Normalizing Relations With Cuba

Viva Fidel

IF CASTRO, IN FACT, DIES…

…and you are the kind of person who likes REALLY wild street parties, you want to get to Miami now.

Dave Barry, 2006

Communist holdout Cuba has long been ground zero for American dirty tricks (up to and including a military invasion in 1961). The CIA has tried to kill Fidel Castro so many times, he once said, “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal.”

The USA-only 54-year economic embargo of Cuba has hampered the ability of Cuban-Americans to help relatives on the island, and prohibited trade.

Automakers, agricultural conglomerates and telecommunications companies are among those that have long eyed Cuba as fertile territory. The country has nickel deposits and offshore oil reserves, and it produces widely coveted cigars. Only 5 percent of the population has access to the full Internet.

Meanwhile, its tropical climate and abundant beaches have made it a popular destination for Canadian and European tourists, just as it was for Americans before the 1959 revolution. Cruise companies, airlines and hotel operators are among those poised for the moment that Congress might lift the embargo.

Well, now it looks like sanity has prevailed at last.

“Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba,” Obama said at the White House. “Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

Every morning MSNBC’s Cuban-American anchor José Diaz Balart brings on die-hard anti-Castro guests, some of whom suffered in Cuban jails as political prisoners. They don’t want normalization while Fidel and his brother Raul stubbornly live on. But a new generation of Cuban-Americans tend to vote for Democrats, and in 2012, President Obama won a majority of the Cuban-American vote.

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Jihadists Still Have The Initiative in Syria and Iraq

Ahrar al Sham T-72 tank
Ahrar al Sham T-72 tank at the recent battle of Wadi al Daif in Idlib province, Syria

It’s time once again to check in with The Long War Journal and see how things are going in Syria and Iraq. Oh, not good. The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, Ahrar al Sham, and elements of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army have reportedly taken Syrian Army positions in the northwestern province of Idlib.

The Al Nusrah Front, supported by jihadist groups Ahrar al Sham and Jund al Aqsa, and units from the Free Syrian Army, today claimed to have overrun Wadi Al Daif, a Syrian Army base located just east of the city of Maa’rat al Nu’man. In addition, Ahrar al Sham, Al Nusrah, and the Free Syrian Army also advanced on Al Hamadiya, which sits just south of the city; the groups claimed to have taken partial control of Al Hamadiya.

Control of the two bases is critical for the Syrian military as they straddle the M5 highway, the main road from Aleppo to Damascus.

Meanwhile in Iraq, ISIS has renewed its attack on Samarra and nearby towns.

The Islamic State seeks to control Samarra and towns and cites to its south in order to secure the northern Baghdad belt. Jihadist control of this area would make it difficult for Iraqi forces to resupply and reinforce military units north of the city. Additionally, the Islamic State would use this area to disrupt security in Baghdad.

The Iraqi government has allowed Shiite militias, including the Badr Brigade, Hezbollah Brigade, Asaib al Haq (League of the Righteous), and Muqtada al Sadr’s Promised Day Brigade, all of which are supported by Iran’s Qods Force, to reinforce beleaguered and demoralized Iraqi forces in Samarra. These militias have remained on the front line and have secured cities and towns, many of which are predominantly Sunni communities, along the road from Samarra to Baghdad.

ISIS is also trying to consolidate its hold on Anbar Province.

Islamic State fighters launched an assault on al Wafa, which is west of the provincial capital of Ramadi, on Dec. 12 and defeated Iraqi security forces and local tribal fighters.

…The Islamic State maintains the initiative in Anbar province, most of which is under its control. The provincial capital of Ramadi and the town of Haditha remain contested terrain. The Iraqi military, the Awakening, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias have been unable to wrest control of the province from the Islamic state since Fallujah and other cities and towns fell in January 2013.

What is the USA doing?

Since Dec. 10, the US has conducted 16 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, and the US and partners have carried out 29 airstrikes against the group in Iraq. President Obama told US troops: “The time of deploying large ground forces with big military footprints to engage in nation building overseas, that’s coming to an end.”

More info:
Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham advance in northwestern Syria
Islamic State releases pictures from recent fighting near Samarra (Note: some gruesome photos here)
Islamic State overruns town in Anbar, executes Awakening fighters
Al Nusrah Front uses American-made anti-tank missile in Idlib (Video)

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Farewell to ‘The Colbert Report’

Truthiness

This week we say farewell to “The Colbert Report” as Steven Colbert moves on to host “Late Night” on CBS. Eric Boehlert on Media Matters:

For nearly ten years and more than 1,400 episodes, Colbert remained a constantly amusing and insightful part of our national dialogue. …By embracing the absurd and truly embodying it, Colbert has made politics and public policy uproariously funny, while providing much-needed bouts of sanity for devoted news junkies.

