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People at the front lines of Standing Rock tell us why they’re there and the toll it has taken

VICE News - December 3, 2016 - 10:45am

An eagle feather hangs from Joe CrowShoe’s red bandana, and ski goggles hang around his neck, in case of tear gas. The cold wind bites his cheeks as he waits on Highway 1806, where a razor wire and concrete police line cuts across the Backwater Bridge.

He and about 30 others — mostly young, Indigenous men — are waiting for the 400 women who are en route from the camp, walking in complete silence to the frontline of a now months-long resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline, where they will pray. It is the Sunday of American Thanksgiving weekend and CrowShoe is prepared to act as a buffer, if need be.

“People are being hurt out here,” he says when asked why he came down from Alberta to North Dakota two months ago. The Brave Dog Society warrior from the Picane Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy, is here to “take the bullets so those elders and women don’t have to.”

Before thousands of veterans arrived at the Standing Rock encampment this weekend to provide a “human shield” for demonstrators, who call themselves water protectors, it was people like CrowShoe who played that role.

Joe CrowShoe mans the front gate of the camp, where he welcomes new allies as they arrive to the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota. Photo by Hilary Beaumont/VICE News

“Yeah I took a rubber bullet to the shoulder,” he shrugs. “But I think the worst was I wasn’t wearing gloves and we were holding a line, and those batons on my knuckles.” He counts himself lucky that he hasn’t succumbed to hypothermia, or nearly lost an arm, like one woman did.

“On Dec. 5, when they come in supposedly, this is a one way trip,” he tells VICE News, referring to the date the Army Corps of Engineers says they will close the encampment due to safety concerns now that it’s winter. “They’re taking me out in zip-ties, they’re taking me out in a body bag. I’m not leaving.”

Previous actions have ended with police firing rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas at protesters. Hundreds have been arrested. Luckily, the women’s prayer walk on Nov. 27 ends peacefully.

“You’re being taught that our people are still here.”

People on the front lines and warriors, who are mostly younger Indigenous men, have literally dropped everything to make this stand alongside the Sioux of Standing Rock, who are fighting a $3.8-billion pipeline they fear will poison their water supply in the area and destroy sacred burial sites.

They have left behind their apartments, pets, families and relationships to join this resistance movement.

CrowShoe left behind his classes at the University of Calgary, where he was studying philosophy. “I don’t even know if I’m enrolled anymore,” he says.

His family is concerned for his safety, he says, but they respect him for being here.

“When I came up here, I told them, whatever happens, happens. They respect that. They know that I come from a warrior society. They know I’m ready to lay down if I have to. I guess they’re worried, but you have an obligation to your community, and if it’s your life, it’s your life.”

Two weeks after he was hit with a rubber bullet in the back of his leg, Roy Murphy, a 23-year-old frontliner from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington State, still feels pain when he walks.

It happened on Nov. 20 — the night police used water cannons on protectors. Murphy arrived on the Backwater Bridge to find people being tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with water in freezing temperatures. In the fray, he spotted an elder step forward to pray. “It was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen,” he told VICE News. When he saw the police spraying water and shooting in the elder’s direction, he stepped between the elder and police to protect him, and encouraged others to do the same.

“I told people to guard him.” His instincts told him something would happen. That’s when the rubber “less-than-lethal” bullet hit him in the leg, he says.

He has no regrets. His primary role is to protect the vulnerable, and ensure everyone is united.

But the front line resistance has also taken an emotional toll on Murphy. “There are a lot of people who are going through post traumatic stress disorder after this,” he says, counting himself among them. He has trouble telling the story of what happened because of the trauma it has caused.

Even the sound of drumming during actions and prayers brings back painful, vivid memories. Each drum beat hits him like a bullet. He says he is praying, “but the noise of the drum has changed me.”

Front line of the Standing Rock protest, where police and protesters square off on the Backwater Bridge.Photo by Hilary Beaumont/VICE News

CrowShoe was there that night, too.

“It hurt my spirit to see our people being hurt, more than the bullets hurt,” he recalls.

But he and Murphy are here because they are part of something bigger.

The camp is “a beacon of hope,” CrowShoe says.

“It shows us that our people are still united, and that’s something we need to see, because we’ve been ripped of it, not on accident but on purpose. We’ve been broken apart in all ways. And seeing this, and schools in there, and all the little ones running around, you’re being taught that our people are still here. It’s sparking something that’s bigger than this pipeline.”

Donald Trump Can't Fix Offshoring, But He's Got Bigger Problems Anyway

Mother Jones - December 3, 2016 - 10:35am

Steven Pearlstein suggests that Donald Trump's deal with Carrier is part of a larger strategy aimed at changing norms of behavior:

There was a time in America when there was an unwritten pact in the business world — workers were loyal to their companies and successful companies returned that loyalty....Then came the 1980s, and all that began to change as American industry began to falter because of foreign competition....So the social norm changed....Although the public never much liked the idea of closing plants and shipping jobs overseas, it no longer was socially unacceptable.

Now comes Donald Trump — in the public mind, a successful businessman — who as the new president, suddenly declares that the new norm is not longer acceptable, and he intends to do whatever he can to shame and punish companies that abandon their workers....He knows that he and his new commerce secretary will have to engage in a few more bouts of well-publicized arm twisting before the message finally sinks in in the C-Suite. He may even have to make an example of a runaway company by sending in the tax auditors or the OSHA inspectors or cancelling a big government contract. It won’t matter that, two years later, these highly publicized retaliations are thrown out by a federal judge somewhere. Most companies won’t want to risk such threats to their “brands.” They will find a way to conform to the new norm, somewhat comforted by the fact that their American competitors have been forced to do the same.

I mostly disagree with this. I think the "norm" Pearlstein is talking about here is actually just ordinary economic reality. During the postwar economic boom, American companies didn't need to offshore jobs, so they didn't. Nor did they need to lay off workers or downsize their companies frequently. America was the most efficient manufacturer around, and there was plenty of money sloshing around for everybody. So why invite trouble?

When the postwar boom came to an end, businesses changed. We learned that what we thought had been a permanent new norm, was no such thing. It was just a temporary, three-decade blip. Starting in the 80s, as economic growth leveled off, the business community returned to operating the same way businesses had operated ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

I suspect Pearlstein is right about what Trump is trying to do. He'll engage in some naming and shaming, and on a few occasions he'll try to set an example by going after companies in semi-legal or outright illegal ways. It might even work a little bit, and it will almost certainly work in a PR sense. But more generally, Trump can't keep the tide from coming in any more than any other president. It's not as if the offshoring phenomenon is peculiar to America, after all.

The good news, such as it is, revolves around automation. Within a decade or so, most manufacturing work will be so highly automated that it won't matter much where it's made. We're already starting to see signs of this. That will put an end to large-scale offshoring, but unfortunately, it will be even worse for blue-collar workers. We're on the cusp of an era when tens of millions of workers will be put out of jobs by automation, and we'd better figure out what we're going to do about that. But one thing is certain: whatever the answer is, it's not naming and shaming.

Austria could soon elect Western Europe’s first far-right head of state since WWII

VICE News - December 3, 2016 - 9:01am

Austria’s presidential elections are typically sedate, with candidates vying for a mostly ceremonial post. But this year much of the world is watching the vote due to Norbert Hofer, a 45-year-old former aeronautical engineer and leader of the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic Freedom Party.

Hofer has a chance to become the EU’s first far-right head of state after a run-off Sunday against his opponent Alexander van der Bellen, a 72-year-old economist and former leader of the left-wing Green Party. The two men already faced in a run-off last May, which Van der Bellen won by just 31,000 votes, but the constitutional court annulled the results because of irregularities in the absentee vote count and ordered a rerun for October.

That was in turn postponed until December because of faulty glue on absentee-vote envelopes.

After a year of campaigning, the candidates and the public are exhausted, but the stakes have seldom been higher. In the wake of the Brexit vote in Britain and Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the United States, the election of a far-right politician in the heart of Europe would send further shockwaves throughout an already tense continent.

Hofer is a top official in the Austrian Freedom Party, which was founded after World War II largely as a political home for former Nazis. Today, the party espouses an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and Eurosceptic program. Buoyed by last year’s refugee crisis and growing frustration with the mainstream Social Democratic and Conservative parties that have governed Austria for decades, the Freedom Party is ahead in the polls and hopes to form a government after the next parliamentary election, which could come as early as next year. A victory for Hofer could further boost its standing and fortunes.

Van der Bellen and his supporters claim that Hofer would lead Austria out of the European Union, which Hofer denies. But he is close to French far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, an avowed EU foe, and has called for an exit referendum if the EU becomes more centralized.

Hofer and his party chairman, Heinz-Christian Strache, draw inspiration from Trump’s stunning rise to the White House, echoing the president-elect’s claims of fighting against a dominant liberal elite in the name of common people. The Austrians call for closing the country’s borders to refugees and a reduction in the number of job seekers from other EU countries.

Last year Austria took in 90,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan. It was the third-largest number of refugees accepted in Europe, behind only Germany and Sweden. Austria also employs tens of thousands of workers from neighboring countries.

The economy is still doing well and standards of living are high, but unemployment has been on the rise and growth is weaker than in Germany and many other EU countries. Still, foreign observers regularly voice their surprise that such a wealthy and peaceful country would fall for populism.

The campaign has become increasingly bitter in its closing weeks. In a final TV debate on Thursday, Hofer accused Van der Bellen of espionage in the 1980s and pushed back on claims that he was a Nazi.

Most business heads, academics, and political leaders support Van der Bellen, but Hofer has greater appeal in the countryside and among less-educated voters. He is adept with populist rhetoric, but comes across as soft-spoken and smooth.

The federal president usually does not interfere in day-to-day governmental affairs, but Hofer has threatened to dismiss the government if he strongly disagrees with its policies, which is within his constitutional rights. This would be a major challenge to Chancellor Christian Kern, an eloquent Social Democrat who took over the leadership of his party and the government in May.

