Mojo - June 2009

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 15, 2009

Mon Jun. 15, 2009 9:32 AM EDT

Today's photo is from Afghanistan.Soldiers navigate across a creek during a dismounted patrol in the Nerkh Valley, Afghanistan, June 4, 2009. The pictured soldiers are assigned to Battery B, 4th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment on Forward Operating Base Airborne. Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Richard Roman. (Photo courtesy army.mil).

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Obama Promotes Malpractice Myth

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 8:41 AM EDT

The New York Times reports this morning that President Obama is considering burning his trial lawyer allies to get health care reform passed. That is, he said he would support restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits because he believes it would help reduce health care costs. If Obama really believes cutting lawsuits would save money, he's not as smart as I thought. Doctors have been making this argument for years, as did President George W. Bush, whose administration claimed restricting lawsuits would cut health care costs by $108 billion a year. But there isn't a lick of data to support these claims. The Congressional Budget Office took a look at Bush's assertions and found in 2004 that reducing lawsuit-related costs by 25 or 30 percent would result in only a tiny .4 percent reduction in health care costs. The CBO concluded that the benefits of reducing lawsuits were vastly overblown.

Lawsuits are a natural biproduct of incompetent doctors, who are the source of an inordinate amount of expensive medicine. I've written about this extensively here and here, but just to recap: Preventable medical errors cost the country about $20 billion a year. A tiny number of bad doctors account for the vast majority of malpractice suits. If Obama wants to contain lawsuits and save money, he should propose putting those guys out to pasture. Of course, Obama's lawsuit proposal is designed to court the American Medical Association, which has never seen a bad doctor it couldn't love. Any proposal to weed the incompetents out of the medical profession would probably be a deal breaker.

UPDATE: During his speech on Monday before the AMA convention, Obama talked about cutting back on medical malpractice lawsuits without placing caps on malpractice awards--drawing boos from the crowd. From his prepared speech:

Now, I recognize that it will be hard to make some of these changes [in the health care system] if doctors feel like they are constantly looking over their shoulder for fear of lawsuits. Some doctors may feel the need to order more tests and treatments to avoid being legally vulnerable. That’s a real issue. And while I’m not advocating caps on malpractice awards which I believe can be unfair to people who’ve been wrongfully harmed, I do think we need to explore a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first, let doctors focus on practicing medicine, and encourage broader use of evidence-based guidelines. That’s how we can scale back the excessive defensive medicine reinforcing our current system of more treatment rather than better care.

Best in Blog: 15 June 2009

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 4:00 AM EDT

Just because you, dear reader, spent a relaxing weekend mixing organic mojitos and committing random acts of bluegrass doesn't mean the world put its feet up too. Oh no. Indeed, while you were blissfully perfecting vegan recession recipes Iran snuck off and reelected itself Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Or so claim the baton-wielding protestor-beating Iranian government goons.)

In lighter recent news, the Senate decided that fruit-flavored cigarettes and cartoonish tobacco ads aimed at tykes might actually be flamingly bad ideas they could stamp out; hilarity continued in the Gibbsian press room; and we remain curious about prom at a high school where studies include Islamic jihadism, nuclear arms, and cyber-crime.

Speaking of nuclear arms, apparently the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rates highest in federal employee satisfaction. Surprised? You won't be by two of the worst rated: Homeland Security and the Department of Transportation.

Associated Press To Syndicate Investigative Journalism

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 12:07 AM EDT

Yesterday the Associated Press announced that in July it will begin syndicating investigative stories for its 1,500 member newspapers from four independent news shops: the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica, and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. 

This is good news:

Investigative, independent, nonprofit journalism may be the brightest light journalism has going for it right now. ProPublica and the Investigative Workshop didn't exist two years ago, and CIR is doubling its size. Mother Jones has also, thanks to your loyal support, flourished as a newsmaker. That the readers of the newspaper, how-many-ever of them are left, will be reading significant stories that aren't easy to come by, is excellent indeed.

This is also bad news:

Or maybe just a confirmation of what we already knew: newspapers don't have anyone investigating much of anything anymore. Which means that investigative shops supported by people like you equal all the stories we're going to get. Even standout local newspaper reporting, like the Chauncey Bailey Project, was made possible via a collaborative, nonprofit effort. And with the AP deal newspapers are off the hook, since four indy orgs will dig the dirt for them.

Still, of the four news outlets supplying the AP, ProPublica has 32 reporters (plus its "citizen journalists" project), the Center for Public Integrity has 18 writers and fellows, CIR has 10 reporters (as of now), and the American University project uses mostly undergrads and graduate student stories. That's 60 full-time journalists tracking and scouring for stories for 1,500 newspapers and their readers. Which, of course, is 60 more than we had last week.

Right now signs are pointing toward independent media as the savior of an entire industry, of a fourth estate that is meant to hold government, industry, everyone, accountable. To do so nonprofits need more than the usual shoestring, they need longevity, and long leashes. Because investigative reporting is hard, confounding, and critical work, just ask newspapers.

