2011 - %3, May

The Hunt for Bin Laden, in Numbers

| Tue May 3, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

A few statistics from what was arguably the most expensive manhunt in history.

Time Osama Bin Laden spent on the fbi’s Most Wanted list:
155 months
State Department reward for information leading to Bin Laden’s capture:
$25 million
Estimated amount Al Qaeda spent on the September 11 attacks:
$400,000 to $500,000
Death toll on 9/11:
3,389
Economic impact of attacks on New York City:
At least $82.8 billion
Cost of US military operations in Afghanistan, 2010:
$93.8 billion
Cost of US military operations in Afghanistan, 2001-2010:
$325 billion
Years since 2001 in which US military spending
in Afghanistan exceeded military spending in Iraq:
2001, 2010
Estimated cost of US operations in Afghanistan in 2011, per soldier:
$694,000
Number of US soldiers killed in action by hostile forces
in Afghanistan, 2001-2010:
1,045
Number of US soldiers wounded in action
in Afghanistan, 2001-2010:
9,614
Number of civilians killed in Afghanistan, 2007-2010:
9,759
Number of reported US drone strikes
in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2004-2011:
236
Number of drone attacks on Al Qaeda, 2004-2011:
33
Minimum share of drone casualties who were civilians, 2004-2010:
16%
“Core” Al Qaeda members in Pakistan today:
100 to 150
US aid to Pakistan, 2001-2010:
$20 billion
Distance from Bin Laden’s final compound to
military academy known as “Pakistan’s West Point”:
3/4 mile
Cost of Black Hawk helicopter destroyed during raid:
$27.5 million
Number of American commandos involved in raid on compound:
79
Number of dogs:
1

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"I Hope This is Settled Now: Rape is Rape."

| Tue May 3, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

In February, House Republicans drew widespread condemnation for pushing a bill, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," or H.R. 3, that would have changed the definition of rape for the purposes of abortion law. They eventually removed the offending language from the bill itself, but they're still after the same goal. I have a piece today about how they're trying to do it again:

Republicans haven't stopped trying to narrow the already small exception under which federal funding for abortions is permissible. They've used a sly legislative maneuver to make sure that even though the language of the bill is different, the effect remains the same.

The backdoor reintroduction of the statutory rape change relies on the use of a committee report, a document that congressional committees produce outlining what they intend a piece of legislation to do. If there's ever a court fight about the interpretation of a law—and when it comes to a subject as contentious as abortion rights, there almost always is—judges will look to the committee report as evidence of congressional intent, and use it to decide what the law actually means.

In this case, the committee report for H.R. 3 says that the bill will "not allow the Federal Government to subsidize abortions in cases of statutory rape." The bill itself doesn't say anything like that, but if a court decides that legislators intended to exclude statutory rape-related abortions from eligibility for Medicaid funding, then that will be the effect.

As I explain in the story, Republicans say they aren't changing anything: They're just codifying existing law, which they say already forbids the use of Medicaid funds to pay for abortions in cases of statutory rape. Almost all the folks I spoke to, including the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which works with state agencies to administer Medicaid, say that's not true: existing law doesn't allow states to distinguish between different types of rape when it comes to funding abortions.

But Douglas Johnson, the legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and a top anti-abortion lobbyist, agrees with the Republicans that a current law, the Hyde Amendment, already makes a distinction between different types of rape. When pressed for evidence to support that assertion, Johnson noted that many federal abortion laws have been interpreted in "widely varying ways depending on who is doing the interpreting." Just because "the current gang at CMS" interprets the law a certain way, that "doesn't mean that the House Judiciary Committee report statement is wrong," Johnson says.

Johnson has a point, and perhaps a future Republican president could choose to interpret the Hyde Amendment in this matter. But when I followed up with a CMS spokeswoman, she was adamant that Johnson is mistaken: "As we said before, we have always considered rape to be rape and we have never made a distinction under the Hyde amendment on different types of rape under any administration that we can remember," she said. "I hope this is settled now: rape is rape."

