Feds Set to Open Fracking Floodgates in California Based on One Flawed Study

Reprinted from Common Dreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Report raises grave concerns about fracking pollution’s threat to state’s air and water, say opponents, and also highlights fact that government officials have never collected the data needed to determine extent of danger and future destruction

(Image: Global Exchange)

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has put the ecosystems, water resources, and residents of California at urgent risk, expert critics are warning, by accepting a failed scientific review of the dangers of fracking in the state as a basis to begin issuing permits for the controversial gas drilling technique as soon as next year.

The BLM-commissioned study was conducted by the California Council on Science and Technology and came in response to a lawsuit brought by two environmental groups—the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club—who objected to the leasing of public land in California to oil and gas companies for the drilling process also known as hydraulic fracturing—which injects water, sand, and chemicals deep into the earth to release fossil fuel deposits trapped in shale formations. A federal judge ordered the study in 2013 after ruling that the BLM had violated state law by issuing oil leases in Monterey County, Calif., without considering fracking’s environmental risks.

The findings of the report, according to the BLM, conclude that no serious dangers were found and signaled that fracking licenses could be issued on federal lands for drilling in 2015. Jim Kenna, the BLM’s California state director, told reporters on a media call that the report would allow state regulators to authorized fracking while also monitoring for safety, environmental impacts, and health concerns.

But as the Los Angeles Times points out, even the independent research organization that conducted the survey on which the decision was based says the study had severe shortcomings and lacked key metrics.

[The report] authors noted that they had little time and scant information on which to base conclusions, citing widespread “data gaps” and inadequate scientific resources for a more thorough study.

For example, the report found no evidence of water contamination from fracking in California, but the scientist directing the research, Jane Long, said researchers also had no data on the quality of water near fracking sites.

“We can only tell you what the data we could get says,” said Long, a former director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “We can’t tell you what we don’t know.”

Environmental groups say the flaws of report are glaring—demonstrating a rushed process and an inadequate survey of data—and slammed the BLM for indicating that fracking leases would be approved based on such flimsy and inconclusive evidence.

“This report raises grave concerns about fracking pollution’s threat to California’s air and water, but it also highlights the fact that government officials have never collected the data needed to determine the extent of the damage in our state,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “A few months of incomplete data simply can’t support a federal decision to resume selling off our public lands in California to oil companies. Using this report as a basis for continued fracking in California is illogical and illegal.”

The poverty of the report would not be so bad, according to Siegel, if the coming decisions based on its findings were not so profound.

“How can we count on a fair and unbiased process for evaluating the decision to resume leasing when the head of California BLM has predetermined the outcome?” she asked. “First we get the verdict, and then we get the trial.”

According to a review of the study by the San Francisco Chronicle, fracking in California may well, in fact, “endanger groundwater” in the state. The newspaper reports:

The report found that half of the oil wells fracked in the state lie within 2,000 feet of the surface, close to aquifers. Hydraulic fracturing uses a high-pressure blend of water, sand and chemicals to crack rocks containing oil or natural gas. Those cracks can sometimes extend as far up as 1,969 feet – not far from the surface.

Fracking chemicals, some of them toxic, could migrate along the cracks and leach into drinking water, according to the report. There are no recorded cases of that happening in California, the authors note, but it remains a possibility needing further study.

“In California, hydraulic fracturing is occurring at relatively shallow depths and presents an inherent risk for fractures to intersect nearby aquifers,” reads the report, from the California Council on Science and Technology.

Water wells in Kern County, where most of California’s fracking takes place, lie 600 feet to 800 feet below the surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In its analysis, the Center for Biological Diversity listed the federal review’s most disturbing conclusions:

  • Fracking in California happens at much shallower levels than elsewhere, and the report notes that, “Hydraulic fracturing at shallow depths poses a greater potential risk to water resources because of its proximity to groundwater and the potential for fractures to intersect nearby aquifers.”
  • The study notes that investigators “could not determine the groundwater quality near many hydraulic fracturing operations and found that existing data was insufficient to evaluate the extent to which contamination may have occurred.”
  • Some fracking chemicals used in California are “acutely toxic to mammals,” the report says, while also noting that “No information could be found about the toxicity of about a third of the chemicals and few of the chemicals have been evaluated to see if animals or plants would be harmed by chronic exposure.”
  • The report says that “Current practice and testing requirements do not necessarily protect against adding produced water contaminated with hydraulic fracturing fluid to water used in agriculture.”

The Twin Plagues of ISIS and Ebola

Reprinted from Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) under a Creative Commons License

The Plague

isis-ebola-plague

In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus describes how death comes to an ugly French port in Algeria.

 

Thanks to an infestation of rats and the fleas they carry, the bubonic plague descends upon the city in the spring and intensifies during the hot summer. After a short period of denial, the residents panic, then sink into despondency and alcoholism. The port is put under quarantine. Undeterred by the apathy of the population and the danger of exposure, a small number of courageous individuals mobilize to fight the epidemic and eventually beat back the invader.

Camus took great care to detail the symptoms of the disease. But for all his medical exactitude, the French writer was not primarily interested in epidemiology. His inspiration was a different kind of infection. The novel is set some time in the 1940s. The plague is Nazism, and those who fight the disease stand in for the heroes of the French Resistance. It is a supremely apt allegory, for did not the Nazis claim that their victims were vermin? Camus surely must have enjoyed reincarnating the German fascists as the lowest of the low: bloodsucking fleas and desperate rats.

The twin plagues of Nazism and bubonic plague, except for some isolated cases, are behind us. But now it seems that a different pair of plagues is in our midst.

Today’s headlines are filled with similar stories of the spread of death and destruction in the Middle East and Africa. American commentators worry that these plagues will burst their borders and somehow spread to these shores. And, as in Camus’s novel, these diseases point to something larger, not the imposition of a new malignant system but the breakdown of the existing order.

