Brooklyn Oil Spill Now Dwarfs the Exxon Valdez

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 5:10 PM EDT

basil65x70.jpg The EPA just released a report saying that the Brooklyn oil spill Frank Koughan writes about in our current issue may be as extensive as 30 million gallons, not the 17 million gallons previously estimated. If so, that would make the spill nearly three times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. Yes, three times as much oil, stewing under Brooklyn.

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Senate Forecast Looking Sunny for Dems

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 2:52 PM EDT

From the LA Times:

Bottom-line: barring a major reversal of political trends, Democrats not only are poised to build on the narrow Senate majority they surprisingly captured in the 2006 election, they could substantially expand it.

They're going to need a substantial expansion. It takes 60 votes in the Senate to get anything done, due to procedural rules, and a 51-member majority, when one of those members is Joe Lieberman, just isn't going to cut it. The vulnerable seats:

  • Virginia, where Republican John Warner is leaving and Democrat Mark Warner (no relation) will mount a strong challenge.
  • Nebraska, where Republican Chuck Hagel is leaving and Democrat Bob Kerrey will mount a strong challenge if he gets in.
  • Colorado, where Republican Wayne Allard is leaving and Democrat Mark Udall will mount a strong challenge.
  • And Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Oregon, where Republican incumbents are particularly vulnerable.

That's seven states. Then you've got a bunch where a Republican incumbent is kinda sorta vulnerable: New Mexico, Alaska, and Kentucky. No promises there, but still: looking good, folks.

More Questions for ABC

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 12:16 PM EDT

See my report on questions about how ABC handled the Debat matter here. In the meantime, I have more questions for ABC:

How did ABC choose to use Debat as a consultant, and also on the blog as a reporter, also sometimes citing him as a source?

Did ABC inform its viewers and readers that Debat had a Pentagon contract? How clear was ABC in telling readers/viewers about Debat's multiple paid affiliations?

What other consultants have this sort of arrangement with ABC? Will ABC be more transparent in the future about whether its sources are being paid, what are the relevant other potential conflicts of interest in terms of paid other appointments and contracts?

Why is ABC only sending an investigator to Pakistan to investigate Debat's reports now? History shows that people who misreprsent their resumes tend to misrepresent lots of other things as well. Why do my sources say ABC did not conduct a more extensive investigation of his work when it asked him to resign back in June? Why had it not contacted until now other reporters who could help investigate his reports?

In vetting or second sourcing the information that Alexis brought to the network, were ABC News resources outside of the Ross unit deployed? e.g. the Justice, State or Pentagon correspondents?

Did Alexis ever appear on camera as an expert/analyst for a story on which he was also the source?

How was he hired? Who introduced him to ABC?

How is ABC investigating the information that Alexis reported from Iran and Pakistan? Is it being investigated by the Ross unit only or reporters outside of that unit?

One good thing has according to sources apparently come of the recent reports, including Riche's. Finally, three months after dismissing him, ABC finally appears to be undertaking a serious investigation of the accuracy of the reports. It's just curious it didn't do so when it learned of misrepresentations with his CV back in June when it asked him to resign.

"Humor is a Form of Common Sense": Further Notes on Franken's Minnesota Run

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 11:40 AM EDT

My story on Al Franken's Minnesota senate run hits the web today, and I thought I'd round it out with some more material on the blog.

There were three things that I heard consistently when I was on the ground in Minnesota. First, no one seemed to mind that Franken's background is an unconventional one for a Senate candidate. Here were some responses I got when I asked about it:

  • "I think a lot of comedians find real big problems in our world. And they point out problems by making humor out of them."
  • "It may be time we sent someone different to Washington."
  • "Anybody who listens to [his radio show] knows he knows his stuff. If you read his books, you know he knows his stuff."
  • "You can be a comedian and you can still be serious."
  • "Humor is a form of common sense anyway."

I was genuinely surprised that Minnesota Democrats (known as DFLers) were not more worried about Franken's history of dirty jokes and lack of public service. The national media seems to think those two factors make Franken's candidacy a non-starter, and Norm Coleman, the Republican incumbent, and other GOP forces are trying to play them up as much as possible.

