ProPublica – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sun, 20 Jun 2021 18:32:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.18 The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax https://www.juancole.com/2021/06/secret-records-wealthiest.html Thu, 10 Jun 2021 04:01:01 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=198279 By Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen and Paul Kiel | –

The Secret IRS Files
( ProPublica) – Inside the Tax Records of the .001%

In 2007, Jeff Bezos, then a multibillionaire and now the world’s richest man, did not pay a penny in federal income taxes. He achieved the feat again in 2011. In 2018, Tesla founder Elon Musk, the second-richest person in the world, also paid no federal income taxes.

Michael Bloomberg managed to do the same in recent years. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn did it twice. George Soros paid no federal income tax three years in a row.

ProPublica has obtained a vast trove of Internal Revenue Service data on the tax returns of thousands of the nation’s wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years. The data provides an unprecedented look inside the financial lives of America’s titans, including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg. It shows not just their income and taxes, but also their investments, stock trades, gambling winnings and even the results of audits.

Taken together, it demolishes the cornerstone myth of the American tax system: that everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most. The IRS records show that the wealthiest can — perfectly legally — pay income taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, their fortunes grow each year.

Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, amassing little wealth and paying the federal government a percentage of their income that rises if they earn more. In recent years, the median American household earned about $70,000 annually and paid 14% in federal taxes. The highest income tax rate, 37%, kicked in this year, for couples, on earnings above $628,300.

The confidential tax records obtained by ProPublica show that the ultrarich effectively sidestep this system.

America’s billionaires avail themselves of tax-avoidance strategies beyond the reach of ordinary people. Their wealth derives from the skyrocketing value of their assets, like stock and property. Those gains are not defined by U.S. laws as taxable income unless and until the billionaires sell.

To capture the financial reality of the richest Americans, ProPublica undertook an analysis that has never been done before. We compared how much in taxes the 25 richest Americans paid each year to how much Forbes estimated their wealth grew in that same time period.

We’re going to call this their true tax rate.

The results are stark. According to Forbes, those 25 people saw their worth rise a collective $401 billion from 2014 to 2018. They paid a total of $13.6 billion in federal income taxes in those five years, the IRS data shows. That’s a staggering sum, but it amounts to a true tax rate of only 3.4%.

It’s a completely different picture for middle-class Americans, for example, wage earners in their early 40s who have amassed a typical amount of wealth for people their age. From 2014 to 2018, such households saw their net worth expand by about $65,000 after taxes on average, mostly due to the rise in value of their homes. But because the vast bulk of their earnings were salaries, their tax bills were almost as much, nearly $62,000, over that five-year period.

No one among the 25 wealthiest avoided as much tax as Buffett, the grandfatherly centibillionaire. That’s perhaps surprising, given his public stance as an advocate of higher taxes for the rich. According to Forbes, his riches rose $24.3 billion between 2014 and 2018. Over those years, the data shows, Buffett reported paying $23.7 million in taxes.

That works out to a true tax rate of 0.1%, or less than 10 cents for every $100 he added to his wealth.

In the coming months, ProPublica will use the IRS data we have obtained to explore in detail how the ultrawealthy avoid taxes, exploit loopholes and escape scrutiny from federal auditors.

Experts have long understood the broad outlines of how little the wealthy are taxed in the United States, and many lay people have long suspected the same thing.

But few specifics about individuals ever emerge in public. Tax information is among the most zealously guarded secrets in the federal government. ProPublica has decided to reveal individual tax information of some of the wealthiest Americans because it is only by seeing specifics that the public can understand the realities of the country’s tax system.

Consider Bezos’ 2007, one of the years he paid zero in federal income taxes. Amazon’s stock more than doubled. Bezos’ fortune leapt $3.8 billion, according to Forbes, whose wealth estimates are widely cited. How did a person enjoying that sort of wealth explosion end up paying no income tax?

In that year, Bezos, who filed his taxes jointly with his then-wife, MacKenzie Scott, reported a paltry (for him) $46 million in income, largely from interest and dividend payments on outside investments. He was able to offset every penny he earned with losses from side investments and various deductions, like interest expenses on debts and the vague catchall category of “other expenses.”

In 2011, a year in which his wealth held roughly steady at $18 billion, Bezos filed a tax return reporting he lost money — his income that year was more than offset by investment losses. What’s more, because, according to the tax law, he made so little, he even claimed and received a $4,000 tax credit for his children.

His tax avoidance is even more striking if you examine 2006 to 2018, a period for which ProPublica has complete data. Bezos’ wealth increased by $127 billion, according to Forbes, but he reported a total of $6.5 billion in income. The $1.4 billion he paid in personal federal taxes is a massive number — yet it amounts to a 1.1% true tax rate on the rise in his fortune.

The revelations provided by the IRS data come at a crucial moment. Wealth inequality has become one of the defining issues of our age. The president and Congress are considering the most ambitious tax increases in decades on those with high incomes. But the American tax conversation has been dominated by debate over incremental changes, such as whether the top tax rate should be 39.6% rather than 37%.

ProPublica’s data shows that while some wealthy Americans, such as hedge fund managers, would pay more taxes under the current Biden administration proposals, the vast majority of the top 25 would see little change.

The tax data was provided to ProPublica after we published a series of articles scrutinizing the IRS. The articles exposed how years of budget cuts have hobbled the agency’s ability to enforce the law and how the largest corporations and the rich have benefited from the IRS’ weakness. They also showed how people in poor regions are now more likely to be audited than those in affluent areas.

ProPublica is not disclosing how it obtained the data, which was given to us in raw form, with no conditions or conclusions. ProPublica reporters spent months processing and analyzing the material to transform it into a usable database.

We then verified the information by comparing elements of it with dozens of already public tax details (in court documents, politicians’ financial disclosures and news stories) as well as by vetting it with individuals whose tax information is contained in the trove. Every person whose tax information is described in this story was asked to comment. Those who responded, including Buffett, Bloomberg and Icahn, all said they had paid the taxes they owed.

A spokesman for Soros said in a statement: “Between 2016 and 2018 George Soros lost money on his investments, therefore he did not owe federal income taxes in those years. Mr. Soros has long supported higher taxes for wealthy Americans.” Personal and corporate representatives of Bezos declined to receive detailed questions about the matter. ProPublica attempted to reach Scott through her divorce attorney, a personal representative and family members; she did not respond. Musk responded to an initial query with a lone punctuation mark: “?” After we sent detailed questions to him, he did not reply.

One of the billionaires mentioned in this article objected, arguing that publishing personal tax information is a violation of privacy. We have concluded that the public interest in knowing this information at this pivotal moment outweighs that legitimate concern.

The consequences of allowing the most prosperous to game the tax system have been profound. Federal budgets, apart from military spending, have been constrained for decades. Roads and bridges have crumbled, social services have withered and the solvency of Social Security and Medicare is perpetually in question.

There is an even more fundamental issue than which programs get funded or not: Taxes are a kind of collective sacrifice. No one loves giving their hard-earned money to the government. But the system works only as long as it’s perceived to be fair.

Our analysis of tax data for the 25 richest Americans quantifies just how unfair the system has become.

By the end of 2018, the 25 were worth $1.1 trillion.

For comparison, it would take 14.3 million ordinary American wage earners put together to equal that same amount of wealth.

The personal federal tax bill for the top 25 in 2018: $1.9 billion.

The bill for the wage earners: $143 billion.

The idea of a regular tax on income, much less on wealth, does not appear in the country’s founding documents. In fact, Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution explicitly prohibits “direct” taxes on citizens under most circumstances. This meant that for decades, the U.S. government mainly funded itself through “indirect” taxes: tariffs and levies on consumer goods like tobacco and alcohol.

With the costs of the Civil War looming, Congress imposed a national income tax in 1861. The wealthy helped force its repeal soon after the war ended. (Their pique could only have been exacerbated by the fact that the law required public disclosure. The annual income of the moguls of the day — $1.3 million for William Astor; $576,000 for Cornelius Vanderbilt — was listed in the pages of The New York Times in 1865.)

By the late 19th and early 20th century, wealth inequality was acute and the political climate was changing. The federal government began expanding, creating agencies to protect food, workers and more. It needed funding, but tariffs were pinching regular Americans more than the rich. The Supreme Court had rejected an 1894 law that would have created an income tax. So Congress moved to amend the Constitution. The 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913 and gave the government power “to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived.”

In the early years, the personal income tax worked as Congress intended, falling squarely on the richest. In 1918, only 15% of American families owed any tax. The top 1% paid 80% of the revenue raised, according to historian W. Elliot Brownlee.

But a question remained: What would count as income and what wouldn’t? In 1916, a woman named Myrtle Macomber received a dividend for her Standard Oil of California shares. She owed taxes, thanks to the new law. The dividend had not come in cash, however. It came in the form of an additional share for every two shares she already held. She paid the taxes and then brought a court challenge: Yes, she’d gotten a bit richer, but she hadn’t received any money. Therefore, she argued, she’d received no “income.”

Four years later, the Supreme Court agreed. In Eisner v. Macomber, the high court ruled that income derived only from proceeds. A person needed to sell an asset — stock, bond or building — and reap some money before it could be taxed.

Since then, the concept that income comes only from proceeds — when gains are “realized” — has been the bedrock of the U.S. tax system. Wages are taxed. Cash dividends are taxed. Gains from selling assets are taxed. But if a taxpayer hasn’t sold anything, there is no income and therefore no tax.

Contemporary critics of Macomber were plentiful and prescient. Cordell Hull, the congressman known as the “father” of the income tax, assailed the decision, according to scholar Marjorie Kornhauser. Hull predicted that tax avoidance would become common. The ruling opened a gaping loophole, Hull warned, allowing industrialists to build a company and borrow against the stock to pay living expenses. Anyone could “live upon the value” of their company stock “without selling it, and of course, without ever paying” tax, he said.

Hull’s prediction would reach full flower only decades later, spurred by a series of epochal economic, legal and cultural changes that began to gather momentum in the 1970s. Antitrust enforcers increasingly accepted mergers and stopped trying to break up huge corporations. For their part, companies came to obsess over the value of their stock to the exclusion of nearly everything else. That helped give rise in the last 40 years to a series of corporate monoliths — beginning with Microsoft and Oracle in the 1980s and 1990s and continuing to Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple today — that often have concentrated ownership, high profit margins and rich share prices. The winner-take-all economy has created modern fortunes that by some measures eclipse those of John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.

In the here and now, the ultrawealthy use an array of techniques that aren’t available to those of lesser means to get around the tax system.

Certainly, there are illegal tax evaders among them, but it turns out billionaires don’t have to evade taxes exotically and illicitly — they can avoid them routinely and legally.

Most Americans have to work to live. When they do, they get paid — and they get taxed. The federal government considers almost every dollar workers earn to be “income,” and employers take taxes directly out of their paychecks.

The Bezoses of the world have no need to be paid a salary. Bezos’ Amazon wages have long been set at the middle-class level of around $80,000 a year.

For years, there’s been something of a competition among elite founder-CEOs to go even lower. Steve Jobs took $1 in salary when he returned to Apple in the 1990s. Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Google’s Larry Page have all done the same.

Yet this is not the self-effacing gesture it appears to be: Wages are taxed at a high rate. The top 25 wealthiest Americans reported $158 million in wages in 2018, according to the IRS data. That’s a mere 1.1% of what they listed on their tax forms as their total reported income. The rest mostly came from dividends and the sale of stock, bonds or other investments, which are taxed at lower rates than wages.

As Congressman Hull envisioned long ago, the ultrawealthy typically hold fast to shares in the companies they’ve founded. Many titans of the 21st century sit on mountains of what are known as unrealized gains, the total size of which fluctuates each day as stock prices rise and fall. Of the $4.25 trillion in wealth held by U.S. billionaires, some $2.7 trillion is unrealized, according to Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, economists at the University of California, Berkeley.

Buffett has famously held onto his stock in the company he founded, Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate that owns Geico, Duracell and significant stakes in American Express and Coca-Cola. That has allowed Buffett to largely avoid transforming his wealth into income. From 2015 through 2018, he reported annual income ranging from $11.6 million to $25 million. That may seem like a lot, but Buffett ranks as roughly the world’s sixth-richest person — he’s worth $110 billion as of Forbes’ estimate in May 2021. At least 14,000 U.S. taxpayers in 2015 reported higher income than him, according to IRS data.

There’s also a second strategy Buffett relies on that minimizes income, and therefore, taxes. Berkshire does not pay a dividend, the sum (a piece of the profits, in theory) that many companies pay each quarter to those who own their stock. Buffett has always argued that it is better to use that money to find investments for Berkshire that will further boost the value of shares held by him and other investors. If Berkshire had offered anywhere close to the average dividend in recent years, Buffett would have received over $1 billion in dividend income and owed hundreds of millions in taxes each year.

Many Silicon Valley and infotech companies have emulated Buffett’s model, eschewing stock dividends, at least for a time. In the 1980s and 1990s, companies like Microsoft and Oracle offered shareholders rocketing growth and profits but did not pay dividends. Google, Facebook, Amazon and Tesla do not pay dividends.

In a detailed written response, Buffett defended his practices but did not directly address ProPublica’s true tax rate calculation. “I continue to believe that the tax code should be changed substantially,” he wrote, adding that he thought “huge dynastic wealth is not desirable for our society.”

The decision not to have Berkshire pay dividends has been supported by the vast majority of his shareholders. “I can’t think of any large public company with shareholders so united in their reinvestment beliefs,” he wrote. And he pointed out that Berkshire Hathaway pays significant corporate taxes, accounting for 1.5% of total U.S. corporate taxes in 2019 and 2020.

Buffett reiterated that he has begun giving his enormous fortune away and ultimately plans to donate 99.5% of it to charity. “I believe the money will be of more use to society if disbursed philanthropically than if it is used to slightly reduce an ever-increasing U.S. debt,” he wrote.

So how do megabillionaires pay their megabills while opting for $1 salaries and hanging onto their stock? According to public documents and experts, the answer for some is borrowing money — lots of it.

For regular people, borrowing money is often something done out of necessity, say for a car or a home. But for the ultrawealthy, it can be a way to access billions without producing income, and thus, income tax.

The tax math provides a clear incentive for this. If you own a company and take a huge salary, you’ll pay 37% in income tax on the bulk of it. Sell stock and you’ll pay 20% in capital gains tax — and lose some control over your company. But take out a loan, and these days you’ll pay a single-digit interest rate and no tax; since loans must be paid back, the IRS doesn’t consider them income. Banks typically require collateral, but the wealthy have plenty of that.

The vast majority of the ultrawealthy’s loans do not appear in the tax records obtained by ProPublica since they are generally not disclosed to the IRS. But occasionally, the loans are disclosed in securities filings. In 2014, for example, Oracle revealed that its CEO, Ellison, had a credit line secured by about $10 billion of his shares.

Last year Tesla reported that Musk had pledged some 92 million shares, which were worth about $57.7 billion as of May 29, 2021, as collateral for personal loans.

With the exception of one year when he exercised more than a billion dollars in stock options, Musk’s tax bills in no way reflect the fortune he has at his disposal. In 2015, he paid $68,000 in federal income tax. In 2017, it was $65,000, and in 2018 he paid no federal income tax. Between 2014 and 2018, he had a true tax rate of 3.27%.

