Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Bloodstained Rise of Global Populism

A Political Movement’s Violent Pursuit of “Enemies” 

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By Alfred W. McCoy

In 2016, something extraordinary happened in the politics of diverse countries around the world. With surprising speed and simultaneity, a new generation of populist leaders emerged from the margins of nominally democratic nations to win power.  In doing so, they gave voice, often in virulent fashion, to public concerns about the social costs of globalization.
Even in societies as disparate as the affluent United States and the impoverished Philippines, similarly violent strains of populist rhetoric carried two unlikely candidates from the political margins to the presidency. On opposite sides of the Pacific, these outsider campaigns were framed by lurid calls for violence and even murder.
As his insurgent crusade gained momentum, billionaire Donald Trump moved beyond his repeated promises to fight Islamic terror with torture and brutal bombing by also advocating the murder of women and children. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News. “They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”

At the same time, campaigning in the Philippines on a law-and-order program of his own, Rodrigo Duterte, then mayor of a remote provincial city, swore that he would kill drug dealers across the nation, sparing nothing in the way of violent imagery. “If by chance that God will place me [in the presidency],” he promised in launching his campaign, “watch out because the 1,000 [people executed while he was a mayor] will become 100,000. You will see the fish in Manila Bay getting fat. That is where I will dump you.”
The rise of these political soulmates and populist strongmen not only resonated deeply in their political cultures, but also reflected global trends that made their bloodstained rhetoric paradigmatic of our present moment. After a post-Cold War quarter-century of globalization, displaced workers around the world began mobilizing angrily to oppose an economic order that had made life so good for transnational corporations and social elites.
Between 1999 and 2011, for instance, Chinese imports had eliminated 2.4 million American jobs, closing furniture manufacturers in North Carolina, factories that produced glass in Ohio, and auto parts and steel companies across the Midwest. As a range of nations worldwide reacted to such realities by imposing a combined 2,100 restrictions on imports to staunch similar job losses, world trade actually started to slow down without a major recession for the first time since 1945.
The Bloodstained History of Populism
Across Europe, hyper-nationalist right-wing parties like the French National Front, the Alternative for Germany, and the UK Independence Party won over voters by cultivating nativist, especially anti-Islamic, responses to globalization. Simultaneously, a generation of populist demagogues either held, gained, or threatened to take power in democracies around the world: Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Donald Trump in the U.S., Narendra Modi in India, Prabowo Subianto in Indonesia, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, among others.
Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra recently summed up their successes this way: “Demagogues are still emerging, in the West and outside it, as the promise of prosperity collides with massive disparities of wealth, power, education, and status.” The Philippine economy offered typically grim news on this score.  It grew by an impressive 6% annually in the six years before Duterte launched his presidential campaign, even as a staggering 26 million poor Filipinos struggled to survive on a dollar a day.  In those years, just 40 elite Filipino families grabbed an estimated 76% of all the wealth this growth produced.
Scholar Michael Lee suggests that a populist leader succeeds by rhetorically defining his or her national community by both its supposedly “shared characteristics” and its inevitable common “enemy,” whether Mexican “rapists” or Muslim refugees, much as the Nazis created a powerful sense of national selfhood by excluding certain groups by “blood.” In addition, he argues, such movements share the desire for an “apocalyptic confrontation” through a final “mythic battle” as “the vehicle to revolutionary change.”
Although scholars like Lee emphasize the ways in which populist demagogues rely on violent rhetoric for their success, they tend to focus less on another crucial aspect of such populists globally: actual violence. These movements might still be in their (relatively) benign phase in the United States and Europe, but in less developed democracies around the world populist leaders haven’t hesitated to inscribe their newfound power on the battered bodies of their victims.
For more than a decade, for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a reasonable candidate for sparking this wave of populism, has demonstrated his famously bare-chested version of power politics by ensuring that opponents and critics meet grim ends under “mysterious” circumstances.  These include the lethal spritz of polonium 210 that killed Russian secret police defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006; the shooting of journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya outside her Moscow apartment that same year; a dose of rare Himalayan plant poison for banker and Putin nemesis Alexander Perepilichny in London in 2012; a fusillade that felled opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in downtown Moscow in 2015; and four fatal bullets this March for refugee whistleblower Denis Voronenkov on a Kiev sidewalk, which Ukraine has denounced as “an act of state terrorism.”
As an Islamist populist, Turkish president Recep Erdogan has projected his power through a bloody repression of, and a new war with, the country’s Kurdish minority. He portrays the Kurds as a cancer within the country’s body politic whose identity must be extinguished, much as his forebears rid themselves of the Armenians.  In addition, since mid-2016, he’s overseen a wholesale purge of 50,000 officials, journalists, teachers, and military officers in the aftermath of a failed coup, and in a brutal round of torture and rape filled Turkish prisons to the brim.
