Cartoon by Mikhail Zlatkovsky

Militarization Has Become Our National Religion

By William Astore

The Nation: When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I looked to the heavens: to God and Christianity (as arbitrated by the Catholic Church) and to the soaring warbirds of the US military, which I believed kept us safe. To my mind then, they were classic manifestations of American technological superiority over the godless communists.

With all its scandals, especially when it came to priestly sexual abuse, I lost my faith in the Catholic Church. I would later learn that there had been a predatory priest in my parish when I was young, a grim man who made me uneasy at the time, though back then I couldn’t have told you why. As for those warbirds, like so many Americans, I thrilled to their roar at air shows but never gave any real thought to the bombs they were dropping in Vietnam and elsewhere, to the lives they were ending, to the destruction they were causing. Nor at that age did I ever consider their enormous cost in dollars or just how much Americans collectively sacrificed to have top cover, whether of the warplane or godly kind.

There were good and devoted priests in my Catholic diocese. There were good and devoted public servants in the US military. Admittedly, I never seriously considered the priesthood, but I did sign up for the Air Force, surprising myself by serving in it for 20 years. Still, both institutions were then—and remain—deeply flawed. Both seek, in a phrase the Air Force has long used, global reach, global power. Both remain hierarchies that regularly promote true believers to positions of authority. Both demand ultimate obedience. Both sweep their sins under the rug. Neither can pass an audit. Both are characterized by secrecy. Both seem remarkably immune to serious efforts at reform. And both, above all, know how to preserve their own power, even as they posture and proselytize about serving a higher one.

However, let me not focus here on the one “holy catholic and apostolic church,” words taken from the profession of faith I recited during mass each week in my youth. I’d prefer to focus instead on that other American holy church, the US military, with all its wars and weapons, its worshipers and wingmen, together with its vision of global dominance that just happens to include end-of-world scenarios as apocalyptic as those of any imaginable church of true believers. I’m referring, of course, to our country’s staggeringly large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, just now being updated—the term seems to be “modernized”—to the tune of something like $1.7 trillion over the decades to come.

A Profession of 21st Century All-American Faith

“Show me your budget, and I will tell you what you value” is a telling phrase linked to Joe Biden. And in those terms, there’s no question what the US government values most: its military, to the tune of almost $1.5 trillion over the next two years (although the real number may well exceed $2 trillion). Republicans and Democrats agree on little these days, except support for spending on that military, its weaponry, its wars to come, and related national security state outlays.

In that context, I’ve been wondering what kind of profession of faith we might have to recite if there were the equivalent of mass for what has increasingly become our military church. What would it look like? Who and what would we say we believed in? As a lapsed Catholic with a lot of practice in my youth professing my faith in the church, as well as a retired military officer and historian, I have a few ideas about what such a profession might look like:

* We believe in wars. We may no longer believe in formal declarations of war (not since December 1941 has Congress made one in our name), but that sure hasn’t stopped us from waging them. From Korea to Vietnam, Afghanistan to Iraq, the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, and so many military interventions in between, including Grenada, Panama, and Somalia, Americans are always fighting somewhere as if we saw great utility in thumbing our noses at the Prince of Peace. (That’s Jesus Christ, if I remember my Catholic catechism correctly.)

* We believe in weaponry, the more expensive the better. The underperforming F-35 stealth fighter may cost $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. An updated nuclear triad (land-based missiles, nuclear submarines, and strategic bombers) may cost that already mentioned $1.7 trillion. New (and malfunctioning) aircraft carriers cost us more than $10 billion each. And all such weaponry requests get funded, with few questions asked, despite a history of their redundancy, ridiculously high price, regular cost overruns, and mediocre performance. Meanwhile, Americans squabble bitterly over a few hundred million dollars for the arts and humanities.

* We believe in weapons of mass destruction. We believe in them so strongly that we’re jealous of anyone nibbling at our near monopoly. As a result, we work overtime to ensure that infidels and atheists (that is, the Iranians and North Koreans, among others) don’t get them. In historical terms, no country has devoted more research or money to deadly nuclear, biological, and chemical weaponry than the United States. In that sense, we’ve truly put our money where our mouths are (and where a devastating future might be).

