For Syrian refugees, there is no going home

The New York Times reports: In the makeshift tent settlements that dot fields and villages in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, Syrian refugees are digging in, pouring concrete floors, installing underground sewerage and electric wires, and starting businesses and families.

What they are not doing is packing up en masse to leave, despite exhortations from Syrian and Lebanese officials, who have declared that safety and security are on the march in neighboring Syria and that it is time for refugees to go home.

But as a new round of peace talks convened Thursday in Geneva, Syrians interviewed at a randomly selected camp in the Bekaa Valley this week offered a unanimous reality check. Their old homes are either destroyed or unsafe, they fear arrest by security forces and they know that despite recent victories by pro-government forces, the fighting and bombing are far from over. They are not going anywhere.

About 1.5 million Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon, making up about a quarter of the population, according to officials and relief groups, and there is a widely held belief in Lebanon that refugees are a burden on the country’s economy and social structure.

Nearly six years into a war that began with a security crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad, countries once eager to see him ousted are now more focused on containing the migrant crisis and defeating the Islamic State, and are willing to consider a settlement that allows Mr. Assad to remain in power.

That leaves many governments invested in vague hopes that such a settlement, however rickety or superficial, will somehow stop the metastasis of the Syrian crisis and ease fears of Islamic State terrorism — often conflated with concerns about ordinary Syrian refugees — that have fueled the rise of right-wing politicians.

And it gives many countries a strong stake in declaring Syria safe for return, even without resolving the political issues that started the conflict, including human rights abuses by the Syrian government.

Mr. Assad, Syrian officials and their allies in Lebanon are reading that mood. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has called for the return of migrants, and Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, has called on global powers to facilitate it.

But in a tent settlement in the village of Souairi, Syrians made clear that neither a fig-leaf deal nor an outright government victory would send many of them home.

Every family interviewed had at least one member who had disappeared after being arrested or forcibly drafted by the government. The refugees said they cared less about whether Mr. Assad stayed or went than about reforms of the security system. Without an end to torture, disappearances and arbitrary arrests, they said, they would remain wary of going back.

Virtually all said that they dreamed of going back, but that it was increasingly a dream for the next generation. [Continue reading…]

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White House blocks CNN, New York Times from press briefing hours after Trump slams media

The Washington Post reports: The White House on Friday barred news outlets — including CNN, the New York Times, Politico and the Los Angeles Times — from attending an off-camera press briefing held by spokesman Sean Spicer, igniting another controversy concerning the relationship between the Trump administration and the media.

The Wall Street Journal, which did participate in the briefing, said in a statement that it was unaware of the exclusions and “had we known at the time, we would not have participated, and we will not participate in such closed briefings in the future.”

The Washington Post did not have a reporter present at the time of the gaggle. [Continue reading…]

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Comey faces pressure as White House fights Russia reports

The Associated Press reports: FBI Director James Comey is again in a familiar spot these days — the middle of political tumult.

As a high-ranking Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration, he clashed with the White House over a secret surveillance program. Years later as head of the FBI, he incurred the ire of Hillary Clinton supporters for public statements on an investigation into her emails. Now, Comey is facing new political pressure as White House officials are encouraging him to follow their lead by publicly recounting private FBI conversations in an attempt to dispute reports about connections between the Trump administration and Russia.

It’s an unusual position for a crime-fighting organization with a vaunted reputation for independence and political neutrality. Yet Comey, the former top federal prosecutor in Manhattan who later became deputy attorney general of the United States, is known for an unshaking faith in his own moral compass.

“I’m not detecting a loss of confidence in him, a loss of confidence in him by him,” said retired FBI assistant director Ron Hosko, noting the broad recognition that “these are very tumultuous, polarized, angry, angry times.”

The latest flare up occurred Friday, when White House officials told reporters that chief of staff Reince Priebus had asked top FBI officials to dispute media reports that Donald Trump’s campaign advisers were frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election. The officials said the FBI first raised concerns about New York Times reporting but told Priebus the bureau could not weigh in publicly on the matter. The officials said Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and Comey instead gave Priebus the go-ahead to discredit the story publicly, something the FBI has not confirmed.

