Mojo - October 2005

No child left behind, though some may die in Iraq, and others may become invisible

| Mon Oct. 10, 2005 6:16 PM EDT

Thanks to Louisiana Senator David Vitter, the No Child Left Behind Act contains a clause which requires schools to give military recruiters the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of high school students. As most people have heard by now, parents may opt their adolescents out of this process. However, No Child Left Behind also provides that schools that do not hand over the information are subject to losing federal funding.

In Florida's Duval County, school officials have made a bargain with parents: It's okay to opt your kids out of the military recruiter list, but if you do so, your teenager's photo will not appear in the yearbook, and she will not be listed in sports activities or on the honor roll. Where I come from, this practice is known as extortion, but I'm sure the Pentagon sees it as negotiation. Duval County officials, though they believe they are operating within the confines of the law, have agreed to make some changes next year, which would give parents more options. However, these changes do not appear to effect the "negotiation" aspect of the process.

Though all credit goes to Senator Vitter for this particular aspect of the mess that is known as No Child Left Behind, it would be unfair of me to not ask alll of Congress to take a bow for its passage.

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Just the right bit of religion

Mon Oct. 10, 2005 5:33 PM EDT

Since the final draft of the new Iraqi constitution was released last Thursday to citizens in Baghdad, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has released a review of its human rights protections, especially those regarding religious freedom. While noting some improvements, USCIRF sees the inclusion of Islam as the state religion and its designation as the "a fundamental source of legislation" as a danger to civil liberties. Especially troubling to the Commission is that the interpretation and implementation of the laws will be determined by the Iraqi high court, which will contain Islamic jurists with no training in western-style civil law legal traditions. The majority Shiite Muslims in Iraq support the final draft of the constitution, while militant factions of the Sunni minority are calling for a boycott of the referendum and threatening participants with violence.

The concerns raised by the Iraqi constitutional draft and court nominations add an interesting element to the somewhat parallel civic conversation surrounding the Supreme Court nominee debacle in the US. As Miers' evangelical history is simultaneously attacked, right and left by some, and touted as a selling point by others, some Americans may be left wondering exactly when and how the principle of church-state separation gets implemented; then again, some have already made up their mind.

Plots Aplenty

| Mon Oct. 10, 2005 3:34 PM EDT

Via Cursor.org, the AP has a White House-released list of the ten terror plots that President Bush last week claimed to have disrupted since 9/11. One wonders, though, how loosely the White House is using the word "plot," when something like this appears on the list:

The Jose Padilla Plot: In May 2002, the U.S. disrupted a plot that involved blowing up apartment buildings in the United States. One of the plotters, Jose Padilla, also discussed the possibility of using a "dirty bomb" in the U.S.

As far as I can tell, "a plot that involved blowing up apartment buildings" is an actual crime, one for which there are actual consequences. According to the Justice Department, Padilla allegedly met with senior al-Qaeda leaders and scouted sites that would be bombed by a radioactive "dirty bomb"; yet as District Court Judge Henry Floyd said in March, the government faces "no impediments whatsoever" to trying Padilla on precisely these charges in civilian court. For all I know, Padilla really did do these things, and really is a dangerous guy who deserves prison, but the government certainly hasn't proved that to anyone, and until that happens, there's no reason why it should be allowed to tout these arrests as success stories. As the New York Times reports today, Belgian officials are learning how to use the courts to prosecute terrorism and uncover plots, despite the country's fairly weak domestic intelligence capabilities, and there's no reason why the U.S. should be unable to do the same.

"These guys are bullies"

| Mon Oct. 10, 2005 2:00 PM EDT

I haven't been following the Valerie Plame investigation very closely, but judging from this Time story, it seems like Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor on the case, is really getting to the Mayberry Machiavellis:

As top Bush aide Karl Rove prepares for his fourth grand-jury appearance, the federal probe into who leaked CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity to the media is believed to be wrapping up. But the investigation has taken a toll on White House aides, many of whom now fear that the special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, is intent on issuing indictments. "Fitzgerald's office, although very professional, has been very aggressive in pursuing people," the adviser said. "These guys are bullies, and they threaten you."

Poor babies.

