Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /home/tbrnew5/public_html/wp-includes/post-template.php on line 284

Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /home/tbrnew5/public_html/wp-includes/post-template.php on line 284

Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /home/tbrnew5/public_html/wp-includes/post-template.php on line 284

Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /home/tbrnew5/public_html/wp-includes/post-template.php on line 284

TBR News November 23, 2018

Nov 23 2018

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Isaiah 40:3-8 

Washington, D.C. November 23, 2018: “The French are establishing military defense treaties with the Russian Federation, and in order to deal with the problems of high energy costs, the E.E.C. is trying to work with the Russians to establish an oil industry [in the Arctic] that will enable Europe to free itself from the need for Middle Eastern oil. Reserves of oil believed to be located both in the Russian Arctic and north of the Caspian may turn out to be larger than the reserves in the Middle East and if the Europeans can get the upper hand over the United States in helping develop these reserves, the geopolitical balance may rapidly shift from U.S. domination to the Eurobloc domination.

The German and French governments have already been seriously considering divesting of all of their investment in U.S. Government bonds, and have already decided that they will stop investing in new U.S. bonds. Given the growing strength of the Euro against the dollar this may make the E.E.C. the de facto world economic superpower. If they can institute a mutual defense pact with Russia, this alliance may be able to challenge U..S. superpower status, Russia still has a large nuclear arsenal, and their military capability is still potentially formidable . There are still a lot of tanks and a considerable air power lying dormant in the ex Soviet Union and the Bush administration’s failure to neutralize Russian nuclear capacity may end if Europe decides to take joint responsibility for the Nuclear Weapons of Russia, in particular the remaining ICBM’s and MIRV’s A joint Russian/E.U. defense union, based upon EU/Russian military forces would be a formidable deterrent to U.S. domination in the Eastern hemisphere. The promulgation of such a pact could well result in an Eastern Hemisphere version of the Monroe Doctrine in which the new superpower demands that no power outside of the Eastern Hemisphere has the right to interfere in the politics of that area. The French most certainly want to challenge US. world domination. and such an alliance would give them the muscle to do so. The interests of Europe and European Russia are far closer than any alliance with the U.S. and Europe is starting to surpass the United States as an economic superpower. The massive outsourcing of U.S. jobs, as well as the decline of the U.S. as an exporting industrial power also is a massive weakness of the U.S. that the Europeans can and no doubt will exploit to their own economic and political advantage . Europe still has a significant industrial base, and a large portion of their outsourcing is done in nations that are geographically contiguous to Europe itself. While they do some outsourcing to India and China, they also do a large amount of outsourcing to the Balkans and the ex- Warsaw Pact Nations which greatly lowers their transportation problems, while the U.S. is withdrawing a lot of its outsourced industry from geographically close countries like Canada and Mexico, for places like China and India. This makes our economy far more fragile, and certainly more vulnerable than the European economy.

America is desperately attempting to prevent the formation of an E.U. military/ Russian  economic and military alliance which would be ipso facto, a catastrophe from the PNAC point of view. In fact the fall of the Soviet Bloc may be something that will be regretted by those who are claiming it to be one of the great accomplishments of Reagan’s neo con government. Most of the Warsaw Pact is and the Baltics are now a part of the E.U. All that would be necessary would be for the Russians to form some alliance in order for the entire continental Europe up to the Urals to form a unified continental force. If Turkey were to  join such a union, as they have expressed a desire to, this alliance will reach the borders of the Middle East and be able to challenge the U.S for dominations over the region. A far more powerful scenario than the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was.

Nations that currently support the U.S. in Iraq. Such as Hungary are pulling out of Iraq, in order to further their political ties with the E.U. as their joint interests are far more critical than their alliances with the U.S. If the U.S. is stuck in Iraq for more than a few years, it may find itself surrounded by a bunch pf hostile nations who are far closer to the region that the U.S. is. and it may find that it has not bases close enough to support its interests in the Middle East

Most of the oil states are beginning to look at a policy of a single monetary unit for all Moslem Countries backed by gold. They are considering using the Dinar as a single monetary unit, a hard current backed by gold, and this currency would outstrip both the Euro and the Dollar for supremacy. The Euro is as string as it is against the dollar because the E.U prohibits any country from running a deficit larger than something like 3.5 percent of GDP for longer than 18 months without being fined or something like that. Germany and France have violated this but not by much, while the U.S. Government particularly Bush has ignored all of the attempts to prevent deficit spending that were so heavily fought for in the 80’s and attempted to be followed during the Clinton Administration. Because people like Bush and his mega corporate supporters can easily move their investments into safer currencies, they leave the rest of us to fall into a sort of economic slavery to their whims and to suit their purposes.”

The Table of Contents 

  • Donald Trump has said 2291 false things as U.S. president: No. 89
  • The CIA Confessions: The Crowley Conversations
  • Trump’s Amoral Saudi Statement Is a Pure Expression of Decades-Old “U.S. Values” and Foreign Policy Orthodoxies
  • What if a deadly influenza pandemic broke out today?
  • Inside the Wild West World of Gift Card Bitcoin Brokering

 

Donald Trump has said 2291 false things as U.S. president: No. 89

August 8, 2018

by Daniel Dale, Washington Bureau Chief

The Toronto Star, Canada

The Star is keeping track of every false claim U.S. President Donald Trump has made since his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. Why? Historians say there has never been such a constant liar in the Oval Office. We think dishonesty should be challenged. We think inaccurate information should be corrected

If Trump is a serial liar, why call this a list of “false claims,” not lies? You can read our detailed explanation here. The short answer is that we can’t be sure that each and every one was intentional. In some cases, he may have been confused or ignorant. What we know, objectively, is that he was not teling the truth.

Last updated: Aug 8, 2018

  • Jul 6, 2018

“Just won lawsuit filed by the DNC and a bunch of Democrat crazies trying to claim the Trump Campaign (and others), colluded with Russia. They haven’t figured out that this was an excuse for them losing the election!”

Source: Twitter

in fact: This lawsuit was not filed by the Democratic National Committee. Rather, it was filed by donors to the committee and by a former employee of the committee. (The lawsuit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, not because the court concluded that there was no collusion. The judge wrote, “It bears emphasizing that this Court’s ruling is not based on a finding that there was no collusion between defendants and Russia during the 2016 presidential election…The Court takes no position on the merits of plaintiffs’ claims.”)

  • Jul 7, 2018

“The Rigged Witch Hunt, originally headed by FBI lover boy Peter S (for one year) & now, 13 Angry Democrats, should look into the…”

Source: Twitter

in fact: By “rigged witch hunt,” Trump means special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into his campaign’s relationship with Russia. The investigation is being run by a Republican, Mueller himself. Though Mueller has indeed filled his team with Democrats, it is false to say the investigation is “headed” by these Democrats. Trump has repeated this claim 3 times

“Public opinion has turned strongly against the Rigged Witch Hunt and the ‘Special’ Counsel because the public understands that there was no Collusion with Russia (so ridiculous), that the two FBI lovers were a fraud against our Nation & that the only Collusion was with the Dems!”

