Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Disturbing Persistence and Expansion Of Major Domestic and Foreign Policy Crises in the National Government of the United States in 2015 and Our Ongoing Collective Complicity in Them



NATAMBU'S LAW states: "No matter how bad things are or appear to be, one can rest assured upon further investigation that in reality things are FAR WORSE than anything one could possibly imagine."

Please take some time to read and think very hard about the previous nine (9) articles that I have posted on this site over the past 90 minutes dealing with police brutality, major labor battles, the ongoing environmental crises, the incredibly brazen and lethal CRIMINAL INJUSTICE SYSTEM, extremely exploitive corporate and governmental "trade deals" engineered by both the White House and Congress (and the fierce political opposition to them), and the ongoing arrest, conviction, and incarceration of whistleblowers and other courageous citizens, functionaries, and journalists who put their lives and professional reputations on the line to tell the very ugly truth about what "our" government is doing to initiate and carry out bad and destructive policies that exploit us all as citizens, workers, and human beings and then blatantly and/or covertly COVERUP AND LIE about what exactly they are doing to us and why (led once again folks by the President, both national political parties in Congress, the corporations, the venal reactionary "Gang of Five" in the Supreme Court, Wall Street, and the largest, wealthiest corporations and banks (and their servile and greedy political flunkies in (again!) the White House, Congress, Wall Street, Mass Media/Madison Avenue).

Then after thoroughly investigating the horrific evidence presented here and elsewhere and reflecting on "what it all means" THINK hard as well about WHO is in the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, the criminal injustice systems, the corporations etc. et al AND HOW THEY GOT THERE...It's called COMPLICITY folks and until we seriously address that monumental problem in all of its deceptive/delusional guises we will continue to be used, victimized, and discarded...


Why So Many Democrats Rejected Obama's Lobbying on the Trans-Pacific Trade Deal
by John Nichols
May 11, 2015
The Nation

A protestor at the hearing on "President Obama's 2015 Trade Policy Agenda" (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

President Obama takes it personally when Americans disagree with his free-trade fundamentalism. He keeps griping about the Democrats who usually support his agenda but are ardently opposed to his request for "fast track" authority to bypass congressional input and oversight on a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

The president has from the start of the debate over fast track and the TPP had a practical problem: If most congressional Democrats align with labor, environmental, and human-rights activists rather than the White House—as they appear intent upon doing— they can block Obama's trade agenda. In the Senate, just 40 votes are required to erect a procedural barrier to fast-track legislation. In the House, a reasonably united Democratic caucus could align with the significant number of Republicans who have traditionally opposed unrestricted free trade to thwart fast track and/or the TPP itself.

On Tuesday, the first major test came in the Senate, and the president lost. Sixty votes were required to open a debate on fast track, but only 52 senators voted to go forward. Forty-two Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats, Vermont's Bernie Sanders and Maine's Angus King, voted "no."

The trade fight is not finished; negotiations with Senate Republicans who favor Obama's agenda could make the fast-track proposal more attractive to at least a few wavering Democrats. And if that happens, expect Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to exercise the option he has retained to bring the issue up again.

Unless and until that happens, however, the president has taken a hard hit. It happened because a number of traditionally pro–free trade Democrats, who had been expected to vote with Obama and the Republicans, joined with the Senate's growing caucus of fair-trade Democrats to block action.

This was what the president feared would happen.

In the run-up to Tuesday's vote, the president made no secret of his frustration with his fellow Democrats.

"There have been a bunch of critics about trade deals generally and the Trans-Pacific Partnership," he griped to the crowd that was assembled last week for his appearance at the corporate headquarters of Nike, a US-based firm that (with its contractors) now employs roughly 40 overseas workers for every one American. And, the president explained, a lot of the critics are Democrats who he has traditionally thought of as his partisan and ideological allies.

Instead of listening to their objections, however, Obama simply announced that he was right and the Democrats who have backed him on so many other issues were wrong.

The problem is that the "evidence" the president has mustered on behalf of fast track and the TPP is unconvincing. In part that's because, as Bernie Sanders warned with regard to proponents of free-trade deals during Tuesday's Senate debate, "These folks have been proven wrong time after time after time." But there is also the fact that the current promises are so hollow. Consider the case of Nike and that 40-1 ratio. Even if every promise about the benefits of free trade and the TPP were to come true—an exceptionally unlikely prospect if the history of trade pacts is any guide—the ratio of overseas workers to Americans employed by Nike and its contractors would shift to somewhere in the range of 30-1. That best-case scenario, everyone admits, would take more than a decade to be achieved. And, though fewer admit it, much of the new employment would likely involve technical workers developing automated production schemes that reduce rather than increase living-wage employment in the US and abroad.

These are points that foes of Trade Promotion Authority and the TPP have made in precise and thoughtful detail, and with substantial support from economists and policy analysts.

Yet Obama has dismissed those who disagree with him as somehow wrongheaded and ignorant. "[What's] interesting is typically they're my friends coming from my party," he said of the fast-track and TPP critics. "And they're my fellow travelers on minimum wage and on job training and on clean energy and on every progressive issue, they're right there with me. And then on this, they're like whupping on me."

