The New Geography of Global Diplomacy – By Bonnie Bley November 27, 2019

Protests outside of the Japanese embassy in Beijing, China, August 2012
Jason Lee / Reuters

China Advances as the United States Retreats

As China’s rise has become a central force in global politics, analysts and policymakers have tracked its path to potential preeminence on a number of fronts: the size of its economy, the scale and reach of its investment and commercial relationships, the budget and capabilities of its military forces. But as of 2019, China has surpassed the United States in an underappreciated but crucial measure of global influence: the size of its diplomatic network.

For decades, Washington had the largest diplomatic network in the world. Now China does, boasting 276 diplomatic posts—including embassies, consulates, and permanent missions to international organizations. The United States’ network, meanwhile, stands at 273, down one post since 2017.

This shift could mark a turning point in great-power competition. As Beijing becomes more and more willing to deploy its global power, seemingly no longer interested in former leader Deng Xiaoping’s instruction to “hide your strength, bide your time,” it has invested in active and far-reaching diplomacy. Washington, meanwhile, has seen both a turn inward and a privileging of other tools. Where once the United States enjoyed global diplomatic primacy, the playing field is now leveling.


China’s ascent to the top spot has been rapid. The Lowy Institute’s Global Diplomacy Index tracks diplomatic networks around the world. In 2011, Beijing lagged 23 posts behind Washington. By 2016, it was only eight posts behind, in third place behind the United States and France. In 2017, it climbed to second place, overtaking France, before moving into first place this year. This year’s index puts China in first place ahead of 60 other major diplomatic networks.

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Beijing has opened five new embassies in the last two years: in Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Gambia, and São Tomé and Príncipe. This list of countries is not random. Following a persistent campaign of what’s commonly referred to as “checkbook diplomacy,” Beijing has succeeded in picking off a handful of Taiwan’s last remaining diplomatic partners. China is unmatched in its number of consulates. Most recently, two countries in the hotly contested Pacific Islands region—Kiribati and the Solomon Islands—broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan and made the switch to China, reducing the number of countries recognizing Taiwan from 22 in 2016 to just 15 today (which include Guatemala, Honduras, and Vatican City). For Beijing, this strategy has both furthered Taiwan’s growing political isolation and increased China’s ability to advance its own economic and strategic interests. In short, it’s been win-win, except with both wins going to China.

China doesn’t have only breadth in its network; it has depth, too. While Beijing and Washington are neck and neck in terms of the number of embassies they have, China is unmatched in its number of consulates, with 96 compared to the United States’ 88. Whereas embassies reflect political power, consulates reflect economic power. China’s focus on boosting its consulates accords with its ongoing focus on advancing its interests through economic diplomacy over traditional diplomacy. Of China’s 96 consulates, 41 are located in Asia and 28 in Europe. This goes hand in hand with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure push valued in the trillions that seeks to better connect China with these regions.


The United States’ diplomatic presence has been sclerotic since 2017. After closing the doors of its consulate general in St. Petersburg in 2018, amid rancorous relations with the Kremlin, and without any new openings in recent years, Washington reduced its total posts to 273. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department remains hollowed out: even as President Donald Trump approaches the end of a four-year term, only 73 percent of key positions are filled, according to a Washington Post tracker. Add to this the Trump administration’s desire to cut the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budgets by up to 23 percent, and it is no surprise that U.S. diplomacy looks increasingly rudderless to other governments. Trump’s 11,000 tweets, over half of which attack someone or something, are no substitute for a properly functioning diplomatic network.

Closing the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg, Russia, March 2018
Closing the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg, Russia, March 2018

Anton Vaganov / Reuters

U.S. diplomacy isn’t lagging on every front. Diplomatic influence comes not only from establishing a large presence abroad but also from being an important host to foreign missions. The United States remains by a wide margin the most popular place for countries to maintain embassies and consulates. It is home to some 342 embassies and consulates belonging to the 61 countries included in the index. China, with 256, is a distant second. When permanent missions to international organizations such as the United Nations are added into the equation, the United States’ lead is strengthened further.

Other governments are increasingly setting up posts in second- and third-tier Chinese cities—something to watch closely in coming years. Still, it would take a serious reshuffling of the global diplomatic order for the status quo on this particular metric to change in China’s favor in the near future.


Alongside the realignment of U.S. and Chinese diplomatic reach, other global disruptions have spurred shifts in other governments’ diplomatic activities. Brexit in particular has driven a number of European governments to make changes. With successive Brexit deadlines looming, passing, and then looming once again, Ireland boosted its network by eight posts, causing it to rise three places in the index since 2017, the largest increase of any country. With Ireland facing a divorce from its largest import partner and second-largest export partner, its foreign minister has publicly tied this move to the country’s Brexit strategy. The Netherlands, too, has linked its recent diplomatic push to Brexit considerations, with seven new posts in two years and more openings expected by 2021.

The United Kingdom, by contrast, has closed or downgraded 11 consulates and diplomatic offices since 2016, dropping from ninth place three years ago to 11th today. This runs counter to commitments to open three new posts in the Pacific and an additional 12 posts globally by the end of 2020. So much for promises of a “global Britain.”

A country’s choice of where to expand its network is never uncalculated.

Japan moved into fourth place in 2019, overtaking Russia for the first time. Faced with a shifting power balance in its neighborhood, including an increasingly assertive China, Tokyo has been quietly investing in its diplomatic footprint for nearly a decade now. The addition of seven new posts in strategically pivotal countries such as Cambodia, the Philippines, Seychelles, and Vanuatu brings Tokyo’s total posts to 247.

‘It’s like the third world’: tribe feels forgotten as flooding brings misery to a struggling community – Nina LakhaniLast modified on Fri 29 Nov 2019 03.30 EST

Chad Medicine Horn starts each day mopping his bedroom floor and bleaching the walls to kill the fresh black mould.

A few hours later, the floor is once again soaked by groundwater seeping into the converted basement that he shares with his four-year-old grandson. They spend afternoons trying to stop the murky water soaking their double bed and few surviving clothes and toys with squeegee mops donated by the Red Cross.

Upstairs, Chad’s mother, Christina Selvin, 75, spends most days on the couch in pain from arthritis and kidney cancer, too sick to escape the toxic mould spores.

“No matter how much I clean, this shit just keeps coming back, it’s ruined all our stuff,” said Medicine Horn, 50, while mopping. “This isn’t healthy, everything stinks, my eyes hurt, we’ve all been sick, it can’t be legal to leave us living like this.”

