Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Howard Ehrlich Estate Sale continues through August 8/Over 100 Journalists Killed in Mexico in 15 Years

  The estate sale for the late Howard Ehrlich, who was board president of Research Associates Foundation, took place on Sat., Aug. 1 at 2743 Maryland Ave., Baltimore 21218.  Sale items included progressive books, furniture, appliances, equipment and miscellaneous household items. But note that there are many items still for sale,  If you would like to look over the items, contact Max at 410-366-1637 or mobuszewski at Verizon dot net.   Proceeds after expenses will benefit the Nicaraguan Cultural Alliance.  There are suggested prices, but these are negotiable - so make an offer! 

Excerpt: "In the last 15 years 103 journalist have been killed in Mexico including the most recent homicide of photojournalist Ruben Espinosa who had fled the southeastern state of Veracruz fearing for his life after receiving death threats from the government of Javier Duarte."
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, CPJ has documented the cases of 79 journalists killed in the country in relation to their work. (photo: Reuters)
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, CPJ has documented the cases of 79 journalists killed in the country in relation to their work. (photo: Reuters)

Over 100 Journalists Killed in Mexico in 15 Years

By teleSur

03 August 15

In the wake of the shocking homicide of photojournalist Ruben Espinosa, figures released in February by Mexico's attorney general's office are worth revisiting.

 Ruben Espinosa is one of over 100 journalists killed in Mexico in the last 15 years, according to official figures by the attorney general’s office, which show 25 more are missing.
The attorney general reported in February that 103 journalists had died since 2000, with the northern states of Chihuahua and Veracruz topping the list as the most deadly, with 16 journalist deaths each.

Espinosa had fled the southeastern state of Veracruz, fearing for his life, after receiving death threats from the government of state Governor Javier Duarte.

Duarte sent a strong message to journalists in his state in July, during a public event to commemorate the Free Speech Week, when he said to them, “Please behave, I beg you. It's for your own good.”

Since Duarte took office in 2011, four journalists have been killed while five remain disappeared. The attorney general's office said that since Governor Duarte took office in 2011, journalism-related deaths have been steadily increasing.

The deaths of Espinosa and the four women he was murdered with have sparked protests. The National Human Rights Commission is investigating.

Mexico is the second most dangerous country to be a journalist — even more so than Syria, which has experienced 79 journalist deaths. Iraq remains in first place, with about 179 journalists killed since 1992.

C 2015 Reader Supported News

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

Monday, August 3, 2015

Court's "User Fees" Trap Ex-Felons in a Prison of Debt

 Kim writes: "Jason Hill has been free, sober and out of trouble for six years, working, raising a son with his fiancée and seeing his mother through her last days. Yet he maintains the nervous hands and simmering gaze of a man just released from prison. His record seems to cast a permanent gloom over his prospects."

Jason Hill, an ex-felon in Spokane, has worked at the same convenience store for a decade, still at the minimum wage. (photo: Jerome A. Pollos/Al Jazeera America)
Jason Hill, an ex-felon in Spokane, has worked at the same convenience store for a decade, still at the minimum wage. (photo: Jerome A. Pollos/Al Jazeera America)

Court's "User Fees" Trap Ex-Felons in a Prison of Debt

By E. Tammy Kim, Al Jazeera America

03 August 15

  In Washington, formerly incarcerated men and women face massive debts and a 12 percent interest rate
http://readersupportednews.org/images/stories/alphabet/rsn-J.jpgJason Hill has been free, sober and out of trouble for six years, working, raising a son with his fiancée and seeing his mother through her last days. Yet he maintains the nervous hands and simmering gaze of a man just released from prison. His record seems to cast a permanent gloom over his prospects.

“I’m doing better than a lot of other people are, because I do have a job,” he said, though his commute to the corner store where he works can be a challenge. He’s developed a strategy to reduce the risk of interacting with the police: walking, taking the bus or paying a trusted friend, a white man without a record, to give him a lift. On a scorching day in June, however, he made an exception: He accepted a ride to work in a car with out-of-state plates, a quick drive that takes him two hours by bus.

His fiancée disapproved of the offer, fearing for his safety, and that put him on edge. All the way there, he scanned the road for cruisers and pointed out the changing speed limits. Hill, who is of mixed race and tattooed, explained that riding in an unfamiliar car through heavily policed neighborhoods could attract unwanted attention.

From 2002 to 2009, Hill racked up two felonies for drug possession and unlawful possession of a firearm, two misdemeanors for driving with a suspended license and about 15 minor traffic violations. He’s avoided run-ins with the law ever since, yet his fear of getting stopped and arrested is understandable. It’s not a “guns and drugs” charge he’s worried about; it’s the unpaid fines and fees.

Although his crimes were victimless — no one was assaulted, no property damaged or stolen — Hill owes Spokane County and the state of Washington some $14,000 in fines and fees. The state’s annual interest rate on judgments is a borderline-usurious 12 percent.

In Washington, a state whose progressive reputation masks a tough-on-crime undercurrent, defendants and prisoners are charged “user fees” that fund the state and local systems designed to put them away. Those who do not or cannot pay are at risk of arrest and reimprisonment. It’s a national trend: In nearly every state, offenders pay for court costs, representation by a public defender, jail and probation, and fees are on the rise. The county clerk’s offices that depend most on these sums routinely refer to defendants as “customers” [PDF]

Since 2003, Spokane County, home to about half a million people, has more than doubled what it collects in these legal financial obligations, or LFOs, from criminal defendants. Under pressure from ex-felons and advocates, the newly elected county clerk and prosecutor have vowed to focus on collecting restitution (money to compensate victims) while making other fees less punitive, and a recent Washington Supreme Court decision may offer additional relief. Statewide, those with felony records owe an average of nearly $2,500 in LFOs [PDF].

