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Midday Open Thread

January 8th, 2010 admin No comments
  • Well, isn’t this special — the attempted murder of nearly 300 Americans is good for Pete Hoekstra (R-MI):

    GINGRICH: In Michigan, I think Pete Hoekstra is putting together such a good campaign and has gotten such a boost out of having been intelligence committee chairman now with the attempted attack on Detroit that Pete really is becoming a dominant figure in the state.

    If by dominant, Gingrich means the disgust normal people felt at seeing Hoekstra trying to cash in on the attempted bombing, then yes, it was great.

  • How much would you pay to hear Sarah Palin wax poetic to teabaggers? And how much does it cost to get her to talk to “real” Americans?

    This morning, I asked whether Sarah Palin’s decision to speak at the Tea Party National Convention — while eschewing the much higher-profile Conservative Political Action Conference — had anything to with money. Conservative blogger Dan Riehl is reporting, based on “forwarded communications,” that Palin is making at least $75,000 and at most $100,000 for her speech. Tickets for the speech along are going for $349 — tickets for the whole convention are $549.

  • You can listen to radio ads for John McCain’s (R-AZ) reelection campaign here. Please listen and then mock liberally.
  • And then check out a tweet from McCain that will have your eyes rolling to the point of pain.
  • It figures:

    “States with the most to gain under health care reform are overwhelmingly represented by Republicans, while those states likely to do worse are much more likely to have Democratic senators,” conclude the study’s authors. From their findings:

    [T]he states most likely to “win” as a result of health care reform are Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah. All of these states have a relatively high number of uninsured and all are in the bottom half of states in terms of cost under both financing mechanisms.

  • Sally Quinn’s column in today’s WaPo is a sort of Rosetta Stone for Village mores. – Jake McIntyre
  • Does the inauguration of the Dauletabad-Sarakhs-Khangiran pipeline that connects Iran’s northern Caspian region with Turkmenistan’s natural gas fields signal the faint notes of a Russia-China-Iran symphony? – Meteor Blades
  • Have you heard of the death star that could wipe out the earth? Well, don’t start panicking just yet. –DarkSyde
  • Alabama GOP gubernatorial candidate Bradley Byrne gets caught up in a latter-day impromptu Scopes trial, as he is forced to recant his earlier insinuation that there might be some parts of the Bible that are not “literally true”. This led to a mini-kerfluffle where some outraged citizens threatened not to shop at the Piggly Wiggly, whose executive officer was appearing at a press conference endorsing Byrne. –Steve Singiser
  • To steal from an old gag at Sports Illustrated magazine, here is This Week’s Sign of the Apocalypse: Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas is paying The Salahi’s (better known as the WH party crashers) to headline a party at one of their nightclubs. The gig is going to pay them $5000. –Steve Singiser
  • 19-year-old single mom/apparent political phenom Bristol Palin is opening her very own public relations and political consulting firm, BSMP, LLC. Family (and now business) representatives say Bristol does PR as a Candie’s Foundation “Teen Ambassador” on the prevention of teen pregnancy. No, really. Others say it’s a great way for the family to legally pocket the lucre now collecting dust (and interest) in the coffers of SarahPAC. – David Waldman


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Midday Open Thread

January 5th, 2010 admin No comments
  • It begins today:

    The Census Bureau kicks off its $300 million campaign Monday to prod, coax and cajole the nation’s more than 300 million residents to fill out their once-a-decade census forms.

  • Now they’re calling them book tours?

    Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will make two stops in Iowa in March as part of his nationwide book tour, following visits by fellow 2012 GOP hopefuls Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty.

  • Was Senator John Kerry (D-MA) refused entry into Iran by the Iranian government?
  • Look for Rush Limbaugh to put a positive spin on this:

    About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.

  • Good news for Jimmy Carter — Republicans seem to hate President Obama even more than they hated Carter.
  • She may or may not be the first, but she’s the first I’ve heard of, so let’s file this under, it’s about damn time:

    President Obama recently named Amanda Simpson to be a Senior Technical Advisor to the Commerce Department.

    In a statement, Simpson … said that “as one of the first transgender presidential appointees to the federal government, I hope that I will soon be one of hundreds, and that this appointment opens future opportunities for many others.”

    While Simpson is clearly one of the first transgender presidential appointees, Democratic officials say they’re unsure if she is the very first one.

  • Good catch by Matthew Yglesias, commenting on a New York Times article about the President’s counterterrorism policies:
    A half-dozen former senior Bush officials involved in counterterrorism told me before the Christmas Day incident that for the most part, they were comfortable with Obama’s policies, although they were reluctant to say so on the record. Some worried they would draw the ire of Cheney’s circle if they did, while others calculated that calling attention to the similarities to Bush would only make it harder for Obama to stay the course. And they generally resent Obama’s anti-Bush rhetoric and are unwilling to give him political cover by defending him.

    It’s really staggering what this says about the ethical caliber of the people we’re talking about. These are the toughest issues out there. Obama is, they think, doing the right thing. But some of them don’t want to say he’s doing the right thing because that might make Dick Cheney mad and they’re timid, gutless careerists? And others don’t want to say he’s doing the right thing because their feelings are hurt that a Democrat said bad things about his grossly unpopular Republican predecessor? For this they’re going to undermine support for policies that they themselves believe are keeping the country safe?