As the FBI declined to discuss the matter, pressure mounted on Comey to either counter or affirm the White House’s account. Even the Trump administration urged him to come forward, which as of Friday was not happening. [Continue reading…]

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When does contact between the FBI and the White House cross the line?

Adam Serwer writes: The White House’s admission that it asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to publicly dispute stories in the New York Times describing contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials raises serious ethical questions, according to former Justice Department officials.

“It’s quite inappropriate for anyone from the White House to have a contact with the FBI about a pending criminal investigation, that has been an established rule of the road, probably since Watergate,” said Michael Bromwich, a former Department of Justice inspector general and director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management under Obama. “When I was in the Department in the ‘90s, that was well understood to be an inviolable rule.”

CNN reported on Thursday that the FBI had rejected a request from White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to “publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign.” That communication would appear to violate ethical guidelines in place in one form or another since the Watergate Scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon over his role in the coverup of the burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters by Nixon operatives. Nixon had sought to block the FBI’s investigation into the break-in. [Continue reading…]

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Trump thinks he is the government

Fred Kaplan writes: Each day brings more signs that President Trump has no regard for democratic norms, no understanding of how government works, and no interest in repairing these deficiencies.

The latest signs flashed Thursday night, when CNN reported two acts of stunning malfeasance. In the first, a senior White House official — later identified as chief of staff Reince Priebus — asked the deputy director of the FBI to tell reporters that news stories about connections between Trump and Russia were overblown. (The FBI official, who is in the middle of investigating these connections, declined.)

In the second, Trump ordered the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to help make a case for his travel ban on people from seven countries, specifically by providing evidence that once they cross our borders these people commit crimes and engage in terrorism. Officials in those departments, who haven’t found such evidence, viewed the order as an attempt to distort or falsify intelligence for political purposes.

Priebus’ chat with the FBI violates long-established rules barring political officials from contacting the bureau in any way about ongoing investigations. Trump’s prodding of the Justice and Homeland Security departments is reminiscent of the early Bush years, when Vice President Dick Cheney pressured the CIA to find evidence of a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, in order to justify the impending invasion of Iraq. No link was found; the invasion plowed forth anyway.

What these incidents have in common with many others in the five weeks since Trump took office is not just an impulse to spin reality so it suits his interests and desires (many presidents have been guilty of that, to some degree) but, more, a compulsion to blot out all interests and desires that are not his own. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump proclaimed, “I am your voice.” Having won the election, a fact that he touts in every public setting as if it legitimizes all of his actions, he now seems to be declaring, “I am the state.” [Continue reading…]

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How to know when a Trump story becomes a scandal

Jack Shafer writes: What are the chances the larva of the Russia scandal now growing on the Trump presidency will mature into pupa form and ultimately emerge, wings flapping, as a spitting, snarling adult scandal?

The elements of a rip-roaring scandal already exist. The president has cultivated — there is no other word for it — a screwy relationship with Russia’s maximum leader, Vladimir Putin. His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, exposed the administration to scrutiny in a phone discussion with the Russian ambassador before the inauguration and, according to news reports, talked about the sanctions President Obama had leveled on Russia in retaliation for its political hacking. Then Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence — why would he do that? And why did Trump, who knew about the call, leave Pence out of the loop, and let him go on TV without the facts?

Then there’s the sensational Steele dossier that portrayed Trump as sordidly compromised by the Russians, parts of which have been corroborated by U.S. officials. Want more? Paul Manafort, former Trump’s campaign chairman, and other members of his team reportedly had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials at the same time Russians were engaged in the now infamous political hacking. Did Team Trump collude with the Russian meddlers? Then there’s the suspicious sale of Russian oil giant Rosneft, which some have reported benefited individuals in the Trump circle. This week, Politico reported that Manafort might have been blackmailed by Russia-friendly forces, further entangling Trump.