Hill’s debt has bulged to the point that he can no longer keep track of how much he's being billed for which convictions. Every month, he pays $75 toward the $10,000 or so he owes for old misdemeanors and traffic tickets, accounts handled by Valley Empire Collection, a private agency contracted by the county’s lower level courts. Until he was asked to inquire for this story about his total obligations to Valley and to the Superior Court clerk’s office, which handles his felony debts directly, he had no idea what the total was. But he knew the drill: “As soon as I miss one, they can issue a warrant for my arrest.”

Back to jail

On a recent morning in Spokane County Superior Court, handcuffed men wearing prison orange were escorted, two at a time, from the downtown jail to be sentenced by Judge Harold Clarke. Every defendant that morning had opted for a guilty plea over trial, and they stood defeated, stiff as wooden planks. One prisoner cried — when the judge asked about his children, ages 5 and 7.

Each man was sentenced to jail time and at least $800 in LFOs: a $500 victims penalty assessment, $200 in court costs and $100 for a DNA test, per state statute. “I have no discretion on those,” the judge said.

Once or twice that day, Clarke seemed to take his lead from State v. Blazina [PDF], a state Supreme Court case from March that requires judges to consider the defendant’s current or future ability to pay before ordering fees and fines. If the ruling is properly adhered to, indigent defendants are charged no more than $800 per case in LFOs — but still at 12 percent interest, a rate set by statute during the inflationary 1980s. If they fail to pay, they can be arrested and thrown in jail.

Blazina would have helped Amber Holly, a 23-year-old who works 80 hours a week at a local grocery outlet. She recalled that during sentencing for her first drug felony, the lawyer she refers to as her “public pretender” neglected to seek financial mercy. Last year, Holly was released from prison with approximately $18,000 in debt, a third of which was for “meth cleanup fees,” though she never cooked the drug herself, she said. Her husband, Joshua Letchworth, separately owes about $104,500 in fees, interest and victim restitution for a burglary. Combined, the couple pays at least $240 every month toward their LFOs. “I pay that before I eat,” Holly said.

Criticism of criminal justice fees has grown in recent years, particularly since the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer drew attention to Ferguson, Missouri, a city notorious for extracting money from low-income defendants of color. The National Association for Public Defense has observed that a small infraction can become “a life-changing struggle to satisfy ever-mounting debt. … Its effect can be generational and condemns the poorest communities to persistent poverty [PDF]." Studies from professors at the University of Washington [PDF], the ACLU of Washington [PDF] and the Brennan Center for Justice [PDF] show that these debts prevent former misdemeanants and felons from escaping poverty and moving on with their lives, not only because of what’s owed but also because of the accompanying stress and surveillance.

Jason Hill knows this well. When the police questioned him about a disturbance at his workplace a few weeks ago, “I was hoping that no warrants were gonna pop up,” he said. “I haven’t had any in a long time, but I missed that one [payment last year] and sometimes you have [a debt] from years ago — you find out they just forgot to clear it off their books.”

Tay Rowe has slowly paid off $3,500 in fines and restitution but still owes $1,200 in interest to Spokane County. He lives in an apartment with worn-out carpeting and a busted front door — one of the few places willing to rent to a man with a felony record. Rowe admits that he hasn’t consistently paid the county clerk, in part because his debt feels like “double or triple jeopardy.” He has been arrested and jailed four times on one delinquent account alone, he said. “I know a few people who have to go to jail once or twice a year because they’re not making their payments. … It goes back to the arrest and the racism focusing on blacks and minorities from the jump.”

Under state law, “willful nonpayment” of LFOs — that is, when someone has the ability to pay yet chooses not to — is a jailable offense. Technically, ex-offenders like Rowe aren’t arrested for failing to pay so much as failing to appear in court to justify why they haven’t been paying. Spokane County used to jail 30 people per night on unpaid LFOs, costing taxpayers $100 per day per person and adding to the severe overcrowding of the two local detention centers, said Breean Beggs, a civil rights attorney. This began to change in 2008, when intake officers implemented a “booking matrix” that has led to a practice of releasing low-level arrestees. Two years later, the state Supreme Court ruled in State v. Nason [PDF] that the Spokane County clerk had acted unconstitutionally by having ex-offenders agree to report to jail without a hearing in the event they fell behind in their LFOs.

In the first half of this year, just 1 percent of total bookings in Spokane County were related to unpaid fees or restitution. The Nason case is only partially responsible for this decline. According to assistant prosecutor John Grasso and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, failure-to-appear warrants and arrests are a low priority due to the jail’s limited resources. The local detention system is overwhelmed.

Spokane County has long housed two to three times as many inmates as its bed space permits. With no room to spare, it relies on an ersatz “overflow” facility: the Geiger Corrections Center, a midcentury barracks that lacks air conditioning.

From May to July of this year, four prisoners died inside the county jail, one from apparent suicide, one from a heart attack during booking and two from causes not yet determined. John McGrath, director of detention services, said the recent deaths bear no relationship to overpopulation, lack of staff or inadequate on-site medical services. Nevertheless, the Spokane Human Rights Commission has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate — an embarrassing development for the county, which was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant in May to audit criminal justice procedures and reduce the rate of incarceration.

The main jail is a sand-colored monolith just north of the Spokane River. On a weekday in June, new admitees were lying on cots in a glass enclosure, and upstairs, a thin, almost translucent young man appeared before court by video. “He must be just 18. He looks younger than my son who’s the same age,” said Sgt. Donald Hooper.

Hooper explained that small cells built for one man or woman now house two, sometimes three. The facility is so packed and understaffed that on Saturdays and Sundays, all inmates are on lockdown, not allowed to leave their cells for so much as a short walk. “When I first started,” he said, “I was naïve, thinking, ‘Well, they did a bad thing. They should do time.’ Now I think about the community spending $25 to $30 million per year for two facilities.”

