Another interview with a key IRS employee, another oblique connection to Washington, D.C. and yet still no explosive revelations in the scandal surrounding the agency's targeting of Tea Party groups.
Although his name was blacked out, NPR has confirmed the "screening group" manager's name is John Shafer, a long-time IRS employee who supervised workers doing initial screenings of applications for tax exempt status in the Cincinnati field office.
"I believe releasing this transcript serves the best interest of Congress and the American people by ensuring that there is an accurate and fair picture of the management challenges facing the IRS and that recommendations for legislative reform are appropriately crafted to address the specific problems identified as a result of our oversight efforts," said Cummings, the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, in a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the committee's chairman.
Issa shot back with a statement saying the release of this transcript could potentially harm the committee's investigation.
"I am deeply disappointed that Ranking Member Cummings has decided to broadly disseminate and post online a 205 page transcript that will serve as a roadmap for IRS officials to navigate investigative interviews with Congress," said Issa.
What's so special about Shafer's interview?
Cummings says it "debunks conspiracy theories about how the IRS first started reviewing these cases."
For the Maryland Democrat, it certainly can't hurt that Shafer describes himself as a "conservative Republican" and also says the elevating of Tea Party cases for further review started with him, rather than someone higher up the chain.
But much like transcripts of other interviews viewed by NPR, this lengthy interview reveals just a tiny piece of the ongoing investigation.
How It All Started
As Shafer describes it, his team of agents does an initial screening of the approximately 70,000 applications for tax-exempt status the IRS receives each year. Some are marked for approval, others that are missing information or have other issues are sent along to agents who will review those cases.
In February 2010, according to Shafer, an agent whose name has been redacted came to him with an application from a Tea Party group.
"[name redacted] was an agent who worked for me and he came to my office," said Shafer in the transcribed interview with a bipartisan group of investigators. "And he was asking guidance concerning a case that had been assigned to him, and I believe his comment at that point in time to me was that, 'I can't really close this case. I'm going to sent it to inventory.' But because of media attention that he had seen, he had concerns about this being a high-profile case."
Shafer said he agreed it should be elevated, so he sent it to his direct supervisors who then sent it on to an office of tax lawyers in a Washington D.C office called Exempt Organizations Technical.
"[Name redacted] came back and said, yes, EO Technical wants to see this case, then this ends up to be a case that we want to make sure we're consistently going to look at, and that's where this started," said Shafer.
A Bureaucratic Maze
As it turns out, the IRS is a maze of divisions and offices with opaque sounding names. Shafer appears to have been a cog in the machine.
Investigators asked him about the development of the BOLO (or Be on the Lookout) notice that told agents to flag Tea Party files. Shafer said he didn't know much about it. Investigators asked him what happened to the applications after they were identified as Tea Party cases. He said he didn't know. As he explained more than once: "My function, again, was to look at these initial cases with a span of a few days and put them in a proper bucket and just go on with my work. Whatever went on after I bucketed these cases, it was what it was. I was not intimately involved with any of that," said Shafer.
But he did make it clear the initial elevation of the case was his idea, and that it had nothing to do with partisan politics. He said the goal was simply to treat similar groups fairly and consistently.
In fact, he told investigators he didn't think the term "targeting" was accurate.
"I'm not in a position to discuss anybody else's intention but my own, and I know that what I did was not targeting," said Shafer.
Ultimately the Tea Party cases experienced long waits and treatment the IRS Inspector General deemed inappropriate, but how that happened isn't clear from Shafer's testimony.
"At this point in the investigation, not one witness who has appeared before the Committee has identified any involvement by any White House officials in the identification or screening of Tea Party applicants for tax exempt status, and the Committee has obtained no documents indicating any such involvement," said Cummings in his letter to Issa.
Issa, for his part, says Cummings is just trying to obstruct the oversight process. And so, the fight continues.
President Obama defended the National Security Agency's surveillance programs today during a joint news conference in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Obama said that when he came into office, he came in with a "healthy skepticism" about the programs and ordered his administration to "examine" and "scrub" them.
Obama said he is now "confident that at this point, we have struck the right balance" between protecting the country and the Constitutional guarantee to privacy.
As he has on other occasions, Obama described both programs as "circumscribed" and "narrow."
At around 9 a.m. ET., Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. USA Today reports that he will "renew calls for a reduction in nuclear weapons."
