2012 - %3, February

ACLU Wants Obama To Release Targeted Killing Records

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 4:12 PM EST
President Obama talks to national security officials Tom Donilon and Ben Rhodes as former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley looks on.

The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit Wednesday seeking not only the legal justification for America's targeted killing program, but the process by which US citizens suspected of terrorism are placed on its so-called "kill list." The ACLU is also seeking the evidence the US government used to determine that radical American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in September, was actually a terrorist.

Little is known about the process by which the US determines whether killing an American citizen suspected of terrorism abroad is justifed. Just last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CBS' 60 Minutes that the president himself signs off on targeted killings when aimed at American citizens. 

While the New York Times has also filed a FOIA lawsuit seeking the Office of Legal Counsel memo that lays out the legal justification for targeted killings of American citizens suspected of terrorism, the ACLU lawsuit goes farther in asking for specific evidence both related to Awlaki's death and details about how the US government decides it can kill one of its own citizens without a trial. While Awlaki was well known for spreading extremist ideas, concrete evidence of his operational involvement with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was never made public. 

Last time the ACLU sued over targeted killing of Americans a judge sided with the CIA, which argued that the government had not officially acknowledged the program's existence, despite the program being essentially the world's biggest open secret. On Monday Obama told a questioner during an online forum that the drone program was "on a very tight leash" and that his administration's exponential increase in the use of drone strikes did not amount to the US conducting "a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly." Between the president's remarks and Panetta's, perhaps this time around the government won't be able to use the excuse that it remains nominally classified.

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Susan G. Komen's Founder Is Major GOP Donor, Ex-Bush Ambassador

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 4:05 PM EST
Ambassador Nancy Goodman Brinker (pictured), the founder of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, is a major Republican donor.

Tuesday's news that Susan G. Komen for the Cure is ending funding it provided to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings has led to increased scrutiny of Komen's staff, which—as I reported previously—includes a federal lobbyist who pledged to defund Planned Parenthood while campaigning for governor of Georgia.

Komen's founder is pretty conservative, too. Komen CEO Nancy G. Brinker, who founded the foundation in memory of a sister who died from breast cancer, was the chief protocol officer for the United States from 2007 to 2009 under the George W. Bush administration, and before that served as his ambassador to Hungary.

Brinker is also a major Republican donor, and has given more than $175,000 to Republican candidates and the Republican National Committee since 1990, according to donor data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Her late husband, Norman Brinker, was the chairman of Brinker International Restaurants, which owns the chains Chili's, Maggiano's, and Macaroni Grill. Norman Brinker gave more than $440,000 to Republicans between 1990 and his death in 2009.

As RH Reality Check pointed out Wednesday, Komen's public affairs advisory board also includes a staunchly anti-abortion member:

Second, sitting on Komen's Advocacy Alliance Board is Jane Abraham, the General Chairman of the virulently anti-choice and anti-science Susan B. Anthony List and of its Political Action Committee. Among other involvements, Abraham helps direct the Nuturing Network (sic), a global network of crisis pregnancy centers known for spreading ideology, misinformation and lies to women facing unintended pregnancy. Also on the board of Nuturing Network (sic) is Maureen Scalia, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

This is all to say that perhaps the Planned Parenthood decision isn't all that big of a surprise, given the politics of people involved with Komen. The flap might end up benefiting Planned Parenthood in the end, however. The group has raised more than $400,000 since the news broke, a spokesman said Wednesday afternoon.

After Three Years, Homeowners Still Being Treated as Political Pawns

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 2:46 PM EST

The overriding theme of President Obama's last few months has been "We Can't Wait." Translated, this means that we can no longer wait for congressional Republicans, who are plainly unwilling to address the nation's problems, so we're going to do everything we possibly can by executive action alone.

