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Trump’s intel chief nominee says he won’t be swayed by politics – The Globe and Mail

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Rep. John Ratcliffe testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, on May 5, 2020.

POOL/The Associated Press

President Donald Trump’s nominee for national intelligence director sought at his confirmation hearing Tuesday to shed his reputation as a loyalist to the president, insisting to skeptical Democrats that he would carry out the job free of political influence or partisan bias.

The comments from Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican, were aimed at quelling Democratic fears that he would be vulnerable to pressure from a president who is often perceived as politicizing intelligence and who publicly disputes intelligence conclusions at odds with his personal views. Those concerns are amplified at a time when intelligence agencies are investigating politically sensitive issues, including election meddling and the cause of the coronavirus pandemic.

Senators repeatedly pressed Ratcliffe on whether he could stand up to Trump by presenting him with analysis he did not like. They also asked if he agreed with the president’s assertions that intelligence agencies had “run amok” and were infiltrated by the “deep state.” Ratcliffe refused to endorsed either claim and insisted he would not shape intelligence findings to meet the desires of anyone.

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“Let me be very clear: Regardless of what anyone wants our intelligence to reflect, the intelligence I will provide, if confirmed, will not be impacted or altered as a result of outside influence,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the committee chairman, said after the hearing that he was satisfied Ratcliffe would serve “in an independent capacity.” He promised a quick vote on his nomination.

But Sen. Chuck Schumer, speaking on the Senate floor as the hearing was under way, spoke for many Democrats by dismissing Ratcliffe as a “deeply partisan cheerleader for the president, a yes man in every sense of the phrase.”

The confirmation hearing, the first in-person one held under drastic new distancing rules for the coronavirus, comes at a tumultuous time for the intelligence agencies. About a half dozen intelligence community leaders have resigned or been ousted over the last year and agencies already grappling with the prospect of Russian interference in November’s election are now probing the politically charged question of whether the coronavirus is man-made or originated in a Chinese laboratory.

Ratcliffe’s path to the job has been similarly topsy-turvy, with the original nomination withdrawn after bipartisan criticism he was unqualified to oversee 17 U.S. spy agencies. Trump unexpectedly renominated him in February. His chances of securing the job appear better this time around.

Democrats revealed their skepticism in occasionally contentious questioning, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California pressing Ratcliffe over past comments about whistleblowers and New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich asking for instances of when Ratcliffe had ever “spoken truth to power,” particularly involving the president.

“I have to say that while I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt at this hearing, I don’t see what has changed since last summer when the president decided not to proceed with your nomination,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the panel’s top Democrat.

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Ratcliffe took pains to break with the president, including by saying he believed Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and was prepared to do so again, a conclusion Trump has often resisted. And he answered “of course” when asked by Republican Sen. Susan Collins if he would communicate to Trump the intelligence community’s findings even if he knew Trump disagreed with them and might fire him.

When it comes to investigating the coronavirus origins, Ratcliffe pledged that he would be “laser-focused” in that task – a key concern to Trump and other administration officials who have raised the idea that it could have emerged from a Chinese lab, perhaps accidentally.

Ratcliffe initially said he had not seen intelligence that it had come from a lab, but under questioning later in the hearing, he also said he had not seen intelligence that it had originated from a market either. As a caveat, he noted that he had not received a recent classified briefing on the subject.

Tuesday’s hearing tested the Senate’s ability to conduct business safely with coronavirus cases still on the rise in the Washington area. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called his chamber back to work Monday, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., kept the House away, saying she had been advised by the Capitol physician that it was not yet safe to convene.

Attendance at the session was restricted, with members encouraged to watch as much as possible from their offices and come to the room when it was time for their questions. No more than two dozen people were there at any point, with the public barred from the Capitol complex.

With seats spaced at least six feet apart, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joked that he could barely see Ratcliffe across the cavernous hearing room.

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Lawmakers concerned by turnover within intelligence community leadership are eager for a permanent, Senate-confirmed replacement for Dan Coats, who left the DNI post last summer and had bipartisan support. About a half dozen officials have either resigned or been fired in the last year, including the intelligence community inspector general who advanced a whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment.

The DNI position is currently held in an acting capacity by Trump loyalist Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany.