Arbitrary Healthcare

| Mon Oct. 10, 2005 1:35 PM EDT

Over the weekend, Kevin Drum had a fantastic post about why we need universal health care. Just to add to everything he said, it's utterly bizarre and twisted that a person in this country can receive government health insurance after losing all their life savings in a hurricane, but if a person who loses their job—through no fault of their own—and can't pay for chemo injections, well, tough luck. It's bizarre that Medicaid will cover those under the poverty line but not, quite frequently, those at twice the poverty threshold, or just over the cutoff, or often certain parents below the threshold. At present, people in very similar circumstances aren't at all treated equally, and we'd do just as well tossing darts at a dartboard to determine who gets coverage and who doesn't.

"A General Sense of Urgency"

| Fri Oct. 7, 2005 7:56 PM EDT

As concern about a flu pandemic sweeps official Washington, Congress and the Bush administration are considering spending billions to buy the influenza drug Tamiflu. But after months of delay, the United States will now have to wait in line to get the pills.

Had the administration placed a large order just a few months ago, Roche, Tamiflu's maker, could have delivered much of the supply by next year, according to sources close to the negotiations in both government and industry.

New York Times
After Delay, U.S. Faces Line for Drug
October 7, 2005

Certainly the leading influenza researchers, from the first H5N1 outbreak in 1997, have been doing their utmost to alert medical colleagues worldwide to the urgent threat of avian flu, as well as outlining the immediate steps the Bush Administration and other governments needed to take. As befitted his position as "pope" of influenza researchers, Robert Webster of Saint Jude Hospital in Memphis tirelessly preached the same sermon…

Webster stressed the particular urgency of increasing the production and stockpiling of the NA inhibitor Tamiflu. Because this strategic antiviral was "in woefully short supply"--it is made by Roche at a single factory in Switzerland--Webster and his colleagues underlined the need for resolute government action.

The Nation
Avian Flu: A State of Unreadiness
June 29, 2005

According to his official biography, Stewart Simonson is the Health and Human Services Department's point man "on matters related to bioterrorism and other public health emergencies." Hopefully, he has taken crash courses on smallpox and avian flu, because, prior to joining HHS in 2001, Simonson's background was not in public health, but ... public transit. He'd previously been a top official at the delay-plagued, money-hemorrhaging passenger rail company Amtrak. Before that, he was an adviser to Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, specializing in crime and prison policy. When Thompson became HHS secretary in 2001, he hired Simonson as a legal adviser and promoted him to his current post shortly before leaving the Department last year. Simonson's biography boasts that he "supervised policy development for Project BioShield," a program designed to speed the manufacture of crucial vaccines and antidotes.

The New Republic
Welcome to the Hackocracy
October 7, 2005

A year after President Bush signed Project BioShield into law, only one big contract has been awarded -- $878 million for a novel anthrax vaccine -- and none of that money has been disbursed. A few smaller contracts have been handed out, but others for promising vaccines and drugs have stalled in the federal health bureaucracy.

Wall Street Journal
U.S. struggles for drugs to counter biological threats
July 11, 2005

To many infectious-disease experts, Project Bioshield was Bush and Thompson's version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: with priorities established in inverse relation to actual probabilities of attack or outbreak. "It's too bad that Saddam Hussein's not behind influenza," complained Dr. Paul Offit, a dissident member of the government's advisory panel on vaccination. "We'd be doing a better job."

Indeed, HHS's zeal to combat hypothetical bioterrorism contrasts with its incredible negligence in exercising oversight of the nation's "fragile" influenza vaccine supply. As the GAO had warned Clinton's HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, vaccine availability in a pandemic would depend on the stability and surge capacity of existing production lines. But as shocked Americans discovered in the winter of 2003-04 and again in early fall 2004, the entire vaccine manufacturing system had decayed almost to the point of collapse. While Bush and Thompson were trying to bribe the pharmaceutical industry to join Project Bioshield, the same industry was abdicating its elementary responsibility to maintain a lifeline of new vaccines and antibiotics.

The Nation
Avian Flu: A State of Unreadiness
June 29, 2005

"A general sense of urgency informs all of our homeland security work," said Stewart Simonson, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, which jointly administers Bioshield with the Homeland Security Department.

