Sunday, January 7, 2018

Chuck Schumer Says No To Single Payer Healthcare

Color prejudice and the growing market for skin whitening

Iran's massive protests (4 minute report)

Protests in Iran should be taken seriously

6 Jan 2018

The demonstrations that took Iran and the world by surprise remain undefined, leaderless and unprecedented in the mix of messages and geographical locations. Yet they are extremely significant, as they portray the depth of anger at the lack of economic and political progress in the Islamic republic 39 years on. 

President Hassan Rouhani has taken four courageous steps over the past two years all of which have infuriated the hardliners: Against all odds he completed the Iran nuclear deal; stood up directly to the hardliners siding instead with the reformists; took the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and implemented fiscal restraints policy; and finally took steps to tackle high-level corruption.

Yet, none of these steps have reached fruition and, as such, they have caused immense public resentment and hardship.

Despite that, the thrust of the political slogans at the protests were not directed at Rouhani. Initially aimed against high prices, the anti-government protests quickly turned against the regime as a whole and in an unprecedented level against the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Last Saturday, December 30, was the national day of "Alliance with the Supreme Leader". Instead, the day turned into one of burning the flag of the Islamic republic and tearing photos of Ayatollah Khamenei. Much anger was expressed at the clerical establishment, its repressive measures at home and its political and financial focus on Syria, Iraq and Palestine, rather than on the needs of the Iranians.

Encouraged by hardliners

Many blame the hardliners for starting the protests in Mashhad. And some hardline clerics were reportedly summoned to the National Security Council and reprimanded. 

Mashhad is the stronghold of Rouhani's hardline rival, Ebrahim Raissi, who was the preferred candidate of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). He is the chief custodian of the powerful religious foundation Astan Ghods Razavi and as such holds the largest pot of public funds. Together with his ultra-hardline father-in-law, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamalhoda, he is accused of having turned Mashhad into a key location for opposing Rouhani and his policies.

Mashhad was also at the centre of the high-profile fraud case of Padideh Shandiz Construction. The $35bn fraud case which revealed unprecedented corruption at the highest levels dating back to the hardline government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The chief executive of the firm was jailed in 2016. Investors shares dropped drastically in value and there was no state-owned enterprise control. Since then investors have regularly protested in Mashhad and Tehran.

Protests turn political

The surprise came only when the protests spread to some 70 more remote towns and provincial cities where police stations and security forces were directly targeted.

The slogans became overtly anti-establishment: "Death to the Khamenei," "Down with the dictator," "Have shame, you mullah," "I don't want an Islamic republic," and "O Shah, rest in peace," or "Let go of Palestine, not Gaza, not Lebanon, I'd give my life [only] for Iran". 

On January 5, the hardline Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami hit back before Friday prayers in Tehran:

"The slogans chanted on behalf of Trump and Netanyahu in the recent riots that said Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon are the voices of outsiders, and should be stifled".

IRGC chief Mohammad-Ali Jaffari also blamed "the US, Zionists and Al Saud" for acts of "sabotage and blasts".

This showed the regime's nervous disposition after reports of joint efforts by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia for exerting pressure on Iran. And it was exasperated when both the US president, Donald Trump, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, praised "the brave demonstrators". 

Scepticism increased when some prominent Iranian figures such as the former crown prince, Reza Pahlavi, and the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi asked the US to increase pressure on Iran. Many wondered whether there was a foreign ulterior motive to fan the flame of the protests.

Whoever started the protests or fanned its flames with whatever ulterior motive, one thing is clear that the public outcry against Islamic republic's repressive methods and the economic malaise cannot be written off as a mere conspiracy, or whitewashed with mass pro-regime demonstrations.

Iranians are frustrated by the inability of the establishment to create any meaningful change whether at the economic or political level. This was the third time Ayatollah Khamenei was hearing the call for his downfall and it was stronger than 2009 and 2013.

And the establishment was unusually apprehensive. IRGC said it had not been called to take action. Its involvement was very limited. The Supreme Leader did not speak for five days. The hardline Kayhan newspaper acknowledged: "the nation has risen in protest," and the president promised to create more jobs and improve the credit oversight.

The question now is whether Rouhani can use the protests to his benefit and convince the supreme leader of the need to implement the "major economic corrective surgery" to which he referred to in his speech. This may be difficult while US sanctions hover over Iran's economy. The hardliners are likely to put all the blame on the president and push for the need to project a more military image of Iran to the world. 