  • Apparently Parker Griffith’s (R-AL) staff doesn’t like turncoats.
  • A tsunami has hit the Solomon Islands, “laying waste to at least one village.” As of yet there are no reports of casualties, although that may be because there’s no one there to make the report.
  • An investigation has begun into the security lapse at a New Jersey airport that made life miserable for the thousands of other travelers trying to get home on the last day of the holiday weekend.


In the Fear on Terror, Strip Searching Not Enough

January 5th, 2010 admin No comments

The Transportation Security has modified its stepped-up security measures in the wake of the failed crotch bombing attempt. Now, instead of everyone, only travelers from or passing through 10 “countries of interest” (Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen), and four nations “known to be sponsors of terrorism” (Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria) will be given extra scrutiny at airport security checkpoints, including enhanced pat-down searches.

Naturally, this isn’t enough for right-wingers. For instance, on Sunday, Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney told Julie Banderas:

McInerney: Because I believe that in the next 90 to 120 days, there is danger, a very high probability that a U.S. airliner will come down because of one of these bombers. And so, we’ve got to go to more than just the normal process that they’re talking about now, we have got to go to very, very  strict screening, and we have to use profiling. And I mean be very serious and harsh about the profiling. If you are an 18 to 28-year-old Muslim man, then you should be strip searched. And if we don’t do that, there’s a very high probability we’re going to lose an airliner.

Banderas: That’s a bit strong, though. I mean, really. Racial profiling, first of all, is extremely controversial and it would be essentially singling out people because of a religious group, because of an ethical background. That…That’s just not going to go over, not in this country, anyway.

McInerney: Julie, I agree. That’s the problem. But if you lose 300 Americans, and then people are going to say, “why didn’t we do this?” The fact is, if that age group doesn’t like it, then what are they doing to stop this jihad against the West? What is Saudi Arabia, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina … why aren’t they putting out a fatwa that says that his jihad against the West is an unholy war. …

Banderas: God forbid we actually did that, and we actually did profile every Muslim that tries to enter this country within a certain age group, that would just, I would imagine, generate more violence and hatred toward the West. …

What are people in that age group doing, General? You might want to check out just one example, that of Libya, where as Britta Sandberg at Der Spiegel reported 18 months ago and Borzou Darahagi at the Los Angeles Times reported last month, former militants are turning against al Qaeda:

A nation the West once considered a major sponsor of terrorism may have pulled off a groundbreaking coup against Al Qaeda: coaxing a group once strongly allied with Osama bin Laden to renounce its onetime partner as un-Islamic.

Libya’s government is trumpeting its success in persuading leaders and foot soldiers of the extremist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to reject Al Qaeda’s brand of violence. The decision, recounted by former members of the group and Libyan officials, offers a unique example of reconciliation between a government and a violent Islamic group once devoted to overthrowing it.

“The government learned to sit with people who were opposed to them and have dialogue and understand them,” said Abubakir Armela, a leader of the group who returned from exile in 2005.

The general didn’t explain how he expects to determine which 18 to 28-year-olds are Muslims since people of all races embrace Islam. If you’re a Christian Arab, as are the majority of Arab Americans, or a Hindu Indonesian, or a Sikh or just somebody who officials think looks like a Muslim, up with your hands and down with your pants. If you’re black, and have a funny name, like, say Barack Hussein Obama, off with your Hanes.

Next up, strip searching Muslim and Muslim-looking women of a certain age. Plus body-cavity searches. Because, some Lt. Gen. Wet Underpants will in a month or a year be fear-mongering us with more “high probability” talk.        


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David Kaufman: Black Man Rising: President Obama and the Anti-Defamation League’s "African-American Issue"

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments

Just a few weeks ago, the venerable Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released its list of the 10 “Top Issues Affecting Jews in 2009″. Published annually, the report detailed the key geopolitical incidents and concerns which shaped both the good and bad news last year in Jewish communities worldwide.

From the ongoing threat of a nuclear-armed Iran to June’s Holocaust Museum shooting in Washington, DC, the passing of the Federal Hate Crimes Bill to the UN’s highly controversial Goldstone Report, the ADL brief illustrates that both philo- and anti-semitism remained alive and well in 2009.

While all of the ADL’s “top issues’ were certainly newsworthy, the group chose one in particular to kick-off its missive: “Barack Obama became the first African-American to assume the presidency”. Although part of a larger talking point highlighting executive changes in both Washington and Jerusalem, the wording of this statement could not be more curious.

Because in honoring Pres. Obama’s election, the ADL chose to conspicuously lead with and solely focus on his race — not his campaign, his party-affiliation, education or any element of his administration or cabinet. Just his race. As the ADL makes abundantly clear, any Obama news worth reporting can legitimately begin by qualifying his ethnic origins.

WTF?

As the son of a Jewish-American mother and African-American father, I am intimately-familiar with the complex, collaborative and often contentious history between Blacks and Jews in this nation. And indeed, I am not wholly opposed to the ADL’s decision to highlight Pres. Obama’s race as an “issue” that affects Jews — and by association, Israel. What is bothersome, however, is the wantonness, randomness and insincerity of the ADL’s actions.