Source: Twitter

in fact: Public opinion on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia has indeed worsened in recent months, polls suggest. But the claim that “the only collusion” was by Democrats is simple nonsense: the word “collusion” — in common language, a “secret agreement or co-operation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose” — just does not apply to Democrats’ Russia-related activities. The accusation is based on the fact that the British ex-spy who produced a research dossier on the Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russia, which was funded in part by Clinton’s campaign, used Russian sources in compiling his information. That does not come close to meeting the definition of “collusion.”

Trump has repeated this claim 22 times

“Twitter is getting rid of fake accounts at a record pace. Will that include the Failing New York Times and propaganda machine for Amazon, the Washington Post, who constantly quote anonymous sources that, in my opinion, don’t exist – They will both be out of business in 7 years!”

Source: Twitter

in fact: There is no evidence that the New York Times and Washington Post have invented fake sources for their stories on Trump. (Also, this was a particularly strange time to accuse the Post of promoting Amazon propaganda: the day prior, the Post had published a story headlined, “Amazon continues to profit from the sale of white-supremacist propaganda, report says.”)

Trump has repeated this claim 12 times

  • Jul 9, 2018

“The failing NY Times Fake News story today about breast feeding must be called out. The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.”

Source: Twitter

in fact: Trump did not point out anything “fake” about the Times story, which reported that his administration used threats to try to weaken a World Health Assembly resolution to encourage breastfeeding. His tweet simply offered a defence of his administration’s position.

“I have confidence that Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake. We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea.”

Source: Twitter

in fact: Trump and Kim did not sign a “contract.” They signed a vague agreement in which North Korea pledged to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — which North Korea has traditionally defined to include the removal of the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

“By some accounts, the U.S. is paying for 90% of NATO, with many countries nowhere close to their 2% commitment. On top of this the European Union has a Trade Surplus of $151 Million with the U.S., with big Trade Barriers on U.S. goods. NO!”

Source: Twitter

in fact: There are no credible accounts that say the U.S. is “paying for 90 per cent of NATO.” According to NATO’s 2018 annual report, U.S. defence spending represented 72 per cent of the alliance’s total defence spending in 2017. Of NATO’s own organizational budget, the U.S. contributes a much smaller agreed-upon percentage: 22 per cent.

Trump has repeated this claim 14 times

“By some accounts, the U.S. is paying for 90% of NATO, with many countries nowhere close to their 2% commitment. On top of this the European Union has a Trade Surplus of $151 Million with the U.S., with big Trade Barriers on U.S. goods. NO!”

Source: Twitter

in fact: The U.S. had a $102 billion trade deficit with the European Union in 2017. The $151 billion figure counts only trade in goods and excludes trade in services. Trump, as usual, did not say he was excluding services.

Trump has repeated this claim 29 times

  • Jul 10, 2018

“We’re being taken advantage of by the European Union. We lost $151 billion last year on trade.”

Source: Exchange with reporters before European trip

in fact: The U.S. had a $102 billion trade deficit with the European Union in 2017. The $151 billion figure counts only trade in goods and excludes trade in services. Trump, as usual, did not say he was excluding services.

Trump has repeated this claim 29 times

“The European Union makes it impossible for our farmers and workers and companies to do business in Europe (U.S. has a $151 Billion trade deficit)…”

Source: Twitter

in fact: U.S. farmers, workers and businesses have not been shut out of Europe. According to Trump’s Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the U.S. exported $270 billion in goods and $231 billion in services to the EU in 2016. While U.S. farmers do face some trade barriers in selling into the European Union, it is a gross exaggeration to say it is “impossible.” According to the website of Trump’s Department of Agriculture, the U.S. exported $11.6 billion in agricultural items to the European Union in 2016 and $11.5 billion in 2017. The EU ranked fourth for U.S. agricultural exports in 2016 and fifth in 2017.

Trump has repeated this claim 13 times

“The European Union makes it impossible for our farmers and workers and companies to do business in Europe (U.S. has a $151 Billion trade deficit)…”

Source: Twitter

in fact: The U.S. had a $102 billion trade deficit with the European Union in 2017. The $151 billion figure counts only trade in goods and excludes trade in services. Trump, as usual, did not say he was excluding services.

Trump has repeated this claim 29 times

“A recent Emerson College ePoll said that most Americans, especially Hispanics, feel that they are better off under President Trump than they were under President Obama.”

Source: Twitter

in fact: Trump was inaccurately describing the polling data, an Emerson professor who helped lead the poll, Spencer Kimball, told the Boston Globe. For one, the poll question did not mention Obama at all: it simply asked respondents if they were better or worse off financially than they were two years ago. We wouldn’t classify Trump’s insertion of himself and Obama into the equation as false in itself, since this is arguably a fair interpretation. What’s not fair: saying “most Americans” told the pollster that they felt they were better off now than they were two years ago. Forty-two per cent said they were better off, but 56 per cent said they were either doing about the same (30 per cent) or were worse off (26 per cent).

 

“Many countries in NATO, which we are expected to defend, are not only short of their current commitment of 2% (which is low), but are also delinquent for many years in payments that have not been made. Will they reimburse the U.S.?”

Source: Twitter

in fact: NATO countries do not owe the U.S. money and are not delinquent in any literal way. NATO’s target for members, of spending 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence, is merely a guideline or target, not an ironclad commitment, and countries’ failure to meet it in the past did not result in debt of any kind. (One could argue that Trump was speaking figuratively, but he has suggested on several occasions that NATO countries owe the U.S. an actual debt, so we believe he is making a literal claim that is false.)

Trump has repeated this claim 13 times

“New Poll says Trump, at over 90%, is the most popular Republican in history of the Party. Wow!”

Source: Twitter

in fact: Polls show that Trump is more popular with Republican voters at this point in his presidency than almost all previous Republican presidents, but not all of them: Trump is behind George W. Bush. Trump may have been referring to an article in the conservative Washington Examiner that quoted pollster John Zogby, who noted that Trump had an 87 per cent approval rating among Republicans, second to Bush’s 95 per cent at this point. A June Gallup poll had Trump at 90 per cent among Republicans, still not better than Bush.

Trump has repeated this claim 5 times

“On top of that we lose $151 Billion on Trade with the European Union.”

Source: Twitter

in fact: The U.S. had a $102 billion trade deficit with the European Union in 2017. The $151 billion figure counts only trade in goods and excludes trade in services. Trump, as usual, did not say he was excluding services.

Trump has repeated this claim 29 times

 

The CIA Confessions: The Crowley Conversations

November 23, 2018

by Dr. Peter Janney

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, on 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 the well-known Washington fix-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.