Copley News Service
Congress urged to streamline Bioshield Program
July 12, 2005

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Outrage over Red Cross--why the surprise?

| Fri Oct. 7, 2005 6:13 PM EDT

In our culture, learning what is going on in the nation and in the world is simply not a priority, and even when people do learn, their memories tend to be very short.

In Louisiana, citizens are extremely frustrated over some of the treatment they have received from the American Red Cross. When they called, they were on hold for hours, only to get a recorded message telling them to hang up and call another number--which took them back to where they had started. Instead of installing more phone lines, the Red Cross--5 weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit-- opened service centers, but so few that people have had to camp out in their cars all night to have any hope of getting in. Many people had trouble learning where the centers were located, and the Red Cross has admitted to being purposefully vague in giving directions. In New Orleans, there were no Red Cross workers to be seen until 10 days after Katrina's landing.

Despite the fact that the Red Cross is a volunteer agency, and that, in many cases, its efforts were obstructed by FEMA, the organization stil did not adequately meet the needs of hurricane victims. What is interesting is that people are surprised. The American Red Cross, despite doing a lot of good work, has a history of inefficiency and scandal that just doesn't seem to penetrate the American consciousness, no matter what.

When the September 11 money collected by the Red Cross was diverted to other causes, people became angry, but again, that shouldn't have been a surprise. The organization has had to deal with numerous financial scandals, most of them at the chapter level, for a long time. The 2001 New Jersey debacle was a prime example, as was the 2001 Michigan case. A situation similar to the September 11 one also occurred during the aftermath of a northern California earthquake. Charges of inefficiency and lack of planning were also directed at the Red Cross during Hurricane Hugo.

Perhaps nothing the Red Cross has done is quite as alarming as what happened in the 1980's. During the peak of the AIDS crisis, the Red Cross, along with the American Association and the Council of Community Blood Centers, issued a joint statement decrying fears about poison blood. They were aided by then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler, who assured the nation that the blood supply was "100% safe." Later, afer several people had died of AIDS from blood transfusions, the Red Cross simply changed it tactic to say that only those who needed excessive amounts of blood were at risk. In And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts wrote that in 1984, the American Red Cross continued to oppose hepatitis core antibody testing for people with hemophilia. One Red Cross spokeswoman said she thought Bay Area blood banks had been bullied into testing because of "political pressure" from "people worried about the gay community."

All in all, the Red Cross's record is not exactly admirable, yet every time there is inefficiency or scandal, Americans--citizens and journalists alike--act as though it is an aberration.

What Could Sink DeLay?

| Fri Oct. 7, 2005 3:43 PM EDT

What's going to become of Tom DeLay? Down in Texas, Travis County prosecutor Ronnie Earle has indicted the House Majority Leader on charges of conspiracy to violate campaign-finance laws, money laundering, and conspiracy to launder money. Yesterday, DeLay hit back, accusing Earle of accepting union and law firm donations, but as Josh Marshall reports, those charges are mostly bogus—Earle's contributions were not at all illegal. Regardless, DeLay could very well squirm his way out of the Texas charges, which ultimately amount to violating a campaign-finance technicality (that doesn't make it right, of course). It's not impossible, although this bit of news doesn't look good for him.

But even if he was acquitted in Texas, would DeLay be in the clear? Hardly. In the New Republic this week, Michael Crowley discusses what DeLay should really be worrying about, and it involves his little junkets to Scotland allegedly financed by Jack Abramoff:

Most devastating for DeLay would be if the government could prove bribery: a direct quid pro quo in which DeLay carried legislative water for Abramoff in return for a junket. Given that DeLay and Abramoff were longtime personal friends and political allies, however, isolating specific favor-trading beyond the two men's symbiotic relationship won't be easy. But, even without proof of such a clear transaction, DeLay could be vulnerable to prosecution under what is known as federal "gratuity law," which requires a lower standard of evidence for conviction but still brings a penalty of up to two years in prison. (Bribery can bring a 15-year sentence.) "Federal gratuity law is extraordinarily broad," says former federal prosecutor Seth Rodner of the Tampa-based firm Fowler White Boggs Banker.

