Friday, June 27, 2014
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Thursday, June 26, 2014
How a former CIA officer’s efforts to get Congress to investigate the rendition and torture of a CIA captive failed!
“Often the best source of information … is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out,” Obama said, in a campaign fact sheet entitled “The Change We Need in Washington.” “We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance.”
Since then, Obama has signed an executive order and a bill strengthening the rights of whistleblowers. But the new law does not provide the same protections to government employees who work in the intelligence community and want to report wrongdoing. Former undercover CIA officer Sabrina De Sousa found that out the hard way.
In 2005, De Sousa, who was officially listed as a State Department diplomat assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Milan, was implicated in the rendition of a radical Egyptian cleric in Italy named Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, better known as Abu Omar. Italy had granted him political asylum in 2001 after the Egyptian government alleged that he was part of a terrorist group. While in Italy, Abu Omar spoke out publicly and vehemently against U.S. military action in Iraq prior to the March 2003 invasion. Italy responded by placing him under surveillance.
Italy launched an investigation into Abu Omar’s abduction in 2005, and in 2007 more than two dozen Americans suspected of being involved in the rendition, including De Sousa, who Italian law enforcement officials alleged was one of the masterminds of the operation, were indicted. Nineteen of the Americans whom Italy indicted and convicted, De Sousa says, were not working under their true identities. This meant she was one of the few “real” operatives accountable for the rendition.
But De Sousa insists she never played an active role in the execution of the rendition. She says she worked as a translator between the CIA rendition team and the Italian military-intelligence-and-security service, which was involved in the early stages of planning the rendition. In November 2009, she was sentenced in absentia to a five-year prison term in Italy.
Abu Omar was released from detention in Egypt in 2007 and remains there with his family. He has filed a civil claim against De Sousa. Last year, Italy convicted him in absentia on terrorism charges in what appears to be an attempt to cover up the Italian government’s own role in his rendition.
Last year, for the first time, De Sousa revealed that she was a CIA operative working for the National Clandestine Service (NCS). For nearly a decade, she had been working behind-the-scenes firing off letters to members of Congress and executive branch officials, informing them that the U.S. violated international laws when the CIA decided to kidnap Abu Omar.
De Sousa has never publicly discussed all the efforts she undertook to alert government officials and lawmakers that the Abu Omar’s kidnapping was a “colossal mistake” and convince them to investigate her claims of wrongdoing, which implicate top CIA officials. She told Al Jazeera that she first contacted top Bush administration officials, but received no response. In 2009, hoping the response would be different under Obama, she disclosed to then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton what she says are troubling details about her treatment by the U.S. government in the aftermath of her whistleblowing. But, like the Bush administration officials before them, they also ignored her pleas, De Sousa says, and the CIA turned her into a “scapegoat” while the executive branch looked away.
Blowing the whistle -
There was nothing definitive in the classified cables, De Sousa says, about the threat the CIA said Abu Omar posed to national security as the rendition operation was being planned. “The cable was full of ‘suspected of,’ ‘alleged to.’ Nothing that said ‘he was responsible for.’ Nothing definitive,” De Sousa says.
De Sousa describes her CIA colleagues in Rome and Cairo as acting like keystone cops in the aftermath of Abu Omar’s rendition, trying to figure out who had the evidence against him to present to Egypt so he could be prosecuted.
“The CIA station chief in Cairo said to Jeffrey Castelli [CIA station chief in Rome] ‘Where’s the evidence?’ Castelli said, ‘I thought you had the information.’ And Cairo said, ‘We don’t have it. We thought you had it.’ Castelli says, ‘We don’t have it.’ Then Cairo says, “We issued this arrest warrant on your behalf. So where is the evidence?" The blunder ultimately forced Egypt to set Abu Omar free.
“This is exactly when the whole cover-up started,” she says. “It turns out there was a big miscommunication between Cairo Station and Rome Station. There wasn’t any prosecutable evidence against Abu Omar. It’s why he was never picked up by the Italians. But Castelli decided he wanted a rendition and he got one.”
De Sousa alleges that Castelli was gunning for a promotion to a coveted CIA position in New York City and to land it someone had to be subjected to extraordinary rendition. “Who could he pick out from this target list of 10 people he had. Abu Omar because it was the easiest. Why was it the easiest? Because he was already under surveillance by the Italians and they were sharing information [with the CIA],” De Sousa says.
Castelli, who now works at a private security firm in Arlington, Virginia, called Endgame, did not respond to requests for comment.
“Abu Omar was a nobody,” De Sousa says. “The renditions are meant for imminent, very dangerous threats and [are meant to be used in]countries that are incapable of laws that would allow them to pick up people who pose threats to national security. They’re not meant for a country like Italy already following the guy around.”
De Sousa says that, based on her reading of classified CIA cables, there were “four people responsible for this thing”: Castelli; a shadowy figure identified as “Agent X,” whom De Sousa would not discuss further and who told Lady to make sure the Abu Omar rendition was executed; Tyler Drumheller, former chief of CIA covert operations in Europe; and Pironi, the CIA informant and Italian police officer.
But De Sousa says Italy demanded that people be held accountable for the embarrassing mistake and the CIA chose her and several of her colleagues. “Despite the circumstantial charges against me, the CIA scapegoated me to deflect attention from those who authorized the rendition and also prevent further investigations into the operation,” De Sousa says. “Also, I believe I was left out of the initial immunity deal [Italy agreed to for other, more senior officers] in retaliation for my interaction with Congress.”
