Friday, November 30, 2007

Friday Cat Blogging


Senator Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has decided it's time to stand up to the White House, according to an article in today's NY Times. He's picked an interesting subject and an interesting time to do so.

The Senate Judiciary Committee inched forward Thursday in its struggle with the White House over subpoenas demanding information from current and former Bush administration officials about the firing of several United States attorneys last year.

The committee’s chairman, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said he was formally rejecting White House claims that the subpoenaed officials, including President Bush’s chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, were protected by executive privilege from being compelled to cooperate with an investigation into whether the prosecutors were fired for political reasons.

By rejecting the administration’s claims, Mr. Leahy took the next procedural step toward seeking to enforce the subpoenas in court, a step that could require the intervention of the new attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey, who has suggested that he wants a better relationship with Congress than was built by his predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales.

Judiciary Committee aides said the panel would soon vote on contempt citations for the administration officials. But even if the citations are ultimately approved by the committee and then the full Senate, it remains unclear what happens next, since the administration has suggested that it will not allow the Justice Department to go to court to enforce the subpoenas. Customarily, Congressional subpoenas are enforced by the department on behalf of the House or the Senate.
[Emphasis added]

The claim of White House privilege is a tricky one, since I suppose an argument can be made that it is necessary for a free and open exchange of information on policy matters facing the president. However, when the privilege is claimed solely to hide evidence of criminal behavior (in this case, an attempt to control elections), then it has to be rejected.

And, as I said earlier, the timing is interesting, and not just because we are in the midst of another election cycle. The Senate has just confirmed Michael Mukasey as the new Attorney General because, even if he refused to state that water boarding was torture and therefore illegal, he was independent-minded. Here's the first test of that theory, especially since the administration has suggested that the Justice Department will not be allowed to enforce the subpoenas.

Before we even get to that point, however, the Judiciary Committee must vote on the contempt citations, as must the whole Senate. Is this finally the issue that will force the current Senate to push back hard against the Unitary President?

Given the actions over the past year, I am not optimistic.

Labels: ,

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Our Ms. Brooks: Good News?

It's Thursday, which means a new Rosa Brooks column is up. Today's opinion piece looks at the sudden spate of good news emanating from the foreign policy division of the current administration. At a heavily touted summit at Annapolis, the leaders of Israel and Palestine have agreed to reopen peace talks. In Pakistan, General Musharraf is now just President Musharaff because he has given up his military ties. In Iraq, violence is down, even if only in Baghdad and even if not totally gone. As Ms. Brooks suggests, it's as if peace is breaking out all over the place. And what should our response be to all of this?

After years of unremittingly bad news, no one seems quite sure what to do with good news. Should we cheer? Take back all those mean things we've said about George W. Bush? Or check to see if we still have our wallets, because it's probably some sort of trick?

In a very nice bit of rational analysis, Ms. Brooks suggests that the answer lies elsewhere. She examines each of the three stories and suggests a mixed response. Yes, it's good news that Ohmert and Abbas are finally talking again, but neither leader has a united constituency backing them up, as evidenced by the violence in Gaza. Yes, it's nice that President Musharraf has finally taken the step of being a truly civilian leader after grabbing his office in a military coup, but there are still thousands in prison after Musharaff's imposition of emergency rule, and neither Bhutto nor Sharif look to be any kind of reliably democratic replacements.

Still, these are positive developments and show that steady and well-founded diplomacy actually work. It would have been nice if the Bush Administration had used this tool earlier, rather than rattling and using its sabers. This nation would have been more financially stable and less divided and wounded, but it's a start.

It's when Ms. Brooks turns to Iraq that her analysis is at its keenest.

Finally, Iraq. Civilian deaths really do seem to be down, and that's unequivocally good. How much of the decline in violence is because of the U.S. military "surge" and how much is because of sectarian segregation is an open question; almost certainly, it's a bit of both.

But does this mean the surge has "worked," or that those who favor relatively rapid U.S. withdrawal need to reconsider their views? Not really.

The point of our military successes was to increase security enough to allow the Iraqi political process to move forward -- but that hasn't happened and almost certainly won't. Ironically, some of the very factors that have enhanced local-level stability -- such as sectarian segregation and the empowerment of local tribal and religious leaders -- may undermine the likelihood of national-level political progress, at least as originally envisioned by the Bush administration.

We lack the resources to maintain current troop levels, and our ongoing presence in Iraq continues to feed regional extremism and distract us from other pressing security issues. We still need to make firm plans to redeploy most of our troops. If possible, we should use the nature and timing of that redeployment as a last lever to encourage Iraq's fractious parties to reach some reasonable agreement on how to govern after we're gone. But if that's not possible, we need to leave anyway.

Exactly so.

Certainly the Bush Administration should be buoyed by the successes wrought by actual diplomacy, even if those successes at this point are somewhat limited. Having seen that success, the White House should consider using that approach in Iraq as well, which can only happen when the troops are on their way out because right now, the presence of the troops is only aggravating the fragmentation in the Iraqi political and social landscape.

Diplomacy is hard. It's hard work. But things usually turn out better than the alternative.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Army Strong

An article in yesterday's Boston Globe announced some good news and a whole lot of potentially bad news when it comes to Army recruitment.

Two weeks ago, the Pentagon announced the "good news" that the Army had met its recruiting goal for October, the first month in a five-year plan to add 65,000 new soldiers to the ranks by 2012.

But Pentagon statistics show the Army met that goal by accepting a higher percentage of enlistees with criminal records, drug or alcohol problems, or health conditions that would have ordinarily disqualified them from service.

In each fiscal year since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, statisics show, the Army has accepted a growing percentage of recruits who do not meet its own minimum fitness standards. The October statistics show that at least 1 of every 5 recruits required a waiver to join the service, leading military analysts to conclude that the Army is lowering standards more than it has in decades.
[Emphasis in the original]

What is particularly interesting (and perhaps frightening) is the breakdown on the use of the required waivers:

...Of the 6,434 enlistees who signed up last month, 792, or 12.3 percent, required waivers for past criminal activity that would have disqualified them, including misdemeanor and felony convictions, according to Army data. ...

The share of new recruits granted waivers for medical reasons, such as failing Army physical fitness standards or for testing positive for marijuana or cocaine use, has also soared in the past five years.

The percentage of medical waivers more than doubled, from 4.1 percent in 2003 to 8.6 percent last month. Drug or alcohol abuse waivers increased by half, from 1 percent in 2003 to 1.5 percent last month.

The article notes that the failed drug tests occurred during the recruitment process, which means some of these recruits were using right up to the date they were sworn in, which certainly does not bode well for success in basic training.

I'm not suggesting that troubled kids shouldn't be given an opportunity to turn their lives around, but I don't think the US Army should be the rehab center of choice. I thought we learned that lesson back in the 1960's Viet Nam era.

Unfortunately, the Army finds itself between a rock and a hard place, thanks to the White House decision to run two wars at once and to run them badly. Not only is regular recruitment difficult, retention of already trained personnel is almost impossible. The Army is as close to being broken (if it isn't actually broken) than it ever has been.

Heckuva job, George.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

More Ways To Save Money At Medicare

Yesterday I posted on the latest efforts to "contain costs" at Medicare by hiring outside contractors to review and deny charges for what good medical practice would deem necessary treatment. Today's NY Times contains an article which details another "cost containment" measure at Medicare. Once again, the poor and elderly, especially the elderly poor, are the targets. The subject this time is hospice care.

Over the last eight years, the refusal of patients to die according to actuarial schedules has led the federal government to demand that hospices exceeding reimbursement limits repay hundreds of millions of dollars to Medicare. ...

In the early days of the Medicare hospice benefit, which was designed for those with less than six months to live, nearly all patients were cancer victims, who tended to die relatively quickly and predictably once curative efforts were abandoned.

But in the last five years, hospice use has skyrocketed among patients with less predictable trajectories, like those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Those patients now form a majority of hospice consumers, and their average stays are far longer — 86 days for Alzheimer’s patients, for instance, compared with 44 for those with lung cancer, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. ...

To be eligible, patients must be certified by two doctors as having six months or less to live, assuming their illness runs a normal course. They must agree not to bill Medicare for curative procedures related to their diagnosis.

Medicare, which pays the vast majority of hospice bills, reimburses providers $135 a day for a patient’s routine home care. The hospice is then responsible for providing nurses, social workers, chaplains, doctors, drugs, supplies and equipment, as well as bereavement support to the family.

