Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Sept. 16 2014 7:08 PM

93-Year-Old Former Nazi Auschwitz Guard Charged With 300,000 Accessory to Murder Counts  

Germany charged a former Nazi guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder on Monday, 50 years after the killings took place. Oskar Groening, who is now 93 years old, has spoken publicly about his time as an SS officer at the death camp in occupied Poland in the summer of 1944, where at least 300,000 Jews were gassed to death. Groening maintains he did not kill anyone as part of his job at the camp, which the Associated Press reports, was “dealing with the belongings stolen from camp victims, prosecutors said among other things he was charged with helping collect and tally money that was found.”

Here’s more on how the charges came to be, 50 years after the fact, via NBC News:

Groening, who reportedly is in good health and who has been questioned, is one of about 30 former Auschwitz guards who German federal prosecutors started investigating last year. That move followed the successful prosecution of former U.S. autoworker John Demjanjuk, who was convicted in 2011 of 28,060 counts of being an accessory to murder.  Earlier this year, Nazi hunters presented their recommendations to authorities in Hannover, who launched a formal investigation.
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In a 2005 interview with Der Spiegel, Groening had this to say about whether or not he was guilty of a crime:

Are you guilty?
Oskar Gröning looks at the videotape lying on the table in front of him. He ponders the question for a long time. It's important to him to find the right words. Then he says: "Guilt really has to do with actions, and because I believe that I was not an active perpetrator, I don't believe that I am guilty."
If you weren't a perpetrator, what were you? An accomplice?
"I don't know. I avoid the question; it gets me in trouble. Accomplice would almost be too much for me. I would describe my role as a 'small cog in the gears.' If you can describe that as guilt, then I am guilty, but not voluntarily. Legally speaking, I am innocent."
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Sept. 16 2014 6:22 PM

FDA May Ban Use of Involuntary Electric Shocks as Autism Treatment

Per the AP, the FDA is considering a ban on electric-shock devices that are used to punish unwanted behavior by patients with autism and other developmental disabilities. If it comes as a surprise to you that any involuntary electric shocks are administered to autism patients in the United States, that's because the devices are only used at one facility in the country—the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Mass. The school has been a target of media attention in the past; in 2012 video leaked of 18-year-old patient Andre McCollins being restrained face-down and shocked 31 times. McCollins' mother sued the center, and the lawsuit was settled outside of court.

From the AP:

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Rotenberg must get a court’s approval to begin administering skin shocks to a student. The center uses a graduated electronic decelerator, or GED, that is attached to the arms or legs. If the student acts aggressively – head-banging, throwing furniture, attacking someone – then a center worker can press a button to activate the electrode, delivering a two-second shock to the skin.

The amount of pain generated by the device is a contentious subject. The Rotenberg Center's Glenda Crookes compared the sensation to “a bee sting” in comments to CBS News, and some Rotenberg parents are strong proponents of the device. But a U.N. official in 2010 said the shocks constituted “torture." An FDA report also addresses the widely-held belief that autistic individuals have a high pain threshold, pointing out the possibility that ”not all children with ASD express their pain in the same way as a 'neurotypical child' would (e.g., cry, moan, seek comfort, etc.), which may lead to misinterpretation by caregivers and medical professionals that patents are insensitive or to an incorrect belief that the child is not in pain.”

A 2011 Guardian article on Rotenberg features extensive comments by Matthew Israel, the center's founder and a former student of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. One section of the piece describes "Behaviour Rehearsal Lessons" using the GED:

The student is placed in a chair, often restrained with straps. Then, for up to 10 minutes at a time, they are ordered to carry out precisely the behaviour they have been told not to do. If, say, they have the habit of slapping themselves on the head, they are ordered to do so. If they try to get away, they are zapped with the stronger GED-4 shock machine. But if they follow orders, and slap themselves, they are zapped even more frequently. The process is repeated until they sit motionless in the chair for a full 10 minutes.

Although the FDA cleared the devices used to generate the shocks in 1994, the center began using a version that generated stronger shocks after a student became increasingly tolerant, eventually leading to a hearing this year. An official ruling is expected, per CBS, at any time.

Sept. 16 2014 4:44 PM

EPA Still Hasn’t Fired Employee Whose at-Work Porn Habits Were Discussed by Congress in May

Back in May, in the “old days” when we used to think that you'd get fired if your two-to-six-hours-per-day at-work pornography consumption schedule was discussed in front of Congress, an Environmental Protection Agency official testified that he needed to wait for an official report before firing an employee who was observed in person watching pornography on a work computer and subsequently admitted to watching between two and six hours of pornography at work every day. Apparently they're way backed up down at the official report factory, because Dr. Government Job Porno Enthusiast Ph.D is still getting paid. From Environment & Energy Publishing:

The staffer is on administrative leave but still receiving his salary, according to EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia. "This employee continues to be investigated by the [Office of the Inspector General] and U.S. Attorney's Office, and we are working with these offices to obtain information necessary to move forward with administrative action," she said.
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The identity of the employee—who makes $120,000 a year—has not been disclosed, but everyone seems to be operating on the assumption that said employee is a man, which is a fair assumption.

