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‘We Need to Mobilize People Who Don’t Want to Pay Tucker Carlson’s Salary’

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting -


Janine Jackson interviewed Free Press’s Tim Karr about defunding Fox News racism for the April 30, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Daily Beast (4/26/21)

Janine Jackson: What hasn’t Tucker Carlson done lately? Earlier this month, the primetime Fox News host touted the white supremacist “great replacement theory.” Democrats, he cried to viewers, are “trying to replace the current electorate” with “new people, more obedient voters from the Third World”: “Every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter; I have less political power because they are importing a brand new electorate.”

More recently, Carlson encouraged his acolytes:

Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from your response to seeing someone beat a kid in Walmart: Call the police immediately. Contact Child Protective Services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you’re looking at is child abuse, and you are morally obligated to attempt to prevent it.

OK, you, a non-Fox watcher, say: Tucker Carlson is a dangerous humanoid, and I wish he didn’t have a platform for millions of people open to that particular strain of weaponized ignorance. But enough people or sponsors must want it on the air, or it wouldn’t be there.

Well, here to help us see what’s amiss with that idea, and how we could disrupt it, is Tim Karr. He’s senior director of strategy and communications at Free Press, and he wrote the recent piece, “Tucker Carlson’s Racism: Paid For by You.” He joins us now by phone from New Jersey. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Tim Karr.

Tim Karr: Hi, Janine, how are you?

JJ: I’m all right, but boy, you know….

As media critics, we know it’s important to expose the structure, the workings of media, because it’s somewhat hidden, and because so much is predicated on it, you know. “If it didn’t have an audience, it wouldn’t be on your TV, because media is a market, after all”: We know that that is a pervasive, but misleading, idea. When it comes to Tucker Carlson, it’s not that he doesn’t have fans, but what complicates the notion that he’s on my TV because somehow I want him there?

Free Press (4/28/21)

TK: You, like me, might remember the good old days of over-the-air broadcast television, when we got our news and information for free. Unfortunately, at the time, in my childhood, it was only like four or five local television stations. But we’ve now transitioned to this cable era, where we can buy packages that provide us with hundreds of stations. And the economics of that is somewhat complicated, because I think people who don’t watch the Tucker Carlson show don’t realize that, regardless, they’re still paying for Tucker Carlson’s salary.

And what I mean to say by that is that when we purchase a cable package from our provider—whether we have a satellite service; or a cable service, like Comcast; or a fiber service, like Fios by Verizon—we pay a lump sum for a large package of channels. And that money gets distributed to those channels via what’s called carriage fees.

And for Fox News and Fox Television, that is the bulk of their income; last year, they made about $1.6 billion from carriage fees. These are negotiated deals with their cable carriers that we all pay as part of our monthly bill, those of us who are still on cable and satellite pay-TV services, which is the bulk of American viewers. And so it’s a lot of money that we’re paying, an average about $1.72 a month per person that goes to Fox News, even if we don’t like that.

So when I say Tucker Carlson’s racism is paid for by all of us, that’s in fact true. And a lot of people don’t really think about that; they don’t think about the implications of carriage fees, and how—unless we change that system—we’re all complicit in some way in supporting this sort of racism.

Extra! (5/12)

JJ: I think folks would like to know, on hearing that, how can we stop it? And it’s not a new idea to try to stop it. I mean, we’ve been back and forth on this for a while. FAIR’s Peter Hart wrote about  responses to this in 2010, and he was reminding folks that when NewsCorp launched in 1996, they couldn’t charge for Fox News, they had to pay their way onto cable. It was only as they got more political influence, more audience, that they were able to charge—and then triple—these carriage fees that you’re talking about.

And I just want to throw in there one thing that Peter wrote about: Then he was saying, “Why do we have to pay Sean Hannity’s salary?”

TK: Right.

JJ: Same conversation, just a different person. But he noted then–Fox head Rupert Murdoch’s boast that he could name his price with cable operators: “Cancel us, you might get your house burnt down”; that was how Rupert Murdoch described his negotiating strategy.

So all of that just to say, this is not a brand new battlefield. But what are the ideas we’re looking at now to undo this thing where we’re paying for shows that we not only don’t want, but that we really, really don’t want?

TK: There are a couple of ways to address this. And some of the things that people have heard about are these advertiser boycotts that have happened in the past, whenever Tucker Carlson says something inflammatory. There are a lot of good organizations, like Sleeping Giants and others, who’ve mobilized advertiser boycotts, and that has harmed them a little bit. But again, it’s only a smaller piece of the larger pie of income.

So if you really want to look at the problem of carriage fees, and address that, there’s a few things you can do: No. 1, we need to embolden these cable carriers—the cable companies like Comcast and Verizon and AT&T and Spectrum—to be a little more bold, to be a little more forthright in their negotiations with Fox News. If, indeed, the majority of their customers don’t watch Fox News, which is true, why do they feel obligated to pay such high carriage fees? So there is a public pressure campaign that can be very effective.

Another thing that can be done is to promote or advocate for à la carte, which is a cable subscription that allows each viewer to handpick the channels that they want to watch. There is a package of what are called “must-carry channels” that include local television stations; the PEG stations that might cover, say, the local city council hearings; and some public broadcasting stations—but in addition to that, consumers should just be able to handpick, like you would pick from a dim sum menu, perhaps, the stations that you want, and then pay accordingly. There have been a lot of legal hurdles that have been put in place for that  à la carte option.

And another thing that people are doing increasingly is called “cutting the cord.” Cutting the cord means that you take pay-TV services out of your triple play, the package that you buy from a company like Comcast, and you get all of your television “over the top,” via your high-speed internet connection. You then have the opportunity to subscribe to services like Hulu or Netflix, and reassemble your own television experience. There’s still only a small percentage of Americans who’ve chosen the over-the-top, cutting-the-cord option.

So it’s kind of complicated. There are a lot of things that can be done. What we really need to do is mobilize people and educate people who don’t want to pay Tucker Carlson’s salary that there are things that they can do.

JJ: One of the things that you point out in the piece is that, when folks are talking about this, it might be presented as, “Why would you intervene with this radical strategy?” It’s actually…the à la carte idea is something that happens already in other spheres, like stock trading, right?

Tim Karr: “Policies that have been put in place…take choice out of the hands of consumers—whether it’s choice for an internet connection, whether it’s a choice for the type of cable stations that you subscribe to—and they put them in the hands of these large companies.”

TK: That’s right. If you choose mutual funds, you can choose funds that are socially responsible, that, for example, don’t invest in energy extraction companies. Those are all choices that consumers make. And so it’s a little bit backwards. As you know as someone who’s followed media policy for quite some time, a lot of the policies that have been put in place seem really backward; they take choice out of the hands of consumers—whether it’s choice for an internet connection, whether it’s a choice for the type of cable stations that you subscribe to—and they put them in the hands of these large companies, who have far too much control over the ways that we connect and communicate.

So this has been a lifelong effort for me. And the work that we do at Free Press is to try to put the public back into these policy conversations, to make sure that we have control over our media experience.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, when we were talking about  à la carte back in 2010, 2012, one of the things that was part of the conversation was that if you’re in a system where you pick what channels you want—despite what you’re talking about, the must-carry that might include local government and PEG channels—that that might sideline, or make invisible, some smaller or niche channels that might only get out there as part of a package.

TK: Yes.

JJ: And I’m wondering, have we thought about new ways to address that part?

TK: That’s a real concern, because there are a lot of niche stations that cover immigrant communities, that cater to other audiences that rely upon “the bundle” in order to reach, potentially reach, a large audience. And so there are ways that you can manage that, too. There are these ideas about “skinny bundles,” where you actually create these kinds of packages that have a lot of public interest and diverse options in them. But when it comes to the premium stations, and some of the controversial stations like Fox News, they leave that up to the viewer.

One of the things that I’ve advocated for is a hate-free bundle: a bundle where people can pay a fairly standard subscription rate, minus the money that would go to Fox Television, for Fox News, for Fox Business News, for all of the Fox channels; minus the money that might go to One America News Network, or Newsmax, or any of the stations that have been spreading disinformation about the elections, about the Covid response, and fanning the flames of racism.

So that’s potentially something that could happen. We need to gain some momentum in the organizing side to pressure cable companies to do that. I think that getting Congress and the FCC involved could also help persuade them to give these options to consumers.

