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.


“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

 


Beavers, The Original Geo-Engineers

Reprinted from TomDispatch.com

How to Save the Iconic West from the Cow

By Chip Ward 

The great novelist Wallace Stegner sorted the conflicting impulses in his beloved American West into two camps. There were the “boomers” who saw the frontier as an opportunity to get rich quick and move on: the conquistadors, the gold miners, the buffalo hunters, the land scalpers, and the dam-building good ol’ boys. They are still with us, trying to drill and frack their way to Easy Street across our public lands. Then there were those Stegner called the “nesters” or “stickers” who came to stay and struggled to understand the land and its needs. Their quest was to become native.

That division between boomers and nesters is, of course, too simple.  All of us have the urge to consume and move on, as well as the urge to nest, so our choices are rarely clear or final. Today, that old struggle in the American West is intensifying as heat-parched, beetle-gnawed forests ignite in annual epic firestorms,reservoirs dry up, and Rocky Mountain snow is ever more stained with blowing desert dust.

The modern version of nesters are the conservationists who try to partner with the ecosystems where they live. Wounded landscapes, for example, can often be restored by unleashing nature’s own self-healing powers. The new nesters understand that you cannot steer and control an ecosystem but you might be able to dance with one.  Sage Sorensen dances with beavers.

Dances with Beavers

The dance floor is my Utah backyard, which, like most backyards out here, is a watershed.  At its top is the Aquarius Plateau, the horizon I see from my deck, a gracefully rolling forest of pines and aspens that stretches for 50 miles to the south, 20 miles wide at its midpoint, and reaches 11,300 feet at its highest ridge.

The forest on top of the plateau is unique, as trees rarely grow almost two miles above sea level.  That high forest is heated by the deserts that fall away around the plateau’s shoulders, culminating in the amber, bone, and honey-toned canyons of Capitol Reef National Park on its eastern flank and on the west by Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

During a long career with the Bureau of Land Management, Sage Sorenson saw firsthand how beavers created rich green habitat out of overgrazed and burned-over land.  Now retired, he calls himself a “beaver believer” and devotes his days to monitoring and protecting scattered “remnant” beaver colonies in our region. Quietly but persistently, he advocates for their reintroduction onto stressed landscapes that need their services.

Beavers are the original geo-engineers.  It’s no exaggeration to credit them for their major role in building the North American landscape.  In pre-colonial times, there were as many as 400 million of them.  They used their big buckteeth and tough paddle-tails to build dams across every stream imaginable, spreading water to a Noah’s Ark-worth of creatures that thrive in the wet habitats they create.  Now, of course, they are mostly long gone from the land, and conservationists want them back.

Sorenson recently trained and got certified to trap and transport beavers in anticipation of restocking the streams that tumble down the Aquarius Plateau.  He is convinced that it is only a matter of time before they are reintroduced.  After all, several of those streams have already been scientifically assessed and identified as prime candidates for such a reintroduction program.   But when I talked to him at a café in the small hamlet of Boulder, Utah, he was feeling discouraged.

A remnant colony of beavers along North Creek, he told me, is just about gone.  Over the last two years, at least 34 of them have been illegally shot or legally trapped by a local irrigation company.  Although beaver reintroduction is getting rave reviews in places like Scotland where the last one had been trapped out hundreds of years ago and Oregon where they are healing land hammered by logging, in Utah the road back will be rough.

Flat-Tail Climate Hero

Beavers were once abundant across the Aquarius Plateau, but they have now retreated to its high headwaters where they do not compete with cattle or cowboys with guns. Visiting them requires strong lungs for steep hikes and sturdy boots to navigate flooded meadows.  Up close, beavers look like especially large rodents that swim.  Call them cute if you care to, but a wet mammal that smells like its mud hut is neither cuddly nor charismatic.  They are not, in other words, like the penguins or polar bears that adorn fundraising appeals from wildlife advocates.

Nevertheless, as Sage patiently explains, they are key to the restoration of damaged watersheds. First, their dams create ponds and wetlands for diverse plants, amphibians, fish, and fowl. Eventually, those ponds fill with silt and become meadows, creating yet more habitat for another round of plants and animals.

Letting beavers do their work is one powerful way to make the land and its creatures resilient in a time of climatological stress.  For example, across the planet a wide range of amphibians, including frogs and salamanders, are declining fast, becoming rare or extinct.  Their sudden decline may be due to habitat loss, pollution, viruses enabled by a warming climate, or all of the above, but their disappearance is one more measure of the ecological catastrophe now underway.  Beavers make wet habitat where amphibians can recover and thrive.

The aquatic insects that bloom in wetlands feed populations of stressed songbirds. Their ponds shelter fingerling fish — beavers are vegetarians — and baby ducks.  Beavers are ecological servants par excellence who give life to the land.  They are not only beneficial agents of biodiversity, however: humans benefit, too.

In Western forests, the beaver’s stick-in-the-mud architecture spreads, slows, and deepens the flow of water from spring runoff so that it recharges underground aquifers, springs, and seeps. Slowing that runoff means that the streams feeding reservoirs last longer, possibly all summer.  That’s important for local agriculture, which depends on irrigation.  Beaver dams improve water quality by trapping sediment that filters pollution. A lush-green landscape also inhibits landslides, floods, and fire.  So beavers are not only good for the usual crew of endangered species, but also for millions of humans whose drinking water originates in heat-stressed watersheds that could be restored by the beaver’s hydrological habits.

Considering all the benefits beavers bring with them, why haven’t we rushed to return them to their keystone role in the Western landscape?  The simple answer to a complicated question is one word: cows.

When beavers re-occupy their historic homelands, they compete with the human economy that once drove them deep into the wilds.  Farmers and ranchers who irrigate their fields via ditches and culverts hate them.  There are simple techniques to guard against beavers clogging irrigation systems but they are either unlearned or resisted as yet another example of unwanted government intrusion on Western life.  Across the rural West, ranchers have power and influence way beyond their numbers or their contribution to the economy.

The Elephant in the Room Is a Cow  

One man’s keystone species is another’s varmint.  For conservationists like Sorenson who are devoted to bringing beavers back, seeing one with a bullet hole in it is not just sad, but taken as a very personal warning.  Despite the popularity and success of beaver reintroduction elsewhere, in much of the American West it runs into an outsized obstacle — the iconic western cow.  Not ol’ Bossy chewing a cud in Wisconsin, but the wild steer chased by a cowboy with a lasso yelling “yeeha!”  That cow is sacred.

In reality, cattle ranching is a tough, marginal business in this part of America and grazing on public lands makes it possible.  In other words, it’s heavily subsidized by distant taxpayers. Those grazing fees Cliven Bundy objects to cost less than a buck and a half per cow per month for all it can eat on federal land — food stamps for cows, indeed.   Cattle ranchers, whose families have been on the land for generations, think of grazing allotments on federal land as an entitlement, even if that attitude contradicts the image of the independent cowboy they cherish.  About 250 million acres — or more than half of the federal lands administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management — are open to cattle grazing, and that’s a large arena where cowboys and conservationists compete.

