TBR News January 19, 2018

Jan 19 2018

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. January 19, 2018:” Race Riots

1829 Cincinnati, Ohio

1863 New York: Draft Riots: 2,000 killed and 8,000 wounded

1866 Memphis, Tennessee

1868  New Orleans

9 Dec 1873 Clunes, Australia

14 Sep 1874 New Orleans: The Battle of Liberty Place (38 killed, 79 wounded).

1878 Grant Paris, Louisiana: Colfax Massacre (600+ dead)

10 Nov 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina: (8 killed, 30 wounded)

1900  New Orleans

1904 Springfield, Ohio

1906 Springfield, Ohio

13 Aug 1906 Brownsville, Texas

22 Sep 1906 Atlanta

14 Aug 1908  Springfield, Illinois

2 Jul 1917 East St. Louis, Illinois: (200 killed)

23 Aug 1917 Houston, Texas: 19 dead. Later, 13 members of the 24th Infantry Regiment are hanged.

25 Jul 1918 Chester, Pennsylvania: (5 killed)

26 Jul 1918 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: (4 killed, 60 wounded)

5 Jun 1919 Liverpool.

6 Jun 1919 Newport, England.

11 Jun 1919 Cardiff, Wales.

11 Jun 1919 Barry, England.

11 Jun 1919 Chicago: A riot erupts at the white-only 29th Street Beach.

14 Jun 1919 London.

Jul 1919 Gregg County, Texas

19 Jul 1919 Washington, DC: (40 killed, 150 wounded)

27 Jul 1919 Chicago: At the whites-only 29th Street bridge, a white man tosses rocks at a group of black boys floating in a raft. He manages to bean Eugene Williams in the forehead, who panics and drowns. Five days of rioting ensue. (38 killed, 291 wounded)

27 Jul 1919 Cardiff, Wales

Aug 1919  Knoxville, Tennessee: (7 killed)

31 May 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma: After a white woman claimed that a black man had grabbed her arm in an elevator, the largest race riot in U.S. history broke out. Marauding whites set fire to the exclusively-negro Greenwood district, leveling its 35 city blocks of black-owned businesses. Somebody even dropped explosives onto the buildings from an airplane. The official death toll is reported as 36, but later historians estimate it was more like 300.

1923 Rosewood, Florida: (8 killed, dozens wounded)

Feb 1942 Detroit, Michigan

1943 Beaumont, Texas

1943 Harlem, New York

1 Jun 1943 Los Angeles: Zootsuit riots, between zoot suiters and sailors. Time Magazine called it “the ugliest brand of mob action since the coolie race riot of the 1870’s.”

20 Jun 1943 Detroit, Michigan: Belle Island Riots (34 killed, 700 wounded)

1946 Columbia, Tennessee: (2 killed, 10 wounded)

1946 Athens, Alabama: (100 wounded)

1946 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

1960 Chattanooga, Tennessee

1960 Biloxi, Mississippi

1960 Jacksonville, Florida

1 Oct 1962 Mississippi

1964 Harlem, New York: (1 killed, 100+ wounded)

1964 Rochester, New York: (4 killed, 350 wounded)

1964 Paterson, New Jersey: (100+ wounded)

1964 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

11 Aug 1965 Los Angeles: Watts Riots. (35 killed, 1000 wounded)

1966 Los Angeles: Watts again

Jul 1967 Newark, New Jersey: (23 killed)

23 Jul 1967 Detroit, Michigan: (43 killed)

Jul 1969 York, Pennsylvania: (2 deaths)

4 Jul 1970 Asbury Park, New Jersey: (100 wounded)

17 May 1980 A three-day race riot breaks out after an all-white jury acquitted four white Miami police officers of killing Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance salesman. The cops had beaten him with their flashlights and billyclubs, and he died in the hospital. 18 fatalities and more than $100 million in property damage are the final result.

16 Jan 1989 Three days of race riots begin in Overtown, Miami when a black man fleeing on motorcycle is killed by a hispanic police officer. 125 blocks are sealed off during the riots.

29 Apr 1992 Los Angeles: Rodney King Riot: (52 killed, 3000 wounded)

1995 Bradford, England

9 Apr 2001 Cincinnati, Ohio

26 May 2001 Three days of rioting begin in Oldham, England.

Jun 2001 London

7 Jul 2001 Bradford, England.

6 Nov 2002 Antwerp, Belgium

16 Feb 2004 Redfern, Australia (suburb of Sydney)

6 Aug 2011  race rioting broke out in north London and flared for four nights across the capital and other English cities as black street gangs and looters trashed shops and vehicles.”



Table of Contents

  • The ‘New Anti-Semitism’
  • Trump Administration Tells Puerto Rico It’s Too Rich for Aid Money
  • One year under Trump: ‘War of attrition’ on journalists
  • Finding Your Voice: Forget About Siri and Alexa — When It Comes to Voice Identification the “NSA Reigns Supreme”
  • A US-Turkish Clash in Syria?
  • Turkey launches offensive against Kurdish-held Afrin in Syria
  • Trump is ‘obsessed’ and ‘terrified’ of sharks – but his fears are excessive

 The ‘New Anti-Semitism’

January 4, 2018

by Neve Gordon

The London Review of Books

Not long after the eruption of the Second Intifada in September 2000, I became active in a Jewish-Palestinian political movement called Ta’ayush, which conducts non-violent direct action against Israel’s military siege of the West Bank and Gaza. Its objective isn’t merely to protest against Israel’s violation of human rights but to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for self-determination. For a number of years, I spent most weekends with Ta’ayush in the West Bank; during the week I would write about our activities for the local and international press. My pieces caught the eye of a professor from Haifa University, who wrote a series of articles accusing me first of being a traitor and a supporter of terrorism, then later a ‘Judenrat wannabe’ and an anti-Semite. The charges began to circulate on right-wing websites; I received death threats and scores of hate messages by email; administrators at my university received letters, some from big donors, demanding that I be fired.I mention this personal experience because although people within Israel and abroad have expressed concern for my wellbeing and offered their support, my feeling is that in their genuine alarm about my safety, they have missed something very important about the charge of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ and whom, ultimately, its target is.

The ‘new anti-Semitism’, we are told, takes the form of criticism of Zionism and of the actions and policies of Israel, and is often manifested in campaigns holding the Israeli government accountable to international law, a recent instance being the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In this it is different from ‘traditional’ anti-Semitism, understood as hatred of Jews per se, the idea that Jews are naturally inferior, belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy or in the Jewish control of capitalism etc. The ‘new anti-Semitism’ also differs from the traditional form in the political affinities of its alleged culprits: where we are used to thinking that anti-Semites come from the political right, the new anti-Semites are, in the eyes of the accusers, primarily on the political left.

