Obama's Big Transparency Test

When he took office, President Barack Obama claimed that "transparency and the rule of law" would be the "touchstones" of his presidency. But did he really mean it? He has a chance to keep his word by reversing a key Bush administration decision that's still shielding crucial details of the White House emails scandal from the public eye.

Back in 2007, the Bush administration abruptly decided that the obscure White House Office of Administration would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. For more than three decades, the OA had responded to FOIA requests just like any other government agency. But the OA is responsible for overseeing the White House email archiving system. And by 2007, those archives were missing millions of emails that could have shed light on numerous scandals: the outing of Valerie Plame, the U.S. attorney firings, and the lead-up to the war in Iraq.

The Bush administration didn't want to release documents explaining how the emails got lost. So it claimed that the OA wasn't a federal agency, but an advisory office, and therefore didn't have to respond to FOIA requests. (Mother Jones readers may recall the moment, in January 2008, when litigation surrounding this unusual claim caused a DC district court to allow limited discovery in order to find out whether OA was, in fact, a federal agency.)

Newt Losing It

Man, Newt Gingrich is really losing it.  Here he is on Nancy Pelosi:

I think this is the most despicable, dishonest and vicious political effort I've seen in my lifetime. She is a trivial politician, viciously using partisanship for the narrowest of purposes, and she dishonors the Congress by her behavior.

We all know how much Newt loves his list of "contrasting words" for people he doesn't like, but now he's just sort of stringing them together randomly.  What the heck is "trivial" supposed to mean?  And why use "vicious" twice?  It's like he's getting political Alzheimer's or something.

Fund Manager: US Taxpayers are Suckers

The American taxpayers are suckers. That's essentially what Mark Patterson, chairman of the private equity firm MatlinPatterson Global Advisors, told his fellow finance industry bigwigs in a moment of perhaps too much candor at the Qatar Global Investment Forum, held this week in Doha. “The taxpayers ought to know that we are in effect receiving a subsidy," he said. "They put in 40 percent of the money but get little of the equity upside.”

Patterson is in a good position to know just how sweet a deal Wall Street is getting courtesy of our tax dollars. In January, his New York-based firm closed a deal to buy a controlling interest in Michigan's Flagstar Bancorp using $250 million in its own capital and $267 million in matching bailout funds from the Treasury Department.

Trade War Update

The Washington Post reports on the way modern trade wars are being waged:

Ordered by Congress to "buy American" when spending money from the $787 billion stimulus package, the town of Peru, Ind., stunned its Canadian supplier by rejecting sewage pumps made outside of Toronto. After a Navy official spotted Canadian pipe fittings in a construction project at Camp Pendleton, Calif., they were hauled out of the ground and replaced with American versions. In recent weeks, other Canadian manufacturers doing business with U.S. state and local governments say they have been besieged with requests to sign affidavits pledging that they will only supply materials made in the USA.

Outrage spread in Canada, with the Toronto Star last week bemoaning "a plague of protectionist measures in the U.S." and Canadian companies openly fretting about having to shift jobs to the United States to meet made-in-the-USA requirements. This week, the Canadians fired back. A number of Ontario towns, with a collective population of nearly 500,000, retaliated with measures effectively barring U.S. companies from their municipal contracts -- the first shot in a larger campaign that could shut U.S. companies out of billions of dollars worth of Canadian projects.

....The United States is not alone in throwing up domestic policies assailed by critics as protectionist. Britain and the Netherlands, for instance, are forcing banks receiving taxpayer bailouts to jump-start lending at home at the expense of overseas clients. French President Nicolas Sarkozy initially insisted that his nation's automakers move manufacturing jobs home in exchange for a government bailout, but backed down after outrage surged among his peers in the European Union, of which France is a central member.

This isn't good news or anything, but frankly, it's really not much in the way of bad news either.  If this is as far as things go, I'd say we got through the recession without much damage at all to the international trade regime.

