12/31/08

Trials and Tribulations

In November, Jack Goldsmith wrote an opinion column for the Washington Post arguing that either more investigations or criminal sanctions of Bush's interrogation program would further undermine the work of the Central Intelligence Agency:
When the CIA was asked to engage in aggressive tactics early in the Bush administration, it knew from bitter experience that the political winds would change and that it might be subject to "retroactive discipline." And so it sought approval from the president and his Cabinet, informed congressional leadership many times about what it was doing and got what it thought were airtight legal opinions from the Justice Department.

But these safeguards failed, and the CIA is once again mired in investigation and controversy. The lesson learned by many at the agency is that politically sensitive counterterrorism actions should be avoided, even if they are deemed legal and even if they have the express approval of political officials. We are going to be living with this skittishness for a long time, to the detriment of our security.

It remains to be seen whether exercising legal caution will be to the detriment of national security. I'm inclined to believe it won't. But either way, legal "skittishness" at the CIA may be one outcome of investigations, but one can hardly say that the investigations themselves are to blame.

Instead, fault lies with the Bush administration's ill-advised policies, policies that were barely propped up by shoddy legal work that was itself a result of routine circumvention of proper procedure. If Dick Cheney, David Addington and the rest of the self-appointed "war council" hadn't actively bypassed anyone who might have objected--that is, almost everyone else--torture never would have seen the light of day. If the CIA would like someone to blame, they can blame this cabal plus John Yoo, the ideological dough-boy at OLC whose legal opinions had to remain secret--even from other lawyers in the administration--because they were unable to withstand scrutiny.

Of course, the great irony here is that it was Goldsmith himself who in 2003 and 2004, as Yoo's replacement at the OLC, fought hard to overturn these egregious errors at great personal and professional risk. Goldsmith deserves more respect than he usually gets, but those responsible for war crimes deserve prosecutions.

Goldsmith concludes:
The people in government who made mistakes or who acted in ways that seemed reasonable at the time but now seem inappropriate have been held publicly accountable by severe criticism, suffering enormous reputational and, in some instances, financial losses. Little will be achieved by further retribution.
But isn't that just it? These were never reasonable actions. If they were, then Addington and Cheney would have used the appropriate channels to push the new policies. Instead, they crafted them in secret and carefully guarded them from the eyes of all but the hardest-core ideologues. And then, as others outside this smallest of circles found out, objectors were bullied. Even some careers were ruined.

"Severe criticism" isn't enough. We don't seek retribution, but rather the restoration of our national conscience and our international credibility. Prosecutions can provide that.
Thank you, James Fallows.
Please, Gov. Janet Napolitano -- please, please, please, for the love of God -- change the name of the department you have been nominated to head. "Department of Homeland Security" is not a term a real American would use. "Homeland" is something that Germans of the 1930s would say. Or Soviet Russians of the 1950s. Not Yanks. "Domestic Security" is dull but not Orwellian. Try that, or something similar.

12/29/08

In Quotes

In a smart column, Jonathan Chait skewers the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal for its liberal use of quotation marks, reminding us that sloppy punctuation is an outward sign of sloppy thinking.
The scare quote is the perfect device for making an insinuation without proving it, or even necessarily making clear what you're insinuating. A mundane fact--say, Paul Gigot taking a colleague to dinner--translated into Journal editorial-ese would be rendered, "Wall Street Journal editorial page 'editor' Paul Gigot recently patronized a 'legitimate business establishment' with his 'associate.'"
Read the rest here.

12/20/08

Remembering That We Are Tiny

There are a plethora of events to reflect upon as 2008 comes to a close: the historical election of the U.S.'s first multiracial president, the economic meltdown, the war in Iraq, tensions with Iran, and terrorist attacks in Mumbai, among many others. In the coming months and years we will continue to struggle with questions of gay rights, diversity in government, overseas tensions, access to shipping routes in the Northwest Passage, and environmental policy to name a few. Thoughtful analysis and intense debate through mediums such as blogs will play a vital role in shaping our national and global future.

But today I want to take a moment to reflect on an aspect of life that we in the U.S. rarely seem to notice. I am currently living in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories in Canada. These days the sun is barely rising above the horizon. For about five hours we are bathed in twilight before being plunged back into darkness. Six months from now that same elusive sun will never slide below the horizon. I have become accustomed to -40° C weather and consider anything above -20° C to be balmy. The coldest days are the brightest, with no clouds to trap what little heat we do get from the sunlight. The sky is huge in the arctic, and we are beholden to it.

As I've slowly adjusted to life north of the 60° (latitude) line, I've begun to learn more about our sky. Being close to the pole and far from the equator has given me a visceral sense of the shape of the planet. The long nights have visually exposed me to the machinations of the universe. I feel very small. And somehow, in a time of such strife for the human race, our insignificance is comforting to me. I wanted to share a few of my discoveries with the hope that, even though I can only send tiny pictures and explanations, other people can share in this sense of awe for what is possible in the universe.

Aurora

The Aurora is also known as the Northern Lights and under the right conditions can be seen as far south as the northern part of the United States. In November 2001 the aurora actually stretched all the way down to Mexico. However, the ideal location for aurora viewing is a donut shaped oval around the magnetic pole (both north and south), which includes Alaska and a wide swath of middle to northern Canada on the North American continent.

"The aurora is understood to be caused by the interaction of high energy particles (usually electrons) with neutral atoms in the earth's upper atmosphere. These high energy particles can ‘excite’ (by collisions) valence electrons that are bound to the neutral atom. The ‘excited’electron can then ‘de-excite’ and return back to its initial, lower energy state, but in the process it releases a photon (a light particle). The combined effect of many photons being released from many atoms results in the aurora display that you see."
(http://www.spaceweather.com/glossary/kp.html)






Left photograph taken by Yuichi Takasaka in Yellowknife, Canada on September 3, 2008. Right photograph by Thomas Hagen in Tromsø, Norway on October 20, 2008.


Nacreous Clouds

Until I moved to the arctic I had never heard of these. The clouds form in the stratosphere, 9 to 16 miles above earth. Their color is created when sunlight hits tiny ice crystals inside the clouds. Temperatures around -85° C are needed for the clouds to form. Although nacreous clouds are usually rare, earlier this year they formed above Scandinavian countries for a solid week. Today was the second time in the past week that they've been spotted in the Scandinavian region.
(www.spaceweather.com)














Left photograph by Ivar Marthinusen. Taken on December 17, 2008 in Trondheim, Norway. Right photograph by Sauli Koski in Kittila, Finland on December 19, 2008.




