Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Brave Man Who Stood Alone

by Robert Fisk
The Independent
March 28, 2009

I don't know if I met Tom Hurndall. He was one of a bunch of "human shields" who turned up in Baghdad just before the Anglo-American invasion in 2003, the kind of folk we professional reporters make fun of. Tree huggers, that kind of thing. Now I wish I had met him because – looking back over the history of that terrible war – Hurndall's journals (soon to be published) show a remarkable man of remarkable principle. "I may not be a human shield," he wrote at 10.26 on 17 March from his Amman hotel. "And I may not adhere to the beliefs of those I have travelled with, but the way Britain and America plan to take Iraq is unnecessary and puts soldiers' lives above those of civilians. For that I hope that Bush and Blair stand trial for war crimes."

Hurndall got it about right, didn't he? It wasn't so simple as war/no war, black and white, he wrote. "Things I've heard and seen over the last few weeks proves what I already knew; neither the Iraqi regime, nor the American or British, are clean. Maybe Saddam needs to go but ... the air war that's proposed is largely unnecessary and doesn't discriminate between civilians and armed soldiers. Tens of thousands will die, maybe hundreds of thousands, just to save thousands of American soldiers having to fight honestly, hand to hand. It is wrong." Oh, how many of my professional colleagues wrote like this on the eve of war? Not many.

We pooh-poohed the Hurndalls and their friends as groupies even when they did briefly enter the South Baghdad electricity station and met one engineer, Attiah Bakir, who had been horrifyingly wounded 11 years earlier when an American bomb blew a fragment of metal into his brain. "You can see now where it struck," Hurndall wrote in an email from Baghdad, "caving in the central third of his forehead and removing the bone totally. Above the bridge of his broken nose, there is only a cavity with scarred skin covering the prominent gap..."

A picture of Attiah Bakir stares out of the book, a distinguished, brave man who refused to leave his place of work as the next war approached. He was silenced only when one of Hurndall's friends made the mistake of asking what he thought of Saddam's government. I cringed for the poor man. "Minders" were everywhere in those early days. Talking to any civilian was almost criminally foolish. Iraqis were forbidden from talking to foreigners. Hence all those bloody "minders" (many of whom, of course, ended up working for Baghdad journalists after Saddam's overthrow).

Hurndall had a dispassionate eye. "Nowhere in the world have I ever seen so many stars as now in the western deserts of Iraq," he wrote on 22 February. "How can somewhere so beautiful be so wrought with terror and war as it is soon to be?" In answer to the questions asked of them by the BBC, ITV, WBO, CNN, al-Jazeera and others, Hurndall had no single reply. "I don't think there could be one, two or 100 responses," he wrote. "To each of us our own, but not one of us wants to die." Prophetic words for Tom to have written.

You can see him smiling selflessly in several snapshots. He went to cover the refugee complex at Al-Rowaishid and moved inexorably towards Gaza where he was confronted by the massive tragedy of the Palestinians. "I woke up at about eight in my bed in Jerusalem and lay in until 9.30," he wrote. "We left at 10.00... Since then, I have been shot at, gassed, chased by soldiers, had sound grenades thrown within metres of me, been hit by falling debris..."

Hurndall was trying to save Palestinian homes and infrastructure but frequently came under Israeli fire and seemed to have lost his fear of death. "While approaching the area, they (the Israelis) continually fired one- to two-second bursts from what I could see was a Bradley fighting vehicle... It was strange that as we approached and the guns were firing, it sent shivers down my spine, but nothing more than that. We walked down the middle of the street, wearing bright orange, and one of us shouted through a loudspeaker, 'We are International volunteers. Don't shoot!' That was followed by another volley of fire, though I can't be sure where from..."

Tom Hurndall had stayed in Rafah. He was only 21 where – in his mother's words – he lost his life through a single, selfless, human act. "Tom was shot in the head as he carried a single Palestinian child out of the range of an Israeli army sniper." Mrs Hurndall asked me to write a preface to Tom's book and this article is his preface, for a brave man who stood alone and showed more courage than most if us dreamed of. Forget tree huggers. Hurndall was one good man and true.


Monday, March 30, 2009

America the Tarnished

by Paul Krugman
The New York Times
March 29, 2009

Ten years ago the cover of Time magazine featured Robert Rubin, then Treasury secretary, Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Lawrence Summers, then deputy Treasury secretary. Time dubbed the three “the committee to save the world,” crediting them with leading the global financial system through a crisis that seemed terrifying at the time, although it was a small blip compared with what we’re going through now.

All the men on that cover were Americans, but nobody considered that odd. After all, in 1999 the United States was the unquestioned leader of the global crisis response. That leadership role was only partly based on American wealth; it also, to an important degree, reflected America’s stature as a role model. The United States, everyone thought, was the country that knew how to do finance right.

How times have changed.

Never mind the fact that two members of the committee have since succumbed to the magazine cover curse, the plunge in reputation that so often follows lionization in the media. (Mr. Summers, now the head of the National Economic Council, is still going strong.) Far more important is the extent to which our claims of financial soundness — claims often invoked as we lectured other countries on the need to change their ways — have proved hollow.

Indeed, these days America is looking like the Bernie Madoff of economies: for many years it was held in respect, even awe, but it turns out to have been a fraud all along.

It’s painful now to read a lecture that Mr. Summers gave in early 2000, as the economic crisis of the 1990s was winding down. Discussing the causes of that crisis, Mr. Summers pointed to things that the crisis countries lacked — and that, by implication, the United States had. These things included “well-capitalized and supervised banks” and reliable, transparent corporate accounting. Oh well.

One of the analysts Mr. Summers cited in that lecture, by the way, was the economist Simon Johnson. In an article in the current issue of The Atlantic, Mr. Johnson, who served as the chief economist at the I.M.F. and is now a professor at M.I.T., declares that America’s current difficulties are “shockingly reminiscent” of crises in places like Russia and Argentina — including the key role played by crony capitalists.

In America as in the third world, he writes, “elite business interests — financiers, in the case of the U.S. — played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive.”

It’s no wonder, then, that an article in yesterday’s Times about the response President Obama will receive in Europe was titled “English-Speaking Capitalism on Trial.”

Now, in fairness we have to say that the United States was far from being the only nation in which banks ran wild. Many European leaders are still in denial about the continent’s economic and financial troubles, which arguably run as deep as our own — although their nations’ much stronger social safety nets mean that we’re likely to experience far more human suffering. Still, it’s a fact that the crisis has cost America much of its credibility, and with it much of its ability to lead.

And that’s a very bad thing.

Like many other economists, I’ve been revisiting the Great Depression, looking for lessons that might help us avoid a repeat performance. And one thing that stands out from the history of the early 1930s is the extent to which the world’s response to crisis was crippled by the inability of the world’s major economies to cooperate.

The details of our current crisis are very different, but the need for cooperation is no less. President Obama got it exactly right last week when he declared: “All of us are going to have to take steps in order to lift the economy. We don’t want a situation in which some countries are making extraordinary efforts and other countries aren’t.”

Yet that is exactly the situation we’re in. I don’t believe that even America’s economic efforts are adequate, but they’re far more than most other wealthy countries have been willing to undertake. And by rights this week’s G-20 summit ought to be an occasion for Mr. Obama to chide and chivy European leaders, in particular, into pulling their weight.

But these days foreign leaders are in no mood to be lectured by American officials, even when — as in this case — the Americans are right.

The financial crisis has had many costs. And one of those costs is the damage to America’s reputation, an asset we’ve lost just when we, and the world, need it most.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Trivializing the Killing of Civilians

by Peter Hart
March 23, 2009

The lead of an article in the New York Times today (3/23/09):

KABUL, Afghanistan — A predawn raid by United States Special Forces that killed five people on Sunday has produced sharply conflicting accounts from the American military and local Afghan officials as to whether the dead were civilians or militants, resurrecting a sore point that has troubled the American-led war here.

"Resurrecting a sore point?" For something to be resurrected, it has to have gone away, right? That's not the case with civilian deaths in Afghanistan--nor would most people belittle such suffering as a "sore point."

The day before, the Times had a Week in Review piece on drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan with the awkward headline "The Downside of Letting Robots Do the Bombing." Reporter Mark Mazetti can't be held responsible for that headline, but the piece plays down the impact that such attacks have on civilians, which is treated as mostly an afterthought (the real question, of course, being what waging war by "joysticks" means for the United States):

Over the last six months, CIA operatives wielding joysticks have launched more than three dozen strikes by Predator and more heavily armed Reaper drones. Missiles fired from them have hit militants gathering in mountain redoubts, and they have hit truck convoys ferrying ammunition across the border into Afghanistan.

