In 2010, oil giant BP was responsible for a disaster that killed 11 people and caused one of the worst oil spills in history – all because of the company’s greed and negligence. That’s one… More
JULIAN ASSANGE TALKS TO JOHN PILGER
What’s the significance of the FBI’s intervention in these last days of the U.S. election campaign, in the case against Hillary Clinton?
If you look at the history of the FBI, it has become effectively America’s political police. The FBI demonstrated this by taking down the former head of the CIA [General David Petraeus] over classified information given to his mistress. Almost no-one is untouchable. The FBI is always trying to demonstrate that no-one can resist us. But Hillary Clinton very conspicuously resisted the FBI’s investigation, so there’s anger within the FBI because it made the FBI look weak. We’ve published about 33,000 of Clinton’s emails when she was Secretary of State. They come from a batch of just over 60,000 emails, [of which] Clinton has kept about half – 30,000 — to herself, and we’ve published about half.
Then there are the Podesta emails we’ve been publishing. [John] Podesta is Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign manager, so there’s a thread that runs through all these emails; there are quite a lot of pay-for-play, as they call it, giving access in exchange for money to states, individuals and corporations. [These emails are] combined with the cover up of the Hillary Clinton emails when she was Secretary of State, [which] has led to an environment where the pressure on the FBI increases.
The Clinton campaign has said that Russia is behind all of this, that Russia has manipulated the campaign and is the source for WikiLeaks and its emails.
The Clinton camp has been able to project that kind of neo-McCarthy hysteria: that Russia is responsible for everything. Hilary Clinton stated multiple times, falsely, that seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies had assessed that Russia was the source of our publications. That is false; we can say that the Russian government is not the source.
WikiLeaks has been publishing for ten years, and in those ten years, we have published ten million documents, several thousand individual publications, several thousand different sources, and we have never got it wrong.
The emails that give evidence of access for money and how Hillary Clinton herself benefited from this and how she is benefitting politically, are quite extraordinary. I’m thinking of when the Qatari representative was given five minutes with Bill Clinton for a million dollar cheque.
And twelve million dollars from Morocco …
Twelve million from Morocco yeah.
For Hillary Clinton to attend [a party].
In terms of the foreign policy of the United States, that’s where the emails are most revealing, where they show the direct connection between Hillary Clinton and the foundation of jihadism, of ISIL, in the Middle East. Can you talk about how the emails demonstrate the connection between those who are meant to be fighting the jihadists of ISIL, are actually those who have helped create it.
There’s an early 2014 email from Hillary Clinton, not so long after she left the State Department, to her campaign manager John Podesta that states ISIL is funded by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Now this is the most significant email in the whole collection, and perhaps because Saudi and Qatari money is spread all over the Clinton Foundation. Even the U.S. government agrees that some Saudi figures have been supporting ISIL, or ISIS. But the dodge has always been that, well it’s just some rogue Princes, using their cut of the oil money to do whatever they like, but actually the government disapproves.
But that email says that no, it is the governments of Saudi and Qatar that have been funding ISIS.
The Saudis, the Qataris, the Moroccans, the Bahrainis, particularly the Saudis and the Qataris, are giving all this money to the Clinton Foundation while Hilary Clinton is Secretary of State and the State Department is approving massive arms sales, particularly to Saudi Arabia.
Under Hillary Clinton, the world’s largest ever arms deal was made with Saudi Arabia, [worth] more than $80 billion. In fact, during her tenure as Secretary of State, total arms exports from the United States in terms of the dollar value, doubled.
Of course the consequence of that is that the notorious terrorist group called ISIl or ISIS is created largely with money from the very people who are giving money to the Clinton Foundation.
I actually feel quite sorry for Hillary Clinton as a person because I see someone who is eaten alive by their ambitions, tormented literally to the point where they become sick; they faint as a result of [the reaction] to their ambitions. She represents a whole network of people and a network of relationships with particular states. The question is how does Hilary Clinton fit in this broader network? She’s a centralising cog. You’ve got a lot of different gears in operation from the big banks like Goldman Sachs and major elements of Wall Street, and Intelligence and people in the State Department and the Saudis.
She’s the centraliser that inter-connects all these different cogs. She’s the smooth central representation of all that, and ‘all that’ is more or less what is in power now in the United States. It’s what we call the establishment or the DC consensus. One of the more significant Podesta emails that we released was about how the Obama cabinet was formed and how half the Obama cabinet was basically nominated by a representative from City Bank. This is quite amazing.
Didn’t Citybank supply a list …. ?
… which turned out to be most of the Obama cabinet.
So Wall Street decides the cabinet of the President of the United States?
If you were following the Obama campaign back then, closely, you could see it had become very close to banking interests.
So I think you can’t properly understand Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy without understanding Saudi Arabia. The connections with Saudi Arabia are so intimate.
Why was she so demonstrably enthusiastic about the destruction of Libya? Can you talk a little about just what the emails have told us, told you about what happened there, because Libya is such a source for so much of the mayhem now in Syria, the ISIL jihadism and so on, and it was almost Hillary Clinton’s invasion. What do the emails tell us about that?
Libya, more than anyone else’s war, was Hillary Clinton’s war. Barak Obama initially opposed it. Who was the person championing it? Hillary Clinton. That’s documented throughout her emails. She had put her favoured agent, Sidney Blumenthal, on to that; there’s more than 1700 emails out of the thirty three thousand Hillary Clinton emails that we’ve published, just about Libya. It’s not that Libya has cheap oil. She perceived the removal of Gaddafi and the overthrow of the Libyan state — something that she would use in her run-up to the general election for President.
So in late 2011 there is an internal document called the Libya Tick Tock that was produced for Hillary Clinton, and it’s the chronological description of how she was the central figure in the destruction of the Libyan state, which resulted in around 40,000 deaths within Libya; jihadists moved in, ISIS moved in, leading to the European refugee and migrant crisis.
Not only did you have people fleeing Libya, people fleeing Syria, the destabilisation of other African countries as a result of arms flows, but the Libyan state itself err was no longer able to control the movement of people through it. Libya faces along to the Mediterranean and had been effectively the cork in the bottle of Africa. So all problems, economic problems and civil war in Africa — previously people fleeing those problems didn’t end up in Europe because Libya policed the Mediterranean. That was said explicitly at the time, back in early 2011 by Gaddafi: ‘What do these Europeans think they’re doing, trying to bomb and destroy the Libyan State? There’s going to be floods of migrants out of Africa and jihadists into Europe, and this is exactly what happened.
You get complaints from people saying, ‘What is WikiLeaks doing? Are they trying to put Trump in the Whitehouse?’
My answer is that Trump would not be permitted to win. Why do I say that? Because he’s had every establishment off side; Trump doesn’t have one establishment, maybe with the exception of the Evangelicals, if you can call them an establishment, but banks, intelligence [agencies], arms companies… big foreign money … are all united behind Hillary Clinton, and the media as well, media owners and even journalists themselves.
There is the accusation that WikiLeaks is in league with the Russians. Some people say, ‘Well, why doesn’t WikiLeaks investigate and publish emails on Russia?’
We have published about 800,000 documents of various kinds that relate to Russia. Most of those are critical; and a great many books have come out of our publications about Russia, most of which are critical. Our [Russia]documents have gone on to be used in quite a number of court cases: refugee cases of people fleeing some kind of claimed political persecution in Russia, which they use our documents to back up.
Do you yourself take a view of the U.S. election? Do you have a preference for Clinton or Trump?
[Let’s talk about] Donald Trump. What does he represent in the American mind and in the European mind? He represents American white trash, [which Hillary Clinton called] ‘deplorable and irredeemable’. It means from an establishment or educated cosmopolitan, urbane perspective, these people are like the red necks, and you can never deal with them. Because he so clearly — through his words and actions and the type of people that turn up at his rallies — represents people who are not the middle, not the upper middle educated class, there is a fear of seeming to be associated in any way with them, a social fear that lowers the class status of anyone who can be accused of somehow assisting Trump in any way, including any criticism of Hillary Clinton. If you look at how the middle class gains its economic and social power, that makes absolute sense.
I’d like to talk about Ecuador, the small country that has given you refuge and [political asylum] in this embassy in London. Now Ecuador has cut off the internet from here where we’re doing this interview, in the Embassy, for the clearly obvious reason that they are concerned about appearing to intervene in the U.S. election campaign. Can you talk about why they would take that action and your own views on Ecuador’s support for you?
Let’s let go back four years. I made an asylum application to Ecuador in this embassy, because of the U.S. extradition case, and the result was that after a month, I was successful in my asylum application. The embassy since then has been surrounded by police: quite an expensive police operation which the British government admits to spending more than £12.6 million. They admitted that over a year ago. Now there’s undercover police and there are robot surveillance cameras of various kinds — so that there has been quite a serious conflict right here in the heart of London between Ecuador, a country of sixteen million people, and the United Kingdom, and the Americans who have been helping on the side. So that was a brave and principled thing for Ecuador to do. Now we have the U.S. election [campaign], the Ecuadorian election is in February next year, and you have the White House feeling the political heat as a result of the true information that we have been publishing.
WikiLeaks does not publish from the jurisdiction of Ecuador, from this embassy or in the territory of Ecuador; we publish from France, we publish from, from Germany, we publish from The Netherlands and from a number of other countries, so that the attempted squeeze on WikiLeaks is through my refugee status; and this is, this is really intolerable. [It means] that [they] are trying to get at a publishing organisation; [they] try and prevent it from publishing true information that is of intense interest to the American people and others about an election.
Tell us what would happen if you walked out of this embassy.
I would be immediately arrested by the British police and I would then be extradited either immediately to the United States or to Sweden. In Sweden I am not charged, I have already been previously cleared [by the Senior Stockholm Prosecutor Eva Finne]. We were not certain exactly what would happen there, but then we know that the Swedish government has refused to say that they will not extradite me to the United States we know they have extradited 100 per cent of people whom the U.S. has requested since at least 2000. So over the last fifteen years, every single person the U.S. has tried to extradite from Sweden has been extradited, and they refuse to provide a guarantee [that won’t happen].
People often ask me how you cope with the isolation in here.
Look, one of the best attributes of human beings is that they’re adaptable; one of the worst attributes of human beings is they are adaptable. They adapt and start to tolerate abuses, they adapt to being involved themselves in abuses, they adapt to adversity and they continue on. So in my situation, frankly, I’m a bit institutionalised — this [the embassy] is the world .. it’s visually the world [for me].
It’s the world without sunlight, for one thing, isn’t it?
It’s the world without sunlight, but I haven’t seen sunlight in so long, I don’t remember it.
So , yes, you adapt. The one real irritant is that my young children — they also adapt. They adapt to being without their father. That’s a hard, hard adaption which they didn’t ask for.
Do you worry about them?
Yes, I worry about them; I worry about their mother.
Some people would say, ‘Well, why don’t you end it and simply walk out the door and allow yourself to be extradited to Sweden?’
The U.N. [the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention] has looked into this whole situation. They spent eighteen months in formal, adversarial litigation. [So it’s] me and the U.N. verses Sweden and the U.K. Who’s right? The U.N. made a conclusion that I am being arbitrarily detained illegally, deprived of my freedom and that what has occurred has not occurred within the laws that the United Kingdom and Sweden, and that [those countries] must obey. It is an illegal abuse. It is the United Nations formally asking, ‘What’s going on here? What is your legal explanation for this? [Assange] says that you should recognise his asylum.’ [And here is]
Sweden formally writing back to the United Nations to say, ‘No, we’re not going to [recognise the UN ruling], so leaving open their ability to extradite.