As an organization rooted in rooting out bigotry and discrimination, the ADL is well aware of the weight afforded to any race-based analysis of the Obama presidency — no matter how celebratory or minor. Well funded and unquestionably well connected, ADL officials are also clearly conscious of the import afforded to any document resulting from their press machine — particularly one with as loaded a title as “ADL Highlights Top Issues Affecting Jews in 2009″.

At best, the ADL should know better than to include Pres. Obama’s race anywhere in this critically important missive. At worst, one could legitimately ponder just what exactly they hoped to achieve with such race laden language.

The problem is we have no idea. Because after launching their report via race, the ADL’s release essentially never mentions it again. Instead, in its brief appearance, race is employed as a canard, a wild-card, a sound bite — the ADL is instructing us to believe that race matters, we’re just not told exactly why. With American Jewish leaders among Pres. Obama’s most vocal critics since his inauguration, such lack of context is reckless, insensitive and simply lazy.

This is not the first — and potentially not the last — time the ADL has highlighted Pres. Obama’s race when commenting on his politics or policies. Indeed, in a response to June’s historic Cairo speech — the one later lauded as “groundbreaking” in the Top 10 list — ADL national director Abraham Foxman not only made note of Obama’s race, he suggests it may be muddling his Middle Eastern agenda.

“Every individual brings his own baggage (to the presidency),” Foxman said. “He’s an African American . . . and he has rediscovered his Islamic roots after two years. I don’t like it, but I understand it.”

What’s most troubling about the ADL’s Top 10 List is the way it reaffirms the organization’s — and perhaps American Jewry’s — historic inner-conflict with African Americans. On one hand, you have statements like Foxman’s above — which spuriously links the President’s race with Islam and unfounded anti-Israel sentiments. But then you have documents such as Rage Grows in America: Anti-Government Conspiracies — which bravely and dramatically highlights “the current hostility (that has) swept across the United States” since Pres. Obama’s election. The ADL releases an impassioned statement lauding Obama’s inauguration as “a true milestone in our history and it is, in one sense, a realization of the dream”. But then it shamefully stays silent when the President is viciously attacked for his race by a group of young Jewish Americans in Jerusalem this summer. I’m hardly alone in wondering just how quiet the ADL would have remained had those kids been Black and their target Benjamin Netanyahu!

I’m a Jew and a Zionist and firmly believe that anti-semitism must be identified and attacked by any means necessary. Five thousand years of history more than confirm that Jews can be unjustly, violently and murderously targeted even in the most progressive societies — from Moorish Spain and Weimar Germany to an isolationist 1930s America and even Israel itself.

Nonetheless, much like the folks behind the Marriage Equality movement, there remains something rotten, churlish and downright sloppy about the ADL’s relationship with Pres. Obama’s race. Indeed, the fickle, irresponsible and almost infantile behavior of leaders from both groups — American Gays and Jews — has been perhaps the most disappointing political development of the past 12 months. I may be premature in predicting an unholy alliance between the Homo-Left and Judeo-Right. But such a marriage of convenience can no longer entirely be discounted as both sides — mired in misguided thinking and embracing similarly incendiary language — strive to confirm the old Arab maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Pres. Obama is clearly no enemy to either group and his race has no part in any discussion highlighting political issues affecting…well…anyone. I asked the ADL to explain why they placed Obama’s race so prominently in their release and never received a clear answer.

Intended for and distributed among mostly Jewish- and Israel-focused organizations, I suspect the ADL likely figured their “African American issue” would simply remain “within the family”. But in this era of Web 2.0, the fact that ADL officials could assume such verbiage could possibly pass unnoticed is, perhaps, the most offensive misstep of all.

As we enter a new year — and new decade — here’s hoping the ADL’s next Top 10 list is written with far more sechel than its last.

More on Barack Obama


Categories: World Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Midday Open Thread

January 2nd, 2010 admin No comments
  • The United States continues to win hearts and minds in Iraq:

    Iraqis on Friday greeted news that criminal charges in the United States had been dismissed against Blackwater Worldwide security guards who opened fire on unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007 with disbelief, anger and bitter resignation.  [...]

    Many Iraqis also viewed the prosecution of the guards as a test case of American democratic principles, which have not been wholeheartedly embraced, and in particular of the fairness of the American judicial system.

  • The Washington Independent lists the top 10 conservatives that they think will “shape America’s political landscape in 2010″ — basically, it’s nutcases on parade.
  • Labor Secretary Hilda Solis is taking her job seriously:

    Less than a year into her tenure, that figurative badge of authority is unmistakable. Her aggressive moves to boost enforcement and crack down on businesses that violate workplace safety rules have sent employers scrambling to make sure they are following the rules.  [...]

    The changes are a departure from the policies of Solis’ predecessor, Elaine Chao. They follow through on President Barack Obama’s campaign promise to boost funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, increase enforcement and safeguard workers in dangerous industries.

  • Events in Iran seem to be on a seriously downward spiral.
  • News out of Montana that doesn’t include the words “Max” or “Baucus”:

    The Montana Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that state law protects doctors in Montana from prosecution for helping terminally ill patients die. But the court, ruling with a narrow majority, sidestepped the larger landmark question of whether physician-assisted suicide is a right guaranteed under the state’s Constitution.