Some agency veterans draw comparisons to the Israeli policy of "targeted killings" of Hamas leaders--killings that claimed scores of the group’s top operatives in the Palestinian territories, but didn’t keep new recruits from attacking Israel.

Intelligence officials in Washington and Islamabad said it was nearly impossible to measure the impact of the strikes on the so-called "war of ideas." Even when precise, the drone strikes often kill women and children in militant compounds. When that happens, local Pashtun customs of "badal" obligate their survivors to seek revenge.

There's a lot going on here, but the upshot is that civilian deaths are treated as some sort of inexplicable fallout-- that "even when precise," such drone attacks kill women and children, or that somehow Israeli strikes on "Hamas leaders" don't prevent other Palestinians from seeking retribution. Mazetti writes of "local Pashtun customs" that "obligate" survivors to "seek revenge" against those who killed their families. Is that such a strange concept, meriting a special foreign term, for U.S. readers to fathom--in an article that is in part about the war in Afghanistan, after all?

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Friday, March 27, 2009

The Market Mystique

by Paul Krugman
The New York Times
March 26, 2009

On Monday, Lawrence Summers, the head of the National Economic Council, responded to criticisms of the Obama administration’s plan to subsidize private purchases of toxic assets. “I don’t know of any economist,” he declared, “who doesn’t believe that better functioning capital markets in which assets can be traded are a good idea.”

Leave aside for a moment the question of whether a market in which buyers have to be bribed to participate can really be described as “better functioning.” Even so, Mr. Summers needs to get out more. Quite a few economists have reconsidered their favorable opinion of capital markets and asset trading in the light of the current crisis.

But it has become increasingly clear over the past few days that top officials in the Obama administration are still in the grip of the market mystique. They still believe in the magic of the financial marketplace and in the prowess of the wizards who perform that magic.

The market mystique didn’t always rule financial policy. America emerged from the Great Depression with a tightly regulated banking system, which made finance a staid, even boring business. Banks attracted depositors by providing convenient branch locations and maybe a free toaster or two; they used the money thus attracted to make loans, and that was that.

And the financial system wasn’t just boring. It was also, by today’s standards, small. Even during the “go-go years,” the bull market of the 1960s, finance and insurance together accounted for less than 4 percent of G.D.P. The relative unimportance of finance was reflected in the list of stocks making up the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which until 1982 contained not a single financial company.

It all sounds primitive by today’s standards. Yet that boring, primitive financial system serviced an economy that doubled living standards over the course of a generation.

After 1980, of course, a very different financial system emerged. In the deregulation-minded Reagan era, old-fashioned banking was increasingly replaced by wheeling and dealing on a grand scale. The new system was much bigger than the old regime: On the eve of the current crisis, finance and insurance accounted for 8 percent of G.D.P., more than twice their share in the 1960s. By early last year, the Dow contained five financial companies — giants like A.I.G., Citigroup and Bank of America.

And finance became anything but boring. It attracted many of our sharpest minds and made a select few immensely rich.

Underlying the glamorous new world of finance was the process of securitization. Loans no longer stayed with the lender. Instead, they were sold on to others, who sliced, diced and puréed individual debts to synthesize new assets. Subprime mortgages, credit card debts, car loans — all went into the financial system’s juicer. Out the other end, supposedly, came sweet-tasting AAA investments. And financial wizards were lavishly rewarded for overseeing the process.

But the wizards were frauds, whether they knew it or not, and their magic turned out to be no more than a collection of cheap stage tricks. Above all, the key promise of securitization — that it would make the financial system more robust by spreading risk more widely — turned out to be a lie. Banks used securitization to increase their risk, not reduce it, and in the process they made the economy more, not less, vulnerable to financial disruption.

Sooner or later, things were bound to go wrong, and eventually they did. Bear Stearns failed; Lehman failed; but most of all, securitization failed.

Which brings us back to the Obama administration’s approach to the financial crisis.

Much discussion of the toxic-asset plan has focused on the details and the arithmetic, and rightly so. Beyond that, however, what’s striking is the vision expressed both in the content of the financial plan and in statements by administration officials. In essence, the administration seems to believe that once investors calm down, securitization — and the business of finance — can resume where it left off a year or two ago.

To be fair, officials are calling for more regulation. Indeed, on Thursday Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, laid out plans for enhanced regulation that would have been considered radical not long ago.

But the underlying vision remains that of a financial system more or less the same as it was two years ago, albeit somewhat tamed by new rules.

As you can guess, I don’t share that vision. I don’t think this is just a financial panic; I believe that it represents the failure of a whole model of banking, of an overgrown financial sector that did more harm than good. I don’t think the Obama administration can bring securitization back to life, and I don’t believe it should try.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why the White House Garden Matters

by Fritz Haeg
The Guardian
March 25, 2009

Has one vegetable garden ever generated so much excitement or debate? A few details about the new White House vegetable garden caught my attention.

It is 1,100 square feet. This is a garden sized for a family. In my experience of removing front lawns and planting Edible Estate prototype gardens across the country, the Obama garden is about the size of the average American front lawn. Most Americans should be able to imagine themselves planting something about this size in front of their house over a weekend with the help of some friends and neighbours.

Of course I would have preferred that they remove the entire South Lawn of the White House. I imagine a combination of fruit tree orchards, wild berry patches and edible flower and grass meadows. But since this new first family garden should be a model to inspire every American family, perhaps a modest 1,100 square feet is the best way to start the revolution.

There will be tomatillos and cilantro, but no beets. The Obamas love Mexican food, and Barack does not like beets. This is a garden planted for the personal tastes of the family that will be eating from it. It is not just a pretty garden, or an empty symbol, but a place for a family to grow the food that they like to eat, on the land that is around them.

They have selected 55 varieties of vegetables and herbs according to their tastes, and every American family can inspect that list and imagine what they would plant instead. Where are the tomatoes? Why so much spinach? Can I grow blueberries where I live? The lawns surrounding our homes are all the same, in denial of our diverse climates and cultures. Neighbourhood streets lined with edible gardens like the Obamas' would all be different, celebrating our diverse tastes.

It will be visible from E Street. Will tourists linger at the South Lawn fence hoping to catch a glimpse of Sasha and Malia weeding? We will all be able to watch it grow through the seasons and evolve over the years. This is a vegetable and herb garden in front of the house, and meant to be seen.

Since the late 1940s the sterile industrial landscape of the lawn has come to dominate our streets. This divisive and repressive aesthetic has been sold to us as the only acceptable surface to present to our neighbours. But our ideas of beauty are always shifting, and soon the front lawn will be considered an ugly vestige of an ignorant time. Why did they water, weed, mow, fertilise and pollute for a ceremonial space they never even used? With the Obamas giving us an organic vegetable garden to look at, we are taking steps toward a more thoughtful, beautiful, healthy and productive landscape.

Fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary School helped plant it. Many American children today do not see evidence that food comes out of the ground or experience the pleasure of eating food fresh from plants. Instead their diet is causing epidemic childhood illness. The introduction of a food-producing garden into their early lives is our best hope for changing the situation in a meaningful way.

In my on-the-street garden-planting experiences from Austin to London, it is always the children who are the first ones on the scene, and the most excited to help out. They tend to be the least sceptical, and the most hopeful about the future prospects for the garden. We should have a garden like the Obamas' everywhere there are children.

A beekeeper will tend two hives for honey, and ladybugs and praying mantises will help control harmful bugs. Fully sanctioned and welcome critters at the White House! I think this is perhaps more exciting than the garden itself.

We know that the lawn is essentially ecological genocide. Everything but those precious blades of grass must die in the name of that luxurious green carpet. Pesticides indiscriminately decimate the bugs that are pests, and any other form of life that gets in the way.

An organic garden is not an island, even if it is surrounded by a lawn. It is encouraging to see this acknowledged with the welcoming of these partner animals that will make pollination, pest control and the production of food possible without chemicals.

Planting beds will be fertilised with White House compost and crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay. I love local details. That's what make gardens special, and lawns boring. So the thought of crab meal from the local bay coming to the South Lawn is a thrilling development.

The rest of us can read about that and ask what local resource we could tap into to feed our garden. Seaweed from the coast? Manure from the farm? And what about the first family compost pile? We need to see images of that, and find out where it will be located.

I would advocate for a very visible and privileged location, perhaps at the ceremonial south entrance to the White House, where Barack can show off the rich pile of decomposing banana peals and coffee grinds to visiting heads of state.