Perigee Moon

This final one is a bit closer to most Americans' homes. The last full moon of 2008 was 14% wider and 30% brighter than other full moons this year. The moon's path around the earth is elliptical. The perigee is the point along the ellipsis that is closest to earth, some 50,000 km nearer than its far point, the apogee. If you missed the December full moon, don't worry. The next perigee moon will rise on January 10, 2009 and will be the biggest full moon of the year.
(Science@NASA.com)




Photographs by Greek amateur astronomer Anthony Ayiomamitis in 2004.

12/19/08

Not Only Is It Immoral, It's Ineffective

In Tortured Reasoning, David Rose clearly details why neither torture nor coercion can play any part in intelligence gathering (Hat tip: Mike Johnson).

At the F.B.I., says a seasoned counterterrorist agent, following false leads generated through torture has caused waste and exhaustion. "At least 30 percent of the F.B.I.’s time, maybe 50 percent, in counterterrorism has been spent chasing leads that were bullshit."
The world that Rose describes, where coercion elicits false confessions that lead to arrests and more coercion and more false confessions, is truly terrifying. It's hard to believe it happened here.

We must hold the people who did this accountable. There must be investigations.


On Taking A Stand

Regarding yesterday's post, Mark Bowden offered some, I think, gracious criticism in the form of a comment, which I will reprint here:
Two quick points I would like to make about your thoughtful commentary, Madison:
1) The essay of mine you quote was published in 2003, before we learned of the excesses of the Bush administration. So when I endorsed the administration's public posture, it was one that condemned all forms of torture, with a tacit acknowledgement that coercive methods may be employed interrogating some of the premier intelligence targets, like KSM. The essay did predict that if the administration attempted to authorize coercive methods in any way, which, as we later learned, it secretly had, widespread abuses were inevitable.

2) The use of coercion in those rare instance where critical intelligence might be obtained has nothing to do with nationalism. It has to do with preventing mass murder, whether in New York, London, Bali or Mumbai.

Mark Bowden
12/18/08
On the first point, I can second Ross Douthat and say that I have taken these quotes out of context and that readers would do well to read the whole essay.

Even so, I still disagree with the idea that an official "no" but a private "yes" to coercion is necessary, effective or even desirable. But I will address this in greater detail below.

On the second point, I must issue a mea culpa. Towards the end of my post, I juxtapose a quote from Bowden’s article and a quote from George Orwell’s essay, "Notes on Nationalism." Transitioning from the quote by Bowden to the quote by Orwell is, structurally speaking, the weakest part of my argument. Bowden is a thoughtful writer, and not a Nationalist in the sense that Orwell uses the term. I may not agree with Bowden, but he does not, as a rule, place America beyond good and evil or argue that coercive techniques are wrong except when we use them.

I disagree, however, with the notion that Nationalism--Nationalism as Orwell defines it--has no part in the grave overreaches of the Bush administration or the unshakable support of their defenders. Reading Orwell's words, I cannot help but think of people like William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld:
A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. ...his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. ...having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.
But, to be fair, Bowden's argument isn't really about Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz or The Weekly Standard; it's about the necessity of coercion in a few, exceptional cases in order to prevent terrorist attacks.

Bowden has made a well researched and well reasoned case for the use of coercion in situations where so-called "life-saving intelligence" can be gained. His arguments are more intricately detailed and of greater complexity than most of the simplified opinions currently being written that rely on ticking-bomb hypotheticals. To read "The Dark Art of Interrogation" is to wade as deeply into those morally muddy waters as you can without actually having to make policy decisions or conduct interrogations. I would advise anyone who wants to take a public stand on these issues to read it thoroughly and think hard on its arguments.

Having done that, I maintain my central points:

1) There is no essential difference between acts that we all recognize to be torture and coercive acts used in combinations that are physically and mentally debilitating. If one opposes torture, then I think one must also oppose coercion.

2) Coercive techniques are useful if the goal is to elicit confessions, but not if the goal is to gain intelligence. I think that even the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) demonstrates this. As the Army Field Manual puts it:
Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.
In 2007, Bowden wrote another article on interrogation for The Atlantic: "The Ploy." In it, he details a successful interrogation that did not rely on physical coercion or psychological punishment. In fact, even the 2003 article is largely devoted to interrogation techniques that I think few of us would shy away from, such as the nonsense questioning of "Alice in Wonderland" or any of the techniques regularly employed by the New York Police Department. I am no expert, but it seems that "verbal trickery" and "psychological ploys"--methods allowed by the Army Field Manual--are more powerful and less odious than pain and deprivation.

***

I believe, as I imagine most thinking people do, that intelligence is among the most important aspects of the "war on terror." But the single most important aspect has to be the conflict of ideals. These include, but are not limited to, conflicting visions of the rules of engagement and of basic, human rights. Debilitating combinations of coercive techniques--even if only used in rare circumstances--cannot be a part of the strategy on the intelligence front, or else we lose on the ideological front.

I recognize that to some, this will sound reckless and irresponsible--a sacrifice of American, Indian, Pakistani and other civilian lives for the sheer sake of principle. But I maintain that coercion is not only inhumane, but ineffective, both tactically and strategically. In a fight over ideals, we cannot afford to lose our ideals.

Now, I know it would be naive to say that coercion is totally un-American, that it has never happened before and that this dark chapter is nothing more than an aberration. But is it naive to say that we want it to stop? We have a chance to end this--not just in the military, but in the broader intelligence community as well--once and for all.

So what does this mean in real terms? Should the CIA be subject to the rules of the Geneva Conventions? Perhaps that would be an overreaction. After all, part of the problem in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay is that for a long time we didn't have anyone with adequate interrogation experience, hence the reliance on SERE techniques. But should the CIA be prohibited from destroying human beings in our custody? The answer, for me, is an unequivocal yes.

Update: In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer makes a convincing argument that the CIA should be subject to the Geneva Conventions. I've yet to see an adequate refutation of her claims.

