TBR News September 27, 2013

Sep 27 2013

The Voice of the White House


            Washington, D.C. September 26, 2013: “The Empire in Decline is a theme that one sees more and more often now on various reputable Internet sites. Is this prediction realistic? Yes, it is. America became the most powerful nation on earth with the collapse of the Soviet Union but times change and we must change with them  This nation has become dependant on foreign sources for its badly-needed oil but now it is becoming more and more obvious, Putin’s Russia is rapidly overtaking the Middle East as a source for oil and gas. And instead of cultivating Russia, the country’s leadership has continued the old feud with Russia that was so popular before the Soviet collapse. When Obama demanded that Russian president Putin send Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower, back to America, Putin flatly refused. In retaliation, then, Obama threatened Syria, a major Russian client state, with bombardment and possible invasion.  When Putin diplomatically trumped Obma’s ace, the issue became bogged down in international diplomacy. In general, the masses can be mislead and propagandized for long periods of time but when the time comes, as it is coming now, that the public becomes restive and angry, public revolt is certainly not an impossibility,”



Is the FBI’s Domestic Spying Out of Control?

A new ACLU report shows how the Bureau’s domestic surveillance program has exploded since 9/11


September 19, 2013

by John Knefel

Rolling Stone


            The FBI has vastly expanded its domestic spying powers since 9/11, often justifying surveillance and infiltration of activist or religious communities under the banner of fighting terrorism, according to a new report by the ACLU. Requirements for opening investigations into groups or individuals have been repeatedly watered-down over the past decade, and the report documents many examples of FBI investigations based on what seems to be protected First Amendment activity.


“Before 9/11, the FBI operated within rules designed to focus its investigative efforts on people reasonably suspected of wrongdoing. These rules didn’t always prevent abuse, but at least when abuse was discovered the agency could be held to account,” says Mike German, the former FBI agent who authored the ACLU report. “What has changed since 9/11 is that Congress and successive administrations loosened the rules and at the same time increasing secrecy demands reduced oversight opportunities.”


With the creation of the FBI Office of Intelligence in 2003, the FBI began a massive new intelligence-gathering project with the stated goal of preventing terrorist attacks before they occurred. With this new mandate came new powers, such as the ability to issue National Security Letters (NSLs), authorized under the Patriot Act – which author Tim Weiner’s FBI history Enemies describes as having “the combined power of a subpoena and a gag order.” The use of NSLs remains controversial today, and the constitutionality of their gag order element has been called into question by a federal judge.


Another significant tool the FBI has employed in the past decade is the use of informants to infiltrate Muslim communities. Trevor Aaronson, an investigative reporter with Al Jazeera Media Network and author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism, has previously reported that there are 10 times as many informants working for the FBI today than during the 1960s’ COINTELPRO program, often regarded as a low point in the FBI’s history. “Today the bureau has 15,000 registered informants – and these informants are inserted into U.S. Muslim communities to gather information,” Aaronson says. “Informants have testified in court that they have spent months trolling Muslim communities without a specific target.” Of 508 federal terrorism trials in the decade after 9/11, 158 defendants were targeted through an informant, according to Aaronson, who writes in The Terror Factory that nearly all of the rest were small-time violations that didn’t pose an actual risk to U.S. citizens.


It’s not only Muslim communities that were the subject of increased suspicion – political groups and activists have been targeted as well. A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund found that the FBI began investigating the Occupy movement in August 2011, even before the establishment of the encampment in New York’s Zuccotti Park. The activist and anarchist Scott Crow requested his own files from the FBI, and was given 440 heavily redacted pages, though as The New York Times reported, he had “never been convicted of anything more serious than trespassing.”


One of the most powerful new tools the FBI has had at its disposal since 9/11 is a program called Domain Management, which Aaronson says “allows the FBI to map the United States along ethnic and religious lines, and then assign agents and informants to those communities.” The ACLU report notes that the FBI’s field office in Detroit, for instance, stated in a memo that “many [State Department-designated terrorist] groups come from the Middle-East and Southeast Asia.” The memo continues: “because Michigan has a large Middle-Eastern and Muslim population, it is prime territory for attempted radicalization and recruitment by [State Department-designated] terrorist groups.”


The FBI denies that Domain Management works the way critics allege. “Domain management efforts are intended to address specific threats, not particular communities,” says spokesperson Christopher Allen. “These efforts seek to use existing, available government data to locate and better understand the communities that are potential victims of the threats.”


Asked about recent reports that the FBI increased surveillance of Syrians in the United States in a run-up to a possible air strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Allen says, “I would not assume the details of that story are accurate.”


Interviewing people in the U.S. based on nationality prior to a U.S. military strike would not be without precedent for the Bureau, however. In 2003, then-FBI director Robert Mueller confirmed that his agents sought to interview roughly 11,000 Iraqis living in the United States, “to protect them from hate crimes and to elicit information on any potential operations of Iraqi agents or sympathizers.”