As any gardener knows, the compost pile is the engine of the garden, the place where yesterdays "waste" becomes tomorrows fertility. What better message for us today?

The total cost is $200. They could have planted a very elaborate and expensive garden that might have been more worthy of what we would expect in front of the White House, but I am so pleased that they planted something modest and cheap. Sales of vegetable plants and seeds are soaring along with the cost of food. Americans are rediscovering the economic benefits and perhaps even the daily pleasure of being outside and growing food where they live.

Of course there are probably some buried expenses not included in the $200 price tag, and some people will argue that you need to spend a small fortune and most of your time on such a garden. But an important message has been sent: Here is something anyone should be able to afford to do at home.

Is this too much hyperbole for one little garden? Am I placing too much significance on such a simple act? In the face of trillion-dollar deficits and billion-dollar bailouts, perhaps it is exactly the modesty of the gesture that makes this message so welcome right now.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Hope in the Mountains

by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
The Washington Post
March 25, 2009

Yesterday was a great day for the people of Appalachia and for all of America. In a bold departure from Bush-era energy policy, the Obama administration suspended a coal company's permit to dump debris from its proposed mountaintop mining operation into a West Virginia valley and stream. In addition, the administration promised to carefully review upward of 200 such permits awaiting approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

With yesterday's action, President Obama has signaled his intention to save this region. His moratorium on these permits will allow the administration to develop a sensible long-term approach to dealing with this catastrophic method of coal extraction.

I join hundreds of Appalachia's embattled communities in applauding this news. Having flown over the coalfields of Appalachia and walked her ridges, valleys and hollows, I know that this land cannot withstand more abuse. Mountaintop-removal coal mining is the greatest environmental tragedy ever to befall our nation. This radical form of strip mining has already flattened the tops of 500 mountains, buried 2,000 miles of streams, devastated our country's oldest and most diverse temperate forests, and blighted landscapes famous for their history and beauty. Using giant earthmovers and millions of tons of explosives, coal moguls have eviscerated communities, destroyed homes, and uprooted and sickened families with coal and rock dust, and with blasting, flooding and poisoned water, all while providing far fewer jobs than does traditional underground mining.

The backlog of permit applications has been building since Appalachian groups won a federal injunction against the worst forms of mountaintop removal in March 2007. But the floodgates opened on Feb. 13 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond overturned that injunction. Since then, the Corps has been working overtime to oblige impatient coal barons by quickly issuing the pending permits. Each such permit amounts to a death sentence for streams, mountains and communities. Taken together, these pending permits threatened to lay waste to nearly 60,000 acres of mountain landscape, destroy 400 valleys and bury more than 200 miles of streams.

The Corps already had issued a dozen permits before the White House stepped in, and coal companies have begun destroying some of these sites. The bulldozers are poised for action on the rest. Typical of these is Ison Rock Ridge, a proposed 1,230-acre mine in southwest Virginia that would blow up several peaks and threaten a half-dozen communities, including the small town of Appalachia.

In a valiant effort to hold back destruction, the Appalachia Town Council, citing its responsibility for the "health, safety, welfare, and properties" of its residents, recently passed an ordinance prohibiting coal mining within the town limits without approval from the council. But that ordinance lacks the power to override the Army Corps of Engineers' permit. And while the Obama administration order will reverse the Bush-era policies and stop the pillaging elsewhere, the town of Appalachia remains imperiled.

The White House should now enlarge its moratorium to commute Appalachia's death sentence by suspending the dozen permits already issued. The Environmental Protection Agency should then embark on a rulemaking effort to restore a critical part of the Clean Water Act that was weakened by industry henchmen recruited to powerful positions in the Bush administration. Former industry lobbyists working as agency heads and department deputies issued the so-called "fill rule" to remove 30-year-old laws barring coal companies from dumping mining waste into streams. This step cleared the way for mountaintop removal, which within a few years could flatten an area of the Appalachians the size of Delaware. This change must be reversed to restore the original intent of the Clean Water Act and prevent mining companies from using our streams and rivers as dumps.

The Obama administration's decision to suspend these permits and take a fresh look at mountaintop removal is consistent with Obama's commitment to science, justice and transparency in government and his respect for America's history and values. The people of Appalachia, Va., and the other towns across the coalfields have been praying that Barack Obama's promise of change will be kept. Thanks to yesterday's decision, hope, not mining waste, is filling the valleys and hollows of Appalachia.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

Friday, March 20, 2009

AIG Thoughts

by Paul Krugman
The New York Times
March 20, 2009

Preliminary thoughts on the tax bill:

1. It’s not the way you should make policy — it’s clumsy, and it will punish some innocent parties while letting the most guilty off scot-free

2. But — there wasn’t much alternative at this point. And for that I blame the Obama people.

I’ll leave to others the question of who knew or should have known that the bonus firestorm was coming; but it’s part of a pattern. At every stage, Geithner et al have made it clear that they still have faith in the people who created the financial crisis — that they believe that all we have is a liquidity crisis that can be undone with a bit of financial engineering, that “governments do a bad job of running banks” (as opposed, presumably, to the wonderful job the private bankers have done), that financial bailouts and guarantees should come with no strings attached.

This was bad analysis, bad policy, and terrible politics. This administration, elected on the promise of change, has already managed, in an astonishingly short time, to create the impression that it’s owned by the wheeler-dealers. And that leaves it with no ability to counter crude populism.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Palin Calls in Helicopters for Wolf Massacre

March 18, 2009

The Palin administration considerably escalated its aerial wolf killing spree this past weekend, with full details only becoming clear in the hours after the killing initiated. At least 58 wolves have been killed in the Upper Yukon/Tanana area of Alaska over the past 4 days by Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) staff, which indicates that their target of approximately 250 wolves will be easily met.

The key ingredient is the decision by the governor and her appointed Alaska Board of Game to use helicopters as part of the state's wolf killing program in this region. The Board of Game approved the use of agency helicopters and personnel at its most recent meeting, which ended March 9, 2009, but those new regulations are not yet in effect, making the current helicopter wolf killing program in the Upper Yukon/Tanana region illegal. It is on these grounds that the board now faces a law suit, filed today by Defenders of Wildlife calling for an immediate injunction on the aerial wolf killing occurring in this area

“While the media obsesses over Governor Palin’s private family life, she is getting away with illegally slaughtering large numbers of wolves from the air,” commented Defenders Action Fund president, Rodger Schlickeisen. “The governor is even encouraging the killing of wolves that reside and den mostly on federal land, which belongs to all of us, not just Alaskans. There is no biological emergency in Alaska that warrants such measures.”

The ADF&G gave the National Park Service just a few hours notice before the killing began and as of Tuesday morning, at least 58 wolves were already known to have been killed, in addition to at least 27 that had already been killed by private hunters. According to the National Park Service’s March 15 briefing statement (attached), if ADF&G is successful in reaching its goal, “this would leave one-to-two wolves per 1,000 square kilometers in the Upper Yukon Wolf Control Area, approximating the lowest known wolf population densities in Alaska.” Upon learning of the state’s plans, the Service requested a no-wolf kill buffer zone around the preserve, but the state refused, putting at risk many of the members of seven wolf packs that reside mostly within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, many of which are part of an ongoing wolf study conducted by the park, at federal taxpayer expense.

“The Palin administration has created the least scientific Board of Game in the state’s history and this board will stop at nothing to reach its arbitrary and overblown goals for moose and caribou populations. They don’t even play by their own rules!” continued Schlickeisen. “Removing such huge numbers of predators from a region will do untold damage to all the wildlife that depends on that habitat. Governor Palin is recklessly pursuing policies that could turn America’s last frontier into nothing more than a large game farm.”

During the recent spring Board of Game meeting, the board also approved a proposal to allow to the use of gas bombs to kill wolves and wolf pups in their dens. The consistently unanimous votes for unprecedented and increasingly extreme methods of killing wolves have caused many to question the make up of the board and the magnitude of their vendetta against wolves. Each of the seven members have been appointed or re-appointed by Governor Palin, who has consistently chosen her appointees from the hunting lobby, excluding all other interests from the board.

© 2009 Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Obamas to Plant Organic Vegetable Garden at White House

by Marian Burros
The New York Times
March 19, 2009

On Friday, Michelle Obama will begin digging up a patch of White House lawn to plant a vegetable garden, the first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden in World War II. There will be no beets (the president doesn’t like them) but arugula will make the cut.

While the organic garden will provide food for the first family’s meals and formal dinners, its most important role, Mrs. Obama said, will be to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables at time when obesity has become a national concern.

