ProPublica – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 17 Apr 2023 03:42:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Undisclosed: Billionaire Harlan Crow bought House from Clarence Thomas where Justice’s Mother Lives Mon, 17 Apr 2023 04:06:31 +0000 By Justin Elliott, Joshua Kaplan and Alex Mierjeski

The transaction is the first known instance of money flowing from Crow to the Supreme Court justice. The sale netted the GOP megadonor two vacant lots and the house where Thomas’ mother was living.

( ProPublica ) – In 2014, one of Texas billionaire Harlan Crow’s companies purchased a string of properties on a quiet residential street in Savannah, Georgia. It wasn’t a marquee acquisition for the real estate magnate, just an old single-story home and two vacant lots down the road. What made it noteworthy were the people on the other side of the deal: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his relatives.

The transaction marks the first known instance of money flowing from the Republican megadonor to the Supreme Court justice. The Crow company bought the properties for $133,363 from three co-owners — Thomas, his mother and the family of Thomas’ late brother, according to a state tax document and a deed dated Oct. 15, 2014, filed at the Chatham County courthouse.

The purchase put Crow in an unusual position: He now owned the house where the justice’s elderly mother was living. Soon after the sale was completed, contractors began work on tens of thousands of dollars of improvements on the two-bedroom, one-bathroom home, which looks out onto a patch of orange trees. The renovations included a carport, a repaired roof and a new fence and gates, according to city permit records and blueprints.

A federal disclosure law passed after Watergate requires justices and other officials to disclose the details of most real estate sales over $1,000. Thomas never disclosed his sale of the Savannah properties. That appears to be a violation of the law, four ethics law experts told ProPublica.

The disclosure form Thomas filed for that year also had a space to report the identity of the buyer in any private transaction, such as a real estate deal. That space is blank.

“He needed to report his interest in the sale,” said Virginia Canter, a former government ethics lawyer now at the watchdog group CREW. “Given the role Crow has played in subsidizing the lifestyle of Thomas and his wife, you have to wonder if this was an effort to put cash in their pockets.”

Thomas did not respond to detailed questions for this story.

In a statement, Crow said he purchased Thomas’ mother’s house, where Thomas spent part of his childhood, to preserve it for posterity. “My intention is to one day create a public museum at the Thomas home dedicated to telling the story of our nation’s second black Supreme Court Justice,” he said. “I approached the Thomas family about my desire to maintain this historic site so future generations could learn about the inspiring life of one of our greatest Americans.”

Crow’s statement did not directly address why he also bought two vacant lots from Thomas down the street. But he wrote that “the other lots were later sold to a vetted builder who was committed to improving the quality of the neighborhood and preserving its historical integrity.”

ProPublica also asked Crow about the additions on Thomas’ mother’s house, like the new carport. “Improvements were also made to the Thomas property to preserve its long-term viability and accessibility to the public,” Crow said.

Ethics law experts said Crow’s intentions had no bearing on Thomas’ legal obligation to disclose the sale.

The justice’s failure to report the transaction suggests “Thomas was hiding a financial relationship with Crow,” said Kathleen Clark, a legal ethics expert at Washington University in St. Louis who reviewed years of Thomas’ disclosure filings.

There are a handful of carve-outs in the disclosure law. For example, if someone sells “property used solely as a personal residence of the reporting individual or the individual’s spouse,” they don’t need to report it. Experts said the exemptions clearly did not apply to Thomas’ sale.

The revelation of a direct financial transaction between Thomas and Crow casts their relationship in a new light. ProPublica reported last week that Thomas has accepted luxury travel from Crow virtually every year for decades, including private jet flights, international cruises on the businessman’s superyacht and regular stays at his private resort in the Adirondacks. Crow has long been influential in conservative politics and has spent millions on efforts to shape the law and the judiciary. The story prompted outcry and calls for investigations from Democratic lawmakers.

In response to that reporting, both Thomas and Crow released statements downplaying the significance of the gifts. Thomas also maintained that he wasn’t required to disclose the trips.

“Harlan and Kathy Crow are among our dearest friends,” Thomas wrote. “As friends do, we have joined them on a number of family trips.” Crow told ProPublica that his gifts to Thomas were “no different from the hospitality we have extended to our many other dear friends.”

It’s unclear if Crow paid fair market value for the Thomas properties. Crow also bought several other properties on the street and paid significantly less than his deal with the Thomases. One example: In 2013, he bought a pair of properties on the same block — a vacant lot and a small house — for a total of $40,000.

In his statement, Crow said his company purchased the properties “at market rate based on many factors including the size, quality, and livability of the dwellings.”

He did not respond to requests to provide documentation or details of how he arrived at the price.

Thomas was born in the coastal hamlet of Pin Point, outside Savannah. He later moved to the city, where he spent part of his childhood in his grandfather’s home on East 32nd Street.

“It had hardwood floors, handsome furniture, and an indoor bathroom, and we knew better than to touch anything,” Thomas wrote of the house in his memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son.”

He inherited his stake in that house and two other properties on the block following the death of his grandfather in 1983, according to records on file at the Chatham County courthouse. He shared ownership with his brother and his mother, Leola Williams. In the late 1980s, when Thomas was an official in the George H.W. Bush administration, he listed the addresses of the three properties in a disclosure filing. He reported that he had a one-third interest in them.

Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1991. By the early 2000s, he had stopped listing specific addresses of property he owned in his disclosures. But he continued to report holding a one-third interest in what he described as “rental property at ## 1, 2, & 3” in Savannah. He valued his stake in the properties at $15,000 or less.

Two of the houses were torn down around 2010, according to property records and a footnote in Thomas’ annual disclosure archived by Free Law Project.

In 2014, the Thomas family sold the vacant lots and the remaining East 32nd Street house to one of Crow’s companies. The justice signed the paperwork personally. His signature was notarized by an administrator at the Supreme Court, ​​Perry Thompson, who did not respond to a request for comment. (The deed was signed on the 23rd anniversary of Thomas’ Oct. 15 confirmation to the Supreme Court. Crow has a Senate roll call sheet from the confirmation vote in his private library.)

Thomas’ financial disclosure for that year is detailed, listing everything from a “stained glass medallion” he received from Yale to a life insurance policy. But he failed to report his sale to Crow.

Crow purchased the properties through a recently formed Texas company called Savannah Historic Developments LLC. The company shares an address in Dallas with Crow Holdings, the centerpiece of his real estate empire. Its formation documents were signed by Crow Holdings’ general counsel. Business records filed with the Texas secretary of state say Savannah Historic Developments is managed by a Delaware LLC, HRC Family Branch GP, an umbrella company that also covers other Crow assets like his private jet. The Delaware company’s CEO is Harlan Crow.

A Crow Holdings company soon began paying the roughly $1,500 in annual property taxes on Thomas’ mother’s house, according to county tax records. The taxes had previously been paid by Clarence and Ginni Thomas.

Crow still owns Thomas’ mother’s home, which the now-94-year-old continued to live in through at least 2020, according to public records and social media. Two neighbors told ProPublica she still lives there. Crow did not respond to questions about whether he has charged her rent. Soon after Crow purchased the house, an award-winning local architecture firm received permits to begin $36,000 of improvements.

Crow’s purchases seem to have played a role in transforming the block. The billionaire eventually sold most of the other properties he bought to new owners who built upscale modern homes, including the two vacant lots he purchased from Thomas.

Crow also bought the house immediately next door to Thomas’ mother, which was owned by somebody else and had been known for parties and noise, according to property records and W. John Mitchell, former president of a nearby neighborhood association. Soon the house was torn down. “It was an eyesore,” Mitchell said. “One day miraculously all of them were put out of there and they scraped it off the earth.”

“The surrounding properties had fallen into disrepair and needed to be demolished for health and safety reasons,” Crow said in his statement. He added that his company built one new house on the block “and made it available to a local police officer.”

Today, the block is composed of a dwindling number of longtime elderly homeowners and a growing population of young newcomers. The vacant lots that the Thomas family once owned have been replaced by pristine two-story homes. An artisanal coffee shop and a Mediterranean bistro are within walking distance. Down the street, a multicolored pride flag blows in the wind.

Via ProPublica

Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire Sat, 08 Apr 2023 04:04:40 +0000 By Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott and Alex Mierjeski

( ProPublica) – In late June 2019, right after the U.S. Supreme Court released its final opinion of the term, Justice Clarence Thomas boarded a large private jet headed to Indonesia. He and his wife were going on vacation: nine days of island-hopping in a volcanic archipelago on a superyacht staffed by a coterie of attendants and a private chef.

If Thomas had chartered the plane and the 162-foot yacht himself, the total cost of the trip could have exceeded $500,000. Fortunately for him, that wasn’t necessary: He was on vacation with real estate magnate and Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, who owned the jet — and the yacht, too.

For more than two decades, Thomas has accepted luxury trips virtually every year from the Dallas businessman without disclosing them, documents and interviews show. A public servant who has a salary of $285,000, he has vacationed on Crow’s superyacht around the globe. He flies on Crow’s Bombardier Global 5000 jet. He has gone with Crow to the Bohemian Grove, the exclusive California all-male retreat, and to Crow’s sprawling ranch in East Texas. And Thomas typically spends about a week every summer at Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks.

The extent and frequency of Crow’s apparent gifts to Thomas have no known precedent in the modern history of the U.S. Supreme Court.

These trips appeared nowhere on Thomas’ financial disclosures. His failure to report the flights appears to violate a law passed after Watergate that requires justices, judges, members of Congress and federal officials to disclose most gifts, two ethics law experts said. He also should have disclosed his trips on the yacht, these experts said.

Thomas did not respond to a detailed list of questions.

In a statement, Crow acknowledged that he’d extended “hospitality” to the Thomases “over the years,” but said that Thomas never asked for any of it and it was “no different from the hospitality we have extended to our many other dear friends.”

Through his largesse, Crow has gained a unique form of access, spending days in private with one of the most powerful people in the country. By accepting the trips, Thomas has broken long-standing norms for judges’ conduct, ethics experts and four current or retired federal judges said.

“It’s incomprehensible to me that someone would do this,” said Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge appointed by President Bill Clinton. When she was on the bench, Gertner said, she was so cautious about appearances that she wouldn’t mention her title when making dinner reservations: “It was a question of not wanting to use the office for anything other than what it was intended.”

Virginia Canter, a former government ethics lawyer who served in administrations of both parties, said Thomas “seems to have completely disregarded his higher ethical obligations.”

“When a justice’s lifestyle is being subsidized by the rich and famous, it absolutely corrodes public trust,” said Canter, now at the watchdog group CREW. “Quite frankly, it makes my heart sink.”

ProPublica uncovered the details of Thomas’ travel by drawing from flight records, internal documents distributed to Crow’s employees and interviews with dozens of people ranging from his superyacht’s staff to members of the secretive Bohemian Club to an Indonesian scuba diving instructor.

Federal judges sit in a unique position of public trust. They have lifetime tenure, a privilege intended to insulate them from the pressures and potential corruption of politics. A code of conduct for federal judges below the Supreme Court requires them to avoid even the “appearance of impropriety.” Members of the high court, Chief Justice John Roberts has written, “consult” that code for guidance. The Supreme Court is left almost entirely to police itself.

There are few restrictions on what gifts justices can accept. That’s in contrast to the other branches of government. Members of Congress are generally prohibited from taking gifts worth $50 or more and would need pre-approval from an ethics committee to take many of the trips Thomas has accepted from Crow.

Thomas’ approach to ethics has already attracted public attention. Last year, Thomas didn’t recuse himself from cases that touched on the involvement of his wife, Ginni, in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. While his decision generated outcry, it could not be appealed.

Crow met Thomas after he became a justice. The pair have become genuine friends, according to people who know both men. Over the years, some details of Crow’s relationship with the Thomases have emerged. In 2011, The New York Times reported on Crow’s generosity toward the justice. That same year, Politico revealed that Crow had given half a million dollars to a Tea Party group founded by Ginni Thomas, which also paid her a $120,000 salary. But the full scale of Crow’s benefactions has never been revealed.

Long an influential figure in pro-business conservative politics, Crow has spent millions on ideological efforts to shape the law and the judiciary. Crow and his firm have not had a case before the Supreme Court since Thomas joined it, though the court periodically hears major cases that directly impact the real estate industry. The details of his discussions with Thomas over the years remain unknown, and it is unclear if Crow has had any influence on the justice’s views.

In his statement, Crow said that he and his wife have never discussed a pending or lower court case with Thomas. “We have never sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue,” he added.

In Thomas’ public appearances over the years, he has presented himself as an everyman with modest tastes.

“I don’t have any problem with going to Europe, but I prefer the United States, and I prefer seeing the regular parts of the United States,” Thomas said in a recent interview for a documentary about his life, which Crow helped finance.

“I prefer the RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that. There’s something normal to me about it,” Thomas said. “I come from regular stock, and I prefer that — I prefer being around that.”

“You Don’t Need to Worry About This — It’s All Covered”

Crow’s private lakeside resort, Camp Topridge, sits in a remote corner of the Adirondacks in upstate New York. Closed off from the public by ornate wooden gates, the 105-acre property, once the summer retreat of the same heiress who built Mar-a-Lago, features an artificial waterfall and a great hall where Crow’s guests are served meals prepared by private chefs. Inside, there’s clear evidence of Crow and Thomas’ relationship: a painting of the two men at the resort, sitting outdoors smoking cigars alongside conservative political operatives. A statue of a Native American man, arms outstretched, stands at the center of the image, which is photographic in its clarity.

The painting captures a scene from around five years ago, said Sharif Tarabay, the artist who was commissioned by Crow to paint it. Thomas has been vacationing at Topridge virtually every summer for more than two decades, according to interviews with more than a dozen visitors and former resort staff, as well as records obtained by ProPublica. He has fished with a guide hired by Crow and danced at concerts put on by musicians Crow brought in. Thomas has slept at perhaps the resort’s most elegant accommodation, an opulent lodge overhanging Upper St. Regis Lake.

The mountainous area draws billionaires from across the globe. Rooms at a nearby hotel built by the Rockefellers start at $2,250 a night. Crow’s invitation-only resort is even more exclusive. Guests stay for free, enjoying Topridge’s more than 25 fireplaces, three boathouses, clay tennis court and batting cage, along with more eccentric features: a lifesize replica of the Harry Potter character Hagrid’s hut, bronze statues of gnomes and a 1950s-style soda fountain where Crow’s staff fixes milkshakes.

Crow’s access to the justice extends to anyone the businessman chooses to invite along. Thomas’ frequent vacations at Topridge have brought him into contact with corporate executives and political activists.

During just one trip in July 2017, Thomas’ fellow guests included executives at Verizon and PricewaterhouseCoopers, major Republican donors and one of the leaders of the American Enterprise Institute, a pro-business conservative think tank, according to records reviewed by ProPublica. The painting of Thomas at Topridge shows him in conversation with Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society leader regarded as an architect of the Supreme Court’s recent turn to the right.

In his statement to ProPublica, Crow said he is “unaware of any of our friends ever lobbying or seeking to influence Justice Thomas on any case, and I would never invite anyone who I believe had any intention of doing that.”

“These are gatherings of friends,” Crow said.

Crow has deep connections in conservative politics. The heir to a real estate fortune, Crow oversees his family’s business empire and recently named Marxism as his greatest fear. He was an early patron of the powerful anti-tax group Club for Growth and has been on the board of AEI for over 25 years. He also sits on the board of the Hoover Institution, another conservative think tank.

A major Republican donor for decades, Crow has given more than $10 million in publicly disclosed political contributions. He’s also given to groups that keep their donors secret — how much of this so-called dark money he’s given and to whom are not fully known. “I don’t disclose what I’m not required to disclose,” Crow once told the Times.

Crow has long supported efforts to move the judiciary to the right. He has donated to the Federalist Society and given millions of dollars to groups dedicated to tort reform and conservative jurisprudence. AEI and the Hoover Institution publish scholarship advancing conservative legal theories, and fellows at the think tanks occasionally file amicus briefs with the Supreme Court.

On the court since 1991, Thomas is a deeply conservative jurist known for his “originalism,” an approach that seeks to adhere to close readings of the text of the Constitution. While he has been resolute in this general approach, his views on specific matters have sometimes evolved. Recently, Thomas harshly criticized one of his own earlier opinions as he embraced a legal theory, newly popular on the right, that would limit government regulation. Small evolutions in a justice’s thinking or even select words used in an opinion can affect entire bodies of law, and shifts in Thomas’ views can be especially consequential. He’s taken unorthodox legal positions that have been adopted by the court’s majority years down the line.

Soon after Crow met Thomas three decades ago, he began lavishing the justice with gifts, including a $19,000 Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass, which Thomas disclosed. Recently, Crow gave Thomas a portrait of the justice and his wife, according to Tarabay, who painted it. Crow’s foundation also gave $105,000 to Yale Law School, Thomas’ alma mater, for the “Justice Thomas Portrait Fund,” tax filings show.

Crow said that he and his wife have funded a number of projects that celebrate Thomas. “We believe it is important to make sure as many people as possible learn about him, remember him and understand the ideals for which he stands,” he said.

To trace Thomas’ trips around the world on Crow’s superyacht, ProPublica spoke to more than 15 former yacht workers and tour guides and obtained records documenting the ship’s travels.

On the Indonesia trip in the summer of 2019, Thomas flew to the country on Crow’s jet, according to another passenger on the plane. Clarence and Ginni Thomas were traveling with Crow and his wife, Kathy. Crow’s yacht, the Michaela Rose, decked out with motorboats and a giant inflatable rubber duck, met the travelers at a fishing town on the island of Flores.

Touring the Lesser Sunda Islands, the group made stops at Komodo National Park, home of the eponymous reptiles; at the volcanic lakes of Mount Kelimutu; and at Pantai Meko, a spit of pristine beach accessible only by boat. Another guest was Mark Paoletta, a friend of the Thomases then serving as the general counsel of the Office of Management and Budget in the administration of President Donald Trump.

Paoletta was bound by executive branch ethics rules at the time and told ProPublica that he discussed the trip with an ethics lawyer at his agency before accepting the Crows’ invitation. “Based on that counsel’s advice, I reimbursed Harlan for the costs,” Paoletta said in an email. He did not respond to a question about how much he paid Crow.

(Paoletta has long been a pugnacious defender of Thomas and recently testified before Congress against strengthening judicial ethics rules. “There is nothing wrong with ethics or recusals at the Supreme Court,” he said, adding, “To support any reform legislation right now would be to validate these vicious political attacks on the Supreme Court,” referring to criticism of Thomas and his wife.)

The Indonesia vacation wasn’t Thomas’ first time on the Michaela Rose. He went on a river day trip around Savannah, Georgia, and an extended cruise in New Zealand roughly a decade ago.

As a token of his appreciation, he gave one yacht worker a copy of his memoir. Thomas signed the book: “Thank you so much for all your hard work on our New Zealand adventure.”

Crow’s policy was that guests didn’t pay, former Michaela Rose staff said. “You don’t need to worry about this — it’s all covered,” one recalled the guests being told.

There’s evidence Thomas has taken even more trips on the superyacht. Crow often gave his guests custom polo shirts commemorating their vacations, according to staff. ProPublica found photographs of Thomas wearing at least two of those shirts. In one, he wears a blue polo shirt embroidered with the Michaela Rose’s logo and the words “March 2007” and “Greek Islands.”

Thomas didn’t report any of the trips ProPublica identified on his annual financial disclosures. Ethics experts said the law clearly requires disclosure for private jet flights and Thomas appears to have violated it.

Justices are generally required to publicly report all gifts worth more than $415, defined as “anything of value” that isn’t fully reimbursed. There are exceptions: If someone hosts a justice at their own property, free food and lodging don’t have to be disclosed. That would exempt dinner at a friend’s house. The exemption never applied to transportation, such as private jet flights, experts said, a fact that was made explicit in recently updated filing instructions for the judiciary.

Two ethics law experts told ProPublica that Thomas’ yacht cruises, a form of transportation, also required disclosure.

“If Justice Thomas received free travel on private planes and yachts, failure to report the gifts is a violation of the disclosure law,” said Kedric Payne, senior director for ethics at the nonprofit government watchdog Campaign Legal Center. (Thomas himself once reported receiving a private jet trip from Crow, on his disclosure for 1997.)

The experts said Thomas’ stays at Topridge may have required disclosure too, in part because Crow owns it not personally but through a company. Until recently, the judiciary’s ethics guidance didn’t explicitly address the ownership issue. The recent update to the filing instructions clarifies that disclosure is required for such stays.

How many times Thomas failed to disclose trips remains unclear. Flight records from the Federal Aviation Administration and FlightAware suggest he makes regular use of Crow’s plane. The jet often follows a pattern: from its home base in Dallas to Washington Dulles airport for a brief stop, then on to a destination Thomas is visiting and back again.

ProPublica identified five such trips in addition to the Indonesia vacation.

On July 7 last year, Crow’s jet made a 40-minute stop at Dulles and then flew to a small airport near Topridge, returning to Dulles six days later. Thomas was at the resort that week for his regular summer visit, according to a person who was there. Twice in recent years, the jet has followed the pattern when Thomas appeared at Crow’s properties in Dallas — once for the Jan. 4, 2018, swearing-in of Fifth Circuit Judge James Ho at Crow’s private library and again for a conservative think tank conference Crow hosted last May.

Thomas has even used the plane for a three-hour trip. On Feb. 11, 2016, the plane flew from Dallas to Dulles to New Haven, Connecticut, before flying back later that afternoon. ProPublica confirmed that Thomas was on the jet through Supreme Court security records obtained by the nonprofit Fix the Court, private jet data, a New Haven plane spotter and another person at the airport. There are no reports of Thomas making a public appearance that day, and the purpose of the trip remains unclear.

Jet charter companies told ProPublica that renting an equivalent plane for the New Haven trip could cost around $70,000.

On the weekend of Oct. 16, 2021, Crow’s jet repeated the pattern. That weekend, Thomas and Crow traveled to a Catholic cemetery in a bucolic suburb of New York City. They were there for the unveiling of a bronze statue of the justice’s beloved eighth grade teacher, a nun, according to Catholic Cemetery magazine.