* We believe with missionary zeal in our military and seek to establish our “faith” everywhere. Hence our global network of perhaps 800 overseas military bases. We don’t hesitate to deploy our elite missionaries, our equivalent to the Jesuits, the Special Operations forces, to more than 130 countries annually. Similarly, the foundation for what we like to call foreign assistance is often military training and foreign military sales. Our present supreme leader, Pope Donald I, boasts of military sales across the globe, most notably to the infidel Saudis. Even when Congress makes what, until recently, was the rarest of attempts to rein in this deadly trade in arms, Pope Donald vetoes it. His rationale: Weapons and profits should rule all  >>>

Mental illness

Cartoon by Clay Bennett

America’s mental illness is guns

The Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial 

Rattlesnakes are only poisonous if you think they are.

Women can stop their bodies from getting pregnant as a result of rape.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is prohibited from computerizing gun sale records into a searchable database that would allow them to easily trace guns used in crimes.

All of these statements are insane. And one of them is true: the ATF is forced to rely on primitive digital records on gun sales, forcing a cumbersome search, via paper or phone, whenever a gun used in a crime is investigated. Because gun owners want privacy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, charged with our public health and safety, is prohibited by law (and lack of funding) from using its budget to research gun violence. The strict language is that research can’t argue for gun control, even if data suggests homicides increase in houses that have guns. Denying that gun violence — responsible for 30,000 deaths a year — is a public health problem is like saying cancer can be cured by the application of leeches.

When it comes to guns, we are expected to disbelieve everything that our own eyes — and our broken hearts — tell us.

When the mass shootings like those last week in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, occur, the talk quickly turns to mental illness. That isn’t wrong, but the true insanity is the outrageous things the NRA and its followers keep expecting us to swallow.

The fact is, our mental illness is guns.

Poll after poll points to huge numbers of American in favor of gun control laws to minimize the chance of mass slaughters. The majority support expanded background checks that close the loopholes that allow anyone, whatever their criminal history, to purchase a gun at a gun show or from a private dealer.

There is widespread support for heavier regulation of assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. But mass murder after mass murder, Congress has done nothing.

The two mass shootings last weekend have given some people hope that this might be the “tipping point.” President Trump is indicating support for expanded background checks though with few concrete details. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is making similar noises.

We’d have more optimism if there was also noise being made to bring Congress back from its current recess, to start taking action now.

Also on the table is a “red flag” bill — Cease Fire PA prefers the term “extreme risk protection order bill” — through which family members or members of law enforcement can temporarily take guns away from someone in crisis. This, too, could help.

But a ban or heavier regulation of assault-style and military weapons that wreak so much human devastation? Not a whisper. And limiting the high-capacity magazines that are allowed to mow down lots of people? Not a peep.

It might be crazy to believe that things will change, given our violent history and Congress’ history of inaction. But so is surrendering to the idea that the interpretation of a 228-year-old amendment is more important than human life.

Tlaib, Omar Banned

Cartoon by Steve Greenberg

Jewish Groups Condemn Israel For Denying Omar, Tlaib Entry

Newsweek: The decision by Israel Thursday to ban two Muslim congresswomen from entering the country after tweets from President Donald Trump led some Jewish groups to lambast the decision.

The move to not allow Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan to visit would only exacerbate current divisions between the minority Democrats and the Jewish state and forgo them the opportunity to better understand the country and its people, argued several Jewish advocacy and lobbying groups with varying political ideologies.

"The fact that the U.S. president would urge the Israeli prime minister to bar members of Congress really does a disservice to this bilateral relationship and is yet another attempt by President Trump to politicize this relationship," Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told Newsweek.

She called the move "unprecedented" and said that "never before have U.S. members of Congress been barred from entering Israel."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to ban Omar—who was accused of and condemned for making anti-Semitic tropes earlier this year—and Tlaib for "planning a journey with the sole target of strengthening" the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, highlighting the lawmakers' lack of intention to meet with Israeli officials.