I just find it absolutely amazing that the narrative about this situation is not put out publically in the press, because it doesn’t suit the Western establishment narrative — that yes, the West has political prisoners, it’s a reality, it’s not just me, there’s a bunch of other people as well. The West has political prisoners. Of course, no state accepts [that it should call] the people it is imprisoning or detaining for political reasons, political prisoners. They don’t call them political prisoners in China, they don’t call them political prisoners in Azerbaijan and they don’t call them political prisoners in the United States, U.K. or Sweden; it is absolutely intolerable to have that kind of self-perception.
Here we have a case, the Swedish case, where I have never been charged with a crime, where I have already been cleared [by the Stockholm prosecutor] and found to be innocent, where the woman herself said that the police made it up, where the United Nations formally said the whole thing is illegal, where the State of Ecuador also investigated and found that I should be given asylum. Those are the facts, but what is the rhetoric?
Yes, it’s different.
The rhetoric is pretending, constantly pretending that I have been charged with a crime, and never mentioning that I have been already previously cleared, never mentioning that the woman herself says that the police made it up.
[The rhetoric] is trying to avoid [the truth that ] the U.N. formally found that the whole thing is illegal, never even mentioning that Ecuador made a formal assessment through its formal processes and found that yes, I am subject to persecution by the United States.
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I was in Iran in early 2011 when there were reports from opposition sources in exile saying that protests were sweeping the country. There was some substance in this. There had been a demonstration of 30,000 protesters in north Tehran on 14 February – recalling the mass protests against the allegedly fixed presidential election of 2009 – that had caught the authorities by surprise. There was hopeful commentary from Western pundits suggesting that the Arab Spring uprisings might be spreading to Iran.
But, by the time I got to Tehran a few days later, nothing much appeared to be going on, though there were plenty of bored looking riot police standing around in the rain doing nothing. It looked as if the protests had dwindled away, but when I checked the internet I found this was not so. Opposition spokesmen were claiming that protests were taking place every week not just in north Tehran but in other Iranian cities. This account appeared to be confirmed by videos running online showing protesters resisting baton-wielding riot police and militiamen.
I met some friendly Iranian correspondents working for the foreign media and asked why I was failing to find any demonstrations. The reporters were well informed, but could not work because their press credentials had been suspended by the Iranian authorities. They laughed when I described my vain pursuit of the anti-government protests, explaining that I was failing to find them because they had ceased earlier in the month.
One journalist usually sympathetic to the opposition said that “the problem is that the picture of what is happening in Iran these days comes largely from exiled Iranians and is often a product of wishful thinking or propaganda.” I asked about the videos online and he said that these were mostly concocted by the opposition using film of real demonstrations that had taken place in the past. He pointed to one video, supposedly filmed in the middle of winter, in which trees covered in leaves were clearly visible in the far background.
I asked the journalists if this was not the fault of the Iranian government which, by suspending the credentials of local reporters who were credible eyewitnesses, had created a vacuum of information which was swiftly filled by opposition propagandists. The stringers agreed that to some extent this was so, but added gloomily that, even if they were free to report, their Western editors “would not believe us because the exiles and their news outlets have convinced them that there are big protests here. If we deny this, our bosses will simply believe that we have been intimidated or bought up by the government.”
It is a salutary story because later the same year in Libya and Syria opposition activists were able to gain control of the media narrative and exclude all other interpretations of what was happening. In Libya, Gaddafi was demonised as the sole cause of all his country’s ills while his opponents were lauded as valiant freedom fighters whose victory would bring liberal democracy to the Libyan people. Instead, as was fairly predictable, the overthrow of Gaddafi rapidly reduced Libya to a violent and criminalised anarchy with little likelihood of recovery.
In present day Syria and Iraq one can see much the same process at work. In both countries, two large Sunni Arab urban centres – East Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq – are being besieged by pro-government forces strongly supported by foreign airpower. In East Aleppo, some 250,000 civilians and 8,000 insurgents, are under attack by the Syrian Army allied to Shia paramilitaries from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon and supported by the Russian and Syrian air forces. The bombing of East Aleppo has rightly caused worldwide revulsion and condemnation.
But look at how differently the international media is treating a similar situation in Mosul, 300 miles east of Aleppo, where one million people and an estimated 5,000 Isis fighters are being encircled by the Iraqi army fighting alongside Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia and Sunni paramilitaries and with massive support from a US-led air campaign. In the case of Mosul, unlike Aleppo, the defenders are to blame for endangering civilians by using them as human shields and preventing them leaving. In East Aleppo, fortunately, there are no human shields – though the UN says that half the civilian population wants to depart – but simply innocent victims of Russian savagery.
Destruction in Aleppo by Russian air strikes is compared to the destruction of Grozny in Chechnya sixteen years ago, but, curiously, no analogy is made with Ramadi, a city of 350,000 on the Euphrates in Iraq, that was 80 per cent destroyed by US-led air strikes in 2015. Parallels go further: civilians trapped in East Aleppo are understandably terrified of what the Syrian Mukhabara secret police would do to them if they leave and try to pass through Syrian government checkpoints.
But I talked earlier this year to some truck drivers from Ramadi whom I found sleeping under a bridge in Kirkuk who explained that they could not even go back to the ruins of their homes because checkpoints on the road to the city were manned by a particularly violent Shia militia. They would certainly have to pay a large bribe and stood a good chance of being detained, tortured or murdered.
The advance on Mosul is being led by the elite Special Forces of the Iraqi counter-terrorism units and Shia militias are not supposed to enter the city, almost all of whose current inhabitants are Sunni Arabs. But in the last few days these same special forces entered the town of Bartella on the main road twelve miles from Mosul in their black Humvees which were reportedly decorated with Shia religious banners. Kurdish troops asked them to remove the banners and they refused. An Iraqi soldier named Ali Saad was quoted as saying: “(T)hey asked if we were militias. We said we’re not militias, we are Iraqi forces and these are our beliefs.”
It may be that Isis will not fight for Mosul, but the probability is that they will, in which case the outlook will not be good for the civilian population. Isis did not fight to the last man in Fallujah west of Baghdad so much of the city is intact, but they did fight for Khalidiya, a nearby town of 30,000, where today only four buildings are still standing according to the Americans.
The extreme bias shown in foreign media coverage of similar events in Iraq and Syria will be a rewarding subject for PhDs students looking at the uses and abuses of propaganda down the ages.
This has been the pattern of reporting of the wars in Syria and Iraq over the last five years. Nothing much has changed since 2003 when the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein had persuaded foreign governments and media alike that the invading American and British armies would be greeted with rapture by the Iraqi people. A year later the invaders were fighting for their lives. Misled by opposition propagandists and their own wishful thinking, foreign government officials and journalists had wholly misread the local political landscape. Much the same thing is happening today.
— source independent.co.uk By Patrick Cockburn
Kathy Kiely: So tell me a little bit about, Robert Frank, your intellectual history. How did you come to be so interested in income inequality?
Robert Frank: I started writing about competition for rank back in the early 1980s, late 1970s. The standard economic models assume that people care only about their absolute levels of consumption — you know, how big is their house, how fast is their car — in absolute terms. But those kinds of evaluations are almost always heavily context-dependent, so if you ask yourself, “Is my house okay?” the answer to that question would depend really on the context that you’re in.
I was a Peace Corps volunteer before I went to graduate school and I lived in a two-room house with no electricity, no plumbing, in rural Nepal. Never once during the two years I lived in that house did it ever occur to me for an instant that the house was unsatisfactory in any way. It was a really quite nice house actually, in the context where I was living then. If I lived in a house like that in Ithaca, or any US city really, my kids would’ve been ashamed for their friends to see where we lived. It would’ve been shameful for me to have people know that we lived in a house like that. It would be a clear signal that I’d failed in some spectacular way to meet even the minimal expectations of society.
And so, you know, is my house okay? The answer is that depends, and it depends on context and the context is very local.
So if context matters, then the standard economic models that assume it doesn’t matter lead you to many wrong conclusions. So I’ve been writing about that now for 35 years. And the entry point for inequality is that, as I say, context is local, but for technological reasons, which I’ve written about elsewhere too, we’ve seen a move to markets that Phil Cook and I call winner take all markets.
These are — I mean, in your industry it’s very prominent. You don’t need the local newspaper columnist or radio reporter. Everything is available on the internet to everyone at any moment, and so whoever is best at the particular task at hand, that person gets the whole market. It’s not quite that exaggerated, but that’s the trend that we’ve been seeing, and with that have come many benefits. It’s better to consume the best than the third best.
The Winner-Take-All Effect
But at the same time, it’s led to an enormous concentration of economic rewards in the hands of the people who are judged to be best. They’re often best by only a barely perceptible margin. Maybe they’re not even best. Maybe they just got a lucky break and came to people’s attention before the truly best performer did and then the initial success built on itself.
But anyway, the trend has been for income to concentrate at the top of the ladder, and when that happens — you know, people at the top of the ladder are normal. They do what you and I do, what everyone else does when they have more income. They spend it and they build bigger houses, they buy more expensive automobiles, they take more expensive vacations, the diamonds they get for their partners are bigger. All those things are normal, and there’s no indication I’ve ever seen that people in the middle class get angry about that. If anything, they’re interested. They want to see pictures of the mansions and the yachts and read about what the rich people do.
Kiely: Then why are people so angry in this election?
Frank: The translation of what the people at the top do to the people in the middle is indirect. The people in the middle, as I say, don’t seem to care that the people at the top have a lot. You’re right, now there does seem to be some concern that people like Donald Trump, who claims to have billions, also admits to not having paid any federal income tax for a long time. That I think does arouse anger and concern across a pretty broad spectrum of the population. But in terms of the actual things rich people buy, I think most people feel that the people at the top earned their money fair and square—that’s true in some cases, not true in others.
But the people just below the top, they travel in the same social circles as the people at the top. They go to the same weddings, the same parties, the same gatherings, they belong to the same clubs. When they see that the very richest people are now hosting their daughters’ wedding receptions at home rather than in a hotel or country club, they then feel, “We need a ballroom,” so they build a bigger house.
Then there’s a group just below them, maybe it’s the custom now to have dinner parties for 24, not 18: “We need a bigger dining room.” They build bigger, and one step at a time, it cascades all the way down the income ladder. And unless you invoke something like that spending cascade is what I call it, you can’t really make sense of the fact that the family in the middle, the median earner, whose real income is essentially the same as it was four decades ago, why is that family buying a house that’s 50 percent bigger than what the median family bought four decades ago? What’s driving that? It’s not that they have more money. That’s not the reason for it.
Kiely: Is it keeping up with the Joneses on steroids?
Frank: I’ve never liked that term. Somebody who’s trying to — but, yes, in a manner of speaking, it is that. The term to me evokes a deep human frailty. Somebody is trying to appear richer that he is. He’s insecure, he’s trying to mimic a standard that he’s not really entitled to on the merits of his own income.
So, yes, that a pejorative term in my experience of how people use it, and the phenomenon I’m trying to call attention to would exist even if there were none of that. So the median family, it’s gone into debt to buy a house that’s at least 50 or 75 percent more expensive than what the median family was spending in 1970.
