Notes from the USA

Freedom’s long-running US correspondent Louis Further does his monthly roundup of some of the lesser-known stories that have emerged over the last few weeks.

Racism
As Trump replaced Rex Tillerson last month as Secretary of State with the strongly ‘hawkish’ Mike Pompeo, one Gina Haspel has been slated to replace Pompeo at the CIA. During the Bush regime, Haspel was a senior official at the CIA directly responsible for a programme of illegal and brutal torture. Her Agency subjected many terrorist suspects to unnecessarily harsh interrogations. Techniques employed by Haspel included sleep deprivation, forcing detainees into coffins, and pouring water into their throats.
Amongst those suffering for which Haspel was guilty (though never prosecuted because Obama chose not to do so on coming into office) were Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in Thailand; Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in one month – so an average of once every eight hours, and had his head repeatedly slammed into walls. While serving at the CIA Haspel played a key role in the destruction of video evidence which proved that US agents tortured suspects at CIA prisons, in the USA and overseas.
Freedom has quoted the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs before. In mid-March the project updated its summary of spending on death and destruction by the United States since October 2001, when they invaded Afghanistan. The cost is a staggering US$5.6 (£3.96) trillion in total. Broken down, the cost of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ equates to US32 (£22.6) million every single hour day and night – that’s US$8,888 (£6,287) a second. Or a total over the years of US24,000 for every single taxpayer in the United States. At the same time as this report detailed spending on taking lives, the dereliction and destruction caused by hurricane Maria six months ago still unaddressed in Puerto Rico. Nearly half of the US $1.3 trillion (£900 million) spending deal rushed through the Senate recently will be allocated to the Pentagon. So: more spending on death and destruction.
In late March Trump unilaterally announced that the next US census, only two years away in 2020, will include the question, “Are you a US citizen?” Within days, well over a dozen states’ Attorneys General sued the Trump administration in attempts to prevent this. Trump also plans to place Secret Service agents at polling stations. This is presumably in aid of his 2020 re-election campaign, which he has already started. Some states’ governors – including Oregon’s 5,800 soldiers – are also refusing to obey Trump’s directive to station troops at the border with Mexico.
Oppression
Towards the end of last month a huge (2,232 pages) spending bill became law. Buried in its midst and probably little read is a clause which – according to digital privacy advocates – will “expand American and foreign law enforcement’s ability to target and access people’s data across international borders”. The Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data or CLOUD Act (S. 2383 and H.R. 4943) adds an open and official provision for US law enforcement to access the contents of a wire or electronic communication and any record or other information anywhere on earth regardless of where they live and what other nations’ privacy laws dictate.
Older generations in the USA are getting the rough end of the deal as far as drug prices go according to a new report from the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Entitled, ‘Manufactured Crisis: How Devastating Drug Price Increases Are Harming America’s Seniors’, it examines trends in drug pricing for 20 of the most often-prescribed drugs for those on Medicare (the partially state-funded healthcare system for seniors). Over the last five years, the average price increase is 12% per annum – or 1000% the rate of inflations. For 12 of the drugs, the prices were pushed up by more than 50% between 2012 and 2017; while for six of the 20, the increase was over 100%. The drug companies, however, continue to make massive profits – often paying very little tax. Indeed, according to a recent set of statistics from the New York State Comptroller’s office, total bonuses for 176,900 Wall Street employees totalled US$31.4 (£22.4) billion last year.
Environment
The year 2017 had arguably the most extreme weather on record. It certainly was the most expensive year as a result of meteorological disasters (Puerto Rico is still not back to normal as Trump consistently refuses help). Yet the newly-published four year strategy for FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) mentions neither ‘climate change’ nor ‘global warming’ once.
Amongst those least able and suited to office are Scott Pruitt, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It has recently been reported that last year he rented a property in Washington DC which is owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist. As such corruption is now commonplace in the US capital and Capitol, Pruitt was also responsible at the end of March for what Bill McKibben, founder of the leading environmental organisation, 350.org, described as “…rank[ing] high among the stupidest policies yet proposed by Trump admin”. After aggressive lobbying from the automobile and petrochemical industries, he actually announced that standards for emissions from cars is… to be lowered. Under existing regulations dating from 2012, car makers are required to “nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025”. Even this modest – and thought by many to be grossly inadequate – target is now to be relaxed.
Economy, Labour, Corruption
Tim Sloan is the CEO of disgraced banking giant Wells Fargo. His company has been criticised, fined, penalised, prevented from expanding, rebuked, ostracised and found guilty of gross malpractice in a variety of spheres. Chief amongst these was the time when it opened fraudulent accounts in its customers’ names. Since then, the bank has been forced to pay US$200 (£143) million in fines. The consequence of this for Sloan last month was… not dismissal – but a 35% pay rise.
Meanwhile Trump – according to a recording obtained by the Washington Post – actually boasted to donors at a fund raising event in mid March that he had simply invented ‘facts’ about a trade deficit (which does not exist) with Canada during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Louis Further