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      They Promised “Advanced Recycling” for Plastics and Delivered Toxic Waste / TheIntercept · 10:00 · 23 minutes

    Head south on state Highway 96, past a stretch of soybean crops and tobacco fields, and you’ll arrive in Zebulon, North Carolina, population 8,665. There, on a quiet stretch of Industrial Drive, sits a nondescript commercial building. It’s easy to miss; the name on the front door is barely legible. But atop that humble three-acre lot lies a leading solution to the global plastic pollution crisis — well, according to the plastic industry.

    The facility is home to the 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week operations of Braven Environmental, a company that says it can recycle nearly 90 percent of plastic waste through a form of chemical recycling called pyrolysis. Traditional recycling is able to process only about 8.7 percent of America’s plastic waste; pyrolysis uses high temperatures and low-oxygen conditions to break down the remaining plastics, like films and Styrofoam, ideally turning them into feedstock oil for new plastic production.

    The American Chemistry Council, the country’s leading petrochemical industry trade group, claims that chemical recycling will create a “circular economy” for the bulk of the world’s plastic, diverting it from oceans and landfills. Plastic giants have gone so far as to dub the process “advanced recycling,” but environmentalists say this is a misnomer because the majority of the plastic processed at such facilities is not recycled at all. In fact, researchers have found that the process uses more energy and has a worse overall environmental impact than virgin plastic production. Numerous companies have tried and failed to prove that chemical recycling is commercially viable.

    Despite these challenges, lawmakers nationwide are now embracing the technology, thanks to a massive lobbying push from the ACC and other petrochemical groups. As of September, 24 states have passed industry-backed bills that reclassify chemical recycling as manufacturing. The change effectively deregulates the process, since manufacturing facilities tend to face less stringent guidelines than waste incinerators.

    As one of only seven commercial facilities currently operating in the United States, Braven Environmental is at the vanguard of the growing chemical recycling boom. An Intercept investigation, however, found numerous issues at its Zebulon facility.

    A review of meeting minutes, permit applications, and compliance documents reveal that Braven misled the public about the risks of its pyrolysis operation and has potentially endangered human health and the environment through “significant noncompliance” with hazardous waste management regulations. While the ACC has touted Braven as a sustainable success story, documents also show that much of the company’s pyrolysis oil was not converted into useful plastic or fuel — it was disposed of as highly toxic waste.

    “Chemical recycling is really a greenwashing technique for burning up a bunch of petrochemicals in a new way, and it’s releasing tons of air pollutants into the environment,” said Alexis Luckey, executive director of Toxic Free NC, in an interview. “What we’re talking about is incinerating carcinogens and neurotoxicants in a community.”

    On Sept. 26, 2022, inspectors visited the Braven site and photographed vapor rising from an open dumpster filled with waste char, a potentially hazardous byproduct of the plastic pyrolysis process.

    Photo: N.C. DEQ Division of Hazardous Waste Management Compliance Evaluation Inspection

    “Hazardous Items, We Have None”

    On April 8, 2019, the Zebulon Board of Commissioners held a joint public hearing with the town planning board to gather community feedback on several proposed construction projects. One of the developments on the docket was from a company called Golden Renewable Energy, based in Yonkers, New York.

    Golden Renewable — which changed its name to Braven Environmental in the North Carolina business registry in 2021 — was requesting a special use permit to “locate a refinery and the storage of flammable liquids” on a parcel of land zoned for heavy industry.

    According to minutes from the hearing, Meade Bradshaw, former assistant planning director for Zebulon, explained that Braven must show the proposed development “will not materially endanger the public health, safety, or welfare” in order to be granted a special use permit. In response, Ross Sloane, Braven’s business development director, made a series of promises to this effect, painting the company as a safe, family-run operation.

    “We’ve never had an incidence in an operation that’s been operating up in New York now for seven years,” Sloane said. “My entire family operates the machine, so I don’t want to lose sleep.”

    While Sloane pointed to Braven’s operations in Yonkers as evidence of the company’s safety record, The Intercept’s review of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation records found no indication that the company’s facility in Yonkers has ever been legally permitted to conduct plastic pyrolysis activities.

    An air quality permit completed on February 22, 2013, states that the facility’s function was the conversion of vegetable oil to biofuels — a far cry from advanced thermal decomposition of plastic waste. In July 2014, inspectors from the DEC visited the facility and observed plastic waste being accepted and processed without authorization. The company agreed to resolve the violations, pay civil fines, and apply for a modified permit to accept recycled plastics, but the permit was never completed. DEC staff inspected the site again in 2021 and confirmed that Golden Renewable had moved its processing equipment out of state. DEC public records did not contain any additional permit information, and the Yonkers operation is Braven’s only other facility.

    Public hearing meeting minutes also show Sloane told the town that Braven does not handle any hazardous materials. “Any kind of material trash, landfill items, hazardous items, we have none,” he said. “We do not contain any kind of hazardous materials. We have nothing that goes into a drain. … It’s all biodegradable.”

    Stormwater outfall and riprap in front of Braven’s facility on Sep. 17, 2023.

    Photo: Schuyler Mitchell/The Intercept

    This turned out to be false. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act database , Braven’s Zebulon facility generated and shipped 9.6 tons of hazardous ignitable waste and benzene in 2021 alone. In March of that year, Braven registered with the EPA as a large quantity generator: a facility that generates at least 1,000 kilograms per month of hazardous waste.

    One list of warnings in a Braven air permit application reads like a toxicologist’s worst nightmare: The pyrolysis oil may cause cancer and genetic defects, as well as damage to organs, fertility, and unborn children. Other hazards included being “extremely flammable” and “very toxic to aquatic life” with “long lasting effects.”

    Stephanie Hall, a parent of students at a nearby K-12 charter school, voiced concerns about air emissions during the hearing in Zebulon. She pointed out that the Braven lot would be adjacent to a community college and a public housing community, as well as only 780 feet from the charter school.

    Sloane offered reassurance that Braven would “have no smells or emissions that are emitted to the air.” But when a planning board member asked for more information, he backtracked.

    “It’s not a zero-emission process,” he clarified. “We do have an emission of CO2. It’s the exact same CO2 that comes through in your gas logs at your home.”

    In response to The Intercept’s request for comment, Michael Moreno, Braven’s co-founder and chief commercial officer, wrote, “Braven strives to operate its Zebulon facility safely, responsibly and in compliance with its permits and regulatory requirements. Any discrepancies found are proactively resolved with the agencies involved.”

    Braven’s special use permit application notes that the facility will have an exhaust stack but still characterizes the operation as a “closed loop process where all by products are fully contained without being discharged into the atmosphere.” An emissions test report prepared for Braven in March 2020 contradicts this claim, revealing that, in addition to CO2, the company’s plastic pyrolysis emits air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter. The report also found that Braven would emit an estimated 5.14 tons of volatile organic compounds per year. It did not specify which VOCs were present, though known human carcinogens like benzene and styrene are commonly found in emissions from petrochemical operations. On the day that I visited the Braven facility and adjacent lots, a faint acrid scent — like burning plastic — was detectable as far as 700 feet away.

    On the day that I visited the Braven facility and adjacent lots, a faint acrid scent — like burning plastic — was detectable as far as 700 feet away.

    Certain industrial facilities must annually report their chemical emissions for inclusion in the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory. Since pyrolysis facilities are classified by the EPA as waste incinerators, they’re required to meet Clean Air Act guidelines but are excluded from TRI reporting requirements. This makes it difficult to assess the full health risks that Braven and other plastic pyrolysis units could pose to surrounding communities. In April, more than 300 environmental and public health organizations filed a petition with the EPA for the inclusion of waste incinerators in the database.

    Ilona Jaspers, director of the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, has studied emissions generated from the burning of plastic waste. She called the TRI’s lack of pyrolysis and waste incineration data “a giant loophole.”

    “I am all for finding good ways to make plastics into something usable, but the danger of generating air toxics in the process is considerable,” she said. “When we looked at the list of chemicals generated in the emissions of the plastics, a lot of it is not good. It’s kind of terrifying what gets generated when you burn plastics.”

    In addition to air pollutants, residents raised the risk of potential water contamination. Hall, a professional engineer with a background in water resources, noted during the public meeting in Zebulon that the building slated to house Braven’s operations was built in 1994, so the lot would not have established stormwater control measures to treat any potential runoff. “You may want to include some sort of sand filter or proprietary stormwater device to help with any incidental spills,” she suggested, since the lot lies near a Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplain.

    “When that industrial park was developed, there were no regulations for stormwater control,” Bradshaw, the former assistant planning director, told The Intercept. “Because they’re just occupying an existing building … from a site standpoint, it did not need to meet current regulations. But the commissioners, as part of the special use permit, could’ve made that a condition if they wanted to.”

    At a subsequent session, the planning board unanimously recommended denial of the permit, based on “lack of evidence and testimony” showing Braven would not endanger public health and safety. But the planning board’s decision was “just a recommendation,” Bradshaw noted, and did not dictate the final decision. The Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to approve the special use permit on May 6, 2019, under the sole condition that masonry screening be conducted around the fuel tanks.

    Braven was up and running by March 2020. Four months in, one major company had already bet big on the nascent operation’s long-term success: To further its “ corporate responsibility ” goals, Sonoco agreed to deliver its waste plastics to Braven for the next 20 years.

    On Sept. 26, 2022, inspectors visited the Braven site and photographed gallons of pyrolysis oil. “These containers were open and were not marked with the words ‘hazardous waste,’ an indication of the hazards of the contents or an accumulation start date,” inspectors wrote.

    Photo: N.C. DEQ Division of Hazardous Waste Management Compliance Evaluation Inspection

    Significant Noncomplier

    As part of an unannounced hazardous waste compliance inspection, an environmental specialist from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, visited Braven’s Zebulon facility on September 26, 2022. The details of the resulting compliance report paint an alarming picture of a business operating in stark contrast to the health and safety promises made to Zebulon residents three years prior.

    Inspectors cited Braven for numerous regulatory violations, including accumulating more than 400 containers of hazardous waste without a permit over the course of two years, as well as failing to “manage waste material in a manner to prevent it from discharging to the ground and storm drain system.”

    The report details one incident in April 2022, when Braven sent 31,080 gallons of hazardous waste to a rented warehouse facility about one mile down the road. The transfer was conducted by a local trucking company, not a licensed hazardous waste transporter, and the warehouse was not permitted to receive such waste. The containers, which contained toxic chemicals like toluene and ethylbenzene, were then disposed of by a waste management service, though the transportation manifests for the disposal contained numerous inaccuracies.

    The report also states that Braven generates light, medium, and heavy cut oils through plastic pyrolysis but has been unable to find a buyer for the heavy cut oils. As a result, the oil accumulated in a tank until it was eventually discarded as hazardous waste — twice. “The facility has been unable to demonstrate that it has been or can be legitimately used or recycled,” inspectors wrote.

    “It’s an open question for a number of these facilities what it is they’re actually producing and what it’s used for.”

    “There’s very little actual monitoring data from these facilities that are doing plastic pyrolysis,” Veena Singla, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Intercept. “It’s an open question for a number of these facilities what it is they’re actually producing and what it’s used for.”

    Even Braven’s purportedly recyclable products pose substantial risks. In June 2021, Braven announced a “long-term agreement” to supply pyrolysis-derived oils to Chevron Phillips Chemical. The press release did not state outright what the oil will be used as feedstock for, stating only that it will help Chevron “achieve its circularity goals.” However, ProPublica reported in February that one Chevron refinery in Mississippi is turning pyrolysis oil into jet fuel; according to EPA documents, air pollution from the fuel production process could subject nearby residents to a colossal 1 in 4 cancer risk.

    The Intercept confirmed that some of the pyrolysis oil at this Chevron facility is indeed supplied by Braven: The chemical name and unique registry number listed in an EPA record obtained by ProPublica matches the details of Braven’s pyrolysis oils found in a North Carolina air quality permit exemption application . Additionally, in July 2022, the EPA published notice in the Federal Register of several new pyrolysis oils manufactured by Braven, including the same one on the EPA record.