Some of the FBI tactics employed since 9/11 seem to resemble tactics the controversial NYPD Intelligence Division has used, including mapping communities based on ethnic, racial and religious identities. Both organizations also have similar guidelines, adopted post-9/11, that allow officers to attend political meetings that are open to the public, often without disclosing their status as law enforcement. However in some cases, such as the investigation of alleged terrorist Ahmed Ferhani, the NYPD has used tactics that could be construed as entrapment, which were beyond the pale for the FBI. The ACLU is currently suing the NYPD on behalf of several Muslim plaintiffs who say NYPD policies infringe on their Constitutional rights.



‘Massive fraud’ at center of trial against BofA over U.S. mortgages

September 24, 2013

by Nate Raymond



            NEW YORK (Reuters) – Bank of America Corp’s Countrywide unit placed profits over quality in a “massive fraud” selling shoddy mortgages to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a U.S. government lawyer said on Tuesday.


The claim came at the start of the first case by the government to go to trial against a major bank over defective mortgage practices leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.


Pierre Armand, a lawyer in the civil division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, said Countrywide made $165 million selling loans that it promised were investment quality to Fannie and Freddie.


“What documents and witnesses will show is that the promise of quality was largely a joke,” Armand said.


But Brendan Sullivan, a lawyer for Bank of America, said Countrywide had sought to ensure the loans it made were good and that no fraud occurred.


“No fraud,” he said. “Two words. That’s the heart and soul and body of the defense. No fraud. And that’s what the evidence will show.”


Filed in October, the lawsuit blames the bank for losses suffered by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on thousands of prime mortgages that later defaulted. Fannie and Freddie, government-sponsored enterprises that underwrite mortgages, were taken over by the government in 2008.


The Justice Department says the loans were pushed out through a Countrywide program called the “High Speed Swim Lane” – also called “HSSL” or “Hustle” – that began in 2007 amid rising mortgage delinquency and default rates and as Fannie and Freddie were tightening underwriting guidelines.


The program was overseen by Rebecca Mairone, a former chief operating officer of Countrywide’s Full Spectrum Lending division, who is a co-defendant in the lawsuit and today works at JPMorgan Chase & Co.


The lawsuit is brought under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act. The law, passed in the wake of the 1980s savings-and-loan scandals, covers fraud affecting federally insured financial institutions.


The Justice Department estimates Fannie and Freddie has a gross loss of $848.2 million on the Countrywide HSSL loans, though their net loss on loans it says were materially defective was $131.2 million.


The jury of six women and four men includes a musician, an investment bank employee and a retired civil engineer.


During opening statements before U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, Armand said that under the HSSL program, Countrywide slashed loan quality checkpoints by removing underwriters from the review process and began paying employees based the volume and speed of the loans they produced.


The result was an increase in bad loans, Armand said. Yet those loans were then sold to Fannie and Freddie, even though Countrywide knew homeowners couldn’t pay many of them back.


“Hustle was not about quality,” Armand said. “It was about speed. It was about volume. It was about profits.”


But Sullivan, a lawyer at Williams & Connolly, said that Countrywide never intended to defraud Fannie or Freddie. He called Countrywide’s employees “normal well-intentioned people” who never believed they were in a scheme to defraud anyone.


Fannie and Freddie were enormous mortgage companies who “knew the risks, knew the process,” and knew Countrywide, he said. They never complained about loan quality, he said.


Removing underwriters wasn’t intended to cause fraud but instead was done because at the time, prime loans were considered less risky than the subprime loans the Full Spectrum Lending division had previously handled, he said.


And while the division began relying on an automated computer underwriting process, Sullivan said Countrywide eventually voluntarily brought underwriters back into the process starting in April 2008 out of concern about quality.


“No one came to the door saying, ‘We don’t like your product,'” Sullivan said.


A lawyer for Mairone, Marc Mukasey of Bracewell & Giuliani, meanwhile depicted his client as a “decent, hardworking” woman who came into Countrywide in 2007 as the “new girl” and was now being forced to face a “preposterous” lawsuit.


“Rebecca is fighting this case all by herself as the allegations are false,” Mukasey said.


The case is U.S. ex rel. O’Donnell v. Bank of America Corp et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-01422.


(Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)


Exclusive: Hundreds of U.S. security clearances seen falsified


September 25, 2013

by Tabassum Zakaria



WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal prosecutors have documented at least 350 instances of faulty background investigations done by private contractors and special agents for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in recent years, illustrating what some lawmakers call systemic weaknesses in the granting of federal security clearances.


Reuters calculated the total by reviewing court documents and press releases from prosecutors for 21 cases resulting in convictions that involved the making of false statements from December 2004 to March 2012.


These are the cases government officials have cited to assert that action is taken against investigators who falsely claim to have reviewed records or done interviews for background checks submitted to OPM. Not all the cases identified a specific number of fabrications.


The 350 falsified reports represent only a small percentage of the number of background investigations conducted each year, either by OPM’s own investigators or a handful of private contractors it uses for most of the work.


The Government Accountability Office testified to a congressional committee in June that OPM received over $1 billion to conduct more than 2 million background investigations for government employees in fiscal 2011.


But the details of the cases show how cracks in the system may allow employees to obtain clearances without proper vetting.


