2012 - %3, January

Chemotherapy Tweaks DNA of Mouse Offspring Too

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 3:58 PM EST

A new paper in PNAS reports that three common chemotherapy drugs destabilize DNA in mice enough to trigger new mutations long after exposure to the drugs has ceased—mutations which are then passed down to their untreated offspring.

A similar phenomenon has been observed in mice exposed to radiation.

Nature News reports on the original radiation findings:

[Co-author and geneticist Yuri] Dubrova and his colleagues were studying the effects of radiation when, purely by chance, they decided to look at mutation rates in the offspring of exposed mice. 'What we found was the biggest surprise of my life,' he says. The children had several times more mutations in their eggs and sperm than their radiation-treated parents. 'The genomes were unstable, and we still don't know why.'

The researchers surmised that chemotherapy drugs might trigger even stronger genetic effects, since chemotherapy is given systemically and radiation therapy isn't. So they investigated three common drugs—cyclophosphamide, mitomycin C and procarbazine—at mouse doses comparable to people doses, in the offspring of treated male mice. From the PNAS paper

After paternal exposure to any one of these three drugs, expanded simple tandem repeat mutation frequencies were significantly elevated in the germ line (sperm) and bone marrow of their offspring. This... was attributed to elevated mutation rates at the alleles derived from both the exposed fathers and from the nonexposed mothers, thus implying a genome-wide destabilization.

DNA mutations tend to accumulate in the genomes of offspring mice more than in their parents.

The researchers caution:

Our data also raise important issues concerning delayed transgenerational effects in the children of survivors of anticancer therapy.

Although Nature News points out that mice only live two years and so pass on their damaged DNA before there's much time for internal repair, whereas most humans treated for cancer are post-reproductive adults or adults made sterile by treatment:

'So we're talking about one group only: childhood cancer survivors,' says Dubrova. One recent study found no significant impact of radiation or chemotherapy on the rate of birth defects in 4,699 children of childhood cancer survivors.

 

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Bishops Pledge to Violate New Birth Control Law

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 3:47 PM EST

Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced that insurers must provide birth control free of charge to all women who want it. The decision came despite a good deal of pressure from religious groups, specifically the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which argued in favor of a broad exemption for any organization affiliated with a church that opposes contraception. Now some of the administration's opponents are vowing to ignore the new rule.

Last week, the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix sent a letter to church members announcing that it would not be following the new law. "We cannot—we will not—comply with this unjust law," wrote Bishop Thomas Olmsted. "People of faith cannot be made second-class citizens."

A spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops told Commonweal magazine that the letter is part of a coordinated response from the group, and said the bishops had "provided a template" for the letter to dioceses around the country. The bishops in Peoria, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh have issued similar letters.

But as Commonweal associate editor Grant Gallicho points out, no churches will actually be forced to violate their conscience on this issue. Churches are granted an exemption from offering health insurance that covers birth control. The Obama administration decided not to expand that exemption to cover schools, hospitals, or social service institutions that are affiliated with religious organizations. That's the action that caused the USCCB to call on dioceses to protest the law.

Private Equity's New Champion

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 3:40 PM EST
Former private equity executive and current GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

The rapidly increasing chance that former private equity executive Mitt Romney will be the GOP nominee for president hasn't been all wonderful for the private equity industry. That's because voters are growing hip to just how much investors and money managers at firms like Bain Capital—the private equity firm Romney co-founded—actually make, and the elaborate tax gimmicks that help them avoid paying what's arguably their fair share. Whether that added scrutiny translates into tax reform is anyone's guess. But the financial industry sees the writing on the wall, and is manning its defenses.

Panetta: Decision to Kill Americans Suspected of Terrorism Is Obama's

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 3:13 PM EST
President Obama walks with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey.

In an interview with CBS 60 Minutes' Scott Pelley, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta revealed more about the secret process the Obama administration uses to kill American citizens suspected of terrorism without trial. According to Panetta, the president himself approves the decision based on recommendations from top national security officials. 