In West Africa, the plague is Ebola, a terrifying fever that ends in massive hemorrhaging. The mortality rate, if untreated, is as high as bubonic plague. But at least with the modern version of the Black Death, treatment brings the mortality rate down to 15 percent. Ebola, by contrast, resists treatment. There are no vaccines for this hemorrhagic fever—though there’s promising news out of Canada—and the few treatments that have been used remain highly experimental. Doctors and officials establish quarantines and hope the disease will burn itself out. With airlines shutting down service to the infected region, hampering efforts to deliver medical supplies, the disease continues to rage on.

Ebola has so far claimed around 1,500 lives. This is terrible, of course, but it pales in comparison to how many children succumb to diarrhea in Africa. According to a 2010 report, 2,000 African children die every day of a disease that can be prevented through relatively cheap methods: safe water and hygiene. But diarrhea is not a communicable disease in the same sense as the plague or Ebola. And no one in the United States worries that a summit of African leaders or the repatriation of infected patients will spread an epidemic of diarrhea stateside. Ebola monopolizes the headlines because what grabs attention is fear (along with the usual colonial images of Africans as dirty and irresponsible).

The panic is, of course, more acute in the areas hardest hit by Ebola. Consider the case of Kandeh Kamara, a brave 21-year-old who volunteered to help fight the disease in Sierra Leone. He was promptly drafted to become a “burial boy” responsible for dealing with the corpses of the infected. “In doing their jobs, the burial boys have been cast out of their communities because of fear that they will bring the virus home with them,” writes Adam Nossiter and Ben Solomon in apowerful piece in The New York Times. Talk about thankless tasks. Kandeh Kamara initially received no payment for his work and had to beg for food on the street. He now gets $6 a day and hopes to rent an apartment, though landlords often refuse to lease to the burial boys.

Ebola is bad news, but it hasn’t generated the same kind of fury as that other fast-spreading scourge, namely the Islamic State (IS). The recent beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley has ratcheted up the outrage of U.S. observers.

It’s certainly not the first beheading that IS has done. The group specializes inmeting out barbarous punishments—decapitation, crucifixion, amputations. But just as Ebola’s impact became real for Americans when it infected people “like us”—two U.S. missionaries in Liberia—the United States was prompted to act against IS when it began killing non-Muslims, first the stranded Yazidis and then the abducted journalist.

IS has spread quickly, and so has the panic that has accompanied its territorial acquisition. There have been the inevitable analogies to Nazism. But even those who don’t invoke Hitler are quick to use Manichean language to describe the IS challenge.

“We can see evil through the eye slits of the ski mask worn by Foley’s killer,” writes David Ignatius in a Washington Post commentary entitled The New Battle Against Evil. “But stopping that evil is a harder task.”

The IS killers are a nasty piece of work, and their ideology is thoroughly malign. But I hesitate to use the language of good and evil. Such moralistic terminology presumes that they, the beheaders, are a Satanic force that can only be exorcised with whatever version of holy water our angelic forces dispense—air strikes, boots on the ground, military aid to the Kurdish peshmerga, efforts in the community to dissuade angry young men from taking the next flight to Mosul.

We, on the other hand, are good. We would never behead anyone. Those we execute “deserve” their punishment (though the occasional innocent person might inadvertently fall through the cracks). And the civilian casualties from our military offensives, because we are by definition good, are simply mistakes. After all, we don’t publicly celebrate the deaths of Afghan civilians from our drone strikes (45 in 2013 alone) or the deaths of over 400 children in Gaza. But our protestations of innocence are little consolation to the families of the victims.

At what point do mistakes aggregate into something evil? At the very least, do they prevent us from claiming the mantle of good? And, of course, it’s not just the mistakes that are problematic but also the deliberate policies that, for instance, align Washington with dictators and other murderous actors. U.S. disgust with IS may already have prompted intelligence sharing with the regime in Damascus, though the Obama administration has denied such deals.

Camus had some choice words for those who are reluctant to call evil by its name. “Our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences,” he wrote in The Plague. “A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.”

Humanists perhaps disbelieve in pestilences. “I used to not believe in evil,” confesses Richard Cohen this week in Washington Post column declaring a “return of evil” with ISIS. Once a liberal humanist, Cohen long ago remade himself into a liberal hawk.

I still consider myself a humanist. But my brand of humanism sees pestilence everywhere. Indeed, I tend to see pestilence not only in the acts of individuals but in the structures within which the plague takes root and spreads. And this is where the two plagues intersect, Ebola and IS. They both prosper where the immune system is weak.

When it comes to medical infrastructure, Africa definitely has a compromised immune system. The continent has been hit hard by HIV/AIDS (70 percent of those living with HIV are in Africa), cholera (major outbreaks took place recently in Senegal, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone), and malaria (an African child dies every minute from this disease). Ebola has spread rapidly because of critical shortages in medical staff and supplies.

But the deeper reason is environmental: the clear-cutting of forests that have served as a traditional barrier to pathogens. West Africa has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world, losing nearly a million hectares a year. The forests are Africa’s natural defenses, and Ebola is a sign that these defenses have been fatally weakened. What used to stay in remote villages now spreads quickly to urban areas.

The recent victories of IS in Syria and Iraq, meanwhile, suggest not a breakdown in the environmental system but in the political one. IS is not simply a band of serial killers. They have a distinct ideology and set of political motives. Nor does it matter whether they are operating in a formally dictatorial or democratic environment. IS thrives both where Assad rules with an iron fist and where Saddam is long gone.

The common denominator is chaos. IS has ruthlessly expanded in the grey areas beyond the reach of the rule of law. In Syria, it has prospered in regions that already broke loose from the country during the uprising. In Iraq, it took advantage of a paralyzing conflict between Shi’a and Sunni that left the northern reaches of the country tenuously connected to the central government.

Local governance, whether it’s democratic or authoritarian, serves the same function as the forests of West Africa. Such governance holds society together. When it deteriorates, the very cellular structure breaks down. In Ebola, the cell walls fray and the patient bleeds out. With a virus like IS, the fibers of the social fabric fray and large sections of the country bleed out.