Moving cows out of sensitive riparian areas (streams and springs) or putting competitors like wolves and beavers onto the land with them is seen by ranchers as the start of a slippery slope that might lead to removing cows altogether.  That is, however, unlikely.  In the West, cows rule.  The soundtrack of Manifest Destiny may once have been the sharp crack of gunfire aimed at Indians and wolves, but it was followed by a mellow moo.  Cows graze over the bones of bison and the other creatures we eliminated to make room for them.

Our Dams, Not Theirs

Like the beavers they replaced, cows have reshaped the land — not, in their case, by creating habitat but by destroying it.  The pioneers who first came upon southern Utah described the vast grasslands they found there.  That grass is long gone.  The soil blew away, too, and rusting fences now swing above gullies or are buried under dunes.  When millions of cows and sheep were let loose on that fragile soil, massive erosion and the disappearance of that vast native grassland followed.  It never came back. When Congress finally stepped in and passed grazing regulations in 1934, improvements followed.

Conservationists claim that cows are today contributing to the die-off of the West’s beloved aspen groves by eating tree seedlings and short-circuiting forest succession. They also spread highly flammable cheat grass in their voluminous poop.  But whatever damage cows do directly to public lands pales in comparison to the way the infrastructure necessary for the cattle business has captured western water sources and de-watered western lands.

Stegner’s boomers dammed thousands of rivers and streams, while building pipelines through our national forests down to valley floors.  Aqueducts, canals, and tunnels followed.  The growth of many western towns is rooted in the building of a water infrastructure that has allowed us to suck the forests dry in order to irrigate the fields of alfalfa that feed those cows.  And yet — hold onto your hats for this — only a miniscule 3% of the nation’s beef is raised in the West.

Yet at least 80% of the water out here goes to alfalfa and other cow-food crops.  When you get those dire warnings about the Colorado River going dry and Phoenix and Vegas blowing away, remember this: because the cattlemen own the rights, cows get a lion’s share of whatever water is left after the western watersheds are baked and burned.  We grow so much cow-food that we now essentially export our precious water to China in the form of alfalfa.

Beavers as Underdogs 

Now maybe you’re beginning to see just why the odds are so stacked against the lowly beaver. Americans have forgotten the formative nature of our relationship with that creature.  Not only did European explorers encounter a landscape that had been thoroughly carved out and watered by them, but a robust trade in beaver pelts drove settlement.  Pelts that were made into warm hats for wealthy people were a kind of rodent gold and trappers couldn’t get enough of them.

Under the grinding wheel of a voracious commerce in furs, beavers were so trapped-out that they seemed to be headed for the fate of the once plentiful but now extinct passenger pigeon. This precipitous decline was reversed by one of North America’s earliest conservation campaigns.

In the 1920s, through the new medium of film the public imagination was captured by a Canadian Indian named Grey Owl.  He lived on a lake with his wife, Anahareo, and raised orphaned beaver kits, explaining their ecological importance and the consequences of their loss to a public unfamiliar with the beaver’s role in keeping forests healthy.  As the original beaver-believers cuddled their kits, audiences ooohed and aaahed.

Eventually Grey Owl was exposed as Archie Belaney, an Englishman posing as an Indian, but by then the message he had delivered had been translated into governance.  Beaver trapping was strictly regulated across most of the West and eventually many colonies recovered.  Today, there are far more beavers in North America, perhaps 10 million, than at their near-extinction moment, but their distribution on the land remains thin and uneven.  Once upon a time, hundreds of millions of them helped create the American landscape.  It would be fitting if, in the era of global warming, the beaver’s influence came full circle, this time as a means of making heat-stressed landscapes more resilient.

Are Beavers a Plot Against Humanity?

Most of the land in the American West is federally owned and managed, despite recent schemes by local tea-hadis to take it over and sell it to the highest bidder (or closest crony).  Because federal lands are a national treasure that we own together, there are rules for the sustainable use of it and sanctions for abuse.  Those rules and policies are negotiated by stakeholders and change over time.  That is happening now as our forests and grasslands are baked by prolonged drought.

In 2009, a Utah Beaver Advisory Committee composed of wildlife biologists, forest rangers, ranchers, trappers, farmers, and conservationists hammered out a plan to restore healthy beaver populations to their historic range across Utah “where appropriate.”  The beaver’s ecological service was finally acknowledged, but with the proviso that it be balanced against “human needs.”  Getting such an endorsement for restoration and protection, however qualified, was an important first step and a catalyst for a grassroots campaign to “leave it to beavers.”

An agreement had been reached among stakeholders traditionally at odds.  It was a rare feat of consensus building in a political environment where acrimony generally reigns supreme and it could have been a model for resolving other conflicts over land use and regulation.  Instead, local politicians, in a panic that beavers might “steal” water, have effectively resisted it.

Joe Wheaton, who teaches watershed hydrology and restoration at Utah State University, says the science on this is clear: there is no net water loss downstream from beaver dams.  If anything, they only increase a watershed’s capacity by capturing water that would otherwise be lost to floods.  But the cattlemen aren’t buying it. Science, you see, is just another liberal ideology.  As a Kane County commissioner put it succinctly, “Beavers are an environmentalist plot.” Think of those dead beavers along North Creek that Sage Sorenson described to me as collateral damage in the ideological civil war now raging across the region.

You Can’t Drink an F-35

The Grand Canyon Trust and a local citizens group, Boulder Community Alliance, have tried to fill the gap between the advisory group’s clear intention and the state’s hesitance to overrule obstructionist county commissioners and actually implement the plan.  The Trust recruited local volunteers and trained them to assess canyon drainages using the best scientific criteria and methods available.  Several streams were identified as candidates for beaver reintroduction.

Volunteers monitor and report on the few existing beaver settlements like the one being decimated in North Creek. Through education and advocacy they are building a constituency for putting beavers back on the land to do their job.  They have faith that the benefits of beaver reintroduction will become obvious as re-habitation happens. When the time comes to move beavers into new streams, they will be ready.

The kind of homegrown resilience practiced by Sage Sorenson and thousands of other backyard conservationists gets a paltry piece of the taxpayer pie compared, say, to homeland security.  I used to say that in the long run we’d be wiser to invest in restoring watersheds than putting a camera on every corner.  As it happens, given the tenacious drought now spreading across the West and Southwest, the long run seems to be here, sooner than expected.  Even the Pentagon now acknowledges that ecological catastrophe sows human turmoil and suffering that eventually blows back our way.  For the cost of just one of the 2,400 F-35 fighter jets we are committed to buying at historic prices, we could restore the stressed Aquarius watershed.

But the beavers don’t care what we do.  They just do their own thing.  They are like their human partners: persistent and oh so local.

Saving The World, Stick by Stick 

Each ecosystem has its own particular dynamic.  There are endless variables to understand. That’s why conservation work is ultimately local.  It focuses on improvements in this river and that forest, specific habitats and watersheds with specific conditions and a set of specific inhabitants and users.

