Thursday, May 29, 2008

McClellan's Book: News to (Mostly) No One

Updated 6/4

Lost amidst the predictable firestorm surrounding the imminent release of former Press Secretary Scott McClellan's book is that despite the haranguing from the White House and its press surrogates, the book's central theme--that Bush shaded the truth on Iraq--is news to precisely no one who's paid attention the last five years.

The evidence that the fix was in is abundant to anyone who chooses to pay attention, both from the outside and those involved directly. The documentary evidence to that end is seemingly endless and abundant.

Notably, all of the attacks on McClellan thus far have failed to mention any specific erroneous fact from the book and instead center on the idea that anyone who goes against the family is a traitor, regardless of the veracity of the claims. Many of the objectors have even claimed an omniscient view of the publishing process:

Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary: "And I think what did happen, Bill, was the book was pretty much done and set and Scott went back in, and I think his editor wrote a lot of it.”

How Fleischer would know such a thing is anyone's guess.

Newt Gingrich, former House speaker: “Here is this guy who want to sell books. He’s cut his ties to the administration and his publisher says, ‘Now look, you can spice it up a little bit.’”

Steve Doocy: “Apparently the publisher did some tweaking. How much? That’s a really good question.”

Doocy clearly doing his best to show his allies he's not about to jump ship and have an original thought, too.

Bill O'Reilly even finds a way to work in his nemesis, George Soros:

McClellan is in it for the bucks, keeping in mind his publisher also distributes books by George Soros and other far left people.

Bill would surely be just as vehemently against books published by Regnery, or, say, an entire news organization funded by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes. You know, since he inhabits the no-spin zone.

All this moaning is anecdotal, however. The fact remains that the central point of the book and the attendant revelations are nothing of the sort. That the case for war was a PR campaign and based on a fixed result from the start shouldn't be news.


One of the main retorts to claims of media incompetence before the Iraq invasion is that the information available wasn't conducive to questioning the decision or the intelligence. The journalism team at McClatchy (formerly Knight-Ridder) dispels that notion outright by illustrating just a few of the articles they wrote before the war, thereby illustrating that information was available to journalists who still thought their job included investigating more than parroting.

Nukes & Spooks, May 29th

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Anesthesiologist Violates Code of Ethics to Perform Executions

After a two-plus-years break, Missouri is ready to resume executing prisoners, again with a certified anesthesiologist on board. Whatever their personal stance on state-sponsored murder may be, the ethical code of the profession is very clear on the matter.

“It is a fundamental and unwavering principle that anesthesiologists, consistent with their ethical mandates, cannot use their art and skill to participate in an execution,” the society stated in a brief it filed last year in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The AMA first adopted its ethical stance in 1980. Its current policy states:

“A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution.” [The American Society of Anesthesiology has adopted the same code.]

The inclusion of the anesthesiologist on the execution team, despite clearly violating ethics, is not necessarily a clear-cut case. In spite of the ethical code, neither the AMA or the ASA has the authority to discipline a member who violates it, and neither organization has a written stance on the executions themselves. It is up to the individual to make their own moral assessment.

That said, aiding executions seems a slap in the face to the "do no harm" policy of the medical profession, and indeed the State of Missouri had a hell of a time finding anyone to participate.

Department of Corrections officials contacted hundreds of anesthesiologists in Missouri and elsewhere but could not find one willing to take on that role.

The case prompted the then president of the anesthesiologists society to advise its members to “steer clear” of participating in executions.

The central argument in favor of the participation centers on the humanity of the process, as having an anesthesiologist present would ensure that pain and suffering is kept to a minimum. This is not always the case, though.

Identified in court as John Doe I, the doctor also admitted using only half the prescribed dose of anesthesia during the state’s last execution in October 2005 without notifying corrections officials.

Whether or not any action can be taken against an individual violating written ethics does not affect the general principle. Namely, that medical professionals are duty-bound to refrain from causing harm to any person. Certainly causing death meets that criterion.

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KBR Loses Its Monopoly

After nearly two years of wrangling, the Army has finally broken up the monopoly held by KBR for work in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. The positive signs stop there, though.

Yet even as the Pentagon begins to pull apart the enormous KBR contract, critics warn that the new three-company deal could actually result in higher costs for American taxpayers and weak oversight by the military. In fact, under the new deal, KBR and the two other companies could actually make more than three times as much as KBR has been paid each year since the war began.

Although every single past undertaking within the framework of the two theaters has seen enormous cost overruns and mismanagement, the Army would like to assure voters that they have everything under control. That proposal seems laughable when considering that if the contract managed to come in under the projection it would be the first such instance.

Critics also say they doubt that the new contract will result in significant cost savings or better services for soldiers in Iraq. The Army has built into the deal the potential for larger profits for the contractors than existed under the prior contract, and it plans to outsource much of the management and oversight of the contractors to yet another company, Serco Inc., for $59 million.

Incredibly, despite the long trail of cost overruns, corruption and mismanagement, the Army contract has outsourced the oversight of the contract, making oversight that much harder, spending another $60 million, and ensuring that any past problems involving the contractors will continue unabated.

KBR, though sure the most (in)famous of the three--KBR, Fluor, and DynCorp--it is not alone in its shortcomings.

Like KBR, DynCorp, based in Falls Church, Va., has had serious problems in past contracting work, including allegations that its employees engaged in sex trafficking in Bosnia while working on a police training contract there in the late 1990s. In addition, government auditors concluded last year that the State Department’s $1.2 billion contract with DynCorp for police training in Iraq was so badly managed that they could not determine exactly what was done for the money.

In addition to the run-of-the-mill payments for phantom services, DynCorp manages to throw in the added sex trafficking to up the ante.

A large part of cost overruns revolve around the cost-plus nature of these contracts, which stipulate "all...costs are reimbursed by the Army, as long as the compan[ies] can convince the government that they are reasonable." Invariably, "reasonable" wins, even if there's no product, as has recently been shown.

Tack-on fees are also sure to boost the costs of the contract, despite the promises. While KBR received fees up to 3 percent on top of the contract price under the previous arrangement, the new contract includes fees of up to 10 percent for the three companies. Bloated fees, cost-plus pricing, and two additional work forces are sure to add to money management issues. Issues that will receive even less scrutiny now that the task has been delivered to a British subsidiary.

Though admirable that the Army has finally broken a no-bid monopoly after 5 years, it has managed in the process to ensure, rather than prevent, further corruption and overspending. War is expensive, but paying for phantom services and placing the pricing in the hands of those doing the work is not a necessary part of the spending. To proactively structure a contract so as to all-but-guarantee that those problems will worsen instead of improving on an already-broken system is disturbing, no less so simply because it is par for the course.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pay First, Ask Questions Later

The US military's reliance on private contractors to perform most functions of the Iraq occupation, including combat, is well-documented, as is the favored status of KBR, a company with ties to Dick Cheney. The program is far from a success, with embarassing revelations ranging from the inane to the outrageous. Despite the obvious violations of logic and competency, the Bush administration had tried to slip wording into legislation that would have granted immunity to contractors committing fraud in the performance of overseas contracts.

Now, a recently-concluded Pentagon audit of roughly $8 billion spent on contractors in Iraq found that "none of the payments followed federal rules some cases, contracts worth millions of dollars were paid for despite little or no record of what, if anything, was received."

In one case, according to documents displayed by Pentagon auditors at the hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a cash payment of $320.8 million in Iraqi money was authorized on the basis of a single signature and the words “Iraqi Salary Payment” on an invoice. In another, $11.1 million of taxpayer money was paid to IAP, an American contractor, on the basis of a voucher with no indication of what was delivered.

It was hard to comprehend paying a 22-year-old for Cold War-era, degraded ammunition to supply the Afghans. It is much harder to comprehend that money is being given to anyone with a hastily-written IOU in their hands and asking nothing more.

The Pentagon report covered the money of the US tax payers, but the government proved equally adept and proficient at wasting the Iraqis' money, too.

The disclosure that $1.8 billion in Iraqi assets was mishandled comes on top of an earlier finding by an independent federal oversight agency, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, that United States occupation authorities early in the conflict could not account for the disbursement of $8.8 billion in Iraqi oil money and seized assets.

