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No, There's Still No Evidence There Was an Active WMD Program in Iraq

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 1:35 PM EDT

C.J. Chivers of the New York Times has a long piece today about chemical weapons found in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. A few dead-enders are now gleefully claiming that Bush was right after all. Iraq did have WMD!

This is ridiculous enough that—so far, at least—the savvier wing of the conservative movement is staying mum about the whole thing. There are three main reasons for this. First, most of these weapons were rotting remnants of artillery shells used during the Iraq-Iran war in the 80s and stored at Iraq's Muthanna State Establishment as well as other nearby sites. Murtaza Hussain of the Intercept explains what this means:

The U.S. was aware of the existence of such weapons at the Al Muthanna site as far back as 1991. Why? Because Al Muthanna was the site where the UN ordered Saddam Hussein to dispose of his declared chemical munitions in the first place. Those weapons that could not safely be destroyed were sealed and left to decay on their own, which they did. The site was neither “active” nor “clandestine” — it was a declared munitions dump being used to hold the corroded weapons which Western powers themselves had in most cases helped Saddam procure.

In other words, these shells weren't evidence of an active WMD program, which had been George Bush's justification for the war. They were simply old munitions that everyone knew about already and that were being left to degrade on their own.

Second, the Bush administration kept its discoveries secret. If any of this were truly evidence for an active WMD program, surely Bush and Dick Cheney would have been the first to trumpet the news. The fact that they didn't is pretty plain evidence that there was nothing here to back up their prewar contentions of an Iraqi WMD program.

Third, there's the specific reason these discoveries were kept secret. Chivers tells the story:

Participants in the chemical weapons discoveries said the United States suppressed knowledge of finds for multiple reasons, including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong....Others pointed to another embarrassment. In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.

Far from being a smoking gun of Saddam Hussein's continuing quest for illegal WMDs, these discoveries were evidence that Western powers in the 80s were perfectly happy to supply illegal WMDs to an ally as long as they were destined for use against Iran. This was not something Bush was eager to acknowledge.

Iraq had no active WMD program, and it was an embarrassment to the Bush administration that all they could find were old, rotting chemical weapons originally manufactured by the West. So they kept it a secret, even from troops in the field and military doctors. But lies beget lies, and American troops are the ones who paid the price. According to Chivers, "The government’s secrecy, victims and participants said, prevented troops in some of the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds."

Today, the consequences of our lies continue to haunt us as the rotting carcasses of these weapons are apparently falling into the hands of ISIS. Unfortunately, no mere summary can do justice to this entire shameful episode. Read Chivers' entire piece to get the whole story.

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Please Rescue Us. Now Go Away.

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 11:47 AM EDT

Ed Kilgore brings the snark:

I realize the remarks of politicians should not be imputed to the entire populations they govern or represent. But still, it's hard to avoid noting that Texas—the very sovereign State of Texas, I should clarify, where the federal government is generally not welcome—was at a loss in dealing with a single Ebola case until the feds stepped in.

Sure, this is just a cheap gotcha. But sometimes there's a real lesson even in the simplest gibe, and Kilgore offers it: "It would be helpful to see some after-the-fact reflection on why the resources of a central government are sometimes necessary to avoid catastrophe."

That won't happen, of course. Instead, conservatives are already using this as an excuse to trash the federal government for not coming to their rescue sooner. This will undoubtedly be only a brief preface to yet another round of across-the-board budget cutting because everyone knows there's far too much waste and fat in the system. The irony of it all will, I'm sure, go entirely unnoticed.

Tom Cotton Is Upset That Democrats Ended a Free Money Stream for Banks

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 11:21 AM EDT

The latest from the campaign trail:

Republican Tom Cotton said during an Arkansas U.S. Senate debate on Tuesday that "Obamacare nationalized the student loan industry." The first-term congressman added, "That's right, Obamacare grabbed money to pay for its own programs and took that choice away from you."

Huh. Does Cotton really think this is a winning issue? I mean, it has the virtue of being kinda sorta semi-true, which is a step up for Cotton, but why would his constituents care? Does Cotton think they're deeply invested in the old system, where their tax dollars would go to big banks, who would then make tidy profits by doling out risk-free student loans that the federal government guaranteed?