Kern’s party has long been opposed to forming a coalition with the Freedom Party but is now beginning to open itself up to this option. The coalition with the conservative People’s Party has been weakened by constant bickering, which further boosts the popularity of Hofer’s populist opposition.

Trump Is Right: Our Generals Haven't "Done the Job"

Mother Jones - December 3, 2016 - 5:00am

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

President-elect Donald Trump's message for the nation's senior military leadership is ambiguously unambiguous. Here is he on 60 Minutes just days after the election.

Trump: "We have some great generals. We have great generals."

Lesley Stahl: "You said you knew more than the generals about ISIS."

Trump: "Well, I'll be honest with you, I probably do because look at the job they've done. Okay, look at the job they've done. They haven't done the job."

In reality, Trump, the former reality show host, knows next to nothing about ISIS—one of many gaps in his education that his impending encounter with actual reality is likely to fill. Yet when it comes to America's generals, our president-to-be is onto something. No doubt our three- and four-star officers qualify as "great" in the sense that they mean well, work hard, and are altogether fine men and women. That they have not "done the job," however, is indisputable—at least if their job is to bring America's wars to a timely and successful conclusion.

Trump's unhappy verdict—that the senior US military leadership doesn't know how to win—applies in spades to the two principal conflicts of the post-9/11 era: the Afghanistan War (now in its 16th year) and the Iraq War, which was launched in 2003 and (after a brief hiatus) is once more grinding on. Yet the verdict applies equally to lesser theaters of conflict, largely overlooked by the American public, that in recent years have engaged the attention of US forces—a list that would include conflicts in Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

Granted, our generals have demonstrated an impressive aptitude for moving pieces around on a dauntingly complex military chessboard. Brigades, battle groups, and squadrons shuttle in and out of various war zones, responding to the needs of the moment. The sheer immensity of the enterprise across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa—the sorties flown, munitions expended, the seamless deployment and redeployment of thousands of troops over thousands of miles, the vast stockpiles of material positioned, expended, and continuously resupplied—represents a staggering achievement. Measured by these or similar quantifiable outputs, America's military has excelled. No other military establishment in history could have come close to duplicating the logistical feats being performed year in, year out by the armed forces of the United States.

Nor should we overlook the resulting body count. Since the autumn of 2001, something like 370,000 combatants and noncombatants have been killed in the various theaters of operations where US forces have been active. Although modest by 20th-century standards, this post-9/11 harvest of death is hardly trivial.

Yet in evaluating military operations, it's a mistake to confuse how much with how well. Only rarely do the outcomes of armed conflicts turn on comparative statistics. Ultimately, the one measure of success that really matters involves achieving war's political purposes. By that standard, victory requires not simply the defeat of the enemy, but accomplishing the nation's stated war aims, and not just in part or temporarily but definitively. Anything less constitutes failure, not to mention utter waste for taxpayers, and for those called upon to fight, it constitutes cause for mourning.

By that standard, having been "at war" for virtually the entire 21st century, the United States military is still looking for its first win. And however strong the disinclination to concede that Donald Trump could be right about anything, his verdict on American generalship qualifies as apt.

That verdict brings to mind three questions. First, with Trump a rare exception, why have the recurring shortcomings of America's military leadership largely escaped notice? Second, to what degree does faulty generalship suffice to explain why actual victory has proved so elusive? Third, to the extent that deficiencies at the top of the military hierarchy bear directly on the outcome of our wars, how might the generals improve their game?

As to the first question, the explanation is quite simple: During protracted wars, traditional standards for measuring generalship lose their salience.  Without pertinent standards, there can be no accountability. Absent accountability, failings and weaknesses escape notice. Eventually, what you've become accustomed to seems tolerable. Twenty-first-century Americans inured to wars that never end have long since forgotten that bringing such conflicts to a prompt and successful conclusion once defined the very essence of what generals were expected to do.

Senior military officers were presumed to possess unique expertise in designing campaigns and directing engagements. Not found among mere civilians or even among soldiers of lesser rank, this expertise provided the rationale for conferring status and authority on generals.

In earlier eras, the very structure of wars provided a relatively straightforward mechanism for testing such claims to expertise. Events on the battlefield rendered harsh judgments, creating or destroying reputations with brutal efficiency. Back then, standards employed in evaluating generalship were clear-cut and uncompromising. Those who won battles earned fame, glory, and the gratitude of their countrymen. Those who lost battles got fired or were put out to pasture.

During the Civil War, for example, Abraham Lincoln did not need an advanced degree in strategic studies to conclude that Union generals like John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, and Joseph Hooker didn't have what it took to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia. Humiliating defeats sustained by the Army of the Potomac at the Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville made that obvious enough. Similarly, the victories Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman gained at Shiloh, at Vicksburg, and in the Chattanooga campaign strongly suggested that here was the team to which the president could entrust the task of bringing the Confederacy to its knees.

Today, public drunkenness, petty corruption, or sexual shenanigans with a subordinate might land generals in hot water. But as long as they avoid egregious misbehavior, senior officers charged with prosecuting America's wars are largely spared judgments of any sort. Trying hard is enough to get a passing grade.

With the country's political leaders and public conditioned to conflicts seemingly destined to drag on for years, if not decades, no one expects the current general in chief in Iraq or Afghanistan to bring things to a successful conclusion. His job is merely to manage the situation until he passes it along to a successor, while duly adding to his collection of personal decorations and perhaps advancing his career.

Today, for example, Army General John Nicholson commands US and allied forces in Afghanistan. He's only the latest in a long line of senior officers to preside over that war, beginning with General Tommy Franks in 2001 and continuing with Generals Mikolashek, Barno, Eikenberry, McNeill, McKiernan, McChrystal, Petraeus, Allen, Dunford, and Campbell. The title carried by these officers changed over time. So, too, did the specifics of their "mission" as Operation Enduring Freedom evolved into Operation Freedom's Sentinel. Yet even as expectations slipped lower and lower, none of the commanders rotating through Kabul delivered. Not a single one has, in our president-elect's concise formulation, "done the job." Indeed, it's increasingly difficult to know what that job is, apart from preventing the Taliban from quite literally toppling the government.

In Iraq, meanwhile, Army Lt. General Stephen Townsend currently serves as the—count 'em—ninth American to command US and coalition forces in that country since the George W. Bush administration ordered the invasion of 2003. The first in that line, (once again) General Tommy Franks, overthrew the Saddam Hussein regime and thereby broke Iraq. The next five, Generals Sanchez, Casey, Petraeus, Odierno, and Austin, labored for eight years to put it back together again.

At the end of 2011, President Obama declared that they had done just that and terminated the US military occupation. The Islamic State soon exposed Obama's claim as specious when its militants put a US-trained Iraqi army to flight and annexed large swaths of Iraqi territory. Following in the footsteps of his immediate predecessors Generals James Terry and Sean MacFarland, General Townsend now shoulders the task of trying to restore Iraq's status as a more or less genuinely sovereign state. He directs what the Pentagon calls Operation Inherent Resolve, dating from June 2014, the follow-on to Operation New Dawn (September 2010 to December 2011), which was itself the successor to Operation Iraqi Freedom (March 2003 to August 2010).

When and how Inherent Resolve will conclude is difficult to forecast. This much we can, however, say with some confidence: With the end nowhere in sight, General Townsend won't be its last commander. Other generals are waiting in the wings with their own careers to polish. As in Kabul, the parade of US military commanders through Baghdad will continue.

For some readers, this listing of mostly forgotten names and dates may have a soporific effect. Yet it should also drive home Trump's point. The United States may today have the world's most powerful and capable military—so, at least, we are constantly told. Yet the record shows that it does not have a corps of senior officers who know how to translate capability into successful outcomes.

That brings us to the second question: Even if Commander in Chief Trump were somehow able to identify modern-day equivalents of Grant and Sherman to implement his war plans, secret or otherwise, would they deliver victory?

On that score, we would do well to entertain doubts. Although senior officers charged with running recent American wars have not exactly covered themselves in glory, it doesn't follow that their shortcomings offer the sole or even a principal explanation for why those wars have yielded such disappointing results. The truth is that some wars aren't winnable and shouldn't be fought.

So, yes, Trump's critique of American generalship possesses merit, but whether he knows it or not, the question truly demanding his attention as the incoming commander in chief isn't "Who should I hire (or fire) to fight my wars?" Instead, far more urgent is, "Does further war promise to solve any of my problems?"

One mark of a successful business executive is knowing when to cut your losses. It's also the mark of a successful statesman. Trump claims to be the former. Whether his putative business savvy will translate into the world of statecraft remains to be seen. Early signs are not promising.

As a candidate, Trump vowed to "defeat radical Islamic terrorism," destroy ISIS, "decimate Al Qaeda," and "starve funding for Iran-backed Hamas and Hezbollah." Those promises imply a significant escalation of what Americans used to call the "global war on terrorism."

Toward that end, the incoming administration may well revive some aspects of the George W. Bush playbook, including repopulating the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and "if it's so important to the American people," reinstituting torture. The Trump administration will at least consider re-imposing sanctions on countries like Iran. It may aggressively exploit the offensive potential of cyberweapons, betting that America's cyberdefenses will hold.

Yet President Trump is also likely to double down on the use of conventional military force. In that regard, his promise to "quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS" offers a hint of what is to come. His appointment of the uber-hawkish Lt. General Michael Flynn as his national security adviser and his selection of retired Marine Corps General James ("Mad Dog”) Mattis as defense secretary suggest that he means what he says.

In sum, a Trump administration seems unlikely to reexamine the conviction that the problems roiling the Greater Middle East will someday, somehow yield to a US-imposed military solution. Indeed, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, that conviction will deepen, with genuinely ironic implications for the Trump presidency.

