Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bush's Interior Dept Pushes With Plan To Drill For Oil Off Virginia

The Washington Post reports:
The Interior Department will announce a proposal Monday to allow oil and gas drilling in federal waters near Virginia that are currently off-limits and permit new exploration in Alaska's Bristol Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, according to people who have seen or been told about drafts of the plan.

The department issued a news release yesterday that was lacking details but said that it had finished a five-year plan that will include a "major proposal for expanded oil and natural gas development on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf." Department officials declined to describe the plan.

Congress would still have to agree to open areas currently off-limits before any drilling could take place off Virginia's coast. Every year since 1982, after an oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif., Congress has reaffirmed a moratorium on drilling off the nation's Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Last year, after a vigorous push by drilling advocates, Congress opened new waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

As Washington is all about compromise and making deals, I have one for Democrats in Congress:

Since the Democrats in office don't have the stomachs or the will to impeach Bush and Cheney (and it's making them crazy to have the base on their backs about it everytime they turn around), how about Democrats' guarantee that nothing Bush or the Republicans propose for the remainder of Bush's term gets made into law?

It's not like the Democrats had any plans to get anything done anyway, given that the 2008 campaign began so preternaturally early (the day after they won control over the Congress in the 2006 midterms), and almost all of the Democratic candidates are spending most of their time campaigning outside of Washington.

Put Down The Sunscreen & Step Away From The Keyboard

Vitamin D Casts Cancer Prevention in New Light

The reports:
For decades, researchers have puzzled over why rich northern countries have cancer rates many times higher than those in developing countries — and many have laid the blame on dangerous pollutants spewed out by industry.

But research into vitamin D is suggesting both a plausible answer to this medical puzzle and a heretical notion: that cancers and other disorders in rich countries aren't caused mainly by pollutants but by a vitamin deficiency known to be less acute or even non-existent in poor nations.

Those trying to brand contaminants as the key factor behind cancer in the West are "looking for a bogeyman that doesn't exist," argues Reinhold Vieth, professor at the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto and one of the world's top vitamin D experts. Instead, he says, the critical factor "is more likely a lack of vitamin D."
What's more, researchers are linking low vitamin D status to a host of other serious ailments, including multiple sclerosis, juvenile diabetes, influenza, osteoporosis and bone fractures among the elderly.

Not everyone is willing to jump on the vitamin D bandwagon just yet. Smoking and some pollutants, such as benzene and asbestos, irrefutably cause many cancers.

But perhaps the biggest bombshell about vitamin D's effects is about to go off. In June, U.S. researchers will announce the first direct link between cancer prevention and the sunshine vitamin. Their results are nothing short of astounding.

A four-year clinical trial involving 1,200 women found those taking the vitamin had about a 60-per-cent reduction in cancer incidence, compared with those who didn't take it, a drop so large — twice the impact on cancer attributed to smoking — it almost looks like a typographical error.

And in an era of pricey medical advances, the reduction seems even more remarkable because it was achieved with an over-the-counter supplement costing pennies a day.

One of the researchers who made the discovery, professor of medicine Robert Heaney of Creighton University in Nebraska, says vitamin D deficiency is showing up in so many illnesses besides cancer that nearly all disease figures in Canada and the U.S. will need to be re-evaluated. "We don't really know what the status of chronic disease is in the North American population," he said, "until we normalize vitamin D status."

Sunshine vitamin

For decades, vitamin D has been the Rodney Dangerfield of the supplement world. It's the vitamin most Canadians never give a second thought to because it was assumed the only thing it did was prevent childhood rickets, a debilitating bone disease. But the days of no respect could be numbered. If vitamin D deficiency becomes accepted as the major cause of cancer and other serious illnesses, it will ignite the medical equivalent of a five-alarm blaze on the Canadian health front.

For many reasons, Canadians are among the people most at risk of not having enough vitamin D. This is due to a quirk of geography, to modern lifestyles and to the country's health authorities, who have unwittingly, if with the best of intentions, played a role in creating the vitamin deficiency.

Authorities are implicated because the main way humans achieve healthy levels of vitamin D isn't through diet but through sun exposure. People make vitamin D whenever naked skin is exposed to bright sunshine. By an unfortunate coincidence, the strong sunshine able to produce vitamin D is the same ultraviolet B light that can also causes sunburns and, eventually, skin cancer.

Only brief full-body exposures to bright summer sunshine — of 10 or 15 minutes a day — are needed to make high amounts of the vitamin. But most authorities, including Health Canada, have urged a total avoidance of strong sunlight or, alternatively, heavy use of sunscreen. Both recommendations will block almost all vitamin D synthesis.

Those studying the vitamin say the hide-from-sunlight advice has amounted to the health equivalent of a foolish poker trade. Anyone practising sun avoidance has traded the benefit of a reduced risk of skin cancer — which is easy to detect and treat and seldom fatal — for an increased risk of the scary, high-body-count cancers, such as breast, prostate and colon, that appear linked to vitamin D shortages.

The sun advice has been misguided information "of just breathtaking proportions," said John Cannell, head of the Vitamin D Council, a non-profit, California-based organization.

"Fifteen hundred Americans die every year from [skin cancers]. Fifteen hundred Americans die every day from the serious cancers."

Health Canada denies its advice might be dangerous. In an e-mailed statement, it said that most people don't apply sunscreen thoroughly, leaving some skin exposed, and that people spend enough time outside without skin protection to make adequate amounts of vitamin D.

However, the Canadian Cancer Society last year quietly tweaked its recommendation to recognize that limited amounts of sun exposure are essential for vitamin D levels.

Avoiding most bright sunlight wouldn't be so serious if it weren't for a second factor: The main determinant of whether sunshine is strong enough to make vitamin D is latitude. Living in the north is bad, the south is better, and near the equator is best of all.

Canadians have drawn the short straw on the world's latitude lottery: From October to March, sunlight is too feeble for vitamin D production. During this time, our bodies draw down stores built by summer sunshine, and whatever is acquired from supplements or diet.

Government regulations require foods such as milk and margarine to have small amounts of added vitamin D to prevent rickets.

Other foods, such as salmon, naturally contain some, as does the cod liver oil once commonly given to children in the days before milk fortification. But the amounts from food are minuscule compared to what is needed for cancer prevention and what humans naturally can make in their skin.

Vitamin D levels in Canada are also being compromised by a lifestyle change. Unlike previous generations that farmed or otherwise worked outside, most people now spend little time outdoors.

One survey published in 2001 estimated office- and homebound Canadians and Americans spend 93 per cent of waking time in buildings or cars, both of which block ultraviolet light.

Consequently, by mid-winter most Canadians have depleted vitamin D status. "We're all a bit abnormal in terms of our vitamin D," said Dr. Vieth, who has tested scores of Canadians, something done with a simple blood test.

How much is enough?

Just how much vitamin D is required for optimum health is the subject of intense scientific inquiry.

Dr. Vieth has approached the matter by asking: What vitamin D level would humans have if they were still living outside, in the wild, near the equator, with its attendant year-round bright sunshine? "Picture the natural human as a nudist in environments south of Florida," he says.

He estimates humans in a state of nature probably had about 125 to 150 nanomoles/litre of vitamin D in their blood all year long — levels now achieved for only a few months a year by the minority of adult Canadians who spend a lot of time in the sun, such as lifeguards or farmers.

For the rest of the population, vitamin D levels tend to be lower, and crash in winter. In testing office workers in Toronto in winter, Dr. Vieth found the average was only about 40 nanomoles/L, or about one-quarter to one-third of what humans would have in the wild.

The avalanche of surprising research on the beneficial effects of vitamin D could affect dietary recommendations as well. Health Canada says that, in light of the findings, it intends to study whether recommended dietary levels need to be revised, although the review is likely to be years away.

A joint Canadian-U.S. health panel last studied vitamin D levels in 1997, concluding the relatively low amounts in people's blood were normal. At the time, there was speculation vitamin D had an anti-cancer effect, but more conclusive evidence has only emerged since.

"There needs to be a comprehensive review undertaken and that is planned," says Mary Bush, director general of Health Canada's office of nutrition policy and promotion.

But Ms. Bush said the government doesn't want to move hastily, out of concern that there may be unknown risks associated with taking more of the vitamin.

Those who worry about low vitamin D, however, say this stand is too conservative — that the government's caution may itself be a health hazard.

To achieve the vitamin D doses used for cancer prevention through foods, people would need to drink about three litres of milk a day, which is unrealistic.