Whatever the outcome, a new benchmark has now been set for future protests and some past taboos have been broken. They should be taken seriously. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Other Countries Have High-Speed Trains. We Have Deadly Accidents and Crumbling Infrastructure

Saturday, January 06, 2018By Mike Ludwig, Truthout | News Analysis

Japan's high-speed bullet train system carries 1 million riders every day and has a remarkable safety record, at least compared to passenger trains in the United States. Passengers have taken billions of rides on Japanese bullet trains since the system was established 50 years ago, but not one passenger has died due to a derailment or collision.

In the US commuters and travelers use trains less than the Japanese, but US passenger train lines have suffered five major wrecks that killed or injured passengers over the past decade, including the recent derailment of an Amtrak passenger train that killed three people and injured more than 50 others in DuPont, Washington on December 18. Among the dead were two active members of the Rail Passengers Association, a group that pushes for greater access to passenger rail services.

A "constellation of factors" contributed to this spate of deadly train accidents, including train companies' habit of cutting corners to save money and a national failure to fund railroad and transportation infrastructure, according to Railroad Workers United, a national union representing railroad workers.

President Trump has used the DuPont crash to tout an infrastructure proposal due out later this month. However, critics say Trump's plan would leave struggling state and local government on the hook for repairing crumbling roads, bridges and railroads as Congress looks for ways to pay for the GOP tax cut package that Trump signed into law last month.

US Railroads -- Underfunded and Unsafe

Railroads around the world have made significant advances in safety, efficiency and infrastructure over the past century, and passengers in Japan, Europe and beyond enjoy affordable, high-speed transportation between many major cities. This is not the case in the US, where high-speed rail service is limited in most parts of the country. Most US railroads still operate on gradients laid in the 19th century that are "full of curvature, steep grades and other impediments to safe and efficient operation," according to Railroad Workers United.

"When upgrades are made, they are often inadequately funded, leading to unsafe conditions for employees, passengers and those living trackside," the union said in a collective statement released on Wednesday. "Unless and until this nation can make a commitment to advancing modern passenger train transportation through adequate and necessary funding, we will continue to lag behind the rest of the world, and continue to suffer tragedies like the one in Dupont, WA."

The deadly derailment of Amtrak Train 501 in DuPont occurred at a sharp curve in the track that state officials have hoped to restructure as part of an effort to expand high-speed rail to the Seattle region, according to The Seattle Times. However, adequate funding for rail infrastructure projects has not surfaced in Washington State, and the Times recently called the curve "a symbol of unsteady political support in the United States for rapid-rail infrastructure."

"The tragedy in Washington State highlights what everyone already knows, that so much of America's infrastructure is teetering on the edge of disaster," said Donald Cohen, director of the public services policy group In the Public Interest, in an email to Truthout.

The government's investigation of the accident is ongoing, but an initial review by the National Transportation and Safety Board found that the conductor of the Amtrak train hit the curve at a much higher speed than he was supposed to. The accident occurred during the first day of higher-speed service on the line, and Amtrak workers and their unions have expressed concern that operators were not properly trained during nighttime trial runs prior to the change.

John Risch, the legislative director for the SMART Transportation Division, a union of engineers and train technicians, said US railroad companies "do not require training like they should" due to cost-cutting measures.

"Time and time again we have urged the railroads to allow more training trips before they go out, and they will say one or two trips is enough," Risch said in a statement. "It's a cost issue.... That's something that has been a problem."

Railroad Workers United points out that all five major train wrecks in the past decade occurred with only one trained engineer controlling the main cab of the locomotive. (There were two engineers in the cab during the DuPont crash, but only one was trained on the route, and was in the process of training the other for future runs.) The union has long advocated that two qualified engineers be present on every train, as is the case for commercial airliners, which are required to have two pilots in the cockpit.

However, train companies have pushed back on these demands, citing the costs of hiring extra workers. They have also dragged their feet on installing automated braking technology mandated by Congress after a major crash in 2008. Congress extended the deadline for installing the technology from 2015 to the end of 2018 after train operators threatened to shut down the rail system in 2015.

Railroad Workers United said the automated braking technology, known as Positive Train Control, has been around for a century and could have prevented several deadly wrecks, including the crash in DuPont. In the past, Positive Train Control protected thousands of miles of mainline train tracks, but the union said railroad companies have largely dismantled this infrastructure to save money "while government regulators turned a blind eye."

"As rank and file railroad workers, we experience day-in-and-day-out the carriers' cynical view of safety, the push for profit, the demand for increased stock prices, the budget cutting, the recklessness and the total disregard for workers' lives," the union said. "This is why Train 501 wrecked."

