The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday trumpeted reaching a $7 billion deal with Citigroup to settle charges of “egregious misconduct” in its sale of mortgage-backed securities. But despite evidence that Citigroup covered up massive problems with securities they sold, no company executives are being held personally liable and there has been no accounting of the money Citigroup made through its actions.
“Despite the fact that Citigroup learned of serious and widespread defects among the increasingly risky loans they were scrutinizing, the bank and its employees concealed these defects,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
The settlement includes a $4 billion penalty, $2.5 billion for relief to struggling homeowners and $500 million in payments to state prosecutors and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
“DOJ brags about and wants everyone to focus on the $7 billion settlement dollar amount, but that amount is meaningless without disclosure of the key information about how many hundreds of billions of dollars Citigroup made, how many tens of billions investors lost, how many billions in bonuses were pocketed, which executives were involved and what positions they now have with the bank,” Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets, a group that promotes reform of the financial industry, said in a statement.
“Citigroup, the Wall Street bank that received the largest amount of Federal bailouts to prevent its bankruptcy in 2008 (almost $500 billion), was a conveyor belt for toxic securities throughout the world and is now being handed another big bailout by the government: a sweetheart immunity deal and ongoing concealment of how its executives, officers and staff defrauded the American people and almost caused a second Great Depression,” Kelleher continued.
The settlement is far more than what Citigroup originally proposed: $363 million. But some say it’s not nearly enough. “Seven billion sounds like a lot. But compared to the number of families that lost their homes, it is not very much at all,” Isaac Simon Hodes, a community organizer with Lynn United for Change, a group that advocates on behalf of Boston-area residents facing foreclosure, told The New York Times.
As part of the settlement, the government is not going after Citigroup for its business in collateralized debt obligation derivatives, where pools of loans are packaged and sold to investors, which have been described as “designed to fail.”
JP Morgan Chase reached a $13 billion settlement with the DOJ last November in a similar case. On deck is Bank of America, with whom Justice will begin settlement negotiations now that the Citigroup case is over.
To Learn More:
Still No Real Accountability: Citigroup to Pay $7 Billion for Its “Egregious Misconduct” (by Andrea Germanos, Common Dreams)
Worse Than Settlements with JP Morgan Chase and Goldman (Better Markets)
Citigroup Settles Mortgage Inquiry for $7 Billion (by Michael Corkery, New York Times)
Citibank Accused of Tricking New Customers about “Free” Frequent Flyer Miles (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
Dogmatists in the Justice System
Scattered throughout the ranks of U.S. federal prosecutors and judges there have always been men and women who are unwilling to make a distinction between their own biases and the rules of evidence that are designed to keep the system focused on the goal of justice. Such closed-minded individuals, embedded in the system, can find themselves set free to act out their prejudices by special circumstances. One might think back to the “hanging judges” who appeared here and there on the American frontier in the 19th century. Being among the few enforcers of law and order in an otherwise anarchic environment, they indulged their fantasies of playing the wrathful god.
The “War on Terror” has likewise created a special circumstance that has liberated Justice Department dogmatists: Islamophobes, Zionists, neoconservatives and others who fancy themselves on a special mission to protect the nation from evil and conspiratorial forces. And, as with the hanging judges before them, the result has been an enhanced possibility not of justice, but rather of the miscarriage of justice.
The Case of Sami Al-Arian
In the past twenty years one of the most notable victims of doctrinaire judges and prosecutors has been Sami Al-Arian. Al-Arian is the son of Palestinian-refugee parents. He came to the United States in 1975 to attend university and earned his degree in computer systems engineering. Eventually he earned a Ph.D. and obtained a tenure-track position at the University of South Florida.
Not only did Al-Arian become a prominent professor, winning several teaching awards, but he also became a community activist, defending the civil liberties of minority groups, particularly Muslim Americans. During the Clinton administration he was an active campaigner against the Justice Department’s pre-9/11 use of “secret evidence” to hold people in jail indefinitely. He also actively and publicly supported the right of Palestinians to resist Israeli oppression.
At some point in the mid-1990s what may have been a coordinated effort to ruin Dr. Al-Arian developed among neoconservative and Zionist elements. Steven Emerson, a man who has made his living as a faux expert on terrorism and a professional Islamophobe, accused one of Al-Arian’s organizations, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, of being a “terrorist front.” This accusation proved to be baseless, but it nonetheless led other Islamophobe radicals to focus on Al-Arian. Some of these people resided within the Justice Department and the FBI, and they went on a fishing expedition looking for alleged connections between Al-Arian and a recently designated “terrorist organization” called the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
During the 2000 presidential election Al-Arian became a prominent figure in national politics as it played out in Florida. His major concern was the government’s use of secret evidence, and it was George W. Bush who promised to rein in the practice. Therefore Al-Arian backed Bush in the election. His trust in this regard proved horribly misplaced.
On September 26, 2001, Bill O’Reilly invited Al-Arian onto his TV show ostensibly to discuss Arab-American reactions to the 9/11 attacks. It was a trap. O’Reilly immediately asked Al-Arian if he had said “Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam. Death to Israel” at a rally thirteen years before (in 1988). Though Al-Arian tried to explain that it was a reference to his support for Palestinian resistance against apartheid policies in Israel, O’Reilly proclaimed that the CIA should watch Al-Arian from now on. Almost at once Al -Arian started to receive death threats. At this point the University of South Florida placed him on administrative leave. He would eventually be fired by the University.
The O’Reilly interview may have been a public relations booster for the ongoing Justice Department investigation mentioned above. That lasted until September 2003, when Al-Arian and three others were indicted on 25 counts of “racketeering” for the PIJ. The Bush administration’s Attorney General John Ashcroft went on television to extol the indictment as a great blow against terrorism (thus confusing an indictment with a conviction) that was made possible by the extensive powers of the USA PATRIOT Act. Among these powers were those George W. Bush had promised Al-Arian he would rein in.
