A fire burns at the Tri-Chem Industries plan in Cresson, Texas on Thursday March 15, 2018. (Photo: KDFW/screenshot)
While the Trump administration continues its push to stymie and roll back federal regulations by fighting in court to uphold a delay of the Chemical Disaster Rule, hazardous materials crews are searching for a worker presumed dead after an explosion at a Texas chemical plant.
Two other workers were injured Thursday in the blast at the Tri-Chem Industries plant in Cresson, which is about 50 miles southwest of Dallas. Efforts to battle the blaze were temporarily halted by concerns about exposure to toxic fumes and the subsequent explosions. Continue reading →
On December 22 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in an attempt to force the release of newly established rules related to the U.S. military’s secret program of killing. The program was established during the Obama Administration and now expanded under Donald Trump. Recent reports from the New York Times (1, 2) allude to the fact that the Trump administration is loosening the already flimsy protections established by the Obama admin. These protections were reportedly put in place to minimize injury and deaths of civilians. Continue reading →
When President Donald Trump took office in January, it was unclear whether the bombast from his campaign would translate into an aggressive new strategy against terrorism. At campaign rallies he pledged to “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State. He openly mused about killing the families of terrorists, a blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits violence against noncombatants.
Ten months into his presidency, a clearer picture is emerging. The data indicate several alarming trends.
According to research from the nonprofit monitoring group Airwars, the first seven months of the Trump administration have already resulted in more civilian deaths than under the entirety of the Obama administration. Airwars reports that under Obama’s leadership, the fight against IS led to approximately 2,300 to 3,400 civilian deaths. Through the first seven months of the Trump administration, they estimate that coalition air strikes have killed between 2,800 and 4,500 civilians.
Researchers also point to another stunning trend – the “frequent killing of entire families in likely coalition airstrikes.” In May, for example, such actions led to the deaths of at least 57 women and 52 children in Iraq and Syria.
The vast increase in civilian deaths is not limited to the anti-IS campaign. In Afghanistan, the U.N. reports a 67 percent increase in civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes in the first six months of 2017 compared to the first half of 2016.
The key question is: Why? Are these increases due to a change in leadership?
Delegating war to the military
Experts offer several explanations.
One holds that Trump’s “total authorization” for the military to run wars in Afghanistan and against IS has loosened Obama-era restrictions and increased military commanders’ risk tolerance. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations notes: “Those closer to the fight are more likely to call in lethal force and are less likely to follow a value-based approach.”
In other words, an intense focus on destroying IS elements may be overriding the competing priority of protecting civilians. Because Trump has scaled back civilian oversight and delegated authority to colonels rather than one-star generals, the likely result is higher casualties.
A second explanation points to the changing nature of the counter-IS campaign. The Pentagon contends that the rise in casualties is “attributable to the change in location” of battlefield operations towards more densely populated urban environments like Mosul and Raqqa.
This is a partial truth. While urban warfare has increased, Trump’s team has substantially escalated air strikes and bombings. According to CENTCOM data, the military has already used 20 percent more missiles and bombs in combined air operations in 2017 than in all of 2016. One notable airstrike in March, for example, killed 105 Iraqi civilians when U.S. forces dropped a 500-pound bomb in order to take out two snipers in Mosul. In fact, a Human Rights Watch analysis of bomb craters in West Mosul estimates that U.S. coalition forces are routinely using larger and less precise bombs – weighing between 500 and 1,000 pounds – than in prior operations. Finally, the urban battlefield explanation also does not account for increased civilian deaths in Afghanistan from airstrikes, where the environment has remained static for several years.
Pressure from the president
A third explanation of higher civilian casualties is that aggressive rhetoric from the president is inadvertently pressuring the military to take more risks and to deprioritize protecting civilians.
As former Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski observes: “If your leaders are emphasizing the high value of Raqqa and Mosul, while saying less about the strategic and moral risks of hurting civilians, it’s going to affect your judgment.” Words matter, especially coming from the commander-in-chief. In the face of such aggressive rhetoric, it should not come as a surprise that military officers feel encouraged – if not indirectly pressured – to take greater risks.
