Tuesday, March 31, 2015

US Military Will Train Neo-Nazis In Ukraine

Though sending US troops into Ukraine was already controversial, a report by the Associated Press shows a bad situation is getting worse. According to the AP the US forces being sent into Ukraine will be training Neo-Nazi militants who have already been accused of war crimes.

Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has publicly stated that among those forces receiving US training in April will be the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion. The Azov Battalion uses Nazi symbols and openly declares its belief in white supremacy and antisemitism. Many members trace their family's lineage to fighting with the Nazis against the Soviet Union during World War II.

The neo-Nazis will be trained by US forces to more effectively kill people in East Ukraine.
The United States plans to send soldiers to Ukraine in April for training exercises with units of the country's national guard. Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a Facebook post on Sunday that the units to be trained include the Azov Battalion, a volunteer force that has attracted criticism for its far-right sentiments including brandishing an emblem widely used in Nazi Germany. 
Avakov said the training will begin April 20 at a base in western Ukraine near the Polish border and would involve about 290 American paratroopers and some 900 Ukrainian guardsmen.
Not only does the Azov Battalion hold antidemocratic fascist views its activities in the field have been condemned by Amnesty International as "ISIS style war crimes." Part of the Azov Battalion's methods include decapitating captured prisoners and parading their severed heads around to inspire terror.

The US policy in Ukraine has been a nightmare from the beginning. First supporting a violent overthrow of a democratic government and now supporting and training neo-Nazi militants who have committed war crimes. What kind of Ukraine is the US trying to foster?

2 Federal Agents Charged With Stealing Bitcoins During Silk Road Investigation

An agent from the DEA and an agent from the Secret Service have been charged with wire fraud and money laundering for stealing and extorting Bitcoin during the federal investigation of the Silk Road online marketplace. The agents are alleged to have successfully taken money from the founder of Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, during an investigation into a possible murder-for-hire scheme as well as stealing seized funds.

After obtaining the money the agents laundered it using private accounts. In one case money was laundered to Panama and in another case funds were laundered to Mt. Gox which would later be seized by federal authorities partly due to the orders of the agent involved in the theft. Both agents privately enriched themselves using their power as law enforcement officials according to the indictment.

Ulbricht, who supposedly went by the moniker "Dread Pirate Roberts," has already been convicted for his involvement in drug trafficking but with these revelations the murder-for-hire case may not make it to court.
The agents now facing charges led a Baltimore-based murder-for-hire case against Ulbricht, separate from the drugs-related charges on which he was found guilty. The murder-for-hire case remains pending. Prosecutors identified the agents as Carl Force, 46 years old, of Baltimore, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Shaun Bridges, 32, of Laurel, Maryland, a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service... 
Using the online persona "French Maid," Force did succeed in getting $100,000 in Bitcoin from Ulbricht, which Force deposited in his personal accounts, the federal complaint says. He later used a series of Bitcoin and personal U.S. dollar transactions, including a $235,000 wire transfer to an account in Panama, to launder the stolen money, prosecutors allege in the complaint...Bridges allegedly stole $820,000, using a series of wire transfers to move Bitcoin that earlier had been stolen from Silk Road in early 2013 and deposited in a Japanese bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, according to prosecutors. Two days later, Bridges signed the government's warrant to seize millions of dollars in bitcoin from Mt. Gox accounts.
The evidence of misconduct by federal agents was kept out of Ulbricht's drug trafficking trial though it seems likely that Ulbricht may use the information to try and reopen that case. The investigation Force and Bridges were apart of did result in an indictment but, not surprisingly, prosecutors have not been anxious to advance the case.

Ulbricht's lawyer now calls the entire investigation into his clients activities "fatally compromised from the inside.”

Monday, March 30, 2015

Saudis Preparing For Ground Invasion Of Yemen As Airstrike Hits Refugee Camp

The war in Yemen has escalated with Saudi troops massing on the border preparing to invade the country to put down the Shiite Houthis rebellion that ousted Yemen's previous president. Egypt has also raised the possibility of sending ground troops into Yemen.

The operation to drive the Houthis out of power in Yemen has split the Arab world. Shiite Iraq and Lebanon have begged off military action while the Sunni dominated countries of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates support going forward. Regardless of support, the Saudis appear determined to take Yemen back for the ousted Sunni president and view the conflict as part of a larger struggle with Iran for influence in the region.

The bombing campaign has already escalated with a refugee camp being hit with an estimated 40 people dead and 200 wounded. The attack appears to have been a mistake with the correct target being a nearby Houthis base.
An air strike killed at least 40 people at a camp for displaced people in north Yemen on Monday, humanitarian workers said, in an attack which apparently targeted a nearby base for Houthi fighters battling President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Yemen's state news agency Saba, which is under the control of the Houthis, said the camp at Haradh was hit by Saudi planes.  
It said the dead included women and children, and showed the bodies of five children laid out on a blood-streaked floor. Hadi's Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin blamed Houthi artillery for the explosion at the camp near Haradh. Saudi military officials were not immediately available for comment.
The civilian causalities at the refugee camp may just be the beginning of the death count as an invading force from Saudi Arabia or Egypt is unlikely to observe any of the laws of war or restrain its use of munitions on humanitarian grounds - millions of people will be stuck in the cross-fire.

The sectarian war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims unleashed in part by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq has grown into a region-wide bloodbath with little hope of resolving itself peacefully.

#BoycottIndiana Campaign Starts After Law Is Passed Allowing Discrimination Against LGBT Community

The State of Indiana recently passed a law that expressly allows discrimination based on sexual orientation under the banner of religious liberty. The "religious freedom" law is designed to protect businesses from facing lawsuits from members of the LGBT for refusing service. Supporters of the Indiana law want people and businesses to be able to discriminate against LGBT potential-customers on the grounds that they are exercising their religious freedom and therefore should be protected from discrimination lawsuits.

Though other states have religious freedom laws, many of which were enacted before the marriage equality movement hit full steam, the law in Indiana is different in "scope and effect" according to a spokesperson from the Human Rights Campaign who also told CNN that the Indiana law "is the broadest and most dangerous law of its kind in the country."

The business community is also opposing the bill including the leader of the biggest company in the world - Apple CEO Tim Cook who is openly gay. Cook wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post that discrimination laws were dangerous.
A wave of legislation, introduced in more than two dozen states, would allow people to discriminate against their neighbors. Some, such as the bill enacted in Indiana last week that drew a national outcry and one passed in Arkansas, say individuals can cite their personal religious beliefs to refuse service to a customer or resist a state nondiscrimination law. Others are more transparent in their effort to discriminate. Legislation being considered in Texas would strip the salaries and pensions of clerks who issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — even if the Supreme Court strikes down Texas’ marriage ban later this year. In total, there are nearly 100 bills designed to enshrine discrimination in state law.  
These bills rationalize injustice by pretending to defend something many of us hold dear. They go against the very principles our nation was founded on, and they have the potential to undo decades of progress toward greater equality.
Cook has been joined in opposing the Indiana law by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff who stated he will not be holding business events in Indiana. Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle said the company - headquartered in Indiana - is canceling plans to expand in the state.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence says he does not support changing the law he signed and blamed the media for the backlash to the law by spreading "misinformation and misunderstanding," despite the fact that the reporting on the bill aligns well with the facts. Previous to the passage of the law businesses and activists had been opposing the legislation and were well acquainted with the law and its implications making it unlikely that those opposing the law are doing so out of ignorance.

