TBR News February 20, 2016

Feb 20 2016

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. February 20, 2016: “When the US asked their Saudi oil-producing friends to lower the price of oil to hurt Putin’s Russian economy, they opened a Pandora’s Box of economic disaster. Yes, the price of oil dropped and Russian exports were lowered but the price of oil refused to rise again with the result that the Saudi economy began to sag and crumble. The Saudis are Sunni and detest the Shi’ite branch of the Muslim faith. It is their goal to take control of Shi’ite countries and set up a Sunni oligarchy with themselves in control. Unfortunately, this program, using a Saudi-raised ISIS, is starting to fall apart, thanks to Russian intervention in the Mid-East circus. Turkey, another economic ally of America, was cut off from free, stolen Syrian oil and retaliated by attacking the Russians. The Russians, who have fought 17 wars with Turkey8 in the past and won them all, retaliated with economic sanctions against Turkey and also by supporting Kurdish separatists. At least one step ahead of his economic enemies, Putin is obviously winning the match. The Saudis are approaching bankruptcy but because American gasoline is cheap, no one in Washington wants to force oil up with a presidential election so close.”

Conversations with the Crow

On October 8th, 2000, Robert Trumbull Crowley, once a leader of the CIA’s Clandestine Operations Division, died in a Washington hospital of heart failure and the end effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Before the late Assistant Director Crowley was cold, Joseph Trento, a writer of light-weight books on the CIA, descended on Crowley’s widow at her town house on Cathedral Hill Drive in Washington and hauled away over fifty boxes of Crowley’s CIA files.

Once Trento had his new find secure in his house in Front Royal , Virginia, he called a well-known Washington fix lawyer with the news of his success in securing what the CIA had always considered to be a potential major embarrassment. Three months before, July 20th of that year, retired Marine Corps colonel William R. Corson, and an associate of Crowley, died of emphysema and lung cancer at a hospital in Bethesda, Md. After Corson’s death, Trento and his Washington lawyer went to Corson’s bank, got into his safe deposit box and removed a manuscript entitled ‘Zipper.’ This manuscript, which dealt with Crowley’s involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, vanished into a CIA burn-bag and the matter was considered to be closed forever

After Crowley’s death and Trento’s raid on the Crowley files, huge gaps were subsequently discovered by horrified CIA officials and when Crowley’s friends mentioned Gregory Douglas, it was discovered that Crowley’s son had shipped two large boxes to Douglas. No one knew their contents but because Douglas was viewed as an uncontrollable loose cannon who had done considerable damage to the CIA’s reputation by his on-going publication of the history of Gestapo-Mueller, they bent every effort both to identify the missing files and make some effort to retrieve them before Douglas made any use of them.

Douglas had been in close contact with Crowley and had long phone conversatins with him. He found this so interesting and informative that he taped  and later transcribed them.

These conversations have been published in a book: ‘Conversations with the Crow” and this is an excerpt.



Conversation No. 36

Date: Sunday, September 15, 1996

Commenced: 11:15 AM CST

Concluded: 11: 37 AM CST

RTC: Ah, good  morning, Gregory. Been to church early today? GD: No, haven’t been to church for some time. Yourself? I mean someone who lives on Cathedral Avenue ought to have some nearby inspiration.

RTC: No, I get out very seldom these days what with my hip problem and I do have a balance issue. Asthma  makes me short of breath sometimes. Never mind that. Anyway, I was looking for some papers on the Vietnam business….for addition to my book on that sorry time…and I found an analysis of the flying saucer business we talked about.  I pulled it out for you. On the Vietnam business, I’ve finished the manuscript long ago but I keep thinking that I ought to put more documentation with it. Stupid dreams because I can never publish it. Had to sign that paper, you know. Bill has looked at it and thinks it would become a best seller but I am not going to give it to him in spite of what he thinks. Trento would love to lay his hands on it. He wouldn’t publish it, of course, but would run to Langley for that pat on the head and another nice pen set. Joe does love to collect pen sets and get those loving pats on the head.

GD: Could I look at it, Robert?

RTC: Ah….I might consider it but you couldn’t use any of it while I am still kicking. But anyway, this Roswell business…and oh yes, one in Montana about three years later…now the Company had nothing to do with any of this but we did get a copy of an official and very secret report, not because we cared about a spaceship wreck or little green men but because of the methodology used in containing and negating the story. Too many people knew about this so the cover-up had to be through and intense. It was a sort of primer for us. We improved on it, of course, but it was an excellent foundation for other matters.

GD: Such as?

RTC: Now, now, Gregory, one thing at a time. Yes, an excellent primer.

GD: I used to live in Las Cruces which is close by that area and from talking with people down there, it is almost universally believed. I believe a space ship crashed there and the Air Force was involved. The locals are still afraid of the threats they got back in ’47-’48 so I feel that where there is smoke, there must once have been fire.

RTC: What is your understanding of the incident? GD: There was a big thunderstorm then and much lightening and one of the farmers or ranchers found debris all over his landscape. The Air Force people descended on the place and in essence shut everyone up. I was told repeatedly that bodies of aliens were found. Is that in your paper? Make a wonderful story.

RTC: Yes, as I recall, about four dead ones and one living.

GD: Little green men? RTC: As I read it, not green but a sort of grayish green or gray. About four feet in height with no body hair, fewer fingers than ours and large eyes. I mean no question because there are original photographs attached. And the dead ones started rotting right away and the stink was monumental. There were complete autopsies, of course, but not in situ. Flew them out, iced up, for work at Wright.

GD: And the live one? RTC: Died a little later. They were not of this world, Gregory but it was, and is, amazing how they at least resembled humans.

GD: That alone would drive the religious freaks nuts. Human forms from outer space? RTC: Yes and that’s why in the movies you see giant crabs or whatever. Can’t look like us.

GD: Such closed minds. Darwin was basically right and someday, they will discover the so-called missing link that proves him right. Would that get suppressed, do you think? RTC: Depends who is in power in the White House at the time. But let me send the report off to you to evaluate. I personally don’t see this as tabloid news about green men but how the story was contained and essentially countered. The one in Montana was much safer because this one crashed into a mountain, way up, with no busybody farmers and local hicks around to pick up dangerous souvenirs

GD: What was the determination there? RTC: Essentially the same as Roswell. Unworldly metals and other debris, crisped remains of small people…I guess four feet was general…and so on. Again, lightening storms in the area. These things can be detected by a certain form of radar but not by most so there was a fix and that’s how the wreckage was found. The metal in both sites was odd enough. Very light but impossible to bend or even cut into. Equipment containers that were impossible to open or even open. That drove them all crazy because if we could construct aircraft, or even tanks, from such a metal, the advantages would be obvious. No shell could penetrate and the light weight would be a huge advantage in combat. As I understand it, no one could ever figure the composition out.