Swirling like a murmuration of starlings, the Russia-Trump stories have captured the attention of journalists, politicians, FBI investigators and members of the public. To reach true scandal status, however, it must do more than excite the few. As it turns out, the press isn’t the most important moving part in making a scandal grow. In his 2009 paper, “A Generalized Stage Model of International Political Scandals,” sociologist Stan C. Weeber plots the steps a story must complete before rising to full-on scandal status. [Continue reading…]

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CPAC attendees trolled into waving Russia flags during Trump’s speech

ThinkProgress reports: During his Friday speech to CPAC speech, President Donald Trump tried to quash coverage of his administration’s Russia scandal in an indirect way by taking aim at the anonymous leakers who have regularly revealed new allegations about his shady connections with Russia and the Russian government’s attempt to sway the 2016 presidential election in his favor.

“They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name,” Trump opined. “Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.”

The president might not have directly addressed the Russia scandal, but liberal activists trolled CPAC attendees into making it visible during the speech by handing out Russia flags with “TRUMP” emblazoned on them. [Continue reading…]

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People can’t think straight

Elizabeth Kolbert writes: In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones.

Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were hopeless. They identified the real note in only ten instances.

As is often the case with psychological studies, the whole setup was a put-on. Though half the notes were indeed genuine — they’d been obtained from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office — the scores were fictitious. The students who’d been told they were almost always right were, on average, no more discerning than those who had been told they were mostly wrong.

In the second phase of the study, the deception was revealed. The students were told that the real point of the experiment was to gauge their responses to thinking they were right or wrong. (This, it turned out, was also a deception.) Finally, the students were asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually categorized correctly, and how many they thought an average student would get right. At this point, something curious happened. The students in the high-score group said that they thought they had, in fact, done quite well — significantly better than the average student — even though, as they’d just been told, they had zero grounds for believing this. Conversely, those who’d been assigned to the low-score group said that they thought they had done significantly worse than the average student — a conclusion that was equally unfounded.

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.” [Continue reading…]

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Music: Eivind Aarset and the Sonic Codex Orchestra — ‘Still Changing ‘

 

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Bannon: Trump administration is in unending battle for ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’

The Washington Post reports: Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s reclusive chief strategist and the intellectual force behind his nationalist agenda, said Thursday that the new administration is locked in an unending battle against the media and other globalist forces to “deconstruct” an outdated system of governance.

In his first public speaking appearance since Trump took office, Bannon made his comments alongside White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus at a gathering of conservative activists. They sought to prove that they are not rivals but partners in fighting on Trump’s behalf to transform Washington and the world order.

“They’re going to continue to fight,” Bannon said of the media, which he repeatedly described as “the opposition party,” and other forces he sees as standing in the president’s way. “If you think they are giving you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.”

Atop Trump’s agenda, Bannon said, was the “deconstruction of the administrative state” — meaning a system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that the president and his advisers believe stymie economic growth and infringe upon one’s sovereignty. [Continue reading…]

Michelle Goldberg writes: CPAC, the country’s largest annual conservative gathering, has long drawn energy from young people who are resentful about liberal hegemony on college campuses. Now, however, it’s flailing as it tries to establish its own moral boundaries on right-wing speech. Its trouble started when Matt Schlapp, CPAC’s chairman, invited professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos to give a keynote address, sparking a furious backlash from traditional conservatives, who dug up statements by Yiannopoulos justifying man-boy sex. That ultimately led to Yiannopoulos losing his book deal, as well as his CPAC slot, and resigning from his job at Breitbart. In the aftermath, CPAC is trying to distance itself from the alt-right. Yet top Trump aide Steve Bannon, who once boasted that his website, Breitbart, was the “platform of the alt-right,” still had a prime Thursday afternoon speaking slot. And many young people in attendance reveled in the alt-right’s rebellious frisson of fascism. [Continue reading…]

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White House intelligence deficit hampers effort to justify travel ban

CNN reports: President Donald Trump has assigned the Department of Homeland Security, working with the Justice Department, to help build the legal case for its temporary travel ban on individuals from seven countries, a senior White House official tells CNN.

Other Trump administration sources tell CNN that this is an assignment that has caused concern among some administration intelligence officials, who see the White House charge as the politicization of intelligence — the notion of a conclusion in search of evidence to support it after being blocked by the courts. Still others in the intelligence community disagree with the conclusion and are finding their work disparaged by their own department.

“DHS and DOJ are working on an intelligence report that will demonstrate that the security threat for these seven countries is substantial and that these seven countries have all been exporters of terrorism into the United States,” the senior White House official told CNN. “The situation has gotten more dangerous in recent years, and more broadly, the refugee program has been a major incubator for terrorism.”