It’s been like this for nine months in the White Swan community on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota, where hundreds of Native Americans have been struggling to cope with unprecedented rainfall and disease outbreaks following a series of extreme weather events.

The annual powwow and ball tournament in White Swan had to be cancelled this year because of the flooding.
The annual powwow and ball tournament in White Swan had to be cancelled this year because of the flooding. Photograph: Amber Bracken/The Guardian

These climate catastrophes have triggered three federal major disaster declarations for the state, but help has been slow to arrive to this tribal community where severe flooding has compounded longstanding social and economic inequalities by wrecking jobs, homes, and infrastructure.

And while tribal authorities scramble to navigate bureaucratic grants to ease the immediate suffering, fears are mounting about the community’s future: further flooding is forecast for spring which threatens to turn White Swan residents into climate refugees.

“The floods have caused a lot of hardships, it feels like the third world,” Shelly Saunsoci, 43, director of the Tribal Employment Rights Office (Tore), told the Guardian. The unemployment rate is 85% and few folks have insurance.

“The climate is changing, it’s already snowing in Montana, and if we have another wet winter and spring, there will be devastation, we’ll have to be evacuated,” she added.

The Yankton Sioux is one of seven tribes in South Dakota, where a third or so of the 9,000 enrolled members living within its territory near the Nebraska border – mostly in federal public housing projects managed by the tribal housing authority (THA).

Historically, White Swan was located on the banks of the Missouri River, but in 1952, the community was flooded out by the newly constructed Fort Randall dam.

Shelly Saunsoci, who is both the vice-chair of the community and the tribal employment rights director, in Swan Lake, SD. “We feel like we are all alone,” says Saunsoci. She has been organizing flood relief with no help from FEMA, the federal or state government.
Shelly Saunsoci, who is the vice-chair of the community and the tribal employment rights director, in White Swan. ‘We feel like we are all alone.’ Photograph: Amber Bracken/The Guardian

It was rebuilt in the 1960s on the southern edge of Lake Andes in Charles Mix county, with a powwow arena for traditional festivities situated between the houses and water.

After several years of low water levels, the lake has been flooded since early March when a bomb cyclone – heavy snow, wind and rain – hit the area. The ageing aqueduct, which should divert excess water from the lake to the Missouri River, was overwhelmed by the extreme rainfall. (Until the water recedes, full inspections are impossible.)

In White Swan, groundwater and waste flowed into basements as the sewage station neared collapse; the highway and powwow arena were inundated.

A month later, another cyclone struck, followed by a second consecutive summer of record rainfall, causing havoc for local farmers already struggling due to the president’s trade wars.

Houses made uninhabitable by the flooding in Swan Lake, South Dakota on 15 November.
Houses made uninhabitable by the flooding in White Swan, South Dakota. Photograph: Amber Bracken/The Guardian

One of the most visible consequences of global heating is the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like heatwaves, heavy rain and storms, which wreak economic and social havoc on communities.

Gordon White Bull, 41, was rushed to hospital with liver failure during the first downpours in March, and returned four months later still recovering from a transplant. Back home, the family car was wrecked on the muddy road, while the furniture, children’s clothes and kitchen cabinet doors were covered in so much mould that they had to be thrown out.

“I can feel it in my lungs, it’s hard to breathe. We’ve done our best to keep it clean, but we need to get out,” said White Bull, 41, who was recently hospitalized again with a stomach infection. The basement is submerged in several inches of water, and the putrid smell makes it hard to breathe or see clearly.

Left: The basement of Theresa Hart’s house in White Swan. A sump pump works around the clock but still the water seeps up. Right: Mold and moisture collect on the walls in Deonne Tibbetts’ house in White Swan. Photographs by Amber Bracken/The Guardian

“Mould kills lung tissue and repeated infections can affect child growth and development, people should not be living in these dangerous conditions,” said Tom Gilmore, a retired physician who spent 50 years working on Indian reservations. “But Native Americans are not politically important.”

Initially, even tribal authorities were slow to react, though eventually they provided sump pumps (bought with donations from another tribe) and organised “muck squads” to strip mouldy walls and clear the wreckage.

But the rain kept lashing down, and the lake kept rising. In early August, the annual powwow was cancelled for the first time ever.

That’s when a group of women took matters into their own hands.

Saunsoci rallied local church groups, the Salvation Army and Red Cross, who brought emergency supplies – bedding, cots, tents, toiletries, food and clean-up kits (mops, gloves, bleach and face masks) – to the community centre which became the hub for exhausted families.

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Trapped in the Archives – By William Burr November 29, 2019

The U.S. Government’s System for Declassifying Historical Documents Is in Crisis

A classified document in the Oval O​ffice of the White House, November 2007
Christopher Morris / VII / Red​ux

Did the United States have a hand in assassinating Congolese and Dominican leaders in 1961? What did President Richard Nixon’s White House know about a successful plot to kill the head of the Chilean army in 1970? After the Cold War ended, did top U.S. military commanders retain the authority to strike back if a surprise nuclear attack put the president out of commission?

The answers to these and other historical mysteries are likely knowable—but they are locked in presidential libraries and government archives and inaccessible to researchers. The reason: the U.S. government’s system for declassifying and processing historical records has reached a state of crisis. Congress has failed to adequately fund the parts of the government charged with processing records, resulting in understaffed offices and years-long backlogs. At the same time, some agencies responsible for declassifying documents have deliberately dragged their feet and erred on the side of needless secrecy.

Declassification is vital to a thriving democracy. Not only does it help the public hold leaders accountable; it also allows for a more accurate and comprehensive accounting of the past.

Without declassification, the American hand in the coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954 would have remained hidden, and Americans would have no way of understanding their country’s Third World meddling. The exposure, through declassification, of the CIA’s assassination plotting in the late 1950s and early 1960s produced public pressure that resulted in executive orders banning political assassinations. Declassified documents brought to light the intelligence failures during 1962 that delayed the detection of Soviet missile deployments in Cuba.

For every secret revealed, however, untold numbers are still hidden away. Only by unsealing its archives can the United States live up to its ideals as an open society and learn from its past.


By law, the classified documents that most federal agencies produce in the course of their work—from State Department cables to Pentagon policy papers to White House e-mails—must be preserved and eventually transferred to the National Archives or the presidential libraries that it runs. Some agencies, such as the CIA, hold on to their records indefinitely.