The logic of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ can be formulated as a syllogism: i) anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews; ii) to be Jewish is to be Zionist; iii) therefore anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic. The error has to do with the second proposition. The claims that Zionism is identical to Jewishness, or that a seamless equation can be made between the State of Israel and the Jewish people, are false. Many Jews are not Zionists. And Zionism has numerous traits that are in no way embedded in or characteristic of Jewishness, but rather emerged from nationalist and settler colonial ideologies over the last three hundred years. Criticism of Zionism or of Israel is not necessarily the product of an animus towards Jews; conversely, hatred of Jews does not necessarily entail anti-Zionism.

Not only that, but it is possible to be both a Zionist and an anti-Semite. Evidence of this is supplied by the statements of white supremacists in the US and extreme right-wing politicians across Europe. Richard Spencer, a leading figure in the American alt-right, has no trouble characterising himself as a ‘white Zionist’ (‘As an Israeli citizen,’ he explained to his interviewer on Israel’s Channel 2 News, ‘who has a sense of nationhood and peoplehood, and the history and experience of the Jewish people, you should respect someone like me, who has analogous feelings about whites … I want us to have a secure homeland for us and ourselves. Just like you want a secure homeland in Israel’), while also believing that ‘Jews are vastly over-represented in what you could call “the establishment”.’ Gianfranco Fini of the Italian National Alliance and Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, have also professed their admiration of Zionism and the ‘white’ ethnocracy of the state of Israel, while on other occasions making their anti-Semitic views plain. Three things that draw these anti-Semites towards Israel are, first, the state’s ethnocratic character; second, an Islamophobia they assume Israel shares with them; and, third, Israel’s unapologetically harsh policies towards black migrants from Africa (in the latest of a series of measures designed to coerce Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to leave Israel, rules were introduced earlier this year requiring asylum seekers to deposit 20 per cent of their earnings in a fund, to be repaid to them only if, and when, they leave the country).

If Zionism and anti-Semitism can coincide, then – according to the law of contradiction – anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not reducible one to the other. Of course it’s true that in certain instances anti-Zionism can and does overlap with anti-Semitism, but this in itself doesn’t tell us much, since a variety of views and ideologies can coincide with anti-Semitism. You can be a capitalist, or a socialist or a libertarian, and still be an anti-Semite, but the fact that anti-Semitism can be aligned with such diverse ideologies as well as with anti-Zionism tells us practically nothing about it or them. Yet, despite the clear distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, several governments, as well as think tanks and non-governmental organisations, now insist on the notion that anti-Zionism is necessarily a form of anti-Semitism. The definition adopted by the current UK government offers 11 examples of anti-Semitism, seven of which involve criticism of Israel – a concrete manifestation of the way in which the new understanding of anti-Semitism has become the accepted view. Any reproach directed towards the state of Israel now assumes the taint of anti-Semitism.

One idiosyncratic but telling instance of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ took place in 2005 during Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. When soldiers came to evacuate the eight thousand Jewish settlers who lived in the region, some of the settlers protested by wearing yellow stars and insisting they would not ‘go like sheep to the slaughter’. Shaul Magid, the chair of Jewish Studies at Indiana University, points out that by doing so, the settlers cast the Israeli government and the Israeli military as anti-Semitic. In their eyes, the government and soldiers deserved to be called anti-Semites not because they hate Jews, but because they were implementing an anti-Zionist policy, undermining the project of settling the so-called greater Israel. This representation of decolonialisation as anti-Semitic is the key to a proper understanding of what is at stake when people are accused of the ‘new anti-Semitism’. When the professor from Haifa University branded me an anti-Semite, I wasn’t his real target. People like me are attacked on a regular basis, but we are considered human shields by the ‘new anti-Semitism’ machine. Its real target is the Palestinians.

There is an irony here. Historically, the fight against anti-Semitism has sought to advance the equal rights and emancipation of Jews. Those who denounce the ‘new anti-Semitism’ seek to legitimate the discrimination against and subjugation of Palestinians. In the first case, someone who wishes to oppress, dominate and exterminate Jews is branded an anti-Semite; in the second, someone who wishes to take part in the struggle for liberation from colonial rule is branded an anti-Semite. In this way, Judith Butler has observed, ‘a passion for justice’ is ‘renamed as anti-Semitism’.​*

The Israeli government needs the ‘new anti-Semitism’ to justify its actions and to protect it from international and domestic condemnation. Anti-Semitism is effectively weaponised, not only to stifle speech – ‘It does not matter if the accusation is true,’ Butler writes; its purpose is ‘to cause pain, to produce shame, and to reduce the accused to silence’ – but also to suppress a politics of liberation. The non-violent BDS campaign against Israel’s colonial project and rights abuses is labelled anti-Semitic not because the proponents of BDS hate Jews, but because it denounces the subjugation of the Palestinian people. This highlights a further disturbing aspect of the ‘new anti-Semitism’. Conventionally, to call someone ‘anti-Semitic’ is to expose and condemn their racism; in the new case, the charge ‘anti-Semite’ is used to defend racism, and to sustain a regime that implements racist policies.

The question today is how to preserve a notion of anti-anti-Semitism that rejects the hatred of Jews, but does not promote injustice and dispossession in Palestinian territories or anywhere else. There is a way out of the quandary. We can oppose two injustices at once. We can condemn hate speech and crimes against Jews, like the ones witnessed recently in the US, or the anti-Semitism of far-right European political parties, at the same time as we denounce Israel’s colonial project and support Palestinians in their struggle for self-determination. But in order to carry out these tasks concurrently, the equation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism must first be rejected.


Trump Administration Tells Puerto Rico It’s Too Rich for Aid Money

January 18, 2018

by David Dayen

The Intercept

Means testing has now come to disaster aid — and it only applies to Puerto Rico.

When Congress passed a $36.5 billion disaster relief bill to bolster rebuilding efforts in several wildfire and hurricane-damaged areas in October, it shortchanged Puerto Rico, giving it a $4.9 billion loan instead of the grant that other areas received. Now, it appears the debt- and hurricane-ravaged island won’t even get that money.

First reported in El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico’s daily newspaper, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Treasury Department informed the Puerto Rican government on January 9 that they will not disburse the loan through the Community Disaster Loans Program, after finding that Puerto Rico had a cash balance on December 29 of last year of $1.7 billion for ongoing operations. The letter also cited $6.875 billion scattered in various local government accounts. Since the loan was intended to fill in a gap in day-to-day funding, FEMA determined Puerto Rico does not need the money at this time.

“Funds will be provided through the CDL Program when the Commonwealth’s central cash balance decreases to a certain level,” wrote FEMA official Alex Amparo and Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary Gary Grippo. They didn’t specify that level but added that municipalities could also apply for loans.

There’s no question that the Puerto Rican government has lacked fiscal transparency. But the very fact that Puerto Rico must receive assistance as loans rather than grants, unlike any other entity receiving disaster assistance, is bad enough. That the island is being treated like a welfare recipient found to have too much money in its bank account takes it to another level. Among U.S. territories suffering from catastrophe, only Puerto Rico is being means-tested.

