Archives for July 2018

Flynn, Comey, and Mueller: What Trump knew and when he knew it

Murray Waas writes:

Previously undisclosed evidence in the possession of Special Counsel Robert Mueller—including highly confidential White House records and testimony by some of President Trump’s own top aides—provides some of the strongest evidence to date implicating the president of the United States in an obstruction of justice. Several people who have reviewed a portion of this evidence say that, based on what they know, they believe it is now all but inevitable that the special counsel will complete a confidential report presenting evidence that President Trump violated the law. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel’s work, would then decide on turning over that report to Congress for the House of Representatives to consider whether to instigate impeachment proceedings.

The central incident in the case that the president obstructed justice was provided by former FBI Director James B. Comey, who testified that Trump pressed Comey, in a private Oval Office meeting on February 14, 2017, to shut down an FBI criminal investigation of Trump’s former national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Comey has testified the president told him.

In an effort to convince Mueller that President Trump did not obstruct justice, the president’s attorneys have argued that the president could not have broken the law because the president did not know that Flynn was under criminal investigation when he pressured Comey to go easy on Flynn. In a confidential January 29 letter to the special counsel first reported by The New York Times, two of the president’s attorneys, John Dowd (who no longer represents Trump) and Jay Sekulow, maintained that the president did not obstruct justice because, even though Flynn had been questioned by the FBI, Trump believed that the FBI investigation was over, and that Flynn had been told that he’d been cleared.

On its face, this is a counter-intuitive argument—for if Trump believed that Flynn had been cleared and was no longer under investigation, there would have been no reason for the president to lean on Comey to end the FBI’s investigation—telling Comey that Trump hoped that Comey would be able to “see your way clear to letting this go.” Yet Trump’s attorneys have pursued this line of argument with the special counsel because perjury and obstruction cases depend largely on whether a prosecutor can demonstrate the intent and motivation of the person they want to charge. It’s not enough to prove that the person under investigation attempted to impede an ongoing criminal investigation; the statute requires a prosecutor to prove that the person did so with the corrupt intent to protect either himself or someone else from prosecution.

If, therefore, Trump understood the legal jeopardy that Flynn faced, that would demonstrate such intent—and make for a much stronger case for obstruction against the president. Conversely, if Trump believed that Flynn was no longer under criminal investigation, or had been cleared, the president could not have had corrupt intent. But previously undisclosed evidence indicates just the opposite—that President Trump was fully informed that Flynn was the target of prosecutors. [Continue reading…]

U.S. spy agencies: North Korea is working on new missiles

The Washington Post reports:

U.S. spy agencies are seeing signs that North Korea is constructing new missiles at a factory that produced the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, according to officials familiar with the intelligence.

Newly obtained evidence, including satellite photos taken in recent weeks, indicates that work is underway on at least one and possibly two liquid-fueled ICBMs at a large research facility in Sanumdong, on the outskirts of Pyongyang, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe classified intelligence.

The findings are the latest to show ongoing activity inside North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities at a time when the country’s leaders are engaged in arms talks with the United States. The new intelligence does not suggest an expansion of North Korea’s capabilities but shows that work on advanced weapons is continuing weeks after President Trump declared in a Twitter posting that Pyongyang was “no longer a Nuclear Threat.”

The reports about new missile construction come after recent revelations about a suspected uranium-enrichment facility, called Kangson, that North Korea is operating in secret. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged during Senate testimony last week that North Korean factories “continue to produce fissile material” used in making nuclear weapons. He declined to say whether Pyongyang is building new missiles.

During a summit with Trump in June, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to a vaguely worded pledge to “work toward” the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. But since then, North Korea has made few tangible moves signaling an intention to disarm.

Instead, senior North Korean officials have discussed their intention to deceive Washington about the number of nuclear warheads and missiles they have, as well as the types and numbers of facilities, and to rebuff international inspectors, according to intelligence gathered by U.S. agencies. Their strategy includes potentially asserting that they have fully denuclearized by declaring and disposing of 20 warheads while retaining dozens more. [Continue reading…]

‘He doesn’t like bullies’: The story of the 37-year-old who took over the New York Times and is taking on Trump

The Washington Post reports:

The new reporter was sharp, humble and eager to learn. Arthur had snazzier shoes than his colleagues at the Oregonian, but this was the only hint that he was a Sulzberger, the family that has owned and published the New York Times since 1896.

He was 25 years old at the time he arrived in Portland in 2006, and Arthur Gregg Sulzberger fit right in even as his name stood out. Within months, he was aggressively reporting on the blustering and embattled sheriff of Multnomah County, who fought back publicly against the coverage.