Whether they are marked confidential, secret, or top secret, classified records remain classified by default; there is no rule requiring declassification after a given number of years. The National Archives does review old records for full or partial declassification, often in response to requests from the public. But the power to declassify a document lies in the hands of the agencies involved in its creation or interested in its contents. All the agencies with a stake in a document must sign off on its declassification—and any one of them, even if it is not the agency where the document originated, can block it.

All the agencies with a stake in a document must sign off on its declassification—and any one of them can block it.

If a request for declassification is denied, the story does not end there. For documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act, requesters may file an administrative appeal and ultimately a lawsuit, although few choose to undertake such an expensive and time-consuming process. Since the 1970s, executive orders have provided another avenue, called a “mandatory declassification review” request, through which one can ask for classified records that can be specifically identified. For this type of request, the final resort is to file an appeal with a body composed of representatives from various agencies, called the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.

The whole process takes an unconscionably long time. I am still awaiting final decisions from the National Archives for State Department records from 1969 concerning U.S. policy toward the Israeli nuclear program. I initially made the request in 2005. Nine years later, the National Archives responded by informing me that the Defense Department had denied 31 documents in their entirety. My appeal is still pending. Many historians can’t afford to wait: 14 years is far longer than the lifespan of most research projects.


Nearly every federal office through which a declassification request must pass is simply overwhelmed. Agencies handle requests for records that they retain, and few devote many resources to processing them. For records held at the National Archives, requests are coordinated by the National Declassification Center, a small office in a significantly underfunded agency that is reluctant to challenge the rights claimed by other agencies. The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, for its part, has been relatively effective in reversing unreasonable decisions made by agencies, but it also has a woefully small staff: just three full-time employees.

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Gabrielle Union Criticized the Culture at America’s Got Talent – Yashar Ali – Nov. 27, 2019

Gabrielle Union was a judge on America’s Got Talent before she was let go last Friday. Photo: Courtesy of NBC

Gabrielle Union, the actress and producer, was just two months into her tenure as a judge on the NBC talent competition America’s Got Talent when she found herself seated in a tense meeting with Simon Cowell, the music mogul and reality-show star. He had a request for her: If she had any problems with the production or the show, come to him directly. Don’t talk to NBC.

Union did have concerns, and she had brought them up regularly ever since she joined the show in February; they included perceived racist incidents, Cowell’s habit of smoking indoors, and attempts to keep the show from misgendering contestants, according to multiple sources involved in the production of America’s Got Talent. Union had been addressing her complaints largely with NBC executives, including those who oversaw the show. They would respond by saying they would look into her concerns, and then, according to sources, nothing would happen.

By the time Union and Cowell met, Union was deeply frustrated and concerned about the workplace environment at America’s Got Talent. His instructions that she not talk to her employers made Union feel as if he were trying to cover up major issues, according to sources familiar with her thinking.

Then, last Friday, Union was informed by NBC that they were letting her go after one season of judging the competition show, which multiple sources allege was because she was perceived as “difficult” by Cowell and his team of producers. Union had a three-year contract with the show, and the network had the option to extend it for subsequent seasons after the first season in which she appeared as a judge, according to multiple sources. Variety first reported that NBC had dropped Union along with another judge, Julianne Hough. In the past few years, the show has cycled through Tyra Banks as host and singer Mel B and Heidi Klum as judges, while the two male judges, Howie Mandel and Simon Cowell (who is also a producer), have remained consistent.

A source close to the production disputes that Union was fired, and specifically that she was fired for being perceived as “difficult,” saying that she was “rotated out.” While it’s true that talent competitions do switch out judges to keep their programming fresh, past judges like Mel B and Klum appeared on the program for years before being moved out.

The news that Union was dropped because of workplace complaints she lodged with NBC was first reported by the blog Love B. Scott. On Tuesday, Variety reported on some of the details of those complaints, including Union’s concerns about a racist joke made by Jay Leno, and reports that producers had critiqued the appearance of Hough and Union, including calling Union’s hairstyles “too black.”

The details of Union’s grievances were shared with Vulture by seven sources inside and outside America’s Got Talent and NBC, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified. (A spokesperson for Union declined to comment.) In response to a detailed list of questions sent by Vulture, NBC Entertainment and Fremantle, the production company that produces America’s Got Talent, said:

“America’s Got Talent has a long history of inclusivity and diversity in both our talent and the acts championed by the show. The judging and host line-up has been regularly refreshed over the years and that is one of the reasons for AGT’s enduring popularity. NBC and the producers take any issues on set seriously.”

NBC announced in February that Union would be joining America’s Got Talent for season 14. Judging for the show, which is filmed in three multi-week segments over the course of several months, began that same month.

Union was labeled as “difficult” by Cowell and producers of the program almost immediately, when she complained about Cowell smoking inside the Pasadena, California, theater where the show was filmed, according to sources close to the production of the show. The theater didn’t have walls between dressing rooms, so they were separated by pipes and draped fabric, and cigarette smoke seeped into Union’s dressing area. (It is against California law for an employer to allow smoking in an enclosed workspace.)

Union, who is allergic to cigarette smoke, was repeatedly rebuffed when she asked other staff members to request that Cowell stop smoking inside. Sources say Union was told by an NBC executive and production staff on the program that no one could stop Cowell from smoking and that previous attempts by a fire marshal and NBC executives had been unsuccessful. According to three sources, Cowell has smoked indoors for years, much to the frustration of staff, crew, and talent. NBC has given Cowell near-total control over America’s Got Talent. Virtually no decisions are made by the network on the show without his approval, according to three well-placed sources.

As reported by Variety, early on in the production of season 14, a painting of Cowell and his five dogs was presented on-camera to the judges. According to sources, former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, who was a guest judge at the time, remarked that the painting “looked like something on the menu at a Korean restaurant.” Union was disturbed by the remark, which seemed to play in to a racist stereotype about Koreans, especially since an Asian staff member on set appeared to be upset by it. Union pushed for the footage to not be aired, which further solidified her “difficult” reputation.

Another incident involved a male contestant from Italy whose audition involved impressions of various singers. When the contestant was preparing to do an impression of Beyoncé, he slipped on black gloves, which Union read as an attempt to indicate a change in skin tone. She referred to them as “blackface hands,” according to two sources, and voted to eliminate the contestant. Neither of these segments aired, and in  both cases, Union was concerned that staff members, and in the case of the male singer, the audience, would be exposed to racist or racially insensitive performances.