As Thomas spoke from a lectern, the monument towered over him, standing 7 feet tall and weighing 1,800 pounds, its granite base inscribed with words his teacher once told him. Thomas told the nuns assembled before him, “This extraordinary statue is dedicated to you sisters.”

He also thanked the donors who paid for the statue: Harlan and Kathy Crow.

Via ProPublica

Inside the “Private and Confidential” Conservative Group That Promises to “Crush Liberal Dominance” Sat, 11 Mar 2023 05:02:32 +0000 by Andy Kroll and Andrea Bernstein, ProPublica, and Nick Surgey, Documented

( ProPublica ) – A few months ago, Leonard Leo laid out his next audacious project.

Ever since the longtime Federalist Society leader helped create a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court, and then received more than a billion dollars from a wealthy Chicago business owner to disburse to conservative causes, Leo’s next moves had been the subject of speculation.

Leonard Leo, a key architect of the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority, is now the chairman of Teneo Network, a group that aims to influence all aspects of American politics and culture.

Now, Leo declared in a slick but private video to potential donors, he planned to “crush liberal dominance” across American life. The country was plagued by “woke-ism” in corporations and education, “one-sided journalism” and “entertainment that’s really corrupting our youth,” said Leo amid snippets of cheery music and shots of sunsets and American flags.

Sitting tucked into a couch, with wire-rimmed glasses and hair gone to gray, Leo conveyed his inspiration and intentions: “I just said to myself, ‘Well, if this can work for law, why can’t it work for lots of other areas of American culture and American life where things are really messed up right now?’”

Leo revealed his latest battle plan in the previously unreported video for the Teneo Network, a little-known group he called “a tremendously important resource for the future of our country.”

Teneo is building what Leo called in the video “networks of conservatives that can roll back” liberal influence in Wall Street and Silicon Valley, among authors and academics, with pro athletes and Hollywood producers. A Federalist Society for everything.

Despite its linchpin role in Leo’s plans, Teneo (which is not the similarly named consulting firm associated with former officials in the Bill Clinton administration) has kept a low public profile. Its one-page website includes bland slogans — “Timeless ideas. Fresh approach” — and scant details. Its co-founder described Teneo as “private and confidential” in one presentation, and the group doesn’t disclose the vast majority of its members or its funders.

But ProPublica and Documented have obtained more than 50 hours of internal Teneo videos and hundreds of pages of documents that reveal the organization’s ambitious agenda, influential membership and burgeoning clout. We have also interviewed Teneo members and people familiar with the group’s activities. The videos, documents and interviews provide an unfiltered look at the lens through which the group views the power of the left — and how it plans to combat it.

In response to questions for this story, Leo said in a statement: “Teneo’s young membership proves that the conservative movement is poised to be even more talented, driven, and successful in the future. This is a group that knows how to build winning teams.”

The records show Teneo’s members have included a host of prominent names from the conservative vanguard, including such elected officials as U.S. Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Missouri’s Josh Hawley, a co-founder of the group. Other members have included Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, now the fourth-ranking House Republican, as well as Nebraska’s attorney general and Virginia’s solicitor general. Three senior aides to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, are members. Another is the federal judge who struck down a Biden administration mask mandate. The heads of the Republican Attorneys General Association, Republican State Leadership Committee and Turning Point USA — all key cogs in the world of national conservative politics — have been listed as Teneo members.

Conservative media figures like Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire, several pro athletes and dozens of executives and senior figures in the worlds of finance, energy and beyond have also been members.

Leo joined Teneo’s board of directors as chairman in 2021 and has since become a driving force.

Teneo co-founder Evan Baehr, a tech entrepreneur and veteran of conservative activism, said in a 2019 video for new members that Teneo had “many, many, many dozens” of members working in the Trump administration, including in the White House, State Department, Justice Department and Pentagon. “They’re everywhere.”

The goal, Baehr said in another video, was “a world in which Teneans serve in the House and the Senate, as governors — one might be elected president.”

Here’s how “the Left” works in America, according to Baehr.

“Imagine a group of four people sitting at the Harvard Club for lunch in midtown Manhattan,” he said in a 2020 Teneo video: “a billionaire hedge funder,” “a film producer,” “a Harvard professor” and “a New York Times writer.”

“The billionaire says: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if middle school kids had free access to sex-change therapy paid for by the federal government?’” Baehr continued. “Well, the filmmaker says, ‘I’d love to do a documentary on that; it will be a major motion film.’ The Harvard professor says, ‘We can do studies on that to say that’s absolutely biologically sound and safe.’ And the New York Times person says, ‘I’ll profile people who feel trapped in the wrong gender.’ ”

After a single lunch, Baehr concluded, elite liberals can “put different kinds of capital together” and “go out into the world” and “basically wreck shop.”

In a recorded video “town hall” held for incoming members, Baehr, a graduate of three Ivy League universities and a serial entrepreneur fluent in tech startup lingo, recalled the moment when he had the epiphany to create a conservative counter-effort.

It happened a decade earlier when he was eating lunch at a “fairly uninviting” Baja Fresh in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., with his then-boss Peter Thiel, the iconoclastic venture capitalist.

Baehr explained in the video that he had become frustrated as he kicked around right-of-center politics and activism for a few years, working on Capitol Hill, in the George W. Bush White House and for right-of-center groups including the American Enterprise Institute and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Baehr and Thiel lamented what they saw as the fragmented state of conservative networks, with their hidebound think tanks and intellectual centers that hold sway over right-of-center politics. A rare bright spot on their side, Baehr and Thiel agreed, was the Federalist Society. Thiel had, in fact, served as president of the Stanford Federalist Society. What if there were a group similar to the Federalist Society for venture capitalists or corporate CEOs or members of the media? (Thiel did not respond to a request for comment.)

In 2008, Baehr, Hawley and others launched Teneo — Latin for “I grasp” or “I endure.” Hawley, then an associate lawyer in private practice, authored Teneo’s founding principles, according to the new member talk hosted by Baehr, and served on the group’s board. Its core beliefs align with the broader conservative establishment’s: limited government, individual liberty, free enterprise, strong national defense and civil society and belief in a “transcendent order” that is “founded in tradition, philosophy, or theology.”

For a long time, the group didn’t live up to expectations. In its first year, Teneo raised a paltry $77,000, according toits tax filing. From 2009 to 2017, the group, based first in Washington, D.C., and later in Austin, Texas, never raised more than $750,000 in a single year, tax records show. One member described in an interview Teneo’s early days as little more than a run-of-the-mill dinner club with partisan overtones: “Instead of being an organization about ideas, it was all about being a Republican.”

Enter Leo. In the early years of the Trump administration, he and the Federalist Society had remarkable influence within the new government. The Federalist Society had brought the legal doctrines of originalism and textualism — close readings of laws and the Constitution to adhere to the intent and words of the authors — into the mainstream. Leo had taken a leave of absence from the group to advise President Trump on judicial appointments, helping shepherd the appointments of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and helping to fill more than 200 other positions in federal district and appellate courts. By the time Trump left office, he had put on the bench28% of all federal judges in America.

In the town hall video, Baehr explained how he modeled Teneo on the Federalist Society. Leo’s “secret sauce,” he said, was to identify an “inner core” group of people within the Federalist Society’s 60,000 members. Leo was “identifying them and recruiting them for either specific roles to serve as judges or to spin up and launch critical projects often which you would have no idea about.”

Soon after Leo took an interest in Teneo, the group’s finances soared. Annual revenuereached $2.3 million in 2020 and nearly $5 million in 2021, according to tax records. In 2021, the bulk of Teneo’s income — more than $3 million — came from one source: DonorsTrust, a clearinghouse for conservative, libertarian and other charitable gifts that masks the original source of the money. In 2020, the Leo-run group that received the Chicago business owner’s $1.6 billion donation gave $41 million to DonorsTrust, which had $1.5 billion in assets as of 2021.

Teneo’s other funders have included marquee conservative donors: hedge fund investor Paul Singer, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and the DeVos family, according to Baehr.

As the group’s finances improved, its videos became much more professionally produced, and its website underwent a dramatic upgrade from previous iterations. All of this was part of what Baehr called “Teneo 2.0,” a major leap forward for the group, driven in part by Leo’s guidance and involvement.

Baehr declined an interview request. He said in a statement: “Since Teneo began, I’ve been building hundreds of friendships among diverse leaders who have a deep love for this country and are working on innovative solutions to drive human flourishing for all. Teneo has made me a better husband, father, and leader.”

Teneo aims to help members find jobs, write books, meet spouses, secure start-up financing or nonprofit donors and learn about public service. As described in a “Community Vision” report from 2019, Teneo seeks to distinguish itself by acting as “the Silicon Valley of Conservatism — a powerful network of communities where the most influential young leaders, the biggest ideas, and the most leveraged resources come together to launch key projects that advance our shared belief that the conservative worldview drives human flourishing.”

Many of the connections happen at Teneo’s annual retreat, which brings together hundreds of members and their spouses, plus allies including politicians like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and DeSantis as well as business leaders and prominent academics. Speakers at past Teneo retreats have included luminaries spanning politics, culture, business and the law: New York Times columnist David Brooks, federal judge Trevor McFadden, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, “Woke, Inc.” author and 2024 presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, former Trump cabinet official and 2024 presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, ultrawealthy donors and activists Dick and Betsy DeVos, and Chick-fil-A board chair Dan Cathy.

But the group’s internal documents and videos also show the widening sprawl of its other activities. Teneo currently has 20 regional chapters nationwide, plus industry working groups focused, most recently, on media, corporate America, finance and law. In April, the group is hosting a “finance summit” in South Beach that its invitation says will “convene rising conservative talent from major financial institutions, funds, and family offices to connect and discuss key industry issues fundamental to the future of our country.”

Teneo members represent different facets of the conservative movement writ large. Some Teneo members were “very strong Trump defenders,” Baehr said in the 2019 town hall video, while others have opposed Trump vehemently. Baehr said there were clear divisions within the group’s members about immigration and trade policy. “Hopefully other ones, maybe Green New Deal, I hope that’s more like 99 to 1” in opposition, he said.

It’s in the town hall video that Baehr assured new members that Teneo “is private and confidential.” He said the group will never reveal the names of its members without their permission, though they are free to disclose their membership if they want to. Members must be in their 40s or younger to join.

Baehr said Teneo’s website is crafted so as not to pique the interest of Senate staffers who might look up the group if one of its members mentions Teneo during a confirmation process for a judgeship or a cabinet position. “We think a lot about that to protect your current and future leadership opportunities,” Baehr explained.

This strategy appears to have worked. A spokesperson for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a critic of Leo’s who has spoken extensively about dark money and the courts, said the senator’s staff was “not familiar with Teneo.” During the confirmation process of Ryan Holte, a Trump appointee to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, Holte was asked several written questions by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Cal., about his membership in Teneo, but Feinstein spelled the group’s name wrong each time. (Asked what the mission of the group was, Holte responded that Teneo was a “nonpartisan, and nonprofit, organization that gathers members from a variety of professional backgrounds for dinners and social activities to discuss current events.”)

A recent Teneo fundraising email laid out how the group can bring its members’ influence together in service of a cause.

To “confront” what he dubbed “woke capitalism,” Jonathan Bunch, a longtime Leo deputy and now Teneo board member, wrote that the group had brought together a coalition of Teneans “working with (or serving as) state attorneys general, state financial officers, state legislators, journalists, media executives and best-in-class public affairs professionals” to launch investigations, hold hearings, pull state investment funds and publish op-eds and news stories in response to so-called environmental, social and governance, or ESG, policies at the corporate level.

“Our members were in the rooms where it happened,” Bunch wrote.

Another project underway, Baehr explained in a 2020 presentation, was a “surreptitious and exciting” effort to map key institutions in major cities — private schools, country clubs, newspapers, Rotary and so on — and find ways to get Teneo members inside those institutions and help members connect with each other. The initiative has begun by mapping Atlanta and several cities in Texas.

For those Teneo members who run for elected office, the network offers easy access to a large pool of donors and allies. A Leo acolyte and member of Teneo’s Midwest membership committee, Will Scharf, is now running for Missouri attorney general. Campaign finance records show that dozens of Teneo members made substantial early contributions to Scharf’s campaign, including Leo, Baehr and other members of Teneo’s leadership, who last year each gave the maximum allowable donation of $2,650.

In an email, Scharf said many of his “dearest friends are members of Teneo, and it has been a privilege to be involved with such an extraordinarily talented and committed group of young conservatives.”

Leo’s own statements about Teneo suggest that his plan for the group extends well beyond achieving near-term political victories.

“When you’re fighting a battle for the heart and soul of our culture, you want to know you’re in the trenches with someone you can trust, someone you know, and someone who will have your back,” Teneo’s “Community Vision” report quotes Leo as saying. “We don’t win unless we build friendship and fellowship with other people — and that’s what you’re doing here with Teneo.”

Andy Kroll is a ProPublica reporter covering voting, elections and other democracy issues.

Via ProPublica

A Water War Is Brewing Over the Dwindling Colorado River Thu, 29 Dec 2022 05:06:28 +0000 By Abrahm Lustgarten | –

(ProPublica) – On a crisp day this fall I drove southeast from Grand Junction, Colorado, into the Uncompahgre Valley, a rich basin of row crops and hayfields. A snow line hung like a bowl cut around the upper cliffs of the Grand Mesa, while in the valley some farmers were taking their last deliveries of water, sowing winter wheat and onions. I turned south at the farm town of Delta onto Route 348, a shoulder-less two-lane road lined with irrigation ditches and dent corn still hanging crisp on their browned stalks. The road crossed the Uncompahgre River, and it was thin, nearly dry.

Diminished by climate change and overuse, the river can no longer provide the water states try to take from it.

The Uncompahgre Valley, stretching 34 miles from Delta through the town of Montrose, is, and always has been, an arid place. Most of the water comes from the Gunnison River, a major tributary of the Colorado, which courses out of the peaks of the Elk Range through the cavernous and sun-starved depths of the Black Canyon, one rocky and inaccessible valley to the east. In 1903, the federal government backed a plan hatched by Uncompahgre farmers to breach the ridge with an enormous tunnel and then in the 1960s to build one of Colorado’s largest reservoirs above the Black Canyon called Blue Mesa. Now that tunnel feeds a neural system of water: 782 miles worth of successively smaller canals and then dirt ditches, laterals and drains that turn 83,000 Western Colorado acres into farmland. Today, the farm association in this valley is one of the largest single users of Colorado River water outside of California.

I came to this place because the Colorado River system is in a state of collapse. It is a collapse hastened by climate change but also a crisis of management. In 1922, the seven states in the river basin signed a compact splitting the Colorado equally between its upper and lower halves; later, they promised additional water to Mexico, too. Near the middle, they put Lake Powell, a reserve for the northern states, and Lake Mead, a storage node for the south. Over time, as an overheating environment has collided with overuse, the lower half — primarily Arizona and California — has taken its water as if everything were normal, straining both the logic and the legal interpretations of the compact. They have also drawn extra releases from Lake Powell, effectively borrowing straight out of whatever meager reserves the Upper Basin has managed to save there.

This much has become a matter of great, vitriolic dispute. What is undeniable is that the river flows as a much-diminished version of its historical might. When the original compact gave each half the rights to 7.5 million acre-feet of water, the river is estimated to have flowed with as much as 18 million acre-feet each year. Over the 20th century, it averaged closer to 15. Over the past two decades, the flow has dropped to a little more than 12. In recent years, it has trickled at times with as little as 8.5. All the while the Lower Basin deliveries have remained roughly the same. And those reservoirs? They are fast becoming obsolete. Now the states must finally face the consequential question of which regions will make their sacrifice first. There are few places that reveal how difficult it will be to arrive at an answer than the Western Slope of Colorado.

In Montrose, I found the manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Steve Pope, in his office atop the squeaky stairs of the same Foursquare that the group had built at the turn of the last century. Pope, bald, with a trimmed white beard, sat amid stacks of plat maps and paper diagrams of the canals, surrounded by LCD screens with spreadsheets marking volumes of water and their destinations. On the wall, a historic map showed the farms, wedged between the Uncompahgre River and where it joins the Gunnison in Delta, before descending to their confluence with the Colorado in Grand Junction. “I’m sorry for the mess,” he said, plowing loose papers aside.

What Pope wanted to impress upon me most despite the enormousness of the infrastructure all around the valley was that in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River system, there are no mammoth dams that can simply be opened to meter out a steady release of water. Here, only natural precipitation and temperature dictate how much is available. Conservation isn’t a management decision, he said. It was forced upon them by the hydrological conditions of the moment. The average amount of water flowing in the system has dropped by nearly 20%. The snowpack melts and evaporates faster than it used to, and the rainfall is unpredictable. In fact, the Colorado River District, an influential water conservancy for the western part of the state, had described its negotiating position with the Lower Basin states by claiming Colorado has already conserved about 28% of its water by making do with the recent conditions brought by drought.

You get what you get, Pope tells me, and for 15 of the past 20 years, unlike the farmers in California and Arizona, the people in this valley have gotten less than what they are due. “We don’t have that luxury of just making a phone call and having water show up,” he said, not veiling his contempt for the Lower Basin states’ reliance on lakes Mead and Powell. “We’ve not been insulated from this climate change by having a big reservoir above our heads.”

He didn’t have to point further back than the previous winter. In 2021, the rain and snow fell heavily across the Rocky Mountains and the plateau of the Grand Mesa, almost as if it were normal times. Precipitation was 80% of average — not bad in the midst of an epochal drought. But little made it into the Colorado River. Instead, soils parched by the lack of rain and rising temperatures soaked up every ounce of moisture. By the time water reached the rivers around Montrose and then the gauges above Lake Powell, the flow was less than 30% of normal. The Upper Basin states used just 3.5 million acre-feet last year, less than half their legal right under the 1922 compact. The Lower Basin states took nearly their full amount, 7 million acre-feet.

All of this matters now not just because the river, an unwieldy network of human-controlled plumbing, is approaching a threshold where it could become inoperable, but because much of the recent legal basis for the system is about to dissolve. In 2026, the Interim Guidelines the states rely on, a Drought Contingency Plan and agreements with Mexico will all expire. At the very least, this will require new agreements. It also demands a new way of thinking that matches the reality of the heating climate and the scale of human need. But before that can happen, the states will need to restore something that has become even more scarce than the water: trust.

The northern states see California and Arizona reveling in profligate use, made possible by the anachronistic rules of the compact that effectively promise them water when others have none. It’s enabled by the mechanistic controls at the Hoover Dam, which releases the same steady flow no matter how little snow falls across the Rocky Mountains. California flood-irrigates alfalfa crops destined for cattle markets in the Middle East, while Arizona takes water it does not need and pumps it underground to build up its own reserves. In 2018, an Arizona water agency admitted it was gaming the timing of its orders to avoid rations from the river (though it characterized the moves as smart use of the rules). In 2021, in a sign of the growing wariness, at least one Colorado water official alleged California was repeating the scheme. California water officials say this is a misunderstanding. Yet to this day, because California holds the most senior legal rights on the river, the state has avoided having a single gallon of reductions imposed on it.

By this spring, Lake Powell shrank to 24% of its capacity, its lowest levels since the reservoir filled in the 1960s. Cathedral-like sandstone canyons were resurrected, and sunlight reached the silt-clogged floors for the first time in generations. The Glen Canyon Dam itself towered more than 150 feet above the waterline. The water was just a few dozen feet above the last intake pipe that feeds the hydropower generators. If it dropped much lower, the system would no longer be able to produce the power it distributes across six states. After that, it would approach the point where no water at all could flow into the Grand Canyon and further downstream. All the savings that the Upper Basin states had banked there were as good as gone.

In Western Colorado, meanwhile, people have been suffering. South of the Uncompahgre Valley, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe subsists off agriculture, but over the past 12 months it has seen its water deliveries cut by 90%; the tribe laid off half of its farmworkers. McPhee Reservoir, near the town of Cortez, has teetered on failure, and other communities in Southwestern Colorado that also depend on it have been rationed to 10% of their normal water.

Across the Upper Basin, the small reservoirs that provide the region’s only buffer against bad years are also emptying out. Flaming Gorge, on the Wyoming-Utah border, is the largest, and it is 68% full. The second largest, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, is at 50% of its capacity. Blue Mesa Reservoir, on the Gunnison, is just 34% full. Each represents savings accounts that have been slowly pilfered to supplement Lake Powell as it declines, preserving the federal government’s ability to generate power there and obscuring the scope of the losses. Last summer, facing the latest emergency at the Glen Canyon Dam, the Department of Interior ordered huge releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and other Upper Basin reservoirs. At Blue Mesa, the water levels dropped 8 feet in a matter of days, and boaters there were given a little more than a week to get their equipment off the water. Soon after, the reservoir’s marinas, which are vital to that part of Colorado’s summer economy, closed. They did not reopen in 2022.

As the Blue Mesa Reservoir was being emptied last fall, Steve Pope kept the Gunnison Tunnel open at its full capacity, diverting as much water as he possibly could. He says this was legal, well within his water rights and normal practice, and the state’s chief engineer agrees. Pope’s water is accounted for out of another reservoir higher in the system. But in the twin takings, it’s hard not to see the bare-knuckled competition between urgent needs. Over the past few years, as water has become scarcer and conservation more important, Uncompahgre Valley water diversions from the Gunnison River have remained steady and at times even increased. The growing season has gotten longer and the alternative sources, including the Uncompahgre River, less reliable. And Pope leans more than ever on the Gunnison to maintain his 3,500 shareholders’ supply. “Oh, we are taking it,” he told me, “and there’s still just not enough.”

On June 14, Camille Touton, the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Department of Interior division that runs Western water infrastructure, testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and delivered a stunning ultimatum: Western states had 60 days to figure out how to conserve as much as 4 million acre-feet of “additional” water from the Colorado River or the federal government would, acting unilaterally, do it for them. The West’s system of water rights, which guarantees the greatest amount of water to the settlers who arrived in the West and claimed it first, has been a sacrosanct pillar of law and states’ rights both — and so her statement came as a shock.

Would the department impose restrictions “without regard to river priority?” Mark Kelly,, the Democratic senator from Arizona, asked her.

“Yes,” Touton responded.

