Shortly before seven on Friday morning, US aircraft dropped two 500-pound bombs on artillery controlled by Islamic militants in northern Iraq. Barack Obama, as The New York Times noted, is now the fourth US president in a row to launch military action in that country.
Like his predecessors, Obama wrapped the military option in humanitarian packaging. He said on Thursday that the “limited” action he authorized was intended to protect American facilities and personnel in the city of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region, and to prevent “a potential act of genocide.” Kurdish forces retreated suddenly on Thursday from advances by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and thousands of civilians belonging to minority ethnic groups are besieged on a barren mountaintop. Militants have also taken control of Iraq’s largest dam, a rickety structure on the Tigris River that could send catastrophic floodwaters through the city of Mosul and surrounding areas if it is breached.
“I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these,” Obama said. “I understand that. I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done. As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.”
Hawks are already angling to do exactly that. “These actions are far from sufficient to meet the growing threat that ISIS poses,” Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a joint statement following the president’s announcement that he’d authorized the strikes, along with airdrops of food and water to the civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar. As they have previously, McCain and Graham called for wider strikes against ISIS not only in Iraq but also in Syria.
Conservative commentators are salivating, too. Here’s The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, quoting John Bolton: “‘The problem is not just Iraq, but the entire Middle East’…why not act in Syria? Why not commit to eradicating the Islamic State, which threatens the United States and our allies? Why set a date certain to pull all troops out of Afghanistan, repeating [Obama’s] Iraq error?”
At this point it would be surprising if McCain et al. did not call for escalating a conflict in the Middle East. Still, the quick opportunism of the hawks illustrates the danger of assuming that military action will serve humanitarian ends or that the word “limited” really means anything. By declaring that “we have a mandate to help” in Iraq as well as “the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre,” the president opened a door for the armchair warriors, while putting only vague boundaries around the mission. That the administration is using the word “genocide” is particularly significant, as it carries implications under international law.
As John Cassidy points out, defending the civilians on Mount Sinjar and the city of Erbil means that the United States will be fighting ISIS in two areas. Clearly there’s a humanitarian crisis on Mount Sinjar, and the presence of US personnel and a consulate in Erbil gives the administration a defensive rationale for the strikes. But ISIS has been terrorizing northern Iraq for months; the fact that the United States is stepping in only now that the Kurds—”a loyal and reliable American ally,” noted the Times—are threatened by ISIS suggests that the objectives are more complicated. Representative Adam Smith of Washington State, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, indicated as much. In contrast to the Iraqi government, “the Kurds are worth helping and defending,” he told the Times.
If strikes against ISIS are being made on a humanitarian basis, it’s hard to see why they would be limited to the protection of Kurdistan. If—more plausibly—they’re based on other calculations, then the talk of humanitarianism is in keeping with the long tradition of applying a moral gloss to military action. A recent cautionary tale is provided by the campaign in Libya, sold as a last resort to prevent mass violence but which has ended up in chaos.
Though the strikes are being described as a sudden and confined response to a dramatic shift in the conflict, the drums for re-engagement in Iraq have been beating for months; the administration may not be stepping in time yet, but it’s been steadily picking up the pace. In June, even as Obama warned of “mission creep,” he nevertheless sent a few hundred troops and military advisers back into the country. It’s clear that the administration—and the American public—doesn’t want to get more deeply involved in the Iraqi crisis, but that’s cold comfort in the face of overwhelming historical evidence that even “limited” military action has undesirable, cascading consequences. Meanwhile, little has been done to heal the political fractures fueling ISIS.
So where is the anti-war left? “Certainly this rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis—people are dying for lack of food and water—deserves U.S. and international action,” wrote Kevin Martin, the executive director of Peace Action. “But this gut-wrenching situation must not be used to justify US escalation of the war, entailing certain if unknown disastrous unintended consequences, as we’ve seen before in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.” Few progressive lawmakers, however, had expressed such reservations at the time of publication. (Check back for updates.)
“America has been striking Iraq from the air for more than two decades,” The Economist noted. Yes, and for what?
Update: California Representative Barbara Lee, one of the House's most outspoken critics of the Iraq war, issued a statement on Friday afternoon saying that while she supports "strictly humanitarian efforts to prevent genocide in Iraq," she "remain[s] concerned about U.S. mission creep in Iraq and escalation into a larger conflict, which I oppose. There is no military solution in Iraq. Any lasting solution must be political and respect the rights of all Iraqis." Lee said that the president should request approval from Congress for any further military action.
Representative Jim McGovern, one of the authors of a resolution that passed the House in July banning military involvement in Iraq without legislative approval, echoed Lee's call for congressional authorization. “These strikes do involve the United States directly in hostilities, regardless of how limited they are and regardless of whether there’s a humanitarian purpose involved," he sad in a statement. "If these operations are continuing when Congress returns in September, then Congress needs to take action to authorize them."