That never made any sense. It would be like paying banks to distribute Social Security checks. What's the point? The new student loan system saves a lot of money by making the loans directly, and that's something that fiscal conservatives should appreciate. Instead, they've spent the past four years tearing their hair out over the prospect of Wall Street banks being shut out of the free money business. Yeesh.

Video: You've Never Seen the Colossal Power of the Ocean Quite Like This

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 9:34 AM EDT

Water from Morgan Maassen on Vimeo.

More than 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by oceans; they support nearly 50 percent of all the planet's species. And yet for us land-bound bipeds, their depths remain mysterious, fearsome, and untouched: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that "more than 95 percent of the underwater world remains unexplored." While greenhouse gases snatch the global warming headlines, the oceans play a crucial role in our understanding of climate change, having absorbed more than 90 percent of the Earth's extra heat since 1955. This video, uploaded to Vimeo by photographer and filmmaker Morgan Maassen from Santa Barbara, Calif., taps into that awesome, elemental power of the unknown, lifting it way above the run-of-the-mill surfie video into something that left me slack-jawed (and missing summer). Enjoy.

Liberia Says It's Going to Need a Lot More Body Bags

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 6:15 AM EDT

If you need any more evidence that the Liberian government is overwhelmed by the worsening Ebola outbreak (or you're still wondering why President Barack Obama committed American troops to help coordinate the relief effort), just look at the table below. The numbers, which come from Liberia's Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, show the huge gap between the supplies the Liberian government has and the supplies it needs.

As we reported last month, Liberia's entire national budget for 2013-14 was $553 million, with just $11 million allotted for health care—about what Kanye West and Kim Kardashian are believed to have spent on their house in Bel Air. The country allocated another $20 million in August specifically to fight the virus, but that still represents just a fraction of the resources needed.

The rest of the world has so far been unable to close the gap. In September, the United Nations asked member states for almost $1 billion to fight Ebola. On Friday, UN officials reported that they've only raised a quarter of that.

Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Hormel, Bacon, and Amputated Limbs

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Much of the outrage generated by the meat industry involves the rough treatment of animals. But as Ted Genoways shows in his searing new book, The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Foodwhich grew out of his long-form 2011 Mother Jones piece "The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret"—the people employed in its factory-scale slaughterhouses have it pretty rough too. The book hinges on a rare neurological disorder that, in the mid-2000s, began to affect workers in a Spam factory in Austin, Minnesota—particularly ones who worked in the vicinity of the "brain machine," which, as Genoways writes, used compressed air to blast slaughtered pigs' brains "into a pink slurry." As Genoways memorably puts it: "A high-pressure burst, a fine rosy mist, and the slosh of brains slipping through a drain hole into a catch bucket." I recently caught up with him to talk about the world of our dark, satanic meat mills, and the bright spots he sees after immersing himself in it.

"You've got somebody who's had a finger chopped off or has had a deep cut on their arm so that they're bleeding all over their station. There's somebody there to just pause that station and clean it while the rest of the line continues to move."

Mother Jones: When did you first get interested in the meat industry?

Ted Genoways: I'm a fourth-generation Nebraskan, and my grandfather, my dad's dad, during the Depression, worked in the packinghouses in Omaha around the union stockyards there. One Sunday, when they were visiting relatives just outside of Omaha, my grandfather decided to take my dad in to see the packing houses, and into the hog kill room, when he was probably about 10 years old. And my dad said that he was just sort of overwhelmed by the noise and the screeching of the hogs and the terror. My first book was a book of poems, Bullroarer: A Sequence, that had one section that dealt with some of that.

MJ: How did you go from poetry to investigating this disturbing brain disorder among meatpacking workers?

TG: Around 2000, I had a job working as a book editor at the Minnesota Historical Society Press, and the first book that I worked on there was a book called Packinghouse Daughter, by Cheri Register, about the packinghouse strike in Albert Lea, Minnesota, in 1959. Her father was one of the meatpacking workers there. I also read Peter Rachleff's book about the Hormel strike in the '80s in Austin, Minnesota, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland.

So it caught my eye in 2007 when there were some AP stories, and eventually the New York Times did a story, about the outbreak of this neurological disorder among the packing house workers at Quality Pork Processors in Austin. The fact that the people affected were almost entirely Hispanic intrigued me.

I started by wanting to tell the story of this medical mystery, but what quickly evolved was a picture of the hiring practices at QPP and how that tied back to the history of the strikes—there was just this whole universe that was contained in that story.

