The Intercept

No circo da Alerj, Cidinha Campos resume a incoerência da política nacional

18 November 2017 - 1:07pm

Na nossa política, só não é possível dizer que a incoerência é generalizada porque, para muitos ali, a falta de ética e moral é coerente com suas atitudes desde sempre.

Na sexta (17), enquanto policiais gastavam dinheiro público lançando bombas de gás lacrimogêneo contra manifestantes do lado de fora, o plenário da Assembleia Legislativa do Rio (Alerj) decidiu pela soltura de três deputados presos por corrupção: Edson Albertassi, Paulo Melo e Jorge Picciani. Este último, o presidente da Casa. Dos 39 votos a favor da liberdade dos parlamentares, dez foram de colegas do próprio partido, o PMDB. Até aí, tudo dentro dos (tortos) conformes.

Mas basta olhar com um pouco mais de calma para a lista dos 39 nomes que ratificaram o escárnio para perceber o quanto a incoerência – e não só de princípios, mas até política – foi decisiva. A votação foi apertada: Picciani e sua trupe precisavam de 36 votos para trocar o macarrão de uma cela na cadeia por uma dose de vinho em casa. Então cada “sim” para o relatório que livrou a cara deles foi fundamental.

Comecemos com André Ceciliano (PT). Ué, mas o partido dele não é aquele que reclama que o PMDB de Picciani protagonizou, em Brasília, um golpe para retirar uma presidente legítima do poder? E o que dizer de Jair Bittencourt, Nivaldo Mulim e Renato Cozzolino, do PR? Não é um dos líderes de seu partido no estado, o ex-governador Anthony Garotinho, o principal algoz de Picciani, Cabral e companhia? Para completar, até Paulo Ramos, do tão combativo PSOL, votou a favor do presidente da Casa. O PT anunciou a suspensão de Ceciliano, PR e PSOL optaram pela expulsão dos outros quatro deputados. Ok, mas agora a banda já passou.

Pois bem, somente com esses votos, o resultado já teria sido diferente. Mas há algo ainda mais emblemático: o voto da deputada Cidinha Campos (PDT). Para quem não é do Rio e não a conhece, Cidinha é uma jornalista que ocupa desde o fim da década de 1990 uma cadeira na Alerj. Teve sua carreira ligada ao PDT, principalmente pela afinidade com o ex-governador do Rio Leonel Brizola.

“Eu vejo aqui nessa Casa o cinismo dos ladrões!”

Quem cobre a política fluminense como jornalista há algum tempo possivelmente já deve ter tido Cidinha como fonte em alguma investigação sobre corrupção. Na internet, não é difícil achar vídeos da deputada esbravejando no plenário contra os larápios de colarinho branco:

“Eu vejo aqui nessa Casa o cinismo dos ladrões!”, disse ela, não agora, mas em 2010.

Naquela época, dos discursos mais inflamados de Cidinha, coincidentemente ou não, a deputada se insurgia contra a possível ida de um colega, José Nader Júnior, alvo de um processo de cassação na Alerj, para o Tribunal de Contas do Estado (TCE). Augusto Nunes, colunista da “Veja”, escreveu sobre a postura combativa da deputada um artigo com o seguinte título: “Um discurso que traduziu a indignação contra a roubalheira”.

Agora, Cidinha assistiu calada à tentativa de o PMDB fluminense emplacar o deputado Edson Albertassi, um dos presos-soltos pela Alerj, numa vaga aberta naquele mesmo TCE. A armação só não se concretizou porque foi denunciada pela imprensa e entrou na mira do Ministério Público Federal (MPF).

Em 2006, o discurso contra o “laranja”

Mas há especificamente um auge na incoerência de Cidinha. Na página 90 da petição de 232 páginas do MPF que pediu a prisão de Picciani e sua trupe, é reproduzido um discurso dado em 2006 pela deputada atacando a indicação de Jorge Luiz Ribeiro para exercer à época um cargo de conselheiro da Agência Reguladora de Serviços Públicos (Asep). O MPF cita a fala antiga da parlamentar ao dar um histórico sobre Ribeiro, alvo de mandado de prisão, apontado com um dos emissários de Picciani para o recebimento de propina de empresários de ônibus.

No discurso em plenário, Cidinha diz:

“Não tenho a pretensão de mudar o voto (a favor de indicação de Ribeiro) de ninguém. No curto espaço de tempo que estou aqui, sei que isso não acontece. É preciso mais do que documento, talvez coisas mais palpáveis para ´fazer a cabeça´ dos Senhores Deputados. Não tenho esses instrumentos, mas sei que existem pessoas que têm. E o Deputado Jorge Picciani é um deles. S. Exa tem instrumentos poderosos para ´fazer a cabeça´ desta Casa! E é de S. Exa a sugestão e a indicação de um nome perigoso para integrar esse Conselho: o sr. Jorge Luiz Ribeiro, que certamente irá integrá-lo e vai dizer quanto custará a passagem de ônibus, trem, metrô, o que quiser. Vai continuar comandando a Fetranspor (entidade que reúne empresas de ônibus) e o Detro (departamento responsável pela fiscalização do transporte) e outras casas idôneas que conhecemos nesse estado”.

Em seguida, ela é ainda mais incisiva:

“O sr. Jorge Picciani é que manda nele (Ribeiro). Ele é um laranja do sr. Jorge Picciani.”

Ou seja, a deputada conseguiu a façanha de ser citada na petição do MPF acusando Picciani (ok, há dez anos) e votar a favor da soltura do deputado na última sexta. É um feito e tanto, mas que não surpreende graças ao seu histórico recente, que teve até apoio público ao atual presidente da Alerj numa tentativa frustrada de candidatura ao Senado.

Em suas redes sociais, Cidinha não se manifesta desde meados de outubro. Em sua página no Facebook, a última postagem é do dia 12 daquele mês: um vídeo, de Madre Teresa de Calcutá, que fecha com a frase “Amem uns aos outros”.

The post No circo da Alerj, Cidinha Campos resume a incoerência da política nacional appeared first on The Intercept.

Families Search for Justice for Loved Ones Killed in Collapsed Buildings in Mexico City Earthquake

18 November 2017 - 10:25am

In 1985, when Fernando Sánchez was 18 years old, he dug through rubble in search of life at the site of a collapsed factory in the center of Mexico City. An unknown number of garment workers, mostly women, lost their lives in that factory following the 8.0 magnitude earthquake, and Sánchez was among the rescue crew that tried to save them.

Thirty-two years and approximately six hours later, a 7.1 earthquake shook Mexico’s core again, and Sánchez found himself at the site of another collapsed garment factory, a few blocks away from the building that fell in 1985. This time, he arrived as a desperate family member, searching for his 70-year-old mother, Maria Teresa Lira Infante, and his sister, Maria Elena Sánchez Lira, aged 55, who labored in a dress-beading workshop inside.

“From a distance, [I] saw that a building had collapsed and prayed to all the forces in the universe that it wasn’t theirs,” Sánchez told The Intercept. “As I got closer, I saw that it was their building and just hoped that they had gotten out in time.”

Fernando Sánchez holds photos of his mother and sister in front of a Day of the Dead altar on the site of the fallen Chimalpopoca building.

Photo: Andalusia Knoll Soloff

The four-story building at 168 Bolivar St. on the corner of Chimalpopoca — which became known in the news and on social media just as Chimalpopoca — had converted within seconds into a pile of concrete rubble. Neighbors and volunteers arrived on the scene, hoping to rescue those trapped within, but they lacked basic tools. At first, Sánchez was immobilized by his concern for his family, but talking with other relatives, he snapped to. He couldn’t dig into the concrete due to a previous injury, so he started mobilizing help via social networks, publishing lists of items that the volunteers needed — flood lights, cranes, power cutters — long before official rescue workers arrived on the site.

The day went on, and Sánchez still had no news of his mother and sister. Close to midnight, another of his sisters showed him blurry cellphone photos of bodies in a local morgue. Police had refused to let his sister inside, but offered to take photos of the bodies that had come in. She didn’t recognize any of them, but Sánchez did. He lived with his mother, and that morning, he had helped fasten her watch on her wrist before she took the subway to work – and he saw the watch in the photos from the morgue. When he went to claim the body, he wiped the dust that covered his mother’s face, closed her eyes, and hugged her for the last time.

“My heart was shredded to pieces,” said Sánchez. “I never imagined that she would die like this.”

The devastation caused by the 1985 quake prompted Mexico to reform its building codes and pass laws aimed at preventing slipshod construction. Despite those measures, many of the buildings that collapsed this September were in violation of the law – including the factory where Sánchez’s mother and sister worked.

Documents obtained by The Intercept, combined with evidence turned up by Mexican news outlets, show that the building that housed the garment factory where the women worked was operating in violation of zoning regulations and against the recommendations of structural engineers. And it is not an outlier: As government and citizen investigators continue to assess the damage from the latest earthquake, it is becoming increasingly clear that bad construction practices contributed to collapses and deaths.

Riot Police block off the entrance to the Chimalpopoca site.

Photo: Andalusia Knoll Soloff

Out of Code

Mexico’s Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare has confirmed that the Chimalpopoca building contained five different companies, including SEO Young, the textile company where the Sánchez women worked. SEO Young also runs workshops in a building about a block away, at 185 Isabel La Católica. Fernando Sánchez told The Intercept that his mother and sister had previously been at the location on Isabel La Católica but switched to Chimalpopoca because the company told them the building was not structurally sound.

“That building is standing, and they switched to one that collapsed,” Sánchez said, shaking his head.

In fact, SEO Young’s factories appear to have been in Chimalpopoca illegally, against the findings of government engineers and the land-use permits for the building. The owners of the building, who might be held responsible for the workers’ deaths, have yet to be identified.

In 2004, the Mexican Department of Agrarian Affairs had rented an office in Chimalpopoca and requested a building study, according to an investigation published last month by the Mexican media outlet Chilango. The Mexican National Centre for Disaster Prevention, or CENAPRED, which conducted the engineering study, concluded that the building was likely to sustain damages in the event of an earthquake. CENAPRED documented cracks in the edifice and found that the construction was inherently flawed and could not bear the building’s weight.

The study should have rendered the building inoperable, considering that it was located in the Obrera neighborhood, which the city government has classified as a “Zone 3” loose soil area, meaning that the ground movement caused by an earthquake will be amplified. As documented in cellphone videos, the building collapsed instantly, while an elementary school next door and other large buildings on the same block suffered no damages.

The quake-collapsed textile factory building leaves an empty space at the corner of Bolivar and Chimalpopoca streets after the rubble was cleared away in the Obrera neighborhood of Mexico City, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017.

Photo: Miguel Tovar/AP

Documents that The Intercept was able to obtain from the Secretariat of Housing and Urban Development show that both the buildings where SEO Young operated — at Chimalpopoca and at 185 Isabel la Católica — had land-use permits for commercial use only on the ground floor. The rest of the floors were permitted for residential use. (The Mexican news outlet Aristegui Noticias has published documents similar to those The Intercept obtained, also showing that businesses were allowed only on the first floor of Chimalpopoca.) Yet, in both buildings, commercial entities operated on diverse floors – a fact confirmed by the Secretary of Work and easily visible in Google Street View images of Chimalpopoca, which show signs advertising businesses on many floors. The Intercept also observed large quantities of rolls of fabrics being removed from both buildings following the earthquake.

“The impact of changing the land use in a building that wasn’t designed to be used in that way becomes much clearer during an earthquake, which reveals what structural deficiencies existed,” said Cesar Saldaña, a structural engineer in Mexico City.  He explained that if the building was built for commercial use, it would have to be designed to withstand 540 tons of additional weight, in order to conform to building regulations that were modified after the 1985 earthquake.

“I look at these slabs and I see that the construction is still the same [as 1985.] The authorities keep allowing these kinds of violations in building construction and they don’t inspect them,” said Gloria Juan Diego, a garment worker organizer who was active in the 1985 movement for justice and attended a memorial held at Chimalpopoca.

Chimalpopoca also supported a large cellphone tower, which remained intact after the building collapsed, standing tall above the rubble.

“Who authorized them to place that antenna and the electric substation there?” asked Sánchez. “I am convinced that they caused the building to collapse.” Various Mexican media outlets have reported that the antenna weighed over 40 tons, based on an estimation given by one of the rescue workers who removed it with a crane.

Other buildings that fell in the earthquake may have been affected by the weight of billboards on their roofs. Even though such large billboards on building roofs are officially prohibited, they can be seen throughout the city. A few miles from Chimalpopoca, a building on Torreon Street collapsed, killing eight people within, but the metal structure of a billboard remained largely intact. Within four days of the collapse, the building site was completely razed, wiping most evidence that could have been used to indict the building owners.

In the weeks following the earthquake, the Mexican Attorney General’s office has issued six arrest warrants for builders. It has also detained the director of construction of a newly constructed building that collapsed in the earthquake, killing two people, after an investigation proved that the building’s plans did not match the actual construction. The government has also started to investigate 185 buildings that sustained damages during the earthquake. Nine of those buildings’ owners or directors of construction are being investigated for homicide for deaths that occurred in the quake.

SEO Young did not respond to multiple calls to their offices, and it is not clear if they knew that their factory operated in violation of the building’s permitted usage.

The building’s ownership has not been confirmed, although documents obtained by Aristegui Noticias show that the building was purchased in 2016 by the real estate company Inmobico, represented by a well-known businessman Alberto Cojab Sacal. Inmobico representatives were not available for comment.

Adriana and other volunteer rescue workers hold a moment of silence for all those who died in the collapsed building.

Photo: Andalusia Knoll Soloff

Citizen Diggers

Many of the earthquake’s victims and volunteer first responders aren’t holding out hope for accountability from the government or corporate interests. In the days following the disaster, they were left to sift through rubble and gather information on their own, and with the help of their neighbors.

Shortly after the collapse at Chimalpopoca, a feminist citizen’s brigade organized to fill in the information gap, collecting clothing tags, invoices, and other documents that were strewn about the rubble. There were no government forensic experts visibly present doing the same work of collecting evidence.

“We know that for the state and the government our bodies are only worth the profits that they generate,” read a communiqué released by the group on September 20. Because “no formal payroll existed [at this company], it’s unknown how many people could be underneath the remains of this structure.”

On the afternoon of Friday, September 22, three days after the earthquake, the Mexican government officially ended their rescue work at Chimalpopoca, and sent hundreds of riot police to barricade the site.

The volunteers didn’t believe the government’s statement that there would be no one still left alive. The credibility of this government has suffered greatly in recent years, especially over the case of the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college in southern Mexico. (The government said that they were kidnapped and burned in a garbage dump, a hypothesis that was debunked a year later by an international committee of experts.) Additionally, volunteers recalled stories of a hospital where newborn babies were rescued one week after the 1985 earthquake, which gave them hope that workers could still be alive.

Rumors started to spread about the existence of a basement. “I’m not leaving this spot until they show us the building plans and tell us how many people worked here and how many they found,” a volunteer named Adriana told The Intercept (she would not share her last name out of concern for her safety amid the chaotic situation with the police). She had been on site since the first day, inspired by the fact that her own mother had been rescued from a collapsed building in the 1985 earthquake.

Eventually some volunteers made it through the barricades and continued searching, but they called it off the next day, after two rescue dogs showed no signs of recognizing life within the ruin. On Sunday, a memorial was held on the site with fabrics rescued from the factory, scribbled with feminist messages and strewn throughout the rubble in memoriam.

During a memorial held on the site of the collapsed building, a woman paints the slogan: “The life of a garment worker is worth more than all your machines.”

Photo: Andalusia Knoll Soloff

According to the Mexican government, 15 people died in the collapse at Chimalpopoca. Along with Sánchez’s mother and sister, other employees for SEO Young also died, including a mother and her daughter-in-law and a young woman who had just returned from pregnancy leave. Sánchez says that SEO Young offered $18,000 in total for all the families of the deceased.

“I don’t want to put a price on the life of my mother, but that is not a dignified amount — it is actually offensive,” said Sánchez. He refused to accept the money and says he will demand just compensation through legal means. Immediately, he faces the cost of two funerals, about $1,700. The government has promised to reimburse various fees related to the earthquake, but the process had been slow.

Sánchez used to enjoy cooking and hanging out with his mom. Now living alone, he spends all his time visiting one government office after another, completing bureaucratic processes and hoping that a government investigation will find those culpable for his mother and sister’s death.

“I now have to reinvent my life from nothing without them,” said Sánchez. “I just want justice, there is someone responsible for the collapse of that building.”

Top photo: Rescuers and volunteers work in a textile factory that collapsed two days after the magnitude 7.1 earthquake jolted central Mexico killing more than 250 hundred people, damaging buildings, knocking out power and causing alarm throughout the capital on Sept. 21, 2017 in Mexico City.

Lizbeth Hernández contributed reporting to this article.

The post Families Search for Justice for Loved Ones Killed in Collapsed Buildings in Mexico City Earthquake appeared first on The Intercept.

Wall Street Wants to Kill the Agency Protecting Americans From Financial Scams

18 November 2017 - 9:03am

Shortly after 10:00 p.m. on a Tuesday in late October, Vice President Mike Pence was summoned to the Senate floor. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau had finalized a landmark new rule in July banning the forced arbitration provisions that banks and credit card companies commonly tuck into the fine print of agreements, barring their customers from joining class-action suits. House Republicans quickly voted to nullify the new rule, but weeks later, with a deadline looming, it was still unclear if the Senate would act in time. After intense pressure from industry and the Trump administration, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was finally able to muster 50 votes, and Pence was parachuted in to break a 50-50 tie. Politico called the vote “a blow to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau” and “Republicans’ most far-reaching victory yet this year in their effort to roll back financial regulations.” CFPB Director Richard Cordray was even more blunt: “Wall Street won and ordinary people lost.”

The rule’s spectacular defeat marked a rare Wall Street victory over an agency created by Dodd-Frank, the sweeping financial reform law Barack Obama signed in 2010. The CFPB was barely five years old when Donald Trump was elected, promising to “do a number” on financial regulations. Just weeks into the new presidency, Sen. Ted Cruz declared the CFPB “an out-of-control bureaucracy” and introduced a one-page bill to abolish it outright. McConnell, then minority leader, had told a gathering of bankers in 2013, “If I had my way, we wouldn’t have the agency at all.” A dead or severely injured CFPB seemed a certainty in those early days. If nothing else, surely Cordray would get pink-slipped. “It’s time to fire King Richard,” exclaimed Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., shortly before Trump’s inauguration.

Yet Cordray is departing on his own terms, amid speculation that he will run for governor of Ohio. He announced on Wednesday that he expects to step down before the end of the month, and when he does, he’ll leave behind a vibrant, if profoundly embattled, agency.

His departure will be “a huge loss,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform. If Trump appoints a new director who is indifferent, or even hostile, to consumer issues, she said, “It will be incredibly costly to the American public.”

This past summer, Cheklist, a trade magazine for check cashers and payday lenders, published a cover story about the frustration roiling fringe financial players. The CFPB was still a “nettlesome bureau,” its editor wrote, and not a single bill aimed at weakening the bureau had reached the president’s desk. Meanwhile, its aggressive enforcement actions against debt collectors, credit repair companies, and online payday lenders were continuing unabated. Just three weeks before Congress reversed the arbitration rule, the CFPB finalized another new rule that tightened restrictions around high-interest, small-dollar loans to stop what Cordray called “payday debt traps.”

Yet it’s not just smaller financial players who have felt cheated over the past year. Richard Hunt, who has been paid more than $1 million a year  by the Consumer Bankers Association, a trade group representing the country’s largest banks, including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase, expressed delight after the Senate killed the “ill-conceived” ban on mandatory arbitration clauses. But mostly, his organization has been left expressing disappointment. Thoughts of halting the CFPB have been replaced by angry pronouncements about its unregulated powers. “It’s a fact,” Hunt said in an interview. “It’s the most unaccountable agency in our government, period.”

In fact, the CFPB has emerged as that rare beast — a fast-moving agency that actually chalks up wins for average Americans. By the end of 2016, shortly before Trump took office, the 5 1/2 -year-old bureau’s enforcement actions against everyone from the country’s biggest banks to small-time debt collectors had already returned $11.9 billion to 29 million consumers. The CFPB had created a public database of consumer complaints against banks and other lenders, and had issued new rules governing everything from mortgages to student loans to the prepaid cards that millions of “unbanked” Americans carry in their wallets. A year ago, the bureau finalized new rules giving prepaid customers some of the same protections enjoyed by those who use credit cards. Pressure from the bureau also resulted in the end of several onerous practices by lenders, such as demanding full repayment on student loans if the parent who co-signed the loan died.

Through its complaint database, the CFPB has secured redress for more than 160,000 individual complainants, such as Gene DeSantis, a former TD Bank customer near Albany, New York. DeSantis, a consumer lawyer himself, nevertheless registered one of the 800,000-plus complaints the CFPB has received. While he was away for the winter, DeSantis had mail forwarded to his Utah home. But TD, he found, does not forward its bills unless a customer contacts the bank directly, even when a customer like DeSantis has arranged for the post office to do so, and so he missed a payment. After a surprise call from a debt collector, DeSantis said he called customer service but “never got anywhere.” Meanwhile, his late charges ballooned to $235 on his $136 missed payment. “If a person like me is rendered helpless, God forbid what the average person faces,” DeSantis said. Within a week of filing his CFPB complaint, TD dropped interest and penalties. (A TD spokesperson declined to comment on the bank’s refusal to waive the fees until the CFPB got involved.)

“Because of the bureau,” said Mike Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, “we’ve gone from, ‘Where does it say I can’t do that?’ to ‘You have a duty to treat customers fairly.’”

Even without Cordray at the helm, the problem that confronts Hunt and his frenemies running other financial industry trade associations is that the CFPB is simply too popular to eliminate. A 2017 poll by Americans for Financial Reform and the Center for Responsible Lending showed that 78 percent of likely voters believe we need tough rules and enforcement to prevent another financial crisis. Even among Republicans the ratio was 2-to-1. A poll conducted at the end of 2016 showed that, by that same 2-to-1 margin, Trump voters want the bureau left alone or strengthened. Its popularity seems to be one reason the White House has not waged the frontal war on the CFPB that its allies so sorely wanted. With Wells Fargo and Equifax exploding in scandal and their CEOs marched before Congress, anger toward Wall Street is almost as strong on the right as it is on the left. How, in that context, do you shut down an agency called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?

