Russia Offered Afghans Bounty to Kill U.S. Troops, Officials Say

The New York Times

Russia Offered Afghans Bounty to Kill U.S. Troops, Officials Say

Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt and Michael Schwirtz        June 27, 2020

WASHINGTON — American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.

Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear which killings were under suspicion.

The intelligence finding was briefed to President Donald Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.

An operation to incentivize the killing of American and other NATO troops would be a significant and provocative escalation of what American and Afghan officials have said is Russian support for the Taliban, and it would be the first time the Russian spy unit was known to have orchestrated attacks on Western troops.

Any involvement with the Taliban that resulted in the deaths of American troops would also be a huge escalation of Russia’s so-called hybrid war against the United States, a strategy of destabilizing adversaries through a combination of such tactics as cyberattacks, the spread of fake news, and covert and deniable military operations.

American troops at Camp Shorabak in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Sept. 26, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
American troops at Camp Shorabak in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Sept. 26, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

 

The Kremlin had not been made aware of the accusations, said Dmitry Peskov, press secretary for President Vladimir Putin of Russia. “If someone makes them, we’ll respond,” Peskov said.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied that the insurgents have “any such relations with any intelligence agency” and called the report an attempt to defame them.

“These kinds of deals with the Russian intelligence agency are baseless — our target killings and assassinations were ongoing in years before, and we did it on our own resources,” he said. “That changed after our deal with the Americans, and their lives are secure and we don’t attack them.”

Spokespeople at the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA declined to comment.

The officials familiar with the intelligence did not explain the White House delay in deciding how to respond to the intelligence about Russia.

While some of his closest advisers, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have counseled more hawkish policies toward Russia, Trump has adopted an accommodating stance toward Moscow.

At a summit in Helsinki in 2018, Trump strongly suggested that he believed Putin’s denial that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 presidential election, despite broad agreement within the U.S. intelligence establishment that it did. Trump criticized a bill imposing sanctions on Russia when he signed it into law after Congress passed it by veto-proof majorities. And he has repeatedly made statements that undermined the NATO alliance as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Europe.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the delicate intelligence and internal deliberations. They said the intelligence has been treated as a closely held secret, but the administration expanded briefings about it this week — including sharing information about it with the British government, whose forces are among those said to have been targeted.

The intelligence assessment is said to be based at least in part on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals. The officials did not describe the mechanics of the Russian operation, such as how targets were picked or how money changed hands. It is also not clear whether Russian operatives had deployed inside Afghanistan or met with their Taliban counterparts elsewhere.

The revelations came into focus inside the Trump administration at a delicate and distracted time. Although officials collected the intelligence earlier in the year, the interagency meeting at the White House took place as the coronavirus pandemic was becoming a crisis and parts of the country were shutting down.

Moreover, as Trump seeks reelection in November, he wants to strike a peace deal with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan War.

Both American and Afghan officials have previously accused Russia of providing small arms and other support to the Taliban that amounts to destabilizing activity, although Russian government officials have dismissed such claims as “idle gossip” and baseless.

“We share some interests with Russia in Afghanistan, and clearly they’re acting to undermine our interests as well,” Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of American forces in Afghanistan at the time, said in a 2018 interview with the BBC.

Though coalition troops suffered a spate of combat casualties last summer and early fall, only a few have since been killed. Four Americans were killed in combat in early 2020, but the Taliban have not attacked U.S. positions since a February agreement.

American troops have also sharply reduced their movement outside of military bases because of the coronavirus, reducing their exposure to attack.

While officials were said to be confident about the intelligence that Russian operatives offered and paid bounties to Afghan militants for killing Americans, they have greater uncertainty about how high in the Russian government the covert operation was authorized and what its aim may be.

Some officials have theorized that the Russians may be seeking revenge on NATO forces for a 2018 battle in Syria in which the U.S. military killed several hundred pro-Syrian forces, including numerous Russian mercenaries, as they advanced on an American outpost. Officials have also suggested that the Russians may have been trying to derail peace talks to keep the United States bogged down in Afghanistan. But the motivation remains murky.

The officials briefed on the matter said the government had assessed the operation to be the handiwork of Unit 29155, an arm of Russia’s military intelligence agency, known widely as the GRU. The unit is linked to the March 2018 nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury, England, of Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer who had worked for British intelligence and then defected, and his daughter.

Western intelligence officials say the unit, which has operated for more than a decade, has been charged by the Kremlin with carrying out a campaign to destabilize the West through subversion, sabotage and assassination. In addition to the 2018 poisoning, the unit was behind an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016 and the poisoning of an arms manufacturer in Bulgaria a year earlier.

American intelligence officials say the GRU was at the center of Moscow’s covert efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In the months before that election, American officials say, two GRU cyberunits, known as 26165 and 74455, hacked into Democratic Party servers, and then used WikiLeaks to publish embarrassing internal communications.

