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FCC’s proposed rule changes on net neutrality violate a host of international obligations

Net-Neutrality-Image-2

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

– Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

With one month to go before the public comment period ends on the Federal Communications Commission’s recent vote to advance a proposal that would end net neutrality and create a system of paid-prioritization online, a new report has come out criticizing the FCC’s actions as potentially undermining the U.S. government’s international obligations regarding freedom of expression.

The legal analysis issued Monday by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – an inter-governmental organization that counts the United States as one of its 57 members – found that the rules on net neutrality (the principle that internet service providers treat all data equally and not discriminate based on content or price paid) proposed by the FCC may violate one or more of the following international accords to which the United States has subscribed: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document.

Prepared for the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media by George Washington University Law School Professor Dawn Carla Nunziato, the report points out that Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR protects the right to freedom of expression and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Despite this international obligation of the U.S. government, the FCC has proposed rules that would replace the so-called Nondiscrimination Rule with a No Commercially Unreasonable Practices Rule. As Prof. Nunziato explains it, “Permitting ‘commercially reasonable’ practices by broadband providers will allow – and indeed encourage – broadband providers to experiment with business models that include paid prioritization – and even exclusive paid prioritization – upon individualized negotiations with edge providers (providers of content, applications, and services).”

In practice, what this would mean is that broadband providers would be able to negotiate exclusive pay-for-priority arrangements with individual content providers, permitting broadband providers to anoint exclusive premium content providers “and effectively become censors of other disfavored, poorly funded, or unpopular content, by choosing not to favor such content for transmission to subscribers.”

For example, an internet service provider like Comcast “could enter into a deal with Foxnews.com to anoint it as the exclusive premium news provider for all Comcast subscribers, while comparatively disadvantaging all other news providers.”

Similarly, the FCC’s Proposed Rules would allow a broadband provider like Verizon to enter into an arrangement with the Republican National Committee to anoint it as the exclusive premium political site for all Verizon subscribers, while disadvantaging the Democratic National Committee’s and other political sites.

She goes on to describe other possible effects of this rule change:

Otherwise protected speech – a blog critical of Verizon’s latest broadband policies, a disfavored political party’s website – could be disfavored by broadband providers and not provided to Internet users in a manner equal to other, favored Internet content – subject only to the Proposed Rules’ vague prohibition against commercially unreasonable conduct. Such a regime would endanger the free flow of information on the Internet, would threaten freedom of expression and freedom of the media, and would herald the beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it.

The possibility of being sidelined by the ISPs could lead to “further entrenched market power by dominant content and applications providers, self-censorship by content providers who might alter their content to make it more palatable to broadband providers, and a reduction in the overall amount of speech that is meaningfully communicated as a result of content not being delivered effectively to its intended audience.”

These very real prospects led the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, to weigh in on the controversy yesterday.

“The proposed rules will allow telecommunications providers to discriminate against content which may conflict with their political, economic or other interests,” Mijatovic said in a letter to FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. “This would contradict international standards, OSCE commitments on free expression and freedom of the media and longstanding U.S. First Amendment principles.”

Besides U.S. international commitments on freedom of information, the net neutrality controversy spurred by the FCC and its chairman Tom Wheeler raises questions of U.S. compliance with its anti-corruption obligations under the UN Convention against Corruption. As a state party to this Convention, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere. In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

Yet, the powerful chairmanship of Wheeler at the FCC demonstrates once again how the United States routinely flouts this obligation to prevent conflicts of interests. Prior to joining the FCC, Wheeler worked as a venture capitalist and lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry, with positions including President of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA). He also raised over $500,000 for Barack Obama’s two campaigns.

As a reward for this financial backing, President Obama then appointed him to his current position where is empowered with rewriting the rules for the industry that once employed him. This sort of patronage is not only prohibited under the Convention against Corruption, but now, as we see, is leading to multiple violations of international principles, as documented by the OSCE in its report issued Monday.

“The Internet was conceived as an open medium with the free flow of information as one of its fundamental characteristics,” Mijatovic said upon the report’s release. “This should be guaranteed without discrimination and regardless of the content, destination, author, device used or origin.”

Mijatovic expressed her hope that her recommendations will be taken into consideration by the FCC.

The legal analysis of the proposed net neutrality rule changes is available here. To comment to the FCC regarding its proposed rules regarding net neutrality, click here.

A very accessible, succinct explanation of the FCC’s proposed rule changes was offered recently by John Oliver on his cable show Last Week Tonight:

NSA surveillance routinely violating U.S. and international law

nsa-listening-408The Washington Post is reporting that the National Security Agency has broken its own privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since 2008, citing top-secret documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Most of the infractions involved illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, ranging from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. emails and telephone calls, according to the Post.

In one instance, the NSA decided it would not report the unintended surveillance of Americans to the FISA court. A notable example in 2008 was the interception of a “large number” of calls placed from Washington when a “programming error” confused U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt.

The NSA audit that Snowden provided to the Post, dated May 2012, counted 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications.

In other words, the NSA – which was granted greatly expanded legal authority in 2008 by Congress in the FISA Amendments Act – has been routinely flouting Americans’ legal protections with impunity for years.

“The number of ‘compliance incidents’ is jaw-dropping,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director. “The rules around government surveillance are so permissive that it is difficult to comprehend how the intelligence community could possibly have managed to violate them so often.”

He pointed out that “at least some of these incidents seem to have implicated the privacy of thousands or millions of innocent people.”

The incidents are not only infractions of of U.S. law, but also international law.

As Privacy International has pointed out:

Human rights conventions and national constitutions almost universally call for the protection of the right to privacy – the challenge is ensuring that governments comply with this requirement, particularly with respect to new technologies and in countries that lack the rule of law.

The modern privacy benchmark at an international level can be found in Article 12 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which specifically protects territorial and communications privacy. Numerous other international human rights treaties recognize privacy as a right: Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers, and Article 16 of the UN Convention of the Protection of the Child. Regional conventions that recognize the right to privacy includes Article 10 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Article 11 of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 4 of the African Union Principles on Freedom of Expression, Article 5 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, Article 21 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, and Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

An April 2013 report issued by the United Nations about the threat that government surveillance poses to the enjoyment of basic human rights found that state surveillance of communications is ubiquitous and such surveillance severely undermines citizens’ ability to enjoy a private life, to express themselves freely and enjoy other fundamental freedoms.

UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue noted that in the current era, “the State now has a greater capability to conduct simultaneous, invasive, targeted and broad-scale surveillance than ever before.”

The report touched on various problems in the use of surveillance, including the lack of judicial oversight, unregulated access to communications data and extra-legal surveillance. In addressing these concerns the UN “underlines the urgent need to further study new modalities of surveillance and to revise national laws regulating these practices in line with human rights standards.”

Toward this end, civil society groups, industry and international experts in communications surveillance law, policy and technology have developed the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, formally launched last month.

According to the Preamble of the International Principles,

Privacy is a fundamental human right, and is central to the maintenance of democratic societies. It is essential to human dignity and it reinforces other rights, such as freedom of expression and information, and freedom of association, and is recognised under international human rights law. Activities that restrict the right to privacy, including communications surveillance, can only be justified when they are prescribed by law, they are necessary to achieve a legitimate aim, and are proportionate to the aim pursued.

Before public adoption of the Internet, well-established legal principles and logistical burdens inherent in monitoring communications created limits to State communications surveillance. In recent decades, those logistical barriers to surveillance have decreased and the application of legal principles in new technological contexts has become unclear. The explosion of digital communications content and information about communications, or “communications metadata” — information about an individual’s communications or use of electronic devices — the falling cost of storing and mining large sets of data, and the provision of personal content through third party service providers make State surveillance possible at an unprecedented scale. Meanwhile, conceptualisations of existing human rights law have not kept up with the modern and changing communications surveillance capabilities of the State, the ability of the State to combine and organize information gained from different surveillance techniques, or the increased sensitivity of the information available to be accessed.

The frequency with which States are seeking access to both communications content and communications metadata is rising dramatically, without adequate scrutiny. When accessed and analysed, communications metadata may create a profile of an individual’s life, including medical conditions, political and religious viewpoints, associations, interactions and interests, disclosing as much detail as, or even greater detail than would be discernible from the content of communications. Despite the vast potential for intrusion into an individual’s life and the chilling effect on political and other associations, legislative and policy instruments often afford communications metadata a lower level of protection and do not place sufficient restrictions on how they can be subsequently used by agencies, including how they are data-mined, shared, and retained.

In order for States to actually meet their international human rights obligations in relation to communications surveillance, they must comply with the principles set out below. These principles apply to surveillance conducted within a State or extraterritorially. The principles also apply regardless of the purpose for the surveillance — law enforcement, national security or any other regulatory purpose. They also apply both to the State’s obligation to respect and fulfil individuals’ rights, and also to the obligation to protect individuals’ rights from abuse by non-State actors, including corporate entities. The private sector bears equal responsibility for respecting human rights, particularly given the key role it plays in designing, developing and disseminating technologies; enabling and providing communications; and – where required – cooperating with State surveillance activities. Nevertheless, the scope of the present Principles is limited to the obligations of the State.

