Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more....

CNN has another twist in the issue of touch-screen electronic voting devices.
Washington (AP) - A company developing security technology for electronic voting suffered an embarrassing hacker break-in that executives think was tied to the rancorous debate over the safety of casting ballots online.

VoteHere Inc. of Bellevue, Washington, confirmed Monday that U.S. authorities are investigating a break-in of its computers months ago, when someone roamed its internal computer network. The intruder accessed internal documents and may have copied sensitive software blueprints that the company planned eventually to disclose publicly.
The company, which claims it can identify the hacker, is treating this as an attempt to steal documents for the purpose of embarrassing them in the same way Diebold was embarrassed by the way its own internal statements demonstrated the problems with the technology.

But I suspect there may be something else going on here. What if it develops that the purpose wasn't to get documents but to show they could be gotten? That is, how can we trust these corporations to protect our votes when they can't even protect their own files?

Other posts on the topic are here, here, here, and here. And don't forget, which has an interesting take on this story.

'Round and 'round she goes....

We've been here before, a right-wing administration attacking public broadcasting. Only the method has changed - again, the switch from the frontal assault that most would reject to sneaking in the backdoor where no one is watching.

In a December 30 email (thus no direct link) to supporters, Common Cause's CauseNET reveals that
[t]he Bush Administration has awarded two major Republican donors seats on the nine-member board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Bush appointees Cheryl Halpern and Gay Hart Gaines and their families have given over $800,000 to Republican causes in recent years.

But just as troubling are the agendas that Halpern and Hart Gaines would bring to the CPB. Both have stated views or espoused causes that call into question their qualifications to service on a board whose mission is to promote and fund public television and radio programming.

Halpern, in her confirmation hearings, indicated that she would welcome empowering the CPB board members to intervene in program content when they felt a program was biased. And, Gaines was an ardent supporter of Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA) who, as House Speaker in 1994, proposed cutting all federal assistance to public television.
Not that CPB, increasingly enamored of corporate funding, has been so great or bold over the last several years, but at least it offered some minimal alternative. And the claws sink deeper into yet another target.

Through another's eyes

Just to give an example of how we appear from at least one place outside. These are excerpts from a commentary in the Toronto Star for December 28. The author is Haroon Siddiqui, editorial page editor emeritus. And no, I had nothing to do with the title.

Bush is author of dark chapter for America
George W. Bush, a small man in a big job, has dragged America into one of its darkest chapters.

He commands unprecedented military power, but his word carries little or no weight in much of the world. ...

Bush's next declared mission, that of toppling Yasser Arafat, only reinforces the image of the president as a king who knows not the boundaries of his kingdom, nor the limits of his power. Or, as a captive of pro-Israeli hawks hell-bent on remaking the Middle East to Likud designs.

While the president struts and smirks for the cameras in contrived situations - landing on an aircraft carrier to prematurely declare victory in Iraq or serving Thanksgiving turkey to soldiers in Baghdad - terrorism has increased under his watch. Not unlike the record rise in suicide bombings in Israel under Ariel Sharon. ...

The administration, invoking 9/11 and the murder of 2,900 innocents as its licence to wage unilateral wars, has so far killed about 10,000 innocents in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's a guesstimate, since America does not count the Afghans and Iraqis it kills in the process of "liberating" them. ...

His war on Iraq was waged on a pack of lies, shoving aside the United Nations when it refused to play its part in the sham exercise of rubberstamping a predetermined course. ...

He invoked democracy but ignored its expression abroad and suspended its principles at home.

His war was universally opposed, even by the electorates of the governments that joined his "coalition of the willing" - Britain, Spain, Italy and Australia. His most enthusiastic allies were dictators and oppressors, the worst violators of human rights, who used the war on terrorism to stifle dissidents and kill secessionists. ...

His administration's violations of the Geneva Convention and the U.S. Constitution are not explained away by the need to cut corners to get at terrorists. Besides not catching any, his policies alienated the very groups whose help was crucial and also sapped the moral strength of his rhetoric and America's $240 million public-relations campaign in Muslim nations. ...

Surveying these geopolitical ruins, it is politically incorrect to blame the American public. But its gullibility is alarming. Even now, a majority believes that Saddam had a hand in 9/11. The Bush crowd knows only too well the usefulness of Saddam, a former ally now a demon.
I felt moved to respond, in part:
It is so tragic that so many here in the US are so appallingly unaware of how we as a nation now appear to much of the rest of the world. Power plus insularity yields hubris, which in the long term always yields disaster for either the powerful or the powerless - and often enough both.

I genuinely fear for my country - and for the damage it can and will inflict on the world as it thrashes about in its ignorance, trying desperately to make sense of what's happening.

And I celebrate those who can and do point out the danger.

More media madness

The media's desire to trivialize, sloganize, and hyperbolize events is not limited to US elections, even when the events themselves have their own drama, as ABC News for December 29 shows.
Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro Dec. 29 - Jailed former President Slobodan Milosevic and another U.N. war crimes suspect won seats in Serbia's parliament as an extreme nationalist party swept weekend elections, according to results released Monday.

Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party, which supported Milosevic's Balkan war campaigns in the 1990s, won 81 seats in Sunday's ballot for the 250-seat parliament....

Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party won 22 seats. ...

Vojislav Kostunica, the former Yugoslav president who succeeded Milosevic and whose conservative Democratic Party of Serbia finished second with 53 seats. The pro-Western Democratic Party, a separate bloc which led the outgoing reformist government, was third with 37 seats, according to the near-complete results.
Okay, two accused war criminals have been elected to seats in the Serbian parliament. That's pretty dramatic. And it does show, as ABC reports, a profound dissatisfaction with the government and the existence of strong anti-West feelings in the wake of 1999's bombings.

Still, the Radicals won 81 seats out of 250. Even with Milosevic's party, they have only 103, which means they still would have to go into coalition with at least one of the pro-Western parties. Adding Kostunica's party would enable them to form a government, but one with a razor-thin majority of six seats. And as the article itself says, "The parties belonging to the Democratic bloc suggested they might join forces and try to form a government."

So explain to me how this constitutes having "swept" the elections.

Now they tell us

This is from a December 30 article in the Christian Science Monitor assessing NAFTA at the age of 10.
NAFTA was supposed to build a division of labor that produced jobs on both sides of the border, while delivering a prosperity to Mexico that would weaken the factors that have fed Mexican emigration to the US for decades. That was a tall order that no single agreement could make good on, analysts say, especially in the complex environment of expanding globalization.
So remember the next time you hear some supposed expert tell you that unfettered free trade is the bringer of all things good and holy:

They - are - lying.

What's up is down

So CNN says that
WASHINGTON (AP) - Forecasters believe things are falling into place to produce the strongest economic growth in two decades. ...

"The economy is off and running, and 2004 should be a very good year," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at ...

Many analysts believe the overall economy, as measured by gross domestic product, will expand next year by 4.6 percent or more, the biggest gain since 1984.
Okay - but good for who? The sky-high GDP growth of the 3rd quarter of 2003 annualized to 8.2% (i.e., the GDP would grow 8.2% a year if the same rate of growth continued). That's a big increase. Where did the benefits go?

Certainly not to workers, as Paul Krugman notes in his December 30 New York Times column:
[W]age and salary income, adjusted for inflation, rose at an annual rate of only 0.8 percent. More recent data don't change the picture: in the six months that ended in November, income from wages rose only 0.65 percent after inflation. ...

[T]hanks to a weak labor market, employers have felt no pressure to share productivity gains. Calculations by the Economic Policy Institute show real wages for most workers flat or falling even as the economy expands.
Nor has it gone into job growth that would benefit the unemployed.
[T]he current jobless rate of 5.9 percent - down from a high this summer of 6.4 percent - is expected to still be around 5.7 percent when America votes next November[, CNN says]. ...

The sustained recovery should translate into job increases of 100,000 or more per month, which would translate into at least an additional 1.2 million more jobs next year, the first positive year for job growth since 2000. Since the recession began in March 2001, the country has lost 2.35 million payroll jobs.
But even under this upbeat scenario, Bush will end his term with a net job loss of over 1 million - a net loss being something that hasn't happened to a president since Herbert Hoover. Indeed, the figure of 100,000 additional jobs a month is not only, Krugman says,
well short of the 225,000 jobs added per month during the Clinton years; it's even below the roughly 150,000 jobs needed to keep up with a growing working-age population.
That is, the predictions most favorable to Bush only mean that ordinary people will be losing ground more slowly. Just how bad is the job market? The Los Angeles Times for December 29 lets us in on a very poorly-kept secret: It's much worse than the "artificially rosy" official figures let on.
To begin with, there are the 8.7 million unemployed, defined as those without a job who are actively looking for work. But lurking behind that group are 4.9 million part-time workers ... who say they would rather be working full time - the highest number in a decade.

