The infamous L'Aquila earthquake trial is over, and it turns out that in Italy you can be convicted of manslaughter for not predicting an earthquake:

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L'Aquila. A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes. It took Judge Marco Billi slightly more than four hours to reach the verdict in the trial, which had begun in September 2011.

As bad as this sounds, it's actually even worse. Prior to the L'Aquila quake, there had been a series of small tremors, prompting a local lab technician to issue several incorrect predictions of a large earthquake on Italian television. Residents were nervous, so a committee of seismologists was convened to assess the risk of a bigger quake. Here's what they concluded:

The minutes of the 31 March meeting [] reveal that at no point did any of the scientists say that there was "no danger" of a big quake. "A major earthquake in the area is unlikely but cannot be ruled out," Boschi said. Selvaggi is quoted as saying that "in recent times some recent earthquakes have been preceded by minor shocks days or weeks beforehand, but on the other hand many seismic swarms did not result in a major event". Eva added that "because L'Aquila is in a high-risk zone it is impossible to say with certainty that there will be no large earthquake". Summing up the meeting, Barberi said, "there is no reason to believe that a swarm of minor events is a sure predictor of a major shock". All the participants agreed that buildings in the area should be monitored urgently, to assess their capacity to sustain a major shock.

So what's the conviction based on? This:

The prosecution has focused on a statement made at the press conference by accused committee member Bernardo De Bernardinis, who was then deputy technical head of Italy's Civil Protection Agency. "The scientific community tells me there is no danger," he said at the time, "because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable."

Many seismologists — including one of the accused, Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology in Rome — have since criticized the statement as scientifically unfounded. The statement does not appear in the minutes of the committee meeting itself, and the accused seismologists say they cannot be blamed for it. De Bernardinis's advocate insists that his client merely summarized what the scientists had told him. The prosecutor claims that because none of the other committee members immediately corrected De Bernardinis, they are all equally culpable.

Even if you think De Bernardinis was culpable in some way, it's beyond belief that six scientists were convicted merely for not immediately disagreeing with him. This is a sad day in Italian justice, and it's going to be a long time before any qualified scientist is willing to say anything ever again about earthquake safety.

Here's a headline from Sarah Kliff in the Washington Post today:

Sorry, nerds: Popular kids earn more in the long run

This is a description of a study that followed high school seniors from the class of 1957 and, among other things, looked at whether popularity correlated with later success in life. And it did. Students were all asked to name their three best friends, and those who were named most often ended up earning more as adults. This isn't surprising. But it's worth noting that smart kids didn't actually do poorly. Here's what the study says:

We find a tendency for high-IQ students to nominate more friends and to be popular in turn, suggesting that high ability students might be more attractive as peers and better understand the opportunities arising from social interactions.

Social scientists have known for a long time that the usual stereotype of smart kids as socially maladjusted outcasts is wrong. Some of them are, but then again, so are some average kids. Popularity is independent of smarts, and on average, it turns out that smart kids are actually a little more sociable than the mean. This new study confirms that.

Mitt Romney, displaying the political courage we've come to expect from him, has declined to take a public stand on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. So does that mean we're doomed to simply guess what he thinks? Steve Benen says no: "There's ample evidence that the Romney campaign and its surrogates strongly oppose the pay-equity bill."

Steve runs down the recent evidence, but can I just add the obvious? We actually held a vote on this bill in 2009. A grand total of eight Republicans out of 219 voted in favor. Romney may not feel like admitting it during an election in which he needs women to vote for him, but Steve is right: I think we have a pretty good idea of exactly what he and his fellow Republicans think about this.

One of the key scapegoats of the right-wing outrage machine in the wake of last month's assault in Benghazi has been UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Why? Because four days after the attacks, she taped interviews with several Sunday talk shows in which she falsely suggested that the attacks had been inspired by the "Innocence of Muslims" YouTube video. This charge has since been repeated 24/7 on Fox News and picked up over and over by mainstream news outlets as well.

