Oldspeak: “Do you get how this makes ANY FUCKING SENSE? Cause I sure as hell don’t. Why act like you care about the ever growing threat of Anthropogenic Climate change to public health? Why pledge emissions reductions, crow about the climate legislation you pass? Why do all that, when you’re literally simultaneously doing things that will make things immeasurably WORSE, subsidizing the sale of one of the dirtiest fuels on Earth? Moreover, how is it that these are supposed “Public Lands” but the public has zero say in what is done with them, and do not share in the private profit being generated on them? Sigh. Pathocracy reigns. More sacrifices made to the Great Energy Corporation Gods in the giant Sacrifice Zone that is America. “Profit Is Paramount.” “ -OSJ
On May 29, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management released a regional management plan for the Buffalo Field Office, the Wyoming office charged with managing the Powder River Basin, an area that supplies nearly 40 percent of U.S. coal.
Under the proposed plan, the BLM estimates that it will issue 28 new coal leases, which could open up the mining of 10 billion tons of coal over the next 20 years.
That seems like a lot of coal. But is it really?
“It’s a huge amount, especially because the leasing period is the time frame that the world needs to get a handle on carbon emissions,” Shannon Anderson, an organizer with the environmental non-profit Powder River Basin Council, told ThinkProgress.
The United States burns around 900 million tons of coal annually — the amount of coal made available under the proposed Buffalo regional management plan is more than ten times that.
According to a report released by Greenpeace, if all 10.2 billion tons of coal made available by the leases was to be burned, 16.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere. That carbon, Greenpeace notes, significantly dwarfs any reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that would come from President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, often considered the president’s most robust action on climate change.
The Clean Power Plan isn’t the only environmental action Obama has taken, so it’s not necessarily a one-to-one comparison — but as Joe Smyth, a media officer with Greenpeace told ThinkProgress, it does offer a useful comparison between what is largely considered Obama’s signature piece of climate legislation and the potential climate impact of the BLM’s decision.
“When you look at the emissions from the Buffalo regional management plan, it’s an off the chart, massive amount of carbon pollution,” Smyth said. “These actions by the BLM are still operating under a business as usual approach, and really ignoring the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution.”
The United States produces around 1 billion tons of coal annually, with approximately 400 million tons of that coming from the Powder River Basin. The new management plan, Anderson said, won’t necessarily flood the U.S. market with more coal — instead, it will help mining operations maintain current levels of production, allowing them to tap into new reserves if they exhaust current ones. That’s because the new management plan doesn’t actually change the status quo of land management in the area — it simply keeps coal lease decisions from 2001 in place. According to Greenwire, the BLM found that it had received “no substantial new information regarding coal leasing.”
“The expectation is that it’s maintaining the status quo,” Anderson said. “That decision is really made in a silo, without any consideration of environmental impacts, and especially climate change.”
As Dave Roberts at Vox points out, the regional management plan simply increases the national supply of coal, not the demand for it. The Energy Information Administration estimates that the Clean Power Plan will spur a wave of coal plant retirements, reducing the demand for coal domestically — but that doesn’t mean that the coal mined under the Buffalo regional management plan won’t be shipped to overseas markets.
“The regional management plan doesn’t take into account the potential for exports, even though the coal industry is quite explicit about their desire to export large quantities of coal from the Powder River Basin,” Smyth said. “The Interior Department is still taking the view that that’s not going to happen.”
Under the BLM’s coal leasing program, the government also leases land to mining companies under very generous terms — as little as a dollar per ton, according to Smyth. Environmentalists have argued that the government’s generous prices effectively subsidize coal from public lands, selling coal owned by taxpayers at prices that give coal a distinct advantage over renewable energy. According to a 2012 study conducted by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the federal government has left as much as $28.9 billion in revenue on the table over the last 30 years by offering coal companies below-market prices.
“It’s not just that they’re allowing this coal to be leased, it’s that they’re giving it away for such low prices,” Symth said. “It’s favoring coal at the expense of better and cleaner alternatives.”
Environmental groups had hoped that the Buffalo regional management plan would address both the massive amounts of coal allowed to be mined under current leases and the below-market prices at which those leases are sold. During a speech in March, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stoked those hopes, saying that the government “must do more to cut greenhouse gas pollution that is warming our planet.” She also called for reforming the way that federal coal is valued and leased, saying that “it’s time for an honest and open conversation about modernizing the federal coal program.”
The proposed Buffalo regional management plan, Smyth says, suggests that Jewell isn’t taking her own comments to heart.
“We think the Obama administration has not spent sufficient time and attention on [the plan] given the scale of emissions,” Smyth said. “They really need to understand how big a problem this is in order to reform the [federal coal] program or phase it out over time.”
Oldspeak:”Oh the demented irony. While farmers in India are literally killing themselves and selling their children in to slavery to cope with crop-losses because their government’s corruption limits the amount relief aid they receive, when their crops fail, the corruption in U.S. government is making it so farmers in the U.S. are being paid handsomely to plant cotton, a highly water-intensive crop, that there is no real market for. In a fucking desert, in the midst of a 1,000 year drought, no less. What’s crazy is without the government handouts, there’d be lots of U.S. farmers offing themselves too. Massive fossil-fueled infrastructure is required to pump millions of gallons of precious water in to the deserts of Arizona, in spite of the fact that many farmers have been forced to fallow fields due to the drought, yet this madness continues at the behest of cotton lobbyists, insurance corporations and politicians. Ecology be damned. I’ll say one thing for Bizzaro World, it’s never boring, and never makes any fucking sense. One more reason to ignore the ongoing and upcoming climate talks. Major emitters plan to blabber about reaching agreements for emissions reductions targets, green energy and all that Jazz, at the same time they’re opening new and more sensitive areas to extract fossil fuels to burn in the death machine and heat engine that is Industrial Civilization. In the climate of insanity that exists today, (pun intended) prospects for survival grow dimmer every day. “Ignorance Is Strength” -OSJ
By Abrahm Lustgarten and Naveena Sadasivam@ ProPublica:
State Route 87, the thin band of pavement that approaches the mostly shuttered town of Coolidge, Ariz., cuts through some of the least hospitable land in the country. The valley of red and brown sand is interrupted occasionally by rock and saguaro cactus. It’s not unusual for summer temperatures to top 116 degrees. And there is almost no water; this part of Arizona receives less than nine inches of rainfall each year.
Then Route 87 tacks left and the dead landscape springs to life. Barren roadside is replaced by thousands of acres of cotton fields, their bright, leafy green stalks and white, puffy bolls in neat rows that unravel for miles. It’s a vision of bounty where it would be least expected. Step into the hip-high cotton shrubs, with the soft, water-soaked dirt giving way beneath your boot soles, the bees buzzing in your ears, the pungent odor of the plants in your nostrils, and you might as well be in Georgia.
Getting plants to grow in the Sonoran Desert is made possible by importing billions of gallons of water each year. Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in existence, and each acre cultivated here demands six times as much water as lettuce, 60 percent more than wheat. That precious liquid is pulled from a nearby federal reservoir, siphoned from beleaguered underground aquifers and pumped in from the Colorado River hundreds of miles away. Greg Wuertz has been farming cotton on these fields since 1981, and before him, his father and grandfather did the same. His family is part of Arizona’s agricultural royalty. His father was a board member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District for nearly two decades. Wuertz has served as president of several of the most important cotton organizations in the state.
But what was once a breathtaking accomplishment — raising cotton in a desert — has become something that Wuertz pursues with a twinge of doubt chipping at his conscience. Demand and prices for cotton have plummeted, and he knows no one really needs what he supplies. More importantly, he understands that cotton comes at enormous environmental expense, a price the American West may no longer be able to afford.
Wuertz could plant any number of crops that use far less water than cotton and fill grocery store shelves from Maine to Minnesota. But along with hundreds of farmers across Arizona, he has kept planting his fields with cotton instead. He says he has done it out of habit, pride, practicality, and even a self-deprecating sense that he wouldn’t be good at anything else. But in truth, one reason outweighs all the others: The federal government has long offered him so many financial incentives to do it that he can’t afford not to.
“Some years all of what you made came from the government,” Wuertz said. “Your bank would finance your farming operation … because they knew the support was guaranteed. They wouldn’t finance wheat, or alfalfa. Cotton was always dependable, it would always work.”
The water shortages that have brought California, Arizona and other Western states to the edge of an environmental cliff have been attributed to a historic climate event — a dry spell that experts worry could be the worst in 1,000 years. But an examination by ProPublica shows that the scarcity of water is as much a man-made crisis as a natural one, the result of decades of missteps and misapprehensions by governments and businesses as they have faced surging demand driven by a booming population.
The federal subsidies that prop up cotton farming in Arizona are just one of myriad ways that policymakers have refused, or been slow to reshape laws to reflect the West’s changing circumstances. Provisions in early–20th-century water-use laws that not only permit but also compel farmers and others to use more water than they need are another. “Use It or Lose It” is the cynical catch phrase for one of those policies.
Western leaders also have flinched repeatedly when staring down the insatiable, unstoppable force of urban sprawl. Las Vegas authorities have spent billions of dollars inventing new ways to bring water to their ever-expanding city, yet could not cite a single development permit they had ever denied because of concerns about water.
Instead, when faced with a dwindling water supply, state and federal officials have again and again relied on human ingenuity to engineer a way out of making hard choices about using less water. But the engineering that made settling the West possible may have reached the bounds of its potential. Dams and their reservoirs leak or lose billions of gallons of water to evaporation. The colossal Navajo Generating Station, which burns 22,000 tons of coal a day in large part to push water hundreds of miles across Arizona, is among the nation’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters, contributing to the very climate change that is exacerbating the drought.
Few crises have been more emphatically and presciently predicted. Almost 150 years ago, John Wesley Powell, the geologist and explorer, traveled the Colorado River in an effort to gauge America’s chances for developing its arid western half. His report to Congress reached a chastening conclusion: There wasn’t enough water to support significant settlement.
For more than a century, Americans have defied Powell’s words, constructing 20 of the nation’s largest cities and a vibrant economy that, among other bounties, provides an astonishing proportion of the country’s fruit and vegetables.
For almost as long, the policies that shaped the West have struggled to match the region’s ambitions — endless growth, new industry, fertile farming and plentiful power — to its water supply.
Today, as the Colorado River enters its 15th year of drought, the nation’s largest reservoirs have been diminished to relative puddles. Power plants that depend on dams along the river face shortages and shutdowns that could send water and electricity prices skyrocketing. Many of the region’s farmers have been forced to fallow fields.
The still-blooming cotton farms of Arizona are emblematic of the reluctance to make choices that seem obvious. The Wuertz family has received government checks just for putting cottonseeds in the ground and more checks when the price of cotton fell. They have benefited from cheap loans for cotton production that don’t have to be fully repaid if the market slumps. Most recently, the government has covered almost the entire premium on their cotton crop insurance, guaranteeing they’ll be financially protected even when natural conditions — like drought — keep them from producing a good harvest.
Cotton in Arizona Though Land use statistics show that acres of irrigated farmland in Arizona have decreased over the past few decades, farmers planted more than 161,000 acres of cotton in Arizona in 2013, the second-highest total for any crop in the state, most of it clustered around Phoenix. (Sources: NASA/USGS Landsat, National Hydrography Dataset, USDA CropScape)
The payments, part of the U.S. Farm Bill, are a legacy of Dust Bowl-era programs that live on today at the urging of the national cotton lobby and the insurance industry. Similar subsidies support corn, rice, wheat and, indirectly, alfalfa — all of which also use lots of water. But in Arizona one of the driest states in the nation, it’s cotton that has received the most federal aid, tipping the balance on farmers’ decisions about what to plant.
Over the last 20 years, Arizona’s farmers have collected more than $1.1 billion in cotton subsidies, nine times more than the amount paid out for the next highest subsidized crop. In California, where cotton also gets more support than most other crops, farmers received more than $3 billion in cotton aid.
Cotton growers say the subsidies don’t make them rich but help bridge the worst years of losses and keep their businesses going. And because the money is such a sure thing, they have little choice but to keep planting.
“If you’re sitting on land and thinking of shifting, cotton is safer,” said Daniel Pearson, a senior fellow of trade policy studies at the Cato Institute.
Growing cotton in the desert, long term, may be doomed. In Arizona, the price for cotton has been in decline, and with it the overall planting of the crop. But when the price spikes, as it did dramatically in 2010, the growers get busy. One thing has yet to change: the government’s willingness to back and protect those still wanting to be cotton farmers.
For years, the federal support came through subsidies and price protection cash put directly in the farmer’s pocket. In Arizona, those payments could total tens of millions of dollars a year. Today, the government’s aid comes chiefly in the form of insurance subsidies — reliable and robust protections against losses that many farmers and their lobbyists hoped would be every bit as effective as cold cash. And so every year more than 100,000 acres of cotton still get planted, making the crop the second-most popular in the state.
Thus, at a time when farmers in Arizona, California and other Western states might otherwise adapt to a water-short world, federal farm subsidies are helping preserve a system in which the thirstiest crops are grown in some of the driest places.
“The subsidies are distorting water usage throughout the West and providing an incentive to use more water than would be used in an open market,” said Bruce Babbitt, Arizona’s former governor and a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
One night last October, in the weary twilight of the cotton harvest, Greg Wuertz nestled his white Chevy pickup by the mailboxes at the head of his street. Opening a small aluminum door, he removed an envelope containing a $30,000 insurance payment on a policy paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Easy money, to be sure, but it left Wuertz uncertain.
“This kind of way of life in the West, it’s got to be different,” he said. “Water is going to be the oil of the 21st century and it should go to the best use. Right now, I don’t know if we’re doing that.”
Cotton might never have been grown in Arizona without some form of government enticement. During the Civil War, a Union blockade impounded the Southern states’ global exports. As Europe turned to new strains of cotton grown in Egypt, Arizona’s settlers, knowing the Pima Indians had long planted cotton there, thought they could replicate hot and dry North African conditions and compete. Townships reportedly offered cash to farmers willing to pioneer commercial-scale crops, according to a local historical account. Arizona’s first cotton mogul was said to be a blacksmith who abandoned his trade to take the subsidies and try farming.
Arizona, at the time, was short on people and long on land. It was also rich in freshwater aquifers, groundwater that then seemed ample enough to irrigate vast fields and turn the desert into an oasis.
When the United States first went to war in Europe, the demand for cotton surged. The fibers were used to reinforce truck tires and canvas airplane wings. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company bought thousands of farm acres and built a factory west of Phoenix, where a city by the name of Goodyear still stands. Farmers flocked to the state in search of opportunity.
In 1929, Wuertz’s grandfather packed the family’s belongings into their old Buick and drove down from South Dakota. He strung up tents on 160 acres, six miles outside Coolidge, and planted his first rows of cotton in the months before the Great Depression. By the 1950s, cotton farming had been woven into the state’s identity; Arizona schoolchildren learned about the “Five C’s”: cattle, copper, citrus, climate and cotton.
Draw a sagging line today from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., and every state below it grows cotton. The United States is the world’s largest exporter, with 17 states producing some eight billion pounds of cotton each year, most of which gets shipped off to Asia and Europe.
California and Arizona are able to produce more than twice as much cotton on each acre they plant as can cotton powerhouses like Texas and Georgia because they irrigate their fields more often. But that also means that they use two to four times as much water per acre.
From almost the beginning, Arizona’s cotton farmers understood they were withdrawing from a finite account. “There was a sense the water would run out,” said Wuertz’s father, Howard, now 89. “You could tell there was going to be an end to it, even in the 1950s.”
They’ve made it last, in large part, because as the aquifers beneath their feet were depleted, the state brought in new supplies, mainly from the Colorado River.