BDS promotes boycotting the country over disputed territories, including the West Bank, and ongoing conflicts with Palestine. The ban was implemented despite Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer saying last week they would not bar any lawmakers from entering.

Omar said in a statement it was an "affront" that they would not be able to enter the country, adding that, with her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it's "both an insult to Democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation."

"Denying entry into Israel not only limits our ability to learn from Israelis, but also to enter the Palestinian territories," Omar added.

In a tweet, Tlaib categorized the ban as "a sign of weakness."

The lobbying and advocacy group American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or better known as AIPAC, said that while they, too, disagree with Omar and Talib's policy stances and calls for a one-state solution, they "believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand." Omar has been critical of AIPAC in the past.

Jewish Voice for Peace, a progressive group, categorized Israel's move as part of its "increasingly authoritarian policies."

Omar and Tlaib have been highly critical of Israel and were planning a trip with a Palestinian-led nonprofit to visit various Israeli cities and the West Bank—where Tlaib has family—and to meet with members of the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu's announcement came just after a morning tweet from Trump, in which he stated it would show "great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit."

"They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds," the president wrote, who previously told the minority women and other outspoken freshmen Democrats to "go back" to the countries they came from. "Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!"

Soifer and other Jewish groups argued that banning the congresswomen is "counterproductive." But she went a step further to say it "plays into Trump's goal of politicizing support for Israel." Soifer made it clear that her group has "vocally disagreed" with Omar and Tlaib on their decisions to support BDS and to side with Palestine over Israel on policy matters. But she stressed that, without them being able to visit, the lawmakers would miss out on experiencing the culture and interacting with Israeli citizens.

"It is important that they have this opportunity to see the facts on the ground. It is critical to actually live it and to see the realities that Israelis and Palestinians live with each day. A willingness to listen and experience and learn is important for any individual, especially members of Congress. That is, in effect, why members travel," Soifer said. "Now, do I think it would have changed their views? I don't know. I don't know. But it at least would have helped to inform them."

The advocacy group American Jewish Committee (AJC) labeled Omar and Tlaib's trip as "not a fact-finding mission, but rather a propaganda exercise" because of the lack of Israeli officials they planned to meet with. However, AJC made a similar argument about why the congresswomen should not be barred from entering the Middle Eastern nation, saying the right thing to do would have been to adhere to the original plan and allow them to visit.

"AJC believes that, out of two less-than-ideal options, neither of which was risk-free, Israel did not choose wisely by reversing its original decision," the group said in a statement. "While we fully respect Israel's sovereign right to control entry into the country, a right that every nation employs, and while we are under no illusions about the implacably hostile views of Reps. Omar and Tlaib on Israel-related issues, we nonetheless believe that the costs in the U.S. of barring the entry of two members of Congress may prove even higher than the alternative."

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote on Twitter that while he disagrees "100% with Reps. Tlaib & Omar on #Israel," denying them entry "is a mistake."

"Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state," Rubio claimed.

Many Democrats in Congress, ranging from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to rank-and-file members, also condemned Trump and Israel.

The American Immigrant

Cartoon by Peter Kuper

Trump’s Policy Could Alter the Face of the American Immigrant

The New York Times: The Trump administration has said the immigration overhaul it announced this week will ensure that new legal residents carry their own weight, without prejudice or favor. Yet the new rule for weeding out those who might be a drain on taxpayers will almost certainly disadvantage poor people from Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia.

Over time, people who are granted green cards — the major step toward winning citizenship — will become wealthier but their numbers will shrink, researchers predicted. More green cards will go to immigrants with a good education and a measure of self-sufficiency; fewer will be granted simply because someone has a family member in the United States.

Immigrants from Europe and Canada are least likely to face problems under the new regulations, according to one study, which found that, by contrast, nearly three-quarters of recent arrivals from Mexico and the Caribbean have relatively modest incomes that would jeopardize their chances at a green card.

“Never before in our history have we closed off the American dream to strivers who aren’t already middle class,” said Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama White House and co-founded a technology company that helps immigrants obtain green cards. “This is an attempt to turn back the clock and dramatically change the face of new Americans.”