Industry’s answer has been a multimillion dollar, multi-front battle to discredit and defang the bureau, a war declared even before the enemy officially existed. Almost immediately after Dodd-Frank became law, a robust opposition had formed that included elected officials, trade associations, lobbyists, lawyers, think tanks, and front groups. In the intervening years, attacking the CFPB has become a growth industry in Washington. Hyperbolic, relentless, often scorchingly personal — it’s a campaign that more often than not resembles a street fight. Now the agency is vulnerable and soon to be in the hands of a Trump appointee who could attempt to unwind the constructive work that took place under Cordray, says Donner. “There is a lot at stake,” she said.


Elizabeth Warren, then Special Asst. to the Treasury Secretary on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, on the anniversary of Dodd-Frank, in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, July 20, 2011.

Photo: Harry Hamburg/AP

1The War Room

Elizabeth Warren first floated the idea for a new consumer watchdog while still teaching law at Harvard University. The federal government has a Consumer Product Safety Commission that develops uniform safety standards and has the power to ban or recall items posing unreasonable safety risks. Why not a Financial Product Safety Commission, Warren asked in a 2007 paper,  that protects people from any “tricks and traps” that mortgage lenders, credit card companies, and other financial institutions might bake into their products? The financial crisis hit the next year, adding urgency to her proposal. In 2010, shortly after signing Dodd-Frank, Obama hired Warren as a special adviser. Her job: to hire people and start building the agency she had only imagined three years earlier. “David can beat Goliath — that’s the meaning of Dodd-Frank,” she said in 2015.

The CFPB receives money directly from the Federal Reserve, which is funded in part by the banks it oversees. So it has never been vulnerable to congressional budget cuts. Yet from the start, working for the bureau meant contending with congressional inquiries, legal challenges, and a constant barrage of document requests from conservative quarters. “There was a whole office within the general counsel’s office to deal with nothing but this stuff,” said Deepak Gupta, a crusading consumer lawyer Warren chose to serve as the agency’s top litigator. A “war room,” Gupta called it. Another early employee, Rohit Chopra, whom Warren had put in charge of the private student loan market, described life then as having polite conversations with representatives of companies “while they were putting all these resources into having their lobbyists and lawyers try to burn the place down.” In March 2011, the Wall Street Journal denounced Warren and the bureau three times in a single week — four months before the CFPB had opened its doors.

Chopra’s job within the agency was to advocate on behalf of private student-loan borrowers, who often paid interest rates more than twice as high as those carrying government student loans. Outspoken in his criticisms of the industry, he soon learned how quickly things could turn personal. Hunt, whose trade group represents some of the largest private student lenders, described Chopra as a “bad apple” and “borderline sinister.” Hunt had his chance to lash out at his adversary in a Wall Street Journal article about what the newspaper called Chopra’s “hard-charging style.” That story even dredged up an issue of the Harvard Crimson from his time as student body president, in which Chopra said, “A kind of adversarial relationship is necessary.”

The Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives at the start of 2011. Since that time, the House has functioned as the front line in the fight against the bureau. Its command center is the House Financial Services Committee, which, Gupta says, “is like an arm of the banking industry.” Jeb Hensarling, a free-market libertarian representing the eastern suburbs of Dallas, has chaired the committee since 2013, when he replaced a more moderate, business-friendly Republican. Hensarling and his allies have attacked Cordray with the sustained vigor of the Benghazi hearings. “The CFPB stands with Obamacare as a crowning ‘achievement’ of Mr. Obama’s transformation of America,” Hensarling wrote earlier this year in a Wall Street Journal op-ed headlined, “How We’ll Stop a Rogue Federal Agency.”

When he was first assigned to the committee, Sean Duffy, a freshman representative from rural Wisconsin best known for appearing on an MTV reality television show (“The Real World: Boston”), confessed he “wasn’t very familiar” with banking issues. Yet within a few months, he declared the CFPB a “rogue agency” and introduced legislation to weaken its rule-making powers. Since 2011, Duffy has received $2.9 million in campaign contributions from the financial sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. “Say bad things about the CFPB,” said Gupta, and watch the money roll in. “It’s like a cash cow for them.”

In 2014, Duffy was named chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which has emerged as the prime beachhead for lobbing grenades at the CFPB.

Since 2011, Republicans have introduced 135 bills and resolutions aimed at killing or weakening the CFPB in the House and Senate. And CFPB executives have been summoned to Capitol Hill more than 60 times since the agency was created.

Senate Republicans, still a minority in the first few years after the bureau opened, deployed the most powerful leverage they had: the power to block confirmations. In May 2011, two months before the CFPB launched, McConnell, then-minority leader, sent Obama a letter signed by 43 fellow Republicans.Make structural changes to the CFPB, the letter demanded, or we won’t even consider your nominee to head the agency — even if that nominee isn’t Warren. With confirmation requiring 60 votes, McConnell was in position to follow through on his threat.

Obama publicly acknowledged that he didn’t choose Warren, widely seen as the logical choice for permanent director, in part because she faced “very tough opposition.” He spoke of an “army of lobbyists right now working to water down the protections and reforms that we’ve passed.” Obama’s compromise was Cordray, the former Ohio attorney general whom Warren had chosen as her enforcement chief.

Cordray’s nomination precipitated a showdown over the use of a Senate filibuster to block presidential appointees. So Obama named him as acting chief through a January 2012 recess appointment, sparking more partisan rancor. A deal struck in July 2013 left the existing filibuster rules in place if Republicans would confirm Cordray, among other nominees. The CFPB finally had a permanent director — whose five-year term would already have been complete if not for the GOP’s political game-playing — and Warren a seat on the Senate Banking Committee, where she reigns as the CFPB’s fiercest defender. “The Republicans were too clever by half,” said Barney Frank, the former representative behind Dodd-Frank.

By that point, the campaign to obstruct and undermine the CFPB had taken shape. Its early members included the payday lenders, whose trade group, the Community Financial Services Association of America, spent $478,000 lobbying last year. They were joined by the Consumer Bankers Association, Hunt’s organization, which spent $3.2 million on lobbying in 2016; the American Bankers Association, which spent $9.8 million on the services of 58 lobbyists that same year; and the other influential trade associations representing big financial players. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the powerhouse industry group that last year had 158 lobbyists on its payroll, joined the fight as well.

Law firms were enlisted in the fight. They’ve filed at least 21 suits challenging everything from specific enforcement actions to CFPB-issued rules to the bureau’s very legitimacy, tying up CFPB’s team of lawyers in court. So were think tanks and public relations specialists, including industry front groups that back anti-CFPB advertisements or organize anti-CFPB “astroturf” campaigns, which seek to create the appearance of grassroots opposition. Together, they’ve found a receptive audience in such conservative outlets as the Washington Times, the Daily Caller, and Breitbart, where Cordray has been called a “czar.” The usual suspects on the right also regularly publish critiques of the bureau from the likes of the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the latter of which is funded by the Koch Family Foundations.

Opposing the CFPB has become profitable enough to attract star players like Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was a paid senior adviser to an astroturf group called the U.S. Consumer Coalition when he penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed and testified before a House panel laying out the many reasons he thinks the CFPB ought to be abolished. (The Journal felt compelled to print an “amplification” when his affiliation as was revealed.)

The payday lenders, one agency staffer said, are “probably our most vociferous foes.” There have been times, this staffer said, when several people inside the bureau have been devoted entirely to one of their trade association’s “mega-document requests.” Paul Bland, executive director of Public Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based corporate accountability group, said, “It’s like something from ‘Game of Thrones.’”

That was never clearer than in June 2016, when the bureau unveiled its draft on payday loans. The rules required a lender to either verify a borrower’s ability to repay or cap each borrower at six loans per year. The payday lenders chose none of the above. Instead, lenders engaged online software firms to generate automated messages from their customers and set out paper and pens in storefronts to generate boxes full of letters to the CFPB. In just four months, the industry submitted over 1 million comment letters, each of which, under federal law, the CFPB needed to log, catalogue, and address.

The clash has grown only more intense since Trump’s election. Now most regulatory agencies are in the hands of Trump loyalists or former players in the financial industry. For the past five months, only the CFPB, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Fed were still run by Obama appointees. “It’s the nail that sticks up that gets pounded,” said Jeff Sovern, a consumer law professor at St. John’s University in New York.

Cordray, for his part, has generally played the technocrat and leaves the political fighting to others. Just three days after Trump was sworn in as president, the CFPB fined Citibank $28.8 million for giving the run-around to thousands of borrowers trying to avoid a home foreclosure. One week later, it sued a small ring of lawyers, accusing them of levying high fees on clients seeking to lessen their debt loads. In an “all-hands call” the agency set up three weeks after the election, Cordray had advised his staff: “Keep calm and carry on.”

Banks are thriving after five years of record profits. But they have continued to attack the bureau, Bland said, as if it’s “the demon that’s gonna swallow capitalism.”


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) listen to questions from reporters after a meeting on Capitol Hill December 9, 2008 in Washington, DC.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

2Racking up Enemies

Richard Hunt offered a sideways smile when told that his political foes see him as leading the industry charge against the CFPB. Pugnacious and wiry, with a shaved head and intense eyes, Hunt leaned in and, in a swampy Louisiana accent, said, “Now you’re just flattering me.” In a conference room in the nondescript Washington headquarters of the Consumer Bankers Association, Hunt launched into a well-rehearsed diatribe about an agency that has cost his member banks billions of dollars in fines. The CFPB is autocratic, Hunt said. Its people are clueless. (“I would say 90 to 95 percent of the people have no idea how a bank operates,” he said.) And don’t get him started about the CFPB’s “one-sided” crackdown on student loan abuse or the “idiocy” of its failed arbitration rule.

But Hunt reserved his strongest attacks for what he saw as Cordray’s unchecked power. “Keep in mind that Elizabeth Warren modeled the CFPB on the consumer safety product — wait for it — commission,” Hunt said. The version of Dodd-Frank first passed by the House in 2009 put a five-person commission in charge of the agency. The Senate, however, recognized the advantage of a single director who would not need to corral three votes to make a decision. For Hunt, this was the original sin.

“At 2 o’clock in the morning on the day the bill was passed, they went from a commission, as introduced by Barney Frank and passed in the House of Representatives under Nancy Pelosi, to a director setup that puts way too much power in the hands of one individual,” Hunt said.

The grievances of the major banks that pay Hunt’s salary grew over time. Many had expected CFPB enforcement to focus on subprime lenders operating on the economic fringes, not the country’s largest banks. Yet in 2014, the CFPB ordered Bank of America to pay $727 million to 1.9 million customers the bureau said were “illegally charged” for credit monitoring services they were not receiving. The next year, the bureau hit Citibank with a $700 million penalty for similar violations. Banks issuing private student loans were also in the bureau’s sights, along with the servicing firms that collect payments on their behalf. Even a trade association representing credit unions joined the fight against the CFPB after the bureau implemented new mortgage rules that some members complained increased their paperwork and legal costs. One, the Credit Union National Association, in 2014 hired a former congressperson and Gingrich acolyte named Jim Nussle as its CEO at a salary of $1 million a year. Five of Nussle’s colleagues make more than $300,000 a year.

The CFPB has jurisdiction over nearly every financial player that interacts with the public; Hunt’s group counted and found that the CFPB oversees 15,000 to 16,000 businesses and other entities. (The CFPB could not confirm that estimate.) And as the CFPB has spread its wings, taking on credit card companies, debt remediation operations, and lenders in the $1.1 trillion auto loan market, the bureau’s list of enemies has grown.

“In all, it’s worked out very well for consumers,” said Ed Mierzwinski, a lobbyist for the left-leaning U.S.-Public Interest Research Group. “But it’s caused a lot more guns to be aimed at the agency.”

When talking with Hunt, CFPB’s consumer complaint database was another point of contention. Anyone facing a problem with a financial institution — a policy they see as unfair, a lender not taking a complaint seriously — can phone, write, or log in online to register their displeasure. “They’re supposed to be an entity of the federal government,” Hunt said. “But I think in this case, Yelp has a better reputation for verification than the CFPB.”

In June, the Treasury Department recommended that the bureau restrict access to state and federal regulators. That same month, House Republicans obliged the banks by passing a bill that would bar the CFPB from maintaining the database at all.


Richard Cordray being sworn in at the beginning of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill September 6, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

3The Straw Men

In the real world, Cordray has governed the bureau as an earnest workaholic. He got his start in politics as a county treasurer in suburban Columbus, Ohio, and is an “aw-shucks” moderate with a centrist resume. He clerked for Judge Robert Bork, a conservative, and Supreme Court justices Anthony Kennedy, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan, and Byron White, who was appointed by John F. Kennedy.

The challenge for members of Hensarling’s House Financial Services Committee, where Cordray has been seen a “dictator” occupying a “czar’s throne,” is to find proxy issues that let them attack the bureau without directly attacking its popular enforcement actions or consumer-friendly rules. The committee’s first impulse was to demonize Cordray himself. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Missouri Republican who now  chairs the House Financial Services’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and flanked Trump for a photo op as he signed one of his deregulatory decrees, has called Cordray an “imperial director” overseeing an “unconstitutional behemoth.” Not to be outdone, Hensarling has publicly wondered which best fits Cordray: “credit czar, national nanny, or benevolent financial product dictator.” Just this year, Hensarling declared that he may pursue contempt-of-Congress proceedings against Cordray and called for an investigation into Cordray for alleged violations of a federal ban on political activities.

Another early proxy fight began with the decision to house the CFPB in a structure near the White House once used by the now-defunct Office of Thrift Supervision. It was a “run-down concrete building,” according to a Bloomberg article, in need of a gut renovation. That renovation provided committee members several years of opportunity to vilify Cordray and his team. Hensarling accused Cordray of building a “Taj Mahal” and Wagner, at a 2015 hearing, interrupted Cordray seven times while asking him to explain the “wasteful renovations.” Before he could offer a coherent response, she moved on to a diatribe about the agency’s “power grab” over mortgages and other financial products. Several months later, a report from the Federal Reserve’s Inspector General, produced at the request of the committee, concluded that the costs “appear reasonable.”

Much would be made, too, about the CFPB’s salaries. Bureau employees are paid, on average, significantly more than other government employees but so are employees of the Fed and FDIC. “The idea is to help the bank regulators compete somewhat better with the private sector,” said Mike Calhoun of the Center for Responsible Lending, who noted that bureau employees still earn far less than their private sector counterparts.

The agency’s opponents hit pay dirt in 2014 when the American Banker  obtained confidential data revealing a pattern at the CFPB of ranking white employees higher than minorities in performance reviews. Within weeks, the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee held its first of five hearings on the matter. A senior enforcement attorney described her “long and trying ordeal” enduring gender discrimination and retaliation, and suggested that the agency “establish its own Wounded Warrior program” to assist victims of discrimination. One investigator hired by the bureau to look into the attorney’s case testified that the CFPB was a “toxic workplace.” At one of the later hearings, in June 2015, the agency’s senior equal employment specialist testified that nothing had improved at the agency since the hearings began, that she was “frequently approached” by CFPB employees with grievances about maltreatment and discrimination.

That same year, Democratic staffers working for the House Financial Services Committee put out a report examining racial patterns at all seven federal financial regulators, which showed that the CFPB was hardly an outlier. Investigators found the pattern of ranking white employees higher than black employees at all seven — yet Hensarling’s committee didn’t call a single hearing on any of the others. Nearly one in five CFPB employees were black, tying it for third in diversity among the seven, the report said, and the CFPB had at least begun to make needed changes, including a redesigned employee ranking system. A 2016 “best places to work” survey of employees found that the CFPB ranked fourth out of 26 mid-sized federal agencies in its “support for diversity.”

None of that affected Hensarling’s rhetoric. “In all the time I’ve been in government, I’ve never seen an agency that’s had more accusations of racial discrimination,” he told NPR earlier this year.

Another big dressing-down of the CFPB followed news in 2016 of Wells Fargo opening fraudulent accounts in the names of more than 1 million customers. (That number has since ballooned to 3.5 million.) In April, Wagner chastised Corday for being “asleep at the wheel,” charging that the Los Angeles Times, which broke the story, the Los Angeles City Attorney, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency had “all got there before you did.” Yet it was another Wells Fargo regulator, the OCC that, two weeks later, was slammed in an internal report for its “untimely and ineffective” response. By 2010 — before the CFPB even existed — the OCC was already aware that Wells had received 700 whistleblower complaints related to the gaming of incentive plans but failed to properly follow up. Yet House Financial Services never initiated a hearing to grill the OCC, now in the hands of Keith Noreika, a Trump-appointed lawyer who had spent his career protecting banks.

Then again, attacking the OCC wouldn’t pay like criticizing the CFPB. One former chair of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, Patrick McHenry, took $2 million in campaign contributions from the financial sector during the 2015-16 election cycle, according to a study by Americans for Financial Reform, and another, Duffy, the former reality star, took in more than $1 million during the same period. That same study found that Hensarling received $1.9 million in contributions and that House Speaker Paul Ryan, who tweeted last year that the CFPB “tries to micromanage your everyday life,” received $5.7 million from the financial sector in 2015 and 2016. MapLight, a nonprofit that tracks the influence of money in politics, reported in August that the 35 Republican House members who sponsored legislation to repeal the CFPB’s arbitration rule received more than four times the contributions from the commercial banking industry than lawmakers who opposed the bill.


Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich shakes hands with Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump during a rally at the Sharonville Convention Center July 6, 2016, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Photo: John Sommers II/Getty Images

4The Hidden Hand

The financing behind some of the CFPB’s other critics is more opaque. Over lunch at an upscale D.C. eatery, Brian Wise, director of the U.S. Consumers Coalition, vented about the frustrations of running an honest astroturf campaign in today’s political scrum. A year or two earlier, a rival dark money group called Protect America’s Consumers tried to encroach on his turf. While his organization’s Twitter handle is @USConsumers, the other group chose @USAConsumers, he said, “to try and confuse people.” He knows who is funding this rival effort, he claimed, but wouldn’t say more than “it’s an industry I don’t accept money from.”

Yet Wise is equally secretive about who is funding his coalition’s efforts to thwart the CFPB, and who his coalition represents. (When asked to name his coalition’s members, he said only, “We’re a different kind of organization.”) He created his group in 2013, the same year the CFPB released a report concluding that, for many customers, a payday loan becomes an inescapable debt trap. For him, that conclusion put at risk the inalienable right of a consumer to take out a loan, even if it means paying a 400 percent interest rate. “Our mission,” he said, “is to advocate for greater choice and freedom.” He denied that he has taken money from payday lenders but otherwise declined to discuss his funding. Whatever the source, there was enough money to pay for a lobbyist between 2014 and 2016 and “for us to hire outside consultants and advisers, including Speaker Gingrich.”

Wise is a stocky man with a goatee and a dusting of gray in his neatly clipped black hair. In conversation, he was also unfailingly polite in that Washington way, respectfully referring to “Chairman Cordray” and “Speaker Pelosi,” even as he dismissed them as fools, dupes, or something far less flattering. For much of the meal, Wise focused on the proxy battles, speaking of the racial charges against the CFPB and also of another hobby horse: the CFPB’s data collection practices.

Wise acknowledged that the bureau has only acted as scholars do, using data mining to grow smarter about consumer behavior. He was not nearly so reassuring in the 2015 article he wrote for the Daily Caller, the conservative website co-founded by Tucker Carlson, which ran under the headline, “Move Over NSA – CFPB Spying Is Even More Invasive.” Gingrich, on Wise’s dime, was equally alarmist in the Wall Street Journal op-ed he wrote that same year (“A Government Snoop That Puts the NSA To Shame”), which called on privacy advocates to make the bureau “your next target.”

Wise’s group also raised enough money to produce an ad dubbed the “CFPB Man,” featuring a large man in sunglasses and a fedora. As he looms over a couple, one explains to the other that the man is with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “that secretive government agency that tracks all our credit card purchases.” The ad, which has appeared mainly online, asks people to visit a website that touts the idea of putting the CFPB under a bipartisan commission and giving Congress more control over CFPB operations. Other bank regulators — the Fed, the FDIC, and the OCC — are, like the CFPB, independently funded through fees paid by the financial institutions they monitor. But Wise, along with scholars at Heritage and Cato, wants Congress to contain the CFPB’s budget.

Another anti-CFPB ad was released in late 2015 by a group called the American Action Network. The ad, backed by a $500,000 ad campaign, depicts a CFPB ripped from an anti-Soviet propaganda film: In a huge, bland room, colorless except for red banners featuring images of Corday and Warren, rows of bureaucrats indiscriminately stamp “DENIED” on loan applications. The agency, a narrator intones, was “designed to interfere with your personal financial decisions.”

The ad never mentions Navient, a giant in the student loan world, nor did a companion website, StopCFPB.com. But the company’s fingerprints were all over the effort. The American Action Network board was stacked with lobbyists for the student loan industry: Vin Weber, a former Republican congressperson-turned-lobbyist who represents Navient as a client; Tom Reynolds, a lawyer registered as a Navient lobbyist in 2015; and Barry Jackson, who worked for a lobbying firm that represented a Navient rival. Most tellingly, the ad campaign launched just three months after Navient revealed that a subsidiary was being investigated by the CFPB on charges that it had cheated student borrowers. The CFPB formally sued Navient this past January.

Yet another attack ad, produced by Wise’s imitator, Protect America’s Consumers, appeared in 2016 on Fox News and other cable channels, warning that “the CFPB is plagued with scandal and corruption.” This time, Politico raised the question of “Koch fingerprints.” Protect America’s Consumers had the same Virginia address as a law firm that had registered several Koch-linked groups, a firm, Politico reported, that “specializes in untraceable pressure groups for conservative causes.” A spokesperson for the group denied any Koch connection but also declined to answer questions about its backers.


