The Daily Beast: Last summer, in the days after the group now known as ISIS began its assault across Iraq, many feared that Baghdad could soon fall. Car bombs regularly killed dozens inside the capital. Police and soldiers manned checkpoints across the city. They were Baghdad’s defense and symbols of the state’s power in the face of onslaught. To protect the capital, these cops and soldiers were armed with magic wands. They still are now, nearly a year later.
Across Iraq, members of the security forces carry these magic wands—Rube Goldberg gadgets supposedly designed to detect explosives. The walkie talkie-sized instruments, as ubiquitous in Baghdad as radios are on cops in the United States, are useless pieces of plastic and a required piece of equipment. They were purchased by the Iraqi government for millions of dollars and are still in use to this day, waved around cars like divining rods, two years after a British con man was sentenced to prison for selling them.
Iraqi police officer Salim Abdul Zahra, 33, wielded one of the wands while manning a checkpoint in Baghdad last December. “Want the truth?” Zahra asked after some preliminary explanation about how the detector was supposed to be used. “It is worthless and fake,” he said. “The proof is all the explosions that still happen here.”
But though the wand didn’t work, he said he had to wave it around. Ultimately, if he didn’t use the wand, which he and his fellow officers knew was worthless, he would stick out. “What I can do?” he asked. “I follow the orders and use it.”
Center for Public Integrity: U.S. Army Specialist Stephanie Charboneau sat at the center of a complex trucking network in Forward Operating Base Fenty, near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, that daily distributed tens of thousands of gallons of what soldiers called “liquid gold”: the refined petroleum that fueled the international coalition’s thirsty vehicles, planes, and generators.
A prominent sign in the base read: “The Army Won’t Go If The Fuel Don’t Flow.” But Charboneau, 31, a mother of two from Washington state, felt alienated after a supervisor’s harsh rebuke. Her work was a dreary routine of recording fuel deliveries in a computer and escorting trucks past a gate. But it was soon to take a dark turn into high-value crime.
She began an affair with a civilian, Jonathan Hightower, who worked for a Pentagon contractor that distributed fuel from Fenty, and one day in March 2010, he told her about “this thing going on” at other U.S. military bases around Afghanistan, she recalled in a recent telephone interview.
Soldiers were selling the U.S. military’s fuel to Afghan locals on the side, and pocketing the proceeds. When Hightower suggested they start doing the same, Charboneau said, she agreed.
In so doing, Charboneau contributed to thefts by U.S. military personnel of at least $15 million worth of fuel since the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And eventually she became one of at least 115 enlisted personnel and military officers convicted since 2005 of committing theft, bribery, and contract rigging crimes valued at $52 million during their deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a comprehensive tally of court records by the Center for Public Integrity. [Continue reading…]
Paul Blumenthal writes: The issue of big money in politics is receiving increased attention as the country barrels toward a presidential election cycle where all spending records are expected to be smashed. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have spoken out on tackling the problem, as have a handful of Republican candidates.
What is this problem, exactly? Represent.Us, a group that supports campaign finance reforms and is advocating for them at the city, municipal and state levels, presents an answer in a new video.
Pulling from a study by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, the video explains how legislative actions taken by politicians in Washington do not reflect the priorities of the broader population, but instead are moved by the opinions of the wealthy elite.
These elite have the means to influence government through lobbyists, campaign donations and public relations campaigns. And studies by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics have shown that wealthy elites dominate political spending. A study released Thursday by these two groups found the percentage of donations made by the .01 percent rose to nearly 30 percent in the 2014 elections, up from 25 percent in 2012. [Continue reading…]
Mike Mariani writes: The state of Kentucky may finally get its deliverance. After more than seven years of battling the evasive legal tactics of Purdue Pharma, 2015 may be the year that Kentucky and its attorney general, Jack Conway, are able to move forward with a civil lawsuit alleging that the drugmaker misled doctors and patients about their blockbuster pain pill OxyContin, leading to a vicious addiction epidemic across large swaths of the state.
A pernicious distinction of the first decade of the 21st century was the rise in painkiller abuse, which ultimately led to a catastrophic increase in addicts, fatal overdoses, and blighted communities. But the story of the painkiller epidemic can really be reduced to the story of one powerful, highly addictive drug and its small but ruthlessly enterprising manufacturer.
