Feed aggregator

‘Plain historical falsehoods’: How amicus briefs bolstered Supreme Court conservatives

Politico -

Princeton Professor Robert P. George, a leader of the conservative legal movement and confidant of the judicial activist and Donald Trump ally Leonard Leo, made the case for overturning Roe v. Wade in an amicus brief a year before the Supreme Court issued its watershed ruling.

Roe, George claimed, had been decided based on “plain historical falsehoods.” For instance, for centuries dating to English common law, he asserted, abortion has been considered a crime or “a kind of inchoate felony for felony-murder purposes.”

The argument was echoed in dozens of amicus briefs supporting Mississippi’s restrictive abortion law in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court case that struck down the constitutional right to abortion in 2022. Seven months before the decision, the argument was featured in an article on the web page of the conservative legal network, the Federalist Society, where Leo is co-chair.

In his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito used the same quote from Henry de Bracton, the medieval English jurist, that George cited in his amicus brief to help demonstrate that “English cases dating all the way back to the 13th century corroborate the treatises’ statements that abortion was a crime.”

George, however, is not a historian. Major organizations representing historians strongly disagree with him.

That this questionable assertion is now enshrined in the court’s ruling is “a flawed and troubling precedent,” the Organization of American Historians, which represents 6,000 history scholars and experts, and the American Historical Association, the largest membership association of professional historians in the world, said in a statement. It is also a prime example of how a tight circle of conservative legal activists have built a highly effective thought chamber around the court’s conservative flank over the past decade.

A POLITICO review of tax filings, financial statements and other public documents found that Leo and his network of nonprofit groups are either directly or indirectly connected to a majority of amicus briefs filed on behalf of conservative parties in seven of the highest-profile rulings the court has issued over the past two years. 

It is the first comprehensive review of amicus briefs that have streamed into the court since Trump nominated Justice Amy Coney Barrett in 2020, solidifying the court’s conservative majority. POLITICO’s review found multiple instances of language used in the amicus briefs appearing in the court’s opinions.

The Federalist Society, the 70,000-member organization that Leo co-chairs, does not take political positions. But the movement centered around the society often weighs in through many like-minded groups. In 15 percent of the 259 amicus briefs for the conservative side in the seven cases, Leo was either a board member, official or financial backer through his network of the group that filed the brief. Another 55 percent were from groups run by individuals who share board memberships with Leo, worked for entities funded by his network or were among a close-knit circle of legal experts that includes chapter heads who serve under Leo at the Federalist Society.

The picture that emerges is of an exceedingly small universe of mostly Christian conservative activists developing and disseminating theories to change the nation’s legal and cultural landscape. It also casts new light on Leo’s outsized role in the conservative legal movement, where he simultaneously advised Trump on Supreme Court nominations, paid for media campaigns promoting the nominees and sought to influence court decision-making on a range of cases.

Adam Kennedy, Leo’s spokesperson, said Leo has “no comment at this time.”

George, in an emailed response, defended his claim that abortion was a crime, saying the historians have been “comprehensively refuted,” including by John Keown, a leading English scholar of Christian ethics at Georgetown University and Joseph Dellapenna, a now-retired law professor who also submitted a brief.

Like George’s view of abortion as a crime throughout history, arguments in amicus briefs often find their way into the justices’ opinions. In major cases involving cultural flashpoints of abortion, affirmative action and LGBTQ+ rights POLITICO found information cited in amicus briefs connected to Leo’s network in the court’s opinions.

Dating from Rome

Amicus briefs date to the Roman empire as vehicles for neutral parties to make suggestions based on law or fact. In pre-18th Century England, the amicus was a neutral lawyer in the courtroom. Around the turn of the 20th century in America, there was a shift to amicus briefs becoming vehicles for parties who felt a stake in the case but weren’t among the official litigants. Still, in the century that followed, amicus briefs only rarely influenced cases.

But now, with Leo’s network having attained power on the right, some legal experts bemoan them as ways for activists to push for more ideologically pure or sweeping judicial decisions.

Justices appointed by both Democrats and Republicans over the past decade have come to rely on amicus briefs, including those funded by advocacy groups, for “fact-finding,” says Allison Orr Larsen, a constitutional law expert at William and Mary Law School who’s beentracking the trend for nearly a decade.

“There’s no real vetting process for who can file these amicus briefs,” said Larsen, and the justices often “accept these historical narratives at face value.” While it’s impossible to gauge the precise impact, “what I can prove is they’re being used by the court,” she says.

A former Supreme Court clerk, Larsen has called for reforms including disclosure of special interests behind “neutral-sounding organizations” which, in reality, are representing a broader political movement.

For instance, Leo and George are board directors at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which filed amicus briefs in support of the restrictive Mississippi abortion law in the Dobbs decision and in the case in which the court found a Colorado website designer could refuse to create wedding websites for same-sex couples. They are also both on the board of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which also filed briefs in those cases.

Combined, the entities have taken in millions of dollars from Leo’s primary aligned dark money group, the 85 Fund, including $1.4 million to the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 2021. Leo himself received the Canterbury Medal, Becket’s highest honor, in 2017.

In the Dobbs case, Becket’s brief posited that “religious liberty conflicts would likely decrease post-Roe.” 

Abortion as a Crime

In July of 2022, a few weeks after the Dobbs decision was announced, historical organizations issued a statement saying that abortion was not considered a crime according to the modern definition of the word and citing a “long legal tradition” — from the common law to the mid-1800s– of tolerating termination of pregnancy before a woman could feel fetal movement.

“The court adopted a flawed interpretation of abortion criminalization that has been pressed by anti-abortion advocates for more than thirty years,” they wrote.

A trio of scholars of medieval history also denounced Alito’s argument as misrepresenting the penalties involved related to abortion. The Latin word “crimen” was more akin to a sin that would be “absolved through penance” before the Church — and not a felony, said Sara McDougall, a scholar of medieval law, gender and justice at City University of New York Graduate Center. Further, the meaning of “abortion” often involved “beating a pregnant woman” and was so broad it covered infanticide, she said.

“There’s not one felony prosecution for abortion in 13th century England. The church sometimes (but not always) imposed penance — but usually when the intent was to conceal sexual infidelity,” said McDougall, who was one of the three medieval scholars. Indeed, this medieval doctrine persisted for hundreds of years until Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1869 that life began at conception, they wrote.

In his response, George said the three medievalists “lamentably conceal what is in the public record,” by ignoring what the definition was at the time of a “formed” fetus. They “fail to engage at all with the compelling evidence that abortion was unlawful” and “subject to criminal sanction after quickening,” which was after 42 days from conception, he said.

While debates over when life begins date to ancient Greece, the definition George uses in an expanded version of his brief that he provided to POLITICO — that a child is an “immortal soul” after 42 days — came from the author of an early forerunner to the encyclopedia (c. 1240) who was a member of the Franciscan order and frequent lecturer on the Bible. It is not clear how, without modern ultrasound technology, a fetus’ gestational stage could have been determined in the 1300s.

The case that abortion was a historical crime wasn’t part of the anti-abortion push until it was introduced by Dellapenna during an anti-abortion conference in the early 1980s, says Mary Ruth Ziegler, a legal historian who authored a book on the history of Roe. Dellapenna was a law professor at Villanova University and not a historian. Moreover, she said: “This was not a disinterested historian doing the research. This is someone at an anti-abortion event.”

Over time, many others in the anti-abortion community seized on Dellapenna’s work, including George, who “repurposed it” to argue that abortion itself is unconstitutional, said Ziegler.

In response, George called it “amusing” that his critics among historians “try to immunize themselves from critique by claiming guild authority” while noting that his sources are themselves historians.