The small group of CIA officials gathered at Trento’s house to search through the Crowley papers, looking for documents that must not become public. A few were found but, to their consternation, a significant number of files Crowley was known to have had in his possession had simply vanished.

When published material concerning the CIA’s actions against Kennedy became public in 2002, it was discovered to the CIA’s horror, that the missing documents had been sent by an increasingly erratic Crowley to another person and these missing papers included devastating material on the CIA’s activities in South East Asia to include drug running, money laundering and the maintenance of the notorious ‘Regional Interrogation Centers’ in Viet Nam and, worse still, the Zipper files proving the CIA’s active organization of the assassination of President John Kennedy..

A massive, preemptive disinformation campaign was readied, using government-friendly bloggers, CIA-paid “historians” and others, in the event that anything from this file ever surfaced. The best-laid plans often go astray and in this case, one of the compliant historians, a former government librarian who fancied himself a serious writer, began to tell his friends about the CIA plan to kill Kennedy and eventually, word of this began to leak out into the outside world.

The originals had vanished and an extensive search was conducted by the FBI and CIA operatives but without success. Crowley’s survivors, his aged wife and son, were interviewed extensively by the FBI and instructed to minimize any discussion of highly damaging CIA files that Crowley had, illegally, removed from Langley when he retired. Crowley had been a close friend of James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s notorious head of Counterintelligence. When Angleton was sacked by DCI William Colby in December of 1974, Crowley and Angleton conspired to secretly remove Angleton’s most sensitive secret files out of the agency. Crowley did the same thing right before his own retirement, secretly removing thousands of pages of classified information that covered his entire agency career.

Known as “The Crow” within the agency, Robert T. Crowley joined the CIA at its inception and spent his entire career in the Directorate of Plans, also know as the “Department of Dirty Tricks,”: Crowley was one of the tallest man ever to work at the CIA. Born in 1924 and raised in Chicago, Crowley grew to six and a half feet when he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in N.Y. as a cadet in 1943 in the class of 1946. He never graduated, having enlisted in the Army, serving in the Pacific during World War II. He retired from the Army Reserve in 1986 as a lieutenant colonel. According to a book he authored with his friend and colleague, William Corson, Crowley’s career included service in Military Intelligence and Naval Intelligence, before joining the CIA at its inception in 1947. His entire career at the agency was spent within the Directorate of Plans in covert operations. Before his retirement, Bob Crowley became assistant deputy director for operations, the second-in-command in the Clandestine Directorate of Operations.

Bob Crowley first contacted Gregory Douglas  in 1993  when he found out from John Costello that Douglas was about to publish his first book on Heinrich Mueller, the former head of the Gestapo who had become a secret, long-time asset to the CIA. Crowley contacted Douglas and they began a series of long and often very informative telephone conversations that lasted for four years. In 1996, Crowley told Douglas that he believed him to be the person that should ultimately tell Crowley’s story but only after Crowley’s death. Douglas, for his part, became so entranced with some of the material that Crowley began to share with him that he secretly began to record their conversations, later transcribing them word for word, planning to incorporate some, or all, of the material in later publications.

 

Conversation No. 61

Date: Thursday, January 23, 1997

Commenced:  1:45 PM CST

Concluded:  2:12 PM CST

RTC: Good morning, Gregory. What can we do for you today?

GD: I don’t mean to bother you, Robert, but I am doing some research on this Kennedy thing and I have a couple of questions for you.

RTC: I’ll do what I can.

GD: If it’s a problem….

RTC: No, not at all.

GD: You were telling me Oswald was not involved. Why would anyone want to stick him with the thing?

RTC: He served his purpose. Jim Angleton was determined to blame the killing on the Russians. He hated them, and Jim was a very single minded man and very determined. I guess later he began to get a little crazy, but at that time he was very good at his job. Look at it this way: Oswald was a public Marxist. He was ordered to be a Marxist by both the ONI and us. He defected to Russia. He married the niece of a top MVD officer. He came back to the States, pretending to be pro-Castro. He lived in Dallas when Dallas was chosen to be the place where Kennedy was nailed out in public. You see, Jim wanted Russia blamed for the killing. He basically wanted to have all paths lead to Moscow.

GD: He was inviting a war.

RTC: Of course he was. He wanted a war with Russia and said so many times to me and the DCI among others. Now when Oswald came back, he was still connected and got this classified job with the photography company. We do that for our people. If we hadn’t smoothed his way, he never would have gotten the job there. But he never knew a thing about the Kennedy business. He was a very convenient patsy with a wonderful and provable background of being a Soviet sympathizer.

GD: I know you were a friend of Angleton and I’m not questioning his intelligence. Mueller told me about him. He personally thought he was crazy however.

RTC: At the end, everyone else thought so. Towards the end, Jim became obsessed with things better left unsaid. He thought the entire Company was infiltrated by the KGB and that Colby himself, he was the DCI at that point, was a Soviet agent. And then there was the Nosenko business. That was this so-called KRG defector. You see, the Russians got wind of what Angleton was up to, stirring up a war and all that, and they sent this Nosenko over to us as a fake defector. His most important mission was to convince everyone that Oswald had nothing to do with their agency and they had nothing to do with him. In short, they had no prior knowledge of the Kennedy business. This terrified Jim who got his hands on Nosenko and locked him up down on the Farm for two years. Put him in solitary and kept everyone away from him. Jim was afraid others would believe Nosenko and then start looking where they should not. Finally, and it really saddened me, Jim got so crazy that they forced him out and cut his department back to almost nothing. Jim had lung cancer…my God, the man smoked like a chimney…and I remember my last visit with him. He died in ’87. We met him at the Army-Navy Club for dinner. Very, very sad occasion. He was a great man, or he had been in his prime, and to see him slowly dying and forced out by that asshole Colby was devastating.

GD: What happened to the Ukrainian?

RTC: What Ukrainian?

GD: Nosenko is a Ukrainian name, Robert. Ends with an O.

RTC: Whatever happened to him? They let him out, got him a set of new teeth and paid him a stipend for his troubles.

GD: Was he telling the truth?

RTC: Oh yes, of course. The Russians had nothing to do with the business. They are far too professional to use someone with such connections with them. A defector, married to the niece of a top intelligence officer, spouting Marxist propaganda on the street corners? No, they would have done what they did when they tried to kill the Pope in ‘81. Get the Bulgarians to hire a right wing Turkish terrorist. Plausible deniability.

GD: The favorite words of Ronnie Reagan.

RTC: Exactly so. No, Oswald had much closer connections with American intelligence than with the Russians and we both knew it. Jim did not know it, believe me. Once he got something in his head, he never let go of it. At the end, before they gave him the sack, he was probably paranoid beyond redemption. Not stupid, but very deluded. He saw moles everywhere. He thought LBJ was a spy and half of Congress, for God’s sake. And his fondness for college students was getting a little obvious. A genuine tragedy, Gregory, a fine mind gone to seed.

