What FERC’s Approval of Cove Point LNG Tells Us About the “Rubberstamp” Agency

14645003974_5c08995611_hOn September 29, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission put its stamp of approval on the Cove Point LNG project, Dominion Resources’ bid to convert its liquefied natural gas import terminal on the Chesapeake Bay into an export facility. It’s the fourth approval FERC has granted to build an export facility, and the first on the Atlantic Coast. The first three are located on the Gulf Coast.

Why is Cove Point important? Some have been calling it “the next Keystone XL.” What the Keystone XL pipeline is to the Alberta tar sands, Cove Point is to the Marcellus Shale, a porous rock formation harboring as much as 500 tcf of methane gas. If constructed, the Keystone XL would be a major conduit of dirty bitumen from the tar sands, and consequently it’s become the rallying call for opposition against extraction of the tar sands. Likewise, if Cove Point is built, it would be the conduit for natural gas obtained by fracking the Marcellus Shale to be delivered to Asia. Among the export terminals approved by the Department of Energy and in line for approval by FERC, Cove Point has become the rallying cry for opposition against liquefied natural gas exports. (In July, more than a thousand people marched in Washington, DC against Cove Point and LNG exports.) LNG exports are intimately connected with the extreme method of fossil fuel extraction called hydraulic fracking, because exporting to Asian markets would make fracking more profitable and thereby incentivize more drilling.

FERC’s permitting of Cove Point is a big regulatory hurdle, the biggest among many state and local permits it had to obtain after the Department of Energy said it was okay for Dominion to export. But it’s not a surprise. When I say FERC put its stamp of approval on Cove Point LNG, what I really mean is that FERC applied its rubberstamp of approval. FERC is responsible for reviewing proposals for interstate natural gas pipelines and LNG terminals (up to this point, only import terminals). Among the all the major projects submitted to FERC, you’d be hard-pressed to find one that was turned down. FERC’s nickname—the Federal Energy Rubberstamp Commission—is well-earned.

In my opinion, however, FERC is even more than a rubberstamp—it’s the gas industry’s best friend. Understanding that the game is rigged and how the game is rigged is important if we’re going to contest the coming wave of infrastructure associated with the fracking boom. The order FERC issued authorizing Cove Point reveals a great deal about an agency which works for them, not us. A close reading of the order illustrates several crucial points about the nature of the FERC beast:

1. FERC doesn’t consider the facts

The scope of inquiry into the review of Cove Point was crippled from the get-go when FERC decided to conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA) instead of a more in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). FERC went with an EA for a $3.8 billion dollar project involving highly volatile LNG located in a populated neighborhood near a nuclear power plant on an already environmentally stressed body of water, even though an EIS was required for a relatively small expansion the terminal in 2006. In fact, the Commission justifies doing an EA for this proposed mammoth conversion because an EIS was done for the expansion.

Cove Point’s small “footprint” was also a reason to do the lesser Environmental Assessment: “Commission staff determined that an EA was appropriate in this case because the facilities would be within the footprint of the existing LNG terminal”–that is to say, cramming more stuff into same amount of space–“and because the relevant issues that needed to be considered were relatively small in number and well-defined.” By the Commissioners’ logic, “small space, more stuff” means less to consider and less all-around impact on everything, or maybe nothing. This is a precarious way of analyzing a complex system with many moving parts, where a mishap could quickly escalate into a catastrophe.

2. FERC doesn’t connect the dots

According to FERC, Cove Point exists in some separate dimension of time and space, a floating 131-acre island where natural gas appears out of thin air. It comes from the land of speculation and is headed… somewhere. Pay no attention to that 90,000-square-mile shale formation nearby containing as much as 500 tcf of natural gas! Gas flowing to Cove Point could come from “any production area in the lower-forty-eight states.” We can only speculate.

Fracking? Cove Point has nothing to do with fracking. No matter that Cove Point is uniquely positioned to transport gas from the Marcellus Shale to international markets. Never mind that without the fracking boom and the desperate need for gas companies to get a higher price in Asia, there would be no need for Cove Point.

Please don’t ask the Commission whether the greenhouse gasses produced by drilling, piping, supercooling, shipping and burning up to 1.77 bcf of natural gas per day would have any potential impacts on the climate. There’s just no way to know. “[B]ecause we cannot determine the project’s incremental physical impacts on climate change,” say the Commissioners, “it is not possible to determine whether or not the project’s contribution to cumulative impacts on climate change will be significant.” You’ll have to come to your own conclusions. But keep them to yourselves.