“The trouble for them,” he said of the historical associations, is “the sources are available to us, just as they are to them. So we can see what the sources say, and compare it with what they claim the sources say.”

George’s friendship with Leo dates to the 1990s. The two share similar beliefs on religion, politics and even personal hobbies. Both are avid wine collectors. Each is also among a handful of recent recipients of the John Paul II New Evangelization Award, given by the Catholic Information Center in Washington to those who “demonstrate an exemplary commitment to proclaiming Christ to the world.”

When it comes to abortion, George’s scholarship appears throughout the federal court system, particularly among judges with deep ties to the Federalist Society.

In April, Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk in Texas cited George’s 2008 book, “Embryo: A Defense of Human Life,” in the first footnote of his preliminary ruling invalidating the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the abortion pill, mifepristone. Kacsmaryk used George’s work to defend his use of the terms “unborn human” and “unborn child” — most often used by anti-abortion activists — instead of “fetus,” which is the standard term used by jurists.

“Jurists often use the word ‘fetus’ to inaccurately identify unborn humans in unscientific ways. The word ‘fetus’ refers to a specific gestational stage of development, as opposed to the zygote, blastocyst or embryo stages,” reads the first footnote of the decision, citing George.

Affirmative Action

The longest-standing agenda item of the conservative legal movement aside from abortion was affirmative action.

In June, when the court rejected affirmative action at colleges and universities across the nation, there were at least three instances in which Justice Clarence Thomas used the same language or citations from amicus briefs of filers connected to Leo, whose friendship and past business relationship with Thomas’s wife, Virginia Thomas, who is known as Ginni, have been reported.

Thomas read from the bench his concurring opinion barring such race-conscious laws, including quoting from the Virginia Bill of Rights of 1776. It asserts that “all men are (already) by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights,” he said.

The quote and reference to Virginia’s Bill of Rights also appeared in an amicus brief filed by John Eastman, a former Thomas law clerk who has a long history of support from Leo. Indeed, roughly eight in ten of all briefs filed in the case, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, are connected to Leo’s network.

Eastman is best known as the accused mastermind of the legal strategy Trump used to try and overthrow the 2020 election, and is now co-defendant with Trump in the election-interference case in Georgia. Both Leo and Ginni Thomas donated to Eastman’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign for state attorney general of California. Eastman, in February of 2012, co-authored the first-ever brief that Leo’s primary activist group, the Judicial Education Project, filed before the Supreme Court.

Thomas also cites the work of some of the same scholars mentioned in briefs by former attorney general Edwin Meese III, who served with Leo on the Federalist Society board and worked with him on judicial nominations during the George W. Bush administration.

Same-sex weddings and free speech

Just weeks before the affirmative action decision was announced, the court delivered a blow to LGBTQ+ rights in deciding a web designer with religious objections to same-sex marriages can’t be legally obliged to create speech she opposes. The justices were divided 6-3 between Republican and Democratic appointees.

A Christian nonprofit aligned with Leo’s network, the Alliance Defending Freedom, represented the Colorado-based plaintiff. One issue before the justices was whether the case constituted an actual dispute between the designer and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission or was generated simply to undermine LGBTQ+ rights.

ADF is funded by Leo-aligned DonorsTrust, among the biggest beneficiaries of Leo’s network of nonprofits.

In at least two instances in Justice Neil Gorsuch’s majority opinion, he used the same language or citations from amicus briefs submitted by groups in Leo’s network, all of which endorsed the view of an appeals court judge in the case, Timothy M. Tymkovich, that “taken to its logical end,” allowing Colorado to require that web designers produce content related to same-sex weddings would permit the government to “regulate the messages communicated by all artists.” In his opinion, Gorsuch cites the same quote, arguing the result would be “unprecedented.”

The briefs included one from a group of First Amendment scholars including George and Helen M. Alvare, a law professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, which in 2016 received a $30 million gift brokered by Leo. Among seven briefs endorsed by people or groups connected to Leo was Turning Point USA, which received $2.75 million from Leo’s 85 Fund in 2020.

The overall concentration of conservative amicus briefs in the LGBTQ+ rights case tied to Leo’s network is among the highest, at about 85 percent, of any of the seven cases reviewed. Many were filed by Catholic or Christian nonprofits in support of the plaintiff, a designer whose company is called 303 Creative.

The two pillars of Leo’s network, The 85 Fund and the Concord Fund, gave $7.8 million between July of 2019 and 2021 to organizations filing briefs on behalf of 303 Creative LLC.

The Concord Fund is a rebranded group, previously called the Judicial Crisis Network, which organized tens of millions of dollars for campaigns promoting the nominations of the conservative justices. The 85 Fund is the new name of the Judicial Education Project, a tax-exempt charitable group that has filed numerous briefs before the court.

A burgeoning tool

Amicus briefs are not only tools of conservatives. The numbers of amicus briefs on both sides of major cases grew substantially after 2010, which happened to be when the court’s Citizens United ruling ushered in a new era of “dark money” groups like the Leo-aligned JEP.

The volume of amicus briefs seeking to influence the court has only increased since then, as both Democrat and Republican-nominated justices have come to borrow from them in their opinions, according to a study published in 2020 in The National Law Journal.

In her dissenting opinion in the affirmative action case, liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson drew criticism for quoting misleading information cited in an amicus brief by the Association of American Medical Colleges about the mortality rate for Florida newborns.

Across the seven cases and hundreds of briefs reviewed by POLITICO — in addition to abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and affirmative action, the cases covered student loans, environmental protection, voting rights and the independent state legislature theory — the conservative parties had a slight advantage, accounting for 50 percent of the amici curiae. That compares to 46 percent in support of the liberal parties and about 4 percent filed in support of neither party.

While there is an amalgam of Democrat-aligned groups directing money to influence the court, such as Protect Democracy, Demand Justice and the National Democratic Redistricting Commission, which is focused on voting and democracy, they are decentralized and mostly revolve around specific issues.

“We don’t have a Federal Reserve or a Central Bank to go to. It doesn’t exist. You’re quantifying two wildly different ecosystems,” said Robert Raben, a former assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice under President Bill Clinton and counsel to the House Judiciary Committee.

Given the opaque nature of Leo’s network, it’s difficult to tally up just how much money has been spent on conservative legal advocacy linked to him. Yet just the two leading groups in his funding network, The Concord Fund and The 85 Fund, spent at least $21.5 million between 2011 and 2021 on groups advocating for conservative rulings.

Tax-exempt nonprofit groups must provide the names of their officers and board members on their annual IRS forms. In 15 percent of the briefs reviewed, Leo is a member of leadership, for instance a board member, trustee or executive representing the filers — or the filers received payments from one of Leo’s groups.

Expanding the circle to include executives who’ve previously worked for a Leo-aligned group, shared board memberships with him, led Federalist Society chapters or have other professional ties to him, Leo’s network is connected to 180 amicus briefs, or a majority.

Many of these professional ties are through the Center for National Policy, whose members have included Leo himself, Ginni Thomas, former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and former Vice President Mike Pence.

A number of the groups associated with these individuals have also received funds from DonorsTrust, which is the biggest beneficiary of Leo’s aligned Judicial Education Project, having taken in at least $83 million since 2010.

While POLITICO’s analysis relies heavily on annual forms filed to the IRS, its approximations may underrepresent Leo’s influence over opinions presented to the court. That’s because the IRS does not require nonprofit groups to list members of advisory boards, and groups filing as churches don’t have to disclose their leadership. Leo’s organizations also route tens of millions of dollars through anonymous donor-advised funds like DonorsTrust, making it unclear where it is going.

The campaign to fund and promote amicus briefs is but one facet of Leo’s broader advocacy architecture built around state and federal courts.