Former Equifax CEO Richard Smith prepares to testify before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill October 4, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

5The Anti-Consumer Consumer Law

The machinery that’s been built to hollow out the CFPB was plainly in sight starting on a Monday morning in July, when the agency first posted its final rule banning mandatory arbitration. By 2 p.m., Hunt’s Consumer Bankers Association had issued statements and one-pagers stressing that arbitration was “faster, better, and more cost-effective” than litigation, ignoring that, under the rule, arbitration would remain an option. Hunt demanded that Congress “move swiftly and overturn this anti-consumer rule.”

Other trade associations quickly mobilized: the American Bankers Association, the Financial Services Roundtable, Nussle’s credit union group. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a 30-second ad decrying the latest abomination from this “rogue government agency and their trial lawyer pals.” Conservative think tanks ranging from the Mercatus Center at George Mason to Americans for Tax Reform released similarly overheated statements.

Two federal agencies, now run by Trump appointees, have now also joined in the fight. In October, the Treasury put out a report opposing the arbitration rule. So, too, did Noreika, Trump’s acting head of the Office of the Comptroller, who had spent the summer publicly sniping at Cordray over the arbitration rule. After six years of study, Noreika argued for more study.

By late July, the House had already passed a resolution to kill the rule. The Senate had yet to act when the Equifax breach exposed information on 143 million consumers, sparking widespread criticism of the company for locking its customers into mandatory arbitration. Equifax, under pressure, withdrew the arbitration provision, but American Banker speculated that the episode “may ultimately doom” efforts to overturn the rule.

Taking no chances, in late September, the Consumer Bankers Association, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Bankers Association, sued the CFPB, challenging the rule’s “constitutionality and legality.”

The lawsuit wasn’t necessary. GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski and John Kennedy joined with the Democrats in voting to leave the arbitration rule in place. But with Pence’s tie-breaking vote, that wasn’t enough. Cordray, the punching bag, will soon be gone, and Trump will get to appoint his replacement. Reportedly, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney will serve as the agency’s acting director. Mulvaney, a self-described “right-wing nut job,” said while still in Congress, “I don’t like the fact that the CFPB exists.” A new director could quickly halt any draft rules still in formation and begin the arduous process of reversing rules that have incurred the wrath of Wall Street or other financial interests. Enforcement could grind to a halt; the complaint database could be mothballed. And Cordray’s departure could be followed by others, said Nick Rathod, the bureau’s former assistant director: “I imagine a number of the staff following him out.” Donner, of Americans for Financial Reform, said, “It will be a big change. But they can’t make it all go away with the stroke of a pen. Rules can’t be unwritten without rulemaking, and we and others will be fierce to be sure they consult with the public and consider the facts.” Trump’s team signaled its intentions shortly after the election with its selection of the four-person landing team assigned to evaluate the CFPB. One was Julie Bell Lindsay, who had been a top lawyer for Citigroup. Another was Kyle Hauptman, former executive director of the Main Street Growth Project, an organization “focused on protecting everyday Americans and small businesses from becoming caught in the crossfire in the effort to ‘reform Wall Street.’”

Structural reforms to the CFPB will have to make their way through the conflicted GOP leadership in Congress. The party’s pro-business faction backs the idea of neutralizing the bureau by imposing a five-person governing commission. But, said one GOP congressional staffer, “you’ve got a lot of Republicans saying that a single director is not such a bad idea now that Donald Trump is in the White House.” In June, the House passed Hensarling’s Financial CHOICE Act, which Ryan dubbed “the crown jewel” of the GOP agenda. The CHOICE Act keeps the CFPB in the hands of a single director while stripping the bureau of many of its regulatory powers. Yet there is no companion bill in the Senate, where 60 votes are required to make any structural changes to the CFPB. Congressional Republicans can continue to deploy the Congressional Review Act, which they used to reverse the arbitration rule, though at this point, only the fate of the bureau’s payday rule, issued in October, is up in the air. No other major new rules are far along in the pipeline.

Looming as an existential threat to the bureau is a lawsuit that’s been working its way through federal courts since 2015. That was the year the CFPB slapped a $109 million fine on a New Jersey-based mortgage company called PHH that the bureau found had taken illegal kickbacks for referring customers to mortgage insurers. PHH responded by filing a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the agency. In October 2016, just a month before Election Day, a three-judge panel issued a surprise ruling declaring that an agency whose director could only be removed for cause was unconstitutional. Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote the decision, called Cordray the “single most powerful official in the entire U.S. Government, other than the President.” Hensarling declared it “a good day for democracy.” Now he’s called Cordray’s resignation “an excellent opportunity to enact desperately needed reforms.”

The CFPB appealed, and the full court, which heard oral arguments in May, is still considering the case. The Center for Responsible Lending, PIRG, Americans for Financial Reform, Rep. Maxine Waters, Sen. Sherrod Brown, and other Democrats are among those who filed amicus briefs supporting the bureau. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the debt collectors, and the Cato Institute filed on behalf of PHH. Most interesting perhaps is the Justice Department, which switched sides in the case in March by filing a brief siding with PHH. The president’s right to fire the sitting director of the CFPB seemed like a splendid idea now that a Republican was occupying the White House.

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

Top photo: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) listens to testimony from witnesses during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on “Mitigating Systemic Risk Through Wall Street Reforms,” on Capitol Hill, July 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The post Wall Street Wants to Kill the Agency Protecting Americans From Financial Scams appeared first on The Intercept.

A incompetência da Arábia Saudita seria cômica, se não fosse letal

18 November 2017 - 4:00am

Era de se esperar que a Arábia Saudita fosse um país muito poderoso. Privilegiado com um quinto das reservas mundiais provadas de petróleo, relações próximas com estados ocidentais poderosos, acesso a armamento ilimitado dos EUA, apoio de interesses corporativos globais, e prestígio religioso e cultural por abrigar os lugares sagrados muçulmanos, o reino deveria ser a potência regional incontestada.

Para saber que não é o caso, basta uma olhada rápida sobre o Oriente Médio.

A política externa saudita está naufragando de tal forma que seria cômico assistir, se não envolvesse tamanha devastação humana. Sob a liderança recém-criada de Mohammed bin Salman, o governo da Arábia Saudita está empenhado em perder todas as guerras indiretas em que se envolveu: fracassou em subjugar seu diminuto rival no Golfo Pérsico, o Catar, e mais recentemente humilhou seu próprio aliado, o Primeiro-Ministro do Líbano Saad Hariri, no que parece ter sido uma tentativa tragicômica de desestabilizar o governo libanês.

A Arábia Saudita sofre frequentes críticas por ser um celeiro do islamismo radical, mas esse pode ser apenas mais um sintoma de um problema maior: a radical incompetência de suas lideranças. Desde o assassinato do rei Faisal bin Abdulaziz em 1975 – o último soberano a promover uma imagem positiva do país – a política externa saudita tem estado catastroficamente à deriva. Mesmo gastando valores exorbitantes para ampliar sua esfera de influência, os líderes do país parecem cada vez mais encurralados – em guerra não apenas com o Irã e seus aliados, mas também com o Catar, a Irmandade Muçulmana e os rivais internos.

Vale a pena comparar a Arábia Saudita com outro país da região com quem ela tem muito em comum: a República Islâmica do Irã. A despeito das diferenças sectárias e étnicas, em muitos aspectos os rivais são mais semelhantes entre si do que em relação aos demais países vizinhos. Ambos são petro-Estados repressores que usam a religião oficial como ferramenta para manter o povo sob controle. Ambos tentam usar identidades sectárias como forma de cultivar sua influência externa. E ambos buscam se estabelecer como poderes hegemônicos regionais, a despeito da destruição causada por seus esforços.

Obviamente, existem algumas diferenças palpáveis: o Irã é um pária internacional, controla apenas uma fração dos recursos da Arábia Saudita, e está sempre ameaçado pela persistente hostilidade dos Estados Unidos, com a possibilidade de ser devastado por bombardeios.

A Arábia Saudita, no entanto, apesar de suas inúmeras vantagens, tem se mostrado infinitamente pior que o Irã na disputa sórdida pelo poder na região.

Embora a rivalidade entre os dois países seja muitas vezes tratada como continuação de um suposto conflito primordial entre muçulmanos sunitas e xiitas, suas raízes podem ser encontradas na história recente: as convulsões sociais de 1979.

O Exército da República Islâmica do Irã se manifesta em solidariedade ao povo na rua durante a Revolução Iraniana de 1979. Eles carregam cartazes do Aiatolá Khomeini, o líder político e religioso do Irã.

Foto: Keystone/Getty Images

Em 1979, o Irã viveu a Revolução Islâmica e começou a exportar com fervor sua ideologia revolucionária pelo mundo muçulmano; a nova República Islâmica impunha uma versão politizada do islamismo xiita desenvolvida pelo Aiatolá durante seus longos anos no exílio. A Arábia Saudita, nesse meio tempo, era assombrada pela derrubada do monarca do país vizinho, pelos sentimentos revolucionários dos novos líderes iranianos, e por uma malfadada revolta milenarista em Meca naquele mesmo ano. A resposta da Arábia Saudita à revolta foi intensificar um esforço paralelo ao dos iranianos em exportar a revolução, com o propósito de promover uma versão fundamentalista do islamismo xiita interna e externamente. Seu objetivo final era ampliar a influência na região e no restante do mundo.

Quase quarenta anos depois, é indiscutível qual dos dois países teve mais competência em sua empreitada.

Se o Irã é admirado pelos muitos grupos políticos xiitas ao redor do mundo como modelo e fonte de apoio, a Arábia Saudita é odiada pelos muçulmanos sunitas das mais diversas orientações ideológicas, à exceção dos poucos que recebem auxílio financeiro direto. O Irã pode contar com o apoio de milícias xiitas leais no Líbano e no Iraque, enquanto muitos dos grupos militantes sunitas originados do proselitismo extremista da Arábia Saudita frequentemente declaram guerra aos líderes sauditas por não serem extremistas o suficiente.

O contraste entre a desunião sunita e a aglutinação xiita se deve em parte à forma como a Arábia Saudita e o Irã tratam suas respectivas comunidades sectárias. As alianças do Irã permitem a existência de estruturas políticas independentes que a República Islâmica não controla diretamente; ela apoia grupos xiitas como o Hezbollah no Líbano, as milícias xiitas no Iraque e os Houthis no Iêmen, e todos mantêm algum grau de autonomia na tomada de decisões. O Irã permite inclusive que alguns grupos e agentes que possuem crenças xiitas heterodoxas permaneçam sob sua proteção, e de boa vontade coopta grupos sunitas e minorias religiosas que desejem operar sob sua liderança.

A Arábia Saudita, por outro lado, se alia a seus religiosos ultraconservadores para empreender uma guerra ideológica contra as formas locais de islamismo sunita e sufismo, ampliando sua batalha para abarcar movimentos islâmicos populistas como a Irmandade Muçulmana. Essas investidas criaram um sem-número de inimigos, mas não parece claro quem seriam os aliados da Arábia Saudita, para além de um punhado de países dependentes e minúsculas regiões comandadas por xeques. O envolvimento da Arábia Saudita em hostilidades sectárias também impediu, com poucas exceções, que o país cooptasse os movimentos xiitas dissidentes, e ajudou a empurrá-los para a esfera de influência do Irã.

A despeito do seu tamanho e do prestígio cultural por abrigar as cidades sagradas de Meca e Medina, a Arábia Saudita não se mostrou capaz de usar essa influência para melhorar sua imagem no mundo islâmico, muito menos para criar representantes poderosos como os aliados do Irã no Hezbollah. Além das relações comerciais com outros países e agentes não estatais, a Arábia Saudita parece incapaz de aceitar aliados que não estejam em uníssono não apenas com as crenças religiosas específicas do regime, mas também com sua autoridade absoluta.

Os líderes iranianos já cometeram muitos crimes desde a revolução, a que a comunidade internacional – liderada por seu principal antagonista, os Estados Unidos – tem dado ampla divulgação. As políticas sauditas, no entanto, continuam a atrair sob si a condenação internacional numa medida que chega a rivalizar com as do Irã, a despeito da constante proteção do escudo norte-americano. Os sauditas estiveram prestes a deter a superioridade moral quando o Irã assumiu a incômoda posição de apoiar um ditador que cometeu assassinatos em massa na Síria, mas o príncipe herdeiro Mohammed bin Salman abriu mão de qualquer autoridade moral relativa que o país ainda pudesse deter ao engendrar uma catástrofe humanitária talvez ainda maior no Iêmen, onde uma coalizão liderada pela Arábia Saudita e apoiada pelos EUA trava uma guerra brutal.

Sem apoio popular, nem de aliados confiáveis no mundo islâmico, os líderes sauditas começaram a adentrar o tabu da política no Oriente Médio ao se aproximar publicamente de Israel. Mesmo nos EUA, onde os sauditas despenderam um volume considerável de recursos em lobby e relações públicas, as tentativas de melhorar a imagem da Arábia Saudita são um fracasso retumbante. Embora o reino tenha conseguido se valer da cultura da corrupção institucionalizada na capital estadunidense para estabelecer relações com as elites, sua influência sobre o público norte-americano continua perto de zero. Até o Irã, continuamente hostilizado pelas estruturas políticas e midiáticas dos EUA, expõe ao público seu diplomático ministro de relações exteriores Javad Zaraif e seu simpático presidente Hassan Rouhani numa tentativa de revitalizar a imagem do país. A Arábia Saudita não tem nenhuma presença comparável – e, na verdade, nenhuma figura pública que pudesse fazer o mesmo.

Nem um país tão abençoado por recursos naturais e vantagens diversas pode durar para sempre sob uma liderança desastrosamente incompetente. Enquanto as elites norte-americanas bajulam o governo saudita a cada anúncio de reformas pontuais e planos bizarros de construir cidades-robô no deserto, um desdobramento lento, mas inexorável permanece em segundo plano. Um século depois de sua criação, a Arábia Saudita está temerariamente à deriva em um mundo que sofre as consequências disso.

Foto do Título: A foto divulgada pelo Ministério de Cultura e Informação saudita mostra os retratos do rei Salman e do príncipe herdeiro Mohammed bin Salman projetados sobre a Kingdom Tower durante as cerimônias do Dia Nacional em Riad, na Arábia Saudita, em 24 de setembro de 2017.

Tradução: Deborah Leão

The post A incompetência da Arábia Saudita seria cômica, se não fosse letal appeared first on The Intercept.

Supermercado Mundial, o menor direito trabalhista total

17 November 2017 - 3:05pm

Pouco mais de um mês depois da sanção da Reforma Trabalhista, o presidente Michel Temer fez mais uma de suas maldades sem chamar muita atenção. Um decreto assinado no dia 16 de agosto tornou a atividade dos supermercados essencial. Na prática, isso abriu caminho para que funcionários sejam ainda mais explorados: desde então, as empresas não são mais obrigadas a pagar 100% de hora extra por domingos e feriados trabalhados. Agora, os efeitos começam a ser sentidos na prática. O que fez com que trabalhadores de uma das maiores redes de mercados do Rio, o Mundial, tivessem cortes de até R$700 no pagamento. Com isso, os funcionários cruzaram os braços:

“A gente está fazendo História, primeiro supermercado a parar”, afirmam.

Quando assinou o decreto, Temer afirmou que a legislação estava sendo atualizada “em favor dos empresários e do povo brasileiro que quer ir ao mercado no feriado e fim de semana”. Os trabalhadores foram esquecidos.

O movimento dos funcionários da rede, que emprega mais de 9 mil pessoas, nasceu de forma espontânea. Na segunda-feira (6), houve a primeira paralisação na Ilha do Governador, mas o supermercado não chegou a fechar. A notícia se espalhou em grupos de Whatsapp e chegou até a unidade da Praça da Bandeira, onde os colaboradores ocuparam a frente da loja, que acabou suspendendo o atendimento ao público. No dia seguinte, a onda de insatisfação chegou às unidades de Copacabana, Tijuca, Freguesia e Botafogo.

Mobilização dos funcionários começou de forma espontânea

Foto: Divulgação - Sindicato dos Comerciários

“Começou com duas meninas no caixa e quando o gerente anotou o nome de uma delas, as outras apoiaram e também pararam. Então, começou a vir o pessoal da peixaria, laticínio, mercearia. Veio todo mundo para a frente de loja porque doeu no bolso de todos. De início, a gente só queria 15 minutos de atenção para eles verem que a gente não estava dormindo. Não imaginávamos que teríamos toda essa repercussão. Vídeos começaram a circular no whatsapp e encorajaram colegas de outras unidades”, contam funcionárias que pediram para ter a identidade preservada.

O corte dos benefícios foi o estopim para o movimento, porém o descontentamento dos trabalhadores com a empresa não é novo. Além da denúncia de acúmulo e desvio de função e da retenção do espelho de ponto, que impossibilitaria o funcionário de conferir as horas registradas, funcionários de frente de loja (operadoras de caixa, empacotadoras e fiscais) relataram não ter direito à pausa para lanche – nem mesmo as grávidas. Algumas pessoas conseguem a autorização para comer após apresentarem atestado médico. As caixas dizem também ter que esperar até uma hora pela rendição para ir ao banheiro.

Algumas pessoas conseguem a autorização para comer com atestado médico.

O pagamento na rede é feito da seguinte forma: 40% no início do mês e o restante no fim, quando se somavam as horas extras dos dias da semana, os domingos e os feriados. Quem dependia desse dinheiro levou um susto ao receber o contracheque no fim do mês de outubro.

“Primeiro eles cortaram as horas extras pela metade, disseram que era para a gente se adaptar. Mas em seguida cortaram tudo. Depois, os domingos e em seguida os feriados. Tudo em um período de dois meses. E a gente já contava com esse dinheiro. Quem ganha menos acabou sentindo ainda mais”, afirmam funcionários.

O decreto de Temer dá segurança jurídica aos empresários para alocar funcionários para o trabalho nos domingos e feriados e a negociar com os sindicatos. No mês passado, na Convenção Coletiva de Trabalho (CCT), o Sindicato dos Comerciários do Rio de Janeiro assinou um acordo com os supermercados em que o adicional dos feriados foi substituído por ajuda de custo fixa de R$30 em espécie ou vale-compras – o que foi sentido pelos trabalhadores neste mês. No caso do Mundial, o pagamento é feito em um vale-refeição, apelidado pelos funcionários de “vale-biscoito”, que só pode ser usado na própria rede.

Em assembleia realizada na sede do sindicato, que assumiu as negociações para que o movimento não seja declarado ilegal, os funcionários votaram pelo estado de greve e incluíram reivindicações a pauta. A mobilização que começou por conta das horas extras agora também pede o fim do acúmulo de função e o reenquadramento das caixas como operadoras de caixa ao invés de atendentes.

De acordo com os funcionários, após as paralisações, o Mundial voltou atrás em relação aos domingos e realizou o pagamento nas lojas. Porém, a questão dos feriados continua em aberto. Os trabalhadores acreditam que a pressão possa reverter a situação.

“Eu, sinceramente, acredito que vamos conseguir, mas não vamos desfrutar. A empresa já ‘visa’ a gente como pessoas demitidas”, afirma uma das funcionárias.

Para Mundial, a “situação já foi resolvida”

Questionado sobre o corte nas horas extras, o estado de greve dos funcionários e possíveis perseguições aos trabalhadores envolvidos na mobilização, o Mundial informou que a situação já está resolvida:

O Supermercados Mundial esclarece que a situação envolvendo os funcionários foi desencadeada em função de uma alteração na política de benefícios da rede, mas que já foi resolvida junto aos colaboradores.

Com 74 anos de atuação no mercado do Rio de Janeiro, a rede sempre investiu no bem- estar de seus funcionários, oferecendo plano de benefícios completo, incluindo: assistência médica e odontológica, alimentação no local, auxílio-creche, seguro de vida e funeral, cartão farmácia, prêmio por assiduidade, assistência social, assessoria jurídica, entre outros.

O Mundial afirma ter resolvido a questão por ter pago os domingos trabalhados aos funcionários. Porém, a rede ainda não se posicionou sobre as demais reivindicações. A primeira reunião de negociações entre o sindicato e os advogados da empresa aconteceu nesta quinta-feira (16) na Superintendência Regional do Ministério do Trabalho e Emprego (SRTE) no Rio. A empresa pediu mais tempo para analisar a pauta e um novo encontro foi marcado para o próximo dia 22. O estado de greve continua.

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With U.S. Backing, Ukraine Pushes to Privatize Paris Climate Agreement

17 November 2017 - 2:57pm

Like most documents that travel through U.N. channels, a recent proposal from Ukrainian diplomats is blanketed in jargon and buzzwords, promising to render things “integrated, holistic and balanced” and to promote “ambition.” But this proposal — brought by the Ukrainian negotiating team to this year’s U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties, COP23 — carries more substance than its language might suggest: giving the world’s biggest polluters an official say in how the Paris Agreement gets implemented.

“We have to stop forcing our corporations to do something, but making — I don’t like to say profitable — but, I like to say, make them think about environmental actives as serious business,” Taras Bebeshko, an adviser to Ukraine’s energy minister who presented the proposal on behalf of his delegation this month, told The Intercept.

Bebeshko acknowledged the role fossil fuel companies play in driving up global emissions, but he cautioned against painting them as “enemies of humankind” and was eager to have them on board in a governing role. “This concept is not aiming to replace the UNFCCC process,” he said of the Committee for Future plan. “It’s aiming to assist and make the ground … for a global agreement.”

He said he had spoken to representatives of the United States, who reacted positively to the proposal. Another Ukrainian official close to the issue told Climate Home that his country’s negotiating team has been in “permanent contact” with the United States.

The role of subnational and private actors has been debated in other contexts at COP23 as well. Business — including those who have lobbied actively against climate action — play a major role in the talks through trade associations, like the World Coal Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and they have for years attempted to shape international climate policymaking. Several pavilions in the conference’s exhibition space are sponsored by major corporations, including fossil fuel companies.

Jesse Bragg of Corporate Accountability International said that corporate involvement has shaped what kinds of policies are on the table. “There’s a huge focus on what the market can do and not a huge focus on what government can do,” he told The Intercept. “There’s a huge focus on voluntary commitments and almost none on mandatory regulation. And that’s because industry doesn’t want that.”

