Saturday, February 20, 2016

Scalia's Sense of Justice: The Nuns, the Beemer, and a Long Walk for Voting Rights

Scalia's Black Beemer

by Greg Palast - for OpedNews

February 19, 2016

It was one of our team’s weirder investigative discoveries: The recently departed Justice Antonin Scalia— alev ha shalom — in 2011, was ticketed for recklessly driving his black BMW. To his family, I offer condolences. To my readers, I offer the facts. A man's soul must be laid to rest, but history must not be buried as well, especially now that the Justice's passing has become grounds for stories that border on historical obscenity, cf. the New York Times, "Liberal Love for Antonin Scalia.”

Love!? Well, if you want a Valentine, this ain't it.

There's been a lot of gleeful chuckling, for example, about Scalia's courtroom bench "humor." But behind his jokey comments lay a cruelty aimed at the poor, the injured, the Beemer-less class that turns to the Court as the last hope for protection against corporate and state violence.

Here’s a telling example of Scalia’s humor from a crucial voting rights case. In 2005, Indiana's Republican legislature passed a law barring the vote to anyone without current state photo ID. The excuse: an official ID would prevent voter fraud – despite the fact that the state had not found, in over 100 years, even one case of a voter illegally impersonating another.

The media did get a laugh out of the ten nuns who were turned away from an Indiana polling station because the sisters' driver’s licenses had expired. The nuns were in their eighties and nineties. Their licenses had expired, though they had not.

Tough luck ladies, you lose your vote. 

Bobby Kennedy and I covered the cute story of the nuns; but we also wrote about the unnoticed 78,000 African-Americans in Indiana who lost their right to vote because they did not have the right ID to vote. A disproportionate number of African-Americans lack cars, and therefore driver’s licenses; and only a few, apparently have passports for weekends in Paris. (Get a free copy of the investigative report – in comic book form, Steal Back Your Vote.)

Civil rights groups sued, stating the obvious: that the Indiana law is racist in its operation, a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Black folk, the elderly, students, and poor whites—were all blocked from registering and voting.

Federal Justice Terence Evans threw out the biased ID law, writing, “The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by certain folks believed to skew Democratic.”

But Indiana argued before the Supreme Court that anyone could get an ID--they just had to get a non-driver ID from a county office.

Experts pointed out that the average poor person in Indiana – a poor person likely to be Black – lived an average 17 miles from a county seat.

That’s when Justice Scalia rode, recklessly, to Indiana’s rescue. Scalia chortled that “Seventeen miles is seventeen miles for the rich and the poor,” Black or white. How cute. How droll, Mr. Justice. And it's true, at 65 miles per hour, 17 miles is just a 15 minute cruise, whether your BMW is black or white.

But the experts I spoke with told me they calculated that travel required two bus rides, cost a day of work, and included fees that amount to a poll tax. In the non-BMW world, 17 miles is just another long, obstacle-choked road to the ballot for voters of color.

All week I’ve heard Scalia praised as an "originalist," that is, sticking with the intent of the writers of the Constitution. Really? The right to vote without regard to race, the 15th Amendment, grew from the ground watered by the blood of Abraham Lincoln’s warriors.

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state.”

Was it the original intent of these words to enable the creation of new Jim Crow obstacles to citizen rights?

Since when does an "originalist" so insouciantly ignore the clearly marked signposts of the law?

My suggestion: The President should not nominate a replacement for Scalia. Let's make this election a referendum: make Americans choose our Court. Let Americans decide if our Court will defeat or cuddle up to Jim Crow, whether our government may dictate whom you love and marry, whether the Bill of Rights is just a porous veil covering an unfettered and brutal spy state. Let's put the soul of America to a vote.

We are completing our film on the latest, hidden tactics of racially poisonous vote suppression which has grown like a mold from the 2013 decision by Scalia and his Court comrades to gut the Voting Rights Act. As John Pilger kindly said of my work, "The information is a hand grenade." This film is the peaceable weapon for the new civil rights movement.

Right now, support the completion of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: a Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits, with a $100 donation and I'll list you in the film credits as a supporter and I'll send you the signed DVD once the film wraps. Donate $50 if you just want the signed DVD ... For $1,000 or $500, get a film credit (Producer or co-Producer respectively) and tickets to the film's opening.

Or support the film for any amount you can, no matter how small or large.

Please make this donation to our foundation right now.

I can’t thank you enough for your support—not just financial, but your vote of confidence in me and my team’s work over the years.

It’s what keeps us going.

* * * * * * *
For 15 years, Greg Palast has been uncovering voter suppression tactics in investigative reports for BBC Television, The Guardian, Harper’s and Rolling Stone.

In 2016 Greg Palast will be releasing his new feature film The Best Democracy Money Can Buy—A Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits, which includes his award-winning investigation Jim Crow Returns.

Greg Palast is the author of several New York Times bestsellers including The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Billionaires & Ballot Bandits, Armed Madhouse and the highly acclaimed Vultures' Picnic.

Make a tax-deductible donation and support our ongoing investigation into voter suppression.

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New York Times into the Breach for Hillary: Sanders Hit Piece Signals Growing Establishment Fear

Striking out at the NY Times: Hit Piece on Sanders Proposals Relies on Pro-Clinton Economists Mislabeled as ‘Leftists’ 

by Dave Lindorff  - This Can't Be Happening

February 19, 2016

As Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination continues to strengthen, so do the attacks on him by the establishment corporate media, which are reflexively backing the status quo corporatocracy.

The latest smear comes from the New York Times, in the form of an almost laughable piece by Jackie Calmes [1] run on Feb. 15 and headlined “Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders’s Plans.”

The so-called “left-leaning” economists quoted by her, however, included not one genuine left or even left-leaning economist. Rather, they were a bunch of mainstream economists who, while “not working for Hillary Clinton,” as Calmes notes, have in fact worked for either the administration of Barack Obama or of Bill Clinton (a point she largely fails to note). As media critic Doug Henwood of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) pointed out in a blistering critique of the Times article [2], referring to the economists quoted in the piece, “So slight is their leftward lean that it would require very sensitive equipment to measure.”

Take source one, Austan Goolsbee, former chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, who obligingly tells Calmes that Sander’s “numbers just don’t add up,” and claims that Sanders’ proposed measures on health care and job creation would add “$2 to $3 trillion” to the current $4-trillion federal budget. Just the vagueness of his estimate, which had a range of uncertainty of $1 trillion, should alert people to a certain, shall we say lack of rigor on Goolsbee’s part, rather unbecoming of a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. Goolslbee, in fact, was the economist with the Obama campaign who famously rushed off to Ottawa to privately reassure that country’s right-wing Prime Minister Stephen Harper that candidate Obama wasn’t serious in his campaign rhetoric condemning the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The second supposedly “left-leaning” economist critic of Sanders cited by Calmes in her article was Jared Bernstein, former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, who is now at what Calmes terms the “liberal” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities -- actually a haven for Clinton-era mainstream economic hacks pedaling the usual trickle-down theories. Bernstein is quoted criticizing UMass economist Gerald Friedman, who wrote an analysis backing Sander’s call for replacing Obamacare with a Medicare for All program. Friedman, in his analysis, demonstrates that such a switch to a single-payer system would save Americans an average of about $5000 per family, even after raising the Medicare tax by about $500 per family, because it would eliminate virtually all private insurance premiums and co-pays.

Bernstein argued that “several assumptions” in Friedman’s analysis were “wishful thinking.” In fact though, it’s Bernstein whose assumptions are flawed. For example he argues that Sanders and Friedman are “mistakenly” assuming that there would be minimum health care inflation under Sanders’ plan. Actually, it’s no mistake. With the government in a position as sole customer under a national single-payer plan to negotiate pricing with all segments of the delivery system -- hospitals, doctors, drug companies, equipment makers, etc. -- health inflation could be virtually halted in its tracks, and in many cases, costs would likely go down significantly.

