Saturday, January 31, 2015

02-01-15 Newsletter

February 1, 2015, Issue 213
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1.   Photo of The Month
2.   Have Obama and the Democratic Party Become Liberals?
3.   The 1% Own Half of Global Wealth
4.   Obama Mourns Death of Saudi Tyrant King
5.   Castro: End Embargo, Return Guantánamo
6.   AFL-CIO Steps Up Effort to Boost Low Wages
7.   Greece: The Shift Left, Class Struggle And Communist Tactics
8.   Islamic State: Weakened, But Not Defeated
9.   Myths About Keystone Pipeline
10. Enslaved by Technology
11. Albany Rally Defends Public Education
12. Cold Winter Misery in Devastated Gaza
13. Help Wanted: Fast Food Worker $15 an Hour
14. Obama Seeks to Protect Alaska Wilderness
15. Your License Plate Tells All To Uncle Sam
16. China Aids Venezuela and Ecuador

17. Is This Country Crazy? 


• An extraordinary major speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — that you never heard or read — was broadcast by Democracy Now on King Day, Jan. 19. The topics of this 1964 talk to an audience in London included segregation, the U.S. civil rights movement, nonviolence as a tactic and apartheid in South Africa. The tape of the speech was newly discovered in the archives of Pacifica Radio. Find it at

  Here’s an interesting fact released late last year that you may have missed: Research carried out for CNBC and Burson-Marsteller (a leading global public relations and communications firm) has determined that “An overwhelming 70%-plus of Americans said they feel that the government prefers large businesses over average citizens, while 80% of Chinese citizens said they believe that their government favors them over corporations.”

'Who built Thebes of the seven gates? 

In the books you will read the names of kings. 

Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?'
— Bertolt Brecht

Workers carry bricks Jan. 12 by balancing them on their heads
 at a brick factory in Lalitpur, Nepal. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar


Happy Days Are Here Again!

By Jack A. Smith

Has the 2015 center-right Democratic Party transmuted literally overnight into its old center-left visage of the mid-1960s — the party of Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, poverty programs, voting rights, desegregation and more? 

As he begins his seventh year in office, with negligible accomplishments behind him, President Barack Obama suddenly appears to have transformed into the candidate liberal voters thought they had elected in November 2008 — the candidate of “Yes we can!” and “Change we can believe in.” The liberal Nation weekly even headlined its editorial in the Feb. 6 edition: “Obama Gets His Mojo Back.”

We are referring of course to President Obama’s State of the Union speech Jan. 20 wherein he went far beyond the 12-step Economic Agenda put forward a month earlier by the independent self-described socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, a genuine friend of working people. Too bad Bernie, but you have just been out-mojoed by the new liberal superstar.

Time magazine, Sept. 24, 2008.
Why did this happen? The Democratic Party was whipped badly in the congressional elections, losing both House and Senate, and Obama’s popularity was down in the pits after six years of essentially giving in to the Republicans and ignoring the economic plight of working families. Dreading the prospect of two more years of humiliation and the potential Democratic loss of the 2016 presidential contest, Obama, his inner circle and some party big-wigs evidently decided that salvation may repose in conveying the impression of a move to liberalism for the time being.

The White House compiled a token list of unfulfilled progressive demands and beginning with “improving the fortunes of the middle class” included them in his annual State of the Union message. His new program incorporates free community college, tax credits for child care, new taxes and fees on high-income earners and large financial institutions, paid sick leave for all workers, paid maternity leave, retirement advantages, higher wages, pay equality for women, overtime pay, and more.

Wow, this is like Christmas every day for the next two years! Unfortunately, none of these proposals will pass a Republican House and Senate — except perhaps the corporate-friendly Trans Pacific Partnership free trade policy — as Obama well knows. But it makes him and his party look good to alienated Democrats and independents during the lead up to elections, and it won’t cost a dime.

The speech was an astonishing salvage job in terms of public relations, but from a left point of view such a miraculous metamorphosis is much too good to be true. We stand behind what we wrote in the Activist Newsletter a week before the 2008 election: “The center-right is completely inadequate to the task of resolving the multitude of complex economic, political and social problems confronting our people and our country.”

Had the president actually desired to embrace a liberal agenda he may have succeeded in passing significant legislation when the GOP was weak in 2009-10, but he would not try. He has ignored and distrusted the minority liberal sector in Congress for years has publicly disparaged liberalism several times in recent years.

He has also made it abundantly clear that his priority is to govern “as an American,” not a liberal or conservative — hence his continuing propensity for deep compromise with the right wing Republican opposition. Even his most liberal triumph, Obamacare, was not only a boon for the insurance companies but was directly based on the then center-right former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare plan. Since Romney’s conversion to the hard right, Obama was the only moderate Republican left standing until his sudden dalliance with liberalism.

So what was the motivation behind the president’s uncharacteristically liberal State of the Union speech wherein he told the American people “The shadow of [economic] crisis has passed” and “tonight, we turn the page”? 

But first we must question the assertion that the crisis has passed. Yes, there has been a temporary uptick in American capitalism’s long-term economic stagnation that has benefitted the corporations, banks, Wall St. and the 1%. It is not true in any significant sense for the majority of the people — the poor, working class, lower middle class and sectors of the middle class.

A page has been turned but all it reveals is that Obama’s promises can’t materialize in the remainder of his term and who knows where the 2016 Democratic candidate will stand on social priorities? The whole project may swiftly run out of steam — one more State of the Union speech full of false promises.

Obama has at least three purposes for such an uncharacteristic speech:

1.  Legacy: Obama obviously intends to spend his remaining two years in office reconstructing his ne'er-do-well record and deflated image. He will appear to fight for the people by proposing liberal programs that most working people have wanted all along but haven’t obtained since the early 1970s, including from four years of Democrat Carter, eight years of Democrat Clinton, and six years of Obama.

Instead of spending the next two “lame duck” years brooding about his setbacks and ongoing humiliations from Republican congressional leaders, he has taken an unexpected initiative with a spanking new program for the occasion. When he loses in Congress he will be hailed by history as having put up a good fight for a popular cause. It’s an admirable ploy. In addition he has undercut Republican plans to appear less obstructive and more willing to compromise in the next two years. Let’s see them compromise on mandatory sick leave or free community college tuition.

2.  Election 2016: A show of concern for the economic and social difficulties plaguing a majority of Americans during 2015-16 will help the Democratic Party win the 2016 election. Its clear lack of concern in recent decades is one reason why the majority of the white working class has voted Republican.

The Economist of Jan. 24 put it this way: “This State of the Union message is best seen not so much as a statement of Mr. Obama’s intentions for the last two years of his presidency but as an attempt to influence the election campaign of 2016. He seems to be gambling that while Republicans in Congress will obstruct him, he can talk over them — and perhaps force them to adopt some of his ideas or else be seen fighting to protect the perks of the wealthy.‘Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?’asked Mr. Obama, daring the Republicans to say yes.”  

3.  “Inclusive Capitalism”: The malignant growth of economic inequality in America, the shrinking of the middle class, wage stagnation or low wages for the multitudes while the 1% and its minions prosper is now viewed by key exponents of global capitalism as a potential danger to the “free market” system. In effect, “How long will the masses of people put up with this?” In addition, widespread low wages reduce consumption, thus cutting profits.