There are also the 1.5 million people who want a job but didn't look for one in the last month. Nearly a third of this group say they stopped the search because they were too depressed about the prospect of finding anything. Officially termed "discouraged," their number has surged 20% in a year.

Add these three groups together and the jobless total for the U.S. hits 9.7%, up from 9.4% a year ago. [Emphasis added.] ...

The segment of the labor force that has been jobless for more than 15 weeks has risen nearly 150% since 2000. The current level is the highest since the recession of the early 1990s. Nearly one-quarter of the jobless have been unemployed for longer than six months.
That, CNN reports, is a 20-year high. And that's not likely to improve over the long term, the LA Times indicates, quoting Erica Groshen, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
"If you plot job losses versus gains on a chart, it's shocking," she says.

Losses are running at about the same rate they were in 1997 and 1998, two good years for the economy. But job creation in the first quarter of 2003 - the most recent period available - was only 7.4 million, the lowest since 1993.
So, where did the benefits go? Krugman knows.
The direct gains are going largely to corporate profits, which rose at an annual rate of more than 40 percent in the third quarter. ...

A good indicator of the share of increased profits that goes to different income groups is the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of the share of the corporate profits tax that falls, indirectly, on those groups. According to the most recent estimate, only 8 percent of corporate taxes were paid by the poorest 60 percent of families, while 67 percent were paid by the richest 5 percent, and 49 percent by the richest 1 percent. ("Class warfare!" the right shouts.) So a recovery that boosts profits but not wages delivers the bulk of its benefits to a small, affluent minority.

The bottom line, then, is that for most Americans, current economic growth is a form of reality TV, something interesting that is, however, happening to other people.
As Krugman indirectly points out, any time you criticize the privileged positions of the rich or suggest reducing the cost their greed imposes on the rest of us, they will summon up every bit of tut-tutting condescension they can muster, belch politely (one too many truffles, so sorry), and lecture you on the importance of rewarding great effort (theirs) and the evils of rewarding sloth (yours), while their right-wing acolytes scream "Class warfare!" in the political equivalent of a pre-emptive strike.

Class warfare is nothing new here. There's been a class war going on for a long time - a war of the rich against the poor. For a relatively brief period, about the 30 years from the latter 1940s to the latter 1970s, the rest of us had the upper hand, and during that time real disposable income rose as income equality shrank, as did, during the last 10 or so years of that time, poverty. But the tide turned again as the Empire struck back with a new divide and conquer strategy: Knowing a direct assault would fail, they took advantage of lingering discomfort over the social changes born of the 60s to push the so-called "hot button" issues to divide black from white, women from men, workers from environmentalists - and when economic times were hard they urged everyone to be concerned with only themselves and theirs and the hell with everyone else. Over time they succeeded in moving the victims of their avarice to blame, to point fingers at, to denounce, everybody, anybody, anybody but them. So complete was their victory that a majority of us supported repeal of the estate tax, even though it was already so limited that the change benefitted only a tiny handful of the richest people in the country.

By stealth their wealth grew this time, not by glorying in it; this wasn't the Golden Era, it was a time for subtlety. Hidden away, unspoken, the dictates of wealth re-established themselves. After-tax family income tells the shocking story. Over the period 1977-1999, after-tax family income for the poorest fifth of our population fell by 9%. For the next fifth it was essentially stagnant, while the middle fifth gained about 8%. Over the same period, the after-tax income of the next richest fifth went up 14% and that of the richest fifth rose 43%! To top it off, the after-tax income of the richest 1% among us went up 115% over that period - that is, it more than doubled. (Calculations from the vital Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, using Congressional Budget Office data.)

The simple fact is, the rich have gotten richer and richer over the past 25 or so years, gobbling up more and more of our national wealth, leaving less and less for the rest of us. According to the most recent figures available from the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances, the richest 10% of our population own 71% of the wealth. Income figures tell the same story: "Most measures of income inequality indicate that inequality rose substantially between 1967 and the early 1990s and was largely unchanged through the late 1990s." (Money Income in the United States: 2001, US Census Bureau, September 2002) Other sources agree that the growth in inequality slowed in the 1990s but it did not stop, that is, inequality continued to grow, just not as fast. (Recent Trends in Wealth Ownership, 1983-1998, by Edward N. Wolff, Jerome Levy Economics Institute, April 2000.)

We have been getting squeezed for decades with results that can be seen in everyday ways.
We don't know the final sales figures yet, but it's clear that high-end stores did very well [over the holiday season], while stores catering to middle- and low-income families achieved only modest gains
Krugman says. Our futures shrivel, our presents stagnate and slip away, our plans for our children to be better off than us fade, many of us give up even on the hope of a decent job and benefits? What are they?

Sooner or later, sooner or later, enough people will get angry enough, enough people will see clearly enough, enough people will have hope enough, to take back their futures - if only we can survive this dark time. Which I fully and perhaps foolishly believe we will.

In the meanwhile, the next time someone tells you that, for example, raising taxes on the rich is "class warfare," you just tell them "Damn right it is. And about time, too."

They Also Serve Who Only Stand and Wait Dept.: CNN says
[David] Wyss [chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York] and other forecasters believe the Federal Reserve will keep interest rates low most of the year despite stronger growth because inflation will continue to be a no-show. Many don't expect the first Fed rate increase until after November's election.
Careful, now: Don't do anything that might even possibly slow the expansion.

And by the way, think about just why "inflation will continue to be a no-show."

Update: Edited to add a link to the Economic Policy Institute

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The Plame Game

The Washington Post for December 30 reports that
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has recused himself from the investigation of the leak of an undercover CIA officer's identity as the Justice Department named a special prosecutor to oversee the widening probe, Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey said today.

The investigation into the disclosure of CIA agent Valerie Plame's name to a columnist will be led by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald of Chicago, who Comey said will report to him.

"The attorney general, in an abundance of caution, believed that his recusal was appropriate based on the totality of the circumstances and the facts and evidence developed at this stage of the investigation," Comey said at a news conference in Washington. "I agree with that judgment. And I also agree that he made it at the appropriate time, the appropriate point in this investigation."
Comey apparently gave no reason as to why it was now "appropriate" for Ashcroft to recuse himself in a way it wasn't before.

While this does appear to mean the investigation actually is getting serious, once again the question of media spin crops up.

For months, Democrats and anyone with any interest at all in truth have been screaming "Special Prosecutor" to a brick wall. Now, suddenly, the White House has agreed to appoint just such a person - and all the news leads are about how Ashcroft has "stepped aside," as one put it, with an undertone that this somehow shows him to be some kind of honorable figure! "Appropriate time," my ass - the appropriate time was when the whole thing started. One can only wonder how much damage has already been done to any investigation by all the delays in seizing papers and examining people that Ashcroft either allowed or caused.

Still, this may point to trouble, so let's hope - but the emphasis there is on "may," since I for one doubt that the White House gang would let go even to this degree of the investigation if they had any notion it could still hurt them politically.

Update December 31: Something that should be made clear but isn't from the above is that Fitzgerald may be a special prosecutor but he's not an independent special prosecutor. As the article says, he reports to Comey - which means the investigation is still under the control of the DOJ. So instead of a step in the right direction, consider it a half-step in the right direction.

Half empty or half full?

In a December 28 editorial, the Boston Globe notes that "in the month of December alone, Bush was rebuffed by three separate federal appeals courts, another federal judge, and the World Trade Organization."

The issues were

- the plan to allow polluting power companies to make major changes to their plants without making them cleaner, blocked by the DC Court of Appeals;
- Jose Padilla, who the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ordered be either charged with a crime or released;
- Guantanamo Bay "detentions," which the Ninth Circuit Court declared are likely in violation of international law;
- opening Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks to hundreds of snowmobilers, which a federal judge prevented as violating the "primary mandates, regulations, and policies" of the Park Service; and
- steel import tariffs, which did violate trade agreements and which Bush rescinded in the face of mounting domestic and foreign pressure.

Now, I can't say rescinding the tariffs was a good thing since they were imposed to protect a domestic industry and undone due to worship at the altar of The God of Free Trade, but it still was an area where Shrub was forced to back off.

So the question is, half empty (Bush and his cronies continue to try this bull) or half full (dammit, they are finally running up against some limits)? Frankly, I'm not sure, although I am just the tiniest bit relieved. But I suspect we haven't seen the half of it.

