A former university president came under fire this week for the advice he gave on how to combat sexual assault on college campuses. On Tuesday, George Washington University President Emeritus Stephen Trachtenberg appeared on NPR's Diane Rehm Show and said, "Without making the victims responsible for what happens, one of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave." Critics pounced. Jezebel slammed his comments as "jaw-droppingly stupid," and the website noted, "If this is the attitude freely and blithely expressed by a former University President, it's no wonder that more than 75 schools are currently under investigation by the Department of Education for botching sexual assault investigations."
The following day, Trachtenberg told the school newspaper, The GW Hatchet, that his remarks had been taken "out of context," but he reiterated his main point: "What I'm saying is you want to have somebody you care about like your daughter, granddaughter or girlfriend to understand her limits because she will be less likely to be unable to fight off somebody who is attacking her."
On Thursday, Mother Jones asked Trachtenberg to comment on the ongoing controversy, and he replied with a written statement. Regarding Jezebel, he said:
Jezebel has a world view that informs their prose. They are an advocate for an important cause and they take every opportunity to make their case. Sometimes in their enthusiasm they may get a little overheated. It's hard to resist an apparent opportunity when you believe you are on the side of the angels.
In response to other questions—including why he chose to use the word "misbehave" to describe sexual assault—Trachtenberg said:
I chose that word because I was thinking and speaking quickly under time constraints on a radio show. Under different circumstances I might have used another perhaps stronger word. I am an educator. I believe in the power of education. I think that education about drinking and its effects on an individual can help protect that person from vulnerability. Knowledge makes one stronger. I also believe that having skills gives one power. If you know how to defend yourself you have strength that can be helpful in the event things turn physical. These two ideas are not meant to solve all problems. They are not blame shifters. They are what they are. Better to know things then not. No silver bullets here. We need to educate men too. Date rape is largely the responsibility of young men and alcohol and opportunity. We can address these issues as a community. Men and women and institutions together. Victims should do their best but they are victims and not to blame. My recommendation is to change the culture of the campus so that men and women protect and nurture each other as a family would. It will take work but it can be done.
On Sunday, the Washington Post published an exposé revealing that private companies are peddling surveillance systems to foreign governments that track the location of cellphone users in the United States and abroad. The report raised a basic question: How can this be happening when cellphone companies generally promise not to disclose their customers' location information without their consent? The main problem is that location information is available on a global network that can be accessed by thousands of companies. And in the wake of the Post story, US cellphone companies are refusing to discuss how this squares with their privacy policies, or say what they are doing to keep their customers' whereabouts confidential.
Here's what's going on: Carriers collect location information from cellphone towers and share it with each other through a global network called SS7. This allows a US carrier to find a customer even if she hops a plane to India. But according to the Post, surveillance systems makers have gained access to SS7 and are using it to grab location data, allowing these firms to pinpoint people within a few city blocks.
President Obama announces he's prepared to authorize airstrikes if ISIS advances on Irbil.
On Thursday, as Islamic militants closed in on the Kurdish capital of Irbil, President Obama authorized targeted air strikes in Iraq if necessary to prevent the capture of the city, which is a base for US officials and foreign workers. "When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action," Obama said. He also pledged to provide humanitarian aid and to take steps to protect about 40,000 members of the Yazidi sect, who have fled their homes and have been trapped on nearby mountains.
The announcements came after fighters associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of at least one town within 20 miles of the city and reportedly seized a massive dam, which if breached could flood Mosul, a city of 1.5 million residents.
Throughout the decade following the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Kurdish north has avoided much of the violence and chaos common in the south. As recently as June, the State Department noted that the region has been "more stable relative to the rest of Iraq in recent years." That relative tranquility has not only drawn diplomats, oil workers, and US military personnel to Irbil: Just last year, the New York Times called the city a "tourist boom town." Should ISIS take Irbil, any foreigners left there would be at considerable risk.
US companies began pulling employees from Iraq before ISIS's recent advances. According to the leader of Iraq's state-run South Oil Company, Exxon Mobil staged a "major evacuation" in mid-June and BP reportedly withdrew 20 percent of its staff. But over the last few days, companies have ramped up extractions from Kurdistan: On Thursday, Reuters reported that Exxon Mobil is pulling its staff, and a Chevron spokeswomen told the Wall Street Journal the company had reduced its number of foreign workers in the region.