    A public housing community less than 400 feet away from the back of Braven Environmental’s lot.

    Photo: Schuyler Mitchell/The Intercept

    Some residents within one mile of Braven were already at an increased risk for environmental carcinogens before the business moved in: One nearby census tract has worse particulate matter and ozone exposure, hazardous waste proximity, and air toxics cancer risk than over 90 percent of the country.

    During the town hearing, Sloane had emphasized Braven’s “proactive” safety features; the special use permit application promised “daily inspections.” The compliance investigation, however, noted numerous deficiencies in emergency preparedness, including the absence of a fire extinguisher in the main room where containers of flammable waste were accumulating, some of which were left open and unlabeled.

    According to the report, Braven staff admitted that personnel had not conducted weekly inspections, and they were unable to provide documentation that an engineer’s certification had been completed for a hazardous waste tank. Neither safety data sheets for the pyrolysis oils nor an emergency contingency plan had been completed with all required information, and the plan had not been distributed to local emergency authorities.

    Additionally, inspectors observed during the visit that oil-contaminated stormwater was being pumped from a containment pit into a storage tote, but the connecting hose was leaking and “dark staining was evident” on the paved area between the pit and the storm drain.

    Christopher Serrati, Braven’s manager of operations, told inspectors at the time that the concrete surrounding the storm drain had been “power washed in the past to remove staining.” The report noted an absorbent sock had been placed around the storm drain, and dark staining was present on soil adjacent to the property’s stormwater outfall, indicating hazardous waste may have been discharged to the ground.

    Following an assessment period, the North Carolina DEQ cited Braven as a “significant noncomplier” and issued the company an “initial imminent and substantial endangerment order” on April 28, 2023. Braven has not received any state or federal penalties.

    “This is an ongoing state lead enforcement matter, and EPA is currently not involved. EPA cannot further comment regarding the facility’s compliance or enforcement activities,” wrote an EPA spokesperson.

    As part of a spill remediation plan, the DEQ required that Braven test both stormwater and soil from the contamination sites. Four of the contaminated stormwater samples tested positive for high concentrations of benzene, according to a report submitted to the agency in January. The report notes, however, that Braven believes the high benzene levels can be attributed to oils that were left in the sampling totes.

    Top/Left: Braven Environmental received a special use permit to store flammable liquids on Industrial Drive in Zebulon, N.C. Bottom/Right: Birds sit atop a water tower in downtown Zebulon, N.C. Photos: Schuyler Mitchell/The Intercept

    “In the past, all waste including dike water was shipped as hazardous waste and therefore, our crew did not realize the new operations and they inadvertently used the old empty oil totes for dike stormwater storage,” wrote Braven. The report states that going forward, “Braven will use only clean totes to store dike stormwater, if any, to avoid any potential hazardous waste conditions for the stormwater totes.” Braven has also installed an oil/water separator for stormwater discharge.

    However, Braven’s claim that contaminated stormwater had previously been disposed of as hazardous waste appears to contradict notes in the initial compliance investigation. “Records dated April 2022 documenting shipment of rainwater … were provided after the inspection and document the material was previously disposed of as non-hazardous,” inspectors wrote.

    Singla, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the storm drain discharge a “big concern.”

    “We know that when there’s spills or leaks from industrial facilities, benzene can contaminate surface water, groundwater especially,” Singla said. “If there’s any built environment over that groundwater, the benzene can migrate up through the soil into indoor spaces and then contaminate the air, and people can be exposed that way.”


    How the Plastics Industry Is Fighting to Keep Polluting the World

    Another report submitted by Braven in June notes “site-specific groundwater investigations have not been conducted,” though a contractor completed a reconnaissance survey of potential “wells, springs, surface-water intakes, and sources of potable water” within 1,500 feet of the facility and did not observe any apparent water supply wells. The contractor said it also contacted the county for more information on potential water sources in the area but did not receive a response.

    In late August, a new remedial action oversight report was posted to the DEQ’s public records database. A state chemist’s review of Braven’s soil samples found “evidence of elevated hexavalent chromium and arsenic” in the site’s underlying soil. The state’s report attributes these findings to “a release of waste,” since the results were above the levels found in background samples. Both arsenic and chromium are considered occupational carcinogens by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    The state offered Braven two remediation options: complete additional sampling and remove the contaminated soil, or close the impacted areas as a landfill. According to Melody Foote, a public information officer from the DEQ’s Division of Waste Management, Braven completed the additional sampling in late September. The DEQ is waiting for the sampling results and findings report, which is expected in three to four weeks.

    Zebulon Commissioner Shannon Baxter called the noncompliance report “extremely disturbing” and noted that the public hearing testimony given in 2019 “appears to be in conflict with how Braven is actually operating.” Baxter was previously a member of the planning board and recommended denial of Braven’s permit in 2019. She noted that her views should not be interpreted as representative of the entire Board of Commissioners.

    “I had my concerns as a member of the Planning Board, which is why we voted to recommend denial of the Special Use Permit,” Baxter wrote in a message to The Intercept. “Now, as a Commissioner, I am troubled about how these violations will affect the safety of our Community, especially the students attending school down the road from the Braven facility.”

    A community garden sits outside of East Wake Academy, a K-12 charter school located down the road from Braven Environmental.

    Photo: Schuyler Mitchell/The Intercept

    Aggressive Expansion

    A troubled record hasn’t deterred the petrochemical industry from throwing its weight behind Braven in recent months. The company has announced three major executive hires since April, including a chief operating officer, development director, and president and CEO. Heath DePriest, the new COO, previously served in leadership positions at Phillips 66, a petroleum company. A press release notes that CEO and President Jim Simon held roles at the refinery subsidiary of Koch Industries.

    In June, Braven announced a new “strategic framework agreement” with another Koch Industries subsidiary, Koch Project Solutions, to “support Braven’s aggressive expansion plans.” The press release cited a new project to be built in the Gulf Coast region, which will allegedly produce 50 million gallons of pyrolysis oil per year.

    Braven’s past expansion plans, however, have not materialized. In 2020, the company was the subject of a number of splashy headlines for its plans to invest $32 million in Cumberland County, Virginia, a rural region west of Richmond. Promising the creation of more than 80 new jobs, the project marked the first economic development opportunity for the county since 2009. Braven was slated to break ground in late 2021, but the year quietly came and went, until a sole public update arrived via an article in a Cumberland County newspaper: “Braven No Longer Coming.” The article, published in January 2022, did not explain why Braven had pulled out, and the company declined to comment at the time.

    Braven has also been the subject of several legal actions. In 2015, sisters Joan Prentice Andrews and Jane Prentice Goff filed a lawsuit against Golden Renewable in New York, which also named four executives, including co-founders Moreno and Nicholas Canosa, as defendants. The suit claims that the sisters had collectively invested a total of $650,000 in Golden Renewable’s “bio-energy business” after Canosa had given the false impression that the company was “imminently signing a contract” to sell its biofuels to the Pentagon. The suit’s charges included wire fraud, mail fraud, and violations under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The case was settled out of court and voluntarily dismissed less than one month after the defendants were summoned.

    The following year, a New York court ruled that Golden Renewable owed a different plaintiff over $10,000 in a civil debt lawsuit. The company was also released from a New York state tax warrant in 2018 after paying an outstanding balance of $16,522. In January 2020, Moreno was released from another New York tax warrant along with his wife, totaling over $300,000. After stepping down as Braven’s CEO in April, Canosa remains on the company’s board of managers. Moreno currently still serves as Braven’s chief commercial officer.

    Plastic trash hangs in a tree near Braven Environmental in Zebulon, N.C.

    Photo: Schuyler Mitchell/The Intercept

    In April, Braven announced it had completed a financing round led by institutional investors Fortistar, Arosa Capital, and Avenue Capital, where Moreno also serves as senior managing director. While Fortistar and Arosa have investments in the energy sector, Avenue backs businesses in financial distress — or as it calls them, “good companies with bad balance sheets.”

    But any bad balance sheets that Braven might have are unlikely to dissuade the numerous major petrochemical companies now banking on chemical recycling. Last year marked the ACC’s highest lobbying spend on record, up to nearly $20 million. That same year, the group shelled out more than $265,000 for Facebook and Twitter ads focused on promoting chemical recycling. One ACC ad effort included the sponsorship of a promotional video specifically for Braven, which features Canosa and Moreno alongside the ACC’s associate director of plastics sustainability.

    Dow, Shell, and Chevron have all invested in developing their own plastic pyrolysis technology, while Exxon Mobil launched one of the largest chemical recycling plants in North America earlier this year, the first of 13 facilities it says it will launch by the end of 2026. Worldwide, the advanced recycling market is projected to grow by 3,233 percent in less than a decade, from $270 million in 2022 to more than $9 billion by 2031.

    As chemical recycling spreads, we know from existing studies that the facilities are most likely to harm communities that are already vulnerable and marginalized.

    “We found that these facilities are commonly sited in places where the surrounding community is disproportionately low income, or disproportionately people of color, or both.”

    “We found that these facilities are commonly sited in places where the surrounding community is disproportionately low income, or disproportionately people of color, or both,” said Singla, who authored a report for the Natural Resources Defense Council on the environmental justice impact of chemical recycling.

    Meanwhile, North Carolina could soon become the 25th state to take up the reclassification of chemical recycling. In April, three Republican state Senators introduced Senate Bill 725 , which would amend the state’s waste management laws to explicitly note “solid waste management does not include advanced recycling.”

    Braven, the only advanced recycling facility in North Carolina, was already exempt from obtaining a solid waste permit, according to Foote, the public information officer. Foote told The Intercept that since Braven processes “recovered material” — defined in state laws as “material that has known recycling potential, can be feasibly recycled, and has been diverted or removed from the solid waste stream” — it is not regulated as “solid waste.”

    There has been one recent development that could slow chemical recycling down. In June, the EPA unveiled new proposed rules under the Toxic Substances Control Act that would establish reporting requirements for 18 substances derived from plastic pyrolysis. The agency would require companies to submit their chemical feedstocks for review so the agency can screen them for “impurities,” including PFAS, dioxins, heavy metals, bisphenols, and flame retardants.

    The public comment period ended on August 19. The EPA is currently reviewing responses and is targeting early next year for follow-up action, according to a spokesperson.

    The ACC, American Petroleum Institute, and Dow were among those who submitted comments urging the EPA to withdraw the proposed new rules.

    “The ACC would welcome the opportunity to meet with EPA leadership to clarify misconceptions about advanced recycling,” the ACC wrote, “and invite Agency officials to an advanced recycling facility for a first-hand sense of their operations.”

    In response to The Intercept’s request for comment, Ross Eisenberg, president of America’s Plastic Makers from the ACC’s Plastics Division, wrote in a statement, “Progress towards a circular economy can only be achieved with smart, cohesive approaches that avoid inconsistent and conflicting approaches by regulators. … ACC remains committed to working with EPA as a constructive stakeholder in the development of effective, practical, and responsible policies.”

    Braven already appears to be pulling from the ACC’s playbook in its efforts to curry favor with state lawmakers. Democrat Deborah Ross, who represents the North Carolina congressional district that includes Zebulon, made a trip to Braven’s facility on August 25.

    “I enjoyed meeting and learning from Braven’s innovative leaders and employees this morning in Zebulon,” Ross is quoted as saying in a Braven press release . “I look forward to applying the insights and information I gained during my visit to the important discussions in Congress about advanced recycling technologies.”

    The Intercept emailed the compliance report to Ross’s office and asked whether Braven had mentioned the inspection and ongoing remediation efforts before, during, or after the representative’s visit.