Leading capitalists have promoted the concept of “inclusive capitalism” to avoid eventual mass resistance  — that is, taking relatively small steps to make it seem that capitalism actually cares about the human beings it exploits. Supporters of this concept in the U.S. include leading economists (such as former Democratic Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers), politicians (including Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY), business leaders, bankers, and financiers, among others.

Obama’s suggestions fall within this capitalist gambit to safeguard the system by offering small “concessions” to working people to deflect social anger away from the 1% and the elite power structure. Some of his State of the Union proposals are good. They will not be approved, but it will appear to many Americans that “at least someone cares about our troubles.” Obama’s legacy is already bubbling over in anticipation of the result.

In time, if there is sufficient organized agitation and serious protests against mounting economic inequality, it may be possible to obtain some legislation that will benefit the people. But of course it is going to take a great deal more than that for American workers to bring about the construction of a society truly open to the concept of approximate economic and social equality, a goal that humanity deserves, even though it must leave the 1% and its hangers-on behind.


Excerpted from The Guardian, Jan. 19, 2015

The anti-poverty global organization Oxfam reported Jan. 19 that current trends indicate that in just one more year 1% of the world’s population will own more wealth than the other 99%.

Oxfam’s research shows that the share of the world’s wealth owned by the rich 1% has increased from 44% in 2009 to 48% in 2014, while the least well-off 80% currently own just 5.5%. The group added that on current trends the richest 1% would own more than 50% of the world’s wealth by 2016.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International and one of the six co-chairs at this year’s January World Economic Forum in Davos, said the increased concentration of wealth seen since the deep recession of 2008-09 was dangerous and needs to be reversed.

In an interview with the Guardian, Byanyima said: “We want to bring a message from the people in the poorest countries in the world to the forum of the most powerful business and political leaders.

“The message is that rising inequality is dangerous. It’s bad for growth and it’s bad for governance. We see a concentration of wealth capturing power and leaving ordinary people voiceless and their interests uncared for.”

Oxfam made headlines at Davos last year with a study showing that the 85 richest people on the planet have the same wealth as the poorest 50% (3.5 billion people). The charity said this year that the comparison was now even more stark, with just 80 people owning the same amount of wealth as more than 3.5 billion people, down from 388 in 2010.

Oxfam said it was calling on governments to adopt a seven-point plan:

1. Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals. 2. Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education. 3. Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labor and consumption towards capital and wealth. 4. Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers. 5. Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal. 6. Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum-income guarantee. 7. Agree to a global goal to tackle inequality.

From the Activist Newsletter: The idea that 80 people own as much wealth as 3.5 billion who live in poverty, or that a relative handful own as much as 7 billion would be unacceptable in a rational society. We have to come to our senses and transform the capitalist socio-economic system into a socialist system of basic equality. Feeling the heat these days the 1% and the politicians that serve their interests will be making speeches about reducing inequality, but who’s kidding whom? The only way things will change is when the people take power.



President Obama landed in Saudi Arabia Jan. 27 to meet with King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud and express condolences on the death of King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz. He was accompanied by high-ranking government officials from past administrations

[Washington’s support for the reactionary Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the most acute of many contradictions between the U.S. government’s rhetoric about democracy and its intimate relations with dictators. The Saudi king just died and the White House eulogy included a remembrance of “The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries.”]

By Murtaza Hussain

After nearly 20 years as de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah died Jan. 22 at the age of 90. Abdullah, who took power after his predecessor King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, ruled as absolute monarch of a country which protected American interests but also sowed strife and extremism throughout the Middle East and the world.

In an official statement, President Obama declared: “It is with deep respect that I express my personal condolences and the sympathies of the American people to the family of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and to the people of Saudi Arabia.... I always valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship.”

Secretary of State John Kerry opined: “King Abdullah was a man of wisdom and vision. The U.S. has lost a friend... and world has lost a revered leader.” Sen. John McCain eulogized Abdullah as “a vocal advocate for peace, speaking out against violence in the Middle East.” Not to be outdone, Vice President Joe Biden released a statement mourning Abdullah and announced that he would be personally leading a presidential delegation to offer condolences on his passing.

It’s not often that the unelected leader of a country that publicly flogs dissidents and beheads people for sorcery wins such glowing praise from American officials. Even more perplexing, perhaps, have been the fawning obituaries in the mainstream press that have faithfully echoed this characterization of Abdullah as a benign and well-intentioned man of peace.

Tiptoeing around his brutal dictatorship, The Washington Post characterized Abdullah as a “wily king” while The New York Times inexplicably referred to him as “a force of moderation,” also suggesting that evidence of his moderation included having had: “hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded.”

While granting that Abdullah might be considered a relative moderate within the brazenly anachronistic House of Saud, the fact remains that he presided for two decades over a regime which engaged in wanton human rights abuses, instrumentalized religious chauvinism, and played a hugely counterrevolutionary role in regional politics.

Public beheadings are not uncommon.
Above all, he was not a leader who shied away from both calling for and engineering more conflict in the Middle East. In contrast to Sen. McCain’s description of Abdullah as “a vocal advocate of peace”, a State Department diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks revealed him in fact directly advocating for the United States to start more wars in the region.

In a quote recorded in a 2008 diplomatic cable, Abdullah exhorted American officials to “cut the head off the snake” by launching fresh military action against Iran. Notably, this war advocacy came in the midst of the still-ongoing bloodshed of the Iraq War, which had apparently left him unfazed about the prospect of a further escalation in regional warfare.

Abdullah’s government also waged hugely destructive proxy conflicts wherever direct American intervention on its behalf was not forthcoming. Indeed, in the case of almost every Arab Spring uprising, Saudi Arabia attempted to intervene forcefully in order to either shore up existing regimes or shape revolutions to conform with their own interests.

In Bahrain, Saudi forces intervened to crush a Shi’ite popular uprising which had threatened the rule of the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy, while in Syria Saudi-backed factions have helped turn what was once a popular democratic uprising into a bloody, intractable proxy war between regional rivals which is now a main driver of extremism in the Middle East.

Saudi efforts at counterrevolution and co-optation under Abdullah took more obliquely brutal forms as well. In the midst of the 2011 revolution in Egypt, when seemingly the entire world was rallying in support of the protestors in Tahrir Square, King Abdullah stood resolutely and unapologetically on the side of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. A few years later when the pendulum swung back towards dictatorship after Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi’s bloody 2013 coup against an elected government, Abdullah and his fellow monarchs were there to lavish much needed financial assistance upon the new regime.

With increasingly disastrous consequences, Abdullah’s government also employed sectarianism as a force to help divide-and-conquer regional populations and insulate his own government from the threat of uprising. It also cynically utilized its official religious authorities to try and equate political dissent with sinfulness.

This ostentatiously reckless behavior nevertheless seemed to win Abdullah’s regime the tacit approval of the American government, which steadfastly continued to treat him as a partner in fighting terrorism and maintaining regional stability.

Demonstration in front of White House demanding Saudi rights.
Despite recent tensions over American policy towards Iran and Syria, Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah played a vital role in U.S. counterterrorism operations. The country quietly hosts a CIA drone base used for conducting strikes into Yemen, including the strike believed to have killed American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. More controversially, Abdullah’s government is also believed to have provided extensive logistical support for American military operations during the invasion of Iraq, an uncomfortable fact which the kingdom has understandably tried to keep quiet with its own population.

