This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Sustained anti-government rallies in Thailand, Ukraine and Venezuela have captured the attention of millions. But large pro-democracy demonstrations in Burkina Faso last month largely escaped the Western media’s radar.
Since January, tensions have flared between the West African country’s authoritarian government and the impoverished masses yearning for democratic reforms. Depending on how developments unfold, the protests in Burkina Faso could serve as a catalyst for further uprisings in the region.
On January 18, over 10,000 Burkinabé citizens rallied in the nation’s capital, Ouagadougou (WAH-gah-DOO-goo), and other cities to protest the concentration of political power in one man—President Blaise Compaoré, who has ruled Burkina Faso since 1987. While Compaoré claims democratic legitimacy, the opposition demands his departure from power, maintaining that Compaoré’s past electoral victories were fraudulent and rigged.
The demonstrators, led by opposition leader Zéphirin Diabré, have taken to the streets to protest Compaoré’s plans to revise Article 37 of the country’s constitution. This provision, incorporated in 2000, limits the president to two five-year terms. After winning presidential elections in 2005 and 2010, Compaoré’s final term is set to end in 2015. Although Compaoré has issued no official statement concerning his intention to seek another term, his critics contend that he is laying the groundwork for a constitutional amendment to extend his rule beyond 2015. Calling January 18 a “historic day,” Diabré declared that the thousands of protesters were “taking a stand in this free and republican protest to send Compaoré into retirement in 2015.”
Compaoré’s failure to improve living standards for average Burkinabés also factors into popular resentment of the government. Despite being rich with gold reserves, Burkina Faso remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Nearly half of the eighteen million citizens who inhabit this landlocked nation live below the poverty line, and GDP per capita hovers around a paltry $1,400. Fewer than thirty percent of adults are literate and the nation’s infant mortality rate is the ninth-highest in the world. Recurring floods and droughts in recent years have exacerbated all of these dismal conditions.
The perception that Compaoré’s cronies in power have usurped the nation’s resource wealth at the public’s expense has further fueled the opposition’s determination to end his presidency.
Compaoré's reckoning reflects tensions that have accumulated gradually since the country’s independence.
Burkina Faso’s Cold War experience was marked by violent instability. Following its independence from France in 1960, power changed hands frequently through a series of bloody coup d’états, including a Marxist-inspired revolution in 1983 that installed the Communist leader Thomas Sankara as president.
Sometimes likened to “Africa’s Che Guevara,” Sankara implemented radical social reforms, ranging from efforts to abolish gender inequality to the collectivization of agricultural land. He even renamed the republic, replacing its previous name (Upper Volta) with its current name, Burkina Faso, or “Land of Upright Men.” Such reforms drew some support from the poorer sectors of society, but they also created enemies among the economic elite.
Under Sankara’s leadership, Burkina Faso faced numerous challenges on the international stage. Burkina Faso and Mali went to war during December 1985 in a conflict referred to as the “Christmas War.” The brief war resulted from a territorial dispute between the two countries over a 100-mile-long portion of desert, rich with minerals, referred to as the Agacher strip. Both militaries engaged in aerial bombing before a truce was reached.
More generally, Sankara pitted Burkina Faso against the interests of Western superpowers and their African allies. Sankara was an outspoken opponent of South Africa’s apartheid system and military raids against the African National Congress (ANC) in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Additionally, the Burkinabé leader expressed solidarity with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. Burkina Faso’s ties with Libya and Ghana prompted the United States and France to fear that the “Burkinabé model” would spread throughout Africa. From 1983 to 1990, Paris canceled foreign assistance to Ouagadougou.
On October 15, 1987, Sankara was killed in a coup that the United States, France and Liberia are widely suspected of helping to orchestrate. Blaise Compaoré, who served in the upper echelons of Sankara’s government and was a childhood friend of Sankara himself, was one of the major leaders behind the coup. Compaoré continues to deny any role in Sankara's death.
Compaoré moved quickly to undo many of the social reforms of Sankara’s government, working to build a neoliberal economy that was integrated into the global marketplace. Burkina Faso returned to its former colonial master France for international support, as opposed to countries like Cuba or the Soviet Union. These reforms allowed the country to export its ample natural resources and created a stable political climate for investment. But they also allowed for the enrichment of a small elite, which stoked growing resentment of the privileged governing class.
Burkina Faso and Washington
Western capitals have eyed the current protests warily, viewing Burkina Faso as a strategic ally in the post-9/11 era. Certainly, the country’s stability contrasts markedly with the ethnic conflicts, insurgencies and civil wars that have destabilized the Central African Republic, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, among other countries.