    “Congresswoman Ross does her best to accommodate invitations she receives from constituents and visits dozens of businesses in her district every year — these tours and constituent meetings should never be interpreted as expressing support for any particular company’s policy positions or business practices,” wrote a spokesperson. “She was not aware of this investigation before touring Braven, nor was it discussed during or after her visit. As a vocal supporter of environmental protections, she takes these allegations seriously and strongly supports NC DEQ’s work to hold companies in our state accountable for harmful waste or activities that threaten our people and our environment.”

    The post They Promised “Advanced Recycling” for Plastics and Delivered Toxic Waste appeared first on The Intercept .

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      Atlanta Mayor Dismisses Cop City Referendum as “Not an Election” / TheIntercept · Yesterday - 20:49 · 7 minutes

    Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said this week that he wishes to “err on the side” of ensuring residents are heard in their effort to hold a citywide vote on the construction of a $90 million police training facility — even as his own administration refuses to move forward with the process of verifying signatures gathered in support of the referendum.

    Dickens’s comment came in a letter to Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who had written to the mayor in mid-September and raised questions about the city’s use of signature verification — a practice Georgia Democrats have previously criticized as “problematic” — to validate the referendum.

    On September 11, organizers submitted around 116,000 signatures supporting a referendum on the police training facility, double the number needed to get the referendum on the ballot. The deadline for submitting the signatures is the subject of an ongoing legal battle in which the city has argued that the entire referendum effort is invalid. City officials have said they cannot start the process of verifying the signatures until a federal court makes a ruling, which may not happen until November.

    In his letter, Dickens, a Democrat, wrote that the city “will err on the side of ensuring that Atlanta voters who desire to bring this issue to a vote will have that opportunity.” The mayor recently attacked a council member in a group chat for talking to the press about concerns surrounding the project, dubbed Cop City by residents and protesters, and disparaged the referendum effort as a whole, saying that “we know that this is going to be unsuccessful, if it’s done honestly.”

    “Mayor Dickens has been trying to prevent a vote on Cop City from the very beginning. Now that he is being called out for it, he’s hiding behind a court appeal that he filed,” said Vonne Martin, deputy chief of campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy and a Cop City Vote organizer. “He can’t have it both ways. If Mayor Dickens actually believes in democracy and respects the voices of his constituents, he should simply drop his appeal and begin counting the petitions.”

    Dickens’s office does not see itself as having it both ways. “The City has not stood in the way of anyone seeking to follow the process as defined by state law and city code,” a city of Atlanta spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Intercept. “If the Court allows the verification process to proceed, and it is determined that the petitioners have reached the 15% threshold, then the Mayor will support placing this question on the ballot.”

    Dickens, in his letter to Warnock, dismissed the referendum as “not an election” and argued that by building the facility, the city is actually pursuing a comprehensive vision toward public safety.

    “This is not an election,” the mayor wrote. “Not yet. People are not and have not been asked to vote. We cannot allow people from either end of the political spectrum to conflate this effort with an election. Standing in front of your local grocery store to collect signatures from customers who may be residents, while commendable, is vastly different from registering to vote and casting a ballot.”

    In September 2021 , Atlanta’s city council — after hearing 17 hours of public comment, much of it opposed — voted 10-4 to approve a land lease for the facility to the Atlanta Police Foundation. Opposition has only grown since, as has the police crackdown against protesters . In June, the council held another hearing, prompting another 15-plus hours of public comment and mass protest. Still, the council approved $67 million in taxpayer dollars for the facility, inciting Atlantans to launch the referendum effort.

    On July 6, Atlanta organizers filed a lawsuit, challenging a requirement for signature collectors to be Atlanta residents. On July 27, a federal judge ruled that requirement unconstitutional and extended the deadline for collecting signatures by 60 days. The court rejected the city’s appeal of the ruling, so the city took it up with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. There, the city argued that the entire referendum effort was invalid because, if passed, it would impair the city’s already-authorized contract with the Atlanta Police Foundation and that the court did not have the authority to extend the signature collection timeline this close to an election. On September 1, the circuit court ruled in favor of the city, issuing a stay and freezing the federal court ruling. While organizers submitted the signatures within 60 days of the July 27 ruling, the city now argues that the actual deadline was August 21, making the signatures invalid.

    “The City is simply defending itself against the suit brought by the petitioners which sought to change the process in the middle of the original timeline,” wrote the city spokesperson. “The City is obligated to adhere to state law, and in this case, must receive legal guidance from the Court.”

    The 11th Circuit Court is expected to decide on this issue later this year.

    In his letter, Dickens attempted to draw a distinction between the referendum process and actual voting, both democratic processes. “Equating the petition process to voter suppression minimizes actual instances of voter suppression,” Dickens wrote. “This petition process provides an option for those who disagree with the decisions of their elected leaders, in this case a veto proof supermajority of the City Council who approved the project twice, to have their voices heard. That process is difficult because it should only be used in extraordinary circumstances.”

    Dickens wrote about the “risk of petition fraud” when “hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) are spent by out of state interests to influence the process.” He cited a tweet announcing fundraising for groups dedicated to supporting Black communities and arrested protesters, comparing it to instances of QAnon and GOP-affiliated petition fraud. (He had comparably little to say about the millions of corporate dollars funding the Atlanta Police Foundation’s efforts for the facility.)

    The Atlanta mayor also wrote significantly about public safety, juxtaposing the police murders of George Floyd and others with “a spike in violent crime.” “Do we achieve public safety through more officers, or more training, or investing in addressing the root causes of crime? The answer to all of those is yes,” he wrote. Dickens pointed to the city council’s recent reforms, like banning chokeholds, requiring de-escalation tactics, and expanding the authority of the Citizen Review Board as positive developments (seven of the board’s 16 positions are currently vacant, including the chair).

    The Cop City Vote coalition raised a number of counterpoints in an annotated version of the mayor’s letter. While the mayor lauded recent police reforms, the activists noted that the reforms have not resulted in comprehensive accountability for the Atlanta Police Department. For instance, the police department refuses to release body camera footage from an August encounter that led to 62-year-old deacon Johnny Hollman’s death . Hollman called 911 after getting into a car accident. When officers arrived, they deemed Hollman at fault, according to Atlanta police. He asked to see a sergeant, and the officers threatened to arrest him if he didn’t sign a ticket, per Hollman’s family, who have seen the footage. According to them, Hollman said he’d sign the ticket, but the officer still grabbed him and began tasing him. Hollman apparently told the officer “I can’t breathe” up to 16 times, the family said. Hollman was taken into custody and pronounced dead at the hospital.

    While Dickens wrote that “people feel safe when they know we are investing in criminal justice reform and non-policing alternatives,” organizers pointed to a multimillion-dollar violence prevention initiative that has floundered over the past year, losing its executive director and leaving millions of dollars untouched.

    And though Dickens stated that “people feel safe when they have a secure roof over their heads,” organizers countered that the city let go of $10 million in emergency rental assistance funding after it didn’t provide the money to needy residents before a deadline. “Innovative collaboration,” Dickens wrote, has enabled the city “to ensure that people could remain in their homes.” Still, as the city’s Covid-19 eviction moratorium was lifted earlier this month, an estimated 12,000 area residents were said to be facing or soon facing eviction.

    “We could address the inaccuracies, misinformation, and incoherence of this letter — and we did — but the bottom line: We’re not falling for it,” said Mary Hooks, tactical lead for the Cop City Vote coalition. “The mayor says he doesn’t believe we have the required number of petitions. OK. Get out of the way, withdraw your unnecessary and expensive legal appeal, and start counting. We’ll bet your political career that we’ve got the numbers.”

    The post Atlanta Mayor Dismisses Cop City Referendum as “Not an Election” appeared first on The Intercept .

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      Menendez Indictment Looks Like Egypt Recruiting Intelligence Source, Say Former CIA Officials / TheIntercept · Yesterday - 18:07 · 7 minutes

    Media coverage of embattled New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez’s indictment has focused on things like gold bars and wads of cash found stuffed in his clothing — the cartoonish elements of the corruption allegations leveled by the Department of Justice.

    National security experts, however, say the indictment’s reference to Egyptian intelligence officials and Menendez’s disclosure of “highly sensitive” and “non-public” information to Egyptian officials suggest that, more than a garden-variety corruption scheme, there may be an intelligence element to the charges.

    Egypt’s elicitation of information resembles a textbook recruitment pass, an intelligence operation intended to recruit an asset, four former CIA officers told The Intercept.

    According to the indictment, Menendez, chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was sometimes asked to supply information to an Egyptian businessman who would then communicate it to Egyptian officials. The most sensitive information Menendez is accused of sharing appears to be about staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

    “The request could well be one step in testing his willingness to break rules and laws, and therefore possibly assist Egyptian intelligence in more covert and damaging ways.”

    “Menendez sharing embassy staffing information is extremely troubling on a number of levels: It assists Egyptian security services monitoring the embassy and, more importantly, may suggest they viewed Menendez as a source,” said John Sipher, a retired CIA clandestine service officer and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The request could well be one step in testing his willingness to break rules and laws and therefore, possibly assist Egyptian intelligence in more covert and damaging ways.”

    Michael van Landingham, a former CIA analyst, told The Intercept, “Reading the indictment, it certainly appears like the Egyptian government was using a classic source-recruitment pattern to get Menendez and his wife to spy for them.”

    The former officials’ remarks comes amid a report from a local New York news channel that the FBI has opened a counterintelligence investigation into Menendez. (Menendez, who plead not guilty on Wednesday, did not respond to a request for comment.)

    “Senator Menendez’s chairmanship of foreign relations puts him in a bullseye position for foreign intelligence services that are looking to have him make decisions in their favor including military equipment and material decisions on funding,” Frank Figliuzzi, a former assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI, told NBC . “All of that should be looked at from a counterintelligence perspective.” (The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.)

    Since spies operate under diplomatic cover, embassies are an attractive target for intelligence services. Former CIA operations officers speaking on condition of anonymity described how recruitment passes tend to work. The requests start out small — often for information that’s not public, but not necessarily classified — in order to establish what’s called “responsiveness to tasking,” or willingness to collect intelligence on their behalf. Once responsiveness is established, a series of increasingly serious taskings culminates in a “spot payment,” or bribe, which cements the illicit nature of the relationship and can be used as blackmail.

    The indictment describes Menendez meeting with the Egyptian businessman Wael Hana and, later that day, seeking nonpublic information from the State Department regarding the number and nationality of people living in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. That information was later passed to what the indictment describes as an “Egyptian government official.” In another case, according to the indictment, Menendez’s wife Nadine, who was then his girlfriend, passed on a request from Egyptian government officials to the senator. And through Hana, Menendez was introduced to Egyptian intelligence and military officials under the auspices of increasing American food aid to Egypt.

    Though not classified, the information about staffing in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo is described in the indictment as “highly sensitive because it could pose significant operational security concerns if disclosed to a foreign government or if made public.” Without notifying his personal staff, the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chaired at the time, or the State Department, Menendez allegedly transmitted a detailed breakdown of the embassy staff to Nadine, who forwarded the message to Hana, who forwarded it to an Egyptian official.

    Intelligence Source Recruitment

    The FBI is reportedly trying to ascertain whether Egyptian intelligence played a role in the bribery scheme for which Menendez is being charged. Hana’s lawyer, Larry Lustberg, has denied that Hana is linked to Egyptian intelligence and maintains that Hana and Nadine Menendez had been friends for years. (Nadine Menendez did not respond to a request for comment.)

    To the former U.S. intelligence officials that spoke with The Intercept, the events described in the indictment bear the hallmarks of an effort to recruit an intelligence source. “As an analyst, when you receive a human source report, it comes with a sourcing statement that evaluates the source’s relative position, reliability, access to information, responsiveness to tasking, and track record,” said van Landingham, the former CIA analyst.

    James Lawler, a former CIA operations officer and counterproliferation chief specializing in the recruitment of former spies, similarly described the events in the indictment as fitting the pattern of source recruitment.

