American History for Truthdiggers: The Obama Disappointment

Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

Below is the 37th installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, who retired recently as a major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His war experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.

Part 37 of “American History for Truthdiggers.”

See: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10; Part 11; Part 12; Part 13; Part 14; Part 15; Part 16; Part 17; Part 18; Part 19; Part 20; Part 21; Part 22; Part 23; Part 24; Part 25; Part 26; Part 27; Part 28; Part 29; Part 30; Part 31; Part 32; Part 33; Part 34; Part 35; Part 36.

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Most serious historians, especially academics, believe that accounts of recent events—particularly within 10 years of the present—are more journalistic than historical. It is for good reason that journalism has been called the “first draft of history.” As the “American History for Truthdiggers” series nears an end, it looks at the administration of Barack Obama, who left the presidency less than 32 months ago. Because so little time has passed, the essay below is more a brief, analytical essay than a comprehensive reading based on established, long-scrutinized historical sources and discovery of new information. It should be viewed as this author’s first draft of rather recent history. —Danny Sjursen

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Barack Hussein Obama. That a man with a black Kenyan father and a name derived from African and Islamic etymology was elected president of the United States seemed profound indeed. America’s legacy of chattel slavery and racial apartheid was such that only a decade and a half before the 2008 election Tupac Shakur would rap that Americans “ain’t ready to see a black president.” Nonetheless, Obama won—with authority—over his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. By carrying traditionally Republican states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana, Obama appeared to have forged a new Democratic coalition. Perhaps more important was the claim of some of his admirers that he inaugurated a new “post-racial” America. That would turn out to be only wishful thinking.

Without the utter, historical failure and (by then) unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration, due largely to the 2007-2008 financial collapse and the intractable, unwinnable Iraq War, a man with Obama’s name and skin color would never have been elected. Indeed, it might have taken many more decades to elect a black president. Such is the contingency of history. Seen in this light, Obama was as much anomaly as transformational. Never as progressive as his rhetoric, always the astute—and ultimately mainstream—politician first, and often fearful of appearing “weak” or providing ammunition for his intransigent Republican opposition, President Obama proved disappointing for liberals and tragic for the Greater Middle East.

Tribal America: Party Over Country and More of the Same

Obama entered the spotlight and rose to national celebrity almost overnight. A last-minute choice to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, the then-little-known Illinois state senator (running for the U.S. Senate at the time) delivered a thunderous and articulate address. This new, young face of color inspired the audience with his call for unity in a time of partisan division. Those who divide the nation into red states and blue states are incorrect, he said, declaring, “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.” The speech was indeed excellent. Yet, as Obama’s later tenure as president would illustrate, the young state senator himself was wrong: There were, and are, two Americas. The people, and especially their elected representatives, were and are tribal and divided. The result for the Obama presidency was often stalemate, infighting and rightward moderation of even Obama’s most modest “liberal” legislation. In other words, the 44th president’s domestic policy was fated to be more of what had come before.

Obama entered the presidency at the nadir of what was dubbed the “Great Recession,” America’s worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Decades of right-wing, hypercapitalist, free-market orthodoxy—combined with fiscal deregulation, much of it stemming from President Bill Clinton’s policies—had set the stage for that collapse. Nonetheless, it was Obama who was expected to pick up the pieces and who would have his legacy judged by his response to the fiscal free fall. As a relative newcomer and an ostensible outsider among the party’s “New Democrat” leaders, Obama had a profound opportunity to forever transform the American economy and stanch the growing economic inequality plaguing the nation. That this was not to be became clear when the new president appointed an economic team spearheaded by Wall Street-friendly Clinton administration veterans such as Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers. Rather than nationalize banks, “bust” monopolies and pass a true New Deal-style public works and massive stimulus program, Obama—partly due to partisan opposition, it must be admitted—settled on a modest stimulus, weak financial regulations, counterintuitive tax cuts and a taxpayer-financed bailout of the criminals atop the nation’s largest corporations. None of the company executives were punished, most received “golden parachute” bonuses and America’s flawed, radically rightist economy remained in place.

Next, though he had been warned by his staff that it was politically unpalatable, Obama decided to move for health care reform, a goal long sought by liberals. Democratic presidents from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton had tried to achieve something approaching universal health care coverage for the citizenry but had failed in the face of fierce Republican opposition and the well-funded lobbying efforts of the lucrative private insurance industry. Obama meant to succeed where his predecessors had failed. Nonetheless, precisely because of his obsession with getting something passed in Congress, the president failed to seriously alter America’s broken health care system. Realizing that Republican opposition, and Americans’ fear of the boogeyman of “socialized medicine,” remained strong, Obama never seriously considered the single-payer, universal coverage system prevalent and successful in most of the Western World. Though European single-payer, government health care systems cost far less than the American employer-based system, and though health outcomes in the privatized U.S. system lagged behind those of its industrialized peers, Obama decided that only a hybrid compromise had any chance of passing Congress. Perhaps he was right, but the new president did seem to fold rather quickly, and utterly failed to sell the logic of single-payer, universal coverage directly to the American people as both cost-effective and inherently moral.

Republican opposition to Obama’s eventual plan, the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—rapidly, if pejoratively, dubbed “Obamacare”—was vehement and cynical. The ACA, after all, kept in place the employer-based system (almost unique to the United States) and was even based on Republican models and plans, such as the Massachusetts system under Mitt Romney (who in 2012 would run against Obama) and a 1989 recommendation of the conservative Heritage Foundation. In a staggering bit of political chicanery, Republicans—including former Gov. Romney—who had once championed such plans unapologetically flip-flopped into fierce opposition as soon as the ACA took on an Obama and Democratic flavor. Luckily for Obama and the Dems, the party had won slight House and Senate majorities in 2006 and 2008 as the electorate reacted to the failures of Bush. Thus, the chief executive and his party had enough votes to get the ACA compromise passed although nearly no congressional Republicans supported the legislation. In order to get the ACA through, however, Obama had to eliminate its most progressive aspects, including the “public option” to purchase insurance from the government and public funding for birth control and abortions. So it was that a watered-down health care bill—only modestly improving on what already existed—barely squeezed by in Congress. Ultimately, millions of Americans were left still uninsured.

If Obamacare was a tactical “success,” it seemed a strategic failure. The Republicans rallied in opposition to so-called socialized medicine and ran against the bill in 2010, 2012 and 2014, scoring major electoral victories in Congress. No doubt, the “old guard” Republican leadership in the House and Senate had been intransigent from the start. After all, the GOP leaders had put politics before country from the first, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell literally stating that his party’s top priority in 2009 was to ensure Obama would be “a one-term president.” Still, this was nothing compared with the racialized, populist furor of the grass-roots “tea party” movement that arose in opposition to the ACA and Obama’s modest economic stimulus plan (meant to save capitalism as it existed, mind you). Republicans swept to control of the House in 2010, took the Senate back soon afterward and ensured that Obama would achieve no further major legislative achievements. Stagnation, intransigence and filibuster would epitomize Obama’s second term.

Left without any real legislative options, Obama was forced—under questionable constitutional circumstances—to address the nation’s worst problems through a series of modest executive orders. As such, he provided minor protections to “illegal” immigrants who had spent most of their lives in the U.S., while at the same time deporting a record number of undocumented migrants, a practice that earned him the nickname “deporter in chief” among progressives. Worse still, even amid escalating gun violence and the uniquely American epidemic of mass shootings (notably the execution of first- and second-graders and others at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut), Obama could not pass a single piece of basic, common-sense gun control. As Republicans closed ranks, rejected any limitations on the widely misunderstood Second Amendment and cashed in on massive donations from the National Rifle Association lobby, the president could again only issue a few limited executive orders. Nothing, however, stopped the epidemic of mass shootings in a country with more guns per capita than any other place in the world. That lawless Yemen was a distant second ought to have been instructive.

The U.S. also suffered a racial implosion under the first black president, and the racial harmony that had been hoped for proved to be out of reach. Highly instrumental in the public unrest was the vastly increased use of cell phone cameras and YouTube and other branches of social media, allowing widespread and almost instantaneous dissemination of images that caused outrage. Depictions of brutality by militarized police, specifically police killings of a string of unarmed young black men, helped launch a new grass-roots civil rights movement named Black Lives Matter. BLM, often critical of the centrism of Obama, was a true grass-roots movement, rising as names such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray resonated. In response to the almost totally peaceful BLM-influenced nationwide protests, a newly empowered white supremacist backlash appeared. Blandly titling itself the “alt-right,” this extremist movement built upon a sense of white victimization. Epitomized by the massacre of Bible study worshippers in a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., at the hands of a young white radical named Dylan Roof—who had consumed news from alt-right sources—newly powerful and overtly extreme groups of white supremacists seemed here to stay.

Far from inaugurating the post-racial America of popular fantasy, Obama’s presidency, and the backlash against it, ushered in a new age of reinvigorated racial combat sure to extend well past his second term. And, while the dog-whistle politics of the Republican Party no doubt fanned the flames of racist fire, the American people—especially hateful, insecure whites—bore equal responsibility for what followed.

Obama the Superficial: The Inertia and Expansion of the ‘Terror’ Wars

It is highly unlikely that Obama would have defeated the Democratic favorite, Hillary Clinton, in the primaries of 2008 or the veteran senator and war hero John McCain in the general election had it not been for the widespread opposition to Bush’s foolish, dishonest and illegal invasion of Iraq. By 2008, that country was fractured, unstable, violent, in the midst of stalemated civil war and a haven for Islamist jihadism. Whereas Clinton had taken the then (she thought) politically expedient decision to vote in favor of the Iraq invasion, Obama had, at the time, seemed to oppose the war.

