2012 - %3, April

Quote of the Day: "We're Funding Both Sides of This War."

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 3:15 PM PDT

Time's Mark Thompson posted an email exchange today with Douglas Wissing, author of Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, about his impression of the war after spending time on the ground in Afghanistan. Here's Wissing:

FM 3-24, the famous counterinsurgency manual authored by General David Petraeus that guides the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, states that partnering with a legitimate host government is an indispensable “north star” to a successful war. Instead, the U.S. is allied with an Afghan government that is largely ineffective and systemically corrupt.

....When I was embedded with U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, the soldiers started telling me that the U.S. government is wasting tens of billions of American taxpayer dollars on scandalously mismanaged aid and logistics contracts that end up financing the Taliban.

We’d be trundling through Taliban-controlled areas in armored vehicles, dodging ambushes and hitting IEDs, and the soldiers would be saying, “We’re funding both sides of this war.” It seemed preposterous at first. But as I dug into the story, officers, diplomats, and aid officials confirmed the rough outlines of the pernicious system. One sardonic US intelligence officer told me, “It’s the perfect war. Everyone is making money.”

....I have seen courageous American soldiers get increasingly frustrated and cynical about the war. Last summer a Marine colonel in southern Afghanistan told me there was low morale among the troops. He said, “On an operational level, the soldiers are saying, ‘I’m going to go over there and try to not get my legs blown off. My nation will shut this bullshit down.’ That’s the feeling of my fellow soldiers.” The marine officer said, “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

Wissing believes that the continued American presence simply isn't doing any good. His advice: "I think the U.S. officials need to accelerate the withdrawal of the troops, and prepare to assist with the inevitable humanitarian crisis that is bound to overwhelm Afghanistan when we leave. We broke it. We need to help pick up the pieces."

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Update: North Sea Gas Leak

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 2:58 PM PDT

 Credit: © Julia Whitty

Credit: © Julia Whitty

Recent developments at the Elgin Well head platform—the Well-from-Hell—in the North Sea, where a massive gas leak has been underway since 25 March:

  • The operator of the platform, supermajor oil giant Total SA, says it's losing $2.5 million a day on the leak—$1 million daily on efforts to stanch the leak and $1.5 million in daily revenue,reports AFP.
  •  Greenpeace members aboard the German research vessel Koenigin Juliana sailed to the edge of the exclusion zone within three nautical miles of the platform and reported seeing oil on the water in the form of a multicolored sheen, plus a faint smell of gas in the air. Total claims what they saw was a gas condensate sheen and that it poses no threat to marine life, reports The Maritime Executive.
  • The flare on the platform that had been burning when the rig was evacuated extinguished itself Saturday.
  • Total has outlined plans to stop the gas leak by 1) boarding the platform to control the well, while also 2) drilling a relief well and 3) drilling a backup relief well. The operations are being planned as follows, reports the Oil & Gas Journal:
Total already mobilized two rigs to drill the relief well and backup relief well. Both rigs will move to Elgin after final suspension of their current operations. Both rigs already are working for Total. The Sedco 714 semisubmersible currently is drilling on Fettercairn field north of Elgin. Transocean Ltd. owns and operates Sedco 714. The second rig is a jack up owned by Rowan Cos. Inc. The Gorilla V currently is drilling on West Franklin field. Total said it also is considering additional drilling rigs to maintain the widest possible options available for the response. Two support vessels also are standing by. One is a vessel to deploy remote-operated vehicles for underwater inspections in the vicinity of the Elgin platform. A second vessel is on standby to conduct seabed surveys of possible sites for relief wells.

Neo-Confederates Freak Out About Ru Paul Museum Display

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 2:44 PM PDT
Ru Paul.

The South has risen again—against Ru Paul.

The freakout began, as many such freakouts do, over a museum display. On Saturday, the new Appomattox, Virginia branch of the Museum of Confederate History had its grand opening, with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner and the ceremonial flag-raising of the 14 states in the Confederacy. It all seemed innocuous enough. But as the blog Southern Heritage Alerts explained, there was trouble. Just a few days earlier, a "flagger" (Lost Cause jargon for someone who publicly displays the Confederate flag) went on a "recon" mission to the museum a few days before its official grand opening and spotted a life-size image of VH1 star Ru Paul dressed in a bedazzled Confederate flag dress. (Here's a photo.)