If health authorities accept the new research, they would have to order a substantial increase in food fortification or supplement-taking to affect disease trends. As it is, the 400 IU dosage included in most multivitamins is too low to be an effective cancer fighter.

Dr. Vieth said any new recommendations will also have to reflect the racial and cultural factors connected to vitamin D. Blacks, South Asians and women who wear veils are at far higher risks of vitamin D deficiencies than are whites.

Although humans carry a lot of cultural baggage on the subject of skin hue, colour is the way nature dealt with the vagaries of high or low vitamin D production by latitude.

Those with very dark skins, whose ancestors originated in tropical, light-rich environments, have pigmentation that filters out more of the sunshine responsible for vitamin D; in northern latitudes, they need more sun exposure — often 10 times as much — to produce the same amount of the vitamin as whites.

Dr. Vieth says it is urgent to provide information about the need for extra vitamin D in Canada's growing non-white population to avoid a future of high illness rates in this group.

Researchers suspect vitamin D plays such a crucial role in diseases as unrelated as cancer and osteoporosis because the chemical originated in the early days of animal evolution as a way for cells to signal that they were being exposed to daylight.

Even though living things have evolved since then, almost all cells, even those deep in our bodies, have kept this primitive light-signalling system.

In the body, vitamin D is converted into a steroid hormone, and genes responding to it play a crucial role in fixing damaged cells and maintaining good cell health. "There is no better anti-cancer agent than activated vitamin D. I mean, it does everything you'd want," said Dr. Cannell of the Vitamin D Council.

Some may view the sunshine-vitamin story as too good to be true, particularly given that the number of previous claims of vitamin cure-alls that subsequently flopped. "The floor of modern medicine is littered with the claims of vitamins that didn't turn out," Dr. Cannell allowed.

But the big difference is that vitamin D, unlike other vitamins, is turned into a hormone, making it far more biologically active. As well, it is "operating independently in hundreds of tissues in your body," Dr. Cannell said.

Referring to Linus Pauling, the famous U.S. advocate of vitamin C use as a cure for many illnesses, he said: "Basically, Linus Pauling was right, but he was off by one letter."

Friday, April 27, 2007

Months After Bush Announced "All In CIA Custody Now In Guantanamo," CIA Turns Over Al-Iraqi

Sixteen remain unaccounted for.

The AP's misleading headline "U.S. Captures Senior al-Qaida Operative" implies it just happened. You have to wonder (especially on 'Take Out The Trash'-day) why?

Here's the AP report:
After being secretly held by the CIA for months, an Iraqi who was one of al-Qaida's most senior and experienced operatives has been shipped to the Guantanamo Bay military prison for terror suspects, officials said Friday.

Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi is believed responsible for plotting cross-border attacks from Pakistan on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and he led an effort to assassinate Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and U.N. officials, the Pentagon said.

The transfer of al-Iraqi, said to have been an associate of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, makes him the 15th so called ``high-value'' detainee known to be handed over to military officials at the military facility in Cuba from CIA control.

The arrangement continues to be controversial. People in the secret prisons are subject to harsh interrogation methods that human rights groups say amount to torture. The Bush administration says the methods are legal and the interrogation necessary to protect the U.S. from attack.

The Pentagon said al-Iraqi was born in Mosul, in northern Iraq, in 1961 and served in Iraq's military. Spokesman Bryan Whitman said he was a key al-Qaida paramilitary leader in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, and in 2002-2004 led efforts to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan with terrorist forces based in Pakistan.

Neither Whitman nor CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano would say where or when al-Iraqi was captured or by whom.

A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the Iraqi man had been captured late last year in an operation that involved many people in more than one country.

CIA Director Michael Hayden wrote in a note to agency employees Friday that the capture was a significant victory and that the CIA played a key role in efforts to locate him, according to an agency official who saw the note.

In Pakistan, Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao described the arrest of al-Iraqi as a welcome development but gave no indication that Pakistan played a role in it.

CIA spokesman Gimigliano called al-Iraqi ``a veteran jihadist'' and said the capture was good news. He said of al-Qaida and the capture: ``It is still an extremely dangerous group. But it is evidence of success in terms of eroding their leadership.''

It wasn't until last September that President Bush first acknowledged the CIA use of secret prisons around the world. He said all 14 high-value terrorism suspects that the CIA had been holding - including a mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - had been transferred to military custody at Guantanamo Bay for trials.

Officials said Friday that al-Iraqi was captured well after that, but John Sifton of Human Rights Watch in New York said he was skeptical.

After Bush's announcement, ``we thought there were others who remained in CIA custody or, if they weren't, they were temporarily being held in some sort of proxy custody by someone else'' Sifton said.

His group says it has a list of 16 additional people who at one time had been in CIA custody and have never been accounted for.

The CIA has not commented on the list.

Soon after the capture of a key terror suspect in 2002, the CIA decided it should hold high-value captives for extended periods to extract information, using ``enhanced interrogation techniques.''

Those widely reported practices included openhanded slapping, cold, sleep deprivation and - perhaps most controversially - waterboarding. In that technique, a detainee is made to believe he is drowning.

``The methods used in this program are thoroughly reviewed by our government to ensure that they are fully in accordance with our laws and treaty obligations,'' Gimigliano said.

Administration officials say the questioning has provided critical intelligence information about terrorist activities that has enabled officials to prevent attacks, including with airplanes, within the United States.

The terror suspect met with al-Qaida members in Iran, Whitman said, adding he did not know when.

Whitman said al-Iraqi was associated with leaders of other extremist groups allied with al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the Taliban.

The Pentagon said al-Iraqi spent more than 15 years in Afghanistan and at one point was an instructor in an al-Qaida training camp there. Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he was a member of al-Qaida's ruling Shura Council, a now-defunct 10-person advisory body to bin Laden, the Pentagon said.

In August 2005, al-Iraqi appeared in a purported al-Qaida-made video that showed militants in Afghanistan preparing to attack U.S. troops and showing off what they said was a U.S. military laptop.

Al-Iraqi, speaking in the video with a scarf hiding his face, said the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had created new fronts for recruiting people to the cause of bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

``Now all the world is united behind Mullah Omar and Sheik Osama,'' he says.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

If, As Giuliani Claims, "Only Republicans Can Prevent Terror Attacks At Home," Then . . . .

. . . . Republicans were behind 9/11/01 and the anthrax letters.

That's the only logical conclusion you can come to after Republicans make false and frankly, despicable charges against Democrats' ability to secure the safety of Americans home and abroad. Because the fact of this matter is that deaths of Americans from terrorist attacks, at home and abroad, increase exponentially when Republicans are in charge.

Not coincidentally, the gap between the rich and poor widens, and the number of people living in poverty increases.

This current wave of terrorism (and this particular brand of terrorism, 'Islamic-jihadist') is unique in that for the first time, U.S. citizens are being targeted, although not very often. The roots of this brand of terror is in America's foreign policy going back to the 1970s and the U.S. oil-driven economy of rapid capitalist growth and expansion without restraint or regulation.

Islamic-jihadists didn't invent the tactic of hijacking airplanes or using them as "suicide bombs." But the numbers of hijackings, shootings down or planting of explosives on airplanes have increased with each Republican administration. Republican policies have alienated substantial numbers of people around the world, with more people becoming motivated toward responding with extreme violence with each passing administration. It only makes sense that as the world's population grows, and the corporate, pro-growth, anti-regulatory politicians strip-mine and asphalt over the earth, those people who are being displaced (geographically and economically) would eventually take their beef to the people who are democratically-electing the planet's robber barons - We, the People of the United States.

September 11, 2001 really was only a matter of time.

And to listen to the Republican candidates for President, despite the damage that their policies are doing to people and to the planet, they aren't going to stop. In fact, just like Bush-Cheney, they're going full speed ahead both on the war front and on the anti-populist economic front. reports:
Rudy Giuliani said if a Democrat is elected president in 2008, America will be at risk for another terrorist attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001.

But if a Republican is elected, he said, especially if it is him, terrorist attacks can be anticipated and stopped.

“If any Republican is elected president —- and I think obviously I would be the best at this —- we will remain on offense and will anticipate what [the terrorists] will do and try to stop them before they do it,” Giuliani said.

The former New York City mayor, currently leading in all national polls for the Republican nomination for president, said Tuesday night that America would ultimately defeat terrorism no matter which party gains the White House.

“But the question is how long will it take and how many casualties will we have?” Giuliani said. “If we are on defense [with a Democratic president], we will have more losses and it will go on longer.”