12/18/08

It's Time To Take a Stand

Having a blog necessarily means writing out loud; it means having a public record of your thoughts, your deeds, your positions. If your goal is not to drive up traffic, but to be a source of reasoned opinion and a site for distributing information, it can be easier to just sit out the tough choices and wait for the consensus to roll in. Better to just play it cool than to make difficult, line-in-the-sand decisions. But that is not a luxury that one can always afford.

Correctly or incorrectly, John F. Kennedy attributed to Dante the now famous phrase: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality."

This is such a time.

***

Apologists and outright defenders of the tortuous interrogation tactics and unconventional detention policies implemented by the Bush administration have been stepping forward. Their arguments are not new. The evidence that supports their claims is either classified or nonexistent. They rarely call it by its name -- torture -- using euphemisms such as "coercive interrogation" or even "the skills of our Jordanian friends" instead. They maintain that we are at war, that we are at risk and that "extraordinary rendition" in combination with "enhanced" or "aggressive" interrogation practices keep us safe. They say that anyone else would have done the same. They say that it has happened before. They are saying that torture is right.

***

There are two important counter-arguments to the idea that torture is necessary. They are well-worn, but worth repeating. 1) Torture does not make us safer: the information we get from torture is unreliable and may actually lessen our ability to protect ourselves from terrorist attacks. In 2007, Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker:
Michael Sheehan, a former counterterrorism official at the State Department, said, “K.S.M. is the poster boy for using tough but legal tactics. He’s the reason these techniques exist. You can save lives with the kind of information he could give up.” Yet Mohammed’s confessions may also have muddled some key investigations. Perhaps under duress, he claimed involvement in thirty-one criminal plots—an improbable number, even for a high-level terrorist. ... Colonel Dwight Sullivan, the top defense lawyer at the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, which is expected eventually to try Mohammed for war crimes, called his serial confessions “a textbook example of why we shouldn’t allow coercive methods.”
2) Torture galvanizes the opposition: the "war on terror" is in large part a war in which symbolism is more important than actual combat and we cannot afford the symbolic loss of becoming a nation that condones torture.

As the Senate Armed Services Committee report on the treatment of detainees notes, "Treating detainees harshly... increases resistance to cooperation, and creates new enemies." The report continues, "Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that... 'the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.'"

The Senate's report deals almost exclusively with the military treatment of detainees--it does not focus on the CIA's methods, its black sites, or its practice of torture-by-proxy known as extraordinary rendition--but it goes without saying that in terms of symbolism, allowing the CIA to torture or to remove captives to countries known to practice torture isn't substantially different than allowing the U.S. military itself to torture. It may salve some consciences to know that these activities are either relegated to the CIA or farmed out to Jordan, but it will not help our image abroad. As long as we condone torture in any form, we place ourselves and our soldiers at risk.

***

In the pro-torture arguments, there is a tendency to move in two directions at once. On the one hand, Cofer Black can make macho proclamations to Congress--"all you need to know is that there is a before 9/11 and there is an after 9/11. After 9/11, the gloves come off"--and to the President--"when we're through with them they will have flies walking across their eyeballs." On the other hand, hairs get split over what is and is not torture. (Torture is illegal, so the definition matters.)

Torture is often contrasted with coercion, otherwise known as torture lite. Torture is severe pain, Mark Bowden wrote in The Atlantic in 2003:
Then there are methods that, some people argue, fall short of torture. Called "torture lite," these include sleep deprivation, exposure to heat or cold, the use of drugs to cause confusion, rough treatment (slapping, shoving, or shaking), forcing a prisoner to stand for days at a time or to sit in uncomfortable positions, and playing on his fears for himself and his family. Although excruciating for the victim, these tactics generally leave no permanent marks and do no lasting physical harm.
While the words are less odious, the effect is the same. Terms like "slapping, shoving or shaking" and "forcing a prisoner to stand... or to sit in uncomfortable positions" don't adequately describe the reality of this treatment. Many people who would condone those practices in theory would not be able to abide what they actually amount to, which in more than one case is murder. Military autopsies have determined that several deaths of detainees in CIA custody were homicides, including Manadel al-Jamadi. Everything that happened to al-Jamadi--stress positions, rough treatment, exposure to extreme temperatures--falls into the category of torture lite.

But even when torture lite doesn't kill, it leaves permanent damage. It ruins those it does not destroy. Perhaps, for some, any one of the above mentioned practices is defensible. But in combination, the effect is devastating. Jane Mayer:
According to Alfred McCoy, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, who has written a history of the C.I.A.’s experiments in coercing subjects, the agency learned that “if subjects are confined without light, odors, sound, or any fixed references of time and place, very deep breakdowns can be provoked.”

Agency scientists found that in just a few hours some subjects suspended in water tanks—or confined in isolated rooms wearing blacked-out goggles and earmuffs—regressed to semi-psychotic states.
The truth is that these "techniques"--and language is important, here: the word technique implies craft, discipline, expertise. These were rationally made decisions, standard operating procedures, not the sadistic impulses of a few rogue officers--these techniques were never designed to elicit information. They were designed to do one thing and one thing only, and that is to break men.
In December 2001, more than a month before the President signed his memorandum, the Department of Defense (DoD) General Counsel’s Office had already solicited information on detainee “exploitation” from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), an agency whose expertise was in training American personnel to withstand interrogation techniques considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions.
JPRA is the DoD agency that oversees military Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training. ... The techniques used in SERE school, based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions, include stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures. It can also include face and body slaps and until recently, for some who attended the Navy’s SERE school, it included waterboarding.

Typically, those who play the part of interrogators in SERE school neither are trained interrogators nor are they qualified to be. These role players are not trained to obtain reliable intelligence information from detainees.
These are not the opinions of a liberal blogger, an angry leftist or an anti-American ideologue. These are the unanimously approved opinions, issued without dissent, of the thirteen Democrats and twelve Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee. You can read the rest of it here (pdf).

***

But there is a much more important issue at stake than just the efficacy of our methods. There is an underlying question--a core philosophical issue--at the heart of the torture debate.

What kind of a nation are we? What kind of a country do we want to be?

After an in-depth analysis and defense of coercive methods, Mark Bowden concludes his 2003 article:
The Bush Administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter. Candor and consistency are not always public virtues. Torture is a crime against humanity, but coercion is an issue that is rightly handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy; it should be banned but also quietly practiced. Those who protest coercive methods will exaggerate their horrors, which is good: it generates a useful climate of fear. It is wise of the President to reiterate U.S. support for international agreements banning torture, and it is wise for American interrogators to employ whatever coercive methods work. It is also smart not to discuss the matter with anyone.
In his "Notes on Nationalism," George Orwell states that the most important characteristic of nationalism is "the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests."