“They said, ‘You don’t qualify for the funds.’ They told my attorney they didn’t want to set a precedent,” she recalls. “We’re talking about $8,000. They were spending millions on this cover-up.” De Sousa says she saw the writing on the wall. “They wanted me out,” she says. “They knew what my limit was. They knew that the minute they tried to force me to sign memos saying I wouldn’t travel overseas they knew I would resign.”
But it didn’t happen as quickly as the agency would have liked. De Sousa spent three years trying to work through internal channels to bring a resolution to her case, at first raising questions about why the agency had not invoked diplomatic immunity for her and then calling attention to the rendition and alleged torture of Abu Omar by the Egyptians.
“I went through the whole thing internally,” De Sousa says. “I started off by approaching my supervisor, and then I went to the ombudsman at CIA. He was a great guy. He tried to go to bat for me and he was told to lay off. He said, ‘I can’t communicate with you anymore due to a seventh-floor edict [at the agency’s Langley headquarters where the director and other top officials work].’ I then went to the inspector general. The IG said, ‘It’s not part of our charter or mission to deal with this.”
Yet after she approached the watchdog’s office, the inspector general at the time, John Helgerson, said he wanted to launch an investigation into the rendition, De Sousa says, an assertion confirmed in a 2008 report published byThe New York Times. But the head of the NCS, Jose Rodriguez, who would later come under federal investigation for his role in ordering the destruction of nearly 100 interrogation videotapes of two high-value detainees held at black-site CIA prisons, said no. NCS would conduct its own review, Rodriguez said. In other words, the division of the CIA that De Sousa says screwed up would investigate itself.
Then-CIA Director Michael Hayden also convened an accountability-review board to look into the rendition. De Sousa asked to see the results but was told she was not authorized because she wasn’t involved in the rendition, despite the fact that she had been indicted and convicted for it.
“So I went to Congress informally,” De Sousa says. “I went to Linda Cohen, the liaison with CIA [for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence]. I said, ‘Linda, did you see this review-board report?’ She said, ‘Oh, they’re smart. They sent this to committee. They put a such a high classification on it none of the staffers could see it.’” Cohen did not respond to requests for comment.
De Sousa wrote to Rodriguez and Hayden. But they did not respond to her inquiries either. “So then I started sending letters to Congress,” she says. De Sousa sent letters to members of Congress who sat on the House and Senate intelligence committees, including Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Kit Bond and Reps. Pete Hoekstra, Silvestre Reyes and Jan Schakowsky. But she says Rockefeller, Bond, Hoekstra and Reyes did not respond and Schakowsky, whose staff she met with, did not help her.
In February 2009, De Sousa resigned from the CIA, forfeiting her retirement. “I get up every morning and say, ‘Why?’ In 16 years I never saw anything like this,” she says. “I didn’t sign up for this. If they told me when I signed up ‘By the way, just to let you know, it’s possible if something happens we’re going to disavow and you may not see your family again,’ I would have said, ‘I’m not doing this.’”
She continued firing off letters. On May 18, 2009, she wrote to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. “For three years, I tried every option for resolution available to me, both with my employer and in letters to the heads of several Departments and Agencies, as well as Congress and the Senate in both administrations without success,” she wrote.
Powell was Secretary of State when the Abu Omar rendition took place. He responded a couple of weeks later. “Thank you for your letter. I regret the situation you are in, but since the matter is in litigation, I am unable to be of any help,” Powell wrote. “Further, I have no knowledge about any of these matters that would give me a basis to comment or intercede.”
De Sousa says Powell’s State Department would have had to have authorized Abu Omar’s rendition, because Italy is a NATO member and the rendition took place on Italian soil.
In 2009, De Sousa sued the State Department for failing to invoke diplomatic immunity, which she argued she was entitled to as a State Department diplomat. The U.S. government retorted during a federal court hearing that it was not responsible for the actions of a foreign court. A federal district-court judge dismissed De Sousa’s case but the judge described her treatment by government officials in the Obama administration as “appalling.”
A year after she wrote to Powell, however, De Sousa secured two important meetings: one with Schakowsky’s staff and another with Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s staff.
The intelligence committees -
When De Sousa met with Schakowsky’s staffers, she says, they did not believe her claims. “They asked how did I know [about the mistakes the CIA made in rendering Abu Omar]? I said I read the cables,” De Sousa recalls. She says Schakowsky’s office never followed up. Lee Whack, a spokesman for Schakowsky, told Al Jazeera, “We are unable to comment on this issue. The congresswoman takes very seriously the privacy of anyone who brings issues to the committee. That said, we cannot discuss classified work conducted by the committee.”
De Sousa also met with Feinstein’s staff. The powerful chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), has publicly proclaimed her support for whistleblowers and urged intelligence-community employees to air their grievances with select members of Congress. De Sousa enlisted the human rights organization Human Rights First to help set up the meeting. The organization sent a letter to David Grannis, the staff director for SSCI.
De Sousa communicated via email with Grannis in August 2010 after he expressed interest in hearing what she could disclose about Abu Omar’s rendition. Grannis told her the best way for her to share the information with him “is either by hard-copy delivery” or “via secure fax.” De Sousa prepared a memo and hand delivered it to the SSCI’s security director, Jim Wolfe. She never heard from Grannis or anyone else on the intelligence committee again, she says.
An SSCI staffer, however, denies that the panel did not investigate De Sousa’s claims. The staffer says De Sousa met with “SSCI staff multiple times on subjects that I cannot confirm openly but that she was raising at the time as concerns with CIA actions.”