On December 12, 1995, the Food and Drug Administration approved the opioid analgesic OxyContin. It hit the market in 1996. In its first year, OxyContin accounted for $45 million in sales for its manufacturer, Stamford, Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma. By 2000 that number would balloon to $1.1 billion, an increase of well over 2,000 percent in a span of just four years. Ten years later, the profits would inflate still further, to $3.1 billion. By then the potent opioid accounted for about 30 percent of the painkiller market. What’s more, Purdue Pharma’s patent for the original OxyContin formula didn’t expire until 2013. This meant that a single private, family-owned pharmaceutical company with non-descript headquarters in the Northeast controlled nearly a third of the entire United States market for pain pills.
OxyContin’s ball-of-lightning emergence in the health care marketplace was close to unprecedented for a new painkiller in an age where synthetic opiates like Vicodin, Percocet, and Fentanyl had already been competing for decades in doctors’ offices and pharmacies for their piece of the market share of pain-relieving drugs. In retrospect, it almost didn’t make sense. Why was OxyContin so much more popular? Had it been approved for a wider range of ailments than its opioid cousins? Did doctors prefer prescribing it to their patients?
During its rise in popularity, there was a suspicious undercurrent to the drug’s spectrum of approved uses and Purdue Pharma’s relationship to the physicians that were suddenly privileging OxyContin over other meds to combat everything from back pain to arthritis to post-operative discomfort. It would take years to discover that there was much more to the story than the benign introduction of a new, highly effective painkiller. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: For years, politicians wanting to block legislation on climate change have bolstered their arguments by pointing to the work of a handful of scientists who claim that greenhouse gases pose little risk to humanity.
One of the names they invoke most often is Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain recent global warming. He has often appeared on conservative news programs, testified before Congress and in state capitals, and starred at conferences of people who deny the risks of global warming.
But newly released documents show the extent to which Dr. Soon’s work has been tied to funding he received from corporate interests.
He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: The Iraqi government has identified and stopped payment of tens of millions of dollars in salaries previously disbursed to nonexistent troops, known here as “ghost soldiers,” as part of the prime minister’s vow to tackle corruption in the military and regain a foothold in the battle against the Islamic State group, two senior government officials said.
The initiative is part of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s plan to rebuild the U.S.-trained military which crumbled in the face of last summer’s onslaught by Islamic State militants.
Al-Abadi recently purged the military and interior ministry from a number of senior officials who were appointees of his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. While it is unclear whether any of the sacked officials are among those accused of collecting misappropriated funds, al-Abadi vowed to pursue the sensitive matter “even if it costs me my life.”
According to the two senior officials, authorities prevented the loss of over $47 million of improper military spending in November, mostly from salaries that were previously paid to soldiers who are dead, missing or did not exist and which were pocketed by senior commanders. The two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to media, said the money was the first of several tranches of funding to be regained by Iraq’s Defense Ministry. [Continue reading…]
AFP/Jiji/Reuters reports: Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Sunday announced that an investigation has uncovered the existence of 50,000 “ghost soldiers,” and promised a widening crackdown on corruption.
“The prime minister revealed the existence of 50,000 fictitious names” in the military, according to a statement from al-Abadi’s office issued after a session of parliament.
Ghost soldiers are enrolled men who do not turn up and fight but whose salaries go into the pockets of the commanders. The phenomenon has been associated with the collapse of the army during the Islamic State militants’ sweep through the north.
A parliament statement said al-Abadi scrapped the 50,000 jobs, equivalent to almost four full army divisions.
The Guardian reports: They found the first grave in a thicket of spiny huisache trees clinging to the hillside outside the town of Iguala.
Under a pounding midday sun, about a dozen men and women watched as an older man plunged a pickaxe into the heavy soil. Some offered advice on where and how to dig; mostly they looked on in silence
When he turned up a human femur, Mayra Vergara turned her back and broke into silent tears. She had hoped that today she might find some clue to the fate of her brother Tomás, a taxi driver who was kidnapped in July 2012, never to be seen again. But whoever lay in the shallow grave, she said, they deserved more than this.
“Even if it isn’t my brother in there, it is still a person. A person who deserved a proper burial,” she said, her face contorted in anger and grief. “And the question is when? When are they going to do something for us?”
The disappearance and probable massacre of 43 student teachers after they were attacked and arrested by Iguala’s municipal police two months ago has focused world attention on the horror of Mexico’s drug violence – and the official corruption that allows much of it to happen.
A wave of protests triggered by the massacre put President Enrique Peña Nieto under acute political pressure.
But the incident has also lifted the lid on the open secret of Mexico’s many other disappeared: amid the drug-fuelled violence of recent years, some 20,000 people have simply vanished. [Continue reading…]
Jeff Stein writes: At long last we can retire Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as the icons of investigative reporting. With his second book probing the dark tunnels of the so-called war on terror, James Risen has established himself as the finest national security reporter of this generation, a field crowded with first-rank talent at The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Reuters, McClatchy Newspapers and the New York Times, his employer and sometimes bane.
