Mother Jones Daily: Briefing


GM Corn Sinks Its Roots
Iran’s Rule of (Arbitrary) Law
Smallpox Shortsightedness

HEALTH
GM Corn Sinks Its Roots

In a victory for agricultural biotechnology, the EPA has given a green light to the sale of genetically modified corn, reports Justin Gillis of the Washington Post. The new crops contain a protein that targets corn rootworm, a microbe that “costs farmers nearly $1 billion a year in lost yields and control expenses,” writes Gillis. While Monsanto Corporation, the manufacturer of the seed YieldGard Rootworm, praises the new technology as a victory that will require a reduced use of insecticides for farmers, some scientists and environmentalists remain skeptical.

At the root level, genetically-altered foods breed a wariness on the part of scientists, environmentalists, and consumers toward crops that produce their own pesticides — especially if they’re from a company with an environmentally heinous track record. Skeptics wonder if Monsanto — the corporation that created enviromental devastators like Agent Orange, PCBs, and the pesticide Round-up — has really changed its for-profit, to-hell-with-health tune. Additionally, some scientific studies have shown that genetically-modified crops crossbreed with organic crops, rendering their organic designation moot, as Sharon Kiley Mack of the Bangor Daily News reports. But the most prominent critique stems from a general concern over how little is known about the long-term effects of genetically altered foods, engendering a growing movement demanding that such crops be labeled by the federal government.

FOREIGN NEWS
Iran’s Rule of (Arbitrary) Law

A new UN human rights delegation has handed Iran the dubious distinction of the worst place in the world for free-speech. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports for Knight Ridder that a five-member team with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention just spent nearly two weeks examining Iran’s judicial and penal systems. The team’s conclusion is that authorities routinely jail dissidents for expressing their views, with a zeal not to be found anywhere else in the world. Nelson observes that

“Iran has long come under fire from international human rights activists for its arrests of political dissidents, closed-door trials, and torture and executions of prisoners. Tens of thousands of political dissidents have been imprisoned or killed since 1979, when clerics came to power after deposing the late shah.”

But, the censuring of speech has worsened in recent years, as journalists are frequently imprisoned for the mildest criticisms of clerical authority and “[d]ozens of newspapers promoting moderate President Mohammed Khatami’s agenda of greater social and political freedom have been closed.”

Dan De Luce reports in the Guardian that, in addition to “large-scale arbitrary detentions,” many prisoners are kept in solitary confinement “for long periods without due process.” Moreover, control of many prisons lies outside of the legal system: they are actually administered by hardline clerics who staunchly oppose the reformist leaders that were overwhelmingly elected into government.

HEALTH
Smallpox Shortsightedness

With the White House’s smallpox vaccination program finally getting under way, public health officials are beginning to worry about an unforeseen and potentially disastrous side-effect.

As New Scientist‘s Debora MacKenzie reports, hospitals are so preoccupied with their single-minded push to vaccinate 10 million people by the middle of the year that they are too busy to watch for an actual outbreak. A recent survey bears her out: four out of five health agencies have postponed or cancelled programs designed to respond to biological attacks to concentrate solely on vaccinations. In addition, many overwhelmed hospitals have been forced to scale back routine medical care in favor of the vaccination scheme.

The problem, MacKenzie notes, is one of resources, not of will. Still, the irony is lost on no one. While all agree that the best way to combat a smallpox outbreak is to catch it early, critics argue that the current approach is the medical equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

“‘There’s a certain irony,’ says Pat Libbey, head of NACCHO [National Association of County and City Health Officials]. ‘The most important determinant for how well we manage any smallpox outbreak is how fast we detect and respond to it.'”

Algeria’s “Disappeared”
HMOs in the Dock
The FBI’s Double Standard

FOREIGN NEWS
Algeria’s “Disappeared”

Until recently something of a pariah state, Algeria has begun to rehabilitate its image, cozying up to a White House keenly interested in its oil and gas reserves and eager for allies in the war on terror. Algeria’s relations with France, its former colonial master, are thawing too: just this week, French President Jacques Chirac made the first state visit to Algiers since the 1960s.

