Blogs

FEMA's Post-Brown Efficiency Melts Away

| Wed Jul. 25, 2007 7:36 PM EDT

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the levees broke in New Orleans, people in Louisiana and Mississippi desperately needed ice to prevent spoliage of tons of food. But despite urgent pleas for ice, none came. You may recall that several trucks filled with ice sat in another state for days--just sat there. Finally, when the ice did arrive, there was way too much of it.

FEMA's own regulations clearly state that unused ice must be disposed of after three months, but FEMA ignored its own rules and put the ice in storage in various parts of the country. Now, after two years, the agency has realized that the ice may be contaminated, and is dumping it. But only after taxpayers--you and I--paid $12.5 million to store it.

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Department of 'Cover Your Ass'

| Wed Jul. 25, 2007 6:01 PM EDT

It may be the best barometer available to gauge our risk of terrorist attack: the degree to which politicians scramble to cover their asses. If so, head for the hills, because there isn't a bare butt left in town.

First, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff famously confessed his "gut feeling" that we're due for another attack. Then, last week, the U.S. intelligence community released the latest National Intelligence Estimate, stating that al Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the ungoverned tribal regions of northwest Pakistan and is preparing to strike. Finally, today, a late-scheduled joint session of the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees was called to examine the NIE's findings.

For a moment, there was a sense of anticipation that something new would be revealed, some light shed on the degree of the terrorist threat or the current disposition and capability of the enemy. Reporters climbed over each other to reach their seats along the back wall of the hearing room. A capacity crowd overflowed into two additional rooms equipped with closed-circuit TVs. A panel of witnesses from the Defense Department and the National Counterterrorism Center assembled at a long table under harsh lights. Then the hearing began...and the anticipation quickly faded to boredom.

Reporters scribbled half-heartedly in their notebooks, if only to keep up appearances, but there was very little hard information on offer. Even the congressmen looked uninterested; at one point, almost half of them were cradling their chins and staring off into space. Perhaps they were just waiting for the closed session (scheduled to follow the public one), but it seems doubtful that the classified version would be much better. The take-aways:


  • Al Qaeda has reconstituted itself along Pakistan's northwest frontier.
  • Osama Bin Laden is probably there.
  • Al Qaeda's "safe haven" in Pakistan is troubling, but there's not much we can do about it.
  • There's no evidence that al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan are cooperating with insurgents in Iraq to attack the United States.
  • (Note: This last point doesn't quite mesh with what Bush has been saying this week, but, hey, he's never been one to let facts get in the way of a preconceived notion.)

    Despite the lack of new information, the congressmen seemed eager to express publicly their outrage that more was not being done to disrupt al Qaeda. One even told of how reading the NIE was a wake-up call that "set my hair on fire." Is it summer 2001 all over again? Who knows, but with all the political cover being taken, it seems that Chertoff's gut feeling is spreading.

    Alabama: Where the Constitution and DNA Don't Matter

    | Wed Jul. 25, 2007 4:48 PM EDT

    Solid evidence indicating that lethal injection is cruel and unusual has halted executions in several states over the past two years, but Alabama's not one of them. The constitutionality of the state's lethal injection protocol will be challenged in federal court this October, however Darrell Grayson, a black man convicted of robbing, raping, and killing an 86-year-old woman by an all white jury in 1982, doesn't have time to wait. He's scheduled to die at 6 p.m. tomorrow.

    Grayson, who admits he doesn't remember whether or not he committed the crime because he was, well, wasted, recently filed an unsuccessful challenge to lethal injection. The 11th Circuit Court, which rules over Alabama, dismissed it because Grayson waited too long to file his appeal. Grayson has also petitioned to have DNA testing performed, but the courts have denied that request as well despite evidence that points to Grayson's innocence. Two men claim Grayson was passed out in another location at the time of the crime and his co-defendant mysteriously asked for Grayson's forgiveness before he was executed in 1999.

    Grayson's request to delay the execution is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, but things aren't looking good. Alabama Attorney General Troy King argued yesterday that "justice has been delayed too long." Ironically, justice will be denied forever if Grayson is killed before his DNA is tested and the challenge to Alabama's lethal injection procedure is resolved.

    —Celia Perry

    Bush/Cheney Threats to the Endangered Species Act

    | Wed Jul. 25, 2007 4:35 PM EDT

    Two government entities are investigating the Bush administration over the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Christian Science Monitor reports the US Interior Department is reviewing the scientific integrity of decisions made by a political appointee, Julie MacDonald, who recently resigned under fire. Fish and Wildlife Service employees complained that MacDonald bullied, insulted, and harassed the professional staff to alter their biological reporting. The inspector noted that although she has no formal educational background in biology, she nevertheless labored long and hard editing, commenting on, and reshaping the endangered species program's scientific reports from the field. Last week Fish and Wildlife announced that eight decisions MacDonald made under the ESA would be examined for scientific and legal discrepancies.

