Gun-maker slammed for 'children's assault rifles' based on AR-15

Gun control advocates on Wednesday sharply condemned an Illinois-based company for recently unveiling the JR-15, a long rifle inspired by the AR-15 but marketed for children.

"The marketing of children's assault rifles... can only increase the threat of gun death and injury to children."

Although it is under 2.5 pounds and 20% smaller than the standard version, the JR-15 "operates just like Mom and Dad's gun," WEE1 Tactical said in a statement. The weapon "functions like a modern sporting rifle," but its "lightweight and rugged polymer construction and ergonomics are geared towards children."

WEE1 Tactical launched the JR-15 earlier this month at an annual trade show sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is based in Newtown, Connecticut—where a gunman with an AR-15 murdered 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

"The callousness of the National Shooting Sports Foundation to promote a children's version of the same type of assault rifle that was used in a horrific mass shooting of 20 first graders and six educators in our shared community is just the latest proof that the organization, and the gun manufacturers it represents, will do anything in pursuit of continued profits," Po Murray, chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance, said Wednesday.

Other critics of the new rifle took aim at the gun-maker, which is also selling "swag" featuring cartoon skulls with baby pacifiers—one with bows and pigtails, and another with a mohawk.

As Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center (VPC), put it: "At first glance, this comes across as a grotesque joke. On second look, it's just grotesque."

"That a gun-maker has embraced imagery of dead children to promote gun ownership by youth surreally illustrates how detached this industry is from the death and injury that result from its products, especially among the young," he added.

Sugarmann authored VPC's 2016 report entitled "Start Them Young": How the Firearms Industry and Gun Lobby Are Targeting Your Children. He likened the gun lobby's efforts targeting young people to those of Big Tobacco.

The tragic frequency of shootings involving children and teenagers is well documented and unfortunately now a regular part of our daily existence. Yet few realize that the firearms industry and the organizations that represent their interests, including the National Rifle Association, have made it one of their top marketing priorities to promote the use of guns among America's children, as young as grade-school age. In doing so, the gun industry is following a trail once blazed by the tobacco industry in its efforts to entice children to smoke cigarettes.

The report concludes that "while the firearms industry and gun lobby consistently work to present this marketing effort in terms of tradition and family, the real impetus lies in profit and political power. Most tragically, the effects of this campaign are all too often measured in unnecessary death and crippling injury."

In line with such marketing tactics, WEE1 Tactical said in its statement that "the JR-15 is the first in a line of shooting platforms that will safely help adults introduce children to the shooting sports."

Kathleen Sances, president and CEO of One Aim Illinois, expressed concern about what lies ahead as adults purchase the weapon for children.

"The marketing of children's assault rifles by an Illinois company not only brings shame to our state," she said, "but can only increase the threat of gun death and injury to children here and across the nation."

Ted Cruz's pro-corruption case gets Supreme Court review

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a case brought by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas that's been described as "the latest attempt to dismantle federal campaign finance rules."

At issue in the case—Federal Election Commission (FEC) v. Ted Cruz for Senate—is the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, and a $260,000 loan Cruz made to his Senate reelection campaign just ahead of the 2018 election.

A provision of the campaign finance law puts a $250,000 limit on how much a campaign can raise post-election to pay a candidate back.

According to legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Shan Wu, Cruz's campaign "took this case to the Supreme Court by having Cruz intentionally lend and seek repayment of $260,000—just $10,000 over the limit—seemingly for the purposes of arguing that the limit violates the First Amendment."

But the $250,000 limit, argue Daniel I. Weiner and John J. Martin of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law—one of the groups that filed a brief in support of the law—"is a straightforward anti-corruption measure."

In a blog post last week, they explained:

The Supreme Court has held that candidates have the right to spend as much of their own money as they want to get elected—wealthy self-funders often tout their lack of reliance on donors as proof that they are incorruptible (an argument the court itself has echoed). But fundraising after an election to recoup personal funds turns this argument on its head: Instead of being independent from donors, a winning candidate—now an elected official—is raising money that will go directly into the official's own pocket. The corruption risk is obvious.

Sam Horan of the Campaign Legal Center—which also filed an amicus brief in support of the law—similarly wrote Tuesday that "using post-election contributions to repay a candidate's personal loans effectively allows private parties and special interests to send funds into a candidate's pocket after the campaign has come to an end."

"Any minimal burden generated by the limit," added Horan, "is justified by the important anti-corruption purposes it serves—the same purposes that underlie restrictions on gifts to officeholders in place across all levels of government."

The arguments in the FEC case come just ahead of the 12th anniversary of the high court's Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates to unlimited political spending in elections. The 2010 decision, Public Citizen executive vice president Lisa Gilbert said last month, made "a mockery" of campaign finance laws.

Citizens United "chipped away at" the McCain-Feingold Act, as did a 2008 ruling in which the Supreme Court "struck down the so-called millionaire's amendment that aimed to level the playing field when wealthy candidates financed their own campaigns," as CNN noted. "That provision had relaxed contribution limits for opponents of self-funded candidates in an attempt to close the funding gap."

Should the right-leaning court side with Cruz in his case, the impact on campaign finance could be felt broadly.

"Ultimately," according to CLC's Horan, "the statute challenged in Cruz is a matter of common sense: The corruption risk inherent in post-election payments effectively made to candidates themselves is obvious and acute. In crafting the limit, Congress addressed this risk without unduly burdening speech. The Supreme Court should uphold Congress' work."

But regardless of how the decision falls, there remains a question of "how much longer Congress will continue ceding the development of campaign finance law to the judiciary, whose preoccupations in this area tend not to be shared by the broader public," wrote the Brennan Center's Weiner and Martin.

The pair point to "much-needed" reforms related to campaign finance that are included in the House-passed Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act—Democrats' election bill set to come before the Senate later Wednesday.

Changes included in that law, they wrote, would counter "the court's incremental deconstruction of federal campaign finance law, whose consequences include the proliferation of 'dark money' from undisclosed sources, loopholes that permit foreign spending on U.S. campaigns, and rampant spending to evade remaining candidate contribution limits."

"By addressing these issues," said Weiner and Martin, "Congress can respond to the real concerns Americans have about the role of money in politics and the broader health of our democracy."

DirecTV to drop rabidly pro-Trump One America News

Facing a wave of grassroots pressure, one of the largest television providers in the U.S. reportedly plans to drop the far-right, rabidly pro-Trump One America News Network, an outlet that has come under fire for disseminating falsehoods about the 2020 election results, the coronavirus pandemic, and other major issues.

Bloomberg reported late Friday that DirecTV has informed OANN's owner, Herring Networks Inc., that it intends to "stop carrying the company's two channels when their contract expires" in early April.

