White nationalists flock to genetic ancestry tests. Some don’t like the result

White nationalists flock to genetic ancestry tests. Some don’t like the result

It was a strange moment of triumph against racism: The gun-slinging white supremacist Craig Cobb, dressed up for daytime TV in a dark suit and red tie, hearing that his DNA testing revealed his ancestry to be only “86 percent European, and … 14 percent Sub-Saharan African.” The studio audience whooped and laughed and cheered. And Cobb — who was, in 2013, charged with terrorizing people while trying to create an all-white enclave in North Dakota — reacted like a sore loser in the schoolyard.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold on, just wait a minute,” he said, trying to put on an all-knowing smile. “This is called statistical noise.”

Then, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he took to the white nationalist website Stormfront to dispute those results. That’s not uncommon: With the rise of spit-in-a-cup genetic testing, there’s a trend of white nationalists using these services to prove their racial identity, and then using online forums to discuss the results.

But like Cobb, many are disappointed to find out that their ancestry is not as “white” as they’d hoped. In a new study, sociologists Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan examined years’ worth of posts on Stormfront to see how members dealt with the news.

It’s striking, they say, that white nationalists would post these results online at all. After all, as Panofsky put it, “they will basically say if you want to be a member of Stormfront you have to be 100 percent white European, not Jewish.”

But instead of rejecting members who get contrary results, Donovan said, the conversations are “overwhelmingly” focused on helping the person to rethink the validity of the genetic test. And some of those critiques — while emerging from deep-seated racism — are close to scientists’ own qualms about commercial genetic ancestry testing.

Panofsky and Donovan presented their findings at a sociology conference in Montreal on Monday. The timing of the talk — some 48 hours after the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. — was coincidental. But the analysis provides a useful, if frightening, window into how these extremist groups think about their genes.

Reckoning with results

Stormfront was launched in the mid-1990s by Don Black, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. His skills in computer programming were directly related to his criminal activities: He learned them while in prison for trying to invade the Caribbean island nation of Dominica in 1981, and then worked as a web developer after he got out. That means this website dates back to the early years of the internet, forming a kind of deep archive of online hate.

To find relevant comments in the 12 million posts written by over 300,000 members, the authors enlisted a team at the University of California, Los Angeles, to search for terms like “DNA test,” “haplotype,” “23andMe,” and “National Geographic.” Then the researchers combed through the posts they found, not to mention many others as background. Donovan, who has moved from UCLA to the Data & Society Research Institute, estimated that she spent some four hours a day reading Stormfront in 2016. The team winnowed their results down to 70 discussion threads in which 153 users posted their genetic ancestry test results, with over 3,000 individual posts.

About a third of the people posting their results were pleased with what they found. “Pretty damn pure blood,” said a user with the username Sloth. But the majority didn’t find themselves in that situation. Instead, the community often helped them reject the test, or argue with its results.

Some rejected the tests entirely, saying that an individual’s knowledge about his or her own genealogy is better than whatever a genetic test can reveal. “They will talk about the mirror test,” said Panofsky, who is a sociologist of science at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics. “They will say things like, ‘If you see a Jew in the mirror looking back at you, that’s a problem; if you don’t, you’re fine.’” Others, he said, responded to unwanted genetic results by saying that those kinds of tests don’t matter if you are truly committed to being a white nationalist. Yet others tried to discredit the genetic tests as a Jewish conspiracy “that is trying to confuse true white Americans about their ancestry,” Panofsky said.

But some took a more scientific angle in their critiques, calling into doubt the method by which these companies determine ancestry — specifically how companies pick those people whose genetic material will be considered the reference for a particular geographical group.

And that criticism, though motivated by very different ideas, is one that some researchers have made as well, even as other scientists have used similar data to better understand how populations move and change.

“There is a mainstream critical literature on genetic ancestry tests — geneticists and anthropologists and sociologists who have said precisely those things: that these tests give an illusion of certainty, but once you know how the sausage is made, you should be much more cautious about these results,” said Panofsky.

A community’s genetic rules

Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe are meticulous in how they analyze your genetic material. As points of comparison, they use both preexisting datasets as well as some reference populations that they have recruited themselves. The protocol includes genetic material from thousands of individuals, and looks at thousands of genetic variations.

“When a 23andMe research participant tells us that they have four grandparents all born in the same country — and the country isn’t a colonial nation like the U.S., Canada, or Australia — that person becomes a candidate for inclusion in the reference data,” explained Jhulianna Cintron, a product specialist at 23andMe. Then, she went on, the company excludes close relatives, as that could distort the data, and removes outliers whose genetic data don’t seem to match with what they wrote on their survey.

But specialists both inside and outside these companies recognize that the geopolitical boundaries we use now are pretty new, and so consumers may be using imprecise categories when thinking about their own genetic ancestry within the sweeping history of human migration. And users’ ancestry results can change depending on the dataset to which their genetic material is being compared — a fact which some Stormfront users said they took advantage of, uploading their data to various sites to get a more “white” result.

J. Scott Roberts, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, who has studied consumer use of genetic tests and was not involved with the study, said the companies tend to be reliable at identifying genetic variants. Interpreting them in terms of health risk or ancestry, though, is another story. “The science is often murky in those areas and gives ambiguous information,” he said. “They try to give specific percentages from this region, or x percent disease risk, and my sense is that that is an artificially precise estimate.”

For the study authors, what was most interesting was to watch this online community negotiating its own boundaries, rethinking who counts as “white.” That involved plenty of contradictions. They saw people excluded for their genetic test results, often in very nasty (and unquotable) ways, but that tended to happen for newer members of the anonymous online community, Panofsky said, and not so much for longtime, trusted members. Others were told that they could remain part of white nationalist groups, in spite of the ancestry they revealed, as long as they didn’t “mate,” or only had children with certain ethnic groups. Still others used these test results to put forth a twisted notion of diversity, one “that allows them to say, ‘No, we’re really diverse and we don’t need non-white people to have a diverse society,’” said Panofsky.

That’s a far cry from the message of reconciliation that genetic ancestry testing companies hope to promote.

“Sweetheart, you have a little black in you,” the talk show host Trisha Goddard told Craig Cobb on that day in 2013. But that didn’t stop him from redoing the test with a different company, trying to alter or parse the data until it matched his racist worldview.



Jerktech: When Callow Ideas Become Code – IEEE Spectrum

Jerktech: When Callow Ideas Become Code – IEEE Spectrum

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, a cartoon depicts a psychiatric patient lying on a couch with his therapist sitting behind him. The caption reads, “I guess I want what everyone wants—a billion dollars for being a jerk.” We chuckle because we recognize an unfortunate truth—that many of the young bros running today’s most successful tech startups are arrogant boors. It’s why we see so much jerktech: apps or other technologies that encourage or monetize antisocial behavior. It’s why Uber, the poster firm for Silicon Valley bad behavior, would think it’s okay to greyball—that is, blackball someone temporarily or provisionally—public officials who were investigating the company.

Thanks to the 2010 movie The Social Network, thousands of dollar-signs-in-their-eyes founders are walking around thinking a billion dollars is “cool,” thus turning them into lucrepaths, people who are pathologically driven to make money. And once they get even a taste of that wealth (usually after the first round of seed funding), many of them pull out their bully wallet, where they use the money to wield unfair or unethical influence. They become paid-up members of the vulgarati, those elites who are crude or who lack taste, and indulge in vanity capital, goods or services purchased to enhance the buyer’s self-esteem or status. They construct buildings that are ostensibly “mixed-income” but come with a poor door, a separate entrance for the lower-income residents to use. They merrily install homeless deterrents, which are physical obstacles or designs that deter homeless people from sleeping in a particular area.

This obnoxious focus on money might be why Silicon Valley appears to have run out of ideas. It seems that every second startup is a variation on Uber for x, where they attempt to apply Uber’s on-demand business model to some segment of the economy, such as moving, dog walking, alcohol delivery, even medicine and the law. This trend is known as the Uberization of the economy, and it’s creating a generation of slashies who have to work two or more jobs to survive in this gig economy. Many of the other startups appear to be focused on providing services such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry. See the common thread there? That’s right—they’re all tasks that the coders’ moms used to perform, hence the general name for these apps: Mom-as-a-service (or MaaS).

But to truly see how low Silicon Valley has sunk, you need look no farther than the online advertising industry. Exhibit A: Its most successful advertising strategy these days is the reprehensible chumbox, a grid of captioned images placed on Web pages. These are ads disguised as content links that use titillation, shock, or vanity to entice the reader to click through. (Chum has long referred to chopped fish that anglers throw overboard to attract other fish. That is, anglers use their dregs to entice fresh fish to bite, which is about as succinct a description as any for the current state of Internet advertising.) It’s the latest and lowest stratagem for making links clickbaity, meaning they’re designed to lure the unwary (or even the wary, for that matter) into clicking the link. Alas, that behavior has crawled out of its marketing swamp and into the homes of normal folk, who now regularly send out sharebait: a social media post with text, images, or video designed to entice the reader to share the post. (The Twitter version is known, inevitably, as tweetbait.)