"[The] President of the United States obviously reviews these cases, reviews the legal justification, and in the end says, go or no go," Panetta said. 

"So it's the requirement of the administration under the current legal understanding that the president has to make that declaration, not you?" Pelley asked. Panetta replied, "That is correct."

The process by which national security officials determine whether or not American citizens suspected of terrorism can be killed remains opaque. The administration has leaked information about certain targets, but it has never released the legal justification for doing so, nor has it explained the system by which members of the National Security Council reportedly decide to put an American citizen on a so-called "kill list." In October, Reuters' Mark Hosenball wrote that the president doesn't necessarily explicitly approve strikes—instead, the attacks go forward unless the president objects.

Panetta's explanation of why he believes killing an American citizen without due process is legal wasn't exactly comforting. Here's the exchange:

PANETTA: Without getting into the specifics of the operation, if someone is a citizen of the United States, and is a terrorist who wants to attack our people and kill Americans, in my book that person is a terrorist. And the reality is that under our laws, that person is a terrorist. And we're required under a process of law, to be able to justify, that despite the fact that person may be a citizen, he is first and foremost a terrorist who threatens our people, and for that reason, we can establish a legal basis on which we oughta go after that individual, just as we go after bin Laden, just as we go after other terrorists. Why? Because their goal is to kill our people, and for that reason we have to defend ourselves.

PELLEY: They're not entitled to due process of law under the Constitution of the United States? They lose their citizenship if this administration decides they're a terrorist?

PANETTA: If this person wanted to suddenly raise questions about whether or not they're a terrorist, and they were to return to the United States, of course they would be entitled to due process. That's something we provide any US citizen. And for that matter frankly any terrorist who is arrested; we provide due process to that individual as well. But if a terrorist is out there on the battlefield, and the terrorist is threatening this country, that person is an enemy combatant, and when an enemy combatant holds a gun at your head, you fire back.

Panetta's explanation isn't much more complex than "when we say someone is a terrorist, then we can kill them, because they're a terrorist." The entire point of due process, however, is to determine whether or not someone is actually guilty. The defense secretary's metaphor—that you can fire back when someone "holds a gun to your head"—might justify killing an American citizen who is fighting on an actual battlefield, like Afghanistan. But it suggests violence as an appropriate response to an imminent threat, rather than the actual circumstances under which say, radical cleric and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki appears to have been killed.

President Obama just signed a bill that, if not for its many administrative loopholes, would "mandate" military detention for non-citizen terror suspects apprehended on American soil, so it's not accurate for Panetta to state that "any" suspected terrorist apprehended by the US receives due process. The vast majority of the nearly two hundred detainees at Gitmo have never been charged with anything, let alone tried and convicted. Osama bin Laden was the admitted leader of a group engaged in an armed conflict against US troops in Afghanistan; concrete evidence that al-Awlaki was more than a front for extremist propaganda has never been aired.

There's also an Orwellian element to Panetta's argument that anyone on the US kill list should simply turn themselves in and get a fair trial. As Glenn Greenwald reminds us, we only know that al-Awlaki was on the kill list because his name was leaked to the press. Any other Americans who might be on the list have no way of knowing they've been targeted absent leaks from administration officials or the sound they hear right before they're annihilated by a Hellfire missile. (Even calling friends, family, or a lawyer to turn yourself in could be the act that gets you killed.) If such an individual did know he was on the list, how exactly is he supposed to believe he'd have due process after giving himself up, given that he's already been sentenced to death by the administration? Is a fair trial even possible under those circumstances?

Randall Terry's Gory Super Bowl Abortion Ad Gets Intercepted

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 2:45 PM EST
One of the few not-disturbing images in Randall Terry's Super Bowl ad

Football fans in Chicago might get to enjoy a fetus-free Super Bowl next weekend. The city's NBC affiliate has intercepted Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry's plan to air a gory anti-abortion ad during the big game.