An unofficial delegation from the United States — led mainly by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Gov. Jerry Brown — convened state and federal lawmakers and private sector leaders from around the country in an igloo-shaped tent just opposite where official talks were taking place. Under the banner “We Are Still In,” major carbon-intensive companies, like Walmart and PG&E — America’s largest private utility — joined a self-styled resistance to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, speaking on stage about their commitments to sustainability.

“The bulk of the decisions affecting carbon emissions in the U.S. – and in many other countries – are made by cities, states, businesses, and civil society,” Bloomberg said in an opening event for the tent, dubbed the U.S. Climate Action Center. “The role of the federal government is ideally to coordinate and support those efforts, but if Washington won’t lead, mayors, governors, CEOs, and civil society will.” He went on to attribute the success of the Paris Agreement to the fact that “non-state actors were recognized and taken into account for the first time,” calling that a “big step in the right direction.”

“We hope the U.N. will continue working on ways to incorporate non-state actors into the international process, in every country in the world,” Bloomberg concluded, encouraging UNFCCC administrators to create official venues for subnational actors’ participation.

Others were more skeptical. Asked what precedent such a move might set, Susan Bizian — who worked as the principal lawyer for the State Department for nearly 30 years — told The Intercept that such policy shift would be “totally precedent-setting. It’s an initiative that would go way beyond climate change, to the nature of international law and international agreements,” suggesting, too, that the change could bleed well outside the UNFCCC.

“Apart from the legal issues are policy issues,” Bizian said. “Are we opening a Pandora’s box? What’s good for an NGO or some group that cares about climate change then becomes open to any kind of group. A policy like that can’t be discriminatory.” If de facto emissions-cutting pledges can compensate for a lack of action at the federal level, she argued, it may be wiser to simply wait until the United States is able to rejoin rather than to rewrite international law.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Bizian said, referring to those pushing for private actors to be involved in the implementation process. “You could set something up and then say, ‘Why did we do that?’ It wasn’t necessary, because we got all that we needed through these more informal methods, and we created a monster.”

Presented at a backroom meeting here in Bonn, the measure proposes the creation of something called Committee for Future, a “Permanent Subsidiary Body” to — among other things — “enhance public and private sector participation” in the UNFCCC process. The committee would report to the CMA, the collection of states that are party to the Paris Agreement. And while all major actions in the UNFCCC have to be initiated by states, the committee would allow states to create Integrated Climate Partnerships, bodies comprised of clusters of states, subnational governments (states or cities, in the United States), or corporations with shared priorities. Those ICPs in turn would be empowered to oversee the Paris Agreement’s implementation and could also drive forward other policies independent of the UNFCCC process.

“There are several opportunities that have not been used yet in the process,” Bebeshko said. The idea behind the Committee for Future, he explained, is to create a level of decision-making between the official UNFCCC process and Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, the individual emissions reductions plans that make up the Paris Agreement. “Unfortunately, the structure of UNFCCC is such that we have only country participation. But … several corporations have budgets that are much higher than some countries’ and the influence some corporations have over the global process is also comparable to most of the countries’”, he added. “So we have to involve them in the process as a partner.”

On this policy end, this year’s COP is relatively quiet. The negotiators’ task is essentially to work on a rulebook for how the Paris Agreement will be implemented, with the goal of agreeing on the rules by the time they meet for COP24 next year in Poland. Before then will be an intercessional in Bonn in May and potentially another in September. At next year’s conference, participants will make their first attempt at what’s known in UNFCCC parlance as a “global stocktake,” where nations check-in on and ideally ratchet up their emissions-cutting commitments. While the first full stocktake won’t happen until 2023, next year’s conference will be when countries chart their paths forward toward that date. The rulebook will be a central component and determine whether corporations will be an official part of the Paris Agreement’s implementation moving forward.

The Carbon Majors Report released earlier this year found that just 100 companies — many of them oil and gas companies — have been responsible for 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide since 1988. Another study from Oil Change International found that building any new fossil fuel infrastructure is incompatible with meeting the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement, and that several oilfields and mines should close their doors before extracting all of their available resources. Ukraine’s proposal amounts to “quite literally putting energy and fossil fuel corporations in the driver’s seat for global climate action,” said Corporate Accountability International’s Jesse Bragg, who said such a policy would create clear conflicts of interest.

Asked what power the ICPs might hold, Bebeshko responded that “it’s everything, actually” and talked specifically about the benefit he saw of allowing such groups to form and implement specific policy mechanisms — particularly those that might only be relevant to a few countries or corporations. “Other countries could take years to approve [a] mechanism,” he said. “So why not build up a treaty of countries, involving private entities who are actually doing that stuff, sit together, and agree how to make [the] mechanism?”

He sees it as a way to get things done faster on the international stage and account for the fact that “sometimes in finding … global compromise we are losing some national or subnational priorities.”

The move comes as the Ukrainian government is seeking to double-down on fossil fuel production. With Russia occupying Ukrainian coal country, the country as a whole is more dependent on fuel imports — in its government’s view, either natural gas from Russia or coal from the United States. U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross this summer traveled to the Eastern European country to ink a major deal to ship coal there, for use in the country’s state-owned electric utility, Centrenergo.

Ukraine’s proposal to the UNFCCC is one of many for how to implement Article 6.8 of the Paris Agreement, which outlines methods for countries to go about voluntarily meeting their NDCs. Though Article 6 states that private and subnational actors should play some role in bringing down emissions, it stops short of giving them a say in how the agreement itself is carried out; the Ukranian proposal would change that. And while it may not be the only idea on the table, Ukraine has some powerful allies. Among them are reportedly representatives from the Umbrella Group, comprised of the U.S., Japan, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Norway, and New Zealand.

“So far it’s positive,” Bebeshko said of his conversations thus far with the group. He also noted that Ukraine has made “several preliminary contacts” with private sector groups.

Bebeshko also said that Ukraine has “had preliminary discussions with the Americans” in particular about the proposal, and that “the reaction that I got was positive. … Thinking globally, we have to think at the national and subnational level. I think that is very closely in line with the American policy now.” He was dismayed that the United States has decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, but he sees Committee for Future as a way that “they could take leadership on the subnational level,” including through American corporations. 

The Committee for Future won’t be formally decided on until an intercessional meeting of the UNFCCC in Bonn next May, or potentially even later. Several details about the proposal need to be worked out before then. The goal now, Bebeshko said, was to have the language from his proposal integrated into the Paris rulebook by the time COP24 convenes in Poland next winter. That said, “nothing could stop us except or willingness or unwillingness to start these regional, integrated activities,” he added, “even before reaching the agreement within the UNFCCC.”

Top photo: Steam rises from the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant operated by German utility RWE, which stands near open-pit coal mines that feed it with coal, on Nov. 13, 2017 near Bergheim, Germany. The COP 23 United Nations Climate Change Conference is taking place in Bonn, about 60 kilometers from the Niederaussem plant.

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Saudi Arabia’s Incompetence Would Be Comical If It Weren’t Killing So Many People

17 November 2017 - 9:02am

Saudi Arabia should be a very powerful country. Endowed with one-fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves, close ties with powerful Western states, access to endless amounts of U.S. weaponry, the support of global corporate interests, and the religio-cultural cachet afforded by stewardship of Muslim holy sites, the kingdom should by all accounts be an undisputed regional powerhouse.

Suffice to say, this is not the case, as a quick glance at the Middle East today reveals.

Saudi foreign policy is floundering in a way that would be comical if it didn’t involve so much human devastation. Under the newly minted leadership of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi government is stuck losing every proxy war that it is involved in. It has failed to bring their diminutive Gulf rival Qatar to heel and most recently humiliated its own ally, the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in what appears to be a tragicomic attempt to destabilize the Lebanese government.

Saudi Arabia is often criticized for being the seedbed for radical Islam, but this might be just a symptom of a deeper problem: the radical incompetence of its leadership. Since the 1975 assassination of King Faisal bin Abdulaziz — the last ruler widely seen to have promoted a positive image of the country — Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has been catastrophically adrift. Despite spending exorbitant sums of money to spread its influence, the kingdom’s leaders appear more and more besieged — at war not just with Iran and its allies, but with Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, and internal rivals.

It’s worth comparing Saudi Arabia to another country in its region that it actually has a lot in common with: the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite their sectarian and ethnic differences, in many ways the two rivals are more similar to each other than the rest of their neighbors. Both are repressive petro-states that employ state religion as a tool for keeping their people in line. Both try to use sectarian identity as a way to cultivate their influence abroad. And both are seeking to establish themselves as regional hegemons, heedless of the destruction that their efforts cause.

There are real differences, of course: Iran is an international pariah, commands a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s resources, and seems to be permanently on the brink of being bombed into oblivion by an unremittingly hostile United States.

Yet Saudi Arabia, despite its innumerable advantages, has proven to be infinitely worse than Iran at the sordid game to win power in the region.

Although the rivalry between the two countries is sometimes portrayed as the continuation of a supposed primordial conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the actual roots can be found in a more recent history: the upheavals of 1979.

The Iranian Islamic Republic Army demonstrates in solidarity with people in the street during the Iranian revolution in 1979. They are carrying posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian religious and political leader.

Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

In 1979, Iran underwent its Islamic Revolution and began zealously exporting its revolutionary ideology throughout the Muslim world; the new Islamic Republic pushed a politicized version of Shia Islam developed by Ayatollah Khomeini during his long years in exile. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, was spooked by the demise of a fellow monarch, the revolutionary sentiments of the new Iranian leaders, and by an ill-fated millenarian uprising in Mecca that year. Saudi Arabia’s response to the uprising was to ramp up an effort parallel to the Iranians attempts to export the revolution, with the aim of promoting a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam at home and abroad; the ostensible purpose was for Saudi Arabia to win influence in the region and in the wider world.

Almost four decades later, it’s difficult to dispute which country has shown more competence in their struggle.

While Iran is looked to by many Shia political groups around the world as a model and source of support, Saudi Arabia is openly loathed by Sunni Muslims across the ideological spectrum, with the handful of exceptions made up by those directly on its payroll. Iran can count on the support of loyal Shia militias in Lebanon and Iraq, and yet many of the Sunni militant groups spawned by Saudi Arabia’s extremist proselytizing routinely declare war on Saudi leaders for being insufficiently extremist.

The contrast of Sunni disunity and Shia coalescence can be chalked up in part to how Saudi Arabia and Iran treat their respective sectarian communities. Iran’s alliances have allowed for independent political structures that the Islamic Republic does not directly control and command; it supports Shia groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia Iraqi militias, and the Houthis in Yemen, which all maintain some degree of autonomy in their decision-making. Iran even allows for groups and actors with heterodox Shia beliefs to come into its fold and is glad to co-opt some Sunni groups and religious minorities that are willing to work under its leadership.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, worked in concert with its ultra-conservative clerics, to wage an ideological war against local forms of Sunni Islam and Sufism, extending the battle to grassroots populist Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. These crackdowns created untold numbers of enemies, yet Saudi Arabia’s friends remain unclear, beyond a handful of clients and tiny, neighboring sheikdoms. With a few exceptions, Saudi Arabia’s engagement in outright sectarian hostility has also prevented it from coopting dissident Shia movements and helped push them instead into Iran’s orbit.

For all its largesse, for all the cultural cachet granted by controlling the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has proven unable to use soft power to improve its image in the Muslim world, let alone create powerful proxies like Iran’s allies in Hezbollah. Beyond transactional relationships with other countries and nonstate actors, Saudi Arabia seems unable to accept allies that don’t march in complete lockstep not only with the regime’s particular religious beliefs, but also its absolute authority.

Iran’s leaders have committed many crimes since the revolution, and the international community — led by Iran’s chief antagonist, the United States — has let the world know about it. Yet Saudi policies continue to bring down international condemnation in a measure that rivals the Islamic Republic — despite the frequent shield of U.S. backing. For a brief moment, it seemed like the Saudis could claim the moral high-ground when the Iranians found themselves in the unpopular position of supporting a mass-murdering dictator in Syria. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ceded whatever relative moral authority the kingdom might have claimed by engineering what may be an even larger humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, where a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition wages a brutal, ongoing war.

Lacking popular support or reliable allies in the Muslim world, Saudi leaders have begun to touch the third rail of Middle Eastern politics by publicly embracing Israel. Even in the U.S., where the Saudis have spent considerable resources on lobbying and public relations, they have singularly failed at improving their country’s image. While the kingdom has managed to utilize the culture of institutionalized corruption in D.C. to build elite relationships, its soft power with the U.S. public is close to nil. Even Iran, to which American political and media structures are ceaselessly hostile, has its tactful foreign minister Javad Zarif and smiling president Hassan Rouhani in public seeking to revitalize the county’s image. Saudi Arabia has no comparable presence — and indeed no comparable figures who could pull it off.

Even a country so blessed with resources and advantages cannot endure forever under such catastrophically incompetent and wasteful leadership. As some U.S. elites fawn over the kingdom’s announcements of piecemeal reforms and bizarre plans to build robot-cities in the desert, a slow but inexorable unraveling lurks in the background. A century after it was first created, Saudi Arabia is recklessly adrift in a world that is suffering for it.

Top photo: This photo released by the Saudi Culture and Information Ministry shows the image of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman projected on the Kingdom Tower during National Day ceremonies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Sept. 24, 2017.

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Avaliação automática de imigrantes nos EUA é discriminação camuflada de objetividade

17 November 2017 - 7:16am

Em agosto, várias empresas de tecnologia se reuniram para tentar descobrir como transformar em realidade o conceito de “averiguação drástica”, uma ideia vaga e preconceituosa de Trump para o controle de imigrantes. Em um encontro no Departamento de Segurança Interna dos EUA (Department of Homeland Security, DHS) – e por meio de vários documentos oficiais, como revelado por The Intercept –, empresas como IBM, Booz Allen Hamilton e Red Hat foram informadas sobre o tipo de software desejado pelo governo para colocar em prática sua “Iniciativa de Averiguação Drástica” (Extreme Vetting Initiative).

Nesta quinta-feira, mais de 100 grupos de tecnologia e ativistas de direitos civis – incluindo algumas figuras proeminentes desses setores – se uniram para dizer que é impossível criar um software que atenda aos requisitos do DHS, e que qualquer programa que tente fazê-lo estará apenas promovendo a discriminação e solapando as liberdades civis.

Esse movimento de oposição está sendo organizado pelos pesquisadores de Direito Alvaro Bedoya, diretor-executivo do Centro de Privacidade e Tecnologia da Universidade de Georgetown, e Rachel Levinson-Waldman, jurista sênior do Brennan Center for Justice, da Universidade de Nova York. O grupo endereçou duas cartas ao governo – uma sobre a inutilidade de se tentar criar um software de verificação rigorosa de imigrantes e outra sobre os riscos sociais de tal tentativa.


O interior do novo centro de computação da Red Hat em Fort Point, na cidade de Boston, em 27 de junho de 2017.

Foto: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

 

A primeira carta, assinada por 54 especialistas em Ciência da Computação, engenheiros, matemáticos e outros pesquisadores das áreas de aprendizado de máquina, data mining e outras formas de tomada de decisão automatizada, afirma que seus signatários estão “profundamente preocupados” com a Iniciativa de Averiguação Drástica. Segundo documentos do setor de Imigração e Alfândega (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE) do DHS, tal projeto requer softwares para automatizar e acelerar a identificação e avaliação de estrangeiros que pretendam ingressar nos EUA. Uma das funções desses programas seria “determinar a probabilidade de um imigrante contribuir positivamente para a sociedade e os interesses nacionais”.

Em 2017, trata-se de uma tarefa hercúlea para qualquer software. Na carta, especialistas ligados a instituições como Google, MIT e Berkeley dizem que o plano não tem como funcionar. “Nenhum método computacional pode medir de maneira confiável e objetiva as características que o ICE pretende avaliar”, diz o documento, acrescentando: “Tal sistema provavelmente seria impreciso e tendencioso”. Segundo os especialistas, qualquer tentativa de usar algoritmos para determinar quem contribui ou não para a sociedade estaria, no melhor dos casos, fadada ao fracasso:

Algoritmos desenvolvidos para prever qualidades como essas poderiam ser usados arbitrariamente para estigmatizar grupos de imigrantes sob o disfarce da objetividade.

Visto ser difícil (ou mesmo impossível) definir e medir algo tão vago, qualquer software teria inevitavelmente que analisar características mais facilmente observáveis – mas que podem ter pouca ou nenhuma relação com o que realmente se quer avaliar. Por exemplo, os programadores poderiam estipular que uma postagem no Facebook criticando a política externa americana enquadraria um solicitante de visto como uma ameaça aos interesses dos EUA. A renda também poderia ser usada como um fator para determinar o valor de um imigrante para a sociedade, embora o papel do indivíduo na comunidade não possa ser resumido apenas à sua capacidade de contribuir financeiramente para a economia local.

Mas o risco de discriminação racial e religiosa é ainda mais grave. David Robinson, um dos signatários da primeira carta e diretor de Tecnologia e Direitos Civis do think tank Upturn, disse em uma entrevista que o governo está querendo quantificar conceitos abstratos, como a contribuição de um indivíduo para o interesse nacional. “Na verdade, eles vão definir essas coisas sem qualquer fundamentação”, afirma. Os desenvolvedores do software poderiam atribuir um grande peso a fatores como a renda, o que excluiria os imigrantes mais pobres, ou a língua materna e o número de filhos, o que prejudicaria certas culturas. Como já demonstrado pelo Facebook, por exemplo, vários grupos de pessoas poderiam ficar sujeitas a regras secretas e aparentemente imparciais. Segundo Robinson, um empresário selecionado pelo projeto poderia simplesmente distorcer a fórmula até conseguir os resultados desejados e vender seu produto como algo objetivo,  fundamentado em dados e números. “Isso pode facilmente se tornar um caso de preconceito travestido de ciência”, avisa.

Outra possibilidade preocupante é a extrapolação de características comuns à ínfima proporção de imigrantes que tentaram cometer atos terroristas. “Os exemplos são muito poucos para que possamos fazer generalizações estatísticas”, afirma Robinson. Ma sé exatamente isso que o ICE está pedindo de seus fornecedores. Kristian Lum, chefe de Estatística do Grupo de Análise de Dados de Direitos Humanos, que também assinou a carta, teme que, para que um pequeno número de futuros terroristas seja identificado, um número enorme de pessoas inocentes teria que ser marcado como perigoso. “Esses ‘falsos positivos’ seriam pessoas comuns, que nunca cometeram nenhum crime, mas que seriam estigmatizadas da mesma forma”, pondera.

A segunda carta é assinada por “uma coalizão de 56 organizações de direitos e liberdades civis, accountability governamental, direitos de imigrantes e defesa da privacidade”, como a União Americana Pelas Liberdades Civis (ACLU), a Anistia Internacional e o Southern Poverty Law Center. O documento afirma que a Iniciativa de Averiguação Drástica “é feita sob medida para a discriminação”. Segundo esses grupos, visitantes e imigrantes evitariam se expressar publicamente ao saber que estão sujeitos a uma vigilância automatizada, o que “é uma violação da Primeira Emenda e dos direitos humanos internacionais”. Ainda segundo a carta, o software imaginado pelo Departamento de Segurança Interna dos EUA “não funcionará do jeito que o ICE diz”. Em vez disso, “ele corre o risco de promover uma discriminação disfarçada de objetividade, o que seria extremamente nocivo à liberdade de expressão e aos direitos civis e humanos. Um tal projeto prejudicaria pessoas honestas e destruiria famílias”, afirma a carta.

É improvável que duas cartas de protesto consigam dissuadir o governo Trump de tentar desenvolver essa ferramenta – que, mesmo em caso de fracasso, custaria muito dinheiro ao contribuinte. Mas Bedoya espera que o plano possa ser derrotado com a ajuda do empresariado. “O governo deveria se envergonhar dessa iniciativa. Mas o que esperamos de verdade é que os fornecedores contratados percebam do que realmente se trata aqui: uma proibição digital aos muçulmanos. Todo empresário de princípios deve rejeitar publicamente esse projeto discriminatório”, diz.

Foto do título: Pessoas fazem fila na fronteira entre México e Estados Unidos, no Posto de Entrada de San Ysidro, em Tijuana, região noroeste do México (01/11/2017)

Tradução: Bernardo Tonasse

The post Avaliação automática de imigrantes nos EUA é discriminação camuflada de objetividade appeared first on The Intercept.

As the Al Franken News Broke, His Friends in the Senate Had No Clue How to Respond

16 November 2017 - 7:10pm

Senators in the Capitol were stunned into rare speechlessness by the wave of Weinstein-inspired allegations finally crashing down on a member of the august body that dubs itself the most exclusive club in the world.

A radio news anchor said Thursday that Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken groped and “forcibly kissed” her during an overseas USO tour two years before Franken was elected to the Senate. The accuser, Leeann Tweeden, published her first-hand account to her station’s website, 790 KABC in Los Angeles, including a damning photo.

Dozens of senators routinely eager to speak to the horde of reporters in the Capitol struggled to get their bearings, with a curiously high number of them suddenly getting urgent phone calls just as reporters approached. “I just heard the allegations, I’d like to hear it from Al,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, shortly after the news broke.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein similarly said she didn’t “know anything about it,” adding “I’ve learned, don’t comment before you know what you’re commenting on.”

The caution was bipartisan. “Just barely saw it, so no reaction,” shot Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona who recently denounced President Donald Trump while announcing his retirement.

“I receive these kinds of questions every day about all kinds of things and I just — I don’t really have a lot — I don’t know enough,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said. “I just, again, I just don’t want to be weighing in on these things every day when I know nothing about them.”

But when a reporter pointed out that he had weighed in on the Roy Moore scandal, Corker asked, “How did I weigh in on Roy Moore?”

Look, I'm sorry, but even before these reports surfaced, Roy Moore's nomination was a bridge too far.

— Senator Bob Corker (@SenBobCorker) November 11, 2017


Senate Democrats abruptly postponed a 12:30 p.m. press conference and Franken didn’t appear for any of the day’s votes. He began with a short apology that said he remembered the encounter with Tweeden differently than she did, calling the photo an attempt at a bad joke. Not long after, he issued a much lengthier apology, this time requesting an ethics committee investigation into his own case.

