Monday, September 29, 2014

Inside the Koch Brothers' Toxic Empire

Together, Charles and David Koch control one of the world's largest fortunes, which they are using to buy up our political system. But what they don't want you to know is how they made all that money

The enormity of the Koch fortune is no mystery. Brothers Charles and David are each worth more than $40 billion. The electoral influence of the Koch brothers is similarly well-chronicled. The Kochs are our homegrown oligarchs; they've cornered the market on Republican politics and are nakedly attempting to buy Congress and the White House. Their political network helped finance the Tea Party and powers today's GOP. Koch-affiliated organizations raised some $400 million during the 2012 election, and aim to spend another $290 million to elect Republicans in this year's midterms. So far in this cycle, Koch-backed entities have bought 44,000 political ads to boost Republican efforts to take back the Senate.

What is less clear is where all that money comes from. Koch Industries is headquartered in a squat, smoked-glass building that rises above the prairie on the outskirts of Wichita, Kansas. The building, like the brothers' fiercely private firm, is literally and figuratively a black box. Koch touts only one top-line financial figure: $115 billion in annual revenue, as estimated by Forbes. By that metric, it is larger than IBM, Honda or Hewlett-Packard and is America's second-largest private company after agribusiness colossus Cargill. The company's stock response to inquiries from reporters: "We are privately held and don't disclose this information."

But Koch Industries is not entirely opaque. The company's troubled legal history – including a trail of congressional investigations, Department of Justice consent decrees, civil lawsuits and felony convictions – augmented by internal company documents, leaked State Department cables, Freedom of Information disclosures and company whistle­-blowers, combine to cast an unwelcome spotlight on the toxic empire whose profits finance the modern GOP.

Life After Putin: Russia Needs to Be Rebuilt From Scratch

It is strange to recall in 2014 that back at the beginning of his rule, President Vladimir Putin was hailed as a reformer. His main agenda during his first term in the Kremlin in 2000-04 included a cull of the swelling, ineffective bureaucracy and a municipal reform meant to foster grassroots self-governance — a prerequisite for lasting democracy and a tradition historically weak in his highly centralized country.

Putin never finished most of the reforms he started — including the most vital ones, such as regional and municipal self-governance, justice, health, education, law enforcement and democratic political procedures — having become distracted by the construction of the power vertical.

Reformist drive surged again when he installed Dmitry Medvedev as his placeholder in the Kremlin in 2008-12. While Medvedev's role as Putin's proxy is, in retrospect, obvious, his pledges to improve the business climate, build a high-tech economy and reform health care, education and the remaining social services generated a lot of enthusiasm.

Medvedev's promises were never fulfilled either, and the disappointment at his stepping-down in favor of Putin without having seen through any reforms triggered the street protests of 2011-13, the biggest in two decades.

(More here.)

To Russia With Love

Sylvie Kaufmann, NYT
It’s not only the actor Gérard Depardieu, his new residency in Saransk, Mordovia, where he benefits from a 6 percent income tax rate as a “private entrepreneur” and his antics about how proud he is to have become Russian. Less colorful friends of Russia have been quite vocal in France lately, in a sign of the divisions that the conflict over Ukraine has created among the French elite.
When Sergei Naryshkin, the president of the Duma, the Russian Parliament’s lower house, came to Paris on Sept. 1, he had no problem meeting with French businessmen and legislators, even though he is not supposed to set foot in France: Mr. Naryshkin is one of 119 Russian and Ukrainian individuals targeted by waves of European Union sanctions.
A close ally of President Vladimir Putin, he was in fact the guest of the Council of Europe, an international organization based in Strasbourg. Russia is a member, and the French government had no choice but to let him into the country for two days. He certainly made the most of it: The Council of Europe was pretty low on his agenda. The highlight of his visit was a packed conference hosted by the Russian ambassador in Paris, where C.E.O.s of French companies with big investments in Russia and 10 members of the French National Assembly and senators from various political parties listened to his presentation of the “internal conflict” in Ukraine. Several of them in turn voiced their complaints about the European sanctions.
Ten days later, a group of 14 French legislators was in Moscow, again meeting Mr. Naryshkin and his Duma colleagues. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund who sits on the board of two Russian banks, is another visitor to Moscow and critic of sanctions.

