2009 - %3, June

Out of the Cities, Not Yet Out of the Country

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 10:42 AM EDT

Phase 1 of the Iraqi withdrawal plan brokered by George Bush is now complete:

Six years and three months after the March 2003 invasion, the United States has withdrawn its remaining combat troops from Iraq's cities, the U.S. commander here said, and is turning over security to Iraqi police and soldiers.

While more than 130,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, patrols by heavily armed soldiers in hulking vehicles have largely disappeared from Baghdad, Mosul and Iraq's other urban centers. Iraqis danced in the streets and set off fireworks overnight in impromptu celebrations of a pivotal moment in their nation's troubled history. The government staged a military parade to mark the new national holiday of "National Sovereignty Day," and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made a triumphant, nationally televised address.

The general consensus seems to be that this is a big deal.  And in one sense it unquestionably is: in a lot of ways, the "surge" was less about the number of new troops sent to Iraq than it was about the way they were deployed.  Gen. David Petraeus insisted from the beginning that they establish a direct presence in neighborhoods throughout Baghdad and other cities, and that presence — along with several other factors — played a substantial role in reducing violence.  Now that presence is gone.

And yet — those "other factors" were a big deal.  In combination, they were certainly a bigger deal than the surge itself.  So the big question now is whether the Sunni Awakening holds; whether Muqtada al-Sadr has genuinely been defanged; whether the sectarian cleansing of the past couple of years is over; and whether Maliki can keep things together if and when Kirkuk blows up.  And the even bigger question is whether he can do that when he no longer has American troops as a backstop to his own power.

We won't know that until U.S. troops actually leave the country, not just regroup outside the cities.  That's the real test.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 30, 2009

Tue Jun. 30, 2009 10:39 AM EDT

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kenneth Casey (center), commander of 1st Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, sits with Lt. Col. Hassan (front), commander of 2nd Battalion, 12th Brigade, 2nd Iraqi Army Division, during the turnover ceremony of Multi-National Force - Iraq, Combat Outpost Power in the Aden District of Mosul, Iraq, June 7. Tuesday was the official deadline for US troops to leave Iraqi cities. (Photo courtesy army.mil).

Obama's "Nonks" Gone Wild

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 9:48 AM EDT

Vivek Kundra is a rock star.

At least at the annual Personal Democracy Forum conference. On Tuesday morning, Kundra, the chief information officer of the Obama administration, opened the second day of this gathering of digital techies by unveiling a new dashboard that taxpayers can use to track the federal government's spending on information technology. The crowd went wild. They greeted his announcement with a standing ovation.

You can go to Data.gov to see this new tool, which will allow you to obtain and mash data about IT programs across the federal government. For example, as Kundra said, you could check out "how much the US Department of Agriculture spends on information technology projects and what is the health of those projects." You can see who's getting the IT contracts, assess the performance of those contracts, and provide feedback to the CIOs of these agencies.

Not your idea of a hot time? Okay. But as Kundra pointed out, the US government spends about $70 billion a year on IT, and much of this money gets wasted on lousy IT. He noted that a 1994 report found that billions of dollars in federal IT investments went down the drain. And he referred to a 2008 report that concluded that $30 billion in IT programs were in trouble. That report, Kundra griped, didn't even provide a list of the specific IT programs in jeopardy. And, he said, big federal IT programs often take 18 months to two years to get off the launching pad, but by then the technology has changed and outpaced the project's original specs. Remember those FBI computers?

So getting IT right in the federal government is a big deal. By putting all this data on line, Kundra is inviting outside-the-government experts to vet what is happening within the government. He's also applying principles of accountability and transparency to this uber-wonky aspect of governance. Kundra also noted that CIOs in federal agencies have been ordered to inspect every single IT investment. And when he declared that the IT dashboard has been released in beta form--signaling that the government would seek input from users on how to improve it--the PDF audience exploded in applause.

