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October 23, 2019 News » Cover Story

Down the Underreported Rabbit Hole 

Inside the year’s Top 10 censored stories.

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Every year, Project Censored identifies the 10 most important stories that the mainstream media somehow missed, and every year the task seems to get stranger. In keeping with this, a through the looking glass theme seemed fitting. In one of the censored stories this year, you'll discover Facebook partnering with a NATO-sponsored think tank to "monitor for misinformation and foreign interference." Funders of the initiative included the U.S. military, the United Arab Emirates, weapons contractors and oil companies. The board of said effort includes Henry Kissinger, the world's most famous war criminal.

In the beginning, Project Censored's founder, Carl Jensen, was partly motivated by how early reporting on the Watergate scandal never crossed over from being a crime story to a political story until after coverage of the 1972 election. Jensen defined censorship as "the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method—including bias, omission, underreporting or self-censorship—that prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in its society."

One of the most obvious ways to fight censorship has always been to highlight stories that have not been widely told. Thus, Project Censored and its annual list was born.

This time around, the censored compendium includes Big Pharma's failed promises, social media surveillance at the hands of the Pentagon and the unleashing of 120 billion tons of new carbon emissions.

1. The Department of Justice's secret FISA rules targeting journalists

The federal government can secretly monitor American journalists under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which allows invasive spying and operates outside the traditional court system, according to two 2015 memos from then-Attorney General Eric Holder. The memos were obtained by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Freedom of the Press Foundation through an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. So much was reported by the Intercept, whose parent company provides funding for both organizations, but was virtually ignored by the corporate media.

The secret rules "apply to media entities or journalists who are thought to be agents of a foreign government, or, in some cases, are of interest under the broader standard that they possess foreign intelligence information," the Intercept reported. "As Trevor Timm [executive director of Freedom of the Press] and others noted, FISA rules are "much less stringent" than the DOJ's media guidelines for obtaining subpoenas, court orders and warrants against journalists," Project Censored noted.

"This is a huge surprise," Victoria Baranetsky, general counsel with the Center for Investigative Reporting, told the Intercept. "It makes me wonder what other rules are out there, and how have these rules been applied? The next step is figuring out how this has been used."

"Targeting journalists for surveillance, especially when trying to determine their sources, has historically been limited by First Amendment concerns," the Intercept noted. "[In 2015] Holder instituted new guidelines that made the targeting of journalists in criminal cases a 'last resort,' and said that the Justice Department ordinarily needed to notify journalists when their records were seized, [following revelations] that the Obama administration had secretly seized phone records from the Associated Press and named a Fox News reporter as a co-conspirator in a leak case."

"The fact that these were kept secret during the Obama administration is cause for great concern," Timm noted. "Has the Trump administration used FISA court orders to target journalists with surveillance? If so, when?"

Project Censored cited three "concerning" questions the memos raise, according to Timm:

• First, how many times have FISA court orders been used to target journalists, and are any currently under investigation?

• Second, why did the Justice Department keep these rules secret when it updated its "media guidelines" in 2015?

• Third, is the Justice Department using FISA court orders—along with the FBI's similar rules for targeting journalists with National Security Letters (NSLs)—to "get around the stricter 'media guidelines'?"

FISA orders "allow the government to sidestep some of the Media Guidelines' most important protections," wrote Ramya Krishnan, an attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute. "For example, the requirement that (1) the information sought be 'essential to a successful investigation, prosecution, or litigation'; (2) the requester make 'reasonable alternative attempts ... to obtain the information from alternative sources'; and (3) the government notify and negotiate with the affected journalist except in certain narrow circumstances."

The corporate media virtually ignored these revelations. Meanwhile, as Project Censored observed, subsequent press interest in FISA warrants targeting Trump campaign adviser Carter Page "has done nothing at all to raise awareness of the threats posed by FISA warrants that target journalists and news organizations."

They ended with a quote from Krishnan, summarizing the stakes: "National security surveillance authorities confer extraordinary powers. The government's failure to share more information about them damages journalists' ability to protect their sources, and jeopardizes the news gathering process."