Then again, it was easy for him to do so. As a lowly and obscure state senator in a safe Chicago district, he knew he would pay no political price for rowing against the prevailing nationalist tide. Thus he made a critical speech before the invasion that he later used to burnish his anti-war credentials and separate himself (successfully, it turned out) from Clinton. Still, Obama’s speech wasn’t, instructively, against all wars, but rather—as he termed it—against “dumb wars.” Furthermore, had Obama been a national figure, it’s likely he would have voted right along with the former first lady and her mainstream Democratic colleagues. That Obama, as president, proved to be a standard interventionist and even expanded the post-9/11 “forever wars” further bolstered this supposition.

It took him nearly three years, but Obama as president did pull nearly all American troops out of Iraq. Hiding behind the politically and militarily popular myth that George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus’ 2007-2010 “surge”—which Sen. Obama had rightly, if ironically, opposed—had been successful, the new president was able to do so despite (mostly) Republican opposition. In truth, the Iraqi civil war had taken only a temporary pause, and Sunni jihadism had hardly disappeared. On the contrary, Petraeus had simply shortsightedly bought their temporary allegiance. Once the Americans were gone and the cash stopped flowing, the al-Qaida franchise in Iraq rose again like the mythical phoenix and went back to war in both Iraq and the nearby, by then war-torn Syria under the banner of the newly christened Islamic State (ISIS). By 2016, as Obama prepared for an undoubtedly lucrative retirement, U.S. troops were back in Iraq battling the Frankenstein’s monster of Islamist jihadism that the American invasion had helped create.

In what he would absurdly referred to as the “good war” in Afghanistan, Obama sold out the tiny antiwar movement and tripled U.S. troop levels in his own Bush-like “surge.” American and Afghan casualties soared, but the Taliban was never defeated and the corrupt, U.S.-backed Kabul-based regime still lacked legitimacy. Though he had promised his surge would be temporary and that all troops would withdraw by the end of 2014, more than 10,000 remained in country in 2016. By that time, some 2,300 U.S. military deaths had not changed the prevailing facts on the ground in this most unwinnable of wars: The Taliban controlled more of the country than at any time since 2001, the Afghan central government was financially broke and politically ineffective, and casualties in the Afghan security forces were massive and unsustainable. The war was essentially lost, though Obama would never admit it. Indeed, by the end of his second term he preferred not to mention the “good war” at all.

In 2011, in opposition to a series of venal, authoritarian—usually U.S.-backed—regimes, a series of “Arab Spring” protests spread across the Mideast from Tunisia to Libya to Egypt to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria. The movement seemed to spring from the grass roots but was complicated and multifaceted from the start. There were, indeed, early signs that though the dictatorships were abhorrent, Islamist jihadis were quickly infusing, and soon dominating, the armed rebel groups and protesters. Obama, for his part, was unsure how to respond. His humanitarian-interventionist conscience leaned toward moral and physical support for the varied oppositions, but his caution and practicality led him away from decisive action in either direction. In the end, Obama—cheered on by his militarist advisers such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—chose the worst of all roads: indecisiveness, inconsistency and (sometimes) ill-considered intervention.

The inconsistency was obvious from the start and increased the popular notion on the “Arab street” that U.S. policy was infused with hypocrisy. While Obama eventually called for the rulers of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Syria to step down, he turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s military suppression of Shiite majoritarianism in nearby Bahrain. Furthermore, in 2015, when a vaguely Shiite militia movement, the Houthis, overthrew the Saudi-backed transitional government in Yemen, Obama quietly provided vital diplomatic and military support for a U.S.-backed Saudi terror war on Yemen. Saudi planes, fueled by U.S. Air Force aircraft, unleashed a brutal bombing campaign that killed tens of thousands. Furthermore, the U.S. uttered not a peep as a Saudi starvation blockade led to the deaths of nearly 100,000 civilians, created millions of refugees and unleashed the world’s worst cholera epidemic on Yemeni civilians. Washington, it seemed, supported democracy so long as it did not upset its oil-rich Persian Gulf State “partners.” Clearly, there were limits to the “humanitarian” piece of Obama’s humanitarian-interventionist proclivities.

Obama’s worst move during the Arab Spring—a move that, to his credit, he later called a “shit show” and the “worst mistake” of his presidency—came in Libya. There, a brutal dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, had ruled for decades, suppressing free speech but also choking any hint of violent Islamism. He had even unilaterally given up on his feeble nuclear weapons program (probably out of fear of an Iraq-style regime-change invasion by Bush) and cooperated with the CIA to fight Libyan Islamists. When a rebellion broke out in 2011-2012, though Washington knew little about the country or the rebels’ dynamics, Clinton pressed Obama to intervene to “save” the rebellion from a supposed bloodbath. Soon enough, U.S., French and British planes were pummeling the Libyan army. The rebels rode to victory, committed many atrocities of their own, and eventually sodomized (with a bayonet) and executed the captured dictator. Gadhafi was gone, but what was to come next? Obama had no plan and few ideas. Within a year, varied militias and thousands of jihadis divided the country up into competing fiefdoms. Civil war resulted and raged on through the end of the Obama presidency. Worse still, the massive depots of the Libyan army’s arms were carried south and west by various ethnic and religious militiamen, fueling growing insurgencies in Mali, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria that would soon “require” the deployment of U.S. troops in restive West Africa. Libya had, indeed, been a debacle.

The most bloody, tragic and regionally dangerous rebellion and civil war broke out in Syria in 2011. There, too, an authoritarian strongman, Bashar al-Assad, had ruled, stifling free speech and democracy but protecting minority communities and suppressing jihadism. It was clear early on that the most numerous and effective rebels were Islamists, often allied with the al-Qaida franchise the Nusra Front, and even Islamic State. Though he hesitated, equivocated and wavered, Obama was eventually convinced to supply the mythical, phantom “moderate” rebels with arms and cash. Nearly all of it ended up in the hands of the very violent Islamists that the U.S. was purportedly fighting in the “war on terror.” In reality, the U.S.—pushed in this direction by Israel, the Persian Gulf States and U.S. neoconservatives—was more interested in checking Iran and Russia (which had long backed Assad) than in the defeat of transnational jihadism or the well-being of the Syrian people.

When Assad allegedly used chemical weapons on his own people, killing perhaps 1,000—and thereby crossing what Obama had foolishly said was a “red line”—it seemed Washington would be obliged to militarily strike the Syrian regime. Obama, tempered by the Libya “shit show,” balked. This probably was prudent, but rather than sell the downsides of intervention and expanded war to the American public in an honest way he took the political path and punted “authorization” for the strikes to a Congress he knew full well had no stomach for another war. As such, rather than insist that Congress reauthorize or declare war in the dozens of locales where the U.S. was involved in combat, Obama limited the supposed (and constitutionally mandated) need for congressional approval to the Syria case alone. Nonetheless, when Islamic State—which the U.S. had helped catalyze and indirectly supported in the Syrian civil war—suddenly conquered large swaths of Syria and Iraq in 2014-2015, Obama felt obliged to go to war. U.S. troops, though in modest numbers, hit the ground in Syria and (once again) Iraq, and U.S. planes pummeled Islamic State and nearby civilians. Ultimately Obama would hand this mess over to his successor in 2017.

Obama, though he had lambasted Bush for his domestic civil liberties abuses and use of indefinite “terrorist” detention at the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba, turned out to be an equally oppressive “war president.” As the National Security Administration whistleblower Edward Snowden would reveal, the U.S. had secretly and illegally imposed—and Obama had silently continued—a massive domestic surveillance program that violated the privacy of countless American citizens. Instead of starting a major policy shift and giving a medal to Snowden, Obama continued and expanded his veritable war on leakers and the press in general. In fact, Obama—the one-time constitutional law professor—used the archaic, controversial, World War I-vintage Espionage Act to prosecute leakers and whistleblowers more times than all his presidential predecessors combined. And, though his Justice Department (only just) decided not to indict any media outlets themselves for publishing leaked material, Obama’s overall press suppression policy opened the door for more hawkish successors to do just that, in a major threat to the First Amendment itself.

What’s more, Obama the “peacemaker,” who had ludicrously been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize almost entirely on the basis of conciliatory speeches he had given, proved to be the veritable “assassin in chief.” Indeed, partly as (what he saw as) an alternative to massive military occupations and counterinsurgencies, Obama violated foreign air space sovereignty across the region and conducted exponentially more drone-strike executions than even George W. Bush. The administration, and its military, then regularly undercounted the many thousands of civilians killed as “collateral damage” in these strikes. Allegedly holding “Terror Tuesday” meetings with his national security staff throughout his administration, Obama would choose people for assassination and order their executions. This was done, ostensibly, in secret, but it was (probably purposefully) the worst kept secret in the world. It was all so Orwellian. At one point, Obama publicly made an absurdly macabre joke when he threatened to unleash a Predator drone on the pop group the Jonas Brothers if any of its members dared to “make a move” on the president’s two young daughters (who were avid fans). That a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who had run on an antiwar platform would so boldly joke about a brutal assassination program (that he simultaneously claimed did not exist) was perhaps the ultimate symbol and manifestation of a morbid and ghoulish era.

In two related incidents, which registered only briefly in the U.S. media or public consciousness, Obama unilaterally used aerial drones to assassinate a man and his son in Yemen, both U.S. citizens. The targets were the Islamist firebrand cleric Anwar Awlaki—admittedly an al-Qaida sympathizer—and his teenage son. Though there was no independent judicial review of the case against the Awlakis, and absolutely zero constitutionally mandated due process (besides internal, classified legal “memos” within the Obama Justice Department), the drone-launched assassinations went forward. The incidents were distressing, even if the senior Awlaki was the terrorist mastermind he had been alleged to be; they were indicative of the logical extension and end state of drone warfare combined with the evaporation of domestic civil liberties. If, some progressive activists asked, notoriously cautious “no-drama” Obama was capable of assassinating American-born citizens, to what lengths would a more extreme, militarist-interventionist president go to in the future as the U.S. waged its “forever wars”? The prospect was indeed haunting.