The government has managed to keep the region’s extremist jihadist forces at bay even as bloody insurgencies are waged in neighboring countries. Burkina Faso has remained a steadfast US ally in the “war on terrorism” and is lauded by the State Department as a cooperative partner in the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), a US-led initiative in North and West Africa designed to confront Al Qaeda. The State Department has not made any major pronouncements about the recent rallies or the possibility of Compaoré’s re-election. On the contrary, the United States has remained more concerned with continuing military co-operation through the TSCTP than bringing up the issue of political unrest.
Given the potential for Islamist extremists—such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Nigeria-based Boko Haram and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)—to exploit any power vacuum that could emerge in a post-Compaoré era, it is doubtful that the United States or France will side with the Burkinabé protesters demanding that Compaoré relinquish power.
Compaoré has also taken credit for mediating conflict resolutions in war-torn neighboring countries. In June 2013, Compaoré’s government hosted talks between the Malian government and two Tuareg rebels groups—the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad—in Ouagadougou. The Ouagadougou Accords that resulted were a preliminary agreement aimed at resolving the lingering tensions between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels following last year’s French-led military campaign (Operation Serval) that dispersed AQIM and MUJAO from northern Mali. In 2011, Compaoré hosted African Union–sponsored talks in Burkina Faso to help mediate the Cote D’Ivoire crisis. Two years earlier, the Burkinabé president secured the release of two Canadian envoys for the United Nations whom AQIM had kidnapped in Niger for 130 days. During the 2008 coup in Guinea, Compaoré helped mediate the aftermath. And in 2006, Compaoré played a role in brokering negotiations that ended a crisis in neighboring Togo.
Compaoré’s opponents, however, are unimpressed. They contend that the president’s efforts to mediate regional conflicts and focus on international terrorism are guided by an interest in deflecting criticism over corruption and cronyism within his own government.
Burkina Faso’s relationship with Western superpowers cannot easily sustain Compaoré’s presidency into its twenty-seventh year. Even if Compaoré maintains his hold on power this year, he will face new pressures that were not in play earlier in his rule, such as an energized and better-connected opposition.
At the beginning of the year, seventy-five politicians from Compaoré’s Democracy and Progress Party published a letter that announced their resignation, citing that democracy had “disappeared” from the ruling party. The president’s former allies formed a new party, the Movement of People for Progress, which claims to represent the will of the demonstrators who took to the streets and used nonviolent measures to demand an end to Compaoré’s presidency.
Burkina Faso’s future is naturally uncertain, and the regional climate will bring unique challenges to a post-Compaoré political order. However, this new party’s formation and the demonstrators’ peaceful tactics justify cautious optimism about what may yet become a “West African Spring.”
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Amid mounting pressure from businesses, activists and US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer yesterday vetoed a so-called “religious freedom” bill that would’ve granted businesses broad license to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
But Brewer’s veto doesn’t mark the end for this type of legislation, at least not officially.
Four states—Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma—are still considering bills that would allow businesses to deny services on religious grounds. And that’s not to mention the long list of states that considered, but recently rejected, such bills. Before Brewer’s veto, lawmakers had already killed broad “religious freedom” bills in Idaho, Indiana, Maine and Ohio. More blatantly discriminatory versions in Kansas, South Dakota and Tennessee, which specifically targeted LGBTQ individuals, died this month.
Rose Saxe, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Project, said the bills represent a shifting strategy, a “plan b,” among conservative evangelical groups who recognize they’re on the losing side of the same-sex marriage battle. If the national opposition to Arizona’s bill, uniting John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Apple, is any indication, the evangelicals may already be losing this one too. Some lawmakers who voted for “religious freedom” bills are already backtracking on their support.
“It’s so tainted now, it needs to go away,” said Kansas Representative Scott Schwab (R-Olathe), regarding talks by the state’s legislature to rework and reintroduce its “religious freedom bill.” Schwab voted for the bill, but now says he regrets it.
Mississippi Senator David Blount (D-Jackson), another initial supporter of his state’s bill claimed ignorance on its implications, saying in a Facebook post:
I was not aware (nor was any other Senator or interest group or citizen that I have talked to aware) of this intention or possible result when we voted on the bill on Jan. 31. I am opposed to discrimination of any kind, including discrimination based on sexual orientation. Obviously, I should have (all of us should have) been aware of this.
That’s not to say it’s time to claim a total victory. Here are the remaining legislative battles over religious discrimination bills:
Georgia: The state has a pair of bills, one in each state house, that use almost identical language to Arizona’s. While it a House Bill 1023 looks dead, Senate Bill 377 has moved through committee. The senate bill’s sponsor said critics of the bill simply "want the government to be a tool to promote militant atheism.” Mother Jones’s Dana Liebelson has a good report on this one.
Mississippi: Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 2681, also known as the “Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” on January 31. The bill, also similar to Arizona’s, currently sits in a state House committee. It also includes an amendment that would add “In God We Trust” to the state seal.
Missouri: State Senator Wayne Wallingford (R-Cape Girardeau) just introduced his state’s version, SB 916, on Monday. It is, again, also nearly identical to Arizona’s bill and currently awaits assignment to a Senate committee.