But it’s of special relevance at this moment in the court’s history. Since Leo’s handpicked justices solidified the court’s conservative supermajority in 2020, they are agreeing to hear cases advanced by his allies and ruling in favor of many of his Christian conservative priorities.

“In law reasons are everything. Rationale is our currency. It matters that they’re using the briefs to justify themselves,” said Larsen, who wrote a 2014 research report titled The Trouble with Amicus Facts.

“They’re looking to amicus briefs to support their historical narrative,” she said.

Open secret at climate talks: The top temperature goal is mostly gone

Politico -

Leading scientists worldwide delivered a striking dose of reality to the United Nations on Sunday: it’s “becoming inevitable” that countries will miss the ambitious target they set eight years ago for limiting the warming of the Earth.

The ominous estimate points to the growing likelihood that global warming will shoot past 1.5 degrees Celsius before the end of this century, inflicting what scientists describe as an overwhelming toll from intensifying storms, drought and heat on people and the economy. It also injects an urgent message into global climate talks in Dubai, where the debate over ramping down fossil fuels is set to flare over the next two weeks.

Surpassing the temperature threshold — even temporarily — would be a major blow to the international Paris climate agreement from 2015, which called for nations to keep global temperatures well within 2 degrees Celsius of their preindustrial levels, and within 1.5 degrees if at all possible. The findings come amid climate talks that for the first time are focused on taking stock of whether almost 200 nations are meeting that goal. Early indications offer a bleak picture.

The 1.5-degree target has become a rallying point for nations attending the COP28 climate talks, despite rising certainty among scientists that the world will spill over that threshold, potentially within a decade. Temperatures have already risen between 1.1 and 1.3 degrees.

It may be possible to bring global temperatures back down again, using still-unproven technological means to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But at least some overshoot is probably unavoidable, scientists said in the new report to the U.N.

The looming shadow of overshoot is one of 10 stark warnings the researchers presented Sunday in an annual report on top climate science insights from the past year. Launched in 2017, the series is coordinated by scientific organizations Future Earth and Earth League, alongside the World Climate Research Programme, whose scientific work helps inform national climate commitments worldwide. The report is presented each year to the U.N. during its annual climate conference.

This year’s report includes a variety of findings.

Mountain glaciers are swiftly shrinking. Natural landscapes, like forests and wetlands, may soak up less carbon dioxide as the planet warms, causing more pollution to linger in the atmosphere. Compound climate events — multiple extreme weather disasters happening at the same time or in rapid succession — are a growing threat.

The report also includes insights on the links between climate change and biodiversity loss, the role that food systems can play in reducing carbon emissions, the plight of global populations that lack resources to relocate in the face of worsening climate impacts, and the importance of just and equitable climate adaptation efforts.

But its findings on the 1.5-degree target are among its starkest conclusions.

Nations have not reduced greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to stay on track, the report finds. The world can emit only a certain amount of carbon before the 1.5-degree target slips out of reach, and recent studies suggest that threshold will arrive in about six years if humans keep burning carbon at their current rates.

Avoiding overshoot could still be technically possible — but that would require “truly radical transformations,” the report cautions. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s top authority on climate science, says global emissions must fall by a whopping 42 percent within the next six years to keep the target alive. And they must spiral down to net zero by midcentury.

Even then success would be “only a maybe,” said Nico Wunderling, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and one of the report’s authors.

Many scientists have long concluded privately that the world will at least temporarily miss that target. But that likelihood has only recently begun to surface in high-profile reports.

“It was already kind of an elephant standing in the room that we may actually not hold 1.5 degrees without an overshoot,” Wunderling said.

Many experts now say the best case scenario is if nations can limit overshoot as much as possible — ideally capping it at fractions of a degree — and bring temperatures back down as swiftly as possible.

The consequences of global warming worsen with every incremental amount the planet warms, scientists say. And some climate impacts can’t be reversed once they’re set in motion, like sea level rise or plant and animal extinctions.

That means 1.5 degrees should remain a centerpiece of the Paris Agreement, Wunderling said. Keeping that target in focus can motivate world nations to limit overshoot as much as possible.

“Minimizing the magnitude of overshoot, but also the duration of overshoot, is what the best case scenario really is,” Wunderling said.

That means global efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the sky must rapidly expand, the report adds. These methods can include everything from natural strategies, like planting forests, to constructing giant carbon-guzzling machines that suck the pollution directly out of the air — assuming the technology can be advanced to work at a large enough scale.

The IPCC has concluded that at least some carbon removal is essential to achieving net zero emissions by midcentury. Some sectors of the economy likely can’t get off fossil fuels that quickly, and their greenhouse gas emissions would have to be offset by pulling equal amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air.

Eventually, some experts hope humans can also use carbon dioxide removal to lower global temperatures to safer levels. That means drawing out more carbon than goes into the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide removal isn’t a substitute for rapidly and immediately reducing emissions, the report warns. But it does need to swiftly scale up in order to limit overshoot as much as possible.

Meanwhile, rapidly phasing out fossil fuels is also key to limiting overshoot.

The emissions associated with existing fossil fuel infrastructure alone would already put the Paris targets out of reach, the report finds. Yet governments, companies and investors continue to build more fossil fuel projects.

“Consequently, governments and financial institutions need to actively plan for and implement a fossil fuel phase-out while accelerating the phase-in of renewable energy, aiming for a comprehensive and coordinated energy transition,” the report states.

This year’s climate conference is expected to feature a major debate between countries calling for a phase-out of all fossil fuels versus countries that want to soften the language to a “phase-down.”

The weaker language could result in slower global efforts to reduce emissions, some experts argue. It could open up the possibility that nations continue to burn fossil fuels, relying on the promise of carbon capture or carbon removal technology to clean up afterward, said Ploy Achakulwisut, a researcher with the Stockholm Environment Institute Asia and one of the report’s authors, in an email.

Another author, Gregor Semieniuk, an assistant research professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, referred to COP28 when he said, “These documents shape narratives that then, in turn, shape investment decisions and markets to some extent.”

Weaker language doesn’t necessarily commit the world to missing the Paris targets, he noted. The world could still proceed with strong enough mitigation efforts and climate financing to phase out fossil fuels.

“But it matters for sentiments and discussions, and therefore I think ‘phase out’ is pushed for by those who take this really seriously,” he added.

Historically, U.N. climate talks have avoided mentions of fossil fuels in their final decisions. Fossil fuels appeared in a decision text for the first time in 2021, at the conference in Glasgow, Scotland, when nations agreed to phase down — not phase out — coal.

Last year’s conference in Egypt reiterated that commitment, despite a push from many countries to adopt a phaseout of all fossil fuels. But the rapid approach of the 1.5-degree threshold calls for higher ambitions, the new report suggests.

“Raising the ambition and quality of the commitment language around fossil fuel phase-out would be an important first step towards achieving a 1.5C-aligned, rapid, well-managed, and equitable energy transition,” Achakulwisut said.

A version of this report first ran in E&E News’ Climatewire. Get access to more comprehensive and in-depth reporting","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.eenews.net/?utm_source=politico.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=reprint-articles","_id":"0000018c-2fba-df9c-a59e-6fffda19000c","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"0000018c-2fba-df9c-a59e-6fffda19000d","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">Get access to more comprehensive and in-depth reporting on the energy transition, natural resources, climate change and more in E&E News.

‘We and the Ukrainians Have the Same Enemy’: A Visit to the Border of Russia's Other War

Politico -

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Mahmoud Amed Nasser arrived in Turkey a month ago. It’s safe here, but he still can’t stop listening for the sound of planes. Russian planes.

Nasser, 48, traveled from the rebel-held city of Idlib, Syria, to Turkey with his young grandson, who needs medical treatment for a congenital heart defect. In Syria, planes signal danger. Just the day before, he told me, his grandson was utterly terrified by the sounds of a commercial airliner.