Studies have reached various conclusions about whether hospice care actually saves money, especially for long-term patients. But a new study by Duke University researchers concluded that it saved Medicare an average of $2,300 per beneficiary, calling hospice “a rare situation whereby something that improves quality of life also appears to reduce costs.”
[Emphasis added]

Here's the harsh part for those providers: only after the care has been provided, the Medicare reimbursements received, and then paid out in salaries and supplies is the demand for repayment made by the government. As a result, the hospices don't get dunned until the next year, which meant for some of the hospices in the poorer regions in the southern and southeastern part of the country huge bank loans which aren't as forthcoming this year. Many of the for-profit organizations are closing their doors, leaving the patients with nothing to rely on during the last days or months of their lives.

Admittedly, the actuarial tables never took into account the vagaries of such conditions as Alzheimer's and dementia, but both conditions, with their complications, do lead to death and the end stages are dreadful. Instead of punishing the care-givers, perhaps the actuarial tables should be amended to include these conditions. Or, better yet, the regulations could be amended to remove the cap on the length of hospice benefits.

Oh, wait. That wouldn't work. It would mean an entitlement, and that entitlement is a sure first step on the road to socialized medicine. We can't have that. Better the dying elderly suffer the consequences.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Putting A Bounty On Our Elders

At the end of September, I posted on how some private contractors for a Medicare audit had turned into bounty hunters eagerly savaging the bills of rehab hospitals providing services to Medicare beneficiaries. The audit was a trial run ordered by Congress and involved three states: California, Florida, and New York. In California, records show that the auditors routinely rejected bills (up to 90%) from those rehabilitation hospitals providing services to those who'd had total knee or total hip replacements. As a result, several of those hospitals have closed or are about to.

Well, it appears that the other two states involved in the test have noticed the same sort of problem, although not to the extent that California has noted, according to this article in today's Sacramento Bee.

Florida and New York hospital officials are leaping onto legislation sponsored by California lawmakers that would temporarily halt a controversial Medicare auditing program.

The commission-based program has been operating for more than two years on an experimental basis in the three states and is set to expand permanently to 20 more in March.

But because of the California experience – in which rehabilitation hospitals have been forced to surrender tens of millions of dollars for past services deemed by auditors to be medically unnecessary – Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara and Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of Visalia recently introduced legislation that would place the program on a one-year moratorium to investigate the problems. ...

Among the biggest concerns is that the congressionally created program relies on "recovery auditing" – auditors who are paid a percentage of the money they recoup from hospitals through claims denials.

"This contingency fee or bounty mechanism sets some incentives for these auditors to be overly aggressive and to make questionable decisions in their favor by denying claims," May said.
[Emphasis added]

Imagine, denying medically necessary health care to our elders in order to turn a buck, because that's really what this is all about. PRG-Schultz, the government contractor doing the auditing in California, claims that they recognize the necessity for therapy and rehab treatment and are just denying the 'unreasonable' part of the bill. 90% of the bills are unreasonable? Oh, please. What this is really all about is getting a cut of each bill that is denied, thereby driving those caregivers into the ground and clearing a hefty audit fee at the same time.

Two of California's congresscritters have sponsored a House Bill to suspend this test, but, given the current agenda in Washington, DC, the Capps-Nunes bill hasn't much chance to pass a stand-alone bill at the present time. The hope is that it will be added to another bill that hopefully will pass before the March 1, 2008 deadline to put the audit in force for the entire nation:

But with Congress under pressure to enact legislation before Jan. 1 to stop an automatic cut in Medicare fees paid to physicians, advocates see an opportunity for the bill to be merged into a larger Medicare package.

Please raise a little hell with your congresscritters now, next week, and the weeks after that. This kind of corruption really has gotten out of hand when it involves our elder parents and grandparents.

Note the First: the private contractor doing the audit in California is PRG-Schultz. Among the investors in PRG-Schultz is Blum Capital Partners, headed by Richard Blum of San Francisco. Blum is married to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Note the Second: I am 61 years old and will be a Medicare beneficiary in less than four years.

Labels: ,

The State Secrets Defense

Up to the present, the government has been able to successfully stop civil suits for illegal domestic spying by simply uttering the magic words "State Secrets." At that point, many judges shrug their shoulders and dismiss the case without reviewing any of the evidence that would show wrongdoing. Some judges, however, haven't been that easy and have taken steps that would allow the cases to proceed. Congress, which has also been stymied in hearings by the uttering of those magic words, has finally decided to get into the act, according to this AP article published in today's Los Angeles Times.

Under grilling from lawmakers and attack by lawsuits alleging Bush authorized the illegal wiretapping of Americans, the White House has invoked a legal defense known as the "state secrets" doctrine -- a claim that the president has inherent and unchecked power to shield national security information from disclosure, either to plaintiffs in court or to congressional overseers.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, believes the White House has gone too far in invoking state secrets to halt civil lawsuits.

"We have the authority to define the state secrets doctrine," Specter says. "I don't think that the simple assertion of state secrets ought to be the end of the matter."

Specter, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and others are working on legislation that would direct federal judges to review the president's state secrets claims and allow cases with merit to go forward. ...

The draft legislation is modeled on procedures used in criminal cases that involve classified information. The Classified Information Protection Act lets judges review classified information a criminal defendant wants to use in his defense, but which could compromise national security if it were released publicly. The law allows the court to delete classified passages, substitute summaries of the information, or substitute a statement of facts that the classified information would prove.

The measure could become part of the Senate's new eavesdropping law, expected to be voted on in early December, the aides said.

The doctrine, enunciated in a case from 50 years ago which disallowed a wrongful death suit by the families of those killed in a military plane crash because to allow the case to proceed would compromise an intelligence mission, has been upheld since then. (Ironically, it turns out the government wasn't being truthful in that case. No state secrets were directly involved.)

It's time that Congress got involved by passing a bill which provides the mechanism for allowing cases to go forward if they have merit. With a statute in place, those who believe their 4th Amendment rights have been violated without cause will finally have a remedy and the "state secrets" can be protected at the same time. It's especially important because the current Supreme Court has pretty much signaled that it will side with the government on the issue absent such legislation.

And at the same time, Congress will have sent a signal to the administration that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed after 9/11 did not include a blank check for terrorizing Americans.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunday Poetry: DL

On Returning Home

Christmas is happening,
All around, people laugh, play,
Shop, looking for nice things to give,
The world hasn’t changed,
It’s all as it was before,
Happy, carefree people,
You go about your lives.
If bliss is caused by ignorance,
We are one blissful nation.

You pass me in the street,
As you hurry to buy your presents,
Gifts that cost you dear,
But have only weeks of value
For those who will receive them.
You pass me by, you see another happy shopper,
One of your own, nothing unusual.
Yet only I know where I’ve been;
Only I know what I’ve seen.

Last week I was watching,
Last week I was a witness,
A witness to the worst that man can do,
A house, a home for a happy family,
Merely wanting to live a pleasant life,
Now burned into charred flesh and ashes,
All killed, all slaughtered, all destroyed,
Last week, I saw this,
Just last week.

Still you all shop,
Spending your money, carefree,
Untouched by war, this land of peace
For fifty years, this land unburned.
Yet a few hours journey from where you consume with joy,
Hate consumes life with fire,
You know it’s happening,
It’s all on TV, yet to you, it’s a distant affair.
So far away.

Yet it isn’t so far, it’s here within me,
That distant image on your TV screen,
Etched into my battered soul.
While you walk beside me,
You don’t know what I’ve seen,
That I still smell the bodies,
While I shop, while I walk amongst you,
Emptiness in my heart, for all time.


(This poem was published at War Poetry.)

A New Weapon In The Arsenal Of Freedom

An agency within the Department of Defense has come up with a new weapon which it touts as non-lethal, effective, and just perfect for getting unruly crowds to behave. American commanders in Iraq have decided that they want the weapon, and now, according to this article in the November 21, 2007 Telegraph (UK).

American commanders in Iraq are urging Pentagon chiefs to authorise the deployment of newly-developed heat wave guns to disperse angry crowds or violent rioters.

But the plea for what senior army officers believe could prove a valuable alternative to traditional firepower in dangerous trouble-spots has so far gone unanswered.

Washington fears a barrage of adverse publicity in the suspicious Muslim world and is concerned that critics will claim the invisible beam weapons were being used for torture.

Now the US military directorate charged with developing non-lethal weapons, which has invested more than a decade developing the Active Denial System (ADS), has launched a concerted effort to convince both the public and its own bosses at the defence department of the device's merits.

In other words, the DOD needs to catapult the propaganda a little before issuing the new weapon for use on the ground. Here's argument number one:

Col Hymes told observers at a demonstration that the system was a safe and effective alternative to plastic bullets, which can cause injury and sometimes death and are effective only up to 75 metres.

Now, this would be a worthy argument if we didn't know just what this new weapon did and how it worked:

The heatwave weapon can, by contrast, target troublemakers from 750 metres. It works by dispatching high-powered radio waves from a vehicle antenna, similar to a satellite television dish, causing the molecules in a target's skin to vibrate violently, creating a burning sensation.