There are, of course, many differences between a pestilence like Ebola and a movement like IS. But they are both the result of systemic breakdown. They are opportunistic infections.

In both cases there are no magic pills. Even if we come up with an antidote to this version of Ebola, as long as we continue to cut down the forests of Africa, more potent versions will continue to appear and spread. And if we attempt to obliterate IS only with bombs or boots on the ground, it will simply pop up somewhere else where the conditions favor such desperate efforts to create a totalitarian order. Instead we should focus on the conditions that give rise to these phenomena—and our role in helping to perpetuate these conditions.

Camus recommended vigilance. Pestilence, he concluded, “bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves and…perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” The current plagues have certainly been a bane. Whether they also help to enlighten us remains to be seen.


John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

Maureen O’Hara

By Don Pelton

As a pre-teen pre-pubescent sprite I was in love with actress Maureen O’Hara. It’s still a mystery to me. Maybe due to the effect of movies in the 1940s, I was in love with lots of things in movie theaters, including the tall brunette usherette at the Saturday matinee, and the Abba Zaba bars sold at the candy counter (oh man, peanut butter and taffy!).

It was probably the same mystery that impelled me to love the movie, “The Quiet Man,” with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. I particularly loved the scene where Wayne drags O’Hara by her hair across the beautiful Irish countryside.

The whole fantasy burst for good years later when I eagerly showed my new bride (a mostly Irish lass herself!) this most wonderful of all movies and she laughed and mocked the absurdity of the crucial hair-dragging scene!

Losing that fantasy was all for the good, but now, more than sixty years later, I still feel the faint tug of … Maureen O’Hara.

Screen Siren Maureen O’Hara to Receive an Honorary Oscar

Maureen_Ohara

“How Social Media Silences Debate”

According to a new report by Pew Research Center and Rutgers University, social media are not quite the force for progressive change that many of us would wish. It’s perhaps not too surprising after all that, once again, the Internet simply amplifies many of the strongest qualities already dominant in human nature.

The Internet might be a useful tool for activists and organizers, in episodes from the Arab Spring to the Ice Bucket Challenge. But over all, it has diminished rather than enhanced political participation, according to new data.

Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, has the effect of tamping down diversity of opinion and stifling debate about public affairs. It makes people less likely to voice opinions, particularly when they think their views differ from those of their friends, according to a report published Tuesday by researchers at Pew Research Center and Rutgers University.

The researchers also found that those who use social media regularly are more reluctant to express dissenting views in the offline world.

The Internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarization of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different. Internet companies magnify the effect, by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to us.

Read the full article here:
How Social Media Silences Debate

“We’re in a golden age of investigative journalism”

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com

The Fall and Rise of Investigative Journalism

From Asia to Africa to Latin America, Muckrakers Have Corrupt Officials and Corporate Cronies on the Run

By Anya Schiffrin

In our world, the news about the news is often grim. Newspapers are shrinking,folding up, or being cut loose by their parent companies. Layoffs are up and staffsare down. That investigative reporter who covered the state capitol — she’s not there anymore. Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune have suffered from multiple rounds of layoffs over the years. You know the story and it would be easy enough to imagine that it was the world’s story as well. But despite a long run of journalistic tough times, the loss of advertising dollars, and the challenge of the Internet, there’s been a blossoming of investigative journalism across the globe from Honduras to Myanmar, New Zealand to Indonesia.

Woodward and Bernstein may be a fading memory in this country, but journalists with names largely unknown in the U.S. like Khadija Ismayilova, Rafael Marques, and Gianina Segnina are breaking one blockbuster story after another, exposing corrupt government officials and their crony corporate pals in Azerbaijan, Angola, and Costa Rica. As I travel the world, I’m energized by the journalists I meet who are taking great risks to shine much needed light on shadowy wrongdoing.

And I’m not the only one to notice.  “We are in a golden age of investigative journalism,” says Sheila Coronel.  And she should know.  Now the academic dean at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Coronel was the director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, whose coverage of the real estate holdings of former President Joseph Estrada — including identical houses built for his mistresses — contributed to his removal from office in 2001.

These are, to take another example, the halcyon days for watchdog journalism in Brazil.  Last October, I went to a conference of investigative journalists there organized by the Global Journalism Investigative Network.  There were 1,350 attendees. In July, I was back for another conference, this time organized by the Association of Brazilian Investigative Journalists and attended by close to 450 reporters.  Thanks in part to Brazil’s Freedom of Information Act and the “open budget” movement that seeks to shed light on the government’s finances (and let people have a say in how their tax dollars are spent), journalists there have been busy exposing widespread corruption in local government as well as a cash-for-votes scheme that resulted in the arrest of nine senior politicians.

Cross-border news networks funded by foundations and philanthropists are carrying out similar investigations all over the world.  Based in New York and edited by a Nigerian, Omoyele Sowore, Sahara Reporters uses leaked stories and documents to expose corruption in Africa’s richest country. Its funders include the Omidyar Network, created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, and its stated goal is nothing less than “seeking the truth and publishing it without fear or favor.”

A group of students and I studied Sahara Reporters earlier this year.  In our report, we described one typical story that outlet broke which detailed how then-Minister of Aviation Stella Oduah purchased two bulletproof BMWs — at nearly double the normal price — with funds from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).  Sahara Reporters posted receipts of the purchases and documents linking Oduah to the scheme.  It also located sources who testified that the whereabouts of the cars were unknown and that they were suspected of being employed for Oduah’s private use.  Meanwhile, Sahara Reporters exposed the budgetary constraints the NCAA was operating under and linked these to several air mishaps, including two crashes resulting in the deaths of 140 people.

Oduah, who was already under fire for the NCAA’s poor performance, initially denied the accusations. Within days, however, numerous news outlets had picked up the story and run with it. The reports triggered a series of reactions from the government, opposing political parties, civil society organizations, and the Nigerian public. Earlier this year, Oduah was fired.

