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TBR News March 15, 2018

Mar 15 2018

The Voice of the White House 

Washington, D.C. March 14, 2018: “We will be out of the office until March 16. Ed”

 

Table of Contents

  • Cancún: from tourist beach paradise to hotbed of Mexico’s drug violence
  • The truth about torture: Trump’s CIA pick can’t lead without facing her past
  • Washington Breaks Out the “Just Following Orders” Nazi Defense for CIA Director-Designate Gina Haspel
  • Russian to Judgment: Who Poisoned Sergei Skripal?
  • The Strange Case of the Russian Spy Poisoning
  • America’s Phony War
  • ‘Not welcome here’: Amazon faces growing resistance to its second home
  • A terrible night for Trump in Pennsylvania

 

Cancún: from tourist beach paradise to hotbed of Mexico’s drug violence

The murder of an alleged cartel boss in his hospital bed is the latest outrage in a resort city torn by trafficking and corruption

March 14, 2018i

by David Agren in Cancún

The Guardian

The Playamed hospital is an unremarkable two-storey building on a quiet street lined with red-blossomed flame trees, just a few minutes’ drive from the white-sand beaches and all-inclusive resorts of Cancún’s hotel zone.

Recently, however, it was the setting for an incident underlining the relentless spread of Mexico’s drug war to cities previously best known as beach holiday destinations.

Four gunmen burst into a private room at the clinic last week, where they shot dead Alfonso Contreras Espinoza and his wife. Known as “El Poncho”, the murdered man was reputed to be the local boss for the Gulf cartel, and had been released from a local prison to receive treatment for a leg problem.

Investigators discovered a bag of white powder under his leg and a scale, suggesting that Contreras had been dealing from his sickbed.

On a recent morning, hospital officials declined to comment on the brazen attack. Paramedics standing in the shade outside looked away or stared into their smartphones when asked about the incident.

Not so long ago, Cancún sparkled as the crown jewel of Mexico’s Mayan Riviera. But rampant corruption, chaotic development and a string of murders have all tarnished the resort city’s reputation.

Other tourist hotspots have also been caught in Mexico’s red tide: Acapulco, once the country’s most glamorous beach spot, is now the setting for relentless gang violence; late last year, the bodies of six men were left hanging from bridges near Los Cabos on the Baja California peninsula. Earlier this month, a Mexican thinktank named Los Cabos the world’s most dangerous city outside a war zone.

The problems of Mexico’s resort cities mirror those of the country, which last year suffered its most murderous year in memory.

But violence here threatens a key industry: Mexico welcomed nearly 40 million visitors in 2017. Tourism accounts for about 8% of Mexico’s GDP and has long been a ready source of employment for the country’s poor.

Thanks to their strategic locations and transitory populations, Mexico’s tourist destinations have also been prime territory for the country’s criminal groups.

Meanwhile, the government’s strategy of targeting “kingpins” has exacerbated the conflict, as crime groups fracture into rival factions competing for territory and trade.

In Cancún, at least four cartels are thought to be contesting routes to smuggle cocaine in from South America and a local drug market targeting tourists and locals.

Over the past year the upstart Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG) has been moving into the resort city, pushing out other groups such as the Gulf cartel.

“[The CJNG] shoot first and ask questions later,” said a source who works on public security issues in Cancún. “These are their methods and they’re now here.”

Political corruption and collusion between politicians and criminal groups is also believed to have exacerbated the problem.

One former governor of the surrounding state of Quintana Roo, Roberto Borge, awaits trial on accusations of graft after being extradited from Panama.

During his 2010-2016 administration, hotel and land owners in Tulum were forced to hand over their properties in complex schemes involving notaries and judges. Journalists who investigated allegations of official wrongdoing were arrested on trumped-up charges.

Mauricio Góngora, the former mayor of Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancún, was arrested after an unsuccessful election campaign to succeed Borge as state governor, and stands accused of misappropriating £9.5m ($13.3m).

“Corruption was escalating and the [Borge] government’s excesses became unsustainable,” said Vicente Carrera, publisher of Noticaribe, an online news outlet in Playa del Carmen. “When the new state government arrived [in late 2016] everything was on its head.”

Amid political turmoil in the state, violence has increasingly encroached on tourist areas, including Playa del Carmen’s fabled Quinta Avenida.

Last week, the US government issued a security warning for Playa del Carmen, and temporarily closed its consulate after receiving information about a “security threat”.

The warning followed an explosion on a tourist ferry, which injured 19 Mexicans and at least five US citizens in Playa del Carmen.

Local authorities said the blast was caused by engine failure, but later investigators said it was caused by explosives. Another device was found on a second ferry, but officials discounted any connection with cartel violence and said tourists had nothing to worry about, although the federal government deployed black-uniformed police and bomb-sniffing dogs to patrol the wharfs and the beach areas.

“The government always wants to downplay the violence,” said Daniel Pérez Villaseñor, a labour lawyer and activist in Cancún.

“The [state] governor doesn’t have a plan for fighting the violence,” he said. “They just want to put some makeup on Cancún to give it a good image.”

Much is riding on that image.

According to Roberto Cintrón, the president of the local hotel association, Cancún airport is receiving a record number of arrivals. Hotel occupancy hovers at 83%.

Cancún was little more than a fishing town when the federal government first bet big on tourism in the early 1970s.

The original plan called for a hotel zone and separate residential area. But as tourism grew, it drew an unexpected influx of migrants from Mexico’s impoverished southern states seeking employment.

They settled on the fringes of the city, where the ramshackle homes and rutted roads feel a world away from the manicured lawns and pricey shops of the hotel zone.

That contrast raises uncomfortable questions about the benefits of tourism.

Wages for workers in the tourism industry are low and benefits scant, while hotel owners pay few taxes and often hire through outsourcing to avoid paying social security contributions, said Pérez.

And while tourists have so far been largely insulated from the violence, the same is not true of residents: a survey in December showed that 84.9% of Cancún’s inhabitants consider the city “unsafe”.