(More here.)

Our Invisible Rich

Paul Krugman, NYT
SEPT. 28, 2014

Half a century ago, a classic essay in The New Yorker titled “Our Invisible Poor” took on the then-prevalent myth that America was an affluent society with only a few “pockets of poverty.” For many, the facts about poverty came as a revelation, and Dwight Macdonald’s article arguably did more than any other piece of advocacy to prepare the ground for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

I don’t think the poor are invisible today, even though you sometimes hear assertions that they aren’t really living in poverty — hey, some of them have Xboxes! Instead, these days it’s the rich who are invisible.

But wait — isn’t half our TV programming devoted to breathless portrayal of the real or imagined lifestyles of the rich and fatuous? Yes, but that’s celebrity culture, and it doesn’t mean that the public has a good sense either of who the rich are or of how much money they make. In fact, most Americans have no idea just how unequal our society has become.

The latest piece of evidence to that effect is a survey asking people in various countries how much they thought top executives of major companies make relative to unskilled workers. In the United States the median respondent believed that chief executives make about 30 times as much as their employees, which was roughly true in the 1960s — but since then the gap has soared, so that today chief executives earn something like 300 times as much as ordinary workers.

(More here.)

For ISIS, Slaughter Is an End in Itself

Here There Is No Why

Roger Cohen, NYT
SEPT. 29, 2014

LONDON — In a famous passage from “Survival in Auschwitz,” Primo Levi relates an incident upon arrival in the Nazi death camp that captures the intersection of the human with the inhuman. He and other Italian prisoners have been held in a shed as they await their fate. Levi looks around in search of some means to quench his thirst:

“I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. ‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German. ‘Hier ist kein warum,’ (there is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.”

Here there is no why. The phrase has been reverberating in me since I watched a henchman of the organization that calls itself Islamic State behead two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and a British aid worker, David Haines. The men had been broken by their imprisonment. They had been hollowed out, a terrible thing to behold. How many times they must have asked themselves the why of their captivity, humiliation and torture right up to the moment when a small knife was applied, with a sawing motion, to their throats. Each of the three men died alone, unlike the Yazidis murdered in droves, the Shiite soldiers massacred, the women and children slaughtered during the advance of black-clad ISIS forces across northern Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has created a cult of violence that makes the elimination of all nonbelievers the cornerstone of a movement whose avowed objective is a restored Islamic caliphate but whose raison d’être is the slaughter itself.

(More here.)

How Belgium Became a Jihadist-Recruiting Hub

Sharia4Belgium, Born in Antwerp, Faces Trial of 46 Members Who Allegedly Went to War

By Matthew Dalton and Margaret Coker
Sept. 28, 2014 10:38 p.m. ET

ANTWERP, Belgium—Nabil Kasmi left for Syria's battlefields in May 2012, the first jihadist an extremist Islamic group named Sharia4Belgium dispatched from this city, Belgian authorities allege.

On Monday, the 23-year-old Mr. Kasmi and 45 other Sharia4Belgium members will go on trial, in Europe's most high-profile legal effort yet to address a dangerous new reality of the bloody war in Syria and Iraq: Europe is increasingly becoming a recruiting ground for jihadists heading there to join terrorist groups like Islamic State.

In the months after Mr. Kasmi left, dozens of Sharia4Belgium members allegedly joined him to fight to create a puritanical Islamic nation, Belgian authorities say, helping turn Belgium into a hub for jihadists going to Syria. Prosecutors will try those members, including 38 who are still believed to be in Syria, before Antwerp's criminal court on charges ranging from terrorism to kidnapping and murder.

The trial is part of a get-tough strategy Belgian officials say is stemming the flow of people leaving for groups like Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It is clear that potential jihadists "don't want to go to jail, which helps us a lot," a senior Antwerp police official says.

(More here.)

Dire Warnings by Big Tobacco on E-Smoking

SEPT. 28, 2014

Tobacco companies, long considered public health enemy No. 1, have suddenly positioned themselves as protectors of consumer well-being in the digital age.

They are putting out among the strongest health warnings in the fledgling e-cigarette industry, going further even than the familiar ones on actual cigarettes, a leading cause of death. It has left the industry’s critics scratching their heads and deeply skeptical.