"All our children know the sounds," Nasser said. Even though there was no danger there in Turkey, his grandson grabbed him and told him, “Granddad, there’s a warplane in the sky!”

In Syria, he added, there is little they can do when Russian warplanes come, except hide and hope for the best. Oh, and “open your mouth,” he said with a grim laugh. Opening their mouths helps them not get injured or killed by the pressure waves from the blast, he explained.

“We and the Ukrainians have the same enemy, have the same killer,” Nasser said.

In Ukraine, Russian bombing is detected by radar and warnings sent over digital apps. Hundreds of foreign journalists relay the events. In Syria, the death and destruction comes without much notice — or attention from the outside world.

The Russian military has continued to fight and commit atrocities in Syria for eight years, with no sign of slowing. It's a signal to Ukraine of just how long Russia is willing to conduct indiscriminate attacks, and a warning that Russia is able to drag out conflicts over long periods of time.

The war in Syria is also a sad reminder that public attention in the West fades, and that the Syrian civil war — once a central point in the U.S. foreign policy discussions — continues even after the vast majority of attention has shifted to other conflicts.

More than 12 years ago, it was war in this part of the world that riveted the world’s attention. As part of the broader Arab Spring, Syrians marched for democratic rights in 2011. For a time they won Western attention and sympathy, as dictator Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown was revealed through photographs and videos of torture, killings and the use of chemical weapons. But over the years, the war ground to a stalemate, and the world’s attention drifted away.

I’m guilty of that, myself. As a reporter, I covered the Syrian civil war intimately in its early years. But time went on, and other topics came up. I've never forgotten about it, exactly, but it sort of shifted to the side.

For almost two years now I’ve been reporting in Ukraine, covering Russia's full-scale invasion and its efforts to seize more Ukrainian territory. I often thought about what was happening to Russia’s other war — the war that people were paying far less attention to, the one that it was fighting in support of Assad, a war of attrition where Russia aimed to outlast its enemies.

So on a trip to Turkey, I decided to make a trip to the Syrian border to find out.

All wars fade, eventually. But only some wars have the misfortune of fading in the public consciousness while the killing continues largely unabated, ignored by nearly all except for victims and aggressors.

Here’s what’s being ignored in Syria: An average of 84 civilians have been killed per day over the past decade, according to a U.N. estimate. This totals more than 306,000 deaths since 2011, when the Assad regime brutally cracked down on pro-democratic demonstrations and triggered the civil war.

The U.N. has said that these numbers represent a minimum estimate and that the likely number killed is much higher. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based NGO, has made an estimate of over 600,000 killed, including civilians and non-civilians. Russia has been assisting Assad since 2015, conducting air and ground operations against the opposition forces.

The war in Ukraine, also a conflict driven by Russian action, has made things even worse for Syrian civilians. Goran Ahmad, chair of the board at the humanitarian group Bahar, said it has added to skyrocketing inflation. He pointed out that flour in rebel-controlled parts of Syria now costs double what it did before Russia invaded Ukraine, which supplies much of the world with grain.

“The Ukraine war affected the whole world. And specifically Syria, where the U.N. agencies, U.S. aid and all the funds start to focus more on Ukraine,” Ahmad told me from his office in Gaziantep. “And this reduced the support to Syria and made Syria low-profile … [people are] slowly, slowly forgetting about Syria.”

Meanwhile, apparently taking advantage of the world’s attention being focused on Ukraine and Gaza, the Assad regime and Russia have stepped up their attacks in recent months. From January to July, there were a total of 388 bombardments. The second half of the year, which is not yet complete, has already seen 415, according to the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American NGO that tallies attacks in Syria.

Nasser and his grandson have been staying for about three weeks at the House of Healing, a charitable initiative in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, just about an hour from the Syrian border.

They are residing for the time being in a nondescript multistory building with dimly lit stairwells and brightly lit kitchens — the House of Healing hosts refugees who are able to cross into Turkey to seek medical care. When I arrived, I took off my shoes outside, then sat on the carpeted floor to talk to the people staying there.

The Syrians at this home — there were a few dozen waiting for help — come from places whose names might spur a brief moment of recognition from when they were regularly and intensely covered in the Western press a decade ago. Places like Aleppo, where 147 bodies were found in the river in 2013, likely executed in Assad regime-controlled areas. And Ghouta, where the Assad regime used a nerve agent, killing 1,429 people and testing President Barack Obama’s “red line” for American military intervention (the U.S. ultimately would not intervene).

Many of those places have become a landscape of destroyed buildings and awful memories. But talk to anyone who works or lives in Syria, and you’ll find them stressing the need to remember.

“The massacre in Syria is ongoing,” Ahmad reminds me.

The world’s forgetting about the Syrian conflict is no mere inconvenience for Syrians fighting to uproot the Assad regime. As time has passed, and the conflict has grown more intractable, there is less talk about support for the opposition and more and more discussion about the normalization of relations between Assad’s government and other regional players.

The UAE began restoring diplomatic relations with the Assad regime in 2018. This year, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have pressed regional countries to recognize his government. And in May, Assad was welcomed back to a summit of the Arab League for the first time since 2011, in what Al Jazeera described as a “warm reception” — this despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that he and his regime have committed war crimes. Assad used the opportunity to deliver a speech stressing that other countries should not meddle in the “internal affairs” of Arab states.

Concerned about these developments, opponents of the Assad regime are seeking to codify an anti-normalization stance into U.S. law.

"We cannot condone normalization with the Assad regime,” said Veronica Zanetta Brandoni, the director of advocacy at the Syrian Emergency Task Force. “We have to stand firmly with the people of Syria who are asking for democracy, freedom, human rights and all the things that the U.S. counts as its own core values.”

To this end, the organization supports passage of the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, which has bipartisan backing in both the House and Senate. In the House, it has already gathered 48 co-sponsors.

The new legislation would prohibit the United States from normalizing relations with the Assad regime, and to actively oppose recognition of his government by other countries. It would also expand sanctions against the Assad government, and clarify sanctions in the Caesar Act, named after the pseudonym of an individual who cataloged and photographed evidence of the torture and murder of some 11,000 Assad regime detainees.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the bill by voice vote in May, and its advocates are pushing for it to be passed in the House of Representatives under a suspension of normal rules, given the broad support it has already received.

“Backed by war criminal [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the terrorist Mullahs in Tehran, over half a million people in Syria have been slaughtered by this criminal regime, and over half the Syrian population has been displaced,” said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), the lead sponsor of the bill, in a statement. “The Assad regime is illegitimate and poses a threat to peace and prosperity in the region.”

The United States is just one arena where the fate of Syria and Syrians is being debated. Turkey, once so hospitable toward Syrian refugees, has over the years begun to spurn them. The Syrians I spoke to said that the welcoming attitude they got when the civil war began has since faded; one told me that he was berated recently on the street in Gaziantep by a stranger for speaking Arabic instead of Turkish.

In fact, a September 2018 poll found that 83 percent of Turks viewed Syrian refugees negatively. A majority of those upset with Syrian refugees cited economic issues like rising unemployment, lower wages and Syrian nonpayment of taxes.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who welcomed Syrian refugees over a decade ago as “our brothers,” decided this year during his reelection campaign to promise the repatriation of a million Syrians back to Syria. His political opposition ran on even harsher measures.

But not everyone has moved on, or forgotten the plight of suffering Syrian civilians. Just this past year, Mohammed Noor Yaserji, himself a Syrian refugee, formed a new home for orphans — 39 of them and counting. He called it “A Noor Home” — “noor” meaning light.