    Meanwhile Congress is investigating evidence that Vice President Dick Cheney interfered with decisions involving water in California and Oregon resulting in a mass kill of Klamath River salmon, including threatened species. As the CSM reports, both episodes illustrate the Bush administration's resistance to the law. Earlier, the Washington Post ran the story of Cheney's personal interference in the water decision that killed the salmon in 2002:

    In Oregon, a battleground state that the Bush-Cheney ticket had lost by less than half of 1 percent, drought-stricken farmers and ranchers were about to be cut off from the irrigation water that kept their cropland and pastures green. Federal biologists said the Endangered Species Act left the government no choice: The survival of two imperiled species of fish was at stake. Law and science seemed to be on the side of the fish. Then the vice president stepped in. First Cheney looked for a way around the law, aides said. Next he set in motion a process to challenge the science protecting the fish, according to a former Oregon congressman who lobbied for the farmers. Because of Cheney's intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.

    Or, in the words of Bruce Barcott in MoJo's piece, What's A River For?:

    On the morning of September 19, 2002, the Yurok fishermen who set their gill nets near the mouth of the Klamath River arrived to find the largest salmon run in years fully under way. The fish had returned from the ocean to the Klamath, on the Northern California coast, to begin their long trip upstream to spawn; there were thousands of them, as far as the eye could see. And they were dying. Full-grown 30-pounders lay beached on shore-line rocks. Smaller fish floated in midriver eddies. Day after day they kept washing up; by the third day, biologists were estimating that 33,000 fish had been killed [since revised upward to 70,000] in one of the largest salmon die-offs in U.S. history. The Yurok knew immediately what had happened. For months they, along with state experts and commercial fishermen, had been pleading with the federal government to stop diverting most of the river's water into the potato and alfalfa fields of Oregon's upper Klamath Basin. But the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in charge of federal irrigation projects, refused to intervene.

    Bush/Cheney Threats To The Endangered Species Act

    | Wed Jul. 25, 2007 4:27 PM EDT

    Two government entities are investigating the Bush administration over the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Christian Science Monitor reports the US Interior Department is reviewing the scientific integrity of decisions made by a political appointee, Julie MacDonald, who recently resigned under fire. Fish and Wildlife Service employees complained that MacDonald bullied, insulted, and harassed the professional staff to alter their biological reporting. The inspector noted that although she has no formal educational background in biology, she nevertheless labored long and hard editing, commenting on, and reshaping the endangered species program's scientific reports from the field. Last week Fish and Wildlife announced that eight decisions MacDonald made under the ESA would be examined for scientific and legal discrepancies.

    Meanwhile Congress is investigating evidence that Vice President Dick Cheney interfered with decisions involving water in California and Oregon resulting in a mass kill of Klamath River salmon, including threatened species. As the CSM reports, both episodes illustrate the Bush administration's resistance to the law. Earlier, the Washington Post ran the story of Cheney's personal interference in the water decision that killed the salmon in 2002:

    In Oregon, a battleground state that the Bush-Cheney ticket had lost by less than half of 1 percent, drought-stricken farmers and ranchers were about to be cut off from the irrigation water that kept their cropland and pastures green. Federal biologists said the Endangered Species Act left the government no choice: The survival of two imperiled species of fish was at stake. Law and science seemed to be on the side of the fish. Then the vice president stepped in. First Cheney looked for a way around the law, aides said. Next he set in motion a process to challenge the science protecting the fish, according to a former Oregon congressman who lobbied for the farmers. Because of Cheney's intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.

    Or, in the words of Bruce Barcott in MoJo's piece, What's A River For?:

    On the morning of September 19, 2002, the Yurok fishermen who set their gill nets near the mouth of the Klamath River arrived to find the largest salmon run in years fully under way. The fish had returned from the ocean to the Klamath, on the Northern California coast, to begin their long trip upstream to spawn; there were thousands of them, as far as the eye could see. And they were dying. Full-grown 30-pounders lay beached on shore-line rocks. Smaller fish floated in midriver eddies. Day after day they kept washing up; by the third day, biologists were estimating that 33,000 fish had been killed [since revised upward to 70,000] in one of the largest salmon die-offs in U.S. history. The Yurok knew immediately what had happened. For months they, along with state experts and commercial fishermen, had been pleading with the federal government to stop diverting most of the river's water into the potato and alfalfa fields of Oregon's upper Klamath Basin. But the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in charge of federal irrigation projects, refused to intervene.

    The CSM reports the House Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing next week to investigate political influence on agency science and decisionmaking. As reported in the Blue Marble scientists are aware of the persistent unsciencing of their work. Thirty-eight prominent wildlife biologists and environmental ethics specialists recently signed a letter protesting a new Bush administration interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. They're concerned for the future of animals such as wolves and grizzly bears. If Interior Department Solicitor David Bernhardt has his way, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to protect animals and plants only where they're actually battling for survival, not where they're in good shape. That means, for instance, that Bald Eagles would never have been protected decades ago since they were doing fine in Alaska, although practically extinct in the lower 48.

    During Bush/Cheney, the listing of endangered and threatened species has slowed to a fraction the number the Bush senior made in only four years (58 new listings compared with 231), and most of those were court-ordered, according to the CSM. New funding has been cut as well, and only 278 candidate species are waiting to join the list of 1,352. Mother Jones' recent piece, Gone, detailed why the presence of many kinds of life on earth is important to the survival of life itself. Seven of 10 biologists believe the sixth great extinction currently underway is a greater threat to life on earth than even global climate change.

