Evelyn Waugh’s Life Revisited

“Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited”

A book by Philip Eade

Nearly every one of Evelyn Waugh’s novels is either in print or easy to find (Oxford University Press has published Volume 26 in a 43-volume complete works), and every few years there’s another TV series or feature film based on one of them. Biographies and memoirs by friends and family members fill a library shelf. And yet, he belongs to that strange handful of writers—Graham Greene is another—who was never entirely in vogue but has never gone out of fashion.

In the era of graphic novels and e-books, Waugh seems to be as much read as he ever was, even if only for “The Loved One” and “Brideshead Revisited,” two books that he regarded as atypical of his oeuvre. There is no question that Waugh carved out his own niche in English literature, one that extends beyond tweed-wearing Americans who sip sherry at the Dartmouth Club to people like Anna Faris’ airheaded starlet in the 2003 film “Lost in Translation,” who checks into a Tokyo hotel under the name “Evelyn Waugh” (she pronounces it like the common female name, “EV-a-lin,” with a short E).

For four decades, from the publication of “Decline and Fall” in 1925 to his death 40 years later, it’s hard to find an English-language novelist who drew rave reviews from critics of all stripes. In a famous 1944 piece, Edmund Wilson, who surely despised every social value that Waugh stood for, called him “The only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, of all people, praised Waugh as one of the progenitors of “the anti-novel.” Clive James, the greatest critic of our own time, thinks him “the supreme writer of English prose in the 20th century”—even though “so many of the wrong people said so,” by which, presumably, he meant cultural conservatives who thought that Waugh’s politics kept him from winning the Nobel Prize. Perhaps, but Waugh has continued to be read while the work of many a Nobel Prize winner has faded into the twilight realm of the praised but unread.

Did any great novelist of the 20th century lead a more boring life than Evelyn Waugh? Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was born Oct. 28, 1903, to middle class parents descended, according to his latest and most fastidious biographer, Philip Eade, in “Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited,” “from plenty of useless lords.” Waugh once told a friend, Eade writes, “that he would have far sooner have been descended from a useless Lord, by which he meant a hereditary peer, than from one ennobled for practical reasons”—as perfect a definition of snobbery as I can think of. (If you’re interested, there are four pages of Waugh’s ancestry just before the first chapter.)

Beginning with Evelyn’s father, Arthur, the clan has produced over 180 books. Members of the family also produced Waugh’s Curry Powder, Waugh’s Lavender Spike (an ointment for aches and pains), and Waugh’s Family Antibilious Pills (much favored by Queen Victoria).

Click here to read long excerpts from “Evelyn Waugh” at Google Books.

Eade’s aim seems to be to counter the opinion that Waugh was an ill-tempered snob, but this book provides much evidence that the detractors were right. Eade quotes Waugh from his own autobiography: at Eton, “I simply longed to remain myself, and yet be accepted as one of this distasteful mob.” At Lancing, a schoolmate thought that he was “courageous and witty and clever but was also an exhibitionist with a cruel nature that cared nothing about humiliating his companions. …”

There is much argument back and forth as to whether or not Waugh was a homosexual during his school days. I think the poet John Betjeman settled the issue once and for all—“Everyone was queer at Oxford in those days!”

As for the lingering accusations of racism, “It is commonplace to accuse Evelyn of being racist in his diary entries.” Here’s a story that you can judge for yourself. Waugh recorded in his journals that he and a friend called on Florence Mills “and other niggers and negresses in their dressing rooms. Then to a nightclub called Victor’s to see another nigger—[the American cabaret star] Leslie Hutchinson.”

There are numerous other passages like this in “A Life Revisited.” The best that one can say for these passages is that if they don’t reveal racism, they certainly reflect a deep-seated condescension toward those not of Waugh’s race or class—and yet, if that isn’t racism, what is?

When his father asked him how he could be “so charming to his friends and yet so unkind to his father,” Waugh replied, “Because I can choose my friends, but I cannot choose my father.” He wasn’t always that kind toward his friends. David Niven, as amiable a soul as the acting profession ever produced, did not take kindly to Waugh’s referring to his black housekeeper, in her presence, as “your native bearer.” Where is the line between racist and simply rude? When approached by the photographer and artist Cecil Beaton at a party, Waugh exclaimed, “Here’s someone who can tell us all about buggery!” The best that can be said in Waugh’s defense is that he was almost certainly drunk.

Waugh’s bigotry was boundless. On Americans: “It is very degrading to be constantly in the company of people you have to ‘make allowances for.’ ” Some Americans returned the sentiment: Hollywood screenwriter Charles Brackett described the Waughs as “a bank clerk and his snuffy wife, an ill-favored tailor’s dummy.”

Hemingway’s third wife, writer Martha Gellhorn, was less polite. She called Waugh “a small and very ugly turd.”

If you want to cut Waugh some slack for getting good reviews as a parent from some of his children, you must counter it with a comment by Arthur Waugh in a letter to Evelyn’s brother, Alec, after Evelyn and his wife, Laura, lost a baby girl shortly after the child’s birth: “She wasn’t wanted and she did not stay.”

How much of this is mitigated by Waugh’s apparently sincere Catholicism? Even some of Waugh’s friends conceded that “Brideshead Revisited” contained “too much Catholic stuff.” In one of the meanest and most accurate criticisms made of “Brideshead Revisited,” Edmund Wilson wrote in The New Yorker that “Waugh’s snobbery, hitherto held in check by his satirical point of view, has here emerged shameless and rampant. … His cult of high nobility is allowed to become so rapturous and solemn that it finally gives the impression of being the only real religion in the book.”

In a 1973 essay, Wilfrid Sheed, a devout Catholic himself, wrote that Waugh “admired the aristocrats he couldn’t reach, a class that is really too good for him—even if he had to invent it, as he did in ‘Brideshead Revisited.’ ” Sheed’s comment raises the question as to whether by converting to Catholicism, Waugh was simply trying to raise himself to a more exclusive social level (apparently there were few poor Catholics in England).

There are several intriguing facets of Waugh’s life that I would like to know about and understand better. One is his friendship with Graham Greene, a man whose political views were so different from his—Greene, though only briefly, was a member of the Communist Party and had a lifelong allegiance to it—that he almost seems to have been spawned on a different planet from Waugh. They had only their conversion to Catholicism to keep them friendly, yet their relationship endured. (Greene wrote lovingly of both “Brideshead” and Waugh’s biography of the 16th century martyr and saint Edmund Campion.) But Eade mentions Greene just a few times and never really examines the issue of whether or not the friendship was strained over politics.

Another fascinating aspect of Waugh’s life is his kindness, late in life, to George Orwell before the author of “1984” died of tuberculosis in 1950. It’s fascinating to think that the classic conservative visited and wrote letters to the unapologetic socialist—two men so different that it’s hard to imagine one passing the salt to the other at the dinner table. (John Le Carré, who taught at Eton, found it amusing that Orwell, who had attended the school, went well out of his way to disown the place while Waugh, who didn’t go there, often pretended that he had.) Waugh was sympathetic to the Fascists while Orwell fought for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War.

Why were they simpatico? Certainly Waugh was grateful that Orwell, in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, defended “Brideshead Revisited” from left-wing attacks. The subject of their relationship was treated at length in a 2008 book, “The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War” by David Lebedoff, but not at all by Eade in “A Life Revisited.”

Few of what might be called the larger issues of Waugh’s life are addressed here. Waugh’s WWII experiences are treated at length, but we’re told little about the conflict’s effect on Waugh except that “The war had been frustrating and disillusioning for Evelyn.” Well, I read somewhere that it had been bad for somebody. That sums up World War II.

We’re really not even told how Waugh’s well-known conservatism affected his writing, except that he wrote in his diaries that he “didn’t want to influence opinions or events or expose humbug or anything of that kind. I don’t want to be of service to anyone or anything. I simply want to do my work as an artist.” Which is exactly what? I wish Eade had delved into Waugh’s magnificent satires, which exposed “humbug” no matter what Waugh thought.

Eade writes, “This is not a ‘critical’ biography in the sense that it does not seek to reassess Evelyn Waugh’s achievements as a writer. …” That’s a shame. I could have done with fewer stories of Lady Pansy Pakenham, Pixie Marix and Godfrey Wildman-Lushington. The anecdotes are amusing, but would count for nothing if Waugh hadn’t been a great writer. I still long for more insights into his work, especially “A Handful of Dust and Scoop.” Luckily for Waugh, his novels will probably outlive his biographies.

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Trump’s Company Exploring Sale of Marquee Washington Hotel

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s company said Friday it is exploring the sale of its landmark Washington hotel after nearly three years of ethics complaints and lawsuits accusing him of trying to profit off the presidency.

The Trump Organization says it will consider offers to buy out the 60-year lease on the Trump International Hotel, which since opening in late 2016 has become a magnet for lobbyists and diplomats looking to gain favor with the administration.

“People are objecting to us making so much money on the hotel and therefore we may be willing to sell,” said Eric Trump, an executive vice president of the Trump Organization. “Since we opened our doors, we have received tremendous interest in this hotel and as real-estate developers, we are always willing to explore our options.”

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The opulent, 263-room hotel built in the Old Post Office down the street from the White House has hosted parties thrown by diplomats from the Philippines, Kuwait and other countries, and has been among Trump’s biggest money makers. It is at the center of two lawsuits accusing the president of violating the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution, which bars presidents from receiving gifts or payments from foreign governments.

According to Trump’s most recent financial disclosure, the hotel took in $41 million in revenue last year, up less than half a million dollars from the previous year.

In his statement, Eric Trump said the Trump Organization agreed to not actively solicit foreign government business for the hotel when his father took office, and its success has been all the more remarkable given that voluntary restraint.

But Kathleen Clark, a government ethics expert and Trump critic, said the idea that the hotel has made sacrifices to avoid conflicts is “nonsense” and the Trump Organization may be selling now because it fears the profits will fall if the president is not re-elected.

“There is no reason to think that Republican Party operatives or a trade association that wants to curry favor with the next president will choose this hotel,” said Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “It will just be another fancy hotel.”

Other government watchdogs saw danger with the sale itself: Will the buyer pay more than the hotel is worth in attempt to get in good with the administration? And what if the buyer is from overseas?

“If the Trump Organization puts out a ‘For Sale’ sign on the Trump International Hotel and seeks and takes bids, it will create massive conflicts of interests with the deep-pocketed individuals, foreign governments, investment funds or corporations that could afford to make such a purchase,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a liberal-leaning consumer advocacy group.

The possible sale comes at a fraught time for the Trump real estate empire.

Several residential buildings and hotels paying to brand themselves with the Trump name have removed it because of his politics. And the president earlier this month pulled plans to hold a Group of Seven summit at his Doral resort near Miami amid criticism it would be a brazen violation of the emoluments clause. Trump later lashed out about the reversal, saying, “You people with this phony emoluments clause.”

After winning a contract from the federal government to lease the 121-year-old, Romanesque Revival-style post office in 2013, Trump spent $200 million renovating it into a hotel.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump Organization is hoping to get more than $500 million in the sale. But Sean Hennessey, CEO of consultancy Lodging Advisors, said that while he has no idea what the sale could actually bring in, it is rare to get more than $1 million for each guest room, which would translate into $263 million.

Any sale would have to be approved by the agency overseeing the lease, the General Services Administration, as well as a lawyer hired by the Trump Organization to vet such deals for conflicts of interest.

In his statement, Eric Trump addressed concerns about conflicts of interest by noting the company cuts a check to the U.S. Treasury each year for what it calculates as “profit” from foreign government business at its hotels and other properties. That amounted to $191,538 last year, up from $151,470 the previous year.


Condon reported from New York.

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The Drug Trade Isn’t Just Killing People, But the Planet Itself

There are just 15 vaquita porpoises left in the Gulf of California, and in just a few months, that number could plummet to zero. The earth’s most endangered whale has become a victim not only of the usual environmental suspects, but, due to the fact that its habitat in the Sea of Cortez is also home to the totoaba, a valuable fish, it has been caught up in none other than the drug trade.

This week’s “Scheer Intelligence” guest, Austrian filmmaker Richard Ladkani, recorded the shocking and dangerous story of the activists, scientists and journalists risking their lives to save the rare whale in his documentary “Sea of Shadows.”

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“The film ‘Sea of Shadows’ for me was one of the most important films that I’ve ever made,” Ladkani tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer in the latest installment of his podcast. “Because here you have an example of criminal syndicates attacking planet earth. And the clock’s really ticking, because if they continue to do what they do—if they continue their fight against this ocean, for money and greed—they’re actually going to destroy one of the most beautiful places on earth.”

“Nobody has ever heard about this war even happening,” the filmmaker goes on. “It’s happening in the shadows, but only a five hours’ drive south of Los Angeles. And here you have a species go extinct—the smallest whale on earth, a beautiful creature right out of a Disney movie, the vaquita.”

The urgency of the issue is highlighted by the fact that at the time of filming, there were double the amount of vaquitas left, indicating an alarming spike in deaths. To add insult to injury, many other marine creatures are being wiped out in the area due to these illegal activities.

Drug cartels became involved in the totoaba fishing trade partly because, according to Ladkani, it’s much easier money than selling narcotics. Their involvement in the overfishing of the Sea of Cortez, however, makes it even more difficult for efforts to save the vaquita to take place because of the deadly threat that getting involved poses to activists, journalists and scientists, as well as to the very fishermen entangled in the trade.

One of the film’s most poignant moments, according to Scheer, comes when a group of well-meaning scientists believe they are saving a vaquita, only to have it die on their watch.

“[This scene] shows that it’s a complex problem,” says the Truthdig editor in chief. “I think the takeaway from your movie is, yes, it’s important to save the Sea of Cortez; it’s important to save the vaquita. But it has to be done in a comprehensive, serious way. It can’t just be talk. You know, and it’s not going to be just round up the existing 15 and put them in San Diego in Sea World.”

Scheer also highlights how the problem can be traced back to extreme poverty in Mexico, which is at the foundation of violence such as this, and is linked to Western consumption of narcotics.

“One of the depressing things is some of [the fisherman] get killed as a result,” Sheer tells the filmmaker. “But there’s an even larger group, at least visibly in your film, that needs this money, that needs to cooperate with the gangsters, because they’re on the lowest edge of poverty.”

Listen to Ladkani and Scheer discuss the dire situation in the Sea of Cortez, the dangers the filmmakers faced in the creation of their documentary, and the glimmer of hope that had come from speaking truth to power using “Sea of Shadows.”