There are, however, a lot of skeletons in Algeria’s closet. As the London Independent‘s Katherine Butler writes, new human rights reports accuse Algeria’s military government of “disappearing” some 7,000 people during its dirty war against Islamist militants, which began more than a decade ago and is estimated to have claimed at least 100,000 lives to date. What’s more, rights groups say, the government has made no effort to account for the disappearances, and not one person has been brought to trial.

“‘All of the government’s missing-person bureaux, complaint mechanisms and responses to foreign queries amount to a cruel stonewalling operation. Our research shows the government has not produced a shred of information, even when families can furnish details about the security forces they saw abduct their sons and husbands.'”

HEALTH
HMO’s in the Dock

In a staggering moment of clarity, a US Second Circuit court ruled that HMOs should take responsibility for the care of their insurees. Health Insurers have long maintained that patient care eligibility is limited by coverage plans, often using the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, “a federal law that aims to safeguard the uniform administration of employer-provided benefits,” as backing, reports Roni Rabin of Newsday.

But New York widow Bonnie Cicio convinced the court that her husband’s HMO made a medical decision when it denied him coverage of his doctor’s suggested treatment for multiple myeloma. By the time Vytra Health Plans, the couples’ HMO, had approved an alternative (and considerably less expensive) treatment, Carmine Cicio’s blood cancer was too far advanced to be aided by either procedure. Her husband’s subsequent death motivated Cicio to file a $200 million wrongful death suit in 2000. Though three-years in the making, Cicio is “pleased with the ruling” reports Rabin. That pleasure is shared by others in the medical and legal fields:

“It’s a monumental decision,” said David Trueman, Cicio’s attorney, who specializes in HMO litigation. “It says that any time a HMO or managed care company makes a decision about a doctor’s request for patient care, and the decision takes into account the patient’s symptoms and possible treatments, then the patient can sue in state court.

“It allows people to finally hold their HMOs responsible for their actions.”

For further depth to the debate, Anthony J. Sebok posits interesting questions in Findlaw.com.

LAW & JUSTICE
The FBI’s Double Standard

A number of former FBI agents have stepped forward and admitted that the agency has — with full knowledge — routinely allowed informants to commit violent crimes, including murder. According to Jeff Donn of the Associated Press, the ex-agents, representing 25 bureau offices across the country, revealed that the practise has been unofficial policy for decades. The FBI’s protection of its sources has been such that it “sometimes emboldened informants, leading them to believe they could get away with almost anything,” observe the ex-agents.

The former agents defended turning a blind-eye to violent crime as “a necessary evil of criminal investigation.” Ex-agent Wesley Swearingen explained: “You have to weigh the odds of whether killing one or two people is better than killing a whole planeload.”

AP identified court cases of 11 informants shielded from prosecution by the FBI, writes Donn.

“Those 11 are believed to have killed at least 52 persons between the 1960s and the mid-1990s. Previously, these cases had been reported as isolated incidents, but in the light of the interviews with former agents, they appear to be a part of a wider pattern.”

Northwestern University law professor Clifford Zimmerman says that “it is immoral, and perhaps illegal, for agents to shrug off violent crimes.”

“They’re doing their own little cost-benefit analysis and really not taking into account, in my opinion, the damage to society that these people are causing…Is a federal official entitled to make that decision — that one person’s life is more valuable than another’s?”

Terror and Bad Credit
The GOP’s Greenspeak

LAW AND JUSTICE
Terror and Bad Credit

Never mind random baggage checks. Forget the National Guard. According to a government pilot program, the future of airline security lies in … credit reports.