In one case, a private contractor investigator, who pleaded guilty to making a false statement, reported interviewing a person who had died more than a decade earlier. Another investigator was found guilty of making false statements in checks for applicants seeking “top secret” clearances for jobs in the Air Force, Army, Navy and U.S. Treasury.


The highest number of convictions, 11, involved special agents for OPM. Another seven convictions were of employees of USIS, a Virginia-based company that has come under scrutiny for its role in vetting former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and more recently, Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis.


Two of those USIS investigators had the highest number – more than four dozen each – of flawed background check reports sent to OPM, court documents showed.


USIS faces an ongoing investigation by OPM’s inspector general. The company declined to comment for this story and OPM’s inspector general’s office would not comment on its probe.


The most severe punishment was given to an investigator who did not take a plea agreement and instead went to trial. This investigator was found guilty of six counts of making false statements and sentenced to 27 months in prison.


Those who entered plea agreements generally received sentences of probation and community service, courts records show.




In a statement last week after 13 people died in shootings at the Navy Yard, including shooter Alexis, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia said, “In light of recent events, we plan to step up our efforts to investigate and prosecute the individuals and companies who risk our security by cutting corners and falsifying information in background checks.”


In pressing the cases, prosecutors have required defendants to pay more than $1.5 million in restitution to the U.S. government to recover the costs of redoing improper background investigations.


The screening process for security clearances has came under heightened scrutiny this year since Snowden, working as a contract employee assigned to the National Security Agency, used his “top-secret” clearance to access documents on the agency’s electronic eavesdropping that he later gave to the news media.


The issue resurfaced last week with reports that Alexis held a “secret” security clearance despite violent episodes before and after he received it.


A secret clearance generally lasts 10 years. Ongoing checks are needed because “in five to 10 years stuff happens and people change,” a Senate aide said on condition of anonymity.


OPM contracts out for most of the background check work. But the decision to grant security clearances rests with the government agency that intends to employ the individual.


USIS conducts about 65 percent of the background checks done by private contractors, and more than half of all the investigations conducted by the OPM, according to a statement issued last week by the office of Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is a co-sponsor of legislation aimed at boosting oversight of the security clearance process.


Investigators for other government contractors, including CACI International Inc, were also convicted of making false statements in reports for security clearance background checks. CACI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


A Senate aide said the USIS investigation by OPM’s inspector general revolves around systemic problems in the company’s procedures and does not focus on individual investigators.


The inspector general also is investigating the background check done for Alexis before he received clearance to work for the Navy.


In 2012, there were 3.5 million federal employees and 1.1 million contractors who held a “secret” or “top secret” clearance and OPM’s security clearance and background investigations cost about $1 billion, McCaskill’s office said.


The OPM inspector general’s office told Reuters it has 68 open cases related to OPM’s background investigations program. It did not say how many of those involve report falsifications.


The inspector general’s office said it has referred 22 former background investigators for debarment, but no decisions have been reached by OPM. A debarment is usually for a specific time period and means the person cannot contract with another federal agency.


The Senate Homeland Security Committee has scheduled an October 1 hearing on government clearances and background checks.


(Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Tim Dobbyn)


Obama Pushes Back on Putin, Insists America is Exceptional


September 24, 2013



UNITED NATIONS,– US President Barack Obama pushed back Tuesday against Russian President Vladimir Putin, insisting that “America is exceptional” because it is prepared to fight not just for its own national interests but for the rights of people in other parts of the world.


In an address to the UN General Assembly, Obama acknowledged that US “engagement” in the Middle East had been met with hostility from some but argued that US disengagement from the region would create power vacuums no one else could fill and would present a bigger threat to world security.


“Some may disagree. But I believe America is exceptional – in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all,” Obama said.


His remarks were seen as a direct response to an op-ed piece by Putin published earlier this month in The New York Times in which the Russian leader, referencing earlier comments by Obama, said: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”


Putin’s comments – that one in particular – triggered an emotional backlash from US politicians and also sparked a continuing public debate about the US approach to foreign policy in general and preconceptions that underpin that approach.


The United States and Russia are working on a plan to ensure the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria. Washington is pushing for a UN resolution containing a threat of military force if the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad does not comply with the plan, an approach Moscow rejects.



Bragging Rights


Eight Exceptional(ly Dumb) American Achievements of the Twenty-First Century


by Tom Engelhardt

“But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.  That’s what makes America different.  That’s what makes us exceptional.  With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”


— Barack Obama, address to the nation on Syria, September 10, 2013


Let’s be Americans, which means being exceptional, which also means being honest in ways inconceivable to the rest of humanity.  So here’s the truth of it: the American exceptionalism sweepstakes really do matter. Here. A lot.


Barack Obama is only the latest in a jostling crowd of presidential candidates, presidential wannabes, major politicians, and minor figures of every sort, not to speak of a raging horde of neocons and pundits galore, who have felt compelled in recent years to tell us and the world just how exceptional the last superpower really is.  They tend to emphasize our ability to use this country’s overwhelming power, especially the military variety, for the global good — to save children and other deserving innocents.  This particularly American aptitude for doing good forcibly, by killing others, is considered an incontestable fact of earthly life needing no proof.  It is well known, especially among our leading politicians, that Washington has the ability to wield its military strength in ways that are unimaginably superior to any other power on the planet.