One warning, from Altria, maker of Marlboros, reads in part: “Nicotine is addictive and habit forming, and is very toxic by inhalation, in contact with the skin, or if swallowed.”

Another, from Reynolds American, maker of Camels, says the product is not intended for persons “who have an unstable heart condition, high blood pressure, or diabetes; or persons who are at risk for heart disease or are taking medicine for depression or asthma.”

(More here.)

Costs Can Go Up Fast When E.R. Is in Network but the Doctors Are Not

SEPT. 28, 2014

When Jennifer Hopper raced to the emergency room after her husband, Craig, took a baseball in the face, she made sure they went to a hospital in their insurance network in Texas. So when they got a $937 bill from the emergency room doctor, she called the insurer, assuming it was in error.

But the bill was correct: UnitedHealthcare, the insurance company, had paid its customary fee of $151.02 and expected the Hoppers to pay the remaining $785.98, because the doctor at Seton Northwest Hospital in Austin did not participate in their network.

“It never occurred to me that the first line of defense, the person you have to see in an in-network emergency room, could be out of the network,” said Ms. Hopper, who has spent months fighting the bill. “In-network means we just get the building? I thought the doctor came with the E.R.”

Patients have no choice about which physician they see when they go to an emergency room, even if they have the presence of mind to visit a hospital that is in their insurance network. In the piles of forms that patients sign in those chaotic first moments is often an acknowledgment that they understand some providers may be out of network.

(More here.)

Spy Agencies Urge Caution on Phone Deal

SEPT. 28, 2014

WASHINGTON — An obscure federal contract for a company charged with routing millions of phone calls and text messages in the United States has prompted an unusual lobbying battle in which intelligence officials are arguing that the nation’s surveillance secrets could be at risk.

The contractor that wins the bid would essentially act as the air traffic controller for the nation’s phone system, which is run by private companies but is essentially overseen by the government.

And with a European-based company now favored for the job, some current and former intelligence officials — who normally stay out of the business of awarding federal contracts — say they are concerned that the government’s ability to trace reams of phone data used in terrorism and law enforcement investigations could be hindered.

A small Virginia company, Neustar, has held the job since the late 1990s, but a private phone-industry panel has recommended to the Federal Communications Commission that an American division of Ericsson, the Swedish-based technology company, get the work instead. No final decision has been made.

In its bid to hold on to the $446 million job, Neustar has hired Michael Chertoff, a well-connected former secretary of homeland security, to examine the implications of the proposed switch.

(More here.)

Iraq Army Woos Deserters Back to War on ISIS

SEPT. 28, 2014

QUSH TAPA, Iraq — The Iraqi military command has begun a campaign to re-enlist soldiers and officers who abandoned their units, a crucial step in its effort to rebuild an army that has been routed in battle after battle by Islamic State jihadists.

Even as the government has continued to equip volunteers, the de facto amnesty for deserters is an acknowledgment that the army desperately needs experienced soldiers — even ones who ran — for a force that is sustaining heavy losses despite the American-led airstrike campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Army officials at re-enlistment centers in Baghdad and in the northern Kurdistan region say they have seen some success in the effort. More than 6,000 soldiers and officers, including those who were sent home by their commanders as well as those who fled unilaterally, had registered at a military outpost here in Kurdistan, and more than 5,000 had signed up in Baghdad, officials said.

(More here.)

The GOP's scorched earth politics

By Tom Maertens
Published in the Mankato Free Press, Sept. 28, 2014

An August Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll demonstrates the extent of Americans’ lost optimism.

When asked if “life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us,” 76 percent said no, and only 21 percent agreed. That was the worst the poll ever recorded; in 2001, 49 percent were confident and 43 percent not.

The pessimism extended across the political spectrum, regardless of wealth, gender, race, region, age and ideology.

Some of the pessimism is likely due to the 2008 economic meltdown and slow recovery that followed.

Others attribute it to political obstructionism in Washington, an unwillingness to address even simple problems. Dana Milbank, writing in the Washington Post, attributed the gridlock to two decades of scorched-earth politics.