Hillary Clinton at a campaign event in New Hampshire, with the 
supposedly "independent" and "left-leaning" economist Jared Bernstein 
(carrying young girl on shoulders) Note: this photo ran in the Times [3]  
and so editors should have been aware of Bernstein's close link to the 
Clinton campaign in editing Calmes' article.

Calmes’ third “left-leaning” economist, Henry Aaron, is with the Brookings Institution, a “graveyard of conservative Democrats” that is hardly a nest of lefty intellectuals. Aaron is quoted calling Sanders’ proposal for Medicare for All a “fairy tale” given the current political climate in Washington, implying that it could never win passage with a Republican Congress -- a point also credited by Calmes to a colleague, Times columnist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, whose column attacking Sanders for “magical thinking” is quoted, though he is not actually interviewed for her piece.

That political analysis might be correct, though nobody can really predict how a charged-up electorate voting in Sanders as President (and current polls suggest he’d wallop any of the Republican candidates, including Donald Trump) would impact House and Senate races. In any case, that kind of political naval gazing has nothing to do with evaluating the economics of a reform proposal, and doesn’t even properly belong in Calmes’ article.

Fourth in line as a “left-leaning” economist critic of Sanders is Kenneth E. Thorpe, who Calmes notes “advised” the Clintons in the 1990s, including Hillary Clinton, whose epic failure to develop a health care reform acceptable to the private insurance industry famously collapsed, marking her only foray into health care reform, back in Bill Clinton’s first term. Actually, Thorpe more than just advised the Clintons; he was in Bill Clinton’s cabinet, responsible for crunching all the numbers for Hillary’s failed health care reform project!

Thorpe, in the latest Times article, makes the ludicrous assertion that Sanders’ proposed Medicare for All proposal would end up costing twice what he is claiming, ignoring the reality that all other nations that have adopted such a plan spend roughly half of what the US does on health care, and yet get better outcomes while covering all their populations.

The truth is that none of the economists cited by the Times’ Calmes could properly be called “left-leaning.” They are in some cases perhaps liberal economists, in the context of American politics, whatever that may mean, but they are also all very conventional free-market advocates at the core.

If Calmes wanted to talk to left-leaning economists, she had plenty to choose from, but they are not people generally interviewed by NY Times reporters. I’m thinking for example of Dean Baker, James Galbraith or Alex Binder -- all well-known economists who, it turns out, think Sanders’ plans on health care, economic reform, and Wall Street re-regulation make a lot of sense.

For that matter, she might have contacted French economist Thomas Piketty, whom the UK’s Guardian newspaper just a day later referred to as “perhaps the most influential economic thinker of the left in the Western world.”

As Picketty wrote in Le Monde on Feb. 14 in an article also run by the Guardian [4], Sanders’ ascent spells “the end of the politico-ideological cycle opened by the victory of Ronald Reagan at the 1980 elections.” Piketty, a sharp critic of modern global capitalism and of America’s national religion of “free markets,” argues that regardless of Sanders' fate in this particular contest, he has created an opening for similar candidates in the future who could successfully make it into the White House and “change the face of the country.” He writes:

“Sanders’ success today shows that much of America is tired of rising inequality and these so-called political changes, and intends to revive both a progressive agenda and the American tradition of egalitarianism. Hillary Clinton, who fought to the left of Barack Obama in 2008 on topics such as health insurance, appears today as if she is defending the status quo, just another heiress of the Reagan-Clinton-Obama political regime.

“Sanders makes clear he wants to restore progressive taxation and a higher minimum wage ($15 an hour). To this he adds free healthcare and higher education in a country where inequality in access to education has reached unprecedented heights, highlighting a gulf standing between the lives of most Americans, and the soothing meritocratic speeches pronounced by the winners of the system.

“Meanwhile, the Republican party sinks into a hyper-nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-Islam discourse (even though Islam isn’t a great religious force in the country), and a limitless glorification of the fortune amassed by rich white people. The judges appointed under Reagan and Bush have lifted any legal limitation on the influence of private money in politics, which greatly complicates the task of candidates like Sanders.

“However, new forms of political mobilization and crowd-funding can prevail and push America into a new political cycle. We are far from gloomy prophecies about the end of history.”

Calmes would have done well to call any of these actual leftists for at least one critical response to her one-sided hit piece on Sanders. But then, since when has the New York Times been a fair and balanced journal when covering US national politics (and foreign affairs)?

The giveaway about what is really going on at the Times is that just a month earlier, on Jan. 14, 170 economists, many of them quite prominent -- and many, but not all, of them actual “left-leaners” in the profession -- signed a public letter endorsing and supporting Sanders’ proposals for breaking up the “too big to fail” banks, and for more tightly regulating Wall Street. That list included such big-name genuinely "left-leaning" economists as Baker, Galbraith and Binder, as well as former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich and William Black, the man who spearheaded the unwinding and prosecution of the massively corrupt Savings and Loans companies during the Bush administration scandal involving those institutions.

When that letter was released, the Times simply ignored it -- the media's typical response to reporting on "inconvenient" news -- while its economics columnist Krugman, a Clinton backer, labelled its signers “not serious people.”

Dismissive I suppose the best way to view this hit piece, and Krugman’s brush-off of professional colleagues who disagree with him, is to note that it’s probably a measure of the fear the establishment has of the power and potential impact of Sanders’ upstart economic proposals that it has to attack them with biased, one-sided reporting and snide comments instead of reasoned argumentation.


How Billary Busted the Balls of America's Poor

Bill Clinton’s War on the Poor (AKA The Hillary Plan)

by Joshua Frank  - CounterPunch

February 19, 2016

So, how did America’s poor fare under Bill Clinton’s White House reign? Better than George W. Bush — at least that seems to be the common belief among Democratic voters today, especially those lining up behind Madam Hillary.

However, the economy under Clinton in the 1990s may not have been as robust and healthy as many would like to believe.

As economist Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst explains in Contours of Descent: US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity, Clintonomics was not all it was cracked up to be. “The distribution of wealth in the US became more skewed than it had at any time in the previous forty years,” he argues. “No question, an increasing number of US jobs began to be outsourced at an unprecedented rate as well.”

“Unlike Clinton, Bush is unabashed in his efforts to mobilize the power of government to serve the wealthy,” he continues. “But we should be careful not to make too much of such differences in the public stances of these two figures, as against the outcomes that prevail during their terms of office … the ratio of wages for the average worker to the pay of the average CEO rising astronomically from 113-to-1 in 1991 under Bush-1 to 449-to-1 when Clinton left office in 2001.”

Pollin points out that while Clinton’s tax policy reversed some of the regressive taxation that occurred under Ronald Reagan, it certainly did not reverse the brunt of it. And, as Pollin contends, “The fact is that, insofar as the end of the Cold War yielded any peace dividend under Clinton, it took the form of an overall decrease in the size of the federal government rather than an increase in federal support for the programs supposedly cherished by Clinton, such as better education, improved training, or poverty alleviation.”

Was Clintontime even a boom-era after all? Pollin doesn’t think so.

“Under the full eight years of Clinton’s presidency, even with the bubble ratcheting up both business investment and consumption by the rich average real wages remained at a level 10 percent below that of the Nixon-Ford peak period, even though productivity in the economy was 50 percent higher under Clinton than under Nixon and Ford. The poverty rate through Clinton’s term was only slightly better than the dismal performance attained during the Reagan-Bush years.”

