KBR in Iraq

If you haven't already seen it, I'd highly recommend James Glanz' piece in the New York Times on how KBR—of Halliburton subsidiary fame—botched a pipeline project in Iraq. It definitely gives a vivid sense of just how and why reconstruction has been such a travesty. Meanwhile, Daniel Gross reports in Slate that KBR really hasn't been profiting much off its Iraq contracts thus far, although given that the Bush administration is going to leave a fine legacy of global instability in its wake, the company will probably have ample opportunity to redeem itself and smart investors should buy stock. Or something.

Here's a headline worth noting: "Democrats beat Republicans in 2005 Fund-Raising on Wall Street." My suspicion has always been that the Democratic Party has snuggled ever closer to the financial industry over the past decade partly because it's one of the few corporate sectors that doesn't conflict in an obvious way with any other major liberal interest group.

Democrats have to get corporate donations from somewhere, the thinking goes, and the financial sector doesn't usually clash overtly with labor unions. It's not part of the military-industrial complex. It doesn't pillage the environment. It screws over ordinary voters in opaque and non-obvious ways. What's not to like? Indeed, it's a pretty natural ally for a "liberal" party in dire need of campaign cash.

The downside is that a party that jumps in bed with the financial sector is going to end up backing the sorts of anti-progressive measures—from the recent bankruptcy bill, to financial deregulation, to inflation targeting by the Fed—that all strike me as just as malignant, if not more so, than, say, an energy company donating to Tom DeLay in exchange for the right to pollute or pour MTBE into our drinking water or whatever. And increasingly, the Democrats are doing just that. In some ways, it would almost be preferable if, say, Hillary Clinton was getting her money from ExxonMobil and Halliburton, rather than Citigroup and MetLife. (Okay, probably not, but you get my point…)

In case anyone was under the illusion that the health insurance situation is improving in this country, a recently-released Commonwealth Fund report sets things straight. 37 percent of low-income workers are currently uninsured, up from 33 percent in 2001. And the number of low-income workers who have gone without insurance at some point in the past year is 53 percent. This despite the fact that Medicaid is ostensibly supposed to help cover this group (it doesn't, of course, and has way too many gaps to be fully effective, but that's another story).

"Moderate income" workers, making between $20,000 and $40,000 a year, aren't doing too well either—the number of uninsured has risen from 17 percent five years ago to 28 percent today. And this all matters: more than half of all uninsured adults have debt or medical bill problems. 59 percent of uninsured adults with a chronic illness had to skip a treatment or a prescription. Those adults are much more likely to go to an emergency room than those with insurance. It's a crisis.

One thing I've noticed while reading the coverage of the Mary McCarthy firing—who may or may not have been fired for leaking evidence that the CIA was running secret and illegal detention centers in Europe—is that most of the coverage has concentrated mostly on the leak itself, rather than the main issue at hand: the fact that the CIA is running a clandestine torture operation that many officers within the agency want no part of. At any rate, this AP story brings things back into focus:

European lawmakers said Wednesday they had discovered a "widespread regular practice" of human rights violations by the CIA in Europe….

They said they had also found that the CIA has conducted more than 1,000 undeclared flights over European territory since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — some carrying suspected terrorists to countries where they could face torture….

As of late December, some 100 to 150 people have been seized in "renditions" involving taking terror suspects off the street of one country and flying them to their home country or another where they are wanted for a crime or questioning. Government officials have said the action is reserved for those considered by the CIA to be the most serious terror suspects. Mistakes, however, have been made, and are being investigated by the CIA's inspector general.Mistakes have been made? That's a rather understated way of putting it.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Photojournalist Lionel Delevingne is in Kiev, Ukraine for MotherJones.com, covering the commemorations. At the weekend he took a bus trip, laid on by the Ukrainian Ministry of Catastrophes, with a group of journalists and NGO activists, to the site of the disaster. A selection of photos below.