The world we aim to save is a planet of mundane dirt, air, and water that, when woven together, somehow becomes a transcendent whole.  It’s a diverse universe of living plants and critters not well-suited for one big solution.  Rather, it calls forth a million small solutions that add up, like the natural world itself, to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or perhaps there are no parts at all, just participants.

Will introducing beavers onto wounded watersheds save the world?  The answer is: yes.  That and all the other acts of restoration, protection, and restraint, small and large, individual and collective, taken together over time.  Sure, it’s not the same as the U.S. taxing carbon or China abandoning coal.  Restoring a watershed doesn’t curb the corporations that reduce communities to commodities. But in addition to the global goals we support, our responses to ecological crisis must be grounded in the places where we live, especially in the watersheds that nourish our bodies.

Rewilding tattered land is holistic because it sees and honors connectivity.  It trades hubris for humility by acknowledging complexity and limitations.  Its ultimate goal is landscape health and resilience, not the well-being of a small handful of stakeholders.

If we want to construct a healthy and resilient world for ourselves and our fellow creatures, we could do worse than look to the lowly beavers for hints on how it can be done. They build a vibrant world for themselves and so many others by weaving one small limb into another, stick by stick by stick.


Chip Ward, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded HEAL Utah and wrote Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon.

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 Chip Ward


Study: ‘Shocking’ Water Loss in Western U.S.

Reprinted from Common Dreams under Creative Commons License

Satellites show groundwater supply at greater risk than previously thought

By Deirdre Fulton

The rapid groundwater depletion rate will lead to further declines in streamflow in the Colorado River, study authors say. (Photo: Airwolfhound)

The  drought-stricken Colorado River Basin has experienced rapid and significant groundwater depletion since late 2004, posing a greater threat to the water supply of the western United States than previously thought, according to a new study by NASA and University of California, Irvine.

The research team used data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission to track changes in the mass of the Colorado River Basin, which is the water source for more than 30 million people and 4 million acres of farmland. The satellites showed the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet (about 17 trillion gallons) of freshwater between 2004-2013 — almost double the volume of the nation’s largest reservoir, Nevada’s Lake Mead, which itself recently fell to its lowest level since the 1930s. More than three-quarters of the total water loss in the Colorado River Basin was from groundwater. The basin has been experiencing the driest 14-year period in the last 100 years.

“We don’t know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don’t know when we’re going to run out,” said Stephanie Castle, a water resources specialist at the UC-Irvine and lead author of the study. “This is a lot of water to lose. We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking.”

Because pumping from underground aquifers is regulated by individual states and is often not well documented, it is difficult to quantify how groundwater reserves are affected by drought. But the NASA/Irvine study, which measured gravitational attraction as a way to assess rising and falling water levels, reveals that a crucial water source for seven basin states and Mexico has been compromised. The study also indicates that declines in the snowpack that feeds the river and population growth could further compound the problem.

“We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking.”
—Stephanie Castle, UC-Irvine

The Colorado River Basin is the water lifeline of the western United States,” said senior author Jay Famiglietti. “With Lake Mead at its lowest level ever, we wanted to explore whether the basin, like most other regions around the world, was relying on groundwater to make up for the limited surface-water supply. We found a surprisingly high and long-term reliance on groundwater to bridge the gap between supply and demand.”

Last year, the Pacific Institute found that about 70 percent of the Colorado River Basin water supply goes toward irrigated agriculture.

In a blog for Science, Eric Hand writes:

The groundwater losses, which take thousands of years to be recharged naturally, point to the unsustainability of exploding population centers and water-intensive agriculture in the basin, which includes most of Arizona and parts of Colorado, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

To that end, several Western states are implementing or considering groundwater management plans. And earlier this month, the Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates joined with American Rivers in releasing a new report that identified municipal conservation, grey water treatment and reuse, and irrigation efficiency as ways to mitigate “Western water shortages stemming from the over-taxed and stressed Colorado River.”


Fringe Climate Skeptics Wield Undue Influence on Rural Public Policy

By Steve Frisch

I have been thinking a lot about our regional climate change skeptics in the Sierra Nevada and their impact on public policy. Occasionally I do my share of getting into debates and doing a little warming myself though I know it simply empowers their position at times.

I do however have a couple of observations about how they make their case and the consequences.

Rarely do they get into the actual scientifically peer reviewed papers and make their case based on the efficacy of the science itself.

The case I hear is that any science wholly or even partially funded by the government or private foundations done by agencies, academic institutions, professional groups, or individual scientists is inherently flawed due to their source of funding. Then I hear that any science using past data funded by any of these groups is inherently flawed due to confirmation bias. Next I hear that the peer review process itself is inherently flawed due to dependence on government funding. Then I hear that when the aggregate data and multiple proof points indicate a significant change occurring we should be giving more weight to the outlier data proving the opposite, as though the very small percentage of those valid peer reviewed reports should be given some weight that contrary data is not due. Finally I hear that if there is some evidence that anthropogenic climate change is occurring the cost of doing something about it is prohibitive.

It is as though climate skeptics do not wish to even understand or acknowledge the peer review process and the critical role it plays in vetting data and its analysis.

I guess this would not be an issue if the consequences of being wrong were not so high.

The impact of a changing climate on California’s water supply alone is measured in the tens of billions of dollars in economic impact annually. Worse, because we live in a state where the vast majority of people do believe climate change is a real threat, and our state has adopted policies to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change through laws like AB 32 and SB 375, the low carbon fuels standard and the renewable portfolio standard, much of our state is rushing ahead with adaptation and mitigation strategies, strategies funded through a combination of our state general fund budget, surcharges on electricity, and revenue derived from the Cap and Trade program. Those revenues are being used to adapt our infrastructure, like water delivery systems, roads, bridges transportation networks, and wastewater treatment. Those revenues can also be directed at solving the seemingly insurmountable problem in the Sierra Nevada of long-term forest management and wildfire management, establishing a link between forests, mountains, watershed management, and water supply that is the number one commodity export of the Sierra Nevada and the source of much of our states wealth.

The problem we face is that distribution of revenue is controlled by a political process; our state budget voted on by legislators annually. In a political process funds don’t get distributed to regions and legislative districts where the elected representatives don’t acknowledge a problem is occurring and actively obstruct solving the problem in other areas of the state. Consequently the Sierra Nevada and its climate related issues do not receive their fair share of state funding which is being paid for by all of the taxpayer of the state, even us rural residents.

The stakes are very high indeed; by 2020 more than $5 billion per year will be distributed to adapt to climate change in California. Where will that money go? Who will benefit from the public works, construction, community improvement and middle class jobs related to implementation?

We are allowing the voice of a small minority of climate skeptics and their ability to influence our local politics by being the ‘loudest voice in the room’ to deny our region the funding we deserve, relegating our local communities and economies to a permanent backwater and underprivileged status.

The Onion may be parodying this phenomenon, but our communities are living it, we are watching as billions of dollars a year are collected from our residents and going to urban districts where the populous is more amenable to climate adaption and mitigation strategies. If I were a rural legislator I might listen to the skeptics, but I would not deny my regions the fruits of their taxes, surcharges and fees.

