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Domestic Spying is Nothing New

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(NNPA) Forgive me if I come across as cynical, but why is anyone surprised by our domestic spying? I am not talking about the ridiculous situation with the IRS. That is a tempest in a teapot, and everyone knows that. No, I am speaking about the NSA spying.

Think about it for a second, and really this comes down to how far back in history you want to go. For those of us who lived through the 1960s and 1970s, there was the case of the FBI’s notorious Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that was used to disrupt and suppress social justice movements and organizations, including but not limited to the Black freedom movement. Think of how many organizations were destroyed, activists imprisoned, killed or, literally, driven insane.

Jump forward to 2001 and the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks. In a rush that would make an Olympic sprint appear to be a snail’s race, the Patriot Act was passed by Congress without most legislators stopping to read it. We have been living with the Patriot Act ever since and this administration has never taken the slightest step to move to overturn it. Thus, we continue to have Guantanamo cages and targeted assassinations. And, of course, we have wiretapping.

The Obama administration counters its critics by suggesting that this domestic surveillance has successfully thwarted numerous terrorist conspiracies. I do not doubt for a moment that that is at least partially true. But that avoids a larger question. After all, a broken clock is right twice a day. The issue that the people of the U.S.A. have to address is the implication of living in a constant state of fear and never getting to the root of the larger problem of terrorism.

Let’s be clear that in most discussions of terrorism, there is very little concern about domestic, right-wing terrorism. The proliferation of right-wing militias and other para-military formations is all but ignored by the mainstream media (and much of law enforcement) despite the fact that these forces constitute a greater threat to us in the U.S. than many Islamic jihadists.

Let us also be clear that the policies of the USA frequently catalyze the actions of fanatics. Do we need to be reminded of how U.S. support for Muslim fundamentalists in their war with the then-Soviet Union in Afghanistan (in the 1980s), only to abandon Afghanistan, contributed to the 9/11 blowback? Do we need to be reminded that the NATO intervention in Libya unleashed weapons caches that have spread AK-47s throughout North Africa? Do we need to think for more than a second about the implications of intervening in the Syrian civil war as allies of the jihadists and their Saudi/Qatari sponsors?

Instead of asking the big questions, too many of us have decided to live in a permanent state of fear of the next terrorist attack. That fear has translated, for more than 12 years, into a willingness to close our eyes to the erosion of civil liberties; the unapologetic enthusiasm of the U.S.A. to engage in torture and targeted assassinations; and the audacity of initiating aggression in violation of international law and precedent, all in the name of opposing terrorism.

Just so that I am not misunderstood, this problem did not start with the Obama administration, and, unless we do something, will not end with the Obama administration. There should be no surprises here about domestic surveillance. Instead the time has come to draw a line. Authoritarianism never suggests an end to freedom; rather, it promises safety and security against the threat of the moment.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him on Facebook and www.billfletcherjr.com.

Inner Cities Need Disaster Relief, Too

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(NNPA) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently spoke at a conference sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative in Chicago on disaster recovery in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The natural disaster caused an estimated $39 billion in damage in New Jersey. Christie talked through the plans for rebuilding after the initial steps to get power and water back up and return the area to “normalcy,” using some $60 billion in federal relief contributions.

A disaster like Sandy causes a structural dislocation beyond local capacity. Storms, tornadoes, earthquakes and sudden de-industrialization are all disasters. Houses and roads are destroyed; the local economy is ruined; small businesses go belly up. In response, the federal government steps in, provides aid, works with governors and local officials to lay out a plan for redevelopment.

The shore neighborhoods slammed by Sandy and the communities hit by tornadoes in Oklahoma or floods in North Dakota all deserve aid. Yet we witness a disaster in cities across our nation that is equally devastating, equally beyond anyone’s fault, and yet essentially ignored at the national level.

In our inner city neighborhoods, we witness mass unemployment, with businesses going bankrupt. By 2010, in 25 of the nation’s largest metropolitan regions, fewer than 55 percent of working-age black men were employed. The afflicted neighborhoods suffer radical housing depletion from foreclosures and abandonment. Since Jan. 1, 2010, there have been 18,949 vacant buildings reported in Chicago. On average, 19 new buildings are reported every day. Many neighborhoods suffer from sharp reductions in public services — transit, postal service, health services. Schools are closed and teachers laid off.

Instead of a plan for recovery, these neighborhoods are provided a plan for containment. School discipline policies force students out of school and toward detention.

Drug policies are used for mass arrests. Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander reports that “about 90 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense in Illinois are African American,” though studies show that whites are more likely to use and sell drugs.