In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek a few years ago, the data scientist and ex-Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher lamented that “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” Then he added, “That sucks.” Indeed, but the situation has grown even worse in the interim, because now those young minds are also thinking about how to ride roughshod over local governments, replicate their moms in code, and turn the rest of us into anxious and vulnerable gig workers. Hey, Silicon Valley, the Jerk Store called—they’re running out of you!


22,000 people accidentally signed up to clean toilets because people don’t read Wi-Fi terms

22,000 people accidentally signed up to clean toilets because people don’t read Wi-Fi terms

Let’s be honest, how many of us really read the terms and conditions when we sign up for anything? Well, 22,000 people unwittingly signed up to carry out 1,000 hours of community service in exchange for free Wi-Fi. Oops!

Public Wi-Fi provider Purple added a spoof term to its T&Cs on its network of branded hotspots to illustrate the “lack of consumer awareness” of what people are signing up to when accessing free Wi-Fi portals.

In agreeing to the spoof T&Cs, people unwittingly agreed to a “community service clause” which signed them up to clean portaloos, hug stray cats, and paint snails’ shells. Wow.

The user may be be required, at Purple’s discretion, to carry out 1,000 hours of community service. This may include the following. Cleansing local parks of animal waste. Providing hugs to stray cats and dogs. Manually relieving sewer blockages. Cleaning portable lavatories at local festivals and events. Painting snail shells to brighten up their existence. Scraping chewing gum off the streets.

Surprisingly, only one person during the two-week-long prank spotted the term.

The prank forms part of Purple’s announcement that it’s the first General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliant Wi-Fi provider, falling in line with the UK government’s new legislation which comes into force in May 2018. The new GDPR laws will introduce a condition requiring “unambiguous consent” before users’ personal or behavioural data can be used for marketing purposes.

“Wi-Fi users need to read terms when they sign up to access a network. What are they agreeing to, how much data are they sharing, and what license are they giving to providers? Our experiment shows it’s all too easy to tick a box and consent to something unfair,” says Gavin Wheeldon, CEO of Purple.

Thankfully, the company has no intention of forcing anyone to clean loos or paint snail shells. What a relief.


Home is where the hate is | Reveal

Home is where the hate is | Reveal

An early high-water mark of Donald Trump’s presidency came Feb. 28, with his first address to Congress. Midway through the speech, the new president turned to national security: “We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from” – and here he paused for emphasis – “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Those words got him a standing ovation. A week later, he unveiled his second executive order banning entry for people from several Muslim-majority nations.

Trump frequently had excoriated his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and his chief political opponent, Hillary Clinton, as naive, even gutless, for preferring “violent extremism” to describe the nature of the global and domestic terrorist threat.

“Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country,” Trump said at one campaign speech in Ohio. During another, in Philadelphia, he drove home the attack: “We now have an administration and a former secretary of state who refuse to say ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ ”

It was a strange place to make his point. The only Islamist terror attack in Pennsylvania over the past 15 years was committed by Edward Archer, a mentally ill man who shot and injured a police officer in early 2016, later telling investigators that he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Far-right episodes of violent extremism were far more common.

Just two years before Trump’s Pennsylvania speech, anti-government radical Eric Matthew Frein ambushed two police officers in the township of Blooming Grove, killing one and wounding another, then led law enforcement authorities on a 48-day manhunt in the woods. (He was sentenced to death in April.)

Two months before that, police discovered that Eric Charles Smith, who ran a white supremacist church out of his home in the borough of Baldwin, had built a stockpile of some 20 homemade bombs.

In 2011, Eli Franklin Myers, an anti-government survivalist, shot two police officers, killing one, before being shot dead by state troopers in the small town of Webster. And in 2009, white supremacist Richard Poplawski opened fire on Pittsburgh police officers who had responded to a domestic dispute at his mother’s home, killing three and leaving two injured before surrendering. Poplawski, who was active on far-right websites, said he feared the police represented a plot by Obama to take away Americans’ guns.

This contrast, between Trump’s rhetoric and the reality of domestic terrorism, extends far beyond Pennsylvania. A database of nine years of domestic terrorism incidents compiled by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has produced a very different picture of the threat than that advanced by the current White House.

  • From January 2008 to the end of 2016, we identified 63 cases of Islamist domestic terrorism, meaning incidents motivated by a theocratic political ideology espoused by such groups as the Islamic State. The vast majority of these (76 percent) were foiled plots, meaning no attack took place.
  • During the same period, we found that right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many incidents: 115. Just over a third of these incidents (35 percent) were foiled plots. The majority were acts of terrorist violence that involved deaths, injuries or damaged property.
  • Right-wing extremist terrorism was more often deadly: Nearly a third of incidents involved fatalities, for a total of 79 deaths, while 13 percent of Islamist cases caused fatalities. (The total deaths associated with Islamist incidents were higher, however, reaching 90, largely due to the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas.)
  • Incidents related to left-wing ideologies, including ecoterrorism and animal rights, were comparatively rare, with 19 incidents causing seven fatalities – making the shooting attack on Republican members of Congress earlier this month somewhat of an anomaly.
  • Nearly half (48 percent) of Islamist incidents in our database were sting operations, more than four times the rate for far-right (12 percent) or far-left (10.5 percent) incidents.

Yet as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out in early February, Trump has yet to acknowledge the threat of right-wing violence:

Long before the 9/11 attacks, the worst terrorist attack on American territory occurred at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and co-conspirator Terry Nichols were unabashed radical right-wing terrorists. But check the record. You won’t hear Trump use those words.

Instead, with his statements, policies and personnel, the president has exhibited an obsession with the Islamist threat to the homeland.

As a candidate, Trump promised to institute a “shutdown of Muslims.” As president, he has signed two executive orders barring immigrants and refugees from a list of Muslim-majority nations, both blocked by the courts.

Two of his most influential advisers, who he brought with him into the White House, were retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn – who, before his short-lived tenure as national security adviser, had a record of making such incendiary remarks as, “Fear of Muslims is rational,” and, “I don’t see Islam as a religion” – and chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who had called Islam a “religion of submission” and stoked fears that radical Muslims seek to create an “Islamic States of America.”

Trump brought in other figures associated with the demonization of Islam, from transition team adviser Frank Gaffney to national security adviser Sebastian Gorka.

While the president mostly failed to acknowledge a wave of post-election hate crimes targeting Muslims, Jewish institutions and communities of color, his team planned changes to the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program to focus it exclusively on the threat of Muslim radicals, including changing the program’s name to Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.

The president sometimes has appeared to grasp for data to justify this narrow approach. Intense protests and rapid court challenges greeted his first travel ban. By the time of his second, signed March 6, his staff had compiled information to justify it.

“According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country,” he claimed in the speech to Congress a week before signing the order. “We cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists.”

But in examining incidents from 2008 through 2016, we could identify only 36 perpetrators or alleged perpetrators who were foreign born, 13 percent of the total. And only three came from a nation listed in his second travel ban. A Department of Homeland Security analysis likewise found that citizens of nations named in the ban are “rarely implicated in U.S.-based terrorism.”

The White House did not respond to interview requests or to detailed written queries.

Trump’s March executive order cites two specific terrorism convictions to bolster its claim that refugees constitute a significant threat to the United States:

For example, in January 2013, two Iraqi nationals admitted to the United States as refugees in 2009 were sentenced to 40 years and to life in prison, respectively, for multiple terrorism-related offenses. And in October 2014, a native of Somalia who had been brought to the United States as a child refugee and later became a naturalized United States citizen was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction as part of a plot to detonate a bomb at a crowded Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon.

On closer inspection, even those examples are flawed. The first involved two Iraqi men living in Bowling Green, Kentucky, who were convicted on charges of supporting terrorism in Iraq, not in the United States. (It was White House counselor Kellyanne Conway who had a month earlier mistaken the incident as an act of domestic terrorism she dubbed the “Bowling Green massacre.”) Moreover, people from Iraq were not barred by the March executive order.

The second case is one of the three incidents in our database involving people from countries included in the executive order, all of them from Somalia. Two of the incidents were pre-empted plots, one of which – the Portland “Christmas tree bomber” case the order cites – was an elaborate sting operation.