In part because those efforts were aimed at helping tilt the election in Trump’s favor, Trump’s handling of issues related to Russia and Putin has come under particular scrutiny. The special counsel investigation found that the Trump campaign welcomed Russia’s intervention and expected to benefit from it, but found insufficient evidence to establish that his associates had engaged in any criminal conspiracy with Moscow.

Operations involving Unit 29155 tend to be much more violent than those involving the cyberunits. Its officers are often decorated military veterans with years of service, in some cases dating to the Soviet Union’s failed war in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. Never before has the unit been accused of orchestrating attacks on Western soldiers, but officials briefed on its operations say it has been active in Afghanistan for many years.

Though Russia declared the Taliban a terrorist organization in 2003, relations between them have been warming in recent years. Taliban officials have traveled to Moscow for peace talks with other prominent Afghans, including the former president, Hamid Karzai. The talks have excluded representatives from the current Afghan government as well as anyone from the United States and at times have seemed to work at crosscurrents with U.S. efforts to bring an end to the conflict.

The disclosure comes at a time when Trump has said he would invite Putin to an expanded meeting of the Group of Seven nations, but tensions between U.S. and Russian militaries are running high.

In several recent episodes, in international territory and airspace from off the coast of Alaska to the Black and Mediterranean seas, combat planes from each country has scrambled to intercept military aircraft from the other.

A Tennessee police chief had a message for fellow law enforcement: turn in your badge if ‘you don’t have an issue’ with George Floyd’s death

Insider -U.S.

A Tennessee police chief had a message for fellow law enforcement: turn in your badge if ‘you don’t have an issue’ with George Floyd’s death

Celia Ferandez, cfernandez@insider.com         
David Roddy has been a member of the Chattanooga Police Department for 24 years.
David Roddy has been a member of the Chattanooga Police Department for 24 years.

  • After the video of George Floyd’s arrest and his subsequent death went viral on Monday, a Tennessee police chief tweeted his thoughts on Wednesday.
  • David Roddy said that officers who don’t have an issue with Floyd’s arrest should turn in their badges.
  • His tweet has since gone viral with over 159,000 retweets and 623,000 likes.

A Tennessee police chief by the name of David Roddy sent a message to his fellow officers on Twitter in response to the death of George Floyd.

On Wednesday, Chattanooga Police Department Chief David Roddy said police officers who didn’t see an issue with the graphic video that showed former Minneapolis police officer David Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck as the 46-year-old repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” should quit the force.

“There is no need to see more video. There no need to wait to see how “it plays out”. There is no need to put a knee on someone’s neck for NINE minutes. There IS a need to DO something. If you wear a badge and you don’t have an issue with this…turn it in,” Roddy wrote.

Roddy’s tweet has since gotten over 159,000 likes and 623,000 retweets. According to the Chattanooga Police Department website, Roddy has 24 years of service under his belt.

Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital on Monday shortly after his arrest. Since the video starting circulating social media, Chauvin was charged on Friday with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, and all four officers that were involved in the arrest were fired.

Footage of the arrest has also sparked outrage across the country causing protests in cities like Minneapolis, Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Detroit, Dallas, Washington, DC, and more.

Roddy did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Read the original article on Insider

Related:

The Independent

‘The names change but the colour is always black’: Protesters on what George Floyd’s killing means to them

Andrew Buncombe, The Independent                 
EPA
EPA

At the junction where a police officer was filmed kneeling on George Floyd’s neck as he gasped for air, there were shouts and cheers when it was announced the man had been charged with murder.

“Yes! Chauvin’s been charged with murder,” yelled one man. “We got one of them.”

But for the protesters gathered at 38th St and Chicago Ave, in the south of Minneapolis, any celebrations over the charging of 44-year-old white police officer Derek Chauvin, were short-lived.

People demanded that all four officers involved in the incident that led to the death of Mr Floyd be brought to justice. And what was all this with third-degree murder? He meant to kill him, people insisted It should be first-degree.

There was also agreement that until all four men were charged, the protests – both the peaceful and those that saw a police station and other buildings set ablaze – would continue.

“I can’t say I agree with burning down buildings useful to our community,” said 19-year-old student Tsunami Douglas, claiming there were reports that police had set some buildings alight. “But people have had enough.”

Her friend, Twyla Mowll, 18, said as a young person of colour growing up in south Minneapolis, they would never call the police as nobody knew how it would play out.

“Police officers are trained to serve the people,” she added. “That does not involve shooting or killing, When people have to be protected from the police, there is no point. There needs to be a new system.”

As Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman announced the charges against Mr Chauvin, further details emerged of the incidents in which Mr Floyd’s throat was stepped on, as he lay on the floor close to Cup Foods grocery, the spot now marked with flowers and photographs.

The charge sheet claimed Mr Chauvin had his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The complaint said that included nearly three minutes after the man had stopped moving and talking.