Today, Wuertz’s irrigated cotton plants grow to about 4 feet tall, and are planted in even rows, about 3 feet center to center, extending for miles across furrowed fields. Every August, the bolls — pregnant pods just smaller than a golf ball — burst open, allowing their white cellulosic fiber to spring outward from hearty, splayed leaves and a small seed. Modern tractors, called cotton pickers, drive a comb through the fields, plucking the drying bolls from their stems and shooting them through a mechanical snorkel into a large basket being towed behind. Another basket, or “boll buggy,” dumps the load into a compressor, which packs the cotton into a brick 8 feet tall and 32 feet long.
The brick is hauled through Coolidge to a local gin, where computerized modern machines roll it through a whirring conveyor, separating the seeds and fibers from their leaves and chaff. The seeds are collected for animal feed or crushed for cooking oil. The lint, cleaned and dried, is strapped into 500-pound bales and shipped off through distributors who either sell the cotton or store it in vast warehouses, waiting for prices to rise and the commodity markets to buoy the crop.
Between land costs, labor, equipment, shipping and other expenses, Wuertz said he spends about $1,200 for every acre of cotton he harvests. His cotton has garnered about 62 cents per pound lately, so even if Wuertz gets four bales from each acre — a blockbuster harvest — he brings in about $1,240 and barely breaks even.
Cotton farmers can cut corners to try to eke out a profit, stretching their water, cutting back on fertilizer and making fewer laps with their tractors to save on diesel. But in years when the price is lower, water is short or demand plummets, they’ll lose money. This is when they count on federal subsidies and the crop insurance programs. If Wuertz needs an advance until his cotton is bought, the government lends it to him. If he can’t sell his cotton at a profit, the government never asks for its money back. If the price falls below a base of around 52 cents, Wuertz is insured for much of the decrease in value. If his fields produce a light yield — perhaps because he couldn’t give them enough water — he’s covered for the difference in weight, too. Other crops get subsidized insurance and loans, but none, Wuertz said, are covered as thoroughly as cotton. Add it all up, and the message from the Farm Bill is clear: Grow cotton and you will not be harmed.
“If they didn’t have insurance, it would be ugly around here,” Wuertz said. “It’d be the rope and chair. There’d be people killing themselves. It’s that bad.”
Standing in his field last fall, Wuertz cupped a tuft of cotton about the size of a softball and mused over its miraculous origins.
He gets about one-quarter of his water from the Central Arizona Project, or CAP, the system of canals that brings water from the Colorado River, some 230 miles away. The rest comes from a federally built reservoir nearby called San Carlos Lake, which, with the drought, has been diminished to little more than a bed of mud.
“There comes a time when you have to leave some to keep the fish alive,” Wuertz said wryly.
Wuertz loves to farm cotton. Fingering the plant’s thorny, rose-like leaves, he explains the difference between hirsutum, what Arizonans call Upland, or short staple cotton used for everyday clothes, and barbadense, the long-fiber Pima cotton used in high-end sheets and expensive textiles. He is stocky, wearing jeans, cowhide boots, a blue-striped button-down shirt and a broad-rimmed white cowboy hat that shields his face from view as he talks. Every 10 days, he explains, he releases his ditch gates and floods the furrows, using an irrigation technique hundreds of years old, until the roots of his plants are submerged ankle deep. If he were to do it all at once, the water Wuertz spends to produce one acre of cotton would stand 4 feet deep. The ditches flow with hundreds of millions of gallons of water every year.
For the last third of a century, Wuertz was supplied prodigious amounts of water, largely because Arizona was pushing its farmers to use as much as they could. The state’s run on water began in the 1970s, when Arizona planned its mega canal in order to lay claim to its full share of water from the Colorado River. The canal would bring more water than the state needed at the time, ultimately supplying future urban expansion as its cities and economy grew. But in the short term, Arizona had to justify the canal’s $4.4 billion federally subsidized construction cost by demonstrating to Congress that it had a plan to put all that water to use right away.
The state’s aquifers had been drawn down so much that, in places, the land had begun to settle above them. The canal project looked like a way to wean Arizona’s farmers off ground water, using river water to replace it. It looked good on paper until 1993, when the Central Arizona Project canal was completed. The cost of construction plus the cost of the power needed to pump the water made CAP water more expensive than what farmers could pump cheaply from underground. In a bind, state and federal officials slashed the price — subsidizing nearly half the true cost of the water and charging farmers just a fraction of its value to get them to use more of it.
For a while, the plan worked. Farmers made the switch, using government-subsidized canals and inexpensive power to nourish their farms for another generation. But the farms were little more than a place holder in the state’s grand plans. It was understood that as cities grew, farming in Arizona would have to change. Much of the cotton, alfalfa, wheat and citrus would eventually need to be grown somewhere else as the water from CAP was switched to supply urban areas.
“That was the deal that was struck to induce agriculture to go out of business,” said Jon Kyl, the former three-term senator and four-term congressman from Arizona.
But the transition hasn’t been completed, in part owing to the farm subsidies that have delayed change. And now the state’s intricate water supply plan is beginning to crumble.
Drought has diminished the Colorado’s flow so much that federal officials — who control water deliveries on the southern half of the Colorado — now predict they will have to cut the state’s water deliveries through the CAP canal as soon as next year, potentially eliminating much of the farmers’ share. Meanwhile, loopholes in laws designed to conserve aquifers for exactly this situation have allowed housing developers and others to draw down resources that were supposed to be protected.
The water needs of Arizona’s cities are surging. The state’s population — less than two million in 1970 — has ballooned to more than three times that and is expected to reach 11 million within the next 30 years, turning the state into what the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University has described as a “megalopolis.”
Last year Arizona officials forecast the state could run out of water within a few decades.
“The shortages projected hitting municipal customers are really in the 2026 time frame,” said Thomas Buschatzke, the director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, as if a 10-year cushion was supposed to be reassuring.
Land use statistics show that acres of irrigated farmland in Arizona have decreased over the past few decades, and since 1985 they’ve dropped by more than half in the area around Phoenix. The Wuertz family sold a chunk of its fields to home developers in 2009.
But the patterns of agricultural water use make clear that it’s not just how many acres of land are planted there, but what is grown on them.
Cotton’s domestic benefits are questionable. After a price spike in 2010, production of cotton surged while global demand — and prices along with it — plummeted. Today, China, the world’s largest cotton producer, has enough cotton in warehouses to stop farming for a year. And Texas, the U.S.’s largest producer, harvests enough to cover more than one third of U.S. exports alone, relying largely on natural rainfall, not irrigation, to do it. Wuertz’s cotton — produced with Arizona’s precious water — is likely to get stacked in cavernous warehouses until the marketing cooperative he uses finds new customers. If Arizona stopped farming cotton tomorrow, Wuertz said, he’s not sure anyone would notice.
This underscores questions about whether continuing to grow these water-hogging crops at their current levels is in the public interest, and whether such an important pillar of U.S. economic policy as the Farm Bill should continue to champion them.
“The basic question is how are you going to manage your water supply? And we have managed it in a way that has subsidized agriculture,” said John Bredehoeft the former manager of the western water program for the U.S. Geological Survey, referring not just to subsidies for crops like cotton, but also the support for crops like alfalfa that are grown as feed. “If you look at the fact that half of the water use in the West is to raise cows — can you say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a water shortage in the West?’”
First established as a New Deal program to rescue farmers during the Great Depression, today’s unwieldy version of the U.S. Farm Bill wraps everything from food stamps to sugar imports into one 357-page, nearly $1 trillion law.
The measure allots about $130 billion over 10 years to protect farmers against price drops, bad weather and bad luck and to insure them against virtually any scenario that gets in the way of turning a profit.
No American law has more influence on what, where and when farmers decide to plant. And by extension, no federal policy has a greater ability to directly influence how water resources are consumed in the American West.
Until this year, the bill doled out direct subsidies for a full menu of crops. Every farmer planting commodities, including those planting cotton, got $40,000 just for signing up.
Then there are the steeply discounted business loans, which have a measurable impact on what farmers decide to plant. In many cases, to be eligible for these subsidies one year, a farmer has to have previously planted the crop — a basic component of the bill’s architecture that gives farmers an incentive to maintain “base” levels of acreage. In an analysis, the Congressional Budget Office found that the subsidies don’t just maintain the status quo, they also foster more planting, and more water use. The USDA’s marketing loans alone, for example, led to a 10 percent increase in the amount of cotton farmers planted — compared to 2.5 percent increase in the amount of wheat, and a 1.5 percent increase in the amount of soybeans produced — in part because the subsidies not only make cotton a safer bet, they also make it more competitive against alternative crops. Banks lend cotton growers money they wouldn’t lend for other crops, largely because they know the government will stand behind them.
All told, Wuertz estimates that nearly one-fifth of his income is derived from Farm Bill aid, and cotton has almost always been his largest and most important crop. According to USDA statistics compiled by the Environmental Working Group, the Wuertz family — including his brother’s and father’s farms — has received more than $5.3 million in farm bill subsidies since 1995, a portion of which may have been targeted for efficient irrigation equipment, Wuertz said.
The Farm Bill has been used in the past to steer environmental policy. It provides for withholding money, for example, from farms that would contribute to soil erosion or the destruction of wetlands. In North Dakota, where farmers were tearing out grasslands to plant corn for ethanol production, the law contains “sodbuster” provisions withholding insurance benefits from those who rip up lands the government wants to conserve.
The Farm Bill contains $56 billion for conservation, funding an effort to encourage farmers to reduce their water consumption by using more-modern equipment as well as measures meant to conserve land. Another section of the bill is aimed at saving energy. But the law’s farming incentives run counter to its far more modest water conservation initiatives.
“There is a real disconnect between that and what the commodity and crop insurance program are promoting, and that’s a basic conflict,” said Ferd Hoefner, the policy director at National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, based in Washington, D.C.
The Farm Bill’s authors have sometimes factored in environmental concerns in specific places and tailored incentives to affect them, Hoefner said. But when it comes to cotton, the bill does not consider the related water use, and it does not distinguish between the places where it is grown. Instead, the money corresponds roughly to the amount of cotton harvested; Arizona, which ranks in the middle in terms of its cotton production, also ranks 10th among the 17 states that receive cotton aid. California, which ranked third for overall cotton production in 2013, also ranks third in subsidies over the last 20 years according to data collected by the Environmental Working Group. It’s in those places that the incentives created by the subsidies are most in conflict with the government’s aid to conserve water.
“Trying to get USDA to break down the silos is difficult,” Hoefner noted.
The Congressional Budget Office attacked this disconnect in 2006, urging the USDA to stop supporting agricultural products that act to “impede the transfer of water resources to higher value uses,” and “encourage the use of water.” Analysts advised the USDA to enhance its conservation programs, align its subsidies with those conservation efforts, and stop paying for infrastructure that makes water artificially cheap.
Every six years or so Congress has the opportunity to revisit its Farm Bill policies and update the bill. When Congress reauthorized it in 2014, however, lawmakers changed, but did not retreat in their support for cotton farming in the Southwest, despite growing awareness of the persistent water crisis in the Colorado River basin.
Instead, legislators allowed the cotton industry to write its own future. Faced with international trade pressures and allegations that subsidies — like payments triggered by price drops — were distorting the market, U.S. cotton trade associations lobbied to ramp up the USDA’s insurance program.
Rather than paying direct subsidies to cotton farmers, starting this year the USDA will use taxpayer dollars to buy farmers additional crop insurance. Policies that once covered up to around 70 percent of farmers’ losses can now be supplemented with new coverage covering up to 90 percent, cushioning the shallowest of losses. The lucrative marketing loan program that serves as a sort of price guarantee also remains in place.
Right now, though, the stubbornly low price of cotton is making Wuertz nervous that the new, enhanced insurance program won’t deliver the same revenues as the old direct subsidies. He’s temporarily cut back, then, planting less cotton this year and only the most valuable strains.
Still, the more than 161,000 acres of cotton that were planted in Arizona in 2013 accounted for almost one out of every five acres of the state’s irrigated farmland. Many believe the insurance program is likely to keep the practice going because it limits most — if not all — downsides, encouraging farmers to take big chances with limited resources.
“If I knew my 401k was guaranteed to not fall below 85 percent of its current level and there was no limit on the upside,” said Craig Cox a senior vice president at the Environmental Working Group, who was a former staff member for the Senate committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, “my portfolio would be a lot riskier than it is.”
If the Farm Bill reshuffled its incentives, water policy experts say, farmers in states that draw on the Colorado River could reduce their water usage substantially, adding large amounts back into the region’s budget.
According to research by the Pacific Institute, simply irrigating alfalfa fields less frequently, stressing the plant and slightly reducing its yield, could decrease the amount of water needed across the seven Colorado River basin states by roughly 10 percent. If Arizona’s cotton farmers switched to wheat but didn’t fallow a single field, it would save some 207,000 acre-feet of water — enough to supply as many as 1.4 million people for a year.
There’s little financial reason not to do this. The government is willing to consider spending huge amounts to get new water supplies, including building billion-dollar desalinization plants to purify ocean water. It would cost a tiny fraction of that to pay farmers in Arizona and California more to grow wheat rather than cotton, and for the cost of converting their fields. The billions of dollars of existing subsidies already allocated by Congress could be redirected to support those goals, or spent, as the Congressional Budget Office suggested, on equipment and infrastructure that helps farmers use less water.
“There is enough water in the West. There isn’t any pressing need for more water, period,” Babbitt said. “There are all kinds of agriculture efficiencies that have not been put into place.”
Today Wuertz lives with the deep uncertainty that comes with a transition he can no longer control. He told his son, Thomas, 24, that there is no future in cotton farming. He says that if Arizona farmers keep planting cotton, farming itself may be in jeopardy. But knowing that and acting on it have so far been different beasts, and Wuertz finds himself resistant to change. He tried growing more cantaloupe but had difficulty finding buyers who would take the time-sensitive crop before it rotted. He’s planting some acres he used to plant with cotton with alfalfa instead, but that uses even more water, though it commands a premium price.
In the end, Wuertz said he doesn’t know how to grow other plants as well as he knows cotton. He’s been a gin director, president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, head of the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council. His identity is wrapped up in those prickly bolls out in his fields.
“When I quit cotton all of that goes away. Ninety percent of my life is gone. It doesn’t mean a damn thing,” he said. “I’m just not ready to do that yet. And it’s not to say I won’t get there.”
The USS Cowpens launches a Harpoon Missile from the aft missile deck as part of a live-fire exercise, September 12, 2012. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Paul Kelly/US Navy; Edited: JR/TO)
Oldspeak: “Given that the Navy has been making plans for “ice-free” operations in the Arctic since at least 2001, their June “Northern Edge” exercises may well prove to be just the opening salvo in the future northern climate wars, with whales, seals, and salmon being the first in the line of fire.
In April 2001, a Navy symposium entitled “Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic” was mounted to begin to prepare the service for a climate-change-induced future. Fast forward to June 2015. In what the military refers to as Alaska’s “premier” joint training exercise, Alaskan Command aims to conduct “Northern Edge” over 8,429 nautical miles, which include critical habitat for all five wild Alaskan salmon species and 377 other species of marine life. The upcoming war games in the Gulf of Alaska will not be the first such exercises in the region — they have been conducted, on and off, for the last 30 years — but they will be the largest by far. In fact, a 360 percent rise in munitions use is expected, according to Emily Stolarcyk, the program manager for the Eyak Preservation Council (EPC).” -Dahr Jamail
“Another absurd example of the U.S. Climate/Environmental Policy. Bomb Baby Bomb. The U.S. Military is not content to be the single largest consumer of fossil fuels on the planet. Fossil Fuels. The very thing that is hastening our march toward extinction. Nooooo, it must actually physically bomb, irradiate and destroy one of the most vitally important and ecologically sensitive regions on earth, 360% MORE than it has in the past at a critical time for wildlife upon which many people in the region depend on for survival. All in the name of being prepared for war over the toxic climate destroying resources to be yet to be plundered there. 2 Key cogs in the Military-Industrial Complex (“Defense” and Energy industries) are destroying whatever they deem necessary to meet their terminally short-sighted objectives. The madness continues unabated as Industrial Civilization grinds on.” -OSJ
I lived in Anchorage for 10 years and spent much of that time climbing in and on the spine of the state, the Alaska Range. Three times I stood atop the mountain the Athabaskans call Denali, “the great one.” During that decade, I mountaineered for more than half a year on that magnificent state’s highest peaks. It was there that I took in my own insignificance while living amid rock and ice, sleeping atop glaciers that creaked and moaned as they slowly ground their way toward lower elevations.