At some point pragmatism has to take over.

I only wish I knew where that point was so I could push to reach it.


Steve_FrischSteve Frisch is President of the Sierra Business Council and one of its founding members. He is a dedicated project manager with over 20 years experience managing people in a highly competitive environment. Steve manages SBC’s program staff and programmatic development. He also manages sustainable business and building projects to encourage the adoption of socially responsible business and development practices.

Prior to joining the Sierra Business Council, Steve owned and operated a small business in Truckee, California and was president of the Truckee Downtown Merchants Association. Steve has served on the Nevada County Welfare Reform Commission, the Town of Truckee redevelopment agency formation committee and as an advisor to the California Resources Agency’s California Legacy Project.


Requiem for the American Century

Reprinted from TomDispatch.com with permission of the author

Turning 70, Paragraph by Paragraph

By Tom Engelhardt

First Paragraphs on Turning 70 in the American Century That Was

* Seventy-three years ago, on February 17, 1941, as a second devastating global war approached, Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines, called on his countrymen to “create the first great American Century.”  Luce died in 1967 at age 69.  Life, the pictorial magazine no home would have been without in my 1950s childhood, ceased to exist as a weekly in 1972 and as a monthly in 2000; Time, which launched his career as a media mogul, is still wobbling on, a shadow of its former self.  No one today could claim that this is Time’s century, or the American Century, or perhaps anyone else’s.  Even the greatest empires now seem to have shortened lifespans.  The Soviet Century, after all, barely lasted seven decades.  Of course, only the rarest among us live to be 100, which means that at 70, like Time, I’m undoubtedly beginning to wobble, too.

* The other day I sat down with an old friend, a law professor who started telling me about his students.  What he said aged me instantly.  They’re so young, he pointed out, that their parents didn’t even come of age during the Vietnam War.  For them, he added, that war is what World War I was to us.  He might as well have mentioned the Mongol conquests or the War of the Roses.  We’re talking about the white-haired guys riding in the open cars in Veteran’s Day parades when I was a boy.  And now, it seems, I’m them.

* In March 1976, accompanied by two friends, my wife and I got married at City Hall in San Francisco, and then adjourned to a Chinese restaurant for a dim sum lunch.  If, while I was settling our bill of perhaps $30, you had told me that, almost half a century in the future, marriage would be an annual $40 billion dollar business, that official couplings would be preceded by elaborate bachelor and bachelorette parties, and that there would be such a thing as destination weddings, I would have assumed you were clueless about the future.  On that score at least, the nature of the world to come was self-evident and elaborate weddings of any sort weren’t going to be part of it.

* From the time I was 20 until I was 65, I was always 40 years old.  Now, I feel my age.  Still, my life at 70 is a luxury.  Across the planet, from Afghanistan to Central America, and in the poverty zones of this country, young people regularly stare death in the face at an age when, so many decades ago, I was wondering whether my life would ever begin.  That’s a crime against humanity.  So consider me lucky (and privileged) to be seven decades in and only now thinking about my death.

* Recently, I had the urge to tell my son something about my mother, who died before he was born.  From my closet, I retrieved an attaché case of my father’s in which I keep various family mementos.  Rummaging around in one of its pockets, I stumbled upon two letters my mother wrote him while he was at war.  (We’re talking about World War II, that ancient conflict of the history books.)  Almost four decades after her death, all I had to do was see my mother’s handwriting on the envelope — “Major C. L. Engelhardt, 1st Air Commando Force, A.P.O. 433, Postmaster, New York 17, N.Y.” — to experience such an upwelling of emotion I could barely contain my tears.  So many years later, her handwriting and my father’s remain etched into my consciousness.  I don’t doubt I could recognize them amid any other set of scribblings on Earth.  What fingerprints were to law enforcement then, handwriting was to family memories.  And that started me wondering: years from now, in an electronic world in which no one is likely to think about picking up a pen to write anyone else, what will those “fingerprints” be?

* There are so many futures and so few of them happen.  On the night of October 22, 1962, a college freshman, I listened to John F. Kennedy address the American people and tell us that the Russians were building “a series of offensive missile sites” on the island of Cuba and that “the purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”  In other words, the president of the United States was telling us that we might be at the edge of the sort of world-ending, monster-mutating nuclear war that, from Godzillato Them, had run riot in the popular culture (and the nightmares) of my childhood.  At that moment, I looked directly into the future — and there was none.  We were, I believed, toast.  My family, my friends, all of us, from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Lima, Peru, as the president put it.  Yet here I am 52 years later.  As with so many futures we imagine, somehow it didn’t happen and so many years after I’m still wondering when I’ll be toast.

* If, on that same night, you had returned from the future to tell me (or other Americans) that, nearly half a century hence, the Soviet Union would barely be a memory, that there would be no other great power challenging the United States for supremacy, and that its only serious enemies would be scattered bands of Islamic extremists, largely in countries no American of that era had even heard of, my sense of wonder would have been indescribable.  And I don’t doubt that the godlier among us would have fallen to their knees and given thanks for our deliverance.  It would have gone without saying that, in such a future, the U.S. stood triumphant, the American Century guaranteed to stretch into endless centuries to come.

* If, on September 10, 2001, I had peered into the future (as I undoubtedly did not), whatever world I might have imagined would surely not have included: the 9/11 attacks; or those towerscollapsing apocalyptically; or that “generational” struggle launched almost instantly by the Bush administration that some neocons wanted to call “World War IV” (the Cold War being World War III), aka the Global War on Terror; or a “kill list” and drone assassination campaign run proudly out of the White House that would kill thousands in the tribal backlands of the planet; or the pouring of funds into the national security state at levels that would put the Cold War to shame; or thepromotion of torture as a necessary part of the American way of life; or the creation of an offshore prison system where anything went; or the launching of a global kidnapping campaign; or our second Afghan War, this time lasting at least 13 years; or a full-scale invasion, garrisoning, and occupation of Iraq lasting eight years; or the utterly improbable possibility that, from all of this, Washington would win nothing whatsoever. Nor, on that September day, still an editor in book publishing, barely online, and reading almost everything on the page, could I have imagined that, at age 70, I would be running a website called TomDispatch, 24/7, driven by the terrible news that would, before that day, have amazed me.

* Once upon a time, if you saw someone talking to himself or herself while walking down the street, you knew you were in the presence of mental illness.  Now, you know that you’re catching a snippet of a mobile or smartphone conversation by someone connected eternally to everyone he or she knows and everything happening online every minute of the day.  Not so long ago, this was material for some far-fetched sci-fi novel, not for life.

* If, on September 10, 2001, you had told me that the very way we are connected to each other electronically would encourage the evolution of an American surveillance state of breathtaking proportions and a corporate surveillance sphere of similar proportions, that both would have dreams of collecting, storing, and using the electronic communications of everybody on the planet, and that, in such a brief space of time, both would come remarkably close to succeeding, I wouldn’t have believed you.  Nor would I have been able to absorb the fact that, in doing so, the U.S. national security state would outpace the “bad guys” of the totalitarian regimes of the previous century in the ambitiousness of its surveillance dreams.  I would have thought such a development conceptually inconceivable for this country.  And in that, touchingly, I would still be reflecting something of the America I grew up believing in.