“Police are trained that this type of restraint with a subject in a prone position is inherently dangerous,” it said.

An officer allegedly put his knee on George Floyd’s throat for more than eight minutes (Andrew Buncombe )
An officer allegedly put his knee on George Floyd’s throat for more than eight minutes (Andrew Buncombe )

 

Amid the anger and dismay, one reaction few if any mentioned was surprise.

This was something that happened all the time, or at least every summer, residents said. “There needs to be a revolution,” said a 20-year-old woman called Macy, who said she was visiting her parents from New York.

“The only reason we got this murder charge was because of the burning of the buildings. So we cannot afford to let that stop,” she said.

“The white people are getting scared. They feel threatened. But America does not want to confront its past. Even Germany examined its Nazi past. Nobody will talk about slavery.”

The other three officers have been named Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J Alexander Kueng. Mr Freeman, the prosecutor said he considered there could be charges brought against them as well, but declined to suggest what they might be.

At the spot where people took turns to speak on a microphone to the crowd, people demanded all four men were responsible for what had happened. They said none of the officers had stepped in to stop what was being done by their colleague.

“If someone like me is present where there’s a crime, I’d be charged as an accomplice,” said Sadi, a woman who asked to give one name and who said she was in her mid-40’s.

Asked how a system in which young black men repeatedly die at the hands of police could be changed, she said: “We need white people to be allies. We need them to care about this. But we have a racist as president.”

As the banners and placards on display grow, George Floyd joins a mounting list of young African American men – and some women – who have been killed in encounters with the police – Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and Eric Garner in New York, to name just as few.

In Minneapolis, a 24-year-old black man named Jamar Clark was shot dead by police in 2015. The following year, officers killed Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man killed by a Minnesota police officer during a traffic stop.

“This happens all the time, but people are saying enough is enough,” said Yasmeen Abdulla, a 26-year-old medical student who lives in the neighbourhood. “People have been dying in police brutality. They want justice.”

He said while the names of the police’s victims varied, there was one constant. He said: “The names are different but they are always the same colour.”

Coronovirus – Life (& Living) or Death

Life (& Living) or Death

Gabriel Martin, Opinion         May 7, 2020
Politics and screaming lunatics aside, you have your re-open crowd and you have your stay-at-home crowd. Generally speaking, of course, most people have a fairly strong opinion either way.
The stay-at-home people believe in taking the pandemic very seriously, and it usually helps if they have a living situation which isn’t too much at odds with lock-down orders to begin with (i.e. they already worked from home/their job now allows them to work from home, they have food and comfortable living conditions, etc).
Those who want to re-open the economy and lift the orders seem to see the negative effects of the lock-down as far outweighing any possible threat from the virus. In my friends list, it usually means people in rural areas, not yet heavily affected by illness. The general consensus is that problems like loss of wages, lack of food access, missed rent, businesses going bankrupt, shops permanently closing, poverty and pending homelessness, are all more dangerous than the illness. (Also, in a more vague sense, some talk of possible depression and/or suicide rates going up.)
It is a pretty callous stance for stay-at-homers to just casually dismiss every single one of these realistic and practical concerns. As if anyone who wants to re-open is an ignorant, financially driven, asshole.
It is equally insensitive for re-openers to pompously flaunt their misplaced bravado in the face of a very serious threat, and belittle and ridicule those who feel they are doing the right thing to keep those they love safe and alive, by following the necessary orders.
Here’s the thing though: you shouldn’t have to pick a side and fight and yell at the other side, telling them how ignorant and delusional they are. The government should have the ability to solve both of those problems simultaneously.
The entire reason for a government’s existence in any society is to solve problems and protect their citizens in an emergency situation. Sometimes this means military defense, sometimes it means gathering and stockpiling vital resources, natural disaster relief, etc. In this case, it means protection from the illness and the security of life’s necessities, while the battle is ongoing. This is the system’s primary job at the moment, the very definition of its function, and it is failing miserably.
If a government only works well when everything is running smoothly, but falls apart during an emergency situation, then you have to wonder ‘what are you actually here for, exactly?’
So now, as citizens of the same inept government, we have to fight and argue with one another over what to do, because the government has put us in a position where too many people have to make a choice between living in crushing poverty or dying from an illness.
The answer to the problem can be seen in other countries that are not failing their people: You stay at home and guess what? None of those other bad things happen to you. Rent and mortgages are frozen, you continue to receive wages, you will not be fired, your business will still be there when it’s all over, free food is delivered to your door, if you get sick you will receive your care at no cost to you, government services are in place to assist you and your neighbors, so that a very effective lock-down can happen and the infection rate drops very quickly. You still have your home, job, food, car, etc. and the efficiency of the quarantine means you spent a few weeks inside instead of depressing and endless months. Now, orders can be relaxed because the remaining infected have been identified and quarantined and strict testing infrastructure is in place to help keep it from a resurgence.
These things aren’t happening in the U.S. because every system that could help make it happen has been stripped, dismantled, and defunded so that those tax payer dollars could be funneled right into various private bank accounts. There simply is no money to do what needs to be done.
For decades and decades the amount of your tax money available to this country for emergencies and necessary life-saving programs has dwindled, and dwindled, and dwindled…. while the bulk of that lost money has been shifted straight up to the highest of the elite, where they sit on it and put it in tax free accounts in other countries, hoarding it and never putting it back into the country. It’s a slow and steady siphoning effect that has sucked the country dry and is now literally killing people.
Look at the wage gap. Look at the trillions in debt the country is now in. Look at the poverty level and the unemployment. Even in the best of times over the last few decades, most jobs couldn’t even pay a living wage. The general populous makes less and less, while the stock market goes up and any programs or systems put in place to help the average person are killed and that money goes straight to corporate contracts and subsidies.
So, now what happens when there is a crisis? SORRY. We don’t have the money. It’s not there when we need it. Why? Not sure exactly, maybe ask Boeing… or Amazon… or your bank. Well, we can go further in debt and borrow a metric shit ton of money for a stimulus bill to keep the economy happy but, GUESS WHAT?!? Most of that is going to those same corporations and you get a few scraps, but not much else. We have to keep big business happy over any other concern. That’s what’s best for everyone, right?
SORRY, there are no systems in place to help, we killed those. Unnecessary. There is no money, a handful of people have most of that now and they don’t seem too eager to give any of it back.
Because the government couldn’t perform even its most basic function, (preparing for an emergency and protecting its citizens when there was one) now we have to fight among one another over who is right: those who love poverty or those who love illness.
We’re so busy fighting each other, we don’t bother turning back around to the government and saying “Hold on now… What the actual fuck?!?”
Did you like this? Wanna check out my blog?
www.the ignorantbystander.com or
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He opposed public lands and wildlife protections. Trump gave him a top environment job