“Committee staff followed up with CIA independently to seek CIA’s views and explanations,” the staffer says. “Any contention that the SSCI did nothing is simply factually untrue.” De Sousa says she was never informed about any inquiries the committee made about her with the CIA.
At the time De Sousa disclosed details about the Abu Omar rendition to Grannis, the SSCI was one year into a review of the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. The committee prepared a voluminous report on the program, the executive summary of which is currently undergoing a declassification review, and concluded that the approximately two dozen “war on terror” suspects were illegally rendered and secretly held by the CIA.
For years, De Sousa believed Abu Omar’s case would be included in the committee’s report. “It has to be,” she says. “It’s such a bungled case and it also involves torture by proxy governments [Egypt].” But the SSCI staffer told Al Jazeera in an email that the “executive summary and findings and conclusions of the committee’s report,” that is the portions due to be declassified, “do not reference Abu Omar.”
“There are passing references to him elsewhere in the report, but I wouldn’t want you to have the impression that the report focuses on him or alleged CIA actions involving him to any significant degree,” the aide said.
The CIA would not comment on the allegations De Sousa leveled against the agency or respond to questions about the Abu Omar rendition.
False promises -
De Sousa believes Feinstein would have ignored Snowden, just as her staff did, according to De Sousa, when she came to them with evidence of alleged wrongdoing by the CIA in the Abu Omar case.
And former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told NPR’s Terry Gross that Snowden could have “expressed his concerns” in other ways, such as “reaching out to some of the senators” about the legality of NSA spy programs.
But when De Sousa’s attorney, Mark Zaid, wrote to Clinton at the State Department to raise concerns about her treatment and Abu Omar’s rendition and torture he never received a reply.
Earlier this month, the Senate passed an intelligence-spending bill that included new whistleblower protections for intelligence personnel that are supposed to codify Obama’s 2012 policy directive that strengthened whistleblower laws for federal workers. But the bill comes too late for De Sousa. She is now using the Freedom of Information Act in an effort to clear her name. She says she will aggressively try to pry loose government documents to reveal internal discussions about the Abu Omar rendition, whose case is pending before the European Court of Human Rights. In the meantime, there is still an international arrest warrant out for her. That makes traveling to visit her mother and siblings difficult.
Zaid says that during one of the oversight committee meetings he attended with De Sousa to discuss the Abu Omar case, she had told congressional staffers that she had been unable to secure a job because of the conviction. “One of the staffers actually told her to go back to India and get a job there,” Zaid says. “Can you believe that?”
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Russian intelligence operatives for years lived in Ukraine under false identities. | EUROMAIDAN∙PRESS
Despite the agreement between Ukraine and Russia, Russian secret services have long lead subversive and intelligence activities on the territory of Ukraine. This statement was made by to the Channel 5 by the acting Deputy Head of Presidential Administration of Ukraine Andriy Senchenko.
“When we talk about Russian presence… We have 25 employees of Russian Central Intelligence in our custody alone. Moreover, there are people there who lived in Ukraine under false identities for 2 to 3 years, and against the agreement between Ukraine and Russian Federation, were conducting subversive and intelligence activities on the Ukrainian territory,” he said, responding to Russian State Duma MP Ilya Ponomarev that was present in the studio, who alone voted against the secession of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia.
Senchenko believes that the main task of the Russian agents embedded in Ukraine and their local wards was to disrupt the presidential elections and undermine the Ukrainian state.
“For Putin, the number one task is to disrupt the stabilization process in Ukraine, to disrupt presidential elections, it is obvious… and the only tool for achieving this are those separatists who disrupt peace in Donbas first of all and in our country in whole; they are instrumental for the destabilization of the political situation in the country for a long time ahead,” he explained.
Responding to criticism against the Ukrainian government, he stated: “We were criticized for the sluggish start of the anti-terrorist operation. But the beginning of this operation was tied to disentangling the protests in the region. And we managed to do this almost across the entire Donbas, in order to protect the innocent people who came to protest against living in poverty, total corruption, against injustice… We managed to pull them away from the protests, we, as the authorities, have reached out to these people, telling them that we are their partners in building a new Ukraine,” said Senchenko.
“Who is left there today? Those who came there for money of the ‘Family’ [Yanukovych's clan], for the money of those who want to maintain total control over the Donbas region, over its resources, who are trying to grip tightly the right to exploit Donbas’s 10 million residents. And we will speak with them in another tone,” he added.
“And even then – we will try to dissuade those who are not tainted by crime, and don’t have blood on their hands… We say: “Leave, we are ready to grant amnesty to you,” said the acting deputy head of the Presidential Administration.
Source: ukrinform.ua. Translated by Crimea_SOS, edited by Alya Shandra
2014/06/24 • War in Donbas
A message from the EuroArmyMaydan group that are gathering Medicine kits for Ukrainian soldiers.
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"VICTORY FOR UKRAINE!"
|Iraqi Turkmen pose with their weapons as they ready to fight against militants led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on June 21, 2014, in the Iraqi village of Basheer, south of Kirkuk|
The black-clad fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, sweeping a collapsing army and terrified Iraqis before them as they advance toward Baghdad, reflect back to us the ghoulish face of American empire. They are the specters of the hundreds of thousands of people we murdered in our deluded quest to remake the Middle East. They are ghosts from the innumerable roadsides and villages where U.S. soldiers and Marines, jolted by explosions of improvised explosive devices, responded with indiscriminate fire. They are the risen remains of the dismembered Iraqis left behind by blasts of Hellfire and cruise missiles, howitzers, grenade launchers and drone strikes. They are the avengers of the gruesome torture and the sexual debasement that often came with being detained by American troops. They are the final answer to the collective humiliation of an occupied country, the logical outcome of Shock and Awe, the Frankenstein monster stitched together from the body parts we left scattered on the ground. They are what we get for the $4 trillion we wasted on the Iraq War.