In 2014, retired general Prabowo Subianto nearly won Indonesia’s presidency with a populist campaign of “strength and order.”  In fact, Prabowo’s military career had long been steeped in such violence.  In 1998, when the authoritarian regime of his father-in-law Suharto was at the brink of collapse, Prabowo, then commander of the Kopassus Rangers, staged the kidnapping-disappearance of a dozen student activists, the savage rape of 168 Chinese women (acts meant to incite racial violence), and the burning of 43 shopping malls and 5,109 buildings in Jakarta, the country’s capital, that left more than 1,000 dead.
During his first months in power, newly elected Philippine President Duterte waged his highly publicized war on the drug trade in city slums by loosing the police and vigilantes nationwide in a campaign already marked, in its first six months, by at least 7,000 extrajudicial killings. The bodies of his victims were regularly dumped on Manila’s streets as warnings to others and as down payments on Duterte’s promises of a new, orderly country.
And he wasn’t the first populist in Asia to take such a path either.  In 2003, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched his “red shirt” movement as a war on his country’s rampant methamphetamine abuse. In just three months under Thaksin’s rule, the police carried out 2,275 extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users, often leaving the bodies where they fell as a twisted tribute to his power.
Such examples of populist political carnage and the likelihood of more to come -- including what Donald Trump’s presidency might have in store -- raise certain questions: Just what dynamics lie behind the urge toward violence that seems to propel such movements? Why does the virulent campaign rhetoric of populist political movements so often morph into actual violence once a populist wins power?  And why is that violence invariably aimed at enemies believed to threaten the imagined integrity of the national community?
In their compulsion to “protect” the nation from what are seen as pernicious alien influences, such populist movements are defined by their need for enemies.  That need, in turn, infuses them with an almost uncontrollable compulsion for conflict that transcends actual threats or rational political programs.
To give this troubling trend its political due, it’s necessary to understand how, at a particular moment in history, global forces have produced a generation of populist leaders with such potential compulsions. And at the moment, there may be no better example to look to than the Philippines.
During its last half-century of bloodstained elections, two populists, Ferdinand Marcos and Rodrigo Duterte, won exceptional power by combining the high politics of diplomacy with the low politics of performative violence, scattering corpses scarred by their signature brutality as if they were so many political pamphlets. A quick look at this history offers us an unsettling glimpse of America’s possible political future.
Populism in the Philippines: the Marcos Era
Although now remembered mainly as a “kleptocrat” who plundered his country and enriched himself with shameless abandon (epitomized by the discovery that his wife possessed 3,000 pairs of shoes), Ferdinand Marcos was, in fact, a brilliant populist, thoroughly skilled in the symbolic uses of violence.
As his legal term as president came to an end in 1972, Marcos -- who, like many populists, saw himself as chosen by destiny to save his people from perdition -- used the military to declare martial law.  He then jailed 50,000 opponents, including the senators who had blocked his favored legislation and the gossip columnists who had mocked his wife’s pretensions. 
The first months of his dictatorship actually lacked any official violence. Then, just before dawn on January 15, 1973, Constabulary officers read a presidential execution order and strapped Lim Seng, an overseas Chinese heroin manufacturer, to a post at a Manila military camp. As a battery of press photographers stood by, an eight-man firing squad raised their rifles. Replayed endlessly on television and in movie theaters, the dramatic footage of bullets ripping open the victim’s chest was clearly meant to be a vivid display of the new dictator’s power, as well as an appeal to his country’s ingrained anti-Chinese racism. Lim Seng would be the only victim legally executed in the 14 years of the Marcos dictatorship. Extra-judicial killings were another matter, however. 
          Marcos made clever use of the massive U.S. military bases near Manila to win continuing support for his authoritarian (and increasingly bloody) rule from three successive American administrations, even effectively neutralizing President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy. After a decade of dictatorship, however, the economy began to collapse from a too-heavy dose of “crony capitalism” and the political opposition started to challenge Marcos’s self-image as destiny’s chosen one.
To either sate or subdue an increasingly restive population, he soon resorted to escalating raw violence. His security squads conducted what were referred to as “salvagings,” more than 2,500 of them (or 77% of the 3,257 extrajudicial killings during his 14-year dictatorship).  Bodies scarred by torture were regularly abandoned in public plazas or at busy intersections so passers-by could read the transcript of terror in their stigmata. In the capital, Manila, with only 4,000 police for six million residents, the Marcos regime also deputized hundreds of “secret marshals” responsible for more than 30 shoot-on-sight fatalities during May 1985, the program’s first month, alone.
Yet the impact of Marcos’s version of populist violence proved mutable -- effective at the start of martial law when people yearned for order and counterproductive at its close when Filipinos again longed for freedom. That shift in sentiment soon led to his downfall in the first of the dramatic “people power” revolutions that would challenge autocratic regimes from Beijing to Berlin.
Populism in the Philippines: Duterte’s Violence
Rodrigo Duterte, the son of a provincial governor, initially pursued a career as the mayor of Davao City, a site of endemic violence that left a lasting imprint on his political persona.
In 1984, after the communist New People’s Army made Davao its testing ground for urban guerilla warfare, the city’s murders soared, doubling to 800, including the assassination of 150 policemen. To check the communists, who took over part of the city, the military mobilized criminals and ex-communists as death squad vigilantes in a lethal counterterror campaign. When I visited Davao in 1987 to investigate death squad killings, that remote southern city already had an unforgettable air of desolation and hopelessness.
