Thursday Reads: Updates on Drone Assassinations, West Fertilizer Plant Explosion, and Boston Bombing Aftermath

Newsstand in Copley Square, Boston

Newsstand in Copley Square, Boston

Good Morning!!

I have lots of news updates for you today.

First, as I’m sure you heard, the Obama administration has finally admitted that it has killed four American citizens with drone strikes.  Charlie Savage reported in The New York Times yesterday that President Obama will give a speech this afternoon at the National Defense University in which he will

open a new phase in the nation’s long struggle with terrorism on Thursday by restricting the use of unmanned drone strikes that have been at the heart of his national security strategy and shifting control of them away from the C.I.A. to the military….

As part of the shift in approach, the administration on Wednesday formally acknowledged for the first time that it had killed four American citizens in drone strikes outside the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, arguing that its actions were justified by the danger to the United States. Mr. Obama approved providing new information to Congress and the public about the rules governing his attacks on Al Qaeda and its allies.

A new classified policy guidance signed by Mr. Obama will sharply curtail the instances when unmanned aircraft can be used to attack in places that are not overt war zones, countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The rules will impose the same standard for strikes on foreign enemies now used only for American citizens deemed to be terrorists.

Lethal force will be used only against targets who pose “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans” and cannot feasibly be captured, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a letter to Congress, suggesting that threats to a partner like Afghanistan or Yemen alone would not be enough to justify being targeted.

Savage writes that Obama may eliminate drone attacks on groups of men assumed to be associated with al Qaeda that in the past have also killed many innocent civilians. He will also argue for closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and renewing efforts to return inmates to their “home countries.” CNN also has a helpful article on the President’s speech and proposed policy changes.

The speech will be at 2PM, and I will post a live blog if people are interested in watching it together. I’m sure it will be live streamed at C-Span and other news sites.

Important update on West, Texas disaster.

Yesterday evening Reuters released their own “Special Report.” on the situation.

(Reuters) – The fertilizer-plant explosion that killed 14 and injured about 200 others in Texas last month highlights the failings of a U.S. federal law intended to save lives during chemical accidents, a Reuters investigation has found.

Known as the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, the law requires companies to tell emergency responders about the hazardous chemicals stored on their properties. But even when companies do so, the law stops there: After the paperwork is filed, it is up to the companies and local firefighters, paramedics and police to plan and train for potential disasters.

West Fertilizer Co of West, Texas, had a spotty reporting record. Still, it had alerted a local emergency-planning committee in February 2012 that it stored potentially deadly chemicals at the plant. Firefighters and other emergency responders never acted upon that information to train for the kind of devastating explosion that happened 14 months later, according to interviews with surviving first responders, a failing that likely cost lives.

It’s a complex story, and you really should read the whole thing, because the West disaster is not an isolated incident.

The lack of preparedness endangers not only firefighters and emergency medical technicians, but also people nationwide living near chemical stockpiles similar to those that exploded in West.

At least 800,000 people in the United States live within a mile of 440 sites that store potentially explosive ammonium nitrate, which investigators say was the source of the explosion in West, according to a Reuters analysis of hazardous-chemical storage data maintained by 29 states.

Hundreds of schools, 20 hospitals, 13 churches and hundreds of thousands of homes in those states sit within a mile of facilities that store the compound, used in both fertilizers and explosives, the analysis found.

The rest of the states either refused to provide Reuters with data, provided “incomplete data” or simply didn’t respond to their requests.

Since 1990, companies have reported more than 380 incidents involving ammonium nitrate to the National Response Center, a federal agency that collects reports of spills, leaks and other discharges within the United States. Eight people were killed, 66 injured and more than 6,300 evacuated in those incidents, according to the center’s data.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story, because reporting of these kinds of incidents is voluntary!

Update on Boston Bombing Investigation

I spent most of yesterday following breaking updates in the Boston Marathon bombing case, which continues to get stranger by the day.