Mindful of critics who say US airports still aren’t adequately terrorist-proof, the government has begun testing a program that would screen airline passengers based on their bank statements and credit histories, the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s Susan E. Peterson reports. Dubbed the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II, the program would analyze each passenger’s financial records, along with other sources, then assign travelers a color-coded terrorist risk level. Under the system, green means all-clear to fly; yellow means more in-depth screening is needed; red means you’re riding Greyhound. Not surprisingly, civil liberties groups are up in arms over the program, which so far only Delta Airlines is testing.

“‘The federal government now has the authority to seize information from wherever they can grab it, whether or not it’s accurate, to create a dossier on you,’ said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. ‘The TSA claims these records are going to be restricted, but according to these regulations, they’re not. They’re so open-ended that damn near anybody has access to these records.’

Samuelson of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union said he fears regulations will fall hardest on less-affluent people — those with no credit history or who have misused credit. ‘Those people are targeted as potential terrorists,’ he said. ‘Where is it written that people with bad credit history are any more likely to be terrorists? . . . This isn’t going to do what [the TSA] intends it to do. They haven’t demonstrated any reason for this, other than the fact that they can.'”

In any case, St. Petersburg Times columnist Jan Glidewell points out, the chances of such a program catching real terrorists are just about zero.

“Is it going to take hijackers long to figure out that they should use something other than their Bank of Baghdad MasterCard to buy tickets?

In the meantime, we shrug again and murmur, ‘anything that keeps us safe,’ and fork over more information to the people who either want, or already have, our library and video rental records, and are slavering for access to all of our e-mail and telephone calls.”

ENVIRONMENT
The GOP’s Greenspeak

The GOP intends to temper its harsh environmental policies with softer language in coming campaigns. A memo obtained by the Environmental Working Group exposes Republican analysts’ sentiment that the party has “lost the environmental communications battle,” reports Oliver Burkeman of the London Guardian.

The new Republican strategy encourages politicians to emphasize “scientific uncertainty” regarding global warming and use terms like “conservationist” instead of “environmentalist,” the latter being viewed as too extreme. It’s a move a consultant for the Sierra Club deems “‘very smart — confounding, troubling, but smart,'” reports Jennifer 8. Lee of the New York Times. The memo, written 6 months ago, has thus far significantly impacted the language and strategies of Republicans: the words “climate change” have been used in place of “global warming” in nearly all of the President’s recent speeches, and a Colorado Senator credits advertising his work with a National Park as integral in his election. The new game plan is slated to play a major role in the coming presidential campaign, as well.

Bush’s AIDS Agenda
The Infallible NRC?
No Bad Assault Weapons?

HEALTH
Bush’s AIDS Agenda

When President Bush announced his $15 billion AIDS initiative during January’s State of the Union address, AIDS advocates cheered. At the same time, however, many wondered if the proposal was too good to be true.

It was.

As it turns out, the White House money comes with so many ideological strings attached that critics say it will do little to halt HIV transmission in the developing world, Reuters reports. As the administration envisions it, the program would bar funding to medical groups that provide abortions or abortion counseling, even if it’s done with their own money. In defense of the proposal, the White House insists that organizations can avoid the ban by completely separating their family planning and HIV services — or by adopting an abstinence-only policy.

In The Boston Globe, however, Frances Kissling notes that virtually every organization that provides HIV treatment also provides family planning services, and few can afford to duplicate their operations around the world to satisfy the White House. Seen in this light, she writes, Washington’s arguments aren’t just counterproductive — they’re further evidence of Bush’s pursuit of his far-right agenda, no matter the cost.

“The initiative would force perennially short-funded nongovernmental groups with proven track records of success against AIDS to set up separate buildings and bookkeeping systems and perhaps double their staffs and equipment in order to continue. In many poor countries where US-funded family planning clinics are the only health care providers within miles, this simply will not happen.