In an interview in her office, Mrs. Obama said, “My hope is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”

Twenty-three fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington will help her dig up the soil for the 1,100-square-foot plot in a spot visible to passers-by on E Street. (It’s just below the Obama girls’ swing set.) Students from the school, which has had a garden since 2001, will also help plant, harvest and cook the vegetables, berries and herbs.

Almost the entire Obama family, including the president, will pull weeds, “whether they like it or not,” Mrs. Obama said laughing. “Now Grandma, my mom, I don’t know.” Her mother, she said, would probably sit back and say: “Isn’t that lovely. You missed a spot.”

Whether there would be a White House garden has been more than a matter of landscaping. It’s taken on political and environmental symbolism as the Obamas have been lobbied for months by advocates who believe that growing more food locally could lead to healthier eating and lessen reliance on huge industrial farms that use more oil for transportation and chemicals for fertilizer.

In the meantime, promoting healthful eating has become an important part of Mrs. Obama’s agenda.

“The power of Michelle Obama and the garden can create a very powerful message about eating healthy and more delicious food,” said Dan Barber, an owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., an organic restaurant that grows many of its own ingredients. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it could translate into real change.”

The Clintons grew some vegetables in pots on the roof of the White House. But the Obamas’ garden will have 55 varieties of vegetables — from a wish list of the kitchen staff — grown from organic seedlings started at the executive mansion’s greenhouses.

The Obamas will feed their love of Mexican food with cilantro, tomatilloes and hot peppers. Lettuces will include red romaine, green oak leaf, butterhead, red leaf and galactic. There will be spinach, chard, collards and black kale. For desserts, there will be a patch of berries. And herbs will include some more unusual varieties, like anise hyssop and Thai basil. A White House carpenter who is a beekeeper will tend two hives for honey.

Total cost for the seeds, mulch, etc., is $200.

The plots will be in raised beds fertilized with White House compost, crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, lime and green sand. Ladybugs and praying mantises will help control harmful bugs.

Cristeta Comerford, the White House’s executive chef, is eager to plan menus around the garden, and Bill Yosses, the pastry chef, is looking forward to berry season.

Sam Kass, an assistant White House chef who prepared healthful meals for the Obama family in Chicago and is an advocate of local food, will oversee the garden. The White House grounds crew and kitchen staff will do most of the work, but other White House staff members have volunteered.

“First of all,” Mrs. Obama said, “there’s nothing really cooler than coming to the White House and harvesting some of the vegetables and being in the kitchen with Cris and Sam and Bill, and cutting and cooking and actually experiencing the joys of your work.”

Mrs. Obama, who said that she never had a vegetable garden before, said the idea for it came from her experiences as a working mother trying to feed her daughters, Malia and Sasha, a good diet. Eating out three times a week, ordering a pizza, having a sandwich for dinner took it’s toll. The children’s pediatrician told her she needed to be thinking about nutrition.

“He raised a flag for us,” she said, and within months the children lost weight.

For children, she said, food is all about taste, and fresh and local taste better.

“A real delicious heirloom tomato is one of the sweetest things that you’ll ever eat,” she said. “And my children know the difference, and that’s how I’ve been able to get them to try different things.

“I wanted to be able to bring what I learned to a broader base of people. And what better way to do it than to plant a vegetable garden in the South Lawn of the White House.”

The country’s one million community gardens, she said, can also play an important role for urban dwellers who have no backyards.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Is There PFOA in My Butter?

By Olga Naidenko
March 19, 2009

What do popcorn bags, muffin and croissant bags, hamburger and sandwich wrappers, pizza box liners, French fry and hash brown bags and butter boxes have in common? If your guess was "savory food inside," this answer is only partially correct.

Turns out that all these products also share a set of secret and not-so-tasty ingredients, known as perfluorochemicals (PFCs), which are applied to the inner lining of the packaging to make it grease-proof. One member of the PFC family, PFOA or perfluorooctanoic acid, is well-known as a persistent, toxic chemical that pollutes the bodies of people and wildlife across the globe.

PFOA has been used for decades as a manufacturing aid for producing common household products such as Teflon non-stick cookware and water-resistant clothing. Industrial air and water emissions of PFOA led to widespread environmental contamination of the environment with long-lasting human health consequences, including negative effects on reproductive system and fetal development.

How do we get exposed? PFOA contaminated the bodies of over 99% of all Americans, likely due to multiple sources of PFOA that people face on a daily basis. We still don't know whether non-stick cookware, stain-resistant clothing, polluted drinking water, PFC-treated carpets and furniture, or packaging act as the primary source of PFOA exposure. For people who seek to avoid PFOA and other PFCs in their environment, manufacturing secrecy has been especially frustrating. Walking into a store, shoppers may not know which of the products are PFC-free, since manufacturers are not required to disclose all of the product ingredients.

The problem with food packaging. Food packaging is an egregious example of hidden PFC exposure. In theory, any material applied to food packaging should be thoroughly tested by the manufacturer and then evaluated for safety by the FDA. In practice, many food packaging materials get on the market with limited or insufficient safety data, as demonstrated by recent EWG research on new food packaging chemicals.

Frequently, manufacturers get away with limited tests of food packaging materials that assess a small number of exposure scenarios, use food simulant liquids instead of actual foods people eat, and rely extensively on modeling rather than real-life testing. As a result, instead of active, public-health protective oversight over food packaging, FDA generally plays catch-up, learning of the problem long after the product has been on the market, and then delaying taking an action even in the face of overwhelmingly convincing scientific data about the health risks of a food-packaging material.

Does PFOA leach into our food, like the butter pack I bought last week? Most likely, yes. In 2008, scientists at the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition reported that fluorochemical mixtures applied to the surface of food packaging can contain up to 200 mg/kg of PFOA. In the final paper product PFOA levels may be decreased, but still very significant, remaining in the range of 0.3-1.2 mg/kg, as indicated by the FDA publication in the scientific journal Food Additives and Contaminants.

The most important finding from this research is that both the primary fluorochemical coating ingredient and the PFOA impurity migrate into the packaged food, ultimately ingested by unsuspecting popcorn- and butter-eaters like you and me. The good news is that the levels of migrating fluorochemicals are variable and not always high. The bad news is that for those of us who really like butter, exposures would add up after many years of eating this delicious product.

What the FDA has to say. The FDA study closes with seemingly simple and technical conclusions: "greater migration is always seen into butter, an emulsified food, than into typical food-simulating solvent" and "the significantly higher migration of fluorochemicals found for the emulsifier-in-oil systems compared to migration into pure oil has implications for the use of oil migration data in estimating dietary exposure to fluorochemicals transferring from treated food-contact paper into a fatty food."

The meaning behind this impartial conclusion is far from innocuous - the supposed safety claims that manufacturers made on behalf of fluorochemical-coated food packaging have been based on tests with oil simulants, not with actual foods - like my butter. Yet, as FDA research showed, butter stored in fluorochemical-treated packaging accumulates detectable levels of these chemicals, even when stored in a refrigerator, under conditions that limit migration of food packaging chemicals into food.

It's not on the label. While the problem of food contamination with packaging chemicals is an important health concern, fortunately this is an issue where shoppers can accomplish a lot by asking manufacturers and producers a simple question: what's in this box? The answer "just butter" is not sufficient, because we already know that it's not "just butter," but also a range of chemicals from the packaging itself. Shoppers have a right to demand complete disclosure, and manufacturers will listen to the message. Food packaging should be guaranteed to be safe and fully labeled, allowing shoppers to make a choice that protects the health of their families.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Money Talks Louder Than Votes

by David Adam
The Guardian
March 18, 2009

Protest and direct action could be the only way to tackle soaring carbon emissions, a leading climate scientist has said.

James Hansen, a climate modeller with Nasa, told the Guardian today that corporate lobbying has undermined democratic attempts to curb carbon pollution. "The democratic process doesn't quite seem to be working," he said.

Speaking on the eve of joining a protest against the headquarters of power firm E.ON in Coventry, Hansen said: "The first action that people should take is to use the democratic process. What is frustrating people, me included, is that democratic action affects elections but what we get then from political leaders is greenwash.

"The democratic process is supposed to be one person one vote, but it turns out that money is talking louder than the votes. So, I'm not surprised that people are getting frustrated. I think that peaceful demonstration is not out of order, because we're running out of time."

Hansen said he was taking part in the Coventry demonstration tomorrow because he wants a worldwide moratorium on new coal power stations. E.ON wants to build such a station at Kingsnorth in Kent, an application that energy and the climate change minister Ed Miliband recently delayed. "I think that peaceful actions that attempt to draw society's attention to the issue are not inappropriate," Hansen said.

