Thursday, April 7, 2016

How the United States Became a Prisoner of War and Congress Went MIA

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Let’s face it: in times of war, the Constitution tends to take a beating. With the safety or survival of the nation said to be at risk, the basic law of the land—otherwise considered sacrosanct—becomes nonbinding, subject to being waived at the whim of government authorities who are impatient, scared, panicky, or just plain pissed off.

The examples are legion.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln arbitrarily suspended the writ of habeas corpus and ignored court orders that took issue with his authority to do so. After U.S. entry into World War I, the administration of Woodrow Wilson mounted a comprehensive effort to crush dissent, shutting down anti-war publications in complete disregard of the First Amendment. Amid the hysteria triggered by Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order consigning to concentration camps more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans, many of them native-born citizens. Asked in 1944 to review this gross violation of due process, the Supreme Court endorsed the government’s action by a 6-3 vote. 

More often than not, the passing of the emergency induces second thoughts and even remorse. The further into the past a particular war recedes, the more dubious the wartime arguments for violating the Constitution appear. Americans thereby take comfort in the “lessons learned” that will presumably prohibit any future recurrence of such folly.

Even so, the onset of the next war finds the Constitution once more being ill-treated.  We don’t repeat past transgressions, of course.  Instead, we devise new ones.  So it has been during the ongoing post-9/11 period of protracted war.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States embraced tortureas an instrument of policy in clear violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.  Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, ordered theextrajudicial killingof an American citizen, a death by drone that was visibly in disregard of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.  Both administrations—Bush’s with gusto, Obama’s with evident regret—imprisoned individuals for years on end without charge and without anything remotely approximating the “speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.  Should the present state of hostilities ever end, we can no doubt expect Guantánamo to become yet another source of “lessons learned” for future generations of rueful Americans.

Congress on the Sidelines

Yet one particular check-and-balance constitutional proviso now appears exempt from this recurring phenomenon of disregard followed by professions of dismay, embarrassment, and “never again-ism” once the military emergency passes.  I mean, of course, Article I, section 8 of the Constitution, which assigns to Congress the authority “to declare war” and still stands as testimony to the genius of those who drafted it.  There can be no question that the responsibility for deciding when and whether the United States should fight resides with the legislative branch, not the executive, and that this was manifestly the intent of the Framers.

On parchment at least, the division of labor appears straightforward.  The president’s designation as commander-in-chief of the armed forces in no way implies a blanket authorization to employ those forces however he sees fit or anything faintly like it.  Quite the contrary: legitimizing presidential command requires explicit congressional sanction.

Actual practice has evolved into something altogether different.  The portion of Article I, Section 8, cited above has become a dead letter, about as operative as blue laws still on the books in some American cities and towns that purport to regulate Sabbath day activities.  Superseding the written text is an unwritten counterpart that goes something like this: with legislators largely consigned to the status of observers, presidents pretty much wage war whenever, wherever, and however they see fit.  Whether the result qualifies as usurpation or forfeiture is one of those chicken-and-egg questions that’s interesting but practically speaking beside the point.

This is by no means a recent development.  It has a history.  In the summer of 1950, when President Harry Truman decided that a U.N. Security Council resolution provided sufficient warrant for him to order U.S. forces to fight in Korea, congressional war powers took a hit from which they would never recover.

Congress soon thereafter bought into the notion, fashionable during the Cold War, that formal declarations of hostilities had become passé.  Waging the “long twilight struggle” ostensibly required deference to the commander-in-chief on all matters related to national security.  To sustain the pretense that it still retained some relevance, Congress took to issuing what were essentially permission slips, granting presidents maximum freedom of action to do whatever they might decide needed to be done in response to the latest perceived crisis. 

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964 offers a notable example.  With near unanimity, legislators urged President Lyndon Johnson “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” across the length and breadth of Southeast Asia.  Through the magic of presidential interpretation, a mandate to prevent aggression provided legal cover for an astonishingly brutaland aggressive war in Vietnam, as well as Cambodia and Laos.  Under the guise of repelling attacks on U.S. forces, Johnson and his successor, Richard Nixon, thrust millions of American troops into a war they could not win, even if more than 58,000 died trying.

