Kevin Drum

Obama Ratchets Up Sanctions on Russia

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 8:50 AM PDT

From the New York Times:

President Obama on Thursday announced he would expand sanctions against Russia, targeting individuals who support the government and a bank with ties to these associates, delivering on his warning earlier this week that it would ratchet up costs on Russia if it moved to annex the breakaway province of Crimea.

....Mr. Obama also said he had signed a new executive order that would allow him to impose sanctions Russian industrial sectors, presumably including its energy exports — a step that would dramatically tighten the economic pressure on Russia.

I expect we'll quickly get a pro forma response about how weak and vacillating this is from Bill Kristol, John McCain, and Charles Krauthammer. I can't quite get straight precisely what they want, but whatever it is, it's something higher on the belligerence scale than whatever the appeaser-in-chief is offering up.

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Here's the Only MH370 Theory That Actually Makes Sense

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 8:41 AM PDT

We need more traffic here at Mother Jones, and that can mean only one thing: we need to pump up our coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner. Let's take stock of what we know:

  • Investigators have discovered that data was erased from the flight simulator belonging to one of the pilots.
  • The plane veered off course in response to a course change programmed into the flight management system.
  • The transponder was turned off.
  • The ACARS tracking suggests the plane flew in the general direction of India. However, no ground-based radar detected the plane, which means the ACARS signals were probably spoofed.
  • Debris has been discovered in digitized satellite imagery, but an actual physical search has failed to find anything.

This all suggests one thing: a computer genius. A very rich computer genius. One who knows how to cover his tracks and is accustomed to avoiding discovery.

This whole affair was engineered by Satoshi Nakamoto. I will be publishing a detailed version of this theory in Newsweek shortly.

New Report Claims Pakistan Hid Osama bin Laden for Years

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 6:41 AM PDT

In the New York Times Magazine this week, Carlotta Gall has a long piece laying out a case that Pakistan's ISI not only knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding all along, it actively worked with him to recruit and train new members of the Taliban:

In trying to prove that the ISI knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts and protected him, I struggled for more than two years to piece together something other than circumstantial evidence and suppositions from sources with no direct knowledge. Only one man, a former ISI chief and retired general, Ziauddin Butt, told me that he thought Musharraf had arranged to hide Bin Laden in Abbottabad. But he had no proof and, under pressure, claimed in the Pakistani press that he’d been misunderstood.

Finally, on a winter evening in 2012, I got the confirmation I was looking for. According to one inside source, the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle Bin Laden. It was operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: Bin Laden. I was sitting at an outdoor cafe when I learned this, and I remember gasping, though quietly so as not to draw attention. (Two former senior American officials later told me that the information was consistent with their own conclusions.) This was what Afghans knew, and Taliban fighters had told me, but finally someone on the inside was admitting it. The desk was wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the ISI — such is how supersecret intelligence units operate — but the top military bosses knew about it, I was told.

America’s failure to fully understand and actively confront Pakistan on its support and export of terrorism is one of the primary reasons President Karzai has become so disillusioned with the United States. As American and NATO troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year, the Pakistani military and its Taliban proxy forces lie in wait, as much a threat as any that existed in 2001.

This is an adapted excerpt from Gall's upcoming book, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014. The right enemy, she says, is Pakistan, which has been exporting anti-American terrorism for years:

In Punjab, mainstream religious parties and banned militant groups were openly recruiting hundreds of students for jihad, and groups of young men were being dispatched to Syria to wage jihad there. “They are the same jihadi groups; they are not 100 percent under control,” a former Pakistani legislator told me. “But still the military protects them.”

The United States was neither speaking out against Pakistan nor changing its policy toward a government that was exporting terrorism, the legislator lamented. “How many people have to die before they get it? They are standing by a military that protects, aids and abets people who are going against the U.S. and Western mission in Afghanistan, in Syria, everywhere.”

I don't have the chops to comment intelligently about this, but thought it was worth passing along. Needless to say, the double game the ISI has been playing has been obvious for a long time. Whether it's as bad as Gall says is something I'll defer to those who know more about this than I do.

"Purge" May Not Mean What You Think It Means

| Wed Mar. 19, 2014 12:18 PM PDT

Marcy Wheeler reports on today's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board hearing:

The most striking aspect of the hearing was the tooth-pulling effort to get the panel to define the terms they use....The most interesting redefinitions were for “purge” and “search.”

....Purge does not mean — as you might expect — “destroy.” Rather, it means only “remove from NSA systems in such a way that it cannot be used.” Which, best as I understand it, means they’re not actually destroying this data.

....“Purge.” To keep. Somewhere else.

Maybe not even somewhere else! Perhaps to the NSA, purging a record merely means flipping a database flag so that it won't show up in ordinary queries. There's no telling.