“I listen a little to the Democrats and if one of them gets elected, we are going on defense,” Giuliani continued. “We will wave the white flag on Iraq. We will cut back on the Patriot Act, electronic surveillance, interrogation and we will be back to our pre-Sept. 11 attitude of defense.”

He added: “The Democrats do not understand the full nature and scope of the terrorist war against us.”

After his speech to the Rockingham County Lincoln Day Dinner, I asked him about his statements and Giuliani said flatly: “America will be safer with a Republican president.”

Giuliani, whose past positions on abortion, gun control and gay rights have made him anathema to some in his party, believes his tough stance on national defense and his post-Sept. 11 reputation as a fighter of terrorism will be his trump card with doubting Republicans.

“This war ends when they stop coming here to kill us!” Giuliani said in his speech. “Never, ever again will this country ever be on defense waiting for [terrorists] to attack us if I have anything to say about it. And make no mistake, the Democrats want to put us back on defense!”

Giuliani said terrorists “hate us and not because of anything bad we have done; it has nothing to do with Israel and Palestine. They hate us for the freedoms we have and the freedoms we want to share with the world.”

Giuliani continued: “The freedoms we have are in conflict with the perverted, maniacal interpretation of their religion.” He said Americans would fight for “freedom for women, the freedom of elections, freedom of religion and the freedom of our economy.”

Addressing the terrorists directly, Giuliani said: “We are not giving that up, and you are not going to take it from us!”

Giuliani also said that America had been naive about terrorism in the past and had missed obvious signals.

“They were at war with us before we realized it, going back to ’90s with all the Americans killed by the PLO and Hezbollah and Hamas,” he said. “They came here and killed us in 1993 [with the first attack on New York’s World Trade Center, in which six people died], and we didn’t get it. We didn’t get it that this was a war. Then Sept. 11, 2001, happened, and we got it.”

Monday, April 23, 2007

"The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions"

'Gated Communities' For The War-Ravaged

The Washington Post reports:
The U.S. military is walling off at least 10 of Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods and using biometric technology to track some of their residents, creating what officers call "gated communities" in an attempt to carve out oases of safety in this war-ravaged city.

The plan drew widespread condemnation in Iraq this past week. On Sunday night, Prime Minister Nouri-al Maliki told news services that he would work to halt construction of a wall around the Sunni district of Adhamiyah, which residents said would aggravate sectarian tensions by segregating them from Shiite neighbors. The U.S. military says the walls are meant to protect people, not further divide them in a city that is increasingly a patchwork of sectarian enclaves.
Building the walls around the Warsaw ghetto, Poland, October, 1940

You have to wonder what the hell are they thinking? Are they thinking?
The military sees a simple virtue in the barriers.

"If we keep the bad guys out, then we win," said 1st Lt. Sean Henley, 24, who works out of an outpost in southern Ghazaliyah, a Sunni insurgent stronghold on Baghdad's western edge that is among the first of the gated communities. The square-mile neighborhood of about 15,000 people now has one entrance point for civilian vehicles and three military checkpoints that are closed to the public.

In some sealed-off areas, troops armed with biometric scanning devices will compile a neighborhood census by recording residents' fingerprints and eye patterns and will perhaps issue them special badges, military officials said. At least 10 Baghdad neighborhoods are slated to become or already are gated communities, said Brig. Gen. John F. Campbell, the deputy commander of American forces in Baghdad.

The tactic is part of the two-month-old U.S. and Iraqi counterinsurgency plan to calm sectarian strife and is loosely modeled after efforts in cities such as Tall Afar and Fallujah, where the military says it has curbed violence by strictly controlling access. The gated communities concept has produced mixed results in previous wars -- including failure in Vietnam, where peasants were forcibly moved to fortified hamlets, only to become sympathizers of the insurgency.

Soldiers and military officials said that it was too early to evaluate the success of Baghdad's gated communities and that adjustments would be made according to results and residents' feedback, some of which has been negative. But they insisted the measure is worth a try in the city's bloodiest neighborhoods.

"We've really taken a hard look and said, 'This is an area where we need to monitor people coming in and people coming out . . . and it is the only way we could do it,' " Campbell said.

Wartime Baghdad has become a tableau of barricades as violence has swelled. Enterprising residents put them to use as free advertising space, blank canvases for graffiti and sunny spots for drying carpets.

But the blockading of Baghdad has reached full throttle under this year's security crackdown, with dozens of new neighborhood military outposts needing protection -- and fast. The push has triggered a run on concrete barriers, which sometimes are not fully dry when military engineering units pick them up, said Capt. David Hudson, 30, who leads a company charged with building many of the city's blast walls. The unit now goes through as many as 2,000 barriers a week.

Hudson's unit spent weeks installing two six-foot-tall, mile-and-a-quarter-long walls along the northern, western and southern borders of southern Ghazaliyah. Another unit blocked the cross streets on the east side with waist-high Jersey barriers.

Under cover of darkness on a recent night, Hudson's soldiers placed 44 barriers at an intersection on the eastern edge of Ghazaliyah, a spot known for bombs and snipers. Tanks and Humvees provided security for the cranes and forklifts being used to build what would be the neighborhood's lone civilian checkpoint.

"They've been doing it in Florida, and the old people seem to like it," joked the platoon's leader, Sgt. 1st Class Charles Schmitt, 37, as he watched his team create the public entrance to the new gated community.

If there were ever a place that defied the tidy and tranquil image suggested by that term, it is Ghazaliyah.

Although the neighborhood used to be mixed, it was also home to many Sunni leaders of former president Saddam Hussein's army. Many fled when they were stripped of their jobs after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, but some stayed.

Their presence provided a foothold for Sunni militants, who found the area a convenient gateway to Iraq's Sunni insurgent heartland to the west. Now southern Ghazaliyah is a base for al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent groups, including the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

These days, dogs nose through a seemingly endless terrain of trash-filled dirt lots. Houses are riddled with bullet holes or marked with black X's, the insurgents' warnings to Shiites to leave or be killed. Businesses have shuttered, and services are intermittent. More than half the houses are abandoned.

The Delta Company of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment -- Henley's unit -- moved into one of the deserted homes in mid-March, establishing an outpost in a villa with chandeliers and recessed lighting. When they began doing sweeps, roadside bombs exploded often. Firefights and rocket attacks occurred daily. The soldiers found piles of mutilated bodies and empty houses whose interiors were smeared with blood.

But shootouts and explosions have slowed, the soldiers said. They are no longer finding piles of corpses these days -- "just onesies and twosies," according to Sgt. 1st Class Tom Revette, 36. Tips from residents have skyrocketed, leading the troops to weapons caches and wanted men. Before setting up shop, Henley said, the unit had "no viable targets, not one. Since we've been out here, we've got a laundry list."

The outpost's leader, Capt. Darren Fowler, 30, said the raids alone will not keep terrorists out. Walls and technology might, he figures.

So Fowler plans to have soldiers at the entry point use scanners to log the fingerprints and eye patterns of every person who enters southern Ghazaliyah. That will deter insurgents while building a sort of neighborhood census, he said, something counterinsurgency experts say is an essential step in tracking population movements. It will also let soldiers compare the fingerprints of people who enter with fingerprints collected during operations.

"We can pull fingerprints off all the bad stuff they handle and run it through the database," Fowler said in an e-mail. "The soldiers' favorite show to watch is CSI. We actually get some techniques from them."

Fowler is also considering issuing identification badges to every resident of the gated community. But the area will not be closed off to outsiders, because its markets are crucial to Sunnis who live in nearby Shiite neighborhoods and are too afraid to go to their own bazaars, he said.

The method of screening entrants is chosen by the Iraqi and U.S. troops on the ground and will vary from one gated community to another, said Campbell, the deputy commander in Baghdad. Some might check Iraqi food ration cards, which show the holder's address, and use biometrics -- which many soldiers have been collecting during sweeps -- as a second-tier check.

"Most of the Iraqis have a card that tells where they live," Campbell said. "So if they don't have one for that particular area, then [soldiers will] go through the biometrics and see if there's any past history of any activity that we would not want to have."

Many weary residents of southern Ghazaliyah are pleased with the effort to shut out the blood bath, the soldiers said, while others have griped about the inconveniences it presents.

Earlier this month, Fowler led off the nightly meeting of Iraqi and American soldiers, gathered around a dining table to review operations on PowerPoint slides.

"Because of your help, I have gone one full week without being shot at," said Fowler, a tall Southerner famed among his peers for having survived 13 roadside bombings unscathed, 11 of them in Ghazaliyah.