Many outlying neighbourhoods lack basic services. Such neglect has been symbolised by a huge pothole which opened in a busy street 15 years ago and still has not been repaired.

Local residents recently celebrated the anniversary by throwing a birthday party for the flooded hole and installing a 100-meter zip line over the muddy water.

“This is a first world city with third world services,” said José Pech, an electrician who built the zip line.“The governments we have are the worst. They’re worse than the criminals,” he said. “If they had paid proper attention to the people, if there wasn’t such corruption, organised crime wouldn’t exist as it does now.”

 

 

The truth about torture: Trump’s CIA pick can’t lead without facing her past

In the coming weeks, the Senate will have a chance to ask Gina Haspel about torture at CIA black sites during her confirmation hearings

March 14, 2018

by Larry Siems in New York

The Guardian

The CIA often likes to pretend that we don’t know the things we know. With the nomination of Gina Haspel to head the agency, public tolerance for this habit will face a major test

A little over a year ago, to defend themselves in a lawsuit brought by three victims of torture in CIA black sites, James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, the architects of US enhanced interrogation techniques, issued a subpoena to depose “Gina Doe”.

Legal documents identified her as “Gina Doe, former chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez when he served as the chief of the CIA’s Clandestine Service and former deputy to Jose Rodriguez when he served as director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center”.

The two contract psychologists needed Doe’s deposition, they argued, because she was effectively their boss: her testimony could support their claim that everything they did to prisoners in the CIA’s interrogation chambers was “under the plenary and direct control of the CIA” and “within the scope of properly delegated authority”.

It didn’t take long for “Gina Doe” to become Gina Haspel in court documents.

In February 2017, two months after that subpoena was issued, Donald Trump appointed Haspel deputy director of the CIA, and the subsequent flood of reporting about Haspel’s clandestine career so clearly linked her to the black site torture program that the court dropped the thin veil of pseudonymity.

Still angling to have the court compel her testimony, Mitchell and Jessen could now be more direct in their court filings, linking Haspel by name to one of their most notorious “enhanced interrogations”.

“As has been recently reported in the press,” their attorneys wrote, “Haspel ran the black site at which Abu Zubaydah was detained and interrogated. She would have been personally involved in the communications between CIA Headquarters and Defendants concerning that interrogation.”

She had “direct, first-hand knowledge of the extent of defendants’ involvement in the development of interrogation efforts”, and was “in a position to confirm that defendants never engaged in any interrogation activities that had not been previously and specifically approved in advance by the CIA on a case-by-case basis”.

Haspel was never required to share with the court her knowledge about Mitchell and Jessen’s “interrogation activities”, or her own.

Claiming “state secrets” privilege, government lawyers successfully argued that the CIA had never officially acknowledged that she had a role in the secret detention and interrogation program, and “to confirm or deny that fact would itself disclose classified information”.

Mitchell and Jessen, who would eventually reach a settlement with the torture victims, cried foul in court, arguing that they were being left holding the bag for the agency’s rendition, detention and interrogation program.

No sympathy is due Mitchell and Jessen, who designed, promoted and profited from the hare-brained brutality that they and dozens of CIA agents visited on prisoners in secret dungeons scattered around the globe. But Mitchell and Jessen were not the ones who sent a CIA cable on 15 July 2002 from the CIA’s black site in Thailand titled “Additional Operational and Security Considerations for the Next Phase of Abu Zubaydah Interrogation”.

In the form in which it was produced for the court in the lawsuit, the cable is entirely redacted except for two passages:

If subject develops a serious medical condition which may involve a host of conditions including a heart attack or another catastrophic type of condition, all efforts will be made to ensure that proper medical care will be provided to subject. In the event that subject dies we need to be prepared to act accordingly keeping in mind the liaison equities involving our hosts. If subject dies, we plan on seeking [redacted] assistance for cremation of subject.

Several redacted lines later, it continues,

Regardless which option we follow, however, and especially in light of the planned psychological pressure techniques to be implemented, we need to get reasonable assurances that subject will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.

Though this is all the CIA allowed the court to see, we have additional information about the contents of that four-page cable.

The Senate intelligence committee, in the executive summary of its still largely suppressed report on the CIA torture program, records that this same cable “stated that only the detention site green chief of base would be allowed to interrupt or stop an interrogation in process, and that the chief of base would be the final decision-making authority as to whether the CIA’s interrogation techniques applied to Abu Zubaydah would be discontinued”.

To this day, the CIA wants us to pretend that, despite extensive reporting since the intelligence committee described that cable, it is still a secret that the chief of base at the CIA’s Thai black site at the time that cable was written was Gina Haspel, and that she personally signed much of the cable traffic reporting on Abu Zubaydah’s torture, and that she also signed the order to destroy the videotapes of the torture sessions she supervised. But with Haspel’s nomination to head the CIA, the time for pretending is over.

When Trump appointed Haspel deputy director of the agency last year, Senators Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich wrote to outgoing CIA director Mike Pompeo demanding that he declassify information about Gina Haspel’s background in the agency. That letter included this surreal passage:

As you are aware, on February 2, 2017, we sent a classified letter to the president making this request and specifically describing the nature of the information to be declassified. Since then, at least two senior CIA officials have made public statements about Ms Haspel’s background. Former acting director Michael Morrell has written that Ms Haspel drafted a cable directing that CIA interrogation videos be destroyed, and former director of the National Clandestine Service John Bennett has spoken about her role in the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. We have nonetheless received no response to our letter, which we are resending to you through classified channels.

In the coming weeks, Wyden and Heinrich, like the rest of their colleagues on Senate intelligence committee, will have a chance to ask Haspel about her black site past directly during her confirmation hearings.

They will not be in the mood to entertain the fiction that there is not an evidence room full of exhibits from the CIA’s torture program, many of them bearing Gina Haspel’s fingerprints. And we shouldn’t either.