The IRS records provide glimpses of other massive loans. In both 2016 and 2017, investor Carl Icahn, who ranks as the 40th-wealthiest American on the Forbes list, paid no federal income taxes despite reporting a total of $544 million in adjusted gross income (which the IRS defines as earnings minus items like student loan interest payments or alimony). Icahn had an outstanding loan of $1.2 billion with Bank of America among other loans, according to the IRS data. It was technically a mortgage because it was secured, at least in part, by Manhattan penthouse apartments and other properties.

Borrowing offers multiple benefits to Icahn: He gets huge tranches of cash to turbocharge his investment returns. Then he gets to deduct the interest from his taxes. In an interview, Icahn explained that he reports the profits and losses of his business empire on his personal taxes.

Icahn acknowledged that he is a “big borrower. I do borrow a lot of money.” Asked if he takes out loans also to lower his tax bill, Icahn said: “No, not at all. My borrowing is to win. I enjoy the competition. I enjoy winning.”

He said adjusted gross income was a misleading figure for him. After taking hundreds of millions in deductions for the interest on his loans, he registered tax losses for both years, he said. “I didn’t make money because, unfortunately for me, my interest was higher than my whole adjusted income.”

Asked whether it was appropriate that he had paid no income tax in certain years, Icahn said he was perplexed by the question. “There’s a reason it’s called income tax,” he said. “The reason is if, if you’re a poor person, a rich person, if you are Apple — if you have no income, you don’t pay taxes.” He added: “Do you think a rich person should pay taxes no matter what? I don’t think it’s germane. How can you ask me that question?”

Skeptics might question our analysis of how little the superrich pay in taxes. For one, they might argue that owners of companies get hit by corporate taxes. They also might counter that some billionaires cannot avoid income — and therefore taxes. And after death, the common understanding goes, there’s a final no-escape clause: the estate tax, which imposes a steep tax rate on sums over $11.7 million.

ProPublica found that none of these factors alter the fundamental picture.

Take corporate taxes. When companies pay them, economists say, these costs are passed on to the companies’ owners, workers or even consumers. Models differ, but they generally assume big stockholders shoulder the lion’s share.

Corporate taxes, however, have plummeted in recent decades in what has become a golden age of corporate tax avoidance. By sending profits abroad, companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple have often paid little or no U.S. corporate tax.

For some of the nation’s wealthiest people, particularly Bezos and Musk, adding corporate taxes to the equation would hardly change anything at all. Other companies like Berkshire Hathaway and Walmart do pay more, which means that for people like Buffett and the Waltons, corporate tax could add significantly to their burden.

It is also true that some billionaires don’t avoid taxes by avoiding incomes. In 2018, nine of the 25 wealthiest Americans reported more than $500 million in income and three more than $1 billion.

In such cases, though, the data obtained by ProPublica shows billionaires have a palette of tax-avoidance options to offset their gains using credits, deductions (which can include charitable donations) or losses to lower or even zero out their tax bills. Some own sports teams that offer such lucrative write-offs that owners often end up paying far lower tax rates than their millionaire players. Others own commercial buildings that steadily rise in value but nevertheless can be used to throw off paper losses that offset income.

Michael Bloomberg, the 13th-richest American on the Forbes list, often reports high income because the profits of the private company he controls flow mainly to him.

In 2018, he reported income of $1.9 billion. When it came to his taxes, Bloomberg managed to slash his bill by using deductions made possible by tax cuts passed during the Trump administration, charitable donations of $968.3 million and credits for having paid foreign taxes. The end result was that he paid $70.7 million in income tax on that almost $2 billion in income. That amounts to just a 3.7% conventional income tax rate. Between 2014 and 2018, Bloomberg had a true tax rate of 1.30%.

In a statement, a spokesman for Bloomberg noted that as a candidate, Bloomberg had advocated for a variety of tax hikes on the wealthy. “Mike Bloomberg pays the maximum tax rate on all federal, state, local and international taxable income as prescribed by law,” the spokesman wrote. And he cited Bloomberg’s philanthropic giving, offering the calculation that “taken together, what Mike gives to charity and pays in taxes amounts to approximately 75% of his annual income.”

The statement also noted: “The release of a private citizen’s tax returns should raise real privacy concerns regardless of political affiliation or views on tax policy. In the United States no private citizen should fear the illegal release of their taxes. We intend to use all legal means at our disposal to determine which individual or government entity leaked these and ensure that they are held responsible.”

Ultimately, after decades of wealth accumulation, the estate tax is supposed to serve as a backstop, allowing authorities an opportunity to finally take a piece of giant fortunes before they pass to a new generation. But in reality, preparing for death is more like the last stage of tax avoidance for the ultrawealthy.

University of Southern California tax law professor Edward McCaffery has summarized the entire arc with the catchphrase “buy, borrow, die.”

The notion of dying as a tax benefit seems paradoxical. Normally when someone sells an asset, even a minute before they die, they owe 20% capital gains tax. But at death, that changes. Any capital gains till that moment are not taxed. This allows the ultrarich and their heirs to avoid paying billions in taxes. The “step-up in basis” is widely recognized by experts across the political spectrum as a flaw in the code.

Then comes the estate tax, which, at 40%, is among the highest in the federal code. This tax is supposed to give the government one last chance to get a piece of all those unrealized gains and other assets the wealthiest Americans accumulate over their lifetimes.

It’s clear, though, from aggregate IRS data, tax research and what little trickles into the public arena about estate planning of the wealthy that they can readily escape turning over almost half of the value of their estates. Many of the richest create foundations for philanthropic giving, which provide large charitable tax deductions during their lifetimes and bypass the estate tax when they die.

Wealth managers offer clients a range of opaque and complicated trusts that allow the wealthiest Americans to give large sums to their heirs without paying estate taxes. The IRS data obtained by ProPublica gives some insight into the ultrawealthy’s estate planning, showing hundreds of these trusts.

The result is that large fortunes can pass largely intact from one generation to the next. Of the 25 richest people in America today, about a quarter are heirs: three are Waltons, two are scions of the Mars candy fortune and one is the son of Estée Lauder.

In the past year and a half, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from COVID-19, while millions were thrown out of work. But one of the bleakest periods in American history turned out to be one of the most lucrative for billionaires. They added $1.2 trillion to their fortunes from January 2020 to the end of April of this year, according to Forbes.

That windfall is among the many factors that have led the country to an inflection point, one that traces back to a half-century of growing wealth inequality and the financial crisis of 2008, which left many with lasting economic damage. American history is rich with such turns. There have been famous acts of tax resistance, like the Boston Tea Party, countered by less well-known efforts to have the rich pay more.

One such incident, over half a century ago, appeared as if it might spark great change. President Lyndon Johnson’s outgoing treasury secretary, Joseph Barr, shocked the nation when he revealed that 155 Americans making over $200,000 (about $1.6 million today) had paid no taxes. That group, he told the Senate, included 21 millionaires.

“We face now the possibility of a taxpayer revolt if we do not soon make major reforms in our income taxes,” Barr said. Members of Congress received more furious letters about the tax scofflaws that year than they did about the Vietnam War.

Congress did pass some reforms, but the long-term trend was a revolt in the opposite direction, which then accelerated with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Since then, through a combination of political donations, lobbying, charitable giving and even direct bids for political office, the ultrawealthy have helped shape the debate about taxation in their favor.

One apparent exception: Buffett, who broke ranks with his billionaire cohort to call for higher taxes on the rich. In a famous New York Times op-ed in 2011, Buffett wrote, “My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.”

Buffett did something in that article that few Americans do: He publicly revealed how much he had paid in personal federal taxes the previous year ($6.9 million). Separately, Forbes estimated his fortune had risen $3 billion that year. Using that information, an observer could have calculated his true tax rate; it was 0.2%. But then, as now, the discussion that ensued on taxes was centered on the traditional income tax rate.

In 2011, President Barack Obama proposed legislation, known as the Buffett Rule. It would have raised income tax rates on people reporting over a million dollars a year. It didn’t pass. Even if it had, however, the Buffett Rule wouldn’t have raised Buffett’s taxes significantly. If you can avoid income, you can avoid taxes.

Today, just a few years after Republicans passed a massive tax cut that disproportionately benefited the wealthy, the country may be facing another swing of the pendulum, back toward a popular demand to raise taxes on the wealthy. In the face of growing inequality and with spending ambitions that rival those of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Johnson, the Biden administration has proposed a slate of changes. These include raising the tax rates on people making over $400,000 and bumping the top income tax rate from 37% to 39.6%, with a top rate for long-term capital gains to match that. The administration also wants to up the corporate tax rate and to increase the IRS’ budget.

Some Democrats have gone further, floating ideas that challenge the tax structure as it’s existed for the last century. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has proposed taxing unrealized capital gains, a shot through the heart of Macomber. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed wealth taxes.

Aggressive new laws would likely inspire new, sophisticated avoidance techniques. A few countries, including Switzerland and Spain, have wealth taxes on a small scale. Several, most recently France, have abandoned them as unworkable. Opponents contend that they are complicated to administer, as it is hard to value assets, particularly of private companies and property.

What it would take for a fundamental overhaul of the U.S. tax system is not clear. But the IRS data obtained by ProPublica illuminates that all of these conversations have been taking place in a vacuum. Neither political leaders nor the public have ever had an accurate picture of how comprehensively the wealthiest Americans avoid paying taxes.

Buffett and his fellow billionaires have known this secret for a long time. As Buffett put it in 2011: “There’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won.”

Jesse Eisinger is a senior reporter and editor at ProPublica. He is the author of the “The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives.” In April 2011, he and a colleague won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for a series of stories on questionable Wall Street practices that helped make the financial crisis the worst since the Great Depression.

Jeff Ernsthausen is a senior data reporter at ProPublica. He previously worked on the investigative team at the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, where he investigated sexual abuse by physicians nation-wide, police misconduct in Georgia and evictions in metro Atlanta.

Paul Kiel covers business and consumer finance for ProPublica. His focus this year is on the IRS and its ability to administer the nation’s tax laws.

Via ProPublica

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CNBC: “ProPublica’s Eisinger on his reporting about ultra-wealthy tax avoidance”

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How the Boogaloo Bois Extremist Hate Group tried to Overturn our Election and Spark a Civil War https://www.juancole.com/2021/04/boogaloo-extremist-election.html Sat, 24 Apr 2021 04:03:21 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=197398

Steven Carrillo’s path to the Boogaloo Bois shows the hate group is far more organized and dangerous than previously known.

By Gisela Pérez de Acha, Kathryn Hurd and Ellie Lightfoot | Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program | –

The Insurrection: The Effort to Overturn the Election

( ProPublica) – It was 2:20 p.m. on June 6, 2020, and Steven Carrillo, a 32-year-old Air Force sergeant who belonged to the anti-government Boogaloo Bois movement, was on the run in the tiny mountain town of Ben Lomond, California.

With deputy sheriffs closing in, Carrillo texted his brother, Evan, asking him to tell his children he loved them and instructing him to give $50,000 to his fiancée. “I love you bro,” Carrillo signed off. Thinking the text message was a suicide note from a brother with a history of mental health troubles, Evan Carrillo quickly texted back: “Think about the ones you love.”

In fact, Steven Carrillo had a different objective, a goal he had written about on Facebook, discussed with other Boogaloo Bois and even scrawled out in his own blood as he hid from police that day. He wanted to incite a second Civil War in the United States by killing police officers he viewed as enforcers of a corrupt and tyrannical political order — officers he described as “domestic enemies” of the Constitution he professed to revere.

Now, as he texted with his brother and watched deputies assemble so close to him that he could hear their conversations, Carrillo sent an urgent appeal to his fellow Boogaloo Bois. “Kit up and get here,” he wrote in a WhatsApp message that prosecutors say he sent to members of a heavily armed Boogaloo militia faction he had recently joined. The police, he texted, were after him.

“Take them out when theyre coming in,” the text read, according to court documents.

Minutes later, prosecutors allege, Carrillo ambushed three deputy sheriffs, opening fire with a silenced automatic rifle and hurling a homemade pipe bomb from a concealed position on a steep embankment some 40 feet from the deputies. One deputy was shot dead, and a second was badly wounded by bomb shrapnel to his face and neck. When two California Highway Patrol officers arrived, Carrillo opened fire on them, too, police say, wounding one.

“The police are the guard dogs, ready to attack whenever the owner says, ‘Hey, sic ’em boy,’” Carrillo said in an interview, the first time he has spoken publicly since he was charged with murdering both the deputy sheriff in Ben Lomond and, a week earlier, a federal protective security officer at the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Oakland.

When Carrillo was finally subdued on June 6, cellphone footage captured him shouting at deputies as they led him away, “This is what I came to fight — I’m sick of these goddamn police.”

For Carrillo, that final frenzied expression of rage marked the culmination of a long slide into extremism, a journey that had begun a decade earlier with his embrace of the tea party movement, libertarianism and Second Amendment gun rights, before evolving into an ever-deepening involvement with paramilitary elements of the Boogaloo Bois. The militant group is known for the distinctive Hawaiian shirts its members wear at protests, often while brandishing AR-15s and agitating for the “Boog” — the group’s shorthand for civil war.

Carrillo’s arrest was also an omen of something larger and even more ominous: the rise of a violent insurrection movement across America led by increasingly extreme and aggressive militias that seek out opportunities to confront and even attack the government. Examples of this broader insurrection abound, from October’s foiled plot to abduct Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to the leading role militia groups such as the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers played in the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

While militias have long been active in the United States, groups tracking extremist violence have reported notable increases in paramilitary activity over the past year, and the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence have all issued stark warnings in recent months about an elevated threat of violence from domestic extremist groups.

ProPublica, FRONTLINE and Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program also uncovered new evidence that some military service members have embraced extremist ideology. The news organizations identified 15 active-duty members of the Air Force who, like Carrillo, openly promoted Boogaloo memes and messages on Facebook. On Friday, the Pentagon announced new measures to combat extremism inside the military. The Biden administration, meanwhile, is increasing funding for preventing attacks by militias, white supremacists and other anti-government groups, The New York Times reported this month.

“These groups want to be instigators, the frontline of the civil war that is going to happen in this country,” said John Bennett, who was the special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Francisco Division at the time of Carrillo’s arrest.

“The scary thing,” he added, “is a lot of people in these groups that we’re seeing now are your neighbors.”

An examination of Carrillo’s life and his path to radicalization, based on extensive interviews with him, his family, his friends and his fiancée, along with a review of hundreds of pages of court records, previously undisclosed text messages and internal militia documents, revealed startling new details about the threat posed by the Boogaloo Bois.

Experts in extremist militia groups have long regarded the Boogaloo Bois as having no real hierarchy or leadership structure. But in piecing together Carrillo’s activities and militia contacts, law enforcement officials were stunned to discover the extent of coordination, planning and communications within the group.

Not only was Carrillo in regular contact with a wide range of prominent Boogaloo Boi figures around the country, records and interviews show, but two months before his arrest Carrillo had joined up with a heavily armed, highly organized and extremely secretive Boogaloo militia group in California that called itself the “Grizzly Scouts.”

“This group was different,” Jim Hart, the sheriff of Santa Cruz County, where Ben Lomond is located, said in an interview. “There was a definite chain of command and a line of leadership within this group.”

In a federal indictment unsealed on Friday, prosecutors said Carrillo and four members of the Grizzly Scouts, including its leader, “discussed tactics involving killing of police officers and other law enforcement.” The indictment also alleges that the same four Grizzly Scouts tried to thwart a criminal investigation into their activities by destroying evidence of their communications with Carrillo and each other.