“The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women,” Franken wrote in his second apology. “I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.”

Both Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Brian Schatz, Democrats from New Hampshire and Hawaii, said that as members of the Senate Ethics Committee, they were unable to comment.

With Franken already on record for an ethics probe, his fellow Democrats had permission to call for an investigation. As the day wore on, there were fewer senators who avoided questions about the revelations and more who forcefully condemned the behavior, demanding the Senate Ethics Committee review the allegations.

There were certainly those who, despite their proximity to Franken, weighed in forcefully without hesitation. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., was one of them. “I think that women should be able to feel safe and free in their workplace and that if there are such allegations they should come forward,” Duckworth said. “I have every reason to believe Ms. Tweeden’s account.”

Top photo: Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) questions Judge Neil Gorsuch during the second day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, March 21, 2017 in Washington D.C.

The post As the Al Franken News Broke, His Friends in the Senate Had No Clue How to Respond appeared first on The Intercept.

Confidential U.N. Document Questions the Saudi Arabian Blockade That’s Starving Yemen

16 November 2017 - 6:19pm

A U.N. panel of experts found Saudi Arabia is purposefully obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid into Yemen and called into question its public rationale for a blockade that could push millions into famine. In the assessment, made in a confidential brief and sent to diplomats on November 10, members of the Security-Council appointed panel said they had seen no evidence to support Saudi Arabia’s claims that short-range ballistic missiles have been transferred to Yemeni rebels in violation of Security Council resolutions.

“The Panel finds that imposition of access restrictions is another attempt by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to use paragraph 14 of resolution 2216 (2015) as justification for obstructing the delivery of commodities that are essentially civilian in nature,” the U.N. experts wrote. Resolution 2216 was passed in April 2015, a month after the Saudi-led international coalition began its intervention in Yemen’s civil war. Paragraph 14 calls for U.N. member states to take measures to prevent the supply, sale, or transfer of military goods to a rebel alliance led by a group called the Houthis, which is backed to an unclear degree by Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran. The panel of experts was established by a previous 2014 resolution and expanded to five members by resolution 2216.

The Saudi-led coalition began enforcing a total blockade of Yemen after a ballistic missile was launched from Yemen at Saudi Arabia’s capital airport on November 4th. The coalition, which has the backing of the U.S., said the ratcheted-up blockade was necessary to prevent weapons sent by Iran from reaching the Houthis and their allies, who are loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

After the blockade was put in place on November 6, U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council that the restrictions on aid to Yemen would result in “a famine killing millions of people, the likes of which the world has not seen for many decades.” This week, Saudi Arabia played down the situation. “There is no embargo,” said Saudi Ambassador to the U.N. Abdallah al-Mouallimi. “There are many sources of supply to Yemen.” On Monday, the Saudi Coalition said they would re-open several ports that had been cut off within 24 hours — but only those in areas already under the coalition’s control. Ports in Houthi-controlled areas were not on the list; ports along the Red Sea at Hudaydah and Saleef, through which nearly 80 percent of imports travel into Yemen, including the bulk of humanitarian aid, were not slated to open.

The Saudis said that before access to all ports is reinstated, the U.N. cargo inspection mechanism known as UNVIM would have to be augmented to include the monitoring of smaller boats. However, even large ships with aid cargos that are already inspected by UNVIM are being held up, while the smaller ships that Saudi Arabia says pose a threat will for now presumably be subject to the same scrutiny as before. On Thursday, the U.N. again called for an immediate end to the blockade — even in its reduced form — though it remains unclear how the impasse will be resolved.


A Yemeni fills up his motorcycle at a petrol station, amid fuel shortages in Sanaa, Yemen, Nov. 9, 2017.

Photo: Hani Al-Ansi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

According to the most recent U.N. figures, the embargo has blocked 29 ships — carrying roughly 300,000 metric tons of food and 192,000 metric tons of fuel — from reaching Yemen. The U.N. has repeatedly warned that some 7 million people in Yemen are now on the verge of starvation. Yemen is also in the throes of a cholera epidemic that has infected more than 900,000 people. Though the number of new cases has decreased for eight weeks running, U.N. officials say the epidemic will “flare up again” if the embargo is not lifted. A U.N. boat holding more than 1,300 metric tons of “health, wash and nutritional supplies” is currently stopped short of docking at a port in Hudaydah.

The U.N. experts’ panel brief was delivered prior to the opening of Yemen’s southern ports, but its other notable conclusion was the explicit questioning of evidence presented by the Saudi-led coalition that the missile fired on November 4 was connected to Iran. This allegation was used to justify the ensuing blockade. The coalition, the panel noted, has cited a separate July 22 missile attack which it said used a missile, called a Qiam-1 SRBM, or short-range ballistic missile, of Iranian provenance.

“The supporting evidence provided in these briefings is far below that required to attribute this attack to a Qiam-1 SRBM,” wrote the panel. “The Saudi-Arabia led coalition has not yet though attributed the attempted attack against KKIA” — King Khalid International Airport, in the Saudi capital Riyadh — “to any particular type of SRBM.”

“The Panel has seen no evidence to support claims of SRBM having been transferred to the Houthi-Saleh alliance from external sources in violation of paragraph 14 of resolution 2216,” the brief went on. “Analysis of the supply route options by land, sea or air identifies that any shipments of the large containers used to ship and protect the missiles in transit would stand a very high chance of being interdicted in transit by the Saudi-Arabia-led [sic] coalition forces or the Combined Maritime Forces naval forces deployed in the region. No such interdictions have been reported to the Committee in accordance with the requirement to report arms or arms related material seizures in accordance with paragraph 17 of resolution 2216.”

The panel, however, only has access to evidence that members states are willing to share. In the report, it recommended that Saudi Arabia share additional technical data and asked that the council approach Riyadh for full access to “all SRBM fragments recovered.” On November 10, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigan, the top U.S. Air force official in the Middle East, also claimed that the missile had “Iranian markings” but did not provide more evidence. A report in Reuters this August alleged that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were employing a new route in the ocean between Kuwait and Iran to circumvent the arms embargo.

The Yemeni military, the panel added, retained existing stockpiles of SCUD-B and Hwasong-6 missiles that were not completely destroyed by earlier Saudi airstrikes. The panel cite a Houthi spokesperson who said missiles that had been damaged were subsequently repaired and modified. “The panel has not discounted though that Yemen based foreign missile specialists may be providing advice,” the brief cautioned. The panel raised the possibility that missiles may have been altered to extend their range to reach targets farther into Saudi Arabia. Panel members were investigating a shipment of “industrial process equipment, which almost certainly originated in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and may be related to the production of the oxidizer used in the liquid bi-propellants of SRBM rocket motors. Part of the shipment consisted of corrosion resistant storage tanks virtually identical to those used to support SCUD SRBM operations.”

The panel of experts also concluded that the Houthi missile attacks were as much to aid their own morale as to inflict losses on Saudi Arabia. “The primary purpose of the Houthi-Saleh missile force is not to cause substantive military damage to Saudi Arabia, but to directly support a sophisticated strategic media operations campaign,” they wrote.


A Yemeni man walks past a navigation station at Sanaa International Airport that was destroyed the previous day in Saudi-led air strikes on the Yemeni capital on Nov. 15, 2017.

Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Some U.N. and aid officials that spoke with The Intercept this week said it seemed Yemeni ports in places like Aden had only been closed — and then announced as reopened — as cover for the continued strangulation of what are actually Yemen’s most vital points of entry. The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs this week underscored the importance of these northern ports: “Approximately 71 percent of the people in need in Yemen, and 82 percent of all cholera cases (as of 31 October) are located in areas controlled by the authorities in the north part of the country and in close proximity to these ports,” the U.N. office wrote in an alert released Monday. The U.N. panel of experts has also documented the Houthis obstructing the flow of aid and profiting from the sale of fuel on the black market.

In a statement this week, the Saudi government said it would be “preparing proposals for the ongoing operation of Hodeida port and Sanaa airport,” Yemen’s primary airport. Since last summer, the airport has only been used for humanitarian flights, with commercial access cut off by the Saudi-led coalition. “The airport is critical to get supplies in,” said one Security Council diplomat, who asked for anonymity in order to discuss ongoing Council matters. “There are a bunch of UNHAS air flights” — from the U.N.’s humanitarian air service — “that are standing packed waiting to fly in.” On Tuesday, the Saudis bombed the airport twice, damaging its communication equipment.

Five months into the Saudi-led campaign, coalition bombs rendered four cranes used to offload cargo at the Hudaydah port inoperable. The coalition then refused to let the U.N.’s World Food Program install temporary replacements, the acquisition of which had been financed by the U.S. Up until this month, Hudaydah’s diminished capacity was already a major cause of shipping delays, in addition to those imposed by the Coalition itself. This year, Human Rights Watch reported that in at least seven instances between May and September, the Coalition “arbitrarily diverted or delayed fuel tankers headed for ports under Houthi-Saleh control.” One of the ships laden with fuel was held up for over five months.

In February 2016, Saudi officials dispatched letters to both the U.N. and humanitarian organizations operating in Yemen instructing them to leave areas not under the coalition’s control. This would have obstructed aid from reaching most Yemenis. Though Saudi Arabia later walked back the language, humanitarian officials said it had a chilling effect.

A month after the notes were sent, in March 2016, the Security Council began to consider drafting a new resolution focused on humanitarian access and protection of civilians in Yemen. With the idea of a new text under consideration, the Saudi ambassador, al-Mouallimi, held a press conference in which he bizarrely relayed that senior U.N. aid officials had said such intervention was necessary. Later, it emerged that members of the Gulf Cooperation Council held meetings around this time with officials from France, the U.K. and the U.S. — the permanent members of the Security Council hailing from Western countries. A resolution headlining humanitarian access never materialized. Last week, the Security Council saw the circulation of a statement about Yemen — drafted by the Saudis and circulated by Egypt, another member of the Coalition — that made no reference to the humanitarian situation the Security Council had just been warned was of cataclysmic proportions.

“This will likely get worse, given the blockage of vaccines outside the country and potential increases in malnutrition as people struggle to feed their families. So we can confidently say that more children will likely die if this continues for much longer,” said Samir Elhawary, a senior U.N. humanitarian official based in Yemen. If U.N. partners that distribute nutritional assistance cannot resupply over the next month, he said, “80,000 children with severe acute malnutrition are at risk of losing their lives.”

On other occasions in the course of its war, the Saudi-led coalition has taken deliberate action that stymied the delivery of humanitarian aid. In August 2016 — a year after it bombed the cranes at the port — coalition jets repeatedly bombed the main bridge used to carry goods from Hudaydah to Sanaa, and across which 90 percent of U.N. World Food Program aid travelled. The bridge was destroyed despite its presence on a U.S.-provided no-strike list.

Top photo: Yemenis take part in a demonstration calling for the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade to be lifted, on Nov. 13, 2017, in the rebel-held capital Sanaa.

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U.S. Illegally Denying Immigrants Their Right to Seek Asylum at the Mexican Border, According to Lawsuit

16 November 2017 - 2:38pm

The Trump administration may be engaged in widespread violations of U.S. and international law at the southern U.S. border, according to new filings in a California lawsuit. The filings offer the latest piece of evidence of a systematic campaign aimed at turning away asylum-seekers, actions linked to the embrace of hard-line immigration enforcement policies at the heart of the president’s rise to power.

On Tuesday, immigration attorneys in the Central District of California filed a motion for class-action certification that would allow six asylum-seekers from Mexico and Honduras to stand in for individuals affected by an alleged pattern of illegal practices on the part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The class-action suit would include all the immigrants who, since June 2016, have or will be denied their right to secure asylum in the U.S. because of the CBP practices.

Building on a complaint filed in July, the suit argues CBP officials at numerous ports of entry, or POEs, throughout the southwest have displayed a similar set of “unlawful practices” designed to deny individuals their right under the law to apply for asylum.

“Since at least June 2016,” the motion reads, “CBP officers at POEs along the U.S.-Mexico border have been consistently turning away — through an identifiable set of tactics including, misrepresentations about U.S. asylum law and the U.S. asylum process, threats and intimidation, verbal and physical abuse, and coercion — significant numbers of individuals who express an intent to apply for asylum or a fear of returning to their home countries.”

There was no denying a shift in CBP practices over the last year, said Erika Pinheiro, director of policy and technology at Al Otro Lado, speaking to The Intercept from Tijuana, Mexico, where many asylum-seekers in the lawsuit have taken refuge in local shelters after being denied entry into the U.S. Al Otro Lado, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit legal services organization, first brought the legal challenge to the CBP policies.

“There’s always been cases of individuals being turned away, but it was kind of the exception, not the rule. It really changed when Trump was elected.”

“There’s always been cases of individuals being turned away, but it was kind of the exception, not the rule,” Pinheiro explained. “It really changed when Trump was elected.”

“It was almost as if they closed the southern border to asylum-seekers when Trump was elected, not even inaugurated, just elected,” Pinheiro said. “After November, it was incredibly difficult — even escorted by an attorney, we would see people turned away by CBP.”

Multiple U.S. statutes and governing regulations, including due process rights guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment, grant noncitizens fleeing violence abroad the right to apply for asylum in the U.S. Meanwhile, international treaties prohibit the U.S. government from returning individuals to countries where they have a well-established fear of persecution or torture. Despite these protections, the suit brought by Al Otro Lado, in conjunction with the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Immigration Council, and the law firm Latham & Watkins LLP, offers multiple accounts of U.S. immigration officials preventing asylum-seekers from engaging in even the earliest stages of the process for asylum relief. The accounts are backed up by extensive media reports and broader human rights investigations into the alleged practices.

Using pseudonyms out of a fear of retribution, the plaintiffs in the case — five women and one man —offered harrowing accounts of why they and their loved ones fled their home countries. They described the murder and decapitation of parents, repeated experiences of domestic and sexual violence, and unrelenting persecution by the most murderous criminal groups in the Western hemisphere. Their stories reflect a broader experience of terror that has gripped large swaths of Central America and Mexico, areas that have in recent years consistently ranked among the most violent in the world. Each of the plaintiffs detail how, upon arrival to a U.S. port of entry, they were met with hostility, intimidation, and outright lies regarding the obligations of American immigration authorities under the law.

In their suit against the government, the immigration attorneys for the asylum-seekers identify several alleged CBP practices observed in their clients’ cases and others. Those misleading and unlawful practices are said to include CBP officials falsely telling arriving asylum-seekers that asylum is not available at that particular POE, and that they would need to try elsewhere; that they cannot apply for asylum because there is not enough space at the location; that they first need to check in with Mexican authorities before applying in the U.S.; or that the U.S. government has simply stopped granting asylum altogether. The suit also describes CBP officials using “threats and intimidation” to deter individuals from exercising their right to apply for asylum, including “threatening to separate parents from their children” and forcing asylum-seekers who have made it into a port of entry “to recant their fears or otherwise to withdraw their applications for admission to the U.S.”

A spokesperson for CBP declined to answer questions for this article, saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation. In a July article for The Intercept, published when the initial lawsuit was filed, the agency said it had “not changed any policies affecting asylum procedures” and that CBP “adheres to law and policy on processing asylum claims and does not tolerate abuse of these policies.”


Central American migrants seeking for asylum in the United States, walk to the U.S.-Mexico border at El Chaparral port of entry on Nov. 12, 2017, in Tijuana, Mexico.

Photo: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images


Immigration advocates on the border see clear ties between the nativist polices of the Trump administration and the allegedly unlawful practices of CBP officers working the nation’s southern ports of entry.

In the motion filed Tuesday, Diego Iniguez-Lopez, a legal services associate working out of the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, recalled an incident following last year’s election. An asylum-seeking mother had presented her foreign identification documents to a CBP officer at the Hidalgo/McAllen land crossing between Mexico and Texas. According to Iniguez-Lopez, the officer “started singing Donald Trump’s name and saying that there was no more asylum for immigrants. The same officer reportedly laughed as he sang and then told her that Donald Trump had signed a new law saying that there was no asylum for anyone.” Iniguez-Lopez added, “Another mother reported that a CBP officer told her that asylum was not available because the new president had given them orders.”

“They were telling us stories of how CBP officers were singing the national anthem and taunting them.”

Speaking to The Intercept, Iniguez-Lopez said the first sign of a change in attitude among immigration officials at the Texas family detention center came a week after Trump’s election, from individuals held in so-called hieleras, or ice boxes, the freezing-cold rooms where U.S. authorities house asylum-seeking families and other undocumented immigrants. “They were telling us stories of how CBP officers were singing the national anthem and taunting them,” Iniguez-Lopez said, “and telling them that they’re going to be deported back to their country and to tell their family not to come.”

Iniguez-Lopez went on to say that the practice of turning asylum-seekers away at ports of entry in his area of the country appeared to begin in early December. One of the first of those incidents, he explained, involved a mother from Central America seeking asylum with her family. The immigration officer who met with the family at the port of entry “said that under the orders of Donald Trump, there’s no more asylum for mothers with children, and the response of the mother was to say the Trump administration, they’re not even in power, they haven’t been inaugurated. So she knew more government 101 than the officer himself,” Iniguez-Lopez said.

Iniguez-Lopez and other advocates gleaned from the emerging accounts that “even without any administrative change, CBP officers on the ground had the impression that their candidate won, that they had the ability to ‘do the job,’ and that some of the things that they might otherwise want to do, they now could do.”

Allowing immigration officials — whether CBP, Border Patrol or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — to “do the job,” as Iniguez-Lopez put it, has been a consistent theme of the Trump administration. Prior reporting has indicated a shift in practices that began before Trump assumed office. Four days before Trump’s inauguration, the Washington Post published a story citing advocates and migrants who described “hundreds or perhaps thousands of foreigners who have been blocked in recent months from reaching U.S. asylum officials along the border.” Following Trump’s inauguration, human rights groups continued to document incidents of people stopped by U.S. officials from beginning the asylum process, with Amnesty International’s Americas Director Erika Guevara-Rosas arguing that the U.S. and its government partners in Mexico were “brewing up a burgeoning human rights catastrophe.”


A U.S. Border Patrol agent climbs up from the bank of the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border on March 14, 2017 in Roma, Texas.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images


In Tuesday’s filing, attorney Brantley Shaw Drake, a former fellow with the Refugee Protection team at Human Rights First, an organization that has documented the alleged prevention of individuals from entering the asylum process, documented several dire consequences of the practice. Directors of migrant shelters described to Drake how asylum-seekers clustered near ports of entry south of the border have become easy kidnapping targets for organized crime — with one shelter director describing hundreds of asylum-seekers held for ransom in large homes around Reynosa, Mexico, and another claiming she “had received 30 escapees from kidnapping in the last 30 days.”

The similarities in the accounts of CBP actions provided by plaintiffs, journalists, and human rights investigators — and the reported fallout from those practices — have immigration attorneys hopeful that the California case will receive class-action certification, meaning its outcomes would apply beyond those who came forward with their individual experiences. “This is the evidence that says these practices are systematic, they’re happening all along the border,” Caroline Walters, a staff attorney at the American Immigration Council, told The Intercept. “And not only have they been happening, they’re continuing to happen — which is why we’re asking the judge to certify a class that would insure that the relief that could be obtained through the lawsuit would not just apply to the individuals who were brave and brought the suit, but also to others that had or will experience those practices.”

If the suit is successful in securing both declarative and injunctive relief, Walters explained, it would mean that the judge in the case both declared the alleged CBP practices unlawful, and that they should be considered unlawful going forward. In other words, Walters said, it would mean “[CBP] cannot prevent asylum-seekers from gaining access to the asylum process through the tactics we describe in the lawsuit or any others,” while laying the groundwork for officers who engage in those practices in the future to be held accountable.

The next hearing in the suit is scheduled for December 11, but any resolution in the case is a long way off. For now, immigration attorneys on the border continue to work to see that individuals fleeing violence and persecution have their legal right to apply for asylum upheld. Pinheiro, of Al Otro Lado, was fresh off a trip to the border when she spoke to The Intercept from Tijuana on Tuesday. Recently, she explained, advocates have taken to accompanying asylum-seekers in caravans to U.S. ports of entry in hopes that their presence will deter U.S. immigration officials from breaking the law. “It’s just to have as much attention on the issue as possible, to ensure that people are actually accepted,” Pinheiro said. “We shouldn’t have to do that, but that’s kind of what we’ve come to.”

Top photo: Central American migrants seeking for asylum in the United States, walk to the U.S.-Mexico border at El Chaparral port of entry on Nov. 12, 2017, in Tijuana, Mexico.

The post U.S. Illegally Denying Immigrants Their Right to Seek Asylum at the Mexican Border, According to Lawsuit appeared first on The Intercept.

O que a polêmica sobre o filme “Vazante” nos ensina sobre fragilidade branca

16 November 2017 - 1:43pm

Primeiro trabalho solo de Daniela Thomas, “Vazante”, que entrou em cartaz há uma semana, no dia 9 de novembro, foi vendido pela imprensa como um retrato da escravidão no país — mas não é o que entrega. O filme tem o mérito de provocar a conversa sobre a representação histórica da escravidão e de povos escravizados no cinema, mas também é uma obra de brancos para brancos, que está longe de se inserir na cinematografia brasileira como algo que vá muito além disso ao tratar do assunto em questão.

Assisti a “Vazante” para participar do programa da TV Globo “Conversa com Pedro Bial” junto  com a diretora do filme e o cineasta Joel Zito Araújo. Durante o programa, Daniela explica que o filme nasceu a partir de uma história que vem sendo contada há décadas em sua família: a de um parente de 50 anos que se casou com uma menina de doze. O episódio, bem retratado em “Vazante”, aconteceu no início do século XX, mas Daniela escolheu recuar 100 anos e contá-la como se tivesse se passado em 1821.

 A escravidão vira mera moldura, plano de fundo, com personagens negros sem voz, sem nome.

E é aí que, para mim, começa o grande problema: no filme, a escravidão vira mera moldura, plano de fundo, com personagens negros sem voz, sem nome, sem profundidade, sem desenvolvimento, servindo de escadas para os personagens brancos.