The paper adds:
"Obama will address a crowd of 5,000 invited guests at the historic landmark in the center of Berlin almost 50 years after John F. Kennedy made his famous speech at what was then West Berlin at the Rathaus Schoeneberg (town hall). Obama made a speech as a presidential candidate in the city in 2008."
We'll monitor the speech and add highlights to this post.
For a second night in a row, tens of thousands of Brazilians took the streets on Tuesday to protest everything from the cost of living to government corruption.
"More than 50,000 people massed in front of the city's main cathedral. While mostly peaceful, the demonstration followed the rhythm of protests that drew 240,000 people across Brazil the previous night, with small bands of radicals splitting off to fight with police and break into stores.
"Mass protests have been mushrooming across Brazil since demonstrations called last week by a group angry over the high cost of a woeful public transport system and a recent 10-cent hike in bus and subway fares in Sao Paulo, Rio and elsewhere."
The government tried to appease the demonstrators. O Globo reports that 11 cities across the country lowered bus fares. If you remember, it was that hike that sparked the mass protests.
In São Paolo, Brazil's largest city, the mayor relented, saying he would rethink the 20 cent increase and meet with the protesters.
"If people make a decision to revoke the price increase, I'll do what they want me to do, because I'm the mayor of the city to do what the city wants me to do," he told the paper.
O Globo adds that in Rio de Janeiro, the site of the biggest protest on Monday, the governor of the state left the door open to revoke the hike.
Reuters reports that Tuesday night's demonstrations were "marred by a small group of rioters who smashed the windows of Sao Paulo's city hall then set fire to a police security post and a TV broadcaster's transmission van."
President Dilma Rousseff, a socialist, gave a speech in Brasilia on Tuesday, where she praised the demonstrations.
"Brazil woke up stronger today," Rousseff said. "The size of yesterday's demonstrations shows the energy of our democracy, the strength of the voice of the streets and the civility of our population."
If you're interested in more, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro wrote a piece about the parallels between the Brazilian protests and those happening a world away in Turkey.
This week, Vice Magazine unveiled a fashion spread featuring images based on famous women writers who killed themselves. To call it merely tasteless would be to understate how calculated it was as well as how revolting it was — it literally created an image based on a real writer who really hanged herself with a pair of stockings, and then it told you where to buy the stockings.
And because it was awful, a lot of people wrote about how awful it was, and Vice eventually took it down from the online magazine while (of course) leaving it in the print edition, and they apologized, sort of, in that "sorry if you're mad about the fashion model we posed with a gun to her mouth" way that's so very common and dispiriting.
If I had to guess, I'd guess whoever thought of it will get a promotion.
Yesterday, my Twitter feed filled up with people who were horrified by the spread, but also with some folks arguing that it was the duty of all of us to ignore it and stop talking about it. The magazine, this thinking went, was obviously only were doing it to make people angry, to attract the attention that comes with horror, to get eyeballs that showed up expecting to be disgusted and were not disappointed.
If I had to guess, I'd guess it's probably true. The magazine's semi-apology claiming that this all stems from their attempt to be editorial isn't remotely persuasive; nobody puts a gun in a model's mouth and doesn't know that's going to be a storm. You only do it if you want the storm. They wanted the storm, they got it, they probably counted the clicks and are perfectly happy.
This particular line of thought, the settle-down line, holds that when you know something is bait, when you know it's there to make you angry, you simply ignore it. You see a fashion spread, for instance, where women killing themselves is used as fashion and commerce and smarmy provocation, and you know that if you say anything, they win. So you say nothing. You stay quiet.
There are times when this approach has some appeal to me. When I see on Twitter that someone with an egg avatar and two followers has gotten a writer I know to spend ages arguing back and forth about nothing, there is part of me that thinks, "Why bother? The world is full of awfulness; you will never beat back all of it." We all ignore things all day long; if we didn't, we'd never get anything done.
But Vice asks for credibility. It's trying to position itself as a force in a kind of gonzo journalism for bros. They have a series on HBO. They don't have an egg avatar. They get — and want — attention for the things they do that are serious. This isn't scouring the internet for obscure horrible people doing horrible things in tiny corners and exhausting yourself howling at the moon over it. This is seeing a powerful media brand selling degrading images of violence in an issue they're claiming is all about women in fiction.