Alaska contains the largest coastal mountain range in the world and the highest peak in North America. It has more coastline than the entire contiguous 48 states combined and is big enough to hold the state of Texas two and a half times over. It has the largest population of bald eagles in the country. It has 430 kinds of birds along with the brown bear, the largest carnivorous land mammal in the world, and other species ranging from the pygmy shrew that weighs less than a penny to gray whales that come in at 45 tons. Species that are classified as “endangered” in other places are often found in abundance in Alaska.
Now, a dozen years after I left my home state and landed in Baghdad to begin life as a journalist and nine years after definitively abandoning Alaska, I find myself back. I wish it was to climb another mountain, but this time, unfortunately, it’s because I seem increasingly incapable of escaping the long and destructive reach of the US military.
That summer in 2003 when my life in Alaska ended was an unnerving one for me. It followed a winter and spring in which I found myself protesting the coming invasion of Iraq in the streets of Anchorage, then impotently watching the televised spectacle of the Bush administration’s “shock and awe” assault on that country as Baghdad burned and Iraqis were slaughtered. While on Denali that summer I listened to news of the beginnings of what would be an occupation from hell and, in my tent on a glacier at 17 thousand feet, wondered what in the world I could do.
In this way, in a cloud of angst, I traveled to Iraq as an independent news team of one and found myself reporting on atrocities that were evident to anyone not embedded with the US military, which was then laying waste to the country. My early reporting, some of it for TomDispatch, warned of body counts on a trajectory toward one million, rampant torture in the military’s detention facilities, and the toxic legacy it had left in the city of Fallujah thanks to the use of depleted uranium munitions and white phosphorous.
As I learned, the US military is an industrial-scale killing machine and also the single largest consumer of fossil fuels on the planet, which makes it a major source of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As it happens, distant lands like Iraq sitting atop vast reservoirs of oil and natural gas are by no means its only playing fields.
Take the place where I now live, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. The US Navy already has plans to conduct electromagnetic warfare training in an area close to where I moved to once again seek solace in the mountains: Olympic National Forest and nearby Olympic National Park. And this June, it’s scheduling massive war games in the Gulf of Alaska, including live bombing runs that will mean the detonation of tens of thousands of pounds of toxic munitions, as well as the use of active sonar in the most pristine, economically valuable, and sustainable salmon fishery in the country (arguably in the world). And all of this is to happen right in the middle of fishing season.
This time, in other words, the bombs will be falling far closer to home. Whether it’s war-torn Iraq or “peaceful” Alaska, Sunnis and Shi’ites or salmon and whales, to me the omnipresent “footprint” of the US military feels inescapable.
All of Southeast Alaska’s pristine coastline would be impacted by the Navy’s upcoming planned war games in the Gulf of Alaska. (Photo: Dahr Jamail/Truthout)
The War Comes Home
In 2013, US Navy researchers predicted ice-free summer Arctic waters by 2016 and it looks as if that prediction might come true. Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that there was less ice in the Arctic this winter than in any other winter of the satellite era. Given that the Navy has been making plans for “ice-free” operations in the Arctic since at least 2001, their June “Northern Edge” exercises may well prove to be just the opening salvo in the future northern climate wars, with whales, seals, and salmon being the first in the line of fire.
In April 2001, a Navy symposium entitled “Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic” was mounted to begin to prepare the service for a climate-change-induced future. Fast forward to June 2015. In what the military refers to as Alaska’s “premier” joint training exercise, Alaskan Command aims to conduct “Northern Edge” over 8,429 nautical miles, which include critical habitat for all five wild Alaskan salmon species and 377 other species of marine life. The upcoming war games in the Gulf of Alaska will not be the first such exercises in the region — they have been conducted, on and off, for the last 30 years — but they will be the largest by far. In fact, a 360 percent rise in munitions use is expected, according to Emily Stolarcyk, the program manager for the Eyak Preservation Council (EPC).
Eyak Preservation Council’s Emily Stolarcyk in Cordova, Alaska, with the Navy’s environmental impact statement for their planned war games in the Gulf of Alaska. (Photo: Dahr Jamail/Truthout)
The waters in the Gulf of Alaska are some of the most pristine in the world, rivaled only by those in the Antarctic, and among the purest and most nutrient-rich waters anywhere. Northern Edge will take place in an Alaskan “marine protected area,” as well as in a NOAA-designated “fisheries protected area.” These war games will also coincide with the key breeding and migratory periods of the marine life in the region as they make their way toward Prince William Sound, as well as further north into the Arctic.
Species affected will include blue, fin, gray, humpback, minke, sei, sperm, and killer whales, the highly endangered North Pacific right whale (of which there are only approximately 30 left), as well as dolphins and sea lions. No fewer than a dozen native tribes including the Eskimo, Eyak, Athabascan, Tlingit, Sun’aq, and Aleut rely on the area for subsistence living, not to speak of their cultural and spiritual identities.
The Navy is already permitted to use live ordnance including bombs, missiles, and torpedoes, along with active and passive sonar in “realistic” war gaming that is expected to involve the release of as much as 352,000 pounds of “expended materials” every year. (The Navy’s EIS lists numerous things as “expended materials,” including missiles, bombs, torpedoes.) At present, the Navy is well into the process of securing the necessary permits for the next five years and has even mentioned making plans for the next 20. Large numbers of warships and submarines are slated to move into the area and the potential pollution from this has worried Alaskans who live nearby.
“We are concerned about expended materials in addition to the bombs, jet noise, and sonar,” the Eyak Preservation Council’s Emily Stolarcyk tells me as we sit in her office in Cordova, Alaska. EPC is an environmental and social-justice-oriented nonprofit whose primary mission is to protect wild salmon habitat. “Chromium, lead, tungsten, nickel, cadmium, cyanide, ammonium perchlorate, the Navy’s own environmental impact statement says there is a high risk of chemical exposure to fish.”
Tiny Cordova, population 2,300, is home to the largest commercial fishing fleet in the state and consistently ranks among the top 10 busiest US fishing ports. Since September, when Stolarcyk first became aware of the Navy’s plans, she has been working tirelessly, calling local, state and federal officials and alerting virtually every fisherman she runs into about what she calls “the storm” looming on the horizon. “The propellants from the Navy’s missiles and some of their other weapons will release benzene, toluene, xylene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and naphthalene into the waters of twenty percent of the training area, according to their own EIS [environmental impact statement],” she explains as we look down on Cordova’s harbor with salmon fishing season rapidly approaching. As it happens, most of the chemicals she mentioned were part of BP’s disastrous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which I covered for years, so as I listened to her I had an eerie sense of futuristic déjà vu.
Cordova, Alaska consistently ranks in the top-10 busiest US commercial fishing ports. (Photo: Dahr Jamail/Truthout)
Here’s just one example of the kinds of damage that will occur: the cyanide discharge from a Navy torpedo is in the range of 140-150 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s “allowable” limit on cyanide: one part per billion.
The Navy’s EIS estimates that, in the five-year period in which these war games are to be conducted, there will be more than 182,000 “takes” — direct deaths of a marine mammal, or the disruption of essential behaviors like breeding, nursing, or surfacing. On the deaths of fish, it offers no estimates at all. Nevertheless, the Navy will be permitted to use at least 352,000 pounds of expended materials in these games annually. The potential negative effects could be far-reaching, given species migration and the global current system in northern waters.
In the meantime, the Navy is giving Stolarcyk’s efforts the cold shoulder, showing what she calls “total disregard toward the people making their living from these waters.” She adds, “They say this is for national security. They are theoretically defending us, but if they destroy our food source and how we make our living, while polluting our air and water, what’s left to defend?”
“Why does wanting to protect wild salmon habitat make me an activist?” she asks. “How has that caused me to be branded as an environmentalist?” Given that the Alaska commercial fishing industry could be decimated if its iconic “wild-caught” salmon turn up with traces of cyanide or any of the myriad chemicals the Navy will be using, Stolarcyk could as easily be seen as fighting for the well-being, if not the survival, of the fishing industry in her state.
All of the Native Tribes and Villages of Kodiak, Alaska are opposed to the Navy’s planned war games in the Gulf of Alaska. (Photo: Dahr Jamail/Truthout)
War Gaming the Community
The clock is ticking in Cordova and others in Stolarcyk’s community are beginning to share her concerns. A few like Alexis Cooper, the executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United (CDFU), a non-profit organization that represents the commercial fishermen in the area, have begun to speak out. “We’re already seeing reduced numbers of halibut without the Navy having expanded their operations in the GOA [Gulf of Alaska],” she says, “and we’re already seeing other decreases in harvestable species.”
CDFU represents more than 800 commercial salmon fishermen, an industry that accounts for an estimated 90 percent of Cordova’s economy. Without salmon, like many other towns along coastal southeastern Alaska, it would effectively cease to exist.
Teal Webber, a lifelong commercial fisherwoman and member of the Native Village of Eyak, gets visibly upset when the Navy’s plans come up. “You wouldn’t bomb a bunch of farmland,” she says, “and the salmon run comes right through this area, so why are they doing this now?” She adds, “When all of the fishing community in Cordova gets the news about how much impact the Navy’s war games could have, you’ll see them oppose it en masse.”
Over 100 fishing vessels participated in a flotilla in Cordova, Alaska on May 16, in opposition to the Navy’s war games. (Photo: Chelsea Tracy Photography)
(Photo: Bob Martinson)
While I’m in town, Stolarcyk offers a public presentation of the case against Northern Edge in the elementary school auditorium. As she shows a slide from the Navy’s environmental impact statement indicating that the areas affected will take decades to recover, several fishermen quietly shake their heads.
One of them, James Weiss, who also works for Alaska’s Fish and Game Department, pulls me aside and quietly says, “My son is growing up here, eating everything that comes out of the sea. I know fish travel through that area they plan to bomb and pollute, so of course I’m concerned. This is too important of a fishing area to put at risk.”
In the question-and-answer session that follows, Jim Kasch, the town’s mayor, assures Stolarcyk that he’ll ask the city council to become involved. “What’s disturbing is that there is no thought about the fish and marine life,” he tells me later. “It’s a sensitive area and we live off the ocean. This is just scary.” A Marine veteran, Kasch acknowledges the Navy’s need to train, then pauses and adds, “But dropping live ordnance in a sensitive fishery just isn’t a good idea. The entire coast of Alaska lives and breathes from our resources from the ocean.”
That evening, with the sun still high in the spring sky, I walk along the boat docks in the harbor and can’t help but wonder whether this small, scruffy town has a hope in hell of stopping or altering Northern Edge. There have been examples of such unlikely victories in the past. A dozen years ago, the Navy was, for example, finally forced to stop using the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as its own private bombing and test range, but only after having done so since the 1940s. In the wake of those six decades of target practice, the island’s population has the highest cancer and asthma rates in the Caribbean, a phenomenon locals attribute to the Navy’s activities.
Similarly, earlier this year a federal court ruled that Navy war games off the coast of California violated the law. It deemed an estimated 9.6 million “harms” to whales and dolphins via high-intensity sonar and underwater detonations improperly assessed as “negligible” in that service’s EIS.
As a result of Stolarcyk’s work, on May 6th Cordova’s city council passed a resolution formally opposing the upcoming war games. Unfortunately, the largest seafood processor in Cordova (and Alaska), Trident Seafoods, has yet to offer a comment on Northern Edge. Its representatives wouldn’t even return my phone call on the subject. Nor, for instance, has Cordova’s Prince William Sound Science Center, whose president, Katrina Hoffman, wrote me that “as an organization, we have no position statement on the matter at this time.” This, despite their stated aim of supporting “the ability of communities in this region to maintain socioeconomic resilience among healthy, functioning ecosystems.” (Of course, it should be noted that at least some of their funds come from the Navy.)
At Kodiak Island, my next stop, I find a stronger sense of the threat on the horizon in both the fishing and tribal communities and palpable anger about the Navy’s plans. Take J.J. Marsh, the CEO of the Sun’aq Tribe, the largest on the island. “I think it’s horrible,” she says the minute I sit down in her office. “I grew up here. I was raised on subsistence living. I grew up caring about the environment and the animals and fishing in a native household living off the land and seeing my grandpa being a fisherman. So obviously, the need to protect this is clear.”
What, I ask, is her tribe going to do?
She responds instantly. “We are going to file for a government-to-government consultation and so are other Kodiak tribes so that hopefully we can get this stopped.”
The US government has a unique relationship with Alaska’s Native tribes, like all other American Indian tribes. It treats each as if it were an autonomous government. If a tribe requests a “consultation,” Washington must respond and Marsh hopes that such an intervention might help block Northern Edge. “It’s about the generations to come. We have an opportunity as a sovereign tribe to go to battle on this with the feds. If we aren’t going to do it, who is?”
Melissa Borton, the tribal administrator for the Native Village of Afognak, feels similarly. Like Marsh’s tribe, hers was, until recently, remarkably unaware of the Navy’s plans. That’s hardly surprising since that service has essentially made no effort to publicize what it is going to do. “We are absolutely going to be part of this [attempt to stop the Navy],” she tells me. “I’m appalled.”
One reason she’s appalled: she lived through Alaska’s monster Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. “We are still feeling its effects,” she says. “Every time they make these environmental decisions they affect us… We are already plagued with cancer and it comes from the military waste already in our ground or that our fish and deer eat and we eat those… I’ve lost family to cancer, as most around here have and at some point in time this has to stop.”
When I meet with Natasha Hayden, an Afognak tribal council member whose husband is a commercial fisherman, she puts the matter simply and bluntly. “This is a frontal attack by the Navy on our cultural identity.”
Gary Knagin, lifelong fisherman and member of the Sun’aq tribe, is busily preparing his boat and crew for the salmon season when we talk. “We aren’t going to be able to eat if they do this. It’s bullshit. It’ll be detrimental to us and it’s obvious why. In June, when we are out there, salmon are jumping [in the waters] where they want to bomb as far as you can see in any direction. That’s the salmon run. So why do they have to do it in June? If our fish are contaminated, the whole state’s economy is hit. The fishing industry here supports everyone and every other business here is reliant upon the fishing industry. So if you take out the fishing, you take out the town.”
The Navy’s Free Ride
I requested comment from the US military’s Alaskan Command office, and Captain Anastasia Wasem responded after I returned home from my trip north. In our email exchange, I asked her why the Navy had chosen the Gulf of Alaska, given that it was a critical habitat for all five of the state’s wild salmon. She replied that the waters where the war games will occur, which the Navy refers to as the Temporary Maritime Activities Area, are “strategically significant” and claimed that a recent “Pacific command study” found that naval training opportunities are declining everywhere in the Pacific “except Alaska,” which she referred to as “a true national asset.”
“The Navy’s training activities,” she added, “are conducted with an extensive set of mitigation measures designed to minimize the potential risk to marine life.”