The report was requested in light of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ conclusion that the Trump administration “has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States.” The seven counties are Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The senior White House official said the desire to bolster the legal and public case that these seven countries pose a threat is a work in progress and as of now, it’s not clear if DHS and DOJ will offer separate reports or a joint report.

One of the ways the White House hopes to make its case is by using a more expansive definition of terrorist activity than has been used by other government agencies in the past. The senior White House official said he expects the report about the threat from individuals the seven countries to include not just those terrorist attacks that have been carried out causing loss of innocent American life, but also those that have resulted in injuries, as well as investigations into and convictions for the crimes of a host of terrorism-related actions, including attempting to join or provide support for a terrorist organization.

The White House did not offer an on-the-record comment for this story despite numerous requests.

The White House expectation of what the report will show has some intelligence officials within the administration taking issue with this intelligence review, sources told CNN.

First, some intelligence officials disagree with the conclusion that immigration from these countries should be temporarily banned in the name of making the US safer. CNN has learned that the Department of Homeland Security’s in-house intelligence agency, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis — called I&A within the department — offered a report that is at odds with the Trump administration’s view that blocking immigration from these seven countries strategically makes sense. [Continue reading…]

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UK byelection results amplify doubts about Corbyn’s capacity to lead Labour party

Rafael Behr writes: Jeremy Corbyn is running out of excuses. Losing a seat that has been held by Labour in every election since 1935 certainly signifies a break from the old politics, but not the one that was advertised to Labour members.

The explicit promise of Corbyn’s leadership campaigns was reconnection with the party’s founding spirit and values, leading to a recovery of votes in places that had drifted away from Labour under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. But Miliband’s Labour party held Copeland.

Byelections are unreliable guides to future general election outcomes but effective for capturing moments of electoral volatility. Traditionally they give voters an opportunity to lash out at an incumbent government to the benefit of the opposition. It is rare for that dynamic to be reversed. Under the conventional rules of politics, Labour would be shovelling votes on to an increased majority in a seat like Copeland.

The threat of closure hanging over a local hospital maternity unit furnished just the kind of local issue to propel a lively mid-term swing against a government. When Labour can’t even mobilise its core supporters – or rather, those voters who once constituted its core – in defence of the NHS (and that was the focus of the party’s campaign on the ground) something has gone very wrong.

Or someone. Campaigners for all parties report that Corbyn’s name was coming up on the doorstep. His well-known aversion to nuclear energy did not go down well in a seat where Sellafield employs 10,000 people. The Tories were not shy of reminding people that the Labour leader was ideologically hostile to the engine of their local economy. But MPs who canvassed the constituency report a deeper frustration with Corbyn – a sense that he simply isn’t up to the job; that he has been miscast in a role to which he isn’t suited; that the party is insulting its longest-serving supporters by telling them that this man should be their prime minister when they can see that he wouldn’t be able to do the job and might not even really want it. [Continue reading…]

Charlie Cooper writes: At the Conservative conference in October last year, a new political order emerged. Theresa May cast herself as the champion of the 52 percent who voted to leave the European Union and — stealing Labour’s clothes — pledged to represent people who felt left behind by globalization and the march of the metropolitan elites.

Set aside for a moment the fact that, behind the rhetoric, her government remains wedded to economic austerity, and that she faces a profoundly difficult EU exit negotiation, victory in Copeland was a resounding vindication of that strategy. On current trends, it’s an approach that looks like it could propel May into a position of dominance not seen in British politics since the heyday of Tony Blair. [Continue reading…]

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‘Al-Qaeda is eating us’: Syrian rebels are losing out to extremists

The Washington Post reports: The biggest surviving rebel stronghold in northern Syria is falling under the control of al-Qaeda-linked extremists amid a surge of rebel infighting that threatens to vanquish what is left of the moderate rebellion.

The ascent of the extremists in the northwestern province of Idlib coincides with a suspension of aid to moderate rebel groups by their international allies.

The commanders of five of the groups say they were told earlier this month by representatives of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that they would receive no further arms or ammunition until they unite to form a coherent front against the jihadists, a goal that has eluded the fractious rebels throughout the six years of fighting.