Frankly, I'm surprised there hasn't been more sentiment in favor of protectionism than there has been.  For better or worse, it's a testament to just how strongly the consensus in favor of liberal trade policies has become over the past few decades.  There's really no going back anymore.

Psst! Wanna buy an F-22 for $360 Million?

In parsing costs for the F-22 program, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates rightly wants to kill, the Pentagon has cited a price tag of about $143 million per plane—no small change for something we don't need. But turns out that's the so-called "flyaway" cost. When you add in development, maintenance, training, and all those vital extras, the damage balloons to a staggering $360 million a pop. So says the Center for Defense Information in this four-minute video, "Catch F-22," which features military watchdogs like Danielle Brian from the Project on Government Oversight and Winslow Wheeler, head of CDI's Straus Military Reform Project. (Wheeler also contributed a dispatch last year to our ambitious online military package, titled Mission Creep.) The video dumbs things down a lot—thankfully for those of us who don't spend our workdays scrutinizing Pentagon spreadsheets—but it provides a glimpse of why this program, and others like it, will have to fall to earth if America ever hopes to pay the bills for basic necessities.

In the meantime, Mission Creep contributor David Vine, who wrote "Homesick for Camp Justice," on how the British cleared out Diego Garcia's population to make way for a United States military base on the island, covers the subject further in his new book, Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia. Haven't read it yet, but the New York Review of Books sure seemed to appreciate it.
 

Ultrasound Kills Red Tides

Dangerous red tides that kill fish and marine mammals and are toxic, even carcinogenic, to humans, might be destroyed using bursts of ultrasound.

Researchers at the U of Hull in the UK experimented with ultrasound on a species of algae that can cause respiratory disease and liver cancer in humans, reports New Scientist.

The team tested three frequencies of ultrasound on Anabaena sphaerica. All worked, though the 1-megahertz band was most effective—probably by bursting the buoyancy cells filled with nitrogen that keep the algae afloat.

Of course, you've got to ask what else the sound might be killing.

In response: The researchers believe ultrasound could be targeted to individual species of algae and the resonant frequency of their buoyancy cells. In theory, this wouldn't damage regular plant cells, which are relatively impervious to pressure waves.

These high frequencies are also absorbed rapidly in water. At 1 megahertz the effective radius is less than 60 feet. That's good in that it limits the affected zone but bad in that it would be a lot of work to cover a big bloom.

The study also doesn't acknowledge—as far as I can tell—the fact that when a whole bunch of algae die and sink to the bottom they fuel a bloom of decomposers who suck up all the available oxygen in the water—turning a red tide into a dead zone.

Hmm.

Still, it might be a way to nip a bloom in the bud. Though we still need to tackle all those annoying onshore factors that grow red tides in the first place, like fertilizer and manure run-off from abusively unsustainable agricultural practices.

The paper's in Applied Acoustics.
 

Chewing Update

At the risk of getting my commenters riled up because I'm blogging about trivia, let me tell you what I had for lunch today: a pear, some cut up pineapple, and a bag of pretzel sticks.  Believe it or not, about halfway through I suddenly remembered yesterday's post about how we chew our food an average of ten times these days compared to 25 in the past, and I started counting chews.  The pear took ten chews per bite.  The pineapple about 13.  The pretzel sticks about 15.

This makes me suspicious of the claim that we modern Americans chew our food an average of ten times.  That pear was ripe and soft and each bite still took ten chews.  Short of chocolate pudding, I don't think food comes much softer.  So if it took ten chews to finish up each bite of pear, I have to figure the average is quite a bit higher than that.

Unless, of course, I chew my food more than most people.  Surely, though, this is something the web excels at determining.  So here's your assignment: pay attention today to how many times you chew your food, and then report back in comments.  I want data, people.  Let's get the hive mind cracking.

