FAA Backs Down: Reinstates Inspector Fired for Talking to MoJo

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 6:54 PM PDT

Mike Gonzales, the FAA inspector who had been on administrative leave for almost ten months, is back at work in the FAA's Scottsdale, Arizona, office. Gonzales, you may remember, was notified that the FAA had begun termination proceedings against him for supposedly "abusing his position" by escorting a Mother Jones reporter into a TIMCO aircraft-repair facility without identifying his guest as a journalist. The allegation was BS, as Frank Koughan, the reporter in question, demonstrated in this story, which features sound clips that clearly refute the FAA's allegations.

The irony is that the FAA could have avoided all this simply by letting its employees talk to Mother Jones in the first place. But instead they would only allow FAA staff to speak in their capacity as representatives of their union. Mother Jones honored that agreement, only to have the FAA harass staff who did speak to us. The original story on the FAA, "Waiting to Happen," painted a picture of an agency that is in bed with the industry it is supposed to regulate: By trying to muscle out one its own staff in order to protect the repair facility, the FAA only confirmed that its customer is the aircraft industry, not the flying public.

Adding to the outrage, remember that Gonzales was on full pay for the nine and half months he was placed on leave, a waste of taxpayer dollars that could have been better spent on letting him inspect aircraft!

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Party Ben's Top 10 Stuff 'n' Things: 3/16/07

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 5:45 PM PDT

Everybody loves top ten lists, right? No? Well, I do, and I figure what better place than the Riff for a weekly Top 10 list of stuff I like, which will probably be mostly music, but might also include TV shows, or books, or even snacks. Let's get stupid, I mean outrageous:

Chasing Branson's Earth Challenge? Catalyst Might Turn CO2 Into Fuel

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 5:28 PM PDT

News from the Max Planck Institute in Potsdam, Germany, describes how a new catalyst that can split carbon dioxide gas might allow us to use carbon from the atmosphere as a fuel source. You know, the way plants do. If so, the Germans might find themselves in contention for Richard Branson's Earth Challenge:

The Virgin Earth Challenge is a prize of $25m for whoever can demonstrate to the judges' satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth's climate.

As New Scientist reports:

"Breaking open the very stable bonds in CO2 is one of the biggest challenges in synthetic chemistry," says Frederic Goettmann, a chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany. "But plants have been doing it for millions of years."

Plants use the energy of sunlight to cleave the relatively stable chemical bonds between the carbon and oxygen atoms in a carbon dioxide molecule. In photosynthesis, the CO2 molecule is initially bonded to nitrogen atoms, making reactive compounds called carbamates. These less stable compounds can then be broken down, allowing the carbon to be used in the synthesis of other plant products, such as sugars and proteins.

In an attempt to emulate this natural process, Goettmann and colleagues Arne Thomas and Markus Antonietti developed their own nitrogen-based catalyst that can produce carbamates. The graphite-like compound is made from flat layers of carbon and nitrogen atoms arranged in hexagons.

"Carbon monoxide can be used to build new carbon-carbon bonds," explains Goettmann. "We have taken the first step towards using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as a source for chemical synthesis."

Future refinements could allow chemists to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels as sources for making chemicals. Liquid fuel could also be made from CO split from CO2, says Goettmann. "It was common in Second World War Germany and in South Africa in the 1980s to make fuel from CO derived from coal," he adds.

Crops Feel the Heat of Warming Climate

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 4:47 PM PDT

Listen up, naysayers. Still think balmy temps will be good for the world food supply? Think again.

In the first study estimating how much global food production is already affected by climate change, researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology report that warming since 1981 has caused annual losses of roughly $5 billion to the major cereal crops. This during a time when annual global temperatures increased by about 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit, with even larger changes observed in some regions.

From 1981-2002, fields of wheat, corn and barley throughout the world produced a combined 40 million metric tons of food less per year because of increasing temperatures caused by human activities. From Lawrence Livermore

"There is clearly a negative response of global yields to increased temperatures," said David Lobell, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher and lead author of the study that appears online March 16 in Environmental Research Letters. "Though the impacts are relatively small compared to the technological yield gains over the same period, the results demonstrate that negative impacts of climate trends on crop yields at the global scale are already occurring."