NARAL Pro-Choice America has also issued a statement:

"The anti-choice House leadership faced fierce public backlash against the original 'redefining rape' fiasco," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "Any attempt to reintroduce this outrageous provision would be unconscionable, and will only further galvanize Americans against anti-choice politicians who are wildly out of touch with the values and priorities of our country."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 3, 2011

Tue May 3, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

U.S. Army Pfc. Aaron Birmingham, an infantryman with 1st Platoon, Company D, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, Task Force Duke, from Alpena, Mich., keeps on eye on a wadi in Andar, Afghanistan, April 21. The area is known as a Taliban stronghold and is where the unit received small arms fire earlier in the month. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Andrew Guffey)

Free The Reporters

| Tue May 3, 2011 2:19 AM EDT

In the rare bit of news unrelated to Osama bin Laden, today is World Press Freedom Day! Which means that the United Nations is holding a shindig in Washington, and people are giving speeches noting that press freedom is at its lowest level in 12 years, and there's a new report out on the top 10 tools used by online censors and oppressors.

For our part, we'll take this day to remember the many journalists who have lost their freedom--journalists whose suffering isn't making headlines the way the ordeals of Lara Logan and the New York Times Four did, but who are equally deserving of our sympathy and outrage. No fewer than 16 reporters are detained or missing in Libya alone right now (and four more, including photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, have been killed); hundreds share their fate around the world. One of them is Shane Bauer, who was detained in August 2009 while hiking in a remote, scenic part of Iraqi Kurdistan near the Iranian border. He remains in prison in Iran along with his friend Josh Fattal, an environmental educator. Sarah Shourd, Shane's fiancee, was detained with the two but has since been freed. 

Shane wasn't on assignment at the time of his arrest (which according to a Nation investigation took place inside Iraq), but he had done terrific reporting from the Middle East including a Mother Jones expose on US payments to corrupt contractors in Iraq. Below is a statement by a number of the US journalists who have had the good fortune of working with him, ourselves included, urging Iran to end Shane and Josh's unjust captivity. It's been far too long. 

The Ed Reform Backlash

| Tue May 3, 2011 12:44 AM EDT

Is a serious backlash against the ed reform community finally starting to form? Maybe. Here's Exhibit A. Here's Exhibit B. And of course, Diane Ravitch has been Exhibit C for a while now. These are just a few data points, and this is, obviously, far from the first time that the ed reform community has been under attack, but something strikes me as a little different this time around. It's not just the usual suspects who are complaining, for one thing, and it's not just the usual complaints.

Maybe this is nothing. Maybe I just happened to see a few anti-reform pieces over the space of a few days and it struck me as more of a trend than it really is. Or maybe it's just a projection of my own growing skepticism of the ed reform agenda. I'm not sure. One of these days I'm going to have to take the time to actually write a longish post on the subject called "10 Reasons I'm Increasingly Skeptical of the Ed Reform Agenda." I've already got the reasons, but I haven't yet done the work to flesh them out into a coherent argument. Someday I promise I will.

In the meantime, read Exhibits A, B, and C. They aren't earth shattering or anything. But they do point in a direction that I suspect might start to pick up steam one of these days.

Bubbles and Public Facts

| Mon May 2, 2011 6:45 PM EDT

After the Great Collapse of 2008 it became common to assign part of the blame to the increasing opacity of the modern financial system. By the middle of the last decade, wholesale funding had transitioned to a shadow banking system that was unregulated and nearly impossible to measure. The mortgage industry had stopped asking borrowers for documentation of creditworthiness, which made the value of mortgage portfolios more guessing game than anything else. CDOs and other credit derivatives became so complicated and self-referential that only a computer model could begin to make sense of them. High-frequency trading swapped human analysis and intuition for automated algorithms that worked at sub-microsecond speeds. The result was a financial system so Byzantine that no one truly understood the underlying value of the securities they held. Thus, when the downturn came, it wasn't enough to try to dump only specific kinds of assets. Since worthless securities could be hiding in the fine print of nearly anything — or in nearly any institution — panicked investors had no choice but to sell everything. A housing bubble that might have been painful but still manageable became instead a rout of the entire global financial system.

Economist Hernando de Soto puts a different gloss on this in the current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, suggesting that we've lost the system of "public facts" that was painstakingly built up at the end of the 19th century in order to move finance onto a sounder, more stable footing:

The result was the invention of the first massive "public memory systems" to record and classify—in rule-bound, certified, and publicly accessible registries, titles, balance sheets, and statements of account—all the relevant knowledge available, whether intangible (stocks, commercial paper, deeds, ledgers, contracts, patents, companies, and promissory notes), or tangible (land, buildings, boats, machines, etc.). Knowing who owned and owed, and fixing that information in public records, made it possible for investors to infer value, take risks, and track results. The final product was a revolutionary form of knowledge: "economic facts."