 

Washington Breaks Out the “Just Following Orders” Nazi Defense for CIA Director-Designate Gina Haspel

March 15, 2018

by Jon Schwarz

The Intercept

During the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, several Nazis, including top German generals Alfred Jodl and Wilhelm Keitel, claimed that they were not guilty of the tribunal’s charges because they had been acting at the directive of their superiors.

Ever since, this justification has been popularly known as the “Nuremberg Defense,” in which the accused states they were “only following orders.”

The Nuremberg judges rejected the Nuremberg Defense, and both Jodl and Keitel were hanged. The United Nations’ International Law Commission later codified the underlying principle from Nuremberg as, “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”

This is likely the most famous declaration in the history of international law, and is as settled as anything possibly can be.

However, many members of the Washington, D.C. elite are now stating that it in fact is a legitimate defense for American officials who violate international law to claim they were just following orders.

Specifically, they say, Gina Haspel, a top CIA officer whom President Trump has designated to be the agency’s next director, bears no responsibility for the torture she supervised during the George W. Bush administration.

Haspel oversaw a secret “black site” in Thailand, at which prisoners were waterboarded and subjected to other severe forms of abuse. Haspel later participated in the destruction of the CIA’s videotapes of some of its torture sessions. There is informed speculation that part of the CIA’s motivation for destroying these records may have been that they showed operatives employing torture to generate false “intelligence” that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

John Kiriakou, a former CIA operative who helped capture many Al Qaeda prisoners, recently said that Haspel was known to some at the Agency as “Bloody Gina” and that “Gina and people like Gina did it, I think, because they enjoyed doing it. They tortured just for the sake of torture, not for the sake of gathering information.” (In 2012, in a convoluted case, Kiriakou pled guilty to leaking the identity of a covert CIA officer to the press and spent a year in prison.)

Some of Haspel’s champions have used the exact language of the popular version of the Nuremberg Defense, while others have paraphrased it.

One who paraphrased it is Michael Hayden, former director of both the CIA and the National Security Agency. In a Wednesday op-ed, Hayden endorsed Haspel as head of the CIA, writing that “Haspel did nothing more and nothing less than what the nation and the agency asked her to do, and she did it well.”

Hayden later said on Twitter that Haspel’s actions were “consistent with U.S. law as interpreted by the department of justice.” This is true: In 2002, the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department declared in a series of notorious memos that it was legal for the U.S. to engage in “enhanced interrogation techniques” which were obviously torture. Of course, the actions of the Nuremberg defendants had also been “legal” under German law.

John Brennan, who ran the CIA under President Obama, made similar remarks Tuesday when asked about Haspel. The Bush administration had decided that its torture program was legal, said Brennan, and Haspel “tried to carry out her duties at CIA to the best of her ability, even when the CIA was asked to do some very difficult things.”

Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd used the precise language of the Nuremberg Defense during a Tuesday appearance on CNN when Wolf Blitzer asked him to respond to a statement from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz: “The Senate must do its job in scrutinizing the record and involvement of Gina Haspel in this disgraceful program.”

Hurd, a member of the House Intelligence Committee and himself a former CIA operative, told Blitzer that “this wasn’t Gina’s idea. She was following orders. … She implemented orders and was doing her job.”

Hurd also told Blitzer that “you have to remember where we were at that moment, thinking that another attack was going to happen.”

This is another defense that is explicitly illegitimate under international law. The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which was transmitted to the Senate by Ronald Reagan in 1988, states that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Notably, Blitzer did not have any follow-up questions for Hurd about his jarring comments.

Samantha Winograd, who served on President Obama’s National Security Council and now is an analyst for CNN, likewise used the language of the Nuremberg Defense in an appearance on the network. Haspel, she said, “was implementing the lawful orders of the president. … You could argue she should have quit because the program was so abhorrent. But she was following orders.”

Last but not least there’s Rich Lowery, editor of National Review, who issued a ringing defense of Haspel in Politico, claiming she was merely acting “in response to what she was told were lawful orders.”

Remarkably, this perspective has even seeped into the viewpoint of regular journalists. At a recent press conference at which Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul criticized Haspel, a reporter asked him to respond to “the counterargument” that “these policies were signed off by the Bush administration … they were considered lawful at the time.”

It fell to Paul to make the obvious observation that appears to have eluded almost everyone else in official Washington: “This has been historically a question we’ve asked in every war: Is there a point at which soldiers say ‘no’? … Horrendous things happened in World War II, and people said, well, the German soldiers were just obeying orders. … I think there’s a point at which, even suffering repercussions, that if someone asks you to torture someone that you should say no.”

 

Russian to Judgment: Who Poisoned Sergei Skripal?

The all-purpose “Russia did it” explanation makes no sense

March 15, 2018

by Justin Raimondo

AntiWar

The latest example of alleged Russian perfidy – the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia – is yet another case of faith-based attribution. In accusing Russia of some heinous crime – in this instance, the murder of a former double agent working for MI6 – one needn’t present any real evidence: it’s only necessary to point the finger at the Kremlin. And of course we haven’t had any real evidence proffered by the British government: Prime Minister Theresa May simply declared that Russia is the culprit and gave a midnight deadline for the Kremlin to explain how “its nerve weapon” – as NBC reported it – was used to attack Skripal on British soil. She has since announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats.

The absurdity of this was inadvertently underscored by the comments of Vil Mirzayanov, the Russian-born chemist who first revealed the existence of “Novichok,” the nerve agent developed by the Russians. Mirzayanov came to the United States in 1995: in 2007, he published a book, State Secrets, which tells his story as a chemist working in Russia’s secret chemical weapons facilities. Now 83, he gives the following explanation for the attack on Skripal:

“‘Only the Russians’ developed this class of nerve agents, said the chemist. ‘They kept it and are still keeping it in secrecy.’

“The only other possibility, he said, would be that someone used the formulas in his book to make such a weapon.”

Oh, but what kind of a person would do that? Why, that would have to mean that they were trying to frame the Russians by making it look like the work of the FSB, the Russian intelligence agency. And we all know that’s just not possible – right?