3. FERC doesn’t consider the issues seriously

650 public comments for and against Cove Point were submitted to FERC in the 30 days following the release of the EA in May. Many of them were meticulously researched and drafted—by individuals, advocacy groups, academics, governmental agencies, elected officials and scientists. (They are all available in FERC’s eLibrary online.) The Commissioners dismiss them all. Every single one. They brush aside objections even by industry competitors BP, StatOil and Shell.

In some instances, specific public comments are brought up but no effort is made to address them. For example, Dominion has widely touted the jobs and additional tax revenue that Cove Point would bring to Calvert County. But professors from the University of Maryland and the University of Florida blow those claims out of the water, showing that almost all jobs created by Cove Point would be highly specialized and would go to workers outside the area, who would likely commute. Potential tax revenue evaporates when you consider that billions of dollars of materials projected to be purchased within the County are not for sale there.

The order responds accordingly with a non sequitur: “The DOE-FE… concluded that the exports proposed by Dominion ‘are likely to yield net economic benefits to the United States.’ Therefore, the EA properly concludes that the project would provide socioeconomic benefits locally and nationwide.”

4. FERC doesn’t care about public safety

There has never been an LNG facility built in such a populous area as Lusby, Maryland. The import terminal was only in operation for a couple of years before it went dormant for 23 years. It was re-started in 2001 and underwent a moderate expansion completed in 2009, just in time for LNG imports to peter out. The state of Maryland stepped in to do a Quantitative Risk Analysis in 2006 with the expansion, which determined that there were 360 homes within a 4,265-foot “consequence zone” at risk of flash fire. Nearly 2,500 residents live within one mile of the facility. The main escape route from the small peninsula is the road that passes by the main gate. In other words, to escape a major conflagration such as an ignited vapor cloud, you’ve got to go toward and through the major conflagration.

Seven tanks with the capacity to hold 14.6 bcf of LNG stand on the 131-acre site. Dominion proposes to build a liquefaction train—compressors which supercool methane gas into a liquid state—and an off-grid generating station to power it on the 59 acres of the site closest to the adjoining neighborhood. From this, 20.4 tons of hazardous pollutants would be emitted annually. In its evaluation, FERC is using outdated fire safety standards, supposedly because implementing updated standards would require some bureaucracy and a public comment period.

The fire safety standards are also tangled up in the reason that FERC Commissioners will not order a Quantitative Risk Analysis. They claim that there are not current established criteria to obtain “consistent and meaningful” results. They would rather rely on a technical analysis provided by Dominion. In other words, Dominion says it’s safe, and FERC agrees.

“The bottom line is, we’re just appalled that they’re showing such blatant disregard for our safety and our lives,” says Tracey Eno of Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community.

5. FERC doesn’t care about the environment

We’ve already seen how FERC refuses to acknowledge any linkage between Cove Point and the environmental impacts of fracking, nor does it grant that greenhouse gases produced by exporting large amounts of LNG might contribute to climate change.

There are a number of other environmental concerns in the report which FERC handily dismisses, including the drain on local aquifers, possible groundwater contamination, disruption of habitats and fisheries, impacts on wetlands and watersheds, and endangerment of protected species. Oddly, the Commission acts as if the import terminal has been operating at full capacity, receiving its full permitted quota of 200 LNG tankers a year. They seem to expect 85 vessels a year to be diminished traffic and less of a hazard to the North Atlantic right whale. Apparently, tanker traffic and dumping millions of gallons of contaminated ballast water into the Bay is the Coast Guard’s problem anyway.

6. FERC is preparing for a lawsuit

The approval order skims over numerous issues but spills a copious amount of ink on two subjects: arguing for the sufficiency of the less rigorous Environmental Assessment and defending the Cove Point proposal as complete and separate from other projects. It’s not hard to discern why the Commission would focus on these topics: they are going to have to make the same arguments in a courtroom soon.

EarthJustice, along with other environmental groups, are preparing to challenge FERC’s decision in court on the basis of insufficient review. “FERC is the agency where the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] review happens, where the time and expense are put into it,” says Nathan Matthew of the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program. “We believe that the review is not as extensive and searching as the law requires it to be. FERC has not met its statutory obligations.”