2. Think tank partnerships establish Facebook as a tool of U.S. foreign policy

In the name of fighting "fake news" to protect American democracy from "foreign influences," Facebook formed a set of partnerships with three expert foreign influencers in 2018, augmenting its bias toward censorship of left/progressive voices.

In May 2018, Facebook announced its partnership with the Atlantic Council, a NATO-sponsored D.C. think tank to "monitor for misinformation and foreign interference." As Adam Johnson, writing for the media watch group FAIR, noted, "It's funded by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Navy, Army and Air Force, along with NATO, various foreign powers and major Western corporations, including weapons contractors and oil companies [including Chevron, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell]."

Johnson went on to explain: "When a venture that's supposedly meant to curb 'foreign influence' is bankrolled by a number of foreign countries—including the United Arab Emirates, Britain, Norway, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea—one would think that would be worth noting."

What's more, as Project Censored noted, its conservative-leaning board of directors includes former CIA directors, retired U.S. generals, and hawkish former state department officials like Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice.

"The U.S. government reserves the right to run unattributed propaganda on Facebook, and there's much evidence they have," FAIR reported. "Needless to say, the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab hasn't done any work in this space."

FAIR critics went on to note that the major outlets covering the story said nothing about said conflicts of interest: "Instead, they issued repackaged press releases on the partnership, never examining the motives of the D.C. think tank, its funders, or the broader premise that 'fake news' and 'foreign meddling' were something in need of combating.

"Much like 'counter-espionage' is another name for espionage, 'counter-propaganda' efforts are just propaganda efforts."

Then, in September, Facebook announced it would also partner with two Cold War-era U.S. government-funded propaganda organizations: the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

"That these two U.S. government creations, along with a NATO offshoot like the Atlantic Council, are used by Facebook to distinguish real from fake news is effectively state censorship," noted Alan MacLeod, writing for FAIR.

As Project Censored noted, "In the name of fighting the scourge of 'fake news,' Facebook altered its proprietary algorithms in ways that significantly reduced traffic to progressive websites such as Common Dreams and Slate ... Without formal warning, Facebook shut down leftwing, Venezuela-linked Facebook pages such as TeleSur English and Venezuelanalysis." (Although both were reinstituted after protests about their removal.)

In October 2018, Jonathan Sigrist, writing for Global Research, described one of the greatest Facebook account and page purges in the platform's troubled history: "559 pages and 251 personal accounts were instantly removed ... This is but one of similar yet smaller purges that have been unfolding in front of our eyes over the last year, all in the name of fighting 'fake news' and so called 'Russian propaganda.'

"Many of the pages and accounts taken down have been political [often leftist], anti-war, independent journalists and media outlets that are known to go against the grain of mainstream media outlets."

"There has been very little corporate news coverage of Facebook's partnerships with U.S. government propaganda organizations," Project Censored noted. "CNN, Fox News and NBC News have provided offhand coverage, with only the most basic information, but none have framed Facebook's actions in terms of censorship."

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3. Indigenous groups from Amazon propose creation of largest protected area on Earth

When news of unprecedented wildfires in the Amazon grabbed headlines in August, most Americans were ill-prepared to understand the story, in part because of systemic exclusion of indigenous voices and viewpoints highlighted in Project Censored's No. 3 story—the proposed creation of an Amazonian protected zone the size of Mexico, as presented to the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity in 2018.

Writing for The Guardian, Jonathan Watts described "a 200m-hectare sanctuary for people, wildlife and climate stability that would stretch across borders from the Andes to the Atlantic." The initiative was advanced by an alliance of some 500 indigenous groups from nine countries, known as COICA—the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin—who called the area "a sacred corridor of life and culture."

