On December 30th, U.S. Senators voted 80 to 12 not to increase the Covid-19 relief one-time payments from $600 per qualifying person, to $2,000. The same bill had already passed, December 28th, in the U.S. House, by a vote of 322 to 87.
Here is how the great investigative-reporting team of David Sirota and Andrew Perez reported this on December 31st, under the headline “Senate Democrats’ Motion To Concede On $2,000 Checks”,
Only six members of the Senate Democratic Caucus mustered the courage to vote against [Republican leader Mitch] McConnell’s maneuver — [Bernie] Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Chris Van Hollen, Jeff Merkley, Ed Markey and Ron Wyden. Democratic senators in fact provided the majority of the votes for the measure that lets the defense bill proceed without a vote on the $2,000 checks. …
Liberal Economists And Pundits Gave McConnell His Talking Points
McConnell’s crusade to stop direct aid was abetted not only by Senate Democrats’ surrender, but also by media elites who loyally represent the party’s corporate wing and who began promoting canned talking points to undermine the direct aid.
First came a barrage of attacks on the $2,000 checks initiative from [Lawrence] Summers, a former hedge fund executive who as President Barack Obama’s national economic director stymied the push for more stimulus after the 2008 financial crisis.
Then the New York Times’ Paul Krugman pretended the wildly popular initiative is “divisive” and said “the economics aren’t very good.” Timesman Tom Friedman, who married into a real estate empire, called the idea “crazy” and fretted that checks might go to “people who don’t need the help.” The minions of billionaire Michael Bloomberg joined in with a house editorial demanding Congress block the checks.
Meanwhile, only weeks after the Washington Post news page told the harrowing tales of rising poverty and starvation in America, the paper’s editorial board argued against stimulus by insisting that “the economy has healed significantly.”
The Post — which is owned by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos — argued against the $2,000 checks by saying it is unjust that some rich people might in theory end up benefiting from the proposal. …
All of this noise was quickly weaponized by McConnell, who in a Senate floor speech directly cited Summers and the Post as justification to stop the $2,000 checks to the two thirds of households in his own state who would benefit.
“The liberal economist Larry Summers, President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary and President Obama’s NEC director says, ‘There’s no good economic argument for universal $2,000 checks at this moment.’ McConnell said, adding: “Even the liberal Washington Post today is laughing at the political left demanding more huge giveaways with no relationship to actual need.”
Basically, what Sirota and Perez were reporting is that with the exception of only 12 members in the U.S. Senate and 87 members in the U.S. House, all members of the U.S. Congress are owned 100% by America’s billionaires.
Those billionaires also own and control America’s 100 corporations that sell the most to the U.S. Government and to its allies, firms such as Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, which derive all or most of their sales — and especially their profits — from selling to those governments, and which therefore are obsessed to keep ‘defense’-spending high (and organization such as NATO going). Since these same people also donate the most to America’s politicians, one can now say that their corporations, and especially the ones which sell the most to the U.S. Government, effectively own the U.S. Government, and are the actual constituency that every U.S. President, and almost every member of the U.S. Congress, represents above all. Consequently, attaching the $600 Covid-19 relief payment, instead of the $2,000 amount, to the annual ‘defense’-spending bill, assured that the $1,400-per-person difference would be able to be spent on companies such as Lockheed Martin, and go into the pockets of America’s billionaires — the people who really count, to ‘democratically’ elected U.S. Government officials.
Whereas the overt, the official, position of the Republican Party was opposing the proposal to increase the $600 to $2,000, the overt, the official, position of the Democratic Party was to support that increase. Why, then, did only 6 of the 46 Democratic Senators (including the ‘independent’ Bernie Sanders) vote in favor of that official position, and only 20 of the 233 Democratic Representatives vote in favor of it? It certainly wasn’t being done in order to please their electorate.
