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Trump rolls back Obama-era gun regulation with very little fanfare

Sat, 2018-02-17 00:35

In a very hush manner, Donald Trump signed a bill into law on Tuesday that rolled back an Obama-era regulation that put restrictions on gun purchases for people with mental illnesses.

The bill, H.J. Res 40, was passed last week in both the House and the Senate.

“Republicans always say we don’t need new gun laws, we just need to enforce the laws already on the books. But the bill signed into law today undermines enforcement of existing laws that Congress passed to make sure the background check system had complete information,” Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-Conn.), a gun control advocate in Congress, said in a statement emailed to NBC on the move.

President Obama proposed the rule after a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school left 20 children and 6 more dead and “sought to block some people with severe mental health problems from buying guns,” according to NBC.

The rule was finalized in December and, if it went into effect, the Obama administration determined that more than 75,000 names would have been added to the national background check database who were characterized as having a mental illness or unfit to take care of their personal finances based on Americans receiving Social Security checks.

While the National Rifle Association “applauded” Trump’s move, gun control advocates are worried this is just the first in a series of gun control rollbacks from the Trump administration, NBC reported.

The bill was signed into law by Trump with very little fanfare.

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Categories: News

A kingdom where nobody dies

Sat, 2018-02-17 00:07

“Childhood,” said the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, “is the kingdom where nobody dies.”

In this country, childhood is something we no longer value.

As of this writing, 17 people are dead at a high school in Broward County, Florida. The shooter used an AR-15 semiautomatic weapon. Its manufacturer’s sales reps call it “America’s rifle.”

They have a point. It is an immensely popular weapon. As an NBC News report explains, Americans own an estimated 15 million AR-15s. One in five guns sold in the United States is an AR-15-style weapon. As of December 17 of last year, there were more than 1.7 million images uploaded to Instagram with the #ar15 hashtag.

AR15s are designed for mass killing, firing bullets at high speed to inflict maximum damage. As a doctor (and AR-15 owner) tells NBC: “The higher muzzle-velocity projectiles, if they strike an organ, you’re much more likely to have severe bleeding and dying …”

One of the weapon’ designers called it “maximum wound effect.” It’s a one-way ticket out of childhood’s kingdom.

That Terrible Day

“Today,” tweeted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, “is that terrible day you pray never comes.’

But Rubio and his fellow Republicans brought this day around with their opposition to common-sense gun control legislation. Rubio has accepted millions from the gun industry, and said today that the shooting was “inexplicable.”

Rubio is living proof of Upton Sinclair’s observation that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Except that it is his political contributions, not his salary, that are at stake. And Sinclair was speaking about ordinary corruption, not the kind that kills children.

Remember Sandy Hook

Wall Street Journal reporter Ted Mann described the scene in a Connecticut firehouse, when parents of Sandy Hook kindergartners learned they would not be seeing their children alive again:

“The governor walked into the center of the room, and began speaking so softly, Mr. Occhiogrosso said, that one man called out to ask him to raise his voice.

“If you haven’t been reunited with your loved one by now,” Mr. Malloy said, “that is not going to happen.”

The room exploded in wailing and tears, the officials said. Mr. McKinney, who had waited outside the door when Mr. Malloy went in to deliver the news, heard the cries from the hallway.

Mann recalled those words today, writing on Twitter:

“Every time this happens now, I think of John McKinney, standing alone in the firehouse hallway at Sandy Hook, hearing the wail go up as the governor broke the news. And then the same thing happening, in some other town, over and over again.”

Again and again. Twenty children died at Sandy Hook, along with six adults. We did nothing about it.

18 and counting

The Florida shooting was the 30th mass shooting, and the 18th to take place in a school, so far in 2018 – a year that is only seven weeks old. That means there’s a school shooting in this this country every 2.5 days.

Four people have been killed, and twenty injured so far in schools this year. Here are shootings this year that have caused injury or death:

  • 14: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (17 people killed)
  • 5: Oxon Hill High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland (1 student injured)
  • 1: Salvador Castro Middle School in Los Angeles, California. (2 students shot)
  • 23: Marshall County High School in in Benton, Kentucky (2 students killed, 18 injured)
  • 22: NET Charter High School in New Orleans, Louisiana (1 student injured)
  • 22: Italy High School in Italy, Texas (1 student injured)
  • 10: Coronado Elementary School in Sierra Vista, Arizona (1 student killed)

With today’s news, this year’s death toll from school shootings now stands at 21. Thoughts and prayers won’t bring them back, or save the next ones to die.

Why shootings happen

We know why mass shootings happen. “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America,” as the New York Times explains, “is its astronomical number of guns.”

My mother died last Friday. Death leaves an ache in the heart. But she was 94 years old. She lived at full life. The death of children, even ones we’ve never met, leaves a different ache. It’s the ache of unfulfilled hopes, of lives that will never be lived. It’s the faint echo of a parent’s grief, a grief that’s beyond understanding to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.

When we reached adulthood, each of us made an unspoken promise to the children of this country. We said we would protect them, support them, help them lead beautiful lives. Today, once again, that promise has been broken.

America’s rifle. America’s promise. And America’s childhood, a kingdom we’ve surrendered for no good reason at all.

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Categories: News

Darkness on the prairie: The death of Colten Boushie

Sat, 2018-02-17 00:03

It was a little after 5 o’clock on Saturday, August 9th, 2016 and Gerald Stanley, now 56, and his 28 year old son, Sheldon, were putting up a fence on their cattle farm near the town of Biggar, Saskatchewan. Gerald’s wife Leesa was nearby, doing yard work.

An SUV, one of its front tires flat and down to the rim, pulled into their long driveway; this was not so unusual an occurrence, considering Stanley had a sideline fixing automobiles in his garage. The gray 2003 Ford Escape stopped and, according to the Stanleys, at least one person got out and ran toward an ATV parked nearby.

The young people in the Explorer, who ranged in age from 18 to 24, were Eric Meechance, Belinda Jackson, Kiora Wuttunee, Cassidy Cross-Whitstone, and Colten Boushie, all from the nearby Red Pheasant Cree Reservation. They’d spent the afternoon swimming and had been drinking. After the incident, they said they’d come up the driveway looking for help with the flat.