If Obama was ultimately disappointing in his generally militaristic, inconsistent and interventionist foreign policy, he had some limited successes. Less overtly bombastic, and more informed, than Bush, Obama wisely—at least after the failure of his Afghanistan “surge”—lowered overall troop levels in the Greater Middle East. The upside was that U.S. casualties decreased and the overstretch of the Army and Marine Corps eased. The downside was related to the very decrease in casualties; by keeping to a modest level the number of flag-draped coffins shipped home, Obama managed to squelch dissent and war opposition while simultaneously escalating and expanding America’s never-ending wars throughout a broad swath of territory from West Africa to Central Asia.

One admirable decision was Obama’s willingness to engage with Iran, avoid military escalation (or the regime-change invasion of neoconservative fantasies) and negotiate a settlement that avoided war and halted, if only temporarily, Tehran’s nuclear program. In a multilateral agreement known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) the U.S., France, Britain, Russia, China and Iran had forged a deal to freeze Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for reducing international sanctions against Iran. It was, genuinely, a profound exercise in diplomacy and war avoidance. This was Obama at his (rare) very best. Nonetheless, congressional opposition—mainly, of course, from hawkish Republicans—ensured that the agreement was essentially framed as an executive order. Thus, when an Obama-hating successor, Donald Trump, took office in 2017, it was all too easy for the new president to unilaterally withdraw from the deal and ensure a new war-scare crisis with Iran. Such were the limitations and dangers of the tribally partisan atmosphere in Washington, D.C., and the reign of imperial presidents.

When Obama left office, the American warfare state, and the military-industrial-congressional-media complex that enabled it, remained firmly in place. Though he had tried in vain to close Guantanamo Bay’s purgatory-like detention center, it remained open. U.S. troops were bombing and occupying even more countries, at least two dozen from West Africa to Central Asia. The wars had escalated in Africa; significant numbers of troops remained on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and, now, Syria. Libya had been destroyed by U.S. intervention. Osama bin Laden (killed under secretive and questionable circumstances in Pakistan by Navy SEALs in May 2011) was dead, sure, but his ideology and its more radical outgrowth in Islamic State were more powerful and prevalent than ever. The American people were still under massive surveillance, and the war on leakers and the free press was in full force. The United States, in sum, remained an empire—it had expanded in its imperial fantasies, in fact—and had been led, it turned out, by just another emperor. That Obama, the coolheaded, handsome, articulate leader that he was, had seemed the polite emperor mattered rather little to the American troops and exponentially larger totals of foreign civilians that continued to be killed. By 2016, American empire was a way of life.

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Truly profound are the ironies and paradoxes of history. Elected while espousing a somewhat “liberal” agenda, President Obama proved mostly a centrist in the Clintonian “New Democrat” mold. He naively sought to work with Republicans, compromised and tacked rightward as a result and achieved little of substance for the progressive cause. What’s more, elected as an opponent of the Iraq War (though a cheerleader for the “good war” in Afghanistan), Obama may have altered the tenor of Bush’s wars but overall only escalated and maintained the forever wars, adding his own flavor but submitting to the inertia of interventionism. As such, he left North Africa, the Mideast and Central Asia in worse shape than he had found it.

Matters got only stranger. Though he had been a constitutional law professor, he flouted civil liberties, stretched the Constitution, spied on the citizenry and even executed an American citizen and his U.S.-citizen son via aerial drones, absent any transparency or legal due process. Furthermore, Obama knew about but chose to keep secret and maintain the Bush-era mass surveillance state that Edward Snowden eventually exposed. That Obama was so undoubtedly highly educated and informed on topics of constitutional law implies—disturbingly—that the man knew better but, in the interest of hoarding executive power and seeking political expediency, went forward anyway with this range of civil liberties violations. This was a strange legacy, indeed, for the man elected on a platform of “Hope and Change,” elected as the anti-Bush, as a “transformational” figure.

Such is the disappointment and tragedy of the Obama years. His own Beltway centrism, interventionism and political opportunism, combined with the combative obstructionism of the tribal conservative opposition, ensured that Obama’s presidency would be mostly a failure. One expected as much from the unapologetic, and buffoonish, neoconservatism and imperialism of the George W. Bush team. That Obama was hardly better was far more discomfiting, challenging one’s capacity to believe in meaningful progress at all.

Most striking and significant were the moral shortcomings and failures of the American populace, defects that became apparent as the Obama years ground to a close. That so many Americans fell for phony conspiracy theories about Obama’s supposed foreign birth, Muslim faith and even “Manchurian Candidate”-style treason, and joined a growing movement characterized most of all by white backlash, demonstrated clearly that the first black president was an anomaly. If the emotional reaction to the Bush years was for Americans to take a chance on Obama, the even more emotional riposte to a black presidency was the reinvigoration of white supremacy and the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. Sick of the establishment style of Obama, the Clintons and the entire mainstream pool of both parties, voters chose to “blow up” the system and support a true outsider in the celebrity billionaire and reality TV star Donald Trump.

Perhaps that’s the final rub: If there could have been no Obama without Bush, there most certainly would never have been a President Trump without establishment, African-American Barack Obama as his predecessor. The shame and the consequences belong not only to a broken political system, but to the people. To us Americans.

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To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:
• Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974” (2019).
• Jill Lepore, “These Truths: A History of the United States” (2018).

<em>Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor to Truthdig, is a retired U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “<a href=” “>Ghost Riders of Baghdad</a>: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at <a href=””>@SkepticalVet</a> and check out his podcast, “<a href=”″>Fortress on a Hill</a>,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.</em>

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Pia Klemp Is the Badass Hero the World Desperately Needs Right Now

It is rare nowadays to read about a person in the deluge of bad news flooding our screens 24/7 and immediately think: Now this is a true hero. But when it comes to Pia Klemp, the description is not only entirely appropriate but entirely necessary. Appropriate because the German ship captain and human rights activist, at the ripe age of 36, has personally saved thousands of migrants from drowning as they attempt the deadly journey across the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe. Necessary because at this very moment, Klemp faces 20 years in prison in Italy for the trumped-up charge of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration.”

Klemp was with her colleagues from the nongovernmental organization-run ship Iuventa,  which was seized by Italian authorities in 2017 as it entered the port of Lampedusa with rescued migrants aboard. Prior to its seizure, the ship, previously used for fishing, is estimated to have saved about 14,000 people.

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The global refugee crisis has reached a frightening peak, with the highest number of displaced persons ever recorded in history. And yet Western nations, many of which have had a hand in destabilizing the Middle East and other regions where refugees hail from, often respond with fear and disdain for the lives of those desperate enough to risk everything and leave all they’ve known in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their loved ones.

Due to its geographic location, Italy is one of the places migrants initially head for in order to seek asylum in the European Union. But the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment there has propelled such racist leaders as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini into power. Salvini, whom the German journal Der Weisse describes as a nationalist who “has been instrumental in barring rescue ships from Italy,” has virulently attacked Klemp and her fellow activists, and this week barred ships carrying refugees from entering Italian ports. As a Quartz article explains, the Italian-led crackdown on rescue ships, including those working with the NGO Sea-Watch, has garnered support from EU officials.

<blockquote>The EU has recently ended search-and-rescue missions in the [Mediterranean], in part due to pressure from Italy. The EU operation [Sea-Watch], launched in 2015 at the peak of the migrant crisis, saved tens of thousands of migrants. The EU has outsourced its rescue work to the Libyan coast guard, which activists and researchers say is unprepared, and often unwilling, to save migrants.

[Recently] Italy intensified the pressure on NGOs, passing a decree that allows it to apply fines of up to €50,000 ($56,000) on humanitarian organizations caught operating in Italian waters or trying to reach Italian ports. Italy also threatened to use the new rule to fine Sea-Watch.</blockquote>

Klemp and the rest of the Iuventa 10, as she and her fellow shipmates are known, face an expensive, uphill legal battle, which she calls a “show trial.” An online petition started by a nurse aboard the Iuventa calling for Italian authorities to drop charges against the activists has received nearly 400,000 signatures as of Wednesday.

When asked by The Intercept how Klemp deals with the grief implicit in her work, her response highlighted her selflessness and impassioned adherence to her values.

<blockquote>It’s not very much on my mind. [Tragedies] happen, unfortunately, regardless of us being there and seeing it or not.

What I really wonder is how [the people we rescue] deal with their grief and the torture, the hardship, and the denial of any kindness and human decency from anyone else—how they deal with that. A lot of these people have been on the run for years and years and years. They’ve had to go through Africa, see a lot of their family members die in the desert, and they end up in these detention camps in Libya where the situation is absolutely horrendous. There’s almost no words for the situation, for the status of the people in these camps, when they’re at gunpoint forced onto these wrecked boats, which are completely unseaworthy. Like, the moment you set foot on them, they’re drifting around the Mediterranean Sea, no water, no navigation equipment. Not even enough fuel on board to get anywhere. They’re completely left alone, then they have to fear being intercepted by the Libyan militias, then they are denied a port of safety in Europe.

I think the much more interesting question is, how do all these people that have to endure real hardship deal with it? Because they’re so far away from any point of being able to rest and to breathe. Me, I can always go back to my perfect little privileged world in Germany if I choose to. And these people have nothing and nowhere to go. And we don’t want to give it to them.</blockquote>

In a recent TED talk titled “Why I fight for solidarity,” the rescue-ship captain, who admitted to feeling uncomfortable on land and on stage, gave a poignant speech about the urgency of the refugee crisis and the horrors so many people face, both on land and at sea, on their journeys.

In one of the most powerful parts of her 13-minute speech, Klemp points out that the legal charges she faces would never have been levied at her had she saved “EU passport-holders.” The racist implications of such a contradiction are crystal clear and all the more painful to think of as Klemp tells the story of the 2-year-old child who died aboard one of her rescue vessels as the ship was denied entry in port after port. Klemp also points to a previous time in recent history in which a lack of solidarity and inaction on the part of many of her ancestors led to one of the most horrific episodes in Western history.