Early yesterday morning, there were reports of the FBI fatally shooting a man in Orlando, Florida with connections to accused (deceased) Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. While the circumstance of the shooting are still not at all clear, here’s a brief summary of what I gleaned from reading hundreds of news reports.

Initially news reports said that a Chechen immigrant, Ibragim Todashev, had been shot by an unnamed FBI agent after Todashev attacked the agent with a knife during an interrogation at Todashev’s apartment house overnight. Todashev and a friend named Khusen Taramov had been interrogated for hours on Tuesday afternoon, according to Taramov. Then agents had let Taramov go while they continued questioning Todashev.

According to Taramov, he and his friend Todashev had been followed by law enforcement for some time and had been questioned previously. Todashev had been planning a trip home to Chechnya, but the FBI wanted wanted him to postpone it so they could continue to question him. The agents returned to question the two men further after midnight Wednesday when they learned that Todashev had decided to cancel his flight. That is when the shooting took place. At the time, two FBI agents from the Boston field office, two Massachusetts state troopers, and “other law enforcement” officers were present. It’s not clear who the other law enforcement officers were, but Emptywheel questioned yesterday whether they might have been from the FBI High Value Interrogation Group.

Later in the day it became clear that Todashev was considered a suspect in a shocking triple murder that took place in Waltham, MA two years ago on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Todashev lived in the Boston area–in Allston, Cambridge, and Watertown; and was acquainted with Tamerlan Tsarnaev through their mutual involvement in MMA mixed martial arts fighting and the two had spoken by phone or Skype about a month before the marathon bombings. Todashev is not suspected of involvement in those.

As I reported here previously, Tamerlan and Dzhokhor Tsarnaev had reportedly been connected to the murders by “forensic” evidence, presumably DNA. One of the murdered men was Tamerlan’s “best friend,” Brian Mess. The three men had their throats slit and their bodies were covered with large amounts of marijuana and $5,000 in cash. After the murders, both Tsarnaev brothers stopped seeing friends and Tamerlan did not even attend Mess’s funeral. Not long after, Tamerlan traveled to Dagestan and stayed in Russia for nearly seven months.

Back to yesterday’s events. Later reports indicated that Todarov did not have a knife when he “lunged” at the FBI agent, and it was no longer clear which law enforcement officer or officers had shot the “suspect.” A team of FBI agents are in Orlando to review the shooting, and perhaps we’ll learn more about what actually happened.

Multiple news sources have reported that Todashev had implicated himself and Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the Waltham murders and that FBI agents were trying to get him to sign a written confession when he became enraged and attacked an agent, who sustained “non-life-threatening” injuries. Apparently Todashev didn’t want to sign whatever document the FBI agents had prepared for him. Since the FBI refuse to tape their interrogations, we may never know what the reported “implication” consisted of.

According to his friend Khusen Taramov, Todashev willingly answered the FBI’s questions.

The ex-roommate said Todashev shared the substance of his previous conversations with investigators with him and that he was completely forthcoming. That’s why he was surprised that Wednesday’s interview ended the way it did.

‘‘He told them everything,’’ Taramov said. ‘‘He told everything he knew. … I don’t know why that (the shooting) happened. It’s crazy.’’

But Taramov also said Todashev was afraid before Wednesday’s interview. ‘‘That’s what he asked me before he pretty much died,’’ Taramov said. ‘‘He asked me, ‘If something happens can you go out and tell all the truth, what exactly happened.’’’

It is clear that Todashev was prone to violence and people found him intimidating. He was involved in road rage incidents in Boston and Orlando.

Sorry I don’t have links for every detail, but the story is so complex and I’ve gotten information from so many sources that I thought it would be best for me to summarize it in my own words. There has been much more news breaking on this story, and I won’t try to include everything in this post. Anyone who is interested is welcome to ask me questions, and I’ll answer as best I can.

Here is one story from this morning from Fox Orlando: Moments leading to fatal FBI shooting in Orlando still unclear.