The well-deserved bragging rights to American exceptionalism are no small matter in this country.  It should hardly be surprising, then, how visceral is the distaste when any foreigner — say, Russian President Vladimir Putin — decides to appropriate the term and use it to criticize us.  How visceral?  Well, the sort of visceral that, as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez put it recently, leaves us barely repressing the urge to “vomit.”


Now, it’s not that we can’t take a little self-criticism.  If you imagine an over-muscled, over-armed guy walking into a room and promptly telling you and anyone else in earshot how exceptionally good he is when it comes to targeting his weapons, and you notice a certain threatening quality about him, and maybe a hectoring, lecturing tone in his voice, it’s just possible that you might be intimidated or irritated by him.  You might think: narcissist, braggart, or blowhard.  If you were the president of Russia, you might say, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” 


Yes, if you’re a foreigner, this country is easy enough to misunderstand, make fun of, or belittle.  Still, that didn’t stop the president from proudly bringing up our exceptionalism two weeks ago in his address on the Syrian crisis.  In that speech, he plugged the need for a U.S. military response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military.  He recommended launching a “limited strike,” assumedly Tomahawk missiles heading Damascus-wards, to save Syria’s children, and he made sure the world knew that such an attack would be no passing thing.  (“Let me make something clear: the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)


Then, in mid-speech, in a fashion that was nothing short of exceptional (if you were considering the internal logic of the address), he suddenly cast that option aside for another approach entirely. But just because of that, don’t let first impressions or foreign criticism blind you to the power of the president’s imagery.  In this century, as he suggested then and in an address to the U.N. two weeks later, American exceptionalism has always had to do with Washington’s ability to use its power for the greater planetary good.  Since, in the last decade-plus, power and military power have come to be essentially synonymous in Washington, the pure goodness of firing missiles or dropping bombs has been deified.


On that basis, it’s indisputable that the bragging rights to American exceptionalism are Washington’s. For those who need proof, what follows are just eight ways (among so many more) that you can proudly make the case for our exceptional status, should you happen to stumble across, say, President Putin, still blathering on about how unexceptional we are.


1. What other country could have invaded Iraq, hardly knowing the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, and still managed to successfully set off a brutal sectarian civil war and ethnic cleansing campaigns between the two sects that would subsequently go regional, whose casualty counts have tipped into the hundreds of thousands, and which is now bouncing back on Iraq?  What other great power would have launched its invasion with plans to garrison that country for decades and with the larger goal of subduing neighboring Iran (“Everyone wants to go to Baghdad; real men want to go to Tehran”), only to slink away eight years later leaving behind a Shiite government in Baghdad that was a firm ally of Iran?  And in what other country, could leaders, viewing these events, and knowing our part in them, have been so imbued with goodness as to draw further “red lines” and contemplate sending in the missiles and bombers again, this time on Syria and possibly Iran?  Who in the world would dare claim that this isn’t an unmatchable record?


2.  What other country could magnanimously spend $4-6 trillion on two “good wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq against lightly armed minority insurgencies without winning or accomplishing a thing?  And that’s not even counting the funds sunk into the Global War on Terror and sideshows in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, or the staggering sums that, since 9/11, have been poured directly into the national security state.  How many countries, possessing “the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” could have engaged in endless armed conflicts and interventions from the 1960s on and, except in unresisting Panama and tiny Grenada, never managed to definitively win anything?


3.  And talking about exceptional records, what other military could have brought an estimated 3.1 million pieces of equipment — ranging from tanks and Humvees to porta-potties, coffee makers, and computers — with it into Iraq, and then transported most of them out again (while destroying the rest or turning them over to the Iraqis)?  Similarly, in an Afghanistan where the U.S. military is now drawing down its forces and has already destroyed “more than 170 million pounds worth of vehicles and other military equipment,” what other force would have decided ahead of time to shred, dismantle, or simply discard $7 billion worth of equipment (about 20% of what it had brought into the country)?  The general in charge proudly calls this “the largest retrograde mission in history.” To put that in context: What other military would be capable of carrying a total consumer society right down to PXs, massage parlors, boardwalks, Internet cafes, and food courts to war?  Let’s give credit where it’s due: we’re not just talking retrograde here, we’re talking exceptionally retrograde!


4. What other military could, in a bare few years in Iraq, have built a staggering 505 bases, ranging from combat outposts to ones the size of small American towns with their own electricity generators, water purifiers, fire departments, fast-food restaurants, and even miniature golf courses at a cost of unknown billions of dollars and then, only a few years later, abandoned all of them, dismantling some, turning others over to the Iraqi military or into ghost towns, and leaving yet others to be looted and stripped?  And what other military, in the same time period thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, could have built more than 450 bases, sometimes even hauling in the building materials, and now be dismantling them in the same fashion?  If those aren’t exceptional feats, what are?