Correction: It's a very fair assumption. It is the cover story of Fair Assumption Magazine's 100th anniversary issue. It is the fairest assumption in the 4.54-billion-year history of Earth.

Please fire the EPA porn guy.

Sept. 16 2014 3:51 PM

98 Senators Ignore Ongoing Affront to American Democracy

There are 645,000 residents of Washington, D.C., who, because of the way the Constitution was written, aren't represented in Congress. (They have three electoral college votes, thanks to a 1961 amendment.) On Monday Delaware Sen. Thomas Carper held a hearing on a bill he's introduced that would make D.C. a state. Carper was present, of course, as was what the Washington Post described as “an overflow crowd of hundreds” of D.C. vote activists. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who called the bill a “legal and political absurdity,” at least went to the trouble of showing up. No other senators did.

D.C.'s lack of representation in Congress and the fact that we still don't elect the president by counting who gets the most votes are the two biggest unforced errors in American democracy, and the fact that neither problem is close to getting fixed is solid evidence that we are headed for a thousand-year fall from power à la Rome and the Miami Heat.

Sept. 16 2014 1:12 PM

FBI to Use More Than 4 Million Civilian Photos in New Facial Recognition Database

The FBI announced Monday that its new facial recognition database, the Interstate Photo Service, is operational. The database is described by the bureau as “an investigative tool that provides an image-searching capability of photographs associated with criminal identities.” But as the Verge points out, the 52 million faces that are projected to ultimately comprise it will include not just mug shots of apprehended criminals but also photos drawn from civilian background checks.

Per documents obtained by watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation through a Freedom of Information Act request, the FBI predicts the database will contain 4.3 million photos from noncriminal contexts like employment records by the year 2015. EFF also notes that in addition to the 46 million images from criminal databases and 4.3 million civilian images, the FBI anticipates almost 1 million images will come from two categories, “Special Population Cognizant” and ”New Repositories,” which aren't defined in the documents.

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The IPS facial recognition system, if provided with a suspect’s face, has an 85 percent chance of correctly returning the suspect’s name in a list of 50 possibilities, according to the EFF documents. The FBI argues that, because the “candidate list” produced is an “investigative lead” and not an identification, there is by definition no chance that an innocent person will be falsely identified by the system. 

Sept. 16 2014 12:29 PM

Walmart VP of Communications Reportedly Resigns for Lying on Résumé

Walmart's chief spokesman, David Tovar, recently announced in an email to journalists that he was leaving the company, Bloomberg News reports:

“We all know the first rule of journalism is ‘don’t bury the lead’ so here goes: after eight amazing years, I’ve decided to leave Wal-Mart at the end of the month,” Tovar said in the message. “I have loved every second of every minute I’ve been with the company and I don’t have enough room in this e-mail to give justice to the life-changing experience of working for the world’s largest retailer.”
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It turns out that Tovar may, in fact, have buried the lead: Bloomberg also reports that his resignation followed the company's discovery he'd lied about graduating from the University of Delaware:

While conducting additional due-diligence screening, which is standard for employees who reach a certain level, Wal-Mart discovered he never received the degree, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the matter is private. Tovar, 40, joined Wal-Mart in 2006 after working for the tobacco and snack-food company Altria Group Inc. (MO)
An academic-records official from the University of Delaware confirmed to Bloomberg News that Tovar never got the diploma.

Tovar ignored Bloomberg's queries about his résumé, the article says, but did send them a cheerful boilerplate message about leaving Walmart. “As a person from the Northeast, I never thought I’d take a job in Arkansas and then stay here for eight years,” he wrote, embodying Gawker writer Tom Scocca's definition of smarm. “It’s been an amazing experience and I’ll definitely miss it.”

Sept. 16 2014 10:27 AM

U.S. Will Commit Up to 3,000 Troops to African Ebola Fight

Up to 3,000 members of the United States military will go to West Africa to help build treatment centers, train health care workers, and coordinate logistics, President Obama is expected to announce today. From the New York Times:

Mr. Obama will offer help to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia in the construction of as many as 17 Ebola treatment centers in the region, with about 1,700 treatment beds.
Senior administration officials said Monday night that the Department of Defense would open a joint command operation in Monrovia, Liberia, to coordinate the international effort to combat the disease. The military will also provide engineers to help construct the additional treatment facilities and will send enough people to train up to 500 health care workers a week to deal with the crisis.
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The United States has already committed 100 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention experts and spent $175 million on combating the epidemic, which has killed at least 2,400 people in five countries, the Washington Post reports.