But again, the methodology…the mixture of threats of death and the cover stories are what this report was mostly about. Of course the press does just as it’s told as do the local police and so on. And no one in the Air Force is going to talk or they’ll end up taking a long walk on a very short pier. Time goes by and everyone but a few forget and that’s the end of it.

GD: Did they have any idea where these things came from? RTC: No, they never did and therein lies another factor. Truman ordered silence, or rather approved the order on it because no one wanted a panic. The Cold War was just starting and they were afraid of the Orson Wells business all over. No, there could be no mass panic. My God, every attention-starved nitwit in the country would chime in with fictional stories about landings in their yard and so on. That no one wanted so rather than stifle any talk about genuine sightings, they rigged thousands of fakes ones until the public thought it was all too funny for words and went back watching baseball games on the idiot box. We took this and refined it. I wrote some suggestions on this and I will attach them for you. Sometimes we can’t cover up some nasty action so the best way to hide it is to magnify it so much and pass it to so many gabbling idiots that the public is quickly bored. I recall the business of people vanishing and that is true so the story goes out about flying saucers landing in cow pastures and kidnapping cows or fake stories about this or that child vanishing, and then his turning up later in a local candy store. A few dozen like this every year gets the public accustomed to disbelieving abduction stories. Or we could throw in a child molester from time to time just to spice up the pot. Hell, we, and the Pentagon, among others, have full-time departments handling fake stories. We leak them to the supermaket press.

GD: Or one of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid rags…

RTC: Yes, Rupert can be so accommodating.  He keeps the trailer park crowd in a state of perpetual excitement. Bread and circuses. Always the same.

GD: Do you know how many actual incidents got investigated? RTC: I know of the two specifically. The one in New Mexico in ’47 and then the Montana one about two years later. I am sure there are more. The Russians had their own problems but they have much better control over the media that we do. They had less running around and creative writing issues.

GD: Nothing hostile?

RTC: Not that I ever heard about. I think just recon trips. That’s the educated guessing. Roswell was near some of our more sensitive A-bomb areas but I can’t figure out Montana.

GD: Maybe they were looking to kidnap some mountain goats for sexual escapades.

RTC: As I recall, they had no sex organs. I think goats would be out.

GD: No organs? How could they reproduce the species? RTC: I don’t think the Pentagon was interested in that question. Maybe they just came out of a big machine somewhere, did their routines and died. I understand that they rotten very quickly and the stink when they did made it really impossible to do effective autopsies.

The psychology behind why people believe conspiracy theories about Scalia’s death

Hint: It has something to do with partisan rancor.

February 19, 2016

by Joseph  E. Uscinski

Washington Post

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died just days ago, but already conspiracy theories about his death abound. Radio talk-show host Alex Jones suggested that a pillow found near Scalia’s head might indicate that he’d been suffocated. Some retired detectives said the lack of an autopsy was evidence of a cover-up. One website (the aptly named Trunews) wondered whether the CIA used heart-attack-inducing drugs to kill the justice. Even Donald Trump joined the fray, calling the death “pretty unusual.”

For those who don’t believe that the justice was murdered — Scalia, at 79, had passed average life expectancy — it can be disconcerting to watch a large swath of the public fall prey to hysteria and paranoia. After all, we live in a democracy. If a substantial portion of Americans operate in a conspiracy-fueled delirium, how can we make sound decisions, choose thoughtful leaders and support rational policies?

Those concerns motivated psychologists and social scientists like me to try to better understand why people believe conspiracy theories and what the consequences are. In the past decade, scientists have conducted hundreds of opinion polls and laboratory experiments on the subject, leading to the publication of dozens of books and scholarly articles. Based on this emerging body of research, the explosion of Scalia assassination theories is probably two-fold. First, some people are, by their nature, inclined toward conspiratorial logic. Second, partisans tend to view their side as virtuous and the opposition as ignorant, wrong-headed, corrupt and perhaps evil. Increasingly partisan times, like these, stir the pot even more.

Recently, psychologists began measuring people’s predisposition to believe conspiracy theories. Using polling and questionnaires, scientists developed a list of questions about political control and secrecy. The surveys were designed to tap respondents’ underlying views of how the world works, rather than their thoughts about specific conspiracy theories.

Through these experiments, researchers found that conspiratorial thinking falls on a spectrum. Some people are very inclined toward conspiracy theories, seeing them lurking behind every corner, no matter the facts. People on the opposite end of the spectrum are unlikely to accept conspiratorial beliefs, even when mounting evidence suggests that something is afoot. The folks on this extreme might be thought of as naive; conspiracy theorists often refer to them as “sheeple.” Most people are somewhere in the middle — they believe in some conspiracy theories but reject most.

For example, in one national poll, respondents were given a list of nine groups to choose from that included “corporations and the rich,” “communists and socialists,” “the government” and “foreign countries.” Participants were asked to select any groups they believed were working in secret against the rest of us. The respondents who scored lowest on the spectrum of conspiracy thinking chose an average of about 11/2 groups. Respondents with stronger predispositions toward such thinking picked more. Those at the highest levels of conspiratorial thinking choose about 41/2 groups.

Given this, it’s not surprising that some people thought of conspiratorial explanations — corruption! assassination! intrigue! — as soon as they heard of Scalia’s passing. It’s also unsurprising that most national news coverage of these conspiracy theories has been to debunk them.

Partisanship also drives conspiracy theories. Partisans often view politics as a Manichean struggle, with their party as good and the other as evil. This leads them to believe that if something bad happens, the other side caused it. This plays out over and over again in our national discourse. For example, after the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., last year, Republicans criticized what they called Obama’s weak stance on terrorism; Democrats blamed the GOP for what they consider lax gun laws. For the conspiratorially minded, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to accusations of scheming: Some on the right suggested that the Obama administration orchestrated the San Bernardino attack so that afterward, it could take away gun rights. Some on the left continue to suggest that the George W. Bush administration was either complicit or directly involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Social scientists such as Alfred Moore, Joseph M. Parent and myself have used polls to show that members of both parties harbor conspiratorial thinking, and in equal amounts. But at any given time, the balance of domestic power makes it look like only one side belongs to the paranoid fringe. That’s because the theories that gain traction tend to come from those accusing the people in power of wrongdoing. Since President Obama’s election, most of the prominent conspiracy theories have originated with Republicans. They have accused the president of faking his birth certificate, blowing up the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killing moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., and faking the slaughtering of children at Sandy Hook Elementary.