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy warned that "the president needs to better explain how this intervention is strictly time and scope limited. The risk is that this intervention draws us into the broader fight between Sunni and Shia forces in Iraq."
“I oppose open-ended military commitments, which the President’s actions in Iraq could become," Senator Richard Blumenthal said in his own statement. "The President owes the American people a better, fuller explanation of the scope and strategy of military actions. I am deeply concerned that these actions could lead to prolonged direct military involvement, which I would strongly oppose.”
“We are on a slippery slope,” Representative John Garamendi, a California Democrat, told Politico. “Where this ends, I don’t think any of us know. But the president has to be very, very clear about timing and purpose. Thus far, it’s insufficient from my point of view.”
These fears about the undefined duration and scope of the air campaign were all but confirmed on Saturday, when President Obama told reporters, “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks...This is going to be a long-term project.”
The release of a long-delayed investigation into the Central Intelligence Agency’s post-9/11 interrogation methods was held up yet again on Tuesday after the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee objected to the amount of information that had been censored by the Obama administration.
“I have concluded that the redactions eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusions,” Dianne Feinstein said Tuesday in a statement announcing her decision to delay publication of portions of the report, which was assembled by her committee. Feinstein said she had written a letter to the White House detailing which redactions she felt were heavy handed.
The administration blacklined 15 percent of the executive summary, and went so far as to redact pseudonyms that the committee had created specifically to protect the names of CIA officers involved in interrogations. The administration also reportedly redacted crucial information that refutes claims about the value of information obtained through brutal interrogations, which the CIA has made to justify its tactics.
“Try reading a novel with fifteen percent of the words blacked out. It can’t be done properly,” Intelligence Committee member Martin Heinrich explained in his own statement.
Other members of the committee were swift to condemn the redactions. Carl Levin called them “totally unacceptable” and said that in reviewing the document he “saw multiple instances where CIA proposes to redact information that has already been publicly disclosed.” Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, decried the CIA’s redactions as “excessive” and suggested they were intended “to cover up acts that could embarrass the agency.”
The censorship is the latest in a series of inappropriate attempts by the CIA to smother the report, which is expected to show that torture was more prevalent and cruel than previously acknowledged, and much less effective at gathering intelligence than proponents of so-called enhanced interrogation claim. CIA officers not only hacked into Senate computers and spied on committee staffers preparing the report; they also filed a criminal report with the Justice Department on the staffers that had no factual basis. (Keep in mind that it’s the Intelligence Committee that oversees the CIA, according to the Constitution, not the other way around.) Then, after the committee voted to declassify the report—on a bipartisan basis—CIA director John Brennan began working with the very same people who oversaw the torture program during the George W. Bush administration to craft the agency’s response.
Even more egregious than the CIA’s attempts to keep its recent history in the shadows is the Obama administration’s complicity. The White House allowed the CIA to wield the black pen on a report that exposes its own misconduct and falsehoods. Obama has so far defended Brennan, who presided over the CIA’s unconstitutional attempts to thwart the Intelligence Committee’s work and yet denied outright that any such activity was taking place until an inspector general report forced him to apologize. Brennan is either an incompetent director or a liar; yet Obama claimed on Friday to have “full confidence” in him.
The administration has reacted coolly to the most recent accusations of censorship. Spokesman Josh Earnest assured reporters that the CIA left 85 percent of the executive summary legible—a numerical contortion that glosses over the fact that the 480-page executive summary is already a very small portion of the 6,600-page report, which will remain classified.
“We tortured some folks,” Obama acknowledged on Friday. “And we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that so that, hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.” The CIA’s conduct in response to the Senate report is a crystal clear indicator that hoping for the agency to do the right thing is not simply naïve but flagrantly irresponsible. If the president is content to grant the CIA immunity for its current flouting of the law and the separation of powers, as well as for the torture it meted out in the recent past, there’s nothing to keep an executive with fewer scruples from reopening a chapter that the public hasn’t even been allowed to read.
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Rupert Murdoch has a solution for global warming: “Stop building vast houses on seashores.”
That was probably the most sensible thing the media mogul had to say in a Sunday interview with Australia’s Sky News, during which he demonstrated astonishing ignorance about climate science. “We should approach climate change with great skepticism,” Murdoch said. Considering that his media empire is the animating force behind climate denial, this isn’t a shocker. Still, his comments illustrate how the right has hardened its position on global warming—or, as in Murdoch’s case, simply reversed it. This is the same Rupert Murdoch who, seven years ago, warned that global warming “poses clear, catastrophic threats,” and argued, “We certainly can’t afford the risk of inaction. We must transform the way we use energy.”
His comments also reveal how deeply into the bucket of shoddy science skeptics are willing to reach in order to support their claims. Here are the three most egregiously inaccurate statements Murdoch made:
1. “Climate change has been going on as long as the planet is here, and there will always be a little bit of it. At the moment the North Pole is melting, but the South Pole is getting bigger.”