That $1.8 billion consisted of seized Iraqi assets and is currently unaccounted for. Doled out in cash, but to where nobody knows.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

One Step Back, Two Steps....Back?


Last week, it was reported that Pakistan was scaling back efforts to help the US against militants on the western border with Afghanistan in order to actively pursue a peace agreement with the warring factions. Yesterday, that tree bore its rotten fruit.

Pakistan's government promised to "gradually" pull out troops from the northwestern valley of Swat after signing a peace agreement with Taliban militants on Wednesday.

The deal was done a day after the United States advised its ally against negotiating with militants, saying it could give them breathing space to plot attacks in Pakistan and abroad.

For its part, the militants and their leader, Fazlullah, promise to try really hard not to carry their weapons around and create more violence. Given the precursor to the present situation, there's no reason to doubt them.

Swat, which is tribal, though not a part of FATA, had been the main tourist destination in NWFP until last year, when the militants launched a violent campaign to enforce Taliban-style law in the region.

It's probably out of their system.

Several other trade-offs include the militants asking permission before broadcasting on their radio station while "the government...agreed to review the criminal cases filed against Fazlullah and other militants."

As the American military toils in Iraq, the region from which Gen. Petraeus believes the next terror attack will emanate is being abandoned to the militants by a country touted as the US's strongest ally in the region.


Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has for the most part been reluctant to do anything which might undermine the al Maliki government, has begun issuing anti-American fatwas.

Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance against U.S.-led foreign troops is permissible — a potentially significant shift by a key supporter of the Washington-backed government in Baghdad.


[Maliki and Sistani] met Thursday at the elderly cleric's base in the city of Najaf south of Baghdad.

So far, al-Sistani's fatwas have been limited to a handful of people. They also were issued verbally and in private — rather than a blanket proclamation to the general Shiite population — according to three prominent Shiite officials in regular contact with al-Sistani as well as two followers who received the edicts in Najaf.

Though the edicts has thus far been issued to a limited number of close followers, they represent a significant shift in the tone of the opposition to the American occupation for which "he believes [it] will at the end pay a heavy price." Most likely, the switch is in response to the growing inevitability of an agreement on permanent US bases in the country.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

FDA Eliminating Protections for Test Subjects

Recently, I've discussed the FDA's efforts to enforce a policy of pre-emption, which would prohibit lawsuits against manufacturers whose products had been approved by the agency. In doing so, I've stressed that the policy is extremely reliant upon the manufacturers being honest and employing scientific ethics with regard to testing and follow-up procedures.

Now the FDA is piling on, gutting rules governing clinical trials in foreign, usually developing, countries.

With 80 percent of clinical trials failing to recruit sufficient numbers of test subjects on deadline, drug companies increasingly export their trials to developing countries, where sick, undertreated patients abound. It’s faster, it’s cheaper, and it’s easier to conduct the placebo-controlled trials that companies and the FDA prefer. There is precious little oversight of these trials.

Unlike for domestic trials, the FDA does not require advance notice before drug companies take their trials outside US borders. And with 90 percent of trials failing to gain FDA approval, a massive number of trials are conducted, fail, and then vanish with no agency review at all—and little public record, if any at all.

Virtually the only thing currently regulating these overseas trials is the Declaration of Helsinki, when the FDA chooses to enforce it, which isn't often. Reading the rules, it's hard to imagine what objections the FDA could have. Essentially, it stipulates that participants must be volunteers and stand to benefit from their participation and that the research must follow basic scientific principles. Not all that stringent and, for the most part, common sense. Nevertheless, "the FDA has been agitating against the DOH since the late 1990s."

The FDA is replacing the deposed DOH with "Good Clinical Practice Rules." One can imagine how that might play out in the current environment:

Unlike Helsinki, which describes ethical principles agreed upon by the international medical community, GCP rules are bureaucratic regulations crafted by regulatory authorities and drug industry trade groups, behind closed doors.

One of the many running themes of the last 8 years. It's one thing to allow profit under an economic system. It's entirely another to allow it by taking advantage of uninformed poor subjects in developing countries and then foisting the products of those unregulated trials onto an unsuspecting American public which no longer has even the basic right to hold anyone accountable.

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Various Items

Israel Takes President Bush's Message to Heart:

Israel, clearly inspired by President Bush's speech last week, announced today that it is involved in negotiations with Syria in Turkey. Surely this will bring a strong reproach from our principled leader:

The United States said it did "not object" but repeated its criticism of Syria's "support of terrorism"

Maybe not. Well, maybe there's some sort of technicality on the application of the precise term 'appeasement.'

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert...said the process would be long, complex and could end in "difficult concessions" for Israel -- an apparent reference to his willingness to hand back the Golan Heights.

"It's always better to talk than shoot," Olmert said.

Then again, maybe it fits the definition snugly, though I don't expect Bush to publicly call out Olmert. Not that anyone would listen.

In Other Appeasement News:

Hezbollah secured veto power over Lebanon's Western-backed government on Wednesday, leaving the militant group virtually free to build up its weapons, including rockets aimed at Israel. But as the political winner, Hezbollah also faces pressure to seek compromise rather than confront opponents, as it had done violently in recent weeks.

The deal to end Lebanon's long stalemate allows a triumphant Hezbollah and its allies back into the government after street fighting reminiscent of the 1975-1990 civil war. Hezbollah patrons Iran and Syria praised the agreement, which seems certain to strengthen Iran's hand as it vies for influence in Iraq and across the Middle East.

It took all of a week for Hezbollah to achieve the strategic aims of its recent street fighting, gaining veto power and the reinstatement of a deposed Hezbollah-allied official. Here, very clearly, the Lebanese government is conceding on significant issues (veto power nullifies any attempt to disarm Hezbollah) and legitimizing a militant Iranian proxy in return for a "period of accommodation and calm and stability in Lebanon." If the talks in Turkey bordered on Bush bane, then this situation fits it verbatim. Again, we should expect some outcry from the United States:

Washington also put on a positive spin, despite the new power gained by a group that fought Israel in 2006 and is labeled as terrorist by the United States.

"It's a necessary and positive step," said David Welch, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East. "It's not for us to decide how Lebanon does this."

Makes you wonder if there's ever an exchange of notes among US officials. The concessions are obviously not a solution, merely a period of relative calm in return for strengthening Hezbollah's--and Iran's--position in the Lebanese government.

Even if Lebanon remains calm for a period, however, the deal only increases the potential for instability in a weak state where religious and clan loyalties often seem to trump national allegiance.

Hezbollah in effect operates a "state within a state" inside key parts of Lebanon - the south, Beirut's southern suburbs and the Bekaa valley near Syria - with its own police, army and social services. That makes Lebanon an ideal incubator for the group's military clout, just as Afghanistan served as a haven and staging ground for al-Qaida.

Another foreign policy loss as far as Bush's stated foreign policy goals go. Republicans are portrayed as strong on national defense, but it's hard to find a single instance where their efforts have kept the Middle East situation from regressing, though I'm open to suggestions.

Terry McAuliffe, Man of Principle:

The Democratic nominating process is over, and has been since Obama's February run. Even so, this excerpt from Terry McAuliffe, who is now carrying Hillary Clinton's water on every talking-head show who'll invite him on, regarding Florida and Michigan. This excerpt is in reference to the 2004 convention:

"I'm going outside the primary window," [Michigan Sen. Carl Levin] told me definitively.

"If I allow you to do that, the whole system collapses," I said. "We will have chaos. I let you make your case to the DNC, and we voted unanimously and you lost."

He kept insisting that they were going to move up Michigan on their own, even though if they did that, they would lose half their delegates. By that point Carl and I were leaning toward each other over a table in the middle of the room, shouting and dropping the occasional expletive.

"You won't deny us seats at the convention," he said.

"Carl, take it to the bank," I said. "They will not get a credential. The closest they'll get to Boston will be watching it on television. I will not let you break this entire nominating process for one state. The rules are the rules. If you want to call my bluff, Carl, you go ahead and do it."