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The so-called public charge rule, which denies green cards to immigrants deemed likely to be heavy welfare users, represents a fundamental shift for a nation that has long welcomed impoverished immigrants from around the world who seek a fresh start in a country with more opportunity than where they came from.

There has always been a mix of immigrants, some arriving with skills and investment to make, while others bring little education or money. Immigrants seeking to live and work in the United States permanently may be engineers or construction workers, web designers or farmers, truck drivers or college students.

The new rule — pushed by the White House adviser Stephen Miller as a critical piece of President Trump’s America First immigration agenda — aims to reshape that immigrant community. Its backers want fewer poor people who might require public housing and food assistance. They want to turn away sick people whose maladies may end up requiring costly Medicaid services, paid for by the government. And they want to discourage those whose lack of English proficiency could hold them back from succeeding in a competitive economy.

“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,’” Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, said bluntly on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” adapting the poem on the Statue of Liberty to a more Trumpian view of the country’s duty to immigrants.

Asked later by CNN whether that meant that the Statue of Liberty’s historical invitation to “wretched, poor” immigrants was off the table, Mr. Cuccinelli clarified. “Well, of course, that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe,” he said, “where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.” >>>

New World Symphony

Cartoon by Nikola Listes

Boris Johnson: No Healer of Nations 

The Humanist: In the new trend of undemocratically electing heads of state, the United States and the United Kingdom seem to be on the vanguard of how far comparable governments can go. It would be a lie to say the past few years haven’t felt like a race-to-the-bottom with regard to intolerance and bigotry.

Brexit preceded the election of Donald Trump to the presidency by just a few months. At Brexit’s center were far-right champions, including Nigel Farage, Dominic Cummings, Matthew Elliott, and former London mayor Boris Johnson. Johnson became foreign secretary under Prime Minister Theresa May. As a top-tier Brexit-trumpeter, Johnson’s role as the UK’s top diplomat was disconcerting. Now that he is prime minister, a second referendum is entirely out of the question, and the road to Brexit will continue to be rocky.

Johnson, painted as a charming subversive by the nation’s media, campaigned aggressively for the UK to leave the European Union (EU). He famously campaigned for the leave option, saying that the UK would divert funds the country currently gives to the EU to the National Health Service. Johnson wasn’t penalized for plastering the inaccurate and misleading claim across the side of the bus.

The major promise of newly minted Prime Minister Johnson is a “do or die” Brexit by October 31 of this year. How Johnson proceeds with successfully executing Brexit, and what style of Brexit it will be (no-deal, soft exit, hard exit, etc.) will be something to pay close attention to in the coming months. Naming a deadline means that, like May’s previous Brexit proceedings, decisions will be rushed and necessary negotiation pieces will fall to the wayside in order to meet the aptly spooky October 31 deadline.

Everything about Johnson just speaks chaos, from his policy stances to his attire, to the fact that he actively reminded dignitaries from Myanmar of British colonial rule by reciting a Rudyard Kipling poem with strong racial undertones. He certainly was not reciting “The Road to Mandalay” out of respect.

It is worth noting the parallels between Trump and Johnson. Both, it could be argued, came to power undemocratically. Both make a spectacle of themselves and their country in media appearances. Both have unique hairstyles. However, the most notable is their shared history of anti-Muslim and xenophobic statements.

John Oliver had a recent segment about Johnson that explored the potential hazards of the UK’s new leader. Oliver detailed the tactics Johnson uses to present his deplorable policies in a charming manner. The Last Week Tonight segment touched on how Johnson wants to look like a mess, with eccentric, chaotic outfits and ruffled hair, as a means to distract from his problematic views.

Johnson’s comments range from calling Islamophobia a natural reaction, to claiming Islam is “the most viciously sectarian of all religions” to a book he wrote where he claimed that “Muslim grievance” was a factor in the demise of the Roman Empire, apparently proving that Islam directly contradicts Western ways of life.

In a 2007 essay titled “And Then Came the Muslims,” Johnson laments that Islam is countercurrent to progress and the spread of democracy:

    There must be something about Islam that indeed helps to explain why there was no rise of the bourgeoisie, no liberal capitalism, and therefore no spread of democracy in the Muslim world.