The Guardian – Politics

He opposed public lands and wildlife protections. Trump gave him a top environment job

Jimmy Tobias                            
<span>Photograph: Matthew Brown/AP</span>
Photograph: Matthew Brown/AP

 

In July 2017, William Perry Pendley, a crusading conservative attorney, delivered a speech to a group of rightwing activists in North Carolina in which he was completely candid about his ideological commitments.

He accused “the media” of selling “their soul to the greens”. And after criticizing the Endangered Species Act, he made light of killing endangered species.

“This is why out west we say ‘shoot, shovel and shut up’ when it comes to the discovery of endangered species on your property,” he said, according to an audio recording of the event obtained by the Guardian. “And I have to say, as a lawyer, that’s not legal advice,” he added, as some in his audience quietly snickered at the reference to the illegal extermination, and the burial, of endangered animals.

It has been almost three years since he gave those remarks, and Pendley is now the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, a powerful agency that oversees more than 240m acres of federal land belonging to the American people, manages mineral resources and is required to comply with environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act.

Pendley has helped turn BLM into what one high-level employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, called “a ghost ship” in which “suspicion”, “fear” and “low morale” abound, despite the best efforts of career civil servants to support each other.

As Pendley and his superiors at the interior department press ahead with an effort to move BLM’s headquarters from Washington DC to Grand Junction, Colorado, the agency has hemorrhaged staff members and lost critical institutional memory, which many critics believe was the true purpose of the relocation effort all along.

“A skeleton crew is left” at BLM headquarters, said the employee. “So few people were able to move west that a lot of people retired early and a lot of people took other jobs, so my ballpark estimate is there is only about 20% of permanent employees left” at headquarters. As a result, the agency is failing to fulfill its most basic duties, like responding to public records requests and conducting oversight of state and regional operations, the staffer added.

Environmental and government watchdog groups are now responding with a lawsuit that calls into question the legitimacy of Pendley’s position. Last week a pair of environmental nonprofits sued the interior department, alleging that by repeatedly tapping Pendley as the BLM’s acting director, rather than officially nominating him for the position, the interior secretary has skirted the Senate confirmation process usually required for high-level executive branch appointments, and has violated federal law.

“The illegitimate Pendley appointment is particularly troublesome because he has forcibly moved the BLM Headquarters from Washington DC, to remote western Colorado,” said Peter Jenkins, a senior counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, one of the groups that sued. “In doing so he uprooted the lives of scores of seasoned BLM staff and disrupted this already strained agency.”

An interior department spokesperson defended Pendley’s record.