We glared at each other some more, but there was nothing much left to say. I was holding all the cards and Levin knew it.

[Source: McAuliffe, Terry. What A Party!, p. 325.]

Consistency's overrated. Can we stop with the 'principle' argument tour now, Hillary? We know you want the votes to count, but can we stop pretending it's the populist in you.

Move Along, Nothing to See Here:

Hagee: "God sent Hitler to usher the Jews back to Israel." So, in essence, Hitler was doing the work of God. Wow.

No need to look at McCain's associations, journalists. Maybe Obama has another pastor.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Product of Rumsfeld's Longing

Part of the document dump surrounding the Pentagon's propaganda--er, military analyst--program was a .wav file of a luncheon in December 2006 with the Secretary of Defense and several retired military officers. During the luncheon, Rumsfeld lamented that the leaders of Iraq do not include a Syngman Rhee.

Just what that might entail became clear this week:

Grave by mass grave, South Korea is unearthing the skeletons and buried truths of a cold-blooded slaughter from early in the Korean War, when this nation's U.S.-backed regime killed untold thousands of leftists and hapless peasants in a summer of terror in 1950.

With U.S. military officers sometimes present, and as North Korean invaders pushed down the peninsula, the southern army and police emptied South Korean prisons, lined up detainees and shot them in the head, dumping the bodies into hastily dug trenches. Others were thrown into abandoned mines or into the sea. Women and children were among those killed. Many victims never faced charges or trial.


In the late 1940s, President Syngman Rhee's U.S.-installed rightist regime crushed leftist political activity in South Korea, including a guerrilla uprising inspired by the communists ruling the north. By 1950, southern jails were packed with up to 30,000 political prisoners.

This is the legacy Rumsfeld dreamt of in Iraq. Democracy, indeed.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Have You No Sense of History, Sir?

Now that the initial furor over President Bush's recent 'appeasement' remarks in Israel has died down a bit, perhaps a rational spin can be put on it. Accepting President Bush's remarks as accurate for a moment, it becomes necessary to map out an alternative to talking with Iran which will elicit the desired results. It is easy to bluster about the folly of conversation, but is inevitably hollow without a suitable plan with which to substitute it.

One alternative, and the one on which the administration seems most keen, is regime change by force. One need not gaze too far back into the abyss of history to imagine how that scenario might play out. In fact, only as far as the present day. It would be quite a feat for anyone to offer compelling evidence why any future conditions in Iran after invasion would vary substantially from those of present-day Iraq. Especially if Iran is seen as the main purveyor of unrest in Iraq. The validity of the previous sentence is immaterial to the point, since those that would invade Iran believe it fully, and, as such, must apply it to their reasoning.

Another alternative, offered by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann, is the tried-and-true method of economic sanctions and forced isolation. Again, Iraq need be the only model here. Economic sanctions there surely hampered Saddam's military capacity, but also deprived the general population of much more. The thought that if faced with a slighter influx of cash, a despotic regime will allow itself to be deprived in equal proportion with its subjects is farcical.

But what Morris and McGann see is not a slow bleed, but a regime change from within:

Without subsidies, the Iranian people, half of whom are under 30 and only 40 percent of whom are ethnically Farsi, will become restive and resentful. Already, many complain that Ahmadinejad’s policies have led to global isolation of Iran and stymied economic growth and social upward mobility. While opinion surveys in Iran indicate that the people support the nuclear aspirations of the regime, they are not willing to pay a price of international isolation.

If a President Obama were to meet with President Ahmadinejad, it would send a signal to the Iranian people that they are not isolated but that the rest of the world has come to respect them and to have to deal with them. The leading argument for toppling the current regime will have been fatally undermined.

The authors seem here to be engaging in willful ignorance both of the mechanics of tyranny and the datum of history. Sanctions and isolation surely bred resentment in Saddam's Iraq, but part was surely directed outward (UN/US), and that which was directed inward was ineffectual (such is the case in tyranny). 12 years of wishing for regime change and starving (with the help of a corrupt dictator, to be sure) Iraqi children through sanctions didn't effect the end sought in Iraq. Why should it be any different in Iran?

Morris and McGann make two other common mistakes: First, they assign to the Iranian population all the traits of Ahmadinejad, and treat them as one in the same. Second, they assume that the power to lead Iran lies with Ahmadinejad when, in fact, it lies with the Supreme Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei.

The West's fight with Ahmadinejad is not a battle with a Hitler or Stalin, both of whom held absolute power and control of a sizable military apparatus. Ahmadinejad is more like the bully's scrawny friend who gets to taunt the bully's prey only while in his orbit. Ahmadinejad, apart from not being the supreme lawmaker of Iran, is not even the commander-in-chief of the Iranian forces.

But it is because of his provocative remarks, like denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, that the United States and Europe have never known quite how to handle the firebrand president, say politicians, officials and experts in Iran.

In demonizing Ahmadinejad, they say, the West has served him well, elevating his status at home and across the region at a time when he is increasingly isolated politically because of his go-it-alone style and ineffective economic policies.

Like Hugo Chavez, Ahmadinejad has been propelled to cult status precisely because of, and not in spite of, the West's constant denunciations and focus. I am not suggesting for a moment that the man is anything less than a buffoon, but some perspective is needed on his real place within Iran's power structure.

One can debate whether to talk with leaders like the Iranian charlatan or give them the cold shoulder. What is irrational and illogical, though, is to suppose--as Morris and McGann have--that the history of but 5 years ago will not serve as a guide.

The lesson of history can be taken in the first. Or it can be learned upon repetition. The US seems to be aiming at the latter.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

John McCain Takes the Reins on Wishful Thinking

The spin on Barack Obama this campaign season has been that he's all bluster and little substance. That was to be expected, given his short time on the national political scene, especially when compared to his two competitors.

But John McCain on Thursday took the baton, delivering a speech in Ohio in which he laid out his vision of the world at the end of his first hypothetical term, a speech which was grandiose in scope but limited in specifics.

By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom. The Iraq War has been won. Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension. Violence still occurs, but it is spasmodic and much reduced. Civil war has been prevented; militias disbanded; the Iraqi Security Force is professional and competent; al Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated; and the Government of Iraq is capable of imposing its authority in every province of Iraq and defending the integrity of its borders. The United States maintains a military presence there, but a much smaller one, and it does not play a direct combat role.

Again, McCain is falling back on "winning" as the impetus for withdrawal while never spelling out what that entails or how it can be achieved. Even as he acknowledges "centuries of sectarian tension," he supposes that it will have faded in the next four years. An incredible claim, really, to presume that centuries of animosity will be solved by a decade of relative anarchy.

"Civil war has been prevented," by refusing to acknowledge it already existed, or that ethnic cleansing has been thorough enough as to render more a moot point. Disbanding militias will undoubtedly continue as more militia members are absorbed by the ISF, which is already seen as a sectarian tool by the under-represented Sunnis.

McCain seems also to be proposing permanent bases while refusing to acknowledge that Congress has to approve any SOFA, something a likely Democratic-controlled legislature will be loathe to approve.

The threat from a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan has been greatly reduced but not eliminated. U.S. and NATO forces remain there to help finish the job, and continue operations against the remnants of al Qaeda. The Government of Pakistan has cooperated with the U.S. in successfully adapting the counterinsurgency tactics that worked so well in Iraq and Afghanistan to its lawless tribal areas where al Qaeda fighters are based. The increase in actionable intelligence that the counterinsurgency produced led to the capture or death of Osama bin Laden, and his chief lieutenants. There is no longer any place in the world al Qaeda can consider a safe haven. Increased cooperation between the United States and its allies in the concerted use of military, diplomatic, and economic power and reforms in the intelligence capabilities of the United States has disrupted terrorist networks and exposed plots around the world.

As the Taliban is currently enjoying a resurgence, in order to speculate that there will be regression McCain is obligated to propose some strategic alteration which would precipitate such a change. It can't be more troops, as the US has already pleaded for more NATO forces to no avail, and the rest of our forces are stuck in Iraq. If it's cooperation he's after, the US has already be rebuffed by NATO allies and now by its supposed staunch ally, Pakistan. As of now, and short of any specific and tangible alterations in strategic aims, that al Qaeda would be unable to find a safe haven in Pakistan is a pipe dream.