That sting targeted 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized citizen who grew up in Portland and suburban Beaverton, Oregon, having arrived as a refugee from Somalia’s civil war at age 3. Educated at local schools, he showed little interest in religion or politics until his teens, when he began attending services at a mosque led by a Wahhabi cleric in Portland.

Alienated at home, where his parents were going through a divorce, Mohamud began to visit extremist websites and, at 18, declared that he was heading off to a religious school in Yemen. His father panicked and called the FBI for help, setting in motion surveillance and, ultimately, the sting.

Mohamud was arrested at the annual Christmas tree lighting at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland on Nov. 26, 2010, after trying to detonate a fake truck bomb supplied by undercover FBI agents. Convicted of a single count of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, he was sentenced to 30 years.

The response to Mohamud’s father’s call for help – surveillance and a sting – underscores another disparity: the federal government’s disproportionate commitment of investigative resources to rooting out Islamist terrorism.

Even against this backdrop, the sting operation targeting Mohamud stood out.

No evidence was introduced in court that Mohamud had ever owned a weapon, participated in a political action or had any previous encounters with law enforcement. The FBI had not gleaned evidence that Mohamud even sought information about how to build a bomb.

He likely would have been incapable of attempting the crime without the financial, logistical and motivational support of the FBI informants and agents. In fact, a few weeks before the Christmas tree lighting, an FBI agent assigned to the case wrote that Mohamud “would not make any attempts to conduct a terrorist attack without specific direction from the (undercover employees).”

Evidence was even introduced at trial that FBI operatives had blocked him from traveling to a cannery job in Alaska to keep him involved in the plot they had designed.

By contrast, less than two days after the Christmas tree sting, another Oregon youth, Cody Seth Crawford, then 24, launched a homemade firebomb into the offices of the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, Oregon, a mosque where Mohamud sometimes prayed. The bomb caused thousands of dollars’ worth of damage, though no injuries.

Crawford had written anti-Muslim screeds on Facebook in the wake of Mohamud’s arrest: “I ha te (sic) the ji-had’st (sic), they should go and realize what life is about!!! This guy on the news was a really bad guy !!! He went to the mosque right in front of my house here in Corvali (sic).” When he was arrested, according to court documents, he told his arresting officer, “you look like Obama. You are a Muslim like him” who is “going to burn in Hell like other Muslims.”

Citing Crawford’s history of mental illness, a federal judge sentenced him to five years’ probation, and he is now free.

“I consider what happened in my case a total victory for me,” Crawford recently told Reveal. “I kicked the federal government’s ass in court.”

The Crawford case highlights something else in the data: While perpetrators of plots or attacks targeting on the broader public received three life sentences, seven death sentences and, among definite sentences, an average of 14.5 years in prison, no perpetrator of a plot or attack targeting a mosque or Muslims was ever sentenced to life or death, and they were sentenced, on average, to under nine years.

Muslims, it seems, are taken quite seriously as potential perpetrators, but far less so as victims.


More than a million violent crimes are committed each year in the United States, while annual domestic terrorism incidents number in the dozens. Yet acts of terrorism have a special significance, said former FBI agent Michael German, because each one not only targets particular victims, but also “is an attack on civil society itself.”

What distinguishes an act of terrorism from a violent crime, explains former federal counterterror official Daryl Johnson, is the ideological component of “the perpetrator’s motivation, his ideology and what he wanted the outcome to be. There needs to be a desire to instill fear among the general public, change government policy, or draw attention to a political or social cause.”

Domestic counterterrorism work is centered at the FBI. The bureau has a Domestic Terrorism Operations Unit plus an analysis unit, which together have dozens of personnel working out of FBI headquarters in Washington, according to law enforcement sources. These agents and analysts support the FBI’s 56 field offices, each of which has at least one analyst dedicated to domestic terrorism, as well as Joint Terrorism Task Forces in 104 cities.

The FBI coordinates with a variety of federal agencies – such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Marshals Service – that work domestic terrorism cases on an ad hoc basis. Other terrorist plots and acts are investigated and prosecuted only by state or local officials, who often bring more straightforward charges, such as murder, assault or arson. Still other terror cases never are prosecuted at all because no suspect is identified or the perpetrators are killed in the act.

But according to Johnson, who joined the Department of Homeland Security in 2004, the FBI formally tracks only the cases the FBI investigates itself – which risks leaving out many incidents that fit the federal criteria for domestic terrorism.

Johnson recalls a meeting in 2008 with his counterparts at FBI headquarters, where he talked about the militia movement resurgence that he and his colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security had noticed, based on tracking online activity and incident reports from state and local law enforcement.

“Well, the FBI checked their case data, and the FBI had only a half-dozen militia cases, and they compared that to the previous year, and there was no change, so to them, the militia threat was static,” Johnson said. “We saw the emergence of the second wave of the militia movement, and the FBI had no clue there was a second wave coming.”

The FBI declined to respond to an interview request or to detailed written queries.

While a variety of think tanks and journalistic organizations have compiled data that capture fragments of the domestic terrorism picture – Islamist attacks (The Heritage Foundation), deadly domestic terror attacks (the think tank New America), attacks on abortion clinics (the National Abortion Federation) and far-right plots and attacks (the Southern Poverty Law Center) – The Investigative Fund database is the only one that gathers incidents that span the full range of ideologies and that includes both plots and attacks and both federal and local prosecutions. It also catalogues each incident according to a diverse range of variables, such as target, ideology, movement affiliation, sentence, and whether federal charges or terrorism charges were filed. (See our methodology here.)

The database vividly illustrates the ways in which Islamist incidents have received disproportionate attention from federal law enforcement.

While a majority of the incidents were perpetrated by right-wing extremists (57 percent), the database indicates that federal law enforcement agencies focused their energies on pre-empting and prosecuting Islamist attacks, which constituted 31 percent of all incidents, a finding confirmed by counterterror experts.

For instance, 84 percent of Islamist incidents resulting in arrests involved terrorism charges, and all the law enforcement resources that implies, as opposed to 9 percent of far-right incidents.

While federal charges of some kind were filed in 91 percent of the Islamist incidents that led to arrests, federal prosecutors handled 60 percent of far-right cases, leaving many in the hands of state or local authorities.

Moreover, three-quarters of the Islamist incidents in the database were pre-empted plots, including elaborate sting operations, while 35 percent of far-right incidents were pre-empted, a much smaller ratio. That disparity, counterterror experts say, is an indication that far fewer investigative resources – such as analysts, paid informants and undercover operatives – have been deployed to halt far-right attacks.

Yet even though most Islamists were charged only in connection with plots, they often were sentenced as harshly as or more harshly than right-wing extremists, who mostly succeeded in committing acts of terror. Among the Islamist cases, 8 percent got life sentences, 2 percent got death sentences, and the average sentence for the other cases was 21 years in prison. Among far-right cases, 12 percent got life sentences, 5 percent got death sentences, and the average sentence for the rest was eight years.

German, the former FBI agent, is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security program and tours the country briefing local and federal law enforcement officers on domestic terror. In his presentations, he cautions officers against a worldview that “only sees a terrorist if he’s wearing a turban” and is blind to the threat from far-right extremists.

“The thing that strikes me most often is not just that they don’t know this information, but that they actively resist it,” he said. “They are incredibly hostile to it. That’s troubling to me. Not only are police given bad information, but they are trained or inclined to resist true information.

“When violence by minorities is characterized as terrorism, and therefore requiring more resources and more attention, but violence against minorities somehow doesn’t merit that same attention or resources, that is where we see overt discrimination.”

Consider, for example, the following incident in light of the investigative resources put into the Christmas tree sting in Oregon or any of dozens of other complex operations targeting would-be Islamist attackers: the June 8, 2014, rampage in Las Vegas by so-called Patriot movement extremists Jerad and Amanda Miller. They gunned down two police officers in a pizzeria, leaving a swastika and “Don’t tread on me” flag on one of the dead before killing a nearby civilian who attempted to intervene. Both were killed in a shootout with police.

Prior to their rampage, the Millers had left a public trail of warning signs suggesting that they posed a likely threat, yet there’s no indication that a single law enforcement officer or informant was ever assigned to monitor them.

The couple had drifted to Nevada from Indiana five months earlier. Not long after arriving, Jerad Miller was pulled over and ticketed for driving with a suspended license; he responded by calling the Indiana Department of Motor Vehicles, threatening to shoot anyone who tried to arrest him. The call triggered a visit by Las Vegas detectives who questioned Miller but reported no “ongoing or potential threat.”

The Millers then joined the anti-government standoff with law enforcement at the Bundy Ranch in April 2014, where Jerad Miller, who had several past convictions, including one for auto theft, was filmed by news cameras brandishing weapons – illegal for a convicted felon – and promising to retaliate if federal officers “bring violence to us.” The Bundys say they asked the couple to leave because their views were so fringe.