Durante a preparação para a conversa na televisão, li muita coisa que já foi publicada sobre o filme e assisti aos vídeos do polêmico debate no Festival de Cinema de Brasília.

Durante o evento no Distrito Federal, Daniela se assustou com os questionamentos – porque julgava ter feito o dever de casa para tratar de tema ainda tão distante da realidade e do cotidiano da maioria da população branca do país.

É interessante comparar o que realmente aconteceu com a percepção e a reação de Daniela, expostas em artigo escrito por ela alguns dias após ao debate. Citado no texto da diretora, o crítico de cinema Juliano Gomes escreveu em resposta um excelente e preciso texto, no qual define como “fragilidade branca” o comportamento de pessoas brancas quando confrontadas com suas ideias em relação à escravidão negra e ao racismo.

Cena do filme “Vazante”, de Daniela Thomas (Distribuição: Europa Filmes).

Reprodução: Youtube

O conceito foi cunhado pela professora estadunidense Robin DiAngelo, que nasceu branca e pobre e cresceu consciente de como a opressão de classe influenciava sua vida, mas sem muita noção de seu privilégio de cor. Na vida acadêmica, DiAngelo resolveu analisar a própria experiência nos grupos com os quais conviveu e como essa vivência contribuía para perpetuar o racismo.

O resultado é um trabalho interessante, que DiAngelo aprimorou durante os cursos em que fala de racismo e branquitude para plateias majoritariamente brancas. Vale a pena acompanhar também o caso da estudante canadense que está sendo acusada de “racismo reverso” e sofrendo um processo disciplinar em sua universidade por ter usado a expressão “fragilidade branca” em um post de Facebook.

Achei oportuno escrever sobre esse conceito porque também tenho pensado bastante nele ultimamente. Tenho feito palestras e ministrado cursos sobre racismo para plateias majoritariamente – e, às vezes, exclusivamente – brancas, e detectado comportamentos que se encaixam perfeitamente em sua descrição.

As consequências de um ambiente isolado de estresse racial

Segundo DiAngelo, “pessoas brancas vivem em um ambiente social que as protege e isola do estresse racial”. Este ambiente isolado (mediado por classe, instituições, representação cultural, mídia, livros, propaganda, discursos dominantes etc…) constrói a expectativa dos brancos de se manterem dentro de uma zona de conforto racial, ao mesmo tempo em que diminui a capacidade de tolerância ao estresse causado pelo assunto, levando à fragilidade branca.

Nesse estado, a mínima quantidade de estresse se torna intolerável, provocando uma série de atitudes defensivas, que incluem demonstrações de raiva, medo e culpa, e comportamentos como silenciamento e afastamento da situação que causou o estresse. Isto funciona para restabelecer o equilíbrio racial branco que, por sua vez, pode levar a um isolamento e uma proteção ainda maiores, que voltam a provocar o estresse quando acontece um novo confronto com o tema. Ou seja, um ciclo vicioso que impossibilita o diálogo aberto e honesto e mantém o status quo.

DiAngelo cita algumas situações que costumam provocar reações típicas dessa fragilidade branca:

Quando se sugere que o ponto de vista de uma pessoa branca também é moldado por referências racializadas – ou seja, quando alguém lembra de mencionar que branco também é raça, e não um padrão a partir do qual apenas as pessoas não brancas são racializadas.

Quando pessoas negras não querem compartilhar suas histórias ou responder questões sobre suas experiências raciais – pessoas brancas muitas vezes esperam que pessoas negras estejam sempre dispostas a educá-las em relação a assuntos raciais, sentindo-se frustradas ou “desobedecidas” quando isso não acontece.

Quando pessoas negras afirmam a importância de fazerem parte de um grupo – ao se negarem a abrir mão de uma identidade negra que as insere em um determinado grupo, em nome de demandas que lhe são caras e específicas, pessoas negras desafiam o individualismo liberal.

Quando pessoas negras salientam o acesso desigual a oportunidades, desafiando o conceito de meritocracia tão caro a pessoas brancas que acreditam que todos podem conseguir o que quiserem, desde que se esforcem.

Quando pessoas negras estão em posição de liderança ou de destaque — tanto no ambiente profissional quanto social ou cultural (em papéis centrais e não estereotipados em filmes, por exemplo) –, desafiando a ideia de centralidade e/ou liderança brancas.

O conceito de fragilidade branca também pode ser aplicado a outras questões, como fragilidade hétero ou masculinidade frágil, por exemplo.

DiAngelo enumera ainda outras situações em seu artigo, sendo que muitas podem ser facilmente observadas e identificadas em experiências cotidianas. É interessante observar que o conceito de fragilidade branca também pode ser aplicado a outras questões, como fragilidade hétero ou masculinidade frágil, por exemplo.

Ao mesmo tempo em que a reação conservadora é cada vez mais violenta ao avanço e ao não silenciamento das minorias, consigo ver o cenário atual com um pouco de otimismo: há rachaduras nas bolhas que envolvem as zonas de conforto, e o que antes parecia rigidamente estabelecido está sendo exposto com todas as suas fragilidades. O que agora pode ser apenas rachadura há de se tornar ruptura, porque nada volta a se recompor do jeito que era antes. Aos que estão atentos e dispostos a fazer o movimento: o desconforto é bom. É o que nos faz avançar.

 

The post O que a polêmica sobre o filme “Vazante” nos ensina sobre fragilidade branca appeared first on The Intercept.

These Wall Street Companies Are Ready to Cash In on Trump’s Border Wall

16 November 2017 - 1:22pm

Much of the discussion on President Donald Trump’s border wall has focused on its cost and impracticality, as well as the anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric it embodies. Little attention, however, has been paid to who specifically might profit from building the structure.

Earlier this year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection chose six companies to build prototypes for the wall in both concrete and “other materials” — and last month they unveiled eight different proposals, the closest this administration has come to fulfilling its signature campaign promise. All but one of the companies that built prototypes are privately held, but a close look at Sterling Construction Company, a publicly traded company based in Texas, suggests that even investors who have distanced themselves from the president’s immigration policies are eager to cash in should the wall actually come to pass.

A report on Sterling’s Wall Street investors, published today by a coalition of advocacy groups, warns of the “growing alignment” between the financial elite and the nationalist right-wing, and argues that Trump’s policies are not just a reflection of hard-line nativist ideology, but also of the economic and financial interests of beneficiaries that have largely been able to deflect scrutiny.

“Wall Street leaders across the political spectrum have positioned themselves to benefit financially from Trump’s wildly unpopular and expensive border wall,” write the authors of the report. “Their companies’ investments in the wall demonstrate a clear willingness to benefit financially from Trump’s most divisive immigration proposal.”

“Lacking from the public narrative is that corporate billionaires stand to gain the most financially,” Nikki Fortunato Bas, executive director of Partnership for Working Families, told The Intercept. Other groups in the coalition include the Center for Popular Democracy, Make the Road New York, and New York Communities for Change.

As the report notes, Sterling’s stock value has already soared by 65 percent since the company was picked to develop a prototype for the wall at the end of August. Estimates for the wall’s cost vary widely, with some reports calculating that it will soar as high as $70 billion (plus $150 million a year in maintenance), others putting the number at $27 billion to $40 billion, and the president promising a much cheaper $12 billion.

This combination of pictures shows the eight prototypes of President Donald Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall being built near San Diego, in the U.S., seen from across the border in Tijuana, Mexico, on Oct. 22, 2017.

Photo: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

This summer, the House of Representatives allocated $1.6 billion to start the wall’s construction — and Trump has promised to shut down the government to secure funding for the rest. “Believe me, if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall,” he said in August. Last month, the House Homeland Security Committee approved a border security bill that includes $10 billion for the wall.

Despite Trump’s repeated claims, that money will come from taxpayers’ pockets, not Mexico. But whatever the final price tag, Wall Street is ready to cash in. While details on the other bidders are harder to get, scrutiny of Sterling’s shareholders reveals that investors across the political spectrum are betting on the wall.

Private equity firm BlackRock — headed by longtime Democrat donor Larry Fink — is the largest investor in Sterling, owning nearly 8 percent of its stock as of November 1. Between March and June of this year, as Sterling prepared to bid on the prototype contract, BlackRock increased its investment in the company by 195 percent. Meanwhile, JPMorgan Chase, whose CEO Jamie Dimon has spoken critically of Trump’s immigration policies, invested in Sterling for the first time over that period.

“What a coincidence,” said Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy. “If you look at the investments in this particular company, you see how there is a very clear, intentional positioning to benefit from the building of the wall and by extension, from the policies that criminalize and punish immigrant families and cause tremendous amounts of suffering.”

Some of Sterling’s largest investors have made no secret of their ideological alignment with Trump. Two of the firm’s five largest stakeholders are investment firms: Dimensional Fund Advisors LP, whose co-founder Rex Sinquefield is an activist donor to conservative causes and an outspoken opponent of the income tax, and Renaissance Technologies, headed by Robert Mercer, who was instrumental to Trump’s election and whose other investments include the millions of dollars he has poured into Breitbart News. (Mercer has recently announced he is stepping down from his firm and selling his Breitbart shares to his daughters, citing “personal reasons” for his decision and writing that while he has “great respect” for Breitbart chair Steve Bannon, their political decisions “do not always align.”)

Mercer and Sinquefield’s investments, at least, are consistent with their politics.

But investors in Sterling — and Trump’s immigration policies — also include some who have sought to publicly distance themselves from the president and his anti-immigrant positions.

Fink, BlackRock’s chair and CEO, had staked high hopes on a Hillary Clinton victory. Since the election, Fink has sent mixed messages about his views of Trump, saying that the president’s economic policies represented a “bucket list of things we’d like to see done” — but adding, “You can’t take personality out of the debate.”

Despite reservations he might have had about Trump’s “personality,” Fink was one of several executives who rushed to advise him on economic policy by joining the president’s Strategic and Policy Forum.

In August, Trump abruptly disbanded the forum and a parallel Manufacturing Jobs Initiative after several members of the latter resigned in protest of his response to the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Fink was late to criticize Trump over his remarks and did not publicly declare his intention to resign from the advisory group until the president announced its dissolution.

Neither did Dimon, JPMorgan’s CEO and another longtime Democrat donor who had joined Trump’s economic forum.

Dimon has been publicly critical of Trump’s immigration policies and opposed his decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which puts 800,000 young people brought to the U.S. as children in limbo and at risk of deportation. (Trump and GOP leaders have indicated they would make funding the wall a condition of extending protections for Dreamers.)

“America is and always has been a country of immigrants,” Dimon said in response to Trump’s DACA decision. “And, when people come here to learn, work hard, and give back to their communities, we should allow them to stay in the United States.”

In an April letter to shareholders, Dimon also listed “anti-trade and anti-immigration positions” as a liability for banks. “We have always supported proper immigration — it is a vital part of the strength of America,” he wrote, adding that he found the number of skilled immigrants forced to leave the country “alarming.”  “We are forcing great talent overseas by not allowing these young people to build their dreams here.”

While he never mentioned the wall in the letter, Dimon called Mexico “a long-standing peaceful neighbor” and noted that “there are now more Mexicans going back to Mexico than coming into the United States.”

Still, Dimon was careful not to go too hard on the president. His letter to investors never mentioned Trump and at a May meeting with shareholders, he chose diplomacy over a firm rejection.

“He is the President of the United States. I believe he is the pilot flying our airplane,” Dimon said. “I would try to help any President of the United States because I’m a patriot.”

Most tellingly, as Dimon sought to portray himself as a moderate on immigration, JPMorgan went from owning zero to 145,200 shares in Sterling — nearly 1 percent of the company.

Tim Sloan, president and CEO of Wells Fargo, was also critical of Trump ending DACA, joining tech executives who wrote to the president urging him to protect Dreamers. “Dreamers are vital to the future of our companies and our economy,” said the letter, which Sloan signed along with more than 800 industry leaders.

According to the report, Wells Fargo held 379,278 shares in Sterling — 1.79 percent of the company. Since then, Wells Fargo’s shares have decreased to under 1 percent of the company, while BlackRock, Dimensional, Renaissance Technologies, and JPMorgan have all increased their investment. BlackRock now owns nearly 10 percent of Sterling.

BlackRock, JPMorgan, and Wells Fargo did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment.

Archila called their investments “hypocritical.”

“People like Jamie Dimon and others have been tepid in their rebuttal of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies,” she said. “And they have been tepid because they stand to benefit.”

“We think it’s important to smoke them out,” she added. “We can’t allow them to go unnoticed when they are propping up and legitimizing a white nationalist president.”

The border wall remains largely unpopular with the public.

“[It] is really the only thing that the Trump administration has been pushing concretely in terms of infrastructure,” said Bas.

In fact, what’s also getting a boost from Trump’s anti-immigrant policies is the already sprawling private prison industry, with giant prison companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group seeing their value soar amid the continued expansion of immigration detention.

BlackRock, Renaissance Technologies, Dimensional, JPMorgan, and Wells Fargo all own stock in either CoreCivic or GEO Group. In May, Dimon promised investors he would “look into” JPMorgan’s involvement with private prisons, but since then the bank has increased its stock in both companies.

Jonathan Cortés, a member of Make the Road New York, spent more than two months in a CoreCivic detention center where he spent a week without air conditioning in the Arizona summer and where detainees were denied medical care.

“It’s so sad to me that the same companies that are financing private immigration detention centers, like the one where I was held in Arizona in terrible conditions, are also putting their money toward Trump’s racist wall project,” he said. “It seems to me that these companies and their CEOs just don’t have a heart — and that, instead of caring about our communities, they prefer to benefit from an anti-immigrant agenda.”

Top photo: People pass border wall prototypes as they stand near the border with Tijuana, Mexico, on Oct. 19, 2017, in San Diego.

The post These Wall Street Companies Are Ready to Cash In on Trump’s Border Wall appeared first on The Intercept.

This College Is Charging Students With Trespassing For Holding a Peaceful, On-Campus Protest

16 November 2017 - 11:28am

An upstate New York university has taken its free-speech-zone policy, which regulates where students can hold protests, further than most, charging students who last month organized a protest with trespassing.

The conflict between students and administrators at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute stems from a two-year debate over who should control the student union. For more than 125 years, the student union, which helps administer student funds to campus organizations and promote a more prosperous student life, has been operated by the students themselves.

In fact, it is, according to the university, one of the few private school student unions in the country that is entirely student-run.

That’s why when RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson first made moves two years ago to try to assert university control over the union, many on campus were opposed. Jackson has argued that she should have final say over who is hired as the union’s director, a position that has been vacant since the university fired the organization’s previous director in December 2015. The board of trustees agrees with the president, arguing that the student union — which now controls a bookstore, fitness facilities, and recreational spaces — has grown tremendously in the past century and now needs more direct university control.

Last month, a group of outraged students opposed to increased university influence planned a demonstration during Homecoming Week, a time during which alumni, donors, and other bigwigs come to campus for events to promote the school.

But the university responded by outright banning protests during homecoming and turning down a formal request to stage a protest. It then erected a literal fence around parts of campus, preventing students from approaching a building where the president would be hosting university donors for an event. University staff also tore down posters promoting a planned protest.

More than 100 students, faculty, and alumni staged a demonstration about changes to the student union anyway. During the October 13 protest, some protesters pierced the makeshift fence and crossed into the no-go zone.

Dan Seel, a student in a joint bachelor’s and master’s program in science and technology studies, has been involved in the fight over the student union since it began. He attended the demonstration and told The Intercept that both campus and city police were present, and a city police officer instructed demonstrators to stay off the grass and sidewalks but otherwise did not ask them to back off.

“That’s the only instruction we ever received as to how to act or where to be,” he said. “No one from the school ever talked to us or told us to back up behind the fence.”

Then, in early November, the university surprised protest organizers Michael Gardner and Bryan Johns by summoning them to a “judicial inquiry” over their behavior. The two students were charged with trespassing, failure to comply, and “operating a business,” a charge that comes from the act of handing out letters on campus related to the student union campaign. It is not yet clear what sanctions, if any, the students face, and a university spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

A university review of the incident says the protest leaders were identified based on information from staff who were present, video footage, and a series of online photos and news reports.

Adam Steinbaugh, who works for the campus free-speech group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, and has been monitoring the case, said the university is exhibiting a double standard on free speech.

“RPI’s desire to find some policy — any policy — to punish students for holding signs outside of a black-tie fundraiser or for distributing a letter is bizarre,” he told The Intercept. “Private institutions can’t promise freedom of speech while cashing the tuition check, then say it can’t be exercised whenever it might contrast with the institution’s promotional efforts.”

The university offered a muted response to The Intercept.

“It would be inappropriate to comment on any individual student’s situation related to the incident on October 13, 2017, in which individuals breached security barriers as part of an unauthorized demonstration which took place on our campus,” said Richie C. Hunter, vice president for strategic communications and external relations at the school.

Hunter’s response appears to be ripped from talking points authored by Dean of Students Travis T. Apgar, which were sent to the Rensselaer Alumni Association and then shared with students.

FIRE estimates one in 10 American colleges has some sort of free speech-zone policy — whereby a university strictly dictates where students are allowed to hold demonstrations and express themselves. But a university charging its students with trespass for protesting in a public, on-campus space takes these policies to a whole new level.

Top photo: Hundreds of protesters break through a fence set up by administrators at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to contain an Oct. 13, 2017.

The post This College Is Charging Students With Trespassing For Holding a Peaceful, On-Campus Protest appeared first on The Intercept.

Trump’s “Extreme-Vetting” Software Will Discriminate Against Immigrants “Under a Veneer of Objectivity,” Say Experts

16 November 2017 - 8:30am

This past August, technology firms lined up to find out how they could help build a computerized reality of President Donald Trump’s vague, hateful vision of “extreme vetting” for immigrants. At a Department of Homeland Security event, and via related DHS documents, both first reported by The Intercept, companies like IBM, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Red Hat learned what sort of software the government needed to support its “Extreme Vetting Initiative.”

Today, a coalition of more than 100 civil rights and technology groups, as well as prominent individuals in those fields, has formed to say that it is technically impossible to build software that meets DHS’s vetting requirements — and that code that attempts to do so will end up promoting discrimination and undermining civil liberties.

The new opposition effort, organized by legal scholars Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology, and Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, includes two letters, one on the technical futility of trying to implement extreme-vetting software and another on the likely disturbing social fallout of any such attempt.

The interior of the new Red Hat computing and executive center in Fort Point in Boston on Jun. 27, 2017.

Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

The first letter, signed by 54 computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and other experts in machine learning, data mining, and other forms of automated decision-making, says the signatories have “grave concerns” about the Extreme Vetting Initiative. As described in documents posted by DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch, the initiative requires software that can automate and accelerate the tracking and assessment of foreigners in the U.S., in part through a feature that can “determine and evaluate an applicant’s probability of becoming a positively contributing member of society, as well as their ability to contribute to national interests.”

In 2017, this is a tall order for any piece of software. In the letter, experts affiliated with institutions like Google, MIT, and Berkeley, say the plan just won’t work: “Simply put, no computational methods can provide reliable or objective assessments of the traits that ICE seeks to measure,” the letter states. “In all likelihood, the proposed system would be inaccurate and biased.” Any attempt to use algorithms to assess who is and isn’t a “positively contributing member of society,” the letter argues, would be a muddled failure at best:

Algorithms designed to predict these undefined qualities could be used to arbitrarily flag groups of immigrants under a veneer of objectivity.

Inevitably, because these characteristics are difficult (if not impossible) to define and measure, any algorithm will depend on “proxies” that are more easily observed and may bear little or no relationship to the characteristics of interest. For example, developers could stipulate that a Facebook post criticizing U.S. foreign policy would identify a visa applicant as a threat to national interests. They could also treat income as a proxy for a person’s contributions to society, despite the fact that financial compensation fails to adequately capture people’s roles in their communities or the economy.

But more worryingly, it could be a machine for racial and religious bias. David Robinson, a signatory to the first letter and managing director of technology and civil rights think tank Upturn, said in an interview that the government is essentially asking private technology companies to “boil down to numbers” completely fuzzy notions of “what counts as a contribution to the national interest — in effect, they’ll be making it up out of whole cloth.” Corporate programmers could decide that wealth and income are key measures, thus shutting out poorer immigrants, or look at native language or family size, tilting the scales against people of certain cultures. As has proven to be the case with Facebook, for example, vast groups of people could be subject to rules kept inside a black box of code held up as an impartial arbiter. A corporate contractor chosen for the project, Robinson explained, could simply “tweak the formula until they like the answers” and then “bake it into a computer and say it’s objective, data-driven, based on numbers. I’m afraid this could easily become a case of prejudice dressed up as science.”

Another concern is the danger of extrapolating common characteristics from the vanishingly small proportion of immigrants who have attempted to participate in terrorism. “There are too few examples,” said Robinson. “We can’t make reliable statistical generalizations.” But that isn’t stopping ICE from asking that it be so. Kristian Lum, lead statistician at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (and letter signatory), fears that “in order to flag even a small proportion of future terrorists, this tool will likely flag a huge number of people who would never go on to be terrorists,” and that “these ‘false positives’ will be real people who would never have gone on to commit criminal acts but will suffer the consequences of being flagged just the same.”

The second letter, signed by “a coalition of 56 civil rights, civil liberties, government accountability, human rights, immigrant rights, and privacy organizations,” including the ACLU, Amnesty International, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, argues that the Extreme Vetting Initiative “is tailor-made for discrimination.” The letter adds that would-be visitors and migrants, knowing that they will be subject to automated surveillance, will curb their own speech, “contravening the First Amendment and international human rights.” According to analysis by these groups, the algorithmic program floating through Homeland Security’s collective imagination “will not work the way ICE says it will work.” Rather, “it risks hiding politicized, discriminatory decisions behind a veneer of objectivity – at great cost to freedom of speech, civil liberties, civil rights, and human rights. It will hurt real, decent people and tear apart families.”

It’s unlikely two letters warning of prejudicial outcomes will dissuade the Trump administration from building this tool (or failing in the process at taxpayer expense). But Bedoya hopes the plan can be thwarted from the private sector side: “This administration should be ashamed of this initiative. But our real hope is that government contractors recognize this for what it is: a digital Muslim ban. Principled companies should publicly reject this discriminatory initiative.”