Bargaining power for low-wage workers during the 1990s decreased tremendously as well. Wall Street scion Alan Greenspan in fact did not want the unemployment rate to drop below 6 percent because he feared that inflation would skyrocket. Greenspan also did not want workers to increase their bargaining power, which could possibly benefit their organizing strength in the work place.

The majority of workers during Clintontime were not happy with their occupations. As Pollin writes,

“Wage gains for average workers during the Clinton boom remained historically weak, especially in relationship to the ascent of productivity. These facts provide the basis for the poll findings reported in Business Week at the end of 1999 that substantial majorities of US citizens expressed acute dissatisfaction with various features of their economic situation.”

Pollin also shows that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the most significant economic initiative under Clinton, more than doubled from $9.3 billion to $26.8 billion during Clinton’s first two terms. But food stamps “dropped by $8.5 billion reflecting a large increase in the percentage of households who are not receiving food assistance even though their income level is low enough for them to qualify.

Under the Clinton Administration, the decline in the number of people receiving food stamps — 9.8 million — was 17% greater than the decline in the number of people officially defined as impoverished and was accompanied by a dramatic increase in the pressure on private soup kitchens and food pantries.

“And while the EITC does correct some of the failings of the old welfare system, it has created new, and equally serious, problems. Moving poor and unskilled women from welfare onto the labor market exerts a downward pressure on wages, and the national minimum wage itself is too low to allow even a full-time worker to keep just herself and only one child above the official poverty line.”

Poverty did decline under Clinton by almost 4 percentage points. Yet, as Pollin explains, in the prosperity of the 1990s, this small drop back to 1974 levels is reprehensible: “Per capita GDP in 2000 was 70% higher than it was in 1974, productivity was 61% higher, and the stock market was up 603%.”

Clinton’s presidency did see a stop in wage decline from 1993 to 1996, however. And in the next three years wages rose sharply. But “the real wage gains were also, in turn, largely a result of the stock market bubble. The Clinton economy of the late 1990s, whose successes were so heavily dependent on the stock market, offers little guidance as to what such an alternative path to sustained improvements in real wages might be.

“Moreover, conditions under Clinton worsened among those officially counted as poor. This is documented through data on the so called ‘poverty gap,’ which measures the amount of money needed to bring all poor people exactly up to the official poverty line. The poverty gap rose from $1,538 to $1,620 from 1993-99 (measured in 2001 dollars).”

Pollin continues, “Because workers had experienced the ‘heightened sense of job insecurity’ under most of Clinton’s tenure, when wages did finally start to rise significantly in 1997, this was from an extremely low base. Moreover, the injection of increased spending under Clinton that produced low unemployment came from the stock market bubble, which, as has now become transparently clear, was unsustainable.

In the 1960s, the catalyst driving the economy to full employment was government spending on the Vietnam war — that is, a source of economic stimulus that was also unsustainable and even more undesirable than the 1990s market bubble.

“The central challenge for an employment-targeted policy in the US today would therefore be to identify alternative sources of job expansion that do not require waging war or destabilizing the financial system. The Bush-2 plan for huge military spending increases obviously does not qualify any more than the Vietnam War as a desirable source of job expansion.”

In other words, even though jobs were plentiful in the 1990s, poverty was widespread and, if fact, increasing. All this before the effects of NAFTA and welfare reform reared their ugly heads. But this was all by design. Clinton, et al., knew exactly what it was they were doing. No question Hillary’s neoliberal agenda will follow suit.

JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. He is author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, both published by AK Press. He can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter @brickburner.
More articles by:Joshua Frank

Thursday, February 18, 2016

"Alleged" to Death in Palestine: UN Goes Invisible on Extrajudicial Murders in Occupied Territories

The UN and the Invisible Palestinian Knives of Allege-gate

by Vacy Vlazna - Dissident Voice

February 17th, 2016

In Palestine, you would be forgiven for thinking that there was no United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

The SR, Christof Heyns, in the past 6 years, has never made a country on-site visit to Palestine to get first hand information on the hundreds of cases of Zionist perpetration of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions of the people of Palestine.

Not even the dozens of extrajudicial street executions of Palestinian children and youth carrying the invisible knives of Allege-gate since October 1, 2015 has impelled Heyns to rush to Palestine to ensure the zionist war criminals uphold Palestinian right to life.

In Palestine ‘alleged’ is a synonym for ‘extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary execution’.

Yes, there is a Palestinian youth intifada, and, yes, there have been acts of resistance to the illegal occupation involving knives, rocks, and cars that have taken some occupier-settler lives.

But the Zionist Occupation Forces (ZOF); i.e., military and police death squads are running amok in Occupied Palestine shooting, seemingly for grisly amusement, innocent Palestinian school children, workers, housewives and youth.

In a wimpy statement on 16 November 2015, SR Heyns welcomed the assurance of the Zionist “Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to the effect that Israeli security forces are prohibited from firing at a suspected assailant unless an immediate danger to human life cannot otherwise be prevented and that the use of fire must be proportional to the threat.”

You can be certain that the devastated parents of Wisam Qasrawi, 21 who buried their beloved child – transformed from family breadwinner into a martyr by lawless zionist bullets – know Wisam was killed in an indisputable and illegal extrajudicial execution.

Wisam was born in a village, Misilya. It was described for the Palestine Exploration Fund (patron was Queen Victoria) by Royal Engineers’ surveyor Lieutenant Condor in 1881 as a village with ancient wells beneath it and a rounded hilltop above with extensive views north east across the great plain to Nazareth, west to Carmel, and to Jenin behind a neighbouring hill, ‘north west across a broad corn vale’.

Today, Misilya continues its ancient agricultural lineage of growing olives and cereal. Its 3000 residents are close-knit and mainly poor because of the crippling zionist occupation.

Wisam was outgoing, energetic, well liked and had lots of friends with whom he enjoyed playing Playstation and billiards at the local cafe. Wisam also had an admirable sense of responsibility; he left school in year 11 to become the family breadwinner because his father had a severe back injury and his mother had small twins plus his other younger siblings to care for. Even while at school he worked as a part-time farm or building labourer to help out.

The early morning of Sunday, January 17th, gave no hint of impending tragedy. Wisam got dressed for his work at a brick/stone factory in Nablus, gave his mother the remaining money in his wallet and armed only with his mobile joined his mate who was giving him a lift as far as the Huwwara checkpoint. He was dropped off about 500 yards from the checkpoint.

Eyewitnesses reported that the heavily armed soldiers were calling out to Wisam, “Come on, come to us”. Wisam walked, relaxed and hands in the air, and at 50 metres military shots burst hitting his chest and head. Typically, he was left to bleed out and die.

Within 10 minutes, even before Wisam’s mate returned to Misilya, the Zionist news reported an alleged attempted stabbing at the Huwwara checkpoint with no soldiers injured (understandable).

By the afternoon the ZOF had made incursions into Wisam’s village, set up checkpoints and closed off the village which was in collective shock, helplessness, anger and mourning.

Wisam’s body was returned at night and respectfully given a martyr’s burial; the body is not washed as usual with scented water and wrapped in a shroud, but the martyr is buried in the clothes in which he/she died and the blood is left unwashed. According to a Hadith – on Resurrection Day, the Shahid’s blood -“Its color saffron, and its odor musk”.

With 68 years of the violent unrestricted bloodletting of martyrs, the scent of this holy musk is tragically Palestine’s oxygen.

Wisam is no more, just as Ehab, Khalil, Ahmad, Ruqayya, Dania, Nihad, Fuad, Naim, and all the other young innocent invisible-knife wielders, are no more.

The UN was set up to maintain international peace, security and human rights for all. In 68 years, the now 192 member states of the UN have not furthered one moment of peace and justice for the people of Palestine.