What remains to be seen is whether the people of Indiana - through their representatives - will continue to support the bill once the boycott starts taking its toll.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Wall Street Threatens Democratic Party After Call To Break Them Up

The Too Big To Fail banks are none too pleased with Senator Elizabeth Warren's call to break them up so they no longer pose a systemic risk to the financial system and economy. According to a report Reuters, the banksters are now telling officials in the Democratic Party that they will withhold campaign contributions if the party does not distance itself from progressive positions on financial reform.

The message was intended to isolate Senators Warren (D-Mass), Brown (D-OH), and any others in the Democratic Party who stand against Wall Street being above the law, beyond regulation, and always guaranteed a bailout.
Representatives from Citigroup, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, have met to discuss ways to urge Democrats, including Warren and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, to soften their party's tone toward Wall Street, sources familiar with the discussions said this week.  
Bank officials said the idea of withholding donations was not discussed at a meeting of the four banks in Washington but it has been raised in one-on-one conversations between representatives of some of them. However, there was no agreement on coordinating any action, and each bank is making its own decision, they said.
The banksters did however say that they had no problem with Hillary Clinton and were planning on donating to her campaign - shocking. 

JPMorgan in particular seemed to be throwing its weight around and has reportedly only donated a third of its usual annual contribution to the Democratic Party. JPM has faced numerous civil fines from the Obama Justice Department and still faces the possibility of a criminal prosecution until the statute of limitations kicks in later this year. 

Maybe JPM is waiting until the Democratic White House let's them off the hook before giving the party their bribes.

Obama Escalates US Involvement In Iraq With Bombing Of Tikrit

President Barack Obama has plunged the US even deeper into the war in Iraq ordering the bombing of Tikrit at the behest of Iraqi officials. Obama has no authorization from Congress nor has he offered any public explanation as to why this escalation is in the US interest.

The bombing comes on the heels of a campaign by Shiite militias, Iranian troops, and Iraqi government forces to take back territory from Sunni ISIS. The conflict's sectarian overtones are muted in press statements by the Iraqi and US governments but are loud and clear to any reasonably alert observer. The US is, once again, siding with the Shiite majority over a Sunni backed force.

For some reason the US government keeps pretending it is not working with the Iranians in the fight against ISIS in Iraq despite that being impossible as there are Iranian troops on the ground and the Shiite militias are backed by Iran and have come to supersede the Iraqi government forces in strength and resolve. The Iraqi government forces famously retreated en mass from ISIS when the militant group started marching east from Syria.

Now the fiction of non-coordination has been laid bare as the US bombs Tikrit to help Iranian-backed forces take the city from ISIS - forces that were stalled after ISIS blew up a key bridge entering the city and left IEDs throughout the area.

So what happens if the US helps dislodge ISIS from Tikrit and Mosul? It is important to remember that ISIS found allies in Iraq because the Sunni minority felt it was being discriminated against by the majority Shiite government in Baghdad aligned with Iran. If Iran, the US, and the Iraqi government expel ISIS from Iraq what is to stop that discrimination from reoccurring?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Facebook To Use Metadata From Chats To Alter News Feed

Social media monopoly Facebook recently held its developers conference called F8 where it talked about a series of new products it was introducing. One of the major areas of focus for the company is Facebook Messenger which is integrated with the social media firm's chat service.

Facebook Messenger, previously a stand alone application for mobile users, is going to expand into a whole range of e-commece sites and can track a user's purchases which Facebook is promoting as a way to "simplify" buying things online and avoiding multiple confirmation messages. Therefore the company will have a user's social and financial data to monetize with advertising.

But that's not all, Facebook will also be using the metadata from a user's chat history to alter their News Feed. How often a user chats with another user and their location will factor in to what is presented on the feed.
How often you chat with someone using Facebook's Messenger app is a signal the company uses to determine how to place posts in your feed. If you haven't chatted with someone in a while on Messenger, and then you start chatting again, posts from that person might appear higher in your news feed... 
The algorithm Facebook uses to rank posts in people's news feeds is a complicated one, and it’s always in flux, but the session, titled “How News Feed Works,” shed light on it. If a user shares location data with Facebook, that is also taken into account. For example, posts of friends who are geographically near may get more prominent placement, said Lars Backstrom, news feeds engineering director.
There's a useful debate here about whether it is worse or better for a private company to have your metadata as opposed to the government. Or in our corporatized world is it roughly the same thing?

There is, of course, no legal problem with Facebook collecting and selling this data as users of the product have, in theory, signed off via agreeing to Facebook's terms of service. But do people really know how much of their life they are giving away to Facebook?

Saudi Arabia Bombs Shiite Rebels In Yemen As US Pledges Support And Continued Drone Strikes

Though it seems impossible, the Middle East is getting even more chaotic. Yesterday the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and allies bombed Shiite rebels in Yemen known as the Houthis. The Houthis responded to the bombing with rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia.

Last month the Houthis overthrew the US-backed government of Yemen and currently control the country's capital, Sana, where much of the Saudi strikes are focused. The US has already evacuated its personnel from the capital, which was a prudent move given that the Houthis have reportedly obtained the intelligence files compiled by the US and previous Yemeni government.

The files should detail, among other things, the targets of the expansive US drone operation in Yemen which famously involved the killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and his son. The initial focus of the US drone killing campaign in Yemen was Al Qaeda but now may expand even further to include the Houthis. As the US issued a statement applauding Saudi Arabia's bombing campaign and promising assistance:
The United States coordinates closely with Saudi Arabia and our GCC partners on issues related to their security and our shared interests. In support of GCC actions to defend against Houthi violence, President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC-led military operations. While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support.  
At the same time, the United States continues to closely monitor terrorist threats posed by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula and will continue to take action as necessary to disrupt continuing, imminent threats to the United States and our citizens.
The war must go on no matter how destabilizing and counterproductive.

There were already concerns about the accuracy of the drone strikes before the US lost the cooperation of the local government, now the strikes will be based on even worse intelligence. That means more innocents killed with relatives and friends pledging revenge against the United States - rinse and repeat.

Clearly US involvement in the Middle East is exceptional and indispensable.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Harry Reid Not On Board Yet With Medicare Changes

House Speaker John Boehner has been quietly pushing a bill to change the formula used to pay physicians under Medicare. The bill ends the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula which has forced Congress to pass ad hoc bills each year to avoid physicians having their payments automatically cut due to SGR.

The SGR formula was passed as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and was designed to control Medicare costs by cutting payments to physicians if their costs exceed a set amount of expenditures. In theory this would incentivize physicians to pursue quality over quantity as physicians would be wary of pursuing a volume based business model for fear they would have their payments cut.

Unfortunately, the arbitrary and unworkable nature of the formula has forced Congress to periodically pass short term legislative bills to stop the automatic payment cuts that would potentially ruin physician practices reliant on Medicare and thus deny Medicare users access to services.

Speaker Boehner found an ally in House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who has signed on to repealing SGR giving the bill bipartisan support in the House.

In the Senate the bill has not been well received by Democrats, with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid saying “I personally am going to wait until we see it having passed the House before we start speculating what we need to do with it, if anything," later adding "There's a lot to be done."

One of the major concerns raised so far has been what effect the bill will have on reproductive rights for women with Planned Parenthood raising concerns about an "extension" of Hyde Amendment rules to community health centers as part of the bill. Pelosi has countered that any such restrictions will expire when the funding for the health centers does under the bill, though Planned Parenthood seems just as concerned about the precedent.

The bill to repeal the SGR formula, if passed, would go down as one of Speaker Boehner's signature achievements on entitlement reform. Something not lost on his opponents nor opponents of current plans to start dismembering social insurance and the safety net.

Pentagon Sending Troops Into Ukraine In April

According to a Department of Defense press release, the Pentagon is sending 290 US service members into Ukraine to train Ukrainian military units in April. The training will reportedly occur in the Ukrainian town of Yavoriv near the Ukraine-Poland border. The US soldiers will be from the 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Vicenza, Italy.

