Category Archives: Justice

A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Today, The Intercept launches “A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” a seven-minute film narrated by the congresswoman and illustrated by Molly Crabapple. Set a couple of decades from now, it’s a flat-out rejection of the idea that a dystopian future is a forgone conclusion. Instead, it offers a thought experiment: What if we decided not to drive off the climate cliff? What if we chose to radically change course and save both our habitat and ourselves?

What if we actually pulled off a Green New Deal? What would the future look like then?

This is a project unlike any we have done before, crossing boundaries between fact, fiction, and visual art, co-directed by Kim Boekbinder and Jim Batt and co-written by Ocasio-Cortez and Avi Lewis. To reclaim a phrase from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it’s our “green dream,” inspired by the explosion of utopian art produced during the original New Deal.

And it’s a collaboration with a context and a history that seems worth sharing.

Back in December, I started talking to Crabapple — the brilliant illustrator, writer, and filmmaker — about how we could involve more artists in the Green New Deal vision. Most art forms are pretty low carbon, after all, and cultural production played an absolutely central role during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.

We thought it was time to galvanize artists into that kind of social mission again — but not in a couple of years, if politicians and activists manage to translate what is still only a rough plan into law. No, we wanted to see Green New Deal art right away — to help win the battle for hearts and minds that will determined whether it has a fighting chance in the first place.

Crabapple, along with Boekbinder and Batt, have been honing a filmmaking style that has proved enormously successful at spreading bold ideas fast, most virally in their video with Jay Z on the “epic fail” of the war on drugs. “I would love to make a video on the Green New Deal with AOC,” Crabapple said, which seemed to me like a dream team.

The question was: How do we tell the story of something that hasn’t happened yet?

We realized that the biggest obstacle to the kind of transformative change the Green New Deal envisions is overcoming the skepticism that humanity could ever pull off something at this scale and speed. That’s the message we’ve been hearing from the “serious” center for four months straight: that it’s too big, too ambitious, that our Twitter-addled brains are incapable of it, and that we are destined to just watch walruses fall to their deaths on Netflix until it’s too late.

This skepticism is understandable. The idea that societies could collectively decide to embrace rapid foundational changes to transportation, housing, energy, agriculture, forestry, and more — precisely what is needed to avert climate breakdown — is not something for which most of us have any living reference. We have grown up bombarded with the message that there is no alternative to the crappy system that is destabilizing the planet and hoarding vast wealth at the top. From most economists, we hear that we are fundamentally selfish, gratification-seeking units. From historians, we learn that social change has always been the work of singular great men.

Science fiction hasn’t been much help either. Almost every vision of the future that we get from best-selling novels and big-budget Hollywood films takes some kind of ecological and social apocalypse for granted. It’s almost as if we have collectively stopped believing that the future is going to happen, let alone that it could be better, in many ways, than the present.

The media debates that paint the Green New Deal as either impossibly impractical or a recipe for tyranny just reinforce the sense of futility. But here’s the good news: The old New Deal faced almost precisely the same kinds of opposition — and it didn’t stop it for a minute.

FILE - In this May 7, 1933, file photo, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown at his desk at the White House, in Washington, when he outlined his ideas to the nation on a partnership between the government and agriculture, industry, and transportation. He announced measures to be proposed soon to give industrial workers a better deal. A president’s first 100 days can be a tire-squealing roar from the starting line, a triumph of style over substance, a taste of what’s to come or an ambitious plan of action that gets rudely interrupted by world events. (AP Photo)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his desk at the White House on May 7, 1933, when he outlined his ideas to the nation on a partnership between the government and agriculture, industry, and transportation.

Photo: AP

From the start, elite critics derided FDR’s plans as everything from creeping fascism to closet communism. In the 1933 equivalent of “They’re coming for your hamburgers!” Republican Sen. Henry D. Hatfield of West Virginia wrote to a colleague, “This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty. The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot.” A former DuPont executive complained that with the government offering decent-paying jobs, “five negroes on my place in South Carolina refused work this spring … and a cook on my houseboat in Fort Myers quit because the government was paying him a dollar an hour as a painter.”

Far-right militias formed; there was even a sloppy plot by a group of bankers to overthrow FDR.

Self-styled centrists took a more subtle tack: In newspaper editorials and op-eds, they cautioned FDR to slow down and scale back. Historian Kim Phillips-Fein, author of “Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal,” told me that the parallels with today’s attacks on the Green New Deal in outlets like the New York Times are obvious. “They didn’t outright oppose it, but in many cases, they would argue that you don’t want to make so many changes at once, that it was too big, too quick. That the administration should wait and study more.”

And yet for all its many contradictions and exclusions, the New Deal’s popularity continued to soar, winning Democrats a bigger majority in Congress in the midterms and FDR a landslide re-election in 1936.

One reason that elite attacks never succeeded in turning the public against the New Deal had to do with the incalculable power of art, which was embedded in virtually every aspect of the era’s transformations. The New Dealers saw artists as workers like any other: people who, in the depths of the Depression, deserved direct government assistance to practice their trade. As Works Progress Administration administrator Harry Hopkins famously put it, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.”

Through programs including the Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theater Project, and Federal Writers Project (all part of the WPA), as well as the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture and several others, tens of thousands of painters, musicians, photographers, playwrights, filmmakers, actors, authors, and a huge array of craftspeople found meaningful work, with unprecedented support going to African-American and Indigenous artists.

The result was a renaissance of creativity and a staggering body of work that transformed the visual landscape of the country. The Federal Art Project alone produced nearly 475,000 works of art, including over 2,000 posters, 2,500 murals, and 100,000 canvasses for public spaces. Its stable of artists included Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Authors who participated in the Federal Writers Program included Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and John Steinbeck.

Much of the art produced by New Deal programs was simply about bringing joy and beauty to Depression-ravaged people, and challenging the prevalent idea that art belonged to the elites. As FDR put it in a 1938 letter to author Hendrik Willem van Loon: “I, too, have a dream — to show people in the out of the way places, some of whom are not only in small villages but in corners of New York City … some real paintings and prints and etchings and some real music.”

There was more overtly political art too, like the highly controversial theatrical productions of Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here,” which opened in 18 cities. Some New Deal art set out to mirror a shattered country back to itself and in the process, make an unassailable case for why New Deal relief programs were so desperately needed. The result was iconic work, from Dorothea Lange’s photography of Dust Bowl families enveloped in clouds of filth and forced to migrate, to Walker Evans’s harrowing images of tenant farmers that filled the pages of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” to Gordon Parks’s pathbreaking photography of daily life in Harlem.

Other artists produced more optimistic, even utopian creations, using graphic art, short films, and vast murals to document the transformation underway under New Deal programs — the strong bodies building new infrastructure, planting trees, and otherwise picking up the pieces of their nation.

FDR’s critics attacked the arts programs as propaganda, but participants responded that they were true believers. “We were all very ardent New Dealers,” recalled Edward Biderman, one of the celebrated painters in this period. “And when we found [New Deal policies] reflected in the art programs, we were even more enthusiastic.”

Just as Crabapple and I started mulling over the idea of a Green New Deal short film, The Intercept published a piece by Kate Aronoff that was set in the year 2043, after the Green New Deal had come to pass. It told the story of what life was like for a fictionalized “Gina,” who grew up in the world that Green New Deal policies created: “She had a relatively stable childhood. Her parents availed themselves of some of the year of paid family leave they were entitled to, and after that she was dropped off at a free child care program.” After free college, “she spent six months restoring wetlands and another six volunteering at a day care much like the one she had gone to.”

The piece struck a nerve with readers, in large part because it imagined a future tense that wasn’t some version of “Mad Max” warriors battling prowling bands of cannibal warlords. Crabapple and I decided that the film could do something similar to Aronoff’s piece, but this time from Ocasio-Cortez’s vantage point. It would show the world after the Green New Deal she was championing had become a reality.

Soon we had the script, co-written by Ocasio-Cortez and Lewis, who, as the director of our climate documentary “This Changes Everything” and strategic director of the climate justice group The Leap, thinks about the world after we win pretty much full-time. Next came the magic of Crabapple’s art and Boekbinder and Batt’s video design and direction.

Today, we launch the final result: a seven-minute postcard from the future. It’s about how, in the nick of time, a critical mass of humanity in the largest economy on earth came to believe that we were actually worth saving. Because, as Ocasio-Cortez says in the film, our future has not been written yet and “we can be whatever we have the courage to see.”

Please watch and share it. Our hope is that this piece will inspire more Green New Deal art. More than that, we hope it plays some small part in inspiring an actual Green New Deal. Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson recently offered up this clarifying reminder about the stakes before us:

The future isn’t cast into one inevitable course. On the contrary, we could cause the sixth great mass extinction event in Earth’s history, or we could create a prosperous civilization, sustainable over the long haul. Either is possible starting from now.


“A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”
Presented by The Intercept and Naomi Klein
Narrated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Written by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Avi Lewis
Produced by Sharp As Knives, Molly Crabapple, Avi Lewis, and Lauren Feeney
Illustrated by Molly Crabapple
Directed by Kim Boekbinder and Jim Batt
Inspired by an article by Kate Aronoff
Editor-in-Chief: Betsy Reed

The post A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appeared first on The Intercept.

Livestream: The Intercept’s Anniversary — Five Years of Fearless, Adversarial Journalism

The Intercept launched five years ago with a mission to produce fearless, adversarial journalism. Since then, we have published thousands of stories, videos, and podcasts, covering politics, war, surveillance, corruption, the environment, technology, criminal justice, the media, and more.

Join us on Tuesday, April 16 at 8 p.m. for an evening of dialogue with our journalists about the stories they are most passionate about and what’s coming next.

Featuring The Intercept’s:

  • Betsy Reed, editor-in-chief
  • Jeremy Scahill, co-founding editor and senior investigative reporter, host of the Intercepted podcast
  • Glenn Greenwald, co-founding editor and columnist (via Skype)
  • Naomi Klein, columnist and senior correspondent
  • Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief
  • Liliana Segura, senior reporter
  • Mehdi Hasan, columnist and senior contributor, host of the Deconstructed podcast
  • Maryam Saleh, story editor
  • Alice Speri, reporter

Plus special guests DJ Spooky and Molly Crabapple.

The post Livestream: The Intercept’s Anniversary — Five Years of Fearless, Adversarial Journalism appeared first on The Intercept.

Julian Assange Suffered Severe Psychological and Physical Harm in Ecuadorian Embassy, Doctors Say

An American doctor who conducted several medical and mental health evaluations of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange inside Ecuador’s Embassy in London over the last two years says that she believes she was spied on and that the confidentiality of her doctor-patient relationship with Assange was violated.

Dr. Sondra Crosby, an associate professor of medicine and public health at Boston University and an expert on the physical and psychological impact of torture, has evaluated detainees held by the United States, including at its prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. She quietly began meeting with and evaluating Assange in 2017 inside the embassy where he had sought refuge.

During her last session with Assange on February 23, Crosby says that her confidential medical notes were removed when she briefly left the embassy to get food to bring back to Assange who, she wrote, “had not eaten.” The notes were taken from where she had been evaluating Assange and only later discovered in another space used by the embassy’s surveillance staff.

“Mr. Assange’s right to doctor-patient confidentiality was violated, and his confidential information had been breached,” Crosby wrote in a March 1 affidavit she gave to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In her affidavit, she states that her medical notes were “presumably” read by embassy personnel.

She also says that her medical visit with Assange in February was monitored by two cameras, and that she had to speak with Assange “over the noise of a radio playing” to mask their conversations because of what he said were listening devices in the room.

In addition, when she returned to the embassy after getting food, she was questioned by embassy security staff and asked for a copy of her medical license, even though she had earlier provided her passport and explained the purpose of her visit.

“The hostile, nonconfidential, and intimidating environment was palpable,” she wrote in her affidavit.

In an April 8 letter sent to both U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and Dunja Mijatovic, the commissioner for human rights for the Council of Europe, Crosby added that during her February visit to the embassy, the conditions of Assange’s confinement had significantly worsened since her first visit in 2017. Her letter noted the severe psychological toll Assange suffered in his prolonged and indefinite confinement.

“Mr. Assange’s situation [inside the embassy] differs from a typical prisoner in a conventional prison,” she wrote in her letter. “In fact, his position is worse than a conventional prison in many respects. His confinement is indefinite and uncertain, which increases chronic stress and its myriad of chronic physical and serious psychological risks, including suicide.”

During seven years of confinement, Assange had suffered “a number of serious deleterious effects of sunlight deprivation,” she wrote, including “neuropsychological impairment, weakened bones, decreased immune function, and increased risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer.” He also displayed physical and psychological symptoms as a result of “prolonged social isolation and sensory deprivation.”

“I believe the psychological, physical, and social [aftereffects] will be long-lasting and severe,” Crosby wrote.

Assange was expelled from the Ecuadorian Embassy and arrested by British authorities on April 11, three days after her letter was sent to the U.N. and the Council of Europe. He is now in prison in Britain on charges of jumping bail, but also faces an indictment in the United States on a hacking charge in connection with the 2010 publication of classified U.S. documents obtained from former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Assange has been charged in the U.S. with trying to help Manning crack a government password; he also faces the possibility of a renewed investigation by Sweden into sexual assault charges. His lawyers have vowed to fight his extradition.

Assange sought refuge in Ecuador’s Embassy in 2012, when Sweden was seeking his extradition in the sexual assault case, and remained in the embassy until his arrest last Thursday. British officials repeatedly vowed to arrest him for jumping bail if he ever set foot outside the embassy.

In 2012, when Ecuador agreed to give Assange refuge, the country had a leftist president, Rafael Correa, who was sympathetic to the WikiLeaks founder. But Ecuador’s current president, Lenín Moreno, has been far less tolerant of Assange and grew impatient with his presence in the embassy.

Both before and since his arrest and expulsion from the embassy, Assange has been criticized and mocked for his erratic behavior. But Crosby’s observations and statements make it clear that he has suffered severe psychological harm.

Crosby wrote in her letter to the U.N. and the Council of Europe that Assange suffered from “multiple medical conditions” that had become “more complex and urgent” over the two years she had evaluated him. “He has no ability to access necessary medical care, and he does not have access to the outdoors and sunlight. Even minimum standards for prisoners dictate at least one hour of sunlight daily and access to natural light.”

While the British government and Assange’s many critics say that it was his choice to stay in the embassy, Crosby argues that Assange was denied the fundamental right to health care that should have been afforded to him as a refugee.

In her April 8 letter, Crosby wrote that the “highest priority” for Assange’s medical care was his “critical need for an oral surgery procedure,” adding that “the severe daily pain” from his dental condition is “inhumane.” She had consulted with a dentist who had examined Assange, she wrote, and learned that the dental surgery could not be performed in the embassy. In her letter, Crosby says that the British government had repeatedly rejected requests to give Assange safe passage to a hospital for treatment.

In addition to Crosby, Dr. Brock Chisholm, a British clinical psychologist who was previously retained as an expert witness in a case involving allegations of torture at CIA black sites, evaluated Assange over the past two years. Dr. Sean Love, now at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, initially met with Assange and arranged for an introduction to Crosby and Chisholm, but did not conduct any of the evaluations. Love said that Assange and WikiLeaks gave the doctors permission to make Crosby’s affidavit and letter public.

Love criticized the British government for denying Assange medical care while he was in the embassy.

“Whatever you think of his politics, he is a human being,” Love said, “and under international law, he deserved to be treated fairly and not in cruel or inhumane ways.”

The post Julian Assange Suffered Severe Psychological and Physical Harm in Ecuadorian Embassy, Doctors Say appeared first on The Intercept.

Episode 2 of “Animal Matters”: How the Cause Went From the Leftist Fringe to the Trans-Ideological Mainstream

Two weeks ago, the Intercept, in partnership with Sentient Media, a new media company devoted to the issue of animal rights, launched the debut episode of our eight-part video series covering all aspects of the animal rights movement: political, economic, environmental, cultural, racial, labor and public health. That debut episode was devoted to a discussion of why my co-host, Grant Lingel, and I have chosen to focus on these issues and why we believe this cause can no longer be, and indeed is no longer, a boutique concern for animal lovers but instead is central to our most pressing global challenges, movements and debates.

Today we present Episode 2 of our series. It focuses on the transformation of the animal rights movement from fringe, leftist enclaves – one that until recently was regarded as frivolous and trivial even among many liberals, and as a caricature of vapidity or light repression by conservatives – to bipartisan and non-ideological mainstream circles. We examine the evidence showing that transformation, the reasons for it, and how it provides opportunities for future growth not only for the cause of animal rights but the ability of humans in democracies around the world to erode staid, increasingly archaic ideological divides.

In sum, the cause of animal rights is about far more than just the treatment of animals, though that by itself would worthy of substantial attention and energy. As bucolic family farms are becoming rapidly extinct and replaced by massive industrial factory farms that are torturing, slaughtering, creating toxic waste, and endangering public health and environmental safety on a previously unimaginable scale, the ethical and political questions raised by these fundamental changes cannot be avoided no matter one’s political orientation.

That’s why bills all over the world are being introduced, and now passed, by lawmakers from parties and ideologies across the spectrum to limit, reform, or even end some of the worst abuses and dangers of this industry. And this newly bipartisan and non-ideological character of the animal rights movements signals not only that this will be one of the next generation’s most pressing political causes but also that it can usher in a new framework for political activism and a new paradigm for how to think about the profound challenges posed by the way we exploit animal agriculture for a food supply for 8 billion people:


The post Episode 2 of “Animal Matters”: How the Cause Went From the Leftist Fringe to the Trans-Ideological Mainstream appeared first on The Intercept.

How a Christian Nonprofit Helped a Controversial Minnesota Mining Company Buy Gear for Local Police

Ely is one of a handful of small towns in lake-studded northeastern Minnesota where mining or oil pipeline proposals have divided communities. While other extractive industry projects have sparked anti-pipeline protests nearby, the effort to stop a proposed copper-nickel mine near Ely is provoking few if any police confrontations. But it is no less divisive.

Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining company Antofagasta, is pushing to mine the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, one of Minnesota’s most popular attractions for outdoorspeople, for which Ely serves as a major entry point. The mine’s ore processing facility would be near the shores of Birch Lake and the South Kawishiwi River, the waters of which flow into the wilderness area. The sulfuric acid released from its processes could leach into the water, harming aquatic life. Canoers and environmentalists are concerned.

In an effort to prove itself a worthy neighbor, Twin Metals is reaching deep into its pockets. In addition to donating to local governments directly, the mining company recently passed thousands of dollars’ worth of gear to the Ely police through a little-known Christian nonprofit called Shield616, whose mission centers on protecting officers against high-powered rifles.

Shield616 helps local governments defray the costs of heavy-duty police gear — with extractive industries that work in their areas sometimes footing the bill.

On February 19, seven Ely police officers stood behind a long table at the Ely City Council hall. On the table were seven sets of body armor, ballistic helmets, and first-aid kits. The officers and community members in the audience bowed their heads in prayer over the gear — an element of Shield616’s standard gear presentations. “Our thanks to Twin Metals Minnesota for your generous donation to equip them with Shield616 gear!” read a Shield616 Facebook post later that day. An accompanying photo depicts Twin Metals CEO Kelly Osborne posing with the officers.

Twin Metals’ donation is an example of a quiet alliance between police and extractive industries in communities across the U.S. With protests breaking out, local governments — leveraging their police forces — are steeling themselves to fight back, leading to cycles of recriminations. In Duluth, Minnesota, for example, the police department recently purchased $84,000 worth of riot gear; that move itself sparked a protest. Shield616 helps local governments defray the costs of heavy-duty police gear — with extractive industries that work in their areas sometimes footing the bill.

Protesters face off with police during a protest in Mandan against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, North Dakota, U.S. November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith - S1BEUNBLLNAB

Protesters face off with police during a protest in Mandan against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, N.D., on Nov. 15, 2016.

Photo: Stephanie Keith/Reuters

Donations to Local Police

From Nebraska to Washington state to North Dakota and Minnesota, mining companies and fossil fuel transporters have donated vehicles, gear, and operations funding meant to fortify community goodwill as public officials respond to local opposition. The pattern is particularly evident in Midwestern states, where controversial oil pipeline companies are preparing for construction and public officials are developing contingency plans to manage potentially astronomical policing costs.

To Radley Balko, author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” the ethical questions raised by the Twin Metals donation are more worrisome than the gear itself. “It all seems to be defensive gear,” he said of Shield616’s donations, noting that items like batons and tear gas launchers weren’t in the packages. “It’s hard to object to underfunded police departments getting stuff that makes individual officers safer.”

However, the donations still raise questions about conflicts of interest. “If police are called out to a protest against the company and the company has bought them this gear, where do their loyalties lie?” Balko said. “You have to ask whether the gift impacts the policies.”

In an email, Twin Metals spokesperson David Ulrich noted that the company has made more than $400,000 worth of donations in Minnesota, including $20,000 to United Way, along with funds for emergency medical technicians, school field trips, scouting, and sports clubs.

“Our donation to the Ely Police Department was not our first and is part of our ongoing engagement in the Ely community,” Ulrich said. “This particular donation was at the department’s request in light of the many security-related incidents at schools nationwide.”

Ely Police Chief John Lahtonen, who dismissed concerns about the Shield616 gear being repurposed for crowd control, defended the links to Twin Metals. “Let’s be clear here,” said Lahtonen, “that Twin Metals has been here for a number of years, and they’ve been good to the communities.”

Some locals, however, see more than goodwill at work.

“It’s nice that Twin Metals is donating to the community, but that’s their marketing strategy. It’s a way to try and convince people to support a project that is bad for Ely.”

“It’s nice that Twin Metals is donating to the community, but that’s their marketing strategy,” said Jason Zabokrtsky, owner and operator of Ely Outfitting Company, who opposes the mine. “It’s a way to try and convince people to support a project that is bad for Ely.”

Across the Midwest and in other rural areas, environmental activists are seeing deals like the one in Ely. Jane Kleeb, the founder of Bold Alliance, a network of groups fighting fossil fuel projects in rural areas, said she’s seen something similar play out in Nebraska, where the energy company TransCanada is seeking to build the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. “TransCanada for the last decade has gone community to community and has purchased equipment,” she said. She’s seen communities accept fire trucks, police ATVs, and playground equipment.

The most high-profile example was Energy Transfer’s $15 million donation to the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services in the wake of the Dakota Access pipeline protests, which drew thousands of protesters to the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation. Law enforcement’s heavy-handed response to the protests had come at a huge expense to the state and local governments. (Energy Transfer also traveled across Iowa, which also saw anti-Dakota Access pipeline protests, handing out a total of around $360,000 in donations to emergency management.) At the height of the Standing Rock protests, local police departments borrowed vehicles and other equipment from the Energy Transfer’s security force, which was led by the mercenary firm TigerSwan.

Looking to what happened in North Dakota, South Dakota’s governor recently signed a law that legally requires oil pipeline companies to fund law enforcement, should there be anti-pipeline protests. Passed in anticipation of demonstrations against the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the law says that the state should bill the pipeline up to $20 million for policing costs.

Some communities have rejected the donations. “There have been some police departments that have said no,” Kleeb said, citing Holt County, Nebraska, which she said refused TransCanada’s offers because of conflict of interest concerns. But many local governments dismiss those concerns and take the gifts. Smaller donations, like the Twin Metals gift to Ely police, are more common.

“It leaves citizens wondering who they’re going to protect,” said Kleeb. “If there’s a need for lifesaving equipment, that should be brought to the attention of local, state, and federal governments to make sure that our first responders are properly equipped to deal with emergencies. We should not be turning to corporations to equip them and essentially buy their loyalty.”

Taking Up the Shield of Faith

To Jake Skifstad, a former police officer and the head of Shield616, Twin Metals is just another concerned community member. “The Twin Metals mine, like all of our other donors, made an amazing contribution to ensure that our law enforcement officers will be safe and will be able to go home at the end of their shift,” Skifstad told The Intercept in an emailed response to questions. “We have individuals, businesses, foundations, churches, sports teams and even schools wanting to make potentially lifesaving contributions.”

The donated kits, worth $1,500 each, come with bulletproof vests, helmets, and first-aid equipment. Each officer that obtains gear is also matched with a sponsor from the local police department’s community. The sponsor receives a magnet with the name of their officer and the Bible quote from which the organization’s name is derived, Ephesians 6:16: “Take up the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” Sponsors are encouraged to pray for their officer every day.

The Colorado Springs, Colorado-based organization is unabashedly Christian. The promo video featured on their “about” page includes testimony from Rajeev Shaw of Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs-based conservative Christian organization that has been a key voice in opposing reproductive and LGBTQ rights.

Skifstad, who is from Minnesota, has said that the idea to form the organization came in the wake of his involvement responding to two active-shooter situations as an officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department. One was a 2007 shooting at New Life Church, in Colorado Springs, where a 24-year-old man killed two people in the parking lot. The other was at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood in 2015, where an abortion opponent murdered three people, including a police officer. Although it has donated gear to departments in 19 states, according to Skifstad, Shield616 is most active in Colorado — where the entire Colorado Springs police force has been outfitted with the gear — Texas, and Minnesota.

“The equipment we provide to law enforcement is not designed or intended to respond to peaceful, lawful protests,” Skifstad said. “The armor provided is designed to protect officers against rifle threats and for active-shooter situations.”

GOLDEN, CO - NOVEMBER 15:  Golden police detective Melissa Manzanares, second from left, and her sponsor Jane Meagher, left, check out the high end body armor plates being given to members of the Golden Police department  by Shield 616 inside the Golden city council chamber on November 15, 2018 in Golden, Colorado. The kit comes with two armor plates, one for the front and one for the back, a ballistic helmet, which only stops hand gun bullets, an individual trauma aid kit  and a vest in which to put the plates.  Shield 616, a Colorado Springs non-profit that provides enhanced body armor kits to police officers, presented 26 kits to the Golden Police department. Former Colorado Springs police officer Jake Skifstad responded to the shooting at the New Life church in 2007 that killed two and injured five. After the suspect was killed, Skifstad was assigned to guard the body. Reflecting on the situation as he stood guard he realized the armor he was wearing would only stop handgun fire and this shooter had a rifle. Out of that he started Shield 616 which supplies enhanced armor that will withstand rifle fire. Each kit costs about $2500. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Golden police detective Melissa Manzanares, second from left, and her sponsor Jane Meagher, left, check out the high-end body armor plates being given to members of the Golden Police Department by Shield616 in Golden, Colo., on Nov. 15, 2018.

Photo: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Small Towns Gear Up

As armored personnel carriers designed for combat confronted pipeline protesters at Standing Rock, Shield616 made its first Minnesota donation during a ceremony held at Chisolm Baptist Church. Most of the organization’s work in the state has centered in the Northeast, the area known as the Iron Range. Police departments in small towns, including Hibbing, Nashwauk, and Keewatin have all accepted equipment. Shield616 also donated gear to the police department in Babbitt, located near another highly controversial planned copper-nickel mine called PolyMet.

The same month as the Chisolm gift, Shield616 donated 24 vests to police officers in Bemidji, near where the controversial Enbridge Line 3 pipeline passes. The group gave seven vests to the Carlton County Sheriff’s Department in July 2017, where officers have since been active in surveilling pipeline protesters. And, in February 2018, the Fond du Lac Police Department — whose jurisdiction is near where Line 3 passes through a reservation — received 20 vests.

Minnesota opponents of Line 3 promise another Standing Rock should construction begin on the pipeline. In North Dakota, police departments across the state were called on to respond to the anti-Dakota Access pipeline protests.

Ty Techar, chief of the Gilbert, Minnesota, Police Department, which accepted two sets of Shield616 gear in June 2018, said that if his department was called to respond to Line 3 protests, he would send officers. “Do I have the equipment? I do not. We’ll just go with what we have,” Techar said. Gilbert’s population is around 1,700, and the town doesn’t see many riots or large protests.

Techar noted that if demonstrators were throwing things, the gear provided by Shield616 could be useful. “If it’s available and it can be used in another situation, I’ll use it if I have to. We call it an opportunity type of equipment,” he said. “If there’s a chance I’m going to get injured, I’m going to grab what I can get my hands on.”

The gear, though, he said, isn’t ideal for riots. The vest is heavy, and the helmet lacks a face shield. “I wouldn’t want to wear these things for longer than a half-hour, hour and a half,” he said.

Some of the police chiefs interviewed by The Intercept said they can’t think of an incident in the recent past when the gear would have been essential, but noted that many northern Minnesotans own high-powered rifles. “We haven’t thankfully had any incidents where there was issues with the schools, but that’s what they’re there for,” said Hibbing Police Sgt. Jeff Ronchetti. “We have used them for responding to calls with gunfire.”

Although many of Shield616’s donors are churches or local businesses, Twin Metals isn’t the only mining company to donate gear. The gear given to the Gilbert police was provided via a donation from Cleveland Cliffs, the company behind the expanding Thunderbird taconite mine. Cleveland Cliffs also provided 10 vests to nearby Eveleth, Minnesota.

Police Chief Tim Koivunen of Eveleth said Cleveland Cliffs has long been a generous donor to the department, providing donations for the K-9 unit and National Night Out, an event that promotes community-police relationships. “Any time I contact them, whether it’s for the DARE program and various programs, they are right there,” he said.

Chris Whitney, chief of the Keewatin, Minnesota, police, which accepted six sets of gear from Shield616, is more cautious about gifts. “Typically we don’t take a lot of donations,” he said. “People can look at it funny if you take money or donations from big businesses. It looks like you’re currying favors.” Whitney compared it to the types of suspicions that can be raised when well-to-do townspeople give money to police departments: “People can take it the wrong way. Like, ‘Oh this wealthier citizen gave you a big donation, so you’re going to patrol around their house or look the other way if they drink and drive.’”

In Duluth, $30,000 Worth of Gear

On April 26, 2018, Shield616 held one of the its gear giveaway ceremonies, this time for police in Duluth. Six police officers stood behind a table with 22 vests and helmets placed on top – approximately $30,000 worth of gear. The nonprofit had expected there to be enough officers to match up with the gear, but many of the 16 others had been called to respond to a massive explosion that morning at the Husky oil refinery in neighboring Superior, Wisconsin.

“The only riot in Duluth’s history was actually a lynching. There’s just no need for that.”

After the attendees prayed over the gear, a local bakery served “thin blue line” donuts, adorned with chocolate icing punctuated by a royal blue stripe, a reference to the so-called Blue Lives Matter movement, which sprung up to counter Black Lives Matter criticisms of police.

“If Shield616 hadn’t raised the money and bought these packages, we would purchase the gear on our own,” Officer Mike Jambor — whom Shield616 has tagged on Facebook as its liaison with the department — told a local NBC affiliate. The department declined to respond to The Intercept’s requests for comments.

Tara Houska, an anti-pipeline organizer with the Indigenous-led environmental organization Honor the Earth, testified against the $84,000 worth of riot gear that Duluth police purchased last year. “The only riot in Duluth’s history was actually a lynching,” she said in reference to the 1920 lynching of three black circus performers. “There’s just no need for that.”

Unlike many Shield616 gifts, some of the gear going to the Duluth police was from an anonymous donor, raising suspicion among activists that it is related to extractive industry work in the area. Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline has its terminus in Superior, Wisconsin, not far from Duluth.

“If the concern is shooters or some unforeseen extreme violence in our towns, I understand — if that’s actually a real concern,” Houska said. She added, with skepticism, “There happens to be a controversial, unsupported-by-the-public extraction project, which could permanently damage our waters.”

The post How a Christian Nonprofit Helped a Controversial Minnesota Mining Company Buy Gear for Local Police appeared first on The Intercept.

How a Former Death Row Prisoner and a Murder Victim’s Daughter Joined Together To Fight the Death Penalty

If you ask Cynthia Vaughn and Sabrina Butler Smith how they met, there’s a good chance they’ll erupt in laughter. It’s not your typical funny story — not as awkward first encounters go. But it’s pretty epic.

“Tell it, Cynthia,” Sabrina says. “Take it away!”

“It was at this big church,” Cynthia begins. Somewhere in Memphis. The two of them had been invited to speak on a panel organized by Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. They had never heard of one another — or so they had thought. “I’d seen the flyer and it hadn’t clicked yet,” Cynthia says. Sabrina giggles.

“We were sitting there getting ready to do everything,” Cynthia continues, “And they were introducing her. And they’re talking about how she was convicted.” Listening to the story and looking out at the audience, it suddenly dawned on Cynthia. “Ohhhhh,” she says, her eyes wide, her voice lowering to a dramatic whisper. “I remember this lady.”

Sabrina had once been notorious in Mississippi, where Cynthia grew up. Arrested in 1989 for killing her infant son, Walter, Sabrina swore she was innocent. But a nearly all-white jury sentenced her to die. She was only 19. After her conviction was overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct, however, a second jury acquitted Sabrina in December 1995. She was the first woman ever exonerated from death row in the United States.

Losing both parents in a way most people couldn’t fathom, Cynthia had grown up filled with rage.

News of Sabrina’s release had enraged Cynthia, who had just graduated high school in 1995. As a staunch supporter of capital punishment, Cynthia had no patience for those who claimed their innocence, let alone death penalty opponents who had no clue about the system in real life. She did. Her mother, Connie Johnson, was murdered in Tennessee in 1984, when Cynthia was just 7 years old. Her stepfather was sentenced to die for the crime.

Losing both parents in a way most people couldn’t fathom, Cynthia had grown up filled with rage. It radiated beyond her stepfather and toward the world around her. She became a devoted member of pro-death penalty forums, often posting during her overnight shifts as a police dispatcher. “When we weren’t busy, I would be online arguing with anti-death penalty people,” she says. One of the cases that especially incensed her was Sabrina’s.

But in 2012, everything changed. Cynthia went to see her stepfather at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. She had planned to confront him with every ounce of anger that had built inside her since she was a child — and she did. But in spite of herself, she also found herself forgiving him. It transformed her whole life. Cynthia felt freer, happier, more present for her own children. A few years later, she gathered up the courage to tell her story publicly for the first time. The response was so positive, she kept telling it. And that’s how she found herself at the church in Memphis, side by side with a woman whom she once wanted dead.

After the panel ended that night, Cynthia went to look for Sabrina in the bathroom. “And I just bombarded her,” she says. “I was like, ‘Alright, look. You don’t know me. But I know you. And I’m sorry ’cause a long time ago, I said really bad things about you.’” Sabrina forgave her.

Today, Cynthia and Sabrina tell the story like old friends. Traveling across the state to speak against the death penalty, they have worked out a routine. “I tell her, ‘You go first,’” Sabrina says. “We fought about it for a long time,” Cynthia laughs, but she agreed that it made sense. The story she shares now is not just about her own ability to forgive her stepfather anymore; it’s about a deeper transformation, the kind that will be necessary to abolish the death penalty once and for all.

That work has taken on a new urgency recently. In the summer of 2018, Tennessee carried out its first execution in nearly a decade. By the end of the year, it had killed two more men on death row. Six more people are scheduled to die between this year and 2020. The next execution is set for May 16, 2019. The man scheduled for death is Don Johnson, Cynthia’s stepfather.


Donnie Johnson at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tenn., in February.

Photo: Courtesy of Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry

After years of supporting his execution, Cynthia now desperately wants Johnson to live. She explained why at an event in February at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. It wasn’t just about forgiveness. Cynthia always craved knowledge about her mother growing up. For most of her life, she said, her mother was “like a character in a storybook,” one she could never fully picture. After recovering from the initial shock of forgiving her stepfather at the prison that day, Cynthia told Johnson, “Now you’re going to tell me things I want to know.” She asked basic questions, “simple things that people take for granted all the time. ‘What was her first car?’ And he told me. It was a Ford Torino. ‘What kind of music did she like?’ Her favorite band was the Rolling Stones.” Her favorite perfume? Chanel No. 5. “Little things that made her a human that I did not know. He gave that to me. … Nobody had ever done that for me.”

Cynthia has gone back to visit Johnson several times. And she is still asking questions. “There is so much more about her I want to know,” she says. “But I can’t do that if the state of Tennessee executes him.”

In the official narrative of capital punishment, there are victims and there are victimizers. The latter forfeit any value they might have to society; their death brings comfort and closure to the people they have harmed. Barriers to their execution — or those who protest against it — are an affront to victims and all grieving families.

The reality is far more complicated. There are the cases of actual innocence, in which the victimizer is the state. There are the revelations about the condemned that sometimes surface long after trial; childhoods often marked by extreme trauma, violence, or abuse, which complicate the definition of who we consider victims. There are the divisions within families over support for the death penalty for a loved one’s murder. And there is the inescapable reality that executions widen the trauma of a violent crime, impacting people in ways often invisible to society. In families like Cynthia’s or Sabrina’s, these are the same people who have already been victimized by the original tragedy. “People always want to say ‘victims’ family, victims’ family’ — and I’m one of those people,” Cynthia says. “But we have to understand that every single one of those inmates also have family.”

The reality of the capital punishment is far more complicated than its official narrative.

That understanding can lead to powerful acts of compassion. On the eve of the 2017 execution of Kenneth Williams in Arkansas, for example, the daughter of one of his victims not only wrote a letter asking the governor to spare his life — she flew Williams’s daughter to Arkansas to see her father before he died. “If Mr. Williams is executed,” she wrote, “her loss, her pain, will be as real as mine.” Her letter was ignored.

Despite the resurgence in executions, the reality is that death sentences are on a steep decline in Tennessee. This mirrors trends across the country, where support for the death penalty has reached historic lows. But the notion that the death penalty is justice for victims remains widely entrenched. The narrative was recently on display in Nashville, where the governor quietly signed a bill to speed up the appellate process in capital cases. Named the Sgt. Daniel Baker Act in homage to a sheriff’s deputy who was gunned down while on duty last year — and whose alleged killers have yet to be tried — the sponsors cast the legislation as an overdue remedy that has unfairly denied closure to victims’ families for years.

It’s true that the lengthy appellate process is burdensome for all involved, but Tennessee’s law will do very little to mitigate the problem. For one, it only applies to death sentences imposed after its passage — a vanishingly small number. In the meantime, politicians and prosecutors keep promising closure to victims’ families while continually delivering the opposite. “Every time I would try to get to a point in my life where I felt like I could move on, where I felt like I could try to lead some type of normal life, the death penalty is right back in my face,” Cynthia told the audience at Vanderbilt.

Politicians and prosecutors keep promising closure to victims’ families while continually delivering the opposite.

Johnson’s death has been scheduled before. One date was in 2006, when Cynthia still supported his execution. Her bags were packed to drive to Nashville. “I was ready to go,” she said. “I wanted him dead. That was my revenge. That was what I had been waiting for.” But mere days beforehand, she got a phone call telling her that he had gotten a stay. “That was probably the first time that I realized that something is just not right,” she said. “The state is making me a victim over and over and over again.” Meanwhile, she had never received the help she needed to process her trauma.

In the archived pages of the pro-death penalty websites where she once spent so much time, there’s a lot to show Cynthia wasn’t alone. The posts weren’t all bloodthirsty rants; in one thread, participants described how much they were struggling with their physical, mental, and emotional health. A mother could see how her depression was impacting her child; the grown son of a murder victim described feelings of guilt over his own mourning process. There was talk of the news media that swarm around trials or execution dates. How do you cope when everybody seems to care about you one moment and the next minute it’s like you don’t exist?

Sabrina never had a chance to mourn the loss of her son. To this day, in fact, she cannot access his grave. After she was exonerated, she became a seasoned public speaker with groups like Witness to Innocence. Yet she struggled to get a job. “Nobody wanted to hire me,” she says. Although Mississippi passed legislation in 2009 to provide compensation for the wrongfully convicted, no sum of money could address the enduring effects of her incarceration. “They didn’t give me any type of mental service, nothing.”

In a memoir published in 2011, Sabrina describes how she “became the living dead” after the death of her son. “I was an emotional zombie for many years.” The loss was compounded by the terror she felt over the threat of execution. Her first official “death date” was set soon after her conviction in 1990. While this was a mere formality given her right to appeal her conviction, Sabrina did not understand this, and her defense attorneys never explained it. A woman in a neighboring cell tried to reassure her that the state would not kill her so fast, but on that day, Sabrina woke up at 3 a.m. and paced furiously, scared for her life. “Every time I heard some keys,” she wrote, “I thought they were coming for me.”

On a Thursday afternoon in March, Sabrina and Cynthia met up again, this time at LeMoyne-Owen College, a historically black college in Memphis. Cynthia wore pink nail polish and a black top, her sleeves rolled up to the colorful tattoo she got as an homage to her mother. Sabrina wore braids and a T-shirt that read “Journey of Hope … From Violence to Healing,” which she got during a tour with an abolitionist group whose members have been impacted by murder and state-sanctioned executions.

Sabrina and Cynthia were scheduled to speak that evening, at an event co-sponsored by Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the local criminal justice reform group, Just City. In their introductory remarks, speakers would trace the death penalty to its roots in lynchings and other forms of racial violence. The legacy is ever-present in Memphis, where Confederate statues were removed from city parks in 2017. A couple blocks away from the LeMoyne-Owen campus, a historical marker stood on the site of the People’s Grocery, whose three employees were murdered in a notorious lynching that helped inspire the activism of journalist Ida B. Wells.

Sabrina and Cynthia are no strangers to this history. Both grew up in small Southern towns with mostly white populations. After her mother’s murder, Cynthia was raised by an aunt in Tunica, Mississippi, just south of Memphis. Sabrina was born in Jackson, Mississippi, later moving across the state to Columbus. “In Columbus,” Sabrina told me, “they still have a mural on the wall in the post office of people in the field picking cotton.”

This legacy makes their particular bond a point of some pride. “I’ll go there, I’ll say it,” Cynthia said as we discussed the ways their message resonates with audiences. “She’s a black woman and I’m a white woman.” In a region where racial divisions run so deep, and at a time when people seem more politically polarized than ever, Cynthia and Sabrina believe that they can reach more people together than they ever could apart. Their stories remind people of the many ways women are affected by the death penalty — it is not all about men facing execution. And they defy people’s expectations of what friendship can look like. “We’re a force,” Sabrina says.

It’s not all about shared suffering or pain, either, although the feeling of being understood brings its own joy. They have a lot of funny stories to tell, like the time at a nice restaurant after an event in Chattanooga, when they both felt out of place deciphering the menu. (“We’re not fancy people,” Cynthia says.) Driving home later that night, Cynthia got a flat tire in the middle of the night; it was Sabrina who stayed on the phone with her to make sure she got through it OK.

As the event came to a close later that night, a young woman in the audience asked Cynthia a question that gave her pause. “You are both family of the victim and family of the accused,” she said. How did she find space to grieve her mother? “I think you’re the first person to ever ask me that,” Cynthia said.

On April 3rd, a small press conference was held at Riverside Seventh-day Adventist Church in Nashville. Members of Johnson’s legal team handed out copies of a clemency petition that had been delivered to Governor Bill Lee earlier that morning. It told the story of Cynthia’s journey to forgiveness as well as Johnson’s own transformation while on death row. “It is not uncommon for inmates to have a religious experience while they are incarcerated,” Pastor Furman Fordham said. But Johnson became such a powerful leader in the prison ministry at Riverbend, the congregation took the rare move of ordaining him as a church elder in 2008.

Fordham recalled a day after church when a man approached him to say he had received bible study from Johnson in prison, a powerful testament to the role he has had helping men leave Riverbend “as changed individuals.” The clemency materials include portions of letters written on behalf of Johnson from dozens of men on death row. But the petition urges the governor to consider Cynthia above all. “She is the human being most deeply and directly affected by the weighty decision before you.”

Cynthia was not at the press conference that afternoon. It was her birthday. As she does most days, she spent the morning sleeping after her overnight shift at the casino where she works. She woke up to a chocolate cake and well-wishes from her friends. But she was bracing herself for the response to news of the clemency petition, including from family members who do not support her activism. On Facebook a couple of days later, Sabrina liked a post Cynthia put up quoting Tupac Shakur: “Y’all supposed to be happy I’m free.” (“You get it don’t ya Sabrina,” Cynthia replied.)

As Cynthia waits to hear from the governor, there is hope in the people supporting her stepfather. But the most relief right now comes from those who simply don’t judge or require explanations or expect anything from her. Sabrina gets this too. For all the years she has been telling her own story, it is always exhausting to recount your worst trauma — to reporters, to people at public events. “When you’re looking out into the audience, it’s like you have to prove something to the people,” Sabrina says. “That’s not easy. It’s not easy to put yourself right back where you started. That’s hard. So I love her because I can look over there and I can know that she shares what I know.”

The post How a Former Death Row Prisoner and a Murder Victim’s Daughter Joined Together To Fight the Death Penalty appeared first on The Intercept.

Julian Assange Languishes in Prison as His Journalistic Collaborators Brandish Their Prizes

While Julian Assange languishes in south London’s maximum security Belmarsh Prison, a British court is weighing his fate. The 48-year-old Australian founder of Wikileaks is serving time for the minor crime of jumping bail by taking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden. His fear at the time was that the Swedes, with a track record of assisting rendition of suspects sought by the U.S., would send him straight across the Atlantic. Now that he has lost his diplomatic refuge, 70 British members of Parliament have petitioned to dispatch Assange to Sweden if prosecutors there reopen the case they closed in 2017. The greater threat to his liberty is the United States Department of Justice’s extradition demand for him to stand trial in the U.S. for conspiring with Chelsea Manning to hack a government computer.

The U.S. insists Assange will not face the death penalty. If he did, Britain, in common with other European states, would not be able to send him there. The maximum sentence for the hacking offense is five years, but there is no guarantee that, once he arrives in the U.S., he will not face additional charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 that President Barack Obama used against nine individuals for allegedly leaking secret information to the public. The sentence for that offense could be death or life in prison. If Assange ends up in the U.S. federal judicial system, he may never been seen again.

His most likely destination is the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” otherwise known as the United States Penitentiary Administrative Facility (ADMAX) in Florence, Colorado. Among its 400 inmates are Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Boston Marathon terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, FBI-agent-turned-Russian-spy Robert Hanssen and Oklahoma City co-bomber Terry Nichols. The prison’s regime is as ruthless as its prisoners: 23 hour daily confinement in a concrete box cell with one window four inches wide, six bed checks a day with a seventh at weekends, one hour of exercise in an outdoor cage, showers spraying water in one-minute spurts and “shakedowns” at the discretion of prison staff.

If Trump’s Justice Department ups the ante to charge Assange under the Espionage Act, a journalist-publisher who has not committed homicide may spend the rest of his life at ADMAX among killers, traitors, and drug pushers.

I have visited Assange often over the past eight years, first at the Norfolk farmhouse of Vaughan Smith, a former British Army officer and news cameraman, where he lived under house arrest for a year and a half. The next place I saw him was in the dreary recesses of an embassy that is a little more than a 630-square-foot converted apartment with no outside space. It was not ideal, but better than ADMAX. Lawyers, supporters, and friends dropped in to keep him company. John Pilger, a few other friends, and I took him more than one Christmas dinner. As each month passed, his skin grew paler from lack of sunlight and his health deteriorated. Dr. Sean Love, who along with Dr. Sondra Crosby of the Boston Medical Center and British psychologist Dr. Brock Chisholm has conducted regular evaluations of Assange since 2017, said, “He had no ability to access medical care.” Dr. Love complained that the physicians were under constant electronic surveillance, a violation of the doctor-patient relationship, and the British government would not allow Assange safe passage to a hospital for urgent dental surgery. While the British tabloid press scorned Assange’s hygiene, it ignored what Dr. Love called “the deleterious effects of seven years of confinement, whose risks include neuro-psychological impairment, weakened bones, compromised immune function, increased risk of cardio-vascular disease and cancer.” Reacting to the stories about Assange not washing, Dr. Love insisted, “This is a complete smear. This is meant to degrade his humanity.” He believes the “cumulative effect of pain and suffering inflicted on him is most definitely in violation of the 1984 Convention on Torture, specifically Articles 1 and 16.”

At my last meeting this year with Assange, the energy that I recall at our first encounter in January 2011 was undiminished. He made coffee, glancing up at surveillance cameras in the tiny kitchen and every other room in the embassy that recorded his every movement. We talked for about an hour, when an embassy official ordered me to leave. In between, we discussed his health, his strategy to stay out of prison, his family, and the Democratic National Committee’s accusation that he colluded with President Donald Trump and Russia to hack its emails and publish them. The DNC was alleging that Assange revealed its “trade secrets,” a reference to the methods the DNC used to deprive Bernie Sanders of the presidential nomination. The DNC is using the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), meant to control organized crime, to pursue a journalist-publisher. If successful, it will set a precedent that should worry media everywhere.

President Trump’s personal lawyers insist that no crime was committed and therefore no criminal conspiracy took place. That won’t stop the DOJ under Trump’s attorney general from pursuing criminal charges against Assange, not only for working with Chelsea Manning to gain access to government secrets, but to examine how Assange obtained confidential Defense and State Department documents as well as the CIA’s hacking program that Wikileaks published in 2017 under the name Vault 7. London’s Guardian newspaper, which had once cooperated with Assange, had accused him of meeting Paul Manafort in the embassy. Assange said, “I have never met or spoken to Paul Manafort.” The embassy’s log book, signed by all visitors, had no record of Manafort.

Assange said that the restrictions and surveillance had become punitive, as there was now nowhere in the flat out of range of cameras and microphones. “It’s the Truman Show,” he joked. We knew the Ecuadorians were watching, but he believed they supplied the recordings to the U.S. Someone monitoring the cameras must have seen me taking notes, because an embassy official came into the room and ordered me to leave. “No journalists,” Assange explained. That was our last conversation. It was Friday evening. When I left, the embassy closed, the staff left, and Assange was wholly alone until Monday morning.

The road to Belmarsh began in 2006, when Wikileaks exposed a Somali rebel leader’s attempt to assassinate government officials. Next came details of the shocking procedures at America’s detention facility at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. That prompted the U.S. to shut down the Wikileaks site, which bounced back. Assange then exposed activities of the Scientology movement and, in 2010, the illegal misbehavior of the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq — through documents in which the parties indicted themselves.

Wikileaks’ collaborators were a consortium of the world’s leading newspapers, the New York Times, London’s Guardian, El Pais of Spain, and Paris’s Le Monde. If Assange violated the law, they were in it with him. While redacting thousands of Wikileaks documents to avoid identifying sensitive intelligence sources, the newspapers presented the Afghan and Iraq wars in ways that deviated from the official line. One of the best remembered disclosures was a military video of an American helicopter crew taking delight in shooting dead two Reuters journalists and ten other civilians on the streets of Iraq. When U.S. investigators discovered that the source of the leaks was an intelligence analyst named Bradley Manning, they arrested him in May 2010. Bradley, a transgender soldier who became Chelsea, received a 35-year sentence for espionage in August 2013. President Barak Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in January 2017, leaving the Assange case open.

Among Assange’s subsequent disclosures were the emails of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, no friend of Washington. Assange was becoming a rock star of free speech. Like a rock star, he attracted groupies. So far, so normal. Then he went to Sweden, where two women denounced him to police for sexual misconduct.

Swedish police dropped the case and allowed him to leave the country, but Swedish prosecutors revisited the case and demanded that Assange return to Sweden for an interview. Sources in Swedish intelligence told me at the time that they believed the U.S. had encouraged Sweden to pursue the case. Assange offered to be interviewed in London, where he felt safer from U.S. extradition than in Sweden. The Swedes, while never officially charging Assange with a crime, demanded extradition. British police arrested him pending a court hearing.

Assange was placed first in jail, then under house arrest at Vaughan Smith’s farm. When the court at last determined to send him to Sweden, he requested and received asylum in Ecuador’s embassy. Conditions were not ideal, but the Ecuadorian president and ambassador gave him full support. Visitors, including myself, came and went. In the meantime, Sweden dropped its investigation into the women’s claims. This left Assange facing only a charge of evading bail in Britain, for which he would receive only a small fine. However, if he left the embassy to report to the court, he feared the U.S. would unseal its indictment against him and demand his extradition.

On May 24, 2017, Lenín Boltaire Moreno Garcés became president of Ecuador and Assange’s life changed. An ally of President Donald Trump in need of IMF loans, Moreno replaced the ambassador with a functionary hostile to Assange’s presence in the embassy. Although the previous regime had granted Assange citizenship, based on five-plus years on what is legally Ecuadorian soil, the new government cut his internet and telephone access and restricted the number of visitors. Embassy staff changed. The new functionaries became less cordial to visitors like myself and were visibly hostile to Assange. Then, last Thursday, Moreno cast aside the principle of political asylum and told the British police to come and get him. The U.S. presented the indictment that Assange had said all along was waiting for him. And so Assange waits to know whether he will ever be free again, while journalists who published his leaked documents continue working without fear of prosecution and, in some cases, brandish their journalism prizes while denouncing the man who made them possible.

The post Julian Assange Languishes in Prison as His Journalistic Collaborators Brandish Their Prizes appeared first on The Intercept.

A Honduran Asylum-Seeker Was Brutally Murdered After Being Deported — From Mexico

Terror raced through Teresa Gonzales as both the clarity of the message and the ambiguity of the threat hit her at once. “We have a present for you waiting outside,” read the text, which appeared on her daughter Rosa’s cellphone during Saturday worship. “Mom, they’re threatening me,” said Rosa, eyes wide.

Teresa, whose family members’ names have been changed for their protection, had gone to worship at her church in central Tegucigalpa, bringing Rosa, 16, along with her. Teresa — a short, sturdy woman with round cheeks and tightly curled, black hair — tried to attend service with her family on a daily basis. On this particularly muggy Saturday, however, her older daughter, Leti, had been busy at work when she was interrupted during prayer.

Adrenaline racing, she made a quick calculation. The gang had caught up to her — it was time to run. Gathering up Rosa, she fled straight from the crowd at the cavernous Baptist church onto a bus, and straight to a cousin’s home in a nearby town.

It wasn’t the first time Teresa had fled threats like this. The year before, Rosa had caught the attention of a local gang member. The young girl refused his advances and death threats quickly spread from Rosa to the entire family, leading them to go into hiding — hopping from one place to another, only having a moment’s peace during the short time it took for the gangs to find their location again; ultimately, they attempted to flee north toward the perceived safety of the United States. They weren’t the first to leave either. Two of her other daughters had already fled, one to Spain and the other to join her brother in the United States, where she had gained asylum.

But it was the first time that her daughter Leti had stayed behind.

Leti, 20, had always been optimistic. Even after the death threats against the family began — when her little sister refused the advances of a local gangster — she was still cracking jokes about her siblings’ clothes or mocking how they talked, just to see them laugh. No matter how tired she was, she would always come home brimming with energy to help her mom with the household chores and to take care of her 2-year-old daughter, Keyla. “She was so happy,” said Teresa. She told me that during the family’s first attempt to escape the threats, they had crossed a river on a raft. “Throw me in here!” Leti had laughed “I want to learn how to swim!”

Back in Tegucigalpa, Leti would come home from work to see her mother wracked with worry and she would insist on giving Teresa a makeover, tut-tutting any sign that she had stopped taking care of herself. “Oh, when I’m old, I’ll never let myself go like this,” she would say while carefully applying eyeliner on her mother.

Leti herself was nearly always impeccably dressed, often in a white blouse (white was her favorite color). She had her mother’s cherubic cheeks and long, brown hair that flowed over her shoulders. And although Leti had just dropped out of her final year of school to take care of her daughter, she dreamed of studying psychology at university. As a kid, however, she wanted to be a lawyer. “To defend the poor,” Teresa told me. “She loved the idea of justice.”

“She wasn’t afraid, and she was so clear-headed,” said Teresa. “She would say that we don’t owe anyone anything, so we shouldn’t be scared.”

That Saturday, on Teresa’s way to her latest hiding place, the two spoke over the phone. Attempting to reassure her terrified mother and younger sibling, Leti asked them not to leave. “Don’t worry,” she implored her mother. “That boy isn’t going to do anything to you,” she said. “You are a child of God.”

“They left [her] in the wolf’s mouth,” said a family member.

Eight days later, Teresa received a troubling phone call. Leti had gone out on a double date with a childhood friend and never returned — she had been missing since Sunday.

Leaving Rosa asleep in their hiding place, Leti’s mother rushed to Tegucigalpa. She had only just arrived in front of her first stop, the national registry, when the phone rang. It was a call from her pastor.

“Tere, we found Leti,” he said.

Teresa breathed in sharply. “How is she?”

The pastor’s response was shattering: “She’s dead.”

Live images of the crime scene had begun rolling across her neighbors’ TV screens. The two women’s bodies had been found decomposing in a stream, only recognizable by the clothing they wore.

“She was tortured,” Teresa told me.

“Asphyxia by strangulation,” read the death certificate.

Leti’s family was devastated. But her death wasn’t a surprise for those who lived in turbulent neighborhoods like hers in Tegucigalpa. Honduras is beleaguered by warring gangs and police — unofficial armies in the unofficial, indiscriminate war that plagues the Northern Triangle of Central America, catching innocent civilians in the crossfire.

It also would not have surprised Hondurans that Leti was a deportee, detained and turned away after a final, defiant attempt four months prior to escape the death threats against her family. However, Leti was deported not from the United States, but from Monterrey, Mexico. And although the Gonzales women had a valid claim for asylum under Mexican law, and despite their repeated requests to immigration agents, they were never given the chance to apply for it before being put on a bus back to Honduras and Leti’s death.

According a Migration Policy Institute analysis of both U.S. and Mexican deportations, from 2015 to 2017, Mexico had already deported roughly 409,000 Central American migrants, nearly double the number of its northern neighbor. This was no accident. Much political pressure and direct funding from the United States has focused on Mexico’s immigration enforcement. And, according to Maureen Meyer, director of Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, Mexico has accepted its role as a barrier for those looking to reach the U.S. border.

“It’s shocking,” said Meyer, “knowing … the infrastructure in Mexico, the widespread abuses that happen against migrants in Mexico, and the very weak asylum system Mexico has, that we were still asking Mexico to do what they were doing.”

The United States has domestic and international obligations not to deport asylum-seekers to their deaths, but by expecting Mexico to do this work for them, the Trump administration can turn a blind eye to what happens next. Effectively, Trump’s wall has already been built — but on Mexican soil.

“It doesn’t always seem that their main interest at all is what happens to people in Mexico, as much as making sure people don’t get to our border,” said Meyer.

Mexico’s Wall

A year before Teresa’s family was sent back to Honduras, the Trump administration centered its 2016 campaign around the promise of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and making Mexico pay for it. After Trump took office, his administration continued funding projects begun under the Obama administration such as the $3 billion Mérida Initiative, which includes four pillars, the third of which is the creation of a Mexican “21st Century Border.” According to a Congressional Research Service report, this involves “support for securing Mexico’s porous and insecure southern borders,” including “$24 million in equipment and training assistance”; in addition, the U.S. government has obligated “$75 million more in that area.” According to the same report, these appropriations enable the U.S. government to “shape Mexico’s policies.” One such policy is Mexico’s Southern Border Plan, aimed at stopping migrants as they cross into Mexican territory from Guatemala. As reported by the New York Times, under the direction of the Trump administration, the U.S. State Department additionally funneled $20 million toward deportation flights from Mexico.

Then, entire caravans of asylum-seekers began flowing once again through Mexico toward the United States. “Would be very SMART if Mexico would stop the Caravans long before they get to our Southern Border,” Trump tweeted on November 25. Trump also began to pressure Mexico to become a “safe third country,” which would mean migrants would be legally obligated to request asylum in Mexico before doing so in the United States. Mexico resisted. But soon thereafter, at the end of 2018, the “remain in Mexico,” or “Migrant Protection Protocols,” plan was introduced. It would leave thousands of asylum-seekers sitting just south of the U.S. border, effectively leaving Mexico’s buckling immigration institutions to simultaneously take on both its own and the United States’s asylum-seekers.

Meanwhile, Mexico elected a new president as well. Andrés Manuel López Obrador called migration “a human right we will defend,” proposing a new politics of immigration in Mexico. Such a statement was a sharp contrast to the rhetoric and policies of the past administration — perhaps the most recent, glaring example of which was the militarized closing of the Mexico-Guatemala border, where tear gas was used as the first migrant caravans attempted to enter Mexico last year. Since taking office in 2019, López Obrador promised to clean up the practices of the National Migration Institute, known by its Spanish initials INM; invest in Central America; and bolster his asylum offices while also giving migrants the opportunity to stay and work in Mexico. But to this day, say many, he has not addressed the core of Mexico’s biggest problem — the deep rift between Mexico’s broken asylum system and the better-funded but deeply corrupt immigration forces.

Article 21 of Mexico’s refugee law states that that if a representative of the government becomes aware of a foreigner requesting asylum, they must tell the Ministry of the Interior or be sanctioned. Yet both a 2018 report from Amnesty International and the Mexican immigration authority’s own internal review in 2017 revealed many irregularities in INM’s handling of asylum-seekers. Rather than caring properly for asylum-seekers in detention, the INM has been actively seeking to forcibly deport migrants — no matter how well-founded their fear of return.

“The Mexican government is routinely failing in its obligations under international law to protect those who are in need of international protection,” said the Amnesty International report, “as well as repeatedly violating the non-refoulement principle, a binding pillar of international law that prohibits the return of people to a real risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations. These failures by the Mexican government in many cases can cost the lives of those returned to the country from which they fled.”

Mexico’s asylum and refugee agency, the Commission for Refugee Aid, known by its Spanish acronym COMAR, currently operates with minimal personnel and an even lower budget than it did under the Peña Nieto administration. In 2019, the Mexican government approved an operating budget of roughly $1 million, about $250,000 less than in 2018. Meanwhile, the INM is still receiving over $70 million in support from the Mexican government, despite also its own budget also being cut.

According to Ruth Wasem, former congressional researcher and professor of public policy at the University of Texas, Mexico has the asylum laws, but not the institutions to implement them. “We have the laws and the institutions,” she says. “But we’re lacking the political will.”

Meanwhile, lives like Leti’s may continue to fall through the cracks.


Illustration: Cornelia Li for The Intercept

Fleeing North

Four months before Leti’s death on June 4, 2017, Teresa’s family and dozens of other migrants barreled north in the back of a suffocatingly hot shipping container.

“We were in the trailer for thirty hours without food or water,” Teresa told me in October from her hiding place in Honduras. “We were stacked in between each other’s legs.”

Once the train was well inside Mexico and they had escaped the inferno of the container, Leti and her family members, two of whom were now sick and covered in mosquito bites, were put on a bus going north. The Gonzales women had nearly arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border north of Monterrey when the bus lurched to a halt.

“Immigration had stopped it, and we hadn’t even realized,” said Teresa.

Teresa was delirious from stress and dehydration. However, when INM agents stopped her bus, Leti’s mother still managed to do what she had long ago decided: turn herself into the authorities and tell them that her family was fleeing for their lives. But when she presented her family’s papers, it was Mexican immigration agents she was facing, not the U.S. Border Patrol.

Quickly, all four of them were thrown into detention in Nuevo León.