    It's ephemerally comforting to think George W. Bush might go down in history as the worst of all U.S. presidents. More realistically, Dick Cheney will get the honor. . . Assuming there's a history to come. JULIA WHITTY

    Juego Frio: Coldplay Announces New Album to Have "Hispanic" Theme

    | Wed Jul. 25, 2007 3:23 PM EDT

    mojo-photo-martinsombrero.jpg

    Coldplay have revealed that their new album, currently being recorded by the band in Barcelona, has a "Hispanic theme"… "The sights, sounds and flavours of Latin America and Spain have definitely been infused on this album. The band visited Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Mexico earlier this year," the band explained on their blog. "Chris [Martin] then came up with the idea of recording in Spain. The music and lyrics have begun to reflect the strengthening Hispanic theme." (NME.com, 7/25/07)

    "Who better than Coldplay," they continued, "with our spicy echoes of U2, Radiohead, and Travis, to explore these exotic flavours... like, you know, tomatoes." Singing about flavors has always been a focus of the English band, they say, describing early hit "Yellow" as being "inspired by a paticularly savory paella."

    Rumored song titles on the new album include "Fix You (A Tasty Enchilada)," and "A Rush Of Blood To the Head After Eating This Spicy Hot Pepper." The album will come in multiple formats including a deluxe edition served with a side of guacamole and sour cream.

    Industry experts question whether Coldplay's mostly white, middle-aged, mashed-potato-loving fan base is ready for such a stylistic sorpresa, but the band insists "the popularity of restaurants like Taco Bell, Chevy's and Outback Steakhouse proves the record-buying public already enjoys watered-down versions of south-of-the-border favorites."

    "Si, si," echoed Martin, from under a yard-wide sombrero, "es muy… uh, how to express it… picante!"

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    Contempt of Congress! Will Likely be Ignored!

    | Wed Jul. 25, 2007 2:14 PM EDT

    A big step in the U.S. Attorneys case.

    The House Judiciary Committee voted today to issue contempt citations for two of President Bush's most trusted aides, taking its most dramatic step yet towards a constitutional showdown with the White House over the Justice Department's dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys.
    The panel voted 22-17, along party lines, to issue citations to Joshua B. Bolten, White House chief of staff, and Harriet E. Miers, former White House counsel. Both refused to comply with committee subpoenas after Bush declared that documents and testimony related to the prosecutor firings were protected by executive privilege.

    It remains to be seen what this means, because after these contempt citations pass the full House they are referred to the U.S. Attorney of the District of Columbia, an employee of the Justice Department. And the White House has already said, in an unprecedented move, that it will block the DOJ from prosecuting any contempt charges. My dream scenario: Supreme Court showdown!

    Regime Change Here at Home

    | Wed Jul. 25, 2007 2:02 PM EDT

    Is this our future?

    I'm looking forward to the 2030s: hottest, drunkest presidents ever.

    It's an incredibly slow news day, folks.

    Weird Weather Watch: Deadly European Heat Wave

    | Wed Jul. 25, 2007 10:54 AM EDT

    Remember the '80s hit by Midnight Oil, "Beds Are Burning"? The Aussie song posits with some disbelief that the "western desert lives and breathes in 45 degrees." (That's Celsius, y'all.) Singer-turned-politician Peter Garrett would be even more stunned to learn that southern Europe lived, breathed, and tried to sleep in 45 degrees this week. That's 113 Fahrenheit, in a region where air conditioners are less common even than Oreos. Greece, Bosnia, and Macedonia suffered most. In Hungary, the mercury hit 107 degrees, causing at least 500 heat-related deaths. Sound like fun? Try adding in several deadly fires and another record-breaking heat wave last month. So next time you hear "next year will be the hottest on record," don't plan on summering it away in Greece.

    Survey: Muslim Support for Suicide Bombings Declining

    | Wed Jul. 25, 2007 10:10 AM EDT

    This morning's Washington Post reports on the results of a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, showing that most of the world's Muslims reject suicide bombings and violence against civilians. The poll, conducted between April 6 and May 29, surveyed 45,239 people in 46 countries. Not surprisingly, Palestinians were the most enthusiastic supporters of suicide bombings: 70 percent of them responded that such attacks are "sometimes" or "often" justified. The countries showing the least amount of support? Egypt (8 percent) and Pakistan (9 percent). The survey also suggested that, in many countries, enthusiasm for suicide attacks has fallen sharply since 2002. At that time, 74 percent of Lebanese, 43 percent of Jordanians, and 26 percent of Indonesians agreed that at least some suicide bombings could be justified; today, those statistics stand at 34 percent, 23 percent, and 10 percent, respectively. Pew also discovered waning support for Osama Bin Laden in many of the same countries. The most precipitous decline was in Jordan, where just 20 percent of respondents voiced confidence in the Al Qaeda leader, down from 56 percent in 2002.