After a 5-month, 13-day trial Al-Arian was acquitted on 8 counts and the jury deadlocked on the remaining 17. When a juror was interviewed after the trial and asked what was lacking in the government’s case he replied, “evidence.” Nonetheless, the outcome allowed the government to hold Al-Arian pending retrial on those deadlocked counts. The case had a distinctly contrived and corrupt feel to it – the result of Islamophobes turned loose by the events of 9/11 to substitute their own biases for the rules of legal evidence.
In 2006 Dr. Al-Arian was still in prison. His health was deteriorating and the strain on his family (his wife and five children) was great. Given the situation he agreed to a plea bargain agreement whereby he would plead guilty to one count of acting in a fashion that benefited the PIJ. In exchange the other counts would be dismissed by the government. He would be incarcerated for a relatively short period on the guilty count with time already served counting toward this sentence. In order to secure the plea bargain, Al-Arian also had to agreed to be deported upon release.
Once more the government, in this case the judge and the federal prosecutor, proved untrustworthy. Despite the jury verdict, the judge had decided that Sami Al-Arian was a “master manipulator” and “a leader of Palestine Islamic Jihad.” This was exactly what the jury decided the evidence could not substantiate. However, the judge, moved by emotional convictions, had equated statements on the part of Al-Arian showing understanding of acts of Palestinian resistance with actual material support of those actions. In doing so the judge went beyond the rules of evidence and corrupted the system he was sworn to serve. The judge gave Dr. Al-Arian not the minimum recommended in the plea bargain but the maximum of 57 months for the one count to which he pled guilty.
Then began a series of additional prosecutorial steps involving the issuing of repeated subpoenas demanding that Al-Arian testify at grand jury investigations. This was also in defiance of his plea bargain and so he refused. He was held in civil and later criminal contempt which added substantially to his jail time.
So egregious was the behavior of the prosecutors seeking his testimony that another, more objective judge eventually stepped in and halted the government’s efforts to force Sami Al-Arian’s to appear before grand juries. Dr. Al-Arian was also let out of prison and allowed to live under a liberal form of house arrest at his daughter’s home in Virginia. His case was held in a kind of legal limbo until just recently, when on 27 June 2014, prosecutors decided to drop all charges against Al-Arian. One should not think of this as a total victory, for the government still intends to deport Sami Al-Arian.
Sami Al-Arian and his family had to endure eleven years of persecution on the basis of assumptions that were substituted for evidence. In the process the life of an upright man, devoted to teaching, charitable works and the cause of a persecuted people, was ruined. The people who did this to him simultaneously corrupted the justice system the integrity of which they were sworn to uphold.
While Sami Al-Arian was perhaps the most high-profile of these cases, his was not the only one. Four members of the Holy Land Foundation charity were charged with materially aiding Hamas when, in fact, all the foundation did was supply money to charitable Palestinian organizations which had been accredited by Israel. It took two trials, one in 2007 and another 2008, for the U.S. government to eke out a conviction on weak evidence that included the testimony of anonymous Israeli witnesses. The Supreme Court refused to interfere with this prima facie unconstitutional procedure.
At present a Palestinian civil rights activist in Chicago, Rasmea Odeh, is being prosecuted for an alleged immigration fraud for failing to report on her immigration application that forty-five years ago, when she was a child, she was arrested by the Israeli military and briefly held without charge. The same prosecutor who went after the Holy Land Foundation is involved in the prosecution of Odeh.
Times of high tension often result in the lowering of important standards in the application of law. They do so by heightening the fears of the general public, which in turn gives license to bigots embedded in the justice system such as judges and prosecutors who have Islamophobic prejudices, Zionist biases, or neoconservative delusions. All of these motives may come into play in cases such as those mentioned above.
Normally the appeals process should catch and reverse such problematic behavior. However, if the period of public fear is prolonged, the appeals process might also become corrupted by public hysteria and political pressures. It took Sami Al-Arian eleven years to overcome his prosecutorial ordeal and those of the Holy Foundation members and Rasmea Odeh are ongoing.
The last word on this dilemma should go to Sami Al-Arian’s son, Abdullah, who in a recent statement observed,“It’s a sad day when you have to leave America to be free.” Indeed, when dogmatists are in control none of us are really free.
Going after government officials for corruption has not been a priority of the U.S. Department of Justice under President Barack Obama, compared with his predecessors.
Cases of public corruption that have been prosecuted are down this year versus what they were last year, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
TRAC also reports that the number of public corruption prosecutions is noticeably down during the Obama administration when compared to those pursued under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
As of July 2014, the Justice Department has filed 302 corruption prosecutions, putting the agency on a pace of 518 for this year.
If this rate holds up, the total would represent an 18.6% decline from 2013, when there were 636 prosecutions.
The drop is even sharper when the Justice Department numbers are put up alongside those from 2004 (down 32% when there were 760 cases under Bush) and 1994 (down 27% when 711 were reported under Clinton).
TRAC says public corruption referrals sent from federal agencies to Justice have averaged 1,674 during the past five years. This total is about the same as under Bush (1,663 referrals).
“The number of prosecutions, however, has fallen under Obama because a smaller percentage of these referrals (39.5%) ends up being pursued by prosecutors,” TRAC states. “So far during FY 2014 only about one out of every three (34.0%) were prosecuted. During the Bush years, 41.6 percent of the official corruption referrals resulted in prosecution.”
To Learn More:
Official Corruption Prosecutions Decline Under Obama (TRAC Reports)
Germany’s plan to bring back the nation’s gold reserves to Frankfurt by 2020 has fizzled, and instead has for now decided to leave $635 billion of gold in US vaults.
Home to the world’s second largest gold reserves, worth $141 billion, Germany only keeps about one third of its gold ‘at home’, the rest is abroad. 45 percent is in the US Federal Reserve in New York, 13 percent in London, 11 percent in Paris, and only 31 percent in the Bundesbank in Frankfurt.
“The Americans are taking good care of our gold, we have no reasons for mistrust,” Nobert Barthle, the German Parliament Budget spokesman, told RT.