The Principles include 13 key points, summarized here:

Legality: Any limitation on the right to privacy must be prescribed by law.

Legitimate Aim: Laws should only permit communications surveillance by specified State authorities to achieve a legitimate aim that corresponds to a predominantly important legal interest that is necessary in a democratic society.

Necessity: Laws permitting communications surveillance by the State must limit surveillance to that which is strictly and demonstrably necessary to achieve a legitimate aim.

Adequacy: Any instance of communications surveillance authorised by law must be appropriate to fulfill the specific legitimate aim identified.

Proportionality: Decisions about communications surveillance must be made by weighing the benefit sought to be achieved against the harm that would be caused to users’ rights and to other competing interests.

Competent judicial authority: Determinations related to communications surveillance must be made by a competent judicial authority that is impartial and independent.

Due process: States must respect and guarantee individuals’ human rights by ensuring that lawful procedures that govern any interference with human rights are properly enumerated in law, consistently practiced, and available to the general public.

User notification: Individuals should be notified of a decision authorising communications surveillance with enough time and information to enable them to appeal the decision, and should have access to the materials presented in support of the application for authorisation.

Transparency: States should be transparent about the use and scope of communications surveillance techniques and powers.

Public oversight: States should establish independent oversight mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability of communications surveillance.

Integrity of communications and systems: States should not compel service providers, or hardware or software vendors to build surveillance or monitoring capabilities into their systems, or to collect or retain information.

Safeguards for international cooperation: Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs) entered into by States should ensure that, where the laws of more than one State could apply to communications surveillance, the available standard with the higher level of protection for users should apply.

Safeguards against illegitimate access: States should enact legislation criminalising illegal communications surveillance by public and private actors.

With the new revelations exposed by the Post along with all the other Snowden leaks from recent months, it is clear that many – if not all – of these 13 principles are being violated routinely by the NSA’s surveillance activities.

To sign on to the International Principles, click here.

Click here to tell Congress to end the U.S. surveillance state.

As Europe grovels, Latin America stands up to U.S. lawlessness

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads in Spanish: "France; Racist, hypocrite and fascist," outside the French embassy during a protest over France's alleged refusal to let the Bolivian president's plane cross over French airspace, in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, July 3, 2013.  (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads in Spanish: “France; Racist, hypocrite and fascist,” outside the French embassy during a protest over France’s alleged refusal to let the Bolivian president’s plane cross over French airspace, in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, July 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

Events of the past week have demonstrated that despite occasional grumblings from Europe about U.S. misconduct on the world stage, at the end of the day, it is only Latin America that is willing to take concrete action to challenge the systemic lawlessness of the U.S. government.

Although European leaders were humiliated by the United States when it was revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks that the NSA has been tapping the telephone lines and computer networks of EU offices in Brussels, New York and Washington — as well as the governments of Germany, France, Greece, Italy and others — Europe largely fell into line in submitting to U.S. dictates regarding Snowden’s asylum requests.

The U.S. spying on diplomatic missions of the EU and individual European nations is a violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention which states that “the official correspondence” as well as “the premises” of diplomatic missions “shall be inviolable.”

The individual’s right to privacy is also enshrined in numerous human rights conventions including in Article 12 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers, and Article 16 of the UN Convention of the Protection of the Child. It is also guaranteed by Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Despite Snowden revealing these U.S. violations of international law on European territory, ten EU countries indicated that they would deny the whistleblower’s political asylum requests, with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle saying that Snowden’s request would be reviewed by German authorities “according to the law,” but he “could not imagine” that it would be approved.

This is despite the bluster displayed by German leaders when the story broke about the NSA snooping into the emails and phone conversations of European nations, including Germany. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, described the disclosures of massive U.S. spying in Europe as unacceptable.

“We are no longer in the Cold War,” said Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert. “If it is confirmed that diplomatic representations of the European Union and individual European countries have been spied upon, we will clearly say that bugging friends is unacceptable.”

The French president, François Hollande, also called the spying intolerable.

“We cannot accept this kind of behaviour between partners and allies,” Hollande said. “We ask that this stop immediately.” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that if confirmed, the activities would be “totally unacceptable”.

Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, said that if the report was correct, it would have a “severe impact” on relations between the EU and the United States.

“On behalf of the European Parliament, I demand full clarification and require further information speedily from the US authorities with regard to these allegations,” he said in a statement.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told Der Spiegel: “If these reports are true, it’s disgusting. The United States would be better off monitoring its secret services rather than its allies. We must get a guarantee from the very highest level now that this stops immediately.”

But when it comes to the tangible actions – rather than just strong words – that are needed to effectively stand up to the United States, European leaders are missing in action. Indeed, when push comes to shove, and these leaders are leaned upon to take unprecedented and legally questionable measures to assist the U.S. in its overzealous manhunt of Edward Snowden, they have largely fallen into line.

For example, when the United States received a tip that Snowden may have been on a plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales, who was flying home from a Moscow summit via Western Europe, European governments fell over themselves to do the bidding of the United States, with France, Spain and Portugal all refusing to let Morales’ plane through their airspace.

The plane was forced to land in Austria, where it remained grounded for 14 hours as the authorities determined that Snowden was not on board.

Morales called the rerouting of his plane a violation of national sovereignty and a provocation to all of Latin America, urging European countries to “free themselves” from the undue influence of the United States.

“It is an open provocation to the continent, not only to the president; they use the agent of North American imperialism to scare us and intimidate us,” Morales told supporters gathered at the airport in La Paz to greet him.

“I regret [saying] this, but I want to say that some European countries should free themselves from North American imperialism,” he said.

Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, criticized European countries’ role in the rerouting of Morales’s plane, describing it as an act of cowardice.

“The European people have seen the cowardice and the weakness of their governments, which now look like colonies of the U.S.,” he said on Friday.

The actions were also likely a violation of international law. Michael Bochenek, director of law and policy at Amnesty International, said that the grounding of Morales’ plane, as well as reports that Vice President Joe Biden had phoned the Ecuadorean leader, Rafael Correa, to block asylum for Snowden, carried serious legal implications.

“Interfering with the right to seek asylum is a serious problem in international law,” Bochenek said. “It is further evidence that he [Snowden] has a well-founded fear of persecution. This will be relevant to any state when considering an application. International law says that somebody who fears persecution should not be returned to that country.”

Unlike the European countries cowering in the face of U.S. power even when they are humiliated and provoked, Latin America responded forcefully to the lawless behavior of the United States.

Following a meeting of Latin American leaders on Thursday, three countries – Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua – stepped forward to indicate that they would accept Snowden as a political refugee fleeing persecution by the United States.

Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro cited humanitarian grounds for his decision to help the whistleblower.

“We have decided to offer humanitarian asylum to the American Edward Snowden to protect him from the persecution being unleashed by the world’s most powerful empire,” Maduro said.

For their part, EU politicians have questioned the future of trade talks set to begin this week.  The European Commission has officially asked Washington to investigate the allegations while France’s government said that it wanted to delay the start of U.S.-EU trade talks.

A German official has suggested that Europeans stop patronizing American Internet companies such as Google and Facebook if they are concerned about their privacy.

Bradley Manning’s ‘show trial’ set to begin as grassroots campaigns gain momentum

bradley manning hero

With Bradley Manning’s court martial trial finally set to begin next week — more than three years after his initial arrest on suspicion of being the source of the biggest leak of classified documents in U.S. history — various campaigns are gaining momentum to ensure that he receives a fair and transparent trial, and to urge the world’s leading human rights organizations to recognize Manning as a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience.

A petition at Avaaz calls on Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in particular, to take a stand in support of this imprisoned whistleblower:

It is very important that the two biggest human rights organizations acknowledge Bradley Manning as a “Political Prisoner” and/or “Prisoner of Conscience” before his trial begins on June 3, 2013. If his actions can be misconstrued as “aiding the enemy” by the law, despite his providing the information to the public at large via “non-enemy” news sources, this sets the precedent of criminalizing of all future whistleblowers.

A blog called Amnesty for Bradley Manning, using the hashtag #Amnesty4Manning on Twitter, has also been launched with the sole purpose of pressuring Amnesty International to declare Manning a prisoner of conscience. Advocating that Amnesty International’s members and the general public call, email, tweet and send postcards to the Secretariat of Amnesty International, the #Amnesty4Manning campaign notes,

Manning has been imprisoned for over three years and was subjected to psychological torture accompanied by highly abusive treatment for nine of those months. Torture techniques included solitary confinement, humiliation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and stress positions of being shackled in a 6’ x 8’ cell. Through his imprisonment, Manning has exposed the dark side of the US justice system which keeps his case shrouded in secrecy. One has to question what the US government is doing behind closed doors. Why shield the public from information regarding his case?