5. In a world where it’s hard to get anyone to agree on anything, the covert campaign of drone strikes that George W. Bush launched and Barack Obama escalated in Pakistan’s tribal areas stands out.  Those hundreds of strikes not only caused significant numbers of civilian casualties (including children), while helping to destabilize a sometime ally, but almost miraculously created public opinion unanimity.  Opinion polls there indicate that a Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not-style 97% of Pakistanis consider such strikes “a bad thing.”  Is there another country on the planet capable of mobilizing such loathing?  Stand proud, America!


6. And what other power could have secretly and illegally kidnapped at least 136 suspected terrorists — some, in fact, innocent of any such acts or associations — off the streets of global cities as well as from the backlands of the planet?  What other nation could have mustered a coalition-of-the-willing of 54 countries to lend a hand in its “rendition” operations?  We’re talking about more than a quarter of the nations on Planet Earth!  And that isn’t all.  Oh, no, that isn’t all.  Can you imagine another country capable of setting up a genuinely global network of “black sites” and borrowed prisons (with local torturers on hand), places to stash and abuse those kidnappees (and other prisoners) in locations ranging from Poland to Thailand, Romania to Afghanistan, Egypt and Uzbekistan to U.S. Navy ships on the high seas, not to speak of that jewel in the crown of offshore prisons, Guantanamo?  Such illegality on such a global scale simply can’t be matched!  And don’t even get me started on torture.  (It’s fine for us to take pride in our exceptionalist tradition, but you don’t want to pour it on, do you?)


7. Or how about the way the State Department, to the tune of $750 million, constructed in Baghdad the largest, most expensive embassy compound on the planet — a 104-acre, Vatican-sized citadel with 27 blast-resistant buildings, an indoor pool, basketball courts, and a fire station, which was to operate as a command-and-control center for our ongoing garrisoning of the country and the region?  Now, the garrisons are gone, and the embassy, its staff cut, is a global white elephant.  But what an exceptional elephant!  Think of it as a modern American pyramid, a tomb in which lie buried the dreams of establishing a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.  Honestly, what other country could hope to match that sort of memorial thousands of miles from home?


8. Or what about this?  Between 2002 and 2011, the U.S. poured at least $51 billion into building up a vast Afghan military.  Another $11 billion was dedicated to the task in 2012, with almost $6 billion more planned for 2013.  Washington has also sent in a legion of trainers tasked with turning that force into an American-style fighting outfit.  At the time Washington began building it up, the Afghan army was reportedly a heavily illiterate, drug-taking, corrupt, and ineffective force that lost one-third to one-half of its personnel to casualties, non-reenlistment, and desertion in any year.  In 2012, the latest date for which we have figures, the Afghan security forces were still a heavily illiterate, drug-taking, corrupt, and inefficient outfit that was losing about one-third of its personnel annually (a figure that may even be on the rise).  The U.S. and its NATO allies are committed to spending $4.1 billion annually on the same project after the withdrawal of their combat forces in 2014.  Tell me that isn’t exceptional!


No one, of course, loves a braggart; so, easy as it might be to multiply these eight examples by others, the winner of the American exceptionalism sweepstakes is already obvious.  In other words, this is a moment for exceptional modesty, which means that only one caveat needs to be added to the above record.


I’m talking about actual property rights to “American exceptionalism.”  It’s a phrase often credited to a friendly nineteenth century foreigner, the French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville.  As it happens, however, the man who seems to have first used the full phrase was Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.  In 1929, when the U.S. was showing few signs of a proletarian uprising or fulfilling Karl Marx’s predictions and American Communists were claiming that the country had unique characteristics that left it unready for revolution, Stalin began denouncing “the heresy of American exceptionalism.”  Outside the U.S. Communist Party, the phrase only gained popular traction here in the Reagan years.  Now, it has become as American as sea salt potato chips.  If, for instance, the phrase had never before been used in a presidential debate, in 2012 the candidates couldn’t stop wielding it.


Still, history does give Vladimir Putin a claim to use of the phrase, however stomach-turning that may be for various members of Congress.  But maybe, in its own way, its origins only attest to… well, American exceptionalism.  Somehow, through pureness of motive and the shining radiance of the way we exercise power, Washington’s politicians have taken words wielded negatively by one of the great monsters of history and made them the signature phrase of American greatness.  How exceptional!


Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (recently published in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.



Key Syrian Rebel Groups Abandon Exile Leaders


September 25, 2013

by Ben Hubbard and Michael R. Gordon 

New York Times


            BEIRUT, Lebanon — As diplomats at the United Nations push for a peace conference to end Syria’s civil war, a collection of some of the country’s most powerful rebel groups have publicly abandoned the opposition’s political leaders, casting their lot with an affiliate of Al Qaeda.


As support for the Western-backed leadership has dwindled, a second, more extreme Al Qaeda group has carved out footholds across parts of Syria, frequently clashing with mainline rebels who accuse it of making the establishment of an Islamic state a priority over the fight to topple President Bashar al-Assad.


The fractured nature of the opposition, the rising radical Islamist character of some rebel fighters, and the increasing complexity of Syria’s battle lines have left the exile leadership with diminished clout inside the country and have raised the question of whether it could hold up its end of any agreement reached to end the war.


The deep differences between many of those fighting in Syria and the political leaders who have represented the opposition abroad spilled into the open late Tuesday, when 11 rebel groups issued a statement declaring that the opposition could be represented only by people who have “lived their troubles and shared in what they have sacrificed.”