Though it’s true that the earth has previously experienced changes in average temperature, never before has such a large shift happened so quickly. A 2013 study by scientists at Stanford found that climate change is occurring ten times faster than any time in the past 65 million years. It took thousands of years for the earth to emerge from the last ice age; now, the time scale is in decades.
A study finding a 7.5 percent increase in the volume of sea ice in Antarctica is the skeptics’ weapon du jour, promoted recently by the Murdoch-owned Daily Mail as a blow to climate science. But that’s compared to a 75 percent decline in Arctic sea ice. Currently the Arctic is losing ten times as much ice every year as the Antarctic is gaining, so modest gains in Antarctica won’t do much to counter sea level rise. Meanwhile, two separate studies published in May concluded that the Antarctic ice sheet has in fact “gone into a state of irreversible retreat,” suggesting that the accumulation in Antarctica is a temporary phenomenon that will yield to melting ice and sea level rise on a scale even greater than predicted by the IPCC.
2. “In terms of the world’s temperature going up, the worst, the most alarmist things have said…3 degrees Centigrade in one-hundred years. At the very most one of those will come from man-made, be man-made.”
It’s not clear where Murdoch got his numbers, but they don’t match up with serious scientific assessments of climate trends. The most recent IPCC report predicted a temperature increase of about 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, and accounts virtually all of that warming to human activity. At that threshold, the IPCC warned, the risks are “high to very high,” meaning “severe and widespread impacts on unique and threatened systems, substantial species extinction, large risks to global and regional food security, and the combination of high temperature and humidity compromising normal human activities.”
One degree of warming attributable to human activity is actually the best-case outcome predicted by the IPCC. Achieving it is only possible with significant reductions in carbon emissions worldwide.
3. “If the sea level rises six inches, that’s a big deal…but we can’t mitigate that, we can’t stop it. We’ve just got to stop building vast houses on seashores and go back a little bit.”
Again, it’s not clear where Murdoch’s figures come from. Oceans have already risen by eight inches since 1870, according to the IPCC, and they’re on track to rise another one to four feet by the end of the century. That should certainly discourage people from purchasing luxury coastal estates like the $9 million beach house in Oyster Bay that Murdoch sold in 2011. But what about the vast cities on seashores—like Miami, which is already under pressure as seawater seeps up from below through the porous limestone that underlies the city? How should they go about getting “back a little bit”?
Most people in the world can’t afford the luxury of thinking about climate change as a simple real estate challenge. And rising sea levels are only one facet of the looming global crisis. Shrinking glaciers threaten water supplies. Crop yields have already begun to decline, and the global food supply is in jeopardy. Scientists predict intensified heat waves and heavy rains, and the spread of infectious disease as mosquitos and other hosts move into new territory.
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Republicans are furious about the flood of children streaming across the US-Mexico border, and are criticizing the president for not deporting the children fast enough. But now that Obama has asked for nearly $4 billion to help kick the kids out more quickly, they don’t want to fund the emergency measures.
The $3.7 billion Obama requested would boost border security as well as housing and legal services for the children, the majority of whom are fleeing violence in Central America. According to Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has become the GOP’s figurehead on the issue, too much of that money is going to shelter, healthcare and legal assistance, and not enough to enforcement. “President Obama’s appropriations request only deals with one aspect of the current crisis on our southern border, while barely addressing its root cause: an unsecured border,” Perry wrote in an op-ed on Wednesday. He wants Obama to send surveillance drones and 1,000 National Guard troops to the border.
Most minors are simply handing themselves over to border patrol agents, suggesting that a porous border isn’t really the problem. And even if the border were completely sealed, there’s still the question of what to do with the tens of thousands of children here already. Perry ignored the fact that the Obama administration is bound by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which bars the government from immediately deporting children from countries that do not share a border with the United States—such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where the bulk of the children are from. The law requires border patrol to turn the children over to Health and Human Services and entitles them to due process so they may apply for humanitarian relief. Obama is trying to speed up deportations, to the consternation of immigrant rights and humanitarian groups. But unless Congress changes the trafficking law, the only way to do so is to make the legal system work faster by paying for more lawyers and judges.
Republicans are considering all sorts of roadblocks to the emergency funding bill. Some want any spending to be offset with cuts elsewhere. Others are insisting that Congress amend or repeal the trafficking law before they authorize any funding, a move that would deny children due process and, even if it were ultimately blocked by Democrats in the Senate, would at the very least hold up resources that are badly needed in the shelters where the children are housed.
Republicans, Perry included, are paying lip service to the idea that the crisis is a humanitarian one, but they don’t want to provide any humanitarian relief. As Jackie Calmes and Ashley Parker suggest in The New York Times, that’s because approving such funding “would help get [Obama] out of a situation that they believe is of his own making.” According to Perry, it’s more important for Obama to visit the border than it is for Congress to do something to address the situation. For Republicans, it’s more palatable to perpetuate the crisis and blame it on the president than to do anything that could be considered a “win” for the Democrats. Certainly it won’t be kids who win if Congress does agree to fund a smoother pathway to mass deportation.