Immediately, Lost Causers sprang into action. "This is Waite Rawls flipping the bird to all Southerners," read one characteristic blog comment, referring to the museum's director. "You must get in 'these peoples' face and spit and spit again!," read another. "Kid gloves ain't gonna work with this trash!!!! They spit on YOU and YOUR heritage everyday!!!!" Another commenter wondered aloud, "How could this have been allowed to happen even for a soft opening to me it is both hateful and disrespectful not alone what were small children to make of this." The Sons of Confederate Veterans, one of the nation's leading Neo-Confederate groups, put out a statement blasting the display.

Finally, the Washington Times, the paper of record for this kind of thing, got to the bottom of the story after talking to Rawls himself:

When reached, Mr. Rawls acknowledged that the Ru Paul likeness was up "for about six hours, and then taken down for good." He said it was someone's idea for an eye-catching example of the way a flag can be improperly used, but early "soft opening" visitors wasted no time in making their strong objections known, and the display was removed. He laughingly said it might be used for lining chicken coops in the future.

Fortunately it was no longer in evidence on Wednesday when some sixty students, parents and teachers from the Appomattox County School system became some of the first invited guests to enjoy the new facility.

So there you have it. The sons and daughters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have been saved from the prospect of seeing the Confederate flag desecrate Ru Paul.

What's Even Grosser Than Pink Slime?

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 1:02 PM PDT
Turkeys headed for the kill at an industrial-scale slaughterhouse.

Last week, two news items crossed my desk that demonstrate the meat industry's power and its threat to public health.

The first is the extraordinary, bipartisan political defense of the embattled, ammonia-laced ground-beef filler that has become known as "pink slime." The second is a proposed plan by the Obama administration to fire USDA inspectors and let the poultry industry inspect its own slaughterhouse lines—while simultaneously speeding up the kill line.

Let's start with pink slime. Democratic and Republican politicians agree on little these days, but they do find common ground on this point: Pink slime is good stuff. Government officials, from USDA chief Tom Vilsack and the USDA's chief food-safety functionary to Texas' ridiculous governor and two other GOP governors, rallied around the ammonia-reeking substance last week, trying desperately to boost the flagging fortunes of its maker, South Dakota-based Beef Products International (BPI). Confirming pink slime's bipartisan appeal, both candidates for a hotly contested Iowa House seat—Tea Party stalwart Steve King and Christie Vilsack, wife of USDA chief Tom—appeared at an event to sing its praises.

Feds Raid Oaksterdam University

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 12:15 PM PDT
Higher education: Oaksterdam

This morning, agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency, US Marshals Service, and Internal Revenue Service served a warrant on Oaksterdam University, a trade school in Oakland, California, for medical marijuana growers. Local pot activist Richard Lee, the founder of "America's first cannabis college," was reportedly detained briefly at his home as the feds began to confiscate documents and pot from the school and a dispensary affiliated with him.

The raid is the latest setback for local "hempreneurs" who'd planned to make Oakland into a mecca for above-ground pot cultivation and commerce. Last year, after the city council voted to approve four industrial-scale grow operations projected to net up to $7.7 million in yearly tax revenue, the Justice Department warned the city attorney that they would be considered "illegal, large-scale pot growing operations, with Oakland planning to get a cut of the illicit profits." The city council gave in, voting 7-1 to put the plans on hold. (For more on the city's pot-induced dreams, check out Josh Harkinson's profile of the guys behind the would-be grower superstore Weedmart.)

The Oaksterdam raid isn't a surprise considering the Obama administration's about-face on medical marijuana. The president campaigned on the promise that he'd stop federal raids on medical marijuana operations that were in compliance with state laws, a vow that Attorney General Eric Holder repeated after the election. But then the Obama administration raided more than 100 dispensaries in its first three years and is now poised to outpace the Bush administration's crackdown record.