* In my youth, I lived in the future.  Riveted by the space operas of Isaac Asimov, among others, I grew up as a space nerd, dreaming of American glory and the colonization of distant planetary systems.  At the same time, without any sense of contradiction, I inhabited future American worlds of wholesale destruction dotted with survivalist colonies in post-apocalyptic landscapes littered with mutants of every sort.

* I‘m no neuroscientist, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that we, as a species, are hardwired for prediction.  Preparing eternally for whatever danger might be just around the corner seems like such a useful trait, the sort of thing that keeps a species on its toes (once it has them).  As far as I can tell, the brain just can’t help itself.  The only problem is that we’re terrible at it.  The famed fog of war is nothing compared to the fog of the future or, as I’ve often said, I’d be regularly riding myjetpack in traffic through the spired city of New York, as I was promised in my childhood.  Our urge to predict the future is unsurpassed.  Our ability to see it as it will be: next to nil.

Middle Paragraphs for a Missing American Century

* It’s been almost 13 years since the 9/11 attacks and there’s still no learning curve in Washington.  Just about every step of the way in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s only gotten worse.  Yet from that history, from repeated military interventions, surges, and Hail Marys in each of those countries, Washington has learned…?  Yep, you guessed it: that, in a crisis, it’s up to us to plunge in again, as in Iraq today where the Obama administration is sending back troopsdrones, and helicopters, plotting to support certain government figures, deep-six others, and somehow fragment various Sunni insurgent and extremist groups.  And don’t forget the endless advice administration officials have on offer, the bureaucratic assessments of the situation they continue to generate, and theweaponry they are eager to dispatch to a thoroughly destabilized land — even as they rush to “broker” a destabilizing Afghan election, a situation in which the long-term results once again aren’t likely to be positive for Washington.  Consider this curious conundrum: the future is largely a mystery, except when it comes to Washington’s actions and their predictably dismal outcomes.

* Doesn’t it amaze you how little Washington gets it?  Fierce as the internal disagreements in that capital city may be, seldom has a ruling group collectively been quite so incapable of putting itself in the shoes of anyone else or so tone deaf when it comes to the effects of its own acts.  Take Germany where, starting with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, the public response to reports of massive American surveillance of the communications of ordinary Germans and their leaderswasn’t exactly greeted with enthusiasm.  Now it turns out that the NSA wasn’t the only U.S. “intelligence” agency at work in that country.  The CIA and possibly other agencies were recruiting spies inside German intelligence and its defense ministry.  Polls show that public opinion there has been turning against the U.S. in striking ways, but Washington just can’t take it in.  A little noted truth of this level of spying and surveillance is: it’s addictive.  Washington can’t imagine not doing it, no matter the damage.  If you keep an eye on this situation, you’ll see how the U.S. national security system has become a self-inflicted-wound machine.

* Here’s a question for our American moment: Why, in its foreign policy, can’t the Obama administration get a break?  You’d think that, just by pure, dumb luck, there would be a few small victories somewhere for the greatest power on the planet, but no such thing.  So for the post-American Century news jockeys among you, here’s a tip: to follow the waning fortunes of that century in real time, just keep an eye on Secretary of State John Kerry’s endless travels.  He’s the Jonah of the Obama administration.  Wherever he goes, disaster, large or small, trails behind him, even when, as in Afghanistan recently, his intervention is initially billed as some sort of modest triumph.  Consider him the waning American Century personified.

* Think of the drone as a barometer of the American Century in decline.  It’s the latest “perfect weapon” to arrive on the global scene with five-star reviews and promises of victory.  Like the A-bomb before it, by the time its claims proved false advertising, it was already lodged deeply in our world and replicating.  The drone is the John Kerry of advanced weaponry.  Everywhere it goes, it brings a kind of robotic precision to killing, the problem being that its distant human trigger fingers rely on the usual improbable information about what’s actually on the ground to be killed.  This means that the innocent are dying along with all those proclaimed “militants,” “high-value targets,” and al-Qaeda(-ish) leaders and “lieutenants.”  Wherever the drone goes, it has been the equivalent of a recruiting poster for Islamic militants and terror groups.  It brings instability and disaster in its wake.  It constantly kills bad guys — and constantly creates more of them.  And even as thenegative reports about it come in, an addicted Washington can’t stop using it.

Last Paragraphs on Turning 70 (a Requiem for the American Century)

* The true legacy of the foreshortened American Century, those years when Washington as top dog actually organized much of the world, may prove apocalyptic.  Nuclear weapons ushered that century in with the news that humanity could now annihilate itself.  Global warming is ushering it out with the news that nature may instead be the weapon of choice.  In 1990, when the Soviet system collapsed and disappeared, along with its sclerotic state-run economy, capitalism and liberal democracy were hailed in a triumphalist fashion and the moment proclaimed “the end of history.”  In the 1990s, that seemed like a flattering description.  Now, with 1% elections, an unmitigated drive for profits amid growing inequality, and constant global temperature records, the end of history might turn out to have a grimmer meaning.

* Global warming (like nuclear war and nuclear winter) is history’s deal-breaker.  Otherwise, the worst humanity can do, it’s done in some fashion before.  Empires rise and fall.  They always have.  People are desperately oppressed.  It’s an old story.  Humans bravely protest the conditions of their lives.  Rebellions and revolutions follow and the unexpected or disappointing is often the result.  You know the tale.  Hope and despair, the worst and the best — it’s us.  But global warming, the potential destruction of the habitat that’s made everything possible for us, that’s something new under the sun.  Yes, it’s happened before, thanks to natural causes ranging from vast volcanic eruptions to plummeting asteroids, but there’s something unique about us torpedoing our own environment.  This, above all, looks to be the event the American Century has overseen and that thedrive for fossil-fuel profits has made a reality.  Don’t fool yourself, though; we’re not destroying the planet.  Give it 10 million years and it’ll regenerate just fine.  But us?  Honestly, who knows what we can pull out of a hat on this score.

* Let me put my cards on the table.  I’m the guy who started two of his book titles with the phrases “the end of” and “the last days of,” so think of me as apocalyptic by nature.  I don’t believe in God or gods, or for that matter an afterlife.  In all these years, I’ve never discovered a spiritual bone in my body.  Still, I do care in some way that I can’t begin to understand what happens to us after I’m dead, what in particular happens to my children and my grandson, and his children and theirs, too.  Go figure.

* My father’s closest friend, the last person of his generation who knew him intimately, died recently at 99.  To my regret, I was no longer in touch.  It nonetheless felt like an archive closing.  The fog of the past now envelops much of his life.  There is nobody left to tell me what I don’t know about all those years before my birth.  Not a soul.  And yet I can at least recognize some of the people in his old photos and tell stories about them.  My mother’s childhood album is another matter.  Her brother aside, there’s no one I recognize, not a single soul, or a single story I can tell.  It’s all fog.  We don’t like to think of ourselves that way; we don’t like to imagine that we, in the present, will disappear into that fog with all our stories, all our experiences, all our memories.