It’s ironic that the same people who are apoplectic about Obama’s use of executive authority are now claiming that he’s the one not doing enough to fix the border crisis. Even House Speaker John Boehner, who is suing the president over his unilateral moves, had the gumption to attack the White House for not acting on its own in this instance. “He’s been president for five years! When is he going to take responsibility for something?” Boehner reportedly shouted at a press conference on Thursday morning. “We’re not giving the president a blank check.”
Republicans complain that Obama is cutting them out of the legislative process. As the border crisis demonstrates, however, it’s hard to detect real will on the part of the GOP to legislate.
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When the first reports based on the Snowden leaks were published last year, the layperson could be forgiven for not knowing exactly what to make of the surveillance programs they revealed. Words like “metadata” and “upstream collection” made the whole affair seem impersonal, quarantined off from our real lives by some trick of technical language. The sheer scale of data collection should have been alarming, but it also blurred the implications.
The ways in which the NSA’s surveillance programs touch individual lives has come sharply in focus in the past week. On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that nearly half of conversations in a cache intercepted and stored by the NSA involved US citizens. Some of those digital files reportedly contained medical records, résumés, exchanges about religion and politics, photos of women in their underwear and children on swings.
A report published Wednesday by The Intercept tightened the focus still further, to the faces of five US citizens: Hooshang Amirahmadi, Nihad Awad, Asim Ghafoor, Faisal Gill and Agha Saeed. According to the report, e-mail addresses belonging to those five individuals appear on a spreadsheet of surveillance targets that the NSA monitored between 2002 and 2008, under a program intended to target foreigners and terrorism suspects. Among the five is a former Homeland Security official in the Bush administration with a top-secret security clearance; the executive director of a prominent Muslim civil rights organization; and a defense lawyer who handled terrorism cases.
None has been charged with a crime. Though the report cautioned that “it is impossible to know why their emails were monitored, or the extent of the surveillance,” what links the five men is their Muslim heritage and their civil liberties work. Several told The Intercept they believed they were targets because of their faith and their activism, which are protected under the First Amendment.
Muslim Advocates, a law firm, said the report “confirms the worst fears of American Muslims: the federal government has targeted Americans, even those who have served their country in the military and government, simply because of their faith or religious heritage.” The Center for Constitutional Rights likened the surveillance of one target, Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to the FBI’s spying on Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.
The article also describes institutionalized Islamophobia within the NSA, summed up in a template for an internal memo that uses “Mohammed Raghead” as a substitute for John Doe.
Forty-four groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Islamic Society of North America to Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and the Presbyterian Church called on the Obama administration to account for the surveillance of the five Americans, and to overhaul Department of Justice guidelines against racial profiling to bar wider forms of discrimination, including on the basis of religion.
“While we do not know all of the facts of the individual reported cases, we believe the government has an obligation to explain the basis for its actions. Moreover, we cannot presume that the government acted without prejudice or bias,” reads their letter. “Too often, both in the past and in the present, we have observed the government engaging in patterns of discriminatory and abusive surveillance.”
As the letter notes, the allegations made in the Intercept article arise in a “broader context” of federal and local agencies singling out Muslims and other minorities for extra scrutiny. For years the New York Police Department monitored and infiltrated mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, and Muslim student groups, without generating any leads. In San Francisco, the Federal Bureau of Investigation spied on mosques and Muslim organizations under the pretense of “community outreach” activities. The FBI continues to target Muslims in sting operationsinvolving informants, while individuals who refused to work as informants themselves report that the agency punished them by adding their names to the no-fly list.
The fact that the NSA, too, targeted Muslim-Americans, particularly prominent lawyers and activists, is not surprising. It is, nonetheless, outrageous. The Intercept report lends specificity to fears, voiced soon after the first stories based on the Snowden leaks were published, that the NSA’s surveillance programs and the legal framework they rest on could facilitate politically motivated spying on American citizens. The report also has critical legal implications: for the first time, individuals have confirmation that the government used the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to target their communications specifically, giving them standing to sue.
The political reaction to the report has mostly centered on the damning “Mohammed Raghead” detail. White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden told The Guardian that the administration was taking the reported use of the slur “very seriously,” and has ordered the director of national intelligence to conduct “an assessment of intelligence community policies, training standards or directives that promote diversity and tolerance, and as necessary, make any recommendations changes or additional reforms.” This is not the first time the Obama administration has investigated the use of anti-Muslim materials within the intelligence community; it did so in 2011, after the disclosure of offensive counterterrorism training documents that, among other things, characterized “mainstream” Muslims as terrorists.