Oklahoma: Lawmakers are reworking a “religious freedom” bill and indicated that its current incarnation is not likely to make it to the floor this legislative session. “We’re still in favor of running a bill like that, but we’re just trying to get the language tightened up to prevent there from being any fiascos like there have been elsewhere,” sponsor Representative Tom Newell (R-Seminole) told the Associated Press.
Read Next: Why hasn't the NFL threatened to pull the Super Bowl out of Arizona?
This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org
This morning, President Obama nominated Robert Holleyman as deputy US trade representative. If confirmed by the US Senate, Holleyman will help lead the effort to pass the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Notably, Holleyman is a former lobbyist who led efforts to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act legislation, better known as SOPA, when he was leader of the Business Software Alliance. The SOPA debate (along with its sister legislation, PROTECT-IP, in the Senate) brought a spotlight on industry efforts to undermine Internet freedom through what many considered to be draconian intellectual property policy.
Critics have pointed out, the leaked TPP documents relating to TPP negotiations reveal that the United States is seeking to resurrect portions of the SOPA bill through the TPP, namely, holding Internet Service Providers liable for hosting copyright infringement and extending the copyright life of certain corporate-owned copyrights. As Susan Sell, a professor of political science at George Washington University, noted, the proposed TPP provisions suggest the deal will advance intellectual property rules that "could not [be] achieved through an open and democratic process."
During the SOPA debate, Holleyman was chief executive of the Business Software Alliance, a trade group for software companies including IBM. Holleyman commended then–Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith for his work in sponsoring SOPA and for pushing for its passage. In 2012, as the bill worked its way through Congress, the BSA spent over $1.6 million on lobbying. After widespread outrage against the bill, which eventually failed, BSA withdrew official support and sought similar policy changes through other legislation.
If the Senate approves Holleyman as the next deputy trade representative, he will have another opportunity to advance SOPA-style policy.
Last week, Republic Report broke several stories regarding the TPP, including bonuses paid by CitiGroup and Bank of America to officials also tapped by the administration to lead the TPP deal. We also reported on media companies and their lobbying efforts on the bill—which have been extensive, despite the lack of coverage media outlets are devoting to the issue.
Read Next: Lee Fang uncovers the shadow lobbying complex.
It’s hard to pinpoint the pinnacle of Republican depravity, but GOP senators came close Thursday afternoon when they blocked a bill extending healthcare, education and job training to hundreds of thousands of veterans, largely because they were unable to use the bill as a vehicle for new sanctions on Iran.
“Today, the Senate had a chance to put aside partisan politics and do what was right for the men and women who have sacrificed so much while wearing our nation’s uniform,” said Daniel Dellinger, commander of the National Legion, a prominent veterans organization with a conservative reputation. “I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote.”
Republicans used a procedural move to kill the legislation, which was the largest veterans bill in decades and had the support of all of the major veterans groups. The bill would have funded twenty-seven new clinics and medical centers, and made VA healthcare more accessible for veterans without service-related injuries. It would have strengthened dental, chiropractic, fertility and sexual trauma care. It would have extended a job training program and given veterans better access to higher education by making more of them eligible for in-state tuition. Spouses of deceased service members and families caring for wounded veterans would have received better support.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans said the $21 billion package was too expensive. “This bill creates new veterans’ programs and it’s not paid for—it’s all borrowed money,” Senator Jeff Sessions said before raising a budget point of order that effectively killed the legislation by requiring sixty votes to proceed. Only two Republicans, Dean Heller of Nevada and Jerry Moran of Kansas, voted with the Democrats, leaving the motion to waive the point of order a few votes shy of passage.
“If you can’t afford to take care of your veterans, then don’t go to war,” Senator Bernie Sanders, the chairman of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, said on CNN shortly before the vote. Sanders proposed paying for the bill with savings from the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan; the expenditures amounted to less than 2 percent of those savings, and would have directly benefitted the soldiers who fought those wars. (Which, incidentally, themselves added $2 trillion to the debt.) Furthermore, according to an updated score from the Congressional Budget Office, the bill would actually have decreased the deficit by $1.34 billion over the next decade.
“I think we should be very, very clear that the cost of war does not end once the last shots are fired and the last battles are fought. When members of the military lose arms, legs, eyesight, come back with PTSD or TBI, after fighting in wars that Congress authorizes, we have a moral obligation to make sure that those veterans receive all of the benefits that they have earned and deserve,” Sanders said on the floor.
Besides cost, Republicans had an even pettier reason for opposing the bill: they were furious that they weren’t able to tack new Iran sanctions onto it. Democrats have backed away from the issue, and Republicans inserted the sanctions language in their version of the veterans legislation in an attempt to keep it alive. Veterans groups sharply criticized Republicans on Wednesday for such a political move. “Iran is a serious issue that Congress needs to address, but it cannot be tied to S. 1982, which is extremely important as our nation prepares to welcome millions of U.S. military servicemen and women home from war,” Dellinger said.