Perhaps most importantly however, King Abdullah upheld the economic cornerstones of America’s long and fateful alliance with Saudi Arabia: arms purchases and the maintenance of a reliable flow of oil from the country to global markets.

Given the foundations upon which American-Saudi ties rest, it’s unlikely that the relationship will be drastically altered by the passing of King Abdullah and the succession of his brother Prince Salman. Regardless of how venal, reckless, or brutal his government may choose to be, as long as it protects American interests in the Middle East it will inevitably be showered with plaudits and support, just as its predecessor was.

— From The Intercept,


By the Activist Newsletter

Cuban President Raul Castro announced Jan. 28 that the Havana government had two specific conditions that must be met by Washington before normalized relations between Cuba and the U.S. would be possible.

They are ending the decades-long economic sanctions against the small communist country and returning the 45-square-mile Guantánamo Naval Base to its rightful owner, Cuba. For the last 13 years the U.S. has devoted the base to torturing and incarcerating suspected Muslim “terrorists.”

In agreeing to a rapprochement between the two neighboring countries in December President Obama indicated that ending the embargo was a matter that only Congress could decide.

Obviously, as long as Congress is in the hands of right wing and far fight representatives, the embargo will continue. Cuba’s development has been stunted by these sanctions since soon after the successful popular revolution of Jan 1, 1959, liberated Cuba from 467 years of foreign domination.

Addressing the summit meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States  in Costa Rica, Castro declared: "President Barack Obama could use his wide-ranging executive authority to modify substantially the application of the blockade. It’s in his hands to do this without a decision from Congress."

Members of the 33-nation organization, which does not include the U.S., voted to back Castro’s demand.

While it is true that Congress exercises authority over most of the sanctions, President Obama is not powerless to end some or perhaps all of them by executive action. In this connection, the Trading With the Enemy Act — under which sanctions are enforced — defines “enemy” as a country with which the U.S. is at war. Technically, since no war was declared and a state of war does not exist, this law may not legally apply.

The U.S. obtained the use of Guantánamo in return for a modest annual sum as part of an unequal treaty known as the Platt Amendment of 1903 that essentially made Cuba a protectorate of the United States. Cuba has demanded the return of Guantánamo for decades and since the revolution has made a practice of returning the yearly rent, envelope unopened, in protest.

The Obama Administration has not addressed President Castro’s demand to end the embargo but declared Jan. 30 that it did not intend to return Guantánamo.

Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban revolution.
In another development, former Cuban President Fidel Castro declared his support for efforts to reestablish diplomatic relations between the two countries and once again emphasized the necessity to resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner.

Fidel, an invalid at 88, declared Jan. 26: “Defending peace is the duty of everyone. Any peaceful or negotiated solution to the problems between the United States and the peoples or any people of Latin America that doesn’t imply force or the use of force should be treated in accordance with international norms and principles. We will always defend cooperation and friendship with all the peoples of the world, among them our political adversaries.”

However, the man who led the Cuban revolution also declared: “I don't trust the policy of the United States, nor have I exchanged a word with them, but this does not mean I reject a pacific solution to the conflicts.”

By Melanie Trottman
The AFL-CIO is ratcheting up its battle to raise pay for America’s low-wage workers, in part by conducting a series of state-based summits about low wages and holding politicians accountable who fail to make the topic a central focus.

Low wage strikers in Detroit  last September.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced the ramped-up efforts Jan. 7  at the union federation’s first-ever national summit on raising wages, where Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Labor Secretary Tom Perez delivered speeches to a mix of union activists, think tank officials, academics and others.

Sen. Warren (D-Mass.), an outspoken ally of labor’s in Congress, was the keynote speaker and made remarks that drew a standing ovation from the crowd.  “America’s middle class is in deep trouble,” she said, emphasizing a need to address  income inequalities in part by raising low wages and protecting retirement benefits, such as Social Security, Medicare and pensions.  

“No one should work full time and still live in poverty and that means raising the minimum wage,” said Warren, who shared a personal childhood story   her mother having to get a minimum-wage job at retailer Sears to help support the family after her father had a heart attack. “Unlike today, a minimum wage job back then paid enough to support a family,” she said.

Trumka said summit in Washington is about Americans sharing the wealth that they’ve collectively created, and will be followed by similar events in the first four presidential primary states of Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The summit in Iowa will be up first this spring, he said.

In addition, the group  will expand its “Raising Wages” campaign beyond the five Southern cities it has focused on to date, spreading it to Atlanta, Washington, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Diego and Columbus,Ohio. The organization will work with its community partners and affiliates.
“We are beginning to rise up, to come together,” Trumka said in the closing speech at the summit. “We are tired of people talking about inequality as if nothing can be done.” 

Labor Secretary Tom Perez said in his remarks that, “there are too many people working hard who haven’t seen a raise in years.” The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour hasn’t changed since mid-2009.

Labor officials and others who support a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and tie it to inflation have had no success advancing it in Congress. They’ve turned to states and cities instead, where they’ve managed to make some progress boosting wage floors beyond the federal proposal, such as in Seattle where the minimum will rise to $15 an hour over several years. Part of the strategy has involved union-backed strikes and protests of businesses by low-wage workers from increasingly varied workplaces.  

— From Washington Wire


Supporters of leftist Syriza party cheer the results in Athens, Greece. 
By the Party for Socialism and Liberation

The situation in Greece and Europe as a whole has taken a dramatic turn with the electoral victory Jan. 25 of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and its leader, Alexis Tsipras, as prime minister.

Poor and working people in Greece, who have suffered tremendously under austerity measures that have stripped away the gains won over decades of struggle, expect the new government to deliver on its promise to end this offensive against social rights and reduce the country’s debt burden.

SYRIZA’s 40-point program calls for a complete break with austerity: reversing wage cuts, guaranteed health care for the poor, strong labor regulations and unemployment insurance, housing for the homeless, among others. At the same time, it calls for increasing taxes on the rich and their luxury items, prohibiting speculative financial derivatives, eliminating the financial privileges of the shipping industry and Church, and nationalizing private banks and hospitals. In foreign policy, it calls for closing all foreign bases, getting out of NATO and ending military cooperation with Israel.

It is unprecedented in recent history for a self-described radical leftist party to lead a government in Europe, and because of this progressives and revolutionaries around the world are closely following the situation.

The victory for SYRIZA was even bigger than opinion polls suggested. The formerly ruling, right-wing New Democracy party won just under 28% of the vote, compared to slightly over 36% for SYRIZA. The neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn came in third with 6.3%. PASOK, a social democratic party that used to dominate Greek politics alongside ND, was crushed, receiving less than 5%. Of the parties that participated in the last general election, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was the only one other than SYRIZA to increase their share of the vote, albeit modestly, from 4.5 to 5.5%. Combined, 42% of the population voted for a radical left or communist party.

The new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. 
While the main development to come out of the Greek election is the ascension of SYRIZA, it must be noted that Golden Dawn continues to attract considerable support, also benefiting from the discrediting of the Greek political establishment. 

Following the murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by a Golden Dawn member, almost the entire leadership of the neo-Nazi movement was imprisoned on charges of leading a criminal organization. Despite what would normally be a crippling setback, the fascists only received one less seat than they did in the last parliamentary election. Golden Dawn has been able to build an especially deep base of support within the security apparatus of the state, including the police, and remains a serious threat to all progressive forces — particularly as the class struggle intensifies.