As MoJo's Tim Murphy has reported, Terry, a long-time foe of abortion rights, has launched a write-in primary challenge against President Obama in order to get his graphic ads on the air. According to Federal Communications Commission regulations, TV stations must give federal candidates unrestricted access to the airwaves in the weeks before an election. And Terry is exploiting that rule to the max by snatching up Super Bowl spots in as many states with February or March primaries as he can. He hasn't met any resistance until now.

NBC Chicago doesn't dispute that it would have to run Terry's ad—no matter how gory—if he were a legally qualified candidate. The station just isn't persuaded that he really is. In a statement, the station explains that it is "in the process of evaluating the materials supplied by the candidate" to determine if he is a "bona fide" candidate. Basically, Terry must do enough old-school campaigning—making speeches, distributing literature, issuing press releases, etc.—to prove that his candidacy is not a stunt. Terry claims he has done so; NBC Chicago isn't so sure.

While the station says it hasn't made a final decision, Terry has already filed a complaint with the FCC and says he'll take legal action if necessary. "The babies murdered under Obama's policies deserve a voice in the Illinois primary, and we will provide it for them," he asserts in a press release sent out last Thursday.

Meanwhile, here are some of the cities where viewers can still expect to see one of the ads during the Super Bowl festivities, according to Terry:

During the pre-game show: Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Kansas City, Kansas/Missouri; Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; St. Louis, Missouri; Tulsa, Oklahoma

During the game: Ada, Oklahoma; Grand Junction, Colorado; Joplin, Missouri; Paducah, Kentucky; Springfield, Missouri

To watch Terry's ad, click here. Warning: It contains extremely graphic images of dead fetuses.

Romney Forces Crush Gingrich in Florida Ad Wars

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 2:13 PM EST
Newt Gingrich.

Despite banking another $5 million from billionaire casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson—OK, technically Adelson's wife—Winning Our Future, the pro-Newt Gingrich super-PAC, is getting trounced by Mitt Romney forces in the ad wars leading up to Florida's primary on Tuesday.

Quoting a "source monitoring the Sunshine State ad war," Politico reports that the Romney campaign and pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future spent $15.3 million on television ads in Florida. That's 450 percent more than Gingrich's campaign and super-PAC Winning Our Future spent on TV ads. And that doesn't include money spent on direct mail sent to voters, get-out-the-vote efforts, and other non-TV campaigning.

In other words, just as Gingrich clinched a double-digit victory in South Carolina after blitzing the airwaves there with ads attacking Romney, Romney and his allies are doing the same in Florida. And boy is it paying off: Romney now leads Gingrich by 12 percentage points, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Sunday. A separate Miami Herald poll showed Romney trouncing Gingrich among Florida Hispanic voters, 52 percent to 28 percent.

Restore Our Future is already laying the groundwork for Romney wins in other key primary states. According to ProPublica, the deep-pocketed super-PAC has already spent $52,000 attacking Gingrich in Nevada (Feb. 4 caucus), $120,000 attacking him in Arizona (Feb. 28 primary), and $168,000 attacking him in Michigan (Feb. 28 primary). You can bet those sums will increase dramatically in the coming weeks—unless, that is, Gingrich bows out, in which case Restore Our Future and its political guru, Carl Forti, will have done their job.

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A-10 vs. F-35: The Air Force's Latest Budget Bungle

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 1:50 PM EST

The A-10 Warthog, an endangered species: US Air ForceThe A-10 Warthog, an endangered species US Air Force

Military traditionalists and aviation fan boys, you might need to sit down for this: In its zeal to stay relevant and (sort of) save bucks, America's flying corps is ridding itself of some of its cheapest, most reliable attack jets in favor of an overpriced, underperforming boondoggle of an aircraft.

The Air Force announced plans on Friday to cut five squadrons of A-10 attack jets (as well as a number of cargo aircraft) in the hopes that they'll ultimately be replaced by the notoriously expensive F-35 fighter program.

