A federal judge has ruled that the Madison, Wisconsin Department of Veterans' Affairs does not violate the separation of church and state by its use of religion in treatment. Last week, U.S District Judge John Shabaz dismissed a suit brought by the Madison chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, saying that the use of religion is helpful in the healing process and does not violate the Constitution when it is voluntary.

The problem, according to the Foundation, is that religion is hardly presented as "voluntary" at the Madison VA Hospital. Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation president, said: "I think the public will be startled to learn that if you're a VA patient and you want a referral to an eye doctor, you have to have a spiritual assessment."

These assessments, which VA officials say help them determine patients' needs, include questions about church attendance and how important religion is in patients' lives. Another concern was the incorporation of religion into the VA drug and alcohol treatment program (something that occurs whenever Twelve Step programs are used, despite ongoing protests that a "higher power" has nothing to do with God), and the integration of chaplain services into patient care.

The Madison Freedom From Religion Foundation is appealing Judge Shabaz's ruling.

On January 8, the Guardian wrote that ExxonMobil had a cynical and deceitful plan to change its anti-green image.

The leadership at ExxonMobil has promised investors that it will "soften" its public image in a bid to rid itself of a reputation for being green campaigners' public enemy number one.
Chairman and chief executive Rex Tillerson made clear to a select group of top Wall Street fund managers and equity analysts that it would not be changing its basic position on global warming - just explain it better.
A note put out after the meeting by Fadel Gheit, oil analyst at the Oppenheimer brokerage in New York, says the company "has clearly taken a much less adversial and more reconciliatory position on key environmental issues."
But the note adds: "Although the tone has changed, the substance remains the same."

Why would Exxon need to change its image? Because in 2005, Mother Jones broke the story that Exxon gives millions of dollars to think tanks, researchers, and media figures to produce and promote phony science purporting to debunk global warming. (For a handy chart, see here.) Since that time, other news organizations have piled on, reporting essentially the same story time and again.

ExxonMobil's plan is already working. Just a few days after the CEO announced that the company was attempting to change its public image, news stories started appearing with headlines like, "Exxon cuts ties to global warming skeptics" and "Exxon Mobil softens its climate-change stance."

So a note to journalists: Read the truth about ExxonMobil. Mother Jones is more than happy to provide the material. The ExxonMobil story, "Some Like it Hot," was part of a larger package on global warming called "As the World Burns." More recently, Mother Jones published "The Thirteenth Tipping Point," a study of twelve climate change hot spots that, if triggered, could "initiate sudden, catastrophic changes across the planet," and "Let Them Eat CO2," which looked at the Bush Administration's spin on the subject.

And for a particularly germane article on corporate responsibility (Subtitle: "Is Corporate Do-Goodery for Real?" Answer here: No.), see "Hype vs. Hope."

A Newsweek article found via TPM:

Last Tuesday afternoon, a day before President George W. Bush went on TV to explain his decision to send more troops to Iraq, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called his Republican colleagues together for a private talk. Several GOP senators had already come out against the plan. McConnell, Bush's closest Senate supporter on Iraq, hoped to keep others from defecting. He urged his colleagues to stand together at least until Bush had the chance to speak to the country.
After the meeting, the senators went outside the room to display their unity to waiting reporters. McConnell said he thought more troops were just the thing to "give us a chance to succeed." He then stepped aside so the other senators could second his sentiments. No one came forward. McConnell's eye fell on Trent Lott. "Trent?" McConnell said, motioning him toward the microphone. "I don't think I have anything to add," said Lott.

That breaking news about the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Athens? Turns out the only damage was "minor damage to an upper-floor window and a room that gets infrequent use." The embassy was empty at the time—before 6 a.m. In fact, the Washington Post reports that "[n]o one was in the area of the building at the time." Except the bombers, that is, who launched their potent missile from just across the street. Color me cynical, but how convenient to have an, err, terrorist attack just as President Bush is calling for more people's kids to go die in Iraq. The U.S. Ambassador to Greece, Charles P. Ries, is totally on board with the distraction game plan, calling the broken window "a senseless act of violence," which he promises to treat as "a serious attack." Supposedly (WaPo reports that Bloomberg reports that Greek officials say), the Greek leftist group Revolutionary Struggle has claimed responsibility. What's next, war with Greece? Giddy up!