The basis for the training mission, per the press release, is to further "ongoing efforts to help sustain Ukraine's defense and internal security operations. In particular, the training will help the Ukraine government develop its National Guard to conduct internal defense operations.”

As Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland herself pointed out before Congress, the US does not have a defense treaty with Ukraine making the act of sending in troops to train Ukraine forces seemingly inappropriate if not openly provocative to Russia. Or maybe that's the point?

The government in Kiev is struggling to maintain order and has been jailing journalists and others for opposing the draft and the continued war with separatists in the east. The government also faces an increasing threat from neofascist militias known as "volunteers" that it once empowered. The militias have become antagonistic of the government and threatened to overthrow it for failing to crush the separatists.

President Poroshenko's attempts to consolidate power have been made easier by a wave of apparent suicides by former officials of overthrown President Viktor Yanukovich. Whether a weakened opposition is enough to help him fend off disaster remains to be seen as the Ukrainian economy poses just as much of a threat to his rule as the neofascist militias. Yesterday Ukraine's finance minister warned that Ukraine could be forced into defaulting on its debts if there was no restructuring soon.

Will US military involvement make the situation for Ukraine better or worse?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Monsanto Weed Killer Cited As Probably Carcinogenic

Agribusiness giant Monsanto is scrambling to respond to a report issued by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that cites the herbicide glyphosate as probably causing non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Glyphosate is one of the primary ingredients in Monsanto's blockbuster weed killer Roundup as well as other products the company sells.

Monsanto has started a full court press to push back on the report and issued a broad defense of the herbicide in a press release that claims "All labeled uses of glyphosate are safe for human health and supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health databases ever compiled on an agricultural product."

The caveat "labeled" may give the company some wiggle room but it is an otherwise expansive response that could haunt the company if further research backs up the IARC report - Monsanto is unequivocally saying its current products using glyphosate do not cause health problems.

Monsanto's power could have already influenced the IARC as the report stops well short of claiming that the evidence shows there is a conclusive link between glyphosate and cancer despite there arguably being a case that it does. The reasons the IARC gave for stopping short of claiming a stronger connection between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma were that the study had limitations by focusing on working age men and not including young people or women.

But it is hard to believe the IARC did not know that it was going to face a serious response from an extremely powerful company for any claims about glyphosate having deleterious health effects given recent events. Monsanto is not the only agribusiness company in conflict with scientists over evidence related to the use of herbicides

Last year agribusiness giant Syngenta was revealed to be behind a discrediting campaign against scientist Tyrone Hayes after Hayes' research showed that a herbicide Syngenta widely uses, atrazine, impeded sexual development in frogs. For scientists studying lucrative herbicides the stakes are high and they have to choose their language very carefully no matter what the evidence is.

Israel Spied On US-Iran Talks To Sabotage Them

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly went further than publicly bashing the prospect of a deal with Iran. According to the Wall Street Journal, Israel engaged in espionage against the United States by eavesdropping, obtaining intelligence from confidential briefings, and using informants.

What an ally.

The information acquired was then used by Israel to try and rally support in the US Congress to kill any deal with Iran. The Obama Administration was reportedly most upset by a foreign power using the information gleaned through espionage to manipulate the US political process and sabotage diplomatic efforts by the US government on behalf of the American people:
The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said. In addition to eavesdropping, Israel acquired information from confidential U.S. briefings, informants and diplomatic contacts in Europe, the officials said. 
The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said. “It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the matter.
Combine this belligerent behavior with Prime Minister Netanyahu's open declaration of being against a two state solution and it seems well past time to let the sanctions fly at the UN - we do not have a partner for peace.

Obviously some of these transgressions were fueled by a desire for Netanyahu to stop a deal before the recent election. But if this behavior is not punished it will continue and become precedent with the US surrendering its sovereign decision making authority. It's time to reexamine how special the special relationship should be with Israel.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Senator Ted Cruz Formally Announces Presidential Candidacy

Today Senator Ted Cruz formally announced he is running for president. The announcement came at Liberty University a conservative Christian school founded by the late evangelical preacher the Reverend Jerry Falwell.

After an introduction from Jerry Falwell Jr. saying Liberty University was not endorsing any political candidacy Senator Cruz launched into a long speech starting at the biography of his parents and focusing on the role Christianity played in keeping his family together. 

Cruz said he wanted conservative Christian voters to join him in fighting for liberty and "restoring the Constitution" and promised that he would repeal Obamacare in its entirety if he was elected president. The speech included a litany of other hot button issues such as gay marriage, gun rights, and government spying on emails. 

The theme of the speech was "imagine," a word Cruz repeated continually throughout the address such as "Imagine a new president repealing every word of Obamacare." Cruz also invoked the Shining City Upon a Hill phrase used most famously in recent history by President Ronald Reagan multiple times.

Senator Cruz is going to have a difficult time winning the Republican presidential nomination let alone winning the general. He is a polarizing figure within the Republican Party, especially amongst the party establishment who see him as disruptive and irresponsible after he helped force a shutdown of the federal government over Obamacare.

Cruz's support comes from the conservative "Tea Party" base which he will have to unite convincingly around his candidacy to have any chance of taking on whatever choice the GOP establishment and its high money donors settle on. If Cruz can effectively lock up the base early and soundly win Iowa he could overtake the establishment's candidate.

But building such an organization is going to take time which is likely why Senator Cruz was the first to announce, he has to get rolling early or his candidacy is over before it begins.

Governor Martin O'Malley Says Dodd-Frank Did Not Go Far Enough, Weighing Presidential Run

Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley recently wrote an op-ed endorsing further regulation of Wall Street to prevent another financial crisis.  Just as noteworthy as the sentiment of the article is where it was published, the Des Moines Register of Iowa.

In recent weeks O'Malley has been signaling a clear interest in a run for the presidency and appears to be positioning himself on Hillary Clinton's left flank with on a platform of "reinstating Glass-Steagall banking regulations, hiking the capital gains tax, increasing the minimum wage, raising the threshold for overtime pay and strengthening collective bargaining rights." A progressive message no doubt and certainly to the left of Wall Street-friendly Clinton.

On Sunday the Boston Globe made an open appeal to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to run for president saying there needed to be a progressive populist in the Democratic Party and that "Democrats would be making a big mistake if they let Hillary Clinton coast to the presidential nomination without real opposition."

Given Warren's popularity within the party due primarily to her ideas, there seems to be a solid constituency for a progressive economic populist to run. But Warren has stated repeatedly and concretely that she is not running for president in 2016, so who will take up the mantle?

The O'Malley op-ed in the Des Moines Register claims efforts to gut Dodd-Frank are finding support in the Democratic Party and that "[T]oo many Democrats have been complicit in the backslide toward less regulation." It's no secret that the faction of the party backing a Dodd-Frank rollback is the same one most supportive of a Hillary Clinton candidacy. So is O'Malley picking a fight?

Such a fight could be exactly what the Democratic Party needs to clarify the boundaries (if any) of Democratic Party support for Wall Street.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Give Snowden The Petraeus Deal?

Despite pleading guilty to mishandling classified information, former CIA Director and Army General David Petraeus is back advising the White House and making serious money in the private sector trading off his public service.

Petraeus' crimes were rather serious. While CIA Director he shared classified information with his mistress/biographer Paula Broadwell and then lied to federal investigators about it - an amazing betrayal of trust at the top of the intelligence community. The penalty for such high offenses was light due to Petraeus' history of public service though Petraeus himself had taken a hard line previously on unauthorized leaks and had demanded prison time for CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou.