The Zionist state has over and over, day to day, blatantly violated every UN declaration and convention it has ratified and it has never been suspended or expelled from the UN:

A Member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.

The UN is as fake as the fake knives of Allege-gate. Both are smokescreens for impunity for Zionist brutality and crimes against humanity.

Dr. Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters. She was Human Rights Advisor to the GAM team in the second round of the Aceh peace talks, Helsinki, February 2005 and then withdrew on principle. Vacy was coordinator of the East Timor Justice Lobby as well as serving in East Timor with UNAMET and UNTAET from 1999-2001.
Read other articles by Vacy.

An Evening with Vandana Shiva

An Evening with Vandana Shiva

by UVic Events

With great anticipation, a collaboration of Harmony Foundation, LifeCycles and UVIC’s Institute for Studies and Innovation in Community University Engagement, invite you to join Dr. Vandana Shiva on Feb 29th in Victoria at UVic's Farquhar Auditorium.

Join us for an outstanding evening of discussion about healthy food, people and communities, here and around the world.

While climate change and the loss of biodiversity are crucial issues for food security, even more critical is ensuring community control over our own food supply.


Farquhar Auditorium

Feb 29th

$20 At the Door $25

UVic Ticket Centre

How do food and food systems flow into all other areas of life and community?

What are some of the key questions we should be asking when choosing foods to grow and eat and bring into our community while doing our part to meet global challenges such as climate change, hunger and poverty?

In the Capital Regional District, water conservation, protecting and conserving agricultural land, and supporting traditional food systems are crucial to the region's food security. It is imperative, too, that we prepare for the changes in climate, weather and crop viability that have begun to occur and will accelerate over time. What can we learn from the resiliency of organic agroecosystems?

How can we increase access to regionally-adapted open-pollinated seeds that can respond to a changing climate and preserve biodiversity?

How can global examples inform local efforts here in Victoria?

Join us to learn about these compelling issues and how we can work together to make our communities more sustainable. There will be time for questions from the audience and to hear about how you can connect with local, on-the-ground food initiatives in the region. There will also be a book signing to follow -- bring a copy of one of Dr. Shiva's publications to be signed by her!

Dr. Eion Finn’s on LNG Plans for Southern Vancouver Island

Dr. Eion Finn’s LNG Video-As Presented To An Overflow Crowd In Mill Bay

by Richard Hughes

February 17th, 2016

The Saanich Inlet Network’s Adam Olsen joined Dr. Eion Finn for this LNG presentation to an overflow crowd in Mill Bay last night.

This is a must see for those living on Southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

Democrat Contrast Tale of Two American Experiences

For Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, Politics is Personal

by Ted Rall - CounterPunch

February 18, 2016

Could the clash between Clintonian “realism” and Sandersian “idealism” come down to personal history?

Hillary Clinton’s sales pitch to Democrats is simple:

Get real! The Republicans controlling Congress (and who’ll likely still be in charge in 2017) won’t even allow President Obama to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court. There is no way in hell, she says, that these intransigent SOBs will pass pie-in-the-sky bills like Bernie Sanders’ proposal to replace Obamacare — an insurance company-friendly scheme originally conceived by a right-wing think tank, which Republicans now call socialistic — with Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All,” which would eliminate insurers in an actually socialistic way.

Hillary says she won’t make promises she can’t keep. Maybe that, as opposed to the mountains of cash she collects from Big Pharma and the piles of dough she rakes in from health insurance giants, is why she thinks the United States can’t join the rest of the First World by creating a universal coverage healthcare system.

Or maybe it’s personal. Hillary can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. Should she or Bill ever contract some nasty disease, the Clintons’$110 million nest egg can easily cover the cost of the fanciest doctors.

She’s always been personally comfortable. Hillary grew up solidly middle class, never worrying where her next meal was coming from. Her family were right-wing conservatives, and so was she: in 1964, she was a fervently anti-communist “Goldwater girl.” She was named a partner of a law firm at age 32. You know the rest of the story.

Smooth sailing, financially if not necessarily romantically.

It wasn’t like that for Bernie Sanders (current net worth $700,000) while he was growing up.

Sanders is a product of America’s huge, rarely discussed, working class — people one paycheck away from eviction and homelessness. Bernie’s father, a salesman who came here from Poland alone (his entire family was later wiped out by the Nazis in the Holocaust), struggled to make a living throughout his life. He and his wife, Bernie’s mom, constantly fought over (lack of) money. “There were tensions about money, which I think is important,” Sanders told me when I interviewed him for my biography, “Bernie.”

“There was no sense of long-term security,” Sanders recalled.
“A salesman, things can go up and things can do down.”

Ultimately, marital tensions fueled by money problems drove young Bernie to move out of the family home, an overcrowded apartment in the hardscrabble Flatbush section of Brooklyn.

Bernie doesn’t like to talk about his past. Partly, he views personal biography as a distraction from what he cares about: issues, policies. I suspect there’s another reason. Much of Bernie’s early life was painful.

“My father came to this country with nothing. Economically, what motivated him was security, that is, not losing what he had.” Bernie’s mother Dorothy was American, from The Bronx.

“My mother wanted more money and wanted him to get a different job or expand what he was doing. He was very frugal. But if he tried to do that, he would have lost everything.” 

His parents couldn’t reconcile their worldviews. If they’d been esarning a proper living, of course, they wouldn’t have had to.

In poor families — poor families that read and follow the news — left-wing activism is baked in from the start. While Hillary was campaigning for the most right-wing presidential nominee in history, Bernie was marching, and getting arrested, for civil rights. Stretched though he and his family were, he worried about those worse off than himself.

Dorothy Sanders suffered from a weak heart — a health condition aggravated by stress, something the Sanderses had in abundance. Shortly after Bernie graduated from high school, Dorothy died.

Bernie went on to college in Chicago, following the hippie trail to Vermont. But he never forgot where he came from. Poverty, Bernie understands, is a blight. And in a country as spectacularly wealthy as the United States, it’s one that’s completely optional, unnecessary and destructive.

Hillary’s incrementalist “we can do real healthcare later” argument reminds me of people who shoot me a quizzical expression when I explain that, after I broke my knee and my skull in a car wreck in 1985, it took me a year to find out because that’s how long it took me to land a job with health insurance. They’re not evil. They just don’t get it.

Clinton and Sanders represent two worldviews: one for whom wealth and privilege have long been assumed as her due, the other whose sympathies lie with those who suffer and die simply because they had the bad luck to be born into the vast majority of Americans, who are broke.

Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for, is the author of the book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower.
More articles by:Ted Rall

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Puerto Rico: America's Sinking Island

Puerto Ricans Suffer as Creditors Feast on Debt Colony

by Matt Peppe - CounterPunch

February 17, 2016

Just an hour before my wife an I landed in her native Puerto Rico last month, the island’s government had defaulted on $1 billion in bond interest payments. It was the second default in five months for the cash-strapped government whose debt now totals $72 billion.

None of this was evident as we waded through the crowds in Rafael Hernández airport in Aguadilla, which had been converted into a civilian airport after the closure of Ramey Air Force Base 40 years earlier. People hugged their relatives, welcoming them back home or bidding them farewell. It was a normal scene you’d see at any airport in the world. But the situation in Puerto Rico is not normal, and you don’t have to spend long there to see how regular people are suffering more every day under the crushing burden of debt.

You notice every time you make a purchase at the store or get the check at a restaurant. The sales tax in Puerto Rico now stands at 11.5 percent, after being raised 64 percent in July from 7 percent. The measure was approved by the island’s governor, Alejandro García Padilla, in conjunction with a package of austerity measures to raise money to pay the interest on the island’s debt to creditors.

