- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:


The New York Times on drone airstrikes

March 30

The Pentagon says American airstrikes in Somalia have killed no civilians since President Trump accelerated attacks against Shabab militants there two years ago.

Amnesty International investigated five of the more than 100 strikes carried out in Somalia since 2017 by drones and manned aircraft, and in just that small sampling found that at least 14 civilians were killed.

The Pentagon says airstrikes by the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State killed at least 1,257 civilians in Iraq and Syria as of the end of January.

Airwars, a university-based monitoring group, estimates that those strikes killed at least 7,500 civilians in those countries.

Those disparities show how poorly the American public understands the human cost of an air war fought largely by remote-controlled drones. Drones have been the main weapon in the counterterrorism fight for more than a decade. They kill extremists without risking American lives, making combat seem antiseptic on the home front. But the number of civilians killed in these attacks is shrouded in secrecy.

President Trump has made it even harder to lift that shroud, by allowing the Central Intelligence Agency to keep secret how many civilians are killed in the agency’s airstrikes outside of the Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian war zones - in places like Yemen, the lawless border region of Pakistan and North Africa.

President Barack Obama aggressively expanded drone use in these airstrikes. But he eventually came to understand the need for more transparency and accountability, and, under pressure, he put some sensible safeguards in place.

Among them was a July 2016 order requiring the government to issue annual public reports on the civilian death tolls in those areas.

Mr. Trump revoked that order this month. His National Security Council called it superfluous because Congress had subsequently passed a law mandating that the Pentagon publicly report any civilians killed in any of its operations. But that law covered only the Pentagon, not the separate C.I.A. drone campaign, which has broadened under Mr. Trump.

Experts say that, under President Trump, airstrikes have surged in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, as well as in Somalia. In Yemen, it is unclear to what extent the Americans, as opposed to the Saudi-Emirati coalition, are responsible. In Afghanistan, the number of American strikes that killed or injured civilians more than doubled in the first nine months of 2018 compared with the corresponding period in the previous year and killed more than 150 civilians, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

Mr. Trump has also eroded constraints on civilian casualties.

Since taking office, he has rescinded rules that required the military and the C.I.A. operating outside of hot battlefields like Afghanistan and Iraq to limit their targets to high-level militants rather than foot soldiers. He also, by eliminating an elaborate interagency approval process, gave military commanders more authority to order drone strikes.

Yet, even under the previous rules, no matter how precise the weapons, how careful the planners and how skilled the fighters, mistakes, faulty intelligence, even calculated decisions often led to civilians being killed. The official data ranges from none to maddeningly vague, and the safeguards to mitigate civilian deaths are insufficient.

The military adopted an elaborate system under the Obama administration to minimize civilian casualties, including a requirement that forces have “near certainty” that no civilian will be harmed before launching an attack. But reporting by The Times and others in 2017 showed that the Pentagon had killed far more civilians in Iraq than it acknowledged.

The Obama administration estimated that over its two terms drone strikes had killed between 64 and 116 civilians in 542 airstrikes outside the major war zones. Micah Zenko, co-author of a new book, “Clear and Present Safety,” calculated the real tally at roughly 324.

Drones, for all their faults, are less indiscriminate than B-52s or almost any other weapon. But they are also a seductive tool, potentially tempting presidents and military commanders to inflict grave damage without sufficient forethought.

A lack of transparency and accountability for civilian deaths helps enemies spin false narratives, makes it harder for allies to defend American actions and sets a bad example for other countries that are rapidly adding drones to their arsenals. It could also result in war crimes, as some critics have claimed.

Congress needs to insist on better data as the Pentagon inspector general investigates civilian casualty reporting.

There is no such thing as combat without risk. With drone combat, much of the risk falls on innocents. Americans need to understand the full cost and consequences of those risks.

Online: https://nyti.ms/2TNJ4gh


The Syracuse Post-Standard on property tax dodgers in upstate New York

March 31

Do you pay your property taxes on time and in full? Sucker!

That’s the implicit message being sent by 2,500 or so Syracuse property owners who are two years behind on their Onondaga County property taxes. The city publishes the list every spring, warning delinquent taxpayers that their properties could be seized if they don’t pay up. Another list in the fall publicizes the property owners who are behind on their city and school taxes.

In a city where half of properties are exempt from property taxes, every little bit of lost tax revenue hurts. The public record of tax-delinquent properties gives owners one last chance to make good on their debts, lets other property owners see who isn’t paying their taxes and keeps the pressure on city government to collect those back taxes.

The list of tax delinquencies doesn’t discriminate between scofflaws who can’t afford to pay their taxes, due to illness or job loss or just plain poverty, and those who could afford to pay, but don’t. We could forgive the former. The latter deserve all the disapproval we can muster.

Take Sky Armory, an event space in Armory Square. The owners fell behind on their county and city taxes while making improvements to the building that came in over budget. At the same time, Sky Armory was seeking a state economic development grant to expand the business. Staff writer Michelle Breidenbach exposed their unpaid tax bill in a front-page story last Tuesday. On Wednesday, the owners paid in full their tax debt of $77,380. On Thursday, the venue hosted a “Progress Breakfast” featuring Mayor Ben Walsh. Ironically, that means Sky Armory can get its $400,000 state grant now - one that comes out of the taxpayer’s other pocket.

The city’s top property tax scofflaw in 2017 was the owner of the former Syracuse Developmental Center on Wilbur Avenue. The derelict property is mixed up in an international corruption scandal involving alleged money-laundering by a public official in Kazakhstan. You can’t make this stuff up.

What other interesting tidbits lurk in the list of 2,500 properties? You can search for yourself. As published in the newspaper, you’d need a lot of patience and good eyesight to read through page after page and row upon row of tiny type, arranged only by ward and district. The online database that Breidenbach built lets you sort the list by property owner, address and amount of unpaid taxes.

No one likes to pay property taxes. Most of us pay our taxes anyway. Taxes are the price for living in a functioning community where police patrol the streets, firefighters respond to emergencies, the trash gets picked up, the roads are plowed, water comes out of the tap when you turn it on, and children are educated. The public welfare falters if taxpayers evade their obligation to support it.

Online: https://bit.ly/2TS06tB


Newsday on the beginning of the New York state legislative season

April 1

New York voters put every elective body of state government and six of Long Island’s nine Senate seats in the hands of the Democratic Party in November. Now, after a bumpy run-up and a few missteps, the state has a new $175.6 billion budget that is transformative in several important aspects of our lives. It has the potential to change our commuting habits, how we shop, how we vote and how we treat criminal defendants.

It was still Albany, though. There were compromises and deals made behind closed doors. Significant policy was stuffed into the budget without much debate. And there were a few last-minute surprises. But New Yorkers got mostly the type of budget and some of the social reforms they sought in one of the most sweeping and significant sessions since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took office in 2011:

A permanent property-tax cap will require municipalities and school districts to get 60 percent approval to hike taxes by more than 2 percent or the rate of inflation. Until now, the cap had to be renewed.

Fees to drive into Manhattan below 61st Street and a tax on high-dollar real estate purchases will fund improvements to the Long Island Rail Road and city subways.

Criminal justice reforms will improve access to evidence for defendants and mostly eliminate the need to post bail for 90 percent of those charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, which disproportionately kept young men of color behind bars until their cases were resolved. Lawmakers, however, should revisit their classifications; some offenses are rightly categorized as violent crimes.

Single-use plastic bags will be banned statewide.

A new commission is likely to usher in public campaign financing and end fusion voting. That’s the practice of letting candidates appear on the ballot lines of multiple parties, which has a corrupting influence on local politics.

School districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties will get $3 billion more in school aid, but with an increase at the lowest rate in eight years, due to concerns about an economic slowdown. Percentage-wise, Senate Democrats delivered for Long Island as well as Senate Republicans had in the past.

The budget came after passage of a flurry of bills earlier in the session that had been stymied for years; they strengthen gun safety, secure abortion rights, and expand the years in which a victim of childhood sexual abuse can sue.

Plenty did not get done, including legalizing sports betting, which the state should, and legalizing recreational marijuana, for which the legislative slowdown makes sense. And Senate Democrats did not entirely prove they know how to play at a higher level. Cuomo was at his calculating best and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie showed a veteran’s panache, while Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins hasn’t mastered a very liberal caucus that doesn’t understand retaining power requires it to accommodate more moderate political views.

Still, Albany moved further forward this legislative session than it has in quite some time.

Online: https://nwsdy.li/2FUjkuY


The Leader-Herald on health care and health insurance

April 2

Health insurance entitlements have become the new third rail of politics. Many members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, are so worried about alienating millions of voters that they are unwilling to tinker with the massive government takeover of health insurance - even if they might improve the system.

President Donald Trump is renewing his campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare. He promises something better will be enacted in its place.

Clearly, Obamacare is flawed deeply. It has driven up health insurance costs for millions of Americans. It has restricted or even eliminating insurance options for many.

Some Democrat leaders insist the solution to that is for government to establish a “Medicare for all” system. It would virtually ban any private insurance and, beyond any reasonable doubt, would make the health care mess worse.

Many in Congress do not want to even consider Trump’s plan. Democrats want more government control, not less. Republicans fear their opponents will accuse them of attempting to roll back Obamacare’s expansion of the Medicaid system.

Under that plan, about 14 million Americans who previously did not qualify have been enrolled in Medicaid. About three-fourths of the states participate in expanded Medicaid, which is funded partially by the states.

Medicaid and the related Children’s Health Insurance Program provide coverage to about 75.5 million Americans. The system -including the expansion - has become an entitlement.

Another consideration is the claim by liberals that Republicans are out to make it difficult or impossible for those with pre-existing health conditions to get affordable insurance. By some estimates, about half the people in our country have pre-existing conditions, though many have little or no effect on insurance availability.

It all comes down to liberals attempting to convince voters any adjustments will be harmful to their health insurance.

But no one outside the White House knows precisely what the president proposes to install in place of Obamacare. Does refusing to even consider it make any sense?

Of course not. Members of Congress and the American public were sold a bill of goods with Obamacare.

Lawmakers ought to at least take a look at what Trump has in mind.

Online: https://bit.ly/2FShjzi


The Post-Star on U.S. House Intelligence Committee Democratic Chairman Adam Schiff

March 30

We looked on in dismay this week as our local congresswoman was sucked into the vortex of partisan Washington politics to which she often claims to be above, because she is an independent voice in the Republican Party.

That didn’t seem to be the case Thursday.

Rep. Elise Stefanik was among the nine Republican members of the House Select Committee on Intelligence who called on Democratic Chairman Adam Schiff to resign for his plans to continue to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Rep. Stefanik compounded matters by going on Twitter and writing, “Chairman Adam Schiff has lost the confidence of his colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee. Today I joined my colleagues in asking for him to resign. We must return to the important bipartisan work of the committee to strengthen U.S. Intelligence capabilities.”

Our reaction was two-fold.

First, we beg Congresswoman Stefanik not to follow in the footsteps of our president and other politicians with attack-oriented tweets. It just further divides us.

Second, we remind the congresswoman that just last year, the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee concluded there was no Russian interference in the 2016 election, even though the FBI, CIA and NSA had all concurred that Russia not only interfered in the election, but did so to help President Trump win.

The Senate Intelligence Committee also acknowledged there was interference by the Russians in the 2016 election.

Rep. Schiff said during an intelligence committee meeting at the time that the House Republican majority’s conclusions contained “any number of misleading representations and factual problems.”

Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat from Connecticut who is also on the committee, said at the time, “It is obviously no secret that this investigation has introduced a very sharp and ugly brand of partisanship into the committee.”

It was clear that the House Intelligence Committee - once above the partisan politics of the day in putting the country’s security first - has been compromised.

That continued this week and Rep. Stefanik has placed herself in the eye of the storm. We doubt that helps any of her constituents in the 21st Congressional District.

The politicking Thursday took place before an open hearing before the intelligence committee entitled, “Putin’s Playbook: The Kremlin’s use of oligarchs, money and intelligence in 2016 and beyond,” with expert testimony from four witnesses.

Through the miracle of C-SPAN and a bout of insomnia, one of our members tuned in to part of the televised replay of the hearing. The witnesses testified about the threat the country faces from Russia in a variety of ways and how sanctions have had a minimal effect.

It was important testimony and we hope the committee members were listening as the witnesses warned that Putin’s Russia is only going to get bolder in its effort to destabilize western democracies.

But we’re not so sure they were.

The Republican members of the committee kept returning to criticism of Schiff. At one point, Republican Rep. Michael Turner of Ohio compared Schiff to Joseph McCarthy and his “red scare” during the 1950s. At another point, the perplexed expert witnesses were asked about McCarthyism, with two of them saying they did not believe they were experts on the subject.

Nor was that why they were there.

Rep. Schiff in his response to the Republicans argued there was a difference between prosecutors proving a criminal conspiracy and the committee investigating evidence of foreign compromise.

We hope Rep. Stefanik understands that as well. If she wants to make a difference by tweeting, we’d prefer her to take up the cause of what the U.S. government can do to beef up its cybersecurity and keep Russia out of our next presidential election instead of participating in partisan politics.

The Republicans may argue that Democrats are retaliating for past partisan transgressions, but that is not an excuse. This political divide needs to be bridged, not widened.

It is long overdue to put the needs of Americans and America first.

Online: https://bit.ly/2TTeQZ8


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