Recently, a judge determined FERC violated federal law when it approved four upgrades to a pipeline that runs from Pennsylvania to New Jersey but failed to consider its cumulative impacts. “Improper segmentation” is one of the bases of the lawsuit Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community has brought against FERC. (The US Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia will hear oral arguments in late October.) MCRC claims that the compressor station which Dominion Transmission is building in their town is intended to help transport gas to Cove Point. In submitting separate proposals to FERC, Dominion mitigates the cumulative impacts.

FERC’s response: “Even if the capacity created by the Myersville Compressor is ultimately used to transport some gas to Cove Point, that is just the reality of the interstate natural gas transportation system network.”

7. FERC works with and for industry, not in the public interest

Gas companies don’t come up with these segmentation schemes on their own. FERC colludes with industry to develop proposals that can pass review quickly and easily. On the one hand, FERC is happy to say the pre-filing process is one reason for the high approval rate for projects. On the other, it denies that it has any knowledge of industry plans. Feigning ignorance about Cove Point’s raison d’etre—fracking–is just one example. Allegheny Defense Project pegs the agency’s knowledge of industry activity in the comment it submitted in the Cove Point review process:

FERC has been and continues to be aware of many companies’ plans to exploit shale formations such as the Marcellus Shale. FERC itself has identified expanding pipeline and storage infrastructure as essential to ensure that there is increased reliance on natural gas and that the gas is readily available…. By reviewing many of these projects individually and under restrictive parameters, FERC has substantially minimized the scale of the direct and indirect impacts of these projects as well as the cumulative impacts of past, present, and reasonably foreseeable projects, including increased shale gas extraction.

Source: FERC, Office of Energy Projects https://www.ferc.gov/industries/gas/indusact/ pipelines/horizon-pipe.pdf
Source: FERC, Office of Energy Projects https://www.ferc.gov/industries/gas/indusact/
pipelines/horizon-pipe.pdf

FERC’s 2014 Mission Statement describes its primary objective related to safe infrastructure in this way: “[To] [f]oster economic and environmental benefits for the nation through approval of natural gas and hydropower projects.” It doesn’t say evaluation, scrutiny or review of gas industry projects. FERC’s purpose is to partner with industry to get their projects done. It even serves as their lawyer. There’s just no possibility that it could ever say, “The public’s interest is better served by natural gas staying the ground.”

8. The FERC Commissioners are isolated, arrogant, condescending and unaccountable to the public

FERC is unaccountable to the public. Commissioners are appointed by the President and can only be removed in exceptionable circumstances. During the Cove Point review process, FERC was unresponsive, refusing to hold public hearings around the state or to extend the public comment period, even when U.S. Senators petitioned it. Not surprisingly, it was unresponsive to calls to conduct an EIS.

FERC is insulting the public by persisting in transparent lies, such as the pretense that Cove Point has nothing to do with fracking the Marcellus Shale. In the approval order, Commissioners dissemble and employ circular logic and evasion to dismiss legitimate concerns. They clearly feel that they owe nothing to the public, not even a comprehensive review of a huge industrial project, which by proximity alone, poses enormous risk to nearby residents.

The Commissioners reach the pinnacle of arrogance and condescension when they respond to a demand for an EIS because the project is “highly controversial.” Citing a particular regulation’s technical definition of “controversial,” the Commissioners state: “There is no such controversy about the Cove Point Liquefaction Project, and the number of individuals or organizations opposing the project cannot create one.”

Too late, FERC. The people are banging on your door.

Escaping the Regulatory Trap

The fact that a regulatory agency charged with protecting public health and safety is actually a lackey of the gas industry is a sad truth which communities who are trying to protect themselves must come to terms with. In order to be effective, they and the anti-fracking movement must stop pretending that FERC acts in good faith.

Over the last year, an enormous amount of effort has been expended by those opposing Cove Point in getting FERC to nix the project. Individuals researched and cultivated impressive expertise in all aspects related to an LNG facility, including the engineering specs of a liquefaction train, the qualities of a vapor cloud, Quantitative Risk Analysis, fire safety standards, power plant emissions, and ballast water dumping regulations. They mastered the ins and outs of the FERC review process, the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Regulations. Environmental groups planned protests, sit-ins and marches to FERC. They pleaded with elected officials to intervene.