In nearly two hours of interviews conducted in Spanish and English, as well as in a letter dictated to his fiancée from Santa Rita Jail east of Oakland, Carrillo talked about the evolution of his anti-government ideology. While he would not discuss any of the criminal charges against him, Carrillo spoke at length about his continuing allegiance to the Boogaloo Bois and patiently explained how the movement’s “revolutionary thought” could offer a rationale for attacks against law enforcement officers who he or any other Boogaloo Boi thinks are violating the Constitution. “I pledged to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” he said.

Not once did Carrillo express pity or remorse over the deaths of Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, the deputy sheriff, whose wife was pregnant with their second child, or David Patrick Underwood, the security officer at the Oakland federal building, who made a habit of donating to local baseball youth organizations.

Becoming a Boog

Born in Los Angeles in 1988, Carrillo had an early childhood marked by episodes of domestic violence. According to family members, his father, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who worked as a tree trimmer, repeatedly assaulted his mother, who was from Burbank, California. Given up by his parents as a toddler, Carrillo and Evan, his older brother, were taken in by other members of their family, and at age 5 he was sent with his brother to a tiny rural village in Jalisco, Mexico, where they lived on their grandparents’ farm. A couple of years later, the Carrillo boys returned to California to live with their father, eventually settling in Ben Lomond, a remote two-stoplight town in the Santa Cruz Mountains. After graduating from San Lorenzo Valley High School, Carrillo said he joined the Air Force in 2009, the same year he married his childhood sweetheart. In an interview, Carrillo’s father denied the family’s allegations of domestic violence, but otherwise declined to comment. Carrillo’s mother would not speak on the record for this article.

According to Carrillo, his ideas about politics and the role of government began to take shape in the Air Force. “Before, I was confined to a little bubble,” he said in an interview, referring to his upbringing in Ben Lomond, population 7,000. Once he joined the Air Force and met others from around the world, “talking to people changed my whole views,” he said. He followed a well-worn path that began with a fierce attachment to gun rights, which in turn led him to libertarianism, and then an enthusiastic embrace of the tea party movement.

By 2012, Carrillo was a registered Republican who supported Gary Johnson, the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party, and Ron Paul. He attended Second Amendment rallies and advocated for expanded gun rights on a Facebook page set up for a group of self-described Christian “patriots.”

In 2015, while stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, Carrillo was in a car accident that left him hospitalized with a concussion and head lacerations. Family and friends said the crash affected his mental health. “He wasn’t himself,” Evan Carrillo said in an interview. “He was usually very talkative, very social. I was the quiet one. And now it was like talking to a wall.”

At the time, Carrillo was a security forces officer in the Air Force. According to his siblings, his mental health issues were serious enough that the Air Force took Carrillo’s gun away for several months. (The Air Force said it could not immediately locate the records it needed to comment about this incident.)

He became even more withdrawn, family members said, after his wife committed suicide in 2018 shortly after he confessed to cheating on her yet again. He spoke of wanting to kill himself and started living out of a van, leaving it to his in-laws to look after his two young children. “He was just in complete disconnect of how people should live and who he was,” said his sister, Ruby.

And yet months after his wife’s suicide, Air Force records show, Carrillo was serving as an apprentice in Phoenix Raven, an elite Air Force security unit that is dispatched to protect aircraft and air crews in global hotspots. At the time, Carrillo was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California, but his apprenticeship with the Ravens also gave him special training in combat techniques, explosives and advanced firearms proficiency at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst near Trenton, New Jersey.

According to the Air Force, Carrillo completed the 24-day Phoenix Raven qualification course in New Jersey in late 2018, then returned to Travis Air Force Base to become “fully mission qualified as a Raven.” From July to November of 2019, Carrillo served as a Phoenix Raven Team Leader in Kuwait and other countries in the region, the Air Force said.

In an interview, Carrillo said he was introduced to the political ideology of the Boogaloo Bois through friends in the Air Force and on the internet. The 15 active-duty airmen identified by the news organizations as openly promoting Boogaloo content on Facebook worked at bases around the world, including eight who, like Carrillo, served in the Air Force security branch.

When asked about these active-duty airmen, the Air Force said in a statement that personnel who participate in extremist groups are in “direct violation” of Defense Department regulations. “Supporting extremist ideology, especially that which calls for violence or the deprivation of civil liberties of certain members of society, violates the oath every service member takes to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” the Air Force statement said.

On Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the Pentagon to take a series of immediate steps to counter extremism in the military.

It is unclear precisely when Carrillo began associating with the Boogaloo Bois, but according to a sworn statement from an FBI agent he was in direct contact with prominent figures in the group by December 2019.

The next month, prosecutors allege, he bought a $15 device that converts AR-15 semiautomatic rifles into fully automatic machine guns, making the purchase through a website that advertised to Boogaloo Facebook groups and promised to donate some of its profits to the family of Duncan Lemp, who became a Boogaloo martyr after he was killed in a police raid. Carrillo also began incorporating popular militia memes and imagery into his Facebook posts, and was in touch online with a growing circle of Boogaloo Bois. “A lot of people in the movement knew who Steve was,” Mike Dunn, the leader of a Boogaloo faction in Virginia that calls itself the Last Sons of Liberty, said in an interview.

Carrillo’s girlfriend, Silvia Amaya, said she noticed a distinct shift in Carrillo’s behavior at around this time. He struggled with insomnia and was increasingly “shut off in his own world,” she said in an interview. He talked frequently about how “a war would start soon,” echoing the core belief of Boogaloo followers.

The Grizzly Scouts

On March 14, 2020, prosecutors allege in court filings, Carrillo received a text message from Ivan Hunter, a Boogaloo Bois leader in Texas. The message reads like an instruction to get ready for action. “Start drafting that op,” Hunter wrote to Carrillo. “The one we talked about in December. I’ma green light some shit.” In response, Carrillo wrote, “Sounds good, bro!” Soon after, Carrillo sought to join the Grizzly Scouts, a newly-formed California militia group that had proclaimed its “affinity for Hawaiian shirts,” the best-known symbol of the Boogaloo Bois, in its profile page on mymilitia.com.

The Grizzly Scouts, also known as the 1st Detachment of the 1st California Scouts, are based in Turlock, a small city about 100 miles southeast of San Francisco. According to federal prosecutors, the Grizzly Scouts had a Facebook group called “/K/alifornia Kommando” that proclaimed their desire “to gather like minded Californians who can network and establish local goon squads.” (Among the Boogaloo Bois, the word “goon” refers to a single member.)

On April 10, 2020, according to records obtained by the news organizations, a member of the Grizzly Scouts who goes by the alias BoojerBro1776 emailed Carrillo an extensive packet of application materials, 31 pages in all. (“On boarding,” read the email’s subject line.) The documents, never before publicly disclosed, are an odd blend of corporate instruction manual and chilling playbook for armed military action.

New recruits were asked to abide by a social media policy and to sign both a non-disclosure agreement and a release of liability. The application itself offered this bit of corporate boilerplate: “If this application leads to employment, I understand that false or misleading information in my application or interview may result in my release.”

At the same time, the documents make clear that the Grizzly Scouts intended to do more than simply meet up in the woods for occasional target practice. A policy on the Grizzly Scouts’ dress code begins this way: “Since the time man realized we could kill each other to gain something, men have donned uniforms and have gone to battle.” The documents, which describe the Grizzly Scouts as an “armed Constitutional militia,” go on to decree that black will be worn “while conducting covert/clandestine operations,” and stress the importance of wearing approved Grizzly Scout uniforms “to mitigate any potential battlefield confusion.”

“Our Areas of Operations can take us from the dirt to downtown in a blink of an eye,” the document states.

The documents also make clear that Carrillo’s military background, in particular his advanced combat and weapons training, provided exactly the qualities the Grizzly Scouts wanted in its recruits. The Grizzly Scouts’ members — law enforcement officials say the group had attracted 27 recruits — were given military ranks and roles based on their level of military training and prior combat experience. Some Grizzly Scouts were designated “snipers,” others were assigned to “clandestine operations,” and some were medics or drivers. Whatever their role, all were expected to maintain go kits that included “combat gauze” and both a “primary” and “secondary” weapon.

Two weeks after receiving his application materials, Carrillo joined the Grizzly Scouts for a weekend of training — or “church,” in the group’s vernacular. In keeping with the Grizzly Scouts’ desire for secrecy, Carrillo was vague with Amaya, his girlfriend, about where he had been and whom he was with. Aware of his history of cheating, Amaya imagined the worst and insisted he take her along the next time he planned to meet with his mysterious new friends. “I was very angry and jealous,” she said.

On May 9, the couple loaded their car with guns and bulletproof vests and headed toward a ranch in Mariposa County, not far from Yosemite National Park, to meet the Grizzly Scouts for another training session. Along the way they met up with Jessie Rush, the “detachment commander” of the Grizzly Scouts, whose LinkedIn profile says he is a U.S. Army veteran now employed by a private security company. Rush, also known as “Grizzly Actual,” reminded them not to take photos, but otherwise raised no objections to Amaya’s presence as the Grizzly Scouts went through various shooting drills.

Rush, one of the four Grizzly Scouts now charged with concealing evidence of their communications with Carrillo, declined to comment.

When asked in an interview about his involvement with the Grizzly Scouts, Carrillo responded evasively. “How did you figure that out?” he asked in Spanish when first pressed about his ties to the group. Later, Carrillo professed little understanding of either the aims or activities of the Grizzly Scouts. “We were just getting to know each other,” he said.

According to prosecutors, however, Carrillo held the rank of “staff sergeant” in the Grizzly Scouts, and, as with other members of the group, he was given an animal nom de guerre: “Armadillo.”

Combat Mode

George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, 15 days after Carrillo’s last training session with the Grizzly Scouts, galvanized the Boogaloo faithful. In online postings, they spoke of Floyd’s death not only as an example of egregious police misconduct but as an opportunity to stoke chaos that could be blamed on the Black Lives Matter movement. The resulting racial unrest, they hoped, would accelerate the long-awaited “Boogaloo” — the final conflict, a second Civil War.

Two days after Floyd’s death, Carrillo’s Boogaloo friend Ivan Hunter drove from Texas to Minneapolis. Armed with an AK-47-style semiautomatic rifle, Hunter fired off 13 rounds into an abandoned Minneapolis police precinct where hundreds of protesters had gathered, prosecutors allege. Prosecutors say Hunter yelled, “Justice for Floyd!” before disappearing into the night with several other Boogaloo Bois who had come to Minneapolis to provoke civil strife. Hunter, eventually arrested in San Antonio, was charged with participating in a riot and is being held without bail; his defense lawyer declined to comment.

For Carrillo, Floyd’s death confirmed his view of the police as little more than willing instruments of a corrupt and tyrannical political order bent on destroying the Constitution. “I felt hate more than anything,” he said in an interview when asked about Floyd’s killing.

“The Boogaloo revolution is against the government,” he explained, “but the police is basically the government’s dog on a leash.”

Amaya said Floyd’s killing “unleashed the worst” in Carrillo, who in the days that followed behaved, she recalled, like a man who was preparing for battle. “It’s a great opportunity to target the specialty soup bois,” Carrillo wrote on his Facebook page on May 28, using Boogaloo slang for federal law enforcement agencies. That night he shocked Amaya by proposing marriage, presenting her with a $25 turquoise blue silicone ring and promising to replace it with a diamond ring later.

The next day, Carrillo left Amaya’s house. According to prosecutors, he picked up another Boogaloo Boi, Robert Justus Jr., and drove to downtown Oakland. It was 9:15 p.m., and crowds had gathered on Oakland’s streets to protest and mourn Floyd’s death. Meanwhile, blocks away, the two men drove a white Ford van around Oakland’s federal courthouse, where David Patrick Underwood, a federal protective security officer, staffed a two-person guard hut. Prosecutors say Carrillo was in the back seat near the sliding door, carrying a short-barreled rifle, a “ghost weapon” with no serial number, making it almost impossible to trace. According to the FBI, it was an illegal machine gun optimized to fire bursts of shots automatically, with an added silencer.

Hours before, Carrillo had posted on Facebook that if “it’s not kicking off in your hood then start it.” Now, according to prosecutors, Justus drove toward the guard hut while Carrillo slid the van’s door open and fired multiple bursts, killing Underwood and seriously wounding a second guard. “Did you see how they fucking fell?” Carrillo said as the van drove off, according to an account Justus gave investigators after turning himself in.

“In his mind, Steven was on a mission just like in the Air Force, except the enemy was the police,” Amaya said.

A lawyer for Justus, who has been charged with aiding and abetting Underwood’s murder, declined to discuss his client’s alleged involvement with the Boogaloo Bois. Instead he pointed to court filings that describe what Justus told investigators. According to those records, Justus insisted to investigators that he felt he had to participate because he was “trapped in the van.” He also claimed he told Carrillo, “I am not cool with this,” and tried to think of ways to “talk Carrillo out of his plan,” only for Carrillo to respond by pointing a rifle at him and asking if he was “a cop or a rat.”

The shooting of both guards aligned neatly with Boogaloo ideology. “Use their anger to fuel our fire,” Carrillo had written on Facebook that morning. “We have mobs of angry people to use to our advantage.” Sure enough, some conservative commentators rushed to blame Underwood’s murder on antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters.

Four hours after Underwood’s death, Carrillo received a text message from Hunter urging him to attack police buildings, court records show.

Carrillo’s response: “I did better lol.”

That weekend, when Carrillo returned to Amaya’s house, he seemed “on edge and distracted,” she recalled. He asked for a week’s leave at Travis Air Force base and sent $200 to Hunter, congratulating him for “doing good shit out there.” Most of the time, she said, Carrillo was glued to Facebook, following the news and commenting on viral videos of police clashing with protesters. “Who needs antifa to start riots when the police do it for you,” read one of his posts.

In the days after the Oakland shooting, Carrillo communicated regularly with Rush and other members of the Grizzly Scouts on a WhatsApp group they called “209 Goon HQ,” prosecutors say. (The area code for Mariposa County, home turf of the Grizzly Scouts, is 209.) Via WhatsApp, they repeatedly made references to the “Boog” and “discussed committing acts of violence against law enforcement,” prosecutors allege.

On Saturday, June 6, Carrillo drove to his father’s house in Ben Lomond. It was about 2 p.m. when Gutzwiller, a sergeant in the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, and two more deputies arrived at the property, which was guarded by a dog wearing a bulletproof vest and monitored by security cameras. They were responding to a call from a passerby who had spotted a suspicious white Ford van loaded with what appeared to be firearms and bomb-making material. When the deputies learned the van was registered to Carrillo’s father, they pulled up to his house to question him.

The deputies did not realize Carrillo was above them, perched just 40 feet away in a covered, well-concealed position up a steep embankment, aiming the same “ghost” weapon that prosecutors say he had used in Oakland.

Based on the WhatsApp text messages that prosecutors say he sent at this time, Carrillo appeared to be trying to guide his fellow Grizzly Scouts on how they could join forces with him in a coordinated attack on the law enforcement officers gathering to search for him.

“Theyre waiting for reenforcements,” he texted.

And this: “Theres inly one road in/out. Take them out when theyre coming in.”

According to police, Carrillo “sniped” Gutzwiller, killing him with a single shot to the chest. Another deputy was also shot in the chest, but was saved by his bulletproof vest.

During the mayhem and bloodshed that followed, Carrillo engaged in a running gun battle with law enforcement officers, hurling pipe bombs and hijacking vehicles. In his own blood, he scrawled “BOOG” and “I became unreasonable” and “Stop the Duopoly” — all common Boogaloo slogans — on the hood of a car he had stolen. And at some point, he sent one more WhatsApp message to his fellow Grizzly Scouts: “Dudes i offed a fed.”