The language of violence engenders violence. The language of hate engenders hate. “I and the public know what all schoolchildren learn,” W.H. Auden wrote. “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.” It is as old as the Bible.
There is no fight left in us. The war is over. We destroyed Iraq as a unified country. It will never be put back together. We are reduced—in what must be an act of divine justice decreed by the gods, whom we have discovered to our dismay are Islamic—to pleading with Iran for military assistance to shield the corrupt and despised U.S. protectorate led by Nouri al-Maliki. We are not, as we thought when we entered Iraq, the omnipotent superpower able in a swift and brutal stroke to bend a people to our will. We are something else. Fools and murderers. Blinded by hubris. Faded relics of the Cold War. And now, in the final act of the play, we are crawling away. Our empire is dying.
We should have heeded, while we had a chance, the wails of mothers and fathers. We should have listened to the cries of the wounded. We should have wept over the bodies of Iraqi children lined up in neat rows in the morgues. We should have honored grief so we could honor life. But the dance of death is intoxicating. Once it begins you whirl in an ecstatic frenzy. Death’s embrace, which feels at first like sexual lust, tightens and tightens until you suffocate. Now the music has stopped. All we have left are loss and pain.
And where are the voices of sanity? Why are the cheerleaders of slaughter, who have been wrong about Iraq since before the invasion, still urging us toward ruin? Why are those who destabilized Iraq and the region in the worst strategic blunder in American history still given a hearing? Why do we listen to simpletons and morons?
They bang their fists. They yell. They throw tantrums. They demand that the world conform to their childish vision. It is as if they have learned nothing from the 11 years of useless slaughter. As if they can dominate that which they never had the power to dominate.
Bacevich blames the concentration of power into the hands of the executive branch for the debacle. He said that since the Kennedy administration “the incoming president and his team, it does not matter which party, see the permanent government as a problem. If we [the new officials] are going to get done what we want to get done we have to find ways to marginalize the permanent government. This has led to the centralization of authority in the White House and means decisions are made by a very small number of people. The consultation becomes increasingly informal, to the point it is not even documented.”
“I do not think we even know when the decision to go to war with Iraq was actually made,” Bacevich said. “There is no documented meeting where [President George W.] Bush sat down with how many people—six, 10, 25—and said, ‘Let’s vote.’ The decision kind of emerged and therefore was implemented. Why would you operate that way? You would operate that way if you viewed the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the CIA and the State Department as, in a sense, the enemy.”
“The invasion of Iraq was intended to be a catalyst,” he said. “It was supposed to be the catalyst that would enable us ... to change the region. It turned out to be the catalyst that resulted in destabilization. The big question of the moment is not what can we do or is there anything we can do to salvage Iraq. The question is to what degree have our actions resulted in this larger regional mayhem. And to the extent they have, isn’t it time to rethink fundamentally our expectations of what American power, and particularly American military power, can achieve?”
“We need to take a radically different course,” Bacevich said. “There is an analogy to be made with Great Britain in the wake of World War I. It was in World War I that Britain and France collaborated to dismantle the Ottoman Empire to create the new Middle East. While on the one hand there was an awareness that Britain was in decline, at the level where policy was made there was not a willingness to consider the implications of that fact. It took World War II to drive it home—that the [British] empire was doomed. I think that is where we are.”
Out of this decline, Bacevich said, is emerging a multipolar order. The United States will no longer be able to operate as an unchallenged superpower. But, he said, similar to the condition that existed as the British Empire took its last gasps, “there is very little willingness in Washington or in policy circles to take on board the implications multipolarity would call for in terms of adjusting our policy.”
The inability to adjust to our declining power means that the United States will continue to squander its resources, its money and its military.
“By squandering power we forfeit our influence because we look stupid and we bankrupt ourselves,” Bacevich said. “We will spend $4 trillion, not dollars spent in the moment but dollars we will have spent the last time the last Afghanistan veteran gets his last VA check. That money is gone forever. It is concealed because in the Bush administration’s confidence that victory would be easily won the government did not bother to mobilize the country or increase our taxes. We weaken ourselves economically. People complain about our crappy infrastructure. Give me $4 trillion and I probably could have fixed a couple of bridges. And we must never forget the human cost. Lives lost, lives damaged. And in these two wars [Afghanistan and Iraq] there does seem to be this increase in PTSD that we don’t know what to do about. It is a squandering of human capital.”
Bacevich said the “military mind-set” has so infected the discourse of the power elite that when there is a foreign policy problem the usual response is to discuss “three different courses of military action. ... Should it be airstrikes with drones? Should it be airstrikes with manned aircraft? Special operations forces? Or some combination of all three? And that’s what you get.” The press, he said, is an “echo chamber and reinforces the notion that those are the [only] options.”
The disintegration of Iraq is irreversible. At best, the Kurds, the Shiites and the Sunnis will carve out antagonistic enclaves. At worst, there will be a protracted civil war. This is what we have bequeathed to Iraq. The spread of our military through the region has inflamed jihadists across the Arab world. The resulting conflicts will continue until we end our occupation of the Middle East. The callous slaughter we deliver is no different from the callous slaughter we receive. Our jihadists—George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Thomas Friedman and Tommy Franks—who assured us that swift and overwhelming force in Iraq would transform the Middle East into an American outpost of progress, are no less demented than the jihadists approaching Baghdad. These two groups of killers mirror each other. This is what we have spawned. And this is what we deserve.