After efforts to pressure the Government in Sudan over Darfur failed again in the U.N. Security Council, the United States, acting in concert with a newly formed League of Democracies, applied stiff diplomatic and economic pressure that caused the government of Sudan to agree to a multinational peacekeeping force, with NATO countries providing logistical and air support, to stop the genocide that had made a mockery of the world's repeated declaration that we would "never again" tolerant such inhumanity. Encouraged by the success, the League is now occupied with using the economic power and prestige of its member states to end other gross abuses of human rights such as the despicable crime of human trafficking.

I can't argue with the impotency of the UN, but that in 4 years, McCain will have established a functional League of Democracies is an incredible in and of itself, but that it will have succeeded in ending decades-old conflicts and centuries-old vices is ludicrous.

Health care has become more accessible to more Americans than at any other time in history. Reforms of the insurance market; putting the choice of health care into the hands of American families rather than exclusively with the government or employers.

McCain's plan to allow Americans to buy their own insurance ignores the fact that they can currently buy their own insurance. The problem isn't availability, it's prohibitive costs and that many people, McCain included, aren't qualified for coverage.

McCain goes on to predicate several improvements on "reduction of costs." Of course, no suggestion as to just what might lower these costs.

It goes on from there, with nary a suggestion save for wishful thinking to illustrate just how any of these propositions comes to fruition.

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More Bad News on the Real Terror Front

The New York Times is reporting that the Pakistani government has grown weary of the United States' bungling of the war in Afghanistan and has scaled back attempts to help prevent cross-border raids from the FATA region.

Pakistani officials are making it increasingly clear that they have no interest in stopping cross-border attacks by militants into Afghanistan, prompting a new level of frustration from Americans who see the infiltration as a crucial strategic priority in the war in Afghanistan.

This comes after a March visit with Pakistani officials by Admiral Eric Olsen in which he was told that the US was not welcome to conduct cross-border raids of its own. Concurrently, the new leaders of Pakistan have called off raids of their own in a renewed effort to negotiate with militants in the tribal areas.

Pakistani officials aren't pulling any punches:

“Pakistan will take care of its own problems, you take care of Afghanistan on your side,” said Owari Ghani, the governor of North-West Frontier Province, who is also President Pervez Musharraf’s representative in charge of the neighboring tribal areas.

Mr. Ghani, a key architect of the pending peace accord, believes along with many other Pakistani leaders that the United States is floundering in the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan, he said, should not be saddled with America’s mistakes, especially if a solution involved breaching Pakistan’s sovereignty, a delicate matter in a nation where sentiment against the Bush administration runs high.

“Pakistan is a sovereign state,” he said. “NATO is in Afghanistan; it’s time they did some soldiering.”

As to the proposed peace accord, the Americans are unlikely to greet it kindly. Aside from halting Pakistani efforts to eliminate militants, it also makes no mention of stopping forays into Afghanistan by the rebels.

The situation is basically thus: The US is being discouraged from launching its own raids, the Pakistanis have grown tired of doing NATO's job, and any peace deal undertaken will not stipulate that cross-border attacks on NATO troops be halted.

While the US military is concentrated in Iraq perpetuating a local war, it has abandoned Afghanistan and allowed a global conflict to fester in its eastern ranges: "The Americans specifically mentioned their concern that Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas were preparing an attack on the United States, [Afrasiab Khattak] said."

Far from making America safer, the Iraq war has allowed danger to reconstitute and simmer unmolested while simultaneously paving the way for an Iranian-led Shite swath across the Middle East.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

More on FDA and Pre-Emption

I've written a couple of times on the issue of pre-emption, which states that manufacturers cannot be held liable for any drug or medical device approved by the FDA. This includes drugs such as Vioxx, the approval of which was in no small part contingent upon ghost-written, dishonest research publications promoting the drug, despite evidence that it may have been harmful. In another instance, Johnson & Johnson, makers of the Ortho-Evra birth control patch, withheld evidence that it released significantly more estrogen than advertised and presented a danger to patients.

If the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of pre-emption in a case it has before it, Americans who suffered as a result of manufacturers' malfeasance and dishonest practices would have no outlet, and would assume the liability themselves. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing this past Wednesday on the subject, hearing testimony from Dennis Quaid, various doctors, and lawyers, with all but one opposing pre-emption. [Obviously, Henry Waxman controlled the invitations, so the discrepancy is anecdotal at best.]

William H. Maisel, M.D., M.P.H., Director, Medical Device Safety Institute, Department of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston

Dr. Maisel testified about medical devices, and the specific case of Mark Gleeson, victim of a short-circuiting pacemaker. As Dr. Maisel stated, "the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates more than 100,000 different medical devices manufactured by more than 15,000 companies, [and] receive several thousand new and supplemental device applications annually."

That the FDA would be able to catch every flaw or questionable scientific backing in all of those devises, in addition to regulating the 11,000 drugs on the market is ludicrous.

St. Jude Medical, the manufacturer of Mr. Gleeson’s pacemaker, had become aware of the short circuit problem 2 years prior to Mark Gleeson’s pacemaker failure because other faulty pacemakers had been returned to the manufacturer. After studying the problem for over a year and validating a fix, St. Jude asked for and received FDA approval for a modified version of the device that corrected the problem. This approval came several months prior to Mr. Gleeson’s device failure although the reason for the device modification and a patient warning were not publicly provided at that time. Furthermore, St. Jude Medical continued to distribute the already manufactured potentially faulty pacemakers. Mark Gleeson was unlucky enough to receive one as his replacement device – even though corrected pacemakers had been built and were available. Eight months after receiving FDA approval for the corrected device and nearly 2.5 years after initially learning of the problem, St. Jude Medical issued a recall of 163,000 pacemakers, including Mark Gleeson’s new unit.

The timeline in this particular case should eradicate any misconceptions about the efficiency of the FDA and its ability to protect consumers. St. Jude was aware of the problem a full year ahead of providing him the first pacemaker, and had a fix several months prior. Once it did provide a fix, neither the fix nor the underlying issue were made public. Indeed, when Gleeson's first pacemaker failed, he was provided with another faulty device, despite the availability of the newer model.

All of the issues involving the short-circuiting pacemakers became publicly available only 2.5 years after the problem was discovered.

Aaron S. Kesselheim, M.D., J.D., Harvard Medical School, Division of Pharmacoepidemiology

These lawsuits are important because in the current US regulatory system, a drug’s manufacturer plays the central role in the development and dissemination of knowledge about its product, and therefore exerts considerable influence over what is known about its product and how it is used in the marketplace.

This fact, of course, places greater emphasis upon the issues surrounding Vioxx (ghost writing) and Ortho-Evra (suppression of detrimental evidence). If the manufacturers themselves are in control of what the FDA (and the public) knows about the drug, pre-emption would place them in total control both coming and going. Not only are they capable of controlling what is known, but once that drug is approved on that cherry-picked information, the public is helpless but to hope nothing bad happens.

Dr. Kesselheim also brings up the limited testing that drugs go to prior to release, "often on patients healthier than those for whom it will be prescribed." Given that the FDA doesn't have the resources to follow every drug for its lifetime on the market, it is often up to the manufacturer to track adverse events and other safety issues.

Manufacturers have a strong financial incentive to promote their drugs’ effectiveness and increase sales of their products, but manufacturers may also sometimes be faced with their own safety-related data that suggest limiting use of their product, or withdrawing it from the market altogether.

Vioxx is again held up as an example, along with Baycol. In the case of Baycol, the manufacturer intentionally failed to follow-up once the drug went to market: "A company memorandum reportedly stated 'If the FDA asks for bad news, we have to give, but if we don’t have it, we can’t give it to them.'"

Then there's the lovable sales reps:

At the same time, a drug’s manufacturer manages how the drug is promoted to physicians and patients. Numerous studies show that these promotional messages are extremely powerful in influencing physicians’ prescribing practices. However, like any sales messages, they also tend to inflate the benefits of a medication and downplay its risks. Vioxx’s manufacturer continued actively promoting its wide use even after it reportedly knew about the drug’s association with cardiovascular adverse events. Such promotional tactics included specific instructions to its retailers how to dodge questions from physicians concerned about these side effects.