According to Gabriela Zamora, an immigration researcher at Colegio de la Frontera Norte who is a co-founder of Casa Monarca, one of Monterrey’s most prominent migrant shelters, “they would have sent them forcibly … to a migration detention center, which Monterrey still lacks.” Zamora’s best guess for what would have been a likely location is Piedras Negras, in Coahuila, at the facility where members of the 2019 Honduran caravan would later be detained in February.

“I was so nervous after everything that had happened,” said Teresa. She again told the agents of the threats, of her fear for the lives of her children. According to Mexican law, Leti’s family had the right to hire legal counsel and to medical care and medication. In 2016, the INM had also signed a non-mandatory “alternatives to detention” agreement with COMAR and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, allowing asylum-seekers to be released from detention. But the INM agent speaking to Teresa pushed back. “They told me that we were already scheduled for deportation,” she said.

Teresa was scared. “I didn’t want to go back,” she said. But Leti, as usual, was worried for her mother — and for good reason. Teresa’s mind and health were quickly deteriorating. Her blood sugar levels had risen to be dangerously high. “Mommy, we don’t have issues with anyone,” she said, panicked that they were trapped in the center without medicine.

Teresa held tight, praying for the chance to at least stay in the relative safety of Mexico, despite her deteriorating health. She took solace in the biblical story of Noah. “He saved himself and his entire family, after floating for many years,” she said. “Sometimes I think, ‘If they suffered, why can’t we?’ That story gives me a lot of strength.”

Yet within 10 days, the bus arrived to deport their family back to Honduras. “They told me that the consul hadn’t come, so we had to go back to our country,” said Teresa. The agent told her that if she were to apply for asylum, she would have to wait for three months in detention. “My sugar had risen a lot,” she said. So she acquiesced to her daughter.

“Maybe if I had just stayed, Leti would be alive,” Teresa later told me, her voice shaking.

“It’s unfortunately all too common that potential asylum-seekers apprehended in Mexico are … not informed of the right to seek protection,” said Meyer. “And I think the overall consensus is that most immigration officers … are much more focused on the apprehension, detention, deportation side of things.”

Madeleine Penman, author of the 2018 Amnesty International report titled “Overlooked, Under-Protected: Mexico’s Deadly Refoulement of Central Americans Seeking Asylum,” conducted two years of research and more than 100 interviews with migrants and immigration officials alike. “What we saw was that on a routine basis, people were being returned to Honduras and El Salvador that had a clearly well-founded fear of danger. This is a clear violation of international law and Mexican law that we saw happening on a common basis.”

The INM did not respond to requests for comment.

Since the report’s publication, Penman said she has been personally involved in stopping deportations while visiting detention centers in Mexico. “Because the systems of the INM and COMAR are so poor and coordination is so poor, it’s not clear who’s on a deportation list and who’s actually an asylum-seeker.”

Seeking Refuge

If Leti and her family had been allowed to file a claim for asylum, there was still no assurance that it would have gone smoothly. INM agents have gone beyond just dissuading migrants from claiming asylum in the detention centers. Documents obtained by The Intercept show that COMAR has received fabricated letters from the INM that claim to be from migrants they have detained. These letters, claiming the migrant is renouncing asylum claims and requesting deportation, are later faxed to COMAR offices, effectively canceling any future chance at asylum in the country.

“This kind of situation is very common,” a source inside COMAR confirmed. “They present us with a handwritten note saying, ‘Thank you COMAR but I cannot continue with the process,’” said the source, who requested anonymity due to fears of professional retaliation. “It’s not the applicant, because they fill out their form, and when comparing the handwriting, it isn’t the same, the signature is not the same, and then that same person will come back requesting to continue with their claim, saying ‘I never signed this!’”

Pamela Lopez, a former asylum adjudication officer at Mexico’s COMAR in Tapachula, agrees. “Sometimes, because of capacity, they try to get rid of people, just to not have them there,” she said. In her experience, “[The INM] has falsified applicants’ writing many times.” She, too, has had applicants return past the border to check on their application, only to find that it had been withdrawn.

The Mexican interior secretary, Olga Sánchez Cordero, has estimated that there will be 48,000 asylum applicants in 2019. And according to new data from Mexico’s office of the UNHCR, January and February of this year saw an 185 percent increase in asylum applications in Mexico compared to the same months last year. But for those who listened to López Obrador’s rhetoric during the campaign, it came as a shock when his government cut COMAR’s already-minuscule budget for 2019.

On February 28, 2019, at a forum run by the Migration Policy Institute, Sánchez Cordero said that the answer to this gap in funding will be support from the UNHCR itself. “Traditionally, our country has been a friendly, hospitable country,” she said. “And we would like to continue to be one when it comes to asylum and refugees. We can strengthen COMAR, and with the support of the UNHCR, we can start to strengthen our agency … in order to expedite the requests we’ve received.”

But the last time UNHCR lent helped COMAR with hiring, Mexico’s corruption still got in the way. When the first migrant caravan began forming in October 2018, COMAR was pressured to aggressively pursue asylum applications for the migrants in the caravan before they reached the United States. At the time, Tapachula’s COMAR outpost only had a staff of about 30. The UNHCR stepped in to help Mexico hire 22 new employees for six months to support the intake of the caravan’s migrants. According to documents obtained by The Intercept and as reported in Mexico’s newspaper La Reforma, however, at least one of the jobs was taken by Roberto José Pacheco Alegría, the husband of COMAR’s head delegate in Chiapas, who was contracted as a registry assistant and listed as working on the intake of migrants seeking asylum. According to COMAR, the delegate was verbally reprimanded by the López Obrador administration. “Whilst there should be zero tolerance with respect to nepotistic practices,” wrote spokesperson Carmen Soriano in an e-mail, “the enormous workload, the caravan, and the overall excellent and committed job on the part of the delegate and COMAR’s weak operation capacity, we considered to keep the delegate in her job provided that such practice will not be tolerated in the future.”

Others who were contracted were young and inexperienced, and immediately went to work deciding the fate of migrants asking for asylum. COMAR told The Intercept that each and every staff member was trained by UNHCR staff and knowledgeable COMAR colleagues on basic refugee protection issues. Lopez, however, differs in her account. “They were never trained,” said Lopez. “Just sit at the desk, look it over, and here are your cases.” In Mexico, asylum decisions, which can mean the difference between safety and possible harm or death, are made largely by the one asylum officer you are assigned.


Illustration: Cornelia Li for The Intercept

A Parting of the Seas

After Leti’s murder, Teresa was determined to keep her last daughter in Honduras alive. First, they moved towns again to hide from Rosa’s pursuers, spending their days inside. After being cooped up for multiple weeks, Teresa finally took pity on her daughter and let her out to find work. Quickly thereafter, the threats flooded in yet again. “They sent me pictures and videos of her,” said Teresa.

In February, Teresa’s blood sugar levels spiked to 400, but the idea of losing another daughter was unbearable. So they traveled north, where they were caught once again by the INM and detained, this time in Tenosique. There, Teresa saw a doctor, but was given no medication.

According to an email from COMAR, the INM and COMAR have recently signed a cooperation agreement aiming at ending refoulement practices. But these changes, again, didn’t reach Teresa’s family.

“Better you go back to your country and try again,” the agent told her.

After their deportation, Rosa and Teresa hid in a friend’s hallway in Tegucigalpa. A neighbor, knowing the danger they faced, mortgaged her house and lent them the money to flee again.

This time — just as the Trump administration was preparing to send back the first asylum-seekers under the “remain in Mexico” program — Teresa and Rosa reached the United States. As their raft ran aground in the Rio Grande, on the shores of McAllen, Texas, they were immediately apprehended. The first and only thing Teresa said to Border Patrol: “We want asylum.”

One week after they were released from immigration detention, Teresa asked me to join her at church. “Miracles happen here!” proclaimed a giant LED sign on the wall. Red and blue spotlights crisscrossed the huge megachurch, and Teresa swayed to the Christian rock band playing at the pulpit. She hugged her granddaughter and Rosa, her feet firmly together and her hands raised up at the elbows. “Eternal, limitless. Borderless, I am,” sang the family, hundreds of voices in unison. Tears rolled town Teresa’s cheeks, and she frantically tried to fix her mascara, trading quick glances with her daughter.

At church now, she told me, Teresa asks God to give her strength —“that he protects my children.”

After leaving all their worldly possessions behind in Tegucigalpa and changing phones numerous times to shake their pursuers, Teresa and her family have lost most physical reminders of Leti. When she can bear it, Teresa returns to the memories that are still inscribed in her social media accounts. They are mostly family memories: trips to the river with Keyla, birthday parties. These moments now haunt Teresa, who still can barely speak of her lost daughter.

Later that afternoon, Teresa leaned back on her family’s bed in the United States, and I asked what her hopes are now. She looked out the window, her black curls falling around her face, her lips pressed together. “I often think about the Red Sea,” said Teresa, surrounded by the six family members that share her small studio apartment. “The U.S. is parting the seas so we can pass, giving us an opportunity.”

The family is now in deportation proceedings, with a court date set for March 2020. Without a way to legally work, they are uncertain how they will afford a lawyer or apply for asylum. But they are hopeful.

After their arrival, Rosa was busy with the basics of registering for high school: vaccinations, setting up English immersion classes. She told her mother, who is illiterate, that she wants to study and succeed for Leti and for her niece. “She told me, Keyla no longer has her mother, but I can give her a better life.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Global Migration Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

The post A Honduran Asylum-Seeker Was Brutally Murdered After Being Deported — From Mexico appeared first on The Intercept.

ICE Set to Deport Somalis Who Were Returned to U.S. on Infamous Botched Flight

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is planning on Thursday to deport a number of Somali immigrants who were part of an infamous botched deportation flight in December 2017, according to their legal team. During the trip, the deportees said, they experienced verbal and physical abuse at the hands of ICE officers, and they have been detained and entangled in court proceedings since their involuntary return.

The planned deportations come nearly a month after a federal judge in Florida dismissed a class-action lawsuit brought by lawyers for the 92 Somali passengers who were on that flight. In the lawsuit, the Somali nationals asked the court to block the Department of Homeland Security from deporting them until they’d had a chance to try to reopen their immigration cases.

“At this point, all Plaintiffs have had a reasonable opportunity to file motions to reopen. Most have been granted and those Plaintiffs have accordingly been dismissed from this action,” wrote Judge Darrin Gayles in a March 14 order. “The few Plaintiffs whose motions have been denied may seek appellate review and stays of removal with the Board of Immigration Appeals.”

The exact number of Somalis to be deported from Louisiana, where they are currently being held, is in flux, according to their legal team. It is likely, however, that ICE will deport six people whose motions to halt their deportations are pending either before the Board of Immigration Appeals or a federal appellate court. ICE has moved at least nine other people who were on the December 2017 flight to Louisiana in recent weeks, though ICE has guaranteed that at least six of them won’t be deported on Thursday, according to their legal team.

“We are happy to have been able to help those who would have been deported to Somalia in December 2017 to a potentially catastrophic result, and the stories of the men and women who have been able to go back to their families in the U.S. are particularly gratifying,” said Lisa Lehner, an attorney at the Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice, who is part of a national team of lawyers who represented the Somalis in federal court and in their motions to reopen. “We hope that the government will be as mindful as Judge Gayles was to the predicament of those who still have pending avenues for relief [in] this country.”

A spokesperson for ICE declined to answer questions about its plans to deport the detained Somalis on Thursday. “ICE doesn’t discuss future operations due to operational security so I am not able to speak as to if/when any future removal may be scheduled,” ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox wrote in an email. “I would be able to confirm a removal after it has been completed.”

ICE first attempted to deport this group of Somali immigrants on December 7, 2017. Due to a mechanical problem with their airplane, they sat on a runway in Dakar, Senegal, for 23 hours before being returned to the United States. Upon their return, the passengers reported that they had been shackled by their wrists, waists, and legs for nearly 48 hours, had been forced to urinate on themselves, and had experienced abuse at the hands of the officers on board the plane. ICE has denied those allegations.

ICE intended to make a quick second attempt at deporting the Somali immigrants, at which point a team of lawyers from the Immigration Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law, Americans for Immigrant Justice, the James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School, and Legal Aid Service of Broward County filed a lawsuit to halt their deportations.

“As the plane sat on the runway, the 92 detainees remained bound, their handcuffs secured to their waists, and their feet shackled together,” the complaint reads. “When the plane’s toilets overfilled with human waste, some of the detainees were left to urinate into bottles or on themselves. ICE agents wrapped some who protested, or just stood up to ask a question, in full-body restraints. ICE agents kicked, struck, or dragged detainees down the aisle of the plane, and subjected some to verbal abuse and threats.”

When the group was returned to the United States, they were detained at the Krome Detention Center in Miami and the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven, Florida. At Glades, the detained Somalis have complained about additional instances of physical and racial abuse at the hands of ICE, and some of them have sued the agency for denying their requests for religious observance.

Most of the 92 passengers filed motions to reopen their immigration cases, though some of them chose to be deported to Somalia, rather than spend additional time in immigration detention and wait out what could be a lengthy process. A motion to reopen, if granted, gets rid of a deportation order against an immigrant, meaning that they cannot be involuntarily shipped out of the country. The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed to reopen 39 of the Somalis’ cases, while it sent four cases to immigration court for further proceedings, according to their legal team. The Board of Immigration Appeals denied 15 of the requests, and another two individuals are awaiting decisions in their cases.

Gayles dismissed the lawsuit for jurisdictional reasons, saying that the district court was not in a position to oversee pending immigration appeals. He indicated in his order, however, that he hoped that ICE would give the detained Somalis more time to litigate their immigration cases. “The Court is mindful of the plight of those Plaintiffs whose motions to reopen were denied by the immigration court,” the judge wrote in a footnote. “The Court hopes the government will delay removal of these Plaintiffs until after their appeals are completed to give them the opportunity to litigate these cases while present in the United States.”

ICE, seemingly, is disregarding that judicial plea.

The post ICE Set to Deport Somalis Who Were Returned to U.S. on Infamous Botched Flight appeared first on The Intercept.

As Black Activists Protested Police Killings, Homeland Security Worried They Might Join ISIS

As nationwide protests against police killings of black men began rolling across the country in 2014, federal and local law enforcement who were closely monitoring protesters’ online activities repeatedly expressed a bizarre concern: that the mostly black activists demanding an end to police violence in the U.S. might join with Islamic fundamentalist groups promoting violence abroad.

That concern was unequivocally baseless, and no evidence ever emerged to substantiate it. Still, documents obtained by the government transparency group Property of the People, which were shared exclusively with The Intercept, reveal that officials with the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence exaggerated the significance of isolated social media activity, mostly by foreign accounts, advocating for a connection between the domestic movement against police brutality and foreign terrorism.

In intelligence reports and internal communications circulated around the time of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the 2015 Baltimore protests following the death in custody of Freddie Gray, DHS officials fretted that the Islamic State might attempt “to use the situation in Ferguson as a recruitment tool” or call on “Baltimore rioters to join them.” And in July 2016, during nationwide protests against the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a cabinet position, circulated a memo warning that a lone, foreign pro-Al Qaeda Facebook user sought to seize on the protests to urge “‘Black’ Americans to take up arms” and “start armed war against the US government.”

Bloomberg's Best Photos 2014: A demonstrator holding a red rose kneels in front of armed police officers and raises their hands above her head during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014. A grand jury will begin hearing evidence tomorrow in the police shooting death of Ferguson, Missouri, teenager Michael Brown, as violent clashes continued in the St. Louis suburb. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A demonstrator holding a red rose kneels in front of armed police officers during protests in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 19, 2014.

Photo: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A Fixation Born of Bias

These official warnings that U.S. activism against police violence might be exploited as a recruitment opportunity by violent foreign terrorist groups slightly preceded the FBI’s designation of a “Black Identity Extremist” domestic terrorism category, which essentially cast large numbers of the same black activists as potential homegrown violent extremists. As The Intercept has reported, the FBI’s “Black Identity Extremism” label, while first used in a 2017 threat assessment report, originated on the heels of the Ferguson protests, and the first individual the FBI designated as a “black identity extremist” was a young Ferguson protester the agency had entrapped. But just as there is no evidence that a “Black Identity Extremist” ideology actually exists, there is also no evidence that U.S. activists ever saw or in any way responded to sporadic social media calls to join foreign fundamentalist Islamic groups.

If anything, critics say, law enforcement’s fixation on that nonexistent connection is testimony to both their anti-black and anti-Muslim bias.

“They try to make it more scary, it’s like, ‘If we link Islam to it, and we link Muslims to it, then people will see this as a real threat, because nothing is scarier than Muslims,’” Umar Lee, a well-known St. Louis activist, who is Muslim, told The Intercept, referring to the movement for black lives that started in Ferguson. “Nothing is scarier than, ‘Hey, if the Muslims get together with these scary black dudes, then we got a real problem, so we need every resource available to stop this.’”

“They already have a massive amount of funding to do quote unquote counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, and all these other things that they do,” Lee noted, referring to well-funded domestic intelligence initiatives that have primarily targeted U.S. Muslims. “And they come up empty because the reality is that there are very few, hardly any people that are engaged in these activities.”

Civil rights advocates maintain the documents’ message is both baseless and dangerous.

“Blackness and Muslim identity have been cast as threatening since America’s founding,” said Omar Farah, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which sued the FBI and DHS to obtain more information about its surveillance of black activists. “No surprise, then, that these documents reveal near obsessive fear of their intersection.”

“It’s inflammatory,” echoed Nusrat Choudhury, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program. “Just because members of foreign organizations are calling on domestic protesters to join their movements, that does not show those people in the United States are posing any threat of violence.”

The ACLU, which last month also sued the FBI to obtain more information about the secretive “Black Identity Extremism” label, warned that casting individuals who express legitimate grievances as “extremists” risks exposing them to police harassment and stifling a movement that is badly needed. “There are long-standing, deep, structural, racial injustices in America, and people are allowed to call on this country to do better,” Choudhury said. “They’re allowed to do it under our Constitution, and frankly we need them to do it, because that is what has always led to racial justice in America.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond to a request for comment from The Intercept. DHS declined to comment on the record.


A Fox News story shared by DHS officials during the Baltimore protests, referenced in a release by the Center for Constitutional Rights about Islamophobic press coverage.

Screenshot: The Intercept

Fictional Connections to International Terrorism

The documents obtained via public records requests by Property of the People supplement similar documents previously made public by CCR and the racial justice group Color of Change. The earlier set of documents includes Islamophobic press coverage shared by DHS officials during the Baltimore protests, such as a Fox News story claiming that “Muslim groups seek to co-opt Ferguson protests” and an op-ed warning that the Islamic State, “which has stunned the world for its filmed beheadings and abuse of non-Muslims, is looking to capitalize on growing racial tension in the American city by claiming there is ‘no difference between black and white’ in their society.” It also includes an FBI situation report, issued less than two weeks into the Ferguson protests, warning that “ISIS supporters are urging Ferguson protestors to embrace radical Islam and engage in further violence. They are also reportedly telling any ISIS supporters in the US to travel to Ferguson.”

“Senior federal law enforcement assessing hysterical tabloids about ISIS co-opting the Ferguson protests is foolish,” said CCR’s Farah. “It would be comical if there weren’t dangerous implications for people of color and Muslims who speak out for justice only to be met with militarized police responses.”

The new set of documents, a selection of which The Intercept is publishing with this story, includes more internal assessments and emails exchanged by federal and law enforcement officials between 2014 and 2016.

In a partially redacted document marked for “DHS internal use only,” circulated days after a grand jury in Missouri declined to indict officer Darren Wilson for Brown’s killing, officials warned that “a purported fighter with the Islamic state, posted two images earlier today regarding Ferguson calling for the protesters to swear loyalty to the Islamic State.” The document also noted that the images were “making their rounds on English-language support accounts for the Islamic State,” though it made no mention of whether anyone affiliated with the Ferguson protests actually saw or responded to them.

In another redacted DHS intelligence document, released at the height of the 2015 Baltimore protests, officials warned that the account of a “presumed USPER,” a term used by intelligence officials to refer to U.S. citizens and residents, had called upon “‘indigenous peoples’ of the Americas and ‘Afro-Americans who are oppressed’ to attack ‘Anglo-American supremacists.’” The report continued: “There were multiple references to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri which was likely designed to resonate with an audience wider than [redacted name] has typically targeted. The messaging reflects [redacted name’s] awareness of recent US media coverage of perceived racial and other issues in American society, which the group is trying to exploit.” As in the earlier case, this assessment, too, offers no indication that anyone involved with the protests actually saw the posts.

In December 2015, in Minneapolis, following the police killing of Jamar Clark, DHS posted a report indicating that it was closely watching the social media accounts of a number of people, and noted that one user “expresses support for Islamic State” and another posted a photo revealing an “Islam Is Life” tattoo. DHS again reported that a “US person posted a call for Islamic State support” in July 2016, days after the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.

Shortly after that, as the deaths of Castile and Sterling were followed by deadly attacks on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a warning based on the Facebook posts of a Bangladesh-based Al Qaeda supporter. The user called on black Americans to draw inspiration from Micah Johnson, who on July 7 had killed five police officers and injured several others at a protest against police brutality in Dallas. “Like the Dallas attacker in US, we appeal to the other negro Americans to jump into the agitation to realize their rights,” the user wrote, according to the intelligence memo. “Pick up arms, like this attacker, against the terrorist US Armed Forces. Fight for your rights.”

The reports quickly trickled down to local law enforcement and fusion centers across the country. In a July 2016 assessment by the Greater Cincinnati Fusion Center, for instance, officials preparing for an upcoming NAACP convention in that city warned that “FTOs such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, have encouraged HVEs to conduct attacks within the Homeland,” the memo noted, using acronyms for Foreign Terrorist Organizations and Homegrown Violent Extremists. “These groups use social media to inspire and urge violent extremists to attack targets in the Homeland, including mass gatherings such as the NAACP convention.”

That assessment listed a number of potential threats to the gathering and included references to a series of recent incidents of white supremacist violence specifically targeting African-Americans. But it also included much vaguer warnings that “ISIL” had recently “released an audio message urging its supporters to launch lone wolf attacks against military and civilian targets within the Homeland.” Theodore Sampson, a member of the fusion center and captain with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, wrote in a statement to The Intercept that the threat assessment, conducted in partnership with DHS, was “intended to support the security and public safety efforts of government agencies and private sector partners in identifying, deterring, preventing, and responding to potential threats during the convention” and that such “threat assessments are designed to look objectively at potential threats towards an event or venue without bias.”

“In 2016, foreign terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula had repeatedly called for homegrown violent extremists to conduct attack within the United States.  This messaging was published in al-Qa’ida’s magazine Inspire and ISIL’s Dabiq publication and recordings sent our through the internet and radio.  Additionally, these terrorist organizations and sympathizers utilized social media to encourage attacks within the Homeland,” Sampson wrote. “In this particular threat assessment, the reference to the audio message was to illustrate a recent example of the messaging encouraging lone wolf attacks towards mass gathering events and point out that homegrown violent extremist attacks were a persistent threat to mass gathering events.”

The NAACP, which last month requested that Congress hold hearings on domestic terrorism and “the ways in which Black activists are being tracked and monitored by government agencies,” could not immediately be reached for comment.

Absent from all these documents is any evidence that anyone associated with protests in the U.S. had responded to the exhortations of Islamic extremists — or that they had ever even seen those calls in the first place. Still, law enforcement’s close scrutiny of these isolated instances, even when none of them seem to have amounted to anything more substantial than social media posts, and the fact that these calls were prominently included in intelligence assessment reports, risked conflating, in the eyes of law enforcement, legitimate domestic protest with foreign terrorism.

Ryan Shapiro, Property of the People’s executive director, noted that government efforts to denigrate domestic critics by associating them with foreign enemies was an old and tested repressive tactic. “Since even before the FBI was named the FBI, U.S. intelligence agencies have preposterously targeted progressive dissent at home as tied to enemies abroad,” he told The Intercept. “Today’s obscene attempts to link Black Lives Matter to ISIS and Al Qaeda stand on the shoulders of a century of similar efforts to tar American dissent, especially in struggles for racial justice, as fronts for enemy agents.”

Shapiro also noted that the documents showed a propensity by federal law enforcement to base their “open source” intelligence-gathering on the conspiracy theories of conservative news outlets, which officials uncritically circulated during the protests. In addition to Islamophobic coverage, DHS officials shared during the Ferguson and Baltimore protests, for instance, in July 2016 the Office of the Director of National Intelligence circulated news stories, by Fox News and the U.K. tabloid Daily Mail, about a photo posted on Facebook in the aftermath of the Dallas killings that showed “a man dressed in black slashing a uniformed officer’s throat with a knife as blood spills out of the cop’s neck.” By contrast, earlier that summer, DHS officials monitoring protests in Minneapolis had also shared a story by the liberal publication AlterNet revealing that a local police union leader who had called Black Lives Matter a “terrorist organization” had a history of racist attitudes and was connected to a “white power-linked” bike gang. In that case, however, the officer circulating the story added a comment: “This article sounds like a drummed up hit piece to me,” the officer wrote. “But it’s nonetheless interesting to see all the race-related drama in Minneapolis at the moment.”

“Homeland Security is basing terrorist intelligence assessments of Black Lives Matter on articles from Fox News and a British tabloid that literally warns of the great menace posed by Putin’s purported army of hypnotic, shapeshifting super squid,” said Shapiro, referring to DHS officials sharing a report about Islamic State members calling on black protesters to join them by the U.K.’s Daily Express, which also published a particularly outlandish story about the Russian president. “Meanwhile,” Shapiro added, “DHS and other U.S. agencies are contorting themselves to ignore clear evidence of the dire threat from the far right.”

CANNON BALL, NORTH DAKOTA - DECEMBER 4: Native americans celebrate their victory after Sioux Chief Arvol Looking Horse announced, to members of over 300 nations,  that the US Army Corps of Engineers will no longer grant access to the Dakota Access Pipeline to put their pipe line on the boundary of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation at Oceti Sakowin camp on December 4, 2016 in Cannon Ball North Dakota, Colorado. Native Americans and activists from around the country have been gathering at the camp for several months trying to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The proposed 1,172-mile-long pipeline would transport oil from the North Dakota Bakken region through South Dakota, Iowa and into Illinois. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Native Americans and activists celebrate their victory at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation at Oceti Sakowin camp in North Dakota on Dec. 4, 2016, after Sioux Chief Arvol Looking Horse announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would explore alternative routes for the Dakota Access pipeline.

Photo: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Exposing Activists to Serious Risk

Federal officials weren’t the only ones seeking to associate domestic dissent to foreign terrorism. Starting in Ferguson, a number of elected and law enforcement officials across the country referred to protesters not only by using racist terms such as “thugs,” but also, increasingly, by calling them “terrorists,” a reference that the FBI’s “Black Identity Extremism” report only seemed to validate.

Indigenous and environmental rights activists involved in the Standing Rock protest movement were also repeatedly characterized as “terrorists.” As The Intercept reported, private security contractors hired by the oil company behind the Dakota Access pipeline referred to the peaceful protest movement born to oppose the pipeline as a “jihadist insurgency” — and routinely shared intelligence assessments with law enforcement that portrayed activists as dangerous threats.

At Standing Rock, as in Ferguson, those watching the growing protests also paid particular attention to displays of solidarity with Palestine, with private security in North Dakota, for instance, noting that “the presence of additional Palestinians in the camp, and the movement’s involvement with Islamic individuals is a dynamic that requires further examination.”

“To them, a Palestinian flag might as well be an ISIS flag,” said Lee, the Ferguson activist, referring to the baseless conflation of the Palestinian struggle with Islamic extremism.

“It wouldn’t shock me at all to see misinterpretation of symbols, conflation of different groups, of different racial and ethnic and political and religious backgrounds, under this vector of challenging a Muslim boogeyman,” echoed Choudhury. “It’s absurd.”

FERGUSON, UNITED STATES - AUGUST 16:  A protester waves Palestinian flag in solidarity with Gaza as Americans shout slogans and hold banners during a demonstration against the death of eighteen-year-old unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 16, 2014. Brown, allegedly stole some cigars, shot dead by police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri on August 09, 2014. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

A protester waves a Palestinian flag in solidarity with Gaza during a demonstration after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 16, 2014.

Photo: Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Choudhury, who for years has worked to expose an FBI “racial and ethnic mapping program,” noted that following the 9/11 attacks, the ACLU has obtained a number of intelligence documents that revealed the surveillance of Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian groups, premised on what she called a “totally unsubstantiated” recruitment threat from foreign Islamist groups. The ACLU, she added, also exposed intelligence training material filled with racial stereotypes about people of Arab descent and Muslims, showing the agency’s profound ignorance about the very people it was surveilling.

But while there was never any evidence that foreign extremists’ isolated appeals to U.S. activists had any effect, critics said the mere suggestion exposed those activists to serious risk.

“That is the inevitable result of the creation of such a flawed intelligence product, that it inspires fear, and that it is going to lead to federal and state and local law enforcement’s targeting of black activists based on nothing close to wrongdoing or violence,” said Choudhury. “It’s very dangerous, because it leads to this kind of targeting of human beings here in America, who are calling for equality and justice, just because there are other threats abroad.”

Lee, the St. Louis activist, said that during the Ferguson protests, online trolls and conservative commentators especially targeted him and a couple of other Muslim activists with smear campaigns and racist and Islamophobic attacks, calling them terrorists and suggesting they were affiliated with Al Qaeda. One such smear, picked up widely by right-wing blogs, accused Lee of “threatening to behead critics.”

“Some of those people were spreading rumors that I was in Ferguson recruiting for ISIS,” Lee told The Intercept, noting that even some fellow protesters, when he once joined a protest right after leaving his mosque and while still wearing a thobe, commented “Here comes ISIS.”

But Lee put the blame for smears and harassment campaigns squarely on government-sanctioned racism. He also pointed to the recent vilification of the black and Muslim Congressperson Ilhan Omar as another example of how ignorant and hate-filled campaigns are enabled by official discourse — whether by law enforcement and intelligence agencies or by lawmakers themselves. “It’s institutionalized Islamophobia,” Lee said. “It’s institutionalized crusader mentality.”

Source documents used in this reporting were obtained by Property of the People and shared exclusively with The Intercept. You can learn more about Property of the People’s work litigating Freedom of Information Act requests here.

The post As Black Activists Protested Police Killings, Homeland Security Worried They Might Join ISIS appeared first on The Intercept.

When It Comes to the Death Penalty, the Supreme Court Legalized Torture Long Ago

Months before the U.S. Supreme Court sparked fresh outrage over the death penalty by upholding the planned execution of a man who risks drowning in his own blood, Justice Stephen Breyer invited Missouri Solicitor General D. John Sauer to consider the matter “as a person rather than a lawyer.”

It was November 2018. Oral arguments in Bucklew v. Precythe were about halfway done. The issue at hand: Russell Bucklew, condemned to die for a murder and rape committed in 1996, suffered from a rare medical condition called cavernous hemangioma. Blood-filled tumors in his throat, neck, and mouth made it difficult for him to breathe — at night he slept at a 45 degree angle to avoid choking. If subjected to a lethal injection, experts warned, the tumors could rupture, causing a gruesome death. To avoid this fate — and as required by law when challenging a state’s execution protocol — Bucklew chose a different way to die: nitrogen gas, currently allowed in Missouri and three other states. But his proposal was rejected without a trial or hearing.

The courts conceded that Bucklew may well suffer under lethal injection, but found “no basis to conclude that Bucklew’s risk of severe pain would be substantially reduced by use of nitrogen hypoxia instead.” But a dissenting judge on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals was not convinced. There were too many lingering questions. Would Bucklew be lying flat during the execution — and would his airway would be blocked as a result? How much pain would he experience if subjected to Missouri’s one-drug pentobarbital protocol versus nitrogen gas? The state’s medical expert claimed that the pentobarbital would render him immune very quickly. Bucklew’s expert disagreed.

Then there were unsettling questions brought up in the first half of the oral argument. Shielded by Missouri’s secrecy law, the state would not disclose the identities of anyone involved in carrying out the execution. So there was no way to know their qualifications — or their preparedness should something go wrong. The last time Missouri was poised to execute Bucklew, his attorney told the justices, the execution team “got a one-page summary of his condition. … It didn’t mention the tumor in his throat. It did not indicate any breathing issues.”

With so many lingering uncertainties, Breyer suggested to Sauer, it seemed logical to do more fact-finding. “Go back and hold a full hearing on it,” he said. Present the evidence and consider the alternatives. “Why not?”

Untried and Untested

One answer is that’s just not how the death penalty works. Medical practitioners may gather all information to ensure a risky procedure goes smoothly, but lethal injection is only designed to look clinical. The end goal, after all, is death. Besides, prosecutors aren’t the people who will be faced with killing a man strapped to a gurney. They have different priorities.

“First, the state of Missouri has a compelling interest in seeing this just and lawful sentence is carried out as quickly as possible,” Sauer told Breyer. To send the case back for further inquiry “would interject yet more delay before the execution of a sentence that’s been in place for 22 years now.” Plus, there was a problem with Bucklew’s chosen alternative. “At this time, no protocol exists for execution by nitrogen hypoxia. No state has ever tried it.” In its 2008 ruling in Baze v. Rees, Sauer argued, the court said repeatedly “that an alternative method of execution that is untried and untested, that no state has ever used, that no study supports showing its efficacy, is not an alternative that’s reasonable.”

For anyone who has paid attention to the controversies over lethal injection in the past decade, this argument was specious at best. It was a distortion of Baze, for one. (In that decision, which rejected a challenge to the country’s prevailing execution protocol, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that it did not violate the Eighth Amendment to deny condemned prisoners the option of “untried and untested” alternatives to lethal injection — not that new alternatives should never be an option at all.)

But more to the point, “untried and untested” has been the name of the game for years when it comes to executions. After Baze, states strayed wildly from the three-drug protocol upheld by the court, swapping out old drugs with products never before used in lethal injection. One-drug, two-drug, and three-drug combinations were tried and discarded across the country, with a series of botched executions generating revulsion and controversy along the way.

Death penalty opponents have decried these executions as human “experiments.” But Dr. Joel Zivot, a veteran anesthesiologist and the expert in the Bucklew case, argues that it is actually worse than that. An experiment is a scientific inquiry; the testing of a hypothesis based on some kind of foundation. The states’ approach to lethal injection has been far more reckless and cruel. Calling it an experiment, Zivot said, “gives credibility where no credibility is deserved.”

In a Nov. 21, 2014 photo, death row inmate Richard Glossip is pictured at the state penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. Glossip is scheduled to be executed Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. (Janelle Stecklein, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. via AP)

Death row inmate Richard Glossip at the state penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. on Nov. 21, 2014.

Photo: Janelle Stecklein, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. via AP

State-Sanctioned Torture

The chaos over lethal injection eventually led to the case that is the precursor to Bucklew, and which is critical to understanding it: Glossip v. Gross, decided in 2015. Following the gruesome 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, a man named Charles Warner, who was next in line to die, sought an injunction in district court, protesting the “ever-changing array of untried drugs of unknown provenance.” The courts denied the challenge — Neil Gorsuch, a 10th Circuit judge at the time, was among those who rejected his petition — and Warner was executed in January 2015. Witnesses reported his last words were “my body is on fire.” Just days after his death, however, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the challenge to Oklahoma’s execution protocol, with a man named Richard Glossip replacing Warner as the named plaintiff.

The drug at the center of the case was midazolam. Experts insisted the sedative was incapable of rendering a person insensate to the pain associated with lethal injection. But that didn’t seem to trouble conservatives on the court. “Because some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution, we have held that the Constitution does not require the avoidance of all risk of pain,” Justice Samuel Alito reasoned in Glossip. “After all, while most humans wish to die a painless death, many do not have that good fortune.”

Glossip was a travesty. The oral arguments were spiteful and tense; Alito and and then-Justice Antonin Scalia blamed anti-death penalty activists for making it impossible for states to acquire reliable execution drugs, making clear that they would settle for a lesser alternative. The 5-4 decision sanctioned an execution protocol that was rooted in junk science and peddled by a state that would be revealed to have misled the court. Most devastating, Glossip imposed a grim new requirement that would make it nearly impossible to challenge lethal injection: People on death row now had to offer an alternative way for the state to kill them.

This “second prong” of Glossip, as it is known in legal terms, put a major burden on the condemned and their attorneys. It also put medical experts in an ethical quandary; few would be willing to overtly endorse a method of execution as a reasonable alternative. As death penalty lawyers lost case after case, new evidence emerged that states had been quietly torturing people to death on the gurney. It came to light at a trial over Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol last summer, where a slew of witnesses testified to disturbing scenes during executions using midazolam. Their descriptions were backed up by a pathologist who had reviewed every available autopsy of people executed with the drug and found evidence of pulmonary edema, a buildup of fluid in the lungs, indicating that the condemned had drowned in their own fluids. A federal judge in Ohio was so disturbed by this evidence earlier this year, he issued a ruling decrying midazolam executions as akin to waterboarding — a finding that led the newly elected governor to put scheduled executions on hold.

It is against this backdrop that the Supreme Court handed down its controversial 5-4 decision in Bucklew earlier this week. In his opinion, Gorsuch reiterated what Alito wrote in Glossip, that the Constitution “does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death — something that of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes.” Only executions that were deliberately cruel would be considered unconstitutional.

Gorsuch’s opinion sparked shock and indignation. Commentators called it “bloodthirsty,” “medieval,” and “immoral,” a guarantee that more people will die “in agonizing pain.” Legal analysts warned that it dismantled the “evolving standards of decency” framework that has been so fundamental to Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, while marking “the start of a new, brutal era in American capital punishment.”

In truth, it is hard to know how Bucklew might impact Eighth Amendment law beyond death penalty cases. And on this front, it would be hard to do more damage than has already been done. Neither Baze nor Glossip had much to say about “evolving standards of decency.” Both rulings upheld methods of lethal injection — once seen as advanced and enlightened — at the very moment they were being revealed to be just as cruel as its predecessors. Although the Supreme Court has curtailed the execution of vulnerable populations — juvenile defendants, people with mental disabilities — it has always given constitutional cover to even the most grotesque executions. While the ruling in Bucklew is certainly callous and cruel, it is also a reminder of how little most Americans have paid attention to what states have been doing in their name. For the people on death row, the court legalized torture long ago.

A group of death penalty opponents hold a vigil outside St. Francis Xavier College Church hours before the scheduled execution of Missouri death row inmate Russell Bucklew Tuesday, May 20, 2014, in St. Louis. A federal appeals court has granted a stay of execution for Bucklew, hours before he was scheduled to die for killing a southeast Missouri man in 1996. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday cited concerns about Bucklews' rare medical condition, which raised the risk of "unnecessary pain and suffering by the inmate." (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

A group of death penalty opponents hold a vigil outside St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis, hours before the originally-scheduled execution of Missouri death row inmate Russell Bucklew on May 20, 2014.

Photo: Jeff Roberson/AP

Build Your Own Gas Chamber

So why did Bucklew strike a nerve? For one, it was one of the first death penalty rulings handed down by the new Supreme Court bench. For those seeking clues on just how cruel the new conservative court might be going forward, Bucklew certainly gives reason for alarm.

Bucklew only made it to oral argument in the first place because of the bench as it existed on March 20, 2018 — the day Missouri planned to kill him. To win a stay of execution, five Supreme Court justices must vote in favor — Roberts, Gorsuch, Alito, and Clarence Thomas all voted against. (Then-Justice Anthony Kennedy, the longtime swing voter in death penalty cases, voted in favor.) A few weeks later, the justices agreed to consider Bucklew’s claim that executing him would violate the Constitution.

But in the intervening months, Kennedy left the court and was replaced by Brett Kavanaugh. Bucklew would be his first death penalty case. To his credit, Kavanaugh asked some key questions during the oral argument last fall, pushing Missouri’s solicitor general to answer whether there was any constitutional limit to the suffering imposed by an execution method in the absence of a viable alternative. (“So you’re saying that even if the method imposes gruesome, brutal pain, you can still go forward?” Kavanaugh asked. Yes, Sauer said, unless the punishment was seen as “superadding terror, pain, or disgrace.”) But ultimately, Kavanaugh fell in line with his right-wing colleagues.

For those in the trenches of lethal injection litigation, there is plenty to hate about Bucklew. But it is hardly a shock. “It’s disappointing that the court seems to be wedded to this idea that defendants have this obligation to endorse methods of execution,” said Tennessee Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry, calling Bucklew “an additional tie on our hands.”

At the same time, Henry said, “the court did clear up a dispute in the lower courts.” Until Bucklew, it was unclear whether Glossip required the condemned to propose alternatives that were already on the books in their respective states. Bucklew held that any existing execution method that petitioners believed could reduce the risk of pain is on the table. In the through-the-looking-glass world of lethal injection litigation, this is what passes as progress.

Henry points out the double standard that exists among the justices over “untried and untested” execution methods. (“It seems to me that if you have a method that no state has ever used, that that danger is magnified,” Roberts mused at oral arguments last fall.) “If the state wants to experiment on its own, that’s fine,” Henry says. “But if we want to say that the state’s method is unconstitutional,” and propose an alternative method, “we have this additional burden of proof.”

Indeed, one of the most gratuitous sections of Gorsuch’s opinion is a portion criticizing Bucklew’s “bare bones proposal” of using nitrogen gas to kill him. Among the “essential questions” Bucklew failed to address: “how nitrogen gas should be administered (using a gas chamber, a tent, a hood, a mask, or some other delivery device); in what concentration (pure nitrogen or some other mixture of gases); how quickly and for how long it should be introduced; or how the State might ensure the safety of the execution team, including protecting them against the risk of gas leaks.”

To Zivot, the alternative method requirement was already bad enough. Now “the question is, are you therefore asking Bucklew to build his own gas chamber? And then ‘with how many bricks?,’ I suppose, and ‘what kind of chair?,’ and ‘where would the nitrogen go?’ And then he would have to conduct some sort of test, I guess, with volunteers, and try them out and see perhaps a randomized prospective trial comparing, say, lethal injection to nitrogen hypoxia or some such thing. Obviously it’s absurd.”

There is an additional irony in Gorsuch’s insistence on a better blueprint for executions. Like its historical predecessors, lethal injection was never the subject of rigorous study by the states that have adopted it. From its invention in the 1970s, the design was merely copied from one state to the next, with prison officials tasked with choosing drugs and figuring out doses. In recent years, states have relied on increasingly dubious sources, seeking out compounding pharmacies to acquire drugs, while occasionally breaking federal law. To ward off scrutiny, states have passed measures to keep secret their sources, claiming that intimidation by anti-death penalty zealots creates a security risk.

Missouri is no exception. Although it has escaped the controversies over midazolam, having never adopted it, the state chose its current drug protocol the same way as others have: based on availability rather than its efficacy. In an exposé published last year, BuzzFeed News uncovered the identity of the pharmacy that sold the drugs used in Missouri’s executions going back to 2014, a compounding pharmacy “based in the suburbs of St. Louis that has been repeatedly found to engage in hazardous pharmaceutical procedures and whose cofounder has been accused of regularly ordering prescription medications for himself without a doctor’s prescription.” Under its “cloak and dagger” drug procurement process, prison officials attended “a clandestine meeting with a company representative, exchanging an envelope full of cash for vials of pentobarbital.”

A Last Gasp for the Death Penalty?

There may be another reason the ruling in Bucklew was so widely condemned. The death penalty is on the decline. Public support has fallen to historic lows. Despite a president who fantasizes about executing drug dealers, a stance against the death penalty is no longer seen as a liability among his opponents in the 2020 election. For the first time in decades, it is the default position among Democratic candidates.

It may also be that Bucklew, despite being guilty of horrible crimes, is indisputably vulnerable to the agony and torture of lethal injection in a way that others are not. If Missouri law allows executions by nitrogen gas, it seems senseless not to try to grant his request. Bucklew was not challenging all pentobarbital executions, after all. He was merely asking to avoid the certainty of a tortuous death for himself. As Breyer might put it, “Why not?”

Because it “invites pleading games,” writes Gorsuch, in one of the most callous parts of his opinion. If the court granted relief to Bucklew, soon others would be trying the same thing. Gorsuch may be relatively new to the Supreme Court bench, but he has made clear that he is tired of lethal injection challenges — or as he casts them, “tools to interpose unjustified delay.” If Bucklew teaches us anything, it is that the death penalty’s many cruelties will never be ended by the same court that sanctioned it for generations. If Americans truly care about the torture committed in their name, they must stop looking to judges who can only think like lawyers and not as people.

The post When It Comes to the Death Penalty, the Supreme Court Legalized Torture Long Ago appeared first on The Intercept.

Florida Is Poised to Create an Anti-“Trafficking” Registry That Will Inevitably Hurt Sex Workers

FOLEY SQUARE, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2019/02/25: LGBTQ+, immigrant rights, harm reduction and criminal justice reform groups, led by people who trade sex, launched 20+ organization coalition, Decrim NY, to decriminalize and decarcerate the sex trades in New York city and state. Senate Labor Committee Chair Ramos and Womens Health Committee Chair Salazar and Assembly Health Committee Chair Gottfried announced intention to introduce comprehensive decriminalization bill this session. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Activist groups led by people who trade sex, forming the coalition Decrim NY, gather in in Foley Square on Feb. 25, 2019.

Photo: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

For many years, sex workers in the U.S. struggled in relative obscurity to secure basic rights and protections. Now, the campaign to decriminalize sex work is breaking through. Legislative agendas are finally tackling the issue, including in New York and the District of Columbia. And yet this often-isolated progress is being met with regressive and harmful anti-sex worker bills in the country’s more conservative legislatures.

A set of particularly ill-conceived bills is winding its way through the Florida House and Senate this month, under the ever-misleading frame of anti-“trafficking” legislation. As with many legislative efforts under the guise of fighting trafficking, these bills threaten to make sex workers less safe and more vulnerable to exploitation and increased state violence.

Just like all criminalization, bills like this consistently end up making sex work more dangerous and trafficking more — not less — likely.

The Senate bill proposes the creation of a “Solicitation for Prostitution Registry,” a database that would list the names of people found guilty of the loosely defined crimes of “soliciting, inducing, enticing, or procuring” another to commit “prostitution, lewdness, or assignation.” Supporters of the proposal claim that the registry would only include buyers of sex and pimps. But the sex work community, advocates, and experts know bad legislation when they see it. The registry risks ensnaring sex workers, they point out. And, just like all criminalization of the industry, bills like this consistently end up making sex work more dangerous and trafficking more — not less — likely.

“It doesn’t matter if this claims to target pimps and johns. We know sex workers will end up on that list,” said Alex Andrews, co-founder of SWOP Behind Bars, an organization that provides support for incarcerated sex workers. Andrews, a former sex worker herself, told The Intercept that the bill’s imprecise language reinforces a long history of law enforcement discourse that is unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between consensual sex workers and trafficking victims, between respectful clients and traffickers.

The premise of a public registry is simple: It names and shames with the goal of dissuading buyers of sex or enablers of sex work. There are, however, a host of ways that sex workers have themselves been charged for soliciting others. A person can be accused of soliciting another person into prostitution merely for providing resources or sharing an apartment for work, which workers often do for safety reasons.

Even if the proposed Florida registry managed — despite the precedent and the vague language of the bill — to somehow isolate only pimps and johns, sex workers themselves would nonetheless be made more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Advocates to “end demand” for the sex trade have successfully pushed bills in a handful of locales with the same results: Sex workers are put at risk and trafficking continues. The criminalization of buyers — the so-called Nordic model — still forces sex workers into the shadows. As Jessica Raven, executive director of the Audre Lorde Project and a former sex worker, said at a press conference in February, “In reality, these laws target loved ones, family, landlords, drivers, and other people providing care and service to sex workers.” For undocumented sex workers, even when framed as victims, any brush with law enforcement also means a risk of deportation.

There are plenty of examples of how overly broad anti-trafficking efforts have harmed consenting sex workers, giving us lenses through which to evaluate proposals like Florida’s registry. One recent nationwide example was the equally pernicious Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, known collectively as SESTA-FOSTA, which were signed into law by President Donald Trump last year. Under SESTA-FOSTA, websites and online platforms can be held liable for hosting what the law describes as “prostitution.” The law purported to target platforms for trafficking — online websites used for the sex trade — but the sex workers themselves considered these platforms a lifeline. Consenting sex workers were able to use the websites to communicate between themselves, as well as safely find and screen clients. Those avenues are now closed to them: SESTA-FOSTA succeeded in shutting sites down, with a number of platforms closing preemptively in fear of the new law.

Similar examples abound abroad. In both Canada and France, where “end demand” legislation was introduced in 2014 and 2016, respectively, extensive studies found that the laws did more harm than good for sex workers. Hélène Le Bail, a researcher at Sciences Po CERI in Paris, carried out a study involving 691 sex workers and concluded that “end demand” laws have resulted in an “acute increase in socioeconomic vulnerability.” A Canadian study from the University of British Columbia, which interviewed 854 sex workers in the region, found that the “end demand” laws had significantly dissuaded workers from accessing support services. Advocacy groups in opposition to the Florida bills presented these studies, among others, to lawmakers alongside numerous firsthand sex worker testimonies.

“I find it really problematic that no one is listening to experts and no one is listening to sex workers.”

“I find it really problematic that no one is listening to experts and no one is listening to sex workers,” Jill McCracken, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, who has researched the public, political, and legal framing of sex work for over a decade.

While sex workers and their advocates have been all but ignored in the debate over the Florida bill, its supporters have frequently relied on a single study to argue for the registry. The 2011 study claims to show that men who buy sex are more likely to exhibit more dangerous, violent, and coercive behavior toward sex workers. “This study is not an evidence-based view of the sex industry and it does not explain the full impact of ‘end demand’ policies,” McCracken told The Intercept via email. She noted that the study was “led by authors who are well known for fabricating and misrepresenting data, discrediting data that does not support their preconceived ideas, and other serious issues in methodology and ethical violations, including within the study cited.”

McCracken said that her own studies have highlighted the dangers of “end demand” policies like the registry. McCracken recently returned from a research trip to New Zealand, where neither consensually selling nor buying sex is criminalized (with certain exceptions), and said that the sex workers she interviewed reported a decrease in violence, particularly violent interactions with police. “Lawmakers here act like they have to pass any legislation with ‘trafficking’ in title,” she said of the American debate. “They don’t. They should pass legislation responsibly.”

The problems with the “Solicitation of Prostitution Registry” are not the only troubling aspects of the legislative package in the Florida Senate and House bills. Another proposal would see operators of hotels, motels, and vacation rentals fined up to $1,000 per day if they do not put employees through training to identify and report instances of trafficking in their establishments. This would force hotel workers, themselves often underpaid and exploited, to act as liaisons for a law-enforcement surveillance system, which has long proven incapable of distinguishing sex workers from trafficking victims.

“This would mean that employees paid minimum wage are forced to do the job of social workers on behalf of law enforcement,” Kaytlin Bailey, director of communications for the campaign Decriminalize Sex Work, told The Intercept. Bailey said that this sort of legislation follows a long history in which “crackdowns on ‘whores’ were ways for police officers to crackdown on poor women.”

These bills, which are likely to become law, were proposed at the same time that Florida law enforcement is in the midst of a widespread crackdown on sex trafficking. The law enforcement push itself is a good example of how these efforts go awry: Numerous trafficking victims have been arrested. In a series of stings and raids on massage parlors profiting from commercial sex, around 300 buyers and a number of women operating the establishments were arrested. In the most high profile of such stings, billionaire New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was arrested for soliciting. The alleged victims of the sting — the parlor workers — were “rescued” by means of police handcuffs. As Melissa Gira Grant and Emma Whitford wrote in an extensive report on massage parlor raids for The Appeal, “When a massage business shuts down, its workers — trafficked or not — are likely to remain vulnerable.”

For their part, legislators pushing for the “trafficking” bills were not expecting any opposition. “I thought this was a slam dunk, but after hearing all the opposition, it’s a little bit surprising,” state Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat from Orlando, told the News Service of Florida. The registry bill unanimously passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in February and now heads to the appropriations committee, while a hearing on the Florida House version of the bill took place before the criminal justice subcommittee last week. Comments from a number of lawmakers during the House hearing made clear that they had little interest in listening to sex workers — the very community threatened by the bills.

In response to six sex workers who risked public exposure to express their concerns about the proposed legislation, Republican state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, who sponsored the bill, said that because selling sex is a crime, she would not work with them. The irony that she would not listen to the very people the bill purportedly aims to keep safe was lost on her. “It is a malevolent assertion,” she said, “for these persons to come up here and try to malign this good bill.”

The post Florida Is Poised to Create an Anti-“Trafficking” Registry That Will Inevitably Hurt Sex Workers appeared first on The Intercept.

ICE Is Teaming With North Carolina Republicans to Fight Pro-Immigrant Sheriffs

The First Amendment to the Constitution serves as something of a gauge for our national priorities. Embedded in there is the right of the people “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

But what if the government itself is aggrieved? No government agency feels more under siege lately than U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and in North Carolina, it’s helping the government do something about that.

Over the course of four days in February, federal immigration officials arrested more than 220 undocumented people in North Carolina. They were retaliating against five newly elected sheriffs who had announced they would cut certain ties with ICE.

Republicans in the state legislature passed a bill Wednesday that would force sheriffs to cooperate with the agency. And ICE helped them to craft it. The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association announced that it opposed the bill hours before it passed.

“The GOP leaders are being very candid, very straight up in saying that they are introducing this bill because they have been in communication with ICE,” Stefania Arteaga told The Intercept.

Arteaga is the statewide immigrant rights organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. She also co-founded Comunidad Colectiva, a grassroots immigrant rights group working in Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte. Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden ran and won last year on ending the county’s participation in the controversial 287(g) program, which allowed voluntary participation between local law enforcement and ICE.

Now, federal immigration authorities are fighting back. “This is what ICE wants,” Arteaga said.

The bill’s top sponsor, Republican state Rep. Destin Hall, told attendees at a committee hearing Monday that “it’s no secret that we’ve actually worked with federal law enforcement officers in crafting this bill.” Hall’s spokesperson David Cobb told The Intercept that his office had worked with ICE on the bill via phone and “mobile communication.” Asked whether ICE or Hall’s office initiated communication on the bill, Cobb said he wasn’t sure.

Hall also told local news in March that he worked with ICE on the bill. He said he learned more about the conflict between sheriffs and ICE by “working with ICE on this bill, getting some direction from them, hearing from them about the problems that they’re facing.”

An ICE spokesperson said the agency isn’t lobbying for the bill, just provided information to lawmakers. “The premise that we are working with local officials ‘to pass a bill’ is not accurate,” spokesperson Bryan Cox told The Intercept in an email. “The same information provided to state officials in North Carolina we’ve also provided to journalists and other groups,” he continued. “That said, while we do not advocate for or against any specific legislation, this agency has repeatedly spoken in general as to the public safety consequences of non-cooperation with ICE,” Cox said. “Any local jurisdiction thinking that refusing to cooperate with ICE will result in a decrease in local immigration enforcement is mistaken. Local jurisdictions that choose to not cooperate with ICE are likely to see an increase in ICE enforcement activity, as in jurisdictions that do not cooperate with ICE the agency has no choice but to conduct more at-large arrest operations.”

Cox said field office leadership did not have an in-person meeting on this particular topic, but that “in general we routinely meet with legislators and their staffs just as we do with activist groups, journalists, community organizations, etc.”

That kind of liaising with lawmakers is concerning for Julie Mao, an attorney with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. “It’s pretty unusual for ICE agents to educate legislative actors on bills and writing them,” she said. “I think there is a difference between responding to press,” Mao explained, “and going to Destin Hall and helping him understand and draft a bill.”

North Carolina sheriffs’ offices for years had been working hand in hand with ICE in its efforts to intimidate and arrest undocumented people. Under the 287(g) program in Mecklenburg county, local law enforcement have transferred more than 15,000 thousand people to ICE over the past 13 years in Charlotte alone. ICE’s field director for the region said the mass arrests in February were “the direct conclusion of dangerous policies of not cooperating” with the agency.

But last year, voters in the state’s seven largest counties elected new Democratic sheriffs, all of whom are black and five of whom announced they won’t cooperate with certain ICE programs and ran on progressive reforms to policing last year. Five are the first black sheriffs to be elected in their respective county’s history. Those wins were the result of intense organizing around the 287(g) program and a growing sense of shared concerns between communities of immigrants and people of color regarding interactions with law enforcement, advocates say.

After President Donald Trump was elected, Mao told The Intercept, “a lot of these counties experienced tremendous increases in law enforcement interaction with ICE to transfer people.”

“A lot of community members were quite concerned that this whole process was disappearing a significant amount of community,” Mao said. In Charlotte, those concerns intersected with a larger movement around police accountability and overpolicing in communities of color, she explained. That’s how McFadden came into the picture, Mao said; he was “committed to figuring out progressive criminal justice policies in the jail, with the end of their ICE collaboration program being one component of it.”

Sheriffs Bobby Kimbrough, Gerald Baker, Clarence Birkhead, Quentin Miller, and McFadden announced they would change the way their offices cooperated with ICE, including ending cooperation with 287(g) or no longer honoring “detainer” requests, which keep people in prison for up to 48 hours beyond their release date so that ICE can pick them up.

Sean Gallagher, Atlanta field office director for ICE, talked about the increased arrests his office is making and attributed it to McFadden’s cancellation of the 287(g) program at the local jail.

“This is really a bill that is retaliatory in nature, that is there to uphold the needs of the Trump deportation pipeline,” Arteaga said. “This is not only ICE working with state representatives to undermine the will of voters to propose legislation that is blatantly there to create racial profiling,” but also to “literally undermine black sheriffs.”

The bill, HB 370, Hall said, would ask sheriffs housing “illegal immigrants who’ve been charged with a crime in our state” to “simply notify ICE, let them know that they have someone there who they suspect is probably an illegal immigrant, and let ICE do their job.”

Unlike similar measures in Texas and Arizona, HB 370 forces sheriff’s deputies to ask people about their immigration status regardless of the type of criminal charge they face. And it mandates officers to report and hand people over to ICE, and to comply with any ICE request accompanied by a detainer.

North Carolina’s state legislature has a knack for garnering national attention for extremely conservative measures. Perhaps the most notable was the controversial 2016 “bathroom bill” that would have forced transgender people to use the bathroom for the gender on their birth certificate. The state has faced intense backlash over discriminatory voter ID laws too. A federal court in 2016 struck down a law that judges said “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.” In that case, legislators admitted in court filings that they wanted to partially stop Sunday voting in order to suppress the black vote.

The state’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper repealed parts of the notorious bathroom bill, and advocates hope that he’ll veto HB 370. “He’s conservative for a Democrat,” Arteaga said about Cooper. “This would really be Gov. Cooper’s first opportunity to veto a bill that will really harm communities of color,” she said. It remains to be seen if the legislature has enough votes to sustain a veto, she explained, “for the first time in a very long time.”

After the new sheriffs were elected, ICE’s retaliation was swift, Mao said. In Asheville in February, ICE agents — wearing identifying uniforms, but driving a vehicle resembling that of an employment contractor, with ladders on top — went into a Hendersonville community and arrested four people.

Earlier this year, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department held a forum at a church community center in Charlotte and invited immigrants and undocumented people to talk to police chiefs and McFadden, the sheriff. ICE agents showed up there too.

“ICE was there as this intimidating force,” Mao said. “And we had to file a civil rights complaint, because ICE is not supposed to come into churches,” she explained. “So just taking really abusive, rogue actions, even for an ICE office that’s traditionally known to be aggressive and have high arrest rates.”

Freedom Caucus Chair and North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican, said he supported the state legislature’s efforts to increase cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement. But he thinks those efforts should focus on people with a criminal record, he told The Intercept. The bill would only impact those charged with a crime, including things like traffic violations or driving without a license. Under state law, undocumented people cannot legally obtain a license. “In the 11th District, there is some criminal component” to the cooperation with ICE, “it is not a dragnet just to get people that are here illegally without a criminal record,” Meadows said. Only a quarter of the people arrested in the February raids had criminal records.

“I think the legislature is looking at making sure that detainer language is honored, which is very different than 287(g),” Meadows said. “I would support them in their efforts to make sure that our chief constitutional law enforcement officers in every county helps enforce the laws. And yet we don’t want them to become ICE agents,” he said. “Working with local sheriffs in my area, I know there was one of the sheriffs that decided not to be involved in the 287(g) program, but they do plan to honor the detainer language. And I think that that’s a good middle ground place to be.”

Meadows said he had a problem with cases in which sheriffs say they won’t honor ICE detainers. “That’s creating sanctuary counties, and I think that that’s the wrong way to go,” he said. Meadows said he doesn’t see a problem with the continued blurring of lines between federal and state law enforcement when it comes to cooperating with ICE. “It’s more of a political problem than it is an enforcement problem. So I think some of the sheriffs are getting political blowback from their communities, and I understand that,” he said. “At the same time, if we’ve got criminals that have been apprehended and they are scheduled to be deported or should be deported, I think that working hand in glove with both federal and local law enforcement agencies is the proper course.”

Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat representing North Carolina’s 12th District, isn’t surprised by the legislature’s efforts. “They do a lot of crazy stuff there. I served there, I can tell you,” Adams told The Intercept. “When they talk about local control, which the general assembly talks about all the time, I think they need to be a little more supportive of the sheriffs,” she said. “I certainly am supportive of what they’re doing. We are just targeting people of color who we think may be immigrants. And I don’t think that’s right,” she said. Adams said she hadn’t seen the bill but would take a look at it.

“I think it’s a good, common-sense issue, and I’m glad the legislature is moving forward on that,” Congressperson David Rouzer, a Republican from North Carolina’s 7th District, told The Intercept. “I think the vast majority of the citizens of North Carolina would agree with it,” he said. Asked about the fact that voters elected the new sheriffs in large part because of their stances on changing how law enforcement works with ICE, Rouzer said he still thought voters were unified on the issue. “I think if you were to poll the citizens of North Carolina, probably 65, 70 percent would be in favor of the sheriffs coordinating with ICE. The legislature is a reflection of the state as a whole. And I think the citizens at large would support what they’re doing.”

There’s confusion around the role local law enforcement should be playing when it comes to helping ICE. “I think that disconnect is being led purposely by the GOP,” Arteaga said, “to accomplish their goal of swaying misinformed voters.”

But it’s clear that a large coalition of groups — not just immigrant rights organizers — see a problem with increasing cooperation between state and federal law enforcement.

Support for Comunidad Colectiva’s organizing against 287(g) “expanded very much outside of POC groups,” Arteaga said. Fifty-eight organizations, including local and national groups, signed onto letter asking former Mecklenburg Sheriff Irwin Carmichael to end cooperation with ICE. “There’s a large segment of communities that see issues of immigration as part of their issue as well,” Arteaga said, “whether it’s education, LGBTQ rights, or women’s issues.”

The post ICE Is Teaming With North Carolina Republicans to Fight Pro-Immigrant Sheriffs appeared first on The Intercept.