Throughout this period, Jerad Miller was posting anti-government rants on Facebook and YouTube under the username USATruePatriot, including one in the days before the killings that read, “To stop this oppression, I fear, can only be accomplished with bloodshed.”

Even after the rampage, terrorism was not the law enforcement focus. Instead, the Justice Department’s after-action report focused narrowly on the Las Vegas Police Department’s tactical response on the day of the shooting.

“If the Millers had placed ISIS flags over those police officers, instead of the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag, what you probably would have seen is a deep investigation into where they got their weapons, and who they were associated with, and who knew they had the weapons and follow-on prosecutions,” German said.

Daryl Johnson is the picture of a federal intelligence analyst: conservative, detail-oriented, fact-driven and relentlessly serious. A Mormon and a Republican, he grew up in Virginia, attended Brigham Young University and began his intelligence career in the Army. He had long enjoyed a reputation as a no-nonsense analyst with a knack for getting it right.

“I wanted to make the country a safer place,” he said. “I have always been a good, red-blooded American patriot.”

When Johnson moved from Army intelligence to work in the intelligence division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 1999, federal counterterrorism efforts were focused heavily on far-right radicals. This was in the wake of Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 truck bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and injured 680; Eric Rudolph’s 1996 backpack bombing of the Atlanta Olympics, which killed one person and injured 111, followed by his bombings months later of a lesbian nightclub and an abortion clinic; and white supremacist Benjamin Smith’s 1999 shooting spree directed at blacks, Asians and Jews in cities across Illinois and Indiana, which left two people dead and nine wounded.

In his book “Right-Wing Resurgence,” Johnson recalls driving to the site of the Oklahoma City federal building a few months after it was destroyed, where he saw “the makeshift memorial of teddy bears, flowers, and handwritten notes to those that perished,” he writes. The photo he took that day “serves as a constant reminder … of the terrifying threat of homegrown extremism.”

The attack also served as a national wake-up call.

“Threats from domestic terrorism continue to build as militia extremists,

particularly those operating in the western United States, gain new adherents,

stockpile weapons, and prepare for armed conflict with the federal government,” warned a report that the FBI’s Counterterrorism Threat Assessment and Warning Unit issued in 1996. “The potential for domestic right-wing terrorism remains a threat.”

The landscape changed dramatically after 9/11. Those attacks, coordinated by al-Qaida, heralded a fresh wave of international terrorist attacks and plots that required high levels of attention from federal authorities.

For several years after the trauma of that day, right-wing domestic terrorism subsided. A 2011 Heritage Foundation study, based on terrorism data collected by the RAND Corp., found that between 2001 and 2009, there were 91 homegrown terrorist attacks of all kinds against the United States, while there were 380 terrorist attacks against U.S. targets abroad. The terror threat seemed to have gone global.

Sept. 11 also sparked a massive rearrangement of the federal terrorism response, including the creation in 2002 of the Department of Homeland Security, under whose auspices federal counterterrorism efforts were to be combined. Johnson, from his perch at the ATF, could see the writing on the wall as the agency’s intelligence-gathering division underwent a major downshift.

“I resisted for a while, but joined DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) in 2004 just as it opened up its new domestic terrorism division,” he said.

He was recruited specifically for his background in non-Islamist terrorism, he recalls. By 2008, he says, he was overseeing an office with eight full-time analysts dedicated to tackling non-Islamist domestic terror threats. However, Johnson says that over time, in the face of “political pressure,” the section was dismantled.

The trend lines made no sense. Johnson’s staff was being downsized just as his team was observing a fresh uptick in domestic terrorism from right-wing radicals.

“The United States is engaged in a generational fight against terrorists who seek to attack the American people, our country, and our way of life,” David Lapan, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, wrote in an email. “We reject criticism that DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) is overly focused on any particular group or element as we concentrate on all threats of terrorism to the Homeland.”

Lapan said that for the past two years, the department has used a national terrorism advisory bulletin “to highlight the continuing threat from all forms of terrorism, including homegrown violent extremists, many of whom are inspired online to violence by foreign terrorist organizations.”

What especially caught the attention of law enforcement analysts during Johnson’s tenure was far-right extremists’ increasing recruitment of members of the military and experienced veterans. That raised red flags, because if these recruits were radicalized into planning acts of terror, they would have the skills to execute them, as the examples of McVeigh and Rudolph, both military veterans, suggested.

Warnings included a July 2008 FBI assessment, titled, “White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel since 9/11.” Though the report found that the number of identifiable neo-Nazis with military training was small, a little over 200, it added:

Military experience – ranging from failure at basic training to success in special operations forces – is found throughout the white supremacist extremist movement. FBI reporting indicates extremist leaders have historically favored recruiting active and former military personnel for their knowledge of firearms, explosives, and tactical skills and their access to weapons and intelligence in preparation for an anticipated war against the federal government, Jews, and people of color.

Johnson’s section noticed the same trend and produced a bulletin that was circulated in April 2009 to law enforcement officers around the nation. It alerted them to the rising risk of terrorist attacks by right-wing extremists and noted that the Department of Homeland Security “is concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.”

Unlike the FBI assessment, Johnson’s bulletin was distributed during the early months of the new Obama administration. This time, a media firestorm erupted. Conservative radio and television hosts from Rush Limbaugh to Michael Savage and Glenn Beck denounced the report, claiming it was “singling out troops” for vilification, along with “normal conservatives” who might share the same concerns that animated the radicals identified in the bulletin, such as opposition to abortion and federal control over public lands. On Fox News, William Kristol charged that Obama administration officials “think about veterans” as “pathological killers.” Once the American Legion, too, denounced the report, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano issued an apology.

The blowback had powerful long-term effects on the shape of counterterrorism policy. Because of the increasing focus on Islamist terrorism, Johnson’s team already had been reduced.

After the controversy, the office was stripped down to one full-time staffer; Johnson himself departed in April 2010. Efforts to counter far-right terror at the department were effectively dead. As The Washington Post later reported:

The analytical unit that produced that report has been effectively eviscerated. Much of its work – including a digest of domestic terror incidents and the distribution of definitions for terms such as “white supremacist” and “Christian Identity” – has been blocked.

The office employed only two full-time analysts for the rest of the Obama years. That small team hasn’t grown since the new administration arrived. Lapan, the homeland security spokesman, declined to provide specifics on personnel but confirmed that the department has “a small team of analysts dedicated to domestic terrorism.”

Congress also played a role in pushing counterterrorism work to focus exclusively on the threat of radical Islamist ideology. When the House Homeland Security Committee held hearings on domestic terrorism in early 2011, the committee chairman, Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, announced that they would have a narrow scope:

This Committee cannot live in denial, which is what some would have us do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its focus by investigating threats unrelated to Al Qaeda. The Department of Homeland Security and this committee were formed in response to the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11. There is no equivalency of threat between al Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen. Only al Qaeda and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation. Indeed by the Justice Department’s own record not one terror related case in the last two years involved neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, militias or anti-war groups.

In fact, during the two years preceding King’s hearing, The Investigative Fund database includes 27 terror incidents involving far-right forces and two involving animal rights extremists. In the two months before King made these remarks, a neo-Nazi left a backpack bomb along the intended path of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Washington, and another was arrested in Phoenix with a truckload of homemade bombs he intended to leave near the Mexico border. None of these were mentioned in the Justice Department report King cited.

King’s Democratic colleague, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, urged King to examine “the homeland security threat posed by anti-government and white supremacist groups” and warned against “a narrow focus that excludes known threats.”

It was white supremacist Wade Michael Page’s rampage in Wisconsin the following year, in which he gunned down six Sikhs at worship, that finally moved the Senate to hold hearings on right-wing extremism. Johnson, by now a former counterterror official, was invited to testify.

“The threat from domestic terrorism motivated by extremist ideologies is often dismissed and overlooked in the national media and within the U.S. government. Yet we are currently seeing an upsurge in domestic non-Islamic extremist activity,” he said. “Today, the bulk of violent domestic activity emanates from the right wing.”

While federal officials were turning their attention away from the far right, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, had noticed something dramatic. While most such groups had collapsed after 9/11, the law center noticed an explosion of so-called Patriot groups that began in 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency, and reached a peak in 2012, when the group counted 1,360 active Patriot groups and 1,007 hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads and neo-Nazis.

According to our database, during this same period, from 2008 to 2013, terror plots and actions by far-right groups outnumbered Islamist domestic terror cases by more than 2 to 1. Far-right extremists also inflicted three times as many deaths as Islamists during this period.