Two sources say that Union also earned the reputation of being difficult because she asked contestants dressed in drag what their preferred pronouns were, a move that seemed to annoy producers. But tensions hit an irrevocable high after an incident involving a 10-year-old black rapper named Dylan Gilmer. According to two sources, Union was told in a production meeting by producers that the show needed to pick an act “that America can get behind.” Union objected to their suggestion that a dance group from Texas made up of white contestants could be that act, as it did not receive as much of an enthusiastic reply from the audience as Gilmer, according to two sources.

A source close to the production of the show denied that producers said they needed to pick an act “that American can get behind,” and said that producers would never use such language.

In that same meeting, after contestants from a choir from South Africa (made up of black African members) were brought up, sources recall Howie Mandel saying, “Maybe they can sing something from The Lion King.” Cowell and Mandel, reached through NBC Entertainment PR, did not offer a comment.

Union was frustrated, according to three sources. She felt producers were implying that American audiences couldn’t get behind a 10-year-old black rapper, a viewpoint she felt was racist. But the decision was made to cut Gilmer from the show. (He later was a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Tyler Perry gave him his own show on BET.) Union was so angry, according to two sources, that she went outside to get fresh air, and returned after about five minutes to find Cowell furious that she had left.

A source close to the production told Vulture that Cowell later told Union that if it was that important to her, he would be willing to spare Gilmer. But other sources said Cowell was hostile and aggressive when he delivered that message, and at that point, Union had had enough.

The situation was so tense that Union was pushed by Cowell and his agents at CAA (which also represents Union) to meet with Cowell privately, along with her manager, in an attempt to patch things up, which sources told Vulture she did at his home last May. It’s unclear how their conversation went, but the show then went on hiatus, and Union was let go ahead of filming for season 15. Now, Union is exploring her legal options against the network, according to sources close to the actress and producer.

Tech Company Free Meals Beget a Lot of Leftovers. Meet the Man on a Mission to Rescue Them. – Marisa Endicott Nov 29. 2019

Food Runners saves extra grub before it’s wasted, and delivers it to hungry mouths.

Marisa Endicott

I meet Les Tso on a corner in San Francisco’s SoMa district on a wet Thursday afternoon. He pulls his silver Isuzu SUV into an alley. “Today because it’s the first rain, people are going to be driving cluelessly—there are a lot of Uber and Lyft drivers that come from out of the area,” Tso warns me. “Makes it more exciting, I guess.”

Ride along with Les Tso on the latest episode of Bite podcast:

Tso works as a driver for Food Runners, a nonprofit that picks up leftover food from grocery stores, companies, events, and restaurants and brings it to organizations working to feed the hungry. For four hours every weekday, Tso braves the worst of Bay Area traffic to makes his 80 to 90 pickups (an average of 16 a day), primarily from tech companies—including Google, Juul, and LinkdIn—that have become an omnipresent force in the city.

Tso loads his car with Tetris-like precision.

Marisa Endicott

Food Runners was founded in 1987 by a small group of friends who started picking up food from a few businesses to bring to local shelters and food programs. Today, they rescue over 17 tons of food, enough to serve more than 20,000 meals, every week. The organization is made up of just a few employees and a network of about 250 volunteers who make more than 700 food runs weekly.

Even with Food Runners’ small army, there’s still more leftover food than anyone knows what to do with.  “I think everyone who does this is incredulous about how much there is. It’s just crazy. And I’m only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Tso tell me. Food Runners even launched an app to keep up after donations surged as the tech boom took hold; in 2014, the organization saw a 50 percent increase in donations.

The increasing pressure on businesses—especially in the tech sector—to offer employees free meals as a perk creates a challenge when it comes to food waste. “If you’re telling your people you’re going to feed them at work, and you run out, that’s really bad, right,” Tso says. “So, if you can’t run out, you have to over-project.”

But it’s not just tech company cafeterias generating this overabundance. In the United States, we waste about 40 percent of our food supply. That’s 400 pounds of food per person every year, collectively costing us up to $218 billion annually (or 1.3 percent of the GDP). “We’ve gotten to a place where our culture expects food now and expects abundance, and we expect it to be beautiful and all of these things,” says Andrea Collins, a sustainable food systems specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “I think we’re starting to see a turn on that. But we’ve built all of these inefficiencies into our system as it stands now. And that’s the piece that has led to so much food waste.”

And food waste is an often overlooked contributor to climate change, responsible for 8 percent of our global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing it is considered one of the most important ways to mitigate the climate crisis. “That’s one of the pieces that’s missing from our climate conversation,” Collins says. “Food waste is such a big contributor on the global scale, and it’s something that’s accessible now.”

After avoiding buying or making too much food in the first place, food rescue—like what Tso and Food Runners do—is the best way to prevent wasted food, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s also critical to solving hunger in the United States. A 2017 report by the NRDC found that less than a third of the food we throw out would be enough to feed the 42 million Americans without access to enough food.

Tso has a lot of respect for the people in San Francisco that hustle to find ways to keep feeding the many people who cannot afford to feed themselves or their families here. A lot of groups host their food programs at churches and libraries, he tells me, since these institutions have space in a city where real estate is valuable above all and almost impossible to come by. Tso is happy to do his small part. “I’m helping them help people,” he says. “I’m not there feeding people. They’re feeding people.”

Tso picks up donations from an average 16 places a day.

Marisa Endicott

The job is messy; his car is full of gloves, bags, and 15 towels. Once, he went to pick up food from a restaurant downtown and was caught by surprise when he lifted a container meant for solid foods and a hot liquid splashed out instead. “They put frickin’ chicken noodle soup in a pan, and the whole thing just fell on me,” he remembers, laughing. “You have to shrug it off. Can’t let it bother you for more than five minutes.” He put a towel on his seat and kept driving. That pretty much sums up Tso’s attitude—keep moving.

Sometimes people don’t show up with the donated food. Sometimes they show up with too much, and Tso has to scramble to find places to take it. Trader Joe’s once gave him 26 cases of bananas. They were still good, but a store mandate keeps them from selling the ones with brown spots, Tso says. No single program could make use of that many bananas, but Tso couldn’t watch them go to waste, so he divided up the haul between four or five places that would take them.

Tso knows where certain food will be most appreciated. On the day I ride with him, he saves some fish for a low-income apartment complex in the Mission because he knows they love it. Close by, a vegetarian program will take all the unwanted quinoa he always gets. One family food pantry at a church can’t take anything with nuts since kids are more prone to allergies. Once in a while, companies will have less to donate than expected. “Sometimes donors feel bad because they have like two pans,” Tso says. “And I say, ‘No, that’s cool! That means you hardly have any waste. That’s awesome.’”

Tso usually picks up the most food at Google.