But go back a few years, and we observe the opposite: Democrats sounding the alarms with 9/11 truther theories and obsessions with the Iraq war, Halliburton, Dick Cheney and Blackwater.

In fact, when one party wins a presidential election, a significant portion of the other party believes the election was rigged. For example, a Fairleigh Dickinson poll shows that about 37 percent of Democrats believe that Republicans committed fraud to keep the presidency in 2004; 36 percent of Republicans believe that Democrats committed fraud to stay in the White House in 2012. The most prominent conspiracy theories accuse the biggest and most powerful actors. In other words, conspiracy theories are for losers.

Looking back in history, we see the same thing: When President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to pack the Supreme Court with like-minded justices, some Republicans declared that Roosevelt was conspiring to become a dictator

It therefore follows that when a conservative Supreme Court justice dies in office, some Republican conspiracy theorists will immediately conclude that the Democratic president and those under his control murdered him. The urge to blame Obama is made even more potent by the fact that Scalia’s death will change the ideological balance of the court in a way that favors liberals. Republicans think they just lost control of a branch of government.

It’s hard to know how the United States ranks alongside other countries in terms of its penchant for conspiracy theories, since there are no systematic comparisons. But my research has led me to believe that Western Europeans and Americans are, for the most part, anti-conspiratorial. Conspiracy theories certainly exist, but people mostly believe in and trust the American system and its institutions. One study that tracked levels of conspiricism using letters to the editor in prominent newspapers shows that conspiratorial talk has decreased in the past several decades. In other regions, like post-communist Eastern Europe, conspiracy theories abound. This may be because institutions in those countries are less transparent.

There have been millions of conspiracy theories. Very few convince many people; most come and go with little notice. The Scalia theories will probably make headlines for a few weeks, then disappear from our discourse.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention. Conspiracy theories broadcast people’s deepest fears and values. By doing this, they offer leaders a signal. In this case, Obama should see that Americans on the right are uneasy about a shift of power on the highest court. In naming a replacement, he could show empathy for those who are afraid by directly engaging with those worries and choosing a compromise nominee.

It’s worth remembering that, very occasionally, conspiracy theories turn out to be true. Just ask the two cheeky journalists at this newspaper who followed a crazy conspiracy theory and brought down a sitting president.

5,000 ISIS militants trained in Syria & Iraq walk free in Europe – Europol

February 20, 2016


Between 3,000 and 5,000 so-called ‘foreign fighters’ – EU citizens trained in Islamic state terror camps – have returned to Europe and pose a “completely new challenge,” according the continent’s top police chief.

Europe is currently facing the highest terror threat in more than in a decade,” Rob Wainwright, Europol’s director, told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung daily, warning of the real possibility of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) or other terror groups attacks in Europe. 

We can expect [IS] or other religious terror groups to stage an attack somewhere in Europe with the aim of achieving mass casualties among the civilian population,” he said, noting that the risk of attacks by individuals has also not diminished.

However, Wainwright refused to link the unprecedented increase in the terror threat with the ongoing refugee crisis. He refuted the widespread assumption that terrorists are infiltrating Europe under the guise of asylum seekers.

There are no concrete indications that terrorists are systematically using the stream of refugees to come into Europe undetected,” Wainwright said.

Last month, former UK Defense Secretary Liam Fox expressed concern that jihadists could sneak into the EU among asylum-seekers. Southern European countries through which they travel “have no idea whether these people are genuine refugees or asylum seekers, or economic migrants, or terrorists operating under the cover of either,” he said.

These worries were substantiated after the German domestic intelligence service confirmed in February that it had received more than 100 tip-offs alleging IS militants had arrived in the country pretending to be refugees. The news prompted further debate on EU migration policy.

Last year, FBI Director James Comey confirmed to the US Senate committee that Islamic State terrorists had obtained at least one printing machine used to provide militants with authentic-looking Syrian passports. The machine is believed to have been seized by terrorists during an IS offensive on the city of Deir ez-Zour. The revelation sparked concerns that large amounts of forged IDs can be manufactured in IS-controlled territories.

Two fraudulent Syrian passports were found at the site of the Paris attacks, which claimed the lives of 130 people in November. They are believed to belong to suicide bombers, who arrived in Europe via refugee routes.

In February, the FSB (Russian security agency) captured 14 gang members who were forging passports for Islamic extremists heading to Syria and planning to conduct terrorist and extremist activities in Russia.

According to a report on global terrorism from the Institute of Economics and Peace, since the start of the military conflict in Syria in 2011 between 25,000 and 30,000 ‘foreign fighters’ have arrived in Iraq and Syria, with Europe accounting for 21 percent of the total number.

Apple’s encryption battle with the FBI has implications well past the iPhone

As it goes to war with the Justice Department, Apple defends a core philosophy: that no one, not even its makers, should be able to look inside your phone

February 20, 2016

by Sam Thielman

The Guardian

When a young married couple killed 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, the legal implications of encryption and Apple’s business model must have been the furthest thing from the minds of anyone involved.

But since the death of Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik in a hail of bullets last December, Farook’s iPhone has become the battleground for one of the most important fights in tech policy, and, for its manufacturer, potentially one of the most costly.

Technology may hold the key to this horrific case, the feds believe. In the request to the court to force Apple’s assistance, attorneys for the government write: “[T]he FBI has discovered, for example, that on December 2, 2015, at approximately 11:14 a.m. [15 minutes after opening fire], a post on a Facebook page associated with Malik stated, ‘We pledge allegiance to khalifa bu bkr al bhaghdadi al quraishi,’ referring to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

What more might Malik have known, and is it locked in her husband’s phone?

The Department of Justice says that Apple is the only entity that can help them, and so it wants the tech company to intentionally and thoroughly undermine their own security – “something that would have an impact on this one device”, as the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, put it on Wednesday.

But for Apple, this is a battle that extends well past one iPhone. Apple sells a lot of things – 74.7m iPhones in the last quarter, for example – but its biggest selling point these days is privacy.

As it goes to war with the Department of Justice over whether it should be compelled to build software that will allow it to break into its own devices, the company is having to defend a core philosophy of the most successful business model on Earth: that no one, not even Apple, should be able to look inside your phone.

In part, the quest to build devices that can be sold on the promise of greater security is a point of differentiation between Apple and its competitors. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, has heaped scorn on Google, which proudly scrapes user activity from Gmail and other services and sells advertising against it: “A few years ago, users of internet services began to realize that when an online service is free, you’re not the customer,” he writes in the introduction to Apple’s privacy page. “You’re the product.”

Cook was even harsher in his criticism of the FBI’s demands. “The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers,” he wrote in a letter to customers on Tuesday. “We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.”