The move comes after civil rights organizations and other advocacy groups called on DirecTV and AT&T—which owns a 70% stake in the satellite-TV provider—to sever ties with OANN for "spreading anti-democratic disinformation, promoting Covid-19 conspiracy theories, and fueling racism."

According to a recent Reuters investigation, AT&T—the world's largest telecom company—"has been a crucial source of funds flowing into OAN, providing tens of millions of dollars in revenue."

"The dangerous conspiracies and lies regularly aired on OANN have worsened a public-health crisis and given oxygen to baseless claims about the irrefutable outcome of our last presidential election," Nora Benavidez, senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights at Free Press, said in a statement Friday.

"OANN can say whatever it wants on its own soapbox, but it does not have an automatic right to a national audience through DirecTV," Benavidez added. "We welcome the news that DirecTV has made the decision to stop carrying OANN, especially knowing millions of viewers will no longer be subsidizing this hateful content with their monthly pay-TV bills."

Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, also applauded DirecTV's move, calling OANN "a cauldron of misinformation and extremism."

"Without DirecTV, OAN would certainly not exist in its current form and possibly not at all," said Carusone. "Now that OAN's anchor distributor has dropped them, Verizon FiOS (OAN's second major distributor) should follow suit. And certainly no other cable provider should pick them up."

Americans can order free rapid COVID tests starting Jan. 19

A day after U.S. President Joe Biden announced he had directed his administration to secure a billion rapid Covid-19 tests to distribute for free amid rising infections nationwide, the White House revealed Americans can start placing orders online next week.

"There will be free tests available for every household, and to promote broad access, the initial program will allow four free tests to be requested per residential address," according to a White House fact sheet. "Starting January 19th, Americans will be able to order their tests online at Covidtests.gov, and tests will typically ship within 7-12 days of ordering."

"To ensure equity and access for all Americans, the administration will also launch a call line to help those unable to access the website to place orders, and work with national and local community-based organizations to support the nation's hardest-hit and highest-risk communities in requesting tests," the document noted.

While the shipping timeline provoked some criticism—particularly given the latest business-friendly isolation guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—the administration's plan to distribute free tests is widely popular across party lines.

Polling results released Friday show that 72% of voters of all parties support the plan to "ship free Covid-19 tests to anyone who requests one"—including 88% of Democrats, 71% of Independents, and 55% of Republicans—compared to 24% who oppose it.

The survey was conducted by the progressive think tank Data for Progress January 7-10, before the details of the administration's plan were unveiled.

Biden had said Thursday that "we're on track to roll out a website next week where you can order free tests shipped to your home," and in addition to the 500 million tests "that are in the process of being acquired," he directed his team to "procure an additional half a billion."

The president had also pointed out that "for those of you with insurance, you can get reimbursed for eight tests a month," and "for those without insurance, we have over 20,000 free testing sites all around the country."

Based on federal guidance released earlier this week, beginning Saturday, private health insurance providers must cover up to eight over-the-counter Covid-19 tests, without requiring a prescription or prior authorization, each month.

The president, during his Thursday speech, also asked people across the country to "please wear a mask," and said that next week "we'll announce how we are making high-quality masks available to American people… for free."

Data for Progress found that 64% of all voters—including 85% of Democrats, 63% of Independents, and 43% of Republicans—support "a proposal for the government to distribute free N95 masks to people in the United States."

The CDC finally officially acknowledged on Friday that "loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection."

According to Data for Progress, cloth masks are most common among Americans (39%), followed by disposable surgical masks (31%), then N95 masks (15%). Only 11% said they tend to not wear a mask while 3% said they wear some other sort of face covering.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Wednesday reintroduced his Masks for All Act that aims to distribute free N95 masks to everyone in the nation. He was also among the dozens of federal lawmakers who jointly put pressure on the White House last weekend to boost access to testing.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down the Biden administration's vaccine-or-test mandate for large private employers but allowed a Covid-19 vaccination mandate for workers in healthcare facilities that receive federal money to stand.

'Victory': Ohio Supreme Court strikes down GOP partisan gerrymandering

Democracy defenders on Wednesday cheered a ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court that invalidated Republican-drawn state legislative district maps, which a majority of the justices found were unconstitutionally gerrymandered against the will of the state's voters.

"The General Assembly maps entrenched a GOP supermajority and flouted clear partisan fairness requirements in the Ohio constitution."

In a 4-3 decision, the justices ordered the maps redrawn, as the GOP-controlled Ohio Redistricting Commission failed to "draw legislative districts that correspond with the statewide voter preference of Ohioans."

The commission now has 10 days to come up with a new plan that is constitutional.

"Ohioans voted for fair maps," former Ohio state senator and U.S. congressional candidate Nina Turner tweeted in response to the ruling.

"I applaud the decision of the Ohio Supreme Court to uphold the law and strike down these maps," she added.

"Ohio voters have demanded an end to political gerrymandering time and time again," the ACLU tweeted in response to the ruling. "Gerrymandering disproportionately affects minority voters and this decision ensures that people—especially people of color—can have a voice in our government."

"Politicians do not get to choose their voters," the group added. "We the voters get to choose our politicians."

Alicia Bannon, director of the Judiciary Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said in a statement welcoming the ruling that "today the Ohio Supreme Court held the Ohio Redistricting Commission accountable to the constitution."

Bannon added that "the General Assembly maps entrenched a GOP supermajority and flouted clear partisan fairness requirements in the Ohio constitution—abuses that especially impacted Ohio's Black, Muslim, and immigrant communities. The commission is now tasked with drawing replacement maps."

"We will be watching to ensure that all Ohioans get the fair representation they are due," she vowed.

The Ohio decision comes a day after a three-judge panel in North Carolina ruled that Republicans' newly drawn political districts—which will give the GOP an edge in future elections—do not violate the state's constitution. The judges asserted that "redistricting is an inherently political process" that does "not impinge on the right to vote."

Last month, civil rights groups sued South Carolina's Republican governor, as well as state legislative and elections leaders, to challenge the state's new redistricting law.

The groups say gerrymandered state House maps intentionally discriminate against Black voters by "packing" them into the same district to minimize their power in surrounding areas and by "cracking," or splitting, communities of color to dilute their power.

The white Christian nationalism tearing America apart at the seams

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The world lost a great moral leader this Christmas when Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away at the age of 90. I had the honor of meeting him a few times as a child. I was raised by a family dedicated to doing the work of justice, grounded in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and also sacred texts and traditions. We hosted the archbishop on several occasions when he visited Milwaukee — both before the end of apartheid and after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in 1996.

"To combat [White Christian Nationalism]... it’s necessary to build a multiracial moral movement that can speak directly to the needs and aspirations of poor and dispossessed Americans and fuse their many struggles into one."