Top photo: People line up on the pedestrian crossing lines on the Mexican side of the San Ysidro Port of Entry on Nov. 1, 2017, in Tijuana, northwestern Mexico.

The post Trump’s “Extreme-Vetting” Software Will Discriminate Against Immigrants “Under a Veneer of Objectivity,” Say Experts appeared first on The Intercept.

Reforma da Previdência mira no passado e pode ficar obsoleta antes de vigorar plenamente

16 November 2017 - 6:00am

A reforma da Previdência nasceu como um monstrengo devorador de velhinhos, mas, ao que tudo indica, vai se tornar um ajuste sutil, se tanto, no setor de seguridade social. O problema, segundo especialistas ouvidos por The Intercept Brasil, é que há grandes chances de que, quando as mudanças começarem a valer plenamente, elas tenham um impacto pouco significante.

Antes de irmos em frente, é preciso dizer que não há grandes dúvidas quanto à necessidade de uma reforma da Previdência. A população brasileira está envelhecendo extremamente rápido. Hoje, para cada brasileiro com mais de 65 anos, existem nove em idade produtiva. Já em 2060, segundo especialistas, teremos duas pessoas na labuta para cada aposentado.

Além disso, pouca gente se lembra, mas o sistema público de aposentadorias tem, ou deveria ter, uma função social, de distribuição de renda e de combate à desigualdade. A ideia, basicamente, é fazer com que aqueles ainda em condição de trabalhar ajudem a sustentar os idosos.

Só que esse sistema, do jeito que é hoje, não funciona bem, principalmente por causa da aposentadoria por tempo de contribuição. Hoje, os brasileiros em geral podem receber o benefício por dois caminhos. No primeiro, para se aposentar por idade, precisam ter no mínimo 60 anos, no caso das mulheres, ou 65 anos, no caso dos homens. Também precisam ter contribuído por pelo menos 15 anos. O segundo caminho é por tempo de contribuição. Basta ter contribuído por 30 anos, para mulheres, e 35 anos para homens, para garantir a aposentadoria.

Sistema desigual

Isso permite que um sujeito que começa a trabalhar aos 20 anos se aposente aos 55. Esse modelo, segundo o coordenador de Previdência do Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (Ipea), Rogério Nagamine, favorece aqueles que têm condições de ficar três décadas e meia sem perder o emprego, sem ter de recorrer a bicos e sem manter outra função informal para completar a renda no fim do mês.

Esses, que conseguem entrar cedo no mercado de trabalho, com carteira assinada, e lá permanecer por estáveis 35 anos geralmente pertencem às classes mais abastadas. Já os mais pobres, segundo estudos de Nagamine, tendem a se aposentar por idade. “Isso não me parece nem justo, nem sustentável”, diz.

O economista e sociólogo especialista no sistema previdenciário Marcelo Medeiros vai na mesma linha:

“De todas as medidas da reforma, a mais importante é o estabelecimento de idade mínima para todos, sem exceção. Basta isso para resolver o problema mais importante. Os demais podem ser enfrentados quando governos com maior reconhecimento político e um Congresso com mais legitimidade estejam no poder”.

É uma questão de criar um sistema mais igualitário e, ao mesmo tempo, eficiente. “A maior parte do dinheiro da previdência é gasta com as aposentadorias mais altas. O bom senso diz que a economia deve ser feita lá onde está a maior parte do dinheiro“, complementa.

Medeiros fez essas considerações antes da divulgação das últimas propostas do relator da reforma da Previdência na Câmara, Arthur Maia (PPS-BA), que vão mais ou menos nessa direção: a ideia agora é ter uma idade mínima geral (65 anos para homens, 62 anos para mulheres) com um mínimo de 15 anos de contribuição. Ou seja, elimina-se a possibilidade de se aposentar apenas por tempo de contribuição, o que acaba com as aposentadorias precoces.

Para os mais pobres, que, na prática, já se aposentam por idade, haveria poucas mudanças, além do aumento de dois anos para a idade mínima das mulheres (não seria uma reforma do governo Temer sem alguma maldadezinha).

Blade Runner Brasil

Apesar de ter o mérito de possibilitar alguma diminuição das desigualdades entre os trabalhadores mais ricos e os mais pobres, a reforma que está sendo proposta não leva em conta as mudanças profundas que vêm acontecendo no mercado de trabalho não só do Brasil, mas da maior parte do planeta. Aqui ainda temos o agravante de que o próprio governo vem contribuindo para acelerar esse processo. No sábado (11), entrou em vigor a reforma trabalhista, que deve incentivar a terceirização, o trabalho intermitente e a transmutação de trabalhadores com carteira assinada em “autônomos”.

Para a filósofa e matemática da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro Tatiana Roque, sem mudanças mais profundas, a tendência é o aumento da desigualdade entre aqueles que conseguirão um emprego formal – e portanto vão se aposentar um dia – e aqueles que não conseguirão e envelhecerão largados à própria sorte.

“O sistema de proteção que a gente tem hoje é filosoficamente concebido para um mundo que está deixando de existir”, diz.

Para entender do que Tatiana está falando, basta pensar no Uber e em seus motoristas “parceiros” – o exemplo mais gritante de uma vasta gama de terceirizados, microempresários, prestadores de serviço e freelas de toda a sorte. Atualmente qualquer trabalhador, inclusive autônomo, pode contribuir para  previdência, mas os que de fato o fazem, por longos períodos e mesmo sem ter um emprego formal, são a minoria. Renda insuficiente, burocracia e alta rotatividade estão entre os fatores que mantêm parte desses trabalhadores longe do sistema.

Renda universal como opção

Diante dessa realidade, a filósofa e matemática propõe que se discuta a criação de uma renda básica universal como uma solução para as disparidades entre sistema previdenciário e nova realidade trabalhista. Todos os cidadãos em idade adulta receberiam um mesmo valor, até o fim da vida, não importando o trabalho, o sexo, a idade ou o salário no fim do mês.

Uma proposta semelhante a essa, que deixaria arrepiados os sete fios de  cabelo de Henrique Meirelles, foi defendida pelo candidato socialista à presidência nas últimas eleições francesas. Seguindo a linha econômica do best-seller Thomas Piketty, o dinheiro para custear essa renda viria de maiores impostos sobre o capital financeiro: fundos de investimento, ações, letras de títulos imobiliários, etc.

A proposta soa um tanto ambiciosa. Mas parece uma boa linha para novos debates, como tem incansavelmente ressaltado um de seus principais defensores, o ex-senador e menestrel das horas inapropriadas, Eduardo Suplicy.

Piketty, em seu livro “O Capital no Século 21”, chama de “utopia útil”  a implantação de um imposto mundial sobre o capital para viabilizar a renda universal. “Mesmo que uma instituição ideal não se torne realidade num futuro previsível, é importante tê-la como ponto de referência a fim de avaliar melhor o que as soluções alternativas oferecem ou deixam de oferecer”, escreveu o economista.

Nas eleições francesas, Benoît Hamon, o candidato que defendeu a proposta de renda universal, conquistou um desanimador quinto lugar no primeiro turno, com pouco mais de 6% dos votos. Por outro lado, a Finlândia pôs em prática um teste de renda básica universal no começo do ano. O objetivo é avaliar se o sistema funcionará melhor do que um conjunto de benefícios intermitentes e focados em grupos definidos, como seguro-desemprego, auxílio-moradia e verbas para estudantes. A tese é que um sistema genérico seria muito mais simples, uma vez que dispensaria toda uma infraestrutura burocrática para filtrar aqueles que têm direito a cada benefício. O enxugamento dessa máquina estatal ajudaria a custear um salário básico distribuído para todo mundo.

Na atual fase de testes, dois mil cidadãos passaram a receber cerca de R$ 2 mil reais apenas por terem nascido finlandeses. Parece um salário razoável para os brasileiros. Já para os finlandeses, que recebem em média R$ 12 mil, nem tanto. De qualquer forma, os resultados serão avaliados em 2019, quando o governo decidirá se o mecanismo deve ou não ser expandido para o país inteiro.

Foto em destaque: Manifestantes aposentados reunidos em frente ao prédio do INSS, em São Paulo, em um ato contra a reforma da previdência, no dia 9 de novembro.

The post Reforma da Previdência mira no passado e pode ficar obsoleta antes de vigorar plenamente appeared first on The Intercept.

GOP Plans to Win Tax and Obamacare Fight by Opening Up Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge to Drilling

15 November 2017 - 3:19pm

Senate Republicans plan to use the prospect of drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to get the votes needed for major corporate tax cuts and a repeal of the individual mandate, one of the key components of the Affordable Care Act.

On Tuesday night, Senate Republicans released the latest version of their tax plan and included in it a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, which is the requirement that everybody who can afford to buy health insurance must do so or pay a fine. Repealing it would result in significantly higher premiums, as some healthy people would elect to forego coverage until the moment it was needed.

Drilling in ANWR has been one of Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s longtime priorities, as it was for her father, Frank Murkowski, a giant of Alaska politics. While the elder Murkowski was never able to make the drilling dream a reality, it is now within reach.

On Wednesday, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Murkowski chairs, passed a bill to allow drilling by a 13-10 vote, with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voting in favor, alongside every Republican.

That bill was in response to what are known as budget reconciliation instructions, a Senate maneuver that allows legislation to go through the full Senate with a bare majority and not be subject to a filibuster. That means Murkowski’s ANWR bill can now be included in the broader tax package being finalized by Senate Republicans.

Murkowski was effectively named an honorary member of “the resistance” — those opposed to President Donald Trump’s agenda — earlier this year when she twice held strong against Republican efforts to pressure her to support a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In a conversation with outgoing office interns, she described her stand on that bill as one of the most important things she’d done as a senator.

For all senators, but particularly for those from Alaska, detached as it is from the “lower 48,” home-state priorities almost always trump national ones. Murkowski has also been one of the few Republicans to acknowledge the reality of climate change — but not so much that it would get in the way of more drilling in Alaska.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks with reporters after the Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, to consider, pursuant to H.Con.Res.71, the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for FY 2018, reconciliation legislation to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to establish and administer a competitive oil and gas program in the non-wilderness portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as the “1002 Area” or Coastal Plain.

Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, warned that opening the area for drilling would cause irreparable harm. “Adding oil and gas development as a purpose of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge doesn’t make any sense for a wildlife refuge – it certainly does if you want to drill, but no other national wildlife refuge lists oil and gas development as a purpose of a wildlife refuge,” she said at the hearing, arguing that scientists “say it can’t coexist. … I know people would like to say that these caribou or polar bears want to cozy up to a pipeline, but that is just not true.”

The state has a permanent fund that is fueled by resource extraction, which cuts an annual check to state residents, so Alaskans are quite literally bought into the fossil fuel industry.

The Intercept asked Murkowski on Wednesday whether she would be able to support a tax bill that included a repeal of the individual mandate, which would drive up insurance premiums and greatly increase the number of uninsured. Her answer, in pivoting immediately to ANWR, was instructive.

“My whole focus this week, you’re going to be shocked to know, has been ANWR. Today, I’m not carrying a 12-pound binder. I’m able to unload that for a couple of days,” she said, referring literally to the stacks of paper she’d been hauling around as she worked on passing the drilling bill, but perhaps also metaphorically to the ANWR baggage she’s been dragging around since inheriting the issue from her father. “Now we can look to what’s happening with the rest of the tax package.”

Murkowski had been joined in opposition to health care repeal by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., leaving the GOP just one vote short. Collins, for her part, said she has yet to decide how to vote on the broad package, but appeared to be leaning against it when talking to reporters Wednesday. “I think it greatly complicates our efforts to combine tax reform and changes in the ACA, particularly taking an isolated provision,” she said.

But without Murkowski, it doesn’t matter how Collins votes.

Republican leaders may have other problems, however, as Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have made noises about opposing a tax bill that adds significantly to the deficit, while Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., has problems with its manufacturing impacts.

And if they don’t pass the bill ahead of Alabama’s December 12 special election for a Senate seat, they may have Democrat Doug Jones to worry about as well.

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Top photo: Caribou at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on June 18, 2017 in Alaska.

The post GOP Plans to Win Tax and Obamacare Fight by Opening Up Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge to Drilling appeared first on The Intercept.

We Knew Julian Assange Hated Clinton. We Didn’t Know He Was Secretly Advising Trump.

15 November 2017 - 2:09pm

The revelation that WikiLeaks secretly offered help to Donald Trump’s campaign, in a series of private Twitter messages sent to the candidate’s son Donald Trump Jr., gave ammunition to the group’s many detractors and also sparked anger from some longtime supporters of the organization and its founder, Julian Assange.

One of the most high-profile dissenters was journalist Barrett Brown, whose crowd-sourced investigations of hacked corporate documents later posted on WikiLeaks led to a prison sentence.

Brown had a visceral reaction to the news, first reported by The Atlantic, that WikiLeaks had been advising the Trump campaign. In a series of tweets and Facebook videos, Brown accused Assange of having compromised “the movement” to expose corporate and government wrongdoing by acting as a covert political operative.

Brown explained that he had defended WikiLeaks for releasing emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee, “because it was an appropriate thing for a transparency org to do.” But, he added, “working with an authoritarian would-be leader to deceive the public is indefensible and disgusting.”

He was particularly outraged by an Oct. 26, 2016 message, in which Assange had appealed to Trump Jr. to let WikiLeaks publish one or more of his father’s tax returns in order to make his group’s attacks on Hillary Clinton seem less biased. “If we publish them it will dramatically improve the perception of our impartiality,” the Assange-controlled @Wikileaks account suggested. “That means that the vast amount of stuff that we are publishing on Clinton will have much higher impact, because it won’t be perceived as coming from a ‘pro-Trump’ ‘pro-Russia’ source, which the Clinton campaign is constantly slandering us with.”


A screenshot of a direct message from the WikiLeaks Twitter account to Donald Trump Jr.

As Brown pointed out in another tweet, it was all-caps exasperating that Assange was in this case “complaining about ‘slander’ of being pro-Trump IN THE ACTUAL COURSE OF COLLABORATING WITH TRUMP.”

The journalist, an Intercept contributor, whose work had been championed by WikiLeaks, also shared a link to a Reddit AMA conducted two days after the election in which WikiLeaks staff, including Assange’s longtime collaborator Sarah Harrison, had denied point-blank that they had collaborated with the Trump campaign.

Was "Wikileaks staff" lying on Nov 10 2016 when they claimed "The allegations that we have colluded with Trump, or any other candidate for that matter, or with Russia, are just groundless and false", or did Assange lie to them? https://t.co/xQtDwuNnCh

— Barrett Brown (@BarrettBrown_) November 13, 2017

“The allegations that we have colluded with Trump, or any other candidate for that matter, or with Russia, are just groundless and false,” the staffers wrote then. “We were not publishing with a goal to get any specific candidate elected.”

It is not surprising that Brown felt personally betrayed by Assange, since, as he explained on Facebook Tuesday night, “I went to prison because of my support for WikiLeaks.” Specifically, Brown said, the charges against him were related to his role in “operations to identify and punish members of the government and members of private companies that had been exposed by Anonymous hackers of my acquaintance, via email hacks, as having conspired to go after Assange, to go after WikiLeaks.”

That sort of activism, dedicated to making public secret wrongdoing, Brown argued, is very different from “colluding with an authoritarian presidential campaign backed by actual Nazis while publicly denying it.”

“Plainly,” he observed with bitterness, “the prospect of a Clinton in the White House was such an unimaginable nightmare scenario that all normal standards of truth and morality became moot and it became necessary to get people like Sebastian Gorka into the White House to establish order.”

Before his private messages to Trump Jr. were leaked, Assange himself had categorically denied that he or WikiLeaks had been attacking Hillary Clinton to help elect Donald Trump. “This is not due to a personal desire to influence the outcome of the election,” he wrote in a statement released on November 8 as Americans went to the polls.

Even though Assange had by then transformed the WikiLeaks Twitter feed into a vehicle for smearing Clinton, he insisted that his work was journalistic in nature. “The right to receive and impart true information is the guiding principle of WikiLeaks — an organization that has a staff and organizational mission far beyond myself,” Assange wrote. “Millions of Americans have pored over the leaks and passed on their citations to each other and to us,” he added. “It is an open model of journalism that gatekeepers are uncomfortable with, but which is perfectly harmonious with the First Amendment.”

The same morning, WikiLeaks tweeted an attack on Clinton for not having driven her own car during her decades of public service.

Clinton: out of touch, cronyistic, didn't drive a car in 35 years, flew all over the world but accomplished nothing https://t.co/dc2OjdPIII pic.twitter.com/P8yiYkD6bO

— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) November 8, 2016

For Brown, and others who have been critical of Assange for using the platform of WikiLeaks to fight his own political and personal battles, his secret communication with the Trump campaign was damning because it revealed that he had been functioning more like a freelance political operative, doling out strategy and advice, than a journalist interested in obtaining and publishing information, concerned only with its accuracy.

James Ball, a former WikiLeaks volunteer who has described the difficulty of working for someone who lies so much, was also appalled by one post-election message to Trump Jr., in which WikiLeaks suggested that, as a form of payback, it would be “helpful for your dad to suggest that Australia appoint Assange ambassador to DC.”



That request for payback, on Dec. 16, 2016, came three weeks after Trump’s father had called on the British government to make his friend Nigel Farage its ambassador. “This should be it, game over, end of it, for anyone who tries to suggest Assange looks out for anyone except himself,” Ball observed on Twitter. “That’s his cause, and plenty of good people have been played, badly.”

There was also criticism from journalists, like Chris Hayes of MSNBC, a network Assange accused of being, with the New York Times, “the most biased source” in one note to Trump Jr. Pointing to a message from WikiLeaks sent on election day, advising Trump to refuse to concede and claim the election was rigged, Hayes asked how, exactly, offering that sort of political advice squared with the organization’s mission to promote transparency.


A screenshot of a Nov. 8, 2016 DM to Donald Trump Jr. from WikiLeaks.

Still, many of Assange’s most vocal supporters stuck with him, calling even secret communication with the Trump campaign to undermine Clinton entirely consistent with his vision of WikiLeaks as a sort of opposition research group, dedicated to “crushing bastards” by finding dirt in the servers of powerful individuals or organizations.

As Raffi Khatchadourian explained in a New Yorker profile of the WikiLeaks founder in 2010, “Assange, despite his claims to scientific journalism, emphasized to me that his mission is to expose injustice, not to provide an even-handed record of events.” To Assange, Khatchadourian wrote, “Leaks were an instrument of information warfare.”

One steadfast Assange ally was Kim Dotcom, the founder of the shuttered file-sharing site Megaupload, who helped fuel a conspiracy theory that the DNC emails had not been hacked by Russia, but provided to WikiLeaks by a young Democratic staffer named Seth Rich, who was subsequently murdered. Alluding to another entirely unsubstantiated allegation — that Hillary Clinton had once suggested killing Assange in a drone strike — Dotcom said that the WikiLeaks founder was merely part of a crowd-sourced political operation that had successfully defeated the greater evil.

I think what @JulianAssange wrote to @DonaldJTrumpJr is perfectly fine. Who’s surprised? He doesn’t like Hillary. She wanted to assassinate him with a drone for publishing the truth. And he’s fishing for information like any good editor. We wanted to prevent Hillary and we did!

— Kim Dotcom (@KimDotcom) November 14, 2017

As it happens, one of the anti-Clinton rumors that WikiLeaks had urged Trump Jr. to “push” in an Oct. 3, 2016 message was a tweet linking to that unsubstantiated allegation in an unsigned blog post citing anonymous sources. The blog post includes no documentation of the allegation, but the WikiLeaks tweet linking to it, which Trump Jr. told Assange he did share, included an excerpt from the blog post in which the type was styled to look like a leaked document.

Hillary Clinton on Assange "Can't we just drone this guy" — report https://t.co/S7tPrl2QCZ pic.twitter.com/qy2EQBa48y

— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) October 3, 2016

While WikiLeaks has undoubtedly facilitated the release of information that is both true and important, it is Assange’s Trump-like willingness to traffic in such unsubstantiated rumors, conspiracy theories, and innuendo not supported by evidence that undermines his claim to be a disinterested publisher, not a political operative.

While this tendency to disguise personal animus in the cloak of high-minded ideals was very much in evidence during his work on behalf of Trump, it is a consistent feature of Assange’s advocacy for other people and causes.

During the final week of the Brexit campaign last year, Assange tried to undermine the credibility of a witness to the savage murder of a pro-European member of parliament, Jo Cox. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Brexit supporters like Assange were concerned that a wave of sympathy for the murdered MP could sway the vote. So they set out to contest evidence that the killing had been politically motivated.

To that end, the WikiLeaks Twitter feed drew attention to the fact that one witness to the killing — who said he had heard the attacker shout “Britain First!” — might have belonged to a racist political group, the British National Party, whose membership rolls WikiLeaks had obtained. Within hours of the murder, WikiLeaks also shared a link to a conspiratorial post from the pro-Brexit Breitbart UK, which speculated that the witness might have lied about what he heard as part of a feud among far-right racist groups.

UK: "witness" who claimed MP slayer shouted "Britain First!" appears in BNP list https://t.co/pCSc1HOmqV #Brexit pic.twitter.com/qgylg91u3T

— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) June 17, 2016

The next day, British police confirmed that the attacker told the arresting officers he was “a political activist,” and had indeed shouted pro-Brexit phrases including “Britain First,” during the murder.

More recently, during the separatist protests in Catalonia he supported, Assange was forced to delete several fake images he had shared on Twitter — like one photograph of Spanish police officers struggling with Catalans, which had been digitally altered to insert a Catalan independence flag.


A screenshot of a fake image Julian Assange shared and later deleted.

In the final months of the 2016 presidential election, the WikiLeaks Twitter feed promoted not just its new publications, but also frequently referred to tabloid rumors — like old chestnuts about Hillary Clinton’s supposed “role in the death of White House counsel Vince Foster” — and wild conspiracy theories about her campaign chairman taking part in bloody Satanic rituals.

