2006 - %3, August

Conyers on the Imperial Bush Presidency: Still Dangerous to Our Democracy

| Mon Aug. 7, 2006 2:42 PM PDT

Writing from Washington, Mother Jones' Jennifer Wedekind notes the release by the office of John Conyers of a 370-page report describing in full numerous instances of lawlessness and misconduct by the Bush Administration. Conyers isn't buying the idea that recent instances of judicial pushback (see, for example, the Hamdan decision) mean Bush has been reined in. Conyers writes: "The unfortunate reality is we are a long way from being out of the constitutional woods under the dangerous combination of an imperial Bush presidency and a compliant GOP Congress."

Read the piece in full here.

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Nets with Holes in Them Reduce Unwanted Fish Catch by 70 Percent

| Mon Aug. 7, 2006 1:24 PM PDT

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Some good news, for a change, concerning the oceans: The U.N. is reporting that fishing nets with "exit holes" being introduced under a project to salvage depleted world fisheries are helping shrimp trawlers reduce "bycatch" by up to 70 percent. (Reuters)

Bycatch (whereby large numbers of marine animals are caught "incidentally" in fishermen's nets) is a massive problem, contributing to the already intense overfishing of the seas. One in four animals caught in fishing gear dies as bycatch, meaning that each year millions of animals--especially sea turtles, dolphins, seals (pictured), sharks, swordfish and whales--are killed.

Shrimp fishing (a $12 billion-a-year business) is particularly wasteful owing to the fineness of the nets used, and more than 60 percent of what is currently caught (sharks, turtles and more) is discarded.

(More on the state--and the fate--of the ocean here.)

Urban Poverty: How the Other Half Lives -- and Not Just in New Orleans

| Mon Aug. 7, 2006 12:16 PM PDT

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Bruce Katz of Brookings, writing recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reminds us that Hurricane Katrina laid bare a New Orleans starkly divided by race and class, with the brunt of the disaster being being borne by poor, minority households. (Before Katrina, African-American residents made up 67 percent of the city's total population, but 84 percent of its population below the poverty line. And those poor African-American households were highly concentrated in 47 neighborhoods of extreme poverty, where the poverty rate topped 40 percent.) But, as he points out, though New Orleans has always been one of the cities with the most geographically concentrated poor populations in the country, it's hardly unique.

[Some] cities—like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Milwaukee—are former industrial giants whose populations have suffered from severe economic restructuring over the past several decades. Others—like Fresno, Los Angeles, and Miami—have faced challenges in integrating new immigrant populations who often arrive in gateway neighborhoods with low levels of education and labor-market skills. Still others—Atlanta, Memphis, and Washington—lie at the heart of growing regions but continue to grapple with legacies of racism, segregation, and intergenerational poverty holding back their most distressed neighborhoods.

The existence in our midst of concentrated poverty--complete with failing schools, unsafe streets, run-down housing, and few local jobs or employment networks --is a standing affront to American values and basic morality, of course. But, as Katz makes clear, it also entails a series of cascading effects that spread the cost to society at large.

  • Cities are forced to pay for the higher cost of delivering health, education, police, fire, judicial, and other services in high-poverty environments, often amounting to hundreds of dollars per city resident.
  • With higher expenses come higher taxes, harming cities in their competition for middle-class families, which are the backbone of resilient economies.
  • Suburbs with weak central cities see less appreciation in housing prices and incomes, given the interdependence of economies.
  • The concentration of neighborhood poverty leads inexorably to the concentration of school poverty.

So, what to do? Katz points out that there are available policy tools, focused on broadening access to affordable housing, employment, and educational opportunities--designed to transform poor neighborhoods into healthy ones attracting families with a broad range of incomes. He concludes:

The bottom line is that America knows how to promote housing choice and build mixed-income communities that work economically and socially. The only question is whether we have the political will to apply the best lessons and innovations not only to the rebuilding of New Orleans but to the housing of Katrina-displaced and other low-income families throughout the country.

(For more on how the poor get poorer--and the rich get richer--see the two most recent issues of Mother Jones, in which Clara exhaustively details how the deck is stacked against poor Americans and very much in favor of wealthy ones -- in ways that aren't always obvious.)