<span class="element-image__caption">The Trump administration rolled back key provisions of the Endangered Species Act, a law credited with saving the gray wolf, bald eagle and grizzly bear.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images</span>The Trump administration rolled back key provisions of the Endangered Species Act, a law credited with saving the gray wolf, bald eagle and grizzly bear. Photograph: Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images

 

“Mr Pendley brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the department and is committed to carrying out the administration’s priorities and achieving the BLM’s … mission for the betterment of the American people,” said Conner Swanson, the spokesperson. “Mr Pendley has provided a steady hand in facilitating important matters, from the BLM headquarters move west to its response to Covid-19.” Swanson has said that the lawsuit against Pendley is “baseless”.

Pendley, a tall man with a handlebar mustache and a penchant for cowboy boots, has remarked in the past that his “personal opinions are irrelevant” to his job at BLM.

“I have a new job now. I’m a zealous advocate for my client. My client is the American people and my bosses are the president of the United States and [interior] secretary [David] Bernhardt,” Pendley said during an appearance at the conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Fort Collins, Colorado, last year. “What I thought, what I wrote, what I did in the past is irrelevant. I have orders, I have laws to obey, and I intend to do that.”

Pendley has long opposed public lands and wildlife protections. After serving in the Reagan administration in the 1980s, he became the president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), a conservative litigation organization funded by conservative and industry groups including the Charles Koch Foundation and Exxon Mobil, according to research from the watchdog groups Documented and Accountable.US.

Under Pendley’s leadership, the firm was a persistent foe of federal land agencies, getting involved in dozens of cases on behalf of industry groups and private landowners to challenge environmental protections implemented by the interior department.

Pendley became something of a fixture among the anti-government set, writing numerous books extolling rebellion against public lands and the federal government. He has expressed sympathy in the past for the Bundy family, whose militant agitation against federal land ownership included the armed takeover of the Malheur national wildlife refuge in 2016.

He has compared climate change to unicorns because “neither exist”. And in a 2016 National Review article, he laid out a case that argued for the near-total abolition of federal public lands across the nation.

Given his long history of legal advocacy on behalf of extractive industries, Pendley brought with him a 17-page recusal list of past clients, employers and investments when he took control of the BLM in 2019. The list included groups such as the American Exploration & Mining Association and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. It has been nearly impossible for the public to know whether Pendley has abided by his recusal list, however, because the BLM has failed to release his detailed official calendar to the public.

Though Pendley has long been a committed conservative, he has not always had kind words for Donald Trump. In a 2016 op-ed in the Daily Caller, for instance, he said then-candidate Trump “is not fit to pull off Reagan’s boots”.

Apart from Pendley’s role in moving BLM’s headquarters to Colorado, the agency under his leadership has also repeatedly proposed land management plans that heavily promote the energy industry. In March, for instance, conservationists in Montana came out aggressively against a BLM resource management plan that they believe is far too friendly to corporate oil and gas interests, according to the Billings Gazette.

In a statement issued earlier this year, Representative Raúl Grijalva, the chairman of the House natural resources committee, expressed his concerns over Pendley.

“Anyone who wants our land management agencies to be functional in the future needs to recognize the seriousness of what Secretary Bernhardt, acting director Pendley, and their subordinates are doing.”

Trump seizes on pandemic to speed up opening of public lands to industry

The Guardian – Business

Trump seizes on pandemic to speed up opening of public lands to industry

Jeremy Miller, The Guardian        April 30, 2020
<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

 

The Trump administration has ratcheted up its efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic to overhaul and overturn Obama-era environmental regulations and increase industry access to public lands.

The secretary of the interior, David Bernhardt, has sped efforts to drill, mine and cut timber on fragile western landscapes. Meanwhile, the EPA, headed by the former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, has weakened critical environmental laws and announced in March that it would cease oversight of the nation’s polluters during the Covid-19 crisis.

The rollbacks appear to follow a playbook put forth by influential conservative thinktanks, urging the White House to use the pandemic as justification for curtailing, or eliminating, environmental rules and oversight. President Trump should have “the ability to suspend costly regulations without extensive process”, according to a recent report by the Heritage Foundation.

Critics, such as Melyssa Watson, executive director of the Wilderness Society, accuse the administration of using the pandemic as a smokescreen to further its pro-industry agenda. “From rolling back EPA’s pollution standards, to pushing for more oil and gas drilling and stifling the public review process, the federal government is fast-tracking rollbacks that deserve public scrutiny,” she said.

While millions of acres of public lands across the country have been shuttered to visitors, they remain open to oil and gas companies. And despite plummeting oil prices, the Bureau of Land Management has announced no plans to cancel, or even scale back, upcoming auctions that would make hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands across the western US available to energy companies.

One of the most controversial sales would offer up 150,000 acres in southern Utah to energy companies. Some of the parcels are located within a half-mile of Canyonlands national park. The bureau did not respond to requests for comment.

Environmentalists, however, say that the push to drill near the iconic red rock landscapes of Arches and Canyonlands is not only destructive but also unnecessary in light of an oil glut that has swamped storage capacity, driving oil prices last week into negative territory for the first time in history.