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 a highly regarded, and I must say very gutsy filmmaker, very brave filmmaker: Richard Ladkani, who is Austrian, but wanders the world. And the two movies that lead me to think that he’s very brave was his dealing with the poaching of tusks in Africa, and international crime and trading and everything. And then his current movie, which is on the shortlist for an Oscar in the documentary category, and it’s very powerful: “Sea of Shadows.” And it’s about a fish you probably have not heard about–or I shouldn’t say that; one fish you maybe have heard about, the totoaba, which some people have called “the cocaine of the sea.” And because it’s—what is it, its bladder, swim bladder, is highly prized in China—what, for both taste and possible medical value, right?

Richard Ladkani: Yeah, exactly, yeah. It can reach up to $100,000 in China. Totoaba, yeah.

RS: Right. Now, to catch the totoaba, they use nets. And the nets, as we know, kill lots of animals and fish. And this is in—what did Jacques Cousteau call the Sea of Cortez, the—

RL: The aquarium of the world.

RS: The aquarium of the world. So this is actually the most productive, important fishing ground in the world. And then there are people in—I don’t want to get ahead of the story on the documentary. But in addition to endangering the smallest whales in the world—of which there may only be 15, who happen to also swim in these waters—and they are caught in these nets. They are not the prize of these fishermen, but they are caught in these nets, they die. And as I say, there’s only 15 left in the world. And, but in addition to that ecological disaster of the disappearance of an important species, you also may lose the fishing in this whole area, because of fishing it out and killing a lot of fish and disrupting the whole environment.

So Richard Ladkani was in the midst of a tour here to push a movie that’s highly regarded. I appreciate that you’re willing to take the time. And one point I want to make is this movie—you know, I know it’s National Geographic, you think it’s going to be like—somebody once said it’s like watching mud move or something. No, it’s a high-action thriller. It’s actually not been criticized, but Kenny Turan in a really interesting review in the L.A. Times, and I think on NPR, talked about—you know, at first he thought, what is this? High action—but it is. It’s got the mafia, it’s got a chase, it’s got—you know, it’s scary. And one thing I came away thinking is you are one either extremely reckless or very brave filmmaker. [Laughter] Because you know, this is really a scene where you are confronting—and set the economics of this—you’re confronting a violent, gangster cartel that wants to grab not the vaquitas, but rather the totoabas, for their liver—

RL: Swim bladder.

RS: —their swim bladder. And they’re willing to kill for it, because these things eventually could sell for $100,000 apiece in China.

RL: Exactly, yeah. Well, the film “Sea of Shadows,” you know, for me was one of the most important films that I’ve ever made. Because here you have an example of criminal syndicates attacking planet earth. And here, you know, the clock’s really ticking, because if they continue to do what they do—if they continue their fight against this ocean, for money and greed—they’re actually going to destroy one of the most beautiful places on earth. And nobody has ever heard about this war even happening. It’s happening in the shadows, but only a five hours’ drive south of Los Angeles. And here you have a species go extinct—the smallest whale on earth, a beautiful creature right out of a Disney movie, the vaquita.

And here you have, you know, people making so much money because it’s easy money. It’s much easier than the drug trade or the weapons trade or, you know, prostitution rings and things like that. Because there is no consciousness yet about it. The government sees it as a petty crime. As, like, oh, they are a little overfishing, and—you know, but in reality, they’re killing an ocean; at the same time, they’re using fishermen through means of extortion to work for them, lure them into the trade. Then they become, like, they’re basically dependent on these mafia bosses to pay them back. Because they need money to buy the nets, for gasoline, for ships, like that. So they—you know, they become entrenched in a circle of violence that they can never get out of. And if they dare, they just kill them; they execute them publicly, they burn them on their pangas. And it’s really like a violent war against planet earth, and people should know that this is happening.

RS: Yeah, and one of the more depressing things in your film—it ends with a statistic. There are only 15, by your estimation, vaquitas left. And they are a beautiful species. And you actually, unfortunately, have the honesty in this film to show one of the do-gooder efforts killing maybe at that point one of 16 vaquitas, in the attempt to move them to a sanctuary area; that doesn’t work. And that’s when we’re turned back to, well, we’d better stop some of this net fishing, and be more concerned about this, or you’re going to lose this animal. And I want to point out the vaquita is not even the prey here. They’re an incidental—

RL: Yeah, just bycatch. They are just the poor victims.

RS: Yeah. And I want to get back to the guts of it, because—and the courage involved in filming. Because it’s not that the Mexican government is just indifferent; they’re bought off. And you show it on every level, the local law enforcement forces there. And this connecting it with the drug trade, I found fascinating, because—yes, this is another example where there’s a demand for something that can be trafficked in Mexico. OK, so it’s not cocaine or heroin, but it’s this fish that has a swim bladder that’s thought to be—an international market can be developed for it. And because Mexico is a poor country, and because the government’s ability to minister to its needs is very limited, and control of crime is very limited, it creates great havoc. As the drug trade has.

And one of the questions that’s addressed in the film is, what are you going to do about it? And how are you going to deal with poverty in that area? Because after all, that’s what fuels the drug trade; it also fuels this battle over an endangered species. Because you got these fishermen, and they, in your film, they are divided. Yes, there’s a smaller group that is willing to work with you and cooperate. And as–I didn’t mention it, one of the depressing things is some of them get killed as a result. That’s a statement made at the end of the film. But there’s an even larger group, at least visibly in your film, that needs this money, that needs to cooperate with the gangsters, and–because, what, they’re on the lowest edge of poverty.

RL: Right. Well, look, that’s a complicated issue, of course. The fishermen—by the way, nobody got killed because of a consequence of the movie; they got killed because they challenged the cartel by publicly saying, we’re not gonna—I’m not gonna be able to pay you back my debt. This guy owed $54,000 to the cartel for fishing nets that he had bought with that money. He lost all the nets because Sea Shepherd took them, and then [he] went out and said, I’m not going to pay you back. I’m done with you, cartel. Like, you know, you can—whatever. And then they decided to publicly execute him as a warning to all the other fishermen who go against the cartel. So these are the people we’re dealing with.

The problem here is that poverty cannot be an excuse for poaching, and for attacking nature and the resources that we have. You know, you can’t just say, oh, I’m poor, so I’m going to trade with drugs, or I’m gonna, you know, do human trafficking and things like that. It’s not an excuse. This is a war that is being led by cartels who are luring fishermen into the easy business. You know, there’s very low fines, very low risk, all you have to do is work with the cartel and you will be making a lot of money. Now the problem is they are not seeing the bigger picture. Once you work with the cartel, you can never escape the cartel. They will haunt you forever. So—especially if you are indebted to them, which all of the fishermen are.

The second thing is that the fishing methods they are using are killing everything. The entire fishing grounds are getting destroyed. Like, they’re killing the whales, the sharks, the turtles, the dolphins, the sea lions—everything gets destroyed, because they’re using giant ghost nets that drift freely in the water, randomly killing everything. And then they pull them up. All of the fish they catch is, like, rejected—is basically thrown into the water to rot. All they care about is the totoaba. They cut out just the swim bladder, throw the rest of the fish back in the water. So basically, they have just killed everything just to get a few swim bladders that will get them $20, $30, $40,000 on that day, right? Because in Mexico, it’s only worth $5,000, but that’s still a lot of money.

So they are—they’re not thinking beyond the money that is dangling in front of them. They’re only thinking quick money now, not realizing that they’re destroying their fishing grounds forever. So if they keep going, in five years, there will be no more fish in that area. It’s going to be a dead sea, you know. They’re killing all the big fish, and everything is dependent on each other. You know, you take big fish out of the equation, all the shrimp and other fish, other creatures in the water, they all suffer. There’s always a chain reaction if you take one species out. So this is the problem, and we are trying to make even the fishermen understand—with the film, you know; we made this film also for the fishermen, so that they understand the bigger picture here.

The big problem also is that if the government cannot save the vaquita, and if they cannot show huge efforts in trying to protect the vaquita, there will now be a major trade embargo by the United Nations against Mexico. The threat is that they have to produce results this November and then again in June next year, and if it’s not convincing what they’ve been doing, Mexico will be hit with a trade embargo against all wildlife species coming out of Mexico. So we’re talking billions of dollars. And that happened because also the UN has shown our film four times, because they thought it’s so important, at their headquarters—once in New York, twice in Geneva and Switzerland, and once in Vienna. And out of those screenings came this big threat against the country, because they realize you’re screwing with your own environment. It’s not just about the vaquita, it’s the entire Sea of Cortez that’s going. So this needs to stop.

RS: Yes, but you know, you created a work of art. And I experienced this work of art. And I came away from it with a concern. I’m not—this has nothing to do with denying the value of the film, which is I think extraordinary and brilliantly made. Let me just put that out there. I think everyone should watch it, I hope it wins prizes. This is not a criticism of the film. But the film raised a question which was raised by, what seemed to me, ordinary people who were demanding the release of a mob figure. Now, we know that the mob has been able—I grew up in the Bronx, so the mob could dominate a lot of ordinary people, and so forth. But I just wonder, and I think this is a question that the environmental movement has to address—that there are people who are dependent for their living on activities that suddenly the world may turn against, or may say you can’t do it in that way. And they are in a vulnerable position. One response would be to say, OK, this world that is so concerned about the vaquita—legitimately—should pump money, resources, educational opportunity, better ways of doing fishing, to sustain life of these people who are exploiting—

RL: Of course.

RS: Yes. And that they have a right to be concerned. And they—you can understand why they take this money from the mob figure. And so what I like about the film is that it encourages complex thinking about the environment. Yes, you do not want another species to die. Yes, these are beautiful and interesting animals, and there’s only 15 of them. And thank goodness there is your film, calling this attention to a problem that was being ignored, you know. And yes, the net fishing and so forth—all these are real issues.

But the fact of the matter is, it can’t always be the concern from top-down, well-intentioned, more affluent people who actually come from countries that have abused the resources of the world at random, for centuries and centuries, and now step in and say “you got to stop doing this”—without coming up with the alternative. And it seems to me the Mexican government was indifferent to it until you got the publicity–which is very good, and you should be applauded for that. But at no point did they say, OK, first of all, let’s move in there with the resources to deal with the mafia, and secondly let’s talk about and support a better way of doing fishing and preservation.

RL: Right. Well, there is a complex plan in place where the government—and that’s the action plan that we’re demanding from the government, is you—any solution has to be a solution also for the fishermen. The fishermen come first. Like, as long as the fishermen suffer, there’s not going to be a solution that is sustainable. The mafia will win, you know. Like, a poor fisherman without any money and everything is easy prey for the cartels, so they will always get them. Of course, there has to be a solution for the fishermen, and that has been ignored. But we address that very strongly in the film by having, you know, main characters being fishermen who have not yet sided with the cartel.

They’re trying to—they’re hoping for the government to step in and give them that solution. And we’re talking about, of course, you need alternative fishing gear in the area, where they can go out and fish—but the lure has to be taken out of the equation. As long as you dangle $5,000 for a single swim bladder on the Mexican shores, that will later down the trafficking chain turn into $100,000–but the fishermen are not going to benefit from the $100,000, they are benefiting from $5,000. But as long as you dangle a $5,000 package, you know, in front of them, they may go for it. Unless the consequence of doing, going down that path is very big, and they understand—we’re going to get arrested, we’re going to get in trouble, the cartel is no good business. You know, like, there needs to be some consequence for taking that decision.

On the other hand, these fishermen didn’t do so bad before. They’re not the poorest of the poor. You know, San Felipe used to be a tourist destination. People would go there—it’s full of hotels and good restaurants. You know, it was very, like, highly liked. And it was a destination for many, many Americans who would want to do their vacation there. But since the trouble started with the cartel, and them controlling the sea, and all the shootouts that have happened down there, tourism is gone. You know, like, everything has collapsed. And the government basically didn’t care enough about the whole thing, they just let it happen. So we are here to turn a huge spotlight on the issue to make the government aware—this is going on, you’re going to have big problems if you do not control the illegal poaching activities.

You know, this is not legal fishing; this is poaching. This is criminal activity. It’s illegal to do it. The entire black-market trade is illegal. All the means, the nets they use, is illegal. So this is not like–you know, if they would go out and try to fish with like regular fishing rods, or like used gear that is not abusive to the vaquita and the general environment, there would be no problem. But right now, because the cartel runs the show, there is no solution until the government steps in and shows force, and at the same time presents the fishermen with options, a compensation program, you know, money for putting their kids through school, things like that. All that has to happen. And we are putting that attention—we’re forcing the Mexican government to take action because of the publicity that we’re putting behind this film. That is, you know, we have a big star behind it, we have Leonardo DiCaprio pushing the film out, we have National Geographic—

RS: He’s the executive producer.

RL: Executive producer—the film even was his idea. So he came to us and said, could you do something, because a movie can be such a powerful tool to, you know, educate the people but also raise awareness, to emotionalize them towards the vaquita that they have never even heard about. So we’re using all the means necessary. By outputting it through National Geographic, it’s going to be in 172 countries. It’s going to air Nov. 9 here in the U.S., you know; that’s commercial-free, Nov. 9 at 9 p.m. local time here in L.A.

So you know, this will be a big deal. And it’s already resulting in a lot of success. Like, the government has woken up. We had a big release in Mexico in mid-September. The president for the first time is talking about the vaquita, about a solution for the fishermen. They announced that they will send in 600 additional troops into the area to preserve control, and actually, you know, go against the cartel, which is great news. At the same time, they’re talking about helping the fishermen. Finding them ways to be out at sea again, at ease with the ocean, being able to fish with alternative gear. All that talk never happened before, you know. So this is our pushing that actually made those things happen, and we’re very, very grateful for that.

RS: OK, and we’re going to get back to pushing the film as well as the ideas connected with it. [omission for station break] We’re right back with Richard Ladkani. And the film is called “Sea of Shadows.” We haven’t even mentioned it’s about a terrifically significant boat, Sea Shepherd, and very brave people. I, first of all, I want to take my hat off to you, and I do want to push the film. What was the date you said, November—

RL: Nov. 9, it will be airing in the U.S. On the National Geographic—

RS: OK. Everyone should see this film. And as opposed to many documentaries that are well intentioned, it grabs your attention. It grabs your attention without sensationalizing, even though there’s a lot of gangsterism and fighting and chases and threats. It’s dramatically powerful, but it does it—as Kenny Turan pointed out in the L.A. Times, the great film critic, and former relative of mine—and on NPR. I admire him. And at first you’re suspicious of the title, “Sea of Shadows,” and the whole idea that there’s a lot of, as I say, chase with the gangsters and scary things, and they ram the boat or ram the motors, and so forth. But in fact, it’s quite legitimate as a depiction of what goes on when gangsters take over fishing because they want to get the sea bladder from a particular fish. And a lot of terrible things happen, and they are killers, and so forth.