Federal and Central Florida law enforcement agencies are still collecting and processing evidence from the shooting scene at a condominium complex on Peregrine Avenue, near Kirkman Road and Universal Orlando, where Ibragim Todashev was shot early Wednesday.

Initially, FBI officials said Todashev, 27, became violent and lunged at an agent with a knife while he was being questioned about Tsarnaev and an unsolved 2011 triple murder in the Boston suburb of Waltham. The agent, acting on an “imminent threat,” then shot Todashev, they said.

Sources say Todashev, a Russian national living legally in Florida, was about to confess to the Waltham slaying when the shooting took place.

However, officials have backed off that preliminary account, and it’s no longer clear what happened in the moments before the fatal shooting.

“I heard a couple of loud bangs and saw a couple of cop cars riding by,” said Jared Morse, who lives in the area. “They wouldn’t let anyone out to see anything or anything like that, so they made us go back inside.”

There is one more possible connection between the Waltham murders and a massive drug bust that took place several months earlier in Watertown MA, in May 2011. It “followed a year-long investigation by federal authorities and resulted in charges against 18 people.” This was mentioned in a Washington Post Story yesterday that some friends of one of the murdered men believed there was a connection. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s likely the Tsarnaev brothers were financing their lifestyles with illegal activities, including drugs and possibly some kind of scam involving luxury cars.

Finally, a must-read article on the Boston saga and the failures of the Homeland Security Department and the Boston Police Department: BRIC-ED IN: WHY THE BPD DIDN’T THINK THAT TAMERLAN TSARNAEV WAS A KILLER. It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who lives in a large city that could be a terrorist target. Basically, the article describes how the BPD ignored terror warnings and instead spent millions on surveillance of Occupy Boston and other peace and environmental groups. COINTELPRO all over again. One representative of the Massachusetts ACLU had some suggestions.

According to Kade Crockford, who tracks the BRIC for the ACLU of Massachusetts, it’s about time that authorities reconsider their priorities. “A big question,” she says, “is whether efforts to build a bigger intelligence haystack may actually be less effective than improving traditional policing methods that focus on solving crimes …”

“Perhaps instead of extensively monitoring activists who are petitioning the government through the democratic process, law enforcement resources should focus on investigating and solving actual crimes, starting with murder.”

“Fewer resources tracking peace activists and more focus on traditional homicide detective work might be the best way to ensure a world in which we are both safe and free.”

I’ll end there, and open the floor to anything you want to discuss. Please post your links in the comments and have a great Thursday!


Police State Awareness Day

I’ve found 2011’s list of Top MuckReads at ProPublica and wanted to highlight the investigative articles involving homeland security.  I have to admit that the patterns are ominous.  It seems that domestic surveillance is the new reality.

First up is an article that shows how NYPD sends spies to Mosques.

Highlights of AP’s probe into NYPD intelligence operations, Associated Press
“Mosque crawlers” who monitor sermons and “rakers” who embed themselves into minority neighborhoods are among the tactics the New York Police Department has used since 9/11. It was done with the assistance of the CIA, which is prohibited from spying on Americans.

Next is one that shows that the FBI isn’t beyond setting folks up for fun and arrest numbers.

Terrorists for the FBI, Mother Jones
Almost all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings. The story details “how informants are recruited and used and how and why agents are pursuing these aggressive sting operations.”

Here’s an interesting one on the use of force by the Las Vegas Police.  This would make me rethink vacations plans.

Deadly Force: When Las Vegas police shoot, and kill, Las Vegas Review-Journal
Analyzing each police shooting in the region since 1990, the Review-Journal found “an insular department that is slow to weed out problem cops and is slower still to adopt policies and procedures that protect both its own officers and the citizens they serve.”

Here’s an interesting set of stories from the Center for Investigative Reporting  published as a project called “Under Suspicion”.  Basically, investigative reporters have looked at the reports of suspicious activity at The Mall of America and how the Homeland Security programs have worked. Ever visited the Mall of America?  You could wind up in counterterrorism reports!

On the week of the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, the Center for Investigative Reporting and NPR published “Under Suspicion,” a joint yearlong investigation that looked at suspicious activity reports at the Mall of America and how the U.S. government has gathered intelligence since Sept. 11.

For CIR’s first live Behind the Story event, we teamed up with the San Francisco Film Society to give people a full look at how we put together an investigation in this digital age. “Under Suspicion” was published in print, broadcast, radio, as an animation and with multimedia components. Watch CIR reporters, producers and editors discuss their methodology and how they put together this innovative package.

There’s a lot of videos and interviews in the link.  You can check out NPR’s role in the investigation here.

Since Sept. 11, the nation’s leaders have warned that government agencies like the CIA and the FBI can’t protect the country on their own — private businesses and ordinary citizens have to look out for terrorists, too. So the Obama administration has been promoting programs like “See Something, Say Something” and the “Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative.

Under programs like these, public attractions such as sports stadiums, amusement parks and shopping malls report suspicious activities to law enforcement agencies. But an investigation by NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting suggests that at one of the nation’s largest shopping malls, these kinds of programs are disrupting innocent people’s lives.

One afternoon three years ago, Francis Van Asten drove to the Mall of America, near Minneapolis, and started recording. First he filmed driving to the mall. Then he filmed a plane landing at the nearby airport, and then he strolled inside the mall and kept recording as he walked. He says he was taking a video to send to his fiancee in Vietnam.

As he started filming, he didn’t realize that he was about to get caught up in America’s war on terrorism — the mall had formed its own private counterterrorism unit in 2005. And now, a security guard had been tailing Van Asten since before he entered the mall. Van Asten was first approached by a guard outside a clothing store.

“And he asked me what I was doing. And I said, ‘Oh, I’m making a video.’ And I said, ‘Are we allowed to make videos in Mall of America, and take pictures and stuff?’ He says, ‘Oh sure, nothing wrong with that,’ ” explains Van Asten. “So I turn to start walking away, and then he started asking me questions. Why am I making a video, what am I making a video of, what I did for a living, and he asked me, what’s my hobbies?”

The guard called another member of the mall’s security unit, and they questioned Van Asten for almost an hour before summoning two police officers from the Bloomington Police Department.

“I hadn’t done anything wrong. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, according to them even. I asked the policeman why I was being detained,” says Van Asten. “He said, ‘Listen, mister, we can do this any way you want: the easy way or the hard way.’ ”

And then, the police took Van Asten down to a police substation in the mall’s basement.

Oh, and let’s not forget this.

He waited until New Year’s Eve to do it…but he did it. While expressing “serious reservations” about the bill, President Barack Obama on New Year’s Eve signed legislation that cements into law two highly controversial tenets of the war on terror: indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without charge, and the jailing of American citizens without trial. It also takes terrorism-related cases out of the hands of the FBI and the civilian court system and hands them over to the military.
Obama approved the bill (known as the National Defense Authorization Act), but at the same time, in a signing statement, claimed his administration would not allow the military to detain Americans indefinitely.
Civil libertarians were nonetheless outraged by Obama’s approval of the legislation. They claim that Obama is taking a “Trust me; I won’t do it” position. However, even if he does refrain from abusing the law, there is no guarantee that future presidents won’t imprison Americans and others indefinitely without trial or even without charge.
Next time, they just might disappear you!

 


The War on Terror as continued assault on Civil Liberties

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759
US author, diplomat, inventor, physicist, politician, & printer (1706 – 1790)

The vote last week on a civil liberty robbing provision tucked deep into a Pentagon Spending Bill reveals how little today’s politicians truly understand the constitution they are sworn to protect.  Many of our greatest public leaders have reminded us throughout history that sacrificing our civil rights and liberties for public safety is not prudent or wise. We need that lesson more than ever.

This article at Alternet spells out 20 Ways the Obama Administration has continued Bush Policies that directly infringe on domestic civil liberties.  It is amazing to me that there remains few differences between political parties in most major policies issues other than exactly how far to push distinct religious sanctions. There is a long list that begins with violations that continue with the passage of the Patriot Act.  There are examples of suppression and criminalization of decent and wrongful use of police powers.  We are seeing the militarization of police in their suppression of Occupy and other protest movements as well as weaponizing border and homeland security functions at the state and local level.  There is expansion of wiretapping and domestic spying.  There is singling out of religious communities–Muslims–for unconstitutional spying, control, and assassinations.

The last two administrations have clearly used the threat of terrorism to expand the power of the executive branch, limit the rights of law abiding citizens, and enact laws and policies that clearly violate constitutional rights.  This is truly a frightening list of abuses. Here are specific examples of the militarization of domestic state and local law enforcement activities.  I remember clearly how the Bush administration bullied then Louisiana Governor Blanco to attempt to get her turn the Louisiana National Guard over to the executive branch.  The late and poor response to Katrina was one example I saw was partial punishment for our Governor’s refusal to do so.

Anyone who has gone to a peace or justice protest in recent years has seen it – local police have been turned into SWAT teams, and SWAT teams into heavily armored military. Officer Friendly or even Officer Unfriendly has given way to police uniformed like soldiers with SWAT shields, shin guards, heavy vests, military helmets, visors, and vastly increased firepower. Protest police sport ninja turtle-like outfits and are accompanied by helicopters, special tanks, and even sound blasting vehicles first used in Iraq. Wireless fingerprint scanners first used by troops in Iraq are now being utilized by local police departments to check motorists. Facial recognition software introduced in war zones is now being used in Arizona and other jurisdictions. Drones just like the ones used in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan are being used along the Mexican and Canadian borders. These activities continue to expand under the Obama administration.

The Muslim Community has been particularly vulnerable.  The majority of our domestic terrorist attacks have come from white supremacists and militarists that are not Muslim, yet many resources have been used to infringe on the rights of Muslim Americans.

Muslims in the US have been targeted by the Obama Department of Justice for inflammatory things they said or published on the internet. First Amendment protection of freedom of speech, most recently stated in a 1969 Supreme Court decision, Brandenberg v Ohio, says the government cannot punish inflammatory speech, even if it advocates violence unless it is likely to incite or produce such action. A Pakistani resident legally living in the US was indicted by the DOJ in September 2011 for uploading a video on YouTube. The DOJ said the video was supportive of terrorists even though nothing on the video called for violence. In July 2011, the DOJ indicted a former Penn State student for going onto websites and suggesting targets and for providing a link to an explosives course already posted on the internet.

There are additional activities.

The CIA, which is prohibited from spying on Americans, works with the police on “human mapping”, commonly known as racial and religious profiling to spy on the Muslim community. Under the Obama administration, the Associated Press reported in August 2011, informants known as “mosque crawlers,” monitor sermons, bookstores and cafes.

The Alernet piece is full of examples where the CIA, the FBI, local and state law enforcement and Homeland security have overstepped constitutional boundaries in the

Up-armored Humvees with armed soldiers guard my street. I took this picture during the first week of October, 2005.

name of “security” and “safety”.  There are so many examples that it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that we are living in a police state.  After Katrina, I spent months watching armored vehicles and armed soldiers patrol our city. We heard many stories of both police and homeland security abuse after learning that many of the stories of people firing at helicopters or firing on police were sheer fantasy.

Additionally, we experienced a homeland security practice run that was labelled as an exercise for handling food riots that included having  many, many black helicopters buzz our neighborhoods over a series of evenings.  Many folks took days worth of of video footage and photos of the exercises.  This happened in 2009.

The New Orleans Police Department, along with 150 active duty U.S. troops, are currently engaging in what they describe as “military training” as black helicopters whizz around the city dropping bombs in the latest example of Americans being incrementally conditioned to accept a state of de facto martial law.

The training has been ongoing since January 27 and involves “the use of military helicopters flying after dark throughout the city,” according to an Associated Press report.

Residents were warned “not to panic” if they witnessed the training and were assured that the activities had “been carefully planned and are safe”.

However, initial reports before the exercises began claimed that the training would only involve police, when in fact 150 U.S. troops from the U.S. Special Operations Command are also involved as part of urban warfare training.

I have no idea if you have ever experienced things like this but believe me, it makes you very uneasy.  I was one of the first folks home in my neighborhood.  The first set of soldiers to see me where obviously startled.  I later learned that one of my friends had been chased by black berets while trying to drop dog and cat food to neighbors trapped animals directly after Katrina.  We were all basically chased out of the city and unless you were securely locked in your house, you were basically subject to arrest.  These are not the kinds of things that we are used to seeing here in the U.S. but the more I read the incredible long list of cited examples in the Alternet article and compare them to my post Katrina experience, the more I think that we are just beginning to experience it. Just think of having most days in our neighborhood being like your experience getting on a US flight these days and  I think you can imagine what it will feel like.


Saturday Night in Police State Amerika

I know most of you have seen this video or one like it from UC Davis yesterday. This is the most shocking version I’ve seen so far:

For the past couple of months, we’ve been watching Occupy Wall Street grow from a few thousand protesters in New York City to hundreds of thousands of protesters in cities and towns all over this country. One interesting side effect of the Occupy movement is that the militarization of police forces since 9/11 has been put on full display. Police departments have reacted to peaceful protesters as if they were dangerous terrorists. All those billions poured into “homeland security” have created a monster. And now we can see it plainly. We live in a police state.

Earlier this week, Digby wrote an excellent piece on how this happened: Militarizing the Police: How the Drug War and 9/11 Led to Battle-Dressed Cops Cracking Down on Peaceful Protests. Basically, she wrote, if you build it…it will be used.

The US has actually been militarising much of its police agencies for the better part of three decades, mostly in the name of the drug war. But 9/11 put that programme on steroids.

Recall that six short weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the US congress passed the PATRIOT Act, a sweeping expansion of domestic and foreign intelligence-gathering capabilities. This

legislation gave the government the ability to easily search all forms of communication, eased restrictions on foreign intelligence-gathering at home, gave itself greater power to monitor financial transactions and created entirely new categories of domestic terrorism to which the PATRIOT Act’s expanded powers to police could be applied.

It was one of the greatest expansions of government police power in history, an expansion which, after some tweaking, has been mostly validated by the congress and reaffirmed by the courts.

I already linked to her article in one of my morning posts, but if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, please do.

The American ruling class has become more and more powerful and less and less accountable to the rest of us. For a long time I’ve thought that our best hope is that they will become so arrogant and drunk with power that they overreach and reveal the truth–we are no longer free and the goal is to turn us all into cowering serfs.

So far the iron fist has mostly been concealed under a velvet glove, but now we are seeing the price we’ll pay if we demand our rights and freedoms back. I salute the protesters–young, old, and in-between for the courage they are showing in putting their bodies on the line.

As our President blithely gallivants around the world and our “representatives” fight over the spoils in Washington, we are beginning to see clearly the structure that Bush built and Obama has accepted–a domestic military force to protect the elites from the people whose homes and jobs and retirement savings they have stolen. A police state.

I fear if the push for austerity and the inaction on jobs continues, we are going to see riots in the streets that will make 1968 look tame in comparison. There a so many of us in the 99%. They can’t jail or kill all of us. Fortunately they are making the stupid mistake of showing us what is going to happen to anyone who resists. The more violence and cruelty they display, the angrier many Americans will get and the more backlash there will be.

Americans don’t like to be pushed around. Somewhere deep inside of each of us is a burning desire for freedom and the willingness to fight for it. In the end we will win, but it won’t be easy. We need to stick together.