“Puerto Rican working families continue to be treated as second-class citizens by the Trump administration and Congress,” said Héctor Figueroa, president of the Service Employees International Union’s Local 32BJ, in a statement. “Despite being unable to carry out many vital functions, Puerto Rico is deemed by these federal agencies as not poor enough to qualify for emergency loans.”

The Puerto Rican government has asserted that its state-run power and sewer companies will exhaust funding this month. Nearly half of the island’s citizens remain without power. With FEMA and the Treasury refusing to release government-approved loans, it’ll be difficult for the Puerto Rican government to float money to the power and sewer companies.

The congressional assistance had to be tied to a specific purpose, like ongoing day-to-day management, only because it was offered as a loan. The October disaster relief bill also allocated $13.58 billion to FEMA’s regular disaster relief fund, but Puerto Rico is competing for that money against Florida, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which all experienced damage in violent summer hurricanes.

A more recent $81 billion disaster relief bill passed by the House in December also split its aid between Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and California, for the recent wildfires. In the debate over the bill, Puerto Rico was denied $4.6 billion to boost its Medicaid program, which has long suffered from inequities, receiving less in matching funds than U.S. states. The bill has languished in the Senate, where Democrats want the Medicaid funding included.

Puerto Rican officials have said Medicaid funding will run out early this year without the increased funding. Though this would seem to fit the definition of ongoing operations covered in the CDL program, FEMA and the Treasury did not reference Medicaid in their letter.

Puerto Rico also took a hit from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the Republican overhaul of the tax code, which treats manufacturing operations on the island like they’re in a foreign country, subject to a large export tax. Democrats want that rolled back in the next disaster supplemental as well. As The Intercept has reported, utility workers restoring power in Puerto Rico have alleged that the Army Corps of Engineers is hoarding supplies that could be used in the reconstruction effort. So FEMA and the Treasury’s decision fits with a recent history of smacking Puerto Rico while it’s down.

“Our federal government is telling 3.3 million Puerto Ricans that exercising its colonial power is more important than the survival of Puerto Rico’s people,” Figueroa of SEIU said.


One year under Trump: ‘War of attrition’ on journalists

January 18, 2018

by Patrick Strickland


The crackdown on press freedoms by right-wing US President Donald Trump started on his first day in office, January 20, 2017, according to rights groups and reporters.

Aaron Cantu, an independent journalist, was one of several journalists who were arrested along with protesters, bystanders, legal observers and medics during an anti-fascist bloc march against the inauguration in Washington, DC.

Along with independent photo journalist Alexei Wood, Cantu was among the more than 230 people initially charged with felony rioting resulting from their presence at that protest.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Cantu described his arrest and prosecution as part of a “war for narratives” being waged by the Trump administration.

Reporters face 70 years in prison over anti-Trump march

“There’s an effort to control what journalists can report on, and how they do it,” Cantu argued.

In April 2017, that “war on narratives” intensified when both Cantu and Wood were among the 212 people dealt a slew of additional felonies after the DC Superior Court returned a superseding indictment.

In December, a jury found six of the defendants, including Wood, not guilty on all counts, but 188 people are still facing hefty charges.

While some have had their charges reduced and others reached plea deals, the bulk of the remaining defendants are facing charges that could land them behind bars for decades.

Cantu described the ostensible effort to stifle press freedoms as distinct from previous measures taken against journalists.

“It is not a traditional authoritarian crackdown on the press, but broadly a cultural phenomenon happening in the context of shifting publishing norms, where the dishonest rich have realised that information silos work in their favour,” he said.

‘Clear effort’

Although not the only example, the cases of Cantu and Wood represent one of the severest attempts to limit the space in which reporters and press workers can safely work, Cantu explained.

During Wood’s trial last month, prosecutors alleged that he could not have possibly been a reporter because he was knowledgeable of terms like “black bloc” and “kettling”.

“Black bloc” refers to a protest tactic in which demonstrators wear all black and conceal their faces to create an atmosphere of anonymity and unity while preventing identification by police or far-rightists who seek to identify them and publish their information online.

“Kettling” is a policing tactic that involves officers surrounding a group in a small area during a demonstration.

“It was a clear attempt by the state to define what a journalist looks and thinks like, where they should go, and how they should do their jobs,” Cantu continued.

“It’s hard to imagine that the norms for any other profession could be construed as evidence of a criminal conspiracy, but because journalists already fulfill [an] antagonistic [role] against power – or at least, they should – the political climate in which Wood’s prosecution took place, and in which mine soon will take place, makes our jobs that much more dangerous.”

Rights groups and watchdogs have also decried the charges as part of a broader campaign to stymie press freedoms under Trump’s rule.

‘Fake news’

The first year of the business mogul’s presidency has been characterised by open attacks on the press and incessant charges of “fake news” against media outlets critical of his policies.

In December, Trump blasted CNN in one of the latest in an ongoing series of attacks on the news network after a correction was issued over a story that inaccurately stated that his son, Donald Trump Jr, was embroiled in a scandal over leaked documents.

That story initially claimed that Wikileaks had offered Trump Jr access to leaked Democratic Party emails, but CNN later retracted that assertion.

Despite CNN’s correction and apology, President Trump accused the network of malicious intent. “Fake News CNN made a vicious and purposeful mistake yesterday,” he subsequently wrote on Twitter. “They were caught red handed.”

Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, an advocacy group for freedom of expression, argued that this instance and others like it are part of Trump’s “open war of attrition against the media”.

Trump, who has routinely promoted misinformation and conspiracy theories, has described the media as “dishonest”, “phony”, “sick”, “highly slanted” and “the enemy of the American people”, among other accusations.

“The president has made a persistent habit of these virulent attacks on the press, undermining the credibility and legitimacy of the media, crying fake news every time there’s a story he finds unflattering,” Nossel told Al Jazeera.

The seemingly shrinking space for media freedoms did not start under Trump, however.

The administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat and Trump’s predecessor, relentlessly pursued whistleblowers and pressured journalists to hand over the names of their sources.

“Some degree of tension between a White House and press corps is natural … but this is a different order of magnitude,” Nossel added, arguing that Trump’s apparent crackdown on the press has been “much more systematic, pervasive and strategic” than that of the Obama administration and previous presidents.

Earlier this month, Trump wrote on Twitter that he would “be announcing THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR”.

“Kettling” is a policing tactic that involves officers surrounding a group in a small area during a demonstration.

“It was a clear attempt by the state to define what a journalist looks and thinks like, where they should go, and how they should do their jobs,” Cantu continued.

“It’s hard to imagine that the norms for any other profession could be construed as evidence of a criminal conspiracy, but because journalists already fulfill [an] antagonistic [role] against power – or at least, they should – the political climate in which Wood’s prosecution took place, and in which mine soon will take place, makes our jobs that much more dangerous.”

Rights groups and watchdogs have also decried the charges as part of a broader campaign to stymie press freedoms under Trump’s rule.