Some senators who previously seemed cool to Ratcliffe’s nomination appeared to soften.

Collins, a critical GOP swing vote on the panel, said last summer that she had never heard of Ratcliffe before his nomination. But last week she said she had spoken with him and concluded that he has the experience “to meet the statutory standard” for the position.

Ratcliffe sits on the House intelligence, judiciary and ethics committees and has been a fierce defender of Trump. He forcefully questioned former special counsel Robert Mueller last summer when he testified about the Russia investigation.

He was also a member of Trump’s impeachment advisory team last fall and aggressively questioned witnesses during House impeachment hearings.

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The politics behind how governments control coronavirus data – TheChronicleHerald.ca

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Anton Oleinik, Memorial University of Newfoundland

COVID-19 has affected almost every country around the globe. The World Health Organization has confirmed cases in 216 countries and territories, a total that represents more than 85 per cent of 251 entities recognized by the United Nations. Yet each government has responded differently to the coronavirus pandemic — including how data on the disease have been shared with each country’s citizens.

The selectiveness with which governments release information about the number of confirmed cases and the deaths caused by the coronavirus suggest techniques of “bio-power” may be at play.

French philosopher Michel Foucault invented the concept of bio-power in his lectures at the Collège de France in 1977-78. He defined bio-power as a “set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power.”

Foucault found an early example of bio-power in the smallpox vaccine developed by the end of the 18th century — one of the first attempts to manage populations in terms of the calculus of probabilities under the banner of public health. While a COVID-19 vaccine is still in the making, the concept of bio-power may help make better sense of how we see governments deal with the ongoing pandemic.

Our perception of the probability of contracting the virus and the chances to recover is shaped by the relevant statistical figures released by our respective governments. Those figures feed the entire spectrum of our own reactions to COVID-19 — including fear and negligence.

A balanced take on COVID-19 and a proper course of action to deal with the pandemic means the information provided by governments must be complete, valid and reliable. Unfortunately, that is not happening in many cases.

When examining how some countries have responded to the pandemic, bio-political factors should be taken into account. This includes how governments are collecting and sharing data about the coronavirus. Let’s look at three countries in particular.

The United States

In the U.S., COVID-19 information is disseminated by government agencies, universities, the media and even search engines. Various levels of governments remain the ultimate source of the reported figures, but how accurate are those figures?

The U.S. now has the most confirmed cases and deaths caused by COVID-19. While this can be explained by a late response to the pandemic and the lack of universal health care coverage, the political stakes in the COVID-19 crisis are also very high for the U.S.

The social and economic crisis caused by the pandemic will be a major factor in this year’s elections. In an effort to shift attention from his administration’s response, U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated China should be blamed for the crisis. The high number of infections and deaths contribute to a feeling of fear and insecurity — which from a bio-power perspective may actually help Trump sell his message.

Russia

In addition to being the only source of information about COVID-19, the Russian government also makes every effort to protect its monopoly on the production and dissemination of the relevant data. Anyone who attempts to collect and disseminate COVID-19 figures without having a “licence to inform” may face criminal charges for being an agent provocateur.

A group of medical doctors in Chechnya, the previously rebel region in the Caucasus now under the tight control of the central government, attempted to complain about the lack of preparedness to COVID-19. They were promptly accused of “provocations” and forced to deliver public apologies.

According to government data, Russia has one of the lowest COVID-19 mortality rates in the world, less than one per cent. (The U.S. reports a six per cent mortality rare; Italy, France and the U.K. are in the range of 14-15 per cent). Either the Russians have an exceptionally strong immune system or something is wrong with the way the government counts the deaths.

As well, the regular monthly statistics of deaths released by some regions shows an anomalous hike in April — numbers that are out of line with the officially approved figures of COVID-19-related deaths.

The gap between the number of officially acknowledged COVID-19 cases and deaths may have political explanations.

Similar to the U.S., the pandemic interferes with the political agenda in Russia. The constitutional referendum engineered to extend Vladimir Putin’s term as Russia’s president was originally scheduled on April 22, but was eventually postponed until July 1.

Putin is trying to make the gambit of accepting high (but not necessarily accurate) figures of COVID-19 infections and simultaneously doing everything possible to under-report the true number of COVID-19-related deaths. If successful, he would be able to claim credit for handling the crisis better than other world leaders.