A high-cost system

Since the war on drugs intensified in the 1980s, every aspect of the U.S. legal system has been inundated. Beat cops, prosecutors, judges and jail wardens have not been able to keep pace with the millions of men and women newly criminalized under state and federal statutes. Nor have the clerks of court, whose humble domain of paperwork and cash registers keeps the wheels turning.

Tim Fitzgerald, a retired Marine colonel, is the new clerk of Spokane County. He oversees 52 people and 240,000 cases in Superior Court, from divorces and adoptions to personal injury lawsuits and criminal prosecutions. There are four full-time employees whose sole task is to track and collect debts on some 36,000 outstanding felony LFOs via mail and phone and in person at the jail. They are also responsible for reporting delinquent obligors to the county prosecutor.

Fitzgerald keeps on hand a bulging binder labeled “LFOs,” the raw materials of his plan to improve the collection system and avoid incarcerating people in arrears. Based on consultations with advocates, the county prosecutor, public defender, sheriff and detention director, he expects to announce new procedures in the coming months. “We’ve been beaten hard over LFOs,” he said. “We’re trying to make it a better program, so that it takes care of the victims [awaiting compensation] but supports and helps defendants and serves the judicial process.”

From 2005 to 2014, the clerk’s office spent an average of $277,000 every year to collect about $2.3 million, annually, in LFOs, more than twice as much as in the early 2000s [PDF]. About 50 percent of the proceeds have gone to victim restitution, 30 percent to the county and the rest to the state general fund.

In the past, said Jeffry Finer, a social justice lawyer in Spokane, “The problem in our state has been the county court staff. It’s almost a bounty system. They were rewarded for grotesque collection practices. Someone who was trying to get their driver’s license back — you can’t get it if you have any LFOs. You don’t have a license, you drive, you get pulled over, you lose your job, you lose custody, and you go to jail. You go through it again.”

Hill remains wary of the courthouse and won’t so much as call the clerk’s office to ask about his fees, lest it trigger unwanted attention. His felony LFOs seem too massive to take on — a canyon to the manageable trench of his traffic tickets. Every third and fourth Thursday of the month, he makes an effort to deal with the latter. He gets a ride or walks three hours to Valley Empire Collection, the Spokane-based company that profits from the interest on these citizen debts. There Hill puts down $25 or $50 in cash at a time. He can’t deliver it all at once, as there’s rarely any slack in his weekly paycheck.

He and his fiancée depleted their savings earlier this year on an estimated $3,700 in application fees trying to find a place to live, not “another place with syringes and needles.” They were rejected from dozens of apartments and houses before getting approved by their current landlord.

Ten years ago, his boss at Hillyard Grocery did give him a chance and later rehired him after a stint behind bars. While Hill is grateful for the job, he feels that he’s being exploited, not only made to stock shelves and clean the bathroom but also tear out rotting walls and act as a bouncer. “I’ve gotten a concussion,” he said. “I’ve been hit on the head with a bottle of wine.” In July, his old temper flared up, and he was almost arrested for beating up a shoplifter. For all that, “I get paid the minimum wage. I bust my ass so much. … In 10 years, I’ve had three Saturdays off: when my mom passed away, my stepdad passed away and my son was born.”

Day to day, Hill experiences his LFOs not as a yoke but as a steady, permanent stone upon his chest. Without paying them off, he can’t expunge his record or renew his driver’s license. Nor does he have any other valid ID — a Social Security card or birth certificate, for example — to apply for government programs. It’s been years since he’s seen an eye doctor; his current pair of glasses is a contraption of old lenses and twisted wire.

Criminal justice debts “are impacting people at the bottom of the economic spectrum,” said Justin Pimsanguan, a childhood friend of Hill’s and member of I Did the Time, a group that organizes ex-felons. This past legislative session, he lobbied for a state bill that would have reduced the LFO interest rate, abolished discretionary fees and banned incarceration for nonpayment. After a promising start in the House, it was stripped and later discarded in the Senate.

Layne Pavey, another member of I Did the Time and co-founder of Revive Reentry Services, which provides housing and support to recently released prisoners, intends to try again for a legislative fix — to address LFOs as well as employment discrimination. “I got out [of prison] and found it was very difficult to get a job and find housing. I’m a middle-class, white female with a nonviolent crime, with a college degree and six years of sales experience, and I couldn’t get past the ‘box,’” she said, referring to the checkbox for indicating whether an applicant has a criminal record

Hill’s search for a new job, or at least a second job, continues. He recently got word of an opening at fast-food chain Jack in the Box. “I’m thinking about going back to flipping burgers. It’s an easier life. I can make more money,” he said. “I’m on Craigslist looking for other jobs, but if I don’t have a driver’s license, I can’t get anywhere.”

He said he was just a preteen when his legal troubles began — for stealing school supplies. “Money is the root of all evil. You don’t have it, you need more. You have it, you still need more.”

C 2015 Reader Supported News

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

Our 70th Anniversary Homework: Confronting the Myths and Learning the Lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Friday, July 31, 2015

Our 70th Anniversary Homework: Confronting the Myths and Learning the Lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Joseph Gerson


In March of 1946, eight months after the atomic bomb was dropped, the city of Hiroshima stood in ruins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

 Seventy years ago, two nuclear weapons targeted against cities which met the criteria of having “densely packed workers’ homes,”  killed more than 200,000 people in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the years that have followed, many more have suffered and died from cancers, radiation disease, genetic damage and other fallout from the atom bombings.  

