The House NDAA foreshadows Trump’s next term

Stephen Miles is the president of Win Without War. You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter.)

House Republicans have just given us a glimpse into the possible future through their consideration of the Fiscal Year 2025 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and it’s terrifying. Let’s unpack what just happened.

At its most basic level, the NDAA is the bill that authorizes the Pentagon and associated spending at other agencies, but it’s much more than that. While it authorizes a gargantuan level of spending, nearly one trillion dollars and rising, its real distinction is in being considered one of Congress’ last “must pass” pieces of legislation. Its passage is typically bipartisan, with wide majorities, and contains provisions that touch on nearly every area of federal policy.

In years past, the biggest fights were often about national security and foreign policy, as you’d expect from legislation with ‘national defense’ in the title. How much we should spend at the Pentagon, whether to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and the like. But starting last year, something pretty big changed, and this year, House Republicans went into overdrive.
 

The Mandate of Kevin

The bill started out bipartisan, passing the House Armed Services Committee with large bipartisan support, as usual. Then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, navigating a narrow majority, chose to feed his most MAGA members some red meat by allowing a handful of amendments on the House floor on issues like abortion, LGBTQ rights, and diversity in the military. This turned what had been a bipartisan bill into one of the most partisan ever.

This was, of course, always destined to fail on legislation that needed to pass a Democratic Senate and be signed into law by a Democratic President. So, after months of bluster and bravado, House Republicans did what they’ve had to do on every other piece of major recent legislation and swallowed a compromise bill, one that was popular with a broad bipartisan majority but enraged the far-right MAGA wing of the party.

Which brings us to this year’s NDAA and now-Speaker Johnson navigating an even smaller majority. Rather than recognize reality, work with Democrats, and engage in an honest, robust debate on the myriad of genuine national security threats our country and the world face, Speaker Johnson decided to double down and give even more control to the far-right of his caucus.

This created the fascinating, if horrifying, opportunity to view just what the future may hold should November’s election return unified Republican control to government. It’s a far reaching, radical agenda, so let’s dig in.
 

Red Meat for the Red Meat Caucus

It’s worth starting with national security and foreign policy, the ostensible focus of the underlying bill. Three issues dominated: Israel and Gaza, China, and Ukraine. Sadly, the overwhelming focus of these amendments and the ensuing floor debate was mostly scoring partisan political points. There was little to no grappling with the complexity of these challenges, honest debate around our nation’s actual goals, or interest in de-escalating geopolitical tensions.

Beyond those issues though, we got an even clearer sense of where a future MAGA majority might take governing. Far from the focus on actual questions of national defense, Republican amendments to the NDAA quickly veered into a litany of far right fever dreams. Reps. Reschenthaler, Greene, and Gosar targeted electric cars while Rep. Biggs focused on trying to gut the Endangered Species Act. Reps. Banks, Norman, and Higgins offered amendments both eliminating diversity focused jobs and offices at the Department of Defense and also barring any such positions in the future. Rep. Ogles had an anti-mask covid conspiracy amendment while a host of Republicans led amendments targeting trans individuals’ access to healthcare. There were also amendments attacking pride flags, drag shows, and women in the military. There was even an amendment from Rep. Boebert to ban the government from trying to confront domestic terrorism. That’s right, Rep. Boebert amended the national defense bill to bar us from defending the nation.

But there was so much more. Perhaps not surprisingly for a party that has made immigration its focus lately, the NDAA featured multiple amendments on the issue, though as with others, there was little to no serious attempts to grapple with a complex issue. Instead we got amendments imagining an immigrant threat to military bases, inventing false analogies to demonize immigrants, and even trying to kick Mexico out of North America. Seriously. But the real window into a possible MAGA future is Rep. Crenshaw’s amendment to require the Secretary of Defense to come up with plans to go to war in Mexico. Yes, you read that right, plans for a U.S. war in Mexico. And this isn’t a case of one random member of Congress with outrageous ideas, it’s in lockstep with the apparent plans of the soon-to-be Republican nominee for President.
 

Lost causes and MAGA monuments

Two final amendments really complete the emerging picture. The first, not surprisingly, is a repeat of the anti-abortion amendment that nearly tanked the entire NDAA last year. Sponsored by dozens of Republicans and adopted on a near party line vote, there’s little reason to believe that this year’s effort will be any more successful in overcoming opposition in the Senate and the White House. However, with control of the Senate and the White House possible to change, it is worth understanding that this provision is likely the floor, not the ceiling of anti-abortion efforts likely to be included in future NDAAs.