Bane, because in 2004, the executive editor of the Times, cowed by Bush administration officials, twice spiked Risen’s story revealing that the National Security Agency had launched a massive, covert wiretapping program that was riffling through the personal communications of hundreds of millions of Americans without even a secret court order. Unbowed, Risen got a contract for a book that would reveal the NSA’s extralegal program. Only when the publication of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration appeared imminent did his editors, cornered, allow Risen to publish a version of it (co-authored with his colleague Eric Lichtblau) in the paper. And that disturbing saga provides the backdrop to Risen’s new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War.
After turning the last page of his latest volume, one might wonder what other important stories the Times has spiked in recent years. Although parts of Risen’s new revelations have been published in the Times or elsewhere, here they are fleshed out in richly reported chapters studded with eye-popping new charges. Read together, they offer an original and deeply disturbing perspective on the war on terror. It is, Risen writes, a story of “how greed and the hunt for cash have all too often become the main objects of the war on terror.”
In fine detail, he demonstrates how the courts, Congress and the national security and law enforcement agencies of the executive branches – aided and abetted by the high priests of the media – have been corrupted in the hugely profitable business of pursuing terrorists. “[T]he search for money and power have become the hallmarks of the war on terror,” Risen writes of one of the many unsavory episodes in the book. “The story,” he says of another episode, “shows how, during the war on terror, greed and ambition have been married to unlimited rivers of cash in the sudden deregulation of American national security to create a climate in which clever men could seemingly create rogue intelligence operations with little or no adult supervision.”
The U.S.-led war in Iraq, as we already know, was rife with lax supervision and thievery. But Risen adds an astonishing new chapter to that reprehensible folly. He tells the story of how billions of dollars intended to rebuild Iraq, shrink-wrapped in packets of $100 bills, were shipped out of a Federal Reserve warehouse in New Jersey to Baghdad and eventually made their way to secret Lebanese bunkers (an account excerpted by the Times last week).
“Approximately $2 billion of the money that was flown from the United States to Baghdad” to prop up the Iraqi government after Saddam Hussein was toppled, “was stolen and secretly transported out of Iraq in what may be one of the largest robberies in modern history,” he writes. “…In addition to cash, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold was stolen from the Iraqi government and is also being hidden in Lebanon, current and former U.S. officials have said.”
One might assume that U.S. officials would be deeply interested in finding out what happened to that money, not to mention eager to get it back. But, no. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The former director of the National Security Agency has enlisted the US surveillance giant’s current chief technology officer for his lucrative cybersecurity business venture, an unusual arrangement undercutting Keith Alexander’s assurances he will not profit from his connections to the secretive, technologically sophisticated agency.
Patrick Dowd continues to work as a senior NSA official while also working part time for Alexander’s IronNet Cybersecurity, a firm reported to charge up to $1m a month for advising banks on protecting their data from hackers. It is exceedingly rare for a US official to be allowed to work for a private, for-profit company in a field intimately related to his or her public function.
Reuters, which broke the story of Dowd’s relationship with IronNet, reported that the NSA is reviewing the business deal.
Since retiring from the NSA in March and entering the burgeoning field of cybersecurity consulting, Alexander has vociferously defended his ethics against charges of profiting off of his NSA credentials. Alexander was the founding general in charge of US Cyber Command, the first military command charged with defending Defense Department data and attacking those belonging to adversaries. Both positions provide Alexander with unique and marketable insights into cybersecurity. [Continue reading…]
Rami G. Khouri writes: The startling developments in northern Iraq, where the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has taken control of Mosul and other cities, highlights several troubling trends that have been evident across much of the Arab World for years.
ISIS moved into Mosul and other cities swiftly and without any real combat because these underlying trends all played their role in this great unfolding drama that speaks to the troubling realities of the Arab world.
This is about much more than any individual issue such as spillover from Syria, lack of Western military assistance to anti-Bashar Assad rebels, growing sectarian tensions in Iraq, or the spread of extremist Islamist militancy. Iraq today has reached a momentous moment of reckoning for the weaknesses of modern Arab statehood and governance. External factors certainly played their roles, such as the Anglo-American war on Iraq in 2003, decades of Israeli meddling in Arab conditions, and Iran’s growing influence in the region.