Unfortunately, the increased trend of civilian casualties is unlikely to diminish. In fact, signs abound that the White House is developing a new set of policies and procedures that will authorize more sweeping discretion to the military. In September, The New York Times reported that White House officials were proposing two major rules changes. First, they would expand the scope of “kill missions” and allow for the targeting of lower-level terrorists in addition to high value targets. Second – and more notably – they would suspend high-level vetting of potential drone attacks and raids.
Then, in 2016, Obama issued an executive order on civilian harm that established heightened standards to minimize civilian casualties from military actions, and required the public release of information pertaining to strikes against terrorist targets.
While the latest actions from the Trump administration stop short of reversing Obama-era restraints, they are unsettling steps in the opposite direction. For example, it appears for now that the White House will preserve the “near certainty” standard, which requires commanders to have near certainty that a potential strike will not impact civilians. But this could change over time.
One senior official quoted in The New York Times article bluntly asserts that the latest changes are intended to make much of the “bureaucracy” created by the Obama administration rules “disappear.” As the White House dissolves the existing bureaucracy and relinquishes civilian oversight, Trump is embarking on a slippery slope that will potentially lead to major diminutions of civilian protection.
The current battle to take the Syrian city of Raqqa is emblematic of the stakes at hand. The U.S. is leading a punishing air war to soften IS defenses. In August, U.S. forces dropped 5,775 bombs and missiles onto the city. For context, this represented 10 times more munitions than the U.S. used for the whole of Afghanistan in the same month and year. The resulting civilian toll has been gruesome. At least 433 civilians likely died in Raqqa due to the August bombings, more than double the previous month’s total. Since the assault on Raqqa commenced on June 6, more than 1,000 civilians have been reported killed.
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein cautions that the intense bombardment has left civilians caught between IS’s monstrosities and the fierce battle to defeat it. Zeid insists that “civilians must not be sacrificed for the sake of rapid military victories.”
Trump would be wise to heed this warning. Even as U.S. forces continue to turn the tide on IS, the trail of destruction left in the campaign’s wake is unsettling. The specter of massive civilian casualties will remain a rallying point for new terrorist organizations long after anti-IS operations conclude.
A participant in the Washington, D.C. Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017 carried a sign promoting reproductive rights. (Photo: John Flores/Flickr/cc)
As the Republican-controlled U.S. House prepares to vote Tuesday on a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy nationwide, reproductive rights advocates are urging Americans to contact their congressional representatives and pressure them to oppose the measure.
The proposed law, H.R. 36 (pdf), outlaws terminating a pregnancy after 20 weeks unless it is the result of rape or incest, or a doctor determines that because of “a life-endangering physical condition”—but”not including psychological or emotional conditions”—abortion is medically necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman.
If an abortion is performed after 20 weeks because an exception, the bill instructs “the abortion must be performed by the method most likely to allow the child to be born alive unless this would cause significant risk to the mother.”
The House passed versions of this proposal multiple times under former President Barack Obama, who vowed to veto it if the bill made it to his desk.
However, similar measures already have been passed in states across the country. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks restrictions on reproductive rights, 17 states “ban abortion at about 20 weeks post-fertilization or its equivalent of 22 weeks after the woman’s last menstrual period on the grounds that the fetus can feel pain at that point in gestation.”
“The bill, misleadingly labeled as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, is premised at least in part on the assertion that fetuses can experience pain starting at 20 weeks post-fertilization. However, that claim is not supported by the preponderance of scientific evidence,” the Guttmacher Institute’s director of public policy, Heather Boonstra, wrote for The Hill.
Boonstra denounced the bill’s “particularly callous and cruel rape and incest exceptions” that require a waiting period and consultations with additional providers, and outlines how “Congress and the Trump administration are moving in the wrong direction on contraceptive access” more broadly, concluding that “it’s clearer than ever that purported anti-abortion policies only serve an ideological agenda, but do not advance women’s health or public health more broadly.”