But perhaps no other amendment is more revealing than one by Reps. Clyde and Good to force the military to re-install a monument to the Confederacy at Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington, of course, has a complex history deeply tied to the Civil War, but this effort is nothing but pure white supremacy and an attempt to erase the horrific legacy of slavery. It is cold comfort that two dozen Republicans joined with all House Democrats to narrowly defeat this amendment given the very real possibility that an increased Republican majority would pass it and other similar pieces of legislation, openly glorifying some of our nation’s darkest hours.

And while a handful of other Republican amendments similarly narrowly failed given the slim House majority and united Democratic opposition, the vast majority passed. Just like last year, House Democrats overwhelmingly voted against the final bill and Republicans sent it to the Senate by the slimmest of margins. The Senate is now working on its own bill, and the two will likely ultimately head to a conference committee where, in consultation with the White House, Republicans will be forced to drop most, but not all, of these provisions.

Yet, House Republicans have now given one of their clearest views yet into how they will govern next year under possible unified control of Congress and the White House. It’s a terrifying vision, one driven by hate, conspiracy, and bigotry. It’s one that sacrifices genuine efforts to protect people in the United States and around the world in favor of partisan efforts to wage culture wars, limit freedom, and threaten lives.

It’s a dark, deeply disturbing vision of a future we may find ourselves in very soon, and we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Compassionate migration policies are also the right call politically

Catherine Ellis is a freelance journalist based in Colombia who focuses on migration and human rights. She also worked for an NGO assisting Venezuelan migrants near the Colombia-Venezuela border.

More than 7.7 million Venezuelans have left Venezuela over the last decade – a quarter of the population. The vast majority of those who have left, around 84 percent, have settled in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile. But difficulties in finding jobs, poor salaries and high costs of living have pushed some to pack their bags and set off once again, this time northwards towards the southern border of the United States. Politicians responding to these arrivals should resist the temptation to invoke overly restrictive measures, not only because they trample on the human rights of Venezuelans in desperate situations, but because compassionate migration policies can reduce the political salience of border arrivals, and benefit the U.S. both economically and morally.

Migration is as old as humanity, but the arrival of migrants to the southern border of the United States has been treated as a political crisis. A large wave of Venezuelan migrants arriving at the southern border over the past three years has fanned the flames – and been treated as a national crisis. In part, this is because the Republican governor of Texas has adopted a policy of shipping migrants further into the interior of the country, explicitly to burden social services in Democratic states far from the border.  As the Migration Policy Institute notes, in fiscal year 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered Venezuelans 266,000 times in the Mexico-US border, a more than five-fold increase in encounters from 2021. 

President Biden, after saying in 2020 he would restore the U.S.’ ‘historic role as a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers,’ has introduced some progressive policies. Yet immigration has become more of a political headache than he envisaged. At a campaign stop in Michigan on April 2nd, former President Donald Trump called migrants ‘animals.’ At a stop in Wisconsin later that day, former Trump called Venezuelans criminals, before promising to unleash a mass deportation programme of undocumented migrants if he wins reelection in November. According to a February 2024 Gallup poll, immigration is the US electorate’s number one concern, with 28 percent of Americans saying it was the issue most important to them, and Biden has been steadily peeling back his open-arms rhetoric.

President Biden has reportedly been mulling various options for temporary border closures to stem high numbers of migrants entering the country, after a bipartisan border deal collapsed in Congress in February. Republicans didn’t think the measures, which included proposals to give the President the power to shut down the border, went far enough.

On May 9, Biden announced new proposals to assess migrants at an initial asylum screening stage, instead of during the interview stage. This would allow some percentage of asylum seekers to be turned away by officers at the border much faster than under current rules, so long as the officers deem the asylum seeker a national security or public safety risk. As Maanvi Singh wrote in The Guardian, “The proposed rule that was released on Thursday would only affect about 2 to 3% of asylum seekers, by the administration’s estimation, based on historical data. It also aims to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist.”

While this change might reduce wait times at the border on the margin, it undermines long standing asylum norms, and is also unlikely to satisfy anyone in Washington, including some in the Democratic Party, who want more stringent action, including executive action to fix what they call a ‘broken immigration system.’

 

Waiting outside asylum

Curiously, border encounters have already been dropping this year, mildly appeasing those even within his own party who want stronger deterrence measures. In December 2023, there were 46,919 border encounters of Venezuelans but only 16,492 in March 2024, according to CBP figures. Before border hawks celebrate a slow rate of arrival as the result of punitive policies, it’s important to understand that at least some of the slowed arrival rate is because migrants haven’t stopped trying to get to the US, they’re simply stuck elsewhere.