The Washington Post carries an article today that is an example of what really great embedded reporting can look like. It's hard to give a sample, because there is so much good material, but basically a reporter went out into Baghdad with a squad of American troops as they tried to use Iraqi forces and Iraqi-provided intelligence to unearth some weapons.

The result, predictably, is a sad failure. All of the troops return to base safe, but the president's claim that the 21,500 new troops shipping to Iraq will assist Iraqi forces, instead of lead them, ends up in tatters. Read it for yourself.

Well, so the president thought it all over, and decided to make things worse.

Making a very convincing case that there was no choice, he explained why, as bad as things have gone so far, we would be missing an incredible opportunity if we didn't immediately take the disaster to the next level.

This time, he assured, things would be different, in that there would be absolutely no possibility of improving the situation. With virtually no support from any of the parties involved, including his supporters, and ignoring the defeats suffered to date as evidence for radically changing course, the president deftly argued for seizing the chance to engage in unprecedented folly.

Not only that, but in a stunning show of accountability, the president publicly claimed responsibility for any mistakes that might have been made on his watch, yet remained steadfastly committed to not admitting any. For the first time since the last time he addressed the nation, the president's disarmingly lucid oratory met all expectations. With no end of
unsubstantiated facts to substantiate his renewed commitment to the end times, he stood firm to protect his mission, his legacy, his vision of a world in total harmony with apocalyptic ideals.

Cut our losses? Never. To what end have we come all this way if we fail to fail completely? Staring soberly into the camera, he brushed aside all speculation of backing down, of giving in, of listening to anyone who would dare suggest the leader of so great a nation might ever doubt his own ignorance. His logic is airtight. We can¹t afford not to screw this up totally. And to his detractors who cry out like sissies at a bar fight that it can't get any worse, the president shot back a reassuring, "you ain't seen nothin' yet."

Such resolve to bankrupt a nation economically and morally in the service of international turmoil and suffering, and to unburden us of any hope for peace in our lifetime, warrants a respect and admiration reserved for few. He gave it to us straight, as we tuned in breathlessly and came to the obvious conclusion.

The guy makes sense.

-- Bill Santiago, billsantiago.com, myspace.com/billsantiagocomedy

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went before Congress Thursday to defend the President's escalation of the Iraq War. He probably wishes he had some of his testimony back.

Trying to downplay the risk that Bush's decision will prolong the war, Gates said, "I think most of us, in our minds, are thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years." This, of course, is a haunting echo of many statements made by Bush and Co. before the war. Examples from the Mother Jones Iraq War Timeline:

"Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn't going to last any longer than that." -- Donald Rumsfeld, November 14, 2002
"It could last, you know, six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." -- Donald Rumsfeld, February 7, 2003
"We're going to stand up an interim government, hand power over to them, and get out of there in three to four months." -- Lawrence Di Rita, April 2003

Gates took a beating at the hearing, attacked by both Republicans and Democrats over the war in Iraq. At one point, under intense questioning, Gates actually said, "I would confess I'm no expert on Iraq." (I would confess, from the looks of things, no one in the Bush Administration is.) Later, when asked about the balance between American and Iraqi troops, Gates provided what might be the greatest soundbite from a Secretary of Defense ever.

He told the panel he was "no expert on military matters."

Clearly, this is the most qualified man in America to run the Armed Forces at this trying time.