Marisa Endicott

Tso delivers food to shelters, food pantries, and low-income apartments.

Marisa Endicott

At 54, Tso has had a lot of jobs in his life. He worked for Safeway for 15 years. He was an analyst at Dr. Pepper and worked in category management—the science of shelving—at Pepsi. He’s in the wine business, got a degree in English Lit, and has an MBA. He can tell you about soda business monopolies and why Costco rotisserie chickens are so cheap. But he seems to have found real fit at Food Runners. “This is one of the better jobs I’ve had in my life just because you feel good doing it,” he says.

After working with Food Runners for a year, Tso has developed a theory on the best kind of business to start in this city: “Cater to high tech companies.” He’s not the only one with that idea, and it’s changing the food scene in the Bay Area. Tech companies have lured top restaurant talent to their in-house kitchens with good benefits and better hours than almost any typical eatery can offer. Many food businesses have pivoted to catering. They’re turning to ghost kitchens (stripped down commercial kitchens without retail space) to minimize exorbitant rent costs and better target the reliable company lunch market. Broker businesses have cropped up to connect caterers to offices (for a hefty fee). And even the business of cutting food waste is taking off. In 2018, food waste startups garnered more than $125 million in venture capital and private equity funding.

But in all this madness, Collins sees opportunity, and the solutions don’t have to be high-tech. “If we’re signaling an expectation of abundance, we’re going to see more abundance and we’ll see more waste. If we’re instead signaling that sustainability is a core component of what we expect from our employers or what we expect from the businesses that we shop at, we’ll then help drive change on a system-wide scale,” Collins says. “Workplace cafeterias can be an amazing place to make a big amount of change because you’re serving a lot of food all at once. I think that’s actually a potential place where change can happen pretty quickly.”

Some companies have taken significant steps to curb waste. Google started using equipment to track and measure food consumption, and says it’s saved 6 million pounds of food over the last 5 years. (During our ride-along, Tso gets his biggest haul of the day from Google.) In general, companies with in-house kitchens can better manage leftovers since cooks can repurpose ingredients and adjust inventories. When we stop at LinkedIn, there’s only six or seven trays to pick up even though they feed 2,000 people at lunch and have to account for employees bringing friends.

There’s always an abundance of “healthy” food leftover, Tso says.

Marisa Endicott

As we zigzag between pickups and deliveries, the city’s wealth gap is even more glaring than usual. Between runs to multiple Juul and Google buildings, we drop off at low-income apartments for veterans and a church food program that serves 150 mostly homeless families every Friday. Then we pick up at a tech company mid-party that’s in the process of expanding to another floor in the building. It gives you whiplash.

Tso reminds me of the closet at Juul, which was fully stocked with snacks and drinks. “That’s tech company, classic, right? So much,” he laughs. “But then you see people out in the streets, you know? It’s raining. They don’t have any shelter and stuff. It’s like, man…”

But Tso isn’t looking to cast judgment. He wants everyone to feel like they’re in it together. And through him, they sort of are. “You want people to feel good that you’re picking up food from them, right? Leave a good taste in their mouth. And then the people that you give food to, you want them to feel good, too.”


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Ducking Ohio State! Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Luddite, Finally Tackles Text Messaging – By Laine Higgins Updated Nov. 28, 2019 10:18 pm ET

The 55-year-old coach has accepted a modern reality: You can’t survive today’s game without developing a close relationship with your phone

Jim Harbaugh is known for proudly showcasing his Luddite proclivities. Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh opened fall camp in August 2016 with a poem. He told the gathering of players and staff in Schembechler Hall that he’d written an “Ode to Football” over the summer. Then, as the crowd of teenagers and 20-somethings shifted in their seats, Harbaugh rolled out an overhead projector of the sort that hasn’t been seen on campuses for many years.

Harbaugh is known for proudly showcasing his Luddite proclivities. But the demands of coaching a succession of teenagers who have never known a low-tech world have dragged the 55-year-old coach to a modern reality: You can’t survive today’s game without developing a close relationship with your phone.

Which is why, if you’re one of the hundreds of people that texts Harbaugh on Saturdays after big Michigan wins, you’re likely to receive a cursory “thx” from the coach himself. Recruits say Harbaugh—who years ago had assistants trail him with his phone—now picks up their calls even when he’s sitting at the dinner table.

Today’s college coaches are increasingly dependent on their phones due to the demands of modern day fundraising and recruiting. Coaches are expected to be innovators on the field and expert communicators off of it, able to keep up with teenagers who know how to use their phones better than anyone else on earth. It’s also why young coaches, like Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, are such effective recruiters.


Join the conversation below.

Coaches are expected to be innovators on the field and expert communicators off of it. Do younger coaches have a recruiting advantage in today’s game?

So these days, Harbaugh is addicted to his phone, too. J.T. Rogan, who played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego and later worked for him at Stanford and Michigan, says the coach now takes time each day to personally respond to the hundreds of text messages and calls that inundate his phone.

“I’ve seen him so many times sitting back in his chair, both hands on just kind of looking at the screen, legs kicked up on his desk, typically with his cleats on, and really cranking out the text messages,” said Rogan. “He grabs onto that thing and is just hammering things out.”

Harbaugh has long been defined by his quirks, like writing practice plans in Microsoft Excel and keeping his Little League bat tucked behind his desk so he can show it off to recruits.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh responds to a question during the Big Ten’s media days in July.Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

But when it comes to his once legendary technology aversion, it’s clear that Harbaugh has relented. The only time his phone isn’t in the pocket of his khakis or in his hand is during football practice, when he leaves it charging at his desk.

Some of the ways Harbaugh deals with the communications onslaught are traditional, like trusting assistants to sort through the piles of letters fans and alumni send. Others are so Harbaugh that no other teams would dare try them. For instance, he frequently enlists the help of his 80-year-old father Jack to craft messages to players and recruits.

“If you’re on the receiving end of a great text message or great written thought from Coach Harbaugh there’s a very good chance that Jack Harbaugh has fingerprints on it,” said Rogan, who worked as the director of operations and communications for the head football coach from 2016 to 2018. Jack Harbaugh could not be reached for comment.

Harbaugh also has a habit of sending paragraphs-long messages of gratitude that take a few finger scrolls to get through.

“He’ll send these long texts every once in a while and they’re just very personal,” said former Wolverines quarterback John O’Korn. “They definitely take up the whole screen.”

Several recruits and their parents said that technology tones down Harbaugh’s charisma, though motivational quotes, exclamation points and random capitalizations still abound.