What happened next is murkier, as the testimony of the witnesses diverged and some of the young people in the Escape were accused of changing their stories by authorities. Even the media, local and national, sometimes said different, even contradictory, things about what happened that day.

Saying they feared the youths were trying to steal the ATV, Stanley ran over and kicked the tail-light of the Escape while Sheldon chased the youths away from the ATV with a large hammer, then used it to hit their vehicle’s windshield. Seconds later, when the vehicle lurched forward and hit his wife’s car, Gerald Stanley went into a nearby storage shed and, at some point, Sheldon ran into the house, saying after he was getting the keys to his truck. The whereabouts of Leesa Stanley during these events is difficult to discern.

While chaos unfolded outside, Stanley loaded a semi-automatic pistol with what he said after, he thought were two bullets, though under oath he admitted he, “wasn’t 100 per cent sure.”

Rejoining the ongoing fracas, Stanley says he fired two warning shots and took the clip out of the pistol. The shots caused Meechance and Cross-Whitstone, who were seated in the driver’s and front passenger seats, to exit the truck and flee in panic down the gravel driveway. Gerald Stanley then approached the now stopped Escape, gun in hand, and later told police that he was reaching for the keys through the driver’s side window when the gun went off, shooting Boushie. He is believed to have been sleeping through some of what happened and had moved from the back of the vehicle to the driver’s seat in a panicked attempt to get away. The shot, fired at point blank range to the back of his head, immediately ended the 22 year old’s life.

Sheldon later said when he came out of his house he saw his father walking toward the Escape, directly contradicting Gerald Stanley’s account that he’d run toward the vehicle after firing the warning shots, fearing that his wife might be underneath it.

“It just went off. I just wanted to scare them”, he reportedly told his son when he got to his side, later forensic evidence didn’t seem to bear this out.

A bent .22 caliber rifle barrel, said to have been owned by Cross-Whitstone, was found by police next to Boushie’s body but he was never reported to have used it or pointed it at the Stanleys. It needs to be remembered, although gun control laws in Canada are much stricter than in most of the United States, long guns are quite common in rural areas, certainly more common than the Russian made pistol that killed Boushie.

In a press release shortly after the events of that day, Canada’s national police, the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), who often have jurisdiction in rural areas, claimed the people in the Escape were being questioned as part of a “theft investigation” though no charges were ever laid, something that surely had an effect on public opinion and perhaps the legal proceedings that followed.

Adding insult to injury

After taking Stanley temporarily into custody, police descended on Boushie’s home where his mother, Debbie Baptiste and his older brothers, Jace and William, were awaiting his return. William’s two young sons were asleep in another room.

While police surrounded their trailer with cars, and some got out with their weapons drawn, four uniformed police officers from the local RCMP detachment knocked on the front door.

As reported by Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, the officers asked Baptiste, who answered the door, “Is Colten Boushie your son?”

“Yes, he is,” she answered.

“He’s deceased,” one told her.

As she reeled from the news, the officers reportedly forced their way into the trailer and searched it, “without asking permission and without offering much comfort”, as Baptiste told The Globe and Mail.

At one point, an officer grabbed her by the wrist, trying to pull her up from the floor where she lay sobbing reportedly saying, “Ma’am, get yourself together,” and asked if she’d been drinking, going so far as to smell her breath (she hadn’t, nor had anyone else in the house).

The RCMP found after an internal investigation that, in its insensitive treatment of the family it had done no wrong and that the officers, who claimed that they thought there might be someone with a gun in the home (there wasn’t), would receive no reprimand. The family plans to appeal this decision using legal means.

Any compensation that may result from this will do little to assuage the trauma inflicted on the two young boys sleeping in the trailer that night, who awoke to police searching their home, their grandmother screaming in grief, and the news that their uncle was dead.

After doing what they didn’t do in the case of Baptiste’s home, police obtained a warrant to search Gerald Stanley’s property and charged him with 2nd degree murder the following day.

In the aftermath of Boushie’s shooting, social media in the province was awash with everything from excuses for vigilantism to outright racism. A Rural Councillor from the south east of the province resigned his position after posting on Facebook concerning Stanley’s actions, “His only mistake was leaving witnesses.”

Eventually, the now former Premier of the province, Brad Wall, released a statement via Facebook about the racist and incendiary posts being made, “These comments are not only unacceptable, intolerant and a betrayal of the very values and character of Saskatchewan, they are dangerous. There are laws that protect citizens from what this kind of hate may foment. They will be enforced.”

The racism, certainly not uncommon in rural Canada, where much of the country’s indigenous population lives, was further stoked by rumors that people from the reservation were involved in a large number of thefts targeting isolated farms and businesses. There was just one problem with this theory: it was unfounded.

There had been a series of thefts in the area, but they were undertaken by Iain Stables, a 39 year old rancher. Police found $1.2 million dollars of stolen property on his land in early 2016 and he pleaded guilty to multiple charges of theft in late August last year..Unlike many indigenous people caught up in Canada’s legal system, he was shown leniency, being required to pay restitution of just over $100,000 and sentenced to two years of house arrest.

On Friday, February 9th, an all white jury, after just 13 hours of deliberation, found Stanley not guilty of either 2nd degree murder or the lesser charge of manslaughter, offered to them as a second option.

One notable injustice in this case was that every person who appeared to have indigenous ancestry was disqualified from the jury by Stanley’s defense using the doctrine of peremptory challenges, “that allow them to strike a prospective juror without providing a reason”.  Stanley still faces gun charges, which could result in up to 5 years in jail if he has more than one prior conviction (two years maximum if he doesn’t). Prosecutors have not yet announced whether the government will seek an appeal to have a new trial on the murder or manslaughter charges.

“He was loved”

In most media, Colten Boushie, the person, was rarely discussed. In death he became an invisible victim, just as too many indigenous people in Canada have been throughout the country’s history. Little known both inside and outside the country, Canada’s Indian Affairs Act of 1876 was one of the models for South Africa’s apartheid policies.

