Covert Agent, Campaign ramps up


Staff & Wire Reports

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at a monument to the Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. Solzhenitsyn, whose books exposed the horrors of Soviet prison camps, died in 2008. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at a monument to the Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. Solzhenitsyn, whose books exposed the horrors of Soviet prison camps, died in 2008. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

Russia: Putin says he only heard of alleged spy after arrest

Tuesday, December 11

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that he had never heard of a woman who is accused of spying for Moscow in the United States until her July arrest.

U.S. prosecutors have alleged that Maria Butina gathered intelligence and worked to develop relationships with American politicians through the National Rifle Association. They also alleged that a former Russian lawmaker who was subject to U.S. sanctions for alleged ties to Putin directed Butina’s activities.

Butina is charged with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for the Russia government. U.S. prosecutors indicated in a court filing Monday that she has accepted a plea deal.

Putin said at a meeting of the presidential human rights council on Tuesday that he asked Russian intelligence services for information about 30-year-old Butina after he heard about the “poor girl” who faces 15 years in prison.

“When I heard that something is happening to her, I just went to all intelligence chiefs and asked who she was,” he said in televised remarks after a council member raised the issue of defending the rights of Russians abroad. “No one knows anything about her.”

Butina, who was arrested in July and has been in custody since, was charged with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia. Her lawyer has argued that Butina is a student interested in American politics and U.S.-Russian relations.

The End of the NRA? Business magazines tell activists: The strategy is working

by Rivera Sun

Good news for humanity: the NRA is weakening. The gun-lobbying group is in “deep financial trouble,” Fortune Magazine reported, and warns that the NRA may not be able to keep going. “The group says it is under such financial distress because New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has convinced a number of financial service providers, banks, and insurance providers against doing business with the gun-advocacy group. As a result, the NRA claims that it will be forced to end its magazine publishing and television services, and will be forced to curtail rallies and potentially shutter some of its offices.”

Governor Cuomo got a lot of credit for what, in reality, took an entire movement comprising hundreds of organizations. (For many reasons, business magazines tend to downplay the powerful role of social movements in economic shifts.) The reality is clear to those who have been following the Parkland students and movement groups like #NotOneMore and Everytown for Gun Safety: their strategies are working and the governor is a welcome ally.

Symbolic protests work best when they are used to galvanize acts of economic noncooperation like boycotts, divestments, and severing business ties. The strength of such protests lies in their ability to raise the stakes of inaction for power holders. By compelling power holders to rise out of complacency, silence, and avoidance of the issues, movements can pressure power holders to use their leverage for tangible social justice changes. When people like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo throw their clout into getting businesses and organizations to withdraw economic and social support from the NRA, the impact is immediate. By highlighting that the choice is between kids (and others) lives and the greed of the NRA and gun industry, the youth-led protests, marches, speeches, and rallies have led to increasing numbers of people and businesses cutting ties with the NRA.

Many companies have dumped the NRA over the years: the National Teachers Union dumped Wells Fargo over NRA ties. Enterprise, Avis, Budget car rentals, Delta and United airlines, and Wyndham and Best Western hotels have all stopped offering NRA discounts. The NRA claims that losing “perks” will not deter their members from pushing for their constitutional rights and civil liberties. Many people involved in the movement to end gun violence, however, feel it is important that NRA members aren’t being rewarded by corporations. In their minds, those who actively block legislation for gun control of automatic assault weapons shouldn’t enjoy special privileges while our children are being massacred.

You can find a full list of companies that dumped the NRA in 2018 at

Gov. Cuomo’s efforts go beyond the small perks of NRA membership and target the bigger deals, financial backing, and even the top donor circles of the NRA. This has the gun-lobby behemoth running scared. The take-home for ordinary citizens is to amplify, escalate, and leverage our actions into larger, richer, and more powerful action. The Parkland students have done excellent work in that department—and their efforts have been backed up by hundreds of growing groups that work to end gun violence, virtually all of which have identified the NRA as a barrier to this goal.