* Here’s a question that, in a globally warming world, comes to mind: Are we a failed experiment?  I know I’m not the first to ask, and to answer I’d have to be capable of peering into a future that I can’t see.  So all I can say on turning 70 is: Who wouldn’t want to stick around and find out?

* Here’s the upbeat takeaway from this requiem for a foreshortened American Century: history is undoubtedly filled with seers, Cassandras, and gurus of every sort exactly because the future is such a mystery to us.  Mystery, however, means surprise, which is an eternal part of every tomorrow.  And surprise means, even under the worst conditions, a kind of hope.  Who knows just what July 20, 2015, or 2025, or 2035 will usher on stage?  And who knows when I won’t be there to find out.  Not I.

* By the way, I have the urge to offer you five predictions about the world of 2050, but what’s the point? I’d just have to advise you to ignore them all.


Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, to be published in September, is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single Superpower World (Haymarket Books).

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 Tom Engelhardt


NBC Pulls Its Best Journalist from Gaza Just as Israel Invades

Reprinted from Foreign Policy in Focus under a Creative Commons License

ayman-Mohyeldin-gaza-NBC

News of the long-anticipated ground attack on Gaza has just broken. Israeli troopshave invaded northern Gaza, vowing to protect Israelis and destroy Hamas—regardless of the human costs to Palestinian civilians. El Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital, the only rehab center in Gaza, has been destroyed by Israeli bombs. Four more small children were killed by an airstrike in eastern Gaza City. Israeli tanks are on the move into the Strip.

And now, with the war threatening to spin out of control, the U.S. public has lost one of its most trustworthy reporters in the embattled Gaza Strip. Citing transparently disingenuous “security concerns,” NBC has decided to remove Ayman Mohyeldin—who has been reporting from Gaza for years—from his post and ordered him to leave Gaza immediately.

Mohyeldin’s coverage has been even-handed, careful, and comprehensive. His coverage of one of the most recent of the many horror stories of the current war against Gaza was a model for what journalism should look like.

On July 16, carefully targeted Israeli strikes killed four little boys on the Gaza beach. Cousins from the Bakr family, and inseparable, the boys were 9-year-old Ismael, 10-year-olds Ahed and Zakaria, and 11-year-old Mohamed. They were playing on the beach, in front of the Gaza hotel where most foreign journalists are staying.

Ayman Mohyeldin had been playing soccer with the boys just a few minutes before the attack. He live-tweeted the horror in real time, clearly shaken to the core himself. “Moutaz Bakr, 1 of the boys who survived #Israeli shelling, was shaking w a broken arm, blood shot eyes, says he saw 3 of his friends killed,” he tweeted. Across social media platforms and in his work for NBC and other international outlets, Mohyeldin kept the coverage at the human level, and brought the reality of the war home to perhaps more people in the United States than any other single journalist.

Mohyeldin was experienced in reporting from the region during some of its most difficult periods. At Al Jazeera English, his reporting of the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza—which resulted in the killing of more than 1,400 Palestinians—was widely praised. So was his coverage of the Tahrir Square events in Cairo’s Arab Spring.

And now his powerful coverage of this latest Israeli assault on Gaza has led to a new reward. Barely a day after his report from the beach in Gaza, Mohyeldin was summarily pulled from his position and ordered by NBC executives to leave Gaza immediately. Glenn Greenwald cited NBC sources who said the NBC brass claimed they had “security concerns” because of Israel’s imminent ground invasion—but the next day sent correspondent Richard Engel, who had just arrived in Tel Aviv, to Gaza to replace Mohyeldin.

Mohyeldin’s coverage was powerfully crafted to show the human cost of conflict. “The terrible human toll from the nine-day Gaza conflict was laid bare Wednesday when four Palestinian boys from the same family were killed as they played football on a beach,” his report began. “Three other children were wounded—one of them critically—in the attack, which appeared to be from Israeli naval shelling near the port area of Gaza City. There were scenes of anguish at the nearby al-Shifa hospital as the parents of the victims learned of the attack. ‘My son! My son!’ cried the mother of one of the boys.”His reports, unlike so many in the mainstream press, included the names and ages of the victims, and an interview with one of the wounded cousins who had survived.

He told the world what he saw. NBC’s rival networks, including CNN and others, cited and republished Mohyeldin’s reports. The story went viral—with all the shaken details of murdered children, grieving parents, and shredded families that so often get lost in mainstream telling.

That, apparently, was unacceptable to Mohyeldin’s superiors. The notion that “security” had anything to do with NBC’s decision was nonsense—when they replaced Mohyeldin with Engel, any remote possibility that they were concerned about the security of one but not the other was beyond laughable.

This is a political move, whether initiated by frightened NBC executives on their own or demanded directly by powerful pro-Israel advertisers or other power-brokers. And it threatens to undermine the significant gains that have already been made in changing the U.S. discourse on Israel-Palestine in recent years.

The coverage is already different—Israel was unable to keep the international press out of Gaza during this most recent assault. The ground invasion now underway is going to make that coverage much more difficult. We’re going to need people like Ayman Mohyeldin more than ever.

Tweet #ShameonNBC to join the protest.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.


Mowing the Lawn in Gaza

Reprinted from Foreign Policy in Focus under a Creative Commons Licence

israel-bombing-gaza-middle-east-ceasefire-hamas

Israel’s favorite metaphor for its periodic strikes on Gaza—”mowing the lawn”—suggests violence that is routine, indiscriminate, and risk-free. (Photo: United Nations Photo / Flickr)

 

The Palestinians of Gaza are guilty of that new post-Cold War misdemeanor: voting while Muslim. The punishment for this crime has been eight years of economic hardship, international isolation, and periodic Israeli bombardments.

Like the Algerians in 1990 and the Egyptians in 2012, Gazans went to the polls in 2006 and voted for the wrong party. Rather than supporting the secular choice, they cast their ballots for Hamas. Not all Palestinians are Muslim (6 percent or so are Christian). But by opting for the Islamic Resistance Movement—Hamas, for short—Gazans had effectively nullified their own ballots.

It didn’t matter that the EU and other institutions declared the elections free and fair. The results were what mattered, and Israel’s judgment carried the day. Even though the newly elected government extended an olive branch to both Israel and the United States, the Israeli government didn’t consider Hamas a legitimate political actor.

“Israel stated that Hamas were terrorists and Western leaders did not challenge this line,” writes Cata Charrett in an excellent piece at Mondoweiss. “On the contrary, they refused to meet diplomatically with Hamas leaders, they cut off all possible financing to the newly elected government, and they supported Israel’s complete sanction and seizure of Gazan territory.” A direct peace overture to President George W. Bush offering a long-term truce went unanswered.