To leap almost four decades ahead, think of the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that was passed by Congress in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as the grandchild of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.  This document required (directed, called upon, requested, invited, urged) President George W. Bush “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.”  In plain language: here’s a blank check; feel free to fill it in any way you like.

Forever War

As a practical matter, one specific individual—Osama bin Laden—had hatched the 9/11 plot.  A single organization—al-Qaeda—had conspired to pull it off.  And just one nation—backward, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—had provided assistance, offering sanctuary to bin Laden and his henchmen.  Yet nearly 15 years later, the AUMF remains operative and has become the basis for military actions against innumerable individuals, organizations, and nations with no involvement whatsoever in the murderous events of September 11, 2001.

Consider the following less than comprehensive list of four developments, all of which occurred just within the last month and a half:

*In Yemen, a U.S. airstrike killedat least 50 individuals, said to be members of an Islamist organization that did not exist on 9/11.

*In Somalia, another U.S. airstrike killeda reported 150 militants, reputedly members of al-Shabab, a very nasty outfit, even if one with no real agenda beyond Somalia itself.

*In Syria, pursuant to the campaign of assassination that is the latest spin-off of the Iraq War, U.S. special operations forces bumped offthe reputed “finance minister” of the Islamic State, another terror group that didn’t even exist in September 2001.

*In Libya, according to press reports, the Pentagon is again gearing upfor “decisive military action”—that is, a new round of air strikes and special operations attacks to quell the disorder resulting from the U.S.-orchestrated air campaign that in 2011 destabilized that country. An airstrike conducted in late February gave a hint of what is to come: it killedapproximately 50 Islamic State militants (and possiblytwo Serbian diplomatic captives).

Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Libya share at least this in common: none of them, nor any of the groups targeted, had a hand in the 9/11 attacks.

Imagine if, within a matter of weeks, China were to launch raids into Vietnam, Thailand, and Taiwan, with punitive action against the Philippines in the offing.  Or if Russia, having given a swift kick to Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, leaked its plans to teach Poland a lesson for mismanaging its internal affairs.  Were Chinese President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin to order such actions, the halls of Congress would ring with fierce denunciations.  Members of both houses would jostle for places in front of the TV cameras to condemn the perpetrators for recklessly violating international law and undermining the prospects for world peace.  Having no jurisdiction over the actions of other sovereign states, senators and representatives would break down the doors to seize the opportunity to get in their two cents worth.  No one would be able to stop them. Who does Xi think he is! How dare Putin!

Yet when an American president undertakes analogous actions over which the legislative branch does have jurisdiction, members of Congress either yawn or avert their eyes. 

In this regard, Republicans are especially egregious offenders.  On matters where President Obama is clearly acting in accordance with the Constitution—for example, in nominating someone to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court—they spare no effort to thwart him,concoctingbizarre arguments nowhere found in the Constitution to justify their obstructionism. Yet when this same president cites the 2001 AUMF as the basis for initiating hostilities hither and yon, something that is on the face of it not legal but ludicrous, they passively assent.

Indeed, when Obama in 2015 went so far as to ask Congress to pass a new AUMF addressing the specific threat posed by the Islamic State—that is, essentially rubberstamping the war he had already launchedon his own in Syria and Iraq—the Republican leadership took no action.  Looking forward to the day when Obama departs office, Senator Mitch McConnell with his trademark hypocrisy worried aloudthat a new AUMF might constrain his successor.  The next president will “have to clean up this mess, created by all of this passivity over the last eight years,” the majority leader remarked.  In that regard, “an authorization to use military force that ties the president’s hands behind his back is not something I would want to do.” The proper role of Congress was to get out of the way and give this commander-in-chief carte blanche so that the next one would enjoy comparably unlimited prerogatives.

Collaborating with a president they roundly despise—implicitly concurring in Obama’s questionable claim that “existing statutes [already] provide me with the authority I need” to make war on ISIS—the GOP-controlled Congress thereby transformed the post-9/11 AUMF into what has now become, in effect, a writ of permanent and limitless armed conflict.  In Iraq and Syria, for instance, what began as a limited but open-ended campaign of air strikes authorized by President Obama in August 2014 has expanded to include an ever-larger contingent of U.S. trainers and advisers for the Iraqi military, special operations forcesconducting raidsin both Iraq and Syria, the first new all-U.S. forward fire basein Iraq, and at least 5,000U.S. military personnel now on the ground, a number that continues to grow incrementally.