MJ: Rural Minnesota is a pretty white place. What did the strikes have to do with transforming the plant's workforce from majority white to majority Hispanic?

TG: In 1986 the strike ends, and in '87, they [Hormel management] announce that half the plant is a new company, called Quality Pork Producers, and the hundreds of people who worked there would be offered their jobs back, but no longer under the union contract. 

And without union protection, the native work force began to drift away. In no time, you've got a nearly all-Hispanic workforce that's made up hugely of undocumented workers. What surprises me is how quickly the communities turned their anger toward the new arrivals, and not the company itself.

TP: You report that since the launch of QPP, there's been an emphasis on speeding up the kill line. And that ends up being the probable trigger for the neurological disease you dug into.

TG: Right, the line speed becomes the issue that the Mayo Clinic doctors see as the key factor in explaining what was happening—exposure to hogs' aerosolized brain tissue increases as the volume of hogs processed goes up—a messy job got messier. And at the height of the [2007] recession, the demand [for Spam] was so high that they were offering overtime hours, so the hours of the exposure increased.

But beyond this neurological disorder that's tied to the line speed, there's all the repetitive stress injuries, there's obviously the kind of traumatic injuries that occur from cuts and amputations on the line—all of those increase when line speed increases. I talked to a number of people who said, when amputations occurred among the workers, and you've got somebody who's had a finger chopped off or has had a deep cut on their arm so that they're bleeding all over their station, there's somebody there to just pause that station and clean it while the rest of the line continues to move. Workers told me that at peak times, they're not allowed bathroom breaks, or even ordinary breaks to sharpen knives or to wash their hands. And the more I got to looking at it, I started to see how line speed affects all phases of production.

MJ: Talk about some of those effects.

Ted Genoways Photo: Mary Ann Andrei

TG: First, you need more hogs coming in the door. And what that means right away is more CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations, or factory-scale livestock farms]. Ideally for the packers, it means more involvement in the CAFOs, how they're run, what their production schedules are, what the animals are fed in order to produce an animal that has the lean-to-fat ratio that matches your needs for various products.

The other thing is if you're going to increase speed but not increase the workforce, it means more mechanization, which is very often kind of experimental. And sometimes where things break down is in the quality of the meat or just how well it's cut. Sometimes what breaks down is how sanitary it is, or how safe the workers are.

For the machine to work right, and especially for it to work right at high speed, every cut going into it has to be the same size. And as mind-boggling as it is, it's cheaper for the company on that kind of scale to control the size of the hog than to change the size of the cut inside the plant.

And of course this is where you get all of the breeding programs, the antibiotics and growth enhancers that they're fed so that every hog is on the exact same program and is coming to be the same size.

MJ: You dig deeply into the the special US Department of Agriculture program—known as HIMP, in the department's evocative acronym—that allowed Hormel to run its line much faster than the industry standard.

TG: The argument that was made in the early '90s, when this was first pushed, was that the old inspection model was outmoded. They said what we need instead is a modern system that will focus on microbiological testing. And that sounds like common sense. The problem is that the way that they wanted to implement this was to reduce the number of inspectors. That reduced number of inspectors then would be responsible for double-checking the inspection that would be carried out by the companies themselves.

And the companies argued that what this would allow them to do would be to run the line faster—they said, we'll put out more product which will bring the price down for consumers, and we'll have a safer product coming out as well. And it'll reduce government costs. So it sounds like the perfect thing all around. The problem they had is what it essentially did was put the companies in charge of their own inspection.

"Workers told me that at peak times, they're not allowed bathroom breaks, or even ordinary breaks to sharpen knives or to wash their hands."

MJ: As I know from covering it myself, and know even better after reading your book, the meat industry is a relentlessly bleak topic. From your reporting, did you find any hope for positive change?

TG: The meat industry operates under the assumption that what people care about in food is low cost. And what foodie movements have done, as they move toward the mainstream, is demonstrate that people will pay a little bit more for food that they feel is safe—the animal has been well treated, the workers have been well treated.

The other thing we're seeing is that Americans' meat consumption has leveled off and even started to drop a little bit in recent years. People have said, "I'll take a smaller portion if it's higher quality, and I'll pay a little bit more for it but I'll worry a little less about what's in it." And if enough people will do that, the industry will respond.