SYRIZA Reassures European Bankers

The fundamental contradiction of the moment is between the people’s desire for radical change and the institutions of capitalist rule, in Greece and the Eurozone, that are determined to prevent such change. EU leaders imposed austerity on Greece through punishing debt obligations, which SYRIZA now inherits as the head of government. All eyes are now on the country’s new leadership: will it do whatever is necessary to carry out its own program, which the people voted for and which would greatly improve the lives of millions, or will it yield to the power of the banks?

In reality, though, no maneuver by the SYRIZA leadership can solve the larger contradiction. The vast hardship caused by economic crises, depressed living conditions and capital flight cannot be resolved in the context of capitalism. Only the revolutionary transformation of society — in which working and oppressed people seize power and put the means of production under collective control — can break this cycle. The task of revolutionary Marxists is to participate in the struggle for reform in such a way that advances the working class, politically and organizationally, towards this revolutionary conclusion.
This is not the orientation of Tsipras and the top SYRIZA leadership, which has repeatedly assured the ruling classes of Europe that they seek only to reform, not to overthrow, the capitalist system....



Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in December after stopping  Islamic State's second attempt to capture Iraq's Mount Singar. Kurd and Iraqi troops  recently gained victory in Kobani.  (Safin Hamed, AFP via Getty.) 
By Stratfor, Jan.29, 2015

Multiple actors, backed by considerable coalition air power, have effectively halted the massive gains made by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The group is increasingly being forced onto the strategic defensive, but it is far from defeat and is still able to launch attacks and offensives across the region on the tactical and operational level. Following is an analysis of IS’s various fronts of struggle in both countries.

Syria: Kobani
Faced with a spirited defense by Kurdish People's Protection units and Free Syrian Army fighters, both backed by persistent airstrikes, the Islamic State has proved unable to seize Kobani, which is more important symbolically than strategically. In fact, the Islamic State has lost more than a thousand fighters while trying to seize the town and now finds itself on the verge of defeat as Kobani's defenders counterattack and reclaim territory in and around it.

Kobani is a severe drain on the Islamic State, depriving it of large numbers of fighters and many of its core-combat hardened veterans, who have proved effective in company sized maneuver warfare. Indeed, by the time the Islamic State was being pushed out of Kobani, it was dispatching fresh recruits with very little training; some less than 18 years of age. The Islamic State would have been better served to concentrate on an objective that was not as heavily backed by deadly coalition air power. That Kobani is of such minimal strategic importance reinforces the folly of the Islamic State's repeated and costly attempts to seize the town.

With the battle for Kobani all but lost in the north, the Islamic State finds itself forced onto the defensive, north and northeast of Raqqa. The IS may still launch offensives in the Aleppo governorate, but the chances for success in the area are slight, given the losses sustained and continuing coalition air cover.

Syria: Deir el-Zour
The continued government presence in Deir el-Zour is a thorn in the side of the Islamic State. Events in Iraq and Kobani had distracted the group in Deir el-Zour, allowing Syrian government forces to widen their perimeter and attempt to seize the city. Last December, however, the Islamic State finally turned its attention back on Deir el-Zour and, with thousands of reinforcements from Anbar and areas of Syria, launched a surprise counterattack.

Though they initially pushed loyalist forces back in a number of areas and reached the perimeter of a critical airfield, the Islamic State failed to marshal the forces necessary to press its offensive. The loyalists, including a large number of the elite Republican Guard in well-defended positions, complicated the Islamic State's efforts. Government forces remained firm in their determination to maintain a presence in Deir el-Zour and have dispatched significant reinforcements to their positions around the area.

Over the past two weeks, the loyalists, backed by air power and fresh reinforcements, have gone on the offensive once more. IS has been unable to adequately defend against these attacks and has lost previously captured territory on Saqer Island and in the strategically located village of Al-Mari'iyyah near the military airport.

Overall Syrian Situation
The Islamic State's reversals in Kobani and Deir el-Zour have been some of the harshest in Syria since the group declared itself the head of a caliphate. However, the militant group is hardly less dangerous, as its continued presence in vast areas of Syria attests. IS is particularly dangerous in eastern Homs province and may seek to capitalize on recent infighting between the Syrian government and the Kurds in al-Hasaka.

Still, the extremist group is increasingly beleaguered as it faces multiple difficult fronts against rebels, Kurdish fighters and loyalists. The evolving situation in Iraq is also increasing the demand on the Islamic State's limited fighters and resources, further spreading the group thin. Moreover, coalition air power has repeatedly struck the oil infrastructure controlled by the group, impacting its ability to finance their efforts. Ultimately, however, the greatest threat to the Islamic State is internal: A considerable number of reports point to dissent within the ranks and from the citizenry forced to live under the group's harsh rule.

IS soldier fires back during attack by Iraqi forces. (AFP, Getty Images)

The Fight In Iraq
In Iraq, the struggle to dislodge the Islamic State from its territorial holdings continues at a slow pace. The rapid advances made by the group last summer have been checked by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes coupled with various Iraqi ground forces. The coalition has also provided combat guidance, intelligence, training and logistics. Weapons such as MILAN anti-tank missile systems have been widely employed by the peshmerga to great effect because of the training provided. Iran has also been supportive of some Iraqi forces outside the structure of the U.S.-led coalition. Shiite militias ranging from professional and experienced units to newly minted volunteer battalions have added their weight to the forces cobbled together to resist the Islamic State. This weight, much like in Syria, has weakened the Islamic State, allowing the group's opponents various gains in the effort to displace militants from major population areas.

Near Baghdad
In Anbar province, along the Euphrates River Valley west of Baghdad, success has been mixed at best for Iraqi security forces. All of the major urban areas are contested or occupied by the Islamic State. Furthermore, for every village security forces retake, another is lost to an Islamic State counterattack. In many places, security forces are surrounded in pockets, stuck protecting key infrastructure such as Haditha Dam.

Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, has been the biggest success story for Iraqi security forces so far. A combination of Iraqi army, police, peshmerga, Shiite militias and Iranian advisers with additional artillery support has successfully removed the Islamic State. However, this has come at a cost, as allegations of atrocities against Sunni civilians provide fuel for further sectarian strife.

Northern Iraq
The most recent operational success has been in the far north in areas around Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and currently the uncontested seat of the Islamic State in northern Iraq. The peshmerga, bolstered by coalition air power and select Iraqi army forces such as the elite Golden Brigades, have retaken territory around Mosul Dam, Rabi'ah border crossing, and much of the area around Sinjar. Last week, around 5,000 peshmerga drove to a critical intersection east by northeast of Tal Afar, severing an important supply line into Mosul. While this action will not sever logistical flows, it will extend the supply line and increase the friction of transit into the city. The ring around Mosul on the western, northern and eastern sides is being constricted by peshmerga, who have used artillery rockets on the city itself to interdict a reported gathering of fighters. Firing rockets is a dangerous tactic, however, because Sunni Arab civilian casualties could bolster support for the Islamic State.

Taking Mosul
All of these northern operations are just preparation for an offensive on Mosul itself, but the Islamic State is doing more than just hunkering down. Throughout the north they have unleashed assaults on various points along the line against peshmerga positions. While they have failed to capture territory, many of the offensives have caused relatively heavy casualties in the peshmerga ranks. These offensives are likely being done to spread peshmerga forces as thinly as possible, blunting their ability to concentrate on Islamic State positions. As of now, the Islamic State has spent a lot of resources but has been unsuccessful in breaking through the peshmerga constriction around Mosul.