The second thing I found is that Minnesotans deny being abnormally open to oddball candidates. It's a common media meme, based on the fact that Minnesota elected Paul Wellstone, a short, bald college professor with a fanatical devotion to extremely liberal beliefs, and Jesse Ventura, a wrestler and C-level actor. "I don't know if it's just an anomaly," Franken told me. "People embraced Paul because of his uniqueness, and I don't know if that was just… unique." He made the point that Wellstone connected in a very special way with people and was almost genetically truthful, and that voters from any state would have found him appealing. "And Ventura won in a three-way race at a point when the state was totally flush, when the economy was just tooling along, we had a surplus in the country and in the state. And I really believe that during that period... people went like, "How hard is it really to do this?"

M.I.A. Terrible on Letterman

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 3:34 AM EDT

M.I.A.Well, at least it wasn't Britney Spears bad. Anyone out there who's been reading all my posts on rapper M.I.A., but hadn't really heard her music, and decided to check her out on Letterman tonight, now you think I'm nuts. Yes, you're right, it was terrible. I stayed tuned in all the way through Martha Stewart's segment just to see M.I.A. make her Letterman debut, and to say it was disappointing is an understatement, but I don't know if it was necessarily her fault. She performed "Paper Planes," a Clash-sampling highlight from the new album Kala, but something was wrong with the mix, and you could barely hear her or the backup vocalist. I get the sense that maybe they were running her mic through the DJ rig, because his scratching on the gunshot FX was so loud it seemed to knock the sound out a few times. Even worse, when the prerecorded backup vocals came in during the chorus, they were so much louder than M.I.A.'s live vocals they made her seem like she was, well, relying on prerecorded vocals. Poor M.I.A.! And if you've never heard her before, please give her another chance.

[update 9/17] Video below. People are reporting that she was not allowed to use gunshot sounds during her performance, so those are apparently just gunshot-like percussive noises.

Subject to Debat: What did ABC Know and When Did It Know It?

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 2:41 AM EDT

In the end, it was Pascal Riché, a Paris-based former Washington correspondent for France's Libération newspaper, who uncovered a scandal at a top US television news network. On September 7, Pascal reported that an ABC counterterrorism consultant, Alexis Debat, had faked an interview with Sen. Barack Obama that he published under his name in a French journal, Politique Internationale, and that he had published other alleged interviews in the same journal with Sen. Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, former Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. It turns out, ABC itself later reported, the interviews were apparently fabricated.

Riché also reported that Debat claimed to have a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne that he did not in fact complete, and that he had exaggerated his CV in other respects—claiming to be an advisor to the French Ministry of Defense on transatlantic issues, for instance, when in fact he had been a lowly desk clerk in the bowels of the ministry for less than a year; claiming to be a visiting professor at Middlebury College, when in fact he had been a visiting instructor for a short winter term at Middlebury, and other such exaggerations. Mother Jones has obtained an annotated CV of Debat's—whose claims to be a former government official have apparently long irritated the government in Paris—outlining these and other discrepancies. (ABC believed the annotated CV was prepared by the French embassy, but sources now say it may have been annotated by a Washington-based French academic.)

Though Debat, often described in the American media as "a former French defense official," insisted he would clear his name and sue Riché and his online magazine Rue89 for slander, the alleged fabricated interviews soon became a problem not just for Debat but for ABC. Since 2002, the network has employed Debat as a counterterrorism consultant and sometimes reporter, sending him to far-flung locations to report on Al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. (For the past year and a half, Debat has also served as the director of the terrorism and national security program at the Nixon Center; he resigned "for personal reasons" this week, an official with the Nixon Center said.)

Sources also say that Debat claimed in the spring to have received a "large chunk of money" from the Pentagon to conduct a study concerning radical Islam; when I inquired about the contract, a Defense Department official said he would check into it.

Following Riché's report, ABC publicly announced that it had demanded Debat's resignation in June, after obtaining the annotated CV and investigating his claims to have a doctorate. ABC said it had investigated his reports then, and was undertaking a more extensive investigation upon learning of the fabricated interviews at Politique Internationale, but that to date, it was confident that all of Debat's reports for ABC had been vetted and multiply sourced and were standing up to scrutiny.

Interviews with journalists, think tank associates, and a former government official indicate that there were warning signs about Debat for years—even within the network itself. Two journalists familiar with Debat's work point to ABC chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross not only as the victim of Debat's alleged deceptions, but as an enabler, who has promoted sensational stories—including some that Debat brought the network—at the expense at times of rigorous journalism standards. (Ross did not return Mother Jones' phone call by press time, although an ABC executive has been in touch by phone and email.) They also say that they do not believe ABC has properly investigated Debat's reporting at all.