It was in this context of rising national and local extrajudicial slaughter that the 33-year old Rodrigo Duterte launched his political career as the elected mayor of Davao City.  That was in 1988, the first of seven terms that would keep him in office, on and off, for another 21 years until he won the country’s presidency in 2016. His first campaign was hotly contested and he barely beat his rivals, taking only 26% of the vote.
Around 1996, he reportedly mobilized his own vigilante group, the Davao Death Squad.  It would be responsible for many of the city’s 814 extrajudicial killings over the next decade, as victims were dumped on city streets with faces wrapped bizarrely in packing tape. Duterte himself may have killed one or more of the squad’s victims.  Apart from liquidating criminals, the Davao Death Squad also conveniently eliminated the mayor’s political rivals.
Campaigning for president in 2016, Duterte would proudly point to the killings in Davao City and promise a drug war that would murder 100,000 Filipinos if necessary. In doing so, he was also drawing on historical resonances from the Marcos era that lent some political depth to his violent rhetoric. By specifically praising Marcos, promising to finally bury his body in the National Heroes Cemetery in Manila, and supporting Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for vice president, Duterte identified himself with a political lineage of populist strongmen epitomized by the old dictator at a time when desperate Filipinos were looking for new hope of a decent life.
On taking office, President Duterte promptly started his promised anti-drug campaign and dead bodies became commonplace sights on city streets nationwide, sometimes accompanied by a crude cardboard sign reading “I am a pusher,” or simply with their faces wrapped in the by-now trademark packing tape used by the Davao Death Squad. Although Human Rights Watch would declare his drug war a “calamity,” a resounding 85% of Filipinos surveyed were “satisfied,” apparently seeing each body sprawled on a city street as another testament to the president’s promise of order.
At the same time, like Marcos, Duterte deployed a new style of diplomacy as part of his populist reach for unrestrained power. Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea between Beijing and Washington, he improved his country’s bargaining position by distancing himself from the Philippines’ classic alliance with the United States. At the 2016 ASEAN conference, reacting to Barack Obama’s criticism of his drug war, he said bluntly of the American president, “Your mother’s a whore.”
A month later during a state visit to Beijing, Duterte publicly proclaimed “separation from the United States.’’ By setting aside his country’s recent slam-dunk win over China at the Court of Arbitration in the Hague in a legal dispute over rival claims in the South China Sea, Duterte came home with $24 billion in Chinese trade deals and a sense that he was helping establish a new world order.
In January, after his police tortured and killed a South Korean businessman on the pretext of a drug bust, he was forced to call a sudden halt to the nationwide killing spree. Like his role model Marcos, however, Duterte’s populism seems to contain an insatiable appetite for violence and so it was not long before bodies were once again being dumped on the streets of Manila, pushing the death toll past 8,000.
Success and the Strongman
The histories of these Filipino strongmen, past and present, reveal two overlooked aspects of the ill-defined phenomenon of global populism: the role of what might be termed performative violence in projecting domestic strength and a complementary need for diplomatic success to show international influence. How skillfully these critical poles of power are balanced may offer one gauge for speculating about the fate of populist strongmen in disparate parts of the globe.
In Russia’s case, Putin’s projection of strength through the murder of selected domestic opponents has been matched by unchecked aggression in Georgia and Ukraine -- a successful balancing act that has made his country, with its rickety economy the size of Italy’s, seem like a great power again and is likely to extend his autocratic rule into the foreseeable future.
In Turkey, Erdogan’s harsh repression of ethnic and political enemies has essentially sunk his bid for entry into the European Union, plunged him into an unwinnable war with Kurdish rebels, and complicated his alliance with the United States against Islamic fundamentalism -- all potential barriers to his successful bid for unchecked power.
In Indonesia, Prabowo Subianto failed in his critical first step: building a domestic base large enough to sweep him into the presidency, in part because his call for order resonated so discordantly with a public still capable of remembering his earlier bid for power through eerie violence that roiled Jakarta with hundreds of rapes, fires, and deaths.
Without the popular support generated by his local spectacle of violence, President Duterte’s de facto abrogation of his country’s claims to the South China Sea’s rich fishing grounds and oil reserves in his bid for Chinese support risks a popular backlash, a military coup, or both. For the time being, however, Duterte’s deft juxtaposition of international maneuvering and local bloodletting has made him a successful Philippine strongman with, as yet, few apparent checks on his power.
While the essential weakness of the Philippine military limits Duterte’s outlets for his populist violence to the police killings of poor street drug dealers, Donald Trump faces no such restraints. Should Congress and the courts check the virulence of his domestic attacks on Muslims, Mexicans, or other imagined enemies and should his presidency run into further setbacks like the recent repeal-Obamacare humiliation, he could readily resort to violent military adventures not only in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya, but even in Iran, not to speak of North Korea, in a bid to recover his populist aura of overweening power. In this way, unlike any other potential populist politician on the planet, he holds the fate of countless millions in his much-discussed hands.
If populism’s need for what scholar Michael Lee calls an “apocalyptic confrontation” and a “mythic battle” proves accurate, it might, in the end, lead the Trump administration’s “systemic revolutionaries” far beyond even their most extreme rhetoric into an endlessly escalating cycle of violence against foreign enemies, using whatever weapons are available, whether drones, special operations forces, fighter bombers, naval armadas, or even nuclear weapons.