If we are to be this sort of a nation, if we are to be Nationalist in this sense, then Mark Bowden and
Reuel Marc Gerecht are right: it is our duty to use whatever means necessary to subjugate those who stand in our way as we maintain American security.

But America has never been Nationalist in this sense. True, their have always been Nationalists working within the American government, but they have, until recently, been prevented from becoming too powerful and punished when their overreaches came to light. The CIA was brought under Congressional control. Nixon was forced to resign. In the Bush administration, however, their was no check on Nationalism, no punishment for placing America beyond good and evil.


***

I was one of those upset with Congress when they refused to impeach President Bush in 2007, but I was no longer upset by the 2008 Presidential election. By then, I believed that Nancy Pelosi and others had made the right decision. Impeachment would have been too divisive, too costly in terms of political capital, and would have jeopardized the upcoming Presidential election. Because of their restraint, this November we were able to elect a person closer to my politics than any that I have ever been able to vote for.

I was also one of the people moved and uplifted by Obama's Presidential campaign. I applauded his move away from the polarizing rhetoric of recent campaigns, his insistence on post-partisanism and his quest, however rhetorical, to end to the binary classification of America into Red States and Blue States.

I am not, however, one of the people opposed to trying members of the Bush administration for war crimes. While a full-scale witch hunt would deepen the chasm that Bush and Rove have created and therefore must be avoided at all costs, holding high-level officials accountable for their actions need not be an act of political revenge or partisan politics. It can be a way to restore our credibility in the world, a way to say to ourselves and to those who look to us for guidance and leadership that we will not abide these actions. We will not stand for these atrocities. Trials would be a way to affirm that we do not place ourselves beyond good and evil, that we do not place America's interests ahead of basic, universal human rights.

A trial is not the same as a conviction. The decision to indict Rumsfeld--who, according to the Senate report, is clearly, demonstrably accountable for the abuse at Guantanamo--is not the same as simply condemning him. Arguments will be made. Evidence will be offered. The judicial branch will succeed where the executive branch has failed.

This is not about Republicans and Democrats. This is not about Neoconservatives and Realists. This is not even about Bush and Obama. It is about what kind of country we want to be. And if, as some have argued, we have faltered in the past and this is not as isolated an incident as some would lead us to believe, then it is about what kind of country we would like to become. We have a chance to right the wrongs of the Bush years, to ban coercive interrogation practices and hold accountable the officials who advocated for these techniques. Let us not lose that opportunity.

12/15/08

Patrick O'Hare



Sam’s Club, Waterbury, Connecticut (from the book Slipstream)

James Benning has said that an artist is someone who pays attention and reports well. Patrick O'Hare is just such an artist. His photos report on the environments that we too often move through without pausing to look at. They reveal the landscape in the city and that the city extends out into the land, casting a cold eye on life and the world. They allow us to observe from a distance, but even so, are not impersonal. They are humble, even reverential, managing to be impressive without being overbearing.

O'Hare's photographs are on view at P.S. 1 in New York City until January 26th, 2009.

Click here to see more photos from Slipstream and other series.

12/14/08

What's In a Name?

In the most recent edition of The Nation, Christopher Hayes pens an essay on the vices and virtues of ideologues and pragmatists alike (Hat-tip: Ta-Nehisi Coates).

...privileging pragmatism over ideology, while perhaps understandable in the wake of the Bush years, misses the point. For one thing, as Glenn Greenwald has astutely pointed out on his blog, while ideology can lead decision-makers to ignore facts, it is also what sets the limiting conditions for any pragmatic calculation of interests. ...

Indeed, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, "pragmatists" of all stripes--Alan Dershowitz, Richard Posner--lined up to offer tips and strategies on how best to implement a practical and effective torture regime; but ideologues said no torture, no exceptions. Same goes for the Iraq War, which many "pragmatic" lawmakers--Hillary Clinton, Arlen Specter--voted for and which ideologues across the political spectrum, from Ron Paul to Bernie Sanders, opposed. ... Particularly at times of crisis, when a polity succumbs to collective madness or delusion, it is only the obstinate ideologues who refuse to go along. Expediency may be a virtue in virtuous times, but it's a vice in vicious ones.

Read the full article here. (It gets better as it goes along, saving the best for last.)

12/13/08

It Keeps Going and Going

Anyone pining for the daily drama of the reality TV series Presidential Election: 2008 has to look no further than its spin-off Minnesota U.S. Senate Race: The Recount for on-going action. The hand recount tallies are in, but the state is far from being able to declare a winner. Unofficially, Norm Coleman leads Al Franken by 192 votes. However, the two campaigns have contested another 6,655 ballots. And in addition to these contested ballots it is estimated that around 1,500 absentee ballots that were not counted on election night were rejected due to administrative error, raising the question of whether they should be included in the recount.

There is enough legal maneuvering and confusion in this recount for me to write a whole blog post, but suffice it to say, after a protracted and nasty senate race, everyone wishes that this election would come to an end. Regardless of who wins, neither candidate received a majority of the votes. (The Independent candidate Dean Barkley garnered 15% of the votes.) This is a common story in recent times. Jesse Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota with 37% of the vote in 1998. In 2000 and 2004 the presidential elections were decided with less than a majority of the popular vote.

The Minnesota senate race exemplifies the ways in which our traditional electoral system is failing us. Rather than running on platforms that build consensus, candidates seek to polarize the constituency, with the hope that their portion of the voting public will be a sliver larger than their oppositions'. Third party candidates are viewed as 'spoilers' who steal votes from the two legitimate parties. And whoever does win is only supported by a minority, yet they purportedly represent everyone. Our system is in need of an overhaul.

Strangely, one viable solution can be found at the heart of the current election storm. The city of Minneapolis has instituted Instant Run-off Voting (IRV) for municipal elections, beginning next year. In this system voters choose their first choice candidate, as well as voting for their second and third choices. If none of the candidates wins a majority after tabulation of the first choice votes, the candidate with the least votes is taken out of the race. Anyone who voted for this candidate then has their second choice counted instead. If no candidate wins a majority, the process is repeated for the third choice selection. For an extended description or audio explanation of the system, click here.