…I doubt we’ll ever see a conservative comic, or one of any partisan stripes, deliver the kind of satirical brilliance and insights that Colbert has for the last decade.

Thanks, Steven, we needed a few laughs to keep from crying.

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More Awfulness From Congress

Hell no we won't go
Hell no, we won’t go!!

The must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contains a 449-page package of public lands riders. As you might expect from this Congress, it’s a stinker full of corporate giveaways. It transfers 110,000 acres of our public lands into private ownership. Part of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona will be given to Rio Tinto for a copper mine, including sacred Apache lands. Coal reserves in the Bull Mountains of Montana will be given to Great Northern Properties, a Houston-based coal company. Sealaska Corporation gets 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest for clear-cutting timber that used to belong to all Americans.

There’s a stealth provision removing existing Wilderness Study Area (WSA) protections for two areas in eastern Montana, without any public input whatsoever.

The legislation also mandates automatic renewals of livestock grazing on our public lands, even where grazing operations are degrading wildlife habitat and fouling streams and rivers — without the evaluation under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that’s currently required. The so-called “Grazing Improvement Act” also automatically extends grazing permits on public lands from 10 to 20 years. The exemption of grazing permits from NEPA basically puts public land management agencies out of business with regard to ecosystem management. That is a heavy hit with far-reaching consequences.

Ten right-wing Tea-GOPers including Tom Coburn of Oklahoma had objected to including parks and wilderness bills in a defense bill. They were joined by Democratic Senators Jeff Merkeley (OR), Ron Wyden (OR), and Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Independent Bernie Sanders (VT). On December 11, the Senate voted 85-14 to break the filibuster.

As a “Christmas tree” bill enjoying widespread bipartisan support, the NDAA passed the House by a vote of 300-119 last Thursday and the Senate by 89-11 yesterday. The package of legislation is expected to be signed by the President soon.

On the plus side, the NDAA riders would add 250,000 acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System, establish or expand national parks, and designate more than 100 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers. But the losses far outweigh the wins.

More info:
Some Context on the Defense Bill Riders: Public Lands Losses Far Outweigh Any Wins
Top 5 Offensive Provisions of the Public Lands Rider
Defense bill with wilderness & parks plus land giveaways beats cloture 85-14. 3 Dems & Sanders no
Congress Protects New National Parks And Wilderness Areas For The First Time In 5 Years
Defense Bill Passes, Giving Sacred Native American Sites To Mining Company

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Senator Elizabeth Warren: Who Does Congress Work For?

Wall Street wants to get bailed out by taxpayers AGAIN, the next time they recklessly crash our financial sector with risky derivatives. This could cause the next Great Depression. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is trying to stop them, even though the Tea-GOP is threatening to shut down the federal government (in less than five hours) if a Dodd-Frank repeal proposal written by Citigroup lobbyists doesn’t pass.

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Dave Irvine is right – The CIA’s Torture Program Was Not Worth It

By way of full disclosure, Dave Irvine is my cousin.

Yesterday, the Trib published an op-ed by David R. Irvine about the Senate’s Torture Report. In the op-ed, Irvine concludes:

. . . because torture failed to produce significant intelligence, why would we ever consider abandoning the interrogation practices that have proved effective over and over? This exhaustive search of the classified record shows that torture is unreliable, and that whatever we got from it was not worth the damage it has caused to our standing in the community of nations. Our use of torture isolates us from allies and puts the nation at greater risk of harm.

This argument is not new, it’s not novel but it is entirely accurate. The Bush administration bent over backwards to find ways to make torture legal, the CIA engaged in a systematic campaign of dishonesty about torture. It wasn’t worth it.

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The Torture Report is Every Bit as Bad as Feared – and then some

Frankly, I can’t decide what’s worse – the deliberate embrace of torture or the accompanying incompentence (they have no idea how they spent some of the money, they lost prisoners, they had no idea how many prisoners they had).

I’ve been trying to absorb the report itself. Here are the 20 key findings of the Senate committee:

#1: The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of
acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.

#2: The CIA’s justification for the use of its enhanced interrogation techniques rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness.

#3: The interrogations of CIA detainees were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers and others.