Campaign for America's Future / By Richard Eskow
A report suggests that many of the SSA’s critical functions could soon be outsourced to private-sector partners and contractors.
For months there have been rumors that the Social Security Administration has a “secret plan” to close all of its field offices. Is it true? A little-known report commissioned by the SSA the request of Congress seems to hold the answer. The summary document outlining the plan, which is labeled “for internal use only,” is unavailable from the SSA but can be found here.
Does the document, entitled “Long Term Strategic Vision and Vision Elements,” really propose shuttering all field offices? The answer, buried beneath a barrage of obfuscatory consultantese, clearly seems to be “yes.” Worse, the report also suggests that many of the SSA’s critical functions could soon be outsourced to private-sector partners and contractors.
Here are five insights from this austerity-minded outline.
1. This is death by jargon.
The Social Security Administration has contracted with an entity called The National Academy of Public Administration, or NAPA, to “conduct a study and submit a high-level plan proposing a long-range strategic vision.” The seven-member panel conducting the study includes current and former employees of government contractors IBM, Cisco, and Grant Thornton, as well as career bureaucrats and the editor of Government Executive magazine.
The panel’s four-page overview lays down a nearly impenetrable barrage of consultant-speak. This is a language in which “smaller workforce” means “layoffs” and “reduced physical infrastructure” is a euphemism for “closing field offices.” It is a language in which goals, objectives, strategies and tactics are reduced to a pulpy mash of undifferentiated “vision elements.” The language is rich in booster-ish phrases like this one: “Stress program integrity in everything we do.” (As opposed to, you know, not doing that.)
For most of its four pages the document’s runic language artfully dodges the question at hand, preferring instead to inform the public of such need-to-know information as the fact that “we embrace change and reward managed risk.” It is not until the final page that the bomb is dropped, surrounded by a cloud of verbal decoys. The key phrase: “Our communication and business practices enable a dispersed workforce that is no longer working in centralized, traditional offices.”
“Centralized, traditional offices.” Or, as the rest of the world calls them, “offices.”
The document suggests that Social Security’s administrative functions will be transferred online, allowing for human contact only “in very limited circumstances.” Even in those cases it appears that the default options will be telephone calls and online chats, together with rare meetings with personnel who may be housed in the offices of other agencies – or, conceivably, private corporations.
2. The SSA isn’t resisting congress’ brutal cuts.
Despite the fact that a Democratic president is running the executive branch, the Social Security Administration appears to be accepting the harsh budget cuts imposed upon it by Congress with an air of surprising passivity. This is puzzling. Social Security is an enormously successful and popular program. Historically only conservative Republicans have urged cuts to its administrative budget. Those cuts are already frustrating the public and undermining public confidence in the program. (For more on this topic see the Special Senate Subcommittee on Aging, href=”http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/20/us-column-miller-social-security-idUSBREA2J1OV20140320″>Mark Miller of Reuters, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, Hiltzik again, and ourselves.)
Then there’s this: “The size of our workforce has declined by about 11,000 employees since the beginning of FY 2011 and we expect this trend to continue … we estimate that more than 21,000 of our employees will retire by FY 2022. A shrinking workforce affects our ability to meet the needs and expectations of our customers and stakeholders.”
English translation: Our staffing budget keeps getting slashed and our service will continue to decline accordingly.
The fact that neither the SSA, the administration, nor the president himself are publicly fighting these brutal cuts is a betrayal of Social Security’s promise. That betrayal is made even more acute by the fact that cuts to Social Security’s administrative budgets do not help the deficit in any way, since the SSA is fully funded from Social Security’s revenues.
3. They intend to do more outsourcing, too.
One of the bitter ironies of the bipartisan austerity craze has been the fact that, while there has been an assault on government jobs, there has been an equal or greater push to transfer government revenues to the private sector using lucrative, cost-inflating “privatization” contracts.
That seems to be what somebody has in mind for Social Security’s future, too. One of the 29 “vision elements” in the Vision 2025 document states that service delivery should be “integrated across SSA programs and with external partners …” It goes on to state that all support functions for SSA should be “provided through a shared services model (e.g., within SSA, across government, and by contract).” (Emphases ours.)
No descriptions are offered for those “external partners” or the recipients of those “shared services” contracts, but the message seems clear: they’re closing the field offices, laying off employees, and shifting the work to other agencies as well as profit-driven (and therefore ultimately costlier) private enterprises.
The choice of private partners thus far isn’t encouraging. The user portal informs people signing up for online access that they may be subject to an eligibility verification by Experian. That’s the credit-rating firm that is currently the subject of a multistate investigation, as well a a lawsuit on behalf of the people of Mississippi. The complaint, which is unrelated to Social Security, alleges that Experian knowingly made “sweeping errors” on consumers’ credit records and repeatedly violated consumer protection laws.
4. They expect people to do everything on the Internet – and their website is terrible.
The “vision” document states it plainly: “We … use online, self-service delivery as our primary service channel.” They also expect to “automate processes to maximize operational efficiency.” “Direct service options (e.g. in person, phone, online chat, video conference)” will only be available “in very limited circumstances.”