For Colorado, this was tantamount to a declaration of war. “The feds have no ability to restrict our state decree and privately owned ditches,” the general manager of the Colorado River District, Andy Mueller, told me. “They can’t go after that.” Mueller watches over much of the state.Pope faces different stakes. His system depends on the tunnel, a federal project, and his water rights are technically leased from the Bureau of Reclamation, too. Touton’s threat raised the possibility that she could shut the Uncompahgre Valley’s water off. Even if it was legal, the demands seemed fundamentally unfair to Pope. “The first steps need to come in the Lower Basin,” he insisted.

Each state retreated to its corners, where they remain. The 60-day deadline came and went, with no commitments toward any specific reductions in water use and no consequences. The Bureau of Reclamation has since set a new deadline: Jan. 31. Touton, who has publicly said little since her testimony to Congress, declined to be interviewed for this story. In October, California finally offered a plan to surrender roughly 9% of the water it used, albeit with expensive conditions. Some Colorado officials dismissed the gesture as a non-starter. Ever since, Colorado has become more defiant, enacting policies that seem aimed at defending the water the state already has — perhaps even its right to use more.

For one, Colorado has long had to contend with the inefficiencies that come with a “use it or lose it” culture. State water law threatens to confiscate water rights that don’t get utilized, so landowners have long maximized the water they put on their fields just to prove up their long-term standing in the system. This same reflexive instinct is now evident among policymakers and water managers across the state, as they seek to establish the baseline for where negotiated cuts might begin. Would cuts be imposed by the federal government based on Pope’s full allocation of water or on the lesser amount with which he’s been forced to make do? Would the proportion be adjusted down in a year with no snow? “We don’t have a starting point,” he told me. And so the higher the use now, the more affordable the conservation later.

Colorado and other Upper Basin states have also long hid behind the complexity of accurately accounting for their water among infinite tributaries and interconnected soils. The state’s ranchers like to say their water is recycled five times over, because water poured over fields in one place invariably seeps underground down to the next. In the Uncompahgre Valley, it can take months for the land at its tail to dry out after ditches that flood the head of the valley are turned off. The measure of what’s been consumed and what has transpired from plants or been absorbed by soils is frustratingly elusive. That, too, leaves the final number open to argument and interpretation.

All the while, the Upper Basin states are all attempting to store more water within their boundaries. Colorado has at least 10 new dams and reservoirs either being built or planned. Across the Upper Basin, an additional 15 projects are being considered, including Utah’s audacious $2.4 billion plan to run a new pipeline from Lake Powell, which would allow it to transport something closer to its full legal right to Colorado River water to its growing southern cities. Some of these projects are aimed at securing existing water and making its timing more predictable. But they are also part of the Upper Colorado River Commission’s vision to expand the Upper Basin states’ Colorado River usage to 5.4 million acre-feet a year by 2060.

It is fair to say few people in the state are trying hard to send more of their water downstream. In our conversation, Mueller would not offer any specific conservation savings Colorado might make. The state’s chief engineer and director of its Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, who oversees water rights, made a similar sentiment clear to the Colorado River District board last July. “There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve,” Rein said. “It’s a public resource. It’s a property right. It’s part of our economy.”

In November, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis proposed the creation of a new state task force that would help him capture every drop of water it can before it crosses the state line. It would direct money and staff to make Colorado’s water governance more sophisticated, defensive and influential.

I called Polis’ chief water confidante, Rebecca Mitchell, who is also the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. If the mood was set by the idea that California was taking too much from the river, Mitchell thought that it had shifted now to a more personal grievance — they are taking from us.

Last month, Mitchell flew to California for a tour of its large irrigation districts. She stood beside a wide canal brimming with more water than ever flows through the Uncompahgre River, and the executive of the farming company beside her explained that he uses whatever he wants because he holds the highest priority rights to the water. She thought about the Ute Mountain Ute communities and the ranchers of Cortez: “It was like: ‘Wouldn’t we love to be able to count on something? Wouldn’t we love to be feel so entitled that no matter what, we get what we get?’” she told me.

What if Touton followed through, curtailing Colorado’s water? I asked. Mitchell’s voice steadied, and then she essentially leveled a threat. “We would be very responsive. I’m not saying that in a positive way,” she said. “I think everybody that’s about to go through pain wants others to feel pain also.”

Here’s the terrible truth: There is no such thing as a return to normal on the Colorado River, or to anything that resembles the volumes of water its users are accustomed to taking from it. With each degree Celsius of warming to come, modelers estimate that the river’s flow will decrease further, by an additional 9%. At current rates of global warming, the basin is likely to sustain at least an additional 18% drop in its water supplies over the next several decades, if not far more. Pain, as Mitchell puts it, is inevitable.

The thing about 4 million acre-feet of cuts is that it’s merely the amount already gone, an adjustment that should have been made 20 years ago. Colorado’s argument makes sense on paper and perhaps through the lens of fairness. But the motivation behind the decades of delay was to protect against the very argument that is unfolding now — that the reductions should be split equally, and that they may one day be imposed against the Upper Basin’s will. It was to preserve the northern states’ inalienable birthright to growth, the promise made to them 100 years ago. At some point, though, circumstances change, and a century-old promise, unfulfilled, might no longer be worth much at all. Meanwhile, the politics of holding out are colliding with climate change in a terrifying crash, because while the parties fight, the supply continues to dwindle.

Recently, Brad Udall, a leading and longtime analyst of the Colorado River and now a senior water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, teamed with colleagues to game out what they thought it would take to bring the river and the twin reservoirs of Mead and Powell into balance. Their findings, published in July in the journal Science, show that stability could be within reach but will require sacrifice.

If the Upper Basin states limited their claim to 4 million acre-feet, or 53% of their due under the original compact, and the Lower Basin states and Mexico increased their maximum emergency cuts by an additional 45%, the two big reservoirs will stay at roughly their current levels for the next several decades. If the basins could commit to massive reductions below even 2021 levels for the Upper Basin and to more than doubling the most ambitious conservation goals for the south, the reservoirs could once again begin to grow, providing the emergency buffer and the promise of economic stability for 40 million Americans that was originally intended. Still, by 2060, they would only be approximately 45% full.

Any of the scenarios involve cuts that would slice to the bone. Plus, there’s still the enormous challenge of how to incorporate Native tribes, which also hold huge water rights but continue to be largely left out of negotiations. What to do next? Israel provides one compelling example. After decades of fighting over the meager trickles of the Jordan River and the oversubscription of a pipeline from the Sea of Galilee, Israel went back to the drawing board on its irrigated crops. It made drip irrigation standard, built desalination plants to supply water for its industry and cities, and reused that water again and again; today, 86% of the country’s municipal wastewater is recycled, and Israel and its farmers have an adequate supply. That would cost a lot across the scale and reach of a region like the Western United States. But to save the infrastructure and culture that produces 80% of this country’s winter vegetables and is a hub of the nation’s food system for 333 million people? It might be worth it.

A different course was charted by Australia, which recoiled against a devastating millennium drought that ended 13 years ago. It jettisoned its coveted system of water rights, breaking free of history and prior appropriation similar to the system of first-come-first-served the American West relies on. That left it with a large pool of free water and political room to invent a new method of allocating it that better matched the needs in a modern, more populous and more urban Australia and better matched the reality of the environment.

In America, too, prior appropriation, as legally and culturally revered as it is, may have become more cumbersome and obstructive than it needs to be. Western water rights, according to Newsha Ajami, a leading expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the former director of the urban water policy program at Stanford University, were set up by people measuring with sticks and buckets, long before anyone had ever even considered climate change. Today, they largely serve powerful legacy interests and, because they must be used to be maintained, tend to dissuade conservation. “It’s kind of very archaic,” she said. “The water rights system would be the first thing I would just dismantle or revisit in a very different way.”

This is probably not going to happen, Ajami said. “It could be seen as political suicide.” But that doesn’t make it the wrong solution. In fact, what’s best for the Colorado, for the Western United States, for the whole country might be a combination of what Israel and Australia mapped out. Deploy the full extent of the technology that is available to eliminate waste and maximize efficiency. Prioritize which crops and uses are “beneficial” in a way that attaches the true value of the resource to the societal benefit produced from using it. Grow California and Arizona’s crops in the wintertime but not in the summer heat. And rewrite the system of water allocation as equitably as possible so that it ensures the modern population of the West has the resources it needs while the nation’s growers produce what they can.

What would that look like in Colorado? It might turn the system upside down. Lawsuits could fly. The biggest, wealthiest ranches with the oldest water rights stand to lose a lot. The Lower and Upper Basin states, though, could all divide the water in the river proportionately, each taking a percentage of what flowed. The users would, if not benefit, at least equally and predictably share the misery. Pope’s irrigation district and the smallholder farmers who depend on it would likely get something closer to what they need and, combined with new irrigation equipment subsidized by the government, could produce what they want. It wouldn’t be pretty. But something there would survive.

The alternative is worse. The water goes away or gets bought up or both. The land of Western Colorado dries up, and the economies around it shrivel. Montrose, with little left to offer, boards up its windows, consolidates its schools as people move away, and the few who remain have less. Until one day, there is nothing left at all.

Abrahm Lustgarten covers energy, water, climate change and anything else having to do with the environment for ProPublica.

Via ProPublica

Featured image via Pixabay.

America’s Night Raids in Afghanistan: An Ongoing Nightmare Sat, 17 Dec 2022 05:02:29 +0000 By Lynzy Billing. Video by Mauricio Rodríguez Pons | –


March 2019 • Rodat District, Nangarhar Province

This story contains graphic descriptions and images of war casualties.

( ProPublica ) – On a December night in 2018, Mahzala was jolted awake by a shuddering wave of noise that rattled her family’s small mud house. A trio of helicopters, so unfamiliar that she had no word for them, rapidly descended, kicking up clouds of dust that shimmered in their blinding lights. Men wearing desert camouflage and black masks flooded into the house, corralling her two sons and forcing them out the door.

Mahzala watched as the gunmen questioned Safiullah, 28, and 20-year-old Sabir, before roughly pinning them against a courtyard wall. Then, ignoring their frantic protests of innocence, the masked men put guns to the back of her sons’ heads. One shot. Two. Then a third. Her youngest, “the quiet, gentle one,” was still alive after the first bullet, Mahzala told me, so they shot him again.

Her story finished, Mahzala stared at me intently as if I could somehow explain the loss of her only family. We were in the dim confines of her home, a sliver of light leaking in from the lone window above her. She rubbed at the corner of her eyes; her forehead creased by a pulsing vein. The voices of her sons used to fill their home, she told me. She had no photos of them. No money. And there was no one who would tell her, a widow in her 50s, why these men dropped out of the sky and killed her family or acknowledge what she insisted was a terrible mistake.

But now there was me. I had ended up in Rodat in the heart of Nangarhar province while researching my own family’s story of loss in this desolate rural region in eastern Afghanistan.

Mahzala’s neighbors had pressed me to meet her; I was a foreigner, I must be able to help. Three months had passed since the raid. The neighbors believed it was the work of the feared Zero Units — squadrons of U.S.-trained Afghan special forces soldiers. Two more homes in the area were targeted that night, they said, though no one else was killed. Everyone acknowledged the Taliban had been in the area before; they were everywhere in Nangarhar province. But Mahzala’s sons? They were just farmers, the neighbors told me.

That trip was the first time I’d heard of the secretive units, which I’d soon learn were funded, trained and armed by the CIA to go after targets believed to be a threat to the United States. There was something else: The Afghan soldiers weren’t alone on the raids; U.S. special operations forces soldiers working with the CIA often joined them. It was a “classified” war, I’d later discover, with the lines of accountability so obscured that no one had to answer publicly for operations that went wrong.

Back in Kabul, I tried to continue my personal hunt, but Mahzala’s story had changed the trajectory of my journey. Her words and her face, with its deep-set wrinkles that mirrored the unforgiving landscape, lingered in my thoughts. Who were these soldiers? And what were they doing in remote farming villages in Afghanistan executing young men under the cover of night? Did anyone know why they were being killed?

As a journalist, I knew that Afghanistan’s story was most often told by outsiders, by reporters with little cause to explore barren corners like Rodat. Far from the world’s eyes, this story felt like it was being buried in real time. It was clear no one would be coming to question what happened that night or to relieve Mahzala’s torment.

Mahzala’s sons’ lives, it seemed, were being shrugged away, without acknowledgement or investigation, disappearing into the United States’ long war in Afghanistan. I began to focus on a basic question: How many more Mahzalas were there?

As I write this today, America’s war in Afghanistan is already being consigned to history, pushed from the world’s consciousness by humanity’s latest round of inhumanity. But there are lessons to be learned from the West’s failures in Afghanistan. Other reporters, notably at The New York Times, have documented the cover-up of casualties from aerial bombardment and the drone war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. This story is a deep look inside what happened after America embraced the strategy of night raids — quick, brutal operations that went wrong far more often than the U.S. has acknowledged.

As one U.S. Army Ranger ruefully told me after the Taliban’s triumph last year: “You go on night raids, make more enemies, then you gotta go on more night raids for the more enemies you now have to kill.”

Although I hadn’t revealed it to Mahzala, I’d come to Afghanistan hoping to answer questions similar to her own.

Like Mahzala, I’m from Afghanistan. People call me “lucky” because I was adopted by a British family running a school across the border in Pakistan. At age 12, I moved with them to Israel and then on to England, where I attended university and later became a journalist. I had a few traces of my Afghan and Pakistani origins: a couple photographs of my biological mother — a Pakistani, young and lovely with hands like my own — a newspaper clipping advertising me, an orphan girl, for adoption and a few other scraps of information. But really, I had nothing.

I’d returned to Afghanistan as an adult, and with plans to also go to Pakistan, to investigate my past: Who were my birth parents? And what had happened to them? I was spurred by a mix of emotions from curiosity to a desire for closure.

Thirty years earlier, when I was 2, my mother, a refugee to Afghanistan, and younger sister were killed in a nighttime raid in the very same district as Mahzala’s sons — long before the Americans arrived. Like her, I also had no answers. A distant relative told me that my Afghan father was likely the intended target of the attack. He would be killed two years later during the increasingly violent civil conflict, but the people who murdered my mother and sister would never be held to account. One war bled into the next, and one family’s story of loss was replaced by another’s.

Trauma, I’ve learned, creates a rippling pool; its ravages spread to unseen edges. After I was adopted, I underwent numerous medical and psychological assessments. One declared that I’d had a “neurological insult” likely from an incident of trauma to the brain. I have no idea when or with what I was hit. The doctors observed that I had an “abnormal gait” that stymied my ability to run and a string of learning disabilities that affected my speech and my ability to interact with others. Doctors suggested that my adoptive father slowly push me on a swing to introduce me to movement. But I’d shut down and go rigid or, with white knuckles gripping the swing, scream.

My adoptive father recalls some friends suggesting that I “had demons and wouldn’t be at rest until they were cast out.”

Even as my physical and psychological ailments faded, questions of my origins taunted me. My personality and interests didn’t match those of my adoptive sisters. I was hardheaded, self-contained and struggled to show affection toward the people I loved. I had difficulty expressing my thoughts and feelings. Friends would ask me why I made things so difficult for myself. I didn’t have an answer.

I was middle of the road in most things in school and struggled to find my place among sisters who excelled academically and athletically. Although I did indeed feel “lucky,” I also felt an overwhelming pressure to make the most of the opportunities I’d been given.

In truth, I never felt British, Afghan or Pakistani. I tried to hire private investigators to find my birth parents. A slick businessman in a dodgy one-room London office above a bakery laughed off my request. A beefy man in hobnail cowboy boots met me at a swanky hotel in Dubai, then said he was reluctant to take on such a small but difficult job. No one was interested in digging around in a country at war.

And so I set out to Jalalabad to do it myself.

I learned from my conversation with Mahzala that the violence that tore apart my family had continued as Afghanistan lurched from civil war to a grinding conflict between the U.S. and the Taliban, al-Qaida and later ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province, the Afghan offshoot of the Islamic State). As I made calls and sifted through local news reports, my focus shifted from exploring my personal story to something else.

Over the next three and a half years, I did what it appeared that no one else was doing — nor will be able to do again — I tracked what the U.S.-trained and sponsored squads were doing on the ground, concealed from most of the world.

I cataloged hundreds of night raids by one of the four Zero Unit squads, which was known in Afghanistan as 02 unit, eventually identifying at least 452 civilians killed in its raids over four years. I crisscrossed hundreds of miles of Nangarhar interviewing survivors, eyewitnesses, doctors and elders in villages seldom, if ever, visited by reporters. The circumstances of the civilian deaths were rarely clear. But the grieving families I spoke to in these remote communities were united in their rage at the Americans and the U.S.-backed Kabul government.

My pursuit would take me from the palatial Kabul home of the former head of Afghanistan’s spy agency to clandestine meetings with two Zero Unit soldiers who were ambivalent about their role in America’s war. It would lead me back to the United States, where I met an Army Ranger in a diner in a bland middle American city. Over breakfast, he casually described how American analysts calculated “slants” for each operation — how many women/children/noncombatants were at risk if the raid went awry. Those forecasts were often wildly off, he acknowledged, yet no one seemed to really care.

My reporting showed that even the raids that did end in the capture or killing of known militants frequently also involved civilian casualties. Far too often, I found the Zero Unit soldiers acted on flawed intelligence and mowed down men, women and children, some as young as 2, who had no discernible connection to terrorist groups.

And the U.S. responsibility for the Zero Unit operations is quietly muddied because of a legal carve-out that allows the CIA — and any U.S. soldiers lent to the agency for the operations — to act without the same oversight as the American military.

The CIA declined to answer my questions about the Zero Units on the record. In a statement, CIA spokesperson Tammy Thorp said, “As a rule, the U.S. takes extraordinary measures — beyond those mandated by law — to reduce civilian casualties in armed conflict, and treats any claim of human rights abuses with the utmost seriousness.”

She said any allegations of human rights abuses by a “foreign partner” are reviewed and, if valid, the CIA and “other elements of the U.S. government take concrete steps, including providing training on applicable law and best practices, or if necessary terminating assistance or the relationship.” Thorp said the Zero Units had been the target of a systematic propaganda campaign designed to discredit them because “of the threat they posed to Taliban rule.”

My reporting, based on interviews with scores of eyewitnesses and with the Afghan soldiers who carried out the raids, shows that the American government has scant basis for believing it has a full picture of the Zero Units’ performance. Again and again, I spoke with Afghans who had never shared their stories with anyone. Congressional officials concerned about the CIA’s operations in Afghanistan said they were startled by the civilian death toll I documented.

As my notebooks filled, I came to realize that I was compiling an eyewitness account of a particularly ignominious chapter in the United States’ fraught record of overseas interventions.

Without a true reckoning of what happened in Afghanistan, it became clear the U.S. could easily deploy the same failed tactics in some new country against some new threat.

When I conceived this investigation, I knew if I was going to track the dead, I’d need some help. I met Muhammad Rehman Shirzad, a 34-year-old forensic pathologist from Nangarhar.

As a government employee, Shirzad had access to official records to verify the identities of those killed. But helping me was a risk. Nevertheless, he was keen to join. “We have to share the truth,” he told me. We began building a database of alleged civilian casualties and hit the road.

In the late spring of 2019, the trail led to the basement office of Lutfur Rahman, 28, former university professor who’d found himself unexpectedly chronicling the stories of Zero Unit survivors. He’d taught literature but had also acted as a counselor to young men with no one else to talk to.

“Nangarhar is the most restless province,” Rahman said. “They witness these raids every day.” He handed me a beat-up notebook. Inside were 14 stories of deadly Zero Unit raids that his students had described to him over two years.

We’d just started talking when Rahman got a call from a professor at the University of Nangarhar who said one of his students had missed classes for several days and then returned distracted and distressed, saying there’d been “an incident.”

A few days later, I found Batour, 22, in the university’s science lab, sitting sandwiched between plastic models of dissected human bodies. Slight, disheveled and with wild eyes, he looked lost. I suggested that we move to the privacy of the roof. He didn’t have to talk to me, I said. “It’s OK,” he said, then took a deep breath and cocked his chin, as if bracing for a blow.

They came a week earlier, on April 26. “It was a normal Thursday,” Batour said. He and his brothers prayed at the mosque and then returned to their home in Qelegho in Khogyani district. As Batour spoke, his skinny ankles swayed back and forth, not quite reaching the ground.

Around 9 p.m., he said, the 02 soldiers descended from helicopters and he knew a raid had started. They hit four houses before reaching his home hours later and “blew up the door.”

A soldier with a megaphone announced: “Your house is surrounded. Come out.” Inside, soldiers were asking everyone: “What is your name? What do you do?”

Batour and his father were led out of the house while his two brothers remained inside.

Two soldiers were speaking in English, he said, but there was a man with them translating their words into Pashto. Batour told them he was a student at the university and gave them his university ID. The soldiers checked his name against a list, he said, then ordered him to sit under a tree. As long as the planes are circling above, they told him, do not move.

Batour paused and stared at his hand, flexing his fingers.

“My back was to the house and I don’t know how long I was sitting there,” he said quietly, but that’s when he heard the sound of firing. “It was just like pop-pops, so it was silenced guns.” Batour heard the helicopters take off. “Immediately my father ran to the house screaming, but I couldn’t hear him. I ran after him. My father said: ‘Come on. They are finished.’”

They found his two brothers dead. They’d been shot many times.

That night, 11 people were killed including Batour’s brothers: Sehatullah, 28, a teacher at a secondary school in Khogyani district, left behind a wife and three young sons, and Khalid Hemat, 26, who went to university with Batour, had married just four months earlier.

The following day, Batour heard the local radio station announce that teachers from a government school were killed in the raid by the 02 unit. There was no mention that insurgents had been successfully eliminated.

“While my brothers were alive, I was free to study. But now they are gone; no one is here to support me. My lessons are left half-completed.” He told me he can’t concentrate and has nightmares about the night of the raid, but his family can’t afford to move from the village. “We still don’t know the reason my brothers were slaughtered.”

Batour believes the Zero Unit strategy had actually made enemies of families like his. He said his brothers had both supported the government and he did, too, vowing never to join the Taliban. Now, he said, he’s not so sure. As Batour spoke, something round and black dropped onto the roof by his feet. He briefly cowered, before realizing it was a taped-up black cricket ball that soared up from the ground floor. After a moment he exhaled. It’s as if he’d forgotten to breathe the whole time we were talking.