Iran is Back: With Int’l Sanctions lifted and Putin Friendly, Tehran is on a Roll

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By Juan Cole

Iranian petroleum sales to its top four Asian customers rose nearly 60% year on year in March, and total exports have reached nearly 3 millionbarrels a day. Just four countries accounted for over 2/3s of the total exports– China, India, South Korea and Japan. South Korea and Japan in particular had been strong-armed by the Obama administration to cut oil purchases from Iran, in order to force Tehran to the bargaining table. But international sanctions were lifted in January of 2016, and Iran’s Asian trading partners seem just delighted to ramp up imports.
Although the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has attempted to impose a reduction of exports on member states, so as to firm up weak oil prices, the organization exempted Iran so that it could try to recover the market share it lost under the Obama sanctions. Iran’s exports were reduced to as little as 1 mn barrels per day in the period of severe sanctions imposed by the Obama administration and its allies.
The French firm Total S.A. is also going ahead with plans to invest massively in Iran’s South Pars natural gas fields, and is waiting on the US Department of the Treasury to OK the deal. Total does not want to risk huge fines if the DoT later on decides that, e.g., the exploitation of the gas fields benefits groups sanctioned by the US, doing business with whom is risky.
As Iranian president Hassan Rouhani visited Moscow last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Iran’s trade with Russia is up 70% in the past year. Putin pledged to build 20 nuclear power reactors for Iran, and to arrange for Russian natural gas companies to help exploit Iranian gas. Putin said last week, according to BBC monitoring, “the possibility of exporting Sukhoi Superjet 100 aircraft as well as aircraft for medical use is on the agenda.” Russia is also alleged to have sold to Iran the S-300 anti-aircraft defense system.
Despite substantial economic progress after international sanctions were lifted, Iran’s clerical Leader, Ali Khamenei, slammed the state of the economy and complained that Iran had gotten little from negotiating for the nuclear deal. It seems to me that Khamenei must be politicking in hopes of ending President Hassan Rouhani’s time in power. Rouhani is running for a second term, with the elections coming up in May. As a centrist who was willing to negotiate with the US directly, Rouhani has attracted the ire of hard liners–though he is himself a cleric. Khamenei may be playing politics, but it is the case that Iran’s middle classes suffered from sanctions, and are eager to see the economy roll along again. They now have to decide whether to stick with Rouhani, who has had some successes, or to head hard line voices and dump the president in favor of someone closer to the top clerical power elite.

Do the FBI and Department of Justice Want a Photo of Every American?

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By Donald Kaufman

A recent hearing by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform revealed some troubling news about privacy rights: Using facial recognition technology, the FBI has captured images of more than half of all adult Americans and is storing them in perpetuity in databases for law enforcement agencies to access. The technology is part of a 2010 FBI program called Next Generation Identification. The program uses facial recognition, finger and palm prints, and iris scans to track people and put their information in repository systems for law enforcement use. No warrant is required, and everyone, including people with no criminal record, can be recorded. 

On March 22, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform met to review the FBI’s facial recognition policies

Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law and an adjunct law professor at the university, testified that the FBI can open an investigation and use the facial recognition system on the basis of mere allegations. Driver’s license information of millions of Americans is collected and stored in a vast network of databases that local and federal enforcement can access. 

During the hearing, Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., said state agencies are not required to provide investigation or search warrants. In fact, the agencies do not even need to meet minimal U.S. standards of “reasonable suspicion” to go through the FBI database, In addition, Mitchell noted, the FBI has access to 400 million photos of Americans with this program. 