All Eyes on Trump's Infrastructure Proposal

This most recent railroad accident has renewed calls for federal investment in transportation and other infrastructure, including from President Trump, who released this tweet shortly after the DuPont crash:

The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!

Of course, the Trump administration has done nothing to scale back US involvement in expensive and bloody military entanglements in the Middle East, and Trump recently authorized a massive $700 billion defense budget. In contrast, the White House's 2018 budget proposed cutting programs that fund transportation services and infrastructure by $1.7 billion, including $630 million in cuts to Amtrak alone.

Trump campaigned on promises to rebuild crumbling roads, bridges, railroads and other infrastructure in the US, but his administration's first attempt at rolling out an infrastructure proposal last year failed to generate any excitement in the media or Congress.

The Trump administration's $1 trillion infrastructure blueprint released last spring only includes $200 billion in actual government spending, with the rest coming from unnamed private investors incentivized by a "mixture of loans and grants" and Trump's deregulatory agenda. Other ideas proposed in the plan include allowing more tolls on interstate highways and opening roadside rest areas to private investment.

The White House has promised to release a more detailed infrastructure proposal by the end of January. However, it's still a $1 trillion plan -- about half of what the American Society of Civil Engineers says is needed to fix the nation's infrastructure -- and preliminary reports indicate it would still only allocate $200 billion in federal spending. The remaining $800 billion would be shifted to state and local governments, forcing them to make difficult deals with private companies.

"The hard truth is that we need nothing short of a Marshall Plan level of direct federal investment in our roads, bridges, broadband, and transit and water systems," Cohen said. "What we know of Trump's infrastructure plans is that he wants to do just the opposite and put more burden on city and state governments, essentially forcing them to sell off or lease our infrastructure to Wall Street and global corporations."

Cohen and other critics say Trump should have put "America first" and rolled out a robust infrastructure funding package before signing the GOP tax bill, which gives tax breaks to the rich and adds $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit over the next 10 years. Republicans in Congress are already eyeing cuts to domestic safety net and health care programs to pay for the tax package, which largely benefits corporations and the wealthy.

Meanwhile, the deficit created by the tax package coupled with Congress's self-imposed spending limits could force deep cuts to the trust funds that support railroad workers who are laid off or miss work due to illness, according to the SMART Transportation Division. As the rash of recent rail accidents suggests, this is a workforce that is already stretched too thin.