David Vladeck, J.D., Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center

Let’s be clear about this: Under FDA’s view, consumers are forced to assume the risks of unsafe drugs and medical devices. At the same time, manufacturers of drugs and medical devices who fail to take reasonable steps to assure their drug or device is safe are immunized from liability, and, these days, essentially immune from FDA enforcement.

Thus, instead of having liability claims as a second front of protection for the consumer, an over-burdened FDA beholden to the forthrightness of the manufacturers becomes the only form of coverage. Given the track record, it is fact, not opinion, that this is an ineffective system and to the severe detriment of consumers.

But here's the real kicker. Republicans love to rail against 'activist judges' and unelected officials ruling by fiat. But only on select issues, namely those they don't agree with. Tort reform (read: elimination) is a different story:

What makes this result all the more indefensible is that the decision to wipe away state liability law was not made by Congress through legitimate, democratic means. Instead, it was made by unelected and unaccountable agency officials — many of whom worked for drug and device companies before their government service and have returned or will return via the revolving door to represent the same companies. These decisions were not made in a transparent, publicly accountable way. Rather, they were made in obscure regulatory documents, with no opportunity for public input, and with no regard for the clear-cut requirements of Executive Order 13,132, which disfavors preemption and requires agencies to consult with states, local governments and the public before making preemption decisions.

I'm sure George Bush and John McCain will come out against 'judicial activism' if the Supreme Court legislates from the bench on this issue.

The federal government has regulated the sale of drugs for one hundred years without any hint that state liability actions interfered with FDA’s ability to do its job. Nothing in the statutes FDA administers suggests that they oust state liability actions for drug products. Indeed, FDA has long taken the view that state liability litigation for pharmaceuticals is an important, independent discipline on the market. And Congress has not acted to preempt or limit state liability actions, even though Congress has long been aware of the steady procession of liability actions against drug makers — including those that pre-date FDA and its forerunners.

The issue of pre-emption isn't even close. Tactically speaking, the insinuation that the FDA is effective as the exclusive check on pharmaceutical and medical device safety is fallacious and ludicrous, given the extensive pile of evidence to the contrary.

But aside from the logistics, there remains the legal issue. If the Court were to decide in favor of pre-emption, it would do so in contradiction to a century of precedent, both within Congress and the FDA, itself.

Pre-emption would be a great coup for those in the Bush administration who will be returning to corporate jobs in 2009, many in the pharmaceutical arena. It would also take a sledgehammer to consumer protection and legitimate governance.

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This Time We Mean It. Really.

As a parent counts to three using a series of inane fractions, so has the United States government dealt with the Iraqi exile and charlatan, Ahmed Chalabi. McClatchy reports that the US has again cut ties with one of the men most responsible for war in Iraq and the concomitant faulty intelligence.

The U.S. the fourth time that the U.S. has ended an alliance with Chalabi, whom officials in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office once touted as a successor to Saddam Hussein. The State Department and U.S. intelligence agencies, however, have long regarded Chalabi as untrustworthy and a "charlatan."

Ahmed Chalabi began working with the US in the late 80s in fits and starts, but rose to prominence following the first Gulf War. At that time, he was being paid by the CIA, but that agency cut him off in 1995 after it became clear to them that he was selling fraudulent goods. Despite being known by US Intelligence as a source of false information, Chalabi used his friends in Congress to convince the State Department to pick up his tab, and he continued to fight to depose Saddam Hussein.

Perhaps no single person is more responsible for building the case for invasion than Chalabi. And certainly no one intentionally provided more false information to the government and journalists, most famously Judith Miller. This false information ranged from WMD caches to phantom ties to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Chalabi wanted Hussein gone, and wasn't the slightest bit concerned with the means, so long as he got the end he wanted.

Aram Roston, author of "The Man Who Pushed America to War," spoke to Amy Goodman in March and detailed how Chalabi got his false information into America's stream of consciousness:

No, exactly. It was—it’s all a slew of journals and a slew of television programs, but each one typically would get a piece of the pie that he was producing, a piece of the product of what ended up being phony propaganda that the Iraqi National Congress was coming up with. And they had a very elaborate system set in place to get these stories in the press and into the intelligence stream.

They weren’t very successful getting these stories into the intelligence stream. And what I found was they were most successful after the attacks of 9/11. People were very—they wanted stories about terror and about Saddam Hussein, about weapons of mass destruction. So Chalabi’s group became very successful at planting these stories. They weren’t that successful, it seems, in getting it into the CIA, because the CIA at that point didn’t trust a word that Chalabi’s group said. But they were much more successful in impacting public opinion. And that had an immense impact, obviously, on America.

Essentially, Chalabi was very good at running a propaganda campaign utilizing a cabal of journalist dupes and a credulous American public. The Bush administration, for its part, was all too happy to stoke the fire. But that the CIA didn't want any part of the intelligence speaks volumes about the run-up to the war. When the central agency for gathering foreign intelligence knows it's being sold rotten fruit, the policy makers and opinion shapers should have looked twice before biting down.

From a March, 2004, McClatchy article:

Feeding the information to the news media, as well as to selected administration officials and members of Congress, helped foster an impression that there were multiple sources of intelligence on Iraq's illicit weapons programs and links to bin Laden.

In fact, many of the allegations came from the same half-dozen defectors, weren't confirmed by other intelligence and were hotly disputed by intelligence professionals at the CIA, the Defense Department and the State Department.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials and others who supported a pre-emptive invasion quoted the allegations in statements and interviews without running afoul of restrictions on classified information or doubts about the defectors' reliability.

Aside from the now-obviously lack of truth to his intelligence, Chalabi has a long history of fraud and embezzlement.

Chalabi, who lives in London, fled Jordan in 1989 after his Petra Bank collapsed and was convicted in absentia three years later for embezzlement. [...]

Earlier this year, the State Department threatened to cut off the INC's funding for information programs and other nonmilitary activities after an audit turned up expenditures that were deemed questionable or were unaccounted for.

The inspector general's audit of $4.3 million in grants mostly criticized the group's accounting and payroll procedures. But it also found questionable expenses, including $2,070 for a gym membership, $5,541 for legal fees related to a rental dispute and other money used for first-class plane tickets.

The audit also suggests the INC may have used taxpayers' money to lobby in Washington, which is illegal.

The funding continued, however, illustrating a recurring theme. Chalibi, having been convicted of embezzlement and cut-off by the CIA for providing faulty intelligence, continued to misuse tax dollars with relative impunity. He would receive several threats, always to have his funding restored in the end. He would be similarly 'cut-off' in 2004, this week [which, of course, is unresolved,] and intermittently in between.

So, given that it is now indisputable that Chalabi was selling faulty goods, the only question remaining is whether the administration was simply mislead in good faith, or bought into intelligence they should have knownn was bad from the start. The former is a favorite line of defense for supporters of the invasion, but the theory doesn't hold water.

As far back as the mid-90s, the CIA knew Chalabi's story. When the Central Intelligence Agency doesn't trust the intelligence, you might want to get a second opinion before spouting it out in knee-jerk fashion.

Also, in October 2002, it was clear to many that there was plenty of dispute over the veracity of Chalabi's claims.

The Pentagon and the CIA are waging a bitter feud over secret intelligence that is being used to shape U.S. policy toward Iraq, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The dispute has been fueled by the creation within the Pentagon of a special unit that provides senior policymakers with alternate assessments of Iraq intelligence.


A major source of contention is the Pentagon's heavy reliance on data supplied by the Iraqi National Congress. The INC, the largest group within the divided Iraqi opposition, has a mixed reputation in Washington and a huge stake in whether President Bush makes good on his threat to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam by force. Its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, sees himself as a potential successor.


It is not clear whether the Pentagon solicits the views of the U.S. intelligence community on the material it collects directly from the Iraqi opposition.

A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed grave fears that civilian officials in the Pentagon may be blindly accepting assertions by Chalabi and his aides that a U.S. invasion would trigger mass defections of Iraqi troops and a quick collapse of Iraqi resistance.

"Our guys working this area for a living all believe Chalabi and all those guys in their Bond Street suits are charlatans. To take them for a source of anything except a fantasy trip would be a real stretch," one official said.

The special unit within the Pentagon was Doug Feith's Office of Special Plans, now known as a farcical cherry-picking operation based, not on gathering intelligence, but on manufacturing a case for war.

To claim that there was insufficient evidence as to the shaky foundation upon which the case for war was built prior to invasion is to ignore the facts. Chalabi was long known as a snake-oil salesman, and it was his un-verified intelligence that provided the crux of the case. Lifelong intelligence officers were pleading with the administration to take his information lightly, but the suits who wanted war were hearing none of it.

All of this information was available before the war. Feith and his cohorts can revise history all they want, but the evidence is there.

If Chalabi had two strikes for misusing funds and selling false information, then strike three comes from his dealings with Iran.


Well, the Iranian group that is charged by Iran with exporting...the Islamic revolution is called the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards. And...the man who runs their operations in Iraq now, and did before the war, is a general named Ahmed Foruzandeh. And Ahmed Foruzandeh is considered a very talented intelligence officer, and he’s very good at covert operations for the Iranians, and he’s very committed, he’s very sophisticated, and he’s no joke. And it’s certainly true that Chalabi had met with him before the war, before the US invasion.

What concerned American intelligence officers was when they found out—they believed he was meeting—he had met with him after the invasion, while the DIA was still funding the Iraqi National Congress’s intelligence operations in Iraq. It would have been in the spring of 2004. And they had serious concerns about that.

Now, more recently, Ahmed Foruzandeh, this man I mention in the book, he’s been named by the US government itself publicly as supporting terror, supporting insurgency. He’s been designated by the Treasury Department under an executive order as a real threat to efforts in Iraq.

Passing US intelligence to Iran:

The U.S. government has launched an investigation to determine how Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi obtained highly classified American intelligence that was then passed to Iran, Bush administration officials said Friday.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, said the compromised intelligence was "highly classified and damaging."

Chalabi's most recent ouster comes as "U.S. military and intelligence officials said Chalabi is close to Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force." Suleimani, you may recall, brokered the cease-fire in Basra in March, and is also a proud member of the US terrorist watch list.

It is hard to imagine any single person who has done more harm to the United States as an outsider. Chalabi has pilfered money from tax payers to provide incredible, false intelligence claims that led the nation into a drawn-out, destructive occupation. Concurrently, he is negotiating and dealing intelligence secrets to Iran, our next target and current replacement for the USSR. Not only should Chalabi not be receiving US funds, he should be in a prison somewhere. Maybe he can be extradited to Jordan for his prior conviction, I hear they treat their prisoners real nice.

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Why American Journalism Fails

Are. You. Kidding?

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KBR Profits From Providing Insurance to Employees

As if allowing American soldiers to be electrocuted, refusing to fix the faulty wiring responsible, and avoiding the payment of payroll taxes by harboring its employees in shell companies weren't enough, now it appears that KBR, everyone's favorite Halliburton spin-off, has been profiting off paying workers' insurance claims at taxpayers' expense.

A poorly run Pentagon program for providing workman's compensation for civilian employees in Iraq and Afghanistan has allowed defense contractors and insurance companies to gouge American taxpayers, a House committee said Thursday.

Insurance companies alone have collected nearly $600 million in excessive profits over the past five years, says a Democratic staff report from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, but the Defense Department refuses to adjust its approach for managing the program.

Of the $284 million paid by tax payers for KBR employees' claims, just $114 million went to expenses incurred by AIG, the provider, garnering the company about $100 million in pure profit. On top of that, KBR, because of the cost-plus nature of its contract, garnered from $3 to $8 million for its troubles. What exactly were those troubles? Not sure, but paperwork's hard these days.

The report also said "Army auditors also raised concerns about the cost-plus nature of these charges. As the auditors stated, 'because the LOGCAP contract is primarily a cost-reimbursable contract, the cost of this insurance is ultimately passed on to the government. Of course, by government, they mean tax payers.

At any rate, I'm sure that both KBR and AIG are doing everything they can to keep cost overruns down:

The Army Audit Agency concluded that AIG's rates appear "unreasonably high" and "excessive," warning of an "increased risk that the Army could be overcharged." The audit report found that there is "a high risk that the contractor may have been paying more than necessary for this insurance" and that "[s]ignificant annual increases insurance companies made to DBA insurance rates don't appear to be consistent with the risk.

Then again, since neither stand to lose anything regardless of cost, maybe not.

The fleecing continues. Surely the excessive cost of employing KBR--along with the clear and present danger posed to American soldiers by short-prone, haphazard electrical work installed by cheap foreign labor--should be part of the discussion next time the "high cost of freedom" gets slapped on a bumper-sticker and bandied about the Capitol.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

West Virginia Primary: Stop Equivocating

That Hillary Clinton blew Barack Obama out of the water in West Virginia Tuesday was not the least bit surprising. That pundits have spend so much time and effort circumnavigating the obvious reason has been.

Everyone knows the reason.

The three interviews with voters from the above clip:

I guess because he's another race. I'm sort of scared of the other race, because we have so much conflict with 'em.

He's a Muslim, and that has a lot to do with it. [Really, all of the Reverend Wright air time and people still think he's a Muslim?]

I don't like the Hussein thing. I've had enough of Hussein.

The cultural make-up of West Virginia isn't a secret, and there's no reason every single pundit on television has to pretend it is. The state is 95% white, and only 15% have a bachelor's degree. Only three-fourths have graduated high school. ["White persons not Hispanic: 94%, US Average: 66%"]

And while we're at it, stop using the term "working-class." What is that phrase a euphemism for, because it certainly isn't meant to be taken literally. Even college grads have to work for a living, so quit suggesting that anyone who's read a book in the last year is an effete intellectual who doesn't work hard. The only thing I can gather from the context of the coverage is that "working-class" is synonymous with "uneducated whites." Enough already. You know one person who is most decidedly not working class? Hillary Clinton.

So, maybe "working class" actually means, "those people working in factories that we remember exist about every four years for a couple months before returning to one of our six houses."

If Hillary had a monolithic white vote--other than in West Virginia--she would have won already. How exactly is Obama supposed to "court White voters," anyway? Reinstate Jim Crow?

Tuesday's primary meant precisely nothing. The writing was on the wall well before the vote. To pretend otherwise is to be dishonest.

Appended 5/15, 1530:

If labor unions fit the bill as working class, then here's some of those backing Obama:

the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters; UNITE HERE; Transport Workers Union; UFCW; SEIU; International Brotherhood of Boilermakers; Teamsters; and Utility Workers [as of February 25th, via Obama's homepage]

A more up-to-date list.

Just today, the Obama campaign announced the backing of superdelegate and Communications Workers of America President, Larry Cohen, and gained the endorsement of the United Steelworkers.

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Update: Alaska State Legislature and Polar Bears

Last Tuesday, I wrote about the Alaska state legislature looking for a few scientists to sign off on its already-formed conclusions regarding polar bears.

The state Legislature is looking to hire a few good polar bear scientists. The conclusions have already been agreed upon -- researchers just have to fill in the science part.


Legislators hope to undermine the public perception of a widespread consensus among polar bear researchers that warming global temperatures and melting Arctic ice threaten the polar bears' survival.

Well, today, the government filled in the science for them:

Polar bears were listed on Wednesday as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act because their sea ice habitat is melting away.

In other words, precisely the opposite conclusion the Alaska legislators are shopping around.

This is not to suggest that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who announced the classification, isn't on the same side as the Alaskan lawmakers. His announcement came with plenty of qualifiers, such as "While the legal standards under the Endangered Species Act compel me to list the polar bear as threatened, I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting."

That the announcement was years in the making and released only upon court order suggests further sympathies. I suppose one difference between the two is that one--Alaska--is inviting scientists to shun ethics of their own volition, while the other--the EPA--has engaged in perpetual war on scientists. In essence, the government is stuck with the scientists they've got, and they can't get rid of the science when it's inconvenient, so obstructing the scientists is the next best thing.

The delay in classification, and the appended qualifiers make one thing clear: What is important to Kempthorne is the economics of the decision, not the science. Whether or not you share that view is immaterial to the irrefutable nature of it, as Kempthorne's statements made exceedingly clear. In one statement, he called "the Endangered Species Act 'one of the most inflexible' pieces of legislation because it didn’t allow him to consider whether protecting species like the polar bear from extinction would cost too much."

It is clear that the announcement changes nothing, but it does indicate what the Alaska state legislature is up against in its quest for scientists less clingy to the Scientific Method. Kempthorne clearly detested having to make the announcement he did today, but sometimes even 3 years isn't enough time to make up the science you want.

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Olbermann's Special Comment

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

5 Years On, ATF and FBI Still Letting Turf Wars Impede National Security

Five years after the Homeland Security Act of 2002 united the ATF and FBI under the umbrella of the Justice Department in an effort to avoid the lack of communication and cooperation which led to the failure of the previous September, turf wars are still creating a 'lack of efficiency.'

Writing for the Washington Post, Jerry Markon examines the troubled relationship, saying "the rival law enforcement agencies have fought each other for control, wasting time and money and causing duplication of effort."

Anyone paying even the slightest attention to the investigation of the attacks on the World Trade Center would have been overwhelmed by the significance granted to the complete lack of cooperation between the various agencies within the Executive branch. Succumbing to years of protracted turf wars, the agencies were essentially running completely independent of each other, working more toward supplanting the others than on protecting the country.

The Homeland Security Act was designed to prevent precisely those jurisdiction battles from hampering national security efforts.

The ATF's transfer from the Treasury Department to the FBI's home at Justice after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was supposed to eliminate long-standing tensions between two proud and independent entities,

"We thought we'd get more cooperation from two agencies that ought to be cooperating in the war on terror," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said of the 2002 law that created the Department of Homeland Security and authorized the merger.

But the transfer, thrown together in the final stages of the largest government reorganization in a half-century, proved to be a merger in name only. The ATF came under the Justice Department seal yet maintained its offices and headquarters. Little thought went into melding the distinctive cultures.

"It was all slapdash," said a Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not an authorized spokesman. "One day you wake up, and ATF is part of Justice."

The new law not only failed to repair clashing jurisdictional lines, it also expanded the ATF's role in domestic terrorism cases, bringing that agency into conflict with the core mission of the post-Sept. 11 FBI.

Thus, in addition to merging the competing parties, the HSA essentially created yet newer conflict by adding 'Explosives' to the ATF's name, ensuring even more jurisdictional battles over domestic explosive cases.

Inter-agency conflicts are sometimes inane, such as when "the ATF inadvertently bought counterfeit cigarettes from the FBI." But, too often, investigations into domestic terrorism devolve into a battle for jurisdiction, putting the people the agencies are supposed to protect at risk in the name of pride.

In 2004, Attorney General Ashcroft ordered the bomb data centers and most explosives training be consolidated under the ATF along with all training for bomb-sniffing dogs. The FBI has since refused to transfer the databases and is running its own dog training.

In an act of shear brilliance, Ashcroft essentially "left it up to the task forces to determine terrorist links" in order to decide which agency held jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, in practice this has led to "both agencies descend[ing] on the came crime scenes, often at the same time."

Essentially, Ashcroft tried to solve a conflict by passing the buck to the agencies themselves. By declaring that the FBI handle terrorism-related explosive cases and the ATF all others, he still left it up to anyone to make that distinction. There is no clear arbiter of which agency should handle both cases, and clearly both side with their own in each instance.

It is sad that years after it became clear that jurisdictional and turf battles played a significant role in failing to thwart the attacks of 9/11, Executive branch agencies are still allowing bickering and infighting to interfere with the safety of the American people.

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Iran Continues to Confound the US

With Afghanistan and Iraq vanquished, along with their stability, US attention has turned to Iran as enemy number one. Nevermind that North Korea actually possesses nuclear weapon capability, war must be perpetuated to prevent Iran from gaining even a sniff of such a disaster.

As noted before, the US loves to portray Iran as a purely destructive force in Iraq, funding only those militias the US isn't allied with, negotiating with only those the US doesn't want to know about. That stance is not only oversimplification, but demonstrably false.

In fact, the US and Iran occasionally find themselves on the same side of a fight, as was the case in Basra.

The causes of this convergence boil down to the logic of self-interest, although it is logic in a place where even the most basic reasoning refuses to go in a straight line. In essence, though, the calculation by the United States is that it must back the government it helped to create and take the steps needed to protect American troops and civilian officials.

Iranian motivations appear to hinge on the possibility that Mr. Sadr’s political and military followers could gain power in provincial elections this fall, and disrupt the creation of a semi autonomous region in the south that the Iranians see as beneficial.

An Iranian interest in a large Shiite swath across the region--from Iran to Lebanon--is not a secret, and the Mahdi army threatens that goal more than a US-allied Badr Brigade does, whether or not Admiral Mullen and President Bush want to admit it. Muqtada al Sadr is above all an Iraqi nationalist and one of the few Iraqi leaders who remained in Iraq throughout Saddam Hussein's rule. al Sadr would be as opposed to the subjugation of Iraq to Iran as the US.

Of course, this is not to suggest that he won't accept any free funding Iran wants to send his way, or that his idea of an independent Iraq merges at any point with the United States' idea.

But, with provincial elections coming in October, it is in Iran's interest to see as many members of the ISCI, of which the Badr Brigade is part, elected in lieu of members of Sadr's political faction as possible.

When it comes to which Shiite leader Iran and the United States want to see in power, at least for now they largely see Mr. Sadr’s ascendance as a common threat — nowhere more so than in Basra, the oil-rich capital of Iraq’s most populous region, the Shiite south.

Fred Kaplan at Slate:

It is now clear that the Badr Organization's ties to Iran are not merely as close as Sadr's; they are much closer. In fact, as the Times reports, Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, expressed full support for Maliki's offensive in Basra and denounced Sadr's fighters as "outlaws."

Why Iran would support an offensive portrayed in the US as a fight against both al Sadr and Iran is less vague to anyone keeping realistic tabs on foreign affairs independent of the tale spun by the Bush administration. the end the geopolitical calculus of the United States and Iran has to do with what kind of Shiite government they want in control.

The party that Iran and the United States are backing, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI], is a bitter rival of Mr. Sadr’s political movement and has managed to play to the interests of both countries. Under Iraq’s Constitution, provinces can form regions with considerable independence from Baghdad. The Supreme Council advocates a large, semi autonomous region in the south, similar to Kurdistan in the north, made up of the nine southern provinces. And because many of the council’s leaders lived in exile in Iran during the rule of Saddam Hussein, Iran has political ties to the group.

Coupled with Iran’s shared Shiite heritage, such a region would amplify Iran’s influence over the oil-rich area.

The recent crack-down on the Mahdi Army and the upcoming provincial elections cannot be divorced in any realistic assessment of the political environment of Iraq:

During the elections in 2005, Mr. Sadr’s supporters did not vote in most southern provinces, so despite having grass-roots support they were not represented in local governments.

But the Supreme Council encouraged its followers to go to the polls, and they dominated even in places where their supporters made up a comparatively small percentage of the electorate. If Mr. Sadr’s movement participates in the next elections, scheduled for October, they are sure to fare better than they did when they did not field candidates, and the Supreme Council is likely to lose some of its power.

All this illustrates that the battle of southern Iraq is more an intra-Shiite power play, with the ISCI reluctant to give up any of its influence, than a simplified battle of good versus evil.

Control of the southern region brings with it control of Iraqi oil. So, in effect, by backing the ISCI the US is placing a Iranian-allied Shiite political party in essentially-autonomous control of Iraq's oil-exporting functions. As far as geopolitical strife is responsible for a good portion of oil prices, the situation being fostered in Basra and the surrounding region cannot help.

With Iranian-backed Hezbollah exerting its influence in Lebanon, the Iranian-backed ISCI exerting control over southern Iraq--and Iranian-friendly Syria in between--it becomes exceedingly clear that the US invasion of Iraq was the greatest strategic windfall to befall Iran in decades.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Review: The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby

One of the areas of the American political arena that most interests me is how rhetoric and subjugation to emotion affects the path of discourse. All too often, sides are chosen well before the ennumeration of arguments begins, and those arguments, once made, never stray far from the superficial. Today's politics are based on plays to emotions, empty rhetoric, and only a fleeting association with logic and reason.

It is with this frame of reference that I picked up Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason. I was hoping, I suppose, for Jacoby to examine the psychological aspects of both the use of 'unreason' in proselytizing and the susceptibility of Americans to such rhetorical facades.

However, the book instead serves as more of a historical view at America's intellectual past and its influence on the current climate. In doing so, Jacoby rehashes much of what has been said before, offering not much in the way of new perspective on historical eras--from the Enlightenment musings of the founding fathers to McCarthy's Red Scare bully pulpit.

These certainly have done much to shape the current state of affairs, but Jacoby is offering nothing new. Like most other 'cultural conservationists' [her term], Jacoby is wary of Literaure curricula not centered on the classics. While I have no doubt that Plato, Aristotle, Paine, and the like are important, I grow weary of arguments suggesting that culture should be centered on these works to the exclusion of all others. The argument, it seems to me, is based almost entirely on nostalgia and indicative of a blind eye toward any work which is either new or has garnered new importance.

Jacoby's obsession with the typical 'dead white men' is not nearly as infuriating as her war on all things newer than parchment. Her aversion to any use of technology is sprinkled throughout the book and retains its own chapter later in the tome. Is there a lot of worthless information on the Iternet? Absolutely. But there's also a lot of good. And for someone who bemoans the faltering import of the classics, Jacoby is all-too-quick to dismiss the Internet's role in introducing people to such works, along with an infinite amount of other resources.

Video games also draw Jacoby's ire, which is to be expected. While I share her annoyance with the 'culture of distraction,' it is a tired argument and does nothing to advance what should be her central tenet. (She even works in the cliched admonishment of Grand Theft Auto.)

Throughout the book, Jacoby illustrates a good, learned perspective of history. But I picked up this book, not in search of a history lesson, but a new vision on the use of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in American politics. While she dabbles in the latter theme, her recount of history is far from innovative and she pauses too long on cultural inanities for my taste. Overall, an interesting read, but lacking in innovation.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Priceless: Bill O'Reilly Goes Nuclear

This video contains vulgarity

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In his new documentary, Expelled, Ben Stein offers his theory on why believers in Intelligent Design aren't winning the argument over evolution: academic oppression. While Stein's movie leaves no doubt that perhaps he has been a victim of academic repression, the idea that tyranny is responsible for his argument's downfall is less-than-satisfying.

Stein's basic premise is that biologists who believe in Intelligent Design (which is just a sneaky way of saying Creationism) and "express skepticism about Darwinism are likely to find themselves not granted tenure, castigated and ridiculed, and disqualified from the opportunity to have research papers published." [1]

But this perception relies on proponents of ID still treating evolution as a crack-pot theory without any scientific backing, that it is on no more stable ground than ID itself. This, of course, is erroneous. A true measure of the percentage of biologists who accept evolution is hard to come by, but fluctuates in the high 90s. Were not most of them raised in the Christian tradition, there would be unanimity.

Stein presents the monolith that is biological opinion as proof of a conspiracy against Creationists, but by that same thinking one must apply the same conclusion to believers in a heliocentric universe. Surely Stein is not suggesting that a teacher who wishes to teach the veracity of a geocentric universe should be granted tenure, or indeed employment in the first place.

The only reason evolution remains a controversy is because fundamentalist Christians say it is. It may be a controversy among the general public, but among biologists, it is nothing of the sort.

Robert Meyer does his best to defend Stein's position at The New Media Journal, but falls prey to the same erroneous arguments that have plagued public discourse of the subject for so long.

Any form of "science" that claims it is possible disprove Intelligent Design is no longer applied science, but philosophical speculation. That is really what is so egregious.

I can't believe this is still argument number one when defending religious principles against skepticism, but it is.

No one has ever proposed to disprove God or Intelligent Design, and no one suspects that there is any possibility that will ever happen. Intelligent Design is an inherently-disprovable theory. No real scientist dedicated to the principles of empirical evidence would ever feign such an argument, but that doesn't make the position valid, just non-disprovable.

Intelligent Design is conjecture. As Meyer illuminates, "Intelligent Design is not science, but a conclusion inferred by applying the scientific method [not really, but okay]. Asking whether or not a particular object of study is too complex to have evolved by chance is a question germane to scientific examination."

Of course, Meyer fails to follow that point to its conclusion. Namely, biologists, upon being greeted with such a question, gather evidence and form conclusions. ID proponents stop at the question. The Scientific Method requires more than unsubstantiated questioning, as Meyer supposes. Empirical proof (or contradictory evidence) must be gathered, and the conclusions must be reviewed by peers and repeated.

Much of the debate centers on the use of the term 'theory.' It is true that evolution is still a theory, but it is important to understand the distinction between that word in everyday life and in scientific endeavor. In the scientific arena, a theory is more than mere conjecture. It has significant empirical backing and significant replication behind it. To treat the word 'theory' vis-a-vis evolution as an indicator of significant doubt among biologists is to misunderstand the word's use in science.

Meyer tries to paint evolution into a corner similarly, by portraying it as a metaphysical argument rather than a scientific one. In doing so, he quotes John Tyndall from 1874, who says, "The strength of the doctrine of Evolution consists, not in an experimental demonstration." Meyer even states that this quote came from "as far back as 1874" as if that supports his point all the more. I suspect the latter.

Darwin's Origin of the Species was published in 1859. That Tyndall had yet to see its proposition fully fleshed out a mere 15 years later is not surprising. That Meyer ignores the 134 years following is, however.

One wonders at which point Stein, Meyer, and their fellow travelers would be satisfied with Darwinism. A century and a half of digging and collecting evidence hasn't produced anything to refute the theory. 150 years have yet to produce fossilized remains in a strata below where they should be, breaking Darwin's timetable irrevocably. If that happens, biologists will have to change. One can't imagine supporters of ID would do the same. The ID believers are left at the starting gate with their over-arching question, nothing to back their position but simple conjecture and proselytizing.

Belief in Intelligent Design is prefaced on starting with that belief and requiring an impossible set of circumstances to break from it. Devoid of an initial bias to the supernatural, no evidence generated by objective natural study would lead directly to the current beliefs of Creationists. That is what separates it from science. That is why it is not a controversy to only hire biologists who believe in biology.

Another favorite tactic of opponents of Darwin's proposition is to tie belief in modification in nature to its twisted application to the areas of eugenics and Social Darwinism. But one need only look at some of the atrocities committed with perceived Biblical justification to see the path down which that argument leads.

Of course I'm not suggesting that Christians inherently commit atrocities, but merely suggesting that those who twist the words of others to their own will are responsible, not the originator of the thoughts which were perverted.

By far my favorite argument from the ID supporters comes whenever they bring up Galileo, as Shaunti Feldhahn does here:

Remember, Galileo’s heretical observation that the earth revolved around the sun eventually separated science from both philosophy and religion. Science required a willingness to change one’s views based on observation instead of blind allegiance to authority or accepted beliefs. For that willingness, Galileo was ostracized, forced to recant, and no longer allowed to teach or publish.

To support their theory, they reference Galileo being oppressed by the Church for preaching heretical views? Hilarious. Galileo wasn't punished by his peers, he was punished by an organization (strangely, the same one that currently houses Creationists) that held fast and violently protected its beliefs against empirical evidence.

The view of the heliocentric [solar system] didn't perpetuate because of some academic conspiracy or geopolitical strategy, it perpetuated itself because it was right, and demonstrably so. And no protectionism on the part of the Church could change that. It would be just as egregious to hire an astronomer who believed the Sun revolved around the Earth as it would be to hire a biologist who ignored the physical in favor of the supernatural.


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