    “As a case officer, I would be looking to establish a solid relationship with future tasking potential (i.e. going for the long play) but cognizant that it may be only a one off,” Lawler told The Intercept in an email. “That said, we’re talking about the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee! Talk about access! If I were the intel officer, I’d be delighted and thinking I’m going to be promoted!”

    He added, “It’s how I recruited assets.”

    Daniel Schuman, policy director of Demand Progress, said that overseas recruitment attempts are commonplace. For this reason, he explained, members of Congress and even congressional staffers are routinely offered counterintelligence briefings.

    Menendez, in one case described in the indictment, sought to travel to Egypt unofficially and without supervision from the State Department. A trip under such circumstances runs contrary to reporting requirements under the Senate Security Manual.

    The three-count federal indictment against Mendendez, unsealed on Friday, paints a damning picture of pay-to-play access with a wide cast of characters, ranging from allies of the Egyptian government to an associate of the tristate-area mob . Three business associates and Nadine Menendez are all named in the legal filing, which claims that Menendez used his position of power to influence federal appointments and protect his longtime friend, Fred Daibes, a New Jersey real estate developer, financier, and longtime Menendez fundraiser.

    On Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was joined by Menendez’s fellow New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, in calling for his resignation. “The details of the allegations against Senator Menendez are of such a nature that the faith and trust of New Jerseyans as well as those he must work with in order to be effective have been shaken to the core,” Booker said. “I believe stepping down is best for those Senator Menendez has spent his life serving.”

    “Due process is a legal right, but nobody has a right to be a senator. Not being in the Senate isn’t a punishment.”

    Booker’s comments follow those made by Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., the first Democratic senator to call for Menendez’s resignation. Fetterman said he would try to return campaign donations from Menendez in $100 bills stuffed into envelopes like those discovered in Menendez’s house by federal investigators.

    Speaker Emerita Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the charges against Menendez “formidable” and has said “it would probably be a good idea if he did resign.” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate’s second-highest ranking official, has also called for Menendez to step down. Still, high-ranking officials like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have not called for his resignation. In a statement, Schumer said Menendez is “a dedicated public servant and is always fighting hard for the people of New Jersey,” adding that Menendez has a right to due process.

    Schuman, of Demand Progress, pointed out that questions around Menendez’s legal proceedings are separate from questions of his position in the Senate. “Due process is a legal right, but nobody has a right to be a senator,” he said. “Not being in the Senate isn’t a punishment.”

    Menendez has denied the charges, maintaining that the cash seized by authorities was from his personal savings account that he kept for emergencies “because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba.” Menendez, who was born in New York City, also said, “Those behind this campaign simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a U.S. senator and serve with honor and distinction.”

    The post Menendez Indictment Looks Like Egypt Recruiting Intelligence Source, Say Former CIA Officials appeared first on The Intercept .

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      The Hunt for the Nord Stream Bombers / TheIntercept · Yesterday - 10:00

    In the early morning hours of September 26, 2022, in the deep abyss of the Baltic Sea, an international mystery of substantial consequence began to unfold when a bomb ruptured the Russian-dominated Nord Stream pipeline. It was the opening salvo in a four-pronged attack that day that would leave three of the four pipelines incapacitated. One year later, no suspects have been arrested and no sponsor — nation state or otherwise — has been formally accused of responsibility.

    This week on Intercepted, we present a special documentary, “The Hunt for the Nord Stream Bombers.” We hear from Holger Stark, an investigative journalist from Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper who has broken several major stories on the bombing, as well as retired Swedish engineer Erik Andersson , who organized a groundbreaking independent expedition to film all four of the blast sites. Jeremy Scahill takes us through what we know and what we don’t about the bombing and examines the top suspects and the mounting evidence suggesting Ukrainian involvement in the attacks.

    Transcript coming soon.

    The post The Hunt for the Nord Stream Bombers appeared first on The Intercept .

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      A Ukrainian Woman Protected Her Daughter From Russian Soldiers — and Was Accused of Collaborating With the Enemy / TheIntercept · Yesterday - 10:00 · 29 minutes

    This article includes descriptions of sexual violence.

    BUCHA, UKRAINE — The first Russian soldiers arrived several days after Bucha had fallen, looking for any men left behind. Anna, a widow, lived alone with her mother and teenage daughter.

    “We have no men,” Anna told the soldiers, speaking in Russian. She warned her mother not to speak, worried that the soldiers would pick up on her distinct Western Ukrainian speech and mark her as a banderivka , a pejorative Russians often use to refer to Ukrainian nationalists or people they think of as such.

    Anna showed the Russians her father’s death certificate, which noted that he had been born in Russia’s far east. “It’s what saved us,” she later told me.

    She tried to appear welcoming, heeding a neighbor’s advice. “It’s going to be worse if you don’t let them in,” the elderly woman had warned.

    At first, the fact that they were three women alone did not feel uniquely threatening to Anna. Some of her neighbors were hiding male relatives in the basement — a far more dangerous proposition. In the early days of the occupation, Anna and her daughter, Maria, ventured into town, where they collected humanitarian aid from the local hospital and scavenged for melted ice cream in abandoned stores. They saw the mutilated bodies of men on the streets.

    Anna’s friendliness seemed to appease the first group of soldiers — the “orcs,” as she and many Ukrainians routinely call Russian troops. After searching the home, they gave Anna and her daughter white armbands to wear, a signal that they had been “ filtrated ” and posed no threat to the occupiers.

    It wasn’t until the second group of soldiers barged into Anna’s yard when she realized that women, alone in the occupied ghost city, faced a different sort of risk. Their leader, a tall man in his early 20s, struck her temple with the back of his weapon and demanded oral sex. He also threatened to rape Maria, who was 13 at the time. Anna acquiesced to his threats to protect her daughter, she says, setting off a chain of events that would lead her own government to investigate her for collaboration with the Russian occupiers even as it eventually came to recognize her as a victim of wartime sexual violence.

    I met Anna and Maria this summer at their home in Bucha: the city that first became synonymous with the horrors of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. They spoke for hours, talking excitedly over one another, repeating a story they had told many times but rarely, it seemed, to a willing listener. (Anna and Maria are pseudonyms; I am withholding their full names to protect their privacy.) Well into the conflict’s second year, as Ukrainian forces seek to liberate territories that remain under Russian occupation, their story is emblematic of the fissures tearing through Ukrainian society. On the one hand, Anna’s ongoing ordeal is a product of enduring stigma around sexual violence. On the other, it reflects deep-seated social divisions that have plagued Ukraine for years and have only escalated amid the current conflict.

    As survivors in each liberated town revealed fresh evidence of Russian atrocities, Ukrainians clamored for justice and nursed a growing vindictiveness against those perceived to have helped the occupiers. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy set the tone, signing a sweeping and unforgiving law targeting collaborators just days after last year’s invasion.

    In Bucha, neighbors summarily judged Anna’s wartime choices and shunned her as a traitor. But her interactions with Russian soldiers also posed a set of challenges for law enforcement officials, who have pledged that no crime stemming from the conflict will go unpunished. Local and international prosecutors have opened hundreds of investigations targeting Russian soldiers over wartime atrocities, including sexual violence. At the same time, local authorities have investigated thousands of Ukrainian citizens for collaboration.

    At once a victim and a suspected collaborator, Anna was caught between overlapping quests for justice, facing neighbors — and a law enforcement apparatus — unable to reconcile those contradictions.

    “People don’t understand exactly what collaboration is, and so they think that any contact with the enemy is collaboration.”

    “At the beginning no one believed that the Russians were capable of such things. People believed that those under occupation were not exactly collaborators but were quite friendly with the Russians,” said Kateryna Ilikchiieva, Anna’s attorney, referring to the sexual assault her client described. “People don’t understand exactly what collaboration is, and so they think that any contact with the enemy is collaboration.”

    The legislation passed last year further entrenched that belief. The law does not specifically prohibit relationships with Russians, but it does bar Ukrainians from sharing information that could have “serious consequences” with enemies of the state. In practice, any contact with Russians is fodder for speculation. “People understand even sex with Russian soldiers as collaboration,” said Alena Lunova, advocacy director at the Ukrainian human rights group ZMINA.

    In Anna’s case, the suspicion alone prompted relentless questioning by multiple law enforcement agencies and the dismissal, for months, of her reports that she was abused. She is probably not alone; human rights advocates warn that some victims of Russian sexual violence are not speaking out because they fear being labeled and possibly investigated as collaborators.

    In that sense, Anna’s story is a cautionary tale.

    Anna walks in her backyard in Bucha, Ukraine, on July 6, 2023. During the occupation, Russian soldiers regularly came to her home and sexually abused her.

    Photo: Ira Lupu for The Intercept

    Pasha Giraffe

    Long before Russian troops invaded Bucha in February 2022, Anna’s all-female household generated rumors . Neighbors had gossiped for years about her supposed drinking and promiscuity. They even whispered about Maria, who stopped going to school after the pandemic. The two lived with Anna’s 74-year-old mother in a disheveled house surrounded by a large, overgrown yard — on the margins of both the city and society, not caring much about what people said about them. Anna, with her blue hair and extravagant jewelry, looks at once much older than her 41 years and also like a sister to Maria, who dyes her hair bright red and wears artsy makeup.

    While most of Bucha’s residents fled as the Russians advanced, Anna and her family stayed put. Her mother, who is largely bedridden, didn’t want to leave her home. Besides, they had little money and nowhere to go. They followed news of the incursion on TV until the power went out and the sky filled with smoke.

    When the first group of soldiers came knocking, Maria noticed many of them seemed barely older than she was. She tried hard to seem friendly, thinking it safer.

    The terror began in mid-March, when the leader of the second group of soldiers, called Pasha Giraffe by his compatriots due to his towering height, told Anna that some man would eventually have his way with Maria, so why not now. It had taken them three months to get to Ukraine, another soldier said; they missed women and “needed relaxation.” Anna insisted that Maria was a child and pleaded with the soldiers; she told them she knew they were good men. She agreed to sleep with them so they would not touch Maria. “I took everything on myself,” she told me.

    After that, different groups of soldiers started coming by the house several times a day. They would announce themselves by firing shots in the air and hang around a pit fire in the yard, bragging about the people they had killed. Sometimes they would tell jokes and ask Anna and Maria to sing with them. Other times they were more menacing; Pasha Giraffe would cock his weapon when talking as if to remind them that he was in charge. Some of the soldiers were convinced that Anna and her daughter were spies for the Ukrainian army: They once burned Maria’s L.O.L. dolls — plastic figurines that are popular around the globe — because they believed that a laser light in the toys was a recording device. The soldiers were unpredictable and “twisted,” Anna and Maria said. They were always drunk, and most came to the house for sex.

    Anna didn’t want her mother to know what was happening, so she never took them inside. Instead, one by one, they filed into a garage in the back of the yard, “like they were waiting in line for the bathroom,” Anna said. There were sometimes up to 10 men a day, she recalled, maybe 30 to 50 different soldiers in a two-week period.

    Meanwhile, the other soldiers lingered in the yard with Maria. They put their arms around her waist, sometimes touched her legs, but never more, she said. She credits her mother, but also what she described as her wits. “I learned how to be around them,” she said. “We were playing nice, trying not to be rude. We played their game, said Zelenskyy is a jerk, Putin is great, telling them they were liberators.”

    Anna believes most of the soldiers must be dead by now, but she said she would kill Pasha Giraffe herself if she could. She got to know some others by their nicknames as well: There was Sergeant, Shamil, Puppy, and Monarch, who broke down toward the end of the occupation and apologized to Anna. He didn’t know why they came to Bucha, he said, nor why they did what they did.

    Her familiarity with the soldiers would come in handy, months later, when Anna was summoned to identify perpetrators of war crimes.

    Maria sits in her backyard, where Russian soldiers would often linger during their occupation of Bucha, Ukraine.