    The 4-to-3 decision, in a case closely watched around the nation by physicians and advocates for the disabled and terminally ill, was a victory for the so-called death-with-dignity movement. But it fell short of the sweeping declaration advocates had hoped for.

  • The right-wing extremist group, Focus on the Family, plans to spend $4 million on Super Bowl ads. That would be as opposed to helping the sick or hungry.
  • An unhappy new year for Charlie Crist (R-FL)?

    Charlie Crist’s final year as governor begins like no other: with perilous poll numbers, his optimism worn thin and his shell of political Teflon deeply scratched.

  • Today’s gift to humanity from Americablog — hangover cures.
  • What an embarrassment Ann Coulter must be to her family.


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Midday Open Thread

January 1st, 2010 admin No comments
  • As has been the case for months now, there’s been mixed news on the economy this week:

    The Conference Board’s consumer confidence indexrose 2.3 points to 52.9, a good sign, but the “present situation index” fell 2.5 points to 18.8, a near-record low, and an extremely large 46.6 percent of respondents said business conditions are bad.

    Hotels had their worst year since the Great Depression.

    The restaurant business took another dive in November.

    The Department of Labor reported that four-week running average for unemployment compensation claims dropped again.

    The Institute for Supply Management reported a large expansion in the purchasing manager index.

    Fannie Mae reported another increase in mortgage payment delinquencies.

    NASDAQ up 45%, DOW industrials up 20% and the S&P up 25% for the year.

  • Is delayed gratification really good for you?. Edward Tenner explores the concept with a story from David Ogilvy:

    When I was a boy, I always saved the cherry on my pudding for last. Then, one day, my sister stole it. From then on, I always ate the cherry first.

  • Jeff McMahon takes note that North Dakota wants to sue Minnesota for even thinking about a carbon tax:

    North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Tuesday he expects to sue Minnesota for just that, and North Dakota’s legislature has set aside $2 million to fund the lawsuit. Now there’s a good cause.

    What did Minnesota do wrong? Two years ago the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission passed a regulation requiring utilities to consider the potential cost of carbon emissions when they project the cost of energy to Minnesota consumers.

  • Some folks are still arguing about when the decade really ends.
  • In Single-Payer’s Last Stand?, Greg Kaufmann offers a chance for the Congressional Progressive Caucus to provide a smidgen of help in this direction:

    One item worth rallying around–and it hasn’t received a lot of attention–is waiver language that would permit states to implement alternatives to insurance market exchanges, including single-payer systems.

    The Senate bill would allow such waivers, but not until 2017, even though the private exchanges start in 2014.

  • Jim Hightower suggests Six Things to Do in 2010:

    On issue after issue, it’s been go-slow and don’t-rock-the-corporate boat. “Where’s the ‘audacity of hope?’” people are asking. “Where’s the ‘change you can believe in?’”

    The answer is that in our country’s democracy, audacity and change are where they’ve always resided: out there with you and me, at the grassroots level.

  • Yes, polar bears and (walruses) are in big trouble:

    [Thursday], responding to a court-ordered deadline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized long-overdue reports documenting the status of polar bears and Pacific walrus in Alaska. The reports confirm that polar bear populations in Alaska are declining and that Pacific walrus are under threat. Both species are being hurt by the loss of their sea-ice habitat due to global warming, oil and gas development, and unsustainable harvest.

  • Targeted Yemeni cleric says, ”I’m Alive”

    A week after U.S. and Yemeni officials said the radical Yemen cleric Anwar Awlaki may have been killed in a U.S.-backed Christmas eve air strike, a Yemeni journalist says Awlaki has surfaced to proclaim, “I’m alive.”

    “He said the house that was attacked was two or three kilometers away from him and he was not there,” the journalist, Abdulelah Hider Shaea, told ABC News. He said he talked to Awlaki on the phone and recognized his voice from previous interviews.

  • The Daily Beast has something to make you smile and probably piss you off in its 2009 Gallery of Monsters and Weenies.
  • Glenn Greenwald hits the bullseye with a Tweet:

    As AQ Terrorists make explicitly clear, nothing helps them more than treating them as warriors rather than criminals: http://is.gd/…

  • The Real News Network takes a look at a New stage of resistance in Iran, including an interview with Nader Hashemi, Assistant Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver.
  • Thalif Deen investigates how U.S. Arms Feed Yemen’s Gun Culture.


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MI-Gov: Hoekstra Trying To Cash In On Terror Scare

December 30th, 2009 admin No comments

Apparently, for right-wing Congressman and gubernatorial aspirant Peter Hoekstra, it wasn’t enough for him to sprint from TV camera to TV camera trying to siphon off as much exposure for himself during the recent news flurry surrounding the terror attempt aboard a Detroit-bound flight. He now is seeking to cash in on the aborted attack:

U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra was blasted Monday for using an attempted terrorism attack to raise money for his campaign for governor.

A fundraising solicitation Hoekstra’s campaign e-mailed Monday criticized the response by President Barack Obama administration’s to a failed attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it neared landing at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

The solicitation showed poor judgment, according to a campaign spokesman for Rick Snyder, an Ann Arbor venture capitalist and 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate.