Honorable Mentions

In recent years, I’ve been a judge for the human rights reporting awards given out by the Overseas Press Club in New York. You should see the staggering pile of entries.  It takes days to read through them all. Our major “problem”: an overabundance of top-notch reporting we’re unable to acknowledge with prizes. (Happily, some of them received prizes anyway, just not from us).

Among the remarkable pieces we read but didn’t give the human rights prize to was an Associated Press series on the effects of narco-violence on ordinary people in Honduras.  It laid out the way they have been forced to flee their villages or vacate neighborhoods block by block as drug dealers moved in and took over their homes. The series described how some homeowners stopped painting their houses or mowing their lawns lest they appeal to drug lords who might seize them. People were even being shaken down by gangs that left notes demanding payments if they wanted to be allowed to stay in their houses.

At the same time, the government was sowing misery of its own.  As part of the series, Alberto Arce wrote about a 15-year-old boy — the son of a college professor — who went out one night to meet a girl he had friended on Facebook only to be killed at a government roadblock by trigger-happy soldiers.

This year, when the press started to cover theflood of children from Central America crossing the U.S. border, I thought back to that series and how well it explained the kinds of desperate conditions that can lead to mass migration.

Similarly unforgettable was the reporting of Cam Simpson at Bloomberg Businessweek about the workers behind Apple’s iPhone 5.  Migrants from Nepal, they fell into debt paying middlemen for jobs assembling that smartphone in factories in Malaysia. After Apple started rejecting the phones, production was cut back and some 1,300 workers were left to fend for themselves for months without food or pay. Since their passports had been taken from them, they were unable to leave the country and essentially confined to a hostel, trying to scrape together a bit of rice each day. Finally, in despair, they began rioting and the Malaysian police were called in. Their response will seem odd indeed to anyone reading recent reports from Ferguson, Missouri.  Instead of arresting the workers, the police had food delivered and went to work to get the Nepalese sent home. (Still broke, many of them are likely to go further into debt to again pay brokers to secure overseas jobs that may land them in similarly dire straits.)

A third striking piece of global reportage was E. Benjamin Skinner’s “The Fishing Industry’s Cruelest Catch.”  It focused on the conditions Indonesian migrant workers encounter fishing in the waters off New Zealand, for New Zealand companies, aboard Korean boats.  A report by academic researchers Christina Stringer and Glenn Simmons, in collaboration with deep sea fishing skipper Daren Coulston, prompted Skinner, a journalist specializing in slavery, to spend six months in several different countries checking out their allegations.

The result was a gripping story of modern day slavery. Indigent Indonesian villagers were, he reported, misled into accepting contracts on vessels that ply the Southern Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea searching for fish to be sold to giant American chains like Safeway, Walmart, and Whole Foods. Many of the Indonesians thought they were signing on to first world labor conditions on modern New Zealand-owned vessels.  Once aboard, however, they found themselves virtual prisoners, forced to work long hours for substandard food and beaten or sometimes sexually assaulted when they tried to resist.

After various deductions were taken from their paychecks, the workers, promised $12 an hour, ended up getting only about a dollar an hour. Not only was Skinner’s story well-written and well-reported, but within months of its appearance, New Zealand had moved to change its laws and Safeway, Whole Foods, and Walmart began investigating their supply chains.

The Future of Global Muckraking

When I began researching my new book, Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World, I assumed that the good old days of investigative reporting were in the past. It was a surprise to learn just how much high quality work is still being done around the planet. The amount of data now available online, the ability of journalists to use the Internet to connect to one another and share information — a major aid in cross-border reporting — and a wave of new philanthropy have all helped fuel the current boom.  In addition, fresh news operations of every sort seem to be popping up, eager to promote investigative reporting.

I thought I was well versed in innovative twenty-first century methods of news funding when I headed into this project, but I continue to stumble upon exciting experiments.  For example, Morry Schwarz, a book publisher and property developer from Melbourne, Australia, funds weekly, monthly, and quarterly publications devoted to long-form writing on serious issues of the day, while also running the publishing house Black Inc.  Australian philanthropist Graeme Wood, with money he made from an online business, founded the Global Mail, a nonprofit website that was similarly aimed at promoting long-form journalism.  He also underwrites cross-border investigations via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. In Brazil, João Moreira Salles, scion of a prominent family enmeshed in the banking sector, has used his money to found a monthly magazine,Piauí, whose recent issue included an investigative piece about indigenous opposition to Belo Monte, a hydroelectric plant under construction in Altamira in the Amazon region.

Moves toward democracy in many countries, along with the Arab Spring (however shortcircuited it was) have also unshackled the global press in a variety of ways. Compared to five, 10, or 20 years ago, Myanmar, Ghana, and Tunisia, to take just three examples from many, have far freer — sometimes remarkably freewheeling — media atmospheres. And what’s happening in countries like those has had a knock-on effect on nearby states.

Of course, there are also democratically elected governments in countries like Turkey, Ecuador, and Hungary that have been clamping down on free speech.  And from Syria to Ferguson, Missouri, many locales remain dangerous for journalists.  On balance, however, the press is ever less under the thumb of government, a situation that only encourages investigative reporting.  To take two examples where the press has become at least marginally harder to control thanks to social media, the Internet, and some brave (or nervy) independent-minded journalists, consider China and Vietnam, where once utterly closed media scenes are slowly being pried open.

The mass layoffs of older journalists around the world has had one benefit: there are plenty of experienced hands ready to train the next generation and provide institutional memory at innovative ventures. Some of these oldtimers, who aren’t busy teaching (or taking public relations jobs — but that’s a story for another time), are busy founding and running nonprofits dedicated to doing hard-driving, investigative reporting. These include: 100 ReportersGlobal Journalism Investigative NetworkForum for African Investigative ReportersInvestigative Reporters and EditorsInvestigative News NetworkSCOOP, and theInternational  Consortium of Investigative Journalists. All of these organizations are benefitting from experienced editors and reporters downsized from traditional media outlets and committed to helping the next generation — and learning from them, too.