The precise cause of the Oaksterdam raid is not immediately clear. Also unclear is whether any charges against Lee would extend beyond medical marijuana production to drug selling or tax issues. (Back taxes are dogging Oakland's Harborside Health Center, the West Coast's largest dispensary.) Yet targeting someone as high profile as Lee sends a strong signal that the feds don't think California's medical marijuana laws shield the state's growers.

"Medicine is not a crime! DEA, go away!" protesters chanted outside Oaksterdam as they passed around a "protest doobie" earlier today. Later, city Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan told reporters that law enforcement should focus its resources on violent crime. "We have not had crime or violence associated with our dispensaries, and that's because they've been tightly regulated," she said. At least one protester was reportedly arrested after a clash with police, and riot police are now on the scene.

Occupy Oakland livestreamer @OaktownPirate has been reporting from Oaksterdam with the citizen journalism outfit Team Oaktown Live: 


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"Forfeiture Corridors" Are the New Speed Traps

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 11:20 AM PDT

You all know what a speed trap is, right? If you have a highway running through your small town, you can make a lot of money by ticketing out-of-state drivers who are going one or two miles per hour over the speed limit. How many victims are going to waste time trying to fight it, after all?

But have you heard about "forfeiture corridors"? That's a little different — and quite a bit more lucrative. All you have to do is pull over an out-of-state driver for supposedly making an unsafe lane change, have your police dog sniff around for a bit of marijuana residue, and then use civil asset forfeiture laws to impound any cash you might find. Apparently it's especially popular on highways leading into and out of casino towns. Radley Balko has the details here.

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Rick Santorum Really Doesn't Like Mitt Romney Much

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 9:34 AM PDT

I know that conventional wisdom says that primary contenders can hold hands and sing Kumbaya in the fall no matter what they've said about each other in the spring. But Rick Santorum sure seems bound and determined to perform a destruction test on this conventional wisdom. This ad, especially by Republican lights, is just brutal.

Breaking News: Women Like Having Access to Contraception

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 9:04 AM PDT

So how's that whole contraception thing working out for the right? The latest Gallup poll of swing states suggests that it's not going so well: Obama now leads Romney in these states 51%-42%. Here's why:

The biggest change came among women under 50. In mid-February, just under half of those voters supported Obama. Now more than six in 10 do while Romney's support among them has dropped by 14 points, to 30%. The president leads him 2-1 in this group.

USA Today breaks this down a bit more in the chart below. Most people still don't have much of an opinion about birth control, but among those who do, 27% agree with Obama's view while only 11% agree with Romney's view. This might all blow over by November, but if the Obama campaign manages to keep it in play it could become a pretty serious albatross for the right.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 1, 2012

Mon Apr. 2, 2012 8:10 AM PDT

US Army 1st Sgt. Michael Strate (right), C-Battery, 1st Battalion (Air Assault), 377th Field Artillery Regiment, Task Force Spartan Steel, prepares to transport the M777 howitzer from Forward Operating Base Salerno to Combat Outpost Chamkani, March 28, 2012. Photo by the US Army.

Chart of the Day: How We Spend Our Money

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 8:09 AM PDT

Via Brad Plumer, here's an interesting chart from the BLS showing how much we spend on stuff compared to a few selected other countries. We spend a lot more on housing than the other countries, somewhat more on healthcare, and quite a bit less on food. Hooray factory farming!

Brad has some commentary to go along with this chart, but I have a different takeaway. Looking at these numbers, it's hard not to conclude that we have a lot of headroom on healthcare. I could easily see healthcare rising to at least the same level as food expenditures, and maybe as high as transportation too. That could happen because we collectively decide to spend less on food and transportation, or it could happen just by spending the same fixed amount on these items as wages rise, and then plowing all of our additional income into healthcare. On past performance, that might very well be something we do happily.

In other words, it's true that to some extent rising healthcare expenditures provide their own pushback. When we collectively decide we're spending too much, we'll collectively start reining in our spending. But as the chart below makes clear, that time could be quite a way away.