It's outrageous, all right, but not because Rice really did anything wrong. She didn't. At this point, the known facts are pretty simple:

  • The CIA's collective judgment on Saturday the 15th, when Rice taped her interviews, was that the protests earlier in the week in Cairo — which had been inspired by the video — had also inspired protests in Benghazi. Later, extremist elements hijacked those protests to storm the consulate. The CIA subsequently backed off its belief that there had been protests in Benghazi, but that only happened later. On Saturday, the CIA told Rice there had been protests, and that's what she said on TV.
  • The evidence to this day suggests that, in fact, the YouTube video did play a role in the attacks. It's simply not true that Rice invented or exaggerated about that.
  • Rice was, in fact, properly cautious in her TV appearances. The transcripts here are crystal clear. On Face the Nation, for example, she carefully told Bob Schieffer that she couldn't yet offer any "definitive conclusions," but that "based on the best information we have to date" it appeared that there had been a spontaneous protest in Benghazi "as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where [...] there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video." She then immediately added: "But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent." When Schieffer pressed her on whether the attack had been preplanned, or whether al-Qaeda was involved, she said directly that we simply didn't know yet.

So how is it that mainstream reporters have managed to repeat the right-wing attacks on Rice so endlessly and without any apparent pushback? Bob Somerby suggests that four factors allowed it to happen:

  • Death by lack of certainty. The press wants a simple story and just won't accept statements of uncertainty at face value.
  • Death by complexity. Rice told a multi-part story that the press insisted on simplifying into submission. 
  • Death by submission to power. The right wing outrage machine yelled loudly about Rice's perfidy, and the rest of the press followed along.
  • Death by liberal silence. Liberals did nothing to fight back. Rice was on her own.

Susan Rice has been made into a bizarre caricature of herself. The transcripts of what she said are easily available, and by now it's plainly obvious that her comments were careful, considered, and accurately represented the collective assessment of American intelligence at the time she offered them. It's time to stop the lynching.

Ed Kilgore examines Mitt Romney's options in the foreign policy debate tonight:

Consider the advice offered to Romney for tonight's debate by the New York Times' Bill Keller. Here are the headlines: (1) Go easy on Benghazi; (2) Say Something nice About the Palestinians; (3) Extend a hand to Mohamed Morsi; (4) Concede that the war in Iraq was a mistake; (5) Don't rush into Syria; (6) Open the door to a deal with Iran; (7) Apply some Bain rigor to defense; and (8) Cool it on China.

....But how does a presidential candidate who has repeatedly and heatedly and redundantly defined America's interests in the Middle East as identical with those of Bibi Netanyahu do (2) and (6)? How does the nominee of a party whose base is for the most part quite happy with the idea of American foreign policy being organized around a straight out war against Islam going to do (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), or (6)? Can a candidate who's been running around Hampton Roads telling voters that they'll all starve if the defense budget is allowed to decline an iota suddenly get Bain-ish on Pentagon spending?

Ed, Ed, Ed: where has your right and proper cynicism gone? Of course Romney will do most of these things. How? Why, he'll just open his mouth and say the words. He'll be careful not to phrase any of this stuff in the form of concrete promises, but Romney is obviously dedicated to his Moderate Mitt persona when he's on a national stage, and I don't doubt that he'll find a way to extend this tonight. For the record, I don't think he'll go as far as #4, and I don't think he needs to rein in his instincts on #8, which is a fairly popular position. But the rest of them? With the proper nuances and caveats, none of them should cause him a problem. I'm not quite sure what strategy he'll pursue on Benghazi (I suspect that cooling it would be a good idea, but I'm hardly 100% sure of that), but that's the only question mark. The rest of this stuff is easy to fudge.

The caskets of US ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith, and security officers Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty are escorted through an honor cordon during a transfer ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on Sept. 14, 2012.

The reporting on what we know about the Benghazi attacks on September 11 just gets more and more interesting. Let's do a quick Q&A:

Why was President Obama initially unwilling to call it an act of terror?

He wasn't. The day after the attack, on September 12, he gave a Rose Garden speech in which he said, in reference to the assault, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation." At campaign stops that day and the next, he again referred to the Benghazi assault as "an act of terror." A McClatchy report sums up the evidence: "In the first 48 hours after the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya, senior Obama administration officials strongly alluded to a terrorist assault and repeatedly declined to link it to an anti-Muslim video that drew protests elsewhere in the region, transcripts of briefings show."

A day after the attacks, the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington that there were eyewitness reports that the attack was carried out by militants. Why didn't Obama administration officials say so?