Business is responsive – and vulnerable – to the actions of ordinary citizens on the issue of the NRA. Your feedback, emails, phone calls, and boycotts of banks and businesses make a difference. In many cases it’s far more effective than calling your senator (hint: do both!). The effects of movement pressures are often felt more swiftly in the business world. Politicians can only be changed every 2-4 years; businesses have to deal with quarterly reports every three months.

Pressuring leaders who want to do the right thing—elected, corporate, or government agency—gives those leaders cover. Pressuring the ones who are indifferent helps them realize they need to take a stand. Pressuring the hardline opponents can drive them to make costly errors leading to their replacement.

Indeed, business magazine articles on the anti-NRA actions reveal that companies listen when we take action. First National Bank in Nebraska – one of the 15 largest credit card issuers in the nation – ended its NRA benefits because of customer feedback. As reported: “The First National Bank of Omaha tweeted last Thursday that ‘customer feedback has caused us to review our relationship with the NRA,’ and that it would not be renewing its contract to produce NRA-branded Visa cards.”

All of this information gives us a strategic memo: the strategy is working. The question of whether to support human life, particularly kids, or a powerful lobby group is shifting in favor of the kids. And the NRA is weakening. There’s no need to wait for the next mass shooting or for an organization to tell you to take action: find a company, write an email, and ask your friends to join you in pressuring them to drop the NRA. You can find a full list of companies that give NRA benefits and discounts on ThinkProgress.

The Fortune Magazine report on the NRA’s financial crisis also tells us another important message: keep going. Instead of waiting for the next tragedy to galvanize a fresh burst of action, use this moment to continue to drive support away from the NRA. They’ll be rallying to rebuild; our task is to continue to call companies to walk their talk, stand up for our kids, and dump the NRA.

Rivera Sun, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection, The Roots of Resistance, and other books, including a study guide to making change with nonviolent action. She is the cohost of Love (and Revolution) Radio, and a trainer in strategy for nonviolent movements.

Democratic 2020 campaign revving up quickly


Associated Press

Friday, December 7

NEW YORK (AP) — Democrats are hitting fast forward.

The first major presidential campaign announcements could come before year’s end. The Democratic National Committee plans to announce a debate framework by then featuring 15 to 20 candidates. The first primary debate could happen as early as May, a full three months before the premiere debate of the 2016 cycle.

And long-rumored White House hopefuls are already bowing out.

Like it or not, the 2020 presidential season has arrived. For some potential contenders, there’s an increasing sense of urgency to be in the first wave of declared candidates in what will likely be a large, unwieldy field. And for the party as a whole, there’s a desire to move forward with what’s expected to be a nasty fight — and wrap it up in time to give the eventual nominee strong footing to take on President Donald Trump.

“It starts now, but there will be a lot of ups and downs,” said Democratic consultant Jesse Ferguson, who previously worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “Anyone who thinks the early front-runner will also go the distance hasn’t seen how these campaigns play out.”

This week has offered a preview of the drama that could lie ahead. Former Vice President Joe Biden declared himself “the most qualified person in the country to be president,” billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer courted activists in key states, and at least two prospects — former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and firebrand attorney Michael Avenatti — publicly bowed out of the 2020 contest.

For those preparing candidacies, activity is picking up. While she has yet to make a final decision, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is laying the groundwork for an early launch — potentially by year’s end but more likely in January. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are also lining up for early launches.

Aides to the Democrats addressed their plans on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly disclose internal discussions.

Another well-funded set, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Bloomberg and Steyer, believe they can afford to wait slightly longer to announce their intentions given their fundraising prowess.

Others may need to soon form presidential exploratory committees to access millions of dollars locked in their Senate campaign accounts to pay for travel, consulting and polling related to a possible White House bid. That’s especially true for Warren, Gillibrand, O’Rourke, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.

O’Rourke, who smashed fundraising records this year in his failed Texas Senate bid, is discussing a possible 2020 run with his family, according to people with direct knowledge of his thinking. He feels the only drawback to running would be another prolonged period away from his wife and three children.

O’Rourke won’t declare his intentions until after his House term ends on Jan. 3, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because a campaign hasn’t been launched.