How...charming. It sounds like a variation of the microwave sitting in my kitchen.

But, we are assured, it's a perfectly safe and non-lethal weapon, just like the Taser. Nobody will die, and there won't be any lingering after-effects, at least its developers are pretty sure about that. The Active Denial System (great name, eh?) hasn't been around long enough to test that aspect.

And it won't be used to torture detainess, nuh-uh, wouldn't do that. And it won't be used as a crowd-dispersal technique here in the US, nuh-uh, wouldn't do that, either.

What kind of mind thinks up this stuff?

Labels: ,

There Is No Excuse For Buying Abusive Practices

Getcher hot holiday Crucifixes ritchere/So What if it says Made in China in sweatshops.

I have to tell you right up front that not only did I marry a Catholic and not convert, and tho he would not take them to catechism, unless I converted and did that, I did not ever do anything about bringing the kids up catholic except get them baptised and take them to mass sometimes with his family and leave the minute they started acting up.

So I'm not sympathetic to begin with. But this isn't funny, folks, it's serious.

Crucifixes signify that a person is Christian. They adorn the neck of the religious. Some of those crosses though come from the sweat of Chinese slaving away in factories. Those crosses have more than the blood of Jesus on them.
“Jesus, take pity on me! I’m going to die of exhaustion.”

According to a press release from the National Labor Committee, crucifixes are being made under "horrific sweatshop conditions" In China.

Factory workers at the Junxingye factory in China are forced to work seven days a week for 14 hours a day to manufacture crosses that will be shipped to the United States.

Before shipments leave for the US, labourers are often forced to work shifts lasting up to 25 hours. Workers routinely work more than 100 hours a week, 51 of those hours are overtime. The legal limit of China's work hour rules are exceeded by 514 per cent. The majority of the workers at this factory are young women (some as young as 15) who can go months before they see a day off.

Workers who make the cross necklaces are paid a measly 26.5 cents an hour, less than half of the legal minimum wage. Workers are paid $10.61 a week but deductions take large portions to pay for their company dorm room and food. When the final tally is made, workers see about $3.70 a week. Those working a 91-hour week get a bit more at $30.61. That's only 43 per cent of the $70.71 they legally should be getting.

Dear sweet little ladies gave my kids crucifixes when they were little, and I know they would never have condoned this kind of abuse. Please, take care what you buy.

As I said earlier you can buy American in a lot of ways, and if you aren't familiar with Rio Concho pearls, you should take the time and make the effort. If you want something to prey over ... bad joke. But crucifixes of all things, don't encourage abuse. Please.

Labels: ,

A Do-Over

In October, I posted on a federal judge's suspension of a rule promulgated by the White House to punish employers who hire illegal immigrants because the administration had not followed proper procedure in issuing the rule. The White House has now asked the court to allow it the time to run the survey it conveniently forgot to do before issuing the rule in August, according to this NY Times article.

...the administration plans to revise the rule to try to meet concerns raised by a federal judge and issue it again by late March, hoping to pass court scrutiny on the second try. The rule would have forced employers to fire workers within 90 days if their Social Security information could not be verified.

The government’s proposal was a response to an indefinite delay to the rule ordered Oct. 10 by the judge, Charles R. Breyer of Federal District Court in San Francisco. Judge Breyer found that the government had failed to follow proper procedures in issuing the rule and that it should have completed a survey of its impact on small business.

He also found that the Social Security database the government would use to verify workers’ status was full of errors, so the rule could lead to the dismissal of many thousands of workers who were American citizens or legal immigrants.

In a four-page motion filed Friday, the government, without acknowledging any flaws in the original rule, asked Judge Breyer to suspend the case so the Department of Homeland Security could rewrite the rule and conduct the small-business survey, which it expects to do by March 24. The government said that it wanted to “prevent the waste of judicial resources” and that it was confident the amended rule would “fully address the court’s concerns.”

The article makes it clear that the Department of Homeland Security will run the survey, but it is silent when it comes to the other issue raised by Judge Breyer. He noted that the Social Security Administration records are so full of errors that they could not be counted on for providing proof that a employee was or was not working legally. I assume the government is going to suggest to the court that half a loaf is better than none and will submit the "new" rule based only on the survey.

In the mean time, the rule remains suspended, at least until March. Unfortunately, this Congress has made it clear that it has no intentions of addressing any kind of immigration reform, so we can look for a reprise of the same kind of punitive rule at the end of March, 2008, keeping the GOP issue of immigration in front of the voters as the 2008 campaigns are in full swing.

Nice timing, that.

Still, the whole episode has been instructional. When this administration is pushed back, and hard, it back pedals. At least one branch of government has proven that. Now, if only the Democratic-led Congress would learn that lesson.


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Bonus Critter Blogging: Coyote

OK, I'm guilty of a little deception. This photograph (by Michael S. Quinton and published by National Geographic) doesn't really look much like the coyotes I've had visits from in the San Gabriel Valley of California. That said, I would like to introduce an organization that came in and assisted when one of our local coyotes was discovered in a near-by yard. The animal was clearly injured, and the local animal control people worked with Animal Advocates. Here's some information from their web-site:

Animal Advocates is a non-profit animal rescue and education organization. We are located in the Los Angeles County area but serve most of California and some parts of the United States through our network of sister rescue organizations.

We work with local city and private animal shelters, schools, private groups and other rescue organizations to rescue and rehabilitate domestic and wild animals. We foster and re-home domestic animals in our homes. We also foster and release wild animals in association with licensed wildlife rehabilitators and vets.

We educate the public about domestic animal issues such as spay/neuter, proper pet care, pet health and pet guardian etiquette. We also educate about wild animal issues such as living in harmony with nature, what to do if you find an orphaned wild animal and how to keep wild animals healthy and happy.

If you're in the neighborhood, why not show them a little love. If not, contact them to find a similar group in your area.

Iraqi Snark

After all the horrors of the past 4+ years, and with no end to those horrors in sight, I am astounded that the Iraqis have somehow managed to keep their humor intact. Here's a rather lengthy excerpt from an op-ed piece from the November 13, 2007 Azzaman:

The world still has a confused picture of human cloning. Great nations still don't consider the religious ramifications that are so often raised further a-field. And then there are more immediate fears, which the major intelligence services are hesitant to disclose. Yet the criminalization of human cloning has not been accomplished … and may not be until the storm of cloning becomes a reality.

Certain people are so volatile that if they were cloned, it could throw everything else out of kilter. There's already a controversy over whether cloning President Bush would be accompanied by a repeated declaration of world war centered on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Would the cloning of personalities from the Soviet period reintroduce the Cold War, or even revive the danger of a comprehensive nuclear exchange? The Chinese, who have been experts for thousands of years on taxidermy, acupuncture and herbal medicine, might be surprised to learn that now they could restore people from the era of Confucius … or, perhaps a newly-restored leader from the golden era of the Red Army might take umbrage at recent agreements between Washington and Beijing?

It may be that Arab citizens would be the least ambitious in this regard. After all, it would be rare to find an Arab citizen who aspires to clone an Arab ruler, since Arabs long for leadership that will make it possible for him to improve his lot and live in freedom ...

But even more serious dangers could emerge. If Iraq's cloning scientists felt like taking out "double spite" against their own people and the Americans, they could play a prank on both Iraqis and the White House by secretly cloning Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki … What then, would be the future of the Americans in this country? ... Would Iraqis be thrust into a new dark age? How many decades of the reign of the militias, death squads and corruption would this bleeding people have to endure!?
[Emphasis in the original]

Grim, bitter gallows humor, but funny nonetheless. And that has to leave a mark somewhere, at least one hopes so.


A Butterfly Named Minerva

The butterfly has a name! You had your chance, and no, it's not Ruth or Diane, as I had kinda hinted. It's Minerva. Well, that's okay. Named for a lovely and talented lady, by her grandchildren.

The butterfly's common name will be the Minerva owl butterfly, named after the late Margery Minerva Blythe Kitzmiller of Ohio.

While the bidder's name was not disclosed, the payment was made on behalf of Kitzmiller's grandchildren. The butterfly's scientific name will be Opsiphanes blythekitzmillerae.
The 4-inch butterfly is brown, white and black and lives in Sonora, a Mexican state bordering Arizona. Proceeds from the auction will go toward further research of Mexican butterflies.

Beverly Sensbach, director of development for the museum, said Kitzmiller's grandchildren wanted to honor her through the name of a beautiful butterfly because she was "an extremely creative person who wrote poetry, played piano and sang."

The tribute of having research and a butterfly named for you is something I could aspire to. I may start looking for unnamed praying mantises or box turtles, myself.