Ghosts in the Propaganda Machine

JANUARY 5, 2018

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Is this what online journalism looks like in the era of Russiagate fever? A fake writer (read Alice Donovan) catfishes CounterPunch and a dozen other online websites. A handful of her articles are published over a two-year period. The FBI is tracking her and believes this writer, whoever is behind the moniker, has some ties to Russia. What kind of ties and how deep do they go? We aren’t sure. No evidence is presented, perhaps because there isn’t much, or perhaps because the NSA and the FBI are also spying on actual journalists and editors right along with the alleged imposters. The Washington Post calls for a quote on the FBI’s allegation and runs an article a month later on Kremlin operatives “burning across the internet”.
More panic ensues.
But only one troll was named in the Washington Post piece, Alice Donovan — our suspected interloper. Prior to the Post’s article, we found out Donovan likely was not who she claimed to be and was a plagiarist to boot. We apologized for our screw-up and issued a lengthy investigation into the whole Donovan ordeal and the challenges of vetting writers in the fast-paced world of cyber-journalism. The story ends there, or does it?
For the record, what you are about to read isn’t typical fare here at CounterPunch. We aren’t in the business of investigating the legitimacy of other independent media outlets, their editors, their contributors or even their motives. In the muddy trenches of online journalism, we often find sympathy and camaraderie with others trudging the same difficult terrain. We strongly believe in the tenets of a free and unfettered press. We’d much rather save our energy to cover the issues we face day in and day out; environmental degradation, corporate and political corruption, war, abuses of power and all those brave souls fighting back. Even so, for better or worse, we are still journalists, and when a story begins to reveal itself, we have no choice but to dig deeper and follow the trail where it leads us.
In our quest to unravel the identity of the now infamous Alice Donovan, we realized she wasn’t only a fraud, she was also a quack journalist. Many of Donovan’s stories were in part plagiarized, none more flagrantly than an article titled “US-led Coalition Airstrike On Assad’s Forces Was Not Accidental.” It took a few quick searches to uncover the original source of the piece, which was ripped off entirely from a writer named Sophie Mangal, whose article by the same title was published at The International Reporter on the exact same day Donovan submitted the piece to CounterPunch under her own byline.
We were slightly familiar with Mangal, who claimed to be an “investigative correspondent” and editor at an obscure site called Inside Syria Media Center (ISMC), which publishes both in Arabic and English. Mangal occasionally goes by Sophie with an “e”, yet her Medium author page lists her name as “Sophia”, and at ISMC, often simply “S. Mangal”.
Emails from Mangal had arrived two or three times a week over the past twelve months, piling up in our inboxes. Nearly every piece she wrote, it seemed, was submitted to us for publication. We passed on all of them, but many were picked up by Global ResearchInternational Reporter and Veterans Today. The piece Donovan stole, however, was never submitted to CounterPunch by Mangal. No doubt the same article pitched by two different authors on the same day would have raised a red flag.
When we realized Donovan had plagiarized Mangal we immediately reached out to her via email to 1) confirm she indeed wrote the piece in question and 2) apologize for making such a big mistake.
Mangal quickly responded to our query. “For sure, it’s my article. It was originally published on the website of Inside Syria Media Center. Actually, I don’t know Alice Donovan and who this person is,” asserted Mangal. “Besides, I wonder why my article was published on CounterPunch by that name though copyrights belong to me. I would be quite grateful if you publish my articles with the reference to me in future instead of others suspicious persons who steal my intellectual property.”
We decided to remove the article entirely from our site and issue an apology to Mangal for the error. By now Alice Donovan had vanished, so all we could do was assume she was a plagiarist, if not something more sinister. Mangal accepted our apology and even continued soliciting her work to us in the weeks to follow.
Even so, we believed something in Mangal’s awkward response to us was fishy. First, the English in most of her submissions was fractured, especially for someone who claims to have attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a “Media and Journalism” major. Second, as noted, Donovan’s pilfered piece was emailed to us around the very same time that Mangal’s story was being posted to the International Reporter site. How had Donovan seen it, cribbed it and sent it to us so quickly? Breaking her normal pattern of submitting her pieces to multiple venues, Donovan sent the plagiarized piece only to us and not to some of her other typical outlets. Why? Had someone screwed up? Hit the wrong send button on the wrong email account? In search of answers, we began looking more closely at Mangal’s blizzard of submissions, dating back to December 22, 2016.
It didn’t take long before we realized why we had passed on them. Most of Mangal’s writings embraced a rigidly narrow view of the war in Syria. The crux of her works read like regime-sponsored press releases. There was no nuance to the writing and few told the story from a war victim’s perspective. Virtually all exalted Russia’s military prowess and the tenacity of the Assad regime, as if she was embedded within the Syrian Army. Embedded reporting has its place, naturally, but were Mangal’s numerous dispatches from inside Syria actually “reported”? And how was it being done? Who were the nameless “Inside Syria Media Center sources,” which were referenced in so many of her pieces? Moreover, Mangal’s prose was unusually brittle and dull. Even if you are open about your bias, why render your war reporting in such boring sentences?
We receive submissions from writers from across the globe, so we are used to awkward sentence structures, but this was something different. Wasn’t Mangal an English-speaking editor? Wasn’t she a reporter who attended a top-tier journalism program in the United States? What was this Inside Syria Media Center all about? We had never heard of it before. The site claims to be an “independent medium that contributes to peace in Syria,” but would a truly independent outlet openly express their admiration for Assad with a #WeLoveYourBashar and #StillMyPresident on its Twitter page? You don’t hear that kind of unbridled sycophancy from Sputnik and RT.