    Photo: Ira Lupu for The Intercept

    Return to Bucha

    Throughout the monthlong occupation of Bucha, Russian soldiers killed at least 501 people, according to a newly erected memorial that officials warn is incomplete . When the city was liberated in early April 2022 and residents returned, they found dozens of Ukrainian bodies in mass graves. There was a mound of partially burnt corpses in a shallow patch in Anna’s neighborhood. Others were scattered in the streets, some with their hands tied behind their backs, bearing signs of torture.

    Not far from Anna’s home, on the leafy outskirts of the city, three brothers were found slain, at least one of whom had worked as a police officer. There was also a woman who taught the Ukrainian language, whom neighbors believe was targeted along with her husband and son for refusing to speak Russian to the occupiers. Some people who had fled found their homes looted and burnt; other homes were untouched.

    Ira, a neighbor who lives down the street from Anna and asked me to use only her first name, was among those who returned. On April 4, the first day returning residents were allowed into the city, she walked through her yard, cradling her cat, as the executed bodies of her husband and two other male relatives lay on the ground nearby.

    Ira remembers seeing Anna and Maria that day. Like other residents, she had heard rumors that the two were among those looting abandoned houses. Blurry photos and videos had circulated on social media, some taken surreptitiously through slits in neighbors’ fences. In one, Anna is pushing a wheelbarrow carrying a large piano. In another, she stands next to a resident whom neighbors also accused of looting; after the invasion, he killed himself because of the shame, Ira said. In yet another photo, Anna appears to be smiling.

    The smile is what bothers Ira most. The day she returned to Bucha, she photographed Maria and Anna: the daughter flashing a wide grin, the mother a more subdued one. Ira said they had greeted her from down the street waving a victory sign. “We were so happy to see living souls,” Maria told me.

    But to Ira and others, the fact that they were still alive, seemingly in good spirits, and that their house was mostly intact, were indisputable signs of their treason. “They are smiling at the same time that there are bodies in my yard,” she said. “Does a victim act like that?”

    Ira Gavriluk holds her cat as she walks among the bodies of her husband, brother, and another man, who were killed outside her home in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 4, 2022. Russia is facing a fresh wave of condemnation after evidence emerged of what appeared to be deliberate killings of civilians in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

    Throughout the monthlong occupation of Bucha, Russian soldiers killed at least 501 people. Many were found scattered in streets and backyards, some with their hands tied behind their backs, bearing signs of torture, on April 4, 2022.

    Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

    Rumors about Anna grew worse as more residents trickled back into the city. On social media, people referred to her as a “whore”; some asked for her address and threatened to kill her. Some neighbors said that she had been “in charge” of the looting, an offense they put on par with the actions of Russian soldiers. They also reported her to the police.

    The looting is not all that neighbors blame Anna for. Some municipal workers who had stayed during the occupation and were beaten by soldiers accused her of riding in an armored vehicle with the Russians and guiding the soldiers to them. Neighbors speculated that two elderly residents, whose bodies were found piled among others not far from Anna’s home, were targeted by the Russians after yelling at her for looting. Some neighbors wondered how the soldiers had been able to identify the police officers, former members of the military, and community leaders they executed. “Someone told them,” said Ira. “Maybe it was Anna.”

    As I spoke with Ira, an elderly woman stopped to listen, interjecting that the white armband the soldiers gave Anna was a sign “she was in their camp.” Another neighbor, who only gave her name as Svitlana, noted with scorn that Anna had taken to wearing earrings with a Ukrainian flag after the city was liberated. “She started working on her new image after the occupation,” said Svitlana. When residents hurled insults at her, she added, Anna told them that the Russians would be back. Her father was Russian, Svitlana stressed. “It’s in her DNA.”

    Then there was the sex with soldiers. Her neighbors accused her of enjoying it. They told me about rumors that she drank with the soldiers, danced with them, and even fired their weapons.

    Anna doesn’t deny taking the piano, which she said she found in the street and took into her home, with the help of some neighbors, after the Russians left the city. Many residents who remained in Bucha looted, she added, thinking that those who fled wouldn’t return. But she said she never gave the soldiers information about her neighbors, nor did she fire their weapons. She laughed when I told her what the neighbor said about her riding in an armored vehicle. And she says she spoke openly to her neighbors of having slept with soldiers, telling them she had done it to protect her daughter.

    Ira doesn’t believe her. She noted that several other women in Bucha who were raped by soldiers had been killed afterward, while another woman who emerged from a cellar after the invasion looked barely alive and was unable to speak of the abuses she had survived. “That’s an example of how a person goes through violence, not smiling,” Ira said. Anna, she insisted, “either is a very good actress, or has a mental problem, but it’s not sexual violence.”

    Anna next to the garage where she was sexually abused by Russian soldiers, in Bucha, Ukraine, on July 6, 2023.

    Our Orcs

    As Anna’s neighbors whispered, Ukrainian authorities began to investigate her.

    For several weeks, a steady stream of law enforcement officials came to her house. Throughout the visits, Anna took every chance to report the soldier’s abuses, repeatedly asking for a lie detector test to prove she was telling the truth. Nobody believed her, she said, because she wasn’t beautiful and because her clothes were dirty. “If you survived the occupation, you were a collaborator,” she said. “People who were not in the occupation just do not understand what happened here and what it was like.”

    Ukrainian soldiers were the first to stop by, looking for weapons the Russians might have left behind. After that, most of the officials who came didn’t explain what they were looking for, and Anna didn’t always know what agency they were with. Photos Maria took on her phone show that several worked for the Department of Strategic Investigations, a special unit of Ukraine’s national police.

    “If you survived the occupation, you were a collaborator.”

    Someone from the local prosecutor’s office came too. Anna is not sure how the office learned of her ordeal but said the prosecutor, Roman Pshyk, was the only one who appeared to take her account of the sexual violence seriously. Pshyk accompanied her to a gynecological exam shortly after the city was liberated, where she was horrified to see many elderly women. In the waiting room, she thanked herself for having protected her mother in addition to Maria.

    Pshyk, who has since left the office, told The Intercept that Anna’s case was one of more than 100 investigations into Russian crimes the prosecutor launched after Bucha’s liberation. “Any report of sexual harassment prompts a criminal prosecution investigation,” he said. “We can’t only take the position of the victim. We need evidence.” He added that his office had not yet heard the rumors about Anna and focused only on her testimony. He said the office later referred the case to national police and to Ukraine’s intelligence services, the SBU, though Anna didn’t hear from them until several months later.

    When the local police came to her house, they found cans of spray paint in the garage and claimed that it was used by Russians to mark the homes of allies. Other officers searched every room in the house, rummaging through drawers and asking for receipts to prove that items weren’t stolen. Svitlana, the neighbor, told me that police shared photos of items they discovered at Anna’s home with other residents, in an effort to identify stolen property. The police did not respond to The Intercept’s questions.

    Some of the officers were rough. In June last year, they demanded all the phones in the house, with no explanation. When Maria yelled at them and tried to film them, they snatched her phone and shoved and handcuffed her. Vitaliy Pelehatiy, a senior investigator with the Department of Strategic Investigations who was in charge that day, told The Intercept that officers were searching for stolen property and confiscated the phones as part of the investigation.

    “They behaved like orcs,” said Anna. “Our orcs.”

    Kateryna Ilikchiieva, the volunteer attorney representing Maria and Anna in a war crimes case against Russian soldiers, visits them at their home in Bucha, Ukraine, on July 6, 2023.

    Photo: Ira Lupu for The Intercept

    A Slow Reckoning

    Sexual violence goes substantially underreported virtually everywhere, but in conflict zones, the stigmatization of victims can be exacerbated. As Ukrainian forces seized back control of occupied territories last year, reports began to emerge of widespread sexual violence by Russian troops. The true toll may never be known, particularly in large swaths of the country that remain under occupation. Even in liberated areas, advocates caution that fear and persistent taboos about sexual violence make the scale of the abuses virtually impossible to assess. Often, they say, law enforcement agencies’ own biases and failures only compound the problem.

    “Because it is a shame to talk about sexual violence, our society charges these people as if they’re not a victim but more of a perpetrator,” said Gyunduz Mamedov, a deputy to Ukraine’s previous prosecutor general and a rare, outspoken critic of the collaboration law. The suspicion with which sexual violence victims are routinely treated, he said, amounts to “a double victimization.”

    Seven months into the war, in September 2022, Ukraine’s prosecutor general opened an office within the war crimes division to investigate and prosecute conflict-related sexual violence, or CRSV . It was a formal recognition of systemic abuses — and the fact that an array of Ukrainian agencies has failed to adequately support survivors.

    It was around this time that Anna’s interactions with the authorities took a turn. “After that, they started to work on the sexual violence case more sensitively, or to work on it at all,” said Ilikchiieva, her attorney, a volunteer who was connected to Anna by a legal nonprofit earlier this year.

    Late last summer, two SBU officers came to Anna’s house and handed her a document recognizing her status as a victim. In the months that followed, they asked more questions about her contacts with soldiers, and last November they finally gave her the polygraph she had been demanding for months.

    In a two-hour interview with the SBU officers, she told me, they asked her a wide range of questions: Was she raped? By how many people? What about the looting? Did she work with Russia’s security services or kill anyone? It felt just as much an investigation into war crimes by the Russians as a probe into Anna herself. The officers warned her she would go to jail if she lied, and she answered all their questions. Afterward they drove her home, and a few days later an officer called to say she had passed the test.

    The officers’ questions were the closest Ukrainian officials came to acknowledging that they suspected Anna of collaboration. The SBU did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment. Anna’s lawyer said she was never notified of a formal investigation, though Anna’s various interactions with law enforcement authorities pointed in that direction. Despite the lack of formal charges against her to this day, Anna’s neighbors in Bucha have no doubt about her guilt.

    Iryna Didenko, the prosecutor in charge of conflict-related sexual violence at the office of the prosecutor general of Ukraine, acknowledged in an interview that “huge mistakes” were made in the first months after the invasion and that law enforcement officials were unprepared to deal with victims. Investigators often didn’t keep information confidential, she noted, at times sharing it widely within the community. When she came in, she took over cases involving sexual violence from other agencies and overhauled the investigative interview process. Now, there must be a woman on every team, and investigators have been instructed to speak to witnesses and victims more empathetically. Didenko launched pilot programs in Kherson and Kharkiv, territories that Ukrainian forces liberated last year, where multiagency teams were trained by international experts on best practices when dealing with conflict-related sexual violence.

    Changing the culture of law enforcement, Didenko said, will take time. She also said there is a need for greater public education about sexual violence. She cited a USAID-led survey , published in May, in which most respondents noted that survivors of sexual violence “constantly face biased attitudes from Ukrainian society,” discouraging them from seeking help. “People will sometimes say a victim of rape may not have been against it,” she said. “But we are seeing changes; there is stronger support for victims.”

    Didenko declined to comment on Anna’s case specifically, citing confidentiality, but Anna said Didenko visited her earlier this year and was shocked to learn about how investigators had treated her. A week later, the phones Anna had been trying to get back from police for nearly nine months were returned to her.

    By the end of last year, Didenko’s office had opened more than 220 sexual violence investigations; the office ultimately filed charges against Russian soldiers in 62 cases. Didenko acknowledged that there are likely many more incidents that are not on her office’s radar because of the stigma associated with sexual violence and fear, in some liberated areas, that the Russians might return. Earlier this summer, Ukraine’s prosecutor general Andriy Kostin introduced a new plan to strengthen protections for victims of wartime sexual violence. Russia often uses such violence, he wrote, “as a form of torture, a way to humiliate and break resistance.”

    EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / In this photo taken on April 02, 2022 bodies of civilian lie on Yablunska street in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, after Russian army pull back from the city. The first body on the picture has been identified as Mykhailo Kovalenko and was shot dead by Russian soldiers according to relatives interviewed by AFP. When the 62-year-old arrived on Yablunska, he "got out of the vehicle with his hands up" to present himself to a checkpoint manned by Russian soldiers, said Artem, the boyfriend of Kovalenkos daughter. Still, the troops opened fire, said his daughter and his wife, who survived the attack by running away. - The bodies of at least 20 men in civilian clothes were found lying in a single street Saturday after Ukrainian forces retook the town of Bucha near Kyiv from Russian troops, AFP journalists said. Russian forces withdrew from several towns near Kyiv in recent days after Moscow's bid to encircle the capital failed, with Ukraine declaring that Bucha had been "liberated". (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP) (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images) Bodies of civilians lie on Yablunska Street in Bucha, Ukraine, after the Russian army retreated from the city on April 2, 2022. Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

    Splitting Society

    The first calls for legislation to punish Ukrainian collaborators came on the heels of the 2014 Donbas conflict, during which Ukrainian separatists, backed by Russian troops, seized large swaths of land in the country’s east, in a precursor to the current war. Russia went on to unilaterally annex those lands following last year’s full-scale invasion.

    Vitaliy Ovcharenko, a prominent blogger-turned-soldier from the Donbas’s Donetsk region, helped draft a law in 2017 that would have imposed civil penalties on officials and administrators who had supported the separatist effort, including banning them from holding public office. In towns that remained under Ukrainian control, he told me, residents who had aided pro-Russian forces, at times leading to the abuse or death of their neighbors, roamed freely. It wasn’t uncommon for people who had been tortured to run into their torturers at local shops. “There was a crisis of justice in Ukrainian cities, and no one cared, no one was taking responsibility, and no one knew how to bring these collaborators to justice,” Ovcharenko said.

    Ovcharenko’s proposal stalled after being introduced in Parliament in 2018. He and other local activists believed there was no appetite among Ukraine’s political leadership for criminalizing collaboration. He said that human rights advocates in Kyiv, some 500 miles away, accused him of being a traumatized veteran out for vengeance and warned that the proposed law had a violent, “vigilante” connotation to it. “They said, ‘We don’t need this confrontation in society.’ I told them, ‘If you left Kyiv and got to the ground, you would see that there are already confrontations,’” he said. “When society feels that there is no regulation from the government, it starts mass regulation by the people — and that ends with broken tires, broken windows, Molotov cocktails, and violence.”

    Several parties, including Zelenskyy’s, introduced similar proposals in later years, but they never came up for a vote, partly because of Ukrainian legislators’ concerns that they would enflame social divisions. It was also unclear how collaboration would overlap with existing laws, including on treason.

    Until last year: After the invasion, legislators voted Zelenskyy’s version into law so hastily that the legal advisers who evaluated the bill noted that they had done so under time pressure and “ in extraordinary circumstances .” The result, many critics charge, was a “bad law” whose overly vague contours effectively criminalize a much broader range of behavior than originally intended. In some parts of the country, it could potentially apply to tens of thousands of people.

    The law prohibits participation in political, legal, and law enforcement activities under the occupying authorities and the transfer of resources to them, as well as acts that lead to the “death of people or other serious consequences.” It bans Russian propaganda in educational institutions and the “public denial by a citizen of Ukraine of the armed aggression against Ukraine.” Penalties range from bans on holding government jobs to confiscation of property and prison sentences of up to 15 years.

    The legislation leaves little room for the complexities of war and people’s need to survive it.

    While its proponents argue that it serves as a deterrent, the legislation leaves little room for the complexities of war and people’s need to survive it. The law applies to Ukrainians providing Russian forces with information about military or civilian targets — as was the case with the agent who helped direct a Russian missile attack on a crowded café earlier this summer that killed 13 people. But it has also been used against local officials who remained in their posts under the new authorities, teachers showing up for work in occupied areas, and private citizens selling hogs or other goods to Russians or expressing opinions, including via social media, that are seen as supportive of the invasion.

    So far, prosecutors have investigated more than 6,000 cases of alleged collaboration, according to Ukrainian government records . While many were tried in absentia, scores of people have been convicted already .

    Some civil society groups and officials have called on the government to amend the law and apply it more selectively. Iryna Vereshchuk, the Ukrainian minister responsible for reintegration, warned against branding “everybody” who remained in occupied territory a collaborator. “Many people look to the future with fear because they don’t know if they fall under those categories,” she said last year. Tamila Tasheva, the government’s permanent representative for occupied Crimea, also called for a separate approach for Ukrainians who have lived under occupation for years.

    But lawmakers have so far refused to budge, with few politicians willing to be seen as soft on those who are considered traitors in the popular imagination.

    “The government is pretty understanding of what’s going on. It’s not a secret for those who are working with the issue, but the problem is that you need to explain to society why we need to change this law,” said ZMINA’s Lunova. “They can split society with this issue of collaboration.”

    The phenomenon is hardly unique to Ukraine. “Every war has its collaborators, and every war has an often brutal response to those collaborators,” said Shane Darcy, deputy director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the University of Galway, who has researched the issue globally. Still, models for how to address it are scarce. Even international humanitarian law — the body of law that rules conduct in armed conflict — has a “blind spot” when it comes to collaboration, Darcy added.

    International law posits that life should continue as normally as possible under occupation and requires occupying authorities to continue providing administrative services to civilians, allowing them to recruit former public servants to keep running them so long as it is not by coercion. “Of course, in a situation of occupation, it’s very hard to draw a fine line between what’s coercive and what’s not,” said Darcy. At the same time, international law also allows states to punish collaborators, provided they do so humanely. “Ukraine — to their credit — seem to be subjecting everyone to a legal process,” he added. “They’re not stringing collaborators from lampposts.”

    Ukraine’s justice system is grappling with how to handle some 80,000 alleged crimes by Russian forces. Critics of the collaboration law argue that, at best, it’s impractical because it places more strain on a system that’s already overburdened. “We understand the situation, but you can focus on those whose crimes are really critical, against state security, whose actions really have heavy consequences,” said Lunova. “You shouldn’t prosecute those who put a like on Facebook.”

    “They are pitting people against each other.”

    Nadia Volkova, a human rights attorney and director of the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group, who helped draft a never-implemented transitional justice plan after the 2014 conflict, argued that the mass prosecution of low-level collaborators risks causing long-term harm. Already, last year’s invasion deepened divisions that had long split Ukraine. “They are manipulating these differences that have always existed in Ukraine, because it was never a unified nation in a way,” she said. “They are pitting people against each other. One might think that they want to show everybody that if you’re not going to be supporting Ukraine, this is what is going to happen to you, you’re going to be held responsible. But if they want to unify the nation, it’s not really the way to go.”

    Maria and her mother Anna stand in their backyard in Bucha, Ukraine on July 6, 2023. They have been shunned by neighbors, who view them as traitors.

    Photo: Ira Lulu for The Intercept

    Neighbors and Traitors

    As Ukrainian forces wrestle territory back from Russian control, accusations of collaboration have become ubiquitous across the country. Old conflicts are sometimes recast in light of the ongoing conflict. Victims turn on victims.

    “Sometimes it’s real cases, with real records, real evidence,” Leonid Merzlyi, the chief judge in Irpin city court, whose jurisdiction includes Bucha, told me when I visited his courtroom. “In other cases, it is neighbors’ fights.”

    Though collaboration cases are usually investigated by national authorities and heard before higher courts, Merzlyi was well aware of their nuances. “If someone didn’t leave an occupied area, we need to know, why? And if someone had Russian soldiers visiting their house, why?” he said. “We need to analyze every case. It’s very crucial for Ukrainian society.”

    While some Ukrainians in occupied areas “were supporting the enemy before, and it was clear,” he continued, others may have been “protecting their children, and they were forced by this natural feeling of protection, and it’s hard to judge in that case.”

    Anatoliy Fedoruk, the mayor of Bucha for 24 years, noted that there were fewer allegations of collaboration there as compared to other areas that were occupied for longer periods of time, but he acknowledged that long-standing hostilities between neighbors were exacerbated by the conflict. “Often, people on the same street or even in the same family are ready to eat each other,” he said. “We are a civilized society and we do not prove things by conjecture: There should be evidence — whether of collaboration or of rape — not rumors.”

    When we met, Fedoruk said that he wasn’t familiar with Anna’s case and couldn’t comment on ongoing investigations. The next day, however, a team of municipal workers came to inspect Anna’s rooftop. It had been damaged by shelling, and she had been asking the city to repair it for months. (They still haven’t fixed it, she recently told me.)

    Anna and Maria’s war crimes case is currently in the pretrial phase, Ilikchiieva told me. As part of the prosecutor general’s investigation, the two have traveled to Kyiv in recent months to identify soldiers in hundreds of photos authorities pulled from Russian social media. During one visit, Pelehatiy, the senior police investigator who had repeatedly visited Anna at home and who had been in charge when police handcuffed Maria, stood on a side of the room, watching skeptically. Pelehatiy told The Intercept he had heard about Anna’s reports of sexual violence by soldiers, but that she had never told him directly about them. “He does not believe her,” Ilikchiieva said.

    He’s not the only one. According to Ira, she and other neighbors have spoken with officers who agree that Anna is a liar, playing the part of the victim. “Everyone can see it,” she said, “but they can’t do anything with it.”

    For Anna, it makes little difference whether she will ever face criminal charges for looting or collaboration. Either way, she is now an outcast in Bucha.

    Last winter, someone vandalized her fence. On Christmas Eve, while she and Maria were out, two young men from the neighborhood smashed their windows with baseball bats, stole a TV, and beat her mother, she said. After she reported the attack to police, one of the men returned to fix the fence and brought a different TV; he told Anna that he had not touched her mother. In January, the same men attacked Maria as she walked home, threatening her with a knife. Again, Anna reported the incident to police. She said they did nothing.

    Anna has come to resent her neighbors and the Ukrainian officials who failed her just as much as she hates the Russian soldiers who abused her. “The worst part,” she said, “was not the orcs.”

    The post A Ukrainian Woman Protected Her Daughter From Russian Soldiers — and Was Accused of Collaborating With the Enemy appeared first on The Intercept .

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      House Republicans Are Hurtling Toward the Most Pointless Shutdown Ever / TheIntercept · Yesterday - 03:00 · 8 minutes

    In a rather striking split screen today, Joe Biden became the first president ever to walk a union picket line, grabbing a bullhorn and using the word “we” to rally striking autoworkers . His Federal Trade Commission teamed with 17 attorneys general to sue Amazon for unfair competition (which was fun to see Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post report ). And the FCC, finally under the control of Democratic commissioners, announced it would be moving to restore net neutrality rules undone by Trump.

    Over on the Republican side, the House GOP continued barreling toward a government shutdown over…what exactly? “Madam Speaker, forgive me, but what the hell is going on here?” wondered Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern from the House floor this evening. And Trump will be skipping Wednesday’s Republican debate to speak at a non-union auto parts company that has nothing to do with the UAW strikes against the Big Three.

    It’s a tale of two parties taking unusually divergent governance paths.

    It’s not all rosy for Democrats, of course. The dam broke for New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, with more than twenty of his colleagues and counting calling for him to resign after being indicted for over-the-top levels of corruption – while interestingly not a single Republican senator has done so. He’s holding out for one simple reason: His number one goal at this point is not re-election, it’s staying out of prison. One thing he can offer prosecutors is resigning. The Justice Department, when it targets politicians, often offers reduced sentences or no prison time in exchange for stepping down. Resigning now would be giving up that card for nothing. (Menendez is one of the most hawkish supporters of Israel in the party, and AIPAC is standing by him .)

    We’re headed for a government shutdown on Saturday, September 30, for no reason at all. Indeed it’s hard to think of a single person who could benefit from one, except, perhaps, someone facing a few federal indictments and hoping to drag out their trials beyond the coming election. For that person , you can see an upside in a shutdown.