His camp says he’s been assured that many prospective staffers and donors would wait for him to decide before committing to another candidate, believing he has effectively frozen the field.

O’Rourke has fielded numerous calls from supporters, donors and strategists who have urged him to run, including alumni of former President Barack Obama’s administration. Many have suggested one key question to guide his 2020 decision: Is he excited about any of the other possible candidates? At the moment, O’Rourke doesn’t appear sufficiently enthused about anyone else to not run, according to those familiar with his thinking.

O’Rourke has been invited to visit Iowa and New Hampshire in recent weeks. He hasn’t accepted any such invitation but has not declined them either.

Meanwhile, Hickenlooper isn’t expected to make a formal decision on running until after his term as governor ends Jan. 8. But he’s already started assembling his team and his operation has hired a pollster and national fundraiser.

Senior aides to Sanders, who mounted an aggressive challenge to Clinton in 2016, are laying the groundwork for a bigger campaign organization, according to chief adviser Jeff Weaver.

Sanders’ wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, told The Associated Press that the grueling pace of a presidential contest would not be a deterrent for a second run. She also highlighted Sanders’ philosophy of not attacking other Democrats.

“We’ve never been negative toward an opponent,” she said in an interview last weekend. “And that’s going to be the case this time.”

Biden, who has been less active than other 2020 prospects in preparing to run, is scheduled to appear in Sanders’ home base of Burlington, Vermont, over the weekend as part of a nationwide book tour. Weaver said there were no plans for Sanders and Biden to meet.

Obama is in regular touch with Biden, underscoring the close relationship they forged in the White House.

But there are few Democratic competitors concerned about Biden’s 2020 plans. Would-be challengers note he fared badly in the only two presidential campaigns he ran on his own and generally struggles to raise money.

Booker, who says he will consider his decision over the holidays, has been among the most aggressive prospects.

In addition to aggressively courting activists and prospective staff, the New Jersey Democrat is scheduled to make a series of appearances this weekend in New Hampshire, which traditionally hosts the nation’s first presidential primary election.

Other ambitious Democrats are actively discussing potential White House bids with their friends.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are among those reaching out to experienced political operatives across the country for feedback. Former Obama administration Cabinet member Julian Castro has already indicated he’s likely to run.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is weighing a possible presidential bid. Some Democrats have sought to recruit him to run for the Senate in 2020, but his chief of staff, Tom Lopach, said, “Bullock is not interested” in that campaign.

Among the Democrats not ruling out a run is John Kerry, the former secretary of state and Massachusetts senator who lost the 2004 presidential race. Democrats close to Kerry say he’s done little to start building a campaign infrastructure, but he’s happy to keep his name in the discussion, particularly in the event other elder statesman-like figures — namely Biden — decide not to run.

As the field takes shape, DNC Chairman Tom Perez is working to craft what he says must be a fair process that doesn’t leave the eventual nominee facing internal criticisms of favoritism like those that dogged Clinton in 2016.

A group of DNC officials and advisers, led by Mary Beth Cahill, who managed Kerry’s presidential campaign, is months into private discussions with television networks, previous presidential campaign officials and state party leaders as they craft a plan for Perez.

Several people involved say the party wants the earliest debates to have generous qualifications thresholds, so that longshot-but-legitimate candidates aren’t shut out. Later in the campaign, the thresholds — everything from polling and fundraising to the breadth of a candidate’s campaign operation in early primary states — could be much higher.

Barrow reported from Atlanta and Weissert reported from Austin, Texas. Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Elana Schor in Washington, Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

The Conversation

Remembering Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the theatre of war

December 6, 2018


James H. Liu

Professor of Psychology, Massey University

Disclosure statement

James H. Liu has received funding from Victoria University of Wellington and the Chiang Ching Guo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange that partially supported some of the research presented in this article


Massey University provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.

December 7, 1941. A date which will live in infamy. The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

Thus began President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech declaring war against Japan. On the 77th anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, we do well to revisit these words, for they claim “casus belli”: provocation where war is a justified response.