Critics of the slow progress disagree.
“Why we haven’t been allowed to inspect escapes me, I’m no conspiracy theorist, but the Bundesbank should be able to audit the gold once a year like it does with reserves in Frankfurt,” Hans Olaf Henkel, German member of the European Parliament, told RT.
At the end of June for the first time a German delegation traveled to New York to check up on their gold holdings, the first in the last 10 years. The lack of inspection has led some to question whether it’s still there.
The movement to ‘bring the gold home’ was largely led by euroskeptics who campaigned to repatriate all the country’s precious metal by 2020. So far, they’ve only managed to bring back 10 percent, or 300 tons. Another 374 tons from the Banque de France is set to be returned to Germany in the near future.
“We are still missing for example published bar number lists, even though the US Federal reserve publishes this list for their own gold,” says Peter Boehringer, Founder of Repatriate our Gold Campaign.
However, auditors last week said they were pleased with the US continuing to look after Germany’s treasures. The delegation said there is no rush to bring it home, and that keeping it there even offers an advantage, as it can be used for emergency currency for gold swaps.
After World War II, Germany bought gold from the US Federal Reserve, but decided to keep in overseas instead of back to the Bundesbank. During the Cold War, fear of a Soviet invasion made overseas storage a safer option.
Recently, the Bundesbank has been criticised for not holding its reserves in Frankfurt, so it has decided that some should be brought back to Germany.
Transporting the gold will be a high security operation. When France transferred its reserves in 1966 it used a submarine.
Back in February, we reported that PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, was pushing to have the EU put on the US’s ‘Priority Watch List’ for its plans to disclose basic safety information about drugs. Now a letter from PhRMA obtained by the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel shows that US pharmaceutical companies are trying to use TAFTA/TTIP to undermine the new EU rules on making clinical trial data available (original in German):
A letter from the U.S. pharmaceutical association (PhRMA) to the TTIP chief negotiator for the United States, Douglas Bell, states: “The disclosure of confidential data from clinical and pre-clinical study files and patient data puts at risk the health system and the well-being of patients.” Why more transparency should harm the health systems, the lobby group doesn’t explain, but it makes clear to the negotiator how he should conduct the negotiations with the EU: the publication of commercially-sensitive data from a market authorization, the PhRMA letter said threateningly, is not only contrary to the rules of the American FDA, but also to the internationally-accepted intellectual property rights of the World Trade Organization, the so-called TRIPS Agreement. “PhRMA and its members call on the U.S. government to influence the EU at all levels in order to eliminate this problem.”
It’s hard to see how the problem can be “eliminated.” Back in April, the European Parliament adopted the Clinical Trials Regulation by a huge majority. Effective from 2016, it states that information from clinical study files “should not generally be considered commercially confidential” and must be made publicly available — exactly what PhRMA is lobbying against.
What’s worrying is that there’s already been one attempt to water down these requirements. Der Tagesspiegel suggests this may have been as a result of pressure from the European Commission, concerned about US reaction to them. It will be interesting to see how the Commission reconciles any US demands during the TAFTA/TTIP negotiations to remove the requirement to publish drug safety information with the new EU regulation that requires it.
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Tony Blair has reportedly agreed to advise coup-appointed Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as part of a United Arab Emirates-funded program which promises lucrative “business opportunities” to those involved.
Blair is set to give Sisi advise on economic reform in tandem with a UAE financed taskforce in Cairo, the Guardian reported on Wednesday. According to the daily, the taskforce is being run by the management consultancy Strategy&, formerly Booz and Co, now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The group hopes to attract foreign direct investment to Egypt’s crisis racked economy at an upcoming Egypt donors’ conference, which is being sponsored by oil-rich UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The former prime minister and Middle East peace envoy supported the coup against Egypt’s democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi last July and continues to generate controversy with his complicated dealings in the region.
A spokeswoman for Blair told the Guardian that his attempts to garner support for Egypt from the international community were not being done “for any personal gain whatsoever.”
“He is giving advice, he will have meetings, that’s all,” she said, stressing that neither Blair nor any organizations associated with him would make money out of Egypt.
She added that he believes the Sisi government “should be supported in its reform agenda and he will help in any way he can, but not as part of a team.”
When pressed on the lucrative “business opportunities” the Egypt project and its Gulf backers promised, she said: “We are not looking at any business opportunities in Egypt.”
A former close political associate, however, told the Guardian that Blair’s role in advising the Egyptian regime would cause “terrible damage to him, the rest of us and New Labour’s legacy.”
The associate said that Blair was able to kill two birds with one stone in Egypt, battling the threat of Islamism while sinking his teeth into “mouth-watering business opportunities” in return for Bush-era advocacy.
He added that it would be a very lucrative business model, but one Blair should not be involving himself with.
“He’s putting himself in hock to a regime that imprisons journalists. He’s digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself and everyone associated with him.”
Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former press secretary who resigned in 2003 over the Iraq Dossier scandal, is also a paid advisor consulting the Sisi government on its public image. When asked by the Guardian on Wednesday if he had been working with Strategy&, Campbell refused to say who he had been working with. Like Blair, Campbell also visited Cairo earlier this year as part of the Gulf-funded program to prop up the regime. Another former Blair employee, Darren Murphy, a so-called special advisor in the Blair government who has traded off the former PM’s name for years, has also been working on the program.
In June, Sisi, Egypt’s former army, won 96.9 percent of the votes in a presidential poll that had all the hallmarks of a dictatorial election.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was the first international leader to congratulate Sisi on his election victory.
King Abdullah hailed Sisi’s ’win as a “historic day” for Egypt, calling for donors a donors conference to help Egypt through its economic troubles.
“To the brothers and friends of Egypt… I invite all to a donors conference… to help it overcome its economic crisis,” he said.
Since the Morsi government was toppled, hundreds of alleged supports of the ex-president and his Muslim Brotherhood movement have been sentenced to death. The persecution of political opponents and crackdown on journalists has pushed US congressional leaders to consider withholding $1.3 billion in military support to Cairo.