When migrants do get to the U.S./Mexico border, they are stuck waiting for slow processing at legal entry points. Should the migrants get caught up immigration enforcement in Mexico, they may end up deported south, out of the country. Venezuelans bottlenecked in Mexico are stuck navigating the slow waiting times to secure an appointment via the CBP One app. This initiative, designed to incentivize entry at legal ports of entry along the US-Mexico border rather than crossing the border illegally, needs to process arrivals faster to more compassionately usher asylum seekers and migrants into the legal immigration process. When it works properly, the scheme allows migrants to enter the US while they wait for their immigration cases to be heard. When it does not, it leaves people vulnerable.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, this wait “impermissibly limits the right to seek asylum for many people and compels them to wait in foreseeably dangerous and inhumane conditions in Mexico.” Appointments can sometimes take weeks or months to get. Many Venezuelans, often with few financial resources, often sleep in the streets or rely on overflowing migrant shelters, becoming easy targets for criminal groups. There have been disturbing tales of kidnappings, robberies and sex trafficking by criminal groups using the migration crisis for lucrative financial gains. The Washington Office on Latin America, a group that promotes human rights in the region, has recommended ramping up the number of CBP appointments and ‘urgent walk ups,’ at ports of entry as well as more asylum officers immigration judges.

Beyond issues with processing, current US policy also depends on Mexico to help the crackdown on migration, with disturbing results. Checkpoints and patrols have surged throughout the country, and police are sending migrants on buses heading southwards, or demanding exorbitant bribes for letting them pass. Mexico and the US have also recently agreed on further steps to crackdown on illegal migration, including stricter measures at railways, buses and airports. “The teamwork is paying off,” John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman, told the press in April. Migrants now say it’s Mexico, not the Darien Gap, a notoriously dangerous stretch of jungle spanning the Colombia-Panama border, that they fear most.

 

Through the sky legally

Expanding legal pathways to enter the US could help reduce the risks for Venezuelans considering traversing the Darien and then Mexico. A humanitarian parole program, where Venezuelans – and Haitians, Cubans and Nicaraguans – are eligible for entry to the US if they find a sponsor and arrive by air, offered hope for many Venezuelans when it was introduced in 2022. By the end of February 2024, 94,000 Venezuelans had arrived in the US through this scheme. But for those with no links to the US, finding sponsors is a challenge.

For those already in the US, ensuring they can be financially independent helps them live more dignified lives. The Temporary Protection Status (TPS) policy, which was offered to some Venezuelans in 2021 and extended to almost half a million in September 2023, enables Venezuelans to support themselves while waiting for their immigration cases to be heard. Although it doesn’t give full residency or citizenship, it enables migrants to be self-sufficient, alleviating the squeeze on overflowing migrant shelters, reducing the financial strain on cities, and helping fill vacancies in sectors such as healthcare and construction.

Extending TPS even further would provide a way for more migrants to become financially independent and contribute to the US economy. A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, estimated that the labor force is projected to grow by 5.2 million by 2033, mostly due to higher net migration. Because of this it estimates GDP will grow by about $7 trillion.

TPS has long been criticized by Donald Trump, saying it attracts more migrants. But past experience shows this is not the case. A 2022 study analyzing TPS designated countries of El Salvador and Honduras found it did not lead to increased unauthorized migration and actually reduced pressure on factors driving US-bound migration.

The study’s authors say money sent home in the form of remittances helps stem further migration flows. People receiving the money in Venezuela, or other South American countries where they are settled, can buy food, medicine and other basic necessities, disincentivizing them to leave. The study found remittances sent to TPS designated countries were substantially higher compared with those countries who didn’t have TPS and the scheme reduced both irregular migration, and asylum claims.

Migration is a story of humans uprooted from their lives, gambling that a long journey to somewhere else will be reward them with a more stable future than living in the precarious conditions that have come to mark their daily lives. The majority of Venezuelans aren’t arriving at the border because of ‘the American Dream,’ but due to an economic, political and humanitarian crisis in their home country that has propelled them to leave their homes, and in many cases their families. A compassionate approach to migration will let them arrive in the United States with a warm welcome, rather than razorwire.

Violence Has Already Shaped Mexico’s June 2 Election

Michael W. Chamberlin is a non-resident senior fellow at The Center for International Policy.

Mexico is gearing up for its general elections on June 2, a crucial event where over 20,000 public officials will be elected, spanning from the Senate and the House of Representatives to numerous governorships and municipalities, and even the Presidency of the Republic. Notably, this election marks the first time both leading contenders for the presidency are women. Regardless of which candidate wins, the results of the election have already been shaped by political violence. It will take courage as well as international support for non-violent means to reduce the outsized role of armed agents, be they criminal or military, over the country’s democratic future.