“He’s a pretty straightforward dude,” said Blake Corum, a running back commit from Baltimore’s St. Frances Academy. “I don’t think I’ve received any emojis.”

Parents and recruits said they were unaware that Harbaugh’s text messages were influenced by an octogenarian. They did, however, suspect that the coach was not very enamored with his iPhone.

“Coach is certainly not a hip, today’s era, cellphone selfie kind of guy. He reminds me of my father,” said Jeff Persi, whose son Jeffrey is an offensive lineman in Michigan’s incoming class of 2020. “If coach could carry around a flip phone, he would.”

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Warren introduces bill to strip Medals of Honor for Wounded Knee massacre – Victoria Bekiempis Last modified on Thu 28 Nov 2019 13.16 EST

Medals were awarded for ‘gallantry’ and ‘bravery’ after US soldiers killed hundreds of mostly unarmed Native Americans in 1890

Sioux Village, 1891, Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
Sioux Village, 1891, Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Photograph: MPI/Getty Images

The Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley have announcedlegislation that would strip Medals of Honor from US soldiers who carried out the Wounded Knee massacre, killing hundreds of mostly unarmed Native Americans.

A House bill on the subject was introduced in June by representatives including Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat who is one of the first female Native American US lawmakers.

“The horrifying acts of violence against hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee should be condemned, not celebrated with Medals of Honor,” said Warren, from Massachusetts, who is campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“The Remove the Stain Act acknowledges a profoundly shameful event in US history, and that’s why I’m joining my House colleagues in this effort to advance justice and take a step toward righting wrongs against Native peoples.”

In a statement, Haaland said the act was “about more than just rescinding Medals of Honor from soldiers who served in the US 7th Cavalry and massacred unarmed Lakota women and children [in 1890] – it’s also about making people aware of this country’s history of genocide of American Indians.”

Donald Trump has referenced Wounded Knee in mocking Warren’s claim to Native American heritage.

The senators’ announcement came on Wednesday, a day before Thanksgiving, the federal holiday commemorating a 1621 harvest meal shared by Native Americans and Pilgrims. Thanksgiving has increasingly drawn criticism for glossing over the disastrous impact of white settlement on Native Americans.

Since 1970, the United American Indians of New England organisation has held a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving day, to remember “the genocide of millions of native people, the theft of native lands and the relentless assault on native culture”, according to the Associated Press.

The National Day of Mourning takes place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, an early place of European settlement.

Wounded Knee, described by the Washington Post as “one of most shameful and bloody acts of violence against indigenous people in American history”, occurred on 29 December 1890.

Chief Big Foot, who led the Minneconjou Lakota, was guiding his people to refuge in South Dakota when US soldiers stopped them. The group surrendered and was taken to Wounded Knee Creek, “surrounded by 470 soldiers and their formidable artillery”, the Post wrote.

While exact details of the massacre have proved difficult to determine, it is believed there was a dispute while soldiers were trying to disarm the chief’s men. It is also thought a gunshot prompted American forces to attack. Between 150 and 400 Native Americans were killed. Historians agree most of the victims were women and children.

Twenty members of the 7th cavalry involved in Wounded Knee received the Medal of Honor, which is described by the Army as “the nation’s highest medal for valor in combat that can be awarded to members of the armed forces”.

A large number of the medals were awarded for “gallantry” and “bravery” even though there are few details of purported acts of heroism, the Post noted.

Maj Gen Nelson A Miles, an army commander, wrote of the incident: “I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than that at Wounded Knee.”

According to a letter cited by the Post, Miles described the victims as “women with little children on their backs, and small children powder-burned by the men who killed them being so near as to burn the flesh and clothing with the powder of their guns, and nursing babies with five bullet holes through them”.

While the Medal of Honor was granted more loosely in the 19th century, scholars have noted that the number of Wounded Knee recipients is high. Antietam, an 1862 civil war battle considered the “bloodiest day in US history”, also led to 20 awards.

Native Americans have long pushed for the revocation of medals awarded to Wounded Knee soldiers. Since 1997, the National Congress of American Indians has greenlighted resolutions requesting the removal of medals.

Congress formally apologized in 1990, stating “deep regret on behalf of the United States to the descendants of the victims and survivors and their respective tribal communities”. But, the Associated Press reported, lawmakers did not offer any type of reparations.

Judges Quietly Disrupt Trump Immigration Policy in San Diego – Alicia A. Caldwell Nov. 28, 2019 7:00 am ET

Immigration court terminates more than a third of ‘Remain in Mexico’ cases

The Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego. Photo: frederic j. brown/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Case ClosedSan Diego judges have terminated more thana third of all ‘Remain in Mexico’ deportationproceedings, far more than other jurisdictions.

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Judges in El Paso, Texas, the busiest court hearing MPP cases, terminated fewer than 1% of their more than 14,000 cases.

The nine San Diego judges have repeatedly ruled that asylum seekers waiting in Mexico weren’t properly notified of their court dates or that other due process rights were violated.

The high rate of dismissals is undermining the Trump administration’s goal of quickly ordering the deportation of more illegal border crossers who request asylum, including those who don’t show up from Mexico for their court hearings.

The effect is more symbolic than practical. Such a decision doesn’t mean a migrant is allowed to stay in the U.S., even if they show up for their court hearing. Instead, it saves them from being banned from coming to the country for 10 years and makes it tougher for the government to charge them with a felony if they cross the border illegally in the future. Those whose case is dismissed when they aren’t in court might not even know about the decision unless they call a government hotline.

Spokespeople for Customs and Border Protection, which carries out MPP at the border, and the Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond to requests for comment.

However, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose lawyers represent the government in immigration Court, have filed an appeal with a Justice Department panel. The appeal questions whether judges who terminate cases for migrants who don’t show up in court made a mistake.

A spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the immigration court’s parent agency, said immigration judges don’t comment on their rulings.

Denise Gilman, an immigration lawyer and director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, said the high number of dismissals in San Diego sends a message that judges there believe many government’s cases don’t meet minimum legal standards.


How effective do you think “Remain in Mexico” has been at deterring illegal immigration and respecting the rights of migrants? Join the conversation below.

That stands in contrast to immigration judges elsewhere, experts and advocates said.

“Everywhere but in San Diego, [judges] are going with the flow,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a lawyer and policy analyst with the American Immigration Council, which opposes the Trump administration’s border policies.

Immigration judges are unlike most other judges in that they are civil servants, neither appointed nor elected. In civil courts, some jurisdictions are known as more plaintiff- or defendant-friendly. Some federal appeals courts skew left or right, but most don’t rule so frequently on a single policy as immigration judges on MPP.