However, the administration pushed back aggressively on the allegation that well-documented Islamophobia within the intelligence community has led to discrimination in practice. “It is entirely false that US intelligence agencies conduct electronic surveillance of political, religious or activist figures solely because they disagree with public policies or criticize the government, or for exercising constitutional rights,” reads a joint statement from the Director of National Intelligence and the DOJ. “Unlike some other nations, the United States does not monitor anyone’s communications in order to suppress criticism or to put people at a disadvantage based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.”
At least one lawmaker isn’t convinced that a dearth of political correctness at the NSA is the extent of the problem. “I share the concerns of many Americans who feel the NSA has violated their civil liberties by monitoring them without cause,” Representative Keith Ellison said in a statement. “The Intercept report is particularly troubling because it suggests that Americans were targeted because of their faith and civic engagement. Unfortunately, the NYPD’s spying on Muslims with the CIA’s help and the FBI’s use of hateful anti-Muslim training materials makes this concern legitimate.”
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If corporations have religious rights that warrant protection under the law, why don’t men imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay?
A federal judge has given the US government until Tuesday evening to answer that question, which was posed by lawyers representing two Guantánamo detainees, Emad Hassan and Ahmed Rabbani, who have been held without charge or trial. Authorities at the prison have barred the two men from communal prayers during the holy month of Ramadan because they are on hunger strike. Two courts ruled previously that Hassan and Rabbani are not people, at least “within the scope” of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prevents the government from substantially burdening a person’s freedom to exercise religion.
In last week’s Hobby Lobby v. Burwell decision, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court ruled that the chain of craft stores, along with other closely held corporations, are within the scope of the RFRA. Three days later, lawyers representing the detainees filed new lawsuits calling on a DC circuit court to restore the detainees’ right to communal prayers in light of the High Court’s interpretation.
“The Guantánamo Bay detainees, as flesh-and-blood human beings, are surely ‘individuals,’ and thus they are no less ‘person[s]’ than are for-profit corporations in Hobby Lobby,” reads the motion. “The fact that the detainees are at Guantánamo Bay changes nothing, for Hobby Lobby makes clear that a ‘person’ whose religious free exercise is burdened under color of law need not be a US citizen or resident in order to enjoy the RFRA’s protections.”
The government has until 6 pm to explain why Hassan and Rabbani have fewer religious rights than corporations. A hearing is set for July 10. If the Court ultimately finds that the RFRA does apply to the detainees, the government could still argue that the burden on the detainees’ freedom to exercise religion is justified by a “compelling government interest,” such as maintaining security at the prison. But it’s not clear how communal prayers actually threaten such an interest, or that preventing the two detainees from participating is “the least restrictive means” of satisfying the interest. “Least restrictive” is the standard required by the RFRA.
The application of the Hobby Lobby decision to Guantánamo detainees is another indicator that the supposed “limits” of that decision are undetermined. Recent court cases expanding religious rights have largely done so for Christian denominations, including the Supreme Court’s most recent endorsement of Catholic objections to birth control, and another recent decision permitting officials to open town council meetings in Greece, New York, with Christian prayers. If courts interpret the Hobby Lobby ruling as broadly as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned in her dissent, perhaps one positive outcome will be that the religious right will be forced to be more transparent about what it means when it talks about freedom of worship. For whom?
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There’s been much to-do in the past month about the “war on coal,” the latest front of which is, supposedly, the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule to cut carbon emissions from power plants. This “war” has already been invoked in midterm election campaigns, not just by Republicans but also by coal-state Democrats who protest that the industry is being singled out for euthanasia.
They’re half right. It’s important to distinguish between coal mining communities and Big Coal corporations; technology and geology doomed the former, not government policy. Coal mining jobs have been disappearing for decades as strip mines and advanced machinery made the work less dependent on human labor. In Appalachia, coal itself has run out, at least in reserves that are economically feasible to mine. Still, Big Coal’s investors and political supporters are right to notice that in a carbon-constrained world, their product has to be phased out even further. Burning carbon rocks is just irreconcilable with climate action.
What all this “war on coal” talk is missing is the fact that while the Obama administration is taking steps to discourage coal consumption at home, it is tacitly promoting coal exports overseas. Last week the Bureau of Land Management announced plans to lease more than 8 million tons of coal on public lands in Colorado’s Delta County—a continuation of a decades-long debacle known as the federal coal leasing program, which has cost taxpayers billions and effectively acted as a subsidy for Big Coal.
The primary benefit of the Delta County sale, according to the BLM’s environmental impact statement, is that it will be a “contribution to the supply of coal to meet the nation’s energy demands.” This is a fishy statement considering that demand for coal in the United States is at a twenty-four-year low. It looks particularly ludicrous in light of the fact that the prospective buyer, Bowie Resources, has been aggressively trying to develop new pathways to get its landlocked Western reserves to Asia—in other words, is actively looking for ways to avoid contributing to the domestic coal supply.