These external factors, however, could only impact on conditions in Iraq because of the underlying structural problems whose consequences are now playing out before us every day. These underlying Arab-made structural problems include corrupt and incompetent governance, weak citizenship, brittle statehood, and a severe lack of cohesion among different ethnic and sectarian groups within countries.
The news that many locals have not resisted, and even often welcomed, the arrival of ISIS should clarify the intense problems that existed between the government and mostly Sunni local communities in northwest Iraq. Air attacks by the Iraqi government or military moves by foreign powers such as Iran or the United States will momentarily delay the expansion of ISIS-controlled areas. But military power in the long run remains helpless in the face of determined moves by disgruntled citizens to regain what they see as dignity, freedom and rights.
The best proof of this is the steady expansion in the numbers and capabilities of extremist Salafist-takfiri militant groups such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Nusra Front and dozens of other groups that have been repeatedly targeted by military strikes by local governments and the American armed forces. So, military attacks against ISIS and its local allies in Iraq would momentarily pause the current trajectory of the group’s expansion, but will not stop it in the long run.
The fact that some Iraqis would consider life under the draconian rules of ISIS preferable to the conditions they had endured under previous elected Iraqi governments shows how severe are the grievances of ordinary citizens under the rule of Arab tyrants. [Continue reading…]
Al Jazeera reports: It’s not just your imagination: The influence of money in politics has indeed drowned out the voices of American voters, a new analysis shows, with runaway corporate lobbying and a lack of campaign finance reform to blame for giving much more political weight to the wealthy.
Researchers at Princeton University and Northwestern University compared the public’s influence on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002, finding that more often than not, the interests of wealthy groups and individuals won out over the demands of the general public. For instance, when 80 percent of the public asked for a change of some sort, they got their way only about 43 percent of the time.
The study, its authors say, points to the overwhelming power of wealthy lobbying groups and individuals backing certain interests in American politics, and the marginalization of voters and public advocacy groups.
“I expected to find that ordinary Americans had a modest degree of influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups would serve to promote those interests,” Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton and a co-author of the study, wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.
“What we found instead was that ordinary Americans have virtually no influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups as a whole do not reliably side with the wishes of the average citizen.” [Continue reading…]
AMY GOODMAN: Who was tougher on corporate America, President Obama or President Bush?
MATT TAIBBI: Oh, Bush, hands down. And this is an important point to make, because if you go back to the early 2000s, think about all these high-profile cases: Adelphia, Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen. All of these companies were swept up by the Bush Justice Department. And what’s interesting about this is that you can see a progression. If you go back to the savings and loan crisis in the late ’80s, which was an enormous fraud problem, but it paled in comparison to the subprime mortgage crisis, we put about 800 people in jail during—in the aftermath of that crisis. You fast-forward 10 or 15 years to the accounting scandals, like Enron and Adelphia and Tyco, we went after the heads of some of those companies. It wasn’t as vigorous as the S&L prosecutions, but we at least did it. At least George Bush recognized the symbolic importance of showing ordinary Americans that justice is blind, right?
Fast-forward again to the next big crisis, and how many people have we got—have we actually put in jail? Zero. And this was a crisis that was much huger in scope than the S&L crisis or the accounting crisis. I mean, it wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth, and nobody went to jail, so that we’re now in a place where we don’t even recognize the importance of keeping up appearances when it comes to making things look equal.
Robert Reich writes: The supreme court is composed of five justices appointed by Republican presidents, and four appointed by Democratic ones. In the McCutcheon v FEC case decided on Wednesday, the five Republican appointees interpreted the first amendment to protect the right of individuals to pour as much as $3.6m into a political party or $800,000 into a political campaign.
The decision by those justices allows individual donors to buy – and federal officeholders to solicit – unparalleled personal influence in Washington. McCutcheon drowns out the voices of ordinary citizens.
Presumably, the individuals who were of concern to the majority of the court have incomes larger than the median US family income of roughly $50,000 a year and wealth in excess of the median American family’s wealth of approximately $70,000. It is very likely that these individuals have huge incomes and enormous wealth.
The decision rests on the court’s dubious finding that such spending does not give rise to corruption. That’s baloney, as anyone who has the faintest familiarity with contemporary American politics well knows. As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in his dissenting opinion: “where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard”.
The majority’s decision to open the floodgates to big money would be less important if the distribution of income and wealth in America were more equal. But it has become extraordinarily unequal. Together, the richest 400 Americans now possess more wealth than the bottom half of the American population. A handful of billionaires are, at this moment, deciding on whom to place their multi-million dollar bets in the 2014 midterm election. The McCutcheon decision makes it easier for them to do so than ever before. They don’t need to go through political action committees or so-called “social welfare” organizations. The rich can now make their bets directly.