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“I’m part of a generation that grew up asking their grandparents, ‘What did you do against it?’” the Bonn-born activist says. “And I’ve come to realize that I’m part of a generation that will have to answer the very same question to their grandchildren.”

Making an impassioned call for solidarity with refugees and those who risk their lives and freedom to save their fellow humans from certain death, Klemp also makes a bold promise: “We will not be intimidated, and we will continue to fight for a world in which we want to live in, for a world in which everyone is given the chance to live in.”

Despite persecution, Klemp has not backed down one bit in her courageous mission. She has a new rescue ship, Sea Watch 3, which was also seized for some months by Maltese authorities in 2018. In August, Klemp made headlines for rejecting the city of Paris’ Grand Vermeil Medal for bravery, highlighting the rancid hypocrisy behind the French award. At the same time your police is stealing blankets from people that you force to live on the streets, while you raid protests and criminalize people that are standing up for rights of migrants and asylum seekers. Addressing Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Klemp writes, “You want to give me a medal for actions that you fight in your own ramparts. I am sure you won’t be surprised that I decline the medaille Grand Vermeil.” Her full scathing Facebook post can be read below:

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While Klemp rejects the term “hero” when used by duplicitous authorities, it is more important than ever to find meaningful ways to celebrate people like her who refuse to be intimidated by the rise of xenophobia across the Western world and the criminalization not just of solidarity, as she points out, but of the saving of lives. Perhaps it would be more appropriate, however, to honor Klemp for her bravery alongside the refugees who themselves face unimaginable obstacles with immense valor as our Truthdiggers of the Month. We hope she, her fellow activists and the refugees they help consider this designation a symbol of Truthdig’s solidarity with Klemp’s efforts to “cast all medals into spearheads of revolution” as she continues her fearless activism and sets an example for us all.

The post Pia Klemp Is the Badass Hero the World Desperately Needs Right Now appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Valerie Harper, Taboo-Busting ‘Rhoda’ TV Star, Dies at 80

LOS ANGELES—Valerie Harper, who scored guffaws, stole hearts and busted TV taboos as the brash, self-deprecating Rhoda Morgenstern on back-to-back hit sitcoms in the 1970s, has died.

Longtime family friend Dan Watt confirmed Harper died Friday, adding the family wasn’t immediately releasing any further details. She had been battling cancer for years, and her husband said recently he had been advised to put her in hospice care.

Harper was a breakout star on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” then the lead of her own series, “Rhoda.” She was 80.

She won three consecutive Emmys (1971-73) as supporting actress on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and another for outstanding lead actress for “Rhoda,” which ran from 1974-78. Beyond awards, she was immortalized — and typecast — for playing one of television’s most beloved characters, a best friend the equal of Ethel Mertz and Ed Norton in TV’s sidekick pantheon.

Fans had long feared the news of her passing. In 2013, she first revealed that she had been diagnosed with brain cancer and had been told by her doctors she had as little as three months to live. Some responded as if a family member were in peril.

But she refused to despair. “I’m not dying until I do,” Harper said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. “I promise I won’t.” Harper did outlive her famous co-star: Mary Tyler Moore died in January 2017. Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman and Betty White are among the former cast members who survive her.

In recent years, Harper’s other appearances included “American Dad!” ”The Simpsons” and “Two Broke Girls.”

Harper was a chorus dancer on Broadway as a teen before moving into comedy and improv when, in 1970, she auditioned for the part of a Bronx-born Jewish girl who would be a neighbor and pal of Minneapolis news producer Mary Richards on a new sitcom for CBS.

It seemed a long shot for the young, unknown actress. As she recalled, “I’m not Jewish, not from New York, and I have a small shiksa nose.” And she had almost no TV experience.

But Harper, who arrived for her audition some 20 pounds overweight, may have clinched the role when she blurted out in admiration to the show’s tall, slender star: “Look at you in white pants without a long jacket to cover your behind!”

It was exactly the sort of thing Rhoda would say to “Mar,” as Harper recalled in her 2013 memoir, “I, Rhoda.” Harper was signed without a screen test.

Of course, if CBS had gotten its way, Rhoda might have been a very different character with a much different actress in place. As “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was being developed, its producers were battling a four-point decree from the network, which insisted that the nation’s TV viewers would not accept series characters who were (1) divorced, (2) from New York, (3) Jewish or (4) have mustaches.

The producers lost on having Mary Richards divorced (instead, she had been dumped by her long-time boyfriend). But with Rhoda they overrode the network on two other counts.

The show that resulted was a groundbreaking hit, with comically relatable Rhoda one big reason.

Item: “What am I? I’m not married, I’m not engaged. I’m not even pinned. I bet Hallmark doesn’t even have a card for me!”

Item: Eyeing a piece of candy, Rhoda wise-cracked: “I don’t know whether to eat this or apply it directly to my hips.”

“Women really identified with Rhoda because her problems and fears were theirs,” Harper theorized in her book. “Despite the fact that she was the butt of most of her own jokes, so to speak, … her confident swagger masked her insecurity. Rhoda never gave up.”

Neither did Harper, who confronted her own insecurities with similar moxie.

“I was always a little overweight,” she once told The Associated Press. “I’d say, ‘Hello, I’m Valerie Harper and I’m overweight.’ I’d say it quickly before they could. … I always got called chubby, my nose was too wide, my hair was too kinky.”

But as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” evolved, so did Rhoda. Rhoda trimmed down and glammed up, while never losing her comic step. The audience loved her more than ever.

A spinoff seemed inevitable. In 1974, Rhoda was dispatched from Minneapolis back home to New York City, where she was reunited with her parents and younger sister in a new sitcom that costarred Nancy Walker, Harold Gould and Julie Kavner.

She also met and fell in love with the hunky owner of a demolition firm.

The premiere of “Rhoda” that September was the week’s top-rated show, getting a 42 percent share of audience against competition including Monday Night Football on ABC. And a few weeks later, when Rhoda and her fiance, Joe, were wed in a one-hour special episode, more than 52 million people — half of the U.S. viewing audience — tuned in.

But “Rhoda” couldn’t maintain those comic or popular heights. A domesticated, lucky-in-love Rhoda wasn’t a funny Rhoda. By the end of the third season, the writers had taken a desperate step: Rhoda divorced Joe. Thus had Rhoda (and Harper) defied a third CBS taboo.

The series ended in 1978 with Harper having played Rhoda for a total of nine seasons.

She had captured the character by studying her Italian stepmother. But Harper’s own ethnicity — neither Jewish nor Italian — was summed up in a New York Times profile as “an exotic mixture of Spanish-English-Scotch-Irish-Welsh-French-Canadian.”

And she was not a Gothamite. Born in Suffern, New York, into a family headed by a peripatetic sales executive, she spent her early years in Oregon, Michigan and California before settling in Jersey City, New Jersey.


Frazier Moore, a long-time television writer for The Associated Press, was the principal writer of this obituary.

The post Valerie Harper, Taboo-Busting ‘Rhoda’ TV Star, Dies at 80 appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Protecting Accused Sexual Harassers on an Illinois Campus

This article was originally published on ProPublica and was produced in partnership with NPR Illinois, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

By the time officials at the University of Illinois’ flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign found that an assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine had engaged in sexual harassment, three women had come forward to raise concerns about his behavior.

All three said he had showed up at their homes uninvited.

Though the professor, Valarmathi Thiruvanamalai, denied doing anything wrong, the university office that investigates harassment and discrimination claims ruled against him. “When three different complainants, who have no prior relationship and no significant commonalities other than the lab in which they work, all assert the same type of interaction, one must question Respondent’s credibility and honesty in responding to the allegations,” a specialist in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access wrote in February 2015 following an investigation. She recommended that Thiruvanamalai face discipline and possibly termination.

Instead, the university took a series of steps that helped keep Thiruvanamalai’s reputation intact.

First, the head of the Department of Comparative Biosciences placed Thiruvanamalai on paid administrative leave for the remainder of his contract with the school and banned him from the lab and other university workspaces.

Then in November 2015, the university, known as UIUC, signed a separation agreement with the professor, extending his paid leave through August 2016, at which point his resignation would take effect. He continued to draw his annual salary of more than $98,000, according to salary records and the agreement between the school and Thiruvanamalai, obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica.

Finally, as part of that agreement, the university agreed to keep secret the terms of Thiruvanamalai’s departure, easing his path to get a university job in another state.

Thiruvanamalai’s case, which has never before been reported, highlights the covert way in which the university has dealt with accusations of sexual misconduct against professors.

An NPR Illinois-ProPublica investigation found that the university helped several professors keep seemingly unblemished records even though they were found to have violated its policies: letting them resign, paying them for periods they weren’t working, promising not to discuss the reasons for their departures and, in some cases, keeping them on the faculty.

Professors found to have violated policies at UIUC, including Thiruvanamalai, have moved on to teaching positions at other universities and, in at least one case, secured a prestigious Fulbright grant.

Since last year, allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct have surfaced against three UIUC professors and one administrator. In each instance, the public wasn’t told by the university until news organizations or others brought the allegations to light.

The problem, however, runs deeper, our investigation found. On top of the four cases already known, NPR Illinois and ProPublica uncovered three more in recent years that have received no attention.

In two of the cases, professors were allowed to resign and the university agreed to keep it confidential. A third professor remains on the payroll but has been removed from the classroom, campus records show.

We spoke with numerous staff members and students who raised concerns about the way substantiated cases are handled.

“The entire way that we engage with questions of perpetration on campuses is wrong and broken,” said Kathryn Clancy, a UIUC anthropology professor who is an expert on sexual harassment in academia. She worked on a report published last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that found that 20% to 50% of students in STEM fields have experienced sexual harassment. “So we are just doing what everyone else is doing. And it’s the wrong way to be doing things.”