Fewer egomaniacs sending people to die and more lovely souls promoting butterfly research would certainly improve this world.


Trust Him - the Cretin In Chief Really Doesn't Like You

Iran will be sending representatives to Annapolis, but there is no expectation that the U.S. will make any gains in relationships while the helm is held by an administration that continually attacks them. While we continue to have the military spew accusations about Iran sending insurgents and weapons to fight our presence in Iraq, news continues to persist that it is other, perceived friendlier, agencies acting there. No need to look for a change at the White House from accusations to facts.

Saudi Arabia and Libya, both considered allies by the United States in its fight against terrorism, were the source of about 60 percent of the foreign fighters who came to Iraq in the past year to serve as suicide bombers or to facilitate other attacks, according to senior American military officials.

(hat tip to Sideshow for the cite from Through the Looking Glass, and credit to NYTimes for article)

It has an anticipated effect, that when a nation is put in the position of enemy, it makes friendship highly unlikely.

Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency said Friday that his country could suspend uranium enrichment if the United States and Western Europe agreed to acknowledge that its nuclear program was peaceful.

But Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh said there was a "serious confidence gap" between his country and the United States and Western Europe and that he saw little point in trying to "build confidence" with an American administration that had none in his country.

"We don't trust the United States," he told McClatchy Newspapers after the IAEA Board of Governors finished its latest round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. "We could suspend nuclear enrichment. We did it before for two and half years. But it wasn't enough then, and wouldn't be enough now. We will not suspend enrichment again because there is no end to what the United States will demand."

Diplomats said Soltanieh's remarks reflected what he'd been saying in private. "Iran is willing to deal," one said. "But they've made it clear there would have to be a quid pro quo, and they don't believe that's possible." The diplomats said they couldn't be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Experts and diplomats say the Bush administration may have boxed itself in by taking the issue to the U.N. Security Council. Iran reacted by shutting off information about its nuclear activities two years ago, and the administration said it would seek harsher sanctions and refused to rule out military action. Russia and China, however — both with veto power on the Security Council — have been critical of further sanctions.

Once upon a time it was the role of the president of the United States to keep the people and the country safe from foreign aggression. Such lessons were missed in the education of the present occupier of the office. The United States' forces are misused and destroyed in the process of throwing away our lives, treasure and reputation to pursue the White House objectives in aggression by the dysfunctional members of this administration.

Iran is hardly to blame for reacting to our lies with rejection.

It will take a new face on U.S. action to bring normalcy back into our foreign relations scene. Taking out petty nuisance spite in the field of U.S. relationships abroad is never going to create the kind of atmosphere this country needs either to prosper or even to survive.

Labels: , ,

Happy Holidays, Elders!

When the 109th Congress passed the prescription component for Medicare ("Part D"), to limit the federal expense it chose to include a sizeable gap in coverage (the "Doughnut Hole") rather than permit the federal government to negotiate with the big pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices. As a result, tens of thousands of our elders have been paying for the drugs they require and paying the premiums for their Part D coverage. Neat trick, eh?

One of the consequences of this shameful Solomonic decision is that many elders are going without their medications (bad). Another is that some elders have switched over, when possible, to the generic versions of drugs when possible (good). From today's NY Times:

The Medicare doughnut hole is the federal provision that older Americans love to hate.

And that is not expected to change next year, when the doughnut hole — the nickname for a big financial gap in each person’s Medicare prescription drug coverage — gets slightly larger. If the past is a guide, many people will struggle to secure a full year’s supply of the drugs they need.

But despite the arrangement’s unpopularity with older consumers, some experts see a positive public policy trend when they peer into the doughnut hole. Because it potentially forces a Medicare enrollee to pay more than $3,000 from his or her own pocket during the gap period, the hole is helping curb growth in the nation’s drug spending by pushing people toward low-cost generic drugs. ...

About 4.2 million people reached the gap last year, according to a Wolters Kluwer study, and many of them switched to generics as a way to keep their out-of-pocket costs low. Others started using generic drugs even before they reached the doughnut hole to avoid the higher co-payments their policies charged for brand-name drugs.

In 2006, an estimated 59.6 percent of the Part D prescriptions were filled by generic drugs. By the first quarter of 2007, the most recent period for which data are available, the generic rate in Medicare had edged higher, to 61.5 percent, according to Medicare figures.

Needless to say, this unintended consequence of using generics has ruffled the feathers of PHARMA.

Billy Tauzin, the president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the trade association for brand-name drug companies, said it was clear that the Medicare program, including the doughnut hole, was helping drive the use of generic drugs. And the popularity of generic drugs is cutting into the profit margins of branded drug companies, he added.

Mr. Tauzin, a former congressman, said his group had made several proposals to Congress for shrinking the doughnut hole. Among the suggestions, he said, was to count the free drugs that companies sometimes provide to lower-income Medicare beneficiaries as part of the patients’ running total of drug costs. Doing so would make their catastrophic coverage kick in sooner.

Mr. Tauzin is not just "a former congressman," he was a congressman who voted on the Part D bill with its orders against negotiated drug prices and then quickly walked into his new, higher paying job for PHARMA. Nice work, eh?

There's nothing wrong with using generics rather than the more expensive brand-names, but that's not always an option. When that happens, a less expensive and often less effective drug replaces the original prescription, even to the point of using aspirin (with its attendant side effects) instead of a prescription blood thinner.

I don't have much sympathy for PHARMA members who are now faced with a smaller bottom line: they bought the congressional vote and should have to live with the consequences, unintended though they may be. My sympathies are for the elders who are facing the doughnut hole and paying the premiums at the same time. This leaves our elders with some rather Draconian choices: medicine or home heating, medicine or food.

There is absolutely zero chance that the 110th Congress will address the issue, especially with the current president who has suddenly discovered his veto pen when it comes to legislation which might actually help segments of the population not given to making huge campaign donations.

Hopefully the next Congress and the next president will be of a different sort than the current crop. But that hope won't feed, heat, or properly medicate our elders, and that is shameful.

Labels: ,

Friday, November 23, 2007

Friday Catblogging

Been adopted or want to be? The cat you are meant to have as a companion is out there now!

There is a national Alley Cat Rescue available at


Absolute War Corrupts Absolutely

The Iraq war is a tragedy in so many aspects, it's hard to pick one as worst. But the corruption in contracting and in operation of its many support systems ranks among the rankest.

The army is being forced to look more deeply into the graft because of a personal tragedy, that resulted in suicide, for some vendors who got deeply involved in a corrupt system.

The flashy Laila Tower office building in this wealthy oil capital is a world away from the mean streets of Baghdad. But the U.S. government says they are linked by a web of fraud and bribery that stole millions of dollars provided by American taxpayers to support U.S. combat troops in Iraq.

The U.S. military and prosecutors have launched 83 criminal investigations into alleged contract fraud, including a total of $15 million in bribes.

It was the apparent suicide of an Army major in Baghdad a year ago that brought them to the 15th floor of the Laila Tower. There, overlooking the Persian Gulf, is the firm run by American George H. Lee and his family, a small part of that huge web.

None of the Lees has been charged with any crime. But the Army suspended them from doing business with the U.S. government, and a federal judge in Huntsville, Ala., upheld the order in August, as a military investigation into their case continues.

The case of Lee, a 64-year-old former Army supply clerk from Pennsylvania, provides rare insight into how fraud was able to occur, in part by exploiting the chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It also shows the flaws in the U.S. system of bids between private contractors and the U.S. military officers who doled out billions of dollars in contracts since 2003, often with little oversight.

Kuwait's close-knit expatriate community also played a role, in a place where business is traditionally done away from the glare of public scrutiny.

"Bribery and kickbacks are common with big projects," said Ali al-Nemash of the Kuwait Transparency Society, a private organization that seeks to combat graft and corruption. "They call it 'gifts,' but it is bribery."

Teams of U.S. investigators are reviewing a sample of about 6,000 U.S. military contracts worth $2.8 billion that were awarded by a single Army office at Camp Arifjan, a huge logistics and supply base about 40 miles south of the Laila Tower.

The U.S. has publicly identified only some of the companies and individuals linked to the alleged bribery and fraud. The Army cited the need to protect "the integrity of the ongoing investigation" in refusing a request by The Associated Press for an interview at Camp Arifjan.
Davis' children are seeking to reverse a government order seizing their mother's bank accounts, which were frozen one day before she was found dead of a gunshot wound in Baghdad.

She and others may have fallen into what Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, referred to as a "culture of corruption" at Camp Arifjan, where about a dozen people gave out contracts worth tens of millions of dollars.