    Republicans spent Tuesday evening jawing at each other. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the Republican firebrands leading the shutdown charge, to his credit, had the night’s best joke, saying that federal spending had so devalued the dollar that you need gold bars to bribe Democratic senators now. He also lashed out at Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Twitter, calling him “pathetic” for a paid advocacy campaign Gaetz said attempted to pay Republican influencers to trash-talk Gaetz and his shutdown effort. McCarthy issued a cease-and-desist order to a consulting firm, which appears to be – or is accused of being? – Democratic. What a mess.

    I don’t think people quite have a grasp of how thoroughly absurd the Republican position is on a government shutdown , and I’m not speaking from a partisan perspective, or saying that I disagree with their approach. What I’m saying is that it’s just completely insane.

    To put it simply, Republicans previously agreed to a very specific deal to fund the government, have not made any serious demands or proposed any way forward that would keep the government open, yet they are still pushing for a shutdown. When I read that sentence back to myself, it sounds unusually partisan, but it’s just the simple truth, and I don’t see any other way to say it honestly.

    They can’t even pass a bill through their own chamber, the House, that would fund the government. They’re not even proposing big changes to federal spending, because they already took that off the table during Biden’s State of the Union .

    At least when Trump shut the government down in 2018 he had an actual demand: money for his border wall. (He eventually caved, got no money, and built some of the wall illegally anyway, by moving money from other places.)

    Taking a close look at the legislative situation really reveals how absurd it is. Let’s run through it quickly.

    Perhaps it seems like too long  ago, but this whole thing was already worked out in May. Biden and McCarthy, as you’ll recall, sat down to craft a deal to avert a default and a global financial crisis.

    The deal was straightforward and announced publicly: the debt ceiling would be lifted until January 2025  (so a lame duck Congress can lift it again). Discretionary and military spending for the next fiscal year would be capped at $1.59 trillion: $886 billion for the war-making folks and $704 billion for the rest. Cuts to spending for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and veterans  benefits were off limits, because Biden had boxed Republicans in when they all hooted and hollered at him during his State of the Union.

    So all of this has already been hashed out. As Hank Williams Jr. would put it, “It’s all over but the crying.”

    The holdouts are calling for budget numbers several hundred billion below what was already agreed on, which is fine — that’s their right — but it doesn’t mean anybody should listen to them. Today McCarthy suggested he needs another meeting with Biden, which the White House quickly rejected, noting they already cut a deal and his problem is with Matt Gaetz and that crew, not with the White House. AOC suggested McCarthy be told to go “pound sand, ” which is one of my favorite cliches.

    How This Is Completely On Republicans

    There are only a few different ways to fund the government:

    1. You can do it the way Congress was designed to work but doesn’t: by passing a dozen individual spending bills through the House and the Senate and having the president sign them. How quaint. That hasn’t happened since 1996.
    1. Then there is a CR, or a “continuing resolution.” A CR essentially keeps things as they are until a certain date, though you can also have an amended CR that includes policy and spending changes.

    That’s it. If you don’t pass one of those, the government shuts down. And there are enough Republicans opposed to each one of those pathways that none of them are viable.

    So Republicans are spending this week belatedly attempting option 1, passing all 12 appropriations bills. That’s impossible to do in this short amount of time, and the party is only going to try to actually pass four. It’s just for show, and if I were a betting man, I’d take the under. Maybe they can pass the defense bill. The homeland security one is a remote possibility. The next two – State & Foreign Ops and Agriculture – are going to be tougher. Late this evening, they passed a rule on the House floor that allows them to start debating those four bills. It got 216 Republican votes (Marjorie Taylor Greene voted no) and Republicans gave themselves an ovation on the floor, even though passing a rule is standard stuff. Nancy Pelosi never lost a rule vote in her entire tenure.

    Their next plan will be to draft a CR and stuff it full of right-wing priorities, such as dewokeifying the military, attaching symbolic border-related provisions, and slashing social spending. All of that is DOA in the Senate and not even a sure thing in the House.

    Each one of these votes is a trap for Republicans, because they’ll never be good enough for the most ardent conservatives and they’ll include draconian cuts and extreme social policy that will then be used against moderate Republicans running in Biden districts.

    Here’s how the Washington Post framed the latest proposed cuts: “Cutting housing subsidies for the poor by 33 percent as soaring rents drive a national affordability crisis. Forcing more than 1 million women and children onto the waitlist of a nutritional assistance program for poor mothers with young children. Reducing federal spending on home heating assistance for low-income families by more than 70 percent with energy prices high heading into the winter months.”

    That’s not just terrible for people, it’s terrible politics.

    Once that theater is over, the only option will be a normal, clean, bipartisan CR. The Senate voted 77-19 (!) to move forward on a CR this evening to keep the government open another 47 days.

    Here is where McCarthy faces a choice. He can prevent the Senate bill, which has the support of Mitch McConnell and a host of Republicans, from coming to the floor. His right-wing rebels have said that if he passes it with Democratic votes, they’ll depose him. And they might, but A) they don’t have an alternative who could get 218 votes and B) Democrats could vote to save him which would be C) hilarious.

    The other option for House Republicans is to say that a spending bill supported by a majority of Senate Republicans is simply unacceptable, and so the government needs to shut down.

    There are other mechanisms a coalition of Democrats and Republicans could use to end the standoff, including either a discharge petition, defeating the previous question and seizing the floor (don’t worry about it), or temporarily ousting McCarthy and installing a caretaker speaker who puts the bill on the floor, lets it pass, then turns the gavel back to Republicans to fight over. Unlike in the Senate, in the House, where there’s the will of a majority, there really is a way. All of that will take time, though.

    Because the shutdown will be so obviously pinned on Republicans – Trump himself has demanded they do it, promising, absurdly, that Biden will get the blame – the thinking in Washington is that Democrats won’t help Republicans resolve their internal problems, preferring to let them burst into public display.

    So it’s all spectacle all the way down. Which, ultimately, is what Gaetz is after. This shootout inside the Republican Party is all about showing Trump and his supporters who’s willing to fight the hardest, regardless of whether any of it makes any sense even for them – and with the rest of the country caught in the crossfire.

    The post House Republicans Are Hurtling Toward the Most Pointless Shutdown Ever appeared first on The Intercept .

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      Big Three Automakers’ Reputations Plummet as UAW Strike Rages / TheIntercept · 2 days ago - 18:29 · 4 minutes

    The Big Three automakers have taken a reputational hit amid a strike by the United Auto Workers union, according to a new survey conducted by the business intelligence firm Caliber. Ford, Stellantis, and General Motors have all seen significant decreases in several reputational metrics since the UAW strike began on September 15, with people saying they are less likely to consider the carmakers’ products, recommend them to others, or work for them.

    “87% of respondents told us they were aware of the strike,” Caliber CEO Shahar Silbershatz told The Intercept. “It’s clear the strike is not just causing commercial repercussions, but reputational repercussions as well.”

    The findings from the Caliber survey follow a recent Ipsos poll that found 58 percent of Americans say they support striking autoworkers. Seventy-two percent of Democrats and 63 percent of independents share this sentiment, along with 48 percent of Republicans. The same poll also found that 60 percent of Americans support the Writers Guild of America strike, which appears to be drawing to a close this week after more than 150 days on the picket line.

    The survey results are yet another sign that Americans are aligning themselves with the UAW’s 150,000 members in their fight against the American auto manufacturers, the largest autoworker strike in U.S. history. The union’s central demands include higher salaries, the elimination of a tiered pay scale that divides workers based on seniority, and a restoration of benefits lost in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

    In the run-up to the strike, the Big Three auto manufacturers found themselves scrambling to anticipate the factories workers would target to walk off assembly lines. As The Intercept reported last week, this led to self-inflicted supply chain chaos, with engines loaded and shipped cross-country and paint divisions closed at plants that the UAW never planned to strike. As the carmakers work to address mayhem in their factories, the companies’ conflict with the union is increasingly affecting consumers as well.

    Caliber, a Denmark-based firm, surveyed people in the United States the week of September 18, a few days into the strike, and published the results on Monday. Overall, it found that Stellantis suffered an 8-point decline in its “Trust & Like” score — the firm’s aggregate measurement of brand reputation — as compared to the previous week. Caliber also recorded 4-point declines for GM and Ford for that metric.

    The firm also found that Stellantis and Ford saw 14-point drops in their consideration score, which reflects consumers’ willingness to buy products or services. GM, meanwhile, faced a 3-percent drop.

    Stellantis’s recommendation score declined by 19 points, while Ford and GM saw 9- and 7-point drops, respectively. Meanwhile, Ford and GM each saw 9-point drops in their employment scores, which measures respondents’ willingness to consider them as a potential employer, while Stellantis saw a decline of 13 points.

    “We have said repeatedly that nobody wins in a strike, and that effects go well beyond our employees on the plant floor and negatively impact our customers, suppliers and the communities where we do business.” GM spokesperson Kevin M. Kelly told The Intercept. “We will continue to bargain in good faith with the union to reach an agreement as quickly as possible.”

    Ford and Stellantis did not respond to requests for comment

    Already, UAW workers have garnered unprecedented support. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden — who has long described himself as the “most pro-union president in history” — joined workers on the picket line in Wayne County, Michigan. “This has never happened before,” Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island, said to the Courier Journal ahead of the visit. “For all of the history between the Democrats and unions, FDR certainly wasn’t going to show up on a picket line. Harry Truman wasn’t going to. JFK wasn’t going to.”

    Even members of the Republican Party, which has long worked to gut workers rights and condemn unions as inherently corrupt organizations, have expressed support for the UAW. Sens. Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance , whose states of Missouri and Ohio are home to plants that are being picketed, both voiced their support for striking workers, while stopping short of endorsing the union movement as a whole.

    Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, announced he would travel to Michigan to speak to UAW members on Wednesday, a commitment that was roundly denounced by UAW President Shawn Fain. “Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers,” Fain said in a statement last week.

    The union’s negotiations with Ford are slowly thawing, according to UAW leadership, although a deal with the other carmakers seems out of reach. In a statement announcing the expansion of the strike to dozens more plants last Thursday, Fain told workers, “We do want to recognize that Ford is serious about reaching a deal,” but that “Stellantis and GM in particular are going to need some serious pushing.” Fain added, “We will shut down parts distribution until those two companies come to their senses and come to the table with a serious offer.”

    The post Big Three Automakers’ Reputations Plummet as UAW Strike Rages appeared first on The Intercept .

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      U.S. General Met Notorious Libyan Warlord / TheIntercept · 2 days ago - 18:18 · 7 minutes

    The stony boom of artillery echoed across Tripoli as the forces of Libyan warlord Khalifa Hifter laid waste to civilian neighborhoods. Later, as I walked through the ruins of shattered homes, battered apartment buildings, and wrecked shops, the unmistakable scent of death hung in the air.

    It was 2019, when attacks by Hifter, a onetime CIA asset, and his self-styled Libyan National Army killed , wounded , and displaced countless civilians . The following year, relatives of some killed by the LNA sued Hifter in U.S. federal court under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings and torture to hold perpetrators accountable. That case is now heading to trial.

    Meanwhile, Gen. Michael Langley, the four-star chief of U.S. Africa Command, met with Hifter last week during a visit “to further cooperation between the United States and Libya,” according to an AFRICOM press release . “It was a pleasure meeting with civilian and military leaders throughout Libya,” Langley said afterward.

    AFRICOM failed to answer questions about Langley’s meeting with Hifter and whether they discussed the warlord’s human rights record.

    “It is disgraceful that any senior U.S. official would be interacting, much less seen, with General Hifter, given the allegations against him,” said Mark Zaid, a lawyer representing a group of plaintiffs in the federal case. He described Hifter as “a warlord accused by the international community of horrific crimes against humanity involving his own people.”

    Langley’s visit was the latest twist in America’s on-again, off-again relationship with Hifter, once a favorite of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who, in the late 1980s, joined a U.S.-backed group of dissidents seeking to topple his former boss. After their coup plans fizzled and the rebels wore out their welcome on the African continent, the CIA evacuated Hifter and 350 of his men to the United States, where he was granted citizenship and lived in suburban Virginia for the next 20 years.