The list of “winners” of the “2017 Fake News Awards” were announced on the Republican National Committee’s website on Thursday. The list appeared to reference some journalistic mistakes regarding Trump. In nearly every case that a mistake was made, however, the outlet had issued corrections.

In response to Trump’s idea of the “fake news awards”, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recognised the “world leaders who have gone out of their way to attack the press and undermine the norms that support freedom of the media”.

Second only to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump was declared runner-up in the category of “Most Thin-skinned” ruler and winner in the category of “Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedoms”.

“Under Trump’s administration, the Department of Justice has failed to commit to guidelines intended to protect journalists’ sources, and the State Department has proposed to cut funding for international organisations that help buttress international norms in support of free expression,” the CPJ said in a press release earlier this month.

Freedom of press ‘not unlimited’

In August, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his intent to suppress government leakers, threatening both reporters and their sources in the government with a crackdown.

Many of the leaks by federal government employees have been related to allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections.

“One of the things we are doing is reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas,” Sessions told reporters at the time, alluding to a “staggering number of leaks undermining the ability of our government to protect this country”.

Sessions added: “We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited.”

Margaux Ewen, North American director of Reporters Without Borders, also acknowledged a long precedent of the US government, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, pursuing journalists for their sources, especially in cases of reputation-damaging leaks.

“The prior administration [of Obama] already had a very dire record,” she told Al Jazeera.

Yet, Ewen argued that under Trump’s administration “the environment is incredibly hostile, and journalists are faced day to day with anti-media sentiment coming from the White House, and that has a trickle-down effect also for members of the public and government officials on various levels”.

“There is definitely an increase in incidents like arrests or physical assault against journalists in the year 2017,” Ewen added.

This year has also got off to a grim start for journalists. On Tuesday, the Senate advanced legislation that would renew the National Security Agency’s ability to conduct a warrantless internet surveillance programme.

Last week, the bill passed in the US House of Representatives, where it was overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and garnered the votes of several House Democrats.

“Every administration becomes a little more savvy on how to control their message without relying on the press to relay it. That’s a natural continuation from administration to administration,” Ewen said.

“But of course what’s going on with the current administration…you’re seeing a complete escalation of anti-media activity from the US government in comparison with previous administrations.”


Finding Your Voice: Forget About Siri and Alexa — When It Comes to Voice Identification the “NSA Reigns Supreme”

January 19 2018

by Ava Kofman

The Intercept

At the height of the Cold War, during the winter of 1980, FBI agents recorded a phone call in which a man arranged a secret meeting with the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. On the day of his appointment, however, agents were unable to catch sight of the man entering the embassy. At the time, they had no way to put a name to the caller from just the sound of his voice, so the spy remained anonymous. Over the next five years, he sold details about several secret U.S. programs to the USSR.

It wasn’t until 1985 that the FBI, thanks to intelligence provided by a Russian defector, was able to establish the caller as Ronald Pelton, a former analyst at the National Security Agency. The next year, Pelton was convicted of espionage.

Today, FBI and NSA agents would have identified Pelton within seconds of his first call to the Soviets. A classified NSA memo from January 2006 describes NSA analysts using a “technology that identifies people by the sound of their voices” to successfully match old audio files of Pelton to one another. “Had such technologies been available twenty years ago,” the memo stated, “early detection and apprehension could have been possible, reducing the considerable damage Pelton did to national security.”

These and other classified documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden reveal that the NSA has developed technology not just to record and transcribe private conversations but to automatically identify the speakers.

Americans most regularly encounter this technology, known as speaker recognition, or speaker identification, when they wake up Amazon’s Alexa or call their bank. But a decade before voice commands like “Hello Siri” and “OK Google” became common household phrases, the NSA was using speaker recognition to monitor terrorists, politicians, drug lords, spies, and even agency employees.

The technology works by analyzing the physical and behavioral features that make each person’s voice distinctive, such as the pitch, shape of the mouth, and length of the larynx. An algorithm then creates a dynamic computer model of the individual’s vocal characteristics. This is what’s popularly referred to as a “voiceprint.” The entire process — capturing a few spoken words, turning those words into a voiceprint, and comparing that representation to other “voiceprints” already stored in the database — can happen almost instantaneously. Although the NSA is known to rely on finger and face prints to identify targets, voiceprints, according to a 2008 agency document, are “where NSA reigns supreme.”

It’s not difficult to see why. By intercepting and recording millions of overseas telephone conversations, video teleconferences, and internet calls — in addition to capturing, with or without warrants, the domestic conversations of Americans — the NSA has built an unrivaled collection of distinct voices. Documents from the Snowden archive reveal that analysts fed some of these recordings to speaker recognition algorithms that could connect individuals to their past utterances, even when they had used unknown phone numbers, secret code words, or multiple languages.

As early as Operation Iraqi Freedom, analysts were using speaker recognition to verify that audio which “appeared to be of deposed leader Saddam Hussein was indeed his, contrary to prevalent beliefs.” Memos further show that NSA analysts created voiceprints for Osama bin Laden, whose voice was “unmistakable and remarkably consistent across several transmissions;” for Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s current leader; and for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the group’s third in command. They used Zarqawi’s voiceprint to identify him as the speaker in audio files posted online.

The classified documents, dating from 2004 to 2012, show the NSA refining increasingly sophisticated iterations of its speaker recognition technology. They confirm the uses of spe aker recognition in counterterrorism operations and overseas drug busts. And they suggest that the agency planned to deploy the technology not just to retroactively identify spies like Pelton but to prevent whistleblowers like Snowden.

Always Listening

Civil liberties experts are worried that these and other expanding uses of speaker recognition imperil the right to privacy. “This creates a new intelligence capability and a new capability for abuse,” explained Timothy Edgar, a former White House adviser to the Director of National Intelligence. “Our voice is traveling across all sorts of communication channels where we’re not there. In an age of mass surveillance, this kind of capability has profound implications for all of our privacy.”

Edgar and other experts pointed to the relatively stable nature of the human voice, which is far more difficult to change or disguise than a name, address, password, phone number, or PIN. This makes it “far easier” to track people, according to Jamie Williams, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “As soon as you can identify someone’s voice,” she said, “you can immediately find them whenever they’re having a conversation, assuming you are recording or listening to it.”

The voice is a unique and readily accessible biometric: Unlike DNA, it can be collected passively and from a great distance, without a subject’s knowledge or consent. Accuracy varies considerably depending on how closely the conditions of the collected voice match those of previous recordings. But in controlled settings — with low background noise, a familiar acoustic environment, and good signal quality — the technology can use a few spoken sentences to precisely match individuals. And the more samples of a given voice that are fed into the computer’s model, the stronger and more “mature” that model becomes.

In commercial settings, speaker recognition is most popularly associated with screening fraud at call centers, talking to voice assistants like Siri, and verifying passwords for personal banking. And its uses are growing. According to Tractica, a market research firm, revenue from the voice biometrics industry is poised to reach nearly $5 billion a year by 2024, with applications expanding to border checkpoints, health care, credit card payments, and wearable devices.