The new orphanage is set up in Kilis, a Turkish border town just a stone’s throw from Syria, where olive and pistachio trees grow plentifully. Kilis is one of many Turkish areas that have been transformed by the Syrian civil war and an influx of civilians seeking safety from violence. Kilis has the unique distinction of being a rare place where there are more Syrian refugees than Turkish residents.

Yaserji’s orphanage is a happy place, where children can learn in classrooms and better their lives. With a background in music, Yaserji has made it central to their education. To welcome me to the orphanage, they sang songs about friendship, and one even sang a moving song about his deceased mother.

“I've seen with my own eyes some of these kids, when they were just out after … losing their parents, drinking rainwater that's accumulated on the ground, they have no shelter at all,” said Yaserji. “All of them lost their parents in the war. A lot of them … in the bombardment itself. The same strike that made them lose their homes, and where we got them from under the rubble, [is where they] lost their parents.”

But Syrian children are like children everywhere else when they're given a little opportunity and a chance to grow up in peace. Members of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which works to alleviate civilian suffering and ensure accountability for war crimes, arrived at the orphanage recently bearing gifts.

I watched as the boys and girls squealed with glee and jockeyed for position to receive digital watches, soccer balls and plastic dump trucks. And then they went right to work, playing excitedly with their new gadgets and toys as kids their age might anywhere else in the world, regardless of what country they came from, or what race they happened to be.

On the streets of Kilis, outside the orphanage, Syrian children seemed to rule the streets in the middle of day. Many are without parents. Some of them have intense emotional reactions to the war, especially if they were injured in the attacks, said Nour al-Hamouri. She was 14 when a Russian airstrike landed nearby, breaking her pelvis and nearly destroying her leg. She’s now 21 and studying to become a psychotherapist.

“I know some girls that have been disabled because of injuries, and they don’t want to live anymore,” she said, with her crutches nearby. “When a bombardment happens, it’s not just about a city, it’s about changing people’s lives.”

Yaserji said he understands why attention and empathy toward Syrian refugees have dropped with the passage of time, whether in Turkey or in the United States. The same phenomenon is already happening with the West’s interest in Ukraine, and for similar reasons.

"People start worrying about their economic situation. They lose interest over time ... people tend to forget, they always find something more important that comes up,” he told me.

But he urged people to fight the instinct to move on, to forget, or to plunge into apathy. The first reason was a more practical one: Caring increases international cooperation, which reduces local suffering — whether in Ukraine, or in Syria.

But his second, more personal reason, had him evoking the language of family. It felt like a hard-earned lesson from someone who is dedicating his life to taking care of orphans.

"People should care, because they're human beings,” Yaserji said. “Out of humanity. We're all brothers and sisters."

Key Congress staffers in AI debate are funded by tech giants like Google and Microsoft

Politico -

Top tech companies with major stakes in artificial intelligence are channeling money through a venerable science nonprofit to help fund fellows working on AI policy in key Senate offices, adding to the roster of government staffers across Washington whose salaries are being paid by tech billionaires and others with direct interests in AI regulation.

The new “rapid response cohort” of congressional AI fellows is run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Washington-based nonprofit, with substantial support from Microsoft, OpenAI, Google, IBM and Nvidia, according to the AAAS. It comes on top of the network of AI fellows funded by Open Philanthropy, a group financed by billionaire Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.

The six rapid response fellows, including five with PhDs and two who held prior positions at big tech firms, operate from the offices of two of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s top three lieutenants on AI legislation — Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) — as well as the Senate Banking Committee and the offices of Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.).

Alongside the Open Philanthropy fellows — and hundreds of outside-funded fellows throughout the government, including many with links to the tech industry — the six AI staffers in the industry-funded rapid response cohort are helping shape how key players in Congress approach the debate over when and how to regulate AI, at a time when many Americans are deeply skeptical of the industry.

The apparent conflict of tech-funded figures working inside the Capitol Hill offices at the forefront of AI policy worries some tech experts, who fear Congress could be distracted from rules that would protect the public from biased, discriminatory or inaccurate AI systems.

“Tech firms hold an unprecedented amount of financial capital and have a long track record of using it to attempt to tilt the playing field in their favor,” said Sarah Myers West, a former senior advisor on AI policy at the Federal Trade Commission and managing director at the AI Now Institute, a research nonprofit.

The companies involved stress that they don’t play roles in hiring; the nonprofits themselves pick the fellows. And some on Capitol Hill say industry-linked fellows are filling the vacuum caused by a precipitous decline in institutional tech knowledge.

When lawmakers began a push several years ago for rules that would rein in Silicon Valley, they found congressional tech expertise and funding for permanent policy staff had largely evaporated. Outside fellowship programs — many with ties to the tech industry — have emerged to fill that gap.

The trend has been supercharged by the recent AI frenzy on Capitol Hill. As Congress searches for staffers that can make sense of the fast-moving technology, new tech fellowships have sprouted across Washington.

“There’s been this brain drain that's occurred,” said Kevin Kosar, a researcher at the center-right American Enterprise Institute who specializes in congressional institutions. “Philanthropy is having to step in and help out.”

But the speed with which some of these programs developed — and the strong interest they’ve engendered in Silicon Valley — raise questions about whether they’re more akin to an industry lobbying campaign than a source of disinterested expertise.

AAAS is a Washington-based science nonprofit with a 50-year history of funding fellows to work on science and technology policy in Congress and at federal agencies.

But its new cohort of congressional AI fellows, conceived and launched in just two months, is covered with AI industry fingerprints.

Money from Microsoft, OpenAI, Google, Nvidia and IBM is partially funding the salaries of the AI fellows placed by AAAS in influential Senate offices this October — including those of Heinrich and Rounds, who already have Open Philanthropy fellows.

Spokespeople for Heinrich and Rounds did not respond to requests for comment.

The new AI fellowship was conceived and substantially coordinated by Craig Mundie, a former Microsoft executive who still advises CEO Satya Nadella and works on the company’s quantum computing project. Mundie also serves as a strategic advisor to OpenAI, the iconic AI company with a $13 billion partnership with Microsoft.

In an interview with POLITICO, Mundie said he gave AAAS the idea for an accelerated AI policy fellowship targeting Congress. He also helped secure funding for the fellowship program from the tech companies and individual donors.

“I sent the note to my friends, many of my friends run these companies,” said Mundie. “What they did with it at that point was their choice — and in their cases, they decided to have the company, you know, look at making a gift.”

Mundie — who put a “small amount” of his own money into the new AAAS fellowship — defended the decision by Microsoft, OpenAI and other top tech companies to fund AI policy staff on Capitol Hill.

“When you're at the bleeding edge of anything and you want to make good policy, you want to talk to the people who actually are doing the stuff — not people that are opining on what people might be doing,” he said.

Julia MacKenzie, the chief program officer at AAAS, told POLITICO that none of the AI firms financing the fellowship were allowed to influence who was selected to serve as an AI fellow or pick the congressional office in which they would be placed. Spokespeople for AAAS said money from the five AI companies made up roughly 35 percent of the new fellowship’s funding, with the remainder coming from foundations, nonprofits and individual donors.

But some of those nonprofits also have significant ties to the tech industry. That includes the Horizon Institute for Public Service, the organization through which Open Philanthropy funds its own congressional AI fellowship. Horizon executive director Remco Zwetsloot, citing the “urgent” need for AI talent on Capitol Hill, said his group provided $150,000 in “leftover general funds” to “help AAAS launch its AI program.”

Tim Stretton, director of the congressional oversight initiative at the nonpartisan watchdog Project On Government Oversight, said it’s “never great when corporations are funding, essentially, congressional staffers.” He said the money from five leading AI firms, along with Mundie’s extensive involvement in the new AAAS fellowship, suggests an improper level of tech industry influence.