    The 2011 revolution and NATO intervention, including U.S. airstrikes, toppled Gaddafi and plunged Libya into chaos from which it has never emerged. In the years that followed, Hifter renewed his long-dormant project to seize power in his homeland.

    In 2014, railing against the Libyan central government’s failure to beat back militants, Hifter announced a military coup that quickly evaporated . But the warlord’s fortunes changed after he launched a campaign to clear the eastern half of the country of Islamist militant groups like Ansar al-Sharia, which conducted the 2012 attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Hifter quickly gained a reputation for attacking terrorist groups, but critics have long questioned his commitment and effectiveness, casting his activities as a cultivated effort to curry favor, including with the United States.

    Over the years, Hifter’s LNA has been backed by France, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In 2019, a State Department official told The Intercept the U.S. had not aided Hifter’s forces, but retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who headed Special Operations Command Africa from 2015 to 2017, said that under Obsidian Lotus — a so-called 127e program that allows the U.S. to use foreign troops on U.S.-directed missions targeting America’s enemies to achieve America’s aims — U.S. commandos trained and equipped more than 100 Libyan proxies. Those forces, according to three Libyan military sources and a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, became elite troops within Hifter’s LNA. “They could do all the direct-action missions. They could do raids, ambushes, and … go out, sneak around, and do intel,” said Bolduc, referring to intelligence gathering. He described Hifter as a “guy that we could trust.”

    By the late 2010s, Hifter’s LNA increasingly controlled the east of the country, while the U.N.-backed central government held the west. On April 2, 2019, Gen. Stephen Townsend , then the incoming AFRICOM commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Hifter’s LNA and other paramilitary groups constituted a grave risk to Libya’s stability. Days later, Hifter ordered his forces to take the capital. “Use your weapons only against those who prefer to confront and fight you,” he commanded , promising, “Anyone who stays at home will be safe.” Safe hardly describes the scores of displaced people I met as Hifter’s forces rained rockets, missiles, and artillery shells on their neighborhoods.

    The U.S. civil lawsuits alleged that, among other crimes , Hifter and his subordinates “waged indiscriminate war against the people of Libya … kill[ing] numerous men, women and children through bombings” and that they “tortured and killed hundreds of Libyans without any judicial process whatsoever.” Journalists and human rights groups have chronicled innumerable atrocities by Hifter’s forces . In 2019, for example, Amnesty International documented indiscriminate strikes often using inaccurate weapons, in violation of the laws of war, by Hifter’s LNA. A year later, Human Rights Watch reported that fighters affiliated with Hifter “apparently tortured, summarily executed, and desecrated corpses of opposing fighters.” Last year, Amnesty researcher Hussein Baoumi stated that armed fighters under Hifter’s command, and led by his son Saddam, have “terrorized people … inflicting a catalogue of horrors, including unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, rape and other sexual violence, and forced displacement — with no fear of consequences.”

    On April 15, 2019, then-President Donald Trump spoke to Hifter. Days later, in a striking reversal, the U.S. joined Russia in blocking a British-led U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cessation of hostilities. After a brief embrace, however, the Trump administration cooled on the warlord . AFRICOM later took Hifter and his Russian backers to task. “The world heard Mr. Haftar declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans,” Townsend said in a press release that blamed Moscow for prolonging the war and “human suffering.”

    But the U.S. continues to send mixed signals about, and to, Hifter. In March 2020, a senior State Department official suggested there might be a “role for Hifter in shaping Libya’s political future.” Months later, as he announced sanctions against two commanders of the Kaniyat militia — part of Hifter’s LNA — then- Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said they “tortured and killed civilians during a cruel campaign of oppression in Libya.”

    In March , a State Department human rights report chronicled allegations of “arbitrary or unlawful killings” by the LNA and charges that “contracted elements of Russia’s Wagner Group supporting the Libyan National Army committed numerous abuses.” The next month, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf spoke with LNA commander Haftar on the urgent need to prevent outside actors, including the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, from further destabilizing Libya.”

    In a press release issued Friday, AFRICOM focused on America’s humanitarian response to the recent devastating floods in Libya and mentioned only in passing that Langley “met with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar,” without providing any details about their talks. “The United States stands ready to reinforce existing bonds and forge new partnerships with those who champion democracy,” said Langley after meeting with a warlord who has been involved in numerous attempted coups and rebellions going back about 35 years .

    Democrats and Republicans in Congress, citing reporting by The Intercept , have recently raised questions about U.S. aid to coup-makers in Africa. The Intercept has revealed that at least 15 officers who benefited from U.S. security assistance have been involved in 12 coups in West Africa and the greater Sahel over the last two decades. While his rebellions in 2014 and 2019 took place in North Africa, Hifter is yet another foreign military officer with U.S. ties who has engaged in armed uprisings.

    A federal judge in Virginia issued a default judgement against Hifter last year after the warlord failed to adequately respond to the lawsuit. The judge later reversed the decision. When the case goes to trial next year, Zaid said, the court will likely “render a determination as to whether the unlawful actions of the LNA to target and harm civilians is the legal responsibility of its leader General Hifter.” Faisal Gill, another lawyer representing plaintiffs in the case, said the evidence of Hifter’s crimes would be “overwhelming.”

    “It is our hope and intent,” Zaid told The Intercept, “that the same laws and policies that helped show the world that Nazi leaders must be held accountable for their crimes will reveal that General Hifter is legally responsible for his actions, and justice will be achieved.”

    The post U.S. General Met Notorious Libyan Warlord appeared first on The Intercept .

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      Washington Post Completely Botches Chaturbate Rules in Virginia Candidate Takedown / TheIntercept · 3 days ago - 18:05 · 6 minutes

    The Washington Post had a salacious tip on its hands, graciously gifted to the newspaper by an unnamed Republican operative ahead of a crucial Virginia legislative election. The paper also had a problem: The activity the tip exposed was between consenting adults. But it was also rather sensational — sex and voyeurism on the internet — so there had to be a way to get it into print.

    The map through that thicket was also provided, it appears, by the same operative. The paper framed the story around an allegation that was elegant if a little absurd: Democratic candidate Susanna Gibson, it was alleged, had violated the terms of service of the sex site Chaturbate by soliciting monetary tips for performing specific acts with her husband. According to a snippet of the terms of service quoted by the Post, Chaturbate’s policy states that “requesting or demanding specific acts for tips may result in a ban from the Platform for all parties involved.”

    So it was that six of the resulting article’s first 10 paragraphs zeroed in on the claim that Chaturbate’s terms of service don’t allow performers to request tips for specific sex acts, followed by multiple examples of Gibson having done so. The message to Post readers was clear: What consenting adults do among themselves is their business, but if a candidate can’t be trusted with Chaturbate’s terms of service, how can she be trusted with public office?

    The outcome of her race, meanwhile, could decide abortion policy for the state’s 8.7 million residents.

    Gibson responded firmly to the article, calling it “an illegal invasion” of her privacy, “designed to humiliate” her and her family. The article, which was published on September 11, continues to reverberate within Virginia Democratic circles, with The Associated Press reporting last week that some Democrats have dismissed it as a distraction ahead of the November election, “while stopping short of fully championing her continued campaign.” The discourse, however, has neglected a crucial point: The Post’s way into the story — the claim that Gibson broke the site’s rules — was completely wrong. (The Washington Post and reporter Laura Vozzella did not respond to requests for comment.)

    The write-up bore the signs of an opposition research dump. When oppo researchers of either party reach out to journalists with a pitch, the research is often contained in a slim packet, with relevant quotes from publicly available articles coupled with financial documents or other papers that form the building blocks of an article.

    The telltale sign that such a packet was provided to the Post comes in the article’s description of the moments where Gibson discusses tips. For one, it’s difficult to believe a reporter watched hours of video to find those clips. For another, the Post’s interpretation of the rules appears based on reading a clipped version of the website’s policies — the type that might be included in an opposition research file.

    A complete reading of the website’s terms of service, testimony from users of the site, and a Chaturbate official reveal that the policy applies not to performers like Gibson, but to users of the site, who are not allowed to demand performers do specific acts in exchange for a tip.

    Addressing users of the website, the terms and conditions read :

    You are prohibited from providing “tips” for the performance of specific acts. Requesting or demanding specific acts for tips may result in a ban from the Platform for all parties involved. Independent Broadcasters are prohibited from requesting any type of off-Platform payments; provided, however, the Platform may, from time to time, permit Independent Broadcasters to post links to wish lists. Your chosen payment method will only be billed as you specifically request.

    In other words, Gibson was fully within her right to solicit tips. A spokesperson for Chaturbate declined to comment specifically on Gibson and asked that the company’s full response be treated as off the record. The Intercept did not agree to those terms.

    Asked whether the Post misrepresented Chaturbate’s rule, the company responded, “You are correct: the policy regarding tips being gratuities is for the protection of independent broadcasters and is not used against them.”

    The company referred to a Twitter thread by sex worker advocate Ashley Lake, saying it had no connection to Lake and had not spoken with her, but that her characterization of the rules was accurate.

    The rule is aimed at rude and unruly users who make demands for tips, not performers accepting tips for things they themselves suggest. “You can tip but that doesn’t purchase or override consent,” Lake wrote. “If the sex worker says no and you demand otherwise, you can be banned.”

    In this image taken from a video, Virginia legislative candidate Susanna Gibson addresses the Women's Summit in Virginia Beach, Va., in September of 2022. Gibson has denounced the disclosure of live videos on a pornographic website in which she and her husband engaged in sex acts. (Neil Smith via AP)

    In this image taken from a video, Virginia legislative candidate Susanna Gibson addresses the Women’s Summit in Virginia Beach, Va., in September 2022.

    Image: Neil Smith via AP

    When Gibson affirmed that she would stay in the race, she said, “My political opponents and their Republican allies have proven they’re willing to commit a sex crime to attack me and my family because there’s no line they won’t cross to silence women when they speak up.”

    Progressive Virginia Democratic operative Kamran Fareedi agrees with the decision. “It is absolutely hilarious that Republicans want to make this election a referendum on the Chaturbate terms of service,” he told The Intercept. “Voters are going to see through the transparent laundry of opposition research from the Washington Post, which failed to issue a correction that no violation occurred in the first place.”

    The Republican operative cited in the Post’s story claimed not to have any connection to the campaign of Gibson’s opponent, David Owen, or other groups active in Virginia elections this year, the Post reported. (Owen told the Post that he and his team found out about the story like everyone else.) Nonetheless, Republicans invested in the race will hope for some impact from the story.

    “Voters are going to see through the transparent laundry of opposition research from the Washington Post, which failed to issue a correction that no violation occurred in the first place.”

    Gibson is running for delegate in Virginia’s 57th District, a competitive swing district that holds massive implications for the upcoming November off-year state elections. All 100 seats in the House of Delegates, as well as the 40 seats in the state Senate, are up for election. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won the district by 3 points in 2021, but in 2022, voters swung in the other direction , narrowly favoring Democrats.

    Youngkin, meanwhile, has advanced whatever parts of his agenda he could, signing executive orders that banned schools from teaching critical race theory and loosening Covid-19 mask restrictions against the will of several school boards . His administration has pushed anti-trans education policy, and, upon being elected, he swiftly fired former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s entire state parole board (the state now has the lowest parole rates in the country).

    But the partisan split in the state legislature has staved off Youngkin from achieving the rest of his wishlist, including a 15-week ban on abortion or the repeal of carbon emission reduction laws. In the aftermath of Roe v. Wade’s overturning, and while unprecedented heat and disastrous storms leave no corner of the country untouched, Youngkin could accomplish these and more if Republicans take control of the state chambers in November.

    The post Washington Post Completely Botches Chaturbate Rules in Virginia Candidate Takedown appeared first on The Intercept .

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