Mainstream Media: Last week I told you that Bush specifically approved torture techniques. (The Weekly Wonk, Torture, 4/12/08) However, the White House press corps has yet to ask White House spokespeople a single question on the issue in the briefings held since the story broke. Reporters did, however, find time to cover the Little League tee-ball all-star game and Bush's weekend plans to clear brush at his Crawford "ranch". And then there are the endless discussions of Obama's "bitter" statement. Washington Post's Dan Froomkin noted that the mainstream media is treating the torture story as old news: "There was no mention of Bush's admission in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or the Los Angeles Times. There was nothing on the major wire services. And nothing on CNN, CBS or NBC." An interesting video has been released from Condi Must Go showing her testifying before Congress multiple times saying "The United States does not condone torture," and saying -- my personal favorite -- "Torture and conspiracy to commit torture are crimes." Yeah.
Torture: Where do you go to learn how to torture? Are there community college classes in torture? Can you take graduate-level classes to learn more? If you're in the military, you get this kind of training in your self-defense classes. (AP) Yup. Torture is self-defense. If someone can explain that to me, I'd love to hear it.
Iraqi Prisoners: U.S. commanders in Iraq have begun releasing detainees, purportedly as part of a house cleaning. It's believed they'll release more than half of the 23,000 prisoners. The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) said that this is a "broad effort to reshape the military's controversial detention policies, in part because the large number of Iraqis in U.S. custody is a source of public anger there. U.S. officials also believe freeing the primarily Sunni detainees will help persuade the embattled minority to participate more in Iraq's Shiite-heavy political process." [Emphasis added.] It's expected that, in the end, there may be as few as 2,500 prisoners left. All of this raises 2 questions. If they can release these prisoners now, why have they been held all these years? And, considering most are Sunni, and Shia are in control of the Iraqi government, and al Sadr is Shia, do you think they're looking for more Sunnis to join the fight? Yeah. Let's go get the prisoners and send them out to die. Reminds me of the old movie, The Dirty Dozen.
Iraq Report: A report released by National Defense University, "the Pentagon's premier military educational institute," said that "The war in Iraq has become 'a major debacle' and the outcome 'is in doubt' despite improvements in security from the buildup in U.S. forces." The report was published by the university's National Institute for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research center, and "carries considerable weight because it was written by Joseph Collins, a former senior Pentagon official, and was based in part on interviews with other former senior defense and intelligence officials who played roles in prewar preparations." (McClatchy)
Arab Poll: The 2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll has been released. Support for Iran's nuclear program is a bit higher than before. Hamas is twice as popular as Fatah. The U.S. is still hated. al-Qaeda has lost popularity but retains a fairly sizeable base of sympathy. China is more widely liked than we are. al-Jazeera remains the most popular news channel. Most interesting is that 61% believe that if the U.S. withdraws "quickly" from Iraq, "Iraqis will find a way to bridge their differences."
Mid-East Casualties: The Defense Department released its latest American military causality numbers. As of April 5th, 4,492 soldiers have died and 31,590 have been wounded. Also, 38,631 have been removed from the battlefield for "non-hostile-related medical air transports." (CBS News) What about other injuries? According to a study by the RAND Corporation, 300,000 of our troops are suffering from major depression or post traumatic stress and 320,000 received brain injuries. (AP) Wanna guess how much this is gonna cost us over the next couple of decades?