Currently Ireland and Australia utilize this election system with great success. San Francisco (CA) and Pierce County (WA) also use IRV. Besides the benefit of electing officials that a majority of constituents want, the system obsolesces concerns about third party candidates as 'spoilers' and indeed encourages more diversity in the race. In addition IRV saves money and time. The almost $3 million expected to be spent on the Minnesota senate recount would not have been necessary had IRV been in place, because a clear winner would have emerged during the machine count.

Opponents of this system argue that IRV is too confusing. They hold up rejected ballots as evidence that Americans are already overwhelmed by the simple form of voting that's in place. However, an exit poll in San Francisco found that 87% of people report understanding the system, and less than 1% of ballots are rejected due to voter error, only slightly higher than single choice ballots.

Adopting the stance that innovation should not be applied to our electoral system because constituents would be required to learn is a sad statement on the dereliction our country has already suffered. If it is true that Americans lack the skills necessary to master IRV then the answer is to invest more in education. We profess to teach children how to read, write, analyze, follow directions, and collaborate. With these skills in hand, and access to informational videos through television or web sites like YouTube, everyone will be able to participate.

However, we don't need to rely on each constituent's ability to master the three choice ballot. Instead we can employ technology to streamline the voting process. Anyone who has banked online or used an ATM is familiar with the following scenario. You select the amount of money that you would like to transfer, deposit, or withdraw. You hit enter. The computer puts up a new screen that displays what you have selected to do and asks you if this is correct. You can push enter to continue or cancel to start again. At most ATMs you can select from a number of the most commonly spoken languages in the region.

We could follow this format to select our three IRV choices. As long as someone could read in their native language, this mode of voting would provide an error free transaction. Any investment in technology is expensive upfront, but the long-term profit in terms of more accurate elections and fewer recounts with fewer court battles, will outweigh the initial costs.

Sadly, Minneapolis' adoption of IRV is now being challenged as unconstitutional. The state's constitution stipulates that each person is only allowed one vote. Opponents claim that by selecting more than one choice, people are getting more than one vote. Proponents point out that a person's vote only counts once, because their first choice vote is thrown out if their second choice is tallied. A Hennepin County district court judge heard arguments on Thursday and will ultimately rule on whether IRV is constitutional.

That and many other plot twists are coming up on Minnesota U.S. Senate Race: The Recount in the weeks ahead, so stay tuned.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

In this month's issue of the Atlantic, P. J. O'Rourke pens an invective against Disneyland's new-and-improved Tomorrowland for its patented lack of imagineering (the theme is Retro, i.e. classic future). The problem, writes O'Rourke, is not Disney's alone: "Disney’s Tomorrowland is deeply, thoroughly, almost furiously unimaginative. This isn’t the fault of the 'Disney culture'; it is the fault of our culture. We seem to have entered a deeply unimaginative era." While I am sure that he did not mean to personally insult me, O'Rourke did make the curious choice to end Future Schlock by attacking all that I hold dear:

Global imagination, like global climate, seems to have cycles—natural, man-made, or whatever. Sometimes what people imagine for the future is bogged down in the literal—call it “blogged” for short. ...

And here we are in 2008. Name an avant-garde painter. Nope, dead. Nope, dead. Yep, Julian Schnabel is what I came up with too. But it’s been a quarter of a century since he was pasting busted plates on canvas. He’s making movies now. And movies are famously not any good anymore. Name a great living composer. Say “Andrew Lloyd Webber” and I’ll force you to sit through Cats and Starlight Express back-to-back. Theater is revivals and revivals of revivals and stuff like musicals made out of old Kellogg’s Rice Krispies commercials, with Nathan Lane as “Snap.” More modern poetry is written than read. Modern architecture leaks and the builders left their plumb bobs at home. The most prominent contemporary art form is one that is completely unimaginative (or is supposed to be): the memoir.

Well, that sounds like a challenge to me. Given O'Rourke's preference for the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance revealed in the paragraphs that immediately precede the ones reprinted here, he might not think my answers are worth the pixels they're printed on, but I thought that A Shout In The Street readers deserved at least a few links on the subject.

Name an avant-garde painter.

Trick question. The furthest afield in the avant-garde aren't painting any more. In fact, they may be making films, which O'Rourke derides in his next sentence:

...movies are famously not any good anymore.

Really? Too big a topic to grapple here, but suffice it to say I disagree. From the yearly Godard film to Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth, some of the best movies ever made are being made right now. At the very least, we are lucky to be alive in the time of Brad Bird.

Name a great living composer.

Christian Wolff. The youngest member of the so-called New York School, he started taking composition lessons from John Cage when he was sixteen. Cage quickly realized he didn't have much to teach him and soon Wolff was having his music performed by the likes of Cage, Feldman, Brown and Tudor. His inventive notation for the piece For 1, 2 or 3 people, his masterpiece Burdocks and his invention of the prose score have inspried at least two generations of experimental composers and have led some people, like me, to consider his music some of the most important written in the twentieth century. He is still living and working, writing for ever larger ensembles.

Theater is revivals and revivals of revivals and stuff like musicals made out of old Kellogg’s Rice Krispies commercials, with Nathan Lane as “Snap.”

We're outside my comfort zone, here--I can safely say I know more about nuclear physics than musical theater. Even so, I felt Richard Foreman's opera What to Wear was pretty damn good. In fact, it blew my mind. I experienced a heightened state of consciousness that I cannot describe but that moved me to tears simply because I knew it could not last. It was not everyone's cup of tea--I heard him tell his cast that the house would be full but that they would probably be performing for just five people--but it was better than cereal box songs to be sure.

More modern poetry is written than read.

Maybe, but we can correct that ourselves. You can start here.

Modern architecture leaks and the builders left their plumb bobs at home.

Okay, so the 20th century's enthusiasm for new materials hasn't produced buildings that will last for millenia. But having weathered the great, glass slab epidemic of the 70's and 80's, contemporary architecture has taken a very interesting turn. The most recent buildings to go up in Los Angeles, such as Thomas Mayne'e CalTrans Building and Pfeiffer Partners Incorporated's Colburn School, are both beautiful and unlike any other buildings I know of. Note that in an article otherwise concerned with a lack of imagination, O'Rourke doesn't tackle the inventiveness of the buildings themselves, just their construction. His version of art-and-culture criticism is a curious oscillation between "this isn't avant enough" and "they don't make 'em like they used to," with cantakerousness seeming to be the unifying factor.