So we have to say that, and I think I’ve done my due diligence in pushing this film. I don’t want to say anything now, in what remains of our time, to discourage anyone—I just want to raise some issues that the film raised for me, OK. And I will be angry with myself if I don’t bring them up, OK. And you just, you just hit on it. You know, the Mexican government is full of it on this stuff, you know. They’re not really willing to take on the gangsters. We see more recently you got someone who was elected to be president, and yet when he goes against them, things backfire, so they back off and so forth. But they don’t want to get in—and, you know, I’m not the one that brought up the larger drug trade in the discussion of this film. And even in the film, I believe, the totoaba is referred to as “the cocaine of the sea.”

RL: Exactly, yeah.

RS: And it’s something that is fueled by people outside of Mexico in a world market, as with your ivory movie—

RL: “The Ivory Game,” yeah, on Netflix, yeah.

RS: Yeah, “Ivory Game,” your other brilliant movie. OK, I got the pushing, I got the advertising out. [Laughter] No, I really believe that. I think you’re an incredible filmmaker. And—however, I want—the best compliment I can pay to an artist is to say, hey, I stayed up a couple hours after watching this thinking about it. And what did I want to think more about? And what I want to think more about is it’s the same with the larger drug trade. It’s fueled by people with money who are elsewhere, and they can finance these great, you know—these bladders, swim bladders, are packaged, they’re like four by four inches, and then they’re put in suitcases and somehow they get to Hong Kong and they get distributed. And they sell for $100,000. And the middlemen and the gangsters make all the money, and so forth. So it is very similar to the drug trade. And then, you know, we can focus on the poor people who get involved because this is the best way they can get ahead, and so forth. Or we can talk about the responsibility of international wealth, the international market.

You know, Mexico is torn apart by the drug trade, but it’s largely to feed the appetite of Americans. North Americans, I mean, right? And so—and in this case, it’s to feed the appetite of a new, wealthier class of Chinese who think, you know, there’s medicinal value to these swim bladders, correctly or incorrectly. They think they have the right to get one of these bladders for $100,000 because it’ll, what, stop cancer, or—

RL: But it’s illegal. Even in China.

RS: I understand it’s illegal, OK? And so is heroin illegal in the United States. But the fact is, it’s the money from other countries that are coming—and Mexico is not the only example—seriously profoundly distorting life in that community. And your depiction of the Sea of Cortez is life disrupted. And the reason the gangsters are viable, the reason they can throw this money around, $5,000 if you catch the right fish in your net, is because somebody in Hong Kong is willing to pay $100,000 for it, OK.

RL: Exactly, yeah.

RS: So, your next movie I would urge you to do is on the responsibility of the rich and powerful and corrupt and degenerate in this world for distorting the once-simpler life of people who fish in the Sea of Cortez. And there was, as you show in your film, real beauty to that existence, and real balance. And the fishermen who emerge as the real heroes of your film—including also, by the way, some Mexican journalists who don’t get the credit they deserve, and in your film you rely very heavily on them. And, but these fishermen who side with the environment—who side with and take the long-run view about how you save the fish and everything–you know, they are, they have to involve incredible heroism. Why? Because there are people in wealthier areas with a lot of money, willing to pay the mob to either reward or shoot them if they don’t catch the right fish.

RL: Right. Well, you see, the one thing I want to stress here is that the two movies—you know, “The Ivory Game” and “Sea of Shadows”—the problems that we’re showing, they’re not environmental problems. They are real crime problems. This is a crime story. You know, we have here the mob, who has taken control, and they’re running everything. They’re, you know, buying off the government and police and everything, they’re extorting the fishermen. So the problem we have around the world is that many of these issues are considered environmental problems. And who do they send in? Classic NGOs to come up with a solution, how do we save that species and that species. So they need to send in, like, the special forces and the police and the investigators, because this is real crime. There is nothing that is in any way different to the drug trade of what we’re seeing here. These people are heavily armed—

RS: OK, but let me just interrupt for a second. We tried that with the drug trade.

RL: I know.

RS: OK. We send in the police, and we’ve been sending a lot of U.S. police into Mexico, and so forth. And in your movie, there is a compelling scene at the end, or towards the end, where they catch some bad guys, and they catch them in the act. And yet, you know, not all of those people were in the mob. You show a very large crowd of what seemed to me ordinary people who free the gangster prisoner, OK. Now—

RL: They were all poachers. All of them.

RS: I know, but when you say—

RL: Eighty percent of the people there work for the cartel.

RS: But they weren’t born poachers.

RL: No, no. They turned toward the cartel.

RS: And so what I’m saying is, you’re absolutely right in what you say is wrong with the typical environmental, you know, let’s just appeal to the goodwill of people and not deal with the crime. But who’s making the crime profitable?

RL: Of course.

RS: And the drug trade? It’s people in Switzerland—

RL: I was trying to get to that. The one organization that we feature in the film, Earth League International, they have—they’re the only NGO that I have seen with great success tackle the crime problem in a very powerful way. Because they go after the syndicates, and they look who’s really making the money here. And they were the ones who exposed the Chinese—

RS: And who’s buying it.

RL: Exactly. They exposed the Chinese mafia in Tijuana as actually being behind this entire war that is going on in the Sea of Cortez. It’s not the cartel. The cartel is being bought by the Chinese mafia to collaborate and get them the merchandise.

RS: The Chinese mafia, where?

RL: In Tijuana, in Mexico. They are running the trade, and he’s—

RS: Yeah, that’s in your movie.

RL: Yeah. And he’s exposing that they are behind it. And that has never been even known to the Mexican government.

RS: OK, but isn’t what’s behind it their customers?

RL: In China. Of course.

RS: Yes. Or anywhere in regards to the drug trade or any other—right?

RL: Yeah, like any other. Right.

RS: And so then what do you say to those customers? Because after all, the customers are people we’re going to see today, here in Los Angeles, right? Not for the—

RL: Well, they’re very, very wealthy, rich Chinese.

RS: I know, in this particular case. But if we extend it to the drug trade, or other items that are in great demand, you have to have wealth. Whether it’s in China, or whether it’s the United States. And there’s something about the decadence of advanced capitalism, if you like. All right?

RL: Sure, yeah, yeah, yeah. Usually—like in “The Ivory Game,” all our efforts were aimed at the Chinese government to ban the ivory trade as a solution to save the elephants. And at the end, two months after the movie came out, that’s exactly what they did. And they invited us the same day they announced the ban to show the film in Beijing, and present it at the Beijing International Film Festival, which we then also won. So we have gotten the attention where we needed it. And it really, really helped the elephants survive. And again, you know, grow in numbers like they have never before. In this case, though, we did not have time—we do not have time for a mind change in China, because the vaquita is dying, probably within the next 12 months it’s going to go extinct. So this war is incredibly tough on the vaquita.

And with that, the Sea of Cortez, as I mentioned earlier, is going to get killed off—like, all the species there are going to die. The vaquita is just the first, the most prominent to go, but then all the big fish are going to go. We don’t have—because of these, you know, thousands of nets that they throw in randomly. You don’t even see them from the surface. They’re underwater, like walls of death that just kill anything. And then they drag them out with hooks to find them, or with GPS trackers. And they look, and they just killed 1,000 animals—five of them are totoaba, those are the ones they care about—and the other 1,000 they just discard and throw them back in the water to rot.

Now, we don’t have time for the Chinese people to change their mind about totoaba. That’s going to take like 20 years. Even with heavy campaigning, how do you change like a 45- to 50-year-old—that’s the target group—very new, rich Chinese, in saying oh, I shouldn’t do this because the environment is dying in Mexico in a sea I’ve never heard about and blah, blah, blah. That’s not going to happen, not in the time frame that we have. So all our attention in this case is focused on the Mexican government, because they are the only ones who can find a solution for this place.

RS: Right, but as you pointed out—and this will be a good, we can agree on this to end—it’s a very powerful movie, so you got to show it in Mexico. You did have success in shaming the Mexican government. Well, part of that shaming is they should guarantee that this will not be done at the expense of the ordinary fishermen. It is in their interests and whatever support systems, right, whatever safety net for those fishermen, including saving their lives if they stand up to the mob. But that there’s a seriousness of purpose on the part of the Mexican government.

RL: Absolutely. The fishermen have to be helped first, otherwise there is no solution.

RS: Well I’m, you know, I want to congratulate you for a very important work, but I also appreciate—and this is not—I’ve watched you in some other interviews. And I think what is great about this film is it’s a teaching tool, as any great work of art should be. It opens us up. And you were willing in this movie, as I said before, to show the failure of a conservation effort. The saddest thing in this movie, as far as the vaquitas, is when they capture one. Your Sea Shepherd boat that is celebrated, these are great people, some of the best scientists in the world concerned with this—and they kill.

RL: Yeah, but it wasn’t Sea Shepherd involved. That was a different organization, VaquitaCPR. These were just scientists, this was a government-led program. They—well, they didn’t kill it; it died in their hands of a heart attack. So I don’t know if you can call it killing, but—

RS: Well, they captured it—

RL: They captured it, and it died. But you must understand it has never, ever been near a scientist before. This is the most elusive species that we know of on the planet. No scientist had ever held one in its hands, it had never been filmed—

RS: Right, but it does show—it does show that good intentions can go awry.

RL: Of course, yeah.

RS: And it also shows that it’s a complex problem. Yes, you have maybe, as you say, 12 months; we probably have, what, some people think 12 years, or 25 years to save the whole planet. So obviously, one has to deal with complexity with some efficiency and expediency. But I think the takeaway from your movie is, yes, it’s important to save the Sea of Cortez; it’s important to save the vaquita. But—but it has to be done in a comprehensive, serious way. It can’t just be talk. You know, and it’s not going to be just round up the existing 15 and put them in San Diego in Sea World.

RL: No—oh my God, no.

RS: Right? I mean, you could save a few of them that way, but you would deform them. And by the way, in that scene—and you’re right, it wasn’t Sea Shepherd, it was another but well-intentioned outfit. And what I thought was so sad was they would destroy—even if they had managed to keep that animal alive, they had turned that sanctuary into Sea World. Because they were all standing there in their shorts, warding the poor animal off; the animal was clearly going crazy, being in this new environment. Could not survive, should not be in a marine zoo, you know, and—and died. And I want to pay tribute to you as a filmmaker. It would have been easy to leave that scene out. You know, because that was a cautionary tale to the environmentalists that the best of intentions can go awry.

RL: Of course, of course. Well I think that, you know, the reason we showed it as it is—and it was, it was very pure—was because people needed to understand exactly what you said: the best intentions, they can go wrong. These were the most experienced scientists in the world, the best of the best, drawn from all countries around the world, who have any experience with capturing whales or dolphins. The best of the best were there on the ground. They did what they could, but it failed. This small sea pen that you see in the film was a temporary holding place. And there was a very large sanctuary that was to be built right next to it, you know, about a mile long, like very big. But the problem was, if you put an animal that you’ve just captured right away in such a big sanctuary, if anything goes wrong with the animal, you can never get to it fast enough to help it. With medicine, or give it any medical attention. That’s why they needed to keep it in a small place. And that small place, unfortunately—you know, it looks horrifying from the outside. You know, it was about 30 feet in diameter, I would say; you know, a circular—

RS: Were you there?

RL: I filmed the whole thing. I was holding the camera. I did everything. It was the most shocking and most difficult scene to shoot in my life, but I don’t want to discourage people—you know, “I can’t see an animal die,” or something. Yes, you know, it will die. But for me, it’s about the spirit and the hope that these people who are trying to save it—Earth League International, Sea Shepherd, VaquitaCPR—the journalists, the fishermen—they are putting their lives on the line, like we did as filmmakers as well, to save this place. Not just the vaquita, but like the entire ocean. And these are heroic people who are out there fighting on the front lines to make a difference. And these heroes are unknown heroes. Nobody knows about these things happening, and these people going out to risk so much. And I think they are my heroes, and they inspire me to do what I do—films—and go out there and talk about it and everything.

RS: But there is also the hubris of the well intentioned. And in that scene, whether you intended it or not—and I think in terms of artistic integrity, it’s important that it’s in there as a caution.

RL: Of course.

RS: Because, you know—

RL: It had to be in there. The film would have collapsed without that scene.

RS: Yeah, and lots of things have been done. First of all, it’s suggested, a simplistic solution—let’s just gather up these 15, put them in some place. Well, that wasn’t going to work. You point that out. But also it was a denial of the basic enterprise. You were saving a species by basically imprisoning it.

RL: Yeah. Horrible, a horrible thought. But that’s what happens when you wait too long. That’s what happens when you try something radical. When you realize this species is dying within a year. There’s 30 left; you know, back then there were 30 left. And if we don’t do something radical, they’re going to disappear forever. We have to look for solutions way before. Like, if 10 years ago, we had 500 vaquitas—if then 500 would have been a low enough number, they could have been saved in many different ways. But nobody cared, because there were still 500. Nobody looked at the problem.

So this is the most—that’s why this film, for me, is such a symbol of what’s happening around the world with many other species. You know, the rhinos and the tigers and the pangolins and the jaguars. They’re all vanishing because of money and greed. And people are not aware that this is even happening. And that’s why I’m so emotional about this, because this is–you know, I’m not emotional about drugs or weapons, but I am emotional when it gets to the same syndicates, the same criminals, actively attacking our earth, and taking these beautiful creatures for money and greed to turn them into, like, dollars. You know, and—and nobody’s caring about it. Nobody’s outraged about it. And you know, within 10 years, we will lose so many species on our planet because people focus on other issues. And I think we need to focus on these issues, where time is running out.

RS: Well, if we’ve got any chance of saving the vaquitas, it’s because of, I think, really because of this film.

RL: Thank you.

RS: Go check it out. Richard Ladkani. And as he makes the point, yes, this is an important species that should be saved. But really, we’re talking about the most bountiful, important, really, seascape in the world, the Sea of Cortez, that is at risk for the same forces trying to rape the area with these huge nets. That’s it for this edition of “Scheer Intelligence.” I want to thank the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism for sponsoring our space here, making it available. For Sebastian Grubaugh for being the engineer who puts it together. For Joshua Scheer who is the producer of “Scheer Intelligence.” And at KCRW, which hosts these shows, Christopher Ho carries us every week and gets this out to the world, so thank him. And we’ll be back next week with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.”