In its assessment of the Navy’s plans, however, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), one of the premier federal agencies tasked with protecting national fisheries, disagreed. “Potential stressors to managed species and EFH [essential fish habitat],” its report said, “include vessel movements (disturbance and collisions), aircraft overflights (disturbance), fuel spills, ship discharge, explosive ordnance, sonar training (disturbance), weapons firing/nonexplosive ordnance use (disturbance and strikes), and expended materials (ordnance-related materials, targets, sonobuoys, and marine markers). Navy activities could have direct and indirect impacts on individual species, modify their habitat, or alter water quality.” According to the NMFS, effects on habitats and communities from Northern Edge “may result in damage that could take years to decades from which to recover.”
Captain Wasem assured me that the Navy made its plans in consultation with the NMFS, but she failed to add that those consultations were found to be inadequate by the agency or to acknowledge that it expressed serious concerns about the coming war games. In fact, in 2011 it made four conservation recommendations to avoid, mitigate, or otherwise offset possible adverse effects to essential fish habitat. Although such recommendations were non-binding, the Navy was supposed to consider the public interest in its planning.
One of the recommendations, for instance, was that it develop a plan to report on fish mortality during the exercises. The Navy rejected this, claiming that such reporting would “not provide much, if any, valuable data.” As Stolarcyk told me, “The Navy declined to do three of their four recommendations, and NMFS just rolled over.”
I asked Captain Wasem why the Navy choose to hold the exercise in the middle of salmon fishing season.
“The Northern Edge exercise is scheduled when weather is most conducive for training,” she explained vaguely, pointing out that “the Northern Edge exercise is a big investment for DoD [the Department of Defense] in terms of funding, use of equipment/fuels, strategic transportation, and personnel.”
The bottom line on all this is simple, if brutal. The Navy is increasingly focused on possible future climate-change conflicts in the melting waters of the north and, in that context, has little or no intention of caretaking the environment when it comes to military exercises. In addition, the federal agencies tasked with overseeing any war-gaming plans have neither the legal ability nor the will to enforce environmental regulations when what’s at stake, at least according to the Pentagon, is “national security.”
Needless to say, when it comes to the safety of locals in the Navy’s expanding area of operation, there is no obvious recourse. Alaskans can’t turn to NMFS or the Environmental Protection Agency or NOAA. If you want to stop the US military from dropping live munitions, or blasting electromagnetic radiation into national forests and marine sanctuaries, or poisoning your environment, you’d better figure out how to file a major lawsuit or, if you belong to a Native tribe, demand a government-to-government consultation and hope it works. And both of those are long shots, at best.
Meanwhile, as the race heats up for reserves of oil and gas in the melting Arctic that shouldn’t be extracted and burned in the first place, so do the Navy’s war games. From southern California to Alaska, if you live in a coastal town or city, odds are that the Navy is coming your way, if it’s not already there.
Nevertheless, Emily Stolarcyk shows no signs of throwing in the towel, despite the way the deck is stacked against her efforts. “It’s supposedly our constitutional right that control of the military is in the hands of the citizens,” she told me in our last session together. At one point, she paused and asked, “Haven’t we learned from our past mistakes around not protecting salmon? Look at California, Oregon, and Washington’s salmon. They’ve been decimated. We have the best and most pristine salmon left on the planet, and the Navy wants to do these exercises. You can’t have both.”
Stolarcyk and I share a bond common among people who have lived in our northernmost state, a place whose wilderness is so vast and beautiful as to make your head spin. Those of us who have experienced its rivers and mountains, have been awed by the northern lights, and are regularly reminded of our own insignificance (even as we gained a new appreciation for how precious life really is) tend to want to protect the place as well as share it with others.
“Everyone has been telling me from the start that I’m fighting a lost cause and I will not win,” Stolarcyk said as our time together wound down. “No other non-profit in Alaska will touch this. But I actually believe we can fight this and we can stop them. I believe in the power of one. If I can convince someone to join me, it spreads from there. It takes a spark to start a fire, and I refuse to believe that nothing can be done.”
Three decades ago, in his book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez suggested that, when it came to exploiting the Arctic versus living sustainably in it, the ecosystems of the region were too vulnerable to absorb attempts to “accommodate both sides.” In the years since, whether it’s been the Navy, Big Energy, or the increasingly catastrophic impacts of human-caused climate disruption, only one side has been accommodated and the results have been dismal.
In Iraq in wartime, I saw what the US military was capable of in a distant ravaged land. In June, I’ll see what that military is capable of in what still passes for peacetime and close to home indeed. As I sit at my desk writing this story on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the roar of Navy jets periodically rumbles in from across Puget Sound, where a massive naval air station is located. I can’t help but wonder whether, years from now, I’ll still be writing pieces with titles like “Destroying What Remains,” as the Navy continues its war-gaming in an ice-free summer Arctic amid a sea of offshore oil drilling platforms.
The headquarters of the National Security Agency, Fort Meade, Maryland
Oldspeak: “Within days of Snowden’s documents appearing in The Guardian and The Washington Post, revealing several of the National Security Agency’s extensive domestic surveillance programs, bookstores reported a sudden spike in the sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. On Amazon.com, the book made the “Movers & Shakers” list and skyrocketed 6,021 percent in a single day. Written sixty-five years ago, it described a fictitious totalitarian society where a shadowy leader known as “Big Brother” controls his population through invasive surveillance. “The telescreens,” Orwell wrote, “have hidden microphones and cameras. These devices, alongside informers, permit the Thought Police to spy upon everyone….” –James Bamford
“The most awesome and near omniscient surveillance network ever created by man has been revealed in much of its grotesquely invasive corptalitarian horror. And what was American’s response? CONSUME. Sales of the script to the horror show we are currently living Orwell’s “1984” exploded 6,000 PERCENT. No critical thoughts given to the personal telescreens/tracking device/listening device/thought recorder/microwave radiation emitter a.k.a. smart phones. Sheeple literally responded to news that all their actions on the internet are being watched, stored and analyzed, by buying a dystopian novel on the internet. All those people should consider themselves a “selector”. :-) More and more I’m seeing all these hip sexy cool invitations to “share everything” via your telescreen. Incessant exhortations to use your telescreen to buy everything, check things, secure things, pay things, scan things, tweet things, like things, post things, photograph things, record things, ask things, watch things, play things, listen to things, control devices, read, get medical advice, report crime, inform on others, etc, etc, etc…. Never mind that your ever expanding constellation of ever more convenient and personalizable apps are watching you. Soon, your televisions, dvr’s and video games will watch you too. Keep consuming, keep providing free content, that make it ever easier to target more marketing at you to buy more shit you don’t need. When will we wake from our hyperconsumptive soma coma?. I’ll tell you one thing though, somebody is making an ass ton of money collecting and analyzing this exponentially expanding flow of digital content. ” –OSJ
In mid-May, Edward Snowden, an American in his late twenties, walked through the onyx entrance of the Mira Hotel on Nathan Road in Hong Kong and checked in. He was pulling a small black travel bag and had a number of laptop cases draped over his shoulders. Inside those cases were four computers packed with some of his country’s most closely held secrets.
Within days of Snowden’s documents appearing in The Guardian and The Washington Post, revealing several of the National Security Agency’s extensive domestic surveillance programs, bookstores reported a sudden spike in the sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. On Amazon.com, the book made the “Movers & Shakers” list and skyrocketed 6,021 percent in a single day. Written sixty-five years ago, it described a fictitious totalitarian society where a shadowy leader known as “Big Brother” controls his population through invasive surveillance. “The telescreens,” Orwell wrote, “have hidden microphones and cameras. These devices, alongside informers, permit the Thought Police to spy upon everyone….”
Today, as the Snowden documents make clear, it is the NSA that keeps track of phone calls, monitors communications, and analyzes people’s thoughts through data mining of Google searches and other online activity. “Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it,” Orwell wrote about his protagonist, Winston Smith.
There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.
Of course the US is not a totalitarian society, and no equivalent of Big Brother runs it, as the widespread reporting of Snowden’s information shows. We know little about what uses the NSA makes of most information available to it—it claims to have exposed a number of terrorist plots—and it has yet to be shown what effects its activities may have on the lives of most American citizens. Congressional committees and a special federal court are charged with overseeing its work, although they are committed to secrecy, and the court can hear appeals only from the government.
Still, the US intelligence agencies also seem to have adopted Orwell’s idea of doublethink—“to be conscious of complete truthfulness,” he wrote, “while telling carefully constructed lies.” For example, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was asked at a Senate hearing in March whether “the NSA collect[s] any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper’s answer: “No, sir…. Not wittingly.”
Three months later, following the revelations of the phone-log program in which the NSA collects telephone data—the numbers of both callers and the length of the calls—on hundreds of millions of Americans, Clapper switched to doublethink. He said that his previous answer was not a lie; he just chose to respond in the “least untruthful manner.” With such an Orwellian concept of the truth now being used, it is useful to take a look at what the government has been telling the public about its surveillance activities over the years, and compare it with what we know now as a result of the top secret documents and other information released by, among others, the former NSA contract employee Edward Snowden.
Looking back, the NSA and its predecessors have been gaining secret, illegal access to the communications of Americans for nearly a century. On July 1, 1920, a slim balding man in his early thirties moved into a four-story townhouse at 141 East 37th Street in Manhattan. This was the birth of the Black Chamber, the NSA’s earliest predecessor, and it would be hidden in the nondescript brownstone. But its chief, Herbert O. Yardley, had a problem. To gather intelligence for Woodrow Wilson’s government, he needed access to the telegrams entering, leaving, and passing through the country, but because of an early version of the Radio Communications Act, such access was illegal. With the shake of a hand, however, Yardley convinced Newcomb Carlton, the president of Western Union, to grant the Black Chamber secret access on a daily basis to the private messages passing over his wires—the Internet of the day.
For much of the next century, the solution would be the same: the NSA and its predecessors would enter into secret illegal agreements with the telecom companies to gain access to communications. Eventually codenamed Project Shamrock, the program finally came to a crashing halt in 1975 when a Senate committee that was investigating intelligence agency abuses discovered it. Senator Frank Church, the committee chairman, labeled the NSA program “probably the largest governmental interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken.”
As a result of the decades of illegal surveillance by the NSA, in 1978 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was signed into law and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) came into existence. Its purpose was, for the first time, to require the NSA to get judicial approval for eavesdropping on Americans. Although the court seldom turned down a request for a warrant, or an order as it’s called, it nevertheless served as a reasonable safeguard, protecting the American public from an agency with a troubling past and a tendency to push the bounds of spying unless checked.
For a quarter of a century, the rules were followed and the NSA stayed out of trouble, but following the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration decided to illegally bypass the court and began its program of warrantless wiretapping. “Basically all rules were thrown out the window and they would use any excuse to justify a waiver to spy on Americans,” I was told by Adrienne J. Kinne, who in 2001 was a twenty-four-year-old voice intercept operator who conducted some of the eavesdropping. She or her superiors did not have to get a warrant for each interception. “It was incredibly uncomfortable to be listening to private personal conversations of Americans,” she said. “And it’s almost like going through and stumbling and finding somebody’s diary and reading it.”
All during this time, however, the Bush administration was telling the American public the opposite: that a warrant was obtained whenever an American was targeted. “Anytime you hear the United States government talking about a wiretap, it requires—a wiretap requires a court order,” President George W. Bush told a crowd in 2004. “Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.” After exposure of the operation by The New York Times in 2005, however, rather than strengthen the controls governing the NSA’s spying, Congress instead voted to weaken them, largely by codifying into the amendment to FISA what had previously been illegal.
At the same time, rather than calling for prosecution of the telecom officials for their role in illegally cooperating in the eavesdropping program, or at least a clear public accounting, Congress simply granted them immunity not only from prosecution but also from civil suits. Thus, for nearly a century, telecom companies have been allowed to violate the privacy of millions of Americans with impunity.
With the arrival of the Obama administration, the NSA’s powers continued to expand at the same time that administration officials and the NSA continued to deceive the American public on the extent of the spying. In addition to the denial I have mentioned by James Clapper, General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, also blatantly denied that his agency was keeping records on millions of Americans. In March 2012, Wired magazine published a cover story I wrote on the new one-million-square-foot NSA data center being built in Bluffdale, Utah. In the article, I interviewed William Binney, a former high-ranking NSA official who was largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network. He quit the agency in 2001 in protest after he saw the system designed mainly for intelligence about foreign threats turned inward on the American public. In the interview, he told how the agency was tapping into the country’s communications and Internet networks. He revealed that it also was secretly obtaining warrantless access to billions of phone records of Americans, including those of both AT&T and Verizon. “They’re storing everything they gather,” he said.
In the months afterward, General Alexander repeatedly denied Binney’s charges. “No…we don’t hold data on US citizens,” he told Fox News, and at an Aspen Institute conference he said, “To think we’re collecting on every US person…that would be against the law.” He added, “The fact is we’re a foreign intelligence agency.”
But the documents released by Edward Snowden show that the NSA does have a large-scale program to gather the telephone records of every Verizon customer, including local calls, and presumably a similar agreement with AT&T and other companies. These are records of who called whom and when, not of the content of the conversations, although the NSA has, by other methods, access to the content of conversations as well. But the NSA has, on a daily basis, access to virtually everyone’s phone records, whether cell or landline, and can store, data-mine, and keep them indefinitely. Snowden’s documents describing the PRISM program show that the agency is also accessing the Internet data of the nine major Internet companies in the US, including Google and Yahoo.
Snowden’s documents and statements add greatly to an understanding of just how the NSA goes about conducting its eavesdropping and data-mining programs, and just how deceptive the NSA and the Obama administration have been in describing the agency’s activities to the American public. In a video interview conducted in his room in the Mira Hotel, Snowden elaborated on the extent of the NSA’s capabilities. “Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector, anywhere,” he said.
Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president, if I had a personal e-mail [address].
What Snowden was discussing was the way in which analysts at the NSA can place such things as names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses on target lists, thus causing communications containing those “selectors” to be intercepted. He seemed to be indicating—although this remains to be officially confirmed—that while under FISA, a court order would be required to enter an American on a target list, analysts have the capability to unilaterally bypass the procedure by simply listing a name or e-mail address on the target list. To understand what Snowden is saying, it is necessary to elaborate a bit on the way the NSA conducts its eavesdropping.
Edward Gorey Charitable Trust
Drawing by Edward Gorey
During the past decade, the NSA has secretly worked to gain access to virtually all communications entering, leaving, or going through the country. A key reason, according to the draft of a top secret NSA inspector general’s report leaked by Snowden, is that approximately one third of all international telephone calls in the world enter, leave, or transit the United States. “Most international telephone calls are routed through a small number of switches or ‘chokepoints’ in the international telephone switching system en route to their final destination,” says the report. “The United States is a major crossroads for international switched telephone traffic.” At the same time, according to the 2009 report, virtually all Internet communications in the world pass through the US. For example, the report notes that during 2002, less than one percent of worldwide Internet bandwidth—i.e., the international link between the Internet and computers—“was between two regions that did not include the United States.”
Accessing this data is possible through a combination of techniques. Through the most effective of them, the NSA can gain direct access to the fiber-optic cables that now carry most kinds of communications data. According to a slide released by Snowden, the cable-tapping operation is codenamed “UPSTREAM” and it is described as the “collection of communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past.” It also appears to be both far more secret and far more invasive than the PRISM program revealed by Snowden. Although PRISM gives the NSA access to data from the individual Internet companies, such as Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft, the companies claim that they don’t give the agency direct access to their servers. Through UPSTREAM, however, the agency does get direct access to fiber-optic cables and the supporting infrastructure that carries nearly all the Internet and telephone traffic in the country.
As part of its cable-tapping program, the NSA has secretly installed what amount to computerized filters on the telecommunications infrastructure throughout the country. According to the leaked inspector general’s report, the agency has secret cooperative agreements with the top three telephone companies in the country. Although the report disguises their names, they are likely AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint:
NSA determined that under the Authorization it could gain access to approximately 81% of the international calls into and out of the United States through three corporate partners: Company A had access to 39%, Company B 28%, and Company C 14%.