Distancing themselves from the exile opposition’s call for a democratic, civil government to replace Mr. Assad, they called on all military and civilian groups in Syria to “unify in a clear Islamic frame.” Those that signed the statement included three groups aligned with the Western-backed opposition’s Supreme Military Council.


Mohannad al-Najjar, an activist close to the leadership of one of the statement’s most powerful signers, Al Tawhid Brigade, said the group intended to send a message of disapproval to an exile leadership it believes has accomplished little.


“We found it was time to announce publicly and clearly what we are after, which is Shariah law for the country and to convey a message to the opposition coalition that it has been three years and they have never done any good for the Syrian uprising and the people suffering inside,” he said.


The statement was issued just as Western nations are striving to raise the profile of the “moderate” Syrian political opposition, which is led by Ahmad al-Jarba. The United States and its allies have been reluctant to fully align with and arm the rebels because their ranks are heavily populated by Islamists.


France has scheduled an event on Thursday on the sidelines of the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly at which Mr. Jarba is to speak along with foreign ministers who have backed him, including Secretary of State John Kerry.


There was no immediate comment from Mr. Jarba, whose coalition is formally known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Mr. Jarba canceled a news conference that had also been scheduled for Thursday.


A senior State Department official who accompanied Mr. Kerry to the United Nations meetings this week said the United States was still trying to strengthen Mr. Jarba’s coalition and suggested that some of the factions that had broken with him included extremists.


“We, of course, have seen the reports of an announcement by some Islamist opposition groups of their formation of a new political alliance,” the State Department official said.


“As we’ve already said clearly before, we’ve been long working toward unity among the opposition,” the official added. “But we also have had extreme concerns about extremists.”


Another American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations, said the coalition had recently made “real progress” in broadening its base by including an array of Kurdish parties as well as members of local councils in “liberated” areas of northern and eastern Syria.


But the official acknowledged that the coalition had more to do to build up its credibility inside the country, since its headquarters are in Turkey and not Syria.


The latest split in the opposition emerged as the United States, Russia and other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council were making progress on another front: drafting a Council resolution that would enforce an agreement on eliminating Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal.


A Western diplomat said Wednesday that about 80 percent of the resolution had been agreed to and that he was “cautiously optimistic” that it would be settled this week.


The rifts between the exile opposition and those fighting Mr. Assad’s forces inside Syria have raised questions about whether the opposition’s political leadership has sufficient influence in the country to hold up its end if an agreement is ever reached to end the civil war.


“At this stage, the political opposition does not have the credibility with or the leverage over the armed groups on the ground to enforce an agreement that the armed groups reject,” said Noah Bonsey, who studies the Syrian opposition for the International Crisis Group.


“You need two parties for an agreement, and there is no viable political alternative to the coalition,” he said, defining a disconnect between the diplomatic efforts taking shape in New York and the reality across Syria.


Inside Syria, rebel groups that originally formed to respond to crackdowns by Mr. Assad’s forces on political protests have gradually merged into larger groupings, some commanded and staffed by Islamists. But differences in ideology and competition for scarce foreign support have made it hard for them to unite under an effective, single command.


Seeking to build a moderate front against Mr. Assad, Western nations encouraged the formation of the opposition political coalition. Even though some of its leading members, like Mr. Jarba, have been imprisoned by the Assad government, the coalition has loose links to many of the rebel fighters on the ground.


The rebel groups that assailed the political opposition are themselves diverse and include a number that are linked to the coalition’s Supreme Military Council. More troubling to the West, they also include the Nusra Front, a group linked to Al Qaeda. At the same time they include groups that remain opposed to another group linked to Al Qaeda: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.


“The brigades that signed have political differences with Nusra, but we agree with them militarily since they want to topple the regime,” said a rebel who gave his name as Abu Bashir.


A coalition member and aide to Mr. Jarba said the opposition was still studying the development but was surprised by some of the groups that had signed on with the Nusra Front.


“The Islamic project is clear and it is not our project,” said the coalition member, Monzer Akbik. “We don’t have a religious project; we have a civil democratic project, and that needs to be clear.”


Further complicating the picture is the rise of the new Qaeda franchise, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has established footholds across northern and eastern Syria with the intention to lay the foundations of an Islamic state.


In recent months, it has supplanted the Nusra Front as the primary destination for foreign jihadis streaming into Syria, according to rebels and activists who have had contact with the group.


Its fighters, who hail from across the Arab world, Chechnya, Europe and elsewhere, have a reputation for being well armed and strong in battle. Its suicide bombers are often sent to strike the first blow against government bases.


But its application of strict Islamic law has isolated rebels and civilians. Its members have executed and beheaded captives in town squares and imposed strict codes, forcing residents to wear modest dress and banning smoking in entire villages.


Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, and Michael R. Gordon from the United Nations. Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Istanbul.



WorldAmericans Say Putin Most Effective Leader on Syria, Obama Least – Poll



WASHINGTON, September 26 (RIA Novosti) – Americans think Russian President Vladimir Putin was far and away the most effective world leader in dealing with the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, with US President Barack Obama trailing him in a distant second place, a new poll shows.