The freeze on supplies is unrelated to the change of power in Washington, where the Trump administration is engaged in a review of U.S. policy on Syria, U.S. officials say. It also does not signal a complete rupture of support for the rebels, who are continuing to receive salaries, say diplomats and rebel commanders.

Rather, the goal is to ensure that supplies do not fall into extremist hands, by putting pressure on the rebels to form a more efficient force, the rebel commanders say they have been told.

Instead it is the extremists who have closed ranks and turned against the U.S.-backed rebels, putting the al-Qaeda-linked groups with whom the moderates once uneasily coexisted effectively in charge of key swaths of territory in Idlib, the most important stronghold from which the rebels could have hoped to sustain a challenge to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Moderate rebels still hold territory in southern Syria, in pockets around Damascus, and in parts of Aleppo province where they are fighting alongside Turkish troops against the Islamic State.

But the loss of Idlib to the extremists has the potential to prolong — or at least divert — the trajectory of the war at a time when the United Nations is reconvening peace talks in Geneva aimed at securing a political settlement. The talks opened Thursday with little sign that progress was likely. [Continue reading…]

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Trump is an embarrassment to a majority of Americans

Philip Bump writes: For those interested in seeking adulation and acclaim, it’s easy to see why running for president might hold appeal. For a year, two years, you get to be one of the most-talked about people in the most powerful country in the world; on the off-chance that your bid is successful, you then get to extend that attention streak for four more years. That’s six years, minimum, that the country — if not the world — is holding you at the forefront of its attention and consideration.

But there is a downside: The country may not like what it sees.

Two polls released this week offer that downside to President Trump. New surveys from Quinnipiac University and McClatchy-Marist reveal that Trump — never terribly popular nationally — continues to be seen as dishonest, a poor leader and unstable.

What’s more, the U.S. is embarrassed by him. [Continue reading…]

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FBI refused White House request to knock down recent Trump-Russia stories

CNN reports: The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple US officials briefed on the matter tell CNN.

White House officials had sought the help of the bureau and other agencies investigating the Russia matter to say that the reports were wrong and that there had been no contacts, the officials said. The reports of the contacts were first published by The New York Times and CNN on February 14.

The direct communications between the White House and the FBI were unusual because of decade-old restrictions on such contacts. Such a request from the White House is a violation of procedures that limit communications with the FBI on pending investigations.

The discussions between the White House and the bureau began with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on the sidelines of a separate White House meeting the day after the stories were published, according to a U.S. law enforcement official.

The White House initially disputed that account, saying that McCabe called Priebus early that morning and said The New York Times story vastly overstates what the FBI knows about the contacts.

But a White House official later corrected their version of events to confirm what the law enforcement official described. [Continue reading…]

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I was a Muslim in Trump’s White House

Rumana Ahmed writes: In 2011, I was hired, straight out of college, to work at the White House and eventually the National Security Council. My job there was to promote and protect the best of what my country stands for. I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman — I was the only hijabi in the West Wing — and the Obama administration always made me feel welcome and included.

Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this — or because of it — I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America’s Muslim citizens.

I lasted eight days.

When Trump issued a ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and all Syrian refugees, I knew I could no longer stay and work for an administration that saw me and people like me not as fellow citizens, but as a threat.

The evening before I left, bidding farewell to some of my colleagues, many of whom have also since left, I notified Trump’s senior NSC communications adviser, Michael Anton, of my departure, since we shared an office. His initial surprise, asking whether I was leaving government entirely, was followed by silence — almost in caution, not asking why. I told him anyway.

I told him I had to leave because it was an insult walking into this country’s most historic building every day under an administration that is working against and vilifying everything I stand for as an American and as a Muslim. I told him that the administration was attacking the basic tenets of democracy. I told him that I hoped that they and those in Congress were prepared to take responsibility for all the consequences that would attend their decisions.

He looked at me and said nothing.

It was only later that I learned he authored an essay under a pseudonym, extolling the virtues of authoritarianism and attacking diversity as a “weakness,” and Islam as “incompatible with the modern West.”

My whole life and everything I have learned proves that facile statement wrong. [Continue reading…]

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