This might not sound like an astronomical amount, but the impact is felt more in Puerto Rico than it would be in any of the states. Sales taxes are regressive. People with lower incomes spend more of their earnings on things that are taxed than those who can afford to store their income as savings. This means the lower your income, the harder you will be hit by the sales tax.

Puerto Rico’s median average income of less than $20,000 is 50 percent less than the poorest American state. For families already struggling to pay the bills on such meager earnings, the additional sales tax burden is eating away their little disposable income, or worse, forcing them to borrow to pay for their basic necessities.

Outside a beachfront restaurant in Aguada, I noticed an SUV with a bumper sticker that summed up the feelings of many Puerto Ricans. “The debt is not ours, it belongs to the Empire,” it read. Many people may believe this represents Puerto Ricans failing to take responsibility for running up a tab they now can’t pay. But this would falsely assume that Puerto Rico exercises independent control over the conditions that created the debt. In reality, Puerto Rico is a colony whose political and economic structures are determined by the dictates of the empire they belong to.

Constrained by the neoliberal capitalist system of the United States, Puerto Rico is unable to chart its own course for independent economic development. The Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution makes it impossible for Puerto Rico to protect its own industries. They must allow American businesses equal access to Puerto Rico’s markets. The Cabotage Laws make shipping to and from Puerto Rico prohibitively expensive, impeding demand for exports and driving up prices on imports.

The detrimental effects of U.S.-imposed restrictions on Puerto Rico’s economy have forced them to incur debt to pay for social spending. Unlike every other industrial country in the world, the United States does not provide universal health care to its citizens. The federal programs that are supposed to guarantee insurance for the poor and the elderly do not apply equally to Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico only receives half the rate of federal healthcare funding as the 50 states, even though its residents pay the same rates in payroll taxes. This strain was further exacerbated last month when the U.S. government cut payments to Puerto Rico’s Medicare Advantage program by 11 percent. My in-laws told us how their prescription deductibles and their co-pays under their Medicare Advantage plans had increased. The Puerto Rican Healthcare Crisis Coalition (PRHCC) called the decision by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services a “blow to the health of the entire Puerto Rican community.”

The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which is supposed to guarantee health insurance to the rest of the population, does not apply equally to Puerto Rico either. While Puerto Rico passed its own laws requiring features of Obamacare – such as prohibiting denial of insurance based on pre-existing conditions and caps on coverage – there is no individual mandate. The result is a “death spiral” for private insurance plans. Elderly and sick people purchase coverage, while younger and healthier customers, who don’t need the same level of costly care, opt not to participate. This drives up premiums drastically, making plans prohibitively expensive for those who need them most.

With federal government spending and local tax revenue insufficient to meet the population’s health care needs, the Puerto Rican government must assume more debt to cover the difference.

Privatization of Public Assets

Like countries across the global South who have found themselves indebted to U.S.-run institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Puerto Rico has been encouraged to privatize its public assets and use the money to pay its creditors.

Under former Governor Luis Fortuño in 2009, Act 29 was passed to allow government to enter into public-private partnerships for infrastructure and other projects. It created the Public Private Partnership Authority (PPPA) to “identify, evaluate, and select the projects that shall be established as Public Private Partnerships.”

The first target for private takeover of Puerto Rico’s public infrastructure was the island’s most traveled highway, PR-22. Autopistas Metropolitanas de Puerto Rico, LLC (Metropistas), was awarded a 40-year lease for $1.49 billion to operate both the PR-22 and PR-5 highways. The company is a consortium of a Goldman Sachs infrastructure investment fund and a Spanish toll concession company.

PR-22 runs from San Juan west through 12 municipalities towards Aguadilla. Metropistas recently raised the toll prices after the expiration of an initial period where they were prohibited from doing so. But apparently tolls are not the only way they are generating revenue.

A friend explained how the electronic toll collection system, AutoExpreso, had been malfunctioning and issuing fines for not having enough money in your account to pay the toll, even when the account did actually have money. He said that he received four separate fines, none of which was valid. When he tried to contest the fines he was told that based on a technicality (not submitting an appeal in writing by an arbitrary deadline) the fines would stand, even though they should have never been issued in the first place. When he complained, he was told he had a choice to pay or to find another route. Of course, the only alternative for commuters in that heavily populated area of the island is to use inaccessible and inconvenient back roads.

Puerto Rico’s main airport, Luis Muñoz Marin in San Juan, was also recently privatized. The Mexican company Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste SAB de CV and private-equity firm Highstar Capital received a 40-year lease to operate the airport. The deal was negotiated under the previous administration, but did not take effect until García Padilla took office. Unsurprisingly, the first time I visited after the privatization I discovered the airport no longer offered free Wifi.

That Puerto Rico’s public assets have been turned into investment opportunities for American and foreign creditors should come as no surprise. Since its inception as a Commonwealth (a euphemism for colony), the interests of capital have taken priority over the general population. Puerto Rico’s Constitution grants creditors first priority for payment, ahead of even the population whose will the Constitution is supposed to represent.

Daliah Lugo explains this mystifying legal arrangement in her Opinion and Order blog: “That’s right: the entity we know as ‘Puerto Rico’ was in fact set up by Congress and its allies as a corporation, its first duty always to its investors.”

A political arrangement that does not prioritize the people who purportedly consent to it is farcical. Puerto Rico has never achieved self-determination, despite the fact the UN removed the island from its list of Non-Self-Governing territories in 1952. The UN’s Special Committe on Decolonization has recognized this as recently as 2014 when they called on the United States to end their “subjugation” of Puerto Rico and allow its people to “fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination.”

But the United States does not want to acknowledge that, having failed to grant sovereignty to Puerto Rico, they legally hold “the obligation to promote to the utmost … the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories,” according to Article 73 of the UN Charter. Only the U.S. Congress – not Puerto Rico’s legislature – has the ability to change Puerto Rico’s political status. But they have never given any indication they intend to do so, despite a 2012 referendum in which Puerto Ricans decisively rejected the current colonial status.

Few Americans are aware of the social and economic crisis consuming Puerto Rico, which is rarely covered by mainstream news organizations (other than some notable exceptions). But as expenses rise – for housing, health care, groceries, utilities – and economic opportunities disappear, families find themselves in a more and more precarious situation. A change in political status that would finally grant the Puerto Rican people a right to govern themselves in their own interest is the only hope to reverse the devastation 117 years as a debt colony has wrought.

Matt Peppe writes about politics, U.S. foreign policy and Latin America on his blog. You can follow him on twitter.
More articles by:Matt Peppe

BC Alt. Power Doldrums Force Canadian Wind Energy Association to Set Sail for the Prairies

Canadian Wind Energy Association pulls out of B.C.

by Mike Carter - Alaska Highway News

February 13, 2016

The Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) is pulling out of B.C. because of a lack of calls for power from BC Hydro tied to the Site C dam.

At a time when the governing Liberal Party boasts about turning the province into a clean energy leader, the country’s largest wind energy organization has announced it is pulling out of B.C. to chase better opportunities in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Vice-president Jean-Francois Nolet of the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) made the announcement in a letter to members of his B.C. Caucus Feb. 5, obtained by the Alaska Highway News.

The news affirms some suspicions within the opposition NDP that the Site C dam has killed the inspiration for independent power producers to come up with new and innovative renewable energy projects by effectively stopping BC Hydro from putting out a call for power in the foreseeable future.

“In the last few months we have seen significant new commitments to renewable energy in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but much work remains to be done to make those commitments a reality,” Nolet wrote.

“At the same time, despite the hard work and efforts of CanWEA and other stakeholders over many years in British Columbia we have not yet secured any significant new opportunities for wind energy in the province and both the BC Government and BC Hydro have indicated that they do not expect to proceed with a new call for power within the next decade.”