The myths that the A-bombings were necessary to end the war against Japan and that they saved the lives of half a million US troops remain widely believed. The myths serve as the ideological foundation for continuing U.S. preparations for nuclear war, which in turn has served as the primary driver of nuclear weapons proliferation and the creation of deterrent nuclear arsenals

It is no accident that this wartime propaganda took on a life of its own.  Japanese and other journalists’ film footage and photos of the devastation wrought by the A-bombs taken within days of the A-bombings, were seized by U.S. Occupation forces and were locked away in Pentagon vaults for more than two decades. In 1995, the Smithsonian Museum’s initially excellent 50th anniversary exhibition was censored beyond recognition to prevent people from seeing what the A-bombs inflicted on human beings. Also removed were the facts that U.S. Secretary of War Stimson had advised Truman that Japan’s surrender “could be arranged on terms acceptable to the United States” without the atom bombings. (That arrangement was later deemed acceptable – even necessary – by U.S. military occupation authorities.)  Indeed, before it was sterilized, the exhibit included quotations from senior US wartime military leaders including Admiral Leahy and General (later President) Eisenhower who thought, “It wasn’t necessary to hit [Japanese] with that awful thing.”

Scholars now know that numerous factors contributed to Truman’s decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their civilian populations. These include Truman’s political calculations as he looked to the 1948 presidential election, vengeance, racism, institutional inertia, and the callousness that came with already having burned more than sixty Japanese cities to the ground.

But, as General Leslie Groves, the commander of the Manhattan Project, told senior scientist Joseph Rotblat, the bombs came to be designed for the Soviet Union. The determinative reasons for the A-bombings were to bring the war to an immediate end so that the US could avoid sharing influence with the USSR in Northern China, Manchuria and Korea and to intimidate Stalin and other Soviet leaders by demonstrating the apocalyptic power of nuclear weapons and Washington’s willingness to use them – even against civilians. Little Boy and Fat Man, as the bombs were named, announced the beginning of the Cold War.

Americans also continue to suffer from the misconception that nuclear weapons have not been used since the Nagasaki A-bombing on August 9, 1945. In fact, the US, and to a lesser degree the other nuclear powers, have repeatedly used their nuclear arsenals. Long ago, Daniel Ellsberg, a senior Pentagon nuclear war planner for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, explained that the US has repeatedly used nuclear weapons “in the way that you use a gun when you point it at someone’s head in a confrontation….whether or not you pull the trigger...[and] You’re also using it when you have it on your hip ostentatiously.”  During wars and international crises, the US has prepared and/or threatened to initiate nuclear war on at least thirty occasions - at least 15 times during the Korean and Vietnam Wars and crises with China,  and at least 10 times to reinforce US Middle East hegemony.  And each of the other eight nuclear powers has made such threats or preparations at least once.

Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control, reported last December to the  International Conference on the Consequences of Nuclear Weapons, attended by representatives of 158 governments that luck, not state policies and regulations, best explains why humanity has survived nuclear blackmail, reckless dependence on deterrence, miscalculations and nuclear accidents.

Still more sobering are the recent scientific studies demonstrating that even a “small” exchange of 50-100 nuclear weapons targeted against cities would result in fires, smoke that would cause global cooling,  and up to two billion deaths from famine.

All of which lead to a series of existential questions: As we race against time to save our civilizations from the impending ravages of climate change, why are our governments preparing to inflict nuclear annihilation?  Why do we tolerate the continued deployment and stockpiling of nearly 16,000 nuclear weapons, 90% of them in U.S. and Russian arsenals?  Why have the P-5 nuclear powers (US, Russia, Britain, France and China) refused to implement their 45 year-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligation to begin negotiations for the complete elimination of their nuclear arsenals? And why did the US condemn this past spring’s NPT Review Conference to failure by refusing to honor its long-standing commitment to co-convene a conference to lay the foundations for a nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East?

There are high costs to denying history and reality. In a worst case scenario, the failure of the US and the other nuclear powers to heed the warning of A-bomb survivors that human beings and nuclear weapons cannot coexist is the end to life on earth as we know it.  

The majority of the world’s governments are not in similar denial.  The NPT Review Conference’s one achievement was the commitment of the vast majority of the world’s governments the Humanitarian Pledge. Initiated by Austria, 113 governments pledged “to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders, states, international organizations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, parliamentarians and civil society, in efforts to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.” The gulf between the non-nuclear weapons states and the nuclear powers has widened, and in time the former may use their economic, political and other power in the struggle to secure humanity’s future.

On August 6, many in Japan will appreciate the silent presence of U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy at Hiroshima’s official 70th anniversary commemoration, but there will be no apology. And, even as we celebrate and work for the implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran,  the sorry truth is that the US is now on track to spend one trillion dollars to “modernize” its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems, with the other nuclear powers following the U.S. lead. And, despite his pledge in Prague, President Obama has retired fewer nuclear weapons that any other US post-Cold War President.  

As the US-Russian confrontation, marked by implicit and explicit nuclear threats remids us,  we are living on borrowed time.  Seventy years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombings, human survival still hanging in the balance. Midst the carnival of the 2016 presidential election, let us insist that those who seek to rule us and the world finally learn the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Never again to anyone! No more Hiroshimas! No More Nagasakis! No more nuclear weapons!  

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License


An early atomic bomb detonation in Nevada desert. (photo: Getty)




  For the 31st year, the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Commemoration Committee will remember the atomic bombings of Japan on August 6 & 9, 1945, which killed more than 200,000 people. It has been 70 years since these awful events occurred. Other organizations involved in the commemorations are Baltimore Quaker Peace and Justice Committee of Homewood and Stony Run Meetings, Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, Crabshell Alliance and Pledge of Resistance-Baltimore.


HIROSHIMA COMMEMORATION on Thursday, August 6, 2015 at 33rd & N. Charles Streets


5:30 PM Demonstrate against Johns Hopkins University’s weapons contracts, including research on killer drones, commemorate the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and remember Fukushima, Japan.