Kundra was introduced to the conference by Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist. Newmark said he was enthusiastic about Washington these days, noting that the government was now in the hands of nerds, wonks, and hybrids he calls "nonks" Kundra may be the top nonk of the administration. When Kundra said, "This is a new approach to advancing technology in government," the hundreds of nonks in the room smiled and nodded approvingly. If this jazzes them so much, non-nonks should be heartened.

This was first posted at CQPolitics.com. You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, June 30

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

On this last day of June, a look at health, environment, and science news from our other blogs:

Dough for "no" on cap-and-trade: 3,446,089 very compelling reasons that some legislators voted against Waxman-Markey.

Starry night: In Afghanistan, US troops on a night mission. Green tank, breathtaking skyscape, one cool photo.

Unscientific American: Does McCain really not understand or use the Internet? Well, uh, you see...

 

Cute Endangered Animal of the Week: Island Fox

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

No, Blue Marblers, "Island Fox" is not the name of a new reality TV series. It's one of many names for a tiny, adorably fuzzy fox that lives on six of the eight California Channel Islands. The Island Fox, also called the Island Gray Fox because of its descent from mainland gray foxes, weighs only 5 lbs as an adult and is just now recovering from near extinction.

The Island Fox has lived on the Channel Islands for thousands of years, with each island evolving its own subspecies. All the Island Foxes were thriving until the 1990s, when changes in the local ecosystem had a disasterous chain effect on the species. DDT poisoned fish, which in turn poisoned the Islands' native bald eagles. The bald eagles' population decline opened up turf for non-native golden eagles who were attracted by the Islands' feral pigs. Once on the Islands, the golden eagles found Island Foxes easy prey since the foxes never had a predator, much less one that struck from above. In addition, sheep and other livestock had eaten much of the protective scrub and grasses foxes might have used for cover. Golden eagles quickly decimated the foxes. On one island, the fox population plummeted from 450 animals to 15 in just a few years.

To bring back the species, the National Park Service instituted a number of measures. Firstly, they removed golden eagles and re-introduced native bald eagles. Secondly, the Service created an ambitious captive breeding program, which you can learn more about here. And thirdly, the department is working on totally eradicating feral pigs so that golden eagles do not come back. Through this multimillion-dollar, multi-pronged approach, the National Park Service has been successful in bringing the Island Fox back from the brink of extinction in record time.

Now that Island Fox populations are recovering, the diurnal animals can be seen on the Islands living naturally. The foxes eat mostly fruit, insects, and deer mice and are devoted parents. They mate for life, having two to three pups per litter. Foxes communicate not only with body language, but with growls and short, high-pitched barks. Although they are now the subjects of active conservation, the foxes remain federally endangered. To learn more about the Foxes, and learn more about their history, you can visit the National Park Service's page here or visit a conservancy organization here.

 

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

 

Solar in the Desert: Can We Get It Right This Time?

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 6:37 AM EDT

It's partly the florid language that makes me and some other Westerners uneasy.

"Arizona, the New Frontier! Armed with an abundance of sunlight, Arizona is the land of sunshine and opportunity."

That palaver could have been lifted from a 19th Century swindler's sheet, written to separate greenhorns from their golden coins. But, in fact, I just cut-and-pasted it from the Bureau of Land Management's current website. The BLM controls vast areas of the West, (68% of Nevada, 40% of Utah, 17% of Arizona) and is pitching the opportunities for "solar development companies, or 'prospectors'" in the old New Frontier of the American Southwest.

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (who oversees the BLM) designated 670,000 acres in six Western states as Solar Energy Study Areas. The Las Vegas Sun described these tracts of BLM desert lands as being "on a fast track for development" as giant solar power farms. To ensure that permits are issued quickly, Salazar announced that the BLM will open four new offices in California, Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming.

Now, I know we need to kick our addiction to fossil-fuel. And I also believe that using renewable energy sources like solar and getting serious about energy conservation are keys to a livable future. But I'm also aware of our history of "development" -- the Western spin-cycle of boom and bust, hope and despair, professed love of the land and simultaneous destruction of it.