The “evidence” we are given to support the “Russia-did-it” scenario is that only the Russians have access to Novichok, and that it is such a sophisticated poison that only a state actor could have pulled off this attack. Yet the logic of this line of reasoning is quite shaky: Mirzayanov tells us it could be duplicated by anyone with a copy of his book! And this New York Times piece, which assumes Russia is the culprit, cites one Andrew C. Weber, a former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, who visited “a secret, abandoned Soviet research facility in Nukus, Uzbekistan, which the United States was asked to help destroy in the early 2000s.” Weber describes evidence of experiments on dogs, and then goes on to claim that

“It’s obviously tightly controlled by the Russian government. It’s implausible to me – possible, but not probable – that this chemical weapon would have been diverted from a Russian facility. It would be well guarded.”

Yet an American official was wandering around the facility, described as “abandoned” – and so how well-guarded was it? Furthermore, during the time described by Weber, Uzbekistan was no longer a part of the Soviet Union: the country declared its independence on August 31, 1991. After that, whatever happened to the Novichok production facilities in Uzbekistan was out of Moscow’s control – and stores of the lethal poison could’ve wound up anywhere.

Aside from the complete lack of credible evidence, the case against the Russians rests on a misunderstanding of the procedure involved in spy swaps. When Skripal was pardoned and released by the Russians in 2010, along with three others convicted of spying for the West, ten Russian spies were handed over to the Kremlin: according to the “spy etiquette” informally in force during the cold war era, these people were safe from retribution, because otherwise there would be no point to swapping prisoners.

So what would make the Russians break this cardinal rule of spycraft? No explanation is being given.

As professor Anthony Glees, the director of the Center for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, points out: if the Russians did indeed poison Skripal, “no one will ever do a swap with them again.” And he asks the logical question:  “if Russia had really wanted to kill Skripal,” why didn’t they execute him when they had him in custody?

Of course there’s a Trump connection to all this: it turns out that Skripal was “close to” one Pablo Miller, the MI6 agent who originally recruited him – and who just happens to have worked for Orbis Business Intelligence, Christopher Steele’s outfit that put together the infamous dossier on Trump. As The Telegraph reports:

“The consultant, who The Telegraph is declining to identify, lived close to Col Skripal and is understood to have known him for some time… The Telegraph understands that Col Skripal moved to Salisbury in 2010 in a spy swap and became close to a security consultant employed by Christopher Steele, who compiled the Trump dossier. The British security consultant, according to a LinkedIn social network account that was removed from the internet in the past few days, is also based in Salisbury. On the same LinkedIn account, the man listed consultancy work with Orbis Business Intelligence, according to reports.”

The consultant is identified elsewhere as Pablo Miller, a.k.a., also Antonio Alvarez de Hidalgo.

The usual suspects are speculating that Skripal was targeted by the Russians because he had a hand in compiling the Trump dossier – and yet the former Russian intelligence agent hadn’t been in his home country since 2010, and has lived in Salisbury, Great Britain, since that time. Orbis has denied he had any role in creating the dossier. And even if he did play some role in the dossier’s compilation, what would be the point of killing him – especially in a way that would point to Russia? It makes no sense. But then again, war propaganda doesn’t have to make sense, it has only to inspire fear and loathing.

This is a replay of the Litvinenko affair, which was based on similarly dubious “evidence.”: even the official British government report was ambiguous about Russia’s alleged responsibility for poisoning the exiled anti-Putin propagandist. It says that Putin “probably approved” the murder.

Probably. No need for exactitude in these matters: after all, we’re only talking about a country with enough nuclear weapons aimed at us – and the Brits – to wipe out the entire population of the planet. So “probably” is good enough.

Alexander Litvinenko was involved with all sorts of dubious characters, many of them linked to the Russian Mafia: any one of a number of these fine fellows could’ve killed him. As more of Skripal’s story comes out, one suspects that the same will prove true in his case.

That won’t stop the War Party from concocting yet another conspiracy theory pointing to the all-powerful Vladimir Putin as the source of all that’s bad in the world.

Don’t fall for it: instead, ask the question that’s pinned to the top of my Twitter feed: Where’s the evidence?

 

The Strange Case of the Russian Spy Poisoning

Applying the principle of cui bono – who benefits? – to the case of Sergei Skripal might lead investigators away from the Kremlin as the prime suspect and towards Western intelligence agencies, argues James O’Neill.

March 13, 2018

by James O’Neill

Consortium News

The suspected nerve agent attack upon former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, which also affected his daughter in the English city of Salisbury last Sunday, has given rise to too much speculation, too much hysteria, and too little analysis or insight. It has provided ammunition for the Russophobic Western media to make accusations that it was another example of Russia in general and Vladimir Putin in particular disposing of a supposed enemy of the Kremlin.

As with the Mueller investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election there are accusations with varying degrees of wildness, but little or no actual evidence that would get past first base in any independent court of law.

First, what are the known facts, only some of which have been accurately reported in the western mainstream media? The victim (assuming it was a deliberate attack upon him and his daughter) was formerly a Colonel in the Russian military intelligence service (the GRU). This is the largest of the Russian intelligence agencies and, as with its western equivalents, has a wide variety of functions, of which “spying” is only one.

In the early 1990s Skripal was recruited by an MI6 agent Pablo Miller, whom the British media declined to name. Miller was an MI6 agent in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Miller’s main task was recruiting Russians to provide information about their country to the British. An interesting fact, possibly coincidental, was that the MI6 officer under diplomatic cover in Moscow at this time was Christopher Steele. Steele was later to become better known as the principal author of the infamous Trump dossier.

When Steele returned to London, he ran MI6’s Russia desk between the 2006 and 2009. The information that Skripal disclosed would have been given to Steele, first in Moscow and later in London.