Meanwhile, given the president’s belief that religious groups are the best providers of social services, we can expect they will be favored recipients of the funds. Will evangelical Christian groups who still believe that homosexuality is a sin that can be cured by prayer proliferate? Will Catholic groups that abhor family planning offer anything that prevents AIDS other than abstinence? The administration’s agenda seems clear: to defund secular, tolerant providers of health care and family planning worldwide in favor of religious groups that will likely choose whom to treat and how to treat them based more on ideology than medicine.”

POLITICS
The Infallible NRC?

A recent decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules that although terrorism is a threat to nuclear facilities, plans for procedure if an attack occurs are unnecessary. Confused? So are nuclear safety advocates. The very nature of the NRC ruling is convoluted — on one hand, the commission classifies formerly public records of facilities, maintaining that public access to information could aid terrorist plots, reports Rory O’Connor of Alternet. But the ruling concurrently states that such facilities will not factor the threat of a terrorist attack into the National Environmental Policy Act. Essentially, the NRC reasons that terrorism will be prevented by heightened security, and facilities need not factor potential impacts of terrorist attacks into safety and environmental damage reports.

Safety experts oppose this modus operandi on principle, arguing that it smacks of similar “security” policies in place that considered incidents like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and Three Mile Island impossible. Victor Gilinsky, the former commissioner of NRC, remarked that, just when the commission refuses to consider terrorism a threat, “(Attorney General) Ashcroft is changing the Bill of Rights because [a terrorist attack] is imminent.”

Before the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, officials deemed hydrogen explosions to be impossible. Afterwards, the commission continued to play down the risk, “because now that we had had one, we would be too vigilant for another to occur,” says former commission member Peter Bradford.

LAW & JUSTICE
No Bad Assault Weapons?

For strange and mysterious reasons, the Bush administration appears to be under-enthusiastic about extending and broadening the current ban on semi-automatic assault weapons. Edward Epstein notes in the San Francisco Chronicle that the ban’s author, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), has been greatly frustrated by the White House’s tepid and ambiguous response. During President Bush’s 2000 campaign, he made unambiguous campaign promises to support the ban, a detail which has not eluded Feinstein.

In addition to re-introducing the current ban, writes Epstein, Feinstein will draft a new bill next week with additional provisions, including restrictions on the import of ammunition-feeding devices and a seemingly obvious proposal to forbid juveniles under 21 from owning semi-automatics allowed under the present law. Despite the mildness of the proposals, Attorney General John Ashcroft has waffled in his support: “We will continue to study the issue,” he announced, questioning what effect the ban has had on crime. The attorney general added that the administration has no position yet on juvenile possession or ammunition issues.

“I was a bit nonplussed. They are well on record supporting extension,” Feinstein exclaimed.

“I will hold [the president] to his campaign promise, and I think the American people will hold him to it. I don’t think there is any evidence that the American people want assault weapons on their streets.”

Cruel, but Usual
Short-Changing the Troops
Dissent at Mid-Court

LAW & JUSTICE
Cruel, but Usual

By a five-to-four margin, the Supreme Court ruled this week that California’s controversial “Three Strikes” law isn’t “cruel and unusual” punishment when applied to nonviolent crimes. At issue was the law’s requirement that third-time felons be given long prison sentences, no matter the crime — a provision critics say has led to some outrageous sentences for petty offenses. In the case at hand, an inveterate shoplifter got 50 years for stealing videotapes, while another was given 25 years for stealing three golf clubs, sentences more in line with homicide than thievery. A majority of Justices didn’t see it that way, however, prompting outrage from opponents, the London Guardian‘s Duncan Campbell reports.

“‘This is simply barbarous,’ said Geri Silva, executive director of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes (Facts), an LA-based organisation campaigning to exclude non-violent offenders from the effects of the law. ‘It shows the absolute inhumanity of the highest court of the land. If that is not a cruel and unusual punishment, I don’t know what is.'”

The editors of San Jose’s Mercury News concur, adding that it is now up to California to modify the law’s more draconian measures.