"Most people tend to think of climate change as something that will impact the future, but this study shows that warming over the past two decades already has had real effects on global food supply," said Christopher Field, co-author on the study and director of Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology.

Using global yield data from the Food and Agriculture Organization for 1961-2002, Lobell and Field compared average temperatures and precipitation with yields over the major growing regions. On average, they found, several food crops responded negatively to warmer temperatures. They then used these relationships to estimate the effect of observed warming trends.

"To do this, we assumed that farmers have not yet adapted to climate change, for example by selecting new crop varieties to deal with climate change," Lobell said. "If they have been adapting – something that is very difficult to measure – then the effects of warming may have been lower."

Most experts believe that adaptation would lag several years behind climate trends, because of the difficulty of distinguishing climate trends from natural variability. The importance of this study, the authors said, was that it demonstrates a clear and simple relationship at the global scale, with yields dropping by approximately 3-5 percent for a one-degree Fahrenheit increase. "A key to moving forward is how well cropping systems can adapt to a warmer world," Lobell said. "Investments in this area could potentially save billions of dollars and millions of lives."

So what happens if, as some predict, change comes too fast for even intelligent agriculture to keep up?

Weird Weather Watch: Warmest Winter on Record

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 4:28 PM PDT

hot_hot_hot.jpgThe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported yesterday that this winter was the warmest since record-keeping began in 1880. U.S. temperatures were near average, but global temperatures were hot, hot, hot.

Antarctic Ice Melting Faster than Previously Thought

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 4:19 PM PDT

Ice in Antarctica is being pushed out to sea by some unusually fast-moving glaciers. Scientists don't know for sure why it's happening or even if it's related to human activity, but the ice shelf forms the lion's share of the world's ice, so this unexpected loss would require existing climate change models to be sped up accordingly. According to the Washington Post, the net loss of Antarctic ice is estimated at 25 billion metric tons a year.

We are so screwed.

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Breaking: Rumsfeld Underwent Heart Procedure

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 4:03 PM PDT

rumsfeld.jpgPolitico is reporting that Donald Rumsfeld was held overnight in the VIP unit of Washington Center for a heart procedure. He was released yesterday. No more information is available, but we'll keep you posted.

Mainstream Media Catching Up on KSM Doubts

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 2:22 PM PDT

Ah, the blogosphere is again one day ahead of the MSM. Yesterday, when news of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's confessions came out, Jim and I expressed our doubts. Now we're seeing the same sentiment in the AP, TIME, and Newsweek.

Robert Baer, CIA agent extraordinaire and popular author, writing in TIME:

On the face of it, KSM, as he is known inside the government, comes across as boasting, at times mentally unstable. It's also clear he is making things up. I'm told by people involved in the investigation that KSM was present during Wall Street Journal correspondent Danny Pearl's execution but was in fact not the person who killed him. There exists videotape footage of the execution that minimizes KSM's role. And if KSM did indeed exaggerate his role in the Pearl murder, it raises the question of just what else he has exaggerated, or outright fabricated...
Although he claims to have been al-Qaeda's foreign operations chief, he has offered no information about European networks. Today, dozens of investigations are going on in Great Britain surrounding the London tube bombings on July 7, 2005. Yet KSM apparently knew nothing about these networks or has not told his interrogators about them.
The fact is al-Qaeda is too smart to put all of its eggs in one basket. It has not and does not have a field commander, the role KSM has arrogated.