The post The Drug Trade Isn’t Just Killing People, But the Planet Itself appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

The Military Industrial Complex Has Won

When Americans think of militarism, they may imagine jackbooted soldiers goose-stepping through the streets as flag-waving crowds exult; or, like our president, they may think of enormous parades featuring troops and missiles and tanks, with warplanes soaring overhead. Or nationalist dictators wearing military uniforms encrusted with medals, ribbons, and badges like so many barnacles on a sinking ship of state. (Was Donald Trump only joking recently when he said he’d like to award himself a Medal of Honor?) And what they may also think is: that’s not us. That’s not America. After all, Lady Liberty used to welcome newcomers with a torch, not an AR-15. We don’t wall ourselves in while bombing others in distant parts of the world, right?

But militarism is more than thuggish dictators, predatory weaponry, and steely-eyed troops. There are softer forms of it that are no less significant than the “hard” ones. In fact, in a self-avowed democracy like the United States, such softer forms are often more effective because they seem so much less insidious, so much less dangerous. Even in the heartland of Trump’s famed base, most Americans continue to reject nakedly bellicose displays like phalanxes of tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue.

But who can object to celebrating “hometown heroes” in uniform, as happens regularly at sports events of every sort in twenty-first-century America? Or polite and smiling military recruiters in schools? Or gung-ho war movies like the latest version of Midway, timed for Veterans Day weekend 2019 and marking America’s 1942 naval victory over Japan, when we were not only the good guys but the underdogs?

What do I mean by softer forms of militarism? I’m a football fan, so one recent Sunday afternoon found me watching an NFL game on CBS. People deplore violence in such games, and rightly so, given the number of injuries among the players, notably concussions that debilitate lives. But what about violent commercials during the game? In that one afternoon, I noted repetitive commercials for SEAL TeamSWAT, and FBI, all CBS shows from this quietly militarized American moment of ours. In other words, I was exposed to lots of guns, explosions, fisticuffs, and the like, but more than anything I was given glimpses of hard men (and a woman or two) in uniform who have the very answers we need and, like the Pentagon-supplied police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, are armed to the teeth. (“Models with guns,” my wife calls them.)

Got a situation in Nowhere-stan? Send in the Navy SEALs. Got a murderer on the loose? Send in the SWAT team. With their superior weaponry and can-do spirit, Special Forces of every sort are sure to win the day (except, of course, when they don’t, as in America’s current series of never-ending wars in distant lands).

And it hardly ends with those three shows. Consider, for example, this century’s update of Magnum P.I., a CBS show featuring a kickass private investigator. In the original Magnum P.I. that I watched as a teenager, Tom Selleck played the character with an easy charm. Magnum’s military background in Vietnam was acknowledged but not hyped. Unsurprisingly, today’s Magnum is proudly billed as an ex-Navy SEAL.

Cop and military shows are nothing new on American TV, but never have I seen so many of them, new and old, and so well-armed. On CBS alone you can add to the mix Hawaii Five-O (yet more models with guns updated and up-armed from my youthful years), the three NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) shows, and Blue Bloods (ironically starring a more grizzled and less charming Tom Selleck) — and who knows what I haven’t noticed? While today’s cop/military shows feature far more diversity with respect to gender, ethnicity, and race compared to hoary classics like Dragnet, they also feature far more gunplay and other forms of bloody violence.

Look, as a veteran, I have nothing against realistic shows on the military. Coming from a family of first responders — I count four firefighters and two police officers in my immediate family — I loved shows like Adam-12 and Emergency! in my youth. What I’m against is the strange militarization of everything, including, for instance, the idea, distinctly of our moment, that first responders need their very own version of the American flag to mark their service. Perhaps you’ve seen those thin blue line flags, sometimes augmented with a red line for firefighters. As a military veteran, my gut tells me that there should only be one American flag and it should be good enough for all Americans. Think of the proliferation of flags as another soft type of up-armoring (this time of patriotism).

Speaking of which, whatever happened to Dragnet’s Sergeant Joe Friday, on the beat, serving his fellow citizens, and pursuing law enforcement as a calling? He didn’t need a thin blue line battle flag. And in the rare times when he wielded a gun, it was .38 Special. Today’s version of Joe looks a lot more like G.I. Joe, decked out in body armor and carrying an assault rifle as he exits a tank-like vehicle, maybe even a surplus MRAP from America’s failed imperial wars.

Militarism in the USA

Besides TV shows, movies, and commercials, there are many signs of the increasing embrace of militarized values and attitudes in this country. The result: the acceptance of a military in places where it shouldn’t be, one that’s over-celebrated, over-hyped, and given far too much money and cultural authority, while becoming virtually immune to serious criticism.

Let me offer just nine signs of this that would have been so much less conceivable when I was a young boy watching reruns of Dragnet:

1. Roughly two-thirds of the federal government’s discretionary budget for 2020 will, unbelievably enough, be devoted to the Pentagon and related military functions, with each year’s “defense” budget coming ever closer to a trillion dollars. Such colossal sums are rarely debated in Congress; indeed, they enjoy wide bipartisan support.

2. The U.S. military remains the most trusted institution in our society, so say 74% of Americans surveyed in a Gallup poll. No other institution even comes close, certainly not the presidency (37%) or Congress (which recently rose to a monumental 25% on an impeachment high). Yet that same military has produced disasters or quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. Various “surges” have repeatedly failed. The Pentagon itself can’t even pass an audit. Why so much trust?

3. A state of permanent war is considered America’s new normal. Wars are now automatically treated as multi-generational with little concern for how permawar might degrade our democracy. Anti-war protesters are rare enough to be lone voices crying in the wilderness.

4. America’s generals continue to be treated, without the slightest irony, as “the adults in the room.” Sages like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis (cited glowingly in the recent debate among 12 Democratic presidential hopefuls) will save America from unskilled and tempestuous politicians like one Donald J. Trump. In the 2016 presidential race, it seemed that neither candidate could run without being endorsed by a screaming general (Michael Flynn for Trump; John Allen for Clinton).

5. The media routinely embraces retired U.S. military officers and uses them as talking heads to explain and promote military action to the American people. Simultaneously, when the military goes to war, civilian journalists are “embedded” within those forces and so are dependent on them in every way. The result tends to be a cheerleading media that supports the military in the name of patriotism — as well as higher ratings and corporate profits.

6. America’s foreign aid is increasingly military aid. Consider, for instance, the current controversy over the aid to Ukraine that President Trump blocked before his infamous phone call, which was, of course, partially about weaponry. This should serve to remind us that the United States has become the world’s foremost merchant of death, selling far more weapons globally than any other country. Again, there is no real debate here about the morality of profiting from such massive sales, whether abroad ($55.4 billion in arms sales for this fiscal year alone, says the Defense Security Cooperation Agency) or at home (a staggering 150 million new guns produced in the USA since 1986, the vast majority remaining in American hands).

7. In that context, consider the militarization of the weaponry in those very hands, from .50 caliber sniper rifles to various military-style assault rifles. Roughly 15 million AR-15s are currently owned by ordinary Americans. We’re talking about a gun designed for battlefield-style rapid shooting and maximum damage against humans. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, the hunters in my family had bolt-action rifles for deer hunting, shotguns for birds, and pistols for home defense and plinking. No one had a military-style assault rifle because no one needed one or even wanted one. Now, worried suburbanites buy them, thinking they’re getting their “man card” back by toting such a weapon of mass destruction.

8. Paradoxically, even as Americans slaughter each other and themselves in large numbers via mass shootings and suicides (nearly 40,000 gun deaths in 2017 alone), they largely ignore Washington’s overseas wars and the continued bombing of numerous countries. But ignorance is not bliss. By tacitly giving the military a blank check, issued in the name of securing the homeland, Americans embrace that military, however loosely, and its misuse of violence across significant parts of the planet. Should it be any surprise that a country that kills so wantonly overseas over such a prolonged period would also experience mass shootings and other forms of violence at home?

9. Even as Americans “support our troops” and celebrate them as “heroes,” the military itself has taken on a new “warrior ethos” that would once — in the age of a draft army — have been contrary to this country’s citizen-soldier tradition, especially as articulated and exhibited by the “greatest generation” during World War II.

What these nine items add up to is a paradigm shift as well as a change in the zeitgeist. The U.S. military is no longer a tool that a democracy funds and uses reluctantly.  It’s become an alleged force for good, a virtuous entity, a band of brothers (and sisters), America’s foremost missionaries overseas and most lovable and admired heroes at home. This embrace of the military is precisely what I would call soft militarism. Jackbooted troops may not be marching in our streets, but they increasingly seem to be marching unopposed through — and occupying — our minds.

The Decay of Democracy

As Americans embrace the military, less violent policy options are downplayed or disregarded. Consider the State Department, America’s diplomatic corps, now a tiny, increasingly defunded branch of the Pentagon led by Mike Pompeo (celebrated by Donald Trump as a tremendous leader because he did well at West Point). Consider President Trump as well, who’s been labeled an isolationist, and his stunning inability to truly withdraw troops or end wars. In Syria, U.S. troops were recently redeployed, not withdrawn, not from the region anyway, even as more troops are being sent to Saudi Arabia. In Afghanistan, Trump sent a few thousand more troops in 2017, his own modest version of a mini-surge and they’re still there, even as peace negotiations with the Taliban have been abandoned. That decision, in turn, led to a new surge (a “near record high”) in U.S. bombing in that country in September, naturally in the name of advancing peace. The result: yet higher levels of civilian deaths.

How did the U.S. increasingly come to reject diplomacy and democracy for militarism and proto-autocracy? Partly, I think, because of the absence of a military draft. Precisely because military service is voluntary, it can be valorized. It can be elevated as a calling that’s uniquely heroic and sacrificial. Even though most troops are drawn from the working class and volunteer for diverse reasons, their motivations and their imperfections can be ignored as politicians praise them to the rooftops. Related to this is the Rambo-like cult of the warrior and warrior ethos, now celebrated as something desirable in America. Such an ethos fits seamlessly with America’s generational wars. Unlike conflicted draftees, warriors exist solely to wage war. They are less likely to have the questioning attitude of the citizen-soldier.

Don’t get me wrong: reviving the draft isn’t the solution; reviving democracy is. We need the active involvement of informed citizens, especially resistance to endless wars and budget-busting spending on American weapons of mass destruction. The true cost of our previously soft (now possibly hardening) militarism isn’t seen only in this country’s quickening march toward a militarized authoritarianism. It can also be measured in the dead and wounded from our wars, including the dead, wounded, and displaced in distant lands. It can be seen as well in the rise of increasingly well-armed, self-avowed nationalists domestically who promise solutions via walls and weapons and “good guys” with guns. (“Shoot them in the legs,” Trump is alleged to have said about immigrants crossing America’s southern border illegally.)

Democracy shouldn’t be about celebrating overlords in uniform. A now-widely accepted belief is that America is more divided, more partisan than ever, approaching perhaps a new civil war, as echoed in the rhetoric of our current president. Small wonder that inflammatory rhetoric is thriving and the list of this country’s enemies lengthening when Americans themselves have so softly yet fervently embraced militarism.

With apologies to the great Roberta Flack, America is killing itself softly with war songs.

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White House Moves to Halt Times, Post Subscriptions

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has had it with The New York Times and The Washington Post. The White House is preparing to instruct federal agencies not to renew their subscriptions to the newspapers.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham is describing the move as a cost-saving measure.

Grisham said that “not renewing subscriptions across all federal agencies will be a significant cost saving for taxpayers — hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

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Trump is often critical of the two newspapers and said in a Fox News interview on Monday that “we don’t want” the Times in the White House anymore, and “we’re going to probably terminate that and The Washington Post.”

White House aides say the print editions of the newspaper are no longer coming into the White House, though online access continues.

Jonathan Karl, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said on Thursday, “I have no doubt the hardworking reporters of The New York Times and Washington Post will continue to do quality journalism, regardless of whether the president acknowledges he reads them. Pretending to ignore the work of a free press won’t make the news go away or stop reporters from informing the public and holding those in power accountable.”

Representatives from the Times and Post declined to comment.

The White House plan for the agencies was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

It’s unclear when the instructions will go out to agencies.

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Iraqi Police Fire Shots, Tear Gas at Protesters; 23 Killed

BAGHDAD — Iraqi police fired live shots into the air as well as rubber bullets and dozens of tear gas canisters Friday to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters, sending young demonstrators running for cover and enveloping a main bridge in the capital Baghdad with thick white smoke. Twenty-three protesters were killed and dozens were injured, security officials said.

The confrontations began early in the morning after anti-government demonstrations resumed, following a three-week hiatus. The protests began Oct. 1 over corruption, unemployment and lack of basic services but quickly turned deadly as security forces cracked down, using live ammunition for days.

The protests then spread to several, mainly Shiite-populated southern provinces and authorities imposed a curfew and shut down the internet for days in an effort to quell the unrest.

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After a week of violence in the capital and the country’s southern provinces, a government-appointed inquiry into the protests determined that security forces had used excessive force, killing 149 people and wounding over 3,000. It also recommended the firing of security chiefs in Baghdad and the south. Eight members of the security forces were also killed.

The protests are similar to those that have engulfed Lebanon in recent days in that they are economically driven, largely leaderless and spontaneous against a sectarian-based system and a corrupt political class that has ruled for decades and driven the two countries to the brink of economic disaster.

The protests in Iraq threaten to plunge the country into a new cycle of instability that potentially could be the most dangerous this conflict-scarred nation has faced, barely two years after declaring victory over the Islamic State group.

“They (leaders) have eaten away at the country like cancer,” said Abu Ali al-Majidi, 55, pointing in the direction of the Green Zone. “They are all corrupt thieves,” he added, surrounded by his four sons who had come along for the protest.

Subsequently, Iraqi security forces and government officials vowed to avoid further deadly violence and deployed heavily on the streets of Baghdad in anticipation of Friday’s protests.

Thousands of people began converging to Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square early Friday, carrying Iraqi flags and posters calling for change and reform.

However, after thousands of protesters removed metal security barriers and crossed the Jumhuriyya Bridge leading to Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices, soldiers fired tear gas to disperse them. After they tried to remove concrete barriers near the entrance of the Green Zone, they fired live rounds to push the protesters back.

“Baghdad hurra hurra, fasad barra barra!” the demonstrators chanted, Arabic for “Baghdad is free, corruption is out.”

Riot police in full gear and armed soldiers lined the bridge. Ambulances and tuk-tuks zipped back and forth, ferrying the injured to hospitals. A reporter for Iraq’s Sumariyya TV channel was among the injured.