Bowie’s financial incentives are simple: demand for coal is still growing overseas, particularly in China, and it makes sense to go in search of higher price outside the United States. But things get more complicated when the coal Bowie and other producers are selling is taxpayer-owned, as most Western coal stocks are. Among the many problems with the leasing program is that the BLM “does not fully account for export potential” when it prices publicly owned coal, according to a 2013 report by the Interior Department’s inspector general. While giving producers access to below-market coal was originally intended to ensure a cheap supply of domestic energy, the leasing program now looks more like an arrangement benefitting Big Coal alone. As Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey wrote in a February letter calling for a moratorium on new federal coal leases, “Taxpayers are likely losing out so that coal companies can reap a windfall and export that coal overseas where it is burned, worsening climate change. This is a bad deal all around.”
So far the Obama administration has failed to address the climate implications of subsidizing coal exports with below-market prices (or, for that matter, the contradictions between the president’s climate agenda and his “all of the above” energy strategy more generally). It looks like the courts may beat the administration to the punch. Days before the Delta County sale was announced, a US District judge ruled that the BLM and the US Forest Service violated federal law by failing to consider the social cost of carbon before approving an expansion of a coal lease in Colorado’s Gunnison County. “While the agencies provided an adequate disclosure of effects on adjacent lands, their treatment of the costs associated with [greenhouse gas] emissions from the mine was arbitrary and capricious,” wrote Judge R. Brooke Jackson.
So far Big Coal’s export-expansion dreams have been kept at bay by local opposition to new port facilities in California and the Pacific Northwest. But that doesn’t resolve the incoherence between Obama’s regulatory agenda at home, which is intended to cut carbon emissions, and the administration’s resistance to considering the global warming implications of the leasing program, which continues largely unreformed despite successive reports of poor management. If Big Coal is dying, it’s going out with a bang; according to the BLM, leases are pending for 3.5 billion tons.
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On Monday, President Obama ripped into the GOP for turning its back on the country’s immigration crisis, and announced that he was preparing to take unilateral action by the end of the summer to change the country’s enforcement policies. The announcement stirred up bluster from the usual suspects about executive overreach—never mind that it was John Boehner himself who, in a meeting on June 24, reportedly informed Obama that reform legislation is dead in the House, at least for the rest of the year.
Despite mounting pressure from immigrant rights groups, Obama has refrained from revising heavy-handed enforcement policies for months, ostensibly to create political space for Republicans to move their own legislation forward, something they claimed—and continue to claim—they want to do. Now that the charade is over there’s no reason for the president not to act. Republicans have never explained what else he could do to earn the “trust” they say is lacking; Obama has already presided over a record-breaking 2 million deportations, and Senate Democrats even offered to change their legislation so that it wouldn’t go into effect until a new administration takes over in 2017.
If Obama has given up trying to appease the GOP and wants to shift away from a policy that emphasizes deportations, it’s hard to explain why he is considering weakening a law intended to ensure that children aren’t removed to violent situations and to protect victims of child trafficking, in order to more quickly remove the unaccompanied minors flooding over the borders.
“It’s an utter devastation of due process for our most vulnerable community members,” Ruthie Epstein of the ACLU said in response to the administration’s acknowledgement that it is considering changes to the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. That law shields children from countries who do not share a border with the United States from immediate deportation. It mandates that they must instead be handed over to Health and Human Services, which helps them access legal counsel to advise them on the process of applying for asylum, and in some cases releases them to US relatives. The new proposal would let Border Patrol agents make the decision to deport the children they arrest after only a brief screening interview, denying the children access to legal counsel.
Obama said on Monday that speeding up the deportation of children was intended to send “a clear message to the parents in these countries not to put these kids through this. The problem is that our system is so broken, so unclear that folks don’t know what the rules are.” According to the White House, “a deliberate misinformation campaign” led by “criminal syndicates in Central America” is responsible for encouraging children to travel to the United States. But there’s ample evidence that those kids aren’t chasing misleading rumors in hopes of catching the American dream. They’re fleeing violence and extreme poverty.
The Department of Homeland Security itself cited these underlying causes in a document obtained by the Pew Research Center. Five percent of all of the children arrested at the border since October are from a single city in Honduras, San Pedro Sula; both the city and the country have the highest murder rate in the world. The bulk of the children arriving in the recent surge are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where homicide rates have risen by 99 percent in the last decade, according to one recent study. Those three countries are also among the poorest in Latin America.
In other words, what’s happening at the US-Mexico border looks more like a refugee crisis than the invasion the right wing describes. It’s true that the arrival of tens of thousands of children has overwhelmed Border Patrol stations and Health and Human Services’ shelter system. Accordingly, the administration says that moves to “streamline” the deportation process are being made out of humanitarian concerns, a claim that might hold up if streamlining referred to increasing the resources available to those children so that they could more quickly access legal counsel and get a fair hearing in court. The desire for an expedient solution, however, should not undercut their right to due process.