"We have come from the forest and we worry about what is happening," Tuntiak Katan, vice president of COICA, told The Guardian. "This space is the world's last great sanctuary for biodiversity. It is there because we are there. Other places have been destroyed." The Guardian went on to note:

The organisation does not recognise national boundaries, which were put in place by colonial settlers and their descendants without the consent of indigenous people who have lived in the Amazon for millennia. Katan said the group was willing to talk to anyone who was ready to protect not just biodiversity but the territorial rights of forest communities.

Colombia previously outlined a similar triple-A (Andes, Amazon and Atlantic) protection project that it planned to put forward with the support of Ecuador at next month's climate talks. But the election of new right-wing leaders in Colombia and Brazil has thrown into doubt what would have been a major contribution by South American nations to reduce emissions.

The Guardian went on to note that Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro had said he would only stay in the Paris climate agreement if given guarantees of Brazilian sovereignty over indigenous land. A follow-up story at Common Dreams quoted another COICA representative, Juan Carlos Jintiach, saying Bolsonaro's comments "are concerning because they nurture a disturbing tendency in different parts of the world, where almost three-fourths of environmental defenders assassinated in 2017 were indigenous leaders."

Project Censored noted: "Although the corporate and independent press have covered right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro's intent to undermine indigenous rights in order to open Amazonian land for development, this coverage has almost entirely ignored COICA's proposal to create the world's largest protected area."

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4. U.S. oil and gas industry set to unleash 120 billion tons of new carbon emissions

Three months after the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have just 12 years to limit catastrophic climate change, Oil Change International released research that went virtually ignored, warning that the United States was headed in exactly the wrong direction. The report, Drilling Towards Disaster, warned that rather than cutting down carbon emissions, as required to avert catastrophe, the United States under Donald Trump was dramatically increasing fossil fuel production, with the United States on target to account for 60% of increased carbon emissions worldwide by 2030, expanding extraction at least four times more than any other country.

"Between 2018 and 2050, the United States is set to unleash the world's largest burst of CO2 emissions," the report warned. "U.S. drilling into new oil and gas reserves—primarily shale—could unlock 120 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions, which is equivalent to the lifetime CO2 emissions of nearly 1,000 coal-fired power plants."

"To limit catastrophic climate change, governments must manage the decline of the fossil fuel industry, and do so over the next few decades," the report noted. "The United States should be moving first and fastest in this direction, [because it's] the world's largest oil and gas producer and third-largest coal producer ..." And also because it "has the resources and technology at hand to rapidly phase out extraction while investing in a just transition that guarantees a 'Green New Deal' for affected workers and communities currently living on the front lines of the fossil fuel industry and its pollution."

References to the report "have been limited to independent media outlets," Project Censored noted. "Corporate news outlets have not reported on the report's release or its findings, including its prediction of 120 billion tons of new carbon pollution or its five-point checklist to overhaul fossil fuel production in the U.S."

The checklist includes:

•  Ban new leases or permits for new fossil fuel exploration, production, and infrastructure.

•  Plan for the phase-out of existing fossil fuel projects in a way that prioritizes environmental justice.

•  End subsidies and other public finance for the fossil fuel industry.

•  Champion a Green New Deal that ensures a just transition to 100% renewable energy.

•  Reject the influence of fossil fuel money over U.S. energy policy.

"[Instead of paying attention to the report, corporate media's carbon emissions coverage] has focused more narrowly on President Trump's proposal to amend existing emissions standards for passenger cars and light trucks and to establish new standards for future cars and trucks," Project Censored noted.

"[But] framing carbon emissions in terms of pollution from cars and trucks does not convey the extent of the problem. Instead, this frame effectively excludes from coverage the scope of new fossil fuel exploration, production and extraction that led Oil Change International to characterize the potential for massive new carbon emissions as an 'existential emergency' for U.S. lawmakers."

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5. Modern slavery in the United States and around the world

An estimated 403,000 people in the United States were living in conditions of "modern slavery" in 2016, about 1% of the global total, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index. The GSI defines "modern slavery" broadly to include forced labor and forced marriage.

"[But the United States plays an outsized role] because the U.S. exacerbates the global slavery problem by importing products, including laptops, computers, mobile phones, garments, fish, cocoa and timber, at risk of being produced through forced labor," Edward Helmore reported in The Guardian when the report was released.