Security and hospital officials said the dead included eight protesters who were killed in Baghdad. The remaining deaths were distributed across the provinces of Basra, Nasiriyah, Misan and Muthanna in southern Iraq.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Hundreds of people were taken to hospitals, many with shortness of breath from the tear gas. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Protests spread to the southern provinces later Friday, including the flashpoint city of Basra where some 4,000 people gathered near the provincial government building.

The current round of protests has been endorsed by Iraq’s nationalist Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a popular Shiite support base and the largest number of seats in parliament. He has called on the government to resign and suspended his bloc’s participation in the government until it comes up with a reform program.

However, powerful Iran-backed Shiite militias have stood by the government and suggested the demonstrations were a “conspiracy” from the outside.

Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appealed on the protesters and security forces to avoid violence and urged the demonstrators to abstain from attacking security forces or public property. In his Friday prayers sermon, he also criticized the government-appointed committee investigating the crackdown in the previous protests, saying it did not achieve its goals or uncover who was behind the violence.

As in the protests earlier this month, the protesters, organized on social media, started from the central Tahrir Square. The demonstrators, mostly young, unemployed men, carried Iraqi flags and chanted anti-government protests, demanding jobs, water and electricity.

“I want my country back, I want Iraq back,” said Ban Soumaydai, 50, an employee at the Iraqi Education Ministry, who wore black jeans, a white T-shirt and carried an Iraqi flag with the hashtag #We want a country, printed on it.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has struggled to deal with the protests.

He gave an address to the nation in the early hours Friday, promising a government reshuffle next week and pledging reforms. He told protesters they have a right to peaceful demonstrations and called on security forces to protect the protests.

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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Held in Contempt of Court

A federal judge on Thursday held President Donald Trump’s billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in contempt of court for failing to comply with an order to stop collecting loan payments from former students of Corinthian Colleges, a defunct for-profit college company that defrauded tens of thousands of borrowers.

Judge Sallie Kim of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco also hit the Education Department with a $100,000 fine for violating the injunction.

“Money from the fine will be used to compensate the 16,000 people harmed by the federal agency’s actions,” the Washington Post reported. “Some former students of the defunct for-profit college had their paychecks garnished. Others had their tax refunds seized by the federal government.”

She’s also held in contempt by millions of Americans who support strong public schools.

— Karl Frisch (@KarlFrisch) October 25, 2019

The Education Department said in a statement that it made “mistakes” and did not intend to violate the order.

In her eight-page ruling (pdf), Kim said there is “no question that defendants’ violations harmed individual borrowers who were forced to repay loans either through voluntary actions or involuntary methods (offset from tax refunds and wage garnishment) and who suffered from the adverse credit reporting.”

“Defendants have not provided evidence that they were unable to comply with the preliminary injunction, and the evidence shows only minimal efforts to comply with the preliminary injunction,” Kim wrote. “The court therefore finds defendants in civil contempt.”

Kim warned that the court “will impose additional sanctions” if the Education Department continues to violate the injunction.

Toby Merrill, the director of Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, which represents the former Corinthian students, praised Kim’s ruling in a statement to Politico.

“It’s a rare and powerful action by the court to hold the secretary in contempt,” said Merrill. “And it reflects the extreme harm that Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education have caused students who were already defrauded by a for-profit college.”

After Kim warned DeVos earlier this month that she could be held in contempt for violating the court order to stop collecting loans from former students of Corinthian Colleges, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted that DeVos would “rather risk sanctions or even jail than do her job to help America’s students.”

“The Department of Education needs to follow the law and cancel the student loans of scammed Corinthian Colleges students,” said Warren, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. “And if Betsy DeVos wants to work for predatory for-profit colleges, she should resign and find herself a new job.”

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EU Envoys Agree That Brexit Extension Is Needed, No Date Set

LONDON — Less than a week before Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union, ambassadors from the bloc’s 27 other nations agreed Friday to grant the U.K.’s request for another extension to the Brexit deadline — but they did not settle on how long that delay should be.

As so often during more than three years of Brexit drama, the two sides were in a stalemate, each waiting for the other to make a move. British politicians want to know the length of the delay before deciding whether to hold an early election. The EU, meanwhile, wants to know what Britain plans to do with the extra time.

Speaking in Brussels after EU ambassadors met with the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said the envoys accepted the terms of an extension and their “work will continue in the coming days.”

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Two European diplomats said the ambassadors would meet again early next week. Andreeva hinted that the EU would not hold a special summit on Brexit to approve the extension, saying the decision will likely be made in a statement.

“We are not very far, and there is no doubt we will find a deal early next week,” said one diplomat, who asked not to be identified because talks are continuing. The ongoing debate in Britain over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s request for a general election could have an impact on the length of the delay, the diplomat said.

Britain is scheduled to leave the 28-nation bloc on Oct. 31 after its original March 29 departure date was postponed twice. The U.K. has asked for a three-month extension to that deadline as Johnson struggles to get lawmakers to pass the divorce deal he agreed with the bloc. Economists say a no-deal departure would hurt both the U.K. and the EU economies.

France, among other EU nations, has been reluctant to approve a long Brexit extension, saying Britain must present “a clear scenario” for progress before another Brexit delay is granted.

“Our position is that simply giving more time, without political change, without ratification, without an election, would be useless,” Amelie de Montchalin, France’s European affairs minister, told RTL radio Thursday night.

Those comments followed Johnson’s decision to push for an early election to break the stalemate in Parliament that has blocked ratification of the Brexit divorce deal. Johnson said he would ask lawmakers to vote Monday on calling a general election on Dec. 12.

To secure an election, Johnson, who leads a minority government, must win support from two-thirds of the House of Commons. But opposition parties say they won’t vote for an early election until the government secures an extension of the Brexit deadline.

The biggest opposition party, Labour, has gone a step further, saying it will block plans for an early election unless Johnson eliminates the possibility of leaving the EU without a deal.

Senior Labour lawmaker Diane Abbott told the BBC her party wants an “explicit commitment” that there won’t be a no-deal Brexit, “because we don’t trust Boris Johnson.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would support an election “providing the prime minister comes to Parliament on Monday and makes it absolutely clear he is going to make sure that there is no crash out.”

“If he comes on Monday and says that, OK,” Corbyn said.

Some Labour members and lawmakers worry that their party, which lags behind Johnson’s Conservatives in opinion polls, will be defeated if an election is held soon. And all parties worry about incurring the wrath of voters by asking them to go to the polls at the darkest, coldest time of the year. Britain has not had a December election in almost a century.

Johnson, who helped lead the “leave” campaign in Britain’s 2016 EU membership referendum, took office three months ago after his predecessor, Theresa May, resigned over her failure to get Parliament’s backing for her Brexit deal.

For months he has vowed to succeed where May had failed, and said Britain would leave the EU on Oct. 31 “come what may,” with or without a deal.

Johnson insisted on Friday that British lawmakers need to commit to the Dec. 12 election date “to have any credibility about delivering Brexit.”

“Time for Corbyn — man up. Let’s have an election on Dec. 12,” he said.

Johnson secured a new deal with EU leaders last week, but British lawmakers refused to approve it before an Oct. 19 deadline imposed by Parliament. That forced him, grudgingly, to ask the EU to extend the Brexit deadline to the end of January.

Sajid Javid, Britain’s Treasury chief, said the only way to break the country’s political logjam was to call a new election and get rid of what he called the current “zombie Parliament.”

“Three-and-a-half years ago this decision was made and there’s been delay after delay after delay,” he told the BBC. “And we have to end this, end this uncertainty.”


Petrequin reported from Brussels.

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Countries Pledge $9.8B for Global Climate Fund to Help Poor

PARIS — Rich countries have pledged $9.8 billion to help poor nations tackle climate change, the fund coordinating support said Friday, as environmental campaigners slammed the United States for refusing to contribute.

Yannick Glemarec, the executive director of the Green Climate Fund, said 27 countries announced contributions by the end of a two-day conference in Paris.

The United States did not make any pledge, as U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to stop paying into the fund.

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The Climate Action Network, made up of more than 1,300 NGOs, castigated both the U.S. and Australia for refusing to pitch in.

They “have turned their backs on the world’s poorest and have once again isolated themselves in global efforts to respond to the climate emergency,” the network said in a statement. It also named Canada, the Netherlands, Portugal, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Austria and Belgium as countries that “failed to deliver their fair share” and called on them to make up the shortfall.

Oxfam International’s Armelle Le Comte called the failure of the United States and Australia to provide funding “appalling.”

But the Green Climate Fund’s Glemarec put an optimistic spin on the shortfalls.

“We will most likely be able to find additional resources” before the United Nations’ annual climate conference, which will be held in December in Santiago, Chile, Glemarec said.

Glemarec said the extra money will increase the fund’s capacity from about $1.4 billion per year now to $2.4 billion per year in the period from 2020 to 2024.

French finance minister Bruno Le Maire, speaking earlier Friday, praised “a great success” that he attributed largely to European countries, noting that almost half of the amount is being provided by France, Germany and Britain alone.

“Many countries will double their contributions,” Le Maire said.

The South Korea-based fund, which provides money to help developing countries reduce their emissions and cope with the impacts of climate change, says it has nearly exhausted some $7 billion received following an initial funding round five years ago.

Former President Barack Obama pledged $3 billion toward the fund, but Trump moved to withhold $2 billion after taking office.

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Facebook Launches a News Section—and Will Pay Publishers

Over the course of its 15 year history, Facebook has variously ignored news organizations while eating their advertising revenue, courted them for video projects it subsequently abandoned, and then largely cut their stories out of its newsfeeds.

Now it plans to pay them for news headlines — reportedly millions of dollars in some cases.

Enter the “News Tab,” a new section in the Facebook mobile app that will display headlines — and nothing else — from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, Business Insider, NBC, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, among others. Local stories from several of the largest U.S. cities will also make the grade; headlines from smaller towns are on their way, Facebook says.

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Tapping on those headlines will take you directly to publisher websites or apps, if you have any installed. Which is one thing publishers have been requesting from Facebook’s news efforts for years.

It’s potentially a big step for a platform that has long struggled with both stamping out misinformation and making nice with struggling purveyors of news. Though media watchers remain skeptical that Facebook is really committed to helping sustain the news industry.

Facebook declined to say who is getting paid and how much, saying only that it will be paying “a range of publishers for access to all of their content.” Just last year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he wasn’t sure it “makes sense” to pay news outlets for their material.

But now, as Zuckerberg told The Associated Press in an interview, “there’s an opportunity to set up new long-term, stable financial relationships with publishers.”

The Associated Press is not participating in the initiative.

News executives have long been unhappy about the extent to which digital giants like Facebook make use of their stories — mostly by displaying headlines and short summaries when users post news links. A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress this year would grant an antitrust exemption to news companies, letting them band together to negotiate payments from the big tech platforms.

“It’s a good direction that they’re willing for the first time to value and pay for news content,” said David Chavern, head of the News Media Alliance, a publisher trade group. “The trouble is that most publishers aren’t included.”

Zuckerberg said Facebook aims to set up partnerships with a “wide range” of publishers.

“We think that this is an opportunity to build something quite meaningful here,” he said. “We’re going to have journalists curating this, we are really focused on provenance and branding and where the stories come from.”

In a statement, the Los Angeles Times said it expects the Facebook effort will help expand its readership and digital subscribers.

Facebook killed its most recent effort to curate news, the ill-fated Trending topics, in 2018. Conservatives complained about political bias, leading Facebook to fire its human editors and automate the section until it began recycling false stories, after which the social giant shut it down entirely.

But what happens when the sprawling social network plays news editor? An approach that sends people news based on what they’ve liked before could over time elevate stories with greater “emotional resonance” over news that “allows public discourse to take place,” said Edward Wasserman, dean of the graduate journalism program at the University of California-Berkeley.

“It deepens my concern that they’ll be applying Facebook logic to news judgment,” he added.

The social network has come under criticism for its news judgment recently. In September, it removed a fact-check from Science Feedback that called out an anti-abortion activist’s video for claiming that abortion is never medically necessary. Republican senators had complained about the fact check.

Facebook says a small team of “seasoned” journalists it employs will choose the headlines for the “Today’s Story” section of the tab, designed to “catch you up” on the day’s news. The rest of the news section will be populated with stories algorithmically based on users’ interests.

That sounds similar to the approach taken by Apple News, a free iPhone app. But Apple’s effort to contract with news organizations has been slow to take off. Apple News Plus, a $10-a-month paid version, remains primarily a hub for magazines; other news publishers have largely sat it out.

Apple’s service reportedly offered publishers only half the revenue it pulled in from subscriptions, divided according to how popular publishers were with readers.

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Esper: U.S. Troops, Armored Vehicles Going to Syria Oil Fields

BRUSSELS — The U.S. will send armored reinforcements into eastern Syria to bolster defenses against a potential move by Islamic State militants on oil fields controlled by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday.

Esper described the added force as “mechanized,” which would likely means it will include tanks and other combat vehicles such as Bradley armored infantry carriers. This would introduce a new dimension to the U.S. military presence, which largely has been comprised of special operations forces not equipped with tanks or other armored vehicles.

It also would partially reverse the ongoing shrinkage of the U.S. troop presence in Syria. President Donald Trump has ordered the withdrawal of nearly all 1,000 U.S. troops who had been partnering with a Syrian Kurdish-led militia against the Islamic State group. That withdrawal is proceeding even as Esper announced the plan to put reinforcements in the oil-producing area.

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Although Esper did not mention the size of the U.S. reinforcements, it could total several hundred troops because fuel-guzzling tanks and other armored vehicles depend on a large supply and logistical support group.

Esper’s announcement came even as Trump again indicated in tweets that the U.S. military mission in Syria is completed. He previously has acknowledged a willingness to help protect the oil fields in eastern Syria, suggesting they could benefit the Kurds as well as the U.S., although those resources belong to the Syrian government.

“Oil is secured,” Trump tweeted Friday. “Our soldiers have left and are leaving Syria for other places, then…. COMING HOME! … When these pundit fools who have called the Middle East wrong for 20 years ask what we are getting out of the deal, I simply say, THE OIL, AND WE ARE BRINGING OUR SOLDIERS BACK HOME, ISIS SECURED!”

Asked about America’s shifting Syria strategy, Esper said the U.S. mission has always been to prevent the resurgence of IS. “That mission remains unchanged,” he said.

But Esper said at NATO that the U.S. is “considering how we might reposition forces in the area in order to ensure we secure the oil field.” He added: “We are reinforcing that position. It will include some mechanized forces.”