He added that a scientific meeting in Copenhagen last week had made clear the "urgency of the science and the inaction taken by governments".

Officials will gather in Bonn later this month to continue talks on a new global climate treaty, which campaigners have called to be signed at a UN meeting in Copenhagen in December. Hansen warned that the new treaty is "guaranteed to fail" to bring down emissions.

Hansen said: "What's being talked about for Copenhagen is a strenghening of Kyoto [protocol] approach, a cap and trade with offsets and escape hatches which will be gauranteed to fail in terms of getting the required rapid reduction in emissions. They talk about goals which sound impressive, but when you see the actions are such that it will be impossible to reach those goals, then I can understand the informed public getting frustrated."

He said he was growing "concerned" over the stance taken by the new US adminstration on global warming. "It's not clear what their intentions are yet, but if they are going to support cap and trade then unfortunately i think that will be another case of greenwash. It's going to take stronger action than that."

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009


by Ed Dague
timesunion.com Blogs
March 18, 2009

In 1984, in the middle of the strike by technicians at WRGB that would cause me to quit the station, a manager pointed to the strikers walking their picket line and said to me, “Who do these people think they are to attack an institution like Channel Six?” The question really troubled me as it involved the whole concept of ownership. It seemed to me that the traditions and history that had made the station an institution were owned more by the people walking the picket line than by the investment firm that had purchased the station a few months earlier. They weren’t attacking the institution, I thought. They were the institution.

There is an inherent conflict in the whole business of broadcasting. Capitalists buy stations to make a profit. Their interest is in squeezing the largest possible profit out of any station operation. They have a government granted monopoly on a broadcast frequency but no real obligations attached to it. Capitalism requires owners to minimize their contributions to the public good in order to maximize their profits. Greed trumps public needs and interests all across broadcasting but I know of no better way to structure things.

What many don’t know is the amount of money that was involved in local TV broadcasting at its peak. It stunned my lawyer and me when we confronted it twenty-five years ago. “I can’t let Dague go across town,” the WRGB general manager told my lawyer. “He could take three, maybe even four rating points with him, which is over a million and a half dollars a year and I can’t let that happen.” It turned out that in 1984, each Nielsen rating point in a local newscast represented over $450,000 in potential annual revenue. WRGB was paying me about $40-thousand a year.

Back then, when the top local newscasts consistently got double-digit ratings, a station manager could imagine losing three or four rating points. Today, that could be the station’s entire audience. Stations now have competition for viewers from the Internet and cable and the whole business has changed. No newscast can draw a twenty plus rating these days.

I have no idea what an individual rating point is worth to a station today. But, there is no question that the profits have diminished greatly. So has the quality of the contribution to the public good. It has to be terribly frustrating for the reporters and producers who still have jobs. My guess is that it troubles many of the managers as well. They understand what has happened to the quality of their effort but they dare not talk about it.

It is difficult to argue against profit in America. It is dangerous to question the prevailing concepts of ownership or to challenge anyone’s right to maximize profit in a free market. My first experience with those truths came in 1970 when I objected to General Electric Broadcasting’s decision to break precedent and air political commercials during newscasts. I wanted to take my case to the FCC but was told that any letter to them from me would cost me my job. So, I went along with it and produced the first newscast in town carrying a political commercial — for Nelson Rockefeller. Now, of course, political ads routinely pollute newscasts. There was a time when a candidate had to make actual news or grant an interview to get a message into a newscast. Now, anybody can buy their way on and never be interviewed. Maybe that is part of the reason why the viewers left.

Copyright Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation

Monday, March 16, 2009

Justice for Rachel Corrie and for the Palestinians

by Cindy and Craig Corrie
The Electronic Intifada
March 16, 2009

We thank all who continue to remember Rachel and who, on this sixth anniversary of her stand in Gaza, renew their own commitments to human rights, justice and peace in the Middle East. The tributes and actions in her memory are a source of inspiration to us and to others.

Friday, 13 March, we learned of the tragic injury to American activist Tristan Anderson. Tristan was shot in the head with a tear gas canister in Nilin village in the West Bank when Israeli forces attacked a demonstration opposing the construction of the annexation wall through the village's land. On the same day, a Nilin resident was shot in the leg with live ammunition. Four residents of Nilin have been killed in the past eight months as villagers and their supporters have courageously demonstrated against the Apartheid Wall deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice -- a wall that will ultimately absorb one-quarter of the village's remaining land.

Those who have died are 10-year-old child Ahmed Mousa, shot in the forehead with live ammunition on 29 July 2008; Yousef Amira (17), shot with rubber-coated steel bullets on 30 July 2008; Arafat Rateb Khawaje (22) and Mohammed Khawaje (20), both shot and killed with live ammunition on 8 December 2008. On this anniversary, Rachel would want us all to hold Tristan Anderson and his family and these Palestinians and their families in our thoughts and prayers, and we ask everyone to do so.

We are writing this message from Cairo where we returned after a visit to Gaza with the Code Pink delegation from the United States. Fifty-eight women and men successfully passed through Rafah crossing on Saturday, 7 March to challenge the border closures and siege and to celebrate International Women's Day with the strong and courageous women of Gaza.

Rachel would be very happy that our spirited delegation made this journey. North to south throughout the Strip, we witnessed the sweeping destruction of neighborhoods, municipal buildings, police stations, mosques and schools -- casualties of the Israeli military assaults in December and January. When we asked about the personal impact of the attacks on those we met, we heard repeatedly of the loss of mothers, fathers, children, cousins and friends. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reports 1,434 Palestinian dead and more than 5,000 injured, among them 288 children and 121 women.

We walked through the farming village of Khoza in the south where 50 homes were destroyed during the land invasion. A young boy scrambled through a hole in the rubble to show us the basement he and his family crouched in as a bulldozer crushed their house upon them. We heard of Rafiya, who lead the frightened women and children of this neighborhood away from threatening Israeli military bulldozers, only to be struck down and killed by an Israeli soldier's sniper fire as she walked in the street carrying her white flag.

Repeatedly, we were told by Palestinians, and by the internationals on the ground supporting them, that there is no ceasefire. Indeed, bomb blasts from the border area punctuated our conversations as we arrived and departed Gaza. On our last night, we sat by a fire in the moonlight in the remains of a friend's farmyard and listened to him tell of how the Israeli military destroyed his home in 2004, and of how this second home was shattered on 6 February. This time, it was Israeli rockets from Apache helicopters that struck the house. A stand of wheat remained and rustled soothingly in the breeze as we talked, but our attention shifted quickly when F-16s streaked high across the night sky and our friend explained that if the planes tipped to the side, they would strike.

Everywhere, the psychological costs of the recent and ongoing attacks for all Gazans, but especially for the children, were sadly apparent. It is not only those who suffer the greatest losses that carry the scars of all that has happened. It is those, too, who witnessed from their school, bodies flying in the air when police cadets were bombed across the street and those who felt and heard the terrifying blasts of missiles falling near their own homes. It is the children who each day must walk past the unexplainable and inhumane destruction that has occurred.

In Rachel's case, though a thorough, credible and transparent investigation was promised by the Israeli government, after six years, the position of the US government remains that such an investigation has not taken place. In March 2008, Michele Bernier-Toff, Managing Director of the Office of Overseas Citizen Services at the Department of State, wrote, "We have consistently requested that the Government of Israel conduct a full and transparent investigation into Rachel's death. Our requests have gone unanswered or ignored." Now, the attacks on all the people of Gaza and the recent one on Tristan Anderson in Nilin cry out for investigation and accountability. We call on President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and members of Congress to act with fortitude and courage to ensure that the atrocities that have occurred are addressed by the Israeli government and through relevant international and US law. We ask them to act immediately and persistently to stop the impunity enjoyed by the Israeli military, not to encourage it.

Despite the pain, we have once again felt privileged to enter briefly into the lives of Rachel's Palestinian friends in Gaza. We are moved by their resilience and heartened by their song, dance and laughter amidst the tears. Rachel wrote in 2003, "I am nevertheless amazed at their strength in being able to defend such a large degree of their humanity -- laughter, generosity, family time -- against the incredible horror occurring in their lives ... I am also discovering a degree of strength and the basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstances ... I think the word is dignity." On this sixth anniversary of Rachel's killing, we echo her sentiments.

© electronicIntifada.net

Sunday, March 15, 2009

To Kill or Not to Kill

by Tyler E. Boudreau
The Progressive
February 2009 Issue

U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl was an unlikely guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. One of the authors of the 2006 Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, Nagl said: “If I could sum up the book in just a few words, it would be: Be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill.” In that single sentence, he put his finger on a crucial discrepancy. In Iraq, I witnessed this discrepancy. I felt it. I knew from the moment I picked up the Counterinsurgency Field Manual what was missing.