Fortunately, we thought, Mangal wasn’t exactly a ghost, like our friend Donovan. She was an editor at an actual news site, no matter its agenda, and was widely published across the web, with over 55 articles at Global Research alone. She had an active Facebook page. She even interviewed one of our writers via email about the prospects of a Syrian constitution. Most importantly, we thought, she was communicating with us.
As we noted in our piece on Alice Donovan, something else struck us as odd with Mangal. Both writers used a account for their initial emails to us. Out of the past 3,000 submissions to CounterPunch only four writers used accounts, that includes Donovan and Mangal. What this proves isn’t clear, but is notorious for providing a service where one can quickly produce a number of email accounts without any verification on one platform from one location. It is also one of the few email services which masks the IP address of the sender. A hacker’s delight.
By now we suspected something was up with Alice Donovan and we became suspicious of how Donovan had interacted with Mangal. Donovan had plagiarized verbatim an entire piece by Mangal and lifted passages from another. In both instances, Donovan’s submissions to CounterPunch arrived shortly after Mangal’s pieces had appeared on other sites. How did she have access to Mangal’s stories so quickly? Was Syria the key to unlocking the ultimate mystery of Alice Donovan? Couldn’t we just talk to Mangal and figure this all out? Were we just being paranoid?
We repeatedly attempted to schedule a chat with Mangal via Skype. Four times to be exact. Mangal initially emailed to say she couldn’t speak via Skype because she was in the mountains of Syria with a bad internet connection — hey, but thanks for the gesture, she said.
Yet, here she was, emailing us and dispatching her work across the web. She was even sending photos along with her pieces. How poor could her internet connection be? Activist and scholar Dr. Hawzhin Azeez spoke with CounterPunch Radio host Eric Draitser for an hour from war-torn Syria last year and we have writers in Syria who are able to communicate with us when needed.
We weren’t buying Mangal’s evasions. In the midst of the Donovan saga, Mangal had somehow sparked our intrigue.
Snapshot of Mangal’s Facebook page, which was deleted sometime in mid-December 2017.
Over the course of 2016 to 2017, we published a total of five articles by the intruder Alice Donovan. We aren’t proud we didn’t catch on and realize she wasn’t the living and breathing New Yorker she claimed to be. But despite the Washington Post’s assertion that Kremlin trolls are invading, by all accounts Alice was a rather insignificant and benign presence. Before the Post and our own exposé dropped, Donovan enjoyed fewer than 50 Twitter followers. Her articles weren’t widely read or shared.
However, Mangal, unlike Donovan, had a much larger online footprint. She had published dozens of more pieces and was an editor of an outlet with nearly 13,000 Twitter followers. In virtually every way she seemed more relevant than Donovan as an online journalist.
While it’s nearly impossible to prove who’s really behind an ambiguous online persona like Mangal’s, it is rather easy to break down one’s text and check for accuracies, influences, patterns and quirks. We couldn’t prove Alice Donovan was or was not a Russian huckster (we didn’t take the FBI’s word for it, see the ordeal of Wen Ho Lee), but we were able to unmask her as a plagiarist, which in journalistic quarters, at least, is a more grievous offense.
Could we accomplish something similar with Mangal?
On various websites, Sophia Mangal has been described as “a woman with a passion for Syria, the Church and justice,” as an “American patriot,” and as “a young University of North Carolina media and journalism grad.” But was she any of these things?
Mangal, much like Alice Donovan, seemed to have appeared out of thin air. There are no tracks of her days as a college student. There are no podcast appearances, radio or video interviews promoting her work as a reporter, almost de rigeuer activities for contemporary journalists.  ISMC, which maintains its own YouTube channel, has posted many videos from Syria, yet none feature any of their writers, either interviewing anyone or being interviewed. In the Age of the Selfie, there’s only the one noirish photograph of Mangal, much of her face obscured behind large sunglasses. In her bio, Mangal claims to have “monitored” the European refugee crisis after leaving UNC, where she drew “parallels between the Syrian conflict and the Balkan problem.” If so, there is no evidence of her reporting on these issues, either before or after joining ISMC.
The first online trace of Mangal we could find is from November 2016, when she authored an article titled “Syria ISIS-Daesh Terrorists’ Financing Schemes Unveiled”, which was published at ISMC and Global Research, among others. That’s a pretty eye-popping story to break for your debut as an international correspondent. Even Seymour Hersh started out as a lowly beat reporter for the City News Bureau in Chicago.
CounterPunch did not receive the “terrorist financing” submission, but we were approached by Mangal on December 21, 2016, with a piece that attempted to discredit Bana al-Abed, an eight-year-old Syrian girl, who, with the help of her English speaking mother, became a Twitter sensation during the battle for Aleppo.  Assad-friendly writers were quick to push back against al-Abed’s version of events and her growing popularity. Mangal’s piece mimicked these talking points and wasn’t exceptionally groundbreaking, so we passed.