In October 2015, the Department of Justice belatedly announced plans to tackle the problem by creating a new domestic terrorism counsel to lead a long-dormant office intended to track trends and increase intelligence sharing about potential threats among U.S. attorney’s offices nationwide.

“Looking back over the past few years,” Assistant Attorney General John Carlin said in making the announcement, “we recognize that according to at least one study more people died in this country in attacks by domestic extremists than attacks associated with international terrorist groups.”

Eventually, FBI official Thomas Brzozowski was named to the position, which he used as a platform to raise awareness about the full scope of domestic terror threats.

“It is not just a function of a couple of militia-related guys taking over something out West. It’s not just a bunch of white supremacist in white hoods,” he told an audience at George Washington University in October. “It is not relegated toward a particular ideology. In fact, the nature of the underlying ideology is immaterial to how we approach domestic terrorism.”

The Department of Justice says he remains in the position, but he did not respond to interview requests and appears not to have spoken publicly since the Trump administration took office.


By now, the steady drumbeat of terror plots and attacks from the far right has begun to attract renewed attention, among them incidents involving the “sovereign citizens” movement, white supremacists, Patriot and militia movements, and anti-abortion fanatics, including some radical Christians. Their targets are police and military, Sikhs and Muslims, African Americans and Jews, power grids and transit hubs, abortion clinics and black churches and immigrant communities.

Despite law enforcement concerns about lethal attacks against police sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement – captured in the slogan “Blue Lives Matter,” along with dozens of bills extending hate crimes protections to police – only two incidents of domestic terrorism in the database can plausibly be attributed to a perpetrator with such sympathies. They are the December 2014 killings of two police officers in their patrol car in New York City and the July 2016 sniper shooting in Dallas, which left five officers dead and nine wounded.

Adherents of sovereign citizen ideology – whose animus against what they see as an illegitimate police state can be so extreme that they have been known to open fire on officers at traffic stops – pose a far more extensive threat to law enforcement officers. The FBI, in a 2011 report, had said the sovereign citizen threat “likely will grow.” Sovereign citizens alone, according to the database, have been responsible for 14 attacks on law enforcement from 2008 to 2016, which led to the deaths of nine officers and injuries to 12. Of the 40 total plots and attacks targeting police, 83 percent involved right-wing anti-government extremists, resulting in 23 fatalities.

The database catalogues an enormous number of far-right incidents, averaging more than a dozen a year. Consider this sampling, only one of which, the last, was prosecuted as terrorism:

July 27, 2008, Knoxville, Tennessee: Jim David Adkisson, the author of a manifesto urging violent war against liberals, opens fire inside a Unitarian church during the youth performance of a musical, killing two and wounding seven.

Feb. 26, 2009, Miramar Beach, Florida: Dannie Baker, a former Republican Party volunteer who believed that “Washington D.C. Dictators” wanted to “overthrow us with foreign illegals,” opens fire on a roomful of Chilean foreign-exchange students, killing two and injuring three. May 20, 2010, West Memphis, Arkansas: Sovereign citizen adherents Jerry and Joe Kane, a father-and-son duo, kill two officers when pulled over by police, then die in a shootout.

Jan. 18, 2011, Spokane, Washington: Neo-Nazi Kevin William Harpham plants a backpack bomb along the route of a Martin Luther King Day Jr. Day parade; no one is injured because it is spotted and defused.

Aug. 5, 2012, Oak Creek, Wisconsin: Wade Michael Page, a member of the neo-Nazi group Hammerskin Nation, kills six and wounds four during a shooting rampage in a Sikh temple before killing himself.

April 13, 2014, Overland Park, Kansas: Frazier Glenn Miller, a former grand dragon of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, embarks on a shooting rampage at two Jewish community institutions, killing three.

June 17, 2015, Charleston, South Carolina: Dylann Roof, a white supremacist radicalized online, joins a Bible study session at the Emanuel AME Church, then opens fire, killing nine black worshippers and wounding another.

Nov. 27, 2015, Colorado Springs, Colorado: Robert Lewis Dear opens fire on patients arriving at a Planned Parenthood clinic, then engages in a gunbattle with police, killing three people, including a police officer, and injuring nine. He says, “No more baby parts,” as he is arrested.

Oct. 14, 2016, Garden City, Kansas: Three Kansas militia members, Curtis Allen, Gavin Wright and Patrick Stein, are arrested for allegedly plotting to bomb an apartment complex, home to Somali immigrants. According to the FBI, which infiltrated the group, they called Muslims “cockroaches” and hoped to inspire other militia members.

Allen, Wright and Stein not only stockpiled a huge cache of semi-automatic weapons and ammunition, but they also plotted to construct and detonate four Oklahoma City-style truck bombs loaded with fertilizer and fuel in the center of the residential complex, then shoot survivors as they fled.

The scheduled day for their attack: Nov. 9, the day after the 2016 election. The men were motivated, Stein’s attorney said, by their belief that if Trump were to win, Obama would declare martial law to prevent him from taking office. In a voice recording of one of the plotters:

The only fucking way this country’s ever going to get turned around is it will be a bloodbath, and it will be a nasty, messy motherfucker. Unless a lot more people in this country wake up and smell the fucking coffee and decide they want this country back … we might be too late, if they do wake up. … I think we can get it done. But it ain’t going to be nothing nice about it.

In responding to news of the men’s arrest, Heidi Beirich, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, noted “an incredible increase in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment over the past few years,” particularly “within the ranks of the anti-government movement.” The presidential campaign, she added, has “produced some of the rawest nativist appeals in recent memory.”

She says those appeals might have played a role in the surge of hate incidents since the election, including a wave of anti-Semitic threats and attacks and anti-Muslim hate crimes. Many incidents, she notes, “involved attackers who self-identified as Trump supporters or committed their acts in his name,” such as swastika-laden graffiti saying, “Make America White Again,” or an assault on a Muslim student and his Latino friend in which the attacker shouted Trump’s name.

While Trump, in his February address to Congress, did respond to these incidents in general terms, saying, “We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms,” his policies appear to have sent a different message. In hundreds of the nearly 1,400 hate incidents around the nation that the Southern Poverty Law Center counted in the three months following the Nov. 8 elections, the perpetrators directly referenced the election or Trump.

In particular, his administration’s decision to focus the Countering Violent Extremism program exclusively on Islamists has been interpreted by many white supremacists as a green light.

“Donald Trump wants to remove us from undue federal scrutiny by removing ‘white supremacists’ from the definition of ‘extremism,’ ” Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, wrote in a post. “Donald Trump is setting us free.” He went on:

It’s fair to say that if the Trump team is not listening to us directly (I assume they are), they are thinking along very similar lines. …This is absolutely a signal of favor to us.

Daryl Johnson, the former intelligence analyst, warns that continuing to focus counterterrorism efforts disproportionately on Islamists risks fueling that threat.

“Muslim Americans already feel targeted and alienated,” he said. Reconfiguring the Countering Violent Extremism program around Islamists “pretty much validates their suspicions” and even risks aggravating extremism within the Muslim community.

“When you turn a blind eye to all the uptick in hate or wait a long time before you even address the hate incidents that we’ve been seeing against Muslims and against the Jewish community,” he said, “I think that just emboldens the far right in thinking that they have free rein to do whatever they want.”


5 ways Americans and Europeans are different | Pew Research Center

5 ways Americans and Europeans are different | Pew Research Center

Americans and Europeans share many things: a commitment to fundamental democratic principles, a strategic alliance that has shaped the world order for more than half a century, and despite serious economic challenges in recent years, some of the highest living standards in the world. Still, there are notable differences across the Atlantic. As our polling has found over the years, Americans and Europeans often have different perspectives on individualism, the role of government, free expression, religion and morality.

1. Americans are more likely to believe they control their own destiny. In a 2014 survey, 57% of Americans disagreed with the statement “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” a higher percentage than in any of the European nations polled. (At the same time, it’s worth noting that on this and other questions there are differences within Europe too. For example, on this question, the United Kingdom looks a lot like the United States.) Americans are also especially likely to believe that an individual who works hard can find success: 73% said hard work is very important for getting ahead in life compared to a European median of 35%.

2. Americans tend to prioritize individual liberty, while Europeans tend to value the role of the state to ensure no one in society is in need. Nearly six-in-ten in the U.S. (58%) believe allowing everyone to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state is more important. Majorities in all European nations polled in 2011 said guaranteeing that nobody is in need is more important.

3. There is greater tolerance in the U.S. than in Europe for offensive speech. A solid majority (77%) of Americans believe citizens should be allowed to make statements that are offensive to people’s religious beliefs, a significantly higher share of the public than in any of the European Union nations included in our 2015 survey. In Poland, Germany and Italy, fewer than half think this kind of speech should be legal. Similarly, Americans are more likely to say offensive statements about minority groups should be permitted.