6:30 PM March to the Bufano Sculpture Garden on John Hopkins University Homewood campus.   Hiroshima Hibakusha guests, Mr. Goro Matsuyana, and Ms. Takako Chiba, will elaborate on their experiences with the atomic bombing. Ms. Yukie Ikebe will guide the Heartful Chorus, which will sing a cappella. 


8 PM Enjoy dinner at Niwana Restaurant, 3 E. 33rd Street, with our Japanese guests.


NAGASAKI COMMEMORATION on Sunday, August 9, 2015 at Homewood Friends Meeting, 3107 N. Charles Street


6 PM Savor a potluck dinner with members of the peace and justice community.

7 PM The death of Freddie Gray ignited a movement to seek positive social change.  Speaking on this issue will be Ralph Moore, a civil rights icon who once said “Economic justice is the one [issue] I’ve focused on most over the years. Various issues spill out from that; it’s been housing, it’s been hunger, it’s been education, it’s been jobs and it’s been anti-war.” 

After Ralph’s address, there will be a Q & A.  Then participants can share through verse, poetry or song how to cure the ill of poverty in Baltimore. The suggestions will be sent to the mayor and the City Council.


HIROSHIMA-NAGASAKI COMMEMORATION COMMITTEE, 325 East 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218 Ph: 410-366-1637 Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Reaping the rewards: How private sector is cashing in on Pentagon’s ‘insatiable demand’ for drone war intelligence


Reaping the rewards: How private sector is cashing in on Pentagon’s ‘insatiable demand’ for drone war intelligence
July 30, 2015 by Abigail Fielding-Smith and Crofton Black

Published in: All Stories, Drone Warfare

hurlburt field, isr, drones, 11th intelligence squadron

A US Air Force analyst with 11th Intelligence Squadron at Hurlburt Field reviewing drone data, June 2015 (US Air Force/Airman Kai White)
Some months ago, an imagery analyst was sitting in his curtained cubicle at Hurlburt Field airbase in Florida watching footage transmitted from a drone above one of the battlefields in the War on Terror. If he thought the images showed someone doing anything suspicious, or holding a weapon, he had to type it in to a chat channel seen by the pilots controlling the drone’s missiles.
Once an observation has been fed in to the chat, he later explained, it’s hard to revise it – it influences the whole mindset of the people with their hands on the triggers.

“As a screener anything you say is going to be interpreted in the most hostile way,” he said, speaking with the careful deliberation of someone used to their words carrying consequences.
 He and the other imagery analysts in the airbase were working gruelling 12-hour shifts: even to take a bathroom break they had to persuade a colleague to step in and watch the computer screen for them. They couldn’t let their concentration or judgement lapse for a second. If a spade was misidentified as a weapon, an innocent man could get killed.

“The position I took is that every call I make is a gamble, and I’m betting their life,” he said. “That is a motivation to play as safely as I can, because I don’t want someone who wasn’t a bad guy to get killed.”
In spite of his vital role in military operations, the analyst wasn’t wearing a uniform. In fact, he wasn’t working for the Department of Defense, or indeed any branch of the US government.

He was working for one of a cluster of companies that have made money supplying imagery analysts to the US military’s war on terror.
When you mess up, people die – An intelligence contractor

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s award-winning drones team has spent six months exploring this intersection of corporate interests and global surveillance systems. Drawing on interviews with a dozen military insiders (including former generals, drone operators and imagery analysts), contracts obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, scores of contractor CVs publicly available on everyday job sites such as LinkedIn, and the analysis of millions of federal procurement records, the Bureau has identified ten private sector companies operating at the heart of the US’s surveillance and targeting networks.

The private sector’s involvement could grow: an Air Force official confirmed they are considering bringing in more contractors as it struggles to process the nearly half million hours of video footage filmed each year by drones and other aircraft.
Analysing this video can be a highly sensitive role. As one contractor analyst told the Bureau, “when you mess up, people die”.

While the military’s use of boots-on-the-ground contractors has prompted numerous congressional responses and tightened procurement protocol, among the general public few are even aware of the private sector’s role behind the scenes processing military surveillance video.

Dickinson_LauraI think they’ve fallen under the radar to some degree,” said Laura Dickinson (pictured), a specialist in military contracting at George Washington University Law School and author of ‘Outsourcing War and Peace’. “It’s not that these contractors are necessarily doing a bad job, it’s that our legal system of oversight isn’t necessarily well equipped to deal with this fragmented workforce where you have contractors working alongside uniformed troops.”
In theory, these contractors aren’t decision-makers. Military officials and project managers are there to ensure they perform effectively, and according to the terms of their contracts.

But past experience in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that management of military contractors does not always work perfectly in practice, especially when demand for the services they provide is surging.
As one commander told the Bureau, demand for Air Force intelligence against threats such as Islamic State is currently “insatiable”.

The ISR revolution
Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or ISR as it is known in military jargon, has become central to American warfare in recent years.

The Air Force’s Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS) is a 120,000 square foot facility being built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District and their contractors. The building will serve as a collection and processing point for intelligence and imagery to be used by units all around the world. Air Force Distributed Common Ground System buildings (US Army Corps of Engineers)

US counterterrorism operations such as the May 16 special forces raid on Islamic State commander Abu Sayyaf are critically dependent on the video captured by drones and other aircraft.
Analysts sitting thousands of miles away can tell a team on the ground the exact height of ladder they need to scale a building, or alert them to approaching militants. They can also establish a ‘pattern of life’, and what constitutes unusual movement in a particular place.