The bill is just the latest attack on women’s reproductive rights under the Trump administration. Several advocacy organizations have turned to social media in recent days to raise awareness about the House’s plan to vote on the measure Tuesday, and warn about the potential consequences of the proposed ban.
Tomorrow, the House will vote on a 20-week abortion ban. Restrictions like these hurt low-income women the most. #NoAbortionBan
Some have drawn connections between this revived proposal and congressional Republicans’ recent failed attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and strip basic healthcare from millions of Americans with a healthcare bill that experts also warned would have been especially damaging for women.
The EPA placed a delay on a rule that would have limited wastewater pollution from coal-fired plants. (Photo: pennjohnson/Flickr/cc)
In a move that critics are calling “deeply disturbing,” the Trump administration announced on Wednesday a two-year delay to an Obama-era rule limiting wastewater pollution at coal plants.
In 2015 the Obama administration developed new limits on metals including lead, mercury, and arsenic in coal-fired plants’ wastewater, set to go into effect in 2018. The pollutants in question “can cause severe health problems, including cancer and lowered I.Q. among children, as well as deformities and reproductive harm in fish and wildlife,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which fought against the rollback of the limits. Continue reading →
Trump appears committed to the belief that mineral extraction “could be one justification for the United States to stay engaged in” Afghanistan, the New York Times reported. (Photo: DVIDSHUB/Flickr/cc)
As the 16th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan approaches, President Donald Trump is reportedly being pressured by a billionaire financier and a chemical executive to extend the scope of the conflict for one simple, greedy reason: to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral reserves.
According to James Risen and Mark Landler of the New York Times, the Trump administration is “considering sending an envoy to Afghanistan to meet with mining officials” as the president is receiving encouragement from Stephen Feinberg, the billionaire head of DynCorp, and Michael Silver, the head of American Elements, a firm that specializes in “extracting rare-earth minerals.” Continue reading →
“At long last, I am pleased that my Democratic and Republican colleagues supported my effort to put an end to the overly broad blank check for war that is the 2001 AUMF,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). (Photo: Alex Guerrero/flickr/cc)
A House committee on Thursday took a surprising—yet welcome—step towards canceling the “blank check for endless war.”
That’s because the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee passed a repeal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which has been used justify ongoing military actions in regions around the world spanning the George W. Bush, Obama, and now Trump administrations.
The amendment to the 2018 Defense Appropriations Bill was put forth by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)—the sole member of Congress to vote against the AUMF passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack—and would repeal the AUMF 240 days after enactment of the appropriations bill. Continue reading →
In October 1969, a national security official named Daniel Ellsberg began secretly photocopying 7,000 classified Vietnam War documents. He had become increasingly frustrated with the systematic deception of top U.S. leaders who sought to publicly escalate a war that, privately, they knew was unwinnable.
In March 1971 he leaked the documents – what would became known as the Pentagon Papers – to a New York Times reporter. The newspaper ended up publishing a series of articles that exposed tactical and policy missteps by three administrations on a range of subjects, from covert operations to confusion over troop deployments. Continue reading →
“After another anxious four months of waiting, the day has finally arrived,” Manning said in a statement upon her release: “I am looking forward to so much! Whatever is ahead of me is far more important than the past. I’m figuring things out right now—which is exciting, awkward, fun, and all new for me,” she said. Continue reading →
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, joined by Sen. Pat Roberts (left) & Tom Marshall, Loudoun County School Board, signs a proclamation.. Photo: USDA
In one of his first orders of business, President Donald Trump’s newly confirmed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue took steps to weaken school lunch standards championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama.
In an interim final rule, announced by Perdue while he visited an elementary school in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Leesburg, Virginia on Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is rolling back nutrition rules that were part of Obama’s Let’s Move campaign that was abhorred by food industry groups. Continue reading →