In 2008, after Sulzberger had written more than 60 stories focused on the activities and missteps at the sheriff’s office, its leader resigned.

“The sheriff tried to paint him as a pretty-boy son of the Times publisher, and his attacks on Arthur did get kind of personal,” said former Oregonian reporter Anna Griffin. “And Arthur was absolutely unflappable. . . . He’s not somebody who backs down. He doesn’t like bullies. He does not like people who abuse power.”

Ten years later, Sulzberger, who turns 38 next week, is grappling with another adversary, this time at a much higher level and with much higher stakes. On Sunday, Sulzberger, now seven months into his tenure as publisher of the Times, released a polite but stern statement responding to President Trump’s characterization of their July 20 meeting at the White House. [Continue reading…]

As parents are reunited with young children, signs of trauma remain

The New York Times reports:

[Five-year-old] Thiago and his mother [Ana Carolina Fernandes] were apprehended by the Border Patrol in New Mexico on May 22. The next day, officers informed Ms. Fernandes and other Brazilian mothers detained at the same border facility that their children would be removed from them. Thiago cried himself to sleep when his mother broke the news to him. Another boy had a panic attack and had to be hospitalized.

“When the officer came for Thiago, he had to carry him in his arms because he was so sleepy,” Ms. Fernandes said. “Then he began to cry.”

About four days later, Ms. Fernandes, who had been transferred to a federal prison, was summoned to take a phone call. A woman on the line informed her that Thiago had shut down. He refused to eat. He wouldn’t bathe.

Thiago was put on the phone, sobbing uncontrollably. She urged her son to eat. She assured him that they would be together soon.

But several weeks passed before mother and child would speak again. Ms. Fernandes had no idea that Thiago had been flown to Los Angeles and placed with a foster family.

After posting bond and being released from detention on June 10, Ms. Fernandes was handed a toll-free number to locate her son. She called the number immediately after arriving in Philadelphia, where she moved in with relatives, but she had to have help from a Boston lawyer, Jesse Bless, to get Thiago released.

It didn’t happen until July 13. When she spotted her son at baggage claim at the airport, Ms. Fernandes said, she ran toward him, her heart racing. “I cried and hugged him — but he didn’t even care. He stood there frozen,” she recalled. [Continue reading…]

Trump administration ordered to halt forcible drugging of migrant children

The Washington Post reports:

A federal judge on Monday found that U.S. government officials have been giving psychotropic medication to migrant children at a Texas facility without first seeking the consent of their parents or guardians, in violation of state child welfare laws.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles ordered the Trump administration to obtain consent or a court order before administering any psychotropic medications to migrant children, except in cases of dire emergencies. She also ordered that the government move all children out of a Texas facility, Shiloh Residential Treatment Center in Manvel, except for children deemed by a licensed professional to pose a “risk of harm” to themselves or others.

Staff members at Shiloh admitted to signing off on medications in lieu of a parent, relative or legal guardian, according to Gee’s ruling. Government officials defended this practice, saying they provided these drugs only on “an emergency basis” when a child’s “extreme psychiatric symptoms” became dangerous.

The judge didn’t buy this explanation, pointing to testimony from children who said they were given pills “every morning and every night.” Officials “could not have possibly” administered medications to children on an emergency basis every day, Gee wrote.

Children testified in court filings that staff with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement would sometimes not tell them what drugs they were being given or why. They recalled feeling side effects such as nausea, dizziness, depression and weight gain. Some reported being forcibly injected with drugs, and others said they felt that refusing medications would cause them to be detained longer. [Continue reading…]

The Dossier Center exposes the ‘main beneficiaries’ of Russian corruption

The Associated Press reports:

Over the past three months, a handful of highly placed Russians have discovered their secrets seeping onto the web.

It happened to a Russian Interior Ministry official whose emails were published online in April. It happened again this month, when details about a former Kremlin chief of staff’s American energy investment were exposed by Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Last week, Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met with U.S. President Donald Trump’s son during the 2016 presidential campaign, saw her ties to senior Russian government officials laid bare in an Associated Press investigation.

And the man behind the disclosures tells the AP that more are coming.

A key source for the recent stories has been Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s new project, dubbed the Dossier Center. Launched in November, the center is billed as an investigative unit. Its website features a sprawling, interactive diagram of interconnected Russian officials described as the “main beneficiaries” of Russian corruption.

“We have no shortage of material we’re currently evaluating,” Khodorkovsky said in a television interview last week from his office in central London.

The exiled former energy executive is funding the Dossier Center himself and said it was born out of frustration with the inability of journalistic investigations to lead to real change in a Russia dominated by his foe, President Vladimir Putin. He wanted the project to produce more than occasional stories and to gather enough actionable information on the Kremlin’s leadership to bring its members, eventually, to court. [Continue reading…]

Europe shouldn’t fear Steve Bannon. It should fear the hype that surrounds him

Cas Mudde writes:

If Steve Bannon didn’t exist, the media would have had to invent him. And, in fact, they largely did. US coverage has turned Bannon into Donald Trump’s Rasputin, single-handedly responsible for his shock election as the 45th president of the United States. And now, as Bannon crosses the Atlantic, breathless reports speak of his “Plan to Hijack Europe for the Far Right”. His meeting with the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson was apparently convened to plot “new moves that could have a significant impact on European politics”.

The notion of the evil genius, particularly one on the far right, is seductive. It helps externalise the evil. Rather than accepting that nationalist and populist ideas are part of the mainstream of society, their success is presented as the outcome of a devious plot, constructed by a political mastermind, in which a gullible population is seduced by a charismatic leader.

While this might be an attractive narrative, it is dangerous for at least two reasons. First, it is wrong, and leaves people poorly informed about the most significant danger to liberal democracy today. Second, it exaggerates the importance of the far right, which can, ironically, lead to an actual increase in its power.

Bannon is neither Trump’s Rasputin, nor a political prodigy. If anything, he is a master at selling himself as a successful entrepreneur and political operative to both investors and journalists. His early support for Trump was also not a stroke of genius but of luck, coming as it did after he had backed almost every other radical right movement or politician in the previous decade, from the Tea Party movement to Sarah Palin. [Continue reading…]

We are more than our brains

Alan Jasanoff writes:

Brains are undoubtedly somewhat computer-like – computers, after all, were invented to perform brain-like functions – but brains are also much more than bundles of wiry neurons and the electrical impulses they are famous for propagating. The function of each neuroelectrical signal is to release a little flood of chemicals that helps to stimulate or suppress brain cells, in much the way that chemicals activate or suppress functions such as glucose production by liver cells or immune responses by white blood cells. Even the brain’s electrical signals themselves are the products of chemicals called ions that move in and out of cells, causing tiny ripples that can spread independently of neurons.

Also distinct from neurons are the relatively passive brain cells called glia (Greek for glue) that are roughly equal in number to the neurons but do not conduct electrical signals in the same way. Recent experiments in mice have shown that manipulating these uncharismatic cells can produce dramatic effects on behaviour. In one experiment, a research group in Japan showed that direct stimulation of glia in a brain region called the cerebellum could cause a behavioural response analogous to changes more commonly evoked by stimulation of neurons. Another remarkable study showed that transplantation of human glial cells into mouse brains boosted the animals’ performance in learning tests, again demonstrating the importance of glia in shaping brain function. Chemicals and glue are as integral to brain function as wiring and electricity. With these moist elements factored in, the brain seems much more like an organic part of the body than the idealised prosthetic many people imagine.

Stereotypes about brain complexity also contribute to the mystique of the brain and its distinction from the body. It has become a cliché to refer to the brain as ‘the most complex thing in the known Universe’. This saying is inspired by the finding that human brains contain something on the order of 100,000,000,000 neurons, each of which makes about 10,000 connections (synapses) to other neurons. The daunting nature of such numbers provides cover for people who argue that neuroscience will never decipher consciousness, or that free will lurks somehow among the billions and billions.

But the sheer number of cells in the human brain is unlikely to explain its extraordinary capabilities. Human livers have roughly the same number of cells as brains, but certainly don’t generate the same results. Brains themselves vary in size over a considerable range – by around 50 per cent in mass and likely number of brain cells. Radical removal of half of the brain is sometimes performed as a treatment for epilepsy in children. Commenting on a cohort of more than 50 patients who underwent this procedure, a team at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore wrote that they were ‘awed by the apparent retention of memory after removal of half of the brain, either half, and by the retention of the child’s personality and sense of humour’. Clearly not every brain cell is sacred.

If one looks out into the animal kingdom, vast ranges in brain size fail to correlate with apparent cognitive power at all. Some of the most perspicacious animals are the corvids – crows, ravens, and rooks – which have brains less than 1 per cent the size of a human brain, but still perform feats of cognition comparable to chimpanzees and gorillas. Behavioural studies have shown that these birds can make and use tools, and recognise people on the street, feats that even many primates are not known to achieve. Within individual orders, animals with similar characteristics also display huge differences in brain size. Among rodents, for instance, we can find the 80-gram capybara brain with 1.6 billion neurons and the 0.3-gram pygmy mouse brain with probably fewer than 60 million neurons. Despite a greater than 100-fold difference in brain size, these species live in similar habitats, display similarly social lifestyles, and do not display obvious differences in intelligence. Although neuroscience is only beginning to parse brain function even in small animals, such reference points show that it is mistaken to mystify the brain because of its sheer number of components.

Playing up the machine-like qualities of the brain or its unbelievable complexity distances it from the rest of the biological world in terms of its composition. But a related form of brain-body distinction exaggerates how the brain stands apart in terms of its autonomy from body and environment. This flavour of dualism contributes to the cerebral mystique by enhancing the brain’s reputation as a control centre, receptive to bodily and environmental input but still in charge.

Contrary to this idea, our brains themselves are perpetually influenced by torrents of sensory input. The environment shoots many megabytes of sensory data into the brain every second, enough information to disable many computers. The brain has no firewall against this onslaught. Brain-imaging studies show that even subtle sensory stimuli influence regions of the brain, ranging from low-level sensory regions where input enters the brain to parts of the frontal lobe, the high-level brain area that is expanded in humans compared with many other primates.

Many of these stimuli seem to take direct control of us. For instance, when we view illustrations, visual features often seem to grab our eyes and steer our gaze around in spatial patterns that are largely reproducible from person to person. If we see a face, our focus darts reflexively among eyes, nose and mouth, subconsciously taking in key features. When we walk down the street, our minds are similarly manipulated by stimuli in the surroundings – the honk of a car’s horn, the flashing of a neon light, the smell of pizza – each of which guides our thoughts and actions even if we don’t realise that anything has happened.

Even further below our radar are environmental features that act on a slower timescale to influence our mood and emotions. Seasonal low light levels are famous for their correlation with depression, a phenomenon first described by the South African physician Norman Rosenthal soon after he moved from sunny Johannesburg to the grey northeastern United States in the 1970s. Colours in our surroundings also affect us. Although the idea that colours have psychic power evokes New Age mysticism, careful experiments have repeatedly linked cold colours such as blue and green to positive emotional responses, and hot red hues to negative responses. In one example, researchers showed that participants performed worse on IQ tests labelled with red marks than on tests labelled with green or grey; another study found that subjects performed better on computerised creativity tests delivered on a blue background than on a red background.

Signals from within the body influence behaviour just as powerfully as influences from the environment, again usurping the brain’s command and challenging idealised conceptions of its supremacy. [Continue reading…]

Music: Weather Report — ‘Will’

 

Coastal communities struggling to adapt to climate change are beginning to do what was once unthinkable: retreat

Jen Schwartz writes:

Retreating from the coasts, in concept or practice, is not popular. Why would people abandon their community, the thinking goes, unless no better alternatives remained? To emergency responders, retreat is a form of flood mitigation. To environmental advocates, it’s ecological restoration. To resilience planners, it’s adaptation to climate change. Everyone agrees, however, that retreat sounds like defeat. It means admitting that humans have lost and that the water has won. “American political institutions, even our national mythology, are ill-suited to the indeterminacy and elasticity of nature,” wrote journalist Cornelia Dean nearly two decades ago in her book Against the Tide. “It would almost be un-American to concede … that it is we who must adapt to the ocean, not the other way around.”

The U.S. has occasionally experimented with retreat on a tiny scale by offering voluntary buyouts to waterlogged families. The outcome is rarely promising. “Buyouts are extremely expensive, extremely disruptive, and many of the attempts have not gone well,” says Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They invoke fear among citizens in every political stratum, bringing to mind land grabs, racist resettlement projects, class warfare, and, depending on your ideology, either federal overreach or federal abandonment. Because they require coordination among politicians, homeowners, lawyers, engineers, banks, insurers and all levels of government, they are enormously complicated to execute, even poorly. At their worst, buyouts break up community support systems, entrench inequality and leave a checkerboard of blighted lots in their wake. At their best, they avoid these things and still displace people from their homes.

Yet anyone who has looked at a map that forecasts sea-level rise can see that in low-lying neighborhoods exposed to the tides, some amount of retreat is inevitable. Regardless of how much and how quickly humans cut greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is already producing effects that cannot be reversed. Within a few decades, as saltwater begins to regularly block roads, kill wetlands, disrupt power supplies, bury popular beaches, undermine houses and turn common rainstorms into perilous floods, the most vulnerable pockets of coastal towns will become uninhabitable. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has warned, “today’s flood is tomorrow’s high tide.” [Continue reading…]