As Batour told me his story, I heard echoes of the other witnesses I had spoken to about the psychological toll of the raids. As long as most of them could remember, the country had been racked by violence. The hum of drones, the whirr of helicopters and the deafening blasts of suicide bombings and missile strikes had scarred the land and seeped into daily life.

Kurdish-German psychologist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan trains psychologists who specialize in trauma to work with war victims in Iraq and Syria. He told me that in Afghanistan trauma has become an inescapable legacy. “They experience past trauma again and again as if it is immediate,” he said. “The repetition reinforces these experiences many times over, keeping them alive for numerous future generations.”

At the more than 30 raid sites Shirzad and I visited, we were often greeted with surprise, particularly by women, who had seldom been asked about what they’d seen and, if they were victims, sometimes not mentioned. One 60-year-old woman told me that after her three sons and son-in-law were killed in a July 2019 night raid, she simply washed, shrouded and buried them. At the provincial governor’s office, she was told that the 02 conducted the operation and “it was a mistake.”

“Not once did I think I had any other options, that any Afghan official, court or anyone would believe me,” she said.

In Qala Sheikh village in Chaparhar district, more than a dozen people witnessed Zero Unit soldiers shoot five teachers in their homes, leaving behind the blackened shell of one home with two burned bodies inside.

The 02 unit later said it carried out the raid in a statement, announcing that the men were ISKP members — a claim Abdul Rahim, who saw his brother and nephews burning in the fire, denied. “If they were ISIS, why didn’t they arrest them in the city where they teach at government schools?” Rahim said that October. “It’s the obligation of the Afghan government to ask this unit why they are killing civilians.”

Rahim told me that a presidential delegation had traveled to Jalalabad, ostensibly to investigate the raid, but it never came to Qala Sheikh or spoke to witnesses or the doctors who treated his brother’s injuries before he died.

U.S. military and intelligence agencies have long used night raids by forces like the 02 to fight insurgencies and since the Vietnam War have defended the tactic, arguing that the raids are less likely to cause civilian casualties than aerial bombing.

But even a cursory review of U.S. military history raises serious questions about the operations, especially in places like Afghanistan, which is defined by deep tribal loyalties and where the high civilian death toll has, time and again, turned people against the United States and the local government it supported.

In 1967, the CIA’s Phoenix Program famously used kill-capture raids against the Viet Cong insurgency in south Vietnam, creating an intense public blowback. William Colby, then-CIA executive director and former chief of the Saigon station, conceded to Congress in 1971 that it wasn’t possible to differentiate with certainty between enemy insurgents or people who were neutral or even allies.

Despite the program’s ignominious reputation — a 1971 Pentagon study found only 3% of those killed or captured were full or probationary Viet Cong members above the district level — it appears to have served as a blueprint for future night raid operations.

The U.S. used night raids against al-Qaida in Iraq, under Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Military officials said many of the operations killed or captured their targets. But it’s impossible to determine how often the intelligence was wrong, or misguided, and civilians paid the price. As in Afghanistan, complete casualty data has remained either classified, unavailable or untracked.

When McChrystal took over operations in Afghanistan in June 2009, he declared that Afghan officials would now take part in the planning and execution of the raids, but he also accelerated them. As in Iraq, the raids were met with protests, and former President Hamid Karzai repeatedly called for them to be banned.

The raids, along with drone strikes, were part of America’s vast counterterrorism apparatus known as the “kill-capture program.” When Petraeus replaced McChrystal in Afghanistan, he expanded the program and in 2010 released figures to the media claiming spectacular success — thousands of al-Qaida and Taliban leaders captured or killed.

In a subsequent press conference, a U.S. admiral revealed that more than 80% of those captured “terrorists” were released within weeks because there wasn’t supportable evidence that they were insurgents. And the raids seemed counterproductive: as they ramped up, so did the insurgent attacks.

Petraeus and McChrystal declined to answer questions for this story.

Meanwhile, the CIA was separately funding, training and equipping its own series of paramilitary forces in Afghanistan. The Zero Units were officially established around 2008, according to Afghan officials and soldiers, and modeled on U.S. special operations forces like the Navy SEALs. Regionally based and staffed by local soldiers, the units were sometimes accompanied by CIA advisers, transported by American helicopters and aided by armed support aircraft.

Sandwiched between bomb blasts and attacks on government institutions by insurgents, the Zero Units, whose members are estimated to be in the thousands, received scant scrutiny until 2013. Under the Trump administration, CIA Director Mike Pompeo announced that the agency was ramping up its approach in Afghanistan: “The CIA, to be successful, must be aggressive, vicious, unforgiving, relentless — you pick the word.”

The following year, in 2018, The New York Times published a report about the 02 unit using brutal tactics to terrorize Afghans. In October 2019, Human Rights Watch documented 14 cases — some amounting to war crimes — involving the 02 unit and other CIA-backed strike forces. In 2020, The Intercept reported on 10 night raids by another Zero Unit, 01, that targeted religious schools.

While the stories described deadly raids, not much was said about why the intelligence guiding them was often flawed. It appeared to be a pattern that went hand in hand with the night raid strategy. I spoke with two self-proclaimed “geeks” who helped build or operate spy technology during the peak years of war. They said failure was predictable, despite the huge advances in technical intelligence. The most cutting-edge equipment in the world, they said, didn’t make up for the deficits in understanding “the enemy” by the Americans processing the intelligence.

Lisa Ling spent 20 years in the military and built technology that was ultimately used to process intelligence that targeted Afghans. “I understand very viscerally how this tech works and how people are using it,” she said. The counterterrorism mission is essentially: “Who am I fighting, and where will I find them,” she said. But the U.S. struggled to differentiate combatants from civilians, she said, because it never understood Afghanistan.

Her thoughts echoed what I’d heard from Afghan intelligence officials. “Every gun-wielding guy in this country is not a Talib because people in rural Afghanistan carry guns,” said Tamim Asey, former deputy minister of defense and Afghan National Security Council director general.

In Afghanistan, Air Force technician Cian Westmoreland built and maintained the communications relays that underpinned America’s drone program. His grandfather’s distant cousin was Gen. William Westmoreland, a key architect of the night raid operations in Vietnam. His father was a technical sergeant and, Cian said, “ordered the missile parts for the initial bombing of Afghanistan.”

It became clear to Westmoreland that civilian casualty reports from the drone strikes sent up the chain of command were inaccurate. “Unless there are operators physically checking body parts on the ground, they have no idea how many civilians were killed,” he said. “And they have no idea how many ‘enemies’ they actually got.”

When he finished his deployment in 2010, Westmoreland says he was handed his evaluation, stating that he’d assisted on 200-plus enemy kills in five months. He ran to the bathroom, he said, and threw up. “How many is the plus? Who is counting? And who knows who was killed?”

A source familiar with the Zero Unit program said it “stayed in close contact with a network of tribal elders,” who alerted program officials when civilians were killed. Any such deaths, the source said, were “unintended.”

At times, Westmoreland said, bystanders paid the price simply because they were near a suspected target’s cellphone.

Speaking with them, it became clear that the language of the intelligence world itself could hide its weaknesses. Ling said that when intelligence officers cite “multiple sources” of intelligence to justify an operation, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have confirmatory information. It could simply mean that they have an overhead image of a house and an informant telling them who’s inside.

For six months, I pursued the most elusive perspective on the U.S. night raid strategy — the Zero Unit soldiers themselves; the men killing their own compatriots on U.S. orders.

In October 2019, two men whom I’ll call Baseer and Hadi finally agreed to meet me. Both in their mid-30s, they were friends, fathers and comrades-in-arms. Hardened by violence and the isolation of the Zero Units, they were initially baffled by my interest, not just because they feared discovery. Why would I want to talk to killers? They decided to speak, they said, because of their unease with missions gone awry — and their distrust of the motives of those directing the attacks. I agreed to protect their identities.

“They are Americans killing Afghans, and we are Afghans killing Afghans,” Baseer told me. “But I know the Americans do not lie awake at night with the guilt I have.”

Clouds of cigarette smoke swirled through shafts of sunlight in the dimly lit backroom of a quiet fish restaurant on the outskirts of Kabul where we finally met. Outside, the day’s first light paled into a gray glare glinting off gridlocked cars waiting to pass through fortified checkpoints into the capital.

Baseer sat cross-legged on the well-worn carpet, balancing a cellphone on each knee and grasping a cup of green tea between his jeweled fingers. His neat mustache caught a bead of sweat as it dripped from his brow. His impeccable grooming was at odds with the mismatched socks peeking from beneath his shalwar kameez.

He took a long drag on his cigarette, and I noticed finger-sized bruises stretching around his neck. Although he caught me looking at the bruises, he made no effort to explain them. He rolled his neck from side to side to loosen kinks and rubbed his hands together. He was eager to talk.

Sitting off to one side, Hadi wore a leather bomber jacket (“like Top Gun”) that dwarfs his wiry frame. It was 80 degrees, but Hadi only removed his beanie briefly, to absently rub a long, silvery scar that stretched across the top of his head. He was wary and toyed nervously with the gold watch that hung from his skinny wrist. His eyes darted to the door at every hint of movement.

According to Baseer, Hadi is the joker of the two. He squeezed his friend’s shoulder reassuringly, grinning at him. “Don’t worry, she’s not American,” he said in Pashto. In an attempt to reassure them, I tell them I am English, not American, and of Afghan and Pakistani descent. Hadi smiled weakly, but it was clear he was unconvinced.

Both soldiers had obtained leave passes under false pretenses to meet me. The relationship between journalist and soldier seemed to offer them a space where they could discuss their actions — even boast about them when marveling at their superior training and autonomy — because I think they knew I wasn’t going to turn them in or use their stories as leverage.

Baseer’s family had left Afghanistan when he was 3, during the same fractious conflict that killed my own family. Eventually, his family settled in a refugee camp in Peshawar in Pakistan. Growing up, he considered both the Americans and the Soviets infidels, but he later came to realize that the Taliban have their own cruelties.

When he returned to Afghanistan at age 16, he lived in yet another refugee camp. “I wanted to be a politician, but there were no jobs.” Baseer eventually became a bodyguard for his father, a police officer, before signing on with the police as well. The poor pay pushed him to join the military and then the 02 unit in late 2016, where he said he was paid about $700 per month in American currency — more than three times what regular soldiers made. He also received eight months of training from Turkish and American soldiers at several locations in Afghanistan. “The 02 had the weapons and power, and I liked the idea of duty related to operations and fighting,” he said.

Hadi transferred to the 02 from the Afghan commandos in 2017. “It was my dream to join ‘the Infamous Zero Unit,’” he said. “I thought I would be part of building and securing a new Afghanistan, and as the Americans say,” Hadi briefly switched to English, with an American twang: “‘blast them out of their holes’ and ‘send them to hell.’ I wanted to get the bad guys.” He paused. “At first, the thrill was intense. But the job wasn’t this clear in the end. You know, I became the bad guy, or maybe I wanted to be the bad guy all along.” He looked away, fingering a frayed edge of the carpet.

Once in the units, the men said, it often seemed like they weren’t fighting Afghanistan’s battle at all. The CIA, with the aid of American soldiers on the ground, they said, ran the show. “They point out the targets and we hit them,” Baseer said, adding that about 80 soldiers go on a raid and “10 Americans, sometimes 12, join every operation.”

“After we return to base, we count how many soldiers were lost,” he said. Many Afghan soldiers have been killed, but not Americans: “They are out of the war.”

Over the weeks, Baseer, Hadi and a third Zero Unit soldier, Qadeer, updated me on their raids. They showed me chaotic videos they’d kept on their phones. Baseer had been keeping a diary, and he began sharing extracts with me.

At first, he gave me simple reflections: the time he stole the car keys for a joy ride or when they played volleyball and watched Bollywood movies with the Americans at their base. But over time, he began to share stark excerpts that showed he was keeping a count of those killed. One noted that a dead boy reminded him of his own son.

At an abandoned office one morning, Baseer and Hadi told me about a raid that seemed to haunt them. Hadi took a deep breath. It happened in July 2019 in the remote village of Kamal Khel in Pul-e-Alam district of Logar province, in eastern Afghanistan.

That night, he said, word had come that a handful of suspected Taliban militants were holed up in Kamal Khel. Thunder from a coming storm rumbled in the distance as he, Baseer and their 70-strong battalion scrambled aboard a fleet of camouflaged, heavily armed Toyota Hilux trucks. Tucked in “the cradle” in the middle, protected, were a dozen men he described as American special forces soldiers.

At 2 a.m. they roared out of the pitted concrete walls of Forward Operating Base Shank, a former U.S. stronghold famed for the sheer volume of Taliban rockets that had battered it. En route, their Afghan commander relayed details about the night’s four targets. As the city’s lights faded, the convoy split, driving into the storm to approach the village from opposite directions. Half a mile outside of Kamal Khel, they left the trucks to approach on foot over the rocky terrain and dry riverbeds.

As they grew close, their night vision goggles illuminated in fluorescent green hues a handful of family homes. Moving swiftly, they trained their weapons and laser sights on the houses ahead.

Suddenly, a rocket-propelled grenade shrieked out of the blackness behind them, exploding against one of the trucks. Even under his noise-canceling headset, Baseer said, the blast deafened him. Ears ringing, he and the other soldiers scrambled for cover. As bullets snapped overhead and muzzle flashes erupted from the surrounding darkness, one of the American soldiers gave the order to open fire.

“Smoke ’em,” an American voice ordered over the radio.

Baseer said he flattened himself against the mud wall of a nearby home. To his left, a soldier relayed updates to the base. To his right, Hadi squeezed off shot after shot.

It was 4 a.m. when the echo of gunfire finally subsided. As the first hints of dawn crept over the nearby mountains, the soldiers moved door to door searching for the raid’s targets. The suspected Taliban militants were nowhere to be found. But in a nearby doorway, four bodies lay on the ground — a man, a teenage girl and two children.

Baseer says he crouched by the bodies, his helmet camera capturing the carnage. The children were so covered in blood that it was difficult to guess their ages. The teenager’s body was twisted at an unnatural angle. “Don’t touch them,” Baseer said his commander ordered, calling the soldiers back to the trucks.

Baseer and Hadi looked at me angrily. “The militants were not in the target house,” Baseer said. “They were not even inside the village. They had changed location and started firing on us from behind,” he said. He paused and locked eyes with Hadi.

“I can’t say who killed them, the Americans or us … all of us were shooting,” he said, and there were no Taliban members residing in the compound they targeted. “The intelligence was incorrect. Or the Taliban had better intelligence than us.”

The raid, though it was like so many others, felt like a tipping point. They returned to the base that night with questions and anger. It was the responsibility of their commander to write the after-action report and send it up the chain of command, and they didn’t know if it included the four dead. After the raid, they asked him if anything would be done about those killed, but they said they never got an answer.

Instead, they said, all the soldiers on the raid were required to sign a battle damage assessment, prewritten by their superior, along with a nondisclosure agreement. The assessment, Baseer said, noted no civilian casualties.

“These deaths happened at our hands. I have participated in many raids,” Hadi said, his voice thin and raspy, “and there have been hundreds of raids where someone is killed and they are not Taliban or ISIS, and where no militants are present at all.”

The person I really needed to talk to, prominent Afghan officials said, was Rahmatulah Nabil. The former director of the National Directorate of Security had overseen the units during a critical transition period that began in 2012, when the CIA gave the Afghan intelligence agency nominal control. Although Nabil was no longer at NDS, I’d come to learn his ears, and his hands, are everywhere.

For months, Nabil avoided me, but in September I received a message around 1:30 a.m. telling me to meet him at his Kabul home later that day. I was granted 30 minutes. After navigating a maze of towering, pockmarked blast walls, a taxi dumped me by a nondescript gate in the east of the capital. Nabil was a compromised man, so when I saw six men guarding a gate, I knew I was in the right spot.

I was buzzed through a series of armored doors and guided into a large basement room by two burly bodyguards. The room was adorned with backlit murals of turquoise lakes under snow-capped mountains. Dozens of velvet chairs lined the walls and a few men milled around at the door. Nabil strode in and took a seat in a chair at the end of the room, larger than the others and with gold trim. He crossed his legs, lit a cigarette and asked if he could use my tea saucer as his ashtray. Before I could answer, he reached over and took it.

The conversation started easily enough. The CIA, he said, provided the logistics, intelligence and money in cash, and the Zero Units “conduct” the raids and “deliver” the target, with U.S. special operations forces soldiers joining in. If there was an area where the Americans didn’t have a presence, they had the Zero Units to go there for them, he said. “They needed us and we needed them.” Nabil oversaw the units from 2010 — around two years after their founding — until December 2015, except for a short stint as deputy national security adviser.

In 2014, with local anger growing over the raids, Nabil said, the U.S. and Afghan governments signed a security agreement that all American operations must be approved by the Afghan government, a protocol that was “followed for a while.” The agreement also gave the units more autonomy to conduct raids of their own.

Under such an arrangement, I asked, who’s responsible when the Zero Units get it wrong? The U.S., Nabil said matter-of-factly. “If they provided the intelligence, and the intelligence turns out to be false.”

But he also said that if the system was working, the Afghan government “should take responsibility” because all intelligence is supposed to go through it as well.

He switched the subject to how he professionalized the Zero Units, instituting a code of conduct after “something really horrible happened” and the government asked him what the rules of engagement were. Soldiers, he explained, killed the wrong target, perhaps because of what he called “personal” problems with local people.

“Before me,” he said, “they were basically without any laws. The U.S. was under pressure before because these units were misusing their power.” Nabil said the United States’ plan to staff the units with local Afghans who were “cheaper” and knew the area had backfired. The U.S., he said, failed to understand that tribal ties might cause the Afghan soldiers to provide false intelligence or have conflicted allegiances.

Nabil said he also oversaw the creation of the Afghan National Threat Intelligence Center in 2015. Known as Nasrat, it unified Afghan intelligence used in combat operations with the help of Resolute Support, the NATO-led multinational mission in Afghanistan. “It was because some of these operations went wrong that we put this center together,” he said.

I interrupted this mild boasting to tell him that I’d been tracking all the operations that the 02 unit had recently gotten wrong, killing civilians. He turned to face me. Despite some problems, he said firmly, the majority of the operations were correct.

I told him that I’d seen videos of civilians killed by the 02 unit. Even though he’d left the agency, had he seen those videos?

Nabil paused and the conversation took a startling shift. “Yeah, but the problem is, nobody takes it seriously.” When these accidents increase, you become used to these deaths, he said, “and then you lose the sense of seriousness. Like when you see blood for the first time, you feel something. Tenth time, nothing.”

In 2019, I said, I found more deaths due to incorrect targeting or crossfire than any other year, pulling my crumpled notes from my pocket to show him just how many I had found.

“Yes, I agree,” Nabil interrupted, without looking at my notes, then offered a startling admission: He was aware that the units had been going on operations based on botched intelligence and that the soldiers, the commanders and higher-ups had faced no consequences if civilian deaths resulted. Nabil said he didn’t know how many civilians had been killed. He believed, in the end, that the units were used as tools by both sides, and that their targets were not always legitimate.

“One of the operations went wrong in Bagrami District and I went to the family myself and said: ‘We are sorry. … We want to be different from the Taliban.’ And I mean we did, we wanted to be different from the Taliban,” he said, trailing off.

After months of searching, the only night raid I could find that the Afghan government said it investigated was one so audacious that it captured the attention of both the current and former Afghan president. The raid killed four brothers, including one who was a legal adviser to the Afghan Senate and another who was a lawyer.

The night of the September 2019 raid, the family was at their home in Jalalabad, celebrating the recent return of one of the brothers from a religious pilgrimage. Qadir Seddiqi, the eldest brother who worked in the Senate, was in his room sleeping with his 10-day-old son in the crook of his arm. His father was joking with the youngest brother, while the other two drank tea with their mother.

After the raid, the 02 unit posted pictures on the NDS Facebook page of the brothers with weapons laid across their bodies, declaring that four ISKP militants had been killed. But when Shirzad and I visited in October 2020, family members told us that the photos were staged after the fact.

Mohammad Ibrahim, who found his nephews that night, believed the staging was to make them look like they had been killed because they had guns. As he talks, Ibrahim is jittery and keeps his head tilted, preoccupied by a helicopter circling above us in the fading light. Accounts of weapons being planted have emerged in several eyewitness reports about controversial operations led by British and Australian troops.

That night, the Zero Unit soldiers bound the brothers’ hands and wrote their names on pieces of tape they stuck to each man before shooting them, said their cousin Wasiullah. “That was the last time I saw my cousins, with labels on them.”

Wasiullah said a hood was placed over his head and he and eight others were taken to Forward Operating Base Fenty, the home of the 02, to gather biometrics, including facial images, iris scans and fingerprints. They were then left in a cell overnight, he said.

A day later, on President Ashraf Ghani’s orders, an investigative team arrived from Kabul. It was joined by prosecutors, the governor and the NDS director. “We gave them evidence,” Ibrahim said, including a bullet that had gone straight through one of the brother’s feet and into the mattress beneath him. One of the brothers was shot in the head and stabbed; another was “shot in the hands and feet and then twice in his head,” Ibrahim said. “His wedding ceremony was only two weeks away. My heart broke.”

A press release issued by the NDS initially claimed that the 02 soldiers targeted alleged members of the Islamic State. Afghan government officials later backtracked and admitted that the brothers were innocent. The provincial government said in a statement that the 02 had conducted the raid.

After the family protested, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, the director of the NDS at the time, resigned. Ghani tweeted that the raid happened despite “previous assurances and changes in guidelines” for operations and declared that there was “zero tolerance for civilian casualties.” He ordered the attorney general to investigate the incident immediately “and to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Family members said they were assured that an investigation would be carried out into the incident but told me they were never contacted again.

As my tally of the dead and injured grew, tracking civilian deaths through official American channels was proving nearly impossible. Afghan officials told me they lacked the resources to investigate and reiterated that these were CIA operations. Researchers and experts questioned whether “collateral” deaths could even be tracked, arguing that such a count would be classified.