A major concern of civil libertarians is the potential to chill speech. Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, noted how the NSA’s speaker recognition technology could hypothetically be used to track journalists, unmask sources, and discourage anonymous tips. While people handling sensitive materials know they should encrypt their phone calls, Timm pointed to the many avenues — from televisions to headphones to internet-enabled devices — through which voices might be surreptitiously recorded. “There are microphones all around us all the time. We all carry around a microphone 24 hours a day, in the form of our cellphones,” Timm said. “And we know that there are ways for the government to hack into phones and computers to turn those devices on.”

“Despite the many [legislative] changes that have happened since the Snowden revelations,” he continued, “the American people only have a partial understanding of the tools the government can use to conduct surveillance on millions of people worldwide. It’s important that this type of information be debated in the public sphere.” But debate is difficult, he noted, if the public lacks a meaningful sense of the technology’s uses — let alone its existence.

A former defense intelligence official, who spoke to The Intercept on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss classified material, believes the technology’s low profile is not an accident.  “The government avoids discussing this technology because it raises serious questions they would prefer not to answer,” the official said. “This is a critical piece of what has happened to us and our rights since 9/11.” For the technology to work, the official noted, “you don’t need to do anything else but open your mouth.”

These advocates fear that without any public discussion or oversight of the government’s secret collection of our speech patterns, we may be entering a world in which more and more voices fall silent.

The New Voice Tools

While Americans have been aware since 2013 of the NSA’s bulk collection of domestic and overseas phone data, the process by which that raw data is converted into meaningful intelligence has remained largely classified. In 2015, The Intercept reported that the NSA had built a suite of “human language technologies” to make sense of the extraordinary amount of audio the government was collecting. By developing programs to automatically translate speech into text — what analysts called “Google for voice” — the agency could use keywords and “selectors” to search, read, and index recordings that would have otherwise required an infinite number of human listeners to listen to them.

Speaker recognition emerged alongside these speech-to-text programs as an additional technique to help analysts sort through the countless hours of intercepts streaming in from war zones. Much of its growth and reliability can be traced to the NSA and Department of Defense’s investments. Before the digital era, speaker recognition was primarily practiced as a forensic science. During World War II, human analysts compared visual printouts of vocal frequencies from the radio. According to Harry Hollien, author of “Forensic Voice Identification,” these “visible speech” machines, known as spectrograms, were even used to disprove a rumor that Adolf Hitler had been assassinated and replaced by a double.

“Voiceprints were something you could look at,” explained James Wayman, a leading voice recognition expert who chairs federal efforts to recommend standards for forensic speaker recognition. He pointed out that the term “voiceprint,” though widely used by commercial vendors, can be misleading, since it implies that the information captured is physical, rather than behavioral. “What you have now is an equation built into a software program that spits out numbers,” he said.

Those equations have evolved from simple averages to dynamic algorithmic models. Since 1996, the NSA has funded the National Institute of Standards and Technology Speech Group to cultivate and test what it calls the “most dominant and promising algorithmic approach to the problems facing speaker recognition.” Participants testing their systems with NIST include leading biometric companies and academics, some of whom receive funding from the NSA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

The NSA’s silence around its speaker recognition program makes it difficult to determine its current powers. But given the close ties between NSA-funded academic research and private corporations, a good approximation of the NSA’s capabilities can be gleaned from what other countries are doing — and what vendors are selling them.

For instance, Nuance, an industry leader, advertises to governments, military, and intelligence services “a country-wide voice biometric system, capable of rapidly and accurately identifying and segmenting individuals within systems comprising millions of voiceprints.” In 2014, the Associated Press reported that Nuance’s technology had been used by Turkey’s largest mobile phone company to collect voice data from approximately 10 million customers.

In October, Human Rights Watch reported that the Chinese government has been building a national database of voiceprints so that it could automatically identify people talking on the phone. The government is aiming to link the voice biometrics of tens of thousands of people to their identity number, ethnicity, and home address. According to HRW, the vendor that manufactures China’s voice software has even patented a system to pinpoint audio files for “monitoring public opinion.”

In November, a major international speaker recognition effort funded by the European Union passed its final test, according to an Interpol press release. More than 100 intelligence analysts, researchers, and law enforcement agents from over 50 countries — among them, Interpol, the U.K.’s Metropolitan Police Service, and the Portuguese Polícia Judiciária — attended the demonstration, in which researchers proved that their program could identify “unknown speakers talking in different languages … through social media or lawfully intercepted audios.”

NSA documents reviewed by The Intercept outline the contours of a similarly expansive system — one that, in the years following 9/11, grew to allow “language analysts to sift through hundreds of hours of voice cuts in a matter of seconds and selects items of potential interest based on keywords or speaker voice recognition.”

“Dramatic” Results

A partial history of the NSA’s development of speaker recognition technology can be reconstructed from nearly a decade’s worth of internal newsletters from the Signals Intelligence Directorate, or SID. By turns boastful and terse, the SIDtoday memos detail the transformation of voice recognition from a shaky forensic science conducted by human examiners into an automated algorithmic program drawing on massive troves of voice data. In particular, the memos highlight the ways in which U.S. analysts worked closely alongside British counterparts at the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, to process bulk voice recordings from counterterrorism efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. GCHQ, which declined to answer detailed questions for this article, praised its systems in internal newsletters for “playing an important part in our relationship with NSA.”

While it can occasionally be difficult to distinguish between SIDtoday’s anticipatory announcements and the technology’s actual capabilities, it’s clear that the NSA has been using automated speaker recognition technology to locate and label “voice messages where a speaker of interest is talking” since at least 2003. Anytime a voice was intercepted, a SIDtoday memo explains, voice recognition technology could model and compare it to others in order to answer the question: “Is that the terrorist we’ve been following? Is that Usama bin Laden?”

But the NSA’s system did far more than answer yes-or-no questions. In a series of newsletters from 2006 that spotlight a program called Voice in Real Time, or Voice RT, the agency describes its ability to automatically identify not just the speaker in a voice intercept, but also their language, gender, and dialect. Analysts could sort intercepts by these categories, search them for keywords in real time, and set up automatic alerts to notify them when incoming intercepts met certain flagged criteria. An NSA PowerPoint further confirms that the Voice RT program turned its “ingestion” of Iraqi voice data into voiceprints.

The NSA memos provided by Snowden do not indicate how widely Voice RT was deployed at the time, but minutes from the GCHQ’s Voice/Fax User Group do. Notes from British agents provide a detailed account of how the NSA’s speaker recognition program was deployed against foreign targets. When its Voice/Fax User Group met with NSA agents in the fall of 2007, members described seeing an active Voice RT system providing NSA’s linguists and analysts with speaker and language identification, speech-to-text transcription, and phonetic search abilities. “Essentially,” the minutes say of Voice RT, “it’s a one stop shop. … [A] massive effort has been extended to improve deployability of the system.” By 2010, the NSA’s Voice RT program could process recordings in more than 25 foreign languages. And it did: In Afghanistan, the NSA paired voice analytics with mapping software to locate cell-tower clusters where Arabic was spoken — a technique that appeared to lead them to discover new Al Qaeda training camps.