Canada

Canada’s figures do not look controversial at first sight. The country has neither an exceptionally high number of COVID-19 cases nor an exceptionally high mortality rate (7.5 per cent). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t potentially some elements of bio-power at play.

Canada’s government chose to complicate the task of comparing the COVID-19 figures across its provinces and territories. The federal government’s website dedicated to COVID-19 reports the aggregate data only. No death statistics are included. Comparing the responses of each province requires an examination of 13 different provincial websites, which have various formats of reporting the relevant figures.

Access-to-information requests are not of great help here either, despite the fact that there are access-to-information acts both at the federal and provincial levels. It takes an average of one month to get a response to an access-to-information request under normal times. But now governments have full discretion in deciding what information on COVID-19 to release, as well as when and how to do it.

This means that in Canada, bio-politics manifests itself through the fuzziness of information and, in the absence of clear information, the public is expected to uncritically accept the actions of their governments.

The Conversation

Anton Oleinik, Professor of Sociology, Memorial University of Newfoundland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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China grows 'more assertive' in world politics as the U.S. leaves behind a vacuum, ex-diplomat says – CNBC

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China has been flexing its geopolitical muscles as countries around the world grapple with the coronavirus pandemic — a reflection of Beijing’s belief that “China’s time has come,” a former U.S. diplomat said on Thursday.

In addition to pressing ahead with a new national security law for Hong Kong, China has toughened its stance on Taiwan — which it considers a wayward province that must be reunited with the mainland. Beijing has also kept up its aggression in the disputed waters of South China Sea and recently, at its border with India.   

“China is being more assertive in pursuing goals that we know that it’s had in a number of decades,” Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia.”

“So clearly, this is an assertion of strength and it reflects a belief that China’s time has come, combined with the fact that this may be seen as a very good opportunity when America seems to have lost interest in global leadership and when there’s distraction from the coronavirus,” he added.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, visits a commercial street in Xi’an, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, April 22, 2020.

Ju Peng | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Daly worked at the U.S. embassy in Beijing in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a cultural exchange officer. He also served as an interpreter for both American and Chinese leaders, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and ex-Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Geopolitical experts have said that China’s rise as a global power is a major contributor to tensions with the U.S. — the world’s largest economy that’s regarded as a global superpower and a world leader since World War II.

But the U.S. appears to have ceded much of its global leadership since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. That has opened the door for China to pursue some of its long-standing geopolitical goals more aggressively, said Daly.

South China Sea, India

Beijing has not let the coronavirus pandemic affect some of its territorial pursuits.  

It has kept up its hostility in the South China Sea, in which it has overlapping territorial claims with multiple countries including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

Beijing claims nearly the entire resource-rich waterway, which is a vital commercial shipping route where trillions of dollars of world trade reportedly passed through.

Just last month, China’s relations with India also appeared to worsen when a military standoff started along the border they both share. Both sides blamed each other for initiating skirmishes which multiple reports said involved fist fights and stone-throwing, but the countries have since indicated their willingness to seek a diplomatic deescalation. 

Taiwan

At the same time, Beijing increased pressure on Taiwan with frequent military drills near the island, reported Reuters. China said those drills are routine, according to the report.

China claims the self-governed island of Taiwan as its own province which could be taken by force if necessary. Beijing has touted a “one country, two systems” model which it uses on Hong Kong, but that idea was not popular with Taiwan — and even less now after months of protests in Hong Kong.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said last week his country would “resolutely oppose and deter any separatist activities seeking Taiwan independence.” Li, the second-in-command, notably dropped the word “peaceful” when he referred to “reunification” with the island.

Hong Kong

Meanwhile, tensions have been reached fever pitch in Hong Kong as well.

The Chinese-ruled city was handed to China by the United Kingdom in 1997, and is governed under the “one country, two systems” principle which allows Hong Kong some freedoms that its mainland counterparts don’t enjoy. They include self-governing power, limited election rights, as well as a largely separate legal and economic framework from the mainland.

However, China pressed ahead to introduce a national security law in the city last week, essentially bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature

Critics see the proposed legislation as Beijing’s move to tighten its grip on the special administration region following months of pro-democracy protests that turned violent at times.  