Skinny and younger looking than his age, in some pictures with a faint dusting of facial hair on his upper lip and chin, Colten had worked hard to realize his dreams, despite a neurological problem that affected one of his hands. He’d recently earned his certificate in fire-fighting and once joked to his mother, “In case the rez burns down, I’m ready to fight it.”

He was involved in his community and its religious life; noting the irony, his mother explained to the national broadcaster the CBC, “We have our traditional ways out here, how we do things around here. And one of the things [is] where we’re burying somebody, a fire is lit and somebody has to watch it all night until morning… my sons would do that.” .

The family has an American connection as they had lived in Montana until 2011 when they decided to return to their roots at the Red Pheasant First Nation. By the accounts of friends and relatives, the move from an urban to a more rural environment had suited Boushie. Those who knew him said he took an optimistic approach to life, an often difficult thing to do in places like the Red Pheasant reservation, where poverty is widespread.

His cousin Jade Tootoosis told The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, “He never had much. But he didn’t ask for much and he didn’t expect much.”

This gentle soul, like so many before him, including those caught up in what’s called the ‘60s Scoop’ (that lasted until the 1980s), in which indigenous children were separated from their parents and put up for adoption to make them ‘Canadian’ and those who suffered in residential schools, where many were abused physically, emotionally and sexually until 1993 in the name of assimilation and Christianity, could have become a light in his community and nation.

Indigenous youth will account for almost 25% of Saskatchewan’s young people by 2031, attitudes need to change or more lives will be wasted.

Opponents of Idle No More, of Standing Rock and the camps that have flowered throughout North America in its wake, and other civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter, always complain about ‘political correctness’, but not acknowledging our savage settler colonialist past is the real political correctness in Canada, just as it is across the border. How can we be proud of a country built on the murder and displacement of innocent people? How can there be reconciliation between our peoples when significant numbers of Canadians celebrate a young man’s violent death?

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Categories: News

Russiagate or deep state? What some progressives get wrong on Russia.

Fri, 2018-02-16 23:56

When it comes to the Russiagate scandal, progressives usually take one of two positions.

They either dismiss the scandal as a lot of hooey, a “nothingburger,” just a way for warmongers and the “Deep State” to revive a cold war between Washington and Moscow. Or they treat the scandal as just a means to an end, a way to cast doubt on the 2016 presidential election, implicate the administration in a variety of crimes, and ultimately impeach the president.

Both of these positions are wrong.

I last wrote about the perplexing positions of some progressives on Russia back in March 2015, long before the Russiagate scandal and the 2016 elections. At the time, I was trying to understand why some progressives were bending over backwards to excuse the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, both domestically (his authoritarianism) and externally (his meddling along the periphery of Russia and further afield in Syria).

Putin, I argued, was an autocrat, an anti-progressive nationalist, and an imperialist wannabe. By all means, the United States should negotiate treaties with Russia and avoid a resurgent cold war, I maintained, but progressives should have no illusions about the nature of the current wielder of power in the Kremlin.

What had once been a strange sideshow of geopolitics has now, with the election of Donald Trump, become the main act. And the bizarre overlap in positions between some elements of the left and the right about Russiagate does not bode well for the future of American politics.

The stakes, in other words, are far greater than the fate of the current president of the United States. Why focus on Russiagate when we face possible nuclear war in Korea, a slow-motion apocalypse through climate change, and growing economic inequality worldwide? Because Russiagate points to a new kind of politics, in the United States and elsewhere, that makes resolution of these crises increasingly difficult.

Yes, the U.S. status quo before Russiagate was grossly unfair. The future status quo, a world of continuous Russiagates, will be grossly unfair and authoritarian as well.

Addressing the skeptics

The Russia scandal has scrambled the political spectrum. Consider the case of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist based in Brazil who writes for The Intercept.

Greenwald has emerged as one of the prominent skeptics of the investigation into collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Once a fixture in the progressive media for his dissection of the national security state, he is now more frequently cited by the far right in its efforts to discredit the investigation run by Robert Mueller. The journalist used to chat regularly with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, but now he’s more likely to appear with Tucker Carlson on Fox News.

“I used to be really good friends with Rachel Maddow,” Greenwald told New York magazine. “And I’ve seen her devolution from this really interesting, really smart, independent thinker into this utterly scripted, intellectually dishonest, partisan hack.”

Wow, that’s harsh.

Greenwald is not alone. You can find skeptical articles about Russiagate at The Nation, Counterpunch, Consortium News, and many other progressive outlets. And these articles can be equally scathing about the journalists, mainstream or otherwise, that take the investigation seriously.

Over at The Nation, Russia specialist Stephen Cohen regularly challenges the emerging narrative, most recently suggesting that the intelligence community essentially fabricated Russiagate, which has generated in turn a different scandal – he calls it “Intelgate” – even larger than Watergate.

I cut my Sovietology teeth on Stephen Cohen and have always had tremendous respect for him. I certainly understand his desire to counter the demonization of all things Russian and his skepticism of the organs of U.S. national security. But he seems to have lost sight of the fact that the two principal groups of actors in this saga – the Trump team and the Putin people – are ruthless operators who have imported their mafia style into democratic politics.

Remember: The enemy of my enemy, even if that enemy is the U.S. national security state, is not necessarily my friend!

Consortium News, meanwhile, likes to give voice to former intelligence operatives. For example, former CIA analyst Philip Giraldi accepts the charges in the recent Nunes memo at face value and asserts that Israel, not Russia, played a much more prominent role in determining the 2016 election. Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, also at Consortium News, believes that he can prove that the FBI, on behalf of the “Deep State,” is out to get the Trump administration.

But really it’s the same old material that Fox News has been trumpeting. I suppose it takes one to know one, but I suspect these former operatives have other axes to grind in this fight. Hell hath no fury like an intelligence operative scorned.