The GCHQ, for its part, used a program called Broad Oak, among others, to identify targets based on their voices. The U.K. government set up speaker recognition systems in the Middle East against Saudi, Pakistani, Georgian, and Iraqi leaders, among others. “Seriously though,” GCHQ minutes advise, “if you believe we can help you with identifying your target of interest amongst the deluge of traffic that you have to wade through, feel free to approach us and we will happily discuss your requirements and hopefully offer a swift and accurate solution.”

It was not an empty offer. Minutes from 2009 boast of GCHQ agents outperforming their NSA counterparts when targeting Adil Abdul Mahdi, one of the vice presidents of Iraq at the time. “Since we have been consistently reporting on him [the vice president] faster than they, NSA have dropped their involvement. … This good performance has enhanced our reputation at NSA.” And a 2010 GCHQ research summary shows both agencies collaborating to conduct joint experiments with their voice analytics programs.

But the development of speaker recognition tools was not always seamless. In its early stages, the technology was nowhere near as powerful or effective as it is today. The former defense intelligence official recalls that while analysts were able to play voice samples at their workstations, searching for an important sample was a challenge, since the audio was not indexed. In a 2006 letter to the editor published in SIDtoday, one analyst complains of the introduction of the voice tools being “plagued by crashes” and compares their initial speed to “molasses in January in Juneau.”

By the next year, however, it was clear that speaker recognition had significantly matured. A memo celebrating the NSA’s special collection for then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s New York City trip for the United Nations General Assembly provides a detailed study of the technology in action. After obtaining legal authorization, analysts configured a special system to target the phones of as many of the 143 Iranian delegates as possible. On all of this incoming traffic, they ran speech activity detection algorithms to avoid having analysts listen to dead air; keyword searches to uncover “the passing of email addresses and discussion of prominent individuals;” and speaker recognition to successfully locate the conversations of “people of significant interest, including the Iranian foreign minister.”

In an announcement for a new NSA audio-forensics lab that opened in Georgia that year, the agency notes plans to make these speech technologies available to more analysts across the agency. And a SIDtoday memo from the following year reported system upgrades that would allow analysts to “find new voice cuts for a target that match the target’s past recordings.”

When targets developed strategies to evade speaker recognition technologies, the tools evolved in response. In 2007, analysts noticed that the frequencies of the intercepts of two targets they had identified as Al Qaeda associates were out of normal human ranges. Over the next several years, analysts picked up on other targets modulating their voices in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, “most likely to avoid identification by intelligence agencies.” Some of the audio cuts they observed twisted the speaker’s vocal pitches so that they sounded like “a character from Alvin and the Chipmunks.” This led analysts to speculate that AQAP members involved in the December 2009 bombing attempt in Detroit had escaped government recognition by masking their voices on new phone numbers.

By 2010, agency technologists had developed a solution for “unmasking” these modulated voices. Called HLT Lite, the new software searched through recordings for modified or anomalous voices. According to SIDtoday, the program found at least 80 examples of modified voice in Yemen after scanning over 1 million pieces of audio. This reportedly led agents to uncover persons of interest speaking on several new phone numbers.

As these systems’ technical capabilities expanded, so too did their purview. A newsletter from September 2010 details “dramatic” results from an upgraded voice identification system in Mexico City — improvements that the site’s chief compared to “a cadre of extra scanners.” Analysts were able to isolate and detect a conversation pertaining to a bomb threat by searching across audio intercepts for the word “bomba.”

Voice recognition systems could also be readily reconfigured for uses beyond their original functions. GCHQ minutes from October 2008 describe how a system set up for “a network of high level individuals involved with the Afghan narcotics trade” was later “put to imaginative use.” To identify further targets, analysts ran the system “against a whole zip code that brings in a large amount of traffic.”

From the Battlefield to the Agency

The NSA soon realized that its ability to process voice recordings could be used to identify employees within the NSA itself. As the January 2006 memo that discussed Ronald Pelton’s audio explained, “Voice matching technologies are being applied to the emerging Insider Threat initiative, an attempt to catch the ‘spy among us.’”

The Insider Threat initiative, which closely monitors the lives of government employees, was publicly launched by the Obama administration, following the leaks of U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. But this document seems to indicate that the initiative was well under way before Obama’s 2011 executive order.

It’s not surprising that the NSA might turn the same biometric technologies used to detect external threats onto dissenters within its ranks, according to Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Trevor Timm. “We’ve seen example after example in the last 15 years of law enforcement taking invasive anti-terror tools — whether it’s location tracking or face recognition or this technology used to identify people’s voices — and using them for all sorts of other criminal investigations.”

Timm noted that in the last several years, whistleblowers, sources, and journalists have taken greater security precautions to avoid exposing themselves. But that “if reporters are using telephone numbers not associated with their identity, and the government is scanning their phone calls via a warrant or otherwise, the technology could also be used to potentially stifle journalism.”

For Timothy Edgar, who worked as the intelligence community’s first deputy for civil liberties, these risks “come down to the question: Are they looking for valid targets or doing something abusive, like trying to monitor journalists or whistleblowers?”

In some respects, Edgar said, speaker recognition may help to protect an individual’s privacy. The technology allows analysts to select and filter calls so that they can home in on a person of interest’s voice and screen out those of others. A 2010 SIDtoday memo emphasizes how the technology can reduce the volume of calls agents need to listen to by ensuring that “the speaker is a Chinese leader and not a guy from the doughnut shop.”

This level of precision is “actually one of the justifications the NSA gave for bulk collection of metadata in the first place,” Edgar explained. “One of the ways its program was defended was that it didn’t collect everything; instead, it collected information through selectors.”

At the same time, the very goal of identifying specific individuals from large patterns of data often justifies the need to keep collecting more of it. While speaker recognition can help analysts narrow down the calls they listen to, the technology would seem to encourage them to sweep up an ever-greater number of calls, since its purpose is to find every instantiation of a target’s voice, no matter what number it’s attached to. Or as the Pelton memo puts it, the technology gives analysts the ability to “know that voice anywhere.”

While these documents indicate that the agency sought to apply the technology to its employees, the documents reviewed by The Intercept do not explicitly indicate whether the agency has created voiceprints from the conversations of ordinary U.S. citizens.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA, gives the agency broad latitude to collect audio transmitted over foreign servers, foreign infrastructure, or from Americans communicating with foreigners. Because of this mandate, Edgar calls it “very conceivable” that voiceprints are being made from overseas calls. “It would surprise me if they weren’t deriving whatever intelligence they can from that data. It’s kind of their job.”

Experts strongly disagree, however, about whether the NSA would claim the legal authority to make voiceprints from the calls of American citizens on American soil, whose voices might be deliberately or accidentally swept up without a warrant. Part of this disagreement stems from the inadequacy of surveillance law, which has failed to keep pace with advances in digital technologies, like speaker and speech recognition.

While the U.S. has developed strict laws to prohibit recording the content of calls on U.S. soil without a warrant, no federal statues govern the harvesting and processing of voice data.

In part, this comes down to whether voiceprints count as content, which the government would need a warrant to obtain, or whether the NSA views voiceprints as metadata — that is, information about the content that is less subject to legal protection. The law is largely silent on this question, leading some experts to speculate that the NSA is exploiting this legal gray zone.

In response to a detailed list of questions, the NSA provided the following response: “In accordance with longstanding policy, NSA will neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of the purported U.S. government information referenced in the article.”

A “Full Arsenal” Approach

On Thursday the Senate voted to extend Section 702 of FISA, which gives the NSA the power to spy, without a warrant, on Americans who are communicating with foreign targets. This reauthorization, which followed similar action in the House last week, has confirmed the views of critics who see the NSA taking an increasingly assertive — and ambiguous — interpretation of its legal powers.

Andrew Clement, a computer scientist and expert in surveillance studies, has been mapping the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping activities since before Snowden’s disclosures. He strongly believes the agency would not be restrained in their uses of speaker recognition on U.S. citizens. The agency has often chosen to classify all of the information collected up until the point that a human analyst listens to it or reads it as metadata, he explained. “That’s just a huge loophole,” he said. “It appears that anything they can derive algorithmically from content they would classify simply as metadata.”

As an analogy to how the NSA might justify creating voiceprints, Clement pointed to the ways in which the agency has treated phone numbers and email addresses. The XKeyscore program, which Snowden revealed in 2013, allowed agents to pull email addresses — which they classified as metadata — out of the body of intercepted emails. Agents also conducted full-text searches for keywords, which they likewise classified as context rather than content.

Edgar, on the other hand, says he would be taken aback if the government was making an argument that our voices count as metadata. “You could try to argue that the characteristics of a voice are different than what a person is saying,” Edgar said, “But in order to do voice recognition, you still have to collect the content of a domestic call and analyze it in order to extract the voice.”

It is not publicly known how many domestic communication records the NSA has collected, sampled, or retained. But the EFF’s Jamie Williams pointed out that the NSA would not necessarily have to collect recordings of Americans to make American voiceprints, since private corporations constantly record us. Their sources of audio are only growing. Cars, thermostats, fridges, lightbulbs, and even trash cans have been turning into “intelligent” (that is, internet-equipped) listening devices. The consumer research group Gartner has predicted that a third of our interactions with technology this year will take place through conversations with voice-based systems. Both Google’s and Amazon’s “smart speakers” have recently introduced speaker recognition systems that distinguish between the voices of family members. “Once the companies have it,” Williams said, “law enforcement, in theory, will be able to get it, so long as they have a valid legal process.”

The former government official noted that raw voice data could be stored with private companies and accessed by the NSA through secret agreements, like the Fairview program, the agency’s partnership with AT&T. Despite congressional attempts to reign in the NSA’s collection of domestic phone records, the agency has long sought access to the raw data we proffer to corporate databases. (Partnerships with Verizon and AT&T, infiltration of Xbox gaming systems, and surreptitious collection of the online metadata of millions of internet users are just a few recent examples.) “The telecommunications companies hold the data. There’s nothing to prevent them from running an algorithm,” the former official said.

Clement wonders whether the NSA’s ability to identify a voice might even be more important to them than the ability to listen to what it’s saying. “It allows them to connect you to other instances of yourself and to identify your relationship to other people,” he said.

This appears to be the NSA’s eventual goal. At a 2010 conference — described as an “unprecedented opportunity to understand how the NSA is bringing all its creative energies to bear on tracking an individual” — top directors spoke about how to take a “whole life” strategy to their targets. They described the need to integrate biometric data, like voiceprints, with biographic information, like social networks and personal history. In the agency’s own words, “It is all about locating, tracking, and maintaining continuity on individuals across space and time. It’s not just the traditional communications we’re after — It’s taking a ‘full arsenal’ approach.”


A US-Turkish Clash in Syria?

January 19, 2018

by Patrick J. Buchanann

Anti War

The war for dominance in the Middle East, following the crushing of ISIS, appears about to commence in Syria – with NATO allies America and Turkey on opposing sides.

Turkey is moving armor and troops south to Syria’s border enclave of Afrin, occupied by Kurds, to drive them out, and then drive the Syrian Kurds out of Manbij further south as well.

Says President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “We will destroy all terror nests, one by one, in Syria, starting from Afrin and Manbij.”

For Erdogan, the Kurdish YPG, the major U.S. ally in Syria, is an arm of the Kurdish PKK in Turkey, which we and the Turks have designated as a terrorist organization.

While the Kurds were our most effective allies against ISIS in Syria, Turkey views them as a mortal peril and intends to deal with that threat.

If Erdogan is serious, a clash with the U.S. is coming, as our Kurdish allies occupy most of Syria’s border with Turkey.

Moreover, the U.S. has announced plans to create a 30,000-man Border Security Force of Kurds and Arabs to keep ISIS out of Syria.

Erdogan has branded this BSF a “terror army,” and President Bashar Assad of Syria has called BSF members “traitors.”

This U.S. plan to create a BSF inside Syria, Damascus declared, “represents a blatant attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity and unity of Syria, and a flagrant violation of international law.”

Does not the Syrian government have a point?

Now that ISIS has been driven out of Raqqa and Syria, by what authority do U.S. forces remain to arm troops to keep the Damascus government from reimposing its authority on its own territory?

Secretary of State Tillerson gave Syria the news Wednesday.

The U.S. troop commitment to Syria, he said, is now open-ended.

Our goals: Guarantee al-Qaida and ISIS do not return and set up sanctuary; cope with rising Iranian influence in Damascus; and pursue the removal of Bashar Assad’s ruthless regime.

But who authorized this strategic commitment, of indefinite duration, in Syria, when near two decades in Afghanistan have failed to secure that nation against the return of al-Qaida and ISIS?

Again and again, the American people have said they do not want to be dragged into Syria’s civil war. Donald Trump won the presidency on a promise of no more unnecessary wars.

Have the American people been had again?

Will they support a clash with NATO ally Turkey, to keep armed Kurds on Turkey’s border, when the Turks regard them as terrorists?

Are we prepared for a shooting war with a Syrian army, backed by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to hold onto a fourth of Syria’s territory in alliance with Kurds?

The U.S. coalition in Syria said this week the BSF will be built up “over the next several years” and “be stationed along the borders … to include portions of the Euphrates river valley and international borders to the east and north.”

Remarkable: A U.S.-created border army is going to occupy and control long stretches of Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq, over Syria’s objections. And the U.S. military will stand behind the BSF.

Are the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria really up to that task, should the Turks decide to cleanse the Syrian border of Kurds, or should the Syrian regime decide to take back territory occupied by the Kurds?