Michel Paradis, a national security expert at Columbia Law School and a senior attorney with the Department of Defense, said that civilian deaths during U.S.-Afghan operations can fall into a bureaucratic gray area, with no one interested in claiming casualties they don’t have to.

Under the international Law of Armed Conflict, the military must differentiate between civilian and combatant, but in Afghanistan civilians and fighters often live in the same villages. I found that civilian casualties could easily be shifted to categories that allow them to be labeled as legitimate kills. In Afghanistan, there are many reasons one would need to protect themself. If a woman picks up a gun because masked men with weapons have invaded her home in the middle of the night, she could be labeled a combatant, involved in “direct participation in hostilities,” despite any other evidence.

The law specifies that “in case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian,” and it’s up to the military to establish “combatant status.” In reality, I found the families of those targeted in Zero Unit raids had no way to prove otherwise. And it was impossible to find out how, or if, the CIA recorded their deaths. And then there were those whose deaths were written off as “collateral.”

Two lawyers working for years with whistleblowers on Afghanistan war crimes told me they’d experienced similar roadblocks. “There is not any real desire from the Pentagon or the executive branch to track civilian casualties accurately,” said Jesselyn Radack, a national security and human rights attorney who represented Daniel Hale, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst, among others. Hale was convicted for disclosing classified information that nearly 90% of the people killed by U.S airstrikes in Afghanistan were not the intended targets. Radack said Afghans who were killed because of faulty intelligence or botched raids were often classified as if they were caught in legitimate crossfire or were part of a terrorist group.

Radack said she’d seen official accounts from operations in Afghanistan in which children killed by mistake were called “TITS,” or terrorists in training. Or, she said, a child “had the wrong father, so he was adjacent to terrorist activities. The ages of children had been changed to make them appear older than they were. … The pressure to make civilian casualties not civilian casualties is pretty intense.”

By the time the reports get to the congressional oversight committees, she said, they’re “undercounting deaths and overstating accuracy.”

She and others I spoke to said they believe U.S. officials create the impression that the night raid strategy is effective by “sanitizing,” or removing relevant details from, the reports before they are shared with Congress.

A CIA official denied this: “When reports — which can be lengthy — are provided to the Hill, they are not ‘sanitized,’ but simply summarized as is regular practice.”

Congressional aides and former intelligence committee staffers said they don’t believe they’re getting an accurate picture of the CIA’s overseas operations. They added that intelligence committee members who theoretically monitor such operations lack the capacity, and sometimes the willpower, to get information about the programs — or even understand which questions to ask.

A congressional source on the House Foreign Affairs Committee told me that Congress had also abdicated its authority over the CIA’s operations. “It is really clear that we have backed a lot of groups that did pretty horrific things,” he said. “It benefits people up here to not have to actually deal with these sort of things.”

Over the years, the task of publicly counting the dead had fallen to human rights organizations, which have produced a series of strongly worded, but largely ineffectual, reports detailing some incidental deaths, summary executions, torture and disappearances resulting from the Zero Units’ night raids. Even so, more than a dozen human rights groups I spoke to conceded it’s nearly impossible to track such incidents, especially those involving civilians.

The only organization I found that appeared to be consistently attempting to document those killed during raids was the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. It reported on one raid in which NDS special forces supported by international soldiers entered a medical clinic in 2019 and “shot and killed three civilian males, two of whom worked at the clinic and one of whom was accompanying a patient.” The organization said deaths of civilians during the operations in 2019 were at their highest level since 2009. They found that the 02 unit alone killed 80 civilians and injured 17.

In trying to count the civilian dead from 02 raids from June 2017 through July 2021, Shirzad and I used news reports, nongovernmental sources and eyewitness reports. We mapped the raids using geographical coordinates and satellite imagery, then used medical records, birth and death certificates, in-person witness interviews and a forensic database to identify the dead.

At medical facilities, doctors told us they’d never been contacted by Afghan or U.S. investigators or human rights groups about the fate of those injured in the raids. Some of them later died, quietly boosting the casualty count.

One coroner in Jalalabad described how, at times, 02 soldiers had brought bodies to the morgue themselves, dismissing the staff and using the facilities before leaving with the dead. These deaths were not allowed to be recorded by him or other staff.

After years of searching, we realized that our resulting tally of at least 452 civilians killed during 107 raids was almost certainly an undercount. In some of these raids, authorities claimed to have killed or captured insurgents, an assertion that is difficult to independently substantiate. There were hundreds of additional operations in which we couldn’t determine if the dead were civilians or militants.

And this count also does not capture another cost of the raids: all of those who were injured, sometimes suffering permanent disabilities. Among those I met was a young man who’d been struck in the cheek by shrapnel. Unable to afford surgery to remove it, the metal shard migrated to his eye, leaving him partially blind.

Shirzad and I were overwhelmed. We kept thinking: If this count was from just one of the four units for just four years, what was the full tally?

In the spring of 2021, I squeezed into the backseat of a beat-up Toyota Corolla off the highway between Kabul and Jalalabad to tell Baseer and Hadi that I’d finally tracked down what happened in the raid that they had told me about back in October 2019.

It had taken me a year and a half to find any record corroborating the raid at Kamal Khel despite the four civilians killed. Then I discovered a radio reporter who had gone to the site the following day.

In Kamal Khel, the relatives of the dead met me and described what happened: That July day, a drone had dropped a missile just outside their mosque, killing 13 people, including Nasibullah, 11, and injuring his cousin Sebghatullah, 18, who died in his brother’s arms on the way to the hospital. Such airstrikes often came in tandem with the ground operations.

Later that night — when Baseer and Hadi and the Zero Unit descended on their home — the family was still awake, in shock, and mourning their deaths. Nasibullah’s body was cradled in the arms of his grandfather, Ghulam Rasul.

Chaos ensued in the blaze of explosions and gunfire. Masked soldiers stormed into the house, forcing the men outside to face the courtyard wall until the soldiers had left.

Only then did Rasul find his 16-year-old granddaughter, badly injured in the hand and abdomen, lying on the ground by the bodies of Nasibullah and Sebghatullah. She later died. Her uncle had also been shot in the raid and died from his injuries. Rasul’s wife and a grandson were injured.

Rasul, who was forced to drop his dead grandson and flee when the shooting started, said that when he protested the killings, the provincial governor told him, “They have their own intelligence and they do their own operation.”

At the end of the meeting, Rasul told me bitterly, “the provincial governor gave us a parcel of rice, a can of oil and some sugar” as compensation for their loss. But no one ever told the family members why they were targeted or if the Zero Unit had simply got it wrong.

Baseer said it didn’t make a difference who had killed the family, a drone strike or the unit. “They were just children.” He paused, “I don’t know how in any meaningful way I can say I am sorry to that family. How do I even express it? I can’t.”

“I have had the feeling many times, you know, when you feel like you’re trapped in a corner, with no way out … but I made the choice, I joined the unit, and there’s nothing I can do to undo it now,” he said.

In the three years I’d spent interviewing Baseer and Hadi, I’d come to see them as flawed soldiers who, in their way, were trying to pull some good out of their lot by sharing what they know, even if it meant exposing their role in killing innocents.

Hadi said that Afghans lived in fear. “They get killed by all — if it’s 02, if it’s Taliban, ISIS, criminals and others. It’s the same for them. Everyone kills these civilian Afghans.”

Hadi whispered to himself: “In war, nobody wins. I have caused unforgivable pain on my people. We can’t ignore these deaths. Our minds are damaged, too. So are the Americans’.”

But neither Baseer or Hadi believed that there would be a day of reckoning for the Zero Units. As our conversation ended, they climbed out of the car and disappeared into the night.

Early in my reporting, a former U.S. special operations forces member told me that “no one would give a shit” about the killing of Afghan civilians. But it “would be more of a story” if I had American soldiers coming forward. Since then, I’d been searching for an American willing to speak candidly about his time with a Zero Unit.

It shouldn’t be that hard, I reasoned. The CIA had been pointing Army Rangers and other special operations forces at targets in Afghanistan for more than a decade.

My conversations with a Ranger I call Jason, who agreed to talk as long as I withheld identifying details about him, started over the phone after he’d left Afghanistan and finished several months later when I traveled to meet him in the United States just two weeks after the final U.S. planes left Kabul. I confirmed his service with one of the units and corroborated his impressions with other Rangers.

When we first began talking, Jason had recently left a stint with a Zero Unit after six years with two unrelated Afghan special forces units who joined the Rangers on night raids throughout the country. Now he was sitting in a booth in a diner in the heart of the Great Plains watching the Taliban set up their new government more than 7,000 miles away.

The Department of Defense did not respond to questions about the Zero Unit operations.

He was stocky and trying to sit tall, perhaps to appear taller than he was, even though he wore flip-flops.

Initially, he was focused, puffing his chest out as he talked. He wanted me to know that he understood Afghanistan. His reasons for joining the fight echoed those of Hadi’s, “to catch the bad guys,” but like his Afghan counterpart, he now wondered if the units’ mission had been squandered. His rage is not over the civilians killed — those, he said, are the cost of war — but for the terrorists left alive.

I asked him to lead me through how the raids worked and how intelligence could go wrong. “That just happens. If you do enough operations, there’s gonna be some times where it’s not the right person. The intelligence isn’t perfect.”

As the conversation went on, he began waffling: They didn’t kill civilians. They never botched operations. They just shot back. OK, they did kill them, but they were just collateral.

I was startled to learn that military planners baked potential “collateral damage” into the pre-raid calculus they prepared from overhead photography and other intelligence. “Ninety percent of the casualties are because you just can’t see them,” Jason said. “We have something we call a slant, which predicts the number of people in the compound. So 3/6/8 is 3 men, 6 women and 8 children. But because the women and children are hidden inside, that slant in reality will end up being 3/14/36, and a lot of times it’s the kids and women who get caught in the crossfire.”

In other cases, he said, civilians just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. “There’s a time we threw a grenade into a hole where an ISIS guy was,” he said. “But there were a bunch of women and kids and in the crossfire a pregnant woman got shot. She was fine, but obviously the kids’ eardrums exploded and everything like that.”

During his four months with the Zero Units, Jason said, Americans were often present at every stage of the operation. The questioning of suspects at the scene was done by the Afghan soldiers, and the “verification” of terrorists was typically done by the American soldiers through biometrics “or people at the site of the raid saying they are terrorists.”

“While the unit did get some known bad guys,” he said, it was also sent after the wrong people or just low-level Taliban to boost their count.

He initially tells me that every death was accounted for in after-action reports and sent up the chain of command, and that any raid gone wrong was investigated. The reports included “what went well and what went bad and how to fix it,” he said, and were written by senior commanders.

When I told him that his account conflicts with what I discovered, that the injured often died later or in hospitals and that the dead were sometimes misidentified as insurgents, he paused, then conceded that only those at the scene would know if they counted the dead and if they double-checked who they had killed.

“I don’t know how many times we said we killed this one Taliban commander before we actually killed him,” he said. “But the U.S. just claimed they got the right guy.”

I was working to put the final touches on my reporting when I began to see alarming reports from Afghanistan. City after city had surrendered to the Taliban. U.S. authorities were scrambling to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans with ties to the American forces from the Kabul airport. The Zero Units had been deployed as a last line of resistance against the Taliban. In the end, they stood arms’ reach from one another securing the airport. Only some Zero Unit members made it out of the country.

Months later, I returned to see what was left of America’s secret war. Government offices were now inhabited by the Taliban, who targeted enemies much as the Zero Units did. The news archives I’d scoured had been deleted and the statistical records burned. The families of some victims had left the homes that bore the Zero Units’ bullet holes. The Afghan government officials who once brushed me off were now texting me to help them leave the country. And those heavily armed, widely feared Zero Unit trucks? They were now being used by the Taliban, who rode around the streets aimlessly with brand-new, American-made M4 rifles on their laps.

Baseer is one of those left behind. Our final meeting was at the fish restaurant where we’d first talked three years earlier. He and others who had served with the 02 were living off the grid. The Americans’ promises that they would never abandon their Afghan allies had proven empty.

After sending me months of desperate texts from different hiding spots, Baseer told me he no longer wants to leave his homeland. He said he realized he fought a messy, failed war for a country that he now believes never cared about Afghanistan. Angry, bitter and disappointed, he wants no part of America.

His feelings are the same reason that the Taliban grew, he said. “The U.S. and our NDS made a lot of enemies,” he said. “Look at me now. I will never support an American war in Afghanistan again.” (After months on the run, Baseer would later be detained by the Taliban. No one has been able to contact Hadi since the Taliban takeover. He is presumed to have been killed.)

After the fall of Kabul, my reporting partner and now friend, Shirzad, was airlifted with, ironically, thousands of Zero Unit soldiers and their families to Fort Dix in New Jersey. He was deeply troubled by the units’ killing of Afghans. But amid the foreignness of America, the soldiers were just Afghans like him, lost and frightened. He sounded almost confused by this realization. In December, he was finally allowed to leave Fort Dix to study for a doctorate at an American university.

I tried to find out what the U.S. was going to do with all the men it had trained to kill with precision. Would it just dump them into America? Or would it find a new use for them?

Only one of the 02 unit commanders picked up my call. He’d just arrived in Sacramento, California, after five months at a U.S. base and 20 days in a hotel in Los Angeles. There is no plan yet for him or his men. They’d been dispersed across the country, “but our skills and abilities are not being utilized and we are jobless.”

As for me, the trauma of compiling a body count had taken a toll. As I processed the grief of family after family and the photographs of blood-soaked bodies, I started waking up with bruises on my arms and legs. “It’s a psychosomatic disorder,” a psychologist friend told me. The splotches had started appearing, I realized, when I started sharing my personal story for the first time. It made me wonder what kind of bruises the Zero Units, and America, had left on Afghanistan.

I was devastated to find out that Mahzala died quietly in her home in December, just days from the anniversary of her sons’ deaths. She never got her answers.

Neither did I. The path to Pakistan to uncover my mother’s roots still taunts me, as do the questions about what happened the night of the attack that killed her. For now, the answers remain buried under so many other tragedies.

In the end, I got closure for my own personal story from the unlikeliest source: Baseer. He was not the one who killed my mother and sister, but he was a perpetrator nonetheless. Seeing his remorse, his torment over the hideous things he’d done to his country and his compatriots for someone else’s agenda loosened something in me.

“It will be good if you leave Afghanistan as soon as possible,” he said, warning of escalating violence. “At first I was thinking: ‘Everyone wants to get a visa to go out. Why do you want to come in?’” As he got up to leave, he turned to me. “I understand it now; I understand you now. You came for your story, not mine.”

In the summer of 2022, I was in Afghanistan on another story when I was approached by a skinny teenager named Spin Ghar who wanted my help reading a letter from the U.S. military. Six years earlier, he told me, he’d been shot by 02 soldiers next to his home outside their base in Jalalabad. He was 12 when it happened, pulling up his shirt to show me scars from three bullet wounds. He still lives next to the once heavily fortified base, which is now empty, except for a lone Talib on his phone.

After the shooting, he received surgery at two U.S. bases, he said. The 02 soldiers gave his family the commander’s name and number. “They said they would give assistance.”

He showed me the claim form, which had been filled out in English by the Americans at the base. His age had been bumped up to 14.

In 2020, they finally received the letter, written in English. I told him the letter said the U.S. military had rejected his claim: “I understand that you suffered a serious injury in the incident, and sympathize with your situation,” wrote Capt. Andrew R. Dieselman, the U.S. foreign claims commissioner at the Jalalabad air base. “Unfortunately, because our investigation determined U.S. Forces were not involved in the incident, I am unable to compensate you.”

Spin Ghar looked straight ahead in silence and finally seemed to gather some strength, turning to me and saying, “What should I do now?”

Resolute Support, which is named on the letterhead, told me my questions are best directed to the CIA.

As I left Spin Ghar’s home that day, feeling helpless yet again, a woman, his neighbor, rushed toward me, waving a piece of paper. It was a claims card from a U.S. task force. Her sister, she said, “lost her mind” in 2019 after an American drone crashed into their house right next to the base, killing all three of her young children.

She asked me to take the claims card to the Americans. I told her the Americans have left Afghanistan.

She looked at me stunned. She had no idea. “When are they coming back?”

How We Reported This Story

Via ProPublica

Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

How Ron DeSantis Blew Up Black-Held Congressional Districts and May Have Broken Florida Law Sat, 12 Nov 2022 05:10:11 +0000 By Joshua Kaplan | –

( ProPublica ) – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was incensed. Late last year, the state’s Republican legislature had drawn congressional maps that largely kept districts intact, leaving the GOP with only a modest electoral advantage.

DeSantis threw out the legislature’s work and redrew Florida’s congressional districts, making them far more favorable to Republicans. The plan was so aggressive that the Republican-controlled legislature balked and fought DeSantis for months. The governor overruled lawmakers and pushed his map through.

DeSantis’ office has publicly stressed that partisan considerations played no role and that partisan operatives were not involved in the new map.

A ProPublica examination of how that map was drawn — and who helped decide its new boundaries — reveals a much different origin story. The new details show that the governor’s office appears to have misled the public and the state legislature and may also have violated Florida law.

DeSantis aides worked behind the scenes with an attorney who serves as the national GOP’s top redistricting lawyer and other consultants tied to the national party apparatus, according to records and interviews.

Florida’s constitution was amended in 2010 to prohibit partisan-driven redistricting, a landmark effort in the growing movement to end gerrymandering as an inescapable feature of American politics.

Barbara Pariente, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who retired in 2019, told ProPublica that DeSantis’ collaboration with people connected to the national GOP would constitute “significant evidence of a violation of the constitutional amendment.”

“If that evidence was offered in a trial, the fact that DeSantis was getting input from someone working with the Republican Party and who’s also working in other states — that would be very powerful,” said Pariente, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by Democrat Lawton Chiles.

A meeting invite obtained by ProPublica shows that on Jan. 5, top DeSantis aides had a “Florida Redistricting Kick-off Call” with out-of-state operatives. Those outsiders had also been working with states across the country to help the Republican Party create a favorable election map. In the days after the call, the key GOP law firm working for DeSantis logged dozens of hours on the effort, invoices show. The firm has since billed the state more than $450,000 for its work on redistricting.

A week and a half after the call, DeSantis unveiled his new map. No Florida governor had ever pushed their own district lines before. His plan wiped away half of the state’s Black-dominated congressional districts, dramatically curtailing Black voting power in America’s largest swing state.

One of the districts, held by Democrat Al Lawson, had been created by the Florida Supreme Court just seven years before. Stretching along a swath of north Florida once dominated by tobacco and cotton plantations, it had drawn together Black communities largely populated by the descendants of sharecroppers and slaves. DeSantis shattered it, breaking the district into four pieces. He then tucked each fragment away in a majority-white, heavily Republican district.

DeSantis’ strong-arming of his Republican allies was covered extensively by the Florida press. But until now, little has emerged about how the governor crafted his bold move and who his office worked with. To reconstruct DeSantis’ groundbreaking undertaking, ProPublica interviewed dozens of consultants, legislators and political operatives and reviewed thousands of pages of documents obtained through public records requests and from the nonpartisan watchdog group American Oversight.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to detailed questions for this story.

“Florida’s Governor fought for a legal map — unlike the gerrymandered plan the Governor rightly vetoed,” Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, whose top lawyer was hired by DeSantis’ office, said in an email to ProPublica. “If Governor DeSantis retained some of the best redistricting lawyers and experts in the country to advise him then that speaks to the good judgment of the Governor, not some alleged partisan motive.”

In four years as governor, DeSantis has championed an array of controversial policies and repeatedly used his power to punish his political opponents. A presumptive candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, he has often made moves that seemed tailored to attract headlines, such as his recent stunt sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. But it’s the governor’s less flashy commandeering of the redistricting process that may ultimately have the most long-lasting consequences.

Analysts predict that DeSantis’ map will give the GOP four more members of Congress from Florida, the largest gain by either party in any state. If the forecasts hold, Republicans will win 20 of Florida’s 28 seats in the upcoming midterms — meaning that Republicans would control more than 70% of the House delegation in a state where Trump won just over half of the vote.

The reverberations of DeSantis’ effort could go beyond Florida in another way. His erasure of Lawson’s seat broke long-held norms and invited racial discrimination lawsuits, experts said. Six political scientists and law professors who study voting rights told ProPublica it’s the first instance they’re aware of where a state so thoroughly dismantled a Black-dominated district. If the governor prevails against suits challenging his map, he will have forged a path for Republicans all over the country to take aim at Black-held districts.

“To the extent that this is successful, it’s going to be replicated in other states. There’s no question,” said Michael Latner, a political science professor at California Polytechnic State University who studies redistricting. “The repercussions are so broad that it’s kind of terrifying.”

Al Lawson’s district, now wiped away by DeSantis, had been created in response to an earlier episode of surreptitious gerrymandering in Florida.

Twelve years ago, Florida became one of the first states to outlaw partisan gerrymandering. Through a ballot initiative that passed with 63% of the vote, Florida citizens enshrined the so-called Fair Districts amendment in the state constitution. The amendment prohibited drawing maps with “the intent to favor or disfavor a political party.” It also created new protections for minority communities, in a state that’s 17% Black, forming a backstop as the U.S. Supreme Court chipped away at the federal Voting Rights Act.

Florida elected its first Black member of Congress, a former slave named Josiah Walls, in 1870, shortly after the end of the Civil War. But Florida rapidly enacted new voter suppression laws, and Walls soon lost his office as Reconstruction gave way to the era of Jim Crow.

Thanks to distorted maps, Florida did not elect a second Black representative to Congress until 1992. That year, a federal court created three plurality-Black districts in Florida — and then three Black politicians won seats in the U.S. House.

After the Fair Districts amendment became law in 2010, state legislators promised to conduct what one called “the most transparent, open, and interactive redistricting process in America.” Policymakers went on tour across the state, hosting public hearings where their constituents could learn about the legislature’s decision-making and voice their concerns.

The hearings also served a more nefarious purpose, a judge would later rule. They were instrumental in what state circuit judge Terry Lewis described as “a conspiracy to influence and manipulate the Legislature into a violation of its constitutional duty.”

For months, a team of state-level Republican operatives worked in secret to craft maps that favored the GOP, coordinating with both statehouse leadership and the Republican National Committee. Then they recruited civilians to attend the hearings and submit the maps as their own.