The plan is bound to be controversial. Imagine an unstoppable commercial Learjet with a full-automatic cannon in its nose and an iron bathtub surrounding the cockpit. That gives you some idea of the A-10's appearance and performance. Nicknamed the Thunderbolt (though most salty service members call it a Warthog, since that nose cannon kind of looks like a snout), the A-10 was developed in the Cold War to fly low and slow and destroy Soviet tanks. After 9/11, war planners realized the A-10's close-air support capabilities made it an ideal tool to defeat insurgents, too; by 2010, 60 of the planes had fired more than 300,000 rounds of ammunition in combat over Iraq (as well as flown a handful of propaganda-leaflet drops), with an 85 percent success rate [PDF]. The plane has done equally well in Afghanistan and Libya.

Freddie Mac Profiting From Your Distress?

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 1:44 PM EST

Jesse Eisinger and Chris Arnold report on Freddie Mac's latest wheeze:

Freddie Mac, the taxpayer-owned mortgage giant, has placed multibillion-dollar bets that pay off if homeowners stay trapped in expensive mortgages with interest rates well above current rates. Freddie began increasing these bets dramatically in late 2010, the same time that the company was making it harder for homeowners to get out of such high-interest mortgages.

No evidence has emerged that these decisions were coordinated. The company is a key gatekeeper for home loans but says its traders are “walled off” from the officials who have restricted homeowners from taking advantage of historically low interest rates by imposing higher fees and new rules.

Ah, the old Chinese wall. I remember it well from the dotcom bubble days, when investment banks supposedly erected an impenetrable barrier between the bankers who helped Pets.com go public and the analysts who told clients whether Pets.com was a good investment. After it all blew up, of course, it turned out the wall wasn't quite as impenetrable as everyone thought.

So how is Freddie doing this? After telling us the story of the Silversteins, who want to get a refi on their current high-interest loan but can't because of Freddie Mac policies, the authors explain:

Here's how Freddie Mac’s trades profit from the Silversteins staying in “financial jail.” The couple’s mortgage is sitting in a big pile of other mortgages, most of which are also guaranteed by Freddie and have high interest rates. Those mortgages underpin securities that get divided into two basic categories.

One portion is backed mainly by principal, pays a low return, and was sold to investors who wanted a safe place to park their money. The other part, the inverse floater, is backed mainly by the interest payments on the mortgages, such as the high rate that the Silversteins pay. So this portion of the security can pay a much higher return, and this is what Freddie retained.

In 2010 and '11, Freddie purchased $3.4 billion worth of inverse floater portions — their value based mostly on interest payments on $19.5 billion in mortgage-backed securities, according to prospectuses for the deals. They covered tens of thousands of homeowners. Most of the mortgages backing these transactions have high rates of about 6.5 percent to 7 percent, according to the deal documents.

So as long as homeowners have to keep paying high interest rates on their loans, Freddie's investment is gold. If they refi into a lower-interest loan, the value of the inverse floater goes down and Freddie is in trouble. Naturally, it's all just a big coincidence that Freddie is simultaneously making it hard for families to refi into lower-interest loans. Chinese wall, you know.

Read the whole thing for more. It's good to see that the American finance industry hasn't lost a step just because of that whole financial collapse thing a couple of years ago.

Enviros File SEC Complaint Over Keystone Pipeline

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 1:14 PM EST

On Monday, Senate Republicans formally announced that they are introducing legislation that would force the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline with or without the consent of the Obama administration. Unless that bill passes, however, the project remains on hold indefinitely. That has created some interesting business questions for TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline.

Now environmental activists are upping the pressure on their foe. Last week, Greenpeace sent a letter (PDF) to Mary Schapiro, the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, requesting an SEC investigation into whether TransCanada has been misleading investors about the income it could receive from the pipeline project. In the January 26 letter, Phil Radford, the executive director of Greenpeace, accused TransCanada of violating the SEC's "Employment of Manipulative and Deceptive Practices" rule, arguing that that the company misled investors in its filings and public statements by exaggerating both the number of jobs that the pipeline would create and the amount of money it would bring in.