The most prominent contemporary art form is one that is completely unimaginative (or is supposed to be): the memoir.

I recommend Joel Agee's treatise on the subject, A lie that tells the truth: Memoir and the art of memory, published in the November, 2007 issue of Harper's.

But isn't it a bit of a stretch to say that memoirs are "the most prominent contemporary art form?" Would it be more of a stretch to nominate blogs? The Atlantic didn't think so. They are, after all, a creative, even imaginative use of the technology that O'Rourke chides us for only using "to sell one another 8-track tapes on eBay and tell complete strangers on Facebook the location of all our tattoos."

When I read O'Rourke pine for the future of his youth, I'm reminded of one of the best lectures I ever heard Thom Andersen give. It was a lecture on a curious film adaptation of Don Quixote, Honor of the Knights, that depicts Quixote not as a deluded bumbler, but as someone striving to teach dignity and respect for life and the world to Sancho Panza. Andersen began the lecture by mentioning an exhibit called Birth of the Cool, whose thesis, he decided, was that 1957 was the best year ever. After an expansive, ranging lecture that belied its precision, he circled back to this idea. For some, the golden age was ancient Greece, for others it was the Renaissance and for others still, it was California in 1957. But the golden age is not in the past, he said; it is within us.

Put another way: if the future isn't bright enough, take off your blinders.

Photo of the CalTrans Building by DisneyKrayzie.

12/11/08

Now It's In Black and White

From an article in today's New York Times:
A report released Thursday by leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee said top Bush administration officials, including Donald H. Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, bore major responsibility for the abuses committed by American troops in interrogations at Abu Ghraib in Iraq; Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; and other military detention centers.

The report was issued jointly by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the panel, and Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican. ...it explicitly rejects the Bush administration’s contention that tough interrogation methods have helped keep the country and its troops safe.
The report also states that "members of President Bush’s cabinet discussed specific interrogation methods in White House meetings" and that "senior Defense Department officials inquired about SERE techniques for prisoner interrogations as early as December 2001." SERE is a military training program that stand for Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape. The report states:
During the resistance phase of SERE training, U.S. military personnel are exposed to physical and psychological pressures (SERE techniques) designed to simulate conditions to which they might be subject if taken prisoner by enemies that did not abide by the Geneva Conventions. As one JPRA instructor explained, SERE training is “based on illegal exploitation (under the rules listed in the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War) of prisoners over the last 50 years.”
The Times article does not mention what repercussions, if any, there will be for Rumsfeld or other Defense officials. It will be interesting to see how the incoming administration handles these revelations.

Update: Andrew Sullivan weighs in on the report.

On 12/17, this post was changed from the version posted on 12/11 in order to make a correction about SERE training.

12/10/08

Gates To Invest Heavily In Metaphors at Pentagon

The Los Angeles Times reports today that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will apparently use the opportunity afforded him by remaining in the top job at the Pentagon to invest in a host of new metaphors.

Describing Gates' preference for cheaper weapons to expensive, high-tech ones, a senior Pentagon official said, "It is going to be more of a Wal-Mart approach than a Gucci approach."
Pentagon officials, meanwhile, are bracing to see how Gates translates his words into action. Many officials believe that, under President Bush, Gates "punted" on key decisions such as the competition to build a new refueling tanker and whether to halt production of the F-22.

"Now he is going to be the recipient of those punts, and he won't be calling a fair catch," said Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary. "He is prepared to deal with them head-on."
"He wants to get acquisition and procurement back on track," Morrell said. "He is not looking to build a new railway, but he is determined to put them back on the rails."
Gates also plans to hitch his wagon train to a rising four star general, but he isn't going to bet the whole pot on being able to shoot the moon. Instead, he's counting his chickens for a rainy day.

12/9/08

The Case Against Hayden... and Greenwald?

In a provocative piece today, Glen Greenwald raises the right flags about General Michael Hayden:
In May, 2006, Barack Obama voted against confirming Gen. Hayden as CIA Director. Obama was one of only 15 Senators to oppose Hayden. In his speech on the Senate floor explaining his vote, Obama emphasized Hayden's role as Bush's NSA Director in implementing and overseeing Bush's illegal warrantless surveillance programs -- programs Obama has repeatedly decried as an assault on the rule of law.
But then he slips into nonsense:
Until five weeks ago, I literally never heard anyone claim -- in either party -- that it was irrelevant who the President appointed to his Cabinet and other high-level positions. I never heard anyone depict people like the Defense Secretary and CIA Director as nothing more than impotent little functionaries...
I haven't been following the debate as closely as Greenwald, so it's a near certainty that he knows some things I don't about how people have been framing Obama's appointments. But since I have changed my position over the past few weeks from one of concern to one of support, I feel a need to reiterate my thoughts in light of these comments.

I, personally, haven't said anything that suggests that Cabinet positions are unimportant and that we should stop worrying about who Obama appoints. The debate that I've been witnessing and participating in hinges on the fact that Cabinet picks are important, crucial even, and that it is therefore important to get them right. Talented, experienced, pragmatic public servants applying their formidable skills under the yoke of strong leadership is, in my opinion, a healthy version of the executive office. Strong-willed, power-mad, ideolgocial bullies wheeling and dealing in secret and abusing the fact that there was a vacuum in the oval office where there should have been a president is the unhealthy version that we just jettisoned in no uncertain terms.

That said, fasten your seat belts, because I am about to get myself in some serious trouble.

We know for a fact from previous experience that not all government agencies operate under the same assumptions or even with the same intentions. Sometimes, the federal government even works against itself with various agencies working at cross purposes: there have even been cases in the past where people who were receiving government funding for their efforts were also being monitored by the FBI--for being subversive. The CIA is not immune to this sort of behavior. It is a powerful, and powerfully self-interested institution. It would be difficult for a president not to have the CIA on their side at any time; during war time, it would be reckless, devastating, even suicidal.

The fact is, Obama is not going to be able to pick someone who is antagonistic to the CIA to be head of the CIA. Otherwise, he will invite open war within the intelligence community and open himself up as a target.

Now, I'm not going to defend Hayden--I agreed with then-Senator Obama's principled stand against him back in 2006--and I sincerely hope that he does not remain head of the CIA. Here you'll find a little more background on Hayden from Think Progress. It's pretty damning, reading more like rap sheet than a resume.