The inner city deserves a disaster relief plan — one that includes things like insurance relief, federal aid, a development bank and loans. The inner city needs reconstruction and infrastructure. Just as the shore communities of New Jersey needed a plan for recovery and development after a natural disaster, so do our inner city neighborhoods ravaged by forces beyond their control.

The disaster that has afflicted our inner cities is as remorseless and as powerful as that that ravaged the shores of New Jersey, the wildfires spreading in Colorado, the tornadoes that have devastated parts of several states. It is time for action.

When there is a disaster, few complain about federal help, few say the relief should come only from the state or private entities. No one says that the people in the path of the storm are on their own. As Gov. Christie said at that Chicago conference:

“No one in my state was arguing to me that Tuesday, Oct. 30, ‘Governor, you should privatize the response to this storm from here on out,’ ” he said. “This is one of those things that, regardless of where you fall on the ideological spectrum, you would agree that this is government’s responsibility.”

Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is founder and president of the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition. You can keep up with his work at www.rainbowpush.org.

Addressing the environmental crisis is about more than recycling

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(NNPA) Forgive me, but I am scared.

Any reader of my columns knows that I pay fairly regular attention to the matter of the environmental crisis. But over the last few weeks, the news has become more unsettling. Greenhouse gases continue to spread across this planet. While there appears to have been a slight slow up in the increase over North America, in many other parts of the planet that is not the case.

I was at the New York Museum of Natural History the other day and visited an exhibit dealing with climate change. Part of what they showed was the decrease in ice on the North Pole. The visuals were very dramatic. With all due respect to any reader who remains in denial, it is impossible to argue that the climate is not changing. What scares me is the question of whether the situation has gone beyond the point of no return.

To the extent to which we address the environmental crisis, we all have to realize that it will necessitate changes in the way that we look at life and look at this planet. Not only does our economic system teach us to believe that the planet is one giant garbage bin to dump on as we see fit, but it also teaches us to believe that it is our right and privilege to use up all the resources and all of the life in the planet in order to make us feel a bit better. We are reaping the result of that at this very moment. An economic system that insists that we must continue to consume every natural resource imaginable and not pay attention to the impact on other life on this planet is a system that has us driving down a one-way street at 100 mph. And did I mention that it is a dead-end street?

In order to think about addressing the environmental crisis we have to recognize that we must go beyond recycling, though that is important. We have to put ourselves in the mindset of a nation at war. Let me give you an example. When the U.S.A. entered World War II, there was a dramatic shakeup in the way that virtually everything was done. Women entered factories en masse, and as a result, childcare centers were set up attached to the factories when only a few months before it was alleged that neither of these things could be done. Certain products were no longer available because of the war effort. The slogan attributed to President Roosevelt summarized the new thinking: ”Is this trip really necessary?”

In the years since World War II, there has developed a complacency about resources. The massive introduction of plastics and disposable items has decreased our sense of the need to preserve resources. And certainly the expansion of the use of automobiles has changed everyone’s view of free time.

That said, we find ourselves at a critical moment where resources are running out and environmental pollution is killing off entire species, and quite possibly killing off humans. To address this, we need the same sort of reorientation we experienced in World War II. Science must be devoted, not towards armed drones and NSA snooping, but the creation of energy-saving technology. We must wean ourselves away from artificial pesticides through the development of new treatments or the use of more traditional approaches. Trees need to be planted on a grand scale and water preservation technologies must be developed. The list goes on.

Now is the time for us to make those difficult choices, but then again, is there really an alternative? Driving down a one-way street at 100 mph never impressed me as either fun or rational.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him on Facebook and www.billfletcherjr.com.

Overdraft Fees are Still a Problem

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(NNPA) A new report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) finds that overdraft fees continue to pose high risks to consumers, despite recent regulatory changes. The report focuses on the dreaded overdraft charge, the fees banks and credit unions collect for covering customer transactions that exceed checking account balances.

Sounds simple; but many times the terms that accompany these fees are complex, and too often the costs are out of proportion to the overdrawn amount. Variations in how transactions are posted to checking accounts and limits or the lack thereof on the number of fees allowed in a single day can be confusing and harmful to consumers. Even though practices vary among institutions, one thing is consistent: consumers lose tens of billion to overdraft fees every year.

For customers with only marginal bank balances, the costs incurred by overdraft fees can remove available funds for other household needs.

“What is marketed as overdraft protection can, in some instances put consumers at greater risk of harm,” said CFPB’s Richard Cordray. “Consumers need to be able to control their costs and expenses, and they deserve clarity on those issues.”