That’s a bad idea. Seniors use the Internet far less than other people. Only 57 percent of people over 65 are online, as opposed to a nationwide average of 87 percent, according to a recent Pew study. Disabled people, Social Security’s other major user group, can also experience difficulties accessing the Internet. Minorities and low-income people, many of whom depend on the SSA’s assistance, are also less likely to be web-connected.
This idea gets even worse when one attempts to use the SSA’s website, as we did recently. We will document that tragicomic misadventure in greater detail shortly, but the short version is this: although I have led very large-scale information technology projects, it took me several days to successfully enroll in the SSA website. The delays were caused by a combination of downtime and poor web design.
The website is confusing, even for tech-savvy and (relatively) youthful users. Imagine how daunting it must be those who aren’t comfortable with computers, those whose cognitive skills may be in decline, and those who have lost the full use of one or more senses. To make matters worse, the SSA site explicitly forbids would-be users from allowing others to navigate the process on their behalf.
On the other hand, converting more of Social Security’s functions to website technology could be result in a very lucrative payday for government contractors like… well, like IBM and Cisco.
5. They’re downsizing just as demand grows.
The “Vision 2025” agenda has a number of other problems. For example, it calls for ending the practice of retaining employees with specialized knowledge of specific programs. They are to be replaced with “generalists,” even though applicants and beneficiaries are more likely to obtain useful information from employees with more specific knowledge. And yet, the “vision” calls for “empowering” employees even as it proposes to deprive them of the specialized knowledge they need to use that power wisely.
But the most important takeaway is this: They’re closing field offices, downsizing their workforce, and trying to force everyone through an inadequate Internet portal. That’s all in an effort to reduce Social Security services at a time when the need is about to grow dramatically.
The scare rhetoric about the cost of baby boomers’ benefits is just that: scare rhetoric. Any long-term imbalances are easily rectified through one or two simple and equitable adjustments (like lifting the payroll tax cap). But there is no question that the number of Social Security applicants and recipients is going to increase dramatically, and with them will come a greater administrative workload. The SSA’s own website lays out the numbers: “By 2033, the number of older Americans will increase from 46.6 million today to over 77 million.”
The SSA is perfectly willing to cite that figure as part of an overly fearmongering set of statistics meant to raise false alarms about solvency. But when it comes time to craft an appropriate plan for the program’s administrative future, statistics like that are nowhere to be found. Instead, the SSA continues to close offices and plans even more dramatic cuts to its workforce.
It has become increasingly clear that plans are underway at the SSA to impose more needless cuts on SSA’s budgets and render the program’s benefits increasingly inaccessible to Americans who have earned them. The American Federation of Government Employees iscurrently on a campaign that encourages people to register their objections to this troubling plan.
Monday, June 23, 2014
By James Chilton | WyomingNews.com | Sunday, Jun 22, 2014 - 10:51:47 pm MDT
CHEYENNE - More than 8 million Americans have enrolled in health-care insurance since the Affordable Care Act went into effect late last year, and another 3 million low-income
But here in Wyoming, one of 23 states that has thus far declined to expand the state's Medicaid eligibility, those low-income adults looking to buy their own insurance are facing an uphill battle steeper than anywhere else in the nation.
A new report published Wednesday by health insurance analysis company HealthPocket found that low-income Wyomingites pay the highest premiums in the country when purchasing plans through the ACA insurance marketplace. The report specifically looks at those adults who fall into the "Medicaid gap" - people who make less than 100 percent of the poverty level, and are thus ineligible for tax credits to help them buy insurance.
Such subsidies are given to those earning between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level, which is defined as $11,490 a year for an individual. For those earning less than that, Medicaid was supposed to cover the gap, but a Supreme Court ruling made the expansion of Medicaid optional for states.
In its report, HealthPocket looked at the cheapest available catastrophic, bronze and silver health insurance plans in each of the 23 states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid. It then determined that if someone were making just under 100 percent of the poverty level, what proportion of their income would go solely to the cost of that coverage.
"The Affordable Care Act defined affordable coverage for an employee in employer-provided coverage to have premium costs at most 9.5 percent of the employee's household income," the report read.
"By this definition of affordability, the only affordable exchange plan for any enrollees with incomes below 100 percent FPL that were ineligible for Medicaid was the cheapest catastrophic health plan in Kansas."
In other words, of the 69 "tiers" of plans being offered among the 23 non-Medicaid expansion states, only one was deemed affordable for low-income earners. Specifically, the cheapest catastrophic insurance plan being offered by Kansas would cost a 30-year-old enrollee $87.71 a
month, or about 9 percent of the total earnings for someone making just under the poverty level.
Every other plan in the non-Medicaid expansion states exceeded that percentage, but nowhere were they higher than in Wyoming. That same type of catastrophic coverage plan in Wyoming runs $265.34 a month for a 30-year-old nonsmoker, totaling 28 percent of a poverty-level income.
And it just gets worse for more inclusive plans and for older people. A 50-year old looking to purchase a silver plan on Wyoming's insurance exchange can expect to pay at least $523.61 a month, or more than half a poverty-level income. Dan Neal, the director of the Casper-based Equality State Policy Center, said such rates make it virtually impossible for Wyoming's poorest to afford health insurance.
"Frankly, if you're below 100 percent of poverty level, you probably couldn't afford the 9 percent you see in Kansas," Neal said. "How can anybody with that little money pay that much of their income on health insurance and still expect to feed themselves, keep a roof over their heads and then pay for transportation to go to work? It's just impossible." The obvious solution, to Neal at least, is for Wyoming to expand Medicaid to the 17,000 uninsured currently living below the poverty level.