In exchange for 14 vials of blood, science writer David Ewing Duncan had his body tested for no fewer than 320 different chemicals. Duncan wrote about the experience and about the nature of trace chemicals in the body for article in National Geographic and is on a speaking tour sharing fascinating tidbits:

-As a kid in Kansas, he rode his bike through clouds of DDT. Surprise, surprise, he still has a high "body burden" of its byproduct DDE, about 40 years later.

-His level of one particularly toxic PBDE, a flame-retardant, is 10 times the American average and 200 times the Swedish average. He attributes that to flying 200,000 miles last year; planes are "drenched in the stuff."


In his article and subsequent speeches Duncan has steered clear of regulatory issues, instead calling for more research. But research often comes long after the damage is done. Take the history of lead:

In 1921, General Motors invented lead additives to gas, paving the way for modern high-power engines. Leaded fuel earned a nickname fast—"loony gas." But it wasn't until the 70s that the EPA started regulating it. And over the next decade, through 1986, the EPA dropped the threshold for lead content in gas by 98%. Uranium, CFCs, DDT—same story.

Shockingly, only a quarter of the 82,000 chemicals in use in the U.S. have ever been tested for toxicity, according to Duncan. How long will it take for us to trace the cause of modern epidemics? From the early 1970s through the mid-1990s, one type of leukemia was up 62%, male birth defects doubled, and childhood brain cancer was up 40%, he writes.

Only in the past few years have we developed machines precise enough to test the presence of some of these chemicals in the body, in parts per million, per billion, and even per trillion. It's like detecting a teaspoon of dye in an Olympic swimming pool, Duncan said, and some of the machines that do it cost a million dollars. Usually as many tests as Duncan had would cost $30,000. (For only $25 you can send a lock of hair in for a mercury test.)

That makes it hard to broadly survey the dangers of chemicals. And nearly impossible to prove in court that they have caused any illness.

In Europe, on the other hand, a new law "radically revises how companies must evaluate potential dangers." From now on there, new chemicals will not be presumed safe until proven dangerous, but must be proved safe before sale. With the new Congress, can we follow their lead?

—April Rabkin

We mentioned earlier that Connecticut senator and new presidential hopeful Chris Dodd is taking song suggestions for his "Dodd Pod." Wonkette considered "Born to Lose" by The Heartbreakers, which brings to mind "Lost Cause" by Beck and "Running Down a Dream" by Tom Petty. But scratch your head for snarky ideas no longer! The May/June 2006 issue of Mother Jones has a whole list of suggestions we can make in honor of Dodd's colleagues in Washington. A sampling:

"Been Caught Stealing," by Jane's Addiction
Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.)

"Girlfriend in a Coma," by The Smiths
Former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn)

"Road to Nowhere," by Talking Heads
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska)

"Bridge Over Troubled Water," by Simon & Garfunkel
Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.)

"Don't Fence Me In," by Cole Porter
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.)

"Carolina on My Mind," by James Taylor
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

"Stuck in the Middle With You," by Stealers Wheel
Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.)

"Kickstart My Heart," by Mötley Crüe
Vice-President Dick Cheney

Two simple points about Bush's speech last night are making their way around the web.

1. If we are really cracking down on Maliki and insisting that he ends the sway of the militias, then we must be prepared to leave if he doesn't, with our dreams of "victory" dashed. But Bush said yesterday that failure is not acceptable, implying that we aren't leaving any time soon. So will there be accountability, or won't there?

2. Why would Maliki crack down on al-Sadr when al-Sadr's influence provides the votes that keep Maliki in power?

Read more at Talking Points Memo, who traces the thinking to Andrew Sullivan and John Derbyshire.

(One additional note: Bush said yesterday, as part of his murky explanation of why things will be different THIS time around, that Iraqi police will be increased in numbers and will start patroling the streets to better protect the local populace. Specifically, he said they will be "conducting patrols and setting up checkpoints, and going door-to-door to gain the trust of Baghdad residents." Honest to god, if I was a citizen of Baghdad, I'd be scared to death. Iraqi police already operate checkpoints and go door-to-door. That's how they kill people.)