An email detailed the advice the operatives gave their recruits. “Do NOT identify oneself orally or in writing,” it read, “as a part of the Republican party. It is more than OK to represent oneself as just a citizen.”

It took years of litigation for the details of the scheme to come to light. But in 2015, the Florida Supreme Court responded with force. In a series of rulings that ultimately rejected the Republicans’ efforts, the court laid out the stringent new requirements under Fair Districts, making clear that partisan “practices that have been acceptable in the past” were now illegal in the state of Florida.

After ruling that the legislature’s process was unconstitutional, the court threw out the Republicans’ congressional district lines and imposed a map of their own. That is how Lawson’s district came to be.

“It was important,” Pariente, who authored the key opinions, told ProPublica, “to make sure the amendment had teeth and was enforceable.”

The amendment took on even greater significance in 2019, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on redistricting.

The court’s decision in Rucho v. Common Cause barred federal court challenges to partisan gerrymanders. Writing for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said it was not an issue for the federal judiciary to decide, but emphasized the ruling did not “condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void.”

In fact, the issue was being actively addressed at the state level, Roberts wrote. He cited Florida’s amendment and one of Pariente’s opinions. Responding to liberal justices who wanted to reject Rucho’s map as an unconstitutional gerrymander, Roberts wrote they could not because “there is no ‘Fair Districts Amendment’ to the Federal Constitution.”

In 2021, state legislative leaders were more careful.

The senate instructed its members to “insulate themselves from partisan-funded organizations” and others who might harbor partisan motivations, reminding legislators that a court could see conversations with outsiders as evidence of unconstitutional intent. The legislature imposed stringent transparency requirements, like publishing emails that it received from constituents. And they ordered their staff to base their decisions exclusively on the criteria “adopted by the citizens of Florida.”

The Senate leadership “explained to us at the beginning of the session that because of what happened last cycle, everything had to go through the process,” Sen. Joe Gruters, who is also chairman of the Florida Republican Party, told ProPublica.

In November, the state senate proposed maps that largely stuck to the status quo. Analysts predicted they would give Republicans 16 seats in Congress and Democrats 12.

“Were they the fairest maps you could draw? No,” said Ellen Freidin, leader of the anti-gerrymandering advocacy group FairDistricts Now. “But they weren’t bad Republican gerrymanders.”

DeSantis wasn’t satisfied. “The governor’s office was very pissed off about the map. They thought it was weak,” said a well-connected Florida Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could be candid. “They thought it was ridiculous to not even try to make it as advantageous as possible.”

In early January, DeSantis’ deputy chief of staff, Alex Kelly, was quietly assigned to oversee a small team that would devise an alternative proposal, according to Kelly’s later testimony.

State employees often spend years preparing for the redistricting process — time that DeSantis did not have. As Kelly and his colleagues set to work, they brought in critical help from the D.C. suburbs: Jason Torchinsky, a Republican election attorney and one of the leading GOP strategists for redistricting nationwide.

On Jan. 5, Kelly and two other top DeSantis aides had the redistricting “kick-off call,” according to the meeting invite, which was provided to ProPublica by American Oversight. The invitation included Torchinsky and another guest from out of state: Thomas Bryan, a redistricting specialist.

In an interview with ProPublica, Bryan explained the connection between the national Republican Party and his work with DeSantis. “There’s a core group of attorneys that works with the party and then they work with specific states,” he said. “It’s not a coincidence that I worked on Texas, Florida, Virginia, Kansas, Michigan, Alabama.”

He added that the main lawyer he works with is Torchinsky: “Jason will say, ‘I want you to work on this state.’”

A top partner at a conservative law firm, Torchinsky has represented the RNC, the Republican Party of Florida and many of America’s most influential right-wing groups, such as the Koch network’s Americans for Prosperity.

He also occupies a central role in the Republican Party’s efforts to swing Congress in its favor in 2022. Torchinsky is the general counsel and senior advisor to the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the entity the Republican National Committee helped set up to manage the party’s redistricting operations.

The NRRT boasts millions of dollars in funding and a roster of prominent advisors that includes Mike Pompeo and Karl Rove. Earlier this year, Kincaid, the trust’s executive director, summarized its objective bluntly: “Take vulnerable incumbents off the board, go on offense and create an opportunity to take and hold the House for the decade.”

In a statement to ProPublica, Kincaid said that the trust is one of Torchinsky’s many clients and that the lawyer’s work in Florida was separate: “When I would ask Jason what was happening in Florida, he would tell me his conversations were privileged.” Kincaid added that he personally did not speak with anyone in the DeSantis administration “during this redistricting cycle.”

Torchinsky’s involvement in the creation of DeSantis’ map has not been previously reported. His role in the process appears to have been intimate and extensive, though the specifics of his contributions are largely unclear. He spent more than 100 hours working for the DeSantis administration on redistricting, according to invoices sent to the Florida Department of State.

Torchinsky held repeated meetings with DeSantis’ team as the group crafted maps and navigated the ensuing political battles, according to documents obtained by ProPublica. And he brought in other operatives who’d worked around the country in priority states for the national GOP.

A week after the kickoff meeting, Torchinsky scheduled a Zoom call between Kelly, Bryan and a second consultant, Adam Foltz.

Foltz and Bryan arrived in Florida just as they were becoming go-to mapmakers for the GOP. They appeared together in multiple states where the NRRT was directly involved last year, generating controversy in their wake.

In Texas, Foltz, Bryan and the NRRT’s leader, Kincaid, all worked behind the scenes helping draw maps, court records show. After they finished, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas, contending that the map violated the Voting Rights Act and illegally diluted Black and Latino votes. The case is still pending.

Last fall in Virginia, each party submitted three candidates to the state supreme court to guide the state’s redistricting process. The Democrats put forward three professors. Republicans submitted Bryan, Foltz and Kincaid. The court’s conservative majority rejected all three Republican nominees, citing conflicts of interest and “concerns about the ability” of the men to carry out the job neutrally.

In a statement, Kincaid said Foltz and Bryan are not partisan operatives and “the Virginia Supreme Court erred” in rejecting them. He also downplayed his own relationship to the consultants, saying they are not “employees or retained consultants” for his group.

“Adam and Tom are two of the best political demographers in the country,” Kincaid wrote. “It would only make sense that states looking for redistricting experts would retain them.”

Until last year, Foltz had spent his entire career working in Wisconsin politics, on state GOP campaigns and for Republican state legislators, according to court records. He was introduced to redistricting a decade ago when he spent months helping craft maps that became notoriously effective Republican gerrymanders. When he testified under oath that partisanship played no role in the Wisconsin process, a three-judge panel dismissed his claim as “almost laughable.”

Bryan was also a new figure on the national stage. Before 2020, he was a “bit player” in the redistricting industry, he said, running a small consulting company based in Virginia. He’d drawn maps for school districts and for local elections, but never for Congress, and he held a second job in consumer analytics at a large tobacco conglomerate.

“In 2020, my phone started going off the hook, with states either asking to retain me as an expert or to actually draw the lines,” Bryan told ProPublica. “I get phone calls from random places, and I’m on the phone with a governor.” While he mostly worked with Republicans, he was also retained by Illinois Democrats this cycle, according to court records.

Foltz and Bryan’s rapid ascension culminated in Florida. On Jan. 14, Torchinsky set up a third call with Foltz and Kelly. Then two days later, DeSantis released his map.

According to Kelly’s subsequent testimony, Foltz drew the map himself.

“I was completely blindsided,” said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat on the House redistricting committee. “That is the purview of the legislature.”

Foltz declined an interview when reached by phone and did not respond to subsequent requests for comment. Kelly and Torchinsky, who went on to defend DeSantis in a lawsuit against the redistricting, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The House redistricting subcommittee later brought Kelly in to answer questions about DeSantis’ proposals. Before the deputy chief of staff testified, the Democrats’ ranking member moved to place him under oath. Republican legislators blocked the committee from swearing Kelly in.

In his opening statement, Kelly took pains to emphasize that the governor’s office colored within the lines of the Florida constitution.

“I can confirm that I’ve had no discussions with any political consultant,” he testified. “No partisan operative. No political party official.”

This appears to have been misleading. By the time he testified, Kelly had been personally invited to at least five calls to discuss redistricting with Torchinsky, Bryan or Foltz, records show.

Kelly mentioned Foltz only briefly in his testimony. Torchinsky and Bryan’s names didn’t come up.

DeSantis holds as much sway in Tallahassee as any governor in recent memory. But even after he publicly weighed in with a map of his own, Republicans in the legislature didn’t bow down. The state Senate refused to even consider the governor’s version. In late January, they passed their original plan.

DeSantis’ aides argued that Lawson’s district was an “unconstitutional gerrymander,” extending recent precedent that limits states’ ability to deliberately protect Black voting power.

Florida Republicans were skeptical. House Speaker Chris Sprowls told reporters that DeSantis was relying on a “novel legal argument” that lawmakers were unlikely to adopt.

“In the absence of legal precedent,” Sprowls said, “we are going to follow the law.”

On Feb. 11, DeSantis ratcheted up the pressure. He held a press conference reiterating his opposition to Lawson’s district. He vowed to veto any map that left it intact. But he still needed to win over Republican policymakers. Again, DeSantis’ top aides turned to Torchinsky.

In February, Torchinsky helped DeSantis’ staff pick out an expert witness to sell the governor’s vision to the legislature, according to emails provided to ProPublica by American Oversight. Once the group chose an expert, Torchinsky had a call with him in advance of his appearance.

With a deadline to prepare for the November midterms looming, the legislature moved toward compromise. In early March, it passed a new bill that was much closer to DeSantis’ version — but still kept a Democrat-leaning district with a large Black population in North Florida.

The governor’s attempts at persuasion were over.

On Mar. 28, Foltz and Kelly had another call, along with a partner at Torchinsky’s law firm. The next day, DeSantis vetoed the compromise plan.

Democrats were outraged; many Republicans were shocked. “A veto of a bill as significant as that was definitely surprising,” Gruters, the state senator and chair of the Florida GOP, told ProPublica.

Kelly soon submitted a slightly modified version of Foltz’s map to the legislature. This time, the legislature took DeSantis’ proposal and ran with it.

On Apr. 20, Rep. Thomas Leek, the Republican chair of the House redistricting committee, formally presented DeSantis’ plan before the general assembly. When his colleagues asked him who the governor’s staff consulted while drawing the map, Leek told them that he didn’t know.

“I can’t speak to the governor’s entire process,” Leek said. “I can only tell you what Mr. Kelly said.”

The legislature had required everyone submitting a map to file a disclosure form listing the “name of every person(s), group(s), or organization(s) you collaborated with.” Kelly left the form blank.

The legislature voted on party lines and passed DeSantis’ proposal the next day. Anticipating litigation, they also allocated $1 million to defend the map in court.

Before DeSantis even signed the bill into law, a coalition of advocacy groups filed a lawsuit challenging the map in state court.

They soon scored a major victory. Circuit Court Judge J. Layne Smith, a DeSantis appointee, imposed a temporary injunction that would keep Lawson’s district intact through the midterm elections.

“This case is one of fundamental public importance, involving fundamental constitutional rights,” Smith wrote. His ruling cited the lengthy history of Black voter suppression in North Florida and across the state.

That victory was short-lived. Torchinsky’s firm quickly filed an appeal on DeSantis’ behalf. Then, in a unanimous decision in late May, the appellate court allowed DeSantis’ map to move ahead.

The higher court’s opinion was authored by Adam Tanenbaum, a familiar face in Tallahassee. Until DeSantis appointed him to the court in 2019, Tanenbaum was the Florida House’s general counsel, and before that he was general counsel to the Florida Department of State — both of which were parties to the case.

The very day Tanenbaum issued the opinion, he completed an application to fill a vacancy on the Florida Supreme Court, records show. In Florida, Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor, in this case DeSantis.

Tanenbaum was not chosen for the position. He didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The broader case is still pending and is expected to eventually be decided by the state supreme court. Every justice on Florida’s supreme court was appointed by Republicans. The majority of them were chosen by DeSantis.

The deeply conservative body has already demonstrated its willingness to overturn precedent that’s only a few years old. DeSantis’ senior aides have indicated they hope it will do so here.

During his public testimony, Kelly was asked how Lawson’s district could be unconstitutional when it was recently created by Florida’s highest court.

Kelly responded tersely: “The court got it wrong.”

Joshua Kaplan is a reporter 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

Churches Are Breaking the Law by Endorsing in Elections, Experts Say. The IRS Looks the Other Way Thu, 03 Nov 2022 04:06:12 +0000 By Jeremy Schwartz and Jessica Priest | –

Co-published with The Texas Tribune

( ProPublica) – Six days before a local runoff election last year in Frisco, a prosperous and growing suburb of Dallas, Brandon Burden paced the stage of KingdomLife Church. The pastor told congregants that demonic spirits were operating through members of the City Council.

Grasping his Bible with both hands, Burden said God was working through his North Texas congregation to take the country back to its Christian roots. He lamented that he lacked jurisdiction over the state Capitol, where he had gone during the 2021 Texas legislative session to lobby for conservative priorities like expanded gun rights and a ban on abortion.

For nearly 70 years, federal law has barred churches from directly involving themselves in political campaigns, but the IRS has largely abdicated its enforcement responsibilities as churches have become more brazen about publicly backing candidates.

“But you know what I got jurisdiction over this morning is an election coming up on Saturday,” Burden told parishioners. “I got a candidate that God wants to win. I got a mayor that God wants to unseat. God wants to undo. God wants to shift the balance of power in our city. And I have jurisdiction over that this morning.”

What Burden said that day in May 2021 was a violation of a long-standing federal law barring churches and nonprofits from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns, tax law experts told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. Although the provision was mostly uncontroversial for decades after it passed in 1954, it has become a target for both evangelical churches and former President Donald Trump, who vowed to eliminate it.

Burden’s sermon is among those at 18 churches identified by the news organizations over the past two years that appeared to violate the Johnson Amendment, a measure named after its author, former President Lyndon B. Johnson. Some pastors have gone so far as to paint candidates they oppose as demonic.

At one point, churches fretted over losing their tax-exempt status for even unintentional missteps. But the IRS has largely abdicated its enforcement responsibilities as churches have become more brazen. In fact, the number of apparent violations found by ProPublica and the Tribune, and confirmed by three nonprofit tax law experts, are greater than the total number of churches the federal agency has investigated for intervening in political campaigns over the past decade, according to records obtained by the news organizations.

In response to questions, an IRS spokesperson said that the agency “cannot comment on, neither confirm nor deny, investigations in progress, completed in the past nor contemplated.” Asked about enforcement efforts over the past decade, the IRS pointed the news organizations to annual reports that do not contain such information.

Neither Burden nor KingdomLife responded to multiple interview requests or to emailed questions.

Trump’s opposition to the law banning political activity by nonprofits “has given some politically-minded evangelical leaders a sense that the Johnson Amendment just isn’t really an issue anymore, and that they can go ahead and campaign for or against candidates or positions from the pulpit,” said David Brockman, a scholar in religion and public policy at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Among the violations the newsrooms identified: In January, an Alaska pastor told his congregation that he was voting for a GOP candidate who is aiming to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, saying the challenger was the “only candidate for Senate that can flat-out preach.” During a May 15 sermon, a pastor in Rocklin, California, asked voters to get behind “a Christian conservative candidate” challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom. And in July, a New Mexico pastor called Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham “beyond evil” and “demonic” for supporting abortion access. He urged congregants to “vote her behind right out of office” and challenged the media to call him out for violating the Johnson Amendment.

Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who studies Christian nationalism, said the ramping up of political activity by churches could further polarize the country. “It creates hurdles for a healthy, functioning, pluralistic democratic society,” he said. “It’s really hard to overcome.”

The Johnson Amendment does not prohibit churches from inviting political speakers or discussing positions that may seem partisan nor does it restrict voters from making faith-based decisions on who should represent them. But because donations to churches are tax-deductible and because churches don’t have to file financial disclosures with the IRS, without such a rule donors seeking to influence elections could go undetected, said Andrew Seidel, vice president of strategic communications for the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“If you pair the ability to wade into partisan politics with a total absence of financial oversight and transparency, you’re essentially creating super PACs that are black holes,” Seidel said.

Churches have long balanced the tightrope of political involvement, and blatant violations have previously been rare. In the 1960s, the IRS investigated complaints that some churches abused their tax-exempt status by distributing literature that was hostile to the election of John F. Kennedy, the country’s first Catholic president. And in 2004, the federal agency audited All Saints Episcopal Church in California after a pastor gave an anti-war speech that imagined Jesus talking to presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. The pastor did not endorse a candidate but criticized the Iraq war.

Some conservative groups have argued that Black churches are more politically active than their white evangelical counterparts but are not as heavily scrutinized. During the 1984 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Rev. Jesse L. Jackson was accused of turning Sunday sermons into campaign rallies and using Black churches to raise funds. In response to allegations of illegal campaigning, Jackson said at the time that strict guidelines were followed and denied violating the law.

While some Black churches have crossed the line into political endorsements, the long legacy of political activism in these churches stands in sharp contrast to white evangelical churches, where some pastors argue devout Christians must take control of government positions, said Robert Wuthnow, the former director of the Princeton University Center for the Study of Religion.

Wuthnow said long-standing voter outreach efforts inside Black churches, such as Souls to the Polls, which encourages voting on Sundays after church services, largely stay within the boundaries of the law.

“The Black church has been so keenly aware of its marginalized position,” Wuthnow said. “The Black church, historically, was the one place where Black people could mobilize, could organize, could feel that they had some power at the local level. The white evangelical church has power. It’s in office. It’s always had power.”

At the end of his two-hour sermon that May, Burden asserted that his church had a God-given power to choose lawmakers, and he asked others to join him onstage to “secure the gate over the city.”

Burden and a handful of church members crouched down and held on to a rod, at times speaking in tongues. The pastor said intruders such as the mayor, who was not up for reelection last year but who supported one of the candidates in the race for City Council, would be denied access to the gates of the city.

“Now this is bold, but I’m going to say it because I felt it from the Lord. I felt the Lord say, ‘Revoke the mayor’s keys to this gate,’” Burden said. “No more do you have the key to the city. We revoke your key this morning, Mr. Mayor.

“We shut you out of the place of power,” Burden added. “The place of authority and influence.”

Johnson Amendment’s Cold War Roots

Questions about the political involvement of tax-exempt organizations were swirling when Congress ordered an investigation in April 1952 to determine if some foundations were using their money “for un-American and subversive activities.”

Leading the probe was Rep. Gene Cox, a Georgia Democrat who had accused the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, among others, of helping alleged Communists or Communist fronts. Cox died during the investigation, and the final report cleared the foundations of wrongdoing.

But a Republican member of the committee argued for additional scrutiny, and in July 1953, Congress established the House Committee to Investigate Tax-Exempt Foundations. The committee focused heavily on liberal organizations, but it also investigated nonprofits such as the Facts Forum foundation, which was headed by Texas oilman H.L. Hunt, an ardent supporter of then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, a Republican who was best known for holding hearings to investigate suspected Communists.

In July 1954, Johnson, who was then a senator, proposed an amendment to the U.S. tax code that would strip nonprofits of their tax-exempt status for “intervening” in political campaigns. The amendment sailed through Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Johnson never explained his intent. Opponents of the amendment, as well as some academics, say Johnson was motivated by a desire to undercut conservative foundations such as the National Committee to Uphold Constitutional Government, founded by newspaper magnate Frank Gannett, which painted the Democrat as soft on communism and supported his opponent in the primary election. Others have hypothesized that Johnson was hoping to head off a wider crackdown on nonprofit foundations.

Over the next 40 years, the IRS stripped a handful of religious nonprofits of their tax-exempt status. None were churches.

Then, just four days before the 1992 presidential election, Branch Ministries in New York ran two full-page ads in USA Today and The Washington Times urging voters to reject then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, in his challenge to Republican President George H.W. Bush.

The ads proclaimed: “Christian Beware. Do not put the economy ahead of the Ten Commandments.” They asserted that Clinton violated scripture by supporting “abortion on demand,” homosexuality and the distribution of condoms to teenagers in public schools. Clinton, the ads said, was “openly promoting policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws.”

Via Pixabay.

The IRS revoked the church’s tax-exempt status, leading to a long legal battle that ended with a U.S. appeals court siding with the federal agency.

The case remains the only publicly known example of the IRS revoking the tax-exempt status of a church because of its political activity in nearly 70 years. The Congressional Research Service said in 2012 that a second church had lost its tax-exempt status, but that its identity “is not clear.”

Citing an increase in allegations of church political activity leading up to the 2004 presidential election between incumbent Bush and Kerry, IRS officials created the Political Activities Compliance Initiative to fast-track investigations.

Over the next four years, the committee investigated scores of churches, including 80 for endorsing candidates from the pulpit, according to IRS reports. But it did not revoke the tax-exempt status of any. Instead, the IRS mostly sent warning letters that agency officials said were effective in dissuading churches from continuing their political activity, asserting that there were no repeat offenders in that period.

In some cases, the IRS initiated audits of churches that could have led to financial penalties. It’s unclear how many did.

In January 2009, a federal court dismissed an auditinto alleged financial improprieties at a Minnesota church whose pastor had supported the congressional campaign of former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota.

The court found that the IRS had not been following its own rules for a decade because it was tasked with notifying churches of their legal rights before any pending audits and was required to have an appropriately high-level official sign off on them. But a 1998 agency reorganization had eliminated the position, leaving lower IRS employees to initiate church investigations.

Following the ruling, the IRS suspended its investigations into church political activity for five years, according to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report.

During the hiatus, a conservative Christian initiative called Pulpit Freedom Sunday flourished. Pastors recorded themselves endorsing candidates or giving political sermons that they believed violated the Johnson Amendment and sent them to the IRS. The goal, according to participants, was to trigger a lawsuit that would lead to the prohibition being ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The IRS never challenged participating churches, and the effort wound down without achieving its aim.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from ProPublica and the Tribune last year, the IRS produced a severely redacted spreadsheet indicating the agency had launched inquiries into 16 churches since 2011. IRS officials shielded the results of the probes, and they have declined to answer specific questions.