Sanders promised to keep fighting for a comprehensive veterans package, and said he would work to round up the handful of Republican votes needed to pass the legislation.
The media has already declared the veterans bill a “victim of election year gridlock.” But let’s be clear: the bill was a victim of Republican legislators, many of whom trot out their support for the troops to great rhetorical effect during election years.
Read Next: Mary Bottari on why pro-austerity groups lost the deficit wars.
On December 8, 2013, after months of internal debate, a group of Jewish students at Swarthmore College voted unanimously to declare its Hillel an “Open Hillel,” making it the first Hillel center officially willing to partner with organizations and students regardless of their opinions about Israel and Zionism. Swarthmore’s decision to come out as an Open Hillel took many older members of the Jewish community by surprise.
Despite Swarthmore’s small size, its unexpected declaration has brought the Open Hillel movement to the national stage. Until now, most Jewish college students assumed that open dialogue on Israel was a taboo topic in Hillel—Swarthmore debunked that myth.
Swarthmore’s Hillel is part of Hillel International, the umbrella organization that has a presence on hundreds of college campuses around the world. Self-described as the “foundation for Jewish campus life,” its community centers aim to provide Jewish college students of all religious stripes a place to worship, socialize and engage with Jewish culture on campus.
But as much as Hillel should be applauded for its commitment to religious pluralism within the Jewish community, it remains ideologically monolithic on one highly charged political topic: Israel. According to Eric Fingerhut, a former US congressman and the current president of Hillel International, Hillel draws the line when it comes to partnering with groups or individuals who identify as “anti-Zionist” or who support boycotts against the Jewish state. “Let me be very clear,” he wrote in a letter addressed to the communications director of Swarthmore Hillel’s student board, “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.” By declaring themselves an Open Hillel, the board of Swarthmore’s Hillel openly defied Hillel policy.
The idea of Open Hillel was first introduced by Jewish college students at Harvard after an event planned at Harvard’s Hillel was cancelled by the local Hillel director amid pressure from local Jewish sponsors. The sponsors argued that the planned event violated Hillel International’s policies by partnering with a student organization that supported boycotts against Israel. Many Harvard students were surprised—and outraged—after hearing about the cancellation, and several of those students went on to create the Open Hillel movement. “We seek to change the ‘standards for partnership’ in Hillel International’s guidelines, which exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel,” reads the “About” page on Open Hillel’s website.
As someone who believes in Open Hillel’s campaign to promote free speech at Hillel, I find it exciting to see that it now draws support from college students around the country. Emily Unger, a co-founder of Open Hillel and a former student at Harvard, says that the movement already has recruited activists from all around the country. “Students from more than a dozen schools are actively part of our leadership,” she says. These activists have, in addition to lobbying other campus Hillels to become Open, written letters to Hillel’s president urging him to change Hillel International’s official policies.
As Open Hillel works on adding more colleges to the movement, evidence points to its growing popularity in the younger Jewish community. The Open Hillel website features a petition with more than a thousand signatures. “We have supporters from across the political spectrum—Zionist, non-Zionist, anti-Zionist,” Unger mentions. “Shockingly, we’ve received very little negative feedback—there have been two or three pieces of hate mail, but almost all the emails we’ve received have been supportive,” she says.
Since Swarthmore’s December declaration, a raging debate has taken place in the American Jewish community about the way it approaches discussion on Israel and Palestine. Many younger Jews coast to coast believe that the Jewish community must fight to promote open dialogue, but some Jewish college students are concerned about formally declaring their Hillels to be open. “It’s hard to convince student boards at Hillels to come out as open, even when those individual students support Open Hillel,” says Ben Winter, a former student at Yeshiva University and an Open Hillel supporter who has recently tried recruiting students at universities in Ohio. “They’re afraid of losing funding from Hillel International.”
Although Hillel International has not yet decided to cut off funding to Swarthmore, it is quite likely that it will, especially if it hosts the type of event that violates Hillel International’s policies. That shouldn’t be a major problem for Swarthmore Hillel, which receives most of its funding independent from Hillel International, but other schools, dependent on the umbrella organization, face a greater potential financial loss by becoming open. In spite of this, Vassar College followed in Swarthmore’s footsteps last week when the Hillel-affiliated Vassar Jewish Union became the second Open Hillel in the country.
As Swarthmore’s Open Hillel continues to operate under its new free-speech guidelines, Jewish college students across the nation will monitor its success. There’s already evidence that Swarthmore’s more inclusive model is attractive to students: more students than ever before have been attending its Sabbath services. According to Swarthmore board member Josh Wolfsun, Swarthmore would like to keep the Hillel brand name. “We do not want to disaffiliate from Hillel International—we want to challenge the organization to be better,” he says. In fact, in response to the apparent widespread support for Open Hillel, Hillel’s Fingerhut recently agreed that Hillel International must re-evaluate its Israel guidelines.