JJ: And we also are in, finally, an era where it is different than 10, 12 years ago, and I think media consumers are a little more accustomed to proactively seeking out sources that they might not see, and talking to one another about what might be interesting, and sharing in social media around big news outlets. That’s how podcasts get out there.

So I think public education, I just would say, would also be a big way of directing folks’ attention to programming that they might miss if it can’t get [to be] part of one of these bundling things.

TK: And I think, longer term, we also just need to have a reckoning with how we ended up with the media system that we have, where these commercial media outlets—in this case, it’s cable companies colluding with Fox News Channel to push white supremacist content.

I mean, there’s a long history of media being used to victimize impacted communities, Black and brown communities, and we need to reckon with that as well, and to see that a lot of the controversy around carriage fees is rooted in a history of discrimination.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Tim Karr from Free Press; they’re online at Free Press.net. Thank you so much, Tim Karr, for speaking with us this week on CounterSpin.

TK: My pleasure.


Book Review: Trying Times by NLG & NPAP’s Terry Gilbert

National Lawyer's Guild -

Reviewed by David Gespass, NLG past president and member of NLG-Alabama

Your average lawyer’s memoir, if there is such a thing, talks about the triumphs – the trials that freed criminal defendants or won enormous damages for their wronged clients. Many speak of the nobility of our judicial system, the critical role of the rule of law in preserving democracy, and of the author’s lifelong love of the law. That is perhaps because your average lawyer memoirist has enjoyed a prosperous career and, consciously or otherwise, wants to justify the system that has allowed them to prosper.

Terry Gilbert’s legal career has also allowed him to prosper. He has had his share – maybe more than his share – of notable victories. His firm has expanded and thrived. In his twilight years, he has a number of young partners to whom he is passing the torch. The firm of Friedman & Gilbert (now Friedman, Gilbert & Gerhardstein) became a pillar of the Cleveland community and is now an Ohio-wide pillar. It survived the loss, after 40 years, of Gordon Friedman. It will endure and expand as Terry rides off into the sunset. 

But Terry’s memoir, Trying Times: A Lawyer’s 50-Year Struggle Fighting for Rights in a World of Wrongs, expounds more on the cases he lost than the ones he won. He does devote some time to brief descriptions of multi-million dollar settlements of police misconduct cases, making sure to note that all the money in the world did not compensate the victims. It is a sad fact that, by and large, all the US legal system can do to compensate people for unspeakable losses is to give them money. Parenthetically, Terry and I worked on one case in Alabama together for the family of a man killed by a small-town police chief. We got some money, but I guess he decided it wasn’t enough to mention. Hurt as I was by the snub, I will forgive him that little peccadillo. 

But, I digress. Really, the importance of Terry’s book and the critical lesson it teaches, is that when you litigate in US courts and you are fighting for true justice, you are in enemy territory. If US courts were just, Leonard Peltier would not have spent the last four decades in prison. If there were even a measure of justice, Sam Sheppard would have been exonerated and his son, scarred for life by the experience of having his mother murdered and his father accused and railroaded, would have received some compensation and, maybe more important, acknowledgment of the wrongs done to him as a seven-year-old. If there were justice, young people duped by government agents into violating the law would not consider an eight or ten-year prison sentence something of a victory. Yet these are the cases Terry spends his time describing.

There are other things in the book, too. Accounts of Terry’s youth of partying and travel and his finding true love. There is a lot I can relate to. We are both Jewish, though my upbringing was rather more secular than his. We both spent a fair amount of time getting high when we were younger, though he started in college and I in law school. The murder of four students at Kent State profoundly affected us both. And music was a big part of our lives, me as a fan, but Terry also as a player. There are some bands and musicians – the Meters and John Lee Hooker come to mind – whose sets start out kind of modestly and build throughout until, at the end, everyone is on their feet. Terry’s book has something of that trajectory, not that I was literally reading the last chapter on my feet, but the further into it I got, the more absorbing it was.

Terry and I are both long-time members of the National Lawyers Guild. When we joined, members in their 50s and 60s were the old generation and we were the young Turks. I now recall my 50th birthday as part of my youth. And we are now both more interested in succession than we are in building our own careers. As I recall, Terry and I first met in Rapid City, South Dakota during, or just after, the occupation of Wounded Knee. I was only there for three weeks, but Terry stuck it out, working on the post-occupation trials and, as noted, the railroading of Leonard Peltier. 

But the point is that Guild lawyers recognize that the legal system is hostile to their clients and the causes they espouse, that litigation may be a component, but is not the motor of societal progress. That is a reason why it is important to talk about losses as much as, if not more than, wins. Even with litigation, it isn’t always winning that sparks change. Jules Lobel, who worked with Terry on a case they did win in the Supreme Court on behalf of people warehoused in Ohio’s supermax prison, having been sent there without rhyme, reason or due process, wrote a book called Success Without Victory. His point, which Terry emphasizes, is that waging the battle can be at least as important, in the long run, as winning the particular case. Terry recalls Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous observation that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. What is important to recall, however, is that the arc only bends towards justice when warriors for justice take it in their hands and bend it. Terry is one of those warriors. I am fortunate to call him my friend.

Learn more about Trying Times: A Lawyer’s 50-Year Struggle Fighting for Rights in a World of Wrongs here.

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The post Book Review: Trying Times by NLG & NPAP’s Terry Gilbert first appeared on National Lawyers Guild.

Regavim: The Israeli Faux Environmental Org Converting US Donations into Palestinian Evictions

Mint Press News -

OCCUPIED WEST BANK — In the village of Khan al-Ahmar in the occupied West Bank, dozens of Bedouin families are at risk of losing their homes and becoming refugees again by July. While it is the Israeli government and military that are enacting the demolitions and evacuations, their efforts are largely driven by a pro-settler nonprofit supported by American charities.

While it is masked as an environmental organization, Regavim’s work involves petitioning the Israeli government to demolish structures and pursue evictions for Palestinians and Bedouins under the guise of protecting “Israel’s most precious and scarce resources: land reserves, water, air quality” — though much of the organization’s focus is on occupied Palestinian territory. Regavim’s most recent targets have been the villages of Khan al-Ahmar and Susya, located in Area C of the West Bank, which is under total Israeli military control. Israel rarely approves building permits for the indigenous people in Area C so the majority of Palestinian and Bedouin construction there is deemed illegal.

In collaboration with nearby Israeli settlements, Regavim has petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to demolish hundreds of buildings in Khan al-Ahmar since 2009. The Israeli government has continuously delayed the displacement, causing Regavim to repeatedly file petitions in order to speed up the evacuation process, the most recent being filed in November 2020. In response to Regavim’s latest petition, the High Court gave the state until July to demolish Khan al-Ahmar. Regavim did not respond to a request for comment.


A settler organization funded by taxpayers

Regavim was founded in 2006 by Bezalel Smotrich, a former member of Israel’s parliament and head of the Religious Zionist Party.

“[Regavim has] managed to make serious inroads into the Israeli political system,” Cody O’Rourke of the Good Shepherd Collective, a nonviolent grassroots resistance movement in the West Bank, said, referring to how Smotrich’s political party was able to secure six seats in March’s election.

“The Israeli military has to respond to Israeli politics,” O’Rourke continued. “So, having their co-founder now in the Knesset, they’re able to put the sort of pressure on the Israeli military and on the Israeli civil administration to push these people off their land.”

Children watch as an Israeli army bulldozer prepares the ground for the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar. Oren Ziv | ActiveStills

However, Regavim’s ties to government don’t stop with its founder. A 2018 Haaretz investigation found that the pro-settler group is financed by Israeli taxpayers through local settler councils, and it has collected taxpayer money from the United States. “[Regavim] also has been able to exploit the U.S. 501(3) system to receive charitable donations to really engage in essentially what is ethnic cleansing of the land,” O’Rourke said.


The U.S. charities behind Regavim

Regavim is backed by tax-deductible donations from three New York-based nonprofits: The Central Fund of Israel, One Israel Fund, and the Israel Independence Fund. According to the most recently available financial reports from Israel’s Registrar of Associations, the Central Fund of Israel gave Regavim 1,804,175 shekels ($553,000) in 2019.

Information on donations from the One Israel Fund and the Israel Independence Fund is not available for 2019. However, according to 2018 tax filings, the One Israel Fund made more than $2 million in grants to the Middle East, and the Israel Independence Fund said it distributed $580,00 to Keren Nahlat Atzmaut (the executive arm of the Israel Independence Fund). Tax-exempt charities do not have to list the names of the foreign organizations to which contribute.

