associated Press that Tehran planned three more launches this year, two for satellites that do remote-sensing work and another that handles communications.

The Nahid-1 is reportedly the telecommunication satellite, which authorities plan to have in orbit for two-and-a-half months. Nahid in Farsi means “Venus.”

The semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Jahromi on Aug. 13 as saying that the Nahid-1 was ready to be delivered to Iran’s Defense Ministry, signaling a launch date for the satellite likely loomed. Iran’s National Week of Government, during which Tehran often inaugurates new projects, began Aug. 24.

The apparent attempt to launch the Nahid-1 comes after two failed satellite launches of the Payam and Doosti in January and February. A separate fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in February also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.

Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.

The U.S. alleges such launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. Tehran also says it doesn’t violate the U.N. as it only “called upon” Tehran not to conduct such tests.

The tests have taken on new importance to the U.S. amid the maximalist approach to Iran taken by President Donald Trump’s administration. Tensions have been high between the countries since Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal over a year ago and imposed sanctions, including on Iran’s oil industry. Iran recently has begun to break the accord itself while trying to push Europe to help it sell oil abroad.

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Lawrence O’Donnell Retracts Trump-Russia Story

NEW YORK — MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell on Wednesday retracted his story about supposed Russian ties to President Donald Trump’s finances and apologized for reporting it — just as Trump’s lawyer demanded.

O’Donnell said, however, he still doesn’t know whether or not the story is true.

His public pull-back unfolded quickly in the opening minute of “The Last Word,” where 24 hours earlier the cable news host said that a source had told him that Deutsche Bank documents showed that Russian oligarchs had co-signed a loan application for Trump.

O’Donnell reported the story, based on a single source he did not identify, even as he couched it with the qualifier “if true” and admitted it had not been verified by NBC News.

Trump’s lawyer, Charles Harder, had written to NBC Wednesday afternoon, saying the story was false and defamatory and threatening legal action if it wasn’t disowned. Harder said the story could have been disproven with an internet search.

O’Donnell quickly tweeted that he made an “error in judgment” reporting the story.

“We don’t know whether the information is inaccurate,” he said later on the air. “But the fact is we do know it wasn’t ready for broadcast and for that I apologize.”

NBC News has not said whether or not O’Donnell faces disciplinary action.

In court on Tuesday, Deutsche Bank had revealed that it possessed some of Trump’s tax returns that had never been released to the public, leading to speculation about what information those documents contained.

When he initially reported on the supposed co-signing of the loans on Tuesday, O’Donnell said “that would explain, it seems to me, every kind word that Donald Trump has ever said about Russia and Vladimir Putin, if true, and I stress the ‘if true’ part of this.”

The episode exhibited a stunning lack of rigor for a news organization. In a letter to Susan Weiner, NBC Universal’s general counsel, and Daniel Kummer, the company’s senior vice president for litigation, Harder called O’Donnell’s statements “false and defamatory, and extremely damaging.”

Harder said that Trump was the only guarantor of the loans in question.

While it provided ammunition for Trump’s frequent attacks on the media, the story had not been addressed on the president’s Twitter account Wednesday evening.

The episode is a blow to MSNBC, which has built powerful ratings with a prime-time lineup of liberal commentators Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and O’Donnell and is a comfortable home to Trump opponents. Many nights, it is the second most-watched cable network, behind only Fox News Channel, whose lineup of conservative hosts appeals to the president’s supporters.

But it also shows the inherent tension in the business model of building programming on news networks that are not necessarily run by journalists.

O’Donnell has been hosting “The Last Word” since 2010 and has been an MSNBC analyst since 1996. The Harvard College graduate was an aide to the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and an executive producer on the NBC entertainment series “The West Wing.”

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