Nearly half of 1,000 American adults polled – 49 percent – said Putin was the most effective at dealing with the still ongoing crisis in Syria, with 25 percent saying Obama was the most effective, the poll released Wednesday by the Economist magazine and the YouGov polling agency said.


Nine percent chose Syrian leader Bashar Assad, ranking him third, ahead of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, all of whom polled in the single digits.


Obama did beat Putin by a huge margin on another question in the poll – which leader was the least effective on Syria. Forty-four percent said Obama was the least effective and just 10 percent said the same of Putin, the survey showed.


Asked if they thought Syria was negotiating in good faith about surrendering its chemical weapons, or just stalling, 60 percent said they thought Damascus was playing for time, and only 14 percent said Assad’s regime was acting in good faith.


The poll was conducted online from Sept. 21-23 among respondents who signed up to be on YouGov’s Internet panel.


U.S. Sees Direct Threat in Attack at Kenya Mall


September 25, 2013

by Nicholas Kulish and Jeffery Gettleman 

New York Times


 NAIROBI, Kenya — Viewing the deadly siege at a shopping mall in Kenya as a direct threat to its security, the United States is deploying dozens of F.B.I. agents to investigate the wreckage, hoping to glean every piece of information possible to help prevent such a devastating attack from happening again, possibly even on American soil.


For years, the F.B.I. has been closely watching the Shabab, the Somali Islamist group that has claimed responsibility for the Nairobi massacre and recruited numerous Americans to fight and die — sometimes as suicide bombers — for its cause.


The Shabab has already attacked most of the major actors trying to end the chaos in Somalia — the United Nations, Uganda, aid groups, the Somali government and now Kenya. The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars bankrolling anti-Shabab operations for years, and there is growing fear that the group could turn its sights on American interests more directly, one of the reasons the Obama administration is committing so many resources to the investigation in Kenya.


“We are in this fight together,” said Robert F. Godec, the American ambassador to Kenya. “The more we know about the planning that went into this, the way it was conducted, what was used, the people involved, the better we can protect America, too.”


Less than a day after the bloody standoff ended, more than 20 F.B.I. agents wearing flak jackets and helmets were combing through the wreckage strewn across the steps of the mall. Dozens more agents will be headed to Nairobi, American officials say. Some of them are members of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force squad that investigates extremist groups operating in the Horn of Africa, a law enforcement official said.


Over the next few days, agents, including a full Evidence Response Team, will be collecting D.N.A., fingerprints and other biometric information, poring through surveillance footage and examining guns, laptops, cameras and computers — anything to gain insights into how the attack was carried out and the hierarchy, planning and structures behind the group, especially if they have any ties back to the United States.


American officials are mindful that Kenya, one of its closest allies in Africa, has become a precarious buffer zone between the United States and Islamist militants who have declared foreigners legitimate targets in their war.


The American government has learned the hard way what happens if it does not contain groups responsible for faraway attacks. In 1998, the then-relatively unknown group called Al Qaeda simultaneously attacked the United States embassies here and in Tanzania, killing hundreds and following up a few years later with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.


The Shabab militant group, which has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and taken responsibility for killing more than 60 civilians at the mall, is considered an especially dangerous threat because more than two dozen young American men are already learning terrorist tactics in Somalia. So far, this has been a one-way pipeline, but the fear is that some battle-hardened militants could come home with their American passports to strike on American soil.


“You never know when a terrorist attack in a faraway place could be a harbinger of something that could strike at the United States,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former Obama administration counterterrorism official. On Kenya, he said, “It’s a country that has a long history of being attacked by terrorists that are of real concern to the United States.”


Compounding matters, relations between the United States and Kenya had grown frosty before the attack because Kenya’s president has been indicted on charges of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. American officials here were trying to keep their distance from him, but now the two sides must work closely together.


As the mall attack showed, militants would not need to reach the United States to strike hard at American interests. Several Americans were injured in the four-day siege, though none were killed. French, British, Canadians, Chinese, Indians and many others died, most of them Kenyan.


The American government is concerned that the Shabab could target the thousands of Americans living in Kenya, working for companies like General Electric, the embassy or the enormous United Nations office here in the cosmopolitan capital. Tens of thousands of other Americans visit the nation’s game parks, beaches and other tourist attractions every year, according to the Kenyan government.


American officials say that several of the attackers may have escaped, posing as civilians and fleeing in the mayhem. The worry is that they may be planning future attacks here in Nairobi.


Wednesday was Day 1 of an investigation that may take weeks, even months, with the first priority establishing the identities of the 10 to 15 attackers who burst into the mall on Saturday with automatic weapons, shooting some people at random, questioning others about their religion and ruthlessly sorting individuals for execution.


Kenyan officials have said that some of the attackers may have been Somali-Americans, but Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Wednesday that there had been no confirmation of that. Another question is whether a British woman, Samantha Lewthwaite, known as the White Widow, was among the assailants.


Part of the mall was destroyed during the three-day effort to dislodge the terrorists, who had holed up in a supermarket with belt-fed machine guns that officials say were sneaked into the mall days before with the help of a colluding employee.