No one can say how this wave of new reporting will continue to be funded in the future, nor can I promise to be as cheery a decade from now as I am today about investigative journalism’s prospects.  Already some donors are putting in place stipulations that might constrain future reporting — like requiring publications to meet benchmarks offering proof of a story’s impact. Still, if the history of investigative reporting in the United States has taught us anything, it’s that outlets come and go, but the legacy of great investigative reporting, the tradition that inspires future generations of crusading journalists, endures.

It can take years for investigative journalism to make a difference and, in the past, many of the most important outlets didn’t make money and disappeared. They were sometimes run by passionate crusaders who seized the moment, wrote the stories, and then moved on.  Everybody’s Magazine folded long ago, but Upton Sinclair’s takedown of the scandalous Beef Trust, specifically Armour and Co., in 1908 opened American eyes to the way meat was produced in this country. Who remembers In Fact? But George Seldes’s prescient 1941 exposé of the dangers of cigarettes in the pages of that now-defunct publication has stood the test of time.  And while McClure’sI.F. Stone’s Weekly, and Ramparts may be increasingly distant memories, the effects of their investigative work ripple all the way to the present.

And this isn’t peculiar to the United States.

Young journalists on their way up are being trained in a craft that, history tells us, will outlast the death of any particular publication. Ory Okolloh of the Omidyar Network regularly makes this point. She notes that after the pioneering Nigerian newspaper Next234 went out of business, its reporters and editors simply moved on to other media outlets in Africa, where they are breaking important stories and training the next generation of reporters.

For investigative reporting, injustice is the gift that just keeps giving.  While so much of the business side of journalism remains in flux, fine reporters with an investigative urge are finding ways to shine much needed light into the parts of our global lives that the powerful would rather keep in the shadows.  These may be tough times, lean times, difficult times, but don’t be fooled: they’re also boom times.  There can be no question that, if you’re a reader with access to the Internet, you’re living in a new golden age of investigative journalism.


Anya Schiffrin is the director of the media and communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs.  She teaches courses on media innovation and writes on journalism and development as well as the media in Africa. Schiffrin spent 10 years working overseas as a journalist in Europe and Asia and is on the advisory boards of the Open Society Foundation’s Program on Independent Journalism and of the Revenue Watch Institute.  Her most recent book is Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Reporting from Around the World (New Press 2014). Thanks to Hawley Johnson, Jillian Hausman, and Angela Pimenta for their research for this piece.  

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Anya Schiffrin

 

“A Great Leader Doesn’t Just Occupy The Middle Ground”

Here are some tough words about the Obama presidency from Cornell West, who argues persuasively that the fetish for the middle ground in politics often makes for poor leadership.

In the interview Thomas Frank asks West, “What on earth ails the man? Why can’t he fight the Republicans? Why does he need to seek a grand bargain?”

West replies:

“I think Obama, his modus operandi going all the way back to when he was head of the [Harvard] Law Review, first editor of the Law Review and didn’t have a piece in the Law Review. He was chosen because he always occupied the middle ground. He doesn’t realize that a great leader, a statesperson, doesn’t just occupy middle ground. They occupy higher ground or the moral ground or even sometimes the holy ground. But the middle ground is not the place to go if you’re going to show courage and vision. And I think that’s his modus operandi. He always moves to the middle ground. It turned out that historically, this was not a moment for a middle-ground politician. We needed a high-ground statesperson and it’s clear now he’s not the one.”

West also says:

“He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair. And that’s a very sad moment in the history of the nation because we are—we’re an empire in decline. Our culture is in increasing decay. Our school systems are in deep trouble. Our political system is dysfunctional. Our leaders are more and more bought off with legalized bribery and normalized corruption in Congress and too much of our civil life. You would think that we needed somebody—a Lincoln-like figure who could revive some democratic spirit and democratic possibility.”

Read the full interview here:

Cornel West: “He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency”

Youth, Age and Routine

By Don Pelton

One big difference between youth and old age that I’m noticing is my relationship to routine. When I was young I hated routine. I thought it was a trap. Hitchhiking to New York and running out of money was exhilarating in part because it was the total negation of routine.

Now that I’m old and approaching elderly, I enjoy all the little moments that make up my daily routine: getting up and biking on our stationary bikes for 30 minutes, doing some upper body exercises with our TRX straps, cleaning the kitchen, brewing the daily coffee for our afternoon chilled coffee, taking out the trash, feeding the mulch to the garden worms, refilling the bird baths, sweeping the leaves from the deck. Just being here. Now.

There’s a sort of reassurance to all this order that was of no use to me whatsoever when I was young.

When I was young I could find novelty only in grand adventures and dreams of grand adventures.

Now that I’m older and have (I hope) a larger perspective, I see that it’s entirely novel that I exist at all, novel that I continue wake up every day.

Gratitude is something that happens all the time now, not something that happens only on grand occasions.

Speaking possibly only for myself, it seems that in youth the heroic journeys are more outward (in the world) but in old age the journeys are more inward (in the imagination)

Either way, the journey continues …

Heros_Journey

Park in Nevada County DA’s Parking Lot on the Weekend When His Office is Closed and Your Car Will Be Towed

By Don Pelton

After spending about ten minutes this morning searching for a parking space within easy walking distance of the Grower’s Market in Nevada City, we finally lucked out and found a metered space on North Pine near Broad Street, about a block from the market. As we walked down Commercial Street past Three Forks Bakery and Brewing Company we noticed this sign posted at both entrances to the mostly empty parking lot next to the DA’s office:

No Parking in Empty Lot on Saturdays

Sign at entrance to DA’s empty lot on Saturday

Whatever brilliant logic is behind this arrangement is apparently not unique. We have encountered essentially the same situation at the parking lot across the street from the Del Oro and at the BofA parking lot in downtown Grass Valley on Sundays.