Representing the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) was Kimberly Del Greco, deputy assistant director of the criminal justice information services division at the FBI. Del Greco offered a statement before the committee, but she evaded almost every question directed at her, much to the chagrin of committee members. When asked if facial recognition was being used by local law enforcement, she refused to answer.
Instead, Bedoya revealed:
We surveyed over 100 law enforcement agencies across the country. We found 52 that had used or were using face recognition technology. Not one required a warrant. And in most agencies, as well as the FBI, officials do not need to reasonably suspect someone of a crime before scanning and searching their face. How is this going to affect free speech? Are you going to go to a gun rights rally or a protest against the president for that matter? If the government can secretly scan your face and identify you? … We have met a college student who is now in at least two separate facial databases after a protest for peaceful disobedience. … Are there safeguards? No. If there is abuse, we would not know it.
Rep. Stephen Francis Lynch, D-Mass., believes potential issues go beyond the First Amendment:
“When you think how this could change who we are as a nation, it is very very troubling. This nation was founded on protest. It really was. And it is continually reshaped by protest. And it disturbs me greatly that whether it was the death of Freddie Gray and those protests, or the women’s protest recently that was all over the country. Millions of people. It disturbs me greatly that we are out there taking in this information. ... This is really Nazi Germany here, what we’re talking about is. They had meticulous files on individuals. Most of them of Jewish faith, and that’s how they tracked their people. I see little difference in the way people are being tracked under this.”
The FBI also appears to have broken the law by not putting out privacy impact and need-of-use assessments. Diana Maurer, director of homeland security and justice issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), told the panel that no one has tested the accuracy of the technology since 2011, before its implementation. Maurer said the FBI needed to provide evidence that the technology was making a difference in helping its operative needs. The FBI also has its own requirements for annual operational reviews, which were never conducted. 
Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, asked Del Greco, who is also the FBI section chief for biometric services, why the “GAO report asserts that the FBI failed, even though it’s directed by law, to put out the privacy impact assessment? Why did the FBI not fulfill the law? The requirement of the law.”

Del Greco responded: “I will defer to DOJ for that.”

“What do you mean defer to DOJ?” Chaffetz said. “You are DOJ. The impact assessment was submitted years late after the program was already in full use. So here’s the problem: You are required by law to put out a privacy statement, and you didn’t. Now we are supposed to trust you with hundreds of millions of people’s faces in a system that you couldn’t protect even in the 702 issue [to strengthen protections for federal employees].”

Chaffetz continued: “The point is, as the GAO has rightfully, I think, pointed out, the FBI is required by law to comply with the law. You are part of the Department of Justice, and you failed to do so. … But what scares me is the FBI and the Department of Justice proactively trying to collect everybody’s face and then having a system with a network and cameras, where, if you go out in public, that too can be collected. And then used in the wrong hands, nefarious hands, somebody in government misusing it, it does scare me. Are you aware of any other country that does this? Anyone on the panel? Is there any other country that does this?”

According to Bedoya, six major law enforcement agencies plan to use or have actively used real-time face scanning, with a quarter of body-camera vendors making provisions for face scanning with body-camera video. This capability will allow future body cameras to scan every person in sight, something that has been used with surveillance cameras.

The hearing also revealed that the use of facial recognition isn’t limited to government. Private corporations are beginning to develop and may have already implemented the technology. It appears that it is a matter of time before facial recognition technology is connected with the ability to track Americans (whose internet browsing history is now accessible) to their geolocation.

The technology also has a major technical flaw: It is not 100 percent accurate, especially with African-Americans and women. The committee found that “human verification is often insufficient as a backup and can allow for racial bias.” reports that “when the system was asked to pull the 50 closest-matching faces from a set of nearly 1 million, it got the right one only 86% of the time, according to a 2016 GAO report.” According to the New York Daily News, the New York Police Department has used facial recognition to investigate crimes since 2011. In 2015, a spokesperson for the NYPD revealed that the technology “misidentified” five people, who later were targeted for investigation and may well have been arrested and charged. 
The New York Daily News writes:
Despite these risks, the NYPD has implemented its face recognition largely in secret. The department has refused to provide information about its system in response to requests filed under New York’s Freedom of Information law. First, the agency argued that the records were exempt from disclosure. Then it claimed it was “unable to locate” the documents requested. Finally, it reverted to the claim that the documents are exempt from disclosure because they discuss trade secrets or confidential police procedures. 
Yet New York, without proper oversight, is doubling down on the technology. Right now, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in the early stages of acquiring a face recognition system to scan the occupants of the 800,000 cars per day at the nine bridges and tunnels connecting New York City’s boroughs.
While this Truthdig correspondent was reporting on the ground in North Dakota at the Standing Rock Reservation, many of the demonstrators and Native Americans expressed great fears over police use of facial recognition. Many believed their images had already been captured on film and subsequently logged into various databases.

Firm Hired by FERC to Review Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline Linked to Project’s Main Environmental Contractor

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By Itai Vardi

A contractor working for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in its environmental review of the proposed Atlantic Coast pipeline has ties to the project’s leading environmental contractor, DeSmog has found.
Merjent, a Minneapolis-based environmental consulting company, was hired by FERC in 2014 as a third-party contractor to assist in the review of the pipeline, a 550-mile multi-state natural gas project promoted by a partnership led by Dominion Energy and including Duke Energy and Southern Company. If authorized by FERC, the pipeline will ship fracked gas originating in the Marcellus Shale through West Virginia and Virginia, and into North Carolina.   
As DeSmog reported in February, several associates and members of the new Trump administration’s transition teams have ties to companies behind the Atlantic Coast pipeline. A document leaked to the press in January revealed that the project was the only gas pipeline included by the transition team in a list of high priority infrastructure projects.
While third-party contractors are paid by the applicant pipeline company, they are considered independent consultants working under the control of FERC staff and are screened by the government for conflicts of interest. 
Prospective contractors must disclose any potential conflicts to FERC. Disclosure forms must specify any past and current “direct or indirect relationship” with “any business entity” that “could be affected in any way by the proposed work.”