At Counterpunch, meanwhile, political economist Rob Urie argues that Russian involvement in the 2016 election is a “red herring” because, essentially, it has not been proven that any voter changed his or her mind as a result of Russian influence. Oh, and there isn’t any proof anyway of Russian meddling – or, if there is “proof,” it comes from unreliable sources. And if Russia engaged in such meddling, it had good reason to do so, given U.S. foreign policy maneuvers in Ukraine and elsewhere.

There’s a lot here to parse (which I will do below). But let’s return to Greenwald, because his perch at The Intercept is so influential.

Most of the time, Greenwald has delighted in revealing what the mainstream media has gotten wrong on the Russia story. In September, he ridiculed reports of Russian hacking of 21 state election systems, which turned out to be, in some cases, misreported. But some overly hasty conclusions don’t entirely discredit the entire story. The Department of Homeland Security first mentioned the attempted hacks in June 2017 but noted that it did not affect any votes. Again, this month, the head of cybersecurity for DHS, Jeanette Manfra, repeated the same claim.

Perhaps DHS is continuing to engage in disinformation. But Greenwald didn’t bother to write anything about Illinois, the one specific and rather well-documented case of Russian hacking that did manage to penetrate a state system (again without having any impact on the election results).

Also escaping his scrutiny have been the reports I mentioned in last week’s column: Dutch surveillance of Cozy Bear in Moscow as the operation hacked into the Democratic National Committee and the trial in Russia of a hacker who described receiving orders from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) “to attack the DNC’s servers for the purpose of manipulating the U.S. electoral process.”

Okay, so the U.S. media has made mistakes in its coverage of Russiagate. It’s not exactly a transparent story. And it’s very useful for journalists to keep other journalists honest (not to mention government officials).

But Greenwald is after something different. He is out to discredit all claims of Russia’s malign conduct. In a recent article, he made a list of all the “false” claims involving Russia – interference in the Brexit vote, responsibility for the #releasethememo Twitter campaign, intervention in the recent German and French elections – alongside the “corrections.”

These dismissals are too casual. The jury is still out on how much Russian social media presence influenced the Brexit vote. Greenwald cites a Senate report on Russian bots using Twitter and Facebook in large numbers then “refutes” the report with an article on YouTube’s denial of Russian interference. Well, those are very different platforms. Greenwald is skeptical that the #releasethememo Twitter campaign was, in part, Russian-influenced, but cites as proof an article with a single anonymous source. On Russian involvement in the German election, he identifies a New York Times article with the headline: “German Election Mystery: Why No Russian Meddling?” But he neglects to investigate the deeper Russian involvement – in cultivating the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland, supporting its messages on social media, and unleashing a botnet onslaught in the final hours of the campaign (a story that broke after The New York Times article but well before Greenwald’s putative takedown).

Finally, Greenwald points to an AP article refuting Russian involvement in a celebrated hacking of Emmanuel Macron’s election campaign. Perhaps Fancy Bear was not involving in phishing schemes, as investigators allege. But, as with Germany, Russia was involved in other ways, primarily through support for the National Front and Marine Le Pen.

In other words, the exposure of one poorly reported story on Russia – or even a dozen such embarrassments – does not mean that Russiagate or reports of Russian interference in European elections are “fake news.” Greenwald should know better, as a lawyer and a journalist. He’s pissed at the Democratic Party for running a lousy presidential campaign. He’s pissed at the Obama administration for its drone and surveillance policies. Fair enough. But please, do us a favor and look at all the evidence instead of playing the blinkered prosecutor.

Now let’s take a look at some of the other efforts to debunk this supposed myth.

Countering the counter-narrative

One of the major arguments of the skeptics is that Russian interference, even if there was some, didn’t influence the election because it was only a trivial amount of Twittering, Facebook ads, and trolling. Okay, perhaps that’s true. But Russian hacking was not just bots and trolls. The release of the results of the DNC hacking turned out to be quite damaging for the Clinton campaign.

But frankly, this isn’t the most important question. The election is over, and the Democratic Party should own up to its failures rather than blame it on some other party, be it Bernie Sanders, the Green Party, the Russians, or the deplorables.

Instead, the investigation should focus on only two things – the Trump campaign’s complicity and safeguarding future elections. Any interference in U.S. elections – whether from a foreign power or domestic actors trying to suppress voter turnout – should be taken very seriously.

A corollary to the “Russia didn’t really do anything” argument is that other countries had greater impact on the elections. The two countries usually cited are Israel and Mexico.

Certainly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown a fondness for Donald Trump, and hardline pro-Israel donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson poured millions into the Trump campaign. But there were also plenty of friends of Israel pushing in the opposite direction because of an authentic fondness for Hillary Clinton, or because of authentic fears of the anti-Semitic forces supporting Trump. As for Mexico’s meddling, this is largely a right-wing rant about how immigrants are subverting America, not about Mexico trying to sway any particular election.

Then there’s the argument that Russia wasn’t doing anything that the United States hadn’t done over the years. It’s certainly true that the United States has engaged in such conduct. So? It has also been involved in the assassination of foreign figures. Would that justify another country taking out the U.S. president? Do U.S. regime-change efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq justify another power taking over Washington DC and setting up a puppet government?

It’s always useful to point out U.S. hypocrisy. But this should be done in order to reform U.S. policy – not to excuse other countries for acting in similarly reprehensible ways.

Finally, let’s talk about the so-called Deep State.

I have to be honest. I’m not really sure what the “Deep State” is. Given that the push back against Trump has been widespread, does the “Deep State” include all the judges who have blocked the administration’s immigration plans? Does it encompass all the career bureaucrats who refuse to go along with the anti-regulatory fervor at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department, and elsewhere in the federal system?

Should we include whistle blowers who are aghast at the abuses of power? What about the “Washington playbook” that pushed for military solutions during the Obama era but has also resisted Trump’s more radical proposals?

Obviously such an amorphous entity lacks any meaningful coherence. So, let’s assume that it’s just the intelligence community and elements of the Justice Department and the FBI that are “out to get” Trump because he’s a rogue president.