4. Religion is significantly less important to Europeans than to Americans. Just over half in the U.S. (53%) say religion is very important in their life, nearly double the share who hold this view in Poland, which registered the highest percentage among EU nations polled in 2015. In France, only 14% consider religion very important. Globally, there is a strong relationship between a country’s wealth and its level of religiosity. Nations with higher levels of gross domestic product per capita tend to have lower percentages saying religion is very important in their lives. However, the U.S. is a clear outlier to this pattern – a wealthy nation that is also relatively religious.

5. Americans and Europeans don’t always agree on questions about morality, especially on issues related to sexuality. For instance, while just 30% in the U.S. think sex between unmarried adults is morally unacceptable, this is nonetheless significantly higher than what our 2013 poll found in Europe. And while adultery is widely frowned upon in the EU – except, notably, in France – Americans are even more likely to say having an affair is morally unacceptable.


Mats Järlström: I Am an Engineer – IEEE – The Institute

Mats Järlström: I Am an Engineer – IEEE – The Institute

I was the subject of The Institute’s post, “Does Having a License Make You an Engineer?”

Until two weeks ago, the simple act of calling myself an engineer could have earned me a US $1,000 fine as a repeat offender of Oregon’s unconstitutional professional-engineer licensing law.

Earlier this year, the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying said I illegally practiced engineering without a license each time I critiqued traffic-light systems. It also said that without an engineering license, I broke the law simply by describing myself using the word engineer. (The board, a semi-independent agency, funds itself through licensing and registration fees.)

All that changed on 30 May, when the board consented to a preliminary injunction I filed as part of my First Amendment lawsuit challenging the state’s regulation of the word engineer and the practice of engineering. On 14 June, the board further admitted that its “interpretation violated Mr. Järlström’s rights under the First Amendment.”

This is an important case—not just for me but for lots of concerned citizens and engineers in Oregon and nationwide.

I emigrated from Sweden 25 years ago, and I’ve lived in Oregon for decades and raised a family here. By education and background, I’m what most people would call an “engineer.” I earned the equivalent of a B.S. in electrical engineering back in Sweden, worked as an airplane-camera mechanic in the Swedish Air Force, and spent years designing audio products and loudspeakers, both in Europe and in the United States.

Like most people, though, I’m not a state-licensed professional engineer. That landed me in serious trouble. A few years ago, after my wife received a red-light ticket, I got interested in how traffic lights are timed—in particular, how the length of yellow lights affects people making right-hand turns. I came up with some ideas for how the standard formula for traffic-light timing might be improved. And I shared those ideas with different people, including local news media, my county sheriff, and even one of the scientists who developed the current yellow-light formula.

I also reached out to Oregon’s engineering board; I thought it might be interested in hearing about my theory. It wasn’t. Instead, the board launched a two-year investigation and fined me $500. The reason was two-fold. First, the board charged that it is illegal to use math or engineering principles to “critique” the logic governing traffic lights without being a state-licensed professional engineer. Put more simply, it claimed that writing about engineering topics in public view and without a license was illegal in Oregon. Second, it said it was illegal for me even to describe myself as an engineer because, again, I’m not a state-licensed professional engineer.

Amazingly, my experience is all too common.

In recent years, Oregon has investigated lots of people who either spoke out about technical topics or who described themselves truthfully using the word engineer. Last year, for example, the engineering board targeted a gubernatorial candidate who said, “I’m an engineer” in one of his campaign ads. The candidate has a degree in mechanical engineering, worked for Ford and Boeing, and has a bunch of engineering-related awards—but, you guessed it, he’s not a state-licensed professional engineer.

These kinds of laws are not just un-American; they are unconstitutional. The state doesn’t get to redefine words like engineer and then go after whomever deviates from the government’s preferred definition. On top of that, no one should need a license to speak out when they’re concerned about how the government is operating, whether the topic has to do with taxes, trade policy, or traffic lights. That’s why I’m fighting to fix the laws in Oregon.

Although the state consented to the preliminary injunction, my fight is far from over. The court order only grants me permission to talk about traffic lights during the course of my lawsuit. Now comes the hard work of fighting the state law in court. Thankfully, I’ve partnered with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm that fights for free speech nationwide. Given our early win, we’re confident that I, along with the rest of Oregon, will soon be free to talk about technical subjects without risking running afoul of the law.

I’m grateful to The Institute for covering this important issue and to its many readers—professional engineers, practicing engineers, and everyone else—who have expressed support. Like many Americans, I have ideas that I’m excited about and that I want to share. Never in the world’s history has it been easier for us to speak out, to bounce our theories off others, and to promote debate and innovation. That’s what the First Amendment is all about.


Does It Have Buttons? Is it Touchscreen? | The Marshall Project

Does It Have Buttons? Is it Touchscreen? | The Marshall Project

At long last, the powers that be in the Michigan Department of Corrections are permitting us to enter the computer age: We can now purchase a cheap handheld tablet that — magically — sends and receives emails, stores pictures, and plays music. Until now, I’ve had to do my writing with paper, pencil, and an old typewriter, so this has been like discovering you had a great uncle who died and left you a yacht in his will.

The other day, three friends and I were examining one of these tablets for the first time. It did not come with an instruction booklet, and between the four of us, we have over 150 years served. You can imagine how out of touch we are with technology.

“Turn it on, let’s take a look,” I said to Gary, the proud new owner of the JPay 5 tablet. Gary is 63 and has been in prison since 1976, when Gerald Ford was president and Steely Dan was cool.

He picked up the tablet and eyed it from several angles. “I’m not sure how to turn it on, there’re no buttons!” he despaired.

Our housing unit is built kind of like a horseshoe, with two levels of inward-looking cells and a third in the middle that all the other cells face; it’s there that we tend to sit, in a communal area called base. A couple of young gangbangers nearby snickered when they saw we had no idea what we were doing.

“It’s touchscreen,” 78-year-old Gaspard said.

Better known as Gap, he’s lived in prison for 46 years, so I had no idea what made him think he knew anything about this stuff. He was born in Tunisia back when Tunisia belonged to France; when he was little, Erwin Rommel and his German tanks rumbled across North Africa.

“Oh, look. There are a few buttons, some small ones right here,” Gary said, having dug out his reading glasses. He jabbed the buttons with a finger, but nothing happened.

“I told you, it’s touchscreen,” Gaspard mumbled. I began to suspect that he might be right, until a 20-year-old kid we know wandered by and chuckled.

“The button on the end. Hold it down,” he said without stopping.

Gary did just that, and five seconds later the thing clicked on. Only click isn’t the right word, because it hadn’t made a sound. It only lit up and flashed a golden padlock on a black screen.

We all sat staring at the padlock.

“What do we do now?” Terry asked. He’s the fourth member of our hapless group, with 44 years of incarceration under his belt.

“It’s touchscreen,” Gaspard grumbled, again.

“I’m not sure what to do,” Gary said. “This is nothing like my typewriter.” He poked at the other three buttons on the tablet, but still, nothing was happening.

Since I’ve been caged for over 20 years myself, I had nothing to bring to the table. The closest I’d ever come to something like this was seeing computers on TV, and, well, what’s that old saying? It’s better to keep your mouth shut and look the fool than to open your mouth and prove it.

So that’s what I did: I said nothing as all the inmates around me hunched over their new tablets, day in and day out, either playing one of its simple games or shaking their heads angrily as they tried to figure out how.

“Shake it. Maybe it’s broke,” Terry offered. He took out his glasses (which are as thick as the bottom of an old Coke bottle) and began holding them like a magnifying glass.

“It’s touchscreen,” Gaspard grumbled yet again.

Gary eyed Gaspard sideways, then shook his head. “It has buttons, Gap.” He then took Terry’s advice and began to shake the tablet.

Nothing happened.

“Let me see it,” Terry said, reaching for the tablet. He shook it twice as hard. “I do this with my radio and beard trimmer when they act up,” he added, without mentioning whether the shaking actually helps or not.

“Let me see it,” Gaspard insisted.

“No,” Terry replied. “You’re always dropping shit.”

That was true: Over the years, I’ve seen Gaspard drop just about everything. But for his age, he’s in pretty good shape, considering he’s had colon cancer and a couple of heart attacks and battles a severe case of COPD daily.

“Okay, then let me take a look,” I finally said.

Terry handed me the thing, which was small but kind of heavy, and encased in a soft, clear plastic that for some reason had a new-car scent.

“Are you sure there’s no instructions?” I asked.