Skripal was arrested in 2004. In 2006 he was convicted of treason and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. In 2010 he was released as part of a prisoner exchange deal with Russian spies in U.S. jails. He went to live in the United Kingdom where he has lived in supposed retirement ever since. Another interesting fact, although again possibly coincidental, is that Salisbury, where Skripal lived, is only about 12 kilometres from Porton Down, the U.K.’s principal research centre for nerve agents.

If the Russians had wanted to kill him, they had ample opportunity to do so during the years when he was imprisoned or the eight years he lived in retirement in Salisbury. If they did wish to kill him, it is not a very credible that they would do so very publicly and by a means that could not be bought off the shelf in the local pharmacy. The handling and the administering of these very dangerous substances require professional expertise. The obvious candidates for the attempted murder are therefore government agencies, but which government is the unanswered question.

This is where the facts become thinner, but the interesting connections of Skripal offer scope for some tentative hypotheses. While living in Salisbury, Skripal became friendly, according to a report in the UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph, with none other than the aforementioned Pablo Miller – whom the Telegraph declined to name but has since been identified on the web.

Miller is now working with a British security consultancy named Orbis Business Intelligence. Again according to the Telegraph, Miller’s association with this company has now been removed from Miller’s LinkedIn profile.

The obvious question again is: why do so now?

Orbis is the same private intelligence agency as that of Christopher Steele. It seems more than a mere coincidence that the same three men who had personal and professional links going back to the 1990s should have a continuing association at the same time as the Steele dossier was being compiled and later as the so-called Russiagate inquiry was imploding. Former FBI Director James Comey described the Steele dossier as “salacious and unverified” in a Senate hearing.

The former British ambassador Craig Murray has suggested on his blog that a motive for the attempted murder of Skripal and his daughter was to further promote the anti-Russian hysteria that inflicts the Western media and the body politic.

That is certainly plausible, and it has certainly been one of the consequences, as the abysmal coverage of the ABC among other outlets makes clear. But an alternative hypothesis presents itself in the light of the above facts, and this hypothesis has not even been mentioned, let alone discussed by our major media.

My admittedly speculative hypothesis (but I would argue, not an unreasonable one) is that Skripal was likely involved in the production of the Steele dossier. He was therefore in a position to offer potentially very damaging information into the circumstances of the Steele dossier. As noted above, that particular narrative has not only spectacularly collapsed, but the revelations reflect very badly on, among others, the U.S. intelligence community, the FBI, the Democratic National Committee, the Obama White House and the Clinton campaign.

In any major criminal enquiry one of the basic questions the investigation asks is: who had the means, the motive and the opportunity? Framed in that light, the Russians come a distant fourth behind the other prime suspects; the U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies themselves, and those elements of the deep state that sought to prevent Trump winning, and subsequently to undermine his presidency. The primary motive being ascribed to the Russians is revenge for Skripal’s treachery more than a decade ago.

A second major question asked in any criminal investigation is cui bono – who benefits? It is difficult to perceive a credible argument that Russia is a beneficiary of Skripal’s poisoning.

Further support for the hypothesis that this was a false flag operation comes in this statement that British Prime Minister to Theresa May made to the UK Parliament. The statement was frankly absurd and could only have been made when the intention was to further demonize and punish Russia, rather than any attempt to establish the truth and apply ordinary principles of evidence and factual analysis.

May’s argument is thoroughly deconstructed on the Moon of Alabama website, which pointed out that Russia had destroyed all left over stocks from the Soviet Union’s chemical weapon program and does not currently produce chemical weapons. Further, there are any number of governments capable of carrying out the Salisbury attack. “If someone is run-over by a BMW is it ‘highly likely’ that the German government is responsible for it?” the Moon of Alabama asks.

The obfuscations of the British reinforce in the view that Skripal was dangerous to the anti-Trump forces and the authorities therefore sought to have them removed. There is ample precedent for such actions and those familiar with the “suicide” of Dr. David Kelly will recognize the parallels.

The chances of the truth emerging have become vanishingly small at the same time as a serious conflict with Russia becomes correspondingly greater.

 

America’s Phony War

Blitzkrieg Overseas, Sitzkrieg in the Homeland

by William J. Astore

Tom Dispatch

Overseas, the United States is engaged in real wars in which bombs are dropped, missiles are launched, and people (generally not Americans) are killed, wounded, uprooted, and displaced. Yet here at home, there’s nothing real about those wars.  Here, it’s phony war all the way. In the last 17 years of “forever war,” this nation hasn’t for one second been mobilized. Taxes are being cut instead of raised.  Wartime rationing is a faint memory from the World War II era.  No one is being required to sacrifice a thing.

Now, ask yourself a simple question: What sort of war requires no sacrifice?  What sort of war requires that almost no one in the country waging it take the slightest notice of it?

America’s conflicts in distant lands rumble on, even as individual attacks flash like lightning in our news feeds.  “Shock and awe” campaigns in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, initially celebrated as decisive and game changing, ultimately led nowhere.  Various “surges” produced much sound and fury, but missions were left decidedly unaccomplished.  More recent strikes by the Trump administration against a Syrian air base or the first use of the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the MOAB super-bomb, in Afghanistan flared brightly, only to fizzle even more quickly.  These versions of the German blitzkrieg-style attacks of World War II have been lightning assaults that promised much but in the end delivered little.  As these flashes of violence send America’s enemies of the moment (and nearby civilians) to early graves, the homeland (that’s us) slumbers.  Sounds of war, if heard at all, come from TV or video screens or Hollywood films in local multiplexes.

We are, in fact, kept isolated from Washington’s wars, even as America’s warriors traverse a remarkable expanse of the globe, from the Philippines through the Greater Middle East deep into Africa.  As conflicts flare and sputter, ramp up and down and up again, Americans have been placed in a form of behavioral lockdown.  Little more is expected of us than to be taxpaying spectators or, when it comes to the U.S. military, starry-eyed cheerleaders.  Most of the time, those conflicts are not just out of sight, but meant to be out of mind as well.  Rare exceptions are moments when our government asks us to mourn U.S. service members like Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, killed in an abortive raid President Trump ordered in Yemen in early 2017 in which children also died (though that was something just about no one here even noticed).  While the military has been deploying and striking on a global scale, we’ve been told from the very first moments of Washington’s self-proclaimed war on terror to go shopping or to DDisney World and let the experts handle it.