Why does the president think this is so? "[On] this issue, on trade," he says, "I actually think some of my dearest friends are wrong. They're just wrong."

Obama's criticisms of fellow Democrats, which became more and more intense as Tuesday's Senate vote approached, disregarded not just the honest concerns of Democratic members of the House and Senate but the sincere objections of union members, environmentalists, civil-rights, and human-rights activists.

Ultimately, the president's approach harmed his own credibility, as his comments created the impression that he was unaware of the long experience, and the deep insight, possessed by progressive critics of free-trade absolutism. The largest and steadiest public-education project on a major economic issue in modern history has played out over the past quarter-century in union halls and church basements and community centers across the country, as Americans have wrestled with the promises and realities of trade policy.

The people the president keeps saying are "wrong"—a group that includes Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Sanders and most House Democrats—are not unthinking protectionists or crude isolationists. They are supporters of workers, the environment, and human rights in the United States and abroad. They have come to recognize that, while fair trade holds immense promise, free trade along the lines the United States has practiced it in recent decades has done immense damage.

The most ardent opponents of fast track and the TPP have firsthand experience with failed trade policies. They have seen what the North American Free Trade Agreement, the permanent normalization of trade with China and other trade arrangements have done to their communities.Their current position is rooted in an understanding that, as Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison (a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and an early supporter of Obama's 2008 presidential run) says, "We cannot afford to rush through another NAFTA that values corporate profits above families."

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama visited many of those communities and stood side by side with many of the leading opponents of ill-conceived and poorly administered trade agreements. He decried "a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits, but none for our environment or our workers who've seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear…"

Now Obama suggests that those he sided with in 2008 are clueless in 2015.

That is not the case.

"American workers have seen the effects of unfair foreign trade on their jobs and manufacturing facilities—they don't need their elected leaders making personal attacks on each other during an important policy debate," says Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who remembers when Obama stood with the critics of failed free-trade policies.

"During the 2008 presidential primary, I watched President Obama argue in Cleveland that we should renegotiate NAFTA. Instead, we've seen more empty promises of jobs through exports while American workers are hit with a flood of imports and jobs shipped overseas," says Brown. "It's clear that the American public doesn't support these trade deals and I am disappointed the president has resorted to name calling in an attempt to shift the debate."

Brown's opposition to fast track and the TPP is inspired by what he has seen happen to Ohio communities like his hometown of Mansfield, and in statistics that confirm the failure of trade deals to live up to promises made by Republican and Democratic presidents:

The Obama Administration predicted that the South Korea Free Trade Agreement would create 70,000 jobs and deliver up to $11 billion in exports. Instead, it only increased U.S. exports to Korea by $1 billion, while Korean imports have skyrocketed to more than $12 billion. The growing good trade deficit with Korea has eliminated over 75,000 jobs in the last three years.

The U.S. already has a trade deficit with Japan and 10 other countries included in the TPP. Since 1997, the deficit with these countries has increased by $151.4 billion.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a Democrat who has worked on trade policy since the 1980s, explains that the president's suggestion that his critics do not understand the issue is "absolutely inaccurate."

"We know exactly what we're talking about," says Slaughter, the daughter of a coal miner who has charted trade-related factory closings and job losses in her upstate New York district for decades. "My concern is that he does not understand what's in it."

Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, explains that "Over the last three decades, in large part because of bad trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA, Americans have worked harder than ever for less. In fact, hundreds of thousands of jobs—factory jobs, middle-class jobs—in states across the country were lost."

Pocan's a native of Kenosha, Wisconsin, an auto-making town for more than a century that saw the closing of its Chrysler plant in 2010—despite the fact that the plant had been recently modernized and rated as one of the most efficient in the United States. "Anyone who does not see the connection between our economy and the failed trade agreements of the past," says the congressman, "will remain on the wrong side of the future."

It is not ignorance but experience that has caused so many progressive members of Congress to join activist groups that have developed deep expertise on trade policy to oppose the president's embrace of the trade agenda of Senate majority leader McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.

Major unions have developed research teams to study trade and worked closely with experts on trade policy for decades now. They have also aligned with international trade unions to oppose the free-trade absolutism of the president and his Wall Street backers. Labor's opposition to fast track and a TPP deal that the Communications Workers of America union refers to as "NAFTA on Steroids" is driven by fact—not fantasy.

The same goes for the criticism of current trade policies expressed by environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, and for the outspoken opposition to fast track by progressive farm groups such as the National Farmers Union.

Opposition to fast track and the TPP is rooted in the fact of trade deficits and in the facts on the ground witnessed by those who voice the criticism. Yet critics of free trade do not see the current wrangling over fast track and the TPP merely from the perspective of the past. As Pocan says, "People recognize that this is a fight for the future."