Soon he addressed the barrier plan. The rural lanes to the west would be sealed off soon, he said, "so terrorists cannot use the farm roads to get into Ghazaliyah."

Many of the Iraqi soldiers nodded. But not Maj. Hathem Faek Salman, who fears the barriers are more likely to anger residents than shut out violence.

"This is not a good plan," Salman, 40, had said before the meeting. "If my region were closed by these barriers, I would hate the army, because I would feel like I was in a big jail. . . . If you want to make the area secure and safe, it is not with barriers. We have to win the trust of the people."

The next day, a convoy rumbled out to Bakriyah, a small village west of Ghazaliyah -- just outside the walls and a little more than two miles from the civilian checkpoint. It was a peaceful mission: to track down a town leader who is on a local citizens' council that the soldiers meet with regularly. The man, Najim Abdullah, had skipped a recent meeting, and the soldiers thought his absence might have been to protest the barriers.

Three U.S. soldiers, an interpreter and an Iraqi soldier removed their helmets and sat down on the ornate carpets in Abdullah's home, leaning against the walls with pillows propped behind their backs. Abdullah's wide-eyed grandsons served sweet tea.

Abdullah, cross-legged in a gray dishdasha, or traditional robe, said he had missed the meeting because of an emergency. But the gated community idea, he said, "doesn't make any sense." His villagers had long driven into Ghazaliyah's west end to go to its markets or continue toward central Baghdad. Now they would have to drive around it.

"The barriers cannot be moved until all of the Ghazaliyah barrier plan is in place," responded Lt. Lance Rae, 25. "But we will not forget the people down here. They've been very faithful to us."

"It's your order. I disagree with it. But I accept it," Abdullah said. "It does not matter to me. It matters to the people."

Abdullah rose, turned toward the blank white wall and sketched an invisible picture of the area with his hands. He pointed left, to Bakriyah. And a few feet right, to the checkpoint.

"It will take two hours to get from here to here!" he said.

Rae simply nodded and said, "Security is the key."

Boys play soccer near a blast wall in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood. U.S. forces plan to erect walls and Jersey barriers around at least 10 districts. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)

Warsaw Ghetto, Poland, 1941

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Secret Hold Placed on Senate Disclosures

From the Sunlight Foundation:
Yet again an anonymous Senator has placed a secret hold on legislation that would increase transparency. This time a secret hold has been placed on a bill, S. 223, that would mandate that Senators file their campaign finance reports electronically. This process would not only make these reports more readily available to the public but would also save money and resources.
Yesterday this bill was blocked by an anonymous Senator who placed a secret hold on the bill. Secret holds are so looked down on these days that earlier this year the Senate itself banned the practice, although the bill containing that provision has yet to become law. But until secret holds are banished forever, we need your help in exposing the culprit who is blocking consideration of the electronic filing requirement for Senate campaign finance reports.

We need your help to find out who placed this secret hold! Call your Senators and ask them if they are the one with the secret hold on S. 223. Then report back here in the comments with your findings or contact us using this contact form. Below is a list of Senators, organized by state, and their contact info. If a Senator issues a denial we will indicate that next to their name.

So far, the tally sheet looks like this (bold indicates "response unknown"):

Senator Contact Secret Hold?
Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) (202) 224-5744 NO
Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) (202) 224-4124 NO
Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) (202) 224-3004 NO
Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) (202) 224-6665 NO
John McCain (R-Arizona) (202) 224-2235 NO
Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) (202) 224-4521
Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas) (202) 224-4843 NO
Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas) (202) 224-2353
Dianne Feinstein (D-California) (202) 224-3841 NO
Barbara Boxer (D-California) (202) 224-3553
Wayne Allard (R-Colorado) (202) 224-5941 NO
Ken Salazar (D-Colorado) (202) 224-5852 NO
Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) (202) 224-2823
Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut) (202) 224-4041
Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) (202) 224-5042
Thomas Carper (D-Delaware) (202) 224-2441 NO
Bill Nelson (D-Florida) (202) 224-5274 NO
Mel Martinez (R-Florida) (202) 224-3041
Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) (202) 224-3521 NO
Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) (202) 224-3643 NO
Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) (202) 224-3934
Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) (202) 224-6361
Larry Craig (R-Idaho) (202) 224-2752 NO
Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) (202) 224-6142
Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) (202) 224-2152 NO
Barack Obama (D-Illinois) (202) 224-2854 NO
Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) (202) 224-4814 NO
Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) (202) 224-5623 NO
Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) (202) 224-3744 NO
Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) (202) 224-3254
Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) (202) 224-6521 NO
Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) (202) 224-4774
Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) (202) 224-2541 NO
Jim Bunning (R-Kentucky) (202) 224-4343 NO
Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) (202) 224-5824 NO
David Vitter (R-Louisiana) (202) 224-4623
Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) (202) 224-5344
Susan Collins(R-Maine) (202) 224-2523 NO
Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) (202) 224-4654 NO
Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) (202) 224-4524
Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) (202) 224-4543 NO
John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) (202) 224-2742 NO
Carl Levin (D-Michigan) (202) 224-6221
Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) (202) 224-4822
Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota) (202) 224-5641 NO
Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) (202) 224-3244 NO
Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) (202) 224-5054
Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) (202) 224-6253
Christopher S. Bond (R-Missouri) (202) 224-5721 NO
Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) (202) 224-6154 NO
Max Baucus (D-Montana) (202) 224-2651
Jon Tester (D-Montana) (202) 224-2644 NO
Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) (202) 224-4224
Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) (202) 224-6551 NO
Harry Reid (D-Nevada) (202) 224-3542
John Ensign (R-Nevada) (202) 224-6244
Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire) (202) 224-3324
John E. Sununu (R-New Hampshire) (202) 224-2841 NO
Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) (202) 224-3224 NO
Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) (202) 224-4744 NO
Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) (202) 224-6621 NO
Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) (202) 224-5521
Charles Schumer (D-New York) (202) 224-6542
Hillary Clinton (D-New York) (202) 224-4451
Elizabeth Dole (R-North Carolina) (202) 224-6342 NO
Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) (202) 224-3154 NO
Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) (202) 224-2043
Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) (202) 224-2551
George Voinovich (R-Ohio) (202) 224-3353 NO
Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) (202) 224-2315 NO
James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) (202) 224-4721 NO
Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) (202) 224-5754 NO
Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) (202) 224-5244 NO
Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) (202) 224-3753 NO
Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) (202) 224-4254 NO
Bob Casey, Jr. (D-Pennsylvania) (202) 224-6324 NO
Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) (202) 224-4642
Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) (202) 224-2921
Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) (202) 224-5972 NO
Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) (202) 224-6121 NO
Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) (202) 224-5842 NO
John Thune (R-South Dakota) (202) 224-2321
Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) (202) 224-4944 NO
Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) (202) 224-3344 NO
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) (202) 224-5922 NO
John Cornyn (R-Texas) (202) 224-2934 NO
Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) (202) 224-5251 NO
Robert Bennett (R-Utah) (202) 224-5444 NO
Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) (202) 224-4242 NO
Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) (202) 224-5141 NO
John Warner (R-Virginia) (202) 224-2023
Jim Webb (D-Virginia) (202) 224-4024 NO
Patty Murray (D-Washington) (202) 224-2621
Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) (202) 224-3441
Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) (202) 224-3954 NO
Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia)(202) 224-6472 NO
Herbert Kohl (D-Wisconsin) (202) 224-5653 NO
Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) (202) 224-5323 NO
Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming) (202) 224-6441 NO
Michael Enzi (R-Wyoming) (202) 224-3424 NO

Kate Phillips at the NYT reports:
According to a transcript, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, explained why the current practice is cumbersome, at least, on the Senate floor on Tuesday as she sought to get unanimous consent for the bill to be adopted:

Currently, House candidates, Presidential candidates, political action committees, and party committees are all required to file electronically, and they do. But Senators, Senate candidates, authorized campaign committees, and the Democratic and Republican Senate campaign committees are exempt.

As a result, we have a very cumbersome system in which paper copies of disclosure reports are filed with the Senate Office of Public Records, which then scans them, makes an electronic copy of them, and sends that copy to the F.E.C. (Federal Election Commission) on a dedicated communications line. The F.E.C. then prints the report and sends it to a vendor in Fredericksburg, Va., where the information is keyed in by hand and transferred back to the F.E.C. database. All of this costs about $250,000, and it is a waste of money, a waste of staff, and a waste of time.

At the very end of the floor discussion between Senator Feinstein and Senator Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, an objection was raised by Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee.