But as Ezra Klein points out today, that theme suddenly disappeared when the subject turned to relief for homeowners. Instead of proposing a limited program that he could enact on his own, Obama has deliberately chosen an approach that requires congressional approval:

In choosing to expand the program beyond Fannie and Freddie, the administration has also expanded the program beyond what it has the executive authority to do on its own. If they just wanted to further streamline the HARP program, they could recess appoint a new director for Fannie and Freddie and get to work. Creating the new program through the FHFA -- and paying for it through a new tax on banks -- requires congressional approval, and few think House Republicans are likely to sign onto a new tax.

The administration argues that there has been bipartisan support for refinancing initiatives in Congress. In the Senate, for instance, Republican Johnny Isakson (Ga.) has cosponsored legislation with Democrat Barbara Boxer (Calif.). And there’s no doubt that legislation produced with Congress’s cooperation can do much more to extend refinancing help than executive actions. But the question remains: If Congress ignores this bill, as they have ignored so many of the Obama administration’s other initiatives, is the White House sufficiently committed to leave Congress behind and use Fannie and Freddie to go their own way?

If this were any other program, I'm not sure this question would come up. But Obama's attitude toward homeowner relief has been so weak and so plainly inadequate for so long that his credibility on this subject is close to nonexistent. It's hard not to think that his latest proposal is meant more to score political points when Republicans vote it down than it is to actually help homeowners.

When It Comes to Your Genes, How Much is Too Much Information?

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 2:32 PM EST

Would you want to know if you are at risk of developing a life-threatening disease? What if it's totally incurable? What if there's only a 5 percent chance it would even happen in your lifetime? On Tuesday, an ethics group at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge launched a site designed to wrestle with exactly these types of moral questions quickly cropping up due to the increased prevalence of gene sequencing.

If you are a volunteer in a medical study, for example, and have handed over a spit sample of DNA, the survey tries to determine what responsibility researchers have to let you know if they discover something sticky you may not know about along the way. The survey (chock full of images of "scientists" very seriously pipetting) is designed to crowd-source the data collection process in hopes of gauging broad public attitudes towards genomic testing; the eventual goal is to help inform emerging public policies on the issue. And don't worry if you don't consider yourself super science-literate—the questions are all designed to hit pretty close to home. The harder part will be figuring out how you really feel about knowing what's in the cards for you.

How much would you really like to know? Visit http://www.genomethics.org to fill out the survey.

The High Cost of Bad Handwriting

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 1:58 PM EST

One of my longtime medical pet peeves has been jokes about doctors' bad handwriting. Ha ha. But it's no joke. If you have sloppy handwriting, then prescriptions and procedures get mixed up and patients suffer. (Or maybe even die.)

Today Sarah Kliff points us to an Australian study that quantifies this. In two different hospitals, researchers replaced handwritten records with electronic records in some wards but not in others. Then they measured prescribing errors per 100 patient days. Here are the results:

  • Hospital A: Errors reduced from 51 ---> 17
  • Hospital B1: Errors reduced from 39 ---> 10
  • Hospital B2: Errors reduced from 48 ---> 17

Three control groups saw only slight drops in their error rates. Replacing handwriting with electronic records has a huge impact. So the moral of the story is: Switch to electronic records! These systems not only catch medication and dosage errors algorithmically, but they reduce the chance of errors from illegible written scripts. In the meantime, start taking handwriting as seriously as you do washing your hands.

America Spends Less on Food Than Any Other Country

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 1:40 PM EST

Like Kiera—and, I'm sure, many of the readers of her article—I was a bit shocked when I calculated how much I spend on food. I like to think I'm thrifty in my food spending habits—I cook a lot and usually eat out only on the weekends—but I don't usually add up my food costs and rarely make serious estimates for food spending when I make a budget, instead assuming that I'll manage to make do with whatever's left after I cut a check for rent, buy a bus pass, and pay my utility bills.