The proposal to increase the $600 to $2,000 was supported by 78% of Americans and opposed by only 17%; so, if the Congress were authentically democratic instead of aristocratic, then the proposal would have passed overwhelmingly. But it’s not. Nor is the U.S. House democratic. And why are they not? (Furthermore, even 73% of Republicans in that nationwide poll supported the proposal to raise the $600 to $2,000; so, even their Party’s official position on this was hostile toward themselves. The only difference between Republican politicians and Democratic politicians is that Democratic ones are lots more hypocritical, claiming that they support ‘workers and regular people’ instead of only their own megadonors.)
On December 31st, The Hill bannered, “Graham calls for stand-alone vote on $2K checks” and reported that,
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) broke with his party’s Senate leader Thursday, calling for a stand-alone vote on $2,000 stimulus checks.
“If you had a stand-alone vote on the $2,000 check, it might pass,” Graham said while appearing on “Fox & Friends.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has knocked the prospect of raising the stimulus checks that are going out to many Americans from $600 to $2,000, vowing the Senate would not pass a stand-alone bill increasing the amount. President Trump has pushed for the increase and the House passed one earlier this week, but most Senate Republicans are wary.
“The Senate is not going to be bullied into rushing out more borrowed money into the hands of Democrats’ rich friends who don’t need the help,” McConnell said.
(The $1,400 difference wouldn’t go to the American people, he was implying: it would instead go “into the hands of Democrats’ rich friends.”)
(Graham’s top donor was the “Republican Jewish Coalition” — extremely wealthy supporters of Israel, the nation that America’s taxpayers already donate $3.8 billion per year to, for it to purchase weapons from the U.S. — and second was employees of the U.S. Department of Defense, which likewise benefits from Senator Graham’s consistent neoconservatism. Fifth was Boeing, which is the second-largest ‘defense’ contractor, after only Lockheed. So: why was he ‘fighting for the little man’ here? It was only theater, to satisfy the voters back home, who need the extra $1,400 far more than Graham’s megadonors do.)
America’s billionaires despise the American public and control both of the political Parties. In fact, at the Presidential level, each contest is always between a Republican nominee and a Democratic nominee, both of whom have been approved by the given Party’s billionaires. The billionaires have an effective veto-power over the nominees of both of the Parties. If the billionaires don’t like a given candidate in the primaries, then not only will that candidate get none of their money, but all of the billionaire-owned-and-or-controlled media will be against that candidate and will spread hostile ‘news’-reports against that person. The public are fooled, because however much the billionaires need to spend in order to fool them, it will be done. Owning the Government is seen by them as being their right, just as has always been the case in every aristocracy throughout history. The difference is that, in America, the billionaires’ Government and their press call this a ‘democracy’, so as to fool the public even more. Only if the American public come to recognize that it’s definitely not a democracy (it’s even a police-state but the billionaires hide that fact from the public) will there be a revolution against the billionaires. However, the billionaires control the public’s mind; so, a second American Revolution — this time to defeat not Britain’s aristocrats but America’s — appears to be impossible. It certainly wouldn’t be supported by any successful American politician. That’s the basic difference between 1776 America and 2021 America. Overthrowing a foreign aristocracy is far easier than overthrowing a domestic one.
This is the reason why the poor, who get hardest hit by plagues and who are getting especially hard hit by Covid-19 in America, will now increasingly become homeless and die. And they’ll be getting the least help.
On December 30th, David Wallace-Wells at New York magazine bannered “America’s Vaccine Rollout Is Already a Disaster” and documented that when compared against UK and Israel — neither of which is among the world’s relatively successful countries at restraining this virus — the U.S. is doing vastly worse than those (unsuccessful) countries at distributing vaccines against it. (Since that magazine is owned by the family of a Democratic billionaire, its report actually ignored all of the countries that have performed effectively against the virus, because none of the best performers were allied with U.S. billionaires. The news-report was true, but was aimed against the Republican Party — specifically the Republican President — instead of opposing the entire American Government, which is actually to blame. It’s partisan propaganda, but truthful — as far as it goes. Even truthful propaganda like that, however, is harmful, because it’s not criticizing the source of the problem, which is all of America’s billionaires — the people who control the U.S. Government. None of them even cares about the source of America’s problem, because they are part of it, and won’t oppose it.)
