Publicly, Obama administration has been playing it pretty cool on the Iranian election, but it seems that the first tech-savvy White House has already played an important role on the backend of the Twitter Revolution. Reuters reports that over the weekend the State Department urged Twitter not to shut down for an upgrade that would have cut off service to oppostion tweeters in Iran. "We highlighted to them that this was an important form of communication," says an unnamed State official. Twitter delayed the upgrade with no mention of any official pressure. Does the administration deserve props for getting it, technologically and politically? Or should it have kept its hands off a situation that bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan were all over?

Waterboarding Update

Torture apologists are fond of telling us that "only" three prisoners have ever been waterboarded.  Two of those three were Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheik Mohammed.  Today, documents released in response to an ACLU lawsuit shed some new light on both of them:

An al-Qaeda associate captured by the CIA and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques said his jailers later told him they had mistakenly thought he was the No. 3 man in the organization's hierarchy and a partner of Osama bin Laden, according to newly released excerpts from a 2007 hearing.

"They told me, 'Sorry, we discover that you are not Number 3, not a partner, not even a fighter,' " said Abu Zubaida, speaking in broken English, according to the new transcript of a Combatant Status Review Tribunal held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

....Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times [...] said he lied in response to questions about bin Laden's location.

"Where is he? I don't know," Mohammed said. "Then he torture me. Then I said yes, he is in this area."

I'm exaggerating when I say that this is really "new" information, but it is more extensive information than we've had before.  And it's not exactly a great advertisement for either the efficacy or the morality of waterboarding.  Adam Serwer has more here.

Last week, we learned that residents of Burbank, California, are suing Walt Disney Co. for allegedly dumping carcinogenic chemicals in a local stream. Now, the Glendale News Press reports, they're saying said chemicals caused both people and animals to become sick. Troubling, but so far it doesn't exactly sound like the stuff of epidemiological studies: 

Standing at the intersection of Parkside Avenue and Parish Place, Panuska gestured down several neighboring streets, pointing out the homes whose residents she said were diagnosed with various cancers, and listing off dozens of cases where horses, dogs and cats came down with various maladies...

On Beachwood Drive, plaintiff Dennis Weisenbaugh reflected on the life of his office manager, Gene Montoya, who two years ago died of liver failure after eight years of working eight-hour days from his home office.

Three of Weisenbaugh’s horses were diagnosed with diseases similar to laminitis, a painful inflammation of the foot, and had to be put down.

It's awfully hard to prove a causal relationship between toxic chemicals and a handful of illnesses in people and pets, and that ambiguity will certainly work in Disney's favor. The company still hasn't said much on the issue, other than to point out that a 2006 investigation by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control found that chromium levels in the community weren't problematic. It'll be interesting to see whether the EPA agrees.


The VAT in the Hat

The New York Times reports that House Democrats are considering a value added tax as a way of financing healthcare reform. A VAT is one of those things that economists and think tankers all love, but it's also one of those things that's never had any real chance of being adopted in the United States.  So it surprised me that Dems were even seriously talking about it.

But Tyler Cowen has a take on this that I hadn't thought of:

From my distant perch out here in Fairfax (and Arlington), I believe this means health care reform is falling apart.  It means the unions won't let them tax health insurance benefits and the CBO won't let them punt on the issue of finance.

Hmmm. That sounds unduly pessimistic.  But given the fact that congressional approval of a VAT is vanishingly unlikely without years of preparing the ground first, the fact that it's being discussed suggests that pretty much all the likely sources of revenue have already been ruled out.  That's not a heartening thought.

The reference in the Times was made almost in passing, and maybe it doesn't mean anything.  I certainly wouldn't make too big a deal out of it at this point.  But I figure it's worth a brief mention as a possible canary in the coal mine.

No matter what George Will says—extreme weather, drought, heavy rainfall, and increasing temperatures are already fact of life in many parts of the US thanks to human-induced global warming. Changes like these will increase in intensity from here on.

That's according to Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, a 190-page report two years in the making, issued today, product of the US Global Change Research Program, including NOAA and 12 other US government science agencies, major universities, and research institutes. Some of the findings from the Midwest alone:

  • Average temperatures have risen in the Midwest in recent decades, especially in winter
  • The growing season is one week longer
  • Heavy downpours are twice as frequent as they were a century ago
  •  The Midwest has experienced two record-breaking floods in the past 15 years
  • Average annual temperatures are expected to increase two degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades—and as much as 7 to 10 degrees by the end of the century, with more warming projected for summer than winter
  • Precipitation is expected to increase in the winter and spring
  • Summer precipitation will likely decline
  • More of the precipitation is likely to occur during heavier events
  • As temperatures and humidity increases, heat waves, reduced air quality, insect-borne diseases, pollen production, and growth of fungi are more likely to occur
  • Heavy downpours will overload drainage systems and water treatment facilities, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases
  • Average water levels in the Great Lakes—reservoirs for 20 percent of the planet's fresh surface water—could drop as much as two feet this century, affecting beaches, coastal ecosystems, fish populations, dredging, and shipping

Some of the effects of the changing climate are already inevitable and will require human and animal populations to adapt. Other effects can be mitigated by limiting future emissions of C02 and other greenhouse gases... George Will won't but we have to.

Via Matt Yglesias, I see that the GOP has decided that supporting the troops is so last week:

House Republicans are preparing to vote en bloc against the $106 billion war-spending bill, a position once unthinkable for the party that characterized the money as support for the troops.

....Republicans say this year is different. Democrats have included a $5 billion increase for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help aid nations affected by the global financial crisis. Republicans say that is reason enough to vote against the entire $106 billion spending bill and are certain voters will understand.