In response, CanWEA determined it must shift its focus from B.C. to emerging markets in Alberta and Saskatchewan. With the announcment comes the closing of the office for CanWEA's BC regional director, Ian Baille, who will be leaving the organization.

The NDP’s critic for Green Energy Technology says the government is trying to have it both ways by saying it will be a clean energy leader, but stunting growth in the sector by putting all their eggs in one basket: the Site C dam.

“They say they support wind power and renewable energy but both the premier and (Energy and Mines) Minister Bennett have been clear that with Site C there will be no need for any other power for a minimum ten years,” he said.

“This decision by CanWEA to close down its B.C. operations is a clear signal that they don’t see any future here at least for the foreseeable period of time and that’s a shame.”

While this announcement does nothing to change the Meikle Wind Energy project near Tumblr Ridge, which already has a 25-year power purchasing agreement with BC Hydro and is expected to finish construction at the end of the year, according to the projects website, it will mean the future of other projects is put in doubt, like the Red Willow wind (also near Tumbler Ridge) which would have been the province’s largest wind farm once complete.

“There are a number of projects that either have their environmental assessment (EA) certification and are just waiting for a power call or others that are quite serious and would be ready to start the EA process, and they’re just not going to happen because all our eggs are being put into the Site C basket and we’re not going to be in a position as British Columbians to benefit from the dropping prices in both wind and solar and the rapidly advancing efficiency of the technologies,” Heyman said.

Heyman added that as climate change progresses, British Columbia may regret pursuing a massive controversial hydroelectric dam that will flood prime agricultural areas.

In an email to the Alaska Highway News, Ministry of Energy and Mines communications director David Haslam said CanWEA’s decision to back away from B.C. and focus on operations in Alberta and Saskatchewan is because these provinces have a long way to go to catch up to B.C. in the clean energy sector.

“We have a target of generating 93 per cent of our power from clean sources and last year, more than 97 per cent of our power came from clean sources,” he wrote, adding that independent power projects provide about 25 per cent of British Columbia’s electricity and will “continue to play a vital role in meeting the province’s growing energy needs.”

Haslam also pointed to a Memorandum of Understanding signed last year between BC Hydro, the provincial government and the Clean Energy Association of B.C. as proof that the province is committed to renewable energy sources.

“The (agreement) will… strengthen B.C.’s competitive advantage of reliable and affordable clean electricity and support continued investment and growth in the independent power sector,” Haslam wrote.

He added that the governments plan to meet future growth in demand through a mix of conservation, renewing contracts with current independent power producers and Site C, which he says “provides us with firm, cost-effective energy and capacity over many decades.”

LNG in Victoria? Community Forum Today

Wednesday, Feb. 17th: LNG in Victoria? A Community Forum

February 17, 2016

With a massive liquified natural gas plant proposed for the Saanich Inlet, B.C.'s LNG industry is right on Victoria's doorstep. If approved, the facility will liquify 6 million tonnes of gas every year, filling tankers
passing through the Saanich Inlet every 3-5 days for the next 25 years.

Dr Eoin Finn & reps. from the
Saanich Inlet Network
Wed, Feb 17, 7-9 pm
Esquimalt United Church, 500 Admirals Road, Esquimalt.

While Steelhead LNG has already received export licenses to carry out the project, a number of environmental assessments are still pending, and residents have begun to voice their concerns about the risks the project poses.

Dr Eoin Finn, a retired chemist and partner of the major accounting and consulting firm, KPMG, will share his expert research on the safety, climate, ecological and economic impacts of B.C.'s proposed LNG industry, focusing on the Steelhead Malahat project. Updates will also be provided from the The Saanich Inlet Network.

Event sponsored by Sierra Club BC, Dogwood Initiative, The Council of Canadians, The Saanich Inlet Network, The Western Canada Wilderness Committee and Divest Victoria.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Murder by the Numbers: NSA's Skynet Algorithm Belongs in the Hague

The NSA’s SKYNET program may be killing thousands of innocent people

by Christian Grothoff & J.M. Porup - Ars Technica

Feb 16, 2016

"Ridiculously optimistic" machine learning algorithm is "completely bullshit," says expert.  

In 2014, the former director of both the CIA and NSA proclaimed that "we kill people based on metadata." Now, a new examination of previously published Snowden documents suggests that many of those people may have been innocent.

Last year, The Intercept published documents detailing the NSA's SKYNET programme.

Enlarge / Travel patterns, behaviour-based analytics, and other
"enrichments" are used to analyse the bulk metadata for terroristiness. 

According to the documents, SKYNET engages in mass surveillance of Pakistan's mobile phone network, and then uses a machine learning algorithm on the cellular network metadata of 55 million people to try and rate each person's likelihood of being a terrorist.

Patrick Ball—a data scientist and the director of research at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group—who has previously given expert testimony before war crimes tribunals, described the NSA's methods as "ridiculously optimistic" and "completely bullshit." A flaw in how the NSA trains SKYNET's machine learning algorithm to analyse cellular metadata, Ball told Ars, makes the results scientifically unsound.

Somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000 people have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, and most of them were classified by the US government as "extremists," the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported. Based on the classification date of "20070108" on one of the SKYNET slide decks (which themselves appear to date from 2011 and 2012), the machine learning program may have been in development as early as 2007.

In the years that have followed, thousands of innocent people in Pakistan may have been mislabelled as terrorists by that "scientifically unsound" algorithm, possibly resulting in their untimely demise.

The siren song of big data

SKYNET works like a typical modern Big Data business application. The program collects metadata and stores it on NSA cloud servers, extracts relevant information, and then applies machine learning to identify leads for a targeted campaign. Except instead of trying to sell the targets something, this campaign, given the overall business focus of the US government in Pakistan, likely involves another branch of the US government—the CIA or military—that executes their "Find-Fix-Finish" strategy using Predator drones and on-the-ground death squads.

Enlarge / From GSM metadata, we can measure aspects of each 
selector's pattern-of-life, social network, and travel behaviour

In addition to processing logged cellular phone call data (so-called "DNR" or Dialled Number Recognition data, such as time, duration, who called whom, etc.), SKYNET also collects user location, allowing for the creation of detailed travel profiles. Turning off a mobile phone gets flagged as an attempt to evade mass surveillance. Users who swap SIM cards, naively believing this will prevent tracking, also get flagged (the ESN/MEID/IMEI burned into the handset makes the phone trackable across multiple SIM cards).

Even handset swapping gets detected and flagged, the slides boast. Such detection, we can only speculate (since the slides do not go into detail on this point), is probably based on the fact that other metadata, such as user location in the real world and social network, remain unchanged.

Given the complete set of metadata, SKYNET pieces together people's typical daily routines—who travels together, have shared contacts, stay overnight with friends, visit other countries, or move permanently. Overall, the slides indicate, the NSA machine learning algorithm uses more than 80 different properties to rate people on their terroristiness.

The program, the slides tell us, is based on the assumption that the behaviour of terrorists differs significantly from that of ordinary citizens with respect to some of these properties. However, as The Intercept's exposé last year made clear, the highest rated target according to this machine learning program was Ahmad Zaidan, Al-Jazeera's long-time bureau chief in Islamabad.

Enlarge / The highest scoring selector who travelled to Peshawar and Lahore 
is "PROB AHMED ZAIDAN", Al-Jazeera's long-time bureau chief in Islamabad. 

As The Intercept reported, Zaidan frequently travels to regions with known terrorist activity in order to interview insurgents and report the news. But rather than questioning the machine learning that produced such a bizarre result, the NSA engineers behind the algorithm instead trumpeted Zaidan as an example of a SKYNET success in their in-house presentation, including a slide that labelled Zaidan as a "MEMBER OF AL-QA'IDA."