Since stepping down as prime minister in 2007, Blair and his companies have worked with a variety of repressive and dictatorial regimes across the world. Blair’s Middle East interest appear to be expanding, with aids confirming last month he was considering opening an office in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi. His work in Egypt could be viewed as even more contentious, due to the bloody nature of the coup and his work as a mediator in the region.
In June, retired diplomats and political enemies came together to demand that Blair be fired as the envoy to the Quartet on the Middle East– the UN, US, Russia and EU – after failing to bring Israel and Palestine closer to a peace deal.
A senior Iraqi military commander says Kurdish Peshmerga forces have seized heavy weapons and military equipment in Kirkuk governorate.
Lieutenant Abdul Amir al-Zaidi said on Sunday that the Kurdish forces attacked military bases and disrupted the security situation in Diyala and Kirkuk.
This comes after the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said on Friday that the KRG will not return the oil-rich hub of Kirkuk to Baghdad.
Masoud Barzani’s comments sparked angry reactions from some Iraqi politicians who warned of an armed conflict with the Kurds in the near future. Also, some lawmakers have accused the Kurdish forces of having relations with Israel.
Kurdish security forces took control of Kirkuk after Iraqi troops entered a battle with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) earlier this month.
The latest developments come as tensions rise between the Kurdistan’s regional leaders and the central government in Baghdad.
The Iraqi government has repeatedly slammed the Kurdistan region for exporting oil without Baghdad’s consent.
Baghdad says it has the sole right to export the country’s crude, but the Kurds say they are entitled to market the resources of their own region
The regional government has recently used a pipeline to the Turkish port city of Ceyhan for crude oil exports.
A spokesman for the regional government says the money has been deposited in Turkey’s Halkbank.
Most refineries are reluctant to get involved in the trade which the Iraqi central government has called smuggling.
Baghdad has also opened arbitration against Turkey for allowing and facilitating the sales and has threatened to pursue buyers.
The US put pressure on Danish authorities to close the Kurdish Roj TV channel in order to appease Turkey. This was done so Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s position as NATO secretary general would be secure, the station’s lawyer told RT amid WikiLeaks revelations.
WikiLeaks documents released back in March suggest Rasmussen abused his powers during his time as Denmark’s prime minister, in order to secure his future job.
In 2009, Denmark reportedly agreed to start legal action against Roj TV, a Kurdish separatist channel that was broadcasting from Copenhagen, in order to appease Turkey. In return, Ankara said it would back Rasmussen as the future NATO chief.
“There were some conflicts of political character between Denmark and Turkey. And the US intervened because they liked very much [for the] then-Danish prime minister to become secretary general. And therefore they felt confident with him as a secretary general,” Roj TV lawyer Bjorn Elmquist told RT.
“There was big pressure from the US to think in a creative manner how to indict and how to prove that Roj television was promoting terrorism. And in the end, the indictment was there. And within hours after that indictment it was announced that there was an agreement between the Turkish government and the other NATO countries to decide for the previous Danish prime minister to be secretary general.”
Roj TV began broadcasting in 2004. In 2010, it was accused in Denmark of promoting terrorist activities. It was officially shut down in February 2014.
Turkey maintained that Roj TV was a mouthpiece for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which fights for the rights of the Kurdish minority – and is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey and the West.
In fact, Turkey had on three different occasions unsuccessfully complained to the Danish Radio and Television Board about Roj TV, with the watchdog ruling that the channel’s reporting standards matched those of other TV stations in Denmark, Elmquist added.
“We have a special independent committee on television in Denmark, which would issue the certificates. And the Turkish government had on three different occasions complained to the committee. And each time they concluded that the coverage of the conflict between the PKK, the Kurdish guerrillas, and Turkish security forces was just like the coverage you would find at the big Danish news television stations,” he said.
“So, we thought that also the courts would respect the freedom of expression, the freedom of press, the freedom of information, but it didn’t occur.”
When NATO was asked to comment on the leaks about the deal to appoint Rasmussen, its press office directed RT to the Danish judicial authorities, insisting that the courts were fully independent.
“We do not comment on alleged leaked documents. However, in general I can say that in real democracies, such as Denmark, the courts are fully independent. For any other inquiries, I refer you to the Danish judicial authorities,” press officer Ben Nimmo from NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division told RT in a letter.
Kurdish activist Dilar Diriq said that Turkey has been after Roj TV ever since it launched.
“They repeatedly filed complaints, but they were unsuccessful until Rasmussen became NATO’s secretary general in 2009. And Turkey did not make it a secret that Roj TV’s closure was a condition for them to support Rasmussen. And suddenly in the next year, the Danish government decided to prosecute Roj TV. This really does not come as a surprise because there had been several anti-Kurdish policies that were adopted by European governments to appease Turkey,” she told RT.
The 2009 WikiLeaks diplomatic cable sent by Terence McCulley, then-deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Copenhagen says that the Danish promised to come after Roj TV.
“Danish pledges to intensify efforts against Roj-TV — among the measures offered Turkey for not blocking former PM Rasmussen’s appointment as NATO secretary general — have given additional impetus to the investigation while also prompting senior officials to tread carefully, to avoid the appearance of a quid pro quo (i.e., sacrificing freedom of speech in exchange for a high-level post),” the cable states.
The cable also says that “no clear evidence has been found to connect the broadcaster with the PKK,” but that the Danish are being encouraged to “think creatively about ways to disrupt or close the station.”
Students at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas are asking former secretary of state Hillary Clinton to return the hefty speaking fee she is set to collect when she appears at the university in October.
Many Americans have criticized Clinton for her recent interview gaffes, including her defense of her six-figure speaking fees. Angered over her $225,000 speaking fee, UNLV students are now protesting her upcoming appearance at the university.
The students say if Clinton receives six figures for her speech, then she could at least donate the paycheck.