The trend toward extreme partisanship began under Richard Nixon who presided over a break-in of the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate, and a series of other crimes, all in the service of winning reelection in 1972. Among them was the political sabotage of the “plumbers,” which included burglary, distributing forged documents, and bugging, all directed at Democrats. The Nixon administration then attempted to use the FBI, the CIA and the IRS to cover up their crimes, as the Washington Post documented at length.

Wikipedia lists sixty-nine government officials who were charged with crimes and forty-eight who were found guilty, including two attorneys general, Mitchell and Kleindienst, and Nixon was forced to resign.

This was a record of corruption and criminality later exceeded only by the Reagan administration, the most corrupt in US history: Wikipedia lists 138 Reagan administration officials who were indicted for various offenses.

It was also Nixon who empowered the “dirty tricks” of Lee Atwater, who taught a seminar on such tricks to young Republicans, including Karl Rove. It was Atwater, as George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager, who created the infamous, and racist, Willy Horton ad that helped Bush defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988. Although Bush denied it, it was later shown that he had authorized the ad.

And no, both parties do not do it.

While Nixon was associated with the criminal activity collectively known as Watergate, it was Newt Gingrich who instituted many of today’s scorched earth policies.

After taking over as Speaker of the House in 1994, Gingrich took several steps to enforce a highly partisan discipline on Republican House members.

One was for him to appoint all committee chairmen rather than following the previous practice of allowing committees to vote in their chairmen. Not surprisingly, he appointed people who supported his partisan style of governing.

A second was to stop his caucus from fraternizing with “the enemy” at the usual cocktail parties and weekend BBQs with their Democratic colleagues. To break up the collegiality, he directed Republicans to get out of town on weekends, preferably to return to their districts.

A third effort was a coordinated campaign of partisan name-calling, drawing from his suggested list of derogatory terms to be used in referring to Democrats. For example, he urged House Republicans to use words like “sick,” pathetic,” “traitor,” “corrupt,” “illegitimate” or “criminal” when referring to the Clinton administration, according to “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” a memo Gingrich sent to fellow House Republicans in 1994, described in Sidney Blumenthal’s “The Clinton Wars.” He once called Bill Clinton “the enemy of normal Americans.”

Lyons and Conason ("The Hunting of the President") reported on the Gingrich-led series of formal House investigations of Bill Clinton, part of a long-term campaign by the right wing labeled “The Arkansas Project.”

David Brock ("Blinded by the Right") has detailed the 16 House investigations, including allegations that the Clintons “misused” the White House Christmas Card list – for which the House took 130 hours of sworn testimony – and that Clinton illegally fired White House travel office employees. I know from personal experience that the White House professional staff spent countless hours responding to a continuing stream of House subpoenas.

The “corrupt and criminal” charges later boomeranged on Gingrich. He was the first speaker to be brought before the full House of Representatives on ethics charges; he faced 84 ethics violations, according to the Washington Post, including tax cheating and converting campaign funds to personal use. He was reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee and fined $300,000. Gingrich acknowledged making “inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements.” His top henchman was House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who set a record by being reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee four times. He was later convicted for fund-raising abuses, which was overturned by a stacked Republican appeals court.

Gingrich didn’t quit his hysterical partisanship just because he was thrown out as speaker. In 2011, he wrote in his book “To Save America,” that the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress represent “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.”

Such extreme rhetoric is characteristic of today’s Tea-party led Republican Party, which is not the party of Lincoln, but the scorched earth party of Newt Gingrich.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

For Obama, a swift leap from no strategy to a full battle plan for Islamic State

By Karen DeYoung September 27 at 8:28 PM, WashPost

After keeping his promise to avoid American involvement in extended wars for nearly six years, President Obama on Monday began a military engagement that he acknowledged is likely to far outlive his time in office.

The launch of airstrikes in Syria and expanded U.S. action in Iraq, at the head of a dozens-strong coalition of nations, is by far the biggest commitment of U.S. might Obama has made, far beyond 2011’s limited air action in Libya or the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

Yet his decision seemed all but inevitable as Islamic State militants publicly executed U.S. hostages and it became clear that extremist advances in Iraq — whose survival is key to a host of U.S. objectives in the Middle East — could not be reversed without direct intervention in Syria. Once decided, the plan commenced with head-spinning speed.

(More here.)