The curious thing about the sign above is that it seems to imply that anyone parking in that lot who is attending the grower’s market will somehow be an obstacle to the potential customer traffic for Three Forks. Apparently no one has considered the possibility that anyone who parks in that lot for any reason is a potential customer of  Three Forks. The business inside Three Forks this morning about 10:30 AM was fair (about a half dozen customers) but it could arguably have been better if the parking lot were full and busy with traffic (potential customers) coming in and out.

I don’t know what to say about the DA. What’s his stake in this lot on Saturday, since his office hours are M-F 8AM – 5PM?

To Terrify and Occupy: The Militarization of America’s Police

Reprinted from TomDispatch.com

How the Excessive Militarization of the Police is Turning Cops Into Counterinsurgents 

By Matthew Harwood

Jason Westcott was afraid.

One night last fall, he discovered via Facebook that a friend of a friend was planning with some co-conspirators to break in to his home. They were intent on stealing Wescott’s handgun and a couple of TV sets. According to the Facebook message, the suspect was planning on “burning” Westcott, who promptly called the Tampa Bay police and reported the plot.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, the investigating officers responding to Westcott’s call had a simple message for him: “If anyone breaks into this house, grab your gun and shoot to kill.”

Around 7:30 pm on May 27th, the intruders arrived. Westcott followed the officers’ advice, grabbed his gun to defend his home, and died pointing it at the intruders.  They used a semiautomatic shotgun and handgun to shoot down the 29-year-old motorcycle mechanic.  He was hit three times, once in the arm and twice in his side, and pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.

The intruders, however, weren’t small-time crooks looking to make a small score. Rather they were members of the Tampa Bay Police Department’s SWAT team, which was executing a search warrant on suspicion that Westcott and his partner were marijuana dealers. They had been tipped off by a confidential informant, whom they drove to Westcott’s home four times between February and May to purchase small amounts of marijuana, at $20-$60 a pop. The informer notified police that he saw two handguns in the home, which was why the Tampa Bay police deployed a SWAT team to execute the search warrant.

In the end, the same police department that told Westcott to protect his home with defensive force killed him when he did. After searching his small rental, the cops indeed found weed, two dollars’ worth, and one legal handgun — the one he was clutching when the bullets ripped into him.

Welcome to a new era of American policing, where cops increasingly see themselves as soldiers occupying enemy territory, often with the help of Uncle Sam’s armory, and where even nonviolent crimes are met with overwhelming force and brutality.

The War on Your Doorstep

The cancer of militarized policing has long been metastasizing in the body politic.  It has been growing ever stronger since the first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were born in the 1960s in response to that decade’s turbulent mix of riots, disturbances, and senseless violence like Charles Whitman’s infamous clock-tower rampage in Austin, Texas.

While SWAT isn’t the only indicator that the militarization of American policing is increasing, it is the most recognizable. The proliferation of SWAT teams across the country and their paramilitary tactics have spread a violent form of policing designed for the extraordinary but in these years made ordinary. When the concept of SWAT arose out of the Philadelphia and Los Angeles Police Departments, it was quickly picked up by big city police officials nationwide.  Initially, however, it was an elite force reserved for uniquely dangerous incidents, such as active shooters, hostage situations, or large-scale disturbances.

Nearly a half-century later, that’s no longer true.

In 1984, according to Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop, about 26% of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had SWAT teams. By 2005, that number had soared to 80% and it’s still rising, though SWAT statistics are notoriously hard to come by.

As the number of SWAT teams has grown nationwide, so have the raids. Every year now, there are approximately 50,000 SWAT raids in the United States, according to Professor Pete Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies. In other words, roughly 137 times a day a SWAT team assaults a home and plunges its inhabitants and the surrounding community into terror.

Upping the Racial Profiling Ante

In a recently released report, “War Comes Home,” the American Civil Liberties Union (my employer) discovered that nearly 80% of all SWAT raids it reviewed between 2011 and 2012 were deployed to execute a search warrant.

Pause here a moment and consider that these violent home invasions are routinely used against people who are only suspected of a crime. Up-armored paramilitary teams now regularly bash down doors in search of evidence of a possible crime. In other words, police departments increasingly choose a tactic that often results in injury and property damage as its first option, not the one of last resort. In more than 60% of the raids the ACLU investigated, SWAT members rammed down doors in search of possible drugs, not to save a hostage, respond to a barricade situation, or neutralize an active shooter.

On the other side of that broken-down door, more often than not, are blacks and Latinos. When the ACLU could identify the race of the person or people whose home was being broken into, 68% of the SWAT raids against minorities were for the purpose of executing a warrant in search of drugs. When it came to whites, that figure dropped to 38%, despite the well-known fact that blacks, whites, and Latinos all use drugs at roughly the same rates. SWAT teams, it seems, have a disturbing record of disproportionately applying their specialized skill set within communities of color.

Think of this as racial profiling on steroids in which the humiliation of stop and frisk is raised to a terrifying new level.

Everyday Militarization

Don’t think, however, that the military mentality and equipment associated with SWAT operations are confined to those elite units. Increasingly, they’re permeating all forms of policing.

As Karl Bickel, a senior policy analyst with the Justice Department’s Community Policing Services office, observes, police across America are being trained in a way that emphasizes force and aggression. He notes that recruit training favors a stress-based regimen that’s modeled on military boot camp rather than on the more relaxed academic setting a minority of police departments still employ. The result, he suggests, is young officers who believe policing is about kicking ass rather than working with the community to make neighborhoods safer. Or as comedian Bill Maherreminded officers recently: “The words on your car, ‘protect and serve,’ refer to us, not you.”

This authoritarian streak runs counter to the core philosophy that supposedly dominates twenty-first-century American thinking: community policing.  Its emphasis is on a mission of “keeping the peace” by creating and maintaining partnerships of trust with and in the communities served. Under the community model, which happens to be theofficial policing philosophy of the U.S. government, officers are protectors but also problem solvers who are supposed to care, first and foremost, about how their communities see them. They don’t command respect, the theory goes: they earn it. Fear isn’t supposed to be their currency. Trust is.