The electoral landscape unfolds against a grim backdrop of violence across many regions of the country. A report by the think tank Data Civica titled “Vote Between Bullets” highlights a staggering 1,833 incidents of threats, murders, armed attacks, disappearances, and kidnappings related to electoral activities between 2018 and April 29, 2024. As of May 10th, there is a toll of 63 persons linked to the electoral process killed, 32 of them candidates, according to Laboratorio Electoral, another Mexican think tank. This violence, orchestrated by organized crime groups, has sadly become a tool to sway election outcomes.

The statistics paint a harrowing picture. The year 2023 witnessed the highest toll of political-criminal violence, with 575 individuals and facilities targeted, closely followed by 2022 with 486 incidents. Since January 2024 alone, the toll includes 22 pre-candidates and candidates murdered, 14 facing threats, 4 suffering armed attacks, 8 enduring assaults, and 10 subjected to kidnappings. Shockingly, over 2,000 candidates—about 10% of the total—have withdrawn from their candidacies due to threats and violence, particularly at the local level.

The infiltration of organized crime into the political fabric of the nation not only jeopardizes freedom of choice at the ballot box but also raises profound concerns about governance, the agendas that will prevail, and the vulnerability of citizens in the face of entrenched corruption and impunity.

It’s no secret that organized crime has burgeoned in Mexico, extending its grasp far beyond drug trafficking to control a myriad of legal and illicit enterprises—from human trafficking to monopolizing markets for staples like chicken, avocado, and lemons—often through extortion. Over the past 15 years, the “war on drugs”, initially backed by the Merida Initiative, has inadvertently handed over vast swathes of territory to criminal groups, with an estimated 30% to 35% of Mexico’s territory under their control by 2021.

Simultaneously, the country has witnessed a surge in militarization, initially aimed at combating drug cartels but gradually expanding to encompass diverse spheres including public security, environmental protection, social policies, health, customs, and infrastructure development.

A damning report titled “The National Inventory of the Militarized” reveals that between 2006 and 2023, civil functions or budgets were transferred to the armed forces on at least 291 occasions, with the Legislative Branch presenting 87 initiatives contributing to militarization, 77% of which surfaced in the last two legislative sessions dominated by the ruling Morena party.

This relentless militarization, stretching across three different administrations, underscores a concerning trend where the influence of the armed forces and organized crime transcends political boundaries, undermining the civil authority of the Republic.

So, what hangs in the balance come election time?

In the immediate future, there’s a looming threat of escalated violence potentially jeopardizing elections across nearly 30% of the country’s territory—a concern highlighted by the opposition coalition. In the long run, there’s a risk of eroding Mexico’s civil and democratic governance. Despite not being direct contenders in the elections, both the armed forces and organized crime wield considerable influence over the outcomes.

The failed anti-drug policies have inadvertently bolstered the political and economic clout of both these entities, with thousands of lives lost or wasted. Official figures from 2006 to 2022 paint a grim picture: 449,329 intentional homicides and 316,816 missing persons, of which 116,300 remain unaccounted for.

The enabling factors behind this surge in lethal power, whether on the military or criminal fronts, stem from the rampant corruption within the political elite, the prevailing culture of impunity shielding wrongdoers, and a dire lack of transparency and accountability across military ranks, political parties, and elected representatives, blurring the borders between state and non-state actors, criminal and governing bodies. Far from firing missiles at Mexico, the battle against organized crime must be waged using the tools of democracy and justice; guns have only fueled further violence.

If the United States aims to champion democracy and freedoms globally, it must actively support the strengthening of civil institutions and checks and balances within Mexico. Failure to do so risks empowering an already formidable transnational monster, fed through corruption by security assistance programs.

New Insensitive Munitions may pose lingering toxic threat

Hanna Homestead is the Director of the Climate and Militarism Program at the Center for International Policy.

In February, the Washington Post reported the story of Hind Rajab, a six year old Palestinian child who spent the last three hours of her life trapped in a car with seven dead members of her family, pleading for help. The family was following evacuation orders from the Israeli military when their car was targeted. An ambulance was then dispatched to rescue Hind with permission from Israeli authorities. Despite being clearly marked as a medical transport vehicle, radioing its location, and following the approved route provided by the Israeli military, the paramedics came under heavy fire. Further investigation by the Post found the destruction of the ambulance was “consistent with the use of a round fired by Israeli tanks, according to six munitions experts.” The fragment of a US-made 120mm tank-fired round was reportedly found near the charred vehicle, which had a visible foot-wide hole consistent with the exit of a tank projectile.

Given nearly two weeks had elapsed before it was safe to investigate the scene, experts could not definitively verify the fragment was directly involved in the strike. However, satellite imagery proved that Israeli tanks capable of firing 120mm rounds were in the area when the attack on the ambulance occurred. In December, the Biden Administration bypassed Congress – a highly controversial move – to approve the transfer of nearly 14,000 anti-tank 120mm MPAT rounds to Israel despite evidence of ongoing, indiscriminate, and systematic targeting of civilians.