University leaders have said they are committed to change. For example, the UIUC provost and chancellor told NPR Illinois last week that the university has stopped using confidentiality clauses, which keep investigations and findings under wraps after professors leave. UIUC and the University of Illinois System have also created several task forces and committees to examine issues including faculty misconduct and relationships between students and professors.

“We want to be the best of the breed, in a way, on all of these issues, recognizing that it’s a very important topic,” University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen said after a board meeting this spring.

But, he added, “Nothing’s broken.”

A Grilling Over a Little-Known Case at a #MeToo Panel

Concerns about sexual harassment at UIUC spilled into the open during a panel on #MeToo and academia at the College of Law in the fall of 2018.

At the lunchtime discussion in the law school auditorium, an audience member asked the panelists, two of whom were UIUC law professors, why more was not being done to protect students from a professor who had been investigated by the university for sexual misconduct. She pressed the panel about allegations that professor Jay Kesan had made students and faculty uncomfortable with inappropriate touching and sexual conversations, singling him out by name.

The claims against Kesan had not been widely known, even though allegations of inappropriate behavior against him dated back to 2002, only months after he was granted tenure, documents show. The law school’s then-dean warned Kesan in writing that she had been told details about his conduct that “would constitute a serious breach of appropriate behavior by a faculty member” if true. Kesan denied those claims. The dean gave Kesan suggestions for avoiding further allegations, such as not commenting on others’ appearance.

At the #MeToo panel last year, the woman’s questions focused on an investigation into claims made against Kesan in 2015. The investigative report, finalized by the campus Office of Diversity, Equity and Access in 2017, found that school leaders were concerned enough about Kesan that, at one point, an administrator was directed to watch Kesan’s interactions with female guests at a public event and intervene if the situation warranted. Investigators even recommended considering employment action. (The Office of Diversity, Equity and Access is now called the Office for Access and Equity.)

Ultimately, the school found that Kesan violated the university’s code of conduct, and as a result he would not qualify for certain salary programs or lucrative endowment positions for a limited time. He is currently on voluntary unpaid leave until 2020.

Lesley Wexler, a professor and associate dean of UIUC’s College of Law, said efforts are underway to address the university’s handling of cases like the one involving Kesan, who was found to have violated the “spirit” of the sexual misconduct policy but not the policy itself.

“The definition of what might count as sexual harassment is up for debate,” said Wexler, who had told the audience at the #MeToo forum last year that she was not satisfied with the result of the Kesan investigation.

In a recent interview, Wexler said the current definition of sexual harassment under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans gender discrimination within federally funded educational programs, has “been interpreted over time in a very narrow way.”

The behavior must be severe or pervasive, she said, which “sets a very high bar.”

“So even touching breasts or buttocks, if it only happens once, some courts have said that didn’t meet the threshold.”

But Wexler said she’s unsure if universities are capable of adequately investigating their employees and holding them to account.

“The past does not provide a record that would make one particularly optimistic,” she said. “In speaking of my own university, I think the will is there. But like so many things relating to widespread social and institutional change, it’s hard to know at this sort of stage of things where it will end up.”

Kesan told university investigators that he may have touched people, but the intent was misconstrued. In a letter to the College of Law community last year, Kesan said the allegations laid out in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access report were described correctly.

In an interview with NPR Illinois, Kesan wouldn’t comment on whether he believes the university treated him fairly, but he credited the #MeToo movement with opening the door to conversations like the one that revealed the allegations against him. “I believe it’s a very good thing,” Kesan said, adding that he offered to disclose the investigation on his syllabus going forward.

Robin Kar, a professor in the UIUC College of Law, is chairman of a task force formed in the wake of the Kesan controversy to explore potential changes to the sexual misconduct policy as it relates to faculty. “I think we’re witnessing a growing awareness of a problem that has been festering for some time,” he said in an interview, noting that women are increasingly confident in talking about harassment.

“I think institutions around the nation are starting to take note of what the problem is,” he said. Meanwhile, solutions aren’t easy to come by. “We haven’t found there’s a simple gold standard outlook there.”

Leaving With Their Records Intact

UIUC doesn’t often fire tenured faculty members, even for serious offenses like sexual harassment. Instead, the university allows them to leave quietly — and continue their careers.

That’s what happened to Amita Sinha, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, who was accused by a colleague of harassment, including stalking, for over a decade, according to a report from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access summarizing its investigation.

University investigators concluded that Sinha, a woman, ignored directives about her conduct from her department head and had engaged in unwanted attention toward a male colleague “intermittently for fifteen years.”

Sinha agreed to “voluntarily retire” in October 2017, and the university gave her paid leave before her resignation took effect in August 2018. During that time, she was paid her nearly $102,000 annual salary, documents show. The agreement promised confidentiality and that both parties wouldn’t speak ill of each other. It also states she would not be disciplined. She now collects a pension from the university; her last reported monthly payment from May was nearly $5,000, documents obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica show.

In a letter to the then chancellor in June 2017, a lawyer for Sinha called the report’s findings “inaccurate.” The letter argued that the university had violated procedural guidelines and disputed its assertion that Sinha had caused a colleague “significant emotional distress.”

Through her current lawyer, Sinha maintained that most of her interactions with the colleague were professional.

Sinha was awarded a Fulbright scholarship for the 2018-19 academic year, during which she studied and lectured on the cultural landscape of an area of Bolpur, a city in India just north of Kolkata. On the Fulbright website, Sinha’s home institution is listed as UIUC, even though it did not offer her emeritus status upon her resignation. A spokesperson for UIUC “did not know” about the grant and Sinha’s listing the university as her host school.

An official with the Fulbright program told NPR Illinois and ProPublica in a statement that it has a “zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment” but declined to comment on what it knew or didn’t know about Sinha’s past before her selection.

Sinha’s lawyer said she applied for and received the Fulbright grant while still a faculty member at UIUC and that “she has complied with all its requirements.”

Lee Waldrep was an undergraduate student services administrator and instructor who also resigned in 2017 in the face of allegations — in his case, from eight female students. Their claims included that he had made inappropriate comments and “blocked their path on a stairwell, backed them into a railing or wall, pinned their legs between his … or stood uncomfortably close to them,” according to investigative documents.

Waldrep denied the allegations, according to an August 2017 report from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access, and declined to comment through a lawyer.

He went on to work as an academic adviser at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Last year, after the Kesan case made local and national headlines, reporters published details of Waldrep’s departure. The University of Tennessee subsequently fired him and acknowledged that its screening process had failed.

Worries About Litigation — From the Accused

In dealing with staffers found to have committed harassment, universities, like other employers, are often constrained by concerns about litigation.

UIUC spokeswoman Robin Kaler said confidentiality expectations are common. She said that they are frequently “included to protect the privacy interests of third parties who have been impacted by the situation that led to the separation,” such as the victim.

In a subsequent interview last week, Provost Andreas Cangellaris and Chancellor Robert Jones said that going forward, they have decided to eliminate such confidentiality provisions.

Nicole Gorovsky, an attorney who specializes in representing victims of sexual violence, said it’s common for institutions to fear lawsuits from accused employees, who can claim that terminations violate their due process rights or that sharing the details of an investigation is defamatory. Gorovsky said confidentiality and nondisclosure clauses in agreements are a way to limit the liability of an institution.

She said she has seen it happen in churches, elementary and high schools, colleges and businesses.

With the clauses, the parties agree to not speak about the reasons for resignation. They keep the university from proactively sharing the investigation with an employee’s future employer. (An exception is if someone files a public records request, which NPR Illinois did in these cases.)

Gorovsky said these agreements can be harmful to the victims.

“One of the classic things that I hear from survivors is ‘I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else,’” Gorovsky said.

Nondisclosure agreements aren’t just used to resolve allegations against professors. The Seattle Times reported how universities sometimes require them when resolving complaints filed by students. One woman told the newspaper that after complaining about her music professor sexually harassing her, and then being retaliated against, the university offered to cover her tuition for a year, so long as she agreed not to talk about the details of the settlement agreement. The student called it “literal hush money.”

Now, Washington state lawmakers are crafting legislation to make findings of sexual misconduct by university employees more transparent. Among the ideas: barring public colleges and universities from using nondisclosure provisions in the handling of sexual misconduct cases, and creating an interstate system to share findings of credible investigations among universities, Democratic state Rep. Gerry Pollet said.

Pollet, whose district includes parts of Seattle and who serves on the Legislature’s higher education committee said, “We shouldn’t have to have the Legislature step in, but we have to because it appears that the institutions and their legal advisers are simply very fearful of liability to the employee who’s been accused and found to have actually committed harassment or assault.”

Molly McLay recently left her position of assistant director at UIUC’s Women’s Resources Center to pursue a doctorate in social work with a focus on gender-based violence and prevention.

As an advocate for survivors, she said she struggles to see how allowing perpetrators to leave with their records intact gives them any reason to change their behavior.

“I understand that resignation versus termination is commonly used,” she said. But these cases are unique. “Other people are impacted. There is another person involved. There is a survivor.”

Cangellaris, the provost, said that terminations are rare because faculty have certain employment protections, which are in place to ensure professors’ freedom to pursue their research and speak their mind in the classroom without fear of censorship, discipline or termination.

“It is a process that is dictated by the bedrock of every university and that is academic freedom and shared governance,” he told NPR Illinois. “We process every case in a way that we protect academic freedom.”

After publication of this story, UIUC reached out to say it is seeking to change its policy going forward to prevent academic freedom from being used as a shield in sexual misconduct cases.

“Historically university disciplinary policies were created to protect the academic freedom of the faculty and be respectful of our shared governance processes,” Cangellaris said in an emailed statement. “We are working to revise our policies and practices in ways that appropriately separate issues such as sexual harassment or other egregious misconduct from those protections. Harassment of any kind undermines academic freedom.”

As for confidentiality agreements, Cangellaris and Jones, the chancellor, said they hope other universities join them in disclosing the reasons for professors’ departures.