Despite the agency’s limited enforcement, Trump promised shortly after he took office that he would “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”

As president, Trump tried unsuccessfully to remove the restrictions on church politicking through a 2017 executive order. The move was largely symbolic because it simply ordered the government not to punish churches differently than it would any other nonprofit, according to a legal filing by the Justice Department.

Eliminating the Johnson Amendment would require congressional or judicial action.

Although the IRS has not discussed its plans, it has taken procedural steps that would enable it to ramp up audits again if it chooses to.

In 2019, more than two decades after eliminating the high-level position needed to sign off on action against churches, the IRS designated the commissioner of the agency’s tax-exempt and government entities division as the “appropriate high-level Treasury official” with the power to initiate a church audit.

But Philip Hackney, a former IRS attorney and University of Pittsburgh tax law professor, said he doesn’t read too much into that. “I don’t see any reason to believe that the operation of the IRS has changed significantly.”

The Pulpit and Politics

There is no uniform way to monitor church sermons across the country. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches now post their services online, and ProPublica and the Tribune reviewed dozens of them. Many readers shared sermons with us. (You can do so here.)

Texas’ large evangelical population and history of activism in Black churches makes the state a focal point for debates over political activity, said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Combine all of that with the increasing competitiveness of Texas elections, and it’s no surprise that more and more Texas churches are taking on a political role,” he said. “Texas is a perfect arena for widespread, religiously motivated political activism.”

The state also has a long history of politically minded pastors, Wuthnow said. Texas evangelical church leaders joined the fight in support of alcohol prohibition a century ago and spearheaded efforts to defeat Democrat Al Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated for president by a major party, in 1928. In the 1940s, evangelical fundamentalism began to grow in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Today, North Texas remains home to influential pastors such as Robert Jeffress, who leads the First Baptist megachurch in Dallas. Jeffress was one of Trump’s most fervent supporters, appearing at campaign events, defending him on television news shows and stating that he “absolutely” did not regret supporting the former president after the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.

Burden went a step further, urging followers to stock up on food and keep their guns loaded ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. He told parishioners that “prophetic voices” had told him in 2016 that Trump would have eight consecutive years in office.

The Frisco Conservative Coalition board voted to suspend Burden as chair for 30 days after criticism about his remarks.

Burden called his comments “inartful” but claimed he was unfairly targeted for his views. “The establishment media is coming after me,” he saidat the time. “But it is not just about me. People of faith are under attack in this country.”

Since then, Burden has repeatedly preached that the church has been designated by the Lord to decide who should serve in public office and “take dominion” over Frisco.

As the runoff for the Frisco City Council approached last year, Burden supported Jennifer White, a local veterinarian. White had positioned herself as the conservative candidate in the nonpartisan race against Angelia Pelham, a Black human resources executive who had the backing of the Frisco mayor.

White said she wasn’t in attendance during the May 2021 sermon in which Burden called her the “candidate that God wants to win.” She said she does not believe pastors should endorse candidates from the pulpit, but she welcomed churches becoming more politically active.

“I think that the churches over the years have been a big pretty big disappointment to the candidates in that they won’t take a political stance,” White said in an interview. “So I would love it if churches would go ahead and come out and actually discuss things like morality. Not a specific party, but at least make sure people know where the candidates stand on those issues. And how to vote based on that.”

Pelham’s husband, local pastor Dono Pelham, also made a statement that violated the Johnson Amendment by “indirectly intervening” in the campaign, said Ellen Aprill, an emerita tax law professor at Loyola Marymount Law School in Los Angeles

In May 2021, Pelham told his church that the race for a seat on the City Council had resulted in a runoff. He acknowledged that his church’s tax-exempt status prevented him from supporting candidates from the pulpit. Then, he added, “but you’ll get the message.”

“It’s been declared for the two candidates who received the most votes, one of which is my wife,” Pelham said. “That’s just facts. That’s just facts. That’s just facts. And so a runoff is coming and every vote counts. Be sure to vote.”

Pelham then asked the congregation: “How did I do? I did all right, didn’t I? You know I wanted to go a little further, but I didn’t do it.”

Angelia Pelham, who co-founded Life-Changing Faith Christian Fellowship in 2008 with her husband, said the couple tried to avoid violating the Johnson Amendment. Both disagreed that her husband’s mention of her candidacy was a violation.

“I think church and state should remain separate,” Angelia Pelham said in an interview, adding: “But I think there’s a lot of folks in the religious setting that just completely didn’t even consider the line. They erased it completely and lost sight of the Johnson Amendment.”

She declined to discuss Burden’s endorsement of her opponent.

In his sermon the morning after Pelham defeated his chosen candidate, Burden told parishioners that the church’s political involvement would continue.

“So you’re like, but you lost last night? No, we set the stage for the future,” he said, adding “God is uncovering the demonic structure that is in this region.”

“Demonic” Candidate

Most Americans don’t want pastors making endorsements from the pulpit, according to a 2017 survey by the Program for Public Consultation, which is part of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

Of the nearly 2,500 registered voters who were surveyed, 79% opposed getting rid of the Johnson Amendment. Only among Republican evangelical voters did a slight majority — 52% — favor loosening restrictions on church political activity.

But such endorsements are taking place across the country, with some pastors calling for a debate about the Johnson Amendment.

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, New Mexico became an island of abortion access for women in Texas and other neighboring states.

The issue raised the stakes in the upcoming Nov. 8 New Mexico governor’s race between incumbent Lujan Grisham, a supporter of abortion rights, and Republican challenger Mark Ronchetti, who advocates limiting access.

“We’re going to fast become the No. 1 abortion place in all of America,” a pastor, Steve Smothermon, said during a July 10 sermon at Legacy Church in Albuquerque, which has an average weekly attendance of more than 10,000 people. Smotherman said the governor was “wicked and evil” and called her “a narcissist.”

“And people think, ‘Why do you say that?’ Because I truly believe it. In fact, she’s beyond evil. It’s demonic,” Smothermon said.

He later added: “Folks, when are we going to get appalled? When are we going to say, ‘Enough is enough’? When are we going to stop saying, ‘Well, you know, it’s a woman’s right to choose’? That’s such a lie.”

Church attendees had a stark choice in the upcoming election, Smothermon said. “We have the Wicked Witch of the North. Or you have Mark Ronchetti.”

The governor’s campaign declined to comment. Neither Legacy Church, Smothermon nor Ronchetti responded to requests for comment.

The sermon was a “clear violation” of the Johnson Amendment, said Sam Brunson, a Loyola University Chicago law professor. But Smothermon showed no fear of IRS enforcement.

Those who thought he crossed the line were “so stupid,” Smothermon said during the sermon. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

In another example, pastors at a Fort Worth church named Mercy Culture have repeatedly endorsed candidates for local and statewide offices since its founding in 2019.

“Now, obviously, churches don’t endorse candidates, but my name is Landon and I’m a person before I’m a pastor. And as an individual, I endorse Nate Schatzline,” the lead pastor, Landon Schott, said in a February sermon about a church member who was running to fill an open state representative seat.

Johnson Amendment rules allow pastors to endorse in their individual capacity, as long as they are not at an official church function, which Schott was.

In other services, Schott challenged critics to complain to the IRS about the church’s support of political candidates and said he wasn’t worried about losing the church’s tax-exempt status.

“If you want it that bad, come and take it. And if you think that we will stop preaching the gospel, speaking truth over taxes, you got another thing coming for you,” Schott said in May.

Schatzline, a member of Mercy Culture, received 65% of the vote in a May 24 runoff against the former mayor of the Dallas suburb of Southlake. He works for a separate nonprofit founded by Heather Schott, a pastor at Mercy Culture and the wife of Landon Schott.

Schatzline said in an interview with ProPublica and the Tribune that Landon Schott, not the church, endorsed him. He added that the church sought legal advice on how to ensure that it was complying with the Johnson Amendment.

“I think prayers can manifest into anything that God wants them to, but I would say that the community rallying behind me as individuals definitely manifested into votes,” Schatzline said.

Mercy Culture also supported Tim O’Hare, a Republican running for Tarrant County judge, this year after he came out against the shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. His opponent in the primary had ordered churches and businesses to temporarily close when she was mayor of Fort Worth.

O’Hare came to prominence as the mayor of suburban Farmers Branch, where he championed a city ordinance to prohibit landlords from renting to immigrants without legal status. A federal court declared the ordinance unconstitutional in 2010 after a legal battle that cost the city $6.6 million.

O’Hare has pledged to hire an election integrity officer to oversee voting and “uncover election fraud.”

“The Lord spoke to me and said, ‘Begin to pray for righteous judges in our city,’” Heather Schott said during a Feb. 13 service. “I am believing that Mr. Tim O’Hare is an answered prayer of what we have been petitioning heaven for for the last year and a half.”

Neither Mercy Culture, Landon Schott nor Heather Schott responded to requests for comment. O’Hare also did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.

Schott’s comments were a prohibited endorsement, said Aprill, the emerita tax law professor at Loyola Marymount Law School in Los Angeles.

“It doesn’t say ‘vote for him’ but is still an endorsement,” she said. “There’s no other way to understand the statement that O’Hare has answered prayers for righteous judges.”

Two weeks later, O’Hare won his primary. He faces Deborah Peoples, a Democrat, on Nov. 8.

A New Tactic

On April 18, 2021, a day before early voting began for city council and school board elections across Texas, pastors at churches just miles apart flashed the names of candidates on overhead screens. They told their congregations that local church leaders had gathered to discuss upcoming city and school elections and realized that their members were among those seeking office.

“We’re not endorsing a candidate. We’re not doing that. But we just thought because they’re a member of the family of God, that you might want to know if someone in the family and this family of churches is running,” said Robert Morris, who leads the Gateway megachurch in Southlake and served as a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board.

On the same day, Doug Page gave a similar message less than 5 miles away at First Baptist Grapevine.

“And so what we decided to do is look within our church families and say, ‘Who do we know that’s running for office?’ Now, let me clarify with you. This is not an endorsement by us. We are not endorsing anyone. However, if you’re part of a family, you’d like to know if Uncle Bill is running for office, right? And so that’s all we’re going to do is simply inform you.”

Saying that you are not endorsing a candidate “isn’t like a magic silver bullet that makes it so that you’re not endorsing them,” Brunson said.

The churches’ coordination on messaging across the area is notable, according to University of Notre Dame tax law professor Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, who said he hadn’t before seen churches organizing to share lists of candidates.

“I do think this strategy is new,” said Mayer, who has studied the Johnson Amendment for more than a decade. “I hadn’t heard of that before. It’s quite a sophisticated tactic.”

Eight of the nine candidates mentioned by the pastors won their races.

Mindy McClure, who ran for reelection to the Grapevine-Colleyville school board, said she thought church involvement contributed to her defeat in a June 5, 2021, runoff by about 4 percentage points. Her opponent campaigned on removing critical race theory from district curriculum, while McClure said students “weren’t being indoctrinated in any way, shape or form.” Critical race theory is a college-level academic theory that racism is embedded in legal systems.

McClure said pastors endorsing from the pulpit creates “divisiveness” in the community.

“Just because you attend a different church doesn’t mean that you’re more connected with God,” she said.

Lawrence Swicegood, executive director of Gateway Media, said this month that the church doesn’t endorse candidates but “inform(s) our church family of other church family members who are seeking office to serve our community.” Page told ProPublica and the Tribune that “these candidates were named for information only.”

Eleven days after responding to ProPublica and the Tribune in October, Morris once again told his church that he was not endorsing any candidates during the last Sunday sermon before early voting. Then, he again displayed the names of specific candidates on a screen and told parishioners to take screenshots with their cellphones.

“We must vote,” he said. “I think we have figured that out in America, that the Christians sat on the sidelines for too long. And then all of a sudden they started teaching our children some pretty mixed up things in the schools. And we had no one to blame but ourselves. So let’s not let that happen. Especially at midterms.”

Jeremy Schwartz is an investigative reporter for the ProPublica-Texas Tribune Investigative Initiative. He’s been a watchdog reporter in Texas for nearly a decade for the Austin American-Statesman and USA Today Network. His work has resulted in the overhaul of Texas’ inspection process for farmworker housing, sparked Congressional investigations of a failed Department of Veterans Affairs research program and uncovered misleading border arrest and drug seizure statistics maintained by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Schwartz has won the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Latino Issues award for his 2017 investigation into the political underrepresentation of Latinos in Texas cities and counties, and the Headliners Foundation of Texas Reporter of the Year award, among other honors. He’s previously reported on Latin America from Mexico City.

Jessica Priest is ProPublica Engagement Reporter.

Via ProPublica

The U.S. Never Banned Asbestos. These Workers Are Paying the Price Sat, 22 Oct 2022 04:02:16 +0000 By Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi, photography by Rich-Joseph Facun, graphics by Haisam Hussein | –

Co-published with NPR News

( ProPublica ) – Henry Saenz remembers when he first learned what even the tiniest bit of asbestos could do to his body. He was working at a chemical plant where employees used the mineral to make chlorine, and his coworkers warned him about what could happen each time he took a breath: Tiny fibers, invisible to the eye, could enter his nose and mouth and settle into his lungs, his abdomen, the lining of his heart. They could linger there for decades. Then, one day, he might develop asbestosis, a chronic disease that makes the lungs harden, or mesothelioma, a vicious cancer that ends the lives of most who have it within a few years.

By then, in the early 1990s, the dangers of asbestos were already irrefutable. The United States had prohibited its use in pipe insulation and branded it so risky that remediators had to wear hazmat suits to remove it. But unlike dozens of other countries that banned the potent carcinogen outright, the United States never did. To this day, the U.S. allows hundreds of tons of asbestos to flow in each year from Brazil, primarily for the benefit of two major chemical companies, OxyChem and Olin Corp. The companies say asbestos is integral to chlorine production at several aging plants and have made a compelling argument to keep it legal: Unlike in the horrific tales of the past, their current protocols for handling asbestos are so stringent that workers face little threat of exposure.

But at OxyChem’s plant in Niagara Falls, New York, where Saenz worked for nearly three decades, the reality was far different, more than a dozen former workers told ProPublica. There, they said, asbestos dust hung in the air, collected on the beams and light fixtures and built up until it was inches thick. Workers tramped in and out of it all day, often without protective suits or masks, and carried it around on their coveralls and boots. They implored the plant’s managers to address the conditions, they said, but the dangers remained until the plant closed in late 2021 for unrelated reasons.

It was hard for Saenz to reconcile the science that he understood — and that he believed OxyChem and government leaders understood — with what he saw at the plant every day. He did his best not to inhale the asbestos, but after a short time, he came to believe there was no way the killer substance was not already inside him, waiting, perhaps 30 or 40 or even 50 years, to strike.

Now, too late for Saenz, the Environmental Protection Agency appears poised to finally outlaw asbestos in a test case with huge implications. If the agency fails to ban a substance so widely established as harmful, scientists and public health experts argue, it would raise serious doubts about the EPA’s ability to protect the public from any toxic chemicals.

To fight the proposed ban, the chemical companies have returned to a well-worn strategy and marshaled political heavyweights, including the attorneys general of 12 Republican-led states who say it would place a “heavy and unreasonable burden” on industry.

Lost in the battle is the story of what happened in the decades during which the U.S. failed to act. It’s not just a tale of workers in hardscrabble company towns who were sacrificed to the bottom line of industry, but one of federal agencies cowed again and again by the well-financed lawyers and lobbyists of the companies they are supposed to oversee.

It’s the quintessential story of American chemical regulation.

For decades, the EPA and Congress accepted the chlorine companies’ argument that asbestos workers were safe enough, and regulators left the carcinogen on the list of dangerous chemicals that other countries ban but the U.S. still allows. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration even let OxyChem and Olin into a special program that limited the frequency of inspections at many of their plants. Along the way, the two companies proved that they didn’t need asbestos to make chlorine: They built some modern facilities elsewhere that didn’t use it. But they balked at the cost of upgrading the older facilities where it was still in use — even as they earned billions of dollars from chemical sales and raked in record profits this year.

OxyChem, owned by one of the country’s largest energy companies, Occidental Petroleum, declined requests for an interview. After ProPublica sent a summary of its reporting, company officials said the accounts from the Niagara Falls plant were “inaccurate” but declined to say what specifically was incorrect. In a statement, the company said it complies with federal regulations on asbestos and that workers who handle it are “trained, work in restricted areas of our plant, protected by personal protective equipment and are offered annual medical examinations.” The company also said it authorizes employees to stop work if they feel unsafe. “The health and safety of every plant worker and the people in our surrounding communities is our top priority,” the company said.

Olin did not respond to calls and emails sent over the course of a month.

It has been easy to minimize the toll asbestos takes on workers. Workers’ compensation cases are often confidential, and employees may fear speaking out and jeopardizing their livelihood. ProPublica reporters, however, found a unique opportunity to explore what it was really like to work at an asbestos-reliant plant after America’s longest-standing facility, the one run by OxyChem in Niagara Falls, shuttered last November. With their jobs no longer on the line, Saenz and 17 other former workers, some with institutional knowledge dating back to the 1960s and others with memories less than a year old, said they felt free to talk. They agreed to hours of interviews and dug through their homes for documentation to reconstruct their work lives in the decades they spent at the plant.

What they recounted — ever-present asbestos dust with scant protection — stunned six experts in industrial hygiene and occupational health who were consulted by ProPublica.

“Totally unacceptable,” said Rachael Jones, professor and chair of the Environmental Health Sciences Department at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Fraught with danger,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a public health physician trained in occupational medicine and epidemiology who leads Boston College’s program for Global Public Health and the Common Good.

“It sounds like something that maybe would happen in the 1940s or the 1950s,” said Celeste Monforton, a lecturer in public health at Texas State University who studies occupational health and safety practices.

“It’s just so counter to everything that they put in the record about using [asbestos] safely,” Monforton said.

For more than a century, OxyChem’s plant on the Niagara River, just 3 miles upstream from the world-renowned falls, was a small city unto itself. It buzzed with workers day and night, and, in its heyday, had its own cafeteria, credit union and health clinic. A job there carried a certain cachet. Workers could make six figures, even without college degrees. But the plant had a dark legacy. Its previous owner, Hooker Chemical, had buried toxic waste in an unfinished aqueduct called Love Canal, then turned the property over to the city for development in the 1950s. After contaminated groundwater sickened the people who lived there, it became known as one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

Unlike many of the other workers who grew up in the shadow of the plant, following their fathers and uncles into jobs there, Saenz was originally from Northern California. But he fell in love with a woman from Niagara Falls and moved there to start a family with her, working at a hotel, delivering flowers and tending bar — anything to put food on the table, he said — before deciding OxyChem was the job he wanted to stay in.

He was hired in 1989 and soon after got a crash course in chemistry. A jolt of electricity, he learned, could turn a tank of salt water into three substances: chlorine, caustic soda and hydrogen. The chlorine could be sold for disinfecting water, the caustic soda for making paper, soap and aspirin. There was, however, a real danger: If the chemicals mixed, the tank could turn into a bomb. So each tank had a thick, metal screen inside to keep the chemicals apart.

The screen was coated with a layer of impenetrable asbestos. OxyChem used chrysotile, or white asbestos, the most common type. It showed up on trains in oversized bags that looked like pillows stuffed with down feathers. At OxyChem, there were about 200 tanks, called cells, each the size of a dining room table and containing a metal screen. When a screen needed to be recoated, a special team of workers removed it and brought it to the cavernous cell-maintenance building. There, they blasted it with a high-pressure water cannon until the old asbestos fell off. Then, they dipped the clean screen into a wet mixture containing new asbestos and cooked it in an oven until the asbestos hardened. They worked on one or two screens each day.

The asbestos job was one of the most hazardous at the plant, requiring special training. But it also provided a rare benefit. Unlike most positions, which forced workers to take afternoon and midnight shifts, the asbestos job was days only. Saenz, who initially worked in a different department, waited years for an opening on the team, eager to spend more time with his growing family. After his fourth child was born, a spot opened up.

The team was a small fraternity of eight or so men who ate lunch together in a special trailer. Some days, when their shift ended at 2 p.m., they would meet at JD’s, a dive bar near the plant. Other days, it was the wing joint down the street or the bar in Terry Cheetham’s basement. Cheetham was the big brother of the group; the guys called him Soupie. Reserved and shaggy-haired, garrulous only with a beer in hand, he’d dropped out of high school after his father’s death and gone to work for OxyChem. He wanted to help his mom support their family. Soon after Saenz joined the team, Cheetham tapped him on the shoulder. “We’re going for a ride after work,” he said. Later, they pulled up outside the local liquor store. As the new guy, Saenz had to carry the keg.

The guys raised their kids together, helped each other’s families through difficult times. At the plant, they always had each other’s backs. Certain hazards, like fires, were hard to miss. Others, like chlorine leaks, were more subtle. Then, there was the asbestos. As Saenz spent more time on the job, he began noticing just how much of it surrounded him.

Federal workplace safety standards require keeping asbestos fibers wet to prevent them from going airborne, having workers wear protective equipment and containing the asbestos inside certain areas. OxyChem had rules in place to meet those standards. But protocols failed to match reality at the Niagara Falls plant, according to more than a dozen workers.

Water-blasting the screens was like washing a car with a high-powered hose. Asbestos splattered everywhere. It wasn’t a problem when the asbestos was wet. But it would dry overnight, and the next morning, it would be stuck to the ceiling and the walls. Clumps would roll across the floor like tiny tumbleweeds. Floating particles would catch the light when the sun poured in. There was so much asbestos in the cell-maintenance building that it was impossible to keep it all wet, said Robert Cheff, who worked at the plant from 1981 to 2007. “We were constantly swimming in this stuff.”

Workers wore protective gear for certain tasks, like pressure washing and screen dipping. But they went into the building to carry out other tasks without special suits or anything protecting their faces, despite company requirements. One worker said managers enforced those rules. But a dozen others interviewed by ProPublica recalled that the bosses looked the other way. Suiting up was impractical, those workers said. It took time away from the tasks that needed to get done and was uncomfortable, especially on hot days, when the temperature inside could reach 100 degrees.