The Taj Mahal: The U.S. embassy in Baghdad, now up to $736 million, is finally scheduled to open next month. (USA Today)
NSLs: The Justice Department's Inspector General Glenn Fine, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, said that the FBI "might have committed as many as 6,400 intelligence violations in the course of its use of national security letters" (NSLs), which allow investigators to obtain people's personal information without first obtaining a warrant. A recent report by Fine found that in 2006 the FBI issued 49,425 NSLs. (ABC News)
Spying: Beckett Brown International (later called S2i), a private security company "organized and managed by former Secret Service officers" spied on Greenpeace and other environmental organizations from the late 1990s through at least 2000. They pilfered documents "from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings." They also "collected confidential internal records -- donor lists, detailed financial statements, the Social Security numbers of staff members, strategy memos -- from these organizations and produced intelligence reports for public relations firms and major corporations involved in environmental controversies." (Mother Jones)
Fusion Centers: Remember I told you about this a while back? (The Weekly Wonk, Domestic Spying, 4/5/08) There are 58 of these centers across the nation that are run by the states. The Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment (PM-ISE) has primary responsibility for the centers. The GAO has released a report on the "challenges" of the fusion centers. It says that the majority of centers have federal personnel from the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI assigned to them. The feds have also provided the majority of the funding to set up these centers and are supposed to provide grants to keep them running. As I told you before, the centers, while set up to share information to catch terrorists, are being used for standard law enforcement.
Being Accountable: The U.S. military is finally making at least an attempt to hold its contractors responsible for what they do. They held a pre-trial hearing for an interpreter who allegedly stabbed another interpreter. Of course, I'm a cynic, but I believe the fact that Alaa Mohammad Ali, who holds Iraqi and Canadian citizenship, probably has something to do with him being singled out for accountability. (Reuters)
Funding Iraq: Bush is demanding that Congress give him another $108 billion by Memorial Day. (Wall Street Journal, subscription required)
Pakistan: Since 2002 we have relied on Pakistan's military to take care of our security goals in Pakistan. Musharraf was supposed to destroy the terrorist threats and close the safe haven for Pakistan's FATA. We have sent them about $5.8 billion for their efforts, about 96% of which was as "reimbursement" for their military operations. The State Department has reported that Pakistan deployed 120,000 military and paramilitary forces and helped kill and capture hundreds of suspected al-Qaeda operatives, losing 1,400 of Pakistan's forces in the process. However, a GAO report found that State and embassy documents, as well Defense Department officials in Pakistan, say that al-Qaeda has regenerated its ability to attack us and has "succeeded in establishing a safe haven in Pakistan's FATA. The report concludes: "No comprehensive plan for meeting U.S. national security goals in the FATA has been developed, as stipulated by the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (2003), called for by an independent commission (2004), and mandated by congressional legislation (2007). Furthermore, Congress created the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in 2004 specifically to develop comprehensive plans to combat terrorism. However, neither the National Security Council (NSC), NCTC, nor other executive branch departments have developed a comprehensive plan that includes all elements of national power -- diplomatic, military, intelligence, development assistance, economic, and law enforcement support -- called for by the various national security strategies and Congress. As a result, since 2002, the U.S. embassy in Pakistan has had no Washington-supported, comprehensive plan to combat terrorism and close the terrorist safe haven in the FATA." [Emphasis added.] Feeling safe yet?
Militarization: The State Department has always had the authority to train and equip foreign militaries -- the Global Train and Equip Program. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants this authority extended to the Pentagon and he wants the annual budget raised to $750 million, a 250% increase. He stood before the House Armed Services Committee and asked for this, saying that "rapidly building up the armed forces of friendly nations to combat terrorism within their borders was 'a vital and enduring military requirement' and one that should be managed by the Defense Department." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Admiral Mike Mullen also testified and supported the plan. Of course, Condi ain't giving up anything. She'll still run a similar program, with its budget doubled to $200 million, that is "aimed at assigning civilian experts to work overseas alongside or instead of the military." More Blackwater guys in other countries. (Int'l. Herald Tribune) I don't know about you, but I find this very, very scary.