Stephen Cohen argues that the intelligence community targeted Trump during the Obama administration and continues to push its agenda. But this is more usually an argument from the right wing. As Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs put it, “It may be time to declare war outright against the deep state and clear out the rot in the upper levels of the FBI and the Justice Department.”

I’m quite sure that there are a lot of folks at the FBI, the Justice Department, and the intelligence agencies who are freaked out about Trump. The president shows little interest in intelligence briefings, has casually given away sensitive information and shown no regard for security protocols, has sought to politicize intelligence, has given highest-level security access to people like his son-in-law without proper vetting, supports all manner of lawbreakers (Joe Arpaio, neo-Nazis at Charlottesville, sexual harassers left and right), has defied the emoluments clause of the Constitution, and so on.

Is it remotely possible that intelligence agencies are genuinely worried about Russian interference? At the latest congressional hearing on Russia’s gearing up for the U.S. midterm elections, even Trump’s Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA chief Mike Pompeo expressed their very clear concerns about Russian interference, directly contradicting their commander in chief.

Forget the Deep State. The intelligence agencies are just doing their day job – which I often don’t like, but which I also don’t think is conspiratorial against Trump.

Moreover, might Greenwald and others consider the possibility that a number of federal actors are pursuing investigations of Trump and his colleagues because this is how a democratic system operates?

It’s not a question of partisan squabbling. It’s not a question of some shadowy group of operatives trying to take down the president in secret. This is an open investigation, by people who call themselves Democrats and Republicans and independents, into the potential violations of the U.S. law by a presidential candidate and now a current president.

To the extent that these operators began to investigate Trump during the Obama administration, they only did so in a partial and, given the potential enormity of the threat, frankly half-hearted way. Now, when the very rule of law is threatened, the institutions of American democracy are arguably doing their job.

Ultimately, the strengthening of the rule of law and of democratic process – not the impeachment of the president – should be the goal of these investigations. Yes, it shouldn’t be just any rule of law (apartheid was a rule of law, after all), but rather a rule of law informed by all the social movements that have shaped it. And it shouldn’t be just any democratic process (Putin is an elected leader, after all), but it should be a democracy of citizens informed by a free press and influenced as little as possible by big money and the machinations of foreign governments.

Impeachment, however satisfying, would be just a quick fix to the more serious threats Trumpism poses to democracy and rule of law.

Trump is leading the country in the opposite direction, and he’s doing so to a large extent by trampling on U.S. laws and institutions. If that isn’t clear to Greenwald and others, then they’re missing the big picture even as they get so many of the details wrong as well.

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Categories: News

US mass killers crucially abetted by nuts who won’t ban assault weapons and high-capacity clips

Fri, 2018-02-16 23:55

Something is clearly sick in America.

The latest shooting in Broward County Florida was no surprise. Like almost all the school shootings that are now weekly events in the United States, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where it took place was in not some violence-plagued, over-crowded, mostly non-white urban school, but rather was located in the town of Parkland, an upscale suburban community. The school had an “A” rating from the state, as a top-performing high school.

According to Census statistics, Parkland’s over 24,000 people are 84% white, 13% Latino, 7% black and 6 percent black. Median income all the way back in 2008 was reported as $278,000 and the median home value that same year was just under $1 million. This was a wealthy community, not some “shithole” one, as our president might say.

All this is so common to the school shooting profile of most of these deadly incidents that we have to ask, what the hell is going on?

In the case of the suspect, 19-year-old Nickolas Cruz was unusual in that he had been adopted, along with his younger brother, by a couple who were childless and wanted children. Nothing unusual there. As the father of an adopted son I can say that there is really no fundamental difference between a biologically born and an adopted child in terms of the love and care that parents put into their development. In fact, because of the intentional efforts that go into doing an adoption there may often be even more attention and affection poured on an adopted child.

We don’t know about Cruz’s early childhood, so it’s possible he suffered at a very young age or perhaps was damaged in the womb if his birth-mother had a drug or drinking problem. That’s always a risk, just as it can be a risk with a children who are the biological offspring of their parents.

What we do know is that Cruz, who was diagnosed as depressive and possibly on the autism spectrum, was expelled Marjory Stoneman Douglas right around the time that his adoptive mother, to whom he was very attached, died at the age of 68 (his adoptive father had died much earlier). So this young man was depressed, deprived of his parents, and dumped by his school.

I almost think that at this point we don’t need to think to hard to see what went wrong. Technically an adult, and reportedly living of late in the home of a kind friend of his parents, he slipped through the cracks of a larger society that doesn’t really care much about what happens to a kid once she or he hits 18 (if they care much about them even at a younger age).

AR-15 Assault rifle with loaded clip

Obviously, a lot of people dropped the ball with this kid. The school, which had warned teachers about him, washed its hands of him, the friend of his late mother, who took him in, allowed him to bring along his AR-15, although she at least required him to keep it locked up albeit with him having the key (why would any adult allow a visiting kid to do that?), and nobody, like a social worker, appears to have followed up when he stopped going to the mental health clinic where he was being treated.

Now let’s add in the gun thing. Despite the fact that he had been diagnosed as having mental health issues and had been treated for a time at a local mental health clinic, reportedly for depression, Cruz was able on his own as an 18-year-old, to legally purchase a deadly AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and multiple large-capacity clips for ammunition.

Now I have to say, given what we are learning from neurology studies of the young brain, which show that the brain does not really reach maturity until the age of 24-26, and that one of the last things to reach mature development is the part of the brain that provides impulse control, you have to wonder why we are allowing people that age and younger, for example the legal age of maturity which is just 18, to buy such weapons of mass destruction.

An AR-15 is not a hunting weapon. In fact there’s a reason it’s called an “assault rifle.” As a hunter, unless you’re an atrocious shot and are hunting random flocks of small birds, you certainly don’t need to be able to fire powerful ammunition at a rate of two bullets per second — the rate at which experts say an ordinary person could be able to pull the trigger. Listening to the sound of bullets being fired on a clip that was broadcast of some cell phone recording Cruz’s assault, it sounded to me like he had managed to fire even faster than that — perhaps three shots per second. In any even he was able, in a short time, to kill at least 17 people and injure another 10 or more before presumably running out of loaded clips and sneaking out of the school (he was caught and arrested by police later blocks from the school).