In the summer, the windows and doors were left open to keep the workers from overheating, allowing asbestos to escape outside. Wet asbestos splashed on their uniforms, coats, helmets and boots. One guy seemed to always have some on his mustache. It would dry and flake off their clothes wherever they went, they said. Saenz remembered walking into safety meetings in the administrative building with asbestos drying on his coveralls. The guys carried so much asbestos into the trailer where they ate lunch and took breaks that it needed to be replaced, former union leaders said.

Their uniforms sat in the laundry, caked with dry asbestos. When the union raised the problem in 2010, managers responded by giving the team its own hamper with a lid to contain the asbestos, said longtime union officer Mike Spacone. Only after union leaders threatened to call federal authorities did the company give the team its own laundry facilities, Spacone said.

On occasion, workers who handled asbestos would leave without showering in the plant’s locker room or wear their work clothes home. “My kids played sports,” recalled Dave Helbig, an employee from 1980 through 2021. “Sometimes I had to leave to get to their games.”

The company would have known employees were being exposed; workers with a high risk of exposure sometimes clipped a small monitor to their bodies to measure the amount of asbestos in the air around them. At least five times in 2001 and 2002, the levels around team member Patrick Nowak exceeded OSHA’s exposure limit, his company records show. “I failed so many times, they quit testing me,” he said. The records do not indicate if Nowak was wearing a protective mask known as a respirator, as some other employees’ records do.

Tony Garfalo wore a monitor seven times in 2001, and, on four occasions, the results exceeded OSHA’s limit, his records show. Once, the asbestos level was more than five times the allowable limit. The records say he was wearing a half-face respirator. Garfalo said his bosses promised to address the situation, but “nothing changed.”

He and the others knew all too well the damage asbestos could cause. Garfalo said his father, who worked the asbestos job at the plant, developed asbestosis. Employees in other departments got sick from a type of asbestos-containing pipe covering that once insulated the plant, longtime employees said and court records show. Cheff said his uncle died from asbestosis at 59. A millwright named Teddy Skiba was diagnosed with mesothelioma and later died.

In addition to those signature diseases, which are rare even among asbestos workers, the tiny strands can harm the body in other ways. They can put people at increased risk of heart disease by scarring the lungs, forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood through them to pick up oxygen. Some scientific evidence suggests an association between asbestos exposure and stroke. And battling all kinds of illnesses with damaged lungs can weaken the body’s ability to fight them; that damage can mean the difference between life and death.

One retired member of the team, Umberto Bernardone, died from an aneurysm in 2004 at age 77. He had long had trouble breathing, said his son, Mario, who also worked at the plant. X-rays showed that asbestosis had scarred his lungs. “The asbestos was with him all the time,” Mario said.

Not long after, another retired team member, Salvatore “Buddy” Vilardo, died from a blood clot, his son said. He was 62.

Cheetham, the group’s big brother, had just retired when he fell ill in 2004. A doctor in Buffalo said it was cancer. Cheetham told his daughter Keri that he was certain the asbestos was responsible and asked her to consult a lawyer after he died. When the guys found out he was sick, they showed up at his house. They found their friend in a bed in his living room, under the care of a hospice nurse, struggling to breathe.

Cheetham died five months before his 56th birthday. His autopsy surprised his family — it wasn’t asbestos after all; an aggressive form of skin cancer had killed him. His former co-workers weren’t told about the autopsy. For years, they believed his cancer had been brought on by asbestos exposure. The memory of Cheetham’s last gasps haunted the guys like a ghost, a harbinger of what their own futures might hold.

Elsewhere in the world, governments were taking action to protect their people. Saudi Arabia banned asbestos in 1998, Chile and Argentina did so in 2001, Australia in 2003. By 2005, asbestos was outlawed across the European Union. “It was a no-brainer,” said Tatiana Santos, head of chemical policy at the European Environmental Bureau, a network of environmental citizens’ groups.

America’s EPA could have banned asbestos. Congress could have banned it. But over and over, they crumpled in the face of pressure from OxyChem and its peers in the chlorine industry.

The EPA tried to enact a ban in the late 1980s, but the companies got ahead of it. Records from the time show corporations testified that removing asbestos from chlorine plants would not yield significant health benefits because workers were only minimally exposed; they also argued it would require “scrapping large amounts of capital equipment” and thus would “not be economically feasible.”

Under federal law at the time, the EPA was obligated to regulate asbestos in the way that was “least burdensome” to industry. That forced the EPA to make a cold calculation: Banning asbestos in chlorine plants would prevent “relatively few cancer cases” but increase the companies’ costs. So when the agency enacted an asbestos ban in 1989, it carved out an exemption for the mineral’s use in the chlorine industry.

The EPA made it clear that the companies should begin using alternatives to asbestos screens; in fact, according to company records made public through litigation and published as part of Columbia University and the City University of New York’s Toxic Docs project, OxyChem had already developed screens that didn’t need an asbestos coating. Still, the companies celebrated their immunity from regulation.

“WE HAVE A WIN,” a lobbyist declared in an internal communication included in the Toxic Docs project.

In the end, asbestos was never banned. The asbestos industry challenged the ban in court, and in 1991, a panel of federal judges deemed the rule too onerous and overturned it. The decision was a stinging blow to the EPA, several current and former employees told ProPublica. “I still remember the shock on the managers’ faces,” said Greg Schweer, an EPA veteran who ran its new-chemicals management branch before he retired in 2020. The office “was full of energized people wanting to make their mark. But things changed after that.” The agency shelved efforts to regulate other dangerous substances and wouldn’t attempt a similar chemical ban for 28 years.

Most industries stopped using asbestos anyway, a phenomenon experts largely attribute to a wave of lawsuits from people with asbestos-related diseases. But the chlorine industry kept using its asbestos screens. It continued importing hundreds of tons of the substance every year, more than the weight of the Statue of Liberty.

In 2002, Sen. Patty Murray a Democrat from Washington, tried to get a ban through Congress. She tried again in 2003 and again in 2007. That year, with Democrats in control of the Senate and House, her effort found some traction. OxyChem was keenly aware how much an asbestos ban would hurt its bottom line. Chlorine and caustic soda were the focus of its chemical operation, financial statements show, driving more than $4 billion in annual sales. Most of OxyChem’s plants still used asbestos; if they had to close, production would tumble.

Occidental Petroleum, OxyChem’s owner, was a force on Capitol Hill, with lobbyists that spent millions influencing policy and a political action committee that pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaigns each election cycle. OxyChem was also a member of the American Chemistry Council, an influential trade organization that made campaign contributions of its own.

The industry had an ally in then-Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana; at the time, at least a quarter of the 16 asbestos-dependent plants in the country were located in the Republican senator’s home state, records show. At a hearing in June 2007, Vitter echoed the chlorine industry’s standby talking point, that its manufacturing process involved “minimal to no release of asbestos and absolutely no worker exposure.”

“Now, if this were harming people or potentially killing people, that would be the end of the argument, we should outlaw it,” he added. “But there is no known case of asbestos-related disease from the chlor-alkali industry using this technology.”

Then-Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat in favor of the ban, pushed back, saying the chlorine manufacturing process was “not as clean as one would think.” But to build support for the bill, proponents ultimately agreed to exclude products that might contain trace levels of asbestos, such as crushed stone, as well as the asbestos used in the chlorine industry.

The bill passed out of the Senate on a unanimous vote. But many of the public health advocates who championed the initial measure opposed the watered-down version, saying it had been practically gutted, and it failed to find support in the House. Vitter, who later went on to lobby for the American Chemistry Council, did not respond to requests for an interview.

In the 15 years that followed, congressional attempts to ban asbestos would continue to fall short.

Yet another federal entity had the power to protect the OxyChem workers. There was once a time when OSHA inspectors visited the Niagara Falls plant about every year. That ended in 1996, when the plant won coveted admission into an OSHA program that exempted it from such scrutiny.

The Star Program, created during the Reagan administration as part of OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs, allows plants that can prove they are model facilities to avoid random inspections. The theory behind the program is that motivating companies to adhere to best practices on their own is more effective than having underfunded government inspectors punish them.

At the Niagara Falls plant, former union leaders believed the program would protect jobs and make the facility safer, they told ProPublica. They worked with management on the application — a monthslong process that entailed updating the plant’s safety practices and submitting to a rigorous inspection. But what actually changed, the union leaders said, was that OSHA inspectors came far less frequently and announced their visits well in advance. When OSHA came to re-evaluate the plant, usually every three to five years, management spent months preparing, said Spacone, the union officer. “They would clean the hell out of the place. Everything would be spotless.” Work in certain areas came to a halt. Plant representatives tried to limit what the evaluators saw.

Even still, in 2011, evaluators found asbestos “scattered in certain areas of the floor” and covering much of the mechanical equipment, records show. “This contamination can spread easily when dry,” they wrote in a report. “Appropriate clean up procedures must be instituted to prevent airborne asbestos.” The evaluators did not give the plant an official citation. In the end, they applauded the plant’s “commitment to safety and health” and recommended it for continued participation in the program.

Three years later, evaluators identified another issue related to hygiene: Although the plant tested the air for hazards like asbestos, it wasn’t using the data to spot problems. What’s more, the person in charge of the program wasn’t properly trained. OSHA let the plant remain in the program on the condition that it fixed the problems within a year. The plant updated its software and the department leader took a 56-hour course, records show.

Apart from the re-evaluation visits, OSHA made just two other trips to the plant between 1996 and 2021, records show. Only one included a full inspection. On that visit, inspectors cited the plant for failing to protect workers from falls. The other visit did not result in any citations.

With OSHA largely out of the picture, the plant’s managers became more lax about safety, Spacone said. “I started thinking [that joining the Star Program] was a mistake,” he said. Debbie Berkowitz, a former chief of staff and senior policy adviser at OSHA during the Obama administration, said that, in her experience, it was possible for plants to stay in the program long after their commitment to safety had lapsed. “Once they’re in, they’re in,” she said. “In most cases, it is a total ruse.”

OSHA declined to make an official available for an on-the-record interview or comment on ProPublica’s findings at the Niagara Falls plant. A Department of Labor spokesperson said that plants can be terminated from the program and that unions can withdraw their support.

In the absence of government intervention, union leaders tried to tackle the asbestos problem themselves, four former union presidents told ProPublica. The union repeatedly asked management to expand the asbestos team and have certain people dedicated to cleaning. Plant leaders refused, they said. “It was a never-ending battle,” said Vincent Ferlito, one of the former presidents. “It always came back to the same thing: money.”

Fed up with the mess, Garfalo grabbed a roll of red caution tape one day in 2007 and wrapped it around the asbestos-soiled building where his team worked, to the amazement of his colleagues. He barricaded each doorway, then hung as many danger signs as he could find. The protest prompted his managers to hire professionals for a one-time clean, but they also warned him to never do it again, he said.

By 2011, a year after he’d retired, Garfalo couldn’t ignore a lingering cough that would occasionally startle him out of sleep. His doctor couldn’t tell whether his breathing difficulties were caused by asbestos or his smoking habit, but said that smokers who are exposed to the substance have an even higher risk of serious illness. Garfalo’s mind traveled back to a day, a dozen years earlier, when he climbed atop the cell-maintenance building to fix a fan, only to discover that the entire roof was coated in asbestos. Train cars parked beside the building were covered, too. He thought about the homes less than a half-mile away and wondered how far the fibers had traveled.

In August 2021, OxyChem announced it was closing the Niagara Falls plant, blaming “unfavorable regional market conditions” and rising rail costs in New York state. Over time, its workforce had dwindled from more than 1,300 to about 150. OxyChem’s chlorine operation was now mostly in Gulf Coast states with lower taxes and less regulation.

And a law that had once protected it from “burdensome” environmental rules had changed.

In 2016, Congress had updated the Toxic Substances Control Act, removing the requirement that the EPA choose regulations that burdened industry as little as possible. Though the change gave the agency another chance to ban asbestos, it wasn’t going to happen during the Trump administration; the former president once alleged that the movement against asbestos was “led by the mob” and had his face featured on the packaging of Russian-produced asbestos. Under the Biden administration, however, the EPA determined that all workers in asbestos-dependent chlorine plants faced an “unreasonable risk” of getting sick from it, citing a review of the companies’ own exposure-monitoring data. This April, EPA Administrator Michael Regan proposed a ban for the first time in more than three decades.

It could be eight months or more before the rule is finalized. Two trade associations, the American Chemistry Council and the Chlorine Institute, are imploring the EPA to reconsider. They are once again arguing that the companies use asbestos safely — and they’ve turned to industry-friendly scientists and consulting firms to accuse the EPA of overestimating the risk to workers.

When given a summary of ProPublica’s reporting on the Niagara Falls plant and asked to respond, Chlorine Institute Vice President Robyn Brooks said her organization had no knowledge of the situation and referred reporters to OxyChem. The American Chemistry Council pointed to the plant’s participation in the Star program as proof of its “record of performance.”

The industry groups have also made the case that a ban would jeopardize the country’s supply of chlorine and could even create a drinking water shortage. But the EPA and public health advocates contest those claims. They point out that only a small fraction of the chlorine produced by asbestos-dependent plants is used to clean drinking water and that OxyChem and Olin have voluntarily closed or reduced capacity at several of those plants in recent years without catastrophically disrupting the supply chain. In fact, OxyChem told investors in August that its plans to upgrade the asbestos-reliant technology at its largest chlorine facility next year would have “no impact on customers,” a transcript shows. For at least eight years, the company has been slowly upgrading some plants to a newer technology that uses a polymer membrane to separate the chemicals; it built a completely asbestos-free plant in 2014.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has come to the companies’ defense, saying asbestos is “tightly regulated” and “used safely every day” in the chlor-alkali industry. So have 12 Republican attorneys general, including Ken Paxton of Texas and Jeff Landry of Louisiana. In a letter, they questioned whether the EPA has the authority to pursue a ban, signaling a readiness to take the agency to court like the asbestos industry did in 1989. (The Chamber and most of the attorneys general declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries from ProPublica. A spokesperson for Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson called the situation at the Niagara Falls plant “very concerning” and said that it would be “completely misleading” to suggest that the letter implied approval of such circumstances.)

Industry leaders are confident they will prevail. “We’ve been engaged in this activity for quite a while and have pushed back on it,” Olin CEO Scott Sutton told shareholders on a July 29 earnings call. “I think you’re not likely to see a final rule come out that is as proposed.”

Michal Freedhoff, the EPA’s top chemical regulator, said she could not comment on what the final rule-making decision would be. But she said the agency was not backing down on the science and that ProPublica’s reporting underscores the need for decisive action.

Given the potential for litigation, lawmakers are renewing their effort to pass a law banning asbestos, which would be more difficult to challenge in court. “It is a brutal and painful fight,” said Linda Reinstein, a leading advocate who co-founded the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization after her husband, Alan, died of mesothelioma in 2006. “We’re not going away.”

Hanging in the balance is the health of hundreds of workers at the eight remaining asbestos-dependent chlorine plants in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Kansas. ProPublica reached out to current and former employees at those facilities. At the OxyChem plant in Wichita, union president Keith Peacock said he was comfortable with the way asbestos was handled. “I don’t know of anyone who sees this as a health issue,” he said. “There are rules in place for it and everyone adheres to those safety guidelines.” But Chris Murphy, a former union president at Olin’s plant in Alabama, said the conditions there mirrored the ones described by the workers in Niagara Falls. He said he himself had seen asbestos caked on beams and cranes in recent years and been told to remove it with a putty knife. “There ain’t nothing to it,” he remembered his managers saying. “You’ll be all right. It ain’t that bad.” He wasn’t told to wear protective gear, he said, so he didn’t.

The former OxyChem workers who still live in Niagara Falls gather once a month to reminisce over Buffalo wings and beef piled high on salty kummelweck rolls. They can only wait and see if they develop symptoms as they enter the post-exposure time frame in which asbestos-related disease is commonly diagnosed.

Saenz left the plant with a bad back in 2016. Now a 64-year-old grandfather of two, he’s been having lung trouble and considering X-rays to see if there are signs of asbestos-related damage. “I’m wondering if I’m not headed down that road,” he said.

He sees the burden he now carries as a tradeoff for the lifestyle he was once afforded. “It was a great place to work. I was able to raise four children and buy a house and live the American dream.” He even gave his son Henry Jr. his blessing to start a job at OxyChem in 2013, so long as he stayed far away from asbestos. Saenz now wonders how much more time he has left with his family.

“It’s a nightmare,” he said. “It’s a price you pay, I guess.”

Via ProPublica

D.C. Attorney General Opens Investigation Into Republican Governors’ Shipping of Immigrants to the Capital Sun, 16 Oct 2022 04:04:13 +0000 By Marilyn W. Thompson and Perla Trevizo | –

( ProPublica ) – District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine has opened an investigation into whether southern border state governors misled immigrants as part of what he called a “political stunt” to transport them to Washington.

Racine told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune his office is examining whether immigrants were deceived by trip organizers before boarding buses for Washington, including several hundred who were bused from Texas under instructions from Gov. Greg Abbott and dropped near the official residence of Vice President Kamala Harris. Racine’s office has the authority to bring misdemeanor criminal charges or to file civil fraud cases.

Racine said that in interviews with his investigators, arriving immigrants “have talked persuasively about being misled, with talk about promised services.” He offered no specifics about the inquiry, including whether it is being handled by his office’s criminal or civil divisions. The attorney general’s office declined to answer further questions.

Various state and federal laws could apply to transporting immigrants across state lines. Racine’s office could look into whether anyone committed fraud by falsely promising jobs or services, whether there were civil rights violations or whether officials misused taxpayers’ money.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and others have been sending thousands of immigrants to Washington, D.C. Karl Racine, the district’s attorney general, is investigating whether immigrants have been deceived.

Racine’s investigation comes after weeks of escalating tensions between some Republican governors and the Biden administration over immigration policy. In April, Abbott began busing to Washington immigrants who had been processed and released by federal immigration officials, and he later expanded the initiative to New York and Chicago. To date, more than 12,000 immigrants have been relocated from border towns.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has followed Abbott’s lead and bused 2,170 immigrants to Washington on 60 buses, according to Ducey’s spokesperson, C.J. Karamargin. Most of them, he said, had said they hoped to relocate to New York, New Jersey or Florida.

Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seeking reelection, turbocharged the issue and moved it to the forefront of a national debate on Biden’s immigration policies. He sent two charter flights to Martha’s Vineyard carrying Venezuelan immigrants who had arrived in Texas. Local officials in Texas have said they were not consulted.

The immigrants and their advocates said that passengers on the charter flights had been told they would be given jobs and support. A sheriff in Texas has opened a criminal investigation into whether Florida officials violated the law by recruiting the migrants from a Texas shelter.

Racine’s involvement ratchets up the pressure on the governors over their actions.

Elected as a Democrat, Racine criticized the Republican governors for using “people as props. That’s what they’ve done with the immigrants.”

Racine’s office can prosecute certain misdemeanors, and felonies are handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. But its highest profile work has been bringing civil fraud lawsuits against nonprofits and businesses. In May, it reached a $750,000 settlement in a lawsuit against former President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, alleging that it had abused donors’ funds by overpaying for rentals at the Trump International Hotel.

The governors have said they have done nothing wrong in transporting immigrants to “sanctuary cities” that may be better equipped to care for them. They say they want the rest of the nation to share the burden of what they call the Biden administration’s open border policies.

Abbott, who is also campaigning for reelection, said that he had had immigrants bused from Texas to Harris’ residence in D.C. to call attention to border security, saying on Twitter, “We’re sending migrants to her backyard to call on the Biden Administration to do its job and secure the border.”

In a statement to ProPublica and the Tribune, Abbott’s press secretary, Renae Eze, denied that any trickery has been involved in Texas’ migrant transportation program, which has now sent 8,200 people to Washington on over 195 buses, 3,200 to New York City on over 60 buses and 920 to Chicago on over 15 buses.

“These Democrat elites in our nation’s capital know nothing about Texas’ busing operations. These migrants willingly chose to go to Washington, D.C., having signed a voluntary consent waiver available in multiple languages upon boarding that they agreed on the destination. And they were processed and released by the federal government, who dumped them in small Texas border towns,” she wrote.

DeSantis’ office did not respond, but the governor has said he intends to transport more immigrants out of Florida. Ducey’s spokesperson said Arizona is working with a regional health center to ensure that immigrants are well-treated and get to their final desired destinations. Ducey has said he will continue busing migrants to Washington until he leaves office in January.

Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, an advocacy group, said that some immigrants who were sent from Texas to Harris’ residence in Washington have told his team they were misled about their final destination. The immigrants believed they were bound for Union Station, the city’s central transportation hub, where many hoped to connect with family or trains and buses to other locations. Instead, he said, they were dropped off at about 6 a.m. in an unfamiliar spot, where a church group quickly organized to pick them up.

“I think they are being tricked and being used,” Garcia said.

Since the spring, buses have arrived almost daily at Union Station, where immigrants can now seek support from a new city Office of Migrant Services. So far, Texas taxpayers have spent about $14 million on migrant transportation, according to state records. Buses into Washington have continued in recent days, with several additional arrivals at the vice president’s residence.

Meanwhile, Florida procurement records suggest that the state transportation agency intends to continue using charter air services to transport immigrants out of the state until June 30. The vendor chosen for the charter flights is run by a state Republican donor.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general is examining Florida’s use of money from COVID-19 funds to finance its migrant transportation program, Politico reported. DeSantis’s office says it used the money properly.

Marilyn Thompson is a reporter at ProPublica.

Perla Trevizo is a reporter for the ProPublica-Texas Tribune Investigative Initiative. Trevizo is a Mexican-American reporter born in Ciudad Juárez and raised across the border in El Paso, Texas, where she began her journalism career. Trevizo spent more than 10 years covering immigration and border issues in Tennessee and Arizona before joining the Houston Chronicle as an environmental reporter. She has written from nearly a dozen countries, from African refugee camps to remote Guatemalan villages, with the goal of broadening readers’ understanding of the global issues that impact the local communities where she has worked. Her work has earned her national and state awards including the Dori J. Maynard Award for Diversity in Journalism, French-American Foundation Immigration Journalism Award, and a national Edward R. Murrow for a story done in collaboration with Arizona Public Media. She was also honored as the 2019 Arizona Journalist of the Year by the Arizona Newspaper Association.