The guilty plea for mishandling classified information caused Petraeus to pay a $40,000 fine and face two years probation with no jail time. Should Edward Snowden get such a deal?
General David Petraeus has agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material and will serve no jail time for his actions. Let’s give the same deal to Edward Snowden.True, their crimes are different: Petraeus gave classified info to his biographer and girlfriend, Paula Broadwell. Snowden gave classified info to the American people. 
There’s another difference: as The Washington Post reported, Petraeus “initially lied to FBI investigators”—he told them he “had never provided Broadwell with classified information.” That was in an interview at CIA headquarters. Snowden in contrast told the truth about what he did, and why he did it. That was in an interview in Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning film Citizenfour.
Sounds fair given the mix of motives and level of disclosures between the two cases.

Snowden has already said he would be interested in a deal that would allow him to come back to America, even one that involved serious criminal charges on the condition that he was charged with something outside the espionage act which does not allow a whistleblower defense. A plea of one count of mishandling classified information would certainly fit the bill.

Republicans Break Budget Promises To Increase Military Spending

Republicans have now proposed a budget that contains billions of dollars in additional military spending, breaking a central promise made by Republicans on the campaign trail to reduce federal spending. The move to increase war spending was pushed by Republican hawks in both the House and Senate and led to push back from both Democrats and fiscally conservative Republicans.

The conflict between fiscal conservatism and arms industry shilling is splitting Congressional Republicans in two with some sticking to their campaign positions concerning deficit spending and others waving the flag to cover their retreat into breaking the budget to give favors to defense contractor donors.

The new defense spending is also making the deficit hawks worry that now that the Pentagon's budget has escaped spending limits other parts of the budget close to Republican majority's heart may as well. Another such part would be agriculture which is tied to numerous Republicans who represent rural parts of the country and rely on agricultural industry campaign donations to run for office.
After intervention by Republican leaders, the House Budget Committee voted out an otherwise austere spending plan, promising to add $2 billion in additional “emergency” war funding to a budget that already raised combat funds by $38 billion. That money, over the objections of deficit hawks, will be added Monday as the full House prepares to debate the tax-and-spending blueprint. 
In the Senate, a revolt by defense advocates forced the Budget Committee to add $38 billion in military spending through a war account not subject to statutory spending restrictions. That came little more than 24 hours after the Senate committee unveiled a budget plan that capped war spending at President Obama’s $58 billion request and added parliamentary language intended to thwart any increases in the account.
The dramatic spending increases undermine a key Republican talking point used to cut social programs as Senator Bernie Sanders noted saying of the budge process “This discussion is really quite extraordinary. You’re always telling us the deficit is so bad we’ve got to cut programs for the elderly, for the sick and for the poor, and suddenly all of that rhetoric disappears.”

Though some, such as economist Paul Krugman, think the Republican's new budget is a con job from start to finish, reducing spending has been a mantra for the GOP since the rise of the Tea Party. The spending increases for the Pentagon may be the beginning of the end for the dominance of the deficit hawks. If nothing else it kills any credibility for the argument that social programs have to be cut because "everything" is being cut.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Petition Launched Urging DOJ To Bring Charges Against Wall Street Before Statute Of Limitations Is Up

Time is running out to criminally charge the Wall Street firms who caused the 2008 financial crisis. 2015 is the last bite at the apple due to the statute of limitations on criminal fraud being up. In February of this year Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a final review of the evidence the DOJ has collected in the previous years before closing the cases for good.

In response Change.org has launched a petition to demand the Department of Justice file criminal charges before the statute of limitations expires in 2015. The petition heavily focuses on the evidence provided by JPMorgan whistleblower Alayne Fleischmann. Fleischmann gave what can fairly be described as smoking gun evidence to the Department of Justice in 2012 on JPMorgan's practices in the mortgage-backed securities market and was the subject of a popular piece by Matt Taibbi published by Rolling Stone.

The Rolling Stone article - subtitled "Meet the woman JPMorgan Chase paid one of the largest fines in American history to keep from talking" - details how Fleischmann, a former compliance officer at JPMorgan, told DOJ that she witnessed JPMorgan knowingly packaging and selling fraudulent financial securities. Fleischmann's evidence was reportedly used as leverage by the DOJ to get JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon to agree to pay civil penalties in the billions.

But no one at JPMorgan or any of the other Wall Street firms has faced criminal charges related to their crimes. The firms all have just paid record breaking civil fines and gone back to business as usual. In truth, shareholders are the ones who have really paid the fines and Wall Street bonuses are back to pre-crisis levels.

If the point of criminal prosecution is to both punish and deter then there is every reason to push for the Department of Justice to fulfill its legal obligation and criminally charge those they know (thanks to Fleischmann) are guilty of crimes. Both to punish those who broke the law and deter others from breaking it again and causing another financial crisis.

White House Signals It May Let Sanctions Against Israel Proceed At UN

The fallout from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's scorched earth re-election campaign continues. Now the White House is letting it be known that it may withdraw the longstanding US policy of mindlessly vetoing sanctions against Israel at the UN. Given that Israel is openly breaking international law with its settlement policy as well as its periodic slaughtering of civilians under the banner of "anti-terrorism" operations it is quite possible that the US withdrawing its protection could lead to sanctions.

According to Politico, officials within the Obama White House are furious over Netanyahu's declaration that if he was re-elected the two state solution was dead and said they were open to changing the US' policy of always covering for Israel at the UN. Changes in policy could include a move to stop opposing Palestine's efforts to enter International Criminal Court, allow sanctions for settlements to proceed, and support international demands for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories.

Given the US Congress' cartoonish support for Prime Minister Netanyahu it appears unlikely that there will be any cut off of us aid to Israel, but by simply letting the international system work President Obama can put a lot of pressure on the Israeli government.
“The positions taken by the prime minister in the last days of the campaign have raised very significant substantive questions that go far beyond just optics,” said a senior administration official, adding that recent Israeli government actions were in keeping with Netanyahu’s rhetoric. 
While saying it was “premature” to discuss Washington’s policy response, the official wouldn’t rule out a modified American posture at the United Nations, where the U.S. has long fended off resolutions criticizing Israeli settlement activity and demanding its withdrawal from Palestinian territories.
It is telling that all the Obama Administration would have to do to put such great pressure on Israel is to stop mindlessly defending it in international forums. Israel's illegal behavior has alienated the state from a great number of countries in the world which is why any empowerment of international institutions is viewed as bad news by the Israeli government. But that is also why it is so clearly needed.

The Israeli electorate endorsed an apartheid system in the election this week, now comes the response. Elections have consequences.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Scott Walker More Afraid Of Iowa GOP Than ISIS?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made headlines when he claimed at CPAC that his experience standing up to unions prepared him to deal with ISIS. The comments were not met with much acclaim for a multitude of reasons not the least of which was the apparent comparison of union workers with bloodthirsty terrorists.

But the message Walker was trying to send with the claim was clear - he is tough and does not buckle under pressure. Which makes his recent move to fire his campaign's online communications director for questioning Iowa's role in the presidential primary system rather problematic.

The aide, Republican strategist Liz Mair, was forced to resign a day after she was selected by Walker to lead his online communication efforts because she tweeted that an event featuring Iowa Congressman Steve King was "embarrassing" and that "The sooner we remove Iowa's front-running status, the better off American politics and policy will be."

Unfortunately for her, the Iowa GOP feel entitled to the luxurious benefits they get from their front-running status and protested the comments and demanded Walker fire her - shortly thereafter, Walker caved.
On Tuesday, Iowa GOP Jeff Kaufmann told the AP that Mair's statements were "not only incorrect, they're rather juvenile, they're naive, they're ignorant." Kaufmann said he wanted Mair to apologize and learn more about Iowa or "I'd send her packing." 
Walker senior aide Rick Wiley acknowledged Mair's departure in a statement: "We accept those who have a variety of viewpoints on issue, but what we ultimately must have is absolute respect for people across the country."