Syrian President Assad visiting troops.
It will require a massive offensive to finally dislodge the Islamic State from Mosul. The Iraqi army will need to push north and close the southern approach along the Tigris River Valley. Security forces are still invested around Tikrit and Beiji, where they have had limited success for months. Much of the army (and police) is also still reeling from last year's collapse. Coalition forces are training Iraqis, but it takes time to produce capable forces. Aside from the soldiers, the most significant gaps revealed last summer were in leadership — at every level from the squad leader to the division commander. It is far easier to give a soldier basic training skills than it is to train a platoon leader or battalion commander. In addition, many of the competent units in the Iraqi army are being held in Baghdad to secure the seat of the government. It has been difficult to convince decision-makers to send them north for what is sure to be protracted urban warfare.

Ultimately, much has to happen for Iraqi security forces to seriously invest in Mosul. Even then, the military approach is only a partial solution to the larger problem of Sunni support for militants. Some elements of the Sunni tribal structure are supportive of Baghdad, and there are plans to create a national guard for each province to galvanize and organize Sunni support against the Islamic State. But these plans are in their nascent stages and have not been executed in a way that would affect northern disposition. Plans to liberate Mosul will begin in a few months, at the earliest, and the ensuing fight will last months more. Meanwhile, the fight against the Islamic State in the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq will be a years-long fight. However, it will be hard for the various forces arrayed against the group to sustain their focus, as they will also deal with internal disputes over their own self-interests, sectarianism and resource control.

— Stratfor is a commercial intelligence organization. The link to this article is at:

The Islamic State Is Weakened, But Not Defeated | Stratfor 

 By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guarsdian

America has 2.5 million miles of oil and gas pipelines. But none of those pipelines are anywhere near as contentious as the Keystone XL, which would transport tar sands crude oil from Canada to refineries on the U.S. gulf coast. Over the past six-plus years, Keystone has become a stand-in for a broader debate about climate change. It’s also the subject of much myth-making about climate change and the economy. Here are some of the most prominent of those myths, and the truth behind them.

Obama inspecting the pipes in the southern section.
Myth #1: Keystone XL won’t contribute to climate change
The State Department said the pipeline would not have a significant impact on development of the tar sands or crude oil demand – and so would not have much impact on climate change. But even the State Department’s own analysis found the pipeline, once operational, would cause the equivalent emissions of 300,000 cars a year, and it noted that tar sands were 17% more carbon intensive than the average barrel of U.S. crude oil. Subsequent analyses by the Congressional Research Service have found tar sands up to 20% more carbon intensive than the average barrel of crude.

Myth #2: Keystone will create thousands of jobs
The American Petroleum Institute lobby group claimed in 2009 that Keystone would create up to 343,000 new U.S. jobs over a four-year period, based on demand for new goods and services, and add up to $34bn to the U.S. economy in 2015. However, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service found those estimates were based on an internal study that had not been subject to review. The State Department in its analysis found Keystone would create about 42,000 direct and indirect temporary construction jobs, and about 50 permanent jobs once construction is finished.

Myth #3: Keystone will free the U.S. from undemocratic oil regimes
Canada already supplies up to 33% of US oil imports – more than Mexico and Saudi Arabia combined. “The energy security implications of increased Canadian crude supplies in a global market are, therefore, somewhat unpredictable,” the Congressional Research Service found. Most of the 830,000 barrels of oil a day transported by Keystone will be exported. There is a plan for a lateral spur, which will take up to 12% of Keystone XL capacity, for oil from the Bakken shale that covers North Dakota and Montana.

Myth #4: Keystone will lower gasoline prices
Gasoline prices are already at their lowest levels in decades, as any driver knows. Keystone will have no effect on local prices at the pump because there is no direct link between gas prices and local oil production or availability. Gas prices are determined by the international prices for a barrel of oil.


[Predictions about the future are always provisional, but the scenario depicted in this article contains a disturbing element of possibility. The author is an attorney and founder-president of Rutherford Institute, a libertarian organization that fights to defend civil liberties.]

By John Whitehead

If ever Americans sell their birthright, it will be for the promise of expediency and comfort delivered by way of blazingly fast Internet, cell phone signals that never drop a call, thermostats that keep us at the perfect temperature without our having to raise a finger, and entertainment that can be simultaneously streamed to our TVs, tablets and cell phones.

Likewise, if ever we find ourselves in bondage, we will have only ourselves to blame for having forged the chains through our own lassitude, laziness and abject reliance on internet-connected gadgets and gizmos that render us wholly irrelevant.

Indeed, while most of us are consumed with our selfies and trying to keep up with what our friends are posting on Facebook, the megacorporation Google has been busily partnering with the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, and other governmental agencies to develop a new “human” species.

In other words, Google—a neural network that approximates a global brain—is fusing with the human mind in a phenomenon that is called “singularity,” and they’ve hired transhumanist scientist Ray Kurzweil to do just that. Google will know the answer to your question before you have asked it, Kurzweil said.

                               Google's Brain.

It will have read every email you will ever have written, every document, every idle thought you’ve ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself.”

But here’s the catch: the NSA and other government agencies will also know you better than yourself. As William Binney, one of the highest-level whistleblowers to ever emerge from the NSA said, “The ultimate goal of the NSA is total population control.” Science fiction, thus, has become fact.

We’re fast approaching Philip K. Dick’s vision of the future as depicted in the film “Minority Report.” There, police agencies apprehend criminals before they can commit a crime, driverless cars populate the highways, and a person’s biometrics are constantly scanned and used to track their movements, target them for advertising, and keep them under perpetual surveillance.

Cue the dawning of the Age of the Internet of Things, in which internet-connected “things” will monitor your home, your health and your habits in order to keep your pantry stocked, your utilities regulated and your life under control and relatively worry-free.

The key word here, however, is control.

In the not-too-distant future, “just about every device you have — and even products like chairs, that you don’t normally expect to see technology in — will be connected and talking to each other.”
This “connected” industry—estimated to add more than $14 trillion to the economy by 2020—is about to be the next big thing in terms of societal transformations, right up there with the Industrial Revolution, a watershed moment in technology and culture.

Between driverless cars that completely lacking a steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedal, and smart pills embedded with computer chips, sensors, cameras and robots, we are poised to outpace the imaginations of science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov.

The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is a glittering showcase for such Internet-connected techno gadgets as smart light bulbs that discourage burglars by making your house look occupied, smart thermostats that regulate the temperature of your home based on your activities, and smart doorbells that let you see who is at your front door without leaving the comfort of your couch.

Smart Thermostat.
Nest, Google’s $3 billion acquisition, has been at the forefront of the “connected” industry, with such technologically savvy conveniences as a smart lock that tells your thermostat who is home, what temperatures they like, and when your home is unoccupied; a home phone service system that interacts with your connected devices to “learn when you come and go” and alert you if your kids don’t come home; and a sleep system that will monitor when you fall asleep, when you wake up, and keep the house noises and temperature in a sleep-conducive state.

It’s not just our homes that are being reordered and reimagined in this connected age: it’s our workplaces, our health systems, our government and our very bodies that are being plugged into a matrix over which we have no real control.