Merjent-Natural Resource Group Connections

DeSmog has found that Merjent has ties to the pipeline’s main environmental and engineering contractor, Natural Resource Group, which is also based in Minneapolis. Natural Resource Group has been working on the Atlantic Coast pipeline since it began its FERC application process in 2014. 
Merjent’s website lists Natural Resource Group as one of its clients. The list includes various major energy companies such as Hess Corporation, TransCanada, and Whiting Petroleum. The company says it has “experience serving clients on all types of energy projects, including oil and gas, utilities, renewable energy, and biofuels.”
Natural Resource Group highlighted among a list of Merjent's clients on its website
From Merjent’s website, showing Natural Resource Group as one the company’s clients.
DeSmog has also found that eight Merjent employees currently reviewing the Atlantic Coast pipeline — more than a third of its team members for the project — previously worked for Natural Resource Group. These include Merjent’s project manager Jeff Mackenthun and deputy project manager Zeke Rice
All eight previous Natural Resource Group employees signed off on the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which was published in late December 2016. 
Records Dominion submitted to FERC show that it hired Natural Resource Group to provide a variety of key services to the project, including environmental and permitting services, field surveys, and support for stakeholder engagement activities. Natural Resource Group was behind much of the resource reports for the project.
In the interim, Natural Resource Group was purchased in late 2014 by Environmental Resource Management, a large international environmental consulting company.

Strong Opposition to the Pipeline

The DEIS was overall positive for the pipeline companies behind the project. While it found that the construction of the pipeline will have some adverse and significant impacts on the environment, the “majority of impacts would be reduced to less-than-significant levels” with the implementation of various mitigation measures by the applicant companies. 
However, that has not reassured the controversial project’s many opponents, who have been fighting the proposed pipeline for over two years. In early March, three grassroots organizations — Friends Nelson, Wild Virginia, and Heartwood — filed a motion with FERC requesting it rescind and revise the DEIS, which they claimed to be “inadequate.” According to the motion, new pieces of information about the pipeline’s potential effects have come to light following the publication of the DEIS
Residents and activists living near the pipeline path have in the past few weeks been protesting and marching along its route. In their opposition, they cite, among other things, damage to pristine wild areas, potential adverse human health effects, long term climate implications, and inappropriate use of eminent domain land seizures.   
Earlier analysis led by the research group Key-Log Economics has found that of the thousands of comments submitted by the public to FERC during the pipeline’s scoping period, most have been negative and critical of the project.
Reached for comment, Merjent’s Jeff Mackenthun referred DeSmog to FERC, saying the company is obliged to do so under FERC’s direction. FERC did not provide a comment before publication. Natural Resource Group did not respond to a request for comment.  

Senators question White House on security clearances to Flynn, Trump adviser Gorka

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn during the daily news briefing at the White House before his dismissal.Carolyn Kaster AP