Obama is sending a convoluted message about his position on enforcement. Immigrant rights groups have long awaited the shift in policy he prefaced on Monday by announcing his intention to move unilaterally to “make the immigration system work better.” Now it’s becoming less and less clear what he mean by “better.” Having conceded that the GOP will block legislation for the foreseeable future no matter what he does, the president no longer has a political excuse for prioritizing a tough stance over humane policy. And yet, when it comes to kids at the border, Obama is advocating for weaker legal protections and a building-up of the country’s deportation machinery—a clear win for immigration opponents and the private companies running detention centers, but a bleak development for immigrants themselves.
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Among the many questions raised by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is how sweeping its legacy will be. Supporters of the decision have insisted that the ruling is “narrow,” as it explicitly addresses “closely held” corporations objecting to four specific types of birth control—including IUDs and Plan B—because the business’ owners consider them (inaccurately) to cause abortion. Besides, the Court argued, the government can just fill any coverage gaps itself, and it’s only women whom corporations are now permitted to discriminate against. “Our decision in these cases is concerned solely with the contraceptive mandate,” claimed Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority. “Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employers’ religious beliefs.”
Bullshit, is essentially what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to say about the majority’s claim to have issued a limited ruling. In her dissent, Ginsburg deemed it “a decision of startling breadth.” She noted that “‘closely held’ is not synonymous with ‘small’,” citing corporations like Cargill, which employs 140,000 workers. Even more alarming is the majority’s endorsement of the idea that corporations can hold religious beliefs that warrant protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In fact, it only took a day for the Court’s “narrow” decision to start to crack open. On Tuesday, the Court indicated that its ruling applies to for-profit employers who object to all twenty forms of birth control included in the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, not just the four methods at issue in the two cases decided on Monday.
In light of its ruling on Hobby Lobby and a related suit, the Supreme Court ordered three appeals courts to reconsider cases in which they had rejected challenges from corporations that object to providing insurance that covers any contraceptive services at all. The plaintiffs in all three cases are Catholics who own businesses in the Midwest, including Michigan-based organic food company Eden Foods. Meanwhile, the High Court declined to review petitions from the government seeking to overturn lower court rulings that upheld religiously based challenges to all preventative services under the mandate.
It’s bad enough that the Court privileged the belief that IUDs and emergency contraceptives induce abortion over the scientific evidence that clearly says otherwise. With Tuesday’s orders, the conservative majority has effectively endorsed the idea that religious objections to insurance that covers any form of preventative healthcare for women have merit. This development is not surprising, as it’s the logical extension of the premise that the intangible legal entities we call corporations have religious rights. That’s a ridiculous idea, certainly, but not a narrow one—no matter Alito’s assurance that he intends it to be used only to justify discrimination against women.
The cases that must now be reopened aren’t even based on junk science, just general pious resistance to women’s health services. And at least one of those cases is only tenuously about religious freedom. “I don’t care if the federal government is telling me to buy my employees Jack Daniel’s or birth control,” Michael Potter, the founder of Eden Foods told Irin Carmon. “What gives them the right to tell me that I have to do that? That’s my issue, that’s what I object to, and that’s the beginning and end of the story.” As one judge wrote, “Potter’s ‘deeply held religious beliefs’ more resembled a laissez-faire, anti-government screed.”
The hole that the Supreme Court tore in the contraceptive mandate can be repaired with a tailored fix, most likely by the Obama administration extending the same accommodation it offered nonprofit religious groups to women working for the closely held for-profit corporations implicated in the Hobby Lobby ruling. Under that work-around, insurance companies themselves—or, in some cases, the federal government—will pick up the tab for female employees’ contraception coverage when their employer opts out.
More vexing is the extension of the RFRA to corporations. Business owners now have a new basis for trying to evade anti-discrimination laws and their responsibilities to their employees. Religious liberty is already the rallying cry for conservatives looking for a legal way to discriminate against LGBT Americans; other business owners have tried to use religion to justify opposition to minimum-wage laws and Social Security taxes. Faith groups are already trying to capitalize on the Hobby Lobby decision out of court; on Wednesday, a group of religious leaders asked the Obama administration for an exemption from a forthcoming federal order barring federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
According to Alito, courts have no authority to “tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed.” Where, then, are the boundaries? How will courts decide which beliefs are “sincerely held?” Alito asserts that the majority opinion provides “no such shield” for other forms of discrimination, but we have to take his word on it. The language of the ruling may be limited to contraception, but there are no explicit constraints on its underlying logic.
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It’s no secret that the floor has fallen out from beneath American workers. The minimum wage is now 25 percent lower than its peak in 1968. Collective bargaining rights are being stripped away. Businesses are downright stealing from their employees, to the tune of $185 million in 2008—three times more than what was stolen in all bank, gas station and convenience store robberies. Others are skipping out on their obligations by misclassifying their workers as independent contractors.
Given the political climate, the prospects for reversing the race to the bottom across low-wage industries seem a bit grim. There are, however, glimmers of success in the minimum-wage campaigns throughout the country. And there’s also a new bureaucrat in town, one whose role is little discussed but of real significance in the effort to restore eroded wages and workplace standards.