It is unknown who placed the secret hold. But our chief congressional correspondent, Carl Hulse, has confirmed that a Republican senator placed one on the bill. Who placed the hold? We’ll find out soon.

That leaves Jon Kyl, Mel Martinez, Mike Crapo, Pat Roberts, David Vitter, Olympia Snowe, Thad Cochran, Trent Lott, Chuck Hagel, John Ensign, Judd Gregg, John Thune or John Warner.

My Questions About The Virginia Tech Shooting

Map of School Violence

I suspect that after all of the information about Cho Seung Hui is gathered and examined, we will have learned nothing new about why some young men turn to extreme violence or how earlier intervention might have prevented the random deaths of innocents at Virginia Tech.

Cho's profile will wind up looking like the profiles of all the other mass murderers in modern history. It will come as no surprise to most liberals, whose policies on everything from health care and education to immigration, worker protections, corporate and gun regulation, would go a long way in preventing horrific killing fields such as what we saw on Monday in Virginia.

Republican dogma will prevail and nothing will change. Why? Because 32 people killed and a dozen or so wounded does not justify making the changes necessary, spending the money, for preventing similar sieges in the future. Because they're not the right 32 + 12.

That's the truth of capitalist America.

Until Americans realize the connection between our public policies ("money is motive, profit is king") and the violence committed by our government in our names, violence will continue to be a part of our lives. Beyond the massacre on Monday, in every facet of our society. American policies and our lifestyle will go on producing more Cho Seung Huis, like Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, George Jo Hennard, James Huberty, James Rupert, Mark Barton, Kip Kinkel, and dozens of others, too young to have had their names published outside of the juvenile court system.

Culled from a Washington Post report:
Cho, of Centreville, Va., the son of immigrants who run a dry cleaning business, and the brother of a State Department contractor who graduated from Princeton, was described by those who encountered him over the years as at times angry, menacing, disturbed and so depressed that he seemed near tears.

Cho graduated from Westfield High School in Chantilly in 2003. He turned 23 on Jan. 18 and had lived as a legal permanent resident since entering the United States through Detroit on Sept. 2, 1992, when he was 8 years old, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Cho held a green card through his parents, and he renewed it Oct. 27, 2003, according to Homeland Security. He listed his residence as Centreville.

Cho's sister, Sun Cho, graduated from Princeton University with a degree in economics in 2004 after she completed summer internships with the State Department in Washington and Bangkok.

A State Department spokesman said Sun Cho currently works as a contractor specializing in personnel matters.

I'd like to know how his parents, South Korean nationals, got into the U.S.

They are described by the Washington Post as "running a dry cleaning business," which could mean that they own the business. Having money might explain how they entered the U.S. (financially solvent, wouldn't be a burden, etc.), but one could infer from 'running a business' that they managed it and/or worked it for others. If that's the case, I'd like to know if the United States was experiencing a shortage of dry cleaning workers fifteen years ago when the Cho family entered the U.S.? After fifteen years in the U.S., presumably with roots in the community and children who have gone through the American school system (and one child working for the U.S. government), why aren't they U.S. citizens?

And about their daughter: What is a State Department 'contractor' in "personnel matters"? She is not a W-2 employee of the State Department; she is an independent contractor. What does she do for the State Department, with a degree in economics, "specializing in personnel matters"?

Does she take care of 'personnel problems'?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Makes You Want To Go, "Have You No Sense Of Decency, Sir?"

In the NYT, Adam Cohen writes:
Opponents of Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin spent $4 million on ads last year trying to link the Democratic incumbent to a state employee who was sent to jail on corruption charges. The effort failed, and Mr. Doyle was re-elected — and now the state employee has been found to have been wrongly convicted. The entire affair is raising serious questions about why a United States attorney put an innocent woman in jail.

The conviction of Georgia Thompson has become part of the furor over the firing of eight United States attorneys in what seems like a political purge. While the main focus of that scandal is on why the attorneys were fired, the Thompson case raises questions about why other prosecutors kept their jobs.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which heard Ms. Thompson’s case this month, did not discuss whether her prosecution was political — but it did make clear that it was wrong. And in an extraordinary move, it ordered her released immediately, without waiting to write a decision. “Your evidence is beyond thin,” Judge Diane Wood told the prosecutor. “I’m not sure what your actual theory in this case is.”

A couple of weeks ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to make this case their business, although not swiftly enough to have kept Thompson out of prison in the first place:
The Senate Judiciary Committee asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to provide documents related to the prosecution of a former state worker in Wisconsin whose bid-rigging conviction was overturned last week by a federal appeals court.

In a letter sent Tuesday, committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and five other Democratic senators said they were "concerned whether or not politics may have played a role" in the case against Georgia Thompson.

She was accused of favoring a company with ties to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, and her conviction became an issue last year in his campaign for re-election when his opponents used it to slam him in television ads.

Wisconsin Democrats have long questioned whether the decision by U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic to prosecute Thompson was an attempt to go after Doyle, who faced a tough run against then-U.S. Rep. Republican Mark Green. Biskupic was appointed by President Bush.

A message left by The Associated Press for Biskupic's spokeswoman was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a key prosecution witness at the trial said Tuesday he's glad the woman has been acquitted and freed, saying "she's not a crook."

Frank Kooistra, an associate dean at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Thompson served on a committee that evaluated proposals from companies seeking a contract to book travel for state employees.

Kooistra and other committee members testified last summer at Thompson's trial on charges she steered the contract worth up to $750,000 to Adelman Travel Group because it had developed a close relationship with Gov. Jim Doyle's administration.

A jury found her guilty of fraud charges, and she was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. But a federal appeals court said last week that prosecutors lacked evidence. It ruled that Thompson was innocent and ordered her immediate release after four months behind bars.

"I'm really happy for Georgia," Kooistra said. "I don't think the punishment that was dished out was fair and so I'm happy that this has happened and I hope she gets her life back to order."

He added: "She is really a nice person. She's not a crook or a criminal."

The prosecution has sparked calls from some Democrats, including Rep. Tammy Baldwin, for Congress to look into whether it was intended to tarnish Doyle's re-election campaign last year. Biskupic's spokeswoman has denied that.

Biskupic's case was built on the testimony of committee members as well as e-mails and other documents in which he tried to show Adelman had a tight relationship with Doyle's administration. The ties included $10,000 in campaign donations from Adelman's chief executive before and after winning the contract and contacts the company had with Doyle and his aides.

Kooistra testified that he and all other committee members but Thompson wanted to give the contract to Omega World Travel after the company edged out Adelman by 21 points on a 1,200 point scale after an initial evaluation.

Kooistra testified he was angry when Thompson asked them if they wanted to inflate their scores for Adelman. When they refused, he was also furious that Thompson considered the close scores a tie and initiated a tiebreaker called a best-and-final offer.

Adelman ended up winning after its final bid was lower.

Kooistra testified Thompson cited political reasons in wanting to favor the Wisconsin-based company over its Virginia rival. He interpreted that to mean she was under pressure to favor an in-state company even though that was not supposed to be considered.

To this day, Kooistra said he's not sure what motivated Thompson's behavior.

Thompson testified she was simply trying to get the best deal for the state and other evaluators had put too much emphasis on the style, not substance, of the proposals. She denied that her bosses wanted Adelman to win.

Thompson, through her lawyer, told the state Monday she's interested in returning to work in the coming days. The state also will give her $68,000 in back pay and may help her pay legal fees.

Where does she go to get her good name back, not to mention her home and possessions? Why should the taxpayers of Wisconsin be on the hook for Georgia Thompson's legal fees? Why isn't the federal government reimbursing her legal fees, and then going after the Republican party?

This is the Kafka-esque nightmare of every liberal since Bush and Cheney came into office: Americans' guaranteed rights and protections lost through Republicans' methodical deconstruction of the Constitution. The congressional oversight that was written into the Constitution by the founders didn't anticipate the tactics of Bush, Cheney, Rove, Republicans and their cronies.

The wheels of justice move very slowly. Unfortunately, with Democrats (who are also professional politicians) heading the effort, it's unlikely to be as thorough an investigation as necessary to sweep and deter these corrupt practices from our system of government.

Can You Have This On Your Car's Bumper & Still Attend Your President's Speech?

Not if the president is named "Bush."

The AP reports:
White House officials can exclude dissenters from taxpayer-funded appearances by President Bush without violating the protesters' rights, according to lawyers for volunteers who helped eject three people from a hall where Bush was to speak.

Attorneys for Michael Casper and Jay Bob Klinkerman said the government has the same rights as a private corporation when its officials speak.