For all of Carrillo’s urgent appeals for reinforcements, there is no indication any Grizzly Scout tried to come to his aid. While questioning Carrillo’s fiancée in August, Henry Montes, an investigator for the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office, offered a possible explanation. Some members of the Grizzly Scouts, he said, had told investigators that Carrillo was too extreme for them. “The things that he was saying made them think he wants to kill policemen,” Montes told Amaya, according to a recording of the interview obtained by the news organizations.

“We spoke with some people who were no longer part of that group because they were afraid of Steven,” Montes said.

A Jailhouse Wedding

In interviews, Carrillo’s siblings describe a brother who suffered from years of severe mental health problems and didn’t get the support and medical treatment he needed from the Air Force. “I could see his pain,” Carrillo’s sister, Ruby, said.

Over two hours of interviews, Carrillo himself did not attribute any of his actions to mental illness. Instead, he forthrightly proclaimed his support for the Boogaloo Bois and repeatedly challenged what he views as misconceptions about the group.

“I just want to say, the Boogaloo movement, you know, there’s a lot in the paper that I feel like people don’t understand,” he said. “And that is the Boogaloo movement, it’s all inclusive. It includes everyone. It’s not a thing about race. It’s about people that love freedom, liberty, and they’re unhappy with the level of control that the government takes over our lives. So it’s just a movement, it’s a thought about freedom. It’s just a complete love for freedom.”

Meanwhile, as Carrillo sits in jail awaiting trial, his political evolution continues. In a letter he wrote to reporters in October, he referred to Joe Biden as a man who “sniffs kids,” echoing QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiracy theory that falsely accuses the Democratic Party of running a Satan-worshipping child sex-trafficking ring.

Carrillo’s defense lawyers declined to comment.

Amaya continues to stand by Carrillo. “I know him, and I think he can change,” she said.

On Christmas Day the couple exchanged vows through a video call from the Santa Rita Jail. “I love your lips, baby,” Carrillo told her.

She promised to love him “forever and always.”

Via ProPublica)

—–

Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

KRON 4: “Alleged ‘boogaloo’ militia members charged in deaths of 2 officers”

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Is Facebook Collaborating with Turkey to Censor Free Expression? https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/facebook-collaborating-expression.html Sat, 20 Mar 2021 04:01:16 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196746 By Jack Gillum | –

( ProPublica) – Facebook’s move to censor social media posts of a Syrian militia group in 2018 at the request of the Turkish government raises serious questions about the company’s commitment to free expression, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee wrote in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday.

ProPublica reported last month that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s No. 2 executive, personally OK’d a decision to censor the group, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, blocking its page from being seen within Turkey’s borders. Managers at Facebook were concerned that not doing so could lead to a complete shutdown of their platform within the country.

“I am fine with this,” Sandberg wrote in an email reply that included Zuckerberg and Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, according to emails obtained by ProPublica.

In response to the report, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and prominent Facebook critic, is demanding answers to more than a dozen questions, including: what Facebook internal decision-making process led to the block; how the Turkish government threatened to take action; if posts on other Facebook-owned entities, like Instagram, were also blocked; and if users in Turkey or in other countries were aware posts on their feeds were being restricted.

“Facebook’s decision to censor content raises serious questions about the company’s commitment to values like free expression, particularly as authoritarian leaders around the world grow bolder in their efforts to silence criticism,” Wyden wrote to Zuckerberg. Wyden further asked how Facebook’s decision comports with the company’s stated commitments to uphold human rights principles as a member of the Global Network Initiative.

In response to Wyden’s letter, a Facebook spokesman said in a statement: “We always strive to preserve voice for the greatest number of people. This means we only restrict content that is illegal but doesn’t break our rules when we have a valid legal basis to do so and our international human rights commitments are met. This decision met both of these requirements. We are transparent about content we restrict based on local law in our transparency report, and we are independently assessed on our international human rights commitments every two years.”

Facebook reported more than 22,000 instances of content-blocking worldwide during the first half of 2020, the most recent period for which data is available.

Last month, Wyden and Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate’s intelligence panel, led more than three dozen other senators in urging President Biden to press Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on taking his country “down an increasingly authoritarian path.”

In early 2018, as Turkey attacked the Kurds in Syria’s Afrin District, emails showed Facebook’s policy toward the YPG page was centered on keeping the platform operational, not on human rights. “The page caused us a few PR fires in the past,” one Facebook manager warned. Turkish lobbying included warnings from the chairman of BTK, the country’s telecommunications regulator.

Facebook contends that not complying with Turkey’s demands would have led to a much more sweeping consequence: a wholesale blocking of the platform that would have deprived its millions of Turkish users of access to Facebook. The company told ProPublica it was complying with a legal order and had been previously blocked in Turkey, including a half-dozen times in 2016.

The Turkish request to Facebook also came as officials arrested hundreds of the country’s own residents for criticizing the military operation. Three years later, YPG’s photos and updates about the Turkish military’s brutal attacks on the Kurdish minority in Syria still can’t be viewed by Facebook users inside Turkey.

Jack Gillum is a senior reporter at ProPublica based in Washington, D.C., covering technology and privacy. He joined ProPublica in July 2018. Gillum came to ProPublica from The Washington Post, where he was part of the investigative team that dug into mismanaged taxpayer funds and troubled relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

Via ProPublica

Feature Photo: Creative Commons, “Two young Muslim women in the heart of Istanbul are having “an Apple” for lunch,” by Chris Schuepp.

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How Facebook Suppressed Kurdish Site for sake of its Business in Turkey https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/facebook-suppressed-business.html Wed, 03 Mar 2021 05:03:56 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196437 By Jack Gillum and Justin Elliott | –

Amid a 2018 Turkish military campaign, Facebook ultimately sided with Turkey’s demand to block the page of a mostly Kurdish militia. “I am fine with this,” Sandberg wrote.

( ProPublica ) – As Turkey launched a military offensive against Kurdish minorities in neighboring Syria in early 2018, Facebook’s top executives faced a political dilemma.

Turkey was demanding the social media giant block Facebook posts from the People’s Protection Units, a mostly Kurdish militia group the Turkish government had targeted. Should Facebook ignore the request, as it has done elsewhere, and risk losing access to tens of millions of users in Turkey? Or should it silence the group, known as the YPG, even if doing so added to the perception that the company too often bends to the wishes of authoritarian governments?

It wasn’t a particularly close call for the company’s leadership, newly disclosed emails show.

“I am fine with this,” wrote Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s No. 2 executive, in a one-sentence message to a team that reviewed the page. Three years later, YPG’s photos and updates about the Turkish military’s brutal attacks on the Kurdish minority in Syria still can’t be viewed by Facebook users inside Turkey.

The conversations, among other internal emails obtained by ProPublica, provide an unusually direct look into how tech giants like Facebook handle censorship requests made by governments that routinely limit what can be said publicly. When the Turkish government attacked the Kurds in the Afrin District of northern Syria, Turkey also arrested hundreds of its own residents for criticizing the operation.

Publicly, Facebook has underscored that it cherishes free speech: “We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and we work hard to protect and defend these values around the world,” the company wrote in a blog post last month about a new Turkish law requiring that social media firms have a legal presence in the country. “More than half of the people in Turkey rely on Facebook to stay in touch with their friends and family, to express their opinions and grow their businesses.”

But behind the scenes in 2018, amid Turkey’s military campaign, Facebook ultimately sided with the government’s demands. Deliberations, the emails show, were centered on keeping the platform operational, not on human rights. “The page caused us a few PR fires in the past,” one Facebook manager warned of the YPG material.

The Turkish government’s lobbying on Afrin-related content included a call from the chairman of the BTK, Turkey’s telecommunications regulator. He reminded Facebook “to be cautious about the material being posted, especially photos of wounded people,” wrote Mark Smith, a U.K.-based policy manager, to Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy. “He also highlighted that the government may ask us to block entire pages and profiles if they become a focal point for sharing illegal content.” (Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization, although neither the U.S. nor Facebook do.)

The company’s eventual solution was to “geo-block,” or selectively ban users in a geographic area from viewing certain content, should the threats from Turkish officials escalate. Facebook had previously avoided the practice, even though it has become increasingly popular among governments that want to hide posts from within their borders.

Facebook confirmed to ProPublica that it made the decision to restrict the page in Turkey following a legal order from the Turkish government — and after it became clear that failing to do so would have led to its services in the country being completely shut down. The company said it had been blocked before in Turkey, including a half-dozen times in 2016.

The content that Turkey deemed offensive, according to internal emails, included photos on Facebook-owned Instagram of “wounded YPG fighters, Turkish soldiers and possibly civilians.” At the time, the YPG slammed what it understood to be Facebook’s censorship of such material. “Silencing the voice of democracy: In light of the Afrin invasion, YPG experience severe cyberattacks.” The group has published graphic images, including photos of mortally wounded fighters; “this is the way NATO ally Turkey secures its borders,” YPG wrote in one post.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone provided a written statement in response to questions from ProPublica.

“We strive to preserve voice for the greatest number of people,” the statement said. “There are, however, times when we restrict content based on local law even if it does not violate our community standards. In this case, we made the decision based on our policies concerning government requests to restrict content and our international human rights commitments. We disclose the content we restrict in our twice-yearly transparency reports and are evaluated by independent experts on our international human rights commitments every two years.”

The Turkish embassy in Washington said it contends the YPG is the “Syrian offshoot” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which the U.S. government considers to be a terrorist organization.

Facebook has considered the YPG page politically sensitive since at least 2015, emails show, when officials discovered the page was inaccurately marked as verified with a blue check mark. In turn, “that created negative coverage on Turkish pro-government media,” one executive wrote. When Facebook removed the check mark, it in turn “created negative coverage [in] English language media including on Huffington Post.”

In 2018, the review team, which included global policy chief Monika Bickert, laid out the consequences of a ban. The company could set a bad example for future cases and take flak for its decision. “Geo-blocking the YPG is not without risk — activists outside of Turkey will likely notice our actions, and our decision may draw unwanted attention to our overall geo-blocking policy,” said one email in late January.

But this time, the team members said, the parties were embroiled in an armed conflict and Facebook officials worried their platform could be shut down entirely in Turkey. “We are in favor of geo-blocking the YPG content,” they wrote, “if the prospects of a full-service blockage are great.” They prepared a “reactive” press statement: “We received a valid court order from the authorities in Turkey requiring us to restrict access to certain content. Following careful review, we have complied with the order,” it said.

In a nine-page ruling by Ankara’s 2nd Criminal Judgeship of Peace, government officials listed YPG’s Facebook page among several hundred social media URLs they considered problematic. The court wrote that the sites should be blocked to “protect the right to life or security of life and property, ensure national security, protect public order, prevent crimes, or protect public health,” according to a copy of the order obtained by ProPublica.

Kaplan, in a Jan. 26, 2018, email to Sandberg and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, confirmed that the company had received a Turkish government order demanding that the page be censored, although it wasn’t immediately clear if officials were referring to the Ankara court ruling. Kaplan advised the company to “immediately geo-block the page” should Turkey threaten to block all access to Facebook.

Sandberg, in a reply to Kaplan, Zuckerberg and others, agreed. (She had been at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, touting Facebook’s role in assisting victims of natural disasters.)

“Facebook can’t bow to authoritarians to suppress political dissidents and then claim to be just ‘following legal orders,’” said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who’s a prominent Facebook critic. “American companies need to stand up for universal human rights, not just hunt for bigger profits. Mark Zuckerberg has called for big changes to U.S. laws protecting free speech at the same time he protected far-right slime merchants in the U.S. and censored dissidents in Turkey. His priority has been protecting the powerful and Facebook’s bottom line, even if it means marginalized groups pay the price.”

In a statement to ProPublica, the YPG said censorship by Facebook and other social media platforms “is on an extreme level.”

“YPG has actively been using social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and others since its foundation,” the group said. “YPG uses social media to promote its struggle against jihadists and other extremists who attacked and are attacking Syrian Kurdistan and northern Syria. Those platform[s] have a crucial role in building a public presence and easily reaching communities across the world. However, we have faced many challenges on social media during these years.”

Cutting off revenue from Turkey could harm Facebook financially, regulatory filings suggest. Facebook includes revenue from Turkey and Russia in the figure it gives for Europe overall and the company reported a 34% increase for the continent in annual revenue per user, according to its 2019 annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Yaman Akdeniz, a founder of the Turkish Freedom of Expression Association, said the YPG block was “not an easy case because Turkey sees the YPG as a terror organization and wants their accounts to be blocked from Turkey. But it just confirms that Facebook doesn’t want to challenge these requests, and it was prepared to act.”

“Facebook has a transparency problem,” he said.

In fact, Facebook doesn’t reveal to users that the YPG page is explicitly banned. When ProPublica tried to access YPG’s Facebook page using a Turkish VPN — to simulate browsing the internet from inside the country — a notice read: “The link may be broken, or the page may have been removed.” The page is still available on Facebook to people who view the site through U.S. internet providers.

For its part, Facebook reported about 15,300 government requests worldwide for content restrictions during the first half of 2018. Roughly 1,600 came from Turkey during that period, company data shows, accounting for about 10% of requests globally. In a brief post, Facebook said it restricted access to 1,106 items in response to requests from Turkey’s telecom regulator, the courts and other agencies, “which covers a range of offenses including personal rights violations, personal privacy, defamation of [first Turkish president Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk, and laws on the unauthorized sale of regulated goods.”

Katitza Rodriguez, policy director for global privacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the Turkish government has also managed to force Facebook and other platforms into appointing legal representatives in the country. If tech companies don’t comply, she said, Turkish taxpayers would be prevented from placing ads and making payments to Facebook. Because Facebook is a member of the Global Network Initiative, Rodriguez said, it has pledged to uphold the group’s human rights principles.

“Companies have an obligation under international human rights law to respect human rights,” she said.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

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President Biden wants More Vaccine Doses Sooner: Why it is Physically Impossible before Summer https://www.juancole.com/2021/02/president-physically-impossible.html Tue, 23 Feb 2021 05:01:00 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196292

President Biden has promised enough doses for all American adults by this summer. There’s not much even the Defense Production Act can do to deliver doses before then.

By Isaac Arnsdorf and Ryan Gabrielson | –

( ProPublica ) – President Joe Biden has ordered enough vaccines to immunize every American against COVID-19, and his administration says it’s using the full force of the federal government to get the doses by July. There’s a reason he can’t promise them sooner.

Vaccine supply chains are extremely specialized and sensitive, relying on expensive machinery, highly trained staff and finicky ingredients. Manufacturers have run into intermittent shortages of key materials, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office; the combination of surging demand and workforce disruptions from the pandemic has caused delays of four to 12 weeks for items that used to ship within a week, much like what happened when consumers were sent scrambling for household staples like flour, chicken wings and toilet paper.

People often question why the administration can’t use the mighty Defense Production Act — which empowers the government to demand critical supplies before anyone else — to turbocharge production. But that law has its limits. Each time a manufacturer adds new equipment or a new raw materials supplier, they are required to run extensive tests to ensure the hardware or ingredients consistently work as intended, then submit data to the Food and Drug Administration. Adding capacity “doesn’t happen in a blink of an eye,” said Jennifer Pancorbo, director of industry programs and research at North Carolina State University’s Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center. “It takes a good chunk of weeks.”