Overall, Regavim received 319,603 shekels (almost $9,800) from abroad in 2019.  Their Israeli donations amounted to 3,748,584 shekels (approximately $115 million). Hagit Ofran from Israeli settlement watchdog group, Peace Now, said the lopsided ratio of donations could be because Regavim marks U.S.-based organizations’ donations as Israeli when these donors have offices in Israel. “So the money comes from U.S. donors, but it goes through the Israeli office, so they can call it an Israeli donation,” Ofran said.

In order to classify as a 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt charity, an organization must be licensed at the federal and state levels. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the U.S. Treasury Department determine if a nonprofit is adhering to charitable guidelines at the federal level, while the state attorney general makes those conclusions at the state level.

With this in mind, the Good Shepherd Collective is currently campaigning online for New York’s attorney general to revoke the charitable status of the organizations involved in funding Regavim. “These organizations still have to follow charitable guidelines,” O’Rourke said. “And engaging in what the International Criminal Court said was war crimes, that doesn’t follow a charitable description.”

IRS regulations require American nonprofits to make what is called “an equivalency determination” when providing grants abroad, meaning they must assure that the foreign recipient functions under the same rules as a U.S. nonprofit. Charitable guidelines stipulate that tax-exempt donations are defined as “lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.”

Additionally, tax-exempt organizations are prohibited from making contributions that counter American foreign policy or abet those engaged in illegal acts. Experts have long argued that supporting Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law, fits squarely into that category.

When probed by Haaretz in 2015 over the tax-exempt status of organizations funding settlement activity, the White House responded that the “the policy of every administration since 1967, Democrat and Republican alike, has been to object to Israeli settlement beyond the 1967 borders.”

Nonprofit donations in the U.S. are often shrouded in secrecy and lack transparency. Halah Ahmad, a policy analyst at Palestinian thinktank Al-Shabaka noted that this is due to minimal governmental oversight. “If a nonprofit is given tax-exempt status by the U.S., you have organizations that could be complicit in human rights violations,” Ahmad said. “Regavim is just one organization among many that are party to this problem.”

The Central Fund of Israel and One Israel Fund did not respond to press inquiries, but the Israel Independence Fund denied that its involvement with Regavim violates international law and U.S. regulations and referred to the Jewish people as the indigenous population of the West Bank, telling MintPress, “The IIF was, is, and will remain a proud supporter of Regavim” (read their full statement here).

These three charities are not required to disclose where their donations come from. However, private foundations must inform the IRS of any domestic grants they make. Several notable philanthropists have made sizable donations to these organizations, including the late casino magnate and Republican super-donor Sheldon Adelson and the controversial Irving Moskowitz, who sought to use his wealth to create a Jewish majority in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Below are the supporting foundations followed by the amount and year of their most recent donation. This information was gathered using ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer tool.

Edwin Soforenko Foundation: Unknown amount to One Israel Fund in 2018


Part of the ‘apartheid apparatus

Funding of Israel’s settler movement goes through a variety of channels and relies on a wide network of organizational and governmental support. Neve Gordon, an Israeli professor at the Queen Mary University of London, has conducted research on Regavim, concluding that the use of nonprofits is just one part of the larger “apartheid apparatus,” explaining:

In order to make a regime that is based on institutionalized discrimination and ethnic and racist identifications, you need to set in place a whole apparatus. Part of it is legal. Part of it is governmental. And part of it is the executive branch of the government. So, you have the three branches, but then part of it — and that’s what is often not discussed — is organs within civil society. And Regavim is an organ within civil society that enables apartheid.”

And whether these donors know what their money is being used for or not, Gordon emphasized that exposing them as “apartheid enablers” is crucial in dismantling this system.

Feature photo | Israel police guard a military bulldozer at it destroys a Palestinian home in the South Hebron Hills. Photo | International Solidarity Movement.

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.

The post Regavim: The Israeli Faux Environmental Org Converting US Donations into Palestinian Evictions appeared first on MintPress News.

Cast An Informed Vote for Philadelphia District Attorney on May 18

ACLU News -

In the election for Philadelphia District Attorney, make sure you’re informed about a name that isn’t on the ballot —- the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police.

The Philadelphia FOP supports policies that increase mass incarceration and violate civil rights, and they oppose policies that would increase transparency and accountability.

Philadelphians can choose transparency and fairness over mass incarceration.

Whoever you vote for in the District Attorney election, be sure to cast an informed vote. Vote on May 18.

Voting in Person

Find your voting location here.

Voting by Mail

You can drop off your ballot in a ballot drop box until 8 p.m. on Election Day, Tuesday, May 18th. More information on ballot drop boxes can be found here.

You can also drop off your ballot at your local Election Office by 8pm on Election Day, Tuesday, May 18th.

You can find additional vote by mail information here.

Paid for by American Civil Liberties Union, Inc. What you can do:Join our Volunteer TeamsSign up

Judge Throws Out Nationwide Eviction Moratorium

Mother Jones Magazine -

On Wednesday, a federal judge invalidated the national eviction moratorium first enacted at the start of the pandemic and most recently extended by the Biden administration through the end of June. 

Though the moratorium has been challenged in a number of courts, the ruling from Judge Dabney Friedrich of the US District Court for the District of Columbia is the first to nullify the moratorium on a nationwide basis. Friedrich wrote in his decision that the Public Health Service Act—which the Centers for Disease Control cited to issue its original moratorium—does not give the agency authority to implement an eviction freeze as a national health measure. 

“Because the plain language of the Public Health Service Act unambiguously forecloses the nationwide eviction moratorium, the Court must set aside the CDC Order,” wrote Friedrich, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump .

The case was filed by a group of realtors from Alabama and Georgia, who said that the eviction moratorium was causing landlords like their association members to lose billions in unpaid rent.

According to the most recently available census data from April, at least 6.9 million households—and likely millions more—are currently behind on rent. These households are disproportionately Black and Latino, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The eviction moratorium has helped millions of these renters stay in their homes if they’re facing economic hardship during the pandemic. The latest stimulus package, passed by Congress in early March, allocates $45 billion in rental assistance. Biden’s CDC extended the moratorium through the end of June, in part to leave time to roll out these rent relief dollars. According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House has said it will weigh in on the ruling and what this could mean for renters later on Wednesday.

Trump’s Secret Rules for Drone Strikes and Presidents’ Unchecked License to Kill

ACLU News -

This article was first published on Just Security.

On Friday night, in response to transparency lawsuits filed by the ACLU and the New York Times, the Biden administration released a redacted version of President Trump’s rules for the use of lethal force against terrorism suspects abroad. During the Trump administration, the Times and other media reported that the Trump rules weakened even the loose policy safeguards put in place by the Obama administration in 2013, which were also released in response to litigation in 2016. Despite redactions, the newly-revealed Trump rules show how far that administration went in casting aside any meaningful constraint on the United States’ use of lethal force abroad without meaningful oversight by Congress or the judiciary, and with devastating consequences for people’s lives.

Trump’s rules are in many ways an unsurprising extension of U.S. government logic and policy justifications for killing couched in legal language. Over now four administrations, the U.S. government has sought to justify an unlawful lethal strikes program that has exacted an appalling toll on Muslim, Brown, and Black civilians in different parts of the world. Now, almost 20 years into the U.S. government’s war-based approach, it’s clear that U.S. legal or policy justifications for this program do not actually demonstrate adherence to domestic or international law, they fundamentally undermine it.

Here are initial takeaways:

Message to Agencies: Lethal Force is Core to U.S. Strategy and Rules and Safeguards May Easily Be Cast Aside

From the outset, Trump’s Principles, Standards, and Procedures for U.S. Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets (PSP) is striking for the bellicose and nationalistic tone it sets and the message it sends to agencies involved in lethal operations. It starts by emphasizing flexibility to take “direct action”—a euphemism for lethal force as well as capture operations—as “a critical component” of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. It signals that heads of agencies have primary responsibility for proposing and taking these actions, and the president can swiftly give them more flexibility if they ask for it. It refers to “core principles” of the law of armed conflict, but in doing so, further transforms these legal rules that give states greater license to kill in the exceptional context of war into a blur of policy and preference that may, at the discretion of the president, apply outside of any recognizable battlefield. This is not new in assertions of unilateral authority by American presidents to kill in the last 20 years, but where President Obama sought to signal policy constraint, regulation, and layers of internal executive branch oversight for his killing rules, Trump explicitly signaled that the gloves were off to “further U.S. national security interests.”