Unfortunately, in our race to the future, we have failed to consider what such dependence on technology might mean for our humanity, not to mention our freedoms.

For instance, if you were shocked by Edward Snowden’s revelations about how NSA agents have used surveillance to spy on Americans’ phone calls, emails and text messages, can you imagine what unscrupulous government agents could do with access to your internet-connected car, home and medications? Imagine what a SWAT team could do with the ability to access, monitor and control your internet-connected home—locking you in, turning off the lights, activating alarms, etc.

To those still reeling from a year of police shootings of unarmed citizens, SWAT team raids, and community uprisings, the menace of government surveillance can’t begin to compare to bullet-riddled bodies, devastated survivors and traumatized children. However, both approaches are just as lethal to our freedoms if left unchecked.

Control is the key here. As I make clear in my book “A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State,” total control over every aspect of our lives, right down to our inner thoughts, is the objective of any totalitarian regime.

George Orwell understood this. His masterpiece, “1984,” portrays a global society of total control in which people are not allowed to have thoughts that in any way disagree with the corporate state. There is no personal freedom, and advanced technology has become the driving force behind a surveillance-driven society. Snitches and cameras are everywhere. And people are subject to the Thought Police, who deal with anyone guilty of thought crimes. The government, or “Party,” is headed by Big Brother, who appears on posters everywhere with the words: “Big Brother is watching you.”

Make no mistake: the Internet of Things is just Big Brother in a more appealing disguise.

— From the Blaze Jan. 8, 2015.

New Yorkers protest in state capitol against Gov. Cuomo's education plans.
By Lauren McCauley

Parents, students, educators and civil rights leaders packed the Capitol building rotunda in Albany Jan. 12 to call criticize New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for perpetuating inequality through what they say are "immoral" education policies.

Holding signs that read "School Teachers over Hedge Funders" and "Gov. Cuomo, you say that you care, so why don't you share," demonstrators heard addresses from public education leaders before taking part in a read-in, during which people read excerpts from documents ranging from the New York State Constitution to Dr. Seuss. 

Convened by a coalition of education advocates, the protest called on the governor to "fund education fairly and equitably," back policies that protect public schools and respect parents, students and teachers, as well as "stop hedge fund billionaires from taking over public education."

The New York action was organized under the banner of Moral Monday, a grassroots movement spearheaded by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and its leader Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, who was honored as the rally keynote speake. Also in attendance were leaders from a number of national teachers unions as well as Dr. Hazel Dukes, president of the New York State NAACP.

The rally comes a day after the New York Daily News published the results of a report by state education advocates which found that funding inequity between poor and rich school districts across New York has reached "record levels under Gov. Cuomo—and has soared 43% in New York City." The Daily News continued:

“Overall, schools in poorer districts spent $8,733 per pupil less in 2012 than those from wealthier ones, an inequity that grew by nearly 9% from before Cuomo took office in 2011, according to the study by a coalition of education advocacy groups opposing many of the reforms pushed by Cuomo. 

“While the 100 wealthiest districts spent on average more than $28,000 in state and local funding per kid in 2012, the 100 poorest districts in the state spent closer to $20,000 per student, the report found.”

The report was written by a coalition that includes local teachers unions, the Public Policy and Education Fund of New York, Opportunity Action, and National Opportunity to Learn.

The demonstration comes a week after community, faith, and labor groups held a vigil at the Capitol calling on state lawmakers to focus on passing "morally sound" legislation, which includes raising the minimum wage, upping public school funding and assisting low income New Yorkers.

— From Common Dreams, Jan. 12, 2014,


Gaza in Winter, mid-January, 2015.

The Economist, Jan. 17, 2015

The winter storms that whip in from the Mediterranean bring new misery to Gaza. In districts flattened during last summer’s war with Israel, families huddle beneath plastic tarpaulins amid the rubble. When aid agencies arrive with supplies they scuffle for blankets. Those still with homes stay in bed to keep warm because there is little electricity.

At the border passage to Israel, the sick and dying lie on stretchers for hours before the metal gates, seeking admission for treatment that their hospitals cannot provide for lack of medicines or equipment. The businesses that survived the bombardment are mostly idle because of Israel’s export restrictions, and Egypt’s closure of smuggling tunnels.

Gaza has been broken by three Israeli offensives in five years; eight years of economic blockade; one-party rule by Hamas, an armed Islamist group; and a distant Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who has largely forsaken the territory that he lost to Hamas in 2007. The rickety social system that somehow held Gaza together is falling apart.

A host of initiatives to release the chokehold have come to nothing. Last summer Ismail Haniyeh, the then Hamas prime minister, formally surrendered his bankrupt enclave to a “unity government” under Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. But the power-sharing agreement left Hamas’s forces in charge of security, so Abbas was always distrustful. He dithered over forwarding funds from Qatar to pay the salaries of Gaza’s civil servants. Those appointed by Hamas were told to step down and reapply for their jobs, subject to Fatah’s vetting.

Hamas’s employees show up for work even though they have received only three partial salary payments in 18 months. “We won’t let Gaza collapse,” insists an officer manning Hamas’s passport-control office. But protests, often by unpaid workers, have increased threefold since September. On Jan.13 policemen stepped aside to let protesters burst into a cabinet meeting. “We spent our last shekels two months ago,” apologized one of Abbas’s officials in Gaza, fending off protesters. Bombs explode next to cash machines.

Efforts to persuade Egypt’s strongman, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, to relax the border restrictions have also failed. A proposal to open the Rafah crossing for three days collapsed after militants in neighboring Sinai killed an Egyptian border guard, in a campaign of jihadist violence that, Egyptian officials claim, is being fuelled in part by radicals in Gaza.

Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has proven similarly resistant to pressure. Last summer’s ceasefire has not lived up to the promise that the blockade would be lifted and billions of dollars provided for reconstruction. Israel broke off negotiations on re-opening the borders; Hamas has nothing to show but destruction and 2,100 dead for its recourse to guns and rockets. Last month Israel let in a tenth of the amount of cement the UN says Gaza needs daily to rebuild; even so, the Palestinians lack the money to buy it....

By Science Daily, 1-20-15

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) have released a working paper verifying the ability of American fast food restaurants to more than double the minimum wage of their lowest paid workers to $15 an hour over a four-year period without causing the widespread employment losses and decline in profits often cited by critics of such increases.

Using data gathered from previous studies and U.S. Economic Census reports, economists Robert Pollin and Jeannette Wicks-Lim have found that at the standard rate of industry sales growth the savings from a decrease in workforce turnover added to revenue generated from moderate annual 3% price increases could support a two-stage increase in the minimum wage from its current level of $7.25, first to $10.50 and then to $15 three years later.

Published on the PERI website, the working paper, "A $15 U.S. Minimum Wage: How the Fast-Food Industry Could Adjust Without Shedding Jobs," describes how this increase in wages can be accomplished without generating employment losses within the industry and without these businesses facing a decline in profitability.

"We conclude that the fast-food industry could indeed absorb the increase in its overall wage bill without resorting to cuts in their employment levels at any point over the four-year adjustment period," explain Pollin, Distinguished Professor of Economics at UMass Amherst and Co-director of PERI, and Wicks-Lim, a PERI research assistant professor. "The fast-food industry could fully absorb these wage bill increases through a combination of turnover reductions, trend increases in sales growth and modest annual price increases over the four-year period. We also show that fast-food firms would not need to lower their average profit rate during this adjustment period. Nor would the fast food firms need to reallocate funds generated by revenues away from any other area of their overall operations, such as marketing."