The occupied White House tore down the guards of regulation and loosed the contracting process in seeming confidence that the market would work to keep all the dollars flowing and that would make everybody happy. Corruption, though, is the byproduct of the deregulated system, and it has resulted in poor quality of services to our troops as well as the unbridled throwing our dollars down the drain of graft. That hasn't worked out very well for anyone. Caught up in the crookedness, some of the civilian cogs seem to have gotten crushed.

The helter-skelter nature of the war has shown up the weaknesses in letting contracts through laissez faire methods, and ought to serve as a lesson for all time in how regulation keeps the systems running, and the servers of that system in line so that it can operate.

Labels: , ,

Justifying, Tom Tancredo Style

Joel Stein has a rather cheeky column up in today's Los Angeles Times about having a meal with Tom Tancredo in Iowa. It seems Mr. Tancredo is quite a fan of good Mexican food. No, I am not making that up. At any rate, Stein was invited to join Mr. Tancredo at a particular restaurant one evening, but it was necessary to change the location:

On my way to Mami's, however, I got a call from his aide. A local Republican had tipped Tancredo off to the fact that Mami's owners marched in the Great American Boycott on May Day 2006. So Tancredo was now driving all the way to Davenport to go to Carlos O'Kelly's Mexican Cafe instead.

The food at this second restaurant was, shall we say, an interesting fusion of Irish and Mexican cuisine. Or we could say, more accurately, that the food was awful. In any event, Mr. Stein did get his interview.

For all his talk of assimilation, Tancredo conceded that Carlos O'Kelly's may, in fact, have gone too far. He truly enjoys the authentic Mexican restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Colorado. "Food and music are things America has always been able to accommodate and benefit from," he said. "The thing that is difficult is the lack of assimilation. It has nothing to do with the appreciation of ethnicity." So Tancredo's complaints, like those of many who oppose immigration, come down to which aspects of Mexican culture he is personally comfortable with: language and flags, no; burritos and ballet folklorico, yes.

History, Tancredo knows, hasn't been kind to anti-immigrant crusaders -- the Know-Nothing Party, the No-Irish-Need-Apply sign makers, the internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. "But things are very different today," he said. "Can you think of a time historically when you had millions of people in the street on May Day saying very, very divisive stuff?" He feels that if America is too diverse, we'll be stripped of our national identity, no longer bound together as a country. He also feels certain that he has the wisdom to determine exactly how much diversity is OK.
[Emphasis added]

All of which shows that my assessment of Mr. Tancredo was a bit skewed. I had him pegged as a cynical and crass politician pandering to the lowest (and I do mean the lowest) common denominator among the reich wing of the GOP. Instead, and I think ultimately more frightening, Mr. Tancredo actually believes what he is spouting: he really is that xenophobic, that racist. And it is Mr. Tancredo who is driving the immigration issue in his party, and, because of the very nature of current American politics, the Democratic party.

Joel Stein's conclusion was right on the money when it comes to what impact Mr. Tancredo's ideas just might have on this nation.

However, if he gets his way -- even if history proves him wrong -- his personal cost will be much smaller than that paid by the millions of Mexicans denied the opportunities his own grandparents got. And smaller still than the cost to us all when America loses the very thing that historically has given it advantages in economic growth and innovation.

Exactly so.

Labels: ,


California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger has traveled all over the world on lucrative trade missions, most recently to Paris, France. The state hasn't financed his trips, a private foundation has, a really private foundation. The governor has justified the use of these private funds by claiming that he doesn't know who donated the money so he can hardly be seen as doing anything even remotely unethical. Well, that excuse won't fly anymore, according to this article in yesterday's Sacramento Bee.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can no longer plead ignorance about which corporate contributors finance his trade jaunts overseas.

The obscure nonprofit that funds the governor's worldwide travels has abandoned – at least temporarily – its long-standing practice of hiding the identities of its donors.

In the four years of Schwarzenegger's governorship, the California State Protocol Foundation has raised millions to underwrite the governor and his staff's travels, but never disclosed the identities of those paying the bills.

The leaders of the nonprofit, which is closely aligned with the business lobby in Sacramento, have said that by keeping contributors' names secret, they were keeping Schwarzenegger – not just the public – in the dark about who pays for his globe-trotting ways.

"I have not the foggiest idea who is putting money anywhere," Schwarzenegger said in 2005, shortly before a trade mission to China.

But that changed Nov. 7 at San Francisco's de Young Museum, when Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver headlined a fundraiser for the very same foundation. Attendees paid up to $25,000 for a seat at the head table with the governor and his wife.
[Emphasis added]

It's now impossible for Gov. Schwartzenegger to claim he doesn't know at least some of the people who have paid for the plane tickets and nice hotels. At $25,000 a pop, those sitting at the head table with him probably made it quite clear what their names were.

Furthermore, his presence at the fund raiser effectively made it impossible under state law to shield the identities of those present. The organizers of the event had to know that and still proceeded with the plans. It's pretty clear that all of this talk about keeping things secret so the governor couldn't be accused of impropriety was nothing more than a sham. It was a way to get the governor the funds without having to let the public know who was supporting him in style.

Now, there's nothing wrong with the governor of one of the largest economic engines in the world going abroad to seek new trade for the state's businesses. What is wrong is for him to do so with secret backing. That smells of the very impropriety he claims to have avoided.

In fact, it stinks.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thursday Birdblogging

Thanks to Feral this Thanksgiving, for having come up on a grebe that almost dived away before he could get to a camera, and still got off this shot. Lovely reminder of the world around us.


And no one liked the idea of having a turkey dinner for birdblogging today? I would have called it 'the groaning bird'.


Thanks Coming Due

Turkey Day obligatory search for Depth and Meaning can be expected everywhere. Here, as well, where I appreciate your looking here for something worth reflection, and hopefully something you can act on.

But, of course, I had to go to WaPo to see how Fred Hiatt is sloughing off the press's role of truthtelling today. He does make a gesture, but of course it involves ignoring the fact that the occupied White House has made government a massive fire sale, and the proceeds are going into the pockets of WH minions.

TO MANY who follow the news, especially more skeptical readers, the annual presidential statements and speeches around Thanksgiving are just so much boilerplate, about as worthy of serious attention as those hokey presidential turkey-pardonings. But in a speech this week in Charles City, Va., President Bush had some useful things to say regarding the national day of thanks, calling it a time to "pay tribute to all Americans who serve a cause larger than themselves," including troops abroad and heroes at home, such as a Virginia Tech professor who died protecting students from a deranged gunman last spring.

Thanksgiving began as an austere occasion among settlers of a single, uniform faith who were grateful simply for having survived in the New World.
Habits, ideas and mores can change, not always for the better. In the coming year, as in the past, the people and those who want to lead them will be tested yet again as to how well we are maintaining the public spirit in which a just democracy can flourish. The outcome will have a lot to do with how thankful we can be next year on this day.

Public spirit is a good thought, if only WaPo had the interest in it the rest of the year to demand it from the criminals in high places.

Busy day, I was the second commenter. My comment, which I know Fred awaits eagerly;

Thanks indeed are due for enlightenment and for public service, in those rare incidences where it occurs. All your readers are sincerely grateful for increasing recognition of the responsibility of this major newspaper to bring out the corruption of our executive branch. When you become aware of, and publicize, the freedoms we the people need to recoup to keep this democracy safe, then we will all be truly grateful. Meanwhile, commenters will continue to dutifully apprise you of truths you miss.

To their credit, I have to thank WaPo for featuring green thoughts as a major feature on Thanksgiving. If we don't take care of the world, oh, look, we don't have an alternate to go keep house on. From Fred Hiatt:

Intense negotiations are underway on Capitol Hill to take up CAFE standards, renewable energy and tax incentives for clean energy development in separate votes. This is encouraging news, and we urge House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to come to an agreement. Washington must pass legislation that finally shows the world it is ready to take on climate change in a significant and meaningful way.

There you go, if those consarned congressional types will just do the job we want them to do instead of trying to wrestle public interest out of the clasp of the GoPervs, the world may survive us.

Slow day, still, my comment is second in line! The content:

Pockets of willful ignorance exist in the Congress, as evidenced by Sen. Imhofe's long tirade a very little while ago on the global warming 'fraud'. These holdouts must be bypassed if rational policy is to be instituted, and calls for bipartisanship only asks that ignorance be given equal weight with the country's needs. Yes, Sen. Reid and Speaker Pelosi will need to coordinate, but in this instance, they also need to overcome obstructionism. It would be nice to have the backing of major news organs, that are well aware of the facts of the situation and should report them.

Thanksgiving should be celebrated at WaPo with great glee, with thanks for the commenters who tirelessly point the editorial writers to the truth, lead them there and rub their noses in it.

I don't ask for turkeys, I get them every morning on a regular schedule at You Know Where. But I do earn my condiments.

In case you haven't gone and tracked it down, my commenter tag is 'jocabel', my cat's name.

In the spirit of the Day, you're welcome to register your suggestions for how we can keep the news alive and bring it to public attention for possible remedial action in the comments, and I will, indeed, read them.

Thank you sincerely.


More Unsurprising News

Last July, I commented on the sudden rush to file for citizenship when the Department of Homeland Security announced that a rather dramatic increase in the filing fees was in the offing. That folks who had delayed seeking citizenship would suddenly file to avoid the increase was no surprise, or at least shouldn't have been. However, the rocket scientists at DHS apparently were surprised, so much so that the lag in processing the submitted paperwork will result in citizenship being granted too late for people to register to vote in the 2008 election. How surprising is that?

From today's Washington Post:

The Department of Homeland Security failed to prepare for a massive influx of applications for U.S. citizenship and other immigration benefits this summer, prompting complaints from Hispanic leaders and voter-mobilization groups that several hundred thousand people likely will not be granted citizenship in time to cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election.

Bush administration officials said yesterday that they had anticipated applicants would rush to file their paperwork to beat a widely publicized fee increase that took effect July 30, but did not expect the scale of the response. The backlog comes just months after U.S. officials failed to prepare for tougher border security requirements that triggered months-long delays for millions of Americans seeking passports.

Before the fee hike, citizenship cases typically took about seven months to complete. Now, immigration officials can take five months or more just to acknowledge receipt of applications from parts of the country and will take 16 to 18 months on average to process applications filed after June 1, according to officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of DHS. Such a timeline would push many prospective citizens well past voter-registration deadlines for the 2008 primaries and the general elections.

The Department of Homeland Security failed to prepare for a massive influx of applications for U.S. citizenship and other immigration benefits this summer, prompting complaints from Hispanic leaders and voter-mobilization groups that several hundred thousand people likely will not be granted citizenship in time to cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election.

And why the failure to prepare for a massive influx of applicantions? The answer is a classic Bushism:

"We expected [the fee increase] might stimulate demand from some folks to file who wouldn't have otherwise, and some from folks to file earlier than they would have," said Michael Aytes, associate director of USCIS, "but we never anticipated" the extent of the growth. "It went off the charts," he said.

Well, duh!

Who could have predicted with all the trash talking on immigrants going on that folks might want to take the targets off their backs?

One thing DHS apparently could predict is that those folks would want to vote and that they just might not vote the way the current regime would like. Why hire on more people to handle the volume if it means an end to the gravy train?

Welcome to the "New America," folks.

Oh, and no smoking in line.

Labels: ,

Thursday Turkeyblogging

No Thanksgiving is complete without a turkey. And this is one I always particularly loved. If you have small kids who haven't made their five finger turkey, here's how you do it. from Rocky Top Game Calls at


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Holy Land Foundation Still Under the Gun

While the failure of the government to get a conviction against members of the Holy Land Foundation for supporting terrorism, the charity still is hamstrung. Under the Economic Suppression, oh, 'scuse me that's Control, the foundation will have all sorts of hoops to jump through if it ever is to continue doing good as it was intended.

LAST month, officials of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development were carried out of a Dallas courthouse on the shoulders of jubilant friends and relatives after a federal jury largely vindicated them of charges of providing material support to the terrorist group Hamas.

The victory -- the jury acquitted or hung on all charges -- is in many ways a hollow one. Since December 2001, when the Holy Land Foundation was deemed a "specially designated global terrorist" by the Bush administration, the foundation's assets have been frozen by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control. The criminal case has no impact on the freeze. The legal and moral incongruity of the organization's situation highlights the problems inherent in the International Emergency Economic Powers Act -- a statute that was once used exclusively to penalize hostile foreign countries but that was expanded during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to target groups and individuals believed to be supporters of terrorist groups.

In a criminal procedure, such as the trial of the Holy Land officials, prosecutors must provide evidence, and defendants can challenge that evidence or present their own. Only if a jury is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt will the defendants be convicted and punished.

Under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the process is turned on its head.

Of course, the judge in this case allowed agents of the Israeli secret service to testify without revealing their identities, so constitutional protections were forbidden to the defendants - as I have posted previously. The government has failed to sustain its charges in three cases to date, and in this case did not even bring the most serious charges, which were obviously unsustainable.

As commenter 1bernice comments at WaPo, Like the enabling resolution for a "war on terror," this so-called emergency economic powers act needs to be rescinded. Both give far, far too much power to a government run by ideologues to use the justice system and/or the military to punish those who disagree with them.

Indeed, this act gives many too many powers to a government that has proved it is inclined to use them through the 'justice' department to end disagreement with itself rather than to seek any justice. It is dangerous to let the abuse of our justice system go on.

Labels: ,

Using The Rules

Senate Majority Leader has finally followed through on one of his promises: he is actually keeping the Senate "in session" during the Thanksgiving Holiday break to prevent the White House from making any recess appointments. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia held the first of such sessions yesterday. From an article in today's NY Times:

Who says the Senate cannot act quickly? It conducted a full day’s business in less than 30 seconds on Tuesday.

Of course, there was no real business to conduct. But fearing that President Bush would again use a Congressional recess to install disputed executive branch appointees without Senate confirmation, Democrats convened the Senate for the first of four microsessions to be held during the holiday break, precisely to thwart such an end run.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, chose to schedule the so-called pro forma sessions because Mr. Bush took advantage of past recesses to install nominees including John R. Bolton, as ambassador to the United Nations, and, most recently, Sam Fox, a donor to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, as ambassador to Belgium. This time, Democrats were particularly suspicious of plans to appoint as surgeon general a nominee they oppose.

Of course, the White House isn't happy about having one of the President's favorite toys being taken away, but, in the face of the rules covering the situation, only the weakest of spins is being offered:

The administration and Congressional Republicans were not amused by the Democratic tactic, with the White House noting that 190 nominations were pending in the Senate. “Unfortunately, Congress has once again failed to complete important work that will help the American people,” said Emily A. Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman.

While Sen. Reid clearly won this inning, the game is hardly over. The reason given for the extraordinary action is that Reid wants the President to start appointing some of the people Democrats have designated for regulatory commissions. If the President gives a little, it will be back to business as usual. The President will make some egregiously horrid nomination, the Senate Democrats will gnash their teeth and stamp their feet, and then confirm.

In the meantime, however, we do have some nice comedic theater to watch.

Pass the popcorn.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Throwing Away Hearts, Minds and Other Organs

We have such great friends as General Musharraf and the Saudi royals, as Diane and I have both reflected on recently. Maybe we're just such a friend.

In Afghanistan, where we were indeed welcomed as liberators after the Taliban, the death toll from our actions has exceeded that from the Taliban sympathizers of the insurgency.

Last year was the worst year for civilian casualties since the fall of the country's cruel Taliban regime, and 2007 is shaping up to be even worse.

The most alarming point: As of July, more civilians had died as a result of NATO, U.S. and Afghan government firepower than had died due to the Taliban.

According to U.N. figures, 314 civilians were killed by international and Afghan government forces in the first six months of this year, while 279 civilians were killed by the insurgents.

So why on Earth are the NATO and U.S. forces and their Afghan allies killing more civilians than the Taliban? One explanation can be found in the relatively low number of Western boots on the ground. Afghanistan, which is 1 1/2 times the size of Iraq and has a somewhat larger population, has only about 50,000 U.S. and NATO soldiers stationed on its soil. By contrast, more than 170,000 U.S. troops are now in Iraq. So the West has to rely far more heavily on airstrikes in Afghanistan, which inevitably exact a higher toll in civilian casualties.

Indeed, the Associated Press found that U.S. and NATO forces launched more than 1,000 airstrikes in Afghanistan in the first six months of 2007 alone -- four times as many airstrikes as U.S. forces carried out in Iraq during that period.

The collateral damage here goes beyond even the tragic loss of life. A September report by the United Nations concluded that Western airstrikes are among the principal motivations for suicide attackers in Afghanistan. Sure enough, suicide attacks in the country rose sevenfold from 2005 to 2006, to an alarming 123 attacks, and are already up by around 70 percent this year -- at the same time that pro-government forces are killing more Afghan civilians than are their Taliban foes.

While a lot of speculation on the U.S.'s low esteem throughout much of the civilized world centers around the war we have brought against Iraq, maybe we should be looking at the justified, sympathized with, (sorry about the grammar there) war we're waging in Afghanistan, where we were welcome. Now we've shown our inability to act intelligently there, and are losing the hearts and minds of people who'd much rather be on our side.

Our disasters are mounting. With another year to go until the next elections, it's discouraging to think how far back we will be and how far we will have to come to regain just a portion of what's been squandered by the occupied White House.

At least this regime has been a history book lesson in how not to conduct affairs of state. Chapter One in the lesson book should be; "Keep A Lid On It: Staying out of other countries unless you know what you're doing."

Labels: ,

Under The Radar

Wow! I really missed this story, and it looks like the media did as well. Apparently the House passed a bill last month to set up a commission to study, well, thought crimes (at least that's what it looks like). I don't know what shocks me more: that the bill passed 404-6, or that its sponsor was a Democrat.

I came across the story while perusing what is rapidly becoming one of my daily "must read" blogs, Ronni Bennett's Time Goes By. Here are some of the details from her first post on the bill:

While the media were pretending all other news was on hold during the California wildfires, a dangerous bill made it through the House of Representatives and has now been sent to the Senate where it has been referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Should a majority in the Senate approve the bill, all it requires to become law is the president’s signature and since it does not deprive children of healthcare, there is no reason to think he would veto it.

Designated H.R.1955 and titled the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism and Prevention Act of 2007, it is an amendment to the Homeland Security Act of 2002. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Jane Harmon [Dem-CA] and overwhelming approved by the House on 23 October by a 404 to 6 vote.

And here is where the language of the bill as it resides in the Senate can be found. The bill is short by Congressional standards and deserves a thorough reading, but here's a little taste:


`For purposes of this subtitle:

`(1) COMMISSION- The term `Commission' means the National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism established under section 899C.

`(2) VIOLENT RADICALIZATION- The term `violent radicalization' means the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change.

`(3) HOMEGROWN TERRORISM- The term `homegrown terrorism' means the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual born, raised, or based and operating primarily within the United States or any possession of the United States to intimidate or coerce the United States government, the civilian population of the United States, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

`(4) IDEOLOGICALLY BASED VIOLENCE- The term `ideologically based violence' means the use, planned use, or threatened use of force or violence by a group or individual to promote the group or individual's political, religious, or social beliefs.
[Emphasis added]


"An extremist belief system"? You mean like one which promotes equality, civil liberties, and the right to be secure in our homes? Or one which is determined to restore the air we breathe and the water we drink? Or one which believes that the government of the United States of American should not lie us into an illegal war, nor kidnap and torture people? Those kinds of extremist beliefs?

In another part of the bill it is noted that the internet has become a useful tool for extremists. Uh, oh. Those of us who hang out at Atrios' Eschaton may soon have to put away our torches and pitchforks and our rusty chain saws. That's really gonna put a crimp in our discourse. Even the mere mention of those kinds of implements will get us into trouble.

And this bill was sponsored by a Democrat.

Here's a list of those who voted against the bill:

Jeff Flake [Rep-AR], Dana Rohrabacher [Rep-CA], Neil Abercrombie [Dem-HI], Jerry Costello [Dem-IL], Dennis Kucinich [Dem-OH] and John Duncan [Rep-TN].

Since the first post by Ronni Bennett, she has posted several more. The most recent is found here. She has a couple of solid tips on what we can do to make sure the Senate doesn't fall for this crap just because it has the word "terror" in its title.

Go visit.

Labels: ,

Monday, November 19, 2007

Fran Who?

Taking a brief respite from my office chores, I hopped onto the net and was greeted with news that Fran Townshend had resigned from White House service. Now I knew I had heard the name before in connection with George W. Bush's staff, but I could not immediately recall what her position was. According to this article in the Los Angeles Times she actually had quite an impressive sounding title: she was the homeland security advisor (note the lack of capital letters) for the White House and apparently led the Homeland Security Council at the White House (note the caps here).

The Homeland Security Council at the White House is apparently separate from the Department of Homeland Security, which is led by a cabinet officer named Michael Chertoff. So, what is it that Ms. Townshend actually did? I'm still not sure, but the article gave some hints.

Fran Townsend, the leading White House-based terrorism advisor who gave public updates on the extent of the threat to U.S. security, is stepping down after 4-1/2 years.

President Bush said in a statement this morning that Townsend, 45, "has ably guided the Homeland Security Council. She has played an integral role in the formation of the key strategies and policies my administration has used to combat terror and protect Americans."

Now, the first paragraph seems to imply that what Ms. Townsend did was serve as a press officer responsible for reporting terrorist threat levels. That is, she advised the media as to the color of the day. The second paragraph, however, suggests that President Bush relied on her for more than that.

To be fair, that may very well be. I do recall her before the cameras assuring us Californians that the federal response to the wild fires here would be better than its response to Hurricane Katrina. OK, fine, her role before the press involves more than terror threats, but what about this "formation of key strategies and policies" bit?

I just don't know, and while I am not exactly a good poster child for what's really going on in this world, I do read several newspapers every day, and what this woman actually did for the past 4+ years is frankly a mystery to me. But that doesn't surprise me in the least.

This administration has been so opaque, so willfully secretive that it is difficult for a citizen to know even the simplest of details as to White House actions, stances, or policies. What is just as appalling is that I'm betting a whole bunch of people in Congress haven't a clue as to what her duties were as well. And that's just plain wrong.

However, to err on the pleasant side, I will just say this:

Thank you for your service, Ms. Townshend, whatever it was.

Labels: ,

The Cure For Painful Treatments; Can It Survive Prejudice?

This is the kind of great news for cancer victims that you hope will break down the walls of a prejudice. Cannabis has been found to have potential for halting the metastases of breast cancer, and has been shown to have that effect in brain cancer.

All of us probably know people who have suffered the effects of cancer, some surviving and some not. I lost a friend to lung cancer, a friend who went through great debility and nausea from chemotherapy and wished she had not gone through that process at all. I am also watching my ex go through what he has been told by doctors are his last days - after a colon cancer that spread to lungs and brain. His chemo was so bad he had declared to his son that he'd rather just be let alone to die than go through more of it.

Any cure that can include gentle side-effects would greatly improve the lives of victims and friends/family of victims of cancer.

Lead researcher Dr. Sean McAllister said: "Right now we have a limited range of options in treating aggressive forms of cancer. "Those treatments, such as chemotherapy, can be effective but they can also be extremely toxic and difficult for patients.

"This compound offers the hope of a non-toxic therapy that could achieve the same results without any of the painful side effects."

Dr Joanna Owens of Cancer Research UK said: "This research is at a very early stage. "The findings will need to be followed up with clinical trials in humans to see if the CBD is safe, and whether the beneficial effects can be replicated.

"Several cancer drugs based on plant chemicals are already used widely, such as vincristine - which is derived from a type of flower called Madagascar Periwinkle and is used to treat breast and lung cancer. It will be interesting to see whether CBD will join them."

Maria Leadbeater of Breast Cancer Care said: "Many people experience side-effects while having chemotherapy, such as nausea and an increased risk of infection, which can take both a physical and emotional toll.

"Any drug that has fewer side-effects will, of course, be of great interest."

It is wonderful that so much concern and charitable effort has been devoted to research into cures for cancer. I am very hopeful that the amount of enlightenment that has occurred to date may be the impetus to letting use of what has been controversial break through prejudices against the 'weed'.

Use of painkillers that have fewer and gentler side effects could be next. Many people could have better lives if they could use something that is only kept from them because of prejudice, not scientific knowledge.

Growing hemp being criminalized is just stupidity. Use of cannabis should be allowed for medicinal purposes out of simple humanity.


Diplomacy On The Fly

The US administration is once again trying to put together some kind of peace plan between Israel and Palestine, according to an article in today's NY Times. The goal is to simultaneously work through the protocols of the first stage of the Roadmap plan initiated several years ago and the final status issues (status of Jeruselem and the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees) at the same time.

To kick off the plan, the White House has summoned the primary parties and other Arab nations to Annapolis next week.

By pushing Israel to accept immediate negotiations with the Palestinians on the thorny “final status” issues, with the aim to conclude a peace settlement within a year, the Bush administration is trying to attract a significant Arab presence at the peace conference in Annapolis, Md.

The meeting in Annapolis, now penciled in to start Nov. 26 and last less than 24 hours, is meant to begin — and bless — negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders on a final peace agreement between them, ostensibly to be completed by the end of the Bush presidency.
[Emphasis added]

Problems have already begun surfacing for the meeting. The Bush Administration wants a ministerial level contingent from the Arab nations involved, not just ambassadors to the US, and the Saudis appear to be balking at that. Further, one of the key players, Syria, has not committed at any level to attend unless it can be assured that the Golan Heights is part of any settlement deal.

The second problem is that most of the parties are concerned that not enough diplomatic groundwork has been laid in anticipation of the meeting.

American officials are not sure that the negotiations, even with leaders who seem to respect one another, will succeed. Others worry that the effort to get Annapolis in place has meant that the Bush administration has not done the diplomatic groundwork necessary to get the negotiations off to a rapid and serious start, or that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will not be able to spend the time necessary to keep the parties moving ahead when the difficult issues of borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem surface in all their excruciating detail.

...even the Israeli left is worried. Colette Avital, a senior Labor Party member, was in Washington for briefings from Bush officials.

“We understand that Annapolis will launch something, and we understand to a certain degree it can’t be much more,” she said. “But the groundwork is not being prepared for the next day.”

Ms. Avital said she supported the Bush efforts and the timing. “But I would like to see this done more carefully and ensure that work is done to make it a success,” she said. “It will be a long shot anyway. Most of us know how easy it is to fail, and what are the consequences of failure, and those could be very bad this time.”

In other words, that part of the world is concerned that the Bush White House has put together this gathering as either just a photo op or as a last ditch effort to salvage something that can be construed as a "Bush Legacy," but doing so in the slapdash manner that has been so typical of this administration's diplomacy. The rest of the world has every right to be concerned. If this approach fails, and --without the proper preparation -- it probably will, the consequences of that failure could push back any real peace effort for years.

And serving as a backdrop to the meeting will be the continuing Iraq War and the sabre rattling against Iran, neither of which will help the process along.

It is hard to be optimistic about this latest proposal, damned hard.

Labels: ,

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sunday Poetry: Gerard Rochford

Sky News from the Garden of Eden

( Iraq – 10th April 2003)

Soldiers break

through a hotel lounge

fingering death.

A girl sits with her family –


Her dress is thin

as this paper;

her terror as white.

She holds up her hands

like wheat to the scythe.

This gesture says:

We are nothing, spare us.

We will live unseen

beneath the body of a tank,

claim no sunlight,

drink rain, eat insects.

Not even her eyes have fire enough

to touch those terrible gods.

Within this year

her dress will be rags,

she will grow old,

while others gather silk

around their bellies,

deal in gold.

Perhaps she's already dead,

in camouflage of dust,

owning no grief - no grave,

no mark but this frail surrender

on my screen.

I switch off:

my tears leave nothing but salt.

Gerard Rochford

(This poem was published at War Poetry.)

Take Back Your Rubies

There may not be any need to cite more evidence that a lot of the luxuries we're supposed to indulge in cost too much. The cost can be greater for the producers than for us.

Collector that I am, of course, I have run up a few guilt trips. Through no fault of my own I have accumulated such atrocities as ivory (wasn't endangered at the time), diamonds (give me a break, I don't even like them) and a couple of minor rubies, and there are probably some other gewgaws that I don't suspect made some one's life a living hell.

I've even had twinges about pearls since the oyster is essentially tortured into producing them. I understand since I bought some other trinkets, such as bronze made before intense fires that sterilize the men who do the work, and Brooks shoes for my kids, that the people who made them were working in horrible conditions, and my purchase made that more profitable for the torturers.

I'm going to post why you really need to avoid Myanmar rubies, those great red ones that are the most prized. It looks like such fancies are enabling the very junta that oppresses and denies decent living conditions to its people.

In 1964, Myanmar introduced an annual gem auction, and starting in 1992 the sale was held twice a year. In more recent times, a special third auction has been held each year.

The government has taken other steps to increase earnings, including an effort to cut smuggling. The country's New Gemstone Law, enacted in 1995, allows people in Myanmar to mine, produce, transport and sell finished gems and jewelry at home and abroad — as long as they pay tax, which smugglers don't.
Dealers in Bangkok estimate the generals earn at least $60 million annually from gems, but some say the amount could be as high as 10 times that.

Whatever the figure, a growing number of dealers want to deny the junta any windfall from rubies.

But imposing sanctions will be fraught with problems, particularly since as many as 90 percent of the world's rubies come from Myanmar. Most go to the United States, Europe and Japan.

This may seem somewhat flippant, but it's really quite possible to Buy American in the realm of precious stones. Of course, the Southwest has turquoise, quartz, tourmaline, beryl, topaz, Rio Concho pearls (featured in the Spanish crown), and on and on. I may not light a bonfire, burn my rubies (no, they don't burn) and sear away my guilt, but I am definitely never again buying another piece of trivia that means some one else has to suffer.

It's not enough to be innocent of knowledge on a subject, we really need to be more conscious of the effects of our actions. I wouldn't take fur on a bet, it's something we know too well encourages maltreatment of animals. But the source of anything we buy has relevance to our enjoyment of it, and I urge taking a minute to think about the source.


SCHIP Fallout

When the 110th Congress failed to override the president's veto of the SCHIP bill, there were bound to be consequences. California is now facing those consequences in a big way, and in the face of a $10 billion dollar deficit for the next fiscal year, which compounds the problem. From today's Sacramento Bee:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared 2007 the "year of health care reform" in California, but thousands of children could actually lose insurance coverage in the coming months.

Locally financed children's programs are running out of money, a hoped-for increase in federal funding has not materialized, and the state is facing a $10 billion budget deficit. ...

Children's advocates say that without interim funding for children's coverage, at least 55,000 children now covered by Children's Health Initiatives in 25 counties will lose their coverage over the next two years because the programs are running out of money.

And an impasse between Congress and the Bush administration in reauthorizing the State Children's Health Insurance Program is imperiling funding for California's Healthy Families program for poor children.

The panel that manages the Healthy Families program has adopted rules to allow the state to create a waiting list and to remove some of the 1.1 million kids on the rolls – possibly 60,000 each month – if the logjam is not broken.

Children's Health Initiatives such as the program in Solano County have already stopped enrolling children because their money is running out.

"We're actually taking a step backward," said Jacque McLaughlin, director of the Solano Coalition for Children's Health and co-chair of the state's Children's Health Initiatives.

California's governor and legislature is busy trying to put together a compromise on health coverage for the uninsured in the state which will then be placed on the ballot as an initiative. Even if they are successful any such program will not take effect until 2010, which means that poor and lower-middle class children will be without health insurance and, practically speaking, without health care for at least two years, all because Idiot One has an ideological distaste for what Congress worked out.

California is certainly not the only state which faces such a crisis, even if it is a large state with a large poor population. As the economy falters because of a slowing economy undercut further by a loss of property tax revenue in the wake of the mortgage disaster, other states will be hard pressed to provide even the most basic of health care, including vaccinations, vision and hearing exams, and dental care.

While there's enough blame to pass around, voters should be provided with a list of Senators who decided it was easier to go along with George then to take care of their own consituents. Let the voters make it clear to candidates now what they expect their representatives to be doing in Washington. Turn up the heat on the incumbents and their opposition. That, short of pitchforks and hot tar, appears to be the only remedy we have at the present.


The Tangled Webs Weaving - Big Oil May Be Worse Than You Thought

Anyone else remember that O. Roy Chalk bought the D.C. trolley system @1955 and tried to promote it, but the D.C. government, WaPo and the Senate District Committee wouldn't allow it, and replaced it with buses? Picture D.C. today with an electric above ground system instead of those fuming behemoths - of course, now there's the Metro, but it makes occasional stops only - and we might have still had both.

So last night I chanced by PBS's History Detectives, on a review of how the Cleveland, OH, trolleys suffered a similar fate. Then watched in horror as the report pointed out that the very political personages who'd worked to let go of the trolley to the gas belch had later been rewarded by GM. Of course, collusion was never proven, but the pattern occurred in one city after another.

Let me confess, though, I hate to see GM show up as an evil abuser of the environment - I have investments there.

The text is pdf, you can read it if you like, but I'll transcribe the (forgive me) "money" part.

Wes: Black shows me how GM tried to monopolize bus sales around the country.

Edwin: This is an internal document from National City Lines. It says "I am enclosing a GM survey of Tampa, Florida, together with a map of Tampa's streetcar system showing the streetcar routes together with a summary of their schedules." From that they began to map out exactly how many buses it would take to convert them. Tampa was typical of the way GM operated.

Wes: Black says once they understood the local system, GM and its partners would fund the purchase of the streetcar line.

Pant, pant, pant, sorry, I'm not used to all that going back and forth and typing, which is why I don't like pdf documents. But it is as close to proof of complicity as anyone had gotten in all the attempts since 1949, evidently, to establish that streetcars had been targeted for replacement by GM, Standard Oil and Firestone tires to use their products instead, and lock in decades of profits. GM et al. claimed that it was market forces that brought about their demise.

They used graft, paid off politicians willing to exchange the public trust for their own personal gain. The Duke Cunninghams don't just rob the public to fill their trough, they subvert the controls put in place to keep the safety of the public, and their future best interests, protected by our government. Deregulation has more than just the present in mind, it looks to future wastrel practices, and practicers.

Of all the unintended consequences of crimes, global warming is the scariest. Do we have some idea now of why oil, and its related, industries are so adamant against that concept?

Labels: ,