The Trump administration has sent more than 55,000 asylum-seeking migrants to Mexico to await court hearings under MPP. Migrants were first turned back in January, and through the end of September, just over 5,000 have been ordered deported. Eleven were granted some sort of relief, including asylum, according to TRAC.

Over two recent days in San Diego, multiple judges made clear that they had concerns about Remain in Mexico program as they dismissed cases.

Judge Scott Simpson terminated cases for a family of three from Honduras after ruling that the government violated their due process rights by not properly filling out their notice to appear. As a result, he said, the migrants didn’t know the grounds on which they could fight their case.

“I found that the charging document was defective on a technicality,” Judge Simpson explained to Belma Marible Coto Ceballos and her two children. “It just means that your court case is over.”

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Will America’s billionaires start a second Civil War to protect their wealth and power? – Thom Hartmann

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

The current issue of the Atlantic magazine, founded itself in the years just before the Civil War, is ominously titled, “How to Stop a Civil War.”

If we are, indeed, on the brink of a second Civil War, it’s already being waged as a “cold war,” with the occasional armed skirmish being provoked by the so-called alt-right movement. And, as in the past, this will be a war by the very, very rich against the rest of America.

This is not the first time we’ve faced such a crisis as a nation.

Each time, forces of massive accumulated or inherited wealth have nearly succeeded in taking full control of our nation, replacing a democracy, where the will of the people is accomplished through their elected representatives, with a form of government where most government functions reinforce the power, wealth and control of the morbidly rich.

This system of government is among the most ancient, stretching back 7,000 years, and is known to political scientists as oligarchy. Aristotleput it in context: “Tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy…”

For oligarchy to totally take down democracy, only three things are initially needed:

  • Control of (or substantial influence over) a critical portion of the media
  • Legalization of bribery of public officials, so oligarchs can achieve majority control of the legislative process
  • Control of the most critical parts of the court system so they can control legal processes

A fourth element, once the oligarchy is well established, is the formation of a police state, principally using selective prosecution against those agitating for a return to democracy.

Arnold Toynbee is said to have noted that “When the last man who remembers the horrors of the last great war dies, the next great war becomes inevitable.” Most warriors are in their late teens or early 20s; by the time they’ve died, three more generations have come of age, suggesting, if Toynbee was right, a four-generation gap between “great wars.”

In their book “The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous With Destiny,” William Strauss and Neil Howe apply the theory to the United States. The Revolutionary War began in 1775; 86 years later in 1861, the Civil War began; 78 years later in 1939, America was combatting “the twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II,” write Strauss and Howe, adding: “Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with” these crises.

The three crises did not simply come out of nowhere; cycles of events had been building for the preceding generations to create the context for each.

In the 1770s, foreign-aligned oligarchs controlled what we now call America; believers in democracy fought a war to overthrow that British oligarchy.

Four generations later, in the 1850s, massive wealth was controlled by a few thousand very large plantation oligarchs in the South. The South was politically and police-wise run as a full-blown oligarchy, while the North was still largely democratic (the “Gilded Age” Northern oligarchs wouldn’t fully emerge for another 30 years). The Civil War could thus be recast as a war between oligarchy and democracy, where democracy won by a whisker.

About four generations after that, in 1921, Warren Harding and his oligarch supporters took control of our federal government, leading to the “Roaring Twenties” (in which working people’s wages stagnated, but people at the top made out like bandits), and the Great Crash of 1929. The Republican Great Depression (what they called it until the 1950s) opened the door to Franklin Roosevelt’s “war” against the “economic royalists” (oligarchs), which succeeded in putting them, at least temporarily, in a box despite their explicit efforts, exposed by Marine General Smedley Butler, to overthrow him by force.

In 2019, it’s been about four generations since that battle — and the groundwork has been laid for another crisis.

In the 1970s, America’s oligarchs succeeded in getting enough of “their guys” placed on the Supreme Court to, in 1976 and 1978, legalize political bribery for the first time in American history. This opened the door to oligarchic control of all three branches of government via the Reagan Revolution.

All that was left was to get the populace to support a final transition to oligarchy, a task undertaken by oligarchs who controlled the media, largely Clear Channel/Rush Limbaugh and billionaire Rupert Murdoch with Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.

As a result, we are no longer a functioning democratic republic; we are now operating as an oligarchy.

The argument for oligarchic control is the same argument that’s been made by “conservatives” through history, from Thomas Hobbes to Sir Edmund Burke to Warren Harding and Donald Trump:

“With us in charge, we will keep you safe and happy and you really don’t need to concern yourself with the complicated work of governance. You don’t want to ‘tear down’ or ‘shake up’ the system: having a stable group of very wealthy people control the government has always led to the greatest level of stability and peace — look how stable Europe was for a thousand years when royal families and their landed gentry ruled. We’re the ones chosen by God or a brilliant DNA lineage to lead. Just go shopping and leave things to us.”

Starting in the 1980s, oligarchy was sold to us by “conservative” religious figures (“Saint Reagan,” G.W. Bush was a godly man, Trump is King Cyrus, John Calvin was right that being rich is a sign of God’s blessing so nations are best run by rich people), as well as oligarch-owned media.

Starting in the past decade, this sales pitch has extended itself to a massive social media ecosystem majority-owned by a handful of American oligarchs, some of whom have expressed confusion about democratic governance and all of whom have directly or indirectly bought control of large numbers of local, state and federal legislators.

This led us from the “oligarch-friendly” President Reagan, to the conversion, in 1992, of the Democratic Party via the Democratic Leadership Council to become “oligarch-friendly” itself (a legacy it’s today struggling to undo). In 2016, oligarchs like Robert Mercer and Charles Koch finally put an oligarch himself, Donald Trump, in the White House.

When, in 2015, I asked former President Jimmy Carter what he thought the consequences were of Supreme Court decisions like Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United that made all this possible, he replied:

“It [the Citizens United decision] violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and Congress members.

“So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”

That same year, then-Vice President Joe Biden said, “you have to go where the money is. Now where the money is, there’s almost always implicitly some string attached. … It’s awful hard to take a whole lot of money from a group you know has a particular position, then you conclude they’re wrong [and] vote no.”

As former Vice President Al Gore wrote in his 2013 book “The Future”: “American democracy has been hacked. … The United States Congress … is now incapable of passing laws without permission from the corporate lobbies and other special interests that control their campaign finances.”