Sandy Bahr knows all of this, too. But, she says, "Maybe this time we can get it right."

Bahr is the director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, an organization which was working on land use issues before Arizona was a state. "We don't need to get into those old conflicts this time," she says.

There's plenty of "disturbed" land in the West, she points out. Why not build renewable energy power plants on the scars left by the old polluting ones? Why not recycle abandoned agricultural land that should never have been cultivated and let solar power companies buy water-depleting farms and use that land (some forms of solar power plants are water intensive, but still need less than agriculture)?

Transmission lines, which can interfere with migrating wildlife, don't have to be a problem either, Bahr says. Route them alongside freeways, which already prevent animals from crossing.

There are cultural and human rights issues to consider, as well.

During a BLM sponsored public hearing on solar development in California in 2008, Carmen Lucas, a member of the Kumeyaay Nation, told the Bureau that before anything was built in his area, someone from the Kumeyaay community would need to examine the area to make sure it wasn't an ancient burial site. The "need for speed," he told the BLM, must not be allowed to trump Native people's rights.

Over the next several months, the BLM will be making siting decisions for these new solar mega-plants. That, says Bahr, is when we'll see how committed to meaningful change the nation really is.

Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here.

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Congress's $1.2 Million a Day Drug Habit—and Pharma's Phony "Gift" to Health Care Reform

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 3:49 AM EDT

Big Pharma pulled off a first-class PR coup last week with its widely celebrated pledge to support health care reform by offering up a package of discounts they claim will run to $80 billion over the next ten years. The highlight of the package, said to be worth about $30 billion, is a 50 percent discount offered to old and disabled people who fall into the "donut hole," the notorious coverage gap in the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, which leaves some of us paying as much as $3,000 out of pocket for our meds.

Announcing the agreement, President Obama hailed the drug-makers for offering "significant relief" to a "continuing injustice that has placed a great burden on many seniors," and for helping to reach "a turning point in America's journey toward health care reform." AARP, the mammoth old people's lobby, was right there at Obama's shoulder, with head man Barry Rand trumpeting that industry's progress: "This is an early win for reform and a major step forward. It is a signal the process is working and will work." The deal was also seen as a victory for Senate finance committee chair Max Baucus (D-MT), who engineered negotiations in his self-assigned role as champion compromiser in the reform debate. But the real triumph belongs to the drug companies themselves, since the supposedly magnanimous offer is just what we might expect it to be, considering the source: another wolf in sheep's clothing from Big Pharma.

When it comes to securing their interests against even the flimsiest of threats, the drug-makers' pockets appear bottomless. A look at last week's Center for Responsive Politics report on the industry offers an awe-inspiring view of the druggies in action: To begin with, we're not talking about a handful of lobbyists twisting the arms of members of Congress. Pharma had 1,814 flacks at work last year and 1,309 in the first 3 months of this year. That's 12 percent of all the lobbyists in Washington. Last year alone the drug industry spent $234 million on lobbying. In the first three months of this year, it spent more than $66.5 million—$1.2 million a day. And that doesn't include polling, advertising, and research. Among the top recipients of Pharma funds are several members of the Senate finance committee, including Baucus himself, who have positioned themselves as a "coalition of the willing" dedicated to promoting a bipartisan middle ground on health care reform—in other words, minor changes that won't seriously affect private sector profits.

I'm Back

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 1:13 AM EDT

New York City was lovely, thanks for asking.  But imagine my surprise when I came back and discovered that my absence meant twice the usual amount of catblogging last Friday.  That's above and beyond the call of duty from David Corn, who was filling in for me while I was gone.