No doubt there were grounds to be suspicious of al-Abed’s overnight rise, but the counter-propaganda campaign was equally as shallow. In retrospect, the fact that Mangal was writing about the alleged fake identity of al-Abed (she had a habit of trying to expose fakers) — who is a very real girl now living in New York — is a bit comical. It seems Mangal has done her best to vanish, while al-Abed is still promoting herself and her family’s plight in Syria.
It’s unclear to us when Mangal became an editor at ISMC. Her first submission to CounterPunch that identified her as co-editor landed in February 2017. She appeared to remain an editor until we attempted to talk to her via Skype. After our last attempt to schedule a conversation on December 15, her name was suddenly removed from ISMC’s contact page, though it remains on the contributors page (see below.) Around this time, Mangal also deleted her Facebook page. Soon after our piece on Alice Donovan was published on Christmas Day, which named Mangal as the victim of Donovan’s cut-and-paste theft, Mangal’s name was scrubbed from the bylines at ISMC for every article she had written. Over the course of 2017, Mangal regularly published one or two pieces a week. Then the submissions and publications on other sites abruptly stopped. Her last published story at Global Research appeared on December 15.
What was going on? Mangal’s pieces weren’t being removed, just reassigned to a simple “ISMC” byline. But wasn’t Mangal the one who had been wronged by Donovan? We were confused. Rare for a “media center,” ISMC lists no physical address or phone number on their contact page. Were ISMC’s offices located in Chapel Hill? London? the Netherlands? Austria? Virginia? Damascus? There’s no clue. So we were forced to drop an email to the site’s chief-editor, Mariam Al-Hijab. After several attempts and days of waiting, we threw in the towel. No response.
It was certainly strange. First, Mangal wasn’t responding and now her co-editor wasn’t communicating either. So we reached out to ISMC’s other most prolific writer, Anna Jaunger, who is so astoundingly productive that she regularly churns out 3 or 4 stories a day. We noticed her pace of filing dispatches increased after Mangal faded away.
Again, we heard nothing. We sensed a pattern developing.
We decided to analyze a report Mangal had just dropped titled, “New Trends of A Resurgent Syrian Economy”, which claimed to have been written in collaboration with a writer named Anan Tello.
Coincidentally, Tello wrote a similar article with a few of the same paragraphs for Arab News. Tello’s was certainly the better of the two pieces, but whole sections appeared in Mangal’s version as well. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to realize Tello was an actual human being. She’s widely published and has an active, personal online presence. She was willing and eager to talk.
When asked if Tello knew Mangal, or had worked with her on the piece, she was emphatic, “I spent more than a week working on [that piece] for Arab News, and I worked on it all alone.” Tello explained, “The people I interviewed, as well as my editors, know that I worked on the piece alone … What [Mangal] did is outrageous and unacceptable. How could I have ‘cooperated’ with someone I’ve never spoken to in any way, never heard of and with whom I never had any kind of correspondence?”
Alice Donovan plagiarized Sophie Mangal and now Mangal ripped off Anan Tello? What the hell are we dealing with here? It compelled us to take a closer look at Mangal’s work, even though we had never published it. Sure enough, like Donovan, she had lifted lede grafs from other writers, most recently from a piece in The New Yorker.
Here’s Mangal’s lede in a piece at ISMC on December 12, in “WH Recognized Assad as the Only Power Capable to Restore Syria?” (Mangal’s byline has since changed to ISMC):
“The Trump Administration is now prepared to accept President Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule until Syria’s next scheduled Presidential election, in 2021, according to U.S. and European officials. The decision reverses repeated U.S. statements that Assad must step down as part of a peace process.”
Here’s Robin Wright for The New Yorker one day earlier on December 11, 2017, in “Trump to Let Assad Stay Until 2021, as Putin Declares Victory in Syria” (Mangal’s theft in bold):
“Despite the deaths of as many as half a million people, dozens by chemical weapons, in the Syrian civil war, the Trump Administration is now prepared to accept President Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule until Syria’s next scheduled Presidential election, in 2021, according to U.S. and European officials. The decision reverses repeated U.S. statements that Assad must step down as part of a peace process.”
It was obvious. Mangal, like Donovan, was a journalistic klepto. The plagiarized was herself a plagiarizer.
Mangal also collaborated with journalist Sarah Abed, who writes for Mint Press News and edits The Rabbit Hole. Abed tells CounterPunch she never met Mangal in person and only communicated with her by email during their various collaborations. Mangal and Abed never spoke on the phone or via Skype and Abed says she hasn’t heard from Mangal for at least six months.