The letter itself, the text of which can be found here, is far from subtle:

For almost a decade I have been a leader on National Security and at the forefront of the war on terror. I understand the real and continuing threat radical jihadists pose to our great state of Michigan and our great Nation.

I have pledged that I will do “everything possible” to prevent these terrorists from coming to Michigan.

But I need your help.

If you agree that we need a Governor who will stand up the Obama/Pelosi efforts to weaken our security please make a most generous contribution of $25, $50, $100 or even $250 to my campaign.

Hoekstra made the decision earlier in 2009 to leave his western Michigan-based seat in the Congress (where he has served for seventeen years) in order to run for Governor of Michigan. He faces an exceptionally competitive primary, which includes not only Snyder, but also state attorney general Mike Cox and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard.

The Democratic frontrunner, thus far, is state Lt. Governor John Cherry, although some other Democrats could be competitive (including former Michigan State football coach George Perles), while others are still eyeing the race.


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Johann Hari: As A Dark Year Ends, Remember the Inspirational Peoople of 2009

December 30th, 2009 admin No comments

It was a dark year, 2009, sealing a dark decade. It began with the world in economic free-fall and the Gaza Strip being bombed to pieces (again). We watched the vicious crushing of a democratic uprising in Iran, a successful far-right coup in Honduras, and the intensification of the disastrous war in Afghanistan. It all ended at Brokenhagen, where the world’s leaders breezily decided to carry on cooking the planet.

But in the midst of all this there were extraordinary points of light, generated by people who have refused to drink the cheap sedative of despair. The left-wing newsman Wes Nisker said in his final broadcast: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.” I want – in the final moments of 2009 – to celebrate the people who, this year, did just that: the men and women who didn’t slump, but realised that the worse the world gets, the harder people of goodwill have to work to put it right.

Inspiration One: Denis Mukwege. The war in the Congo is the worst since Adolf Hitler marched across Europe: it has killed more than 5 million people and counting. As I witnessed when I reported on the war in 2006, the violence has been turned primarily on the country’s women: one favourite tactic is to gang-rape a woman and then shoot her in the vagina. For years these women were simply left to die in the bush. But one man – a soft-spoken Congolese gynaecologist with a gentle smile – decided to do something mad, something impossible. With scarcely any equipment and no funding, he set up a secret clinic for these women.

He was told he would be killed by the militias for undoing their “work”. The threats said his own daughters would be murdered if he didn’t stop. Everyone thought he was mad. But he knew it was the right thing to do. He became the Oscar Schindler of the Congolese mass rapes, saving the lives of tens of thousands of women. In the midst of a moral Chernobyl, he showed that the best human instincts can survive and, in time, prevail. It is rumoured he was number two in the Nobel Committee’s list for the Peace Prize. He should have won.

Inspiration Two: Liu Xiaobo. A year ago, a petition began to circulate in China demanding that its one billion citizens be allowed to think and speak freely. “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes,” it said. As if they were the Irony Police, the Chinese authorities promptly arrested the authors and many of its signatories. One of the most articulate and brave – Liu Xiaobo – was sentenced to 11 years in a re-education camp for “subversion”.

The Chinese authorities believe human rights are a “plot” to weaken China. In fact, China will be immeasurably stronger when it stops persecuting its citizens when they try to develop their minds and defend each other.

Liu is not alone. Hu Jia is in prison for warning about China’s hidden Aids crisis. Huang Qi is in jail for warning that the poor construction of school buildings in Sichuan – because the builders bribed the local authorities – meant hundreds of children died unnecessarily in the earthquake. There is a long list, and for every prisoner, thousands more are too frightened to speak. But these dissidents stand as models of the truly great nation China will be one day, when it stops persecuting these people and starts electing them.

Inspiration Three: Evo Morales and Malalai Joya. Although they were born thousands of miles apart, these two people embody what real democracy can mean. When Evo Morales was a child, the indigenous peoples of Bolivia weren’t even allowed to set foot in the capital’s central square, which was reserved for white people. Today, he is the President, and for the first time in his country’s history, he is diverting the billions raised from the country’s natural resources away from the pockets of US corporations. It is building schools and hospitals for people who had nothing, and poverty is being eradicated in a stunning burst of progress.

Malalai Joya is the youngest woman ever to be elected in Afghanistan, and she was swiftly banned from taking her seat because she kept speaking up for the people who elected her – against the violent fundamentalist warlords our governments have put in charge of the country. They keep trying to murder her, but she says: “I don’t fear death, I fear remaining silent in the face of injustice … I am ready, wherever and whenever you might strike. You can cut down the flower, but nothing can stop the coming of the spring.”

She and Morales are authentic democrats, in contrast to the parody of it offered by Hamid Karzai and – too often – our own leaders.

Inspiration Four: Amy Goodman and the team at Democracy Now! It’s not hard to despair of the US at the moment, when even the silver-tongued King of Change seems unable to get real healthcare and cuts in warming gases through his corrupt Senate, and he is ramming harder into Afghanistan. A large part of the problem is the atrocious US broadcast media. The TV news is one lengthy blowjob for the powerful, seeing everything from the perspective of the rich, and ridiculing arguments for progress. It serves its owners and its advertisers by poisoning every political debate with death-panel distractions and silence for the things that matter.