In the wake of one visit, he sent a small postcard that my mom framed and placed on the bookcase near our front door. Every morning before school I would grab my glasses resting on that same bookcase and catch a glimpse of the archbishop’s handwritten note. This wasn’t inadvertent on my mom’s part. It was meant as a visual reminder that, if I was to call myself a Christian — which I did, serving as a Sunday school teacher from the age of 13 and a deacon at 16 — my responsibility was to advocate for policies that welcomed immigrants, freed those held captive by racism and injustice, and lifted the load of poverty.

READ: It started on the Christian fringe — now it's the GOP's winning issue

Given our present context, the timing of his death is all too resonant. Just over a year ago, the world watched as a mob besieged the U.S. Capitol, urged on by still-President Donald Trump and undergirded by decades of white racism and Christian nationalism. January 6th should have reminded us all that far from being a light to all nations, American democracy remains, at best, a remarkably fragile and unfinished project. On the first anniversary of that nightmare, the world is truly in need of moral leaders and defenders of democracy like Tutu.

The archbishop spent his life pointing to what prophets have decried through the ages, warning countries, especially those with much political and economic power, to stop strangling the voices of the poor. Indeed, the counsel of such prophets has always been the same: when injustice is on the rise, there are dark forces waiting to demean, defraud, and degrade human life. Such forces hurt the poor the most but impact everyone. And they often cloak themselves in religious rhetoric, even as they pursue political and economic ends that do anything but match our deepest religious values.

Democracy At Stake

“What has happened to us? It seems as if we have perverted our freedom, our rights into license, into being irresponsible. Perhaps we did not realize just how apartheid has damaged us, so that we seem to have lost our sense of right and wrong.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

By now, lamenting the condition of American democracy comes almost automatically to many of us. Still, the full weight of our current crisis has yet to truly sink in. A year after the attempted insurrection of January 6, 2021, this nation has continued to experience a quieter, rolling coup, as state legislatures have passed the worst voter suppression laws in generations and redrawn political maps to allow politicians to pick whom their voters will be. The Brennan Center for Justice recently reported that more than 400 voter suppression laws were introduced in 49 states last year. Nineteen of those states passed more than 30 such laws, signaling the biggest attack on voting rights since just after the Civil War. And add to that another sobering reality — two presidential elections have now taken place without the full protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

This attack on democracy, if unmet, could alter the nature of American elections for at least a generation to come. And yet, so far, it’s been met with an anemic response from a painfully divided Congress and the Biden administration. Despite much talk about the need to reform democracy, Congress left for the holidays without restoring the Voting Rights Act or passing the For the People Act, which would protect the 55 million voters who live in states with new anti-voter laws that limit access to the ballot. If those bills don’t pass in January (or only a new proposal by Republican senators and Joe Manchin to narrowly reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887 is passed), it may prove to be too late to save our democracy as well as any hopes that the Democratic Party can win the 2022 midterm elections or the 2024 presidential race.

Sadly, this nation has a strikingly bipartisan consensus to thank for such a moral abdication of responsibility. Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, in particular, have been vocal in refusing to overturn the filibuster to protect voting rights (though you know that, were the present Republicans in control of the Senate, they wouldn’t hesitate to do so for their own grim ends).

And of course, democracy isn’t the only thing that demands congressional action (as well as filibuster reform). Workers have not seen a raise in the minimum wage since 2009 and the majority of us have no paid sick leave in the worst public-health crisis in a century. Poor and low-income Americans, 140 million and growing, are desperately in need of the child tax credit and other anti-poverty and basic income programs at precisely the moment when they’re expiring and the pandemic is surging once again. And Manchin has already ensured weakened climate provisions in President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda that he claims he just can’t support (not yet anyway). If things proceed accordingly, in some distant future, sadly enough, geological records will be able to show the impact of our government’s unwillingness to act quickly or boldly enough to save humanity.

As Congress debates voting rights and investing in the people, it’s important to understand the dark forces that underlie the increasingly reactionary and authoritarian politics on the rise in this country. In his own time, Archbishop Tutu examined the system of white-imposed apartheid through the long lens of history to show how the Christianity of colonial empire had become a central spoke in the wheel of violence, theft, and racist domination in South Africa. He often summed up this dynamic through parables like this one: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

In our own American context, they have the Bible and, as things are going, they may soon have the equivalent of “the land,” too. Just look carefully at our political landscape for evidence of the rising influence of white Christian nationalism. While it’s only one feature of the authoritarianism increasingly on vivid display in this country, it’s critical to understand, since it’s helped to mobilize a broad social base for Donald Trump and the Republicans. In the near future, through control over various levers of state and federal power, as well as key cultural and religious institutions, Christian nationalists could find themselves well positioned to shape the nation for a long time to come.

Confronting White Christian Nationalism

“There are very good Christians who are compassionate and caring. And there are very bad Christians. You can say that about Islam, about Hinduism, about any faith. That is why I was saying that it was not the faith per se but the adherent. People will use their religion to justify virtually anything.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Christian nationalism has influenced the course of American politics and policy since the founding of this country, while, in every era, moral movements have had to fight for the Bible and the terrain that goes with it. The January 6th assault on the Capitol, while only the latest expression of such old battlelines, demonstrated the threat of a modern form of Christian nationalism that has carefully built political power in government, the media, the academy, and the military over the past half-century. Today, the social forces committed to it are growing bolder and increasingly able to win mainstream support.

When I refer to “Christian nationalism,” I mean a social force that coalesces around a matrix of interlocking and interrelated values and beliefs. These include at least six key features, though the list that follows is anything but exhaustive:

* First, a highly exclusionary and regressive form of Christianity is the only true and valid religion.
* Second, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity are “the natural order” of the world and must be upheld by public policy (even as Latino Protestants swell the ranks of American evangelicalism and women become important gate-keepers in communities gripped by Christian nationalism).
* Third, militarism and violence, rather than diplomacy and debate, are the correct ways for this country to exert power over other countries (as it is our God-given right to do).
* Fourth, scarcity is an economic reality of life and so we (Americans vs. the world, white people vs. people of color, natural-born citizens vs. immigrants) must compete fiercely and without pity for the greater portion of the resources available.
* Fifth, people already oppressed by systemic violence are actually to blame for the deep social and economic problems of the world — the poor for their poverty, LGBTQIA people for disease and social rupture, documented and undocumented immigrants for being “rapists and murderers” stealing “American” jobs, and so on.
* Sixth, the Bible is the source of moral authority on these (and other) social issues and should be used to justify an extremist agenda, no matter what may actually be contained in the Good Book.