The defense secretary did not provide details on the makeup of the reinforcements. He made clear their main purpose is to prevent IS from regaining access to Syrian oil, which prior to 2017 was a major source of its revenue.

Starting in late 2015 and continuing for many months, the U.S. conducted airstrikes against a range of oil resources in the Deir el-Zour province that had been taken over by IS. The attacks damaged or knocked out oil tanker convoys, oil processing plants, storage facilities, pumping stations, pipelines and refineries. It was called Operation Tidal Wave II, after a World War II air campaign to hit Romania’s oil industry.

Esper said IS must not be allowed to again threaten the oil.

“If ISIS has access to the resources, and therefore the means to procure arms or to buy fighters or whatever else they do, then it means it makes it more difficult to defeat ISIS,” he said.

Esper’s comments at a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels reflected one more change in what has been a rapidly shifting U.S. stance on American forces in Syria.

Just last week, Trump insisted that all American forces in Syria would come home. Then he said the 1,000 in the north would return home and that American troops in the south, numbering about 200 the Al-Tanf garrison in the south, would stay there.

Trump in the past days has turned a greater focus on the Syrian oil facilities in the eastern part of the country, saying U.S. will stay in Syria to protect them.

According to officials, top military leaders have pushed for the U.S. to leave forces in Syria to guard against an IS resurgence. While the group’s physical zone of control was largely destroyed by U.S. and Syrian Kurdish forces, insurgents remain in small pockets throughout the country and in Iraq.

Russian and Turkish leaders have now divided up security roles in northeast Syria following America’s abrupt troop withdrawal from the Turkey-Syrian border region. The American move triggered widespread criticism that the Trump administration had abandoned the Syrian Kurdish fighters who fought alongside the U.S. against IS for several years.

Trump spurred a fresh wave of condemnation when he tweeted Thursday that he had spoken with Syrian Kurdish military chief Mazloum Abdi and said that perhaps “it is time for Kurds to start heading to the Oil Region.” That was an apparent reference to the oil fields in Deir el-Zour. U.S. military commanders see that region as critical to holding off an IS resurgence there.

“We’ve secured the oil, and, therefore, a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area where they have the oil,” Trump said. “And we’re going to be protecting it, and we’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future.”

White House officials did not respond to requests for greater clarity about Trump’s tweet suggesting Kurds head to the oil region.

The Pentagon released a statement Thursday saying it was committed to sending additional military forces to eastern Syria to “reinforce” control of the oil fields and prevent them from “falling back to into the hands of ISIS or other destabilizing actors.”


AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

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Department of Justice Opens Criminal Inquiry Into Russia Probe

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has shifted its review of the Russia probe to a criminal investigation, a person familiar with the matter said Thursday, a move that is likely to raise concerns that President Donald Trump and his allies may be using the powers of the government to go after their opponents.

The revelation comes as Trump is already facing scrutiny about a potential abuse of power, including a House impeachment inquiry examining whether he withheld military aid in order to pressure the president of Ukraine to launch an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

The person who confirmed the criminal investigation was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

It is not clear what potential crimes are being investigated, but the designation as a formal criminal investigation gives prosecutors the ability to issue subpoenas, potentially empanel a grand jury and compel witnesses to give testimony and bring federal criminal charges.

The Justice Department had previously considered it to be an administrative review, and Attorney General William Barr appointed John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to lead the inquiry into the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It’s not clear when Durham’s inquiry shifted to a criminal investigation.

Durham is examining what led the U.S. to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and the roles that various countries played in the U.S. probe. He is also investigating whether the surveillance methods and intelligence gathering methods used during the investigation were legal and appropriate.

Mueller’s investigation shadowed Trump’s presidency for nearly two years and outraged the president, who cast it as a politically motivated “witch hunt.” Mueller determined that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election, but his investigation didn’t find sufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Mueller also examined 10 possible instances of obstruction of justice and has pointedly said he could not exonerate the president.

The New York Times first reported that Durham’s inquiry had become a criminal investigation.

The chairmen of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, which are leading the impeachment inquiry, said in a statement late Thursday that the reports “raise profound new concerns” that Barr’s DOJ “has lost its independence and become a vehicle for President Trump’s political revenge.

“If the Department of Justice may be used as a tool of political retribution, or to help the President with a political narrative for the next election, the rule of law will suffer new and irreparable damage,” Democratic Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Adam Schiff said.

The Justice Department has said Trump recently made several calls at Barr’s request to foreign leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, to help the attorney general with the Durham investigation.

Barr also traveled with Durham to Italy in August and September, and the two met with Italian intelligence officials to seek information about the activities of FBI agents assigned there, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said Wednesday.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

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Congress Bids a Tearful Farewell to Cummings, a ‘Master of the House’

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress bid a tearful farewell Thursday to Rep. Elijah Cummings , hailing the son of sharecroppers as a “master of the House” as the Maryland Democrat became the first African American lawmaker to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol.

Lawmakers eulogized Cummings as a mentor and close friend, with a voice that could “shake mountains,” in the words of Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and a passion for justice and his hometown of Baltimore.

“He had a smile that would consume his whole face. But he also had eyes that would pierce through anybody that was standing in his way,” said Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, whose bond with the Cummings was among Congress’s most surprising friendships.

“Perhaps this place and this country would be better served with a few more unexpected friendships,” Meadows added, growing emotional. “I know I’ve been blessed by one.”

Cummings’ death at 68 on Oct. 17 stunned and saddened many on Capitol Hill accustomed to seeing him with the gavel as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee — or zipping by on his scooter between votes. On Thursday, his casket rested in National Statuary Hall for the service and was later moved to a passage directly in front of the House chamber, where he served for 23 years. The doors were pinned open in his honor as the public filed past.

The chairmanship gave Cummings a sizable role in the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. The two tangled last summer when the president insulted Cummings and suggested he pay more attention to his impoverished city than to investigations.

Cummings responded by inviting Trump to visit his hometown and assuring him he would be welcomed.

Cummings never left Baltimore, friends and family recalled Thursday, even as he tended to official duties in Washington.

Another child of Baltimore, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., remembered the man she’s called “sweet Elijah” and said Cummings had been the “North Star” for the Democrats he served alongside.

“Elijah was truly a master of the House. He respected its history, and in it, he helped shape America’s future,” Pelosi said.

“He was also the mentor of the House,” she told the friends and loved ones assembled among the statues in the gilded, semicircular room.

Last year when leaders assigned members to committees, Cummings said, “‘Give me as many freshmen as you can. I love their potential and I want to help them realize it,” Pelosi recalled.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Cummings was respected and revered in the caucus, “a quiet giant” whose words were heeded.

“He pulled no punches. He was authentic to the core and a champion of our democracy,” Bass said.

Later in the services, the Morgan State University Choir sang, “If I Can Help Somebody” from the balcony overhead.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recalled Cummings’ efforts to calm his native Baltimore amid violent 2015 protests following the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody.

By day, Cummings was at the Capitol in the halls of power, McConnell said, but at night he returned to Baltimore to encourage unity. Taking to the streets with a bullhorn, Cummings helped quiet the disturbances.

“Let’s go home. Let’s all go home,” McConnell recalled Cummings saying at the time. “Now our distinguished colleague truly has gone home.”

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., recalled connecting with Cummings over their shared roots as “PKs” — preachers’ kids — who followed their own paths to Congress rather than their fathers’ into the ministry.

Nonetheless, Clyburn said, “Elijah’s service was a soaring, instructive sermon” on justice and fairness. Cummings frequently urged colleagues to think about how their actions would affect children, and he was an outspoken critic of Trump administration policies that separated children from their families at the border.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., recalled that during the 2015 Baltimore protests, Cummings was “a calming influence in a sea of rage.”

Hoyer and other speakers remembered a frequent Cummings lament when events went awry or politicians acted badly: “We are better than this,” Cummings would thunder in his baritone.

As Oversight chairman, Cummings led multiple investigations of the Trump White House, including impeachment. Although his health was failing in recent weeks, Cummings joined strategy calls with Pelosi and other House chairmen and signed subpoenas from his hospital bed.

“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?” he said after a February hearing with Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen.

The phrase was one he often used as a reminder of his own mortality.

“As Elijah begins his hallelujah dance with the angels, may we look at his life and his work as dance lessons for our future entry into the silent halls of death,” Hoyer said.

“Our country,” Schumer said, “has lost a giant.”

The post Congress Bids a Tearful Farewell to Cummings, a ‘Master of the House’ appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Thousands Ordered to Leave as Northern California Fire Rages

GEYSERVILLE, Calif. — Officials ordered 2,000 people to evacuate their homes and businesses in Northern California wine country Thursday after a wildfire exploded in size, fueled by powerful winds that prompted utilities throughout the state to impose electrical blackouts to prevent fires.

The entire community of Geyserville and nearby residents were told to leave after the fire in the Sonoma County wine region north of San Francisco grew to more than 15 square miles (39 square kilometers).

Among those fleeing the flames was 81-year-old Harry Bosworth, who awoke before sunrise to find a firetruck and firefighters in his driveway. As he and his wife drove off, flames surrounded their driveway and their barn caught fire.

“I could see the fire coming, so we got the heck out of there,” Bosworth said.

The fire started Wednesday night near the Geysers, the world’s largest geothermal field where nearly two dozen power plants draw steam from more than 350 mountain wells to create electricity, said Mike Parkes, incident commander with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The cause of the blaze was not yet known, he said, but it was fueled overnight by 60 mph (95 kph) winds.

The rugged terrain was hard to access, he said, and by Thursday afternoon, the blaze raged on the outskirts of Geyserville.

There were no immediate reports of any injuries. Authorities did not yet know how many buildings were destroyed.

Some people were refusing to leave despite the dangers, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.

“Please heed our evacuation order,” he said in a televised news conference. “We really need to be able to fight the fire, rather than worrying about rescuing you.”

The fire raged amid rolling blackouts that utilities in California have said are designed to keep winds that could top 70 mph (113 kph) from knocking branches into power lines or toppling them, sparking wildfires. Electrical equipment was blamed for setting several blazes in recent years that killed scores of people and burned thousands of homes.

The state’s largest electric utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, filed for bankruptcy protection in January as it faced billions of dollars of damages from such wildfires. The investor-owned energy company has set aside billions of dollars for insurance companies and wildfire victims while facing a public backlash over its handling of the incidents.

PG&E announced Wednesday that it would begin rolling power outages, lasting for 48 hours, in parts of Northern California in anticipation of dangerous fire conditions, including unseasonably hot weather and low humidity combined with the strong winds. PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty said parts of Geyserville lost power as scheduled Wednesday.

Other utilities also cut power Wednesday and Thursday to some residents in Southern California, where at least two fires had erupted. Those blazes have remained small.

Many Geyserville residents, including Bosworth, lived through fires that tore through the same area two years ago, killing 44 people.

Mary Ceglarski-Sherwin and her husband, Matt Ceglarski-Sherwin, lost their Santa Rosa rental home during one of those fires and fled the flames again Thursday after Mary’s asthma awakened her around 2:30 a.m. Their power was still on when they grabbed their small dogs, some clothes and emergency kits they acquired during the last fire.

“I told him, ‘We gotta go, we gotta go; I can feel it changing,'” Mary Ceglarski-Sherwin told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. “By the time we got out there, we could feel the heat and see the smoke.'”

The fire also threatened some of the area’s famed wineries. The Francis Ford Coppola Winery posted on Facebook that its property was without power but “not currently in danger.” The Robert Young Estate Winery said in an 8 a.m. post that “there is fire on our property” affecting brush and pasture areas but not structures or people.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state had secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fight the fire. He did not say how money the state would get.

Newsom, a Democrat, is among those who have criticized PG&E and other utilities for the rolling blackouts and their handling of wildfire dangers.

PG&E’s power outages stretched from the Sierra foothills in the northeast to portions of the San Francisco Bay Area, affecting a half-million people — or nearly 180,000 customers.

In Southern California, hot and dry Santa Ana winds prompted Southern California Edison to cut power to more than 15,000 customers. The utility was considering additional power cuts to more than 286,000 customers.

The San Diego Gas & Electric utility said it cut power to about 328 customers.

The latest outages come two weeks after PG&E shut down power for several days to about 2 million people.

“We understand the hardship caused by these shutoffs,” PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said. “But we also understand the heartbreak and devastation caused by catastrophic wildfires.”


Gecker reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Janie Har in San Francisco and John Antczak and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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Historic Bill in U.S. House Offers Protection to Climate Refugees

Rep. Nydia Velázquez on Wednesday introduced historic legislation in the Democrat-controlled House that would establish formal federal protections in the United States for refugees fleeing impacts of the human-caused global climate crisis.

“If we are going to meaningfully discuss comprehensive climate equity and climate justice, we must inject security assistance and resettlement opportunities for climate-displaced persons into our conversations,” the New York congresswoman said in a statement.

The Climate Displaced Person’s Act of 2019 (H.R. 4732) would create protections for climate-displaced persons (CDPs), or “individuals who have been forcibly displaced by climate change or climate-induced disruptions, such as sea-level rise, glacial outburst floods, desertification, or fires,” according to Velázquez’s office.

Specifically, the first-of-its kind House bill (pdf) would establish a new humanitarian program that would allow a minimum of 50,000 CDPs to resettle in the United States beginning in the next fiscal year. It would direct the secretary of state to create a climate resilience position at the federal department and work with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator to develop a “global climate resilience strategy.”

The bill would also direct the president to collect and maintain data on climate-related displacement and empower the president to provide assistance to programs and initiatives that promote resilience among communities facing the impacts of the climate emergency.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)—who co-sponsors the Green New Deal resolution with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)—introduced companion legislation (S. 2565) to Velázquez’s bill last month. However, unlike the House, Republicans control the Senate.

Even if the bill passed both chambers of Congress, it likely would not be signed into law by President Donald Trump, who has pursued several initiatives to severely limit all forms of migration to the United States—from separating migrant families and caging children to his recent proposal to slash the refugee cap to 18,000 for the next fiscal year, which would be a historic low for a country that has taken in an average of 95,000 people annually.

Although the CDP Act faces seemingly insurmountable barriers as long as the GOP has a majority in the Senate and Trump remains president, “the bill lays the groundwork for how a future administration could deal with what’s already forecast to be among the greatest upheavals global warming will cause,” noted HuffPost, which first reported on the measure Wednesday.