GD: Male college students. Mueller caught him in bed with one at the Plaza.

RTC: Leave town and enter a new and dangerous world.

(Concluded at 2:12 PM CST)

 

Trump’s Amoral Saudi Statement Is a Pure Expression of Decades-Old “U.S. Values” and Foreign Policy Orthodoxies

November 21, 2018

by Glenn Greenwald

The Intercept

Donald Trump on Tuesday issued a statement proclaiming that, notwithstanding the anger toward the Saudi Crown Prince over the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, “the United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.” To justify his decision, Trump cited the fact that “Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world” and claimed that “of the $450 billion [the Saudis plan to spend with U.S. companies], $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors.”

This statement instantly and predictably produced pompous denunciations pretending that Trump’s posture was a deviation from, a grievous violation of, long-standing U.S. values and foreign policy rather than what it actually and obviously is: a perfect example – perhaps stated a little more bluntly and candidly than usual – of how the U.S. has conducted itself in the world since at least the end of World War II.

The reaction was so intense because the fairy tale about the U.S. standing up for freedom and human rights in the world is one of the most pervasive and powerful prongs of western propaganda, the one relied upon by U.S. political and media elites to convince not just the U.S. population but also themselves of their own righteousness, even as they spend decades lavishing the world’s worst tyrants and despots with weapons, money, intelligence and diplomatic protection to carry out atrocities of historic proportions.

After all, if you have worked in high-level foreign policy positions in Washington, or at the think thanks and academic institutions that support those policies, or in the corporate media outlets that venerate those who rise to the top of those precincts (and which increasingly hire those security state officials as news analysts), how do you justify to yourself that you’re still a good person even though you arm, prop up, empower and enable the world’s worst monsters, genocides, and tyrannies?

Simple: by pretending that you don’t do any of that, that such acts are contrary to your system of values, that you actually work to oppose rather than protect such atrocities, that you’re a warrior and crusader for democracy, freedom and human rights around the world.

That’s the lie that you have to tell yourself: so that you can look in the mirror without instantly feeling revulsion, so that you can show your face in decent society without suffering the scorn and ostracization that your actions merit, so that you can convince the population over which you have ruled that the bombs you drop and the weapons with which you flood the world are actually designed to help and protect people rather than slaughter and oppress them.

That’s why it was so necessary – to the point of being more like a physical reflex than a conscious choice – to react to Trump’s Saudi statement with contrived anger and shock rather than admitting the truth that he was just candidly acknowledging the core tenets of U.S. foreign policy for decades. The people who lied to the public and to themselves by pretending that Trump did something aberrational rather than completely normal were engaged in an act of self-preservation as much as propagandistic deceit, though both motives were heavily at play.

The New York Times Editorial Page, as it so often does, topped the charts with pretentious, scripted moral outrage. “President Trump confirmed the harshest caricatures drawn by America’s most cynical critics on Tuesday when he portrayed its central objectives in the world as panting after money and narrow self-interest,” bellowed the paper, as though this view of U.S. motives is some sort of jaded fiction invented by America-haters rather than the only honest, rational description of the country’s despot-embracing posture in the world during the lifespan of any human being alive today.

The paper’s editorial writers were particularly shocked that “the statement reflected Mr. Trump’s view that all relationships are transactional, and that moral or human rights considerations must be sacrificed to a primitive understanding of American national interests.” To believe – or pretend to believe – that it is Mr. Trump who pioneered the view that the U.S. is willing and eager to sanction murder and savagery by the regimes with which it is most closely aligned as long as such barbarism serves U.S interests signifies a historical ignorance and/or a willingness to lie to one’s own readers so profound that no human language is capable of expressing the depths of those delusions. Has the New York Times Editorial Page ever heard of Henry Kissinger?

So extensive is the active, constant and enthusiastic support by the U.S. for the world’s worst monsters and atrocities that comprehensively citing them all, in order to prove the ahistorical deceit of yesterday’s reaction to Trump’s statement, would require a multi-volume book, not a mere article. But the examples are so vivid and clear that citing just a few will suffice to make the point indisputable.

In April of this year, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, the dictator of Guatemala during the 1980s, died. The New York Times obituary, noting that he had been convicted of genocide for “trying to exterminate the Ixil ethnic group, a Mayan Indian community whose villages were wiped out by his forces,” explained that “in the panoply of commanders who turned much of Central America into a killing field in the 1980s, General Ríos Montt was one of the most murderous.” The obituary added: “In his first five months in power, according to Amnesty International, soldiers killed more than 10,000 peasants.”

The genocide-committing General Rios Montt was a favorite of President Ronald Reagan, one of the closest figures the U.S. has to a secular saint, after whom many monuments and national institutions are still named. Reagan not only armed and funded Rios Montt but heaped praise on him far more gushing than anything Trump or Jared Kushner has said about the Saudi Crown Prince. The Washington Post’s Lou Cannon reported in 1982 that “on Air Force One returning to Andrews Air Force Base [from South America], [Reagan] said Rios Montt had been getting ‘a bum rap’ and ‘is totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala.’”

At a press conference standing next to the mass murderer, Reagan hailed him as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment,” who really “wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.” What about all those unfortunate acts of mass slaughter against Guatemalan peasants? That, said President Reagan, was justified, or at least understandable, because the General was “faced with a challenge from guerrillas armed and supported from those outside Guatemala.”

Trump’s emphasis yesterday on the Saudis’ value in opposing Iran provoked particular anger. That anger is extremely odd given that the iconic and notorious photograph of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein took place in 1983, when Rumsfeld was dispatched to Baghdad to provide arms and other weapons to the Iraqi regime in order to help them fight Iran.

This trip, Al Jazeera noted when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, all happened while “Iraq was at war with Iran and was using chemical weapons. Human rights abuses were practised on large sections of the Iraqi population.” The U.S. nonetheless “renewed the hand of friendship [with Saddam] through the special envoy Rumsfeld” because “Washington wanted Iraq’s friendship to stymie Iran” – exactly the rationale cited yesterday by Trump for continuing friendly relations with Riyadh (The Saudis “have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran,” said Trump).

As for the Saudis themselves, they have long been committing atrocities on par with and far worse than the Khashoggi killing both within their borders and outside, and their partnership with U.S. Presidents has only flourished. As the Saudis beheaded dissidents and created the planet’s worst humanitarian crisis by slaughtering Yemeni civilians without mercy or restraint, President Obama not only authorized the sale of a record amount of weapons to Saudi tyrants, but also cut short his visit to India, the world’s largest democracy, where he was delivering lectures about the paramount importance of human rights and civic freedoms, in order to travel to Riyadh to meet with top U.S. leaders from both political parties to pay homage to the murderous Saudi King who had just died (only in the last month of his presidency, with an eye toward his legacy, did Obama restrict some arms to the Saudis after allowing those weapons to freely flow for eighteen months during the destruction of Yemen).