“The next phase really is making sure we know what’s under the rubble,” said a Kenyan government spokesman, Manoah Esipisu. “Forensic people need to be able to clear that rubble and examine the evidence beneath it.”


The massacre plot was hatched weeks or months ago on Somali soil by the Shabab’s “external operations arm,” according to American security officials. A team of English-speaking foreign fighters was carefully chosen for the target: Westgate, a gleaming upscale mall popular with expatriates and Nairobi’s rising middle class.


Kenya is considered one of the most promising countries in Africa and has become a hub for American interests, including the effort to contain Islamist extremism in the region, putting pressure on the United States to repair its strained relations with Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta.


“This incident has literally put Kenyatta and his deputy in the center stage of the war on terror,” said Peter Kagwanja, the chief executive of the Africa Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Nairobi. “America and the world have to contend with the aftermath of Nairobi.”


The United States urgently wants to decode the tactics of the assault. There is growing concern about the ease with which a few determined militants armed with automatic weapons could storm into a crowded area, kill many people very quickly and hold off government forces for so long. After the Mumbai killings in 2008, the F.B.I. sponsored training sessions for the hotel industry and other groups that could be soft targets for such attacks.


“One of the misconceptions is that we can let Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups stay abroad and not fight them there, and that we would be safe at home,” said Katherine Zimmerman, senior analyst at the Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute. “That’s really proven not to be the case.”

            Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and William K. Rashbaum from New York.



They’re back! and rich as they ever were

September 26, 2013




Two weeks ago, Forbes released its 2013 list of the richest 400 Americans. And the not-so-surprising news: The fortunes of those at the top continue to rise while Americans across the country continue to suffer. What is surprising though is that they have now regained “all” of the losses from the economic collapse.


            “Five years after the financial crisis sent the fortunes of many in the US and around the world tumbling, the wealthiest as a group have finally gained back all that they lost.


The 400 wealthiest Americans are worth just over $2 trillion, roughly equivalent to the GDP of Russia. That is a gain of $300 billion from a year ago, and more than double a decade ago. The average net worth of list members is a staggering $5 billion, $800 million more than a year ago and also a record. The minimum net worth needed to make the 400 list was $1.3 billion. The last time it was that high was in 2007 and 2008, before property and stock market values began sliding. Because the bar is so high, 61 American billionaires didn’t make the cut.”


Half of those who dropped off the Forbes list didn’t do so because their fortunes’ declined. They “fell off the list” because others passed them up. As Forbes notes, “The rest simply couldn’t keep up with the rising tide.” It’s an economic bonanza for the rich.


In glorifying and idolizing the superrich, what Forbes and much of our popular culture fails to acknowledge is the role that inherited wealth, race, gender, and public policy have played in shaping who is and who is not on the list. But last year, United for a Fair Economy (UFE) took a closer, more critical look at the list with the release of our “Born on Third Base” report, which analyzed the 2011 Forbes 400 list. Here’s what we learned:


At least 40% of those on the 2011 Forbes 400 list inherited a medium-sized business or substantial wealth from a spouse or family member.


Over 20% – including many Walton family members – inherited enough to place them on the Forbes 400 list with their inheritance alone. It’s like they were born on home plate.


Only a small number can be said to truly come from modest means, and even they had help.


America’s long history of race and gender bias also shape who is and is not on the list. Women and people of color make up only a tiny sliver of the overwhelmingly white, male Forbes 400. Even in 2013, the Forbes list includes only one African-American: Oprah Winfrey.


In UFE’s 2006 book, The Color of Wealth, we examine the history of these disparities, including the way that women and people of color have been systematically excluded from the wealth-building public programs that helped create the white middle class. These wealth disparities have been passed on to each successive generation through the power of inheritance.


It’s not just the birthright, there are public policies that give an unnecessary “leg up” to those at the top. One of the more egregious tax breaks we give to the wealthiest Americans is the reduced tax rate on investment income. We tax investment income from capital gains and appreciated stock at nearly half the top rate at which we tax income from wages earned through actual work.


Who does that special tax break benefit? No great mystery here. 60% of the income made by the Forbes 400 billionaires comes from capital gains, i.e. investment income. Together with the rest of their compatriots in the top 0.1%, they capture half of all capital gains income in the country. At the very least, we need to “tax wealth like work” and end this special tax break that disproportionately benefits those at the top.


By ignoring the role of inherited wealth, race, gender, and public policy advantages, Forbes describes many of the richest Americans as “self-made.” This is an assertion that UFE challenged, both in our “Born on Third Base” report and in our 2012 book, The Self-Made Myth.


Attributing the success of those at the top entirely to their own efforts, by implication, also insinuates that those who are poor, are poor by their own efforts. Such an incomplete, black-and-white narrative distorts our views on the merits of a host of public policies-through this lens, progressive taxes become akin to “punishing success,” and public policies aimed at correcting past injustices become “hand outs.” The list goes on.


Instead of falling over ourselves in gleeful adulation of the superrich, let’s honor the labors of all hard-working people across the country, and not overlook all the nuances. At the very least, it will be a more honest dialogue.



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