We have, in short, been sidelined in what, to draw on the lexicon of World War II, might be thought of as a sitzkrieg, the German term for phony war.

A bizarre version of blitzkrieg overseas and an even stranger version of sitzkrieg at home could be said to define this peculiar American moment.  These two versions exist in a curiously yin-yang relationship to each other.  For how can a nation’s military be engaged in warfare at a near-global level — blitzing people across vast swaths of the globe — when its citizens are sitting on their collective duffs, demobilized and mentally disarmed?  Such a schizoid state of mind can exist only when it’s in the interest of those in power.  Appeals to “patriotism” (especially to revering “our” troops) and an overwhelming atmosphere of secrecy to preserve American “safety” and “security” have been remarkably effective in controlling and stifling interest in the country’s wars and their costs, long before such an interest might morph into dissent or opposition.  If you want an image of just how effective this has been, recall the moment in July 2016 when small numbers of earnest war protesters quite literally had the lights turned off on them at the Democratic National Convention.

To use an expression I heard more than a few times in my years in the military, when it comes to its wars, the government treats the people like mushrooms, keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit.

The Fog of Phony War

Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously spoke of the “fog of war,” the confusion created by and inherent uncertainty built into that complex human endeavor.  As thick as that fog often is, in these years the fog of phony war has proven even thicker and more disorienting.

By its very nature, a real war of necessity, of survival, like the Civil War or World War II brings with it clarity of purpose and a demand for results.  Poorly performing leaders are relieved of command when not killed outright in combat.  Consider the number of mediocre Union generals Abraham Lincoln cycled through before he found Ulysses S. Grant.  Consider the number of senior officers relieved during World War II by General George C. Marshall, who knew that, in a global struggle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, subpar performances couldn’t be tolerated.  In wars of necessity or survival, moreover, the people are invariably involved.  In part, they may have little choice, but they also know (or at least believe they know) “why we fight” — and generally approve of it.

Admittedly, even in wars of necessity there are always those who will find ways to duck service. In the Civil War, for example, the rich could pay others to fight in their place.  But typically in such wars, everyone serves in some capacity. Necessity demands it.

The definition of twenty-first-century phony war, on the other hand, is its lack of clarity, its lack of purpose, its lack of any true imperative for national survival (despite a never-ending hysteria over the “terrorist threat”).  The fog it produces is especially disorienting.  Americans today have little idea “why we fight” other than a vague sense of fighting them over there (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Niger, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, etc.) so they won’t kill us here, to cite George W. Bush’s rationale for launching the war on terror.  Meanwhile, with such a lack of national involvement and accountability, there’s no pressure for the Pentagon or the rest of the national security state to up its game; there’s no one even to point out that wherever the U.S. military has gone into battle in these years, yet more terror groups have subsequently sprouted like so many malignant weeds.  Bureaucracy and mediocrity go unchallenged; massive boosts in military spending reward incompetency and the creation of a series of quagmire-like “generational” wars.

Think of it as war on a Möbius strip.  More money shoveled into the Pentagon brings more chaos overseas, more imperial overreach, and undoubtedly more blowback here at home, all witnessed — or rather largely ignored — by a sitzkrieg citizenry.

Of course, for those fighting the wars, they are anything but phony.  It’s just that their experience remains largely isolated from that of the rest of us, an isolation that only serves to elevate post-traumatic stress disorder rates, suicides, and the like.  When today’s troops come home, they generally suffer in silence and among themselves.

America’s New (Phony) National Defense Strategy

Even phony wars need enemies.  In fact, they may need them more (and more of them) than real wars do.  No surprise then that the Trump administration’s recently announced National Defense Strategy (NDS) offers a laundry list of such enemies.  China and Russia top it as “revisionist powers” looking to reverse America’s putative victory over Communism in the Cold War.  “Rogue” powers like North Korea and Iran are singled out as especially dangerous because of their nuclear ambitions.  (The United States, of course, doesn’t have a “rogue” bone in its body, even if it is now devoting at least $1.2 trillion to building a new generation of more usable nuclear weapons.)  Nor does the NDS neglect Washington’s need to hammer away at global terrorists until the end of time or to extend “full-spectrum dominance” not just to the traditional realms of combat (land, sea, and air) but also to space and cyberspace.

Amid such a plethora of enemies, only one thing is missing in America’s new defense strategy, the very thing that’s been missing all these years, that makes twenty-first-century American war so phony: any sense of national mobilization and shared sacrifice (or its opposite, antiwar resistance).  If the United States truly faces all these existential threats to our democracy and our way of life, what are we doing frittering away more than $45 billion annually in a quagmire war in Afghanistan?  What are we doing spending staggering sums on exotic weaponry like the F-35 jet fighter (total projected program cost: $1.45 trillion) when we have far more pressing national needs to deal with?

Like so much else in Washington in these years, the NDS doesn’t represent a strategy for real war, only a call for more of the same raised to a higher power.  That mainly means more money for the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and related “defense” agencies, facilitating more blitz attacks on various enemies overseas.  The formula — serial blitzkrieg abroad, serial sitzkrieg in the homeland — adds up to victory, but only for the military-industrial complex.

Solutions to Sitzkrieg

Of course, one solution to phony war would be to engage in real war, but for that the famed American way of life would actually have to be endangered.  (By Afghans?  Syrians? Iraqis? Yemenis?  Really?)  Congress would then have to declare war; the public would have to be mobilized, a draft undoubtedly reinstated, and taxes raised.  And those would be just for starters.  A clear strategy would have to be defined and losing generals demoted or dismissed.