But there is one remarkable exception. Broadcasting from a tiny studio in New York, on a budget raised entirely from its viewers, comes Democracy Now! Every day, the hour-long broadcast – hosted by the wonderful Amy Goodman – tells the real news. While the nightly news fills up with junk and gossip, they calmly, cleverly explain what is really happening. For example, while ABC and NBC were fixating on Tiger Woods’ genitals, Democracy Now! was in Copenhagen, explaining how the world’s rainforests were being stiffed. They, at least, can tell the trees from the Woods. It is the best single source for making sense of the world that I know – and it is a model of what the American media could be if it treated its viewers with respect.

Inspiration Five: Peter Tatchell. Long before it was trendy to support gay equality, there was Peter Tatchell, taking huge risks for what was right. As one of the pioneers of direct action to oppose bigotry against gay people, he was never afraid to put his own body in the path of bigots. In 1999, he performed a citizen’s arrest on the murderous Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, and was beaten so badly by his bodyguards he has never recovered. This year, he went to Moscow to defend the gay rights march there from viciously anti-gay police, and was beaten again. This year, he announced he had to withdraw from running as the Green candidate in Oxford East because the damage was so severe.

Almost unbelievably, some people who claim to be on the left have attacked Tatchell because he criticises homophobes who happen to be black, Arab or Asian in exactly the same way he criticises people who are white. (He tried to arrest Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger for war crimes just as surely as he tried to get Mugabe.) But the real racism would be to hold non-white people to lower standards, as if their bigotries were less real or less deadly. A person who chooses to persecute gay people is monstrous and should be stopped – whatever their skin colour, and whatever their culture. Tatchell has dedicated his life to that cause, and he deserves our endless thanks, not dishonest abuse.

What do they all have in common, all these people? When Mukwege built his clinic, they said he’d be dead within a week. When Tatchell said gay people could be equal, they laughed in his face. When Morales and Joya ran for office, they said people like them could never win. They dismiss Liu and Goodman now; but their arguments will win, in time.

They show that when the world gets worse, that’s not a reason to slink away in despair. On the contrary: it’s a reason to work harder and aim higher. As the essayist Rebecca Solnit says: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” That should be the epitaph for these remarkable people – and for 2009.

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here.

He is also a contrbuting writer for Slate magazine. To read his latest article there, clck here.

You can follow Johann on Twiter at www.twitter.com/johannhari101


Pres. Obama statement on failed Christmas Day attack

December 29th, 2009 admin No comments

President Obama took a short break from his Hawaii vacation to make the following statement on the failed Christmas Day attack on Northwest Flight 253:

President Obama said he had ordered a full investigation and that authorities will pursue all who were involved with the planned attack. President Obama also said he had ordered a full review of policies and procedures designed to thwart future attempts. President Obama also said that Americans would never give in to the “fear and division” the attackers hoped to sow.

Finally, on a separate note, President Obama condemned the Iranian government’s “iron first of brutality” used against its own people for exercising their “universal rights.” President Obama called for “the immediate release of all who have been unjustly detained within Iran” and said he was “confident that history will be on the side of those who seek justice.”

Updated with transcript, below the fold.


Categories: Politics Tags: , , , ,

Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: How The Obama Administration is Addressing Biological Threats

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

When most of us think of “Cold War history”, we think of the Soviet Union and the United States building up massive nuclear arsenals, staring each other down over missiles in Cuba, or former Eastern and Western Europe. We think of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev, and Reagan.

But what most people don’t remember, or may not even know, is that the United States once had a biological weapons program, and that the former Soviet Union did too. I like to think of this as the “forgotten” legacy of the Cold War arms race. Just because the Cold War is over, doesn’t mean that the weapons programs’ legacy is nothing we need to worry about anymore.

So, let’s look at a little bit of history before we talk about the legacy of these weapons programs, and how they affect the world today.

History: Renouncing Biological Weapons… or not.

In November 1969, President Richard Nixon made the following announcement:

Biological weapons have massive, unpredictable and potentially uncontrollable consequences. They may produce global epidemics and impair the health of future generations. I have therefore decided that:

  • The United States shall renounce the use of lethal biological agents and weapons, and all other methods of biological warfare.
  • The United States will confine its biological research to defensive measures such as immunization and safety measures.
  • The Department of Defense has been asked to make recommendations as to the disposal of existing stocks of bacteriological weapons.

Nixon followed up his announcement with an executive order in 1972, formally terminating the United States’ biological weapons program. The United States, as well as the former Soviet Union both signed the “Biological Weapons Convention“, which formally went into effect in March 1975.

But there was one very big problem with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which has not yet been corrected:

The greatest weakness of the Convention has been its lack of mechanisms to verify the compliance of the States Parties. Unlike the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention], the BWC does not contain verification mechanism. As a result, there is less confidence that all members are in compliance, eroding the overall trust in the effectiveness of the BWC regime.

There are several examples of this “erosion of trust”; the most obvious one is the former Soviet Union’s absolutely massive biological weapons program, which continued beyond the end of the Cold War, into the 1990s. You can read more about it in David E. Hoffman’s recent book, The Dead Hand; he also described it in an interview I did with him several weeks ago.