Because forced marriage accounts for 15 million people, more than a third of the global total, it's not surprising that females form a majority of the victims with 71%. The highest levels were found in North Korea, where an estimated 2.6 million people—10% of the population—are victims of modern slavery.

The GSI is produced by the Walk Free Foundation whose founder, Andrew Forrest, called the U.S. figure, "a truly staggering statistic, [which] is only possible through a tolerance of exploitation." As explained in The Guardian, "Walk Free's methodology includes extrapolation using national surveys, databases of information of those who were assisted in trafficking cases, and reports from other agencies like the U.N.'s International Labour Organization."

According to others working in the field, this methodology can be problematic. There's no universal legal definition of slavery, and tabulation difficulties abound. But the GSI addresses this as an issue for governments to work on and offers specific proposals.

Per Project Censored: "The GSI noted that forced labor occurred in 'many contexts' in the U.S., including in agriculture, among traveling sales crews, and—as recent legal cases against GEO Group, Inc. have revealed—as the result of compulsory prison labor in privately owned and operated detention facilities contracted by the Department of Homeland Security ... It also points out that migrants—especially migrant women and children—are 'particularly vulnerable [in the United States] due to a variety of factors including immigration status, lack of familiarity with U.S. employment protections, and because migrants often work in jobs that are hidden from the public view and unregulated by the government.'"

Newly restrictive immigration policies have further increased the vulnerability of undocumented persons and migrants to modern slavery. To correct this, GSI highlighted three essential legislative priorities in the United States:

•  Enact federal legislation criminalizing forced marriage.

•  Raise the minimum age for marriage, with or without parental consent to 18 in all states.

•  Extend legislation prohibiting criminalization of child victims of trafficking to all states.

And called for specific improvements in victim support and to address risk factors. For example, "Enforce core labor laws and labor standards for most vulnerable workers, including undocumented or seasonal workers in the United States from Latin and Central America."

As Project Censored noted, the 2018 GSI "received limited coverage" in corporate media. In one example cited, The New York Times featured the case of a former North Korean slave now attending Columbia University, but left "details about the prevalence of slavery in the U.S. to the article's later paragraphs." CNN, meanwhile, noted that the report listed the U.S. as a "world leader" in addressing forced labor in supply chains, while CBS News reported that "the U.S. does better than most countries in tackling the issue."

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6. Survivors of sexual abuse and sex trafficking criminalized for self-defense

In January, outgoing Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, who had been sentenced to life in prison in 2004, at age 16, for killing a man who bought her for sex and raped her. Brown's case gained prominence via the support of A-list celebrities, and Haslam cited "the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life." But despite public impressions, Brown's case was far from unique.

"There are thousands of Cyntoia Browns in prison," organizer Mariame Kaba, co-founder of Survived and Punished, told Democracy Now! the next day. "We should really pay attention to the fact that we should be fighting for all of those to be free ... When you look at women's prisons, the overwhelming majority, up to 90% of the people in there, have had histories of sexual and physical violence prior to ending up in prison."

"In contrast to ... news coverage from establishment outlets, which focused on Brown's biography and the details of her case," Project Censored wrote, "independent news organizations, including The Guardian, Democracy Now!, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, stood out for reporting that cases like Brown's are all too common."

Also in January, Kellie C. Murphy's Rolling Stone story quoted Alisa Bierria, another Survived and Punished co-founder, and highlighted other cases prominent in alternative media coverage. While in May, Mother Jones reported on the legislative progress that nonprofit Survived and Punished and its allies had achieved in advancing state and federal legislation.

"The bills in Nevada, Arkansas, Hawaii and Congress, which are based on model legislation and use similar language, would do away with mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for child sex trafficking victims who perpetrate crimes against their abusers," Olivia Exstrum reported. "Currently, state and federal laws don't give special consideration to such cases, meaning juvenile victims who commit the most serious crimes, like murder, are often tried in adult court with the possibility of decades behind bars.