“You could give scholarships to thousands of students, benefit research on campus, give more students grants for research and studying,” Daniel Waqar, Student Relations Director for the UNLV Student Government told Ralston Reports.
Tuition is expected to increase by 17 percent at the school, so students could really use the extra financial support, he added.
“We would hope that Hillary Clinton commits to higher education … and returns part or whole of the amount she receives for speaking,” Elias Benjelloun, the UNLV student body president said.
Clinton is set to appear at the UNLV Foundation Annual Dinner in October. The event already comes with a pretty hefty price tag: individual tickets cost $200 each, while tables cost between $3,000 and $20,000.
Clinton’s office said the fee will be used to develop global initiatives ranging from climate change to women’s rights, according to The Washington Post.
We have studied the long-term toxicity of a Roundup-tolerant GM maize (NK603) and a whole Roundup pesticide formulation at environmentally relevant levels from 0.1 ppb. Our study was first published in Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) on 19 September, 2012. The first wave of criticisms arrived within a week, mostly from plant biologists without experience in toxicology. We answered all these criticisms. The debate then encompassed scientific arguments and a wave of ad hominem and potentially libellous comments appeared in different journals by authors having serious yet undisclosed conflicts of interests. At the same time, FCT acquired as its new assistant editor for biotechnology a former employee of Monsanto after he sent a letter to FCT to complain about our study. This is in particular why FCT asked for a post-hoc analysis of our raw data. On 19 November, 2013, the editor-in-chief requested the retraction of our study while recognizing that the data were not incorrect and that there was no misconduct and no fraud or intentional misinterpretation in our complete raw data – an unusual or even unprecedented action in scientific publishing. The editor argued that no conclusions could be drawn because we studied 10 rats per group over 2 years, because they were Sprague Dawley rats, and because the data were inconclusive on cancer. Yet this was known at the time of submission of our study. Our study was however never attended to be a carcinogenicity study. We never used the word ‘cancer’ in our paper. The present opinion is a summary of the debate resulting in this retraction, as it is a historic example of conflicts of interest in the scientific assessments of products commercialized worldwide. We also show that the decision to retract cannot be rationalized on any discernible scientific or ethical grounds. Censorship of research into health risks undermines the value and the credibility of science; thus, we republish our paper.
There is an ongoing debate on the potential health risks of the consumption of genetically modified (GM) plants containing high levels of pesticide residues . Currently, no regulatory authority requests mandatory chronic animal feeding studies to be performed for edible GMOs and formulated pesticides. This fact is at the origin of most of the controversies. Only studies consisting of 90-day rat feeding trials have been conducted by manufacturers for GMOs. Statistical differences in the biochemistry of treated rats versus controls may represent the initial signs of long-term pathologies , possibly explained at least in part by pesticide residues in the GM feed. This is why we studied the long-term toxicity of a Roundup-tolerant GM maize (NK603) and a whole Roundup pesticide formulation at environmentally relevant levels from 0.1 ppb.
We first published these results in Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) on 19 September, 2012  after a careful and thorough peer review. However, 1 year and 2 months later, in an unusual step, the editor-in-chief requested the retraction of our study, while conceding that the data were not incorrect and that there was no misconduct and no fraud or intentional misinterpretation. According to him, some data were inconclusive, but for reasons already known at the time of submission of the paper. The present paper is a summary of the debate resulting in this retraction, which in our view is a historic example of conflicts of interests in the scientific assessments of products commercialized worldwide.
The long-term toxicity study of the NK603 maize and Roundup
An initial study on NK603 maize was submitted by Monsanto Company in support of commercial authorization of the maize. NK603 maize was fed to 4 groups of 20 Sprague Dawley rats (2 doses of 11% and 33% in the diet of both sexes) for 90 days . The blood analyses were performed on 10 rats per group. The re-analysis of the raw data resulted in a debate on the biological relevance of admitted statistical differences versus controls as the first signs of hepatorenal toxicities . To solve the problem, a 2-year-long study was carried out using two hundred Sprague Dawley rats to which the following treatments were administered: NK603 maize treated or not with Roundup at three different levels in their feed (11%, 22%, and 33% of the total diet) and Roundup alone, administered via drinking water at three different concentrations, from the admitted residual level in regular tap water (0.1 ppb), to the maximum level authorized in GMOs (400 ppm), up to half of the agricultural dose (0.5%). They were divided into ten groups, each containing ten males and ten females. No other long-term study has examined the effects of regular consumption of Roundup-tolerant GM maize and of a pesticide formulation, in any dilution, on blood parameters, sexual hormones, and multiple organs.
We found that these products provoked statistically discriminant disturbances in biochemical markers of livers and kidneys in females at the 15th month, when most of the rats were still alive. At the same time, testosterone and estradiol levels were also disturbed. At the end of the experiments, these disrupted biochemical markers corresponded to pathologies evidenced in a blinded manner: notably hepatorenal deficiencies, more severe in males, and female mammary tumors, which led to premature deaths. For instance, after around 700 days, there were up to 3.25 more mammary tumors (the highest rate was observed in females consuming 0.1 ppb of Roundup in water). This could be associated with a 2.4-time increase in pituitary dysfunctions noticed by the end of the experiment (2 years).
These findings were immediately dismissed by persons involved in the products’ authorizations, or in collaboration with biotech industries. A number of them wrote to FCT to nourish a controversy, including Richard Goodman, a former Monsanto employee in charge of the immunotoxicity files of GMOs, and Paul Christou, a patent holder of the methods used to create transgenic plants. This was rapidly followed by a coordination of national regulatory agencies organized by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), released on 4 October, 2012 . The EFSA had previously assessed NK603, and glyphosate, the declared active principle of Roundup, as safe on the basis of regulatory data, which they never fully published. The EFSA has since published Monsanto’s safety data on NK603 maize , but not on glyphosate. The NK603 data are in a pdf format preventing an easy statistical re-analysis. However, there was no long-term toxicological assessment for NK603, or for Roundup. Moreover, we demonstrated in several studies [8-10] that Roundup is far more toxic than glyphosate because of non-inert adjuvants. On 10 October, 2012, the Monsanto Company also sent its criticisms to FCT  but did not release its safety data, claiming commercial confidentiality.