A gratuity-law prosecution might only require the government to show that Abramoff had some business interest in which DeLay was in a position to help. The feds would not need smoking-gun proof like, say, an e-mail from DeLay promising a House vote in exchange for a golf trip. For instance, in a 2001 case involving corruption by a Florida housing official, the Justice Department argued that, if an official accepted a gift from someone with an identifiable business interest, "the jury is free to find that a criminal violation occurred, even with no evidence of wrongdoing, inflated contract prices or other suspect dealings." Two of the three defendants were convicted. At the time of DeLay's British junket, Abramoff had countless business interests before DeLay's House, from bills that might regulate his gambling clients to proposed labor laws threatening his sweatshop patrons in the Pacific Marianas Islands. In that context, the 2000 British golf trip alone could be grounds for gratuity charges against DeLay.

It looks like the House leadership is a little less sanguine about this particular business, given that Roy Blunt—who by all accounts is a mini-DeLay himself—has already started maneuvering for the House leadership position. DeLay behind bars for two years? It's a strong possibility.

Katrina and Rita make significant environmental impact on Louisiana

| Thu Oct. 6, 2005 11:06 PM EDT

Louisiana did not need any additional environmental problems. With a rapidly disappearing coastline, a number of invasive species that have played havoc with the ecosystem, a Formosan termite crisis in New Orleans of shocking proportions, and lax pollution laws, the state had major problems before Katrina and Rita landed. Now, it will have even more.

10,000 family foresters in southeast Louisiana may lose 90% of their income, according to an article in today's New Orleans Times-Picayune. The article featured Roy Wood, a forester with 800 acres of ecologically sound forest, which hosts one of the state's two remaining gopher tortoise dens. He has lost almost everything. The downed timber can be used to make plywood and paper, but much of it will have to be used as fuel wood, burned in boilers for energy.

Louisiana's national wildlife refuges have taken a huge blow from Hurricane Katrina. Big Branch Marsh, which extends from Mandeville to Slidell, lost too many trees to count. The cavity trees served as home to the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, and between 40 and 50% of are gone. There was also coastal marshland erosion and the displacement of other wildlife.

Initial damages to the state's wildlife-and-fisheries facilities now exceed $94 million. It is unknown how many animals drowned, how many birds were destroyed by high winds, or what the effect of oil and chemical spills will be on wildlife. Wildlife experts are concerned about southwest Louisiana's rich bird habitats, for there is both habitat loss and the loss of refuge from prey. It is estimated that 200,000 nutria died in the two hurricanes.

The only good news so far is that Lake Pontchartrain is relatively healthy and should return to full health. Several years ago, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation set about cleaning up the lake, which was in abysmal shape because of shell dredging, dairy farm run-off, and the dumping of sewerage and chemicals.

Bush Interferes in Latin American Politics

Thu Oct. 6, 2005 9:35 PM EDT

Here's an interesting power play: The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick threatened the business community in Nicaragua on Wednesday. Who was that? Yes, you read it right: the business community in Nicaragua was threatened by the U.S. State Department.

Zoellick offered an ultimatum: either stop supporting political parties we don't like, or else the United States will cease to do business with you. The ultimatum came on the second day of Zoellick's trip in which he said, gathered before a group of business men and women, "Your opportunities will be lost."

In particular, Zoellick opposes (on behalf of the United States) a coalition that has emerged between political parties on the left and the right who have come together for the joint purpose of unseating Nicaragua's President before the 2006 elections.

Surprise, surprise. Zoellick claims he is justified in interfering in Nicaragua's affairs because the Bush administration wants to "preserve democracy."

But it gets even better. Nicaragua has still not ratified CAFTA - that pernicious piece of neoliberal investor rights protection that has masqueraded as a so-called "free-trade agreement". Although opposition to CAFTA has waned somewhat in recent months, Nicaragua's National Assembly remains nonetheless unable to come to an agreement. Thus enter Zoellick, dispatched by his boss to Nicaragua to champion the cause of democracy by casually dropping threats. Indeed, Zoellick even said that if Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is elected in the presidential election next year that the U.S. would reduce its economic aid. Hence: the U.S. is really concerned with democracy as long as it goes our way.

[Cross posted at Freiheit und Wissen]