Trump Administration Is Spending Enormous Resources to Strip Citizenship From a Florida Truck Driver

With almost no one watching, the federal government on Tuesday went to trial in one of the first denaturalization cases of the Trump era, a project the administration enthusiastically rolled out in 2017.

The man at the center of the trial is Parvez Manzoor Khan, a 62-year-old Floridian.

The federal government has so far expended extraordinary resources trying to denaturalize Khan, a truck driver and grandfather of three who’s been a citizen without incident since 2006. His case has been in the works for a year and a half, involves high-ranking Justice Department lawyers, and will likely continue for at least another year — even as the backlog in immigration courts, which also fall under the Justice Department’s purview, continues to grow. In a budget request for the 2019 fiscal year, the administration asked for $207.6 million to investigate 887 additional leads it expects to get into American citizens who may be vulnerable to denaturalization, and to review another 700,000 immigrant files.

In a process that began under former President Barack Obama, the federal government identified Khan as a target for denaturalization by combing through hundreds of thousands of old records and determining that he had become a citizen fraudulently, by failing to disclose a past deportation order that he wasn’t even aware of. The fact that the Trump administration’s test case centers on a truck-driving grandpa who potentially could have become a citizen even if he’d been completely forthright with immigration officials is simultaneously a damning indictment of the federal government’s strategy and further evidence of its efforts to demonize nonwhite immigrants at any cost.

In the full-day trial at a federal court in the Middle District of Florida, the Justice Department tried to establish that Khan obtained his American citizenship by lying to and hiding material facts about his immigration history from immigration officials. Khan’s lawyers, in turn, sought to show that the federal government failed to meet its very high burden of proof, focusing especially on Khan’s lack of understanding and knowledge of the immigration charges that were brought against him more than 20 years ago. A key question in the case will be just how material those facts would have been had they been known to authorities when he applied for citizenship. The answer isn’t obvious either way.

While Khan admitted that he tried to enter the United States illegally, “the question is to what degree do we want to devote government resources to denaturalize him 20-plus years later, especially when part of it is the government’s fault,” said Amanda Frost, a law professor at American University who attended the trial.

Extraordinary in its implications, the case was as banal as any other proceeding playing out at the Jacksonville courthouse. Justice Department attorneys sought to undermine the credibility of Khan and his family members, while Khan’s lawyers tried to poke holes in the government’s case. U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Barksdale, who in February issued a detailed order denying both sides’ requests to resolve the case prior to trial, listened intently to the testimony and independently questioned three of the four witnesses. Her questions, which largely appeared intended to clarify the statements of witnesses following what was at times confusing and contradictory testimony, focused on whether Khan knowingly withheld information in his immigration applications and interviews.

To Khan, his case is about his family — about being able to remain an American citizen, to live in the United States, and to support his wife. “We’re gonna fight. My family counts on me. I support them,” he told me.

He has become the face of the fight to define what it means to be an American in the age of Donald Trump.

Khan’s case is about much more than his family, though. He has become the face of the fight to define what it means to be an American in the age of Donald Trump. He is one of three people who were handpicked by the Justice Department when it announced in September 2017 that it would attempt to revoke the citizenship of people who were allegedly wrongly naturalized. The targets — two of whom are from Pakistan, the third being from India — were identified under an Obama-era initiative called Operation Janus. Khan is the only one of those three targets to fight back against the federal government’s case, making the stakes for the government particularly high. (A fourth Operation Janus case, U.S. v. Rahman, was filed in February 2018 and appears to be heading toward trial. Humayun Kabir Rahman is a native of Bangladesh.)

A government victory in Khan’s case would likely embolden the Trump administration to expand its denaturalization efforts, which it seems poised to do. In a January 2018 press release, the Justice Department wrote that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “has stated its intention to refer approximately an additional 1,600 for prosecution.” While the Justice Department issued press releases regarding only four Operation Janus cases, it has been pursuing a number of criminal and civil denaturalization cases. Seth Freed Wessler, writing for New York Times Magazine,  has done the most extensive reporting on these efforts, finding that over the last two years, the total number of denaturalization cases has nearly doubled over the total number of cases filed between 2004 and 2016.

The Trump administration’s tactics bring the United States into an era of stripping citizenship not seen in at least five decades. In the early- to mid-1900s, the federal government pursued denaturalization for racist and political reasons, even targeting U.S.-born citizens. That changed in 1967, when the Supreme Court vastly narrowed the potential uses of denaturalization. Since then, the federal government has mostly sought to take citizenship away from people who lied on their applications to conceal participation in war crimes or support for terrorists. (The language of the denaturalization statute is relatively broad, giving the executive branch leeway to pursue cases like the one against Khan.)

The efforts appear to be part of a strategy of “attrition through enforcement,” which seeks to discourage people from immigrating to the United States and to encourage self-deportation, argues Frost, who is writing a book on citizenship. “Attrition through enforcement originally targeted unauthorized immigration, but it can be equally effective as a means of reducing legal immigration to the United States,” Frost writes in “Alienating Citizens,” a forthcoming article in the Northwestern Law Review. “Aggressive use of denaturalization accomplishes that goal by sending the message that no immigrant has a safe and secure status and therefore, none can enjoy the ‘assumption of permanence’ that naturalized citizens had come to expect.”

Nearly three decades ago, Parvez Khan traveled to the United States to visit his brother, Suhail Khan, who had come to the U.S. as a visitor in 1986 and liked it so much that he decided to settle down. Parvez thought it would be too difficult to obtain a visa to the U.S., so he bought a passport that bore the name Mohammad Akhtar. As he attempted to enter the country at Los Angeles International Airport on December 7, 1991, immigration officials detected that the photo on the passport had been altered. They detained Khan, whose first language is Urdu and who spoke only a few words of English at the time. Khan was sent to a jail where he met a lawyer, Howard George Johnson, with whom he communicated through an Indian cellmate who spoke Punjabi. In a three-way conversation in which no two people spoke the same language, it was inevitable that something would get lost in translation, and the result was an asylum application that bore the wrong name (Jaweed Khan) and year of birth, among other errors.

The legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service recognized that Khan could not speak English. “No statement was taken from subject due to the subjects [sic] inability to speak and understand sufficient English, and the lack of a translator,” reads a December 1991 memo in Khan’s immigration file.

Parvez Khan was released on a $2,500 bond that Suhail Khan had paid for by sending money to Johnson. Parvez traveled by Greyhound bus to Miami, where Suhail lived. Though Parvez was scheduled for an immigration court hearing on his asylum case, he never himself received notice of the hearing, and Johnson, the lawyer, failed to notify him. As a result, an immigration court entered an in absentia order of deportation against Khan on February 26, 1992. Johnson, who is now dead, was suspended by the California Bar for misconduct, partially for his failure to communicate with clients.

“The question is to what degree do we want to devote government resources to denaturalize him 20-plus years later?”

Khan ultimately decided to live in Florida with his brother. In 1997, he met Betty Louise Pope, who goes by her middle name, Louise. They married in January 1998, and one week after their wedding, he applied for a green card on the basis of his marriage to a U.S. citizen. The application remained pending for nearly four years, but he was granted permanent resident status in November 2001. After four years, he applied for U.S. citizenship and was naturalized in 2006.  At no point in those application processes or interviews did Khan disclose that he had attempted to enter the United States on an altered passport under a different name in 1991. Because he was not aware that an immigration judge ordered his deportation in 1992, he did not disclose that either.

Immigration officials took Khan’s fingerprints when he first arrived in Los Angeles in 1991, though those records were apparently not digitized. As a result, in addition to Khan’s failure to disclose his detention by immigration officials when he first entered the country, the federal government says it was not aware of his prior deportation order when he applied for permanent resident status and citizenship. Khan’s immigration history came to the Obama administration’s attention because of Operation Janus, through which the Department of Homeland Security identified about 315,000 cases in which some fingerprint data was missing from a central database and combed through those cases to find discrepancies.

Khan was stopped and interrogated by Customs and Border Protection officers at the San Francisco and Abu Dhabi airports in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The interrogations were the seeming result of DHS finding Khan’s original file using his newly digitized fingerprints. The CBP agents who interviewed him in San Francisco allege, according to a deposition taken in Khan’s case, that he volunteered to them that he had tried to enter the United States on an altered passport in 1991. Khan says that the CBP officers relayed the sequence of events to him, and he just admitted that it was true. He says he did not remember the name on the passport — Mohammad Akhtar — until immigration officials reminded him of it. (Notably, even though DHS officials questioned Khan about records they identified under Operation Janus, the Obama administration did not seek to denaturalize him or others identified under the initiative.)


The Bryan Simpson United States Courthouse in Jacksonville on April 1, 2019.

Photo: Maryam Saleh/The Intercept

This storyline was the focus of Tuesday’s trial, which was held at the Bryan Simpson United States Courthouse in Jacksonville, Florida. The Justice Department, represented by attorneys Aaron Petty and Timothy Belsan, called two witnesses: Parvez Khan and Lisa Pellechia, an officer at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who conducted Khan’s 2006 naturalization interview. Khan’s lawyers, James LaVigne and Joseph McFarland, called two additional witnesses: Suhail Khan and Betty Louise Khan.

The lawyers collectively spent more than three hours interviewing Khan, who wore a dark gray jacket and gray pants and played with his glasses as he leaned forward in his seat. Barksdale, the judge, independently questioned each of the witnesses except for Suhail Khan. She asked Parvez Khan about his decision to come to the United States on a fraudulent passport and his marriage to Louise, in addition to questions about his applications for permanent residence and citizenship.

At times, the judge appeared frustrated with attorneys on either side. She repeatedly asked Petty, the Justice Department attorney, to clarify his questions to Khan. As Petty questioned Khan about answers he gave on his immigration applications, Barksdale also asked the attorney to approach Khan and point out specifically what he was asking about. She also appeared exasperated with Khan’s defense team, which was severely outgunned at trial, pressing LaVigne to clarify his line of questioning of Pellechia.


Suhail Khan, Parvez’s brother, in Jacksonville on April 1, 2019.

Photo: Maryam Saleh/The Intercept

One of the more tense portions of the trial happened during Petty’s cross-examination of Suhail Khan. In a line of questioning that LaVigne said was intended to intimidate the witness, Petty asked Suhail about his first marriage and the process by which he became a U.S. citizen, referring to Suhail’s citizenship application and implying that he committed marriage fraud. (Barksdale reserved ruling on LaVigne’s objection, and allowed the questioning to continue.) Petty also tried to question Suhail about his 1989 tax returns, though Barksdale instructed him to move on from that line of questioning.

“She seemed very hands-off,” Frost said of Barksdale. “I think that’s her style; I respect that, but [the Justice Department’s questioning of Suhail Khan] was disturbing to watch.”

Belsan’s involvement is perhaps an indication that the full force of the Justice Department is pushing for a victory in Khan’s case. Belsan is the chief of the Office of Immigration Litigation’s National Security and Affirmative Litigation Unit, which means that he oversees all of the Justice Department’s denaturalization cases. While Belsan’s name was on pretrial paperwork, Petty was the attorney primarily involved with the case. On March 22, however, Belsan officially entered the case as an attorney of record. On Tuesday, he handled the questioning of Pellechia and Louise Khan. Asked by The Intercept whether he typically attends and participates in denaturalization trials, Belsan declined to answer and directed questions to a Justice Department spokesperson. The Justice Department declined to answer The Intercept’s questions about Belsan’s participation and the number of denaturalization cases it is currently pursuing.

His evasiveness is part of a pattern by the federal government to remain tight-lipped about its denaturalization efforts.

His evasiveness is part of a pattern by the federal government to remain tight-lipped about its denaturalization efforts, despite initially loudly announcing these cases in one-sided press releases. One of the four people who sat in the courtroom gallery to observe the trial appeared to be a government official; she stood and conversed with the Justice Department lawyers before and after the trial. Yet when I approached her, the woman tried to ignore me and refused to even identify herself. (Frost, along with a law clerk for Barksdale, were the other trial attendees.)

The federal government has sought to limit the public’s understanding of denaturalization efforts in other ways too. In PACER, the online service that allows the public to access information about federal cases, the majority of the documents in the ongoing denaturalization cases are under lock, which means that they cannot be viewed online. (Ironically, even the government’s complaints against the defendants that were linked to in Justice Department press releases are inaccessible via PACER.) The only way for members of the public to view the records in these cases is to visit a federal court in the district in which the cases are pending and review the documents at a computer terminal there.

It will be several months before Barksdale issues a decision. She asked both parties to submit what is known as a proposed order with findings of fact and proposed conclusions of law by June 10. After that, Barksdale will schedule closing arguments in the case, and she said she will likely issue her decision within a month of those arguments.

This week’s proceedings were a major change of pace for Khan, a 62-year-old truck driver who spends 11 hours on average behind the wheel every day, driving 600 miles. He travels across the country, and in fact, prefers long trips to short ones, he said over dinner on Monday night, speaking loudly and gesturing with his hands. He was much quieter on the witness stand on Tuesday, though, listening carefully to the questions asked of him, answering directly, and at times telling the Justice Department lawyers that he was confused by their questions, especially when they used legal terminology.

Khan is his family’s sole breadwinner; his wife, Louise, spends much of her time caring for the couple’s grandchildren, who are 6, 4, and 2 years old. At trial, Louise testified that the family would suffer if Khan were to be deported; Justice Department lawyers said her testimony was irrelevant to the case, and Barksdale agreed. Frost, the American University law professor, said that despite it being legally true that Louise’s testimony was irrelevant, “that’s something the government should consider when deciding whether to bring a case.”

When I met the family on Monday, Louise was wearing a camouflage hoodie over a T-shirt that read “Made in America 2017” and was emblazoned with the American flag, her long, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was relatively subdued over the course of our meal. She didn’t speak much, and when she did, she spoke mostly to her husband, who was seated to her right. At one point, however, she looked to LaVigne and asked whether there was a possibility that Khan would be deported to Pakistan.

“I believe that’s what they’re trying to do,” LaVigne responded, before explaining the drawn-out process that would have to occur before a deportation became conceivable. Nothing is going to happen tomorrow, he assured the family, noting that it would probably be several months before Barksdale issued her order, which would almost certainly result in an appeal. (LaVigne intends to file an appeal if Barksdale rules against his client, and he expects the government to do the same.) “It could go to the Supreme Court,” LaVigne told Louise Khan. “Wow,” she said, her brown eyes widening.

I asked Khan what the last year and a half has been like, with the threat of losing his citizenship looming over his head. “OK,” he said blankly. “What can I do?”

“You can fight,” LaVigne responded.

“I have my family here, my wife,” Khan continued. “I love my grandchildren.”

“You can fight,” LaVigne said once more.

“I can fight,” Khan told me.

The post Trump Administration Is Spending Enormous Resources to Strip Citizenship From a Florida Truck Driver appeared first on The Intercept.

Muslims and Jews Face a Common Threat From White Supremacists. We Must Fight It Together.

Students light candles as they gather for a vigil to commemorate victims of Friday's shooting, outside the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, Monday, March 18, 2019. Three days after Friday's attack, New Zealand's deadliest shooting in modern history, relatives were anxiously waiting for word on when they can bury their loved ones.(AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Students light candles as they gather for a vigil to commemorate victims of the shooting on March 15, outside the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 18, 2019.

Photo: Vincent Yu/AP

The two of us have been having the exact same conversation for the past decade. About anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. One of us a Muslim, the other a Jew, we have conducted it in public and in private, on Twitter and on TV. We’ve agreed; we’ve argued; we’ve even wandered off topic to trade tips on how to get through a fast. Now we’ve come together because of the urgent and common threat that we face. Both of our communities are under violent attack from far-right white supremacists.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, last month a white supremacist gunned down 50 Muslims at prayer. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last October a white supremacist gunned down 11 Jews at prayer. Both killers were clear in their loathing of both Jews and Muslims. Both subscribed to the “great replacement theory,” which casts Muslims and other minorities as “invaders” of Western societies and a threat to white, Christian majorities. In this narrative, the supposed invasion is a wicked plot orchestrated by the same hidden hand behind all malign events through world history: the Jews. The point was put concisely in an online remark reposted by the Pittsburgh murderer: “It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!”

This is how our haters see us: Jews and Muslims connected in a joint enterprise to effect a “white genocide.” It is an unhinged and racist conspiracy theory — and it has both of our communities in its murderous sights. So there can only be one response: Muslims and Jews must stand and fight it together.

This is how our haters see us: Jews and Muslims connected in a joint enterprise to effect a “white genocide.” It is an unhinged and racist conspiracy theory — and has both of our communities in its sights.

We realize this will not be easy. Both of us are deeply rooted in our respective communities, and we know them well enough to recognize that there are plenty of Jews and Muslims who have long seen the other as an opponent, even as an enemy. Given the deep connection that Jews and Muslims feel with Israel-Palestine, that is perhaps unsurprising.

We understand how this has come about. Jews and Muslims have spilled each other’s blood in acts of violence that have left deep scars. Jihadis have targeted Jews across continental Europe, whether it be the killing of children in a school in Toulouse in 2012 or shoppers at a kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015. Muslims share the pain of Palestinians living though more than half a century of brutal Israeli occupation, with regular eruptions of violence that have left civilians, including children, dead. To be clear: We are not playing a game of moral equivalence here; rather, we are recognizing the reasons for mutual antagonism.

Nor are we denying that there is much prejudice within each community toward the other. Witness the leader of a New Zealand mosque who recently suggested that the massacre in Christchurch was the secret handiwork of Mossad: an age-old, anti-Jewish conspiracy theory in contemporary garb. Or listen to the interfaith activist appalled to discover that a Facebook group of her fellow British Jews was awash with anti-Muslim racism. Across the Muslim-majority world, anti-Jewish tropes and conspiracies have been endorsed and even re-popularized. In the U.S., right-wing Jewish figures have been among the most prominent supporters of the “Islamophobia network.” There is a shared error here: Both the Muslim who hates Jews and the Jew who hates Muslims forget that the white supremacist hates them both. But that such people exist is proof that the narrative of white supremacism does not just infect white communities — it can infect us all.

Just as we acknowledge that the communities we were born into harbor prejudice, so we are ready to say the same of our chosen political community. We need no lectures on the importance of tackling anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on the left, as well as on the right. Both of us have condemned Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party for its failure to tackle anti-Jewish racism within its ranks, while one of us has discussed the importance of avoiding anti-Semitic tropes in conversation with the controversial Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who herself has been the victim of liberal Islamophobes. Both of us have condemned anti-Muslim bigotry in liberal left circles, too, whether it be the British scientist Richard Dawkins comparing Islam to cancer less than two weeks after the Christchurch massacre, or U.S. TV show host Bill Maher referring to Islam as “the Mafia”.

Both the Muslim who hates Jews and the Jew who hates Muslims forget that the white supremacist hates them both.

But this is no time for whataboutism. Yes, the jihadi threat to Jews has not gone away. Yes, some liberals have an Islamophobia problem, while some on the left are guilty of anti-Semitism, both of which can cause our communities to feel fearful and isolated. Fascism, however, is back with a vengeance. The growing and lethal threat to life and limb for Muslims and Jews is now coming not from the far left, but from an emboldened and violent far right. In the U.S., in 2018, every single one of the 50 extremist-related murders was linked to the far right, according to the Anti-Defamation League. In the U.K., according to the Home Office, between 2017 and 2018, the number of white suspects arrested for terror offenses outstripped those of any other ethnic group — the first time in more than a decade. In Germany, official figures suggest that 9 out of 10 anti-Semitic crimes in 2017 were perpetrated by members of far right or neo-Nazi groups.

Should we be surprised? White supremacists are on the march. They see Islam as incompatible with Western life. We reject that claim wholeheartedly. Jews, too, were long told that their faith had no place in Western society: They were wrong about Judaism and they are wrong about Islam.

That these two hatreds are linked on the right is clear, and not only in the minds of deranged killers. A recent Pew survey of 15 Western European countries found that “attitudes toward Jews and Muslims are highly correlated with each other. People who express negative opinions about Muslims are more likely than others to also express negative views of Jews.” In the U.S., a Gallup study in 2010 found that people “who say they feel ‘a great deal’ of prejudice … toward Jews are about 32 times as likely to report feeling ‘a great deal’ of prejudice toward Muslims.” Put simply, the kind of people who hate one of us are more likely to hate the other too.

Such people are animated by a racist ideology that goes wide and deep, amplified by powerful politicians of the right at the highest levels. Take Donald Trump, who says “Islam hates us,” and bans Muslims from five countries — but also rails against “globalists,” understood by anti-Semites as code for Jews, and in particular, the anti-Semites’ favorite boogeyman, George Soros. Or top Brexiter Nigel Farage, who speaks of a “Jewish lobby” and condemns Soros as “the biggest danger to the entire Western world” — but has also denounced “wholly Muslim” areas of London and gave us the infamous “Breaking Point” poster.

In our view, it is no coincidence that the rise of Trump and Brexit has been matched by a rise in hate crimes on both sides of the Atlantic targeting both of our communities. In the U.S., hate crimes against Jews rose by more than a third and accounted for 58% of all religion-based hate crimes in 2017, with Muslims in second place, while in the U.K., more than half of religiously motivated attacks in 2018 were aimed at Muslims, with Jews not far behind.

This is the climate in which we are both worried about the safety of our children. We share each other’s fears. And we both welcome signs that others are beginning to do the same. It’s heartening that Muslim groups raised more than $200,000 for bereaved families at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and heartening too that the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is now raising money for the victims of the New Zealand mosque attacks.

They are setting an example for us all. It is long past time that we Muslims and we Jews looked beyond our undeniable differences, recognize that we face a common and deadly threat, and agree that there is only one way to fight it: together.

Mehdi Hasan is a senior contributor to The Intercept, based in Washington, D.C.  Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian, based in London.

The post Muslims and Jews Face a Common Threat From White Supremacists. We Must Fight It Together. appeared first on The Intercept.

Free Prison Calls Could Finally Be Coming to Connecticut

Connecticut may soon be the first state in the nation to make calls from prison free for incarcerated people and their families, following on the heels of New York City, which became the first city to do so last year. Decades of research have shown that keeping in touch with loved ones while incarcerated greatly improves an individual’s chance for successful re-entry when they are released and that the financial toll of maintaining contact disproportionately falls on low-income family members.

A hearing for the bill — H.B. No. 6714 — was held in Hartford in late March, and advocates are cautiously optimistic it will be voted out of the state’s House Judiciary Committee next week. The bill was introduced by Rep. Josh Elliott, a progressive elected in 2016 to represent Connecticut’s 88th District, and drafted by Worth Rises, a national nonprofit focused on ending the influence of commercial interests in the criminal justice system.

According to a recent report by Prison Policy Initiative, Connecticut charges more for in-prison phone calls than any other state in the nation aside from Arkansas. A 15-minute call from a Connecticut prison costs $3.65, nearly five times the cost of calls from prisons in neighboring states like Rhode Island and New York (71 cents and 65 cents, respectively). Advocates say the high rates are due to Connecticut poorly negotiating its telecommunications contract with Securus Technologies, the national prison telecommunications corporation it has contracted with since 2012.

In addition to making phone calls free, the bill includes language stipulating that if Connecticut implements video conferencing for prisoners in the future — which it doesn’t currently offer, but other states have slowly begun to — then those communications should be free of charge too. The bill also maintains that Connecticut shall not limit in-person visitation if it makes phone calls and video conferences free. (The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that 74 percent of U.S. correctional facilities have reduced or eliminated in-person visitation since implementing video conferencing.)

A Securus spokesperson noted that their company offers not only a way for families to keep in touch but also “critical security features that prevent victim harassment, violent crime and other criminal activity.” With respect to the jurisdictions considering paying directly using taxpayer funds, the Securus spokesperson said, “we welcome discussions regarding financing models with all the agencies we serve, in order to determine the most effective way to pay for technology that keeps people both connected and safe.”
Karen Martucci, the director of external affairs for the Connecticut Department of Correction, said her agency “is supportive of efforts that increase communication between offenders and their loved ones, which will hopefully help to reduce the rate of recidivism.”

State data shows that Connecticut residents pay roughly $15 million annually for prison phone calls, with the state taking 68 percent as a kickback. A spokesperson for the state’s judicial branch testified at the hearing that losing prison phone call commission fees would result in cutting several important adult probation officer positions, illustrating how the state relies on revenue extracted from incarcerated people and their families.

One Republican legislator, Rep. Craig Fishbein from Wallingford, raised objections at the hearing and suggested that the bill would be too expensive and would seemingly allow for unlimited calls every day. He suggested making calls free on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, instead.

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, dismissed Fishbein’s proposal and told The Intercept that his comments reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of what advocates aim to achieve with the legislation.

“This bill was not introduced so people can talk on Christmas. It’s so family ties can be fostered, which we know leads to so many improved outcomes for children with incarcerated parents, for people on the inside to lower recidivism, and improving re-entry outcomes on the outside,” she said. “None of that is resolved with a few free days throughout the year.”

The exorbitant cost of prison phone calls exacts a heavy psychic price as well. Some prisoners are able to use their meager prison wages to cover the costs, which leaves them with no savings when they finish their sentence. Many, though, must rely on family members to pick up the tab. Every minute they’re on the phone, they’re aware of the literal cost their incarceration is putting on their loved ones, straining the types of relationships that are key to re-entry.

If the state of Connecticut assumed the costs of prison phone calls, Tylek said, it should revise its contract with Securus or another company to be a flat, fixed rate.

“It would be absolutely inappropriate and imprudent for the state to continue to pay for a contract that assumes the liability of costs on a per-minute basis,” she said. “Think about your state legislature. All elected officials have telephones in their offices, and some provider, maybe it’s Verizon or AT&T — that provider isn’t saying to the state legislator you’ll pay on a per-minute basis. In no place in the country are we doing that except in prisons.”

Tylek also dismissed the idea that this would mean people would have unfettered access to phones, noting prisons still need to establish systems so that the phones can be shared equitably. Tylek suggested that a solution may be limiting phone use to 90 minutes per day (or up to six 15-minute phone calls). “We’ve done surveys across the country and found that, on average, 90-120 minutes is what people are looking for, so we might actually look to codify something like that in the bill,” she said.

New York City passed a law in August 2018 to eliminate the charge for prison phone calls, making it the first city to do so; the change is set to go into effect in May. New York City will assume the costs of paying Securus for the phone services and will forego the $5 million it had annually collected in commission fees.

Aside from Connecticut and New York City, other states and cities are now also considering eliminating phone costs on prisoners and their families, including Massachusetts and San Francisco. In November, Shelby County, Tennessee, announced it would no longer charge juvenile detainees and their families for making phone calls; shortly thereafter, in North Carolina, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office also agreed to stop charging juveniles in custody at county jails for using phones.

The new legislative traction comes after years of activists raising alarm about the high costs of prison phone calls. In 2000, Martha Wright, a grandmother in Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit against the private prison where her grandson was living, saying that the costs of calling him were unconscionably steep. The court ruled that Wright’s complaint was an issue for the Federal Communications Commission to handle; she then moved to petition them to intervene. In 2013, the agency finally acted, voting to cap rates for interstate phone calls in jails and prisons. Two years later, the FCC also capped the amount an incarcerated person could be charged for calling someone within their state.

The major prison telecommunication providers — including Securus Technologies, Global Tel Link, and CenturyLink — all challenged the FCC’s authority to regulate the rates, and in 2017, the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled against the FCC. As The Intercept reported at the time, the court decision came amid political turnover at the federal agency, with the individual who voted against the FCC’s 2013 proposal, Ajit Pai, having been recently named commission chair by President Donald Trump. Pai praised the D.C Circuit for agreeing with him that the FCC overstepped its authority.

Last month, the National Consumer Law Center issued a new report detailing consumer abuses wrought by private companies that extract profits from the criminal legal system and highlighted the kickbacks that cash-strapped governments accept in exchange for things like offering exclusive contracts.

Report author Brian Highsmith, who testified in favor of Connecticut’s bill to make prison phone calls free, told The Intercept that it’s important for the public to understand that this is not just a criminal justice issue, but a fiscal policy and consumer protection issue too.

“Candidly, that changes the advocacy strategy,” he said. “One of the reasons we have arrived at this moment, in having created a system of mass incarceration and social control, is because it’s very easy for people to imagine that this stuff doesn’t affect you, and so many of these abusive practices have escaped widespread public awareness.”

While Highsmith thinks there can be a role for the federal government to play, he emphasized that many of these exploitative policies are set at the state and local level, and so will have to be tackled with laws like the ones proposed in Connecticut.

“This all really gets at the intersection of two of the worst trends,” he said. “One is offloading tasks to the private sector, which comes with reduced accountability and transparency, and the other is cost-shifting, where governments rely on bails, fines, and fees imposed on people who interact with the criminal legal system to cover the costs of policing.”

The post Free Prison Calls Could Finally Be Coming to Connecticut appeared first on The Intercept.

Chicago Prosecutor Kim Foxx Refused to Charge Jussie Smollett — and That’s a Good Thing

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 23: Cook County State's attorney Kim Foxx arrives to speak with reporters and details the charges against R. Kelly's first court appearance at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on February 23, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

Cook County State’s attorney Kim Foxx arrives to speak with reporters at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago, Ill., on Feb. 23, 2019.

Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Chicago cops are very, very mad. On Monday, the local Fraternal Order of Police continued to rage against the decision not to charge actor Jussie Smollett for falsely reporting a hate crime, planning a protest outside the office of the Chicago prosecutor, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

The police have been joined in their fury by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and cable hosts on Fox News, who have gone apoplectic that the indictments handed down by a grand jury have not translated into a trial or a prison sentence.

While the controversy is a simple story for Fox News, the police, and Emanuel, it’s much more complicated for people who care about criminal justice reform. And the decision raises the question of just how committed in practice the public is to rolling back mass incarceration and reforming America’s draconian approach to criminal justice.

It’s easier to speak based on principles than it is to act on them. That’s especially true when the public, across the political spectrum, is demanding its pound of flesh.

For years, the criminal justice reform movement gained momentum by talking abstractly about the more than 2 million people behind bars, linking their plight to the injustice of imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders. That’s how it wound up with a bipartisan reform law — the First Step Act — that won’t make a real dent in the prison population. Now that the movement is seeing success in district attorney races, and those new prosecutors are taking a new approach, the reality of criminal justice in America is intruding.

Most of those 2 million people actually committed a crime that the public considers deeply wrong and worthy of punishment. Prisons are overcrowded not merely with pot smokers, but with violent criminals serving ungodly mandatory minimums. And those sentences are the result of moral panic from the public that rewards politicians, prosecutors, and judges who come down hard on people that society has condemned for their wrongdoing. People like Jussie Smollett.

Smollett’s alleged crime wasn’t necessarily violent, though he appears to have purposely exacted violence upon himself. In a publicity stunt, he allegedly paid two co-workers from the set of the TV show “Empire” to beat him up, so that he would be the victim of a homophobic, racist attack. He was said to be planning to use the resulting media attention to get a raise at work. If true, the allegations are deplorable, not just in the particular, but in the way that they undermine future, real victims of hate crimes. The public wanted Smollett’s blood for it and, in the dominant criminal justice paradigm, the path would be clear: Stack those charges, lock him up, and throw away the key. Put another body on the pile.

Kim Foxx was elected prosecutor over the fierce objections of the police, of Emanuel, and of the backers of the old paradigm. She ran as a reformer, arguing that the current approach is broken and that prosecutors should look for ways, when possible, to resolve problems without resorting to incarceration. The power of the office, she said, should be re-oriented toward the most dangerous and harmful of crimes.

That’s the principle she ran on. And she won. Yet it’s easier to speak based on principles — and to hear someone do so — than it is to act on them. That’s especially true when the public, across the political spectrum, is demanding its pound of flesh.

The unpopular decision by Foxx’s office, keeping in line with the principles she campaigned on, stands as a rare example of genuine political courage — and it’s courageous because the office knew that it would come with major blowback. The easier thing to do would have been to lock Smollet up. Prison is always the easiest option.

The Smollet fiasco, in some ways, is a useful moment of reckoning for the reform movement. Significantly lowering the number of incarcerated people will mean releasing some people who did things that make us very mad — and not imprisoning some of them too.

Foxx, because she had previously communicated with a relative of Smollett’s, recused herself from the decision-making process. But she’s standing by her deputy’s call.

“Yes, falsely reporting a hate crime makes me angry, and anyone who does that deserves the community’s outrage. But, as I’ve said since before I was elected, we must separate the people at whom we are angry from the people of whom we are afraid,” Foxx wrote in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune. “[O]ur criminal justice system is at its best when jails are used to protect us from the people we rightly fear, while alternative outcomes are reserved for the people who make us angry but need to learn the error of their ways without seeing their lives irrevocably destroyed.”

Smollett, Foxx reminded readers, committed a Class 4 felony, the least serious category, and is suffering massive personal and career consequences. Should he also be put behind bars? “I was elected on a promise to rethink the justice system, to keep people out of prison who do not pose a danger to the community,” she wrote.

Kim Foxx is keeping her promise. Can we handle it?

The post Chicago Prosecutor Kim Foxx Refused to Charge Jussie Smollett — and That’s a Good Thing appeared first on The Intercept.

How Trump’s Border Wall Perpetuates the Legacy of Colonialism on the Rio Grande

It’s Friday at dusk on a long stretch of dirt road in Hidalgo County, Texas, about a mile north of the Rio Grande and Mexico. Orange light gleams through a single palm tree towering over hardwood mesquites. Land speculators imported palms to the Rio Grande Valley a century ago to attract white American settlers to the region, and they loom especially high above dense thornscrub below.

I’m walking to my car with Christopher Basaldú, who’s lived in a nearby tent for over a month in anticipation of wall construction along the U.S.-Mexico border. Basaldú, of Brownsville, and about two dozen others formed the Yalui Village campsite on the site of the 19th century-era Eli Jackson Cemetery, a state-designated historical marker in the path of the proposed border barrier. A sign at the entrance of the camp announces the presence of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe (Estók G’na), a reference to groups indigenous to the valley. The occupation began in late January, shortly before Customs and Border Protection said wall construction could begin.

The City of Granjeno is an area that is a historical anthropological Carrizo settlement.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

The city of Granjeno, in Hidalgo County, part of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe’s historical land.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

A wave of anxiety crept through the camp the previous night after some campers raised the possibility of Patriot-type paramilitaries storming through. Weeks of intense surveillance by Border Patrol agents, whose green and white vans are constantly encircling the encampment, have also frayed nerves. Basaldú visited Standing Rock at the height of pipeline resistance, and other campers with similar experience have traveled to the valley from Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico.

“People were freaking themselves out around the fire thinking about being shot and killed,” said Basaldú, an adopted member of the tribe. It’s an unlikely possibility, but Basaldú said he personally is ready to die stopping the wall — or tearing it down. Unlike other places in Hidalgo County, including a butterfly center and a historic Catholic chapel, the cemetery on which the camp stands was not exempted from construction by a February border wall funding bill signed by President Donald Trump.

Congress has already sent nearly $3 billion to Trump for a border barrier, including up to 37 miles in Hidalgo and Starr counties. Almost half of that, $1.34 billion, was allocated for the Rio Grande Valley, the compromise outcome of the longest government shutdown in history. Trump then declared a national emergency in February, giving him the power to direct $6.1 billion more from other federal agencies for the wall (though over a dozen state attorneys general are challenging the executive order in court). In March, the government submitted notices of condemnation for hundreds of mostly Hispanic landowners in the valley whose property it wants for the wall.

Earlier in the evening, Basaldú and I sat with two other Valleyites downhill from the earthen levee where the border wall is slated for construction. A Border Patrol agent slowly cruised by, glaring down at us. Under CBP’s plan, the campsite and the cemetery would be stranded in a no man’s land behind the wall, and would be damaged by an enforcement zone resembling a permanent military outpost with a utility road, sensors and cameras, bright lights, and frequent patrols. The agency wants to build 772 total miles of barrier along the border, which it estimates would cost $18 billion.

Rebekah Hinojosa, a local organizer whose ancestors are buried near already-built border barrier in Cameron County poses for a photo near Yalui Village in Hidalgo County, Texas on March 17, 2019.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Rebekah Hinojosa poses for a photo near Yalui Village on March 17, 2019.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

“I got to grow up in the valley without the wall, and I see my little cousin who is 1 and has to live with increased militarization,” said Rebekah Hinojosa, a local organizer whose ancestors are buried near an already-built border barrier in Cameron County. “That hurts. Deeply.”

Last year, Hinojosa started working with other local activists to hone anti-wall messaging and convened groups of people to make banners for protests along the wall’s proposed path. She sees this work as part of a growing movement to repel powerful interests encroaching on the valley. Since 2015, she’s also organized to prevent liquified natural gas companies from building a complex of export terminals where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico.

“The LNG fight and border wall fight are very connected,” Hinojosa explained. “Families and friends are going to hearings to stop LNG, they’re organizing to stop the border wall, it’s all part of the same system impacting our region.”

For now, the coalition organizing against the wall is small, especially relative to the full power of the federal government. Much more widespread is a sense that the wall perpetuates a legacy of class and racial subjugation in the valley. Patricia Rubio, an outdoorswoman who sleeps at the camp at least once a week, acknowledged that being from the valley often means carrying several generations’ worth of loss and even shame.

Her aunts and uncles were migrant fieldworkers and “grew up with low self-esteem and fear to express themselves” in Spanish, said Rubio, also an adopted Carrizo/Comecrudo tribal member. “I grew up hearing stories about beatings or lynchings. Those stories need to stay alive and we can’t be ashamed of them.” She feels a sense of responsibility to confront the types of powerful interests that immiserated her ancestors.

The wall’s construction fits into a longer legacy of the valley as a sacrifice zone, which started when Spanish colonists arrived in the 18th century and continued after the U.S. government relegated Mexicans here to second-class American citizenship. Yet for all the suffering the wall is causing locals who feel unheard, for some it’s also producing a sense of groundedness once lost to the dislocations of history.

In this Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, photo, Isaac Aguilar, left, and Isac Ramos, right, fishe at a ranch on the banks of the Rio Grande in Los Ebanos, Texas. The area would be cut of if a border wall is build in the area. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Men fish at a ranch on the banks of the Rio Grande in Los Ebanos, Texas, on Nov. 12, 2016. The area would be behind the border wall if it is built.

Photo: Eric Gay/AP

In the Government’s Sights

The notice in the local newspaper taken out by the U.S. Southern District of Texas is 24 pages long and addressed to nearly 300 parties “whose whereabouts cannot be determined or who could not be personally served.” The message for all of them is the same: The government will seize their land “to construct, install, operate, and maintain roads, fencing, vehicle barriers, security lighting, and related structures,” mostly as part of 8 to 12 miles of barrier in Starr County.

It’s the second time the notice has been published in the newspaper; after the third time, defendants will only have 20 days to respond before the government begins taking their property.

Efrén Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, has been advising low-income landowners as the state pursues their land. He’s been in talks with a dozen people interested in litigation and said a nationwide network of pro bono lawyers is preparing to take on more cases.

“These are going to be long, drawn-out battles,” Olivares said. “Eminent domain law is very, very favorable to the government, but even within that, we’re hoping to make sure the government goes through hoops to get the land.”

Earlier, Olivares led a bilingual information session in Roma, a stone’s throw away from Mexico. Olivares explained to a packed room that while federal agents can legally be on private property to patrol for migrants, landowners can charge a fee for surveyors and contractors to be on their land. Some appeared frustrated at these nuances. One man, who did not want to give his name, realized that he’d given surveyors permission to be on his land for 18 months without receiving compensation.

Maria Luisa Cavazos’s land is in the government’s crosshairs. A retired nurse who now lives in McAllen, Cavazos is one of dozens of owners of a 15-acre strip of land in Los Ebanos, a tiny community in Hidalgo County that has been coiled around the river since the 19th century. The land was left to the estate of her late grandmother, Maria Dolores Peña de Flores, and now the feds want 1.2 acres of it to build a road easement through the property.

Cavazos, now an elderly woman, said her family stopped farming the land over 40 years ago, after her father and uncle were hired to pick crops for major agribusinesses. It was fertile, supporting crops like cantaloupes, squash, cotton, and corn. It’s since been mostly vacant, and the federal government began sending letters out to Flores’s descendants in December 2016 asking that they accept a total of $2,900 for the land and waive future appeals. The offer would come out to about $50 of compensation for each descendant.

It’s almost certainly a low-ball offer. An investigation by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune found that the federal government routinely skirted regulations when it paid South Texas landowners during the last round of fence-building under the Bush and Obama administrations. Appraisers for the Army Corps of Engineers were not beholden to certain federal regulations requiring they offer an amount that reflected the land’s true value, including its irrigable and farming capacity. Back then, Cavazos sold a different tract of land to the Department of Homeland Security for just $300. To get more money this time around, she would have to hire a lawyer to do her own independent appraisal, but she’s overwhelmed at the prospect.

“I don’t believe they should take away that land,” Cavazos said on her driveway, her eyes welling with tears as she recounted memories. “When I lived there when I was young, the illegals would knock on your door and ask for food, and if we had leftover food for our supper, my mom would give it to them.”

LOS EBANOS, TX - JANUARY 05:  An RV community sits on the bank of the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border on January 5, 2017 near Los Ebanos, Texas. The number of illegal immigrants passing through such areas has surged ahead of the upcoming Presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, who has pledged to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

An RV community on the banks of the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border on Jan. 5, 2017, near Los Ebanos, Texas.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

While federal data shows apprehensions of migrants entering the country without authorization are below historic levels set in the 2000s, they’ve grown since 2000 in CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector, where apprehensions are highest nationally. In Los Ebanos, the river’s banks on the American side can rise several feet high, posing a challenge to people scrambling ashore. Border Patrol agents as well as local and state police are always swarming the village.

Cavazos’s cousin Mirta Trigo also lived in Los Ebanos as a child. Trigo said some of her family members still use the land for Easter celebrations, and she’s more resistant than her relatives about the government’s bid for it. When she received the letter asking her to voluntarily forfeit the property, she didn’t sign it. But she doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer and isn’t expecting to get much more from the federal government.

“I don’t want the wall there, the land is part of us,” Trigo said. “The government doesn’t care what we think, it’s true they don’t listen to us porque we’re the Mexican people, we’re Mexicans.”

Decades of Dispossession

Both Trigo and Cavazos were born in the U.S., but their self-recognition as Mexican speaks to a collective cultural identity that held strong for a century after the Rio Grande Valley became a territory of the U.S. After the 1840s, through a sustained effort spanning decades, Anglo settlers in the valley gained power as bankers, merchants, teachers, and other roles with local influence. “Mexicans,” or Tejanos, were relegated to roles like artisans, laborers, and struggling ranchers.

Starting in the late 19th century, Mexicans who had inherited property through Spanish land grants saw their acreage claims dwindle as they were divided among descendants. Ranchers were dispossessed of their lands by white brokers unwilling to lend them capital, as well as through theft and fraud. Lynch mobs, police, and Texas Rangers later maintained wealth and property lines through brutal violence. A racialized underclass of fieldworkers, enlarged by refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution, became the underpinning of an Anglo-dominated agricultural economy.


Graves at Eli Jackson Cemetery, south of the levee that is on the path of the proposed border wall.

Photos: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

These developments created second-class citizens out of those who had long lived on the land. Schools reinforced this hierarchy, Ramiro Ramírez remembered, punishing him and other small children if they spoke Spanish in class. Today, Ramírez’s family church and two cemeteries in Hidalgo County, once a stop on the Underground Railroad after his ancestors arrived from the Deep South, will be ripped up by the border wall’s planned construction. Unlike the Jackson Ranch and Cemetery, which is located on the same property as the Jackson Ranch Church and only inters Jackson family members and descendants, the Eli Jackson Cemetery down the street became a community burial ground in the last century. Ramírez saw the land grab as part of a long tradition of anti-Mexican racism emanating from the valley’s power structure.

“All the vestiges of your culture, you start to perceive them as being bad, the food, the language, the clothing, the values,” Ramírez said of his upbringing, as he stood inside the endangered historic chapel built by his ancestor Martin Jackson. “We thought we could progress and be in the melting pot, but we couldn’t change the way we looked.”

Having visibly dark skin, or other physical features associated with Indigenous American or African ancestry, can make U.S. citizens in the Rio Grande Valley targets for harassment by border officials. Max Muñoz, the director of operations at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, is an American-born citizen who has been profiled and chased by Border Patrol agents half a dozen times over the last two years. The center, a nature preserve with more than 250 species of butterfly and other wildlife that may be cleaved by the border wall despite congressional protections, has become a nucleus of resistance against its construction.

Once, an agent stopped Muñoz’s truck and demanded to see identification for his two daughters, who were small children. A helicopter was called after Muñoz refused to comply. Another time, an agent warned Muñoz that he was going to “find” and “catch” him in the future. He has stopped taking his family to the center for recreation, opting for nature trips to Austin instead — six hours away.

“I know I shouldn’t, but I don’t want to expose my kids to that,” Muñoz said. “I try not to put racism in their minds, but they see I’m getting stopped. I say [to them], maybe it’s because there’s an order to intimidate people away from the river.”

Juan B. Mancias poses for a photo at the Eli Jackson Cemetery in Hidalgo County, Texas on March 17, 2019. Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Juan Mancias at the Eli Jackson Cemetery in Hidalgo County, Texas, on March 17, 2019.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

The Valley’s Forgotten Tribes

The history of powerful forces uprooting people in the valley stretches back centuries. Conquistadors raided Native communities and enslaved whole families, and later the Spanish empire brought them to Catholic missions to eradicate their tribal identities. Colonization disrupted foodways and brought fatal diseases, increasing some Indigenous peoples’ dependence on the church’s abusive authority. The life-giving lands along the Rio Grande delta once supported at least 31 separate tribes in South Texas and Northeastern Mexico. There’s almost no public memory in the valley of most of them now.

Juan Mancias, the chairman of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe of Texas, who has taken a lead in organizing against the wall, told The Intercept that his grandfather helped him keep his connection to South Texas alive. The Carrizos and Comecrudos, names given by the Spanish, were each comprised of two bands in the valley. There’s nothing in settler historical archives after 1825 about the Carrizos as a distinct group, and the last known fluent speakers of the Comecrudean language were recorded near Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, in 1886.

Mancias, 64, grew up in the Texas panhandle after his ancestors moved there for work. He believes many in the valley have Carrizo and Comecrudo heritage, but after centuries of cultural genocide by the Catholic church and two settler nations, there’s little way to confirm it except oral history that isn’t extensively recorded. “It would have been lost for me if I hadn’t asked my grandfather what was really happening, or my older cousins and aunts and uncles, or my mom, who is 94,” Mancias said.

Without a land base, the tribe has had to ally with property owners in the wall’s path. In January, Mancias started connecting with the Butterfly Center, Ramiro Ramírez of the Eli Jackson Cemetery, and Fred Cavazos (no relation to Maria), owner of 77 riverside acres in Madero, who has been featured in The Intercept, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic. With the Ramírez family’s permission, the Carrizo/Comecrudo have occupied the Eli Jackson Cemetery and more recently started an encampment at the Butterfly Center; Cavazos said that Mancias has a key to his property to set up a possible third resistance camp in the future.

The Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe is not recognized by the federal government, but is a voluntary association registered as a nonprofit to collect and administer funds. The tribe held a fundraiser in early March, and a GoFundMe page overseen by Mancias brought in more than $20,000 over the last two years — the result of tenacious social media boosting. The donations fund the tribe’s activism, which has produced impressive results: In 2017, Mancias traveled to France with other local activists to confront BNP Paribas over the bank’s liquified natural gas investments in the valley. The bank divested shortly thereafter.

“Everything we get, we put it back into the tribe,” Mancias said. “Our profit is to make people know we’re here and we’re not going anywhere. We’re on our lands, and that’s the only radical thing we’re trying to do.”

Recently, Mancias accompanied Ramiro Ramírez and his sister, Sylvia, to a local restaurant where they met with Raul Ortiz, the chief of CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector. According to Sylvia Ramírez, Ortiz assured the group that the government would not seize their land for at least six months, and possibly not for a year. (A media spokesperson for CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector did not respond to emails and phone calls from The Intercept to confirm this account.)

“I’m assuming they’re telling us what they know, and they’re not pulling a fast one,” Sylvia conceded. “I’m going to give them that until I know differently.” She said her family had been “very appreciative” of the Carrizo/Comecrudo encampment, which had no plans to disband at publication time despite Ortiz’s longer timeline.

On March 14, attorneys with the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice filed a joint lawsuit against Trump and administration officials on behalf of the Ramírez family and the tribe, as well as several other plaintiffs. It asks a federal judge to strike down the national emergency declaration and enjoin the president from using emergency funds to build the wall.

“Al Exito” members along with Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe members, and activists gather around the fire to share things that they are thankful for at Yalui Village in Hidalgo County, Texas on March 17, 2019.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Members of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe are joined by activists around a fire at Yalui Village on March 17, 2019.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

A History That Needs to Be Told

Sitting around a smoldering mesquite log at Yalui Village one Sunday afternoon, several young men played prayer music from a phone and smoked cigarettes. Their discussion turned to peyote, whose cacti buttons produce a medicinal hallucinogenic effect and were once found in abundance in South Texas prior to the war on drugs. A peyote button is on the seal of the Carrizo/Comecrudo. At its center is the Aplomado Falcon, an endangered bird found in the region.

A flag bearing the seal of the American Indian Movement — the Indigenous liberation group started in 1968 — flaps in the wind, alongside flags of the Carrizo/Comecrudo and the Texas-based Society of Native Nations. Nearby, a camper served chili to others out of a large grease pan. The camp’s kitchen, mostly composed of several coolers and cooking equipment underneath yellow tarp, had recently been visited by a pack of wild boars. Clouds of insects are omnipresent, and field mice are innumerable enough that someone brought a cat to hunt them down.

Christopher Basaldú, PhD in anthropology, collects grass to place it outside of his tent to clean up the mud from his shoes at Yalui Village in Hidalgo County, Texas on March 19, 2019. Basaldú has been camping for two months in anticipation of the border wall being built. Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Christopher Basaldú collects grass to use to clean mud off his shoes outside his tent at Yalui Village.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

The valley is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the country, but pressures from human settlement have destroyed 95 percent of its natural habitat. Last October, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen waived 25 laws under the 2005 Real ID Act, including protections for endangered species and migratory birds, to expedite the wall’s construction. A study by Stanford University researchers found that 34 percent of ground and freshwater animals living along the U.S.-Mexican border would have their habitats bisected by the barrier, leading to possible extinction for some.

Nielsen also waived laws meant to protect Native American grave sites and other spiritual lands, which only apply to tribes the government recognizes. All others, including the Carrizo/Comecrudo, are at the mercy of the settler state as voluntary associations without special protections, but Mancias says that lacking official recognition can be liberating. Without any blood quantum requirements to limit tribal membership, for example, the tent for the Carrizo/Comecrudo can be as wide as the tribe wants it to be.

The people buried at the Eli Jackson Cemetery, who lie for eternity near where the campers sleep for now, may not be directly related to Mancias, but his conception of relations is broad enough to consider everything with roots in the land to be a relative. “There’s a history that needs to be told,” Macias said. “It’s not about them recognizing if we’re Indian, it’s that we recognize if we’re Indian.”

The post How Trump’s Border Wall Perpetuates the Legacy of Colonialism on the Rio Grande appeared first on The Intercept.

How Donald Trump Helped Turn a Christian Extremist Into an Alleged Domestic Terrorist

It was just after 4 a.m. on August 4, 2017, when a charcoal-gray Nissan Frontier pulled up to the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota.

A slender young man with glasses and a mustache got out carrying a sledgehammer. His accomplice, a pudgy man with a dimpled chin and a wide gap between his two front teeth, followed carrying a black powder bomb.

As the second man, 29-year-old Michael McWhorter, would later tell the FBI, they had a message for the mosque’s worshippers: “You’re not welcome here. Get the fuck out.”

The man with the sledgehammer, 22-year-old Joe Morris, used it to smash one of the mosque’s windows. McWhorter then raised his hand to hurl the bomb. As he did, he saw a man inside the house of worship. Their eyes met as McWhorter released the explosive. He and Morris ran back to the truck, where another man waited behind the wheel. They sped off into the night.

“We were long gone before it went off,” McWhorter later told the FBI.

No one was hurt in the bombing, but the mosque was badly damaged. President Donald Trump and his aides refused to condemn the attack. Sebastian Gorka, then a deputy assistant to Trump, suggested that it could have been a false flag operation carried out by leftists but designed to make right-wing extremists look responsible.

Gorka’s skepticism appears to have been misplaced. Seven months later, the FBI and local police descended on Clarence, Illinois, a tiny ramshackle community surrounded by wind turbines, and arrested McWhorter, Morris, and two others – McWhorter’s stepson Ellis “EJ” Mack and Michael Hari, the man who had driven the getaway car — for their roles in the bombings of the Minnesota mosque and a women’s clinic in Illinois. McWhorter and Mack told the FBI that Hari was the group’s leader.

Moultrie County Sheriff deputies transport Michael McWhorter to the Federal Courthouse in Urbana, Ill., Wednesday March 21, 2018. McWhorter is one of three suspects arrested last week on charges of carry out the Aug. 5 pipe-bomb assault on the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota. (Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette via AP)

Moultrie County Sheriff deputies transport Michael McWhorter to the Federal Courthouse in Urbana, Ill., on March 21, 2018.

Photo: Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette via AP.

Hari had much in common with alleged domestic extremists like Cesar Sayoc Jr., Taylor Michael Wilson, and Robert Bowers, who appear to have been influenced by Trump’s promotion of xenophobia and nativism. He and fellow members of his small, violent group, the White Rabbit Three Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia, wanted to return the United States to a simpler, less progressive era through bombings and armed resistance, according to his manifesto. Hari’s bizarre life story — involving a troubled marriage, antiquated and austere religious observances, and finally an embrace of bigotry and violence — illustrates how our increasingly divisive, conspiracy-laden culture isn’t creating terrorists so much as pushing troubled people toward extremism and violence.

Hari was drawn to Trump as a candidate because Trump wanted to put American culture in reverse, friends and family members told The Intercept. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan spoke to the nativism favored by Hari and some other conservative Christians, and fueled simmering hatred of a changing culture they struggled to understand — one in which women were empowered, gender could be fluid, a black man was president, and Christianity wasn’t necessarily a cornerstone belief.

FILE - In this June 1, 2016, file photo, then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wears his "Make America Great Again" hat at a rally in Sacramento, Calif. Outside groups are promising to spend millions of dollars boosting President Donald Trump's agenda. This week, Making America Great began spending more than $1 million on an ad that will air in 10 states with Democratic senators. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Donald Trump wears his “Make America Great Again” hat at a rally in Sacramento, Calif., on June 1, 2016.

Photo: Jae C. Hong, File/AP.

“This whole Donald Trump movement caught a lot of us,” said a man who knew Hari through their shared religious observance but asked not to be identified because he didn’t want to be associated with Hari’s alleged crimes. “Anybody with a fundamentalist mindset has this ‘we-have-to-keep-our-ways, this-way-is-threatened’ mentality. They look at Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and it’s a lot of what they’re saying.”

“I don’t think Trump’s rhetoric is getting people to commit violence,” the man continued. “It’s not like he’s saying, ‘Go bomb a mosque!’ I think it’s subtler. I think he’s flipping the switch in certain people. And I think he flipped that switch in Michael Hari.”

In this July 2017 booking photo released by Ford County Sheriff's Office, Michael Hari is seen on an assault charge. Hari, 47, allegedly intended for the attack to scare Muslims into leaving the U.S. He and two associates were charged Tuesday, March 13, 2018, with traveling from rural Clarence, Illinois, about 120 miles south of Chicago, to carry out the Aug. 5 pipe-bomb assault on the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota. (Ford County Sheriff's Office via The News-Gazette, via AP)

In this July 2017 booking photo released by the Ford County Sheriff’s Office, Michael Hari is seen on an assault charge.

A Gradual Drift Toward Extremism

Michael Hari was born in Berlin in 1971 while his father was stationed there with the Air Force. He moved to Paxton, Illinois, with his parents and his younger brother when he was a boy. A rural corn and soybean farming community, Paxton is the seat of Ford County, which is shaped like the letter L and known as Illinois’s staunchest Republican county. In most elections, Libertarian Party candidates get more votes in Ford County than Democrats — when there is even a Democrat on the ballot.

In 1990, when Hari was 19, he married Michelle Lee Frakes, who hoped to become a school teacher. Two years later, they moved to Lampasas County, Texas, so Hari could study psychology at the University of Central Texas, now known as Texas A&M – Central Texas.

During Hari’s first year in Texas, David Koresh, the self-appointed prophet of a Christian sect known as the Branch Davidians, was gaining national attention. Law enforcement officials suspected Koresh of polygamy and child sexual abuse. Koresh’s group entered into a standoff with the federal government at a compound in Waco, about 100 miles from where Hari lived. Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, suspecting that Koresh and his followers had illegal weapons, tried to raid the compound in February 1993, leading to a shootout that killed four federal agents and six Branch Davidians. The FBI then surrounded Koresh’s compound in a 51-day standoff. Hari was deeply sympathetic to Koresh’s cause and viewed the standoff and later siege as the acts of a tyrannical government that did not respect religious liberty. He was among those who protested against the government in Waco. Some protesters at the time held up signs that read, “Is your church ATF approved?”

Hari’s support for Koresh was partly influenced by his own religious transformation. While in Texas, he began reading about the Old German Baptist Brethren, a conservative branch of Anabaptism whose members dress in a fashion similar to the Mennonites and the Amish: bearded men in pants, long-sleeved shirts, and fedoras and women in loose-fitting, long-sleeved, ankle-length dresses with bonnets covering their hair.

In Texas, Hari and Frakes had two daughters, but their marriage was tumultuous. Frakes took issue with what she saw as Hari’s oppressive and patriarchal religious beliefs. “I’m supposed to bow down to you,” Frakes once told him. “I can’t do it.”


Michael Hari lived at the end of a narrow, poorly paved road in Clarence, Illinois. His small home was shrouded in overgrown trees and brush.

Photo : Trevor Aaronson/The Intercept.

In 1995, Frakes returned to Illinois with their daughters. Hari followed, landing a job as a deputy at the Ford County Sheriff’s Office, but the couple couldn’t mend their marriage. Frakes filed for divorce, beginning what would be a messy, yearslong dispute. One daughter accused Hari of sexually abusing her, but a court found that she had been coached. Frakes and Hari eventually reconciled, and the divorce proceedings were dropped.

Hari left the Ford County Sheriff’s Office in 1997, opened a gun store in Paxton, and tried his hand at politics. He ran for local sheriff unsuccessfully in 1998 as a Libertarian and a year later lost a race for a Paxton City Council seat. Hari won enough public recognition in those campaigns to be appointed to the Ford County Board of Review, which hears appeals of property tax assessments, but he resigned in 2000, halfway through his two-year term. “My church is against involvement in politics,” Hari told the local newspaper, the News-Gazette, at the time. “I’m 100 percent in favor of being against that. I don’t have any interest in getting involved in politics again.”

By then, Hari had become even more religiously devout, which caused more problems for his marriage. He had stripped the family’s home in Clarence, Illinois, of most vestiges of modern life. There was no electricity, just kerosene lamps for light and a wood-burning stove for heat. Frakes didn’t want to live like that, she wrote in court filings. New child abuse allegations surfaced against Hari, only to be dismissed as not credible by an administrative law judge with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Hari filed for divorce in February 2001 and won sole custody of his two daughters. At the time, a therapist noted Hari’s “somewhat unconventional religious beliefs” but found “no conflict with good parenting principles.”

Over the next four years, Hari and Frakes argued in court proceedings over parenting and education decisions. One of their daughters, Mollie, then 14, often missed school and was diagnosed with agoraphobia. Hari made her wear long dresses and bonnets. Frakes alleged that Mollie’s behavioral problems were rooted in her having to straddle modern culture in school and her father’s conservative religious beliefs at home.

Halfway through the school year in 2004, Mollie had missed 50 percent of her scheduled days. In April 2005, Frakes requested an emergency custody hearing, arguing that Hari had failed to keep the kids in public school. Hari didn’t show up. Instead, he left the country, taking his two daughters with him.


Michael Hari attempted to establish an Old German Baptist Brethren community on this rundown farm in Zaragoza, Mexico, about 60 miles south of Del Rio, Texas.

Photo obtained by The Intercept.

Austerity in Fountain Creek

Hari took Mollie and her younger sister, Alleen, to Belize, where Hutterites, an Anabaptist sect similar to the Mennonites, had established a community. Back in Illinois, prosecutors charged him with felony child abduction.

Desperate to reunite with her daughters, Frakes turned to psychologist Phil McGraw, best known as the host of the TV talk show “Dr. Phil.” As part of a 2006 episode intended to reunite the family and offer counseling, the show hired Harold Copus, a former FBI agent, to track down Hari and the girls. Copus learned of the Hutterite community in Belize, and he and a film crew traveled there.

“It was like stepping back into the 1800s,” Copus recalled in an interview with The Intercept. “Everything’s horse-driven, no electricity, no modern conveniences whatsoever.”

Copus met with the community’s elders and explained that Hari did not have his ex-wife’s permission to take the girls out of the country. Copus then was shown to the house where Hari and his daughters were living. “It was a piece of crap,” Copus remembered.

Nearly a year after they left the United States, Hari agreed that he and his daughters would accompany Copus on a flight to Florida, where they filmed an episode of “Dr. Phil” that reunited Hari’s daughters with their mother. Hari then stood trial for child abduction in Illinois, where Frakes urged the court to send him to prison. “He believes his freedom of religion allows him to break the law,” Frakes told the court. Hari was found guilty and sentenced to 30 months of probation.

He began to self-publish books and essays linked together by the notion that modernity has ruined American culture and family life. He blamed significant changes in public opinion about same-sex marriage on “nothing more than 20 years of campaigning by the secular global elite,” and predicted that same-sex marriage would soon create widespread social unrest in the United States. Hari believed that Americans had begun to accept same-sex marriage because churches had started to condone a “hedonistic view of marriage” between men and women that allowed for the pursuit of materialism and sexual pleasure at the expense of having children. In Hari’s view, changing attitudes about marriage, coupled with growing secularism nationwide, had ushered in an era when couples have fewer children and instead feed their “carnal desire for a higher standard of living.” In Hari’s view, Christianity, and the United States by extension, faced three enemies: the so-called global secular elite, Islam, and what he termed “false Christianity.” Hari viewed the “global secular elite” as an organized and unified cabal, and referred to it by the acronym “GSE.”

“To truly be more than conquerors, let us lay every other weapon aside, and turn our efforts to seizing the education of children away from the GSE,” Hari wrote. “Let us consider Islam to be a problem that we as Christians are equipped to handle. Let us confront every sin, false religion and heresy that we see with patient rebuke. Let us esteem other men better than ourselves, and go into battles as the Christians of old did, until we have cast down the devil’s strongholds and made every enemy our Savior’s friend. And then we will be more than conquerors.”