Overall, the first wave of criticisms arrived within a week, mostly from plant biologists. We answered all criticisms  in FCT on 9 November, 2012. The debate then encompassed scientific arguments. A second wave of ad hominem and potentially libelous comments appeared in different journals [13-16]. Regrettably, there were no invitations to respond to these exacerbated attacks, which we discovered only by our literature survey. Some of the authors of these articles had serious yet undisclosed conflicts of interest. The scientific remarks concentrated on the supposedly inadequate choice of the Sprague Dawley rat strain, which is, however, a classic model for toxicology . The Sprague Dawley strain was also used by Monsanto in its 90-day test on the same maize . In addition, Monsanto measured biochemically the same number of rats per group as in our experiment. Thus, with regard to blood and urine biochemistry, Monsanto gathered data from the same number of rats that we did.
Unsubstantiated allegations of fraud or errors
Paul Christou, the lead author of Arjo et al. , demanded that our paper be retracted and insulted us personally. He claimed first in a letter addressed to the editor-in-chief that the publication of our study ‘does not meet minimal acceptable standards of scientific rigor’ and ‘will damage an entire scientific discipline due to flawed conclusion’ (personal communication). Then, he attacked us in an article published in the journal Transgenic Research on 20 December 2012 . The quantity of insults and defamations in this paper, authorized and co-authored by the editor-in-chief in a supposedly serious journal, is excessive. They include: ‘abject failure to treat the experimental animals in a humane manner’, ‘inability to formulate a valid hypothesis’, ‘media fanfare’, ‘fraudulent or knowingly inaccurate statements’, ‘unethical behavior’, ‘transparent attempt to discredit regulatory agencies’, ‘ammunition for extremists’, ‘flawed science’, ‘disingenuous or inept’, and ‘unjustified waste of animals’ (while at the same time asking for more animals in the groups). Christou and co-authors suggest that by practising ‘flawed science’, we are working against ‘progress towards a better quality of life’ and in fact are ‘actively working to make life worse’. We were not invited to reply. This behaviour can be explained, though not justified, by the undisclosed conflicts of interests.
Christou is not only the editor-in-chief of Transgenic Research, the journal in which he published his article, but is also linked to Monsanto . He is named as the inventor on several patents on GM crop technology, for most of which Monsanto owns the property rights. These include patents on the plant transformation process  used to make glyphosate-tolerant transgenic corn plants . He worked as a researcher at Agracetus Inc. (later acquired by Monsanto) for 12 years. Then, from 1994 to 2001, Christou worked at the John Innes Centre in the UK , which is heavily invested in GM crop technology . He thus has no mammalian toxicology background. However, in his published article, Christou only gave as his affiliation his publicly funded position at a research institute. Christou’s failure to declare his current interests – his inventor status on patents concerning the company that developed the products we tested – could be considered grounds for retraction of a paper in a scientific journal, according to ethical guidelines for scientific publishing .
The Arjo et al. article was co-authored by Wayne Parrott, an active member of the Biotechnology Committee at the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) . ILSI is funded by multinational food, agribusiness, and biotechnology companies, including Monsanto and Syngenta . ILSI has proved highly controversial in North America and Europe due to its influence on risk assessment methodologies for chemicals, pesticides, and GM foods [25-27]. Wayne Parrott also has an inventor status in patents on materials and methods for selecting transgenic organisms  and transformation vector systems .
In addition, Christou and his co-authors made numerous mistakes, false and unsubstantiated assertions, and misrepresentations of our data. The title of Arjo et al.’s paper includes defamation and a misrepresentation of our research, implying that it is ‘pseudoscience’ and alleging that it claimed Roundup Ready maize and Roundup herbicide caused ‘cancer’ in rats – a claim we never made. We did not even use the word ‘cancer’ in our paper although this argument was reiterated in the final letter of the editor-in-chief of FCT when explaining his decision to retract our paper . Tumors do not always lead to cancer, even if they can be more deleterious in a shorter time because of their size or body position, by hurting internal functions.
Arjo et al.’s paper begins with a false assertion that is not evidenced in the paper or in the cited source: ‘It started with a press conference in which journalists agreed not to engage in fact-checking’. The authors made other false assertions about our study, for example, alleging that ‘the water consumption was not measured’. In fact, we measured both the water and food consumption, and the stability of the Roundup solution over time. This was indicated in the paper, in which we explained that all the data cannot be shown in one paper and that we concentrated on the most important data; these parameters were only part of a routine survey. They also falsified the reporting of the data, compiling the mortality data only at the end of the experiment and ignoring the originality and the major findings of the differential chronological effects between treated rats and controls, which we established by measuring tumor size twice a week over 2 years. Moreover, we respected legal requirements and ethical norms relating to animal experiments, and Arjo et al. present no evidence of the contrary, so their allegation of inhumane treatment of the rats is without substance.
Importantly, we had already answered many of the criticisms of our paper made by Arjo et al. in a paper that was published before that of Arjo et al. . Their publication was received on 20 December 2012, when our paper was published on 9 November 2012. Our published answers were simply ignored.
Christou was not alone in failing to declare conflicts of interest in his criticism of our paper. Since we underlined that 75% of the comments addressed to FCT within a week after our study was published came from plant biologists, it was discovered that several had developed patents on GMOs. Some authors were employees of Monsanto Company, which owns NK603 GM maize and sells Roundup herbicide [4,11]. Other more recent papers, published by plant biologists and/or affiliates of the industry-funded group ILSI [15,16], repeated the arguments. The author of a separate article criticizing our study expressed concern that our results could damage public opinion about GM crops  – a sentiment that gives precedence to economic interests over public health. An article in Forbes magazine even alleged, without presenting any evidence, that we had committed fraud . Surprisingly, even Monsanto authors  declared that they had ‘no conflicts of interest’ in their first draft published online on FCT website. Investigative reports [32,33] evidenced that many authors of these opinions had failed to disclose their conflicts of interest, including Henry Miller, Mark Tester, Chris Leaver, Bruce Chassy, Martina Newell-McGloughlin, Andrew Cockburn, L. Val Giddings, Sivramiah Shantharam, Lucia de Souza, Erio Barale-Thomas, and Marc Fellous. The undisclosed conflicts of interest included links with biotechnology companies that develop GMOs and with industry-backed lobbying organizations.