However, it’s going to take more than words to convince the folks at Open Hillel that Hillel International is actually prepared to shift its stance on the Israel debate. And until the organization formally ends its discriminatory policies, this group of Jewish activists will continue to lobby hard in support of open dialogue.
Read Next: Student activists prepare for a Keystone XL protest in Washington.
When Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released its report on “The Worst Governors in America” last summer, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was not even on the list. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker did make the “cronyism, mismanagement, nepotism, self-enrichment” list, but the review of his tenure was not necessarily the most scathing in CREW’s assessment of Republicans and Democrats who had gone astray. And Ohio Governor John Kasich was ranked as nothing more than a “sideshow.”
Now Christie is busy answering questions about blocked traffic, misdirected Sandy aid and political misdeeds. Walker’s facing national and state scrutiny of secret e-mails and illegal campaign operations so intense that even Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace interrupted him to say, “But sir, you’re not answering my question.” And Kasich is scrambling to deal with a “Frackgate” controversy touched off by the exposure of a public-relations scheme—apparently developed by his administration, Halliburton and oil and gas industry lobbyists—to “proactively open state park and forest land” for fracking.
The scandals surrounding these prominent Republican governors, some of them potential presidential contenders, are serious. And they raise the question: Could there really be a governor who is more controversial? And whose actions might be even more troubling?
The first-term governor packed his administration with lobbyists and used his office to promote their environmental-deregulation agenda, and allegedly went so far as to fire a state employee who testified in favor of policies the administration opposed.
Gov. LePage also attempted to gut his state’s open records act, and is under investigation by the federal government for trying to bully employees of the state Department of Labor into deciding more cases in favor of business.
Now, the federal investigation has been completed, and LePage is still very much in the “worst governor” competition. A report from the US Department of Labor Office of the Solicitor General concluded that LePage and his appointees meddled with the process by which unemployment claims are reviewed—apparently with an eye toward advantaging employers and disadvantaging the jobless.
When the governor and his appointees pressured officials who consider appeals from Mainers seeking unemployment benefits, the federal investigation concluded, they acted with “what could be perceived as a bias toward employers.” Specifically, the investigators determined, “hearing officers could have interpreted the expectations communicated by the Governor…as pressure to be more sympathetic to employers.”
The headlines from Maine newspapers Thursday were blunt:
In the Maine legislature, there were immediate calls for hearings into the governor's actions. State Senator John Patrick, a Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Labor Committee, said, "After this, I wonder how you can trust the governor to move forward fairly and in an unbiased way." Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, a veteran Democratic legislator, went further, suggesting that LePage should be removed from office. “I think he should be impeached,” said Jackson. “The governor thinks he should be the next [Wisconsin Governor] Scott Walker, but he should be thinking about being the next [impeached Illinois Governor] Rod Blagojevich.”
Bombastic as ever, LePage on Saturday responded to the impeachment talk by declaring "if (Jackson) has cause, bring it on."
But Mainers were unimpressed.
The "It's Time for Paul LePage to Resign" petition circulated by state Representative Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat, had attracted almost 20,000 signatures by Friday afternoon.
For his part, LePage was complaining that he was targeted unfairly by the Obama administration. But the investigation into LePage’s actions go back almost a year and has deep roots in Maine, as noted by the state's Sun Journal newspaper in a front-page story Thursday:
An April 11 Sun Journal investigation cited sources who said the governor had summoned DOL employees to a mandatory luncheon at the Blaine House on March 21 and scolded them for finding too many unemployment-benefit appeals cases in favor of workers. They were told they were doing their jobs poorly, sources said. Afterward, they told the Sun Journal they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor.
Emails released under a Freedom of Access Act request echoed complaints made to the Sun Journal by the hearing officers who attended the meeting.
LePage denied the charges and claimed his communications with the hearing officers were “cordial.” When the US Department of Labor investigation was launched—because hearing officers are paid with federal funds and must follow federal rules—the governor denied it was going on.
But there is no denying now that LePage has been called out for creating what reasonable people would interpret as an unfair “bias” against the jobless in a state that has a significantly higher unemployment rate than its northern New England neighbors New Hampshire and Vermont.
LePage is expected to seek re-election this year. Among the candidates he will face is Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, a third-generation paper mill worker who says, “I understand what people are going through, the hard times that they are facing. Whether or not they have a job today or tomorrow, the uncertainty is real.”
Providing a fair process for reviewing unemployment claims helps to address that uncertainty. Infusing bias into the process is not just wrong, it’s cruel. And that cruelty—as much as any political abuse or ethical excess—provides a vital measure for assessing the worst of the worst governors.