Gary dumped everything out of the bag the device came in and rummaged through it. Though there was a small pamphlet, we found no instructions on how to get the lock off the screen.

I, too, began pressing the buttons. Nothing. I then covertly tapped the screen just in case. Again, nothing. I fought the urge to shake it and ended up handing it back to Gary out of frustration.

I never really understood before how these little handheld computers could suck people into a world all their own. I mean, like I said, I’d seen it on television, but I guess it just never sank in. Our housing unit (which, like most prison housing units, usually sounds like a zoo) is often dead-quiet these days, save for an occasional grunt of satisfaction when someone accomplishes some goal in one of the games, or gets into an argument of their own about how to turn it on.

Now, you might consider this a good thing for a bunch of hardcore inmates, and I’ll concede that it’s allowed me to write this piece, store it, edit it, and send it off at will. But we’ve also lost a lot of our community since these tablets got here, as if a blanket of selfishness has descended upon us.

Just as we had begun to move on from our quest to work Gary’s tablet, the same kid who helped us earlier stopped at the table. “Like this,” he said, reaching out and “swiping” the lock off the screen with his finger, as if it were a physical object to be displaced.

We were all stunned.

“Told you,” Gaspard said proudly, a twinkle in his watery old eyes. “It’s touchscreen.”


[JPay is a company that specializes in providing technology to inmates. The tablets have limited functionality and are tailored to the needs of the jail/prison.  Pretty much everything has to be paid for by someone outside because prison pay doesn’t cover it. JPay is owned by Securus Technologies. Securus Technologies main business is to provide telephone services to inmates. The problem is that the inmates are not the real customers, the jails and prisons are.  The winning bidder is selected based on how high a kickback the jails/prisons get.  Since the winner gets a monopoly prices can be exorbitant. I assume JPay services are priced the same way. The FCC tried to limit the telephone costs but recently a federal appellate court ruled the FCC had no authority over intrastate calls.  This adds more burdens on the families and friends on the outside.]

With FCC Blocked, Will States Make Prison Calls Affordable?


The Hidden Cost of JPay’s Prison Email Service



The Rising Tide of Evidence Against Blaming Wind and Solar for Grid Instability | Greentech Media

The Rising Tide of Evidence Against Blaming Wind and Solar for Grid Instability | Greentech Media

It’s been more than two months since Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered the DOE to conduct a 60-day study on whether wind and solar are undercutting “baseload” coal and nuclear power — a request that many renewable energy and environmental groups fear will lead to a foregone conclusion against renewable-friendly state subsidies and policies.

In 2015, the lead author of the Energy Department study wrote a security report that concluded renewable energy policies are a greater emerging threat to the U.S. electric power grid than natural disturbances or human attacks, including terrorism. “Current policies are shuttering unprecedented amounts of reliable power sources while simultaneously forcing increasing amounts of intermittent, unreliable power onto the grid,” the report states.

But the DOE study’s now-overdue status hasn’t stopped the flood of research highlighting the flaws in Perry’s underlying concept of coal and nuclear power’s primacy in the country’s energy mix. We already covered last week’s editorial from David Hochschild of the California Energy Commission and David Olsen of the California Independent System Operator Board of Governors, calling DOE assumptions about grid reliability “nonsense.” And they’re not the only energy experts saying so.

Last Wednesday, a report from Analysis Group entitled “Electricity Markets, Reliability, and the Evolving U.S. Power System,” laid out further evidence that low-cost natural gas and flat demand for electricity, not state and federal policies supporting renewable energy development, are causing the rising number of retirements of coal and nuclear power plants. The report, funded by the Advanced Energy Economy Institute and the American Wind Energy Association, also finds that “the changing electricity resource mix poses no threat to reliability of the nation’s power system” — a finding supported by multiple studies that have received a lot of attention in the past two months.

Then on Thursday, the Union of Concerned Scientists published its critique of what it called “Rick Perry’s Unnecessary and Biased Grid Study,” noting that the Trump administration has picked anti-renewables lobbyists to lead the process and appears to be ignoring multiple studies that have shown that more flexible grids can handle much larger shares of wind and solar. It also cites the growing roster of opponents of the study’s perceived bias, including U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who wrote in a letter to Perry last month that “a hastily developed study, which appears to predetermine that variable, renewable sources such as wind have undermined grid reliability, will not be viewed as credible, relevant or worthy of valuable taxpayer resources.”

Monday brought yet another comprehensive report, this one from the Brattle Group and commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), declaring that Perry’s idea of coal and nuclear as essential for a stable grid is an outdated concept. The report got the attention of Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who wrote in a Monday press release that it “makes it clear that President Trump and Secretary Perry have it wrong: Baseload energy technologies, such as coal, do not make our electric grid more reliable and efficient.”

The Brattle Group study actually goes further by questioning the very concept of “baseload” power — at least, as far as it’s taken to be synonymous with coal and nuclear power. “Coal and nuclear plants do not provide unique operational services that are specifically identified by or correlated with the term ‘baseload’ generation,” it wrote. In fact, they can go offline for weeks at a time, and unexpected outages are sometimes the “largest contingencies” that system planners and operators must prepare for, it noted.

Nor do coal and nuclear provide the cost advantages they once enjoyed — a shift largely due to falling natural gas prices and flattening electricity demand, as opposed to the rise of renewable energy, the report states. In support, it cites a recent study from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy that estimates that cheap natural gas was responsible for 49 percent of the decline in coal demand, while low electricity demand was responsible for 26 percent, and increased renewable generation was responsible for only 18 percent.

Instead, “as system planning and electricity market design are modernized, it is becoming increasingly clear that the services and attributes most under-recognized by today’s markets are greenhouse gas emissions in some jurisdictions and operational flexibility,” the authors wrote. And despite their intermittency, wind and solar power are compatible with both of these needs, the Brattle/NRDC report finds.

“A resource is considered flexible when it can react to operational signals to ramp its power generation up and down to help meet the needs of the system over multiple hours and minute to minute,” the report notes. “With better understanding of system requirements, flexibility needs can be provided by a wide array of existing resources, and through advances in how those resources are operated.”

Underlying this rethinking of terms like “baseload” and “peaking resources” is the fact that the transformation of the country’s grid power mix is already underway, according to the report. This Brattle Group projection of total U.S. generation additions and retirements between 2010 and 2020 highlights the fall of coal as a central part of many regions’ grid power mix.

Despite these significant retirements, however, “system operators have been able to meet the industry’s high and increasing reliability standards,” according to the report. Mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM, for example, has projected that its expected near-term portfolio of increasing natural gas, wind and solar power and a falling share of coal and nuclear doesn’t threaten grid reliability. Several other studies support this view, including two from the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which found that the U.S. eastern and western grids could support between 30 and 35 percent renewables penetration without significant infrastructure changes.

Even so, grid operators, utilities and regulators still have a lot of work ahead of them to make this optimized, flexible mix of future resources a reality, the report found. This work includes designing markets to properly value both supply and demand-side resources, improving the “dispatchability” of variable resources, and increasing transmission interties between grid systems, to name a few items on its to-do list.

Energy consultant Terry Brinker recently penned an article chronicling some of the challenges and possible negative impacts associated with renewables, including a 2016 blackout in Australia linked to the country’s wind generation. But he concludes that renewable energy industry groups, in partnership with lawmakers, energy regulators and the DOE can “work together and create strategic policies that ensure that we all succeed in this new normal.”


Federal Agencies Are Failing to Report a Range of Crime Statistics to the FBI’s National Database – Pacific Standard

Federal Agencies Are Failing to Report a Range of Crime Statistics to the FBI’s National Database – Pacific Standard

In violation of a longstanding legal mandate, scores of federal law enforcement agencies are failing to submit statistics to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s national hate crimes database, ProPublica has learned.

The lack of participation by federal law enforcement represents a significant and largely unknown flaw in the database, which is supposed to be the nation’s most comprehensive source of information on hate crimes. The database is maintained by the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, which uses it to tabulate the number of alleged hate crimes occurring around the nation each year.

The FBI has identified at least 120 federal agencies that aren’t uploading information to the database, according to Amy Blasher, a unit chief at the CJIS division, an arm of the bureau that is overseeing the modernization of its information systems.

The federal government operates a vast array of law enforcement agencies—ranging from Customs and Border Protection to the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Amtrak Police—employing more than 120,000 law enforcement officers with arrest powers. The FBI would not say which agencies have declined to participate in the program, but the bureau’s annual tally of hate crimes statistics does not include any offenses handled by federal law enforcement. Indeed, the problem is so widespread that the FBI itself isn’t submitting the hate crimes it investigates to its own database.

“We truly don’t understand what’s happening with crime in the United States without the federal component,” Blasher said in an interview.