And adding supplies at any one point only helps if production can be expanded up and down the entire chain. “Thousands of components may be needed,” said Gerald W. Parker, director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at Texas A&M University’s Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs and a former senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services office for preparedness and response. “You can’t just turn on the Defense Production Act and make it happen.”

The U.S. doesn’t have spare facilities waiting around to manufacture vaccines, or other kinds of factories that could be converted the way General Motors began producing ventilators last year. The GAO said the Army Corps of Engineers is helping to expand existing vaccine facilities, but it can’t be done overnight.

Building new capacity would take two to three months, at which point the new production lines would still face weeks of testing to ensure they were able to make the vaccine doses correctly before the companies could start delivering more shots.

“It’s not like making shoes,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with ProPublica. “And the reason I use that somewhat tongue-in-cheek analogy is that people say, ‘Ah, you know what we should do? We should get the DPA to build another factory in a week and start making mRNA.’ Well, by the time a new factory can get geared up to make the mRNA vaccine exactly according to the very, very strict guidelines and requirements of the FDA … we already will have in our hands the 600 million doses between Moderna and Pfizer that we contracted for. It would almost be too late.”

Fauci added that the DPA works best for “facilitating something rather than building something from scratch.”

The Trump administration deployed the Defense Production Act last year to give vaccine manufacturers priority in accessing crucial production supplies before anyone else could buy them. And the Biden administration used it to help Pfizer obtain specialized needles that can squeeze a sixth dose from the company’s vials, as well as for two critical manufacturing components: filling pumps and tangential flow filtration units. The pumps help supply the lipid nanoparticles that hold and protect the mRNA — the vaccines’ active ingredient, so to speak — and also fill vials with finished vaccine. The filtration units remove unneeded solutions and other materials used in the manufacturing process.

These highly precise pieces of equipment are not typically available on demand, said Matthew Johnson, senior director of product management at Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute, who works on developing mRNA vaccines, but not for COVID-19. “Right now, there is so much growth in biopharmaceuticals, plus the pinch of the pandemic,” he said. “Many equipment suppliers are sold out of production, and even products scheduled to be made, in some cases, sold out for a year or so looking forward.”

In the meantime, the shortage of vaccines is creating widespread frustration and anxiety as eligible people struggle to get appointments and millions of others wonder how long it will be before it is their turn. As of Feb. 17, the U.S. had distributed 72.4 million doses and administered 56.3 million shots, but fewer than 16 million people have received both of the two doses that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require for full protection.

The Biden administration has said it is increasing vaccine shipments to states by 20%, to 13.5 million doses a week, and encouraged states to give out all their shots instead of holding on to some for second doses. But now that second-dose appointments are coming due, many jurisdictions are having to focus on those and stepping back from vaccinating uninoculated people. Even as the total number of vaccinations increased last week, the number of first doses fell to 6.8 million people, down from 7.8 million three weeks ago, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

At best, it will take until June for manufacturers to deliver enough doses for the roughly 266 million eligible Americans age 16 and over, according to public statements by the companies.

That includes expected deliveries of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine, which is widely expected to win emergency authorization from the FDA shortly after a public advisory committee meeting on Feb. 26. But Johnson & Johnson has fallen behind in manufacturing. The company told the GAO it will have only 2 million doses ready to go by the time the vaccine is authorized, whereas its $1 billion contract with HHS scheduled 12 million doses by the end of February. It’s not clear what held up Johnson & Johnson’s production line; the company has benefited from first-priority purchases thanks to the DPA, according to a senior executive close to the manufacturing process. A Johnson & Johnson spokesman declined to comment on the cause of the delay, but said the company still expects to ship 100 million U.S. doses by July.

Moderna declined to comment on “operational aspects” of its manufacturing, but “does remain confident in our ability to meet contracted quantities” of its vaccine to the U.S. and other nations, a spokesperson said in a statement. Pfizer did not respond to ProPublica’s written questions.

Ramping up production is especially challenging for Pfizer and Moderna, whose vaccines use an mRNA technology that’s never been mass-produced before. The companies started production even before they finished trials to see if the vaccines worked, another historic first. But it wasn’t as if they could instantly crank out millions of vaccines full blast, since they effectively had to invent a novel manufacturing process.

“Putting together plans 12 months ago for a Phase 1 and 2 trial, and making enough to dose a couple hundred patients, was a big deal for the raw material suppliers,” said Johnson, the product manager at Duke University’s vaccine institute. “It’s just going from dosing hundreds of patients a year ago to a billion.”

Raw materials for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are also in limited supply. The manufacturing process begins by using common gut bacteria cells to grow something called “plasmids” — standalone snippets of DNA — that contain instructions to make the vaccine’s genetic material, said Pancorbo, the North Carolina State University biomanufacturing expert.

Next, specific enzymes cultivated from bacteria are added to cause a chemical reaction that assembles the strands of mRNA, Pancorbo said. Those strands are then packaged in lipid nanoparticles, microscopic bubbles of fat made using petroleum or plant oils. The fat bubbles protect the genetic material inside the human body and help deliver it to the cells.

Only a few firms specialize in making these ingredients, which have previously been sold by the kilogram, Pancorbo said. But they’re now needed by the metric ton — a thousandfold increase. Moderna and Pfizer need bulk, but also the highest possible quality.

“There are a number of organizations that make these enzymes and these nucleotides and lipids, but they might not make it in a grade that is satisfactory for human consumption,” Pancorbo said. “It might be a grade that is satisfactory for animal consumption or research. But for injection into a human? That’s a different thing.”

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine follows a slightly more traditional method of growing cells in large tanks called bioreactors. This takes time, and the slightest contamination can spoil a whole batch. Since the process deals with living things, it can be more like growing plants than making shoes. “Maximizing yield is as much of an art as it is a science, as the manufacturing process itself is dependent on biological processes,” said Parker, the former HHS official.

The vaccine developers are continuing to find tweaks that can expedite production without cutting corners. Pfizer is now delivering six doses in each vial instead of five, and Moderna has asked for permission to fill each of its bottles with 15 doses, up from 10. If regulators approve, it would take two or three months to change over production, Moderna spokesman Ray Jordan said on Feb. 13.

“It helps speed up and lighten the logistical side of getting vaccines out,” said Lawrence Ganti, president of SiO2, an Alabama company that makes glass vials for the Moderna vaccine. SiO2 expanded production with $143 million in funding from the federal government last year, and Ganti said there aren’t any hiccups at his end of the line.

Despite the possibility of sporadic bottlenecks and delays in the coming months, companies appear to have lined up their supply chains to the point that they’re comfortable with their ability to meet current production targets.

Massachusetts-based Snapdragon Chemistry received almost $700,000 from HHS’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to develop a new way of producing ribonucleoside triphosphates (NTPs), a key raw material for mRNA vaccines. Snapdragon’s technology uses a continuous production line, rather than the traditional process of making batches in big vats, so it’s easier to scale up by simply keeping production running for a longer time.

Suppliers have told Snapdragon that they have their raw materials covered for now, according to Matthew Bio, the company’s president and CEO. “They’re saying, ‘We have established suppliers to meet the demand we have for this year,’” Bio said.

ProPublica

Isaac Arnsdorf covers national politics. His reporting on President Trump’s agenda for veterans won the Sidney Hillman Foundation’s Sidney Award and the National Press Club’s Sandy Hume Award, and was an honorable mention for the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.

Ryan Gabrielson is a reporter for ProPublica covering the U.S. justice system. In 2013, his stories for the Center for Investigative Reporting on violent crimes at California’s board-and-care institutions for the developmentally disabled were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CNBC: “President Joe Biden secures 200M additional Covid vaccine doses”

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“I Don’t Trust the People Above Me”: Riot Squad Cops Open Up About Disastrous Response to Capitol Insurrection https://www.juancole.com/2021/02/disastrous-response-insurrection.html Tue, 16 Feb 2021 05:01:36 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196177 By Joaquin Sapien and Joshua Kaplan | –

The Insurrection

( ProPublica) – The Effort to Overturn the Election

The riot squad defending the embattled entrance to the west side of the U.S. Capitol was surrounded by violence. Rioters had clambered up the scaffolding by the stage erected for the inauguration of President Joseph Biden. They hurled everything they could get their hands on at the cops beneath: rebar, plywood, power tools, even cans of food they had frozen for extra damage.

In front of the cops, a mob was mounting a frontal assault. Its members hit officers with fists and baseball bats. They grabbed at weapons slung from the officers’ waists. They unleashed a barrage of M-80 firecrackers. Soaked in never-ending streams of bright orange bear spray, the officers choked on plumes of acrid smoke that singed their nostrils and obscured their vision.

One officer in the middle of the scrum, a combat veteran, thought the rioters were so vicious, so relentless, that they seemed fueled by methamphetamine. To his left, he watched a chunk of steel strike a fellow officer above the eye, setting off a geyser of blood. A pepper ball tore through the air over his shoulder and exploded against the jaw of a man in front of him. The round, filled with chemical irritant, ripped the rioter’s face open. His teeth were now visible through a hole in his cheek. Blood poured out, puddling on the pavement surrounding the building. But the man kept coming.

The combat veteran was hit with bear spray eight times. His experience overseas “was nothing like this,” he said. “Nothing at all.”

Over the last several weeks, ProPublica has interviewed 19 current and former U.S. Capitol Police officers about the assault on the Capitol. Following on the dramatic video of officers defending the building that House lawmakers showed during the first day of the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, the interviews provide the most detailed account to date of a most extraordinary battle.

The enemies on Jan. 6 were Americans: thousands of people from across the country who had descended on the Capitol, intent on stopping Congress from certifying an election they believed was stolen from Trump. They had been urged to attend by Trump himself, with extremist right-wing and militia leaders calling for violence.

Many of the officers were speaking to reporters for the first time about the day’s events, almost all anonymously for fear of retribution. That they spoke at all is an indication of the depth of their frustration over the botched response. ProPublica also obtained confidential intelligence bulletins and previously unreported planning documents.

Combined, the information makes clear how failures of leadership, communication and tactics put the lives of hundreds of officers at risk and allowed rioters to come dangerously close to realizing their threats against members of Congress.

In response to questions for this story, the Capitol Police sent a one-sentence email: “There is a multi-jurisdictional investigation underway and in order to protect that process, we are unfortunately unable to provide any comment at this time.”

The interviews also revealed officers’ concerns about disparities in the way the force prepared for Black Lives Matter demonstrations versus the pro-Trump protests on Jan. 6. Officers said the Capitol Police force usually plans intensively for protests, even if they are deemed unlikely to grow violent. Officers said they spent weeks working 12- or 16-hour days, poised to fight off a riot, after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police — even though intelligence suggested there was not much danger from protesters.

“We had intel that nothing was going to happen — literally nothing,” said one former official with direct knowledge of planning for the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. “The response was, ‘We don’t trust the intel.’”

By contrast, for much of the force, Jan. 6 began like any other day.

“We normally have pretty good information regarding where these people are and how far they are from the Capitol,” said Keith McFaden, a former Capitol Police officer and union leader who retired from the force following the riot. “We heard nothing that day.”

For the members of the riot squad who formed the first line of defense on the Capitol’s lower west terrace on Jan. 6, the lack of information could not have come with higher stakes.

Thrust into the most intense battle of the insurrection, the roughly two dozen officers bought lawmakers crucial time to scramble for safety. For about 100 heart-pounding minutes, they slipped and skidded across a stone surface slick with blood and bear spray, attempting to hold their ground against a rampaging mass of thousands.

To many of them, it felt like no one was in charge of the Capitol’s defense. All they could hear on the police radio were desperate cries for help.

At one point, the combat veteran was forced to stumble back from the line, his face so covered in bear spray he could barely see or breathe.

When he came to, a surge spilled over to his south. The crowd pushed over several bike racks. He realized the unfathomable had happened. His squad had lost the line; the mob could now enter the Capitol. There was no choice but to fall back. The officers stumbled over blood and debris until they were pressed against a limestone wall at the rear of the terrace. The mob had them cornered.

The officers, drained from their standoff, found a narrow staircase leading to an entrance of the building. But it could fit only one officer at a time. So they took turns climbing it as the crowd closed in, screaming obscenities and threatening murder.

“You fucking faggots!” one shouted. “You’re not even American!”

Waiting to climb the stairs, the combat veteran feared the worst. “This is where they’ll find my body,” he thought.

The Intelligence: “A Normal Fucking Day”

On the morning of Jan. 4, members of a civil disturbance unit gathered in a briefing room. A small group of officers were shown a document from Capitol intelligence officials that projected as many as 20,000 people arriving in Washington that week. The crowd would include members of several militia and right-wing extremist groups, including the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois and the white supremacist Patriot Front. Some were expected to be armed, according to one officer who attended the briefing. The document anticipated that there could be violence.

The officers weren’t allowed to physically share the document with anyone else, but they relayed its substance to the rest of their squad in a separate meeting. Together, the unit members discussed possible scenarios and pored over a map of the Capitol and its surroundings to identify vulnerable areas that could erupt in conflict.

The iconic west front of the Capitol emerged as an obvious target. Donald Trump was going to speak at the Ellipse across from the White House; from there, it’s a direct walk past the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool outside the Capitol to the western facade of the building. The riot squad knew that if the crowd was going to violently confront police, that’s where it would probably happen.

But the intelligence the unit relied on to make that judgment was not widely shared within the department. Several officers assigned to other commands told ProPublica they received no warning whatsoever going into Jan. 6. “We went to work like it was a normal fucking day,” one said.

“It was business as usual,” said another, who has been on the force for more than 15 years. “The main thing we were told was to be on the lookout for counterdemonstrators.”

The Capitol Police force is made up of four main divisions, each responsible for safeguarding its own section of the Capitol complex. But ProPublica learned that these divisions operate in silos, often out of sync with one another. On Jan. 6, their failure to coordinate led to disastrous results. One group of officers was left stranded, separated from their riot gear, which sat unused on a parked bus near the Capitol while unprotected officers endured beatings with metal pipes and flagpoles.

The officers said that in the past, weekly Capitol Police intelligence briefings had kept the force well-informed about potential security threats from upcoming events. But those briefings stopped years ago.

Several weeks before Jan. 6, many officers were ordered by their leadership to return their helmets because they were so old, the officers said. One officer told ProPublica he had received his helmet decades ago, and the padding was rotted out. Many said their helmets were never replaced. On the day of the riot, the department only had helmets available in medium size, one officer said. Many officers didn’t have gas masks. Most hadn’t received riot training in years.

“They’ve been asking about this for over 10 years — this kind of equipment, this kind of training,” said one officer, who asked for anonymity out of concern for retribution. “We’ve always talked about the big one.”

McFaden, the officer who retired last month after more than two decades as a Capitol Police officer, said that the communication failure going into Jan. 6 was consistent with recent history.

As second-in-command at the Capitol Police union, McFaden said, he met with then-Chief Steven Sund and other leaders of the force every two weeks.

“We’d consistently ask them, for years, ‘What are the contingency plans for upcoming events?’” McFaden told ProPublica. “We’d always get either a no response, or that things were in flux and it’s a national security issue and we can’t divulge that information at this time.”

In the absence of communication from the upper ranks on how to prepare, officers turned to social media or to each other.

One officer said he first heard about the planned protest a week before, when a friend from another federal agency called him to say, as he recalled: “You all are gonna have your hands full next week. You got some mean boys coming up there.” The officer was confused. “What do you mean?” he replied.