The president has every right to side with Wall Street in trade debates. But he does his cause no favors by suggesting that those who sincerely disagree with him are unaware of what is at stake. In fact, the reason they are opposing Obama's fast-track request is because they know precisely what is at stake.

Take Action: Demand that Congress Reject ‘fast track' for the Trans-Pacific Partnership


Could Fast Track Ultimately Destroy Dodd-Frank? (Yes.)
by George Zornick
May 12, 2015
The Nation

Senator Elizabeth Warren (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Senator Elizabeth Warren opened up a new battle in the war against the Obama administration's trade policy last week, when she charged that the fast-track trade authority now being considered by Congress could ultimately allow a Republican president to gut many of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms.

This provoked a heated response from the White House and its allies, who not only disputed Warren's claim but bizarrely (and under the cover of anonymity) suggested she was just trying to juice up the Draft Warren presidential movement.

So who's right? This is an important question to litigate, as the Senate prepares to vote on fast-track authority Tuesday.

The short answer: Warren. All it would take is a Republican president and Congress (or any president and Congress inclined to weaken financial regulations), and indeed fast-track authority could be used as a glide path to dismantle not only Dodd-Frank but potentially other important regulations as well.

First, what is fast track?

Presidents generally want to negotiate trade pacts with a promise to other countries that the US Congress won't later change what they agreed upon, and so they ask Congress to pre-approve Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), colloquially known as a fast track. The fast-track legislation now up for a vote in Congress says that for the next six years, any trade deal proposed by an administration cannot be amended. The deals also cannot be filibustered in the Senate, and would pass with a simple-majority vote.

In exchange for ceding this authority, Congress writes into the fast-track bill all kinds of requirements about what it wants to see in future trade deals: This version of the legislation, worked out between Senators Orrin Hatch and Ron Wyden and Representative Paul Ryan, has a number of guidelines on environmental, labor, and regulatory standards.

Democrats complain that in the case of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the fast-track guidelines come too late—much of the deal has already been agreed upon. In fact, when I spoke with Representative Sander Levin last week, he said that when he raised concerns recently with the US Trade Representative about TPP's highly controversial investor-state dispute process, he was told that the TPP chapter on it is already "closed." (A representative for USTR declined to comment on the record.)

There is also a near-universal belief among congressional Democrats that guidelines in the fast-track bill are far too soft—that they are much more suggestion than requirement. This is of great concern since fast-track authority will almost certainly be in effect for six years, spanning not only the rest of Obama's term but the first term of the next president, and some of the following president's term as well, if Obama's successor is voted out after four years.

It's that unease Warren is speaking to when she raises concerns about fast track and a Republican president. "[H]e wants us to vote on a six-year, grease-the-skids deal," she told NPR this week. Congress is making a blind promise of faith here, particularly if you believe—as most Democrats do—that this fast-track bill doesn't really force the White House to adhere to very much. And beyond TPP, Senator Orrin Hatch said there are 43 different trade bills that could pass in this six-year window.

The final thing to understand about fast-track authority is how unique it is during this era of gridlocked American legislating. Over the past several years, spending on lobbying has actually decreased as Congress routinely fails to agree on much beyond basic funding of the government and naming some post offices. Trade deals contain vast amounts of regulation and economic rulemaking, and fast-track authority is like a magic-carpet ride through the deadlocked Congress.

How specifically could Dodd-Frank be changed?

Warren pointed to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a proposed trade deal between the United States and the European Union that's been under negotiation for several years.

Major financial institutions have been lobbying heavily on this deal—which is not surprising, since the major financial centers in the United States and Europe would be affected. JPMorgan Chase, MasterCard, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and VISA have all lobbied Congress on fast track and TTIP, along with TPP, in the past six months, according to company disclosure forms.

What might they want? Like with TPP, we don't know all the details of TTIP yet, but advocates have many fears. One is that the Federal Reserve's plan to impose separate liquidity requirements on foreign banks might be scotched; Inside US Trade reported in 2013 that the EU wanted to address that rule, which it thinks is "discriminatory." Liquidity requirements were a crucial part of Dodd-Frank and force banks to have a certain level of assets they can sell off in the event of a crisis. European regulators have traditionally taken a lighter touch on such requirements. That same report suggested that compliance rules on derivatives—another key part of Dodd-Frank—were under negotiation.

Relatedly, there is a fear common to many trade deals: If TTIP is enacted with lower financial regulations than what exist under Dodd-Frank, and with exemptions for foreign banks, American banks could reincorporate in signatory countries to sidestep US regulations.

And it's not just Dodd-Frank: the leaked EU proposal for TTIP has a provision that new regulations first be "analyzed" to determine if they have an unacceptable impact on trade. Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) worries that this could "impose a presumption that regulations must be judged on the basis of their trade impact rather than their effectiveness as public interest policies promoting financial stability."

Reported talks on "regulatory cooperation" would mean regulators in different countries have to consult each other on new rules before respective legislative bodies are presented with a reform. AFR has said, "At best, this mechanism would delay implementation of needed financial reforms. At worst, it would result in a watering down or outright blockage of said reforms."