"The president may constitutionally make viewpoint-based exclusionary determinations in conveying his own message," the attorneys said in a filing last week. "So in following the instructions of the White House and carrying out its viewpoint-based exclusions, Casper and Klinkerman did not violate any of plaintiffs' constitutional rights."

Plaintiffs Leslie Weise and Alex Young were among the three told to leave just before Bush was to talk about his plans for Social Security at the March 21, 2005, event in Denver.

Weise and Young argue they were ejected for their political views. They had arrived in a car bearing a "No blood for oil" bumper sticker. They were also wearing T-shirts saying "Stop the lies" under their clothes but did not show them.

They have said they had no plans to disrupt the event, but Young hoped to ask Bush a question if given the opportunity.

The defense filing points to a ruling by another federal appeals court in a 1992 case in which an Ohio woman displaying a pro-Bill Clinton button was barred from a campaign rally for the first President Bush. The appeals court said rally organizers had a right to control their message, and the Supreme Court later refused to revive the lawsuit.

Martha Tierney, an attorney for the Colorado plaintiffs, said Monday the Ohio case does not apply to her clients' case because the event at the center of the 1992 case was funded by a private organization, the Strongsville, Ohio, Republican Party.

"A private organization is entitled to limit the kinds of speech that the public can have if it comes to attend its event," Tierney said. "But the government is under a different standard and can't limit speech just based on viewpoint at a public, taxpayer-funded event."

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the latest motion was filed, is weighing the volunteers' argument that they are protected from lawsuits by governmental immunity. A lower court rejected that argument.

Last month, Weise and Young filed a separate lawsuit against three White House officials, accusing them of creating an unconstitutional policy to limit dissent at the president's appearances.

White House officials do not comment on pending litigation, spokesman Blair Jones said Monday.

Book Bin: "Oil on the Brain," by Lisa Margonelli

Americans buy 10,000 gallons of gasoline a second, but few of us know how oil is created and drilled, how gas stations compete or what actually goes on in a refinery—let alone what happens in the mysterious Strategic Petroleum Reserve, where the U.S. government stores roughly 700 million barrels of oil in underground salt caverns on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Author Lisa Margonelli’s desire to learn took her on a one-hundred thousand mile journey from her local gas station to oil fields half a world away. In search of the truth behind the myths, she wriggled her way into some of the most off-limits places on earth: the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the New York Mercantile Exchange’s crude oil market, oil fields from Venezuela, to Texas, to Chad, and even an Iranian oil platform where the United States fought a forgotten one-day battle.

In the summer of 2003, she started hanging out at independent gas stations, where owners might clear pennies per gallon of gas, surviving on impulse sales of junk food and soda. Her journey takes us up the delivery chain, spending a typical day with a tanker truck driver, hanging out with suppliers, touring refineries, and seeing what life is like at an oil rig. Whether visiting "wildcatters" in Texas, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in the Gulf of Mexico, or the oil pit at the New York Mercantile Exchange, Margonelli charms her way into the good graces of insiders to report on the vast petroleum network. Her voyage takes us to Venezuela, Chad (whose villagers who are said to wander the oil fields in the guise of lions), Nigeria (where a Nigerian warlord who changed the world price of oil with a single cell phone call), China (where Shanghai bureaucrats dream of creating a new Detroit) and ultimately the Persian Gulf, where she spends time at the Salmon oil fields in Iran. Filled with rich history, industry anecdotes, and politics, Margonelli's book brings a deeper appreciation of the complicated and often tenuous process that we take for granted.


Chapter 1 - GAS STATION: Chasing The Hidden Penny

Regular Unleaded $1.61 9/10
Twin Peaks Petroleum sits at a welcoming angle to a busy San Francisco intersection. On this morning in the summer of 2003, a thick fog has crawled over the station, folding each of the eight drivers standing at the pumps in an envelope of cold mist. At the back of the lot sits a garage where a small convenience store glows. On the storefront is a poster of an ebullient snowman clutching a cola, while icicle letters drip the words COLD POP over his head. Inside the convenience store, among the security cameras and parabolic mirrors, the Doritos, cigarettes, and Snapples, jammed into a space no larger than a postal truck, a tall man with dark circles under his eyes appears to doze. His eyelids hang low, twitching; he mumbles; he moves with excruciating deliberation as he counts change.

I am leaning against a shelf holding several grades of motor oil, individually wrapped strawberry cheesecake muffins, and four flavors of corn nuts: picante, regular, nacho cheese, and ranch. I am no more lively than B. J., the droopy manager. And I am recording the flavors of corn nuts in my notebook to stay awake. “Corn Gone Wrong” say the packages. I record that too. I’ve come to the gas station to watch Americans buy gasoline, as a way of understanding how we fit into the trillion–dollar world oil economy. But now that I’m here, I realize I’ve been here before, bought gas so many times myself I feel there’s nothing to see. The fumble, the stuporous swipe of the card, the far–off look: I know them well. Gas stations are everywhere, but when you’re in one, you’re nowhere in particular. Icicle letters are taking shape in my head: WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?

I keep writing: Trojan spermicidally lubricated snugger fit, two Sominex and a folded paper cup, phone cards, batteries, air fresheners printed to look like ice cream sundaes, a greeting card with a picture of a pansy and the words “You’re too nice to be sick.” The customers standing out at the pumps have a preoccupied, anxious look—could they be distracted enough to buy a card that says “You’re too nice to be sick”?

Gas stations are collections of incidental items, impulses, and routines that seem in themselves to be inconsequential but aggregate into a goliath economy when multiplied by the hungers of 194 million licensed American drivers. Corn nuts, for example, are part of $4.4 billion in salty snacks sold at gas station convenience stores yearly, nearly all impulse buys. The hopeful purchase $25 billion in lottery tickets. People with the sniffles spent $323 million on cold medicine at gas stations in 2001. And the faint smell of gasoline near the pumps? In California alone, the amount of gasoline vapor wafting out of stations, as we fill our cars, totals 15,811 gallons a day—roughly the equivalent of two full tanker trucks (1). In the gas station, we’ve collaborated to create a culture of speed, convenience, low prices, and 64–ounce cup holders, which allow us to express what the industry calls our “passion for fountain drinks.” Japanese auto executives have hired American anthropologists to explain the mystery of why the purchase of a $40,000 car hangs on the super–sizing of the cup holder.

And then there is the gasoline: 1,143 gallons per household per year, purchased in two–and–a–half–minute dashes. We make 16 billion stops at gas stations yearly, taking final delivery on 140 billion gallons of gasoline that has traveled around the world in tanker ships, pipelines, and shiny silver trucks. And then we peel out, get on with our real lives, get back on the highway, or go find a restroom that’s open, for Pete’s sake.

With a wave of our powerful credit cards, American drivers buy one-ninth of the world’s crude oil production per day. That makes us elephants in the global oil economy–our needs are felt around the world, from the tiniest villages in Africa, the Amazon, and the Arctic, to the highest towers in Vienna, Riyadh, and New York. When we lick our lips, they open their taps. When we are in a funk, their governments fall. Here in front of the pump, surrounded by buntings in the joyful colors of children’s birthday party balloons, we have the opportunity to be our truest selves in the great, over–the–top drama/business that is the world oil supply chain.

But as you know, buying gas can be done by the living dead. Swipe card, insert nozzle, punch the button with the greasy sheen: Gasoline flows into the tank while money flows out of the bank account. Filling a car seems less like making a purchase than a ritual, a formality that isn’t quite real.

It’s not even clear what we’re buying—gasoline’s fantastic uniformity means one is as good as another. Water doesn’t mix with gas, so beyond occasional traces of vapor, we don’t even have to worry about buying substandard gasoline. And all traces of where the fuel came from are completely erased by the time it gets to a gas pump. Texaco gasoline is no longer from Texas, and gas from Unocal is not from “Cal.” Both companies have been purchased by Chevron, anyway. If gasoline were coffee, we might believe the Baku blend offered a fast but mellow ride.

As if acknowledging the futility of trying to stand out from the pack when 168,987 gas stations are selling essentially an identical chemical mix, stations have adopted a clannish ugliness. Whether they’re in Fairbanks, Alaska, or Pine Island, Florida, they all subscribe to the familiar topography of canopied islands, cheerful plate glass, struggling hedges, and “Smile. You’re being watched by a surveillance camera” signs. Predictable they are, to the very last 9/10ths of a cent, which is permanently printed on every last gas price sign in the land.