“Despite this administration’s efforts to strip the world’s most vulnerable populations of refuge, America will continue to stand tall as a safe haven for immigrants,” said Velázquez. “This legislation will not only reaffirm our nation’s longstanding role as a home to those fleeing conflict and disasters, but it will also update it to reflect changes to our world brought on by a changing climate.”

As HuffPost reported:

Since 2008, catastrophic weather has displaced an average of 24 million people per year, according to data from the Swiss-based nonprofit Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. That number could climb to anywhere from 140 million to 300 million to 1 billion by 2050. The World Bank estimated last year that climate change effects in just three regions―sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America―could force 143 million people to flee by the middle of the century.

Yet little to no legal infrastructure exists to classify and process climate refugees. Last December, leaders from 164 countries formally adopted the U.N. Global Compact for Migration, the first major international document to recognize the role of climate change in causing displacement. But it’s a nonbinding and voluntary accord, and the United States, Australia, and several European Union members refused to sign.

In an interview with Common Dreams last month, author and activist Naomi Klein specifically noted the failure of governments—especially wealthy and powerful ones like the United States—to respond properly to the intersection of the world’s refugee crisis and the calamity of climate change.

“We need to be talking more about immigration and what the future of the border looks like in the context of a crisis that was created in wealthy countries,” Klein explained, “but is impacting the poorest people in the world first and worst. And those connections, I think, are still not being made nearly enough.”

When Markey introduced the companion bill in the Senate in September, he warned that “the climate crisis is fueling an humanitarian crisis around the world, and without intervention the crisis will become a catastrophe.”

“Women, children, Indigenous people, and people of color are the most likely to be affected by climate migration, making them even more vulnerable to conflict, violence, and persecution,” he said. “The United States needs a global strategy for resilience and a plan to deal with migration driven by climate change.”

The CDP Act, according to Markey’s office, is endorsed by Foreign Policy for America, Human Rights First, Oxfam, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Church World Service, Refugees International, International Refugee Assistance Project, National Partnership for New Americans, and Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

RAICES, the largest immigration legal services non-profit in the border state of Texas, welcomed the bill in a series of tweets Wednesday.

“This is a first step,” the group tweeted, linking to HuffPost‘s report. “Climate issues are immigration issues.”

“We have to get this right, now,” RAICES added. “If we cannot ensure our immigration system is set up to welcome climate refugees today, we’ll have little hope of doing so in the future.”

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Now the Generals Speak Up?

<i>Now</i> they’ve decided to speak out! For years, I’ve published searing critiques of America’s senior generals and admirals for their failure to speak out publicly against U.S. foreign policy and warmongering. Specifically, I’ve argued that it’s their duty to loudly dissent, and if necessary resign, in opposition to the nation’s ongoing, ill-advised, illegal and unwinnable forever wars.

Now, in a rather dark bit of irony, the — mostly retired — generals have turned my advice on its head. In unprecedented numbers, a litany of prominent military leaders have recently spoken out. Unfortunately, they’ve chosen to do so in the name of continuing perpetual war — specifically in Syria. The target of their criticism, of course, is Donald Trump, whose clumsy withdrawal (and partial redeployment) of a modest number of soldiers from northeast Syria has led the military establishment to declare rhetorical war on the president.

In doing so, the generals haven’t just violated their purported core principles of nonpartisanship, but they have shown their true colors as unabashed militarists in a rare wave of public defiance.  That they’re doing so to prolong an unsanctioned war with a muddled and dubious mission is dangerous, scary, and hypocritical — a serious threat to the republic.

What’s crazy is that Trump isn’t even consistently antiwar. He’s only reshuffled the troops to Iraq and infused even more into Saudi Arabia. He’s even suggested that he may keep some in Syria to protect (or seize) oil fields.

Nevertheless, even the hint of deescalation in a single theater of a region-wide endless war has sparked an unparalleled, even hysterical, outcry from former senior military officers intent on maintaining the hyper-interventionist status quo. And why not?  The failed “war on terror” has defined their careers; it’s all they know. It doesn’t hurt the generals’ pocketbooks either to maintain the forever wars — a huge percentage have gone to work on the corporate boards of various defense contractors right after retirement, earning cool six- and seven-digit salaries in the process. (Notice that’s never mentioned on the mainstream cable networks when these generals receive endless airtime, as if working for an arms-dealing corporation with a pecuniary interest in perennial war isn’t itself a highly political act.)

These self-righteous and obsessively self-described “apolitical” generals have demonstrated that’s only the case until a president even modestly, if inconsistently, removes troops from just one unsanctioned (by Congress) — and thus unconstitutional — war.  Let’s review the boundless hypocrisy of just a few of the most prominent voices crowing against the Syria withdrawal.  There’s Army General Joseph Votel, a recent commander of all troops in the greater Middle East. He took to the pages of The Atlantic to assert that “abandoning” the Syrian Kurds will “severely damage American credibility and reliability.”

He claims to be genuinely worried about a potential ethnic cleansing or genocide of those Kurds.  Funny — while he commanded the very pilots and intelligence analysts who abetted and enabled the Saudi terror war on Yemen, he apparently felt no moral compunction to speak out. That U.S.-backed war has actually, not potentially, caused the world’s worst humanitarian disaster and killed more than 100,000 civilians from another ethnic minority, the Yemeni Houthis, including the starvation deaths of at least 85,000 children. Spare us the moralizing, Joe!

Then there’s that media darling, “Saint” Jim Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary and venerated Marine Corps general. “Mad Dog” has been, until now, the paragon of the insincere “apolitical military professional.” Trump’s detractors have even criticized Mattis for not openly attacking his former boss in a newly released memoir. Now Mattis is blazing away with both barrels. Maybe he just couldn’t swallow Trump’s recent exaggerated assertion that the “warrior monk” is the “world’s most overrated general.” Lost in Trump’s absurd hyperbole, and Mattis’ admittedly clever responsive quip — “I earned my spurs on the battlefield … Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor” — is the fact that the former general is overrated.

That’s demonstrable both strategically — he’s yet to win a war or advise a commander-in-chief that a mission was ill-advised and impossible — and morally. Though normally viewed as a man, first and foremost, of integrity, his record demonstrates the opposite. Remember, Mattis chose to resign as Trump’s defense secretary not because of his military’s support for a slow-boiling Yemeni genocide, which he defended before Congress, but because the president merely hinted at a modest troop withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan. Apparently that was too much for Mattis. More telling is that Mattis didn’t resign or speak out over the Pentagon’s conduct of undeclared and unsanctioned wars– in Yemen, Syria, Libya and West Africa under his watch. This, despite having proudly taken an oath to defend the Constitution, which quite clearly mandates just such congressional approval before “his” troops are sent to kill and die.

How about good old David Petraeus, the former Iraq and Afghan War commander, disgraced CIA director and “hero” of the Bush II and Obama years. This character, wildly lacking in any sense of self-awareness, has also decided to decry Trump’s Syria policy and alleged Ukraine-gate violations in recent weeks. Riddle me this: just who is Petraeus, a convicted criminal who shared classified information with his mistress whilst serving as CIA chief, to utter a word about whistleblowers, scandal or the president’s shady activity? That a man like “King David” gets a millisecond of air time is proof of media failure of the highest degree.

Also lost in the canonization of these retired general officers is the inconvenient fact that they are way out of step with the opinions of rank-and-file soldiers and veterans. After all, in a remarkable turnaround among a demographic that’s long tilted in a conservative direction, a series of polls this summer indicated that nearly two-thirds of post-9/11 vets say they believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the military engagement in Syria “were not worth it.”

So, does all of this senior military dissent add up to an actual coup? That’s probably an exaggeration, but one worth considering. Not every putsch requires tanks in the streets or political assassination. Current and former national security officials can undermine civilian leadership or topple a government without overt or violent upheaval. Today’s chorus of angry, anti-Trump, pro-forever-war generals clearly don’t rise to the level of outright treason, but their unanimity and reflexive hawkishness do demonstrate that the National Security State is imbued with immense power and a political agenda.

On the other hand, those veterans who publicly dissent against these wars and clamor for adherence to constitutional war-making procedures they are, unlike the adulated generals, viciously pilloried. To question generals and oppose endless war is a risky endeavor. Just ask Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a serving Army major and Iraq war veteran making a longshot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton, who regularly (and accurately) criticized Trump’s conspiratorial thinking, recently advanced her own absurd theory that Gabbard is a “Russian asset.” Pot, meet kettle.

Of course, this preposterous charge is no laughing matter. Clinton has legitimately accused Gabbard, without a shred of evidence, of treason — a crime punishable by death, given that the Hawaii congresswoman still serves in the military. Gabbard ought to sue Clinton for libel. That Gabbard has been repeatedly defamed by the likes of Clinton and The New York Times proves that despite the veneer of vacuous hyper-adulation of veterans, one’s uniform and combat record won’t save him or her from a smear campaign. There are serious limits to even combat veterans’ antiwar dissent.

As for the generals, maybe someday (but don’t hold your breath) this generation of sycophantic military leaders will at last produce a new Smedley Butler. He was a Marine Corps major general who served for decades, twice won the Medal of Honor and then became an outspoken antiwar activist– willing to dissent against today’s wars. Unlike the interwar era, when Butler was a genuine celebrity speaker, expect that if such a general does step forward, today’s mainstream media will ignore or silence him. All the while, the troopers the current crew of hypocritical, failed generals once commanded, “their boys,” will continue to die in perpetuity.


Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army major and regular contributor to Truthdig.  His work has also appeared in Harper’s, The L.A. Times, The Nation, Tom Dispatch, The Huffington Post, and The Hill. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He co-hosts the progressive veterans’ podcast “Fortress on a Hill.”  Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen


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The Case for Trump’s Impeachment Is Only Growing

What follows is a conversation between professor Bill Black and Greg Wilpert of The Real News Network. Read a transcript of their conversation below or watch the video at the bottom of the post.

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

A group of Republican members of Congress staged a protest at a closed-door hearing of the House of Representatives on Wednesday, which was about to hear testimony related to the impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump. Only members of the House Intelligence, Judiciary, and Foreign Affairs Committees are allowed to be present at that hearing. The protests though, managed to scuttle the hearing, where Laura Cooper, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, was supposed to testify. So far, the House impeachment investigation has issued subpoenas to the White House, the Defense Department, the Budget Office, and other agencies.

Many of those subpoenaed have refused to comply, however, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and Vice President Mike Pence, among many others. On Tuesday, William B. Taylor Jr., who was the top American diplomat in Ukraine, testified that Trump, indeed, withheld $391 million in foreign aid to Ukraine and refused a White House meeting until President Zelensky announced investigation into prominent Democrats. He basically dismantled Trump’s claim that there was no quid pro quo.

Joining me now to discuss the Democrats’ impeachment investigation into Donald Trump is Bill Black. Bill is a white collar criminologist, former financial regulator, and associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. He is also the author of the book, The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One. Thanks for joining us again, Bill.

BILL BLACK: Thank you.

GREG WILPERT: So let’s start, not with Trump, but with Joe Biden. It would seem that all of this impeachment controversy does, to some extent, hinge on what Joe Biden did or didn’t do for his son, Hunter, with regard to the Ukraine. Republicans and Trump suggest that Hunter Biden was involved in some sort of corruption by being on the board of a Ukrainian company. What’s your take on this?

BILL BLACK: Well, first, I don’t agree that it hinges on it. Legally, it most assuredly doesn’t hinge on it. Even if Joe Biden had done corrupt things in the Ukraine, Trump can’t tie the provision of foreign aid voted by the United States Congress to whether the Ukrainian government will investigate his political opponent. Beyond that, the Democrats keep using the wrong phrase, that Trump wants them, or Giuliani wants them to dig up dirt on Biden and Hunter Biden. That would not be terrible, right? If there were actually dirt there and it was covered up, you certainly want Ukrainian investigators, on their own, to investigate it. What Trump wants is not dirt to be uncovered that actually exists. He wants it created. He wants a smear campaign. And it’s all premised on this fundamental lie that this former Ukrainian prosecutor, who was a non-prosecutor, was actually vigorously going after Hunter Biden, and that Joe Biden used his power as vice president and leader of the efforts on getting that prosecutor fired, to quash this investigation.

So that’s one of the two claims. The second claim is even crazier. And the second claim is that there is a, quote unquote, “server,” when of course there are actually roughly 90 to 200 servers, and that, supposedly, this server at the DNC was funneled secretly out of the United States to keep the FBI from finding it, and for some reason, sent to the Ukraine. And it’s just, it’s Pizza Gate style craziness. Beyond that, why was Hunter Biden getting $50,000 a month? Hunter Biden is someone who has huge problems with alcohol, with drugs, with women. He’s a really messed up individual with no skills relevant to the task. He was getting $50,000 a month. So when we say there’s nothing wrong, of course there’s something wrong with this. This is the powerful and the kids of the powerful who are paid off. And there’s only one reason they’re paid off, and that is that corrupt people hope to influence the powerful elected official.

And by the way, we just had guilty pleas to all of this by Deutsche Bank, for example, where they did this in spades for the Chinese princelings and such, as a way of getting business. So that’s a bad thing. And it’s obviously not in any way unique to the Bidens. The entire Trump family and in-laws are quintessential examples of this at a much higher level. But that isn’t a crime. There is no credible evidence of a crime in any of this. There’s also the point that… judgment. And as vice president of the United States, Joe Biden took this lead in the Ukraine and continued it knowing that his son was in this situation that was easily spun as a conflict of interest. And so, in jargon, he created an apparent conflict of interest. You’re not supposed to do that. That’s terrible judgment. And you’re just handing people ammunition to use against you. So in the electability issue, in the “who’s the reasonable, moderate, responsible type,” Joe Biden demonstrated incredibly poor judgment and dramatically harmed his electability prospects; and did it completely gratuitously.

Joe Biden had no expertise in the Ukraine. There was absolutely no reason for him to take the lead, particularly with his son having that role. Anyone with judgment would have said, “Hey, leave it to the professionals,” right? And it’s a criticism of Trump validly as well, as he brings in people who have no expertise in the Ukraine, who simply in his case gave his campaign cheer election stuff over a million bucks and bought himself–this is Sondland–an ambassadorship. Well, yes, all administrations do some of that, but it’s not good. And we should work strongly against it. So when Biden’s folks say, “We did nothing wrong.” Well, yeah, you did things that were wrong. You didn’t do things that were remotely criminal or impeachable. And so you’re here in the way of abuses, and Trump is off the charts in the way of abuses. But again, you gave him a freebie. And our lesson when we were regulators cracking down on the most powerfully connected political types was never give freebies, right? So we lived this life of super probity because we knew they would use anything against us. Biden just should have done the same thing.