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Preview New Joe Strummer Documentary

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 6:17 PM EDT

Joe Strummer
If you were intrigued by my review of Redemption Song, the biography of Clash front man Joe Strummer, but weren't sure you could stomach 600 pages about anything, then there may be an easier way to relive some of the punk rock legend's life. Julien Temple, director of Sex Pistols pic The Filth and the Fury, has a new documentary about the life of Joe Strummer, and it's getting pretty good reviews. Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten uses archival footage of Strummer's own voice from his BBC radio show as narration, bringing the singer-songwriter (who died in 2002) eerily back to life. It currently has an 8.2/10 user rating on IMDB, and a 100% "tomatometer" rating at Rotten Tomatoes (that's good).

The film is now playing in Europe and Japan, but has only had a few festival screenings in the U.S.; a limited stateside release is planned for November 2nd. Watch the trailer below.

188 More Species Deemed Near Extinction

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 4:51 PM EDT

Today the World Conservation Union (also known, for reason too arcane to go into, as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources or IUCN) came out with its "Red List" of species threatened with extinction. There are 188 additions to the list, bringing the total up to 16,306. There's particularly bad news about great apes and coral reefs, but across taxonomic board, the news is "quite bleak," said Jane Smart, who heads the group's species program.

As Mother Jones' Julia Whitty wrote in Gone: Mass Extinction and the Hazards of Earth's Vanishing Biodiversity:

1 in 4 mammals, 1 in 8 birds, 1 in 3 amphibians, 1 in 3 conifers and other gymnosperms are at risk of extinction. The peril faced by other classes of organisms is less thoroughly analyzed, but fully 40 percent of the examined species of planet Earth are in danger, including up to 51 percent of reptiles, 52 percent of insects, and 73 percent of flowering plants.
By the most conservative measure—based on the last century's recorded extinctions—the current rate of extinction is 100 times the background rate. But eminent Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson and other scientists estimate that the true rate is more like 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate. The actual annual sum is only an educated guess, because no scientist believes the tally of life ends at the 1.5 million species already discovered; estimates range as high as 100 million species on Earth, with 10 million as the median guess. Bracketed between best- and worst-case scenarios, then, somewhere between 2.7 and 270 species are erased from existence every day. Including today.
We now understand that the majority of life on Earth has never been—and will never be—known to us. In a staggering forecast, Wilson predicts that our present course will lead to the extinction of half of all plant and animal species by the year 2100.
You probably had no idea. Few do. A poll by the American Museum of Natural History finds that 7 in 10 biologists believe that mass extinction poses a colossal threat to human existence, a more serious environmental problem than even its contributor, global warming, and that the dangers of mass extinction are woefully underestimated by most everyone outside of science. In the 200 years since French naturalist Georges Cuvier first floated the concept of extinction, after examining fossil bones and concluding "the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some sort of catastrophe," we have only slowly recognized and attempted to correct our own catastrophic behavior.

The rate of extinction is due to a variety of factors, but nearly all are human induced, including climate change, habitat loss, invasive species (transported by us), the plight of the oceans, and so on. As Julia notes:

All these disappearing species are part of a fragile membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin, writes E.O. Wilson, that it "cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered." We owe everything to this membrane of life. Literally everything. The air we breathe. The food we eat. The materials of our homes, clothes, books, computers, medicines. Goods and services that we can't even imagine we'll someday need will come from species we have yet to identify. The proverbial cure for cancer. The genetic fountain of youth. Immortality. Mortality.
The living membrane we so recklessly destroy is existence itself.

Read Julia's article. It will haunt you. As will the accompanying photo essay by Richard Ross.

The War as They Saw It

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 4:19 PM EDT

Two of the seven non-commissioned officers who penned a New York Times op-ed that called the war in Iraq the "pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends" were killed yesterday when their vehicle turned over on a road near Baghdad. After hearing the news, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) sent a letter to the President. It reads, in part:

The tragic irony is that before their deaths, these two soldiers were not only trying to give us direction on how to end this war honorably, but they were also calling on us for help.... Mr. President, you didn't listen to Staff Sergeant Yance Gray and Sergeant Omar Mora while they were alive. I hope that you will listen to them now, as they have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

A Preview of Hillary Clinton's Health Care Plan

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 4:14 PM EDT

From yesterday's "presidential mashup": "I intend to dramatically rein in the influence of the insurance companies," she said, "because frankly I think that they have worked to the detriment of our economy and our health-care system."

—Nick Baumann