The FBI finds the centrality of privacy to Apple’s business model contemptible. “Based on Apple’s recent public statement and other statements by Apple, Apple’s current refusal to comply with the Court’s order, despite the technical feasibility of doing so, instead appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy,” wrote the bureau’s lawyers.

The invective came in a second motion similar to the first, in which FBI counsel admitted that the brief was “not legally necessary”. They explained their reasoning thus: “[T]he government files this noticed motion to provide Apple with the due process and adversarial testing it seeks,” they wrote.

Cook has made clear the fight for privacy is in some ways a personal one. He has spoken out on the importance of civil rights on numerous occasions and is fundamentally committed to protecting his customers’ right to privacy. It’s a stand that extends to customers he, and most everyone, would rather not have.

People have entrusted us with their most personal information,” Cook said moments before Barack Obama spoke at a government-organized cybersecurity summit last year. “We owe them nothing less than the best protections that we can possibly provide by harnessing the technology at our disposal. We must get this right. History has shown us that sacrificing our right to privacy can have dire consequences.”

Apple’s position is winning support from some likely, and unlikely, quarters. That the planet’s largest company by market cap would plant the flag on privacy has galvanized activists throughout the tech world, including those who don’t typically align themselves with major corporate interests.

Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that the Justice Department’s order, which requires Apple to digitally sign software that will subvert its central privacy systems, is anathema to anyone who values technical security. “This is a pretty huge thing they’re asking Apple to do, which is not just write the code but write the code and then lie about it.”

Fight for the Future, an internet rights activist group, said it would hold rallies outside Apple stores next Tuesday in solidarity with the tech company. “Governments have been frothing at the mouth hoping for an opportunity to pressure companies like Apple into building backdoors into their products to enable more sweeping surveillance,” wrote Evan Greer, the group’s campaign director.

No less an advocate for domestic spying than Michael Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, said he couldn’t side with the FBI on the topic. “I think [FBI director] Jim Comey’s wrong,” he said.

The overall health of the American computing industry is a far more strategic advantage to the security mission of NSA than any specific tactical operational transient advantage we would have if our computer was bigger than their computer,” Hayden said in a video interview published on Wednesday.

Of course, Apple’s position on encryption has hardened since it was revealed by the Guardian that the company was among the tech firms compromised by the NSA itself. After the Guardian first revealed the extent of the tech industry’s collusion with the NSA’s spying program, Apple changed tack. Once the company could access all its devices remotely. Now it was introducing ever tougher encryption with the aim of ultimately making it impossible for even Apple to crack your iPhone.

Really, the government is asking Apple to revert back to the model it had before,” said Darren Hayes, director of cybersecurity at Pace University’s Seidenberg School of computer science and information systems.

Parts of Apple’s architecture are still open to search warrants. Indeed, in this specific case, FBI agents appear to have reviewed the iCloud account associated with Farook’s phone.

But the firm has closed several other doors, notably by developing hardware and software that don’t work with the lockscreen bypassing program that used to be available to police. “For all devices running iOS 8.0 and later versions, Apple will not perform iOS data extractions as data extraction tools are no longer effective,” the company wrote in a guideline document for US law enforcement issued on 29 September last year (iOS 8 began rolling out the previous year).

Apple hasn’t explicitly said that this change is the reason for this lawsuit, but it has said the government’s assurance that it wants Apple’s house keys just this once are lies. An Apple executive told the Guardian that the very specific software outlined in the DoJ’s appeal would allow easier access to any of its iOS systems, even its most recent phones. In essence, it’s being told to build a new version of the break-in program it purposely made obsolete.

Apple is trying to make a rock so big it can’t lift it. But in the case of Farook’s iPhone, the DoJ has developed such a technically sophisticated workaround to Apple’s impressive security that it could undermine even features on newer models than Farook’s, like Secure Enclave, a computer-within-the-phone that is isolated from the main system and holds one of two entangled keys required to unlock the device.

A person with knowledge of the matter said that it is at least theoretically possible that the changes requested in the order could be implemented on any phone. As sophisticated as iPhones are, the source said, the only way to make a device invulnerable to a malicious software update by the manufacturer would be to hardwire it: The alterations could potentially be implemented in hardware, but then users couldn’t configure them to their own security purposes.

That, like the iPhone, is not a box Apple wants to open. The company’s legacy is in many ways bound up in its ability to make good on its promise of privacy without giving special treatment to any one government, especially as it tries to pry open China while the western smartphone market matures. If it cracks in this case, who can trust that any update will come from Apple and not the local government?

Free Tools to Keep Those Creepy Online Ads From Watching You

February 17, 2016

by Brian X. Chen and Natasha Singer

New York Times

Say you’re doing a web search on something like the flu. The next thing you know, an ad for a flu remedy pops up on your web browser, or your video streaming service starts playing a commercial for Tylenol.

The content of those ads is no coincidence. Digital ads are able to follow people around the Internet because advertisers often place invisible trackers on the websites you visit. Their goal is to collect details on everywhere you go on the Internet and use that data to serve targeted ads to your computer, smartphone and connected television.

This global commercial surveillance of consumers is poised to become more extensive as tech companies expand into the Internet of Things, a category that includes wearable computers and connected home appliances like smart thermostats and refrigerators. Amazon, eBay, Facebook and Google can already follow users from device to device because people log in to their services with the same IDs on various gadgets.

For other marketing companies, tracking people on multiple Internet-connected devices has become a holy grail. The process is complex, because some lack the direct relationship with people that the giant tech companies already have. Only about 6 percent of marketers can reliably track a customer on all of that customer’s devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. But advertisers are working toward the goal.

Our privacy is completely under assault with all these connected devices,” said Jeremiah Grossman, the founder of WhiteHat Security, a web security firm.

So what better time to get a head start on defending yourself against web snoops (as if email trackers, which this column covered last year, weren’t annoying enough already)? Many companies offer tools to help obscure your digital footprints while you’re browsing the web. We researched and tested four tracker blockers and found their results varied widely. In the end, the app Disconnect became our anti-tracking tool of choice.

Here’s how web tracking works: In general, targeting individuals with digital ads involves a sophisticated ecosystem of third parties — like online advertising networks, data brokers and analytics companies — that compile information on consumers.

When you visit websites, these companies typically pick out your browser or phone using technologies like cookies, which contain unique alphanumeric identification tags that can enable trackers to identify your activities as you move from site to site. To sell ads delivered to certain categories of consumers, like suburban singles looking for romance, companies may sync these ID tags to pinpoint individuals.

The downside is, your browsing history may contain sensitive information about your health concerns, political affiliations, family problems, religious beliefs or sexual habits.