In the immediate wake of 9/11, George W. Bush concocted a fantasy of American soldiers liberating oppressed Afghans and Iraqis and thereby "draining the swamp" that served to incubate anti-Western terrorism. The results were beyond disappointing, while the costs exacted in terms of lives and dollars squandered were painful indeed. Incrementally, with the passage of time, many Americans concluded that perhaps the swamp most in need of attention was not on the far side of the planet but much closer at hand—right in the imperial city nestled alongside the Potomac River.

To a very considerable extent, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, the preferred candidate of the establishment, because he advertised himself as just the guy disgruntled Americans could count on to drain that swamp. Yet here's what too few of those Americans appreciate, even today: War created the swamp in the first place. War empowers Washington. It centralizes. It provides a rationale for federal authorities to accumulate and exercise new powers. It makes government bigger and more intrusive. It lubricates the machinery of waste, fraud, and abuse that causes tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to vanish every year. When it comes to sustaining the swamp, nothing works better than war.

Were Trump really intent on draining that swamp—if he genuinely seeks to "Make America Great Again"— then he would extricate the United States from war. His liquidation of Trump University, which was to higher education what Freedom's Sentinel and Inherent Resolve are to modern warfare, provides a potentially instructive precedent for how to proceed.

But don't hold your breath. All signs indicate that, in one fashion or another, our combative next president will perpetuate the wars he's inheriting. Trump may fancy that, as a veteran of Celebrity Apprentice (but not of military service), he possesses a special knack for spotting the next Grant or Sherman. But acting on that impulse will merely replenish the swamp in the Greater Middle East, along with the one in Washington. And soon enough, those who elected him with expectations of seeing the much-despised establishment dismantled will realize that they've been had.

Which brings us, finally, to that third question: To the extent that deficiencies at the top of the military hierarchy do affect the outcome of wars, what can be done to fix the problem?

The most expeditious approach: Purge all currently serving three- and four-star officers. Then, make a precondition for promotion to those ranks confinement in a reeducation camp run by Iraq and Afghanistan war amputees, with a curriculum designed by Veterans for Peace. Graduation should require each student to submit an essay reflecting on these words of wisdom from Grant himself: "There never was a time when, in my opinion, some way could not be found to prevent the drawing of the sword.”

True, such an approach may seem a bit draconian. But this is no time for half measures—as even Donald Trump may eventually recognize.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

These Are the Books We're Giving Our Friends This Year

Mother Jones - December 3, 2016 - 5:00am

Every year, Mother Jones receives hundreds of worthy books, but there are always a handful that truly stand out, the ones we end up foisting on friends and family. Well, friends and family, here you go, in no particular order. Also, be sure and check out the Best Cookbooks post by food and ag writer Tom Philpott, and stay tuned for photo book picks from photo editor Mark Murrmann and the year's best music from critic Jon Young (on Sunday).

The Hopefuls, by Jennifer Close. Beth, the twentysomething protagonist of Jennifer Close's wryly observed new novel, is an aspiring journalist loving life in New York City. But when her husband, Matt, gets a job in the Obama administration, Beth reluctantly agrees to follow him to DC. Thanks to Close's eye for detail, The Hopefuls is like a still life of Washington in 2008. She masterfully captures both the contagious enthusiasm and wonky snobbery of DC's rising political stars and their hangers-on. One character is forever telling anecdotes about senior Obama adviser David Axelrod, pretentiously referring to him as "Ax." Another refers to Obama as "the senator"—a subtle humble brag that he's worked for the president since way back when. Beth is miserable in this dreary social circle—until she and her husband click with a charismatic couple from Texas. And before she knows it, Beth herself is swept into this world of political strivers. Ultimately, The Hopefuls is as much about friendship as it is about politics—and about what happens when the two collide. —Kiera Butler, senior editor

My Father, the Pornographer, by Chris Offutt. This memoir is not a salacious romp, as the cover might suggest, but a slow-burning examination of Chris Offutt's strained relationship with his late dad, a prolific author of smut and sci-fi. Offutt focuses less on the giant pile of kinky material he inherited than how it affected his childhood, his family, and his sense of self. His final plunge into his father's most secret, and shameful, obsessions is worth the wait. —Dave Gilson, senior editor

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach. This latest book from the perpetually curious Mary Roach looks at the weird yet deadly serious science of keeping soldiers alive. In a globe-trotting tour of labs, training grounds, and a nuclear sub, Roach explores how fighting men and women sweat, sleep, and poop. "No one wins a medal" for this obscure, often gross, survival research, Roach writes. "And maybe someone should." Like her previous books Gulp and Stiff, Grunt oozes bodily fluids, flippant footnotes, and weapons-grade wordplay. —D.G.

The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985, by Riad Sattouf & Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, by Marcelino Truong. Two of the most affecting memoirs of the year are graphic novels by French cartoonists who grew up astride two cultures. The Arab of the Future 2 picks up where its predecessor left off: Riad Sattouf, the adorable six-year-old son of a Syrian father and a French mother, is adjusting to his new life in his father's village outside Homs in the mid-1980s. Sattouf's bubbly illustrations belie the bleakness of his surroundings, and the violence and misogyny he witnesses.

Marcelino Truong's beautifully illustrated tale follows him and his two siblings in their move to Saigon as the Vietnam War heats up. While the kids are enthralled by the war and oblivious to its horrors, their French-born mother breaks down as she sees just how quickly things are falling apart. The two authors' artistic and narrative sensibilities differ, but their work is united by common themes: surreal childhoods amid geopolitical conflict (Sattouf and his playmates battle the Israeli Army; Truong and his cousins pretend to fight the Viet Cong) and idealistic fathers (Sattouf's dad is a Qaddafi- and Saddam-admiring pan-Arabist, while Truong's is an official in the US-backed South Vietnamese government) who are blind to the strife afflicting their countries—and families. Read together or separately, these comics pack a surprising punch. —D.G.

Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, by John Edgar Wideman. In his first book in more than a decade, the acclaimed African American author and Brown University professor John Edgar Wideman explores the saga of Emmett Till's father, who was court-martialed and hanged by the United States military well before the notorious lynching of his son by white racists in Mississippi. Via a Freedom of Information Act request, Wideman obtains records from Louis Till's military trial and interrogates the file from every angle—filling in the gaps with his own vivid imagination and recollections. Part history, part memoir, part mystery, part fiction, this insightful book reveals as much about the author as it does about his subject. As Wideman put it to me in a recent interview, "To write a story about Louis Till puts me on trial." —Michael Mechanic, senior editor

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. You've probably heard plenty about 2016's National Book Award winner for fiction, but I'll pile on anyway. Whitehead's riveting slavery saga reimagines the underground railroad as a literal thing, but he doesn't dwell too heavily on that plot device. The story follows a pair of escapees from a Georgia plantation as they move north along the railroad, pursued by a determined slave catcher. Among other things, they stumble across a bizarre eugenics experiment in South Carolina and a vile campaign of ethnic cleansing in North Carolina. Whitehead's character-driven tale brings into visceral relief the horrors, the cruelty, the stark inhumanity of an economy based on captive black labor. And he reminds us, too, of the grim fate that awaited Southern whites brave enough to oppose the system. —M.M.

The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies. Given the extraordinary success of Chinese Americans today, it's easy to forget how tough white society made things for their forebears who flocked here during the Gold Rush or who were imported as cheap labor for railroad companies—only to later be scapegoated and officially excluded by an act of Congress that would remain in force until 1943 (just in time for the interning of Japanese Americans). Davies' outstanding new novel reminds us how things were (and still are, if the 2016 election is any indication). The experiences of Davies' characters—a poor laundry boy hired on as a railroad magnate's valet, an ambitious Chinese American starlet—highlight the tightrope walk of maintaining one's culture while striving for acceptance in a resentful society. The Fortunes feels particularly timely now that we've handed the White House keys to a man who threatens to register and exclude Muslim immigrants, and to deport Americans (for really, what else can we honestly call them?) brought here without papers as toddlers. —M.M.

While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man's Descent Into Madness, by Eli Sanders. One night in 2009, a disturbed young man named Isaiah Kalebu entered a Seattle home through an open window and raped and stabbed two women, killing one. He was sentenced to life in prison, but local journalist Eli Sanders, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the case, kept digging. While the City Slept, his compassionate examination of the lives that collided that night, relates how a bright but abused boy grew into a violent criminal and, as one psychiatrist put it, "became his illness." The book plays double duty as tribute to those whose lives were upended and a meticulous indictment of the way we fail fellow citizens with serious mental disorders. —Madison Pauly, assistant editor

Pumpkinflowers, by Matti Friedman. This is a 21st-century war story, with all of the IEDs, propaganda videos, jihadi groups we're accustomed to—but one told in the restrained, introspective style of the World War I writers Friedman turned to for inspiration. It's partly an engrossing personal story, partly a history of a forgotten chapter in Middle East conflict, and one of the best-written books I've read in years. —Max J. Rosenthal, reporter

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. This ambitious debut novel sparked a bidding war and landed Gyasi a seven-figure contract just one year after she graduated from the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Following seven generations across two continents, Gyasi manages to fit the many stages of slavery's plunder into a relatively slim volume, to dazzling and often devastating effect. Though some of the storylines unravel a bit toward the novel's end, the emphasis on global slavery's ramifications in West Africa, told with rich and lively characters and language that hums, makes this well worth the commitment. —Maddie Oatman, story editor

Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating and What You Can Do About It, by Larry Olmsted. We've all been told to steer clear of artificial ingredients, but how much do you know about fake—meaning fraudulent—food? Turns out, it's everywhere, including in your kitchen right now. Olive oil, parmesan cheese, fish fillets, red wine; it would seem the more scrumptious the victual, the more likely it is to be a sham. Olmsted gives us the lay of this seedy landscape with momentum and aplomb. He demystifies the process by which fake ingredients end up in your shopping cart, explains why some of these deceitful foods could be a real threat to your health, and sheds a light on the government policies and shortsighted commercialism that landed them there. —M.O.

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith. Award-winning author Zadie Smith's fifth novel interweaves two narratives. One involves the unnamed narrator's childhood friendship, wrought by a shared passion for dance. The other one revolves around the narrator's adult travels to Africa in the employ of a pop star as she grapples with her own biracial identity. Penned in Smith's inimitable, winding style, Swing Time looks unflinchingly at race, gender, parenting, love, and friendship. In places, I found the book an unnerving reminder of my own childhood, of parents who seemed invincible and maddeningly certain about the course of their offspring's future. —Becca Andrews, assistant editor

March: Book Three, by Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin; illustrated by Nate Powell. Police brutality, segregation, voting rights: Many of the big issues of the 1960s are alive and well today. The March graphic-history trilogy tells the story of the civil rights movement through the eyes of Rep. John Lewis, onetime chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—a group at the center of the struggle. In poignant detail, the March books, totally 600 pages, put us at the heart of the battles over desegregation and black suffrage. We meet the movement's leaders and witness the ugly local clashes leading up to the March on Washington. In the third installment, which earned a 2016 National Book Award, the beatings and defiance of "Bloody Sunday" stand in sharp contrast to Lewis' pride on President Barack Obama's inauguration day. The book, and the trilogy, offer lessons for modern strivers on how far we've come—while serving as a reminder of how far we have yet to go. —Edwin Rios, reporter

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. In a tome filled with heartbreak, Desmond, a sociologist who teaches at Harvard, embeds with eight families who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads in the segregated city of Milwaukee. Rich in history and bolstered by engrossing research, Evicted vividly captures with empathy the lives of those caught up in deep poverty as they reel from the consequences of losing their homes. In doing so, it elevates the importance of affordable housing in today's society. "Housing is deeply implicated in causing poverty in America today," Desmond told me in March, "and we have to do something." —E.R.

A Rage for Order: The Middle East in turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS, by Robert F. Worth. This is not your typical Middle East manuscript—no bird's eye view of battlefield advancements or policy analysis on the region in collapse. Rather, Robert F. Worth, the longtime correspondent for the New York Times, managed to be on the ground seemingly everywhere that mattered during the zenith of the Arab Spring, and takes us a journey inside the lives of those whose hopes rode on the Arab Spring's promise and whose lives changed—or ended—forever once the popular uprisings collapsed into insurgencies and civil war. It's a beautifully written, moving account that brings humanity and heart to a region typically only considered in terms of conflict and chaos. —Bryan Schatz, reporter

God Save Sex Pistols, by Johan Kugelberg, with Jon Savage and Glenn Terry. Curator, author, and all-around underground know-it-all Johan Kugelberg released the end-all Sex Pistols ephemera collection earlier this year, and just in time; soon after, Joe Corre, son of punk impressarios Malcolm McClaren and Dame Vivien Westwood, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistol's first single by burning more than $6 million worth of rare, original Sex Pistols and UK punk memorabilia. Though the original artifacts were lost to Corre's piqued sense of anti-nostalgia, God Save Sex Pistols lovingly showcases photos, letters, flyers, records, posters, shirts—everything related to the band that once terrified parents and politicians. The book also serves as a more focused compendium to Kugelberg & Savages' excellent 2012 book, Punk: An Aesthethic. —Mark Murrmann, photo editor

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong. Few writers know how to explain science clearly, and even fewer science writers compose genuinely gorgeous prose. Ed Yong is that unicorn. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us is the most elegant guide I've seen to our still-primitive understanding of the microbiome—the gazillions of tiny critters living within us. Like Nietzsche peering into a microscope, Yong urges us to think beyond "good" and "bad" microbes: "These terms belong in children's stories. They are ill-suited for describing the messy, fractious, contextual relationships of the natural world." Context is everything. "The same microbes could be good in the gut, but dangerous in the blood," Yong writes. One of the many functions of mother's milk, one scientist informs him, may be to "provide babies with a starter's pack of symbiotic viruses"—and that's a good thing. "Every one of us is a zoo in our own right—a colony enclosed within a single body," he writes. "A multi-species collection. An entire world." —Tom Philpott, food and ag correspondent

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank. His forward-looking autopsy may seem like a contradiction in terms, but Thomas Frank had the dirge of the Democratic Party cued up before primary season. Still, the shock of November 8 catapulted the virtuosic Listen, Liberal from insightful to downright prophetic. Frank meticulously charts the Democrats' suicidal slide from a party of the factory floor to one of late-summer galas on Martha's Vineyard. He hits on all the major missteps—the decline of middle-class wages, the bank bailouts, the trade deals, the technocracy (oh, the technocracy!)—all of which were later parceled out by the flabbergasted into grasping post-election think pieces. Frank's book is lacerating and urgent, but also titillating, witty, and downright fun to read. It will no doubt give some establishment Dems the strong urge to throw the book into the ocean—indeed, their proximity to the coast and ability to conceivably do just that is part of the problem. This, for my money, is the best nonfiction of 2016. —Alex Sammon, editorial fellow

Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, by Cynthia Ozick. Narratives of decline seem to be particularly in, but no one can render this notion quite as beautifully as Ozick. At 88, she's been around the literary block, and she can't help but lament the state of the American traditions of reading and writing. "What's impossible not to notice," as she put it to me earlier this year, "is the diminution of American prose." To read Ozick is enriching for her startling vocabulary alone, though her intellectual force is also something to behold. This essay collection stakes out the critical cultural importance of literary criticism, and does so with the linguistic expertise of a poet—peaking with a vivid disemboweling of the term "Kafkaesque," for all its faux-literary worth. One thing, for Ozick, is certain: The road to cultural aridity is paved with 3.5-star Amazon reviews. —A.S.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. If you want to understand how Donald Trump took over the GOP, and how he won so many Rust Belt counties that voted for Barack Obama, this is a good place to start. Vance uses the story of his childhood in a dying steel town to highlight what he sees as cultural shortcomings and political delusions among the region's white working class. "We talk about the value of hard work," he writes, "but tell ourselves that the reason we're not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese." There's plenty to disagree with in Vance's analysis—his insistence on blaming "welfare queens" for their financial problems, for example. Still, for all of us asking, "What just happened to my country?" Hillbilly Elegy provides some invaluable clues. —Jeremy Schulman, senior project manager, Climate Desk

What the Heck Is a Placebo Anyway?

Mother Jones - December 3, 2016 - 5:00am

Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century German physician, believed a mysterious force he called "animal magnetism" could be used to cure people. Mesmer's theory was that there was invisible fluid in the body that could be controlled by magnetized objects and that disease was a result of "obstacles" to those fluids' flow. To fight the disease, Mesmer used hypnotic procedures on his patients. At times, he would give people water he had "mesmerized" in order to cure them.

While Mesmer claimed some success with patients, he had critics. One was Benjamin Franklin, who saw Mesmer's healing techniques for what they were: placebos. In modern medicine, a placebo is a fake medical treatment used to test out the results of real medications. The placebo effect is, essentially, the body's response (in some instances, a very real response) to this fake treatment. In other words, Mesmer's medications weren't scientifically sound, but they may have made patients feel better through the power of suggestion.

Award-winning science writer Erik Vance has spent a lot of time thinking about the placebo effect. In his book, Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain's Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal, Vance explores placebos, hypnosis, and how beliefs influence bodily responses to pain. "Placebos and beliefs generally is so much a part of our lives," he tells Kishore Hari on a recent episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. "It has an amazing power to change our bodies."

Vance has a unique perspective on the topic: He was raised in a Christian Science household and saw a doctor for the first time when he was 18 years old. "Belief was basically my health care," he says.

Today, placebos are used by researchers to test whether drugs are actually effective in treating medical conditions—that is, whether patients who are taking an experimental medication see better results than patients who just think they are taking one. For some conditions—Parkinson's disease, for instance—placebos can actually be an effective treatment.

It's hard to figure out what the precise mechanisms of the placebo effect are and how they work. But as Vance explains, we now know that they often involve real chemicals produced by the body—real drugs from your "internal pharmacy." Some of these chemicals are used by the brain to make sure that your expectation meets reality. When expectation doesn't meet reality, the brain steps in and forces it to fit. Parkinson's is caused by a lack of dopamine, a chemical that, among other things, is involved in reward processing in our brains. "Expectation drives placebos," Vance explained to National Geographic. "And dopamine is a chemical that's very responsive to our expectations. Parkinson's happens to be a deficiency in the very chemical that's very important in placebo effects and rewards."

But while the mind is powerful, it can't do everything. Vance says there are rules at play. Many serious diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer's, don't respond well to sugar pills—patients need actual medicine that has been proven more effective than placebos. "There are some places where the role of the mind to affect the body is profound," says Vance, "and other places where it is not."

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

Pissed Off About Something You See on the Web? Call Out the Person, Not the Organization.

Mother Jones - December 2, 2016 - 6:03pm

Over at National Review, David French writes:

For a ‘Peaceful’ Group, Black Lives Matter Sure Does Love Cop Killers and Murderous Dictators

I don’t know how I missed it, but this sickening essay from Black Lives Matter has to be read to believed. Entitled “Lessons from Fidel: Black Lives Matter and the Transition of El Comandante,” it begins....

I'm not especially trying to pick on French here, but this gives me an excuse to gripe about something that I see too often these days.

Let's stipulate that the essay in question is horrible. I don't care one way or the other. What I do care about is that French attributes it to "Black Lives Matter." But that's not the case. It was written by a specific person, not by BLM as some kind of official position statement. It represents them no more than I represent Mother Jones.

Still, at least MoJo employs me and has some responsibility for what I write. You can't even say that much about the author of the Castro piece. To the extent that there's an "official" BLM organization, it's here. This is the organization founded by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza. But pretty much anyone can set up shop under the BLM name, and the essay French links to comes from a Medium site called @BlackLivesMatterNetwork. It has posted a grand total of three pieces in the last two months. I have no idea who wrote them or who the site is associated with.

Condemn the piece all you want. But it's not fair to use it to tar "Black Lives Matter." They aren't responsible for everything that's tossed onto the web under the BLM banner.

UPDATE: It turns out that the official BLM site shared the Castro essay on its Facebook page. So it's fair to call them out for promoting it.

My general complaint stands, however. If I write something, it means "Kevin Drum says," not "Mother Jones says." If David French writes something, it means "David French says," not "National Review says." Needless to say, this rule is for personal opinion/analysis pieces. News organizations are corporately responsible for editorial opinions and straight news.

U.S. veterans are voluntarily becoming human shields for Standing Rock protesters

VICE News - December 2, 2016 - 5:47pm

U.S. military veterans continue to arrive at the snowy Standing Rock encampment to form a human shield between protesters and police. By Sunday, camp organizers say, about 2,000 vets will be on site.

“Our goal is to stand there and if need be take the rounds for the First Nations people so they can do their thing,” said Mark Sanderson, a former Army Sergeant who served in Iraq.

The vets, who will be be unarmed but wearing body armor, have vowed to protect protesters from police who have arrested hundreds of people in the last two months while utilizing tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons.

The Army Corps of Engineers has said that on Dec. 5 it will close the land it manages and on which the Oceti Sakowin camp stands. North Dakota’s governor has said the camp must immediately evacuate at that point, citing safety concerns now that the bitter plains winter has arrived.

“I appreciate the governor’s concern about our safety,” said Oceti Sakowin media organizer John Bigelow. “I wish he had been concerned about our safety when he was spraying us with water cannons in 23 degree weather.”

On Thursday, President-elect Donald Trump said for the first time that he endorses the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, which protesters, who call themselves water protectors, fear will leak into water supplies and destroy sacred burial sites.

Trump’s support “has nothing to do with his personal investments and everything to do with promoting policies that benefit all Americans,” according to a communications briefing from Trump’s transition team. Trump has investments in companies that stand to benefit from the pipeline.

Protectors have refused to leave the land, and it’s unclear whether police will forcibly remove them. If they attempt to, veterans say they will be there to help.

“We’re here to assist in any way possible,” Sanderson said. “The police are trying to say it’s not a peaceful protest because we’re in body armor,” S“But I mean, this doesn’t look aggressive at all. There are no magazine pouches, there’s nothing that can be construed as having a weapon. We’re just padding ourselves against any force they might use.”

For Sanderson, the battle over the pipeline is not just an environmental issue. He also feels that he’s standing on the right side of history after fighting in Iraq, which he says he considers an unjust war.

In my prior deployment, I really feel like I was being utilized in the same way the troops are being utilized here,” he said. “To protect American interests, whether fossil fuel, natural gas, pipeline. It’s all the same, and it’s the wrong way forward.”

Donald Trump Decides to Poke the Chinese Dragon

Mother Jones - December 2, 2016 - 5:17pm

The Financial Times reports that Donald Trump spoke on the phone today with Tsai Ying-wen, the president of Taiwan. This is a very big deal:

The telephone call, confirmed by three people, is believed to be the first between a US president or president-elect and a leader of Taiwan since diplomatic relations between the two were cut in 1979.

Although it is not clear if the Trump transition team intended the conversation to signal a broader change in US policy towards Taiwan, the call is likely to infuriate Beijing which regards the island as a renegade province. “The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” said Evan Medeiros, former Asia director at the White House national security council.

Of course, maybe Trump was just calling to ask for a business favor:

The mayor of Taoyuan confirmed rumors on Wednesday that US president-elect Donald Trump was considering constructing a series of luxury hotels and resorts in the northwest Taiwanese city. A representative from the Trump Organization paid a visit to Taoyuan in September....Other reports indicate that Eric Trump, the president-elect's second son and executive vice president of the Trump Organization, will be coming to Taoyuan later this year to discuss the potential business opportunity.

Who knows? But foreign policy wonks are blowing a gasket over this, and the question of the hour is: Did Trump set off this diplomatic shitstorm accidentally or deliberately? I have to believe it was deliberate. Even Trump's team isn't so pig-ignorant that they're unaware of our policy toward China and Taiwan.

But if that's the case, it means that Trump is dead set on pursuing a hostile policy against China from the get-go. Perhaps, thanks to his decades of steely negotiating victories, he believes the Chinese will eventually back down once they realize they can't mess with him. Perhaps. Welcome to Trumpland.

UPDATE: It's worth noting that Trump has an odd kind of advantage here. For a little while longer, anyway, he can do this kind of stuff just to see what happens—and then, if it blows up, he can pretend he wasn't up to speed what with all the staffing work etc. etc. Then he calls someone in China and declares that everything is fine, China is a fantastic place, he has nothing but the highest respect for them, blah blah blah.

Will this work? I suppose it might. But not for much longer.

Nine months as captive for Abu Sayyaf

VICE News - December 2, 2016 - 4:30pm

Marites Flor first realized John Ridsdel had been murdered when she saw one of their captors cleaning his blood off a machete.

The 3 p.m. deadline on April 25 had come and gone, and the Abu Sayyaf militants hiding in the Philippine jungle had followed through with their plan to behead the Canadian.

Flor had known how dangerous the Islamic State-affiliated militant group was. But up until then, the militants had lied to them constantly about whether they were going home or not. By Christmas. Before the New Year. Every date they set came and went, so she didn’t believe they would follow through with Ridsdel’s execution.

But Ridsdel knew he was about to die. The night before the deadline, he gave Flor a final message to pass along to his loved ones.

“I want you to tell [my] daughters that they are amazing, that [I] love them so much,” she recalled him saying.

Months later, on June 13, the militants struck again, this time beheading another hostage, Canadian Robert Hall. The 66-year-old was Flor’s fiance.

Now, months after her own release, Flor gave her first wide-ranging interview to VICE News over Skype, shedding light on the harrowing ordeal she and the hostages who did not make it endured. She revealed new details of just how close the Philippine military was to the Abu Sayyaf camp — at one point, the gunfire exchange between the militants and the army was so close, Flor could smell the smoke — and a $1 million ransom offer by the Ridsdel family that fell short of the captors demands.

A Filipina woman, Flor was an afterthought in Canadian media coverage of the hostage situation that began on Sept. 21, 2015, when she, Ridsdel, Hall, and Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad were captured at gunpoint at a Philippine resort in the Mindanao region. But during her time in captivity, Flor played a crucial role, becoming the go-between translator and advocate for the three foreign hostages. They pinned their hopes on newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who stood firm on Canada’s policy of not paying ransom demands to terrorists.

After witnessing horrors and starving in the jungle, Flor is now back to a healthy weight and is getting support from a therapist. What follows is her account of the nine months she spent in captivity.


The evening of Sept. 21, 2015, Flor and Hall were relaxing in their boat, watching movies, at the Holiday Oceanview Samal Resort, a usually-quiet tourist destination not far from the city of Davao. The couple had met online.

The last photo taken of Marites Flor and Robert Hall, only days before they were captured. Photo courtesy of Flor

Flor was the single mother of a teenager. Hall was an the Alberta-born adventurer, who had worked as a metalworker and actor, according to Maclean’s. Hall had visited the Philippines several times to meet Flor and her family, and decided to stay for good. They were in love, and wanted to start a business together. They had plans to get married, and already they called each other husband and wife.

Around 11 p.m. they weren’t tired enough to go to bed. Hall turned on the light to make some popcorn. That’s when they heard banging outside.

Four or five gunmen came into their boat and one pointed a pistol in Flor’s face. The gunmen pressed the muzzle of a rifle into Hall’s head so forcefully that it drew blood. They ordered the couple to get up onto the deck.

“We will shoot your wife!” they threatened.

Hall asked them what they wanted and they demanded money. He gave them all the cash in his wallet, Flor recalled. The militants went into the boat and searched it, while others held them at gunpoint.

Meanwhile, several more gunmen were looking for other potential hostages.

John Ridsdel was on the dock when he was grabbed. Norwegian resort manager Kjartan Sekkingstad intervened and tried to fight off the men but he, too, was captured.

The gunmen forced the four captives into a fishing boat, into the hole where Flor said the fish are kept, and covered them with a black tarp. They were cold and wet. Flor and Hall didn’t have shoes on.

As they sped south across the water, their captors tried to force Hall to unlock his iPad — they wanted more information about him, and his bank details. But Hall was defiant. He gave them the wrong password, and cut his thumb with a shard of glass so they couldn’t use his thumbprint to unlock it.

Flor told the others her suspicions: that these men were Abu Sayyaf, a militant organization that had in 2014 pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, “Because of their dialect, because they were Muslim,” she said. Later, when no one was looking, one of the gunmen, in a hushed tone, confirmed it to her.

Video shows gunmen abducting John Ridsdel, Robert Hall, Marites Flor and Kjartan Sekkingstad in Philippines. Release by Philippines National Police

They travelled for three days and two nights. Flor became sick as the boat bounced off the high waves. She still has a scar on her back where the metal side of the boat rubbed as she tried to sleep.

She and Hall comforted each other. “We need to be strong,” she told him.

At one point, there were problems with the boat’s engine. They considered escaping if the boat capsized, but the engine pulled through, and on they went.

Finally, they reached the province of Sulu in the southern Philippine archipelago, where they joined with 200 to 300 Abu Sayyaf militants in the jungle, many of them young recruits — one of them a boy soldier of only about 10 years old, holding a gun.

Every day, the militants marched them through the jungle, their slippered feet sliding on forest floor when it rained. The militants gave Hall and Flor slippers because they had no shoes, blankets, and a tarp for when it rained. At night they would camp and sleep on the ground. Their diet consisted mostly of rice and brown water.

To keep their spirits up, Flor would jokingly pretend that the bland food was chicken or cupcakes, and the other hostages would play along.

The negotiators

About three weeks after they were captured, Flor and the three others recorded their first video.

The hostage-takers had talked on the phone to the victims families, demanding ransom. If there was no movement, they would record grainy videos of their captives and release them online.

In their first recording, masked Abu Sayyaf gunmen hold assault rifles behind the backs of the four hostages. A flag in the background carries the Islamic State symbol, or shahada. One militant holds a knife to Ridsdel’s neck. The Canadians plead for help, and ask their families to contact the Canadian government. Ridsdel asks the Philippine military to stop their operations so negotiations can begin.

Abu Sayyaf released several videos before they set their first deadline. In the third video released on March 10, the deadline was April 8 and the ransom for Ridsdel was $100 million Philippine Pesos (about CAD $2.7 million).

That deadline came and went. An April 15 video set the deadline for ten days later — this time demanding $300 million (about CAD $8 million) Pesos by 3 p.m. that day.

“Every time I heard the word ultimatum, it made me scared,” Flor said. “They said if they get the money, they will not kill somebody. We did not think that they would kill one of us.”

Canadians Robert Hall and John Ridsdel in a 2015 video released by Abu Sayyaf, the militant group that was holding them hostage in the Philippines.

The first murder

As the April 25 ultimatum approached, Ridsdel prepared to die.

He asked Flor several times to bring messages back to his family, but she refused, telling him his worst fears wouldn’t happen.

The night before the deadline, he insisted. He asked Flor to tell his daughters they were amazing and that he loved them. Again, she told him to keep his hopes up — that he was going to live.

That night, the Philippine military converged on their position. Flor said she heard drones whizzing overhead. A helicopter opened fire, wounding several militants. She heard one Abu Sayyaf fighter say the soldiers had followed them into the jungle.

In the press, the Philippine military said they were hitting Abu Sayyaf hard, but questions persist regarding how a military with expansive resources could not take out a small force of only 200 to 300 militants in the jungle.

“I could tell they were still having trouble finding the [Abu Sayyaf Group] because of the forest,” Flor said of the military. “The trees are too big.”

To evade the military’s ongoing rescue mission, the militants kept them moving on foot through the jungle all night and into the next day. They were tired, hungry and thirsty. Finally, they stopped to rest and cook food.

The deadline of 3 p.m. loomed over the group. She saw the negotiator talking on the phone. He was talking to Ridsdel’s daughter, Flor said. “They were talking about money or ransom.”

She heard the hostage negotiator say they would not accept $40 million pesos (about CAD $1 million) — it was short of the $300 million pesos (about CAD $8 million) they had publicly demanded for Ridsdel release.

The negotiator gave the phone to Ridsdel. “I heard John say: ‘Bring that money now, here in Sulu.’”

Then they put the handcuffs on Ridsdel, slapped him, and dragged him away from the other three hostages.

“I think something is wrong,” Flor told Hall. “I think they did something.”

Hall replied, “No, no, it’s just a drama.”

When the militants returned, they ordered the others to throw away Ridsdel’s belongings. He was dead.

Flor said she didn’t believe it until she saw the knife.

“I saw the leader, and he was washing the knife, and there was blood.”

“Robert kept saying that they were animals.”

Flor sobbed in Hall’s arms. The next day, the militants watched the beheading video on repeat and laughed. She could hear John’s voice. It confirmed what she suspected.

“I kept covering my ears, I couldn’t take it, it made me scared, I was crying.”

“Robert kept saying that they were animals.”

The second murder

In the nine months she was held captive, Flor says the military attacked nine times. Sometimes their fire came close to the group, sometimes they were too far away. But she believes the military knew their approximate location.

In all nine military encounters, Flor said: “I can hear the bullets, I can hear the bombs, I can hear the shooting, I can hear everything.”

She saw a drone only once, although the hostages often heard them flying overhead.

After Ridsdel’s beheading, the prospect of death hung over all of them.

On May 15, about a month after he died, Abu Sayyaf released another video. In this one, the remaining hostages wore orange jumpsuits, like in the execution videos produced by the Islamic State. The demand was CAD $16 million by June 13, or both Hall and Sekkingstad will be killed.

Hall addressed the camera: “My name is Robert Hall. I am told to tell you that on June 13th at 3 p.m. I will be murdered if the demands are not met.”

Behind the scenes, Flor said she tried to advocate for the foreign hostages. She begged the leader, “Please, please don’t do that to Robert and Kjartan. Our families want us to go home alive.

“$300 million [pesos] is impossible,” she explained. “I am begging you.”

The negotiators were waiting for Hall’s family to phone them.

Hostages Canadian Robert Hall (R) and Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad (L) are seen in this undated picture released to local media, in Jolo island in southern Philippines. Handout/via REUTERSHandout/via Reuters

As the deadline on Hall’s head neared, the negotiators had the hostages speak on the phone to reporters with the Philippine Inquirer. Abu Sayyaf saw the paper as a platform to amplify their ransom demands, and find someone willing to pay.

With only hours left before the 3 p.m. deadline, Flor spoke over the phone to an Inquirer reporter: “We need to go home alive. We don’t want what happened to John to happen again.”

But the deadline neared, and no ransom came.

Hall and Flor knew it was the last time they were going to be together.

“I kept hugging him, telling him that I love him so much, that I want him to be beside me, because I don’t know what will happen if I am alone.

“He told me that, if something happens, I want you to be strong, and I want you to move on, and I want you to find someone who is in a western country because you are not safe here anymore.

“I kept telling him, no, no, don’t say that. But he just kept telling me ‘You need to be strong, and you need to move on.’

“It was heartbreaking, so heartbreaking,” she said with tears on her cheeks.

He gave her directions for how to find the military’s location in the jungle if she had a chance to escape. She still wonders today how he knew where she should go. She believes his spirit had already left his body by then, and that he had seen her escape route from above.

At 3 p.m., they handcuffed Hall and took him away.

“They murdered Robert,” Flor said.

Flor freed

After Hall’s execution, she confronted his killer: “So now you are happy? You are happy that you killed somebody?”

The man smiled at her and said nothing.

“I had a feeling that I wanted to kill him, but of course I am female and I am still a hostage,” she said.

Again, they packed up their camp and marched through the jungle to evade the military. They walked all night. They heard helicopters attacking in the distance, back in the direction of the camp where they had killed Hall, but by now his murderers were long gone.


Ten days after Hall’s death, Flor was released.

Her captors said someone on the outside “wanted to help” her and Sekkingstad. But they didn’t elaborate. She doesn’t know whether someone paid for her to walk free — it would be in Abu Sayyaf’s interest for people to believe they got a ransom.

Marites Flor was honoured by the Philippine president when she was freed. Screenshot via Facebook group "Set Free Marites Flor and Friends."

“I don’t believe what they are saying because they are such liars,” she said.

One night before midnight, the militants woke her and told her to pack up her things because she was going home.

They walked her through the jungle, treading slowly and carefully so they wouldn’t make a sound.

They walked like this for an hour until they hit a road. There was a jeep waiting with a driver. The jeep drove her 20 minutes to a town nearby, where the driver dropped her off and left her.

It wasn’t until September, almost a year after he was captured, that Sekkingstad was released, amid reports that his ransom was paid.

Flor said Hall hoped the Canadian government would pay his ransom secretly, even if Trudeau was saying publicly that they did not negotiate with terrorists. Either that, or he hoped the government would help the rescue mission.

But Trudeau’s position was clear: at a G7 meeting in Japan in May, he sought support for Canada’s no ransom policy, declaring, “I expressed my firm resolve and the clear resolve of Canadians to prevent the Canadian flag from becoming a target when worn on a backpack around the world.”


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference following the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit of Leaders Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015 in Manila, Philippines.Photo by Bullit Marquez/AP

Internal communications obtained by VICE News also showed that before he spoke publicly about Canada’s no ransom policy, Trudeau emphasized that position during a call to the Philippine President ahead of the deadline on Ridsdel’s head.

Flor said that Trudeau’s election had raised the hopes of both Hall and Ridsdel. “They were very happy, they were very hopeful. Because they were thinking, he is a good person, I know we will be safe.”

Asked if she wished the Canadian government had paid the ransoms, she paused for a moment before nodding.

“For me, as a Filipino, and I really don’t know about your Canadian policies, but of course I am wishing for that,” she said. “Just to save the lives of the two guys.”

Read VICE News’ extensive coverage of the hostage crisis in the Philippines. 

Mistrial Appears Likely in Murder Trial of South Carolina Cop Who Killed a Fleeing, Unarmed Suspect

Mother Jones - December 2, 2016 - 3:43pm

It appears likely that Judge Clifton Newman will be compelled to declare a mistrial in the racially charged South Carolina murder trial of former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who fatally shot an unarmed man who had fled from an April 2015 traffic stop. Late Friday afternoon, a lone juror sent a letter to the judge saying that he or she could not, in good conscience, vote to convict Slager of murder or manslaughter. The judge sent word asking the jurors to clarify whether that meant they were hopelessly deadlocked. The jurors responded that they were, but the prosecutor requested that the jurors receive further instruction, if need be, and the jurors expressed a willingness to deliberate further. In the meantime, the judge has sent jurors home for the weekend.

A viral bystander video showed Slager, who is white, shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott, who is black, multiple times from behind. Posted online soon after the incident, the video thrust the Charleston area into the national debate on race and the use of deadly force by police.

What the video didn't show is the preceding tussle during which, Slager testified, Scott had defied his orders and tried to grab the Taser he was deploying. After Scott broke free and ran away, Slager took aim and fired. Slager said he was in a state of "total fear" and believed Scott remained a threat to him, even though he was running away.

Earlier on Friday, the jurors told Newman they were deadlocked in their attempt to reach a verdict, and the judge—who had given them the option of a lesser verdict of manslaughter—sent them back to try again. Over two days of deliberations, the jury twice asked the judge for assistance. They asked for transcripts of Slager's courtroom testimony and that of the officer who interviewed Slager after the shooting. They also asked Newman to clarify the legal distinction between "fear" and "passion." The judge responded that they would have to make that determination themselves.

Many observers have taken note of the racial imbalance of the jury: six white men, five white women, and one black man. No matter which way it goes, the verdict has to be unanimous. A jury foreman's note that accompanied the letter from the holdout juror noted there was only one juror who "had issues" with convicting the officer.

A hung jury would probably be good news for Slager and his defense team. The prosecutor, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, would have to decide whether to pursue a new trial and on what charge. She announced in court that she would first want to interview jurors to gather insights before making further decisions on resolving the case. It's also possible Slager could head off a second trial by pleading to a lesser charge in exchange for a short prison stint—a manslaughter sentence in South Carolina ranges from two to thirty years without parole. But involuntary manslaughter, for instance, carries a maximum sentence of five years.

This post has been updated.

Letters from our readers

Columbia Journalism Review - December 2, 2016 - 3:42pm
Here are a selection of letters and emails we’ve received since mid-November. Please send correspondence to letters@cjr.org, along with your name, address, and any relevant affiliation.     TRUMP VS. THE PRESS “Covering Trump: An oral history of an unforgettable campaign” The oral history project is simply brilliant. Have you considered adding visual tools like this timeline? It could be...

NYT Protects Its Pundit Who Dismissed Trans Rights as ‘Boutique Issue’

FAIR - December 2, 2016 - 2:55pm

The New York Times today (12/2/16) has an op-ed by a trans writer Jennifer Finney Boylan talking about the election—which is refreshing, as trans people are more often written about than writing in prominent papers. She opens with an account of watching TV punditry the morning after the election:

On TV, a commentator speculated that Mrs. Clinton had lost because of her party’s focus on things like trans rights —“boutique issues,” they were called.

A boutique — a place where you’d shop for, say, artisan pantyhose — is not the first place I’d associate with an individual’s quest for equal protection under the law, but then what did I know? I was now one of the people from whom the country had been “taken back.”

The phrase echoed unpleasantly in my mind. A boutique issue? Is this what my fellow Americans had thought of my fight for dignity all along?

The use of the “boutique issues” phrase is a major point in the op-ed—Boylan goes on to discuss Bill Maher’s use of the same expression—so which commentator said it on that morning after?

Well, as writer Melissa Gira Grant pointed out on Twitter (12/2/16), it was New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni.

Times drops a rare trans rights op-ed. Perhaps edited out? The “commentator” was NYT’s Frank Bruni! https://t.co/I2hGXLamO4 pic.twitter.com/scVbOPf3LE

— Melissa Gira Grant (@melissagira) December 2, 2016

Bruni appeared on MSNBC Live the morning after the election (11/9/16), talking to host Stephanie Ruhle about where Democrats went wrong. It was Ruhle who brought up “LGTB initiatives” and “transgender bathrooms”:

When many of the initiatives that represent Obama, when you think about LGTB initiatives, and it matters to so many people, many people could say, transgender bathrooms in high schools, how many people is that going to impact in this country? Not so many.

In response to which, Bruni replied:

I think in a lot of ways the Democratic Party has become this collection of boutique issues.  That they think if you add them all together, you get to 51 percent or 52. But when you do those sorts of boutique issues, and you put all your firepower and all your rhetoric  there, there’s a lot of the country that feels ignored. I really think the Democratic Party has to do some big soul-searching here.

If Boylan didn’t catch the name of the commentator she saw, it was not hard to find; if I put “boutique issues November 9 MSNBC” into Google, the first thing that comes up is a piece on Breitbart (11/9/16) approvingly recounting the conversation.

It seems more likely that the omission of Bruni’s name—a familiar one, of course, to regular readers of the Times op-ed page—was a deliberate choice. Note that Maher got different treatment—which seems to suggest a different standard for commentators who work for HBO vs. those who write for the New York Times.

Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JNaureckas.

You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com, or write to public editor Liz Spayd at public@nytimes.com (Twitter:@NYTimes or @SpaydL). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

Friday Cat Blogging - 2 December 2016

Mother Jones - December 2, 2016 - 1:56pm

I got lucky this week and managed to snap this gorgeous portrait of Hopper. Today, however, everyone is inside. The wind is blowing pretty hard, and it took the cats less than a minute to decide that the backyard was much too scary for them. Leaves blowing! Branches thwacking on the patio cover! Loud whooshing sounds! Much better to snooze inside next to a window, where cruel nature can be seen but not heard.

The Wall Street-Washington Complex Invades Trump's Cabinet

Mother Jones - December 2, 2016 - 1:55pm

Of all the ways Donald Trump has fallen short of his campaign promise to "drain the swamp" of Washington politics with his Cabinet appointments, none is starker than his choice of Elaine Chao as transportation secretary. Chao is as much of a Washington insider as they come: She served as deputy transportation secretary under George H.W. Bush and as secretary of labor for eight years under George W. Bush. She's also married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and this year he used his perch to undermine a federal agency that was going after the bank where she works.

Since 2011, Chao has sat on the board of Wells Fargo, earning more than $1.2 million in pay over that period. This year, it was revealed that the bank had fraudulently set up millions of fake accounts that customers had never requested. That activity earned Wells Fargo a $185 million fine from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the largest penalty levied so far by the new financial watchdog agency.

The Senate called in Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf in September, and both Democrats and Republicans attacking the company's behavior. "This is about accountability," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who helped create the CFPB, said at the hearing. "You should resign. You should give back the money that you took while this scam was going on, and you should be criminally investigated." Stumpf resigned a few weeks later.

But McConnell didn't quite share that sentiment. Instead, he chose to go after the federal agency that had penalized Wells Fargo. As liberal consumer rights group Public Citizen pointed out, less than a week after the CFPB announced its fine against Wells Fargo, McConnell used his authority to try to fast-track a bill that would defang the CFPB by changing its funding structure.

The bill ultimately failed to advance, although the CFPB could lose significant power under President Trump. And McConnell is far from the only Republican to target the CFPB. But for Trump, who ran a populist campaign decrying the power of Washington insiders and the moneyed interests they support, the selection of Chao for a top administration role seems to show he's not as opposed to the Wall Street-Washington complex as he might have suggested.

Holy Conflict of Interest! The Firm Holding Much of Trump's Debt May Be Up for Sale.

Mother Jones - December 2, 2016 - 1:50pm

Coming to an auction block near you: Donald Trump's $100 million mortgage on Trump Tower?

As Mother Jones has detailed for months, Trump owes hundreds of millions of dollars to a variety of lenders, giving his bankers a huge amount of potential leverage over the man who will soon occupy the most powerful office in the world. Already there are concerns about Trump's biggest lender, the troubled Deutsche Bank, which he owes at least $364 million. On Friday, Reuters reported that his second-biggest lender, a small Wall Street firm called Ladder Capital Strategies, may be putting itself up for sale to the highest bidder. Public records show Trump owes the firm at least $282 million, on four lines of credit. This means that other big money players—Wall Street firms, American banks, overseas banks, financial institutions partly owned by foreign governments—could move to buy up the debts of a US president and create a host of conflicts of interest.

Ladder Capital holds mortgages on Trump Tower and 40 Wall Street, worth $100 million and $160 million respectively, and two smaller Trump properties in New York City. All the loans Trump has taken out since 2012 have been from either Deutsche Bank and Ladder Capital. That includes his most recent loan, a $7 million mortgage from Ladder Capital that Trump took out on three condo units in the Trump International Hotel Tower on New York City's Columbus Circle. That loan was taken out in July, weeks after Trump's most recent personal financial disclosure was filed.

Reuters reported that Ladder Capital is considering a sale and has hired Citibank to help manage the deal. Reuters cited sources who said the bank was looking at a sale as it "grapples with new regulations making selling on mortgages more difficult." The firm's primary business model is to package the loans it issues and sell them to other investors. Recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings show Ladder Capital has packaged the Trump International Hotel Tower mortgage as part of a large sale of mortgages. Despite this, on Trump's personal financial disclosures, Ladder Capital is still listed as the lender Trump owes the money to.

It's not immediately clear how a potential sale of Ladder Capital might affect Trump's loans. But it raises the specter that some of Trump's biggest loans will be available for anyone to purchase.

Between Deutsche Bank and Ladder Capital, Trump owes at least $646 million, and he has seven other loans listed on his financial disclosure form that could be worth another $125 million. Additionally, a real estate partnership Trump participates in borrowed $950 million from a group of lenders that includes the state-owned Bank of China. Trump's involvement in that loan may violate the Constitution's emoluments clause, which forbids top government officials from accepting financial benefits from a foreign government. The possibility that a foreign government could purchase Ladder Capital and its portfolio of loans, including Trump's, would cause other complications for Trump and the conflicts of interest already saddling his soon-to-be presidency.

Trump is ignoring the Constitution with his pick for secretary of defense

VICE News - December 2, 2016 - 1:47pm

President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to appoint retired Marine General James Mattis as his secretary of defense is proving reassuring to an anxious foreign policy community, even as some worry that the move threatens the longstanding tradition of civilian control of the military.

Trump pre-empted his own transition team’s formal rollout of the job when he announced the appointment during a rally in Cincinnati on Thursday. “We are going to appoint Mad Dog Mattis as our secretary of defense,” Trump said, using a popular nickname for Mattis. “They say he is the closest thing to General George Patton that we have.” A formal event is expected on Monday.

Mattis is known for his outspoken rhetoric and a hawkish attitude, particularly on Iran and Russia, but also for his long resume and decorated career. He played pivotal roles on the front lines of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and most recently served as the leader of United States Central Command, which oversees all military engagements in the Middle East. He led the first Marine force into Afghanistan one month after the September 11 attacks, and later led the operation to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah during the early months of that conflict.

If he assumes the role, Mattis will be the first recently retired military officer to head the Pentagon since George Marshall, more than 60 years ago, something that leaves some observers of civilian-military relations uneasy. By law, a retired military officer has to be out of uniform for seven years to take the job, or else receive a waiver from Congress.

Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has indicated that he would support the waiver for Mattis.

But Michael Desch, an expert of civilian-military relations at the University of Notre Dame, says the appointment of Mattis represents an uneasy break from tradition.

“I don’t think it’s the end of the world by any means, but it is a deviation in course from how we normally think about civilian oversight of national security policy,” Desch said. “I worry a little bit when you start stacking the deck with retired generals. You’re saying we don’t have the capacity among civilian leaders to handle these issues.”

Civilian control of the military is inscribed in the Constitution, and it’s rooted in the belief that democratic governance benefits from an independent decision-making structure over military affairs. Civilian leaders help ensure that military decisions are more directly responsible to the public, and that military officials remain insulated from the whims of popular opinion.

“You can’t have a republic, and you can’t have democracy, and you can’t have liberty, if the least democratic institution in society is running society,” said Richard H. Kohn, a professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has studied civilian control issues.

But Kohn also said the choice of Mattis will also calm some frayed nerves among policymakers, many of whom were concerned about the appointment of an outlier like retired general Michael Flynn as national security advisor.

“It is very reassuring not only for its implication for national defense but for the advisory environment Mr. Trump is creating for himself,” Kohn said. “It seems he realizes he needs a broader military advice than Michael Flynn would provide.”

Observers of Trump’s unorthodox and ever-shifting foreign policy positions seem to agree. Republicans like Mattis’s outspoken criticisms of Russia as well as the fact that as a former supreme allied commander for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, he might temper some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric on the organization’s obsolescence.

“The guy…understands the big picture,” former Republican congressman Mike Rogers, who was recently ousted from Trump’s national security transition team, told The Guardian. “He’s an internationalist and he understands engagement. He also understands the judicious use of military power. He’s not looking for a fight, but he’ll always finish the fight.”

He also gives Democratic foreign policy officials something to appreciate, in an administration increasingly stacked with extreme views on Muslims and the Middle East. President Obama picked Mattis to replace General David Petraeus as head of Central Command in 2010, overseeing the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the entire Middle East. And last month, Trump cited the counsel of Mattis when he told the New York Times that he was moderating his views on the value of torture.

“He said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’” Trump told the Times of his conversation with Mattis. Mattis, he added, told him, “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better.”

“Drawing the line on torture is really encouraging, and he’s not an Islamophobe,” said Perry Cammack, a former Obama administration official who is now a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Even for the very delicate negotiation that Trump’s going to have on the Iran deal, Mattis is a pretty good guy. He’s going to be able to say to the Israelis and Saudis, ‘We’re going to keep the deal. We know you don’t like it, but we’re going focus like a laser beam on violations.’”

Cammack, who participated in national security decision-making at the State Department, says he worries about the long-term consequences of removing civilian leadership at the Pentagon — particularly if it leads to a less integrated mindset among the service branches.

“But I’m torn,” Cammack continued. “The job could have gone to one of the people who in my mind are really appalling. Having him there is kind of reassuring.”

The view from Hollywood

Columbia Journalism Review - December 2, 2016 - 12:51pm
In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm writes of her excitement at the admittedly tricky prospect of interviewing a fellow tribesman: “[Joe] McGinniss and I would be less like experimenter and subject than like two experimenters strolling home from the lab together after a day’s work, companionably thrashing out the problems of the profession. The tape recorder would preserve...

Hack the Army: Get cash to attack the U.S. military’s online systems

VICE News - December 2, 2016 - 12:50pm

At noon on Wednesday, 500 hackers from across the country began attacking the U.S. Army’s digital recruitment infrastructure, including websites and databases containing the personal information of new applicants and existing Army personnel. They will spend the next three weeks probing the systems to identify previously unknown vulnerabilities in return for “tens of thousands of dollars” in cash rewards, in a program called Hack the U.S. Army.

Asking hackers to help find vulnerabilities isn’t exactly a new concept. “Bug bounty” programs are de rigueur for Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and, most recently, Apple, which use them to find flaws that in-house developers never would. But it is new for the U.S. military, and it’s a major step into the unknown.

“The Army is reaching out directly to a group of technologies and researchers who are trained in figuring out how to break into computer networks they’re not supposed to, people we normally would have avoided,” Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning said when announcing the program.

We're offering $ to hackers who find vulnerabilities in select Army sites | Register for 'Hack the Army' bug bounty: https://t.co/jrndrNjZQe pic.twitter.com/EoBJWYy20m

— Eric Fanning (@SECARMY) November 21, 2016

Hack the Army is the latest expansion of a program launched earlier this year that encourages hackers — ones with a clean criminal record and Social Security number — to attack the government’s online systems in order to expose vulnerabilities before truly malevolent hackers, or hostile governments, get there first.

The U.S. military broke new ground with its first bug bounty program, called Hack the Pentagon, which was held in April and May. That first foray involved some 1,400 hackers and uncovered 138 vulnerabilities, with the Department of Defense paying out a combined $71,200 to the successful hackers. The total cost of the program was $150,000 — where it would have cost $1 million to hire an outside firm to conduct a similar evaluation of the Pentagon’s security, the government said.

As a result of the success of that program, the DOD green-lit Hack the Army to start this week. This time around, however, the hackers aren’t just going after static websites; they’re also hitting “mission critical” parts of the Army’s infrastructure as the government looks to expand the scope of this program.

Two private security companies have been tapped to run the bug bounty programs, including Hack the Army. HackerOne and Synack last month signed a joint $7 million contract with the government to run up to 14 of these programs across many of the government’s digital properties in the coming years.

Alex Rice, CTO of HackerOne and former head of product security at Facebook, said the inaugural program was “pretty incredibly successful,” adding that inviting hackers to attack your systems is a great way to improve security.

“No matter who your adversaries are, you are absolutely improving your security by asking the friendly hacker community to role-play with you a bit and identify [vulnerabilities] you may have missed,” Rice told VICE News.

The latest call for hackers comes just one week after the U.S. Navy announced that personal details including names and Social Security numbers of 134,386 current and former soldiers were compromised when hackers accessed a laptop being used by a Navy contractor. This follows in a series of embarrassing security breaches for the government in recent years, including the theft of over 20 million personal records from the Office of Personnel Management and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s server in October.

The hackers involved in the latest program won’t have access to critical systems, such as navigation controls for drones or sensitive Army communications networks. But there is some risk in working with hackers.

“It’s not always clear who you are dealing with. You don’t know whether you are working with a white hat or a black hat,” Gus Anagnos, the former head of PayPal’s bounty program and a current Synack employee, said in an interview last year.

The DOD aims to limit the risk by only using hackers who are eligible to work in the U.S. and who pass security and criminal background checks. But some in the industry say that won’t bring the best results: Several security experts claim that the stringent background checks hackers must pass to be accepted into the bug bounty program end up excluding a lot of the best talent out there.

Luckily, all the hackers who can't pass a background check will stop hacking the pentagon because they want to follow the rules.

— Charlie Miller (@0xcharlie) March 31, 2016

One big problem in restricting who can take part in the bug hunts is the risk that hackers who find vulnerabilities but can’t cash in on them will look elsewhere for reward. There’s no shortage of places where a vulnerability into a government website or database could be sold.

Another potential problem: If the bug bounty program isn’t working properly, the participating hackers might decide to go rogue. This happened to Facebook in 2013, when a hacker tried to submit a vulnerability to its bug bounty program, was refused, and then proceeded to hack the Facebook page of CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

But the government is at least trying, and launching the bug bounty programs shows a willingness to change its attitude.

“What’s changed is the government’s willingness to allow you to hack us,” Lisa Wiswell from the DOD’s Defense Digital Service office, said in April. “Many in government are more humble now than historically, and they are coming around and acknowledging that we need help.”

November job gains

VICE News - December 2, 2016 - 12:26pm

The Canadian economy created a whole load of jobs in November – 10,700 to be specific – resulting in our unemployment rate dipping slightly to 6.8 percent. That’s most definitely not a bad thing, except for the fact that most of these jobs fell in the part-time category. While 19.400 part-time jobs were added to the economy last month, 8,700 full-time jobs were lost. This is in fact the second month in a row where job gains were driven by part-time work, a problematic trend for a country two years into an oil slump.

“The November employment figures were the definition of a mixed-bag”, said TD economist Brian DePratto in a research note. “Job gains were again due to part-time employment, and rather than the result of more people working, the decline in the unemployment rate was largely related to less people looking for work.”

According to Statistics Canada’s monthly labour report released Friday morning, the Canadian economy has added 213,000 part-time jobs over the past year, but eliminated 30,500 full-time gigs.  

Oil-dependent Alberta has continued to struggle on the job front, losing a precious 13,600 full-time jobs primarily in the oil sector. The jobless rate in Alberta has now jumped to 9 percent – the highest it’s been since 1994. Ontario, on the other hand seemed to be the driver of employment last month, adding 18,900 positions to its workforce.

But the most riveting story, according to BMO economist Robert Kavcic, is Quebec. The province created 8,500 jobs last month and the jobless rate plunged to to 6.2 percent – a record low going back over 40 years of data. “Where are these jobs, you ask? Both the public and private sectors; full-time and part-time; and in goods and service industries,” said Kavcic in a research note. “Quebec is within a hair of the strongest job growth in Canada.”

It’s interesting to note what sectors these job losses and gains are coming from because they give us a sense of what’s working or not working in our economy. The services sector gained 31,200 new jobs, mostly concentrated in finance, insurance and real estate. We lost a whopping 20,600 positions in our goods-producing sector – with construction and manufacturing seeing the biggest declines. In short, gains for white collar workers, losses for blue collar workers – a pattern that continues to prevail across the Western hemisphere.

“The trend that has emerged in the latter half of 2016 has not been an encouraging one,” says DePratto.

“Full-time employment is now at its lowest level since 2011, and wage growth has softened markedly. In many ways, the labour market appears to be evolving in line with an overall economy that continues to struggle to find traction.” 

Vanmala is VICE Canada’s Money & Economics Editor. Follow her on Twitter


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