Why Context Matters
The reason it’s done that is much less because they envy the houses of other people like them. It’s because unless you spend as much as other people like you are spending on a house, your kids will go to bad schools. The link between school quality and neighborhood house prices in the school areas is very strong and direct. The better schools are located in the neighborhoods where the houses are more expensive. So if you’re the family in the middle and it’s your aim to have your kids attend a school of just average quality — you know, we would judge harshly a parent who wasn’t at least that ambitious — then what do you have to do? You have to buy a house that’s roughly near the price of what people like you are spending on houses.
When all the families in that middle of the income distribution do that, what do they achieve? Nothing. You know, they just bid up the prices of the houses in the better school districts. Still half of all kids go to bottom-half schools, the exact same as before. But now families are in debt, they’re not able to meet their bills month by month. Many of them file for bankruptcy. It’s just been an enormous squeeze on the people in the middle, and that’s driven by the spending at the top. And the reason we see more of it now is that the spending on the top is so much greater in relation to spending elsewhere in the income distribution.
That’s happened before. You know, when do you read about luxury? You read about it when the people at the top have been pulling away from everyone else. We read about it in the Gilded Age, the great fortunes of the late 19th century. You notice it when there’s that contrast. But it’s still going on under normal circumstances. Right after World War II, incomes were growing at about the same rate for families up and down the income ladder and it was still true that what the family in the middle spent on a house depended on what the people at the top spent, but it wasn’t — there was growth in balance up and down the line, so we didn’t notice that families were getting squeezed relative to last year. Those stories didn’t break through.
Again, it’s context. If you saw a seventh grader in the third grade, everybody would notice and remark on that. If you see a seven-footer at an NBA game, it’s normal.
Kiely: So is the answer to try to escape context or what’s the answer?
Frank: Well you cannot escape context, that’s just the way we’re wired. “Are we almost there yet?” Well, if there’s five miles to go, “Are we almost there yet?” If it’s a 500–mile trip, yes, we’re almost there. If it’s a six-mile trip, we’re not almost there. It’s just inescapably shaped by context.
So if you can’t change the fact that we’re sensitive to context what can you do? Well, the claim is that people at the top are spending their money in ways that don’t do them any good really but at the same time cause problems for others, the people in the middle who are put under pressure by that spending. Why doesn’t it help the people that are rich? Why do they do it if it doesn’t help them? Well, they think they’ll be happier if they buy a bigger house because when I think about my bigger house, I imagine I’ll a relatively big house. But everybody’s buying a bigger house. And when that happens it just raises the bar that defines big. Forty thousand square feet in Dallas isn’t big anymore. So there’s no evidence whatsoever that the people at the top would be happier if they all had 100,000-square-foot mansions than if they all had 50,000-square-foot mansions.
I think if the truth could be known, it would be clear that they’d be less happy. It’s just such a nuisance to manage a property that’s twice as big. Once you get up to a certain size there’s just no gain. But if everybody else has one and you don’t, then people begin to talk, “His business is slipping. Is he not able to compete any longer?” Or you can’t entertain in the style that’s expected of people in that circle. So yes there’s a sense in which people are a prisoner of what others do. If you want to see well and others stand up, you have to stand up, but if everybody stands up, nobody sees any better than before. So there are lots of situations that have that character and this is one of them.
Kiely: Is this a problem that we should be talking about in the presidential campaign?
Frank: In general it’s a problem that we can solve politically. Given that we can solve it and that the gains from solving it would be so enormous, it’s a crime that we’re not talking about it.
Kiely: And how could we solve it?
Frank: Well if the incentive to have a more expensive party is misleadingly large for the individual, and it is, what do parents want? They want the people who attend their daughter’s wedding to go away feeling like they had a good time. If they serve McDonald’s hamburgers, everyone’s going to go away saying, “Oh, didn’t they understand what an important occasion this was?” The cost of admission is to spend roughly what other families like you typically spend on a wedding. In 1980 the average expenditure is the US was about $10,000. Last year it was $31,000.
Nobody thinks the people getting married who are spending $31,000 are happier because of that fact than the people who were getting married at $10,000 in 1980. In fact, there’s some evidence that they’re less happy because the extra debt they take on creates problems for them. And yet the individual incentives are to spend more if others are spending more. So the simplest solution to that is the one we use in other policy domains. If the problem is people put too much CO2 in the air, we have to ask why are they doing it? Because it’s free to do it. It causes harm to others and it’s expensive to filter it out and if it’s free just to dump it and the harm to you of any one person dumping it is negligible, then of course people are going to dump it.
The simple solution, charge them for dumping it. And what we know is that when we have implemented fees for activities that cause harm to others, people clean up their act in short order. It’s a very powerful effect. And so the analogous solution in this case would be to scrap the income tax completely. In its place adopt a much more steeply progressive consumption tax. And what that would mean —
Don’t tax income; tax consumption
Kiely: So you agree with the flat taxers?
Kiely: A fair tax, is that what they call it?
Frank: The fair tax is anything but fair. It’s a gratuitously regressive tax. It would be an awful burden for low-income families. It would be a huge windfall for the very rich. No, the tax that would address this expenditure cascades is a steeply progressive consumption tax. And the way it would work — it sounds frighteningly complicated, but the way it would work would actually be simple. You’d report your income to the IRS just like you do now; we should simplify that while we’re at it. In addition, people would report how much they’d increased their stock of savings during the year. People do that now for 401(k) plans and other things. The difference between those two numbers, your income minus your savings, that’s how much you spent during the year.
We don’t have to keep track of receipts for every individual item to figure out how much you spend. Your spending can only go into two buckets, your savings and your consumption. If we know your income and we know your savings, then we can back out what your consumption must have been. So income minus savings, that’s your consumption. Then knock off a big standard deduction, let’s say $30,000 for a family of four. That’s your taxable consumption. Rates start low. People in the bottom half and slightly above would pay no more tax than they do under the current system. Once your consumption goes up beyond a certain point though, the rates begin rising and at really high levels of consumption, the rates can be extremely high.
Kiely: How high? What would the highest level be in your dream tax scheme?
Frank: Let me not frighten you but I’ll say, suppose it were 100 percent for people consuming already $5 million a year or more, what would that mean? We could never have a tax that high at the margin on income. People would say, rationally, “Why should I work to get more income, they’re going to take all of it if I do.”
If you have 100 percent rate on consumption beyond $5 million a year, what does that mean? That means the next thing you were thinking about buying — which, let’s be clear, it was not something urgent; it was something special that you were hoping to get. That thing, instead of costing $1 now costs you $2 — the $1 you pay for the thing and the $1 of extra tax that you’re levied because of that purchase. So by making additional purchases for people at the top of the ladder much more expensive, that would steer money out of those purchases and into savings and investment.
Kiely: So what would you say to somebody who’s the florist who supplies the flowers at the $31,000 wedding or paints the $40,000 mansion? There are those people who would say the excess spending helps fuel the economy. What do you say to those folks? The trickle-down effect.
Frank: The point’s often made that the spending of the rich does help employ people, to which I say, “Especially since we’re in a situation now where we have not fully recovered from the Great Recession, don’t implement this tax now.” Instead, announce that it’s going to be phased in once the labor market becomes tight, which may happen in the next year or two years or three years from now. If we did that we would see an explosion of new spending right away, not one nickel of it at government expense. People would be, “Oh, if we’re going to build that wing on the mansion we better do it now before they come after us with this progressive consumption tax.
That would put more people to work — florists, all of them. Then once the economy’s back at full employment, phase the tax in gradually. What that would do would be to cause a gradual shift away from consumption toward extra savings and investment. Again, the incomes are growing very rapidly at the top of the income ladder. So what we would see would be a less rapid rate of growth of demand for stuff that the high-end people buy and a more rapid rate of growth of demand for everything else. Public goods — we could use some of the tax revenue generated by this tax to fix the potholes in the roads.
Who’s happier — a guy driving a $300,000 Ferrari on roads riddled with foot-deep potholes or somebody driving a $150,000 Porsche 911 Turbo on well-maintained roads? It’s a choice. We could have either one of those. Right now we have the potholes and the more expensive cars. You don’t give up much when you scale back from the Ferrari to the Porsche, that’s still a pretty good car. It’s got all of the design features that really matter.
Kiely: Have you checked this out personally?
Frank: I’m a car buff, yes, I know these things [laughs]. So that’s the response. But there are many ways to generate employment. Florists and gratuitously expensive weddings aren’t inherently a better form of employment that people planting landscaping in public spaces. There are lots of things we could do that would generate employment that I think in general people would value more highly.
Kiely: So have you run the numbers on this? How would the revenue to the government compare to what it is now under the income tax?
Frank: Well, what we know is that even the rich respond to higher prices. There are in New York many billionaires, they could afford to buy the whole building they live in, so why would a progressive consumption tax get them to choose a smaller dwelling to live in? The reason is, what we know from the evidence is that in cities where real estate prices per square foot are very high, even the billionaires live in much smaller spaces than in other cities where real estate prices are lower. So it’s quite common for a billionaire to live in an apartment that’s under 10,000 square feet in New York City.
Kiely: Poor baby.
Frank: It’s so expensive in New York City, everybody lives in more cramped spaces here so 10,000 space in this context feels like a lot of space. In Dallas that same man would be buying a 40,000-square-foot mansion somewhere in the suburbs. So we know the rich would respond. We don’t know exactly how much they would respond. The proposal that makes the most sense, and it’s due to Larry Seidman at the University of Delaware, is to start off with a progressive consumption surtax, levy it only on consumption above half a million dollars a year.
A gradual changeover
See how people respond and then gradually increase the rates on it while you’re reducing the rates on the income tax so that over a period of time the consumption tax would replace the income tax and we could calibrate the rates in accordance with what we saw in the way of revenue coming in, consumption, adaptations to the new prices and so on.
Kiely: So this is a pretty radical shift, right? It sounds like you’re shifting from an economy that is really — in many ways, our economy is consumer-based. We talk about when we try to evaluate how well or how badly we’re doing as a country economically we talk about consumer confidence. Talk a little bit about what the implications would be for us as a society.
Frank: Well, consumption is about two-thirds of all spending. And people worry that a consumption tax would depress the economy because it would depress consumption spending. What matters for output and employment is not consumption spending but total spending. Total spending is the sum of three or four major categories.
The big three in our economy are consumption, the biggest, next comes investment, spending by private firms on capital investments. Government is another big one. So if we shift spending as a proportion of the national income away from consumption and toward investment or public production, a good life can never be had with just private consumption. You need good schools, you need good roads, you need safety features to keep people from harm. And those expenditures contribute to well-being too. The trick is to find a balance and there’s very good reason to believe that we’ve strayed from the best balance in the US economy.
Kiely: Why do you say that? What are some of the reasons to believe that?
Frank: Just the evidence is very clear that when all the mansions double in size the rich don’t get any happier than before. That’s a lot of money being spent to yield zero measurable result. When all the weddings get twice as expensive, nobody gets any happier. So that’s like pouring money down the toilet. It’s not a productive use of resources. We know that research on diseases that cause premature death yields real benefits for people, the fact that if you kid gets a cancer now there’s a good chance that it could be treated and they’ll survive into adulthood. Those things matter.
Kiely: What do you think are the chances of this proposal being seriously considered in a country where after 9/11 our president told us, “Let’s go shopping”?