Over the past 20 years, Americans and Europeans have quietly gone about destroying these facts....The results are hardly surprising. In the U.S., trust has broken down between banks and subprime mortgage holders; between foreclosing agents and courts; between banks and their investors—even between banks and other banks.

....Without standardization, the values of assets and relationships are so variable that they can't be used to guarantee credit, to generate mortgages and bundle them into securities, to represent them in shares to raise capital. Nor do they fit the standard slots required to enter global markets. That's why credit crunches and massive unemployment are chronic conditions for most people forced to operate in the informal economy. These are the ones you see protesting in the streets of Arab countries or living in tents surrounding Port-au-Prince. We know only too well that facts don't speak for themselves: They have to be constructed through legal processes and kept transparent. They have to be defended, too.

When then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson initiated his Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in September 2008, I assumed the objective was to restore trust in the market by identifying and weeding out the "troubled assets" held by the world's financial institutions. Three weeks later, when I asked American friends why Paulson had switched strategies and was injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into struggling financial institutions, I was told that there were so many idiosyncratic types of paper scattered around the world that no one had any clear idea of how many there were, where they were, how to value them, or who was holding the risk. These securities had slipped outside the recorded memory systems and were no longer easy to connect to the assets from which they had originally been derived. Oh, and their notional value was somewhere between $600 trillion and $700 trillion dollars, 10 times the annual production of the entire world.

In a sense, de Soto isn't saying anything that hasn't been said before: modern financial instruments became so opaque in the runup to the Great Collapse that sensible asset valuation was essentially impossible. But de Soto's historical perspective is an interesting lens to view this through, and it provides him with a nice organizing principle with which to recommend reforms. It's worth a read.

In the end, I don't entirely agree with de Soto that "the recession wasn't about bubbles but about the organization of knowledge." It was about bubbles too, which have plagued us since long before the first CDO was ever invented. Still, the opacity of modern finance surely helped supercharge the housing and credit bubble at the core of the Great Collapse, and the financial reforms that have been passed so far aren't nearly enough to ensure that the same thing won't happen again in the near future. As de Soto says, "Markets were never intended to be anarchic: It has always been government's role to police standards, weights and measures, and records, and not condone legalized sleight of hand in the shadows of the informal economy. To understand and repair one of mankind's greatest achievements—the creation of economic facts through public memory—is the stuff of nation-builders."

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The Million-Dollar Shark

| Mon May 2, 2011 6:00 PM EDT

Sitting in the Pacific Ocean near the Philippines, the island nation of Palau doesn't have much land. It is, however, surrounded by warm waters that make it a tropical getaway for tourists. One of its attractions is sharks, and a recent study shows that a single reef shark can generate nearly $2 million for the country during its lifetime. At a time when shark populations are very threatened due to overfishing and a renewed hunger for shark-fin soup, Palau has chosen to make its waters a shark sanctuary. And for good reason too: the new study estimates that shark-diving brings $18 million to Palau each year, 8% of the GDP. If killed and sold for meat and parts, a shark would only get Palau fishermen around $1000 each. It looks like sharks are worth far more to Palau alive than they are dead, from an economy-sustaining point of view as well as an environmental one. You can see a few of Palau's tourism stars in the video below.

Notes on the Economy

| Mon May 2, 2011 4:48 PM EDT

Today Karl Smith provides several reasons to be optimistic about the trajectory of future growth. There is, he says, still "a huge employment problem that should not be ignored," but even on that front he thinks the recovery of the past year doesn't look too bad. Since I tend to be pretty pessimistic about this stuff, I figure this is worth passing along.

10 Ways the Right Is Spinning Bin Laden's Death

| Mon May 2, 2011 4:03 PM EDT

Earlier today, the impossible seemed to happen when Rush Limbaugh suggested that President Barack Obama "single-handedly" devised the plan to successfully assassinate Osama Bin Laden. Though many in the media took Limbaugh seriously, he was actually being sarcastic. Here are 10 other ways that right-wing pundits and bloggers have tried to spin the Al Qaeda leader's killing into a joke, a trifle, or even a triumph of conservatism:

1. American Spectator Senior Fellow Chris Horner: The death of Bin Laden is a blow to supporters of cap and trade. (In January, OBL expressed concern about climate change).


 

 

 

 

 

2. Human Events editor Jason Mattera: Remember how Michele Obama isn't supposed to be patriotic?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.  RedState blogger Streiff: Flaky liberals hate that bin Laden is dead. 