Feeding the machine

Training a machine learning algorithm is like training a Bayesian spam filter: you feed it known spam and known non-spam. From these "ground truths" the algorithm learns how to filter spam correctly.

In the same way, a critical part of the SKYNET program is feeding the machine learning algorithm "known terrorists" in order to teach the algorithm to spot similar profiles.

The problem is that there are relatively few "known terrorists" to feed the algorithm, and real terrorists are unlikely to answer a hypothetical NSA survey into the matter. The internal NSA documents suggest that SKYNET uses a set of "known couriers" as ground truths, and assumes by default the rest of the population is innocent.

Pakistan has a population of around 192 million people, with about 120 million cellular handsets in use at the end of 2012, when the SKYNET presentation was made. The NSA analysed 55 million of those mobile phone records. Given 80 variables on 55 million Pakistani mobile phone users, there is obviously far too much data to make sense of manually. So like any Big Data application, the NSA uses machine learning as an aid—or perhaps a substitute, the slides do not say—for human reason and judgement.

SKYNET's classification algorithm analyses the metadata and ground truths, and then produces a score for each individual based on their metadata. The objective is to assign high scores to real terrorists and low scores to the rest of the innocent population.

Enlarge / A sample travel report produced by SKYNET 

To do this, the SKYNET algorithm uses the random forest algorithm, commonly used for this kind of Big Data application. Indeed, the UK's GCHQ also appears to use similar machine learning methods, as new Snowden docs published last week indicate. "It seems the technique of choice when it comes to machine learning is Random Decision Forests," George Danezis, associate professor of Security and Privacy Engineering at University College London, wrote in a blog post analysing the released documents.

The random forest method uses random subsets of the training data to create a "forest" of decision "trees," and then combines those by averaging the predictions from the individual trees. SKYNET's algorithm takes the 80 properties of each cellphone user and assigns them a numerical score—just like a spam filter.

SKYNET then selects a threshold value above which a cellphone user is classified as a "terrorist." The slides present the evaluation results when the threshold is set to a 50 percent false negative rate. At this rate, half of the people who would be classified as "terrorists" are instead classified as innocent, in order to keep the number of false positives—innocents falsely classified as "terrorists"—as low as possible.

False positives

We can't be sure, of course, that the 50 percent false negative rate chosen for this presentation is the same threshold used to generate the final kill list. Regardless, the problem of what to do with innocent false positives remains.

"The reason they're doing this," Ball explained, "is because the fewer false negatives they have, the more false positives they're certain to have".

"It's not symmetric: there are so many true negatives that lowering the threshold in order to reduce the false negatives by 1 will mean accepting many thousands of additional false positives. Hence this decision." 


Enlarge / Statistical algorithms are able to find the couriers at very low 
false alarm rates, if we're allowed to miss half of them

One NSA slide brags, "Statistical algorithms are able to find the couriers at very low false alarm rates, if we're allowed to miss half of them."

But just how low is the NSA's idea of "very low"?

"Completely bullshit"

The problem, Ball told Ars, is how the NSA trains the algorithm with ground truths.

The NSA evaluates the SKYNET program using a subset of 100,000 randomly selected people (identified by their MSIDN/MSI pairs of their mobile phones), and a a known group of seven terrorists. The NSA then trained the learning algorithm by feeding it six of the terrorists and tasking SKYNET to find the seventh. This data provides the percentages for false positives in the slide above.

"First, there are very few 'known terrorists' to use to train and test the model," Ball said.

"If they are using the same records to train the model as they are using to test the model, their assessment of the fit is completely bullshit. The usual practice is to hold some of the data out of the training process so that the test includes records the model has never seen before. Without this step, their classification fit assessment is ridiculously optimistic."

The reason is that the 100,000 citizens were selected at random, while the seven terrorists are from a known cluster. Under the random selection of a tiny subset of less than 0.1 percent of the total population, the density of the social graph of the citizens is massively reduced, while the "terrorist" cluster remains strongly interconnected. Scientifically-sound statistical analysis would have required the NSA to mix the terrorists into the population set before random selection of a subset—but this is not practical due to their tiny number.

This may sound like a mere academic problem, but, Ball said, is in fact highly damaging to the quality of the results, and thus ultimately to the accuracy of the classification and assassination of people as "terrorists." A quality evaluation is especially important in this case, as the random forest method is known to overfit its training sets, producing results that are overly optimistic. The NSA's analysis thus does not provide a good indicator of the quality of the method.

Enlarge / A false positive rate of 0.18 percent across 55 million 
people would mean 99,000 innocents mislabelled as "terrorists"

If 50 percent of the false negatives (actual "terrorists") are allowed to survive, the NSA's false positive rate of 0.18 percent would still mean thousands of innocents misclassified as "terrorists" and potentially killed. Even the NSA's most optimistic result, the 0.008 percent false positive rate, would still result in many innocent people dying.

"On the slide with the false positive rates, note the final line that says '+ Anchory Selectors,'" Danezis told Ars.

"This is key, and the figures are unreported... if you apply a classifier with a false-positive rate of 0.18 percent to a population of 55 million you are indeed likely to kill thousands of innocent people. [0.18 percent of 55 million = 99,000]. If however you apply it to a population where you already expect a very high prevalence of 'terrorism'—because for example they are in the two-hop neighbourhood of a number of people of interest—then the prior goes up and you will kill fewer innocent people."

Besides the obvious objection of how many innocent people it is ever acceptable to kill, this also assumes there are a lot of terrorists to identify. "We know that the 'true terrorist' proportion of the full population is very small," Ball pointed out.

"As Cory [Doctorow] says, if this were not true, we would all be dead already. Therefore a small false positive rate will lead to misidentification of lots of people as terrorists."

"The larger point," Ball added, "is that the model will totally overlook 'true terrorists' who are statistically different from the 'true terrorists' used to train the model."

In most cases, a failure rate of 0.008% would be great...

The 0.008 percent false positive rate would be remarkably low for traditional business applications. This kind of rate is acceptable where the consequences are displaying an ad to the wrong person, or charging someone a premium price by accident. However, even 0.008 percent of the Pakistani population still corresponds to 15,000 people potentially being misclassified as "terrorists" and targeted by the military—not to mention innocent bystanders or first responders who happen to get in the way.

Security guru Bruce Schneier agreed. "Government uses of big data are inherently different from corporate uses," he told Ars.

"The accuracy requirements mean that the same technology doesn't work. If Google makes a mistake, people see an ad for a car they don't want to buy. If the government makes a mistake, they kill innocents."

Killing civilians is forbidden by the Geneva Convention, to which the United States is a signatory. Many facts about the SKYNET program remain unknown, however. For instance, is SKYNET a closed loop system, or do analysts review each mobile phone user's profile before condemning them to death based on metadata? Are efforts made to capture these suspected "terrorists" and put them on trial? How can the US government be sure it is not killing innocent people, given the apparent flaws in the machine learning algorithm on which that kill list is based?

"On whether the use of SKYNET is a war crime, I defer to lawyers," Ball said.

"It's bad science, that's for damn sure, because classification is inherently probabilistic. If you're going to condemn someone to death, usually we have a 'beyond a reasonable doubt' standard, which is not at all the case when you're talking about people with 'probable terrorist' scores anywhere near the threshold. And that's assuming that the classifier works in the first place, which I doubt because there simply aren't enough positive cases of known terrorists for the random forest to get a good model of them."

The leaked NSA slide decks offer strong evidence that thousands of innocent people are being labelled as terrorists; what happens after that, we don't know. We don't have the full picture, nor is the NSA likely to fill in the gaps for us. (We repeatedly sought comment from the NSA for this story, but at the time of publishing it had not responded.)