So why does Obama think Warren is wrong?

I reached out to the US Trade Representative's office, and was directed to a statement from the Treasury Department that "The Dodd-Frank Act is a signature achievement of the Obama Administration that the President fought long and hard to pass into law. Nothing we're doing in any of our trade agreements would weaken our ability to implement Wall Street Reform now or in the future."

I was also guided to a quote from Obama, when he told members of Organizing for American that "every single thing we've done—from Obamacare, to Wall Street reform, to student loan reform, to credit card reform, to fighting for a fairer tax code, to higher minimum wages, to a smarter workplace—all it's focused on making sure it's a good deal for middle-class families and folks who are working hard to get into the middle class."

Let's file that response under "not detailed nor convincing."

It is true, however, that the Obama administration has drawn a hard line on gutting Dodd-Frank through TTIP; Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in late 2013 that he opposes including financial services in TTIP because "Normally in a trade agreement, the pressure is to lower standards on things like that and that's something that we just think is not acceptable."

That's comforting, but also a frank admission that TTIP could indeed weaken financial regulations. Warren's point isn't that Obama might do it, but that President Scott Walker would decline to take the same hard line against deregulation.

There's one other rebuttal made by administration allies. Here's Politico's Ben White: "The problem, White House and pro-trade officials on the Hill say, is that the fast-track bill currently before Congress includes language that expressly forbids changing U.S. law without congressional action."

That claim is highly misleading, and has unfortunately been repeated in several other outlets. Trade deals, by their very nature, change US law—that's the whole point.

Specifically, this happens when Congress passes the implementing legislation of the trade deal. The fast-track legislation makes clear that "if changes in existing laws or new statutory authority are required to implement" a trade deal, then the implementing legislation will include provisions "either repealing or amending existing laws or providing new statutory authority." When Congress passes a trade deal, it changes US law at the same time, and it should be noted that those changes to the law are inherently also on a fast track.

Therefore the provision cited by the administration—that says trade deals can't change US law without congressional action—is a total misdirection and one White House officials should be embarrassed to advance. It's a relevant point, right up until it becomes completely irrelevant.

That provision exists just in case the implementing language doesn't sufficiently change US law, though it almost surely would. But it still only applies to domestic law, meaning that people couldn't challenge an American bank in a US federal court for violating a trade deal.

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Ben Beachy of Public Citizen pointed out to me, however, that international law still very much applies—and that trade agreement partners could use international tribunals to sanction the United States until it changed its laws to conform to the trade deal it signed onto.

But would President Walker actually do it?

The fairest critiques of Warren's allegation acknowledge that fast track and future trade deals could indeed weaken Dodd-Frank, but that a Republican president might not choose that route. That came up in some of my conversations with pro-trade officials, and can be found in other media accounts as well.

"[T]he new president would likely just choose to roll back Dodd-Frank directly through changes to U.S. law, with ordinary legislation through the Republican-controlled Congress, assuming the GOP maintains control of both the House and Senate after 2016. No trade deal or fast track would be needed to take that route," wrote William Mauldin in The Wall Street Journal. Matthew Yglesias made a similar point at Vox, and added that the hypothetical Republican president could also weaken or undermine Dodd-Frank through regulatory discretion.

That's true enough, but remember that fast track is a much easier glide path for changes than a simple congressional bill to repeal all or part of Dodd-Frank, which would presumably go through the normal committee and amendment process in Congress, and face a 60-vote threshold in the Senate. The only advantage to the congressional route is that it (might) be quicker, if President Walker feels he has the votes, as opposed to concluding TTIP negotiations and waiting for Congress's 90-day review under fast-track.

President Walker might also choose to weaken financial reform through lax regulation, but that isn't mutually exclusive to seeking changes through TTIP—particularly because lax enforcement only lasts as long as Walker is in office, whereas the trade deal would be binding in perpetuity.

Moreover, many of the ways TTIP would weaken financial reforms are oblique. Regulatory cooperation and rules that encourage US banks to reincorporate in lesser-regulated countries aren't labeled with bright-red "REPEAL DODD-FRANK" language. They are also attached to a trade bill, which generally would generate more overall, bipartisan support than a simple measure to repeal Dodd-Frank.

One final point: It's not just Dodd-Frank. Remember those 43 trade deals Hatch spoke about. Important environmental and labor regulations could be at risk through this same fast-track process as well. Warren is focused on financial reform because it's her wheelhouse—and if I had one major critique of her comments, it would be not that they are overstated but that they are not broad enough.

Take Action: Demand that Congress Reject ‘Fast Track' for the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Read Next: George Zornick on Bernie Sanders's bill to break up the big banks


CIA Officer Jeffrey Sterling Sentenced to Prison: The Latest Blow in the Government's War on Journalism
by Norman Solomon
May 12, 2015
The Nation

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling with his wife after being convicted of leaking classified details to a New York Times reporter (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

The sentencing of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling on May 11 for espionage ends one phase of a long ordeal and begins another. At age 47, he has received a prison term of 42 months—three and a half years—after a series of ever more improbable milestones.