UK Prime Minister David Cameron – perhaps Obama’s only worthy competitor when it came to simultaneously delivering preening speeches about human rights while arming the world’s worst human rights abusers – actually ordered UK flags flown at half-mast in honor of the noble Saudi despot. All of this took place at roughly the same time that Obama dispatched his top officials, including his Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to pay homage to the rulers of Bahrain after they and the Saudis crushed a citizen uprising seeking greater freedoms.

In 2012, Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa came to Washington – fresh off of massacring his own citizens seeking greater freedoms – and, in the words of Foreign Policy, “he left with hands full of gifts from the U.S. State Department, which announced new arms sales to Bahrain today.” How did the Obama administration justify all of this? By invoking exactly the same rationale Trump cited yesterday for his ongoing support of the Saudis: that although the U.S. did not approve of such upsetting violence, its “national security interests” compelled its ongoing support. From Foreign Policy (italics added):

The crown prince’s son just graduated from American University, where the Bahraini ruling family recently shelled out millions for a new building at AU’s School of International Service. But while he was in town, the crown prince met with a slew of senior U.S. officials and congressional leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain, as well as several other Washington VIPs.

On Friday afternoon, the State Department announced it was moving forward on a host of sales to the Bahraini Defense Forces, the Bahraini National Guard, and the Bahraini Coast Guard. The State Department said the decision to move forward with the sales was made solely in the interest of U.S. national security, but outside experts see the move as meant to strengthen the crown prince in his struggle inside the ruling family.

“We’ve made this decision, I want to emphasize, on national security grounds,” a senior administration official told reporters on a Friday conference call. “We’ve made this decision mindful of the fact that there remain a number of serious, unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain, which we expect the government of Bahrain to address.”

In 2011, Americans gathered around their TV sets to cheer the inspiring Egyptian protesters gathering in Tahir Square to demand the ouster of the brutal Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarak. Most TV announcers neglected to remind excited American viewers that Mubarak had managed to remain in power for so long because their own government had propped him up with weapons, money and intelligence. As Mona Eltahawy put it in the New York Times last year: “Five American administrations, Democratic and Republican, supported the Mubarak regime.”

But in case anyone was confused about the U.S. posture toward this incomparably heinous Egyptian dictator, Hillary Clinton stepped forward to remind everyone of how U.S. officials have long viewed such tyrants. When asked in an interview about how her own State Department had documented Egypt’s record of severe, relentless human rights abuses and whether this might affect her friendship with its rulers, Secretary Clinton gushed: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”

How can anyone pretend that Trump’s praise for the Saudis is some kind of aberration when Hillary Clinton literally heralded one of the planet’s most murderous and violent despots as a personal friend of her family? A Washington Post Editorial at the time proclaimed that “Clinton continues to devalue and undermine the U.S. diplomatic tradition of human rights advocacy” and that “she appears oblivious to how offensive such statements are to the millions of Egyptians who loathe Mr. Mubarak’s oppressive government and blame the United States for propping it up.”

But this just shows the repetitive, dreary game U.S. elites have been playing for decades. Newspaper editorialists and think tank scholars pretend that the U.S. stands opposed to tyranny and despotism and feigns surprise each time U.S. officials lend their support, weaponry and praise to those same tyrants and despots.

And lest anyone try to distinguish Trump’s statement yesterday on the ground that it was false – that it covered up for bad acts of despotic allies by refusing to admit the Crown Prince’s guilt for Khashoggi’s murder – let us recall when Clinton’s successor as Secretary of State, John Kerry, defended Mubarak’s successor, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, by denying that he had implemented “a coup” when he overthrew Egypt’s elected President in 2013. Instead, proclaimed Kerry, the Sisi-led Egyptian generals, by removing the elected leader, were simply attempting to “restore democracy” – the exact same lie told by the New York Times Editorial Page when right-wing Venezuelan generals in 2002 removed that country’s elected President, Hugo Chávez, only for that paper to hail that coup as a restoration of democracy.

In 2015, as the human rights abuses of the Sisi regime worsened even further, the New York Times reported: “with the United States worried about militants in Sinai and Libya who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, American officials also signaled that they would not let their concerns with human rights stand in the way of increased security cooperation with Egypt.”

Sound familiar? It should: it’s exactly the rationale Trump invoked yesterday to justify ongoing support for the Saudis. In 2015, the Egyptian dictatorship – as it was murdering dissidents en masse – openly celebrated the flow of U.S. weapons to the regime:

None of this recent, ugly history – and this is only a tiny excerpt of it (excluding, just to name a few examples, U.S. support for the 20th Century’s greatest monsters from Indonesia’s Suharto to death squads in El Salvador and U.S. killing of its own citizens to U.S. support for Israeli occupation and apartheid) – justifies what Trump did on Tuesday. But what it does do is give the lie to the flamboyant claims that Trump has somehow vandalized and degraded U.S. values and U.S. foreign policy rather than what he actually did: upheld their core tenets and explained them to the public with great candor and clarity.

This episode also exposes one of the great scams of the Trump era. The very same people who have devoted their careers to supporting despotism, empowering tyranny, cheering on atrocities, and justifying U.S. imperialism are masquerading as the exact opposite of what they are in order to pave their path back to power where they can continue to pursue all of the destructive and amoral policies they now so grotesquely pretend to oppose.

Anyone who objects to exposure of this deceit – anyone who invokes empty clichés such as “whataboutism” or “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue” in order to enable this scam to go undetected – has no business staking moral claim to any values of truth or freedom. People who demand that this deceit go unnoticed are revealing themselves as what they are: purely situational opponents of tyranny and murder who pretend to hold such values only when doing so undermines their domestic political opponents and enables their political allies to be restored to power where they can continue the same policies of murder, tyranny-support and atrocity-enabling that they have spent decades defending.

If you want to denounce Trump’s indifference to Saudi atrocities on moral, ethical or geo-political grounds – and I find them objectionable on all of those grounds – by all means do so. But pretending that he’s done something that is at odds with U.S. values or the actions of prior leaders or prevailing foreign policy orthodoxies is not just deceitful but destructive.

It ensures that these very same policies will endure: by dishonestly pretending that they are unique to Trump, rather than the hallmarks of the same people now being applauded because they are denouncing Trump’s actions in such a blatantly false voice, all to mask the fact that they did the same, and worse, when they commanded the levers of American power.

 

What if a deadly influenza pandemic broke out today?

It’s been a century since the Spanish flu claimed up to 100 million lives. It’s only a matter of time until a similar strain re-emerges.

November 22, 2018

by Rachel Nuwer

BBC News

One hundred years ago nearly to the day, flu season seemed to be wrapping up without further incident. Most of those who had fallen ill in the spring had made a speedy recovery, and death rates were no higher than usual. Global headlines were dominated by news about the Great War, not the flu.

Come autumn, however, everything changed. The formerly unexceptional virus reappeared as an exceedingly virulent strain, tearing through populations in North America and Europe and often killing its victims in a matter of hours or days. Within four months, the Spanish Flu, as it came to be known, had spread around the world, making its way to even the most isolated communities. By the time the pandemic flamed out the following spring, an estimated 50 to 100 million people – as much as 5% of the world’s population – were dead.

A century later, the 1918 pandemic seems as remote a horror story as that of smallpox, the bubonic plague and other deadly diseases that we have wholly or largely eradicated. Yet influenza never left – it continues to claim some 250,000 to 500,000 lives annually. Each year delivers a slightly different strain of the seasonal flu, while pandemics may arise by an assortment of influenza viruses in animal hosts. In addition to 1918, the last century has seen pandemics in 1957, 1968, 1977 and 2009.

Given the virus’ propensity for mutation and its constant presence in nature (it occurs naturally in wild water birds), experts agree that it is only a matter of time until a strain emerges that is just as contagious and deadly as the Spanish flu – and possibly even worse.

“Influenza pandemics are like earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis: they occur, and some are much worse than others,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “The idea that we would not have another 1918-like event is foolish.”

But when that will happen, he continues, is impossible to predict: “For all we know, it could be starting as we speak.” It’s also impossible to predict exactly how things will play out when a Spanish flu-like strain does reemerge – but we can make some educated guesses.

For starters, the virus’ impact would depend on whether we caught it early enough to contain it, says Robert Webster, from the Department of Infectious Diseases at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital. There are systems in place to do just that: the World Health Organization’s influenza surveillance team constantly monitors the virus’ development at six key labs around the world, and a complimentary set of agriculture-oriented labs do the same for poultry and pig samples.

“Our surveillance is probably as good as we can make it, but we can’t survey every bird and pig in the world – it’s just impossible,” Webster says. “We would have to get damned lucky to contain it.”

The reality, he continues, is that the virus would almost certainly get out. Once that happened, it would make its way around the globe, likely in a matter of weeks, given the level of mobility today. “The flu is one of those viruses that, once it gets into a susceptible population, it really takes off,” says Gerardo Chowell, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Georgia State University. “Individuals are already spreading it about one day before they have any symptoms.”

Because the number of humans on the planet has jumped more than fourfold over the last century, there would likely be correspondingly higher numbers of infections and deaths compared to 1918. If the flu killed 50 million in 1918, we could expect to see more than 200 million casualties today. “That’s a lot of body bags – which we’d run out of very quickly.”

As history attests, deaths probably would not be evenly distributed across populations. The Spanish flu saw a 30-fold mortality difference in various countries. In India, for example, the virus took out 8% of the population, while less than 1% died in Denmark. Similarly, during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, deaths in Mexico exceeded those in France by a factor of 10.

Experts believe the disparities were influenced by a number of factors, including a population’s prior exposure to similar influenza strains and genetic vulnerabilities of certain ethnic groups (New Zealand’s native Maori, for example, were seven times more likely to die after contracting the 1918 flu than the global average).

Poverty-related factors such as sanitation, baseline health and access to care, Chowell says, also play an important role in influencing an influenza virus’ outcome. “In 2009 in Mexico, a lot of people came to the hospital only after they became very, very sick, and it was just too late,” he says. For many of those victims this was an economic decision: going to the doctor meant taking a day off work, and thus a day off earning a salary. “I’m not saying that applied to every single Mexican, but it did apply exactly to the most vulnerable populations,” Chowell says.

Should a pandemic hit the US or other places without socialised healthcare, the same socioeconomic patterns would almost certainly play out in relation to the uninsured. To try to avoid steep medical bills, those without health insurance would likely wait as late as possible to visit the hospital – at which point it may be too late. “We already see that in terms of other infectious diseases and access to care,” Chowell says.

Vaccines are the best means for stopping a pandemic, says Lone Simonsen, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Roskilde University in Denmark and George Washington University. But this requires first identifying the virus, creating a vaccine and then distributing it around the world – a task that’s easier said than done. Influenza vaccines – which didn’t even become available until the 1940s – are faster than ever to make, but that process still takes months. And even if we were successful at developing such a vaccine, it would simply be impossible to create enough doses for everyone, Osterholm says. “Worldwide, in the first six to nine months, only 1-2% of the population would have access to a vaccine,” he says. Another limitation, he adds, is that current seasonal flu vaccines are, at very best, just 60% effective.

Likewise, while we have drugs like Tamiflu to combat influenza, we do not stockpile supplies for tackling a pandemic. “We don’t have today enough antivirals even for the richest country in the world, the US,” Chowell points out. “So what can we expect for India, China or Mexico?”

On top of that, the drugs we do have are also less effective than comparative treatments for other diseases, primarily because “the world treats seasonal influenza as a rather trivial disease”, Webster says. “It’s not until you have serious outbreaks, like with HIV, that the scientific community gives a disease greater attention.”

Given these realities, hospitals would quickly be overrun, Osterholm says, and drugs and vaccines would almost immediately run out. “We already overwhelmed the healthcare system here in the US with just the seasonal flu this year, and this wasn’t even a particularly severe year,” he says. “But it shows you just how limited our capacity is to respond to a major increase in cases.”

Just as happened in 1918, as infections and mortalities increased, cities around the world would most likely collapse. Businesses and schools would shutter; public transportation would not run; electricity may switch off; and bodies would begin to pile up in the streets. Food would soon be in short supply, as would life-saving drugs that currently keep millions with diabetes, cardiac disease, immunosuppressive conditions and other life-threatening issues alive.

“If a pandemic causes disruption in the production and transportation of these drugs, we’ll see people dying in short order,” Osterholm says. “Collateral damage from a 1918-like pandemic could be dramatic.”

Even after the virus fizzled out on its own, the impacts would be long-lasting. The 1918 virus was “extra horrible”, Simonsen says, in that 95% of those it killed were not the very young and very old, as per usual for influenza, but otherwise healthy adults at the peak of their working lives. This effectively removed a significant portion of the workforce and had profound effects on families, leaving countless children orphaned.

Scientists only learned why this likely was in 2005, when researchers reconstructed the Spanish flu virus using samples recovered from Brevig Mission, an Alaskan village in which 72 of 80 total residents were killed by the disease in less than a week. One victim’s body had been preserved in permafrost well enough to allow a determined microbiologist to recover her lungs, which still contained the virus’ genes.

In animal tests using the reconstructed viruses, scientists discovered that the 1918 strain multiplied exceptionally well. This triggered a natural immune response called a cytokine storm, in which the body goes into overdrive chugging out chemicals meant to stem the invasion. Cytokines are somewhat toxic themselves – they are responsible for the aches and pains experienced during a bout of the flu – and too many of them can overwhelm the organs and cause overall system failure.

Because adults have stronger immune systems than children and the elderly, researchers believe that their stronger responses to the flu may have proved deadly. “We finally understood why the virus was so enormously pathogenic,” Webster says. “The body essentially killed itself.”

In the decades since the Spanish flu, researchers have developed various immunomodulatory therapies that can help mitigate cytokine storms. But those treatments are hardly perfect, and nor are they widely available. “We don’t do much better with cytokine storms today than we did back in 1918,” Osterholm says. “There are some machines that can breathe and circulate blood for you, but overall the outcome is still very, very bleak.”

This means that, as in 1918, we would likely see a huge loss of life among young adults and the middle-aged. And because life expectancy today is decades higher than it was a century ago, their deaths would be even more detrimental to the economy and to society, Chowell says.

Amidst all the bad news, though, there is one chance for salvation: a universal influenza vaccine. Significant resources are finally being allocated to this longtime pipe dream, and efforts to develop such a breakthrough vaccine are gaining momentum. But we can only wait and see whether it will arrive in time to prevent the next pandemic.

“Studies are in the pipeline, so hopefully before this hypothetical hot virus appears, we will have a universal vaccine and will be well prepared,” Webster says. “But at the moment, we’re not there.”

 

Inside the Wild West World of Gift Card Bitcoin Brokering

November 23, 2018

by David Dayen

The Intercept

In the video game aisle of a Walmart Supercenter, Eric, 43, is refreshing his phone. The Superman logo on his T-shirt has been reworked into a hammer and sickle. He’s waiting to hear back from a stranger based, as far as he knows, in Kenya. “He just offered to pay $400,” Eric says. “I don’t feel 100 percent on him, but I don’t have anything real to base it on.”

Eric is a currency broker. But he doesn’t work on Wall Street, or at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, or with any financial institution. He’s one of the thousands of Americans who have built a career out of the bitcoin phenomenon, whether out of necessity or a sense of entrepreneurship. It’s enabled Eric to stop toiling as an information technology engineer for software companies and set his own hours. “Never in my life had I thought I’d work for myself,” Eric explains.

His operation mainly consists of a phone and a couple of apps. But it also requires daily visits to his version of the trading floor: Walmart. Eric visits big box stores so often that he knows the self-checkout machines (his preferred method of payment) better than the clerks who work there. He goes to Walmart to buy gift cards, which serve as a medium of exchange and a means of protection from being duped by his clients. But the whole scheme relies on exploiting Walmart’s rather lax standard on gift card purchases. Eric believes, through his up-close experience, that these lax standards have been facilitating rampant gift card fraud, which has risen to epidemic levels as of late.

Eric will end up netting $12 on this transaction, but he did it at a discount, to make sure he had a customer. He wanted to make sure he could demonstrate to a reporter precisely how it’s done, on the condition that his real name not be used. The goal, he said, was to expose vulnerabilities in Walmart’s gift card policy, so that the company would take action. On Tuesday, Walmart did just that, sort of, announcing new rules in the way it treats such cards, upending a world that Eric offered The Intercept an invitation to explore.

The new policy will make it difficult for Eric to make ends meet, but he’s glad it happened. “I’m a socialist in a capitalist world,” he explains.

Eric became fascinated with bitcoin while using it for offshore gambling sites. That led him to his trading business, which he’s operated for over three years.

Here’s how it works: Eric sells bitcoin to buyers all over the world through a peer-to-peer marketplace called Paxful, charging a premium for the cryptocurrency. When Eric started his business a couple of years ago, he could charge a 100 percent markup — selling $300 in bitcoin for $600 — because buyers expected the cryptocurrency’s price to elevate, and had few options to obtain it. Nowadays, with more volatility and more competition among traders, that has dropped to around 30 percent. Paxful takes a small slice of each transaction on their service, usually about 1 percent.

In exchange for the bitcoin, the buyers typically swap gift cards, which are less traceable than dollars or yuan and, thanks to globalization, broadly useful all over the world. No physical card changes hands; Eric will get the number from the gift card and load it into an app called GiftMe, which generates a barcode that can be used at a checkout counter.

Sometimes the transaction stops there: Eric can use a gift card to buy essentials. But repeated trading requires an endless stream of bitcoin, more than he could mine or purchase on his own. So he has to use the gift cards to acquire more bitcoin, making his money on the spread between what he’s charged to buy it and what he charges to sell it.

As an intermediate step, Eric uses the gift cards he receives to buy other gift cards. This is important for a couple of reasons. First, certain gift cards are desirable to resellers overseas. Cards for electronics are especially attractive — iTunes, PlayStation, and Steam in particular. Those can be sold to customers in Brazil, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Even particular denominations are seen as attractive, because they can be more easily sold on the street. “If I take all these $10 cards, they won’t have any in stock for a month,” Eric says, rummaging through the gift card displays, explaining why he’s willing to travel 45 minutes to Walmarts in his area, just looking for the right cards.

Buying new gift cards also performs a kind of asset protection function for Eric. Scams are commonplace in the gift card trading world. Eric tries to engage in due diligence with his buyers, checking their prior transactions on Paxful. (If there are disputes about transactions, Paxful will help settle them with a court-like process.) He delays the release of bitcoin to his clients until he spends every last cent physically in a store, to ensure that the transaction is legitimate. But exchanging gift cards for gift cards adds to his security. “It’s so I have a card that no one but me and whoever I’m selling it to has seen,” he says. “I do try to avoid getting burned, but also try to avoid being part of burning someone else.”

Armed with fresh cards, Eric then sells them to accumulate more bitcoin. Again, the cards don’t actually change hands; Eric sends the codes through WhatsApp or another messaging system. The margin between what Eric charges for bitcoin and what others charge him represents his profit. Eric, because of how long he’s been in the business, has become adept at finding the best spreads, whereas his customers just want their bitcoin. On his trade with the Kenyan for the $400 gift card, he charged a 28 percent markup, and flipped the cards for bitcoin at a 25 percent markup. He walked away with a 3 percent margin, or $12.

If Eric can replicate that, he can make a living wage; some days, he’ll sell as much as $12,000 in bitcoin, which can translate to $300 or $400. Eric estimates that thousands of people exist in this informal economy, whether selling gift cards on the street, to pawn shops, or through online exchanges. Illicitly acquired gift cards have even been used to pay for opioids.

Technically speaking, reselling gift cards violates the terms of service. Everything else Eric does merely involves trading one legal thing of value for another. But he is very open about the nature of the world he traffics in. “I might sound to you like a scammer,” he says. “Don’t worry, I won’t take it the wrong way.”

The prevalence of illicit activity with gift cards, which invites a crackdown, has posed a threat to his career, with the only saving grace being the relative indifference at Walmart.

Walmart was not originally Eric’s favorite store to carry out his business. “I was on a first-name basis with everybody at Best Buy and Target for a long time,” he says. But over the summer, he went to ring up an order at a self-checkout counter at Target, and discovered that the company no longer allowed people to buy gift cards with other gift cards. “It changed overnight. The people at the stores were blindsided.” Days later, the same thing happened with Best Buy.

The companies, which do a lot of business in gift cards, had good reason to restrict purchases. A Federal Trade Commission bulletin in May warned Americans of an epidemic of gift card fraud. Specifically, the FTC highlighted callers claiming to be with the IRS or a family member and asking for payments in gift cards. Unsuspecting victims then buy gift cards and hand over the codes. Scammers can use them to either buy goods and services, or flip them in the resale market while simultaneously draining them of funds, making money twice on the same card.

This is just one way gift cards can lead to fraud. “Another way would be hacking accounts: People get the account numbers and take the balance off them,” said Joyce Carter, a vice president with Member Access Pacific, which manages gift and other card programs for businesses and credit unions. This can be done manually, by stealing cards at stores or memorizing card numbers at the sale display, or through more sophisticated means, like computer-aided phishing for card numbers or counterfeiting. There is rich variety in the scams.

Buying gift cards with other gift cards launders fraudulent or illegally obtained card codes into new, legitimate ones. It’s a common method for scam artists. “That type of fraud is happening a lot,” said Carter. According to the National Retail Federation, organized retail crime, which includes but is not limited to gift card fraud, costs retailers $726,351 for every $1 billion in sales.

Though retailers have traditionally not been on the hook for gift card fraud, that liability has shifted somewhat with the advent of chip readers at retail outlets. In particular, merchants that allow customers to swipe cards instead of reading them with chips face chargebacks from issuers on counterfeit transactions. Because of these new rules, retailers started to require that all gift card purchases be made in cash.

In a statement, Target spokesperson Danielle Schumann said the company “takes a comprehensive approach to preventing gift card scams that includes partnerships with law enforcement, technology enhancements and team member training.” That includes barring gift card purchases with other gift cards, as laid out on the Target website. Best Buy did not respond to inquiries, but their website notes that gift card purchases are limited to $500, and Eric’s experience indicates that they no longer let customers make gift-card-for-gift-card swaps.

Eric claimed to me that Walmart, prior to this week, had no restrictions on purchasing gift cards with gift cards. And indeed, I watched him pull it off.

After Eric got the $400 Walmart gift card code from the bitcoin buyer in Kenya, he pasted it into the GiftMe app, generating a bar code. He picked up seven $10 PlayStation cards, and a handful of $20 and $30 cards from PlayStation and Steam. We went to pay at the counter, and the sales clerk methodically scanned and activated the stack of gift cards. Eric was able to pay with the $400 Walmart gift card he’d purchased seconds earlier from someone halfway around the world. He didn’t have to show ID or the physical card. “You have a nice day,” Eric said to the clerk upon leaving.

Eric paid for the gift card used for his purchases. But it could just as easily have been a counterfeit, or a clone, or a stolen card, laundered through Walmart’s transaction into something legitimate. Back in the parking lot, Eric told me, “I walk out of Walmart all the time thinking that someone like me, with less scruples, could be walking out, too, without getting hassled.”

When I asked Carter about Walmart’s practices, she responded that the retailer should be more mindful of fraud. “If I’m buying more than five or six gift cards, [Walmart] might want to think about security,” she said.

Though Walmart has relatively more liability for gift card shenanigans, Carter said the burden remains disproportionately placed on consumer victims, and in particular the issuers that allow their card to be sold at Walmart. “They’re the ones taking the most risk. Most of the time the retailer doesn’t have anything to lose when it comes to fraud.”

Eric’s other interactions with Walmart left him skeptical that the company has much interest in preventing gift card fraud. Recently, a scammer tried to sell him two $1,000 Walmart gift cards, and when he checked them, he saw they were already being spent down online. “These were online orders that hadn’t shipped yet; Walmart could stop the orders to stop the rip-off,” he said. “They had no interest. I got all the way to a supervisor, and he said, ‘We don’t involve ourselves in a consumer’s personal business.’ But it’s fraud! They’re being used to facilitate fraud.”

In other words, Eric says, Walmart views gift cards as cash, and it doesn’t go around wondering whether purchases at their stores are made with stolen dollars. This is true of most retailers. “To them, revenue is revenue,” Eric said. “They very specifically don’t give a fuck about crimes involving their store if they’re not directly liable or directly hurt.” It can also be difficult to solve those crimes, putting a Walmart employee in the position of adjudicating which owner of the $1,000 gift card has the legal right to use it.

In October, Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove said in a statement to The Intercept, “We take this issue seriously and have measures designed to help guard against these types of crimes. Like many retailers, we are looking at this issue, the controls we have in place, and we are continuously working to enhance our gift card program to better serve and protect customers.”

It turns out that Walmart was more involved in reforming its practices than I knew. After a year-long investigation by the attorneys general of Pennsylvania and New York, Walmart, Best Buy, and Target announced new nationwide policies to deal with gift cards. Reuters reported that the changes would lead to “prohibiting the redemption of store-branded gift cards for other gift cards” — exactly what Eric wanted to happen.

That’s not quite right. As Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro detailed in a press release, the main changes included limits to the monetary value that gift cards are sold for, and how much money can be loaded onto a gift card. As for trading gift cards for gift cards, there are restrictions on the purchase of iTunes, Steam, or Google Play gift cards, some of the main ones sold into the black market.

When I reached Hargraves, he said the limit was two cards per transaction. Hargraves added that employee training to spot warning signs of fraud was underway. “We’re pleased to be part of the initiative,” he said.

I emailed Eric on Tuesday, the day of the announcement, to see how his life had changed. He replied that contrary to Walmart’s claims, the stores are only limiting certain denominations of the affected gift cards. In other words, he can purchase two $10 iTunes cards, two $20 cards, and two $50 cards in the same transaction, all with other gift cards. This allows him to still get his business done. “It’s a nuisance, but really nothing more,” Eric said. (Hargaves, told of Eric’s latest purchase, said it was not allowed under the new policy.)

Eric did add that removing higher-denomination cards would be wise. “Don’t get me wrong: If they at least remove the $1,000 or even $500 gift card options, it will be an extremely welcomed move,” Eric said.

I couldn’t help but be puzzled by the contradiction. Eric wanted Walmart to reform its practices and protect unsuspecting victims of gift card fraud. But it also would further and further compromise Eric’s operations, giving him less recourse to continue his bitcoin-for-gift-card brokering. Bitcoin brokers would almost certainly go further underground and into shadier corners. The only ones truly hurt are those trying to do it honestly — in other words, people like Eric.

Given all that, why would Eric, whose business depends on Walmart waving through his purchases, tell a reporter about why Walmart needs to shut those purchases down?

“As much as Target and Best Buy hurt me, I understood,” he explained. “There are not many people out there like me doing this and trying to be on the straight and narrow. It would hurt my livelihood if Walmart [changed its policy], but it would protect the little guy.”

 

No responses yet

Leave a Reply