    It is extraordinary to think that under the Roman/Byzantine Empire, the city of Constantinople kept the candle of learning alight for a thousand years, and that under Ottoman rule, the first printing press was not seen in Istanbul until the middle of the nineteenth century. Something caused them to be literally centuries behind.

Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the nightmarish iceberg. Johnson’s strategic calculation paired with his bigoted sentiment make him a threat to democracies the world over. Even dismissing his comments in the face of his intentional buffoonery, there is a scary level of sociopathy underlying Johnson. The fact that he is well aware of the chaos of his actions makes him a great danger, not a healer. His actions are intentional and much more malice-driven than May’s, which does not bode well for the United Kingdom.

However, the control he has over policy may quickly dwindle. The Conservatives, Johnson’s political party, lost the country’s most recent special election, which means that the coalition that granted Johnson the ability to become prime minister and form a government now only holds one seat. Johnson’s window to make Brexit a reality may be closing fast. The UK may have a second referendum option if a new election is forced. However, Johnson’s government may act very swiftly and messily to bring about Brexit, which will cause ample collateral damage today and further down the road.

Sam Gerard is the Member Services Assistant at the American Humanist Association. 

Italy's Hitler

Cartoon by Osmani Simanca

Italy's Hitler

VATICAN CITY (Church Militant) - Pope Francis is again slamming Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini over his "Italians first" platform, comparing the right-wing leader's rhetoric to that of the Nazi regime.

"I am concerned because we hear speeches that resemble those of Hitler in 1934," Francis told Italian newspaper La Stampa on Friday. "'Us first. We … We …' These are frightening thoughts."

The Pope also denounced Salvini's defense of Italy's national sovereignty, calling it "an attitude of isolation."

"Sovereignism means being closed," said the pontiff. "A country should be sovereign but not closed. Sovereignty must be defended, but relations with other countries and with the European community must also be protected and promoted. Sovereignism is an exaggeration that always ends badly: it leads to war."

Francis went on to characterize migration as a pro-life issue:

First of all, never forget the most important right of all: the right to life. The immigrants arrive mainly to escape from war or hunger, from the Middle East and from Africa. On the war, we must engage and fight for peace. Hunger mainly concerns Africa. The African continent is the victim of a cruel curse: in the collective imagination it seems to be exploited. Instead, part of the solution is to invest there to help solve their problems and stop migratory flows.

"Criteria must be followed," Francis continued. "First: to receive, which is also a Christian, evangelical task. Doors must be opened, not closed. Second: to accompany. Third: to promote. Fourth: to integrate." 

Roughly 700,000 migrants have entered Italy since 2013.

"At the same time, governments must think and act prudently, which is a virtue of governments," the Pope added. "Those in charge are called to think about how many migrants they can take in."

Roughly 700,000 migrants have entered Italy since 2013. The influx has sparked a growing backlash, with Salvini and other populist leaders arguing the country cannot sustain additional inflows.

Francis' comments came just a day after Salvini called for snap elections in a bid to decouple his Lega party from the Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment coalition partner whose popularity among Italian voters is waning.

Buoyed by the deputy prime minister's resolute opposition to mass Muslim migration, Lega has been surging in the polls in recent months, and a new election could propel it across the 40% threshold to become Italy's lone governing party.

The Pope's remarks are the latest in a volley of criticism directed against Salvini by Vatican officials and prominent Italian Catholic leftists.

In June, Francis compared Salvini to Cain, the Old Testament figure who murdered his brother Abel.

In May, after Salvini publicly entrusted Italy to the Immaculate Heart of Mary at a rally in Milan, Vatican Secretary of State Cdl. Pietro Parolin chided the deputy prime minister: "I believe partisan politics divides, but God belongs to everyone. Invoking God for oneself is always very dangerous."

The next day, Bp. Domenico Mogavero, head of the judicial affairs panel of the Italian bishops' conference, issued his own condemnation: "We can no longer allow (people) to appropriate the sacred signs of our faith to peddle their inhuman, anti-historic views, diametrically opposed to the Gospel message. Those who are with him cannot call themselves Christian because they have reneged on the commandment of love."