It's insidious and frustrating, the idea that the more blatant an effort to offend for attention, the more the offended are to blame if they react. It imposes a sort of duty of measured inertness, as if you owe it to the greater good not to challenge something if the people who dumped it out into the world don't really believe in it but only want a reaction. It rewards anything you believe to be craven exploitation by suggesting that the more you believe it's just craven exploitation, the more you owe it to the world to sit silently, roll your eyes, and be quiet. It makes craven exploitation bulletproof.
It's insidious and frustrating, but (or maybe because) it's true. It's true, I suspect, that Vice probably got what they wanted from this when Jezebel wrote about it. It's true that we may all be following the intended script, including me. It's not that I don't get it; we all get it. And I can't speak for anybody else, but as a writer, I feel sort of bullied either way when things like this happen — bullied into responding as I know I'm expected to, or bullied into sitting quietly while somebody flicks me on the ear. Neither feels good; in fact, both feel awful.
But both feel awful because both are responses to something that feels awful already, which is seeing real and serious issues (I've seen it with race and sexuality and faith; in this case, it's the gross ways in which degradation, violence and fashion are mixed) exploited for attention. And that's still bad, even if it works.
When this happens, when I believe or half-believe that something is only there to make me angry, it feels less like simple click bait and more like taunting. What are you going to do about it? Go ahead. Get mad. You're only going to make it seem important.
Well, so be it. Perhaps there isn't a good way to call out quests for attention without rewarding them in the short term. But in the long term, this spread still happened, and Vice will always be the magazine that published it. And I will always be a writer who predictably wrote about how gross it was. I suppose we'll both have to live with it.
Jess Jiang and Lam Thuy Vo
The rise of curbside recycling programs in the last few decades has meant more glass recycling. But for a long time, many recycling centers didn't have the technology to turn recycled glass into the raw material for new bottles. Instead, recycled glass often wound up being used as a cheap construction material, or even to cover landfills.
Now, with new technology that can better sort glass collected in curbside recycling, more used glass bottles can be turned back into new glass bottles. To see how this works, we went to a glass recycling facility and a bottle factory.
Outside a recycling plant in Jersey City, there are piles and piles of what looks like garbage. But it's actually broken glass, mixed with things like plastic bags, bottle caps, etc. Large items like some cans and plastic jugs have already been sorted out.
Inside the plant, the stuff goes through more sorting. To isolate the glass, a magnet first pulls out metal caps, lids, small tin cans, and other pieces of metal.
Getting the metal out is the easy part. But to turn glass back into bottles, you also have to sort the broken glass by color. (Clear glass is the easiest to turn back into bottles, and the most valuable product of glass recycling.)
When recycling centers relied mainly on human labor, sorting out broken pieces of clear glass from the greens, browns, and blues was a slow and dangerous job, according to Tom Outerbridge, the general manager at the recycling facility.
Today, recycling plants use optical sorting machines. These machines take pictures of all the glass, and then use air jets to blow the clear glass onto a different conveyor belt.
The recycling plant sells the crushed clear glass to bottle manufacturers, like Ardagh Group in Salem, NJ. When we visited, they were making Snapple bottles, mason jars, and Nantucket Nectar bottles. Gary Shears, the general manager, says that they use about 150 tons of clear recycled glass a day.
Here's a bulldozer delivering 25 tons of recycled glass to the bottle factory:
The recycled glass is mixed with soda ash, sand, and limestone, and everything is melted together in furnace heated to 2,700 degrees. (We wanted to take a picture of the furnace, but they warned us that it was so hot that getting close to it could destroy our camera lens. Which makes sense, given that it was hot enough to melt glass.)
Gary says they can never get enough recycled glass. Recycled glass melts at a lower temperature than the raw materials used to make glass from scratch. So more recycled glass means huge energy savings. Right now, his bottles are made of about 20-25 percent recycled glass. Gary said he would use two or three times as much, if there was more recycled glass available.
The bright orange molten glass is weighed and cut into pieces called gobs, which are dropped onto molds to create the mouth of the bottles.
Then a glass blowing machine blows the gobs of molten glass into red hot bottles. Salem's newer machines can make about 400 bottles a minute.
The Salem glass factory ships about 3 million Snapple bottles a day, six days a week.