More than just being creepy, it’s a huge violation of privacy,” said Cooper Quintin, a privacy advocate for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit that also offers the anti-tracking tool Privacy Badger. “People need to be able to read things and do things and talk about things without having to worry that they’re being watched or recorded somewhere.”

We took a close look at four free privacy tools: Ghostery, Disconnect, RedMorph and Privacy Badger. We tested them with the Google Chrome browser on the top 20 news websites, including Yahoo News, CNN, The Huffington Post and The New York Times.

The tracker busters generally work in similar ways. You download and install an add-on for a web browser like Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. The anti-tracking companies each compile a list of known web domains that serve trackers or show patterns of tracking services. Then when someone connects to a website, the tools prevent the browser from loading any element that matches their blacklist.

Ghostery, a popular tracker blocker, was the most difficult to set up. When you install it, it asks you to manually select the trackers you want to block. Our problem with that approach is that there are hundreds of trackers, and most consumers probably won’t recognize most of them, putting the onus on users to research which specific services they might wish to block.

Scott Meyer, the chief executive of Ghostery, said this had been a deliberate design choice. When trackers are blocked, parts of websites may not function, so it is less confusing to let users experiment and decide which ones to block on their own, he said.

We block nothing by default,” he said. “That’s in direct contrast to other companies who are saying, ‘We’re turning everything off and let you turn whatever you want back on.’ That’s way too complex for users.”

The tracker blocking tool RedMorph takes the opposite approach. It blocks every tracking signal it can detect and lets people decide which ones to allow. For parents concerned about their children’s Internet use, RedMorph also offers a service to filter out certain sites or block certain swear words or other language they find inappropriate.

When you go home, you lock the door and you may pull down the shades at night,” said Abhay Edlabadkar, the chief executive of RedMorph. “You should have the same level of privacy control over your Internet activities.”

In our tests, RedMorph was the most thorough with blocking trackers. It blocked 22 of them on USAToday.com, whereas Privacy Badger blocked seven, Disconnect blocked eight and Ghostery detected eight.

But in the process, RedMorph caused the most collateral damage. It blocked some videos on the websites for CNN, USA Today, Bleacher Report, The New York Times and The Daily News. It also broke the recommended reading list on Business Insider and a Twitter box on BuzzFeed. For people who run into issues loading websites, the company offers an “Easy Fix” button to stop blocking a website’s trackers, but that’s hardly an ideal solution when it causes so many websites to malfunction. Mr. Edlabadkar of RedMorph said the tool was blocking some videos or recommended reading lists because they were loading only after a tracker had been loaded first.

That leaves Privacy Badger and Disconnect. Privacy Badger detects third-party domains that users are connecting with when they’re loading a website and blocks those domains only if they are determined to be tracking you. Its widget shows sliding bars of trackers it has detected. The ones in red are blocked and the green ones are allowed.

Disconnect takes a similarly nuanced approach. The company said some tracking was fair and necessary for a website to work properly — for example, if a site like The New York Times is using analytics to collect information about readers, as it describes in its privacy policy. However, Disconnect will block trackers from third parties that are collecting, retaining or sharing user data. On its website, it publishes lists of trackers it blocks and those it allows, along with explanations of its policy.

We really focus on privacy rather than blocking ads that are done in a respectful way,” said Casey Oppenheim, the chief executive of Disconnect. “It’s important we have the ability for publishers to survive and make money. I think there’s a middle ground.”

In the end, we picked Disconnect as our favorite tool because it was the easiest to understand. It organizes the types of tracking requests it is blocking into different categories: advertising, analytics, social media and content.

Mr. Grossman of WhiteHat Security also tested tracking blockers and chose Disconnect for similar reasons. He breaks his online activities into two separate web browsers to make himself more difficult to track: On one browser, he does everyday tasks like reading news articles; on the other browser he logs into accounts that are linked to his personal identity, like online banking sites and Amazon.

But Mr. Grossman said that in the broad arms race between consumers and advertisers, the advertisers always find some way to outmaneuver us.

We’re talking megabillion-dollar industries totally designed to track you online,” he said. “That’s their mission in life.”

Trump: “Secret Papers” May Link 9/11 to Saudi Arabia

February 19, 2016


Defending his attention-grabbing assertions that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was an enormous mistake facilitated by the George W. Bush administration’s misleading of the American people, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump this week indirectly referred to 28 classified pages said to link the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the 9/11 attacks.

It wasn’t the Iraqis that knocked down the World Trade Center. We went after Iraq, we decimated the country, Iran’s taking over…but it wasn’t the Iraqis, you will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center, because they have papers in there that are very secret, you may find it’s the Saudis, okay? But you will find out,” Trump said at a Wednesday campaign event in Bluffton, South Carolina.

Trump’s implied promise to declassify the 28 pages sets him apart from the remaining Republican and Democratic presidential aspirants, filling a gap created when Rand Paul suspended his campaign. Last summer, Paul introduced Senate Bill 1471, which, if passed, would direct the president to release the 28 pages, and he pledged to release them himself if elected to the White House. Green Party candidate Jill Stein has also called for their release. (Then-Senator Hillary Clinton co-signed a 2003 letter to President Bush demanding the release of the 28 pages, but has been silent on the topic since.)

Jeb on the 28 Pages: From Shrugs to Sarcasm

When asked about the 28 pages last summer, Jeb Bush said he’d never heard of them. This month, asked if he would like to see the 28 pages his brother classified, Bush sarcastically replied, “Yeah, I’d like to see ’em. You got ’em?”

Among the many who would like to “see ’em”: 9/11 family members and survivors whose lawsuit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been imperiled by what former Senator Bob Graham calls a “pervasive pattern of covering up the role of Saudi Arabia in 9/11, by all of the agencies of the federal government, which have access to information that might illuminate Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11.”

Vague Reference Dampens Impact

Trump’s comments brought renewed attention to the classified, 28-page chapter in the 2002 report of a joint congressional intelligence inquiry into 9/11. However, the impact would have certainly been greater had he specifically referred to “28 pages” rather than cryptically referencing “secret papers”—which he did time and again on the campaign trail, in an interview with Fox News and during CNN’s Thursday night town hall.

Given the dearth of mainstream media coverage of Trump’s Saudi Arabia reference, it’s clear his vague allusion to “secret papers” left journalists baffled. For example, though Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher was among the first to report it, his brief piece struck a snarky tone, made no reference to the 28 pages, and concluded with a dismissive statement that “no evidence has ever been presented that the government of Saudi Arabia was behind the attacks of 9/11.” Following his lead, most of those sharing the Mediaite story on social media ridiculed the notion that there are “secret papers” implicating the Saudis.

However, former Senator Graham, who co-chaired the intelligence inquiry that produced the 28 pages, said “they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier of 9/11.” Two of the 9/11 hijackers received financial, lodging and other assistance from a Saudi citizen who lived in San Diego and who is widely thought to have been an operative for the kingdom. There are also serious questions—and a FOIA lawsuit—swirling around a wealthy Saudi family that had ties to Mohammed Atta and which fled Sarasota two weeks before 9/11.

Kyiv’s crisis continues its spiral

Two years after Kyiv’s transition of power, signs are pointing again to change. Reforms are barely moving forward; accusations of corruption grow louder. Now even the government coalition has collapsed.

February 19, 2016


Once again, February has turned out to be a month of crisis in Ukraine. Two years ago at this time, protests were reaching a peak in Kyiv. Dozens were dying on the city’s streets; President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. Now the floor is waffling beneath the feet of Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk.

The pro-Western government coalition officially collapsed on Friday after the parliament chairman announced the withdrawal of the Self Reliance Party. Just before that, the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoschenko’s Fatherland party left the coalition. Both are seeking fresh elections.

Now the clock is ticking for parliament. The two remaining parties, Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front and the President’s Poroshenko Block no longer hold a majority. If a new coalition is not created within 30 days, the president can dissolve the parliament. Whether it will come to that is unclear. The right-wing populist Radical party, which left the coalition last August, wants back in.

“It’s too early to bury the current coalition,” Jaroslaw Markitra, a Kyiv expert, told DW. In the place of the five-party coalition a three-pronged coalition might remain.

A power struggle between Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko

The crisis in the government came to a head on Tuesday, when President Petro Poroshenko suggested Prime Minister Yatsenyuk resign. The parliament had rated his government as “unsatisfactory” but Yatsenyuk was surprisingly able to survive a no-confidence vote.

Many in the Ukraine see this as a warning to Yatsenyuk: we can topple you but would prefer that you go on your own. There were clearly enough votes for a vote of confidence to take place. Had all of the representatives of the Poroshenko party voted, the government would have had to leave power. Yet more than 20 of the representatives abstained from the vote. Some parliamentarians in the Poroshenko Party see this is a “counter-revolution by the oligarchs” and a “conspiracy.”

One possibility for all this may lie in the constitution, which defines Ukraine as a parliamentary democracy, in which the prime minister has more power than the president. Pressure from the West has until now prevented an open rivalry between Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk, but that era now seems to have passed.

Observers, like the distinguished Kyiv journalist Vitali Portnikow, believe that the president wants to install a loyal head of government and control two key ministries: the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Justice. These positions have, to date, been filled by Yatsenyuk’s people.

A resignation said to win back trust

It’s hasn’t been that long since Yatsenyuk won the prime minsiter’s post with 371 votes in parliament on February 27, 2014. The then-39 year-old was viewed as a messenger of hope. In his inauguration speech, Yatsenyuk did not promise quick success; he labeled his Cabinet as “Kamikaze” – a troop ready for political suicide.

This comparison can likewise be made to Yatsenyuk’s second government, which he has led since December 2014. His People’s Front was the strongest party after new elections, but quickly lost support. Opinion polls put them in the low single digits.

That’s why Poroshenko has put out his call to radically restructure the government. In a previous interview with DW, the former Economics Minister, Aivaras Abromavicius, said that Yatsenyuk should step down “in order to win back the lost trust.”

‘We expected more’

Yelisaveta Shepetilnikova was a student activist and member of the pro-west Euromaiden movement’s coordinating body during the fateful 2013/2014 winter in the Ukraine. Today, she is studying in the US and looking with a critical eye at her homeland.

“We unfortunately aren’t seeing a return to political intrigue,” she told DW. She’s concerned about the collapse of the coalition and warns against destabilization.

Two years after the Maiden Revolution, the young woman sees a mixed bag. “On the one hand, there are a number of successes, especially the increasing influence that civil society holds in the country,” said the activist. Yet the old political and economic systems are still in place. Above all else, corruption needs to be fought against more strongly. “We expected more, “she said.

The fact that the murder of dozens of Maiden activists on Feburary 20, 2014 has still not been explained, a lack she feels shows a “deep contempt” for the victims. “There are still many people within the system that don’t want to see any changes,” she said.

Stumbling blocks on the road to Europe

Even for experts and observers, the balance of the new power players in Kyiv is mixed. The economically hard-hit Ukraine could be brought to stability with the help of the west. Most of the population are currently struggling under a dramatic downturn in their quality of life.

In that sense, the Maiden revolution wasn’t just fighting against corruption but also for a future for the Ukraine in the European Union. Only the rare optimist still believes in its entry anytime soon.

Add to that, the largest problem, as activists like Shepetilnikova believe, is the Russian annexation of the Crimea and the ongoing conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country. Without a solution to those conflicts, the Ukraine will continue to head in the direction of crisis.

Exxon’s Never-Ending Big Dig

Flooding the Earth With Fossil Fuels

by Bill McKibben


Here’s the story so far. We have the chief legal representatives of the eighth and 16th largest economies on Earth (California and New York) probing the biggest fossil fuel company on Earth (ExxonMobil), while both Democratic presidential candidates are demanding that the federal Department of Justice join the investigation of what may prove to be one of the biggest corporate scandals in American history.  And that’s just the beginning.  As bad as Exxon has been in the past, what it’s doing now — entirely legally — is helping push the planet over the edge and into the biggest crisis in the entire span of the human story.

Back in the fall, you might have heard something about how Exxon had covered up what it knew early on about climate change. Maybe you even thought to yourself: that doesn’t surprise me. But it should have. Even as someone who has spent his life engaged in the bottomless pit of greed that is global warming, the news and its meaning came as a shock: we could have avoided, it turns out, the last quarter century of pointless climate debate.

As a start, investigations by the Pulitzer-Prize winning Inside Climate News, the Los Angeles Times, and Columbia Journalism School revealed in extraordinary detail that Exxon’s top officials had known everything there was to know about climate change back in the 1980s. Even earlier, actually. Here’s what senior company scientist James Black told Exxon’s management committee in 1977: “In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.” To determine if this was so, the company outfitted an oil tanker with carbon dioxide sensors to measure concentrations of the gas over the ocean, and then funded elaborate computer models to help predict what temperatures would do in the future.

The results of all that work were unequivocal. By 1982, in an internal “corporate primer,” Exxon’s leaders were told that, despite lingering unknowns, dealing with climate change “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” Unless that happened, the primer said, citing independent experts, “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered… Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.” But that document, “given wide circulation” within Exxon, was also stamped “Not to be distributed externally.”

So here’s what happened. Exxon used its knowledge of climate change to plan its own future. The company, for instance, leased large tracts of the Arctic for oil exploration, territory where, as a company scientist pointed out in 1990, “potential global warming can only help lower exploration and development costs.”  Not only that but, “from the North Sea to the Canadian Arctic,” Exxon and its affiliates set about “raising the decks of offshore platforms, protecting pipelines from increasing coastal erosion, and designing helipads, pipelines, and roads in a warming and buckling Arctic.” In other words, the company started climate-proofing its facilities to head off a future its own scientists knew was inevitable.

But in public? There, Exxon didn’t own up to any of this. In fact, it did precisely the opposite. In the 1990s, it started to put money and muscle into obscuring the science around climate change. It funded think tanks that spread climate denial and even recruited lobbying talent from the tobacco industry.  It also followed the tobacco playbook when it came to the defense of cigarettes by highlighting “uncertainty” about the science of global warming. And it spent lavishly to back political candidates who were ready to downplay global warming.

Its CEO, Lee Raymond, even traveled to China in 1997 and urged government leaders there to go full steam ahead in developing a fossil fuel economy. The globe was cooling, not warming, he insisted, while his engineers were raising drilling platforms to compensate for rising seas. “It is highly unlikely,” he said, “that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now.” Which wasn’t just wrong, but completely and overwhelmingly wrong — as wrong as a man could be.

Sins of Omission

In fact, Exxon’s deceit — its ability to discourage regulations for 20 years — may turn out to be absolutely crucial in the planet’s geological history. It’s in those two decades that greenhouse gas emissions soared, as did global temperatures until, in the twenty-first century, “hottest year ever recorded” has become a tired cliché. And here’s the bottom line: had Exxon told the truth about what it knew back in 1990, we might not have wasted a quarter of a century in a phony debate about the science of climate change, nor would anyone have accused Exxon of being “alarmist.” We would simply have gotten to work.

But Exxon didn’t tell the truth. A Yale study published last fall in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that money from Exxon and the Koch Brothers played a key role in polarizing the climate debate in this country.

The company’s sins — of omission and commission — may even turn out to be criminal. Whether the company “lied to the public” is the question that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman decided to investigate last fall in a case that could make him the great lawman of our era if his investigation doesn’t languish. There are various consumer fraud statutes that Exxon might have violated and it might have failed to disclose relevant information to investors, which is the main kind of lying that’s illegal in this country of ours. Now, Schneiderman’s got backup from California Attorney General Kamala Harris, and maybe — if activists continue to apply pressure — from the Department of Justice as well, though its highly publicized unwillingness to go after the big banks does not inspire confidence.

Here’s the thing: all that was bad back then, but Exxon and many of its Big Energy peers are behaving at least as badly now when the pace of warming is accelerating. And it’s all legal — dangerous, stupid, and immoral, but legal.

On the face of things, Exxon has, in fact, changed a little in recent years.

For one thing, it’s stopped denying climate change, at least in a modest way. Rex Tillerson, Raymond’s successor as CEO, stopped telling world leaders that the planet was cooling. Speaking in 2012 at the Council on Foreign Relations, he said, “I’m not disputing that increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere is going to have an impact. It’ll have a warming impact.”

Of course, he immediately went on to say that its impact was uncertain indeed, hard to estimate, and in any event entirely manageable. His language was striking. “We will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around — we’ll adapt to that. It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.”

Add to that gem of a comment this one: the real problem, he insisted, was that “we have a society that by and large is illiterate in these areas, science, math, and engineering, what we do is a mystery to them and they find it scary. And because of that, it creates easy opportunities for opponents of development, activist organizations, to manufacture fear.”

Right. This was in 2012, within months of floods across Asia that displaced tens of millions and during the hottest summer ever recorded in the United States, when much of our grain crop failed. Oh yeah, and just before Hurricane Sandy.

He’s continued the same kind of belligerent rhetoric throughout his tenure. At last year’s ExxonMobil shareholder meeting, for instance, he said that if the world had to deal with “inclement weather,” which “may or may not be induced by climate change,” we should employ unspecified “new technologies.” Mankind, he explained, “has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity.”

In other words, we’re no longer talking about outright denial, just a denial that much really needs to be done. And even when the company has proposed doing something, its proposals have been strikingly ethereal. Exxon’s PR team, for instance, has discussed supporting a price on carbon, which is only what economists left, right, and center have been recommending since the 1980s. But the minimal price they recommend — somewhere in the range of $40 to $60 a ton — wouldn’t do much to slow down their business.  After all, they insist that all their reserves are still recoverable in the context of such a price increase, which would serve mainly to make life harder for the already terminal coal industry.

But say you think it’s a great idea to put a price on carbon — which, in fact, it is, since every signal helps sway investment decisions. In that case, Exxon’s done its best to make sure that what they pretend to support in theory will never happen in practice.

Consider, for instance, their political contributions. The website Dirty Energy Money, organized by Oil Change International, makes it easy to track who gave what to whom. If you look at all of Exxon’s political contributions from 1999 to the present, a huge majority of their political harem of politicians have signed the famous Taxpayer Protection Pledge from Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform that binds them to vote against any new taxes.  Norquist himself wrote Congress in late January that “a carbon tax is a VAT or Value Added Tax on training wheels.  Any carbon tax would inevitably be spread out over wider and wider parts of the economy until we had a European Value Added Tax.” As he told a reporter last year, “I don’t see the path to getting a lot of Republican votes” for a carbon tax, and since he’s been called “the most powerful man in American politics,” that seems like a good bet.

The only Democratic senator in Exxon’s top 60 list was former Louisiana solon Mary Landrieu, who made a great virtue in her last race of the fact that she was “the key vote” in blocking carbon pricing in Congress. Bill Cassidy, the man who defeated her, is also an Exxon favorite, and lost no time in co-sponsoring a bill opposing any carbon taxes. In other words, you could really call Exxon’s supposed concessions on climate change a Shell game. Except it’s Exxon.

The Never-Ending Big Dig

Even that’s not the deepest problem.

The deepest problem is Exxon’s business plan. The company spends huge amounts of money searching for new hydrocarbons. Given the recent plunge in oil prices, its capital spending and exploration budget was indeed cut by 12% in 2015 to $34 billion, and another 25% in 2016 to $23.2 billion. In 2015, that meant Exxon was spending $63 million a day “as it continues to bring new projects on line.” They are still spending a cool $1.57 billion a year looking for new sources of hydrocarbons — $4 million a day, every day.

As Exxon looks ahead, despite the current bargain basement price of oil, it still boasts of expansion plans in the Gulf of Mexico, eastern Canada, Indonesia, Australia, the Russian far east, Angola, and Nigeria. “The strength of our global organization allows us to explore across all geological and geographical environments, using industry-leading technology and capabilities.” And its willingness to get in bed with just about any regime out there makes it even easier. Somewhere in his trophy case, for instance, Rex Tillerson has an Order of Friendship medal from one Vladimir Putin. All it took was a joint energy venture estimated to be worth $500 billion.

But, you say, that’s what oil companies do, go find new oil, right? Unfortunately, that’s precisely what we can’t have them doing any more. About a decade ago, scientists first began figuring out a “carbon budget” for the planet — an estimate for how much more carbon we could burn before we completely overheated the Earth. There are potentially many thousands of gigatons of carbon that could be extracted from the planet if we keep exploring. The fossil fuel industry has already identified at least 5,000 gigatons of carbon that it has told regulators, shareholders, and banks it plans to extract. However, we can only burn about another 900 gigatons of carbon before we disastrously overheat the planet. On our current trajectory, we’d burn through that “budget” in about a couple of decades.  The carbon we’ve burned has already raised the planet’s temperature a degree Celsius, and on our present course we’ll burn enough to take us past two degrees in less than 20 years.

At this point, in fact, no climate scientist thinks that even a two-degree rise in temperature is a safe target, since one degree is already melting the ice caps. (Indeed, new data released this month shows that, if we hit the two-degree mark, we’ll be living with drastically raised sea levels for, oh, twice as long as human civilization has existed to date.) That’s why in November world leaders in Paris agreed to try to limit the planet’s temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or just under three degrees Fahrenheit. If you wanted to meet that target, however, you would need to be done burning fossil fuels by perhaps 2020, which is in technical terms just about now.

That’s why it’s wildly irresponsible for a company to be leading the world in oil exploration when, as scientists have carefully explained, we already have access to four or five times as much carbon in the Earth as we can safely burn. We have it, as it were, on the shelf. So why would we go looking for more? Scientists have even done us the useful service of identifying precisely the kinds of fossil fuels we should never dig up, and — what do you know — an awful lot of them are on Exxon’s future wish list, including the tar sands of Canada, a particularly carbon-filthy, environmentally destructive fuel to produce and burn.

Even Exxon’s one attempt to profit from stanching global warming has started to come apart. Several years ago, the company began a calculated pivot in the direction of natural gas, which produces less carbon than oil when burned. In 2009, Exxon acquired XTO Energy, a company that had mastered the art of extracting gas from shale via hydraulic fracturing.  By now, Exxon has become America’s leading fracker and a pioneer in natural gas markets around the world. The trouble with fracked natural gas — other than what Tillerson once called “farmer Joe’s lit his faucet on fire” — is this: in recent years, it’s become clear that the process of fracking for gas releases large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, and methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As Cornell University scientist Robert Howarth has recently established, burning natural gas to produce electricity probably warms the planet faster than burning coal or crude oil.

Exxon’s insistence on finding and producing ever more fossil fuels certainly benefited its shareholders for a time, even if it cost the Earth dearly. Five of the 10 largest annual profits ever reported by any company belonged to Exxon in these years.  Even the financial argument is now, however, weakening. Over the last five years, Exxon has lagged behind many of its competitors as well as the broader market, and a big reason, according to the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI), is its heavy investment in particularly expensive, hard-to-recover oil and gas.

In 2007, as CTI reported, Canadian tar sands and similar “heavy oil” deposits accounted for 7.5% of Exxon’s proven reserves. By 2013, that number had risen to 17%. A smart business strategy for the company, according to CTI, would involve shrinking its exploration budget, concentrating on the oil fields it has access to that can still be pumped profitably at low prices, and using the cash flow to buy back shares or otherwise reward investors.

That would, however, mean exchanging Exxon’s Texan-style big-is-good approach for something far more modest. And since we’re speaking about what was the biggest company on the planet for a significant part of the twentieth century, Exxon seems to be set on continuing down that bigger-is-better path. They’re betting that the price of oil will rise in the reasonably near future, that alternative energy won’t develop fast enough, and that the world won’t aggressively tackle climate change. And the company will keep trying to cover those bets by aggressively backing politicians capable of ensuring that nothing happens.

Can Exxon Be Pressured?

Next to that fierce stance on the planet’s future, the mild requests of activists for the last 25 years seem… well, next to pointless. At the 2015 ExxonMobil shareholder meeting, for instance, religious shareholder activists asked for the umpteenth time that the company at least make public its plans for managing climate risks. Even BP, Shell, and Statoil had agreed to that much. Instead, Exxon’s management campaigned against the resolution and it got only 9.6% of shareholder votes, a tally so low it can’t even be brought up again for another three years. By which time we’ll have burned through… oh, never mind.

What we need from Exxon is what they’ll never give: a pledge to keep most of their reserves underground, an end to new exploration, and a promise to stay away from the political system. Don’t hold your breath.

But if Exxon seems hopelessly set in its ways, revulsion is growing. The investigations by the New York and California attorneys general mean that the company will have to turn over lots of documents. If journalists could find out as much as they did about Exxon’s deceit in public archives, think what someone with subpoena power might accomplish. Many other jurisdictions could jump in, too.

At the Paris climate talks in December, a panel of law professors led a well-attended session on the different legal theories that courts around the world might apply to the company’s deceptive behavior. When that begins to happen, count on one thing: the spotlight won’t shine exclusively on Exxon. As with the tobacco companies in the decades when they were covering up the dangers of cigarettes, there’s a good chance that the Big Energy companies were in this together through their trade associations and other front groups. In fact, just before Christmas, Inside Climate News published some revealing new documents about the role that Texaco, Shell, and other majors played in an American Petroleum Institute study of climate change back in the early 1980s. A trial would be a transformative event — a reckoning for the crime of the millennium.

But while we’re waiting for the various investigations to play out, there’s lots of organizing going at the state and local level when it comes to Exxon, climate change, and fossil fuels — everything from politely asking more states to join the legal process to politely shutting down gas stations for a few hours to pointing out to New York and California that they might not want to hold millions of dollars of stock in a company they’re investigating. It may even be starting to work.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, for instance, singled Exxon out in his state of the state address last month.  He called on the legislature to divest the state of its holdings in the company because of its deceptions. “This is a page right out of Big Tobacco,” he said, “which for decades denied the health risks of their product as they were killing people. Owning ExxonMobil stock is not a business Vermont should be in.”

The question is: Why on God’s-not-so-green-Earth-anymore would anyone want to be Exxon’s partner?


Our new President and his Wife, Doris

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