Read Next: John Nichols on the Governor Scott Walker investigation
Sometime during the night of February 11 or the early morning of February 12, an unknown intruder or intruders broke into a downtown DC business office, tried to open a file cabinet, but took nothing—and left. This normally would be unremarkable, except the office belonged to an organization that gave government whistleblowers both protection and a public platform. And it wasn’t the first time such an odd crime occurred at an organization like this.
The break-in, which was first reported by Newsweek, occurred at the Project on Government Oversight, which for thirty years has been exposing government corruption, often via whistleblowers on the inside who come to the group with information.
Its highest-profile case in recent months was when POGO reported that then–Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and perhaps the department’s chief of intelligence, Michael Vickers, leaked sensitive information about the Osama bin Laden raid to the producers of Zero Dark Thirty. Panetta and Vickers faced no repercussions—but the Pentagon did open an investigation into who leaked the information to POGO.
Much of the group’s work focuses on national security and Pentagon waste, but has also focused on issues ranging from the Wall Street/government revolving door to the cozy relationship between the federal government and oil, gas and other extractive industries.
According to a police report from the First District of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, the break-in occurred sometime between 7 pm on February 11, when the last POGO worker went home, and 7 am on February 12, when the office opened.
The intruder or intruders gained entry by “prying open the entry door,” according to the report, and “once inside they attempted to pry open a file cabinet but were unsuccessful.” In the box on the incident report labeled “Is event related to occupation?” the responding officer wrote “yes,” meaning that the break-in is believed to be related to POGO’s work.
POGO’s Joe Newman told The Nation that the file cabinet in question contained accounting information and other “mundane” paperwork, and nothing related to POGO investigations. He said that POGO employees inventoried their files after the break-in, and that “there’s nothing missing that we’re aware of.” Newman said that POGO feels it has good security measures in place, but will now “take measures to increase security.”
Newman noted that several valuable items, like laptops and computer monitors, were out in the open but were not taken. He also said there were no other break-ins reported that night in the larger office building where POGO resides.
He did note, however, that it wasn’t the first time something like this happened at POGO. In 1999, when the office was in a different location, employees were called to the office overnight after the front door was opened and the alarm went off. In 1993, someone broke into POGO at yet another location and “it was clear that they were looking for something, in the sense there were files spread out all over the place,” said Newman.
And incidents like this are not limited to just POGO. When Newsweek broke the news of the POGO break-in, it also disclosed a previously unreported 2011 break-in at the Government Accountability Project, a similar whistleblower group that has recently lent support to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Six computers were stolen in that incident; two belonged to GAP’s national security attorneys and one to its legal director, according to Newsweek.
Jesselyn Radack, GAP’s national security & human rights director and a legal adviser to Snowden, tweeted earlier this week that the 2011 break-in came at the height of the Thomas Drake case. Drake was an NSA whistleblower who was criminally prosecuted for his leaks, and GAP defended him.
A similar, little noticed break-in occurred last summer at a Dallas law firm representing a high-profile State Department whistleblower, Aurelia Fedenisn, who accused the department and its contractors of illicit drug use, sexual crimes and harassment.
Burglars, who were caught on camera but never identified nor apprehended, punched a whole in the wall of an office adjacent to the law firm and then stole three computers, as well as breaking into file cabinets. Silver bars and video equipment, among other valuables, were left untouched. No other offices in the large building in Dallas were broken into.
Naturally, these could all be random incidents with no relation to the respective organizations’ work. And even if that was the motive, these could easily be unrelated incidents. But no doubt it has whistleblower groups concerned.
“I can’t speculate on [motive],” POGO’s Newman told The Nation when asked if the break-in could have been motivated by a desire to gain sensitive information, or intimidate whistleblowers by giving the impression of an unsecure advocacy group. “But it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility,” Newman added. “The kind of work we do puts us in a place where we’re doing investigations into sensitive areas. There are certainly people out there who would like to know what we’re working on, or to see what we’ve got on them.”
Potential whistleblowers shouldn’t be concerned about POGO’s security measures, he added. “We’re going to continue to safeguard our work. If it was something that was meant to intimidate us, to intimidate potential whistleblowers—we’ve been around the block for thirty years. We’re not going to be intimidated, for sure.”
Read Next: Robert Scheer on two of the most famous whistleblowers, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald.
This article was originally published in the student-run Yale Daily News.
This past weekend, the two highest university bodies on investor action met to formally discuss the possibility of Yale’s divestment from fossil fuels.
The Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR), which is made up of eight professors, students and alumni and evaluates ethical issues surrounding the university’s investments, raised the arguments for and against divestment before the Yale Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility on Saturday in a confidential meeting. The ACIR was charged with recommending whether or not Yale should restrict its investments in fossil fuel companies. Though the results of the meeting have not been released, the CCIR has the final authority to direct the Yale Investments Office on the issue of divestment and is expected to present a decision soon.