“Sentencing someone to 50 years to life for ripping off $153 worth of videotapes, or 25 years for stealing $1,200 in golf clubs, is unreasonable and unconscionable. The law that permits it should be changed.

That’s what the Legislature or voters must do, now that the Supreme Court, by a narrow majority, has all but washed its hands of the Eighth Amendment. That amendment is supposed to protect Americans from cruel and unusual punishment, including sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the crimes.”

POLITICS
Short-Changing the Troops

Congressional attempts to expedite passage of the Armed Forces Tax Fairness Act in anticipation of the pending war were inhibited by Republican efforts to benefit special interest groups. The Act, which originally garnered bipartisan support, aims to reward US soldiers with tax cuts, reports James Kuhnhenn of Knight Ridder Newspapers. But things got ugly in Congress when primarily Republican amendments were added to also extend the benefits to groups like tackle-box manufacturers and overseas gamblers. Democrats, including Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, responded with exasperation:

“If we give members the opportunity to pass unrelated amendments, then we lose the bipartisan spirit and risk delaying tax relief for the men and women that are sacrificing in order to defend our nation.”

The editors at the Washington Post agree, frustrated not only by the proliferation of special interest amendments, but also by the weakening of the Act’s intitial intentions. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas’ (R-CA) version of a proposal to subsidize travel expenses for soldiers overseas caps expenses at a mere $500, prompting the Post to seethe,

“That limit doesn’t begin to cover the costs borne by many of the 900,000 guardsmen and reservists who attend training one weekend each month and two weeks out of the year. And the ceiling is particularly galling because Mr. Thomas’s committee is about to begin considering a dividend tax break, benefiting mostly rich investors, with no dollar limit.”

The Daily KOS weighs in with its own not-so-rhetorical rhetoric:

“So whose interests do the Republicans have most in mind? Those soldiers that are being sent to possible death thanks to Bush’s petty grudge against Saddam, or the GOP’s corporate sponsors?”

LAW & JUSTICE
Dissent at Mid-Court

The quiet protests of one basketball player at Manhatanville College in Purchase, New York have touched off a surprisingly impassioned and widespread debate on free-speech and dissent. At the center of it all is Toni Smith, a 21-year-old athlete who has triggered a flood of anger and support for turning her back to the American flag while the anthem is played at the start of each game. Smith has said that the gesture is a protest against American inequalities and the impending war in Iraq.

Smith’s critics, including the USA Today‘s Mike Lopresti, have been incensed by the imposition of private beliefs onto others’ space. “The issue is not free speech or the right of dissent,” argues Lopresti. “The question is when best to wield it.”

“Sport is a tempting soapbox. An audience is gathered, and can easily be borrowed. Nobody will miss the message…

But here’s the thing: Iraq does not have to be the only hot button. The point guard can be anti-abortion, and the center pro-nuclear power. The small forward may want to lower taxes while the shooting guard wants to save the owls.”

Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press also finds the time and place to be inappropriate for the airing of Smith’s views. Moreover, doubting the credibility of her dissenting stance, Albom contends:

“One might ask Smith what country’s flag she would feel comfortable with, since you’d be hard-pressed to find a significant nation with no history of war, bloodshed or unfair treatment.”

On the opposite side of this polemic, the Wichita Eagle‘s Mark McCormick wonders aloud what other venue would be more suitable for making political statements as such. He observes:

Basketball courts aren’t sacred, but her right to protest is.

What we all should realize is that our land of rugged individualism is actually conformist to its core.

You can hear it in those chants of “USA” and “Leave our country.” They’re really saying: “This is America. Believe what we believe, or get out.”

That’s more un-American than anything Toni has done.”

Likewise, Steve Chapman gushes in the Philadelphia Inquirer that Smith helps to prove “that the American tradition of robust dissent is alive and well, despite efforts by some to suppress protests they dislike.”

    Members like you

    Mother Jones is a nonprofit, and stories like this are made possible by readers like you. or to help fund independent journalism.