But at some point, someone with operational experience is going to have to head the agency. We shouldn't sit idly by if an agent of the dark side continues to sit atop the CIA, but the idea that we can get anyone with a halo into the top slot seems a little naive. If we hadn't piled on Brennan to begin with, maybe people like Hayden wouldn't have become an option.

Now, tighten your seat belts, because this is where it gets really crazy: maybe Hayden isn't an option at all. Spencer Ackerman claims that the very idea that Hayden might be kept on is just a CIA plant (hat tip: Greenwald, who has already clearly outlined the CIA's close relationship with the media). To me, this underscores the reality that not only is the agency a force to be reckoned with, it doesn't take kindly to criticism either. The president cannot be overtly antagonistic without inviting serious discord or even open revolt.

In fact, floating Hayden may be payback in and of itself: Obama has repeatedly said that the CIA should be subject to the interrogation techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual, a position that Hayden has outright opposed in congressional hearings.

In my opinion, intelligence reform should be the top priority of the new administration, but reform takes experience, patience and pragmatism. It is neither to be undertaken lightly nor with sound and fury. If he wants to change the agency, Obama needs an ally at the top of the CIA--someone who shares his vision of banning harsh interrogation techniques, secret detentions and extraordinary rendition--but who the agency itself will respect. That's why this appointment is far from meaningless; in fact, it matters more than ever.

Not Hard to Imagine

James Fallows on the Eric Shinseki pick. Twice.

12/8/08

Doing the Right Thing

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are often crudely reduced to two somewhat conflicting missions--boots on the ground and the campaign for hearts and minds--but this verbal and conceptual short hand doesn't do us any favors. In framing the debate over effective military strategy and foreign policy, reducing what are legitimately complex moral decisions to mere heartsandminds operations runs the risk of making our intentions sound callous or hollow.

The language we use also shapes our own thinking. The reductivism of heartsandminds vs. bootsontheground creates an artificial binary that makes these missions sound mutually exclusive. (It also inadvertently provides hawks with ammunition for their snipes, such as deriding trust building, humanitarian missions as "soldiers passing out candy.") This binary thinking distracts us from our real goals. If the aim is not American hegemony, but security for us and our allies, then humanitarian missions do not stand in opposition to military strategy; they are an integral part of it.

Building good relations with the people that our military interacts with is in and of itself an effective security strategy. Bad relations put U.S. soldiers as well as local populations at risk and create the kinds of polarized, toxic environments that engender radical anti-Americanism. For proof, look to urban Iraq circa 2006, when not just military convoys, but anyone seen associating with U.S. soldiers or their representatives became a target for both Sunni and Shiite militias. Of course, the convoys were part of the problem: the military left what local allies it had unprotected--and quickly lost them. This further polarized the population and weakened civilian cooperation, evidencing the complex interrelation of security, aid and ideology. (We are witnessing something similar in South East Afghanistan, played out over a much larger geographical area.)

The war on terror is not a conventional war; it cannot be won on the battlefield alone. It is in large part a war of conflicting ideals, pitting repression against individual liberty. If we become the oppressors, we lose. Likewise, if we fail to improve living conditions for the people in countries where we have a military presence, we lose.

Along these lines, the President-elect and his new security team might consider some recent proposals about the long-term conduct of the war.

First and foremost, we must halt the practices of extraordinary rendition and "enhanced interrogation," close Guantanamo and through a combination of executive order and legislation guarantee to ourselves and the world that we will never return to the lawless moral limbo of the Bush years.

We should actively participate in international treaties banning inhumane weapons. Afghanistan itself is now a signatory to the ban on cluster bombs. Unexploded cluster bombs behave like land mines, which have been banned for years. Although the U.S. has not used cluster bombs in Afghanistan since 2003, signing the ban now could illustrate the direction that the American military will take under Obama. And it would put pressure on Russia and China, two countries that also did not sign the treaty, to do the same.

We should continue along the path of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, including a halt on the development of new nuclear weapons, whether tactical or strategic.

Finally, we should endeavor to leave the countries that we are attempting to rebuild habitable. Green Warriors, a recent RAND monograph, states that without taking the environmental effects of their actions into account, the military runs the risk of endangering both local populations and U.S. soldiers. "The longer U.S. forces remain in-theater, the more important environmental issues become to mission success and soldier health." The current practice of simply dumping waste, human and otherwise, during drawn out operations can create toxic environments for soldiers during the conflict and unlivable conditions for locals long after the war has ended. "Yet," the monograph notes, "environmental considerations are not well incorporated into Army planning or operations in any phase of an operation."

The monograph continues:
Although “doing the right thing” does not apply to the direct effects on mission and health discussed above, many in the Army believe in its importance. In our discussions with soldiers, so many of them talked about the importance of doing the right thing that we felt it was important to mention. Soldiers have come to expect the United States to treat the environment with respect. We have identified many examples of Army units doing things to protect or restore the environment, not because they had to, but because they believed it was the right thing to do. We also found a few cases where failure to protect the environment has hurt soldier morale.
In short, the failure to do the right thing loses wars. Now we have an opportunity to clean up our image, our policy and the messes we have made abroad. Humane practices and legitimate nation-building aren't just passing out candy; they are part of a sound strategy for winning.

N.B. I have a personal policy of not posting links to articles that I have not read in their entirety. The RAND monograph, weighing in at 254 pages, is an exception to that rule.

12/7/08

Be Careful What You Wish For

Liberal bloggers have leverage. That is at least one lesson of John Brennan's withdrawal from the foreign policy arena. On the one hand, we should be proud that people with little more than an internet connection and an opinion, working tirelessly and of their own accord, can have a profound effect on American politics and policy. On the other hand, we should be sure that the effects we have are positive.

Let's look at the facts. Brennan had twenty-five years experience in the CIA, including two years experience as deputy executive director, was the first head of the National Counterterrorism Center and was a foreign policy adviser to President-elect Obama throughout the campaign. It is true that, at the very least, some of the darker policies of the past seven years cast their shadow upon him: although he has publicly disavowed waterboarding, he has said that other controversial interrogation methods provided lifesaving intelligence. But, to quote an Associated Press article, "Finding a candidate for CIA chief who has the operational experience and is politically 'clean' will be difficult." That seems like an understatement.