“Most people would be concerned if Bank of America, Chase, any of these large companies were funding staffers that worked on the Banking Committee,” said Stretton. “Having staffers work in offices producing legislation that — directly or indirectly — benefits the companies or industry funding those staffers is a conflict of interest.”

In addition to AAAS and the Horizon Institute, organizations such as Schmidt Futures and the Federation of American Scientists are funding tech staffers at the White House and federal agencies.

Since its founding in late 2015, the nonprofit known as TechCongress, founded by a former Capitol Hill aide, has sent nearly 100 tech fellows to work in key congressional offices. Its current cohort includes fellows working to craft AI policy at the House Science Committee, the Senate Commerce Committee and the office of Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who has taken a major role in crafting AI legislation.

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation also has two tech fellows, in the offices of Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who are respectively “presented by” Google and Facebook.

Zach Graves, executive director at the Foundation for American Innovation, a right-of-center tech policy nonprofit, called the “corporate NASCAR-style logos” attached to those fellows “very problematic.”

“Is it illegal? Probably not,” said Graves. “Is it unethical? Almost certainly.”

Spokespeople for the foundation and the caucus did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Spokespeople for Google and Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said neither firm had any sway in CBCF’s choice of tech fellows or the offices in which they were placed.

Kosar said Capitol Hill’s increasing use of outside-funded tech staffers comes at a cost — and it goes beyond the potential conflicts of interest. He said tech fellows typically leave Congress within a year or two after arriving, making it almost impossible for lawmakers to accrue the institutional expertise needed to tackle AI or other complex tech issues.

“You're just bringing people in for a short term, and then they're rotating off,” Kosar said. “It's not really directly addressing the problem.”

A new AI fellowship forms

At a July dinner with AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh, Mundie, a longtime AAAS member, made his pitch for a new fellowship that would place AI experts into congressional offices at the forefront of AI policy.

“I kind of looked at Sudip and I said, ‘You know, in my view right now, one of the biggest issues everybody's gonna face is questions about legislation and regulation as it relates to AI,’” said Mundie. “‘[Does] the class you’re about to launch have any focus in this area?’”

While AAAS has funded federal science and tech fellows for decades, it does not often stray into issue-specific fellowships. But Mundie told Parikh that Capitol Hill’s intense interest in AI legislation — he called it a “once in a hundred years phenomenon” — should push the nonprofit toward a targeted approach.

“I said, ‘Well, if you only assemble one class a year, and the next class isn’t gonna launch until September of 2024, then there's not going to be any specialists advising Congress in particular during this period of time,’” Mundie said.

Parikh ultimately agreed. Within a few weeks, AAAS had added six AI-specific fellows to the more than 270 scientists and engineers it placed across Congress and federal agencies this year.

Although the new AI fellows technically fall under the auspices of the nonprofit’s long-running science and tech policy fellowships program — which includes extensive safeguards to lessen the risk of corporate capture — the AI program operates under what AAAS’s MacKenzie called a “unique funding consortium” that includes money from top AI firms.

It’s a marked difference from AAAS’s overarching fellowship program, which gets the vast majority of its funding from the federal government, science foundations and nonprofits. It was also an unusual move for the AI firms — spokespeople for Google and OpenAI said those grants were the first either company has given to AAAS. A spokesperson for the science nonprofit said none of the five tech companies backing the AI fellowship provided funds for its broader fellowship program this year.

Mundie, on his own accord, reached out to a number of his “friends” about financing the fellowship, including individuals at the AI companies who ultimately contributed funds, he said.

“This thing was completely at my own personal initiative,” Mundie said. “It had never been discussed, or reviewed, or suggested, or anything you can remotely think of as pre-considered with any of the companies I work with.”

That assertion was echoed by a spokesperson for OpenAI, who said Mundie did not act on behalf of the company. A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment.

Spokespeople for Google, IBM, Nvidia and OpenAI all stressed their lack of involvement in selecting, training or placing the AI fellows on Capitol Hill. Google, IBM and OpenAI said they chose to contribute funds to the AAAS fellowship as part of their commitment to assist Congress as it works to understand and regulate the technology.

A spokesperson for Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), chair of the Senate Banking Committee, which has a rapid-response fellow, said the senator has long “benefitted from working with fellows with diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise.”

“No one should have any doubt that Sen. Brown will always stand up to industry and special interests, and put workers and consumers first,” the spokesperson said.

A Wyden aide, speaking under the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said the senator “sets the policy direction of his office’s tech work,” and praised the contributions of past AAAS fellows who worked in Wyden’s office.

But the aide also sounded a cautionary note about the increasing presence of outside-funded tech fellowships on Capitol Hill.

“Unfortunately, congressional offices remain woefully underfunded and understaffed in light of the major challenges facing our country, in particular when it comes to technology,” the Wyden aide said. With those “constraints” in mind, the aide called outside fellowships an “essential pathway for offices to recruit and train” mid-career staff and subject matter experts.

The aide added that Wyden “strongly supports providing congressional offices with additional resources to recruit and retain staff, including experts, which would reduce the need for fellowships.”

Spokespeople for Cassidy and Kelly did not respond to questions about the AAAS fellows working on AI policy in their offices.

The growing knowledge gap

TechCongress contrasts its efforts to avoid conflicts of interest with the policies of some other groups that fund congressional tech fellows.

Founder Travis Moore — the former legislative director for retired Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) — recalled sitting in his Capitol Hill office a decade ago, pulling his hair out over the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act.

Moore had been tasked with crafting Waxman’s position on the tech bill. But he found himself “increasingly underwater” when it came to the complex questions it raised.

“There wasn't anyone in Congress that could answer those questions for me,” Moore said. “And so I had to go outside of the building, and I went to a big tech company. And that made me deeply uncomfortable.”

The experience prompted Moore to found TechCongress, which has funded outside tech staffers in congressional offices every year since 2016.

“Certain sectors are decently represented in Congress,” Moore said, singling out health care as one such sector. “Tech was not one of them.”

Like others, Moore blamed the 1995 closure of Capitol Hill’s Office of Technology Assessment as a major factor behind today’s shortage of tech expertise. He said tightening staff budgets have only aggravated the situation.

“There's definitely still a resource crunch,” Moore said. “Two-thirds of our fellows would like to stay on [in Congress], [but] just under a third are able to.”

TechCongress was kick-started with tech money — Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, was its initial financier.

But Moore said his organization has since shed those ties. For the past two years, it’s operated as an independent nonprofit, eschewing corporate dollars in favor of funding from education philanthropies like the Knight and Ford Foundations. Moore said TechCongress only recruits fellows with a general interest in tech policy and avoids fellowships that center on specific technologies.

“It is a red flag for us when we have people that apply and they're like, ‘I only want to work on crypto, I only want to work on AI,’” Moore said.

Moore said he understands why some ethics experts are wary of the surging number of outside-funded tech fellows in Congress. But he argued that the fellows supported by TechCongress don’t act as shills for the tech industry — and in fact, they give Congress the tools to better resist pressure from Silicon Valley.

“Because of their knowledge of tech, they are able to be firmer checks on special interests,” Moore said.

Others, like Graves, view Capitol Hill’s reliance on tech fellows as “suboptimal” — particularly when fellowships are financed with corporate dollars and when fellows work on issues where those corporations have a clear interest.

But if Congress can’t pony up the money to hire and retain permanent tech staffers, Graves suggested outside fellowships are the least worst option — especially as tech expertise continues to atrophy across key congressional committees.

“Fellowships like TechCongress or AAAS serve a really valuable kind of stopgap in rebuilding some of that committee expertise,” Graves said.