Presumably Code Pink will hold a "Take Back the Night" march some place to mourn his passing.

Bonus: Obama's decision to use military force to take out Bin Laden exposes his "ambivalence" about military force.

The death of bin Laden is more likely to give impetus to Obama’s ambivalence about the concept of "victory" and his deep-seated hostility to the success of American military power and thereby give him the political cover he feels he needs to speed up troop withdrawals from those countries.

 

4. WorldNetDaily contributor Mychal Massie: Maybe Obama deserves to be assassinated, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5.  Washington Times editorial page editor Brett Decker: For self-centered Obama, "everything is about him."

He used the words "I," "me" and "my" so many times that it was hard to count for such a quick message.

6.  Eric Bolling, host of Fox's Follow the Money: Bush, not Obama, really deserves the credit. No wait—I forgot someone…



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Not Bad for a Kenyan Muslim Communist!"

| Mon May 2, 2011 2:51 PM EDT

After nearly two years of relentlessly bashing President Obama, the tea party movement has been strangely quiet in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden. It seems that Obama's powerful show of military force has done what none of his other policy moves have been able to do, which is shut them up, however briefly. And not only are they not taking to the airwaves to bash him, some are even grudgingly admitting respect for his administration’s success.

Robin Stublen, a tea party organizer in Florida who’s no fan of Obama's, says, "I think it's wonderful. He did exactly what a president’s supposed to do."

Stublen says that many of his fellow activists feel the same way, and that most of the chatter he's hearing from grassroots conservatives is pretty positive. "We realize a bad guy’s been killed," he says. The nearly overnight change in the tea party's focus was apparent Sunday night at the White House, where spontaneous celebrations broke out after the news of Bin Laden's death spread. Among the many Obama campaign signs were enough Gadsden flags to give the celebration the look of a tea party rally.

Kellen Giuda is the founder of the NYC Tea Party and is already working to help defeat Obama in 2012 through a new PAC. Yet he was among the tea partiers at the White House, cheering the death of Bin Laden. He later posted online photos and video of the scene, which included the "Don't Tread on Me" flags so ubiquitous at tea party rallies. He wrote:

Last night I, my girlfriend and a friend went down to the White House to celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden. Being a Tea Party organizer I was happy to see some Gadsden flags and didn't care at all when I saw some Obama campaign posters. 98% of the celebration was non-partisan and it was wonderful.

It was crazy with people climbing light poles, songs (someone brought a drum set), singing our national anthem, people climbing in all the trees right outside the White House, chants of USA, USA, USA, and just a great celebration with Americans for justice and freedom.

Even the cantankerous Judson Phillips, head of Tea Party Nation, was briefly forced to acknowledge that the Obama administration had sent Bin Laden "to Hell." Even so, like other tea partiers, he was reluctant to give Obama much credit for the kill, writing:

Obama is taking credit for this. He did give the order. Did he really have a choice? If word leaked out that he had solid intelligence on where Bin Laden was and did not act, it would have killed any chance he had at reelection.

For much of Monday morning, there was serious radio silence from one of the most outspoken tea party groups even as the Internet was ablaze with the news about Bin Laden. The website for Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest tea party umbrella groups in the country, was still focused on the debt ceiling and $4 gasoline. Eventually, national coordinator Mark Meckler commented on the big news, telling National Journal that Obama didn’t deserve any recognition for the military operation in Pakistan. "Taking such credit would be an insult to the courageous men and women in our armed forces who voluntarily put themselves in harm's way," he said. "Any credit given is due to them."

But more the more common sentiment was expressed by a commenter on the Tea Party Patriots website who wrote, "Obamma [sic] killed Osama bin Laden - pretty good for a Kenyan Muslim Communist!!!"

Still, as the euphoria over the initial news wears off, the tea partiers will no doubt find more reasons to be critical of the administration. Within hours of the late-night news, some of them were already starting the cries of "show me the body," after learning that bin Laden’s body had been buried at sea—a sentiment fueled by Andrew Breitbart.

Stublen thinks this bit of conspiracy theorism about Bin Laden is on the margins of the movement. "You’ll have to really look to find some loons to find someone" who really disagrees with what Obama did or doesn't believe it really happened, he says. Stublen recognizes, though, that "pitching his ass out there in the ocean" is going to create some lingering suspicions about whether Bin Laden is really dead that it could be a problem going forward. "I hope they got a lot of pictures. That’s the only way we’re going to convince people," Stublen says. "They’re going to have to release the pictures."