Sept. 15 2014 8:10 PM

There Are New Abuse Allegations Against Adrian Peterson

On Monday, the Minnesota Vikings announced that Adrian Peterson would play with them next Sunday, despite the fact that he was indicted for child abuse last week. Hours later, KHOU, the local CBS affiliate in Houston, Texas, reported that Peterson may have been involved in another, separate incident of child abuse.

From KHOU:

The four-year-old is by a different mother than the alleged victim in the Montgomery County case, in which Peterson is charged with felony injury to a child. In that case, Peterson admits to repeatedly striking the boy with a tree branch or "switch," but has maintained he did not intend to harm the child, and was using his judgment as a parent to discipline his son.
The latest incident allegedly occurred last June, while the boy, who lives out of state, was visiting Peterson at his gated home in Spring. A photo, allegedly texted by Peterson to the boy's mother, shows a head wound to the boy covered by two bandages. Other photos, allegedly taken weeks later, reveal a scar over his right eye.
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In the texts, Peterson apparently reveals that he beat the child for cursing at a sibling. KHOU reports that, though sources confirm that the mother filed a report to Child Protective Services, “the outcome of any CPS investigation is unclear.”

Meanwhile, in a statement released earlier Monday about the original allegations, Peterson said, “I am not a perfect parent, but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser. I am someone that disciplined his child and did not intend to cause him any injury.”

Update September 15, 2014 9:23 p.m.: Peterson's lawyer has responded to the latest charges:

Sept. 15 2014 7:43 PM

Extreme Tax Cuts Hurting Sam Brownback's Popularity Even in Republican Kansas

Based on recent results in presidential elections—and the fact that the state has had exclusively GOP-affiliated senators since 1939—you'd be forgiven for thinking that once Kathleen Sebelius left for D.C., there were literally no non-Republicans left in Kansas to run for office. But that isn't the case, and two recent New York Times stories document a moderate backlash that could land a Democrat in the state's governorship and an independent in one of their Senate seats.

Today's Times piece is about the blowback that governor Sam Brownback is facing. Brownback is strongly conservative on many issues, but it's specifically his implementation of mega-tax cuts that has alienated even his fellow Republicans:

Based on decreased revenue from the tax cuts, the state’s nonpartisan legislative research department estimates that the budget will have to be adjusted by $1.3 billion, either through spending cuts or additional revenue, over the next five years in order to remain balanced.
Opponents of the governor have used this to stoke fears that he would cut vital services. Both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have downgraded Kansas’ credit rating.
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Brownback's opponent in November is Democrat Paul Davis, and the race is a toss-up. Also very close: the Senate race, which the Times wrote about earlier this month. Incumbent Republican Pat Roberts is facing an independent challenger, Greg Orman, who's polling very well; Democratic candidate Chad Taylor is trying to take his name off the ballot in what's assumed to be an effort that to increase the chances that Orman wins.

For more context on what's happening in Kansas, check out David Weigel's 2012 Slate interview with a moderate GOP state senator who lost a primary to an "ultra-conservative" challenger. (Headline: “Koch Industries is just a terrible, terrible citizen.”)

Sept. 15 2014 6:24 PM

The U.S. Is Open to Working With Iran, but Iran Does Not Feel the Same Way

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry hinted that the United States would be willing to work with Iran in its fight against ISIS, despite the fact that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted his outright rejection of a back-channel U.S. offer to cooperate.

From the Washington Post:

The Reuters news agency quoted Khamenei as telling Iran’s state television that the U.S. request was “hollow and self-serving,” echoing Iran’s claims that Western nations are seeking to expand their influence in the region as part of the campaign against the Islamic State.
The United States did not deny the outreach to Iran and said discussions with Tehran will continue — underscoring Iran’s influence in the region as well as the political complexities of bringing the Shiite powerhouse into the emerging international alliance against the Islamic State.
“I’m just going to hold open the possibility always of having a discussion that had the possibility of being constructive,” Kerry said, without providing substantive details about the U.S. request. “I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth.”
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Khamenei's pronouncements aside, Iran has indeed sent its allied Shiite militias to Iraq to fight ISIS alongside Western-backed Kurds.

France had wanted to invite Iran to the talks in Paris currently ongoing between representatives from 26 nations and a handful of international organizations. However, had Iran been in attendance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would have boycotted, according to Kerry, which would have worked against the U.S. goal of building a regional coalition.

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