Needless to say, I really was on vacation.  My catblogging post was written last Tuesday and showed up on Friday via the miracle of prescheduled posting.  Don't believe me?  Here's a nice picture of the Statue of Liberty at sunset to prove that I was in the Apple this weekend.  Still not enough?  I also have some lingering inner ear wobbliness thanks to flying with a cold, which I plan to use as an all-purpose excuse for the rest of the week if I write anything unusually off kilter.

Anyway, this is just a placeholder to let everyone know I've returned safely, full of good deli and Italian food.  Blogging on matters of actual substance will resume Tuesday morning.

Swine Flu Accidentally Resurrected From the Dead?

| Mon Jun. 29, 2009 7:35 PM EDT

Amid an unsettling report today of Tamiflu resistance in a Danish A(H1N1) patient, comes a study in The New England Journal of Medicine tracing the swine flu's 90-year evolution.

The current flu strain has genetic roots in an illness that sickened pigs at a swine show in 1918 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A near-century of development since then may include this flu's accidental resurrection from an extinct strain.

Here's what likely went down. At the same time the 1918 flu pandemic was spreading among humans, pigs were hit with a similar respiratory illness. Early experiments confirmed the 1918 swine virus and a human strain emerged about the same time.

According to the authors of the new paper, there was a temporary "extinction" of this strain of virus from humans in 1957. But then it reemerged 20 years later in a small 230-person outbreak in 1976 among soldiers in Fort Dix, New Jersey. That outbreak did not extend beyond the military base.

However the next year H1N1 reemerged in people in the Soviet Union, Hong Kong, and northeastern China. The genetic origin of that 1977 strain turns out not to be the 1976 Fort Dix strain. Instead, it was closely related to a 1950 human strain.

Which means that given the genetic similarity of the two strains, reemergence was likely due to an accidental release during laboratory studies of the 1950 strain that had been preserved as a "freezer" virus.

Ouch. Hate it when that happens.

The authors hypothesize that concerns about the Fort Dix outbreak stimulated a flurry of research on H1N1 viruses in 1976, which led to an accidental release and reemergence of the previously extinct virus a year later. The reemerged 1977 H1N1 strain has been circulating in various seasonal influenzas ever since—including today's.


Or maybe it wasn't such an accidental a release? Conspiracists, restart your engines.
 

The GOP's Fake Climate Scandal

| Mon Jun. 29, 2009 6:15 PM EDT

Most people accept that politicians do stupid things in the service of parochial interests and paleolithic ideologies. It's a problem as old as Congress. Yet occasionally a Congressman does something beyond stupid--something that causes thinking people to wonder if this representative has the intelligence or integrity to serve in public office. These moments are like ice sheets splitting off the Arctic Shelf and sliding into the ocean--they're fun to watch and yet totally depressing.

Today's example comes from Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla), who has ordered a Congressional investigation into how the EPA "suppressed" a report that questioned the science behind climate change. Grist notes that the "suppressed" report was written by an economist with no training in climate science, includes no original research, cites old and irreputable references, and was nonetheless accepted, unsolicited, by the EPA's climate scientists for consideration. If the meagreness of the report's policy impact is a scandal, then so is the fact that Joe the Plumber isn't the go-to guy for rewiring your attic.

And yet Inhofe tells Fox News that this EPA economist, Alan Carlin, "came out with the truth" and that "they don't want the truth at the EPA." Inhofe really could be this stupid, or there could be a deeper, more cynical political logic at work. Fox concluded that "the controversy is similar to one under the Bush administration--only the administration was taking the opposite stance." Fox's message to its readers seems to be that the legitimate James Hansen scandal and the phony Alan Carlin "scandal" cancel each other out. It's all just politics.

If you believe that, how do you decipher the truth behind climate change? One way would be to start with what you already think you know and then look for those scientists--or economists posing as scientists--who support that position. Last week Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga) claimed that global warming was a "hoax"--a statement, impossible to back up with more than partisan intuition, that was met with applause on the House floor.  It must have been quite a spectacle: A big chunk of legislators, smaller than in years past but still frozen in their beliefs, taking a jolly plunge into insanity.