Remember Barack Obama campaigning back in 2008 and solemnly pledging to end the Iraq War?  What he neglected to mention at the time was that he was retaining the prerogative to plunge the country into another Iraq War on his own ticket.  So has he now done, with members of Congress passively assenting and the country essentially a prisoner of war.

By now, through its inaction, the legislative branch has, in fact, surrendered the final remnant of authority it retained on matters relating to whether, when, against whom, and for what purpose the United States should go to war.  Nothing now remains but to pay the bills, which Congress routinely does, citing a solemn obligation to “support the troops.”  In this way does the performance of lesser duties provide an excuse for shirking far greater ones.

In military circles, there is a term to describe this type of behavior. It’s called cowardice.


Panama Papers revelation triggers political crises around the globe

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The global fallout from the Panama Papers continued to expand Wednesday, as new revelations about the tax arrangements of British Prime Minister David Cameron increased pressure on his government and other world leaders came under scrutiny.
The release of reports based on 11.5 million documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca by 100 media outlets around the world in alliance with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has exposed once again the criminal practices at the heart of global capitalism. High profile figures from around the world have been affected, with a total of 72 current and former heads of state cited as having offshore accounts.
A full-scale political crisis continued to deepen in Iceland Wednesday in the wake of the resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson the previous day. The government stated later Tuesday that Gunnlaugsson had only stepped aside temporarily, and would resume his duties at some unspecified time. The revelations implicate broader sections of the ruling elite, including the leader of Gunnlaugsson’s coalition partner, the Independence Party.
Criticism of UK Prime Minister Cameron grew after the Daily Telegraph reported that Blairmore, his father’s offshore firm, moved its office from Panama to Ireland in 2010 to evade examination of its tax affairs. Ireland has notoriously low corporation tax rates, which are rarely paid in full by companies.
Blairmore managed tens of millions of pounds on behalf of wealthy families. According to the Guardian, it has never paid a penny in income tax in the UK during its over 30 years of operations.
The Prime Minister’s office initially responded by declaring the matter a “private affair.” Apparently contradicting earlier statements that Cameron owned no shares in offshore companies, Downing Street issued a carefully worded statement yesterday claiming that the Prime Minister would not enjoy any future benefits from such entities. “There are no offshore funds/trusts which the Prime Minister, Mrs. Cameron or their children will benefit from in future,” a spokesman said.
The Guardian reported that the reference to “offshore firms” may have been chosen because it does not apply to Ireland, even though its tax rates are almost as low as offshore tax havens.
The Panama Papers are merely the tip of the iceberg. As the Wall Street Journal acknowledged yesterday, the offshore industry has “thrived” over recent years. According to the Boston Consulting Group, private wealth directed into tax havens grew by 7 percent in 2014, reaching the remarkable sum of $11 trillion. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of companies registered in the seven largest tax havens, which include the British Virgin Islands and crown dependency of Jersey, rose by 7 percent to 672,500.
This coincides with the period during which governments of all stripes around the world launched an unprecedented assault on the wages and living standards of the working class to pay for the billions made available to bail out the banks in the wake of the global economic meltdown of 2008. While millions of workers around the globe paid for the speculative activities of the financial elite by being plunged into poverty and unemployment, the global financial oligarchy enriched itself still further by stashing additional billions in tax havens.
Some estimates go even higher. The Tax Justice Network, a research and advocacy organization, estimated that between 8 and 13 percent of total global wealth is stored in tax havens, equating to between $21 and $32 trillion. This does not even include onshore domestic tax shelters, such as the states of Delaware and Wyoming in the United States.
Last October, Blackstone Group LP, the world’s largest private equity firm, valued Intertrust NV, a company that sets up and services companies, trusts and investment funds in tax havens, at $1.5 billion in an IPO. Intertrust’s revenue rose by 17 percent last year.