Those issues that China has been pushing ahead with in recent months “aren’t new,” said Daly.

“What is new is them pursuing all of them with such vigor simultaneously,” he said. “And clearly they see vacuum and perhaps a lack of will from other nations, the United States in particular, to stand up for this.”

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Trump’s dangerous militarization of U.S. politics – The Washington Post

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The events of this week have startled even those who have been alarmed for some time about the trajectory of American politics. On Monday, Trump used security forces to disperse demonstrators before a photo op by a church. In the days since, he has kept up his steady drumbeat of divisive rhetoric, vowing to unleash the armed forces on U.S. cities. Such calls, echoed by Trump loyalists, belie the scenes of peaceful protesters gathered daily outside the White House.

We may be now inside Trump’s “Götterdämmerung,” as Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution declared — the “vicious downward spiral” as his presidential term draws to a combustive end. National polls show Trump slumping behind Democratic challenger and former vice president Joe Biden. On the streets of Washington, out-of-town federal forces confront protesters, including armed officers with little to no identification of the agency to which they belong.

Trump’s inner circle is doing little to curb his aggressive instincts as protests over the death of George Floyd continue across the country. Attorney General William P. Barr warns of a “witch’s brew” of extremists, no matter that the majority of marches and demonstrations have not been violent. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper speaks of U.S. cities as “battlespaces.” A White House spokesman told reporters that “all options are on the table” regarding military deployments to quell protests, language the administration more often uses when seeking to deter geopolitical adversaries overseas.

So far, the most significant rebuke to the president came from his former defense secretary. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us” Jim Mattis wrote in a widely circulated statement Wednesday. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”

“Every appearance in uniform, every word out of the mouth of a senior military leader, at this point has consequences,” wrote Eliot Cohen, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “While these men and women are not the only or even the prime safeguards of American freedoms, they constitute an important line of protection. And if they are willing to take a bullet for the country, they need to be entirely prepared to take obscenity-laced tirades and a pink slip for it.”

Critics warn of the damage already done by Trump’s threats to use military might at home. “Creating a sense that the military is a partisan political actor really does violence to the nature of the civil-military compact of the United States,” said Kori Schake, a former Pentagon official at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, to the New York Times.

“To divide and conquer at home, using the United States military, is an incredible escalation of the government’s coercive power,” said Alice Friend, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to Reuters.

The world’s sole superpower is starting to look like more fragile countries elsewhere. Trump and his loyalists are only the second camp in the Western Hemisphere this past month to entertain notions of domestic military crackdowns: Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have urged a full-fledged takeover of the administrative state as the president faces a storm of controversies amid the coronavirus pandemic. And while top brass in both countries now feel compelled to publicly pledge fealty to their constitution and democracy, experts fear a growing far-right radicalization further down the ranks, especially among the local police.

“The Trump administration and its allies in Congress should dispense with incendiary, panicky rhetoric that suggests the U.S. is in armed conflict with its own people, or that some political faction is the enemy, lest security forces feel encouraged or emboldened to target them as combatants,” noted the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization that focuses on conflict prevention and rarely comments on domestic American affairs.

On one hand, the erosion on view challenges the country’s deep embrace of its armed forces as a wholly benign actor. The irony of prominent Republicans calling for the military to flush out demonstrators on the 31st anniversary of that kind of intervention in Beijing was not lost on many commentators.

“Tiananmen in the American imagination is something fantastic and distant, deliberately placed far away and long ago,” wrote Rui Zhong in Foreign Policy. “It is a black mark against the Chinese state alone, rather than a possibility in America itself. Only under a dictatorship could such things happen, we say, forgetting Ocoee, Opelousas, Tulsa, or Kent State.”

On the other hand, it also serves as a reminder to observers abroad of the limits of American commitments to democracy and the rule of law. “It will certainly be very easy for leaders in Africa, those with their own dictatorial tendencies, to justify future behavior by referencing the actions of the U.S. administration in the last few weeks,” wrote Nigeria-based analyst Idayat Hassan. “What Africans can learn from recent U.S. events is that democracy must never be taken for granted and that the rights of all citizens must continually be fought for.”

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