The Trade Deficit Is Down, But There's a Catch

| Wed Mar. 19, 2014 10:53 AM PDT

The Wall Street Journal reports on the latest trade deficit numbers:

The U.S. current-account deficit sank to the lowest level in more than 14 years at the end of 2013, reflecting a smaller trade gap and better returns on assets Americans own abroad....The gap, which has narrowed 20% from a year earlier, now represents 1.9% of U.S. gross domestic product. That’s the smallest shortfall as a share of the U.S. economy since 1997.

That's all good, but there's a caveat: since 2009, the overall trade deficit has been flat while net imports of oil have decreased by about $50 billion per quarter. This means that net imports of all other goods have actually increased. The fracking boom is helping us out, but only temporarily. We still have a fairly chronic trade deficit problem everywhere else. More here on why this was probably inevitable.

Bobby Jindal Is Running for President

| Wed Mar. 19, 2014 8:45 AM PDT

I guess it's the law: The modern way to announce that you've thrown your hat in the ring for the Republican presidential nomination has nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter or anything like that. You merely have to ratchet up your wingnut rhetoric to 11. That's how you let people know.

So I guess this means Bobby Jindal is officially running for president. Dylan Scott runs down his latest crackpottery here.

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Obama's Approval Rating Is Remarkably Steady No Matter What Happens

| Wed Mar. 19, 2014 7:55 AM PDT

Jonathan Bernstein writes today that President Obama's approval rating has pulled ahead of George Bush's approval rating at this point in his presidency. "This is not to say Obama is doing well," he warns. "Unless his recent improvement gathers steam, he’s going to be a drag on Democrats in November, though he won't be as big a drag as Bush was for his party in the 2006 midterms."

This prompted me to click the link and check out Obama's approval rating in the HuffPollster's polling average. This may not be a surprise to any of you, but I don't follow Obama's polls very closely and I was a bit startled by how consistent his ratings have been. The chart below shows Obama's average approval over the past four years. It hovers around 47 percent, and it hasn't moved more than four points above or below that in the entire time. Right now he's about three points below his long-term mean, and as usual, he's reverting to it after sinking a bit during his annus horribilis of 2013.

I don't really have a point to make here. I'm just surprised that his numbers have been so steady for so long, so I thought I'd share.

How Mismanagement of GMO Corn Created a Super Predator

| Tue Mar. 18, 2014 10:05 PM PDT

Are genetically modified foods safe? As near as I can tell, the scientific community—and no, not just the part of it paid by Monsanto—has been pretty unequivocal on this subject: you can eat GMO foods with no qualms. It's possible that further research will dispute this, or that long-term effects will show up eventually, but for now there's no serious evidence that GMO foods are unsafe to stuff down your gullet.

But that's not the end of the story. Even if GMO foods are safe to eat, there are a host of practices surrounding the use and marketing of GMO seeds and crops that are highly questionable. And those practices frequently fail to get the attention they deserve thanks to intense lobbying from corporate interests with billions of dollars at stake. Over at Wired, Brandon Keim provides an example of this dynamic at work. It's the story of Bt corn, which was engineered to be poisonous to corn rootworms, a pest that used to cause billions of dollars in damage to corn crops. For a while it worked great. But then, corn rootworms evolved a resistance to Bt corn, largely due to industry and farmer resistance to proper management:

Key to effective management, said the scientists, were refuges set aside and planted with non-Bt corn. Within these fields, rootworms would remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. By mating with any Bt-resistant worms that chanced to evolve in neighboring fields, they’d prevent resistance from building up in the gene pool.

But the scientists’ own recommendations — an advisory panel convened in 2002 by the EPA suggested that a full 50 percent of each corn farmer’s fields be devoted to these non-Bt refuges — were resisted by seed companies and eventually the EPA itself, which set voluntary refuge guidelines at between 5 and 20 percent. Many farmers didn’t even follow those recommendations.

....[Entomologist Elson Shields of Cornell University] also lamented the difficulty he and other academic scientists long experienced when trying to study Bt corn. Until 2010, after organized objections by entomologists at major agricultural universities forced seed companies to allow outside researchers to study Bt corn, the crop was largely off-limits. Had that not been the case, said Shields, resistance could have been detected even earlier, and perhaps stalled before it threatened to become such a problem.

“Once we had legal access, resistance was documented in a year,” Shields said. “We were seeing failures earlier but were not allowed to test for resistance.”

There’s a lesson to be learned for future crop traits, Shields said. Rootworm resistance was expected from the outset, but the Bt seed industry, seeking to maximize short-term profits, ignored outside scientists. The next pest-fighting trait “will fall under the same pressure,” said Shields, “and the insect will win. Always bet on the insect if there is not a smart deployment of the trait.”