Britain is a major player in the global offshore industry, being second only to Hong Kong in the number of entities engaged in such activities.
The pressure building on the British government was demonstrated when Chancellor George Osbourne broke off a television interview after a reporter repeatedly asked him to clarify whether he had any interests in offshore firms. The Treasury later sought to claim the interview had not been cut short, but that the agreed upon number of questions had been posed.
The revelations have revived a scandal that first broke last July over Osbourne’s involvement in a property deal with a developer based in a tax haven, which netted his family business £6 million.
The first reported police action resulting from the Panama Papers occurred Wednesday afternoon when Swiss authorities raided the offices of the European Football federation UEFA in Nyon. Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported that UEFA sold the rights to some of its competitions to offshore firm Cross Trading in 2006, which subsequently resold the rights for a much higher price. The story implicates current FIFA head Gianni Infantino, who was chief legal officer for UEFA at the time. Infantino recently replaced FIFA President Sep Blatter and was portrayed as a clean pair of hands.
UEFA denied selling the broadcast rights below the market price.
The revelations have also hit political leaders in other countries. Investigations linked to the Panama Papers have been launched in Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Argentinian President Mauricio Macri is accused of involvement in two firms based in the Bahamas and Panama. Macri did not list his involvement with either company when he became mayor of Buenos Aires in 2007 or president last year.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, a close ally of Washington and the NATO powers in their geostrategic offensive against Russia in Eastern Europe, set up a firm in the British Virgin Islands upon becoming president in 2014 to manage his chocolate business. According to opposition politicians, this move deprived the country of millions in unpaid taxes.
Major US figures have been conspicuous by their absence from the lists of clients of Mossack Fonseca. This is primarily due to the fact that many tax havens exist domestically, such as in the state of Delaware, where one office building is home to 285,000 companies.
US President Barack Obama seized on the Panama Papers to portray his administration as an opponent of tax evasion. In a press conference Tuesday, he applauded new regulations put forward by the Treasury Department with the aim of preventing corporate inversions by companies active in the US, a process whereby a firm’s headquarters is moved overseas for tax purposes so as to benefit from tax havens.
“We’ve had another reminder in this big dump of data coming out of Panama that tax avoidance is a big, global problem,” Obama declared. “It’s not unique to other countries. A lot of it is legal, but that’s exactly the problem. It’s not that they’re breaking the laws, it’s that the laws are so poorly designed.”
Obama’s hand-wringing comes from the head of a government that has done all it can to shield the criminal practices of the financial elite in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown, in which US-based firms played the leading role with speculative and outright criminal practices.
The impunity enjoyed by the financial elite allowed them to return to business as usual. As the Wall Street Journal noted yesterday, many local service providers in tax havens were bought up by banks in the wake of 2008, helping consolidate the offshore financial industry.
One of the privately-controlled firms engaged in this highly secretive industry, Citco Group, was compelled to pay $125 million in compensation to investors last year after it emerged it had administered funds for Bernard L. Madoff, who was convicted for running one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history.
Questions have been raised about the involvement of US authorities in prominently featured information targeting Russian oligarchs with close ties to President Vladimir Putin. WikiLeaks alleged yesterday that USAID funded a news story accusing members of Putin’s inner circle for running an offshore tax operation.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for WikiLeaks, also criticized the decision by the ICIJ not to release all of the information, citing “responsible journalism.” “I totally disagree with the overall tone of that,” he told Russia Today. He urged all of the information to be made publicly available.

Panama Papers - Imperialism, political corruption and the real face of capitalism

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The “Panama Papers” claimed its first casualty Tuesday, when Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson was forced to resign following protests by thousands of people in the country’s capital.
The documents, released Sunday by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), revealed that Gunnlaugsson had failed to disclose his holdings in an offshore shell company that allowed his family to profit from the bailout of Iceland’s banks after the 2008 financial crisis.
The widening global scandal threatens to engulf UK Prime Minister David Cameron. He faces demands that he release his tax records following reports by leading newspapers, basing themselves on the “Panama Papers” documents, that his father, Ian Cameron, held shares in an offshore corporation.
Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian legal firm at the heart of the scandal, made millions of dollars helping politicians and the super-rich stash their money and hide it to evade taxation. Its operations are a testament to the pervasive role of tax dodges, money laundering schemes, corporate slush funds and political kickbacks in the day-to-day economic and political life of the world’s leading “democracies.”
The ICIJ report has implicated 140 public officials around the world, including 12 current and former heads of government, as well as 29 billionaires listed in Forbesmagazine’s ranking of the planet’s 500 richest people.
While relatively few Americans have been named in connection with the documents, experts have told media outlets that the services provided by Mossack Fonseca are readily available in domestic tax havens such as the state of Delaware. One small office building in that state is the nominal home of 285,000 separate businesses, including Fortune 500 companies Apple Computer, Coca-Cola and JPMorgan Chase, as well as an untold number of shell companies belonging to run-of-the-mill fraudsters, smugglers and financial criminals.
None of the ICIJ’s revelations will come as a surprise to financial regulators, who have ample documentation showing that major financial institutions have facilitated tax evasion and money laundering operations for decades.
In 2012, the British bank HSBC was fined $1.9 billion for having laundered money for Mexican drug cartels. However, a 2015 leak by the ICIJ documented the fact that the bank subsequently continued similar operations unhindered. It essentially ran its Swiss private banking arm as a back alley tax evasion service, handing its wealthy clients “bricks” of hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign denominations to help them avoid taxes.
The ICIJ’s revelations come as politicians, including those like Cameron, who are implicated in the scandal, insist there is no money to pay for the most essential social services. The international financial elite and its bribed political stooges are allowed to dodge taxes by stashing their wealth in offshore havens right under the noses of financial regulators, while the working class is told it must accept worsening poverty and deprivation.
It is now a century since the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin described the imperialist epoch as a stage of capitalism in which finance capital dominates, giving rise to a “new financial aristocracy” characterized by “corruption, bribery on a huge scale and all kinds of fraud.”
The processes Lenin was describing were at the time only in their infancy. They have vastly matured and expanded in the ensuing period. A criminal financial elite has bankrupted the world economy, stealing unimaginable sums by means of speculation and parasitism and operating outside of any legal restraint.
In contemporary capitalism, it has become a truism that political office is a path to great personal wealth and entry into the financial elite. One need only look at the 2016 US elections to see this principle in action.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, has, together with her ex-president husband, made over $140 million in the eight years since the 2008 financial crash. She garnered a substantial portion of this wealth in speaking fees from major corporations and banks. In the first 15 months after she left her post as secretary of state in 2012, Clinton received $5 million in speaking fees, putting her squarely in the top 0.1 percent of income earners. Such payouts are, in the world of American politics, nothing more than a form of legalized bribery.
The $140 million pocketed by the Clinton household, and the millions more funneled into their foundation, are nothing less than payment for services rendered to the financial elite.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. In February 2015, the Guardian reported, based on the 2015 ICIJ report, that Hillary Clinton and her family had received “as much as $81 million from wealthy international donors who were clients of HSBC’s controversial Swiss bank.”
In an editorial posted Tuesday evening, the New York Times asks rhetorically, “How did all these politicians, dictators, criminals, billionaires and celebrities amass vast wealth and then benefit from elaborate webs of shell companies to disguise their identities and their assets?”
The newspaper bemoans the “dangerous… damage to democratic rule and regional stability when corrupt politicians have a place to stash stolen national assets out of public view.” It asks, “After these revelations, will anything change?”
The Times knows very well the answers to its rhetorical questions. The crimes documented in the “Panama Papers” have occurred because governments and financial regulators, entirely under the thumb of the financial elite, serve not as checks upon the criminal activities of the global financial oligarchy, but rather as co-conspirators. To the extent that these matters are left to capitalist governments, nothing will change. The latest ICIJ findings will be buried in exactly the same manner as its earlier reports.
The task of cleaning the Augean stables of capitalism’s billionaire oligarchs, corrupt politicians and criminal CEOs requires the building of a socialist movement of the working class in opposition to the present social order. The “Panama Papers” illuminate a basic reality: Parasitism, criminality and corruption are not warts on the face of capitalism, they are the face of capitalism.