All of this has huge implications for public health. We observed an intense lobbying in parliaments, as well as proofs of conflicts of interests for persons involved in the regulatory decisions for the commercialization of these products . A series of high-profile conflict-of-interest revelations (not restricted to GMOs and pesticides) led to the resignations of leading administrators involved in decisions affecting the assessment of these products, including the European Commissioner John Dalli  and the former chair of the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) management board Diana Banati . In February of 2013, a strange occurrence following the publication of our paper raised questions about the connections of industry to scientific publishing, described below.
Conflicts of interests in the editorial board
In February 2013, FCT acquired a new assistant editor for biotechnology, Richard E. Goodman. The editor-in-chief has admitted that Goodman was introduced into the editorial board after he sent a letter to FCT to complain about our study. In his letter, Goodman appears worried about economic consequences but not so much about potential public health consequences (personal communication). He wrote: ‘The implications and the impacts of this uncontrolled study is having HUGE impacts, in international trade, in consumer confidence in all aspects of food safety, and certainly in US state referendums on labelling’. Further in his letter, Goodman asked for ‘an evaluation by an independent set of toxicologists’. This is particularly why the Publishing Assistant for FCT asked for our raw data on 15 March 2013.
In fact, we can question the independence of this re-evaluation. After his appointment at FCT, Goodman was a member of the subcommittee that requested our raw data, until we complained to Elsevier publishing group. Goodman is far from being independent. He previously worked for Monsanto for 7 years . He also has a long-standing affiliation with ILSI . Goodman will now deal with all biotechnology papers submitted to FCT. Another scientific paper on GMO risks was withdrawn from FCT, without explanation shortly after it had been accepted and published by the journal . The paper was immediately published by another journal  according to the authors’ initiative.
We received a letter from the editor-in-chief of FCT, A. Wallace Hayes, asking us to retract our paper on 19 November 2013, more than 1 year after its publication . In his retraction notice, the editor-in-chief certifies that ‘no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data’ was found in the investigation, that the results are ‘not incorrect’, ‘there was no misconduct’, and that the sole reason for retraction is the ‘inconclusiveness’ of the paper. He argued that no conclusions could be drawn because we studied 10 rats per group over 2 years, because they were Sprague Dawley rats, and because we could not conclude on cancer. In fact, the Sprague Dawley is a standard choice for 2-year studies performed by industry and independent scientists alike [17,41]. We also measured 10 animals per sex per group according to OECD 452 guideline on chronic toxicity studies  because our study is a chronic toxicity study that was never intended to be a carcinogenicity study. We wish to point out that Dr Hayes’ decision is in violation of the retraction guidelines of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), of which FCT is a member. ‘Inconclusiveness’ is not a valid reason for a journal to retract a paper. Lack of conclusiveness (which can be discussed) and error are not synonymous. COPE criteria for retraction included scientific misconduct/honest error, prior publication, plagiarism, or unethical research. None of these criteria applied to our study. On the contrary, numerous published scientific papers contain inconclusive findings. It is for further studies to build on the reported findings and arrive at a more conclusive position. In contrast with our study measuring toxicity, the Monsanto study reporting safety with the same number and the same strain of rats, but limited to 90 days,  is not subject to the same controversy. The data in the Monsanto study show statistically significant differences in multiple-organ functions between the GM and non-GM feeding groups, which the authors dismissed as not ‘biologically meaningful’, using a set of questionable criteria . The significant effects observed do not have to be linear to the dose to be taken into consideration; otherwise, endocrine effects will be dismissed. In addition, biochemical disturbances do not have to correlate simultaneously with organ lesions, in contrast to the claims of Doull et al.  in defence of Monsanto. These outdated concepts coming from the toxicology of poisons, and are not valid for endocrine disruption [43,45]. If 10 rats/sex/group are too few to demonstrate a toxic effect, then this number of rats is certainly too small to demonstrate safety. Overall, in the current system of assessment, any toxic effect is first suspected to be a false positive, arising by chance, rather than questioning whether no evidence of effect is a false negative result. The Monsanto data as presented are thus inconclusive and should also be retracted.
Following the retraction of our paper, many letters were sent to the editor-in-chief of FCT. On 10 December 2013, he published a defence of the retraction, which raised many doubts as to his understanding of our data . He claimed that we concluded on cancer, although ours was a long-term toxicity study with a detailed statistical analysis of blood and urine parameters. He also defended the study done by Monsanto  claiming that they used 20 rats/sex/group while we only used 10 rats/sex/group. In fact, despite the fact that the Monsanto study used twice our sample size, the Monsanto authors only analyzed blood and urine from half of the animals (10), the same number of sampled animals as in our study.
According to an editorial in Environmental Health Perspectives , ‘the decision to retract a published scientific work by an editor, against the desires of the authors, because it is ‘inconclusive’ based on a post hoc analysis represents a dangerous erosion of the underpinnings of the peer-review process, and Elsevier should carefully reconsider this decision’.
Confidentiality and censorship erode the value of science
Recent reviews of the GM food safety literature have found that research concluding that GM products were safe tended to come from industry and that research conducted by those with either financial or professional conflicts of interest was associated with outcomes favorable to the GM sector . In fact, it appears in our case that consequences of conflicts of interests in science go beyond divergence in scientific interpretations and also rely on unscientific practices: confidentiality and censorship.
Transparency of, and access to, all the raw data obtained by companies and accepted by regulatory agencies (overall blood analyses of rats) as proof of safety for products, is an unavoidable first step to move forward in this debate. It is the only way in which the scientific community can enter the scientific discussion. This is why we republish our paper in an open access way, together with its raw data allowing debate about our results. This is not possible for the data used as a proof of safety for commercial authorizations. The Monsanto toxicological data on NK603 maize recently made public by EFSA is not in a statistically usable format and an agreement with Monsanto is requested before use. Moreover, the data examined for Roundup authorizations are clearly inadequate . For instance, ANSES (French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety), confirmed to us in writing (January 2013) that there were no 2-year studies of Roundup in its whole formulation on animals, adding that there are a few studies of acute toxicity (a few days up to 3 weeks) without any blood tests. Instead, glyphosate, which is much less toxic than Roundup [10,49], is tested alone by Monsanto, in its reports to regulatory authorities . We strongly emphasize that data with implications for public health are not related to manufacturing patents and should not be kept confidential. Removal of confidentiality claims on biosafety data is necessary to adhere to standard scientific procedures of quality assurance, to increase transparency, to minimize impacts of conflicts of interests, and ultimately to improve public confidence in GMOs . Moreover, in the regulatory assessment of GMOs, chemicals, and medicines, confidential tests are conducted by the applicant companies themselves, often in their own laboratories or in those of subcontractors.
The second step must be the building of new experiments for new or the most important products, by laboratories independent of the companies. They will be recruited by public tender, with compulsory transparency of the results. This public research will be funded by companies, at a level corresponding to their previous budget for regulatory testing, but managed independently of the companies. The protocols and results will be submitted to open and contradictory assessments. Thus, there will be no additional financial cost or time delay to the current system. Such reforms will not only radically transform the understanding and knowledge of toxicology and science in general, but will radically reduce public health costs and promote trust in companies and science. This will move the world towards a sustainable development of products with low, if any, impacts on health and environment.
The reason given to retract our paper – ‘inconclusiveness’ – is unprecedented and violates the norms of scientific publishing. The decision to retract cannot be rationalized on any discernible scientific grounds. Censorship on research into the risks of a technology so critically entwined with global food safety undermines the value and the credibility of science.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
GES designed and coordinated the commentary. RM participated in the drafting of the manuscript and final version. ND and JsDV helped in the writing, compiling the literature, revising details, and proofreading the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
We acknowledge the Charles Leopold Mayer (FPH) and Denis Guichard Foundations, together with CRIIGEN, for fellowships and structural supports. We are equally thankful to Malongo, Lea Nature, and the JMG Foundation for their help.
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We recently noted that former NSA boss Keith Alexander is running around asking for $600k to $1 million per month for his new “cybersecurity” consulting firm. While some people thought that the number was “low” for banks, that doesn’t make any sense. You could hire a lot of really good actual security professionals for that kind of cash. So it made us wonder just what banks thought they were getting for that $1 million. Actual security professional Bruce Schneier wondered that as well, and wondered aloud if the one difference was that… Alexander could give them classified info — such as where he hid the backdoors in their routers.
That statement apparently caught the attention of Rep. Alan Grayson, who has been a vocal opponent of NSA overreach. He’s now sent a letter to the Financial Service Rountable to point out that selling classified info is a crime:
Security expert Bruce Schneier noted that this fee for Alexander’s services is on its face unreasonable. “Think of how much actual security they could buy with that $600k a month. Unless he’s giving them classified information.” Schneier also quoted Recode.net, which headlined this news as: “For another million, I’ll show you the back door we put in your router.”
This arrangement with Mr. Alexander may also include additional work with the shadow regulatory firm The Promontory Group, with whom Alexander apparently will partner “on cybersecurity matters.” According to Promontory spokesman Chris Winans, Mr. Alexander “and a firm he’s forming will work on the technical aspects of these issues, and we on the risk-management compliance and governance elements.”
Disclosing or misusing classified information for profit is, as Mr. Alexander well knows, a felony. I question how Mr. Alexander can provide any of the services he is offering unless he discloses or misuses classified information, including extremely sensitive sources and methods. Without the classified information that he acquired in his former position, he literally would have nothing to offer to you.
Grayson also demands “all information related to your negotiations with Mr. Alexander,” so that Congress can verify whether or not he is selling military or cybersecurity secrets to the financial services industry for personal gain. Sure, it’s a snarky move, but there is a point behind it. Alexander can’t command those sums because of his actual technical expertise. The reality, of course, is that he’s selling his connections to the government. But it certainly raises the question of appearances.
Pro-independence Spaniards have staged a protest rally against the Spanish monarchy as the new king urges collaboration in the region.
On Thursday, thousands of Catalonians took to the streets of Girona to voice their anger against the royal family’s involvement in a series of corruption scandals.
The fresh protest came hours after Spain’s newly-appointed King Felipe VI reached out to Catalonians earlier in the day, urging their collaboration to help defuse tensions with Madrid.
“Sincere and generous collaboration is the best way to fulfill the legitimate aspirations of each person and achieve great collective goals for the common good,” the king said in a speech on his first visit to Catalonia since ascending to the throne.
The majority of 7.5 million inhabitants of Catalonia have expressed resentment for the redistribution of their taxes to other regions of Spain.
Catalan leaders plan to hold an independence referendum in November. The government has condemned the move as illegal.
Catalonia has been seeking independence and autonomy from Spain since the end of the 19th century. In recent years, massive rallies have been held to claim the self-determination right for the region.
The latest protest comes as the image of the royal family has been tarnished by a series of scandals. Juan Carlos’s daughter, Princess Cristina, and her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, are under investigation for possible tax fraud and money laundering.
Spain has been the scene of anti-monarchy protests in recent weeks after Juan Carlos announced he would step down in favor of his son Philippe. The 46-year-old monarch was officially sworn in before parliament on June 19.
According to a survey conducted earlier this month, the majority of the Spanish people are in favor of a referendum on the future of monarchy in their country.