Such ideas, by the way, didn’t just spring up overnight. This false narrative has been playing a significant, if not dominant, role in our politics and economics for decades. Since childhood — for an example from my own life — I’ve regularly heard people use the Bible to justify poverty and inequality. They quote passages like “the poor you will always have with you” to argue that poverty is inevitable and can never be ended. Never mind the irony that the Bible has been one of the only forms of the mass media — if you don’t mind my calling it that — which has had anything good to say about the poor (something those in power have tried to cover up since the days of slavery).

In many poor communities — rural, small town, and urban — churches are among the only lasting social institutions and so one of the most significant battlegrounds for deciding which moral values will shape our society, especially the lives of the needy. Indeed, churches are the first stop for many people struggling with poverty. The vast majority of food pantries and other emergency assistance programs are run out of them and much of the civic work going on in churches is motivated by varying interpretations of the Bible when it comes to poverty. These range from outright disdain and pity to charity to more proactive advocacy and activism for the poor.

Geographically, the battle for the Bible manifests itself most intensely in the Deep South, although hardly confined to that region, perhaps as a direct inheritance of theological fights dating back to slavery. For example, although there are more churches per capita than in any other state and high rates of attendance, Mississippi also has the highest child poverty rate, the least funding for education and social services for the needy, and ranks lowest in the country when it comes to overall health and wellness. It’s noteworthy that this area is known as both the “Bible Belt” and the “Poverty Belt.”

This is possible, in part, because the Bible has long been used as a tool of domination and division, while Christian theology has generally been politicized to identify poverty as a consequence of sin and individual failure. Thanks to the highly militarized rhetoric that goes with such a version of Christianity, adherents are also called upon to defend the “homeland,” even as their religious doctrine is used to justify violence against the most marginalized in society. These are the currents of white Christian nationalism that have been swelling and spreading for years across the country.

A moral movement from below

We live in a moral universe. You know this. All of us know this instinctively. The perpetrators of injustice know this. This is a moral universe. Right and wrong do matter. Truth will out in the end. No matter what happens. No matter how many guns you use. No matter how many people get killed. It is an inexorable truth that freedom will prevail in the end, that injustice and repression and violence will not have the last word.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

In the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverend William Barber II), we identify Christian nationalism as a key pillar of injustice in America that provides cover for a host of other ills, including systemic racism, poverty, climate change, and militarism. To combat it, we believe it’s necessary to build a multiracial moral movement that can speak directly to the needs and aspirations of poor and dispossessed Americans and fuse their many struggles into one.

This theory of change is drawn from our study of history. The most transformative American movements have always relied on generations of poor people, deeply affected by injustice, coming together across dividing lines of all kinds to articulate a new moral vision for the nation. This has also meant waging a concerted battle for the moral values of society, whether you’re talking about the pre-Civil War abolition movement, the Populist Movement of the late nineteenth century, labor upsurges of the 1930s and 1940s, or the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Today, to grasp the particular history and reality of America means recognizing the need for a new version of just such a movement to contend directly with the ideology and theology of Christian nationalism and offer an alternative that meets the material and spiritual needs of everyday people.

Archbishop Tutu was clear that injustice and heretical Christianity should never have the last word and that the world’s religious and faith traditions still have much to offer when it comes to building a sense of unity that’s in such short supply in a country apparently coming apart at the seams. At the moment, unfortunately, too many people, including liberals and progressives, sidestep any kind of religious and theological debate, leaving that to those they consider their adversaries, and focusing instead on matters of policy. But as Archbishop Tutu’s deeds and words have shown, to change our world and bring this nation to higher ground means being brave enough to wrestle with both the politics and the soul of the nation — which, in reality, are one and the same.

Antitrust suit alleges 16 elite universities colluded to limit financial aid

Sixteen elite universities were sued in federal court late Sunday over an alleged price-fixing scheme in which plaintiffs say the schools formed a "cartel" to limit the amount of financial aid they would each offer to low- and middle-income prospective students—breaking antitrust laws.

Five students who previously attended some of the universities filed the federal lawsuit in Illinois, arguing that in defiance of legislation passed in the 1990s, at least some of the schools take families' financial needs into account when making admissions decisions. The schools in question are part of a group called the "568 Presidents Group," which was formed after Ivy League schools were charged with price-fixing in 1991 and is supposed to admit students on a "need-blind" basis.

"As a result of this conspiracy, the net price of attendance for financial-aid recipients at defendants' schools has been artificially inflated."

After the schools were accused of colluding with their competitors to set a formula for determining how much financial aid was needed by families—driving up college costs for all students—Congress passed legislation allowing the schools to collaborate on financial aid methodologies, but only if they did not take into account students' financial needs when making admissions decisions.

READ: Trump's lawyer and son flock to right-wing media after Georgia fraud case takes a big step forward

According to the lawsuit filed Sunday, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Duke University, Georgetown University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Northwestern University, Notre Dame University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Vanderbilt University all take financial needs into account.

"Nine defendants have thus made admissions decisions with regard to the financial circumstances of students and their families, thereby disfavoring students who need financial aid," the plaintiffs said in court filings.

Seven other universities—Brown University, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, Cornell University, Emory University, Rice University, and Yale University—are also part of the 568 Presidents Group and may or may not consider financial needs, the lawsuit says.

Several of the schools—including Yale, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Notre Dame, and MIT—have among the largest university endowments in the country, ranging from more than $11 billion to more than $31 billion.

READ: Trump's lawyers met with Fulton County prosecutors in Georgia fraud case — and an unhinged statement followed

The schools—called the "568 Cartel" in the lawsuit—are accused of giving preferable treatment to the children of wealthy donors. The lawsuit cites an article published in the Daily Northwestern in 2019 in which university president Morton Schapiro acknowledged he personally gets involved in certain admissions decisions. Schapiro told the newspaper that applications of "legacy students [and] children whose family members have donated" to the school reach his desk.

The 568 Presidents Group meets several times a year to discuss its financial aid formula.

"In collectively adopting this methodology, and regularly meeting to implement it jointly, the 568 Cartel has explicitly aimed to reduce or eliminate price competition among its members," the plaintiffs said in the suit. "As a result of this conspiracy, the net price of attendance for financial-aid recipients at defendants' schools has been artificially inflated."

The lawsuit specifically alleges that low- and middle-income students were overcharged by "at least hundreds of millions of dollars." According to the plaintiffs, about 170,000 former students who attended the schools over the past 18 years could be eligible to join the lawsuit.

Former students from lower- and middle-class backgrounds "might have student debt because of illegal collusion," tweeted organizer Melissa Byrne.

READ: Jamie Raskin throws Jim Jordan's words from Benghazi back in his face for Jan. 6 investigation

The lawsuit was filed amid growing fury over the student loan debt crisis in the United States, with more than 43 million people owing an average of nearly $40,000 each. Student debt now totals $1.75 trillion and is growing six times faster than the nation's economy, according to EducationData.org.