In March, reports in the Italian press indicated that Pope Francis refuses to meet with Salvini, owing to his stance on migration.

In July 2018, Famiglia Cristiana, Italy's largest Catholic publication, ran a cover story comparing Salvini to Satan.

That same month, during a homily inside the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica, Italian priest Fr. Alex Zanotelli declared the deputy prime minister to be "the Antichrist."

In spite of ongoing criticism, Salvini is unbowed. His unyielding stance on migration has made him the country's most trusted political leader.

Support for Pope Francis, meanwhile, is eroding across Italy — a slump attributed to his support for the European Union's open-door migration policy.

"Many Catholics no longer perceive the Holy Father as a spiritual leader," said Oliviero Forti, head of migration services for Caritas Italy. "On the contrary, in some cases, he is even accused of being too far from the problems that people face."


Cartoon by Joe Heller

How conspiracy theories spread after financier's death

BBC: Just hours after the high-profile financier Jeffrey Epstein was found dead on Saturday, unsubstantiated theories about his death began to gain traction online.

Epstein, who was set to stand trial on sex trafficking and conspiracy charges, killed himself in his jail cell in New York, prison officials said. He was accused of running a "vast network" of underage girls for sex, and pleaded not guilty to the charges last month.

The 66-year-old was known to court famous friends and acquaintances. President Donald Trump, former President Bill Clinton, and the UK's Prince Andrew all had ties to him. Some of his powerful associates have been embroiled in the allegations against him, which has only served to fuel the conspiracy theories and misinformation.

Many rumours have centred on what politicians may have known about Epstein's alleged crimes and whether some may have wanted him dead. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest this was the case. And yet, the hashtag #EpsteinMurder trended worldwide on Saturday.

Joke images and memes - suggesting everything from a faked suicide to an orchestrated hit-job - were shared thousands of times throughout the day. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were rife with unfounded theories about what may have happened to the financier.

This wild speculation was not confined to a fringe minority - far from it. Politicians and high-profile journalists also stoked rampant speculation at a time when little information was publicly available. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough tweeted:

"A guy who had information that would have destroyed rich and powerful men’s lives ends up dead in his jail cell. How predictably...Russian."

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said it was "way too convenient" that Epstein could no longer incriminate others.

"What a lot of us want to know is, what did he know?" he told reporters. "How many other millionaires and billionaires were part of the illegal activities that he was engaged in?"

Questions like these alluded, without evidence, to a malevolent conspiracy and fed the feverish speculation on social media.

Further rumours centred on how a man who was found semi-conscious and with injuries to his neck just weeks earlier was able to take his own life. Initial reports said Epstein was placed on suicide watch after that incident in July, which led many people to ask how he could have died while being so closely monitored.

"What does the word watch mean in the phrase suicide watch?" tweeted President Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giulani. "Who was watching?" He then said it was "inconceivable" Epstein could have taken his own life under those circumstances.

But prison officials later said Epstein had actually been taken off suicide watch prior to his death. Conspiracy theories then began to focus on why this decision was made, rather than how he was able to take his own life.

The speculation, as was the case throughout Saturday, appeared to shift and change with the few concrete details that were released >>>

Saudi Influence

Cartoon by Bosch Fawstin

House Intelligence Committee Revs Up Probe Into Saudi Influence Efforts Targeting Trump

Mother Jones: The House Intelligence Committee is ramping up an investigation into alleged efforts by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states to use financial inducements and other means to win favorable policies from the Trump administration. Starting in April, the panel “issued several subpoenas and requests for information relating to Gulf influence, and we have received documents from certain witnesses,” a committee official says. “We expect to issue another wave of requests shortly.”

Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has previously said the panel would conduct a “deep dive” into US relations with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. As part of that effort, the committee is investigating “the extent to which Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states have sought to influence the Trump campaign, transition, and administration so as to encourage the administration to pursue policies antithetical to US interests,” the committee official says.