And, in 2015 while campaigning for the Republican nomination for president, oligarch Donald Trump candidly said, “I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.”

In 2014, researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page (Princeton, Northwestern) demonstrated that we ceased to be a functioning democracy by classical definitions sometime in the late 20th century, and have been, as President Carter said, an oligarchy (my term, not theirs: they call it “Economic-Elite Domination”) since then.

The difference between now and the 1860s is that the oligarchic control is no longer regional; it’s national. Instead of the North and the South fighting each other, it’s now Free Speech TV viewers facing off with their Fox News–viewingneighbors.

The Koch oligarchy machine, for example, has branches in every state, and pretty much every county. Oligarchy-supporting media are ubiquitous.

And now Very Serious People are talking about the possibility of a second Civil War.

What they’re not pointing out, though, is that it won’t just be a war of white supremacists and Trump cultists against the rest of us, as they generally narrate, but a war between those comfortable with oligarchy (indeed, embracing it, as it promises them safety and stability) versus those who believe in democracy.

This is a crisis point for our nation as real and critical as those we hit in 1776, 1861, and 1932. In each of those three cases — roughly four generations apart — the oligarchs lost the battle. This time they could win.

America needs an honest discussion of what’s really going on in this country right now, what the real conflict is, and who the real players are (and why they’re playing). The conflict is playing out on a series of meta-layers (race, class, religion, regionality), all designed to conceal the real war the oligarchs are waging against democracy itself, and those conflicts will continue to intensify until one side or the other has won what is now still a “cold war.”

Then comes the threat of a real Civil War breaking out, and an informed populace is the best defense against it.

If the forces of democracy can succeed in seizing enough power to temporarily hobble the oligarchs, then they need to immediately restore local control to the media (undoing the 1996 Telecommunications Act and breaking up the media conglomerates) and reinstate a ban on the “right” of oligarchs to own politicians and political parties by overturning several Supreme Court decisions since 1976. Repairing the damage done to our court systems will take longer, but needs to begin immediately.

On the other hand, if the oligarchs decide to promote an actual “hot” Civil War on the forces of democracy — as Southern oligarchs did in 1861 — then parts of America that are still functioning democracies (California comes to mind — there has been discussion of various “compacts” between the three West Coast states, possibly joining with a few Eastern Seaboard states) must consider some form of independence, whether it be “soft independence” like California declared when they established their own air quality standards or some form of partial independence or succession.

This moment of oligarchy-caused crisis is a time of great danger to America, and, thus, also to still-functioning democracies all over the world.

As oligarchs reach out and extend their control over nation after nation (now having seized, in just the past few decades, either soft or hard control over Russia, India, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and dozens of other nations) the battlegrounds are shifting to Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and France.

Because the oligarch’s campaign is now international, a third world war is not impossible, particularly as China allies itself with the oligarch-controlled nations against those that are still functioning or nearly functioning democracies.

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Mega listening device at the SSA reveals deeper issues with spooks – Thanduxolo Jika29 Nov 2019 00:00

Up for grabs: ANC secretary general Ace Magashule (left) and Saber Industries owner Chin-Chao Chen on the Robben Island ferry together.

Up for grabs: ANC secretary general Ace Magashule (left) and Saber Industries owner Chin-Chao Chen on the Robben Island ferry together.

After building a device that hacks into devices, a Bloemfontein-based company is trying to get the State Security Agency (SSA) to pay it for the “grabber”.

At the centre of the more than R600-million allegedly siphoned off from the State Security Agency is a sophisticated piece of technology commonly referred to as a “grabber”, — which was supplied by a company based in Bloemfontein.

The device, which others in the agency refer to as “Warmonger”, is now sitting at “The Farm”, the SSA’s headquarters east of Pretoria.

Nobody there knows how to operate it.

The Mail & Guardian has established that this listening device was acquired from Saber Industries in 2015 by the SSA as part of “Project: Clarity”. There was no contract. And no other paperwork.

But the security agency paid only R14.5-million of the R30-million that the two parties had allegedly agreed on.

The device, which is known as the international mobile subscriber identity-catcher, or Imsi-catcher, can be used to locate and track all mobile phones that are switched on in a certain area.

Saber Industries is owned by Chin-Chao Chen and his 29-year-old son James.
The Imsi-catcher they supplied was apparently upgraded so that it could also attack devices through wi-fi, 3G and Bluetooth. This allows it to gather data from devices. It is sophisticated enough to bypass firewalls.

According to sources, James Chen is the only person who can operate the device. He has also installed an access key, which means that people at the security agency are unable to access the information stored on the device. It is said that after numerous failed attempts at trying to retrieve information the device automatically formats itself.

The inspector general of intelligence, Setlhomamaru Dintwe, told public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane on January 31 that at the SSA the device was called “Warmonger”.

The inspector general of intelligence, Setlhomamaru Dintwe, says the Imsi-catcher Saber sold to the SSA is called “the Warmonger”

In transcripts of the meeting, which the M&G has seen, he explained how the device worked: “You need to be about, they said, six or seven kilometres away from your target place. So, if you wanted to crack into their computers or listen to us and so forth.”

Mkhwebane and her investigators had approached the office of the inspector general to seek information regarding its investigation of the South African Revenue Services’ “Rogue Unit”.

Legal adviser in the office of the inspector general of intelligence (OIGI), Advocate Jay Govender, said the office was aware of issues relating to Saber Industries and that they were being looked into.

“It is noteworthy that when conducting investigations, the OIGI does not solely rely on complaints being lodged, as information may reach us through various channels. Based on the information, a determination is made whether the matter falls within the purview of the oversight mandate prior to undertaking any fully blown investigation,” said Govender.

A former government official who was attached to the SSA said that the device raised a lot of questions at “The Farm” in 2018 — as no one knew what it was doing there, how it was operated and if it had been used.

Last month, News24 reported that the device had disappeared from “The Farm” before the ANC elective conference and reappeared once the conference was over. Dintwe told Mkhwebane that no one had bothered to find out what the device was used for, where it went or who had taken it.

In one secret meeting with the security agency in Johannesburg, James Chen — who is described as an IT “genius” — claimed that he had trained two operatives at the agency on how to operate the device.

But a former SSA official told the M&G that the two individuals whom James Chen claimed to have trained denied this during an internal investigation, instituted by former State Security Minister Dipuo Letsatsi-Duba.

Saber Industries has been trying to recoup the rest of the money it claims it is owed since September last year. The SSA refused to pay this without any proof of a contract and has instituted a forensic investigation, which current State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo has continued with.

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