We also looked into Anna Jaunger’s work. She is even more prolific than Mangal. Jaunger’s first story for ISMC, “The Strange Logic of US Coalition Mistakes in Syria,” was published on October 27, 2016.  Over the next 14 months, Jaunger’s byline appeared on more than 500 hundred stories–or about 1.25 stories every day. The ISMC archive for her articles is 56 pages long, at 8 to 10 articles per page. That’s an impressive clippings file for many journalists to amass over a decade, but Jaunger produced that many pieces in little over a year’s time.  While many of the pieces are short rudimentary reports, others are more in depth. Her articles detailed troop movements, battle casualties, weapons shipments to rebel forces and intelligence estimates; they charted secret money networks, exposed covert operations, and analyzed US and European political debates and strategies. Stories that would take seasoned war correspondents days, even weeks, to report, flew off of Jaunger’s keyboard almost daily. How did she keep it up? Where was the information coming from?
On her Twitter page, Jaunger describes herself as an Austrian journalist working (“I love my job!”) for ISMC. Her work has been published by Global ResearchOff GuardianInformation ClearinghouseDissident Voice and many other media outlets. We discovered she presents something of a façade as well. The profile photo on Jaunger’s Twitter page is actually a photograph of a woman named Anna Buxton from London, which was lifted directly from an employee directory at a company called LaSalle Investment Management. Apparently, Jaunger’s seven lucky followers didn’t question the authenticity of the snappy photo.
Anna Jaunger’s Twitter page.
The real Anna, photo from LaSalle Investment Management’s staff page.
Of course, it goes without saying that all of this absurdity raises serious questions about the legitimacy of ISMC. Who is behind the project? We aren’t certain, exactly. But it’s been a fruitful endeavor. Altogether, Mangal and Jaunger have published hundreds of articles that have appeared all over the web. How do they pay for the site and ISMC’s three staffers, who supposedly travel frequently to Syria and back from Europe and the States? We couldn’t tell. Unlike most independent media outlets, they don’t ask for donations, don’t list an address or phone number and offer no biographical information about their editors and writers.
Tom Ginsberg, a respected international law professor at the University of Chicago participated in an interview with ISMC last February on the proposed Syrian constitution. We reached out to see what he knew about the site.
“I had not heard of them before,” explains Ginsberg, whose interview with ISMC was conducted via email. “When the interview came out, a friend from the region told me they had some kind of pro-Assad bias … I never actually spoke to a human being on the phone.”
We attempted to look under the hood of the operation to see if we could find a leak. The url “” was registered to Barna Robert from Noord-Brabant, Netherlands on September 16, 2016. Who is Barna Robert? We couldn’t track him down through the email or phone number listed on the site’s registration page. (Like Donovan and Mangal, Robert used as his email client, which functions the same as MAIL.COM, both of which are owned by United Internet.) It’s an unusual name. There just aren’t that many Barna Roberts in the world. (Or Robert Barnas for that matter.) We were only able to a locate a handful online, including a Hungarian body-builder who died in 2013, a Romanian soccer player and a Hungarian mathematician.
But a now-deleted Facebook page listed a Barna Robert as being from Aleppo, Syria, currently living in Carolina Beach, North Carolina. If that’s the same Barna Robert who registered the ISMC website, he lives just a two-hour drive from Sophie Mangal’s purported home in Wake County, NC. We searched for phone and property records for Mr. Robert in Carolina Beach and came up empty.
Inside Syria Media Center appears to have initially shown up as a Facebook group called “Syria: Look Inside!”, which is now also called Inside Syria Media Center. It is unclear when the name was changed. The group was created in February 2016, about a month before ISMC was operating online as a media project. Once ISMC went live, it was hosted on WordPress and later transferred to “”, as noted above. One of the first individuals to promote the Facebook group was a journalist named Said Al-Khalaki, who also wrote some of the earliest content for ISMC and is an administrator for the Facebook group. Al-Khalaki did not respond to a request for comment.
Strangely, after we attempted to reach out to Al-Khalaki, his bylines at Inside Syria Media Center were also changed to the generic “ISMC”. (Here’s a piece by Al-Khalaki that appeared at Veteran’s Today and also at ISMC. Note the byline discrepancies.) Al-Khalaki’s online work dates back to at least 2013.
A records inquiry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mangal’s alleged stomping grounds, could not verify that either a “Sophie” or “Sophia” Mangal had ever graduated from or even attended the university. A search of the UNC General Alumni Association rolls also proved fruitless. We also searched the archivesof The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s school paper, and found no trace of Mangal. As far as we can tell, she’s never written for the paper. Erica Beshears Perel, General Manager of The Daily Tar Heel, says after a quick search she couldn’t find a record of Mangal over the past ten years but cautioned that hundreds of students join her staff every year.
A month ago, we plunged down a rabbit hole in pursuit of Alice and emerged in a house of mirrors, populated by at least one phantom writer (Donovan), vanishing bylines and stolen texts that had proliferated across the web. Why does it matter? From bitter experience, we’ve learned that the price of the deception will be paid by the anti-war media, not the ghostwriters.  The architects of COINTELPRO themselves couldn’t have devised a more insidious way to discredit the anti-war movement. This time, however, the wounds may be largely self-inflicted.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter@brickburner

