Families of Hikers Detained in Iran Speak Out

The families of Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd, the three Americans detained in Iran after accidentally crossing the border while hiking in Kurdistan, are breaking their silence: After more than two weeks of keeping a low profile, they've launched a www.freethehikers.orgwebsite and are doing media interviews to push for consular access to their loved ones. (Catch them on Good Morning America and NBC this morning between 7 and 8 am EDT—we'll post video later on, if available). The Iranian government has confirmed that Bauer (whose Mother Jones investigation on corruption in Iraq was just published), Shourd, and Fattal are being held in Tehran, but has refused to grant Swiss diplomats, who handle US affairs in Iran, the right to visit them. The families' full statement is after the jump; there's also a Facebook group supporting the hikers and a Twitter hashtag (#ssj).

Quote of the Day

From Michael Scherer, after pointing out that Sarah Palin's latest Facebook post is wrong:

Maybe Palin will post a follow up on Facebook clarifying.

Um, sure.  That would certainly be in character, wouldn't it?

Plastics in Ocean Decompose After All

If you thought billions of pounds of indestructible plastic circling the gyres of the ocean was depressing, sorry to say it gets a lot worse. Scientists are now reporting that " indestructible" plastics decompose with surprising speed and release toxic substances into the water.

The findings were reported today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. Lead researcher Katsuhiko Saido of Nihon University, Japan, and his team found that plastic in the ocean decomposes with exposure to rain, sun, weather, and ocean—giving rise to yet another source of global contamination that will continue far into the future. Their key findings:

  • Polystyrene begins to decompose within one year, releasing components that are detectable in the parts-per-million range. 
  • Plastics themselves usually don't break down in living animal bodies after being eaten. But the substances released from decomposing plastic are absorbed and could have adverse effects. BPA and PS oligomer can disrupt the functioning of hormones in animals and can seriously affect reproductive systems.
  • The researchers simulated the breakdown of plastic products at low temperatures found in the oceans. Degrading plastic this way created three new compounds not found in nature:  styrene monomer (SM), styrene dimer (SD) and styrene trimer (ST). SM is a known carcinogen and SD and ST are suspected carcinogens.
  • BPA ands PS oligomer are not found naturally either and therefore must have been created through the decomposition of the plastic.

Seems to me we need to reconsider what goes into the ocean with the same urgency we're almost beginning to exhibit towards the atmosphere.

 

Will U.S. Back Bogus Afghan Elections?

The fact that tomorrow's presidential election in Afghanistan will be mired in corruption, fraud, and backroom dealing is all but certain, writes The Nation's Ann Jones, author of Kabul In Winter and an incisive voice on all things Afghan. The more pressing question, she says, is this: Will the U.S., in the name of demonstrating Afghanistan's "progress" toward democracy, validate the election and deem it "credible"?

If it does (and it very likely might), tomorrow will be a sad day for democracy. According to Jones, here are just a few of the reaosns why progress will be the last thing this election represents: 

Stacking the Deck: All the members of the so-called Independent Election Commission were appointed by President Karzai, and they've never disguised their allegiance to him. So the initial vetting process for candidates eliminated some promising challengers and spared old cronies, including the war criminals the process was meant to screen out.

Backroom Deals: One after another, potential and declared candidates have bowed out to back Karzai. Word leaks out about which ministries they've been promised. Karzai buys the support of local leaders running for provincial offices, using (illegally) all the perks of office, from airplanes to free airtime on national TV, to help his friends and himself. One of his deals brought him Hazara support in exchange for the notorious Shia Personal Status Law, enforcing a wife's sexual servitude in violation of the Afghan Constitution.

Voter Fraud: In May in Ghazni, $200 would buy 200 blank registration cards, but lots of people, including minors, already had plenty. Men were able to get a bunch by handing in a list of women for whom they will vote by proxy. Since no central registry exists, verification is impossible. A recent report places the number of voter registration cards distributed (not including fakes) at 17 million, almost twice the estimated number of eligible voters in the country.

Juan Cole points out that 33 polling stations in Ghazni province won't be open tomorrow because of poor security, and that the Taliban are confiscating voting cards house by house. And, of course, there are those letters and warnings from the Taliban. The ones that say they'll attack and even kill anyone who votes.

Election gaming might even extend to the Americans. Reports have emerged in the run-up to the election that the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, might be brokering a backroom deal to install Ashraf Ghani, the more Westernized presidential candidate who's currently running in third, as an executive in the Karzai administration if Ghani agrees to drop out and back Karzai in the election. Time has likely run out for that deal, however.

Even More Coal PR

Climate Progress reports on yet another feat of coal PR: A new campaign called the Federation for American Coal, Energy, and Security, or, for short, FACES of Coal. Welcome, FACES, to the  party: Your compatriots will include Citizens for Coal, Friends of Coal, and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, now famous for their achievements in astroturf.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting has a story about a coal-industry-sponsored team of 10-year-old athletes whose tournament trip to Tennessee was cut short so they could come back to West Virginia and play a game clad in FACES of Coal tees for the launch of the campaign. The team's shortstop told WVPB she didn't mind coming home early. "It was mostly the kids' idea because we really wanted to go down there and show them that coal is important."

Of course they do. That shortstop's dad is a surface miner, after all, and it's fair to say that the nefarious motives of the folks behind the FACES campaign are well beyond the comprehension of a ten-year-old. But there's just something unsettling about the coal industry using kids to convey their disingenuous message. Again.

Today in Police Weaponry

Two items of interest:

Local FBI agents say Boston is a sitting duck for a Mumbai-type terrorist attack—because terrorists know the police don’t have any semi-automatic assault rifles with which to defend the city.

"Boston is making itself vulnerable to a terrorist attack like the rampage in Mumbai last year by not adequately arming its police with the semiautomatic assault rifles widely available to officers in many of the nation’s other major cities," the top FBI agent in Boston said yesterday, according to the Boston Globe.


Afghanistan and the Taliban

Matt Yglesias, having decided to pay more attention to Afghanistan, finds himself confused about something:

One question I’m looking at somewhat hazily is this. If you read accounts of the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, people generally always seem to think that American and Saudi and Pakistani support for the Mujahedeen was an important factor. I don’t see anyone saying “it was all a big waste of time and the same stuff would have happened anyway.” The Taliban has, as best as anyone knows, nothing remotely resembling that level of external support. So why isn’t that making more of a difference? Is our side actually much less effective than the Soviets were when you control for the change in external support?

Actually, that's usually presented as one of the big arguments for staying in Afghanistan and continuing the fight.  Since the Taliban is relatively small and has only minimal outside support, it means they're eminently beatable.  This isn't like Vietnam, where we were taking on half a million troops that had a superpower for a patron.

But I think the opposite is true.  If the Taliban really is small and isolated, we shouldn't need a troop buildup.  We should be able to beat them with 50,000 troops plus help from the Afghan army.  The fact that we haven't after eight years — that, in fact, our progress has been negative over that time — suggests either (a) we have no idea how to fight them, or (b) they're more formidable than we think.

Neither of those is a good reason for withdrawing if we have a clear and well-articulated reason for staying, but I haven't heard it.  Maybe it's in the reading list from Spencer Ackerman that's included in Matt's post.  I'll take a look later today.

USNWR's Peer Survey Problems

This should come as no surprise to anyone who followed the recent kerfuffle over Clemson University's admission that it spun its numbers to improve its U.S. News & World Report's ranking: On USNWR's peer assessment survey, which accounts for a quarter of a school's overall ranking, college administrators gave their own schools rave reviews while playing down competitor institutions.

Inside Higher Ed obtained copies of peer assessment surveys from 18 colleges and universities. "Haphazard responses" from "apathetic respondents" abounded. 

Some telling findings:

  • The presidents and/or provosts of 15 of the 18 universities rated their institutions “distinguished,” from Berkeley (no. 21 on last year’s list) to the University of Missouri at Columbia (No. 96).
  • At Berkeley in 2008, the chancellor rated other “top” publics -- including the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – “strong.” However, he rated all of the University of California campuses “distinguished,” with the exceptions of Santa Cruz and Riverside, which were also “strong.” (Merced was not on the list.)
  • In a 2009 survey, an official at the University of California at San Diego (No. 35) rated that campus “distinguished,” above the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, Dartmouth College, Northwestern University and Johns Hopkins University (all “strong”).
  • The president of the University of Florida (No. 49) rated his campus “distinguished” in this year’s survey -- along with Harvard, Stanford and MIT -- and no other institution in Florida above “good,” as reported by the Gainesville Sun.

Inside Higher Ed points out that this isn't really outright gaming—the peer assessment survey simply asks for opinions. What kind of administrator wouldn't play up his or her own institution? And according to University of Vermont president Daniel M. Fogel, even if you wanted to play fair, you'd likely end up working overtime: Fogel estimated that if one were to research each school on the survey before passing judgement, filling out the form would take ten hours.

USNWR releases its 2010 college rankings tomorrow.

Update: USNWR 2010 rankings are out, and so is the MoJo Mini College Guide.

Keeping Up With the Loons

Healthcare conspiracy theories continue to bubble up from right-wing chain email hell.  Ezra has the latest here.

Harnessing Nationalism

Brad Plumer today:

A recurring source of anxiety among op-ed writers lately is the fear that China is winning some sort of clean-energy race. Earlier this month, venture capitalist John Doerr and GE head Jeffrey Immelt took to The Washington Post to fret that Chinese cars were 33 percent more efficient than U.S. cars, that China was investing ten times the fraction of its GDP on clean energy that the United States was, and that China was on track to generate five times as much wind power by 2020. "We are clearly not in the lead today," they concluded. "That position is held by China, which understands the importance of controlling its energy future."

Those pleas for stronger U.S. action have some merit....But framing these efforts as some sort of zero-sum competition, in which only the winners benefit, isn't quite right. The entire planet will benefit from cheaper, better sources of clean energy, and it's not as if we'll somehow "lose" if China makes a massive push to mop up its emissions.

Sometimes there can be such a thing as too much intellectual honesty.  This is one of those times.

Look: on the global warming front, "Bangladesh will drown and California will have more wildfires in 2080" doesn't seem to be doing the job.  So if the only way to convince Americans to get serious about this stuff is to have 4-star generals issue grim warnings about climate change being a national security threat, followed by corporate honchos ginning up some kind of "green race" with the scary Chinese, then so be it.  If this kind of thing got us to the moon, maybe it can save the planet as well.  I say we go along.

Besides, having the Pentagon worry about climate-induced global instability is a good thing.  And competing with China to produce wind turbines is way more productive than endless scaremongering about whether they're going to build an aircraft carrier or two by 2020.  So let's get in the spirit of things.  We must never allow the quasi-socialist Chinese hordes to overtake us in producing green technology!  Green tech is the future of our country!  Buy (green) American (stuff)!  USA!  USA!

POSTSCRIPT: Brad actually does have some serious points to make about cooperating with the Chinese on green tech.  But that's hard to turn into a jingoistic crowd pleaser, I'm afraid.