“The idea that it would be ‘critical’ work to speed up oil production on public lands while the planet drowns in oil tells you all you’d ever want to know about the corruption, both intellectual and actual, of the Trump administration,” said the climate activist and author Bill McKibben.

In addition to ramping up oil and gas development on public lands, the Department of Energy announced plans last week to “revitalize” the US uranium mining and processing industry. Such a scheme, say environmentalists, puts uranium-rich Grand Canyon national park and Bears Ears national monument at extreme risk.

“Enriching special interests with taxpayer resources so they can plunder national treasures like Bears Ears and the Grand Canyon will harm our land, water and public health,” said America Fitzpatrick, a spokeswoman for the Wilderness Society. “To do so in the face of a global pandemic is an abuse of public trust.”

The water demands of the uranium industry are significant. Depending on the method of extraction, a mine can require hundreds, even thousands, of gallons per minute. Those requirements are particularly onerous considering that the largest uranium deposits are found in some of the most water-starved parts of the country.

Another rule change takes aim at the western forests. In March, the BLM announced a proposal that would allow the BLM and US Forest Service to destroy large parcels of piñon and juniper forests across the western US with minimal environmental review.

Other recent Trump administration actions threaten air and water quality and herald a drastic increase in carbon emissions. At the end of March, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to roll back Obama-era automobile fuel efficiency standards that would have increased the average fuel efficiency of the American vehicle fleet by more than 6 miles per gallon. Referred to by the EPA as “the largest deregulatory initiative of this administration”, the reduction in fuel efficiency standards will result in close to a billion additional tons of carbon emissions per year.

Days earlier, the EPA announced that it would suspend enforcement of environmental regulations during the Covid-19 outbreak, allowing industrial firms – from oil refineries to small manufacturers – to self-monitor and avoid penalties for violations if they can prove that those violations somehow resulted from the pandemic.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is a nationwide phenomenon,” the EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, wrote in a letter to Congress. “Diverting EPA staff time to respond to individual questions about routine monitoring and reporting requirements would hinder EPA’s ability to focus on continued protection of human health and the environment.”

Others see it differently: “This is an open license to pollute,” said the former EPA administrator and current National Resources Defense Council president Gina McCarthy. “The administration … is taking advantage of an unprecedented public health crisis to do favors for polluters that threaten public health.”

Opinion: McConnell’s threat is a warning for Social Security and Medicare

MarketWatch -Brett Arends’s ROI

Opinion: McConnell’s threat is a warning for Social Security and Medicare

By Brett Arends            April 30, 2020

Repudiating state retirement obligations is just the beginning

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: Bankruptcy before pension bailouts. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sparked a political firestorm last week when he said U.S. states should file for bankruptcy, if need be, rather than taking federal aid, which could amount to states scaling back or pulling the plug on their pension obligations.

“There’s not going to be any desire on the Republican side to bail out state pensions by borrowing money from future generations,” McConnell told conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt last week. “I would certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route,” he added.

So, the big retirement news of the moment is that the top Republican in Congress would prefer that public pensions default on their obligations to retirees. What’s more, he made the remarks on exactly the same day that Social Security and Medicare trustees warned their funds are going to be depleted before most middle-aged people ever see a nickel.

But the state pension systems are small potatoes compared with the real retirement story: Social Security and Medicare.

And McConnell was speaking just as the trustees of those two systems warned that they, too, are running out of money and will need a lot of extra cash. Just don’t call it a “bailout.”

Without extra money, Social Security will exhaust its trust funds in 15 years, the trustees warn. Medicare’s Hospital Insurance fund will be exhausted in just six.

Either taxes will have to be raised, the money will have to be borrowed, or Social Security and Medicare benefits will have to be cut. Without additional funds, the cuts to monthly Social Security checks would come to around 25% per person, the trustees warn. The average Social Security benefit is $1,400 a month. Cutting that by 25% would take it down to $1,150.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, the federal budget was a sea of red ink, The trump administration was already forecasting about $5 trillion in extra deficit spending between 2020 and 2025. The Congressional Budget Office was warning in January it expected the national debt to exceed $30 trillion by 2030. In 2016 it was $13 trillion.

McConnell’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.

The senate majority leader is already on record calling for ”adjustments” to Social Security and Medicare.

“I make no apologies,” he has said. “These very, very popular entitlement programs at some point are gonna have to be adjusted.”

If McConnell is re-elected this fall, his next senate term will last until 2026. If the GOP retains its majority he would in position to continue as majority leader at a time when the funding crisis over Social Security and Medicare may come to a head.

McConnell may paint federal spending in California, Illinois and New York as a “bailout” or “aid.” But those states make huge contributions to the federal budget every year. According to the Internal Revenue Service, Californians paid $457 billion in federal taxes in 2018, New Yorkers $281 billion and Illinoisans $161 billion.