Hari came to see the social degradation all around him. He wrote about a case he helped investigate as a sheriff’s deputy in 1997, when the skulls of local town pioneers James and Elizabeth Jones were stolen by a group of people in their late teens and early 20s. Hari described the group as “cultists” and wrote that their crime was fueled by their use of marijuana and LSD. Instead of seeing them as young people experimenting with drugs and stealing remains for whatever ridiculous reason they thought justified their actions, Hari viewed the group and their behavior as symptomatic of a declining society that had wrongly embraced modernity and multiculturalism.

“What can we learn ultimately from this story?” Hari asked in his book’s final pages. “I would say that the culture and society that produced the [Joneses] is superior to the one we have now. Those cultists were products of the progressive movement. That is what it generates.”

Starting in the mid-2000s, Hari, who at the time was still apolitical, began to believe firmly that if the United States could not change, people like him would have to form new, independent communities grounded in conservative moral and religious beliefs. These communities would be more agrarian and communal, the way America once had been, at least in Hari’s mind. In 2006, he wrote a short manifesto titled “Fountain Creek.” Building on his experience in Belize, he espoused the creation of an Old German Baptist Brethren community founded on three principles: the “common purse,” in which the community pools its money; using simple tools, such as a horse-drawn plow instead of a tractor; and performing hard labor to produce food. Hari distributed and promoted his manifesto throughout the Anabaptist communities in the United States, then set off to put his ideas into practice. He leased a small farm outside Zaragoza, Mexico, a poor agricultural community about 60 miles south of Del Rio, Texas, where he planned to start his new society. Google Maps still labels the farm in Mexico as “Fountain Creek Old German Baptist Brethren.”

The property was in disrepair; drug cartels had used part of the farm as a burning pit for bodies. Hari went there with Joe Morris, the man who would allegedly smash the Minnesota mosque’s window with a sledgehammer. Growing up in Illinois, Morris had shuffled between foster parents and grandparents before Hari had taken him to a horse-and-buggy community in Kentucky to be raised, according to people who knew both men. To Morris — who would later become part of the White Rabbit Three Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia — Hari was something of a father figure.

Only one other family joined Hari and Morris at Fountain Creek. The patriarch, the affable man who blamed Trump’s rhetoric for Hari’s radicalization, said he’d dreamed of a simpler life and was enticed by Hari’s manifesto. He and his family joined Hari in Mexico in 2013. They stayed only 12 days, after discovering that Hari had embellished his descriptions of the farm.

“Every promise was broken,” the man said. “The ranch was in disrepair. It was a mess. When we left, it was pretty much just him.”

Hari gave the man a hard time for leaving, saying that he was not living up to his obligations to the nascent community. But a short while later, Hari himself abandoned Fountain Creek and returned with Morris to Illinois. He and the man who had left kept in touch. After Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, the man said that Hari’s views grew increasingly radical. Hari’s fervent support for Trump also put him at odds with his church, which advocated for political neutrality.

“People like Michael Hari, they’re not so big on ideology as much as they are on the feeling of rightness,” the man said. “In his mind, Mike could be right about being a pacifist and he could also feel like he’s right about blowing up a mosque. People like you and me, it never runs through our mind — blow up a mosque. It’s extremism. Whatever Mike did, it had to be extreme. He was always in rebellion. If you go back to 2016, think about where he was in life. His farm idea had failed; he had taken a shot to his pride there. And then here comes Donald Trump telling everyone, ‘Let’s make America great again.’ To Michael Hari, Trump was a righteous cause.”

Michael Hari started a company called Crisis Resolution Security Services to apply as a contractor to build President Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.- Mexico border. This is the video Hari produced as part of his application to the Department of Homeland Security. Video: Youtube

“Build the Wall”

Hari didn’t just back Trump’s policies; he also wanted to help bring them to fruition. Back in Illinois after the failure of Fountain Creek, he leased a rundown former grain elevator on Main Street in Clarence, a short distance from his home off a narrow, poorly paved road. He used the building as an office and let Morris live there. Together, they formed the nucleus of the White Rabbit Three Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia.

The goal of Hari’s organization was to return the United States to “the good old days” through bombings and armed resistance, according to a 38-page document he began selling on Amazon in 2017 called “The White Rabbit Handbook.” The book and YouTube videos Hari posted describe his group’s militancy as a response to corruption in Illinois state government and a means of supporting Trump’s secret battle to remove bad actors from the so-called deep state.

“If you’re dissatisfied with how things are going in this country, you’re already a White Rabbit,” Hari said in a video he posted online in March 2018. “You’re in pretty good company, because about 60 to 70 percent of the people right now in this country think it’s on the wrong track. Whether you love Trump or whether you hate him, you’re probably dissatisfied with how things are going because, you know, Trump’s not really in charge of the whole government. You’ve got a huge deep state rebellion going there.”

Hari and his followers were part a small but growing cohort of extremists who appear to have been inspired by Trump’s rhetoric or by conspiracy theories that promote the president as a sort of citizens’ defender against evil forces.

Curtis Allen, Gavin Wright, and Patrick Eugene Stein conspired in October 2016 to bomb an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas, where many Muslims, mostly of Somali descent, lived. The FBI became aware of the plot when a fourth man who was in the group reported it to law enforcement. In recorded conversations, the men referred to Muslims as “cockroaches,” and Stein, who was an early Trump supporter, commented: “The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.” Lawyers for the three men blamed Trump’s rhetoric for encouraging the violent plot. A lawyer for Stein wrote in a court filing that Trump appealed to Stein as “the voice of a lost and ignored white, working-class set of voters” and that “Trump’s brand of rough-and-tumble verbal pummeling heightened the rhetorical stakes for people of all political persuasions.”

Taylor Michael Wilson was among the white supremacist demonstrators at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 – demonstrators who, according to Trump, included some “very fine people.” Two months later, Wilson tried to pull the emergency brake on an Amtrak passenger train traveling through Nebraska. Armed with a handgun and carrying business cards for the white supremacist National Socialist Movement and the Covenant Nation Church, a Christian identity organization, Wilson told police he planned to kill the train’s black passengers. He was instead tackled by two conductors.

In July 2018, an unemployed Marine veteran named Matthew P. Wright blocked traffic on the Hoover Dam using an armored vehicle. Wright was armed with an AR-15 rifle, a handgun, and a flashbang device, which can temporarily stun people by generating a blinding flash. In letters he wrote to Trump and other elected officials, Wright referred to “QAnon,” a conspiracy theory that suggested that Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller were secretly working together to expose a sex-trafficking ring operated by Hillary Clinton and Hollywood celebrities.

QAnon began in October 2017, when an anonymous poster, using the handle Q, claimed on the internet forum 4chan to have information about Trump’s battle with the “deep state.” Online conspiracy theorists quickly began to parse and interpret Q’s cryptic posts, referring to them as “bread crumbs” that they believed could lead to some larger truth. Last summer, people began to show up at Trump rallies in QAnon T-shirts and holding up signs declaring: “We Are Q.” Despite the fact that many of Q’s prophecies have proven false — these bogus claims are catalogued on Reddit under the tag “Q’s Failures,” which include predicting that Republicans would win the 2018 midterms, that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions would not be fired or asked to resign, and that Clinton would be arrested — QAnon and related conspiracy theories have resonated among some of Trump’s most ardent supporters, including Hari and his followers.

More recently, Cesar Sayoc, a strip club disc jockey in Florida, allegedly mailed pipe bombs to more than a dozen Democratic Party leaders and critics of Trump. The windows of Sayoc’s white van were covered in pro-Trump stickers and images of target symbols over the faces of filmmaker Michael Moore, Clinton, and CNN commentator Van Jones.

Following Sayoc’s attempted bombings, Robert Bowers killed 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest act of anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history. Bowers said he was inspired not only by his hatred of Jews, but also by the Jewish community’s support for immigrants, whom he called “invaders.” Trump has also demonized immigrants since he announced his candidacy in 2015.

Members of QAnon await the arrival of US President Donald Trump for a political rally at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on August 2, 2018. - QAnon adheres to a grand-scale conspiracy theory placing President Trump against an alleged "deep state" committed to ending his rule. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of QAnon await the arrival of President Donald Trump for a political rally at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Penn. on Aug. 2, 2018.

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

Back in Clarence after leaving Fountain Creek, Hari worked as a food inspector for farms operated by Amish, Mennonites, and members of other Anabaptist communities. Those farmers bristled at the prospect of women inspectors from outside their conservative communities visiting their farms. Hari’s business filled that niche.

In December 2016, a month after Trump was elected, Hari founded a second company, CRSS, or Crisis Resolution Security Service. The company’s logo is a muscled man giving a thumbs-up, with a helicopter, tank, and raft of soldiers behind him. “We’ve got your back!” the slogan reads. On behalf of CRSS, Hari submitted a proposal to the Department of Homeland Security to build a 1,500-mile border wall for $10.9 billion.

Hari’s proposal for what he dubbed the Great Western IBW, or International Border Wall, envisioned a barrier topped with a pedestrian walkway similar to the one atop the Great Wall of China and visitor stations in Texas and California. “The wall exists to protect the economic rights of the U.S. population and to protect our way of life from other people who have different value systems,” a narrator reads over a video proposal Hari created.

Hari’s bid caught the attention of the Chicago Tribune, which questioned his lack of experience in construction projects, particularly building security barriers. “I have had some experience with it, but not a great deal,” Hari told the newspaper in April 2017. But Hari’s ability to complete such a project, if selected, was highly questionable even if he’d had construction experience. He told a local court in 2017 that he had just $17 in his bank account.

FILE - In this Aug. 7, 2017, file photo, Asad Zaman stands at the site of the bombing in the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minn. Michael Hari pleaded not guilty, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, in federal court in St. Paul, Minn., in the bombing of the Minnesota mosque, three weeks after two of his alleged accomplices pleaded guilty. Federal prosecutors allege Hari was the ringleader of an Illinois-based militia and that the trio drove more than 500 miles to bomb the mosque in hopes of scaring Muslims into leaving the U.S. No one was injured in the August 2017 attack. (Courtney Pedroza/Star Tribune via AP)

Asad Zaman stands at the site of the bombing in the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minn., on Aug. 7, 2017.

Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Star Tribune via AP.

The Attacks Begin

Hari’s turn from extremist ideas to violent acts came on July 7, 2017. That day, aggravated by Hari’s emaciated dogs rooting through their trash, Hari’s neighbors Jon and Hope O’Neill walked over to his property to complain. They pushed open his gate and walked around the outside of his home. Hari then pulled up in his car.

“You are on my property,” Hope O’Neill remembered Hari telling them.

“We thought you were home,” she replied. “We were looking for you.”

That’s when, according to Hope O’Neill, Hari accused them of stealing from him. She and her husband laughed, then started to walk back to their home. “I got something for you,” Hari said, according to Hope O’Neill.

Hari then pulled out a gun and placed the mouth of the barrel to the back of Jon O’Neill’s head. Hope screamed, then called the police. Hope told The Intercept that she is confident the gun Hari had was real, but by the time police arrived, he was holding an air pistol, the kind that fires pellets. While not as dangerous as a real gun, air pistols can be fatal at point-blank range. The local police arrested Hari and charged him with felony unlawful restraint and misdemeanor battery.

Then came the two bombings, nearly back to back: in August 2017 at the mosque in Minnesota and then in November 2017 at a women’s clinic in Champaign, Illinois, where a secretary discovered a broken window and a device in a surgical room that appeared to be a live explosive. Investigators believe the bomb was designed to ignite oxygen tanks in the surgical room.

At first, the police and the FBI didn’t have credible leads for the bombings. That changed the day after Christmas in 2017.

Hari’s brother, Jason, an Iraq War veteran, had been in a nearly two-year feud with Hari. Jason was angry that Hari had damaged one of his trailers, while Hari had accused Jason of taking a security camera from his property and erasing photos from the camera’s memory.

Because Hari did not have electricity or running water, he often stayed at his parents’ house. While Jason was there one day, he found guns and bomb-making materials that Hari had left. Jason photographed the cache and showed the images to deputies at the same local sheriff’s office where Hari had once worked. The sheriff’s deputies referred Jason to the FBI, where he signed on as an informant.

With its first solid lead, the FBI recruited another informant, this one a member of Hari’s group, the White Rabbit Three Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia. The informant had convictions for drug possession in the 1990s and a pending assault charge, according to FBI records, which did not disclose his name. The informant told federal agents that Hari, McWhorter, and Morris were responsible for the mosque and women’s clinic bombings.

Unaware that he was the target of an expanding FBI investigation, Hari was concerned about the state charges he faced for putting a gun to his neighbor’s head. On February 19, someone using a proxy server sent an anonymous tip to the ATF that Jon O’Neill was a “possible terrorism threat” who had bombs in his shed. Jon and Hope O’Neill cooperated with investigators, who found explosives just where the anonymous tipster had promised they would. The O’Neills told the ATF that they suspected Hari had planted the bombs.

One of the explosives was wired to a green propane tank. Jason Hari told the FBI that his brother had multiple green propane tanks that he used for camping. Shown a picture of the bomb and the tank, Jason Hari said the tank looked “very similar” to the ones Hari had.

The next day, the FBI informant inside Hari’s group wore a wire and recorded a conversation with Hari, Morris, and McWhorter. The informant said he thought Morris should be more careful when talking and not use the term “bang bangs,” an apparent reference to the bombs. Hari agreed, but said he wasn’t concerned because they’d moved all of the weapons and explosives out of the old grain elevator building he’d converted into an office. Besides, he told the informant, Morris had been “in a friendly crowd” when he made the comments.

The FBI and local police went door to door trying to find out who might have been responsible for the bombs in the O’Neills’ shed. They stopped at the home of McWhorter’s brother, who gave police permission to search his house. They found rifles McWhorter had left there; they had been illegally modified to make them capable of automatic fire. McWhorter was later arrested for federal firearms violations.

As the FBI searched the tiny town of Clarence, Hari, Morris, and Mack huddled in the former grain elevator that Hari used as an office and recorded an internet video. Hari, wearing a black ski mask, stared into the camera.

After FBI agents arrived in Clarence, Illinois, Michael Hari posted a series of videos to YouTube calling for militia members to help defend his group. Video: Youtube

“We’re speaking to you from the Clarence, Illinois, area, where we’ve had a crisis in the last something over a week,” Hari said. He described a “bomb scare” in town and claimed FBI agents were searching homes without warrants.

“We’re asking for militia support to come and help us. … All of our liberties are on the line,” Hari continued. “If they can come into a town like ours and just rule it like they have, then they can do this anywhere. So we’re sending an appeal to all the militia brothers out there. Please come and support us in Clarence, Illinois. We need people to stand with us and win back our liberty, because it’s definitely gone. If this sort of thing can happen in Clarence, Illinois, it can happen anywhere. It can happen to you. It can happen to your family. We need you to come and stand with us.”

Morris and Mack, also wearing ski masks, took turns sitting in front of the computer’s video camera to ask for backup. “Sending out a request for more militia to come and help us take our town back,” Morris said in the video. “A lot of us have friends and family that we can no longer see now.”

A few days later, the FBI arrested Hari on the steps of the local courthouse, where he was scheduled to attend a hearing on the unlawful restraint and battery charges. He now faces separate federal trials in Minnesota for the mosque bombing, which is scheduled to begin September 30, and in Illinois for the women’s clinic bombing, which has not yet been scheduled. As is common for domestic extremists who use bombs, Hari and his followers weren’t charged with a terrorism-related offense, such as material support or weapons of mass destruction. Instead, federal prosecutors in Illinois charged Hari and his group with firearms violations, conspiracy, and attempted arsons, while prosecutors in Minnesota filed explosives charges.

McWhorter and Morris pleaded guilty in Minnesota to bombing the mosque there and the attempted bombing of the women’s clinic in Illinois. They also pleaded guilty to an Illinois charge alleging they conspired to commit robbery to raise money for Hari’s group. McWhorter’s stepson, Mack, who was not charged in the Minnesota mosque bombing, pleaded guilty in Illinois to firearms violations and the robbery conspiracy.

McWhorter has been cooperating with the FBI. He told agents that Hari spoke of reporting to “higher-ups” named “Ben Lewis” and “Congo Joe.” It’s unclear if these people exist.

In a letter from jail, Hari told The Intercept that he couldn’t comment on his case due to “legal circumstances.” However, he enclosed a poem he’d written titled, “We Are Men! The Battle Cry of the Patriot Freedom Fighters!”

It begins:

Men built the walls,
            And men can destroy them.

We are men!

Men took away our rights
            To defend ourselves,
            To innocence, until proven guilty,
            To make our choices, and to live our lives.
But men can win them back.

We are men!

Men built this unjust system,
            And men can destroy it.

We are men!

The post How Donald Trump Helped Turn a Christian Extremist Into an Alleged Domestic Terrorist appeared first on The Intercept.

The Decriminalization of Sex Work Is Edging Into the 2020 Campaign

There isn’t much to recommend the current iteration of American presidential elections, which now begin some two years before the day voters go to the polls. One upside, though, is that it opens up policy conversations that are usually closed off. The result is the beginning of a public conversation about decriminalizing sex work.

Three Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination — Sens. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard — have weighed in on the rights of sex workers. Harris and Gabbard have said they support the decriminalization of sex work, while Sanders was noncommittal in his response. The mere fact that presidential candidates are being asked about sex work, however, represents a shift in the public discourse on the sex work community. Yet there’s a ways to go: The Intercept reached out to the other congressional Democrats running for president — Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke — and got no response.

The sex workers’ rights movement was galvanized in 2018 in reaction to the passage of legislation known as SESTA-FOSTA, which purported to curb sex trafficking by holding online platforms legally liable for any content found to “knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking.” All congressional Democrats running for president voted for SESTA-FOSTA.

Passage of the law resulted in the shutdown of prominent personal ad sites and marketplaces, forcing sex workers to resort to working on the streets or with pimps. It also led sex workers, who often feel abandoned by the progressive left, to organize and ramp up their activism. The urgency of the situation is pushing advocates to define what they actually mean by “decriminalization” and to push for policy changes at state, local, and national levels. The organizing has produced the most results in New York, where activists working with lawmakers have launched a campaign to decriminalize sex work in the state, and it’s also created tensions around the Democratic Socialists of America’s endorsement of Sanders for president.

“[The endorsement process] wasn’t looking for feedback. It was looking to tick a box and say DSA is endorsing,” said Kim Lehmkuhl, a member of Metro D.C. DSA. “That puts members who belong to marginalized communities, or who wanna be in solidarity with them, in a position where we’re now doing this very Democratic Party, liberal thing of throwing our comrades under the bus for political expediency. And that feels really gross and bad, and especially a year in advance, it seems not defensible to me.”

Politicians rarely address the underground industry, despite its intersection with criminal justice reform, labor rights, immigration, LGBTQ issues, and racial justice. When sex work — which refers to the willing exchange of money or goods for sexual labor, including sex-adjacent industry workers like pornography actors, erotic dancers, and webcam models — is discussed on the national level, it’s often conflated with sex trafficking, which involves coercing someone into sex work through violence or other means. This false comparison results from a refusal to recognize sex work as a labor issue.

The public seems to favor moving toward decriminalization, according to a recent poll, though it’s by no means a majority view. The survey, conducted by Data for Progress in partnership with YouGov Blue, found that the public favors sex work decriminalization 41 percent to 35 percent, while Democrats support it 49 percent to 23 percent.

Sex workers’ rights advocates are optimistic about the fact that policy questions about the underground industry are being asked of candidates, even if there’s a long way to go to secure rights and protections for people who trade sex. “I’ve never seen anything like this before, as far as a policy consideration,” said Kate D’Adamo, a longtime sex workers’ rights advocate and partner with Reframe Health and Justice.

Harris, a former prosecutor who has been criticized for years by activists for hostility toward sex workers, appears to be the first mainstream presidential candidate to have called for the decriminalization of sex work.

“I do not believe that anybody who hurts another human being or profits off of their exploitation should be admonished or free of criminal prosecution,” Harris said in a recent interview with The Root. “But when you are talking about consenting adults, I think that you know, yes, we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed.”

“I was advocating [15 years ago] that we have to stop arresting these prostitutes and start going after the johns and the pimps, because we were criminalizing the women,” Harris added.

The statements were remarkable coming from a politician whose record includes opposition to a ballot initiative meant to end prostitution arrests, known as Proposition K, as San Francisco’s district attorney, as well as her role, as California attorney general, in shutting down websites sex workers used for advertisements and to safely screen clients, like

The sex work community, however, is skeptical of Harris’s shift, and in particular of her position that she supports an increased crackdown on “johns,” a term for the clients of sex workers. Nina Luo, a steering committee member of Decrim NY, a New York-based coalition that seeks to decriminalize sex work, said the California senator’s answer worries advocates, who have worked for several decades to build political education around decriminalization. What the candidate described, Luo said, is the Nordic model, which shifts the burden of incarceration to clients instead. For activists, true decriminalization is the removal of criminal penalties and interactions with the criminal justice system for any sex trade between adults, including patrons.

“That was incredibly disappointing, because that is a lot of people’s first interaction with decrim and it feels like a term that a lot of people have spent their lives working on is being co-opted,” Luo said. “I’d love to just see a little more nuanced discussion of just decrim versus legalization versus the Nordic model and why people trade sex and what they want.”

Gabbard, a representative from Hawaii, also said in a recent interview that she wants to decriminalize sex work. “If a consenting adult wants to engage in sex work, that is their right, and it should not be a crime,” Gabbard told BuzzFeed. “All people should have autonomy over their bodies and their labor.”

Her position on sex work comes after a recent reckoning with her past anti-LGBT activism, including working for her father’s anti-LGBT organization, which promoted conversion therapy. She has apologized for her involvement with these efforts in recent months, saying her views have changed significantly since then.

Sanders, for his part, was asked for his stance on decriminalization in an interview with the hip-hop morning show “The Breakfast Club.” He replied, “That’s a good question, and I don’t have an answer for that.”

Luo called Sanders’s response disingenuous because “people who trade sex have been trying to meet with him for years.” His vote for SESTA-FOSTA means that “it’s not like this is the first time this has ever, like, come across his desk,” Luo said, noting that some DSA members opposed endorsing the Vermont senator because of that vote. They lost that battle: DSA’s National Political Committee voted 11-4 to back Sanders on March 21, following an advisory poll of dues-paying members. Roughly a quarter of DSA’s total membership participated in the poll, with 76 percent voting to endorse and 24 percent voting against it. But some members say the rushed endorsement surrendered any leverage the group could have had in pushing him to the left and also signaled that the issues affecting sex workers aren’t as important to the organization.

Ana Mri, a sex worker and former member of Las Vegas DSA, said her community has lost a powerful tool to hold Sanders accountable. At the same time, she added, even if the endorsement were not rushed, it’s unclear whether DSA — which, in her experience, can be hostile toward sex workers — would have tried to push the candidate on the issue, because the organization hasn’t formulated its own position on decriminalization.

“Being a woman, being trans, you know, being a gender nonconforming person in these places, it can be really hostile and it can be very uncomfortable,” Mri said. “That’s something we hear a lot across many chapters, so there’s already that culture that is definitely being battled in the org. … It’s all of the microaggressions, all of the violence, all of the hostility — take that and multiply it by a million when you’re a sex worker.”

In a statement, the Las Vegas DSA said its executive board “stands with our comrades in the sex worker movement,” condemning efforts like SESTA-FOSTA and a Nevada bill that would expand the definition of sex trafficking. “We view the criminalization of sex work as another form of capitalist, patriarchal oppression, often directed towards the most marginalized among us,” the group said. “Furthermore, we recognize that sex workers are foundational to the economy and character of Las Vegas. For over a century, their labor has been essential to building the city that we call home. We fight for sex workers when and wherever possible.”

Lehmkuhl said DSA members should address Sanders’s blind spots because they owe it to the candidate and to their organization, which grew exponentially after his 2016 presidential run and Donald Trump’s election. “He is currently the best candidate,” she said. “I want him to be a strong candidate. I want him to not continue to be vulnerable on these issues and, best-case scenario, I’d like him to care about all people. And if he doesn’t, I want him to have the right position on these things. We have time to do that.”

Luo is willing to cut Sanders a bit of slack, noting that he may have answered the way he did in the “Breakfast Club” interview because the sex trade has been inappropriately gendered. “It puts male candidates in kind of a tough position, because it seems like they’re speaking on a woman’s issue, when in reality it’s not,” she said.

D’Adamo said Sanders’s lack of position on the issue is an opportunity for education and an opportunity for advocates to reach out to his office. “He’s been working on the federal level for longer than I’ve been alive,” she said. “So not having sat down and thought through a state-level issue doesn’t surprise me.”

Though most sex work policy is determined at the state level, both Congress and the executive branch wield significant influence over the rights and health of people who trade sex, through legislation like SESTA-FOSTA and Justice Department prosecutions. “This is a 2020 issue, not just for whoever becomes president, but we have to really be pushing Congress on it as well,” D’Adamo said.

The Justice Department, specifically, uses the criminalization of sex work as a proxy for effective anti-trafficking investigation and work, according to an analysis by Lambda Legal. Instead of addressing the systemic conditions that exacerbate trafficking, measures meant to combat trafficking primarily rely on law enforcement, which has been found to increase vulnerability to exploitation for both people who trade sex and people who have been trafficked. A presidential administration that wanted to enact substantial changes would have to untangle effective anti-trafficking policy, which “looks a lot like access to resources,” from what is “just hypercriminalization of the sex trade” being passed off as anti-trafficking work, she said. “That can happen in the Department of Justice, in the Department of Homeland Security; there’s a lot of different ways actually that we can do this work”

When sex workers’ rights advocates talk about decriminalization policy, D’Adamo noted, they’re talking about a reduction in policing, but they’re also largely referring to accessibility to basic resources and services. Sex workers who have been criminally prosecuted can be barred from obtaining housing, employment, Pell Grants, and access to higher education.

Even having more dialogue around making health policy responsive to the needs of sex workers would be a major step in the right direction, she said. HIV policy, she added, has been developed “a lot of times without people who trade sex and other marginalized populations in those conversations.” In most states, individuals living with HIV can face felony charges or felony-type sentences for knowingly or intentionally exposing a partner to HIV without their knowledge.

Another priority is “looking at re-entry programs in the services we provide incarcerated folks when they get out of prison or jail,” D’Adamo said, and making sure that employment, health care, and housing services are accessible to LGBTQ populations, and trans youth in particular, who are much more likely to trade sex than their peers for access to basic things like shelter.

“We have to remember that elections are not just every four years, and they’re not just the president,” D’Adamo said. Pouring energy into local races through efforts like canvassing can make a huge difference in the lives of people who trade sex, she added.

In the midterm elections, New York state Sen. Julia Salazar stood out because she incorporated comprehensive decriminalization policy, shaped by consultations with the sex work community, into her platform. Last month, Salazar and Sen. Jessica Ramos announced that they intend to introduce a bill this session to decriminalize sex work in New York.

“When we talk about decriminalization, yes, we’re talking about elected representatives, we’re talking about policy, but there’s a lot of different positions that can actually make a huge difference in people’s lives, as Julia Salazar is showing,” D’Adamo said. “If we just have a [district attorney] that says, ‘I’m not going to prosecute loitering charges anymore’ — that makes a huge difference and has the same effect.”

Last year, sex workers and allies from across the country held a first-ever lobbying day on Capitol Hill, New York sex workers held canvassing and campaign events for Salazar’s campaign, and hundreds attended the first known town hall in American history to discuss sex workers’ issues.

Sex workers have always shown up to the political process, but their vocalness on the issues that most directly impact them is a new development, D’Adamo noted. “It’s more, are we going to see this issue pushed? And I genuinely believe so.”

The post The Decriminalization of Sex Work Is Edging Into the 2020 Campaign appeared first on The Intercept.

Oklahoma Bill Would Force Doctors to Lie to Patients by Telling Them That Abortions Can Be Reversed

Tuesday was a busy day for the Oklahoma House Judiciary Committee. Legislators considered a measure to amend state firearms law, one pertaining to the collection and testing of sexual assault evidence, and another to modify state drug laws. Nestled within the committee’s agenda was Senate Bill 614, which would require abortion providers to counsel patients seeking medication abortion that the process can be reversed. Under the proposed law, a doctor who fails to provide this counsel would be committing a felony and potentially facing lengthy prison time.

The law is needed, Rep. Mark Lepak told the committee, because “medical science has developed a method for reversing the effects of a medication abortion and saving the life of an unborn child.”

The problem with Lepak’s statements — and the bill itself, which easily cleared the committee on a 13-3 vote — is that there actually is no sound science behind the claim that a medication abortion can be “reversed.” For this reason, medical associations like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have been unequivocal in their opposition to legislation like Oklahoma’s. “Claims regarding abortion ‘reversal’ treatment are not based on science and do not meet clinical standards,” the group wrote in a 2017 statement. Medical professionals also say the measure perverts the doctor-patient relationship by forcing physicians to peddle junk science — and reinforces the disproven stereotype that a large number of women who access abortion care later regret having done so.

There is no sound science behind the claim that a medication abortion can be reversed.

Priya Desai, a co-chair of Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice, says her group is adamantly opposed to legislation requiring doctors to provide “false information” to women. “It’s unacceptable to mandate lying to women about their healthcare,” she wrote in an email to The Intercept.

Medication abortion is typically a two-drug protocol available through the 10th week of pregnancy. The first pill, mifepristone, blocks progesterone, a hormone needed to maintain pregnancy. The second pill, misoprostol, taken roughly 48 hours later, forces the uterus to expel its contents. The idea behind so-called abortion pill reversal is that if a woman takes the mifepristone and then changes her mind about aborting the pregnancy before ingesting the misoprostol, she can take a large dose (or doses) of prescription progesterone to overwhelm the hormone blocker.

Theoretically, there is some “biologic plausibility” to the method, according to Dr. Daniel Grossman, the director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health and a faculty member in the OB-GYN department at the University of California, San Francisco. The main problem is that it is unproven, and its safety and efficacy are unknown.

Abortion pill reversal is a protocol dreamed up by Dr. George Delgado, an anti-abortion physician in Southern California. It has spread through anti-choice circles primarily via Heartbeat International, a group that supports crisis pregnancy centers across the country.

Four states — Arkansas, Idaho, South Dakota, and Utah — currently have abortion pill reversal measures on the books. Seven additional states are currently considering bills similar to Oklahoma’s, which will almost certainly become law during the current legislative session.

Grossman first heard about the concept of using progesterone to “reverse” a medication abortion back in 2015, when Arizona’s efforts to force doctors to counsel their patients about it made headlines. “Nobody had heard of this before,” he recalled about asking other experts in abortion care. “I just thought, ‘This is pretty crazy.’”

He began going through research journals and found a case study, written by Delgado, involving seven women who’d been given progesterone to interrupt a medication abortion. Of the six women who participated in the study through its completion, four continued their pregnancies after taking progesterone. Delgado saw this as proof of the feasibility of his new method.

But Grossman and his colleagues — including Kari White, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham — decided to interrogate Delgado’s research. They found serious flaws besides the small sample size: There was no explanation of how or why the women were chosen; there were several different progesterone regimens used; there was no control group; and the research was not overseen by an Institutional Review Board or ethics review committee. Ultimately, Grossman and White determined that there was “no evidence that the treatment they were describing was likely to be better than doing nothing,” White said. In other words, if a woman were to change her mind after taking the mifepristone, she could simply forgo the misoprostol and would be equally likely to continue the pregnancy.

Arizona couldn’t find a credible expert to testify that the protocol had any scientific underpinning.

Nonetheless, the bills proliferated — with mixed results. The Arizona law was ultimately repealed after a successful lawsuit. Although the state intended to defend the measure, it couldn’t find a credible expert to testify that the protocol had any scientific underpinning. In 2017, Colorado lawmakers rejected a similar measure, even though Delgado testified that reversal “is safe and effective.” He told a legislative committee, “Women who change their minds after taking mifepristone deserve the right to have a second chance at choice.” (Lepak used this same line on Tuesday to defend the Oklahoma bill against pushback by another member of the Judiciary Committee.)

Lawmakers in Louisiana, a state with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, called on the state health department to review the science behind reversal, as a first step toward passing their own law in 2016. That effort failed after a panel of medical professionals came to the unanimous conclusion that “there is neither sufficient evidence nor a scientific basis to conclude that the effects of an abortion induced with drugs or chemicals can be reversed.”

In 2018, Delgado published a second case series with a far larger sample size and again arrived at the conclusion that his reversal method worked. But again, Grossman and White found serious flaws with the research: There were no clear protections for the women involved; some women were dropped from the study in a way that inflated its alleged success rate; and, again, there were a number of different regimens used.

“[Delgado’s studies] have not been done under the supervision of an IRB or an ethical review board. It’s really unclear if patients have been given adequate informed consent, and the reports are just incomplete,” Grossman said. “It’s really poorly done research.” Grossman and White again concluded that the evidence suggested a pregnancy was just as likely to continue if the woman took nothing after the mifepristone.

Delgado did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment.

For nearly a decade, Dr. Stephanie Ho has been providing abortion care in Arkansas, a state where lawmakers have worked steadily to curb abortion access under the pretense of “protecting” women. They’ve tried to ban medication abortion altogether and have devised informed consent materials that are medically inaccurate — including requiring doctors to counsel patients of the possibility of reversing medication abortion, a measure passed in 2015. “Basically, they’re using my mouth to lie to patients because they can’t do that themselves,” Ho told The Intercept.

The requirement is a dangerous intrusion on the doctor-patient relationship, she argues. After giving patients the inaccurate information the state forces her to provide, she then backs up and tells them what is accurate. It has confused and infuriated a number of her patients, who have asked why the state makes her lie to them. “That’s a really hard conversation to have,” Ho said.

She penned an explanatory letter to provide to every patient in this situation. “By inserting themselves into our conversation [state lawmakers] have violated our first amendment rights to free speech and have intruded into the time-honored doctor-patient relationship that we share at this critical time in your life,” reads the letter. “It is, however, the current state law in Arkansas.”

This session, lawmakers have tried to add to their abortion reversal law by proposing that patients also be given notice that if they want additional information, they should search the internet for “abortion pill reversal.” The suggestion exasperates Ho. “It’s going back to ‘don’t trust your doctor, look it up on the internet,’” she said. “And we all know that when we look at things on the internet and scare ourselves silly, that’s when we go to a doctor to get good evidence — not the other way around.”

It also appears that some lawmakers don’t even understand the theory that they require doctors to peddle. Arkansas state Sen. Missy Irvin recently told colleagues that the notice requirement would help a woman find a doctor who could “give her the shot of estrogen” needed to continue her pregnancy.

“It’s very clear that even the sponsors of the bill have no idea what this is.”

“It’s very clear that even the sponsors of the bill have no idea what this is, what its implications are, and how this can affect care,” Ho said. “I mean, they have absolutely no clue.”

Grossman is also troubled by lawmakers’ embrace of an unproven treatment that “steers patients into participating in an unmonitored research project,” he said. “That’s not how things work in medicine. We actually have to test experimental protocols and do it in a controlled way and get real data about safety and effectiveness.” It’s one thing if a “fringe group” is recommending something, he said, “but it’s another thing when it gets incorporated into legislation.”

Dr. Mae Winchester, an OB-GYN who testified on behalf of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists against a reversal bill pending in the Kansas legislature, said that incorporating junk science into law is unethical. And so far, attempts to amend the Kansas bill to require that women also be told about ACOG’s position on reversal have failed.

“The most important thing a physician can do for their patients is to be honest about diagnosis, about treatment options — and this just completely destroys it,” Winchester said. She agrees that Delgado’s conclusions are flawed and finds it notable that his most recent research has not been published in a medical journal. Instead, it was published in Issues in Law and Medicine, a publication known for supporting anti-abortion and anti-vaccination rhetoric. (The publication did not respond to an emailed request for comment.) “It’s just false advertising,” Winchester said of Delgado’s work,“and these politicians are eating it up.”

Grossman and Ho are also concerned that pushing a false narrative around abortion reversal reinforces the notion that women choosing abortion are often uncertain or likely to regret their choice. Indeed, Lepak made that precise argument while urging his colleagues to vote in favor of the Oklahoma bill. “This is a pretty simple bill: It is possible to reverse an abortion with this procedure. We’re giving the woman a second chance,” he said. And that’s necessary, in his estimation, because there are “ministries” in the state that counsel women who regret their abortions. “The numbers are growing,” he said. “I don’t have specifics, but the fact that so many ministries exist out there for that reason, to me, is maybe the most powerful argument for allowing this bill to go forward and become law in Oklahoma.”

In fact, the opposite is true: Research reveals that women have very high confidence in their decision-making when it comes to abortion, remain confident in their choice, and have less anxiety and depression than women who were initially denied abortion care and had to seek it elsewhere or carry the pregnancy to term. Moreover, data shows that between 2000 and 2012, just 0.004 percent of women who took mifepristone subsequently decided to continue their pregnancy. Since 2000, medication abortion has been used by more than 2.75 million U.S. women.

“The anti-choice movement has focused on these bills around abortion reversal and put forward this notion that women really regret their decision,” Grossman said. “That’s not what the evidence shows.”

The post Oklahoma Bill Would Force Doctors to Lie to Patients by Telling Them That Abortions Can Be Reversed appeared first on The Intercept.

Introducing “Animal Matters,” Our New Video Series About Animal Rights, Factory Farms, and the Agriculture Industry

With remarkable speed, the cause of animal rights and the abuses of industrial animal agriculture have been catapulted from fringe left-wing activist circles to the center of a wide range of non-ideological policy, ethical, environmental, political, and moral debates. That has happened, as is true of most societal changes, largely due to increased awareness and greater information, which in turn compels a shift in thinking about how our actions, policies, and beliefs should be best understood.

For years, the horrific realities of factory farms and industrial agriculture were — by extensive design — kept almost completely hidden from public view. Using their lobbyist-driven control over both federal regulatory agencies and state legislatures, the industry succeeded in having implemented a series of laws that criminalized key methods for reporting on their abuses and imposed absurdly excessive punishments on activists who worked to expose them, to the point of classifying activism against the industry as a form of terrorism, complete with draconian prison sentences and harsh incarceration conditions.

But that secrecy has crumbled. Courts have ruled so-called ag-gag laws — which criminalized undercover reporting on factory farms — to be unconstitutional on free speech and free press grounds. Increasingly creative means used by activists, such as virtual reality filming, as well as the emergence of more and more whistleblowers of conscience from within the industry, have led to mass public exposure of the atrocities and evils that this industry has worked so hard for decades, with great success, to conceal from public view.

Being forced to confront the indescribable torture and suffering of billions of highly complex and socially intelligent animals each year — along with the vast damage that industry practices are causing to the environment, communities around the world, and public health — has rendered all of this unsustainable. The increasingly important role that animals, particularly dogs, play in the lives of humans who now live and work in a globalized society incapable of meeting humans’ basic psychological needs, has independently changed how millions of people think about the capacity of animals to suffer.

All of these changes mean that a specific political ideology is no longer required to view the cause of animal rights and the abuses of industrial agriculture as a matter of great ethical, political, and public policy importance. It is clear that the time for humanity to grapple with its treatment of animals, and the multilevel damage being done in order to feed the planet through the use of animals, has arrived.

Beginning with the first report that The Intercept published about industrial agriculture — our October 2017, exposé on the abuses of pigs at Smithfield Farms, the abuses of law enforcement resources by the U.S. government to protect this industry from transparency, and the abuse of the legislative process to silence reporting — we quickly realized that the appetite for reporting and discussion on this industry was far greater than we had previously realized. In Washington, multiple bills to curb the worst abuses of this industry are now pending with truly bipartisan support, and are beginning to pass.

The realization is now pervasive that these practices extend far beyond the mere question of whether we should treat animals humanely. They extend to profound questions of environmental protection, racial and economic justice, the treatment of workers, and threats to public health, questions that large numbers of people are realizing can no longer be avoided.

To explore all of these vital issues, and to attempt to discuss them free of the jargon and dogma that has sometimes limited the reach of reporting on this industry, The Intercept has partnered with Sentient Media, a new media company devoted to the issue of animal rights, to produce an eight-episode video series, titled “Animal Matters.” Filmed at the homeless-run dog shelter my husband and I created in Brazil, the episodes entail discussions between myself and Grant Lingel, who works in the corporate world but is increasingly devoting himself to the cause of fighting against the abuses of this industry.

Each video episode will be between 10 to 20 minutes long, cover a specific topic or debate that is central to these questions, and be released in various venues online — including here at The Intercept — once every two weeks. Our first episode debuts today. It is designed to discuss the purpose of this series, what led us to this cause, and what we hope to accomplish with “Animal Matters.”

The post Introducing “Animal Matters,” Our New Video Series About Animal Rights, Factory Farms, and the Agriculture Industry appeared first on The Intercept.

Progressives Coalescing Around Tiffany Cabán for Queens DA in Newest Battle Against New York Machine

The criminal justice reform group that helped elect Larry Krasner, Wesley Bell, and Rachael Rollins is weighing in on the first competitive district attorney election in Queens, New York, in 28 years.

Real Justice PAC, which works to elect “reform-minded prosecutors” and has helped to reshape the criminal justice landscape through the ballot box, announced over the weekend that they’re backing Tiffany Cabán, a Queens native and former public defender, for Queens district attorney. The group cited her plans to decriminalize sex work and end cash bail for all crimes, as well as her support for the city’s “No New Jails” initiative.

On Tuesday, the Working Families Party, an increasingly influential political force in New York City politics, also threw its weight behind Cabán. Color of Change PAC is planning to endorse in the race, but has yet to do so. Our Revolution, an offshoot of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, is also following the race, but has not made a decision on whether they’ll endorse any candidate.

The support of Real Justice and the Working Families Party comes after an endorsement from the Queens chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Cabán is also being boosted by staff and volunteers from the congressional campaign of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all of which suggests the left is finally coalescing around a candidate in the crowded primary, which is set for June 25. Ocasio-Cortez told The Intercept she hadn’t made an endorsement in the race and didn’t think she would “unless something really changes.”

With three months to go, however, Cabán is far behind in fundraising, meaning she’ll need to rely on a grassroots surge to lift her over the top.

The race is part of a generation reshaping New York City politics, long dominated by borough machines and now in flux after the election of Ocasio-Cortez in the Bronx and Queens and Jumaane Williams as public advocate. That followed a prior upset win, when Bill de Blasio beat back an establishment opponent in 2013 to become mayor, even as he’s since disappointed some on the left since then. On Monday, Bronx Rep. José Serrano announced his retirement, opening a new seat that could be claimed by the progressive wave. In 2018, insurgent challengers in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx unseated longtime state senators, producing the most progressive Albany legislature in generations and upending power dynamics in the city. Electing a progressive prosecutor would put an exclamation mark on that shift.

Critics of outgoing DA Dick Brown say his office was behind the curve on implementing reforms that his colleagues across the country were quicker to adopt, like declining to prosecute low-level, nonviolent offenses like marijuana use or fare evasion, or establishing units to review and overturn wrongful convictions. Those are among the issues that the seven candidates in the crowded field have been most vocal about.

But unlike last year’s DA races, the Queens election is not so much a referendum on Brown’s tough-on-crime doctrine as it is a test of who can “out-Krasner Krasner,” as one strategist close to the race put it.

There’s a fear that the potential for truly radical change in the DA’s office will be lost in a field of candidates who may sound the same, but whose visions of reform are vastly different, those involved with the race told The Intercept. In the running, alongside Cabán, to make it onto the ballot for the June primary are Queens Borough President Melinda Katz; New York City Council Member Rory Lancman; former prosecutor and retired New York Supreme Court Justice Greg Lasak; former Washington, D.C., Deputy Attorney General Mina Malik; New York City attorney Betty Lugo; and Jose Nieves, former deputy chief for special investigations in the New York state attorney general’s office.

Tiffany Cabán

The various candidates largely echo one another when it comes to ending mass incarceration, decriminalizing offenses related to poverty and mental illness, and implementing a restorative approach to justice. They all want to establish a conviction review unit, pointing out that the Queens DA office is the last in the city without one. But they differ on specifics, like which crimes they would decline to prosecute, what to do about Rikers, and whether or not to construct new jails. And not all pledges to end cash bail are equal, candidates and organizers point out.

“Everybody sort of has these progressive ideas and the buzzwords and all that,” Ingrid Gomez, interim co-chair for the Queens United Independent Progressive caucus, or QUIP, told The Intercept in an interview. The group hosted a forum with six of the candidates in late February. “But when it gets down to detail, to the granular part of it,” Gomez said, “I think then you’ll see the different shades of progressivism.”

“There are people who don’t have the courtroom experience, prosecutorial experience,” Gomez explained. “And they are in this race because they’re getting term-limited. Or they want it to be the stepping stone to the next office. I want to see someone there who has the experience. I really think that we need to see the person’s experience before all else.”

While she has yet to raise a substantial amount of money, Cabán’s campaign scored big with the backing of the Real Justice PAC, Queens Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, the New Queens Democrats, Citizen Action, and New York Progressive Action Network. At 31, she’s the youngest candidate vying for a spot on the ballot. And she’s bringing a community-focused energy to the race that feels and sounds different than that of all her opponents.

Candidates need 4,000 signatures to get on the ballot, plus an extra couple thousand in case they have to fight a party challenge, strategists say. The petitioning period ends April 4. All in all, that costs around $50,000, strategists said, though it can be done with far less given enough volunteer power.

With the help of the Queens DSA and organizers who volunteered for Ocasio-Cortez, Cabán’s campaign is running a vigorous volunteer field effort to educate voters around the election. Seth Pollack, spokesperson for the Cabán campaign, told The Intercept that the campaign is “very confident” she’ll make it onto the ballot, “thanks in large part to the campaign’s enthusiastic volunteers and the incredible hard work of DSA.”

Local DSA activists see Cabán’s candidacy as a step toward a longer-term prison abolition project in collaboration with her support for the city’s No New Jails initiative, Sasha Weinstein told The Intercept. He’s part of the Queens DSA Electoral Working Group Committee and serves as the group’s liaison to the Cabán campaign. “De Blasio wants to spend $10.5 billion on 6,000 new [jail] beds across New York City,” Weinstein said, “and that’s because the word ‘progressive’ doesn’t mean anything.”

Working Families Party Executive Director Bill Lipton said in a statement that Cabán represented the best chance at a new path. “As a public defender, a queer Latina, and a progressive champion, Tiffany Cabán is the leader we need as Queens District Attorney. For too long, the criminal justice system in our city has held people of color to one standard—and wealthy, white New Yorkers to another. Cabán has charted a new path during her campaign, pledging to use the District Attorney’s office to fight for racial, social and economic justice,” he said.

What sets Cabán apart, in addition to her pledge not to take any corporate political action committee money, is her holistic approach to addressing community and generational trauma as the root cause of crime. She’s the only candidate who talks about trying to eliminate crime in that way, which she says is a function of her experience representing over 1,000 clients as a public defender. For her, the decision to run “felt like just the next thing that I’m doing for my clients,” she told The Intercept in an interview. “Very much so the natural progression in my advocacy for my clients.”

Her background as a queer, Latina public defender from a low-income community is inextricable from her platform, she told the QUIP forum in February, because “my experiences matter,” she said. “That is not identity politics; that is me speaking to my understanding around intersectionality and the effects of individual and generational trauma on our communities,” Cabán told the audience, describing domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental illness in both her personal and family life.

Cabán also supports closing Rikers. And her office would decline to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses, fare evasion, airport taxis, welfare fraud, sex work, massage parlors, or unlicensed driving in any case.

She also wants to end cash bail for all crimes and thinks that only ending cash bail for nonviolent felonies ultimately causes more harm than good. “Then nothing is changing for anything that’s considered serious,” she told The Intercept. “There are a host of crimes on the books that are technically violent felonies, but there isn’t any violence involved,” she explained. “Burglary in the second degree is a violent felony. But also, under the law, if I go into a building and steal Amazon packages from the lobby, that’s a burglary in the second degree, and it’s a violent felony,” she said. “And it’s not the thing that people think about when you talk about violent crime.”

In addition to assigning assistant district attorneys to each community — a proposal that Lasak’s campaign has also adopted — Cabán plans to hold regular town halls and meetings with Queens residents. She would reinvest profits that the DA’s office typically receives from asset forfeitures into organizations and services selected by the community. “The idea that we can stop these things from happening in the first place by allowing our communities to decide how to reinvest in their families, in their schools, things that community members might suggest,” she told the QUIP forum.

Cabán thinks the size of the field is a good thing. “I think it’s great that there are so many people in the mix in this race,” she told The Intercept. But she echoed Gomez’s concerns. “I think it’s great that people are talking about criminal justice reform,” Cabán said. “I also see some of the dangers that come along with it. There are certainly folks that are getting in the mix that know the progressive playbook at this point.”

“They know the things to say, they’re out there,” Cabán explained. “And there seems to be a disconnect between knowing the policies and what you’re supposed to say, ’cause they’re right — and having that tie to our communities and that investment in making sure that these policies have the intended impacts. And that our communities are the ones that are at the forefront of forming the policies.”

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 29: Melinda Katz, the Queens Borough president, speaks during a vigil in memory of the victims of the mass shooting at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on the steps of Queens Borough Hall on October 29, 2018 in New York City. Eleven people were killed and six more were wounded in the mass shooting that police say was fueled by antisemitism. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president, speaks during a vigil in memory of the victims of the mass shooting at the Tree Of Life Synagogue, on the steps of Queens Borough Hall on Oct. 29, 2018, in New York City.

Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Melinda Katz

Of the other six candidates in the running, Katz, Lasak, and Lancman lead the pack favored to make it past the county petitioning period and onto the actual ballot, strategists say. Those three have the most political clout and have raised the most money so far. Katz and Lancman have both amassed over $1 million — some of which is left over from their citywide office accounts. Lasak has raised close to $900,000, his campaign told The Intercept.

Katz is the only candidate to have waged and won a competitive borough-wide primary, as she did in her bid for borough president, a role to which she was elected in 2013 and again in 2017 — and for which she’s widely popular among Queens residents and politicians. She’s term-limited in 2021, meaning that she needed to find a new office to run for. She has also mulled a run for mayor.

She’s seen as the strongest of the mainstream Democrats vying for the nomination. And Queens County Democrats argue that she can appeal to the widest base of voters in the area. But activists are skeptical of how deep her progressive roots go, pointing to Katz’s 1995 state assembly vote to reinstate the death penalty. Katz now says she opposes it.

Former Congressperson Joe Crowley, who until recently chaired the Queens County Democratic Party, is backing Katz. The Queens Democrats endorsed her for the nomination in early February. New York Rep. Greg Meeks signed on soon after, saying in a statement that Katz would bring “important reforms” to the office. New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Tom Suozzi have also endorsed her. Three city council members, one state senator, and six Assembly members have also endorsed Katz. And she has union support from the New York Hotel Trades Council, the International Union of Elevator Constructors Local One, the SMART Transportation Division, and Teamsters Local 327. She’s also amassed significant support among several rabbis, imams, reverends, and other community leaders.

For Katz, scoring Meeks’s backing was hugely significant. Strategists close to the race say it was a blow in particular to Lasak, who shared an office with the congressperson during Meeks’s time as a Queens assistant district attorney. Lasak’s campaign took another hit with Katz’s endorsement from Crowley. Lasak’s campaign manager said it amounted to “support [for] a career politician wholly unqualified to do the job she’s running for.”

Katz’s opponents argue she has no experience in either defending or prosecuting the criminal cases the office would oversee. They say her decision to run for DA is more a function of her limited term than of her commitment to reforming the way the office prosecutes crime.

Katz wants to close Rikers, but supports de Blasio’s plan to open four new jails, saying it’s “a better model” than Rikers “for ensuring cases are heard in a timely manner.” She takes a more cautious approach than her opponents to cutting the number of crimes the DA’s office would prosecute, saying that aside from declining to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses, she wants to “consider each arrest on its merits before declining to prosecute.” That includes nonviolent offenses like welfare fraud and fare evasion. And she wants to eliminate cash bail, but only for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

Katz ended her comments at the February QUIP forum with a nod to her name recognition. Describing her work on a Queens initiative to seal 10-year-old convictions, she boasted that “over 140 people showed up” to participate, “partly because my name was on it.” Another forgiveness program, she said, only had 200 participants when it started under Brown. “When I put my name on it, over 500 people showed up.”

New York City council member Rory Lancman surounded by public defenders and advocates give a press conference to demand to the Chief judge DiFiore to prohibit ICE arrests in all courthouses, except when authorized by a judicial warrant, in New York, on May 9, 2018. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP)(Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)

New York City Council Member Rory Lancman, surrounded by public defenders and advocates, gives a press conference to demand that the Chief Judge Janet DiFiore prohibit U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests in all courthouses, except when authorized by a judicial warrant, in New York, on May 9, 2018.

Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Rory Lancman

Lancman is a former state Assembly member who’s served on the City Council since 2013. Both there and in the state Assembly, he’s served on committees overseeing the justice system. Like Katz, he’s term-limited in 2021 and has explored the possibility of running for mayor. In 2012, he lost the Democratic primary for New York’s 6th Congressional District to now-Congressperson Grace Meng.

Lancman, like his opponents, wants to cut the number of crimes the DA charges. He wants to implement open file discovery, change the office’s incentive structure to reward diversion over conviction, and improve transparency and accountability by making data on pleas, prosecutions, sentencing, and demographics public. In addition to declining to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses, Lancman would not prosecute fare evasion, prostitution, or unlicensed driving in any case. He said that in general, he would not prosecute small cases of welfare fraud — only “egregious” cases. And he wants to end cash bail for all crimes.

He also wants to close Rikers. And he proudly supports de Blasio’s plan to build four new jails. “I am one of the plan’s earliest and leading advocates, and the only candidate to fully support the plan,” he wrote in an email to The Intercept. Lancman’s critics raise concerns about his support for adding 1,000 police officers to the New York City Police Department at a time when the city’s crime was decreasing, and for taking contributions from the prison and real estate industries, including corrections officers’ PACs.

He touts endorsements from several labor unions and community leaders, including Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr. Lancman has also been endorsed by the Rockaway Youth Action Fund, New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, New York state Sen. James Sanders Jr., the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local Union 1, the New York/New Jersey Regional Joint Board of Workers United, Council Member Antonio Reynoso, and two Assembly members, among others.

Lancman told The Intercept that expanding the NYPD force “unquestionably helped the community.” He said it allowed the establishment of a neighborhood officer coordination program that gave officers more time to interact with communities. “We supported that increase in cops primarily so that we could have a different kind of policing in New York City,” he said. “So that cops are doing more than just running from 911 call to 911 call.”

Lancman also told The Intercept he will continue taking money from the prison and real estate industries. “I’m gonna raise money within the limits of the law,” he said, “but I am not fighting this fight with one hand tied behind my back.” Lancman said he doesn’t see wanting to close Rikers as being in conflict with taking contributions from its corrections officers’ union. “The corrections officers are working people, almost overwhelmingly people of color, who themselves are forced to endure a violent and dystopian environment alongside the inmates,” he said. “As someone who supports working people,” he continued, “one has to be empathetic to their circumstance.”

He doesn’t see the fact that challengers like Cabán aren’t taking corporate money as a problem, either. “God bless anybody who is able to raise the $2 million dollars it realistically takes to run a borough-wide district attorney’s race within five months by limiting their contributions in some way,” he said. “But I am not willing to risk being overwhelmed by the resources of opponents who will give us more of the same at the district attorney’s office.”

Last year, one of Lancman’s affiliated campaign committees received $20,000 from an Adjfam Management Corp. based in New York. That company, in 2015, gave $10,000 to the Make America Great Again Super PAC.


Greg Lasak.

Photo: Kevin Coughlin

Greg Lasak

Lasak prosecuted violent crimes in Brown’s office for 25 years and has arguably the most experience of the candidates running — though not necessarily the kind that the new political environment views as favorable. He headed the homicide, major offense, and special victims bureaus, and also helped to create the office’s first bureau dedicated to domestic violence. Lasak was elected to New York state’s Supreme Court in 2004. He left the court with 13 years remaining in his term to launch his bid for district attorney. “I tried cop killers, and in addition, I prosecuted cops that violated the law. The breadth of experience I have is unparalleled,” he told The Intercept.

Lasak says he pioneered reforms during his time as a prosecutor and worked to overturn wrongful convictions and reform cash bail before those progressive policies became popular. He helped to exonerate at least 20 people during his time in the DA’s office. Like Cabán, Lasak wants to assign “community DAs” to liaise with and take input from community members on how to best serve them. He also wants to use tax revenue from legal marijuana sales to help lower court and medical fees associated with diversion and treatment programs. And he wants to bring a young adult court to Queens to more appropriately serve adults between the ages of 18 and 24.

But areas of Lasak’s platform lean further to the right than most of his opponents — particularly his position on closing Rikers. He’s the only candidate who doesn’t support closing Rikers — or keeping it open, for that matter — and thinks that the jail’s location isn’t within the DA’s purview. But he says there should be community buy-in on any decisions made to construct new jails. “My opinion is that the main thing is, who is sitting in the jail?” Lasak told the Intercept. “My main concern is to be sure that there’s no one sitting on Rikers island that should not be there.” Asked if he saw his position on the jail as a weakness in comparison to his opponents, Lasak said, “Not at all.”

Lasak declined to specify which, if any, crimes his office would decline to prosecute. He told The Intercept that he plans generally to try to decrease the number of petty crimes the office charges but wants to review each case individually. Like Katz, Lasak wants to end cash bail only for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. “On violent felonies, I don’t think that’s the answer right now,” he said. “Another way to look at it would be to sit down with the legislature and come up with some plan on it.”

Activists are skeptical of Lasak’s popularity among law enforcement unions. With his career history, that support isn’t all that surprising. He’s been endorsed by the New York State Court Officers, the New York State Court Clerks Association, the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association, the Lieutenants Benevolent Association, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police Benevolent Association, the Heat and Frost Insulators Local 12, and the Asian American Congress.

The post Progressives Coalescing Around Tiffany Cabán for Queens DA in Newest Battle Against New York Machine appeared first on The Intercept.

“She Lied to My Face”: Inside the Hectic Last Days of Gymboree’s Retail Bankruptcy

Mera Chung had known for weeks that her 30-year career in retail was coming to an end. But Chung, a vice president of design for Crazy 8, a division of Gymboree Group Inc., wasn’t prepared for what CEO Shaz Kahng and human resources chief Bridget Schickedanz would tell her late on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-January.

They had called Chung in to inform her of an imminent bankruptcy filing, Gymboree’s second in two years, which would accompany the liquidation of two of the company’s three brands, including Crazy 8, which caters to lower-income parents. Chung was ready for that; the closure of Crazy 8 was announced in December, and the bankruptcy was long rumored. But then Schickedanz dropped the bomb.

“She said, ‘We had to make some other decisions and you’ve been impacted,’” Chung explains. “‘We had to terminate the severance plan.’”

The severance plan, according to Chung and two of her close friends, was a key reason why she decided to move to Gymboree from Old Navy five years earlier. The retail sector’s volatility has boiled over recently, with rapid-fire bankruptcies and store closures emptying malls across the country, much of it driven by private-equity firms busting out otherwise profitable companies. But Chung, a single parent caring for an elderly father, came to Gymboree because she knew she’d be due a year’s worth of salary if the company ever went belly-up.

Instead, on the same day as the bankruptcy filing, Gymboree’s board triggered Article VII of the severance plan, a self-destruct button that enabled the company to terminate the plan “at any time in any respect” via a majority vote from the board of directors. As a result, none of the roughly 400 staff members at Gymboree headquarters in San Francisco would receive severance, to say nothing of the nearly 10,000 clerks at 800 Gymboree and Crazy 8 locations, who would now be managing going-out-of-business sales without the promise of assistance in the aftermath.

Kahng told Chung that there just wasn’t enough cash available to pay severance. But Chung said she had information, which she would later share with the U.S. bankruptcy trustee overseeing the case, that at least a few executives would leave Gymboree with golden parachutes.

A few weeks earlier, she had learned about a confidential deal between the board and eight members of Gymboree’s executive leadership team. According to Chung, those executives received paper checks with a “retention bonus” equal in value to their severance payouts. The board, which includes representatives from hedge funds and private equity firms, told the executives to deposit the checks immediately. Bankruptcy experts often call this type of payment a “disguised severance.”

Chung heard this firsthand from one of the bonus recipients. Chung had an equivalent title to most of the members who she was told received the bonuses, but she was left out. She would later tell the bankruptcy trustee in a letter that she watched as four of those bonus recipients jetted off to the Sundance Film Festival, just days after Gymboree declared bankruptcy.

In the meeting, Chung had asked, “What about the retention bonuses the others have, including you?” referring to Schickedanz, a member of the executive leadership team. Kahng would only reply, “That is not an appropriate question and I will not comment on it.”

Chung said she had replied, “The answer is what’s not appropriate.”

Gymboree, founded in 1976, is on its way to history. Children’s Place, a rival retailer, paid $76 million for the rights to the Gymboree and Crazy 8 brands, and the Gap is purchasing Gymboree’s 139-store luxury chain, Janie and Jack. But the disguised severance maneuver Chung has alleged reveals how in corporate America, the winners at the top can win even in failure. And nobody else is safe — certainly not the line-level workers, but not even vice presidents like Mera Chung.

The Intercept has reviewed documents confirming the termination of the severance plan on the day of the bankruptcy. Chung made her allegations about the disguised severance to friends, attorneys, and bankruptcy officials in the weeks after Gymboree’s filing, according to interviews and documents. And Julie Thompson, a vice president of product integrity and compliance for Gymboree, also said in a separate interview that bonus payouts were made to the executive leadership team.

Moreover, Chung alleged to the trustee that Gymboree underreported the extent of the retention bonus payments in a filing with the bankruptcy court. In that filing, Gymboree acknowledges “discretionary bonus payments of $270,000 to two employees,” but Chung asserts that eight executives received bonuses totaling an estimated $2.1 million.

Gymboree, its executives, and board members have failed to respond to numerous requests for comment through email, phone, and LinkedIn. Calls to the company’s media relations department have gone directly to voicemail. Three calls to personal cellphones of members of Gymboree’s executive leadership team were answered, but the individuals refused to comment.

The situation at Gymboree echoes other recent retail bankruptcies in which executives got a king’s ransom while everyone else got a firm handshake. Toys “R” Us and Sears were approved for millions in executive bonuses, a fact that has enraged advocates for line-level workers. “These are the same handful of people who couldn’t run our company successfully, and they’re being rewarded while everyone’s severance is taken away?” asked Lily Wang, deputy director for Organization United for Respect’s Rise Up Retail campaign.

You can make a case for retention bonuses for top executives in some bankruptcies. They are usually justified as a way to keep the leadership from decamping to other jobs as soon as the bankruptcy is filed. “The rationale is by giving good people retention bonuses so they will stay, the company will have much greater likelihood of reorganizing and getting back on its feet,” said Brett Weiss, a bankruptcy attorney in Maryland.

But in this case, Gymboree was knowingly liquidating most of its business before the bankruptcy was ever filed, making retention bonuses less urgent. “This was a liquidation chapter 11, the executives are not going to be in these positions a year from now,” Weiss said. “Maybe they said, ‘How can we get more money out without having the trustee claw it back? What’s the greatest number of people we can do this for without raising red flags? How about the executive leadership team?’” Gymboree’s lawyers in the bankruptcy case did not respond to a request for comment.

Moreover, while some executives do need to be in place to wind down operations, the alleged bonuses were not uniformly given to executives who had that role. For example, the VP of marketing allegedly got a bonus, even though marketing operations effectively ceased. Meanwhile, Thompson’s job involved regulatory compliance, which any retailer still selling products (even in a going-out-of-business sale) needs to maintain. Yet she was denied a bonus and fired without severance.

The situation has left Chung devastated. “Me and this other woman were the altar sacrifices for the others to get paid,” she says. “People have to understand how vulnerable they are.”

Chung was recruited to Gymboree five years ago by her former boss at Old Navy, where she was the vice president of kids and baby clothing design. She was told that she would have the run of an entire brand, the low-price Crazy 8. “It was their only brand that was relevant,” Chung says. She took the job.

At the time, Gymboree was under the control of Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s old private-equity firm. The private-equity business model involves engaging in buyouts with borrowed money and putting that mountain of debt on the company it purchases, all the while extracting profits from the company through management fees. Few companies, particularly in the high-risk retail sector, can deal with such a debt burden — it makes it difficult to invest in stores, personnel, or better products.

Chung says this showed in how Gymboree ran the business. “Instead of investing in creative talent, they promoted design and merchandising from within,” she says. “Merchandisers became complacent with wanting product they knew would sell from the year before. There were years upon years of awful clothes with poodles and trucks on them.” She also complains that Crazy 8 had no marketing budget, and her work to break with standard fare was practically hidden.

By 2017, Gymboree couldn’t hold out any longer and went into bankruptcy. The business was put in control of its largest creditors, who were private equity and investment firms. The seven-member board included then-CEO of Gymboree, Daniel Griesemer; Ron Beegle, CEO of investment consultant Carriage House Capital Advisers; Matt Perkal, a partner at hedge fund Brigade Capital Management; Brian Hickey from mutual fund firm OppenheimerFunds; and Eric Sondag, a partner at private-equity firm Searchlight Capital, who was made board chair. Other members of the board were not disclosed, and since Gymboree is not a public company, they have no requirement to do so. Apollo Global Management, Marblegate, Nomura Securities, and Tricadia Capital Management also had a share of the company.

Though Gymboree emerged from bankruptcy in decent financial shape, Thompson described the new board as uninterested. “There was zero involvement in what was going on day to day,” she says. “They just let the CEO do whatever he wanted.”

Griesemer decided to invest in a complete redesign of Gymboree’s clothing line. It was a high-cost gamble off the bankruptcy, and it failed; when the new clothes hit stores last summer, parents called them “complete garbage.” Says Thompson: “I started paying attention to sales, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so bad.’ It was negative 20 to 30 percent [compared to the previous year] every single day.”

By November, Griesemer was fired, and Kahng, the new CEO, came in. She had started her career as a food scientist at Kraft and was an independent member of the board prior to being named CEO, according to her LinkedIn page.

“She thought they were going to try to rehab the brand, that this was her career-defining moment,” Chung says. She described one meeting in which Kahng pronounced that Gymboree needed to be a “disruptor” like Apple. “She said, ‘What does every parent experience?’” Chung recalls. “‘Every parent in the world feeds their child strained carrots. When my children were babies, there were carrot stains on everything. We could do something so simple, an orange bib.’ She was 100 percent serious. I barely got through the meeting.”

The disruption didn’t take. By early December, the company announced that it would shutter all Crazy 8 stores after the holidays and significantly reduce the Gymboree footprint. Chung says that in the month after the announcement, Kahng never formally addressed Crazy 8 employees, leaving them confused about their roles. If the brand was closing, there was no need to design or purchase product for the next season. “My team of 20 said, what do we do?” Chung recalls. “They said keep showing up until further notice. They didn’t want to let us go because then they would have to pay severance.”

The Gymboree management severance plan was not a package negotiated individually. It was an employee benefits plan, established under the auspices of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. This has become popular, particularly with large companies, says Jim Keenley, an ERISA attorney in Berkeley, California. The statute provides protections to workers if they aren’t given what’s promised in the severance plan. It offers no protection, however, if the plan is terminated.

“It’s an illusory contract,” says Keenley. “It’s very common for severance plans to have language in them that say, here’s your severance but we can take it away at any time for any reason.” No advance warning is needed for termination, under current law. While retirement benefits under ERISA are better protected, severance plans are considered a welfare benefit, and the funds do not vest.

So employees have no recourse if a termination occurs. And most of them don’t read the fine print allowing companies like Gymboree to pull that trigger. “I didn’t have anyone look at it,” says Thompson. “I was naïve.”

Both Thompson and Chung were told after the 2017 bankruptcy that the severance plan remained active. And both sought further assurances after it was clear that Gymboree would slide into bankruptcy again. Chung says she had asked three colleagues — the general counsel, the VP of human resources, and the general manager of her brand, Crazy 8 — whether her severance would be honored. None gave a straight answer. But Thompson said that when she approached the general counsel, Kimberly MacMillan, in early January, MacMillan reassured her, “Don’t worry, we will file it as a first-day motion.”

In bankruptcy-speak, MacMillan was saying that the severance plan would be one of the payouts that Gymboree would seek to get approved when it filed. Pending court approval, all employees eligible for the severance plan would be compensated. The severance plan was approved in the 2017 bankruptcy, so Thompson trusted MacMillan that the same would happen the second time around. “I had good working relationship with [MacMillan],” Thompson says. “She fucking lied to my face.”

MacMillan, in a short phone call with The Intercept, said that “we [Gymboree employees] follow a strict no-comment policy” with the media, and hung up.

Around the same time, Chris Lu, general manager of Crazy 8, was commuting home with Chung. “She would always disclose things to me, she would blab them to me,” Chung says. In her letter to the trustee, Chung writes that Lu told her that members of the executive leadership team were “paid their severance,” after demanding assurances from the board of directors. The board arranged for a “retention bonus contract” in the amount of the severance pay. “She said I couldn’t tell anyone about it,” Chung recalls. “I said, ‘Why did you tell me that if I cannot say anything?’”

In a brief phone conversation with The Intercept, Lu would only say, “I can’t talk to you. … I’m going to hang up now.”

According to Chung’s trustee letter, members of the executive leadership team who may have received retention bonuses included Lu, MacMillan, Schickedanz, Chief Financial Officer Jon Kimmons, VP of Information Technology David Sondergeld, VP of Logistics Dana Todorovic, VP of Sourcing Patricia Lesser, and VP of Marketing Parnell Eagle. Those in the “next level down” like Chung were left out, even though she had the same VP title as several of the recipients. Chung and Thompson were not formally part of the executive leadership team.

Thompson had also heard about the not-so-secret retention bonuses. “Nobody officially told me, but I heard rumors,” she says. She talked it over with Chung just before the bankruptcy. But when Thompson asked MacMillan about the executive leadership team meeting with the board, MacMillan told her that she couldn’t comment on it.

Both Thompson and Chung were told about the severance termination on the same evening. That day, everyone in the office figured out who was being let go, because human resources had cleared out the layoff victims’ time-off balance from the payroll processing system. “Everyone compared notes, mine’s not cleared out, mine is,” Thompson says. “Everyone zeroed out is going to get let go. Mine was zeroed out at end of Wednesday.”

Thompson was told by phone that she would be terminated without severance. Kahng, who as CEO was also a member of the board, told her that “it wasn’t our decision. Goldman Sachs is running the show now, we couldn’t do anything about it.”

Goldman Sachs was the lead creditor on Gymboree’s remaining loans, which it used for cash flow. The investment bank was the first in line to get paid from the bankruptcy. “It’s like when you get on an airplane — Goldman was group 1,” says Chung.

The next day, staff was packed into a tiny conference room. Chung decided to wear a vintage Sex Pistols T-shirt to the meeting with the words “No Future” scrawled on the front. Schickedanz, the human resources chief, read a prepared statement through tears. Everyone had to turn in their ID badges, laptops, and corporate credit cards, and vacate the building by the end of the day. Employees would get their last paycheck and paid time off, and that was it.

Schickedanz, in a phone call with The Intercept, said, “Oh, I thought you were someone else calling. … I’m going to jump off [the phone],” and hung up.

One employee, Katherine Pocrass, filed a class-action lawsuit against Gymboree, alleging that the company did not provide 60 days’ advance notice of the mass firing, as required under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. Attorneys for that case did not respond to a request for comment.

The WARN Act case is ongoing, and Chung would be eligible to be a member in the class-action, which could yield up to 60 days of back pay. But her severance was for a year.

Chung says she met with 17 different attorneys seeking legal recourse for her full severance. Each of them said that while Gymboree’s actions were unconscionable, they were technically legal; the severance plan entitled the company to terminate at any time. Eugene Pak, a business litigator in the Bay Area, said that the situation struck him as “unethical.” Added Keenley, the ERISA attorney: “I think Mera felt that it was unfair. … I’ve been looking for ways to find that it was not lawful, but I have not found them.”

Ron Tyler, a friend of Chung’s and a law professor at Stanford, provided her with several legal contacts. “I think her devastation comes from the fact that she, after very carefully and persistently creating this extremely successful career, to have it end so dramatically and intentionally by her company,” Tyler says. “And she saw the writing on the wall. Had it not been for that [severance] agreement, she would have left before.”


A Facebook post, since taken down, from Gymboree executive Chris Lu, showing that she was at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, days after the Gymboree bankruptcy.

Screenshot: Courtesy of Mera Chung

Shortly after the bankruptcy, Chung felt an even deeper sting. One of the lawyers she consulted asked how many employees worked at Gymboree headquarters, and so Chung put the question to Lu. “She was laughing and said, ‘I’ll call you when I land, I’m going to Sundance,’” Chung says. Chung wrote to the trustee that Lu and three other members of the executive leadership team — Tricia Lesser, Shelly Walsh, and Parnell Eagle — had decamped to the Sundance Film Festival, weeks after being given a retention bonus to stay on at Gymboree. Thompson corroborated that Gymboree executives were at Sundance, though she didn’t name names.

Pictures from Lu’s Facebook account, since removed, place her in Park City, Utah, at the time of the film festival. One check-in still on Facebook places her there as well.

“It’s like a B-grade Netflix movie,” Chung says. “If they were so needed for retention, why were they able to go to Sundance?”

Chung began to write letters to members of the board of directors through LinkedIn. “In your decision to Terminate my Severance Plan on the same day you filed for Chapter 11, you have succeeding in destroying my career, and the financial security it took me over 30 years to build,” she wrote. “I ask you to search your conscience and let me know how you sleep at night.”

According to Chung, she received vague assurances from Kahng and board member Beegle. Both later blocked Chung as a contact on LinkedIn, so she can no longer access these responses.

A week later, Lu texted Chung: “Shaz [Kahng] asked me to tell you to ‘hold tight & not do anything rash.’”


A Feb, 7, 2019, text message from Chris Lu advises Mera Chung to “hold tight & not do anything rash.” Shaz refers to Shaz Kahng, then the CEO of Gymboree Group Inc.

Screenshot: Courtesy of Mera Chung

Chung tracked down the emails of board members and fired off a second letter, expressing her intention to publicly expose the severance termination and the secret bonus payment. Schickedanz, the head of HR, wrote her an email in response that read like a form letter. “The Company’s cash position was so constrained that Gymboree Group had to begin immediately reducing the Company’s workforce,” Schickedanz wrote. “While we wish the circumstances were different, there are not sufficient resources available to provide severance.” The disguised severance to the executive leadership team was not referenced.

“What this letter does NOT explain is why the company’s ‘cash position’ was different approximately 3 weeks prior to Jan 16, when the ELT (executive leadership team) received the now widely known ‘confidential’ retention bonus,” Chung replied. Schickedanz did not respond.

Shelly Walsh, general manager of Janie and Jack, the viable brand that Gymboree was attempting to sell, was not present at the executive leadership team meeting where bonuses were allegedly distributed. She negotiated a subsequent agreement for a $400,000 bonus to remain with the company through the sale, which Gymboree had to get bankruptcy court to approve.

In February, the U.S. bankruptcy trustee for the eastern district of Virginia, where Gymboree’s bankruptcy was filed, objected to a motion to approve an additional $2.2 million in incentive and retention bonuses to 52 key employees. This included the $400,000 to Walsh.

“These employees comprise less than 0.5 % of Debtors’ total workforce of over 10,000 employees, many of whom – the true rank-and-file and hourly employees – are literally working themselves out of jobs in connection with the Debtors’ going out of business sales,” wrote the U.S. trustee, a neutral governmental party that operates in the interest of the process. The filing also notes: “In the 90-days prior to the Petition Date, the Debtors and their non-Debtor affiliates made discretionary bonus payments to two other employees who are also participants under the Employee Programs in the aggregate amount of approximately $270,000.00.”

This appears to refer to the retention bonuses to the executive leadership team, which Gymboree was required to disclose to the bankruptcy court because they occurred 90 days before the filing. But both Chung and Thompson doubt the figures. On March 11, Kahng resigned as CEO. She did not return a request for comment through LinkedIn.

In her letter to the bankruptcy trustee, Chung estimated that the $270,000 represented the average annual salary of each of the eight executive leadership team members who received the disguised severance. That would put the total at $2.1 million.

Chung received a response from the U.S. trustee’s office, asking if her email could be shared with the unsecured creditor’s committee, which can seek clawbacks of the bonuses if they were found to be paid out and undisclosed. Chung agreed. A Justice Department spokesperson told The Intercept that the U.S. trustee does not comment on internal communications or deliberations regarding pending cases.

In addition to clawbacks, other sanctions could include “anything from jail time to a stern speaking-to and anything in between,” said Weiss, the bankruptcy attorney. “It could be perfectly innocent or it could be criminal.” So far, a prison sentence seems unlikely. Despite the U.S. trustee’s filing, bankruptcy court Judge Keith Phillips approved Gymboree’s additional bonus payouts, with some minor modifications. The biggest change was that a pre-petition retention payment of $52,500 for one undisclosed employee was cut in half.

Weiss expressed some surprise that the payments were approved over the U.S. trustee’s objections. But “judges don’t typically dig into monthly operating reports in large corporate entities,” he says. And even the trustee is resource-constrained. “They have some forensic accounting experience, but they’re not forensic accountants. They don’t have the staff and expertise to go after fraud at that [high] level.”

Creditors can afford to investigate secret payouts, but the time and expense of proving a case over a few million dollars may not be worth it to them. In addition, the 2005 bankruptcy bill includes some restrictions on bonus and severance payments to senior officers and managers, but it’s up to judges to make the determinations on which bonuses are reasonable to retain executives and which are excessive. “The 2005 amendments are garbage,” says Weiss. “It doesn’t surprise me in the least that they were not written in a way that makes it easy to prevent this sort of stuff.”

The upshot of this is that top executives have a relatively free hand to extract cash from a dying company — a particular problem in retail, where Payless Shoes and numerous others have closed shop. And that comes at the expense of both creditors and their fellow employees, even people high up in the organization like Mera Chung.

“The Goldman Sachses of the world are going to do whatever they want,” Chung says. While the firing didn’t leave her destitute, the combination of an uncertain future in retail and the need to care for her father makes things far more treacherous than it would have been with the severance. She worries about fellow creative directors, who are unaccustomed to legalese, not knowing the risks of losing their safety net if the business goes under. And she wants people to know what was done to her.

Referring to her colleagues and board members, she tells me, “You are going to have to answer to scrutiny for being a scumbag. I’m not going to walk away until your face is on a fucking billboard.”

The post “She Lied to My Face”: Inside the Hectic Last Days of Gymboree’s Retail Bankruptcy appeared first on The Intercept.

Violent Far-Right Extremists Are Rarely Prosecuted as Terrorists

On a narrow street in Charlottesville, Virginia, James Alex Fields Jr. pressed the accelerator of his gray Dodge Challenger. Dozens of people were walking in front of him. They had come to protest Fields and hundreds of other white supremacists who’d descended on this pleasant Southern college town for the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017.

“Our streets!” the protesters chanted in response to the white supremacists. “Our streets!”

When some protesters realized the gray car wasn’t stopping, they screamed. Then came the scrapes and thuds and finally a crash as Fields barreled into the crowd, sending people into the air and diving for safety, before the Dodge slammed into the back of another car.

“Holy shit!” one of the protesters said. “That Nazi just drove into people. Oh my God! We need paramedics right now!”

Fields then shifted the car into reverse and backed out toward the main road, the front bumper scraping the pavement and the engine squealing.

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old Charlottesville resident, was killed in the attack. At least 19 others were hurt.

Fields, a 20-year-old from Ohio who had been open about his racist views since high school, had marched in Virginia with the white supremacist group Vanguard America. He was charged in Virginia state court with murder and in federal court with hate crimes. He was not charged as a terrorist, despite then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions having initially described the Charlottesville attack as meeting “the definition of domestic terrorism.”

In announcing Fields’s federal indictment 10 months later, however, Sessions avoided using the word “terrorism” altogether, saying instead that the Justice Department remains “resolute that hateful ideologies will not have the last word and that their adherents will not get away with violent crimes against those they target.”

An Intercept analysis of federal prosecutions since 9/11 found that the Justice Department has routinely declined to bring terrorism charges against right-wing extremists even when their alleged crimes meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism: ideologically motivated acts that are harmful to human life and intended to intimidate civilians, influence policy, or change government conduct.

If Fields had been a Muslim aligned with an international terrorist group, the Justice Department almost certainly would have handled his case differently. According to The Intercept’s review, 268 right-wing extremists prosecuted in federal court since 9/11 were allegedly involved in crimes that appear to meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism. Yet the Justice Department applied anti-terrorism laws against only 34 of them, compared to more than 500 alleged international terrorists.


The FBI has acknowledged that federal prosecutors charge many violent domestic extremists with crimes other than terrorism, saying that simpler charges are often more effective in such cases. But the consequences of treating domestic and international terrorism differently are broad and deep. Terrorism charges carry stiffer penalties and often serve as an official statement about the severity of the offense.

“Terrorism is considered the most important kind of crime,” said Jesse Norris, a criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. “It’s not a crime against some; it’s a crime against all. When you put people and crimes in that category, it places more importance on them. People take these crimes more seriously. That’s why it’s a problem that we have this double standard in classifying international terrorism violence as terrorism and domestic terrorism violence as not terrorism.”

Take the case of Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant, who drove a rented Home Depot truck through a bike lane in Lower Manhattan nearly three months after the Charlottesville attack, killing eight people. Saipov, who was injured in the assault, was so proud of his militant allegiances that he asked federal agents if he could display the Islamic State’s black flag in his hospital room.

Saipov’s crime was almost identical to Fields’s, but Sessions called his attack “a calculated act of terrorism in the heart of one of our great cities.” He was charged in federal court with murder and providing material support to ISIS.

Both Saipov and Fields grabbed the nation’s attention. Both were extremists who allegedly turned vehicles into deadly weapons. But because one was motivated by a foreign extremist ideology and the other by a domestic one, federal prosecutors treated one as a terrorist and the other as a crazy white guy filled with rage.

As a string of deadly attacks and plots by alleged domestic terrorists have made headlines in recent months, there is some evidence that federal prosecutors and law enforcement may be changing their approach. Officials have repeatedly used the term “domestic terrorist” to describe Christopher Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist arrested last month for allegedly plotting to kill politicians and journalists, though they have yet to charge him with a terrorism offense. And current and former Justice Department officials have begun talking more openly about domestic terrorism as a pressing concern.

Nevertheless, a significant disparity remains in how these two types of ideologically motivated violence are handled, one rooted in the highly politicized way that U.S. laws and Justice Department officials define acts of terrorism. Terrorism has always been a political construct — there’s even a cliché for this — but its legal definition in the United States dates back only to 1986, when the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act made terrorist attacks against U.S. diplomats or citizens traveling abroad a crime.

In the 1990s, the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act made acts of terrorism committed within the United States, including those inspired by domestic ideologies, federal offenses. Before these laws, there was no crime of terrorism under the U.S. penal code, and it was only after the 9/11 attacks that anti-terrorism laws came to be widely used in federal criminal prosecutions. Such laws have raised critical questions among legal scholars and civil libertarians about whether the inherent difficulty in defining terrorism essentially guarantees prosecutorial abuse.

Domestic terrorism suspects enjoy basic legal protections denied to those accused of ties to international terrorism.

The U.S. State Department provides a broad framework — and the political cover that goes with it — for federal prosecutors to bring charges against alleged international terrorists. In those cases, charging someone with terrorism is relatively simple. The State Department administers a list of designated foreign terrorist organizations; anyone caught supporting one of these groups can be charged with terrorism-related crimes.

Domestic terrorism suspects enjoy basic legal protections denied to those accused of ties to international terrorism. Because of First Amendment concerns that a list of domestic terrorist groups would unconstitutionally criminalize unpopular ideas and ideologies, there is no such list, making the abusive types of prosecutions used to target alleged international terrorists more difficult to pursue against domestic actors. But prosecutors still have plenty of legal tools at their disposal to go after alleged domestic extremists.

Among them is an expansive law against providing material support to terrorists, which has two provisions. One outlaws nearly any kind of support to organizations on the list of State Department-designated foreign terrorist groups, and has been widely and controversially used by prosecutors to tar even nonviolent political or charitable activity with the international terrorism brush.

“The material support regime as a general matter is extremely broad, and we have concerns about its overbreadth and vagueness,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “A disturbingly high number of material support prosecutions, including abusive sting operations, are against people who don’t actually have a tie to a terrorist or extremist group or haven’t actually committed a violent act or even attempted to commit a violent act.”

But the other provision of the material support law allows the Justice Department to prosecute suspects for their role in supporting about 50 proscribed offenses, including bombing government buildings, murdering government employees, using weapons of mass destruction, and hostage taking. The material support law does have some practical limitations concerning domestic extremists. Attacks not involving a bomb or radiological device — such as Dylann Roof’s mass shooting in South Carolina or Fields’s car attack in Virginia — require the killing or attempted killing of a U.S. government employee or the destruction of U.S. government property for the material support law to be applicable. There are no such legal requirements under material support when the attacker is affiliated with or inspired by an international terrorist organization.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 26 - President George Bush delivers speech before signing Patriot Act Anti-Terrorism Bill at the White House. Shown next to Bush,  Vice President Dick Cheney, shown in background (L-R) Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet. (Photo by Rich Lipski/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

President George W. Bush delivers a speech before signing the Patriot Act at the White House on Oct. 26, 2001. Behind Bush are Vice President Dick Cheney, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and CIA Director George Tenet.

Photo: Rich Lipski/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Terrorism by the Numbers

Hundreds of prosecutions of Muslims on terrorism charges in the wake of the 9/11 attacks have created the perception that international terrorism is a significantly graver and more persistent threat in the United States than right-wing domestic extremism. But whether one is more serious than the other is the subject of ongoing debate. Some studies by academics, think tanks, civil rights groups, and news organizations have suggested that right-wing terrorism poses the greater threat. A 2017 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office on terrorist violence from September 12, 2001 through December 31, 2016 found that while slightly more people have been killed by Muslim extremists than by their right-wing counterparts, right-wing extremists were responsible for three times as many violent acts. Research by the Anti-Defamation League on 573 “extremist-related fatalities” from 2002 to 2018 found that 80 percent of the victims were killed by right-wing extremists.

“It all depends on how you count,” Norris said.

But one thing is clear: By almost exclusively charging international extremists as terrorists, the Justice Department inflates the perceived threat of those actors, compared to those with right-wing domestic ideologies. The press has reinforced this notion; a recent University of Alabama study found that terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists receive 357 percent more media coverage than attacks committed by non-Muslims.

The double standard has had powerful consequences for how the FBI allocates counterterrorism resources, leading invariably to international threats being prioritized over domestic ones.

This double standard has had powerful consequences for how the FBI and other law enforcement agencies allocate counterterrorism resources, leading invariably to international threats being prioritized over domestic ones. While no public government report quantifies the number of domestic extremists arrested by federal, state, and local authorities, Justice Department officials have fastidiously maintained a list of international terrorism prosecutions since 9/11. That list has been released periodically, in 20102014, and 2015, and the data is often used to bolster political initiatives, as happened last year when the Trump administration apparently manipulated it in an attempt to justify its so-called Muslim ban.

So who are the right-wing domestic terrorists in the United States? The current system has left that to individual federal prosecutors to decide. After a Donald Trump supporter sent pipe bombs to Democratic Party leaders and critics of the president in October, and in the wake of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, these charging decisions seem more critical than ever.

“We clearly have domestic terrorist groups in the United States. We just don’t call them terrorist groups,” said Brendan R. McGuire, a former prosecutor who served as the terrorism chief for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. “Generally speaking, there continue to be challenges within the government to applying the terrorism label to purely domestic conduct. We’re just much more experienced and comfortable with exporting that label, with seeing terrorism as something that comes only from the outside.”

In this Oct. 27, 2018 photo, Rabbi Eli Wilansky lights a candle after a mass shooting at Tree of Life  Synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Robert Bowers, the suspect in Saturday's mass shooting, expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage and told officers afterward that Jews were committing genocide and he wanted them all to die, according to charging documents made public Sunday. (Steph Chambers/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

On Oct. 27, 2018, Rabbi Eli Wilansky lights a candle after a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Photo: Steph Chambers/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

Vague Guidelines, Underused Laws

What makes a white supremacist’s attack on a group of minorities terrorism, rather than, say, a hate crime? When an anti-abortion zealot plants a bomb at a women’s clinic, should he be charged with using weapons of mass destruction or with a lesser explosives charge?

Terrorism is subjective. In the eyes of federal prosecutors, an American-born ISIS sympathizer who has never met another ISIS supporter, for example, is a terrorist as long as he commits an act of violence and credits the terrorist organization. A white supremacist who consorts with other white supremacists and bombs a mosque could be a terrorist, but more often is only charged with possessing and using explosives. That accusation may describe the facts of the alleged crime, but it doesn’t instantly conjure the sense of collective peril implied by a charge of attempting to use weapons of mass destruction.

“Like so much of the counterterrorism discourse, it’s based on these feelings that we have about how things happen, rather than data,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. “Back in the ’90s, terrorism was usually used as a rhetorical device. If I wanted to say this kind of violence was extremely bad, I’d say it’s terrorism. But it had no meaning in the courtroom, where we’re charging murder or conspiracy or whatever we’re charging. By bringing a pejorative term like ‘terrorism’ into the court, you’re politicizing the prosecution.”

“By bringing a pejorative term like ‘terrorism’ into the court, you’re politicizing the prosecution.”

Internal Justice Department guidelines are so vague that prosecutors often come up with their own criteria to determine whether to file a terrorism-related charge in domestic extremism cases, former federal prosecutor Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. said. While Hockeimer was at the Justice Department, he and his colleagues developed their own set of rules to determine when to charge a suspect with a terrorism offense, basing decisions in part on who and how many people were targeted in an attack, even though the law doesn’t contain specific references to either. “You have to ask yourself: Is the attack aimed at causing a high-volume loss of life? Or is it targeting a particular area in order to kill one or two people?” Hockeimer said. “You have to look at what the ultimate result of it was.”

FBI and Justice Department officials have used the recent resurgence of far-right extremism to make the case for a new domestic terrorism law, in an echo of what occurred after the 9/11 attacks, when members of Congress demanded new laws to combat Al Qaeda and approved the Patriot Act, which created and expanded a host of anti-terrorism laws and government surveillance powers. But is an aggressive new law needed, when prosecutors already have powerful and controversial anti-terrorism laws at their disposal – laws that they have only rarely chosen to use against right-wing extremists?

Among the relatively few right-wing defendants to face weapons of mass destruction charges since 9/11 was anti-government extremist Jerry Drake Varnell. An FBI agent posing as a fellow anti-government extremist provided Varnell with a van loaded with a fake bomb. Varnell then tried to detonate the bomb next to a bank in Oklahoma City. He was charged with and convicted of several offenses, including attempting to use weapons of mass destruction — a charge that is almost universally applied to Muslims caught in counterterrorism stings similar to his.

But Varnell is one of only 24 right-wing extremists since 9/11 to face a weapons of mass destruction charge. Prosecutors more often bring less serious charges against violent right-wing actors like Thaddeus Cheyenne Murphy, who bombed an NAACP office in Colorado and was charged with firearms violations and being a felon in possession of firearms, or, more recently, Paul M. Rosenfeld, who was convicted of an explosives charge for plotting to detonate a homemade bomb on the National Mall on Election Day 2018 to raise awareness about “sortition,” a political theory that advocates the random selection of government officials over their election.

FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2015 file photo, Colorado Springs, Colo., police officers investigate the scene of an explosion at a building in Colorado Springs that houses a barber shop and the Colorado Springs chapter of the NAACP. (AP Photo/The Colorado Springs Gazette, Christian Murdock, File

On Jan. 6, 2015, police officers investigate the scene of an explosion at a building in Colorado Springs, Colo., that housed a barber shop and the local chapter of the NAACP.

Photo: Christian Murdock/The Colorado Springs Gazette via AP

The infrequent and lower-profile use of anti-terrorism laws in right-wing cases has set the stage for claims that new laws are needed to combat domestic terrorists. Thomas E. Brzozowski, a former FBI official who is now the Justice Department’s Domestic Terrorism Counsel, has argued that current laws limit prosecutors’ ability to charge and describe domestic terrorists. “In many instances, the government is going to be constrained, to a certain degree, from stepping in front of a podium and saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re revealing domestic terrorism here,” Brzozowski said at an event hosted by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism in January.

Brzozowski has been joined by a chorus of current and former Justice Department and FBI officials. Last month, Thomas T. Cullen, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia who is prosecuting Fields, the Charlottesville attacker, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times calling for a domestic terrorism law. In 2017, Thomas F. O’Connor, a counterterrorism agent in Washington, D.C., who is also the president of the FBI Agents Association, the union that represents the bureau’s more than 13,000 agents, made a similar case in The Hill. Because there are no penalties attached to the legal definition of domestic terrorism, O’Connor reasoned, “‘domestic terrorism’ is not a crime in and of itself under federal law.”

“The answer is that a new law is not necessary to take on the scourge of white supremacist violence. The government already has the tools necessary to take on this threat.”

But Cullen’s and O’Connor’s arguments are flawed. The crime of “international terrorism” doesn’t exist either, yet hundreds of people with alleged links to foreign groups have been charged under anti-terrorism laws. In addition to material support — which the Patriot Act expanded and for which it increased the maximum punishment from 10 years to 15 years, or life in prison if the crime results in death — statutes available to prosecute domestic and international terrorists include a law that prohibits the use of “weapons of mass destruction” — including everything from a nuclear weapon to a pressure-cooker explosive or a pipe bomb — and another that defines attacks on mass transit systems as terrorism.

Even when prosecutors decline to charge defendants with terrorism-related offenses, they have an opportunity to ask for a so-called terrorism adjustment at sentencing that results in longer prison terms if a judge agrees that the crime meets the definition of domestic terrorism. But prosecutors have only asked for such enhancements in a handful of right-wing cases, according to The Intercept’s analysis. One was the case of Wayde Lynn Kurt, a white supremacist in Washington state who was convicted by a jury in 2011 of firearms violations. Recordings he had made indicated that he was planning a terrorist attack called the “final solution,” which included a plot to kill then-President Barack Obama.

“It’s important to emphasize that whenever you see a terrorism-related legislative proposal, you have to ask, ‘Is it necessary? How will it be used against the very minority groups that we need and want to protect and who have historically and wrongly been FBI targets and still largely are?’” said Shamsi of the ACLU. “The answer is that a new law is not necessary to take on the scourge of white supremacist violence. The government already has the tools necessary to take on this threat.”

Since stepping down shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Mary B. McCord, a former top official in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, has been making a public argument similar to those of Brzozowski, Cullen, and O’Connor. McCord has written that while state and federal laws can provide significant punishment for domestic terrorists — including life sentences and the death penalty — “they fail to equate it under federal law, as it deserves to be equated, with the actions of ISIS-inspired terrorists who engage in violence in pursuit of their equally insidious goals.”

WASHINGTON, D.C.-MAY 10: Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord is moving on from the Department of Justice after 25 years. As head of the National Security Division, she oversaw a variety of investigations ranging from the potential Trump-Russian ties to counter terrorism, cyber and export control crimes. She was photographed in the courtyard of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Then-Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord, photographed in the courtyard of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on May 10, 2017.

Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Asked why she supports the creation of a new domestic terrorism law when prosecutors could use laws already on the books, such as the one that prohibits providing material support to terrorists, McCord, who as head of the National Security Division was responsible for authorizing terrorism charges nationwide, told The Intercept during a phone interview that the material support law requires “an international component.”

In fact, the material support provision that is focused on terrorists generally, and includes the approximately 50 proscribed offenses, has been used against domestic extremists — but only three times. In the only such case since 9/11, Eric J. Feight, a New York man, was charged with and convicted of material support for helping a white supremacist build a radiological “death ray” for use against Muslims.

The material support charge against Feight was approved when McCord was second-in-command at the National Security Division. When asked about it, she said the case “was tied to international terrorism.” Told that this was untrue, McCord asked for 15 minutes to review Feight’s prosecution, then called back to acknowledge that she had been mistaken. In hindsight, she said, maybe the Justice Department could use the material support law more aggressively against domestic extremists. “Certainly, if I were still at the Department of Justice, and I saw a person who was contributing material support to one of these enumerated offenses, I would definitely approve charging that,” McCord said, “including in situations that have no nexus to international terrorism.”

Although a small case history exists of prosecuting domestic extremists under material support and other anti-terrorism laws, officials at the Justice Department wring their hands over whether to use such laws in cases of domestic terrorism and generally avoid public discussions about the use of anti-terrorism laws against domestic extremists, more than a dozen current and former prosecutors told The Intercept. Instead, they suggest that new and even more powerful laws are needed to pursue right-wing extremists.

A Lack of Transparency

The U.S. government does not track acts of domestic terrorism or related federal prosecutions in any systematic way, leaving the Justice Department with few tools to determine whether domestic extremist threats are on the rise at a time when white supremacists have been emboldened by Trump’s nationalistic, anti-immigrant rhetoric.

FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last October that “domestic extremist movements collectively pose a steady threat of violence and economic harm to the United States.” A year earlier, before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wray described the threat of domestic terrorism as “very, very serious” and “something that we spend a lot of our time focused on.” He has declined in congressional testimony to say how many agents are working on the problem but mentioned in 2017 that “about 1,000 open domestic terrorism investigations as we speak.” The FBI also declined requests from The Intercept to provide the number of agents assigned to such cases, stating, “While we cannot comment specifically on this breakdown, the FBI’s top priority remains protecting the United States from terrorist attacks — both international and domestic.”

Yet in fiscal year 2009, the most recent year for which such data has been made public, just 335 of the bureau’s more than 13,000 agents were assigned to domestic terrorism. By contrast, international terrorism is the FBI’s top priority, with thousands of agents devoted to it.

This frame grab from video provided by WPLG-TV shows FBI agents escorting Cesar Sayoc, in sleeveless shirt, in Miramar, Fla., on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018. Sayoc is an amateur body builder and former male stripper, a loner with a long arrest record who showed little interest in politics until Donald Trump came along. On Friday, he was identified by authorities as the Florida man who put pipe bombs in small manila envelopes, affixed six stamps and sent them to some of Donald Trump's most prominent critics. (WPLG-TV via AP)

This screenshot from video provided by WPLG-TV shows FBI agents escorting Cesar Sayoc, in the sleeveless shirt, in Miramar, Fla., on Oct. 26, 2018.

Photo: WPLG-TV via AP

False Positives

One man’s nutjob can be a federal prosecutor’s domestic terrorist. The Justice Department’s internal case management system reveals how subjective, and sometimes ridiculous, it can be to try to define acts of terrorism.

Federal prosecutors nationwide use an internal system called the Legal Information Office Network System, or LIONS, which stores data about cases. The data is only released publicly in the aggregate, but as part of its review of federal prosecutions, The Intercept, working with another database maintained by federal court administrators, unmasked 752 cases that prosecutors have designated as involving an alleged domestic terrorist, accounting for approximately half the cases in LIONS that were coded as domestic terrorism.

The data suggests that, while the Justice Department follows a very narrow definition of domestic terrorism publicly and when bringing criminal charges, prosecutors take an expansive and at times comically inconsistent view of it internally, labeling hundreds of cases as involving domestic terrorism even when the facts do not support the designation.

While the Justice Department follows a very narrow definition of domestic terrorism publicly, prosecutors take an expansive and at times comically inconsistent view of it internally.

Of those cases, only 15 appeared to meet the federal statutory definition of domestic terrorism, which requires that violence be motivated by a domestic ideology. A handful of cases involved violent acts that may have met the definition of domestic terrorism, but nothing in the case files suggested an ideological motivation. Others related to international terrorism, involving defendants accused of supporting Hamas, the Colombian guerrilla group FARC, ISIS, and others.

But the vast majority — more than 700 cases — involved incidents that don’t appear to match the legal definition of terrorism at all, such as a Connecticut man making menacing phone calls and sending a threatening letter to ESPN sportscasters over a personal grievance. Prosecutors designated an Alabama man’s case as domestic terrorism after he fired rifle rounds into an energy facility, even though there was no indication that the shooting was ideologically motivated. In another case marked as domestic terrorism, a West Virginia man firebombed a mobile home using a Molotov cocktail in exchange for $400 and some Oxycontin.

The Growing Threat

The FBI logged 176 domestic terrorism arrests between September 2016 and September 2017, according to Wray’s 2017 Senate testimony. That number is significantly higher than media reports and Justice Department and local police announcements during that period suggest. When The Intercept asked under the Freedom of Information Act for any documents or communications to support Wray’s number, the FBI responded that it could find no records to support the director’s statement. Then, earlier this month, law enforcement sources provided “approximate” numbers to the Washington Post, suggesting that in 2017 and 2018, the FBI conducted more investigations of domestic terrorists than international ones. The claim appeared to signal a reversal of priorities at the FBI, but could not be vetted, as the source material for the number wasn’t provided to the Post.

It’s impossible to know from publicly available information and the leaked aggregate numbers that the Post reported how effective the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been at thwarting right-wing extremists before they transform their hate into violence. But what is clear is that a significant number of violent extremists are slipping through the FBI’s dragnet.

Among the domestic terrorists the FBI recently missed was a 56-year-old strip club DJ who wore a “Make America Great Again” hat and once posted a video selfie from a Trump rally in Florida. A prolific Twitter user, Cesar Sayoc posted far-right conspiracy theories and sent threatening messages to Trump’s opponents, including one to former Vice President Joe Biden with a photo of an alligator that had eaten a man.

The FBI was unaware of Sayoc until October 2018, when more than a dozen pipe bombs began to arrive at the homes and offices of Democratic Party leaders and Trump critics. Two of the bombs, one addressed to former CIA Director John Brennan and the other to former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, were mailed to CNN. None detonated, though all contained explosive material and in some cases shards of glass to maximize injury. A fingerprint on an envelope matched one Sayoc had provided following an earlier arrest in Florida, where, over the previous two decades, he’d been charged with theft and threatening to bomb the local power company in an attack that he said would be “worse than September 11.”

MELBOURNE, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  In this file picture from 2017, Cesar Sayoc (far right in red hat) is seen as President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the AeroMod International hangar at Orlando Melbourne International Airport on February 18, 2017 in Melbourne, Florida. Mr. Sayoc was arrested on allegations that he was the person who mailed pipe bomb devices that targeted critics of President Donald Trump and have been recovered in New York, Washington D.C., California and South Florida, all with the return address of Debbie Wassermann-Schultz's office.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Cesar Sayoc, far right, at a rally for President Donald Trump at the Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Fla., on Feb. 18, 2017.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images; Illustration: The Intercept

Sayoc was initially charged in U.S. District Court with mailing explosives, making threats, and assaulting federal officers. He was not charged as a terrorist, though his alleged crimes appeared to meet the U.S. statutory definition of domestic terrorism. Sessions, then the attorney general, instead referred to Sayoc as “a partisan” who had committed “political violence.”

But soon after prosecutors filed the indictment, amid unprecedented media coverage and public debate about the scourge of right-wing domestic terrorism, the Justice Department’s language began to change. In a filing supporting Sayoc’s extradition from Florida to New York, where he faces criminal charges, federal prosecutors described his offenses as “a domestic terrorist attack targeting at least 15 victims” waged as part of a “terror campaign.”

On November 9, 2018, two weeks after Sayoc’s arrest and three days after an election gave Democrats, including some Sayoc had targeted, a majority in the House of Representatives, federal prosecutors in New York issued a new indictment, filing 30 charges against Sayoc, including five that alleged he used weapons of mass destruction — an anti-terrorism charge that has been applied against 79 international terrorists since 9/11 but just 23 other right-wing extremists during the same time period.

Sayoc pleaded guilty on Thursday to 65 charges, including 35 newly filed counts. He faces the possibility of life in prison — a harsh sentence that sends a message about how seriously our society takes the crime he committed. What’s unusual is that this standard is being applied to someone who can’t be cast as an agent of an international terrorist group.

So far, that isn’t the case for Hasson, the Coast Guard lieutenant living in Maryland who put together a cache of firearms and steroids and a target list of journalists and prominent Democrats. A self-described white nationalist, Hasson allegedly plotted an attack that he hoped would spark a race war.

“The defendant is a domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect governmental conduct,” federal prosecutors wrote in a court filing last month.

Although those prosecutors announced after Hasson’s arrest that they were considering the addition of terrorism-related charges, they haven’t filed any. Hasson faces charges of firearms and drug violations.

He’s like many right-wing extremists in the United States: labeled a terrorist, but not prosecuted as one.

The post Violent Far-Right Extremists Are Rarely Prosecuted as Terrorists appeared first on The Intercept.

The Domestic Terrorism Law the Justice Department Forgot

Glendon Scott Crawford was a mechanic at General Electric in Schenectady, New York. A tall, slender, middle-aged man with rectangular eyeglasses, he was married with three children. By appearances, he was an unremarkable middle-class American.

But beneath Crawford’s vanilla exterior lurked a white supremacist angry about President Barack Obama’s election and contemptuous of upstate New York’s sizable Muslim community. And he had ambitious plans to transform his hatred into violence.

He wanted to build a “death ray,” a portable, remote-controlled radiological weapon made from medical equipment and off-the-shelf electronics. He’d load the weapon into a van with tinted windows, drive it to a nearby mosque, scurry away to a safe distance, and switch it on remotely using a smartphone. Anyone in its path would be radiated and left to die a slow, mysterious death. He even had a pithy nickname for his weapon: “Hiroshima on a light switch.”

Crawford’s killing machine was never built. He was convicted at trial in August 2015 of attempting to use a radiological dispersal device and a weapon of mass destruction. He is serving 30 years in prison.

His case is remarkable not so much for its absurdity — federal agents admitted that his imagined weapon was likely impossible to make — but for how prosecutors handled it. Crawford’s co-defendant, an engineer named Eric J. Feight who had agreed to build the weapon’s remote control, pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorism — the first and only time federal prosecutors have used the material support law against a domestic extremist since 9/11, according to a review of federal prosecutions by The Intercept.

Eric Feight arrives for his sentencing at the James T. Foley Federal Courthouse, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, in Albany, N.Y.  Feight, who admitted helping build what he thought was a mobile X-ray device to kill Muslims, has been sentenced to eight years in prison. (Skip Dickstein/The Albany Times Union via AP)  TROY, SCHENECTADY; SARATOGA SPRINGS; ALBANY OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT

Eric J. Feight arrives for his sentencing at the James T. Foley Federal Courthouse on Dec. 16, 2015, in Albany, N.Y.

Photo: Skip Dickstein/The Albany Times Union via AP

The material support law is prosecutors’ tool of choice for hauling international terrorists into federal court — more than 400 international terrorism defendants have faced material support charges since 9/11. But the Justice Department has been reluctant to use this expansive and powerful law, which allows defendants to be prosecuted for providing minimal, and at times, inconsequential, support to a violent plot, against domestic terrorists.

The rarity of such charges has helped drive a false narrative that domestic terrorism is not punishable under existing anti-terrorism laws. “Why is there no criminal statute for domestic terrorism?” CBS News asked in October 2017. “Americans Are Surprised Domestic Terrorism Isn’t A Federal Crime,” HuffPost declared last April.

Graphic: Moiz Syed/The Intercept

In fact, the government has ample room to go after domestic terrorism under existing laws. The material support law has two parts. The first can be applied to anyone who commits or assists with a terrorist attack, including one rooted in a domestic ideology, so long as the crime involves one of about 50 proscribed offenses, including bombing government buildings, murdering government employees, using weapons of mass destruction, and hostage taking. The second and more controversial allows the Justice Department to prosecute anyone supporting or working with a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization, however minor their role in an attack or plot, including even unwitting targets of FBI undercover stings who never were in contact with actual terrorists. Civil libertarians have for two decades criticized the material support law, but primarily for the abuses possible in the more expansive provision for international terrorists. The more limited provision for domestic terrorism is harder for prosecutors to abuse.

Although the part of the material support law that can be used against domestic extremists is limited in some important ways — mass shootings not involving the death of government employees are notably absent from the list of offenses eligible for material support charges — Feight’s conviction in the “death ray” plot shows that domestic extremists can in many cases be prosecuted using the same aggressive laws that federal prosecutors wield against international terrorists. But the Justice Department has been reluctant to use that authority against white supremacists and followers of other domestic ideologies.

This double standard has little to do with existing laws. Instead, it is a result of decisions within the Justice Department, which since 9/11 has prioritized international terrorism prosecutions at the expense of domestic ones.

“After 9/11, the FBI’s and the Justice Department’s resources were directed to international terrorism. The prosecutions against domestic terrorists suffered,” said Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., a former federal prosecutor who served on the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Task Force in the 1990s. “I follow the domestic terrorism cases, and I sometimes wonder why prosecutors aren’t going after more significant statutes with these guys, using the anti-terrorism laws. On one hand, I suspect the average person thinks of terrorism in the international sense, and to some degree, the Justice Department has come to think of terrorism in that way as well.”

A law enforcement officer escorts Floyd Ray Looker, self-proclaimed head of the Mountaineer Militia, into the federal courthouse in Wheeling, W. Va., for his second trial Wednesday, Aug. 13, 1997. Looker pleaded guilty Wednesday to selling copies of blueprints of the FBI's fingerprint complex to what he believed was a terrorist group that planned to blow the center up. Looker actually sold the copies for $50,000 to an undercover FBI agent posing as a middleman for the terrorists. (AP Photo/Gary Tramontina)

A law enforcement officer escorts Floyd Raymond Looker, the self-proclaimed head of the Mountaineer Militia, into the federal courthouse in Wheeling, W.V., for his second trial on Aug. 13, 1997.

Photo: Gary Tramontina/AP

A Domestic Anti-Terrorism Law

Among the first known instances of the material support law being used against domestic extremists came in 1996, when federal prosecutors charged seven men with assembling explosives and plotting to blow up an FBI building. Prosecutors filed material support charges against two of the seven men, Floyd Raymond Looker and James R. Rogers. Looker, the leader of a group known as the West Virginia Mountaineer Militia, and Rogers, a lieutenant in a local fire department who provided blueprints of the FBI building, pleaded guilty.

Five years later, in February 2001, federal prosecutors brought material support charges against Connor Cash, an environmental activist accused of being a leader of the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group that had claimed responsibility for arsons and vandalism throughout the United States. The Justice Department alleged that Cash had assisted in the arson of five homes under construction on Long Island, as well as an unsuccessful plot to burn down a duck farm and release the animals. A jury acquitted Cash of all counts in May 2004.

“I suspect the average person thinks of terrorism in the international sense, and to some degree, the Justice Department has come to think of terrorism in that way as well.”

After the 9/11 attacks, when federal prosecutors began to turn to the material support law as the statute of choice in prosecuting international terrorists, the Justice Department created the National Security Division, which absorbed the counterterrorism and counterespionage sections and created a powerful bureaucratic node responsible for national security prosecutions. Under a policy created at the time, and still in effect today, all terrorism-related charges — including material support and the use of weapons of mass destruction — must be approved by the National Security Division. After the policy took effect, the Justice Department’s tentative experiments with using the material support law against domestic terrorists hit a wall.

In the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the Justice Department and the FBI reoriented to focus significant resources on international terrorism threats, with the prevention of another terrorist attack from Al Qaeda or other groups as the top priority for both agencies. White supremacists, right-wing extremists, and other domestic terrorists were not a pressing concern. “If you took yourself back to 2006, when the National Security Division was first started, the country was still in the throes of responses to 9/11,” said Mary B. McCord, the Justice Department’s acting assistant attorney general for national security from 2016 to 2017 and a principal deputy assistant attorney general for its National Security Division from 2014 to 2016.

McCord and other former federal prosecutors maintain that the Justice Department has always taken domestic terrorism seriously. But in the years since 9/11, the difference between how domestic and international terrorists are prosecuted and punished has been striking.

In this Nov. 30, 2011 photo, William Keebler appears in camouflage in Vernon, Utah. Keebler, a Utah militia group leader with ties to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy,  has been arrested and charged with attempting to blow up a rural, federally-owned cabin in Arizona, federal authorities said Thursday, June 23, 2016. (Al Hartmann /The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

William Keebler appears in camouflage in Vernon, Utah, on Nov. 30, 2011.

Photo: Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP

The case of William “Bill” Keebler is an example. He came to the FBI’s attention after spending two weeks in Nevada during the 2014 armed standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters. Keebler helped organize Bundy’s supporters by posting on social media and YouTube under the handle “Th3Hunt3r.” After returning home to Utah, Keebler started organizing a militia of his own, recruiting like-minded people on Facebook and at local gun shows. “We are now being taken by a rogue government,” he wrote in a May 2014 Facebook post.

Keebler called his militia the Patriots Defense Force. FBI informants who joined the group told federal agents that members were preparing for future standoffs with the government, operations to rob drug dealers at the U.S.-Mexico border, and violent attacks targeting Muslims. The FBI then inserted two undercover agents into Keebler’s militia. One agent told Keebler that he had experience with explosives.

Because Keebler had tried to bomb a government building, the material support law could have applied. Instead, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge federal prosecutors had chosen.

By June 2016, the Patriots Defense Force had eight members, including two FBI undercover agents and a government informant. Members of the militia had talked about killing Muslims, and Keebler and the undercover agents drove to a mosque to consider it as a target. But Keebler was most interested in an attack on the Bureau of Land Management. He and one of the FBI agents concocted a plot to bomb a cabin in Utah used by the bureau. The FBI built the bomb, which was fake, and Keebler planted it in the cabin. The bomb simply fizzled, as designed, and in July 2016, Keebler was charged with attempting to damage federal property with an explosive device. Despite a federal prosecutor describing Keebler as a “would-be terrorist,” the militia leader did not face terrorism-related charges.

Because Keebler had tried to bomb a government building, the material support law could have applied and with it, a possible 15-year prison sentence. Instead, Keebler spent two years in prison while his case was pending, and after pleading guilty to the lesser charge federal prosecutors had chosen, he was sentenced to time served and three years of probation. Prosecutors did not ask for a “terrorism enhancement” at sentencing — a request that, if approved by the judge, could have resulted in a more significant sentence. Keebler, now on probation in Utah, declined to comment for this article.

By contrast, federal prosecutors charged Nicholas Young, a 36-year-old Muslim police officer in Washington, D.C., with material support when he sent a $245 gift card to a man he believed was with the Islamic State. The gift card recipient was in fact an FBI informant. Young was found guilty at trial and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Last month, an appeals court vacated his convictions on two charges of attempting to obstruct justice, but upheld his conviction for material support. Young will be re-sentenced soon, but his original 15-year term was in line with those of the more than 400 other Muslim terrorism defendants convicted of material support.

A law enforcement officer walks on the street outside the home of Nicholas Young, a Washington Metro Transit Officer, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016, in Fairfax, Va., Young was arrested at Metro's headquarters in Washington and charged with a single count of attempting to provided material support to a terrorist group. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

A law enforcement officer walks on the street outside the home of Nicholas Young on Aug. 3, 2016, in Fairfax, Va.

Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Current federal prosecutors, including Thomas E. Brzozowski, the Justice Department’s counsel for domestic terrorism, declined to comment for this article. In an interview with The Intercept, McCord said that in retrospect, she and other prosecutors had underutilized the material support law for prosecuting and punishing domestic terrorists.

“I’ve been a cheerleader for the fact that, hey, this is the same stuff — extremism is extremism,” McCord said. “The white supremacist extremism we’re seeing right now, they’ve taken the playbook from the foreign terrorist organizations in terms of who they’re trying to recruit and who can be easily drawn to feel like they’re working for something bigger than themselves. To me, the parallels are very close.”

Despite the material support law being used predominantly against Muslim extremists during her tenure at the Justice Department, McCord said religion was never a factor in charging decisions. “I think, frankly, because of 9/11 and Al Qaeda and ISIS and Islamic extremism, we have been overly focused on those threats,” McCord said. “But I would be a happy to call a domestic terrorist a domestic terrorist. I will shout it from the rooftops.”

The “Death Ray” Case

The only case in which federal prosecutors have brought material support charges against domestic terrorists since 9/11 began with a phone call.

Crawford, the New York man who tried to build a “death ray,” needed help financing the construction of his weapon. In July 2012, he called a Ku Klux Klan hotline in North Carolina operated by Chris Barker, an imperial wizard in a KKK group called Loyal White Knights. Crawford reportedly left a message saying that he had explosives that he wanted to detonate in New York or New Jersey.

Barker was facing state firearms charges in North Carolina. He and his lawyer took the voicemail to the FBI, offering up Crawford in exchange for leniency on the firearms charges. The FBI then enlisted Barker as an informant and set up an elaborate sting.

Barker invited Crawford to come to North Carolina to discuss his plans. In a hotel room, Crawford met with Barker, a heavyset man with a goatee and ears slightly too large for his head, and two FBI undercover agents. One agent was pretending to be a Klansman, while the other was posing as a wealthy, like-minded businessperson looking to finance an attack.

Crawford met with an FBI informant and undercover agents in a North Carolina hotel room, where he asked for money to help build a “death ray” to target Muslims in upstate New York. Video: FBI

“Now I don’t know how close you guys have been watching, but you might have noticed that for the last 20 years or so, and especially during this administration, all the fashionable ethnic groups really can do no wrong, OK?” Crawford said, according to video from an FBI camera that had been hidden in the hotel room. “You know, we got Black Panthers committing felonies. That don’t matter — Eric Holder’s not going to prosecute his people. Mexicans — illegal Mexicans get to come in and do whatever they want. They rape, maim, and pillage. They turn ’em loose. They got, like, Jessie Jackass and Al Charlatan kicking up the Justice for Trayvon mobs. And it never ends, OK? Hate crimes, OK? This is all — white Christians just need not apply. White Christians need not apply for law-abiding protection or anything like that. And then you’ve got CAIR, OK? The Council on American-Islamic Relations, OK? We can do no right. We’re convicted in the press before we do anything, OK?”

Crawford then described his plan to create a “death ray” to target Muslims. He said he already had an accomplice, Feight, whom he called his “software guy”; he just needed money.

“This could kill whole cities in a night, silently,” Crawford said of his proposed weapon.

“If you had it in the parking lot of, say, your local mosque, or just outside of it, and pointed in the given direction, you would be able to — it would reach from here to the mosque?” an undercover FBI agent asked.

“Easily,” Crawford said.

“Then what happens? You shut it off, that’s it? No more radiation?”

“Then you come and get the truck. You drive it up, you park it, you point it. You’d be totally anonymous. You’d be untraceable. It would be weeks before anyone had any inkling anything was wrong, and they’d probably drop dead in their beds.”

“It’s almost too good to be true,” one of the agents said.

“I think the potential is considerable,” Crawford added. “Just make sure you’re nowhere near this thing when it goes off, OK? Like curvature-of-the-earth distance, OK?”

“But if it’s working from a smartphone, I can call it from —” one of the agents said.

“Anywhere,” Crawford answered, finishing the sentence. “You could call it from home.”

The FBI agents agreed to support Crawford’s “death ray,” and in November 2012, they traveled to upstate New York to meet with him and his “software guy.” Feight, who had curly hair and a mustache, had worked as an engineer for more than two decades and was the father of three girls.

For their meeting, Crawford came up with code names. He was “Dmitri.” Feight was “Yoda.” The undercover agents were “Robin Hood” and “Daddy Warbucks.” The “death ray” was “the Baby.” They even had a code phrase for killing Muslims: “sterilizing medical waste.”

Because Feight was only building the remote control, the FBI undercover agents needed to be sure that he knew the remote was for a weapon. Using the code words, they questioned Feight about what exactly he was building. Feight wasn’t under any illusions. “I started seeing how things, the direction things were going and then certainly after the elections,” Feight told the agents, referring to Obama’s election in 2008. “It’s like, well, OK, you know [what] that old saying is, right? You know, the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” He added a moment later: “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

Crawford and Feight began building their device. On the afternoon of June 18, 2013, in a warehouse the FBI had wired with cameras, one of the undercover agents watched as Crawford worked on the purported “death ray.” Wearing gloves and holding a screwdriver, Crawford leaned against the power supply, which was encased in a large, black metal box. “You’re actually transforming energy from electrical energy to ionizing radiation,” he explained to the agent.

Less than a minute later, an FBI SWAT team carrying assault rifles kicked in the door. “FBI! Get down! Get down!” they shouted. Crawford raised his hands in shock. An agent then forced Crawford onto his belly and handcuffed him.

FBI agents raided a warehouse, where they’d installed hidden cameras, as Crawford attempted to build his “death ray.” An undercover agent, whose face is blurred, talked to Crawford as he assembled the device. Video: FBI

Federal prosecutors first charged Crawford with providing material support, but later dropped that charge in favor of allegations that he’d conspired to use a radiological dispersal device and a weapon of mass destruction. Feight, who was arrested later, was charged with providing material support.

Crawford was convicted at trial and sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. Feight pleaded guilty and received a little more than eight years; he is due to be released next year.

On December 19, 2016, when Crawford was sentenced, McCord was the acting assistant attorney general in charge of the National Security Division. “Glendon Scott Crawford is an extremist who planned to use a radiological dispersal device to target unsuspecting Muslim Americans with lethal doses of radiation,” she said in a Justice Department statement at the time. “The National Security Division’s highest priority is counterterrorism, and we will continue to pursue justice against anyone who seeks to perpetrate attacks against Americans on our soil.”

Notably, as is still customary for Justice Department officials discussing domestic extremists, McCord did not label Crawford a terrorist. She missed an ideal opportunity to shout it from the rooftops.

Asked about this recently, McCord explained that she had probably been leery of using the word “terrorist” to avoid prejudicing a jury. It’s a concern that federal prosecutors never seem to show for international terrorism defendants.

“Glendon Scott Crawford is a domestic terrorist,” McCord said, “and I should have called him that.”

The post The Domestic Terrorism Law the Justice Department Forgot appeared first on The Intercept.

How a Movement That Never Killed Anyone Became the FBI’s No. 1 Domestic Terrorism Threat

Joe Dibee’s 12 years on the lam came to an end last August, when Cuban authorities detained the 50-year-old environmental activist during a layover in Havana and turned him over to the United States.

More than a decade earlier, police and FBI agents had arrested a dozen of Dibee’s associates in the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front within the span of a few months. They were charged with conspiring to burn down factories that slaughtered animals for meat, timber mills that disrupted sensitive ecosystems, government facilities that penned wild horses, and a ski resort perched on a pristine mountaintop. Dibee, a former Microsoft software tester known for his ingenuity, had slipped away in the midst of it all.

While the arsons, which never hurt or killed anyone, largely took place in the late 1990s, the wave of arrests known as the “Green Scare” came in the post-9/11 era, when terrorism was the FBI’s prevailing obsession. The fur and biomedical industries had spent years lobbying the Justice Department and lawmakers to go after eco-activists, who had damaged their property, held audacious demonstrations decrying their business activities, and cost them millions of dollars. When the planes hit the twin towers, industry groups seized on the opportunity to push legislation, and federal law enforcement ramped up pursuit of radical activists in the name of counterterrorism.


Michael B. Ward of the FBI’s counterterrorism division speaks at a press conference on Nov. 19, 2008, about a reward for the capture of four Operation Backfire fugitives. With Ward is Portland Assistant Special Agent in Charge Daniel Nielsen.

Photo: FBI

So-called eco-terrorism became the Justice Department’s No. 1 domestic terror concern — “over the likes of white supremacists, militias, and anti-abortion groups,” as one senator pointed out at the time. Operation Backfire, which sent Dibee running, was the climax of the crackdown. “There was money, there was administrative support, there was management support,” said Jane Quimby, a retired FBI agent who worked on Backfire. The results were “an affirmation that given the resources that you need, and the support that you need, you can really make these things work.”

In 2009, when a Department of Homeland Security intelligence report raised alarms about the rising threat of right-wing extremist violence, it provoked a very different response. After outcry from conservative groups, DHS backtracked on the report and later disbanded the domestic terrorism unit that produced it.

Daryl Johnson, a former domestic terrorism analyst at DHS, says there’s a reason law enforcement took a less aggressive approach to right-wing white supremacists and anti-government attackers. In the case of the eco-extremists, the government had a powerful ally: industry. “You don’t have a bunch of companies coming forward saying I wish you’d do something about these right-wing extremists,” said Johnson, who left his position in 2010, after his warnings about right-wing violence were dismissed. “If enough people lobbied congresspeople about white nationalists and how it’s affecting their business activity, then I’m sure you’ll get legislation.”

Now, in the wake of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer by white supremacist James Alex Fields, past and current Justice Department officials have argued that a new domestic terrorism statute is necessary to better respond to far-right violence.

But law enforcement and federal prosecutors already have powerful counterterrorism authorities at their disposal, and their history of using them to go after radical activists who committed property crimes suggests that any new crackdown is likely to sweep up far more than domestic extremists who pose a lethal threat.

No new law was required to treat eco-saboteurs as terrorists in the wake of 9/11. Of 70 federal prosecutions of radical environmentalists and animal rights activists identified by The Intercept, 52 did not result in charges under anti-terrorism laws. Yet the defendants were repeatedly called terrorists by the Justice Department in public statements and internal communications. The designation opened up additional resources and gave the government powerful leverage in the form of terrorism sentencing enhancements, which prosecutors sought in more than 20 cases.

Meanwhile, in the remaining 18 cases, prosecutors applied an anti-terrorism law written with the help of industry that was designed exclusively to target animal rights activists. Six cases involved activists releasing mink and vandalizing fur facilities, and six involved individuals accused of encouraging radical acts like sabotage but not participating in any themselves. Four of the cases involved activists protesting outside researchers’ homes and were dismissed because the allegations were too vague.

The story of how years of corporate lobbying ended with Dibee in cuffs contains lessons for those considering how to handle the surge in right-wing violence, as well as for a new generation of environmental activists again facing accusations of eco-terrorism.


The “wanted” poster for Joseph Mahmoud Dibee, displayed during a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 19, 2008.

Photo: FBI

Industry Intelligence-Gathering

Joe Dibee grew up camping in the spectacular forests, mountains, and coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest. His parents, members of Syria’s Catholic minority, had immigrated to the U.S. before he was born, settling into Seattle’s middle class. His mother worked at the public library and his father was a finance professor at Seattle University, where Dibee would eventually study civil engineering and general science. Dibee came of age just as law enforcement in the U.S. was beginning to take notice of the budding animal rights movement.

In 1977, when he was 9 years old, a group called the Undersea Railroad released two dolphins from a University of Hawaii marine laboratory — the first known animal liberation in U.S. history. A countermovement was rapidly launched, led by organizations like the National Association for Biomedical Research, which lobbies for the use of live animals in scientific research.

NABR and other industry groups were way ahead of law enforcement in gathering intelligence on the animal rights movement, and federal agents were happy to make use of the information. In March 1987, for example, FBI agents met with NABR about four chimpanzees that had been abducted from a research laboratory. The group “maintains a large intelligence file on the activities of most of the significant animal rights groups in the world,” an agent noted after the meeting, and “furnished the FBI with many documents which deal with these groups as well as outline their significant activities dating back to 1976.”

The FBI’s account of the meeting is included in documents obtained via public records requests by Ryan Shapiro, executive director of the transparency organization Property of the People. The documents show that throughout the 1990s, the FBI and Justice Department collaborated with a range of industry groups including Americans for Medical Progress, the Fur Commission, the National Board of Fur Farm Organizations, the Foundation for Biomedical Research, and the American Feed Industry Association.

In 1987, the National Association for Biomedical Research supplied the FBI with documents about the activities of animal rights groups going back more than a decade, according to an FBI memo provided to The Intercept by Property of the People. The transparency organization redacted the names of activists who did not grant permission to be identified, to protect their privacy.

In 1987, an animal diagnostics laboratory under construction at the University of California, Davis was burned to the ground — the first U.S. arson claimed by ALF. It was meant “to retaliate in the name of thousands of animals tortured each year in campus labs,” a communique from the saboteurs said.

A month after the arson, a Justice Department public information officer sent a letter to the Fur Retailers Information Council, whose members had also been targeted by the Animal Liberation Front. “I encourage you to send to me any evidence you have indicating criminal activity committed by animal rights activists,” the official wrote. “I am happy to be of assistance to the Fur Retailers Information Council.”

In response, the industry group worked with the Justice Department to create “a directory of some 200 animal rights and animal welfare organizations operating in North America which provides office addresses, names of officers and spokespersons, and a diary of incidents,” according to an October 1988 letter from the council.

The Fur Retailers Information Council worked with the Justice Department to create a directory of 200 animal rights and animal welfare organizations, according to a 1988 letter from the organization.

“We would occasionally contact the [FBI] to ensure they were aware of a threat or action involving animal extremism. We also sent FBI officials occasional alerts about animal rights actions or threats that might be considered illegal,” said Jim Newman, a spokesperson for Americans for Medical Progress, a nonprofit funded by the biomedical industry to foster support for animal research. “There was no concerted effort in place.” The other groups did not respond to requests for comment, and a spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment.

In some cases, corporations went beyond intelligence sharing to actively ferreting out activists they viewed as threats. One of the strangest efforts involved Leon Hirsch, a manufacturer of surgical staples whose sales demonstrations involved cutting open live beagles and stapling them back together. His company, United States Surgical Corporation, paid a security firm called Perceptions International to infiltrate the animal rights movement.

Mary Lou Sapone, the firm’s undercover agent, befriended a troubled activist named Fran Trutt, who was subsequently accused of planting a pipe bomb at the headquarters of the surgical corporation in an attempt to murder Hirsch. But Trutt was on the phone with Sapone throughout the day before the alleged murder attempt, and another undercover operative working for the company actually drove her to the crime scene and gave her money for the pipe bomb. Trutt pleaded no contest to attempted murder charges. Despite industry’s role in manufacturing the incident, it would later be presented in a key report to Congress as the only “confirmed case” of an animal rights activist using an incendiary device “with intent of harming an individual.”

Industry groups also lobbied for federal legislation that would heighten penalties for activist tactics. “The DOJ has advised that there is significant special interest pressure on Congress to pass legislation which would protect animal and health research property, facilities and personnel from attacks,” according to a 1990 FBI memo.

Two years later, Congress enacted the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, which created a new crime of “animal enterprise terrorism.” The law was aimed at anyone who physically disrupted or conspired to disrupt an animal enterprise by intentionally damaging or causing the loss of its property. It created a legal pathway to imprison a broad range of saboteurs and their allies.

But the AEPA didn’t lead to the kind of crackdown the biomedical and fur lobbyists sought. The law was used only once before the turn of the century, in the prosecution of two activists who released mink from Wisconsin fur farms. And although the FBI charged a few individuals for eco-arsons throughout the 1990s, it would be the next generation of saboteurs — Dibee’s generation — that would bear the brunt of the government’s crackdown on eco-radicals.

Radical Tactics Reach Their Peak

By the late 1990s, Dibee was known within activist circles, regularly participating in spectacular demonstrations designed to draw attention to moneymaking activity built on animal and ecological suffering.

At the Warner Creek occupation in 1995, activists blockaded a logging road to prevent a timber company from accessing Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. The occupation lasted for nearly a year, thanks in part to 28-year-old Dibee, who designed a “bipod” structure, a precariously rigged platform between two tall poles where activists perched, complicating police efforts to remove them. The federal government, which managed the national forest land, put the company’s timber harvest on hold, as well as 150 other timber sales.

In the summer of 1997, Dibee was involved in another dramatic action, this time to protest the overfishing of pollock in the Bering Sea and the harm it was causing the endangered Steller sea lion. Seven Greenpeace activists planned to dangle from ropes off Seattle’s Aurora Bridge, more than 200 feet above Lake Union, in an effort to block four giant American Seafoods trawlers from entering Puget Sound. A skilled climber, Dibee was to position himself underneath the bridge, maneuvering along its metal support structure to assist the other climbers as needed.

Seven Greenpeace demonstrators slowly make their way up ropes Monday, Aug. 18, 1997, toward the deck of Seattle's Aurora Bridge after being suspended for two days to protest factory trawler fishing. The seven, plus another who had been under the bridge deck monitoring the lines, were placed under arrest on charges of reckless endangerment. The five women and two men rappelled over the side of the bridge Saturday morning and strung ropes in an attempt to block two trawlers attempting to depart Lake Union on their way to pollock fishing grounds in the Bering Sea. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Seven Greenpeace demonstrators make their way up ropes toward the deck of Seattle’s Aurora Bridge on Aug. 18, 1997, after being suspended for two days to protest factory fishing.

Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

As the action kicked off, police confiscated critical gear, leaving the activists with nothing to protect the nylon webbing keeping them aloft from abrading and tearing against the sharp edges of the bridge beams. Determined that the action should move forward, Dibee stripped off his clothing to use as buffer material. He would spend nearly two days half-naked above the windy channel, fighting hypothermia.

“There was a lot of this macho ‘me big eco-warrior’ thing, where the guys just wanted to be rock stars,” said Helga Kahr, an activist and friend of Dibee’s. But despite his willingness to take risks, she added, “Joe was not like that.” He sewed specialized backpacks for fellow activists, trained friends in computer encryption, and donated money to whatever corner of the movement needed it.

Few of his comrades were aware, however, that Dibee was also involved in the controversial eco-radical underground. In July 1997, the Associated Press published an investigation revealing that 90 percent of the horses rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program ended up in slaughterhouses. Among the buyers named in the article was the Cavel West slaughterhouse. According to court filings, Dibee and four other animal rights activists came up with a plot to strike back.

The activists surrounded the Cavel West facility in Redmond, Oregon, and planted incendiary devices fueled by so-called vegan jello — a mixture of soap and petroleum. They timed them to go off at an hour when they believed the facility would be empty, then fled, stopping to dump their clothing in a hole, which they covered with acid and filled with dirt. An anonymous communique attributed the action to the Animal Liberation Front and the Equine and Zebra Liberation Front. The facility burned to the ground and did not reopen.

The fur and biomedical industries “dramatically increased their efforts to convince the FBI and the DOJ to treat animal rights and environmental protesters as terrorists.”

During the same period, other activists burned down a Forest Service ranger station, set SUVs on fire, and toppled an 80-foot high-voltage transmission tower. The attacks and demonstrations were costly. In response, the fur and biomedical industries “dramatically increased their efforts to convince the FBI and the DOJ to treat animal rights and environmental protesters as terrorists,” said Shapiro of Property of the People. “This was the true genesis of the Green Scare.”

It wasn’t just about arson. Patti Strand, a Dalmatian breeder and co-founder of the National Animal Interest Alliance, which works to “promote responsible animal ownership and use, and to oppose animal rights extremism,” said that after she published her 1998 book on animal extremism she was targeted by radical activists. They put dead animals and garter snakes in her mailbox. “I received letters that included information about my son, who was 11 at the time — what path he was taking to school and that they liked his new green jacket,” she said. When others who had been targeted reached out to Strand with their stories — “If their fences were cut, if there were lawsuits that were going on, if they had started to receive death threats or things that were intimidating” — she would pass along the details to the FBI.

By April 1998, the anti-environmental lobbying campaign was again bearing fruit. The Justice Department held a conference on animal rights terrorism and invited the executive director of the Fur Commission “to address the attendees with her perception of the animal rights terrorism trends, and recommended investigative aids,” according to an FBI summary of the event. Along with federal prosecutors, the attendees included officials from the FBI, the Justice Department’s terrorism and violent crime section, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

The Justice Department held a conference on animal rights terrorism in 1998, inviting the director of the Fur Commission to speak, according to an FBI memo.

Later that year, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “Acts of Ecoterrorism by Radical Environmental Organizations.” U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs, who had accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the forestry industry, described an activist stunt in which a large tree stump was dumped in the middle of his Northern California office. “My office was quite literally assaulted by a group of environmental terrorists,” he said. “Upon responding to the horrific sound, my two female staff members were greeted by the visage of several Earth First! terrorists, one wearing a black ski mask, and another wearing dark goggles and a hood.”

**FILE** The remains of Vail Mountain's Two Elks restaurant were still smoldering in this Oct. 20,1998 file photo, after a morning fire destroyed the mountain-top facility.  A radical environmental group called Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for fires that caused $12 million in damages to the facilities at the nation's busiest ski resort. The remnants of the organization's members were sentenced for their crimes by a federal judge in Oregon in 2007. (AP Photo/Jack Affleck)

The remains of Vail Mountain’s Two Elks restaurant on Oct. 20, 1998, after a fire destroyed the mountain-top facility.

Photo: Jack Affleck/AP

In October 1998, in the midst of renewed focus on their activities, Earth Liberation Front activists raised the stakes. In the name of protecting lynx habitat, they burned down several buildings at a new ski resort near Vail, Colorado, causing $12 million worth of damage. “The environmental groups who have not just claimed credit, but in some cases have been proved to have committed criminal acts, are a very, very serious part of our domestic terrorism focus,” then-FBI Director Louis Freeh told Congress a few months later.

The Fur Commission celebrated. “Over the last year, the people of the fur trade have been key players with other animal and resource-based industries in a concerted effort to push eco and animal rights terrorism up the government’s priority pole,” according to a March 1999 newsletter. “These efforts have resulted in a strong statement of commitment from the FBI.”

Detective Greg Harvey joined the Eugene Police Department’s special investigations unit in June of that year. For the better part of the next decade, solving the string of ALF and ELF arsons would become his primary task.

Harvey’s work on the team coincided with an intense national tug of war over the meaning of terrorism. Indeed, Harvey had his own taxonomy. Blocking a road and trespassing? Not terrorism. The ALF and ELF arsonists? Not in the same category as international terrorists who kill people, but terrorists just the same. “Their whole intent is to change the way things are done,” Harvey told The Intercept. “They’re trying to close down businesses. Well, that’s terrorism. When the families or the workers are afraid to do something, that’s what I consider terrorism.”

“One of the things we were really trying to focus on was breaking the movement,” he said. Harvey and other law enforcement officials went after the group’s omerta — its staunch refusal to cooperate with authorities. “That was one of the things that we broke.”

But it would take a disaster even bigger than the Vail arson to give industry and law enforcement the political capital needed to cripple the movement. “They called us eco-terrorists before 9/11,” said John Sellers, former director of the Ruckus Society, which trains environmental justice organizers in direct action. “But no one really believed them.”

Protesters, some proclaiming to be supporters of the group Earth Liberation Front, march in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2002. In remarks prepared for a hearing in Washington, a chairman of a House subcommittee said Tuesday that eco-terrorists are hardened criminals--that they are dangerous well-funded, savvy sophisticated and stealthy.  The ELF and its sister organization the Animal  Liberation Front, have claimed responsibility for 137 illegal direct actions in 2001. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

Protesters, some proclaiming to be supporters of the Earth Liberation Front, march in Portland, Ore., on Feb. 12, 2002.

Photo: Don Ryan/AP

From 9/11 to the Green Scare

Rescue workers were only beginning to survey the damage when Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young picked up a call from an Anchorage Daily News reporter on September 11, 2001. Few details had emerged about who was behind the attacks, but Young was unfazed. “War has been declared as far as terrorists go,” he told the newspaper. “I’m not sure they’re that dedicated, but eco-terrorists — which are really based in Seattle — there’s a strong possibility that could be one of the groups” behind the assault.

Young’s remarks were prescient: Eco-saboteurs would become one of the U.S. government’s lesser-known war on terror adversaries. September 11 was a crisis perfectly suited to the groundwork industry groups had laid in the 1990s, and corporate actors stood ready to exploit it. It didn’t hurt that the saboteurs aligned themselves against capitalism, which was being defended as critical to America’s suddenly imperiled way of life. With political careers freshly dependent on hammering terrorism, eco-sabotage became an easy target.

The attacks “did not set off the Green Scare,” Shapiro said. Instead, “9/11 was exploited by Green Scare warriors to turn up the volume on their surveillance and suppression of the animal rights and eco movements.”

The Patriot Act’s broad new definition of domestic terrorism, signed into law in October 2001, was another step toward institutionalizing the notion that eco-saboteurs were terrorists. The law targets those who commit criminal acts “dangerous to human life” that “appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or influence government policy. It also made it easier for the FBI to wiretap and surveil U.S. citizens. Even though a core tenet of ALF and ELF was to avoid harming living things, the Justice Department considered the movement’s acts of arson and vandalism dangerous enough to count.

Craig Rosebraugh, spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, talks about being a spokesman for the radical enviromental group during a photo session Thursday, May 24, 2001, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Jack Smith)

Craig Rosebraugh, a spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front, on May 24, 2001, in Portland, Ore.

Photo: Jack Smith/AP

Less than a week after the law’s passage, Craig Rosebraugh, a spokesperson for ELF and ALF, received a subpoena to testify before members of Congress at a hearing on eco-terrorism. Rosebraugh had been profiled in news articles as the face of the movement, even though his role was to publish anonymous communiques rather than conduct acts of sabotage.

At the hearing, representatives from both parties offered anti-ALF and ELF soliloquies. “On the morning of December 28, the employees of U.S. Forest Industries arrived at work to find their offices smoldering. The scene is reminiscent of what we saw of the damaged part of the Pentagon after September 11,” said Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden. “It didn’t take a jetliner to destroy this office. An ELF firebomb did the job. And while fortunately there was no loss of life, the destruction was just as severe.”

The domestic terrorism section chief of the FBI, James Jarboe, announced that ALF and ELF were “the No. 1 priority in the domestic terrorism program.”

Rosebraugh tried to turn the tables on his accusers. “If the U.S. government is truly concerned with eradicating terrorism in the world, then that effort must begin with abolishing U.S. imperialism,” he wrote in prepared remarks. “Members of this governing body, both in the House and Senate as well as those who hold positions in the executive branch, constitute the largest group of terrorists and terrorist representatives currently threatening life on this planet.”

Lawmakers at the hearing proposed various legislative fixes, including an Agroterrorism Prevention Act, which would have made activists eligible for the death penalty if someone were to die in one of the arsons. That bill was never passed, but another proposal — an expansion of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act — did become law, with help from industry.

In tandem with politicians’ maneuvers, Quimby and the other law enforcement officers assigned to the arsons were doubling down on capturing the saboteurs. In the summer of 2001, they had met to discuss how they could crack open what had become stubbornly cold cases. “We decided we were going to be much more overt, and we were going to go start knocking on doors,” Quimby said.

Armed with a list of 30 to 40 targets, the lead agent on the case began popping up in coffee shops and neighborhoods where he knew activists would recognize him. “You start to induce a little bit of paranoia,” Quimby explained. The idea was that the activists would start thinking, “Are they on to us? Are they watching me? Are they on my phone? Are they monitoring my email account?” she told The Intercept. “It sewed some seeds of doubt.”

“They called us eco-terrorists before 9/11, but no one really believed them.”

Eugene detective Harvey’s job was to remain unseen. “I lived in the shadows. I basically sat in my car, watching people, buildings,” he said. At one point, he said, he spent hours sitting outside the Castle Superstore where one of the activists worked, in the hopes that Dibee would show up to visit.

The operation zeroed in on Jake Ferguson, who was suspected of being one of the most prolific arsonists. “We were following around Jake Ferguson for months and months,” said Harvey. “You’re looking at a heroin user, which makes him unbelievably paranoid.” Agents from multiple states moved into a shared office in Eugene, where the walls were papered with charts, photos, and timelines.

Quimby doesn’t fully credit 9/11 for the intensified investigation. But “there’s no question that funding that became available as a result of 9/11 may not have been there” if not for the attacks, she said. The ALF and ELF cases “became a priority and a very visible priority.”

By the end of 2001, however, Dibee and fellow activists had begun to move away from radical protest tactics like arson, according to Lauren Regan, a lawyer who would later represent one of the Backfire defendants. “It was causing division, because there was no way to control who was doing what,” she said. “They felt as if, sooner or later, some wildcard would potentially screw something up and kill themselves or kill someone else.” An October 2001 arson, of a hay barn at a Bureau of Land Management holding facility for wild horses, would be the last fire prosecutors attributed to Dibee and other Backfire defendants.

Dibee also had a falling out with one of his closest collaborators in the movement, Jonathan Paul. Paul had participated in the Cavel West arson, and he and Dibee had co-founded an organization called Sea Defense Alliance, which sought to physically disrupt the Makah people’s whale hunt (an action that is hard to imagine in today’s environmental movement, which seeks to follow the lead of Indigenous people).

The two activists sued each other over ownership of the organization’s boat, and at one point, Dibee drove toward Paul’s home with a gun, allegedly planning to confront him, according to law enforcement accounts included in federal court filings. But Dibee got lost and was pulled over by police, and the meeting was averted.

For a time, Dibee appeared to move on with his life, maintaining his adrenaline high by racing cars and flying planes. But the Backfire case was about to break. In 2003, Ferguson, who had a young child to consider, agreed to wear a wire and travel around the U.S., visiting his activist friends and convincing them to talk about the old days.

**ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, FEB. 6, 2006**Huntington Life Sciences in East Millstone, N.J., can be seen Friday, Feb. 3, 2006. Seven members of the Philadelphia-based group, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, which goes by the acronym SHAC, were arrested in May 2004 and charged with animal enterprise terrorism, conspiracy and interstate stalking, part of a plan to drive Huntingdon Life Sciences out of business. Charges against one of the defendants were dropped; the other six are to stand trial in Superior Court, where jury selection begins on Monday.  (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Huntingdon Life Sciences in East Millstone, N.J., on Feb. 3, 2006.

Photo: Mel Evans/AP

Breaking the Movement

Among the earliest casualties of the Green Scare was a group known as the SHAC 7. After reporters and undercover activists obtained disturbing footage from inside the laboratories of the research company Huntingdon Life Sciences, a campaign called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty emerged to shut it down. The nerve center of the campaign was a website where administrators posted communiques describing protest actions that targeted not just Huntingdon, but any company or individual that supported it — from clients to investment firms to the club where the CEO played golf. In response to persistent disruptions, dozens of companies severed ties with Huntingdon.

In January 2004, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful organization whose members include legislators and corporate lobbyists, released draft legislation meant to strengthen the Animal Enterprise Protection Act to make it even easier to crack down on activist groups like SHAC. Under ALEC’s model, titled the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act,” filming an animal facility without the owners’ consent could be prosecuted as terrorism. ALEC’s version would also have created a “terrorist registry” of anyone convicted under the law.

But prosecutors didn’t need ALEC’s draft legislation to go after SHAC. A few months after the proposal was finalized, seven SHAC organizers were arrested and six were later sentenced to prison terms under the original version of AEPA. They were accused of encouraging and publicizing radical tactics, but not participating in acts of sabotage themselves.

Nor did authorities need a new anti-terrorism law to go after the ALF and ELF arsonists. In December 2005, FBI agents carried out simultaneous arrests in five states. Over the next year, 18 alleged ALF and ELF saboteurs would be accused of participating in a domestic terrorism conspiracy. The feds interviewed Dibee. Then he disappeared.

The pressure on the eco-radicals to inform on their friends in exchange for reduced prison time was immense. Hanging over their heads were terrorism sentencing enhancements developed in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which could increase prison time for a specific list of crimes if they were “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.” Among the charges that fit the enhancement were arsons of buildings involved in interstate commerce or belonging to the U.S. government. 

Given the prison time at stake, with some facing possible life sentences, nearly every activist shared information. “Some named every name they could,” Harvey said, while others “listed involvement without naming names.”

Prosecutors declined to negotiate with the handful of defendants who refused to cooperate, according to Regan. But that changed overnight, she said, after defense lawyers issued an extensive motion demanding the government reveal whether the National Security Agency or FBI had used warrantless wiretapping or Patriot Act-authorized surveillance against the activists. When the judge supported the motion, and prosecutors changed their tune. “They said, ‘OK, we’ll do a noncooperating plea deal if you’ll drop this motion,’” Regan recalled.

“If I had to choose who was the greater threat, I would obviously go with the ones who were killing people.”

A narrower version of ALEC’s law, introduced by Republican Sen. James Inhofe and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, passed the following November. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, or AETA, left out much of ALEC’s wish list, limiting the law to animal enterprises rather than actions targeting mining, timber harvesting, and fossil fuel extraction. However, it succeeded in criminalizing “interference” in the activities of any entity with a connection to an animal enterprise, a lower bar than AEPA’s “physical disruption.” It also increased the maximum penalty for causing economic damage, from three years in prison to 20, and allowed for up to five years in prison if an action simply caused someone a “reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death.”

The section that would have criminalized filming at animal facilities was picked up by state lawmakers across the U.S. — “ag gag” bills became law in nine states, though they’ve been overturned as unconstitutional in three, and legal battles continue.

Twelve of the Backfire defendants received terrorism enhancements. They were sentenced to between one and 12 years in prison. One defendant’s status as a “terrorist” was later used to justify his transfer to a communications management unit, where his contact with friends, family, and the public was severely limited.

But it wasn’t prison time that most deeply undermined the movement. “The level of betrayal that took place during the Green Scare and the number of hardcore activists that basically crumbled under minor pressure by the state to become snitches or informants really shook the foundations of the radical movement,” Regan said. “It was very, very difficult for a lot of people to organize and trust each other in the aftermath of that shakeup.”

As for Dibee, the FBI suspected that he sheltered with relatives in Syria. Friends thought he might have died in the violent civil war there. One by one, the other Backfire fugitives were picked up. After 30-year-old New Jersey native Justin Solondz was arrested on drug charges in 2009 in the backpacker community of Dali, China, he pleaded guilty in the U.S. to firebombing the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture. Thirty-nine-year-old Rebecca Rubin, who had been hiding in her home nation of Canada, turned herself in in 2012, exhausted by years when “she was forced to live in what is, in some ways, a prison without walls,” as her lawyer told a Maclean’s reporter. She pleaded guilty to freeing wild horses and helping with the Vail arson.

While Dibee was on the lam, Obama’s election drove much of the environmental movement’s energy toward legislative change and away from direct action. The Intercept identified only 13 eco-activist cases prosecuted federally after 2008 — all but two charged under AETA. Six of the cases involved activists freeing mink from fur farms — actions that could hardly be considered terrorism even under the Patriot Act’s broad definition. Four more of the cases were dismissed. “The primary purpose of these laws is to try and brand activists as terrorists in order to turn public opinion against their advocacy and their campaigns,” Regan said.

Meanwhile, Democratic leadership failed to deliver any meaningful response to the deepening climate crisis and resulting biodiversity loss. Rising ocean temperatures caused the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which Dibee had visited as a kid, to bleach and die. Wildfires burned with more intensity through the desiccated Pacific Northwest forests that he’d fought to protect from the timber industry. Orca whale populations shrunk to perilous levels off the coast of Washington state. And Donald Trump was elected president, paving the way to reverse even the minor steps the Obama administration had taken to challenge corporate polluters.

Daryl Johnson, a former analyst at a branch of the Department of Homeland Security that studied the threat posed by anti-government militia groups, near Rockville, Md., Jan. 7, 2016. Johnson says that too little is being done to combat a rising domestic terrorism threat from right-wing extremists. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times)

Daryl Johnson, a former domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, near Rockville, Md., on Jan. 7, 2016.

Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times via Redux

A Rising Threat Dismissed

Daryl Johnson started at the Department of Homeland Security as a domestic terrorism analyst when eco-terrorism was still one of its major priorities. He didn’t have a problem with that. “I still believe they’re terroristic threats, because it’s ideologically motivated violence against property,” he said. “But if I had to choose who was the greater threat, I would obviously go with the ones who were killing people.”

By 2009, Johnson had come to see right-wing extremism as a severe, rising threat. That April, he became the lead author on an intelligence assessment that found that right-wing movements were using Obama’s election as a recruiting tool. That same month, three police officers in Pittsburgh were ambushed and killed by a man who regularly posted on the white supremacist website Stormfront. “Lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States,” the report concluded.

The report was leaked, and the backlash was swift. Conservative groups were particularly offended by its suggestion that veterans might be vulnerable to recruitment by far-right groups. Everyone from Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner to the American Legion released statements deriding it.

At first, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano defended Johnson’s work. “We must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence,” she said in a statement a week after the report was published. But after 20 conservative groups put out ads calling for her to resign, she backtracked, claiming there had been a breakdown in internal review processes and promising to replace the report.

“Their whole intent is to change the way things are done. … Well, that’s terrorism.

In contrast to the crackdown on eco-radicals, DHS stepped back from focusing on domestic terrorism altogether. Johnson’s unit was gutted, and he left the agency along with many of his peers.

“It sent a chilling effect in the law enforcement and intelligence community. They saw what happened to me and how my unit was politicized,” he told The Intercept. As a result, “you have 10 years of attacks almost,” said Johnson, who now works as a consultant on domestic extremism. “Lots of people have died. The threat [of far-right groups] is still very active right now, and so it’s thriving.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, between 2002 and 2018, 80 percent of extremist-related murders in the U.S. were carried out by people linked to right-wing movements. Only 3 percent were linked to left-wing ideologies, and 17 percent to Islamic movements. Every single extremist killing in 2018 — 50 in all — had a link to a right-wing movement.

Will Potter, a journalist and civil liberties advocate whose work focuses on the persecution of protesters as terrorists, argues that the federal focus on animal rights activists over right-wing extremists was driven by more than corporate lobbying. “Beliefs that motivate [animal rights] activists were presented as this ideological threat to core concepts that underpin what some people think it means to be an American — defense of capitalism, a religiously aligned state, defense of industry, the belief that humans are exceptional.”

In contrast, many of America’s foundational values — Christianity, individualism, gun rights, and white supremacy — align with those of right-wing extremists. As Johnson put it, right-wing groups “operate under some of the same values that [I], an FBI agent, might believe.”

Shapiro went even further: “No shit the FBI doesn’t like to go after right-wing groups. They’re on the same team.”

Activist Jessica Reznicek, talks with Lee County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Sproul while conducting a personal occupation and protesting the Bakken pipeline, Tuesday Aug. 30, 2016 at a pipeline construction site, along the Mississippi River Road near Keokuk, Iowa. Reznicek, a Des Moines Catholic Workers group member, was later taken into custody at about noon Tuesday by the Lee County Sheriff's Department.  (John Lovretta/The Hawk Eye via AP)

Activist Jessica Reznicek, left, talks with Lee County Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Sproul while protesting the Dakota Access pipeline on Aug. 30, 2016, at a construction site near Keokuk, Iowa.

Photo: John Lovretta/The Hawk Eye via AP

A New Generation

In October 2016, as thousands of opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline gathered in protest camps in North Dakota, activists simultaneously turned above-ground valves on five tar sands oil pipelines across the U.S., shutting off the oil’s flow in solidarity with the Standing Rock tribe. They livestreamed the actions and stayed on site, awaiting arrest.

Less than a year later, holes burned using welding tools began appearing on valves along the Dakota Access pipeline. Two pipeline activists, Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, called a press conference to claim responsibility for the sabotage.

In response to the resurgence of direct action tactics, 84 members of Congress, including four Democrats, sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions in October 2017 asking whether “the attacks against this nation’s energy infrastructure, which pose a threat to human life, and appear to be intended to intimidate and coerce policy changes,” fell within the Justice Department’s understanding of domestic terrorism.

“Just because time passes doesn’t mean the FBI forgets.”

The American Petroleum Institute praised the letter and told the industry publication Natural Gas Intelligence that the group was working with the Trump administration on the issue, including the Justice Department and the FBI. “A key component of securing our nation’s energy infrastructure is ensuring that law enforcement has the tools needed to prosecute those who attack it,” an institute spokesperson said.

As if on cue, ALEC entered the fray. By December 2017, it had introduced a model Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, which would increase penalties for trespassing on or inhibiting the operations of oil and gas pipelines. Under the model, “conspirator” organizations, such as activist groups, would face a fine several times that of the trespasser. Eight states are considering versions of the law, and industry groups and oil and gas companies, including Dakota Access parent company Energy Transfer Partners, have been lobbying on its behalf.

“It’s the corporate state bringing out the same old tired playbook and repeating the same plays again and again,” said Regan.

While legislators’ efforts haven’t yet translated into Green Scare-style prosecutions, their enthusiasm reveals that the anti-eco-terror framework built in the 1990s and strengthened in the wake of 9/11 could easily be deployed again.

On August 10, the FBI held a press conference to announce it had captured Dibee. “Just because time passes doesn’t mean the FBI forgets,” FBI agent Tim Suttles, who worked the Operation Backfire case for 14 years, said in a statement. “We are very gratified to have Dibee in custody.”

Dibee’s lawyer declined to comment. But if his case turns out like those of his co-defendants, he’ll probably negotiate a guilty plea. The judge is likely to consider a terrorism enhancement, and Dibee will be sentenced to years in prison.

Harvey, the Oregon detective who spent years trying to catch Dibee, learned of the arrest from a friend who’s still working on the case. “I was extremely happy,” he told The Intercept.

Quimby, the former FBI agent, was similarly gratified. “When Joe was picked up, it was sort of cool, like one more down, one to go.”

But she knows it’s not over. One Backfire defendant, Josephine Overaker, remains missing. “She speaks fluent Spanish and may seek employment as a firefighter, midwife, sheep tender, or masseuse,” the FBI said in its press release announcing Dibee’s capture.

“With Overaker still out there the case isn’t closed,” Quimby said. “It won’t be until she comes into custody.”

Source documents used in this reporting were obtained by Property of the People and shared exclusively with The Intercept. You can learn more about Property of the People’s work litigating Freedom of Information Act requests here.

The post How a Movement That Never Killed Anyone Became the FBI’s No. 1 Domestic Terrorism Threat appeared first on The Intercept.

The Strange Tale of the FBI’s Fictional “Black Identity Extremism” Movement

Hours after police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown on a quiet suburban street in Ferguson, Missouri, Olajuwon Ali Davis stood with a few dozen people on that same street. As the impromptu candlelight vigil that August night in 2014 turned into a historic wave of nationwide protests against police violence, Davis, wearing a black Malcolm X T-shirt, was among the first to lift his hands in surrender, as Brown was rumored to have been doing when Wilson shot him.

Within days, the gesture became the symbol of a movement for police accountability and racial justice the nation had not seen since the civil rights era. And the refrain protesters began chanting that night — “Hands up, don’t shoot” — would soon be replaced by one that would echo across the country for years to come: Black lives matter.

Davis, who was 22 at the time, kept showing up as the protests grew larger and angrier, and as scores of law enforcement descended on Ferguson wearing riot gear and firing tear gas. Days after Brown’s death, during a short-lived break in the looting and police violence, Davis was photographed wearing all black and directing traffic; the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which he had joined on the heels of Brown’s killing, was keeping the peace.

Days later, Davis emailed a local reporter who had covered the NBPP’s peacekeeping efforts to thank him for portraying “the true nature and the intent” of the party, which, despite taking its name, is not affiliated with the Black Panther Party of the 1960s. “For the record we the NBPP and its local chapter members have and never [sic] promoted acts of violence towards anyone or any establishment or businesses,” Davis wrote to the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis weekly. “True enough there are people so angry that they show their pain and emotions with aggression towards cops and frankly anything that they can get their hands on. But let these few not distort the genuine peaceful intention and benevolence of the NBPP.”

Three months later, Davis and another young man named Brandon Orlando Baldwin were arrested in an FBI sting and accused of planning to plant bombs, kill officials connected to the Brown case, and blow up St. Louis’s iconic Gateway Arch.

BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 22:  Ten-year-old Robert Dunn uses a megaphone to address hundreds of demonstrators during a protest against police brutality and the death of Freddie Gray outside the Baltimore Police Western District station April 22, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Ten-year-old Robert Dunn uses a megaphone to address hundreds of demonstrators during a protest against police brutality and the death of Freddie Gray outside the Baltimore Police Western District station in Maryland on April 22, 2015.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ideological Make-Believe

Three years later, the FBI listed Davis’s case in a secret memo warning of the rise of a “black identity extremist” movement whose members’ “perceptions of police brutality against African Americans” spurred what the FBI claimed was “an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement.” Although Baldwin was convicted of the same crimes, the FBI report inexplicably only mentioned one suspect.

The “black identity extremism” report was prepared by the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit, part of the bureau’s Counterterrorism Division, and was distributed to scores of local and federal law enforcement partners across the country. Although Davis and Baldwin were not charged under anti-terrorism laws, they do appear to be the first individuals retroactively labeled by the FBI as “black identity extremists.”

The FBI report was written six months into the Trump administration — as white supremacist groups felt emboldened by support for their ideology seemingly coming from the very top of the government — and was released only a week before the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist ran down and killed Heather Heyer. When the report was leaked to Foreign Policy later in 2017, it prompted fierce and widespread criticism from activists, civil rights advocates, and lawmakers, many of whom accused the FBI of reverting to the surveillance and sabotage of black activists that had defined its activities in the civil rights era.

Critics called the report’s contents “fiction,” “fantasy,” “weak” and “irresponsible.” Several noted that it seemed designed to distract attention from the reality of police abuse against minorities. “The feds have invented a title — BIE — and linked it to a handful of episodes of violence,” wrote Andrew Cohen, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “To deflect legitimate criticism of police tactics, to undermine a legitimate protest movement that has emerged in the past three years to protest police brutality, the FBI has tarred the dissenters as domestic terrorists, an organized group with a criminal ideology that are a threat to police officers.”

“Whenever you create an assumption that somebody poses a physical threat to law enforcement, that provides incentive for law enforcement to shoot first and ask questions later.”

The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which includes leaders of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, called for the classification to be eliminated. “This assessment resurrects the historically negative legacy of African American civil rights leaders who were unconstitutionally targeted and attacked by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies for seeking full U.S. citizenship under the law,” the group wrote in a statement.

Yet even more worrisome than the report’s political implications is the immediate threat to life that labeling someone a “terrorist” can pose, especially as the FBI has no way to monitor what law enforcement departments do with the reports it distributes. For many black people, already accustomed to being uniquely vulnerable to police violence, the fear is that being viewed as potential terrorists for expressing legitimate political grievances might give police license to target them even more intensely than they already do.

“Not only can they go after these people with surveillance, but they can then justify using the most aggressive, violent tactics,” said Justin Hansford, a St. Louis activist and law professor who heads the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University. “Whenever you create an assumption that somebody poses a physical threat to law enforcement, that provides incentive for law enforcement to shoot first and ask questions later.”

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in December 2017, shortly after the report was leaked to the press, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the FBI investigates as domestic terrorism only cases involving federal crimes that include the use or attempted use of violence in furtherance of political or social goals. “We don’t have that, we don’t investigate,” Wray said. “It doesn’t matter whether they are right-wing, left-wing, or any other wing.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray arrives to testify before the House Judiciary Committee  on oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC on December 7, 2017.  / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

FBI Director Christopher Wray arrives to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on oversight of the FBI in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7, 2017.

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

“We take respect for the First Amendment very seriously, and in this context, as in every other domestic terrorism context, we want to be very clear with people, and all the American people, that we do not investigate rhetoric, ideology, opinion, no matter who might consider it extremist,” he added. “What we do investigate is when rhetoric, ideology, opinion takes that next step into the category of federal crime and of particular violence.”

At the hearing, Wray said that the “black identity extremism” report was based on both open-source information and ongoing FBI investigations. He also said, citing no specific numbers, that the bureau had “about 50 percent more” investigations of white supremacists than it did of “black identity extremists.” In subsequent meetings with lawmakers, he said he was unfamiliar with any investigations of “black identity extremists.”

In a statement to The Intercept, a spokesperson for the FBI wrote that the agency “does not police ideology.” The bureau, she added, will only initiate an investigation if there is an allegation of a federal crime or a threat to national security. “Our focus is not on membership in particular groups but on criminal activity,” the spokesperson wrote. “When an individual takes violent action based on belief or ideology — and breaks the law — the FBI will enforce the rule of law. The FBI cannot initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or the exercise of their constitutional rights, and we remain committed to protecting those rights for all Americans.”

The FBI declined to answer The Intercept’s questions about how various ideologies are presented, downplayed, or emphasized in threat assessment reports that the agency routinely circulates to law enforcement, or about how those reports might impact surveillance and policing of targeted communities, regardless of the threats they pose. At the 2017 Judiciary Committee hearing, as well as at a second hearing before the same committee in June 2018, Wray also failed to address those questions.

“My big concern is that local law enforcement will misinterpret that and will clamp down on people exercising their First Amendment rights,” Rep. Karen Bass, one of the report’s fiercest critics in Congress, told him at the first hearing.

FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 13:  Police stand watch as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on August 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on Saturday. Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, is experiencing its fourth day of violent protests since the killing.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Police stand watch as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

It’s unclear how the “black identity extremism” report has been used by local law enforcement agencies. But if the threat is as serious as the FBI report implies, that hasn’t turned into successful federal prosecutions. According to The Intercept’s analysis, Davis and Olajuwon’s case was the only federal prosecution of individuals the FBI considers to be “black identity extremists” that resulted in a conviction. By comparison, the analysis found that 268 right-wing extremists were prosecuted in federal courts since 9/11 for crimes that appear to meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism, even though the Justice Department applied anti-terrorism laws against only 34 of them.

While several news reports referred to the case of Christopher Daniels, a Texas activist who advocated for the rights of black gun owners, as the first known prosecution of a “black identity extremist,” the FBI appears to have retroactively used that label to refer to individuals it started surveilling as early as 2014, on the heels of the Ferguson protests. Daniels, who also went by the name Rakem Balogun, was indicted of a weapons offense months after the release of the FBI report, but a judge dismissed the charge last May. The FBI declined to comment on any of these cases, as well as on the origins of the “black identity extremist” label.

“This was literally picking six random events and then imagining a movement around them.”

None of the other five individuals referenced in the FBI’s 2017 report were federally prosecuted. They include three black men who attacked and, in two cases, killed, police officers in New York, Baton Rouge, and Dallas, though the FBI’s report fails to connect their actions to any specific group or clear ideology. A man who shot at two police stations in Indiana in October 2016 and another who drove his car toward three police officers in Arizona in September 2016 — both of whom were prosecuted on state charges — also appear to have acted independently of any groups or discernible ideology. Three were killed by police on the scene.

Davis himself, while he had recently joined the New Black Panther Party, was found to have plotted the St. Louis bombings without the group’s knowledge or support. And he was also known to police as a devotee of the Moorish Science Temple of America, a black variation of the overwhelmingly white sovereign citizen movement, a domestic extremist ideology well known to the FBI.

The only connection between the six men referenced in the report, besides their race, is a thread of anger at police that is common among tens of thousands of Americans who never committed or intended to commit acts of violence. “In all of them, there is no connection to any national movement; the cases are not linked in any way,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent and a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. “This was literally picking six random events and then imagining a movement around them.”

“This is not just a failure of an intelligence product, but a dangerous intelligence product,” German added. “It spreads misinformation rather than intelligence.”

Olajuwon Ali Davis (left) was one of a small group of people who went into the Ferguson Police Department to speak with Lt. Craig Rettke on the night of Aug. 9, 2014 hours after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. Davis one one of two men charged with federal weapons charges, and who also allegedly had plans to bomb the Gateway Arch, and to kill St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch and Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson. (David Carson/Post Dispatch/Polaris) ///

Olajuwon Ali Davis, far left, was one of a small group of people who went into the Ferguson Police Department to speak with Lt. Craig Rettke on the night of Aug. 9, 2014, hours after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson.

Photo: David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Polaris

The Bomb Plot

On November 21, 2014, three months after Brown’s killing, Davis and Baldwin were arrested in an FBI sting and indicted in federal court on weapons charges, accused of making false statements to buy guns at a Cabela’s store where Baldwin worked.

Three days later, a grand jury declined to charge Wilson for Brown’s death. As protests once again engulfed St. Louis, news outlets citing unnamed law enforcement sources reported that Davis and Baldwin had bought what they thought was a pipe bomb and had plans to buy two more from undercover agents, and that they intended to blow up the city’s celebrated arch and kill St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch and Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson. In a packed courtroom, the friends and families of the accused dismissed those accusations as “lies,” while the New Black Panther Party’s national leadership called them a “FRAME UP attempt.” Davis’s wife, who was pregnant and due in two weeks, fainted in court and went into early labor.

The most explosive allegations against Davis and Baldwin were not detailed in the original court filings. But in a revised federal indictment filed months after their arrest, the two were charged with additional crimes, including attempting to “damage and destroy, by means of explosives, a building, vehicle and other property.”

If the court documents were light on detail, the press coverage was not. In the heated atmosphere that followed the Ferguson protests, many news outlets hyped the story, writing headlines that mischaracterized Davis and Baldwin as affiliates of the “Black Panthers,” and letting anonymous law enforcement sources drive the narrative around their alleged scheme. The press picked on the story’s most salacious details: Davis and Baldwin had planned to buy more bombs, several outlets reported, but had been unable to do so because they were waiting for funds to be disbursed to “a girlfriend’s” EBT card — a detail, presumably leaked by law enforcement, that turned out to be false.

According to their nearly identical sentencing plea agreements, Davis and Baldwin, who met during the protests over Brown’s killing, discussed acquiring guns and bombs and wanting to organize Ferguson protesters to “be like an army.” Baldwin told an FBI informant that he wanted to “build bombs and blow things up.”

“We are at war, you understand, bro,” he told the informant. According to Baldwin’s plea, Davis “put it out there that he was a terrorist” — a reference that appears to have been scrapped from Davis’s own plea. The Gateway Arch, which according to earlier accounts had been the pair’s main target, was never actually mentioned in conversations recorded by law enforcement, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Pastor Spencer Booker, of the St. Paul A.M.E. Church, addresses the crowd at a press conference where a boycott and protest of Black Friday shopping was announced by the Justice for Michael Brown Leadership Coalition in St. Louis on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2104. In addition to the boycott leaders called for mass demonstrations at shopping centers. Pictured to the far left is Olajuwon Ali Davis who is one one of two men charged last week with federal weapons charges, and who also allegedly had plans to bomb the Gateway Arch, and to kill St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch and Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson. (David Carson/Post Dispatch/Polaris) ///

Pastor Spencer Booker addresses the crowd at a press conference, where a boycott and protest of Black Friday shopping was announced by the Justice for Michael Brown Leadership Coalition in St. Louis on Nov. 12, 2014. Olajuwon Ali Davis, far left, participated in the public announcement.

Photo: David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Polaris

For their part, law enforcement officials conceded that it was unlikely that Davis and Baldwin would have been capable of executing a bomb plot, and that it was unclear how they would have made it through airport-style security at the arch; nonetheless, they painted the duo as a dangerous threat.

Richard Callahan, then-U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Missouri, said in a statement after the guilty plea that the disruption of the plot days before the grand jury’s rejection of charges against Wilson “undoubtedly saved lives. Luckily for all of us, we’ll never know just how many.” But that seemed to contradict an earlier interview, in which he had said that a lot of Davis’s and Baldwin’s ideas were “totally unrealistic and impractical, and we didn’t include [in the indictment] all of the things they rambled on about, to not sensationalize the case or make it more than it is.” Callahan did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment. Kenneth Tihen, a lead prosecutor in the case, declined to comment.

Davis and Baldwin pleaded guilty to explosives and gun charges in June 2015, and in September 2015 they were sentenced to seven-year prison terms. (Davis’s father told The Intercept that before their plea, prosecutors had threatened his son with the possibility of 30 years in prison.)

At sentencing, Davis called his actions “reckless, irresponsible and just stupid.” Baldwin’s attorney said on behalf of his client that Baldwin also apologized for “his stupidity.” Davis’s attorney did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment; Baldwin’s declined to comment. Davis and Baldwin, who are currently in prison, could not be reached for comment.

But those close to them maintain that their ordeal was a classic case of entrapment.

“They wanted to set an example through my son to show that we are onto you all. The FBI, the federal government, is onto you activist people. We’re watching you; this can happen to you too.”

“He was tricked,” Henry Davis, Olajuwon Davis’s father, told The Intercept. “They wanted to set an example through my son to show that we are onto you all. The FBI, the federal government, is onto you activist people. We’re watching you; this can happen to you too.”

Henry Davis said that FBI “agents” befriended his son during the Ferguson protests, then offered him money, marijuana, and hotel stays. They later moved into his apartment complex and spent weeks hanging out with him, talking about “the resistance.”

His son, he said, felt obligated to do what they asked. “They pretended to be part of the whole movement, said that they wanted to be down,” Henry Davis said. He added that FBI agents gave his son and Baldwin the money they used to buy the guns, claiming that they couldn’t buy the weapons themselves because of felony records. But the same agents later insisted that Davis and Baldwin pay for the pipe bombs with their own money. That should have made his son suspicious, Henry Davis said.

“I’m not trying to justify his actions, because I’m ashamed, and I’ve expressed my disappointment to my son,” said Henry Davis. But, he added, “Olajuwon never had the intention of harming anyone. He’s actually harmless. … They got him.”

Baldwin’s father, Berlin Baldwin Jr., also told The Intercept that his son was caught in a trap. “If you believe in what you hear on TV, yeah, you would think he was a terrorist,” he said. The elder Baldwin readily admitted that his son made a mistake and committed a crime, but added, “He is not no terrorist. They just went after somebody and wrapped him up in it. And he’s none of what they’re saying. Just none of that stuff is true.”

Daniels, the Dallas gun activist who federal authorities tried and failed to prosecute as a “black identity extremist,” put it more bluntly. “A lot of people in this movement are not fully developed and mature individuals,” he told The Intercept, noting that he himself had staved off entrapment attempts by law enforcement. “If I go to any white college in America and talk to a whole bunch of 20-year-olds, and be like, ‘Hey man, I got some grenades, would you like to buy some?’ — somebody’s going to buy them. It’s like offering a gun to a baby.”

“Moorish” Citizens

Brandon Orlando Baldwin appears to have been politicized by the protests over Brown’s killing. Three days after the shooting, Baldwin changed his Facebook profile picture to one of himself wearing a black beret — a symbol of the Black Panthers — and in the following months, his social media posts alternated between enraged comments about police brutality and pictures of himself with his young daughter.


Brandon Orlando Baldwin and his daughter.

Photo: Courtesy of the Baldwin family

In one post about the proliferation of videos showing police abuse, he wrote, “Stop filming and start blow’n they fuckin heads off… or beaten they Ass with they batons… When r we gonna really say enough is enough and stop turning the fuckin cheek for ppl who wouldn’t turn on the water if yo Ass was on fire.” In October 2014, a month before his arrest and while he was already under FBI surveillance, he posted: “I wonder how many of my Followers are FEDS.”

To his family, Baldwin’s arrest came as a shock, his father told The Intercept. His parents had not even known that he had started going to the protests in Ferguson until a family friend told his father that he had seen him on TV. “I immediately called him and said, What the hell are you doing?” Berlin Baldwin Jr. said.

“He might have been a protester, but he’s not an activist,” the senior Baldwin added, arguing that his son was young, naive, and new to the world of protests and activism. “To me and the family, we feel that he was brainwashed. … It was just a big mistake in his life, thinking that he was joining something that was important, being young.”

Davis had a longer history of political engagement. He had been a valedictorian in high school and won a full scholarship to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he was studying economics, his father told The Intercept. Davis was also a promising actor, and in 2013 he starred in an award-winning independent film that was released last year. “The story surrounding his arrest and crime aren’t a full picture,” Robert Herrera, the film’s director, said in an interview. “I think people would have a hard time reconciling who they see on screen versus what they read about him — and I think that is something to think about when you read about all the young minorities out in this country who are considered irredeemable criminals.”

“The bureau’s fever dreams of leftist subversion have undermined American efforts for social justice.”

In college, inspired by an African history class, Davis learned about the Moorish movement, a group that’s grown considerably in recent years, whose beliefs are a mixture of sovereign citizen ideology — a historically right-wing and white supremacist ideology whose adherents reject the legitimacy of government institutions — and devotion to the Moorish Science Temple of America. The senior Davis, who is a vocal Trump supporter and hopes the president will pardon his son, had dreamed that Olajuwon Davis would become the first black secretary of the Treasury. But to his father’s horror, Davis joined the Moors, dropped out of college, and moved back to St. Louis. “The Moors convinced him that he was too black and too powerful to work for the government,” his father said.

Because they reject government authority, including that of law enforcement, sovereign citizens are perceived by police agencies as a top threat. But the FBI’s “black identity extremism” report, while noting “sparse evidence” of a convergence of sovereign citizen extremism and Moorish beliefs, said that the connection is clearest in the production of fraudulent personal identification documents. “Not all self-identified Moors are sovereign citizens, and not all sovereign citizen Moors engage in violence against law enforcement or other illegal activity,” the FBI conceded in the report.

Davis filed an “Abjuration of Citizenship” document with the Moorish nation movement, according to the Anti-Defamation League, and declared himself an “aboriginal indigenous Moorish national of Northwest Amexem,” the Moorish name for North America.

He carried a Moorish ID and said he had been tased and arrested in 2013 after attempting to make a “tax-free” purchase at a gas station using the ID. In social media posts, he described St. Louis as a “Slave Capital in a Slave State!” and the Gateway Arch as a “Symbol of Our destruction and demise.” According to his father, Davis met out-of-state members of the New Black Panther Party after Brown’s killing and was quickly recruited to lead the group’s local chapter. He befriended two FBI informants shortly thereafter.


A screenshot of the Moorish ID that Olajuwon Ali Davis shared in a YouTube video where he discussed sovereign citizenship.

Screenshot: The Intercept

The older Davis said his son did not realize that he was being framed, but the younger Davis indicated in social media posts that he knew he was under surveillance. “Family and Friends, every day I got Caucasians following me in SUV trucks,” he wrote on Facebook two days before his arrest. “Please be advised that if you show any signs of noncompliance with this Devil they will try to assassinate you.”

In prison, Davis has been taking classes, reading Paulo Coelho novels, recording himself reading books to his children, and volunteering to support fellow inmates who were placed on suicide watch, he wrote last year in a letter to the judge who sentenced him. “I recognize that my incarceration was due to my failure to adhere to the principles of unwavering faith and affirming peace in thought and in action,” he wrote. “My imprisonment has given me the chance to once again develop a perspective that is sound and humane.”

Egregious “Bothsidesism”

As protests over Brown’s killing intensified in Ferguson and spilled across the country over the next months and years, so did the FBI’s scrutiny of protesters. In November 2014, days before the Ferguson grand jury’s decision and Davis and Baldwin’s arrest, the bureau circulated an internal bulletin warning law enforcement of “Potential Criminal Reactions to Missouri Grand Jury Announcement.” Two years later, after protests against police brutality had engulfed Baltimore, Chicago, and several other cities, the FBI again issued an intelligence bulletin, warning that “Black Separatist Extremists’ Call for Retaliation in Response to Police-Involved Incidents Could Incite Acts of Violence against Law Enforcement.”

By 2017, the FBI had given this presumed threat a new name: Black Identity Extremism, or what the bureau claimed was a growing, violent, and racially motivated movement targeting law enforcement. Filled with innuendo and stereotypes, the 12-page report that first introduced the label was written so imprecisely that the very definition of a “black identity extremist” was left grammatically incomplete, making its meaning unclear:

The FBI defines black identity extremists as individuals who seek, wholly or in part, through unlawful acts of force or violence, in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society and some do so in furtherance of establishing a separate black homeland or autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations within the United States.

The report also explicitly connected its analysis to the Ferguson protests, focusing on incidents of what it called “premeditated attacks against law enforcement officers since 2014.”

“The FBI assesses it is very likely incidents of alleged police abuse against African Americans since [Ferguson] have continued to feed the resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity, within the BIE movement,” it noted, adding that agency had “high confidence” in its assessment. “The FBI further judges it is very likely BIEs proactively target police and openly identify and justify their actions with social-political agendas commensurate with their perceived injustices against African Americans, and in some cases, their identified affiliations with violent extremist groups.”

Hansford, the activist and professor, told The Intercept that law enforcement took legitimate grievances about a broken system as personal attacks against them, and fabricated a nonexistent threat to repress criticism. “The Black Lives Matter protesters and other black protesters oftentimes are protesting the police themselves, so it’s a situation of self-interest where [police] feel personally attacked,” he said. “The problem is there really hasn’t been a major [African-American] group that has in any way, shape, or form been a tangible threat to law enforcement, physically, since the Black Liberation Army,” Hansford added, citing a militant black nationalist group active in the 1970s. “It’s been over 40 years.”

Lawmakers also condemned the report. In addition to Wray’s meetings with the Congressional Black Caucus and testimonies about it at two separate House Judiciary Committee hearings, Bass memorably grilled then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the report’s claims at a different committee hearing. Sessions said he hadn’t read the report and couldn’t name an African-American organization that had committed violence against police. Moments after Bass asked him whether he considered the Ku Klux Klan to be “white identity extremists,” Sessions quipped that the names of any white supremacist groups were “not coming to me at this moment.”

Despite a barrage of criticism the FBI did not retract or amend the report. Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee in December 2017, Wray said that the FBI would not “withdraw intelligence assessments based on public outcry.” Appearing before that committee again, in June 2018, he offered no answers to some legislators’ questions about who exactly had written the report and based on what premises, but he said that their feedback “prompted us to go back and take a very hard look at how we are bucketing the different categories of domestic terrorism.” “I think it’s been a useful learning experience for us,” Wray said, “and I expect we will see some changes in how we do things going forward.” Still, to date, the FBI has issued no clarification or amendment to the report.

But the “black identity extremism” report wasn’t the only one the FBI produced that year warning about the threat posed by a nonexistent ideological group. As Jezebel reported in January, the FBI in 2017 issued a similar alert about what it called “pro-choice extremists.”

In a one-page memo obtained via public records request by the government transparency group Property of the People, the FBI lists the new category of made-up extremists along actually existing “pro-life extremists” under the common banner of “Abortion Extremism Ideology.” As was the case with “black identity extremism,” the FBI concedes in the report that its own evidence for claiming that such an ideology exists is scant. “Only one pro-choice extremist has been prosecuted,” the report notes. “And that person acted independently and without any direct affiliation to a pro-choice group.”

As Jezebel notes, that is a reference to Theodore Shulman, who served three years in prison for harassing and threatening to kill two leaders of the anti-abortion movement. The only killing of an anti-abortion activist came at the hands of a mentally ill man who had also killed someone else that day, and that showed no signs of being motivated by ideology.

The documents obtained by Property of the People also give a sense of how these reports might be put to use by law enforcement. In one email published by the group, a Washington state sheriff shares the FBI material with his staff with the following warning: “Attached is the latest and greatest about groups we should be aware of. Some of them operate in Eastern Washington.”

Property of the People called the equation of imaginary “pro-choice extremism” to the real “pro-life extremism,” whose adherents have murdered at least a dozen doctors and abortion providers, “an especially egregious case of ‘bothsidesism.’”

“The term ‘terrorist’ is so nebulous, it’s so abstract. Anything they don’t like, they’ll call terrorist.”

“The FBI has a long, sad history of targeting progressive movements as threats to national security,” Ryan Shapiro, the group’s executive director, told The Intercept. “From the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements to the animal rights, anti-fascist, pro-choice, and Black Lives Matter movements today, the bureau’s fever dreams of leftist subversion have undermined American efforts for social justice.”

The FBI has also done little to address criticism that while it has long warned of the “persistent” threat posed by white supremacist groups — and even investigated white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement, as The Intercept has reported — it has grossly undercounted the violent incidents stemming from white supremacist ideology. While a May 2017 FBI report argued that “lone actors and small cells” within the white supremacist extremist movement “will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence,” that report minimized the level of violence coming from these individuals, listing only “one lethal and five potentially lethal attacks” carried out by white supremacist extremists in 2016 and omitting, for instance, the case of Brent Ward Luyster, a neo-Nazi who murdered three people in 2016 while under FBI investigation.

Between 2008 and 2017, “right-wing extremists” were responsible for 274 murders — more than 70 percent of all murders carried out by domestic extremists, according to a review by the ADL. And of 34 extremist-related murders in 2017, 59 percent were related to right-wing extremism, including 53 percent involving individuals who explicitly espoused white supremacist views. But many of those cases were rarely discussed by officials in terms of domestic terrorism, nor were the accused charged under anti-terrorism laws, even though they appeared to be motivated by a clear ideology.

Instead, as The Intercept’s analysis revealed, the Justice Department applied anti-terrorism laws against only 34 of 268 right-wing extremists it prosecuted for crimes that appear to meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism — while also targeting 17 environmental and animal rights activists with anti-terrorism laws.

“They view terrorism through a distorted lens that overemphasizes nonviolent acts by groups opposed to government policy over acts of violence against marginalized groups here in the United States,” said German, the former FBI agent, referring to the agency. “The language is intentionally malleable because they want to include certain acts and exclude other similar acts, depending on who is committing them or who the victim of the crime is.”

“The reason they’re able to do this is because the term ‘terrorist’ is so nebulous, it’s so abstract. Anything they don’t like, they’ll call terrorist,” echoed Hansford, the activist and law professor. “They will always resist having a more precise definition of terrorism because they want to use it as a tool to basically go after whoever they want to go after.”

Members of an FBI evidence response team work at the scene of the attack on police officers in Dallas, Saturday, July 9, 2016. A peaceful protest over the recent videotaped shootings of black men by police turned violent Thursday night as gunman Micah Johnson fatally shot several officers. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Members of an FBI evidence response team work at the scene of the attack on police officers in Dallas on July 9, 2016.

Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP

The FBI’s “BIE List”

In addition to the case of Davis and Baldwin — which the FBI report inexplicably describes as involving only one unnamed suspect — the “black identity extremism” report mentions the deadly shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge in the summer of 2016. Those shootings followed the police killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, which were caught on video and reignited the national outrage sparked by Brown’s killing two years earlier. The report also lists nonfatal attacks on police in New York, Indiana, and Arizona.

But despite the FBI’s efforts to group the incidents together, there is no evidence that the perpetrators knew each other, belonged to any common groups, or subscribed to the same set of beliefs. Instead, the cases present a mix of resentment toward police, anger at the treatment of minorities, and mental health issues. At least two of the men referenced had expressed sovereign citizen beliefs: one was a Muslim convert who had shown fascination with jihadi violence, and two were military veterans who had sought treatment for symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. In many cases, the ideologies that law enforcement has attributed to them appear to have been based on FBI agents scrolling through comments the men had made on social media.

Three of the six referenced in the report were killed before their motives could be tested in court. Micah Johnson, who on July 7, 2016, shot and killed five law enforcement officers and wounded several others at a Dallas protest against police violence, told police negotiators before being killed in a standoff that “he was upset about recent police shootings and white people, and expressed a desire to kill white people, especially white officers,” according to the FBI report. The report notes that Johnson had “searched and liked social media pages of BIE and black separatist groups” and “appeared to have been influenced by BIE ideology.” It also cites news reports saying that he had been “ousted from a local BIE group for being too radical.” It’s unclear what groups the FBI was referring to, since “black identity extremist” organizations do not exist.

Gavin Eugene Long, who shot six Baton Rouge police officers on July 17, 2016, killing three, had used “black separatist rhetoric” on social media and in a manifesto he left behind, in which he described his actions “as a necessary evil … in order to create substantial change,” the FBI report notes, adding that Long had also declared himself a “Moor,” changed his “slave” name to a Moorish name, and was carrying a Moorish identification card at the time of his death. In videos and tweets posted shortly before the shooting, Long had praised Johnson, the Dallas shooter. He added, if “anything happens to me … don’t affiliate me with anybody.”

The cases present a mix of resentment toward police, anger at the treatment of minorities, and mental health issues.

Both Johnson and Long were military veterans. Johnson had sought treatment for anxiety, depression, and hallucinations after returning from Afghanistan in 2014, according to the Veterans Health Administration, and he had reportedly told doctors that he heard voices and mortars exploding, and that he had panic attacks and nightmares. Long, who served with the Marines in Iraq between 2008 and 2009, had told doctors that he experienced symptoms of PTSD, though his ultimate diagnosis was “adjustment disorder with depressed mood.”

The FBI report also lists the case of Zale Thompson, who attacked four New York police officers with a hatchet in October 2014, injuring two. According to the report, Thompson had tattoos that “indicated he was affiliated with a black separatist extremist group” and “pocket litter indicating he may have been associated with another black separatist group.” The FBI report cites “law enforcement reporting” as its source, but doesn’t mention that Thompson also appeared to have become fascinated by Islamic State propaganda videos and jihadi rhetoric.

Finally, the report listed the cases, though not the names, of Damoine Wilcoxson and Marc Laquon Payne. Wilcoxson was sentenced to 37 years in Indiana state prison after shooting at two Indianapolis police stations in 2016, leaving behind delirious handwritten notes saying, “White must die.” Payne was accused of plowing his car into three officers in Arizona that same year. Authorities indicated that Payne, who has pleaded not guilty and is facing trial later this year, was impaired at the time and that his motives were unknown, but the FBI report notes that Payne’s social media accounts “indicated that he was tied to a BIE group and a Moorish group and that he was angry over police shootings since at least the killing of Brown in 2014.”

But while the FBI stretched its definition of “black identity extremism” to include a disparate series of disconnected cases, white criminal suspects’ connections to extremist groups are often discounted, German said. “There’s evidence that the shooter in Las Vegas had expressed some anti-government views that are in line with some far-right groups, but you don’t see this rush to say he was a far-right extremist and to attribute those deaths to far-right extremism in the United States,” he said, referring to the massacre of 59 people at a country music concert in 2017. “That’s where the politics of this kind of approach are very damaging and divisive in American society, because they do tend to reflect political views rather than the threat of violence.”

Rakem Balogun photographed near his home in Dallas, Texas.

Rakem Balogun, photographed near his home in Dallas, Texas.

Photo: Allison V. Smith

Rakem’s Story

The case of Rakem Balogun is often characterized as the first attempted federal prosecution of a “black identity extremist” since the FBI report about the supposed ideology. Balogun is a Dallas-based former Marine and a member of Guerrilla Mainframe, a pan-African group with a broad agenda ranging between universal health care and the abolition of the U.S. Constitution. He was also a member of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, which promotes the Second Amendment rights of African-Americans.

Balogun, whose legal name is Christopher Daniels, was arrested in December 2017, when officers in riot gear pulled him and his 15-year-old son out of their house and forced them to stand outside in the cold, handcuffed and in their underwear. Balogun spent the next five months in jail on a single illegal firearms possession charge, while prosecutors tried and failed to paint him as a domestic terrorist. At his detention hearing, where Balogun was denied bail, an FBI agent testified that he had been under surveillance for two years, since video of him at an open-carry rally against police brutality circulated online, including on the right-wing conspiracy site InfoWars.

The video shows protesters, including Balogun, chanting, “The only good pig is a pig that’s dead” and “Oink oink, bang bang.” Balogun’s Facebook page “openly and publicly advocates violence toward law enforcement,” the FBI agent said. On the first anniversary of the July 2016 Dallas police shooting, Balogun posted several comments that appeared to celebrate shooter Micah Johnson. “Today one year ago one Black Man brought Dallas Pig Department to their knees,” he wrote.

Today, Balogun says he always suspected that he was being watched. “Anybody that knows a little bit about the history of black activism would know that once you become politically involved as a black person, especially as somebody who counters popular politics, that you will be watched,” he told The Intercept months after a judge ordered his release. “I don’t mind having an audience. I’m not doing anything illegal and I don’t advocate for anything illegal.”

“The thing about it is, a lot of mature black nationalists, militants, are not into the concept of going to war with the police or the state or anything of that nature,” he added, noting that he espouses what he called “scientific revolutionary socialism,” and that he believes in an individual’s right to self-defense.

Ultimately, the case against Balogun hinged on an accusation that he was prohibited from owning a gun due to a 10-year-old misdemeanor conviction for domestic assault in another state. Prosecutors tried to convince him to take a plea deal, he said. “Their plan was for me to be weak and sign for six months, and to feel guilty for being a black activist who promotes a culture of self-defense and self-preservation in a white nation. … That’s really the crime,” he told The Intercept. He refused to take a deal.

Balogun, who has long been an advocate for gun rights, said he’s used to the double standard applied to black gun owners. Perhaps the most infamous example of that is Philando Castile, who was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop, which his girlfriend streamed on Facebook Live. Castile was a legal gun owner and told the officer he had a gun, but he was shot anyway while reaching for his license as ordered. Balogun told The Intercept that while police officers are generally friendly with open-carry demonstrators in Texas, black open-carry demonstrators routinely receive more hostile treatment.

A federal judge ultimately dismissed the gun charge against him, but Balogun lost his job and home, and missed his newborn daughter’s first months while he was in jail. He says he is now considering legal action to obtain whatever surveillance material the government may have gathered on him. Wray said at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in June 2017 that he was not familiar with Balogun’s case.

Babu Omowale, a founder and director of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, told The Intercept that he is sure Balogun was not the only member under surveillance. The group, which is named after a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, is mostly made up of former members or the New Black Panther Party who have focused their activism on gun rights and self-defense in the black community, mostly staging open-carry rallies, neighborhood patrols, and in one case, counterdemonstrating as an anti-Muslim group rallied outside a Dallas mosque.

“We see them sitting outside of our meetings, watching us, but it’s not going to stop us from organizing our people,” said Omowale, referring to the FBI. “We’ve known about it since the 1960s, when J. Edgar Hoover was over the counterintelligence program where he sought out black leadership.”

At a rally outside the U.S. Courthouse October 29, 1969, Dr. Benjamin Spock, background, listens to Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther party.  It was part of a protest against the trial of eight persons accused of conspiracy to cause a riot during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.  (AP Photo/stf)

At a rally outside the U.S. Courthouse on Oct. 29, 1969, Fred Hampton, chair of the Illinois Black Panther Party, speaks at a protest against the trial of eight people accused of conspiracy to cause a riot during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

Photo: AP


The FBI’s leaked memo, as well as evidence that had already emerged that the FBI was targeting black activists for surveillance, drew widespread comparisons to the notorious COINTELPRO, a program aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, and sabotaging the civil rights, anti-war, and black liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. “Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the original ‘Black Identity Extremists,’” a HuffPost column noted. Several people called the FBI report “COINTELPRO 2.0.” The FBI itself referred to the civil rights era in its 2017 report, retroactively applying its new “black identity extremist” label to the now-defunct Black Liberation Army. “BIEs have historically justified and perpetrated violence against law enforcement, which they perceived as representative of the institutionalized oppression of African Americans,” the report argued. “BIE violence peaked in the 1960s and 1970s in response to changing socioeconomic attitudes and treatment of blacks during the Civil Rights Movement.”

Under the COINTELPRO umbrella, the FBI went from tracking King’s every move and attempting to smear him, to surveilling Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, including by obtaining a floor map of his apartment, before Chicago police shot about 90 rounds into the apartment in 1969, killing Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark. At the same time, they routinely failed to intervene as white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan engaged in a sustained campaign of violence against civil rights activists and African-Americans.

The FBI report noted that between 1970 and 1984, the Black Liberation Army was involved in at least 38 criminal incidents, including 26 armed assaults, three assassinations, four bombings, and four hijackings and hostage-takings — half of them targeting law enforcement officers. But it made no reference to law enforcement violence against black activists, including the 1985 bombing of the Philadelphia headquarters of black liberation group MOVE, that killed 11 people.

Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee in November 2017, Wray called COINTELPRO “one of the darker moments in FBI’s history.” “It’s something we are not proud of, but it’s also something we have learned from,” he said. But when Rep. Cedric Richmond asked him why the FBI’s building continued to be named after J. Edgar Hoover — COINTELPRO’s infamous architect — Wray replied, “Like most people, he’s complicated.”

The “black identity extremism” report was hardly the first FBI effort to revive the tactics of COINTELPRO. In 2012, German, then at the American Civil Liberties Union, obtained public records revealing that the FBI had come up with yet another label to target what they claimed was a growing threat: “black separatist” domestic terrorism. Then, as now, the more recent violence driven by black nationalist ideology dated back decades, but the FBI included new warnings in its terrorism training materials that inexplicably connected the growing size of the black population in states like Georgia with a growing domestic terror threat. (As the ACLU noted at the time, the FBI had around the same time also invented what it called “American Islamic Extremists.”)

“The government has always kept an eye on black people because they want to keep us in a certain social order.”

“You would hope that a law enforcement agency learns from its past mistakes,” said German. “I think that’s where the biggest failure is, that there are enough parallels to how the FBI reacted to protests in the 1960s and 1970s that should have dissuaded them from adopting similar approaches again.”

But rather than learning from the past, it seems that the FBI is trying to maintain its old ways under a different name. While the ideologies that the terms “black separatism” and “black identity extremism” purport to represent would appear rather different, the FBI has recently folded both into the latter category, documents reveal. In an internal email exchange obtained by Property of the People and shared with The Intercept, Michael F. Paul, an official with the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, wrote to colleagues that the bureau had updated its definition of “black separatist extremism” in order “to broaden it beyond simply those seeking ‘separatism,’” he wrote. “The threat or movement has simply evolved,” Paul added, “and many are seeking more than/other than separation.”

Shapiro, of Property of the People, said the reclassification aimed to cast an even wider net on black activists at a time when police accountability, rather than separatism, was their priority. “Black Lives Matter isn’t a separatist movement, and the FBI wanted to expand its surveillance of black activists and communities,” he told The Intercept.

“With ‘black identity extremism,’ the FBI has expanded its ‘black separatist extremist’ category to also designate groups like Black Lives Matter a security threat,” he added. “The ‘BIE’ classification is the FBI’s bureaucratic umbrella for targeting as terrorists black people who expose the daily terror against their families and neighborhoods perpetrated by unaccountable killers in blue.”

To many black activists, that’s a familiar story.

“The government has always kept an eye on black people because they want to keep us in a certain social order,” said Omowale, of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. “The term ‘black identity extremist’ may be a new term, but the way that the government operates is nothing new. They’ve been doing it since we’ve been in this country, since black people, even slaves, tried to organize for some type of freedom.”

The post The Strange Tale of the FBI’s Fictional “Black Identity Extremism” Movement appeared first on The Intercept.

How Individual States Have Criminalized Terrorism

The U.S. Department of Justice most often brings terrorism-related charges, but 34 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that make committing acts of terrorism — and, in some cases, providing support to terrorists — state-level felonies.

Most of these laws were created in response to the 9/11 attacks. In all, 27 states passed anti-terrorism legislation in 2002.

In some states, terrorism is vaguely defined. Arkansas outlaws “terroristic acts” but does not say that such acts must be ideologically motivated, a requirement under the federal terrorism law. Maine prohibits what lawmakers term a “catastrophe” of “terroristic intent,” which can include releasing a chemical or biological toxin or causing an explosion, fire, flood, building collapse, or even an avalanche.

Since 9/11, state lawmakers have continued to be reactionary in drafting and amending anti-terrorism laws. Georgia created a law in 2017 to define “domestic terrorism” following Dylann Roof’s mass shooting at a black church in South Carolina. After Omar Mateen’s massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, lawmakers amended the state’s 2002 anti-terrorism law to strengthen criminal penalties for acts of terrorism, adding a life sentence for terrorists whose violence results in death, among other changes. Kentucky and Michigan provide even harsher penalties: life in prison for anyone convicted of committing an act of terrorism.

Here’s a look at anti-terrorism laws in the 50 states and the District of Columbia:

State Description Year Statute Code


Alabama’s law defines terrorism in terms similar to the USA Patriot Act and provides a sentencing enhancement for terrorism-related crimes. 2002 § 13A-10-154


Alaska’s law prohibits sending and threatening to use bacteriological, biological, chemical, or radiological weapons. 2002 § 11.56.807


Arizona’s law prohibits vaguely defined acts of terrorism, providing support for terrorists, the use of weapons of mass destruction, and threats to use weapons of mass destruction. 2002 § 13-2308.01


Arkansas’s law outlaws so-called terroristic acts, which do not require an ideological motivation. 2005 § 5-13-310


California’s law prohibits the use of and threats to use weapons of mass destruction. 2002 § 11415


Colorado does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A


Connecticut’s law prohibits building chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. It also defines various crimes of “terrorist purposes,” such as computer hacking, contaminating water or food supplies, and damaging public transit systems. 2002 § 53a-300-304


Delaware does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A

District of Columbia

Washington, D.C.’s law specifies penalties for acts of terrorism involving murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, arson, and assault. 2002 § 22–3153


Florida’s law, amended following the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, defines terrorism in terms similar to the USA Patriot Act. It also criminalizes providing material support to terrorists. 2002 § 775.30-35


Georgia’s law, enacted following Dylann Roof’s mass shooting at a black church in South Carolina, defines domestic terrorism as any felony intended to intimidate civilians or coerce the government. 2017 § 16-11-220-224


Hawaii does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A


Idaho does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A


Illinois’s law defines terrorism as any act intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population. 2002 § 720-5


Indiana’s law prohibits using or transferring another person’s identifying information for use in an act of terrorism and prohibits using weapons of mass destruction. 2002 § 35-47-12-1


Iowa’s law designates acts of terrorism and providing material support to terrorists as felonies punishable by up to 50 years in prison. 2002 § 708A


Kansas’s law defines terrorism as any felony intended to intimidate civilians or influence government. 2010 § 21-5421


Kentucky’s law defines terrorism as violent acts intended to intimidate civilians or influence government, and provides a penalty of life in prison. 2018 § 525.045


Louisiana’s law defines a number of crimes, such as murder and kidnapping, as terrorism if the intent is to intimidate civilians or influence government. 2002 § 14:128.1


Maine’s law prohibits a “catastrophe” of “terroristic intent,” such as an explosion, fire, flood, avalanche, building collapse, or release of chemical or biological toxins. 2002 § 803-A


Maryland does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A


Massachusetts’s law prohibits developing, acquiring, or transporting biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. 2002 266 § 102C


Michigan’s voluminous law defines terrorist organizations as those designated by the U.S. State Department; provides a life sentence for terrorist acts that result in death; and prohibits providing material support to terrorists. 2002 § 750.543


Minnesota’s law prohibits using weapons of mass destruction. 2002 § 609.712


Mississippi does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A


Missouri’s law prohibits providing material support to any designated foreign terrorist organization. 2002 § 576.080


Montana does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A


Nebraska does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A


Nevada’s law prohibits acts of terrorism and providing material support to terrorists. 2003 § 202.445

New Hampshire

New Hampshire does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A

New Jersey

New Jersey’s law prohibits acts of terrorism and providing material support to terrorists. 2002 § 2C:38-2

New Mexico

New Mexico does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A

New York

New York’s law defines a number of crimes, such as murder and kidnapping, as terrorism if the intent is to intimidate civilians or influence government. 2002 § 490.00-70

North Carolina

North Carolina’s law prohibits using weapons of mass destruction. 2001 § 14-288.21-24

North Dakota

North Dakota does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A


Ohio’s law defines a number of crimes, such as murder and kidnapping, as terrorism if the intent is to intimidate civilians or influence government. 2002 § 2909.22


Oklahoma’s law defines all acts of terrorism as felonies and prohibits chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons material. It also prohibits providing financial support to terrorists. 2002 § 21-1268.5


Oregon does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A


Pennsylvania’s law defines terrorism as crimes intended to intimidate civilians or influence government. 2002 § 2717

Rhode Island

Rhode Island does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A

South Carolina

South Carolina’s law prohibits using weapons of mass destruction. 2002 § 16-23-715

South Dakota

South Dakota’s law defines terrorism as any use of chemical, biological, radioactive, or explosive weapons intended to intimidate civilians or influence government. 2002 § 22-8-12


Tennessee’s law prohibits using weapons of mass destruction. 2002 § 39-13-801


Texas does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A


Utah’s law prohibits “threats of terrorism” intended to intimidate civilians or influence government. 2002 § 76-5-107.3


Vermont’s law, amended in 2018 following the failed prosecution of a man who was planning a school shooting, defines domestic terrorism and prohibits using weapons of mass destruction. 2002 § 1703


Virginia’s law establishes a minimum punishment of 20 years in prison for committing an act of terrorism or providing support to terrorists. 2002 § 18.2-46.5


Washington’s law defines placing a bomb with intent to commit a terrorist act as “malicious placement of an explosive.” 1997 § 70.74.270

West Virginia

West Virginia’s law establishes a minimum punishment of one year in prison for threatening to commit a terrorist act. 2001 § 61-6-24


Wisconsin does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A


Wyoming does not have an anti-terrorism law. N/A N/A

Sources: National Conference of State Legislatures, Justia

The post How Individual States Have Criminalized Terrorism appeared first on The Intercept.

Donald Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Agenda Faces Another Setback in Court

Donald Trump’s plan to deprive noncitizen immigrants of legal protections has suffered another setback.

The Trump administration broke the law when it denied hundreds of visa applications for immigrants who had been abused, neglected, or abandoned by a parent as minors under the Special Immigrant Juvenile program, a federal judge ruled on Friday.

The ruling is the latest in a string of federal court decisions rebuking the Trump administration’s attempts to drastically restrict immigration to the United States. Federal judges have blocked Trump’s attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA, at least four times. In December, federal judges issued a preliminary injunction against the White House’s proposed asylum ban, and denied requests by the federal government to stay a temporary restraining order against it. The Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the initial order blocking the ban.

The SIJ visa program, which was created in 1990, affords protected status to minors who were abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents. It allows them to seek a green card, which grants lawful permanent residence in the United States. In February 2018, however, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services quietly issued internal guidance that led to a denial of applications for people who applied for SIJ status after they’d turned 18.

The agency never publicized the change, but it came to light after immigration attorneys began receiving notices that their clients would have their SIJ status denied or revoked. USCIS argued that family courts could not exercise custody over adults, and that they therefore don’t have the power to reunify applicants with a parent. (Family courts were involved in the process to determine whether an applicant was eligible for the program, which included determining whether reunification was viable.)

The Trump administration has characterized the SIJ program as being susceptible to abuse by criminals trying to enter the United States, without substantiating those claims. In a February press release that was unrelated to the SIJ policy change, DHS called to “end abuse” of the SIJ visa and claimed that unaccompanied immigrant children and their families are “Flooding the Border Because of Catch and Release Loopholes.” The agency argued that many unaccompanied minors “are able to obtain a Green Card through SIJ status even though they were smuggled here to reunify with one parent present in the United States,” and that the “influx of unaccompanied alien minors also creates recruiting opportunities for brutal gangs such as MS-13.” Last March, during Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s “Operation Matador,” the agency said it arrested 64 MS-13 members who had crossed the border as unaccompanied minors and received SIJ status.

By the time the February 2018 guidance was issued, it had been apparent for several months that the agency’s approach to the SIJ program was changing. As early as October 2017, USCIS began sending notices to young immigrants and their attorneys that it would deny requests for Special Immigrant Juvenile status made after applicants turned 18. Among them, a 21-year-old from El Salvador who’d fled threats from local gangs, including MS-13, that had been trying to recruit him since he was a teenager. Another, a 22-year-old from Haiti whose aunts physically beat her as a young child and whose father later abandoned her. Most of the denials happened in New York. Some had already had their applications approved, and others were still awaiting final decisions.

That was a major departure from the way USCIS used to handle SIJ applications. Before 2018, the agency regularly granted the special visas to minors who applied between the ages of 18 and 20. The program remains open to anyone under age 21. USCIS says the change was part of a 2016 policy update that streamlined the visa application review process, and that the February guidance clarified that officers should deny any requests submitted after the applicant had already turned 18.

Advocates, however, saw the move as part of a larger project by Trump to restrict immigration to the U.S., and to target the most vulnerable groups of people in the process. The February 2018 guidance prompted USCIS to internally review 5,500 cases that were put on hold. At least 260 applicants received denials, and at least 130 were told that they should expect their applications to be rejected.

“The administration has painted Special Immigrant Juvenile status as a ‘loophole,’” Beth Krause, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society, told The Intercept. In July, together with Latham and Watkins LLP, Legal Aid brought a class-action suit against USCIS for the over-18 SIJ denials. They asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction to halt the implementation of the change, arguing that USCIS claims that New York Family Courts lacked jurisdiction as juvenile courts for people between the ages of 18 and 21 were part of an “arbitrary and capricious” policy, and imposed requirements that were outside the law.

“It has not been a secret that they have been trying to narrow the availability of Special Immigrant Juvenile status,” Krause said. The number of SIJ applications has skyrocketed over the past decade, from 1,600 in fiscal year 2010 to 21,800 in fiscal year 2018.

“They have expressed that this is — whether a loophole, or a way that MS-13 is getting status in the U.S., they were going after this status,” Krause explained.

A federal judge ruled on Friday that in changing its processes, USCIS broke the law. Judge John Koeltl of the U.S. Court for the Southern District of New York issued an injunction halting the change, and granted class status to the plaintiffs, allowing them to proceed anonymously. Plaintiffs have until Friday to submit proposals for how to proceed with the hundreds of cases impacted by the policy change. In a separate case, another federal judge last week allowed a class action suit in the Northern District of California against the over-18 SIJ denials to proceed. In that case, the judge had already issued a preliminary injunction against the USCIS policy.  

USCIS has argued that there was no policy change, but has acknowledged that it only started denying over-18 SIJ applications in early 2018. The agency argues that in those cases, it found that New York Family Courts didn’t have jurisdiction to make the custody determinations necessary to establish eligibility for SIJ status. Koeltl said that claim “is based on a misunderstanding of New York State law.”

“The agency’s lack of a reasoned explanation for a policy that requires a departure from years of agency practice ‘results in a rule that cannot carry the force of law,’” Koeltl wrote, quoting the Supreme Court decision in Encino Motorcars v. Navarro.

Krause said the order is applicable to cases outside of New York too. “This decision will certainly impact the cases that are already ongoing in California and Washington. It will certainly help other advocates that are considering filing actions against the government on their over-18 SIJ denials,” she told The Intercept.

“It also just reaffirms our perception of how this administration has been intentionally targeting some of the most vulnerable populations,” Krause continued. “We saw right through it. The judge saw through it. And they can’t act in this manner. The administration can’t, through policymaking, change statute. They can’t change the law that way. That has to be done through the legislative process.”

Federal courts have blocked attempts by the Trump administration to impose similar immigration regulations in other areas. In October, a federal court issued an injunction stopping a White House attempt to end Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, and El Salvador. In August, another federal judge upheld a lower-court ruling blocking Trump’s executive order threatening to cut federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities that refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services in September proposed a rule change that would allow immigrant families and children to be held for indefinite periods in unlicensed facilities. Attorneys in that case argue that the change violates the Flores settlement, which sets guidelines for the length of time and the conditions in which migrant children can be detained. A judge temporarily suspended a motion by plaintiffs to block the change until the agencies issue final regulations. The parties are in confidential mediation on other aspects of the case.

The post Donald Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Agenda Faces Another Setback in Court appeared first on The Intercept.

In El Paso Jails, Immigrants Are Incarcerated Far Past Their Release Dates

In early June 2018, Noe Ortiz walked with two of his young children across a dry riverbed from Mexico into El Paso, Texas. The 33-year-old Guatemalan made the crossing during the height of President Trump’s migrant “family separation” policy, but he left behind a perhaps more perilous fate: death at the hands of the Calle 18 gang, which had extorted him, killed two of his brothers-in-law, and targeted him for murder.

An agricultural worker who lost part of one foot in an on-the-job accident, Ortiz arrived in El Paso wearing a boot on his amputated limb to stabilize his gait. He and his children were quickly apprehended by a Border Patrol agent. Ortiz remembers feeling devastated when he was handcuffed in front of his children and separated from them. He was charged with “illegal entry” into the U.S., a federal misdemeanor, and sent to the El Paso County jail to await trial. The boot was taken away, and he had only a sock to cover his amputated foot. He was unable to walk without the boot and fell repeatedly in jail.

Ortiz was locked up in El Paso because the U.S. Marshals Service has recently been paying the county about $24 million a year to hold federal detainees in its jails. During the past several months, El Paso’s jail system has held between 600 and 1,050 people a day under the contract. In 2018, El Paso jails locked up about 9,000 people for the marshals, according to data compiled by a county commissioner. At least 80 percent were there on immigration charges.

El Paso now holds about a fourth of all federal detainees housed in Texas public jails, more than any other public jail system in the state. Most detainees are people who have been convicted of nonviolent immigration-related offenses, such as entering the U.S. without authorization.

At a mass trial in federal court on June 15, Ortiz was sentenced to 35 days in the county jail. With credit for time served, he was supposed to be released on July 9 and then transferred to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, where he could apply for asylum.

Ortiz was not released. Over the next few days, he repeatedly asked his jailers why he was not freed. They said they didn’t know, and Ortiz remained behind bars in El Paso.

In late June, a federal court ordered that all parents and children separated under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy be reunited by July 26. That date also came and went, and Ortiz remained in jail. As he sought his freedom, he did not know where his children were. July turned to August, August waned, and Ortiz continued to stumble in his sock.

In August, an attorney for one of his children began calling around to different detention facilities and found Ortiz in the El Paso jail system. On August 25, the jail turned Ortiz over to an ICE detention center. There, Ortiz was allowed to wear an orthopedic boot on his amputated foot, and he told an asylum officer about his fears of being murdered in Guatemala. The officer deemed his claim credible, and Ortiz was given a $3,500 bond. On October 24 he was released and reunited with his family.

Now, Ortiz has retained civil rights lawyers in El Paso who are seeking damages from El Paso County for illegally holding him for 46 days.

A Pattern of False Imprisonment

El Paso is home to former congressman and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke as well as Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who replaced O’Rourke as the representative of Texas’s 16th Congressional District. Both are passionate critics of Trump’s “national emergency” rhetoric about the border and staunch advocates for immigrants’ civil rights. Politically, El Paso is deep blue, known in Texas for its welcoming stance toward immigrants and asylum seekers.

So an immigrant’s illegal detainment in El Paso County seems especially surprising. Even more disturbing, according to an investigation by The Appeal and The Intercept, is that many others have also been illegally detained. Through open records requests, The Appeal and The Intercept have discovered that many immigrants languish in jail after they should have been released.

The Appeal examined El Paso jail records for four days chosen at random from August 2018 to January 2019 and found that dozens of immigrants were detained from one day to six weeks past their release dates.

Gilgracier de Almeida, a native of Brazil, told The Appeal and The Intercept in a letter that he came to the U.S. to escape death threats from a drug trafficker. After being apprehended in El Paso, he pleaded guilty on November 16 to illegal entry.

ICE detainers request jails to hold detainees for up to 48 hours (not counting weekends and holidays) after they finish their sentences or have their charges dismissed. Such holds have been deemed unconstitutional in many jurisdictions, but the El Paso County jail honors them, and with De Almeida’s detainer he still should have been freed by November 19. Instead, he was not released until November 22 to an immigration detention facility where he could make a claim for asylum. Jefri Cartagena, from Honduras, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor illegal entry on August 16 but was not released until August 30 — he spent at least 10 days illegally detained. Luis Alberto Garcia Hernandez, from Mexico, was supposed to be released on December 13. He did not get out of the El Paso County jail until January 26 — after at least 42 days of illegal detainment.

The delays appear to be so common that some local attorneys accept them without protest. After a mass trial for illegal entry earlier this month in an El Paso federal courtroom, The Appeal and The Intercept talked to a court-appointed lawyer for 14 immigrants who, within about a half-hour, had been sentenced to time served. Asked what would happen to them, the attorney shrugged and said, “They’ll spend a couple of days or maybe a week in the county jail before being taken to ICE.”

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles told The Appeal and The Intercept that the delays were the fault of federal authorities. He said that the U.S. marshals were supposed to send the jail a form for each federal detainee, indicating the date when he or she should be released. Wiles said the jail did not receive a form for Ortiz until August 24, and that as soon as it arrived, he was discharged.

Wiles’s office also sent The Appeal and The Intercept records for several immigrants who were held for days after they pleaded guilty to illegal entry and got time served on August 16 and 17. The marshals waited until August 29 to notify the jail, and the next day the immigrants were turned over to ICE.

“The El Paso Sheriff’s Office,” Wiles wrote in an email, does “not have a pattern of releasing inmates late.”

But Chris Benoit, one of Noe Ortiz’s lawyers, said there was a pattern of false imprisonment at the El Paso jail. “It’s the county’s responsibility to have a system set up so they know when people’s sentences end,” Benoit said. He said there is no system in place, and the jail’s current policies “are requiring them to hold onto people without regard to the constitutionality of their detention.”

U.S. Deputy Marshal Salvador Vasquez, who is based in El Paso, said that the marshals were unaware of anyone ever being kept in the local jail past their release date — except for Ortiz. Vasquez said that Ortiz’s case “fell through the cracks” but recently came to the marshals’ attention. Benoit and another civil rights attorney representing Ortiz, Lynn Coyle, sent a letter to El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal in early March, threatening to sue on Ortiz’s behalf. (Bernal declined to speak to The Appeal and The Intercept, citing potential litigation.)

Lack of Consensus

If Ortiz’s case ends up in court, it may revive a dormant community debate about whether the county jail in progressive, pro-immigrant El Paso should be housing people whose only crime is being unauthorized immigrants — and whether the county should cancel its jail contract with the U.S. marshals.

El Paso County has maintained the contract with the marshals at least since 1997 and is profoundly dependent on the money it brings in. In its most recently published report, from 2016, the sheriff’s office reported that the marshals paid El Paso County almost $24 million to house federal prisoners, whose average daily census at the time outstripped state inmates by 556 to 346. Money from the marshals, according to the county budget office’s assessment for this year, is the third-biggest revenue source after property taxes and sales taxes. Marshals money covers more than a quarter of the cost of running the county’s jails.

In June 2017, El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez called a news conference to argue that the county was losing money by servicing the marshals contract. He added that county officials were sending a “hypocritical” message to the community. Perez said that Sheriff Wiles had just sued the state to overturn Senate Bill 4, then a newly passed state law that allowed police to ask people about their immigration statuses and also required jails to honor ICE detainers. Why, Perez asked, were the same officials who challenged SB 4 to protect the community’s immigrants helping the feds jail them?

In 2017, Rep. Escobar was El Paso’s county judge, overseeing the Commissioners’ Court, which included Vince Perez. At the commission meeting after Perez’s news conference, Escobar slammed him for accusing the county of hypocrisy. Some of Perez’s fellow commissioners implied that he was simply grandstanding on the issue. They criticized him for calling the news conference before the entire commission could critically examine the data he had compiled. And Wiles warned the court that if the contract were canceled, 250 deputies working at the jail — almost a quarter of the sheriff’s department employees — would lose their jobs. A member of the local sheriff’s association also excoriated the idea of laying off those employees.

Perez nonetheless made a motion to cancel the contract, but he couldn’t get anyone to second it, much less vote on it.

Linda Rivas is the director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, an El Paso nonprofit that provides lawyers to low-income immigrants. Las Americas is part of the Borderland Immigration Council, a coalition of 11 immigrant-support groups and private lawyers. Rivas said that Escobar asked her whether the marshals contract should be canceled or maintained. Rivas took the question to the entire BIC.

“I’ll be honest,” Rivas told The Appeal and The Intercept. “We did not come to a consensus.” Maureen Franco, of the local federal public defender’s office, said that canceling the contract would result in immigrants being moved outside of El Paso, which would force her staff to drive farther to visit clients. “But someone said, ‘Well, maybe the public defenders should ask for a bigger budget to go and represent people where they need to be represented,’” Rivas said.

At least one BIC member adamantly opposed the contract. The Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee helps people raise bond money so they can go free while awaiting decisions on their asylum cases. Alan Dicker, at the time a DMSC member, called the group “the abolitionist wing of the immigration community” in El Paso. The DMSC believes that “stopping local entities from coordinating with Border Patrol and ICE or the marshals makes it harder for them to do their jobs,” Dicker said. “So anything we can do to stop the deportation machine from working efficiently, we want to do.”

But canceling the contract was opposed by Las Americas’ Rivas, the head of the Catholic Church’s Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, and the director of the Hope Border Institute, another Catholic group.

Rivas wrote to Escobar in July 2017. She told The Appeal and The Intercept that the letter spoke only for three members of the BIC. They supported the contract, Rivas’s letter said, “only because it keeps people close to this community, where their families and their lawyers … can have immediate access to them.” (Another member, the Border Network for Human Rights, also communicated to Escobar that they supported maintaining the contract for the same reason, but groups who went on the record as supporters were still a minority of the council’s membership.)

Escobar sent the letters to county officials. It’s not clear whether they understood that the BIC lacked consensus about the contract, but the letters offered a humanitarian rationale for keeping it. Rivas said that she still thinks about what would happen if El Paso County did not have its contract with the U.S. marshals, and immigrants were sent to private prisons with terrible conditions.

Avoidable Tragedies

One such prison, the West Texas Detention Facility, made the news last year after African detainees told immigrant advocacy groups that they were beaten, pepper sprayed, subjected to racial slurs, and denied medical treatment at the facility, which is 90 miles from El Paso. Previously, it had been reported to be infested with wildlife, including a rattlesnake, and detainees had to use plastic bags for toilets. In 2016, Franco, of the federal public defender’s office, said that “attorneys were having a very difficult time seeing their clients” because of rules that discouraged visits.

Another marshals contract facility, the Otero County Prison, 27 miles north of El Paso in New Mexico, has a history of being sued for providing inadequate medical care to a man detained there.

But under the El Paso County contract with the marshals, according to the sheriff, some detainees are being sent to those facilities despite their record of unconstitutional conditions. Wiles told the County Commissioners in 2017 that when he needed jail beds for state detainees, such as people arrested for DWI on weekends, he told the marshals to remove federal detainees from El Paso. He assumed they were sent to the West Texas Detention Facility and to Otero.

Meanwhile, the El Paso County Jail has its own problems. In 2017 a Mexican held by the marshals for illegal re-entry hanged himself using a piece of cloth torn from his uniform. That same year, one of the jails in the El Paso system failed a state inspection after a detainee died because of a lack of medical attention and treatment. It was later discovered that jailers had falsified his records.

In light of such tragedies, as well as the illegal detention of Noe Ortiz and many other immigrants, Rivas said that El Paso County’s marshals contract is “worth revisiting” by the community.

The contract expired in December, and the county and the Marshals Service are now operating together on a month-to-month basis. The expiration garnered no publicity or community conversation.

Since his release from detention in October, Noe Ortiz has reunited with his family. They now live in the U.S. as they await government decisions about their asylum claims. Ortiz says he is happy but still remembers the despair he felt in the El Paso County jail, where “it was cold all the time, the beans had sugar in them and were inedible, I could never see the sun, and I had no idea when I would get out.”

He hopes that publicizing his ordeal will change how officials act in El Paso. “They shouldn’t treat detained people like that,” Ortiz said. “I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else.”

The post In El Paso Jails, Immigrants Are Incarcerated Far Past Their Release Dates appeared first on The Intercept.

Syrian Refugees Use Precedent Set in Rohingya Case to Try to Bring Government Officials Before the International Criminal Court

Syrian activists and lawyers are testing the bounds of international law, making two new attempts to bring the government of Bashar al-Assad before the International Criminal Court.

Syrian refugees in Jordan, through London-based lawyers, sent communications to the office of the ICC prosecutor, asking her to exercise jurisdiction over Syria based on a precedent set last year in a case involving Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims. The communications are the latest push by Syrian civilians to hold accountable the government whose brutality upended their lives. In recent years, Syrian lawyers and human rights activists have experimented with rarely utilized aspects of international law, succeeding in getting European and American courts to weigh in on atrocities committed in Syria.

“Because of how politicized the war in Syria became, lawyers and those fighting for accountability really had to be creative,” said Mai El-Sadany, the legal and judicial director at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The most recent ICC Article 15 submissions” — a reference to communications with the ICC on information about alleged international crimes — “are evidence of this, that there is space for creativity in the accountability space.”

“It is not possible for Syria to stabilize unless these criminals are held accountable.”

The efforts come as the Syrian conflict enters its ninth year. On March 15, 2011, eight years ago yesterday, Syrians, inspired by the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, took to the streets in a “Day of Rage” demonstration. Within a few days, protesters around the country were calling for freedom, dignity, and political reforms. Later that month, activists in the southern city of Daraa toppled a statue of the late President Hafez al-Assad that stood in a city square. This past Sunday, hundreds of Daraawis marched once again, this time to protest the erection of a new statue of the former Syrian president.

In the intervening years, a mass anti-government uprising descended into a merciless war involving at least a half-dozen countries, each of which has contributed to Syria’s destruction. Few would dispute, however, that the Assad regime is responsible for most of the violence that flattened entire cities, uprooted millions of people from their homes, and killed — according to an estimate that is now three years old — 470,000 people.  

The scale of atrocities is unfathomable, yet the perpetrators have evaded accountability — and are gradually being welcomed back into the diplomatic fold. Some Arab states, which effectively blacklisted Assad in 2011, are slowly thawing their relations with the Syrian regime, while Russia, Iran, and China have invested in lucrative reconstruction contracts.

The victims of the war, however, have not been deterred from pursuing justice. One goal of their efforts, said Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, is to send a strong message that core members of the Syrian regime should not be considered part of any transition period or political solution to the Syrian conflict. “The goal of our work is to block any attempt to rehabilitate war criminals and people who’ve committed crimes against humanity,” said al-Bunni, whose work with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights led Germany’s federal prosecutor to issue an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, the head of Syria’s notorious Air Force Intelligence Directorate. “It is not possible for Syria to stabilize unless these criminals are held accountable.”

The International Criminal Court, which sits in the Hague in the Netherlands, is an international, intergovernmental tribunal created by the Rome Statute with the authority to investigate genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. Often referred to as a court of last resort, it hears cases when state courts are unwilling or unable to do so, or when the United Nations Security Council or individual states refer cases to the court.

The U.N. Security Council in 2014 floated a resolution to refer Syria to the ICC. China and Russia (Syria’s patron state), exercised their veto power to block that from happening. Because Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute, the court has no independent basis for jurisdiction. A ruling from the court last year, in a case pertaining to Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya, however, opened up a new possibility for those hoping to bring Syria before the ICC.

In September, ICC judges issued a pretrial ruling that said the court could exercise jurisdiction over the deportation of the Rohingya from Myanmar, which is not an ICC member state, to Bangladesh, which is. Deportation is a crime against humanity, and the court reasoned that one element of the crime — crossing the border — occurred in Bangladesh, thereby creating jurisdiction. The judges also ruled that the court could look into other crimes under the Rome Statute, such as persecution and other inhumane acts.

Based on that precedent, Syrians are arguing that the ICC has jurisdiction over deportations from Syria to Jordan, which is party to the Rome Statute and is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees. The London-based Guernica Center for International Justice submitted an Article 15 communication to ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on March 4, asking her to open an investigation into the forcible deportation of Syrians into Jordan. A group of lawyers, led by Rodney Dixon QC of Temple Garden Chambers, filed a similar communication on March 7, on behalf of 28 Syrian refugees in Jordan.

While the lawyers publicly announced their submissions, Article 15 communications are confidential and generally come to light only if the prosecutor decides to take some sort of action.

“Anyone can communicate with the court through Article 15 of the Rome Statute, the treaty that underpins the court, basically sending information to the court,” said Heidi Nichols Haddad, author of “The Hidden Hands of Justice: NGOs, Human Rights, and International Courts.” “It’s then up to the prosecutor to compile that information and decide whether to take it to a judge and move forward with a preliminary investigation.”

In a statement to The Intercept, the office of the prosecutor confirmed the receipt of the Syria-related communications. “As we do with all such communications, we will analyse the materials submitted, as appropriate, in accordance with the Rome Statute and with full independence and impartiality,” Bensouda’s office wrote. “As soon as we reach a decision on the appropriate next step, we will inform the sender and provide reasons for our decision.”

Jordan’s response could make all the difference.

Bensouda could either decline to take action or unilaterally decide to open a preliminary investigation. A third option would be to file a pretrial motion asking the court’s judicial chamber to rule on jurisdiction, as Bensouda did in the case of Myanmar. The court would ask Syria to respond and Jordan to weigh in. Last year, Bangladesh welcomed an investigation into the deportation of the Rohingya into its territory; with regard to Syria, Jordan’s response could make all the difference, cautioned al-Bunni, the human rights lawyer.

“The party that has to request an investigation is the government of Jordan, because it’s the one that’s suffered the harm,” he said. The question of jurisdiction could put Jordan in a quandary, caught between a just cause of helping Syrians’ quest for accountability and the geopolitical implications of helping to facilitate the prosecution of the head of a neighboring state. The Jordanian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return a request for comment.

The legal teams built their filings around interviews with Syrian refugees in Jordan, in addition to the massive trove of documentation of crimes in Syria from the last eight years.

“I actually think the case is stronger as far as Syria is concerned than it was as far as the Rohingya were concerned,” said Toby Cadman, an attorney at the Guernica Group, which submitted an amicus brief in the Rohingya case. He noted that the scale of displacement in Syria is much larger: About 5 million Syrians have fled their country since 2011, compared to about 730,000 Rohingya refugees.

“That’s not to underestimate the significance of what happened to the Rohingya,” Cadman said. “I think just that the way the conflict has been documented in Syria, we actually know a lot more about what’s happened [there] than what’s happened in Myanmar.”

While the lawyers focused their filings on the crime of deportation, following the precedent set by the Rohingya decision, they also laid out other potential crimes that have occurred in Syria — the use of chemical weapons, indiscriminate bombings of civilian centers, and torture — as well as the risks that refugees would face upon being returned to Syria, such as conscription and detention.

“I interviewed Syrians who did not have a choice to stay in Syria, and had no choice in returning.”

“I interviewed Syrians who did not have a choice to stay in Syria, and had no choice in returning, and that usually means you’re speaking to people who have been detained, or people who are in fear of detention,” said Ibrahim Olabi, a Syrian lawyer who is completing his legal training at Guernica. “I interviewed people who had nothing to do with the uprising and were picked up and detained and tortured, again, in the worst possible means.”

One Syrian interviewed by Dixon’s team said she saw a child blown into pieces by a projectile, “which is a moment seared into her memory,” according to an excerpt from an Article 15 communication that Dixon shared with The Intercept.

She states that when bombing campaigns started in her town, everything intensified. When her cousin decided to flee with his family, he was killed in a missile attack on a minibus and the bus was so burnt that her family could not identify his body. She described her grave fear for her life and the life of her family during the bombing campaigns which randomly targeted buildings around her and hit a school nearby. She decided to flee to Jordan when she heard that regime forces had “cleansed” another part of her town and were moving to her area. She said the regime forces were implementing a policy of cleansing and that she feared she and her family would be killed.

“It’s important to understand that in order to prove crimes against humanity, the prosecutor has to show that there is an attack on the civilian population,” said Dixon. “All of the other crimes that have occurred in Syria can be used by the prosecutor to prove that there has been an attack on the civilian population, of which these deportations are a part.”

That’s not to say that the ICC would necessarily be able to seek convictions in relation to those wider crimes, but the prosecutor would at least gather evidence of them. “That’s important because it gives those victims a voice and it gives the opportunity to a prosecutor to prove the wider pattern and policy of crimes,” Dixon said, “which would be very important for the record and can then be used, in this case, to file a case of deportation and the other crimes against humanity.”

There are limitations to the ICC’s ability to prosecute cases and hold perpetrators accountable. One clear example is that of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been wanted by the ICC for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur for a decade. Because the ICC does not have a police force, it needs cooperation from states who would be willing to execute an arrest. Al-Bashir, however, has traveled around the world, including to ICC member states, and remains a free man.

The legal maneuvering Syrians have done to try to bring their case before the ICC represents another limitation. Even when the evidence of potential crimes exists, investigations into crimes committed in states that have not ratified the Rome Statute are near impossible because of jurisdictional issues, and U.N. Security Council members are quick to use their veto power to block investigations into crimes potentially committed by their allies.

That’s what makes the various avenues Syrians are pursuing so significant. As of last March, more than two dozen cases had been filed in European courts regarding atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, rebel fighters, and the Islamic State and other fundamentalist militant groups. The family of Marie Colvin, an American journalist killed in 2012 while reporting from the city of Homs, sued the Syrian government in a U.S. district court; in January, the court found Syria responsible for killing Colvin.

Many of the cases in Europe were brought under a legal doctrine known as universal jurisdiction; application of the doctrine varies from country to country, but it essentially allows for courts to prosecute cases regardless of where the crime was committed or whether the accused party has any links to the prosecuting state.

The biggest success so far has been in Germany, where authorities last month arrested a former high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer and two others who are accused of crimes against humanity for torturing detainees in Syrian prisons. Other cases remain pending in France, Sweden, and Spain. (Cadman and al-Bunni have been involved with some of these cases.)

These attempts are possible in part due to an unprecedented level of documentation of crimes in Syria. The victims in some of the cases were identified from a trove of 28,000 photos of people killed in Syrian detention centers, smuggled out of the country by a military defector codenamed Caesar. The U.N. General Assembly, in December 2016, took the step of creating the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism to investigate crimes in Syria since 2011. The IIIM, as the body is known, does not have independent prosecutorial authority, but it exists to collect information that could later be provided to courts or tribunals with jurisdiction over the crimes. Last year, 28 Syrian nongovernmental organizations committed to collaborating with the IIIM on its work.

Groups like Guernica and the Syrian Legal Development Program, which Olabi founded as a law student in 2014, have trained Syrian lawyers and human rights activists on how to document atrocities in a way that would make the evidence admissible in court.

“What we’ve been doing, for example, is assisting [activists with] how to document in a legal way,” Olabi said of the Syrian Legal Development Program. “So we created witness interview questions for organizations, for example, that were documenting forced displacement, or helped an organization that’s working on chemical weapons, put it together in the legal framework, which then leads to all the different reports that we used in our Guernica submission.”

Syrians are making use of every tool at their disposal to hold perpetrators accountable under international law, yet many of them hope to see these crimes prosecuted in a post-conflict Syria some day.

“The prosecutions have to happen in Syria, absolutely,” said al-Bunni. “But we have to get there and prepare to have prosecutions in Syria, prepare for transitional justice in Syria; but to get there, we need to show that these people are criminals and no one should interact with them in any shape or form.”

As the Syrian regime cements its military victory, the prospect of a post-Assad state — or a period of transitional justice — is difficult to imagine. Until then, the mere process of pushing for accountability at every forum possible has a number of benefits, El-Sadany said.

“The fact that individuals who are once thought to never have been able to be held accountable are being held accountable or evidence is being collected, I think that is important in and of itself,” she said. “The process of participating in these cases, the process of documenting the evidence, the process of even speaking out loud about the violations that an individual or victim had to endure and who perpetrated those violations, that’s important from a documentation perspective; from a healing perspective for victims; for the memorialization and education perspective so that decades from now, the history of the Syrian revolution and the Syrian war isn’t rewritten.”

The post Syrian Refugees Use Precedent Set in Rohingya Case to Try to Bring Government Officials Before the International Criminal Court appeared first on The Intercept.

“There Are Innocent People on Death Row” — Citing Wrongful Convictions, California Governor Halts Executions

In a historic executive order signed Wednesday morning, California Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions and ordered the death chamber at San Quentin Prison — unused following a $853,000 renovation a decade ago — closed. “We are, as I speak — as I speak — shutting down, removing the equipment in the death chamber at San Quentin,” Newsom said at a press conference at the state capitol in Sacramento.

In remarks that emphasized racial disparities and the risk of executing innocent people, Newsom described his decision as the culmination of “a 40-year journey” that began when he was just a child. His grandfather introduced him to Pete Pianezzi, who came close to receiving the death penalty in 1940 after being set up by the mob. Pianezzi was eventually pardoned in 1981, at the age of 79. But wrongful convictions remain a profound danger. “You had someone just last year that was released from death row after serving 26 years in San Quentin,” he said, referring to the case of Vicente Benavides, exonerated in April 2018.

Newsom’s order leaves intact the sentences of all 737 condemned people in the state, the largest death row in the country. It also does nothing to stop prosecutors from seeking new death sentences, something California district attorneys have proven eager to do. In this sense, Newsom’s announcement merely formalizes the status quo in a state whose death penalty system has come to be defined by disarray — and where no executions have been carried out in more than 13 years.

Nevertheless, the governor’s language against the death penalty was passionate and unambiguous, suggesting that he could take more decisive action in the future. He explained that he felt no choice but to act now upon being confronted with the question of whether he would continue the efforts of the previous administration to adopt a viable lethal injection protocol. “I would be lying if I said I could support that,” he said. In addition, he said, there are 25 people on death row who have exhausted their appeals, raising the possibility that he would have to oversee their executions, something he would be unwilling to do.

Newsom’s move comes just a few years after California actually voted to hasten executions in the state. Voters in the 2016 election were faced with confusing, dueling ballot initiatives: Proposition 66, which sought to revamp the system in order to speed up executions (a measure strongly supported by law enforcement), and Proposition 62, which sought to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life without parole. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown stayed mum on the issue as did Kamala Harris, then the state’s attorney general and now a U.S. senator and Democratic candidate for president. But Newsom, at that time the state’s lieutenant governor, came out forcefully in favor of abolition, writing that the death penalty was “fundamentally immoral.” When the votes were counted, Prop 62 had failed and Prop 66 had passed by the narrowest of margins.

As predicted at the time, legal challenges have blocked the implementation of Prop 66. Today, California is one of several death penalty states where executions remain stalled with no sign of restarting. In Pennsylvania, which has not used its death chamber since 1999, Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on executions in 2015, calling the death penalty “ineffective, unjust, and expensive.” Moratoriums have also remained in place in Oregon and Colorado, two states on the cusp of abolishing executions altogether.

Even the most active death penalty states have been continually mired in controversy and litigation over execution protocols. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine recently announced a pause on executions while the state weighs alternatives to its lethal injection protocol. The decision came soon after he granted a reprieve to Warren Keith Henness in January, citing concerns by a federal judge that the execution would be akin to torture.

In many ways, California’s death penalty system is emblematic of the state of capital punishment nationwide. As in much of the country, people on death row in the state are more likely to die from illness, suicide, or old age than they are to be executed. California’s last execution took place in January 2006, when it put to death 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen, the oldest person ever executed by the state. Allen, who was diabetic and legally blind, was brought to the death chamber in a wheelchair. Soon after Allen’s execution, a challenge to the state’s lethal injection protocol brought the system to a halt.

Yet California prosecutors continued to seek death sentences — 180 people were sent to death row between 2006 and 2015, the last year for which the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has posted data. Since California reauthorized the death penalty in 1978, death sentences have rarely led to executions. According to data compiled by The Intercept, at least 72 people on death row have had their sentences reduced to life with or without parole and at least 11 have been released from prison, including six who were ultimately exonerated. And the row continues to gray: Fifty-three percent are 50 or older; 79 people have died awaiting execution. Twenty-six have killed themselves.

Nevertheless, prosecutors continue to insist that the death penalty is effective and necessary. The Association of Deputy District Attorneys lambasted Newsom’s order as “hasty and ill-considered,” saying that it violates the will of the people. “The voters of the State of California support the death penalty,” ADDA President Michele Hanisee said, saying that this was “powerfully demonstrated by their approval of Proposition 66 in 2016.” In an interview with The Intercept that year, Hanisee said that hastening executions was about delivering justice to victims, not about clearing the growing backlog of people awaiting execution. “I don’t think the goal is to clear death row,” she said at the time. “That would be perverse.”

“A Colossal Failure”

News of the governor’s moratorium came as a pleasant surprise to Donald Heller, the veteran California attorney who wrote the 1978 ballot initiative that created California’s current death penalty law. Heller told The Intercept in 2016 that he was dismayed at the way the law was applied, particularly in the case of Tommy Thompson, a man executed in 1998 — and who Heller firmly believed was innocent.

Heller was in Boston and had not yet heard the news about Newsom’s planned announcement when The Intercept reached him on Tuesday night. “I applaud what he’s doing,” he said. “It shows courage and a belief that capital punishment should eventually be abolished.” Heller was an outspoken supporter of Prop 34, the predecessor to the abolitionist initiative defeated in 2016. At that time, he recalled, “it was estimated we had spent $4 billion executing 13 people, which is truly insane.” Today, the estimate has climbed to $5 billion.

Heller calls the ballot initiative he authored in the late 1970s “a colossal failure, because it didn’t function as intended.” Rather than make the death penalty apply to only the most egregious crimes, “it filled death row — and so many cases have been overturned for reasons that dealt with ineffective assistance of counsel. It’s just not effective — and I’m convinced it’s not a deterrent.”

Darryl Stallworth, a former prosecutor turned defense attorney in Oakland who campaigned for Prop 62, was “absolutely delighted” at Newsom’s decision. Stallworth came to oppose the death penalty after prosecuting a young black man in a capital case that ultimately ended with a sentence of life without parole. After 27 years working in the justice system, he has returned time and again to “the fundamental understanding that the death penalty does not deter crime, it does not save lives, it does not provide closure, it subjects people to an awful lot of disproportionate treatment based on color, class, gender,” he said. “It is a system that does not have the proper mechanisms to make sure that they get it right, and even if they do, oftentimes it’s still not constitutional.” Stallworth called capital punishment a “scar” on the nation’s laws. “I’m happy that the governor has recognized the scar, the taint, the damage that it has left on the criminal justice system.”

As Newsom made clear at the Wednesday press conference, the enduring unfairness inherent in the death penalty was what forced him to act. More than 60 percent of California’s death row population are people of color; overall, 61 percent of Californians are white. “Our death penalty system has been — by any measure — a failure,” Newsom said. “It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation.” It does not act as a deterrent and has wasted billions, he said. “But most of all, the death penalty is absolute. Irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”

And there are lingering questions about the impact of human error — and of bias and corruption — in a number of California cases, including that of Kevin Cooper, who has been on death row since he was convicted in 1985 of a grisly quadruple murder in Chino Hills. There are serious reasons to question Cooper’s guilt — and to believe that he was framed by law enforcement — and he has long sought DNA testing in an effort to clear his name. But Kamala Harris refused to allow the testing during her time as attorney general — and then Jerry Brown dragged his heels until the last days of his administration, when he finally issued an executive order providing limited testing and consideration of disputed evidence. In February, Newsom widened the scope of the testing.

The country also watched as California’s death penalty system went into full meltdown mode in Orange County as prosecutors tried to secure the death penalty for Scott Dekraai, who killed eight people in Seal Beach in 2011. Dogged work by public defender Scott Sanders revealed years of malfeasance by the county’s district attorney and sheriff’s office, who employed jailhouse snitches in unconstitutional schemes in an attempt to pry confessions from inmates awaiting trial. The extent of the scandal convinced a state district judge to bar the state from seeking the death penalty for Dekraai: It could not be trusted to ethically do so, he found. The scandal ultimately led to the ouster of long-time District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, a rabid supporter of Prop 66 who was defeated in the 2018 elections.

Ultimately, Newsom said it will be up to Californians to end the death penalty, which he hopes they will do. “Five billion dollars could have bought a lot of justice for murder victims that didn’t have their murders investigated,” he said. “Five billion dollars could have bought a lot of justice to people that had inadequate representation. … Five billion dollars could have bought a lot of justice in training to right the wrongs of a criminal justice system that is skewed against black and brown people.”

The post “There Are Innocent People on Death Row” — Citing Wrongful Convictions, California Governor Halts Executions appeared first on The Intercept.

The American Machine: Police Torture to Drone Assassinations

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In 1969, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was gunned down by Chicago Police in his bedroom. This week on Intercepted: Famed civil rights lawyer Flint Taylor discusses his 13 year struggle for justice for Hampton, his work in exposing the torture program in Chicago that was unleashed on black men, and his career fighting against violent corrupt cops, the city of Chicago, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Taylor’s new memoir is called “The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago.” As Donald Trump ramps up drone strikes, he has officially wiped out the already minimal accountability guidelines implemented by Barack Obama. Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union talks about the expansion of drone strikes under Trump, how Obama paved the way for his successor, and what we might expect from Attorney General William Barr. Meghan McCain is not Jewish, but she is accusing a Jewish comic artist of creating “one of the most anti-Semitic things” she has ever seen: a cartoon about her hypocrisy in attacking Ilhan Omar and appropriating Jewish suffering. Artist Eli Valley talks about why he drew it and why he believes McCain’s attacks on his cartoon prove the very point he was making.


Andrew Lelling: We’re here today to announce charges in the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.

Announcer: On the campus of one of America’s leading universities —

Donald J. Trump: I understand things. I comprehend very well.

Announcer: The most gifted mind to ever enter its classrooms.

DJT: Better than I think almost anybody, OK?

Stellan Skarsgård as Gerald Lambeau: This boy’s genius is unparalleled. I need someone who can get through to them.

DJT: So, I mean I was born with a certain intellect that is good for this. You know I have very high aptitude. I’m like a smart person.

Announcer: Some people can never believe in themselves until someone believes in them.

DJT: You wouldn’t believe it but I was a very good student. I was a good student. I was a good student. You know, I was a good student. I was always a good student. And I was a good student.

Robin Williams as Sean Maguire: You can do anything you want. You are bound by nothing.

DJT: I was a very smart guy, good student, all that stuff, OK? I was a great student, went to the best schools, all that stuff. Look, I was a good student, went to the best schools, and all that stuff. I mean, I was a good student at the best school and all of that. You know, I was a good student, went to a great school, and all that stuff. I was a great student. I went to the best schools. So I was a very good student at the best schools. I was a great student. Went to the best school.

Announcer: And some, never know how much they can have until they discover how much they can give.

Michael Cohen: I’m talking about a man who declares himself brilliant but directed me to threaten his high school, his colleges, and the college board to never release his grades or SAT scores.

[Music interlude.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 86 of Intercepted.

Walter Mondale: That the FBI possessed the ability to enter into this field and to investigate and to intimidate and seek to neutralize and indeed replace a civil rights leader that they thought to be politically unacceptable. Is that correct?

Frederick Schwarz: Yes.

JS: The history of the United States is rife with stories, programs, laws that have at their center a dedication to crushing and ending black lives. This nation was built on slavery. It was built on a white supremacist ideology. It was intended to be a white man’s paradise served and serviced by its non-white, disenfranchised residents — millions of whom were kidnapped from their homes in Africa and brought in chains by ship to the United States.

Slavery was ultimately ended. But the ideology behind it persisted. The white power structure in this country fought militantly against giving rights to black people. It fought against allowing them to use the same bathrooms as white people, or to it eat in restaurants alongside white people. It fought against their right to vote or to seek office.

Newscaster: As in many places in the south, voter registration was designed to keep Negro voting to a minimum. Difficult literacy tests were administered by white officials and Negroes who attempted to register were often harassed.

JS: And all of this was what played out in public, in full view. But it hardly stopped there. In the mid-1950s, the notorious FBI director for life J. Edgar Hoover created a program that was aimed at secretly destroying political and social movements, including black liberation movements. That program was known as COINTELPRO, short for Counterintelligence program.

Edgar Hoover: Today, you have in charge of the communist party a hardcore fanatical group of members who are dedicated to the overthrow of our government by force and violence.

JS: Originally, COINTELPRO was aimed at infiltrating and destroying the Communist Party in the U.S., but J. Edgar Hoover also directed that all covert operations aimed at destroying black liberation movements that they should be placed under the program as well. So under COINTELPRO, you had black leaders such as Martin Luther King being surveilled, Malcolm X, Black Panther leaders, non-violent activists like Bayard Rustin, the fighter Muhammad Ali all of them were monitored around the clock. Smear campaigns were waged against them in the media. Hoover actually tried to blackmail Martin Luther King into committing suicide.

WM: And the tactics they used apparently had no end… They involved even plans to replace him with someone else the FBI was to select as a national civil rights leader.

JS: Agent provocateurs were sent to infiltrate Black groups, Native American groups, antiwar organizations, socialist parties. Their purpose was to sow division, to provoke violence, to destroy the movements from within. It was not until 1971 when the COINTELPRO program broke out into the public light.

Carl Stern: The documents prove for the first time that the FBI undertook a program in 1968 to harass and destroy new left political organizations whose views the federal police agency disagreed with. Wrote FBI director Hoover, the purpose of the program would be to expose and disrupt the new left. We must frustrate every effort of these groups and individuals to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or youthful adherence. In every instance, consideration should be given to disrupt the organized activity of these groups. Director Hoover detailed the set up of the program, saying anarchists and revolutionists had to be neutralized if law and order and a civilized society were to survive.

JS: And it must be noted that several targets of COINTELPRO operations were assassinated during this secret reign of the COINTELPRO program. We still do not have the full story of whether the FBI was directly involved in many of those political assassinations that took place in this country.

And even after COINTELPRO was publicly exposed, the tactics and aims of the program have not died, including to this day. We know that these tactics are still used against Black Lives Matter activists, against Muslim groups, activists in the U.S., anti-war organizations, environmental groups, and most recently journalists reporting on the border in this country.

Mari Payton: Individuals on the list include journalists, an attorney and dozens of others labeled by the U.S. government as an organizer or instigator. They all have a connection to the migrant caravan at the San Diego-Mexico border. Customs and Border Protection did not deny the database exists and defended its use.

JS: As COINTELPRO was in full swing, the U.S. intensified its war in Vietnam. In that war, the U.S. ran assassination operations, including under the CIA’s so-called Phoenix Program. They used torture. They killed massive numbers of civilians. And a good number of the people who participated in these crimes abroad returned home to the United States and became police officers. Among these there was a man named Jon Burge. He was a military police officer in Vietnam and then joined the Chicago Police Department, rising to become a prominent detective.

During his time in the Chicago Police, Jon Burge married the worlds of the murderous war in Vietnam with the most extreme crimes of the COINTELPRO program. He ran what can only be called a torture program in the city of Chicago that was aimed at getting confessions from black men to crimes that many of them had nothing to do with. Burge used many of the very tactics that he learned and implemented in Vietnam as a prison guard on the black men he encountered when he became a police officer in the city of Chicago. This torture included a makeshift torture machine that was used to electrically shock suspects, including by attaching alligator clips to the genitals of men and jolting their bodies with painful electric shocks.

At the same time, the Chicago police — in concert with the FBI — murdered the most prominent Black Panther leader in Illinois in his bedroom in the middle of the night. That leader was Fred Hampton, the chair of the Illinois Black Panthers and a national leader of the party. And our next guest was in that house soon after Fred Hampton and his fellow Black Panther Mark Clark were killed. He recalls standing in a pool of blood on December 4, 1969.

Civil Rights Lawyer Flint Taylor on His New Book “The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago”

I am talking about the now-legendary lawyer, Flint Taylor. He’s a founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago, an office which has been dedicated to litigating civil rights, police violence, government misconduct, and death penalty cases for over 45 years. He spent 13 years fighting for justice for Hampton and Clark. He was also one of the main people responsible for exposing Jon Burge and his torturing of black men. And Flint Taylor has won tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits brought on behalf of some of Burge’s torture victims. Flint Taylor has an incredible and devastating new book out. It’s called “The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago.” And Flint Taylor joins me now. Flint, welcome to Intercepted.

Flint Taylor: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

JS: I want to start where you start in your book with the murder of Fred Hampton. First, explain who Fred Hampton was.

FT: Well, Fred Hampton was a 21-year-old, very charismatic young leader of the Black Panther Party here in Chicago.

Fred Hampton: We’ll work with anybody, form coalitions with anybody that has revolution on their mind. We’re not a racist organization because we understand that racism is an excuse used for capitalism and we know that racism is a by-product of capitalism. Everything would be all right if everything was put back into the hands of the people and we’re going to have to put it back into the hands of the people.

FT: He was very much an up-and-coming star in the Panther Party in 1969.

FH: And why they want to get rid of me because I’m saying something that might wake up some other exploited people, some other oppressed people and if all these people ever get together then these pigs who are exploiting us, we’ll [inaudible]. That’s why they want to get rid of us.

FT: And he was targeted not only by the Chicago police and the district attorney known as a state’s attorney here in Chicago, Edwin Hanrahan.

FH: We don’t think to fight fire with fire, we’re getting ready to fight fire with water. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism but we’re going to fight it with socialism. We’re still in the city. We’re not going to fight reactionary pigs, and reactionary state’s attorneys like this and reactionary state’s attorneys like Hanrahan with any other reactions on our parts. We’re going to fight their reactions with all those people getting together and have an international proletariat revolution.

Crowd: Right on!

FH: And let’s say all power to all people.

FT: And it turns out the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, and the counterintelligence program of the FBI —

JS: COINTELPRO, you’re referring to?

FT: Exactly.

FH: You can jail the revolutionary but you can’t jail revolution. You can run a freedom fight around the country but you can’t run freedom fighting around the country. You can shoot a liberator but you can’t shoot liberation. If you do, you come up with answers that don’t answer, relations that don’t explain, solutions that don’t solve, and conclusions that don’t conclude. If you’re there to struggle, you better win. If you don’t struggle, then you don’t deserve to win. You don’t deserve to win. We’ve said simply, you’ve got to get out here and you’ve got to involve yourself in the struggle. You’ve got to come out here and put yourself on the line. You’ve got to come out here and support the Vanguard party of international proletariat and revolutionary struggles. That’s the Black Panther Party.

Newscaster: This is the NBC News noon report. The latest news with Jorie Lueloff.

Jorie Lueloff: Good afternoon. The 20-year-old chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton was shot and killed in a predawn shootout with state’s attorney’s police in his West Side apartment.

JS: What happened the night that Fred Hampton was killed?

FT: I think it’s pretty clear it was an assassination. It happened at 4:30 in the morning on December 4th, 1969. He was asleep along with many other young Black Panthers, many of whom were like 17, 18 years old when the police came on a raid, 14 police officers with machine guns shotguns and they burst into the front and the back of this little apartment and they fired over 90 shots into the bedrooms. Fred Hampton never awoke and they shot him through the head twice and dragged his body off of the bed that he was sleeping on as a trophy and lay it on the floor outside of the bedroom.

JS: How did you Flint end up going to the house that night?

FT: We, the People’s Law Office, which had been founded only months before by young lawyers and law students — I was one of the law students. We represented the Panthers in Chicago and we represented Fred Hampton. The Panthers who survived reached out and we got a call, come to the chairman’s crib. He’s been murdered and the police had left it open. They hadn’t closed it off like made it a crime scene like you would expect they would with the yellow tape. So, we were able to enter the apartment and for the next ten days myself and many others spent that time taking evidence, taking video, and taking pictures and the Panthers very politically astute as they were they had daily guide-tours of the apartment showing people in the community what had happened, showing the walls where the bullets had gone in, and showing where the machine guns had riddled the plasterboard walls.

Archive: This here is the room where first brother Mark Clark was murdered at.

A: Don’t touch nothing. Don’t move nothing. We want to keep all the things just the way it is.

A: Don’t touch no walls. Please don’t.

TK: This here’s the door that they said that sister fired through with a shotgun but if a sister had fired through this door with a shotgun, you could look at the wall out there, and see something hole where the pellets left out there. You can see no signs of a shotgun blast being fired through this door here.

FT: The reaction of one older African American woman that while I was taking evidence kind of stopped and looked at the walls and she shook her head and she said, “Ain’t nothing but a northern lynching.” Literally thousands of Chicagoans, African American and concerned white people went through that apartment for the 10 days or so till the police decided that they had to close it.

JS: When you say that it’s clear now that this was an assassination, explain what you’re basing that on.

FT: Well, I’m basing it on 13 years of fighting to uncover the truth of the case. The dominant narrative was that it was a shootout, that the vicious and racist Black Panthers had fired 100 shots at the police and the police and only answered back.

Keith Klein: As soon as Sergeant Daniel Groth and Officer James Davis who were leading our men, announced their office, occupants of the apartment attacked them with shotgun fire. The officers immediately took cover. The occupants continued firing at our policemen from several rooms within the apartment. Thereafter, three times, Sergeant Groth ordered all his men to cease firing, and told the occupants to come out with their hands up. Each time, one of the occupants replied, ‘Shoot it out,’ and continued firing at police officers.

FT: Of course, we were able to show by the apartment itself that was a bold-faced lie. They had charged the Panthers who had survived with attempted murder. We were able to show that the ballistics reports that they were trying to base the fact that the Panthers fired shots were fabricated and in fact, those shots were fired by police weapons rather than Panther weapons. Those cases were dismissed and then we went to a civil suit during which we were able to uncover the fact that not only was there a COINTELPRO program designed to target and destroy the Black Panther Party, but that specifically the FBI had drafted a floor plan of the apartment shown where Fred Hampton would be sleeping and in fact, the bed where he was murdered. And the FBI in their racial matters COINTELPRO unit had passed that on to the state’s attorney’s police and the Chicago police and that they had used that as the kind of bedrock of that 4:30 in the morning raid. Nonetheless, given that, they found there was no probable cause to charge any of the officers or Hanrahan or anyone with any kind of violations of law.

FH: We always said the Black Panther Party, that they can do whatever they want to to us. We might not be back. I might be in jail. I might be anywhere, but when I leave, you can remember I said with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary. And you’re going to have to keep on saying that. You’re going to have to say that I am a proletariat. I am the people. I’m not the pig. You’ve got to make a distinction and the people are going to have to attack the pig. The people are going to have to stand up against the pig. That’s what the Panthers are doing. That’s what the Panthers are doing all over the world.

JS: You fought this, then legal, battle and then you have the rise of a now notorious figure within the Chicago Police Department Lieutenant Jon Burge. And he ends up being put in charge of a search for those responsible for a series of shootings that had occurred in broad daylight in Chicago. And Burge then goes on a rampage throughout the city. First describe who Jon Burge was.

FT: Jon Burge grew up on the Southeast Side of Chicago in a changing neighborhood. He flunked out of college and became a military police officer, a sergeant in Vietnam on a POW camp where it was later demonstrated that they were doing wholesale torture during interrogations and that they were using such tactics as electric shock. After he left Vietnam, he came back to Chicago, became a police officer, and quickly became a detective. He brought those dehumanization and racist attitudes and tactics back to Chicago and quickly rose in the ranks to lieutenant in charge of the entire detective division on the far South Side of Chicago, a predominantly African American part of the city. And he used those tactics to interrogate people who were suspected of committing serious crimes.

JS: What is the earliest evidence that you have of Burge torturing African American men in police custody?

FT:1972 and 1973, Burge got to area two, as it was known, and shortly thereafter there was a serious case where a young white boy had been seriously brutalized by some African American attackers. And Burge was involved in that investigation and the four people that they focused on were all brutally beaten in one form or another. The first time that we hear of actual use of electric shock with what my book refers to as the torture machine was in early 1973. A man named Anthony Holmes who was suspected of a murder, who was also a reputed gang leader, he was brought to area two and had electric shock administered to him as well as suffocation what they call “dry submarino” with a bag over his head in order to attempt to get a confession from him to a series of crimes that they thought he had knowledge of.

Anthony Holmes: I was laying flat on the floor. He lifted me up off the floor. I was on my back and he lifted me up and pulled the bag off my head. I know that I woke up, opened my eyes, the bag was off of my head. And I felt like I said, the last time, this is it. It felt like a thousand needles going through my body. Each time they shocked me and then I got the burning sensation. It was just too much. So when you lifted me off the floor the last time, I said, this is it. Whatever they want me to say or do, I did it, whatever it is, I killed the president, yeah I did that too. I didn’t care. I just wanted out of there.

JS: You use the phrase the torture machine and while people aren’t able to see it, maybe you could describe that machine.

FT: It turns out that Burge and his people used several machines to torture. Also, using plastic typewriter covers to do the dry submarino and suffocation and of course, using various weapons from mock executions. But the major torture machine that was described to us by Andrew Wilson, one of the two people who was picked up during this manhunt that you referred to earlier in 1982 —

Newscaster: Good evening, Chicago police at this moment are scouring the city, trying to hunt down three suspects who are believed to be responsible for shooting two Chicago policeman this afternoon. One of the policemen is dead. The other is now —

Newscaster: Police detectives swarmed the scene at 81st and Morgan. An all-points bulletin was issued for two black gunmen driving a late model Brown Chevrolet Impala.

Newscaster: Here’s what’s new tonight: Both Chicago policemen are dead. Three young men are being questioned as suspects.

Newscaster: ChicagoPolice tonight are stepping up what is already one of the most massive manhunts —

FT: The torture machine was a black box with a field generator in it and by field generator — again, this goes back to Vietnam. In Vietnam, they had foam generators and they had a crank on them and they generated sufficient electricity so that you could talk over the wires in the battlefields, in the bogs and whatever in Vietnam. So, if you took this and you put it in a box, which is what Burge did, you then attach wires and you put alligator clips on the end of those wires and then you have a torture device. And what you can do is then attach those alligator clips to the nose, to the fingers, to the genitals, and then, you crank the box.


FT: And when you crank the box, you get enough electricity to shock the person who has the wires attached to them. Burge who had a boat — named the Vigilante, we later uncovered — had thrown this box into Lake Michigan or into the Chicago River sometime subsequent to the torture of Andrew Wilson.

Andrew Wilson: He put the wire on my fingers my baby finger, one on one finger and one on the other finger. And then he kept cranking it and kept cranking and kept cranking it. And I was hollering and screaming. I was calling for help and stuff. My teeth was grinding. Flickering in my head, pain and all that stuff. He kept cranking and cranking and cranking it, kept on doing it over and over and over. It hurts but it stays in your head. OK. It stays in your head and it grinds your teeth. It grinds constantly. It grinds constantly. The pain just stays in your head. Burge asked me, “was I going to make a statement? Or was he going to torture me some more?” And I told him I would make a statement. I’d sign anything they gave me because I didn’t want to be tortured anymore. Burge said we’re going to fry your black ass now because of the statement I gave him.

FT: So we never were able to obtain the actual box. But through the description of Andrew Wilson we constructed a facsimile of the box right down to the fact that it would give a shock and in fact, that torture was the culmination of a five-day manhunt that was just a terror regime led by Jon Burge and countenanced and encouraged by the mayor at that time, Jane Byrne and the State’s Attorney of Cook County Richard M. Daley. At that point, in 1987, 1988, we then became Andrew Wilson’s lawyers. That’s when I started to become intimately aware of the details of not only the torture of Andrew Wilson. There were some other names that Berge had used bragging about having tortured them and that started us out on this crusade, so to speak, evidentiary and investigative crusade to find the men who had been tortured. And that’s led over the last 30 years as is chronicled in the book to documenting over 125 cases of police torture during that 20-year period from 1972 to 1991.

And the title of my book is the “Torture Machine” partly because of that and partly because the machine, the Chicago machine, the Daley machine, the Democratic machine, whatever you want to call it, was so responsible for part and parcel of this happening, this 20 years of police torture as well as, covering it up and refusing to prosecute Burge or any of the people that worked for him. But rather promoting him and using the illicit and unconstitutional evidence that they would get from men who were tortured thinking that they were actually on the brink of death. Prosecutors taking those confessions, being in those station rooms, knowing that this was happening using that evidence in court, judges knowing it was happening, not throwing out the confessions but rather refusing to credit the stories that were being told again and again by tortured suspects and people who ultimately would end up convicted, many of whom actually ended up on Illinois death row.

Darrell Cannon: You know I was just “a nigga” to them. That’s it. They kept using that word like that was my name, you know. So, no ma’am, they had no respect for me being a human being. I never expected “police officers” to do anything that barbaric, you know, but because the fact that I’m Afro-American, you know, who’s going to believe me in court? Nobody.

FT: One of the most moving stories in the book is the story of Darrell Cannon. Two of Burge’s henchmen, his most trusted lieutenants, picked up Darrell in 1983 as a suspect in a murder case, took him to an abandoned area near some factories where there was a body of water and some old railroad tracks and they tortured him. First, they attempted to hang him up by his handcuffs. But that didn’t work. So, they then took a shotgun out of their trunk and they took the shotgun and they forced it into his mouth. They then pulled the trigger on the shotgun that was in Darrell’s mouth. He thought it was going to go off. It didn’t. They did it three times and the third time, Darrell described it as he pictured that the back of his head had been blown off. They threw him in the back of the detective car, pulled his pants down, and they had a handy little cattle prod and they used a cattle prod on his genitals and ultimately they got him to sign a confession back at the station that he was accountable, that he had driven the car in which the murder had taken place, and Darrell’s case went on for decades.

JS: In fact, I remember, Flint, I believe it was the first time that I was with you in person in Chicago was years ago when Darrell had finally gotten out of prison. And I have never been able to shake from my mind Darrell struggling through the emotion, the tears, the pain to tell publicly his story but explain how he eventually got out, when he got out, and what the resolution of that case was.

FT: He was sentenced to life and they put him in the supermax prison in Tamms which is at the very, very southern tip of stay in clan country. During that time, we were developing all this evidence of a pattern and practice of police torture. We were able to get Darrell a new hearing in his case armed with evidence that not only was he tortured by these henchmen for Burge but there was a whole litany of different cases that Burge and his men had tortured people. And in 2007, which was 24 years after he was first tortured, he got out of prison.

JS: Talk about who else knew or was aware that Burge was running these torture operations. How high up did it go in the government, in the city of Chicago or state of Illinois?

FT: State’s attorney Daley knew that torture took place at police headquarters as well as that area two. The police superintendent knew that the mayor of the city of Chicago Jane Byrne knew and encouraged it. She met with Burge on at least two or three occasions, we learned decades later, and she said whatever is necessary. And of course, at that point, Burge was a lieutenant who was the head of an entire police area. So, we’re talking about people very high up. Daley himself was presented with medical evidence that Andrew Wilson had been tortured. He was the prosecutor and he decided not to prosecute Burge because he knew that if he did that the case against Andrew and Jackie Wilson would be jeopardized so he instead commended Burge as did the superintendent of police. And because of that in 1982, we have another 10 years of torture that goes on before the evidence that we uncovered was taken to the police department and a reinvestigation was done and ultimately Burge was fired in 1993.

JS: And what happened after Burge was fired? Was he ultimately charged with any crimes?

FT: Yes, 15 years later.

Interrogator: Mr. Burge, would you state your full name and spell it for the record, please?

Jon Burge: John, J-O-N, middle initial G, as in George, Burge, B-U-R-G-E.

Interrogator: Now, during that 25 years, 20 years of working with the Chicago Police Department, did you come across instances of police torture?

JB: I will adopt my prior answer to the first question as my answer to that question.

Interrogator: Are you taking your Fifth Amendment rights?

JB: Yes, that is correct. I’ll adapt my initial responses to answer that question.

Interrogator: You take the Fifth Amendment?

JB: Yes, that’s correct.

Interrogator: Were you interrogating a suspect in area two —

JS: It seems as though that regularly there’s sort of this sense that oh, Chicago now has to face up to the actions of its police department and there has to be accountability and this has to be stopped. And yet, we keep having these kinds of cases in Chicago where there is extra-judicial killings or questionable killings by the police, where dirty tricks are used against suspects and where black neighborhoods are laid siege to. What about that legacy and the fact that the Chicago Police Department, it never, never really seems to fundamentally change?

FT: I wouldn’t argue with you. There have been significant victories that the community has accomplished over the years, not the least of which was Burge actually being convicted and being sent to the penitentiary. Of course, it wasn’t for torture it was for perjury and obstruction of justice. And of course, reparations. I mean, this is the first city to have reparations for survivors of police torture, almost exclusively African American men. An apology from the mayor and the City Council directly to those men. And most significantly, a counseling center for victims of torture and brutality. And the fact that the history of police torture will be taught and is already being taught to 8th and 10th graders in the Chicago Public Schools. But you’re correct. When you look at the Laquan McDonald case and the cover-up of that case and the judge who walked those three officers who covered up in the face of the videotape, you look at the power of the Fraternal Order of Police here who basically are more powerful than the police department itself.

Now, all police officers black and white belong to it or are supposed to belong to it. And yet, when it comes time to decide whether to defend Burge and to spend the dues to pay for private lawyers to defend Burge in his firing case and later in his criminal case, that’s unanimously passed. When it comes time to pay the lawyers for Van Dyke, the officer who murdered Laquan McDonald on videotape, the FOP does that. When it’s time to picket in a courtroom where we’re fighting for the release, 36 years later, of a man who was tortured, the FOP is there. And there seems to be, regardless of the fact that there [are] 10 or 15 percent officers of color, that still happens.

And not only does that still happen but even though we have an African American police superintendent who was put in place by Rahm Emanuel after the Laquan McDonald tape became public, he came from within the department. He knows where all the bones are buried. He, in fact, was part of the culture of the code of silence and of racism even though he is African American, over all these years. And in fact he, as have several of the prior African American superintendents, basically been connected to that machine and also been in fact, frontmen for the politics of racism and brutality that comes from the Democratic machine on down.

JS: Well, Flint Taylor, I want to thank you, first and foremost, for the tireless work that you’ve done over these decades and the work that you’ve done to free people against the odds who were tortured by agents of the state or unjustly imprisoned by agents of the state. Thank you so much, Flint Taylor, for writing the book and for the work that you have done for so long.

FT: Thank you as well. I’m pleased and honored to be on your show and right back at you for all the wonderful work that you do.

JS: Flint Taylor is a founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago. He’s spent his life fighting against the torture and extrajudicial killings of black people targeted by the Chicago police. His new book is called “The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago.” It’s published by Haymarket Books.

[Music interlude.]

JS: Just a head’s up, I am going to be a guest this week on Deconstructed, the podcast hosted by my colleague Mehdi Hasan. We’re going to be talking about his incredible hour-long interview of Blackwater founder Erik Prince. Among other topics, we’re going to talk about what Prince was doing at a secret meeting with Don Jr., an Israeli, and representatives of some repressive Arab governments.

Mehdi Hasan: You were asked were there any former communications or contact with the campaign, you said apart from writing papers, putting up yard signs, no. That’s what you said. I’ve got the transcript of the conversation here.

Erik Prince: Sure, I think I was at Trump headquarters, or their campaign headquarters —

MH: Trump Tower, August 3rd, 2016. You, an Israeli dude, a back channel to the Emirates and the Saudis, Don Jr., Steven Miller.

EP: We were there to talk about Iran policy.

MH: You were there to talk about Iran policy?

EP: Mhmm.

MH: Don’t you think that’s something important to disclose to the House Intelligence Committee while you’re under oath?

EP: I did.

MH: You didn’t. We just went through the testimony. There’s no mention of the Trump Tower meeting in August 2016. Why not?

EP: I don’t know if they got the transcript wrong.

JS: That’s coming up on Thursday on Deconstructed. Make sure to tune in!

[Music interlude.]

Hina Shamsi of the ACLU on the Expansion of Drone Strikes Under Trump

JS: When Barack Obama became commander in chief in January of 2009, he embraced a strategy proposed to him by the CIA and the U.S. military’s elite Special Operations Command. While scaling back some troop deployments, such as in Iraq, Obama began to radically increase the number of U.S. drone strikes, both those conducted by the CIA and the military and he also focused more on assassinating people that his administration designated as terrorists or suspected militants. And this resulted in the creation of what amounted to a secret parallel justice system where the president and his advisers served as prosecutors, the judge, the jury and, ultimately, the executioner. At one point, they discussed the so-called nominees for death by drone strike at weekly meetings known as Terror Tuesdays. They killed U.S. citizens and foreigners and the entire process was shrouded in secrecy.

And Obama effectively sold liberals on the idea that he was waging a smarter war than Bush. And he sold them on the idea that they should trust his secret process to make sure the so-called bad guys were being targeted and that every precaution was being taken to spare civilian life. To this day, we do not know how many people have been killed in U.S. drone strikes and we do not know the identity of the overwhelming majority of the people killed. After nearly 8 years in office, in 2016, the Obama administration scrambled to put in place rules for these assassination operations. Obama also signed an Executive Order committing his administration to providing the public with estimates on the number of civilians killed.

Barack Obama: As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni. I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.

JS: Despite Obama’s claims to regret the killing of civilians, his administration never explained why it killed a 16-year-old U.S. citizen, Abdulrahman al Awlaki, in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. The American Civil Liberties Union has been legally challenging drone strikes since they began, and when they ramped up under Obama. Donald Trump then comes into office in 2017 after having pledged to kill more people, possibly kill the families of suspected terrorists, his pledge to bring back torture and to fill Guantanamo back up. As soon as Trump took office, a botched Yemen raid killed another of al Awlaki’s children. This time, it was the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki. But Trump’s murderous expansion of raids and drones strikes has only gotten worse as time has gone on.

DJT: They never got hit like this. We took off the gloves. In one year, we did more damage to ISIS than other administrations, a certain other administration, did in many years.

[Crowd cheers.]

JS: Donald Trump’s current CIA director Gina Haspel was a key figure in the Bush-era torture and black site program. And in 2017, Trump did not disclose estimates of civilians killed as called for under Obama’s executive order. And then, earlier this year, Trump made it all official and he rescinded that order. The Pentagon is still required to report how many civilians have been killed in their strikes, but that requirement only covers Department of Defense. So, the covert drone strikes conducted by the CIA are completely off the books. Also, there is the fact that the identities of many of the people killed in these strikes are unknown and they are preemptively labeled Enemies Killed in Action unless they are posthumously proven to have been civilians.

But it’s not just the clawing back of the incredibly minimal standards that Obama put in place. Trump has loosened rules for striking when civilians may be killed, he’s authorized an unprecedented drone assassination campaign aimed at so-called foot soldiers of the al Qaeda affiliate, al Shabab in Somalia. In just two years in office, Donald Trump is shattering Obama’s bloody record on the number of drone strikes and the numbers of people killed in those strikes.

To discuss all of this, I am joined by one of the top lawyers who was fighting the Bush administration, the Obama administration, and now, the Trump administration on these policies. Hina Shamsi is the director of the ACLU National Security Project and she joins me now. Hina, welcome back to Intercepted.

Hina Shamsi: Thanks very much for having me again.

JS: So earlier this month Trump signed this executive order on the revocation of reporting requirement regarding U.S. drone strikes overseas. Before we talk about that revocation, the day before Trump comes into office what was the policy on this that had been set by Barack Obama?

HS: So there are a couple of things, one the policy on transparency and one the policy on the underlying program. So, with respect to transparency, Obama had put in place an executive order in 2016 requiring disclosure of civilian and what they called combatant casualties, right? And also requiring the government, committing the government to explain discrepancies between the government’s count which has always been low and that by independent media and human rights groups. And that’s what Trump revoked. There are other parts of the executive order though which still remain which include that the government is still committed to, you know, taking into account reporting about civilian casualties from outside groups. It’s just now that everything becomes less open, far more secret.

JS: The fact that you say that Obama did this in 2016. He was elected in 2008. He spent eight years expanding drone operations around the world. Why did it take him until 2016 to put in any kind of rules and why did they do it at the very end of the Obama administration?

HS: Well, I think one of the things that was going on is that the Obama administration never let go of, really, the most underlying expansive and dangerous legal arguments about the authority that the president had to carry out and authorize strikes in countries where we were not at war. And that’s the underlying program that I mentioned earlier and that was what really concerned us which is that you know throughout the administration, they vastly expanded this lethal program of strikes. And they did so by cherry picking from a mishmash of legal frameworks that essentially exist to limit when the government kills including especially outside the context of armed conflict. And they took the most permissive aspects of those legal frameworks but not the aspects that were safeguards. And I think genuinely, people in the Obama administration were troubled by what they were doing even as they were unable to let it go. And so, what they did was put a gloss of policy safeguards that sought to limit harm to civilians.

BO: But there have to be some guardrails. And what we’ve had to do on things like drones or the NSA or a number of the tools that we use to penetrate terrorist networks, what we’ve got to do is to build the guardrails internally. Essentially set up a whole series of processes to guard against government overreach to reform some practices that I thought over time would threaten civil liberties.

HS: And that’s where we were by the end of 2016 and then, Trump gets elected. And I think there’s a real sense of what’s going to happen? But an unwillingness to let go of where they had arrived which is the underlying, very dangerous expansive program in the first place.

JS: If I’m not mistaken, Trump has already conducted more drone strikes in his two years or so in office than Obama did during eight years in office. We’ve seen this radical uptick in strikes in Somalia where hundreds of people have been killed in Somalia. We don’t know who they are. But describe how on this issue, things have changed from Obama to Trump, in your view as someone — not just on a legal perspective — but as someone who has just intimately followed the evolution of the assassination programs in the United States. What is the change or difference from Obama to Trump that you’ve seen?

HS: So a couple of things, one is secrecy really, really gone up and higher and back up. So, far more strikes being carried out exactly as you said, Jeremy, and a real unwillingness — and the revocation that we just talked about is part of that — a real unwillingness to say where they’re happening, why. So, that’s a significant change between the end of the Obama administration [and] the Trump administration. There’s also a level of lifting of safeguards, lifting of constraints, right? And I think one of the striking things about the Trump era is that it makes very clear to everyone how fragile policy and norms are and how important legal arguments are, right, and legal claims. So, there’s been continuity in the United States with respect to this really illegal and immoral program. But now the policy constraints have been lifted and Somalia is a clear example of that.

So, part of what we’ve seen happening in Somalia is it started out as strikes ostensibly against al Qaeda. Then, it expanded to — al Shabab is an affiliate of al Qaeda — and then it expanded to strikes against al Shabab in support of local partner forces. So what you have is getting further and further away from any kind of strikes that are against what the program said it was about which was exceptional originally to high-level people. And now, there are strikes taking place against people who are essentially what are low-level, who don’t pose a threat to the United States and it’s ever-expanding.

JS: As you and I both know, Hina, based on documents that were provided to The Intercept by a whistleblower who had worked as part of the assassination program in these drone operations, that at least when it comes to strikes directed and run by the Pentagon that the policy under Obama of the military was that if you kill 30 people in a strike and you know the identity of one of them because they were the objective, they were your target and you’ve killed that individual, the other 29 people that are killed there are preemptively categorized as “enemies killed in action” until or unless someone later proves that, in fact, they were a woman or a child or an innocent civilian. Is that still the policy as far as you know under Trump? Do you know what the policy is?

HS: It isn’t known. And you know, here’s where the secrecy is on the rise, right? We were second to no one in criticizing Obama and his policies. And I still think that we have to focus not just on the transparency but what’s also important which is the underlying illegal and immoral policy itself. With respect to what was happening by the end of the Obama administration, at least you had some better sense, some level of commitment to providing the kind of transparency that would enable some level of public accountability and debate, right? But Trump is really seeking to prevent that. Here’s the thing, so in the order that Trump just issued, changing the secrecy provisions, he says they’re essentially duplicative of provisions that exist in law.

But here’s what the law says: that law applies to the military not the CIA. Critically, the CIA also carries out strikes including drone strikes and it does so in far greater secrecy than the military does and with far less oversight than even the imperfect oversight there exists over the military. Now, in 2018 and 2019, in legislation to Congress’s credit, it imposed some rigorous reporting requirements on the military with respect to the strikes that it carries out. We’ll see how those pan out. We’ll see what becomes made public because that’s critically important. What the Trump revocation does is increase the secrecy with respect to the CIA, even as Trump agreed with Pompeo and agreed to get the CIA back into or more involved in the business of being a paramilitary killing organization.

JS: What’s the significance of Gina Haspel ascending to the position of director of the CIA regarding these issues we’re talking about?

HS: I think it should not escape anyone’s attention that Gina Haspel played a key role in the Bush administration’s torture program and plays a key role in deciding what will and will not be made public about that and about strikes. At this point, now we are at a point where there’s more killing, less oversight, more secrecy, less public accountability — and the American public, I think, really need to finally have a debate, a reckoning, about what this program is in our names and the harm it is causing.

JS: On this issue of war and killing civilians and drone strikes and whether the U.S. has a right to be engaged militarily in countries that Congress hasn’t declared war on, what does it mean that you have William Barr as the attorney general? I mean, you fought for years against Obama’s attorneys general. But what does that mean on these issues?

HS: William Barr has, like many people in the Trump administration do, a very extreme set of views about the ability of the executive branch to engage in national security decision making. And I would expect that those extreme views would be reflected in any court cases that are brought.

But here’s the thing, as I hope we’re starting to see — I feel like sometimes you know, when we have these conversations, Jeremy, it can feel very pessimistic but I want to sort of talk about a couple of more if not entirely optimistic but things that are encouraging. One is that, look how much Congress pushed back against Trump’s emergency declaration with respect to the border wall. And that’s actually one of the lawsuits that we currently have ongoing. But also just returning to this killing program, this lethal strike program overseas. I find it somewhat encouraging that at least some former officials from the Obama administration are beginning to grapple with what is a really morally and legally fraught position that they have taken and are recognizing the consequences of what happens when you think “OK, we just need to maintain the option. We just need to maintain this exceptional thing.” But you find that the exception becomes the rule and exceptional killing becomes a policy of killing.

JS: Well in fact,  the former killer in chief of JSOC, Stanley McChrystal has been one of those voices that he has spoken publicly and said —

Stanley McChrystal: And it’s the perception of, we can step back and hurl thunderbolts like Thor without any risk to ourselves that’s viewed as arrogance. Now, whether that’s right or wrong, perceptions matter in the world.

JS: Their argument on it is typically based on what’s best for “American interests” and the safety of American troops. But yes, there is a growing chorus of voices, of former military people, in particular, who are saying, “Yeah, it’s not good when we do this.” They may not have the same reasoning as you or I do but it lands at the same place. Killing civilians is bad.

HS: It does. And I think that’s because more and more people are coming to recognize that this policy of killings outside of war zones of recognized armed conflict is part of the forever war approach, right? America’s deadly addiction to war-based responses to real and perceived threats without taking into account alternatives. Whether those alternatives are feasibility of capture, right, which is one of the things that need to be taken into account, or diplomacy or longer standing outcomes that people on the ground in these countries have said. If you want to help us, if you want to reduce the regional and domestic conflicts that you are now purporting to engage yourself in, then there are other things that you can do that are better than and alternatives to killing.

And I think more and more people are beginning to recognize that, some policymakers are beginning to recognize that. There is more of a commitment to ending the American forever war approach. And those are some of the things that I think we need to hang onto with a word of caution which is that virtually all the policy proposals that we’ve started to see with respect to ending the forever wars carve out the ability to engage in counterterrorism strikes against purported terrorist and terrorist groups and that’s exactly the program that you and I are talking about now. So, when we see these policy proposals, I think folks have to be really looking at what they do and don’t do because the U.S. has a long history of criticizing other countries for rights violations while excusing its own.

JS: I wanted to ask you to respond to Ned Price who was one of those former Obama-era officials. He was at the CIA also was the spokesperson for Obama’s National Security Council. And this week on The Takeaway he said that —

Ned Price: For the first time, it allowed the administration to rebut with actual facts and figures the misinformation and even disinformation that terrorist groups and other adversaries around the globe put out in an attempt to undermine public confidence in and perception of the effectiveness and the accuracy and the results of American drone strikes, of our counterterrorism operations around the world.

JS: What’s your response to that?

HS: Well, one way to take away propaganda value is not to engage in unlawful killings in the first place. And I don’t mean to be glib about this at all. What you’ve got to realize is also happening is a justification and entrenchment of the entire underlying program itself. And what a perspective that focuses on the propaganda value of the purported enemy or the real enemy does is it really minimizes the viewpoints of people in the countries in which we’re carrying out these strikes. It doesn’t take into account the longer term strategic costs and consequences. And it doesn’t take into account the harm to the rule of law because these are the things that we are also going to be living with for a very long time until we rein this back in and end it.

JS: How much responsibility should we put on Obama and his administration for what Trump is now doing? Because they pushed the envelope so far and Trump just has broken it wide open. But as we look at this issue of Trump killing people, expanding wars, taking away what minimal accountability there was in these kinds of strikes, how should we view that administration in the context of these Trump policies?

HS: The arguments that have been made with respect to this lethal policy started out under the Bush administration, started out in various more or less transparent ways, mostly less transparent ways, in the Bush administration, entrenched and expanded by the Obama administration with all safeguards or critical safeguards lifted by the Trump administration. And exactly as you’re saying, Jeremy, what it comes down to is the fact that the U.S. has a policy in which the executive branch, the president claims the unilateral authority to kill suspects far from any battlefield without any due process at all. And that has been, is, continues to be a very, very dangerous thing with respect to rights rule of law, outcome, strategy, whichever perspective you want to look at it from.

JS: Well, Hina Shamsi, I want to thank you for all the work that you do and for staying as optimistic as you do given how dark and depressing so many of the issues you take on are. I really, I admire you for having the spine that you have and the heart that you have. So thank you for being with us.

HS: There’s really no choice except to keep going. That’s what my team and I do. Thank you very much for having me.

JS: Hina Shamsi is director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project. You can find her on Twitter at @HinaShamsi.

[Music interlude.]

Artist Eli Valley Talks About His Cartoon of Meghan McCain

JS: Last month, Rep. Ilhan Omar apologized after mounting bipartisan allegations that she engaged in anti-Semitic speech. This particular point of attack on Rep. Omar began after my colleague, Glenn Greenwald called out House minority leader Kevin McCarthy for threatening to punish Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib for criticizing Israel. In response, Omar tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”

After a day of swift outrage from Democrats and Republicans, Ilhan Omar apologized saying, “Anti-Semitism is real and I’m grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole.” Ilhan Omar went on to say, “At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”

But Omar’s criticism of Israel’s policies and the powerful influence of lobbyists on U.S. politics continues to be intentionally muddled with charges of anti-Semitism.

Meghan McCain: I take this very personally. I would go so far as to say I probably verge on being a Zionist, as well. But I will say that I don’t have family that is Jewish, but Joe Lieberman and Hadassah Lieberman are my family. And I take the hate crimes rising in this country incredibly seriously and I think what’s happening in Europe is really scary. And I’m sorry, I’m getting emotional but the idea that this is politicized — I was very nervous to talk about this on the show because I thought it would be politicized and it really shouldn’t be.

JS: Last week Meghan McCain, the daughter of the late John McCain and a co-host of The View, used her platform to equate Ilhan Omar’s criticism of the Israeli government to anti-semitic dog whistling — the tactic of using coded racist language. You know, like what Trump actually does, all the time.

DJT [on Fox & Friends]: Protesters, paid protesters —

Steve Doocy: The Democrats would send them?

DJT: The Democrats and Soros and they came from all over.

DJT [at Missoula rally]: Do you ever see when the fake news interviews them? And then they try and cut it, but they, they’ll go to a person holding a sign who gets paid by Soros or somebody, right? That’s what happens.

[Crows Boos.]

DJT [at Houston rally]: Power-hungry globalists. You know what a globalist is, right? You know what a globalist is?

JS: Back to Meghan McCain. Her emotional plea — conflating criticism of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism — inspired my next guest to give McCain the credibility she was, perhaps, seeking.

The artist, Eli Valley, in his known style of depicting subjects in a grotesque manner with folds of flesh, drew Meghan McCain sitting at a table, crying, surrounded by what he calls, Jewish kitsch.

Once Valley tweeted it, the image went viral. McCain — who is not Jewish — cried anti-Semitism and denounced it, calling the cartoon itself “one of the most anti-semitic things” that she’d ever seen. Joining me now to discuss the now infamous McCain comic is Eli Valley. He is a writer and artist whose work has been featured in The Nation, The New Republic, The Nib, and elsewhere.  He is also the author of “Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in American and Israel.” Eli Valley, welcome to Intercepted.

EV: Thank you, Jeremy. Good to be here.

JS: Last week you tweeted a cartoon that featured Meghan McCain. And Meghan McCain now famously went off on you. She said “This is one of the most anti-Semitic things I’ve ever seen. Also, this reveals much more about you, Eli, than it does about me.” First, what inspired this cartoon that you drew of Meghan McCain?

EV: Her tears, you know, her publicized and televised tears on The View the preceding day talking about how she was basically terrified and beyond concerned about the potential hazard to the Jewish people by Ilhan Omar.

MM: And just because I don’t technically have Jewish family that are blood related to me doesn’t mean I don’t take this as seriously. And it is very dangerous, very dangerous. And I think we all collectively as Americans on both sides and what Ilhan Omar is saying is very scary to me. And it’s very scary to a lot of people and I don’t think you have to be Jewish to recognize that.

EV: First of all, many on the Jewish left were appalled in general by the show trials of Ilan Omar, appalled in particular that a woman who is not Jewish, claiming Jewish trauma in order to vilify a Muslim refugee woman of color in Congress. It’s clear what the stakes are here and what the sides are, you know, in terms of power and less power. Obviously, Ilhan has power. I’m not trying to pretend she is currently a refugee but you know, Meghan McCain I think, has more power in terms of public perception of what is good and what is evil in American society. Then, when, you know, the tears. It was such a clear appropriation of Jewish identity and Jewish trauma.

And I remember I was coming back from visiting some friends. I was on the subway and I see like everyone is like tweeting — I don’t remember what it was particularly, if it was the tears himself or something that happened after that. You know, I just jokingly tweeted “Don’t make me draw Meghan McCain,” you know. And then all of a sudden like everyone’s like — I got this deluge of people who are adding me saying “Oh my God, this has to be you. You have to. It’s like, it’s natural.” And it was like I didn’t even have a choice, not because of peer pressure but because it was like one of those things where the comic wrote itself. I didn’t even need to think of like a huge scenario. I mean, I was basically drawing reality with the single tweak was that I was giving her Jewish identity instead of her saying “Oh, I feel so much for the Jewish people.” It was like “I am a Jew.” That was the twist.

JS: Describe for people what the Meghan McCain cartoon looked like and what the concept was that you were playing with as you created it.

EV: So she’s saying basically, “the things she said about the Holy Land,” specifically Holy Land which is you know like the Christian description of Israel, Palestine, etcetera, “that refugee girl wants to exterminate us Jews.” You know, and so she’s pinning a Judah Star on her chest. She’s pouring an unmixed matzo ball soup mix into a bowl. It’s overflowing. There’s a dreidel. There’s Yentl. There’s “Christian Guide to Seder,” to Passover Seder. I wanted to show her appropriating Jewish kitsch. I was trying to imagine what someone who is fetishizing Jews from outside the Jewish community would think is Jewish, you know. But I could not leave out entirely trauma because she had tears because she was implying that Ilan Omar is of the same level as like Nazis. You know she was claiming Ilan Omar was demonizing the Jews. And so, I wanted some symbol of that. So, I included that Jewish Judah Star, Star of David from Germany. And I think that might have been what pissed off the Jewish right and her the most. But I was trying not to do like the obvious Seinfeld references. I was trying to go for a little bit more sort of intra-Jewish jokes. But also, you know, like making fun of what a clearly Gentile person would consider to be Jewish and Yentl was the core of it and also matzo ball soup without actually being mixed with water.

JS: Just so people understand this fact of it: Meghan McCain who is not Jewish was attacking you saying that it was the most anti-Semitic thing she’s ever seen. And she’s saying that she, the non-Jew, has been subjected to an anti-Semitic attack by you, the Jewish comic artist.

EV: Yeah, I mean first of all, everyone immediately on Twitter, that’s what they were — or in, you know, the public discourse, that’s what they were like leaping onto how absurd it was. But I do need to say that I am so accustomed and acclimated to being called a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite because I believe Palestinians have human rights, essentially, for the past 10 years that when a Gentile woman says to me that — when she raises my Jewishness, that’s nothing new to me. It didn’t even like click as like, something odd because the leadership of the Jewish community has been saying this not only to me, I’m not like some special person in that regard, to the entire Jewish left for decades now.

JS: You did this cartoon of Meghan McCain. You put it online. It goes pretty viral quickly on Twitter. What was it like to be you in the immediate aftermath of that?

EV: Well, I mean honestly, I was up all night doing it because, you know, often when I have like an idea like this, I’ll go to sleep at like four in the morning, wake up at like 10-ish and then I’ll be drawing it all day. I’m like no, I have a feeling she’s going to be going on The View, talking about her, you know, affiliation to the Jews again. And I want to get ahead of that. So, I was like, got to stay up all night, just do it, get it up by like nine-ish. And I was glad for that.

But what changed everything was when she claimed sometime in the morning that it was the most anti-Semitic things she’d ever seen. Because the absurdity of the comic, the way it stretched away from reality, essentially, was instead of her just appropriating Jewish culture, she was Jewish. She was a Jew. She said us Jews. So, when she claimed that it was anti-Semitic and obviously, I’m Jewish and she’s not Jewish but by claiming it’s anti-Semitic — this mockery of a Gentile woman for appropriating Jewish culture — she’s actually making the comic true which is like something that’s beautiful that can happen with satire, that it actually becomes real. It becomes more real once it’s out in the world. And there’s this reaction to it which I didn’t intend. I actually I had no idea that she was going to — I wasn’t like baiting her. But it was like, you know, I’m not going to stop her from saying it’s anti-Semitic because it’s just so ridiculous.

JS: And what about from people who aren’t Meghan McCain? I mean, I know there were a lot of people who were who really felt like your analysis was spot on. There were a lot of people sharing it because they felt like it was a really great searing, revelatory commentary and analysis. But what did that kick off when then Meghan McCain accused you of this grand act of anti-Semitism?

EV: Well, basically the bad faith sleaze-bags, the same people who have been demonizing Ilhan Omar as a terrorist for saying that America’s relationship with Israel is monolithic and we need to question it, they actually happen to be the same people who have called me anti-Semitic for saying Jewish left is authentic or that Palestinians have rights. And so, they immediately leapt to her side. They leapt to the side of the Gentile woman calling a Jew anti-Semitic because that’s just part of their whole narrative.

JS: As recently as Monday, Sarah Sanders, when she finally agreed to do some brief speaking to reporters, she was responding to questions regarding Trump saying Democrats hate Jews.

Sarah Sanders: When Steve King made terrible comments, we called it out by name. We stripped him of his committee memberships and we’d like to see Democrats follow suit.

Jon Karl: First of all, you mentioned Steve King, the president, correct me if I’m wrong has not condemned Steve King.

SS: I — uh, uh.

JK: For what he said praising white supremacy. Has the president publicly come out and said anything to criticize and condemn —

SS: I speak on behalf of the president on a number of topics and I’ve talked about that a number of times. And I’d refer you back to those comments where I used words like abhorrent and unacceptable.

EV: Honestly, the Steve King thing is just absurd because it’s one out of maybe 10,000 examples that they could be using against him, you know. That’s part of the whole, you know, gaslighting phenomenon and the sort of over-saturation with scandal. It’s like Ilhan Omar says one word, allegiance, and we stop everything we talk about it for three days. Trump has been doing this like nonstop. One of the problems is like when we’re trying to focus on one thing, he’ll be doing three other things. And it’s not just with this. It’s with, I mean, everything criminal about his administration essentially.

JS: Let’s start at the beginning of the immediate controversy that’s been ginned up around Ilhan Omar. Do you have any problem at all with any of the comments that are being cited based on what she said about AIPAC? And originally this happened in a retreat of my colleague Glenn Greenwald and that was how this started she said: “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” And then, the way that she responded when there was this uproar within the Democratic Party, was there anything that Ilhan Omar said that you have a problem with thus far?

EV: I mean, in my view, she has not been as delicate as she can be when dealing with these kind of thorny vernacular issues. And that’s not to say she at all said anything anti-Semitic. It’s to say that within certain contexts and you know, removed from the full paragraph of what she said and when approached via, through the lens of bad faith assholes then she’s going to get shit for it. So, it’s not so much that I have a problem with what she said. I have a little problem with her maybe lack of sort of sensitivity to these issues so that she’s not going to get into these unnecessary show trials but like distractions, you know.

JS: In 2017, when launching your book “Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel” you said the following: “We have to stop allowing people who side with Nazis to define Jewish authenticity for us.” Explain what you meant there.

EV: You know, in terms of authenticity, the Jewish world for the past several decades has created this veneer of authenticity saying that real Jewishness is Zionist, real Jewishness is ultimately Orthodox and everything else is sort of like falling down from there. Under that rationale, they could say that I am a self-hater because I am not a Zionist and I’m not Orthodox and that the mass majority of American Jews have problems with their Jewishness because they have not accepted Israel as their homeland etcetera, you know, or that they don’t agree with Netanyahu. That kind of thing. And it just turns out that in the aggregate, the same people who have been pushing this, you know, like the right-wing Jews who happen to be in the leadership of the American Jewish community, you know, saying such horrible, horrible things and never getting censored, never getting thrown out for it, have in the aggregate supported Donald Trump’s rise and supported the GOP Nazi party and they are currently in bed with the people seeking to destroy the Jewish people. And we have not come to terms with this yet. We haven’t taken action against this. In my view, there should be excommunications. If you side with Nazis, you’re not part of the Jewish people, you know. That’s pretty basic fucking standard, you know.

JS: Eli Valley, thank you very much for joining us.

EV: Thank you for having me. It was nice.

JS: Eli Valley is a writer, artist, and author of “Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel.” You can find him on Twitter @elivalley. Eli is spelled E-L-I.

And that does it for this week’s show. If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log onto and get together with the more than 3,000 other people who are already sustaining members of this program. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

The post The American Machine: Police Torture to Drone Assassinations appeared first on The Intercept.

States Begin to Crack Down on Broker Abuse as the SEC Dithers

Less than two weeks after a new Democratic majority took office in the New York state Senate, legislators introduced the Investment Transparency Act, a bill seeking to protect ordinary investors from aggressive salespeople in the financial industry. The legislation, if it passes, would require brokers to tell their clients point blank, “I am not a fiduciary. Therefore, I am not required to act in your best interests, and am allowed to recommend investments that may earn higher fees for me or my firm, even if those investments may not have the best combination of fees, risks, and expected returns for you.”

George Michael Gerstein, co-chair of the fiduciary governance group at the law firm Stradley Ronon in Washington, D.C., said, “I call it the buzzkill disclosures bill. You can only imagine a rep trying to have a conversation with a customer and having to give this disclosure.”

The bill in New York state is one of several ambitious proposals across the country by legislatures and oversight bodies frustrated that federal regulators are not properly protecting investors. A fiduciary rule issued by the federal Labor Department that covered retirement accounts took effect on June 9, 2017, but was quickly challenged in court by industry groups and ultimately vacated. And a proposed fiduciary rule set to be finalized by the Securities and Exchange Commission later this year is so weak that one advocate, Michael Pieciak, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association, has called it “an invitation to continue business as usual.” All of this has sparked a wave of interest in regulation at the state level.

On Thursday, a subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee will hear testimony from regulators and investor advocates on the SEC’s proposed rule.

Two months ago, regulators in Nevada drafted a fiduciary rule that would raise standards expected of financial professionals there. In a letter to the state’s securities commission, Pieciak said the group “applauds” the action and supports the state’s “right to protect its investors.” New Jersey and Maryland also have fiduciary proposals in various stages of development.

And more states may follow their lead if the SEC goes easy on Wall Street when it releases its rule later this year, said Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America. In a letter to the SEC in February, Pieciak noted that the same Wall Street players who’d fought the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule “have submitted laudatory comments” about the SEC’s weaker proposal. The SEC did not respond to a request for comment.

Financial trade groups have urged states to stand down on their fiduciary efforts while the SEC finishes writing its rule. Kenneth Bentsen, CEO of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, said by email that state efforts would result in “a patchwork of conflicting standards, resulting in investor confusion, and ultimately less access to information and choice of products for investors.” As happened with the Labor Department rule, efforts by states have been attacked as overreaching, confusing to investors, and a hardship for customers who will lose access to products and advice.

Wall Street and investor advocates have engaged in an intense public dispute over the limits of stockbrokers’ obligations to their customers. Registered investment advisers, who are overseen by the SEC, are considered fiduciaries who must put their clients’ interests ahead of their own. But much of the public interfaces with ordinary stockbrokers. Although the typical investor has no knowledge of the distinction, brokers, who are overseen by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, a self-regulatory group, have no fiduciary obligation to their customers. They only have to pass the low bar that investments they recommend be “suitable” for their clients. That leaves a lot of room for brokers to sell high risk, high fee investments.

Although stockbrokers are not fiduciaries, they are legally allowed to position themselves that way, using titles such as “adviser,” “financial consultant,” “wealth manager,” or “retirement counselor.” Indeed, brokerage firms often emphasize in their marketing that their employees are trusted advisers who put clients’ interests first. Further confusing the issue, some stockbrokers are also registered as advisers who do have fiduciary obligations. But investor advocates say it is rarely clear to customers when the financial professional is wearing a broker’s hat and when they are working as an adviser.

Key among Nevada’s proposals is a requirement that would clear the air: Anyone in the state using specific titles including “adviser,” “financial planner,” and “retirement consultant” would be considered fiduciaries.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Financial Consumer Protection Commission, in a report released in January, recommended legislation holding brokers and insurance salespeople to a fiduciary duty to act in their customers’ best interest “without regard to the financial or other interest of the person or firm providing the advice.” The recommendation also sought to strengthen its own standard for the investment advisers it regulates.

In making its recommendations, the commission noted that since rules to date by state insurance regulators and the SEC “largely preserve the status quo,” the onus was now on individual states to take action.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced in September that his administration would pursue a fiduciary regulation for brokers, leading to two public hearings in November. “Notwithstanding the SEC’s interest in finishing a final rule, some states have given up and are moving forward on their own,” said Gerstein, the attorney.

Depending on the details of the SEC’s final rule, more states may follow. Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin said in a letter to the SEC last year that if the agency didn’t adopt a strong fiduciary standard, “Massachusetts will be forced to adopt its own fiduciary standard to protect our citizens from conflicted advice by broker-dealers.”

The timeline for a vote on the bill in New York is unclear. William Schwartz, legislative director for Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz, who sponsored the bill, said Dinowitz is taking a “wait and see” approach and not rushing the bill because he is “cautiously optimistic” about the upcoming SEC rule.

In a separate action last July, the New York State Department of Financial Services approved an amendment to make insurance salespeople adhere to a best-interest standard when they sell life insurance and annuity contracts. That action has already sparked blowback. Within months, the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors New York chapter sued the department, saying it had exceeded its authority and that the amendment will harm consumers by shrinking the market for life insurance and annuities. (In a court filing on March 6, the department argued that the amendment “falls squarely” within its authority.)

Other states that push forward with fiduciary rules are sure to be met with similar litigation, Roper said. On March 1, 12 organizations representing financial companies wrote to Nevada regulators to say the draft regulation conflicted with the National Securities Markets Improvement Act, a 1996 law that pre-empts states from imposing new record-keeping requirements on broker-dealers. “I think there’s a strong argument that the states are not pre-empted,” said Roper. “But there was a strong argument that DOL was not pre-empted either.”

This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.

The post States Begin to Crack Down on Broker Abuse as the SEC Dithers appeared first on The Intercept.

The U.S. Targeted Journalists on the Border. Two Senators Want to Know Why.

There were nearly a dozen categories of individuals catalogued in the government’s secret list of border troublemakers. Revealed last week in documents obtained by an NBC News investigative team in San Diego, the list included 13 “organizers,” eight “instigators,” and 10 journalists with varying descriptions. There was a “lawyer,” an “associate,” and an individual described as “suspected Antifa.” Three people were recorded as administrators of the “Caravan Support Network Facebook page,” while more than 20 others were labeled as “unknown” or not applicable.

The documents, provided by a Department of Homeland Security whistleblower, confirmed and advanced, in critical ways, the evolving story of joint U.S. and Mexican government intelligence-gathering operations on the border — though key questions remain. In a bipartisan letter released Monday, Sens. Ron Wyden and Chuck Grassley called on U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to provide an unclassified briefing on the operations by Thursday. The senators, who head the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, which oversees CBP, expressed particular concern about the press freedom issues at play.

“Unless CBP had reason to believe the individuals in question were inciting violence or physical conflict, it is deeply concerning that CBP appears to have targeted American journalists at our borders,” they wrote.

In February, The Intercept published a report, based on 19 sources, revealing that U.S. and Mexican authorities worked together in a sprawling intelligence-gathering effort aimed at journalists, immigration lawyers, and migrant rights advocates in the Tijuana-San Diego area. Photojournalists on the ground described being approached by Mexican police who photographed their passports. When asked who they were taking those photos for, one of the police officers replied, “For the Americans.” The story came days after the Los Angeles Times broke the news that two U.S. attorneys and a pair of freelance photojournalists working on the border were barred from re-entering Mexico. The San Diego Union Tribune and NPR added fresh details on the pattern of intensified law enforcement activity in the days that followed.

Confirming and advancing those accounts, NBC’s story drew national attention and broad condemnation from civil liberties and press freedom advocates. “Let’s be clear: This is unconstitutional,” American Civil Liberties Union staff attorneys Esha Bhandari and Hugh Handeyside wrote.

The public now knows that the border dragnet was broad-based and binational. It involved each of the major agencies of the U.S. border security apparatus — Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Border Patrol — working with Mexican counterparts and the FBI, under the umbrella of the controversial joint DHS-Pentagon border initiative known as Operation Secure Line (formerly known as Operation Faithful Patriot), which the Trump administration initiated in the run-up to the 2018 midterms.

Authorities compiled dossiers on journalists and advocates, and in some cases, restricted their ability to travel following multi-hour detentions in Mexico. As they attempted to cross back into the U.S., the government’s targets were subjected to extended interrogations about individuals working with the migrant caravans; in one instance, a migrant rights advocate and U.S. citizen described being shackled to a steel bench for more than five hours. Journalists were presented with photo lineups of activists and asked who they knew. Their notes and electronic devices were searched. Agents were directed to send the intelligence they collected back to Washington, D.C.

In February, Wyden’s office confirmed to The Intercept that it had opened an inquiry into the case of Kitra Cahana, a freelance photojournalist who was detained for 13 hours while trying to re-enter Mexico before being flown out of and barred from the country. In the wake of NBC’s reporting, Reps. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., and Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., who both chair committees on homeland and border security, sent a letter to McAleenan, the CBP commissioner, demanding that his agency turn over the documents referenced in the story. Those documents are also due to be delivered Thursday, per the lawmakers’ request.

CBP has said that its Office of Professional Responsibility has opened an inquiry into the reports. The DHS inspector general’s office has also opened an investigation into the matter.

As demands for answers mount, the details of how — and why — law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Mexico turned their attention to journalists, lawyers, and advocates on the border become all the more important.

Andrew Meehan, assistant commissioner of public affairs at CBP, said in a statement last week: “In response to recent incidents in November 2018 and January of this year, which included assaults against Border Patrol agents, CBP identified individuals who may have information relating to the instigators and/or organizers of these attacks. Efforts to gather this type of information are a standard law enforcement practice. CBP does not target journalists for inspection based on their occupation or their reporting. CBP has policies in place that prohibit discrimination against arriving travelers and has specific provisions regarding encounters with journalists.”

The first incident Meehan referenced took place on November 25, the Associated Press reported. The second one almost certainly referred to an incident that took place in the early hours of January 1. In both instances, CBP used tear gas against migrants who approached the border; also in both instances, there were claims that some U.S.-based activists and entities, including the Facebook group referenced in the documents NBC obtained, played a role in encouraging migrants to press forward, thus placing them at significant risk.

But these facts alone neither support nor fully explain the government’s justifications for its operations. The agency failed provide any clarity on the authority under which practicing attorneys at the Los Angeles- and Tijuana-based firm Al Otro were barred from re-entering Mexico. The lawyers have filed a motion in an ongoing lawsuit to demand answers. Additionally, in their post last week, the ACLU attorneys noted that the statement implied that “any journalist who witnesses or reports on pressing matters or potential criminal activity in the United States could be forced to turn over sources and information.”

“That would amount to an end-run around Department of Justice guidelines for when the federal government can force journalists to turn over information for a law enforcement investigation,” the lawyers wrote. “Those guidelines require the government to satisfy a higher threshold of need before forcing journalists to provide information.”

Alex Mensing, a volunteer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a migrant rights organization that’s been deeply involved in the caravans moving north through Mexico in recent years, said the government’s justification was full of holes. Mensing was among those included on the list. For one, he said, Pueblo Sin Fronteras began noticing intensified scrutiny from CBP in the spring of 2018, during the first migrant caravan that caught the president’s attention and months before the tear-gassings in Tijuana. Second, Mensing said, at least in the case of the first gassing, many of the people included on the list were hundreds of miles away at the time. Finally, Mensing noted that the November incident never came up in his secondary screenings.

“They never asked me about what happened that day,” he told The Intercept. Instead, he said, investigators focused on his motivations, how he makes money, and what Pueblo Sin Fronteras tells migrants making their way north — lines of inquiry, he believes, signaling that law enforcement is angling for criminal action against the organization. “I think the big question is: Is there a criminal investigation or not? If there’s not, they need to stop blowing smoke,” Mensing said. “I hope that the hearing does happen. I hope that his becomes an issue, and I hope it gets exposed for what it is.”

The post The U.S. Targeted Journalists on the Border. Two Senators Want to Know Why. appeared first on The Intercept.

US government accuses Chinese hackers of stealing jet engine IP

The Justice Department has charged ten Chinese nationals -- two of which are intelligence officers -- of hacking into and stealing intellectual property from a pair of unnamed US and French companies between January 2015 to at least May of 2015. The hackers were after a type of turbofan (portmanteau of turbine and fan), a large commercial airline engine, to either circumvent its own development costs or avoid having to buy it. According to the complaint by the Department of Justice, a Chinese aerospace manufacturer was simultaneously working on making a comparable engine. The hack afflicted unnamed aerospace companies located in Arizona, Massachusetts and Oregon.

Via: ZD Net

Source: US Department of Justice

Computer Science and Diversity

Today I saw a tweet quoting Mark Guzdial's blog saying "In last five years, little progress in increasing the fraction of American CS BS degree recipients who are African Americans."  It is a problem I've given quite a bit of thought to, but in my thinking, diversity is a problem I approached from another angle.  I've always been pleased that a large number of women have decided to work on the problems I care about.  When I came to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) I didn't come to "teach Computer Science."  I came to try to change the way we train, recruit, and equip cyber crime fighters.  I was fortunate that our department chairs in Computer Science (Anthony Skjellum) and Justice Sciences (John Sloan) believed that was something worth doing.  Since then, we've moved from having a certificate in Computer Forensics, to a Masters in Computer Forensics and Security Management, to a full Bachelors degree in Digital Forensics.  But the passion has stayed the same.  How do we train, recruit, and equip cyber crime fighters?

I hadn't realized that we were necessarily doing something unique until I had a visit from Jenn Lesser in April of 2013.  At the time, Jenn was the Security Operations Manager for Facebook.  We had a full agenda of things we were hoping to discuss with her, but something happened that halted all of that.  She came into my office, closed the door, and said  "You have SIX WOMEN working in your lab!  Would you mind if we cancel everything else and just let me interview them?"  At the time my lab was much smaller and that represented about 1/3rd of my employees. What Jenn learned was that most of the women in the lab were there because they wanted to fight crime, right wrongs, and serve the cause of Justice.  When they realized that learning to program and analyze hard drives, network traffic, and email headers could help serve that cause better, they were all in.

This fall, I'll have interactions with 83 students in the classroom and 28 of them are women. 11 of the 48 people on my lab payroll today are women, and I hope we'll hire several more at our job fair later this week! I should note that these are not "Computer Science" courses, but rather Computer Forensics courses being taught for Criminal Justice credit.

How do we recruit women?  It's the same as what our ladies told Jenn Lesser back in 2013.  None of them come to our program because they want to write code.  They come because they want to dedicate themselves to the cause of Justice, and they have learned, perhaps in an introductory course from myself or my colleague Arsh Arora, or perhaps in an introductory course from Criminal Justice professor Martha Earwood, that being skilled in technology is a force multiplier.  If you want to protect the financial assets of the elderly, technology helps.  If you want to identify and stop child predators and human traffickers, technology helps.  If you want to fight against hate speech on the Internet or cyber bullying in the schools, technology helps.  If you want to identify and stop the malware that it is stealing our data, finances, and intellectual property, technology helps.

As I was reading through Guzdial's blog post and following the linked stories, I read Kenneth Bowman's post on African American Computer Science enrollment, and also the 2017 Taulbee Survey on Computer Science Enrollment from the Computer Research Association.

The Taulbee survey has some stark numbers for US Citizen, Female, and African American enrollment in Computer Science at all levels.

At the PhD Level

In the US and Canada, they found 124 Computer Science departments awarded 1,557 PhDs.  891 went to "non-resident aliens."  291 went to Females.  10 went to African Americans.  Of the 291 females, 164 were non-resident aliens.  Of the American females, 64 were White, 27 Asian, 4 Black, and 2 Hispanic.

Of 12,689 PhD students currently studying Computer Science in 135 departments, 8,058 (64.3%) are non-resident aliens, 2,734 (21.1%) are female, and 170 are African American.

What about Masters Level?

132 US Computer Science departments awarded 12,483 Masters degrees last year.  8,813 (73.8%) are non-resident aliens.  26.1% of those students who reported a gender were female (3,162 females and 8,956 males). 111 (0.9%) of the students were Black.  Of the 3,162 females, 2,462 (81%) were non-resident aliens.  Of the American females, 272 were Asian, 250 were White, 32 were Hispanic, and 24 were Black.

Of the 25,126 currently enrolled Masters students in Computer Science, 16,414 are non-resident aliens.  Of the 6,682 females, 5,183 are non-resident aliens.  Of the 1,499 resident females, 661 are White, 620 Asian, 95 Hispanic, and 81 Black.

And at the Bachelor's Level?

131 reporting US Computer Science departments awarded 19,907 Bachelors degrees last year. At the Bachelor's level, we have a much greater percentage of American students.  Only 12.5% of these were non-resident aliens.  But of those remaining 15,433 students, only 547 were Black.  Of the 3,198 female Bachelor's degrees awarded, 2669 went to Americans women.  Of these, 1,110 (35%) were White, 1,104 (35%) were Asian, 200 (6%) were Hispanic, and 93 (3%) were black.

Of the 86,569 students currently enrolled in Computer Science Bachelor's programs, 10,704 were non-resident aliens.  Of the 75,865 citizens in CS BS programs, 13,358 (17.6%) were female. By ethnicity, 39,416 (51.9%) were White, 21,113 (27.8%)  were Asian, 8,395 (11%) were Hispanic, and 3800 (5%) were Black.

The Question

The question that data like this leaves me with is this?  Could it be that the lack of interest in Computer Science from women and minorities (especially African Americans) is similar to what I've found in my lab?  Perhaps the key to encouraging Computer Science is to look at it rather than a Subject to be studied, but as a Tool to be Mastered to enable the study of something else?  Computer Science as a tool (in my case) to improving your ability to help fight for Justice.  Computer Science as a tool to improving your ability to fight disease and illness.  Computer Science as a tool to improving your ability in economics. Computer Science as a tool to improving your ability to fight poverty.

Instead of asking "How to we get more women (or blacks) to study Computer Science?" Perhaps we should be asking "How can we learn what women (and blacks) want to make their life's work and show them how Computer Science can help make them do their life's work better?"