The plaintiffs believe former students deserve compensation from the schools if they "paid tuition, room, or board not completely covered by aid" during the time period covered by the lawsuit, according to the Yale Daily News.

"In critical respects, elite, private universities like defendants are gatekeepers to the American Dream," the plaintiffs said. "defendants' misconduct is therefore particularly egregious because it has narrowed a critical pathway to upward mobility that admission to their institutions represents."

Mitch McConnell openly admits his very real fear is American democracy actually working

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday laid bare his reasoning for vehemently defending the use of the legislative filibuster, which the Republican Party has used in the past several months to block two major pieces of voting rights legislation—both of which would have kept the GOP from continuing its voter suppression push across the country.

"If 51 votes is good enough for a lifetime confirmation to the highest court in our land, it should be enough to protect our freedom to vote."

At a news conference following the Republicans' policy luncheon, the Kentucky senator denounced Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's (D-N.Y.) vow that lawmakers will take up the issue of changing the Senate rules by January 17—Martin Luther King Jr. Day—to ensure voting rights are protected.

Schumer promised to "advance systemic democracy reforms" to end Republicans' attempts to "delegitimize our election process," which McConnell claimed was a sign of "genuine radicalism."

READ: The Supreme Court won't restore voting rights -- but this might

"It appears that the majority leader is hell-bent on trying to break the Senate, and the argument is that somehow state legislatures are busily at work trying to make it more difficult for people to vote," McConnell said, suggesting that legislatures in 19 states have not passed at least 34 restrictive voting laws in the past year, as the Brennan Center for Justice has reported at length.

As Common Dreams reported last month, Republicans in states including Missouri, Texas, and Arizona are pursuing legislation restricting vote-by-mail access, criminalizing "ordinary, lawful behavior by election officials" who try to help voters, and expanding voter ID laws—yet McConnell claimed voter suppression is "not happening anywhere in America" and that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 "is still intact" and outlaws discriminatory voting laws.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act—the two bills Republicans blocked late last year using the filibuster, which effectively requires 60 votes instead of a simple majority—would restore part of the Voting Rights Act that was gutted in 2013, which prevented discriminatory voting restrictions; end partisan gerrymandering; make Election Day a national holiday; and take other steps to ensure Americans can vote.

READ: Corporations supporting the John Lewis Voting Rights bill are showering cash on GOP senators who are blocking it

McConnell accused the Democrats of "radicalism," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) pointed out, days before the one-year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection in which supporters of former President Donald Trump violently attempted to overturn the 2020 election results.

McConnell outlined pro-democracy proposals that the Democrats have put forward as evidence of the party's so-called "genuine radicalism."

"They want to make it easy to fundamentally change the country," McConnell said. "For example, admitting two new states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, to have two new Democratic senators, or to pack the Supreme Court, fundamentally change the court."

As court reform advocates have pointed out, despite McConnell's claims of radicalism, the number of justices on the Supreme Court has changed numerous times.

Sean Eldridge, founder and president of pro-democracy group Stand Up America, noted that when the GOP controlled the Senate, McConnell reformed the filibuster to confirm three Supreme Court justices nominated by Trump.

"If 51 votes is good enough for a lifetime confirmation to the highest court in our land, it should be enough to protect our freedom to vote," Eldridge tweeted.

Ahead of a possible vote on changing the Senate rules by the 17th, Democrats have been meeting with conservative Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—who, like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), supports the filibuster—to discuss his position on possibly amending the legislative tool.

Manchin said after a meeting with colleagues Tuesday afternoon that he is "open to modest changes," according to Politico reporter Burgess Everett.

Trump-appointed judge sides with cops who brutalized protesters

Five years after police brutalized activists opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline, a federal judge appointed by former President Donald Trump has dismissed a lawsuit accusing North Dakota law enforcement officers of excessive use of force—a decision that critics have characterized as a tacit endorsement of the violent repression of climate justice advocates.

Several peaceful protesters who gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to struggle against the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure were assaulted by law enforcement officers on November 20, 2016. Police sprayed demonstrators with water cannons amid sub-freezing temperatures that night, and according to the plaintiffs' lawyers, they also used tear gas and fired rubber bullets and exploding munitions "indiscriminately into the crowd."

Attorneys for law enforcement officers named as defendants, including Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier and Mandan Police Chief Jason Ziegler, "say officers were outnumbered and were concerned for their lives and safety," The Bismark Tribune reported Thursday. "They sought to have the protesters' legal claims dismissed."

"U.S. District Judge Daniel Traynor issued the order granting their request Wednesday," the newspaper noted, "writing that 'the Court finds the undisputed and irrefutable evidence in this case could only lead a reasonable juror to conclude the officers' conduct in this case was objectively reasonable.'"

READ: Native American Trump voter blasts his attacks on sacred lands and racist slurs against Elizabeth Warren

Traynor argued that police violence was justified given the "unprecedented" nature of the situation. He cited the fact that "officers issued two code red requests and a Signal 100, requesting the assistance of every available officer in the state," which "has never been done in North Dakota history."

Morton County Assistant State's Attorney Gabrielle Goter applauded the ruling, saying in a statement that "law enforcement reasonably believed the protestors were trespassing and therefore, law enforcement was permitted to use less lethal force to protect themselves and others, from violent protestors that law enforcement perceived as" threats who intended to "physically injure" them.

Rachel Lederman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, meanwhile, warned that Traynor's ruling "effectively legitimizes launching an hours-long barrage of freezing water, explosives, and highly dangerous munitions into a crowd of demonstrators."

According to the Tribune:

The lead plaintiff in the case is Vanessa Dundon, a member of the Navajo Nation whose eye was injured the night of the incident.
The plaintiffs alleged in court documents filed earlier this year that officers "used a wildly disproportionate amount of force when they deployed water cannons, impact and explosive munitions at the plaintiffs, who were unarmed, peaceful, and not committing any crime or actively resisting law enforcement in any way."
Traynor in January threw out another lawsuit filed by a pipeline protester claiming that law enforcement used excessive force at a 2017 protest site. The order came weeks after a similar ruling in a case brought by another demonstrator.
A lawsuit filed by protester Sophia Wilansky, of New York, is continuing in federal court. Wilanksy claims police targeted her with a concussion grenade during the Nov. 20, 2016 confrontation. She suffered a left arm injury in an explosion and had multiple surgeries to save the limb.

Janine Hoft, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said Traynor's decision this week "is an example of how judges use 'qualified immunity' to let law enforcement off the hook for even the most extreme brutality."

After he infamously led the Morton County Sherriff's office in terrorizing opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), Kirchmeier went on to advise other law enforcement agencies on how to put down anti-fossil fuel demonstrations elsewhere, Common Dreams reported in 2017.

Since DAPL, which transports crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale basin to a terminal in Illinois, became operational—and immediately started leaking—in 2017, opponents of the project have been subjected to surveillance and counterterrorism measures carried out by local police forces and private military contractors hired by the company behind the pipeline, corporate-led lawsuits, and arrests that could result in lengthy prison sentences.

Environmental justice and Indigenous rights advocates welcomed a federal judge's ruling in March 2020 that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act in 2016 by approving federal permits for DAPL, which allowed construction to happen before expert analysis put forward by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe was considered.

Campaigners celebrated a few months later when a U.S. district court ordered DAPL to be shut down and emptied of oil while federal regulators conducted a comprehensive environmental review.

However, despite his campaign pledges to respect tribal sovereignty and transition the U.S. to clean energy, President Joe Biden in April 2021 refused to shut down DAPL, instead allowing the project to continue operating without a federal permit.

Climate denial satire 'Don't Look Up' now top film on Netflix worldwide

The new feature film "Don't Look Up," a dark comedy satirizing the complacency and mendacity of elites in the face of an existential threat to human civilization, is now the most popular movie on Netflix worldwide, according to data compiled by FlixPatrol.

"Absolutely love to see a climate movie hitting this huge a global audience on the world's largest platform," journalist David Sirota, who co-created the story for the film, tweeted Monday. "An amazing success for the team that made the movie and for everyone who has been spreading the word."

An allegory of the human-caused climate emergency and other civilizational dangers, "Don't Look Up" follows two low-level astronomers as they attempt to alert political leaders and the rest of the world to a massive comet barreling toward Earth.

The film's scientists, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, soon discover that few can be bothered to care, let alone act, in the face of impending annihilation.

"This is the worst news in the history of humanity, and they just blew us off," Dr. Randall Mindy, DiCaprio's character, says following a meeting at the White House.

As the movie's political leaders dither, Peter Isherwell—a mega-rich Silicon Valley tech guru played by Mark Rylance—discovers that the apocalyptic comet contains more than $30 trillion worth of precious metals needed to manufacture electronic goods. Buoyed by that revelation, the federal government proceeds to partner with Isherwell on a plan to break the comet into pieces and mine its contents.

"This might all sound far-fetched—the stuff of comedy whimsy—were it not for the fact that Isherwell is clearly a sendup of real-world tech billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who are very much convinced that saving the human species from extinction might be extraordinarily lucrative," Tyler Austin Harper, assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College, wrote in his review of the film for Slate.

Watch the trailer:

DON'T LOOK UP | Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence | Official Trailer | Netflix www.youtube.com

Adam McKay, the film's director, told Space.com in a recent interview that the plot of "Don't Look Up" is "a Clark Kent-level disguise for the climate crisis."

"We're not trying that hard with disguising it," he said. "You hear the news not mention [the climate emergency] and then they go right to a commercial for a gas-driven car or an oil company. It's conflict of interest, it's careerism. It's a lot of people who are financially insecure. And it takes a lot of guts to raise your hand at that newspaper meeting and go, 'Why don't we have a giant headline that says, 'Oh, my God, we're all going to die!'"

But as The Intercept's Jon Schwarz wrote in his review of the movie, "The good news, if there is any, is that when the lights come up at the end, you'll realize that in reality we're only half an hour into this story."

"We can still save ourselves if we want to," he added. "And part of that will have to be much more human creativity like this, in service of understanding the horrifying destination toward which we're heading."

Congresswoman calls for expulsion of members who helped incite MAGA riot to commemorate Jan. 6 anniversary

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush declared Monday that lawmakers should commemorate the upcoming one-year anniversary of the deadly January 6 attack by passing her resolution to "investigate and expel the members of Congress who helped incite the violent insurrection at our Capitol."

"They have broken their sacred oath of office."

The Missouri Democrat took office just a few days before the attack and announced House Resolution 25 just hours after a right-wing mob—encouraged by then-President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans' lies about the November 2020 election—launched the attack.

Bush's resolution—backed by 54 other Democrats—states that the House Committee on Ethics "shall investigate, and issue a report on, whether any and all actions taken by members of the 117th Congress who sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election violated their oath of office to uphold the Constitution," or the chamber's rules, and should be removed.

The takeover of the Capitol came immediately after an incendiary speech from Trump that led to his historic second impeachment—and as more than 100 Republican lawmakers were in the process of contesting the Electoral College victory of President Joe Biden.

"I believe the Republican members of Congress who have incited this domestic terror attack through their attempts to overturn the election must face consequences," Bush said at the time, announcing her first-ever resolution. "They have broken their sacred oath of office."

The congresswoman's comments Monday echoed similar calls for accountability in recent months.

After Rolling Stone reported in late October that "multiple members of Congress were intimately involved in planning" Trump's efforts to overturn his loss and the January 6 events, Bush and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)—an original co-sponsor of H.Res. 25—demanded the expulsion of members who helped spark the violence.

A few days later, John Nichols, The Nation's national affairs correspondent, wrote that "Congress should identify, investigate, and expel members of the House and Senate who aided and abetted the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election."

"That is the constitutionally appropriate and practically necessary response to a coup attempt that now appears to have involved not just violent right-wing extremists from across the country but also Republican representatives," he added, calling out some lawmakers by name.

The advocacy group Free Speech for People, which "works to renew our democracy and our United States Constitution for we the people," has a petition urging the expulsion of "insurrectionist lawmakers."

The petition states in part that "we cannot allow these members of Congress to continue representing the American people through the very democratic processes they sought to overturn."

H.Res. 25 also blasts attempts to undermine U.S. democracy, saying that the House "condemns all targeted and malicious efforts to disenfranchise Black, Brown, and Indigenous voters."

Bush's new push to pass the measure comes as a House panel continues to investigate the deadly attack and the nation's "backsliding" democracy faces growing scrutiny, particularly in the wake of Biden's global summit earlier this month and amid rising concerns about GOP attempts to influence next year's midterm elections through state-level voter suppression laws and gerrymandered political maps.

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'Amazon is killing workers': Employees speak out about deaths at Alabama warehouse

Amazon employees spoke out against the e-commerce giant in a Wednesday video about the recent deaths of workers at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama—which has garnered national attention this year for controversy related to a unionization effort.

Labor journalist Kim Kelly interviewed Amazon workers Isaiah Thomas and Perry Connelly for More Perfect Union. They discussed the deaths, including two people who died within hours of each other in late November.

Kelly, who called those who came forward "heroes," tweeted that "Amazon is literally working people to death, and expects us to ignore it."

The video notes that according to workers, at least two of the six employees who died were denied leave by managers.

"Something has to be done," Thomas says. "This is insane. How long are we gonna wait until somebody else dies?"

Connelly suggests that Amazon sees and treats its warehouse workers as bodies, and "once that body's used up, they'll just bring somebody else in" to do the work.

"What happens if I drop?" he asks. "I'm just gonna be... another body."

Amazon did not respond to More Perfect Union's request for comment. However, viewers had a lot to say.

"Amazon must be held accountable for its treatment of workers. All too often, it's a life-or-death situation."

"This is a must-watch," Jobs With Justice tweeted of the video. "Amazon must be held accountable for its treatment of workers. All too often, it's a life-or-death situation."

Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, said that "this is horrible" and the video reminded her of reading an "absolutely chilling passage" in Charles Duhigg's 2019 report for The New Yorker about Amazon's "total disregard for life when building its delivery network."

ALIGN, an alliance of labor and community groups in New York, pointed out that six more Amazon workers died earlier this month when a tornado caused a partial collapse at an Illinois warehouse.

The group called More Perfect Union's video "powerful" and said that "Amazon is killing workers."

The video comes as Amazon faces growing scrutiny for its treatment of employees and follows a National Labor Relations Board regional director last month ordering a new union election in Bessemer after allegations that the company illegally interfered with an unsuccessful vote in April.

Dems face 'brutal' 2022 midterm nightmare: critics

Progressives are spelling out for the Democratic Party the disastrous implications that are likely to come with the government's possible failure to extend the enhanced child tax credit right as the White House plans to require tens of millions of people to restart their federal student loan payments—warning that the 2022 midterms could be "brutal" if the party imposes new financial burdens on working families.

With right-wing Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) telling the White House Wednesday he wants to "zero out" the child tax credit (CTC) in the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better reconciliation package, millions of families with children may have received their final monthly payment of up to $300 per child this week.

"It is certain that allowing the enhanced CTC to expire would increase child poverty."

The most recent payment hit bank accounts on Wednesday as the White House announced it would shelve negotiations over the social spending package in light of Manchin's objections.

READ: Is 'Squid Game' so popular because of debt anxiety?

In order to ensure families can receive another monthly check by January 15, the legislation would have to be approved by December 28, according to CNBC.

Without the CTC, nearly 10 million children are at risk of falling into poverty, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, while another 27 million children will lose income that has been credited with helping families across the country afford rising grocery bills, utilities, school expenses, and other necessities.

According to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the Democrats are "looking at all procedural options available for a stand-alone short term extension of the CTC," which would require the votes of at least 10 Republican senators to pass with the legislative filibuster in place.

Without congressional action, wrote Eric Levitz at New York Wednesday, "shortly after Christmas—and in the midst of rising prices—just about every U.S. household with minor children will see its monthly income abruptly fall. It seems likely that this would be politically disadvantageous for the ruling party. It is certain that allowing the enhanced CTC to expire would increase child poverty."

READ: 'Are they trying to lose?' Watchdog groups fume after Pelosi defends stock trading by lawmakers

According to an analysis by the Urban Institute, the continuation of the CTC—which is only included in the current version of the Build Back Better Act for one year—would slash child poverty by 40%.

"Millions of people are depending on us," tweeted Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

If the White House goes through with its current plans, weeks after receiving their final CTC payment tens of millions of Americans—including many who are raising children—will also be required for the first time in nearly two years to begin paying off their student loans again.

Congress imposed a moratorium on the payments in March 2020 and the pause has been extended several times by both the Trump and Biden administrations.

READ: Bill Maher rips Walmart: 'How about giving your employees a raise, you deluded nitwit?'

"Now is the time to cancel student debt so we can lift this anchor from our economy."

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki made clear in a press briefing last week that the administration currently has no plans to extend more relief to student loan borrowers, whose monthly payments are nearly $400 on average.

Psaki told reporters that the White House is "focused on starting repayment" as planned. As Common Dreams reported in October, the Education Department has been examining ways to avert "a surge in delinquencies" through a "return to repayment" program.

"If I were trying to prevent handing power back to the GOP for at least a decade I would simply not do this," journalist Kate Aronoff tweeted last week.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has been joined by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in urging the White House to cancel significant amounts of student debt—as the Higher Education Act permits—said Thursday that restarting monthly loan payments will be a "hard blow" to households across the country.

"The pause on federal student loan payments, interest, and collections has improved borrowers' economic security, allowing them to invest in their families, save for emergencies, and pay down other debt," wrote Warren, Pressley, and Schumer in a letter to the administration last week. "Restarting payments without canceling student debt will undermine these families' economic progress."

High school teacher and former UFC fighter Cory Gibson shared on social media how the Democrats' failure to prioritize working families in the coming weeks will affect his family, saying they would face a "$1,400 swing" in income over the course of a month and a half.

Some progressives preemptively denounced centrist Democrats and pundits who may blame the left for congressional losses in 2022 rather than connecting negative electoral outcomes to the party's failure to help working families.

"These are policy choices," said the Debt Collective, which advocates for student debt cancellation. "We don't have to choose this. All of this is 100% unnecessary and avoidable."

While many progressives have denounced Manchin for his part in objecting to the extension of the CTC, Levitz pointed out that the party leadership chose to cut the extension down to one year rather than making it permanent to satisfy Manchin's spending demands:

For months, the senator has suggested that he will not support new spending far in excess of $1.75 trillion, that he would like every cent of that spending to be offset with new taxes, and that cutting the bill's costs by phasing out programs Democrats intend to eventually make permanent is a gimmick that would not satisfy his demand on the spending cap. As Manchin told Politico back in September, "Once you start doing something, it becomes ingrained in it. We want to do it and do it right and finance it."
[...]
Even as Democratic leaders heeded Manchin's demands on the bill's top-line price and tax provisions, they ignored his consistent, emphatic opposition to budget gimmicks. Instead of paring down Biden's social agenda to two or three programs and then funding full permanent versions of those policies, House Democrats chose to retain nearly all of Biden's proposals and then cram them under a $1.75 trillion spending cap through a variety of means tests, phase-ins, and phaseouts."

"Right now, Democrats have a rare opportunity to permanently expand the American welfare state," Levitz continued. "Merely supplying permanent funding for the enhanced CTC would lift millions of U.S. children out of poverty a year, in perpetuity. Establishing universal prekindergarten or closing the Medicaid gap would be a similarly laudable achievement. By attempting to enact nearly all of Biden's social policies in miniature, however, Democrats risk permanently establishing none."

Assange had stroke, says fiancee Stella Moris, warning of 'dangerous impact' of imprisonment

Stella Moris, the fiancee of Julian Assange, reiterated demands for his freedom as she revealed Saturday that the WikiLeaks founder suffered a mini-stroke in October.

"Julian Assange suffered a stroke on the first day of the High Court appeal hearing on October 27th," Moris said in a tweet.

She shared a new Daily Mail report in which she put blame for the event on "the constant chess game, battle after battle, the extreme stress" that Assange, who's been imprisoned at a maximum security prison in London since 2019, continues to endure as the U.S. government seeks to extradite and prosecute him under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information that exposed American war crimes.

"It must have been horrendous hearing a High Court appeal in which you can't participate, which is discussing your mental health and your risk of suicide and in which the U.S. is arguing you are making it all up," said Moris, who has two young children with Assange.

"The U.S. plays dirty every step of the way—it's a war of attrition," she told the outlet. "We can see from the fact that he has suffered a mini-stroke this is having a dangerous impact on him.'

According to United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer—who's previously sounded alarm about Assange's treatment—news of the stroke should come as "no surprise."

"As we warned after examining him, unless relieved of the constant pressure of isolation, arbitrariness, persecution, his health would enter a downward spiral endangering his life," Melzer wrote in a Twitter thread Saturday. The "U.K. is literally torturing him to death."

"As Assange clearly was not medically fit to attend his own trial through video link," Melzer added, "how can they even discuss whether he is fit to be exposed to a show trial in the U.S., a country that refuses to prosecute its torturers and war criminals but persecutes whistleblowers and journalists?"

As NPR reported in October:

Assange, who is being held at London's high-security Belmarsh Prison, had been expected to attend by video link, but he was not present as the hearing began. His lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said Assange "doesn't feel able to attend the proceedings."
Assange's partner, Stella Moris, said outside court that she was "very concerned for Julian's health. I saw him on Saturday. He's very thin."

The weekend revelation from Moris followed a Friday British court's ruling that Assange can be extradited to the United States, a decision that drew fierce condemnation from human rights and press freedom organizations.

In a Sunday tweet, Agnès Callamard, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, said that "the relentless prosecution/persecution of Julian Assange is a stain on U.S. press freedom commitments and records."

'Bombshell': Israeli spyware used to hack iPhones of US State Department officials

Multiple news outlets revealed Friday that Apple notified at least 11 U.S. State Department officials that their iPhones were recently hacked by an unknown party or parties with spyware developed by the private Israeli firm NSO Group.

"A multi-agency investigation is immediately needed."

The "bombshell," first reported by Reuters, comes after Apple sued NSO Group last month in an effort to protect iPhone users from its Pegasus spyware, which the Israeli company claims to only sell to government law enforcement and intelligence agencies and was the focus of a major reporting project earlier this year.

Citing multiple unnamed sources, The Washington Post and Reuters explained that State Department employees based in Uganda or elsewhere in East Africa were targeted over several months, and the intrusions "represent the widest known hacks of U.S. officials through NSO technology."

READ: WATCH: Oxford shooter's parents arrested in Detroit as SWAT team stood by

According to the Reuters:

A senior Biden administration official, speaking on condition he not be identified, said the threat to U.S. personnel abroad was one of the reasons the administration was cracking down on companies such as NSO and pursuing new global discussion about spying limits.
The official added that they have seen "systemic abuse" in multiple countries involving NSO's Pegasus spyware.

The National Security Council said in a statement reported by the Post that "we have been acutely concerned that commercial spyware like NSO Group's software poses a serious counterintelligence and security risk to U.S. personnel, which is one of the reasons why the Biden-Harris administration has placed several companies involved in the development and proliferation of these tools on the Department of Commerce's Entity List."

Spokespeople for Apple and the State Department declined to comment to Reuters, though the latter also noted that the Commerce Department recently added NSO Group to the Entity List "based on a determination that they developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used this tool to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers."

"This reporting shows—again—why we need to hold NSO accountable for their actions, and why governments need to support increased security online."

READ: Montana Democrat sounds the alarm on his party's 'doom' in rural America — but has an idea to fix it

While officials at the Ugandan Embassy in Washington, D.C. also did not comment, the Israeli Embassy in the U.S. capital gave a statement to Reuters addressing the fact that Israel's Ministry of Defense approves export licenses for the spyware company.

"Cyber products like the one mentioned are supervised and licensed to be exported to governments only for purposes related to counter-terrorism and severe crimes," an Israeli spokesperson said. "The licensing provisions are very clear and if these claims are true, it is a severe violation of these provisions."

An NSO Group spokesperson told the news agency that the relevant accounts were canceled and if an internal investigation finds that "these actions indeed happened with NSO's tools," the involved customers "will be terminated permanently and legal actions will take place." The representative added that the company will "cooperate with any relevant government authority and present the full information we will have."

Facebook sued NSO in 2019, claiming the Israeli firm's spyware was used on its messaging service WhatsApp.

"We've been calling NSO a national security threat for years," Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp, tweeted Friday. "This reporting shows—again—why we need to hold NSO accountable for their actions, and why governments need to support increased security online."

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John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, also responded to the revelations on Twitter, saying that NSO Group has been an "in-plain-sight national security threat for years" and it is "embarrassing that it took a private company to warn them."

"Are there victims not notified by Apple?" he asked. "How about the overseas-posted personnel using Androids? Does [the State Department] know now? A multi-agency investigation is immediately needed."

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) similarly told the Post that "companies that enable their customers to hack U.S. government employees are a threat to America's national security and should be treated as such by the government."

"I want to be sure the State Department and the rest of the federal government has the tools to detect hacks and respond to them quickly," added Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Federal agencies shouldn't have to rely on the generosity of private companies to know when their phones and devices are hacked."

Last month, Apple filed a lawsuit in a California-based U.S. district court accusing NSO Group of violating its terms and conditions as well as state and federal laws. Apple is seeking a permanent injunction to ban the firm from using its devices, services, or software.

That suit came after the Pegasus Project—an investigation into NSO's spyware published in July by more than 80 journalists from 17 media organizations in 10 countries. Coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International, the project focused on the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets, including activists, heads of state, and journalists around the world.

The Pegasus Project spurred worldwide calls for an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, and use of such spyware. Exiled American whistleblower Edward Snowden—whose leaked documents revealed that in 2007, Israel was flagged as a top espionage threat against the U.S. government—went further, saying in July that NSO Group's industry "should not exist."

Scott-Railton, in his series of tweets Friday, highlighted that some progress is being made, pointing to reporting that the White House plans to announce a new initiative related to the abuse of surveillance technology during President Joe Biden's democracy summit next week.

According to Bloomberg, an unknown group of countries "with shared concerns about foreign governments and private-sector actors—in China and elsewhere around the world—using digital surveillance and other technologies to enable human rights abuses and target members of ethnic and religious minority groups, journalists, and political dissidents" will commit to a nonbinding code of conduct.