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Entering the 30km "Exclusion Zone" surrounding the disaster site. Entry and exit are strictly controlled by checkpoints like this one. Chernobyl is about 70 miles north of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

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A sign at the same checkpoint warns of the danger of entering the exclusion zone, which is highly contaminated by radioactive material.

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An aerial photo of the Chernobyl site at the Ukrainian Ministry of Catastrophes.

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The bus, carrying journalists and NGO activists supervised by Ukrainian government representatives, heads toward the disaster site in the center of the Exclusion Zone.

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Reactor number 4, where the explosion occurred on April 26, 1986. It has been encased in a concrete "sarcophagus" to contain radioactive material. Unfortunately, the structure was hastily built and is in danger of collapsing.

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Abandoned buildings in the "model town" of Pripyat, designed to house nuclear workers and their families.

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Although hundreds of thousands of people were permanently evacuated from their homes in the region surrounding the plant, some, like these, have insisted on returning, effectively becoming squatters in their former homes. About 38 people are thought to live in the highly contaminated Exclusion Zone.

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Boyar Erdokia and husband of the village of Illincy, in the Exclusion Zone. They insisted on returning to their former home.

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A woman who lives in the Exclusion Zone.

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Feodor Ivanovich, 78, of Illincy Village.

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A Soviet-era helicopter and buses used to evacuate residents at the time of the disaster sit in one of several "graveyards" in the Exclusion Zone. They are highly contaminated.

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A journalist contemplates the disaster site from the bus.

This week's Time magazine has a curious article that brings us into the still-clueless world of the White House. It seems that new advisor Josh Bolten has a bold five-point "recovery plan" for victory that includes such pointers as "Brag More." Yes, in the wake of a growing civil war in Iraq, the looming nuclear threat of Iran, chaos in the Medicare prescription drug plan and the criminal negligence of the Katrina response, what the President needs is some more of that good ol' Texas swagger. Along with pandering to his nativist anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant base and cutting more taxes to please Wall Street, the President could, even with his plunging job approval ratings, make things right again for his party and his tattered "legacy," Bolten believes. Call it the "Bolten bubble." Here are four of the big ideas on pandering they've cooked up, as reported by Time:

"The White House has no visions of expanding the G.O.P.'s position in the midterms; the mission is just to hold on to control of Congress by playing to the base. Here is the Bolten plan:

"1 DEPLOY GUNS AND BADGES. This is an unabashed play to members of the conservative base who are worried about illegal immigration. Under the banner of homeland security, the White House plans to seek more funding for an extremely visible enforcement crackdown at the Mexican border, including a beefed-up force of agents patrolling on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). "It'll be more guys with guns and badges," said a proponent of the plan. "Think of the visuals. The President can go down and meet with the new recruits. He can go down to the border and meet with a bunch of guys and go ride around on an ATV." Bush has long insisted he wants a guest-worker program paired with stricter border enforcement, but House Republicans have balked at temporary legalization for immigrants, so the President's ambition of using the issue to make the party more welcoming to Hispanics may have to wait.

A few weeks ago, I threw together some numbers and statistics suggesting that the French protesters might not be so misguided, and France-style labor protections might not cause high unemployment after all. Now David Howell and John Schmitt of EPI have a new paper getting into this in more depth.

The super-novel point here is that France's youth unemployment-to-population ratio (8.6) is actually nearly identical to that in the United States (8.3). France's "official" youth unemployment rate is higher primarily because very few French students enrolled in school actually work, while a lot of our college kids get jobs, so the ratio of unemployed youths to working youths is higher in France than it is here. Different numbers measure different things.

Now why do so few French high school and college students work? Maybe it's because they can't find jobs. Or maybe it's because they don't need to—their public universities are more heavily subsidized, after all. Interestingly, though, the percentage of 20 to 24-year-olds who aren't in school and are unemployed is actually a bit lower (14.1) than it is in the United States (14.4). That seems like the main number to worry about, and France seems to be doing okay on that front.