Now this is just pathetic

According to a White House press release, on October 3 Laura Bush said, in the course of her opening remarks at the National Book Festival Gala,
President Bush is a great leader and husband - but I bet you didn't know, he is also quite the poet. Upon returning home last night from my long trip, I found a lovely poem waiting for me. Normally, I wouldn't share something so personal, but since we're celebrating great writers, I can't resist.
She then read a bit of doggerel addressed to "Dear Laura" of a sort any non-poet husband might write to his wife. She then said "I'm happy to be the inspiration behind this poem." Now, however, while appearing on "Meet the Press" on Sunday,
[t]he first lady also said that the "Roses are red, violets are blue" poem she read at a National Book Festival gala in October was not actually written by her husband even though it has been attributed to him. ...

"But a lot of people really believed that he did," she said. "Some woman from across the table said, 'You just don't know how great it is to have a husband who would write a poem for you.'"
I mean, jeez, can't these people tell the truth about anything?

Don't give them any ideas

The BBC for December 30 had something I bet Karl Rove read with interest.
An Algerian court has frozen the activities of the country's main political party in what appears to be an intensifying power struggle.

The National Liberation Front, formerly the sole ruling party, split this year between supporters and opponents of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

A majority backed party leader Ali Benflis after he announced a bid for the presidency in next year's election.

The court questioned the legality of Mr Benflis' nomination by the party acting on a request by the FLN's pro-Bouteflika faction.
"Hmmm. Ordering a party to stop its activity. Hmmm. Well, the Supreme Court delivered on Florida, I wonder if...."

This almost makes Fox's suit look intelligent

Not all weirdness is security-related.
San Francisco (AP, December 29) - A federal appeals court on Monday dismissed a copyright lawsuit Mattel Inc. brought against a Utah artist who shot a photographic series depicting Barbie dolls naked in a blender, wrapped in a tortilla and sizzling on a wok.

Mattel sued Tom Forsythe, a self-described "artsurdist" from Kanab, Utah, who used the fashion dolls in a work entitled "Food Chain Barbie" to criticize "America's culture of consumption and conformism." One photo, "Malted Barbie," featured a nude Barbie on a vintage Hamilton Beach malt machine.

The toy maker sued Forsythe in 1999, alleging copyright infringement and dilution of copyright. Mattel said the pictures, which often showed Barbie posed in sexually provocative positions, could confuse consumers into believing the company was behind the works.

A federal judge in Los Angeles also had dismissed the suit. Mattel took the case to the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which on Monday agreed with U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew.

The appeals court said the lawsuit "may have been groundless and unreasonable." In addition, the court said Forsythe had a First Amendment right to lampoon Barbie.

"Mattel cannot use trademark laws to censor all parodies or satires which use its name," Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the three-judge panel.

El Segundo, Calif.-based Mattel did not return calls seeking comment.
It's not that they don't want to comment, it's just that they keep pulling that string but nothing useful comes out.

Zzzzzip. "Math is hard!"

No, that won't do....

"Put the book down and step away slowly!"

Okay, this is getting seriously weird.
WASHINGTON (AP, December 29) - The FBI is warning police nationwide to be alert for people carrying almanacs, cautioning that the popular reference books covering everything from abbreviations to weather trends could be used for terrorist planning.

In a bulletin sent Christmas Eve to about 18,000 police organizations, the FBI said terrorists may use almanacs "to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning."

It urged officers to watch during searches, traffic stops and other investigations for anyone carrying almanacs, especially if the books are annotated in suspicious ways.

"The practice of researching potential targets is consistent with known methods of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that seek to maximize the likelihood of operational success through careful planning," the FBI wrote.
Coming in the next bulletin: The dangers of AAA road maps.

I hate this I hate this I hate this

I hate feeling obligated to defend Howard Dean - again. But it appears the media, thriving on conflict and drooling on blood-letting, has decided that Dean will be the nominee and is setting up its script for the fall elections, the one where they come up with a single-phrase description of each candidate with which all coverage must agree. And the line for Dean looks like it's becoming "angry, out-of-the-mainstream hypocrite" - although the RNC is pushing "pessimistic," so don't count that out.

Put another way, the reason I can stomach doing this is that defending Dean provides a critique of the media and the sorry, dysfunctional way they cover the political process.

What brings this up now is a December 29 CBS News item about how Dean,
who has criticized the Bush administration for refusing to release the deliberations of its energy policy task force, as governor of Vermont convened a similar panel that met in secret and angered state lawmakers. ...

In 1999, he offered the same argument the administration uses today for keeping deliberations of a policy task force secret.

"The governor needs to receive advice from time to time in closed session. As every person in government knows, sometimes you get more open discussion when it's not public," Dean was quoted as saying.
CBS tries mightily to make the two cases as identical as possible, even at the cost of coverage which can best be described as misleading, claiming "the parallels between the Cheney and Dean task forces are many." Except that Dean's panel was devoted to a single, narrow issue - restructuring Vermont's nearly bankrupt electric utilities - that needed immediate attention; Cheney's was a broad rewrite of energy policy.
Both declined to open their deliberations, even under pressure from legislators.
Except that Dean's group did hold one open meeting; Cheney's held none.
Both received input from the energy industry in private meetings
Except that Dean's group also heard from environmentalists and advocates for the poor; Cheney's specifically excluded them.
and released the names of task force members publicly.
Except that Dean's group did so willingly upon release of the report; the membership of Cheney's group has never been formally revealed - rather, his aides have leaked names to reporters.

They even try to equate campaign contributions.
The Bush-Cheney campaign and Republican Party received millions in donations from energy interests in the election before its task force was created.

Dean's Vermont re-election campaign received only small contributions from energy executives, but a political action committee created as he prepared to run for president collected $19,000, or nearly a fifth of its first $110,000, from donors tied to Vermont's electric utilities.
Except that Cheney's plan can be easily and properly seen as a reward for campaign cash, while the contributions to Dean came after the study was completed and were for an office in which he would not be in a position to easily do those utilities any special favors.

Now, it should go without saying that open deliberations were the proper and right way to go and Dean was and is wrong to advocate seclusion, especially since the result of the panel was hardly a boon to consumers, who wound up footing most all of the bill to get the utilities back on their feet (although investors did take some hits as well). The point here is, not one of these "many" (actually, four) "parallels" holds up under the most casual scrutiny.

So why write it that way? Why not write it as "Dean, Cheney energy panel comparisons overdrawn?" Because that doesn't fit the emerging script and while all reporters, editors, and producers want to help edit that script (it makes them feel important), none of them have the guts to leave the pack in order to do it. Nothing makes them more timid than having no one else follow up on a story they've done, so coverage gets reduced to lowest common denominator, everyone watching everyone else, a media that is no longer mass but mob, and they wind up arguing over semicolons and subordinate clauses of the script instead of its content.

I hate this.

Monday, December 29, 2003


From the BBC for December 26 comes another cautionary tale from the world of gene splicing, recombinant DNA, GM foods, etc., etc.
A virulent form of tuberculosis was created in the laboratory by experts trying to alter its genetic structure.

The mutant form of the bug multiplied more quickly, and was more lethal than its natural counterpart.

Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley, US, had actually been trying to disable genes and make the bacterium less deadly. ...

The Berkeley study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concentrated on a particular collection of genes thought to give TB some of its virulence - its ability to infect.

They disabled these genes, and expected to find a weakened form of TB as a result. Instead, the organism grew in virulence.

It killed laboratory mice within seven months of exposure, while those infected with normal TB survived the experiment.

Further investigations suggested that the genetic changes had the unexpected effect of undermining the body's own immune response against TB.

Professor Lee Riley, who led the study, said: "These findings came as a complete surprise to us.

"We thought we had made a mistake, so we repeated the test several times, and we always got the same result."
The particular form of the bacteria is still treatable with antibiotics and in the natural world would probably be outcompeted by normal TB, since one of the things that gives the disease its persistence is that most people who carry the bacterium never get sick - that is, a mutation that quickly killed off its host would at the same time reduce its chances to reproduce and spread.

But it's a reminder that the Law of Unintended Consequences appears in all sorts of forms and guises and can't be cavalierly ignored, which is my main concern about genetic research of all types.

Footnote: The National Academy of Sciences website is here.

Unintentionally Revealing Quotes Dept.

The New York Times for Monday describes the Bush administration tactic of placing calls to local, small-market Republican radio talk shows to promote the right's agenda. Terry Holt, Bush's campaign press secretary,
said he called in to radio shows like Mr. Bernier's nearly every day.

If he and other campaign officials were to appear on national television programs, he said, the hosts would try to draw them into a dogfight with the Democratic candidates, something they are not interested in doing.
I'll just bet.

Can you use a laugh?

Okay, having pretty much caught up on older items, there are a few new things to mention.

Check this out for a laugh. Nutsoid Mona Charen, writing on the far-right Townhall website, one best described as a refuge for dittoheads with a pretense to erudition, actually claims that Time magazine chose US soldiers as the Person of the Year because the editors "were desperate to find someone, anyone, to name instead of George W. Bush."

I mean, there's freako and then there's just plain warped.

By the way, at the bottom of her column is an ad for her last (We can only hope!) book. It's put out by Regnery Publishing, which describes itself as "the leading conservative publisher in America." The ad, on, says the book can be purchased through's book service and contains a link to a glowing review by a book reviewer.

I thought conservatives were against incest.

Footnote: A local radio station in Indianapolis (near to which I recently lived) once tried to arrange an on-air confrontation between Mona and me after a letter of mine ripping her was published in the Indianapolis Star. Her agent said her "schedule didn't allow it." Yep, I'm sure that was it.

Addendum: I'll be fair here. (Why I should be fair to such as Charen, I don't know, but I will anyway.) Some years ago I heard about how rocker Huey Lewis, who's a real basketball fan and apparently a pretty good player for someone who never thought about being a pro, challenged Larry Bird to some one-on-one. Bird declined.

Lewis said later he understood. "He beats me 10-0 and it's so what? I get one basket off him and I'm the big hero. It was a no-win situation for him."

I suppose the same could be said of Charen. She whips me in a verbal duel and it's so what? She's the big famous columnist wordsmith and who's he? I so much as hold my own and it's "Did you hear how Mona Charen got chainsawed by that guy?" So she may have considered it a no-win.

Still, it would have been fun. And of course I would have whipped her ass.

Bragging on myself (again)

From the Christian Science Monitor's "Daily Update" on terrorism and security for December 19:
Blix also said he believes most of Iraq's WMD were destroyed in 1991, during the first Gulf War. (Other WMD experts, such as former weapons inspector Dr. Raymond Zilinskas of the Monterrey Institute of International Studies agrees with this position, saying that some WMD potential was probably kept and supported in case the opportunity arose in the future to once again try to dominate the region, but "this was not a major effort.")
Some of us, I must egotistically note, had kinda already thought of that. Last February 7, I wrote to someone in response to their comments on Iraqi WMDs
Do I think it possible that Iraq has some small quantities of chemical and/or biological weapons stashed away in the hope that maybe sometime in the future the program could be restarted? Yeah, I certainly can buy that. But considering that the last, much (and unfairly) maligned round of inspections so degraded Iraq's capabilities that even after four years of a supposedly free Iraqi hand, it's proven difficult to find even a trace of a chemical/biological program and a nuclear program seems nonexistent (even Powell's effort in that area seemed pro forma), can that possibility fairly be described as a threat to us? In fact, to anyone?

Some good news

As reported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation on December 19 and TalkLeft on the 20th, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has struck a blow for privacy on the internet.

Verizon Communications had been issued a subpoena, demanding it divulge the name and address of a customer suspected of using a peer-to-peer network to swap commercial music files. In such networks, the music files are stored on individual home computers, not at any central location, and transmitted directly to other users. That means, if you will, the data for the music in question passed through Verizon but was never stored there.

Verizon sought to have the subpoena quashed. It lost in a lower court but has now prevailed in the Appeals Court, which ruled Verizon was "merely a conduit."

This is good news. By that I do not intend to justify large-scale theft of copyrighted materials (as a failed artist and former pro photographer I know how important copyright protection can be to a creator of a work) but I do believe that placing limits on how much of our personal information can be spread around for what reason is a positive development. Our concern for our personal privacy is still too limited, but it is there and by some accounts - this being one - is growing.

TalkLeft also has a link to EFF's posting of the full court opinion in .pdf format.

Let there be peace on Earth - and let it begin with me

Almost unknown to Americans, there has been a continuing undercurrent of nonviolent resistance among Israeli soldiers to the military occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Much of this opposition is not pacifist in the strict sense of the term but is devoted to a refusal to engage in military actions beyond the "Green Line," the pre-1967 borders of Israel. A recent development, as reported by the BBC on December 22:
Thirteen reservists from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit wrote to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saying they would not be part of a "rule of oppression". ...

In their letter, the soldiers said they would no longer participate in the defence of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"We will no longer corrupt the stamp of humanity in us through carrying out the missions of an occupation army ... In the past, we fought for a justified cause [but today] we have reached the boundary of oppressing another people," the letter said. ...

In September, a group of 27 pilots signed a letter refusing to carry out targeted killings or other operations in the West Bank and Gaza because they considered them "immoral and illegal".

Several hundred reserve soldiers have been sent to prison for refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza, but the statements from pilots and commandos carry special weight because of their elite status.
There are organizations in Israel providing support for resisters. Among the better-known ones is Yesh Gvul ("There is a limit"), which was established in 1982 in the wake of Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Its motto is "There are things decent people don't do."

All praise to the peacemakers.

Small steps, small steps

Common Dreams, citing the Miami Herald for December 20, has this, a significant addition to the growing list of complaints about the behavior of police during the November 21-22 demonstrations at the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) summit:
A judge presiding over the cases of free trade protesters said in court that he saw "no less than 20 felonies committed by police officers" during the November demonstrations, adding to a chorus of complaints about police conduct.

Judge Richard Margolius, 60, made the remarks in open court last week, saying he was taken aback by what he witnessed while attending the protests.

"Pretty disgraceful what I saw with my own eyes. And I have always supported the police during my entire career," he said, according to a court transcript. "This was a real eye-opener. A disgrace for the community." ...

"I probably would have been arrested myself if it had not been for a police officer who recognized me," said the judge, who wears his hair in a graying ponytail.
Footnote: The police forces involved (there were several) of course denied any wrongdoing.
"We were told to deal with situations that were serious but we were always told to be very patient with people," said Herminia "Amy" Salas-Jacobson, a Miami police spokeswoman.

"In the training sessions we were told to be professional, be patient and to do everything right. There was one thing that was stressed at every meeting: Always be professional."
Well, you see, there's the problem right there. Before the demonstrations, the Miami police said they would be populated with "spoiled rich kids" and "anarchists [who] came down here to ... cause problems" - not with actual people.

Or is it that how they acted is what they regard as "professional?" After all, Mayor Manny Diaz did call it "a model for homeland defense."

A different kind of urban renewal

This came to me via, an anarchist activist website, but the original source was the New York Times for December 4 (now archived here).
After decades of blight, large swathes of Detroit are being reclaimed by nature. Roughly a third of this 139-square-mile city consists of weed-choked lots and dilapidated buildings. Satellite images show an urban core giving way to an urban prairie.

Rather than fight this return to nature, [Paul] Weertz and other urban farmers have embraced it, gradually converting 15 acres of idle land into more than 40 community gardens and microfarms - some consuming entire blocks. ...

Staking claims on abandoned lots, they produce about six tons of produce a year, said Ashley Atkinson, head of the Detroit Agriculture Network, a loose coalition of 230 growers and volunteers. ...

"Detroit has been abandoned by everything, including grocery stores," Ms. Atkinson said, suggesting that in a city where many do their shopping at "party stores," liquor stores that sell some convenience items, community farms are more than a symbol of environmental awareness. ...

None of the farms are profitable, and all depend on students and volunteers....

Advocates often say profits are secondary to building a sense of community. "It's a means for people to take control of their neighborhoods and get tangible results that they can see and eat," said Yamini Bala, coordinator of Detroit Summer, a youth gardening group.

In 2000, frustrated by stadium-building and other traditional means of drawing business downtown, a group of growers, architects, urban planners and activists collaborated on an alternative city plan focused on neighborhoods called Adamah (Hebrew for "of the earth"). Drafted by architects and students at the University of Detroit Mercy, it proposed converting four and a half square miles on the east side into a self-sustaining village, complete with farms, greenhouses, grazing land, a dairy and cannery. For irrigation, Adamah proposed tapping an underground creek (now used as a sewage main).

Some of Adamah's elements are already taking shape in northeast Detroit....
Of course, they face many problems beyond producing enough income to keep the projects going. Getting clean water can be a challenge; even cleaning up the glass and litter from a site can be difficult, not to mention the possibility the ground is polluted and the on-going issue of theft. Then there's the fact that much of what they're doing is "under the radar" of the city and some of these microfarms may be on land still owned by the city - which may want to sell it at some point.

One of the projects (on privately-owned land) was actually threatened with seizure by eminent domain for the sake of putting up a convenience store. An acceptable compromise was worked out in that case, but the risk remains that to the very extent these efforts may succeed in revitalizing a community, to that same extent they may become targets of city officials looking to expand the tax base who can't see the benefit of what these folks are doing and have built.

In the meantime, though, let's celebrate the fact that such efforts exist, and not just in Detroit. Up with farms!

Stealthy or just nasty?

Some years ago, the Christian wingnuts of the right adopted a tactic of "stealth" candidacies in which they deliberately concealed their true beliefs and objectives because they knew that honesty would result in their defeat. I've wondered of late whether George Bush was the most successful such candidate or is he just so wrapped up in his own power trip that he amorally will go with whatever grouping seems to his personal advantage.
Washington, D.C., December 23 - All images of gay gatherings at national sites, including the Millennium March on the Washington Mall have been ordered removed from videotapes that have been shown at the Lincoln Memorial since 1995 according to a civil service group.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) says that the directive came from National Parks Service Deputy Director Donald Murphy. Murphy is said to have been concerned about pictures in the video that showed same-sex couples kissing and holding hands after conservative groups complained. ...

Also ordered cut from the tape were scenes of abortion rights demonstrations at the memorial, and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations "because it implies that Lincoln would have supported homosexual and abortion rights as well as feminism."

In their place, the Park Service is inserting scenes of the Christian group Promise Keepers and pro-Gulf War demonstrators though these events did not take place at the Memorial in what Murphy calls a "more balanced" version.
"Disappearing" dissent and promoting reactionary events through lies (by placing them where they did not occur) as "balance." Yeah, that sounds about right - in more than one sense of the word - for the Shrub team.

But balance, of course, is not the real issue. PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch accuses the Bush Administration of "sponsoring a program of Faith-Based Parks." He notes that this fall, the Park Service approved a creationist text, "Grand Canyon: A Different View" for sale in park bookstores and museums while blocking publication of guidance for park rangers and other interpretative staff that labeled creationism as lacking any scientific basis.

These days I'm afraid I'm leaning to the "stealth candidate" side.

Foornote: PEER's press release can be found here.

Update: Apparently there's been a change of heart.
Footage of gay rights demonstrations will not be removed from a videotape shown at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C, according to spokespeople from the National Park Service and the Human Rights Campaign....

"We have been assured that they are redoing the tape, but are not stripping out scenes of gay and lesbian events at the Lincoln Memorial, because to do so would be historically inaccurate," said Winne Stachelberg, political director at the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group.
However, they apparently still are going to insert scenes of right-wing demos, even though they didn't take place at the Memorial or even on the Mall. So much for "historical accuracy" being the driving consideration.

Remembrance of things past

Both the Washington Post (December 19) and the New York Times (December 23) have reported on newly declassified documents showing that Donald Rumsfeld went to Iraq in March 1984 with instructions from Secretary of State George Shultz to tell Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz that a recent US statement condemning chemical weapons did not signify a change in policy toward Iraq. As the Times had it,
At first, the memo recapitulated Mr. Shultz's message to [Iraqi diplomat Ismat] Kittani, saying it "clarified that our CW [chemical weapons] condemnation was made strictly out of our strong opposition to the use of lethal and incapacitating CW, wherever it occurs." The American officials had "emphasized that our interests in 1) preventing an Iranian victory and 2) continuing to improve bilateral relations with Iraq, at a pace of Iraq's choosing, remain undiminished," it said.
An often-overlooked point in this is that first item: The US desired to prevent an Iranian victory - not to insure an Iraqi one. Although I doubt the difference was made clear to Iraq, it's not insignificant. At the same time that we were selling military and dual-use goods to Iraq (including precursors for chemical and biological weapons) as well as providing military intelligence, we were also secretly selling weapons to Iran as part of the program that became known as Contragate and made Oliver North a household name. Most reports of that scandal refer to the first US arms shipments to Iran as being in 1985, but in fact that's incorrect or at least incomplete. The first such aid came in March 1981, just months after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, via transshipments through Israel. (That is, Israel sent Iran weapons and the US used existing stocks to replace them.) The pipeline of weapons to Iran, direct or indirect, continued through the mid-1980s, until the diversion of profits from the sale of arms into illegal aid to the Nicaraguan contras blew up in the Reagan administration's face. In a long letter to a friend dated January 5, 1987, I wrote
Another aspect of this that's come out is that at the same time we were arming Iran we were providing intelligence data to Iraq - and now it develops we may've been actively disinforming both sides in order to prevent either from getting the upper hand. In other words, we were manipulating events and facts to keep the war going. Why has no one bothered to comment on the cold-blooded, calculated, inhuman cynicism of this? Or is the answer, like much else in this whole thing, implicit in the question? (Another bitterly amusing note: When asked about this, White House press officer Larry Speakes said "it is not now the policy" to doctor intelligence reports to Iran or Iraq - but added "I can't answer" whether or not it had been policy in the past.)
As we count up the "mass graves" of victims of Saddam Hussein, we should compare them not only to the number who died unnecessarily due to sanctions but to those who died because we believed an unending, exhausting war between Iran and Iraq was to our strategic advantage.

Footnote: The documents were obtained by the National Security Archive, and are available at their website.

Unintentional Humor Dept.:
When details of Rumsfeld's December trip came to light last year, the defense secretary told CNN that he had "cautioned" Saddam Hussein about the use of chemical weapons, an account that was at odds with the declassified State Department notes of his 90-minute meeting, which did not mention such a caution. Later, a Pentagon spokesman said Rumsfeld raised the issue not with Hussein, but with Aziz.

Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita said yesterday that "the secretary said what he said, and I would go with that. He has a recollection of how that meeting went, and I can't imagine that some additional cable is going to change how he recalls the meeting."
"I said what I said when I said what I meant when I said it and you can't prove I said it. And I won't be moved by mere facts."

Getting the point straight

In his December 21 column in the New York Times (now archived), Thomas Friedman discusses the increasing self-imposed isolation of the US. He cites as an example the new requirement that to get a visa to the US, you will fist have to go to a US Embassy or Consulate and be fingerprinted.
Serhat Guvenc, a lecturer at Bilgi University in Istanbul, was actually flying to the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, and was diverted to Canada. He's been avoiding the U.S. since because of all the already intrusive visa requirements. "All the new measures the U.S. introduced intimidated me," he said. "In Turkey, unless you are a criminal or a potential criminal, you would never be asked to leave your fingerprints. It is kind of humiliating. It's uncomfortable."
Mr. Guvenc, you don't get it. In the new US view, you're a foreigner - so you are a potential criminal.

Dying for work

The New York Times ran a terrific - and if there's any justice will be an award-winning - series of articles December 21-23 on workers killed on the job due to employers who willfully, knowingly, maintained unsafe working conditions and the astonishing and disgraceful unwillingness of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to push for prosecution of the villains. It was prompted by the case of Patrick Walters, a 22-year old plumber's apprentice who was buried alive under a wall of muck and mud when the 10 foot deep, unsupported trench he was working in collapsed on June 14, 2002. The autopsy revealed he tried to claw his way out - and failed. His family found dried clay still stuck in his ears as he lay in his casket.

The second of the three-part series began this way:
Every one of their deaths was a potential crime. Workers decapitated on assembly lines, shredded in machinery, burned beyond recognition, electrocuted, buried alive - all of them killed, investigators concluded, because their employers willfully violated workplace safety laws.

These deaths represent the very worst in the American workplace, acts of intentional wrongdoing or plain indifference that kill about 100 workers each year. They were not accidents. They happened because a boss removed a safety device to speed up production, or because a company ignored explicit safety warnings, or because a worker was denied proper protective gear.

And for years, in news releases and Congressional testimony, senior officials at the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration have described these cases as intolerable outrages, "horror stories" that demanded the agency's strongest response. They have repeatedly pledged to press wherever possible for criminal charges against those responsible.

These promises have not been kept.

Over a span of two decades, from 1982 to 2002, OSHA investigated 1,242 of these horror stories - instances in which the agency itself concluded that workers had died because of their employer's "willful" safety violations. Yet in 93 percent of those cases, OSHA declined to seek prosecution, an eight-month examination of workplace deaths by The New York Times has found.

What is more, having avoided prosecution once, at least 70 employers willfully violated safety laws again, resulting in scores of additional deaths. Even these repeat violators were rarely prosecuted.
Unfortunately, the Times archives articles after one week so except for the last - about California's much more aggressive pursuit of employers who kill their employees through their greed and/or neglect - you would have to pay to read them (and that will be gone after tomorrow). However, I did remember to make a text copy of the latter two articles in the series and I will send them to anyone who wants them. If you'd prefer to check out the abstracts and consider buying the articles, go here for the first in the series, here for the second, and here for the third.

In the name of freedom

This story from the December 18 New York Times is now archived so I'm including the full abstract here.
Saddam Hussein is now prisoner No 1. in what has become global detention system run by Pentagon and CIA and consisting of large and small facilities that handle hundreds of suspected terrorists of Al Qaeda, Taliban and former Iraqi regime; many of prisoners are held at Guantanamo naval base but most important captives are kept away from sight; Hussein's new address is closely guarded secret but he is still in Iraq, probably at Baghdad airport facility with other top regime figures; CIA holds top Qaeda captives in small groups in friendly third-world countries where they face long interrogations in isolation, with guards sometimes dressed to suggest they belong to Arab security services feared for use of torture.
Other reports have suggested the dress isn't always out of place, as I noted previously.

By the way

Today is going to be a kind of catch-up day, when I try to post a string of things I should have posted sooner and want to get out before they're too old to matter. So some of these items may be from several days ago.

This is what happens when you are stuck with dial-up and it takes flaming forever to get to sites to get the info you want. (If there's anyone who'd like to help change that.... No, I didn't think so.)

Gee, who'd o' thunk?

This from the generally useful "Terror Watch" column by Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball.
Newsweek, Dec. 17 - A widely publicized Iraqi document that purports to show that September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta visited Baghdad in the summer of 2001 is probably a fabrication that is contradicted by U.S. law-enforcement records showing Atta was staying at cheap motels and apartments in the United States when the trip presumably would have taken place, according to U.S. law enforcement officials and FBI documents. ...

U.S. officials and a leading Iraqi document expert tell NEWSWEEK that the document is most likely a forgery - part of a thriving new trade in dubious Iraqi documents that has cropped up in the wake of the collapse of Saddam's regime.
The same document also makes reference to how al-Qaeda helped arrange a secret shipment from Niger to Iraq. Uh-huh. All it lacked was a description of Saddam Hussein chortling over how he tricked those stupid UN weapons inspectors.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

This is just too good

In an interview on British TV, Paul Bremer was asked about a quote that there was "massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories" in Iraq and that the Iraq Survey Group had unearthed compelling evidence that showed Saddam Hussein had attempted to "conceal weapons."
Paul Bremer, the Bush administration's top official in Baghdad, flatly dismissed the claim as untrue....

It was, he suggested, a 'red herring', probably put about by someone opposed to military action in Iraq who wanted to undermine the coalition.

'I don't know where those words come from but that is not what David Kay has said,' he told ITV1's Jonathan Dimbleby programme. 'It sounds like a bit of a red herring to me.'
The source of the quote was British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Christmas message to UK troops in Iraq.

Thanks to Just a Bump in the Beltway for tipping us to the article in the UK paper The Observer.

Footnote: That same article says
In recent days, senior Whitehall officials have raised the extraordinary possibility that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction after all - but believed he did after being misled by his own advisors.
That would be in line with what AP was reporting nearly a month ago that Iraqi scientists were telling US interrogators about Iraq's moribund nuclear program, as I noted at the time.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Green is possible

Another from the BBC, this time for Saturday.
A car that runs on just hydrogen and solar power has completed a journey through Australia - the first crossing of a continent for a car of this type.

The organisers say the gruelling 4,000 km [about 2500 miles, Americans] trip shows greener alternatives to the traditional internal combustion engine can be developed.

The exhaust emissions of the Japanese-built car consist of pure water.

Sydney's Lord Mayor sampled a glass of it when the experimental vehicle arrived there from Perth.
The trip took nine days. Organizer Hans Tholstrup said they could have done it in four but "we didn't want to take any chances."
"If you're asking when this technology could be commercially viable, then the answer is 'how long is a piece of string?'," Mr Tholstrup added.
In case you don't get that, it translates to "There's no definite answer but pretty much any time someone with the finances wants to."

Peace is possible

The Beeb reports on December 26:
Peace talks between the Sudanese Government and southern rebels aimed at ending two decades of civil war have resumed after a Christmas break.

The two sides have promised to reach a settlement by the end of the year. ...

The war in Sudan which broke out in 1983 has pitted the Christian and traditionalist south and the mainly Muslim north.

The conflict has claimed about 1.5 million lives and left an estimated four million people displaced.

Watch out!

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and measured by deaths per 100,000 workers per year, the ten most dangerous jobs in the US are, in order (with the most dangerous first)

- Timber cutters
- Fishers
- Pilots and navigators
- Structural metal workers
- Driver-sales workers (e.g., pizza-deliverers, vending machine fillers, etc.)
- Roofers
- Electrical power installers
- Farm occupations
- Construction laborers
- Truck drivers

The death rate among timber cutters is about 117/100,000; for truck drivers, a little over 25/100,000. The national average is about 4/100,000.

What I found interesting is that the occupations we usually think of first when we are asked about dangerous jobs, ones like police work, fire fighters, security guards, and so on, aren't among the list. (Although I will say that I would have had commercial fishing near the top.) Bear that in mind the next time someone lays on you the line about police "risking their lives every day."


We need a new Sinclair Lewis.
As the American beef industry struggles with its first case of mad cow disease, the Department of Agriculture is debating whether to do far more screening of meat and change the way meat from suspect animals is used, department officials say.

The officials declined to say exactly what they would recommend, but acknowledged that European and Japanese regulators screened millions of animals using tests that take only three hours, fast enough to stop diseased carcasses from being cut up for food.

United States inspectors have tested fewer than 30,000 of the roughly 300 million animals slaughtered in the last nine years, and they get results days or weeks later.

But the American system was never intended to keep sick animals from reaching the public's refrigerators, said Dr. Ron DeHaven, the Agriculture Department's chief veterinarian.

It is "a surveillance system, not a food safety test," Dr. DeHaven said in an interview on Wednesday.
But that's exactly the problem, isn't it? Inadequate testing that's not even designed to prevent sick animals from reaching market?

According to the article, the newest test for BSE enables one worker to screen 200 samples in three hours, fast enough to prevent slaughtered meat from moving to market. The cost, test makers say, would add pennies a pound to the cost of beef. DeHaven called that "hugely expensive."

A good question is, though, expensive for who? Certainly consumers remain at risk, and even the industry itself might well find it "hugely expensive" to refuse more testing. The BBC reported on Friday that
Vietnam and Macau have become the latest countries to ban imports of US beef after America's first case of mad cow disease was confirmed.

They join more than 20 other nations and territories who have already slapped bans on beef from the US. ...

Experts have predicted the news will cost the previously-booming US cattle industry billions of dollars, as countries around the world rush to ban American beef imports.

The list already includes Japan, Mexico and South Korea - the three top importers of US beef.
Not To Worry Dept.: Scott McClellan was quoted as saying President Bush will continue to eat beef, adding that the president's focus "is on the public health aspect of this."

How that's focusing on the public's health instead of the cattle industry's health is unclear.

Hope springs eternal

There may actually be movement in the Valerie Plame investigation.
The Justice Department has added a fourth prosecutor to the team investigating the leak of an undercover CIA officer's identity, while the FBI has said a grand jury may be called to take testimony from administration officials, sources close to the case said.

Administration and CIA officials said they have seen signs in the past few weeks that the investigation continues intensively behind closed doors, even though little about the investigation has been publicly said or seen for months.
However, the right-wing attack machine is still humming along, shabbily attacking both Wilson and Plame with anything they can find. Exhibit A (or actually more like Q or R or something):
Sources said the CIA is angry about the circulation of a still-classified document to conservative news outlets suggesting Plame had a role in arranging her husband's trip to Africa for the CIA. The document, written by a State Department official who works for its Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), describes a meeting at the CIA where the Niger trip by Wilson was discussed, said a senior administration official who has seen it.

CIA officials have challenged the accuracy of the INR document, the official said, because the agency officer identified as talking about Plame's alleged role in arranging Wilson's trip could not have attended the meeting.
That fact, however, has not kept the reactionary echo-chamber from blasting it around, including in hostile interviews with Wilson.

What's worse, although no more surprising, is the shamefully passive role the "mainstream" media has played. Let's just suppose, just for the sake of argument, that Valerie Plame did suggest her husband Joseph Wilson for the Niger assignment. There's no reason to think she did, but just suppose.

So what?

So what if she did? First, it would still have to be approved by someone else. Second, no one has seriously argued he was unqualified for the task. Third and most importantly, I'm unaware of anyone who has seriously challenged the accuracy of his report. Indeed, the attacks have been on him and his wife, not on the actual facts supposedly at issue. That is, they have tried to kill the message by killing the messenger.

Can you name a single major news outlet that has said that upfront? Neither can I. Instead, they incompetently allow the reactionaries to determine the coverage by turning it into a he-said-she-said type story as if how Wilson got the assignment is the real story instead of either the contents of the report (which show the administration was told months before the famous "16 words" that the claim was bogus) or the deliberate and illegal outing of his wife for cheap revenge and as a warning to other potential truth-seekers.

To show how bad it's gotten, consider that the same article says
Capitol Hill aides in both parties said Wilson had badly hurt his credibility with his apparently enthusiastic participation in a spread in the January issue of Vanity Fair that includes a glamorous photo of him and his wife outside the White House, a scarf and dark glasses shielding her
as if that was a serious analysis despite the fact that, as Wilson notes, Plame's "cover was completely blown" already.

FBI agents have told people they have interviewed that they may be asked to testify before a grand jury, according to sources close to the case. That could indicate that prosecutors believe they have a case....
Let's hope for the best.

Revealing Quotes Dept.: From the same article:
Still, the White House is eager for the findings to emerge soon, or wait until after the November election. "The only fear I've heard expressed is that the investigation will be too slow or too fast and will kick into a visible mode in a way that is poorly timed for the election," the Republican said. "If they prosecuted someone tomorrow, I don't think the White House would care. And they can do it in December 2004. They just don't want it to become an issue in the election."
Prosecute, don't prosecute, do it now, do it later, catch the culprits, don't catch the culprits, we don't care. Just don't affect our re-election.

I can see clearly now

From the New York Times for December 26, in an article on Republican strategy for 2004:
But Mr. Bush, some of his own strategists and advisers said, has a long way to go if he wants to avoid being portrayed as a divisive figure who motivates Democrats to vote against him. As a result, the White House is considering using the State of the Union address to propose a big new national goal that would not be partisan or ideological and would help rally the country behind Mr. Bush's leadership, an outside adviser to the administration said. The possibilities floated by the White House include a major initiative for the space program or an ambitious health care goal like increasing life expectancies.

"They want to have the president talk about an important national goal that is big and a unifying theme," the adviser said.
Back on December 8, I commented on a Washington Post article touching on the same idea. That article lead me to conclude that
these notions are being tossed around not because anyone there thinks they're good ideas or even, it appears, that they have any intention of pursuing them, but just because they will look good.
What was implicit then is explicit now. As I said at the time, "the utter scumminess of this crew continues to boggle."

Friday, December 26, 2003

A tort is a tort, of course, of course....

The folks at Wampum have an good article on the tort "reform" movement. One of the favorite tactics - well, actually, the only tactic - employed by those who want to limit access to the courts by people who have been injured by corporate misfeasance and malfeasance (and don't kid yourself; that's what this so-called "reform" is all about) is to trumpet stories of outlandish, idiotic-on-the-face-of-them jury awards.

As Wampum shows, however, most of those stories are complete fabrications. Lies, in other words.

Recently, I was sent a copy of the email making the rounds (perhaps you've seen it) about the so-called Stella Awards. The name comes from Stella Liebeck, the woman who sued McDonald's after being burned by a cup of its coffee. As the story is told, she drove off from the take-out window with the cup between her knees, tried to open it, spilled it on herself, sued, and won. Ha, ha, how absurd, how ridiculous.

And how false.

In fact, she was the passenger, not the driver; the car was stopped at the time; the coffee was not merely hot, it was about 180 degrees, scalding hot, causing third degree burns over 6% of her body, resulting in eight days in the hospital and skin grafts; and McDonald's had previously settled over 700 such claims, clearly showing the company knew the coffee was dangerously hot.

Which brings us back to the email. It offers seven cases of absurd jury awards. (You can read the text here if you like.) I replied to the person who sent the mail that considering how much Liebeck's case had been distorted in the retelling, I had no confidence that the stories offered now were accurate.

It turns out my doubts were well-founded. Not one of those stories is true. Not one.

Now, there actually is an outfit that gives out Stella Awards. (They admit, by the way, that the name is unfair to Stella Liebeck but apparently have no intention of changing it, which strikes me as at the least rude if not cruel, as continuing - wrongly - to associate her with supposedly idiotic suits holds her up to ridicule.) If you like, you can check out the real Stella Award winners for 2002 here. But when you do, be sure to notice that of the seven cases listed, only two have resolutions - and in both cases the plaintiff lost.

Mr. Smith goes to Washington

Some new developments in the attempted bribery of Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) during the "15 minute" three-hour vote on Medicare deform. (No, that's not a typo.)

Timothy Noah, writing in Slate for December 23, notes that in addition to Smith's own original allegations, for which he includes links to the audio, the Washington Post reports that two Representatives heard Smith tell them and the rest of a group of about 20 House members that House Republican leaders had promised substantial financial and political support for his son's campaign if Smith voted yes.

At least four people who were in that group have actually gone on record supporting the statement that Smith had said he'd received offers of support for his son. One even specified that Smith said the offer came from the House GOP leadership. As the Post has it,
Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.), who was present at the dinner, recalled Smith saying it was "people from leadership" who had offered the money. He said Smith did not say who it was, but he assumed it was someone who controlled a "large leadership PAC, who can raise a hundred thousand dollars by hosting a few fundraisers."

"I think something happened," Gutknecht said. "If it happened, then somebody in the leadership is guilty of at least gross stupidity.... Whoever made that comment should resign."

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who was also at the dinner, recalls Smith telling the group that "someone had said his son ... would be the beneficiary if he would vote for the bill, up to the tune of about $100,000.... If Nick Smith said it happened, it happened."

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) recalls Smith telling the group that his son was promised an endorsement and funds from the National Republican Congressional Committee. ...

"It's all going to be just as Nick said," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.). "When you see people making more than a million dollars a year on K Street, there is just too much money in the process."
For his part, Smith has backpedaled on his charge, getting vague about from just where the offer came and of just what it consisted. But in light of the fact that others have openly acknowledged he made the accusation, that seems much more an act of party loyalty than a correction of an error. However, as Noah notes, Smith has said that he "will cooperate with any official inquiry," which certainly appears to mean that he'll tell the truth if he's asked directly in the course of an investigation.

The only question now is if there will be one. If it's left up to John Ashcroft, we already know the answer to that.

Footnote: Thanks to Counterspin for tumbling me to the Slate article.

Two recent small victories...

...on protecting the environment from the ravages of the Bush administration. The first comes from the attempt by the Bushites to open up a significant portion of wetlands to development only to find themselves opposed by most state governments, including those in Republican areas.
Washington, Dec. 16 - Making an abrupt change in its approach to the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it would jettison plans to remove federal protection from millions of acres of wetlands.

The agency's administrator, Michael O. Leavitt, made the announcement late in the afternoon in a hastily called news conference. The change effectively repudiated an internal draft regulation that proposed withdrawing federal protections from many isolated wetlands and intermittent streams, including many small waterways in the arid West. ...

The legal underpinnings of a regulation narrowing the scope of the Clean Water Act would also have been shaky, he indicated, since recent federal court decisions, including two from the often-conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, rejected arguments that in many respects paralleled the lines of argument that the agency had discussed.

Mr. Leavitt emphasized that the impetus for the decision was President Bush's determination to preserve streams and wetlands. "At the root of this is a commitment from the Bush administration to achieve the goal of no net loss of wetlands," he said, adding that these waters "function as nature's kidneys" and "add immense value to economic and aesthetic bounties of this country."
Ah, yes, "no net loss of wetlands." The phrase brings back such memories. In fact, it was first used by Bush Sr., who liked to fashion himself "the environmental president." In the fall of 1991, he proposed regulations that would open up about 1/3 of protected wetlands in the continental US, about 33 million acres, to development while still claiming "no net loss." How? Simple. The regulations would have changed the definition of "wetland," so there would be no net loss because the areas opened to development weren't wetlands - which I described at the time as "an argument that reaches new depths of twisted."

So here we are, 12 years down the road, and like father, like son: They both made an attempt to do favors for big developers by changing ecological reality by executive fiat. And like father, like son: They both failed. (At least so far.)

There's a footnote to this:
Representatives of the National Association of Home Builders were keenly disappointed at the day's developments. Chandler Morse, a policy analyst for the group, said that without a new rule, confusing and contradictory interpretations of the wetlands regulations would be likely to continue. "I don't think we're going to see any fundamental solutions to the problems we're facing," Mr. Morse said. "And the problems that we're facing, the issues that we'd like to see addressed, are the inconsistency and the unpredictability in the permitting process."
Okay, we'll resolve that. Stop dumping in and building on the f'ing wetlands! See? Consistent and predictable. Problem solved.

The other win is for the moment a temporary one but there's a real chance it could become permanent.
Washington, Dec. 24 - A federal appeals court on Wednesday at least temporarily blocked a Bush administration rule, due to take effect on Friday, that would have relaxed existing regulations and so allowed hundreds of aging power and industrial plants to make upgrades without installing modern pollution controls.

The order, by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, indicates that the court has substantial doubt about the White House's claims that it has authority to modify the Clean Air Act by regulation and that its changes would not hurt the environment.
The issue, "new source review," can be a little confusing, so let me try to give a simplified explanation. When the Clean Air Act was first passed, plants that were already running were grandfathered into the law - that is, they were exempt from the requirements for pollution control equipment that was placed on new construction. The assumption was that over time they'd be replaced by new construction with pollution controls.

However, in order to avoid the expense of installing pollution controls, utilities upgraded and expanded those existing plants instead of building new ones. Congress tried to close this loophole by declaring the such upgrades were to be considered the same as new construction. The industry, still looking to dodge environmental regulations, started referring to its upgrades as "routine maintenance." Over the years, environmental groups and the EPA have sued utilities, arguing their "routine maintenance" was nothing of the sort.

The Bush administration recently tried to rewrite the law via a regulation that would have allowed utilities to replace and upgrade equipment worth up to 20% of the whole plant's value and still escape the need for additional (or, in a few cases, any) pollution controls. That is, for example, a power plant worth $100 million could install $20 million worth of upgrades and have no obligation to install additional equipment for emission controls along with it. It's that regulation the Appeals Court has prevented from taking effect.
Environmentalists have been particularly critical of this regulation, one of the administration's most significant environmental initiatives, saying that it would fail to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides fast enough, and undermine environmental lawsuits and investigations undertaken against dozens of plants.

Indeed, after the administration made the rule final in October, E.P.A. officials announced that they would drop enforcement actions, some dating from the Clinton administration, involving past violations of the Clean Air Act attributed to some 50 power plants.
The proposal came out of Dick Cheney's secret energy policy discussions. Are you surprised?

Important Update: From Atrios we learn of a significant change in a paragraph in the Times article about the court decision on new source review. This is the paragraph as it appears now:
The Environmental Protection Agency, which had proposed the new rule, said in a statement that it was "disappointed with the court's decision" and that neither the regulation nor the court's stay of it would have much effect on emissions.
And this is the paragraph as it originally appeared, which was still in the Google cache earlier today:
The Environmental Protection Agency expressed disappointment with the court's decision but did not say whether it would be appealed. The court order, while only two pages in length, was a strong statement in one of the most contentious environmental and public health battles of the last several years - whether aging coal-fired power plants must install controls as they increase their pollution emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that full enforcement of existing rules on power plant pollution would save 19,000 lives per year.
That is quite a significant change and its removal does change the thrust of the story.

The Phoenix rises

The American Prospect, in its January, 2004 issue, reports on "the creation of a paramilitary unit manned by militiamen associated with former Iraqi exile groups," financed by $3 billion "tucked away in the $87 billion Iraq appropriation that Congress approved in early November."
Experts say it could lead to a wave of extrajudicial killings, not only of armed rebels but of nationalists, other opponents of the U.S. occupation and thousands of civilian Baathists - up to 120,000 of the estimated 2.5 million former Baath Party members in Iraq.

"They're clearly cooking up joint teams to do Phoenix-like things, like they did in Vietnam," says Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counterterrorism. Ironically, he says, the U.S. forces in Iraq are working with key members of Saddam Hussein's now-defunct intelligence agency to set the program in motion. "They're setting up little teams of Seals and Special Forces with teams of Iraqis, working with people who were former senior Iraqi intelligence people, to do these things," Cannistraro says.
It's necessary to be clear on what "Phoenix-like things" means, so an extended sidebar. One of the earliest revelations of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam came through a suit filed by Lt. Francis Reitemeyer, who was seeking a conscientious objector discharge from the army. In a statement for the record dated February 14, 1969, Reitemeyer said he was told he was to be an adviser to the program when he arrived in Vietnam. (The text is from a copy of his Proffer - a statement of previously-disallowed testimony which a person making an appeal wants to be considered as a part of that appeal - in my possession.)
The "Phoenix Program" was described to him as a policy of the United States Government which sought the elimination and destruction of the Communist "infra-structure" in South Vietnam. Your Petitioner [i.e., Reitemeyer] was informed that he would be one of many Army Officers designated as an Adviser whose function it was to supervise and to pay with funds from an undisclosed source eighteen mercenaries (probably Chinese, some of whom would be officers or enlisted men of the U.S. military) who would be explicitly directed by him and others advisers to find, capture and/or kill as many Viet Cong and Viet Cong sympathizers within a given number of small villages as was possible under the circumstances. Viet Cong sympathizers were meant to include any male or female civilians of any age in a position of authority or influence in the village who were politically loyal or simply in agreement with the Viet Cong or their objectives. The Petitioner was officially advised by the lecturing United States Army Officers, who actually recounted from their own experiences in the field, that the Petitioner as an American Adviser, might actually be required to maintain a "kill quota" of fifty bodies a month.

Your Petitioner was further informed at this Intelligence School, that he was authorized to adopt any technique or employ any means through his mercenaries, which was calculated to ferret out the Viet Cong of the Viet Cong sympathizers.

Frequently, as related by the lecturing Officers, resort to the most extreme forms of torture was necessary....

The Petitioner was officially instructed that the purpose of the "Phoenix Program" to which he was assigned, was not aimed primarily at the enemy's military forces, but was essentially designed to eliminate civilians, political enemies, and "South Viet Cong Sympathizers." Your Petitioner was further informed that the program sought to accomplish through capture, intimidation, elimination and assassination, what United States up to this time, was unable to accomplish through the conventional use of military power, i.e., (to win the war).
In short, the Phoenix Program was one of targeted kidnapping, torture, and murder of civilians thought to be sympathetic to the "Viet Cong." Significantly, the US Army understood exactly what it was about, because Reitemeyer
was warned that the loss of the war and/or his personal capture by the enemy could subject him personally to trial and punishment as a war criminal under the precedents established by the Nurnberg Trials as well as other international precedents such as the Geneva Convention.
This is what it appears is now to be brought to Iraq. The intention is quite deliberate, TAP says:
The bulk of the covert money will support U.S. efforts to create a lethal, and revenge-minded, Iraqi security force. "The big money would be for standing up an Iraqi secret police to liquidate the resistance," says [John] Pike [an expert on classified military budgets at]. "And it has to be politically loyal to the United States." ...

Because the militiamen who will make up the paramilitary force are largely from former Iraqi exile political groups, many have personal scores to settle. They will be armed with detailed lists, seized from government files, of Iraqi Baathists. Sporadic but persistent revenge killings against Hussein loyalists have already plagued Iraq. In Baghdad, Basra, and scores of smaller cities and towns, hundreds of former Iraqi officials and members of the Arab Baath Socialist Party have been gunned down, and the murderers have not been arrested or, in most cases, even pursued. Virtually signaling open season on ex-Baathists, Maj. Ian Poole, spokesman for the British forces controlling Basra, told The New York Times: "The fact is, these are former Baath Party officials. That makes it hard to protect them."
Even harder when you're the ones paying the murderers.

The parallels to Vietnam run even deeper. Recall that the Phoenix Program was begun precisely because the US military could not win its war, so it resorted to torture and terror and "termination with extreme prejudice," in the classic phrase. This time around, the program is, TAP reports,
part of a last-ditch effort to win the war before time runs out politically. Driving the effort are U.S. neoconservatives and their allies in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, who are clearly worried about America's inability to put down the Iraqi insurgency with time to spare before November. ...

[Bob] Boorstin [who oversees national-security policy for the Center for American Progress], and many others in Washington, believe that Karl Rove, the White House's political guru, is losing patience with the bungled situation in Iraq. "I have no doubt that Karl Rove is ready to cut and run," says Boorstin. That sentiment is virtually seconded by [Danielle] Pletka [American Enterprise Institute vice president for foreign- and defense-policy studies], who maintains close contact with White House and Pentagon officials. "Some of the people around the president do want to cut and run," she says, "but not his foreign-policy advisers."
It has often been true in war, especially in civil wars and ethnic and religious conflicts, that when one side realizes it's losing (or least can't win), it turns to the most vicious crimes, the most appalling bloodshed, in an attempt to head off defeat. Just as in Vietnam we turned to assassination and "kill quotas" when it became clear we couldn't win militarily, so too in Iraq are we prepared to "cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war," to unleash - indeed to finance and support - blood vengeance for political ends.

There is, however, one difference: In Vietnam, the idea was to protect against "an embarrassing defeat." In Iraq, the idea is to protect George Bush's re-election.
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