TransCanada's most recent disclosure projects that Keystone pipeline complex will contribute $1.7 billion in earned income when it becomes fully operational. That amount would represent 26 percent the company's projected earnings in 2015. But with the project on hold indefinitely, those sorts of revenues seem out of reach.

Meanwhile, Corbin Hiar reports at iWatch News that TransCanada spent nearly half a million dollars lobbying for the pipeline last year.

TransCanada plans to reapply for approval in the future. Inside Climate has a good rundown of the company's options going forward. But as Greenpeace's Radford notes in his letter, failing to win approval for the pipeline will "significantly impact the company's future earnings and share price."

Koch-Funded Group Paying Tea Partiers to Collect Voters' Personal Info

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 1:06 PM EST

Tea party activists have long disputed liberal charges that their movement is simply the product of a corporate Astroturf campaign designed to attack President Obama. For the most part, they've been right. But a new effort to recruit members and gather voter data by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers, may serve to revive those old claims.

In recent weeks, according to the Florida-based conservative news outlet Sunshine State News, AFP has been quietly hiring tea party leaders to serve as "field coordinators" in Florida, leading up to Tuesday's GOP primary and beyond, reportedly paying them $30,000 each to help beef up AFP's membership. AFP has also offered tea party groups $2 for every new AFP member their volunteers sign up at Florida polling stations on Tuesday. An email from the West Orlando Tea Party organizers to its members explains:

Americans For Prosperity has offered many local tea party groups an opportunity to collect a few dollar$ for our cause and it revolves around the January 31st primary. Anyone who volunteers from our group will net our WOTP group $2 for every person they "sign up" for AFP which involves getting the name, address, and email of local voters at local polling stations that day. They will provide us with T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other handouts to recruit like minded conservatives.

(The person answering the contact phone number for the West Orlando Tea Party hung up when I called Monday to inquire about the AFP offer.)

The AFP effort in Florida is being spearheaded by Slade O'Brien, AFP's Florida director. O'Brien is a political consultant whose former* firm, Florida Strategies Group, specialized in Astroturf campaigns and "grass-tops lobbying." His clients have included big drug companies, Home Depot, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and other big business groups. O'Brien's ties to the Kochs go back to at least the late 1990s, when he served as the Florida director for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a forerunner to Americans for Prosperity.

The bounty-hunting aspect of AFP's membership drive and its focus on recruiting tea party activists to do the groundwork has rankled some of the state's grassroots conservative activists, who tend to prize their independence. Activists have expressed concerns about what AFP plans to do with the information it collects, which they believe may be sold to political campaigns for years to come. AFP's membership drive certainly looks like a concrete expression of the Koch brothers stated intention to steer more than $200 million to conservative groups ahead of the fall presidential election. And the oil company magnates have been working for nearly two years on creating a massive conservative voter database dubbed "Themis" to help influence elections and get out the conservative vote in various campaigns. The Florida AFP membership drive would definitely fit with those plans.

O'Brien deferred questions about Themis to the AFP national office, which didn't return a call for comment. But O'Brien defended the tea party outreach effort. He says it's simply an effort to bolster AFP's membership rolls, and one that will mutually benefit like-minded "patriot" groups and also "puts money back into heart and soul of the movement." O'Brien says that none of the voter data collected by the volunteers will be sold.

Even so, the tea partiers on the ground may not be so amenable to serving as AFP's foot soldiers. Even the former Florida field coordinator for AFP, Apryl Marie Fogel, has criticized the initiative. "Incentivizing people with money is no different than what ACORN or other groups are doing,"  she told Sunshine State Newscomparing the process to "Astroturf." "This is the opposite of what AFP stands for." 

O'Brien disagrees. "There’s not a single tea party leader who has approached me and said, 'I think this is a bad idea.'"

* Correction: O'Brien left his firm when he became AFP's Florida director. The original version of this post indicated he was still with the company. We regret the error.