As the day drew nearer, the chatter became more tense. Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with hotel rooms filling up, and Trump supporters were pouring into Washington, announcing their plans to initiate a “civil war” or “revolution.” On a well-trafficked pro-Trump forum, one of the most popular posts from Jan. 5 said Congress “has a choice to make tomorrow”: certify Trump’s victory, or “get lynched by patriots.”

Officers, particularly the younger ones, spent shifts glued to their phones, forwarding ominous posts to their sergeants.

Similar warnings reached the Capitol Police’s intelligence division. ProPublica obtained a previously unreported 17-page Capitol Police operational plan that showed select officials were notified of “numerous social media posts” encouraging protesters to arrive armed.

The document, which is dated Jan. 5, also states that white supremacists and the Proud Boys were expected to attend the rally, along with “other extremist groups,” including antifa, the left-wing movement that has clashed with far-right groups and drawn the ire of some Republicans. The plan called for “counter-sniper teams” on the Capitol dome and officers monitoring for concealed weapons, but did not discuss a potential breach of the Capitol.

Other intelligence reports reviewed by ProPublica reveal inconsistencies — a sign of internal confusion about how best to respond.

ProPublica also obtained four daily reports from the department’s intelligence division that were shared widely among commanders of the force, spanning the dates Jan. 4 through Jan. 7. The documents make no mention of expected extremist groups or the possibility that demonstrators would be armed. Instead, they note simply that “folks could organize a demonstration on USCP grounds.”

The intelligence reports provide a kind of threat scale that gauges the likelihood of arrests. The Jan. 6 rally was scored as “improbable,” meaning it had a 20% to 45% chance of resulting in arrests. Two small anti-Trump counterdemonstrations organized by local left-wing and antifascist groups were assigned the same risk level.

Sund, who submitted his resignation as chief of the Capitol Police on Jan. 7, later said he had tried to call in the National Guard two days before the riot. He said the sergeants-at-arms — the House and Senate officials responsible for security of lawmakers — denied his request. Both officials have since resigned. Reached by phone, former House sergeant-at-arms Paul Irving declined to comment. Former Senate sergeant-at-arms Michael Stenger did not immediately respond to a message left by phone.

In an emailed response to questions for this story, Sund said he and other departmental leaders were not responsible for assigning risk levels to upcoming events, and that he is “not sure of the process” the Capitol Police intelligence division uses to assess risk. He said intelligence was shared with division commanders to pass along to their troops, and that he emailed the assistant and deputy chiefs on Jan. 5 to ensure officers knew what to expect the following day. Sund also said “the force did much more to prepare for the events of January 6 than we did to prepare for BLM demonstrations,” including expanding the perimeter around the Capitol and coordinating support from Metropolitan police. He said any “breakdown in communication” on Jan. 6 was “surely the result of the extraordinary events of that day.”

He also defended his actions in an eight-page letter to congressional leaders dated Feb. 1, saying, in essence, that he and his fellow leaders did the best they could with the information they had.

Sund said he ordered an “all hands on deck” response, meaning every available officer “would be working.” He said he deployed about 250 specialized crowd control officers, “approximately four platoons” of which were outfitted in riot gear. He said that during the riot he urgently requested help from a variety of federal and local agencies. He added that the Capitol Police ordered more helmets and received about 100 of them on Jan. 4. But he acknowledged that “a number of systems broke down.”

“I also wish we had had better intelligence and warnings as to the possibility of this type of military style armed insurrection,” Sund wrote, pointing out that there was a shared responsibility across a number of agencies. “The entire intelligence community seems to have missed this.”

Run-Up to the Riot: “If Something Happens, Just Find Work”

At 7 a.m. on Jan. 6, an officer on the department’s midnight shift finished work and got into his car near the Capitol. Already, swarms of people were walking past, waving Trump flags. He sat in the driver’s seat for a minute, watching. He called up an old colleague and marveled at the crowd.

The officer was surprised his superiors were letting him off duty. During the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, the night shift had often been held over to help. But he hadn’t heard anything from his bosses, so he drove home to the Maryland suburbs and went to sleep. When he woke up, he saw on television what was happening and sped back, following an unmarked police car that had its lights flashing.

Meanwhile, officers belonging to the riot squad were making their way into the district to start their shifts. They could see throngs of people pouring out of Union Station, the railway hub within sight of the Capitol. They, too, were startled by the number of people on the streets that morning — it seemed that at every red light, a hundred demonstrators crossed in front of them. The officers hurried to prepare themselves for a long day.

At 10 a.m., as Trump supporters began to gather to listen to the president, the riot squad held roll call at a building a few blocks from the Capitol steps. There was little new to share from the intelligence division. Instead, the riot squad’s sergeants played clips found on social media: videos of protesters meeting in cities across the country, getting ready to drive to D.C. They told officers to make sure they had filters in their gas masks and snacks in their pockets.

With no real direction from their superiors, the sergeants tried to get their troops mentally prepared.

“You guys all drove in, you guys saw the same thing we did,” one of the sergeants told the officers, according to members of the team. “If something happens,” another instructed, “just find work.”

The unit put on their riot gear: helmets and body armor. Shields were placed in strategic areas around the Capitol complex, though some officers later said they could not get to them. One sergeant gave officers a final warning. “If this goes good, then we’ll laugh about it,” he told them. “But if it goes bad, it’ll change your life and you’ll never forget about it. They’ll talk about this for years and years and years.”

The riot squad members got on a bus to await their orders.

Sitting in his gear, one officer was struck by the age range of the people in attendance. “People had their little kids, 2-year-olds, babies in strollers,” he recalled. An elderly woman with a walker inched toward the Capitol: “Every two steps, she has to stop and catch her breath.”

After about an hour, the radio crackled: A possible bomb had been found outside the Republican National Committee headquarters, southeast of the Capitol complex. Capitol Police officers raced to the scene.

On the bus, the information did not set off panic. Suspicious packages are discovered all the time on the Hill; usually they are false alarms.

Then another, more urgent call went out. A 10-33, code for an officer in distress. An officer had been knocked backwards and hit her head on a flight of steps. The outer perimeter surrounding the west front of the Capitol had been breached.

Normally, the sergeants on the bus would wait for orders. But one snapped. “Fuck this, we’re going,” he said. The bus steered around the Capitol, barely squeezing between parked cars and protesters that had clogged a drive alongside the building.

Realizing they were effectively marooned, the sergeants ordered the riot squad off the bus. They began to walk across a wide lawn outside the Capitol.

As the officers drew closer, they realized that the lower section of the building’s west terrace was guarded only by what is known as a “soft squad,” officers with little protective gear dressed in neon yellow outerwear and baseball caps. The rioters were attempting to pull away metal barricades known as “bike racks,” and striking officers with their fists. With about 150 yards to go, the squad members broke into a dead sprint.

Once they reached the lower steps, the riot officers spread out behind the soft squad, tapping its members out, one by one. The riot squad came into formation in front of their less-protected colleagues: about two dozen officers attempting to hold 120 feet of open space, behind the line of barricades.

Looking out toward the Mall and the Washington Monument, the squad realized the grass had disappeared from view, blocked out by a crowd of thousands.

The Attack: “Pick a Side”

At about 1 p.m., Trump gave a rousing speech to protesters, suggesting they head to the Capitol to protest the election certification. “We’re going to walk down” to the Capitol, where they must “fight,” he said.

“We’re going to the Capitol,” he told the increasingly agitated crowd of protesters. “We’re going to try and give [Republicans] the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”

Vice President Mike Pence had just arrived in the House Chamber. The lawmakers awaiting him still hadn’t realized just how dire the situation was becoming.

To Sund, it was already clear that “the situation was deteriorating rapidly,” he wrote in his letter. He requested support from a number of agencies, including the Secret Service, and asked the sergeants-at-arms to authorize the National Guard and declare a state of emergency. According to the letter, Sund recalled that Irving, the House sergeant-at-arms, said he “needed to run it up the chain of command.”

Outside on the lower west terrace, the rioters had begun launching their offensive. At first, they pushed officers from across the bike racks, almost testing to see what they could get away with. Soon it became a fistfight. In what felt like minutes, it turned into an all-out brawl involving scores of armed rioters.

To the police on the line, it seemed like every time they shoved one protester back, three more surged ahead to take their place.

“Some of them, as they are holding a thin blue line flag, looked you dead in the eye and said, ‘Pick a side,’” one officer told ProPublica.

One officer hit a demonstrator and watched a pistol pop out of the rioter’s waistband. The officer picked the weapon up off the ground and, with no time or backup to initiate an arrest, put it in his pocket and continued fighting.

Plumes of tear gas billowed behind the police line. Officers were startled by the sight of department commanders joining their desperate troops to defend the Capitol.

Inspector Thomas Loyd, the man in charge of the department’s Capitol Division, threw off his hat and raised his fists. Deputy Chief Eric Waldow waded into the crowd. With the build of a linebacker, he cut a menacing figure, throwing punches as the bear spray stained his white uniform orange.

The two are now revered by the department’s rank and file, who complain that other leaders were missing in action. Waldow and Loyd referred ProPublica to the Capitol Police public information office, which declined to comment.

The only other high-ranking official who officers said they heard on the radio that day was Yogananda Pittman, the department’s assistant chief for protective and intelligence operations. Multiple officers told ProPublica that Pittman addressed the troops only once on the radio, when she ordered that the Capitol be locked down. Loyd, the union said in a public statement in January, had already given the same order about an hour before.

Elsewhere, another riot squad was in even worse shape. These officers had been dispatched to help quell a group of protesters gathered near a monument west of the Capitol. But they had been instructed by their superior officers to leave their gear on a bus. Now they were separated from the bus, defenseless.

“They were holding back some protesters, with just bike racks,” said McFaden. “Well, those bike racks actually were used as weapons against the officers. Who had the bright idea of sending a hard squad with no gear? … The coordination was just not there.”

McFaden said that one member of that squad was hit in the head by a bike rack and knocked unconscious.

As the battle raged, officers stationed away from the combat were still trying to figure out if they were authorized to respond. They heard calls on their radios for “all available units.” But officers at fixed posts didn’t know what that meant.

“How the fuck am I supposed to know if I’m available?” thought one officer, stationed at a perimeter post with no rioters in sight. The officer’s supervisors didn’t know either. The group decided to stay put: If they left, there was a chance their post could be overrun. They were stuck listening to their colleagues fight and cry for help over the radio.

McFaden was also stationed away from the rioters, tasked with guarding a parking garage on the Rayburn House Office Building’s west side. From his post, he had a clear view of the battle on the west front, but he’d received orders to stay at the garage entrance. At 56 years old, he had worked for the Capitol Police House Division for more than 20 years. He was slated to retire in just a few weeks. Now he was watching, powerless, as flash-bang grenades went off in front of a building he was sworn to protect.

By this point, time had become a blur to the officers at the west front. But somewhere around 1:15 p.m., it felt for a moment like the cavalry arrived. Dozens of officers in black riot gear came over the wall on the south side of the terrace. Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, the only other members of law enforcement on the west front in riot gear that day, had arrived.

But the reinforcements could only slow the crowd. About an hour and a half after the Metropolitan police arrived, the rioters broke through the line. In the melee, a rioter was captured on video hurling a fire extinguisher at the Capitol police. It struck an officer in the head, giving him a concussion, according to his colleagues. That officer was one of at least two to be assaulted with such a device that day; another, Brian Sicknick, died from his injuries the following day.

The rioters pulled at least two of the Capitol Police officers in riot gear into the crowd, stealing their batons and pepper spray and setting off a kind of human tug of war, before other officers were eventually able to pull their colleagues out.

Soon, the police had their backs against a wall. They formed a semicircle, doing their best to defend themselves against jabs with flagpoles and shots from bear spray canisters and pepper spray guns.

The officers made their way toward the staircase leading up to the second floor of the west terrace. A line of officers pushed each other up the narrow steps. When they got to the terrace, they rushed through a door leading to the inside of the building. Metropolitan police formed a wall of riot shields behind them, sealing off the entrance.

The crowd never made it through the doors. Video footage shows a Metropolitan police officer trapped in the door, screaming in agony. As the police poured inside, some members of Congress were still on the House floor, yet to be evacuated.

At around this time, Sund was on a conference call with four different agencies and had just learned that he needed Pentagon approval to activate the National Guard. According to Sund’s letter, Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt, the director of Army staff, remained skeptical. “I don’t like the visual of the National Guard standing [in] a line with the Capitol in the background,” Piatt said, suggesting that the guard relieve Capitol Police officers from their fixed posts instead. Piatt and the Department of Defense did not immediately respond to an emailed list of questions. (In a statement on Jan. 11, Piatt denied making such a comment. He later acknowledged that he “may” have said it.)

Once inside, the riot squad searched desperately for water. The pepper spray and bear spray cocktail was overwhelming, seeping through the tiny breathing holes of their masks.

Officers spat out phlegm and vomited into trash cans. When they eventually found water, they rushed to wash the chemicals out of their eyes and put their helmets back on. They climbed up another flight of stairs to get to the Capitol crypt, the circular room directly beneath the rotunda.

As the officers ascended, they met more rioters, who were being pushed down the stairs by Metropolitan police. The Capitol police felt like they were swimming upstream through a mob, grabbing the protesters by their limbs and shoulders as they tried to reach the next level of the Capitol.

One officer said the crypt looked like something out of a Michael Bay movie, trash strewn everywhere, the air thick with smoke.

After the crypt was cleared, another officer made it to the Capitol rotunda. He said he still can’t shake the scene: On the walls, a 19th-century frieze depicted the Battle of Lexington and the signing of the Declaration of Independence; on the ground, pepper balls whizzed into the crowd and the smell of chemicals wafted through the air.

McFaden, too, finally got a call to jump into the action, and was ordered to the rotunda. When he arrived beneath its domed ceiling, already breathless from the run over, he got hit in the face with bear spray.

“I felt like you could fry an egg on my forehead,” he said.

The Aftermath: “I Don’t Trust the People Above Me to Make Decisions to Bring Me Home Safe”

By about 4 p.m., other agencies had arrived in the rotunda: FBI SWAT teams, police officers from surrounding counties. Law enforcement moved in lines two or three deep, pushing the demonstrators out of the building’s east doors.

With their guns drawn, officers teamed up and began searching the Capitol, clearing rooms one by one. Members of Congress were now huddled with their staff, cowering petrified behind furniture they had piled against their office doors.

The first 150 or so members of the National Guard finally arrived at 5:40 p.m.

“I still cannot fathom why in the midst of an armed insurrection, which was broadcast worldwide on television, it took the Department of Defense over three hours to approve an urgent request for National Guard support,” Sund wrote in his letter. In response to questions for this story, the National Guard sent a timeline that confirmed their 5:40 p.m. arrival and referred ProPublica to a press release stating they worked with Capitol and Metropolitan police “to assist with an immediate response.”

At around 8 p.m., Capitol Police declared the complex secure. It was pitch-black outside by the time the riot squad that fought on the west front reunited. There was little conversation. They sat exhausted on the steps by the Memorial Door, helmets at their feet, staring at each other in disbelief. Some hugged each other. Others cried.

One saw that he had missed 17 calls and nearly 100 text messages. High school friends he hadn’t spoken to in years reached out on Instagram. In text after text, the same words: “I saw the news.” “Call me when you get this.” “I love you.”

The messages made some of the news coverage that came later, in which police were accused of siding with the mob, easier to stomach. He knew nothing he had done that day could be construed as complicit with the rioters. It looked like at least some of his friends and relatives knew it too.

Several officers said they didn’t get home until the early morning hours of the next day. One said when he got home he went straight to his washing machine to put his bear-spray-soaked uniform into a cold-water wash. Another said that he could not get rid of the smell or the itch of the chemicals for days.

For a week afterward, one officer said, he cried nightly. Three Capitol Police officers died in early January: Brian Sicknick, who was beaten over the head with a fire extinguisher; Howard Liebengood, who died by suicide following the riot; and Eric Marshall, who died of cancer four days before the riot. Almost 140 Capitol and Metropolitan police officers were injured, according to a union statement. One had two cracked ribs and two smashed spinal discs.

A week or so later, McFaden and union chair Gus Papathanasiou met with leadership for the first time since Sund’s resignation on Jan. 7. Acting Chief Pittman, Assistant Chief Chad Thomas and other senior officers were in attendance.

Loyd, the inspector who had thrown punches on the west front, was also there. McFaden had the sense that Loyd was only brought in to defuse tension with the union, which had more questions than leadership had answers.

Pittman acknowledged that the force was in a dark place and a culture change was sorely needed. But McFaden said the acting chief quickly became taciturn. When she was asked where she and her fellow chiefs were during the riot and why they weren’t on the radio, she dodged the question.

Meetings with union leadership usually last at least an hour, but after 30 minutes, McFaden said, Pittman got up to leave for another engagement.

The union leaders were enraged. They turned to Thomas and asked why he wasn’t on the radio that day.

“He said he was trying to do that for like 10 to 15 seconds, and he couldn’t get on the radio,” McFaden said. “This event lasted for hours. … I mean, come on.” Pittman and Thomas did not respond to calls for comment.

It was only through Pittman’s testimony at a closed Congressional briefing on Jan. 26 that most Capitol Police officers learned that the force did in fact have intelligence warnings of possible violence. She admitted that the department failed to adequately act on it.

The officers said they are still waiting for an apology. Many are looking for new jobs.

“Let’s face it. Now the whole world knows where the vulnerabilities of the Capitol are,” said one officer. “I don’t trust the people above me to make decisions to bring me home safe.”

Joaquin Sapien was one of the first reporters hired at ProPublica in its first year of publishing in 2008. Since then, his journalism has explored a broad range of topics, including criminal justice, social services, and the environment. In 2019, he was a co-producer and correspondent for “Right to Fail,” a film for the PBS documentary series Frontline.

Joshua Kaplan was a Senior Reporting Fellow at ProPublica. Previously, he wrote a column about criminal justice for the Washington City Paper, reporting on topics such as police misconduct during undercover prostitution stings and prosecutors’ tactics for depriving defendants of the right to a jury trial. He also reported on behavioral health care quality inside schools, psychiatric hospitals and addiction treatment facilities, including a series of investigations into mismanagement at D.C.’s Department of Behavioral Health.

Via ProPublica

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Harrowing New Audio Reveals Panic As Trump Mob Overran Capitol Police | Rachel Maddow | MSNBC

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“This Is War”: Inside the Secret Chat Where Far-Right Extremists Devised Their Post-Capitol Plans https://www.juancole.com/2021/02/extremists-devised-capitol.html Mon, 01 Feb 2021 05:01:10 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=195886

Chats from a private Telegram group obtained by ProPublica show how a suspect tied to the Jan. 6 insurrection tried to organize a self-styled militia. The hidden proliferation of such groups worries experts.

by Logan Jaffe and Jack Gillum | –

( ProPublica ) – When the FBI arrested Edward “Jake” Lang on Jan. 16 for his alleged role in the U.S. Capitol attack, court documents show agents had followed a seemingly straightforward trail from his public social media to collect evidence. “THIS IS ME,” Lang wrote over one video that showed an angry mob confronting police officers outside the Capitol. The same post showed him trashing a police riot shield.

The government charged Lang with committing assault and other crimes, but the account of his activities spelled out in court papers doesn’t mention how the 25-year-old spent the 10 days between the riots and his capture: recruiting militia members to take up arms against the incoming Biden administration by way of an invitation-only group on the messaging app Telegram.

“Everyone needs to get 5 patriots in this group tonight that’s the goal ?????,” Lang wrote in a chat on Jan. 9, one of more than 2,500 messages obtained by ProPublica. “We need each person to go out and fight for new members of this Militia like our lives depend on it.”

ProPublica gained access to the group after Lang sent an invitation to a reporter’s social media account. It’s unclear whether Lang knew he had invited a reporter, and the reporter joined but did not participate in the chats.

The group, created two days after the Jan. 6 attack, grew from a few dozen members to nearly 200 in just a week. There, safe from the deplatforming spree of mainstream social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, Lang set out to recruit “normies” and radicalize them to the point that they joined regional militia groups.

Lang’s conversations offer a window into how some of President Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters — still simmering over baseless allegations of election fraud — are finding new connections on messaging platforms that are largely hidden from public scrutiny. Unlike sites such as Facebook, Telegram is a messaging app where users can create large, invitation-only and encrypted chat groups, and it allows users to remain anonymous by hiding their phone numbers from one another. Within days of the riots, more than 25 million users globally joined Telegram, the company’s CEO said, although the U.S. accounts for a fraction of its user base. A company spokesman did not respond to questions from ProPublica.

The chats also make clear that at least some of those involved in the Capitol insurrection, despite a sweeping crackdown by U.S. law enforcement that has resulted in more than 160 cases, appear dedicated to planning and participating in further violence.

“This has been one of my concerns shorter-term: That folks who are more fervent are seeking each other out in a way that can lead to some short-term, violent outbursts,” said Amy Cooter, a senior lecturer of sociology at Vanderbilt University who has studied militia activity for more than a decade. Homeland Security officials on Wednesday warned of heightened threats of violence across the country from domestic extremists who felt emboldened by the Jan. 6 attack.

The FBI referred questions of whether the government was aware of Lang’s activities to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, which did not immediately return an inquiry seeking comment Wednesday.

A lawyer for Lang, Steven Metcalf, said he was not aware of his client’s private social media messages, including the Telegram group. Metcalf said he planned to enter a not-guilty plea and to contend that Lang was exercising his First Amendment right to free speech on Jan. 6.

After Lang’s arrest, his father, Ned Lang, told the local newspaper, the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, New York, that his son had struggled with substance abuse. “As a result, he has had numerous issues with law enforcement over the past 11 years and it has only gotten worse, as is evidenced by his most recent arrest and actions at our nation’s Capitol!” Ned Lang said in an emailed statement to the newspaper. “We are praying for my son that he conquers his addictions and finds a new path forward in his life!” Ned Lang did not respond to messages from ProPublica seeking comment.

Jake Lang’s public social media accounts depict him as an internet-savvy serial entrepreneur, with one now-defunct Instagram account, @jakevape, chronicling hashtagged trips to Coachella, California, and to Art Basel in Miami. Public records show he had moved through various business ventures, from one selling vaporizers to another selling custom baseball hats. For a time, he ran Social Model Management, which promised to help prospective models get “social media famous” by unlocking “industry secrets” that would triple their Instagram followers.

More recent social media posts by Lang acknowledged his struggle to stay sober and a deepening interest in religion. In an Instagram post from last year, tagged “#ChristEnergy,” Lang set goals for himself to memorize the Hebrew alphabet and stay kosher.

After his participation in the Capitol insurrection, Lang seemingly turned his online audience-building skills to a new mission: On the evening of Jan. 8, he turned to Instagram to send a round of invitations to join his private Telegram group, appealing to “patriots” willing to act locally and nationally as an armed paramilitary.

When new members joined the group, he emphasized they should remain anonymous by hiding their phone numbers and changing their usernames to “@Patriot[name].” He urged members to avoid chitchat and any specifics about future actions. Some floated gatherings on Inauguration Day or a few days before in state capitals, although others warned that protests on those days could be a trap. Participants were told they’d be vetted “to make sure they are who they claim to be,” wrote user Silence DoGood, before they were added to their local group chats by regional leaders.

Lang repeatedly used photos and videos of himself from the Capitol insurrection to stress the importance of military-style organization in future attacks.

“A woman just died in this video being trampled by DC police because we aren’t organized as patriots,” Lang posted on Jan. 10, an apparent reference to Rosanne Boyland, who died in a stampede at the Capitol. “This was my carnal cry for the real men to step up and help.”

Replied one member, who went by the username Tony Bologna: “Damn brother! Amen.”

“It was the first battle of the Second American Revolution- make no mistakes,” Lang continued. “This is WAR.” He posted a code of conduct in the group, as well as a set of meme-like instructions for members to prepare for a national “blackout,” buying long-range walkie-talkies and stocking up on guns, ammo and food.

“It’s really happening huh?” asked another user, Alastair. Lang replied with a video attachment, again of himself outside of the Capitol: “Do not be afraid of these tyrants.”

Some of the chat’s new recruits referred to Lang in language borrowed from the military. When one new member asked who the group’s leader was, another replied: “GENERAL JAKE??? Your soldiers are reporting for duty.”

One user, dubbed Nomad, appointed himself a regional organizer in western Michigan, while another volunteered to boost the group’s ranks in central Florida.

“This is grass roots,” wrote Patriot Captain RedorDead, who claimed to invite 20 prospective recruits from a local gym. “This is real.” Lang also encouraged recruiting at local gun shops.

He chastised members who veered into more social territory. “Guys please this is a MILITIA group to defend our country from communism – private message each other if you want to flirt. Only warning.”

While the idea was to organize a coherent strategy ahead of Jan. 20, when President Joe Biden would be sworn in, the group didn’t appear to coalesce around one. Lang offered few details: “The plan for now is to Martin Luther king style March on 17th and 20th, exercising our Rights (that means armed),” he wrote on Jan. 13. “Peace and God be the forefront of all of what we do. But we cannot not show up and appear weak! That is not an option.”

There’s no sign those in the chats took action on those days, but experts like Cooter warn against writing off their intentions as chatroom bluster. While most new online militia groups “are probably keyboard warriors and nothing more,” she cautioned, “we don’t know that for sure, and I don’t think we can be complacent about a real risk from even a small minority of such groups.”

Experts have warned about the dangers of online echo chambers for years, but deplatforming may bring other risks, said Josh Pasek, a political science and communication and media professor at the University of Michigan. “The concern is much larger if the selection of which platforms people are using in the first place is itself more polarized. The chance that they make themselves far more extreme is high.”

He added: “The Capitol riot isn’t the end of much. What happens online can move offline. We’ve seen way too many examples of that to ignore it at this point.”

By Jan. 18, word of Lang’s arrest reached the Telegram group users.

“Seems as though the FEDs aren’t fucking around…” wrote one member.

“Omg @patriotjake !!!” Patriot Jetaime wrote.

Some members left, but others vowed to stick around. “I’m still going to stay in the group in case he comes back, which is unlikely, but we may have to continue where he left off,” Patriot Zoomer said.

“The group is still here,” added PatriotLos. “Being patriotic is a lifestyle. Everyone has the capability to lead so don’t get lost.”

Doris Burke contributed reporting.

Do you have access to information about the Capitol attack that should be public? Emaillogan.jaffe@propublica.org. Here’s how tosend tips and documentsto ProPublica securely.

For more coverage, read ProPublica’sprevious reportingon efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Logan Jaffe is the engagement reporter for ProPublica Illinois. She comes to ProPublica by way of The New York Times and Chicago Public Media (WBEZ).

Jack Gillum is a senior reporter at ProPublica based in Washington, D.C., covering technology and privacy. He joined ProPublica in July 2018. Gillum came to ProPublica from The Washington Post, where he was part of the investigative team that dug into mismanaged taxpayer funds and troubled relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

Via ProPublica

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Feds: Capitol Hill Riot Is Emboldening Homegrown Extremists | The 11th Hour | MSNBC

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“No One Took Us Seriously”: Black Cops Warned About Racist Capitol Police Officers for Years https://www.juancole.com/2021/01/seriously-capitol-officers.html Sat, 16 Jan 2021 05:01:58 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=195568 By Joshua Kaplan and Joaquin Sapien

Allegations of racism against the Capitol Police are nothing new: Over 250 Black cops have sued the department since 2001. Some of those former officers now say it’s no surprise white nationalists were able to storm the building.

( ProPublica) – When Kim Dine took over as the new chief of the U.S. Capitol Police in 2012, he knew he had a serious problem.

Since 2001, hundreds of Black officers had sued the department for racial discrimination. They alleged that white officers called Black colleagues slurs like the N-word and that one officer found a hangman’s noose on his locker. White officers were called “huk lovers” or “FOGs” — short for “friends of gangsters” — if they were friendly with their Black colleagues. Black officers faced “unprovoked traffic stops” from fellow Capitol Police officers. One Black officer claimed he heard a colleague say, “Obama monkey, go back to Africa.”

In case after case, agency lawyers denied wrongdoing. But in an interview, Dine said it was clear he had to address the department’s charged racial climate. He said he promoted a Black officer to assistant chief, a first for the agency, and tried to increase diversity by changing the force’s hiring practices. He also said he hired a Black woman to lead a diversity office and created a new disciplinary body within the department, promoting a Black woman to lead it.

“There is a problem with racism in this country, in pretty much every establishment that exists,” said Dine, who left the agency in 2016. “You can always do more in retrospect.”

Whether the Capitol Police managed to root out racist officers will be one of many issues raised as Congress investigates the agency’s failure to prevent a mob of Trump supporters from attacking the Capitol while lawmakers inside voted to formalize the electoral victory of President-elect Joe Biden.

Already, officials have suspended several police officers for possible complicity with insurrectionists, one of whom was pictured waving a Confederate battle flag as he occupied the building. One cop was captured on tape seeming to take selfies with protesters, while another allegedly wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat as he directed protesters around the Capitol building. While many officers were filmed fighting off rioters, at least 12 others are under investigation for possibly assisting them.

Two current Black Capitol Police officers told BuzzFeed News that they were angered by leadership failures that they said put them at risk as racist members of the mob stormed the building. The Capitol Police force is only 29% Black in a city that’s 46% Black. By contrast, as of 2018, 52% of Washington Metropolitan police officers were Black. The Capitol Police are comparable to the Metropolitan force in spending, employing more than 2,300 people and boasting an annual budget of about a half-billion dollars.

The Capitol Police did not immediately respond to questions for this story.

Sharon Blackmon-Malloy, a former Capitol Police officer who was the lead plaintiff in the 2001 discrimination lawsuit filed against the department, said she was not surprised that pro-Trump rioters burst into the Capitol last week.

In her 25 years with the Capitol Police, Blackmon-Malloy spent decades trying to raise the alarm about what she saw as endemic racism within the force, even organizing demonstrations where Black officers would return to the Capitol off-duty, protesting outside the building they usually protect.

The 2001 case, which started with more than 250 plaintiffs, remains pending. As recently as 2016, a Black female officer filed a racial discrimination complaint against the department.

“Nothing ever really was resolved. Congress turned a blind eye to racism on the Hill,” Blackmon-Malloy, who retired as a lieutenant in 2007, told ProPublica. She is now vice president of the U.S. Capitol Black Police Association, which held 16 demonstrations protesting alleged discrimination between 2013 and 2018. “We got Jan. 6 because no one took us seriously.”

Retired Lt. Frank Adams sued the department in 2001 and again in 2012 for racial discrimination. A Black, 20-year veteran of the force, Adams supervised mostly white officers in the patrol division. He told ProPublica he endured or witnessed racism and sexism constantly. He said that before he joined the division, there was a policy he referred to as “meet and greet,” where officers were directed to stop any Black person on the Hill. He also said that in another unit, he once found a cartoon on his desk of a Black man ascending to heaven only to be greeted by a Ku Klux Klan wizard. When he complained to his superior officers, he said he was denied promotions and training opportunities, and suffered other forms of retaliation.

In an interview, he drew a direct line between racism in the Capitol Police and the events that unfolded last week. He blamed Congress for not listening to Black members of the force years ago.

“They only become involved in oversight when it’s in the news cycle,” said Adams, who retired in 2011. “They ignored the racism happening in the department. They ignored the hate.”

The department’s record in other areas of policing have drawn criticism as well.

In 2015, a man landed a gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn — top officials didn’t know the airborne activist was coming until minutes before he touched down. In 2013, when a lone gunman opened fire at the nearby Navy Yard, killing 12 people, the Capitol Police were criticized for standing on the sidelines. The force’s leadership board later determined its actions were justified.

Last month, days after a bloody clash on Dec. 12 between militant Trump supporters and counterprotesters, Melissa Byrne and Chibundu Nnake were entering the Capitol when they saw a strangely dressed man just outside the building, carrying a spear.

He was a figure they would come to recognize — Jacob Chansley, the QAnon follower in a Viking outfit who was photographed last week shouting from the dais of the Senate chamber.

They alerted the Capitol Police at the time, as the spear seemed to violate the complex’s weapons ban, but officers dismissed their concern, they said.

One officer told them that Chansley had been stopped earlier in the day, but that police “higher ups” had decided not to do anything about him.

We don’t “perceive it as a weapon,” Nnake recalled the officer saying of the spear.

Chansley told the Globe and Mail’s Adrian Morrow that Capitol Police had allowed him in the building on Jan. 6, which would normally include passing through a metal detector, although he was later charged with entering a restricted building without lawful authority, violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. As of Tuesday, he had not yet entered a plea.

For Byrne and Nnake, their interactions with the “QAnon Shaman” on Dec. 14 highlighted what they perceive as double standards in how the Capitol Police interact with the public.

Like many people who regularly encounter the force, Nnake and Byrne said they were accustomed to Capitol officers enforcing rules aggressively — later that day, Nnake was told that he would be tackled if he tried to advance beyond a certain point. “As a Black man, when I worked on the Hill, if I forgot a badge, I couldn’t get access anywhere,” he told ProPublica.

Congress, which controls the agency and its budget, has a mixed record of oversight. For the most part, Congress has been deferential toward the force, paying attention to its workings only after serious security failures, and even then, failing to meaningfully hold its leaders accountable.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat from D.C. who is a nonvoting member of Congress, told ProPublica she believes a national commission should be formed to investigate what occurred at the Capitol on Jan. 6, similar to what followed 9/11.

“Congress deserves some of the blame,” she told ProPublica. “We have complete control over the Capitol Police. … Long-term concerns with security have been raised, and they’ve not been dealt with in the past.”

The force has also suffered a spate of recent, internal scandals that may prove pertinent as Congress conducts its investigation.

Capitol Police officers accidently left several guns in bathrooms throughout the building in 2015 and 2019; in one instance, the loaded firearm was discovered by a small child.

The agency has been criticized for a lack of transparency for years. Capitol Police communications and documents are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and, unlike many local law enforcement agencies, it has no external watchdog specifically assigned to investigate and respond to community complaints. The force has not formally addressed the public since the riot last week.

“All law enforcement is opaque,” said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “At least most local police departments are subject to some kind of civilian oversight, but federal police agencies are left to operate in the shadows.”

The agency’s past troubles have rarely resulted in reform, critics said.

After the April 2015 gyrocopter incident, Congress held a hearing to examine how 61-year-old postal worker and activist Doug Hughes managed to land his aircraft after he livestreamed his flight. Dozens of reporters and news cameras assembled in front of the Capitol to watch the stunt, which was designed to draw attention to the influence of money in politics. Capitol Police did not learn of the incoming flight until a reporter reached out to them for comment, minutes before Hughes landed.

Dine defended the force’s response to the incident, pointing out that Hughes was promptly arrested and no one was hurt.

Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, then the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, harshly criticized the department and other federal agencies for what he perceived as an intelligence failure.

“The Capitol Police is terrible and pathetic when it comes to threat assessment,” Chaffetz told ProPublica in an interview. “They have a couple people dedicated to it, but they’re overwhelmed. Which drives me nuts. … It’s not been a priority for leadership, on both sides of the aisle.” He said he is not aware of any serious changes to the force’s intelligence gathering following the debacle.

Norton, who also pressed Dine at the hearing, told ProPublica the intelligence lapses surrounding the gyrocopter landing should be considered a “forerunner” to last week’s riot.

“For weeks, these people had been talking about coming to the Capitol to do as much harm as they can,” Norton said. “Everyone knew it. Except the Capitol Police.” Reports show the force had no contingency plan to deal with an escalation of violence and mayhem at last week’s rally, even though the FBI and the New York Police Department had warned them it could happen.

Law enforcement experts said that the agency is in a difficult position. While it has sole responsibility for protecting the Capitol, it must work with other nearby federal law enforcement agencies, Washington’s Metropolitan Police and the National Guard in case of emergencies.

In an interview, Nick Zotos, a former D.C. National Guard commander who now works for the Department of Homeland Security, said that the roughly two dozen agencies responsible for public safety in Washington can cause territorial disputes, finger-pointing and poor communication.

“This is not a D.C. thing, necessarily, although it’s probably the worst in D.C.,” Zotos said. “Police departments just don’t play with each other nicely.”

Blackmon-Malloy told ProPublica that divisions within the Capitol Police could be just as dangerous, not only for Congress but for Black officers themselves. “Now you got to go to work on the 20th,” she told ProPublica, alluding to the inauguration. “And stand next to someone who you don’t even know if they have your back.”

Via ProPublica

Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

ProPublica: “New Parler Video Shows Tense Confrontation Between Rioters and Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman”

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The Trump Administration’s Final Push to Make It Easier for Religious Employers to Discriminate https://www.juancole.com/2021/01/administrations-religious-discriminate.html Sun, 03 Jan 2021 05:14:32 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=195300 By Lydia DePillis | –

Last-minute policies on religious freedom clear the way for employers to hire on the basis of faith. Some of the changes won’t be easy for Biden to undo.

( ProPublica ) – It was the hectic week before Thanksgiving, and Amrith Kaur — the legal director of an advocacy group called the Sikh Coalition — was not prepared for a surprise update from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that could have dramatic consequences for her clients.

With little warning, the EEOC published a 112-page overhaul of its guidance on religious discrimination in the workplace. The feedback period was proceeding with no time to spare — she would have to file any comments by Dec. 17.

“To my knowledge, that was the first time that pretty much everybody heard about it,” said Kaur, who was busy handling home schooling for her children, ages 8 and 10, when the announcement popped up. “There’s so much happening, and I think it’s very strategic the way this was brought out.”

The guidance is among scores of last-minute actions that ProPublica is tracking on their way through the approval process, many of them accelerating as it became clear that President Donald Trump’s time in office would end on Jan. 20.

The EEOC’s guidance explains the complicated statutes and legal precedent that govern how employers must deal with religious freedom issues in the workplace. It doesn’t have the force of law, but it can be cited in lawsuits, and it serves as a manual for managers navigating thorny situations.

As she dug into the document’s dense language and footnotes, Kaur was particularly distressed because of what she found to be a slant toward large Christian employers like colleges and social service agencies, rather than smaller religions like Sikhism, which face widespread prejudice. For example, in recent days, she’s had to focus on advising health care workers who keep long beards as part of their religious practice. Some hospitals and nursing homes ban facial hair to ensure a proper fit for face masks, but Kaur has been able to work out accommodations that are both COVID-19-safe and allow medical staff to observe their faith — which the new guidance doesn’t address.

As the comment period ended, dozens of other civil rights groups and Democratic leaders filed letters appealing for more time and agreeing that the new guidance could allow for more discrimination under the guise of religious freedom, rather than less.

Unlike many midnight regulations that President-elect Joe Biden could roll back, the EEOC commissioners have multiyear terms, so the Biden administration won’t be able to change the board’s composition until 2022. Meanwhile, Kaur fears that adverse case law could accumulate. “It is our belief that these proposed changes in the manual, and what I think is a clear bias towards Christian viewpoints at the expense of all others, it’s just going to have profound negative effects for years to come,” she said.

Most administrations kick rule-making into high gear once they know their party is leaving the White House, and Trump’s is no exception. A flood of new entries in the Federal Register includes several rules and guidance documents that widen lanes for religious institutions to exclude those who do not share their faith, or narrow the options for beneficiaries of federal programs who feel uncomfortable receiving services in a religious context.

Some of the freshly finalized rules codify an executive order that Trump issued in 2018 declaring that faith-based organizations should have full access to government grant programs without having to modify their operations. They deliver on the promises that Trump made to evangelical Christians during his presidential run, and which he and Vice President Mike Pence campaigned on again in 2020 — the White House’s website contains 228 mentions of “religious freedom,” in posted speeches, press releases and other official statements.

Earlier in the term, Trump’s religious freedom agenda focused on the Department of Health and Human Services, which adopted a rule that protects health care providers who object to certain procedures — namely abortion — on religious grounds, among a host of other actions. Even now, HHS is witholding funds from states that require their insurance plans to cover abortion.

Later, Trump moved on to further integrating religious organizations into the operations of government itself.

In an October interview with the Religion News Service, Trump touted his administration’s work to install religious freedom liaisons in every Cabinet agency. “Led by Pastor Paula White, this Initiative is working to remove barriers which have unfairly prevented faith based organizations from working with or receiving funding from the federal government,” Trump said in a written Q&A.

On that front, the first big change finalized Dec. 7 was at the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, an agency within the Labor Department that enforces compliance with civil rights laws among recipients of federal dollars. The new rule clarifies that private companies can qualify as “religious employers” under certain conditions, and that religious employers may deny positions to people who do not subscribe and adhere to their faith. That could include not hiring people in same-sex relationships or someone of a different religion.

Advocates for marginalized communities say that the rules open the door for religious institutions to use faith as a pretext for firing or simply declining to hire people whom they would prefer not to employ because of other factors — such as sexual orientation or medical disability — even though discriminating on those bases is still illegal.

“If that employer just throws up their hands and says ‘RFRA!’ it’s like a get out of jail free card,” said Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow, referring to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law that strengthened the test for what can be considered a burden on the free exercise of religion.

Religious employers say that situation likely won’t occur often, but they still supported the change. Jamison Coppola, legislative director of the American Association of Christian Schools, said that most people who work for his member institutions accept that abiding by faith-based principles is part of the deal.

“It’s a rare occurrence where people enter an employment decision and then realize, ‘Oh, I guess we have some difference of opinion about this,’” Coppola said. “I just think that we don’t run into it that often, because of how we approach the totality of what we’re trying to do as an assembly of believers.”

Among the largest supporters of the rule was Catholic Charities, which, according to USAspending.gov, received approximately $189 million in federal contracts and grants in 2020 across all of its affiliated organizations.

The second change, finalized a few days later after a lightning-fast trip through the Office of Management and Budget, was a joint effort of nine agencies that elaborated on the religious freedom exemptions for recipients of their own spending. It gets rid of the earlier requirement that religious providers of federally funded social services, from food banks to job training, provide referrals to secular alternatives. In the case of “indirect” aid that travels with the beneficiary, like child care and housing vouchers, it eliminates the requirement that there must be a secular option available.

The concerns with those rules center around the possible exclusion of people who may feel uncomfortable getting aid in an explicitly religious setting, even if providers are not allowed to proselytize as part of the programming.

“They are really putting what they believe are the interests of these large social service providers ahead of the people who receive the service,” said Maggie Garrett, vice president of public policy at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Their priority is not the LGBTQ youth who is seeking services because they were kicked out of their home.”

Not all religious organizations — or even Christian organizations — support the changes. Some have recommended that the requirements for secular alternatives be kept because of the delicate political balancing that has gone into these rules over the years.

“It eased peoples’ conscience or concerns about having more faith-based groups be involved in these services,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder and senior director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, which represents Christian employers. Now, he fears a backlash.

“I personally don’t know of anybody who was asking for this change, but there it is, and I don’t think it’s a good change,” Carlson-Thies said. “And I think that one thing that’s going to happen is that the next administration is going to go through a regulatory process and take those out, and they’ll do other things too that to my mind won’t be so positive.”

Finally, the Trump administration is moving forward with its guidance for all employers, whether they contract with the federal government or not, through the EEOC.

The last time the agency updated its religious freedom guidance, in 2008, it went through an expansive, yearslong process that incorporated feedback from a panoply of groups that represent faith communities and those impacted by them, such as advocates for LGBTQ people and women’s reproductive rights.

Trump’s EEOC has shifted its emphasis toward supporting the rights of religious employers and employees. For example, it took up the case of two Kroger employees who were fired after they objected to wearing a rainbow heart emblem on their uniforms, which they interpreted as a symbol of support for gay rights.

In a November online forum hosted by the conservative Federalist Society, EEOC General Counsel Sharon Fast Gustafson articulated the new focus. “The EEOC has an interest in the courts getting all aspects of employment discrimination right, whether getting it right helps the employee, or whether getting it right helps the employer,” she said. “Religious liberty has been a high priority for the current administration, where everyone I have spoken with has been unequivocally supportive of religious liberty for all.”

However, many religious groups felt left out of the process that led to the EEOC’s new guidance.

The updates were put together in the wake of a landmark Supreme Court decision in June that declared gender identity and sexual orientation to be protected classes in an employment context, making it much more difficult to discriminate against gay, lesbian or transgender people in the workplace. EEOC spokeswoman Christine Nazer said the new guidance was drafted by the agency’s office of legal counsel, with no input from external stakeholders.

Many groups that closely track religious freedom issues found out about the updates during a three-day listening session convened by the commission’s Religious Freedom Work Group, which is led by Assistant General Counsel Christine Lambrou Johnson. According to her LinkedIn profile, Lambrou Johnson is a member of the Christian Legal Society, which describes itself as “a fellowship of Christians dedicated to serving Jesus Christ through the practice and study of law, the defense of religious freedom and life, and the provision of legal aid to the needy.”

Nazer said the Religious Freedom Work Group’s duties are separate from the development of the guidance, and that the commission voted to publish the guidance for public comment on Nov. 9, giving additional time for discussion. But at that meeting, the body’s two Democratic commissioners said that they hadn’t had enough time to provide input or that it was rejected by the commission’s Republican members. The Democratic commissioners also raised questions about the legal soundness of some of the guidance’s interpretations and pleaded for the vote to be delayed. It wasn’t.

In addition to liberally interpreting exemptions from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for religious employers to hire and fire on religious grounds, the guidance also raises the bar for intervention when one employee might be harassing another on religious grounds. And it says little about some of the common questions raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the Sikh nurses that Kaur has been helping negotiate accommodations with hospitals, which would be easier if the EEOC had set out a clear position.

In response to these concerns, Nazer said that the commission is “carefully considering all of the comments provided to us by our stakeholders as we finalize the guidance.”

Kaur is not comforted.

“Manuals like this, that are sort of taken as law even though they’re not, are what our government is going to rely on to make a decision on whether discrimination took place,” Kaur said. “We have the Title VII protections in the Civil Rights Act for a reason, and to try and decimate it in a way that’s not supported by the law is a sad and disappointing attempt at getting around having to be fair to everybody.”

Via ProPublica

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Bonus Video | –

The Atlantic – Trump’s new religious exemptions for employers an invitation to discriminate, critics say

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