At present, the bulk of the information in the database is supplied by state and local police departments. In 2015, the database tracked more than 5,580 alleged hate crime incidents, including 257 targeting Muslims, an upward surge of 67 percent from the previous year. (The bureau hasn’t released 2016 or 2017 statistics yet.)

But it’s long been clear that hundreds of local police departments don’t send data to the FBI, and so, given the added lack of participation by federal law enforcement, the true numbers for 2015 are likely to be significantly higher.

A federal law, the 1988 Uniform Federal Crime Reporting Act, requires all U.S. government law enforcement agencies to send a wide variety of crime data to the FBI. Two years later, after the passage of another law, the bureau began collecting data about “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.” That was later expanded to include gender and gender identity.

The federal agencies that are not submitting data are violating the law, Blasher told us. She said she’s in contact with about 20 agencies and is hopeful that some will start participating, but added that there is no firm timeline for that to happen.

“Honestly, we don’t know how long it will take,” Blasher said of the effort to get federal agencies on board.

The issue goes extends far beyond hate crimes—federal agencies are failing to report a whole range of crime statistics, Blasher conceded. But hate crimes, and the lack of reliable data concerning them, have been of intense interest amid the country’s highly polarized and volatile political environment.

ProPublica contacted several federal agencies seeking an explanation. A spokesperson for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, which handles close to 50,000 offenses annually, said the service is adhering to Department of Defense rules regarding crime data and is using a digital crime tracking system linked to the FBI’s database. But the Army declined to say whether its statistics are actually being sent to the FBI, referring that question up the chain of command to the Department of Defense.

In 2014, an internal probe conducted by Department of Defense investigators found that the “DoD is not reporting criminal incident data to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for inclusion in the annual Uniform Crime Reports.”

ProPublica contacted the Department of Defense for clarification, and shared with a department spokesman a copy of the 2014 reports acknowledging the failure to send data to the FBI.

“We have no additional information at this time,” said Christopher Sherwood, the spokesman.

Federal agencies are hardly the only ones to skip out on reporting hate crimes. An Associated Press investigation last year found at least 2,700 city police and county sheriff’s departments that repeatedly failed to report hate crimes to the FBI.

In the case of the FBI itself, Blasher said the issue is largely technological: Agents have long collected huge amounts of information about alleged hate crimes, but don’t have a digital system to easily input that information to the database, which is administered by staff at an FBI complex in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

Since Blasher began pushing to modernize the FBI’s data systems, the bureau has made some progress. It began compiling some limited hate crimes statistics for 2014 and 2015, though that information didn’t go into the national hate crimes database.

In Washington, lawmakers were surprised to learn about the failure by federal agencies to abide by the law.

“It”s fascinating and very disturbing,” said Representative Don Beyer (D-Virginia), who said he wanted to speak about the matter with the FBI’s government affairs team. He wants to see federal agencies “reporting hate crimes as soon as possible.”

Beyer and other lawmakers have been working in recent years to improve the numbers of local police agencies participating in voluntary hate crime reporting efforts. Bills pending in Congress would give out grants to police forces to upgrade their computer systems; in exchange, the departments would begin uploading hate crime data to the FBI.

Beyer, who is sponsoring the House bill, titled the National Opposition to Hate, Assault, and Threats to Equality Act, said he would consider drafting new legislation to improve hate crimes reporting by federal agencies, or try to build such a provision into the appropriations bill.

“The federal government needs to lead by example. It’s not easy to ask local and state governments to submit their data if these 120 federal agencies aren’t even submitting hate crimes data to the database,” Beyer said.

In the Senate, Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota said the federal agencies need to do better. “I’ve long urged the FBI and the Department of Justice to improve the tracking and reporting of hate crimes by state and local law enforcement agencies,” Franken told ProPublica. “But in order to make sure we understand the full scope of the problem, the federal government must also do its part to ensure that we have accurate and trustworthy data.”

Virginia’s Barbara Comstock, a House Republican who authored a resolution in April urging the “Department of Justice (DOJ) and other federal agencies to work to improve the reporting of hate crimes,” did not respond to requests for comment.


Why Data Science Argues against a Muslim Ban – Scientific American Blog Network

Why Data Science Argues against a Muslim Ban – Scientific American Blog Network

Let’s not lose our scientific minds. As the White House’s travel ban maneuvers toward the U.S. Supreme Court for possible approval, let’s take a scientific look at whether it makes sense for security. Does data support the ban’s underlying supposition that disallowing Muslims—at least those from certain countries—would decrease the risk of terrorism?

This question begs to be addressed, but who’s best suited to do so? The field of data science holds that jurisdiction. It is the discipline of improving operational decisions—often made by hunches and intuition—with empirical, fact-based insights. Data science has assumed the expansive role of running our increasingly data-driven world. It drives security screening for both government and commerce, including predictive policing, assessing convicts for parole decisions and detecting fraudulent transactions. (And the field extends beyond security to optimize for marketing, online ads, financial credit risk, health care and more.) Data science also applies to improve screening for terrorists. So, if Muslims as a group posed a security risk that warranted their prohibition, then data science would bear that out.

From the perspective of data science, however, a Muslim ban would weaken security, not strengthen it—even if only applied to a limited set of countries. Indeed, the majority of data scientists oppose such a ban. Unfortunately, the tricky pitfalls of quantitative analysis lead some to the opposite conclusion. As a result, for all the value that today’s growing use of data contributes to organizational decision-making, if data are interpreted as supporting a ban, it would only contribute uncertainty when it comes to the status of religious equality. Here are three analytical traps that cause people to misinterpret data as supporting a Muslim ban:

First, people excessively “slice and dice” data. Depending on how data are selected, certain portions of a terrorism database can wrongly appear to justify religion-based security screening. If a cherry-picked data sample designates Muslims as being most likely to commit an act of terror, then another sample may designate them as least likely. It depends on which records you include for analysis.

For example, a sample of terror incidents could be selected for analysis based on the country attacked, suspect’s country of origin, basis for entry (refugee, student, fiancé, etcetera) and era (for example, before or after 9/11). Different samples will suggest different conclusions and, indeed, published reports on the proportion of terrorism enacted by Muslims have disagreed with one another for this very reason. By poignant coincidence, data scientists affectionately describe such manipulation as “torturing the data until it confesses.”

Second, people misjudge the risk individual immigrants present. Even if the odds of violence differed greatly between religions, the odds of any one individual being a terrorist would remain tiny. This is because across any major religion the vast majority of people would never engage in terrorism. Imagine hypothetically that, after slicing and dicing, data show immigrants of a certain religion from a certain country were five times more likely to engage in terrorism than average over the past 10 years. (Such trends exist, because major religions see the frequency of terrorism carried out in their name rise and fall over time.) Even within such a group the odds for any one individual would be infinitesimally small—below 0.01 percent, in most cases. For no major religion are individual members especially dangerous.

Third, screening by religion only impairs the ability to predict who the terrorists are. It’s more than just philosophical to say people are defined by their behavior—by what they do rather than in which category they fit. In practical application, data science repeatedly shows that people’s prior actions predict future behavior more accurately than demographic profile data do.

Accordingly, any immigration-screening process can be continually improved by amassing more elements from what is an open-ended range of behavioral data, including personal and professional activities as well as financial transactions. Myriad as-yet undiscovered behavioral patterns would catch more terrorists than indiscriminately screening by demographic category. Because a category such as religion provides less information about future behavior, including it as a factor would only distract analytical number crunching (that is, predictive modeling) from pinpointing the best way to screen by prior behavior. Doing so would also reinforce existing biases among government workers and lessen the perceived importance of behavioral data.

The civil rights perspective further bolsters the position that behavior is more predictive than religion. A Muslim ban epitomizes prejudice in the most literal sense: It would be the very act of prejudging individuals based on a protected class, religion. Religion carries the status of a protected class because we respect it as a defining attribute, intrinsic to one’s identity. As with other defining attributes like race, gender and country of origin, an individual’s religion holds at most an indirect relationship with whether the person would engage in terrorism. Although terrorism can be shaped by religion, religious scholars argue that it doesn’t stem from religion per se. Terrorism’s causes include socioeconomic and geopolitical factors; an act of terror “in the name of” a religion does not mean it was “because of” that religion. Consequently, it’s an individual’s past behavior—not his or her religion—that’s pertinent to detecting any possible malicious intent.

Get the target right. Rather than screening by religion we must focus squarely on the threat we’re compelled to predict: terrorism. The very act of treating an immigrant as an individual, evaluating by way of the person’s unique backstory of behavior, will better predict risk and thereby improve security. In contrast, a ban that targets Muslims would be an epic national mistake—not only in terms of social justice but also in terms of security.