The figure from Kentucky, McConnell’s state: Just $35 billion.

The average resident of Illinois paid 63% more in federal taxes than the average resident of Kentucky.

The Rockfeller Institute says Kentucky is the third biggest moocher off the federal taxpayer, getting back $2.40 in federal spending for every $1 it pays in taxes. The only states that get back more are Virginia and Maryland—in other words, suburbs of Washington, D.C.

McConnell’s campaign is currently boasting about all the federal aid he’s getting for the state.

“ICYMI: Kentucky Receives Billions To Combat Coronavirus,” his re-election site  says. “Thanks To Sen. McConnell, Billions In Relief Lifts Every Corner Of Kentucky,” it adds. And it continues:

“As our nation grapples with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, Sen. Mitch McConnell has worked to ensure Kentucky has the resources necessary to fight against this terrible disease…He recently announced that Kentucky families, workers, hospitals, and businesses will receive more than $2.7 billion in relief funds to combat this virus with even more to come for states and local communities across the U.S..”

Critics note that pension systems in states such as Illinois are subject to abuse, fraud, waste and worse.

Yet as the Utility Workers’ Union of America points out, pensions are not “gifts” from employers or taxpayers. “[T]hey are deferred compensation won at the bargaining table.”

A spokesman for the Illinois State Employees’ Retirement System admits that 2.5% of beneficiaries, or just under 2,000 out of around 75,000, collect more than $100,000 a year. But most of the recipients are teachers, police officers, firefighters and other middle-class individuals. While teachers’ have their own system, the average pension paid by SERS to everyone else is $38,826.

And if politicians are going to try and squeeze retirees making that, they’ll squeeze pretty much anybody.

Here are the largest public companies taking payroll loans meant for small businesses

CNBC – Markets

KEY POINTS
  • Hundreds of millions of dollars of Paycheck Protection Program funds have been claimed by large, publicly traded companies.
  • In fact, the U.S. government has allocated at least $243.4 million of the total $349 billion to publicly traded companies, according to Morgan Stanley.
  • Several of the companies have market values well in excess of $100 million, including DMC Global, Wave Life Sciences and Fiesta Restaurant Group.
20200421 PPPloans to private companies

Hundreds of millions of dollars of Paycheck Protection Program emergency funding has been claimed by large, publicly traded companies, new research published by Morgan Stanley shows.

In fact, the U.S. government has allocated at least $243.4 million of the total $349 billion to publicly traded companies, the firm said.

The PPP was designed to help the nation’s smallest, mom-and-pop shops keep employees on payroll and prevent mass layoffs across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.

New virus aid bill includes $251 billion in PPP, $60 billion to small lenders

But the research shows that several of the companies that have received aid have market values well in excess of $100 million, including DMC Global ($405 million), Wave Life Sciences ($286 million) and Fiesta Restaurant Group ($189 million). Fiesta, which employs more than 10,000 people, according to its last reported annual number, received a PPP loan of $10 million, Morgan Stanley’s data showed.

At least 75 companies that have received the aid were publicly traded and received a combined $300 million in low-interest, taxpayer-backed loans, according to a separate report published by The Associated Press.

“I think you’ve seen some pretty shameful acts by some large companies to take advantage of the system,” said Howard Schultz, former Starbucks chairman and CEO. Instead, the government should act “as a backstop for the banks to give every small business and every independent restaurant a bridge to the vaccine. And that is the money and the resources to make it through.”

Statistics released by the Small Business Administration last week showed that 4,400 of the approved loans exceeded $5 million. The size of the typical loan nationally was $206,000, according to the SBA report released April 16.

The SBA awarded the plurality of PPP dollars (13.12%) to the construction industry. Professional, scientific and technical services received 12.65%, manufacturing received 11.96%, health care received 11.65% and accommodation and food services received 8.9%.

Congress approved the first-come-first-served PPP in March as part of the massive $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which at the time promised to ease some of the financial burden for many of the nation’s smallest business owners. But the program ran out of money on Thursday, when the SBA announced that it was “unable to accept new applications for the Paycheck Protection Program based on available appropriations funding.”

GP: President Trump Participates In America CARES: Small Business Relief Update
President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (L) participate in a video conference with representatives of large banks and credit card companies about more financial assistance for small businesses in the Roosevelt Room at the White House April 07, 2020 in Washington, DC. Doug Mills | Getty Images

 

The nation’s top lawmakers have in recent weeks worked to expand the small-business funding.

Staffers for Sen. Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have been in talks with the Treasury Department on drafting another bill, which appeared nearly finished by Monday evening.

Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, said Tuesday that he believes the chamber will pas an aditional relief bill for small businesses later in the day.

Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti on returning $10M government loan

He told CNN he spoke “well past midnight” with Pelosi, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and “came to an agreement on just about every issue.”