They did. Hillary Clinton, for one, referred to it as an attack "by a small and savage group."

Okay, but that McClatchy report quoted above also says that a few days after the attacks administration officials started putting more emphasis on the "Innocence of Muslims" video. Why? It had nothing to do with the Benghazi attacks.

That's not what locals said. As David Kirkpatrick reports: "To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck the United States Mission without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video…The fighters said at the time that they were moved to act because of the video, which had first gained attention across the region after a protest in Egypt that day."

So the video might have played a role. But why did UN ambassador Susan Rice put the video front and center in her Sunday morning appearances a week after the attacks?

She didn't, really. On Face the Nation, she said the "best information" at that moment suggested that Benghazi began "as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where […] there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video." She then immediately added: "But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent."

Still, why even mention the video? By that point, wasn't it clear that the real cause of the attacks lay elsewhere?

Not really. We now know that the CIA still believed the video was partly to blame for the violence. David Ignatius reports that a set of "talking points" prepared by the CIA on September 15, the day Rice taped her TV appearances, "support her description of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate as a reaction to Arab anger about an anti-Muslim video prepared in the United States. According to the CIA account, 'The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.'"

Fine. But why did Rice suggest that the attacks came after a "spontaneous" protest at the Benghazi consulate? There was no protest.

True, but Rice didn't know that at the time because the CIA talking points still referred to "demonstrations" that had been inspired by the protests in Cairo. As David Martin reported: "Over that same weekend, US intelligence began to uncover evidence that there had not been a protest outside the consulate. That new intelligence did not get to Rice before she appeared on the Sunday talk shows, making her the target of Republican accusations the administration was trying to cover up the terrorist attack."

But why did anyone think there was anything "spontaneous" about this in the first place? In fact, the assault on the consulate was preplanned by "Al Qaeda elements," as Libyan President Mohammed Magarief said, wasn't it?

No. The LA Times reports that Magarief was mistaken: "The assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi last month appears to have been an opportunistic attack rather than a long-planned operation, and intelligence agencies have found no evidence that it was ordered by Al Qaeda, according to U.S. officials and witnesses interviewed in Libya…The attack was 'carried out following a minimum amount of planning,' said a U.S. intelligence official…A second U.S. official added, 'There isn't any intelligence that the attackers pre-planned their assault days or weeks in advance.' Most of the evidence so far suggests that 'the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo' earlier that day, the official said."

Still, the Obama administration was negligent in refusing a stream of requests from American diplomats in Libya to provide more security, wasn't it?

That's possible. However, increased security probably wouldn't have changed anything. As the New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago, "The requests were denied, but they were largely focused on extending the tours of security guards at the American Embassy in Tripoli—not at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, 400 miles away."

Bottom line: There were conflicting reports on the ground, and that was reflected in conflicting and sometimes confused reports from the White House. I don't think anyone would pretend that the Obama's administration's response to Benghazi was anywhere near ideal. Nevertheless, the fact is that their statements were usually properly cautious; the YouTube video really did play a role; the attack was opportunistic, not preplanned; and it doesn't appear to have had any serious connection with Al Qaeda. It's true that it took about 10 days for all this to really shake out, but let's be honest: 10 days isn't all that long to figure out what really happened during a violent and chaotic attack halfway around the world. I get that it's a nice opportunity for Republicans to score some political points in the runup to an election, but really, there's not much there there.

Around here, we're not selfish about birthdays. I get what's inside the box, Domino gets the box itself. As you can see, everyone is pretty contented with this arrangement.

In other news, a new catacomb has been discovered in Rome. By a cat: "Curti and a friend were following the cat at 10pm on Tuesday when it scampered towards a low tufa rock cliff close to his home near Via di Pietralata in a residential area of the city. 'The cat managed to get into a grotto and we followed the sound of its miaowing,' he said. Inside the small opening in the cliff the two men found themselves surrounded by niches dug into the rock similar to those used by the Romans to hold funeral urns, while what appeared to be human bones littered the floor."

Sure, dogs might save you if your house catches on fire. Big deal. Cats are helping us reclaim the lost relics of Western civilization. Advantage: cats.