Schiff said this probe was necessitated by special counsel Robert Mueller’s decision to limit his investigation to Russian interference, even though the order appointing Mueller authorized him to look into “any matters that arose” from his investigation. The Special Counsel did not ask “whether financial inducements from any Gulf nations were influencing this US policy, since it is outside the four corners of your report, and so we must find out,” Schiff told Mueller at the conclusion of the special counsel’s testimony before the intelligence committee last month.

There is little question that Trump and his White House have been eager to advance the interests of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with those of Israel, an unofficial but close ally of those two states. The administration’s combative policy toward Iran reflects the preference of those three countries, which have lobbied for the United States to take their side in regional disputes. Trump and his top aides have refused to condemn Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reported role in Khashoggi’s murder. And Trump has rejected congressional efforts to limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and to limit US support for their brutal war in Yemen.

The Intelligence Committee investigation aims at revealing how the Gulf states have gained such influence. The panel is not saying exactly who it is contacting, but there are plenty of previously disclosed matters it could be expected to pursue: Trump and several top aides and associates have had financial dealings or unexplained contacts with Gulf state regimes or their emissaries.

The committee is likely seeking information on an August 3, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower that Donald Trump Jr. held with Erik Prince, the former head of private military contracting firm Blackwater; an Israeli social media specialist named Joel Zamel; and George Nader, then an adviser to the de facto head of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who goes by MBZ. (Prince, a GOP fundraiser and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, developed ties to bin Zayed after supplying him with a personal guard of mercenaries from Colombia.) During the meeting, Nader told Trump Jr. that Saudi and Emirati leaders were eager to help his father win the election, according to the New York Times. The three men also offered to help the Trump campaign through social media manipulation by Zamel’s company, Psy-Group, which billed itself as private intelligence firm with expertise at covertly spreading messages to influence voters. Trump Jr. has claimed the campaign rejected that offer. Zamel denied launching any influence campaign to boost Trump. After the election, Nader wired Zamel $2 million. It’s not clear why.

Nader is currently imprisoned on charges of possession of child pornography and transporting a 14-year-old boy for sexual activity. At the time of the Trump Tower meeting, Nader’s record included past convictions for child pornography and sexually abusing minors. Still, after the Trump Tower meeting, he developed ties to multiple Trump campaign officials. According to the Times, Nader, acting as an Emirati emissary, met frequently during the campaign and transition with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Michael Flynn, who became Trump’s national security adviser before he was fired. Nader also helped arrange two mysterious meetings, brokered by MBZ, between Prince and Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, in Seychelles in early January 2017. The Mueller report says Dmitriev, acting as an emissary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, hoped to cultivate ties to the Trump administration. The Emirates evidently hoped to gain favor with Trump by arranging the meetings.

The committee in July subpoenaed Flynn and Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign official who was in contact with Zamel in 2016. Schiff said last month that Gates had begun providing documents to the committee. The panel has also started receiving evidence from Mueller’s investigation such as FBI 302s. That material could shed light on activity by Nader and other Gulf state influence efforts.

Nader also developed ties to Elliott Broidy, then a major Republican fundraiser. In 2017 Nader offered to help a security firm Broidy owns win contracts from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. (Broidy later landed a contract with the UAE worth more than $200 million.) At the same time, Broidy used his contacts with Trump and other administration officials to press Emirati and Saudi interests in Washington, including advocating for the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who the two Gulf states saw as too friendly to Qatar, their rival in a regional dispute. Federal prosecutors are reportedly investigating Broidy’s ties to Nader and other matters >>>

Persian Gulf Pirates

Cartoon by  Bob Gorrell

British guards pulled from Gulf ships over Iran capture fears

Financial Times: Top security firms have removed British guards from ships in the Gulf because of fears that Iran could try to capture UK nationals as tensions soar in the Middle East.

Ambrey, the biggest company in the sector, and Maritime Asset Security and Training (MAST) said they had replaced UK citizens with guards from other countries.

The move is a response to Iran’s dramatic seizure of a UK-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, three weeks ago in the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important shipping lane for oil and other fuels.

The vessel and its 23 crew members, none of them British, continue to be held by Iran. Its foreign minister this week said Tehran would launch legal action over the vessel’s alleged breaches of maritime law.

John Thompson, a former elite UK soldier who co-founded UK-based Ambrey, said: “We have instigated a policy of no UK guards in the Gulf. [We] are advising our clients the same.”

Ben Stewart at MAST said: “We’ve been recommending not using UK unarmed guards because of that [risk].”

The maritime security industry, which flourished when the threat of piracy off the coast of Somalia rocketed ten years ago, has traditionally been dominated by former members of elite British forces, such as the Royal Marines, Parachute Regiment, SAS and SBS.

In recent years the industry has turned to cheaper guards from eastern Europe and Asia as the sector has become more competitive, but British guards are still often used as senior members of security teams.

Rising tensions in the Gulf stem from US president Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which has left Washington and Tehran at loggerheads.

A series of security incidents began in May when four tankers, including two Saudi vessels, were hit by “sabotage” attacks in the Gulf of Oman. US officials said they suspected Iran, but Tehran denied any involvement.

The incidents have triggered a rush to put guards on ships in the region to help with lookouts and security procedures. Unlike in zones of Somali piracy, guards have gone unarmed because of the risk of coming into conflict with Iranian military forces.

Fears for vessels in the Gulf, where approximately 20 per cent of the world’s oil supplies pass every day, have already led the US and the UK to establish escorts for their tankers and other ships. The UK has two warships currently deployed in the Gulf.

People in the shipping industry and a US government official have said there are concerns that Iran could be trying to target UK nationals.

Stena Bulk, the Sweden-based owner of the Stena Impero, has said its crew members are Indian, Russian, Filipino and Latvian. They remain on board the ship, which has been parked in waters off the coast of Iran.

Some Iranian officials have said the Stena Impero was seized in retaliation for the UK’s detention of an Iranian supertanker off Gibraltar last month. The UK said the Grace 1 supertanker was planning to breach EU sanctions against Syria.

“Everyone in the UK shipping industry seems to believe the Iranians want British crew,” one person said. They asked not to be named given the tensions surrounding shipping. “That’s the impression we have, given the events that have happened and the feedback from people on board.”

Patrick Rogers at S-RM, a global risk consultancy that advises a number of major shipping companies, said the decision to remove UK guards was sensible. “If it’s higher risk to have them on board then why would you?” Mr Rogers said. “You’re at risk of provoking them.”

The US maritime agency said on Thursday that US-flagged ships should inform US and British naval authorities if they planned to sail into the Gulf.

Britain this week aligned itself with the US by joining an American-led task force for escorting ships through the Gulf and nearby waters.

Big European countries other than the UK have been wary of joining a US-led freedom of navigation effort, in part for fear of appearing to be supporting the US’s hardline approach to Iran.

The EU has publicly opposed Mr Trump’s decision last year to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

One senior EU diplomat said that — while the British viewed Washington’s involvement in the protection operation as inevitable and necessary because of its military capabilities — other countries wanted to guard the EU’s “strategic autonomy”.

David Balston at the UK Chamber of Shipping said the escorting of UK-flagged ships was “providing considerable reassurance” but stressed that it was an issue for all countries operating in the waters of the Gulf.

“We do welcome the positive engagement of the UK government and the broader internationalisation of the issue. This is not a UK only problem. It is very much an international problem,” Mr Balston said.

Gulf War

Cartoon by Osama Hajjaj

Fighting Flares Between Gulf-Backed Allies in Yemen’s War

Bloomberg: Forces loyal to Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi fought southern separatist gunmen near the presidential palace in the port city of Aden on Wednesday, in a major flareup between supposed allies in the Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi rebels.

The violence followed the burial of a southern leader killed in a Houthi missile attack last week, local media and witnesses said. The vice president of the separatist Southern Transitional Council, Hani Bin Buraik, called on southern resistance forces to mobilize and march on the palace to evict the government of Hadi, who lives in Riyadh.

The council is aided by the United Arab Emirates, which has been a key partner of Saudi Arabia in the war launched in 2015 to defeat the Iran-backed Houthis and reinstate Hadi’s rule. The U.A.E., however, has signaled its pulling back its forces from Yemen against the backdrop of a U.S.-Iranian confrontation that has threatened to tip the Persian Gulf into a regional war.