“If others don’t follow suit, then it makes it more difficult for us,” Jones said. With the discussion around #MeToo, this is “critically important in this particular point in our history.”

Remaining on the Payroll

NPR Illinois and ProPublica found a case similar to Kesan’s in which a professor faced multiple allegations of harassment. The university found anthropology professor Mahir Saul in violation of its code of conduct but not its sexual misconduct policy, and he has remained on its payroll.

In January 2018, a research assistant claimed that Saul invited her back to the apartment where Saul was staying while they were both conducting field research in Turkey, according to an investigative summary obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica. They shared dinner and drinks. After hours of conversation, the assistant claimed Saul pressured her to stay the night.

A complaint was filed and an investigation ensued. In August 2018, the university concluded that Saul violated its code of conduct by “pressuring his employee, a vulnerable junior academic, to spend the night with him,” but that his actions did not violate the sexual misconduct policy. The official recommendation was that Saul no longer be allowed to meet one-on-one with female students or junior female employees.

But later that month, the head of the Department of Anthropology, Brenda Farnell, went further, opting to take Saul out of the classroom entirely. In a letter, Farnell wrote to Saul, “As you are aware, this is not the first complaint that has surfaced regarding your interaction with women.”

In 2016, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access opened a separate investigation into Saul after an international undergraduate student alleged that he had placed her in “situations where he could be alone with her, and sought to use his power and authority to encourage a romantic relationship with her.” Two other individuals also expressed their concerns about his behavior at the time, according to that report.

The office found that there was not enough evidence to support the claims of sexual harassment, but that the allegations “call into question Dr. Saul’s judgment and the perceptions that he is creating through his interactions with students outside of the classroom.” It recommended that Saul receive training on sexual harassment and Title IX. Saul was warned he could lose his job if the behavior continued.

As of this July, the university was still paying Saul as a professor, based on records obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica. His yearly salary is around $91,200, plus benefits, records show.

Saul told NPR Illinois that the allegations as conveyed by the investigative reports are false, and that he has been on medical leave, which he requested in January. He said he had dinners with the student who filed the 2016 complaint but there were no “romantic” topics of conversation. He said the 2018 allegations were the result of a labor dispute involving a disgruntled employee.

Clancy, the anthropology professor, had expressed concerns about Saul in an emailto her colleagues in the spring of 2018. She said the administration had a decision to make: protect students and accusers or protect the professor.

“Rather than abdicate responsibility of our students’ safety to the legal system, I think we can choose to set particular standards for appropriate conduct within our department regarding student interactions, safety, mentoring, and professional behavior,” she wrote.

A university spokesperson said the restrictions on Saul will remain in place, including a directive not to interact with students.

Seeking Change

After finding that he violated university policies, UIUC gave Thiruvanamalai time to pursue other employment and paid him during his search. In September 2017, he started a job teaching at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

His last month there was this June, a month after NPR Illinois and ProPublica asked for records about his employment, including background checks and any possible new complaints. The university would not comment on the reason he left.

One of the students he was accused of harassing back in Illinois spoke with NPR Illinois and ProPublica after hearing that he had gone on to teach at another school. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

By going forward with a complaint and asking the school for a full investigation, she said she knew she was making herself a target.

She had watched as another student who had spoken up before her was taken out of the program and put on a track toward a lesser degree while the professor stayed without facing an investigation, a maneuver the university labeled an “informal resolution.”

The second student, who insisted that her own complaint be considered a formal one, said most students in her position wouldn’t feel secure enough to speak out the same way. “For me, I’m an international student. I knew nobody in this country when I got here,” she said. “So it took me a while to figure out what to do about the situation.”

Without speaking up, she figured others might be “suffering in the same situation” — having their concerns lead to minor or no consequences. A lab tech joined her in the complaint, saying she too repeatedly faced harassment. One woman told investigators that the professor had “made their lives hell,” according to the report from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access.

The woman said she considers herself a strong person, which is why she was able to continue on with her education. This is even after moving apartments in hopes she could prevent Thiruvanamalai from finding her as he had back in December 2014. She said UIUC failed when it helped Thiruvanamalai leave the school with his reputation intact.

“I think that’s really bad. I think there should be a system that can track what he has done.”

Christine Herman from Illinois Public Media contributed to this report.

ProPublica Illinois reporter Jodi S. Cohen contributed to this report.

The post Protecting Accused Sexual Harassers on an Illinois Campus appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

DNC Reverses Course on Virtual Voting in Two States

Cybersecurity concerns have prompted the Democratic National Committee to reverse course on offering a telephone voting option in 2020’s presidential caucuses in Iowa and Nevada. But those key early states may find another way for voters not present at February caucuses to take part—possibly by voting early at voting centers.

The DNC’s announcement on Friday came a week after the DNC held its summer meeting, where its Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) continued reviewing each state’s 2020 plans. The DNC technology staff, an advisory panel, and the RBC co-chairs concluded that there was too great a risk of malevolent outsiders disrupting the “virtual voting” process that Iowa and Nevada had hoped to offer voters to increase participation.

“The statement will go into some detail on the views of the security and IT people at the DNC and their outside advisory panel. It will cite strongly the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian activity,” James Roosevelt Jr., the longtime RBC co-chair, said Friday.

Iowa, the first contest, and Nevada, the third contest, had been developing a telephone-based ballot—as well as related systems that registered voters, authenticated identity, counted votes and reported results—to increase participation beyond precinct caucuses.

“The DNC technology people are very skeptical about whether a reasonably safe system can be constructed,” Harold Ickes, a longtime RBC member, referring to online voting, said a week ago at the DNC summer meeting. “And point two, forget the technology, what if it melts down? What if the management of it doesn’t work?”

While there was much consternation—mostly aired in closed sessions—the Rules Committee faced a mid-September to approve how the state parties running caucuses, which also include Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming, will offer a way for voters to remotely participate. That inclusionary mandate was part of the post-2016 Unity Reform Commission report, which “requires absentee voting,” and its 2020 Delegate Selection Rules.

Roosevelt said the Rules Committee will hold a special meeting after Labor Day to formally vote on the recommendation to reject virtual voting in Iowa and issue a waiver that essentially would revert to the process used in 2016. An early voting or vote-by-mail alternative was being studied, although it might impinge on New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.

In Nevada, the alternative appears to be using early voting centers and special precincts on the Las Vegas strip. When asked what Nevada might do if it could not get approval for its virtual voting plan, its lone RBC member, Artie Blanco, replied that Nevada also planned four days of early voting.

Wyoming was also planning on using early voting centers. Hawaii was considering mailing ballots to registered Democrats. Alaska, in contrast, was still seeking to use a smart phone system that West Virginia and Denver have piloted for overseas military and civilian voters, as state party officials said cell phone service was more reliable than mail in rural areas where many Native Americans live.

Good Intentions, Gnarly Details

The goal of expanding participation in 2020’s caucuses goes back to healing the party’s splits from the 2016 presidential campaign. In its December 2017 report, the Unity Reform Commission said any caucus state should help people who could not be physically present to participate. Those voters include the elderly, shift-workers, people with disabilities, young adults and even college students.

A year later, the Rules Committee issued 2020 Delegate Selection Rules that built on the reform panel’s report. These rules said that “The casting of ballots over the Internet may be used as a method of voting” in caucuses. The rules also required caucus states to create a paper record trail for audits or recounts. Its members are the DNC’s procedural experts. They are not technologists. The RBC left it to state parties to fill in the details, and further relied on DNC technology, cybersecurity and voter protection staff to critique each state’s 2020 plans.

The virtual voting plans worked out by Iowa and Nevada were not the same, but they shared features. Both states wanted to use a telephone keypad for a voter to rank their presidential preferences. The ranking is intended to emulate the in-person caucus process, where participants vote in rounds as candidates are disqualified. (Candidates must receive 15 percent of the vote to be viable.)

A virtual caucus participant would have to register beforehand. They would receive instructions by email, including a log-in and PIN number. Certain dates and time windows would be open for virtual voting. Voters would dial in and hear recordings where candidates were listed in alphabetical order. They would enter numerical choices on their keypad to rank them, like paying a bill by phone.

Iowa divided all of its virtual voters into four precincts, one for each of its House districts. These votes would be tallied and added to the in-person precinct totals from the rest of the state. However, the virtual votes would only be awarded 10 percent of the night’s delegates. (As of this writing, the RBC has not yet approved that allocation.)

Nevada, in contrast, was more ambitious. It planned to give 1,700 precinct caucus chairs an app to let them announce the early voting results to people in the room, and then to report the in-person votes to party headquarters. A vendor would do the math combining the virtual and precinct totals for awarding delegates to the process’s next stage. (In June’s RBC meeting, Nevada party officials said that app was still under development.)

Both states had won conditional Rules Committee approval. However, final approval was dependent on having the DNC staff signing off on the systems to be deployed, as well as the committee approving the delegate allocation formula, and judging that any new process would be well-run. Suffice it to say that despite determined efforts by Iowa and Nevada state party officials, the DNC’s staff has so far not had completed voting systems before it to fully evaluate.

When the RBC met in July in Washington, it discussed the status of these virtual voting systems at a closed breakfast—but not in the open session. After meeting for five-plus hours on August 22, the panel was set to adjourn without discussing virtual voting states, when Ken Martin—DNC vice chair, Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chairman, and president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs—spoke up.

“I want to be very careful in how I say this, but I want to express a deep, deep frustration on behalf of my colleagues in three very important states,” he said, referring to Iowa, Nevada and Alaska. “This is the third meeting we have now asked them to come to. They’ve incurred incredible expense to bring their teams too. And we put them on the tail end of a meeting, which we knew was going to go long, and leave no time for a very important conversation.”

At that point, Roosevelt replied that there were closed meetings scheduled the following day with RBC members, DNC staff and party officials from the three states. “And I actually have more data that I would like to share with this committee in executive session as soon as we adjourn,” he said. The committee emptied the hearing room.

According to a report first published by Yahoo and Bloomberg, “the DNC [staff] told the panel that experts convened by the party [technology staff] were able to hack into a conference call among the [Rules] committee, the Iowa Democratic Party and Nevada Democratic Party, raising concerns about teleconferencing for virtual caucuses.” It continued, “The test and the revelation of hacking enraged party officials in caucus states who say the systems were not fully built and the hack of a general teleconferencing system is not comparable.”

Earlier in the week, the RBC, DNC tech staff, caucus state officials and vendors had a series of conference calls on security issues and to demonstrate certain system elements, said Roosevelt afterward.

RBC members later asked to confirm whether the DNC staff had hacked its own conference call would not comment. A contractor working with one caucus state said they had heard a rumor about the purported hack. An outside computer scientist critical of any online voting said the state party officials were correct; hacking conference calls was not the same as hacking a voting system.

However, it didn’t appear to matter. Showing the possibility of a hack, or even making the accusation, highlighted this approach’s vulnerability. Meanwhile, the larger takeaway among many RBC members was that debuting telephone voting was premature.

“Our tech team basically said that there was no company that can do this,” one member said, recounting the executive session.

Needless to say, Iowa and Nevada officials were upset. Committee members were also divided. Some said that the risks were too great to debut virtual voting in 2020’s early caucuses. Others said these states were doing what they had been told under the 2020 rules.

Looking for Alternatives

After that executive session, the RBC co-chairs, DNC staff and the caucus state party officials held more closed meetings. Those meetings continued this past week, culminating in Friday’s announcement to back off from virtual voting in Iowa. That decision was not unexpected.

As the dust settled at the DNC summer meeting, the sense gathered from hallway interviews was that the Rules Committee co-chairs were looking at other ways to expand participation, especially in Iowa. It appeared that a mix of voting by mail and/or early voting centers might be an alternative, if it didn’t conflict with the New Hampshire primary process.

Nevada’s RBC member, Artie Blanco, said her state already was planning on offering four days of early voting before the February 22 caucus. (Any voter would have to register several weeks beforehand.) Iowa, in contrast, did not anticipate offering an early voting option in its 2020 plan.

It would be premature to conclude that remote participation in 2020’s party-run caucuses will not occur. The Rules Committee has a history of looking for ways to meet their goals. It will be meeting after Labor Day, where it is expected to finalize the early caucus states’ plans, including possibly having early voting centers or a vote by mail option.

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

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


The post DNC Reverses Course on Virtual Voting in Two States appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

The Whistleblower Who Almost Stopped the Iraq Invasion

Editor’s note: This article was initially published on Consortium News.

Two-time Oscar nominee Keira Knightley is known for being in “period pieces” such as “Pride and Prejudice,” so her playing the lead in the new film “Official Secrets,” scheduled to be released in the U.S. on Friday, may seem odd at first. That is until one considers that the time span being depicted — the early 2003 run-up to the invasion of Iraq — is one of the most dramatic and consequential periods of modern human history.

It is also one of the most poorly understood, in part because the story of Katharine Gun, played by Knightley, is so little known. Having followed this story from the start, I find this film to be, by Hollywood standards, a remarkably accurate account of what has happened to date — “to date” because the wider story still isn’t over.

Katharine Gun worked as an analyst for Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British equivalent of the secretive U.S. National Security Agency. She tried to stop the impending invasion of Iraq in early 2003 by exposing the deceit of George W. Bush and Tony Blair in their claims about that country. For doing that she was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act — a juiced-up version of the U.S. Espionage Act, which in recent years has been used repeatedly by the Obama administration against whistleblowers and now by the Trump administration against WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange.

Gun was charged for exposing —around the time of Colin Powell’s infamous testimony to the UN about Iraq’s alleged WMDs — a top-secret U.S. government memo showing it was mounting an illegal spying “surge” against other U.N. Security Council delegations in an effort to manipulate them into voting for an Iraq invasion resolution. The U.S. and Britain had successfully forced through a trumped-up resolution, 1441 in November 2002. In early 2003, they were poised to threaten, bribe or blackmail their way to get formal United Nations authorization for the invasion. [See recent interview with Gun.]

The leaked memo, published by the British Observer, was big news in parts of the world, especially the targeted countries on the Security Council, and helped prevent Bush and Blair from getting the second UN Security Council resolution they said they wanted. Veto powers Russia, China and France were opposed as well as U.S. ally Germany.

Washington invaded anyway of course — without Security Council authorization — by telling the UN weapons inspectors to leave Iraq, issuing a unilateral demand that Saddam Hussein leave Iraq in 48 hours and then saying the invasion would commence regardless.

‘Most Courageous Leak’

It was the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where I work (, Norman Solomon, as well as Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg who in the U.S. most immediately saw the importance of what Gun had done. Ellsberg would later comment: “No one else — including myself — has ever done what Katharine Gun did: Tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it. Hers was the most important — and courageous — leak I’ve ever seen, more timely and potentially more effective than the Pentagon Papers.”

Of course, no one knew her name at the time. After the Observer broke the story on March 1, 2003, put out a series of news releases on it and organized a sadly, sparsely attended news conference with Ellsberg on March 11, 2003 at the National Press Club, focusing on Gun’s revelations. Ellsberg called for more such truth telling to stop the impending invasion, just nine days away.

Though I’ve followed this case for years, I didn’t realize until recently that’s work helped compel Gun to expose the document. At a recent D.C. showing of “Official Secrets” that Gun attended, she revealed that she had read a book co-authored by Solomon, published in January 2003 that included material from as well as the media watch group FAIR debunking many of the falsehoods for war.

Gun said: “I went to the local bookshop, and I went into the political section. I found two books, which had apparently been rushed into publication, one was by Norman Solomon and Reese Erlich, and it was called Target Iraq. And the other one was by Milan Rai. It was called War Plan Iraq. And I bought both of them. And I read them cover to cover that weekend, and it basically convinced me that there was no real evidence for this war. So I think from that point onward, I was very critical and scrutinizing everything that was being said in the media.”

Thus, we see Gun in “Official Secrets” shouting at the TV to Tony Blair that he’s not entitled to make up facts. The film may be jarring to some consumers of major media who might think that Donald Trump invented lying in 2017.

Gun’s immediate action after reading critiques of U.S. policy and media coverage makes a strong case for trying to reach government workers by handing out fliers and books and putting up billboards outside government offices to encourage them to be more critically minded.

Solomon and Ellsberg had debunked Bush administration propaganda in real time. But Gun’s revelation showed that the U.S. and British governments were not only lying to invade Iraq, they were violating international law to blackmail whole nations to get in line.

Mainstream reviews of “Official Secrets” still seem to not fully grasp the importance of what they just saw. The AV Club review leads: “Virtually everyone now agrees that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a colossal mistake based on faulty (at best) or fabricated (at worst) intelligence.” “Mistake” is a serious understatement even with “colossal” attached to it when the movie details the diabolical, illegal lengths to which the U.S. and British governments went to get other governments to go along with it.

Gun’s revelations showed before the invasion that people on the inside, whose livelihood depends on following the party line, were willing to risk jail time to out the lies and threats.

Portrayal of The Observer

Other than Gun herself, the film focuses on a dramatization of what happened at her work; as well as her relationship with her husband, a Kurd from Turkey who the British government attempted to have deported to get at Gun. The film also portrays the work of her lawyers who helped get the Official Secrets charge against her dropped, as well as the drama at The Observer, which published the NSA document after much internal debate.

Observer reporter Martin Bright, whose strong work on the original Gun story was strangely followed by an ill-fated stint at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, has recently noted that very little additional work has been done on Gun’s case. We know virtually nothing about the apparent author of the NSA document that she leaked — one “Frank Koza.” Other questions persist, such is prevalent is this sort of U.S. blackmail of foreign governments to get UN votes or for other purposes? How is it leveraged? Does it fit in with allegations made by former NSA analyst Russ Tice about the NSA having massive files on political people?

Observer reporter Ed Vulliamy is energetically depicted getting tips from former CIA man Mel Goodman. There do seem to be subtle but potentially serious deviations from reality in the film. Vulliamy is depicted as actually speaking with “Frank Koza,” but that’s not what he originally reported:

The NSA main switchboard put The Observer through to extension 6727 at the agency which was answered by an assistant, who confirmed it was Koza’s office. However, when The Observer asked to talk to Koza about the surveillance of diplomatic missions at the United Nations, it was then told ‘You have reached the wrong number’. On protesting that the assistant had just said this was Koza’s extension, the assistant repeated that it was an erroneous extension, and hung up.

There must doubtlessly be many aspects of the film that have been simplified or altered regarding Gun’s personal experience. A compelling part of the film — apparently fictitious or exaggerated — is a GCHQ apparatchik questioning Gun to see if she was the source.

Little is known about the reaction inside the governments of Security Council members that the U.S. spied on. After the invasion, Mexican Ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser spoke in blunt terms about U.S. bullying — saying it viewed Mexico as its patio trasero, or backyard — and was Zinser was compelled to resign by President Vicente Fox. He then, in 2004, gave details about some aspects of U.S. surveillance sabotaging the efforts of the other members of the Security Council to hammer out a compromise to avert the invasion of Iraq, saying the U.S. was “violating the U.N. headquarters covenant.” In 2005, he tragically died in a car crash.

“Official Secrets” director Gavin Hood is perhaps more right than he realizes when he says that his depiction of the Gun case is like the “tip of an iceberg,” pointing to other deceits surrounding the Iraq war. His record with political films has been uneven until now. Peace activist David Swanson, for instance, derided his film on drones, “Eye in the Sky.” At a D.C. showing of “Official Secrets,” Hood depicted those who backed the Iraq war as being discredited. But that’s simply untrue.

Leading presidential candidate Joe Biden — who not only voted for the Iraq invasion, but presided over rigged hearings on in 2002 — has recently falsified his record repeatedly on Iraq at presidential debates with hardly a murmur. Nor is he alone. Those refusing to be held accountable for their Iraq war lies include not just Bush and Cheney, but John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi.

Biden has actually faulted Bush for not doing enough to get United Nations approval for the Iraq invasion. But as the Gun case helps show, there was no legitimate case for invasion and the Bush administration had done virtually everything, both legal and illegal, to get UN authorization.

Many who supported the invasion try to distance themselves from it. But the repercussions of that illegal act are enormous: It led directly or indirectly to the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Iraq and the war in Syria. Journalists who pushed for the Iraq invasion are prosperous and atop major news organizations, such as Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt. The editor who argued most strongly against publication of the NSA document at The Observer, Kamal Ahmed, is now editorial director of BBC News.

The British government — unlike the U.S. — did ultimately produce a study ostensibly around the decision-making leading to the invasion of Iraq, the Chilcot Report of 2016. But that report — called “devastating” by the The New York Times–made no mention of the Gun case. [See release from 2016: “Chilcot Report Avoids Smoking Gun.”]

After Gun’s identity became known, the Institute for Public Accuracy brought on Jeff Cohen, the founder of FAIR, to work with program director Hollie Ainbinder to get prominent individuals to support Gun. The film — quite plausibly — depicts the charges being dropped against Gun for the simple reason that the British government feared that a high-profile proceeding would effectively put the war on trial, which to them would be have been a nightmare.

The post The Whistleblower Who Almost Stopped the Iraq Invasion appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Top-Flight Cast Takes On American Classic ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’

While working on Almeida Theatre’s Olivier Award-winning revival of the Henrik Ibsen classic “Ghosts” on London’s West End, director Richard Eyre turned to Lesley Manville, his leading lady and longtime friend, and suggested they next take on Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical drama, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

“Of course I knew that this epic, huge, complex and delicate play needed to be in hands that I could trust implicitly,” Manville, an Oscar nominee for last year’s “Phantom Thread,” said in an interview with Truthdig. “Because of our history with ‘Ghosts,’ that was all in place for me. We worked brilliantly together, and certainly both of these plays have been the historical highlights of my career.”

Written in 1941, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” looks back at a slice of time following the author’s stint on the high seas, before he began writing plays. Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons plays James Tyrone, a once-promising actor-turned-alcoholic who squandered his talent for money. That character is similar to O’Neill’s own father, an alcoholic itinerant actor.

Jamie (Rory Keenan), is Tyrone’s oldest son, an acting aspirant and, like O’Neill’s real-life brother of the same name, also alcoholic. The youngest, Edmund (Matthew Beard), a poet with tuberculosis, is based on O’Neill. Like Edmund, O’Neill was indirectly responsible for his mother Mary Tyrone’s addiction to morphine, which she began abusing after suffering complications during childbirth.

Produced in 1956, “Long Day’s Journey into Night” won O’Neill his fourth Pulitzer Prize three years after his death. Here, Irons, Eyre and Manville discuss their critically acclaimed production, currently running at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif., through July 1.

JORDAN RIEFE: What’s key to building a strong relationship with a director?

LESLEY MANVILLE: You’ve got to combine our mutual gifts, him as a director and me as an actress. But he’s very open, he’s hugely clever and he has a great intellectual understanding, and on top of that he has a very human understanding. When you’re doing plays like “Ghosts” and “Long Day’s Journey,” you need somebody who isn’t afraid of being in touch with and posing their vulnerabilities and their tenderness and their understanding of sometimes how hard it is for the character you’re playing to be a proper human being.

RICHARD EYRE: In the theater, what you enjoy is the interaction with the other actors and the interaction with the audience. That’s why I think Jeremy and Lesley are theater animals. They breathe and thrive on that kind of live experience—being present tense with an audience.

JR: Talk to me about rehearsing such a prolix piece. It seems it would be exhausting.

JEREMY IRONS: To a certain extent, Tyrone reacts around Mary’s addiction. So you have to wait until she’s found how she’s going to play to see what you’re going to react to. So the first rehearsals were quite unnerving, because you think, ‘I’m not getting anything, I’m not doing anything.’ But once her performance was solidified, I was able to sort the play around it. I know Olivier had a lot of trouble when he was doing it.

LM: I kind of hit the ground running. I’m a very instinctive actor, and I learned the lines completely before we started rehearsing when we did it in Bristol in 2016, because I knew the rehearsal time we had would have to be spent working out how to play her and make the scenes work rather than be struggling over the lines. So I think I started to deliver for all the other actors rather quickly. I didn’t leave them hanging around to see what my take was going to be.

JR: What did you learn about addicts in preparation for the role?

LM: Practical things, like if you’re injecting morphine into a fleshy part of your body, it probably takes 10 to 15 minutes to hit. But sometimes in the play, she goes upstairs and she comes back down a few minutes later and she’s like a different person. And this doctor says, ‘Yes, if you go into [the] vein, the effect is pretty instant, really.’ As luck would have it, people who are morphine addicts, their behavior is very volatile.

JR: Jeremy, Tyrone is accused of being a skinflint, but don’t all actors, regardless of their level of success, worry that the phone will never ring again?

JI: When I was starting off in my career, before it began to get a rhythm to it and I was lucky enough to create a financial cushion, I was very careful. I remember my first wife—it only lasted a couple of years; I was 21—but I was forever saving. And I remember when we were separated she said it was such a relief not to have to save. I can go out and spend!

JR: How important is a play like this to maintaining your craft?

JI: I’ve tried to make sure that those high-paying jobs subsidize the work I really value, which does not pay too much, and I’ve been pretty lucky. Maybe if I’d stayed and done more great Shakespearean roles—I’d done a few—I would be in a position like Ian McKellen, who has done them all. But then, of course he was very, very happy to go off and do the Tolkien series and be tied up for a long time.

JR: The critics were kinder in the U.K. than they were in Brooklyn.

JI: I think when you’re dealing with a classic, the critics will often, sadly, compare it with what they’ve seen before, and their memories of the play and what it did for them.

LM: We’ve had amazing notices in Bristol and London, and we had some reservations in America, but that’s their prerogative, and maybe there’s an element of them being much more critical because it’s English doing an American play.

JR: The knock is that it’s played too fast.

JI: Yes, we do play it quite fast. Because we play the first scene really quite fast, with lots of overlapping, sort of how a family behaves amongst themselves, they cut in on each other to give some variance, they (the critics) have to listen and they have to work a little bit at the start. But maybe for some critics, this was too much.

JR: Ms. Manville has said it’s the greatest writing she’s ever performed.

RE: I’ve done an awful lot of classics, a lot of Shakespeare, I’ve done Arthur Miller, I’ve done Tennessee Williams and Sean O’Casey. This is pretty high. I think it’s a great play, a formidably great play. I don’t take it for granted in any way. It still seems to be an extraordinary honor to be doing this play in New York and Los Angeles. It’s a thrill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


For AP’s complete coverage of the hurricane:

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Is America Finally Waking Up to Its White Nationalism Problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trump Eyes Mental Institutions as Answer to Gun Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hong Kong Protest March Banned; Democracy Activists Arrested

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Takes Aim at Barbara Boxer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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White Supremacy Is as American as Apple Pie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to the full discussion between Cloud and Scheer as the two talk about the film and how it relates to both the painful history and current events that many Americans refuse to face. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player and find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.

—Introduction by Natasha Hakimi Zapata

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

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

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

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

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

RS: These are the people who lived as white.

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

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

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

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

RC: Yes, that’s right.

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

RC: Every year, every year, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RC: Yeah.

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

RC: David.

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

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

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

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

RS: Oh, really?

RC: Yeah.

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

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

RS: Oh, really? That’s interesting.

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

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

RC: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

RC: Into my family’s story, yes.

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

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

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

RC: Johnny, her husband Johnny.

RS: Yeah, you say Johnny Boy Watson?

RC: His nickname was Johnny Boy.

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

RC: Yes, in New York, in Harlem.

RS: They were “Negroes.”

RC: Yes, for sure.

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

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

RS: Do you know where he went to college?

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

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

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

RS: So they went out to–why Nebraska?

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

RS: And he was quite successful there, right?

RC: Yes, he was.

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

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

RS: Oh. Josh is his–

RC: Josh is his grandson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Because the culture holds.

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

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

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

RS: Do they claim they knew?

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

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

RC: Ah–no, John Lane.

RS: John Lane.

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

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

RC: Yes.

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

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

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

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

RS: But they were successful.

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

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

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

RS: And he had an official position.

RC: Yes.

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

RC: Yes.

RS: –and you don’t conceal it, right.

RC: No.

RS: Was that an issue at all?

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

RS: These are the Nebraska people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RC: Yes, that’s right.

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

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

RS: Well, I thought it would.

RC: No.

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

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

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

RC: Of course. Definitely.

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

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

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

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

RS: The black cousins.

RC: Yes, yes. We are more successful.

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

RC: Right, I did.

RS: So what happened?

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

RS: Have they done the biological testing?

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

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

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

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

RC: Yes.

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

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

RC: That makes you who you are, yes.

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

RC: Ah,

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

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

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

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

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

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

RC: Yes.

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

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

RS: Yeah.

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

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

RC: [Laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Yeah, no, they’re awkward.

RC: It’s wild.

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

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

RC: Well, we know the answer to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RC: [Laughs] One of them, yes.

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

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

RC: Thank you.

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

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A Revolutionary Writer for Our Darkest Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Comey Said to Violate FBI Policies in Handling of Memos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Florida Braces for Hurricane Dorian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Trump Declares New Space Command Key to American Defense

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

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

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

But there’s still no Space Force.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trump’s Asylum Policies Could Get People Killed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insurance Companies Are Creating an Economy of Extortion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ProPublica research reporter Doris Burke contributed to this story.

The post Insurance Companies Are Creating an Economy of Extortion appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.