GREG WILPERT: Let’s turn to Trump actually, to the impeachment investigation. Now, the evidence actually seems pretty solid right now that there, indeed, was a quid pro quo for US aid to the Ukraine in exchange for an investigation. What is your take on this situation? Is the impeachment a done deal at this point?

BILL BLACK: Well, nothing’s a done deal because we’ve just seen how, in the last three weeks, the smart money proved completely wrong that there wouldn’t be an impeachment. So it’s immensely subject to developments. So first, in terms of the law, you don’t need a quick pro quo. And you shouldn’t gratuitously take on an extra burden of proof. Just trying to get the head of the Ukraine to investigate your political opponent is already a classic abuse of power that would constitute, within the way the framers of the Constitution thought it, an obvious example of a high crime and misdemeanor. Further, the obstruction that you talked about in the introduction would also do so. And has, in fact … That precise charge has been used by both major political parties in modern times as a legitimate basis for impeachment.

That said, if you do seek a quid pro quo, then that is a clear crime. And the failure of Barr and the supposed investigation, non-investigation, they had of this, to charge anything on the absurd grounds that what Trump was seeking was not, and I quote, “a thing of value.” Why? Because it couldn’t be quantified. It couldn’t be counted. That’s preposterous. Just, it would destroy the entire intent. It would be incredibly easy to evade the law in those circumstances and accomplish everything Congress was trying to prevent. So that’s actually a third ground of impeachment, or a grounds why Barr should be impeached as well in all of these things. So, yes. Now, the late night talk show hosts have it right. I mean, the headlines should read: “Top US Diplomat in the Ukraine Confirms What Trump and Mulvaney Already Confessed.” Yes, there was a quid pro quo.

GREG WILPERT: So just to touch quickly on that last topic, I mean, not last one, the one you mentioned about obstruction of justice, we saw the Republicans trying to prevent it, but what … prevent the hearing that is, but what obstruction are you concretely referring to?

BILL BLACK: The refusal to provide witnesses and documents. Similar refusals in the past by both parties have been charged as the official grounds … So both parties are on record as saying, “This constitutes an appropriate basis to, not simply impeach, but to convict and remove from office an official.” This, by the way, what’s going on, is not a hearing in the usual sense. This is a staff deposition in which people like me and people that are actually investigators, not politicians, who aren’t playing for any cameras, there aren’t any cameras in the room, or at least not regular cameras, just to video tape, are asking professional, in-depth questions. And the analogue, and this again is, both parties use this analogy, this is not partisan in any way, is that the House serves like the grand jury. A grand jury typically meets in secrecy. The witnesses are permitted to talk, right? They’re not barred. But the officials conducting the grand jury-like inquiry are not supposed to be leaking the evidence that comes from it. Again, Bill Taylor’s perfectly allowed under grand jury rules to make an opening statement and to give that opening statement to the public.

For security reasons, to keep it secret, they are holding this in what’s called a SCIF. And a SCIF is an acronym that means basically a secure room where you take really stringent steps to make sure that no one can be engaged in electronic eavesdropping. And the Republicans didn’t just stage this stunt where … Remember, Republicans are in the room, right? All Republican members of the appropriate committees are fully able to attend all of this. They brought all these clowns who aren’t legitimately there. They tried it previously with just one. This time they brought like 20 of these folks. They brought their cell phones into the room. Now, you never, ever bring those kinds of electronics into a SCIF. It’s completely irresponsible. The sergeant-in-arms asked them not to do it and to give him their phones. They refused to do so. Eventually, Meadows, a senior Republican, was able to do this.

But this comes directly after Taylor’s bombshell testimony and directly after President Trump implored his people to get tough and attack the Democrats. In other words, to obstruct the testimony, the evidence finding of the grand jury-like function. That too should be a basis for impeachment. Tactically, it’s a question of how many things you’re adding in. I’m not trying to advise them on the tactics. But legally, this is yet another act of obstruction to cover up prior acts of obstruction.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, I think this analysis is really interesting. I think it’s important. I hope many people get to see it, but we’re going to leave it there for now. I’m sure we’ll come back to you on it as the situation develops. I was speaking to Bill Black, Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. Thanks again, Bill, for having joined us today.

BILL BLACK: Thank you.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

The post The Case for Trump’s Impeachment Is Only Growing appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

The Trump Administration Admits Violating Its Own Ethics Pledge

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.

A governmentwide review has acknowledged for the first time that at least several Trump political appointees violated the administration’s ethics pledge, which was put in place to try to “drain the swamp” by imposing lobbying restrictions and penalties.

The details are tucked away in the Office of Government Ethics’ latest annual report, which attracted little notice when it was released this summer.

While President Donald Trump’s ethics pledge was weaker than previous rules, the government ethics office still found violations in 2018 at three federal agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the National Labor Relations Board.

No federal agency reported a violation of the Trump ethics pledge in 2017.

At the National Labor Relations Board, Republican board member William Emanuel was found to have improperly voted on a case involving franchisee or contractor violations of labor laws. Emanuel’s former employer, the law firm Littler Mendelson, represents a company that was a party to the original ruling, ProPublica reported. Before he joined the board in September 2017, Emanuel was a shareholder at Littler, which represents corporations in labor disputes.

In December 2017, the labor board overturned the original union-friendly ruling, undoing years of precedent and making it tougher for employees to pursue federal complaints against parent or related companies if they indirectly control employee work conditions. Because of Emanuel’s conflict of interest with Littler, the ruling on the case was ultimately overturned a second time and the labor board’s inspector general called Emanuel’s vote a “serious and flagrant problem and/or deficiency.”

The National Labor Relations Board declined to comment on Emanuel’s ethics violation. Emanuel did not respond to requests for comment.

The report cites an ethics violation by an unnamed presidential appointee at the EPA. Agency officials familiar with the matter said the case involves Bill Wehrum, a former lobbyist and attorney who resigned in June as the agency’s assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. Wehrum is the subject of several internal EPA investigations and faced questions from the House Energy and Commerce Committee over his communications with his former law firm Hunton & Williams, now known as Hunton Andrews Kurth. The firm represented several EPA-regulated power plant operators.

Wehrum, the chief architect of the Trump administration’s rollback of the Clean Air Act, the EPA and Hunton Andrews Kurth did not respond to requests for comment.

At the Interior Department, government attorneys disclosed in the annual report that “Ethics Pledge violations may have occurred in 2018.” The Interior Department’s inspector general is looking at potential violations of the ethics pledge by six current and former Trump staffers. (The agency also acknowledged problems with its ethics office after an earlier ProPublica story.)

The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Interior Department in February, alleging that six current and former department staffers violated the ethics pledge, calling it “a disturbing pattern of misconduct” and including one former staffer who went directly from working on energy policy to working for an offshore oil drilling firm. Penalties for violating the pledge include fines and a five-year ban on lobbying.

The Interior Department has yet to make any announcement or ruling on the complaint. But in a statement, the agency said it “immediately consulted with department ethics officials after receiving the Center’s complaint in February. Ethics reviewed each matter and provided materials to the chief of staff, who has taken appropriate actions. All of these materials have been provided to the Inspector General.”

Influence peddling in federal politics is not new; in the Obama administration, appointees in both the Interior Department and the EPA were found to have violated his version of the ethics pledge by talking with former business clients.

The difference, ethics experts who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations say, is both the lack of enforcement and the dearth of information coming from certain federal agencies and the White House about its missteps.

“The White House Counsel’s office has taken the lead in making excuses for ethics violations,” said Kathleen Clark, a professor specializing in legal ethics at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. “There’s examples of the White House refusing to impose any sanction for officials found to have committed violations. They’re setting quite the example.”

In the first two years of the Trump administration, 3,887 political appointees — from Cabinet secretaries and acting chiefs to special and confidential assistants — signed the Trump ethics pledge. Of those thousands of political appointees, 116 were registered lobbyists in the two years immediately before starting government service, or roughly 3%.

Employees who signed Trump’s ethics pledge are not allowed to work on “any particular matters” they previously lobbied on. By contrast, the Obama administration banned lobbyists from working at agencies they previously lobbied.

Trump’s ethics pledge also bars those exiting the government from lobbying for five years — except we’ve found dozens of cases of staffers who’ve gone on to do exactly that.

The EPA and the Interior Department, along with other federal agencies, are no strangers to ethics issues over the past 2 1/2 years.

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general, resigned in July 2018 after a tumultuous tenure that saw more than a dozen different federal investigations into ethical and legal allegations, including his lease of a bedroom in a condo linked to a Canadian energy company’s Washington lobbying firm. (Pruitt’s attorney, Cleta Mitchell, told The Washington Post, that ethics rules had been unfairly “weaponized in order to destroy political opponents” like Pruitt and that he was “enemy No. 1” when he left the EPA. Pruitt is now working with coal baron Joseph W. Craft III and as an energy consultant and paid speaker while “in full compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the law,” Mitchell said.) Current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, had at least three meetings with former clients as Pruitt’s deputy, according to calendars obtained by the trade publication E&E News.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, now a lobbyist with Turnberry Solutions, is being investigated by the Justice Department’s public integrity section over allegations he lied to his agency’s inspector general’s office. That’s on top of two separate probes by the Interior Department’s inspector general about his ties to real estate deals in Montana and a proposed casino project in Connecticut. Zinke also exchanged emails about his family foundation’s Montana property in the summer of 2017, in violation of his own recusal memo he signed with ethics attorneys, according to documents obtained by The Post. (Zinke described the ethics allegations against him to Bloomberg News as “false” and “B.S.,” and calling D.C. “so angry and hateful.”)

As part of a House inquiry into possible ethics violations, current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, was found to have met with officials from Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, a division of the U.S. Oil and Gas Association, one of his former clients. The nonprofit legal center has also filed a complaint against Bernhardt, alleging he violated the ethics pledge by meeting with another former client, California’s Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural water district. The Interior Department has said Bernhardt is in “complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules and regulations.”

These reported cases of ethics pledge violations don’t represent the many ethics issues found across the Trump administration.

In April, the State and Energy departments released three long-delayed ethics waivers it has granted to Trump appointees, allowing them to talk to former employers and business clients. An additional 10 waivers specific to the Trump ethics pledge were disclosed by agencies in their annual ethics reports.

In 2017 and 2018, federal agencies referred 125 ethics cases to the Department of Justice for prosecution. Of those cases, 91 were declined and 12 were accepted, with the rest pending.

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Bolivia’s Morales Says He Won Presidential Vote Outright Amid Protests

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivia’s Evo Morales declared himself the outright winner of the country’s presidential election Thursday, which would give him a fourth straight term after a vote that has sparked days of protests by his opponents and supporters over accusations of fraud.

With more than 98 percent of the votes counted from Sunday’s election, Bolivia’s first indigenous president had 46.8% support against 36.7% for former president Carlos Mesa, just barely giving Morales the 10 percentage point lead over his nearest rival needed to avoid a second-round runoff. Seven other candidates were in the race.

“We have won in the first round. There are 1.58% (of the votes) left to count but we won with the rural vote,” Morales, the region’s longest-ruling leader, told a press conference.

But Morales later said that if the count of the final ballots showed that he did not get enough votes, he would be prepared to head to a second round. As of midday Thursday, electoral authorities had still not announced a final result.

Opposition leaders were meeting Thursday to study the situation. Mesa announced that he would form an alliance to “defend the vote” in the streets and alleged the leftist president had perpetrated “a monumental fraud” to get re-elected. Morales, in turn, urged his supporters to defend his win and denied electoral fraud, demanding his detractors show proof.

“We are at the start of a crisis that could affect the social, political and economic stability of the country,” said political analyst Jorge Dulón.

The Andean nation has been on a knife-edge since the bitterly disputed vote. If it had gone to a runoff between Morales and Mesa, analysts said a united opposition might have stood a chance of defeating the incumbent president.

International vote monitors have expressed concern at an earlier unexplained daylong gap in reporting results before a sudden spurt in Morales’ vote percentage. The Organization of American States has asked that the vote go to a second round because of the concerns.

The OAS observer mission released a statement expressing its “concern and surprise over the drastic change and difficult to justify tendency in the preliminary results.”

Opposition backers continued to stage rowdy protests, while Morales’ backers staged a march in the capital to show their support for the president.

Protesters have burned Supreme Electoral Tribunal offices in three cities and staged demonstrations since Monday. The opposition bastion of Santa Cruz has seen two days of a partial strike “in defense of the vote and democracy.” On Thursday, Morales supporters announced marches in coca-growing region of Chapare, a bastion of support for the president.

Morales has repeatedly said he won outright and that his opponents are conspiring to oust him.

“I want to denounce to the people and the world that a coup d’etat is underway,” Morales said at a news conference Wednesday. “The right wing has prepared it with international support.”

Morales did not specify where the alleged international support for the coup was coming from, but he regularly rails against U.S. imperialism in Latin America.

Suspicions of electoral fraud rose when officials abruptly stopped releasing results from the quick count of votes hours after the polls closed Sunday with Morales topping the eight other candidates, but also falling several percentage points short of the percentage needed to avoid the first runoff in his nearly 14 years in power.

Twenty-four hours later, the body suddenly released an updated figure, with 95% of votes counted, showing Morales just 0.7 percentage point short of the 10-percentage point advantage needed to avoid a runoff.

That set off an uproar among the opposition and expressions of concern by international monitors. Since then, results have slowly been updated.

Along with the OAS, the European Union and the U.N. expressed concern about the electoral process and called for calm. The United States and Brazil, among others, also expressed concerns.

Michael G. Kozak, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, warned Wednesday that Bolivian authorities will be held accountable if the process isn’t fair.

“I think you will see pretty strong response from the whole hemisphere, not just the U.S.,” Kozak said during a House hearing.

In Caracas, Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, voiced support for his ally Morales.

“It is a coup d’etat foretold, sung and, one can say, defeated,” he said.

The crisis was aggravated by the resignation of the vice president electoral council, Antonio Costas, who said he disagreed with the decision to interrupt transmission of the vote count.

Morales, 59, a native Aymara from Bolivia’s highlands, became the country’s first indigenous president in 2006 and easily won the two following elections amid more than a decade of a commodities-fed economic boom in South America’s poorest country. He paved roads, sent Bolivia’s first satellite to space and curbed inflation.

But he has faced growing dissatisfaction, especially over his refusal to accept the results of a 2016 referendum to keep limits on presidential terms. The country’s top court, considered by critics as friendly to the president, ruled that limits would violate Morales’ political rights as a citizen.

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