In early May, Boston University economist David Weil took over as director of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division, where he’s responsible for enforcing a slate of statutes that set minimum requirements for employers and protect some of the nation’s most vulnerable workers. He’s the first permanent administrator in a decade, and was confirmed only after Senate Democrats changed the filibuster rules so that a simple majority could approve a nominee. Weil previously advised the division on strategic labor law enforcement, and is known for his work on the franchise industry and on labor violations in the construction industry.
The laws under Weil’s oversight—including the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act—are the bedrock of American labor rights, but for decades the agency has been criticized for lax oversight. The Government Accountability Office issued a scathing report on the Wage and Hour division in 2009, writing that the agency “left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn.” The result, the GAO wrote, “is unscrupulous employers’ taking advantage of our country’s low-wage workers.”
Weil is keenly aware of the sorry state of low-wage labor, and the challenges facing his division. “We are in a period of time where working people have experienced—for a long time—the diminishment of their voice,” he said in an interview.
Weil described the division’s challenges as two-fold, the first being basic resource constraints. Historically, the bulk of Wage and Hour’s enforcement activity was investigating individual complaints—a strategy that amounted to a game of whack-a-mole, considering that the DOL has only 1,100 investigators to oversee 135 million workers in more than 7 million businesses.
Perhaps more critical are structural changes in the workplace that have occurred over the past two decades. As Weil explains it, market pressure pushed firms to farm out more and more activities that weren’t considered “core” to their business, relying on third-party contractors and franchise systems. Weil has studied this trend extensively; he calls it “fissuring,” referring to a rock breaking apart. (He credits his wife, a geologist, for the term.)
“The more a rock fissures, the fissures get deeper. Once you started shifting out this work to other parties, those parties in turn started shifting out the work,” he explained. “The employment relationship gets pushed further and further out to firms that are in more head to head competition.… Practices like off-the-clock work start popping up more and more and more and start defining the competitive position for the firms operating in those industries.” The effects cascade, as cheaters make it more difficult for responsible employers to compete. “The costs, obviously, are borne by the workers who are deprived of their wages, or sometimes their rights.”
Weil is now presiding over a major shift in how the division polices the workplace. Although the department will still respond to individual complaints, Weil is directing the bulk of his resources to targeted investigations in industries and sectors where labor exploitation is endemic. Those industries tend to employ many low-wage, low-skill or undocumented workers who, Weil said, “because of that are much more or much less likely to exercise the rights the law gives them to do things like complain.”
Weil said the division will also put extra effort into educating workers about their rights, and employers about the law, in the hopes that outreach will improve compliance. “But if we find employers…who are essentially competing on the basis of not complying and are playing the kind of games we see in, let’s say, misclassifying employees as independent contractors…there we’ll use the full range of enforcement tools we have available.”
The aim of the targeted strategy is ambitious: to not just resolve complaints against individual employers, but to change norms and employer behavior in entire industries. “In all of this work, whether it’s thinking about how we allocate our time to outreach, how we use our enforcement tools, how we respond to complaints, we’re constantly asking these questions: What’s the impact? How is this action ultimately going to bring this industry or this sector or this part of the country into greater compliance with the law?” Weil said.
Weil will also play a key role in raising standards, not just enforcing them. He’s responsible for a portfolio that includes raising the salary threshold at which employees are eligible for overtime pay, raising the wage floor for federal contractors, and implementing an extension of minimum wage and overtime protections to home healthcare workers. With action to lift the minimum wage and other standards across the economy unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled House at any point soon, it’s the Wage and Hour division that will leave a greater mark on the American workplace.
Weil’s record as a scholar and critic of exploitative employment structures is some reason for optimism about his ability to make the Wage and Hour division a more effective ally for American workers. Indeed, the president of the International Franchise Association (a trade group that is currently suing to block Seattle’s $15 an hour minimum wage hike), called his views “downright frightening.”
“He’s the most knowledgeable wage and hour administrator in 35 years,” said Ross Eisenbrey, the vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, of Weil. “He’s really devoted himself to studying labor standard issues, and enforcement of wage and hour issues in particular.”
Workplace trends like wage theft and misclassification may seem like small issues compared to the scale of the gap between rich and poor in the US. But the race to the bottom is one of the defining elements of the American inequality crisis, and its certainly a place to start. The enforcement and regulatory agenda that Weil oversees is, he said, fundamentally “about redressing what has become an increasingly problematic political climate in which to address inequality.”
He continued, “People feel how out of whack we’ve gotten in the specific case of the minimum wage, but I think more generally people understand that standards in our workplace have eroded. I feel fundamentally—maybe this is partly my roots as an educator—that an important part of what we do is to make the connection with what people feel in their daily or weekly or monthly budgeting, and some of these trends and why we need to turn them around. Because this has been going on for too long.”
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