Who sanctioned this commitment to a new army, which, if Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies, and the Turks, do not all back down, risks a major U.S. war with no allies but the Kurds?

As for Syria’s Kurds casting their lot with the Americans, one wonders: Did they not observe what happened when their Iraqi cousins, after helping us drive ISIS out of Mosul, were themselves driven out of Kirkuk by the Iraqi army, as their U.S. allies watched?

In the six-year Syrian civil war, which may be about to enter a new phase, America faces a familiar situation.

While our “allies” and adversaries have vital interests there, we do not. The Assads have been in power for the lifetime of most Americans. And we Americans have never shown a desire to fight there.

Assad has a vital interest: preservation of his family regime and the reunification of his country. The Turks have a vital interest in keeping armed Kurds out of their border regions adjacent to their own Kurdish minority, which seeks greater independence.

The Israelis and Saudi royals want the U.S. to keep Iran from securing a land bridge from Tehran to Damascus to Lebanon.

The U.S. War Party wants us to smash Iran and remain in the Middle East forever to assure the hegemony of its favorites.

Have the generals taking us into Syria told the president how and when, if ever, they plan to get us out?


Turkey launches offensive against Kurdish-held Afrin in Syria

The Turkish defense minister has announced the beginning of a military offensive against the Syrian Kurdish held enclave of Afrin. The YPG, a Kurdish militia that has received US support, vowed to defend its territories

January 19, 2018


Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli on Friday said a military campaign aimed at ousting Kurdish forces from their enclave in Afrin “has de facto started” due to cross-border shelling.

Days before the assault, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had warned of an imminent attack against the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia in control of Afrin.

Although the US has backed the YPG as one of the most capable forces fighting against the “Islamic State” (IS) militant group, Turkey has dubbed it a terrorist group for its alleged ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish group waging a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

“All terror networks and elements in northern Syria will be eliminated. There is no other way,” Canikli told Turkish television. “The operation in central Afrin may last a long time, but the terrorist organization will swiftly come undone there.”

The YPG has held Afrin since 2012 when Syrian government forces withdrew and essentially handed over  large swaths of the northern part of the country to the Syrian Kurds.

YPG vows resistance

Turkish troops on Friday launched artillery fire towards Kurdish-held positions in Afrin, continuing barrages that have hit the region all week.

Canikli said that soldiers had not been deployed to Syria, but were instead firing at Kurdish forces from across the border.

However, Turkish media reported that 20 buses carrying Turkish-backed rebels from had crossed into Syria.

The YPG’s spokesman in Afrin, Rojhat Roj, said Turkey’s bombardment represented its hardest-hitting offensive since Erdogan began threatening the Kurdish-held area.

“Currently there are no casualties, all the damage is material so far,” Roj said. However, the YPG spokesman warned that Kurdish forces would not back down from defending their territories.


The battle for Afrin has threatened to further deteriorate relations between Turkey and its military ally, the US. Turkey has labeled the YPG a terrorist group, while Washington has supported the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against IS.

The SDF controls about 25 percent of Syrian territory in the north and northeast. However, Afrin is noncontiguous to these territories and largely surrounded by Turkey and Turkish-backed rebels.

Earlier this month, the US announced plans to create a 30,000-strong stabilization force on the Syrian-Turkish border, including many Kurdish fighters. Washington said the force aimed to prevent a resurgence of IS in Syria.

“The threat of Daesh has been removed in both Syria and Iraq. With this reality out in the open, a ‘focus on Daesh’ statement is truly a meaningless remark,” said Canikli, referring to the militant group by its Arabic acronym.


Trump is ‘obsessed’ and ‘terrified’ of sharks – but his fears are excessive

You are more likely to die from a bicycle accident, lightning strike, or mauling by alligator or bear than from a shark attack

January 19, 2018

by Alan Yuhas

The Guardian

The president of the United States does not like sharks.On 4 July 2013, before he took office, Donald Trump announced to the public a mix of disregard and seeming respect: “Sorry folks, I’m just not a fan of sharks – and don’t worry, they will be around long after we are gone.”

Two minutes later, he added: “Sharks are last on my list – other than perhaps the losers and haters of the World!”

On Friday, a long interview with an actor in pornographic films, Stephanie Clifford, provided more details of Trump’s apparent feelings.

Clifford, whose professional name is Stormy Daniels and who claimed in the interview to have had a 2006 affair with Trump, told InTouch magazine he was fascinated by the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week special.

“He is obsessed with sharks” she said. “Terrified of sharks. He was like, ‘I donate to all these charities and I would never donate to any charity that helps sharks. I hope all the sharks die.’ He was like riveted. He was like obsessed. It’s so strange, I know.”

The president’s fears are disproportionate.

There were 84 shark attacks worldwide in 2016, according to a University of Florida project, including four fatalities (none in the US). According to the National Safety Council, you are more likely to die from a bicycle accident, lightning strike, mauling by alligator or bear, dog bite, fireworks, tornado, wasp or bee sting, legal execution, fall from a bed, or an asteroid, than by a shark attack.

“More people are bitten by other people on the NYC subway than by sharks in the whole world,” tweeted David Shiffman, a conservation biologist at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. “Sharks are just not a threat to humans. And in fact, humans are better off with healthy shark populations than we are without healthy shark populations, because of the important ecosystem services that sharks provide.”

The oceans, which have served up food to humanity for millennia, would not be any healthier without sharks in them. Knocking apex predators off the top of the food chain is like cutting a leg out from a dinner table: it throws the whole thing off balance.

If sharks do not keep other animals in check, those animals wipe out their own food sources, which in turn create bizarre and often unhealthy conditions. Without natural competition, an ecosystem swings wildly between dominant species. After a while the winners do not seem to be humans, but algae and jellyfish – life that can thrive in undersea desolation.

Humans are flirting with such oceanic dystopia, killing as many as 100 million sharks a year, in accidental bycatch and en masse for shark finning. For several generations, shark populations have declined without much interest from the public, thanks in part to their often sensationalized portrayal, Shark Week included. “If someone got all their shark facts from Shark Week, it’s no surprise they’d be terrified and oppose conservation,” Shiffman said.

On Capitol Hill on Friday, the Louisiana Republican senator John Kennedy was asked about Trump’s remarks. He declined to comment specifically but asked: “He didn’t curse about the sharks, did he?”

Sharks are far from dead-eyed killers. They vary from anvil-headed lurkers to plant-eating Floridians, to several species of camouflaged ambush carpets. Increasingly, biologists have observed distinctive behaviors in individual sharks, including whale sharks and great whites.

Sharks have social lives, albeit mysterious ones. They have a literal sixth sense, some live in massive schools, and a few may have lived longer than the United States, through its founding, a civil war, two world wars and the election of Donald Trump.

In that regard, the president had a point: sharks have a knack for survival. Whether they can survive humans remains to be seen.

Additional reporting by Ben Jacobs in Washington





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