The gas station’s blandness is misleading, though. Hidden in its windows, pumps, and hedges are clues to the true nature of the American bargain with gasoline and the enigma of its role in the world.

On the counter in front of B. J. stands a line of purple plastic wizards, stomachs filled with green candy pebbles. Their shiny eyes stare at me expectantly.

At the periphery of my vision, a van enters Twin Peaks yard and parks near the fence. In the time it takes the door to slam, B. J. grows a foot taller, loses his paunch, and becomes a man of action. He snaps the countertop open, bounces into the yard, and lands in front of the van driver in one tigerlike swoop. Words are exchanged. The driver sulkily returns to his van and B. J. returns to the store, shaking his head. People try to ditch their cars in the station and take the bus, he explains, taking his position behind the wizards. “The customer is always right,” says B. J., “but bad people going round.”

Like vapors, bad people always seem to be wafting through the gas station. Last week B. J. ran out to stop a truck that was barreling toward the station’s lighted canopy. The truck driver ignored him and crunched the canopy. Cars have driven willy nilly through the hedges as he watched. Nightly, people break through the chains on the four entrances. Once he found a gun in the hedge, stashed by a kid on the way to juvenile court. His response? Shave the hedges. Every morning he cleans up garbage, cans, and bottles filled with things we won’t discuss. Daily, and constantly, people try to steal: window squeegees, sodas, condoms, money, and phone calls. Behind B. J.’s head are the counterfeit $20 bills the station has intercepted.

People use elaborate schemes to steal gas, he explains. Sometimes they’ll pay for $5 and shut the pump off when it reaches $4.75. Then they return to the clerk, telling him to turn the pump back on, knowing that the pumps don’t turn off after dispensing amounts less than a dollar. Then they fill their tank and drive off. Others play on the sympathies of the attendant or accuse him of trying to cheat them. In stations where people pump before they pay, they often just drive off. The average gas station loses more than $2,141 a year to gasoline theft. Some lose much more.

Think of a gas station as a crime scene before the fact, and you’ll start to appreciate it as a maze engineered for belligerent rats. Hedges, which I’d interpreted as a pathetic attempt at dignity and baronial pretensions, actually eliminate escape routes for would–be robbers, limiting holdups. Many convenience stores buy “target hardening” kits, which include decals imprinted with rulers so that clerks can tell the police how tall the robbers were, two stickers that say “No 20s, no 50s,” two “Thank You” decals, and one “Smile. You are being watched by our video security.”

Even so, crime is always evolving. “After we did target hardening in stores in the 1980s, the crime moved to the pumps—carjackings and abductions,” says Dr. Rosemary Erickson, a sociologist who’s studied gas station crime for thirty years. “Now it’s public nuisance crimes in the parking lots. Gas stations are considered a magnet.” (2) Nearly nine percent of U.S. robberies happen in gas stations and convenience stores, and the average gas station lost $1,749 to robbery in 2004.

Some of the crimes are not about money at all; they’re about freefloating anger. When gas prices are high, more people get “pump rage” and try to drive off without paying for gas. The Indian and Pakistani immigrants who own and staff many stations bear the brunt. After 9/11, people who were angry at some vague combination of OPEC and Osama bin Laden attacked a hundred clerks at 7–Eleven gas stations and convenience stores in a month. Five men were killed for looking “Middle Ea...
[For more, you'll have to get the book.]

Friday, April 13, 2007

It's a Wonderful Day In The Neighborhood

While I was taking a spin around the blogosphere earlier, from Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum writes:
MISSING EMAILS UPDATE....Remember all those missing emails the White House told us about yesterday? Turns out the RNC does have copies on its servers. Whew. Apparently, back in 2004, as part of the Valerie Plame investigation, Patrick Fitzgerald told them to stop deleting emails.

So they did. Except, it turns out, for Karl Rove's emails, many of which are still missing. Now that's just plain peculiar, isn't it?

Luckily, I'm sure the RNC has backup tapes. Right? Everyone keeps backup tapes, don't they?

I'm curious as to why the prosecutor in Abramoff (and Abramoff's associate, Neil Volz, convicted of public corruption) didn't uncover this backdoor communications system through the RNC after email between Abramoff and the White House (and Volz and the White House) surfaced on some of these extra-legal accounts. Why weren't all the records on all of the laptops subpoenaed then?

Let's hope that this puts to rest one line from the Republicans' list of talking points ("There's not one shred of evidence of any wrongdoing, that any laws were broken, of any crimes committed") whenever Democrats in Congress perform their Constitutionally-required job of oversight, by holding public hearings, looking at the books, etc.

I think Orrin Hatch broke his own 'personal best' record (and every other Republican's who hit the air waves in the last few weeks) of not answering the questions put to him on the April 1, 2007 MTP, but instead filibustering with the RNC's list of talking points:
SEN. HATCH: Pat (Leahy), I didn’t interrupt you. Now, let me just tell you something. There is not one shred of evidence here that any of these appointments were made to, to use Senator Specter’s words, to, to, to interfere with an ongoing investigation or case. Not one shred of evidence. This is a tempest in a teapot..."

SEN. HATCH:"I think the problem is that they’ve tried to make a big tempest out of a tea—tempest in a coffee cup here over some mistakes that were made at the Justice Department when the administration, I think, is cooperating and they’re unwilling to take, take any of the information from the people at the White House in the way that Fred Fielding said he would do it. I was surprised Fielding went that far with people that high in the White House."

SEN. HATCH: You have not a shred, not a shred of evidence.

SEN. HATCH: He (Pat Leahy) keeps bringing up the Griffin situation, which is the only, the only time that that Patriot Act provision was used, and, and, and Kyle Sampson said he regretted it. If they—if the administration was really misusing that section, they would have appointed a whole raft of other interim U.S. attorneys. They did not do that. So that’s just a pure run-up of the wrong road, like all of this.

The Griffin situation was the first time that the Patriot Act provision was used. Had the White House and Gonzales' DOJ not been called on it, or if they'd gotten away with it (which surely would have been the case had Republicans retained control over both houses of Congress after the midterm elections last November), there's no telling what they would have done with this spanking, brand new provision in the Patriot Act.

But I digressed:
SEN. HATCH: Let me tell you, are we going to spend our time where there’s not a shred of evidence that impropriety has gone on here in interfering with an ongoing investigation or an ongoing case, are we going to spend our time on this political exercise? Is this what the Senate’s going to do, with all of the problems that we have, where they can’t show any evidence that there’s been any impropriety here other than a bunch of mistakes that the, the Justice Department readily admits, the White House readily admits, but I think can be easily straightened out in—if we all work together and, and did it.

SEN. HATCH: ...if we’re fair, we’ll give the man a chance. But boy, I’ll tell you, I think there ought to at least be some evidence that something was really wrong here, and, and to imply that there was criminal activity. And in the Monica Goodling case, let’s be honest about it...

After I posted my (rhetorical) question at Washington Monthly, RobW replied:
That is a DAMNED good question. Let's see...R. Robert Acosta was Bush's appointee to AAG Civil Rights Division, the first and most heavily politicized branch of Justice; he helped put them over in 2004. His first act there? Approval of Texas redistricting in 2003. He then resigned there and was appointed interim US Attorney for Southern Florida in June 2005.

His first big case there? SunCruz, and the Abramoff scandal.

And wouldn't you know it? His time in S. FL as USA when he was investigating Abramoff (mid-'05 til Mar. '06) coincides with the period in which Rove's mail was being specially archived by the RNC (as noted by daCascadian at 6:24 PM - see italicized entry below) AND Abramoff himself was in regular contact with the White House through Rove's executive assistant, Susan Ralston, who was herself in constant contact with... Ken Mehlman at the RNC:

"...Mr. Kelner's briefing raised particular concems about Karl Rove, who according to press reports used his RNC account for 95% of his communications. According to Mr. Kelner, although the hold started in August 2004, the RNC does not have any e-mails prior to 2005 for Mr. Rove. Mr. Kelner did not give any explanation for the e-mails missing from Mr. Rove's account, but he did acknowledge that one possible explanation is that Mr. Rove personally deleted his e-mails from the RNC server.

Mr. Kelner also explained that starting in 2005, the RNC began to treat Mr. Rove's emails in a special fashion. At some point in 2005, the RNC commenced an automatic archive policy for Mr. Rove, but not for any other White House officials. According to Mr. Kelner, this archive policy removed Mr. Rove's ability to personally delete his e-mails from the RNC server. Mr. Kelner did not provide many details about why this special policy was adopted for Mr. Rove. But he did indicate that one factor was the presence of investigative or discovery requests or other legal concerns..."
from TPM Muck division

(Remember: the Abramoff investigation was NOT initiated by the Justice department or the White House -duh-, but by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which put pressure on Justice... right around the time Acosta was given his interim appointment.)