"A growing body of research has shown that the trauma that arises from being sex trafficked can affect decision-making, especially in young people ... that trauma has not been well understood and hasn't been taken into account when deciding the cases of victims who commit crimes."

"Corporate news organizations provided considerable coverage of Cyntoia Brown's clemency," Project Censored noted. "However, many of these reports treated Brown's case in isolation, emphasizing her biography or the advocacy on her behalf by celebrities such as Rihanna, Drake, LeBron James and Kim Kardashian West.

"Reports that did link Cyntoia Brown's case to broader patterns of sexual violence and sex trafficking were often filed as opinion pieces, rather than news stories," Project Censored noted.

Still, the topic hasn't crossed over from opinion pieces to news coverage.

7. Flawed investigations of sexual assaults in youth immigrant shelters

As ProPublica reported in November 2018, "Over the past six months, ProPublica has gathered hundreds of police reports detailing allegations of sexual assaults in immigrant children's shelters ... [The shelters] have received $4.5 billion for housing and other services since the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014 [and the reports reveal that] both staff and other residents sometimes acted as predators.

"Again and again, the reports show, the police were quickly—and with little investigation—closing the cases, often within days, or even hours."

In the case of Alex, a 13-year-old from Honduras, used to highlight systemic problems, the police investigation lasted 72 minutes and resulted in a three-sentence report. There was surveillance video showing two older teenagers grabbing him, throwing him to the floor, and dragging him into a bedroom. But ProPublica reported, "An examination of Alex's case shows that almost every agency charged with helping Alex—with finding out the full extent of what happened in that room—had instead failed him."

"Because immigrant children in detention are frequently moved, even when an investigator wanted to pursue a case, the child could be moved out of the investigating agency's jurisdiction in just a few weeks, often without warning," Project Censored noted. "When children are released, parents or relatives may be reluctant to seek justice, avoiding contact with law enforcement because they are undocumented or living with someone who is."

In February 2019, Axios reported, "Thousands of allegations of sexual abuse against unaccompanied minors in the custody of the U.S. government have been reported over the past four years, according to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) documents given to Axios." This included 4,556 complaints received by HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement, and 1,303 complaints received by the Department of Justice.

Project Censored noted that there had been some corporate news coverage, including CBS News and The New York Times. "However, in contrast with ProPublica's coverage, these reports have not highlighted shortcomings in investigations of alleged sexual abuse or the lack of support for survivors after the abuse."

8. U.S. women face prison sentences for miscarriages

"There has to be some form of punishment" for women who have abortions, candidate Donald Trump said in early 2016, which led to a wave of comments from antiabortion activists and politicians, who claimed it was not their position. These women were victims, too, they argued; that has always been their stance.

But that wasn't true, as Rewire News reported at the time. Women were already in prison, not for abortions, but for miscarriages alleged to be covert abortions. And that could become much more widespread due to actions taken by the Trump administration, according to a 2019 Ms. magazine blog post by Naomi Randolph on the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

As Project Censored explained, "Pregnant women could face a higher risk of criminal charges for miscarriages or stillbirths, due to lawmakers in numerous states enacting laws that recognize fetuses as people, separate from the mother."

One example provided was in Alabama, where voters passed a measure that "endows fetus' with 'personhood' rights for the first time, potentially making any action that impacts a fetus a criminal behavior with potential for prosecution." Collectively, these laws have resulted in hundreds of American women facing prosecution for the outcome of their pregnancies.

A 2015 joint ProPublica/AL.com investigation found that "at least 479 new and expecting mothers have been prosecuted across Alabama since 2006," under an earlier child endangerment law, passed with meth lab explosions in mind, which the "personhood movement" got repurposed to target stillbirths, miscarriages and suspected self-abortions.