U.S. actually has even higher percentages of its population infected with Covid-19, and higher percentages dying from it, than Brazil — an infamous basket-case. If this isn’t a pre-revolutionary situation, then nothing could be. How much longer will Americans be deceived, and tolerate this — this “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor”?
On January 1st, the same reporting team of Sirota and Perez headlined “Schumer Begins 2021 Promising To Fight — Then Immediately Surrenders”, and described how the Democratic leader in the Senate, Senator Schumer, had been promising that “Democrats will not stop fighting” for the $2,000 figure, and within hours cooperated with Republicans to block it from being passed. The reporters concluded:
Schumer doesn’t want any of this out in the open — he wants everyone to think he and his caucus are doing all they can to actually fight for the things they insist they support. But the mask is now off — this morning, he showed what’s really going on here.
Whether or not anyone wants to look at what he showed us remains an open question. The situation is demoralizing, and there is an entire misinformation infrastructure of cable TV news and partisan punditry designed to avert our eyes.
Almost all Democrats in Congress had merely been playing the ‘good cop’ to their Republican counterparts’ ‘bad cop’, in order to get that money to the Pentagon instead of to the public. Getting it to the public would be ‘waste, fraud, and abuse’, but getting it to the Pentagon — the most corrupt Department in an extremely corrupt Government — would be ‘essential for national security’.
Going back and forth between Democrats and Republicans will no longer work and hasn’t worked for a long time now; it has become a dead end, because neither Party is, any longer, either democratic or republican. The problem isn’t the Constitution; it is the individuals who have hired the personnel, in all branches of the U.S. Government, to transform that Constitution into just a piece of parchment and to defile its meaning by lies. That can happen even to the best of constitutions. America now is a limited democracy only on parchment, no longer in practice. It’s a dictatorship (by the billionaires) in practice. This time around, a revolution won’t require a new constitution. It requires, instead, merely new personnel. And that’s a fact. Changing the Constitution won’t get us out of this mess. The problem is more drastic, even though a new Constitution won’t be required. New Amendments (such as, perhaps, this) will be required, but a new Constitution won’t. And those Amendments will be propagandized against ferociously by America’s billionaires. So, all billionaires will need to be removed from power before it happens. Their stranglehold on the American mind must be ended first. Then, the issue of Amendments can be discussed.
Biden’s Dilemma: Caught Between Israel and Iran
By all indication, the latest sabotage at Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in Natanz aimed at more than just disabling thousands of Iran’s centrifuges and thus cause another setback for Iran’s nuclear program, it was also meant as an indirect diplomatic sabotage vis-a-vis the on-going nuclear talks in Vienna; the latter had shown real signs of progress before the April 10th incident at the Natanz facility, blamed on Israel by the Iranian officials, who have vowed to get revenge — an attack on an Israeli cargo ship off the coast of Oman as well as an attack on an Israeli post in Iraq’s Kurdistan may indeed be the acts of Iranian retaliation.
But, from Iran’s vantage, the biggest response was the decision to upgrade the enrichment level from 20% to 60% percent, thus bringing Iran closer to the weapons grade enrichment, bound to raise the ire of Tel Aviv, which is intent on dispossessing Iran of nuclear weapons capability. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has followed suit by stating that Iran will not be dragged into a “protracted negotiation” with the US and that US’ removal of sanctions needs to be the first step in a future US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In turn, this raises the question of how will the Biden administration respond, and adjust to, the latest developments?
On the one hand, the Iranian setback in Natanz, widely interpreted inside Iran as a major “embarrassment,” as it is the second time in 9 months that Israel has successfully inflicted serious damage on the facility, weakens Iran’s hand at the table in Vienna, no matter how the Iran negotiators seek to spin the issue. With Iran’s vulnerability to “nuclear sabotage” irrefutably established, Tehran’s ability to utilize its nuclear chips in the bargaining with US has been diminished, perhaps for the duration of the current year, thus leading some conservative politicians to urge the government to withdraw from the Vienna talks.