FBI interview with Hillary Clinton over death of White House aid have gone 'missing' from the US National Archives https://t.co/YCbOHqwlkb

— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) August 23, 2016

The Podestas' "Spirit Cooking" dinner?
It's not what you think.
It's blood, sperm and breastmilk.
But mostly blood.https://t.co/gGPWFS3B2H pic.twitter.com/I43KiiraDh

— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) November 4, 2016

We know now that, from late September on, Assange was also privately using that account to urge the candidate’s son to hype the mostly anodyne emails stolen from the account of the campaign chairman, John Podesta, as crucial evidence of Clinton’s unfitness for office. And it certainly looks like the campaign took his advice.

On October 12, 2016, just 15 minutes after Assange told Trump Jr. that a new batch of Podesta emails had been released, with “many great stories the press are missing,” his father tweeted a complaint accusing “the dishonest media” of ignoring “incredible information provided by WikiLeaks.”

Very little pick-up by the dishonest media of incredible information provided by WikiLeaks. So dishonest! Rigged system!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2016

In the same message, Assange urged Trump Jr. to share a link he provided to the email database — wlsearch.tk — so “you guys can get all your followers digging through the content.” Two days later, Trump Jr. shared that link.

For those who have the time to read about all the corruption and hypocrisy all the @wikileaks emails are right here: https://t.co/SGcEeM9rCS

— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) October 14, 2016

Despite the constant claims, from Assange and the Trumps, that the emails stolen from Democrats implicated Clinton in scandal and corruption, it is important to keep in mind that the WikiLeaks method of encouraging Trump supporters and Reddit trolls to scour the documents for evidence of malfeasance did not, in fact, uncover any such evidence.

Instead, the hacked emails were used to reverse-engineer preposterous conspiracy theories, like the imaginary pedophilia scandal called Pizzagate, which WikiLeaks was still treating as real two months after the election.

CBS Reality Check covers Pizzagate. https://t.co/KNaKp1XONR

More: https://t.co/Sc1nFTAFgV

— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) January 18, 2017

This is the real tragedy and menace of the public and private collaboration of WikiLeaks with Trump. An organization with a sterling reputation for providing the public with accurate information about secret government and corporate activities was used to launder conspiracy theories that helped elect a racist, sexual predator President of the United States.

That might be a terrific result for people like Julian Assange, who see a dysfunctional, discredited White House as a way to undermine what they see as the real evil empire. For Americans condemned to live under Trump, particularly the most marginalized who, as Noam Chomsky pointed out, will suffer the most from his cruelty, it is less good.

The post We Knew Julian Assange Hated Clinton. We Didn’t Know He Was Secretly Advising Trump. appeared first on The Intercept.

Dakota Access Pipeline Company Paid Mercenaries to Build Conspiracy Lawsuit Against Environmentalists

15 November 2017 - 1:34pm

The private security firm TigerSwan, hired by Energy Transfer Partners to protect the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, was paid to gather information for what would become a sprawling conspiracy lawsuit accusing environmentalist groups of inciting the anti-pipeline protests in an effort to increase donations, three former TigerSwan contractors told The Intercept.

For months, a conference room wall at TigerSwan’s Apex, North Carolina, headquarters was covered with a web-like map of funding nodes the firm believed it had uncovered — linking billionaire backers to nonprofit organizations to pipeline opponents protesting at Standing Rock. It was a “showpiece” for board members and ETP executives, according to a former TigerSwan contractor — part of a project that had little to do with the pipeline’s physical security.

In August, the law firm founded by Marc Kasowitz, Donald Trump’s personal attorney for more than a decade, filed a 187-page racketeering complaint against Greenpeace, Earth First, and the divestment group BankTrack in the U.S. District Court of North Dakota, seeking $300 million in damages on behalf of Energy Transfer Partners. The NoDAPL movement, the suit claims, was driven by “a network of putative not-for-profits and rogue eco-terrorist groups who employ patterns of criminal activity and campaigns of misinformation to target legitimate companies and industries with fabricated environmental claims.”

“It was as if the entire campaign came in a box. And of course it did,” the suit alleges. “Its objective was not to protect the environment or Native Americans but to produce as sensational and public a dispute as possible, and to use that publicity and emotion to drive fundraising.”

Among the nonprofit network’s alleged crimes: “perpetrating acts of terrorism under the U.S. Patriot Act, including destruction of an energy facility, destruction of hazardous liquid pipeline facility, arson and bombing of government property risking or causing injury or death.”

“We felt compelled to file the lawsuit against Greenpeace and others because we want the truth to come out about the illegal actions that took place in North Dakota and the funding of these actions,” ETP spokesperson Vicki Granado told The Intercept. “In many cases, the only way the truth comes out is through the legal process.”

The case was filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, passed in 1970 to prosecute organized crime — primarily the mob. Greenpeace says it amounts to a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP, designed to curtail free speech through expensive, time-consuming litigation.

“It grossly distorts the law and facts at Standing Rock,” said Greenpeace general counsel Tom Wetterer. “We’ll win the lawsuit, but it’s not really what this is about for ETP. What they’re really trying to do is silence future protests and advocacy work against the company and other corporations.”

“[The lawsuit] had some major racist overtones. They were basically saying that we were not intelligent enough to know for ourselves what the possibilities were in case the pipeline were to leak. They were basically saying we were manipulated,” said Linda Black Elk, a member of the Catawba Nation who lives on the Standing Rock reservation and organized against the pipeline months before the protests began. “I think the whole purpose of it is to scare tribes from further activism when it comes to the fossil fuel industries and to scare these green groups to keep them from supporting us in those future fights.”


A TigerSwan diagram attempts to link environmental nonprofits and Standing Rock pipeline opponents to the billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett.

Illustration: The Intercept

A Short-Lived Line of Work

TigerSwan, which got its start working U.S. government contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq, was hired by Energy Transfer Partners to coordinate the DAPL operation in September 2016, after dogs handled by private security officers were caught on film biting pipeline opponents. The firm began collecting information on the movement’s funding streams soon afterward, submitting intelligence to ETP via daily situation reports, more than 100 of which were leaked to The Intercept by a TigerSwan contractor.

But the effort to build a lawsuit began in earnest in January. TigerSwan personnel were tasked directly by lawyers working for ETP with fulfilling information requests, according to two former contractors. Situation reports from the beginning of February note that the company planned to “continue to proceed with the ETP legal team’s requests.”

In response to the requests, TigerSwan personnel sent reports on trespassing incidents and pipeline sabotage, including information about who was suspected to be involved and monetary damages caused by the work stoppages. The firm also compiled descriptions of movement leaders and individuals arrested by law enforcement, and tracked donations to DAPL-related GoFundMe accounts. Much of the intelligence collection was carried out via fake social media accounts and infiltration of protest camps by TigerSwan operatives.

According to the former contractors, the company intended to sell its legal investigative services to future clients. A PowerPoint presentation obtained by The Intercept, which a former contractor described as marketing material to attract a new contract, shows TigerSwan applying its follow-the-money tactics to a new pipeline fight against Pennsylvania’s Mariner East 2 project. The presentation traces nonprofit funds to various “action arms,” which include activist groups — Lancaster Against Pipelines and Marcellus Shale Earth First — as well as a member of the press, StateImpact, a regionally focused public radio project.

“As concerns StateImpact, the TigerSwan graphic is incorrect,” editor Scott Blanchard told The Intercept. “StateImpact, which covers Pennsylvania’s energy economy, is independent of outside influence and is not aligned with any stakeholders.”

While TigerSwan eventually landed security work on the Pennsylvania pipeline, its RICO work for Energy Transfer Partners was short-lived. By early March, the legal team working for ETP had pulled the security firm off the lawsuit. Former TigerSwan contractors speculated the firm’s lack of experience building legal cases made it ill-equipped for the project.

Michael Bowe, the Kasowitz attorney representing ETP in the RICO case, told The Intercept, “We did not retain or work with TigerSwan.” Former TigerSwan personnel agreed that the ETP lawyers working most closely with TigerSwan were not with Kasowitz.

ETP declined to comment on TigerSwan’s work, stating, “We do not comment on any specifics related to our security programs.” A TigerSwan spokesperson stated, “We do not discuss the details of our efforts for any client. We are proud of our work to provide the very best in consultative risk management services to our clients around the world.”


A TigerSwan PowerPoint slide suggests pipeline opponents and the press are “action arms” of environmental nonprofits.

TigerSwan

Hunting Paid Protesters

Internal documents and interviews with the former TigerSwan contractors display some of the fruits of the firm’s investigation, which include claims that echo prominent right-wing conspiracy theories.

A PowerPoint presentation created in the fall of 2016 describes what TigerSwan dubbed the Billionaire’s Club: “an exclusive group of wealthy individuals, [which] directs the far-left environmental movement.” Several slides are dedicated to the anti-pipeline nonprofit Bold Nebraska, whose parent organization, Bold Alliance, is named in the ETP suit.

“Underlying Bold Nebraska’s homespun, grassroots facade is a significant, growing, well-funded and well-organized financial support network originating from wealthy far-left environmental interests thousands of miles away,” one slide states. The language is pulled verbatim from a 2014 report by the Republican minority staff of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, titled “Chain of Environmental Command: How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA.”

TigerSwan claimed that among the wealthy interests behind Bold Alliance was billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett, whose donations to foundations that support environmental causes, one slide states, benefited an oil-by-rail business owned by Buffett’s investment company Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett also appears at the center of a TigerSwan links map, obtained by The Intercept, meant to depict movement funders and influencers.

One of the theory’s most obvious flaws is that Buffet has a significant financial stake in the Dakota Access pipeline. Berkshire Hathaway is the largest investor in the oil and gas firm Phillips 66, which owns a 25 percent stake in DAPL. Buffett did not respond to a request for comment.

Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Alliance, told The Intercept that the group raised money for food and shelter at the DAPL resistance camps. They also had an indigenous staff member on the ground for six months who was involved in organizing protests.

“We’d be happy to take Buffett’s millions, but we don’t have any of that money,” she said, noting the organization relies on thousands of small donors. “There’s literally never been a foundation or a major donor that has given us money and said, ‘You have to do XYZ and target XYZ person.’”

“It’s remarkable that because we are a nonprofit and because I get paid a salary, and I pay our organizers a salary, that somehow makes us a paid protester,” Kleeb added.

Indeed, according to one of the former TigerSwan contractors, a goal of the firm’s RICO work was to identify “paid protesters.”

Throughout the protests, prosecutors and police also took interest in identifying such protesters, indicating that the oil industry’s hunt for a conspiracy was taken up by the public sector.

Multiple TigerSwan situation reports note law enforcement efforts to follow the money. For example, on March 3, a TigerSwan operative wrote, “Spoke with FBI Agent Tom Reinwart in reference to funds being funneled to protesters.” Another report from February 11 describes the Bureau of Indian Affairs tracking individuals “assessed to be assisting in the facilitation of moving money and supplies to the camps.”

Meanwhile, Lynn Woodall of the Morton County Sheriff’s Department also regularly forwarded a protester social media activity bulletin from a Gmail account to an array of law enforcement officials. The bulletins summarized Facebook and Twitter statements made by DAPL opponents, tracked the progress of various anti-DAPL fundraising campaigns, and at times noted posts made by groups named in the lawsuit — including 350.org, Greenpeace, and Earthjustice — under a category labeled “Protest Supporters and Amplifiers.” In at least one case, the bulletin was forwarded to a TigerSwan operative.

A spokesperson for Morton County told The Intercept that a law enforcement staff member collected the fundraising information for “situational awareness.” Neither the FBI nor the Bureau of Indian Affairs responded to The Intercept’s requests for comment.

State’s attorneys were also interested in funding linked to media coverage of the protests, repeatedly singling out Democracy Now, the news outlet whose footage of private security dogs attacking protesters attracted widespread criticism of the pipeline project and galvanized many to join the opposition movement. In a motion filed last December as part of a criminal case against pipeline opponents, state’s attorney Ladd Erickson repeated right-wing talking points. “Some DAPL protester videos are designed for fundraising, to get actors weeping into cameras,” he said, adding, “Pretend journalists like Amy Goodman of Democracy Now or The Young Turks have published manipulated DAPL social media videos with faux narratives in an attempt to be recognized as a news source by those who are duped by fake news.”

In a November 29 email, the acting state’s attorney of McKenzie County, Todd Schwarz, relayed to a North Dakota State and Local Intelligence Center officer a secondhand story he’d heard about someone a colleague sat next to on a flight. “He indicated to Ron that he is a paid protester, $ 3000/day plus expenses. His check comes from Democracy Now who receives their money through the DNC from the Clinton Foundation. I have no way to confirm this but was asked to pass it to you.” Schwarz noted it was “the first time I’ve had it confirmed from the person who actually heard it from the paid protester.” Schwarz did not respond to a request for comment.

“These claims are baseless and absurd,” Julie Crosby, general manager for Democracy Now, told The Intercept. “The Young Turks’ Jordan Chariton took six trips to Standing Rock, where he conducted interviews that shined a light on the truth and raced to cover the front lines of the demonstration,” a spokesperson for the network told The Intercept, calling the narrative pushed by ETP “a continuation of right-wing, corporate intimidation tactics.”

Of course, as police and prosecutors searched for the big-money backers of the protest movement, they were receiving their own share of billionaire support. Throughout the protests, police used ETP equipment including ATVs, snowmobiles, and a helicopter. This past October, ETP paid the state of North Dakota $15 million for law enforcement expenses, and went on a tour of pipeline counties in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Illinois, handing out giant checks totaling $1 million — “gifts without condition,” as one ETP executive put it.


An activist stands in silent protest by a police barricade near Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on Dec. 4, 2016, outside Cannon Ball, N.D.

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Using Lawsuits to Chill Free Speech

“When it was adopted, RICO was thought to be a mafia tool,” Jeffrey Grell, who teaches courses on RICO at the University of Minnesota School of Law, told The Intercept. “Now it’s going through a renaissance,” he added, noting that while federal courts tried to limit applications of the law, winning the case is often not the primary motive of those filing charges.

“I do not think this pipeline claim is a very legitimate use of this statute … but in legal reality, whether you have a good claim or not does not matter,” Grell said. “If you are an energy company, you have a lot more money than some of these protest groups, so paying a lawyer for two or three years to sue these protesters, who cares? But I guarantee you, the protest groups, they’re going to care.”

“If you have got money in our country, you can use litigation for a lot of purposes, and many times those purposes are not to win a court case.”

Marc Kasowitz’s firm was also behind a RICO suit filed last year against Greenpeace on behalf of logging company Resolute Forest Products. That suit was dismissed in October, although Resolute has filed an amended complaint.

Kasowitz attorney Michael Bowe told Bloomberg Businessweek that Energy Transfer Partners and Resolute are not the only companies with an interest in suing Greenpeace. “When Greenpeace directly attacks a company’s customers, financing, and business, that company has little choice but to legally defend itself,” he said. “I know others who are considering having to do so and would be shocked if there are not many more.”

Several states have passed “anti-SLAPP” legislation in an effort to counter the use of lawsuits for the purpose of chilling free speech, but North Dakota is not one of them. “There’s no question that whether it’s a civil damages lawsuit or a criminal prosecution, if part of what’s motivating it is a desire to suppress speech, that it’s a First Amendment problem,” Seth Berlin, an attorney who has defended the First Amendment rights of advocacy groups and political organizations, told The Intercept.

“It’s a big threat to the environmental movement,” said Wetterer, the Greenpeace lawyer. “These baseless lawsuits have to be thrown out at the initial stage because the longer they go on, the corporations win.”

To search all TigerSwan documents published by The Intercept, go to the TigerSwan project page on DocumentCloud.

Top photo: Dakota Access pipeline protesters faced off with law enforcement on the day their camp was slated to be raided, Feb. 22, 2017, in North Dakota.

The post Dakota Access Pipeline Company Paid Mercenaries to Build Conspiracy Lawsuit Against Environmentalists appeared first on The Intercept.

Anti-Abortion GOP Congress Shrugs as Program That Helps New Mothers Expires

15 November 2017 - 12:26pm

Barney Frank once quipped that Republicans who call themselves pro-life “believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth.”

Nowhere would that punchline land harder than on the current Congress, composed of lawmakers who are at once pushing past the boundaries of Roe v. Wade, while undermining a range of policies that would make life slightly less difficult for expectant and new mothers.

The GOP tax reform proposal initially came after the adoption tax credit, while Congress has allowed the children’s health insurance program to expire and, now, is doing the same for a program that funds nurses and social workers to coach at-risk new moms, beginning during pregnancy and lasting until the child turns 2 years old.

The programs have lapsed as Republicans struggle to find ways to pay for them, even as they gallop toward an unpaid-for series of corporate tax cuts that could cost the government trillions in lost revenue.

The lapsed program that has received the least attention is also one of the most effective. The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program was launched as a pilot program by the Bush administration, which then signed it into law after it was implemented as legislation by a Democratic Congress in 2008. It is routinely held up as a model of evidence-based policymaking, because the law sets an outcome Congress wants, but leaves it to people on the ground to get there and prove that they got the result they promised.

It began largely as a program involving nurses or social workers, but has expanded to other paraprofessionals who have been able to ease a new mom into the daunting world of parenting.

The program expired at the end of September due to congressional inaction and battles over its funding. Though MIECHV is relatively small, it’s part of a package of programs meant to help vulnerable children and families, along with the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which expired at the same time.

The House introduced a bill, H.R. 2824, to reauthorize MIECHV — pronounced “McVee” by wonks on the Hill — for five years, but the legislation also included a provision requiring states to match the federal funding dollar for dollar. In many states, that would simply end the program. House Republicans have since walked back some of that insistence on matching by allowing a plethora of options to count toward the state match, but depending on how it’s counted, anywhere between five and 38 states would no longer be able to fund their programs, as many red states with low tax rates and skimpy social spending would unable to make their match.

The Republican report on the program attempted to put it in the most optimistic light, focusing on how many could make the match, arguing that “more than a dozen states appear to exceed the FY 2022 match requirement today, and other states are likely to already meet or exceed this requirement.” Another way of putting it: Most states would not come up with matching funding, and the program would collapse.

Compounding the problem is a new strain of thinking in the post-Obamacare GOP, in which a sizable chunk of state legislators oppose all matching programs on principle, arguing that it amounts to federal coercion.

Karen Howard, vice president of Early Childhood policy at First Focus, a children’s advocacy organization, said organizations in the Home Visiting Coalition don’t support the state matching provision because they expect “states will curtail services and some states will not be able to make the match.”

The bipartisan Senate legislation, led by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., would reauthorize MIECHV for five years without the state match provision. But the Senate has been bogged down with larger, ideological fights, like the Affordable Care Act repeal attempts and now major tax reform, preventing action on smaller programs that receive wide bipartisan support.

The Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the MIECHV program, in October released a discussion draft of extender programs that they would package and take to the Senate floor. The extender draft includes a two-year extension for MIECHV.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, chair of the Finance Committee, didn’t have any updates on the status of MIECHV legislation but did say the program is “something I’m interested in,” in a brief hallway interview with The Intercept.

“We obviously want this reauthorized for five years without a state match and for no less than level funding, which is $400 million per year,” Howard said. “We’re really urging Congress to get this really good, bipartisan-supported program that’s really working for children and families. It’s accountable, states like it. There’s a tribal program that’s very successful as well that’s part of MIECHV.”

Howard said the Home Visiting Coalition has been working for about 14 or 15 months to urge Congress to reauthorize funding.

“We have bipartisan support in Congress. … I can’t think of anyone who opposes this program because it’s accountable and it’s working,” she said. “States have embraced this program and have really implemented it, and the programs that they’re seeing on the ground are doing great work with children and families.”

The expiration of funding for the program means “states right now are continuing to deliver home visiting services to families,” Howard said, “but pretty soon we think that states will have to curtail services.”

“Most of the models make a multiyear commitment to families and the longer we go, into December and January, the more likely that programs will start to freeze enrollment, curtail services, and ultimately, if they don’t get their money, shut down their programs,” she said. “Those are the consequences in the simplest form.” Recruiting workers to the program also becomes a challenge as Congress allows it to lapse.

Home visiting has existed as an intervention program for decades. Typically, a visitor will come to the home of a pregnant mother during her pregnancy and, though there are various models, will often continue until the baby is a toddler. The visits are on a weekly, biweekly, and sometimes monthly basis.

The leap from being childless to becoming a parent is one of the greatest a person will take, and it’s often done in the dark. Home visitors provide a variety services to families, including screening children for developmental delays, providing guidance on topics like breastfeeding and safe sleep practices, and providing referrals to address postpartum depression, substance abuse, and family violence.

Data from state and nonprofit grantees found 98 percent of participants showed improvement in areas, like maternal and newborn health, crime, domestic violence, and family economic self-sufficiency.

“What we see is improvement in birth outcomes, early childhood health outcomes, improvements in parenting skills, reductions in child abuse and neglect, as well as preventable injuries, reductions in reliance on welfare, reductions in substance abuse, improvements in school readiness of the child, and improvements in parental economic
stability,” Howard said. “And those models and the services have been vetted through rigorous tests over many, many years.”

Parents and children who have received home visiting have seen improvements “lasting over 15 and 20 years.”

“As the child entered adolescence, they’ve seen reductions in criminal activity, improvements in health, improvements in family stability, improvements in parental income, as well as parents getting their GED and going on to higher education and more gainful employment,” she added.

The MIECHV program has provided almost 3.3 million home visits over the past five years, according to the Maternal and Child Health Bureau. In fiscal year 2016, around 74 percent of participating families had household incomes at or below the federal poverty line, and 22 percent of newly enrolled households included pregnant teens.

Many of the parents the visiting program serves are young teenage moms and other vulnerable parents, like mothers and fathers “who may have been in the child welfare system themselves, who may have really significant challenges from poverty to
substance abuse.”

Top photo: TeShawn Cabbil Hobson, left, a nurse with Easter Seals, visits with Jessica Scrivner, right, and her 4-week-old son Aiden at the Scrivner’s apartment in Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Thursday, April 4, 2013.

The post Anti-Abortion GOP Congress Shrugs as Program That Helps New Mothers Expires appeared first on The Intercept.

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