Of course, this kind of logic is completely insane to most people in the world, for the simple and obvious fact that food is the most important thing to budget for. It's only because I live in a rich country where having enough to eat isn't really an issue that I can be so clueless about my food spending habits; as demonstrated by the chart below, the higher a country's average income, the smaller the percentage of income spent on food. 

 

Gates FoundationGates Foundation

On some level, this is pretty intuitive—food is a basic need, and there's only so much you can eat, no matter how much money you have. But even among developed countries, our food spending is ultra-low: People in most European countries spend over 10 percent of their incomes on food. In fact, Americans spend less on food than people in any other country in the world. Even we Americans didn't always expect our food to be so cheap, though: Back in 1963, when Molly Orshansky, an employee of the Social Security Administration, created the nation's first poverty threshold, she simply tripled the cost of the FDA's "thrifty" food plan, since at the time most families spent about a third of their incomes on food. So how'd we end up spending just a fraction of that four decades later?

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Heading to California's Annual Organic-Farming Woodstock

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 1:34 PM EST

At California's annual Eco-Farm conference, some 1,400-1,500 organic farmers, farmhands, Big Organic marketers, and sundry sustainable-ag enthusiasts pack into a rustic, beautiful seaside conference center an hour-and-a-half south of San Francisco to talk seeds, weeds, and agribiz misdeeds amid the dunes. I loved it when I attended in 2008. At the Asilomar center overlooking Monterery Bay—incidentally, the site of a seminal meeting of scientists and lawyers about how to proceed with GMO research way back in 1975—there's no brain-sucking hotel auditorium, no day upon day of artificial light and processed air. Break-out sessions take place in scattered bungalows, linked by trails through rolling dunes. The low roar in the background isn't some infernal highway; rather, waves lashing up against a rocky shore. It's a bit like summer camp for sustainable-ag nerds: You wind up outdoors a lot, wandering from activity to activity, often pelted by rain.

I'll be there for the next several days, filing dispatches as possible. I'm also giving a talk on how it's up to communities to create alternative food systems in an era of outright industry capture of regulation and food policy. Here is the schedule.

VIDEO: What Happens to Piglets on Factory Farms

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 1:30 PM EST

The remarkable thing about Humane Society of the United States' latest factory farm video exposé is how banal it is. No illegal acts like "downer" animals being forced down the kill line with fork lifts, or getting their brains bashed in with a pickax. What we have here is the everyday reality of pigs' lives on a factory farm, without regulations flouted or spectacular violence committed. It is abuse routinized and regimented, honed into a profitable business model.

The video looks at two aspects of the dirty business of raising thousands of pigs en masse in close quarters: 1) the way pregnant pigs live as they wait to have their litters; and 2) what happens to baby pigs with they're weaned after just three days. Neither is for the squeamish.

In case you couldn't watch, the video illustrates the well-known, widespread practice of confining gestating pigs for months on end in 2 foot by 7 foot crates that deny them room to move or even turn around; and the ghastly (though perfectly legal) custom of snipping off baby pigs' tails without use of painkillers.

The targets are two relatively obscure but quite large companies in Oklahoma, Seaboard Foods and Prestage Farms, the nation's third- and fifth-largest hog producers. In addition to raising hogs, Seaboard also slaughters them and sells pork to large retailers, including Walmart. Its brands include the rustic-sounding Prairie Fresh; and the company's website proclaims its "strong commitment" to animal welfare.

Romney's Super-PAC Attack Machine, Brought to You by Big Finance

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 12:37 PM EST

Mitt Romney's thumping victory in Florida on Tuesday was due in part to the wave of negative ads barraging his opponent, Newt Gingrich, in the week before the primary. Sixty-eight percent of all Florida primary ads attacked Gingrich, and it was the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future leading the charge, spending $13.3 million to tear down Gingrich—more than all the other super-PACs combined.

Late Tuesday night, after Romney's win was in the bag, the public discovered the funders behind this anti-Newt assault. The key takeaway: FIRE.