Like a thief: Slavoj Žižek and the illusions of hope

[Julius Gavroche: With political and theoretical differences aside (Leninism, reifications of History, etc.) we share, in translation, a short essay by Slavoj Žižek, originally published in Le nouveau magazine littéraire (Nº 1, January 2018).]

One of the great contributions of American culture to dialectical thought is a series of more or less vulgar doctor jokes, of the type, “there is good news and there is bad news”.  For example: “The bad news is that you have terminal cancer and you will die within a month.  The good news is that we also discovered that you have Alzheimer’s, and you will have forgotten the bad news once you get home.”  Perhaps we should have the same approach with regards to radical politics.  After so much “bad news” – after having seen so much hope brutally crushed in the space of radical action, torn between the two extreme cases of Maduro and Tsipras -, one would be tempted to affirm that no action of this kind had a chance to succeed, that it was condemned from the beginning, that all hope for any real and effective change for the better was but an illusion.  Rather than looking to oppose to this signs of “good news”, we should learn to distinguish the good news contained in the bad, by considering it from another point of view.  Consider the automation of production that frightens so many, as it diminishes the need for labour and contributes to mass unemployment.  But why fear this possibility?  Doesn’t this open up the possibility of a new society in which all of us will have to work less?  On what kind of society will we embark upon if the good news is automatically transformed into bad?

If Marx provided an unsurpassed analysis of the way in which capitalism perpetuates itself, his mistake consisted of counting on its final collapse and in not understanding that it emerges stronger from every crisis.  As the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck described, Marxism correctly saw the “final crisis” of capitalism, into which we have entered today, but this crisis is only a prolonged process of decadence and disintegration, without a Hegelian overcoming in sight, without any agent to give a positive turn to this decadence and convert it into a superior level of social organisation.

The paradox of our situation is the following: while the resistances to globalised capitalism fail again and always to arrest its rise, they remain strangely disconnected from the numerous manifestations that nonetheless signal the progressive disintegration of capitalism.  It is as if two tendencies (resistance and self-destruction) advanced on two different planes and could not meet, such that we end up with futile protests parallel to self-destruction, without finding the means to have these two converge in a coordinated action with the aim of an emancipatory overcoming of capitalism.  How did we get here?  While the greater part of the Left tries desperately to protect the old rights of workers against the assaults of globalised capitalism, it is almost exclusively the most “progressive” of the capitalists themselves (from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg) who speak of post-capitalism, as if the very goal of the passage from capitalism as we know it to a new post-capitalist order was annexed by capitalism …

How then can a radical social transformation be brought about? Certainly not in the manner of a triumphal victory or even as the result of one of these catastrophes amply debated and announced in the media, but “like a thief in the night”: “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.  For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.” (The First Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, 5:2-3)  Is this not already the situation of our own societies, obsessed precisely by “peace and safety”?  The same holds for psychoanalytic cure, where the resolution comes always “like a thief in the night”, as an unexpected by-product, and not as the realisation of an expressly formulated project.  The order of capitalist globalisation is a concrete totality capable of countering all attempts at subversion, and the anti-capitalist struggle can only be effective if it takes into account these counter-measures, if it transforms into weapons the very instruments of its defeat.  If one waits for the right moment when a smooth transition will be possible, then it will never arrive; history never offers us a clear opportunity.  One has to take risks and to intervene even if the goal to be attained appears (and is, in a certain sense) unreachable.  Only from such interventions can the situation be modified, to render the impossible possible, and in a totally unpredictable way.  Lenin can be enlightening here.  Two years before his death, when it becomes clear to him that there will not be a revolution at the European level, he writes:
“What if the complete hopelessness of the situation, by stimulating the efforts of the workers and peasants tenfold, offered us the opportunity to create the fundamental requisites of civilisation in a different way from that of the west European countries?”

Giorgio Agamben said in an interview that “thought is the courage of hopelessness” – a particularly pertinent intuition in relation to the historical moment that we are living, where even the most pessimistic diagnoses often conclude by an allusion to the proverbial light that would await us at the end of the tunnel.  True courage lies not in imaging an alternative, but in accepting the consequences of the fact that there is no easily identifiable alternative.  The dream of alternatives is a sign of theoretical cowardliness; it functions as a fetish that impedes us from thinking through our impasse.  In short, true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is only the light of another train running in the opposite direction.

One thing is nevertheless certain: the ultimate utopia, today, consists of thinking that if we do nothing and simply look to maintain prudently the existing order, the world will continue as it is.