Now might be a good time to ask, how much of this was wasted effort in a rigged game orchestrated by FERC? Given the agency’s track record, it was at best a long-shot to get FERC to kill the whole project. Members of so many communities have been “good citizens,” played by the rules, yet ultimately been sacrificed to fossil fuel profits. Like sheep, they have been guided down a path into the regulatory trap. It’s a dead end.

So how do we break out of the regulatory trap? Here are a few suggestions:

  • The first step is recognizing that regulations are mechanisms to carry out laws designed to uphold capitalism, a system favoring profit over people and the environment. Regulatory agencies, in our current system, might appear to exist for the public interest, but they are often acting in the interests of an elite minority. After digesting this for a while, the truth will set us free.
  • Environmental and community groups opposing Cove Point played the long game well by exposing FERC as a fraud. Keep calling FERC out. It should never be portrayed as being negligent, incompetent or derelict in duty, e.g. “We’re disappointed in FERC,” “They’re burying their heads in the sand,” or, “We are baffled by their lack of response.” These statements ignore the fact that FERC acts with intention. It is more accurate to say, as Mike Tidwell of CCAN did this week, “FERC is a facilitating commission for the gas industry. It is not a regulatory commission, it is a facilitating commission.”
  • Appealing to FERC to change its ways is a waste of time, because it is not accountable to anyone but Big Gas, and as we have seen, it is contemptuous of the public. Can it be reformed? Can we demand regional Environmental Impact Statements, assessing the totality of the gas industry’s impacts? It’s a question that needs debating, given the agency’s primary mission to facilitate the gas industry.
  • Let’s stop pinning our hopes on the FERC process and putting so much valuable energy into the public comments—which it will ignore. FERC feasts on our time and energy in exchange for a false promise of fairness.
  • There’s more chance of success if a project is killed before it even gets to FERC. Industry watch-dog groups are needed to warn communities that a pipeline or compressor station might be coming their way.
  • If public comments serve any purpose, it is to lay the groundwork for legal action. EarthJustice and its allies are now preparing to challenge FERC in court. We can’t always rely on the courts for justice, but it is a legitimate and often powerful tactic.
  • Delay and delay some more. Delay in the case of Keystone XL has resulted in enormous victories. Norwegian-owned StatOil and French-owned Total have abandoned their tar sands projects. Legal action, protests and obstruction buy time and cost companies money, sometimes a lot of money.
  • Stop playing by the rules. It’s time to get more radical, strategically. As Saul Quincy of Ecosocialist Horizon says:

We are going to get arrested! The only thing that we can do to meet the deadline for climate justice is to engage in a massive and permanent campaign to shut down the fossil fuel economy. But we have to do this strategically, not in the symbolic cuff-and-stuffs that are a perversion and prostitution of the noble ideals of civil disobedience and revolutionary nonviolence. So we are going to shut down coal plants; we are going to block ports, distribution centers and railway hubs where fossil fuels are transported; whatever it takes to keep the oil in the soil.

“I think the message from the citizens, in receiving this news, is don’t mourn—organize,” Tracey Eno said. “And this is not the end… We could take more dramatic actions, because at this point we have nothing to lose, because we have everything to lose.”

There is too much to lose by falling into the regulatory trap, too much precious time wasted catering to a corrupt and inherently flawed agency like FERC. The harsh reality is that the agency does not work for us, the people. Let us be emboldened by the truth, and may our strategies tackle this reality head-on.

Safety Elusive for Destitute Families in Kabul

Refugees in the Chaman e Babrak camp stand amid the rubble /photo by Abdulai Safarali
Refugees in the Chaman e Babrak camp stand amid the rubble /photo by Abdulai Safarali

by Kathy Kelly

Kabul, Afghanistan–The fire in the Chaman e Babrak camp began in Nadiai’s home shortly after noon. She had rushed her son, who had a severe chest infection, to the hospital. She did not know that a gas bottle, used for warmth, was leaking; when the gas connected with a wood burning stove, flames engulfed the mud hut in which they lived and extended to adjacent homes, swiftly rendering nine extended families homeless and destitute in the midst of already astounding poverty. By the time seven fire trucks had arrived in response to the fire at the refugee camp, the houses were already burned to the ground.

No one was killed. When I visited the camp, three days after the disaster, that was a common refrain of relief. Nadiai’s home was on the edge of the camp, close to the entrance road. Had the fire broken out in the middle of the camp, or at night when the homes were filled with sleeping people, the disaster could have been far worse.

Zakia, with bruised cheeks, survived the fire /photo by Abdulai Safarali
Zakia, with bruised cheeks, survived the fire /photo by Abdulai Safarali

Even so, Zakia, age 54, said this is the worst catastrophe she has seen in her life, and already their situation was desperate. Zakia had slapped her own face over and over again to calm and focus herself as she searched for several missing children while the fire initially raged. Now, three days later, her cheeks are quite bruised, but she is relieved that the children were found.

Standing amid piles of ashes near what once was her home, a young mother smiled as she introduced her three little children, Shuba, age 3 ½, and Medinah and Monawra, twin girls, age 1 ½. They were trapped in one of the homes, but their uncle rescued them.

Now the nine families have squeezed in with their neighbors. “We are left with only the clothes on our body,” said Maragul. She added that all of the victims feel very grateful to their neighbors. “We cook together,” she said, “and they offer us shelter at night.” Three or four families will sleep together in one room.

Asked if their neighbors were all from the same clan, Maragul, Nadiai and Zakia immediately began naming the different ethnic groups that are among their neighbors. Some are Turkman, some Uzbek, some from Herat or Kabul, others are Pashtun, and some are Kuchi. The women said that they begin to feel like brothers and sisters, living together in these adverse circumstances.

The Chaman e Babrak refugee camp spills over the grounds of a large field formerly used for sporting events. With 720 families crowded into the camp, it is second in density and size only to the Charahi Qambar refugee camp, on the outskirts of Kabul, which is twice as large and more than twice as full as the Chaman e Babrak camp.

Years ago, before the Taliban originally captured Kabul, some of the families in this camp had rented homes in the area. They had fled to Pakistan to escape the fighting, hoping to find a future with security and work. After the U.S. invasion, with President Karzai’s accession to power, they’d been urged to return, told that it was safe to go back.

But upon their return they’d learned their old homes and land now belonged to victorious warlords, and they learned again that safety is painfully elusive in conditions of poverty and the social disintegration that follows years, and in their case decades, of war.

Asked about prospects for their husbands to find work, the women shook their heads. Nadiai said that her husband has occasional work as a porter, carrying materials in a wheelbarrow from one site to another. Sometimes construction projects will hire him, but in the winter months construction projects are closed and already scarce work vanishes altogether. And war, in a sense, brings its own winter along with it: Next to the camp is a construction project that has been dormant since 2008. It had been intended to become an apartment building.

There was never any plan announced to house these families, even before the fire. And since the fire, there has been no offer of aid aside from those seven fire trucks, rushing in to contain an immediate threat not only to the camp but of course to neighboring businesses, several wedding halls and a plastic surgery hospital, up against which, in a city no stranger to glaring contrasts of wealth, the camp finds itself pressed.

I came to the camp with young activists of the Afghan Peace Volunteers there to distribute heavy coverlets, (duvets), manufactured with foreign donations by local seamstresses, precisely for distribution free of charge to Kabul’s neediest people in the winter months. The UK sister organization to my own group, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, will distribute food packages in the camp during the coming week.

We’ll never know who the fire might have killed, because when the old or the young die from the pressures of poverty, of homelessness, of war, we can’t know which disaster tipped the balance. We won’t know which catastrophe, specifically, will have taken any lives lost here to this dreadful winter. Many will be consumed by the slow conflagration of widespread poverty, corruption, inequality and neglect.

As many as 35,000 displaced persons are now living in the slum areas in Kabul alone. “Conflict affects more Afghans now than at any point in the last decade,” according to Amnesty International’s 2012 report, “Fleeing War, Finding Misery”:

The conflict has intensified in many areas, and fighting has spread to parts of the country previously deemed relatively peaceful. The surge in hostilities has many obvious consequences, among them that families and even entire communities flee their homes in search of greater security. Four hundred people a day are displaced in Afghanistan, on average, bringing the total displaced population to 500,000 by January 2012.

The vast expenditures of the U.S. government and its client here simply can’t be designated as contributions toward “security.” These funds have contributed to insecurity and danger while failing to address basic human needs. The realpolitik of an imperial power, as utterly disinterested in security here as it seems to be in its own people’s safety at home, will not notice this camp.

As we pull together in our communities to kindle concern, compassion, and respect for creative nonviolence, we are in deep winter hoping for a spring. We are right to work and to hope, but faced with the spectacle of winter in Chaman e Babrak I can’t help remembering Barbara Deming’s lines: “Locked in winter, summer lies; gather your bones together. Rise!”

Originally published on the website of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

Border Free

Here in Afghanistan, I am a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, a group of young people determined to find non-military solutions for Afghanistan. They are living together inter-ethnically in Kabul and sharing resources with needy families.

Local seamstresses have partnered with them to make and distribute 3,000 heavy coverlets (duvets) to people who would otherwise have no protection against the harsh elements of winter. The women who make the duvets earn wages for their work, and the duvets are then given to families free of charge.

Recognizing the hardships and dangers faced by street children, the APV’s began a program last year to help the young vendors enroll in schools. They befriend small groups of children, get to know the children’s families and circumstances, and then reach agreements with the families. If the children are allowed to attend school and reduce their working hours on the streets, the APV’s will compensate them by supplying oil and rice. Next, the APV’s buy warm clothes for each child and invite them to attend regular classes at the APV home to learn the alphabet and math.

When I return to the U.S., my bags will be bulging with sky blue scarves, embroidered with Dari and English expression of a guiding theme for the Afghan Peace Volunteers: “Border Free.” Sale of the scarves in the U.S. helps generate income to support the APV work in Kabul.

Each day, I along with Maya Evans of Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK help with household chores, sit in on meetings, and learn from APV’s and their guests about what it has been like to live in a land afflicted by three decades of war. Maya teaches a popular basic English course, and I do my best to learn Dari.  We generally have access to electricity every other day. On occasion, the pipes freeze and there’s no water, but our young friends are remarkably resourceful problem solvers. They urge us to communicate to friends and colleagues at home their deep desire to live without war.

Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) is the co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

Christmas and the War Machine

“Empower yourself. Defend America … You will be a soldier.”

- Marketing slogan for the “America’s Army” video game at the 2002 annual video game convention in Los Angeles

I_Want_You-2
The National Christmas Tree

A C-7 off-loads a military truck.

I_Want_You-8

JFK Gave Baby Boomers Responsibility to Protect Our Freedom. They Failed.

Eternal_Flame_Next_generation

The Eternal Flame has burned continuously since Jackie Kennedy lit it in Arlington Cemetery on November 25, 1963 during her husband’s state funeral. Today, fifty years to the day after it was lit, hundreds have come to take photos of the flame flickering in a cold breeze, while others stand silently watching flowers laid at its granite base.

At his inauguration, President Kennedy spoke of a “torch” passed to a “new generation”:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Fifty years after his assassination, this torch has been neglected, and the flame has nearly gone out.

Since JFK was killed, the Civil Rights movement has achieved important successes. But the present state of freedom and human rights in the U.S. is like a wound left unattended, and every day the hemorrhaging grows worse. Our government is systematically eviscerating our freedoms and those of people around the world. There are several signs of this: the police state, the huge numbers of citizens incarcerated, illegal NSA surveillance, and drone warfare.

The Police State

There are more uniformed police–800,000–than ever before. (Only China has more.) And this number does not include the numbers of hired armed private security officers on duty.

Paramilitary policing has quickly spread across the country. Today there are more than 1,000 U.S. police forces with SWAT or SWAT-type units. In 1980, nationwide, they carried out an average of eight paramilitary raids a day; now there are well over 100 per day. SWAT teams rely on speed and force, which result in many errors.

An Incarcerated Nation

Rates of incarceration are at epidemic levels with over one and a half million people in state and federal prisons, five times more than in 1980. There are more people incarcerated than high school teachers. And this number ignores the tens of thousands more languishing in city and county jails. Five percent of the world’s population live in the United States, yet 25% of the world’s incarcerated population are imprisoned here–more than all European nations combined. Half of all inmates are serving time for mandatory sentences for drug offenses.

Many prisons are run by corporations for profit. The “Prison Industrial Complex” has to keep cells full to keep profits flowing. Mandatory life terms for repeat offenders infringe on human rights. The excessive size of the American prison system is an indictment against human rights in this country.

The Surveillance State

The National Security Agency has harnessed advances in technology to systematically surveil every citizen’s cellphone meta data and email. The NSA has created a surveillance state in a way the Stasi of East Germany could only have dreamed of.

The NSA has gathered data on every American as well as world leaders and foreign citizens. In the guise of protecting the U.S. from terrorism, they operate on a “collect everything” philosophy, encroaching on the constitutional protections from illegal search and seizure. They have essentially erased the Fourth amendment.

Even the judges of the FISA court, a secret court empowered to oversee the NSA, has expressed misgivings about their own ability to reign in the NSA. Judge John Bates wrote, “NSA’s record of compliance with these rules has been poor.”

Reporter Glenn Grenwald and his husband, David Miranda have been threatened with prosecution for having reported the NSA’s unconstitutional breaches of law.

Drone Warfare

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have created a climate of fear in countries which previously looked up to the U.S. as an example of democracy and freedom.

Drone warfare used in undeclared wars against countries like Yemen and Pakistan are perhaps the most egregious example of a government gone awry in its stated purpose to spread democracy and human rights.

Over the last ten years the U.S. has deployed drone robots against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But the killing of innocents is creating a far-reaching fallout, turning an entire generation of people to revile and seek vengeance against the U.S. The drone warfare campaign is largely kept secret, and if not for the exposure of whistle-blower Bradley Manning, serious incidents of killing innocents would never have come to light.

Drone advocates say they are increasing security, and the machines are necessary in the war on terror because they have pinpoint accuracy. But these are myths.

Drone attack systems are fully robotic killing systems despite what military chiefs say. This is because killing is accomplished remotely by machine, without human touch from launch, seek-and-destroy and return to home base. Drone attacks are for the convenience and safety of the aggressor.

Drones have erased hundreds of years of human rights gains made through courts of law and legal review. They have gone around legal requirements such as habeus corpus, evidence review, legal defense and jury determination of guilt or innocence of the accused. Convicted felons on death row are afforded more due process than those killed by drones.

The torch of human rights and liberty JFK spoke of has practically been extinguished from the domestic landscape and abroad. A flickering flame, it is reserved for etchings on white stones at a tribute memorial somewhere. The Eternal Flame at Arlington National Cemetery still burns a hazy orange surrounded by a carpet of immaculate green–only a symbol of John Kennedy’s promise.

The torch was inherited by a generation who was not vigilant. Since they have abdicated the responsibility Kennedy entrusted to them, we and coming generations must pick it up and relight it. If we cannot rekindle the flame, it will be a promise that died with Kennedy. Otherwise, the post-constitutional era in which we live will only become darker.

Silent deterrent to war, Peace Vigil keeps watch over White House

PeaceVigil_2013-09-12

The White House Peace Vigil takes up only a little sidewalk space on Pennsylvania Ave. but leaves a big footprint. For 32 years, two six-foot yellow signs with a white tarp between them have warned us about the dangers of nuclear weapons. This iconic statement for disarmament almost came to an end today.

In the middle of the night Park Police disassembled and carted off the vigil’s tent and signs when its watchman left. Vigil supporters contacted the police, with Eleanor Holmes Norton following up, to restore the vigil this afternoon.

Thousands of tourists have seen it, taken pictures of it, and talked to Concepcion, the co-founder who’s been there since the beginning–Chinese tourists from Shanghai, Koreans from Seoul, Germans on their way to Philadelphia, gay rights activists from Africa, and school groups from Iowa.

Peace Vigil was removed temporarily
Peace Vigil reinstated today

Hundreds of volunteers have invested over 282,000 hours of labor staffing the vigil, sitting through rain, snow, cold, heat, thirst–and boredom. During Hurricane Sandy three people held it in place for hours as the wind screamed.

There’s a bathroom nearby but it closes early. Someone has to man it 24 hours a day, so volunteers are organized into shifts and bring their own food and water. They have to wait for their replacements, even if they come late.

Facing the north portico of the White House, the tattered tarp and yellow signs present an image of the powerless confronting the all-powerful. Undoubtedly every president since 1981–five of them–has seen it and knows its history, yet none have ever acknowledged it.

Year after year the vigil has persevered with no measurable effect. Nuclear weapons still exist. Whether we’re making progress toward nuclear disarmament or not, the vigil still serves a purpose.

The powerful argue that a strong military is a deterrent. For the same reason, the Peace Vigil must be maintained as one tiny block in the dam against the tendency toward violence. It’s an irritant to every president and a reminder that there are always those who stand vigilant against war.

Today the Peace Vigil got a reprieve. Tomorrow the sun will rise, and it will still be there. Will it be there for another 32 years? I think we’ll still need it then.

Bombing Syria, a short-sighted proposition bound to go off-course

by Rob Brune

The White House is touting a so-called humanitarian bombing campaign while pushing the line that Syria will not be the next Iraq. “Iraq and Syria are in no way analogous,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

Al Qa'Qaa bunker in Iraq
Al Qa’Qaa bunker in Iraq

How can we forget that within the first couple months of bombing and “boots on the ground” in Iraq, Baathist insurgents moved in to grab 380 tons of high explosives from the Al Qa’Qaa bunker? It wasn’t like we didn’t know the risk. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that terrorists might “help themselves to the greatest explosives bonanza in history.”

If the U.S. bombs the holy hell out of Syria’s chemical weapons supply, who will be there to secure the remains of those chemical weapons? It’s a realistic expectation that they will fall into the hands of radical factions of the Free Syrian Army affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Bashar al-Assad is a bona fide madman. Rather than deter him, a bombing campaign will likely provoke him to use more chemical weapons. The whole discussion of a military intervention is short-sighted. Bombing Syria is a proposition that will go sideways faster than Obama and his supporters in Congress think.

UPDATE:

The good news is that someone has thought through this scenario. The bad news is that to secure Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles–estimated at 1,000 tons–the U.S. would have to deploy 75,000 troops:

The potential of strategic US strikes in Syria has sparked fears Damascus’ chemical weapons could fall into the wrong hands if the government is toppled. A recent congressional report says 75,000 troops would be needed to safeguard the WMD caches.

The Congressional Research Center (CRS) report, issued just one day before the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb, was compiled with the aim of “responding to possible scenarios involving the use, change of hands, or loss of control of Syrian chemical weapons.”

That’s 150,000 “boots on the ground.”

Miranda case shows, anti-terrorism laws used against us, not terrorists

Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was held on August 19 for nine hours of questioning at London’s Heathrow Airport under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. Although it was clear that Miranda posed no terrorist threat, his cell phone, laptop, game consoles and camera were confiscated. Under the UK’s controversial Terrorism Act, anyone can be detained for up to nine hours of questioning before they clear customs.

A spokesperson for the Guardian said, “We were dismayed that the partner of a Guardian journalist who has been writing about the security services was detained for nearly nine hours while passing through Heathrow airport. We are urgently seeking clarification from the British authorities.”

According to the UK’s Home Office, “The government and police have a duty to protect the public and our national security.”

Translation: “Protect the public,” “national security” and variation “keep you safe” is doublespeak for “we’re watching you.”

International Big Brother is usually more discreet, but the Snowden revelations have driven him out of the shadows. The security services of the US and our allies are driving us inexorably towards the dystopian society predicted in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The rationale for anti-terrorism laws is public safety, a trade-off between protection and rights. Yet the anti-terrorism laws which empower security authorities are being abused. The NSA often violates even the secret regime of law established by the FISA Court. GCHQ used the Terrorism Act as a pretense to detain David Miranda at Heathrow. Glenn Greenwald calls it “a failed attempt at intimidation.”

Disregard for the law is not only a betrayal of trust and principle, it nullifies hundreds of years of struggle to secure our civil rights. And what’s more, it’s not keeping us safe either.

In reality, protection and surveillance have little to do with each other. In the military, we learned that there is a difference between guarding and surveilling. Guarding is providing that no harm will come to who or whatever you’re protecting. Surveilling is watching, observing and recording.

The NSA and GCHQ maintain that surveillance is a tool to protect the people from terrorists, when in fact they watch the people like we are the enemy. The laws that our government has put into place serve more to shield itself from public scrutiny than to protect the public.

The question is, when will we recognize that laws disguised as protection from terrorists are actually being used to surveil, gather unlimited information and track us? Lost rights can’t be regained when those in power believe no one is willing to fight for them.