"In terms of policy implications, our results offer a straightforward conclusion," they write. "Achieving a $15 federal minimum wage within the U.S., phased in over four years, should be seen as a realistic prospect. This specifically means that the intended consequence of the $15 minimum wage — to improve the living standards of low-wage workers in the U.S. and their families — can certainly prevail over the unintended consequence that low-wage workers and their families would suffer from widespread employment losses.


A herd of porcupine caribou trek across Alaska's North Slope.    (Credit: Paul Nicklen, National Geographic  Creative)
[President Obama has encouraged widespread domestic and offshore commercial drilling for energy resources to the point that “America is number one in oil and gas,” as he boasted in the State of the Union address. Last year, for example, he opened the Eastern Seaboard to offshore oil and gas exploration and leases just went on sale Jan. 27. To reduce criticism from environmentalists about this enormous expansion of fossil fuel production he significantly enlarged the already protected Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in October, and now seeks to preserve pristine land in Alaska. These are two very positive aspects of a negative policy of resource exploitation.]

By Craig Welch, National Geographic

No president in 35 years has made as sweeping a conservation proposal as President Barack Obama did Jan. 25 by urging Congress to transform the oil-laden coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into what would be the largest wilderness area in the nation's history. The proposal faces difficulties in Congress.

Musk-oxen form a defensive ring around their young in
 Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Credit:Peter Mather, National Geographic)
The president's move to designate 12.3 million acres of new wilderness would block decades of efforts to drill for oil on a 1.5-million-acre portion of the refuge. That coastal region is thought to contain up to 10.3 billion barrels of petroleum — roughly as much as the nation's largest oil field, nearby Prudhoe Bay, has produced since 1968.

It would also protect a stunning, diverse ecosystem that includes 36 types of fish, calving grounds and a migration corridor for a troubled caribou herd, and nesting grounds for bird species that travel to the Arctic from all 50 states. It is the only refuge in the United States that is home to grizzly bears, black bears, and denning sites for polar bears, and it provides a wildlife corridor that stretches from the Canadian border across Alaska to the Chukchi Sea.

The refuge — often referred to simply by its acronym, ANWR — has long been a powerful symbol and a litmus test about how Americans view the nation's vast expanse of untracked wild country. The White House called it “one of the few remaining places in the country as pristine today as it was when the oldest Alaska Native communities first set eyes on it, is too precious to put at risk."

It is all but certain Congress will not take the Obama Administration's advice. Just last week, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) moved to propose yet again that the ANWR be open to drilling. On Twitter, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) compared Obama's proposal to "spitting in our faces and telling us it's raining."

[In addition to government surveillance of your mail, telephone, Email, Internet connections, medical records, income and other means of destroying your privacy rights and civil liberties, the ACLU has just discovered Washington has now greatly expanded its ability to track your every move by automobile.

By Bennett Stein and Jay Stanley
American Civil Liberties Union, Jan. 26, 2015

The Drug Enforcement Administration has initiated a massive national license plate reader program with major civil liberties concerns but disclosed very few details, according to new DEA documents obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act.

The DEA is currently operating a National License Plate Recognition initiative that connects DEA (Credit: Peter Mather, National Geographic)

In fact, a government-run national license plate tracking program already exists, housed within the DEA. (That’s in addition to the corporate license plate tracking database run by Vigilant Solutions, holding billions of records about our movements.) Since its inception in 2008, the DEA has provided limited information to the public on the program’s goals, capabilities and policies. Information has trickled out over the years in testimony, but far too little is still known about this program.

In 2012, the ACLU filed public records requests in 38 states and Washington, D.C. seeking information about the use of automatic license plate readers. Our July 2013 report, You Are Being Tracked, summarized our findings with regard to state and local law enforcement agencies, finding that the technology was being rapidly adopted, all too often with little attention paid to the privacy risks of this powerful technology. But in addition to filing public records requests with state agencies, the ACLU also filed FOIA requests with federal agencies, including the DEA.

The new DEA records that we received are heavily redacted and incomplete, but they provide the most complete documentation of the DEA’s database to date. For example, the DEA has previously testified that its license plate reader program began at the southwest border crossings, and that the agency planned to gradually increase its reach; we now know more about to where it has grown. The DEA had previously suggested that “other sources” would be able to feed data into the database; we now know about some of the types of agencies collaborating with the DEA.

The documents uncovered by our FOIA request provide additional details, but their usefulness is limited by the DEA’s decision to provide only documents that are undated or years old. If the DEA’s collection of location information is as extensive as the agency has suggested in its limited comments to legislatures, the public deserves a more complete and comprehensive explanation than the smattering of records we have obtained can provide.

These records do, however, offer documentation that this program is a major DEA initiative that has the potential to track our movements around the country. With its jurisdiction and its finances, the federal government is uniquely positioned to create a centralized repository of all drivers’ movements across the country — and the DEA seems to be moving toward doing just that. If license plate readers continue to proliferate without restriction and the DEA holds license plate reader data for extended periods of time, the agency will soon possess a detailed and invasive depiction of our lives (particularly if combined with other data about individuals collected by the government, such as the DEA’s recently revealed bulk phone records program, or cell phone information gleaned from U.S. Marshals Service’s cell site simulator-equipped aircraft ). Data-mining the information, an unproven law enforcement technique that the DEA has begun to use here, only exacerbates these concerns, potentially tagging people as criminals without due process.

As is the case with most police and federal law enforcement spy technologies, license plate tracking programs have flown under the radar of courts and legislators for far too long, silently collecting records about ordinary Americans in the cover of secrecy. When programs are secret, we have no way of challenging them or ensuring they conform with our values and the law. Before accountability comes transparency. Over the coming weeks, we will continue to release records documenting the federal government’s significant investment in automatic license plate readers and its unregulated and largely unseen location tracking programs.

Continued at

By Paul Shortell

Venezuela's President Maduro in China.
Earlier this month Venezuela and Ecuador received major boosts from China, which has redoubled its stake in the two Latin American economies most vulnerable to plunging oil prices.

Following recent visits to China by financial chiefs from both countries, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his Ecuadorian counterpart, Rafael Correa, each traveled to Beijing in early January, where China held its first annual ministerial meeting with the Community of Latin America and Caribbean States (CELAC).

Correa returned from the visit with approximately $5.3 billion in new financing from the Export-Import Bank of China; Maduro announced that Venezuela would receive an additional $20 billion in Chinese investments.

Beijing has rapidly established itself as an indispensable economic partner for Caracas and Quito. Chinese banks have pledged more than $50 billion in financing for Venezuela and nearly $10 billion to Ecuador since 2005, as China’s trade with Latin America has swelled. Maduro and Correa’s visits to Beijing are the latest in a string of high-level exchanges between their administrations and Chinese officials over the past decade.

Chinese support comes at a particularly critical time for both governments, which face mounting economic and political challenges in 2015. Oil revenues have fueled politically popular social programs since the 2000s in Ecuador and Venezuela, where the energy sector is estimated to account for roughly 35% and 45% of government revenues, respectively. But tumbling oil prices have sent both regimes scrambling for cash....