To understand the Trump rules, it helps to understand what they changed, with the caveat that at least some of the redactions in the PSP likely hide important information, which could include further articulations of legal and policy positions, the role of agencies like the CIA, and procedures governing foreign governments’ involvement (or not) in lethal or capture operations.

By the end of the Obama administration, the U.S. government had established a policy and bureaucracy framework for use of lethal force against terrorism suspects that applied to “areas outside of active hostilities.” The Obama administration did not define “areas outside of active hostilities,” a term that has no basis in domestic or international law, but it was commonly understood to mean locations outside of recognized battlefields, where the laws of war clearly apply. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria were (and are) armed conflict zones, and the U.S. government asserted it would adhere to its law-of-war obligations in those conflicts. The Obama-era rules were understood to apply to the rest of the world, and more specifically, at various points, in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.

For those “areas outside of active hostilities,” the Obama administration cobbled together a set of made-up rules that cherry-picked from a variety of legal frameworks that are intended to safeguard individual life and international peace and security—the laws of war, human rights law, and law governing states’ use of extraterritorial force in self-defense. In doing so, as rights groups, United Nations experts, and scholars have explained, the U.S. government has invoked war-based rules to permit killing that under international and domestic law is prohibited and constitutes extrajudicial execution. Even as it sought to justify unilateral executive use of lethal force, the Obama framework tried to impose policy limits based loosely on a combination of proxies for geographic scope, who could be killed, and with what precautions.

Perhaps most significantly, the Trump rules further scrambled—and surely created greater uncertainty about—what legal constraints applied where, and to whom. Unlike the Obama rules, the public PSP contains no mention of “areas outside of active hostilities.” The PSP doesn’t even bother referring to “affiliate forces” of ISIS or Al Qaeda in identifying potential targets of operations—rather, it refers to their purported networks “across the globe.” As a result, the Trump killing rules applied to all parts of the world outside the United States, including countries in which there is recognized armed conflict. With this sweeping application, the Trump rules may have destabilized the entire 20-year-old cobbled-together U.S. lethal force regime—and possibly set it up to further fail as a matter of law and practice. Like the Obama rules, the Trump rules authorized lethal strikes in countries where Congress has not authorized force and human rights law strictly prohibits extrajudicial killing. Unlike the Obama rules, the PSP applied to recognized conflicts, likely requiring commanders to obtain permission to apply humanitarian law, with its more permissive killing rules—or perhaps even act under a mix of the made-up rules.

The first Trump “Policy Standard” (Section 2A) authorizes use of force against any “terrorist group” against which the United States may “lawfully” use force and that is “engaged in ongoing hostilities” against the United States or pose a “continuing imminent threat.” This standard appears to be a loose articulation of authority to use force against a broad, unidentified range of unspecified groups. A later standard (Section 2G) reinforces the breadth of authority Trump claimed, asserting that the United States could use lethal force if “reasonably necessary to U.S. efforts to address the threat posed by” a terrorist group.

In other words, where international law generally only countenances use of force in the territory of another state in response to an “armed attack,” and the Obama administration stretched that concept to a “continuing and imminent threat,” the Trump rules further departed from law by allowing force in response to a mere “threat.” In doing so and despite the lip service the PSP pays to the requirements of international law, Trump could easily cast aside the fundamental U.N. Charter rules that are a cornerstone of international law and the international community’s means of protecting global peace and security.

The Obama rules also instructed the U.S. lethal force bureaucracy to account for other related important policy considerations in deciding to use lethal force: the sovereignty of states in whose territory strikes are carried out; considerations of consent by those states; whether a state was “unwilling or unable” to address threats. In this way, smart administration lawyers sought to advance technical arguments navigating the requirements of international humanitarian and human rights law and the U.N. Charter even as they fundamentally deviated from them. Smart scholars debated in these pages and elsewhere the efficacy and legality of the Obama frameworks and U.S. rules.

Trump easily did away with virtually all the policy constraints and scholarly debates. His rules glance at law, and lay bare how easily a president thinks it may be set aside in service of vague “national security interests.” It’s hard not to see these rules as a license to kill.

Measures to Protect Civilians and Prioritize Capture are Malleable

The Obama rules included a few measures to protect life and serve intelligence-gathering goals, such as a requirement of near certainty that no civilians would be harmed in the locations where the policy applied; a requirement of near certainty that a target actually was present at a strike location; and, a preference for capture instead of killing. These too, were easily set aside.

The Obama administration required “near certainty” that “non-combatants” would not be injured or killed, but nevertheless permitted exceptions to that (and other) policy standards (see Section 5B of the Obama Rules). The Trump rules repeat the near-certainty language (Section 2C) but do not include the requirement in a redacted Annex (Annex A) that sets out the minimal operating principles by which agencies must abide, again sending the signal that civilian life may be devalued. In the body of the PSP, agencies are told only to ensure “near certainty” with “reasonably available information and means of verification.” And as Charlie Savage reports, Biden administration officials discovered that Trump officials used the Trump rules’ latitude to kill men in some countries under a lower standard: “While it kept that [near certainty] rule for women and children, it permitted a lower standard of merely ‘reasonable certainty’ when it came to civilian adult men.”

The New York Times had reported that the Trump rules lowered the requirement of “near certainty” that a target would be present at a strike location to “reasonable certainty.” It appears that change was made in the relevant section of the Trump rules (Section 2B) but the Biden administration inexplicably has chosen to redact it, and it’s unclear how this redaction is at all justifiable.

The preference the Obama administration aimed to set for capture over killing is similarly watered down to the point of potential meaninglessness. The Obama rules required agencies to assess if capture would be feasible in their “operational plans”; the Trump rules express that capture is “general preferred,” and to be based on an extraordinarily low, discretionary, and vague standard of whether capture is “practical based on a risk analysis.” (Of note, the Obama rules asserted that in the event of capture, “in no event will additional detainees” be brought to Guantanamo; the PSP explicitly posits military commissions—currently only held at Guantanamo—as an option.)

Open-Ended Authorization to Kill

In short, the Trump rules served as open-ended authorization for the United States to kill virtually anyone it designates as a terrorist threat, anywhere in the world, without reference to the laws prohibiting extrajudicial killing under human rights law. The Trump rules may seem more extreme but in core ways they merely continue an unlawful U.S. extrajudicial killing program that is now a cornerstone of the “forever wars” that President Biden has pledged to end.

On his first day in office, President Biden suspended the Trump rules, and his administration then reportedly initiated a review and consideration of new policies, which was initially to take 60 days. It could now extend to 6 months, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, although the president has announced the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by early September, Pentagon and other spokespersons have been careful to carve out the authority to launch remote lethal strikes regardless of the end of that conflict. This is a dangerous signal that the administration could be poised to repeat bad and harmful mistakes.

The U.S. lethal strikes program began under Bush and escalated under Obama and then Trump. The Obama administration prioritized flexibility and threat prevention, entrenching an architecture for a potentially global killing program with little transparency, no accountability, no meaningful public assessment of human and strategic costs and consequences, and a failure to properly consider the precedent it was setting. President Trump took what President Obama left, and did not have to do much to cast policy restraint aside. After all, just over a year ago, the Trump administration unilaterally took this country to the brink of conflict with Iran with the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. That’s in addition to his administration’s escalation of lethal strikes—and civilian deaths—in Yemen and Somalia.

Today, this country faces new domestic and global challenges in the form of climate change, the pandemic, mass displacement and migration—too often caused by conflicts our country has helped to unleash or sustain. President Biden has the opportunity to set a rights-promoting approach to foreign policy, including especially in the majority-Muslim countries in which people are devastated by U.S. lethal force without even acknowledgement or any accountability. If President Biden does not withdraw and disavow this country’s long-standing war-based approach to national security, his legacy could undermine our collective human security. The president can and should set the country on a new and necessary path.

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Facebook Made Sure Its Oversight Board Couldn’t Give Too Much Oversight

Mother Jones Magazine -

Facebook’s Oversight Board was never set up to succeed. The premise was that a group of experts, handpicked by Facebook last year and paid by the company, could provide independent accountability for the platform as it faced torrents of criticism for controversial moderation decisions. 

To the board’s credit, in its written decision that will at least temporarily keep Trump off Facebook, it put pressure on the company by openly criticizing it for making “up the rules as it goes” and raising the issue of the company’s potential “excessive concentration of power,” among other concerns.