The filters are placed at key junction points known as switches. For example, much of the communications—telephone and Internet—to and from the northwestern United States pass through a nearly windowless nine-story building at 611 Folsom Street in San Francisco. This is AT&T’s regional switching center. In 2003, the NSA built a secret room in the facility and filled it with computers and software from a company called Narus. Established in Israel by Israelis, and now owned by Boeing, Narus specializes in spyware, equipment that examines both the metadata—the names and addresses of people communicating on the Internet—and the content of digital traffic such as e-mail as it zooms past at the speed of light.
The agency also has access to the telephone metadata—the numbers called and calling and other details—of all Americans. Phone calls from telephone numbers that have been selected as targets can be routed directly to the agency and recorded. According to William Binney, the former NSA senior official, the NSA has established between ten and twenty of these secret rooms at telecom company switches around the country.
It is this daily access to the telephone metadata of all Americans without FISA warrants that the NSA and the Office of National Intelligence tried to hide when they falsely denied that the agency had surveillance records on millions of Americans. For years, the agency also had a nationwide bulk e-mail and Internet metadata collection and storage program, although that was ended in 2011 for “operational and resource reasons,” according to the director of national intelligence.
But according to a joint statement issued on July 2 by senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, the real reason the program was shut down was that the NSA was “unable” to prove the usefulness of the operation. “We were very concerned about this program’s impact on Americans’ civil liberties and privacy rights,” they said, “and we spent a significant portion of 2011 pressing intelligence officials to provide evidence of its effectiveness. They were unable to do so, and the program was shut down that year.” The senators added, “It is also important to note that intelligence agencies made statements to both Congress and the [FISA court] that significantly exaggerated this program’s effectiveness. This experience demonstrates to us that intelligence agencies’ assessment of the usefulness of particular collection program—even significant ones—are not always accurate.”
Speaking on Meet the Press, Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer and journalist who wrote the story about the NSA’s collection of phone data for TheGuardian, also mentioned a still-secret eighty-page FISA court opinion that, he said, criticized the NSA for violation of both the Fourth Amendment and the FISA statute. According to Greenwald, “it specifically said that they are collecting bulk transmissions, multiple conversations from millions of Americans…and that this is illegal.” The NSA, he said, “planned to try to accommodate that ruling.” On the same program, Representative Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, confirmed that the FISA court had issued a critical opinion and said that the NSA had “figured out how to correct that.”
According to The Economist of June 29, “the NSA provided congressional intelligence committees with what it said were over 50 cases in which the programmes disclosed by Mr. Snowden had contributed to the ‘understanding and, in many cases, disruption’ of terrorist plots in America, and over 20 other countries.” In a recent New York Reviewblog post, Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch and a former federal prosecutor, commented that “upon scrutiny” many of the plots referred to by the NSA
appear in fact to have been uncovered not because of the mass collection of our metadata but through more traditional surveillance of particular phone numbers or e-mail addresses—the kinds of targeted inquiries that easily would have justified a judicial order allowing review of records kept by communications companies or even monitoring the content of those communications.
At the AT&T facility on Folsom Street and the other locations, fiber-optic cables containing millions of communications enter the building and go into what’s known as a beam-splitter. This is a prism-type device that produces a duplicate, mirror image of the original communications. The original beams, containing Internet data, continue on to wherever they were originally destined. The duplicate beam goes into Room 641A, the NSA’s secret room one floor below, a discovery made by another whistleblower, AT&T technician Mark Klein. There the Narus equipment scans all the Internet traffic for “selectors”—names, e-mail address, words, phrases, or other indicators that the NSA wants to know about. Any message containing a selector is then retransmitted in full to the NSA for further analysis, as are the contents of phone calls selected. With regard to targeted phone numbers, the agency supplies them to the company, which then gives the NSA access to monitor them.
The selectors are inserted by remote control into the Narus equipment by NSA analysts sitting at their desks at the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland or at dozens of locations around the world. What Snowden seemed to be saying in his interview is that as long as certain analysts have an e-mail address, for example, they can simply enter that information into the system and retrieve the content of the e-mails sent from and to that address. There are, by his account, no judicial checks and balances to assure that the targeting of an American has been approved by a FISA court order and not just by NSA employees. These claims by Snowden, and other revelations from the documents he released, should be investigated by either a select committee of Congress, such as the Church Committee, or an independent body, like the 9/11 Commission.
While UPSTREAM captures most of the telecommunications—about 80 percent according to Binney—there are still gaps in the coverage. That is where the PRISM program comes in. With PRISM, the NSA is able to go directly to the communications industry, including the major Internet companies, to get whatever they miss from UPSTREAM. According to the top secret inspector general’s report, the “NSA maintains relationships with over 100 US companies,” adding that the US has the “home field advantage as the primary hub for worldwide telecommunications.”
According to a recent slide released by Snowden, the NSA on April 5, 2013, had 117,675 active surveillance targets in the program and was able to access real-time data on live voice, text, e-mail, or Internet chat services, in addition to analyzing stored data.
In the end, both UPSTREAM and PRISM may be only the tips of a much larger system. Another new document released by Snowden says that on New Year’s Eve, 2012, SHELLTRUMPET, a metadata program targeting international communications, had just “processed its One Trillionth metadata record.” Started five years ago, it noted that half of that trillion was added in 2012. It also noted that two more new programs, MOONLIGHTPATH and SPINNERET, “are planned to be added by September 2013.”
One man who was prescient enough to see what was coming was Senator Frank Church, the first outsider to peer into the dark recesses of the NSA. In 1975, when the NSA posed merely a fraction of the threat to privacy it poses today with UPSTREAM, PRISM, and thousands of other collection and data-mining programs, Church issued a stark warning:
That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such [is] the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology…. I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.
Church sounds as if he had absorbed the lessons of 1984. From the recent evidence, they are still to be learned.
Oldspeak: “The United States has been in a declared state of emergency from September 2001, to the present… That declared state of emergency has continued in full force and effect from 9/11 to the present. President Bush kept it in place, and President Obama has also… Simply by proclaiming a national emergency… President Bush activated some 500 dormant legal provisions, including those allowing him to impose censorship and martial law… Of the 54 National Security Presidential Directives issued by the [George W.] Bush Administration to date, the titles of only about half have been publicly identified. There is descriptive material or actual text in the public domain for only about a third. In other words, there are dozens of undisclosed Presidential directives that define U.S. national security policy and task government agencies, but whose substance is unknown either to the public or, as a rule, to Congress.” –Washington’s Blog
“Viewed in the context of the government behaviours being exhibited: Indefinite detention, summary executive order executions, general contempt for, zealous prosecution of and jailing of journalists, suppression of dissent, state censorship, suspended rights to petition, assemble & speak, state propaganda, compromised system checks and balances, constant mass surveillance; this makes a lot of sense. We’re in living under a form of stealth martial law. How else would our government feel justified and within the law to do enact all these extra-constitutional measures? The “threat of terrorism” has been used to activate hundreds of little known “emergency” legal provisions. Without debate in pubic or knowledge of the public… Why are we not entitled to know about our Shadow Government that seems to be making so much secret & anti-democratic policy?” –OSJ
Are Emergency Plans Meant Only for Nuclear War the Real Justification for Spying?
To understand the scope and extent of government spying on all Americans – and the reasons for such spying – you have to understand what has happened to our Constitutional form of government since 9/11.
State of Emergency
The United States has been in a declared state of emergency from September 2001, to the present. Specifically, on September 11, 2001, the government declared a state of emergency. That declared state of emergency was formally put in writing on 9/14/2001:
A national emergency exists by reason of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, New York, New York, and the Pentagon, and the continuing and immediate threat of further attacks on the United States.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, I hereby declare that the national emergency has existed since September 11, 2001 . . .
That declared state of emergency has continued in full force and effect from 9/11 to the present. President Bush kept it in place, and President Obama has also.
For example, on September 9, 2011, President Obama declared:
CONTINUATION OF NATIONAL EMERGENCY DECLARED BY PROC. NO. 7463
Notice of President of the United States, dated Sept. 9, 2011, 76 F.R. 56633, provided:
Consistent with section 202(d) of the National Emergencies Act, 50 U.S.C. 1622(d), I am continuing for 1 year the national emergency previously declared on September 14, 2001, in Proclamation 7463, with respect to the terrorist attacks of
September 11, 2001, and the continuing and immediate threat of
further attacks on the United States.
Because the terrorist threat continues, the national emergency declared on September 14, 2001, and the powers and authorities
adopted to deal with that emergency must continue in effect beyond September 14, 2011. Therefore, I am continuing in effect for an additional year the national emergency that was declared on September 14, 2001, with respect to the terrorist threat.
This notice shall be published in the Federal Register and
transmitted to the Congress.
Simply by proclaiming a national emergency on Friday, President Bush activated some 500 dormant legal provisions, including those allowing him to impose censorship and martial law.
The White House has kept substantial information concerning its presidential proclamations and directives hidden from Congress. For example, according to Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy:
Of the 54 National Security Presidential Directives issued by the [George W.] Bush Administration to date, the titles of only about half have been publicly identified. There is descriptive material or actual text in the public domain for only about a third. In other words, there are dozens of undisclosed Presidential directives that define U.S. national security policy and task government agencies, but whose substance is unknown either to the public or, as a rule, to Congress.
Continuity of Government
Continuity of Government (“COG”) measures were implemented on 9/11. For example, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, at page 38:
CNN reported that – 6 months later – the plans were still in place:
Because Bush has decided to leave the operation in place, agencies including the White House and top civilian Cabinet departments have rotated personnel involved, and are discussing ways to staff such a contingency operation under the assumption it will be in place indefinitely, this official said.
Similarly, the Washington Post reported in March 2002 that “the shadow government has evolved into an indefinite precaution.” The same article goes on to state:
Assessment of terrorist risks persuaded the White House to remake the program as a permanent feature of ‘the new reality, based on what the threat looks like,’ a senior decisionmaker said.
As CBS pointed out, virtually none of the Congressional leadership knew that the COG had been implemented or was still in existence as of March 2002:
Key congressional leaders say they didn’t know President Bush had established a “shadow government,” moving dozens of senior civilian managers to secret underground locations outside Washington to ensure that the federal government could survive a devastating terrorist attack on the nation’s capital, The Washington Post says in its Saturday editions.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) told the Post he had not been informed by the White House about the role, location or even the existence of the shadow government that the administration began to deploy the morning of the Sept. 11 hijackings.
An aide to House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said he was also unaware of the administration’s move.
Among Congress’s GOP leadership, aides to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), second in line to succeed the president if he became incapacitated, and to Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) said they were not sure whether they knew.
Aides to Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) said he had not been told. As Senate president pro tempore, he is in line to become president after the House speaker.
Similarly, the above-cited CNN article states:
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said Friday he can’t say much about the plan.
“We have not been informed at all about the role of the shadow government or its whereabouts or what particular responsibilities they have and when they would kick in, but we look forward to work with the administration to get additional information on that.”
Indeed, the White House has specifically refused to share information about Continuity of Government plans with the Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. Congress, even though that Committee has proper security clearance to hear the full details of all COG plans.
University of California Berkeley Professor Emeritus Peter Dale Scott points out that – whether or not COG plans are still in effect – the refusal of the executive branch to disclose their details to Congress means that the Constitutional system of checks and balances has already been gravely injured:
If members of the Homeland Security Committee cannot enforce their right to read secret plans of the Executive Branch, then the systems of checks and balances established by the U.S. Constitution would seem to be failing.
To put it another way, if the White House is successful in frustrating DeFazio, then Continuity of Government planning has arguably already superseded the Constitution as a higher authority.
Top leaders of the “new government” called for in the COG would entirely or largely go into hiding, and would govern in hidden locations
Those within the new government would know what was going on. But those in the “old government” – that is, the one created by the framers of the Constitution – would not necessarily know the details of what was happening
Normal laws and legal processes might largely be suspended, or superseded by secretive judicial forums
The media might be ordered by strict laws – punishable by treason – to only promote stories authorized by the new government
Could the White House have maintained COG operations to the present day?
I don’t know, but the following section from the above-cited CNN article is not very reassuring:
Bush triggered the precautions in the hours after the September 11 strikes, and has left them in place because of continuing U.S. intelligence suggesting a possible threat.
Concerns that al Qaeda could have gained access to a crude nuclear device “were a major factor” in the president’s decision, the official said. “The threat of some form of catastrophic event is the trigger,” this official said.
This same official went on to say that the U.S. had no confirmation — “and no solid evidence” — that al Qaeda had such a nuclear device and also acknowledged that the “consensus” among top U.S. officials was that the prospect was “quite low.”
Still, the officials said Bush and other top White House officials including Cheney were adamant that the government take precautions designed to make sure government functions ranging from civil defense to transportation and agricultural production could be managed in the event Washington was the target of a major strike.
As is apparent from a brief review of the news, the government has, since 9/11, continuously stated that there is a terrorist threat of a nuclear device or dirty bomb. That alone infers that COG plans could, hypothetically, still be in effect, just like the state of emergency is still in effect and has never been listed.
Indeed, President Bush said on December 17, 2005, 4 years after 9/11:
The authorization I gave the National Security Agency after Sept. 11 helped address that problem in a way that is fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities.
The activities I have authorized make it more likely that killers like these 9/11 hijackers will be identified and located in time.
And the activities conducted under this authorization have helped detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad.
The activities I authorized are reviewed approximately every 45 days. Each review is based on a fresh intelligence assessment of terrorist threats to the continuity of our government and the threat of catastrophic damage to our homeland.
During each assessment, previous activities under the authorization are reviewed. The review includes approval by our nation’s top legal officials, including the attorney general and the counsel to the president.
I have reauthorized this program more than 30 times since the Sept. 11 attacks [45 days times 30 equals approximately 4 years] and I intend to do so for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from Al Qaeda and related groups.
The N.S.A.’s activities under this authorization are thoroughly reviewed by the Justice Department and N.S.A.’s top legal officials, including N.S.A.’s general counsel and inspector general.
In other words, it appears that as of December 2005, COG plans had never been rescincded, but had been continously renewed every 45 days.
A contemporary version of the Continuity of Government program was put into play in the hours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Vice President Cheney and senior members of Congress were dispersed to “undisclosed locations” to maintain government functions. It was during this emergency period, Hamilton and other former government officials believe, that President Bush may have authorized the NSA to begin actively using the Main Core database for domestic surveillance [more on Main Core below]. One indicator they cite is a statement by Bush in December 2005, after the New York Times had revealed the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, in which he made a rare reference to the emergency program: The Justice Department’s legal reviews of the NSA activity, Bush said, were based on “fresh intelligence assessment of terrorist threats to the continuity of our government.”
In 2007, President Bush issued Presidential Directive NSPD-51, which purported to change Continuity of Government plans. NSPD51 is odd because:
Beyond cases of actual insurrection, the President may now use military troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack, or to any ‘other condition.’ Changes of this magnitude should be made only after a thorough public airing. But these new Presidential powers were slipped into the law without hearings or public debate.
As a reporter for Slate concluded after analyzing NSPD-51:
I see nothing in the [COG document entitled presidential directive NSPD51] to prevent even a “localized” forest fire or hurricane from giving the president the right to throw long-established constitutional government out the window
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said that “because of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the American public needs no explanation of [Continuity of Government] plans”
This is all the more bizarre when you realize that COG plans were originally created solely to respond to a decapitating nuclear strike which killed our civilian leaders. (It was subsequently expanded decades before 9/11 into a multi-purpose plan by our good friends Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. See this, this and this.)
Does COG Explain the Pervasive Spying on Americans?
5 years ago, investigative reporter Christopher Ketcham disclosed the spying which was confirmed last week by whistleblower Edward Snowden:
The following information seems to be fair game for collection without a warrant: the e-mail addresses you send to and receive from, and the subject lines of those messages; the phone numbers you dial, the numbers that dial in to your line, and the durations of the calls; the Internet sites you visit and the keywords in your Web searches; the destinations of the airline tickets you buy; the amounts and locations of your ATM withdrawals; and the goods and services you purchase on credit cards. All of this information is archived on government supercomputers and, according to sources, also fed into the Main Core database.
Given that Ketcham was proven right, let’s see what else he reported:
Given that Ketcham was right about the basics, let’s hear what else the outstanding investigative journalist said in 2008:
There exists a database of Americans, who, often for the slightest and most trivial reason, are considered unfriendly, and who, in a time of panic, might be incarcerated. The database can identify and locate perceived ‘enemies of the state’ almost instantaneously.” He and other sources tell Radar that the database is sometimes referred to by the code name Main Core. One knowledgeable source claims that 8 million Americans are now listed in Main Core as potentially suspect. In the event of a national emergency, these people could be subject to everything from heightened surveillance and tracking to direct questioning and possibly even detention.”
According to one news report, even “national opposition to U.S. military invasion abroad” could be a trigger [for martial law ].
When COG plans are shrouded in extreme secrecy, effectively unregulated by Congress or the courts, and married to an overreaching surveillance state—as seems to be the case with Main Core—even sober observers must weigh whether the protections put in place by the federal government are becoming more dangerous to America than any outside threat.
Another well-informed source—a former military operative regularly briefed by members of the intelligence community—says this particular program has roots going back at least to the 1980s and was set up with help from the Defense Intelligence Agency. He has been told that the program utilizes software that makes predictive judgments of targets’ behavior and tracks their circle of associations with “social network analysis” and artificial intelligence modeling tools.
A former NSA officer tells Radar that the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, using an electronic-funds transfer surveillance program, also contributes data to Main Core, as does a Pentagon program that was created in 2002 to monitor antiwar protesters and environmental activists such as Greenpeace.
If previous FEMA and FBI lists are any indication, the Main Core database includes dissidents and activists of various stripes, political and tax protesters, lawyers and professors, publishers and journalists, gun owners, illegal aliens, foreign nationals, and a great many other harmless, average people.
A veteran CIA intelligence analyst who maintains active high-level clearances and serves as an advisor to the Department of Defense in the field of emerging technology tells Radar that during the 2004 hospital room drama, [current nominee to head the FBI, and former Deputy Attorney General] James Comey expressed concern over how this secret database was being used “to accumulate otherwise private data on non-targeted U.S. citizens for use at a future time.” [Snowden and high-level NSA whistleblower William Binney have since confirmed this] …. A source regularly briefed by people inside the intelligence community adds: “Comey had discovered that President Bush had authorized NSA to use a highly classified and compartmentalized Continuity of Government database on Americans in computerized searches of its domestic intercepts. [Comey] had concluded that the use of that ‘Main Core’ database compromised the legality of the overall NSA domestic surveillance project.”
The veteran CIA intelligence analyst notes that Comey’s suggestion that the offending elements of the program were dropped could be misleading: “Bush [may have gone ahead and] signed it as a National Intelligence Finding anyway.” But even if we never face a national emergency, the mere existence of the database is a matter of concern. “The capacity for future use of this information against the American people is so great as to be virtually unfathomable,” the senior government official says.
In any case, mass watch lists of domestic citizens may do nothing to make us safer from terrorism. Jeff Jonas, chief scientist at IBM, a world-renowned expert in data mining, contends that such efforts won’t prevent terrorist conspiracies. “Because there is so little historical terrorist event data,” Jonas tells Radar, “there is not enough volume to create precise predictions.”
[J. Edgar Hoover’s] FBI “security index” was allegedly maintained and updated into the 1980s, when it was reportedly transferred to the control of none other than FEMA (though the FBI denied this at the time).
FEMA, however—then known as the Federal Preparedness Agency—already had its own domestic surveillance system in place, according to a 1975 investigation by Senator John V. Tunney of California. Tunney, the son of heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney and the inspiration for Robert Redford’s character in the film The Candidate, found that the agency maintained electronic dossiers on at least 100,000 Americans that contained information gleaned from wide-ranging computerized surveillance. The database was located in the agency’s secret underground city at Mount Weather, near the town of Bluemont, Virginia. [One of the main headquarter of COG operations.] The senator’s findings were confirmed in a 1976 investigation by the Progressive magazine, which found that the Mount Weather computers “can obtain millions of pieces [of] information on the personal lives of American citizens by tapping the data stored at any of the 96 Federal Relocation Centers”—a reference to other classified facilities. According to the Progressive, Mount Weather’s databases were run “without any set of stated rules or regulations. Its surveillance program remains secret even from the leaders of the House and the Senate.”
Wired magazine turned up additional damaging information, revealing in 1993 that [Oliver] North, operating from a secure White House site, allegedly employed a software database program called PROMIS (ostensibly as part of the REX 84 plan). PROMIS, which has a strange and controversial history, was designed to track individuals—prisoners, for example—by pulling together information from disparate databases into a single record. According to Wired, “Using the computers in his command center, North tracked dissidents and potential troublemakers within the United States. Compared to PROMIS, Richard Nixon’s enemies list or Senator Joe McCarthy’s blacklist look downright crude.” Sources have suggested to Radar that government databases tracking Americans today, including Main Core, could still have PROMIS-based legacy code from the days when North was running his programs.
Marty Lederman, a high-level official at the Department of Justice under Clinton, writing on a law blog last year, wondered, “How extreme were the programs they implemented [after 9/11]? How egregious was the lawbreaking?” Congress has tried, and mostly failed, to find out.
“We are at the edge of a cliff and we’re about to fall off,” says constitutional lawyer and former Reagan administration official Bruce Fein. “To a national emergency planner, everybody looks like a danger to stability. There’s no doubt that Congress would have the authority to denounce all this—for example, to refuse to appropriate money for the preparation of a list of U.S. citizens to be detained in the event of martial law. But Congress is the invertebrate branch.
UPDATE [from Ketcham]: Since this article went to press, several documents have emerged to suggest the story has longer legs than we thought. Most troubling among these is an October 2001 Justice Department memo that detailed the extra-constitutional powers the U.S. military might invoke during domestic operations following a terrorist attack. In the memo, John Yoo, then deputy assistant attorney general, “concluded that the Fourth Amendment had no application to domestic military operations.” (Yoo, as most readers know, is author of the infamous Torture Memo that, in bizarro fashion, rejiggers the definition of “legal” torture to allow pretty much anything short of murder.) In the October 2001 memo, Yoo refers to a classified DOJ document titled “Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities Within the United States.” According to the Associated Press, “Exactly what domestic military action was covered by the October memo is unclear. But federal documents indicate that the memo relates to the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program.” Attorney General John Mukasey last month refused to clarify before Congress whether the Yoo memo was still in force.
Americans have the right to know whether a COG program is still in effect, and whether the spying on our phone calls and Internet usage stems from such COG plans. Indeed, 9/11 was a horrible blow, but it was not a decapitating nuclear strike on our leaders … so COG and the state of emergency should be lifted.
If COG plans are not still in effect, we have the right to demand that “enemies lists” and spying capabilities developed for the purpose of responding to a nuclear war be discarded , as we have not been hit by nuclear weapons … and our civilian leaders – on Capitol Hill, the White House, and the judiciary – are still alive and able to govern.
Austerity policies include various combinations primarily of government spending cuts and secondarily of general tax increases. Republicans and Democrats have endorsed austerity since 2010. Austerity was the result of their deal on taxes last December 31: increasing the payroll tax on wages and salaries from 4.2 to 6.2 percent. Austerity is what they are negotiating now in regard to federal spending cuts.
After 2010, with “recovery” underway for them following bailouts for them, large private capitalist interests focused on three key interests. First, they wanted to ensure that the bailouts’ costs were not paid for by higher taxes on corporations and the rich. By stressing government spending cuts and broad-based tax increases, austerity policies serve that interest. Second, they worried about crisis-heightened government economic intervention and power and wanted to reduce them back to pre-crisis levels. Austerity’s focus on reduced government spending lessens the government’s economic footprint. Third, because big banks and other large capitalists are among the major creditors of the US government, they wanted signs that their crisis-increased holdings of US debt were safe investments for them. Austerity policies provide just those signs, as we shall show.
Austerity in the US, unlike in Europe, is renamed and packaged for the public as “deficit reduction programs” or “fiscal responsibility.” Distractions such as “fiscal cliffs” and “debt ceilings” focus public attention on mere secondary details of austerity. Politicians, media and academics use such distractions to wrangle over whose taxes will go up how much and which recipients of government spending will suffer what size cuts. They do not debate austerity itself; that is, they do not debate very idea of raising mass taxes and cutting spending in a deep and long economic downturn. They do not explore the interests served and undermined by any austerity policy. So we will.
Austerity promoters repeatedly insist that the dominant economic problem today is government budget deficits. They ignore why those deficits occurred (the crisis plus bailouts). They demand that both parties and the media endorse austerity because cuts in government spending and increased taxes will reduce deficits. They hype austerity as the solution all must embrace. Otherwise, they fear, a different and dangerous logic might win popular support. In that logic, since capitalism regularly causes crises that cause deficits, another solution for deficits would be changing from capitalism to another economic system not beset by regular crises.
Austerity policies, we are told, will reduce deficits and thereby meet what “the credit market” demands. In other words, those who have lent to the US government (by buying its debt securities) want guarantees of interest and repayment. By cutting government spending and raising taxes, austerity policies redirect government funds to the government’s creditors, thereby reassuring them.
Distracting references to an anonymous “market” avoid identifying the government’s creditors. However, major creditors holding US public debt are easy to list: large banks, insurance companies, large corporations, wealthy individuals and central banks around the world. Austerity justified as satisfying “the market” in fact serves those US creditors first and foremost.
Austerity is thus the policy preferred by the private capitalist interests that (1) brought on the crisis, (2) secured the government bailouts almost exclusively for themselves, and (3) are that government’s chief creditors. Led by major banks, those interests now threaten the government (that just bailed them out) with higher interest rates or no more credit unless it imposes higher taxes (mostly on others) and reduced spending (mostly on others) to lower its deficits. Distracting struggles over “fiscal cliffs” and “debt ceilings” serve nicely to disguise the reality that both parties’ austerity policies represent and illustrate gross government subservience to large capitalists.
Austerity, US style, has its Keynesian economist critics. They point out that the United States has been able to borrow trillions at historically low interest rates through this crisis. US deficits have not worried “the market” at all. Policies should therefore not be driven by deficits. Keynesians insist that raising mass taxes and cutting spending during an economic downturn will reduce outlays on goods and services by taxpayers and government, thereby worsening unemployment. They thus ridicule the argument that austerity, by cutting deficits, will stimulate investment by capitalists.
For Keynesians, austerity is thus unneeded and counterproductive. They prefer to exit the crisis by more stimulus (lower taxes and higher government spending) funded by higher deficits. The resulting economic growth, they believe, will automatically lower government budgetary imbalance. The government can then later, if and when needed, impose tax increases and reduce government spending to shrink deficits. In a growing economy, austerity policies avoid the devastating effects they have in depressed economies (as shown by the recent histories of Greece, Portugal, the UK and others).
Setting aside the question of the validity of Keynesian arguments, they miss key purposes of austerity policies. Those policies do not primarily seek to overcome crisis or resume economic growth. Rather, as argued above, they aim chiefly to (1) shift the burden of paying for crisis and bailouts onto the total population, (2) reduce the economic footprint of the government, and (3) reduce creditors’ concerns about rising US debt levels. If austerity policies achieve these objectives, their failure to end the crisis quickly is a price that corporations and the rich are more than happy to pay (or rather, have others pay).
That Republicans and Democrats concur on austerity and differ only on its secondary details testifies to what they share. Both depend financially on capitalist corporations and their top executives. Both serve and never question capitalism. For all the victims of capitalism today – the unemployed, those foreclosed out of their homes, those with reduced job benefits and job security, students with unsustainable schooling debts and poor job prospects, millions without medical insurance, and so on – supporting those parties perpetuates their victimization.
Oldspeak: “The predominance of violence in all aspects of social life suggests that young people and others marginalized by class, race and ethnicity have been abandoned as American society’s claim on democracy gives way to the forces of militarism, market fundamentalism and state terrorism.” In a state where children are disposable, subjected to violence and threats of violence in most every aspect of their lives, programmed from birth to be nothing more than finely tuned profit generating”happiness machines”. Where 1o children a day are killed by guns (more than police killed in the line of duty) can we really be surprised by the senseless violence perpetrated on children like Trayvon Martin?
Young people are demonstrating all over the world against a variety of issues ranging from economic injustice and massive inequality to drastic cuts in education and public services. At the moment, these demonstrations are being met with state-sanctioned violence and insults in the mainstream media rather than with informed dialogue, critical engagement and reformed policies. In the United States, the state monopoly on the use of violence has intensified since the 1980s and, in the process, has been increasingly directed against young people, poor minorities, immigrants and increasingly women. As the welfare state is hollowed out, a culture of compassion is replaced by a culture of violence, cruelty and disposability. Collective insurance policies and social protections have given way to the forces of economic deregulation, the transformation of the welfare state into punitive workfare programs, the privatization of public goods and an appeal to individual responsibility as a substitute for civic responsibility. Under the notion that unregulated market-driven values and relations should shape every domain of human life, the business model of governance has eviscerated any viable notion of social responsibility while furthering the criminalization of social problems and cut backs in basic social services, especially for the poor, young people and the elderly.(1) Within the existing neoliberal historical conjuncture, there is a merging of violence and governance and the systemic disinvestment in and breakdown of institutions and public spheres, which have provided the minimal conditions for democracy.
As young people make diverse claims on the promise of a radical democracy, articulating what a fair and just world might be, they are increasingly met with forms of physical, ideological and structural violence. According to OccupyArrests.com, “There have been at least 6705 arrests in over 112 different cities as of March 6, 2012.”(2) Abandoned by the existing political system, young people in Oakland, California; New York City; and numerous other cities are placing their bodies on the line, protesting peacefully while trying to produce a new language, politics, long-term institutions and “community that manifests the values of equality and mutual respect that they see missing in a world that is structured by neoliberal principles.”(3) This movement is not simply about reclaiming space, but also about producing new ideas, generating a new conversation and introducing a new political language. Rejecting the notion that democracy and markets are the same, young people are calling for an end to the corporate control of the commanding institutions of politics and culture, poverty, the suppression of dissent and the permanent war state. Richard Lichtman is right in insisting that this movement should be praised for its embrace of communal democracy as well as an emerging set of shared concerns, principles and values articulated “by a demand for equality, or, at the very least, for a significant lessening of the horrid extent of inequality; for a working democracy; for the elimination of the moneyed foundation of politics; for the abolition of political domination by a dehumanized plutocracy; for the replacement of ubiquitous commodification by the reciprocal recognition of humanity in the actions of its agents.”(4) As Arundhati Roy points out, what connects the protests in the United States to resistance movements all over the globe is that young people are realizing that “they know that their being excluded from the obscene amassing of wealth of US corporations is part of the same system of the exclusion and war that is being waged by these corporations in places like India, Africa and the Middle East.”(5) Of course, Lichtman, Roy, and others believe that this is just the beginning of a movement and that much needs to be done, as Staughton Lynd argues, to build new strategies, a vast network of new institutions and public spheres, a community of trust and political organization that invites poor people into its ranks.(6)
All of these issues are important, but what must be addressed in the most immediate sense is the threat the emerging police state in the United States poses not to just the young protesters occupying a number of American cities, but also the threat it poses to democracy itself as a result of the merging of a war-like mentality and neoliberal mode of discipline and education in which it becomes difficult to reclaim the language of obligation, social responsibility and civic engagement. Unless the actions of young protesters, however diverse they may be, is understood within the language of a robust notion of the social, civic courage and the imperatives of a vital democracy, it will be difficult for the American public to resist state violence and the framing of protests, dissent and civic responsibility as un-American or, at worst, a species of criminal behavior.