The transfer of US-made explosive weapons, including 120mm MPAT rounds, 155mm artillery shells, and Mark-84 unguided bombs are playing a central role in the Israeli government’s genocidal efforts to “make Gaza uninhabitable,” resulting in Hind’s death as well as more than 30,000 civilians over the last six months. Even spent, the remains of the round poses a toxic risk. Explosive weapons contain chemicals and heavy metals that contaminate water and soil for generations, fueling displacement and food and economic insecurity that threatens regional and geopolitical stability. Both the detonation and production of explosive weapons contribute to severe and long-lasting-environmental contamination, resulting in direct deaths and civilian harm that continues long after the explosions occur. Recent Pentagon efforts to make munitions “safer” for military personnel not only downplay, but threaten to exacerbate these widespread toxic legacies.

Munitions, made in America

Within the US, the production of explosive weapons has resulted in massive amounts of pollution and ecological destruction. There are currently more than 40,000 military sites across US states and territories that are contaminated with toxic military waste and legacy explosives, creating significant and cascading public health challenges. The DoD has already spent more than $40 billion attempting to clean them up, and recent estimates by the Government Accountability Office found the DoD faces at least $91 billion in future environmental liability costs. Historically-marginalized populations are particularly at risk of harm from toxic contamination. Superfund sites are more likely to exist in low-income areas, and are correlated with lower life expectancy in the surrounding communities.

The US is currently in the process of ramping up explosive munitions production to continue arms transfers and to replenish depleted domestic weapons stockpiles after significant amounts of defense equipment were transferred to Ukraine and Israel over the last two years. Not only are production rates increasing significantly, but the DoD is transitioning from producing larger-caliber munitions containing legacy energetic materials (explosives, nominally TNT and RDX) to those made with “insensitive” high explosives (IHE), also referred to as insensitive munitions (IM). Insensitive munitions are designed to be less reactive to stimuli and therefore safer to transport and store, an understandable goal when stockpiling explosives. This function is perceived to be both necessary and advantageous by the DoD and members of Congress interested in producing a larger war reserve to avoid future stockpile depletion.

In December 2023, defense giant BAE Systems was awarded a DoD contract worth $8.8 billion to produce the insensitive high explosive IMX-101 to be used as a “safe and effective” replacement for TNT in new artillery rounds. IMX-101 is the main explosive fill used in new 155mm M795 projectile production – currently one of the most highly sought-after munitions – replacing the legacy 155mm M107 projectile. While the development of IMX-101 has been in the pipeline for decades, the increased demand for ammunition from Ukraine and Israel, as well as competition to modernize vis a vis China, has spurred Congress to “expedite” testing and oversight to hasten the production of weapons made with IHE.

While offering functional advantages, the full impact of insensitive munitions on human and ecological health is not yet known, and what data is available raises concerns. Experts infer that some of the chemical compositions of IHE are likely to differ considerably from legacy explosives in their properties, and “therefore, also in their effect and behavior in the environment.” Yet, the DoD maintains there is limited information in the literature regarding human toxicity and adverse health effects due to exposure to insensitive explosives, including IMX-101. It is also unclear how environmental assessments and data on IHE that do exist are evaluated or incorporated into ongoing IM manufacturing, training, and operational planning. While IM weapons have been described as a way the military can “have [its] cake and eat it, too,” a closer look at the development of the 155mm M795 projectile made with IMX-101 raises a number of concerns.

IMX-101 appeared on the scene in 2010, after being named one of “The 50 Best Inventions of 2010” by TIME Magazine for its promise to replace TNT as a “less dangerous explosive.” Early testing of IMX-101 weapons was fast-tracked from what’s typically a five-year test period to two, and did not include comprehensive assessments of the ecological toxicology of the compound or its residues resulting from its production or operational use. Qualification testing of 155mm projectiles made with IMX-101 generally focused on the weapon’s performance, showcasing how IM projectiles can withstand various catalysts while maintaining lethality when deployed as intended. The results were published along with DoD assurances that “IMX-101 and its ingredients were found to be less toxic than RDX and the IMX-101 detonation products were calculated to be benign.” However, research conducted at the DoD’s Picatinny Arsenal used to certify the low-risk profile of IMX-101 shells has since been retracted due to inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the data. The original DoD 2009 study (no longer publicly available) indicated over 99.99% of all energetic material was destroyed during detonation, signifying the munition did not pose a contamination risk.

Eight years later, subsequent field experiments funded by the DoD Environmental Restoration Program demonstrated that in fact, over 30% of some energetic compounds remain after detonation – meaning the IM shell poses a significantly higher risk of environmental contamination than originally reported. Further DoD research has shown IM munitions deposit more residues than legacy explosives. These residues can persist in the environment for long periods of time following detonation, as research has indicated “the half-life of munition particles was estimated to range between 66 and 228 years for IMX-101.” A revised 2019 toxicology assessment of IMX-101 released by the US Army Public Health Center also points to a number of primary adverse health and reproductive effects on animal and plant life following exposure to IMX-101 compounds and recommends further testing, noting the DoD’s lack of comprehensive and long-term studies on IMX’s human and ecological toxicity. Numerous researchers have since published findings on the toxic effects of IMX-101 and its degraded residues – including their potential to have greater contamination risks than TNT or RDX.

Additionally, while research shows the “dud” rates for IM munitions do not differ significantly from legacy explosives, the DoD’s Defense Systems Analysis Center has indicated the disposal of unexploded ordnance (UXO) made with IHE, like IMX-101, may require up to 400% more explosives than legacy munitions given their “insensitive” characteristic. This carries significant implications for post-conflict remediation of unexploded ordnance and pollution of military testing sites. UXO must be removed and detonated, otherwise they degrade and leak poison indefinitely, irreversibly contaminating soil and groundwater.

The challenge of UXO removal is of particular concern in Gaza due Israel’s excessive bombing in urban settings, where munitions experts say there is a higher rate of failed detonation. The use of IMX-101 munitions, including the thousands of 155mm M795 projectiles the US is currently supplying to Israel, has the potential to significantly increase the cost of environmental remediation which is already expected to require tens of billions of dollars and take many years to complete. Environmental justice, including the remediation of ecological damage caused by Israel’s heavy bombardment and ongoing siege, will be critical to the safe return of displaced Palestinians to Gaza and to lasting regional peace.

Despite mounting evidence of the need for greater oversight over insensitive munitions modernization, Congress has continued to loosen the reins. The FY 2024 NDAA passed in December established a new Joint Energetics Transition Office within the DoD to “expedite testing, evaluation, and acquisition” of “new” energetic materials. Military personnel in charge of procurement report they have “a lot of freedom to maneuver now” due to the new programs Congress has authorized.

Aftermathematics

The expedited approval and production of new insensitive munitions without adequate understanding, transparency, or planning in regard to their toxicity or long-term contamination risks comes as research is revealing the extensive impact of legacy RDX and TNT contamination on human health and the environment. For decades, the DoD fought against environmental oversight, claiming “environmental cleanups would come at the expense of the safety of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

According to ProPublica reporting, when the US went to war in Iraq in 2003, top Pentagon officials led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attempted to shield the DoD from nearly all environmental oversight measures to preserve “readiness.” Though these efforts failed, throughout the following years the Pentagon sought to undermine accountability for pollution caused by weapons production, including funding and publishing studies downplaying the health and ecological risks of producing legacy explosives. Today’s focus on weapon’s modernization at the expense of adequate environmental testing sounds eerily familiar. In addition to expediting IMX-101 production, the FY2024 NDAA included authorization for the Pentagon to test warheads and propellants using the insensitive energetic material CL20, despite a 2007 DoD study indicating CL-20 residues likely pose a significant toxic ecological risk.

Efforts to clean up contamination caused by legacy weapon’s production and testing are currently underway within the United States, thanks to the persistent organizing of frontline communities. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced an additional $1 billion in new Superfund program funding, which includes military sites. Other types of military-related pollution such as radiation exposure due to nuclear weapons development and testing and PFAS contamination are also being recognized as serious public health concerns. Veterans who were exposed to toxic substances from burn pits, which include UXO disposal, are finally being provided with health benefits after decades of denied claims. While much more still needs to be done domestically, there are currently no legal requirements to address toxic legacies of war abroad caused by US weapons that are deployed directly by US troops or transferred abroad. Americans rarely have insights into the devastating and destabilizing long-term effects these weapons have on foreign populations.

The DoD procurement decisions being made today will have long-term, global impacts. Congress must realistically assess the risks of IM procurement and deployment in order to make an accurate judgment on if the marginal tactical advantages outweigh the human, moral, geopolitical, and financial costs of ecological destruction. Further, Congress should take proactive steps to ensure the comprehensive health effects are accurately assessed and publicly disclosed. The production of IM munitions must not continue the destructive history of legacy explosive contaminants – which will impact affected communities in the US and internationally for decades, and potentially permanently. Congressional oversight is especially important now as the Supreme Court is likely to overturn Chevron deference this year, limiting the EPA’s ability to regulate and mitigate pollution harms.