Looks like Scott Walker is good at standing up to peaceful protesters but when it comes to his friends he gets weak in the knees and folds like a cheap suit. It's easy to oppose your opposition, it takes character to withstand pressure from your own side - something Scott Walker needs to develop in a hurry if he wants to get through a presidential primary.

Israel Votes For Apartheid

There is no use in trying to sweep this under the rug anymore, apartheid is the majority position in Israel. As part of a last minute gambit to win yesterday's election Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contradicted his own previously stated position and shut the door completely on any peace process by claiming he did not believe in a Palestinian state and there would not be one if he was re-elected. It was opportunistic, it was reactionary, it was a stunning success.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Likud Party triumphed in yesterday's election capturing what looks like 30 of the 120 seats in Israel's Parliament, the Knesset. The electoral victory over center-left Zionist Union (24 seats) means Netanyahu will be able to form a governing coalition with far right pro-settler Jewish Home Party and other right wing groups such as the ultra-Orthodox.

Netanyahu's campaign strategy included more than opposing a Palestinian state, he also leveraged racial anxiety to motivate his voters by claiming "Arabs are coming out in droves to the polls." Another clearly successful reactionary play.

It is plainly time to stop blaming Netanyahu for Israel's far right shift, he is, evidently, just following the people there. The people of Israel want the Palestinians in perpetual subjugation, they want ethnocracy, they want apartheid. Netanyahu's deviation towards full-on reactionary politics is a reflection of an underlying change within the Israeli heart, not a catalyst for the mutation.

Some reading this - BDS supporters in particular - will no doubt find it rather pathetic that it took this election for some of us to discover something so seemingly obvious. In a pre-election analysis that proved almost prophetic, Yonatan Mendel wrote that all major political parties had essentially given up on peace with the Palestinians and backed illegal settlements. Mendel even went so far as to note that there was strong case for the position that it is better for the Labor Party to lose because the only difference between them and Likud is that Labor is better at PR and therefore can more ably avoid international scrutiny for the same terrible behavior.

Maybe some of us did not want to think internal reform was so impossible, that Israel was a more pluralistic and moderate society than its critics gave it credit for. We had hoped that Prime Minister Netanyahu would have to give up his extreme bellicose rhetoric for fear that the pretense would backfire and alienate Israeli public opinion. Unfortunately, we got it exactly wrong. In today's Israel, moderation is the pretense and Netanyahu prevailed from going even further rightward.

Given these election results, the issues the winning campaign was run on, and the wishes of the Israeli electorate, it is going to be increasingly difficult - if not impossible - for the American left to align with and support Israel in the future. The common phrase "Israel shares our values" is no longer so easily affirmed nor can it honestly be taken for granted.

BDS still seems like an extreme and overly-confrontational response, but given that an outright severance is not within political reality there seem to be few alternatives. If we are to be inextricably joined with Israel in this special relationship then it's time for us to take a more active role in changing their behavior. The people there won't do it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Classified White House Briefing On TPP Angers House Democrats

Though numerous economists have now spoken out that the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) is a loser for the average American, President Obama is determined to see the TPP rule. Now the White House has gone so far as to demand that briefings before Congress on the controversial trade deal be classified.

House Democrats have been told they can attend a briefing on TPP tomorrow with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman on the condition that they treat it as classified and bring only one staffer who must be “active Secret-level or high clearance” compliant with House security rules.

The demand for such a high level of secrecy for a mere briefing on the trade deal only reinforces the criticism the Obama Administration has faced for its approach to the agreement lacking transparency and openness.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) told The Hill that the administration is being “needlessly secretive.” “Even now, when they are finally beginning to share details of the proposed deal with members of Congress, they are denying us the ability to consult with our staff or discuss details of the agreement with experts,” DeLauro told The Hill. Rep. 
Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) condemned the classified briefing.“Making it classified further ensures that, even if we accidentally learn something, we cannot share it. What is USTR working so hard to hide? What is the specific legal basis for all this senseless secrecy?” Doggett said to The Hill.“Open trade should begin with open access,” Doggett said. “Members expected to vote on trade deals should be able to read the unredacted negotiating text.”
Then again, being out the loop is good preparation for what the consequences of the TPP will be. Part of the deal involves disenfranchising Congress and the US government entirely and empowering transnational corporate tribunals to make decisions that will impact signatory countries. Get used to the darkness Congress.

Given President Obama's determination to jam the bill through Congress and Congressional Republican's corporatist loyalties the only people who can stop the TPP deal are the Democrats in the Senate, though it remains to be seen as to whether they are collectively willing to alienate corporate donors even in an off-year.

Benjamin Netanyahu Promises No Palestinian State If Re-Elected, Is Accused Of Racism and Incitement For 'Arab Voter' Campaign

As Israel votes today for their next government Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making a last ditch play for the far right vote saying unequivocally there will be no Palestinian state if he is re-elected. In an interview with a media outlet owned by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Prime Minister Netanyahu said "I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel."

This declaration, if sincere, means Netanyahu has completely written off peace with the Palestinians and is now adopting Israel's ascendant far right's view that Palestinians should be slowly pushed out of Israel completely via settlements with those that remain being subjected to an apartheid system.

Netanyahu's statement on a Palestinian state are not his only pre-election remarks to cause controversy. Netanyahu has been brazenly trumpeting the threat of Israeli Arab voters having a high turnout which caused a member of the Knesset, Dov Khenin, to petition the Central Election Committee to discipline the Likud campaign under rules that forbid racism and incitement. Khenin states:
"A prime minister who campaigns against voting by citizens belonging to an ethnic minority is crossing a red line of incitement and racism. This is especially severe on Election Day, when the message to Israeli citizens is to participate in the elections, vote, and take part in the democratic system. A statement like that, issued by the prime minister, shows that he has completely lost his way and that he is ready to break all the principles of democracy to safeguard his regime."
There is no indication the petition will go anywhere, but Netanyahu's cynical tactic of trying to increase his base turnout by stoking ethnic anxiety stinks of desperation and could backfire with Israeli voters much as his stunt with the Republican Congress already has. The election year gimmicks did not stop with ditching the peace process and racism - Chuck Norris was enlisted to help Netanyahu win the election.

Ultimately, this election is up to the Israeli voters who we can all only hope make the right choice.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Jim Webb Looking To Challenge Clinton In 2016

Former US Senator Jim Webb has been loudly exploring the option of running for president in 2016 appearing at numerous campaign-esque events such as a speech before the firefighters union as well as on ABC's This Week yesterday where he discussed his prospects as a candidate and his vision for the country.

In the interview with ABC Webb said he was "truly exploring" a run for president and claimed that he was looking to see if there was enough support for his candidacy before formally deciding whether or not to run. He will continue "exploring" that support by traveling to South Carolina, Iowa, and New Hampshire.

On his website Webb plays up his military record both as a soldier in Vietnam and as a defense official including the Secretary of the Navy. Webb also positions himself as economic populist and in the ABC interview he asserted that the economic system has "become rigged against working people," and that "the people at the very top have clearly moved away from everyone else in our society in the benefits they are receiving."

The value of a Webb candidacy would be, in theory, that he could appeal to white working class voters both with his message and his background. That remains to be seen, though Webb will start out with less negatives than Hillary Clinton with that group. But the advantage will do little to even the odds in a contest between Webb and Clinton as Clinton will have a tremendous advantage both in resources and initial popularity within the party.

Beyond overcoming the Clinton Machine there is the legitimate question over what Webb's policies are and how they will supposedly help workers, address inequality, and fix a rigged economic system. Web's issue statement on "economic fairness" does not offer much change from traditional neoliberal pablum:
I would agree that we cannot tax ourselves into prosperity. But we do need to reconfigure the tax code so that our taxes fall in a fair way. It is possible to simplify the tax code, including reducing the corporate tax rate in exchange for eliminating numerous loopholes, and to examine shifting our tax policies away from income and more toward consumption. We did not even have a federal income tax in this country until 1913. The loopholes and exceptions that have evolved have made a mockery out of true economic fairness. I would never support raising taxes on ordinary earned income, whether it goes to a school teacher or a nurse or a doctor or a film star. But we need to find a better way.
Webb makes the point that executive compensation is a key driver of inequality and has increased considerably in recent decades. Whether closing "loopholes and exceptions" is enough to fund social programs for the working class if income taxes are frozen has yet to be proven. Most candidates, of both parties, claim they are in favor of closing special interest tax advantages - the devil is in the details.

Whether Webb is a serious candidate should become known in the coming months, 2016 is not so far away.

Secretary Kerry Says US Willing To Negotiate With Assad, State Department Spokesperson Says Assad Must Go

An already confused US foreign policy just got more confusing. Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that, despite the "New Hitler" campaign launched previously against him, the US was open to negotiating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad saying "We have to negotiate in the end," and "We've always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva I process."

A reasonable position given the recent shift in US foreign policy. Now that the US has claimed that ISIS is an official enemy it would seem to be a bad move to continue to call for the ouster of the head of the government fighting ISIS in Syria. Or would it?

Not long after Secretary Kerry's comments State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf tweeted "Policy remains same & is clear: there's no future for Assad in Syria & we say so all the time." In other words, the policy of regime change remains in place.

That should be a short negotiation then. "Leave." "No."

But it is unfair to blame Secretary Kerry and a spokesperson for presenting such a disjointed and clownish image of the US government to the world. The truth is the policy is disjointed and clownish. From the beginning President Obama has had conflicting policies in the Middle East never quite sure if he wants to promote human rights, protect national interests, or imperialistically try to remake the Middle East in his own image (a tradition among US presidents).

Whether it was supporting the overthrow of Mubarak in favor of democratic reform only to then bless a military coup in Egypt, destroying the country to protect it from "massacres" in Libya, or the regime change policy in Syria, the Obama Administration does not appear to have any idea of where it wants to end up even in the medium term. An ad hoc foreign policy with the world's most powerful military has, not surprisingly, sown more disorder and heartbreak than it has alleviated.

The only upside to President Obama's lack of commitment is his lack of commitment to something amazingly stupid like the 2003 invasion of Iraq under President Bush. But not doing something amazingly stupid is a pretty low bar and despite his prudent avoidance of large blunders Obama has sent troops back into Iraq and reversed his own timetable for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.

There is no doubt that dogmatically following a grand strategy can be dangerous, but so can having no strategy at all.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Iran Letter: McCain Claims German Foreign Minister Of The 'Neville Chamberlain School Of Diplomacy'

The fallout continues from the so-called "47 traitors" letter to Iran. While some of the senators are backing away from the controversial attempt at sabotaging a deal with Iran on nuclear weapons, other senators are doubling down - doing everything they can to stop an Iran deal even if it damages longstanding US foreign relationships.

Senator John McCain has not only stood by his decision to interfere with the executive branch conducting foreign policy he is now insulting US allies party to the Iran talks. After German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the letter was "not helpful" McCain accused him of being of the “Neville Chamberlain school of diplomacy," a not-so-subtle reference to Nazi Germany. Such a comment well demonstrates why demented warmongering senators should not be in control of foreign policy - you lost the election John, get over it.

While it is unlikely neocons like Senators Cotton and McCain regret damaging the Obama Administration's ability to make policy, the precedent set with the 47 Traitors stunt may prove problematic in the long run and in the short run has shifted focus away from the Iran deal onto partisan divisions in Washington as A.B Stoddard notes in The Hill:
This cheap mistake surely, in even a small way, jeopardized the odds of getting the strongest deal possible with Iran and, more importantly, making sure Iran — not the United States — shoulders the blame for failure to reach one. Heaping wrong upon wrong cannot help our efforts to prevent a nuclear Iran. The Cotton letter not only threatens the deal but our relations with the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that the United States is counting on to continue multilateral sanctions against Iran. It also promises to inspire the worst behavior from the left of the Democratic Party next time there is a Republican in the White House. 
Maybe Cotton the rookie didn’t know better, but many of his 46 co-signers did. They should have stopped him.
Ironically, the truth may be the opposite. The 46 Republicans who signed on are likely the ones making ill-informed decisions due to the Obama Derangement Syndrome (aka racism) that has engulfed conservatives throughout the Obama years - trying to undermine Obama is a great way to play to the base. Maybe then it should be seen less as ill-informed than crassly opportunistic and myopic.

Senator Cotton, on the other hand, undoubtedly knew exactly what he was doing. Cotton is no "rookie" he is an aspiring leader of the next generation of the neoconservative movement. He is a beneficiary of the neoconservative money machine and has ingratiated himself with the neocons of old such as Bill Kristol.

For Cotton, this is his breakout moment.

Wall Street Pay Rockets Back To Pre-Crisis Levels

While the American middle class is all but dead thanks in part the the 2008 financial crisis and stagnant wages, the banksters are living it up. According to a report from the New York Comptroller, Wall Street compensation is soaring with the average bonus in 2014 coming out to be $172,860 - the highest since the Wall Street-created financial crisis.

Yes, the average bonus for people performing socially useless activity is higher than the average American's total income which is around $28,000. What a country.

The numbers are not surprising given that our economic system has been rigged in favor of Wall Street. With the bank bailouts and the Federal Reserve's secret loans and low interest rates it would be nearly impossible for financial service firms not to be profitable. It has little to nothing to do with merit and everything to do with rewarding politically connected elites engaging in crony capitalism.

The bonus pool for securities industry employees who work in New York City grew by 3 percent during the traditional December-March bonus season to reach $28.5 billion for 2014. The Comptroller's estimates includes cash bonuses for the current year and bonuses deferred from prior years that have been cashed in. The current budgets for New York State and New York City both assume a small increase in bonuses, consistent with DiNapoli's forecast.  

The average bonus rose by 2 percent to $172,860 in 2014, the highest level since the financial crisis. The growth in the average bonus was much stronger in the two previous years when bonuses increased by a total of 52 percent. The increase in the average bonus in 2014 was a bit smaller than the increase in the bonus pool (3 percent) because the pool was shared among a larger number of employees than in the prior year.

It is boom times again on Wall Street. The only lag on the money machine according to the report are the massive fines the Wall Street firms are paying for their criminal conduct. Wall Street does not separate out its legal costs from its other costs but the report makes it clear the legal settlements took some funds away from profits noting that "Non-compensation expenses, which include the cost of legal settlements, increased from an annual average of about $40 billion during the eight years prior to the financial crisis to $61 billion in 2013 and remained at an elevated level in 2014 ($62.8 billion)."

So there you have it, after they created a crisis with their crimes and paid some small fines Wall Street is back in the black. Leave it to the 99% to toil for flat wages used to pay off onerous debts, the 1% ruling class can profit off the privileges gained from buying the government.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Venezuela: Press Laughs As State Department Spokesperson Claims US Does Not Support Coups

Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro has publicly accused the United Stats of trying to foment a coup in Venezuela. The accusations come as the Obama Administration has bizarrely labeled Venezuela a national security threat to the United States despite that obviously not being true.

Maduro's accusation stems not just from being labeled a national security threat but from a plot Venezuelan security services uncovered which was publicly detailed by Madura on Venezuelan TV. According to Maduro the plot involved Carlos Manuel Osuna Saraco who operates out of New York and Miami, allegedly with the help of the US government. There is audio of Osuna dictating a statement rebel leaders should read after the coup.

If the plot is true it will be the second attempt by the US to foment a coup in Venezuela this century. The first being an amazingly blatant attempt in 2002 against President Hugo Chavez which the White House itself publicly supported before the coup was reversed and Chavez was returned to power.

Which brings us to the laughing stock State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki became yesterday when she claimed in response to Maduro's accusations:
As a matter of long standing policy the United States does not support transitions by non-constitutional means. Political transitions must be democratic, constitutional, peaceful, and legal. 
We've seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela. These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan government to deal with the grave situation it faces.
The Associated Press reporter, Matt Lee, immediately jumped in with quite reasonable incredulity saying "I'm sorry. Whoah, whoah, whoah. The US has a long-standing practice of not promoting [coups] - how long-standing would you say?" Lee continued audibly scoffing and laughing "In particular in South and Latin America that is not a long-standing policy."

Spokesperson Psaki attempted to deflect answering further questions from Lee on how exactly long the term "long-standing" meant. She then took a question from a reporter who - accurately - noted that the US government had supported an unconstitutional transition in Ukraine. Psaki responded that the assertion that the transition in Ukraine was unconstitutional was "ludicrous."

The Obama Administration's Venezuelan policy is getting so ridiculous even the establishment press is calling bullshit.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

AUMF Hearing Unable To Reveal What 'Enduring Operations' Means

Today Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Carter, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of a new Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to take on ISIS.

The hearing is somewhat odd given that President Obama and those that testified claimed that President Obama already has the authority to conduct the ongoing military operations against ISIS under an older AUMF passed in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

One point of contention during the hearing was language in the new AUMF that is exceedingly vague particularly the use of the term "enduring." None of those testifying before the committee were willing to define what enduring meant, claiming it was purposely open to give President Obama flexibility.

When pressed Secretary Carter fell back on saying he was "not a lawyer" whereas Secretary Kerry eventually offered that "enduring operations" would likely fall within a "three year range." General Dempsey left it to the political officials to decide what the language in the AUMF meant.

The hearing also quickly became a proxy battle between the Obama Administration and hawks in Congress over a possible deal with Iran on nuclear weapons and sanctions. In one exchange Senator Rubio essentially accused the Obama Administration of not moving more vigorously against ISIS for fear of damaging the prospects of a deal with Iran. Secretary Kerry pushed back saying "absolutely not in the least," and claimed that the letter sent by 47 senators to Iran was inappropriate.

The new AUMF will authorize military action against forces in any country that has groups aligned with ISIS and perceived as a threat to the US with the specific mention of Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS forces in Libya as potential targets. Operations will continue in Iraq and Syria.

Hillary Clinton Addresses Email Controversy

Yesterday former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the controversy surrounding her use of a private email account while acting as Secretary of State. At a press conference at the United Nations Clinton said she had used a private account simply out of convenience and said “I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal emails instead of two.” She said if she had the choice again she would have carried two devices.

Clinton also confirmed that she and her personal staff were the ones in control of the emails and they had selected which emails to submit to the State Department and which ones not to. That is precisely what is not supposed to happen under the Federal Records Act and the agency regulations in place since 2009.

Further complicating Clinton's explanation is a memo sent out during her tenure in 2011 telling all State Department personnel to stop using private email and start using government email if they were not already with the specific order to "Avoid conducting official Department business from your personal e-mail accounts."

Physician, heal thyself.

One of the other concerns over Clinton using a private rather than a government email account is security. At the press conference Clinton claimed she never sent an email with classified information from her private account. Given her high position and how prevalent classification has become that assertion has been met with a lot of skepticism.
A former senior State Department official who served before the Obama administration said that while it was hard to be certain, it seemed unlikely that classified information could be kept out of the more than 30,000 emails that Mrs. Clinton’s staff identified as involving government business.  
“I would assume that more than 50 percent of what the secretary of state dealt with was classified,” said the former official, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to seem ungracious to Mrs. Clinton. “Was every single email of the secretary of state completely unclassified? Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine.”
Even if former Secretary Clinton was able to stay within the boundaries of the government's increasingly expansive secrecy laws, the explanation she has offered for bypassing the records laws leaves much to be desired.

In an interview with VICE, a former director of the Justice Department's Office of Information Policy (OIP), Dan Metcalfe, claimed Clinton's actions were a "blatant circumvention of the FOIA [in addition to] the Federal Records Act by people on both sides of it who unquestionably knew better."

All of which leads to the question that won't go away - what is in the emails Clinton refuses to disclose to the State Department?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Budapest Agreement Divides Senate Committee Hearing On Ukraine

Today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on the situation in Ukraine. The panels were made up with a mix of current and former government officials, anti-Putin activists, and belligerent academics. The message of the day was not hard to predict nor decipher when spoken - military confrontation with Russia by making Ukraine a formal proxy war between the US and Russia.

To justify the aggression many senators - including Corker, Menendez, and Johnson - claimed the US had made a defense treaty with Ukraine and was obligated to intervene military and "stop playing footsie with Russia." The agreement they referenced - the Budapest Memorandum - says no such thing and the aforementioned senators appeared rather upset when Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland said authoritatively that the Budapest Agreement was not a defense treaty but a political agreement.

Nuland claimed she was involved in the Budapest negotiations and therefore had considerable knowledge of what it included and did not include. Senator Corker responded by saying that her statement claiming it was not a defense treaty sent a bad "signal" to US allies that may be relying on similar political agreements. Senator Menendez pushed back further claiming that if the Budapest Memorandum was simply a political agreement it could be "reinterpreted."

Multiple members of the panels referenced a report they had worked on commissioned by the Atlantic Council and Brookings Institution that proved controversial due to it concluding that $3 billion of US weapons should to be sent into Ukraine. Sending in US arms not only risks escalation but could lead to instability in Kiev if - as often occurs - the weapons fall into unintended hands such as neo-fascist militias which are a power in their own right in Ukraine.

Another focus for those testifying before the senate committee was an information war with Russia. Two former US ambassadors - Kornblum and Herbst - noted that there needed to be US propaganda to "offset Russian propaganda" and that the US has been losing the "narrative." They and other panelists promoted the view that Russia was undermining US power throughout the world, even positing a Vietnam-style domino theory with Ukraine being a key piece to prevent from falling.

It is a good time to be a cold war relic in DC.

#47Traitors: Backlash Grows After Senators Attempt To Sabotage Iran Deal

Backlash is growing after 47 Republican senators took the unprecedented move of trying to sabotage negotiations between the US and Iran. In a letter to the Iranian government the 47 senators claimed that any deal reached between the US and Iran would not be a real agreement but an executive action that could easily be reversed. 

The intention of the letter was lost on no one - to sabotage attempts by the Obama Administration to reach a peaceful settlement to the Iranian nuclear issue. Many of the signatories to the letter believe in bombing Iran such as Senator John McCain who once went so far as to sing about it. 

Bashing the president to foreign leaders is bad enough, but questions remain as to whether the senators violated the Logan Act which prohibits "unauthorized United States citizens from interfering in relations between the United States and foreign governments." The intention of the senators was clearly to interfere and obstruct relations between the United States and Iran though it is an open question as to whether the wording of the letter to "enrich the knowledge" of Iran and their position as senators protects them from criminal prosecution.

The White House was, not surprisingly, furious over the letter. Vice President Joe Biden issued a lengthy public statement saying:
In thirty-six years in the United States Senate, I cannot recall another instance in which Senators wrote directly to advise another country—much less a longtime foreign adversary— that the President does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them. This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments—a message that is as false as it is dangerous.  
The decision to undercut our President and circumvent our constitutional system offends me as a matter of principle. As a matter of policy, the letter and its authors have also offered no viable alternative to the diplomatic resolution with Iran that their letter seeks to undermine.
The White House was not the only one to respond to the letter. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif posted a response on Twitter and elsewhere to the senators saying that would, likewise, "enrich the knowledge" of the senators by telling them that inter-state relations are governed by international law not them.

The organizer of the letter, Senator Tom Cotton, has faced a personal backlash with many noting he has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from neoconservatives. Cotton also has a history of not understanding the Constitution and tried to pass bills prohibiting free speech including the jailing of journalists.

The response to the letter both in the news media and on social media has also been considerably negative. The hashtag #47Traitors was trending Tuesday morning citing the 47 senators that signed the letter as committing treason and undermining the Constitution and American security.

The neocons may have, once again, overplayed their hand.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Republican Senators Try To Sabotage Iran Deal With Letter To Tehran

None dare call it treason? A group of Senators has sent a letter to the government of Iran claiming that any agreement reached between Iran and the White House is likely to only last as long as the Obama presidency. Under the guise of "enriching the knowledge" of the government in Tehran, the letter lays out the Senators' view of the severe limitations of President Obama's authority related to any deal he reaches on Iran's nuclear program.

The message of the letter is clear - the hawks in Congress plan on sabotaging any deal any way they can and are willing to break basic protocol and well delineated separation of powers to do so.

The letter was reportedly organized by neoconservative Senator Tom Cotton with signatures from all the Republican leadership as well as 2016 presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. The decision to send the letter to Tehran marks a severe escalation in a battle between pro-Israel hawks in Congress and the White House - a battle that seemingly reached crescendo with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to a joint session of Congress where he was given prime Washington real estate to bash President Obama to raucous applause.
Organized by freshman Senator Tom Cotton and signed by the chamber's entire party leadership as well as potential 2016 presidential contenders Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, the letter is meant not just to discourage the Iranian regime from signing a deal but also to pressure the White House into giving Congress some authority over the process. 
“It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system … Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement,” the senators wrote. “The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”
Has foreign policy moved out of the executive branch? What would have happened had Democrats in Congress tried to sabotage President Bush like this?

On the one hand it's interesting to see the imperial presidency challenged like this, on the other this kind of knee capping during a negotiation to prevent a war and stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons is straight up reckless. Is this the new normal or just the latest episode of Obama derangement syndrome?

Senator Robert Menendez Facing Corruption Charges

New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez is reportedly facing corruption charges due to using the power of his office to do special favors for a large donor. The donor, Salomon Melgen, is an ophthalmologist who had some of the highest Medicare billings in the country.

The Department of Justice is reportedly concerned with Menendez's efforts to change Medicare billing policies for Melgen's benefit. Melgen not only donated considerable funds to Senator Menendez and the Democratic Party, he also treated Menendez to lavish trips to the Dominican Republic on his private plane.

Senator Menendez eventually paid Melgen back for the trips, but only after the trips became a news story and he faced considerable public pressure.
According to court papers that were mistakenly and briefly unsealed last week, prosecutors have been examining whether Mr. Menendez improperly tried to persuade Medicare officials in recent years to change reimbursement policies in a way that would make millions of dollars for Dr. Melgen, one of the country’s biggest recipients of Medicare funds. Mr. Menendez has acknowledged urging the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to change its reimbursement policy, but said he did so because he considered the policy unfair. 
 On Friday night, at a Hilton hotel ballroom in Newark, Mr. Menendez denied he had done anything wrong, and vowed to persevere. “Let me be very, very clear,” he told about a dozen reporters. “I have always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law.”
Whether he acted lawfully will apparently be settled in court, but as far as appropriately goes - no. Taking special gifts and favors from a donor and friend you are doing favors for in your capacity as a public official is highly unethical.

The background of the Senator Menendez corruption story is bizarre to say the least. The investigation of Menendez's behavior started after a story in the Daily Caller claimed Menendez had been flying to the Dominican Republic to have sex with prostitutes. Whether or not that occurred remains contested but the attention brought to the flights led to the investigation and now charges.

The news of Senator Menendez facing charges has not been universally met with glee on the right as the neoconservative wing has forwarded a moronic conspiracy theory related to Menendez being indicted due to his opposition to a potential Iran nuclear weapons deal. That the investigation had been going on for years and has a clear basis is irrelevant to them apparently.

If Menendez resigns or is forced from office New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will have the power to appoint a replacement.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Rahm Emanuel Screams At Mental Health Activists As Election Tightens

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been having a rough go of it lately. Not only could he potentially lose a runoff  to maintain his office, he is under increased scrutiny for his shady contracting practices. And now Emanuel has been caught screaming at activists for the mentally ill.

Though Mayor Emanuel has shown nothing but generosity towards his campaign contributors, he has been closing schools and services for the poor and in need. One of those who have suffered under Emanuel's leadership is the mentally ill who have seen a major cut in services.

Mental health activists confronted Rahm about his cuts and received quite an earful in return once they got away from the cameras. At one point the mayor screamed at them "You're gonna respect me!"
Mental Health Movement members Debbie Delgado and Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle just confronted Rahm face-to-face about his mental health clinic closures. Rahm was about to address a small room of developers and residents at the Wicker Park field-house. 3 years after he closed half of Chicago’s public mental health clinics, he may have thought the issue had gone away. But then Debbie, sitting in the front row, a few feet from the mayor, stood up to tell her story. She told of losing her son to gun violence. She told him how her other son was holding him as he died. She told about how the city’s Northwest Mental Health Clinic in Logan Square saved their lives, helped her and her son deal with the PTSD and depression....

After trying to keep his cool, he told us that he would speak to us after the event in a separate room. There, we saw the Real Rahm. Now off camera, Rahm’s voice raised, his demeanor changed, in no time he was shouting in Matt’s face, nose-to-nose “YOU’RE GONNA RESPECT ME!”
Mayor Emanuel then reportedly accused the activists of "creating a circus" and offered questionable statistics on his administration's record of providing mental health services.

Rahm Emanuel has a history of problems with the mental health community once famously insulting his political opponents as "fucking retarded." Now his deranged tough guy act is finding fewer and fewer supporters. Chicago votes on April 7th.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Hawks In House Call On White House To Send Arms To Ukraine

A bipartisan group of hawkish committee chairs and rankings members in the US House of Representatives has sent a letter through Speaker John Boehner's office to President Obama calling for arms shipments to Ukraine.

Referring to the violent coup that brought down democratically elected Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych as the "Revolution of Dignity" and asserting that the events in Ukraine are a "challenge to the West" the letter claims President Obama has the authority to enter America directly into the Ukraine conflict by arming forces aligned (however temporarily) with Kiev.

The possibility that the arms will fall into the hands of neofascists is not mentioned in the letter nor the human rights abuses perpetrated by those likely to receive the weapons. Instead, the signatories appear concerned with the optics of America "leading" Europe into further escalation of the conflict.

The letter claimed that Congress had authorized US belligerence with the Ukraine Freedom Support Act and that it was time to use the authority. Outside of vague platitudes there was no mention of how the US had any interest at all in the Ukraine crisis. Nor, of course, was there a discussion of what happens once the US directly inserts itself into the conflict.

Consequences for the country appear to be less important to the members of Congress that signed the letter than the possibility of preening before the media as "tough." A cynical and reckless game that could have a tragic outcome.

The letter is signed by Speaker Boehner, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX), Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX), Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.