The youngest of six children raised by a single mother, Sterling was the only member of his family to go to college. He graduated from law school in 1993, worked briefly at a public defender's office, and then entered the CIA, where he became one of the agency's only African-American case officers. In August 2001, Sterling became the first one ever to file a lawsuit against the CIA for racial discrimination. (His suit, claiming that he was denied certain assignments because of his race, was ultimately tossed out of court on grounds that a trial would jeopardize government secrets.) Soon afterward, the agency fired him.

Sterling returned to his home state of Missouri and restarted his life. After struggling, he found a professional job and fell in love. But the good times were short-lived. One day in 2006, the FBI swooped in for a raid, seizing computers and papers at the small home that Sterling and his fiancée shared in a suburb of St. Louis. Slowly, during the next four years, without further action from the government, the menacing legal cloud seemed to disperse. But suddenly, a few days into 2011, Sterling was arrested for the first time in his life—charged with betraying his country.

The indictment included seven counts under the Espionage Act, the 1917 law that President Obama's Justice Department has used to prosecute more whistleblowers than all other administrations combined. The key charges accused Sterling of "unauthorized disclosure of national defense information," alleging that he gave details of a secret CIA operation to a journalist while falsely characterizing it in negative terms. The government contended that Sterling should remain in custody until trial because—with "underlying selfish and vindictive motivations"—he would try to "retaliate in the same deliberate, methodical, vindictive manner." A judge rejected that argument and released him on bond. But Sterling's arrest had triggered his immediate firing by Anthem Healthcare (where his work as a medical fraud investigator won a national award for uncovering $32 million in bogus charges), and suddenly even low-wage employment was out of reach. As a breadwinner, Sterling was toast. His wife, Holly, a social worker, continued to bring in a modest income as they waited for the trial.

The wait lasted four years. Most of the pre-trial legal maneuvers had to do with James Risen, the New York Times reporter whose 2006 book, State of War, had spurred the FBI leak investigation that ended with Sterling's arrest. The book included a chapter with classified information about Operation Merlin, a CIA program that in 2000 provided Iran with flawed design information for a nuclear weapon component. Despite subpoenas and jail threats, Risen kept refusing to identify any confidential source. The government prevailed on appeal with its claim that journalists have no right to such a refusal, but—after growing pushback from press-freedom advocates and worsening optics in the court of public opinion—the Justice Department finally gave up on forcing Risen to cooperate. (For background, see Norman Solomon and Marcy Wheeler, "The Government War Against Reporter James Risen," October 8, 2014.)

The federal courtroom in northern Virginia where Holly and Jeffrey Sterling returned for the sentencing on May 11 was the scene of a disturbing, though scantly reported, simulation of justice in late January. At the outset, covering the trial, I noted that "prospective jurors made routine references to ‘three-letter agencies' and alphabet-soup categories of security clearances." Steeped in a local atmosphere of deference to mega-employers like the CIA and Pentagon along with numerous big contracting firms nearby, "the jury pool was bound to please the prosecution."

* * *

In the government's opening statement, head prosecutor James Trump told jurors that Sterling had committed crimes of betrayal due to his "anger, bitterness, selfishness"—a theme and theory of the case that the Obama Justice Department was to reprise often with its mosaic of CIA testimony and its boffo PowerPoint closing argument: claiming that Sterling became vengeful against the agency when he failed to win his legal complaint against it for racial discrimination. The prosecution was gratified two weeks later when the nearly all-white jury, which included no African-Americans, voted guilty on all counts.

Few news reports about the verdict provided any context, but that was true of the entire trial's overall sparse coverage. During the seven days of proceedings, I rarely saw more than five other journalists in the courtroom. But the trial for United States of America v. Jeffrey Alexander Sterling was extraordinary, for reasons far beyond the fact that it was the first time a jury considered Espionage Act charges that a CIA employee had leaked classified information to news media.

During the first half of the trial, the prosecution was often fixated on insisting that Operation Merlin was a nearly perfect program implemented by a nearly perfect agency. The government condemned Sterling for having a very bad attitude in addition to doing a very bad thing. Hour after hour, he stood accused of wrongly disparaging the CIA's über-wise competence—legally to Senate Intelligence Committee staffers, and then illegally to the world, via Risen.

A cast of twenty-three CIA witnesses played their "national security" roles as agents of patriotic virtue. And Condoleezza Rice did a dramatic star turn (the press showed up for that one). Rice testified to the great importance of Operation Merlin, explaining that she carefully stuck to the talking points provided to her by the CIA when, as President George W. Bush's national security adviser, she hosted a meeting with Times reporter Risen and Washington bureau chief Jill Abramson—an intervention by the White House that succeeded in keeping the scoop out of the newspaper (and away from the public, until Risen's book came out more than two and a half years later). The meeting took place at the end of April 2003, just a few weeks after the invasion of Iraq.

During a trial that revolved around Washington spin about specters of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, the government was able to shield the CIA and the former secretary of state from scrutiny, even though—and precisely because—testimony in the courtroom could have illuminated their actual records of crying nuclear wolf while laying the groundwork for war. During cross examination, the government was able to nip in the bud an effort by defense lawyer Barry Pollack to provide the jury with some key background on the Bush administration that Rice served:

Q: [P]reventing working nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of rogue states is one of the most important missions of your, the administration you worked for certainly—

Rice: Yes.

Q:—and any other administration, correct?

Rice: That's correct.

Q: And certainly counter proliferation was of great interest at this particular time, correct?

Rice: That's correct.

Q: The United States had invaded Iraq the earlier month?

Prosecutor Eric Olshan: Objection.

Judge Leonie Brinkema: Well, we've heard that before. Let's just move this along, Mr. Pollack. Sustained.

And so it went, during a trial that alternately expanded and contracted its purview to accommodate prosecution needs. The scope went global, to vaguely yet emphatically assert vast harm from Sterling's alleged disclosures. Yet it narrowed to tunnel vision whenever convenient to exclude information that could explain why anyone might not defer to the judgments of an agency that had skewed its intelligence for war, or might doubt the credibility of a former Bush national security adviser who had called for the invasion of Iraq while warning, "We don't want the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud."

On the trial's last day—in the same closing argument that insisted "this case is not about politics" and "it's not about salvaging the reputation of the CIA"—the prosecution began with a quote from Rice about the US government's grave responsibility to prevent nuclear proliferation. Three months later, in late April, the Justice Department filed a 24-page sentencing memo that began with a bold-italics quote from Rice's testimony: "I was deeply concerned because this was not just a sensitive program, but it was one of the only levers that we believed we had, that the President had, to try to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program."

Rice's superstar appearance was in sync with what one attorney called the "hocus pocus" of the trial, complete with a tall office divider that kept many of the CIA witnesses screened off from public view. For no evident reason other than to impress jurors with the sanctity and gravity of classification, the prosecution distributed to the jury a file stamped "SECRET" in big letters across the front, before the judge ordered a bailiff to take the file back only minutes later. The heavy-handed message was that top officials who knew best were operating with the kind of essential secrecy that the defendant had dangerously breached.

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In a trial with twists and shadowy subplots that seemed countless, two aspects—nearly hidden in plain sight—are among those in greatest need of scrutiny. What passed for incriminating proof amounted to nothing more than circumstantial evidence in the form of metadata about e-mails and phone calls. And the government won guilty verdicts for some of the Espionage Act charges on the mere basis that Sterling "did willfully cause" Risen to disclose classified information. In effect, the cumulative ambiance in the courtroom was white noise in the service of a prosecution that not only arranged a crescendo of circumstantial evidence but also of circumstantial allegations. The government impugned Sterling's motives and character while encouraging the jurors to assume that he would have tried to steer Risen toward classified information—despite the complete absence of evidence that the defendant had actually given him any. The circumstantial evidence, implying that Sterling had "caused" the release of such information, was enough. (Disclosure: After the guilty verdict, I used my frequent-flier miles to get plane tickets for Holly and Jeffrey Sterling so they would be able to go home to St. Louis.)

* * *

The successful prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling has given more leverage to the information clampdown that the Obama administration continues to implement. With a multi-count Espionage Act conviction, it serves as yet another warning shot—not only against whistleblowing and disclosure of classified information, but also against basic communication with journalists by government employees and contractors.

Over decades, while interviewing sources with security clearances, hundreds of journalists have had the experience of asking questions and receiving a reply along the lines of: I can't tell you the answer because it's classified, but I can tell you (fill in the blank). Such responses mean that sources can be helpful to a reporter's investigative process without disclosing any classified information. But one of the evident aims of the Sterling prosecution was to strengthen government efforts to choke off such communications. The not-so-subtle gist: Telling a journalist anything that might lead to coverage of classified information could be a basis for prosecution and conviction. The Sterling case stands as a calculated warning to government employees that Espionage Act charges could result from assisting any journalist for a story that might wind up reporting classified information.

Such legal constructions fit tongue-in-groove with the agenda of the intelligence hierarchy under Obama. For years now, the administration's "Insider Threat" program has formally encouraged millions of government employees to monitor each other for—and report on—signs of ideological or attitudinal deviance. An order from National Intelligence Director James Clapper warned employees of all intelligence agencies not to give any journalist non-classified information without first getting authorization. Such measures are part of a calculated progression that aims—via bureaucratic edicts as well as legal harassment and criminal prosecutions—to normalize an atmosphere of fear and reflexive self-constraint, blocking the unauthorized delivery of information to the public.

For prospective whistleblowers, the Sterling case is yet more proof that they can "go through channels" to express concerns only at their peril. Particularly in security-state realms—as the experiences of NSA whistleblowers William Binney, Thomas Drake, Edward Loomis and Kirk Wiebe have shown—using the much-ballyhooed official channels to report concerns is a flag that draws official retribution. During Sterling's trial, the prosecution repeatedly used against him—as supposed indications of hostility toward the agency and motive for wrongdoing—the fact that he had gone through legal channels to file suit alleging racial bias and to report his concerns about Operation Merlin to Senate Intelligence Committee staffers.

* * *

While defending the rights of journalists, some press-freedom advocates haven't seemed to mind much when a whistleblower goes to prison. Others, even more disturbingly, seemed to express satisfaction at the Sterling verdict, as proof that the government had been wrong in its claims in prior years that it needed Risen's testimony to gain a conviction. This theme was sounded by Attorney General Eric Holder right after Sterling's conviction, when he issued a statement that crowed: "As this verdict proves, it is possible to fully prosecute unauthorized disclosures that inflict harm upon our national security without interfering with journalists' ability to do their jobs." This attitude is a wedge being driven between journalists and whistleblowers—shorn of euphemisms, it often amounts to journalists good, whistleblowers not. But to support journalists and not the whistleblowers who provide them with information is akin to cheering only the last baton-holder in a relay race.

In an essay that went to press while the Sterling trial was under way, veteran journalist Steve Coll explained that "the Obama administration's resort to the draconian provisions of the Espionage Act against Sterling was just one case in a series of overreaching prosecutions of journalistic sources carried out by Eric Holder's Justice Department." Coll added: "In more than one instance, the Justice Department took positions that came close to criminalizing the act of professional reporting on classified subjects. In a pretrial filing in the Sterling matter, for example, prosecutors in the US Attorney's office for the Eastern District of Virginia argued vehemently that Risen was an important eyewitness to a felony because the reporter had allegedly interviewed Sterling, who had given him classified information."

Supporters of press freedom who denounce the government's threats against journalists should fight just as hard against efforts to imprison the whistleblowers whom journalists depend on—that, after all, is how the flow of vital information reaches the public. But so far, overall, the media establishment has failed to defend the whistleblowers who make possible the "professional reporting on classified subjects."

The Justice Department's legal siege of Sterling, which has spanned two administrations and 10 years, can be understood as part of a regimen that winks and nods, or wrist-slaps, when classified information is leaked from on high—often to manipulate public opinion—while fiercely prosecuting alleged leakers who expose government officials or policies as inept, destructive or mendacious. The Senate Intelligence Committee's recent report on torture documented that the CIA press office itself gave classified material to favorite journalists to make the agency look good. Even when major leaks from powerful officials are unauthorized, the penalties are nonexistent or tiny—as exemplified by the April 23 sentencing of former CIA Director David Petraeus, who gave briefing books with highly classified information to his journalist paramour and then lied to the FBI about it. Petraeus received no jail time after a cozy plea deal with the Justice Department. The same Justice Department declared that an appropriate prison sentence for Sterling would be in a range of 19-24 years.

There was grim symbolism in the eleventh-hour postponement of Sterling's sentencing until May 11, rather than the long-scheduled date of April 24. The original date—just one day after Petraeus's sentencing—would have provided an especially stark contrast.

The Petraeus plea deal has provoked criticism and even outrage from some newspaper editorial boards. In an understated editorial titled "Gen. Petraeus's Light Punishment," The New York Times observed that "top officials, who often seek to advance self-serving political agendas in their dealings with the press, appear to enjoy significant leeway in disclosing classified information"—while, "in sharp contrast, the government has been unsparing in its prosecution of lower­ ranking officials who have shared sensitive information for more defensible reasons." The Los Angeles Times editorialized that "the whiff of a double standard is overwhelming" and concluded, "That may be the way of the world, but it's not justice."

A more caustic response came from New Jersey's largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger, under a headline that summarized the status quo this way: "Whistleblowers wacked, all-star generals walk." Noting the sweet deal that Obama's Justice Department had gifted to Petraeus, the Star-Ledger editorial said: "What makes it galling is how Petraeus compares to men like Jeffrey Sterling, who was convicted by a jury for being the main source of James Risen's book about a CIA op designed to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. There were nearly 100 people who could have been the source, but Sterling was convicted on circumstantial evidence because the DOJ likes to go after whistleblowers."

Such clarity from big media remains unusual. But similar assessments are becoming more frequent and vehement—as more people recognize the grim injustices for whistleblowers and the dire consequences for democracy.

Amid all the convoluted doublespeak from the Obama administration, Jeffrey Sterling is paying a tragic price.

Read Next: John Kiriakou on how he took a stand against torture and the CIA


How Can You Get an Ethical Manicure? Support Worker Organizing
by Michelle Chen
May 11, 2015
The Nation

Leticia James and labor advocates address the media
Leticia James and members of the New York Healthy Salons Coalition discuss their efforts to reform the working conditions at nail salons on May 1, 2015. (Photo courtesy of the New York Healthy Salons Coalition.)

For an industry that's all about covering up flaws, perhaps it's not surprising that major harm lurks just below the polished surface of New York City's nail-salon industry. Sarah Maslin Nir's recent New York Times investigation reveals epidemic wage theft and abuse of workers across the roughly 2,000 under-regulated manicure shops dotting the city, where cheap mani-pedis are provided by Asian and Latina women workers who scrub and pamper fingers and toes amid noxious fumes.

But the real eye-opener of this piece should be the fact that change in the industry is possible, and some community-led solutions are within reach. Following the Times's extensive report, both state and city authorities are now weighing policies to tighten oversight. Governor Andrew Cuomo just announced plans to expand regulations for safety protections and labor standards. Public Advocate Leticia James has recommended granting the city licensing authority in order to directly oversee local salons, rather than relying on deeply understaffed state regulators. A bill before the City Council would initiate a certification program based on voluntary "best practices" standards.

A new campaign led by community and labor groups in collaboration with Public Advocate James, the New York Healthy Salons Coalition, aims to create a "Healthy Salons Incentive" certification program for businesses that adhere to best practices for workplace health and safety. The idea is to encourage shops to take measures like minimizing exposure to toxins and improving ventilation. The program would mirror the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which started around 2010 in the Vietnamese immigrant community, and has since certified salons across the state and collaborated on nationwide worker training and community education efforts.

On the workers' side, the Nepali community organization Adhikaar just published a colorful pamphlet—designed in collaboration with the Center for Urban Pedagogy—to educate communities about both public-health and labor-rights issues in the sector. The cartoon graphics, designed for accessibility, present general advice on workplace hygiene, health and safety, guidance on labor laws for workers, and advice for customers ("Be generous—tip at least 20%").

Pamphlet by Adhikaar, Center for Urban Pedagogy and Welcome Workshop

The distribution of the material itself—in English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Nepali—is an organizing project; Adhikaar has incorporated the pamphlet into Know-Your-Rights training for members, many of whom are domestic workers and nail salon workers.

But on a day-to-day level, Adhikaar observes that while chemical threats loom over workers, they often identify sheer physical exhaustion as an immediate health issue. "Many people have health concerns, but they've sort of normalized it and they're [seen as] just sort of the cost of doing business," says Executive Director Luna Ranjit. "But more and more people are getting aware of it and saying this is not okay."

Labor and health crises overlap: Workers coerced into exhausting and abusive jobs are clearly not in a position to call out their boss on poor ventilation. And when suffering illness along with poverty—living on tips (reportedly often starting at zero base pay) and crammed into communal housing—workers face crushing pressure to stay in those unhealthy jobs. Many of the Nepali workers are semiliterate or undocumented, and are isolated from the mainstream workforce and mired in the salon industry's caste-like ethnic labor hierarchy.

A September 2014 Public Advocate's Office report started to uncover the daily horrors workers face: "A survey consisting of one hundred nail salon employees in New York City concluded that 57 percent developed an allergic reaction, 37 percent experienced pains from eye irritation, and 37 percent developed skin problems." The environmental hazards range from glaring UV lamps to fetid footbaths to the "toxic trio" of nail polish: dibutyl phthalates, toluene, and formaldehyde. Manicurists work long hours without proper protective gear, with studies showing over seven in ten "never or rarely wear face masks" and nearly half "never or rarely wear gloves." Chemical studies draw links between common products for treating hair and nails with cancer, reproductive problems, and respiratory illness.

But health-incentive programs for these semi-underground shops may not be enough. Beyond relying on employers' voluntary efforts, health and labor advocates urge stronger mandates for health and labor protections.

Despite the Times's depiction of workers as victims of the industry, advocacy groups involved with the initiative, including Adhikaar, National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum and New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health are putting workers' at the forefront of the safety debate by calling on lawmakers to incorporate labor standards into the certification program—including "excluding nail salon businesses that have had a history of wage and hour violations, or that have unpaid [Occupational Safety and Health] violations." Another proposal is to amend licensing procedures to help prevent discrimination against undocumented workers.

At a recent City Council hearing, nail-salon worker and Adhikaar activist Siru Malla testified about how her nose gets clogged with dust and chemicals as she and co-workers works without masks or gloves:

It makes it hard to breathe. Many of my friends who work in nail salons have become used to this.… Nail salons need to change these conditions. My friends complain about developing allergies. Nail salons need to change these conditions.… This is a place where people come to feel beautiful. This shouldn't happen at the expense of workers like us.

Adhikaar's pamphlet tries to fuse its messages of safety and of worker empowerment by presenting the advice to workers and consumers together. For example, the brochure advises workers to take regular breaks and eat meals, while encouraging consumers to wait for an appointment when appropriate and respect workers' schedule.

Through the design, Ranjit says, "we wanted them to see that it affects both workers and consumers. The health concerns are the same but for workers it's so much more amplified." Consider the consequences for workers and clients, for example, of having biweekly appointments versus never-ending workdays. The pamphlet aims to highlight "how to look at it from two different perspectives."

In an industry that forces one woman's chronic pain to subsidize the momentary glamor of another, maybe that brief touch during a modest cosmetic ritual could reveal a shared labor and health consciousness: In the city's struggle for beauty, everybody's troubles go hand in hand.