Things Still Don't Look Good for Lieberman

| Mon Aug. 7, 2006 11:37 AM PDT

The Lieberman camp is cheering," according to AP, with their man generating some belated Joementum the day before Connecticut's Democratic primary election. They're heartened by a Quinnipiac University poll that shows Lieberman cutting into Ned Lamont's lead, which last week hit double digits. Lamont now has "a slight lead of 51 percent to 45 percent" over Lieberman among likely Democratic voters.

Well, it's getting tighter, but a six point deficit still doesn't look good for Lieberman.

(Plus, McJoan at Daily Kos: Lieberman a "principled" politician? Yes -- but not the way you think. Call it "the Lieberman Principle: What is good for Joe is good." And McJoan has the flip-flops to prove it.)

The View from Beirut -- and Tehran; The Day After Tomorrow -- and the Morning After

| Mon Aug. 7, 2006 11:05 AM PDT

As many of you already know Mother Jones is more than a magazine, more than a web site, more than a beacon of hope in these dark, dark times; it's also a radio show! And here's the proof: yesterday's edition of Mother Jones Radio featured:

  • Dahr Jamail, in Beirut, on the latest political developments in the current Middle East conflict, and what things look like on the ground.
  • Laura Rozen on the question whether Bush administration looking for good (or, hell, faulty -- what's the difference!?) intelligence on Iran in support of an invasion. (Rozen's recent article in Mother Jones exposed how several U.S. officials sought bad intelligence from a known liar of Iran-Contra infamy.)
  • Ross Gelbspan on the agreement between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Britain's Tony Blair last week to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sidestepping the U.S. federal government.
  • And Mother Jones' Ann Friedman on the FDA's apparent (and the key word here is apparent) about-turn on Plan B emergency contraception. Is the agency really about to approve the pill, or will politics trump science once again?

Listen to the show, a purely (and proudly) fact-based initiative, here.

Hiroshima, Bunker Busters, and the Nuclear Taboo

| Mon Aug. 7, 2006 10:22 AM PDT

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Marking the 61st anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tom Engelhardt today considers the nuclear history of the Bush era, with a particular focus on the administration's paradoxical drive to overcome, via anti-proliferation wars, the nuclear taboo that since the end of the second world war has restrained members of the nuclear club. He writes:

Of course, in this era, the most obvious nuclear "flashpoint" remains the only country ever to use nuclear weapons -- us. While several American presidents have, in the years since 1945, considered the "nuclear option," they were always held back by the "nuclear taboo." This administration has seemed particularly eager to figure out how to overcome that taboo and turn such weaponry into a usable part of the American arsenal. Its 2002 Nuclear Posture Review was already threatening nuclear use against axis of evil states (among others) as well as suggesting that such weapons might somehow be employed in a "future Arab-Israeli crisis." The administration also developed elaborate plans for building up American nuclear forces, investing in new generations of "mini-nukes" and "bunker-busting" nukes, and planning more generally for the distant nuclear future. ...

In fact, in the name of stopping proliferation, top administration officials, including the President, continually remind us that all options remain "on the table." Thanks to New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh, we learned recently what this really meant in the context of a possible future American assault on Iran's nuclear facilities. In a piece on Pentagon resistance to the administration's desire to attack Iran, he reported: "In late April, the military leadership, headed by [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General [Peter] Pace, achieved a major victory when the White House dropped its insistence that the plan for a bombing campaign include the possible use of a nuclear device to destroy Iran's uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, nearly two hundred miles south of Tehran."

Nuclear weapons as anti-nuclear-proliferation devices; anti-proliferation wars as a way to end the "nuclear taboo" and open the door to the "ordinary" use of such weaponry -- talk about diabolical. As can now be seen in Lebanon, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, so in its nuclear policy, the only thing the Bush administration seems actually capable of doing is exporting ruins to the rest of the world. In this sense, it has offered the world a model drawn directly from the charnel house of nuclear policy which began on a clear day over Hiroshima sixty-one years ago and has never ended. ...

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Hacked E-Passports and More From the RFID Files

| Sat Aug. 5, 2006 9:35 PM PDT

Yet again, hackers have proven that they can mess with the Radio Frequency Identification chips that governments, our own included, have been so eager to embed in passports. The concern with such biometric or E-passports is that, among other things, they would allow terrorists to pick Americans and others out of crowds simply by using an RFID reader. According to workpermit.com:

This week a German computer security consultant has demonstrated how to "clone," or duplicate, a specific RFID chip. Lukas Grunwald, a security consultant with DN-Systems in Germany and an RFID expert, says the data in the chips is easy to copy, and he demonstrated the technique at the Black Hat Security Conference in Las Vegas on 03 August. [Bet that's a party.]

The hack was tested on a new European Union German passport, but the method would work on any country's "e-passport," since all of them will be adhering to the same ICAO standard. [International Civil Aviation Authority.] He obtained an RFID reader by ordering it from the maker - Walluf, Germany-based ACG Identification Technologies - but also explained that someone could easily make their own for about $200 just by adding an antenna to a standard RFID reader.

As I reported last year, our own State Department delayed plans to embed passports with RFID tags after privacy advocates publicly demonstrated the poorly encrypted chips could be read from 30 feet away.

On the lighter side of RFID:

Last July, former Wisconsin governor and secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson announced his plan to get an RFID implant.

In 2002, PR firm Fleischman Hillard suggested ways to "neutralize opposition" to RFID technology, including renaming the devices "green tags" and bringing key lawmakers into the "inner circle."

Oh, and some evangelists consider RFID tags to be the biblical sign of the beast and a portent of the Rapture.

Oregon "Dead Zone" (More Bad News About the Ocean)

| Sat Aug. 5, 2006 8:39 PM PDT

For the fifth straight year, a dead zone, now the size of Rhode Island, has appeared off the coast of Oregon. As Julia Whitty reported in Mother Jones' special report on the fate of the ocean,

"Dead zones occur wherever oceanic oxygen is depleted below the level necessary to sustain marine life, a result of eutrophication, or the release of excess nutrients into the sea, usually from agricultural fertilizers….For sea life, it's as if all the air were suddenly sucked out of the world. Those creatures that can swim or walk away fast enough may survive. Those that can't, die."

And dead zones are further exacerbated by global warming. As the New York Times reports on the Oregon dead zone:

Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist at Oregon State University, said the phenomenon did not appear to be linked to recurring El Niño or La Niña currents or to long-term cycles of ocean movements. That made Dr. Lubchenco wonder if climate change might be a factor, she said, adding, "There is no other cause, as far as we can determine."

More on the state of dead zones, after the jump:

Another 1.2 Million Fords Recalled (We Warned You)

| Sat Aug. 5, 2006 7:42 PM PDT

In a recent issue of Mother Jones, investigative fellow Michael Beckel warned readers of the concerns—shared by Ralph Nader, automotive engineers, and Pentagon analysts—that a Dupont product called Kapton was still being used to coat the wires of the cruise control deactivation switch (made by Texas Instruments) found in millions of Ford cars and SUVs, even though the U.S. and other governments had long been leery of using the product in its military planes and vehicles. These experts theorized that Kapton was to blame for hundreds of mysterious engine fires in Ford's domestic fleet. As Beckel wrote:

In the 1990s, the Coast Guard eliminated Kapton from its helicopter fleet, NASA grounded the shuttle fleet for five months while inspecting damaged Kapton wire, and the Clinton administration called aging Kapton wiring an issue of "national concern." The Australian, Israeli, and Canadian governments have all investigated and in many cases prohibited its use in their planes.

So why is Kapton still in millions of Ford cars, trucks, and SUVs?

Since the early 1990s, the company has used this DuPont-manufactured material in the hydraulic pressure switch that shuts off cruise control when drivers hit the brakes. Coated with Teflon, Kapton serves as a barrier between the flammable brake fluid and the electric current just millimeters away. Yet years of use can cause cracking in the Teflon, leaving the Kapton membrane and the switch itself vulnerable to ignition from the current—which, in Ford vehicles, continues even when the engine is off.

In the past seven years, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has investigated the role of these switches in more than 500 blazes that have ravaged cars, houses, and garages, and reportedly killed at least one person. The agency analyzed 260 cases of fires in Ford sedans—Crown Victorias, Lincoln Town Cars, and Mercury Grand Marquises—with model years between 1992 and 1997. In 1999, the company recalled nearly 300,000 of those vehicles. And by March of last year, the NHTSA had received more than 200 complaints of fires in Ford trucks—F-150 pickups, Expeditions, and Lincoln Navigators—with model years from 1995 to 2002. But Ford maintains that the root cause of the fires is too complex to fault a single component.

Although the automaker acknowledges evidence of overheating in the cruise-control components in some models—attributing it to a "systems interaction" of leaking brake fluid, Teflon corrosion, age and mileage, plus the location of the switch—it has recalled less than a third of the vehicles with the Kapton switches. Gail Chandler, a spokeswoman for Texas Instruments, which manufactures the switches, insists they're safe. "We don't think there's anything wrong with the switch itself or with Kapton," she says. "We've thoroughly tested these products and have not found there to be a problem."

Last week, Ford recalled another 1.2 million vehicles due to safety concerns with same cruise control deactivation switch. That brings the total up to 6.7 million vehicles recalled over this problem. Ford still says that the switches themselves aren't the problem: "If we felt the switch was unsafe we'd be recalling all of them," said Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley. "We're confident we've captured all of them." But as the Detroit News notes,

"if the combined total of 6.7 million vehicles called back -- including 5.8 million in the United States -- were a single recall, it would be the fourth-largest ever. …Some safety advocates and plaintiffs' attorneys have criticized Ford for moving too slowly to recall the vehicles.

"There's no excuse to do these recalls in a piecemeal fashion. There's something in Ford's culture -- look at the Firestone debacle --that prevents them from taking faster action," said Rob Ammons, a Houston attorney representing the family of Darletta Mohlis of Westgate, Iowa, who was killed in a May 2005 fire that the family claims started in her 1996 Ford F-150. "Why not get this product that's catching fire and destroying lives off our roads and off the market?"

The NHTSA says that Ford has been cooperative and that it, too, expects no more problems associated with the switches. We just hope they're right, though the pressure put on these (as other) regulators by the Bush administration to make things more business friendly gives us pause.

Beckel's timeline of the Ford switch controversy can be found here. Mark Dowie's classic Mother Jones article about the atrocious safety problems with the Ford Pinto can be found here.

Everything's Coming Up Rummy

| Fri Aug. 4, 2006 2:21 PM PDT

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committe yesterday, Donald Rumsfeld managed to keep a straight face when he tried to correct Senator Hillary Clinton's assertion that he'd been feeding Congress "a lot of happy talk and rosy scenarios" about the war in Iraq. Responded Rummy: "I have never painted a rosy picture. I've been very measured in my words. And you'd have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I've been excessively optimistic." No mention if anyone in the room did a spit-take. NPR's Mixed Signals blog has since contacted Clinton's office, which had something less than a dickens of a time coming up with a detailed list of Rummy's "measured" statements on Iraq over the last few years. A few samples:


The Gulf War in the 1990s lasted five days on the ground. I can't tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn't going to last any longer than that. —November 2002

We know where [the WMD] are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat. —March 2003

The residents of Baghdad may not have power 24 hours a day, but they no longer wake up each morning in fear wondering whether this will be the day that a death squad would come to cut out their tongues, chop off their ears or take their children away for "questioning," never to be seen again. —July 2003

The increased demand on the force we are experiencing today is likely a "spike," driven by the deployment of nearly 115,000 troops in Iraq. We hope and anticipate that that spike will be temporary. We do not expect to have 115,000 troops permanently deployed in any one campaign. —February 2004

The level of support from the international community is growing. —June 2005

Q: One clarification on "the long war." Is Iraq going to be a long war?
Secretary Rumsfeld: No, I don't believe it is. — February 2006

Sen. Robert Byrd: Mr. Secretary, how can Congress be assured that the funds in this bill won't be used to put our troops right in the middle of a full-blown Iraqi civil war?
Secretary Rumsfeld: Senator, I can say that certainly it is not the intention of the military commanders to allow that to happen. The—and to repeat, the—at least thus far, the situation has been such that the Iraqi security forces could for the most part deal with the problems that exist. —March 2006