FIRE is short for the "finance, insurance, and real estate" sector. According to a new disclosure filing with the Federal Election Commission, $11.7 million of the nearly $18 million raked in by Restore Our Future in the second half of 2011 came from the FIRE sector—financiers, investment bankers, Bain Capital directors, real estate developers, and more. That's 65 percent of all the money Restore Our Future raised. Put another way, 93 of the 199 donations to Restore Our Future came from members of the FIRE sector.

Who are these wealthy donors? They include hedge fund managers Paul Singer and Julian Robertson; Steven Roth, CEO of commercial real estate giant Vornado; GOP mega-donor and home-building magnate Bob Perry; and Kenneth Griffin, founder and CEO of the Citadel investment firm.

Even with the FIRE sector's backing, though, Restore Our Future's windfall and Romney's own haul of nearly $40 million in the second half of 2011 doesn't match President Obama's campaign war chest. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Obama and supporting super-PACs have raised $125 million for his re-election effort; for Romney, the figure is closer to $88 million.

Public Money and Public Policy

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 12:13 PM EST

Yesterday, writing about the Obama administration's refusal to grant Catholic-run organizations an exemption from their rule requiring insurance plans to cover contraceptives, I said that if these organizations take public money then they need to follow public rules. Megan McArdle disagrees:

As Ross Douthat points out, the regulations seem to have nothing to do with whether the Catholic hospitals or other charities take public money; rather, it's the fact that they provide services to the public, rather than having an explicitly religious mission.

I've seen several versions of Kevin's complaint on the interwebs, and everyone who makes it seems to assume that we're doing the Catholic Church a big old favor by allowing them to provide health care and other social services to a needy public....In the universe where I live, some of the best charity care is provided by religious groups.

…In this world, I had been under the impression that we were providing Catholic charities with federal funds mostly because this was the most cost-effective way of delivering services to needy groups. Thus it's not obvious to me that we will be better off encouraging Catholic hospitals and other groups to provide services exclusively to their own flock, while exclusively employing members of their own flock. And I'm fairly certain that if I wanted to stage a confrontation with Catholic charities, it would not be over something as trivial as forcing them to provide birth control coverage to their employees.

I don't know if the Obama administration based its new regulations on the notion that taking public money obliges you to follow public rules. However, that's my belief, so that's why I used it as part of my argument.

But I want to make a broader point. I'm unhappy with the creeping growth of religious conscience exemptions to public policy, and this affects my belief that such exemptions ought to be pretty limited. I can live with exceptions for abortion, for example, but not contraception.

Here's an analogy. A century ago, if a Catholic hospital had refused to admit blacks, that would have been permissible. This isn't because no one thought such a policy was wrong. Plenty of people did, even then. But in that time and place it was a genuinely controversial question, and that's why the government didn't get involved.

But that changed. As the public came overwhelmingly to believe that racial discrimination was unsupportable, public policy changed and hospitals were required to admit all comers. If you claimed a religious exemption, too bad. You had to follow the rules.

The same thing has happened to contraception. Unlike abortion, which remains a genuine hot button, contraception simply isn't. Poll after poll shows that the public almost unanimously has no moral objection to contraception, and, by margins of 3- or 4-to-1, believes that insurance ought to cover contraception. This is true even among Catholics. It's almost literally the case that the only remaining objection to contraception in modern American society comes from the tiny, exclusively male group that makes up the church's leadership.

If the Catholic hierarchy wants to maintain its barbaric position that contraception is immoral, there's nothing I can do to stop it. But it's a position that maims and kills and immiserates millions throughout the world, and there's simply no reason that a secular government needs to—or should—humor them over this. I don't think the church will stop providing charity care because they object to the contraception rule, but if they do then we'll just have to find others to step in. We're living in the 21st century, and in the 21st century contraception is almost unanimously viewed as morally benign and practically effective. It's a boon, not a curse, and there's simply no reason that a secular government supported by taxpayer dollars should continue to indulge the pretense that it's not.