This is all WAY too cozy. I knew from the beginning that the USAs who were fired were nowhere near as big a deal as the ones who kept their jobs or got promoted.

Thanks, RobW (and daCascadian).

The things you learn when you ask the right questions.

Now why aren't the media asking them? (And why aren't the Democrats in Congress asking them, faster?)

"'s a tempest in a coffee cup."

Friday Cat Blogging

Mystery Cat Takes Regular Bus To The Shops

London's Daily Mail reports:
Bus drivers have nicknamed a white cat Macavity after it has started using the No 331 several mornings a week.

The feline, which has a purple collar, gets onto the busy Walsall to Wolverhampton bus at the same stop most mornings - he then jumps off at the next stop 400m down the road, near a fish and chip shop.

The cat, nicknamed Macavity, has one blue eye and one green eye

The cat was nicknamed Macavity after the mystery cat in T.S Elliot's poem. He gets on the bus in front of a row of 1950s semi-detached houses and jumps off at a row of shops down the road which include a fish and chip shop.
Driver Bill Khunkhun, 49, who first saw the cat jumping from the bus in January, said: "It is really odd, the first time I saw the cat jumping off the bus with a group of passengers. I hadn't seen it get on which was a bit confusing.

"The next day I pulled up on Churchill Road to let a couple of passengers on. As soon as I opened the doors the cat ran towards the bus, jumped on and ran under one of the seats, I don't think any of the passengers noticed.

"Because I had seen it jump off the day before I carried on driving and sure enough when I stopped just down the road he jumped off - I don't know why he would catch the bus but he seems to like it. I told some of the other drivers on this route and they have seen him too."

Since January, when the cat first caught the bus he has done it two or three times a week and always gets on and off at the same stops.

Passenger, Paul Brennan, 19, who catches the 331 to work, said: "I first noticed the cat a few weeks ago. At first I thought it had been accompanied by its owner but after the first stop it became quite clear he was on his own.

"He sat at the front of the bus, waited patiently for the next stop and then got off. It was was quite strange at first but now it just seems normal. I suppose he is the perfect passenger really - he sits quietly, minds his own business and then gets off."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

White House says, "The E-Mail On Those RNC Laptops May Be Missing"

May be missing?

Wouldn't they already know? Haven't they talked with their employees, checked to see if it's still there? Or was this the White House's way of obstructing justice, signaling all those who have RNC laptops to go back and be sure that when they deleted their email, they did it with a 'secure' delete (which overwrites the email so it can't be recovered)?

The LATimes reports:
The White House said Wednesday that it may have lost what could amount to thousands of messages sent through a private e-mail system used by political guru Karl Rove and at least 50 other top officials, an admission that stirred anger and dismay among congressional investigators.

The e-mails were considered potentially crucial evidence in congressional inquiries launched by Democrats into the role partisan politics may have played in such policy decisions as the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

This potentially affects the Abramoff case, too. From Mother Jones:
Not only did White House officials think better of using their official emails, they also instructed the lobbyists who did business with them to avoid the White House system. "...It is better to not put this stuff in writing in their email system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc.," one lobbyist to wrote to Jack Abramoff in August 2003 after Abramoff accidentally pinged former Karl Rove aide Susan Ralston on her White House address. "Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her rnc [Republican National Committee] pager and was not supposed to go into the WH system," Abramoff replied.
In 2004, U.S. News & World Report reported that White House staffers were using Web-based email accounts specifically to keep their emails from entering the public record ("I don't want my E-mail made public," one White House "insider" told the magazine). With the Hatch Act, "want" doesn't enter into it.
The White House said an effort was underway to see whether the messages could be recovered from the computer system, which was operated and paid for by the Republican National Committee as part of an avowed effort to separate political communications from those dealing with official business.

"The White House has not done a good enough job overseeing staff using political e-mail accounts to assure compliance with the Presidential Records Act," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said in an unusual late-afternoon teleconference with reporters.

As a result, Stanzel said, "we may not have preserved all e-mails that deal with White House business."

He refused to estimate how many e-mails may have been lost, but the system was used by dozens of officials for more than six years.

"This is a remarkable admission that raises serious legal and security issues," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is investigating the role of electoral politics in administration policymaking. "The White House has an obligation to disclose all the information it has."

The missing e-mails not only add to the growing legal and public relations woes for the White House and Rove's political operation, but also to the problems of Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. Gonzales, who is under fire for the handling of the U.S. attorney dismissals, was serving as White House counsel at the time the Republican National Committee's parallel communications system was set up.

His office had at least partial responsibility for establishing ground rules for using the private system.

The White House briefing Wednesday occurred a few hours after the staff of Waxman's committee and staff of the House Judiciary Committee met with White House officials to discuss the e-mails.

The White House has informed congressional investigators that it will not be able to meet the committee's deadline of Friday to turn over the communications.

The House aides are expected to meet with the Republican National Committee's legal staff today. A committee spokesman said the GOP hopes to cooperate as much as possible but provided no further details.

The e-mails were sent through a communications system created in conjunction with the RNC early in the Bush administration. Rove and others were given special laptop computers and other communications devices to use instead of the government communications system when dealing with political matters.

The parallel system was designed to avoid running afoul of the Hatch Act, which prohibits using government resources for partisan purposes, White House officials have said.

But evidence has emerged that system users sometimes failed to maintain such separation and used the private system when communicating about government business.

For example, before the U.S. attorneys were fired, a Rove deputy used an account maintained by the Republican National Committee in discussions with Justice Department officials about replacing some of the regional prosecutors. One e-mail requested a meeting between top officials at the Justice Department and a member of President Bush's campaign team to discuss one U.S. attorney who was among those to be fired.

The Justice Department turned over those e-mails at the request of several congressional committees.

Waxman said some of the documents suggest White House personnel may have used the political email accounts "to avoid creating a record of the communications."

Loss of the e-mail files would create a potential legal problem for the Bush White House: compliance with the Presidential Records Act, which was passed in 1978 in response to the Watergate scandal that enveloped Richard M. Nixon's presidency. The law was designed to ensure that presidential papers were preserved for historical and investigative purposes.

Rove's operation appears to have gone much further. Today, 22 staffers have e-mail accounts issued by the Republican National Committee, Stanzel said, noting that it is a tiny percentage of the 1,000 political appointees in the executive office.

Since 2001, about 50 staffers e-mailed using the system, he said. One former White House staffer told National Journal recently that Rove uses his RNC e-mail account for 95% of his e-mail communications.

One former White House official, Assistant Press Secretary Adam Levine, told The Times that he was issued a private laptop computer but he found the dual system so cumbersome that he decided to use only his official White House computer.

However, Levine recalled seeing White House staff members moving fluidly between their official computers and the laptops provided by the RNC.

Stanzel said that the law has gray areas defining what sort of activity is permitted using government resources, and that some employees may have opted for the RNC system to avoid any suggestion of a Hatch Act breach or because the private equipment was easier to use.

But, he added, "I can say that historically the White House didn't give enough guidance to staff on how to avoid violating the Hatch Act while following the Records Act. We didn't do a good enough job."

Some former employees recall receiving briefings on the Hatch Act. At the time of the 2004 Republican convention, newspaper accounts described emphatic warnings to White House staffers not to use government-issued cellphones for politically related calls.

Now, Stanzel said, the White House has begun a formal review that will include new training material for staff members on maintaining records with special attention to those with RNC accounts.

In addition, the White House will begin the forensic process of trying to reconstruct any lost records. That will probably be hampered by an RNC policy of automatically erasing most e-mail after 30 days. Since 2004, White House records have been exempt, Stanzel said, though individuals might have been able to kill out e-mail messages.

The White House will also explore whether the hard drives of laptop computers might have preserved a record of e-mailed communications.

How about getting these laptops (and all other communications' gadgets that the RNC provided to these government employees) impounded? Before there's a reprise of the early days in the Department of Justice's Plame-leak investigation, when (then White House counsel and now) Attorney General Alberto Gonzales waited twelve hours before ordering the White House staff to preserve documents and electronic files. That's an open invitation to shred, delete, and "talk among yourselves and get your stories straight," i.e., obstruct justice.

Why aren't Democrats in Congress pressing for the appointment of a special master to take possession of these laptops? If not for their own investigations, then for the Abramoff case.