Even as ISIS made dramatic gains across Iraq in June and July, Irbil remained a safe haven. Refugees from elsewhere in northern Iraq streamed in, as did foreigners. Employees of Siemens Energy were evacuated to Irbil in mid-June amid a bloody battle for control of Baiji's oil infrastructure. Earlier that month, the State Department relocated staffers from the embassy in Baghdad to consulates outside the capital, including the one in Irbil. But now, the situation has reversed. According to the New York Times, civilians are swamping Irbil's airport, hoping to snag seats on flights to Baghdad. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways has canceled all flights to Irbil.
Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst, says that when US citizens are under threat, the State Department works quickly. And when it comes to the safety of diplomatic staff, "if they felt like the US consulate could fall, they would have evacuated," he says. "They have an itchy finger, especially after Benghazi—they're not going to let Americans get chopped up and put on the internet."
While Obama said on Thursday night that protecting US military personnel, diplomats, and civilians living in Irbil is a priority, it's unclear just how many Americans and other foreigners are present in the city, and what plans may be in place to evacuate them. A senior administration official told reporters late on Thursday that there was an "ongoing conversation" in the administration about evacuating its diplomats, but "given that we will make sure [ISIS] cannot approach Irbil, we're very confident our consulate is safe."
A Defense Department spokesman, Commander Bill Speaks, says that there is a Joint Operations Center in Irbil, with about 40 military personnel. He would not discuss contingency planning for any potential evacuation of US or non-US foreign citizens. Katherine Pfaff, a spokesperson for the US State Department, declined to provide the number of staff based in the Irbil consulate. "We have nothing to announce on possible evacuations," she says.
According to Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who was in Irbil in June, there's not a huge American presence in the city, but it is home to some foreign diplomats and oil workers, with a couple of expat hotspots. He says that Kurdish officials "knew the fight was coming; they just didn't know it was coming so quickly."
David Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights, is on his way to Irbil on Sunday for a preplanned research trip. He told Mother Jones from his hotel in Turkey that he has meetings scheduled with government officials and "as far as I know, everything is on track."
"It's a fast-moving, volatile situation," he adds. "Unless something really unexpected happens, I think the Islamic State is going to be on the run." He says he promised his daughters that he wouldn't "do anything foolish."
After Ukrainian rebels used Russian missiles to shoot down a passenger airliner last month, the United States and the European Union escalated sanctions against Russia, cutting off Russian firms' and individuals' access to Western markets and western financing. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin is striking back—by taking aim at his people's ability to buy Western-produced food.
On Wednesday, Putin issued a new decree warning that he plans to ban or limit imports of food products and agricultural goods from the US and the EU. Putin didn't specify the exact products he wants to target; instead, he asked Russian government agencies to draft lists of products that should be limited or banned. (The Russian government has already reassured citizens that imports on wine and baby food are safe.)
Nevertheless, Russians and western ex-pats living in Russia are already venting their frustrations, The New Republic reports. "American whiskey, Dutch cheeses, German beer, Australian beef, Greek olives. Say bye-bye to all that," an independent Russian TV channel tweeted. Russia imports a wide range of American food and agricultural products—$1.3 billion worth in 2013 alone. Here's a list of some of the food and agricultural products that could be threatened by Putin's move:
Kale: According to the United Nation's commodity trade database, the United States exported to Russia in 2013 about 338,266 pounds of cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and kale, both fresh and chilled, worth about $93,894.
Whiskey: Russia bought $85 million worth of various whiskeys from the US in 2013, per the UN's commodity trade database. "It is well known that Russians like to drink alcohol," the US Department of Agriculture noted in a report released last year. Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are increasingly popular in Russia, according to the report. Russia's consumer protection agency recently announced that it was investigating Kentucky Gentleman bourbon due to fears that it contains chemicals that could produce infertility and cause cancer, and was already proceeding with plans to ban that specific brand in the country. (A spokesperson for the Sazerac Company said they had not been contacted by Russia's Rospotrebnadzor, and had no comment at this time.)