Frank: You know, this is not a natural way for people to think about things. If you think about how a tax increase would affect you, it’s a completely natural way to think about that is that it’s going to make it more difficult for me to buy what I want. Why is that? Well, if I have a tax increase that means I’ll have less money.
The natural thing to would be to think back to the last time there was a big tax increase and see how it affected you. Well, the problem with that is that there hasn’t been a tax increase that anyone can remember — not one of a significant magnitude. So the next best thing is just to think back to the times when by circumstance you have had less money.
That might be when you got divorced, might be when you lost your job or your business had a bad year or you have a home fire — who knows? All those things are things that caused you to have less money but didn’t affect the money incomes of anyone else around you. So those things, those things that caused you to have less money really did make you less able to buy what you want. If everybody like you had less money, the effect would be completely different.
But I don’t expect people to come upon that realization of their own accord overnight. That’s kind of a subtle one. If somebody naturally thought about that, I would think that was a weird person in a way. What we know though is that progress can still happen over time.
When for the example the economists were first proposing that we ought to have tradable pollution permits as a way to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from the coal plants in the Midwest, the environmental groups were livid, they said, “Oh, the economists are so immoral they’re proposing that we let polluters pollute to their heart’s content just by paying a fee.” What a strange way to conceptualize what firms do. They’re not saying, “Oh, they’re going to let me buy permits now.” Firms don’t want to pollute, they just pollute because it’s cheaper to pollute than not to pollute. If you have to pay to pollute, then you figure out ways to filter the smoke out.
Don’t tax income; tax consumption
How did that change get adopted? It didn’t get adopted because the public demanded it; it got adopted because freshmen took Economics 101, they learned about the logic of effluent charges from their professors in those courses. Then they went to work on the Hill in Washington, some of them, and they painstakingly educated their congressmen that pollution charges actually makes good sense.
And 25 years after the idea was first proposed, it was adopted as an amendment to the Clean Air Act in 1995. And overnight the pollution targets started getting hit faster than they expected; the cost of hitting them fell precipitously. It was a huge stampede to do it once the idea demonstrated that it made sense. And I think that’s the route along which this will happen if it happens.
Kiely: So do you see any interest in the policymaking community and your proposal?
Frank: Oh absolutely. I mean, the progressive consumption tax has been proposed at various junctures in history. Irving Fisher proposed it in the early 20th century. It was proposed in 1995 in the Senate by Sam Nunn and Pete Domenici — a Democrat and Republican bipartisan bill. It never came up for a vote. People moved on, there were other battles.
But two years ago, two economists at the American Enterprise Institute published a book advocating the progressive consumption tax. It’s a policy that could win support across both sides of the aisle. It has a long history of bipartisan advocacy.
And so when we ever find ourselves in a political climate in which we could ask what’s the right thing to do to make progress, I think that will be one of the first things at the top of the discussion list. We’re not in a climate like that yet but that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t soon find ourselves in one. The same-sex marriage transformation of public opinion caught everybody off guard, but once people start thinking in a different way about a subject and talking with one another, things can flip surprisingly quickly.
Kiely: And how would you assess Hillary Clinton’s economic policies?
Frank: They’re quite pragmatic. I think they come from a deep policy wonk tradition. You know, the recent proposal she made for a refundable tax credit to help alleviate deep poverty is in line with what serious public policy students on both sides of the aisle have been writing for decades. There’s nothing radical in her proposal. It’s a more progressive agenda than we’ve seen from any candidate in the past, but I think it’s not outside the mainstream by any stretch.
Kiely: Does the next president need to get outside the mainstream?
Frank: You know, things happen incrementally until they don’t. I don’t sense that the American public is ripe for revolution. There are other environments where inequality has provoked much more anger and resentment than it seems to have done so far here. But revolutions, when they come, are never widely predicted.
There was the Arab Spring that occurred — nobody was predicting that to happen. The Soviet Union countries all dropped off the Soviet Bloc one after another in the late 1980s; nobody was predicting that except for a handful of people who’d been predicting it every year for 30 years. You know, the dynamics of public opinion are very difficult to forecast.
What you believe depends on what others you talk to believe. That’s true for me, that’s true for everyone. And when one belief changes, that means everybody who talks to that person is exposed to a different belief and if it’s a reasonable new belief, they can change their minds and then they’ll talk to people. So we do see prairie fires.
Kiely: If you were advising the next president of the United States, what would you tell that person to think about? What are the economic issues on the horizon as you see them that we as a country should be talking about and thinking about?
Frank: I think one of our main problems going forward is to redress the long neglected maintenance of our stock of infrastructure. There’s a report card put out by the American Society of Civil Engineers periodically and it gives American infrastructure a D+ rating. And the figure they estimate is $3.6 trillion of overdue maintenance, never mind building a high-speed train.
That’s off the table. Just patching stuff that’s broken, dams that could collapse at any moment, roads that are substandard — this is one of the most desperately needed things to attend to and now’s a good time to do it because interest rates are at historical lows and there are still unemployed people who know how to do the tasks that need to be done.
Then I think longer term there’s concern that the new advances in AI, artificial intelligence, are putting people out of work who never thought they’d be automated out of their jobs.
Kiely: Such as?
Frank: The radiologists, for example, used to sit there in front of their screens and stare intently at the X-rays and try to spot anomalies. Now algorithms can spot anomalies better than they can and one machine that’s got an algorithm like that embedded in it can replace a thousand radiologists.
Those people are educated, they’ll find something useful to do without question, but there are lots of things like that where — you know, we’ve heard predictions that there’d be a shortage of things for people to do for a long time. Historically, that’s not proved accurate. Every time technology has wiped out a certain group of jobs — tollbooth collectors, things like that — other jobs have emerged to take their place. That could still happen, but I think the concern that it won’t happen is greater now.
You know, the labor market has been the primary source of income for people. Going forward we may not be able to rely on that as a primary source of income. It’s not that we’ll be too poor to support people. There’ll be more income as a result of these technologies, but how do we get it into the hands of people? And so we’ve started to hear now even conservatives calling cautiously for a basic income guarantee.
The case for a basic income
Kiely: Do you think that’s a good idea?
Frank: It’s not going to work in the form that it’s traditionally proposed. There are many ways in which it is a good idea. Milton Friedman proposed it in the form of a negative income tax back in the 1950s. The idea would be everybody gets a payment every year, no matter whether you’re rich or poor, and then other forms of income get taxed, so if you’re Bill Gates, this payment you get gets wiped out by all the tax you paid, but the payment in his scheme would be big enough to lift an urban family from poverty. So today that would be about $25,000 a year.
If you gave people a payment large enough to lift an urban family from poverty, the effect of that would be that a group of, let’s say, 10 families could form, pool their payments — so we’ve got 10 families, $250,000 a year. They would buy some acreage in Oregon, they would start a commune, they would raise chickens and goats, they would grow vegetables. They could practice their guitars in the morning, they could debate politics and the arts in the afternoon and they could go skinny dipping in the pond, all completely at taxpayer expense.
And so if you imagine what would happen in that — and it might not be very many who did that, but some would. Then there would soon be an eager audience for video footage of them on the nightly news. You know, you’re going to work every day, paying taxes, doing a hard job, these people are having fun all day at your expense. That would not be politically sustainable, in my opinion.
What we could do is give a much smaller basic income grant, much too small to form a group that could live wholly at taxpayer expense like that, and then offer to supplement that by extending an opportunity to perform useful tasks in the public realm for a small wage, smaller than the private sector wage, which in combination with the basic income grant, would lift you from poverty.
Kiely: So what kind of tasks do you have in mind?
Frank: Oh, there’s been a lot of research on this. You know, transporting elderly and infirm people around, there’s not nearly enough of that done by the private sector. Planting seedlings on hillsides that are eroding, graffiti removal and staffing daycare centers. There’s all sorts of things that people without a lot of skill could do with proper supervision. You could contract the management of tasks like that out to the private sector if you’re worried about government bureaucracy expanding too much.
There’s sort of an old tradition of public service employment. The WPA projects produced some wonderful additions to the nation’s stock of capital, and I think at a time when there aren’t enough jobs to keep people busy in the private sector, attending to obviously useful tasks in the public sector would be something we would want to do anyway, quite apart from the need to get income into people’s hands.
Kiely: If I had to ask you for a shorthand — maybe a word or a couple of words to describe the type of economic philosophy you’re proposing — what would it be? Have you thought about that?
Frank: I was once thinking to title a book Radical Pragmatism. The publisher didn’t like the title so I didn’t use it, but it always seemed like it was kind of a pair of words that captured the essence of the thinking behind proposals like these. They’re at one level radical. They’re outside the mainstream, certainly. But at another level, they’re deeply pragmatic and they’re rooted in what we know about human psychology and political reality as it exists.
Kiely: Let me just ask you one last question, and that’s about your latest book, which is kind of about the conflation of luck and skill, or the notion that a lucky person is skillful. Why did you write that book and does it fit into what you’ve been talking about, and how?
Frank: Yeah, I think the tendency — what we know from the social science is that chance events matter much more in life outcomes than most people imagine. We have a kind of hindsight bias. We see a successful outcome, we look at the usual explanations for outcomes like that — hard work, talent and those are almost always important. But what we don’t see when we think about those things that way is that there are lots and lots of people who were just as talented and hardworking who didn’t succeed. Why didn’t they succeed?
Well, maybe the promotion that they would’ve gotten had it not been for a slightly more qualified candidate didn’t come at the right time and so they missed some train, or there was a teacher that kept them out of trouble in the 11th grade. That teacher wasn’t there. Those kinds of things don’t really enter into people’s narratives about why they’re successful and I think the evidence is pretty clear that if you think you did it all yourself, you’re way more determined to keep every nickel that comes your way. And so I think it’s that and much more of the income is going to people who, if not for luck, would never have succeeded in these winner-take-all markets.
They’re talented and hardworking, to be sure, but they needed luck too. And the fact that they think they did it all on their own makes them determined to hold onto every nickel, and because they have so much, they’re able to hire the political system to give them tax cuts —
Kiely: So it’s an entitlement mentality that you’re trying to combat.
Frank: Yeah. And the irony is that that doesn’t serve them well. So they can build bigger mansions — so what? Have more expensive parties? That just raises the bar when they all do it. And if they were a little bit more willing to embrace the fact that they were lucky, they would actually be happier. You know, people would like them better. You know, who would you rather have dinner with, the guy who says, “We worked hard, but yeah, we had some lucky breaks along the way” or the person who stubbornly insists he did it all himself? You know, that’s an easy call.
Kiely: So it sounds like some of this revenue might have to be used to put extremely wealthy people on the couch so they can get their head shrunk down a little bit and understand that they can be happier with a smaller house —
Frank: Well, all you have to do is talk to them. It doesn’t work to remind them that they’ve been lucky. That’s what Obama tried to do in his “you didn’t build that” speech: “Well, look, if it hadn’t been for the system we all built, you couldn’t have succeeded in that way.” Oh, they got so angry when they heard that. Elizabeth Warren, the same thing. There was vitriol all over the internet about those speeches.
But what I’ve discovered is that if you don’t remind a successful person that she’s been lucky, if you instead say, “Can you think of any examples of lucky breaks you enjoyed along the way to the top?” they seem to find the question interesting. They don’t get angry that you posed it. They think of examples. Their eyes light up. They want to tell you about them. When they tell you about one, that kindles the memory of another and then pretty soon they’re asking, “Why aren’t we supporting these public investments we were talking about?” So how you frame it really does matter. But we’re learning more about that now, I think.
Kiely: All right. Robert Frank, soon-to-be psychiatrist-in-chief for the nation. [laughter] Thank you so much for your time.
— source billmoyers.com
On Nov. 11, 2013, Victorville, California, sheriff’s deputies and a coroner responded to a motorcyclist’s report of human remains outside of town.
They identified the partially bleached skull of a child, and later discovered the remains of the McStay family who had been missing for the past three years. Joseph, 40, his wife Summer, 43, Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3, had been bludgeoned to death and buried in shallow graves in the desert.
Investigators long suspected Charles Merritt in the family’s disappearance, interviewing him days after they went missing. Merritt was McStay’s business partner and the last person known to see him alive. Merritt had also borrowed $30,000 from McStay to cover a gambling debt, a mutual business partner told police. None of it was enough to make an arrest.
Even after the gravesite was discovered and McStay’s DNA was found inside Merritt’s vehicle, police were far from pinning the quadruple homicide on him.
Until they turned to Project Hemisphere.
Hemisphere is a secretive program run by AT&T that searches trillions of call records and analyzes cellular data to determine where a target is located, with whom he speaks, and potentially why.
“Merritt was in a position to access the cellular telephone tower northeast of the McStay family gravesite on February 6th, 2010, two days after the family disappeared,” an affidavit for his girlfriend’s call records reports Hemisphere finding (PDF). Merritt was arrested almost a year to the date after the McStay family’s remains were discovered, and is awaiting trial for the murders.
In 2013, Hemisphere was revealed by The New York Times and described only within a Powerpoint presentation made by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Times described it as a “partnership” between AT&T and the U.S. government; the Justice Department said it was an essential, and prudently deployed, counter-narcotics tool.
However, AT&T’s own documentation—reported here by The Daily Beast for the first time—shows Hemisphere was used far beyond the war on drugs to include everything from investigations of homicide to Medicaid fraud.
Hemisphere isn’t a “partnership” but rather a product AT&T developed, marketed, and sold at a cost of millions of dollars per year to taxpayers. No warrant is required to make use of the company’s massive trove of data, according to AT&T documents, only a promise from law enforcement to not disclose Hemisphere if an investigation using it becomes public.
These new revelations come as the company seeks to acquire Time Warner in the face of vocal opposition saying the deal would be bad for consumers. Donald Trump told supporters over the weekend he would kill the acquisition if he’s elected president; Hillary Clinton has urged regulators to scrutinize the deal.
While telecommunications companies are legally obligated to hand over records, AT&T appears to have gone much further to make the enterprise profitable, according to ACLU technology policy analyst Christopher Soghoian.
“Companies have to give this data to law enforcement upon request, if they have it. AT&T doesn’t have to data-mine its database to help police come up with new numbers to investigate,” Soghoian said.
AT&T has a unique power to extract information from its metadata because it retains so much of it. The company owns more than three-quarters of U.S. landline switches, and the second largest share of the nation’s wireless infrastructure and cellphone towers, behind Verizon. AT&T retains its cell tower data going back to July 2008, longer than other providers. Verizon holds records for a year and Sprint for 18 months, according to a 2011 retention schedule obtained by The Daily Beast.
The disclosure of Hemisphere was not the first time AT&T has been caught working with law enforcement above and beyond what the law requires.
Special cooperation with the government to conduct surveillance dates back to at least 2003, when AT&T ordered technician Mark Klein to help the National Security Agency install a bug directly into its main San Francisco internet exchange point, Room 641A. The company invented a programming language to mine its own records for surveillance, and in 2007 came under fire for handing these mined records over to the FBI. That same year Hemisphere was born.
By 2013, it was deployed to three DEA High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Investigative Support Centers, according to the Times. Today, Hemisphere is used in at least 28 of these intelligence centers across the country, documents show. The centers are staffed by federal agents as well as local law enforcement; one center is the Los Angeles Regional Criminal Information Clearinghouse, where Merritt’s number was sent for analysis.
Analysis is done by AT&T employees on behalf of law enforcement clients through these intelligence centers, but performed at another location in the area. At no point does law enforcement directly access AT&T’s data.
A statement of work from 2014 shows how hush-hush AT&T wants to keep Hemisphere.
“The Government agency agrees not to use the data as evidence in any judicial or administrative proceedings unless there is no other available and admissible probative evidence,” it says.
But those charged with a crime are entitled to know the evidence against them come trial. Adam Schwartz, staff attorney for activist group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that means AT&T may leave investigators no choice but to construct a false investigative narrative to hide how they use Hemisphere if they plan to prosecute anyone.
Once AT&T provides a lead through Hemisphere, then investigators use routine police work, like getting a court order for a wiretap or following a suspect around, to provide the same evidence for the purpose of prosecution. This is known as “parallel construction.”
“This document here is striking,” Schwartz told The Daily Beast. “I’ve seen documents produced by the government regarding Hemisphere, but this is the first time I’ve seen an AT&T document which requires parallel construction in a service to government. It’s very troubling and not the way law enforcement should work in this country.”
The federal government reimburses municipalities for the expense of Hemisphere through the same grant program that is blamed for police militarization by paying for military gear like Bearcat vehicles.
“At a minimum there is a very serious question whether they should be doing it without a warrant. A benefit to the parallel construction is they never have to face that crucible. Then the judge, the defendant, the general public, the media, and elected officials never know that AT&T and police across America funded by the White House are using the world’s largest metadata database to surveil people,” Schwartz said.
The EFF, American Civil Liberties Union, and Electronic Privacy Information Center have all expressed concern that surveillance using Hemisphere is unconstitutionally invasive, and have sought more information on the program, with little success. The EFF is currently awaiting a judge’s ruling on its Freedom of Information Act suit against the Department of Justice for Hemisphere documentation.
AT&T spokesperson Fletcher Cook told The Daily Beast via an email that there is “no special database,” and that the only additional service AT&T provides for Atlanta’s intelligence center is dedicated personnel to speed up requests.
“Like other communications companies, if a government agency seeks customer call records through a subpoena, court order or other mandatory legal process, we are required by law to provide this non-content information, such as the phone numbers and the date and time of calls,” AT&T’s statement said.
Soghoian said AT&T is being misleading.
“They say they only cooperate with law enforcement as required, and frankly, that’s offensive when they are mining the data of millions of innocent people, and really built a business and services around the needs of law enforcement,” he said.
Sheriff and police departments pay from $100,000 to upward of $1 million a year or more for Hemisphere access. Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, made its inaugural payment to AT&T of $77,924 in 2007, according to a contract reviewed by The Daily Beast. Four years later, the county’s Hemisphere bill had increased more than tenfold to $940,000.
“Did you see that movie Field of Dreams?” Soghoian asked. “It’s like that line, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Once a company creates a huge surveillance apparatus like this and provides it to law enforcement, they then have to provide it whenever the government asks. They’ve developed this massive program and of course they’re going to sell it to as many people as possible.”
AT&T documents state law enforcement doesn’t need a search warrant to use Hemisphere, just an administrative subpoena, which does not require probable cause. The DEA was granted administrative subpoena power in 1970.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1979’s Smith v. Maryland that “non-content” metadata such as phone records were like an address written on an envelope, and phone customers had no reasonable expectation that it would be kept private.
AT&T stores details for every call, text message, Skype chat, or other communication that has passed through its infrastructure, retaining many records dating back to 1987, according to the Times 2013 Hemisphere report. The scope and length of the collection has accumulated trillions of records and is believed to be larger than any phone record database collected by the NSA under the Patriot Act, the Times reported.
The database allows its analysts to detect hidden patterns and connections between call detail records, and make highly accurate inferences about the associations and movements of the people Hemisphere is used to surveil. Its database is particularly useful for tracking a subscriber between multiple discarded phone numbers, as when drug dealers use successive prepaid “burner” phones to evade conventional surveillance.
Some Hemisphere operations have regionally appropriate nicknames: Atlanta’s is “Peach,” while Hawaii’s has been called “Sunshine.” West Allis, Wisconsin, city council minutes do not name the contract at all, referring to it only as “services needed for an investigative tool used by each of the HIDTA’s Investigative Support Centers from AT&T Government Solutions.” In 2014 Cameron County, Texas, Judge Carlos Casco ordered a line item in the commission minutes changed from “Hemisphere Program” to “database analysis services.” Casco is now the secretary of State of Texas.
The Florida attorney general’s Medicaid Fraud Unit received “Hemisphere Project” training in 2013, according to a report on the unit’s data-mining activities. Florida is one of eight states that is allowed to spend federal money on anti-fraud data mining initiatives. Florida Medicaid fraud investigators use such technology to look for suspicious connections between call detail records such as “a provider and a beneficiary with the same phone number or address.”
A group of shareholders represented by Arjuna Capital are concerned about the effect of negative press on stock value, and filed a proposal in December 2015 to require the company to issue a statement “clarifying the Company’s policies regarding providing information to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, domestically and internationally, above and beyond what is legally required by court order or other legally mandated process.”
AT&T contested the proposal and the matter is now before the Securities and Exchange Commission.
— source thedailybeast.com By Kenneth Lipp
When Google bought the advertising network DoubleClick in 2007, Google founder Sergey Brin said that privacy would be the company’s “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.”
And, for nearly a decade, Google did in fact keep DoubleClick’s massive database of web-browsing records separate by default from the names and other personally identifiable information Google has collected from Gmail and its other login accounts.
The change is enabled by default for new Google accounts. Existing users were prompted to opt-in to the change this summer.
The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on your name and other information Google knows about you. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.
The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous. In recent years, Facebook, offline data brokers and others have increasingly sought to combine their troves of web tracking data with people’s real names. But until this summer, Google held the line.
“The fact that DoubleClick data wasn’t being regularly connected to personally identifiable information was a really significant last stand,” said Paul Ohm, faculty director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law.
“It was a border wall between being watched everywhere and maintaining a tiny semblance of privacy,” he said. “That wall has just fallen.”
“We updated our ads system, and the associated user controls, to match the way people use Google today: across many different devices,” Faville wrote. She added that the change “is 100% optional–if users do not opt-in to these changes, their Google experience will remain unchanged.” (Read Google’s entire statement.)
Existing Google users were prompted to opt-into the new tracking this summer through a request with titles such as “Some new features for your Google account.”
The “new features” received little scrutiny at the time. Wired wrote that it “gives you more granular control over how ads work across devices.” In a personal tech column, the New York Times also described the change as “new controls for the types of advertisements you see around the web.”
Connecting web browsing habits to personally identifiable information has long been controversial.
Privacy advocates raised a ruckus in 1999 when DoubleClick purchased a data broker that assembled people’s names, addresses and offline interests. The merger could have allowed DoubleClick to combine its web browsing information with people’s names. After an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, DoubleClick sold the broker at a loss.
In response to the controversy, the nascent online advertising industry formed the Network Advertising Initiative in 2000 to establish ethical codes. The industry promised to provide consumers with notice when their data was being collected, and options to opt out.
But the era of social networking has ushered in a new wave of identifiable tracking, in which services such as Facebook and Twitter have been able to track logged-in users when they shared an item from another website.
Two years ago, Facebook announced that it would track its users by name across the Internet when they visit websites containing Facebook buttons such as “Share” and “Like” – even when users don’t click on the button. (Here’s how you can opt out of the targeted ads generated by that tracking).
Offline data brokers also started to merge their mailing lists with online shoppers. “The marriage of online and offline is the ad targeting of the last 10 years on steroids,” said Scott Howe, chief executive of broker firm Acxiom.
To opt-out of Google’s identified tracking, visit the Activity controls on Google’s My Account page, and uncheck the box next to “Include Chrome browsing history and activity from websites and apps that use Google services.” You can also delete past activity from your account.
— source propublica.org By Julia Angwin
Wind energy is changing the economy of the Midwest. Wind is the fastest growing source of electricity in the United States, and about 70 percent of wind power is located in low income counties. These counties are typically rural, often Midwestern areas, where the dominant industry for decades has been agriculture. Increasingly though, many farmers are finding that leasing space to wind turbine operators is more lucrative than growing corn. That trend is likely to continue going forward, and it should alter the way energy companies and investors alike should think about wind power.
Wind power represents an important economic boost in many areas of the U.S. and as a result local farmers and communities welcome wind turbine developers. Farmers benefit directly from wind turbines to tune of between $7,000 and $10,000 per turbine in annual leasing fees. A farmer who could lease land for 10 wind turbines would likely receive between $70K and $100K in annual lease income with essentially no overhead for that income.
Farmers are not the only beneficiaries however. Communities as a whole benefit directly from wind farm development as well. A two MW wind turbine can carry a tax assessment value of $720,000. If a community can host 100 turbines across farms throughout the county, that equates to an additional $72 million in property tax values which in turn provides an enormous influx of cash for renovating schools, upgrading infrastructure, and adding new services for local residents. The average U.S. property tax rate is around 2 percent, meaning that 100 two MW wind turbines would generate $1.4 million in property tax revenue annually – enough to pay for more than $40 million in local improvements at typical muni cap rates.
Nationally, there are more than $100 billion of wind farm investments with more on the way, and rural land owners will likely receive around $1 billion in lease payments annually by 2030 according to some estimates. Against this backdrop and given the value that wind power provides to rural communities as a whole, it is little wonder that wind power projects are quite popular in most rural towns.
Related: OPEC Deal Still Wobbly, But Oil Investment Takes Off
The popularity of wind projects with the residents of these areas is important because, unlike most other forms of power production (including solar power in some areas), wind turbine developers get significantly less pushback from local NIMBY protesters. Add to that the extension of the five-year wind tax credit which passed Congress last year, and the wind power business looks likely to continue to be strong for years to come. Congress’ tax credit pays wind power producers $0.023 per kwh of power produced for a 10-year period. Bloomberg estimates the credit will lead to a doubling of the current ~83 GW of wind power by 2030.
Add together the supportive regulatory environment and clamor by local residents for more wind turbines, and its little wonder that wind is one of the best areas of the power generation markets right now. Investors can capitalize on the trend either with large diversified conglomerates like Berkshire Hathaway which owns wind power producer MidAmerican Energy, or with pure play power producers like Alliant Energy. Both approaches have merit depending on one’s investment philosophy, but investors should look closely at one path or the other because strong secular growth stories in the energy business are in short supply at present.
By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com
— source oilprice.com
LEER, South Sudan — There it is again. That sickening smell. I’m standing on the threshold of a ghost of a home. Its footprint is all that’s left. In the ruins sits a bulbous little silver teakettle — metal, softly rounded, charred but otherwise perfect, save for two punctures. Something tore through it and ruined it, just as something tore through this home and ruined it, just as something tore through this town and left it a dusty, wasted ruin.
This, truth be told, is no longer a town, not even a razed one. It’s a killing field, a place where human remains lie unburied, whose residents have long since fled, while its few remaining inhabitants are mostly refugees from similarly ravaged villages.
The world is awash in killing fields, sites of slaughter where armed men have laid waste to the innocent, the defenseless, the unlucky; locales where women and children, old and young men have been suffocated, had their skulls shattered, been left gut-shot and gasping. Or sometimes they’re just the unhallowed grounds where the battered and broken bodies of such unfortunates are dumped without ceremony or prayer or even a moment of solemn reflection. Over the last century, these blood-soaked sites have sprouted across the globe: Cambodia, the Philippines, the Koreas, South Africa, Mexico, Lebanon, Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria — on and on, year after year, country after country.
Chances are, you once heard something about the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw up to one million men, women, and children murdered in just 100 days. You may remember the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops at My Lai. And maybe you recall the images of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical weapons attack on Kurds in Halabja. For years, Sudan contributed to this terrible tally. You might, for instance, remember the attention paid to the slaughter of civilians in Darfur during the 2000s. The killings there actually never ended, only the public outcry did. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were also massacres farther south in or around towns you’ve probably never heard of like Malakal, Bor, and Leer.
A 2005 peace deal between U.S.-supported rebels in the south of Sudan and the government in the north was supposed to put a stop to such slaughter, but it never quite did. And in some quarters, worse was predicted for the future. “Looking ahead over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing,” said U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in 2010. “Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan.”
In late 2013 and 2014, Malakal, Bor, Leer, and other towns in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, were indeed littered with bodies. And the killing in this country — the result of the third civil war since the 1950s — has only continued.
In 2014, I traveled to Malakal to learn what I could about the destruction of that town and the civilians who perished there. In 2015, I walked among the mass graves of Bor where, a year earlier, a bulldozer had dug huge trenches for hundreds of bodies, some so badly decomposed or mutilated that it was impossible to identify whether they had been men, women, or children. This spring, I find myself in Leer, another battered enclave, as aid groups struggled to reestablish their presence, as armed men still stalked the night, as human skulls gleamed beneath the blazing midday sun.
The nose-curling odor here told me that somewhere, something was burning. The scent had been in my nostrils all day. Sometimes, it was just a faint, if harsh, note carried on the hot breeze, but when the wind shifted it became an acrid, all-encompassing stench — not the comforting smell of a cooking fire, but something far more malign. I looked to the sky, searching for a plume of smoke, but there was only the same opaque glare, blinding and ashen. Wiping my eyes, I muttered a quick curse for this place and moved on to the next ruined shell of a home, and the next, and the next. The devastated wattle-and-daub tukuls and wrecked animal pens stretched on as far as I could see.
This is Leer — or at least what’s left of it.
The Fire Last Time
If you want to learn more about this town, about what happened to it, Leer isn’t the best place to start. You’d be better served by traveling down the road several miles to Thonyor, another town in southern Unity State where so much of Leer’s population fled. It was there that I found Mary Nyalony, a 31-year-old mother of five who, only days before, had given birth to a son.
Leer was her hometown and life there had never been easy. War arrived shortly after fighting broke out in the capital, Juba, in December 2013, a rupture that most here call “the crisis.” With civil war came men with guns and, in early 2014, Nyalony was forced to run for her life. For three months, she and her family lived in the bush, before eventually returning to Leer. The International Committee of the Red Cross was airdropping food there, she tells me. In her mind, those were the halcyon days. “There was enough to eat,” she explains. “Now, we have nothing.”
The road to nothing, like the road to Thonyor, began for her in the early morning hours of a day in May 2015. Single gunshots and staccato bursts of gunfire began echoing across Leer, followed by screams and panic. This has been the story of South Sudan’s civil war: few pitched battles between armies, many attacks on civilians by armed men. Often, it’s unclear just who is attacking. Civilians hear gunfire and they begin to run. If they’re lucky they get away with their lives, and often little else.
The war here has regularly been portrayed as a contest between the president, Salva Kiir, a member of the country’s largest tribe, the Dinka, and Riek Machar, a member of the second largest ethnic group, the Nuer. Kiir and Machar do indeed have a long history as both allies and enemies and as president and vice president of their new nation. Kiir went on to sack Machar. Months later, the country plunged into civil war. Kiir claimed the violence stemmed from an abortive coup by Machar, but an investigation by an African Union commission found no evidence of that. It did, however, find that “Dinka soldiers, members of Presidential Guard, and other security forces conducted house-to-house searches, killing Nuer soldiers and civilians in and near their homes” and that it was carried out “in furtherance of a State policy.” The civil war that ensued “ended” with an August 2015 peace agreement that saw Machar rejoin the government. But the violence never actually stopped and after a fresh round of killings in the capital in July, he fled the country and has since issued a new call for rebellion.
In truth, though, the war in South Sudan is far more than a battle between two men, two tribes, two armies — Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Machar’s SPLA-In Opposition (SPLA-IO). It’s a conflict of shifting alliances involving a plethora of armed actors and ad hoc militias led by a corrupt cast of characters fighting wars within wars. The complexities are mind-boggling: longstanding bad blood, grievances, and feuds intertwined with ethnic enmities tangled, in turn, with internecine tribal and clan animosities, all aided and abetted by the power of modern weaponry and the way the ancient cultural practice of cattle-raiding has morphed into paramilitary raiding. Add in a nation in financial free-fall; the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny, riven elite; the mass availability of weaponry; and so many actors pursuing so many aims that it’s impossible to keep them all straight.
Whatever the complexities of this war, however, the playbooks of its actors remain remarkably uniform. Men armed with AK-47s fall upon undefended communities. They kill, pillage, loot. Younger women and girls are singled-out for exceptional forms of violence: gang rapes and sexual slavery. Some have been forced into so-called rape camps, where they become the “wives” of soldiers; others are sexually assaulted and killed in especially sadistic ways. Along with women, the soldiers often take cattle — the traditional rural currency, source of wealth, and means of sustenance in the region.
In Leer and the surrounding villages of Unity State, last year’s government offensive to take back rebel territory followed exactly this pattern, but with a ferocity that was striking even for this war. More than one expert told me that, at least for a time in 2015, Leer and its surroundings were one of the worst places in the entire world.
Armed youth from Nuer clans allied to the government offered no mercy. Fighting alongside troops from the SPLA and forces loyal to local officials, they carried out a scorched-earth campaign against other ethnic Nuers from spring 2015 though the late fall. Their pay was whatever they could steal and whomever they could rape.
“People in southern Unity State have suffered through some of the most harrowing violence that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has seen in South Sudan — or in almost any other context where we work,” says Pete Buth, Deputy Director of Operations for the aid group. “Over the course of the last two years, and particularly from May to November of 2015, women, men and children have been indiscriminately targeted with extreme and brutal violence. We’ve received reports and testimonies of rape, killings, abductions of women and children and the wholesale destruction of villages. The levels of violence have been absolutely staggering.”
By late last year, almost 600,000 people like Nyalony had been displaced in Unity State alone.
“They came to raid the cattle. They seemed to be allied to the government,” she tells me. Given all she’s been through, given the newborn she’s gently palpitating, her eyes are surprisingly bright, her voice strong. Her recollections, however, are exceptionally grim. Two younger male relatives of hers were shot but survived. Her father-in-law wasn’t so fortunate. He was killed in the attack, she tells me, his body consumed in the same flames that destroyed his home.
The Fire This Time
On the road from Leer to Thonyor I discovered the source of the harsh odor that had been assaulting my senses all day. A large agricultural fire was raging along the winding dirt road between the two towns, the former now in the hands of Kiir’s SPLA, the latter still controlled by Machar’s rebels. A plume of smoke poured skyward from orange flames that leapt maybe 15 feet high as they consumed palm trees, brush, and swampland.
I watched the same inferno on my way back to Leer, thinking about the charred corpse of Nyalony’s father-in-law, about all the others who never made it out of homes that were now nothing but ankle-high rectangles of mud and wood or piles of shattered concrete. On another day, in Leer’s triple digit heat, I walk through some of the charred remains with a young woman from the area. Tall, with close-cropped hair and a relaxed, easy demeanor, she guides me through the ruins. “This one was a very good building,” she says of one of the largest piles of rubble, a home whose exterior walls were a striking and atypical mint green. “They killed the father at this house. He had two wives. One wife had, maybe, six babies.” (I find out later that when she says “babies” she means children.) Pointing to the wrecked shell next to it, what’s left of a more traditional decorated mud wall, she says, “The other wife had five babies.”
We thread our way through the ravaged tukuls, past support beams for thatched roofs that easily went up in flames. In her honeyed voice, my guide narrates the contents of the wreckage. “It’s a bed,” she explains of a scorched metal frame. “Now, it’s no bed,” she adds with a laugh.
She points out another tukul, its mud walls mostly still standing, though its roof is gone and the interior walls scorched. “I know the man who lived here,” she tells me. His large family is gone now. She doesn’t know where. “Maybe Juba. Maybe wherever.”
“They were shooting. They destroyed the house. If the people were inside the house, they shoot them. Then they burn it,” she says. Pointing toward another heavy metal bed frame, she explains the obvious just in case I don’t understand why the ruins are awash in these orphaned pieces of furniture. “If they’re shooting, you don’t care about beds. You run.” She pauses and I watch as her face slackens and her demeanor goes dark. “You might even leave a baby. You don’t want to, but there’s shooting. They’ll shoot you. You’re afraid and you run away.” Then she falls silent.
“What civilians experienced in Leer County was terrible. When the population was forced to flee from their homes, they had to flee with nothing into these swamps in the middle of the night,” says Jonathan Loeb, a human rights investigator who served as a consultant with Amnesty International’s crisis response team in Leer. “And so you had these nightmarish scenarios where parents are abandoning their children, husbands are abandoning their wives, babies are drowning in swamps in the middle of the night. And this is happening repeatedly.”
Nataba, whom I meet in Leer, faces away from me, her legs folded beneath her on the concrete porch. She carefully removes the straps of her dark blue dress from her left shoulder and then her right, letting it fall from the top half of her body so that she can work unimpeded. “I came to Leer some weeks ago. There was lots of shooting in Juong,” she says of her home village. From there she fled with her children to Mayendit, then on to Leer, to this very compound, once evidently a church or religious center. Nataba leans forward, using a rock to grind maize into meal. I watch her back muscles shudder and ripple as she folds her body toward the ground like a supplicant, then pulls back, repeating the motion endlessly. Though hard at work, her voice betrays no hint of exertion. She just faces forward, nude to the waist, her voice clear and matter-of-fact. Five people from her village, including her 15-year-old daughter, she tells me, were shot and killed by armed men from nearby Koch County. “A lot of women were raped,” she adds.
Deborah sits close by with Nataba’s four surviving children draped all over her. I mistake her for a grandmother to the brood, but she’s no relation. She was driven out of Dok village last December, also by militia from Koch who — by her count — killed eight men and two women. She fled into the forest where she had neither food nor protection from the elements. At least here in Leer she’s sharing what meager provisions Nataba has, hoping that aid organizations will soon begin bringing in rations.
Her face is a sun-weathered web of lines etched by adversity, hardship, and want. Her wiry frame is all muscle and bone. In the West, you’d have to live at the gym and be 30 years younger to have arms as defined as hers. She hopes for peace, she tells me, and mentions that she’s a Catholic. “There’s nothing here to eat” is, however, the line that she keeps repeating. As I get up to leave, she grasps my hand. “Shukran. Thank you,” I tell her, not for the first time, and at that she melts to the ground, kneeling at my feet. Taken aback, I freeze, then watch — and feel — as she takes her thumb and makes a sign of the cross on the toe of each of my shoes. “God bless you,” she says.
It’s still early morning, but when I meet Theresa Nyayang Machok she already looks exhausted. It could be that this widow is responsible for 10 children, six girls and four boys; or that she has no other family here; or that her home in the village of Loam was destroyed; or that, as she says, “there’s no work, there’s no food”; or all of it combined. She turns away from time to time to try to persuade several of her children to stop tormenting a tiny puppy with an open wound on one ear.
The youngest child, a boy with a distended belly, won’t leave the puppy alone and breaks into a wail when it snaps at him. To quiet the toddler, an older brother hands him a torn foil package of Plumpy’Sup, a peanut-based nutrition supplement given out by international aid agencies. The toddler licks up the last daubs of the high-protein, high-fat paste.
Men from Koch attacked her village late last year, Machok tells me, taking all the cattle and killing six civilians. When they came to her home, they demanded money that she didn’t have. She gave them clothes instead, then ran with her children in tow. Stranded here in Leer on the outskirts of the government camp, she brews up alcohol when she can get the ingredients and sells it to SPLA soldiers. If peace comes, she wants to go home. Until then, she’ll be here. “There’s nobody in my village. It’s empty,” she explains.
Sarah, a withered woman, lives in Giel, a devastated little hamlet on Leer’s outskirts. To call her home a “wattle hovel” would be generous, since it looks like it might collapse on her family at any moment. “There was fighting here,” she says. “Whenever there’s fighting we run to the river.” For months last year, she lived with her children in a nearby waterlogged swamp, hiding in the tall grass, hoping the armed men she refers to as SPLM — the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Kiir’s party — wouldn’t find them. At least five people in Giel were killed, she says, including her sister’s adult son.
She returned home only to be confronted by more armed men who took most of what little she had left. “They said ‘give us clothes or we’ll shoot you,’” she tells me. Sarah’s children, mostly naked, crowd around. A few wear scraps that are little more than rags. Her own black dress is so threadbare that it leaves little to the imagination. Worse yet are her stores of food. She hid some sorghum, but that’s all gone.
I ask what they’re eating. She gets up, walks over to a spot where a battered sheet of metal leans against an empty animal pen, and comes back with two small handfuls of dried water lily bulbs, which she places at my feet. It’s far too little to feed this family. I ask if food is their greatest need. No, she says, gesturing toward her roof — more gaps than thatch. She needs plastic tarps to provide some protection for her children. “The rainy season,” she says, “is coming.”
Nyanet is an elderly man, though he has no idea just how old. His eyes are cloudy and haunted, his hearing poor, so my interpreter shouts my questions at him. “The soldiers come at night,” he responds. ”They have guns. They take clothes; they take food; they take cows,” he says. All the young men of the village are gone. “They killed them.” The armed men, he tells me, also took girls and young women away.
Not far from Nyanet’s tiny home, I meet Nyango. She’s also unsure of her age. “If the SPLM comes, they take cattle. They kill people,” she explains. She also ran to the river and lived there for months. Like the others in this tumbledown village, her family wears rags. Her children fell ill living in the mud and muck and water for so long, and still haven’t recovered.
“People have been hiding in the bush and swamps, terrified for their lives with little or no access to humanitarian assistance for months at a time. That’s been the status quo for much of the last year,” explains MSF’s Pete Buth. “Now, as people gradually leave from their hiding places, we are seeing the aftermath. Children are suffering from fungal infections on their hands and feet, their skin painful and broken as they leave the swamps and then the dirt and heat dry out the wounds.”
I look down at the nude toddler clinging to Nyango’s leg. The child’s eyes are covered in milky white mucus and flies are lining up to dine on it. I’ve seen plenty of children, eyes crawling with flies — the ultimate “African” cliché, the sight that launched a thousand funding appeals, but never have I seen so many tiny flies arranged in such an orderly fashion to sup at a child’s eyes. Nyango keeps talking, my interpreter keeps translating, but I’m fixated on this tiny boy. A pathetic mewing sound escapes his lips and Nyango reaches down, pulls him up, and settles him on her hip.
I force my attention back to her as she explains that the men who devastated this place killed six people she knows of. Another woman in Giel suggests that 50 people died in this small village. The truth is that no one may ever know how many men, women, and children from Giel, Leer, and surrounding areas were slaughtered in the endless rounds of fighting since this war began.
Where the Bodies Are Buried
Nobody seems to want to talk about where all the bodies went either. It’s an awkward question to ask and all I get are noncommittal answers or sometimes blank stares. People are much more willing to talk about killing than to comment on corpses. But there is plenty of tangible proof of atrocities in Leer if you’re willing to look.
In the midday heat, I set out toward the edge of town following simple directions that turn out to be anything but. I walk down a dirt path that quickly fades into an open expanse, while two new paths begin on either side. No one said anything about this. Up ahead, a group of boys are clustered near a broken-down structure. I don’t want to attract attention so I take the path on the right, putting the building between them and me.
I’m in Leer with only quasi-approval from the representative of a government that openly threatens reporters with death, in a nation where the term “press freedom” is often a cruel joke, where journalists are arrested, disappeared, tortured, or even killed, and no one is held accountable. As a white American, I’m probably immune to the treatment meted out to South Sudanese reporters, but I’m not eager to test the proposition. At the very least, I can be detained, my reporting cut short.
I try to maintain a low profile, but as a Caucasian in foreign clothes and a ridiculous boonie hat, it’s impossible for me to blend in here. “Khawaja! [White man!],” the boys yell. It’s what children often say on seeing me. I offer up an embarrassed half wave and keep moving. If they follow, I know this expedition’s over. But they stay put.
I’m worried now that I’ve gone too far, that I should have taken the other path. I’m in an open expanse under the relentless midday sun. In the distance, I see a group of women and decide to move toward a nearby stand of trees. Suddenly, I think I see it, the area I’ve been looking for, the area that some around here have taken to calling “the killing field.”
Killing Fields: Then
The world is awash in “killing fields” and I’ve visited my fair share of them. The term originally comes from the terrible autogenocide of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and was coined by Dith Pran, whose story was chronicled by his New York Times colleague Sydney Schanberg in a magazine article, a book, and finally an Academy-Award-winning film aptly titled The Killing Fields.
“I saw with my eyes that there are many, many killing fields… there’s all the skulls and the bones piled up, some in the wells,” Pran explained after traveling from town to town across Cambodia during his escape to Thailand in 1979. Near Siem Reap, now a popular tourist haunt, Pran visited two sites littered with remains — each holding around four to five thousand bodies covered with a thin layer of dirt. Fertilized by death, the grass grew far taller and greener where the bodies were buried.
There’s a monument to the killing fields at Choeung Ek, a site of mass graves just outside of Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. Although the Cambodian slaughter ended with the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, when I visited decades later, there were still bones jutting up from the bottom of a pit and shards of a long bone, maybe a femur, embedded in a path I took.
Then there are the skulls. A Buddhist stupa on the site is filled with thousands of them, piled high, attesting to the sheer scale of the slaughter. Millions of Cambodians — two million, three million, no one knows how many — died at the hands of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Similarly, no one knows how many South Sudanese have been slaughtered in the current round of fighting, let alone in the civil wars that preceded it. The war between southern rebels and the Sudanese government, which raged from 1955 to 1972, reportedly cost more than 500,000 lives. Reignited in 1983, it churned on for another 20-plus years, leaving around two million dead from violence, starvation, and disease.
A rigorous survey by the U.N.’s Office of the Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, released earlier this year, estimated that last year in just one area of Unity State — 24 communities, including Leer — 7,165 persons were killed in violence and another 829 drowned while fleeing. Add to those nearly 8,000 deaths another 1,243 people “lost” — generally thought to have been killed but without confirmation — while fleeing and 890 persons who were abducted, and you have a toll of suffering that exceeds 10,000.
To put the figures in perspective, those 8,000 dead in and around Leer are more than double the number of civilians — men, women, children — killed in the war in Afghanistan in 2015, and more than double the number of all civilians killed in the conflict in Yemen last year. Even a low-end estimate — 50,000 South Sudanese civilian deaths in roughly two years of civil war from December 2013 through December 2015 — exceeds the numbers of civilians estimated killed in Syria over the same span. Some experts say the number of South Sudanese dead is closer to 300,000.
Killing Fields: Now
Leer’s “killing field” is an expanse of sun-desiccated dirt covered in a carpet of crunchy golden leaves and dried grasses. Even the weeds have been scorched and strangled by the sun, though the area is also dotted with sturdy neem trees casting welcome shade. From the branches above me, bird calls ring out, filling the air with chaotic, incongruous melodies.
Riek Machar was born and bred in Leer. This very spot was his family compound. The big trees once cast shade on tukuls and fences. It was a garden spot. People used to picnic here. But that was a long, long time ago.
Today, a stripped and battered white four-wheel-drive SUV sits in the field. Not so far away, without tires, seats, or a windshield is one of those three-wheeled vehicles known around the world as a Lambretta or a tuck-tuck. And then there’s the clothes. I find a desert camouflage shirt, its pattern typically called “chocolate chip.” A short way off, there’s a rumpled pair of gray pants, beyond it a soiled blue tee-shirt sporting the words “Bird Game” and graphics resembling those of the video game “Angry Birds.”
And then there’s a spinal column.
A human one.
And a pelvis. And a rib cage. A femur and another piece of a spinal column. To my left, a gleaming white skull. I turn slightly and glimpse another one. A few paces on and there’s another. And then another.
Human remains are scattered across this area.
Leer is, in fact, littered with bones. I see them everywhere. Most of the time, they’re the sun-bleached skeletal remains of animals. A few times I stop to scrutinize an orphaned bone lying amid the wreckage. But I’m no expert, so I chalk up those I can’t identify to cattle or goats. But here, in this killing field, there’s no question. The skulls, undoubtedly picked clean by vultures and hyenas, tell the story. Or rather, these white orbs, staring blankly in the midday glare, tell part of it.
There’s a folk tale from South Sudan’s Murle tribe about a young man, tending cattle in a pasture, who comes across a strikingly handsome skull. “Oh my god, but why are you killing such beautiful people?” he asks. The next day he asks again and this time the skull responds. “Oh my dear,” it says, “I died because of lies!” Frightened, he returns to his village and later tells the chief and his soldiers about what happened. None of them believes him. He implores them to witness it firsthand. If you’re lying, the chief asks, what shall we do with you? And the young man promptly replies, “You have to kill me.”
He then leads the soldiers to the skull and poses his question. This time, the skull stays silent. For his lies, the soldiers insist, they must kill him and they do just that. As they are about to return to the village, a voice calls out, “This is what I told you, young man, and now you have also died as I died.” The soldiers agree not to tell the king about the exchange. Returning to the village, they say only that the man had lied and so they killed him as ordered.
In South Sudan, soldiers murder and they get away with it, while skulls tell truths that the living are afraid to utter.
“There Might Be Some Mistakes”
No one knows for certain whose mortal remains litter Leer’s killing field. The best guess: some of the more than 60 men and boys suspected of rebel sympathies who were locked in an unventilated shipping container by government forces last October and left to wither in Leer’s relentless heat. According to a March report by Amnesty International, when the door was opened the next day, only one survivor, a 12-year-old boy, staggered out alive. At least some of the crumpled corpses were dumped on the edge of town in two pits where animals began devouring them. Government forces may eventually have burned some of the bodies to conceal evidence of the crime.
After visiting Leer, I took the findings of the report and my own observations to President Salva Kiir’s press secretary, Ateny Wek Ateny. “They always copy and paste,” he said, implying that human rights organizations often just reproduced each other’s generally erroneous allegations. It was, I respond, an exceptionally rigorous investigation, relying on more than 40 interviews, including 23 eyewitnesses, that left no doubt an atrocity had taken place.
Those witness statements, he assures me, are the fatal flaw of the Amnesty report. South Sudanese can’t be trusted, since they will invariably lie to cast a pall over rival tribes. In the case of Leer, the witnesses offered up a “concocted sequence of events” to disparage Kiir and his government. “Americans and Europeans,” he protests, “don’t understand this.”
It’s impossible, he adds, that the government could be responsible for violence in Leer blamed in part on militias, because, as he put it, “We have no militia. Militias are not part of the government.” What about alleged involvement by uniformed SPLA? Lots of armed men, he claims, wear SPLA uniforms without being part of the army. “It is not a government policy to kill civilians,” he insists, then concedes: “There might be some mistakes.”
“Bullets Aren’t Enough. We’ll Use Rape”
“They come at any time… They even take children and throw them into the burning homes,” says Sarah Nyanang. Her house in Leer was destroyed last year and, more recently, armed men came in the night and took what little her family had left. “We have no blanket, no mosquito net, no fishing hook, and even now they steal from us.”
Michael lives close by. His neighbors push him forward. His eyes seem to swim with fear. His voice is like wet gravel. The armed men came one night earlier this year and beat him. He shows me a nasty looking wound fast becoming a scar on his scalp, then turns his head to reveal another extending down his jaw line. They took almost all his possessions and something far more precious, his wife. Sarah Nyanang interjects that women abducted here may be raped by as many as 10 men. She saw a neighbor being raped in the midst of an attack. The implication is that this is what happened to Michael’s wife.
She’s still alive, he says, and is living in Thonyor, but he hasn’t seen her since the night she was taken away. He doesn’t tell me why.
When a team from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights investigated late last year, they found that rape and sexual slavery were one way members of youth militias who carried out attacks alongside the SPLA were paid. Among others, they interviewed a mother of four who encountered a group of soldiers and armed civilians. “The men,” the report recounts, “proceeded to strip her naked and five soldiers raped her at the roadside in front of her children.” She was then dragged into the bush by two other soldiers who raped her and left her there. When she eventually returned to the roadside, her children, aged between two and seven, were missing.
A woman from a nearby village in Koch County told the investigators that, in October 2015, “after killing her husband, the SPLA soldiers tied her to a tree and forced her to watch as her fifteen year old daughter was raped by at least ten soldiers. The soldiers told her, ‘You are a rebel wife so we can kill you.’” Another mother reported “that she witnessed her 11-year old daughter and the daughter’s 9-year old friend being gang-raped by three soldiers during an attack in Koch in May 2015.”
“The magnitude of the sexual violence was pretty startling even given the extraordinarily high level throughout the conflict in South Sudan,” Jonathan Loeb of Amnesty International’s crisis response team tells me. “Many women were raped repeatedly often by multiple men, many of them were used as sex slaves, and in some cases are still missing.”
According to Edmund Yakani, the executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization that promotes human rights in South Sudan, “rape has gone beyond a weapon of war.” He tells me that it’s become part of military culture. “Sexual violence has been used as a strategy to wipe out populations from areas where they may have given support to their opponents. I think it’s the first time in the history of Africa that high-level directives have been put forth to use rape as a way to wipe out populations, the first time leaders said ‘bullets aren’t enough, we’ll use rape.’”
Apocalypse Then, Now, Always
In the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin Willard is sent on a mission that takes him deep into the heart of darkness, a compound in Cambodia from which a rogue American general is waging a private war. “I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn’t even know it yet,” says Willard who finds his own killing field there.
I thought about that line as I flew into Leer, looking down on the marshes and malarial swamps where so many hid from killers and rapists. Multiple people told me that Leer was one of the worst places in the world — and that’s nothing new.
In 1990, during the Sudanese civil war, Leer was bombed by the northern government’s Soviet-made Antonov aircraft. Nobody may know exactly how many died. Eight years later, Nuer militias opposed to Riek Machar raided Leer three times, looting and burning homes, destroying crops, slaughtering and stealing tens of thousands of cattle. “Over the past months thousands of people have fled without food or belongings. They’ve been forced to hide for days in the surrounding swamps and outlying villages, living in constant fear and surviving on just water lilies and fish. Their own villages have been burned down and their grain stores have been looted,” said a representative of the World Food Program at the time. Leer was completely razed.
In 2003, attacks on civilians by Sudanese forces and allied militia emptied Leer again. In January 2014, during the opening weeks of the current civil war, the SPLA and partner militias attacked Leer and surrounding towns. Civilians were killed, survivors ran for the swamps, and the attackers burned to the ground some 1,556 residential structures according to satellite imagery. And then, of course, came last year’s raids.
Since American soldiers departed Vietnam in the 1970s, there have been no further massacres at My Lai. Nor have there been mass killings near Oradour-sur-Glane, France, where the Nazis slaughtered 642 civilians in June 1944. Both ruined villages have, in fact, been preserved as memorials to the dead. And although Iraq was turned into a charnel house following the 2003 U.S. invasion and neighboring Syria has seen chemical weapons attacks in recent years, there have been no new victims of poison gas in Halabja since Saddam Hussein’s 1988 attack.
Cambodia, too, has seen none of the wholesale bloodletting of the 1970s since the Khmer Rouge was driven from power. And while periodic fears of impending genocide have lurked in the neighborhood, and Rwanda has experienced arbitrary arrests, torture, and killings of government opponents and critics, it has had nothing like a repeat of 1994.
In Leer, however, those killed in the bombing of 1990, in the razing of the town of 1998, in the attacks of 2003, in the sack of the town in 2014, and in the waves of attacks of 2015, have been joined by still others unfortunate enough to call this town home. Those in the area have been trapped by geography and circumstances beyond their control in what can only be called an inter-generational killing field.
The violence of 2015 never actually ended. It’s just continued at a somewhat reduced level. A couple of weeks before I arrived in Leer, an attack by armed men led locals to shelter at the Médecins Sans Frontières compound. On the day I arrived in town, armed youths from the rebel-held territory surrounding Leer carried out a series of attacks on government forces, killing nine.
In July, violence again flared in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. With it came reports of renewed attacks around Leer. In late August, an SPLA-IO spokesman reported a raid by government forces on a town 25 kilometers from Leer that ended with two killed, 15 women raped, and 50 cows stolen. In September, around 700 families from Leer County fled to a U.N. camp due to fighting between the SPLA and the IO. Earlier this October, civilians were killed and families again fled to the swamps around Leer due to gun battles and artillery fire between the two forces.
No one has ever been held accountable for any of this violence, any of the atrocities, any of the deaths. And there’s little reason to believe they ever will — or even that the violence will end. Unlike My Lai or Oradour-sur-Glane, Leer seems destined to be a perpetually active killing field, a place where bodies pile up, massacre after massacre, generation after generation — a town trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.
Almost a year after fleeing Leer, Mary Nyalony is still living out in the open on water lilies and in a state of limbo. “I’m worried because the government is still there,” she says of her ravaged hometown. When I ask about the future, she tells me that she fears “the same thing is going to happen again.”
Peace pacts and the optimism they generate come and go, but decades of history suggest that Mary Nyalony will eventually be proved right. Peace deals aren’t the same as peace. Southern Sudan has seen plenty of the former, but little of the latter. “We need peace,” she says more than once. “If there’s no peace, all of this is just going to continue.”
— source tomdispatch.com By Nick Turse