Pointing out that Amnesty International’s own website urges members of the public to contact them with information on human rights violations, #Amnesty4Manning states, “It’s time we give them a call.” The campaign provides contact information for Amnesty International and even offers several printable postcards that can be mailed to the Secretariat in London.

bradley manning post card

Although the concept of “political prisoner” is rather ill-defined in international law, several workable definitions have been proposed over the years, including by Amnesty International. Under some of these definitions, it seems clear that Manning would qualify.

As Amnesty International has explained its use of the term “political prisoner,”

In AI’s usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities. “Political” is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to “politics”: the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors). The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive. In AI’s use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:

  • a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;
  • a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants’ organization;
  • a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or “subversion”.

A definition of “political prisoner” recently adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe includes the following criteria:

a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and association;

b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offence;

c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;

d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons; or,

e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears to be connected with political motives of the authorities.” (SG/Inf(2001)34, paragraph 10).

According to a more concise definition of the term in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a political prisoner is “someone who is in prison because they have opposed or criticized the government of their own country.”

It’s clear that under any number of these criteria, Manning would qualify as a political prisoner, if not a prisoner of conscience. He was clearly motivated by his conscience and out of concern over the evidence of war crimes, corruption and general wrongdoing committed by his government that he was privy to as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq. Further, the potential sentence he faces of death or life in prison for the “aiding the enemy” charge that the government is pursuing would clearly be out of proportion to the offense he is accused of.

Regarding his decision to provide the documents to WikiLeaks, Manning explained before making his decision in online chat logs with his friend Adrian Lamo (who ultimately betrayed him), that his motivations were purely altruistic, concerned for example by “how the first world exploits the third,” and recognizing that the information could have a great impact on the earth’s entire population:

(12:15:11 PM) bradass87: hypothetical question: if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?
(12:16:38 PM) bradass87: or Guantanamo, Bagram, Bucca, Taji, VBC for that matter…
(12:17:47 PM) bradass87: things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people
(12:21:24 PM) bradass87: say… a database of half a million events during the iraq war… from 2004 to 2009… with reports, date time groups, lat-lon locations, casualty figures… ? or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?

He further elaborated on his motives in full testimony at a pretrial hearing earlier this year, which was later leaked and posted on YouTube:

Manning said he was particularly disturbed by a 39-minute video showing Apache helicopter pilots laughing during a 2007 attack in Baghdad that killed a number of civilians and a Reuters journalist:

They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life, and referred to them as quote-unquote “dead bastards,” and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.

According to his statement, after being rebuffed by his commanding officer, to whom he attempted to bring information of human rights abuses in Iraq, and after being rejected by traditional news outlets such as the Washington Post and New York Times, he ultimately decided to release a trove of classified information to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

Manning provided three important bodies of documents to WikiLeaks: the Iraq war logs, which consist of 391,000 field reports, including the notorious video of the Apache helicopter gunning down a crowd of Iraqi civilians and Reuters journalists in July 2007 (killing over a dozen of them and injuring several small children). This batch of information also included documentation of the Haditha massacre in which 24 Iraqi civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly, were systematically murdered by U.S. Marines (a crime for which the perpetrators were never punished).

Following that release by WikiLeaks, there were 90,000 Afghan war logs, providing a devastating portrayal of the deteriorating war in Afghanistan. The war logs, made public in July 2010, revealed how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents in Afghanistan and how a secret “black” unit of special forces has hunted down suspected Taliban leaders for “kill or capture” without trial. Another document of great public interest expressed suspicion that the Pakistanis were arming and funding the Afghan insurgency.

And, finally, Manning’s document release included 260,000 diplomatic cables, possibly the most controversial of his leaks, since the sheer volume called into question whether his actions demonstrated any self-restraint or caution. These leaks, however, also included some of most explosive revelations, and arguably had the most impact globally, including providing the spark for the Arab Spring.

These leaks included details on how the U.S. government had lobbied to keep down the minimum wage in Haiti so as to keep manufacturing costs low for American employers and also provided documentation of Tunisian corruption, which played a role in the revolution there.

In addition, the leaked State Department cables revealed that the United States had been routinely violating the Vienna Convention by committing espionage against UN officials. As the Guardian reported on Nov. 28, 2010, “Washington is running a secret intelligence campaign targeted at the leadership of the United Nations, including the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon and the permanent security council representatives from China, Russia, France and the UK.”

More recently, the Cablegate documents have provided the backbone for research by the U.S.-based NGO Food and Water Watch, which recently released a report based on an extensive analysis of the cables. Significantly, Food and Water Watch found that “The U.S. State Department has launched a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology, often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives.”

The report, Biotech Ambassadors: How the U.S. State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda, further explains,

The State Department worked especially hard to promote the interests of Monsanto, the world’s biggest biotech seed company in 2011. Monsanto appeared in 6.1 percent of the biotech cables analyzed between 2005 and 2009 from 21 countries. The State Department exercised its diplomatic persuasion to bolster Monsanto’s image in host countries, facilitate field-testing or approval of Monsanto crops and intervene with governments to negotiate seed royalty settlements.

Taken together, the State Department cables, the Afghan war logs and the Iraq war logs have been highly embarrassing for the United States government, and have undermined the regime of secrecy that the Obama administration has so aggressively attempted to maintain.

This secrecy is now playing out in Manning’s trial itself, which has been marked by an extraordinary lack of openness. In response to the secrecy surrounding the trial, a group of prominent journalists has filed a lawsuit calling on the military judge presiding over the trial to “grant the public and press access to the government’s filings, the court’s own orders, and transcripts of the proceedings.” None of these have been made available to the public to date.

“Secret trials are commonplace in dictatorships, but have no place in this country.” said co-plaintiff Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. “The Obama administration conducts unconstitutional dragnet surveillance of journalists to uncover protected sources, and targets whistleblowers with unprecedented use of the espionage act.”

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, who has been granted political asylum by the Ecuadorean government to protect him from persecution by the U.S., has gone so far as to call Manning’s upcoming court martial a “show trial.”

“This is a show trial,” he explained on Democracy Now. “The trial is meant to go for 14 to 16 weeks, And the prosecution, the Pentagon and possibly White House is hungry for this.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights goes to federal court in two weeks to argue the lawsuit seeking press and public access to the court-martial proceedings and documents. For the time being, the Freedom of the Press Foundation is crowd-funding donations to hire a grassroots court stenographer to record trial transcripts, as the U.S. government has so far refused to make transcripts available to the public.

A “Mass Rally for Bradley Manning” is taking place at the site of the court martial at Fort Meade, MD, on June 1 to demand a fair trial for the accused Army private. “Now is the time to get loud and show the government why you oppose the over-prosecution of this brave whistleblower,” says the Center for Constitutional Rights.

More information about the rally, including transportation options, are available at the Save Bradley Manning website. A list of solidarity actions in other cities and countries is available here.

bradley manning poster

Monsanto feels the heat on global day of protest

Hundreds of cities across the world held marches Saturday in a first-of-its-kind global demonstration against one of the world’s most powerful (and hated) corporations, Monsanto.  According to organizers, more than two million people participated in 436 cities in 52 countries.

With a focus on the health dangers of the genetically-modified foods that Monsanto has pioneered – including increased rates of cancer, infertility and birth defects – the demonstrations also sought to bring attention to the undue influence that this company wields over the political system, especially in the U.S.

As the movement explains on its website, “In the United States, the FDA, the agency tasked with ensuring food safety for the population, is steered by ex-Monsanto executives, and we feel that’s a questionable conflict of interests and explains the lack of government-led research on the long-term effects of GM products.”

This conflict of interest is perhaps best exemplified by the current Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA, Michael Taylor, who has spent his career benefiting from the lucrative revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that purportedly regulate it.

An attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1970s, and then in the 80s, a private lawyer at the D.C. law firm King & Spalding, where he represented Monsanto, Taylor returned to government as Deputy Commissioner for Policy for the FDA from 1991 to 1994. He then went back to private industry as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto from 1998 until 2001.

When President Obama appointed him to the FDA in 2010, Taylor was a Senior Fellow at the think tank Resources for the Future, working on issues related to agricultural assistance in Africa.

As April Short explains at Alternet,

Ex-Monsanto executives run the United States Food and Drug Administration, the agency tasked with ensuring food safety for the American public.

This obvious conflict of interest could explain the lack of government-led research on the long-term effects of GM products. Recently, the U.S. Congress and president together passed the law that has been dubbed “Monsanto Protection Act.” Among other things, the new law bans courts from halting the sale of Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds.