Did Composite Parts Bring Down AF 447? (And Will the New FAA Do Its Job?)

| Sat Jun. 13, 2009 2:48 PM EDT

In the two weeks since the Air France 447 crash, I’ve written several times about the possibility that composite parts may have played a role in the disaster. This prospect has dire implications for the future, since these lightweight, fiber and resin materials are increasingly replacing aluminum in aircraft construction. AF 447 was an Airbus A330-200, a plane a body fuselage built of metal, but significant levels of  composite in its other parts–most importantly, the wings and the tail. 
 
Now, wreckage recoved from the crash shows that 447 may have broken up in midair–which raises new questions and offering new clues on this subject of composites, according to a piece today in the Christian Science Monitor.

“There is a very compelling need to find the wreckage,” says Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board and an aviation safety consultant. “We need to know, if some of the composite parts failed [on Flight 447, whether they failed at a point that any other material would have failed."
 
Some of the biggest pieces of debris found so far appear to be the plane's tail fin and vertical stabilizer. These parts are made partially of composite materials, and their failure has contributed to several crashes in the past. In the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus 300 with a similar design to the A330, the vertical stabilizer snapped off in severe turbulence. One of the first questions investigators addressed was whether the composite materials used in the component contributed to the crash, according to Mr. Healing.

Rank This US News: Best/Worst Fed Jobs

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 8:30 PM EDT

Since the stimulus package kicked into action, the federal government has been hiring at unprecedented rates. But if you're job-hunting and you think that office culture is uniform across all agencies and departments, think again.

Enter BestPlacesToWork.org. This ranking system uses ten categories including "effective leadership, employee skills/mission match and work/life balance" to rate the best and worst federal employers. Granted, none of them have Google's perks (or do they?), but some departments' worker satisfaction is pretty darn high.

Best:

1. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

It's great to work here because: A. You have the power to save (or destroy) the world, B. you get to work in places like Area 51, and C. nobody messes with you.

2. Government Accountability Office

It's great to work here because: A. You get to tell other people how to do their jobs, B. you are fulfilled because when you talk, Congress listens, and C. your colleagues are a bunch of accountants without the power trips of political appointees.

3. National Aeronautics and Space Administration

It's great to work here because: A. It's a science-fiction nerd's fantasyland, B. you get to re-enact scenes from Apollo 13 during lunch time, and C. the sky's the limit (literally).

Worst:

28. Department of Homeland Security

Problem: If you had to put old ladies' shoes through an x-ray machine 42 times a day, you'd be miserable too.

Possible Solution: Maybe those new whole-body image scanners will be more visually appealing.

29. National Archives and Records Administration

Problem: Ever since Sandy Berger walked out with an armload of uber-classified documents, its reputation has gone downhill.

Possible Solution: A newly found letter from Abe Lincoln will give the Archives a second chance to prove that it can properly secure important documents.

30. Department of Transportation

Problem: There are so many to mention. Air traffic control methods are antiquated, America's railways are pathetic, and GM just went under.

Possible Solution: Build a shrine to Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger.

 

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Is One Kind of Terrorist More Dangerous Than Another?

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 5:17 PM EDT

"Law enforcement's challenge every day is to balance the civil liberties of US citizens against the need to investigate activities that might lead to criminal conduct," Joseph Persichini, Jr. of the FBI said yesterday. He was struggling to explain why, despite 88-year-old James Von Brunn's website full of hate speech, his criminal record, and numerous other warning signs, the FBI wasn't actively investigating him when he mowed down a security guard at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday.

But consider the case of Syed Haris Ahmed, a 24-year-old Georgia Tech student who was found guilty of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists on Wednesday. His crime bears a lot of resemblance to the stuff that Von Brunn had been getting away with for years: He wrote emails and chatted online about engaging in violence. In his case, it was jihad. (For the record, evidence against Ahmed also included amateurish "casing videos" of Washington landmarks.)

US Attorney David Nahmias openly admitted that Ahmed’s case did not involve an imminent threat or act of violence. “We will not wait to disrupt terrorism-related activity until a bomb is built and ready to explode,” he explained. “The fuse that leads to an explosion of violence may be long, but once it is lit...we will prosecute them to snuff that fuse out." Ahmed is now facing 15 years in prison. He's already spent the last three in solitary confinement at Atlanta's US Penitentiary.

It makes you wonder if law enforcement applies a different standard to different kinds of terrorists. And if they think some terrorists' civil liberties are more sacred than others'. One thing is certain: They shouldn't, because if we've learned anything in the past few weeks from James Von Brunn and Scott P. Roeder, it's that old white men can do a lot more damage than young Muslim ones.

Video: Five Funniest Gibbs Moments

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 5:00 PM EDT

You may have missed it, but Robert Gibbs is a funny dude. Behold our list of top five funniest moments in the Gibbs press room (and see the videos, too).