The CFPB found that overdraft fees on debit card and ATM transactions in particular are associated with higher rates of involuntary account closure. As a result, the affected consumers become less able to open a checking account at another institution.

The new CFPB report follows a 2010 rule by the Federal Reserve that required financial institutions for the first time to secure customer approval before enrollment in overdraft coverage for debit and ATM transactions. Wide variations in the number of “opt-ins” by institutions indicate that some are more aggressive than others in obtaining consent forms from their customers.

Following the announcement of the 2010 rule, the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) noted that the rule did not address clear abuses that customers experience once they are enrolled, including the exorbitant cost of debit card overdraft coverage or re-ordering transactions to maximize fees. And because the size or frequency of the fees was not addressed, financial institutions have the incentive to secure as many opt-in forms as possible.

Previous research by CRL has found that:

· Most debit card transactions that trigger overdrafts are far smaller than the size of the overdraft itself;

· Most consumers surveyed would rather have their debit card transaction declined than have it covered in exchange for an overdraft fee;

· In 2008, Americans aged 55 and over paid $6.2 billion in overdraft fees; Americans aged 18-24 paid nearly $1.3 billion in overdraft fees.

CRL along with others including Pew Charitable Trusts, have also called for banning institutions from processing transactions from the largest to smallest. This change would diminish the number of overdraft fees charged and thereby free-up consumer monies for other items. In reaction to the CFPB report, CRL said, “We remain concerned about financial institutions that deliberately trigger overdraft fees by re-ordering daily transactions from the highest to lowest, often resulting in more fees from customers. This deceptive practice remains far too common despite fueling widespread litigation. . . .We look forward to future studies by the CFPB that will shed even more light on an issue that affects millions of Americans each year.”

Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

Pvt. Bradley Manning Deserves an Award, not Jail Time

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(NNPA) The court martial of Pvt. Bradley Manning for allegedly providing thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks is the latest in efforts undertaken by this administration to crush whistleblowers. In fact, the Manning case is reminiscent of that faced by Daniel Ellsberg in the famous “Pentagon Papers” incident surrounding the Vietnam War. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg released classified documents concerning the Vietnam War to the New York Times. These documents revealed the criminality and hypocrisy of the U.S. aggression.

Yet, the Bradley Manning case is not simply the latest in a list of prosecutions. It stands as a particularly illustrative example of steps taken by an administration that had promised so-called transparency when Obama was elected in 2008. Instead, we have found something to the contrary. Not only have whistleblowers faced retaliation, the Obama administration has used the Espionage Act six times in order to squash whistleblowers.

The administration’s stand towards whistleblowers exists in stark contrast to its attitude towards both the criminality on Wall Street as well as the criminality of those who lied us into the Iraq war. In neither case have criminal prosecutions taken place. Think about it for a moment. The Bush administration manufactured evidence in order to carry out a blatant act of aggression against a sovereign nation. This aggression resulted not only in the deaths of thousands of Iraqis and U.S. personnel, but it has totally destabilized the nation of Iraq itself. Despite this, no one from the Bush administration has been prosecuted.

We can also look at Wall Street. Obama came into office in the midst of the worst financial collapse and recession since the Great Depression. Much of what accounted for the financial collapse was the result of criminal activity on the part of elements of the financial community. Instead of prosecution and jail time the perpetrators of this disaster had the audacity to insist that they were still entitled to their annual extravagant bonuses. Oh, and by the way, many of these same Wall Streeters, saved by the Obama administration from masses of people who wanted to string them up, ironically decided to side with Romney in the 2012 election. No good deed goes unpunished, I suppose.

So, let’s now go through the scorecard. Individuals who have attempted to identify criminal behavior by government officials, agencies, etc., face retaliation, and in the case of Manning, jail time. They are in some cases accused of providing aid and assistance to the enemy. What they did was to call things as they were and to point out precisely the sorts of activities that this administration claimed that it opposed.

Bradley Manning should not face any jail time. In fact, he needs to get an award for his courage.

The other night I was watching Spike Lee’s She Hate Me. If you have not seen it, take a few moments to do so. One of the issues that Lee raises is that the “little people” who do the right thing and call out injustices frequently suffer, whereas those in the elite who carry out the injustices, not only frequently get away with it, but they may gain some benefit. The classic example was Frank Wills, the African-American security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in. For an action that should have netted him a medal, he found himself ultimately cast aside and treated as, in effect, a criminal.

You may have expected more from the Obama administration. It won’t happen unless we insist otherwise. It is not just about Obama the man; it is about an administration.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him on Facebook and www.billfletcherjr.com.

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