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Four Democratic senators have charged in a series of letters that the appointment of Michael Flynn as Donald Trump’s national security adviser “might have jeopardized national security” and demanded information on why seemingly obvious red flags were overlooked in his vetting for the position.
The senators also questioned the granting of a top-secret security clearance to Sebastian Gorka, a former editor at the Breitbart website who’s now a Trump senior adviser. The senators accused Gorka of failing to note on his U.S. citizenship application that he’d belonged to a neo-Nazi organization in his native Hungary.
“Portions of the White House’s security clearance process have experienced breakdowns since the beginning of the new administration,” the four senators, all members of the Homeland Security Committee, wrote in the letters, which were addressed to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, FBI director James Comey and Marcia Lee Kelly, the director of management and administration at the White House. The letters were dated March 30 and made available to McClatchy.
The interest in how the Trump administration vetted its top advisers adds another layer to Congress’ investigations into a White House now enmeshed in at least three probes into whether Trump campaign advisers colluded with Russia to influence the results of last year’s election.
Flynn has offered to testify in those investigations if he is granted immunity from prosecution, but none of the entities investigating that meddling – the House and Senate intelligence committees and the FBI – has indicated an interest in taking him up on the offer.
A House Intelligence Committee spokesman said the subject of immunity did not come up in what he called “a preliminary discussion” with Flynn’s lawyer. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said that while Flynn’s suggestion of immunity was “a grave and momentous step” for a former national security adviser, granting it is likely premature in an investigation that “grows in severity and magnitude by the day.”
Schiff noted, for example, that the House committee still has not received information from the FBI on whether Flynn had declared in his background check application that he had acted as a paid agent for Turkey last year, a declaration he belatedly made to the Justice Department March 8, more than three weeks after he’d resigned as Trump’s national security adviser.
The four senators, Thomas Carper of Delaware, Margaret Hassan of New Hampshire, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Jon Tester of Montana, expressed similar frustration at what they say is a lack of information to their questions about the vetting of top Trump officials. A previous letter sent in early March to the White House requesting details on Flynn’s security clearance process has gone unanswered.
The new letter asks for a response by April 14 and asserts that “there is compelling evidence to support that – based on recent reports – his serving as the national security adviser might have jeopardized White House decisions about our national security.”
The senators said that Flynn apparently failed to report to the Pentagon as required that he received more than $30,000 from Russian state broadcaster Russia Today in 2015 or that he’d served as a paid agent for Turkey in 2016, when he was serving as a senior Trump campaign adviser.
“When taken together,” the letter said, “they make it exceedingly clear that Mr. Flynn’s re-investigation and adjudication (of his security clearance) should have uncovered his ineligibility to serve as the president’s senior advisor on national security issues.”
After his firing Feb. 13, the Defense Intelligence Agency suspended Flynn’s security clearance. It “remains suspended pending review. Nothing has changed,” a DIA spokesman, James Kudla, said Friday.
As for Gorka, the senators wrote that the “deputy assistant to the president may have concealed his membership in the far-right Hungarian anti-Semitic organization known as Vitezi Rend on his naturalization application. Such failure to disclose this during the course of one’s naturalization proceedings would be unlawful.”
They also noted a “misdemeanor charge Gorka faced for bringing a 9mm pistol through a TSA checkpoint at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.”
“These reports call into question Dr. Gorka’s suitability to hold a Top-Secret security clearance to serve as a senior advisor to the President,” the letters assert, though in a separate list of questions the senators asked “Does Dr. Gorka hold a security clearance? If so, what level clearance eligibility does Dr. Gorka have?”
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which rules on citizenship applications, referred questions to the White House, which responded with a link to a report in an online publication, Tablet, in which Gorka denied being a member of the Vitezi Rend.
The letter also asks about the vetting of six “White House officials who were dismissed during a pre-investigation.”
“Are there any White House officials currently employed who have derogatory and/or disqualifying information in their background investigation, yet who the White House still deems eligible to hold a security clearance?” the letters ask.
The senators also ask if there are any current White House officials “who were determined to be ineligible for a security clearance or have not received an eligibility determination but for whom a senior Administration official, an individual designated by the President, or the President overruled that determination or allowed access to classified information?”

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Trump remains the center of attention, but he’s increasingly isolated politically

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By Abby Phillip and Robert Costa

For a second consecutive weekend, President Trump remained in Washington — tweeting in the morning, holding meetings at the White House and heading to his Virginia golf club on Sunday — all the time surrounded by aides and patrons yet, increasingly, politically marooned.
Weighed down by dismal approval ratings, the president has been unable to wrangle enough support in Congress to advance his agenda and is searching for outside support to defend him from attacks coming from all sides.
Ahead of his 100th day in office later this month, Trump has struggled to build a governing coalition that matches the nontraditional alliance that put him in the Oval Office. And he has turned to making enemies out of former partners among Republicans in Congress, even as Democrats keep him at arm’s length.
“He seems both politically and personally isolated these days,” said David Gergen, a former adviser to Democratic and Republican presidents dating back to Richard Nixon. “He’s flailing because he doesn’t know where to find his natural allies.”
The result has been a presidency lacking in significant victories, beset by major stumbles — including the downfall of the Republicans’ health-care bill and his travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries — and that is the target of litigation as a result of executive actions, especially related to the environment.