Nevertheless, police recruiting videos, as in those from California’s Newport Beach Police Department and New Mexico’s Hobbs Police Department, actively play up not the community angle but militarization as a way of attracting young men with the promise of Army-style adventure and high-tech toys. Policing, according to recruiting videos like these, isn’t about calmly solving problems; it’s about you and your boys breaking down doors in the middle of the night.

SWAT’s influence reaches well beyond that.  Take the increasing adoption of battle-dress uniforms (BDUs) for patrol officers. These militaristic, often black, jumpsuits, Bickel fears, make them less approachable and possibly also more aggressive in their interactions with the citizens they’re supposed to protect.

A small project at Johns Hopkins University seemed to bear this out. People were shown pictures of police officers in their traditional uniforms and in BDUs. Respondents, the survey indicated, would much rather have a police officer show up in traditional dress blues. Summarizing its findings, Bickel writes, “The more militaristic look of the BDUs, much like what is seen in news stories of our military in war zones, gives rise to the notion of our police being an occupying force in some inner city neighborhoods, instead of trusted community protectors.”

Where Do They Get Those Wonderful Toys?

“I wonder if I can get in trouble for doing this,” the young man says to his buddy in the passenger seat as they film the Saginaw County Sheriff Office’s new toy: a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. As they film the MRAP from behind, their amateur video has a Red Dawn-esque feel, as if an occupying military were now patrolling this Michigan county’s streets. “This is getting ready for f**king crazy times, dude,” one young man comments. “Why,” his friend replies, “has our city gotten that f**king bad?”

In fact, nothing happening in Saginaw County warranted the deployment of an armored vehicle capable of withstanding bullets and the sort of improvised explosive devices that insurgent forces have regularly planted along roads in America’s recent war zones.  Sheriff William Federspiel, however, fears the worst. “As sheriff of the county, I have to put ourselves in the best position to protect our citizens and protect our property,” he told a reporter. “I have to prepare for something disastrous.”

Lucky for Federspiel, his exercise in paranoid disaster preparedness didn’t cost his office a penny. That $425,000 MRAP came as a gift, courtesy of Uncle Sam, from one of our far-flung counterinsurgency wars. The nasty little secret of policing’s militarization is that taxpayers are subsidizing it through programs overseen by the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Justice Department.

Take the 1033 program. The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) may be an obscure agency within the Department of Defense, but through the 1033 program, which it oversees, it’s one of the core enablers of American policing’s excessive militarization. Beginning in 1990, Congress authorized the Pentagon to transfer its surplus property free of charge to federal, state, and local police departments to wage the war on drugs. In 1997, Congress expanded the purpose of the program to include counterterrorism in section 1033 of the defense authorization bill. In one single page of a 450-page law, Congress helped sow the seeds of today’s warrior cops.

The amount of military hardware transferred through the program has grown astronomically over the years. In 1990, the Pentagon gave $1 million worth of equipment to U.S. law enforcement. That number had jumped to nearly $450 million in 2013. Overall, the program has shipped off more than $4.3 billion worth of materiel to state and local cops, according to the DLA.

In its recent report, the ACLU found a disturbing range of military gear being transferred to civilian police departments nationwide. Police in North Little Rock, Arkansas, for instance, received 34 automatic and semi-automatic rifles, two robots that can be armed, military helmets, and a Mamba tactical vehicle. Police in Gwinnet County, Georgia, received 57 semi-automatic rifles, mostly M-16s and M-14s. The Utah Highway Patrol, according to a Salt Lake City Tribuneinvestigation, got an MRAP from the 1033 program, and Utah police received 1,230 rifles and four grenade launchers. After South Carolina’s Columbia Police Department received its very own MRAP worth $658,000, its SWAT Commander Captain E.M. Marsh noted that 500 similar vehicles had been distributed to law enforcement organizations across the country.

Astoundingly, one-third of all war materiel parceled out to state, local, and tribal police agencies is brand new. This raises further disconcerting questions: Is the Pentagon simply wasteful when it purchases military weapons and equipment with taxpayer dollars? Or could this be another downstream, subsidized market for defense contractors? Whatever the answer, the Pentagon is actively distributing weaponry and equipment made for U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns abroad to police who patrol American streets and this is considered sound policy in Washington. The message seems striking enough: what might be necessary for Kabul might also be necessary for DeKalb County.

In other words, the twenty-first-century war on terror has melded thoroughly with the twentieth-century war on drugs, and the result couldn’t be anymore disturbing: police forces that increasingly look and act like occupying armies.

How the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice Are Up-Armoring the Police

When police departments look to muscle up their arms and tactics, the Pentagon isn’t the only game in town. Civilian agencies are in on it, too.

During a 2011 investigation, reporters Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz discovered that, since 9/11, police departments watching over some of the safest places in America have used $34 billion in grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to militarize in the name of counterterrorism.

In Fargo, North Dakota, for example, the city and its surrounding county went on an $8 million spending spree with federal money, according to Becker and Schulz. Although the area averaged less than two murders a year since 2005, every squad car is now armed with an assault rifle. Police also have access to Kevlar helmets that can stop heavy firepower as well as an armored truck worth approximately $250,000. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1,500 beat cops have been trained to use AR-15 assault rifles with homeland security grant funding.

As with the 1033 program, neither DHS nor state and local governments account for how the equipment, including body armor and drones, is used. While the rationale behind stocking up on these military-grade supplies is invariably the possibility of a terrorist attack, school shooting, or some other horrific event, the gear is normally used to conduct paramilitary drug raids, as Balko notes.

Still, the most startling source of police militarization is the Department of Justice, the very agency officially dedicated to spreading the community policing model through its Community Oriented Policing Services office.

In 1988, Congress authorized the Byrne grant programs in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which gave state and local police federal funds to enlist in the government’s drug war. That grant program, according to Balko, led to the creation of regional and multi-jurisdictional narcotics task forces, which gorged themselves on federal money and, with little federal, state, or local oversight, spent it beefing up their weapons and tactics. In 2011, 585 of these task forces operated off of Byrne grant funding.