With Congress unlikely to pump much more money into permanent tech staff, lawmakers at the forefront of AI and other emerging tech issues will increasingly have to rely on staffers funded by outside groups. And they’ll need to navigate all the ensuing problems, including frequent staff turnovers and possible conflicts of interests.

“You get what you pay for,” said Kosar. “And if you're not willing to pay for it, you're left taking what people are willing to give you.”

Israel widens evacuation orders as it shifts offensive to southern Gaza

Politico -

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — Israel’s military on Sunday ordered more areas in and around Gaza’s second-largest city of Khan Younis to evacuate, as it shifted its offensive to the southern half of the territory where it says many Hamas leaders are hiding.

Heavy bombardments were reported overnight and into Sunday in the area of Khan Younis and the southern city of Rafah, as well as parts of the north that had been the focus of Israel’s blistering air and ground campaign.

Many of the territory’s 2.3 million people are crammed in the south after Israeli forces ordered civilians to leave the north in the early days of the 2-month-old war.

Heavy bombardments were reported overnight and into Sunday in the area of Khan Younis and the southern city of Rafah, as well as parts of the north that had been the focus of Israel’s blistering air and ground campaign.

Many of the territory’s 2.3 million people are crammed in the south after Israeli forces ordered civilians to leave the north in the early days of the 2-month-old war.

With the resumption of fighting, hopes receded that another temporary truce could be negotiated. A weeklong cease-fire, which expired Friday, had facilitated the release of dozens of Gaza-held Israeli and foreign hostages and Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

“We will continue the war until we achieve all its goals, and it’s impossible to achieve those goals without the ground operation,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an address Saturday night.

On Sunday, the Israeli military widened evacuation orders in and around Khan Younis, asking residents of at least five more areas and neighborhoods to leave for their safety.

Residents said the Israeli military dropped leaflets ordering residents to move south to Rafah or to a coastal area in the southwest. “Khan Younis city is a dangerous combat zone,” the leaflets read.

U.N. monitors said in a report issued before the latest evacuation orders that the areas residents were told to leave make up about one-quarter of the territory of Gaza. The report said that these areas were home to nearly 800,000 people before the war.

Ahead of a resumption of fighting, the United States, Israel’s closest ally, had warned Israel to avoid significant new mass displacement.

The Israeli military said Sunday that its fighter jets and helicopters “struck terror targets in the Gaza Strip, including terror tunnel shafts, command centers and weapons storage facilities” overnight, while a drone killed five Hamas fighters.

In northern Gaza, rescue teams with little equipment scrambled Sunday to dig through the rubble of buildings in the Jabaliya refugee camp and other neighborhoods in Gaza City in search for potential survivors and dead bodies.

“They strike everywhere,” said Amal Radwan, a woman sheltering in Jabaliya, an urban refugee camp. “There is the non-stop sound of explosions around us.”

Mohamed Abu Abed, who lives in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood in Gaza City, also said there were relentless airstrikes and artillery shelling in his neighborhood and surrounding areas.

“The situation here is imaginable,” he said. “Death is everywhere. One can die in a flash.”

The Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said Saturday that the overall death toll in the strip since the Oct. 7 start of the war had surpassed 15,200, a sharp jump from the previous count of more than 13,300 on Nov. 20. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths, but it said 70% of the dead were women and children. It said more than 40,000 people had been wounded since the war began.

U.S. appeals to protect civilians came after an offensive in the first weeks of the war devastated large areas of northern Gaza. Much of Gaza’s population is packed into the territory’s southern half. The territory itself, bordering Israel and Egypt to the south, is sealed, leaving residents with the only option of moving around within Gaza to avoid the bombings.

“Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters Saturday during the COP28 climate conference in Dubai.

Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, said Israel was making “maximum effort” to protect civilians and the military has used leaflets, phone calls, and radio and TV broadcasts to urge Gazans to move from specific areas. He added that Israel is considering creating a security buffer zone that would not allow Gazans direct access to the border fence on foot.

Israel says it targets Hamas operatives and blames civilian casualties on the militants, accusing them of operating in residential neighborhoods. It claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence. Israel says at least 78 of its soldiers have been killed in the offensive in northern Gaza.

Bombardments on Saturday destroyed a block of about 50 residential buildings in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of Gaza City and a six-story building in the urban refugee camp of Jabaliya on the northern edge of the city, said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

More than 60 people were killed in the Shijaiyah strikes and more than 300 buried under the rubble, the monitors said, citing the Palestinian Red Crescent.

Mahmoud Bassal, a spokesman for Gaza’s Civil Defense, said rescuers lack bulldozers and other equipment to reach those buried under the rubble, confirming the Red Crescent estimate of about 300 people missing. He said the block had housed over 1,000 people.

“Retrieving the martyrs is extremely difficult,” he said in video comments from the site of the attack.

Meanwhile, Harris told Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in a meeting that “under no circumstances” would the U.S. permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, an ongoing siege of Gaza or the redrawing of its borders, according to a U.S. summary.

The war was sparked by an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and other militants that killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in southern Israel. Around 240 people were taken captive.

The renewed hostilities have heightened concerns for 137 hostages, who the Israeli military says are still being held after 105 were freed during the recent truce. Israel freed 240 Palestinians during the truce. Most of those released by both sides were women and children.

Pentagon: US arms industry struggling to keep up with China

Politico -

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — America's defense industry is struggling to achieve the kind of speed and responsiveness to stay ahead in a high-tech arms race with competitors such as China, an unreleased draft of a new Pentagon report on the defense industry warns.

The first ever National Defense Industrial Strategy, which is set to be released in the coming weeks by Pentagon acquisition chief William LaPlante, is meant to be a comprehensive look at what the Pentagon needs in order to tap into the expertise of small tech firms, while funding and supporting traditional companies to move faster to develop new tech.

As it stands now, the U.S. defense industrial base “does not possess the capacity, capability, responsiveness, or resilience required to satisfy the full range of military production needs at speed and scale,” according to a draft version of the report, obtained by POLITICO.

The document, dated Nov. 27, adds that “just as significantly, the traditional defense contractors in the [defense industrial base] would be challenged to respond to modern conflict at the velocity, scale, and flexibility necessary to meet the dynamic requirements of a major modern conflict.”

It notes that America builds the best weapons in the world, but it can’t produce them quickly enough.

“This mismatch presents a growing strategic risk as the United States confronts the imperatives of supporting active combat operations … while deterring the larger and more technically advanced pacing threat looming in the Indo-Pacific,” the study says.

Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum, LaPlante said the strategy will be executed as a “partnership” with industry. For businesses to expand production capacity, they need DOD to be clear about its future purchasing needs for them to invest in new factories and R&D.

“Number one, we the governments have to show we are committed, and we're going to be doing it in a sustained manner with getting funding,” he said. “We have to have the conversations together about what you’re going to put in for [construction] and what the government will then going to put in.”

LaPlante said the Pentagon must also show that it is “serious” about buying the prototype weapons it's developing in large numbers.

“We’ve got to show that we’re going to production and we’re going to stick with it so that it’s worth your while,” he said.

Some who have seen the draft report are frustrated with what they perceive is a lack of hard recommendations.

One defense industry adviser called it “underwhelming,” saying it doesn’t focus on long-term solutions to supply chain issues that have plagued the defense industry.

The report notes that after the Cold War, the defense industry shrank as companies merged. Yet China has spent the past 30 years becoming a “global industrial powerhouse” in shipbuilding, critical minerals and microelectronics. China’s industry’ “vastly exceeds the capacity of not just the United States, but the combined output of our key European and Asian allies as well,” it says.

The report also points out that the Covid pandemic laid bare the supply chain’s vulnerabilities. Then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Hamas attack on Israel “uncovered a different set of industrial demands and corresponding risks” as the U.S. races to produce arms to support Ukraine and Israel.