Michael Hirsh, who has broken some important scoops on the Iraq War, writes in Newsweek about how the KSM case is a perfect illustration of how not to fight a war against terror:

Had the case been handled properly, KSM's confession to plotting 9/11 and many other actual or planned terror acts could have made him a "showcase defendant" for America's cause, rallying support and allies around the world. "He could have been charged within six months of his detention and prosecuted in a proceeding, which would have added to the reputation of our country for justice," says [Scott] Horton[, a human rights attorney.]
Instead, the legal black hole is only getting deeper. The transcript released Wednesday night indicates that KSM's references to his previous treatment are all carefully redacted. [John] Sifton [of Human Rights Watch] and others say the redactions clearly indicate that KSM was referring to his secret interrogations—during which he might well have been physically abused. The question of whether such dubiously extracted testimony could be used in any legal proceeding will probably prolong his case for years to come.
Sifton notes, accurately, that the administration has been wildly inconsistent over the past six years. Some terror suspects are held without recourse to habeas corpus at Gitmo; others have been prosecuted in the U.S. courts. In one case involving a Pakistani father and son living in New York, Saifullah and Uzair Paracha, the two have been treated completely differently. "The young Paracha is in federal prison. The older is at Gitmo," said Sifton. (The father, Saifullah, was arrested in Bangkok; his son in the United States, both on suspicion of agreeing to help an Al Qaeda operative sneak into the United States to carry out a chemical attack.) "There are no principles guiding this. It would be fine if the "war on terror" were just a metaphor, but it's not," says Sifton.

And the AP:

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's claims that he was responsible for dozens of successful, foiled and imagined attacks in the past 15 years relies on a loose definition of the word "responsible." Officials say the 9/11 mastermind was key to some plots but a bit player in others...
While there apparently is truth in much of the statement, several officials said, there's also an element of self-promotion. They view the claims as at least in part a rallying cry to bolster his image and that of al-Qaida...
One official cautioned that many of Mohammed's claims during interrogation were "white noise" — designed to send the U.S. on wild goose chases or to get him through the day's interrogation session.

Look -- KSM is a nasty, nasty dude. I said as much when I blogged about him yesterday. And I'm sure he's guilty of enough to be executed a dozen times over. But when the military releases a statement from a terrorist mastermind owning up to every unresolved high-profile terrorist act over the last ten years and releases with it no photos, no video, no audio, and no corroborating evidence, I have questions. I think, given the Bush Administration's record of being forthright with the nation, we all should.

Update: Colleagues report that the mainstream media began debunking KSM's claims as early as yesterday morning. So, kudos to the appropriate parties. I only found the print articles today, which led to this blog post.

Sewage-to-Snow Plan Stopped Short on Sacred Indian Mountains

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 1:25 PM PDT

Thirteen Native American tribes in Arizona don't want their sacred mountain defiled by faux snow made from treated wastewater. A federal appeals court ruled that Arizona Snowbowl's plan to augment the ski season in the San Francisco peaks would violate the tribes' religious freedom.

Judge William A. Fletcher compared the snow-making plan to conducting Christian baptisms with wastewater. The plan would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration act of 1993, he ruled. Tribal representative Howard Shanker said that the ruling "creates a tremendous precedent for tribes to protect their sacred sites." Before the ruling, Snowbowl owner Eric Borowsky said that he would sell the resort if the appeals court ruled against him, due to both a string of bad-snow years and the $4 million he spent on environmental impact statements and legal fees.

— Rose Miller

Valerie Plame to Congress: I Was Covert

| Fri Mar. 16, 2007 11:46 AM PDT

One of the unresolved issues of Plamegate is whether or not Valerie Plame was covert when she was outed as a CIA agent in Bob Novak's column. Conservatives have long maintained that she was not (Sean Hannity earlier this month: "She did not meet the criteria, in any way, shape, matter or form as a covert agent.") and have speculated that because no one was ever charged with revealing the name of a covert agent, Plame must not have met the strict definitions of "covert" under the law. Reporting from over a year ago said that Plame did covert work within five years of the leak, but was unlikely to do any more.

Well, for what it's worth, Valerie Plame went before Congress today and said that she was in fact covert. She's in a position to know, obviously. ThinkProgress has video, but her statement was:

"In the run-up to the war with Iraq, I worked in the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA, still as a covert officer whose affiliation with the CIA was classified."
"While I helped to manage and run secret worldwide operations against this WMD target from CIA headquarters in Washington, I also traveled to foreign countries on secret missions to find vital intelligence."

Update: A congressman is claiming that CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden recently told Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) explicitly that "Ms. Wilson was covert."