On April 11, 2004, I did something that I’d never before done. I shot a man . . . at least, I shot at him. (Amidst the chaos of the moment, it was difficult to say whether or not he was hit.) It was Iraq. I was a Marine. And we were under heavy attack. It seemed like the thing to do.

Though I’d been in the infantry for more than a decade, I would not exactly describe the moment as perfunctory—automatic perhaps, but not quite perfunctory. Exactly what does it take to level the sights of a weapon and fire it at another human being? Under the circumstances, you wouldn’t think it would take much. And honestly, for me it didn’t.

But it would be precarious to assume that it didn’t take much because of circumstances alone. For some people, circumstances weigh very little in the decision to shoot or not to shoot. In a counterinsurgency operation, military doctrine not only demands of its soldiers a willingness to kill, but a willingness not to kill as well. Training for the Iraq War has slighted the second part. So today, we have a different kind of force, a different kind of warrior. I know. I was one of them.

The remainder of this excellent analysis comparing modern warfare with wars of the past can be found here: http://progressive.org/mag/boudreau0209.html

Copyright 2009 The Progressive Magazine

Socialism Without a Soul

by Robert Scheer
March 10, 2009

Newt Gingrich is right: “It is European socialism transplanted to Washington.” How else to describe an economy in which the government controls the entire financial center and is now supplying life support for the auto industry? That’s on top of the existing socialist economy run by the military-industrial complex, which, thanks to George W. Bush, now absorbs upward of 60 percent of the non-entitlement federal budget.

Although we still have a way to go to catch up with the good parts of the European system, including universal health care, high-quality public education and decent working conditions, we do have a system that is now as socialist in budget size as Europe’s. That part I get when I listen to the right-wingers on Fox News bemoaning the reversal of the Reagan Revolution. But what I don’t understand is how in the world they can blame this startling turn of events on Barack Obama.

The vast majority of money allocated so far on President Obama’s watch is an extension of Bush’s banking bailout, which has committed trillions to failed Wall Street conglomerates. I certainly don’t want to defend the bailout and personally think the banks and stockbrokers deserve to go belly up, but what does that mess have to do with Obama, who was in college when the Reagan Revolution launched the deregulation that allowed Wall Street to run wild?

Didn’t Obama inherit the current financial meltdown less than two months ago from the Republicans, who for eight years under Bush assured us that the markets were not in any need of tighter regulation? Wasn’t it GOP congressional members led by folks like Gingrich who pushed though the deregulation legislation that enabled the growth of “too big to fail” financial institutions that now have to be saved by the taxpayers?

Nor has Obama demanded anything more in the way of accountability from those Wall Street swindlers than had the Bush administration. Under both presidents a total of $170 billion was given to insurance giant AIG, and, as The Wall Street Journal reported, at least $50 billion of that money was passed on to top foreign and domestic banks without any public accounting. Indeed, the second in command at the Fed told a Senate committee last week that he wouldn’t reveal the names of the banks that grabbed our money.

Nor has there been any serious demand put on the banks to use the hundreds of billions in federal funds they received to increase liquidity. Indeed, the banks are raising interest rates and cutting limits on credit cards at a time when the government is hoping consumers will use those cards to pump some life into the retail market. As bank industry analyst Meredith Whitney wrote in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed article, consumer credit card lines “were reduced by nearly $500 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008 alone.” She estimates that credit card limits for consumers will be halved over the next year, mostly on consumers who have not done anything wrong. This will take “credit away from people who have the ability to pay their bills,” she notes.

So what we have here is socialism without even the pretense of a soul. Certainly that has been the case with the abject refusal of the banks that received government bailouts to be more aggressive in preventing home foreclosures. And the Obama administration has made it clear that it has no intention of taking over the operation of any of the mega-companies that are in trouble, even when, as in the case of AIG, the government already owns 80 percent of the shares. The reason? Because that would be viewed as nationalization.

So what exactly would Obama’s critics do differently? Nothing on the bailout side. Instead, they have settled for carping criticism of the stimulus package, playing games by nitpicking lesser-cost programs while ignoring the big items that most governors, be they Republican or Democrat, eagerly want. The great fear of the GOP seems to be that some of the stimulus program might actually prove helpful to struggling Americans, but the Republicans can’t just come out of the closet and say so.

What they have picked up on instead is that Obama’s tax cuts provide some redistribution of income to favor the rapidly disappearing middle class at the expense of the super-wealthy, who have profited wildly from Bush tax cuts. Which brings us back to Gingrich’s complaint that Obama is importing European socialism. If that means a system of governance in which a robust middle class is rewarded for work with a strong social safety net supported by higher taxes on the most affluent, well, let’s get it on.

Copyright © 2009 Truthdig, L.L.C.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Let Me Chew My Coca Leaves

by Evo Morales Ayma
The New York Times
March 13, 2009

This week in Vienna, a meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs took place that will help shape international antidrug efforts for the next 10 years. I attended the meeting to reaffirm Bolivia’s commitment to this struggle but also to call for the reversal of a mistake made 48 years ago.

In 1961, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs placed the coca leaf in the same category with cocaine — thus promoting the false notion that the coca leaf is a narcotic — and ordered that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished within 25 years from the coming into force of this convention.” Bolivia signed the convention in 1976, during the brutal dictatorship of Col. Hugo Banzer, and the 25-year deadline expired in 2001.

So for the past eight years, the millions of us who maintain the traditional practice of chewing coca have been, according to the convention, criminals who violate international law. This is an unacceptable and absurd state of affairs for Bolivians and other Andean peoples.

Many plants have small quantities of various chemical compounds called alkaloids. One common alkaloid is caffeine, which is found in more than 50 varieties of plants, from coffee to cacao, and even in the flowers of orange and lemon trees. Excessive use of caffeine can cause nervousness, elevated pulse, insomnia and other unwanted effects.

Another common alkaloid is nicotine, found in the tobacco plant. Its consumption can lead to addiction, high blood pressure and cancer; smoking causes one in five deaths in the United States. Some alkaloids have important medicinal qualities. Quinine, for example, the first known treatment for malaria, was discovered by the Quechua Indians of Peru in the bark of the cinchona tree.

The coca leaf also has alkaloids; the one that concerns antidrug officials is the cocaine alkaloid, which amounts to less than one-tenth of a percent of the leaf. But as the above examples show, that a plant, leaf or flower contains a minimal amount of alkaloids does not make it a narcotic. To be made into a narcotic, alkaloids must typically be extracted, concentrated and in many cases processed chemically. What is absurd about the 1961 convention is that it considers the coca leaf in its natural, unaltered state to be a narcotic. The paste or the concentrate that is extracted from the coca leaf, commonly known as cocaine, is indeed a narcotic, but the plant itself is not.

Why is Bolivia so concerned with the coca leaf? Because it is an important symbol of the history and identity of the indigenous cultures of the Andes.

The custom of chewing coca leaves has existed in the Andean region of South America since at least 3000 B.C. It helps mitigate the sensation of hunger, offers energy during long days of labor and helps counter altitude sickness. Unlike nicotine or caffeine, it causes no harm to human health nor addiction or altered state, and it is effective in the struggle against obesity, a major problem in many modern societies.

Today, millions of people chew coca in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and northern Argentina and Chile. The coca leaf continues to have ritual, religious and cultural significance that transcends indigenous cultures and encompasses the mestizo population.

Mistakes are an unavoidable part of human history, but sometimes we have the opportunity to correct them. It is time for the international community to reverse its misguided policy toward the coca leaf.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Promised Land

by The New York Times
March 13, 2009

People who care about conserving open space are allowing themselves a bit of hope that the federal government finally will deliver on promises it made to the American people more than four decades ago.

In 1965, Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund to provide a steady source of money for the acquisition of threatened lands, the protection of significant landmarks and the expansion of outdoor recreational opportunities. The money would come from offshore oil and gas leases, giving the program an interesting symmetry: dollars raised from depleting one natural resource would be used to protect others.

The program has rescued millions of acres from development. But it has never been allowed to live up to its potential. Since 1980, spending has been authorized at $900 million annually — split evenly between federal and state projects — but actual appropriations have been much smaller. The last decade has been especially rough, despite former President George W. Bush’s campaign promise to “fully fund” the program. For the present fiscal year, Congress appropriated only $155 million, and none of it for the states.

Offshore royalties spin off billions every year. But Congress routinely diverts the money to the general treasury for deficit reduction, and the White House, no matter who occupies it, rarely pushes back.