Churchill had begged Roosevelt to enter the war against the Axis (Japan, Germany, Italy) for months, but without casus belli, the American President refused. The US had a tradition of “non-interventionism” in European affairs, and its Congress had passed Neutrality Acts in the 1930s to prevent US entanglement in the power politics of the old world that might lead to war. The attack on Pearl Harbor marked a violent end to this era, and the beginning of America’s rise to the centre of world power.

Narrative of redemption

Psychologist Dan McAdams writes that the narrative of redemption – a story turning from bad to good – is fundamental to the American national identity and character. Roosevelt cast his declaration of war just so: after recounting Japan’s military deeds, he says:

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

In the case of Pearl Harbor, history vindicated Roosevelt’s claim. There is consensus that America’s entry into the war was justified, in the United Nations and in American public opinion. Consensus is crucial to the force and magnitude of collective remembering. More than this, the consequences of American entry into the theatre of war warrants a redemption narrative casting the USA as a heroic nation in the making of modernity.

The Axis was responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million civilians worldwide (about half in Asia, half in Europe). American entry into the conflict coupled with Russians’ heroic defence of their motherland turned the tide against that brutality.

Truth and facts

Narrative configures facts as “food for thought” in the greater meaning underlying its surface words. Because Stalin was a brutal dictator, and because Western democracies were going to enter into a half century of Cold War with the Communists over whose system would dominate, Russian heroism in WWII is less celebrated in the world’s collective remembering than American.

Churchill once quipped:

History shall be kind to me, for I intend to write it.

Winners write widely accepted history as part of their story of why they have the right to rule. Losers’ versions of history are frequently forgotten, along with the facts that supported them.

Misquoting Alexis de Toqueville in 1983, President Ronald Reagan said:

America is good. If America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.

Reagan invented this quote to argue that the “shrewdest of all observers of America” attributed its greatness to church-going. He contrasted this with the godlessness of their great rival, the Soviet Union:

While they preach the supremacy of the State, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.

History as soft power

Reagan understood that victory in WWII provided both the US and the Soviet Union with soft and hard power. Even he practised military buildup, he negotiated for arms control, but ultimately undermined the soft power of the Soviets with speeches like this.

It was soft, not hard power that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union. This required Soviet leader Gorbachev to buy into the story of glasnost (openness), which was most assuredly keyed to major themes in Western, not Soviet narratives (or its constitution).

The power of narrative is extraordinary, and not as well understood as hard power (e.g. armies). Stories about people like Hitler, the most evil man in the history of the world according to young people today, have the power to cast people and peoples as heroes and villains. These augment or undermine hard power.

The burden of history for the Axis nations Germany and Japan, cast as the villains of WWII, crippled their ability to assert global political power through the latter half of the 20th century, even though they were among the most powerful economies in the world.

The formation of the European Union was assisted by two complementary forces in terms of soft power: Germans needing a positive (superordinate) identity after the war, and French identity becoming more Europeanised as a way to bolster French power. While the signing of treaties forming the European Economic Community and then the European Union may have been decisive, historians assisted by developing more consensual accounts of the past that allowed new identities to emerge, ending more than a century of competition and revenge-based warfare between these two states.

By contrast, Japan’s inability to come to a consensus about the meaning of WWII with its neighbours has rendered Asia incapable of gaining the level of agreement necessary for an “Asian Union”.

The relevance of these collective memories may be fading as a focus of world attention with the rise of China. China’s rise is not a direct consequence of WWII, but the work of two to three generations following in its wake. History is a moving feast of lessons and identity positions that thrives as communicative or “living memory” of generations alive communicating to one another the stories of their lives.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the heroism of the United States in response provided America with an unparalleled position of soft and hard power following WWII: a narrative of redemption. The near dismemberment of China and its suffering at the hands of Japan provided China with a different identity position and different lesson. As WWII fades from living memory, and new crises emerge to challenge our world, what new lessons and identity positions will the new century carve out?

Concert stampede in Italy leaves 6 dead, over 50 hurt


Associated Press

Monday, December 10

CORINALDO, Italy (AP) — Teenagers panicked before a rap concert at a jammed Italian disco, setting off a stampede that killed five of them and a mother who had brought her daughter to the event, authorities and survivors said. Fifty-three people were reported injured, including 13 in very serious condition.

Several survivors said panic spread through the late-night crowd after someone unleashed an irritant spray. Investigators said they were checking those reports.

Video on state TV RaiNews24 showed scores of teenagers rushing out a door and surging toward a low wall near an exit at the Blue Lantern disco in the central Italian town of Corinaldo, near Ancona on the Adriatic coast. The barrier then gives way and a cascade of teenagers tumble over it, falling on top of each other.

The bodies of the trampled victims were all found near a low wall, Ancona Firefighters Cmdr. Dino Poggiali told Sky TG24 News. State radio said most of the dead had their skulls crushed in the melee.

The victims — three girls and two boys — ranged in age from 14 to 16 and the mother who was killed was 39, said Col. Cristian Carrozza, commander of the Ancona province Carabinieri paramilitary police.

“Close down the place, convict someone. Who’s going to give me back my son?” Giuseppe Orlandi, fighting back tears, told reporters after he had identified the body of his son, Mattia, 15, in a hospital morgue.

The stampede occurred shortly after 1 a.m., less than 30 minutes before the concert by Italian rapper Sfera Ebbasta was to begin.

Authorities said organizers had sold far too many tickets for the space. Ancona Chief Prosecutor Monica Garulli told reporters that about 1,400 tickets were sold but the disco was only able to hold about 870 people.

Later, Premier Giuseppe Conte, who visited the scene, said the disco had three rooms but inexplicably only used one for the concert, and it only holds 469 people.

While prosecutors investigate “the government must ask itself what to so that such tragedies must never happen again,” Conte said.

The woman who was killed, Eleanora Girolimini, had four children and had accompanied her 11-year-old daughter to the concert, her husband, Paolo, told reporters. The girl was treated for a knee injury.

Outside the hospital where the bodies were brought, he lashed out at the event’s organizers, saying that many at the event were drunk.

“Four children now are without their mother, and one of them is still nursing,” he said. “It was way overcrowded and alcohol abounded.”

ANSA said hospital doctors treating the injured said some survivors had burns apparently caused by an irritant spray.

An 18-year-old survivor, who left the hospital in a wheelchair due to a leg injury, was asked by RAINew24 about the spray. She replied that whatever it was, it left her and others unable to breathe, and people started to panic and flee.

Doctors at Ancona’s main hospital said the most critically injured from the concert, all between 14 and 20 years old, suffered cranial and chest traumas, while others had arm or leg injuries.

Sfera Ebbasta wrote on Twitter that he was “deeply pained” by the tragedy, thanked rescuers and offered his “affection and support” to the families of the dead and the injured. Out of respect to them, he cancelled some promotional appearances.

The rapper added he wanted everyone to “to stop and think how dangerous and stupid it is to use pepper spray in a discotheque.”

Italian high schools, which are usually open on Saturdays, were closed this weekend for the Dec. 8 national holiday, which made it more likely for teenagers to attend such a late concert.

Fire commander Poggiali said it was too early in the investigation to know if any safety violations at the site might have played a role in the tragedy. He said when rescue workers arrived, all the doors to the disco were open.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini vowed that responsibility would be determined for “six broken lives — whoever out of nastiness, stupidity or greed transformed an evening of partying into tragedy.”

Italian President Sergio Mattarella demanded a full investigation.

“Citizens have the right to safety wherever they are, in workplaces as well as places of entertainment,” Mattarella said.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis bowed his head in silent prayer after he told 30,000 pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter’s Square that he was praying “for the young people and the mamma” as well as for the many injured at the concert.

D’Emilio reported from Rome.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at a monument to the Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. Solzhenitsyn, whose books exposed the horrors of Soviet prison camps, died in 2008. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool) President Vladimir Putin looks at a monument to the Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. Solzhenitsyn, whose books exposed the horrors of Soviet prison camps, died in 2008. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

Staff & Wire Reports