 Correa’s administration has already sought to trim its 2015 budget $1-1.5 billion and $1.5 billion. Poor economic management in Venezuela has generated growing deficits, spiraling inflation and shortages of basic goods. Neither government has easy access to financing from global markets.

At a time when such risks have many international investors shying away, China’s injection of much-needed capital into both economies signals Beijing’s commitment to solidifying and safeguarding its foothold for South America’s energy resources. China surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest net importer of oil in 2014, and Beijing has encouraged Chinese firms to expand engagement in energy ventures worldwide. In Ecuador, such activities include developing multiple oil fields and financing a $12 billion refinery project. Correa’s government has committed to selling thousands of barrels of oil to China under existing loan agreements.

Similarly, much of Venezuela’s anticipated $20 billion in new Chinese investment—a figure heralded by Maduro in a public address but that nevertheless remains unconfirmed by Beijing—is likely to be destined for the energy industry. Venezuela possesses the world’s largest proven oil reserves and was China’s seventh-greatest supplier of crude petroleum in 2013. Chinese state-owned energy firms have acquired multiple stakes in Venezuela’s oil resources through direct negotiations with Caracas, including multibillion-dollar plans to develop blocks in the country’s Orinoco belt....

Whether directly or indirectly, China’s growing role as a creditor, investor and political partner to Venezuela and Ecuador has altered the political landscape in Latin America....

— Excerpted from World Politics Review Paul Jan. 13 ( Shortell is an independent analyst of Latin American energy, environmental and economic affairs based in Washington, D.C.


By Ann Jones

Americans who live abroad — more than six million of us worldwide (not counting those who work for the U.S. government) — often face hard questions about our country from people we live among. Europeans, Asians, and Africans ask us to explain everything that baffles them about the increasingly odd and troubling conduct of the United States. 

Polite people, normally reluctant to risk offending a guest, complain that America’s trigger-happiness, cutthroat free-marketeering, and “exceptionality” have gone on for too long to be considered just an adolescent phase. Which means that we Americans abroad are regularly asked to account for the behavior of our rebranded “homeland,” now conspicuously in decline and increasingly out of step with the rest of the world.

In my long nomadic life, I’ve had the good fortune to live, work, or travel in all but a handful of countries on this planet.  I’ve been to both poles and a great many places in between, and nosy as I am, I’ve talked with people all along the way. I still remember a time when to be an American was to be envied. The country where I grew up after World War II seemed to be respected and admired around the world for way too many reasons to go into here.

That’s changed, of course. Even after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I still met people — in the Middle East, no less — willing to withhold judgment on the U.S.  Many thought that the Supreme Court’s installation of George W. Bush as president was a blunder American voters would correct in the election of 2004. His return to office truly spelled the end of America as the world had known it.  Bush had started a war, opposed by the entire world, because he wanted to and he could. A majority of Americans supported him.  And that was when all the uncomfortable questions really began.

In the early fall of 2014, I traveled from my home in Oslo, Norway, through much of Eastern and Central Europe. Everywhere I went in those two months, moments after locals realized I was an American the questions started and, polite as they usually were, most of them had a single underlying theme: Have Americans gone over the edge? Are you crazy? Please explain.

Then recently, I traveled back to the “homeland.”  It struck me there that most Americans have no idea just how strange we now seem to much of the world. In my experience, foreign observers are far better informed about us than the average American is about them. This is partly because the “news” in the American media is so parochial and so limited in its views both of how we act and how other countries think — even countries with which we were recently, are currently, or threaten soon to be at war. America’s belligerence alone, not to mention its financial acrobatics, compels the rest of the world to keep close track of us.  Who knows, after all, what conflict the Americans may drag you into next, as target or reluctant ally?

So wherever we expatriates settle on the planet, we find someone who wants to talk about the latest American events, large and small: another country bombed in the name of our “national security,” another peaceful protest march attacked by our increasingly militarized police, another diatribe against “big government” by yet another wannabe candidate who hopes to head that very government in Washington.  Such news leaves foreign audiences puzzled and full of trepidation.

Take the questions stumping Europeans in the Obama years (which 1.6 million Americans residing in Europe regularly find thrown our way).  At the absolute top of the list: “Why would anyone oppose national health care?” European and other industrialized countries have had some form of national health care since the 1930s or 1940s, Germany since 1880.  Some versions, as in France and Great Britain, have devolved into two-tier public and private systems.  Yet even the privileged who pay for a faster track would not begrudge their fellow citizens government-funded comprehensive health care. That so many Americans do strikes Europeans as baffling, if not frankly brutal. 

In the Scandinavian countries, long considered to be the most socially advanced in the world, a national (physical and mental) health program, funded by the state, is a big part — but only a part — of a more general social welfare system.  In Norway, where I live, all citizens also have an equal right to education (state subsidized preschool from age one, and free schools from age six through specialty training or university education and beyond), unemployment benefits, job-placement and paid retraining services, paid parental leave, old age pensions, and more. 

Kinda makes ya proud to be
an American, doesn't it?
These benefits are not merely an emergency “safety net”; that is, charitable payments grudgingly bestowed upon the needy.  They are universal: equally available to all citizens as human rights encouraging social harmony — or as our own U.S. constitution would put it, “domestic tranquility.”  It’s no wonder that, for many years, international evaluators have ranked Norway as the best place to grow old, to be a woman, and to raise a child. The title of “best” or “happiest” place to live on Earth comes down to a neighborly contest among Norway and the other Nordic social democracies, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.
In Norway, all benefits are paid for mainly by high taxation. Compared to the mind-numbing enigma of the U.S. tax code, Norway’s is remarkably straightforward, taxing income from labor and pensions progressively, so that those with higher incomes pay more. The tax department does the calculations, sends an annual bill, and taxpayers, though free to dispute the sum, willingly pay up, knowing what they and their children get in return. And because government policies effectively redistribute wealth and tend to narrow the country’s slim income gap, most Norwegians sail pretty comfortably in the same boat. (Think about that!)

This system didn’t just happen. It was planned. Sweden led the way in the 1930s, and all five Nordic countries pitched in during the postwar period to develop their own variations of what came to be called the Nordic Model: a balance of regulated capitalism, universal social welfare, political democracy, and the highest levels of gender and economic equality on the planet. It’s their system. They invented it. They like it. Despite the efforts of an occasional conservative government to muck it up, they maintain it. Why?

In all the Nordic countries, there is broad general agreement across the political spectrum that only when people’s basic needs are met — when they can cease to worry about their jobs, their incomes, their housing, their transportation, their health care, their kids’ education, and their aging parents — only then can they be free to do as they like. While the U.S. settles for the fantasy that, from birth, every kid has an equal shot at the American dream, Nordic social welfare systems lay the foundations for a more authentic equality and individualism.

These ideas are not novel. They are implied in the preamble to our own Constitution. You know, the part about “we the People” forming  “a more perfect Union” to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  Even as he prepared the nation for war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt memorably specified components of what that general welfare should be in his State of the Union address in 1941. Among the “simple basic things that must never be lost sight of,” he listed “equality of opportunity for youth and others, jobs for those who can work, security for those who need it, the ending of special privileges for the few, the preservation of civil liberties for all,” and oh yes, higher taxes to pay for those things and for the cost of defensive armaments.

— This article is from TomDispatch, Jan 11, 2015. Ann Jones is the author of “Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan,” among other books, and most recently “They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story,” a Dispatch Books project.