But while the state Legislature in March empowered Gov. Matt Mead to negotiate such a plan
with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, it doesn't appear that much has come of those negotiations. "We've heard that they are talking, but that's all we've heard," Neal said. "It'd be great to find out what they've discussed and what they're proposing."
Gov. Mead's office declined to comment on the progress of Medicaid negotiations, deferring instead to Wyoming Department of Health Deputy Director Lee Clabots, who indicated that little has been discussed so far. "There has been some preliminary touching base with the regional (Medicaid) office here, but beyond that, nothing has really happened," Clabots said. "I don't think we'd expect something more until early fall sometime."
Neal said he's concerned that any Medicaid expansion the governor proposes could come with a work requirement, which is a non-starter with many expansion activists. "There are certain things in these discussions we think are complete deal-breakers, and one of them is a work requirement," Neal said. "Many (uninsured Wyomingites) are already working, and others are at home taking care of a spouse or other family member, and some are simply sick and can't work."
Those concerns are shared by Jan Cartwright, the executive director of the Wyoming Primary Care Association, which provides technical assistance and training to the community health centers across the state that provide care to the uninsured. "A single person at 100 percent of poverty makes less than $1,000 a month, and in many cases, they're already working, so it's sort of a moot point," Cartwright said. "There's a real unfairness in this where people who could be eligible for Medicaid have to buy insurance outright, yet people at 200 percent of poverty level get subsidies. I just don't see the fairness in that."
Cartwright said she's hopeful that, as implementation of the ACA continues, more insurers will express interest in joining Wyoming's insurance exchange. If that were to happen, she said, the increased competition could drive down overall rates, making it easier for lower-income residents to afford coverage. But Tom Hirsig, the state's insurance commissioner, said Wyoming provides some unique challenges to health insurance companies that has so far dissuaded all but two from joining the state's exchange. The key problems, he said, are the state's low population and the lack of any real major population centers.
"When you look at prices of insurance, you can't compare Wyoming to metropolitan areas with millions of people," Hirsig said. "We don't have lots of doctors, and we're so spread out that preventative care is sometimes not accessible to people in Wyoming. Every state except Wyoming has a population center."
He added that the idea that insurance companies are taking advantage of the relative lack of competition in order to "gouge" customers is misguided, given that the ACA mandates how much profit insurers can make off of exchange enrollees. Specifically, insurers can only use 20 percent of subscriber premiums to cover administrative costs and investor profits. The rest must be spent on medical care and related quality improvement activities. "If they don't meet that, they have to refund premiums to their customers," Hirsig said. "So insurance companies aren't the ones getting rich. If insurance companies were getting rich, we'd have lots of insurance companies here."
Hirsig has been encouraging insurance companies to take part in Wyoming's exchange, but most, he said, have their sights on larger markets, and it's unclear whether any will opt to join Wyoming's exchange in the coming year.
"It's probably not going to change anytime soon," he said.
Saturday, June 21, 2014
|TheBadFoodie posted: "Social media users are calling to rescue Ukrainian officer Nadiya Savchenko, who has been taken hostage by Donbas terrorists. For this all those impartial are being asked to post the photograph of the aviator, who has already been dubbed "G.I. Jane," o" |
Friday, June 20, 2014
Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz and the band are still delusionally beating the war drums. They just don't get it.
June 20, 2014 | By Eric Alterman
In a column entitled “Bush’s toxic legacy in Iraq,” terrorism expert Peter Bergen writes about the origins of ISIS, “the brutal insurgent/terrorist group formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq.”
Bergen notes that, “One of George W. Bush’s most toxic legacies is the introduction of al Qaeda into Iraq, which is the ISIS mother ship. If this wasn’t so tragic it would be supremely ironic, because before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, top Bush officials were insisting that there was an al Qaeda-Iraq axis of evil. Their claims that Saddam Hussein’s men were training members of al Qaeda how to make weapons of mass destruction seemed to be one of the most compelling rationales for
the impending war.”
The Bush Administration fought to quash its conclusions during the two years that the report was in the works. Mazetti reported, “Previous drafts described actions by the United States government that were determined to have stoked the jihad movement, like the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.” Apparently, these were dropped
from the final document, though the reference to jihadists using their training for the purpose of “exacerbating domestic conflicts or fomenting radical ideologies” as in say, Syria, remained.
Al Qaeda’s current leadership in the constellation of the global jihad leadership.” On the one
One of the many horrific results was the decision to support Nouri al-Maliki as a potential leader of the nation. Maliki’s sectarian attacks on Sunni Muslims on behalf of his Shiite allies are the immediate cause of the current murderous situation. And his placement in that job, as Fareed Zakaria aptly notes, “was the product of a series of momentous decisions made by the Bush
administration. Having invaded Iraq with a small force — what the expert Tom Ricks called ‘the worst war plan in American history’ — the administration needed to find local allies.”
One could go on and on (and on and on and on) about the awful judgment — the arrogance, the
corruption, the ideological obsession and the purposeful ignorance — by the Bush Administration that led to the current catastrophe. As Ezra Klein recently noted, “All this cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives.” And this is to say nothing of the destruction of our civil liberties
and poisoning of our political discourse at home and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died, the millions of refugees created, the hatred inspired in the world toward the United States.
But to focus exclusively on the administration begs an obvious question. How did they get away with it? Where were the watchdogs of the press?
Much has been written on this topic. No one denies that the truth was available at the time. Not all of it, of course, but enough to know that certain catastrophe lay down the road the administration chose to travel at 100 miles per hour. Top journalists, like those who ran the Times and The Washington Post, chose to ignore the reporting they read in their own papers.