President Obama’s budget offers a better deal: $420 million for the next fiscal year and the full funding of $900 million by 2014. These numbers are heartening. Federal dollars are needed to complete long-pending acquisitions across the country, from Hawaii to Yellowstone National Park to Virginia.

States are particularly hard pressed; Gov. David Paterson of New York plans to raid the state’s only land conservation program in order to reduce the deficit.

Promises, however, are only as good as the president wants them to be. We hope that President Obama remembers his.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Seymour Hersh Describes Executive Assassination Ring

by Eric Black
March 11, 2009

At a “Great Conversations” event (MP3) at the University of Minnesota last night, legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh may have made a little more news than he intended by talking about new alleged instances of domestic spying by the CIA, and about an ongoing covert military operation that he called an “executive assassination ring.”

Hersh spoke with great confidence about these findings from his current reporting, which he hasn’t written about yet.

In an email exchange afterward, Hersh said that his statements were “an honest response to a question” from the event’s moderator, U of M Political Scientist Larry Jacobs and “not something I wanted to dwell about in public.”

Hersh didn’t take back the statements, which he said arise from reporting he is doing for a book, but that it might be a year or two before he has what he needs on the topic to be “effective...that is, empirical, for even the most skeptical.”

The evening of great conversation, featuring Walter Mondale and Hersh, moderated by Jacobs and titled “America’s Constitutional Crisis,” looked to be a mostly historical review of events that have tested our Constitution, by a journalist and a high government official who had experience with many of the crises.

And it was mostly historical, and a great conversation, in which Hersh and Mondale talked about the patterns by which presidents seem to get intoxicated by executive power, frustrated by the limitations on that power from Congress and the public, drawn into improper covert actions that exceed their constitutional powers, in the belief that they can get results and will never be found out. Despite a few references to the Founding Fathers, the history was mostly recent, starting with the Vietnam War with much of it arising from the George W. Bush administration, which both men roundly denounced.

At the end of one answer by Hersh about how these things tend to happen, Jacobs asked: “And do they continue to happen to this day?”

Replied Hersh:

“Yuh. After 9/11, I haven’t written about this yet, but the Central Intelligence Agency was very deeply involved in domestic activities against people they thought to be enemies of the state. Without any legal authority for it. They haven’t been called on it yet. That does happen.

"Right now, today, there was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command -- JSOC it’s called. It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense. They reported directly to him. ...

"Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on. Just today in the Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H.] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths.

"Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.

"It’s complicated because the guys doing it are not murderers, and yet they are committing what we would normally call murder. It’s a very complicated issue. Because they are young men that went into the Special Forces. The Delta Forces you’ve heard about. Navy Seal teams. Highly specialized.

"In many cases, they were the best and the brightest. Really, no exaggerations. Really fine guys that went in to do the kind of necessary jobs that they think you need to do to protect America. And then they find themselves torturing people.

"I’ve had people say to me -- five years ago, I had one say: ‘What do you call it when you interrogate somebody and you leave them bleeding and they don’t get any medical committee and two days later he dies. Is that murder? What happens if I get before a committee?’

"But they’re not gonna get before a committee.”

Hersh, the best-known investigative reporter of his generation, writes about these kinds of issues for The New Yorker. He has written often about JSOC, including, last July that:

“Under the Bush Administration’s interpretation of the law, clandestine military activities, unlike covert C.I.A. operations, do not need to be depicted in a Finding, because the President has a constitutional right to command combat forces in the field without congressional interference.”

(“Finding” refers to a special document that a president must issue, although not make public, to authorize covert CIA actions.)

The rest of the evening was, as expected, full of worry and wisdom and quite a bit of Bush-bashing.

Jacobs walked the two elder statesmen through their experiences of:

  • The My Lai massacre, which Hersh first revealed publicly and which he last night called “the end of innocence about us and war.”
  • The Pentagon Papers case, which Mondale called the best example of the “government’s potential for vast public deception.”
  • Henry Kissinger’s secret dealings, mostly relating to the Vietnam War. (Hersh, who has written volumes about Kissinger, said that he will always believe that whereas ordinary people count sheep to fall asleep, Kissinger “has to count burned and maimed Cambodian babies.”)
  • The Church Committee investigation of CIA and FBI abuses, in which Mondale played a major role. (He talked about the fact that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover not only spied on Martin Luther King but literally tried to drive him to suicide.)
  • The Iran Contra scandal. (Hersh said the Reagan administration came to office with a clear goal of finding a way to finance covert actions, such as the funding of the Nicaraguan Contras, without appropriations so that Congress wouldn't know about them. Mondale noted that Reagan had signed a law barring further aid to the Contras, then participated in a scheme to keep the aid flowing. Hersh said that two key veterans of Iran-Contra, Dick Cheney and national security official Elliot Abrams, were reunited in the George W. Bush White House and decided that the key lesson from Iran-Contra was that too many people in the administration knew about it.)
  • And the Bush-Cheney years. (Said Hersh: “The contempt for Congress in the Bush-Cheney White House was extaordinary.” Said Mondale of his successor, Cheney, and his inner circle: “they ran a government within the government.” Hersh added: “Eight or nine neoconservatives took over our country.” Mondale said that the precedents of abuse of vice presidential power by Cheney would remain "like a loaded pistol that you leave on the dining room table.")

Jacobs pressed both men on the question of whether the frequent abuses of power show that the Constitution fails, because these things keep happening, or whether it works, because these things keep coming to light.

Mondale stuck with the happy answer. “The system has come through again and again,” he said. Presidents always think they will get away with it, but eventually reporters like Hersh bring things to light, the public “starts smelling this stuff,” the courts and the Congress get involved. Presidents “always, in the long run, find out that the system is stronger than they are.”

Hersh seemed more troubled by the repetitions of the pattern. The “beautiful thing about our system” is that eventually we get new leaders, he said. “The evil twosome, Cheney and Bush, left,” Hersh said. But he also said “it’s really amazing to me that we manage to get such bad leadership, so consistently.”

And he added that both the press and the public let down their guard in the aftermath of 9/11.

“The major newspapers joined the [Bush] team,” Hersh said. Top editors passed the message to investigative reporters not to “pick holes” in what Bush was doing. Violations of the Bill of Rights happened in the plain sight of the public. It was not only tolerated, but Bush was re-elected.

And even Mondale admitted that one of his greatest successes, laws reforming the FBI and CIA in the aftermath of the Church Committee, were supposed to fix the problem so that “we would never have these problems again in the lifetime of anyone alive at the time, but of course we did.”

Copyright © 2009 MinnPost.com

CNN Distorts Healthcare Debate

March 12, 2009

In one of the few recent corporate media mentions of single-payer healthcare, CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen (3/5/09) explained why healthcare "reform" is more possible now than it was under President Bill Clinton:
Fifteen years ago you sometimes heard--actually you heard quite a bit--people saying: "Let's have a single-payer system like in Canada. The government is going to be the health insurer for everybody." You don't hear that as much as you used to. So more people are on the same page more than they once were.
Cohen is right that there were many people in favor of single-payer 15 years ago; as an Extra! article from that era (7-8/93) pointed out, New York Times polling since 1990 had "consistently found majorities--ranging from 54 percent to 66 percent--in favor of tax-financed national health insurance." The numbers today? A New York Times/CBS poll (1/11-15/09) found 59 percent in favor of government-provided national health insurance. In other words, contrary to Cohen's claim, people are on pretty much the same page today as they were 15 years ago.

Cohen's suggestion that it was those loud voices that stymied "reform" is likewise unsupportable; as Extra! reported back in 1993, corporate media were then solidly behind the Clinton administration's big insurer-friendly "managed competition" plan:
While the phrase "managed competition" appeared in 62 New York Times news stories in the six months following the 1992 election, "single-payer" appeared in only five news stories during that period--never in more than a single-sentence mention.
Establishment journalists thus silenced those single-payer voices in 1993, just as Cohen and her contemporaries silence single-payer advocates today, as a new FAIR study recently revealed (3/6/09).

Earlier (CNN Newsroom, 2/26/09), Cohen had argued that "if in time, Americans start to think what President Obama is proposing is some kind of government-run health system--a la Canada, a la England--he will get resistance in the same way that Hillary Clinton got resistance when she tried to do tried to do this in the '90s."

As noted above, a government-financed national health insurance program is broadly popular in opinion polls, so it's unclear why Obama would get "resistance" if "Americans start to think" he's proposing such a plan. (If insurance companies start to think that, on the other hand, then they're certainly likely to create resistance.)

And Hillary Clinton in 1993 was certainly not proposing a government-financed system like Canada's, let alone a government-run system like Britain's; her "managed competition" plan was explicitly designed to preserve a central role for private insurance companies. It's hard to square the suggestion that Clinton was proposing a government-based healthcare system with Cohen's later acknowledgment that single-payer advocates were not "on the same page."

CNN plays a significant role in the healthcare debate. The channel's other top medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, was Obama's first choice to be surgeon general, and was one of the leading critics attacking Michael Moore's pro-single-payer documentary Sicko (FAIR Action Alert, 7/11/07). Cohen should use her prominent journalistic role in the healthcare reform debate to broaden and clarify the debate, rather than confuse and narrow it.

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Children's Bath Products Contaminated with Formaldehyde, 1,4-Dioxane

by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
March 12, 2009

Despite marketing claims like “gentle” and “pure,” dozens of top-selling children’s bath products are contaminated with the cancer-causing chemicals formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, according to product test results released today by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. The chemicals were not disclosed on product labels because contaminants are exempt from labeling laws.

This study is the first to document the widespread presence of both formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane in bath products for children. Many products tested for this study contained both formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, including the top-selling Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and Sesame Street Bubble Bath.

Formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane are known to cause cancer in animals and are listed as probable human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency. Formaldehyde can also trigger skin rashes in some children.

“Given the recent data showing that formaldehyde and the formaldehyde-releasing preservative, quaternium-15, are significant sensitizers and causal agents of contact dermatitis in children, it would be prudent to have these removed from children’s products,” said Sharon Jacob, M.D., assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of California San Diego and contact dermatitis specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says that “the presence of 1,4-dioxane, even as a trace contaminant, is cause for concern.”

Contrary to industry statements, there are no regulatory standards that limit formaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane or most other toxic chemicals in personal care products sold in the United States. Other nations have stricter standards. Formaldehyde is banned from personal care products in Japan and Sweden. The European Union bans 1,4-dioxane from personal care products and has recalled products found to contain the chemical.

But there are signs the U.S. is gearing to catch up. Key Congressional leaders point to the findings of this report as further evidence of the need for action. “When products for babies are labeled ‘gentle’ and ‘pure,’ parents expect that they are just that,” said Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.). “To think that cancer-causing chemicals are contaminating baby shampoos and lotions is horrifying. I intend to soon introduce legislation requiring greater oversight of our cosmetics industry. We need to ensure that the chemicals that are used in our everyday products are safe.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said, “The fact that we are bathing our kids in products contaminated with carcinogens shows how woefully out of date our cosmetics laws are and how urgently they need to be updated. The science has moved forward, now the FDA needs to catch up and be given the authority to protect the health of Americans.” Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) commented that “Formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane are better suited for the chem lab, not a child's bathtub. This important report shows that 'No More Tears' can trigger toxic fears, and it provides another reason why these and other cosmetic products must be further regulated. ”

For the study, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics commissioned an independent laboratory to test 48 top-selling children’s products for 1,4-dioxane; 28 of those products were also tested for formaldehyde. The lab found that:
  • 17 out of 28 products tested – 61 percent – contained both formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane; these included Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, Sesame Street Bubble Bath, Grins & Giggles Milk & Honey Baby Wash and Huggies Naturally Refreshing Cucumber & Green Tea Baby Wash.
  • 23 out of 28 products – 82 percent – contained formaldehyde at levels ranging from 54 to 610 parts per million (ppm). Baby Magic Baby Lotion had the highest levels of formaldehyde.
  • 32 out of 48 products – 67 percent – contained 1,4-dioxane at levels ranging from 0.27 to 35 ppm. American Girl shower products had the highest levels of 1,4-dioxane.

“There is absolutely no reason why manufacturers can’t remove hazardous chemicals in products being applied to babies’ bodies every day,” said Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund. “Children are exposed to toxic chemicals from many sources. We need to protect them from these kinds of repeated, unnecessary exposures.”

“Products made in the U.S. and marketed for children should not contain chemicals linked to cancer or any other health problem,” said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at Environmental Working Group and creator of the Skin Deep cosmetic safety database (www.cosmeticsdatabase.com). “Congress urgently needs to reform federal policy to protect the most vulnerable members of our society by ensuring that the personal care products we use every day are free from harmful chemicals.”

Devra Lee Davis, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, said that the usual regulatory approach of assessing risk one chemical at a time does not account for the combined effects of very low levels of hidden contaminants in personal care products and from other sources. “Rather than waiting for definitive proof of human harm, we must lower exposures to controllable agents that we know or suspect cause cancer," Davis said.

The full results of the study can be found in the report, “No More Toxic Tub” at http://www.safecosmetics.org/toxictub.

© copyright 2001-2008 Safe Cosmetics Action Network

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

National Animal Identification System Again Being Pushed by Industrial Agriculture Interests

by Shannon Hayes
The New York Times
March 10, 2009

At first glance, the plan by the federal Department of Agriculture to battle disease among farm animals is a technological marvel: we farmers tag every head of livestock in the country with ID chips and the department electronically tracks the animals’ whereabouts. If disease breaks out, the department can identify within 48 hours which animals are ill, where they are, and what other animals have been exposed.

At a time when diseases like mad cow and bird flu have made consumers worried about food safety, being able to quickly track down the cause of an outbreak seems like a good idea. Unfortunately, the plan, which is called the National Animal Identification System and is the subject of a House subcommittee hearing today, would end up rewarding the factory farms whose practices encourage disease while crippling small farms and the local food movement.

For factory farms, the costs of following the procedures for the system would be negligible. These operations already use computer technology, and under the system, swine and poultry that move through a production chain at the same time could be given a single number. On small, traditional farms like my family’s, each animal would require its own number. That means the cost of tracking 1,000 animals moving together through a factory system would be roughly equal to the expense that a small farmer would incur for tracking one animal.

These ID chips are estimated to cost $1.50 to $3 each, depending on the quantity purchased. A rudimentary machine to read the tags may be $100 to $200. It is expected that most reporting would have to be done online (requiring monthly Internet fees), then there would be the fee for the database subscription; together that would cost about $500 to $1,000 (conservatively) per year per premise. I estimate the combined cost for our farm at $10,000 annually — that’s 10 percent of our gross receipts.

Imagine the reporting nightmare we would face each May, when 100 ewes give birth to 200 lambs out on pasture, and then six weeks later, when those pastures are grazed off and the entire flock must be herded a mile up the road to a second farm that we rent.

Add to that the arrival every three weeks of 300 chicks, the three 500-pound sows that will each give birth to about 10 piglets out in the pastures twice per year (and that will attack anyone who comes near their babies more fiercely than a junkyard pit bull), then a batch of 100 baby turkeys, and the free-roaming laying hens. Additional tagging and record-keeping would be required for the geese and guinea fowl that nest somewhere behind the barn and in the hedgerows, occasionally visiting the neighbors’ farms, hatching broods of goslings and keets that run wild all summer long.

Each time one of those animals is sold or dies, or is trucked to a slaughterhouse, we would have to notify the Agriculture Department. And there would be penalties if we failed to account for a lamb quietly stolen by a coyote, and medical bills if we were injured when trying to come between a protective sow and her piglets so we could tag them.

For my family, the upshot would be more expenses and a lot more time swearing at the computer. The burden would be even worse for rural families that don’t farm full-time, but make ends meet by keeping a flock of chickens or a cow for milk. The cost of participating in the system would make backyard farming prohibitively expensive.

So who would gain if the identification system eventually becomes mandatory, as the Agriculture Department has hoped? It would help exporters by soothing the fears of foreign consumers who have shunned American beef. Other beneficiaries would include manufacturers of animal tracking systems that stand to garner hefty profits for tracking the hundreds of millions of this country’s farm animals. It would also give industrial agriculture a stamp of approval despite its use of antibiotics, confinement and unnatural feeding practices that increase the threat of disease.

At the same time, the system would hurt small pasture-based livestock farms like my family’s, even though our grazing practices and natural farming methods help thwart the spread of illnesses. And when small farms are full participants in a local food system, tracking a diseased animal doesn’t require an exorbitantly expensive national database.

Cheaper and more effective than an identification system would be a nationwide effort to train farmers and veterinarians about proper management, bio-security practices and disease recognition. But best of all would be prevention. To heighten our food security, we should limit industrial agriculture and stimulate the growth of small farms and backyard food production around the country.

The burden for a program that would safeguard agribusiness interests would be disproportionately shouldered by small farmers, rural families and consumers of locally produced food. Worse yet, that burden would force many rural Americans to lose our way of life.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company