Secret Service fumbled response after gunman hit White House residence in 2011

By Carol D. Leonnig September 27 at 11:11 PM, WashPost

The gunman parked his black Honda directly south of the White House, in the dark of a November night, in a closed lane of Constitution Avenue. He pointed his semiautomatic rifle out of the passenger window, aimed directly at the home of the president of the United States, and pulled the trigger.

A bullet smashed a window on the second floor, just steps from the first family’s formal living room. Another lodged in a window frame, and more pinged off the roof, sending bits of wood and concrete to the ground. At least seven bullets struck the upstairs residence of the White House, flying some 700 yards across the South Lawn.

President Obama and his wife were out of town on that evening of Nov. 11, 2011, but their younger daughter, Sasha, and Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, were inside, while older daughter Malia was expected back any moment from an outing with friends.

(More here.)

It Pays to Be Putin’s Friend

SEPT. 27, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Weeks after President Vladimir V. Putin annexed Crimea in March, an obscure regulatory board in Moscow known as the Market Council convened inside an office tower not far from the Kremlin to discuss the country’s wholesale electricity market. It is a colossal business, worth 2 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product, and a rich source of fees for the bank that had long held the exclusive right to service it.

With no advance notice or public debate, though, the board voted that day in April to shift that business to Bank Rossiya, a smaller institution that lacked the ability to immediately absorb the work. For Bank Rossiya, it was a tidy coup set to yield an estimated $100 million or more in annual commissions, yet it was hardly the only new business coming in. State corporations, local governments and even the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea were suddenly shifting their accounts to the bank, too.

In a matter of days, Bank Rossiya had received an enormous windfall, nearly all from different branches of the Russian state, which was delivering a pointed message. In late March, the United States had made Bank Rossiya a primary target of sanctions, effectively ostracizing it from the global financial system. Now the Kremlin was pushing back, steering lucrative accounts its way to reduce the pain.

(More here.)

Turkey Inching Toward Alliance With U.S. in Syria Conflict

Turkish Kurds watched Kurdish forces battle with Islamic State militants across the border in Syria on Saturday. Turkey fears the fight against the Islamic State may embolden Kurdish separatists. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

SEPT. 27, 2014

KARACA, Turkey — No American ally is closer to the threat of the Islamic State than Turkey, and no country could play a more important role in a coalition that President Obama is assembling to combat the extremist Sunni militants. Yet Turkey has been reluctant to enlist, in part because of the desperate conflict playing out on its border with Syria.

On hilltops within sight of frontier outposts like this one, black-clad Islamic State fighters have been battling for the last week with Kurdish militants defending Kobani, a besieged Kurdish area that has become the prize in a fierce struggle between Syria’s embattled Kurds and the rampaging Islamic State militants. Turkish fighters have watched from behind the border fence.

It is a violent, murky situation, with the Turkish authorities preventing Kurds from crossing into Syria to help their Kurdish brethren fight, while Syrian Kurds are fleeing into Turkey to escape the militants. The chaos on the border, and Turkey’s ambivalent reaction, is a reflection of Turkey’s complex role in the Syrian civil war raging to its south. Turkey is caught between conflicting interests: defeating Islamic militants across its border while not enhancing the power of its own Kurdish separatists.

(More here.)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

U.S. carbon emissions tick higher

Obama tells U.N.: ‘We have to do more’

By Joby Warrick September 26 at 6:49 PM WashPost

The Obama administration appears to be losing ground in its efforts to cut U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, according to new government figures that show pollution levels rising again after several years of gradual decline.

Data released Friday by the Energy Department show American factories and power plants putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during the first six months of 2014 compared with the same period in each of the past two years. The figures confirm a reversal first seen in 2013, when the trend of steadily falling emissions abruptly halted.

The higher emissions are primarily a reflection of a rebounding economy, as American businesses burned more gas and oil to meet higher demand. But the shift also underscores the challenge confronting the Obama administration as it seeks to honor a pledge to sharply cut U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases by the end of the decade.

(More here.)

Facing Militants With Supplies Dwindling, Iraqi Soldiers Took to Phones

SEPT. 26, 2014

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi unit, bunkered in a village in Anbar Province, had held the militants at bay for four days. But running perilously low on ammunition, food and water, the soldiers finally took matters into their own hands.