My other concern is that as the American consumer becomes more aware and enlightened about all this, the meat industry is also doing its best to move into all parts of the global market. And there's still lots of parts of the world where just having food is something that is a major issue—so you're back to the lowest-possible-cost idea.

MJ: That makes me think of the fact that our biggest pork producer of all, Smithfield, recently got bought by a Chinese company—so even though we're eating less factory-farmed meat here, production could actually increase, driven by demand in China.

TG: Yes. But still, here in the US, very few people were thinking about [the meat industry] 10 years ago. You talk to people about it now, and everybody is aware of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser and the whole wave of people who have come behind who are informing the public about all of this, and I think people are making different choices, now that they have that information.

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Survey: Four Out of Five Nurses Have Gotten No Ebola Training At All

| Wed Oct. 15, 2014 3:42 AM EDT
Nurses hold signs at NNU rally

Update, October 15, 1:50 p.m. EDT: A second hospital worker who treated the Dallas Ebola patient has tested positive for the disease. Health officials have confirmed that prior to her diagnosis she boarded a flight from Cleveland to Dallas/Fort Worth on Frontier Airlines. The CDC is monitoring potential risk of exposure to 132 passengers aboard.

A new survey conducted by the National Nurses Union shows US hospitals may not be adequately prepared to handle Ebola patients, should the virus continue to spread. Out of the 2,200 nurses who responded to the union's questionnaire, 85 percent reported that their hospitals had not provided education on Ebola. 76 percent said their institution had no policy for how to admit and handle patients potentially infected with the virus. More than a third claimed their hospitals didn't have enough safety supplies, including eye protection and fluid resistant gowns.

The survey results were announced on Sunday, just after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that a health worker in Texas had tested positive for the virus. The CDC's director, Thomas Frieden cited a "breach of protocol" as the likely reason.

Now—as agency officials scramble to figure out just what that breach was—nurses are pushing back. On Monday, NNU nurses in red shirts rallied in Oakland, Calif. with signs reading, "Stop Blaming Nurses. Stop Ebola."

"We have been surveying nurses for almost two months about Ebola preparedness," Charles Idelson, an NNU spokesman, said Monday. "What these survey results clearly indicate is that hospitals are still not doing enough to be properly prepared to respond."

The CDC has announced plans to deploy an Ebola response team "within hours" at any hospital where an Ebola patient is admitted. At a press conference, Frieden said the agency is responding to calls from hospitals that are underprepared to handle the crisis.

On Monday, Frieden said the the CDC is also working with hospitals to better train health workers on Ebola precautions."We have to rethink the way we address Ebola infection control," he said. For example, he said, in some cases health workers may actually be wearing too much protective gear, making it harder to remove and dispose of the material.

The NNU survey showed that, even as the CDC called for more hands-on training, especially on how to properly put on and remove safety equipment, few hospitals have provided it for their employees. Ideslson says most are simply pointing nurses to information on their websites, or linking to CDC information. Staffing is another concern, with 63 percent of nurses reporting that hospital facilities won't adjust the number of assigned patients per nurse to reflect the additional time required to care for infectious patients.

"We are going to continue to protest the failure of so many of these hospitals to put adequate safety measures in place," Idelson said; he wouldn't rule out the potential for healthcare workers to walk out on strike, much as Liberian health care workers have.

The American Hospital Association, an organization that represents nearly 5,000 hospitals nationwide, is now calling on hospitals to bolster their training regimens, turned down my request for an interview, but sent a statement saying, "We strongly encourage all hospitals to conduct employee retraining on how to use personal protective equipment to protect themselves from Ebola and other potentially deadly communicable diseases."

Even if hospitals are prepared, however, it can be difficult to comply with both patient needs and the social blowback that comes with an Ebola diagnosis. The New York Times reported yesterday that  Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, a center that had prepared for an outbreak long before the current crisis began, struggled with the county threatening to stop sewer service, couriers refusing to transport blood samples, and pizza delivery services refusing to come to any part of the hospital. And as my colleague Tim Murphy has reported, Louisiana's attorney general has said the state, which processes a wide variety of hazardous wastes from around the nation, may take legal action to stop the incinerated belongings of deceased Ebola patient Eric Duncan from coming to one of its landfills.

