2006 - %3, September

Remember the Anthrax Investigation?

| Tue Sep. 26, 2006 9:52 AM EDT

Remember the anthrax investigation? The probe into the individual (or individuals) responsible for sending a wave of anthrax-laced letters through the mail just days after 9/11? After the initial flurry of media attention died down little was written about the case, but the FBI has quietly continued to investigate the attacks. Now, The Washington Post, among other news outlets, is reporting that there's been a new -- and somewhat discouraging -- development in the case:

Five years after the anthrax attacks that killed five people, the FBI is now convinced that the lethal powder sent to the Senate was far less sophisticated than originally believed, widening the pool of possible suspects in a frustratingly slow investigation.
The finding, which resulted from countless scientific tests at numerous laboratories, appears to undermine the widely held belief that the attack was carried out by a government scientist or someone with access to a U.S. biodefense lab.

It was originally believed that the agent used in the attacks was a rare, weaponized variety of anthrax known as the Ames strain, which could only be found in a handful of labs, among them the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) on the Fort Detrick base in Frederick, Maryland. "In my opinion, there are maybe four or five people in the whole country who might be able to make this stuff, and I'm one of them," former U.N. bioweapons inspector Richard O. Spertzel said in 2002. "And even with a good lab and staff to help run it, it might take me a year to come up with a product as good."

The alleged grade of the material and the significant expertise needed to refine it led the FBI to zero in on government biodefense researchers, in particular Steven J. Hatfill, a former researcher at USAMRIID who the Bureau designated a "person of interest" in the case. (Hatfill has sued The New York Times and Vanity Fair for defamation and the Justice Department for violating his constitutional rights in leaking confidential information to the press.)

Now, according to the Post:

The prevailing views about the anthrax powder, meanwhile, have been coalescing among a small group of scientists and FBI officials over several years but rarely have been discussed publicly. In interviews and a recently published scientific article, law enforcement authorities have acknowledged that much of the conventional wisdom about the attacks turned out to be wrong.
Specifically, law enforcement authorities have refuted the widely reported claim that the anthrax spores had been "weaponized" -- specially treated or processed to allow them to disperse more easily. They also have rejected reports that the powder was milled, or ground, to create finer particles that can penetrate deeply into the lungs. Such processing or additives might have suggested that the maker had access to the recipes of biological weapons made by the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

If this is true, then it complicates the investigation significantly and makes the list of potential suspects much longer. The FBI, for its part, has described its suspect list as "fluid." This development also begs the very important question of how so many experts could have been so wrong for so long.

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Gordon Brown: Too Different From Blair...and Too Similar

| Mon Sep. 25, 2006 3:37 PM EDT

Poor old Gordon Brown. You might expect that the British people would've grown a little wary of "charisma" and "personality" in recent years, and that they'd welcome Brown's overdue ascent, given that he's an eminently qualified politician who lacks only the sheen of his boss/colleague/nemesis, Tony Blair. But no.

The 55-year-old Scot won plaudits from Labour politicians for his speech to the party's annual conference, but may find it hard to attract the middle class, which Blair managed to win over to Labour in 1997 -- the first of his three election victories.

Polls show many voters think David Cameron, youthful leader of the Conservatives, is more likeable and would make a better premier than Brown, who lacks Blair's charisma. ...

Labour's standing has been damaged by feuding this month that forced Blair to say he would quit within a year and sparked fierce attacks on Brown's character. ...

John Curtice, politics professor at Strathclyde University, described Brown's speech as the "most Blairite" speech he had made. He said this may disappoint voters looking for a break with the Blair years.

The speech will not dispel concern about Brown's personality, Curtice told Reuters. "The public are not suddenly going to find Gordon Brown a wonderful, happy, attractive character," he said.

Okay, so voters hold it against Brown that he lacks Blair's flash; and that he's politically "Blairite." Blair is the guy who pretty much single-handedly dragged the country into a war a majority of the British people opposed and there is concern over Brown's character? So this is the famous British irony?

Public Expression of Religion Act Could Become a Reality

| Mon Sep. 25, 2006 3:08 PM EDT

Last year, the Public Expression of Religion Act was introduced in Congress. This bill would bar the recovery of attorneys' fees to those who win lawsuits asserting their constitutional and civil rights in cases brought under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. PERA has already been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, and its proponents have established a scare campaign to make Americans think that--without restricting access to attorneys--religious symbols on military gravestones would be removed. Such symbols are, of course, constitutionally protected.

The ACLU's letter to the House of Representatives, urging opposition to PERA, is here.

McCain, Naturally, Jumps Into the Chavez-Is-the-Devil Fray

| Mon Sep. 25, 2006 2:43 PM EDT

Despite what one may think of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, the rush by Democrats to say as many over-the-top, fundamentally unAmerican things about him as possible set a hysterical precedent. There is no way that Republicans can top the ridiculous rhetoric of Rangel and Pelosi, but if there is an alternate avenue, we know Sen. John McCain will find it.

And find it he has, by insisting that John Bolton's nomination as U.N. ambassador be confirmed as quickly as possible. Said McCain on Facet the Nation:

I would say that this is an argument to get John Bolton confirmed as our U.N. ambassador. He's smart, he's tough, he will respond to these guys. And he could talk back to these two-bit dictators who have the airfare to New York.

If Chavez is a nutcake, as some believe he is, what does that make John Bolton? I suppose that a U.N.-basher, alleged sex abuser and eternally loose cannon is fine and dandy as long as he is American.

Iraq and Global Jihad

| Mon Sep. 25, 2006 1:24 PM EDT

From the weekend's reading:

A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The classified National Intelligence Estimate attributes a more direct role to the Iraq war in fueling radicalism than that presented either in recent White House documents or in a report released Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee, according to several officials in Washington involved in preparing the assessment or who have read the final document.

Not exactly surprising. Peter Bergen had a piece in Mother Jones in 2004 titled "The Wrong War." He wrote:

In more than a dozen interviews, experts both within and outside the U.S. government laid out a stark analysis of how the war has hampered the campaign against Al Qaeda. Not only, they point out, did the war divert resources and attention away from Afghanistan, seriously damaging the prospects of capturing Al Qaeda leaders, but it has also opened a new front for terrorists in Iraq and created a new justification for attacking Westerners around the world. Perhaps most important, it has dramatically speeded up the process by which Al Qaeda the organization has morphed into a broad-based ideological movement -- a shift, in effect, from bin Laden to bin Ladenism. "If Osama believed in Christmas, this is what he'd want under his Christmas tree," one senior intelligence official told me. Another counterterrorism official suggests that Iraq might begin to resemble "Afghanistan 1996," a reference to the year that bin Laden seized on Afghanistan, a chaotic failed state, as his new base of operations.

Screenshot

P.S. Via ThinkProgress, Cheney, ever aloof from the reality-based community, ain't buying it.

FEMA To the Rescue!

| Sun Sep. 24, 2006 11:41 AM EDT

Having given Elva Galatas a too-small trailer a second time, a FEMA crew arrived last weekend and removed trailer number two. The crew also removed the handicap access ramp and the sewerage pipes and brought in a third trailer for Galatas and her handicapped son, and installed sewerage pipes again.

The third trailer--you know what's coming--is exactly the same as the first two. Really. I couldn't make this stuff up.

An indignant neighbor in Lacombe called FEMA to report what had happened, and was told "We'll put her on a list."

That's a heck of a job, Pauli.

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Census Bureau Loses 100s of Laptops

| Fri Sep. 22, 2006 7:49 PM EDT

Also from AP:

The Census Bureau collects the most personal information about Americans, from how much money they earn and where they spend it to how they live and die. It's all confidential — as long as no one steals it.

Well, guess what...

Democrats' Strategy on the War on Terror

| Fri Sep. 22, 2006 7:26 PM EDT

This just in from AP:

Six weeks before elections, the Democratic strategy for the war on terror is one part attack President Bush and one part agree with him. The goal is to court voters dissatisfied with the job the administration has done, yet avoid being tagged as soft on Osama bin Laden. ...

[A Democratic strategy memo] says "stress that Democrats offer a 'better way to fight terrorism.'" Example: call for the inspection of all cargo containers entering the country. ...

Republicans hope for an opening to outmaneuver House Democrats on an issue the GOP has long called its own.

They thought they had an opening recently when Rep. Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record), the Democratic leader, said of bin Laden: "He has done more damage the longer he has been out there. But, in fact, the damage that he has done is done. And even to capture him now I don't think makes us any safer."

Does this mean AP is moving in on The Onion's turf?

A Look At FEMA Today

| Fri Sep. 22, 2006 7:04 PM EDT

Elva Galadas is a resident of Lacombe, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Her house was as good as destroyed by Katrina, leaving her with rotten wood, mold, and "tin roof rusted." Galatas, who is 73, has a son who is paralyzed from the waist down and who has epilepsy. He also has a broken ankle, an injured arm, and allergies that require him to get daily oxygen treatments.

Galatas applied for a FEMA trailer, but didn't get one, so she moved back into her moldy, structurally unsound house, and her son went to live in a hospital in Winnfield, Louisiana, which is nowhere near Lacombe. Finally, after months of phone calls and frustration, FEMA sent Galatas a trailer in June of this year. The trailer was designated as handicap accessible, but it was not big enough for both Galatis and her son. According to FEMA, since there were only two people who planned to live in it, there could be only one bedroom.

So Galatis began going down the trail of red tape, phone calls and frustration a second time. And this month, FEMA removed the first trailer and replaced it with a second. The problem is that the second trailer is the same size as the first. On top of that, FEMA subcontractors dismantled the handicap ramp of the first trailer but failed to build one for the second. Galatas is still living in her moldy house, and her son is still in the hospital.

A FEMA spokesman says "We want to make it happen for her."

FEMA has agreed to reimburse $217 million of $394 million worth of claims filed by the city of New Orleans alone. So far, only $117 million has reached the city. One of the most dramatic examples of loss in New Orleans is that of City Park, which sustained $43 million worth of damage. So far, FEMA has authorized only $2.6 million for repairs, and the park has actually received only $250,000.

Aside from the obvious fact that the city of New Orleans needs federal aid badly is the ugly fact that the damage within the city was not caused by a force of nature, but by the Army Corps of Engineers, who designed and built levees its engineers knew were not adequate.

Branson Sees a Business Opportunity in the Global Warming Crisis

| Fri Sep. 22, 2006 5:43 PM EDT

Richard Branson (profile) didn't make his billions by being a sap -- and the BBC didn't get to be the BBC by taking PR at face value -- so it's no surprise the Beeb today is suggesting Branson's move to invest $3bn in renewable energy technologies is "more than green philanthropy." Could he also be "making a canny attempt to get in on the ground floor of a fast growing and innovative global industry" and "fulfill his mission to turn Virgin Fuels into a power giant in the same class as Shell or Exxon Mobil"? (Where have all the saints gone?)

There's big money to be made in renewable fuels--at least that's the general assumption--and many US biofuel firms are small-scale oufits. An unsentimental venture capitalist (not that there's any other kind) tells the BBC, "Sir Richard wants to make money in a field where returns are being made right now." Should we care that there's a commercial logic to Branson's decision? Of course not--the guy's a businessman. I just hope this venture goes better than his round-the-world balloon voyages.