The Evolving BWC

Since the BWC went into effect, there has been an ongoing effort to strengthen it, as well as to assess how best to address biological security threats through the convention framework. There have been review conferences every five years starting in 1980; you can read about the details of each conference here.

One critical result of these meetings was the establishment of an Ad Hoc Group that, in part, “focused the efforts of States Parties on some difficult issues, in particular the absence of a legally-binding verification mechanism.” In 2001, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Group issued a lengthy document [pdf] that proposed some critical changes:

  • the establishment of an Organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (OPBW), with relevant bodies to monitor the implementation of the Convention and the Protocol
  • mandatory declarations of all relevant facilities and activities, including those in the area of biodefense
  • inspections that would take place at random, in order to make clarifications, and following allegations of noncompliance

However, to make a long story short, in July 2001, the Bush administration completely rejected these ideas, and subsequent talks collapsed that Fall in Geneva.

Then, of course, we all know what else happened in the Fall of 2001. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States became acutely aware of the concept of biological terrorism, when seven letters laced with anthrax spores were mailed to multiple locations, including the US Senate offices of former Senator Tom Daschle. Ten people died, and millions of dollars were spent on clean-up efforts.

By 2002, “Homeland Security” concerns and US biological defense efforts had become intertwined with their opposition to the protocol proposed by the Ad Hoc Group. The history is obviously complex, and there are no easy answers.

The Obama Administration and the BWC

At this point, it should be obvious why arms control experts have been interested to see how the Obama administration would address the ongoing issues, and they got their answer several weeks ago, when the Obama administration announced its “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats” [pdf].

In order to better understand the significance and the details of the new national strategy, I had a lengthy chat with Dr. Jonathan Tucker, who is a Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He is an expert in biological and chemical weapons, as well as the author of several books, including War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda, and Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox.

I asked Dr. Tucker what the difference was between the Bush administration’s approach, and the Obama administration’s new strategy. He said:

Because Bush administration officials didn’t think it was possible to prevent a bioterrorist attack with any degree of likelihood, they focused on mitigating the consequences of an attack by beefing up domestic biodefense capabilities. In contrast, the Obama people view prevention as a major priority and plan to devote a lot of resources to it. That’s an important departure.

A second difference is that the Obama approach involves a much greater emphasis on multilateral engagement.

A third difference is that rather than focusing narrowly on the deliberate use of biological agents as weapons, the Obama strategy covers the full range of biological threats, from natural outbreaks of infectious disease (such as H1N1 influenza and SARS), to accidental releases from high-containment laboratories working with dangerous pathogens, to deliberate use by states or terrorist groups.

The specifics of what’s new and different with the Obama strategy are interesting. Tucker told me that:

One new development is that under the mantle of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Obama administration plans to assist poor countries to meet their obligations in the revised International Health Regulations (IHR), which were adopted in 2005 by the World Health Organization (WHO). These rules require all WHO member states to detect and rapidly contain outbreaks of infectious disease on their territories—whether natural or deliberate in origin—that could potentially cross national borders and affect other countries.

The Obama administration’s plan to help developing countries implement their IHR obligations under the auspices of the BWC is a significant departure.
Until recently, the WHO was wary of getting involved with security issues, particularly those involving biological weapons. The organization created a small unit in Geneva responsible for preparedness and response to bioterrorism, from a strictly public health perspective, but didn’t want to be politically tainted by getting involved with the BWC. That attitude now appears to have changed, and it’s a real paradigm shift. Conversely, the BWC process used to focus narrowly on security concerns but is now addressing the full spectrum of biological threats, from natural to accidental to deliberate. The new U.S. strategy document clearly reflects this holistic approach, which is a positive development.

However, there are some critical weaknesses. These, of course, have to do with verification and compliance. Tucker explained:

The main weakness of the Obama strategy is in dealing with BWC compliance concerns. Undersecretary Tauscher’s speech called for building confidence in compliance through greater transparency, but she mentioned only a few token transparency measures that the U.S. is prepared to take, such as inviting an international official to tour the National Interagency Biodefense Campus at Fort Detrick and posting U.S. confidence-building measure declarations on the Internet. Those steps are extremely modest. In fact, much more needs to be done to increase the transparency of the U.S. biodefense program, which has expanded dramatically since 2001 with a cumulative expenditure of roughly $50 billion. In view of growing international suspicions about the U.S. biodefense program, the Obama administration should take more meaningful steps to increase transparency than simply invite one foreign official to tour Fort Detrick.

So efforts toward transparency need to be stronger. Again, the critical weakness has to do with the lack of ability to verify non-compliance. We (or any other nation) can have all the suspicions we want, but there’s no way for us to prove anything. Just to stress his point, Tucker told me more:

A weakness of the Obama administration strategy is that it doesn’t include new measures for addressing the fundamental weakness at the heart of the BWC—the inability to detect and deter non-compliance. Although the U.S. has made public allegations that several BWC members (including China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia) are violating the treaty, at present there are no effective mechanisms for clarifying such allegations and compelling states to comply.