Defense Contracting: A report by the Defense Department's inspector general says that officers in the Air Force lobbied for an unknown company, Strategic Message Solutions (SMS), to receive a $50 million contract, even though its price was more than a competitor's bid. The whole contracting process seems to have been full of improper favoritism but, even more shocking, is that a high-ranking Air Force officer, who is now vice director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, included Bush in his efforts, and Bush apparently played along. The officer arranged for Bush "to record a video testimonial in the White House Map Room that was included in the SMS contract proposal, demonstrating the company's credibility and access." (Washington Post)
Good Grief: You'd think top administration policy people would understand the issues. Not always. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, interviewed on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, repeatedly confused Tibet with Nepal. "At least 8 different times, Hadley said 'Nepal' when talking about the human rights abuses that have taken place in Tibet." (ThinkProgress)
Steven Bradbury: In July 2005, Bush nominated Steven Bradbury to head the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). His nomination was blocked in the Senate when it became apparent that Bradbury authored 2 secret memos authorizing the CIA to use torture against detainees. (The Weekly Wonk, Steven Bradbury, 1/26/08, What Goes Around, Comes Around, 8/5/06) Last December, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV) kept the Senate in pro-forma session to keep Bush from renominating Bradbury as a recess appointment. (The Weekly Wonk, No Recess, 12/15/07) But Bush refused to withdraw Bradbury's nomination. Bradbury has been acting head of OLC since 2005, which may be in violation of the Vacancies Reform Act, a law implemented in 1998 that "limits the time a person can serve in an acting capacity" to 210 days. (The Hill)
The Supremes: On the day the Pope came to town, an ardent opponent of capital punishment, the Supreme Court, of whom 4 out of its 9 members are Catholic, decided that lethal injection is hunkie-dorie. (AP)
EPA Defies Subpoena: A year ago the Supreme Court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to begin regulating greenhouse gases. (The Weekly Wonk, Clean Air Act, 4/7/07) EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson had refused to do it. On April 2, the House Global Warming Committee, in a unanimous vote, issued a subpoena for documents relating to the agency's refusal. On April 11, the agency asked for an extension to answer the subpoena. (See letter.) However, in a follow-up letter, the EPA declined to respond to the subpoena and instead asked the committee to withdraw it. The EPA is also currently defying a subpoena from the House Oversight Committee for related documents. (Multi-Medium) Who's the Decider?
The Children's Budget: First Focus recently released its Children's Budget 2008, a "comprehensive guide to all federal spending on children. It found that total spending for children only makes up "10% of the entire-non-defense budget." While all other non-defense spending increased by 8% over the last 4 years, "spending on children has declined by more than 6%. It also shows that spending on education for children dropped by 9.9% over the past 5 years and a 10.6% drop in funding for Head Start programs. Bush ain't been too good on health care either. In February, the National Association of Children's Hospitals reported that Bush's FY 2009 budget cut $700 million from discretionary health programs for children, including Medicaid and the Emergency Medical Services for Children program.
Foreclosure Prevention Act: Last week the Senate passed a bill touted as a great thing to save people from foreclosures. But apparently the lobbyists were able to get their licks in and the Senate bill has turned to crap. While the bipartisan effort will take "modest steps" to helping homeowners, it is a virtual windfall for businesses. The bill allows businesses, "some now on the verge of bankruptcy," to claim "millions in tax refunds by charging their current losses against the huge profits they made 3 or 4 years ago." (NY Times) The White House opposes the bill and the House will probably clean this up in its version. Still, it's a good example of how lobbying has taken control of our government.
DNA: DNA used to be kept on file only for convicted felons. Not any more. The feds announced that they will be expanding their DNA collection, taking samples from "all citizens arrested in connection with any federal crime and from many immigrants detained by federal authorities." You don't need to be convicted of anything. (Washington Post)
Merck: A very good reason for regulating pharmaceuticals. 2 new studies were released from lawsuit documents that show how the drug companies work. The researchers say Merck played down the risk of death in human trials and also wrote dozens of studies that it then passed off as the work of independent doctors. The Journal of the American Medical Association effectively accuses Merck of "various forms of scientific fraud." One of the articles says 2 studies sponsored by Merck to find whether Vioxx could be effective in combating Alzheimer's progression found that those taking the painkiller were 3 times more likely to die. But Merck reported lower numbers to the FDA and didn't publish the studies until years later. (Washington Post)
Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water: A White House task force that was supposed to look into the problem of pharmaceuticals in our drinking water missed its deadline and failed to produce mandated reports and recommendations. The report was due in December. (AP)
Polycarbonate Plastics: The National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, has found that there is "some concern" that fetuses, babies, and children may be in danger due to bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is an ingredient in polycarbonate plastic, "one of the most widely used synthetic chemicals in industry today." (LA Times) Refresh your memory by reading Polycarbonate Plastics.
Food Crisis: Last weekend the world’s economic ministers said that food shortages and "skyrocketing" prices are a "greater threat to economic and political stability than the turmoil in capital markets." Some ministers from poor countries criticized the West for not addressing global warming, which is adding to the food shortages. They also complained that by "subsidizing and encouraging conversion of corn, sugar cane and other food products into substitutes for oil" the West is adding to the crisis. (NY Times) And in Australia, one of the largest rice exporters in the world, 6 years of drought has caused a complete collapse of its rice production, "one of several factors contributing to a doubling of rice prices in the last 3 months." The increases have resulted in Australia restricting its exports, which has "spurred panicked hoarding in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and set off violent protests in countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Italy, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, the Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Yemen." (NY Times)
Solving the Food Crisis: 60 countries backed by the World Bank and most of the U.N., want "radical changes" in world farming to avert the crisis. A report issued by the U.N.'s World Food Programme "called for rich countries to contribute $500m (£255m) to immediately address a growing global food crisis which has seen staple food price rises of up to 80% in some countries, and food riots in many cities." The authors say that "the world produces enough food for everyone, yet more than 800 million people go hungry." Why? Unequal distribution. (Sounds like U.S. wealth, doesn't it?) "The present system of food production and the way food is traded around the world . . . has led to a highly unequal distribution of benefits and serious adverse ecological effects and was now contributing to climate change." (Guardian)
Economic Slowdown: We're now beginning to see bank-ruptcies. At least 8 "midsize" chain stores have filed, including Levitz and Sharper Image. It's expected to spread to larger stores soon. Even those that stay out of bankruptcy -- like Foot Locker, Ann Taylor, and Zales -- are closing down stores. (NY Times)
Employment: While the official unemployment numbers have been pretty constant, the number of hours worked has been going down. Many are being forced to work fewer hours and there's less overtime. In addition, the number of people being forced to pursue part-time employment is on the rise. The NY Times said that "this slippage is a critical indicator that the nation may well be on the verge of a recession, if not already in one." Earnings are decreasing at the same time that the cost of fuel and food is increasing.
Airline Mergers: Delta and Northwest have agreed to merge. It will create the world's largest airline. The new combined airline, which will keep the Delta name, will have more than 800 planes and 75,000 employees. The value of the combined airlines would be approximately $17.7 billion. The merger might be good for the companies but not travelers, who will probably have to pay more for tickets. "More concentration means higher prices and less service. No matter what they say, you're going to see layoffs." (LA Times) There's also talk about a merger between United and Continental. The NY Times pointed out that "One reason for the urgency is that airlines want to get their deals approved by the Justice Department under the Bush administration, rather than risk seeing them stall until a new president takes office."
Water Shortages: Geoscientists meeting in Vienna warned of potential water shortages due to global warming. "Glaciers and mountain snow are melting earlier in the year than usual, meaning the water has already gone when millions of people need it during the summer when rainfall is lower." Areas most at risk of losing significant amounts of water include parts of the Middle East, southern Africa, the United States, South America, and the Mediterranean. (Reuters)
Logging: "The 2005 National Forest Management Act would have reduced the need for environmental impact studies before new projects are undertaken, and changed the way the public comments on proposed changes to the way the 193-million acre National Forest System is managed. It would have replaced wildlife protection provisions in the 1982 act approved by President Reagan." Those regulations were invalidated by a federal court, but now the newly adopted 2008 rules will essentially reinstate the 2005 Act. (The Daily Green)
Buy a Judge: Dorothy Samuels did a good piece for the NY Times on state judicial races that are infused with big bucks from special interests, looking for favorable decisions. She quotes former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as saying: "We put cash in the courtrooms, and it’s just wrong."
Californians Beware: According to a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey, California will almost certainly be hit by a strong earthquake by 2028. Southern California has a 97% chance of a 6.7 magnitude quake and Northern California a 93%. (LA Times) To all my California members, either leave or spend some money "quake proofing" your homes.