While there is considerable coverage in the progressive media given to the violence being waged against the Occupy movement protesters, I want to build on these analyses by arguing that it is important to situate such violence within a broader set of categories that enables a critical understanding of not only the underlying social, economic and political forces at work in such assaults, but also allows us to reflect critically on the distinctiveness of the current historical period in which they are taking place. For example, it is difficult to address such state-sponsored violence against young people without analyzing the devolution of the social state and the corresponding rise of the warfare and punishing state. The notion of historical conjuncture is important here because it provides both an opening into the forces shaping a particular historical moment and it allows for a merging of theory and strategy. That is, it helps us to address theoretically how youth protests are largely related to a historically specific neoliberal project that promotes vast inequalities in income and wealth, creates the student loan debt bomb, eliminates much needed social programs, eviscerates the social wage and privileges profits and commodities over people. Within the United States, the often violent response to nonviolent forms of youth protests must also be analyzed within the framework of a mammoth military-industrial state and its commitment to war and the militarization of the entire society. As Tony Judt put it, “The United States is becoming not just a militarized state but a military society: a country where armed power is the measure of national greatness and war, or planning is the exemplary (and only) common project.”(7) The merging of the military-industrial complex and unbridled corporate power points to the need for strategies that address what is specific about the current warfare state and the neoliberal project and how different interests, modes of power, social relations, public pedagogies and economic configurations come together to shape its politics. Such a conjuncture is invaluable politically in that it provides a theoretical opening for making the practices of the warfare state and the neoliberal revolution visible in order “to give the resistance to its onward march, content, focus and a cutting edge.”(8) It also points to the conceptual power of making clear that history remains an open horizon that cannot be dismissed through appeals to the end of history or end of ideology.(9) It is precisely through the indeterminate nature of history that resistance becomes possible and politics refuses any guarantees and remains open. Following Stuart Hall, I want to argue that the current historical moment or what he calls the “long march of the Neoliberal Revolution,”(10) has to be understood in terms of the growing forms of violence that it deploys and reinforces. Such anti-democratic pressures and their relationship to the rising protests of young people in the United States and abroad are evident in the crisis that has emerged through the merging of governance and violence, the growth of the punishing state and the persistent development of what has been described by Alex Honneth as “a failed sociality.”(11)
The United States has become addicted to violence and this dependency is fuelled increasingly by its willingness to wage war at home and abroad. War in this instance is not merely the outgrowth of polices designed to protect the security and well-being of the United States. It is also, as C. Wright Mills pointed out, part of a “military metaphysics”(12) – a complex of forces that includes corporations, defense industries, politicians, financial institutions and universities. War provides jobs, profits, political payoffs, research funds and forms of political and economic power that reach into every aspect of society. War is also one of the nation’s most honored virtues, and its militaristic values now bear down on almost every aspect of American life.(13) As war becomes a mode of sovereignty and rule, it erodes the distinction between war and peace. Increasingly fed by a moral and political hysteria, warlike values produce and endorse shared fears as the primary register of social relations.
Shared fears and the media hysteria that feed them produce more than a culture of fear. Such hysteria also feeds the growing militarization of the police, who increasingly use their high-tech scanners, surveillance cameras and toxic chemicals on anyone who engages in peaceful protests against the warfare and corporate state. Images abound in the mainstream media of such abuses. There is the now famous image of an 84-year-old woman looking straight into a camera, her face drenched in a liquid spray used by the police after attending a protest rally. There is the image of a woman, who is two months pregnant, being carried to safety after being pepper sprayed by the police. There are the all-too-familiar images of young people being dragged by their hair across a street to a waiting police van.(14) In some cases, protesters have been seriously hurt as in the case of Scott Olsen, an Iraqi war veteran, who was critically injured in a protest in Oakland in October 2011. Too much of this violence is reminiscent of the violence used against civil rights demonstrators by the forces of Jim Crow in the fifties and sixties.(15)
The war on terror has become a war on democracy as baton-wielding cops are now being supplied with the latest military equipment imported straight from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Military technologies once used exclusively on the battlefield are now being supplied to police departments across the nation. Drones; machine-gun-equipped armored trucks; SWAT vehicles; “digital communications equipment and Kevlar helmets, like those used by soldiers used in foreign wars.”(16) The domestic war against “terrorists” (code for young protesters) provides new opportunities for major defense contractors and corporations who “are becoming more a part of our domestic lives.”(17) As Glenn Greenwald points out, the United States since 9/11 “has aggressively para-militarized the nation’s domestic police forces by lavishing them with countless military-style weapons and other war-like technologies, training them in war-zone military tactics and generally imposing a war mentality on them. Arming domestic police forces with para-military weaponry will ensure their systematic use even in the absence of a Terrorist attack on U.S. soil; they will simply find other, increasingly permissive uses for those weapons.”(18) Of course, the new domestic para-military forces will also undermine free speech and dissent with the threat of force while simultaneously threatening core civil liberties, rights and civic responsibilities. Given that “by age 23, almost a third of Americans are arrested for a crime,” it becomes clear that in the new militarized state the view of young people as predators, a threat to corporate governance and disposable will increase as will the growth of a punishment state that acts with impunity.(19)
No longer restricted to a particular military ideology, the celebration of war-like values has become normalized through the militarization of the entire society. As Michael Geyer points out, militarization in this sense is defined as “the contradictory and tense social process in which civil society organizes itself for the production of violence.”(20) The conceptual merging of war and violence is evident in the way in which the language of war saturates the ways in which policy makers talk about waging war on drugs, poverty and the underclass. There is more at work here than the prevalence of armed knowledge and a militarized discourse; there is also the emergence of a militarized society in which “the range of acceptable opinion inevitably shrinks.”(21) But the prevailing move in American society to a permanent war status does more than promote a set of unifying symbols that embrace a survival-of-the-fittest ethic, promoting conformity over dissent, the strong over the weak and fear over responsibility; it also gives rise to a “failed sociality” in which violence becomes the most important element of power and mediating force in shaping social relationships.
As a mode of public pedagogy, a state of permanent war needs willing subjects to abide by its values, ideology and narratives of fear and violence. Such legitimation is largely provided through a market-driven culture addicted to the production consumerism, militarism and organized violence, largely circulated through various registers of popular culture that extend from high fashion and Hollywood movies to the creation of violent video games and music concerts sponsored by the Pentagon. The market-driven spectacle of war demands a culture of conformity, quiet intellectuals and a largely passive republic of consumers. But it also needs subjects who find intense pleasure in the spectacle of violence.
As the pleasure principle is unconstrained by a moral compass based on a respect for others, it is increasingly shaped by the need for intense excitement and a never-ending flood of heightened sensations. What has led to this immunity and insensitivity to cruelty and prurient images of violence? Part of this process is due to the fact that the American public is bombarded by an unprecedented “huge volume of exposure to … images of human suffering.”(22) As Zygmunt Bauman argues, there are social costs that come with this immersion of a culture of staged violence. One consequence is that “the sheer numbers and monotony of images may have a ‘wearing off’ impact [and] to stave off the ‘viewing fatigue,’ they must be increasingly gory, shocking and otherwise ‘inventive’ to arouse any sentiments at all or indeed draw attention. The level of ‘familiar’ violence, below which the cruelty of cruel acts escapes attention, is constantly rising.”(23)
Hyper-violence and spectacular representations of cruelty disrupt and block our ability to respond politically and ethically to the violence as it is actually happening on the ground. In this instance, unfamiliar violence such as extreme images of torture and death become banally familiar, while familiar violence that occurs daily is barely recognized relegated to the realm of the unnoticed and unnoticeable. How else to explain the public indifference to the violence waged by the state against nonviolent youthful protesters, who are rebelling against a society in which they have been excluded from any claim on hope, prosperity and democracy. As an increasing volume of violence is pumped into the culture, yesterday’s spine-chilling and nerve-wrenching violence loses its shock value. As the need for more intense images of violence accumulates, the moral indifference and desensitization to violence grows while matters of cruelty and suffering are offered up as fodder for sports, entertainment, news media, and other outlets for seeking pleasure.
Marked by a virulent notion of hardness and aggressive masculinity, a culture of violence has become commonplace in a society in which pain, humiliation and abuse are condensed into digestible spectacles endlessly circulated through extreme sports, reality TV, video games, YouTube postings and proliferating forms of the new and old media. But the ideology of hardness and the economy of pleasure it justifies are also present in the material relations of power that have intensified since the Reagan presidency, when a shift in government policies first took place, and set the stage for the emergence of unchecked torture and state violence under the Bush-Cheney regime. Conservative and liberal politicians alike now spend millions waging wars around the globe, funding the largest military state in the world, providing huge tax benefits to the ultra-rich and major corporations and all the while draining public coffers, increasing the scale of human poverty and misery and eliminating all viable public spheres – whether they be the social state, public schools, public transportation, or any other aspect of a formative culture that addresses the needs of the common good. State violence, particularly the use of torture, abductions and targeted assassinations, are now justified as part of a state of exception that has become normalized. A “political culture of hyper punitiveness”(24) has become normalized and accelerates throughout the social order like a highly charged electric current. Democracy no longer leaves open the importance of an experience of the common good. As a mode of “failed sociality,” the current version of market fundamentalism has turned the principles of democracy against itself, deforming both the language of freedom and justice that made equality a viable idea and political goal. State violence operating under the guise of personal safety and security, while parading species of democracy, cancels out democracy “as the incommensurable sharing of existence that makes the political possible.”(25) Symptoms of ethical, political and economic impoverishment are all around us.
Meanwhile, exaggerated violence is accelerated in the larger society and now rules screen culture. The public pedagogy of entertainment includes extreme images of violence, human suffering and torture splashed across giant movie screens, some in 3D, offering viewers every imaginable portrayal of violent acts, each more shocking and brutal than the last. The growing taste for violence can be seen in the increasing modeling of public schools after prisons, the criminalization of behaviors such as homelessness that once were the object of social protections. A symptomatic example of the way in which violence has saturated everyday life can be seen in the growing acceptance of criminalizing the behavior of young people in public schools. Behaviors that were normally handled by teachers, guidance counselors and school administrators are now dealt with by the police and the criminal justice system. The consequences have been disastrous for young people. Not only do schools resemble the culture of prisons, but young children are being arrested and subjected to court appearances for behaviors that can only be termed as trivial. How else to explain the case of the five-year-old girl in Florida who was put in handcuffs and taken to the local jail because she had a temper tantrum; or the case of Alexa Gonzales in New York who was arrested for doodling on her desk. Even worse, a 13-year-old boy in a Maryland school was arrested for refusing to say the pledge of allegiance. There is more at work than stupidity and a flight from responsibility on the part of educators, parents and politicians who maintain these laws; there is also the growing sentiment that young people constitute a threat to adults and that the only way to deal with them is to subject them to mind-crushing punishment. Students being miseducated, criminalized and arrested through a form of penal pedagogy in prison-type schools provide a grim reminder of the degree to which the ethos of containment and punishment now creeps into spheres of everyday life that were largely immune in the past from this type of state violence. The governing through crime ethic also reminds us that we live in an era that breaks young people, corrupts the notion of justice and saturates the minute details of everyday life with the threat, if not reality, of violence. This mediaeval type of punishment inflicts pain on the psyche and the body of young people as part of a public spectacle. Even more disturbing is how the legacy of slavery informs this practice given that “Arrests and police interactions … disproportionately affect low-income schools with large African-American and Latino populations,”(26) paving the way for them to move almost effortlessly through the school-to-prison pipeline. Surely, the next step will be a reality TV franchise in which millions tune in to watch young kids being handcuffed, arrested, tried in the courts and sent to juvenile detention centers. This is not merely barbarism parading as reform – it is also a blatant indicator of the degree to which sadism and the infatuation with violence have become normalized in a society that seems to take delight in dehumanizing itself.
As the social is devalued along with rationality, ethics and any vestige of democracy, spectacles of war, violence and brutality now merge into forms of collective pleasure that constitute an important and new symbiosis among visual pleasure, violence and suffering. The control society is now the ultimate form of entertainment as the pain of others, especially those considered disposable and powerless, has become the subject not of compassion, but of ridicule and amusement in America. High-octane violence and human suffering are now considered another form of entertainment designed to raise the collective pleasure quotient. Reveling in the suffering of others should no longer be reduced to a matter of individual pathology, but now registers a larger economy of pleasure across the broader culture and social landscape. My emphasis here is on the sadistic impulse and how it merges spectacles of violence and brutality with forms of collective pleasure. No society can make a claim to being a democracy as long as it defines itself through shared fears rather than shared responsibilities. Widespread violence now functions as part of an anti-immune system that turns the economy of genuine pleasure into a mode of sadism that creates the foundation for sapping democracy of any political substance and moral vitality. The prevalence of institutionalized violence in American society and other parts of the world suggests the need for a new conversation and politics that addresses what a just and fair world looks like. The predominance of violence in all aspects of social life suggests that young people and others marginalized by class, race and ethnicity have been abandoned as American society’s claim on democracy gives way to the forces of militarism, market fundamentalism and state terrorism. The prevalence of violence throughout American society suggests the need for a politics that not only negates the established order, but imagines a new one, one informed by a radical vision in which the future does not imitate the present.(27) In this discourse, critique merges with a sense of realistic hope and individual struggles merge into larger social movements. The challenge that young people are posing to American society is being met with a state-sponsored violence that is about more than police brutality; it is more importantly about the transformation of the United States from a social state to a warfare state, from a state that embraced the social contract to one that no longer has a language for community – a state in which the bonds of fear and commodification have replaced the bonds of civic responsibility and democratic vision. Until we address how the metaphysics of war and violence have taken hold on American society (and in other parts of the world) and the savage social costs it has enacted, the forms of social, political and economic violence that young people are protesting against as well as the violence waged in response to their protests will become impossible to recognize and act on.
7. Tony Judt, “The New World Order,” The New York Review of Books 11:12 (July 14, 2005), pp. 14-18.
8. Stuart Hall, “The Neo-Liberal Revolution,” Cultural Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6, (November 2011), p. 706.
9. Daniel Bell, “The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties” (New York: Free Press, 1966) and the more recent Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History and the Last Man” (New York: Free Press, 2006) .
10. Stuart Hall, “The March of the Neoliberals,” The Guardian UK, (September 12, 2011), online here.
11. Alex Honneth, Pathologies of Reason (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 188.
12. C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 222.
13.13. See Gore Vidal, “Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia” (New York: Nation Books, 2004); Gore Vidal, “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace” (New York: Nation Books, 2002); Chris Hedges, “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning” (New York: Anchor Books, 2003); Chalmers Johnson, “The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic” (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004); Andrew Bacevich, “The New American Militarism” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Chalmers Johnson, “Nemesis: The Last Days of the Republic” (New York: Metropolitan Books); Andrew J. Bacevich, “Washington Rules: America’s Path To Permanent War,” (New York, N.Y.: Metropolitan Books, Henry Hold and Company, 2010); Nick Turse, “The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives” (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008).
14. Philip Govrevitch, “Whose Police?” The New Yorker, (11/17/11).
15. Phil Rockstroh, “The Police State Makes Its Move: Retaining One’s Humanity in the Face of Tyranny,” CommonDreams, (11/15/11). Online here.
16. Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz, “Cops Ready for War,” RSN, (December 21, 2011). Online here.
18. Glenn Greenwald, “The Roots of The UC-Davis Pepper-Spraying,” Salon (Nov. 20, 2011). Online here.
19. Erica Goode, “Many in U.S. Are Arrested by Age 23, Study Finds,” The New York Times, (December 19, 2011) p. A15.
20. Michael Geyer, “The Militarization of Europe, 1914 – 1945,” in The Militarization of the Western World, ed. John R. Gillis (New York: Rutgers University Press, 1989), p. 79.
21. Tony Judt, “The New World Order,” The New York Review of Books 11:2 (July 14, 2005), p.17.
22. Zygmunt Bauman, “Life in Fragments” (Malden: Blackwell, 1995), p. 149.
23. Zygmunt Bauman, “Life in Fragments” (Malden: Blackwell, 1995), pp. 149-150.
24. Steve Herbert and Elizabeth Brown, “Conceptions of Space and Crime in the Punitive Neoliberal City,” Antipode (2006), p. 757.
25. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, “Translators Note,” in Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Truth of Democracy,” (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2010), p. ix.
26. Smartypants, “A Failure of Imagination,” Smartypants Blog Spot (March 3, 2010). Online here.
27. John Van Houdt, “The Crisis of Negation: An Interview with Alain Badiou,” Continent, 1.4 (2011): 234-238. Online here.
Oldspeak:” ‘The internal DHS report emphasizes the need to “control protesters”, They talk about threats to ‘critical infrastructure’ and this fear that these protests are going to…make commerce difficult and people are going to start losing money. There is a kind of bottom line in analysis to what they’re talking about. There isn’t an emphasis on public safety in a way one would expect from a department that’s supposed to protect the homeland. It’s this sort of sense that they’re protecting somebody’s homeland, and they’re the folks who generally make all the money.” Michael Hastings COINTELPRO lives on. New Department, same ole shit. Still more evidence that your government does not represent you. It represents those folks who ‘generally make all the money.’ The financial services, and myriad of other anational corporations who gamble with other people’s money, homes and livelihoods; they profit handsomely as billions of others struggle with debt, poverty, hunger, sickness, homelessness and joblessness. The vast majority of Americans are de-politicized, minimally informed & apathetic, with has paved the way for replacement of often heralded democratic ideals with inverted totalitarianism. Democracy has been subverted by men with million-dollar smiles, and the unwitting masses clamoring for more divestment from their liberties. ”
Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings last night posted a story on an internal DHS report entitled “SPECIAL COVERAGE: Occupy Wall Street,” dated October of last year. The five-page report, part of five million newly leaked documents obtained by Wikileaks, sums up the history of the movement and assesses its “impact” on the financial services and government facilities.
The process of combing through the huge amount of leaked documents has only just begun, but Hastings considers the revelation that the government was keeping tabs on OWS to be the biggest news so far to come out of the latest dump.
The monitoring, or spying (depending on how generous one is feeling), process included DHS scouring OWS-related Twitter feeds.
“[DHS] was following all of the social networking activity that was going on among Occupy Wall Street,” says Hastings. “Now, I’m sure this is going to be spun tomorrow as this continues to grow that, oh, it’s just benign, DHS just used open source material to do this, and that’s true, but the question is: why is a large government bureaucracy who’s mandated to protect the homeland…monitoring very closely a peaceful political protest movement? They’re not monitoring the Democratic National Committee, they’re not monitoring Young Republican meetings. They’re monitoring Occupy Wall Street.”
The report emphasizes the need to “control protesters,” terminology Hastings finds troubling, along with DHS’s assertion that OWS will likely become more violent. Hastings calls that prediction “quite a leap,” as there is no evidence so far that the overwhelmingly peaceful movement is prone to become violent.
“[The report] names all the sort of groups [DHS is] worried about, one being Anonymous, this hacktivist group, but it also names the other people in Occupy Wall Street: labor unions, student groups,” Hastings says.
One might expect to read some hand-wringing over public safety concerns in a government document, and yet the DHS document appears to be more concerned with protecting the mechanisms of the financial sector than in ensuring the safety of citizens who are exercising their First Amendment rights.
“They talk about threats to ‘critical infrastructure’ and this fear that these protests are going to…make commerce difficult and people are going to start losing money. There is a kind of bottom line in analysis to what they’re talking about. There isn’t an emphasis on public safety in a way one would expect from a department that’s supposed to protect the homeland. It’s this sort of sense that they’re protecting somebody’s homeland, and they’re the folks who generally make all the money.”
This same business-over-people bias is present in the second major leak involving the Stratfor emails. “When you go look at the back-and-forth, it’s all about, well, we have to protect lower Manhattan so the bankers can get to work on time.”
Hastings talks about two troubling tracks: In the DHS case, the U.S. government monitoring activist groups, and in the Stratfor case, large corporations paying a private intelligence firm to monitor other activist groups.
Dow Chemicals had Stratfor analyze the activities of Bhopal activists such as the Yes Men, who famously pranked the company by impersonating a Dow Chemical executive and publicly apologizing on the BBC for the Bhopal disaster that killed 8,000 people.
The list of Stratfor’s corporate clients is an impressive one, including Dow Chemicals and Coca-Cola. Clients are willing to pay the firm $40,000 for a subscription to Stratfor’s services (and additional huge sums of money for more services,) because the company bills itself as a private CIA, privy to high-level intelligence access.
“You have the DOW Chemicals situation, you have Coca-Cola hiring Stratfor to go after animal rights activists, to sort of keep tabs on them, and then also the question is: why would Stratfor have this Department of Homeland Security document, right? And the answer to that is Stratfor’s clients, or clearly Stratfor saw a business opportunity in keeping track, and figuring out how to handle protesters. In fact, in the email record…they’re talking about different tactics in lower Manhattan about, well, the streets are narrow down there, so if they push the protesters this way, or that way, that’s a better way to catch them. They’re drilling down into the best ways to kind of protect the financial services who are some of their clients.”
On Jan. 26, 2011, Fred Burton, the vice president of Stratfor, fired off an excited email to his colleagues: “Text Not for Pub. We have a sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect.”
The question was: who did Burton mean by “we”?
“It’s like the Big Lebowski, right? The royal We,” says Hastings.
What Burton meant by “we” was the U.S. government.
“We know that the Department of Justice had been investigating Assange, and playing this game of oftentimes not explicitly saying what they were doing, but sort of threatening they would be doing this espionage investigation. We know that they’ve interviewed people in a grand jury, and then a few weeks ago with the Bradley Manning pre-trial that they were actually trying to make this espionage case against Assange,” says Hastings. “Burton claims that there in fact a secret U.S. indictment against Assange related, essentially, to espionage. That’s pretty big news.”
Hastings is braced for all of the typically condescending and dismissive remarks to come rolling in from the beltway in the wake of these latest leaks. In fact, the derision has already begun. One editor at The Atlantic called Wikileaks “a joke,” and dismissed the Stratfor emails out of hand.
Hastings expects others to say there’s no difference between a private intelligence firm and a newspaper or news bureau.
“I think that’s totally wrong. Journalists have sources and informants, but also our mission is to share that information with the public so the citizenry can make more informed decisions. Stratfor’s mission is to gather information so it can sell it to the highest bidder so corporations can essentially make more profit and get a competitive edge on their opponents,” he says.
That kind of knee-jerk dismissiveness strikes of bad journalism, according to Hastings. While no cheerleader for Wikileaks – during the interview, Hastings admitted there’s a lot of stuff one can criticize Wikileaks about, particularly the practice of releasing large amounts of data that hasn’t been reviewed very carefully – he still finds the overall work done by the group extremely newsworthy.
“What news organization has had a bigger impact than Wikileaks? Iraq war logs, Afghan war logs, the Cablegate. These are important stories. This is news. DHS was monitoring Occupy Wall Street. That’s a story, and it’s a significant story. We’re talking about Occupy Wall Street: one of the biggest grassroots, political movements that we’ve seen in a generation and the government’s response to that.”
One of the most worrying aspects to the Stratfor story is the privatizing of yet another typically goverment-only function. Like Blackwater, here is another shadowy private agency doing the work usually done by the U.S. government, a recipe, as we’ve learned time and time again, for unaccountability and disaster.
Also, Stratfor is ripe for the revolving door effect.
“It’s a chance for people who worked in government in these various intelligence agencies to, once they leave, to have lucrative positions where they’re able to — in the same way some politicians become lobbyists to ply off their old contacts — to have these great, well-paying positions where they can use their former intelligence contacts and sell their services in the corporate world,” says Hastings.
To naysayers claiming there’s nothing wrong with former government officials capitalizing on their particular skill sets, Hastings responds, “Once you start spying on activists, and peaceful protesters, then I would say that’s very troubling.”
Oldspeak:”A new report shows that despite a campaign pledge to get lobbyists out of Washington, the Obama White House has weakened regulation in favor of corporate interests more than the Bush administration. The report deals with issues that are of concern to every American; smog in our cities, collapsing mine shafts that kill workers in West Virginia, the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, salmonella in peanut paste, a whole variety of public health threats that agencies of the government were set up to avoid. Unfortunately, although we expected a bright new future with President Obama, he has disappointed us in this area to a large extent, inserting politics and pandering to special interests rather than letting science and technology reign.”-RENA STEINZOR. Yet another campaign promise gone unfulfilled. Sadly, due to the frightfully inept and unelectable presidential alternatives offered by Republicans, it’s not likely Obama will be held accountable to the long list of changes for the worse he’s presided over. Moral of the story? The Corporatocracy rules, no matter who you ‘vote’ for. More change I can’t believe in.
A new report shows that despite a campaign pledge to get lobbyists out of Washington, the Obama White House has weakened regulation in favor of corporate interests more than the Bush administration. The study, “Behind Closed Doors at the White House: How Politics Trumps Protection of Public Health, Worker Safety, and the Environment,” examines more than a thousand meetings that took place over a decade between lobbyists and a little known regulatory office, then checks to see how proposed rules were weakened to accommodate industry requests. It found the Obama White House changed rules 76 percent of the time, while Bush changed them just 64 percent of the time. EPArules were changed at a significantly higher rate — 84 percent. We speak to the report’s lead author, Rena Steinzor, professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and President of the Center for Progressive Reform.
AMY GOODMAN: As we end on a new report that shows despite President Obama’s campaign pledge to get lobbyists out of Washington, the White House has weakened regulation in favor of corporate interests even more than the Bush administration. The study examines more that 1,000 meetings that took place over a decade between lobbyists and a little known regulatory office, then checks to see how proposed rules were weakened to accommodate industry requests. It found the Obama White House changed rules 76% of the time while the Bush administration changed them just 64% of the time. EPA rules were changed a significantly higher rate, 84%.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Much of this is due to the man Obama appointed to the head of House of Information and Regulatory Affairs, through which all proposed regulation must pass. Cass Sunstein is know for his academic work on the risks of overregulation. Well, for more we’re joined from Washington, D.C. by Rena Steinzor, Professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and President of the Center for Progressive Reform. She’s the lead author of this exhaustive report, “Behind Closed Doors at the White House: How Politics Trumps Protection of Public Health, Worker Safety, and the Environment.” Rena, welcome to Democracy Now!. Can you talk about this report?
RENA STEINZOR: The report deals with issues that are familiar and of concern to every American; smog in our cities, collapsing mine shafts that kill workers in West Virginia, the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, salmonella in peanut paste, a whole variety of public health threats that agencies of the government were set up to avoid. Unfortunately, although we expected a bright new future with President Obama, he has disappointed us in this area to a large extent, inserting politics and pandering to special interests rather than letting science and technology reign.
AMY GOODMAN: Rena Steinzor, the issue of the smog regulations that so blindsided the Administrator of the EPA, Lisa Jackson.
RENA STEINZOR: Yes, Lisa Jackson, was—-when she was appointed there was tremendous relief and joy in the community of public health experts and environmentalists who watch EPA. And she immediately stepped in to try and get a lot of these rules, which were mandated by Congress, back on track and promised to repair the damage that was left by George W. Bush. But, this small office in the White House, which panders to special interests, stepped in and was the president’s point person, point agency to destroy her efforts to strengthen these protections. And anyone who lives in a major American city knows Code Red days when children are not allowed to play outside because the air pollution is so bad.
AMY GOODMAN: We have 15 seconds, if you can summarize what happened.
RENA STEINZOR: Really, it is remarkable that an effort to clean up smog in American cities should be killed by an office at the White House that caters to special interests.
AMY GOODMAN: Rena Steinzor, we will link to your report, Professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, President of The Center for Progressive Reform, lead author in this report, “Behind Closed Doors at the White House: How Politics Trumps Protection of Public Health, Worker Safety, and the Environment.”
Oldspeak: “WOW. You know it’s real when the financial arm of the Corporatocracy puts out a report that runs counter to the very corprocratic policies which have created the rampant inequality and crushing debt contagion that has gripped the planet. “This month, International Monetary Fund economists demonstrated that higher income inequality in developed countries is associated with higher domestic and foreign indebtedness. Leading economists agree that rampant inequality leads to unstable economies and depressions, and makes the middle and lower classes poorer.” Shocker. Turns out, it’s not entitlement programs, public employees’ pensions, and non-military spending that drives debt. It’s inequality, poverty, and debt creation. Could this report signal dissention in the ranks? Very little discussion of this corportate media.”
This month, International Monetary Fund economists demonstrated that “higher income inequality in developed countries is associated with higher domestic and foreign indebtedness”:
We find (see Chart 1) thatwhat unites the experiences of the main deficit countries is a steep increase in income inequality over recent decades, as measured by the share of income going to the richest 5 percent of the country’s income distribution.
This increase in inequality has contributed to a deterioration in the richest countries’ aggregate savings-investment balances, as the poor and middle class borrowed from the rich and from foreign lenders. This, along with the other factors mentioned above, can fuel current account deficits.
The increase in debt happens over the decades of below-trend incomes that result from the persistent shock. In an open economy, the task of financing the bottom group’s borrowing demand following a negative income shock is shared between the domestic top group and foreigners. This enables the top group to deploy more of its higher income in domestic plant and machinery investment and consumption than would be possible in a closed economy. But externally the result is a deterioration of the current account, which peaks at more than 1 percent of GDP.
In reality, increases in income inequality are often followed by political interventions to prop up the living standards of the bottom group, whose real income is stagnating. This is generally done not by directly confronting the sources of inequality, such as declines in the collective bargaining power of the bottom group or shifts in the tax burden from the top group to the bottom group, but rather by promoting policies that cut the cost of borrowing for both individuals and financial institutions (Rajan, 2010). These policies include domestic and international financial liberalization, and they put additional downward pressure on current accounts.
As shown in the simulations in Chart 2 (solid line), a reduction in financial intermediation spreads leads to much lower lending rates, which draw more of the top group’s resources into financial rather than real assets. Initially this allows the bottom group to maintain a much higher consumption level. But in the long run it means the top group underinvests in real assets such as plants and machinery, and so the bottom group sees lower real wages over time. At the same time, debt-to-income ratios rise more strongly, as do current account deficits.
If lending is liberalized without addressing the underlying income inequalities, the result would simply be an increase in indebtedness within surplus countries (between the rich and the rest of the population), rather than vis-à-vis the rest of the world. In other words, there would be a globalized rather than a regional increase in domestic indebtedness of the poor and middle class. While this would reduce cross-border financial imbalances, it would exacerbate domestic debt-to-income ratios and thus vulnerability to crises. In the long run, there is therefore simply no way to avoid addressing the income inequality problem head-on. Financial liberalization in surplus countries buys time, but at the expense of an eventually much larger debt problem.
Conservatives and Liberals Agree: Government Should Not Worsen Inequality
Conservatives tend to be much more worried about debt than liberals. Given the fact that – as shown above – runaway inequality fuels debt, conservatives should be against policies that make inequality even worse. As I noted in July: