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Scott Pruitt is making nice with EPA employees, but big changes are to come.

In December, when Musk got stuck in traffic, instead of leaning on the horn or flipping off the other drivers, he decided to build a new transportation system. An hour later, Max Chafkin writes in Bloomberg Businessweek, “the project had a name and a marketing platform. ‘It shall be called The Boring Company,’” Musk wrote.

Musk told employees to grab some heavy machinery and they began digging a hole in the SpaceX parking lot. He bought one of those machines that bores out tunnels and lays down concrete walls as it goes. It’s named Nannie.

Musk is the grown-up version of the kid who decides to dig to China: He doesn’t pause to plan or ask what’s possible, he just grabs a stick and starts shoveling. Maybe that’s the approach we need. As Chafkin points out, “Tunnel technology is older than rockets, and boring speeds are pretty much what they were 50 years ago.” And Bent Flyvbjerg, an academic who studies why big projects cost so much, says that the tunneling industry is ripe for someone with new ideas to shake things up.

Musk is a technical genius. But the things that make tunnels expensive tend to be political — they have to do with endless hearings before local government councils and concessions to satisfy concerned neighbors and politicians. For that stultifying process, at least, Musk’s new company is aptly named. If Musk figures out how disrupt local land-use politics, it would mean he’s smarter than anyone thinks.

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Scott Pruitt is making nice with EPA employees, but big changes are to come.

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The Private Prison Industry Is Licking Its Chops Over Trump’s Deportation Plans

Mother Jones

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Immigration agents sparked panic across the country last week, when a series of high-profile operations made it clear that a new era of crackdowns on undocumented immigrants had begun. Coming on the heels of a couple of major executive orders on immigration, the arrests and deportations were a very public reminder of President Donald Trump’s promise to deport upwards of 2 million immigrants upon taking office.

But given that America’s detention system for immigrants has been running at full capacity for some time now, where is the president going to put all of these people before deporting them?

In new jails, for starters. In the same executive order that called for the construction of a southern border wall, Trump instructed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to build out its sprawling network of immigration detention centers. Starting “immediately,” his order said, ICE should construct new facilities, lease space for immigrants alongside inmates in existing local jails, and sign new contracts—likely with private prison companies. The scale of that expansion became clearer on February 5, when the Los Angeles Times reported on a memo handed down in late January from White House immigration experts to top Homeland Security officials. The document called for raising the number of immigrants ICE incarcerates daily, nationwide, to 80,000 people.

Last year, ICE detained more than 352,000 people. The number of detainees held each day, typically between 31,000 and 34,000, reached a historic high of about 41,000 people in the fall, as Customs and Border Protection apprehended more people on the southwest border while seeing a simultaneous rise in asylum seekers. But doubling the daily capacity to 80,000 “would require ICE to sprint to add more capacity than the agency has ever added in its entire history,” says Carl Takei, staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. It would also take an extra $2 billion in government funding per year, detention experts interviewed by Mother Jones estimated. And, Takei warned, “we don’t know if 80,000 is where he’ll stop.”

Yet even if ICE does not adopt an 80,000-person detention quota, other changes laid out in Trump’s executive orders suggest that vastly more people will be detained in the coming months and years. For example, Trump ordered ICE to prioritize deporting not only immigrants who been convicted or charged with crimes, but also those who had “committed acts that constitute a chargeable offense”—a category that could include entering the country illegally and driving without a license. Trump also ordered Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who oversees ICE, to take “all appropriate actions” to detain undocumented immigrants while their cases are pending.

Beyond that, ICE could stop granting parole to asylum seekers, explains Margo Schlanger, a former Obama administration official who served as Homeland Security’s top authority on civil rights. With ICE taking enforcement action against more categories of immigration offenders and releasing fewer of them, Schlanger says, “we could get to a very large sum of people in detention very quickly.”

It’s not difficult to guess who profits. In an earnings call last week, the private prison giant CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA) announced that it saw the ICE detention expansion as a business opportunity. “When coupled with the above average rate of crossings along the southwest border, these executive orders appear likely to significantly increase the need for safe, humane, and appropriate detention bed capacity that we have available,” CoreCivic President and CEO Damon Hininger said.

As of November, a whopping 65 percent of ICE detainees were held in facilities run by private prison companies, which typically earn a fee per detainee per night and whose business model depends upon minimizing costs to return profits to their shareholders. Since Trump’s election, private prison stocks have soared, and two new, for-profit detention centers are opening in Georgia and Texas.

Another private prison company, Management & Training Corp., is reportedly seeking a contract with ICE to reopen the Willacy County Correctional Institution, a troubled detention camp that held up to 2,000 ICE detainees in Kevlar tents between 2006 and 2011. “Historically, ICE has relied heavily on the private prison industry every time the detention system has expanded,” Takei says. “There’s little doubt in my mind that they will continue to rely on the private prison industry in what’s going to be the biggest expansion of the agency in history.”

The first new detention center contracts will likely take the form of arrangements between ICE and local governments to reopen empty prison facilities as detention centers or rent beds in existing local jails, Takei says. The arrangements, known intergovernmental service agreements, allow ICE to cut deals with local governments and private prison companies while avoiding a lengthy public bidding process. Occasionally, the local government agrees to hold ICE detainees alongside inmates in their publicly run jail—an arrangement a Department of Homeland Security subcommittee recently called “the most problematic” option for holding detainees. But most of the time, local governments simply act as middlemen in deals between ICE and private prison companies.

The opaque nature of the process allows all parties to avoid public outcry before the deals are signed, explains Silky Shah, co-director of the Detention Watch Network, an immigrant rights advocacy group. So far, immigration advocates haven’t gotten wind of many new contracts being negotiated or signed since Trump’s inauguration. “But that doesn’t mean contracting activity is not taking place,” Takei says. “I suspect there are closed-door meetings taking place across the country right now.”

Expanding detention quickly could have a high human cost. Schlanger is worried that conditions inside detention facilities could deteriorate without proper oversight from the Department of Homeland Security. “There are a lot of bad things that happen if the number of beds is ramped up fast, without appropriate controls, monitoring, supervision, and care,” she says, pointing to the potential overuse of solitary confinement, inadequate safety measures, poor nutrition, and insufficient medical care. “That means detainees could die.” Asylum seekers, she warns, will have a harder time fighting their immigration cases from inside detention centers, where it’s difficult to access lawyers and gather evidence. More could be coerced into voluntary deportation: “You’re vulnerable to the government saying to you, ‘Look, we’ll let you out from detention, but you have to give up your immigration case.'”

We don’t have to look far in the past to see the danger of rushing to open new detention facilities. Last year, as several thousand Haitian immigrants arrived on the southern border, fleeing natural disasters and poverty, the Department of Homeland Security began seeking contracts for new detention facilities to accommodate the surge. In their scramble to secure space for the new arrivals, ICE officials reportedly considered ignoring quality standards for the facilities—”scraping the bottom looking for beds,” as one official told the Wall Street Journal.

The bottom of the barrel, in this case, included a prison in Cibola County, New Mexico, owned by CoreCivic. Last summer, after an investigation by The Nation revealed a pattern of severe, longtime medical neglect in the 1,100-bed facility—which had gone months without a doctor—the US Bureau of Prisons decided to pull its inmates out and cancel its contract with CoreCivic. Yet less than a month after the last federal prisoner was transferred out, ICE was already negotiating an agreement with the county and CoreCivic to detain immigrants in the newly vacant facility. Four hundred immigrants are currently detained there. Takei notes that ICE contracted with the same company, for the same prison: “There weren’t any substantive changes.”

Shah expects to see familiar problems like poor medical care worsen as new deals for detention facilities are finalized. “One of the concerns we hear most often is that when people complain about ailments, officers will come back and just say, ‘Well, drink more water, or take an Advil and you’ll be fine,'” she says. “It’s a really harsh system already. If you’re going to expand at this level, it’s just going to become that much harsher.”

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The Private Prison Industry Is Licking Its Chops Over Trump’s Deportation Plans

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The Hero of Tal Afar Gets the Last Laugh

Mother Jones

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I can still remember a decade ago, when Col. H.R. McMaster, the hero of Tal Afar and genius of counterinsurgency, had been passed over for the second time for promotion to brigadier general. Did we ever find out who had it in for him? Probably not. In any case, he eventually got his star, and then another, and then another, and now he’s got an office in the White House:

President Trump appointed Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster as his new national security adviser on Monday, picking a widely respected military strategist known for challenging conventional thinking and helping to turn around the Iraq war in its darkest days.

….General McMaster had the aura of disruption that Mr. Trump has valued in several cabinet secretaries, said a senior administration official who insisted on anonymity to describe internal deliberations. Another candidate, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, the superintendent of West Point, impressed Mr. Trump as being “from central casting,” the official said. But the president wanted him to stay at West Point, which he reveres.

I see that Trump is using his usual keen management insights to choose the folks responsible for running our country. Luckily, he somehow decided that the guy from central casting ought to stay at West Point, and accidentally chose McMaster. This is probably a pretty good selection, so I guess we should all be grateful regardless of how we got there.

I wonder what McMaster thinks of K.T. McFarland? That seems to be a key prerequisite for NSA these days. I sure hope they get along, since I assume McFarland will have no problem using her personal connection with Trump to complain about McMaster behind his back if she doesn’t like what he’s doing.

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The Hero of Tal Afar Gets the Last Laugh

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Cleaning Up After Trump

Mother Jones

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From the Wall Street Journal:

Jim Mattis, on his first trip to Iraq as defense secretary, said he plans to assess the fight against Islamic State in the country and that the U.S. isn’t there to take its oil. “I think all of us here in this room, all of us in America, have paid for our gas and oil all along and I’m sure that we will continue to do so in the future,” he told reporters in Abu Dhabi the day before leaving for Iraq. “We are not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil.”

So far, Mattis and VP Mike Pence have been fanning out across the world to assure our allies that President Trump thinks NATO is great; that America’s support for Europe is “unwavering”; that Trump will be tough on Russia; and that we’re not going to take Iraq’s oil. In other words, basically the opposite of everything Trump himself has said over the past year.

This is becoming the signature of the Trump administration. At home, Trump says something stupid, and Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway gamely go out to clean up the mess and claim that Trump didn’t really mean what he said. Abroad, Mattis and Pence and Rex Tillerson play the same role. They’re like the guys who follow the elephants at a parade.

I’ll bet they didn’t think this was how they’d be spending their time as some of the most powerful people in the world.

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Cleaning Up After Trump

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Trump Pals Have a Plan For Lifting Sanctions on Russia

Mother Jones

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The president’s friends have a proposal for him:

A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.

Mr. Flynn is gone, having been caught lying about his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But the proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, remains, along with those pushing it: Michael D. Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Mr. Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker trying to rise in a political opposition movement shaped in part by Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

….Mr. Cohen said Mr. Sater had given him the written proposal in a sealed envelope. When Mr. Cohen met with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office in early February, he said, he left the proposal in Mr. Flynn’s office. Mr. Cohen said he was waiting for a response when Mr. Flynn was forced from his post. Now Mr. Cohen, Mr. Sater and Mr. Artemenko are hoping a new national security adviser will take up their cause. On Friday the president wrote on Twitter that he had four new candidates for the job.

The “Ukranian lawmaker” is a pro-Putin opponent of the current regime in Ukraine. Sater is, um, a guy with an interesting background: “mafia linked,” spent some time in prison, worked as an FBI informant, and spent several years as a close business associate of Donald J. Trump. Oh, and Sater was born in Russia and continues to have lots of contacts there.

And Cohen? Well, he’s the guy who could actually get inside the White House and deliver the letter. You remember Michael Cohen, don’t you?

Every time we turn around, there’s something new linking Trump to Russia. Just a few days ago, FBI Director James Comey briefed the Senate Intelligence committee about the ongoing investigation of Team Trump and its ties to Russia, and all the chatter afterward was about how the senators seemed kind of shaken by what they heard.

Who knows? Maybe it all turns out to be nothing. But there sure is a lot of smoke out there. It’s hard to believe there isn’t a fire too.

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Trump Pals Have a Plan For Lifting Sanctions on Russia

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