“It has become clear that insufficient production and supply capacity are now deeply entrenched problems throughout all tiers of production supply chains,” the report says.

To fix the problem, the strategy says DOD “will develop more resilient and innovative supply chains,” invest in smaller businesses and focus more on innovation.

The U.S. also has to acknowledge that not all the answers are at home. “We must solicit entrants of all types: large and small, domestic, and foreign, and those with no previous relationship to the DoD or defense production,” the report says.

"The nation needs to rally to the common defense," the report concludes. "This NDIS is a call to both the public and private sectors for focused, dedicated efforts to build and secure the industrial capability and capacity necessary to ensure our military has the materiel available to deter our potential adversaries, and if necessary, defeat them in battle. This call to action may seem a great cost, but the consequences of inaction or failure are far greater."

DeSantis super PAC parts ways with another CEO

Politico -

The chief super PAC supporting Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, Never Back Down, has parted ways with its chief executive officer less than two weeks after she was picked to replace her predecessor.

Never Back Down split with Kristin Davison on Friday, according to two people familiar with the decision. The decision came just nine days after she replaced Chris Jankowski in the role. Others have also split with the super PAC in recent days, said the two people, who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. It was not immediately clear how widespread the other departures were.

The departures come amid widespread infighting inside the super PAC and ongoing conflict with the Florida governor’s campaign. The DeSantis campaign believes Never Back Down’s TV ads have been ineffective, those close to the governor say. Campaign manager James Uthmeier this week issued a memo implicitly suggesting the group focus on waging a get-out-the-vote program, rather than TV ads.

Polls have shown DeSantis continuing to trail far behind former President Donald Trump in the race for the GOP nomination, and locked in a battle for second place with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Never Back Down has also named Scott Wagner, a longtime DeSantis ally, to serve as its board chair. Wagner is replacing Adam Laxalt, a former Nevada Attorney General who resigned from his position last Sunday.

The super PAC has decided to focus on field deployment in the wake of Uthmeier’s memo, in the run-up to the Jan. 16 Iowa caucus, those familiar with the discussions said. A newly formed pro-DeSantis group, Fight Right, meanwhile, will be centering its efforts on TV advertising.

Davison and representatives for Never Back Down and the DeSantis campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Israel needs to protect civilians or risk ‘strategic failure’ in Gaza

Politico -

SIMI VALLEY, California — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin offered a stark public warning to Israel on Saturday, saying the government there risks “strategic defeat” in Gaza if it doesn’t do more to protect civilians.

The comments came a day after the breakdown in negotiations over hostage and prisoner releases led to the resumption of the Israel-Hamas war. Austin told an audience at the Reagan National Defense Forum that if Israel doesn’t do everything possible to protect civilians, it might help “drive [Palestinians] into the arms of the enemy,” and would “ replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

The Biden administration has been warning its Israeli counterparts in private over the human toll of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, where Hamas has placed rocket launchers and command-and-control centers in civilian neighborhoods.

Austin said the U.S. learned hard lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan over killing and displacing civilians and acknowledged that fighting a war in a dense urban center places significant burdens on a democratic nation trying to follow the laws of war.

“The lesson is not that you can win in urban warfare by protecting civilians,” said Austin, who commanded troops in the Middle East. “The lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians.”

Israel has repeatedly warned the people of Gaza to move from sites of active fighting and has dropped leaflets advising civilians to move south, away from some of the heaviest early fighting. Hamas killed 1,200 Israeli civilians in a cross-border attack Oct. 7 that focused on murdering and kidnapping civilians.

Israel’s renewed bombing has started to target areas in the south of Gaza, and Israel wanted Gazans away from some areas since Friday. The refugees from northern Gaza are increasingly being asked to move into smaller areas, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis across the strip.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Israel and the U.A.E. late last week, and on Friday he blamed Hamas for the failure of the temporary cease-fire. It is “important to understand why the pause came to an end: It came to an end because of Hamas. Hamas reneged on commitments it made.”

Hamas fired rockets into Israel on Friday before the truce ended and failed to produce Israeli hostages it had pledged to release.

On Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that after releasing over 80 hostages, “Hamas violated the agreed framework” by refusing to release 17 more women and children.

“As a result of Hamas’ decision not to fulfill that which was agreed upon, and in accordance with the War Cabinet’s decision, yesterday morning I instructed the IDF to resume fire,” he said.

‘American icon’: Biden pays tribute to Sandra Day O'Connor

Politico -

President Joe Biden on Saturday paid tribute to the late former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as "an American icon."

“She spent her career committed to the stable center, pragmatic and in search of common ground. I did not agree with all of her opinions, but I admired her decency and unwavering devotion to the facts, to our country, to active citizenship and the common good,” Biden said.

O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the nation’s highest court, died Friday morning in Phoenix, Arizona. She was 93.

“As a U.S. Senator on the Judiciary Committee, I remember the hope surrounding her historic nomination to the Supreme Court. The Senate voted 99-0 in her favor, proof that our nation can come together to move history forward,” Biden said.

O'Connor was appointed to the bench in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan. At her Senate confirmation hearing, then-Sen. Joe Biden quickly voiced his support for her. A senior member of the Judiciary panel at the time, Biden encouraged the first woman Supreme Court nominee to remember her sex, particularly when it came to speeches and other activities outside of the courtroom as a newly high-profile figure.

"It is your right, if it were your desire, to go out and campaign very strongly for the [Equal Rights Amendment],” Biden told her.","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CHRG-OCONNOR/pdf/GPO-CHRG-OCONNOR.pdf","_id":"0000018c-2d18-d9c1-a5dc-bdde2d3e0004","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"0000018c-2d18-d9c1-a5dc-bdde2d3e0005","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}"> Biden told her. “It is your right to go out and make speeches across the country about inequality for women — if you believe it. Don't wall yourself off. Your male brethren have not done it. Don't you do it."

Initially, O’Connor pushed back, saying it would be a potential violation of judicial ethics for her to do so. Biden disagreed, calling it an “obligation” to American women to speak out on issues important to them, as long as her speech conformed to judicial ethics.

"You are a singular asset. And you are looked at by many of us not merely because you are a bright, competent lawyer but also because you are a woman. That is something that should be advertised by you,” he said. “Don't let us intimidate you into not doing it.”

When O'Connor retired from the court in 2005, Biden acknowledged the role she played in “steering us through some very rough waters” during her time on the bench.

"Though I have not always agreed with her, I have always held JusticeO'Connor","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://advance.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1519360&crid=194c978a-7293-428c-9f71-0c0eb30149ef&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fnews%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A4H2M-3RN0-TWTC-62CC-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=282801&pdteaserkey=sr9&pditab=allpods&ecomp=twmyk&earg=sr9&prid=89e118c6-e8d4-4bc7-9175-2622b61f9d26#","_id":"0000018c-2d18-d9c1-a5dc-bdde2d3e0006","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"0000018c-2d18-d9c1-a5dc-bdde2d3e0007","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">O'Connor in the highest regard,” he said.

In his Saturday statement, Biden also praised O'Connor's dedication to public service and the “bedrock American principle of an independent judiciary," and cited her institute’s work to promote civics education and civil discourse.

“She knew that for democracy to work, we have to listen to each other, and remember how much more we all have in common as Americans than what keeps us apart,” he said.

Vice President Kamala Harris also released a statement Saturday calling O'Connor a "trailblazer."

"As an associate justice of the Supreme Court, as a state senator, and as a proud daughter of Arizona, Justice O'Connor dedicated her life to public service. A champion of civics education, Justice O’Connor helped countless young Americans better understand the nature and importance of our democracy," Harris added.

Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.


Subscribe to Kitsap County Democratic Women aggregator