It's also worth noting that the share of young French adults still enrolled in education is much higher than it is in the United States (51.1 versus 35.0 percent). Again, whether that's because French kids like school or because they have no other options is up in the air. But even if it's because they have no other options, perhaps being "forced" to stay in school isn't so bad: According to OECD data, French workers are, on average, 6 to 16 percent more productive than American workers. Work less; study more—maybe that's the way to go.

Yesterday Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, wrote a blistering op-ed in the Baltimore Sun. Some excerpts:

This morning in San Francisco, about 100 fishermen protested to restore the Klamath River and their salmon season on the Pacific Coast. They blame the current salmon shortage on the Bush administration's mismanagement of the Klamath, which runs through California and Oregon. They were joined at Pier 47 by representatives Mike Thompson (D-CA) and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), who will introduce a bill tomorrow to provide $81 million in disaster relief to fishing communities.

Fishermen have been up in arms since the federal government announced in February that it was considering shortening the salmon season because of dwindling numbers of Klamath River salmon.

Fishermen and scientists say the dams on the Klamath River hurt fish. "There's every good reason to take [dams] out," Glen Spain, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), told the San Francisco Chronicle this month. "They heat the river to lethal levels, and they're breeding grounds for toxic algae and C. shasta, the parasite that kills the salmon." Those river conditions helped cause massive fish die-offs in 2002 and 2003.

Also, starting in 2001, the Bush administration began diverting increasingly large amounts of Klamath River water for agriculture, leaving less for salmon. The reduced water has helped magnify the problems caused by the Klamath dams.

(You can read more about the Klamath in Mother Jones' 2003 article "What's a River For?")

Below, you can listen to audio clips of key stakeholders in the debate. (Photos by Ed Homich)

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Donning a salmon headdress Jenny Stormy Statts of Orleans, Calif. attends the demonstration near Fisherman's Warf in San Francisco Monday.

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A fishing boat displays a plea to remove the dams on Northern California's Klamath River.

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Listen to clip Commercial fisherman George Boos says he came to the rally to represent fishermen who were being hurt by federal policies.

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Listen to clip Rally organizer and commercial fisherman Mike Hudson holds a bottle of what he says is deadly Klamath River water.

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Listen to clip Rep. Mike Thompson says Department of Interior officials refused to meet with him about salmon -- and then he showed up outside their office with 500 pounds of dead fish.

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Listen to clip Karuk tribal biologist and dipnet fisherman Ron Reed connects the plights of Native Americans and commercial fishermen: "What affects me and my people, affects you and your people."

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Listen to clip PCFFA vice president Dave Bitts says limiting
the salmon season will hurt him personally.

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Listen to eight-minute interview Zeke Grader, executive director of the PCFFA, says the Bush administration is mismanaging the Klamath River.

According to the current issue of Time magazine, more than 2,000 Iraqi women have gone missing since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. This estimate comes from anecdotal evidence collected by the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, and is thought to be the result of the collapse of law and order in Iraq.

In addition to the existence of gangs of criminals, some aid workers say that various ministry bureaucrats have either frozen the assets of charities that might provide refuge, or have bound them with excessive red tape. According to the UK press, sex traffickers have been abducting women and girls and selling them into prostitution. Some, these sources say, are sold instead of being released after they have been kidnapped for ransom; others are taken at random. Kidnappings are often not reported because of the societal shame that surrounds them, and many families are reluctant to take back females who have been raped or forced into prostitution.

In July of 2003, Human Rights Watch published a report, "Climate of Fear: Sexual Violence and Abduction of Women and Girls in Baghdad," which concluded that the failure of Iraqi and U.S.-led occupation authorities to provide adequate security in Baghdad was at the root of women's fear of being raped and abducted. Now, almost three years later, the problem still exists. There is no way to tabulate how many women and girls have been taken out of Iraq to Yemen, Syria, Jordan, and other places as part of this contemporary slave trade, and there is no indication that a solution is at hand.