Frankly, although I have been and will continue to be an outspoken critic of what is euphemistically referred to as "enhanced interrogation," I don't have an opinion on Brennan. I just don't know enough. If we take him at his word, he was not involved in the decision making process that allowed for harsh interrogation techniques to be implemented. If that is the case, then it seems that a jury, not of his peers, but of semi-professional and amateur opiners and professional opinioneers turned in their verdict based on guilt by association.

As has been duly noted here and elsewhere, Barack Obama has nominated people decidedly more hawkish than the somewhat dovish platform he ran on. Is this a cause of concern? Perhaps. But while I sincerely hope that the Obama administration will fundamentally alter the course of the war, I do not believe that in order to break with Bush's policies or disavow his worldview we need to entirely de-Bushify the federal government. These decisions should be made on a case by case basis. Otherwise, we liberals will be perpetuating the very crime we accuse the Bush administration of: politicizing non-partisan aspects of the federal government by using litmus tests for appointments.

Although the analogy is fragile at best, people may wish to recall that the current situation in Iraq is largely the product of the ill-advised jettisoning of anyone and everyone who had government experience. De-Baathification was arguably the single greatest contributing factor to Iraqi civil war. De-Bushification could have a similarly adverse effect on the war on terror. To be sure, the conduct of the war up to this point has been unconscionable, but if we expel everyone who has had any experience in the war, we will be forced to start from scratch. Instead, it would be better to appoint experienced personnel and then provide them with leadership.

Are we afraid that Obama will be misled? If I may be optimistic, Obama's expert campaign already proved that he won't easily be played. Is this, then, just a witch hunt? Reverse McCarthyism isn't going to win us any friends, whereas winning magnanimously just might.

For anyone still worried that certain appointments signal that foreign policy won't shift dramatically under Obama, it already has. Obama may just prove that change doesn't have to come in the form of Washington outsiders. It can come from experienced insiders benefiting from the vision of wise leadership.

Update: Glenn Greenwald has an in-depth analysis of what he considers to be a CIA-led media backlash against "the left." It's a solid argument. Although I disagree with some of the specific things he's advocating for, it's well worth a read. (Hat tip: Patrick Appel)

The Case for Chemical Oversight

As per Zane's post from yesterday, here is an excerpt from Toxic inaction: Why poisonous, unregulated chemicals end up in our blood, an article published in Harper's in October, 2007:
Europeans have recently decided to do something about all the untested chemicals that are ending up in their blood. ... a new E.U. chemical regulation called REACH—Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals. REACH amounts to a revolution in how chemicals are managed, and in how production decisions around the world will be made from now on. Regulations set by the most powerful countries have quickly become, through trade, the international standard. And the European Union, with a market of 480 million people stretching across twenty-seven countries, is now significantly larger than the United States in both population and wealth

Indeed, Europe is now compelling other nations’ manufacturers to conform to regulations that are far more protective of people’s health than those in the United States. Europe has emerged not only as the world’s leading economic power but also as one of its moral leaders. Those roles were once filled by the United States.
Read the full article here.

Although the severely negative health effects of untested chemicals should be enough to warrant new oversight, even the libertarians among us should take this bit of information to heart: without at least adhering to European standards of chemical testing and regulation, not only will America become a dumping ground for toxic products, but American products won't be viable in the world market. As the recession deepens, some fear that any new regulation will slow economic recovery, but wise regulation can cure more than one disease at a time. Keeping American products internationally competitive and reducing future health care costs through prevention (i.e. keeping toxins out of our systems) can come in one neat package.

12/6/08

Getting Dumped On

Recent tests in the U.S. have revealed the presence of trace amounts of the industrial chemical melamine, approximately 1 part per million, in infant formula made by three U.S. manufacturers-Abbott Laboratories, Nestle and Mead Johnson. In September some of China's milk supply was discovered to have dangerously high levels of the chemical, 2,500 parts per million, which led to at least six infant deaths and sicken a minimum of 50,000 more babies.

Melamine falsely indicates high protein content during food testing. It had been intentionally added to watered down milk in China in order to hide the fact that the product had been compromised. The trace amounts in the U.S. are too low to have any effect on protein testing. Melamine is used in packing materials and some cleaners. Industry experts claim that this is the source of the chemical found in the formula. However, on Friday the World Health Organization met in Ottawa, Canada to discuss the presence of melamine in food and noted that there was no reason for any melamine to be present in infant formula.

On October 3rd the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stated, "FDA is currently unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns." This statement was widely interpreted as meaning that no level of melamine was safe. However, last month the FDA announced that they were setting a new limit for melamine in foods at 0.63 milligrams. Later it dramatically reduced that amount to 0.063 milligrams.

When questioned about the disparity between the original no tolerance level and the new limits, FDA scientists explained that they had never meant to say that no melamine could be tolerated. Instead they had simply meant that they did not have enough data on October 3rd to set an accurate limit. No credible data has been generated since then about the impact of melamine on infants, but the FDA was mysteriously able to produce a number. The timing closely coincided with the discovery of melamine in U.S. products.

While we analyze and track the work of future Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in keeping our nation safe, we also have to monitor a growing national threat that neither are charged with overseeing-food security. Poisons in the form of pesticides and chemical additives are constantly crossing our border and wreaking havoc on our bodies. And, of course, our own companies are guilty of the same negligence or outright fraudulence.

On November 27th the European Food Safety Authority recommended lower Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) for a number of food products. The MRL pertains to the amount of chemicals, usually pesticides, that can be found on food that will be sold in the European Union. The MRL standards are the same for food grown within the E.U. and global imports.

The lower MRLs are great news for the people of the E.U., and a potential health crisis for the U.S. if it doesn't follow their example by lowering our acceptable pesticide limits. Were our limits to remain at current levels, we would become a dumping ground for toxic food that countries can't sell to the EU. While this may translate into cheaper food in the short term, the costs to our health would become costly in the long-term.

As we contemplate the possibility of a national health care system we need to accurately assess the risk factors that contribute to disease and ultimately lead to a costlier insurance program. This is a good time to invest in long-term savings by embracing the prevention model. Instead of assuming unnecessary debt by allowing the FDA to continue to function as the lapdog to big business, we need to start making some financially prudent choices by investing in the welfare of our citizens. Including infants.

12/5/08

When the Job Market Changes

12/3/08

Prop 8 - The Musical

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die