Cases vary across states, but "the commonality is women losing their rights if they are thought to be endangering the fetus," Project Censored noted. "As Randolph detailed, this especially hurts women of color and low-income women, due to their lack of access to contraceptives, abortion, and treatment for mental health conditions or addiction." And things could get much worse if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Project Censored cited The New York Times as "the only corporate source that has discussed this topic," but only in opinion pieces, "rather than as a topic featured in headlines and news stories."

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9. Medical needs in developing countries unfulfilled by Big Pharma

According to a report in The Guardian by Julia Kollewe based on research by the Access to Medicine Foundation, "The world's biggest pharmaceutical firms have failed to develop two-thirds of the 139 urgently needed treatments in developing countries." Also, "most firms focus on infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis but had failed to focus on other serious ailments ... In particular, the foundation called for an infants' vaccine for cholera and a single-dose oral cure for syphilis."

Project Censored noted, "An estimated two billion people globally lack access to urgently needed medicines. Of the 139 drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests identified as urgently needed by the World Health Organization, 91 have not been developed by any of the pharmaceutical firms tracked by the report. Sixteen of WHO's prioritized diseases have 'no projects at all,' The Guardian reported."

The Guardian also reported, "Just a handful of companies [GSK, Johnson & Johnson, France's Sanofi and Merck] are carrying out 63% of the most urgently needed research & development projects; GSK alone accounts for one third."

"The fact that a handful of companies are carrying the bulk of the priority R&D load shows how fragile the situation is," the executive director of Access to Medicine said. "A retreat by even one of these players would have a significant impact."

It's not all bad news.

"The foundation's report also highlighted 45 best and innovative practices that could 'help raise the level of standard practice' and 'achieve greater access to medicine,'" Project Censored noted. "As of April 2019, Access to Medicine reported that, since the release of the 2018 Access to Medicine Index in November 2018, 90 major investors had pledged support of its research and signed its investor statement."

But mainstream attention has been sorely lacking.

"With the exception of a November 2018 article by Reuters," Project Censored concluded, "news of the Access to Medicine Index's findings appear to have gone unreported in the corporate press."

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10. Pentagon aims to surveil social media to predict domestic protests

"The United States government is accelerating efforts to monitor social media to preempt major anti-government protests in the U.S.," Nafeez Ahmed reported for Motherboard in October 2018, drawing on "scientific research, official government documents, and patent filings." Specifically, "The social media posts of American citizens who don't like President Donald Trump are the focus of the latest U.S. military-funded research," which in turn "is part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to consolidate the U.S. military's role and influence on domestic intelligence."

The Pentagon had previously funded data research into predicting mass population behavior, "specifically the outbreak of conflict, terrorism, and civil unrest," especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, via a program known as "Embers." But such attention wasn't solely focused abroad, Ahmed noted, calling attention to a U.S. Army-backed study on civil unrest within the U.S. homeland titled "Social Network Structure as a Predictor of Social Behavior: The Case of Protest in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election."

Ahmed discussed two specific patents which contribute to "a sophisticated technology suite capable of locating the 'home' position of users to within 10 kilometers for millions of Twitter accounts, and predicting thousands of incidents of civil unrest from micro-blogging streams on Tumblr." "Although these technologies were developed under the Obama administration, it appears their use is being accelerated by the Trump administration," Ahmed noted, "and by moving the Embers program to which these technologies relate into the private sector, this acceleration is occurring in a way that sits beyond public scrutiny or accountability."

What's more, "This kind of technology-enabled surveillance of social media will likely suppress dissent and lead to biased targeting of racial and religious minorities," ACLU senior staff attorney Hugh Handeyside told Motherboard. "We need to know much more about any proposed policies or programs and their effect on rights that the Constitution protects."

Project Censored noted, "Ahmed's report highlighted official government documents focused on domestic surveillance, including an updated doctrine on 'Homeland Defense' issued by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in April 2018. The new doctrine, Ahmed reported, "underscores the extent to which the Trump administration wants to consolidate homeland defense and security under the ultimate purview of the Pentagon."

Paul Rosenberg is a senior editor at Random Lengths News in Los Angeles, Calif., a contributing writer for Salon and has written for Al Jazeera English.

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