Click the link for the full story.

Sorry, But Childhood Obesity Hasn't Budged in the Past Ten Years

| Tue Mar. 18, 2014 5:47 PM PDT

Remember that CDC study showing a dramatic drop in obesity among 2-5 year olds that I wrote about last month? I was skeptical that it was real, and today Sharon Begley of Reuters follows up. Her conclusion? The whole thing is almost certainly bogus:

The latest study is based a well-respected data set taken from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES....The 2011-2012 version of the survey included 9,120 people; 871 of them were 2 to 5 years old...."In small samples like this, you are going to have chance fluctuations," said epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

....A study of preschoolers in the federal WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, which provides food vouchers, nutrition classes and counseling to low-income families, found virtually no change in obesity rates...."We agree there is a slight downward trend in obesity among 2-to-5-year olds," said Shannon Whaley, a co-author of the WIC study. "But a 43 percent drop is absolutely not what we're seeing." The WIC study included more than 200,000 children

....Other studies also raise questions about the 40 percent claim. An earlier CDC study, reported in JAMA in December 2012, found that the prevalence of obesity among 2-to-4-year olds in low-income families fell to 14.9 percent in 2010 from 15.2 percent in 2003. That represents an improvement of less than 2 [percent].

....For obesity rates to drop, researchers reckon, young children have to eat differently and become more active. But research shows little sign of such changes among 2-to-5-year olds, casting more doubt on the 43 percent claim....In 2010 Whaley and her colleagues examined the effectiveness of WIC classes and counseling to encourage healthy eating and activities for women and children in the program. Their findings were discouraging: Television watching and consumption of sweet or salty snacks actually rose, while fruit and vegetable consumption fell — changes that could lead to weight gain. One positive was a rise in physical activity.

To recap: the CDC study was small and had large error bars; other, larger studies find only slight drops in obesity; and there's no indication of any behavioral changes that might have produced a dramatic weight loss. I'd add to that the fact that the CDC data showed no correlation between lower weight at ages 2-5 and lower weight a few years later at ages 6-11.

Bottom line: I hate to be such a buzzkill, but the CDC result seems highly likely to be nothing more than statistical noise. Childhood obesity has barely budged in the last decade.

Playing Political Games With Surgeon Generals Is Nothing New

| Tue Mar. 18, 2014 2:16 PM PDT

Vivek Murthy, President Obama's nominee as surgeon general, supports regulations on gun use. This has earned him fierce opposition from the NRA and seems likely to sink his nomination entirely. Paul Waldman comments:

In the calculations over whether Murthy could get confirmed, it’s notable that everyone assumes, almost certainly correctly, that every Republican in the Senate will, of course, vote against the nomination. George W. Bush appointed only one surgeon general, Richard Carmona. He was confirmed by a vote of 98 to 0. But those days are gone — what do you expect Republicans to do, examine a nominee’s qualifications and vote to confirm if he’d obviously do a fine job? Please. The default used to be that a president will get the nominees he chooses unless there’s something really egregious in their past or what they’re likely to do if confirmed, but when it comes to this president and this Congress, that has been turned upside down. Now the Republican position is that every nominee should be rejected, unless there’s some kind of a deal that allows them to get something in exchange.

I've made similar kinds of comments in the past, so I can't really object to seeing them repeated here. Still, it's worth remembering a little history. First: although President Obama's initial choice for surgeon general, Regina Benjamin, ran into some Republican opposition when her nomination came to the floor, she was confirmed unanimously within a few days, just like Richard Carmona, Bush's first surgeon general. Second: after Carmona's term expired, Bush's next nominee for surgeon general, James Holsinger, ran into a buzzsaw of Democratic opposition based on a paper he had written in 1991 which argued that "homosexuality isn't natural or healthy." When the Bush White House suggested it might install Holsinger via a recess appointment, Harry Reid kept the Senate in pro forma sessions to prevent it. Eventually Holsinger's nomination died.

There was more going on with Holsinger, including his refusal to answer written questions, but basically his nomination was killed because of his anti-gay views. He insisted that his 1991 paper no longer represented his current views, but it didn't matter.

So do Murthy's problems demonstrate the strength of the NRA? Sure. But Holsinger's problems demonstrated the strength of liberal LGBT views among Democrats. There's nothing very new going on here.

In fact, I half wonder if opposition to Murthy is partly payback for Democrats killing Holsinger's nomination. I'd be curious to hear about this from reporters who cover the conservative movement. Down in the bowels of email lists and Sarah Palin fan clubs, do tea partiers still hold a grudge over Holsinger's defeat? Or has that long since been forgotten?