“Once the American people learn that the Democrats are using a war-funding bill for a global bailout, they’ll know what to do,” House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) told The Hill. “We’ll take the message to the floor and to the American people, and I expect we’ll win this fight.”

Hypocrisy is overrated as a vice, but this is still pretty stunning.  I mean, they're doing this over $5 billion in net IMF contributions to help out with the global financial meltdown?  Seriously?  That's about .1% of the federal budget, and one of these days it might help prevent a collapse that spreads across the ocean and sends Wall Street into yet another tailspin.  That's what Republicans are going to the mat for these days?  Crikey.

Bruce Falconer and I reported yesterday that a federal audit [PDF] of Blackwater's security contracts in Iraq concluded, among other things, that the firm had regularly failed to meet staffing requirements on two of its State Department task orders and could owe the government $55 million. Blackwater's spokeswoman, Anne Tyrrell, just emailed an "amended statement" on the audit, disputing how its conclusions were characterized in some media reports. I saw this one coming when I read the Wall Street Journal's coverage this morning, which carried the headline, "Audit Finds That U.S. Overpaid Blackwater." (Similarly, ABC is now reporting: "There is no assurance that personnel staffing data was accurate or complete and that correct labor rates were paid.")

Here's what Tyrrell had to say:

The joint audit by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and the United State Department of State Inspector General released yesterday does not, as some press reports have suggested, allege that Blackwater was ever complicit in overbilling the United States government for work it performed in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. The audit does not even state that the government overpaid Blackwater for staffing issues.  All it suggests is that invoices spanning a period of time are reviewed. A $55 million penalty has in no way been determined. 

In fact, the government contracting officer determined that Blackwater was compliant with the terms of the contract at the time for which they were reviewing and the therefore did not apply any deductions or penalties. Blackwater only billed for services provided. 

Responding to Iran

Jonah Goldberg on Obama's response to the mass protests in Iran:

Reportedly, you are biding your time, waiting to see what happens, as if it is a great mystery. Your campaign lived and breathed YouTube. Check it now, check it often. You and your team promised "soft power" and "smart power." Well, let's see some of that. Because by not clearly picking a side, it appears you have chosen the wrong side.

Do you fear antagonizing the powers-that-be in Iran? That ship has sailed. Though I am sure they're grateful for your eagerness not to roil the seas around them. Is it because you think "leader of the free world" is just another of those Cold War relics best mothballed in favor of a more cosmopolitan and universal awe at your own story?

"Enough about those people bleeding in the street. What do you think of me?" Is that how it is to be?

Obama really drives conservatives to the loony bin, doesn't he?  I mean, the story here is pretty simple: if the Great Satan forcefully intervenes on Mousavi's side, it gives the clerics just the excuse they need to brand him a foreign stooge and really crack down.  Goldberg can't possibly not know this, can he?  Obama, so far, is doing exactly the right thing: deploring the violence but otherwise staying in the background until and unless Mousavi and the protesters themselves ask for more.  He's doing his best not to make it about him, but about them.

Remember the flap over the White House visitor log? After George W. Bush was elected, the White House instructed the Secret Service to delete its daily record of visitors so that it couldn't be released to the press under the Freedom of Information Act. The deletions were exposed and halted in 2004, before the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington requested records for White House visits made by nine conservative religious leaders, prompting a drawn-out court battle. 
Give that Obama has promised to create "an unprecedented level of openness in Government," you might expect his administration to reverse Bush's position. But in January and May, his White House filed court briefs supporting Bush, who'd argued that the logs were protected by the a presidential communication privilege. Though the Obama administration has repeatedly said the Bush policy is under review, today it denied a request filed by CREW for records of White House visits made by coal company executives.
Obama's position in nothing unique. Presidential administrations have rarely released their visitor logs. Among the few recent exceptions were releases in connection with the Jack Abramoff investigation in the Bush years and Filegate during the Clinton era. The Obama administration argues that it should be allowed to hold secret meetings in the White House, "such as an elected official interviewing for an administration position or an ambassador coming for a discussion on issues that would affect international negotiations," an Obama spokesman told MSNBC, which has also requested recent visitor logs. Still, it's too bad that those secret meetings can also include coal companies.

A new Stanford University study on charter schools was released yesterday.  The LA Times summarizes:

The study of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia found that, nationally, only 17% of charter schools do better academically than their traditional counterparts, and more than a third "deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student[s] would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools."

That's accurate as far as it goes.  The overall results showed charter schools nationwide delivering slightly poorer results than public schools.  However, there were a couple of significant caveats in the report itself:

Charter students in elementary and middle school grades have significantly higher rates of learning than their peers in traditional public schools, but students in charter high schools and charter multiā€level schools have significantly worse results.

....Students do better in charter schools over time. First year charter students on average experience a decline in learning, which may reflect a combination of mobility effects and the experience of a charter school in its early years. Second and third years in charter schools see a significant reversal to positive gains.

The pair of charts below shows the size of the effect: compared to public schools, charters are moderately better in elementary and middle schools but fall off a cliff in high school.  Likewise, kids tend to do a lot worse in their first year in a charter school — possibly the result of adjusting to a new environment — but are doing considerably better by their third year.

Overall, then, the results are mixed.  And once again we see that the biggest problems are in high school.  Improving test performance in elementary school appears to be quite doable, but the effects usually wash out by the time kids are 17.  It's unclear how to fix this.

However, if the Stanford report is correct, at least it provides a strategy for confused parents: put your kids in a good charter school in first grade so they get past the first year jitters early and then get seven years of higher performance than they'd get in public schools.  Then, after eighth grade, switch them to a public high school, where they'll get higher performance than they would in a charter school.  It's as good a plan as any.

The full report, including state-by-state results, is here.  Note that the methodology employed by the study isn't perfect, but appears to be pretty good.  Their results are probably worth paying attention to.