There are more potential roadblocks ahead. Already, congressional Republicans have balked at his proposed budget, and the White House’s insistence on increased spending for the military and a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border could imperil a spending bill needed to keep the government running past the end of April.
No easy resolution has appeared, and despite loose talk from White House aides and staff-level conversations this week, little has been done to court Democratic support for his priorities. Meanwhile, most Democrats remain wary of Trump’s hard-line policies and incendiary persona, and the confirmation vote of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, faces a potential filibuster by Senate Democrats.
“Part of it is self-imposed,” former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said of Trump’s challenges and political drift, adding that many key players often find it difficult to build a bond with the 70-year-old executive. “People know him, they see him at meetings, but it’s been hard for people in Congress and around it to get to know him in a way that’s helpful for Trump.”
The White House last week resorted to threats against Democrats and members of its own party in an effort to push members to the negotiating table on repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with the American Health Care Act, a Republican alternative championed by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) but beleaguered by opposition from conservative groups.
Weeks of early, politically damaging battles over controversial policies and an ongoing probe into his campaign’s ties to Russian interference in the election also have left Trump with the lowest approval rating of any president at this point in his administration since such data started being collected during Harry Truman’s presidency. Most of the right wing Republican House members in the Freedom Caucus, now in the president’s crosshairs, outperformed him in the past election, giving them little incentive to cooperate.
“That’s what happens when you have an unpopular president … popularity scares people,” said Ari Fleischer a former adviser to President George W. Bush. “Lack of popularity emboldens them.”
The unrest extends to personnel and the Trump political operation. Last week, Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh left the White House to help prop up an outside group, which aims to provide air cover for the president in the legislative battles ahead after a health-care effort that left him exposed to criticism from the left and the right.
In the West Wing, frustration abounds. For a president fixated on winning, people close to him say he is anxious to find out what went wrong with his team’s health-care push and get to a deal on that issue or another front such as taxes or infrastructure as fast as possible.
Christopher Ruddy, the Newsmax Media chief executive and a friend of Trump’s, said the lesson learned within the White House is to be more careful moving forward when it comes to trusting Congress and the leadership’s whip counts.
“The White House did the right thing. Ryan carried the luggage here. He delivered it and it was damaged goods,” Ruddy said of the health legislation. “They wanted to work with Congress, they accepted the congressional plan and it blew up on them. Now they realize they can’t do that in the future.”
Although the White House has not settled on a clear path forward, a partial strategy has taken shape on social media: going after the ideological purists who blocked Trump on health care. After dealing initially with the House Freedom Caucus with a carrot, Trump has settled on a stick, promising to “fight” Freedom Caucus members along with Democrats in 2018.
Among them: Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Trump supporter who defended him during one of the darkest periods of his campaign, when lewd “Access Hollywood” video emerged of Trump discussing grabbing women. Trump courted Meadows in meetings and calls, but White House aides say he feels scorned by Meadows and fellow Freedom Caucus members — and keeps close watch of their television appearances and how they talk about him.
Some conservative leaders say the tensions between Trump and the Freedom Caucus could be fleeting because the president may eventually need them to pass legislation in the coming months.
“I think there’s a lot of frustration all around town,” said Michael Needham, chief executive of Heritage Action, which backed Freedom Caucus members in opposing the AHCA. “In a couple of weeks people will look back and people will say the coalition in the Republican House and the Senate is a center-right coalition that wants to get big things done.”
Trump showed some signs over the weekend of softening his assault on conservatives in Congress. On Sunday morning, he tweeted out a more positive message about unity on health care — “Anybody (especially Fake News media) who thinks that Repeal & Replace of Obamacare is dead does not know the love and strength in R Party!” — and later went golfing with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a staunch opponent of the bill who lobbied House conservatives to oppose it.
But building support will take more than schmoozing. Needham argued that the White House and congressional leadership asked Republicans to make a politically impossible decision on health care — casting a vote in support of a bill that had a 17 percent public approval rating, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.
That angst remains pervasive with members wondering whether Trump is backing the right kind of bills, the sort of agenda that could lift him and the GOP ahead of the 2018 midterms.
Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), a House Freedom Caucus member, said his office surveyed thousands of constituents about the health-care bill and found the response to be “overwhelmingly against it” — not just among Democrats, but independents and Republicans, too.
“I feel pressure, yes, I do: I feel pressure to say no,” he said. “They’re overwhelmingly, resoundingly saying, ‘Thank you for being a no.’ ”
As a candidate, Trump leapfrogged over his opponents by running an anti-establishment outsider campaign. He pitched a populist infrastructure bill, tax reform and a border wall — all of which have been held up by a push for a health-care bill more closely associated with long-standing Washington Republican dogma and that critics say fails to address Trump’s promise of making health care less expensive and more widely accessible.
Among Trump’s closest confidantes are those urging him to abandon hard-liners in the Republican conference and strike a deal with Democrats on health care and on other issues.
“The president is a dealmaker, and he realizes that 30 members of the House shouldn’t control the process,” Ruddy said. “He is looking for a way to develop a majority that doesn’t include them.”
Striking such a deal would likely require even more political acumen than bringing Republicans in line, as it could risk alienating the Republican leadership in Congress and the conservative base. It, too, would necessitate that Trump find stakeholders and power brokers he can trust on the other side of the aisle.
“You look at George W. Bush, who worked with Ted Kennedy early on with education, Trump is going to have find somebody he can work with on the other side,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said. “He knows he has appeal to people because he’s not ideological, but he has to find out how he can get out of the Republican straitjacket and build the relationships, figure out a coalition for taxes, for infrastructure.”
Democrats remain skittish about cutting deals with a president who so easily lashes out at his own party.
“Right now he looks, I don’t know, in personal disarray,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “In some ways, he had a successful campaign, ‘Make America Great Again,’ something that is obviously very appealing to many people.
“He’s interpreting that as a personal endorsement,” she added. “Members of Congress vote their district; they don’t necessarily vote their president. The powers of persuasion that worked on the campaign trail aren’t going to seal the deal in Washington.”