The grants, Balko reports, also incentivized the type of policing that has made the war on drugs such a destructive force in American society. The Justice Department doled out Byrne grants based on how many arrests officers made, how much property they seized, and how many warrants they served. The very things these narcotics task forces did very well. “As a result,” Balko writes, “we have roving squads of drug cops, loaded with SWAT gear, who get money if they conduct more raids, make more arrests, and seize more property, and they are virtually immune to accountability if they get out of line.”

Regardless of whether this militarization has occurred due to federal incentives or executive decision-making in police departments or both, police across the nation are up-armoring with little or no public debate. In fact, when the ACLU requested SWAT records from 255 law enforcement agencies as part of its investigation, 114 denied them. The justifications for such denials varied, but included arguments that the documents contained “trade secrets” or that the cost of complying with the request would be prohibitive. Communities have a right to know how the police do their jobs, but more often than not, police departments think otherwise.

Being the Police Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Report by report, evidence is mounting that America’s militarized police are a threat to public safety. But in a country where the cops increasingly look upon themselves as soldiers doing battle day in, day out, there’s no need for public accountability or even an apology when things go grievously wrong.

If community policing rests on mutual trust between the police and the people, militarized policing operates on the assumption of “officer safety” at all costs and contempt for anyone who sees things differently. The result is an “us versus them” mentality.

Just ask the parents of Bou Bou Phonesavanh. Around 3:00 a.m. on May 28th, the Habersham County Special Response Team conducted a no-knock raid at a relative’s home near Cornelia, Georgia, where the family was staying. The officers were looking for the homeowner’s son, whom they suspected of selling $50 worth of drugs to a confidential informant.  As it happened, he no longer lived there.

Despite evidence that children were present — a minivan in the driveway, children’s toys littering the yard, and a Pack ‘n Play next to the door — a SWAT officer tossed a “flashbang” grenade into the home. It landed in 19-month-old Bou Bou’s crib and exploded, critically wounding the toddler. When his distraught mother tried to reach him, officers screamed at her to sit down and shut up, telling her that her child was fine and had just lost a tooth. In fact, his nose was hanging off his face, his body had been severely burned, and he had a hole in his chest. Rushed to the hospital, Bou Bou had to be put into a medically induced coma.

The police claimed that it was all a mistake and that there had been no evidence children were present. “There was no malicious act performed,” Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was a terrible accident that was never supposed to happen.” The Phonesavanhs have yet to receive an apology from the sheriff’s office. “Nothing. Nothing for our son. No card. No balloon. Not a phone call. Not anything,” Bou Bou’s mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, told CNN.

Similarly, Tampa Bay Police Chief Jane Castor continues to insist that Jay Westcott’s death in the militarized raid on his house was his own fault.  “Mr. Westcott lost his life because he aimed a loaded firearm at police officers. You can take the entire marijuana issue out of the picture,” Castor said. “If there’s an indication that there is armed trafficking going on — someone selling narcotics while they are armed or have the ability to use a firearm — then the tactical response team will do the initial entry.”

In her defense of the SWAT raid, Castor simply dismissed any responsibility for Westcott’s death. “They did everything they could to serve this warrant in a safe manner,” she wrote the Tampa Bay Times — “everything,” that is, but find an alternative to storming the home of a man they knew feared for his life.

Almost half of all American households report having a gun, as the ACLU notes in its report. That means the police always have a ready-made excuse for using SWAT teams to execute warrants when less confrontational and less violent alternatives exist.

In other words, if police believe you’re selling drugs, beware. Suspicion is all they need to turn your world upside down. And if they’re wrong, don’t worry; the intent couldn’t have been better.

Voices in the Wilderness

The militarization of the police shouldn’t be surprising. As Hubert Williams, a former police director of Newark, New Jersey, and Patrick V. Murphy, former commissioner of the New York City Police Department, put it nearly 25 years ago, police are “barometers of the society in which they operate.” In post-9/11 America, that means police forces imbued with the “hooah” mentality of soldiers and acting as if they are fighting an insurgency in their own backyard.

While the pace of police militarization has quickened, there has at least been some pushback from current and former police officials who see the trend for what it is: the destruction of community policing. In Spokane, Washington, Councilman Mike Fagan, a former police detective, is pushing back against police officers wearing BDUs, calling the get-up “intimidating” to citizens. In Utah, the legislature passed a bill requiring probable cause before police could execute a no-knock raid. Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has been a vocal critic of militarization,telling the local paper, “We’re not the military. Nor should we look like an invading force coming in.” Just recently, Chief Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police Department agreed with the ACLU and the Los Angeles Times editorial board that “the lines between municipal law enforcement and the U.S. military cannot be blurred.”

Retired Seattle police chief Norm Stamper has also become an outspoken critic of militarizing police forces, noting “most of what police are called upon to do, day in and day out, requires patience, diplomacy, and interpersonal skills.” In other words, community policing. Stamper is the chief who green-lighted a militarized response to World Trade Organization protests in his city in 1999 (“The Battle in Seattle”). It’s a decision he would like to take back. “My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose,” he wrote in the Nation. “Rocks, bottles and newspaper racks went flying. Windows were smashed, stores were looted, fires lighted; and more gas filled the streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging the conflict.”

These former policemen and law enforcement officials understand that police officers shouldn’t be breaking down any citizen’s door at 3 a.m. armed with AR-15s and flashbang grenades in search of a small amount of drugs, while an MRAP idles in the driveway. The anti-militarists, however, are in the minority right now. And until that changes, violent paramilitary police raids will continue to break down the doors of nearly 1,000 American households a week.

War, once started, can rarely be contained.


Matthew Harwood is senior writer/editor at the American Civil Liberties Union and a TomDispatch regular. You can follow him on Twitter@mharwood31.

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Copyright 2014 Matthew Harwood

 

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