The decision also spotlighted a detail that suggests Facebook wasn’t too interested in keeping up the charade that its para-judiciary wing has meaningful power over the company. The board noted that it asked Facebook 46 questions—and that the company outright declined to answer seven of them. It only partially answered others about “how Facebook’s news feed and other features impacted the visibility of Mr. Trump’s content; whether Facebook has researched, or plans to research, those design decisions in relation to the events of January 6, 2021; and information about violating content from followers of Mr. Trump’s accounts.”

In other words, when the board pressed Facebook for details on how its own decisions may have played a role in laying the ground for the Capitol Hill riot, Facebook said no. That’s the case even though there’s evidence Facebook’s own actions actually played a pretty big role.

The deadly attack and Trump’s hand in sparking it was the inciting action that ultimately spurred Facebook to suspend Trump. While Facebook did not itself cause the riots, its platform became a tool for it. Immediately after the election, the Stop the Steal groups that eventually showed up outside the Capitol on January 6  popped up in waves on Facebook and persisted there despite the company’s promise to get rid of them for pushing dangerous and false claims about the outcome of the 2020 vote. Users posted detailed maps of the Capitol on Facebook-owned Instagram, and spread digital flyers for “Operation Occupy the Capitol.”

Facebook own role, as both a tool for insurrectionist rioters and for Trump to encourage their efforts, is essential in helping determine, as is the Oversight Board’s own stated purpose, “if [moderation] decisions were made in accordance with Facebook’s stated values and policies.”

Many critics have assailed the board as having been designed as an elaborate PR vehicle that takes heat off Facebook’s executives by putting an extra institution between it and difficult moderation decisions. When Facebook dodges important questions posed by the boards, it’s all but admitting that’s the case.

The Leaked Zarif Tape: What Western Media Heard and What He Actually Said

Mint Press News -

TEHRAN, IRAN — On April 25, the Saudi-funded and U.K.-backed “Iran International” released a leaked audio recording of Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in conversation with Iranian economist Saeed Laylaz for what appeared to be an oral history project. Immediately, the three-hour-plus conversation generated a great deal of controversy in Iran and plenty of commentary abroad. In the course of the conversation, Zarif spoke about his diplomatic posts, before and during the Rouhani administration, and his future political ambitions (or lack thereof). He ruminated on his relationship with President Hassan Rouhani, the late General Qasim Soleimani, and the leader of the Islamic Republic, Sayyid Ali Khamenei. He also highlighted his political philosophy on Iranian sovereignty and on international relations, as he discussed relations with the U.S., Russia, and Saudi Arabia, among other nations.

In the Anglo-American sphere, regime change evangelists, mainstream news, native informant media in Persian, and radlib analysts found their characteristic convergence: they distorted through an imperialist discourse redolent with confirmation bias what they had heard (or, in some cases, misheard). Two narratives emerged. The first advanced the tired trope of oriental despotism. Emerging out of colonial and liberal discourses and carrying into the present day, this trope imagines a dichotomous world between Western political agency and freedom on the one hand and an oriental or Muslim tyrant on the other, who rules through total control of his bureaucratics and subjects. The second narrative centered not so much on Russia’s despotism (although both the Soviet Union and Russia have received their fair share of such representations), but on the post-2016 obsession of the Democratic Party with Russia as the spoiler of “our democracy” — subject to a slight twist in this case, as the U.S. media represented Russia as the sole spoiler of the “Iran Nuclear Deal.”


The tired trope of oriental despotism

The usual suspects, including The New York Times, ginned up these narratives. As regards to the first narrative of oriental despotism, with no traceable support from the tape’s transcript, the Times reported: “Decisions, [Zarif] said, are dictated by the supreme leader or, frequently, the Revolutionary Guards Corps.” The Times went on to quote an Atlantic Council pundit stating that “Iran’s foreign policy is dictated by theater policies of the military and Zarif is a nobody.”

Despite the sensationalist focus on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Zarif mentioned them only once during the entire interview. This was in reference to Iran’s National Security Council wherein the IRGC receives representation through a general with observation (nazir) status but without a right to vote on issues (18; this and subsequent page numbers refer to the transcript of the recording). The IRGC organization received a single reference, but its late general, Qasim Soleimani, was mentioned several times, along with the leader (rahbar), Khamenei.

Let’s start with Khamenei and test the “dictation” claim of the Times. Zarif mentioned Khamenei in 11 different segments of the interview, 10 times by the title of his office and once by an honorific. In none of them did Zarif indicate or imply that the leader (or the leader’s office) “dictated” the entirety of foreign policy. Rather, Zarif spoke of his relationship with the leader, in which the latter’s authority and revolutionary credentials stood out. Khamenei, Zarif claimed, despite his revolutionary function, “is one of the strongest diplomats of the nation,” evidenced in his interactions with foreign representatives in Tehran (18).

The New York Times | April 24, 2021

As the commander-in-chief, Khamenei does direct the country’s foreign policy. Khamenei’s general direction did not mean, however, that Zarif had no agency in diplomacy. One segment is particularly supportive of Zarif’s agency: Khamenei had reproached Zarif in response to a February 2021 interview Zarif had given to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on the return to the nuclear deal. According to Zarif, his comments were misinterpreted by BBC Persian to say that the U.S. and Iran must return to compliance with the nuclear deal simultaneously, which went against the official Iranian policy that the U.S., as the party that had abandoned the deal, must be first to return. Khamenei then wrote Zarif a “compassionate” but “firm” letter to express his concern over this apparent divergence from state policy. Zarif responded in a seven-page letter, explaining that his comments had been misinterpreted (17). Now former U.S. President Donald Trump might have fired his minister in such circumstances, but Khamenei simply responded that Zarif’s explanations were “beneficial” (17).

On other occasions, Zarif engaged in conduct that did not meet Khamenei’s expectations. For example, he was cleared to meet with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry but the meeting became much more formal and extended than the one Khamenei had expected (22-23). It should follow that Khamenei exercises authority and direction over foreign policy, and this reinforces, and at times conflicts with, Zarif’s diplomatic agency and judgment. The idea of dictation therefore as presented to us by the mainstream media simply reads oriental despotism into the content of the tape and is not supported by anything Zarif actually said.


Zarif and Soleimani

Next, we come to Zarif’s relationship with Soleimani. Soleimani was mentioned during the interview 52 times, but without any indication that the general’s role (or the organization of IRGC he represented) reduced Zarif to a “nobody.” Rather, Zarif spoke about his disagreements with Soleimani, despite his deep affection for the general, and the lack of reciprocity between him and the general, telling his interlocutor that “the general and I were not necessarily agreeable on all issues but we felt that we had to coordinate and we did this — and I can say this confidently, that I compromised on diplomatic objectives for military ones, but the reverse was not true” (25).

For example, Zarif requested that Soleimani not use Iran Air for flights between Tehran and Syria, which the general refused. Zarif, on the other hand, complied with Soleimani’s requests to put pressure on the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, to “liberate” Al-Fu’ah and Kafriya in the Idlib province of Syria in exchange for the release of civilian prisoners in Aleppo (26). In the tape, Zarif faulted for this lack of reciprocity the policy of “the state as a whole” (kull-i nizam), where the military objective had primacy over diplomacy (27). Zarif differed from this official policy, he said and believed that primacy lay with preserving revolutionary values, all the while pushing for “the [diplomatic] management of difference” with the imperialist United States, in lieu of indefinite enmity and the securitization of national discourse and policy (13).

Contrary to the Atlantic Council’s confusion, then, Soleimani did not reduce Zarif to a nobody. Rather, with respect to military and diplomatic objectives, Zarif felt, contrary to his own preferences, that “the state as a whole” converged on the primacy of military objectives, which then led to a lack of reciprocity between him and Soleimani.


One lens for the West, another for the rest

Now, the double standards when it comes to the West and the rest are quite telling. If a U.S. official said they were unable to implement a policy because of resistance from the Pentagon and the military brass, it would not be taken as proof that this official was a nobody; but when an Iranian diplomat says the same, it is cynically portrayed as a smoking gun that can only be interpreted through the tired trope of oriental despotism. Indeed, I’d like to make the bold suggestion that the differences Zarif was grieved about indicate the relatively higher degree of pluralism in the Iranian political system when compared to the United States.

In the U.S., at the federal and mainstream levels, it is difficult to find variance within foreign policy discourse and objectives. Foreign policy is uniformly belligerent — there is no shame exhibited that the two bipartisan standing ovations at the 2020 State of the Union were in response to Trump’s promotion of Juan Guaido, and his even more repulsive celebration of Soleimani’s assassination. Compare this with Iran, where at the national and mainstream level, you have great disagreement.

On foreign policy, some (including, the so-called “hardliners”) want zero engagement with the West, as they think, based on colonial history, that their agreements are mere bad-faith theater; whereas others, such as officials in the Rouhani administration, view national progress as inevitably linked to the “management of difference” with the West and incorporation into the global markets. Foreign policy discourse is more plural and varied among the Iranian political elites (and one should add, the general public) than it is in mainstream U.S. politics. Much of the public consumes this politics through the mainstream media without self-reflection, and it is only the American anti-war movement that has endeavored to hold imperialism accountable.


A simplistic narrative for a complex set of relationships

This brings us to the mainstream media’s second narrative: the vilification of Russia as the agent against diplomacy. As with the U.K. and the U.S., Iranian politics approaches Russia with anxiety. Iran still holds collective memories of the Tsars, to whom Iran suffered territorial losses in the 19th century; followed by the Tsar-backed bombardment of the nascent Iranian parliament in 1908; and then the carving up of Iran into English and Russian “spheres of influence” during World War I. Speaking in this context, Zarif viewed Russia with caution, telling us that a crisis between the West and Iran was not in Russia’s interest but neither was normalization, and this was why Moscow opposed the nuclear deal (33).

When the JCPOA (the formal acronym for the nuclear deal) was signed, the Russian foreign minister, Lavrov, was not in the collective picture, and he had put in his utmost effort to stop the deal, words that Zarif said to his interlocutor “you will never be able to publish” (31). Examples of these efforts included a later-discarded text of the agreement presented by the U.S. team to Iran, drafted by Russia but also France, specifying that Iran must seek a vote from the Security Council every six months for the renewal of JCPOA (34). Zarif added that Russia also attempted to obstruct the deal by raising tensions. It attempted to generate indefinite reliance on Russian industries and contractors for Bushehr’s nuclear power plant, whereas Iran wanted temporary Russian assistance after which it would become self-reliant.

Russian FM Sergey Lavrov, left, and Iranian FM Javad Zarif during a meeting in Moscow, Jan. 26, 2021. Photo | Russian Foreign Ministry via AP

Russia also refused, Zarif added, to provide a license to Iran for the use of its own fuel in the plant. It appears from the tape that the two countries reached an agreement, however, according to which Iran would become self-reliant after a ten-year period (32).

According to Zarif, then, Russia attempted to obstruct the nuclear deal before its conclusion on July 14, 2015. However, the mainstream media omitted crucial parts of the transcript. Zarif also added that “Russia is our neighbor and it is important to maintain our relations” (33). In fact, when it came to the diplomatic realm, Zarif appeared more aggrieved with the Americans. What follows is not an exhaustive list of his grievances during the interview, but the most contemporary events that he mentioned.


Zarif’s nuanced views of Russian and American behaviors

Early on in the interview, Zarif expressed dismay regarding the Biden administration, saying that it is not much different from Trump in its treatment of the Iranian people: “What I see right now [early 2021] is that the people are still having problems in their purchase of medicine, food, and imports, and more than [$]10 billion of our money is frozen” (2). Moreover, Zarif expressed contempt at the controversial December 2015 H.R. 158 legislation, which he claimed was achieved through the advocacy of the Zionist lobby. H.R. 158 barred dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Sudan, as well as foreigners who have traveled to these countries since March 2011, from eligibility in the U.S.’s visa waiver program. Zarif added that Barack Obama’s refusal to veto it, after his request to Kerry, went against the spirit of the nuclear deal concluded some five months earlier.

There were even more diplomatic grievances against the United States. Zarif alleged that the U.S. misrepresented the Yemen war to the public, shifting the blame from Saudi Arabia (and, one might add, itself) to Iran. According to Zarif, in the spring of 2015, shortly before the nuclear deal was concluded, a multilateral ceasefire was about to be concluded in Yemen. Even though Zarif never spoke to Kerry on Syria, he discussed Yemen with him, spending two precious days on the issue in Lausanne, Switzerland during the nuclear negotiations.

Kerry telephoned Zarif as the latter was traveling to an Islamic nation conference taking place in Indonesia. Kerry told Zarif that he and then-Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir had reached an agreement towards a ceasefire in Yemen. Zarif was delighted, as he knew the Houthis (Ansarullah) were already agreeable to a ceasefire. Zarif then contacted Hossein Amirabdollahian, the Iranian deputy foreign minister on Arab and African affairs at the time, who then communicated with Soleimani — who, Zarif said, was sincerely against the Yemen war because of its human cost. Soleimani then communicated with the Houthis to finalize the ceasefire.

Kerry, left, meets with Zarif in 2016 in New York. Frank Franklin II | AP

At this point, Zarif met Saudi representatives in Indonesia’s Islamic conference and inquired about the outcome of the ceasefire, and they told him it was off. Zarif called Kerry to inquire and he was told that “Ahmad bin Salman [sic] had backtracked,” thinking that the Saudis would win the war in three weeks. The timeline of the event points to Saudi Arabia’s uninterest in following up on their own ceasefire plans; yet, Zarif added, Obama gave a speech the next day, blaming Iran for the war’s continuation. Zarif ended this segment by adding that the U.S. repeated such behavior that undermined diplomacy many times (54-55).

Accordingly, Zarif presented us with a mixed picture of those who refused diplomacy. Russia was only one part of the story and on one particular issue (the nuclear deal). A careful assessment of the interview shows that the U.S. received more criticism. Moreover, Zarif’s opponents in Iran who gave primacy to military objectives over diplomatic ones received their fair share of criticisms; and, of course, the Saudis, who, Zarif told us, pursued continued assault on Yemen against the terms of a multilateral ceasefire (57). Indeed, the mainstream media’s singular obsession with Russia as the anti-diplomatic force shows more about internal American politics than it does about the Zarif interview or Iran-Russia relations. With Zarif’s tape, there is now new material to embellish and color anew the Russiagate hysteria.


Real consequences and propaganda campaigns

The source of the leak and the motivations for its release are still not clear, despite conspiratorial claims by some that the leak was a coordinated “inside job” (min 11:34-12:12) to create an illusion of difference within Iran’s political system in anticipation of the 2021 presidential elections. These conspiracies lack evidence thus far, but the U.S. and their proxies in the Iranian media give them visibility, as it appears that it is only concerning Western politics that one must produce evidence-based claims! If more information emerges, we can make better assessments on the source and motivations for the leak.

On May 2, Khamenei’s Twitter expressed “regret” over Zarif’s comments without naming him. For now, it remains to be seen whether the tape will impact Zarif’s political future in Iran. Khamenei, the IRGC, party and parliamentary politics, and the public will all play a role in how this future plays out.

A translated copy of Khamenei’s tweet

Moreover, it remains to be seen whether the tape will have any impact on the ongoing attempts to revive the nuclear deal that the Trump administration abandoned in May of 2018, after which the Western media engaged in a ludicrous gaslighting campaign against Iran for lack of compliance. One clear consequence is already here, however: the reading of the tape, not to evaluate American foreign policy, but to extend the propaganda campaigns against Iran and Russia.

Contrary to what the U.S. media tells us, in Iran intellectual opinion is generally critical of state power and of the information the public receives; but, in the United States, the state, the media, the pundits and intellectual opinion, with some exceptions, all converge to see the Zarif tape as they want to see it. They have plenty of time to tell tales about their invented villains, to project their own political flaws onto Iran and Russia; but then there is no space for self-reflection and reform.

Feature photo | Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif prepares to speak with journalists following a conference in Tehran, Feb. 23, 2021. Vahid Salemi | AP

Navid Zarrinnal is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University specializing in Iranian history. He is currently based in Tehran and can be reached at navid.zarrinnal@columbia.edu

The post The Leaked Zarif Tape: What Western Media Heard and What He Actually Said appeared first on MintPress News.

Facebook Oversight Board Punts on Chance to Take a Stand on Trump

Mother Jones Magazine -

Former President Donald Trump cannot resume posting to Facebook and Instagram, following a long-awaited decision by Facebook’s new Oversight Board. But the board, formed and appointed by Facebook itself, asked Facebook to make the ultimate decision on whether to let Trump back on the platform, ceding back full control to the company over a content moderation process that’s been accused of undermining democracy and civil rights.

Facebook indefinitely halted Trump’s ability to post content after he incited the violent January 6 attack on the US Capitol, including through his posts to the platform. It then asked the Oversight Board to review that decision. On Wednesday, the Board upheld the suspension but punted on the issue of whether to make that suspension permanent, sending the decision back to Facebook and leaving open the possibility that Trump will return to the platform later this year.

The board found that Trump’s posts on January 6 praising the rioters “severely violated” Facebook’s rules against praise for people engaged in violence. It also found that Trump’s many false posts about election fraud leading up to January 6 “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible.”

But it did not conclude that this dangerous situation should result in a permanent ban. Instead, it argued that Trump’s indefinite suspension did not follow the company’s rules, which include both temporary suspensions and permanent bans—not indefinite ones.

“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the board stated. “The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.” The board gave Facebook six months to determine Trump’s punishment. In response, Facebook agreed to reconsider Trump’s ban.

The decision to send the ultimate decision back to Facebook simply lengthens what many of Facebook’s critics believe is ultimately a sideshow: an important case that sucks up all the attention while Facebook continues to host and spread dangerous, destabilizing content around the world. 

“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the board stated.

“This is a distraction from the fact that Facebook on a repeated basis is letting tons of other liars and haters run rampant on its site,” Jessica González, co-CEO of the digital rights group Free Press and a critic of Facebook and the Oversight Board, said on Tuesday as she awaited the board’s decision. “I’m frankly offended that we have to spend so much time on this sideshow. It’s an important sideshow because Trump shouldn’t go back up, but it’s a sideshow.” Now, that sideshow will continue at least another six months.

A group called the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a coalition of Facebook critics that called for Trump to remain off the platform, said in a statement that Wednesday’s decision proves the uselessness of the board. “This muddled ruling…reveals the Oversight Board as an empty suit…which took nearly four months to reach a partial ruling that does nothing to fundamentally challenge Facebook’s business model or approach to content,” the group said in a statement.

The result is also a letdown for civil rights advocates who continue to fear Trump’s return to the platform. “We are extremely concerned that the Board’s decision leaves the door open for Facebook to let Trump back on the platform in six months—an unacceptable and dangerous outcome,” Madihha Ahussain, Muslim Advocates’ special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry, said in a statement. “Letting Donald Trump back on Facebook will hurt Muslims. Donald Trump has used Facebook to spread hate and conspiracies about Muslims and immigrants and to amplify anti-Muslim white nationalists.”

The board issued several recommendations urging Facebook to better police dangerous content from world leaders and other influential Facebook users, but it’s up to Facebook whether to adopt those recommendations. This again reinforces the fact that this case has taken up four months of media attention without anything concrete actually happening and raises questions about why such a consequential decision for the entire globe placed on the board’s shoulders.

Facebook created the Oversight Board in an attempt to shift a handful of content moderation questions onto an outside body. It began issuing its first decisions in January. Paid for by Facebook through a trust, the board has become an object of obsession and debate, an experiment in corporate self-regulation, and a de facto free speech arbiter of the internet. To Facebook’s critics, this is a problem: The board is a distraction from Facebook’s own failings and lacks the power to reform the company. The Trump decision is a consequential example of this—a point exacerbated by the board’s unwillingness to make a final ruling Wednesday.

“This is a distraction from the fact that Facebook on a repeated basis is letting tons of other liars and haters run rampant on its site.”

Many of the board’s current members are lawyers and human rights experts from around the world. It’s an august body to decide what in many ways is a simple situation. “In the instance of Trump, it’s not a hard case,” says González. “One in four of his posts last year contained either extremist content or outright lies [according to an analysis by left-leaning watchdog Media Matters]. So clearly, in regular violation of Facebook’s Terms of Service, if he was anyone other than a world leader, he would have been off the platform long ago.”

But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t want to boot Trump. For years, Facebook looked the other way, made excuses for the president, and even changed its policies to accommodate him. In 2019, Facebook announced that it would now include politicians’ posts and ads under its “newsworthiness” policy, exempting them from independent fact-checking. The idea, shared by some free speech advocates, was that people should hear what politicians have to say, and that Facebook shouldn’t be in the business of silencing political leaders. Yet the policy had the perverse effect of letting the most powerful people post some of the most dangerous content—and that in itself, civil rights advocates have argued, is a perversion of free speech as a protection from those in power, not a means to protect the powerful.

By ultimately passing Trump’s fate on the platform off to the Oversight Board, Facebook tried to offload a problem that it had created—and not just by allowing Trump to stay on the platform with little consequence until January 6. As Facebook’s critics point out, a business model of growth at any cost had led to the spread of extremism on the platform. Its policy decisions and algorithms, aimed at increasing engagement, have caused people to see more extreme content in their feeds, and in many cases pushed users into extremist groups. All of this contributes to Trump’s toxicity on the platform, yet none of it is within the Oversight Board’s purview. 

In fact, the board stated in its decision that Facebook had refused to answer several questions that would shed critical light on the company’s own culpability for the January 6 riot and its role in amplifying Trump’s dangerous messages. “The questions that Facebook did not answer included questions about how Facebook’s news feed and other features impacted the visibility of Mr. Trump’s content; whether Facebook has researched, or plans to research, those design decisions in relation to the events of January 6, 2021; and information about violating content from followers of Mr. Trump’s accounts,” the decision states.

For years, Trump used Facebook to malign Muslims and immigrants, threaten Black Lives Matter protesters with violence, spread anti-Asian hate, promote disinformation about the COVID-19, and finally destabilize faith in US elections in an attempt to overturn his electoral loss and stay in power. Repeatedly, the culmination of his rhetoric on and off of social media has been violence—including the attempted coup at the Capitol. Despite apprehension about corporate censorship, this history led many scholars and advocates to argue that keeping Trump off the platform is the only responsible way forward. Lifting Trump’s ban “set a precedent of valuing political elites’ expression over the right of the public to self-govern,” media scholars Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor warned recently in Wired. 

“The board puts a really heavy focus on forward-looking, prospective likelihood of future harm,” says David Brody, senior counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and leads its Digital Justice Initiative, reflecting on the board’s decision. “A ban on trump has to evaluate the full scope of the harms he has caused, and the hate and racism that he has promoted. It can’t just be, ‘OK, we put you in timeout, don’t do it again.”

But the board ultimately punted that decision back to Facebook—and Facebook will do what it wants, and what is best for its bottom line.

Facebook Oversight Board Will Not Restore Donald Trump Back on the Platform

Mother Jones Magazine -

Facebook’s Oversight Board, the independent panel charged with making final content moderation decisions, is upholding the company’s decision to keep Donald Trump off of the social media platform. But the decision to ban Trump without a set timeline, the panel ruled, was not appropriate. The board is recommending the company review the issue once again within six months.

The closely watched announcement on Wednesday comes after Facebook decided to temporarily ban Trump in the immediate wake of the January 6 Capitol insurrection, later tasking the board with making a ruling on whether to restore the former president down the road.

“The Board has upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7, 2021, to restrict then-President Donald Trump’s access to posting content on his Facebook page and Instagram account,” the panel wrote in a statement

“However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension,” adding that, “the Board insists that Facebook review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response.”

As my colleague Pema Levy wrote, the decision marks a critical moment for the social media giant, which has faced years of intense criticism over its refusal to clamp down on disinformation and harmful content, particularly during the Trump era. In 2018, amid growing calls for government regulation, CEO Mark Zuckerberg offered the Oversight Board as a potential alternative. But serious questions over its independence and utility loom:

While the company has touted it as an independent body that will make final content moderation decisions, thus far, the board has only decided a handful of cases, and concerns about its true independence remain. The outcome of the Trump case could either help build the body’s reputation among academics and civil and human rights advocates as a valuable shield against harmful content—or dash hopes, both in the board and in Facebook’s broader future as an ally of democracy and enemy of hate.

This is a breaking news post. We’ll have more on Facebook’s announcement shortly.

Walden Bello Warns of U.S. Warmongering as Tensions Escalate in South China Sea

Democracy Now! -

China topped the agenda Tuesday when foreign ministers from G7 nations met in London. This comes as both China and the United States are accusing each other of escalating tensions in the South China Sea. Last week, the Chinese government claimed there has been a 40% increase of activity by U.S. planes in Chinese-claimed areas since Biden took office. Critics increasingly argue Biden’s policies on China are risk sparking a new Cold War. “Trump’s anti-China policy is now also being followed by the Biden administration,” says acclaimed Filipino scholar and activist Walden Bello, co-founder of Focus on the Global South.

Filipino Activist Walden Bello: Global Vaccine Disparity Shows "Irrationality of Global Capitalism"

Democracy Now! -

The international disparity in vaccine access between rich and low-income countries highlights “the irrationality of global capitalism,” says acclaimed Filipino scholar and activist Walden Bello, who urges the Biden administration to sign on to an effort at the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive intellectual property rules on vaccine technology. He also discusses the COVID crisis in the Philippines.

"Millions of Lives Are at Stake": Pressure Grows on Biden to Back WTO Waiver on Vaccine Technology

Democracy Now! -

Pressure is growing on the Biden administration to support a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights for COVID-related medicines and vaccines at the World Trade Organization. India and South Africa first proposed the waiver in October, but it was blocked by the United States and other wealthy members of the WTO. Big Pharma has also come out against the proposal and has lobbied Washington to preserve its monopoly control. More than 100 countries have supported the waiver, which they say is critical to ramp up production of vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests in the Global South. Ahead of the kickoff of two days of WTO important meetings in Geneva, we speak with Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “The big problem is simply not enough vaccines are being produced,” says Wallach. “The world needs 10 to 15 billion doses to reach herd immunity, and right now all of the global production together is on track to make 6 billion doses this year.”

Headlines for May 5, 2021

Democracy Now! -

“Queen Sugar” Author Natalie Baszile on How Black Farmers Can Help Save the Planet

Mother Jones Magazine -

Natalie Baszile knew she was onto something when she got the call from Oprah’s people. A novelist and food justice activist, Baszile had been working for years on a semi-autobiographical novel about a Los Angeles-based Black woman who is unexpectedly faced with reviving an inherited family farm in Louisiana. The book became Queen Sugar, which was published in 2014 and, with Oprah’s backing, later debuted as a TV series on OWN in 2016. American audiences were getting an intimate glimpse into how reverse migration was reshaping Black life in America.

Now, in a new anthology, Baszile is broadening her scope. In We Are Each Other’s Harvest, Baszile offers up a carefully curated collection of essays and interviews that get to the heart of why Black people’s connection to the land matters. Mother Jones food and agriculture correspondent Tom Philpott recently published an investigation called “Black Land Matters,” which explores how access to land has exacerbated the racial wealth gap in America. The story also takes a look at a younger generation of Black people who have begun to reclaim farming and the land on which their ancestors once toiled.

In this discussion on the Mother Jones Podcast, host Jamilah King talks with Baszile about how this new generation of Black farmers is actually tapping into wisdom that’s much older than they might have imagined.

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Why Not Turn Our Airfields Into Solar Farms?

Mother Jones Magazine -

This story was originally published by Wired and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

THE NEXT TIME you’re staring out a plane window during takeoff or landing, give the airport a scan. You’ll see hangars and other support buildings and, of course, the terminal. But mostly, you’ll see lots of empty space. Airplanes, as many aeronautical engineers have noted, like open spaces—for obvious reasons, including not getting along with trees.

You know what also likes open spaces? Solar panels, which abhor the shade of not only trees but also tall buildings. So why aren’t we covering our airports—dedicated spaces that can’t be used for anything other than the business of air travel—with solar arrays?

Well, it turns out that airports not only have a lot of empty space, they also have a lot of rules.

But let’s talk about their potential first. New research out of Australia shows how massively effective it would be to solarize 21 airports in that country. Researchers scanned satellite images of the airports for open roof space, where solar panels best avoid shadows, and found a total of 2.61 square kilometers, or 1 square mile, of usable area. 

For comparison, they also scanned satellite imagery and found 17,000 residential solar panels in the town of Bendigo, just north of Melbourne in southern Australia. The researchers calculated that the airports could potentially produce 10 times the amount of solar energy as those 17,000 residential panels—enough to power 136,000 homes. Perth Airport alone would generate twice as much as Bendigo. (Perth is very sunny, and the airport has lots of big buildings.) They further calculated that solarizing all 21 airports would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 152 kilotons a year, the equivalent of pulling 71,000 passenger cars off the road.

It may be cheaper to use ground solar panels, especially if an airport has a lot of space—DEN has 53 square miles.

With their plentiful sunshine, Australians are sitting on the energy equivalent of a gold mine; large swaths of blank rooftop space in airports provide an opportunity to centralize solar energy production. Installing panels house by house is great—and no one is saying we should stop, because we need all the solar power we can get. But commercial panels are bigger and more efficient, so they can generate more power. Plus, residential roofs come in all shapes and sizes, making them more difficult to work with than a commercial roof, which is usually flat.

“Just imagine the labor to install on all the different shapes of residential buildings,” says Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology geospatial scientist Chayn Sun, the corresponding author on the new paper describing the modeling in the Journal of Building Engineering. “Compare that with flat-roof, low-rise airport buildings.”

Solarizing airports could potentially power the airport itself and even export energy. “Not only can they be self sufficient, they may have excess electricity they can send to the grid to supply the surrounding area,” says Sun.

While paneling these roofs may be efficient, it still won’t be easy. In the United States, for instance, the Federal Aviation Administration requires that airport officials prove that their new panels won’t produce glare, firing sunlight into the eyes of pilots and the air traffic controllers in the tower. (That shouldn’t be a problem, thanks to coatings on modern solar panels, but it’s still something officials have to take into account in their planning.) The FAA also wants to be sure that the panels don’t interfere with radar communications at the airport.

Also, mounting panels on existing roofs could require a retrofit, which will add to costs, says Scott Morrisey, senior vice president of sustainability at the Denver International Airport, aka DEN. But when building new structures or expanding terminals, solar capacity can be engineered right into the plan. “The fact that you are designing and integrating solar into that building makes it a lot more cost-effective than going back and trying to retrofit older buildings,” says Morrisey.

For older buildings, it may be cheaper to instead deploy solar panels on the ground, especially if an airport has a lot of space at its disposal, as DEN does—53 square miles of it. (When airport officials commissioned their first array in 2008, it was ground-based.) Still, for urban airports without large swaths of empty real estate, the only real option may be rooftops.

DEN is actually doing both: A recently expanded concourse features a roof-mounted system, with more panels to come in expansions currently underway. All told, the panels will soon cover more than 120 acres, providing 25 to 30 percent of the airport’s annual energy. When conditions are sunny, the facility might even generate all of its power from solar.

That brings us to the intermittent nature of solar power: A snowy winter day in Denver means a drop in the energy harvested from the sun. And once the sun goes down, you lose that power source entirely. So it’s not like DEN can divorce itself from the larger grid. Still, panels can be a complement to an airport’s energy infrastructure, giving it a power boost on a sunny day.

SFO officials are studying where they might locate more panels to build out a self-sufficient “microgrid.”

As battery costs drop, airports will be able to store that energy. San Francisco International Airport’s solar panels currently generate 4.6 megawatts, while its peak demand is 55 megawatts. (In contrast to DEN’s wide open spaces, SFO sits on about 8 square miles.) Officials there are currently studying where they might locate more panels to build out a “microgrid,” or a self-sufficient system that would use solar to charge massive batteries. If there’s a blackout, instead of shifting to generators—like SFO currently does—they could switch to backup batteries to electrify essential facilities.

“We can island and microgrid our buildings and leverage that renewable energy across different periods of the day,” says Erin Cooke, the director of sustainability at SFO. A much smaller airport north of San Francisco, in Humboldt County, is actually already developing its own microgrid to both power itself and send excess energy back to the larger grid. (And airports are not the only spaces researchers think we should coat in solar panels and transform into microgrids; other options include California’s canal systemfamily farmsaffordable housing projectsa casinoyour electric car, and even satellites in space.)

Still, investing in solar panels and batteries will set an airport back financially. Their deployment, then, has to make business sense, or a government would have to step in to fund a project. The costs of renewables, though, are falling constantly. “We really feel like we’ve cracked the nut here, in terms of how we can do this in a way that we can put more solar into the system to power the airport, but do it in a really cost-effective way as well,” says Morrisey.

So panel by panel, some airports are indeed taking advantage of their cleared space to generate solar power. See for yourself the next time you’re waiting for takeoff.


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