Fruit: Russia imports more apples and pears than any other country, according to USDA. Shipments from the US only constitute a small share of those imports—less than 1 percent of the total apple market in Russia—but that still amounted to $7.7 million worth of apples in 2012. "U.S. apples have a niche market in Russia as many consumers prefer the large and richly colored apples, which are characteristics that U.S. suppliers can normally provide," a USDA report said.
Almonds: In 2012, the United States supplied about 92 percent of the Russian almond market, USDA reported. In 2013, the US exported about $132 million worth of shelled almonds to Russia, according to the United Nations.
Cows: In 2012, Russia imported 74,734 bovine animals from the United States. "Russia was the second largest market for the U.S. breeding cattle exports (30 percent of total U.S. live cattle exports) after Canada during the first 8 months of 2013," the USDA reported.
Cake mix: In 2013, the United States exported about 2.2 million pounds of bread, pastry, biscuit mixes and dough worth $1,191,464 to Russia, according to the United Nations.
Soybeans: In 2013, US exported $157 million worth of soybeans to Russia.
Caviar: In 2013, the US exported $1,014,848 worth of preserved fish, fish eggs, and caviar to Russia.
The nation's biggest cellphone carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint, are opposing a government proposal that aims to save lives by making it easier for emergency responders to locate 911 callers. The companies say they lack the technology to implement the plan—which would require them to quickly find a way to deliver more accurate location information—and they're working on a better, long-term solution. Emergency responders and activists say that the cell carriers are trying to stymie the proposal because they don't want to pony up the money for the improvements.
Under current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, carriers must provide a 911 caller's latitude and longitude within 164 to 984 feet. But these rules, last revised in 2010, were never designed to apply to cellular calls placed inside buildings, where cellphone technologies, like GPS, are less likely to work. Now that many Americans don't own landlines, emergency responders are finding that it's increasingly difficult to track down 911 callers inside apartment and office buildings. "This spells a real potential disaster for the delivery of emergency services," says Paul Linnee, who has over 40 years of experience designing and managing 911 systems, and now works as a consultant.
The FCC proposal, released in February, would mandate that, for 67 percent of 911 calls in the first few years, cellphone carriers provide the horizontal location of an indoor caller within 164 feet and the vertical location (i.e., the floor in an apartment building) within about 10 feet. The proposal would also require providers to demonstrate compliance and establish a channel for 911 administrators to raise complaints.
Last year, Steve Souder, the director of the department of public safety communications in Fairfax County, Virginia, demonstrated to a former FCC head that when he called 911 from his dispatch center, the location that came back was the meat department in a nearby Costco. In California, an organization that advocates on behalf of dispatchers looked at millions of wireless calls placed across the state and found that more than half failed to transmit precise location data. In San Francisco, the failure rate was more than 80 percent.
On July 14, Sprint wrote to the FCC that its proposal is "not achievable using current technology" and that there is little evidence "that the technology will be available in the near future." AT&T called the FCC's proposed timeline for improving location-finding technology "unrealistic" and wrote that forcing providers to "incrementally" improve their systems will "waste scarce resources (i.e., time, talent, and money)."
Don Brittingham, the vice president of national security and public safety policy at Verizon, tells Mother Jones that Verizon and other carriers are already implementing new technologies that will significantly improve accuracy. He says that even if the FCC's requirements could be met at some point in time, the proposal would risk directing valuable resources away from the long-term goal—delivering a specific, accurate address to emergency dispatchers. "Instead of putting a lot of money and time and effort into a set of solutions that may not actually help, we would like to see more focus on things that provide some long-term benefits," he says.
Jamie Barnett, former head of the FCC's public safety and homeland security bureau, is directing a large coalition of emergency responders and activists—initially funded by True Position, a company that makes GPS technology—to rally support for the FCC proposal. He says that multiple technologies are currently available that fit the FCC's criteria, but cell companies just don't want to pay for them. "Carriers are currently negotiating to delay and weaken the implementation of this lifesaving rule. While it would save the carriers money, it could cost tens of thousands of additional lives," he says.
Linnee recalls that in the late 1990s, cellphone carriers fought the FCC on providing any 911 location information at all. "The wireless carriers were kicking and screaming and squawking that this can't be done," He adds, "This is standard industry behavior. They fight you every inch of the way."