“I know that [the trustees] take Yale’s leadership around climate change seriously,” said Yonatan Landau SOM ’15, a member of the student divestment advocacy group Fossil Free Yale. “With continued support from the broader Yale community, I hope they will see that they can safely take a major step forward in leading the world away from disastrous climate change.”
Landau said he knows Yale Corporation members are aware of a 2013 study published by the University of Oxford demonstrating that divestment campaigns have the potential to impact fossil fuel companies and government legislation.
Last month, Fossil Free Yale, the student group that has led the charge for divestment on campus in recent months, presented its case to members of the ACIR. During that meeting, ACIR chair and Yale Law School professor Jonathan Macey said Fossil Free Yale and the ACIR would work together to send letters to companies involved in manufacturing fossil fuels and ask them to disclose the environmental impact of their activities.
In a campus-wide referendum held in November 2013 by the Yale College Council that saw responses from over half of the undergraduate population, 83 percent of voters favored divestment.
The three members of the CCIR—Neal Leonard Keny-Guyer SOM ’82, Catharine Bond Hill GRD ’85 and Paul Joskow GRD ’72—could not be reached for comment. Macey also could not be reached for comment.
While University President Peter Salovey said corporation discussions are confidential, he added that the conversation between the ACIR and the CCIR this weekend was “robust” and that both committees are dedicated to the principles described in the “Ethical Investor”—a 1972 book that describes Yale’s ethical investing guidelines.
In the meantime, Gabe Rissman ’16, the policy coordinator of Fossil Free Yale, said the ACIR is working on a letter to companies asking them to release data on the emissions they generate relative to their energy production. Knowledge of this figure could give Yale an empirical estimate of each company’s impact on the climate, members of Fossil Free Yale said last month. Of the 200 largest coal, oil and gas companies, only 10 percent already report the metric.
The group hopes the university will decide to divest from the companies that do not comply with the disclosure request, Gabe Levine ’14, another Fossil Free Yale member, said last month.
In January 2014, the Yale College Council said it was engaging senior Yale administrators in the discussion over fossil fuel divestment.
Read Next: Get caught up with the latest roundup of student activism from across the country.
Governor Christie would dearly love for Bridgegate to go away, but that’s not happening any time soon. If you haven’t been following the story lately, the scandal is unfolding quietly, mostly behind the scenes, and it’s gaining momentum.
Perhaps most importantly, the US attorney Paul Fishman—who, unlike his predecessor, Chris Christie, doesn’t hold constant news conferences and leak information to any and all—has expanded his inquiry beyond its initial focus, which was an investigation of charges by Hoboken’s mayor, Dawn Zimmer, that New Jersey’s lieutenant governor had threatened to withhold Superstorm Sandy recovery aid unless Zimmer backed a development project in her city that was supported by Christie. Now, according to Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, the US attorney’s office in Newark reached out to Sokolich for a meeting, and the mayor did indeed go down to Newark to talk to the federal prosecutors.
So, not only is the joint legislative committee expanding its investigation beyond Bridgegate to include a wider look at Christie’s role in unrelated actions, such as the decision in 2011 to shut down a multibillion-dollar Hudson River transit tunnel project and Christie’s involvement with the Port Authority’s vast patronage machine. Now the federal prosecutors are looking beyond Hoboken to the George Washington Bridge lane closing issue, too. As Bill Clinton found out with the Kenneth Starr investigation—which started with Whitewater but ended up with Monica Lewinsky—once the feds start looking into your affairs, they don’t stop.
Christie, appearing on New Jersey’s 101.5 radio program, Ask the Governor, last night, downplayed the whole thing:
“You folks [the media] are the only people at the moment who are asking me about this. … We’re going through an internal investigation [and] I’m not going to give into the hysteria. I am no longer going to speculate on things I don’t know about.”
Christie got some support from an unusual ally, namely, Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas and Tea Party icon who’s a rival for the 2016 presidential nomination:
“I think the whole Bridgegate thing is nonsense. I think it’s an example of the media piling on. Apparently the most important thing in the country is that there was some traffic in New Jersey.”
But it’s not just the media piling on. So is the US attorney, it appears, and the state legislature—despite Republican opposition—is continuing its probe. Today they released more, unredacted e-mails from David Wildstein of the Port Authority and Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff, which—though they shed no new light on whether Christie knew or didn’t know about the lane closures—make for some interesting reading. (You can read the e-mails, in full, at the committee’s web site.)
Meanwhile, on the Port Authority front, it’s beginning to look worse and worse for David Samson, the PA chairman and one of Christie’s key allies. (You can read earlier installments from Christie Watch on the PA issue here and here.) Calls have come from various quarters for Samson to resign, not just because of his possible involvement in Bridgegate but because he’s used the PA as a piggybank for his law firm’s involvement in PA projects. Now, in an interview with the New York Daily News, the PA’s executive director, Patrick Foye, said in so many words that it’s time for Samson to go. Asked by the News whether Samson “has the moral authority to run the Port Authority” Foye said, “No.” He added: “I am not going to elaborate, but that’s my view.” Foye also called the lane closures last September “aberrational and immoral.”