In his press conference, Frieden warned that such fears are unfounded and counterproductive. "The enemy here is a virus. It's not a person, it's not a country, it's not a place, it's not a hospital—it's a virus. It's a virus that's tough to fight, but together I'm confident that we will stop it."

Watch Live: David Corn on the 2014 Elections

Tue Oct. 14, 2014 5:44 PM EDT

Event live stream starting on Tuesday, October, 14, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern 

As the midterm elections approach, issues like money in politics, voter suppression, and income inequality will shape the political landscape just as much as who wins control of the Senate. What difference will November 4 make? And what are the critical issues that will shape the concluding years of the Obama administration and beyond? Please join the Brennan Center and Mother Jones Tuesday, October 14, for a pre-election primer on the state of our democracy, featuring Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn, New York Post editorial writer Robert A. George, and Brennan Center president Michael Waldman in conversation with Alex Wagner, host of MSNBC's Now With Alex Wagner. For more MoJo coverage of the 2014 midterm elections, click here.

The Kids These Days Know More Than You Probably Think

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 5:35 PM EDT

When I write about American education, the background implication is usually simple: kids these days are dumber than they used to be. Schools are bad; the children are slackers; and the Chinese are going to destroy us. Frankly, I doubt this. It may be true that most 17-year-olds can't locate France on a map, but I'll bet most adults can't either. They just never get tested to find out.

The Boston Review ran a fascinating blog post on this theme a few days ago. It seems that one of the pieces of evidence on the side of the doomsayers is the declining vocabularies of our youth. This has been measured regularly since 1974 by the General Social Survey, and it turns out that scores on its multiple-choice Wordsum vocabulary test rose steadily for generations born between 1900 and 1950 but declined after that.

It's easy to understand why test scores rose for generations born between 1900 and 1950: schooling became far more widespread during the first half of the 20th century. But why did it decline after that? Is it because kids born after 1950 have gotten successively dumber? Claude Fischer summarizes some new research that takes advantage of Google's Ngram viewer to measure how frequently words have been used over the past century:

[The researchers] took the ten test words—most of which became relatively less common over the century—and also the words that appeared in the answers respondents were given to choose from....Each of over 20,000 respondents in the cumulative GSS survey, 1974 to 2012, got a score for how common the words were in the years between the respondent’s birth and the year he or she turned fifteen.

Dorius and colleagues found that, other things being equal, the rise in test scores from the earliest cohorts to the mid-century cohorts is largely explained by the schooling those cohorts got. And importantly, the decline in test scores from the latter cohorts to the latest ones can be explained by the declining use of certain words, especially “advanced” ones. Once both factors are taken into account, there is little difference among generations in vocabulary scores.

In other words, it's not that kids have gotten dumber. It's just that GSS has been using the same words for 40 years, and these words have become less common. The words themselves are kept secret, but apparently they aren't too hard to suss out. In case you're curious, here they are: space, broaden, emanate, edible, animosity, pact, cloistered, caprice, accustom, and allusion.

It turns out that once you adjust for how common these words have been at various points in time, the apparent drop in vocabulary scores vanishes. In fact, vocabulary scores have actually gotten higher, as the chart on the right shows. This is hardly the last word on the subject, which appears to be the topic of a vast literature, but it does go to show how careful you have to be with this kind of stuff. It's safe to say that kids these days are less knowledgeable than their parents about some things. But it's also true that they're more knowledgeable about certain other things. This should probably even out, but it doesn't. It's adults who get to form judgments about which things matter, and they naturally assume that their knowledge is important, while all the stuff the kids know that they don't is trivial and ephemeral.

That's comforting to the oldsters, but not necessarily true. Kids probably don't know less than their parents. They just know different things.

Book Review: The Birth of the Pill

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 5:24 PM EDT
birth of the pill

The Birth of the Pill

By Jonathan Eig

NORTON

Seventy years ago, birth control—illegal, crude, and unreliable—was reserved for women with means whose men were willing to go along. Jonathan Eig's gripping history recounts how two men and two women fought science and society for a pill to enable smaller families (and low-risk recreational sex). Their campaign, which touted pragmatism (population control, economics) over pleasure, won some unlikely victories: the support of a devout Catholic OB-GYN, for instance, and the backing of a feisty heiress who once smuggled more than 1,000 diaphragms into the States, sewn into the folds of the latest European fashions. The pill is utterly ordinary today. The story of how we got here is anything but.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones.