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How an allegedly violent white nationalist spent decades in the U.S. military undetected

VICE News - February 23, 2019 - 11:36am

Christopher Hasson, a self-avowed white nationalist who once considered himself a skinhead, managed to fly under Pentagon officials’ radar for decades. He was background-checked multiple times as he rose up the ranks, eventually becoming a Coast Guard lieutenant.

But what prosecutors describe as his extremist leanings, his desire to establish a “white homeland,” and his idolization of mass murderers didn’t come to light until he was investigated for ordering synthetic opioids from Mexico.

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors filed court documents that laid bare his alleged plans to carry out a domestic terror attack — a dramatic twist in a case that seemingly began as a straightforward investigation into his reported Tramadol habit.

Prosecutors say that Hasson was stockpiling weapons as part of a plot to massacre well-known Democrats and journalists. In draft email to a neo-Nazi leader, Hasson allegedly wrote about the need for “focused violence” to establish a “white homeland,” and mentioned that he still had friends in skinhead groups.

“The defendant intends to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country,” prosecutors said, signalling that they intended to pursue additional charges.

The fact that Hasson spent some 30 years in the U.S. military has raised new questions about the thoroughness of the Department of Defense’s background checks and the efficacy of decades-long efforts to flush out white supremacy from its ranks.

National security experts told VICE News that the department has some safeguards in place to keep alleged extremists like Hasson out of the military. But, particularly for those without high-level security clearance, those protections generally rely on self-reporting or background checks.

In an August 2017 email, Hasson said he was a skinhead until he joined the Marine Corps in 1988, according to federal court documents.

The military disqualifies anyone with disclosed skinhead ties, Marine Corps Spokesman Maj. Brian Block told VICE News, and would have done so if Hasson had disclosed such ties.

Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Brian Block told VICE News that, had Hasson disclosed his alleged involvement in a skinhead group prior to joining the military, he would have been disqualified from the recruitment process.

Hasson’s military career

Hasson rose to the rank of corporal during his five years in Marines, then spent two years in the Army National Guard. He eventually got a job with the Coast Guard in 1996 as an electronics technician.

In 2012, he was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer, and promoted again in 2015 to lieutenant, a Coast Guard spokesperson confirmed to VICE News. The following year, he was transferred to Coast Guard headquarters in D.C., where he’s been working as an acquisitions officer for its National Security Cutter program, which is the largest class of Coast Guard commissioned vessels.

“The defendant intends to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country”

The Coast Guard started investigating Hasson last fall, after the agency’s “Insider Threat” program, which relies on employees to report suspicious activity among coworkers, flagged concerns about him. They didn’t say what the concerns were, but charging documents noted that he was stashing the synthetic opioid Tramadol at his desk at work.

Hasson’s access to Coast Guard Headquarters has been revoked, and he remains on active duty pending the outcome of the case, Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Barry Lane told VICE News.

The vetting process

Like all recruits seeking a job in the military Hasson would have undergone medical and psychological checks. He would have also been required to fill out out a lengthy questionnaire called an SF86, completed by all military personnel and prospective employees for national security positions.

The form asks applicants “Are you now or have you EVER been a member of an organization dedicated to terrorism, either with an awareness of the organization's dedication to that end, or with the specific intent to further such activities?”

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which issues the form, defines terrorism for this purpose as criminal acts that “involve violence or are dangerous to human life and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”

The form also asks whether an applicant had ever been a member of an organization that advocates for violence, or commits violence with the goal of discouraging others from exercising their constitutional rights.

Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer, said “Assuming he was never subject to a polygraph, it is entirely plausible he was able to conceal his skinhead background from the U.S. government.”

Department of Defense employees receive one of three security clearances: Confidential, which is the lowest; Secret; and Top Secret. In 2005, Hasson received a “Secret” level security clearance, but was not given access to any information that would have required a polygraph. Military personnel hires working on national security are required to fill out that same questionnaire, and Hasson would likely have been required to fill it out again for other jobs at the Department of Defense.

Moss said at least one of the questions on the new hire form may have applied to Hasson, but that since he was accepted into the defense department he presumably answered “no.”

We don’t know much about the nature of alleged Hasson’s skinhead background or the extent of his involvement. Those details are key to understanding whether his views and activities should have been flagged when he was recruited, says Mark Zaid, a national security law expert and founder of the James Madison Project, an advocacy group that promotes government transparency.

“There’s a distinction between if he holds white nationalist views but is really just some loner in his own mind and world, even if he has Hitler pictures all over his home, and some of the folks who were at Charlottesville and engaged in physical assault,” said Zaid.

To receive a “Secret” level clearance, Hasson also would have been subject to a background check. For that level of access, investigators might talk to a former employer or two, or a couple of references that he provided, said Moss. If he’d been up for a “Top Secret” clearance level, investigators would have gone deeper into his background, including interviewing his friends, neighbors, and former colleagues.

“Assuming he was never subject to a polygraph, it is entirely plausible he was able to conceal his skinhead background from the U.S. government.”

“Depending on who the government investigators interviewed as part of their vetting, it is entirely conceivable they never met anyone who disclosed Hasson’s white supremacist views,” Moss said. “The clearance vetting process is inherently premised on trust in disclosures by the person being vetted.”

A spokesperson for the Coast Guard also noted in a statement to VICE News that Coast Guard military personnel are “prohibited from advocating supremacist doctrine, ideology, or causes.”

Extremism in the Ranks

Moss said that commanding officers will generally keep an eye on new recruits and “address any possible issues that arise, including taking disciplinary action if disturbing radicalization is evident.”

“The problem, of course, is that it is not always apparent what is going on and the Department of Defense is very careful to avoid becoming the political morality police,” said Moss.

Researchers say that right-wing extremism in the military is a persistent problem, and a report by the Military Times in 2017 found that one in four troops had encountered white nationalism in the ranks. After a ProPublica report exposed three service members with ties to the violent neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen last year, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) wrote a letter to former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis asking for information about what the Pentagon is doing to screen recruits for extremist ties.

When Hasson joined the military in 1988 he served in a marine detachment aboard a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier called the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Two years earlier, and at the height of the “white power” movement – Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger ordered military personnel to cease participation in white supremacist organizations.

After three soldiers who were also neo-Nazi skinheads were accused of committing two racially-motivated murders in December 1995, the Pentagon launched a task force to investigate the issue. That task force found persisting “indications of extremist and racist attitudes among soldiers.” In response, the military broadened its policy on extremism to give more discretion to commanders to report service members’ beliefs or behavior.

And in 2000, the Department of the Army released guidance instructing military personnel how to comply with the policy. The guidelines ranged from what kind of tattoos they can have to how commanders should handle extremist activity in their ranks.

But Kathleen Belew, a history professor at the University of Chicago and author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” said military policy has consistently lagged behind the problem of extremism in the ranks.

Belew said that’s in part because defense officials have to toe a line between addressing the problem and avoiding tarnishing the reputation of military service members broadly. They also run the risk of limiting their freedom of expression.

But this lag, Belew said, has allowed people like Hasson to fall through the cracks and fomented a decades-long tradition of military personnel joining white power or far-right extremist movements. She added that they post a particular risk by increasing the violent potential of these groups.

“Active duty service members and veterans have worked to move things from military space to civilian spaces — uniform and language, all the way up to tactics and weapons — and train other white power activists in violent methods,” Belew said.

In this undated handout photo provided by U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, the collection of weapons and ammunition federal agents say they found in Christopher Paul Hasson's Silver Spring apartment are shown in Maryland. (Photo by U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland via Getty Images)

New York Times Provides Cover for Austerity Cranks

FAIR - February 22, 2019 - 7:06pm


It’s not uncommon to read news stories that quite explicitly identify economic mismanagement. For example, news reports on the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe routinely (and correctly) attribute the cause to the poor economic management by its leaders. We will see similar attributions of mismanagement to a wide range of developing countries.

One place we will never see the term mismanagement or any equivalent term applied is in reference to the austerity imposed on the euro zone countries by the European Commission, acting largely at the direction of the German government. In fact, major news outlets, like the New York Times, seem to go out of their way to deny the incredible harm done to euro zone economies, and to the lives of tens of millions of people in these countries, as a result of needless austerity.

A decade ago, it would at least have been an arguable point as to whether austerity, meaning budget cuts, in the wake of the Great Recession, was reasonable policy. There was some research suggesting that the boost to confidence from lower budget deficits could spur enough investment and consumption to offset the impact on demand of reductions in government spending.

Since then, however, we have far more evidence on the impact of deficit reduction in the context of an economy coming out of recession. There have been numerous studies, most importantly several from the International Monetary Fund’s research department, which show that lower deficits in this context slow growth and raise unemployment.

Furthermore, they show that periods of high unemployment have a lasting impact as a result of workers losing skills, and companies and governments in a downturn foregoing investment that they would have undertaken if the economy were closer to its potential level of output. This means that insistence on deficit reduction not only led to one-time drops in output and employment, but could reduce potential output by trillions of dollars over subsequent years.

At this point, the advocates of fiscal austerity, in the context of economies that are operating well below potential GDP, are ignoring a large body of evidence in favor of personal prejudices. These people should be viewed like global warming deniers or creationists. They are not credible people, and their policies have inflicted enormous damage where they have been put in place.

The New York Times (2/14/19) reports that seems that the shrinking of the middle class “should not be happening” in Spain, because “the country was feted by European policymakers as a model for the recovery, having tightened its belt to exit a deep recession.”

Incredibly, instead of pointing out that the advocates of austerity have been shown wrong, most reporting continues to treat their policies as being credible, and in fact often works to hide evidence of its failure. The New York Times (2/14/19) gave us a great example of this practice in an article on the decline of the middle class across Europe, with a focus on Spain.

Spain has been especially hard hit by the demands for austerity. In contrast to Greece and Italy, Spain had actually been running budget surpluses in the years leading up to the crisis. Its debt to GDP ratio was just 22.3 percent when the crisis hit, less than half of Germany’s, so there was no story of profligate government spending.

What Spain did have was a massive housing bubble, fueled largely by German banks, who apparently were not very good at their business. When the bubbles burst in Spain and elsewhere, the economy in Spain was especially hard hit, with the unemployment rate crossing 26 percent in 2013. While the unemployment rate has come down in the last five years, the number of people employed is still more than 1 million less than before the crisis.

Spain is a country that could have benefited enormously from a large-scale stimulus program, both domestically and the across the eurozone, since much of its GDP is exported. Instead, the great minds in charge of the euro zone’s economic policy insisted that Spain had to reduce its budget deficits to comply with the euro’s rules.

Given this history, the cause of the decline of the middle class in Spain seems about as clear as the causes of a person’s mobility problems after they have been run over by a truck. Instead, the New York Times made it all seem very mysterious, telling readers:

Spain’s economy, like the rest of Europe’s, is growing faster than before the 2008 financial crisis and creating jobs. But the work they could find pays a fraction of the combined 80,000-euro annual income they once earned. By summer, they figure they will no longer be able to pay their mortgage. [The “they” refers to a formerly middle-class couple who lost jobs in the downturn, and had to find new jobs at far lower pay.]

It is a precarious situation felt by millions of Europeans.