Who could imagine such an approach when it comes to America’s forever wars?  Another solution to phony war would be for the American people to actually start paying attention.  The Pentagon would then have to be starved of funds. (With less money, admirals and generals might actually have to think.)  All those attacks overseas that blitzed innocents and spread chaos would have to end.  Here at home, the cheerleaders would have to put down the pom-poms, stop mindlessly praising the troops for their service, and pick up a few protest signs.

In point of fact, America’s all-too-real wars overseas aren’t likely to end until the phony war here at home is dispatched to oblivion.

A final thought: Americans tell pollsters that, after all these years of failed wars abroad, they continue to trust the military more than any other societal institution.  Consistent with phony war, however, much of that trust is based on ignorance, on not really knowing what that military is doing overseas.  So, is there a chance that, one of these days, Americans might actually begin to pay some attention to “their” wars?  And if so, would those polls begin to change and how might that military, which has experienced its share of blood, sweat, and tears, respond to such a loss of societal prestige?  Beware the anger of the legions.

Faith in institutions undergirds democracy.  Keeping the people deliberately demobilized and in the dark about the costs and carnage of America’s wars follows a pattern of governmental lying and deceit that stretches from the Vietnam War to the Iraq Wars of 1991 and 2003, to military operations in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere today.  Systemic lies and the phony war that goes with them continue to contribute to a slow-motion process of political and social disintegration that could result in a much grimmer future for this country: perhaps an authoritarian one; certainly, a more chaotic and less democratic one.

Societal degradation and democratic implosion, caused in part by endless phony war and the lies associated with it, are this country’s real existential enemies, even if you can’t find them listed in any National Defense Strategy.  Indeed, the price tag for America’s wars may in the end prove not just heavy but catastrophic.

 

 

‘Not welcome here’: Amazon faces growing resistance to its second home

As cities vie to host second campus, local activists say the ‘Hunger Games’-style competition is a bad deal for everyone – except Amazon

March 15, 2018

by Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco

The Guardian

What do you get for the man who has everything? When it comes to Jeff Bezos – the richest man in the world with around $130bn to his name – many US cities competing to host Amazon’s second headquarters have an answer: billions of dollars in tax incentives.

That proposition has united an ideologically diverse group of dissenters to Amazon’s grand HQ2 competition, ranging from rightwing organizations linked to the Koch brothers to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Groups and individuals that would normally agree only to mutual disdain and distrust have somehow come around to the same conclusion: that Amazon’s decision to pit 20 cities against each other in a fight to host a future hub is a bad deal for everyone except Amazon.

In Atlanta, an anonymous group of activists with roots in the Occupy movement has set up AtlantaAgainstAmazon.org, a website that compares the HQ2 process to “something like a televised Hunger Games death-match”, and has designed anti-Amazon flyers that have been plastered around town.

Generation Opportunity, a conservative advocacy group for millennials associated with the Koch brothers, has launched a targeted digital ad campaign with a slickly produced, ominously soundtracked video that compares the HQ2 competition to – wait for it – the Hunger Games.

And a petition launched by the prominent urbanist Richard Florida and dozens of other academics calling for the finalist cities to unite in a “mutual non-aggression pact” on tax incentives has garnered more than 15,000 signatures.

The idea behind the pact is that rather than engage in a tax-break arms race, everyone should agree not to offer incentives. That would force Amazon to simply choose its new home by the merits of the locations, which Florida told the Guardian he suspects they will do anyway, and free up local governments to invest their tax dollars in the kind of improvements that make a city attractive to a corporation in the first place.

“I didn’t expect to ever write a protest letter,” said Florida, who was part of the group that organized Toronto’s bid for HQ2, where he advocated against tax incentives. “But one weekend I was so mad, I started emailing my friends across the ideological spectrum, and every one of them said they’d sign on in a minute.”

Florida called the tax incentives proposed by states like New Jersey ($7bn) and Maryland ($3bn) “obscene”, an assessment shared by the Washington-based advocacy group Fair Budget Coalition.

“Jeff Bezos personally has more money than the district’s budget,” said the group’s co-director, Monica Kamen. “Are we going to give the richest man in history a tax break before we make sure that homeless children have a place to sleep?”

The Fair Budget Coalition has worked with the local DSA chapter to launch “Obviously Not DC”, a campaign that takes its name from the district’s pro-DC hashtag campaign, #ObviouslyDC.

Asked how the group felt about ending up on the same side of an issue as the liberal bogeymen the Kochs, Kamen’s co-director Stephanie Sneed chimed in: “A broken clock is right twice a day.”

Brad Landers, a member of New York City council who signed the Florida petition, said that he would be happy for Amazon to move to New York, as long as it paid its fair share.

You’re not opening a second headquarters as a charitable project,” he said. “You are opening it to make more money, and that is going to impose all these costs that our city has to bear, especially around transit, infrastructure, schools, and housing. You’re not expected to pay more, even though you have some outsize impacts, but to ask to pay less is just appallingly bad corporate behavior.”

But some said they would oppose Amazon’s presence in their city, whether or not they were offered tax cuts.

“Right now in Pittsburgh, we’re losing three black people every day from the city to the surrounding area,” said Carl Redwood, a community organizer and professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh. “Amazon coming won’t change that trend. It will accelerate the trend.”

“My view is that they should keep on walking,” he added. “Don’t come to Pittsburgh. Amazon is not welcome here.”

Anti-HQ2 activists in Atlanta and Washington shared Redwood’s concern about the displacement of black communities from cities, and the tech industry’s execrable track record for hiring black and Latino employees does not give them confidence that selecting a majority black city will change that.

Kamen said she expected Amazon would have “district residents work in the janitorial jobs and construction, and give all the high paying jobs to incoming white workers”.

Despite the breadth of the opposition to Amazon among academics and community activists, however, just four elected officials from finalist cities have signed on to the non-aggression pact.

Lander expressed disappointment that he had not been able to garner more support from a network of progressive elected officials around the country, but was also understanding of the intense political pressure that many feel to support their cities’ bids. “We have a lot of organizing to do or it will probably happen just like this the next time,” he said.