As the Post itself later reported, its veteran intelligence reporter Walter Pincus authored a compelling story that undermined the Bush administration’s claim to have proof that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. It only made the paper at all because Bob Woodward, who was researching a book, talked his editors into it. And even then, it ran on page A17, where it was immediately forgotten.
As former Post Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks later explained, “Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: ‘Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry
about all this contrary stuff?” The New York Times ran similarly regretful stories and its editors noted to its readers that the paper had been “perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.” (Bill
Moyers’ documentary special “Buying the War: How Big Media Failed Us tells the story, and in conjunction with that Moyers report, you can find an Interactive Timeline as well as post-March 2003 coverage of Iraq.)
Many in the mainstream media came clean, relatively speaking, about the cause of their mistakes when it turned out that they had been conduits for the Bush administration lies that led to catastrophe. But what they haven’t done, apparently, is change their ways.
As my “Altercation” colleague Reed Richardson notes, the very same people who sold us the war are today trying to resell us the same damaged goods: “On MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ this past Monday,
there was Paul Bremer, the man who summarily disbanded the Iraqi Army in 2003 in one of the
biggest strategic blunders of the war, happily holding court and advocating for ‘boots on the ground.’” Not to be outdone, POLITICO had the temerity to quote Doug Feith blithely lecturing Obama about how to execute foreign policy. Don’t forget the throwback stylings of torture apologist Marc Thiessen either, who was writing speeches for Rumsfeld during the run-up to the Iraq
War. On Monday, he, too, weighed in with an op-ed in the Washington Post unironically entitled “Obama’s Iraq Disaster.”
Among the most egregious examples of this tendency has been rehabilitation of neoconservative thinker Robert Kagan and his frequent writing partner, the pundit and policy entrepreneur William Kristol. Back in April 2002, the two argued that “the road that leads to real security and peace” is “the road that runs through Baghdad.” In an article entitled “What to Do About Iraq,” they added that not only was it silly to believe that “American ground forces in significant number are likely to be required for success in Iraq” but also that they found it “almost impossible to imagine any
outcome for the world both plausible and worse than the disease of Saddam with weapons of mass destruction. A fractured Iraq? An unsettled Kurdish situation? A difficult transition in Baghdad? These may be problems, but they are far preferable to leaving Saddam in power with his nukes, VX, and anthrax.”
Recently, Kristol could be heard on ABC’s idiotically named “Powerhouse Roundtable” explaining that the problem in Iraq today was caused not by the lousy decisions for which he argued so vociferously but “by our ridiculous and total withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.”
Both men made this argument over and over, and especially in Kristol’s case, often in McCarthyite terms designed to cast aspersions on the motives and patriotism of their opponents and those in the media. For his spectacular wrongness Kristol has been punished by being given columns in The Washington Post, The New York Times, andTime magazine, not to mention a regular slot on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” (These appointments came in addition to a $250,000 award from the right-wing Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation; an occasion that inspired this collection of a just a few of his greatest hits.)
Recently, Kristol could be heard on ABC’s idiotically named “Powerhouse Roundtable” explaining that the problem in Iraq today was caused not by the lousy decisions for which he argued so vociferously but “by our ridiculous and total withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.” (Surprise, surprise, he did not mention that our 2011 withdrawal from Iraq was the product of the 2008 “Status of Forces” agreement negotiated by none other than President George W. Bush.)
Similarly, last month, Kagan was given 12,700 words for a cover essay in the (still hawkish) New Republic entitled “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” which he used to make many of the same sorts of unsupported assertions that underlay his original misguided advice. As a result, he found himself
not only celebrated in a profile in The New York Times that all but glossed over his past record, but also called in for consultations by the current President of the United States.
One often reads analyses these days that grant the no-longer ignorable fact that American conservatives, especially those in control of the Republican Party, have become so obsessed by right-wing ideology and beholden to corporate cash that they have entirely lost touch both with
reality and with the views of most Americans. As the famed Brookings Institution analyst Thomas Mann recently wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “Republicans have become a radical insurgency — ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise,
unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition.”
This tendency was the focus of the coverage of the shocking defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his local primary by a man with no political experience and little money, who
attributed his victory to “God act[ing] through people on my behalf,” and warns that unless more Americans heed the lessons of Jesus — as he interprets them — a new Hitler could rise again “quite easily.” These right-wing extremists have repeatedly demonstrated their contempt for the views of most Americans whether it be on economic issues, environmental issues, issues of personal, religious and sexual freedom or immigration, to name just a few, and Americans are moving away from them as a result.
This is no less true, it turns out, with regard to the proposed adventurism in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East by those who sold us the first false bill of goods back in 2003. A strong majority of Americans now agree that removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq was not worth the trillions of dollars and lives lost. Barely one in six want to go back in. There is also strong opposition to military intervention in neighboring Syria. And yet not only do the same armchair warriors continue in their demands for more blood and treasure to be sacrificed on the altar of their ideological obsession with no regard whatever for Americans’desire to do the exact opposite, they remain revered by the same mainstream media that allowed them to get away with it the first time.
The conservative foreign policy establishment, it needs to be said, is no less out to touch with reality — and democracy — than the tea party fanatics who control the Republican domestic agenda (and are fueled by the cash of the Koch Brothers and other billionaires who stand to profit from their victories). That so many in the media pretend otherwise, after all this time, all this death and all this money wasted, demonstrates not only contempt for their audience but utter disdain for knowledge itself.
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