Read Next: Christie Watch on David Samson’s web of connections at the Port Authority.
The Russian threats, bluster, troop mobilizations and pledges to throw their support to the ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine—who, delusional to the end, still asserts that he’s president despite a revolution in the streets that’s plain to see—are worrying, and ominous. Yanukovych, who has blood on his hands from the massacre of protesters in Kiev, will never, ever again have a role in Ukrainian politics.
And it’s also ominous that both Secretary of State John Kerry and NATO have talked about NATO’s role in Russia’s periphery yesterday. With exquisitely bad timing, while meeting the Georgia’s prime minister, Kerry said, “We stand by the Bucharest decision and all subsequent decisions that Georgia will become a member of NATO.” And NATO’s secretary-general, whose organization ought to have nothing whatsoever to say about Ukraine, said yesterday: “Ukraine is a close and long-standing partner to NATO. And NATO is a sincere friend of Ukraine. We stand ready to continue assisting Ukraine in its democratic reforms.” Needless to say, Ukraine doesn’t need NATO to help build a democracy.
But an important news analysis in The Los Angeles Times notes that Russia gave NATO advance notice of its military maneuvers near Ukraine, and it says that in the end Russia, the European Union and the United States may be able to reach an accommodation over Ukraine’s future:
Those ominous events, however, may obscure what is largely a meeting of minds among Russian President Vladimir Putin, European Union officials, the White House and more pragmatic elements of Ukraine’s new leadership.
The [military maneuvers were] apparently intended to impress on the new Kiev leadership that it should keep in mind the interests of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority. However, Moscow’s heads-up to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization quietly underscored the Putin administration’s repeated assurances that it has no intention of interfering in Ukraine’s domestic crisis, much less sending troops or encouraging secession.
As I reported earlier this week, apocalyptic scenarios for Ukraine remain unlikely.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who played a ruthless game of chess to protect Russia’s interests there, ought to know when it’s time to admit that he’s been checkmated. The game’s over, Vlad.
Sans Russian direct interventions—that is, without Moscow’s military intervention, which would be not only hopeless but catastrophically misguided—and without Russian covert support for pro-Russian guerrilla actions, including in Crimea, there’s a chance that Ukrainians can resolve their problems without generating a US-Russian, Cold War–like crisis.
And the Obama administration and the Europeans, who apparently didn’t foresee the revolution—at the last minute, last week, they were still negotiating a deal to organize early presidential elections to resolve the political crisis—it’s time to avoid pressing their advantage. To calm the crisis, the United States ought to acknowledge right away that it has no plans, ever, to include Ukraine in NATO. That would be easier to say if Russia hadn’t decided to exacerbate the crisis by pledging support for Yanukovich and ordering military exercises along the Ukrainian border.
As The New York Times reported:
Eight hundred miles away, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was ordering a surprise military exercise of ground and air forces on Ukraine’s doorstep on Wednesday, adding to the tensions with Europe and the United States and underscoring his intention to keep the country in Moscow’s orbit.
Sensibly enough—but then it’s easy to be sensible when your side has come out on top—Kerry said yesterday:
We’re hoping that Russia will not see this as a sort of a continuation of the Cold War; we don’t see it that way. We do not believe this should be an East-West, Russia-United States—this is not ‘Rocky IV’.… We see this as an opportunity for Russia, the United States and others to strengthen Ukraine, help them in this transition and there’s no reason they can’t look east and west and be involved as a vital cog in the economy of all of us going forward.
That’s the ideal approach, one that Russia too ought to adopt, but so far there’s little sign that Moscow is ready to admit it’s been checkmated and move on. Were it to do so, Russia could insert itself in the various schemes being cooked up to rescue Ukraine’s collapsed economy. Already the United States is pledging a $1 billion down payment for Ukraine, and both the European Union and the IMF are readying packages. But that doesn’t mean that Russia’s own, vital economic interests in Ukraine can’t be protected, or that Russia can’t defend its legitimate interests in its neighbor—a country that is far more important to Russia than to the EU, and which has almost no interest at all for the United States.
Russia’s military movements can only backfire, and the revolt by pro-Russian forces in Crimea could easily provoke a Ukraine vs. Russia military flare-up, in which case NATO and the United States might very well get involved. In a statement not exactly couched to reduce tensions, the acting president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, said:
I am appealing to the military leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet…. Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory (the base) will be seen by us as military aggression.
He’s right, of course: it would be military aggression. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely.
Read Next: Nicolai N. Petro on the battle for Kiev.