We have returned to the gilded age of the late 19th century, when the lackeys of robber barons placed sacks of money on the desks of pliant legislators. If this is not corruption, what is? [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a major campaign finance decision, striking down some limits on federal campaign contributions for the first time. The ruling, issued near the start of a campaign season, will change and most likely increase the already large role money plays in American politics.
The decision, by a 5-to-4 vote along ideological lines, with the Court’s more conservative justices in the majority, was a sequel of sorts to Citizens United, the 2010 decision that struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions. But that ruling did nothing to affect the other main form of campaign finance regulation: caps on direct contributions to candidates and political parties.
Wednesday’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536, addressed that second kind of regulation.
It did not affect familiar base limits on contributions from individuals to candidates, currently $2,600 per candidate in primary and general elections. But it said that overall limits of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates violated the First Amendment, as did separate aggregate limits on contributions to political party committees, currently $74,600.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for four justices in the controlling opinion, said the First Amendment required striking down the limits. “There is no right in our democracy more basic,” he wrote, “than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”
Dissenting from the bench, Justice Stephen G. Breyer called the decision a blow to the First Amendment and American democracy. “If the court in Citizens United opened a door,” he said, “today’s decision may well open a floodgate.” [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: Chinese authorities have seized assets worth at least 90 billion yuan ($14.5 billion) from family members and associates of retired domestic security tsar Zhou Yongkang, who is at the centre of China’s biggest corruption scandal in more than six decades, two sources said.
More than 300 of Zhou’s relatives, political allies, proteges and staff have also been taken into custody or questioned in the past four months, the sources, who have been briefed on the investigation, told Reuters.
The sheer size of the asset seizures and the scale of the investigations into the people around Zhou – both unreported until now – make the corruption probe unprecedented in modern China and would appear to show that President Xi Jinping is tackling graft at the highest levels.
But it may also be driven partly by political payback after Zhou angered leaders such as Xi by opposing the ouster of former high-flying politician Bo Xilai, who was jailed for life in September for corruption and abuse of power. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: The local Chinese official remembers the panic he felt in Room 109. He had refused to confess to bribery he says he didn’t commit, and his Communist Party interrogators were forcing his legs apart.
Zhou Wangyan heard his left thigh bone snap, with a loud “ka-cha.” The sound nearly drowned out his howls of pain.
“My leg is broken,” Zhou told the interrogators. According to Zhou, they ignored his pleas.
China’s government is under strong pressure to fight rampant corruption in its ranks, faced with the anger of an increasingly prosperous, well-educated and Internet-savvy public. However, the party’s methods for extracting confessions expose its 85 million members and their families to the risk of abuse. Experts estimate at least several thousand people are secretly detained every year for weeks or months under an internal system that is separate from state justice.
In a rare display of public defiance, Zhou and three other party members in Hunan described to The Associated Press the months of abuse they endured less than two years ago, in separate cases, while in detention. Zhou, land bureau director for the city of Liling, said he was deprived of sleep and food, nearly drowned, whipped with wires and forced to eat excrement. The others reported being turned into human punching bags, strung up by the wrists from high windows, or dragged along the floor, face down, by their feet. [Continue reading…]
Kelley Vlahos writes: Popular culture reveres the U.S. military as an institution of pride and strength, as keeper of the American moral center. But a recent series of scandals suggests that, instead, ethical corrosion may be eating away at its very core.
Sarah Palin was in top rhetorical form when she told an assembled crowd of thousands on the National Mall in 2010 that soldiers were “a force for good in this country, and that is nothing to apologize for … for these men and women, honor was never lost.” But behind the partisan politics in which Democrats and Republicans have used the military as props, padded its budgets, and publicly deferred to its leadership in myriad ways over 12 years of war, there lies a complicated breakdown in its culture, military experts tell TAC. Without reform, they believe institution is headed for more embarrassment and transgression.
“I’m not surprised at all—one [scandal] relates to the other,” charges Donald Vandergriff, a retired Army officer who often lectures on leadership and reform, including in the service academies. A West Point grad and former deputy director of Army ROTC at Georgetown University, he wrote The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs, in 2002.
“The [military] system that’s evolved over the last 100 years does not test moral courage, it does not test strength of character, or the ability to tell the truth regardless of harm to one’s career,” Vandergriff added. “We don’t do things like that. We are looking at people who follow the process, fall in line, don’t cause waves, aren’t open to innovation, and these personality traits leave them open to scandal.” [Continue reading…]