Voting while Christian or voting while Jewish has not led to similar results. Christian Democrats have won elections in Europe without generating boycotts or warnings about an imminent descent into clerical autocracy. The ultra-religious Shas party has participated in ruling coalitions in Israel without incurring the wrath of the international community.

But Hamas, its critics insist, is different because it is fundamentally anti-democratic. Ditto the Muslim Brotherhood. Even Turkey’s Justice and Development Party and Tunisia’s Ennahda are suspect, according to those who hold to the dictum that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible.

The fear of Islamic fundamentalism taking over the Middle East through the ballot box began in 1990 when the Islamic Salvation Front won 55 percent of the vote in local elections in Algeria. The following year, with the Front poised to win the national elections, the Algerian government banned the party and jailed its leaders, precipitating a civil war that left more than 100,000 people dead. At the time, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Djerejian declared that the U.S. government opposed what it called “one person, one vote, one time.” Washington worried about the possibility that Islamist parties would use democratic means to rise to power and then kick away the democratic ladder beneath them.

This prospective outcome prompted the United States to continue supporting its traditionally authoritarian allies in the region. The Arab Spring offered some hope that the United States had changed this policy, with the Obama administration withdrawing its support, albeit reluctantly, from Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak just before he stepped down in early 2011. But the older preference for status-quo strongmen has reasserted itself, as Washington has looked the other way at Nouri al-Maliki’s obvious faults in Iraq, continued to support the royal elite in Bahrain, and quickly moved to embrace coup leader Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in Egypt.

Let me be clear: I wouldn’t vote for Hamas. And I would rather that the party clearly recognized the right of Israel to exist (just as I would prefer the Republican Party to recognize the right of gay marriage to exist).

But my preferences are beside the point.  Hamas represents a large constituency. Many Gazans voted for the party because they were disgusted with the corruption of the secular Fatah movement and were impressed with the social service systemHamas had created. Like other resistance movements—the African National Congress, the Irish Republican Army—Hamas was on its way toward becoming a political party. If such a party takes power only to behave undemocratically—as the Muslim Brotherhood arguably did in Egypt—that’s a different question. But if you claim to respect democracy, you must recognize the results of free and fair elections. And if you want a party to change its position—and it’s willing to talk—you have to sit down at the table and negotiate with it.

But Israel—and by extension the United States—didn’t choose this option. As a result, a border conflict has raged ever since, with two particularly severe flare-ups in 2008-9 and 2012.

Last month, Hamas and Fatah set aside their own substantial grievances and forgeda unity agreement on administering both Gaza and the West Bank. Here was a perfect opportunity for Israel to move forward with a new deal. In reality, however, this was a signal for Israel to go on the offensive. It just needed an excuse. When Gazan militants linked to the Islamic State (formerly ISIS), but not Hamas, kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers, Netanyahu had his excuse.

Israel’s latest bombing campaign has already left nearly 200 Palestinians dead. Roughly 70 percent are civilians; more than 30 of the victims are children. Israeli bombs have fallen on houses, apartment buildings, a disability center, a café. Foreigners have even volunteered to be human shields at a hospital that has already been struck twice. The Israeli Defense Forces maintain that they warn residents of a building beforehand of a strike, but this practice is inconsistent.

Some Israelis refer to their periodic shelling of the Palestinian territory as “mowing the lawn.” It is a disturbing metaphor because it is so indiscriminate. They don’t talk about “weeding the garden” or “pruning the trees.” A lawnmower cuts down everything in its path—grass, weeds, wildflowers. Also, a lawn needs constant mowing, suggesting that Israel plans to conduct bombing campaigns on a seasonal basis.

But Netanyahu may well see an opportunity to eliminate Hamas altogether. The organization no longer can count on support from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Syria’s Assad. Ties with Iran were also strained by the support Hamas provided to rebels fighting in Syria. Nor can the territory rely on supplies coming in through tunnels from the Sinai. Those to the right of Netanyahu—unbelievably, the Israeli political spectrum has such ultraviolent frequencies—are reportedly pressing the government to launch a ground offensive. Mowing the lawn would then quickly become a scorched earth policy.

It’s not a fair fight. The casualty rates are grotesquely asymmetrical. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system has reduced the number of casualties on the Israeli side to a single death so far. Gazans have fled by the thousands to the southern part of the territory while Israelis have set up plastic chairs on a mountain overlook to watch the bombs explode in Gaza as if they were fireworks.

In this way, Israel has entered the same murky moral territory that the United States entered during the conflicts in Kosovo and Libya. It is currently waging effectively risk-free warfare. Governments that don’t have to deal with public response to the deaths of either soldiers or civilians are freed of the conventional political calculus involved in prosecuting a war. Such a government may also be less willing to compromise, for there is no significant counterweight to military action, at least when it comes to aerial attacks.

So far, however, it’s been Hamas that has rejected the latest ceasefire, brokered by Egypt. Hamas has its reasons. It wants the release of its members who were rearrested in June after being set free in a deal in 2011. And it wants an end to the blockade that has turned Gaza into a virtual prison for its inhabitants. But Egypt’s deal didn’t reflect any of these concerns.

The major players continue to violate the most fundamental rule of conflict resolution: taking into consideration the underlying interests of all parties to the conflict. The problem goes back at least to 2006, when Hamas won an election that Israel and the United States failed to recognize.

Netanyahu still believes that he can bomb Gazans into changing their underlying interests. The real question is: how long will the Obama administration persist in supporting this delusion?


John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.


America in Decline: The Empire as Basket Case

Reprinted from TomDispatch.com with permission of the author.

By Tom Engelhardt

The Age of Impunity

For America’s national security state, this is the age of impunity.  Nothing it does — torture, kidnapping, assassination, illegal surveillance, you name it — will ever be brought to court.  For none of its beyond-the-boundaries acts will anyone be held accountable.  The only crimes that can now be committed in official Washington are by those foolish enough to believe that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.  I’m speaking of the various whistleblowers and leakers who have had an urge to let Americans know what deeds and misdeeds their government is committing in their name but without their knowledge.  They continue to pay a price in accountability for their acts that should, by comparison, stun us all.

As June ended, the New York Times front-paged an account of an act of corporate impunity that may, however, be unique in the post-9/11 era (though potentially a harbinger of things to come).  In 2007, as journalist James Risen tells it, Daniel Carroll, the top manager in Iraq for the rent-a-gun company Blackwater, one of the warrior corporations that accompanied the U.S. military to war in the twenty-first century, threatened Jean Richter, a government investigator sent to Baghdad to look into accounts of corporate wrongdoing.

Here, according to Risen, is Richter’s version of what happened when he, another government investigator, and Carroll met to discuss Blackwater’s potential misdeeds in that war zone:

“Mr. Carroll said ‘that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,’ Mr. Richter wrote in a memo to senior State Department officials in Washington. He noted that Mr. Carroll had formerly served with Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite unit. ‘Mr. Carroll’s statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine,’ Mr. Richter stated in his memo. ‘I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.’”

When officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world, heard what had happened, they acted promptly.  They sided with the Blackwater manager, ordering Richter and the investigator who witnessed the scene out of the country (with their inquiry incomplete).  And though a death threat against an American official might, under other circumstances, have led a CIA team or a set of special ops guys to snatch the culprit off the streets of Baghdad, deposit him on a Navy ship for interrogation, and then leave him idling in Guantanamo or in jail in the United States awaiting trial, in this case no further action was taken.

Power Centers But No Power to Act

Think of the response of those embassy officials as a get-out-of-jail-free pass in honor of a new age.  For the various rent-a-gun companies, construction and supply outfits, and weapons makers that have been the beneficiaries of the wholesale privatization of American war since 9/11, impunity has become the new reality.  Pull back the lens further and the same might be said more generally about America’s corporate sector and its financial outfits.  There was, after all, no accountability for the economic meltdown of 2007-2008.  Not a single significant figure went to jail for bringing the American economy to its knees. (And many such figures made out like proverbial bandits in the government bailout and revival of their businesses that followed.)

Meanwhile, in these years, the corporation itself was let loose to run riot.  Long a “person” in the legal world, it became ever more person-like, benefitting from a series of Supreme Court decisions that hobbled unions and ordinary Americans even as it gave the corporation ever more of the rights and attributes of a citizen on the loose.  Post-9/11, the corporate world gained freedom of expression, the freedom of the purse, as well as the various freedoms that staggering inequality and hoards of money offer.  Corporate entities gained, among other things, the right to flood the political system with money, and most recently, at least in a modest way, freedom of religion.

In other words, two great power centers have been engorging themselves in twenty-first-century America: there was an ever-expanding national security state, ever less accountable to anyone, ever less overseen by anyone, ever more deeply enveloped in secrecy, ever more able to see others and less transparent itself, ever more empowered by a secret court system and a body of secret law whose judgments no one else could be privy to; and there was an increasingly militarized corporate state, ever less accountable to anyone, ever less overseen by outside forces, ever more sure that the law was its possession.  These two power centers are now triumphant in our world.  They command the landscape against what may be less effective opposition than at any moment in our history.

In both cases, no matter how you tote it up, it’s been an era of triumphalism.  Measure it any way you want: by the rising Dow Jones Industrial Average or the expanding low-wage economy, by the power of “dark money” to determine American politics in 1% elections or the rising wages of CEOs and the stagnating wages of their workers, by the power of billionaires and the growth of poverty, by the penumbra of secrecy and classification spreading across government operations and the lessening ability of the citizen to know what’s going on, or by the growing power of both the national security state and the corporation to turn your life into an open book.  Look anywhere and some version of the same story presents itself — of ascendant power in the boardrooms and the backrooms, and of a sense of impunity that accompanies it.

Whether you’re considering the power of the national security state or the corporate sector, their moment is now.  And what a moment it is — for them.  Their success seems almost complete.  And yet that only begins to tell the strange tale of our American times, because if that power is ascendant, it seems incapable of being translated into classic American power.  The more successful those two sectors become, the less the U.S. seems capable of wielding its power effectively in any traditional sense, domestically or abroad.

Anyone can feel it, hence the recent Pew Research Center poll indicating a striking diminution in recent years of Americans who think the U.S. is exceptional, the greatest of all nations.  By 2011, only 38% of Americans thought that; today, the figure has dropped to 28%, and — a harbinger of future American attitudes — just 15% among 18-to-29-year-olds.  And no wonder.  By many measures the U.S. may remain the wealthiest, most powerful nation on the planet, but in recent years its ability to accomplish anything, no less achieve national or imperial success, has shrunk drastically.

The power centers remain, but in some still-hard-to-grasp way, the power to accomplish anything seems to be draining from a country that was once the great can-do nation on the planet.  On this, the record is both dismal and clear.  To say that the American political system is in a kind of gridlock or paralysis from which — given electoral prospects in 2014 and 2016 — there can be no escape is to say the obvious.  It’s a commonplace of news reports to suggest, for example, that in this midterm election year Congress and the president will be capable of accomplishing nothing together (except perhaps avoiding another actual government shutdown).  Nada, zip, zero.

The president acts in relatively minimalist ways by executive order, Congress threatens to sue over his use of those orders, and (as novelist Kurt Vonnegut would once have said) so it goes.  In the meantime, Congress has proven itself unable to act even when it comes to what once would have been the no-brainers of American life.  It has, for instance, been struggling simply to fund a highway bill that would allow for ordinary repair work on the nation’s system of roads, even though the fund for such work is running dry and jobs will be lost.

This sort of thing is but a symptom in a country of immense wealth whose infrastructure is crumbling and which lacks a single mile of high-speed rail.  In all of this, in the rise of poverty and a minimum-wage economy, in a loss — particularly for minorities — of the wealth that went with home ownership, what can be seen is the untracked rise of a Third World country inside a First World one, a powerless America inside the putative global superpower.

An Exceptional Kind of Decline

And speaking of the “sole superpower,” it remains true that no combination of other militaries can compare with the U.S. military or the moneys the country continues to put into it and into the research and development of weaponry of the most futuristic sort.  The U.S. national security budget remains a Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not-style infusion of tax dollars into the national security state, something no other combination of major countries comes close to matching.

In addition, the U.S. still maintains hundreds of military bases and outposts across the planet (including, in recent years, ever more bases for our latest techno-wonder weapon, the drone).  In 2014, it still garrisons the planet in a way that no other imperial power has ever done.  In fact, it continues to sport all the trappings of a great empire, with an army impressive enough that our last two presidents have regularly resorted to one unembarrassed image to describe it: “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known.”

And yet, recent history is clear: that military has proven incapable of winning its wars against minor (and minority) insurgencies globally, just as Washington, for all its firepower, military and economic, has had a remarkably difficult time imposing its desires just about anywhere on the planet.  Though it may still look like a superpower and though the power of its national security state may still be growing, Washington seems to have lost the ability to translate that power into anything resembling success.

Today, the U.S. looks less like a functioning and effective empire than an imperial basket case, unable to bring its massive power to bear effectively from Germany to Syria, Iraq to Afghanistan, Libya to the South China Sea, the Crimea to Africa.  And stranger yet, this remains true even though it has no imperial competitors to challenge it.  Russia is a rickety energy state, capable of achieving its version of imperial success only along its own borders, and China, clearly the rising economic power on the planet, though flexing its military muscles locally in disputed oil-rich waters, visibly has no wish to challenge the U.S. military anywhere far from home.

All in all, the situation is puzzling indeed.  Despite much talk about the rise of a multi-polar world, this still remains in many ways a unipolar one, which perhaps means that the wounds Washington has suffered on numerous fronts in these last years are self-inflicted.

Just what kind of decline this represents remains to be seen.  What does seem clearer today is that the rise of the national security state and the triumphalism of the corporate sector (along with the much publicized growth of great wealth and striking inequality in the country) has been accompanied by a decided diminution in the power of the government to function domestically and of the imperial state to impose its will anywhere on Earth.


Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of  The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

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 Tom Engelhardt


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