But Florida, who called the city councilors who signed the pact “heroes”, said that he believes the backlash to HQ2 is just getting started, and that politicians who feel pressured to support the bids are mistaken about how residents will respond once a winner is chosen and the details of the deal become public.

“If you win this thing, God help you,” he said. “The backlash in that community is going to be horrific, and the person who thinks they’re going to ride that to the governor’s house or the White House is going to ride it to being unelected.”

 

A terrible night for Trump in Pennsylvania

March 14, 2018

by Anthony Zurcher

BBC News

A special congressional election in Pennsylvania has given President Donald Trump a bloody nose and offers some key lessons for both parties.

The final results aren’t in yet – Democrat Conor Lamb clings to a lead of around 500 votes out of more than 200,000, with a few thousand absentee ballots left to count.

But the massive swing against the Republicans – Trump won here with ease in 2016 – means we can learn plenty.

Both parties are closely watching the results to glean any insight into the mood of the electorate with the November mid-terms looming.

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Here are five key takeaways:

A coming Democratic wave

The party that holds the White House usually suffers at the ballot box, particularly if the incumbent president is unpopular.

Only two times in modern recent history has this not been the case – 2002, just a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and 1998, when congressional Republicans were in the midst of their drive to impeach President Bill Clinton.

It’s looking increasingly like, despite a growing economy and relative calm overseas, Democrats are going to have a very, very good autumn.

Whatever the outcome of the Pennsylvania race, the simple fact that it was close is stunning. This was a congressional district drawn by state Republicans in 2011 to be a safe seat for their party. Donald Trump won there by nearly 20 points in the 2016 presidential election. In 2014 and 2016 Democrats didn’t even field anyone.

According to the political website FiveThirtyEight.com, the Pennsylvania results fit with a Trump-era trend of Democratic candidates outperforming the partisan “lean” in their races by an average of 17 points.

If you’re a Republican, that is very concerning news.

The skinny version: There are more than a hundred Republican-held congressional districts across the country that have a narrower margin than 17. If seats that look like this one in Pennsylvania are toss-ups in November, it’s going to be a bloodbath.

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Trump-haters are motivated

The president campaigned for Republican Rick Saccone twice, including just a few days before the election, but if it helped at all, it didn’t help enough.

This was a district where the president is favourably viewed. As in the Alabama Senate special election last December, however, he wasn’t able to pull his chosen candidate across the finish line.

Mr Trump, in fact, wasn’t much of a topic of discussion in this race. Mr Lamb largely avoided direct criticism of the president, instead focusing on local issues and, in particular, the economy.

Where Mr Trump may have had an influence in this race was in motivating Democrats to head to the polls. In Democratic areas of the district, closer to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, turnout was significantly up – and that, in the end, was a key reason why this race was close.

The skinny: Since Mr Trump’s inauguration, Republicans have been losing seats – on the state and federal level – even where the president is moderately popular. If he can’t help on friendly terrain, that doesn’t bode well for Republicans running in places where the president is a political liability.

  • Where did the Republican Trump-haters go?

A candidate that fits

Mr Lamb, an ex-Marine and federal prosecutor, campaigned as a straight-talking moderate who supported gun rights, steel tariffs and law and order.

He also opposed the Republican-backed tax cuts passed at the end of 2017, and was for abortion rights and Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms.

He successfully appealed to the white working-class voters who had switched from Mr Obama to Mr Trump in 2016, energised Democrats and won over suburban Republicans.

If Mr Lamb seems like a candidate who was hand-selected to cobble together a winning coalition in this district, it’s because he was. The former prosecutor was selected to be the party nominee at a state convention, rather than by voters in a primary process.

The Democrats have spent a lot of time looking for Lamb-like candidates – political novices with military backgrounds or other compelling personal stories.

But many of them will have to face primaries where they will be challenged by more liberal candidates.

The skinny: Mr Lamb was Democratic insiders’ view of the right kind of candidate in the right place. In the coming months, will Democratic primary voters agree?

A changing of the guard?

Another interesting thing about Mr Lamb was his campaign pledge not to support Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader in the House of Representatives.

If the party wins a majority of seats in the House come November, that means Mr Lamb wouldn’t back the San Francisco Democrat’s bid to replace Republican Paul Ryan as speaker of the House – the third-highest position in the US government.

Ms Pelosi, who has long been a villain for Republicans and unpopular among some independent voters, brushed aside a modest challenge to her leadership in January 2017.

Republicans tried to link Mr Lamb to her, but his disavowal of the Democratic leader may have immunised him.

Will other Democratic challengers in Republican-leaning districts follow his lead? If they do, it could put Ms Pelosi on shaky ground even if her party triumphs in the mid-term elections.

The skinny: Democrats have been criticised for the age of their party’s leadership. Ms Pelosi, along with potential presidential front-runners Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are all in their late 70s. Mr Lamb, at 33, could represent a new generation flexing its muscles.

Republicans feel the heat

Republicans have been scrambling to explain the outcome in Pennsylvania – blaming a less-than-compelling candidate, saying Mr Lamb actually campaigned as a Republican, and explaining low turnout by boundaries being redrawn.

But behind closed doors, Republicans are very concerned. House Speaker Ryan, for instance, reportedly warned his colleagues that they would have to fight for their political lives in November.

But how many will decide they want to? Dozens of prominent Republicans have opted to retire rather than face an uphill re-election battle.

David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida, said he had been contemplating a political revival, but Pennsylvania had put him off.

Eight months until the mid-terms, Republicans are debating their strategy and message.

Do they go all-in on Trumpism and seek to make cultural and social issues a central focus? Do they try to tout the economy and the benefits of their one major legislative accomplishment, the tax law?

The skinny: History is not on the Republican Party’s side. In 2010, Democrats – watching their own set of special election defeats – saw a wave coming and scrambled to find a way to protect themselves. They ended up losing 63 House seats, six Senate seats and six governorships.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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