On the other hand, it is by no means clear that the Biden administration favors Israel’s spoiler role, which might lead to an escalation of tensions in the region to the detriment of Biden’s determination to re-embrace the JCPOA as part and parcel of an Iran “re-thinking” policy at odds with his predecessor’s maximum pressure strategy. Chances are that, much like the Obama administration, the Biden administration will need to defy Israel’s will on Iran and push ahead for a new understanding with Tehran at a time Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and, to a lesser extent the Saudi rulers, are wary of Biden’s resurrection of Obama’s (perceived) conciliatory approach toward Iran. The big question is if President Biden is willing to act independently of Israel’s hawkish recipe for Iran and make meaningful concessions, above all in the area of post-2015 sanctions on Iran, in order to achieve its key demand of bringing Iran in compliance with its JCPOA obligations? Lest we forget, Obama’s defiance of Israel on the JCPOA caused a major rift benefiting the Republican Party opponents of the deal, such as Donald Trump, and so far there is little evidence that Biden is unmindful of that prior experience. In turn, this may explain the timing of US Defense Secretary Austin’s Israel visit coinciding with the Natanz sabotage, which may not have been coincidental as Israel most likely had informed Washington of the coming attack on Natanz beforehand.
Naturally, Tehran is irritated at Austin’s presence in Israel at that particular time and his expression of “ironclad support” for Israel instead of raising any criticism of nuclear terrorism against Iran, just as China and Russia have done. In fact, none of the Western governments, as well as the EU, partaking in the Vienna talks, have bothered to condemn the attack on Natanz, thus adding salt to Iran’s injury. Instead, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, dispensed with any criticism of Israel and confined himself to questioning Iran’s post-attack decision to increase the enrichment level, which he called “irresponsible.” But, is it really responsible for the US and European powers to refrain from condemning an act of sabotage with respect to a facility that, under the terms of JCPOA, is recognized to be the hub of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle? Germany, France, and England, as well as the European Union, ought to act in unison denouncing the acts of nuclear sabotage in Iran, irrespective of Israel’s prerogative. Their failure to do so simply adds another layer of distrust between Iran and these powers, to the detriment of any prospect for tangible progress in the Vienna talks.
As for Biden’s foreign team, which has reported of its “serious proposal” on the table, it must recognize that unless there is some pressure applied on Israel to stop its spoiler role, US’s national interests maybe harmed and even sacrificed by a hawkish Middle East ally that behaves according to its own calculation of risks to its interests. In a word, an Obamaian rift with Israel may indeed be both inescapable and inevitable for the Biden administration.
Roads and Rails for the U.S.
For those who expect the newly announced $2 trillion Biden infrastructure program to be a goodbye to potholes and hello to smooth-as-glass expressways, a disappointment is in store. The largest expenditure by far ($400 billion) is on home/community care, impacting the elderly or disabled. The $115 billion apportioned to roads and bridges is #4 on the list.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keeps tabs on our infrastructure and their latest report (2020) gave it an overall grade of C-. Although bridges worsened, this is a modest improvement on the previous report (2017) when the overall grade was D+. If $115 billion in spending sounds adequate, one has to remember it costs $27 billion annually for upkeep.
Astounding it might be the backlog in spending for roads and bridges runs at $12 billion annually. Go back 20 years and we have a quarter trillion shortfall. Add all the other areas of infrastructure and the ASCE comes up with a $5 trillion total. It is the gap between what we have been spending and what we need to. Also one has to bear in mind that neglect worsens condition and increases repair costs.
One notable example of maintenance is the Forth rail bridge in Scotland. A crisscross of beams forming three superstructures linked together, it was a sensation when opened in 1890 and now is a UN World Heritage Site. Spanning 1.5 miles, its upkeep requires a regular coat of paint. And that it gets. Rumor has it that when the unobtrusive painters reach the end of their task, it is time to start painting again the end where they began — a permanent job to be sure though new paints might have diminished such prospects.
Biden also proposes $80 billion for railways. Anyone who has travelled or lived in Europe knows the stark contrast between railroads there and in the U.S. European high-speed rail networks are growing from the established TGV in France to the new Spanish trains. Run by RENFE, the national railway, Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains run at speeds up to 310 km/h (193 mph) — a speed that amounts to a convenient overnight trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.
The hugely expensive new tracks needed can be considered a long-term investment in our children’s future. But it will take courage to contest the well-heeled lobbies of the airplane manufacturers, the airlines and big oil.
If Spain can have high-speed rail and if China already has some 24,000 miles of such track, surely the US too can opt for a system that is convenient for its lack of airport hassle and the hour wasted each way in the journey to or from the city center. Rail travel not only avoids both but is significantly less polluting.
Particularly bad, airplane pollution high above (26 to 43 thousand feet) results in greater ozone formation in the troposphere. In fact airplanes are the principal human cause of ozone formation.
Imagine a comfortable train with space to walk around, a dining car serving freshly cooked food, a lounge car and other conveniences, including a bed for overnight travel; all for a significantly less environmental cost. When we begin to ask why we in the US do not have the public services taken for granted in other developed countries, perhaps then the politicians might take note.
Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas
The FBI notably has an extended international presence running 63 offices in select countries overseas. The offices are called “legats” and are situated at the US Embassy in the host country. One of the major reasons for FBI’s international presence is fighting international terrorism.
The FBI legat personnel at the US embassies are fully accredited diplomats enjoying full diplomatic immunity but that poses several questions that are worth asking, such as: how is it possible for law enforcement to be diplomats and is that a good idea, legally speaking?
Police work should not enjoy diplomatic immunity because that opens the door to abuse. Does the FBI’s immunity overseas mean that the FBI attaches can do no wrong in the host country? How do we tackle potential rights infringements and instances of abuse of power by the FBI towards locals in the host country? The DOJ Inspector General and the State Department Inspector General would not accept complaints by foreigners directed at the FBI, so what recourse then could a local citizen have vis-a-vis the FBI legat if local courts are not an option and the Inspector Generals would not look into those cases?
This presents a real legal lacuna and a glitch in US diplomatic immunity that should not exist and should be addressed by Congress and the new Biden administration.
While FBI offices overseas conduct some far from controversial activities, such as training and educational exchanges with local law enforcement, which generally no one would object to, the real question as usual is about surveillance: who calls the shots and who assumes responsibility for potentially abusive surveillance of locals that may infringe upon their rights. It’s an issue that most people in countries with FBI presence around the world are not aware of. The FBI could be running “counter-terrorism” surveillance on you in your own country instead of the local police. And that’s not nothing.
When we hear “cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism”, as recent decades show, there is a great likelihood that the US government is abusing powers and rights, without batting an eyelash. That exposes local citizens around the world to unlawful surveillance without legal recourse. Most people are not even aware that the FBI holds local offices. Why would the FBI be operating instead of the local law enforcement on another country’s territory? That’s not a good look on the whole for the US government.
The legal lacuna is by design. This brings us to the nuts and bolts of the FBI legats’ diplomatic immunity.
Diplomatic immunity is governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, under Chapter III on privileges and immunities. The US is also a state party to the Convention, along with most states around the world. While there could be some variations and disagreements on bilateral basis (including on weather for example one state could be hosted and represented through the embassy of another state in a third state), on the whole there is a universal consensus that the Vienna Convention sets the rules establishing diplomatic immunities and privileges.
Under the Vienna Convention, only top diplomats are given the highest degree of immunity from the law. This means they cannot be handcuffed, arrested, detained, or prosecuted by law enforcement officials of the country in which they’re stationed. Diplomatic immunities and privileges also include things like diplomatic “bags” (with very peculiar cases of what that could entail) and notably, protection and diplomatic immunity for the family of diplomats.
It is a universal consensus that not everyone who works at an Embassy has or should have diplomatic immunity. Immunity is saved for diplomats whose role has to be protected from the local jurisdiction of the country for a reason. Not all embassy staff should enjoy diplomatic immunity. Granting law enforcement such as the FBI full legal immunity for their actions is bad news.
Only the top officials at an embassy are diplomats with an actual full immunity — and that’s for a reason.
It makes sense why a diplomat negotiating an agreement should not be subjected to local courts’ jurisdiction. But the same doesn’t go for a law enforcement official who acts as a law enforcement official by, for example, requesting unlawful surveillance on a local citizen, in his law enforcement capacity, while thinking of himself as a diplomat and being recognized as such by the law.
Law enforcement personnel are not diplomats. Dealing with extraterritorial jurisdiction cases or international cases is not the same thing as the need for diplomatic immunity. If that was the case, everyone at the export division at the Department if Commerce would have diplomatic immunity for protection from foreign courts, just in case. Some inherent risk in dealing with international cases does not merit diplomatic immunity – otherwise, this would lead to absurdities such as any government official of any country being granted diplomatic immunity for anything internationally related.
The bar for diplomatic immunity is very high and that’s by design based on an international consensus resting upon international law. Simply dealing with international cases does not make a policeman at a foreign embassy a diplomat. If that was the case every policeman investigating an international case would have to become a diplomat, just in case, for protection from the jurisdiction of the involved country in order to avoid legal push-back. That’s clearly unnecessary and legally illogical. Being a staff member at an embassy in a foreign country does not in and of itself necessitate diplomatic immunity, as many embassy staff do not enjoy diplomatic protection. It is neither legally justified nor necessary for the FBI abroad to enjoy diplomatic immunity; this could only open up the function to potential abuse. The FBI’s arbitrary surveillance on locals can have a very real potential for violating the rights of local people. This is a difference in comparison to actual diplomats. Diplomats do not investigate or run surveillance on locals; they can’t threaten or abuse the rights of local citizens directly, the way that law enforcement can. Lack of legal recourse is a really bad look for the Biden administration and for the US government.
The rationale for diplomatic immunity is that it should not be permitted to arrest top diplomats, who by definition have to be good at representing their own country’s interests in relation to the host state, for being too good at their job once the host state is unhappy with a push back, for example. The Ambassador should not be exposed to or threatened by the risk of an arrest and trial for being in contradiction with the interests of the host state under some local law on treason, for example, because Ambassadors could be running against the interests of the host state, by definition. And that’s contained within the rules of diplomatic relations. It’s contained in the nature of diplomatic work that such contradictions may arise, as each side represents their own country’s interests. Diplomats should not be punished for doing their job. The same doesn’t apply to the FBI legats. Issuing surveillance on local citizens is not the same as representing the US in negotiations. The FBI legats’ functions don’t merit diplomatic immunity and their actions have to be open to challenge in the host country’s jurisdiction.
The FBI immunity legal lacunae is in some ways reminiscent of similar historic parallels, such as the George W. Bush executive order that US military contractors in Iraq would enjoy full legal immunity from Iraqi courts’ jurisdiction, when they shouldn’t have. At the time, Iraq was a war-torn country without a functioning government, legal system or police forces. But the same principle of unreasonable legal immunity that runs counter international laws is seen even today, across European Union countries hosting legally immune FBI attaches.
Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas. It can be argued that for any local rights infringements, it is the local law enforcement cooperating with the US Embassy that should be held accountable – but that would ignore that the actual request for unlawful surveillance on locals could be coming from the FBI at the Embassy. The crime has to be tackled at the source of request.
When I reached out to the US Embassy in Bulgaria they did not respond to a request to clarify the justification for the FBI diplomatic immunity in EU countries.
To prevent abuse, Congress and the Biden Administration should remove the diplomatic immunity of the FBI serving overseas.
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