Stuart Staniford catches us up today on Iranian oil production, which is falling like a rock. During 2009-10, Iran was producing about 3.7 million barrels per day. Today, they're producing about 3.1 million bpd. Almost all of this decline represents a drop in exports, which in turn represents a loss of roughly $20 billion per year in revenue. As a percent of GDP, that's about the equivalent of $600 billion for the United States. In other words, sanctions are hurting them.

Also: cyber war! "Since we are placing the Iranians under very severe pressure with sanctions, they have the motivation to learn quickly and cyberattacks are very cheap." I'm a little less concerned with Iranian cyberattacks than Stuart is, but in the long term there's no question that this is a growth industry.

Steve Benen directs my attention to Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who has a whole new criticism of President Obama's handling of the Benghazi attacks:

As far as it being an act of terror, the president was almost four minutes into his statement on September 12th before he mentioned an act of terror.... It wasn't until he was well into the remarks.

Uh huh. This is a new record. Republicans have been trying for weeks to gin up national outrage over the fact that it was several days before we knew for sure what had happened in Benghazi. They never got much traction with this line of faux umbrage — largely because there really was legitimate confusion about what happened — and fairly or not, Candy Crowley put a stake through its heart on Tuesday when Mitt Romney stupidly repeated an echo chamber attack without bothering to check whether it was actually true.

Now, instead of moving on, King is doubling down. For some reason, Republicans think it's outrageous that Obama didn't instantly know what had happened in Benghazi. They think it's outrageous that he didn't immediately jump to conclusions in the absence of firm facts. And now King thinks it's outrageous that in his Rose Garden speech, Obama took four full minutes to suggest that it was an act of terror.

Conservatives are obsessed with the idea that we demonstrate weakness unless the word "terror" is applied instantly to every attack against the United States. But it's a loser. It worked great during the Bush years, but not so much anymore. Give it a rest, guys.

In a primary debate earlier this year, Anderson Cooper asked: "If hypothetically Roe versus Wade was overturned, and the Congress passed a federal ban on all abortion, and it came to your desk, would you sign it? Yes or no?" Mitt Romney said he'd be delighted to sign such a bill, and the Obama campaign is making hay with this in the ad on the right. Michael Scherer thinks it's a cheap shot:

Here is the transcript, from a Republican debate on Nov. 28, 2007:

....Romney: Let me say it. I’d be delighted to sign that bill. But that’s not where we are. That’s not where America is today. Where America is, is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade and return to the states that authority. But if the Congress got there, we had that kind of consensus in the country, terrific.

Romney conditions his support for this hypothetical bill on an America that does not exist, or one in which there is “such a consensus in this country that we said, we don’t want to have abortion in this country at all, period.” He also says clearly, “that’s not where we are.” In other words, he does not say that he would push against popular opinion to support such a bill. He is also silent on whether his ban would include exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. Obama supporters say he doesn’t need to be explicit about exceptions, since the question is about “all abortions.” But the history of abortion debates within the Republican Party suggests otherwise.

I don't really see Scherer's point here. It's true that Romney thinks (accurately) that no flat ban on abortion is likely to cross the president's desk in the near future. So in the sense of trying to figure out what will actually happen over the next four or eight years, it's probably true that a President Romney wouldn't have a chance to sign a flat ban on abortion.

But that's only half of what any election is about. The other half is about what a prospective candidate wants to do. I don't think the United States will ever return to the gold standard, for example, but the fact that Ron Paul supports it tells me that he's a crank. That's reason enough not to vote for him.

Likewise, even if Romney never has the opportunity to sign a nationwide ban on abortion, he's obviously saying that he'd like to if he ever got the chance. What's more, Romney probably would get a chance to overturn Roe v. Wade by appointing a Sam Alito clone to the Supreme Court, and he knows very well that this would result in plenty of states flatly banning abortion. This tells me he's an abortion extremist, and it tells me a lot about who he is. It's fair game.

As for whether Romney, in his heart of hearts, wants to ban all abortions nationwide, or would reject a bill unless it made exceptions for rape and incest, who knows? Romney is obviously willing to fudge the question depending on what audience he's talking to, and it's hardly dirty pool for the Obama campaign to take advantage of that. The ambiguity in the Obama ad is a direct result of the ambiguity in Romney's position.