The US also has a terrible track record in regard to remediating environmental war contamination.

Given that available data show that insensitive munitions may be more difficult, expensive, and environmentally harmful to dispose of (potentially requiring 400% more explosives to detonate), Congress should ensure this information is incorporated and budgeted for in post-conflict remediation planning. Considering the US Army’s poor history with UXO disposal via burn pits in the past, Congress should ensure that the Pentagon plans for IMX UXOs before deployment and adopts principles for assisting victims of toxic remnants of war into their operating policies. This matters immediately, from the first responders making perilous rescue runs the moment the guns are silenced. And it matters long term, as bomb disposal crews clean up and people return to make a life out of the rubble.

For too long, the true human and ecological costs of war have been excluded from foreign policy discourse. Weapons are ultimately made for one purpose: to kill. “Insensitive” munitions are no different; their use inevitably contributes to the destruction of each other’s children, our communities, and the biodiversity of our earth on which all life depends. The toxic ecological effects of these weapons must not be regarded as externalities or secondary to their battlefield functionality; environmental contamination negatively impacts conditions for long-term peace and global security and should be included in a realistic accounting of the costs of war. Ultimately, the best way to avoid these horrors – from mass death to environmental degradation to unexploded ordnance – is for policymakers to abide by and uphold human rights, and commit to resolving political disputes through diplomatic means.

The threat of space war is already here

What will happen when war comes to the heavens? Orbit, the most immediately useful part of space, is already a military domain, housing constellations of satellites that relay communications, observing the earth below, and creating useful data on the whole of the world. These military satellites are joined by commercial and scientific satellites, connecting the world and offering a host of useful services to people and companies on the planet below.

Multiple nations have successfully destroyed their own de-orbiting satellites with missiles fired from earth, and the possibility persists that a nation may attack the satellites of another during wartime.

As Dr. Joanna Rozpedowski, senior non resident fellow at CIP, writes for the Geopolitical Monitor:

Every terrestrial war is now simultaneously a space and cyber war requiring identification and active monitoring of threats from space assets and threats to space assets from rival states. In the US Department of Defense assessment, China and Russia in particular pose significant risks to space assets through various means such as cyber warfare, electronic attacks, and ground-to-orbit missiles capable of destroying satellites and space-to-space orbital engagement systems, thus disrupting civilian infrastructure on earth. This has prompted the United States to allocate substantial resources to bolster its Space Forces, with budgetary allocations to the space domain doubling from $15.4 billion to $30.3 billion between 2021 and 2024.

Orbit is shared by commercial satellites alongside military ones, and many commercial satellite products, like images of earth from above, can be purchased by private individuals and organizations.Commercial satellites can, in a pinch, end up providing data used to military ends, as forces risk communication over a commercial network, or make plans based on satellite imagery bought for reconnaissance.

Continues Rozpedowski:

Private actors must thus increasingly reckon with the unintended consequences of detailed satellite ad hoc data sharing in active conflict zones in high-demand data environments. Navigating these complexities will require international cooperation, technological innovation, and a careful consideration of ethical and political implications as well as the provision of legal guardrails to avoid the appearance of bias and undue politicization.

The existing international treaties governing space date to the middle of last century, in effect but out of date regarding present realities. Read more from Rozpedowski about the challenges of potential armed conflict in orbit.

To tackle global kleptocracy, US must also look inward and clean house

Casey Wetherbee is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He holds an M.A. in security studies from Georgetown University and previously worked as a corporate investigator specializing in international asset tracing investigations. You can follow him on Twitter/X at @caseywetherbee.

On June 3, 2021, the Biden Administration established the fight against corruption as a core national security interest, and later that year released the first U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption. The strategy, coupled with an implementation plan released in September 2023, includes such pillars as curbing illicit finance, holding corrupt actors accountable, and strengthening multilateralism. In December 2023, the White House announced several accomplishments across these pillars, including financial sanctions and enforcement actions against corrupt actors, enhanced reporting requirements for beneficial ownership, and partnerships with multilateral and civil society organizations abroad.

While it is commendable to tackle corruption abroad, it is at least as much of a problem closer to home. Scholars and progressive policy makers alike have decried the emergence of an oligarchy that wields considerable political power in the United States, fomenting grotesque inequality and swaying foreign policy. Since the 1980s, corporate interests have unduly, yet often fully legally, exercised tremendous power in politics and public affairs. A series of Supreme Court decisions have also severely narrowed the ability of prosecutors to go after cases of corruption and bribery, weakening US credibility. This domestic context, coupled with the globalized nature of kleptocratic networks, requires policy makers to propose legislation that mitigates the ability of oligarchs, both within and outside the United States, from exercising outsized influence on US political affairs.

An ideological pursuit of deregulation, begun by the Carter administration and accelerated during the Reagan administration in the 1980s, spurred the rise of American oligarchy. The lobbying profession boomed and expanded, even as a general pro-business atmosphere made its work less necessary. As Sarah Chayes described in On Corruption in America, successive administrations appointed business leaders to top regulatory positions, allowing them to influence the policies that would (or would not) constrain their own industries. At the same time “soft money” began to enter politics in the late 1970s; since 1980, there has been a demonstrable correlative relationship between campaign contributions and political outcomes, and it is impossible to know how much of these funds are from foreign sources. These factors have resulted in a system by which kleptocrats can effectively pay to capture resources from the state, sustained by the “revolving door” between the public and private sectors and an electoral feedback loop fed by more and more money.

US credibility in terms of anti-corruption policy is hindered by a weak enforcement regime against corruption and bribery domestically. Several federal lawsuits have followed a pattern by which a public official commits an act that is clearly corrupt or fraudulent, such as the “Bridgegate” scandal; they are convicted for using their office for personal gain; the Supreme Court overturns the conviction, citing the vagueness of the laws as written. Indeed, gaps in federal corruption law require that prosecutors rely on federal mail and wire fraud statutes in order to target acts of corruption and bribery by public officials, despite those statutes not having been designed with that purpose. For example, the 2017 corruption trial of New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, which centered around lavish gifts he received from a Florida ophthalmologist later found guilty of Medicare fraud, resulted in a hung jury and all charges being dropped. This result largely drew from the Court’s 2016 decision in McDonnell v. Virginia, which had earlier been used to overturn the high-profile corruption cases of New York politicians Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos.

In September 2023, the DOJ charged Menendez — then-Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — in a bribery scheme involving cash, luxury vehicles, and gold bars provided on behalf of the Egyptian and Qatari governments. Even given the abundance of evidence of Menendez’s shady dealings, the burden of proof for federal prosecutors is considerable given the recent restrictions of terms such as “official act” and “honest services fraud” that will be used to prosecute him.

According to legal scholar Zephyr Teachout, these recent Supreme Court decisions “enshrined bribery into our politics.” Although they are certainly discouraging, they are not cause for despair. In 1987, McNally v. United States overturned the conviction of a Kentucky public official over an insurance kickback scheme. In response to this implicit direction by the Supreme Court to clarify the criminal statute, Congress added 18 U.S.C. § 1346, defining honest services fraud. Given the Court’s unwillingness to interpret the existing law broadly, the onus again lies with Congress to draft new statutes that align corruption law with the public’s general understanding of what is corrupt. This could include incorporating state-level definitions of official misconduct, which are often quite robust, into the text of the statute to alleviate federalism concerns. Policy makers at the state level should review and strengthen, if necessary, regulations regarding bribery and conflicts of interest.

Anti-corruption laws are useless if there is no political will or incentive to enforce them, and corrupt officials can sabotage the functions of their own institutions in order to serve kleptocratic interests. During the Trump administration, environmental enforcement actions by the EPA plummeted under the scandal-ridden leadership of Scott Pruitt, who appointed former lobbyists to high-level positions.

In order to counter the infiltration of oligarchic interests within US institutions, progressive policy makers should embrace legislation that promotes public integrity: tightening conflicts of interest by targeting stock ownership, closing loopholes by which corporate interests sabotage public interest actions, and regulating lobbying activities, which should include a ban on American lobbyists accepting money from foreign entities. From a national security standpoint, it is also important to include provisions regarding Defense officials and contractor transparency.

The Biden administration has made some strides reining in American oligarchy. This includes enabling the IRS to crack down on tax evasion, requiring real estate professionals to report suspicious activity, and mandating beneficial ownership reports to FinCEN as of January 2024 (although on March 1 the Alabama District Court ruled this provision unconstitutional and is pending appeal). Many of these recent actions target kleptocrats’ use of shell companies and trusts to launder money, a tactic that large multinational corporations also use to evade taxes. Shell companies, non-profit entities, and other facilitators of dark money in US elections must be priority targets for progressive policy makers, both by closing loopholes that Citizens United created and addressing the gap in FEC enforcement. Like with anti-corruption statutes, policy makers must also address campaign finance transparency at the local and state levels. These transparency measures must both eliminate mechanisms by which foreign kleptocrats contribute to US elections and shine a light on sources of dark money.

Ultimately, addressing the culture of individualism and greed that has afflicted US institutions for the last several decades will require profound normative changes. These legislative proposals, however, are an important starting point toward ending the power of kleptocracy within the United States, which will in turn allow it to more honestly help other democracies fight back against kleptocratic threats and corruption.