By Sunday, deliberations between Republicans and Democrats included setting aside $310 billion more into the PPP. Some $60 billion of that sum would be earmarked for rural and minority groups while $60 billion would go to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, a separate relief offered by the SBA for small businesses.

Mnuchin said the deal may include $75 billion in funding for health-care providers and hospitals and $25 billion for Covid-19 testing.

— CNBC’s Lauren Hirsch contributed reporting.

Click here to read more of CNBC’s coronavirus coverage.

George W. Bush in 2005: ‘If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare’

Good Morning America

George W. Bush in 2005: ‘If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare’

Matthew Mosk, Good Morning America           
George W. Bush paved way for global pandemic planning
ABC News Videos

In the summer of 2005, President George W. Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, when he began flipping through an advanced copy of a new book about the 1918 flu pandemic. He couldn’t put it down.

When he returned to Washington, he called his top homeland security adviser into the Oval Office and gave her the galley of historian John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” which told the chilling tale of the mysterious plague that “would kill more people than the outbreak of any other disease in human history.”

“You’ve got to read this,” Fran Townsend remembers the president telling her. “He said, ‘Look, this happens every 100 years. We need a national strategy.'”

Thus was born the nation’s most comprehensive pandemic plan — a playbook that included diagrams for a global early warning system, funding to develop new, rapid vaccine technology, and a robust national stockpile of critical supplies, such as face masks and ventilators, Townsend said.

The effort was intense over the ensuing three years, including exercises where cabinet officials gamed out their responses, but it was not sustained. Large swaths of the ambitious plan were either not fully realized or entirely shelved as other priorities and crises took hold.

PHOTO: President George W. Bush walks towards microphones to speak to the press, Dec. 22, 2005 at the White House. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: President George W. Bush walks towards microphones to speak to the press, Dec. 22, 2005 at the White House. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)

 

But elements of that effort have formed the foundation for the national response to the coronavirus pandemic underway right now.

“Despite politics, despite changes, when a crisis hits, you pull what you’ve got off the shelf and work from there,” Townsend said.

When Bush first told his aides he wanted to focus on the potential of a global pandemic, many of them harbored doubts.

“My reaction was — I’m buried. I’m dealing with counterterrorism. Hurricane season. Wildfires. I’m like, ‘What?'” Townsend said. “He said to me, ‘It may not happen on our watch, but the nation needs the plan.'”

Over the ensuing months, cabinet officials got behind the idea. Most of them had governed through the Sept. 11 terror attacks, so events considered unlikely but highly-impactful had a certain resonance.

“There was a realization that it’s no longer fantastical to raise scenarios about planes falling from the sky, or anthrax arriving in the mail,” said Tom Bossert, who worked in the Bush White House and went on to serve as Homeland Security secretary in the Trump administration. “It was not a novel. It was the world we were living.”

According to Bossert, who is now an ABC News consultant, Bush did not just insist on preparation for a pandemic. He was obsessed with it.

“He was completely taken by the reality that that was going to happen,” Bossert said.

PHOTO: Anthony S. Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease for National Institutes for Health, listens to questions during a hearing of the House International Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, Dec. 7, 2005 in Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE)

In a November 2005 speech at the National Institutes of Health, Bush laid out proposals in granular detail — describing with stunning prescience how a pandemic in the United States would unfold. Among those in the audience was Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leader of the current crisis response, who was then and still is now the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire,” Bush said at the time. “If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.”

The president recognized that an outbreak was a different kind of disaster than the ones the federal government had been designed to address.

“To respond to a pandemic, we need medical personnel and adequate supplies of equipment,” Bush said. “In a pandemic, everything from syringes to hospital beds, respirators masks and protective equipment would be in short supply.”

Bush told the gathered scientists that they would need to develop a vaccine in record time.

“If a pandemic strikes, our country must have a surge capacity in place that will allow us to bring a new vaccine on line quickly and manufacture enough to immunize every American against the pandemic strain,” he said.

PHOTO: Fran Townsend, President Bush's adviser on Homeland Security, answers questions at a White House press briefing on the reorganization of the Homeland Security system, June 29, 2005, in Washington D.C. (Dennis Brack/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE)

 

Bush set out to spend $7 billion building out his plan. His cabinet secretaries urged their staffs to take preparations seriously. The government launched a website, www.pandemicflu.gov, that is still in use today. But as time passed, it became increasingly difficult to justify the continued funding, staffing and attention, Bossert said.

“You need to have annual budget commitment. You need to have institutions that can survive any one administration. And you need to have leadership experience,” Bossert said. “All three of those can be effected by our wonderful and unique form of government in which you transfer power every four years.”

Bush declined, through a spokesman, to comment on the unfolding crisis or discuss the current response. But his remarks from 15 years ago still resonate.

“If we wait for a pandemic to appear,” he warned, “it will be too late to prepare. And one day many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today.”