Algorithms increasingly rule our lives. It's a small step from applying SKYNET logic to look for "terrorists" in Pakistan to applying the same logic domestically to look for "drug dealers" or "protesters" or just people who disagree with the state. Killing people "based on metadata," as Hayden said, is easy to ignore when it happens far away in a foreign land. But what happens when SKYNET gets turned on us—assuming it hasn't been already?

* * *
Christian Grothoff leads the Décentralisé research team at Inria, a French institute for applied computer science and mathematics research. He earned his PhD in computer science from UCLA, an MS in computer science from Purdue University, and a diploma in mathematics from the University of Wuppertal. He is also a freelance journalist reporting on technology and national security.
J.M. Porup is a freelance cybersecurity reporter who lives in Toronto. When he dies his epitaph will simply read "assume breach." You can find him on Twitter at @toholdaquill.

Not the Only Democracy in the Middle East: Israel's Bipartisan Occupation Politics

‘Good Labor – Bad Likud’: Dispelling the Myth of ‘Democracy’ within Israel’s Political Establishment

by Ramzy Baroud  -

The Israeli ‘Right’, as demonstrated by a scary coalition of rightwing nationalists, ultranationalists and religious zealots, deserves all the bad press it has garnered since its formation last May.

But none of this should come as a shock, as the ‘Right’ in Israel has never been anything but a coalition of demagogues that catered to the lowest common denominator in society. As unlikable as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is, he is, in fact, a fair representation of the worst that Israel has to offer, which, over the years, has morphed to represent mainstream thinking.

But Israel has not always been ruled by the right-wingers, and the likes of current Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, who has made a habit of calls for extermination and genocide of Palestinians, are relatively newcomers to Israel’s political tussle. In previous Knessets, the likes of her would have been assigned to a neglected seat in the back of the Knesset, along with other lunatics who often mouthed profanities and incessantly called for killing all Gentiles. Tellingly, she is now one of the main centerpieces in Netanyahu’s menacing coalition.

Somehow, this may be of benefit to the wider world. At least now, many would get to see Israel as the country that it has always been, but which has cleverly hidden its real nature under a mask of liberal façade and ever-touted democratic ideals. Few, with good conscience, can claim that Netanyahu and his partners - Moshe Yaalon, Naftali Bennet and Shaked, among others – are icons of democracy, any democracy, however lacking. In fact, a new draft in the Knesset, which is in the process of becoming a law, proposes to punish any Israeli organization that dares question Israel’s behavior and undemocratic practices.

Those who are anticipating the supposed liberal democratic forces in Israel to rise against the destructive rightwing machine should also reconsider. Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the Labor Party and head of the Zionist Union coalition is not markedly different than Netanyahu, at least when it comes to issues of substance. At best, he is a true manifestation of Israel’s center-left, double-faced approach to politics. Oddly enough, it is the ‘Right’ that has learned the tricks of the trade from the ‘Left’ in Israel, not the other way around.

In recent comments, Herzog shouted from the pits of his party’s political irrelevance that he does not “see a possibility at the moment of implementing the two-state solution.” He told Israeli Army Radio that if he is to become a Prime Minister, he would focus on implementing security measures instead of investing in a bilateral agreement with the Palestinians.

While he partly blamed Netanyahu for the failure to achieve the supposedly coveted goal of two states, he also assigned equal blame to the ever-hapless Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who has been watching for years as his make-believe world of 'peace process' has been collapsing around him, unable to even control his own exit from, or entry to the West Bank without a prior permit from the Israeli army.

However, the issue is far more important than blaming Israel’s hypocritical and cowardly ‘Left’: but, rather, to highlight a dominant myth about the ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ within Israel’s political establishment.

For many years, much of the Western world’s understanding of Israel has been based on a cluster of myths, from the early fables of the Zionists making the desert bloom, to Palestine supposedly being a land without people for a people without land. This intricately constructed and propagated mythology evolved over time, as Israeli hasbara labored to provide a perception of reality that was required to justify its wars, its military occupation, its constant violations of human rights and its many war crimes.

One aspect of the Western perception of Israel is that the ‘Jewish-state’, which is also a ‘democracy’, has been experiencing a long-drawn-out battle between rightwing ideologues, and liberal forces that have labored to preserve Israel’s democratic ideals.

However, such misrepresentations are always grossly at odds with the reality. Take any aspect of Israeli history that many, even in the Western hemisphere, now see as immoral and inhumane – for example, the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, the massacres of 1947-48, the racism against Palestinians who remain in today’s Israel after the Nakba, the illegal Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem, the construction of the illegal settlements, the building of the Apartheid Wall, and, more recently, the wars on Gaza which killed over 4,000 people since 2008. Much of these atrocities have the fingerprints of Labor and their allies.

The fact is that it was the Mapai Party, which was later joined by other supposedly ‘progressive’ forces to form the Labor Party in the 1960s, that has been responsible for most of the bloodletting, ethnic cleansing and illegal practices that have pushed the situation to this degree of desperation.

The rightwing in Israel did not achieve prominence until the late 1970s. Prior to that, Israel was ruled exclusively by Labor governments. Netanyahu’s current rightwing government officials are by no means short of exacting utter cruelty and inhumaneness, and the reality is that this behavior is rooted in a political past. What largely differs between the ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ in Israel is the expression of their political discourses, certainly not the outcomes.

The fundamental reason why some insist on maintaining that myth – of Israel’s ‘Peace Camp’ compared to the ominous ‘Right’ - is that they are frenziedly promoting the idea that Israel is still governed by democratic forces, an assumption that allows Western governments the time and space to ignore the plight of the Palestinians. Rightwing leaders like Netanyahu and his coalition partners are an utter embarrassment to Europe – still a major supporter of Israel - and they make it very difficult for the United States to even sustain the charade of its peace process. The West longs for the days when Israel was governed by less belligerent sounding leaders, regardless of their violent agendas.

Labor governments in Israel, whether those that existed in the late 40s and 50s, or those that ruled under the leaderships of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, etc., never truly showed any genuine sign that ending the Occupation and granting Palestinians a form of real sovereignty was ever on their agendas.

Do not believe the hype. Rabin was given a Nobel Peace Prize after the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords, despite the fact that Oslo did not give Palestinians sovereignty or the right to self-determination. Instead, it sliced up the West Bank into various zones, ultimately controlled by the Israeli army, and bribed some within the Palestinian elites with phony titles, VIP cards and mounds of money to play along. Rabin was killed by a Rightwing Jewish zealot because, as far as the religious and ultranationalist camps in Israel were concerned, even such ‘concessions’ as a Palestinian flag and a national anthem, among other symbolic ‘achievements’ offered to the Palestinians by Oslo, were still considered a taboo.

So, when Herzog threw his hand in the air and postponed any discussion of a ‘two-state solution’ that has been dead and buried for years now, it was not a sign that Labor had given up or that the level-headed Herzog is officially fed-up with the shenanigans of Netanyahu and stubbornness of Abbas. It is a mere contribution of the ‘good Labor-bad Likud’ routine that the Israeli ruling class have played for decades.

The great irony, though, is that the destruction of the ‘two-state solution’ myth was the predictable outcome of the illegal Jewish colonies in the Occupied Territories, which were, interestingly enough, the backbone of the Labor Party policies following the illegal Occupation of what remained of historic Palestine after the war of 1967.

At the time, rightwing forces were too insignificant to merit mention. Only the Labor reigned supreme, which single-handedly took over Palestine and precluded every chance for a lasting peace.

Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of His books include ‘Searching Jenin’, ‘The Second Palestinian Intifada’ and his latest ‘My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story’. His website is: