Archives for March 2019

It’s time to focus on Trump’s corruption

Michael Paarlberg writes:

It’s a fortunate thing for Donald Trump that the Democrats, and much of the media, spent the past two years focused on the narrow question of whether his 2016 campaign actively colluded with Russian agents to hack his opponents’ emails. Were it not for this singular obsession, we might have come to appreciate the full scope of graft, influence peddling and petty theft that has made this the most crooked administration in US history.

One doesn’t have to go to Moscow to see it; pick almost any country in the world. Take my former home, Panama, famous for its canal and secret banks. Towering over the Panama City skyline is a 70 story hotel-casino shaped like a sailboat formerly known as the Trump Ocean Club. Trump had gifted it to his daughter Ivanka as her first real estate deal, which court records show earned Trump between $30m and $50m. Ivanka Trump put in charge of its sales a Brazilian financier, whom a Reuters investigation identified as an admitted money launderer with ties to Russian organized crime, who would later be arrested for fraud and forgery.

A Global Witness report turned up evidence the hotel project was being used to launder “proceeds from Colombian cartels’ narcotics trafficking”. When the hotel’s owners decided the Trump name was bad, even for business this shady, and ended their contract with his organization, Trump’s lawyers asked Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela to intervene on Trump’s behalf. [Continue reading…]

For Russia, an assassin ends up as ‘a used bullet’ who can easily be replaced

Michael Schwirtz writes:

For months, I had been traveling in Russia and Europe, reporting on the poisoning last year in England of the former Russian spy, Sergei V. Skripal. It had touched off a geopolitical confrontation and brought talk of a new Cold War. Britain and its allies enacted sanctions and expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats after blaming the nerve agent attack on two officers from Russia’s military intelligence service, the G.R.U.

For Ukraine, Russian interference was an old reality. Russian special forces had seized Crimea in February 2014 and since then, the Kremlin has supplied arms, funding and troops to fuel a separatist war in eastern Ukraine that has cost 13,000 lives.

Assassinations happen frequently enough in Ukraine that they are often just blips in the local news cycle. In 2006, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin signed a law legalizing targeted killings abroad, and Ukrainian officials say teams of Russian hit men operate freely inside the country.

“For the intelligence services, as bad as this sounds, murdering people is just part of the work flow,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, a retired officer in Ukraine’s military intelligence service. “They go to work, it’s their job. You have a work flow, you write articles. They have a workflow, they murder people.”

“It doesn’t really worry them,” he said. “They celebrate it, mark it, without much sentiment.”

The Skripal poisoning had woken the West up to this. In Britain, authorities are now reviewing the cases of several Russians whose deaths on British soil were not initially deemed suspicious. In the United States, a bipartisan group of senators recently introduced legislation that would require the State Department to determine whether Russia should be deemed a state sponsor of terrorism.

“There’s no evidence to suggest that Russia can be deterred from making these kinds attacks,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former C.I.A. station chief who helped negotiate the release of Mr. Skripal from a Russian prison in 2010. “It really does fall on the people at risk to try to conceal their location and be on the lookout for any signs that the Russians might be targeting them.” [Continue reading…]

How many innocent people does the U.S. kill by remote control?

In an editorial, the New York Times says:

The Pentagon says American airstrikes in Somalia have killed no civilians since President Trump accelerated attacks against Shabab militants there two years ago.

Amnesty International investigated five of the more than 100 strikes carried out in Somalia since 2017 by drones and manned aircraft, and in just that small sampling found that at least 14 civilians were killed.

The Pentagon says airstrikes by the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State killed at least 1,257 civilians in Iraq and Syria as of the end of January.

Airwars, a university-based monitoring group, estimates that those strikes killed at least 7,500 civilians in those countries.

Those disparities show how poorly the American public understands the human cost of an air war fought largely by remote-controlled drones. Drones have been the main weapon in the counterterrorism fight for more than a decade. They kill extremists without risking American lives, making combat seem antiseptic on the home front. But the number of civilians killed in these attacks is shrouded in secrecy. [Continue reading…]

Leaked reports reveal how Saudis torture political prisoners

The Guardian reports:

Political prisoners in Saudi Arabia are said to be suffering from malnutrition, cuts, bruises and burns, according to leaked medical reports that are understood to have been prepared for the country’s ruler, King Salman.

The reports seem to provide the first documented evidence from within the heart of the royal court that political prisoners are facing severe physical abuse, despite the government’s denials that men and women in custody are being tortured.

The Guardian has been told the medical reports will be given to King Salman along with recommendations that are said to include a potential pardon for all the prisoners, or at least early release for those with serious health problems.

These options are part of a substantial internal review said to have been ordered by the king, who approved the commissioning of examinations of up to 60 prisoners, many of them women, for a report to be circulated around the royal court, a source said.

Some of the assessments were leaked to the Guardian, which asked the Saudi government to comment on the medical reports more than a week ago. A spokesman declined to discuss the issue, despite being given repeated opportunities to do so. Officials did not challenge the authenticity of the reports. [Continue reading…]

Across the Middle East and North Africa, environmentalists are coming under attack like never before

Peter Schwartzstein writes:

Conservation NGOs have been closed or so suffocated that they’re as good as dissolved. Activists and experts have been threatened into silence—or worse. A community that had until recently mostly escaped the fate of much of the region’s civil society has suddenly fallen afoul of the authorities. Its plight mirrors the difficulties faced by environmentalists worldwide. Globally, 197 environmental defenders were killed in 2017, according to the UN Environment Programme, a fivefold increase from a decade ago.

There’s little mystery to why this is happening. Debilitating droughts, worsening pollution, and soaring temperatures have contributed to severe resource scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years. And as environment-related unrest has proliferated, with protests in at least a dozen regional countries, people who were previously viewed as largely harmless “tree huggers” have been reappraised as spy-gear-wielding, frontier-traipsing, data-sharing threats. In a sad repetition of the security-state playbook, they, too, must now be co-opted or crushed.

“The intelligence system now feels that environment is a space that they need to be afraid of, because it can unite a lot of opposition voices, a lot of anger,” Kaveh Madani, a senior fellow at Yale University and a visiting professor at Imperial College London, told me. Madani served as deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment until he was arrested and then fled the country last spring. “Over the years, they’ve seen the problems increase and felt that things were getting out of control.” [Continue reading…]

Evidence of the most significant event in the history of life on Earth

Douglas Preston writes:

If, on a certain evening about sixty-­six million years ago, you had stood somewhere in North America and looked up at the sky, you would have soon made out what appeared to be a star. If you watched for an hour or two, the star would have seemed to grow in brightness, although it barely moved. That’s because it was not a star but an asteroid, and it was headed directly for Earth at about forty-five thousand miles an hour. Sixty hours later, the asteroid hit. The air in front was compressed and violently heated, and it blasted a hole through the atmosphere, generating a supersonic shock wave. The asteroid struck a shallow sea where the Yucatán peninsula is today. In that moment, the Cretaceous period ended and the Paleogene period began.

A few years ago, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory used what was then one of the world’s most powerful computers, the so-called Q Machine, to model the effects of the impact. The result was a slow-motion, second-by-second false-color video of the event. Within two minutes of slamming into Earth, the asteroid, which was at least six miles wide, had gouged a crater about eighteen miles deep and lofted twenty-five trillion metric tons of debris into the atmosphere. Picture the splash of a pebble falling into pond water, but on a planetary scale. When Earth’s crust rebounded, a peak higher than Mt. Everest briefly rose up. The energy released was more than that of a billion Hiroshima bombs, but the blast looked nothing like a nuclear explosion, with its signature mushroom cloud. Instead, the initial blowout formed a “rooster tail,” a gigantic jet of molten material, which exited the atmosphere, some of it fanning out over North America. Much of the material was several times hotter than the surface of the sun, and it set fire to everything within a thousand miles. In addition, an inverted cone of liquefied, superheated rock rose, spread outward as countless red-hot blobs of glass, called tektites, and blanketed the Western Hemisphere.

Some of the ejecta escaped Earth’s gravitational pull and went into irregular orbits around the sun. Over millions of years, bits of it found their way to other planets and moons in the solar system. Mars was eventually strewn with the debris—just as pieces of Mars, knocked aloft by ancient asteroid impacts, have been found on Earth. A 2013 study in the journal Astrobiology estimated that tens of thousands of pounds of impact rubble may have landed on Titan, a moon of Saturn, and on Europa and Callisto, which orbit Jupiter—three satellites that scientists believe may have promising habitats for life. Mathematical models indicate that at least some of this vagabond debris still harbored living microbes. The asteroid may have sown life throughout the solar system, even as it ravaged life on Earth. [Continue reading…]

Music: Colde — ‘Space’


Trump directs State Dept. to end aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador

The New York Times reports:

President Trump said on Friday that there would be a “very good likelihood” that he would seal off the United States border with Mexico next week, even as he moved to punish Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for migrant caravans by cutting off all foreign aid to the countries.

The moves escalated a sustained berating of countries he blames for being unable to stop the flow of migrants trying to make their way north.

Mr. Trump’s decision to end the aid to the Central American countries is likely to anger members of Congress from both parties, who have supported spending money to try to address the root causes of the violence that has caused migrants to flee those countries to come to the United States.

Currently, the United States spends about $620 million a year for gang prevention programs and other initiatives aimed at helping support civil society in the three countries. Advocates say that cutting the funds will only accelerate the migrant flows into the United States. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports:

Guatemala is the most unequal country in Central America with 59% of the population living in poverty without access to basic rights such as health, education, housing and justice, said Jorge Santos from Udefegua, an organisation which monitors attacks against activists, journalists and community leaders. The country’s politicians meanwhile, have been mired in a string of corruption scandals.

“There’s a growing feeling that there is little possibility of a dignified life in Guatemala which is producing the increased flow of migrants and refugees,” said Santos.

In November, Guatemalans overtook Mexicans as the largest nationality taken into CBP custody – an incredible figure considering that the population of Mexico is seven times larger than that of its southern neighbour.

In the fiscal year so far (October 2018 to February 2019), 12,576 unaccompanied Guatemalan children were apprehended at the southern border compared with a total of 13,726 from Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras.

Hondurans have also surpassed the number of Mexicans attempting to cross the border: in the first five months of the fiscal year, almost 52,000 Hondurans travelling in family groups were apprehended at the US border compared with 39,439 in the whole of 2018.

Migration from Honduras has accelerated amid a dire political, economic and security situation triggered by the 2009 coup which ushered in the pro-business and pro-military rightwing National party. An upsurge in human rights violations including high profile cases like the murder of the indigenous leader Berta Cáceres triggered international condemnation but failed to stop the bloodshed or stem US aid.

Central Americans are not just heading to the US: many are seeking safety in Mexico, where asylum requests by Guatemalans were up 333% in the first two months of 2019 compared with the same period last year. [Continue reading…]

Literally no one but Trump actually wants to close border crossings

Dara Lind writes:

Shutting down ports of entry would be an economic disaster. It would also disrupt the lives of border communities that rely on the flow of people between the US and Mexico — including the major cities of San Diego (and Tijuana) and El Paso (and Ciudad Juarez).

Approximately $1.5 billion worth of commerce happens along the US-Mexico border every day. Nearly half a million people cross the border legally every day through Texas ports alone.

Even reductions in port capacity or temporary shutdowns tend to lead to panic among the business community and local residents. El Paso is currently concerned that already-long waits at the ports could get longer as agents are reassigned to care for unauthorized migrants. When the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego shut down for a few hours in November, as agents responded with force (including tear gas) to an organized march of asylum seekers, the temporary closure cost about $5.3 million in lost business revenue.

Of course, making it harder for people to cross legally generally only encourages people to cross illegally — something that’s already been seen as the US has limited the number of asylum-seekers it allows to present themselves at ports.

Trump’s Friday tweets actually tacitly acknowledge that drug smuggling is more likely to happen at ports than between them — something he generally explicitly lies about. But drug smugglers are less likely than, say, banana exporters to just throw up their hands if a port is shut down, rather than finding other illegal ways to get drugs into the US.

Every time Trump tweets something like this, border-state legislators and business associations react with alarm. Generally, DHS officials stress that they understand the importance of keeping the ports open. But Trump by all appearances does not. [Continue reading…]

Trump’s order to open Arctic waters to oil drilling was unlawful, federal judge finds

The New York Times reports:

In a major legal blow to President Trump’s push to expand offshore oil and gas development, a federal judge ruled that an executive order by Mr. Trump that lifted an Obama-era ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean and parts of the North Atlantic coast was unlawful.

The decision, by Judge Sharon L. Gleason of the United States District Court for the District of Alaska, concluded late Friday that President Barack Obama’s 2015 and 2016 withdrawal from drilling of about 120 million acres of Arctic Ocean and about 3.8 million acres in the Atlantic “will remain in full force and effect unless and until revoked by Congress.” She wrote that an April 2017 executive order by Mr. Trump revoking the drilling ban “is unlawful, as it exceeded the president’s authority.”

The decision, which is expected to be appealed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, immediately reinstates the drilling ban on most of the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska, a pristine region home to endangered species including polar bears and bowhead whales where oil companies have long sought to drill. Along the Atlantic coast, it blocks drilling around a series of coral canyons that run from Norfolk, Va., to the Canadian border which are home to unique deepwater corals and rare fish species. [Continue reading…]