The pro-Monsanto “Farmer Assurance Provision, Section 735,” rider was quietly slipped into Agricultural Appropriations provisions of the HR 933 Continuing Resolution spending bill, designed to avert a federal government shutdown. It states that the department of agriculture “shall, notwithstanding any other provisions of law, immediately grant temporary permits to continue using the [GE] seed at the request of a farmer or producer [Monsanto].”

Obama signed the law on March 29. It allows the agribusiness giant to promote and plant GMO and GE seeds free from any judicial litigation that might deem such crops unsafe. Even if a court review determines that a GMO crop harms humans, Section 735 allows the seeds to be planted once the USDA approves them.

Because policies enacted by corrupt governments often serve special interests such as Monsanto at the expense of the interests of the general public, the revolving door practice so prevalent among Monsanto executives and federal agencies in Washington is prohibited by international law.

As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

The U.S. has long disregarded these provisions of the UN Convention against Corruption, and in certain cases, such as the cozy corporate-government relationship with Monsanto, has taken the cronyism to another level. As revealed by the WikiLeaks “Cablegate” expose of 2010, Monsanto and other biotech companies enjoy an extremely comfortable status within the State Department, with U.S. diplomats routinely lobbying on their behalf with foreign governments.

According to a report based on an extensive analysis of the WikiLeaks cables, just published by Food and Water Watch,

The U.S. State Department has launched a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology, often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives.

The U.S. State Department has lobbied foreign governments to adopt pro-agricultural biotechnology policies and laws, operated a rigorous public relations campaign to improve the image of biotechnology and challenged commonsense biotechnology safeguards and rules — even including opposing laws requiring the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.

The report, Biotech Ambassadors: How the U.S. State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda, further explains,

The State Department worked especially hard to promote the interests of Monsanto, the world’s biggest biotech seed company in 2011. Monsanto appeared in 6.1 percent of the biotech cables analyzed between 2005 and 2009 from 21 countries. The State Department exercised its diplomatic persuasion to bolster Monsanto’s image in host countries, facilitate field-testing or approval of Monsanto crops and intervene with governments to negotiate seed royalty settlements.

U.S. embassies have attempted to burnish Monsanto’s image. The consulate in Munich, Germany, promised Monsanto that it would seek “even-handed” treatment of Monsanto’s core business by Bavarian officials, where farmers’ resistance to adopting biotech crops affected its brand. The embassy in Slovakia sought to “dispel myths about GMOs and advocate on behalf of Monsanto.”

In 2009, the embassy in Spain asked for “high level U.S. government intervention” at the “urgent requests” of Monsanto and a pro-biotech Spanish official in order to combat opposition to GE crops.

The State Department has even gone so far as to force other nations to accept biotech crop and food imports against their will. Working with the U.S. Trade Representative to promote the export of biotech crops, the State Department has used the full weight of U.S. diplomacy – with both carrots and sticks – to force nations that do not want these imports to accept U.S. biotech foods and crops.

As the March Against Monsanto puts it,

For too long, Monsanto has been the benefactor of corporate subsidies and political favoritism. Organic and small farmers suffer losses while Monsanto continues to forge its monopoly over the world’s food supply, including exclusive patenting rights over seeds and genetic makeup.

It is in this context that two million people took to the streets over the weekend.

Demonstration in Copenhagen, Denmark: middelalder monsanto 292 middelalder monsanto 295 middelalder monsanto 299 middelalder monsanto 288

March against Monsanto in Tokyo, Japan:

March against Monsanto in San Diego, CA:

monsanto san diego

monsanto san diego 2

Washington, DC:

“We will not stand for cronyism,” says the March Against Monsanto on its website. “We will not stand for poison. That’s why we March Against Monsanto.”

Washington’s culture of corruption and corporate impunity

revolving-door-cartoon

Washington’s revolving door corruption and culture of corporate impunity reached new lows last week, raising serious doubts about the United States’ commitment to upholding its international anti-corruption obligations as spelled out in the UN Convention against Corruption.

First there was the adoption on Tuesday of the so-called Monsanto Protection Act, which contains a provision protecting the manufacturers of genetically modified seeds from future litigation in the face of potential health risks. Then, two days later, Lanny Breuer, former Justice Department Criminal Division chief, joined a corporate law firm as its vice chairman earning $4 million a year.

The controversial Monsanto legislation, officially called the Farmer Assurance Provision – also known as Section 735 of the spending bill HR 933 – effectively bars federal courts from halting the use of genetically modified seeds, regardless of health issues that may be identified with them in the future. While the use of genetically modified seeds, driven primarily by the biotech giant Monsanto, has proved wildly profitable, many argue that there have been too few studies into the potential health risks of this new class of crop.

But following the adoption of the spending bill HR 933 with President Obama’s signature last week, even if those studies are completed and they end up revealing serious adverse health effects related to the consumption of genetically modified foods, the courts will have no ability to stop the spread of the seeds and the crops they bear.

“This dangerous provision, the Monsanto Protection Act, strips judges of their constitutional mandate to protect consumer and farmer rights and the environment, while opening up the floodgates for the planting of new untested genetically engineered crops, endangering farmers, citizens and the environment,” the group Food Democracy Now said on its website.

Monsanto's campaign contributions by election cycle

Monsanto’s campaign contributions by election cycle

The group had collected more than 250,000 signatures in a petition for Obama to veto the legislation, but to no avail. Monsanto, which helped draft the controversial provision in collusion with freshman Sen. Roy Blunt, is very well connected in Washington, having showered millions of dollars in campaign contributions to federal candidates, with contributions spiking in recent years.

In particular, the Center for Responsive Politics notes that Sen. Blunt received $64,250 from Monsanto to go towards his campaign committee between 2008 and 2012.

Campaign contributions, however, are far from the only way in which Monsanto wields its disproportionate influence in Washington. Its revolving door corruption is legendary in fact, with dozens of Monsanto executives and government officials exchanging titles and paychecks on a fairly regular basis.

Below is a diagram of some of the more prominent beneficiaries of this cozy revolving door relationship. (Click here for a full-size version.)

monsanto-in-government

Michael Taylor, the current Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA, exemplifies more clearly than most the revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that purportedly regulate it. An attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1970s, and then in the 80s, a private lawyer at the D.C. law firm King & Spalding, where he represented Monsanto, Taylor returned to government as Deputy Commissioner for Policy for the FDA from 1991 to 1994. He then went back to private industry as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto from 1998 until 2001.

Before President Obama appointed him to the FDA in 2010, Taylor was a Senior Fellow at the think tank Resources for the Future, where he published two documents on U.S. aid for African agriculture, both of which were funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Rather than using his position of power in the FDA to provide stringent oversight over Monsanto’s business practices, Taylor has instead gone after the agribusiness giant’s competitors, particularly small dairy farms that produce fresh milk.

As CREDO has pointed out, “the Food and Drug Administration is running sting operations followed by ‘guns-drawn raids usually reserved for terrorists and drug lords’ as part of a crackdown on unpasteurized milk.”

While this strict enforcement of laws requiring pasteurization could be considered a commendable as zero-tolerance approach to food safety, the fact is, under Taylor’s watch the FDA has been letting the highly consolidated industrial meat and factory farm industry off the hook despite growing problems. But this of course is what’s to be expected with Washington’s revolving door.

lanny breuer

Another fine example of this corruption is the decision by the corporate law firm Covington & Burling to rehire Lanny Breuer, this time as the firm’s vice chairman. Breuer has spent the last four years at the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, where he led the so-called investigation into the financial crisis.

He will now be joining the white-collar defense firm for the third time, and much like he has done at the DOJ, his job will be to defend large corporations from prosecution. This time however, he will be paid $4 million a year.

Not a single prosecution was brought under his watch against the too-big-to-fail financial institutions that crashed the global economy in 2008, and it’s not a conspiracy theory to speculate that Breuer was simply biding his time at the DOJ to build his value in the marketplace and pad his resume as a corporate lackey, a point that this satirical YouTube video makes clear:

This point was also driven home by an official DOJ directive from 2008, the same year that Breuer took over the Criminal Division. That year, the Justice Department announced a shift in policy, deciding to encourage self-policing by the banks and corporations, rather than vigorously prosecuting their law breaking. After all, “federal prosecutors and corporate leaders typically share common goals,” read the directive.

And unfortunately, Obama’s DOJ followed through on this policy of non-enforcement in spectacular fashion. Obama has prosecuted fewer financial crimes than Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or either of the Bush presidents. Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder, another Covington & Burling alum previously making $2.5 million a year, has publicly stated that he won’t go after big banks.

Because of the notoriously bad policies enacted by corrupt governments, the revolving door practice so common in Washington is prohibited by international law. As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

It could be said that the United States is routinely and flagrantly flouting this international obligation by allowing the corporate-government revolving door to swing so freely and lucratively, with business executives and corporate lawyers becoming government regulators and then returning to the private sector to collect multi-million dollar paychecks once they have completed their stints in “public service.”

Of course, the corporations and the banksters claim that this system works wonderfully.

As Monsanto so artfully explains on its website,

One objection opponents of biotechnology have raised is the fact that some former government employees have gone to work for Monsanto, and some company employees have left the company to take jobs in the public sector. Some critics say this shows collusion by Monsanto and the government. Such theories ignore the simple truth that people regularly change jobs to find positions that match their experience, skills and interests. Both the public and private sectors benefit when employers have access to the most competent and experienced people. It makes perfect sense that someone in government who has concluded biotechnology is a positive, beneficial technology might go to work for a biotech company, just as someone who believes otherwise might find employment in an organization which rejects agricultural biotechnology.

While there is some ostensible logic to this argument, it fails to acknowledge the self-evident reality of the overriding profit motive that trumps any possible public-interest gains to be made by allowing corporate chieftains to dictate public policy or ensure the non-enforcement of statutory law.

There are in fact common sense approaches that could be taken towards preventing these conflicts of interests, such as those adopted by the European Union on March 19, which help to regulate the revolving door between the European Central Bank and the financial institutions it supervises.

Transparency International hailed these reforms as important “democratic accountability mechanisms,” which among other things include:

  • a requirement for the ECB to put in place “comprehensive and formal processes” that prevent conflicts of interest, including the possibility of “cooling off” periods of up to two years.
  • an explicit assurance that ECB supervision will be subject to EU legislation on public access to documents.
  • robust democratic oversight in the form of parliamentary approval of the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Supervisory Board and a stronger right of enquiry.

While a cynic might say that these reforms are a self-serving and inadequate approach to addressing Europe’s own malfeasance, these measures are nevertheless a far cry from anything the United States is currently implementing to rein in its epic levels of corruption. In fact, far from enacting any anti-corruption legislation, U.S. lawmakers are instead cashing in on the gravy train.

As USA Today reported on March 26, “sixteen lawmakers who left Congress recently have landed posts with groups that seek to influence policy — despite rules aimed at slowing the revolving door between Capitol Hill and lobbying firms.”

It’s clear that this problem of corruption is endemic in Washington, and without any push-back from the people it’s likely to continue to deteriorate.

There is some hope in a legislative initiative launched by a group called Represent.Us, called the American Anti-Corruption Act. One of the key points of this piece of legislation is to “close the ‘revolving door’ so that elected representatives and their senior staff can no longer sell off their legislative power in exchange for high-paying jobs when they leave office.”

“Today, politicians routinely move straight from Congress to lucrative lobbying jobs on K Street, in order to influence their former colleagues and friends,” Represent.Us laments. “This corrupts policymaking in two ways: members and their staff anticipate high-paying jobs with lobbying firms, and routinely do favors to their future employers while still in Congress; and once out of congress they enjoy undue access and influence to members of Congress.”

Represent.Us is attempting to rally at least a million American citizens to join its cause, building on popular revulsion to what it deems “the worst political corruption in American history.” After that, it plans to introduce the Anti-Corruption Act to Congress by the end of 2013 and solicit cosponsors.

Perhaps what is more needed though is a reinvigoration of the spirit that brought tens of thousands of Americans into the streets and into downtown parks as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement that surprised the world in late 2011. While that particular movement may have turned out to be little more than a flash in the pan, the spirit of indignation and rebellion that fueled the protests has likely only intensified.

To harness and refocus that energy is what is needed now more than ever if there is any real hope in countering the type of blatant corruption and the culture of impunity on display in Washington right now.

Opposition grows to Washington’s revolving door corruption

Revolving-Door

Multiple fronts have opened up in recent weeks in the battle against corruption in the United States, with particular attention focusing on the corrupting influence of the revolving door between the public and private sectors.

With Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Schapiro announcing in November that she would step down, leaving behind an agency riven by partisanship and the influence of a well-financed financial industry lobby, progressives launched a campaign to pressure President Obama to pick a strong progressive replacement.

CREDO Action launched a petition urging President Obama to “[a]ppoint an S.E.C. chair who will hold Wall Street accountable.” Obama has already named current SEC commissioner Elisse Walter as the new acting SEC chairman, but a long-term replacement is expected in the near future.

“The S.E.C. is one of the top regulators of Wall Street,” says the CREDO petition, “so the president can and should ensure it’s led by a champion for accountability on Wall Street.”

A number of outstanding issues before the SEC could have an enduring impact on corporate and financial sector governance for years to come. The SEC, for example, is considering money market reforms and market structure safeguards and still needs to write a number of major rules dictated by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, including a rule to prohibit banks from trading for their own accounts.

CREDO worries however about indications that the president is leaning towards appointing a Wall Street insider to the position, which could render newly adopted financial reforms toothless. The New York Times reported for example that Sallie Krawcheck, the former head of global wealth management at Merrill Lynch and a former top executive at Citigroup, is being considered for the position.

The petition names several alternative ideal choices, including former prosecutor and TARP inspector general Neil Barofsky, former Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman, former Senate aide and leader of the pro-reform group Better Markets Dennis Kelleher and former FDIC chair Sheila Blair.

But with the Obama administration’s track record in turning to industry insiders to implement policy, it would, to say the least, be a break from precedent to see a true “champion for accountability” taking the helm at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Obama provided an indication of his inclinations to entrust public policy with Wall Street insiders from the earliest days of his administration after being elected on a platform of “hope and change” in 2008.

As Rolling Stone financial reporter Matt Taibbi wrote in December 2009,

Elected in the midst of a crushing economic crisis brought on by a decade of orgiastic deregulation and unchecked greed, Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy. What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias, while packing the key economic positions in his White House with the very people who caused the crisis in the first place. This new team of bubble-fattened ex-bankers and laissez-faire intellectuals then proceeded to sell us all out, instituting a massive, trickle-up bailout and systematically gutting regulatory reform from the inside.

Some of the more prominent members of his administration who have previous experience on Wall Street include:

  • Former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget Jeffrey Zients, who once founded Portfolio Logic, which invests heavily in health-care companies.
  • Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who earned a reported $16.2 million working in investment banking for Wasserstein Perella for two and a half years. He also sat on Freddie Mac’s board, making a total of $320,000 from the mortgage finance company.
  • Bill Daley, Emanuel’s successor as chief of staff, who worked at Chicago’s Amalgamated Bank, and later JPMorgan Chase, where he reportedly made about $5 million per year. He’s also served as a corporate lawyer, the head of SBC Communications, and on the boards of Boeing, Abbott Laboratories, and Loyola University Chicago.
  • Daley’s replacement Jacob “Jack” Lew, the previous head of the Office of Management and Budget, who previously worked at the alternative investments unit of Citigroup. As chief operating officer of the unit, which profited enormously from betting on the collapse of the housing bubble, Lew reportedly made $1.1 million, possibly not including bonus income.
  • Lew’s predecessor at the OMB, Peter Orzsag, who left the White House for a job at Citigroup, in global investment banking, pulling in an estimated $2 million to $3 million per year.

The heads of the National Economic Council — Larry Summers and now Gene Sperling — also benefited from Wall Street. Summers worked at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw after leaving his post as the president of Harvard University. There, he earned $5.2 million in 2008, plus another $2.7 million in speaking fees for engagements, including many at Wall Street banks. Sperling earned $887,727 from Goldman Sachs for work advising on a nonprofit project in 2008, as well as $158,000 for speeches, many to financial firms.

Based on public records, Slate estimates the Obama administration’s earnings from Wall Street in the tens of millions. And despite some tough words from Obama early in his administration, denouncing Wall Street bankers as “fat cats” and some criticism from Republicans that he is “anti-business,” Wall Street has profited handsomely since Obama’s election in 2008. Three years after that election, the Washington Post reported that Wall Street firms “earned more in the first 2 1/2 years of the Obama administration than they did during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration.”

The securities industry earned $82.52 billion in profits during the first two and a half years of Obama’s presidency, compared to $77.17 billion total under President Bush, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.

Another industry set to profit substantially from Obama administration policies is the health insurance industry. Because the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare,” includes mandate that every American must purchase the product of the private health insurance industry but no public alternative was included in the legislation, the law was a huge gift to that industry.  The key legislator of this law was the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, whose committee took the lead in drafting the legislation. But as Baucus himself has stated, it was Elizabeth Folwer, his chief health policy counsel who took the lead in drafting it.

Prior to joining Baucus’ staff, Fowler was the Vice President for Public Policy and External Affairs at WellPoint, the nation’s largest health insurance provider. And when that health care bill was drafted, the person whom Fowler replaced as chief health counsel in Baucus’ office, Michelle Easton, was lobbying for WellPoint as a principal at Tarplin, Downs, and Young.

When Obama needed someone to oversee implementation of the bill after it passed, he chose Fowler. Good government groups roundly condemned Obama’s choice as a violation of the “spirit” of governing ethics rules and even “gross”, but those objections were ignored by the White House. She then became Special Assistant to the President for Healthcare and Economic Policy at the National Economic Council.

Now, as Politico’s “Influence” column reported on December 4, Fowler is leaving the Obama administration to return to the private health care industry, where she stands to make a fortune from the legislation that she crafted and helped implement.

“Elizabeth Fowler is leaving the White House for a senior-level position leading ‘global health policy’ at Johnson & Johnson’s government affairs and policy group,” Politico briefly noted.

As columnist Glenn Greenwald noted in response to this development, “It’s difficult to find someone who embodies the sleazy, anti-democratic, corporatist revolving door that greases Washington as shamelessly and purely as Liz Fowler.”

This sort of routine revolving door corruption “is precisely the behavior which, quite rationally, makes the citizenry so jaded about Washington,” observed Greenwald. “It’s what ensures that the interests of the same permanent power factions are served regardless of election outcomes. It’s what makes a complete mockery out of claims of democracy. And it’s what demonstrates that corporatism and oligarchy are the dominant forms of government in the US.”

It is also, incidentally, a violation of international treaty obligations to which the United States has subscribed. As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the U.S. has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

Specifically, the Convention requires states parties to

Prevent conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

With its endlessly revolving door between government and private industry, Washington is flagrantly violating the letter and spirit of this provision.

There is some hope in the new year however to bring the United States into compliance with its anti-corruption obligations and to restore some modicum of democratic legitimacy in Washington.

A group called Represent.Us has unveiled an important legislative proposal it is calling the American Anti-Corruption Act. One of the key points of this piece of legislation is to “close the ‘revolving door’ so that elected representatives and their senior staff can no longer sell off their legislative power in exchange for high-paying jobs when they leave office.”

“Today, politicians routinely move straight from Congress to lucrative lobbying jobs on K Street, in order to influence their former colleagues and friends,” Represent.Us laments. “This corrupts policymaking in two ways: members and their staff anticipate high-paying jobs with lobbying firms, and routinely do favors to their future employers while still in Congress; and once out of congress they enjoy undue access and influence to members of Congress.

Other key points of the proposed legislation include stopping politicians from taking bribes, requiring SuperPACs to abide by the same contribution limits as other political committees, limiting lobbying donations and ending secret money in politics.

Represent.Us is attempting to rally at least a million American citizens to join its cause, building on popular revulsion to what it deems “the worst political corruption in American history.” After that, it plans to introduce the Anti-Corruption Act to Congress by the end of 2013 and rally cosponsors.

To add your name to the Represent.Us petition, click here.

Convention protests highlight U.S. violations of international norms

On issues ranging from U.S. drone warfare to economic human rights to fair elections, protesters against the Republican National Convention this week and the Democratic National Convention the following week are highlighting a host of U.S. violations of international norms. How the police handle the demonstrations will showcase whether the United States respects another important international obligation of the U.S. government – respecting the right to assembly.

Protests related to the RNC in Tampa, Florida, kicked off on Thursday with more than 100 peace activists demonstrating at the local Raytheon plant, stressing the company’s role in manufacturing unmanned aerial drones used by the U.S. to bomb countries such as Pakistan.

The demonstration fell on the same day that Pakistan had summoned U.S. embassy officials to the Foreign Office to lodge protest over U.S. drone strikes in North Waziristan. In a statement, the Foreign Office said: “A senior US diplomat was called to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and informed that the drone strikes were unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. It was emphatically stated that such attacks were unacceptable.”

The following day, the U.S. launched another drone attack in North Waziristan, killing 18. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has been tracking U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, reports that since 2004, there have been 340 strikes on the country, with 2,557-3,303 casualties. Civilians reported killed range from 473-880, including 175 children.

A common tactic of the CIA’s drone campaign is to target civilians who are helping to rescue the injured or are attending funerals of drone victims, an investigation by the Bureau has revealed. Columnist Glenn Greenwald points out that these secondary attacks have long been considered a hallmark of terrorists according to the U.S. government, with the Department of Homeland Security dubbing the tactic a “double tap” in a 2007 report.

At Thursday’s Raytheon demonstration, protesters chanted, “Raytheon, shame on you; Children die because of you.”

“Raytheon is one of the companies in production of drone software as well as drones, and one of the companies that profits from war and is addicted to war,” protest organizer Medea Benjamin said. “Companies like Raytheon survive because of our tax dollars.”

On the opening day of the RNC, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign will march to call for a stop to all home foreclosures, and against “the criminalization of the poor and homeless.”

The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign is “committed to uniting the poor as the leadership base for a broad movement to abolish poverty everywhere and forever,” according to its website. The organization points out that economic human rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the United States is a party. Articles 23, 25, and 26 of the UDHR, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign notes,

state our right to such provisions as housing, health care, a living wage job, and education. The founding creed of the United States of America, which asserts our rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, inspired the formulation of these human rights. Our government signed the UDHR in 1948; its full implementation would mean that our country would be living out the true meaning of its creed. This American Dream is possible because our country is the richest and most powerful in the world.

The group will take this message to the RNC on Monday, marching from a “Romneyville” encampment to the Convention site at Tampa Bay Times Forum.

The following day, youth from the Latino community are joining with African American leaders for a large-scale march “to remind candidates and elected officials that their anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric will not dissuade Latinos and African-Americans from flexing their political muscle despite the fraudulent voter suppression laws.”

Organized by the Florida Consumer Action Network, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Unidos Now!, the March Against Voter Suppression’s call to action reads,

In Florida, a state with a reputation for egregious voter rights violations, they have been pushing ID requirements they know will disproportionately affect Latinos, African Americans, and youth. Other attempts have included using faulty methods to check citizenship to disenfranchise Latino voters, shortening early voting, and pushing a requirement that volunteers registering people turn in registrations in 48 hours, leading to a high school teacher facing thousands in fines for registering her students. This measure chased the League of Women Voters out of the state, who said that it made voter registration drives impossible since registration workers cannot make the deadline. The League estimated that this would discourage 20% of voter registration, to address voter fraud, which, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, occurs .0004% of the time.

The new restrictions on voting have been challenged in U.S. courts, with a federal three-judge court in Washington blocking a Florida law that had reduced the days for early voting, saying the law violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act in parts of the state.

Many of these new restrictions pertaining to voter registration, inconsistent voter ID requirements and disenfranchisement of ex-prisoners are also likely violations of international commitments on elections, as spelled out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document.

As the ICCPR states,

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:

(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors

In the 1990 Copenhagen Document, the United States as an OSCE member country agreed that in order to “ensure that the will of the people serves as the basis of the authority of government,” it will “guarantee universal and equal suffrage to adult citizens.”

Past election assessments by the OSCE, however, have called into question the U.S.’s respect for this commitment.

Following the 2004 election, the OSCE noted that “allegations of electoral fraud and voter suppression, primarily among minorities, were widely reported and presented to the EOM in the pre-election period.” The observers expressed concern that “the widespread nature of these allegations may undermine confidence in the electoral process.”

Assessing the 2008 election, Audrey Glover, the Head of the OSCE/ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission, stated, “The controversies during the campaign over persisting allegations of election irregularities showed that electoral reform efforts must continue to address remaining shortcomings and allow voters to fully regain confidence in the election system.”

In a recent preliminary report on the 2012 elections, the OSCE lamented that in 2011, “Florida and Iowa passed legislation that reversed previous reforms, re-introducing permanent disenfranchisement of prisoners and ex-prisoners.” This disenfranchisement is a clear breach of the U.S. commitment to guarantee universal and equal suffrage to adult citizens.

Tuesday’s march against voter suppression is scheduled to start at Centennial Park in Tampa at 5PM. “Stand up with us as we say no more,” the call to action reads. “No more will we stand by and let the Republican war on voting go by unchecked.”

The following week, the Democrats will hold their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, which as the second largest concentration of finance capital in the United States, has been dubbed “Wall Street of the South.”

Occupy Charlotte notes that North Carolina is “one of the most anti-union states in the country” and that Charlotte is “home of several corporate criminals, most notably Bank of America, one of the mega-banks most responsible for the 2008 economic meltdown.”  It is also the East Coast headquarters of Wells Fargo and the home of Duke Energy, which recently merged with Progress Energy, making Duke the largest energy monopoly in the country.

Public Citizen has criticized organizers of the DNC for allowing its host committee to accept “in-kind” corporate contributions and donations up to $100,000 from wealthy individuals. The Democratic host committee has also formed a separate nonprofit group for soliciting corporate funds for administrative expenses outside the official convention venue.

“Thanks to investigative reporting,” notes Public Citizen, “we know that Bank of America and Duke Energy have opened their coffers to this separate group.”

The influence-peddling at the DNC may be in violation of federal campaign finance laws, Public Citizen says, which could place the U.S. in breach of the UN Convention against Corruption. This Convention calls for measures to be taken to ensure transparency, curb corruption and prevent conflicts of interest among public officials:

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its legal system, develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.

Each State Party shall endeavour to establish and promote effective practices aimed at the prevention of corruption.

Dealing specifically with the issue of funding political campaigns, the Convention requires state parties to “consider taking appropriate legislative and administrative measures, consistent with the objectives of this Convention and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to enhance transparency in the funding of candidatures for elected public office and, where applicable, the funding of political parties.”

“Both the Democratic and Republican Parties are controlled by moneyed interests and the 1%, and the Occupy Movement will hold both Parties accountable at the RNC in Tampa in August and at the DNC in Charlotte in September,” states Occupy Charlotte. “We cannot allow this two-party system and its corporate puppeteers to determine our country’s destiny.”

In opposition to this corporate-dominated two party system, Occupy Charlotte and other groups are organizing a wide range of actions for the week of the DNC. The Coalition to March on Wall Street South has called for a “Liberation Fest” for the entire day of Sept. 1, a “March on Wall Street South” for Sept. 2 and a Labor Day parade for Sept. 3.

During the Convention on Sept. 4-6, affinity group and other autonomous actions will take place in the streets of Charlotte.

The Bradley Manning Support Network will also be holding demonstrations in support of prisoner of conscience Pfc. Bradley Manning, both in Charlotte and around the country. In addition to a scheduled protest at the DNC, the group has called for nationwide actions at local Obama campaign offices on Sept. 6.

“Since Army PFC Bradley Manning’s arrest in May 2010 for allegedly sharing the ‘Collateral Murder’ video and other evidence of war crimes and government corruption with the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks,” the support network notes, “progressives and human rights activists have been asking, ‘Why isn’t President Obama stepping in to help Bradley?’”

The group expresses hope that “President Obama can be the vehicle of change on this issue, but first he needs to hear loud and clear from veterans and civilians across the country that the American people want amends for the unlawful torture of Bradley Manning, and believe he should be freed.”

Manning’s treatment has been widely criticized for violating a number of international obligations, including prohibitions against torture.

The cities of Tampa and Charlotte have adopted restrictions on the right to assembly during the conventions, and in the surrounding area of Charlotte, at least nine area counties and municipalities have restricted camping on public property, citing concerns about the Occupy Charlotte movement and potential protests tied to the DNC.

“These radical protest actions create a detriment to the health, safety and welfare of people, and the peace and dignity of the county,” stated Commissioner Jonathan Thomas in defense of new ordinances restricting the right to assembly during the DNC.

Last January, members of the community raised concern over the new ordinances at the Charlotte City Council.

Tampa has also made it clear that it will not tolerate any disruptions of the Republican National Convention (assuming that Hurricane Isaac doesn’t shut it down completely).

County Sheriff David Gee sent out an open letter declaring, “Tactically, we are ready. This is a special time for local civic pride as Tampa Bay gets ready to shine.”

Gee has already emptied the 1,700-bed Orient Road Jail, which is now being converted into a color-coded, closed-circuit “one-stop booking, detention, and bond-issuance center.” There will be “boots on the ground,” their uniforms clearly marked “to provide the appearance of a fine-tuned machine” with “a consistency in garb, response and reaction.”

“To the agitators and anarchists who want only to bring a dark cloud to this event, let me be clear,” Gee said. “Criminal activity and civil disturbances will not be tolerated and enforcement actions will be swift.”

Journalist Rania Khalek has reported that the Tampa City Council recently voted on using some of the $50 million in federal grants secured by the city for the RNC for a “series of police upgrades” that will include an armored vehicle and a high-tech communication system.

Some reports also claim that unmanned aerial drones will be in the sky during the RNC, although federal authorities deny this.

In policing the demonstrations, however, state and local authorities should bear in mind that the United States is a party to international agreements protecting the right to assembly.

As Article 20 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights plainly states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” And according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “the right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized.”

In protest of the undue restrictions on free assembly and the anticipated police crackdowns on the convention protests, Occupy St. Petersburg is organizing a “Death of Democracy March” for Aug. 26. The march will proceed from Mirror Lake Park to Tropicana Feild “where the world’s largest cocktail party is being held at taxpayers expense.”

“Please wear black,” the group requests.

Supreme Court rulings’ impact on international norms

On issues ranging from immigration policy to the rights of children to anti-corruption efforts, a number of rulings issued yesterday by the Supreme Court impact directly on the state of U.S. compliance with international norms. In some cases, the rulings could bring the United States closer to meeting international commitments, while others could push the U.S. even further out of compliance with those obligations.

Receiving perhaps the most attention was the decision striking down certain provisions of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law, S.B. 1070. Although the Court upheld the law’s “show me your papers” provision, which requires anyone suspected of being “illegal” to produce documentation proving their U.S. residency status, the Court barred Arizona from enforcing three other controversial provisions of the law.

As veteran legal analyst Lyle Denniston explains the ruling, it “was a strong victory for the notion that immigration policy, under the Constitution and federal laws, is for the federal government, not for the individual states, including those on the borders most affected by illegal entry.”

The Court made clear that states are prohibited from adopting provisions that seek to establish a state-level program requiring undocumented immigrants to sign in officially as non-citizens and are barred from setting up policies that would lead to deportation of undocumented immigrants, unless the federal government explicitly asks for such help.

According to Denniston’s analysis, the decision essentially reaffirmed that the national government is the “single sovereign” in charge of “a comprehensive and unified system to keep track of aliens within the nation’s borders.”

By establishing the prerogative of the federal government in regulating immigration and prohibiting states from taking an ad hoc approach to immigration laws, the Court’s ruling could help rein in abusive practices on the state and local levels that in some cases place the United States in violation of international commitments.

As a recent report issued by Amnesty International documented, inadequate oversight of state and local law enforcement has led to increased racial profiling in Arizona and other border states. State laws and local policies are erecting barriers to immigrants accessing education and essential health care services. “While these laws are targeting non-citizens, these policies are also impacting U.S. citizen children,” Amnesty notes.

With extensive documentation of the routine human rights violations of people of color in the American Southwest, Amnesty’s report calls on all immigration enforcement programs to be suspended pending further review, and insists that the federal government takes steps “to ensure that state legislation does not impinge on its responsibility for immigration enforcement.”

“While it is generally accepted that countries have the right to regulate the entry and stay of non-nationals in their territory, they can only do so within the limits of their human rights obligations,” reads the Amnesty report. “The US government has an obligation under international human rights law to ensure that its laws, policies and practices do not place immigrants at an increased risk of human rights abuses.”

The relevant legal framework cited by Amnesty International includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, all of which the U.S. has ratified.

By reaffirming that the federal government is solely responsible for immigration enforcement, the Supreme Court’s decision could go a long way to ensure that the treatment of migrants in the U.S. complies with international treaties to which the U.S. has subscribed.

Another major decision that came down yesterday deals with the rights of children, specifically the practice of jailing minors for life, a common practice in the United States, but grossly out of step with international norms. As stated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty spelling out the basic human rights of children everywhere:

(a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age;

(b) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time;

(c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child’s best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances;

These concepts are considered so uncontroversial around the world that the Convention on the Rights of the Child became the most quickly and widely ratified human rights treaty ever. “More countries have ratified the Convention than any other human rights treaty in history—192 countries had become State Parties to the Convention as of November 2005,” UNICEF points out.

Only two countries, Somalia and the United States, have not ratified this popular accord. Somalia has not ratified the Convention because it has no recognized government. The U.S. has failed to do so for reasons that can only be speculated, but its utter failure to respect the treaty’s provisions, such as the requirement that children be treated differently than adults in the criminal justice system, may be the primary cause.

While sidestepping the subject of international norms, yesterday’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision on youth life sentences held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a sentencing scheme that requires life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.

The decision, as Denniston explains it, “continues the trend that started a quarter-century ago of demanding that criminal punishment for children generally must be different — and less harsh — than for adults.”

The premise behind that trend is that children are not adults and have the capacity to change. As this is also one of the main rationales behind the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the fact that the U.S. is moving towards compliance with widely recognized international norms on this subject is an encouraging sign.

In a less encouraging sign, however, the Supreme Court yesterday struck down a 100-year-old Montana law that banned direct corporate political campaign spending in state and local elections. In a 5-4 decision, the Court reversed a lower court decision, ruling that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Critics, however, note that all available evidence points to the contrary. The Court’s decision will only strengthen the role of corporate money while weakening the ability of lawmakers and citizens trying to fight corruption in electoral politics, according to fair election and anti-corruption advocates.

“The 2012 elections make one thing clear: unlimited spending by super PACs and secretive nonprofits is corrupting our political process and threatens to swamp our democracy,” said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

“Increasing numbers of Americans believe our government is bought and paid for by special interests and that their votes don’t matter. By not taking this case, the Court missed a critical opportunity to rein in some of the worst excesses of Citizens United, and other rulings, that created this super PAC mess.”

Yesterday’s ruling places the United States further out of step with the UN Convention against Corruption, of which the U.S. is a state party. The Convention calls for measures to be taken to ensure transparency, curb corruption and prevent conflicts of interest among public officials:

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its legal system, develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.

Each State Party shall endeavour to establish and promote effective practices aimed at the prevention of corruption.

Dealing specifically with the issue of funding political campaigns, the Convention requires state parties to “consider taking appropriate legislative and administrative measures, consistent with the objectives of this Convention and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to enhance transparency in the funding of candidatures for elected public office and, where applicable, the funding of political parties.”

The issue of transparency is at the heart of the debate on reversing the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which opened the floodgates for unregulated money to pour into elections. Under federal law, political action committees must report the names of their donors and super PACs do regularly disclose corporate contributors.

But as the Washington Post points out, “transparency can be a bit blurry at times.”

In 2011, the Mitt Romney-linked Restore our Future super PAC reported a $1 million contribution from “W Spann LLC.” Never heard of it? Neither had several enterprising reporters, who learned that its address in New York was the same as that of Bain Capital — Romney’s former firm. After the press demanded to know what Romney was hiding, a former Bain executive came forward to say that the donation was his. He had given it through a shell corporation that his lawyer had created for that purpose.

An exhaustive investigative report by journalist Andy Kroll in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine provides an in-depth historical analysis of the role of money in politics and the efforts of American reformers over the years to curb its corrupting influence.

Tracing the modern era of campaign finance reform to the brazen abuses exposed in the Watergate scandal, Kroll points out that for many political observers, the recent flood of anonymous cash into the electoral process “feels like a return to the pre-Watergate years.”

“Rich bankrollers,” writes Kroll, “cut jaw-dropping checks backing their favorite candidates. Political operatives devise ways to hide tens of millions in campaign donations. And protesters have taken to the streets over what they see as a broken system.”

Kroll quotes political scientist Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute: “We’re back to the Nixon era, the era of undisclosed money, of big cash amounts and huge interests that are small in number dominating American politics.”

The corrupting influence of unregulated money in U.S. elections has become a concern to the international community, with even the International Monetary Fund noting the disastrous implications that it has for public policy.

In a 2009 report exploring the causes of the 2008 financial collapse, the IMF noted that “two of the largest mortgage lenders in the nation, spent respectively $20.5 million and $8.7 million in political donations, campaign contributions, and lobbying activities from 2002 through 2006.”

The lending companies achieved their desired outcome for these financial contributions – the loosening of anti-predatory lending regulations. The IMF noted that “anecdotal evidence suggests that the political influence of the financial industry contributed to the 2007 mortgage crisis, which, in the fall of 2008, generalized in the worst bout of financial instability since the Great Depression.”

International election observers have also pointed to the U.S. campaign finance system as a cause of concern. The vast spending in 2010 and the widespread use of negative advertising led the OSCE’s U.S. election observation mission that year to describe a “dirty campaign environment” with “money playing a significant role in creating an uneven playing field between candidates.”

“Upwards of four billion dollars were spent on the campaigns, making it the most expensive mid-term election in the United States to date,” OSCE observers noted. “About three-quarters of that money was spent on political campaign ads on television and radio. The ads inundated the airwaves, made huge profits for many television and radio stations, and also turned off many voters.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which was essentially upheld yesterday, experts project spending on the 2012 election cycle could top a staggering $11 billion – more than twice the 2008 total and nearly three times the amount spent on the 2010 midterm elections.

Obama signs watered-down STOCK Act amid growing anger over government corruption

A February 29 anti-corruption protest in Portland, Oregon

President Obama yesterday signed legislation to curb some of the more blatant corruption on Capitol Hill, in a move that government reform advocates are welcoming as a significant, yet limited, victory.

The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act for the first time affirms that members of Congress and staff are not exempt from insider trading laws and mandates that lawmakers and certain government employees report some investments within 45 days of making the trade.

It also prohibits them from enjoying special access to initial public offerings and requires that they notify their ethics offices when negotiating for a private-sector job.

The version of the legislation passed by the Senate included an amendment that would have required insiders who collect political intelligence and sell it to corporate America to register under lobbying disclosure laws. It also contained the bipartisan Leahy-Cornyn amendment that would have given law enforcement certain tools to detect and prosecute public corruption and would have prevented public officials from accepting gifts given because of their government positions. It would have also provided for prosecution of public officials who accept private compensation.

But House Republicans stripped these provisions from their version of the bill. The Senate then passed the House’s bill, which is the version Obama then signed into law.

“The version of the STOCK Act signed today is only a shadow of the strong bill initially passed by the Senate,” said Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) in a statement yesterday. “Unfortunately, the House dropped the strongest provisions from the Senate-passed bill, which would have strengthened the ability of prosecutors to target public corruption.”

The legislation Obama signed yesterday goes a long way towards bringing the United States into compliance with the UN Convention against Corruption, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 2006, but could have gone a lot further. As the Convention states:

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest …

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials …

However, the STOCK Act still doesn’t address one of the most important provisions against corruption, preventing the “revolving door” practices in Washington, in which corporate insiders  go to work in the public sector regulating the companies they once ran, and then after their “public service,” end up back at those very same companies. This practice is prohibited under the Corruption Convention which calls on states parties to adopt legislation that

Prevent[s] conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

The STOCK Act was first introduced in 2006, but Congress only moved on it following a “60 Minutes” report on congressional insider trading. The report documented that members of Congress bought stock in companies during debates on legislation that might affect the businesses. Studies have shown that congress members’ stock trades perform 6-12 percent better than the market average.

The adoption of the legislation also comes amid a mounting public outcry over government corruption, particularly in relation to corporate influence over government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the corporations that wield disproportionate power over those agencies.

In particular, opposition is growing in the U.S. and worldwide to the biotechnology giant Monsanto and its influence over public policy, including in Congress and the White House, as well as the FDA which is charged with regulating the company.

In a report on the growing worldwide resistance to Monsanto released yesterday, Via Campesina documents how handsomely Monsanto’s lobbying efforts and campaign contributions have paid off in the United States:

The US – which produces 45% of GM crops worldwide – has rewarded Monsanto’s White House lobbying efforts by promoting its seed technology both nationally and internationally.

Between January 1999 and June 2010, Monsanto spent over US$50 million on lobbying Congress and various government agencies,including on the regulation of GM crops, patent protection reforms and subsidies. …

According to the non-profit alliance of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the US government has been collaborating with Monsanto to secure agricultural export markets, removing barriers to the spread of GM crops, including into national wildlife refuges.

The report goes on to describe the intensifying efforts to roll back the company’s sway over public officials:

In one of the most recent battles to disrupt the US government’s relationship with Monsanto, environmentalists and lawyers launched an initiative to prevent Monsanto’s GM crops contaminating national wildlife refuges. ..

[L]egal battles led by PEER and the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) forced the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to end the planting of GM crops in 12 states.

In addition to legal battles, Americans have also taken to the streets against the biotech giant with direct action and street theater. Last month, members of the “Genetic Crimes Unit” of Occupy Monsanto took the case against Monsanto to the Expo West Natural Products trade show in Anaheim, Calif.:

Also last month, protesters shut down Monsanto’s Davis, Calif., offices for a day. According to the organizers, the objective of the protest was to bring local awareness to Monsanto’s control and involvement with toxins in food and water supplies and expose its ties to the government.

In New York, the Occupy Wall Street movement has continued to protest the nexus of finance and politics with a major Stock Exchange demonstration on March 30. Demonstrators marched through Manhattan and converged on the New York Stock Exchange at the end of the business day.

As Mark Bray of OWS stated, “The closing bell of the stock exchange symbolizes the prioritization of economics over politics in our society, the fact that our politicians are more beholden to these institutions than to the people they are supposed to represent.”

Last week in Washington, demonstrators turned their attention to corruption at the Environmental Protection Agency, marching to its headquarters in what was called the largest protest ever against the agency. Calling for EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to resign due to failure to treat employees fairly or adequately protect the environment, the Occupy EPA protesters also demanded increased nuclear regulation and an end to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and gas.

The EPA has carved out an exemption from the Clean Water Act for corporations like Halliburton to engage in fracking, having concluded that “the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into CBM wells poses little or no threat” to drinking water, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Whistleblowers who have pointed to corporate influence over these policies have been aggressively pursued by the EPA, with some, such as Jon Grand, landing in prison.

Despite a 2002 law designed to protect government whistleblowers, demonstrators on Friday said that the EPA continues to discriminate against those who expose corruption within the agency.

The Friday demonstration was the first of a series of planned actions this spring dubbed the National Occupation of Washington D.C., or NOWDC. Other activities include a demonstration at the Department of Education and a protest of the Justice Department in support of U.S. prisoner of conscience Bradley Manning, the Army private accused of treason for providing embarrassing state secrets to WikiLeaks.

Click here for a full listing of actions this spring.

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