More on the Detainee Photos

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 3:06 PM EDT

Kevin Drum responds to my earlier post on Obama's refusal to release more photos of detainee abuse:

We already have plenty of images of detainee abuse, and what we're fighting over here is more images, not videotape.  It's genuinely not clear that releasing yet more images will really accomplish anything.

If a court orders the photos released, they should be released even if they do end up causing some harm.  Still, I think it's worth at least acknowleding the fact that releasing the photos is likely to do some damage and isn't likely to tell us anything we don't already know.  It's really not a great combination.

Kevin's right that we're trying to get more images, and he's right that releasing the photos is likely to cause more damage. But I think there is a good chance that the new photos will show us something we haven't seen much of before: visual evidence of abuse in places other than Abu Ghraib. Even if they don't, I can see several things releasing the photos might accomplish. 

Many people still deny that torture and abuse of detainees even took place. (See, for example, Marc Thiessen's debate with Michael Ware on CNN earlier this week.) More evidence won't convince those people, of course, but it will help build a volume of evidence to present to them and others. It will demonstrate that we acknowlege our mistakes, rather than trying to cover them up. In addition, we know from the CIA videotape debacle that any evidence left unreleased is vulnerable to destruction. Releasing the photos would prevent that from happening again. We can't just sit around and hope the photos get released sometime down the line—there really is a chance they may be destroyed. That is especially true if any photos still exist that show people committing crimes, such as rape of detainees, that no one was ever prosecuted for. Releasing the photos is the only way to know whether more people should have been prosecuted for detainee abuse than actually were prosecuted for it.

The broader point, though, is that I shouldn't have to defend releasing the photos. In a society that supposedly values transparency and freedom of information, the burden of proof should be on those who want to conceal information about what the government does. One of the great ironies of Obama's position on the photos is that he issued a memo earlier this year encouraging agencies to release any FOIA'd information they were not legally compelled to withhold. (As opposed to the Bush-era presumption that you should withhold almost everything unless you were legally forced to release it.) In his memo, Obama inadvertently makes a great case for making the photos public:

The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," Obama said in the FOIA memo, adding later that "In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

It's almost as if all that was bullshit.

Obama Promises to Emulate Cheney on Detainee Abuse Photos

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 12:28 PM EDT

David Rogers' Politico article on the negotiations surrounding Congressional authorization of over $100 billion in war funding is a must-read. Rogers confirms what many already suspected: President Barack Obama seems truly committed to his refusal to release detainee abuse photos. House liberals had revolted against the war funding bill because 1) it was a war funding bill and 2) it included the awful Joe Lieberman-Lindsey Graham amendment retroactively eliminating detainee abuse photos from Freedom of Information Act review. Liberals were able to force the elimination of the Lieberman/Graham amendment from the final bill, but that now appears to have been a pyrrhic victory.

The conference (the meeting that reconciles the House and Senate versions of a bill) on the war funding bill was contentious. According to Rogers, Obama had to write a letter promising to do everything he could to keep the photos from being released in order to get Senate conferees to agree to the final version of the bill:

[T]he letter was significant at two levels. First, it marked the clearest statement yet by the White House recognizing the political problems posed by the Senate amendment — and the threat to the bill. Second, Obama left open the option that he could use his executive power to classify the photos as secret if things go badly for him in the courts.

In the letter, Obama begins by restating his opposition to the release of the photos, saying it won’t add "any additional benefit to our understanding of what happened in the past and the most direct consequence of releasing them would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

In dealing with the fallout from the House liberals' rejection of the Lieberman-Graham amendment, Obama has painted himself into a corner. Back when he first changed course on the photos, some observers speculated that he expected to lose to the ACLU in court and knew he would have to release the photos anyway—he didn't really want to release the photos, he was just earning some easy points from the right. Now it appears clear that he is willing to fight hard to defend a position that he didn't originally support. By classifying the photos as secret—using executive power and secrecy to negate court rulings he didn't like—Obama would be emulating the worst behavior of Dick Cheney and others in the Bush administration. That would be the firmest proof yet that all Obama's talk about transparency was just that—talk.

I should also note that Obama's argument against releasing the photos is total poppycock. It should be totally non-controversial that additional photos will add to our understanding of what happened in the past. There's a reason the CIA destroyed the interrogation video tapes: images convey a different kind of truth than words do. It's one thing to read that Americans abused detainees, not just in Abu Ghraib, but throughout the world, encouraged by the highest levels of government. It's another thing entirely to see the photographic evidence of that abuse. The second part of the White House's argument is equally silly, because it can be extended ad infinitum. Are we supposed to keep secret anything that makes the US look bad? If Obama does decide to pull a Cheney and classify the photos as secret, he better get ready for a long slide down a slippery slope. What happens the next time there's something that embarasses the US and might inflame opinion against Americans? Will he classify that, too?

Update: It looks like Glenn Greenwald is making this same argument. Maybe that's because the administration's position is so transparently ridiculous.

Late Update: Kevin Drum responds.