The aircraft are flown by pilots and operators from bases in the US, whilst the imagery analysts poring through the video they transmit are mostly housed in clusters of analysis centres – part of a warfighting structure spreading from Virginia to Germany known as the ‘Distributed Common Ground System’.
Remotely Piloted Aircraft, as the US military prefers to call drones, are more often associated with firing missiles at the tribal areas of Pakistan and Yemen than with gathering intelligence.

But it is their intelligence capabilities – particularly the ability to collect and transmit video footage in close to real time – that have revolutionised warfare.
“In Kosovo the intelligence we would get was typically a photo, normally black and white, often from a plane that took it the day before,” Lt Colonel David Haworth, director of combat operations at the US’s Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar told the Bureau.

“It’s like being able to talk on a can and a string before, and now I have a smartphone.”
The number of daily drone combat air patrols (CAPs) – that is, the ability to observe a particular spot for 24 hours – went up from five in 2004 to 65 in 2014 as demand for the intelligence they offered soared in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Colonel Jim Cluff, the commander of the drone squadrons at Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base, said the recent campaign against Islamic State has fuelled a new surge in demand.
“We’re seeing just an insatiable demand signal,” he said. “You cannot get enough ISR capability to meet all the warfighters’ needs.”

Official Photo -   Lt Gen David Deptula  (U.S. Air Force Photo by Michael Pausic)Meeting this demand is not simply a question of having enough aircraft. By 2010, according to a presentation by David Deptula (pictured above), a now retired three star general who was asked to oversee the Air Force’s rapidly evolving ISR expansion in 2006, the average Predator or Reaper CAP required 10 pilots and 30 video analysts.

“We’re drowning in data,” he told the Bureau.
‘Growth industry’

The military has always used the private sector to help operate its drone programmes; according to defence writer Richard Whittle, General Atomics, the manufacturer of the Predator, even supplied some of the pilots for the aircraft’s first sorties.
The defence industry’s supply of equipment to drone operations is well known, but the private sector’s role in providing a workforce has been harder to pin down. Through extensive research, the Bureau has traced the contracting histories of eight companies which have provided the Pentagon with imagery analysts in the past five years (the CIA’s transactions remain classified). Two more companies have been linked to the imagery analysis effort.

screenersDCGSMilitary personnel in Air Force Distributed Common Ground System (by US Air Force)

In 2007, defence industry behemoth SAIC – later rebranded Leidos – was contracted to provide services including imagery analysis to the Air Force Special Operations Command (Afsoc). A contracting document described SAIC’s involvement as “intelligence support to direct combat operations”. Its 202 contractors embedded in Afsoc were providing “direct support to targeting” among other functions (in military-speak, targeting can refer to surveillance of people and objects as well as lethal strikes).
In a bidding war to renew the deal in 2011, SAIC lost out to a smaller defence firm, MacAulay-Brown. 

According to a copy of the contract obtained by the Bureau under a Freedom of Information Act request, MacAulay-Brown was tasked to “support targeting, information operations, deliberate and crisis action planning, and 24/7/365 operations.” The company asked for $60 million to perform these functions over three years.
Afsoc required MacAulay-Brown to provide a total of 187 analysts, some of whom were sourced through partnership with another company, Advanced Concepts Enterprises.

A portion of this work was to be carried out outside the US, according to the contract. The Bureau found two CVs posted online by people who had worked for MacAulay-Brown in Afghanistan. Both were embedded with special operations forces supporting targeting.

It’s like being able to talk on a can and a string before, and now I have a smartphone – Lt Col David Haworth

In January this year the latest award for Afsoc intelligence support went to another company, Zel Technologies. According to a document describing the scope of the contract, Zel was set to provide fewer overall analysts than MacAulay-Brown, but more imagery experts. Zel was also required to offer subject matter experts “in the areas of the Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, Syria, Iran, North Africa, Trans Sahel region, Levant region, Gulf States and territorial waters”. Afsoc has paid out $12 million for the first year, with options on the contract due to last until January 2018.
Although Zel Technologies is now the prime contractor, MacAulay-Brown is providing some of the intelligence specialists the contract demands. Indeed, it is not unusual for analysts to simply move from company to company as contracts for the same set of services change hands. They market themselves on recruitment sites with a surreal blend of corporate and military jargon.

One boasts of having supported the “kill / capture” of “High Value Targets”. Others go in to detail about their expertise in things like establishing a pattern of life and following vehicles.
The Air Force is not the only agency that employs contractor imagery analysts. Intrepid Solutions, a small business based in Reston, Virginia, received an intelligence support contract with the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command in 2012, scheduled to run until 2017.

In 2012 TransVoyant LLC, a leading player in real-time intelligence and analysis of big data based in Alexandria, Virginia, was awarded a contract with a maximum value set at $49 million to provide full motion video analysts for a US Marine Corps “exploitation cell” deployed in Afghanistan. Transvoyant had taken over this role from the huge Virginia-based defence company General Dynamics.
In 2010, the Army gave a million-dollar contract to a translation company, Worldwide Language Resources, to provide US forces in Afghanistan with “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection management and imagery analysis support”.

In the same year, the Special Operations Command awarded an imagery analyst services contract to the firm L-3 Communications, which was to net the company $155 million over five years.
Defence industry giants BAE Systems and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s former employer Booz Allen Hamilton are also involved in the US’s ISR effort.

BAE Systems describes itself as “the leading provider of full-motion video analytic services to the intelligence community with more than 370 personnel working 24 hours a day”. The Bureau has traced some of the activities it carried out through social media profiles of company employees. People identifying themselves as video and imagery analysts for BAE state that they have used real-time and geo-spatial data to support tracking and targeting.
A job advert posted on June 10 by BAE gave further insight into the services provided. The posting sought a “Full Motion Video (FMV) Analyst providing direct intelligence support to Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)” to be “part of a high ops tempo team, embedded in a multi-intelligence fusion watch floor environment”.

Booz Allen Hamilton has also aided the intelligence exploitation effort for special operations command at Hurlburt Field. Its role included “ongoing and expanding full motion video PED operational intelligence mission”, according to transaction records. A recent job ad shows the company is looking for video analysts to join its team “providing direct intelligence support to the Global War on Terror”.
MQ-1 Predator Flying at Sunset - Charles McCain/FlickrMQ-1 Predator drone (by Charles McCain/Flickr)

The hundreds of millions of dollars paid to these companies for imagery analysis represent just a fraction of the private sector’s stake in America’s global surveillance effort. The Bureau has found billions of dollars of contracts for a range of ISR services. These include the provision of smaller drones, the supply and maintenance of data collection systems, and the communications infrastructure to fly the drones and connect their sensors with analysts across the other side of the world. These contracts have gone to companies including General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Ball Aerospace, Boeing, Textron and ITT Corporation.
General Deptula believes military demand for ISR will continue to grow.  As he puts it, “Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance is a growth industry.”

Private eyes
In the Air Force at least, contractor imagery analysts are still in the minority of the work force. Around one in 10 of the people working in the processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) of intelligence is estimated to be either a government civilian or a contractor. The Hurlburt Field analyst, who is here referred to as John (like other analysts interviewed, he didn’t want his real name to be published because of the sensitivity of the subject matter) estimates that they represent around an eighth of the analysts working there in support of Special Operations.

John argues that taking on even a small number of contractors helps ease the strain on the uniformed force without incurring the expense of pensioned, trained, health-insured employees.
In the military no-one’s obligated to respect your time – ‘John’, a contractor analyst

“Contractors are used to fill the gap to give enough manpower to provide flexibility necessary for military to do things like take leave,” he said.
Contractor imagery analysts are invariably ex-military, but the framework of their employment and their incentives are differently aligned once they join the private sector.

“In the military no-one’s obligated to respect your time,” explained John. “There were months you’d never get off days – If they need you to clean the bathroom on your off day that’s what you’ve got to do.”
“As a contractor you’re not as invested in the unit…your motivations are going to be more selfish.”

John and other analysts stressed however that contractors were highly professional, and able to provide a concentration of expertise.
“By the time an airman has built up enough experience to be competent at the job it’s usually time to change their duty location. Age also has a lot to do with the professionalism of contractors. Most contractors are at the youngest mid to late 20s, whereas Airmen are fresh out of high school,” said one analyst. “As an FMV (analyst), you cannot identify something unless you’ve seen it before.”

Screening for trouble

According to John the PED units at Hurlburt Field were much smaller than those of regular Air Force crews, consisting of only about three or four people.
As well as an analyst to watch the video in near real-time, and one to make the call on whether to type an observation in to the chat channel (often described as a ‘screener’), units typically also need a geospatial analyst to cross-reference the images brought up on the screen with other data. 

Analysts assigned to the 11th Intelligence Squadron review mission data on Hurlburt Field, Fla., June 11, 2015. The 11th IS executes procession, exploitation and dissemination of day and night imagery intelligence, from manned and unmanned aerial systems. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Kai White/Released) (Portions of this image were blurred for security or privacy concerns)US Air Force imagery analysts at Hurlburt Field, Florida, June 2015  (by Airman Kai White)

Sitting there watching a video screen sounds simple, but the herculean amount of concentration involved requires real discipline and commitment. According to analysts interviewed, between 80 and 85% of the time is spent on long-term surveillance, when very little is happening. “You can go days and weeks watching people do nothing,” said John.
Another contractor interviewed said that because of the “long durations of monotonous and low activity levels”, a good analyst needs “attention to detail and a vested interest in the mission.”

“Many of the younger analysts view the job as a game,” he said. “It is critical to understand everything that happens, happens in real life. When you mess up, people die. In fact, the main role of the FMV analyst is to ensure that does not happen.”
The screeners type their observations in to a chat channel called mIRC, which is seen by the drone pilot and sensor operator, who are usually sitting in a different base. The Mission Coordinator, or Mission Intelligence Coordinator, typically sitting on the same base as the pilot and operator and communicating with them through a headset, helps ensure they don’t miss anything important in the mIRC.

Sometimes, John said, the analysts and the Mission Coordinator will communicate directly with each other in what is known as a “Whisper chat”.
“It gives you a way to say ‘this is what we think we saw’,” he explained, adding dryly, “a large part of the job is an exercise in trying not to kick the hornets’ nest.” According to John, once you’ve influenced the mentality of the pilot and operator by typing something which could signal hostility in to the chat, it’s hard to retract it.

He likens his role to that of a citizen tipping off armed police about criminals.
“As a civilian I don’t have authority to arrest someone, but if I call the police and say ‘this person’s doing something’, and say ‘I think that guy’s dangerous’…the police are going to turn up primed to respond to the threat, they’ll turn up trusting my statement,” he said. “It could be argued that I was responsible, but I’m not the one shooting.”
John said that in his unit, imagery analysts usually took a back seat once the use of force had been authorised.

A misidentification of an enemy combatant with a weapon and a female carrying a broom can have dire consequences – An unnamed intelligence contractor

Because there is usually a slight delay between the drone crew receiving the feed and the analysis crew seeing it, John said, “in a situation where it gets high-paced they (military personnel)’ll cut the screener out entirely”.
The other analyst however said that in his experience the PED unit still maintained its function for “identifying and confirming IMINT (imagery intelligence) lock on the target” once force is authorised. Video analysts, he said, had the capability to tell other crew members to abort a strike under some circumstances, and the analyst could receive “blowback” when things went wrong. The video analyst is the “subject matter expert,” he explained. “As such you have an important role in all the events that have led up to the determination for using force on the target. While you are not the one firing the missile, a misidentification of an enemy combatant with a weapon and a female carrying a broom can have dire consequences.”

Inherently governmental?
Given the Air Force’s efforts to keep contractors out of sensitive, decision-making positions, the contractors’ role in supporting targeting seems surprising, at first glance.

Charles Blanchard was the Air Force’s chief lawyer between 2009 and 2013 when he advised the officials spearheading these efforts.
He describes himself as a “purist” when it comes to contractors flying armed drones. But for a function like imagery analysis, his view is more flexible. “I’d be comfortable with some contractors sprinkled in to this framework because you have so many eyes on one target usually,” he said.

“I’d be uncomfortable with contractors advising the commander ‘here’s where the target is’, unless the data collected and analysed was so clear that the Commander could confirm this for themselves, as often happens.”
The constraints on using contractors are often more to do with command culture than the “mushy” legal framework surrounding inherently governmental functions, Blanchard explained.

“A commander in the military justice system has a lot more authority to take action where mistakes are made. Someone in blue uniform – or green or white – is someone they feel they have authority over.”
The consensus seems to be that contractors effectively taking targeting decisions is undesirable.

Someone in blue uniform – or green or white – is someone they feel they have authority over – Charles Blanchard

MacAulay-Brown’s contract with Afsoc stipulated that the contractors were not to be “placed in a position of command, supervision, administration of control” over military or civilian personnel.
There are concerns that such safeguards may be diluted in practice if contractor use goes up.

One of the analysts interviewed said that contractors were already relied on for their greater expertise and experience, effectively placing them in the chain of command.
“It will always be military bodies or civilian government bodies as the overall in charge of the missions…however you will have experienced contractors act as a ‘right-hand man’ many times because typically contractors are the ones with subject matter expertise, so the military/government leadership lean on those people to make better mission related decisions,” he said.

The profit motive
Although it is hard for the military to discipline contractors, people are keeping tabs on them and providing them with an incentive to do their jobs well.

John noted that the knowledge that “you can get fired” is a motivational factor for contractors.
In theory, the possibility of losing the contract should also incentivise the contractors’ bosses to field the best possible staff and manage them closely.

Jerome Traughber of the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy is a former program manager for airborne reconnaissance acquisitions in the Air Force. He said that in his experience of intelligence support services, a company’s bid and performance would be scrutinised closely, with incentive fees built in.
“If a contractor wasn’t measuring up we’d make a change very quickly,” he said.

A large part of the monitoring is done through contracting officers, who liaise with other personnel inside the warfighting unit to evaluate the performance of the contractors embedded there.
Traughber acknowledged, however, that during the surge in Afghanistan, when thousands of contracts needed to be overseen, contracting officers and their counterparts inside military units were overwhelmed by their work load.

Nor is it clear that poor performance would necessarily prevent a company getting another contract. Daniel Gordon, a retired law professor and previous Administrator of Federal Procurement Policy, argues that the past performance criteria that contracting officers are supposed to take in to account when awarding bids might not always be rigorously assessed.
“As soon as you start saying the contractor didn’t do a good job you risk having litigation, lawyers are going to get involved, it’s just not worth it, so… everyone’s ok, no-one’s outstanding, which makes the rating system completely meaningless,” he said.

Another potential problem with the profit motive as a way of delivering good performance is that contractor pay has reportedly gone down.
Mary Blackwell, the president of Advanced Concepts Enterprises, one of the subcontractors who provided analysts in Hurlburt Field, said that since mandatory defence budget caps took effect in 2013, the value of contracts has decreased.

Imagery analysts, along with everyone else, have seen their pay cut by between 15 and 20%, she said.
“The military people – their pay is set. The only place where there’s any room is the contracts.”

This could drive down quality in the long term, contractors say. “It is running good analysts off,” said one. “The quality of force is suffering.”
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism contacted all of the contractors named in this story with a series of questions. None provided a statement, though several directed queries towards the US military. The Pentagon and the US Air Force were contacted for comment with a series of questions about transparency and oversight for contractors involved in ISR.

A spokeswoman for the Air Force said ISR was “vital to the national security of the United States and its allies”, and there was an “insatiable demand” for it from combatant commanders. She said this demand was the reason for increasing use of contractors, which she said was a “normal process within military operations”.
On the issue of whether private contractors’ assessments risk pre-empting the military’s official decisions, she said the service had thorough oversight and followed all appropriate rules.

“Current AF Judge Advocate rulings define the approved roles for contractors in the AF IRS’s processing, exploitation and dissemination capability,” she said.
“Air Force DCGS [Distributed Common Ground System] works closely with the Judge Advocate’s office to ensure a full, complete, and accurate understanding and implementation of those roles.  Oversight is accomplished by Air Force active duty and civilian personnel in real time and on continual basis with personnel trained on the implementation of procedural checks and balances.

Transparency gap
There are tremendous pressures…oversight could easily break down – Laura Dickinson

Contractors such as John pride themselves on their professionalism and skill. But as ISR demand continues to rise, robust oversight is needed – in particular to ensure contractors do not creep into decision-making roles.
“There are tremendous pressures for that ratio of contractors to governmental personnel to swell,” she argued.

“If that ratio balloons, oversight could easily break down, and the current prohibition on contractors making targeting decisions could become meaningless.
Laura Dickinson argues the lack of information about drone operations makes such oversight much harder.  “We urgently need more transparency,” she said.

The Department of Defense now publishes a quarterly report on the number of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a breakdown of their functions, but Dickinson said she was not aware of any such information being released on contractors in drone operations.
“There are tremendous pressures for that ratio of contractors to governmental personnel to swell,” she argued.

“If that ratio balloons, oversight could easily break down, and the current prohibition on contractors making targeting decisions could become meaningless.”
*A version of this story appeared in the Guardian.

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