I can’t begin to emphasize how important it is that the BWC is, in some ways, a far more complex issue than discussing nuclear treaties and compliance. Those are relatively clear-cut; since the BWC does not address verification and compliance, it’s not so easy to draw lines in the sand. In particular, Dr. Tucker and I discussed the dual-use nature of biotechnology. He gave a startling example, from personal experience:

Biotechnology is dual-use. Nearly every item of equipment one needs to produce biological weapons has some legitimate, non-weapons-related application. Although a few specialized procedures for weaponizing biological agents are not dual-use, all of the items of production equipment — fermenters, concentrators, spray-driers, and so forth – have legitimate uses in research and industry.

In 1995, as a member of a UN bioweapons inspection team in Iraq, I visited an industrial microbiology plant outside Baghdad called Al Hakam, which was ostensibly producing single-cell protein in yeast as an animal-feed supplement. Just by looking at the facility, there was no way of knowing that it was a bioweapons plant: the fermentation tanks were exactly what you would expect for the declared use. But UN inspectors later determined on the basis of other evidence that before the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqis had produced large quantities of anthrax spores at Al Hakam for military use. As a result, the plant was razed to the ground in the summer of 1996.

To manufacture a military significant stockpile of chemical weapons, in the hundreds of metric tons, you would need one or more large chemical plants. Producing highly toxic and corrosive chemicals also requires certain types of equipment that are not commonly used in the commercial chemical industry, such as corrosion-resistant reactors and pipes made of a high-nickel steel alloy called Hastelloy, special air-handling systems, and so forth. In contrast, all of the production equipment in a bioweapons plant would be dual-use, although you might want to install specialized air-handling equipment to reduce the risk of accidental releases of deadly infectious agents into the surrounding environment.

Even here, however, Iraq cut corners on safety in order to avoid detection. For example, the Al Hakam factory had no air filters or specialized ventilation systems designed to create negative pressure and prevent dangerous pathogens from escaping. Because the Iraqi regime wanted to minimize the signatures of illicit bioweapons production, they were willing to sacrifice some of their workers and put nearby communities at risk in order to conceal the true nature of the facility. Thus, if countries seeking biological weapons are sufficiently ruthless in the way they go about it, it’s very difficult for outsiders to determine what is going on.

Finally, we discussed a parallel — and very related — concern. Our own biodefense program has the potential to cross some lines. I’ve written about this before, which is why I was curious about Dr. Tucker’s point of view. He said:

The dramatic expansion of the U.S. biodefense research complex over the past decade has raised a number of concerns. The 2001 anthrax letter attacks greatly heightened the nation’s preoccupation with biological threats and caused the Bush administration to make a huge investment in biodefense research, with an emphasis on biological threat assessment and the development of medical countermeasures. This effort soon acquired a life of its own, and states and localities began competing to get one of the expensive new biodefense labs. Yet there was no net assessment of how much high- and maximum-containment research space the nation really needs to deal with the spectrum of biological threats.

In recent years, biodefense has been one of the few areas of science to enjoy a sustained increase in U.S. government funding. As a result, the field has drawn a lot of microbiologists and other scientists away from research on infectious diseases of public health concern, such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, to work on those that are chiefly of biodefense concern, such as anthrax, plague, and brucellosis—infections that don’t kill many people naturally. Thus, one consequence of the biodefense boom has been a distortion of research priorities.

Another concern is that because of the thousands of scientists that have been drawn into biodefense research by the availability of generous funding, there’s a risk that a few of them may be “bad apples.” Indeed, after a seven-year investigation of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, the FBI now believes that the perpetrator was an insider – a government microbiologist working at Fort Detrick, the Army’s premier biodefense lab. So it turns out that “the enemy is us.”

It’s a great irony is that the anthrax letter attacks apparently came from within the U.S. government biodefense complex, because in response to that incident the Bush administration tripled the size of the complex. Today, some 14,000 people are authorized to work with pathogens and toxins of bioterrorism concern, known as “select agents.” By greatly increasing the number of people who know how to work with dangerous pathogens in order to develop defenses against them, we’ve increased the statistical risk that some of these individuals—for personal or ideological reasons—may decide to use their specialized know-how for harmful purposes. Thus, the biodefense boom has arguably increased the risk of an attack.

Beyond that, the sheer size and scope of the U.S. biodefense program has aroused suspicion on the part of other countries. There’s now a National Interagency Biodefense Campus at Fort Detrick that includes three maximum-containment labs: the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the Integrated Research Facility run by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) under the Department of Homeland Security. Because NBACC does classified research, even some people I know at USAMRIID have no idea what goes on there. If U.S. Army scientists have questions about the secrecy surrounding NBACC, then the Russians and the Chinese must assume that the lab is involved in offensive research. I personally believe that those suspicions are unfounded, but they could still cause other countries to start hedging their bets, and soon we could find ourselves in the middle of a biological arms race.

The point is that in our efforts to defend against an attack, we may have increased the probability of one, plus the lack of transparency with biodefense research doesn’t exactly increase the “trust” factor with other countries.

Biological weapons, biological terrorism, and biological defense are all tied together as part of the incredibly complex national security picture that has been etched by the events of the past decade. It’s good to know that the Obama administration has a broader, more multilateral, inclusive approach to addressing biological threats, but the biggest problem remains, and I’ll paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s favorite quote:

Without verification, there cannot be trust.

There’s a lot of work to do in the future.