#4: The conditions of confinement for CIA detainees were harsher than the CIA had represented to policymakers and others.

#5: The CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.

#6: The CIA has actively avoided or impeded congressional oversight of the program.

#7: The CIA impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making.

#8: The CIA’s operation and management of the program complicated, and in some cases impeded, the national security missions of other Executive Branch agencies.

#9; The CIA impeded oversight by the CIA’s Office of Inspector General.

#10: The CIA coordinated the release of classified information to the media, including inaccurate information concerning the effectiveness of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.

#11: The CIA was unprepared as it began operating its Detention and Interrogation Program more than six months after being granted detention authorities.

#12: The CIA’s management and operation of its Detention and Interrogation Program
was deeply flawed throughout the program’s duration, particularly so in 2002 and early
2003.

#13: Two contract psychologists devised the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques and
played a central role in the operation, assessments, and management of the CIA’s
Detention and Interrogation Program. By 2005, the CIA had overwhelmingly outsourced
operations related to the program.

#14: CIA detainees were subjected to coercive interrogation techniques that had not been
approved by the Department of Justice or had not been authorized by CIA Headquarters.

#15: The CIA did not conduct a comprehensive or accurate accounting of the number of
individuals it detained, and held individuals who did not meet the legal standard for
detention. The CIA’s claims about the number of detainees held and subjected to its
enhanced Interrogation techniques were inaccurate.

#16: The CIA failed to adequately evaluate the effectiveness of its enhanced interrogation
techniques.

#17: The CIA rarely reprimanded or held personnel accountable for serious and
significant violations, inappropriate activities, and systemic and individual management
failures.

#18: The CIA marginalized and ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and
objections concerning the operation and management of the CIA’s Detention and
Interrogation Program.

#19; The CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program was inherently unsustainable and
had effectively ended by 2006 due to unauthorized press disclosures, reduced cooperation
from other nations, and legal and oversight concerns.

#20; The CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program damaged the United States’
standing in the world, and resulted in other significant monetary and non-monetary costs.

Abuse of power, lying, systematic dishonesty, corruption and failure.

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‘Did we torture people? Yes. Did it work? No.’

There’s a good chance we’ll never see the $50 million, 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture during the Bush administration. Today they are releasing a heavily-redacted 480-page executive summary.

The report, which was completed two years ago, found that torture did not lead to actionable intelligence. “Did we torture people? Yes. Did it work? No.”, says Senator Angus King (I-ME), a member of the committee. The Senate investigation also concluded that CIA torture techniques were far more brutal than previously known, and that the agency (including then-CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden) lied to the White House and Congress when they asserted torture thwarted specific terrorist plots, and falsely claimed terrorists were captured as a result of torture.

It has long been known that torture is not an effective means of acquiring intelligence, yet the Bush administration authorized, conducted, and promoted an illegal torture program in our name. There will be no accountability on the part of those who authorized and conducted the torture regime, we know that already.

More info: Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program (Executive Summary).

UPDATES:
The 5 Most Damning Revelations From The Senate’s Report On Bush-Era Torture
Obama Responds To CIA Torture Report: Enhanced Interrogation ‘Contrary To Our Values’ “Rather than another reason to refight old arguments, I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong—in the past.”
Faux News primal scream therapy: “The United States of America is awesome, we are awesome!” says Faux News pinhead Andrea Tantaros.
UN human rights expert: US legally obliged to prosecute senior Bush officials for torture crimes
Reminder: George W. Bush Said The U.S. Didn’t Use Torture
CIA Still Argues That Torture Worked David Kurtz: “So long as the CIA continues to assert that torture (though it doesn’t use that word) yielded actionable intelligence, I don’t see how you can call this a closed chapter in American history.”
This goes way past irony: The One Man Jailed For CIA Torture Tried To Expose It

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Americans Rank 26th in Median Wealth

Inequality cycle
Source: Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2014

Financialization of the economy is both a symptom and a major cause of inequality. Financialization is when making money from money becomes more important than providing real goods and services. It’s characterized by risky asset bubbles and periodic crashes that affect everyone in the 99 Percent because we’re not “too big to fail.” Les Leopold: “Wall Street is out of control. Once deregulation started 30 years ago, money has gushed to the top as Wall Street was free to find more and more unethical ways to fleece us.”

The result: Despite the fact we’re the richest country in the world, U.S. median wealth is just $53,352 according to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook (PDF).