Since the recession of the late 2000s, the middle class has shrunk in over two-thirds of the European Union, echoing a similar decline in the United States and reversing two decades of expansion. While middle-class households are more prevalent in Europe than in the United States — around 60 percent, compared with just over 50 percent in America — they face unprecedented levels of vulnerability….

The hurdles to keeping their status, or recovering lost ground, are higher, given post-recession labor dynamics. The loss of middle-income jobs, weakened social protections and skill mismatches have reduced economic mobility and widened income inequality. Automation and globalization are deepening the divides.

Just about every part of this story is wrong. Spain and most other European countries are not growing faster than before the recession. According to the IMF, Spain’s economy grew at a 2.7 percent rate in 2018 and is projected to grow 2.2 percent this year. By comparison, it grew at an average rate of more than 3.9 percent in 2006 and 2007, the last two years before the recession.

But more importantly, the immediately relevant factor is cumulative growth, not a single year. As a result of its sharp downturn and weak recovery, Spain’s per capita GDP was just 3.0 percent higher in 2018 than it was in 2007. By comparison, coming out of the Great Depression in the United States, per capita income in 1940 was more than 8.0 percent higher than in 1929.

Given these basic growth numbers, it would be surprising if Spain’s middle class had not taken a big hit. While other factors, like the weakening of labor market protections, have made its plight worse, the dismal story on growth goes a very long way in explaining the decline in Spain and Europe’s middle class.

In the New York Times‘ framing (12/11/18), increasing the income of workers is at odds with a “push to revive economy.”

Unfortunately, this sort of story in the New York Times is not an exception. The paper has repeatedly told readers that policies that undermined the welfare state and redistributed money upward, were being done for the purpose of revitalizing the economy. This was especially the case with Emanuel Macron in France (here, here and here). In these and other cases, the media took at face value the claims of politicians that the reason for the measures was to help workers, not to reduce their bargaining power, which is their immediate effect.

To be clear, labor market regulations can be excessive, and there are certainly contexts in which streamlining them would end up benefiting most of the labor force, even if such streamlining could hurt narrow groups of workers. But the idea that excessive labor market regulation, rather than inept macroeconomic policy, is the main problem limiting growth and reducing employment in France, Spain and elsewhere in Europe does not have any evidence to support it.

David Howell, Andrew Glyn, John Schmitt and I did a study showing the limited impact of labor market protections on employment more than a decade ago. Based on our work, the OECD did its own analysis, and reached similar conclusions.

In short, the New York Times and other media outlets have been engaged in a great exercise in misdirection. While the blame for Europe’s economic problems over the last decade can very clearly be laid at the doorstep of its leaders who have insisted on austerity, the media consistently ignore evidence that is as clear as day. They instead treat the problems facing Europe’s workers as being mysterious in origin, or due primarily to an overly generous welfare state and excessive regulations that protect workers. This is some seriously biased and/or misinformed reporting.

A version of this post appeared on CEPR’s blog Beat the Press (2/22/18).

You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com (Twitter:@NYTimes). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.


Venezuela Coverage Takes Us Back to Golden Age of Lying About Latin America

FAIR - February 22, 2019 - 5:52pm


Venezuelan pharmacy at a time when Time (5/19/16) was telling readers, “Basic medicines like aspirin are nowhere to be found” in Venezuela.

I was sitting in my apartment in Caracas, Venezuela, reading the online edition of Time magazine (5/19/16), which carried a report that there was not even something as basic as aspirin to be found anywhere in Venezuela: “Basic medicines like aspirin are nowhere to be found.”

I walked out of the apartment to the nearest pharmacy, four blocks away, where I found plenty of aspirin, as well as acetaminophen (generic Tylenol) and ibuprofen (generic Advil), in a well-stocked pharmacy with a knowledgeable professional staff that would be the envy of any US drugstore.

A few days after the Time story, CNBC (6/22/16) carried a claim that there was no acetaminophen to be found anywhere, either: “Basic things like Tylenol aren’t even available.” That must have taken the Pfizer Corporation by surprise, since it was their Venezuelan subsidiary, Pfizer Venezuela SA, which produced the acetaminophen I purchased. (Neither Time writer Ian Bremer nor CNBC commentator Richard Washington was in Venezuela, and there was no evidence offered that either of them had ever been there.)

I purchased all three products, plus cough syrup and other over-the-counter medications, because I doubted that anyone in the United States would believe me if I couldn’t produce the medications in their packages.

Unrelenting drumbeat of lies

Venezuelan Youth Orchestra in New York City, 2016

In fact, I myself wouldn’t have believed anyone who made such claims without being able to produce the proof, so intense and unrelenting has been the drumbeat of lies. When the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela gave a concert in New York in early 2016, before I moved to Caracas, I went there thinking, “Gee, I hope that the members of the orchestra are all well-dressed and well-fed.” Yes, of course they were all well-dressed and well-fed!

When I mentioned this in a talk at the University of Vermont, a student told me that he’d had the same feeling when he was following the Pan American soccer championship. He wondered if the Venezuelan players would be able to play, because they’d be so weakened from lack of food. In fact, he said, the Venezuelan team played superbly, and went much further in the competition than expected, since Venezuela has historically been a baseball country, unlike its soccer-obsessed neighbors Brazil and Colombia.

Hard as it may be for followers of the US media to believe, Venezuela is a country where people play sports, go to work, go to classes, go to the beach, go to restaurants and attend concerts. They publish and read newspapers of all political stripes, from right to center-right, to center, to center-left, to left. They produce and watch programs on television, on TV channels that are also of all political stripes.

Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (photo: TeleSur)

CNN was ridiculed recently (Redacted Tonight, 2/1/19) when it carried a report on Venezuela, “in the socialist utopia that now leaves virtually every stomach empty,” followed immediately with a cut to a demonstration by the right-wing opposition, where everybody appeared to be quite well-fed.

But surely that’s because most of the anti-government demonstrators were upper-middle class, a viewer might think. The proletarians at pro-government demonstrations must be suffering severe hunger.

Not if one consults photos of the massive pro-government demonstration on February 2, where people seemed to be doing pretty well. This is in spite of the Trump administration’s extreme economic squeeze on the country, reminiscent of the “make the economy scream” strategy used by the Nixon administration and the CIA against the democratic government of President Salvador Allende in Chile, as well as many other democratically elected governments.

Rival demonstrations

Últimas Noticias on Twitter (2/1/19): “Capriles: The Parties Weren’t Supporting the Auto-Inauguration of Guaidó”

That demonstration showed considerable support for the government of President Nicolás Maduro and widespread rejection of Donald Trump’s choice for president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó. Guaidó, who proclaimed himself to be president of the country and was recognized minutes later by Trump, even though a public opinion poll showed that 81 percent of Venezuelans had never heard of him, comes from the ultra-right faction in Venezuelan politics.

The pro-Maduro demonstration suggested, not surprisingly, that Guaidó had failed to win much popular support outside the wealthy and upper-middle class. But Guaidó couldn’t even win support from many of them. The day before rival rallies February 2, Henrique Capriles, the leader of a less extreme right-wing faction, gave an interview to the AFP that appeared in Últimas Noticias (2/1/19), the most widely read newspaper in Venezuela. In it, Capriles said that most of the opposition had not supported Guaidó’s self-proclamation as president. That may explain the surprisingly weak turnout at Guaidó’s demonstration, held in the wealthiest district of Caracas, and obviously outshone by the pro-government demonstration on the city’s main boulevard.

The New York Times did not show pictures of that pro-government demonstration, limiting itself to a claim by unnamed “experts” (2/2/19) that the pro-government demonstration was smaller than the anti-government one.

Readers can look at the photos of the rival demonstrations and judge for themselves. Both groups did their best to pull out their faithful, knowing how much is riding on a show of popular support. The stridently right-wing opposition paper El Nacional (2/3/19) carried a photo of the right-wing opposition demonstration:

If that was the best photo it could find, it was remarkably unimpressive compared to the photos in the left-wing papers CCS (2/2/19)….

…and Correo del Orinoco  (2/3/19), which were only too happy to publish pictures of the pro-government event:

Unlikely humanitarian

A huge anti-government demonstration was supposed to make possible a coup d’état, a maneuver the CIA has used repeatedly—in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964 and many more, straight through to Honduras in 2009 and Ukraine in 2015. The turnout at the Trump administration’s demonstration was disappointing, and the coup d’état never occurred. The result is that Trump has expressed a sudden interest in getting food and medicine to Venezuelans (FAIR.org, 2/9/19).

Trump, who let thousands die in Puerto Rico and put small children in cages on the Mexican border, seems to be an unlikely champion of humanitarian aid to Latin Americans, but the corporate media have straight-facedly pretended to believe it.

The CBC (2/15/19) acknowledged that the bridge depicted as being blocked to humanitarian aid has in fact never been opened.

Most have suppressed reports that the Red Cross and the UN are providing aid to Venezuela in cooperation with the Venezuelan government, and have protested against US “aid” that is obviously a political and military ploy.

The corporate media have continued to peddle the Trump-as-humanitarian-champion line, even after it was revealed that a US plane was caught smuggling weapons into Venezuela, and even after Trump named Iran/Contra criminal Elliott Abrams to head up Venezuelan operations. Abrams was in charge of the State Department Human Rights Office during the 1980s, when weapons to US-backed terrorists in Nicaragua were shipped in US planes disguised as “humanitarian” relief.

Canada’s CBC (2/15/19) at least had the honesty to acknowledge that it had been had in swallowing a lie from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the Venezuelan government had blockaded a bridge between Colombia and Venezuela to prevent aid shipments. The newly built bridge has not yet been opened: it has never been open, apparently because of hostile relations between the two countries, but the non-opening long predates the US government’s alleged food and medicine shipments.

The absurdity of $20 million of US food and medicine aid to a country of 30 million, when US authorities have stolen $30 billion from Venezuela in oil revenue, and take $30 million every day, needs no comment.

‘Failed state’

The Financial Times (4/11/16) reported in 2016 that Venezuela was a “failed state,” “pure chaos” with “something akin to a civil war going on.”

The campaign of disinformation and outright lies about Venezuela was kicked off in 2016 by the Financial Times. Ironically, it chose the 14th anniversary of the 2002 failed coup d’etat against President Hugo Chávez—April 11, 2016—to claim that Venezuela was in “chaos” and “civil war,” and that Venezuela was a “failed state.” As with the Time and CNBC reports, the Financial Times reporter was not in Venezuela, and there was no evidence in the report that he had ever been there.

I asked right-wing friends in Venezuela whether they agreed with the Financial Times claims. “Well, no, of course not,” said one, stating the obvious, “there is no chaos and no civil war. But Venezuela is a failed state, since it has not been able to provide for all the medical needs of the population.” By that standard, every country in Latin America is a failed state, and obviously the United States too.

The New York Times has run stories (5/15/16, 10/1/16) claiming that conditions in Venezuelan hospitals are horrendous. The reports enraged Colombians in New York, who have noted that a patient can die on the doorstep of a Colombian public hospital if the patient has no insurance. In Venezuela, in contrast, patients are treated for free.

One Colombian resident in New York said that his mother had recently returned to Bogotá after several years in the United States, and had not had time to obtain medical insurance. She fell ill, and went to a public hospital. The hospital left her in the waiting room for four hours, then sent her to a second hospital. The second hospital did the same, leaving her for four hours and then sending her to a third hospital. The third hospital was preparing to send her to a fourth when she protested that she was bleeding internally and was feeling weak.

“I’m sorry, Señora, if you don’t have medical insurance, no public hospital in this country will look at you,” said the woman at the desk. “Your only hope is to go to a private hospital, but be prepared to pay a great deal of money up front.” Luckily, she had a wealthy friend, who took her to a private hospital, and paid a great deal of money up front.

Such conditions in Colombia and other neoliberal states go unmentioned in the US corporate media, which have treated the Colombian government, long a right-wing murder-squad regime, as a US ally (Extra!, 2/09).

“Latin American Juvenile Cardiac Hospital, Caracas: It’s Chávez’s Fault!” (YouTube, 3/31/11)

Well, OK, but are the reports of conditions in Venezuelan hospitals true or grossly exaggerated? “They are much better than they were ten years ago,” said a friend who works in a Caracas hospital. In fact, he said, ten years before, the hospital where he worked did not exist, and new hospitals are now being opened. One was dedicated recently in the town of El Furrial, and another was opened in El Vigia, as reported by the centrist newspaper Últimas Noticias (3/3/17, 4/27/18).  The government has also greatly expanded others, like a burn center in Caracas and three new operating rooms at the hospital in Villa Cura.

Meanwhile, the government is inaugurating a new high-speed train line, The Dream of Hugo Chávez, in March (Correo del Orinoco, 2/6/19). Since the US media have never allowed reporting on any accomplishments in the years since  Chávez took office in 1999, but only any alleged, exaggerated or, as noted, completely invented shortcomings, readers have to consult an alternative history. Here is one offered by a Venezuelan on YouTube (3/31/11): “Por Culpa de Chávez” (“It’s Chávez’s Fault”). Depicting new hospitals, transit lines, housing, factories and so on built under Chavismo, it might help many understand why the Maduro government continues to enjoy such strong backing from so many people.

Economic warfare

This is not to minimize Venezuela’s problems. The country was hit, like other oil-producing countries, and as it was in the 1980s and ’90s, by the collapse of oil prices. That failed to bring down the government, so now the Trump administration has created an artificial crisis by using extreme economic warfare to deprive the country of foreign exchange needed to import basic necessities.  The Trump measures seem designed to prevent any economic recovery.

Like any country at war (and the Trump administration has placed Venezuela under wartime conditions, and is threatening immediate invasion), there have been shortages, and products that can mostly be found on the black market. This should surprise no one: During World War II in the US, a cornucopia of a country not seriously threatened with invasion, there was strict rationing of products like sugar, coffee and rubber.

The Venezuelan government has made food, medicine and pharmaceuticals available at extremely low prices, but much of the merchandise has made its way to the black market, or over the border to Colombia, depriving Venezuelans of supplies and ruining Colombian producers. The government recently abandoned some of the heavy price subsidies, which resulted initially in higher prices. Over the past few weeks, prices have been coming down as supplies stayed in Venezuela, especially as the government gained greater control over the Colombian border to prevent smuggling.

There has never been a serious discussion of any of this in the US corporate media, much less any discussion of the campaign of lies or the Trump administration warfare. There has been no comparison with conditions in the 1980s and ’90s, when Venezuela’s neoliberal government imposed IMF economic recipes, resulting in a popular rebellion, the bloody 1989 Caracazo, when wholesale government repression took the lives of hundreds (according to the government at the time) or thousands (according to government critics), and martial law took the lives of many more.

Efforts by the right-wing opposition to provoke a similar uprising, and another Caracazo that could justify a foreign “humanitarian intervention,” have failed repeatedly. So the US administration and corporate media simply resort to the most extreme lying about Latin America that has been seen since the Reagan administration wars of the 1980s.


Why protesters in Haiti are demanding the president step down

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 4:51pm

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Visitors driving under an unfinished bridge on a busy road here in Haiti’s capital might just think it's part of a construction project. But to millions of angry Haitians, the concrete slab has become a glaring symbol of the corruption that holds the impoverished Caribbean nation hostage and has sparked deadly street protests.

Funds to build the bridge came from a loan that Venezuela gave to Haiti for reconstruction projects following the devastating 2010 earthquake. Since then, politicians have racked up nearly $2 billion in debt to the so-called PetroCaribe scheme. Most of the projects the money was intended for — including housing and government buildings — remain either incomplete or nonexistent.

A late-2017 Senate report into how the PetroCaribe funds were used came to a definitive conclusion: "The PetroCaribe fund has been the object of embezzlement, embezzlement, embezzlement." The report also named President Jovenel Moïse himself, claiming that before he was president his private company received funds to build a road that never materialized.

Since the release of the report, Haitians have been demanding the answer to one simple question, first posed by activist/filmmaker Gilbert Mirambeau Jr. He tweeted a picture of himself blindfolded and holding a board that read in Creole: Where is the PetroCaribe money?

“As a humble citizen, I asked, where is my money actually, not yours, where is my money, because I am paying you to do this,“ Gilbert explained to VICE News as he stood near the bridge.

His tweet went viral, and soon after, public anger spilled onto the streets, with tens of thousands protesting over eight consecutive days, at points becoming violent. Since the protests started last year, 7 people have died.

The president has only given one statement on the crisis since it began, refusing to meet the demands of the protesters who want him to step down. Meanwhile, the prime minister, though refusing to take questions, promised to cut some perks of government officials.

VICE News tracked the prime minister, Jean-Henry Céant, to his office. "We are talking about funds that have been stolen, but the theft has to be proven,” he said. He denied the president was using him as a shield but added, “I know one thing. The president has to work with me to find the PetroCaribe money.”

After a lull in street demonstrations over the past five days, the opposition parties are once again calling for people to resume their pressure on the government. In the meantime, life goes on next to the unfinished bridge. People wash in a pool of brown, dirty water, some have only one meal a day. And with half the population living on $2 a day, everyone keeps asking: Where is my money?

This segment originally aired February 20, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

‘The Afghan Government Is as Corrupt as Governments Come’ - CounterSpin interview with Phyllis Bennis on Ending the Afghan War

FAIR - February 22, 2019 - 4:49pm

Janine Jackson interviewed Phyllis Bennis about the possibility of ending the Afghan War for the February 15, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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New York Times (1/29/19)

Janine Jackson: Some jokes write themselves. When we learned negotiations on Afghanistan suggested the possibility of an end to the grueling 17-year war, the longest in US history, the New York Times ran a piece headlined, “Fearing What Could Follow a Quick Exit.”

The US invasion and occupation have devastated the country and killed more than 100,000 people. But consider, cautions the Washington Post:An end to the Afghan war is desirable, but not at the expense of everything the United States has helped to build there since 2001.”

What and who is missing from such conversations around the current talks about Afghanistan, and from the talks themselves? Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies, and is author of numerous books, including Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer, co-authored with David Wildman. She joins us now in studio. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Phyllis Bennis.

Phyllis Bennis: Great to be with you, Janine.

JJ: Things are in flux; things are changing, absolutely. We’re recording on February 13. What do we know about the nature of these ongoing negotiations?

PB: I would say, first of all, it’s always important for there to be negotiations. Wars end with negotiated settlements, before, during or after massive killing. So having those talks after such a long time is a good thing.

It’s a good thing that the US has finally acknowledged that the Taliban exist. They in fact control, depending on who you believe, somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of the country’s territory. So they’re obviously a force that has to be reckoned with, and has to be part of the negotiations. That’s all good.

If we look at who’s not at the table, then it’s a little more problematic. The Afghan government is not at the table. That’s not the worst thing in the world. The Afghan government is as corrupt as governments come.

The Taliban has refused to talk to the Afghan government on the theory that they are nothing but puppets of the United States, which is mostly true, probably not entirely true. But they certainly are not an independent actor.

More importantly, however, who’s not at the table includes women, crucially, particularly because the US claim is that the war in Afghanistan is grounded in the need to “protect women.” We hear this in the mainstream press all the time.

We also are not hearing from Afghan trade unions, Afghan farmers, Afghan tribal or religious leaders; we’re not hearing from youth leaders. We’re basically not hearing from any of the Afghan people. So that’s a serious problem.

In some ways, a greater problem is who is at the table. So talks between the US and the Taliban—not a bad thing. But on the US side, who’s leading those talks? Well, it’s a guy named Zalmay Khalilzad, who’s a longtime cohort of the Bush family, a longtime oil guy. He worked for Unocal in the 1970s and ‘80s. He was one of these analysts assessing the “threats” they would face in different parts of the world.

And one of the things that he’s most known for—it was written up in the Washington Post, back in the mid-’90s—about an incident that had happened in 1995, I think it was, when Zalmay Khalilzad went to Afghanistan and brought back with him—this is during the Afghan civil war, when the Taliban was fighting against a coalition of warlords known as the Northern Alliance; the Northern Alliance, of course, backed by India at the time against the Taliban, which was backed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US. In that period, he came back to the US, back to Houston, with a delegation of the Taliban to negotiate pipeline deals.

Zalmay Khalilzad (cc photo: Gage Skidmore)

And it was one of those things where it was described with a certain tongue-in-cheek approach in the Post. They described this lavish dinner at some fancy hotel in Houston, and nobody mentioned anything about how the Taliban, even then, was known for its most extreme forms of repression against women; these really medieval kinds of punishments in their courts, that involved amputation for theft, things like that; the destruction of parts of Afghan cultural heritage. None of that was mentioned.

It was all just sort of, “We think these guys are going to win the war, so we should be dealing with them now.” That was under George Bush I. Under George Bush II, Khalilzad became the ambassador, first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. He was later the ambassador to the United Nations.

So he’s been around. He’s a neocon, an oil guy, a Bush guy. And now, all of a sudden, he’s Trump’s guy. So Trump has now appointed him as the special envoy to Afghanistan.

Now, in some ways, that’s kind of great. He speaks several of the local languages. He is a brilliant, urbane and charming diplomat. I remember when he came to the United Nations. Nobody in the mainstream press talked about this, but one of the things that happened was that he was replacing John Bolton, who Bush II had tried and failed to get approved by the Senate as the US ambassador to the UN. Everybody hated Bolton. Nobody wanted to help the US, because Bolton was such a bully.

When he was finally replaced with this charming guy who everybody adored—he was an Afghan, a person of color at the UN representing the US. Wow! It was a whole different story. People could not wait to get him on their side, to have tea with him. He would look into your eyes when he spoke, such a good diplomat, right, representing these terrible positions.

So I remember that very well, and now he’s the one representing the US in talks with his former clients, the Taliban. So what are we supposed to make of that?

JJ: And who’s going to help us make sense of that? Well, it’s going to be, for example, the New York Times, who are saying the primary concern is if the United States troops leave Afghanistan, we’d be “handing over the country to the same ruthless militants that the United States went to war to dislodge.” And they’re talking about the Taliban, and that’s their explanation for the purpose of the war, and it’s in that context that they’re going to talk about the agreement.

Phyllis Bennis: “How much better is it for women under areas not controlled by the Taliban, controlled by what I believe to be an incredibly misogynistic gang of ruthless warlords that’s called the Afghan government, backed by the United States?”

PB: It is sort of extraordinary. There’s a sense in the mainstream press—you see it in the Times, you see it in the Post, you hear it on NPR, you see it on all the network news, you hear it on CNN, you hear it pretty much everywhere—that we maybe should get out relatively soon, but not too fast.

And I’m thinking, “Okay, almost 18 years. How long do we have to occupy the country before we can say it’s not too fast?” I mean, what makes it fast, when we’ve been there for 18 years?

And we should note: You remember, Janine, how much of the press back in 2001, when the US first invaded Afghanistan, and right up until today: A huge amount of the press coverage has focused on the question of women. Now, with some legitimacy; there is no question that the Taliban is one of the most ruthless, misogynistic political forces out there. And the prospect of them holding 50 percent, let alone even more, is a terrible one for the women of Afghanistan.

But what we never hear is, “Well, how different is it?” How much better is it for women under areas not controlled by the Taliban, controlled by what I believe to be an incredibly misogynistic gang of ruthless warlords that’s called the Afghan government, backed by the United States?

It is true that in Kabul, there have been some significant gains for urban women. Schools have been built. There are women in the parliament. There are women in some of the professions. But overwhelmingly, 80 percent of Afghans do not live in the city. They live in tiny rural villages, very far removed from anything that happens in Kabul. And we don’t hear about that in the Times or the Post or NPR or anywhere else.

What we hear about is what’s going to happen to women in Kabul. And that could be bad. It could get worse when the US pulls out.

But I would just note two things about that. No. 1, a statistic: When the US invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban had been in control for about five years. The conditions for women were horrifying. According to the UN, to all the various figures from UNICEF and others, Afghanistan was either the first or second worst place in the world for children to be born and survive.

Today, after 18 years of US occupation supposedly aimed at improving the lives of women, where is Afghanistan on the ratings? Number one in infant mortality, the same place, it has not improved. So that’s No. 1.

No. 2: There was an extraordinary young woman who was the youngest person elected to the Afghan Parliament back in 2004, I guess it was, or ’05, a woman named Malalai Joya. And she said something very interesting about this—again, something you never heard about. She said, when I was having a conversation with her—she was in the US for a while—and I asked her about this question of, “Would it be worse for women, and for civil society in Afghanistan, if and when the US pulls out?”

And she said, “You know, we in civil society, and we women in Afghanistan, we have three big problems, three enemies of our rights. One is the Taliban; they are certainly an enemy of our rights. Two is the Afghan government, certainly an enemy of our rights. And third is the US occupying forces, who are continuing the war, and are certainly responsible for the denial of rights of all of us.” So, she said, “If you in the US can arrange the withdrawal of one of those, get the US troops out, we’ll only have two.” I thought that was a very prescient understanding of the situation.

JJ: Eighteen years doesn’t even really contain the whole breadth of it, because before that, of course, there were years and years of US-backed anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.

PB: Absolutely.

JJ: Some of us remember Dan Rather in a cave, you know, reporting…. And so I was struck by the New York Timesanalysis that US withdrawal “could consign Afghanistan to a protracted, bloody civil war.”

PB: What have we been waging for the last 17 and a half years, if not the second or third iteration of a protracted, bloody civil war?

JJ: Let me ask you, on Afghanistan, if we think, not in an isolationist way, but if we center the priorities of the Afghan people, what criteria would we be using to judge any agreement?

PB: I think, first, the question of who’s at the table, which goes to whose interests are being at least acknowledged, if not recognized. Two, is there any discussion anywhere—there has not been yet—of the need for reparations, compensation for the extraordinary devastation that our years of war have brought to the people of Afghanistan.

Certainly plenty of damage has been done by the Taliban. Plenty has been done by other warlords. Plenty has been done by the Afghan government.

But what the US is directly responsible for, because of the continuing drone war, airstrikes, so much death and destruction…. The notion that we could be convening peace talks and not even acknowledge that, not even begin the conversation about, “How do we begin to help rebuild?”

That’s, to me, one of the indicators that I don’t think we’re going to be hearing too much about in the mainstream press.

JJ: And that, given that our US mainstream press are writing largely for Americans, ought to really be leading the conversation.

Well, while we have you here, Phyllis Bennis, you wrote the book, Understanding the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict, now in its seventh updated edition, and helped found the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. I have to ask you what you are making of the reaction to the comments made by Rep. Ilhan Omar about the influence of AIPAC on US policy.

Twitter (2/10/19)

PB: This was an extraordinary moment. What Ilhan said was that money is the basis for the power of pro-Israel sentiment and pro-Israel resolutions and decisions in the Congress. That’s hardly news. That’s not something that’s so surprising to anybody.

When she was asked, derisively, she took it as a serious question, on the question, “Who do you think is responsible?” Her answer was “AIPAC!” Not exactly news, again, if we’re talking about “breaking news.”

AIPAC takes money to influence Congress. Really? Why is this surprising?

First of all, this is what lobbies do. AIPAC is hardly the only lobby that does it. The NRA does it, very powerfully. The arms manufacturers, they pour billions of dollars over the years into campaigns of various sorts.

AIPAC does it very, very well. They’re very skilled. AIPAC, of course, is not a political action committee. They don’t make donations. What they do is act as bundlers of other small foundations and other agencies that do directly aid Congress and Senate campaigns.

JJ: Amplifiers.

PB: Amplifiers—that’s a good word for it. That’s what the press likes to use. That’s true. They are definitely amplifiers.

They also have been known to use money to threaten members of Congress. Not to say, “If you toe the line on Israel, if you vote for all of our agenda items”—which means uncritical support in the United Nations for any Israeli violations of international law; continuing or escalating US military aid to Israel, to the point that it’s now $38 billion that has been pledged over a 10-year period, $3.8 billion a year, direct of our tax money right to the Israeli military—“if you toe the line on all of that, we will give you money.”

That’s not exactly how it works. More often, it’s, “If you don’t toe the line, we will find and we will fund an opponent you may have never even heard of yet, and they will beat you in the next primary.” That’s how they operate. So the notion that AIPAC uses money is hardly news.

Now, the claim is made that, “Oh my God, she said it in a way that is these antisemitic tropes.” Well, I’ve got to say, growing up Jewish, and hearing a lot about antisemitism, I never heard that particular trope, that had anything to do with Puff Daddy’s rap song about—

JJ: The Benjamins.

PB: The Benjamins. You know, when I first saw it, I was thinking, “Benjamin,” because that’s a kind of common Jewish name, “Is that what it’s about?” And then I realized, “Oh my God, no, this is referencing that.”

So this was not actually about the word she used. Somebody said to me on a debate yesterday, or a discussion yesterday, a good discussion, somebody said, “Well, but wouldn’t it have been better if we could go back in time and just ask Congresswoman Omar to just say it a different way, and we wouldn’t all have to be dealing with this?”

And my answer was, “It doesn’t matter.” This was not a response to those particular words. This was a response to two things. No. 1, it was somebody calling out AIPAC, in the context of calling out US congressional refusal to recognize Palestinian rights. That was No. 1.

Twitter (10/23/18)

No. 2, even more importantly, was that the person calling out AIPAC is a young, black African Muslim refugee. And in the eyes of people like Kevin McCarthy, people like that are just not supposed to be in Congress. That’s what this was about. So you have somebody like McCarthy, who was himself known for these really antisemitic tweets that identified individual Jews, wealthy billionaire Jews, as trying to buy elections.

Really? That’s your claim here? You know, he could say that and not be held accountable at all.

JJ: But it does have to do, just finally, with who media decide is legitimately in the conversation, whose words need sifting, who we can look to as sources of presumed bias, and who, on the other hand, gets to be presented just as a legitimate source.

And so it does connect us to the conversation about Afghanistan, and it does connect us to the conversation about Venezuela and Syria. It has a lot to do with who media think are legitimate participants in the conversation.

PB: I think that’s absolutely right. But the good news is that the discourse, particularly on the question of Palestine, is changing massively. So the fact is that when Ilhan Omar said AIPAC is responsible, it wasn’t really news. If she hadn’t gotten the pushback and the attacks that she did, it would have passed right by. Because this is now understood.

The discourse in the Jewish community is different. The discourse in the media is different. The media have not yet caught up with the public discourse. And the policy, of course, is not close to catching up to the media. But all of them are in flux, all of them are changing, and it’s because of our movements.

It’s because of the news outlets of our movements, and it’s because of our movements overall. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, that I’m very honored to be on the steering committee of, it’s like the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, it’s like Palestine Legal, it’s like Black for Palestine. All of these organizations that have been working for years to change the discourse, we’re now seeing that work bearing fruit. And that’s hugely important.

JJ: I’m going to end on that note. We’ve been speaking with Phyllis Bennis. She directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies; they’re online at ips-dc.org. And you can find her recent article, “Is the Longest US War Finally Ending?,” on Truthout.org. Phyllis Bennis, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

PB: Great to be with you here in your office.


Planned Parenthood could lose millions thanks to the Trump administration’s changes to a family planning program

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 4:45pm

The Trump administration is trying to cut Planned Parenthood and other similar organizations off from tens of millions of dollars in federal funding.

Under a policy change announced Friday by the Department of Health and Human Services, organizations that offer abortion or refer patients for abortion can no longer receive funding from Title X, a $286 million federal program tasked with providing birth control and cancer and STD screenings to low-income people. Instead, providers have to keep up a “clear physical and financial separation” between services that involve abortions and those that don’t, such as offering abortion referrals in a completely separate facility.

It’s already illegal, in most cases, to use federal dollars to pay for abortions.

The new changes, although long anticipated, are all but certain to launch a federal lawsuit. In an interview with VICE News before the policy was made public, Leana Wen, the new head of Planned Parenthood, promised to fight the new rules, which are currently set to go into effect in 60 days after being published in the federal register.

“It is our obligation to the patients that we serve, that we will do everything in our power, as we always have, to fight this,” said Wen, who took over the massive organization last fall. Of the 3.8 million people who rely on Title X services for contraception, roughly 1.6 million, or 41 percent, are seen at Planned Parenthood clinics.

Critics of the new rules, like Wen, say they amount to a “domestic gag rule” that stops providers from being able to speak honestly with their patients.

“It’s unconscionable and ethical for politicians to censor what we can say to our patients based on whether they depend on federal assistance for their health care,” Wen said. “It compromises the oath that I took [as a physician] to serve my patients and to help them make the best decision for their own health.”

Planned Parenthood could lose as much as $60 million a year if the Title X rules go into effect, according to the Washington Post. If Planned Parenthood were no longer able to take in Title X patients, other providers that receive Title X funding would have to increase their client caseloads by an average of 70 percent, a Guttmacher Institute analysis found in 2017.

But those providers are also likely to take a hit. Late last year, Kristin Adams, who leads Indiana’s sole Title X grantee, the Indiana Family Health Council, told VICE News that eight of the 30 family planning clinics operated through her state’s grant would shutter if the proposed changes take effect.

In a statement, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the influential anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony’s List, thanked President Donald Trump “for taking decisive action to disentangle taxpayers from the big abortion industry led by Planned Parenthood.”

There’s one exception when providers could help refer a patient who wants an abortion: A doctor can give a pregnant patient a list of healthcare providers, and a minority of the providers on that list can offer abortion. But the doctor cannot advise the patient about choosing a provider.

The exception, the Trump administration maintains, makes these regulations less strict than similar rules passed during the Reagan administration. When activists sued the Reagan administration over those rules, the Supreme Court ultimately decided the policy could go into effect; at that point, however, the changes had been so delayed that they never took effect before President Ronald Reagan left office.

When asked how Planned Parenthood will fight the new Title X rules, Wen declined to give specifics, since the rules weren’t yet out. But pursuing a lawsuit — which could block the rules from taking effect — wasn’t off the table.

“We are exploring every avenue,” Wen pledged.

Cover image: Planned Parenthood center in San Diego, in July 2018. | usage worldwide Photo by: (Frank Duenzl/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

How Esquire lost the Bryan Singer story

Columbia Journalism Review - February 22, 2019 - 3:21pm
On February 11, news broke that Millennium Films was delaying Bryan Singer’s Red Sonja, which was to begin production this year. This was, on the face of it, a remarkable turn of events. Singer’s Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, had just been nominated for five Oscars. It performed exceedingly well at the box office, as is […]

OxyContin maker didn't want to tell doctors how addictive the drug was, report of secret testimony shows

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 3:12pm

Richard Sackler — the scion of the billionaire family behind embattled drugmaker Purdue Pharma — didn’t want his drug reps telling doctors that Purdue’s powerful prescription opioid, OxyContin, was just as strong and addictive as morphine, according to sealed testimony reviewed by ProPublica and STAT.

Sackler, who was once president of the company, spoke under oath in August 2015 about Purdue’s shady marketing practices surrounding OxyContin. But until Thursday, the 337-page deposition was secret.

Sackler said in his deposition that he didn’t want OxyContin “to be polluted by all of the bad associations that patients and healthcare givers had with morphine,” a drug used to treat cancer and end-of-life patients. So he didn’t see harm in a sales representative telling a doctor “there may be less euphoria” with OxyContin, which was untrue, especially if a patient were to abuse the drug.

Purdue’s then-head of sales and marketing, Michael Friedman, even told Sackler in 1997 that it would be “extremely dangerous at this early stage in the life of the product” to allow physicians to think the drug was as strong or stronger than morphine, since physicians already thought oxycodone, the active ingredient in their drug, was weaker.

“I do not plan to do anything about that,” Friedman wrote, according to ProPublica and STAT.

Sackler responded: “I agree with you. Is there a general agreement, or are there some holdouts?”

Purdue criticized the release of the sealed deposition in a statement and said Sackler’s remarks echoed the company’s efforts to “appropriately reflect OxyContin’s risks of abuse and addiction as the science of opioid pain therapy evolved over time.”

Sackler’s 2015 deposition stemmed from a Kentucky-based lawsuit, which Purdue paid $24 million to settle. His words offer a rare glimpse of a family member discussing, at length, just how aggressively Purdue marketed Oxycontin and concealed its potential for abuse from doctors since the drug’s introduction in 1996.

The company still faces a barrage of lawsuits from more than 1,500 cities and counties that want to hold it accountable for the role OxyContin may have played in getting people hooked on opioids. More than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2017, although the majority of those overdoses were related to the illicit, synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Another lawsuit brought by Massachusetts’ attorney general specifically accused Sackler of leading doctors to believe that OxyContin was a weaker drug than morphine and therefore, safe to prescribe in frequent, high doses. The suit also alleges Sackler explicitly told Purdue staff not to tell physicians this wasn’t the truth.

Still, Sackler maintained those marketing efforts were fair — and paying off.

“You won’t believe how committed I am to make OxyContin a huge success. It is almost that I dedicated my life to it,” Sackler wrote in an email three years after the drug was first introduced, according to the deposition seen by ProPublica and STAT.

Less than a decade later, in 2007, the company and three of its top executives were criminally charged in a federal court with deceiving doctors about the drug, and the company agreed to pay $700 million in fines over allegations that it deceived the public.

Cover image: In this Aug. 17, 2018, file photo, family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave pill bottles in protest outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, in Stamford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's apology tour got off to a really bad start

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 2:08pm

RICHMOND, Virginia — Gov. Ralph Northam had planned to kick off his statewide apology tour Wednesday, but he got uninvited to the first event.

The historically black Virginia Union University was supposed to be the first place for Northam to atone for the photo in his 1984 yearbook of a person in Klan garb and another in blackface, which sparked a backlash and calls for his resignation when it surfaced online about 3 weeks ago. Then he admitted he'd appeared in blackface for a dance contest around the same time, fueling the fire —though he's apparently staying put. (The governor admitted the dance-contest blackface, but he says he's not in the photo on the yearbook page.)

While some attendees of the VUU event, whose main purpose was to honor the Richmond 34 civil rights activists, were happy to let their ceremony serve as a place for the governor to begin learning and apologizing for his racist act, the student body felt blindsided.

Student Government Association President Jamon Phenix penned a letter addressed to Gov. Northam demanding he back out of the event, explaining that the students “feel as though your presence takes away from the historical significance of our commemoration.” Northam agreed not to attend.

Phenix did invite the governor to return to campus later this year for a roundtable discussion and interview. But when asked why he would delay the chance to reconcile, Phenix told VICE News that the governor’s mere presence at the event, without the opportunity for students to ask questions or have a discussion, didn’t add value. “There was no real reconciliation. If he was to attend, he would not be on the platform and he would not have said anything. Where’s the reconciliation inside of just a presence?”

Elizabeth Johnson Rice, one of the Richmond 34, disagreed. In 1960, she and her peers entered Thalhimers department store, sat down at a whites-only counter, and were arrested and charged with trespassing. As alarmed as she was that Northam had dressed in blackface, she believes firmly in second chances. “Northam may have trespassed against the black community,” she conceded. “But the word is forgiveness. And that's, that's what my heart said he deserves.”

VICE News met with current and former VUU students in Richmond to get more reaction. Though Governor Northam wasn't in the room, the question of whether he's worthy of reconciliation certainly was.

This segment originally aired February 21, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

El Chapo's lawyers say they'll ask for a new trial due to juror misconduct. Here's what could happen next.

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 12:57pm

Listen to "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial" for free, exclusively on Spotify.

Almost immediately after a federal jury in Brooklyn convicted Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán on all 10 counts of his indictment, the Sinaloa cartel leader’s lawyers vowed to appeal the unanimous guilty verdict. Now they have formally told the judge they plan to seek a new trial, citing a report from VICE News about alleged juror misconduct as the basis for the request.

In a letter sent Friday to Judge Brian Cogan, El Chapo’s defense team asked for additional time to prepare as they make the case for a new trial. The letter characterizes the Feb. 20 VICE News article as stating “that multiple jurors engaged in misconduct by intentionally violating the Court’s direction” to avoid media coverage of the trial and not to communicate with one another about the trial prior to deliberations.

“Mr. Guzmán intends to file motion for a new trial based on the disclosures in the article and to request an evidentiary hearing to determine the extent of the misconduct,” defense attorney Eduardo Balarezo said in the letter.

Balarezo declined to comment further when reached by VICE News.

A spokesperson for the federal prosecutor’s office in Brooklyn declined to comment.

In the VICE News exclusive interview with one of El Chapo’s anonymous jurors, the person claimed that multiple jurors had defied Judge Cogan’s orders by following news about the case and discussing developments with one another prior to deliberations. The juror’s statements could not be independently verified.

Read: Inside El Chapo's jury: a juror speaks for the first time about convicting a kingpin.

El Chapo’s conviction still stands, and he remains jailed at a high-security federal prison while he awaits a June 25 sentencing hearing. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no chance for parole.

The defense typically has two weeks after a guilty verdict to request a new trial. The letter from Chapo’s lawyers seeks an additional 30 days to prepare. The letter says the defense “has sought the government’s consent” for the extension, but “the government has not responded as of the time of filing.”

Independent experts who spoke with VICE News said a new trial is unlikely but within the realm of possibility, if the defense can persuade the judge that the jurors were exposed to news coverage that influenced the verdict.

Cliff Gardner, a lecturer at the University of California Berkeley School of Law who specializes in post-conviction representation, said reading about the case in the press is “an enormously significant type of juror misconduct.”

“I don’t see how it’s fair at all to the defendant, even perhaps the world’s most unpopular defendant, not to at least get to the bottom of what happened.”

But, he added, “the bar is high” for Chapo to receive a new trial. The defense will have to prove that jurors were indeed reading about the case or breaking other rules. And that, he explained, could be difficult given the anonymity involved.

“The government is probably going to argue that it didn't occur,” Gardner said. “They'd have to have a hearing to see if in fact jurors did ignore the court’s admonitions.”

Suzanne Luban, an expert on post-conviction issues at Stanford Law School, said the court “will be obligated to hold a hearing where the jurors will be questioned one at a time with both lawyers present, in a closed proceeding.”

“If the judge believes that even one juror read a news article that contained prejudicial information, by a preponderance of the evidence (simply 51 percent), the judge will order a new trial,” Luban said.

The prospect of a new trial for El Chapo, however unlikely, is daunting. The trial itself lasted for nearly three months and was the culmination of decades of work by U.S. law enforcement and federal prosecutors. Federal authorities have not disclosed how much it cost, but with the intense security and the logistics of bringing witnesses from across the U.S. and Latin America, the budget was presumably astronomical — certainly in the millions.

Luban noted that a retrial for Chapo could be held outside of New York City.

“It will be very difficult to find an impartial jury to retry El Chapo,” Luban said. “If the conviction is overturned due to juror misconduct, which is likely, his attorneys will likely move for a change of venue.”

El Chapo faces indictments in six U.S. District Courts around the country, and potential locations would include El Paso, Chicago, and San Diego. Luban explained that it’s possible Judge Cogan could continue to preside over the case in another district, but the challenge will be finding 12 jurors who haven’t already heard too much about El Chapo.

“It is hard to imagine a city where there would be a sufficient pool of potential jurors who have not seen the New York Times headlines about the revelations at El Chapo‘s trial and the inflammatory facts that were excluded,” she said.

Read more: The 10 wildest moments and stories from Chapo's trial.

Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, said that even if the jurors were to admit reading about the case in the media, it might not be enough for Chapo to get a new trial. The juror who spoke to VICE News was adamant that the case was decided on the evidence alone, which might factor into Judge Cogan’s decision about how to proceed.

“If all of the jurors said, ‘Yeah we saw this extrajudicial material, but it didn’t actually influence our verdict,’ that would probably weigh pretty heavily in not granting a new trial,” Levin said. “But if, on the other hand the jurors couldn’t really explain sufficiently whether it did influence the verdict, that might be used as the basis to order a new trial.”

“It will be very difficult to find an impartial jury to retry El Chapo.”

Levin added that the court should be obligated to investigate whether the jurors in El Chapo’s case were exposed to news reports or other information that wasn’t heard inside the courtroom.

“I don’t see how it’s fair at all to the defendant, even perhaps the world’s most unpopular defendant, not to at least get to the bottom of what happened,” he said.

After reading the guilty verdict against El Chapo last week, Judge Cogan thanked the jury for their work on the case. “The way you went about it was really quite remarkable, and, frankly, it made me proud to be an American."

Cogan told the jurors they could shed their anonymity and speak to the media, but he advised against it. “Once that door is open, it can't be closed again,” he warned.

Luban, the Stanford expert, said it’s unlikely — but not impossible — that the jurors would face legal repercussions if there’s proof they defied the judge’s orders during the trial.

“Technically, they could be held in contempt by the court,” Luban said. “But realistically, judges don’t punish jurors unless they accept a bribe or something really heinous.”

Suja Thomas, a University of Illinois College of Law professor with expertise in jury issues, said punishing jurors for reading news coverage and discussing the case “is probably less likely than a new trial” for El Chapo. Doing so, she explained, would make it even more difficult to find people willing to serve on federal juries.

“We want people to serve and we want people to do what they’re told, and for the most part that’s what happens,” Thomas said. “It’s hard to avoid media. Even if people are saying they did this, these are things that will have to be talked about — in this day and age, how do you live a normal life and not look at the media, especially in a trial this long?”

The internet and social media have already impacted dozens of trials around the country as jurors struggle to go offline while they serve on a case. The issue isn’t new — a 2010 report from Reuters found 90 cases where verdicts were challenged because of alleged Internet-related juror misconduct, including 28 instances where judges granted new trials or overturned verdicts. But El Chapo’s case would be the highest-profile example yet.

Considering the length of the trial and the frenzied coverage of it, El Chapo’s jurors faced a unique challenge when they were ordered to avoid media and discussions of the case.

There was also speculation that jurors could suffer PTSD due to exposure to graphic testimony, personal safety fears, and “juror stress” from the grueling trial.

“Just all of a sudden an individual is thrust into a very significant and important fact-finding role, so obviously their conduct can be affected by the circumstances of the case,” said Ken Magidson, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas. “It’s something that doesn’t happen to you every day. ‘I’m asking you to sit in judgement of El Chapo, who could be or is alleged to be one of the most significant Mexican cartel leaders of all time.’”

Read: This is what it's like to almost get picked for El Chapo's jury.

Even so, Magidson said jurors were obligated to follow instructions and honor their oath to the court. Magidson called the possibility of a contempt of court charge against one or more of the El Chapo jurors “highly unlikely,” but he said they could also be questioned under oath about their actions, when they would be subject to perjury charges.

Juror advocates like Thomas warn that punishing the jurors for breaking the judge’s admonition, even when the stakes are as high as they are in El Chapo’s case, would set a dangerous precedent. Thomas, who wrote a book about the role of juries in the American justice system, said that unless Chapo’s lawyers can prove he didn’t receive a fair trial, the jury’s verdict ought to stand.

“Outside of extraordinary circumstances, it’s problematic to start questioning jurors and questioning the process,” Thomas said. “This is our democratic process. It’s one of the greatest institutions we have. When the jury actually does sit, it’s a good thing. We don’t want to have the judge or other players in the government question the institution too much.”

Cover: In this courtroom drawing, defendant Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, second from left, listens to the judge while staring at the jury as the verdict is read in his drug trafficking trail, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019 in New York. Seated at the defense table, from left are, an interpreter, Guzman, and defense attorneys William Purpura and Eduardo Balarezo. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

R. Kelly charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 12:39pm

R. Kelly, the R&B superstar who had for decades been accused of sexual misconduct and abuse of young girls, was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse on Friday, a Chicago prosecutor said at a press conference.

Nine of the counts stem from Kelly’s interactions with three victims who were under the age of 17, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said at the press conference. One victim’s age was not specified and related to an incident in which Kelly allegedly ejaculated on her. Each count carries a possible prison sentence of three to seven years.

Prosecutors are now attempting to obtain an arrest warrant for Kelly, sources told the Sun-Times. Kelly’s attorney, Michael Greenberg, has repeatedly maintained his client's innocence and told the Sun-Times he wasn't aware that his client had been charged.

Kelly will stand trial on March 8.

The singer married the singer Aaliyah in 1994 — when he was 26 and she was just 15 — and has long been accused of targeting underage girls for sexual relationships. A six-part documentary series about his years of alleged misconduct finally seemed to unravel his career.

Shortly after the docu-series aired on Lifetime, Foxx urged victims of Kelly to come forward.

“Please come forward,” she said in a press conference. “There is nothing that can be done to investigate these allegations without the cooperation of both victims and witnesses.”

The day before Kelly was charged, two more women answered Foxx’s call: Rochelle Washington and Latresa Scaff said that in the mid-90s, R. Kelly offered them marijuana and invited them to a hotel suite, where he allegedly sexually assaulted Scaff.

A week earlier, celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti said that he handed over a tape to the Cook County State Attorney's Office that allegedly showed Kelly having sex with a 14-year-old girl.

"My client knows the identity of the girl and R. Kelly. He identified the two of them on the videotape. He worked for and has known R. Kelly for decades, and he met the girl on a number of occasions," Avenatti told CNN.

Kelly was previously indicted on child pornography charges over an infamous tape that allegedly showed the musician urinating on an underage girl. But he was acquitted in 2008. Kelly also allegedly held women against their will in his properties, controlling every aspect of their lives, according to a bombshell BuzzFeed News report from 2018.

Avenatti responded to Friday’s charges by saying that Kelly’s “day of reckoning” had arrived.

Cover image: R. Kelly performs at Little Caesars Arena on Feb. 21, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images)

After Jussie Smollett, politicians may stop tweeting for free woke points

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 12:11pm

When Jussie Smollett said last month that he’d been the victim of a racist and homophobic hate crime, a lot of politicians immediately tweeted out their support of the actor. But now that Smollett has been arrested for allegedly faking the attack, they're starting to pull back the support, and they could be much more reluctant to step forward on social justice cases in the future.

Particularly for Democrats, the story of the "Empire" actor being attacked by two white men who put a noose around his neck, called him racist and homophobic slurs, and hailed “MAGA country” was a perfect encapsulation of the Trump-influenced hatred they stand against, and an opportunity to reiterate their own values.

Over the past few years, politicians, both liberal and conservative, have used public outrage tweets as a low-effort way to play to their base.

But that strategy may no longer be considered safe.

Thursday morning, Smollett turned himself in to Chicago police, who say he orchestrated the whole thing and filed a false police report. In Illinois, this is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. Smollett’s lawyers maintain his innocence.

President Donald Trump, who initially showed sympathy for Smollett, saying that the alleged attack was “horrible” and “doesn’t get worse,” has now gone on the offensive, tweeting that Smollett had insulted “tens of millions of people” with “racist and dangerous comments.”

But pivoting hasn’t been so easy for Democrats who had tweeted support for Smollett, and many have begun to walk back their statements. Right-wing commentators have had a field day bashing initial supporters such as Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, who tweeted that the alleged attack was a “modern-day lynching,” and Nancy Pelosi, who called it an “affront to our humanity” (Pelosi has since deleted her tweet).

Despite clear evidence that hate crimes are on the rise, conservative commentators often insist that reports of hate crimes are either exaggerated or false. For them, this incident has been a lucky break.

Smollett has not been found guilty of anything, and it is entirely possible that he'll be exonerated. But the doubt surrounding this case doesn’t only affect Democrats — it will likely have serious implications for politics in general.

In recent years, victims of hate crimes could often count on politicians to publicly support them. For the politicians, it may have been a selfish PR move, but it did have the positive effect of helping to put those issues into the national conversation. The Smollett case could have a chilling effect on the conversation.

This segment originally aired February 21, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Here's what you need to know about North Carolina's GOP ballot fraud scandal

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 12:04pm

Republicans like to obsess about “voter fraud” even when there's little or no evidence, but a GOP House candidate in North Carolina is now finally conceding his own election must be redone, after evidence showed his campaign financed illegal votes.

After several days of testimony, North Carolina’s Board of Elections unanimously ruled Thursday that the only undecided House contest from the fall midterms, Ninth District candidate Mark Harris, must be redone, and Harris tearfully agreed in a dramatic hearing. That’s because a political operative working for Harris harvested absentee ballots to vote in the Republican’s favor.

“It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the Ninth District’s general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted,” Harris said at the Thursday hearing, which shocked the audience into gasps.

Harris’s Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, lost the vote by just 905 votes, far less than the 1,200 absentee ballots that were requested by the operative McCrae Dowless on Harris’s behalf. That’s more than enough to have illegally tipped the election into the GOP candidate’s favor.

It’s a dramatic finish to the scandal that serves as perhaps the most startling example of modern-day election fraud. For now, it means North Carolina’s Ninth District is without representation — and it will be months until the vacancy is filled.

Here’s what you need to know about what happened in North Carolina, what happens next, and what this means for the GOP candidate who once ostensibly won the election.

What happened?

The scandal centers on McCrae Dowless, a veteran political operative with a felony record of fraud, hired by Harris for campaign work. Dowless allegedly requested absentee ballots for Bladen County residents, and he and his team would then harvest the ballots from those homes, mark all the candidates who Dowless wanted to win, then mail the ballots themselves, according to people who have worked with him. Dowless has refused to testify before the North Carolina Board of Elections, which consists of three Democrats and two Republicans.

Harris's stepdaughter also testified that workers sometimes signed as witnesses for ballots even though they were not witnesses, dated forms inaccurately, filled in parts of ballots, and even forged signatures. In Bladen County, Harris won by an unusually high margin of 19 points on absentee ballots.

Harris has denied knowledge of Dowless’ methods, but Harris’s own son, a U.S. assistant attorney in Raleigh, warned his father about Dowless’ reputation for political misdealings.

“The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collected the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once,” John Harris wrote in an April 2017 email, a document he shared with investigators.

John Harris’ cooperation with investigators was another indictment against his father, who failed to provide the email record to them. Investigators have accused the senior Harris of withholding records that they subpoenaed.

“I love my dad, and I love my mom,” John Harris said, according to reporters at the hearing. “I certainly have no vendetta against them, no family scores to settle. I think they made mistakes in this process, and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them.”

Harris wept as his son spoke. The GOP candidate then said that a new election was necessary.

What happens next?

It could be several months before North Carolina’s Ninth District has an elected representative in the House. The election has not been scheduled, and even the candidates are undecided. The election do-over will require another set of primaries. It’s unclear if Harris will run again, though it seems unlikely. That’s all to say: It’s not entirely clear what happens now.

The scandal’s been particularly humiliating for the GOP party at large, considering their repeated claims of voter fraud. Republicans often accuse Democrats of fraud in elections, though there’s no evidence that voter fraud exists on a large scale. President Donald Trump has long accused his vanquished opponent, Hillary Clinton, of using voter fraud to win the popular vote, a claim that is expressly false. And Trump established a voter fraud commission in May 2017, only to have it dissolve after about six months with nothing to show. Former members of the commission said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Trump has remained silent about the scandal in North Carolina.

Democrats, meanwhile, have celebrated the decision.

“Today was a great step forward for democracy in North Carolina,” McCready said, following the board’s ruling. “From the moment the first vote was stolen in North Carolina, from the moment the first voice was silenced by election fraud, the people have deserved justice,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called out Trump’s silence on North Carolina’s likely incident of election fraud.

Cover: Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina's 9th Congressional race, fights back tears at the conclusion of his son John Harris's testimony during the third day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, Pool)

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a journalism ethics quandary!

Columbia Journalism Review - February 22, 2019 - 11:48am
The most famous journalist of all time is also the most famous superhero. For the past three-quarters of a century, with a few exceptions, his alter-ego, Clark Kent, has been working as a reporter for the Daily Planet. In a new DC Comics series, he and Lois Lane, his Pulitzer Prize-winning wife, meet a fiendish […]

The war to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment just took a hit. But the battle isn't over.

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 11:36am

Only one more state needs to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment before federal lawmakers can even think about adding it to the U.S. Constitution. Virginia legislators just came close — and failed.

Virginia had sought to become the 38th and final state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which aims to guarantee that constitutional rights apply equally to everybody, regardless of sex. Advocates and opponents are split over what impact, exactly, the ERA would have, but laws governing pay equity, abortion access, and gender-based violence hang in the balance.

With only two days left in their legislative session, House Republicans blocked a procedural bill on Thursday that would’ve allowed the full chamber to vote on the ERA.

Virginia’s vote was hardly the first time ERA advocates have lost a battle, and they’re sure it’s not the end of the war. Now, activists across the country are trying to harness the national spotlight on women’s rights and convince their own lawmakers to ratify the ERA. Organizers in Arizona say they already have the votes to become the 38th state to ratify, but Republican leaders are blocking the legislation from getting to the floor. Efforts to ratify the ERA are also underway in North Carolina, Florida, and Missouri.

“Laws change as quickly as legislators change their mind, and Supreme Court decisions can always be reversed. But when you have women’s rights equal to men enshrined in the United States Constitution, that is when we are truly equal under the eyes of the law,” Virginia state Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Democrat and the sponsor of the bill to ratify the ERA, told VICE News after the vote. The amendment would force judges to apply the strictest level of scrutiny to lawsuits involving sex discrimination — the same scrutiny that claims of racial discrimination now receive.

“It holds promise for the law to reach into a lot of places where women are — maybe not by the letter of the law but in effect — being discriminated against,” said Kelsy Kretschmer, an Oregon State University assistant professor of sociology who’s written about the ERA.

Even if a 38th state succeeds in ratifying the ERA, though, the United States would find itself in what one legal scholar called “uncharted political territory.” Ratifying a constitutional amendment was never meant to take this long, and states have now missed the deadline Congress set. Twice.

“We still don’t have equality”

After passing the ERA in 1972, arguably at the height of the women’s rights movement, Congress initially gave states until 1979 to ratify the language. But lawmakers eventually extended the deadline until 1982.

By then, a well-organized conservative groundswell effectively had halted the ERA’s momentum. Anti-ERA activists argued that the amendment would force women into combat positions in the military, legalize same-sex marriage, and stop requiring men to support their wives and children. By 1982, three more states still needed to ratify the amendment.

That didn’t change for more than three decades.

Then, in 2017, the Nevada state legislature voted to ratify the ERA, even though the deadline had passed. A year later, Illinois also ratified the amendment. The ERA was suddenly just one state short of the 38-state, or supermajority, threshold needed to trigger a Constitutional change.

“I do think that the push in those states was out of anxiety about what was happening to women, even before #MeToo broke the surface,” Kretschmer said. The 2016 presidential election — and the victory of a man whose attitudes toward women demonstrated what Kretschmer called “really high levels of hostility” — particularly galvanized women.

Women’s rights, obviously, now look very different than they did in 1972. But proponents of the ERA contend that the Constitution still needs to ban sex discrimination and help shape legislation and Supreme Court decisions.

"It holds promise for the law to reach into a lot of places where women are — maybe not by the letter of the law but in effect — being discriminated against."

“This is something we need to get done because we still don’t have equality,” Bettina Hager, chief operations officer of the Equal Rights Amendment Coalition, a partnership of organizations working to enact the ERA. She wasn’t even born when Congress passed the ERA, but the 2016 election cemented the amendment’s importance for her. “It’s asking the question: Are women equal in the society, and do we need to do something? Which, obviously we do, because we saw what happened.”

Virginia’s vote took place alongside several political crises for the state, including one involving sexual assault. But the procedural bill only failed by a single vote, and Delegate Carroll Foy plans to make sure that voters — who go back to the polls for state elections this year — know it.

“I put my hair in a bun, I tie my shoelaces, and I go out and get to work because I can guarantee this is gonna be the number one issue for a lot of Virginians,” she said. Eighty-one percent of Virginia voters do support ratification, according to a nonpartisan Christopher Newport University poll.

“When they didn’t ratify it last year, everyone was disappointed,” Cynthia McNiel, an ERA advocate in Missouri, said of Virginia. “But we know this campaign was exponentially better than the campaign they ran last year. We do see the hope, we do see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we do believe it’s going to pass eventually.”

The pressure is now on in Arizona. The state’s legislative session ends in mid-April, and like in Virginia, its ERA ratification bills are stuck in purgatory: Republican leaders have declined to give the legislation a committee hearing in the Senate or assign it to a committee in the House, according to Dianne Post, an ERA advocate in Arizona.

“Uncharted political territory”

If the ERA does pass one day, the last three states to ratify still missed the 1982 deadline set by Congress. And the U.S. Constitution offers few answers about how officials should handle that. “We are sort of in uncharted political territory there,” said Robinson Woodward-Burns, an assistant professor of political science at Howard University who has also written about the ERA.

Because the ratification deadline wasn’t included in the text of the ERA itself, some legal scholars have argued that states never agreed to a time limit. That might mean the ERA could seamlessly enter the Constitution. Congress could also extend the deadline, and some lawmakers have already proposed legislation to do just that.

But that idea likely won’t gather much traction in a Republican-controlled Senate. Kretschmer, the sociology professor who’s written about the ERA, suspects that a national fight over the amendment could energize conservatives around two already white-hot topics: abortion and gender segregation in public spaces, like bathrooms and locker rooms.

Advocates for the Equal Rights Amendment stage a "die in" outside Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox's office at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Thursday Feb. 14, 2019. Two of the women were taken away by Capitol Police. (AP Photo/Alan Suderman)

During the last few minutes of the debate over Virginia’s resolution, Republican House Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert warned lawmakers that activists could use the ERA to sue and undermine restrictions on abortion. He pointed to the example of Alaska, where the state supreme court ruled to block an anti-abortion law on Friday and cited a clause of the state constitution that declares everyone’s rights, regardless of gender, are equally protected.

“The proponents are trying to pretend that they only need one more state in order to push ERA into the Constitution. I think that is a cheat on 47 states that have not debated ERA in 50 years,” said Anne Schlafly Cori, whose mother, Phyllis Schlafly, was the chief architect behind the successful anti-ERA movement in the ’70s. Schlafly Cori is now the chairman of the Eagle Forum, a conservative group that opposes the ERA.

If all 38 states ratify the ERA, its opponents are all but certain to sue — just as its supporters would likely sue if Congress refused to extend the deadline and halted the ERA. And of course, neither Congress nor the states have the power to change each other’s decisions.

“That would leave the amendment essentially in a legal limbo that was not foreseen by framers of the Constitution,” Woodward-Burns said.

Cover image: Jessica Lenahan, center, a domestic violence survivor, and Carol Jenkins, right, of the Equal Rights Amendment Task Force, attend a news conference at the House Triangle on the need to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment on June 6, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Patriots owner Robert Kraft charged with soliciting prostitution in Florida

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 11:25am

Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, has been charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution out of a Florida spa, according to Jupiter, Florida police.

Kraft allegedly paid workers with the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter for sexual services, according to Treasure Coast Newspapers, which cited surveillance video reviewed by the police department. The 77-year-old resident of Palm Beach hasn’t been arrested yet, according to the newspaper. There will be a warrant issued for his arrest, according to ESPN.

Orchids of Asia Day Spa, among 10 others in Florida, was recently shuttered after an investigation revealed women were being held there as sex slaves, according to the newspaper. Many of the women were from China and weren’t allowed to leave the spa, which about 20 men visited each day in November, the paper reported.

Cover: New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft yells to fans during their victory parade through downtown Boston, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, to celebrate their win over the Los Angeles Rams in Sunday's NFL Super Bowl 53 football game in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Neil deMause on Amazon’s Retreat, Nina Besser Doorley on Women’s Healthcare Restrictions

FAIR - February 22, 2019 - 10:24am
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Amazon Seattle HQ (cc photo: kiewic)

This week on CounterSpin: Corporate media aren’t in the business of challenging the idea that corporations are benevolent social actors who bring benefits to the communities lucky enough to have them. So even if Amazon didn’t own a major newspaper, there was no reason to expect much by way of deep media criticism of the company’s search for a second “HQ”—even as that led to cash-strapped US cities falling over one another to offer tax breaks and subsidies to a corporation that paid zero federal taxes last year on profits of over $11 billion.  Surprisingly, some media followed the lead of community organizers and questioned the deal—questions Amazon pulled out over rather than engage. More surprisingly, the deal’s end didn’t end the questions. We’ll hear that story from journalist Neil deMause, author of, most recently, The Brooklyn Wars.

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(photo: International Women’s Health Coalition)

Also on the show: We may wish and work for a world in which countries don’t have to rely on aid from the US to fund critical social programs. But while the US is a global aid provider, we’re right to examine how that aid is employed: Does it build up or weaken? Support or coerce? When it comes to global health funding, recent Republican presidents, but especially Donald Trump, have used that aid to restrict women’s healthcare, and even the discussion of women’s healthcare—with effects that are as harmful as they are predictable. We’ll talk about the fightback to that problem with Nina Besser Doorley, senior program officer for US foreign policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition.

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R Kelly's lawyer is comparing him to Beethoven and Elon Musk, as more accusers come forward

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 10:13am

R Kelly is right up there in the ranks of creative geniuses like Beethoven, Freud, and Elon Musk, so he needs to be able to work during the night like they did, according to his lawyer.

The embattled R&B musician — accused of running a sex cult and assaulting several underage girls, with two new women coming forward Thursday — can no longer enter his Chicago recording studio between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., per a judge’s order, because the studio isn’t zoned for residential purposes. He can still enter the first floor of the studio for up to 12 hours a day.

“Thru the years, history has admired creativity,” Steve Greenberg, a lawyer for R. Kelly, said in a statement to the media on Wednesday about the Feb. 8 order. “Beethoven worked and wrote during the night. So did Freud, Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edison, Elon Musk and Churchill, amongst thousands of others.”

The studio being closed for a portion of the day is problematic, Greenberg said, because R. Kelly is currently working on an album. So, the artist will soon be moving studios.

He once had a contractual obligation to release at least two more albums under RCA Records, owned by Sony, but he was dropped from his contract in January after outrage surrounding the Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly, which outlined decades of alleged sexual and physical abuse and mentioned the Chicago studio as a place where some alleged abuse occurred.

Meanwhile, two new accusers, Rochelle Washington and Latresa Scaff, came forward with allegations of underage sex or inappropriate behavior by Kelly in a news conference Thursday in New York City. The women alleged that after a Baltimore concert in the mid-1990s, when they were teenagers, they were offered marijuana and alcohol and Kelly invited them to a hotel suite. Washington left the room after being propositioned, according to NPR, but Scaff stayed and Kelly had “sexual intercourse with me even though I did not have the capacity to consent.”

Greenberg wrote on Twitter Friday morning that the women were talking about someone else.

“R Kelly has been repeatedly harassed while just trying to do his job in his studio, during the limited hours he is allowed to be there,” Greenberg said in the statement on Wednesday.

Kelly was only entirely closed off from the second floor of his studio, since it was being used as a bedroom and posed fire hazards, according to CNN. And the use of the building was limited to 12 hours a day because it’s zoned for commercial rather than residential use. Still, Kelly “will continue to work on the album,” Greenberg said in his statement. Kelly has also denied all accusations against him.

Additionally, earlier this month, new footage — obtained by celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti and reviewed by CNN — emerged that appeared to show Kelly having sex with an underage girl. An anonymous senior law enforcement official based in Illinois told the New Yorker that Kelly could face indictment over the video. Kelly denied appearing in that video.

“There are three countries in the world where people are presumed guilty: China, North Korea, and Myanmar,” Greenberg said in a statement after the videos were reported. “Unfortunately, that is the standard of justice that is now being applied to R Kelly.”

The video Avenatti obtained has been turned over to the Cook County State Attorney’s office, which asked survivors to come forward and speak to investigators after the documentary series renewed the claims against Kelly.

Cover: R Kelly attends the Z-100 New York Jingle Ball on December 13, 2013 in Madison Square Garden in New York City. Credit: RTNJon Palmer/MediaPunch Inc. /IPX

How the far right is weaponizing Nazi history in Germany

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 7:33am

A year earlier, the provocation might have stoked lasting outrage.

On Jan. 23, lawmakers from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) walked out of an official Holocaust commemoration event in Munich, in protest of a speech critical of the party from an 86-year-old survivor.

But this time, the backlash was muted.

“There was no massive outcry,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The stunt was hardly new for the AfD, which in recent years has sought to downplay the crimes of the Nazi era and challenge the central role of the Holocaust in German cultural memory. Senior figures in the party have demanded an end to the “guilt cult” around Nazi-era crimes, dismissed the Third Reich as “just bird shit” in the scope of German history, derided a Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame”, and insisted that Germans have the right to feel proud of their ancestors who fought in the Second World War.

“The attempt to relativize Nazi crimes is not only abusive to any Shoah survivor but also dangerous for the whole society.”

Led by two of the party’s most powerful figures — Alexander Gauland, the 77-year-old co-leader and co-founder, and his close ally, the influential far-right agitator Bjoern Hoecke — the AfD has launched a concerted attack on Germany’s relationship with its Nazi past. They say their aim is to restore national pride and liberate Germans from the sense of collective responsibility for the crimes of their ancestors, which they claim has “crippled” the country.

Their strategy of inflammatory statements appears to be having its intended effect. And the feeble reaction to the Munich stunt was proof, experts said.

“That’s a sign to the party that they can get away with these statements, and continue to escalate on this issue,” Janning told VICE News.

The AfD is playing a dangerous game, experts and fellow politicians warned, calculated to erode the established red lines of Germany’s postwar order, in which an active reckoning with the Holocaust is fundamental to the country’s identity as a tolerant, liberal democracy.

Political scientists say the AfD’s strategy could help fuel a new wave of German nationalism, and their concerns are shared by the country’s domestic intelligence agency, which last month placed the hard-line faction behind the revisionist push under surveillance, as a threat to the liberal democratic order.

“The attempt to relativize Nazi crimes is not only abusive to any Shoah survivor but also dangerous for the whole society,” Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told VICE News. “The call for a turn in the culture of commemoration is jeopardizing Germany’s coming to terms with history, and the lessons learned from it.”

The AfD’s campaign against the politics of remembrance Members of the AfD walk out of a memorial event in Munich in January during a speech by Charlotte Knobloch, former President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and Holocaust survivor. ( Photo by: Peter Kneffel/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Hoecke, a hardline ideologue who is head of the ultranationalist AfD faction known as “The Wing,” was the first to publicly push revisionist views. In a January 2017 speech to the party’s youth wing, Young Alternative, the 46-year-old sensationally called for “a 180-degree turnaround” in Germany’s “stupid” politics of remembrance.

The comments led to him being accused by political opponents of being a Nazi, or at least sounding like one, and even condemned by his own party leader at the time, Frauke Petry. Her executive filed a motion for him to be expelled from the party for displaying an “affinity to National Socialism.”

But the motion eventually failed. Petry — now viewed as a moderate by the standards of the AfD — announced she was stepping down from the leadership months later. She was succeeded by Hoecke’s ally Gauland and Jörg Meuthen, a 57-year-old economist and professor, who both expressed their support for Hoecke, and the party’s internal arbitration panel ruled last May that Hoecke had done nothing wrong.

Experts say the party’s growing embrace of revisionist positions since Hoecke’s initial provocation underlines the extent to which the hard-liners from Hoecke’s faction, supported by Gauland, have prevailed in the party’s internal power struggles, shaping the AfD in their image, and pushing the group even further to the fringe.

“The power struggle is over, and Hoecke won,” German political scientist Hans-Joachim Funke told VICE News. “With every party convention, each year the party has been more and more radicalized. Without Hoecke and The Wing, there would be no party like the AfD.”

Ugly rhetoric, ugly impact

The revisionist campaign is a dangerous development in a country contending with surging far-right activity since Chancellor Angela Merkel opened its borders to 1 million refugees in 2015, manifesting in rising extremist violence and regular nationalist demonstrations. In the 2017 national elections, the AfD, which had never had a seat in the Bundestag, won nearly 13 percent of the national vote, and has polled higher since.

While the AfD’s revisionism stops short of Holocaust denial, which is a crime in Germany, its rhetoric has been blamed for fueling ugly scenes at former concentration camp sites.

“Arbeit macht frei" stands above a gate to the former Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. January 27, 2019. (Photo by: Bernd Thissen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

On Feb. 4, a Berlin-based far-right activist, Nikolai Nerling, got into a confrontation at the Dachau concentration camp memorial site, and was ejected. From outside the grounds, he issued a rallying call on social media for others to visit concentration camp sites and declare that they didn’t feel guilty about what had happened there.

While Nerling is unaffiliated with the AfD, the Association for International Youth Exchange and Memorial Work in Dachau, whose members witnessed the episode, partly blamed the party’s rhetoric for his actions.

“This act shows how secure the extreme right-wing perpetrators feel, and how far the boundaries of what can be said and what can be done have already been shifted,” the group said in a statement. Charlotte Knobloch, the Jewish community leader whose speech provoked the AfD’s walkout in Munich, agreed that the party held some responsibility, labeling the AfD “spiritual arsonists.”

The AfD did not respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE News.

The party’s own supporters have also been linked to revisionist provocations at a former concentration camp site. In July 2018, an AfD-organized group tour to the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg was reportedly cut short when members made comments questioning the existence of Nazi gas chambers.

“Our constitution is a direct reaction to the horrors of the Nazi regime.”

The party’s revisionism, besides being dangerous, may also be unconstitutional, crossing the red lines of Germany’s liberal democratic order.

“Our constitution is a direct reaction to the horrors of the Nazi regime,” Konstantin von Notz, vice chairman of the Greens parliamentary group, told VICE News. An active reckoning with Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust, he said, “must always be a factor in how we build our society.”

Last month, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, which has the power to conduct surveillance on groups it deems as extremist threats to the democratic order, announced it was stepping up its surveillance of two elements of the AfD — Hoecke’s “Wing” and the party’s youth affiliate, Young Alternative.

Agency head Thomas Haldenwang said Hoecke’s faction was “a threat to the liberal democratic principles of Germany’s constitution,” citing its repeated downplaying of Nazi crimes, along with its efforts to disparage and disenfranchise minorities.

“If you do this once, you provoke a strong reaction. But if you do it a second, third, fourth, or tenth time — that response can gradually weaken. That’s what they’re hoping for.”

His office said it was also designating the AfD as a whole as a “review case” — which means it will be investigated to determine whether it poses a threat to the liberal democratic order that should be placed under surveillance.

The decision drew a predictably dismissive response from Hoecke. “I'm already sorry for the officials who have to kill their time looking for things that do not exist," he said.

With his hard-line faction now dominant within the party, it remains to be seen whether it will take the intelligence agency’s interest as a sign to moderate its rhetoric, or continue toward its vision of remaking German politics.

To Janning, at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the party’s hard-liners appear determined to wear down the public’s response to its provocations, until their revisionist rhetoric can fly without any significant pushback.

“In a society like ours, the public’s attention span is short,” he said. “If you do this once, you provoke a strong reaction. But if you do it a second, third, fourth, or tenth time — that response can gradually weaken. That’s what they’re hoping for.”

Cover: The leader of Thuringia's AfD, Bjoern Hoecke, speaking through a megaphone at an AfD rally, which took place with the motto "For our country and our children". Photo by: Christian Charisius/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

President Maduro just closed the border with Brazil — to stop aid from reaching starving Venezuelans

VICE News - February 22, 2019 - 6:13am

Surrounded by members of the military, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced on TV Thursday that he was closing the border with Brazil to stop shipments of aid from entering the country.

He also threatened to close the border with Columbia, after shutting Venezuela’s maritime borders earlier this week.

U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó, meanwhile, has been organizing the aid to help desperate Venezuelans suffering under a collapsing economy.

Maduro used the address to lash out at the U.S., accusing Washington of “provocation.” Defending his decision, he said the aid sent to Venezuela was designed to create instability and instigate a military intervention in the Latin American country.

“[The U.S.] aimed to generate a huge national mess, but they didn't succeed. The country wants peace,” Maduro said. “I don't want to take any decision of this type but I am evaluating it, a total closure of the border with Colombia.”

Within minutes of the announcement, dozens of cars streamed across the border to the Brazilian city of Pacaraima to stock up on supplies, local media reported.

Earlier this week Venezuela closed its maritime border with the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire, after authorities there said they would help store aid.

READ: Maduro says Trump is a white supremacist and the White House is run by the Ku Klux Klan

The military has also issued a decree banning any vessel from leaving Venezuelan ports until Sunday, to avoid actions by "criminal" groups.

View of boxes with US humanitarian aid goods in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Tachira, Venezuela, on February 8, 2019. (RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Columbian border is set to become the focal point of the fight between Maduro and Guaidó on Friday when two competing concerts will take place on either side of the Tienditas Bridge.

On the Columbian side at Cúcuta, British entrepreneur Richard Branson has organized a “Live Aid”-style concert that is seeking to raise $100 million to buy food and medicine for Venezuelans. Up to 250,000 people are expected to attend.

In response, Maduro announced his own event on the Venezuelan side of the crossing, called the “Hands Off Venezuela” concert.

Maduro continues to insist there is no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, but has also announced that 300 tonnes of aid would be arriving from Russia, one of Maduro’s main backers, along with China.

Workers set up a stage for a concert organized by British billionaire Richard Branson to raise money for the Venezuelan relief effort in Cucuta, Colombia, on February 21, 2019 at the Tienditas International Bridge. (RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

The standoff over aid could come to a head on Saturday. Guaidó claims 600,000 people have signed up to help carry supplies across the border at Cúcuta and has organized a fleet of buses and cars. The convoy has already prompted armed scuffles.

Maduro’s government says it will be delivering over 20,000 boxes of aid to the area on the same day.

Cover Image: Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's president, pauses while speaking during a televised press conference in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg via Getty Images)


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