Any person, politician or lobbying organization (think National Rifle Association) that argues otherwise, and claims it’s every American’s god-given Constitutional right to buy and own an assault rifle, including young people with age-appropriate impulse control programs, and even documented mental health issues, is either an idiot, an ideologically driven nut-job, or has some kind of other insidious agenda.

It should have been clear when 20 first-graders were murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. If that uniquely awful atrocity, committed by a mentally ill young man who obtained the gun from his also mentally ill mother who owned it legally, wasn’t enough to get these weapons banned again (they were banned for 10 years nationally, from 1994 to 2004 until Congress allowed the law to expire), I doubt that this latest epic massacre will lead to any change in the law, either nationally or in the state of Florida.

Hell, why should we be surprised? Thanks to aggressive activity by the NRA, some states actually allow a totally blind person to buy and own a gun – any gun, including an assault rifle.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call out the insanity and the rank charlatanism of politicians in Washington (mostly, but not exclusively Republican) that allows this madness to continue.

Let’s be clear: The US is the only country where this kind of mass killing is commonplace. Certainly a mad man bent on mayhem, like the Nazi Anders Breivik, who slaughtered 77 people, most of them young teenagers on a camping outing on an island, can obtain the weapons he needs even in a country with strict gun laws like Breivik’s native Norway, and succeed in his horrific mission of death. But what we have in the US is something much different and more terrifying: a situation where even a person of limited funds, with minimal planning and effort, can simply walk into t gun shop and, no questions asked, purchase a weapon that can kill large numbers of people almost on a whim.

I knew a guy, a musician with serious mental problems, who one time a few years ago when he was going through a particularly bad patch, walked into a gun shop in Virginia and asked for and then bought a pistol and one bullet. Later that same day, he sat on a stump in his back yard, put the gun in his mouth and blew his brains out. You have to ask what kind of person, standing behind the counter of that gun shop, would sell anyone a gun and one bullet! I’m sure it was totally clear to that clerk or owner what the buyer was planning to do, and a real human being with an ounce of compassion should have refused to sell and calmly suggested to the customer that he seek help or go to another gun store.

The same should apply to anyone who comes in and asks to buy an AR-15, especially if that person also asks for multiple large-capacity clips and a large number of shells. Just say no, dammit!

NRA nuts will say, “But what about the poor collectors!”

That’s a stupid and irrational argument. What not collect claymore mines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) then, and why stop there? How about 500-lb gravity bombs, anti-aircraft rockets, or maybe miniature nuclear weapons? I mean the logic is the same: if weapons exist, we as Americans should be free to own and “collect” them. Why do we limit this freedom to own mass destruction assault rifles, but not bombs?

Look at the latest list of the innocent victims of Nikolas Cruz’s insanity and ask that question in reverse: If we don’t permit people to buy bombs and hand-held wire-guided anti-aircraft rockets, why do we permit them to buy semi-automatic assault rifles?

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Categories: News

The Trump budget’s crushing cruelty

Fri, 2018-02-16 23:54

On Monday, President Donald Trump released his proposed budget for 2019. On the heels of his only legislative accomplishment to date, the massive tax cut that favors the wealthiest individuals and corporations, Trump’s budget would slash or completely eliminate core anti-poverty programs that form the heart of the U.S. social safety net, from childhood nutrition to care for the elderly and job training. It blatantly violates one of his key campaign promises, to leave untouched Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The Trump budget is a document of towering immorality, a wish list of extreme right-wing cuts to federal spending that would destroy a century of progressive legislative achievements. Congress will be in recess for the next week, and elected representatives who support Trump’s cruel agenda should expect a wave of opposition as people organize resistance from coast to coast.

“This budget is the budget of the Koch brothers. It is the budget of the billionaire class. And the American people understand it,” Vermont’s independent senator, Bernie Sanders, said, railing against Charles and David Koch, the two billionaire industrialist brothers who have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into U.S. elections in order to promote their far-right agenda.

Sanders continued: “This is a budget which will make it harder for our children to get a decent education, harder for working families to get the health care they desperately need, harder to protect the air that we breathe and the water we drink, and harder for the elderly to live out their retirement years with dignity and respect. This is not a budget, as candidate Donald Trump talked about, that takes on the political establishment. This is a budget of the political establishment. This is the Robin Hood principle in reverse: It is a budget that takes from the poor and gives to the very wealthy.”

Seattle Congressmember Pramila Jayapal calls it the “three strikes you’re out” budget. She explained on the “Democracy Now!” news hour: “Strike one was to actually transfer $1.3 trillion in wealth from working people and the poor to the wealthiest through the GOP tax scam. To their credit, they are finally saying, in this budget, that those GOP tax cuts don’t pay for themselves, because they’re projecting these enormous deficits as a result of the tax cuts. Strike two is that they’re essentially going to balloon the deficit, $7 trillion over 10 years, a trillion dollars next year alone. And strike three is cutting every program that allows people to live with any shred of dignity, any shred of hope, any shred of opportunity.”

The federal budget is a massive document, representing $4.4 trillion of spending for just one year. Republicans have long claimed cutting the budget and eliminating budget deficits as their raison d’etre. Now, with both houses of Congress and the White House under Republican control, they have, apparently, abandoned their principles. A spending bill, passed with bipartisan support Feb. 9 in order to avoid a government shutdown, increased military spending, a Trump priority, as well as spending in domestic programs, which the Democrats wanted. It also raised federal borrowing limits and spending caps.

But that spending deal doesn’t compel the government to spend funds as agreed to. The devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and those details get hammered out in congressional appropriations and other large bills, like the upcoming farm bill.

“As an example, let’s just look at SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” Congressmember Jayapal told us. “They are proposing a $213 billion cut to SNAP, [so] people have to work in order to get these benefits … three-quarters of all the SNAP recipients are the elderly, the disabled and families with children, and the average per-person, per-meal benefit that people get on SNAP is $1.40.” Similar changes are proposed that would cut funding to Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and housing assistance, as well as force onerous work requirements on recipients, despite evidence that such recipients are often unable to work.

Many Beltway observers concede that the Trump budget has almost no chance of being passed. Of course, these are the same people who said Trump had no chance of being elected. But the budget relays a vision for the country held by the president and the Republican Party. This budget signals a dark, heartless and cruel future, exacerbating poverty, inequality and suffering. It is a budget that the people of the United States cannot afford.

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Categories: News

Canceling student debt could be the answer to growing the economy

Fri, 2018-02-16 02:23

Student debt has become a major political issue in recent years. As movements have formed and proposed policies for debt relief have been in the works, nothing has come to fruition to help the student debt crisis.

But a new report has the answer to help alleviate 44 million Americans with a collective $1.3 trillion in student debt and help grow the economy – cancel student debt.

A group of economists at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, who recently published the report, determined that forgiving all existing student debt would positively impact the economy.

“The idea of canceling student debt is not just some crazy idea out of left field, but is actually something that could be done, and done in a way that has a moderately positive economic impact,” Marshall Steinbaum, a fellow and research director at the Roosevelt Institute and a coauthor of the report said in an interview. “The way this and similar polices are often discussed is in a mode of ‘well can we really afford this?’ and the answer is definitely yes,” he said.

The cost of eliminating student debt would total approximately $1.4 trillion over 10 years, according to Mic Network Inc., a leading digital news company. But once cancelled out, it would “lead to an increase in U.S. GDP between $861 billion and $1,083 billion over the course of 10 years,” according to Mic Network Inc.

This idea would cost half as much as the Trump administration’s tax cuts and would increase the macro economic impact on the U.S. economy.

“What our report shows is that you get a greater macro economics impact, bigger bang for the buck, and that student debt cancellation has about half the budgetary effect of the Tump tax cuts,” Stephanie Kelton, Stony Brook University professor of Public Policy and Economic, said.

Also, the report stated that canceling student debt would create more jobs estimated between 1.18 and 1.55 million over the stated decade.

The report also determined that canceling student loan debt might “attenuate some longstanding racial disparities in debt and education… helping keep the high cost of borrowing from exacerbating the racial wealth gap between the growing number of Americans seeking better employment through higher education.”

Overall, if these 44 million Americans were debt free, it would promote consumer spending and grow every sector of the U.S. economy. And this impact would most “likely be more broadly felt than those of the tax bill.”

 

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Categories: News

Regime change fails: Is a military coup or invasion of Venezuela next?

Fri, 2018-02-16 02:09

Speaking at his alma mater, the University of Texas, on Feb. 1, Secretary of State Tillerson suggested a potential military coup in Venezuela.  Tillerson then visited allied Latin American countries urging regime change and more economic sanctions on Venezuela. Tillerson is considering banning the processing or sale of Venezuelan oil in the United States and is discouraging other countries from buying Venezuelan oil. Further, the U.S. is laying the groundwork for war against Venezuela.

In a series of tweets, Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican from Florida, where many Venezuelan oligarchs live, called for a military coup in Venezueala.

The world would support the Armed Forces in #Venezuela if they decide to protect the people & restore democracy by removing a dictator

— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 9, 2018

How absurd – remove an elected president with a military coup to restore democracy? Does that pass the straight face test? This refrain of Rubio and Tillerson seems to be the nonsensical public position of U.S. policy.

The U.S. has been seeking regime change in Venezuela since Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998. Trump joined Presidents Obama and Bush before him in continuing efforts to change the government and put in place a U.S.-friendly oligarch government.

They came closest in 2002 when a military coup removed Chavez. The Commander-in-Chief of the Venezuelan military announced Chavez had resigned and Pedro Carmona, of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce, became interim president. Carmona dissolved the National Assembly and Supreme Court and declared the Constitution void. The people surrounded the presidential palace and seized television stations, Carmona resigned and fled to Colombia. Within 47 hours, civilians and the military restored Chavez to the presidency. The coup was a turning point that strengthened the Bolivarian Revolution, showed people could defeat a coup and exposed the U.S. and oligarchs.

U.S. regime change tactics have failed In Venezuela

The US and oligarchs continue their efforts to reverse the Bolivarian Revolution. The US has a long history of regime change around the world and has tried all of its regime change tools in Venezuela. So far they have failed.

Economic war

Destroying the Venezuelan economy has been an ongoing campaign by the U.S. and oligarchs. It is reminiscent of the U.S. coup in Chile which ended the presidency of Salvador Allende. To create the environment for the Chilean coup, President Nixon ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream.”

Henry Kissinger devised the coup noting a billion dollars of investment were at stake. He also feared the “the insidious model effect” of the example of Chile leading to other countries breaking from the United States and capitalism. Kissinger’s top deputy at the National Security Council, Viron Vaky, opposed the coup saying, “What we propose is patently a violation of our own principles and policy tenets .… If these principles have any meaning, we normally depart from them only to meet the gravest threat . . . our survival.”

These objections hold true regarding recent U.S. coups, including in Venezuela and Honduras, Ukraine and Brazil, among others. Allende died in the coup and wrote his last words to the people of Chile, especially the workers, “Long live the people! Long live the workers!” He was replaced by Augusto Pinochet, a brutal and violent dictator.

For decades the U.S. has been fighting an economic war, “making the economy scream,” in Venezuela. Wealthy Venezuelans have been conducting economic sabotage aided by the U.S. with sanctions and other tactics. This includes hoarding food, supplies and other necessities in warehouses or in Colombia while Venezuelan markets are bare. The scarcity is used to fuel protests, e.g. “The March of the Empty Pots,” a carbon copy of marches in Chile before the September 11, 1973 coup. Economic warfare has escalated through Obama and under Trump, with Tillerson now urging economic sanctions on oil.

President Maduro recognized the economic hardship but also said sanctions open up the opportunity for a new era of independence and “begins the stage of post-domination by the United States, with Venezuela again at the center of this struggle for dignity and liberation.” The second-in-command of the Socialist Party, Diosdado Cabello, said, “[if they] apply sanctions, we will apply elections.”

Opposition protests

Another common U.S. regime change tool is supporting opposition protests. The Trump administration renewed regime change operations in Venezuela and the anti-Maduro protests, which began under Obama, grew more violent. The opposition protests included barricades, snipers and murders as well as widespread injuries. When police arrested those using violence, the U.S. claimed Venezuela opposed free speech and protests.

The opposition tried to use the crack down against violence to achieve the U.S. tactic of  dividing the military. The U.S. and western media ignored opposition violence and blamed the Venezuelan government instead. Violence became so extreme it looked like the opposition was pushing Venezuela into a Syrian-type civil war. Instead, opposition violence backfired on them.

Violent protests are part of U.S. regime change repertoire. This was demonstrated in the U.S. coup in Ukraine, where the U.S. spent $5 billion to organize government opposition including U.S. and EU funding violent protesters. This tactic was used in early U.S. coups like the 1953 Iran coup of Prime Minister Mossadegh. The U.S. has admitted organizing this coup that ended Iran’s brief experience with democracy. Like Venezuela, a key reason for the Iran coup was control of the nation’s oil.

Funding opposition

There has been massive U.S. investment in creating opposition to the Venezuelan government. Tens of millions of dollars have been openly spent through USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy and other related U.S. regime change agencies. It is unknown how much the CIA has spent from its secret budget, but the CIA has also been involved in Venezuela. Current CIA director, Mike Pompeo, said he is “hopeful there can be a transition in Venezuela.”

The United States has also educated leaders of opposition movements, e.g. Leopoldo López was educated at private schools in the U.S., including the CIA-associated Kenyon College. He was groomed at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and made repeated visits to the regime change agency, the National Republican Institute.

Elections

While the U.S. calls Venezuela a dictatorship, it is in fact a strong democracy with an excellent voting system. Election observers monitor every election.

In 2016, the economic crisis led to the opposition winning a majority in the National Assembly. One of their first acts was to pass an amnesty law. The law described 17 years of crimes including violent felonies and terrorism committed by the opposition. It was an admission of crimes back to the 2002 coup and through 2016. The law demonstrated violent treason against Venezuela. One month later, the Supreme Court of Venezuela ruled the amnesty law was unconstitutional. U.S. media, regime change advocates and anti-Venezuela human rights groups attacked the Supreme Court decision, showing their alliance with the admitted criminals.

Years of violent protests and regime change attempts, and then admitting their crimes in an amnesty bill, have caused those opposed to the Bolivarian Revolution to lose power and become unpopular. In three recent elections Maduro’s party won regional,  local and the Constituent Assembly elections.

The electoral commission announced the presidential election will be held on April 22. Maduro will run for re-election with the United Socialist Party. Opposition leaders such as Henry Ramos and Henri Falcon have expressed interest in running, but the opposition has not decided whether to participateHenrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in the last election, was banned from running for office because of irregularities in his campaign, including taking foreign donations. Capriles has been a leader of the violent protests. When his ban was announced he called for protests to remove Maduro from office. Also banned was Leopoldo Lopez, another leader of the violent protests who is under house arrest serving a thirteen year sentence for inciting violence.

Now, the United States says it will not recognize the presidential election and urges a military coup. For two years, the opposition demanded presidential elections, but now it is unclear whether they will participate. They know they are unpopular and Maduro is likely to be re-elected.

Is war against Venezuela coming?

A military coup faces challenges in Venezuela as the people, including the military, are well educated about U.S. imperialism. Tillerson openly urging a military coup makes it more difficult.

The government and opposition recently negotiated a peace settlement entitled “Democratic Coexistence Agreement for Venezuela.” They agreed on all of the issues including ending economic sanctions, scheduling elections and more. They agreed on the date of the next presidential election. It was originally planned for March, but in a concession to the opposition, it was  rescheduled for the end of April. Maduro signed the agreement even though the opposition did not attend the signing ceremony. They backed out after Colombian President Santos, who was meeting with Secretary Tillerson, called and told them not to sign. Maduro will now make the agreement a public issue by allowing the people of Venezuela to sign it.

Not recognizing elections and urging a military coup are bad enough, but more disconcerting is that Admiral Kurt Tidd, head of Southcom, held a closed door meeting in Colombia after Tillerson’s visit. The topic was “regional destabilization” and Venezuela was a focus.

A military attack on Venezuela from its Colombian and Brazilian borders is not far fetched. In January, the NY Times asked, “Should the U.S. military invade Venezuela?” President Trump said the U.S. is considering U.S. military force against Venezuela. His chief of staff, John Kelly, was formerly the general in charge of Southcom. Tidd has claimed the crisis, created in large part by the economic war against Venezuela, requires military action for humanitarian reasons.

War preparations are already underway in Colombia, which plays the role of Israel for the U.S. in Latin America. The coup government in Brazil, increased its military budget 36 percent, and participated in Operation: America United, the largest joint military exercise in Latin American history. It was one of four military exercises by the U.S. with Brazil, Colombia and Peru in Latin America in 2017. The U.S. Congress ordered the Pentagon to develop military contingencies for Venezuela in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.

While there is opposition to U.S. military bases, James Patrick Jordan explains, on our radio show, the U.S. has military bases in Colombia and the Caribbean and military agreements with countries in the region; and therefore, Venezuela is already surrounded.

The United States is targeting Venezuela because the Bolivarian Revolution provides an example against U.S. imperialism. An invasion of Venezuela will become another war-quagmire that kills innocent Venezuelans, U.S. soldiers and others over control of oil. People in the United States who support the self-determination of countries should show solidarity with Venezuelans, expose the U.S. agenda and publicly denounce regime change. We need to educate people about what is really happening in Venezuela to overcome the false media coverage.

Share this article and the interview we did on Clearing The FOG about Venezuela and the U.S.’ role in Latin America.  The fate of Venezuela is critical for millions of Latin Americans struggling under the domination of U.S. Empire.

 

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