Les Leopold, again:

The U.S. continues to lead the world in billionaires (571 in 2014, with China a distant second at 190). But after decades of financial deregulation and attacks on employee rights, Americans rank 26th in median wealth (defined as assets owned, minus debts owed for the person on the middle rung of the wealth ladder).

The Gini index for the USA has risen to 84.6 (with 0 representing perfect equality and 100 representing perfect inequality). Very few countries can top that, and not by much.

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Here We Go Again

Shutdown 8 days

The question is, with Republican control of both houses of Congress, is our government becoming more dysfunctional or less dysfunctional? During his re-election campaign, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threatened a string of government shutdowns. Right-wing Republican House members think they have 30 to 40 “no” votes on a government funding bill proposed by Speaker John Boehner, which is enough to shut down the government again.

The government will run out of spending authority on December 11 unless Congress passes a continuing resolution.

Lots of observers are saying, “Last year’s government shutdown was politically disastrous for Republicans.” But was it really? It cost us $24 billion in lost economic activity, but what did the Tea-GOP lose? Economic sabotage has been a winning strategy for them.

UPDATE:
December 11, 9:30 am — A little over 12 hours to go until government shutdown. The $1.014 trillion Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act (HR 83) has been dubbed “CRomnibus” as it is a combined continuing resolution (CR) and omnibus spending bill. There are so many controversial measures tucked into this legislation that it’s hard to list them all. The main point of contention is the de-regulation of Wall Street investment banks, allowing them to trade in risky derivatives using taxpayer-guaranteed deposits (what could possibly go wrong?). Page 1,599 of the bill effectively kills what’s left of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform. There’s much, much more — bad for the average American, bad for the environment, and great for the 1 Percent. Remember everything in this legislation is a surprise because none of it was debated openly and no hearings have been held.

House Dems are being told that they have to vote for this stinker, otherwise the Tea-GOP will come up with something worse after they take over the Senate next year. Some, for example Senator Elizabeth Warren, say the CRomnibus ought to be replaced by a stopgap spending bill. IMHO even a government shutdown at midnight would be preferable to passing this bill.

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Seriously? Utah’s Plan To Seize Public Lands Would Cost $280 Million A Year

Manti-La Sal National Forest

The right-wing Utah legislature began a legal battle to steal our public lands when Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB 148, the “Transfer of Public Lands Act and Related Study” in March 2012. Supposedly, if the federal government does not turn over title to 31.2 million acres of land by the end of this month the State of Utah will spend millions of dollars of our tax money on a ridiculous lawsuit. HB 148 is utterly unconstitutional according to the Property Clause (U.S. Const. art. IV, sec. 3, cl. 2.), the Utah Constitution (Article III), and illegal under Section 3 of the Utah Enabling Act.

We found out yesterday that a theoretical takeover of public lands by the State of Utah would place a heavy burden on the state budget.

A study released Monday by researchers at three Utah universities found that transferring national forests and other public lands to the state of Utah would cost taxpayers at least $280 million per year — a price tag that could only be paid if the state were able to increase drilling and mining, seize energy royalty payments that are owed to U.S. taxpayers, and, if energy prices remain low, raise taxes to pay for the shortfall.

Here’s the right-wing “plan”: Fire 5,000 or so federal employees, abolish all of our national forests and national parks, and turn over Utah public lands to the corporations– particularly the oil and gas industry and the tar sands industry. These are the same legislators who slashed the Utah Division of State Parks and Recreation budget by nearly 80 percent. What could possibly go wrong?

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Save the Date: Mosul Counterattack Scheduled For January

Kurdish tank

Via CNN. Just don’t tell ISIS…

(CNN) — A military plan to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS could begin as soon as January using Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, a U.S. official confirmed to CNN.

The current plan is to assemble about 1,000 troops, with Iraqi forces approaching Mosul from the south and Peshmerga forces from the west, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But everything in the plan is “conditions based,” and the exact timing and size of the force to be used remains to be determined, the official said.

It’s unclear how the Kurdish fighters are supposed to get to a start line west of Mosul. They are currently facing ISIS forces to the southeast of the city.

UPDATE:
Military doctrine calls for reinforcing success whenever possible. Because only the Kurdish Peshmerga and some elite Iraqi units put up any resistance to ISIS, they are going to be the focus of U.S. military aid efforts. Even so, “about 1,000 troops” would be just the equivalent of one American infantry battalion. For an assault to re-take Mosul to be successful, the conventional rule of thumb dictates that the attackers outnumber defenders 3-1. I think this plan needs some more work.

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