Followup - Pelosi and Waterboarding

Earlier this morning Nancy Pelosi told reporters that the CIA had specifically denied waterboarding prisoners back when they briefed her in 2002.  Fine, I said, but "what about reports that one of your aides, Michael Sheehy, was briefed about waterboarding in early 2003 and passed the news along to you? Any comment on that?"

Robert Waldmann in turn has a pair of questions for me:

1) Did you listen to Pelosi's statement and/or read a transcript ?

2) Should you have checked what she said before accusing her of an omission ?

Um, no.  And yes.  Sorry.  I screwed up.  I didn't read Pelosi's whole statement, which did indeed address the issue of the 2003 briefing:

Five months later, in February 2003, a member of my staff informed me that the Republican chairman and new Democratic Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee had been briefed about the use of certain techniques which had been the subject of earlier legal opinions.

Following that briefing, a letter raising concerns was sent to CIA General Counsel Scott Muller by the new Democratic Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, the appropriate person to register a protest.

This is a reference to Jane Harman's letter, which raised some questions about whether the president had approved the various interrogation techniques then in use.  It was hardly a full-throated denunciation of torture, and it's never been clear whether Pelosi even knew about the letter at the time.  In other words, there are still plenty of questions here.

But I still should have looked up the whole statement first.  Sorry.

Why the GOP Blocked Obama's Interior Nominee

When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar blocked the leasing of hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands back in February, he could hardly have known that the move would leave him without a deputy for months on end. But Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) was upset about the cancelation of the leases, which would have brought hundreds of new gas wells to central Utah's beautiful Nine Mile Canyon. (The petroglyphs in the photo to the left adorn many of the cliff walls there.) In retaliation, Bennett put a senatorial hold on David Hayes, President Barack Obama's nominee to be Salazar's deputy. When Democrats tried to bypass the hold on Wednesday, Republicans stood with Bennett and filibustered Hayes' nomination.

On Monday, I wrote about the "suicide" of Ibn Shaikh al-Libi in a Libyan jail. Al-Libi was the man whose false confession, obtained under torture, of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda provided the Bush administration with its casus belli for war with Iraq. It didn't seem to matter that al-Libi's claim that Bin Laden had sent operatives to be trained in the use of weapons of mass destruction by Hussein's people didn't make any sense. "They were killing me," al-Libi later told the FBI about his torturers. "I had to tell them something." A bipartisan Senate Intelligence committee report would later conclude that al-Libi lied about the link "to avoid torture."

The al-Libi story has been moving forward at a breakneck pace since it first broke in the Arab press over the weekend. Human Rights Watch, whose staffers last spoke to al-Libi on April 27, called for an investigation into his death in a press release issued late Monday afternoon. (When HRW spoke to al-Libi on the 27th, he refused to be interviewed, instead asking, "Where were you when I was being tortured in American jails?") 

But the biggest news so far in the al-Libi case comes from former Colin Powell aide Lawrence Wilkerson. In a post on Steve Clemons' Washington Note, Wilkerson writes:

[W]hat I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002—well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion—its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee "was compliant" (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP's office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa'ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, "revealed" such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

Wilkerson is saying that getting the false "information" from al-Libi about an Iraq-Al Qaeda link wasn't an unexpected "bonus" of the torture—it was the goal of the torture. Kevin Drum's caution is very important here: "One way or another, Wilkerson is going to have to tell us how he knows this.  It's not enough just to say that he 'learned' it." But if Wilkerson's information is reliable—and he's been reliable in the past—this changes everything about the torture debate. Josh Marshall explains:

The basis of most of the anti-torture push has been the assumption that torture was used for the purpose of eliciting information about future terrorist attacks. Whether it was illegal, wrong-headed, misguided, immoral—whatever—most have been willing to at least give the benefit of the doubt that that was the goal. If the driving force was to gin up new bogus intel about the fabled Iraq-al Qaida link, politically it will put the whole story in a very different light. And rightly so.