They started making calls — to commanders, friends, members of Parliament, even a humanitarian aid organization.

“We told them we would be slaughtered if they did not provide us with ammunition,” said Cpl. Hussein Thamir, 24, a soldier in the regiment.

Even so, the chain of command never got supplies to them, and the soldiers said they had finally been forced to abandon their base and run: another rout of the Iraqi military by fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

On Friday, the soldiers’ accounts of their battle this week exposed again some of the glaring weaknesses of the Iraqi Army, which has been struggling to counter the insurgents who have seized large stretches of western and northern Iraq this year.

(More here.)

ISIS Lieutenant Emerges From Australian Red-Light District

Muslim worshipers praying in the Gallipoli Mosque in western Sydney on Friday. The Muslim population in Australia has climbed nearly 70 percent since 2001, to about 500,000. Credit David Gray/Reuters

SEPT. 26, 2014

SYDNEY, Australia — In Kings Cross, this city’s bawdy, alcohol-infused red-light district, Mohammad Ali Baryalei once patrolled the sidewalk outside the Love Machine club, his basso voice luring customers in, his muscle keeping the unwanted out. For a time, the police said, his was a world of prostitutes, drugs, gangs and gambling.

But a few years ago, Mr. Baryalei, the son of Afghan refugees who settled in the suburbs of Australia’s most multicultural city, embraced radical Islam and traveled to Syria, where he resurfaced as a lieutenant of the extremist Islamic State. This month, the authorities here said, he was recorded on a phone call instructing a young Australian to carry out what the police described as a “demonstration killing” of a random person in Sydney.

Analysts and policy makers have debated whether the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has the ambition or the reach to carry out large-scale terrorist attacks in the West. Mr. Baryalei’s phone call, from 9,000 miles and a world away from the Australian continent, suggests one answer. It is one of the few known instances of the Islamic State attempting a terrorist act outside its home base in the Middle East.

(More here.)

It’s Not the Year of the Elephant

Sure, the GOP has the edge, but it isn’t as strong as everyone thinks

September 24, 2014

By this point in the campaign season, the projected outcome of the midterm elections has been hashed and rehashed and even inspired some wonk-on-wonk fights along the way. The conventional wisdom is that 2014 is a Republican year—the GOP will keep the House and may well win the Senate. But surprisingly, as the elections approaches, the latest round of polling suggests that Republicans might not do as well in the popular vote for the House as expected. And that, in turn, means there might not be enough of a GOP tide to give Republicans an edge in the key Senate races they need to win a majority of seats in the upper chamber.

Consider the 2010 midterms, when a wave of Tea Partiers helped Republicans retake the House. That year, the GOP won the popular vote by 7 percentage points. The latest Pew Research Center survey, by contrast, finds only a 3-point GOP advantage in this year’s midterms: 47 percent of likely voters report intending to cast a ballot for a Republican candidate, versus 44 percent for a Democrat. And these results are not outliers, nearly matching six Real Clear Politics surveys taken in early September.

So this time around, will Republicans in the House pick up fewer seats than we expect? The Pew survey identifies two important measures that offer clues: which party is more popular among all voters and which party’s supporters are most likely to turn out on Election Day.

(More here.)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Clashing Goals in Syria Strikes Put U.S. in Fix

SEPT. 25, 2014

BEIRUT, Lebanon — President Obama said the American-led airstrikes in Syria were intended to punish the terror organizations that threatened the United States — but would do nothing to aid President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is at war with the same groups.

But on the third day of strikes, it was increasingly uncertain whether the United States could maintain that delicate balance.

A Syrian diplomat crowed to a pro-government newspaper that “the U.S. military leadership is now fighting in the same trenches with the Syrian generals, in a war on terrorism inside Syria.” And in New York, the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in an interview that he had delivered a private message to Mr. Assad on behalf of Washington, reassuring him that the Syrian government was not the target of American-led airstrikes.

The confident statements by Syrian leaders and their allies showed how difficult it already is for Mr. Obama to go after terrorists operating out of Syria without getting dragged more deeply into that nation’s three-and-a-half-year-old civil war. Indeed, the American strikes have provided some political cover for Mr. Assad, as pro-government Syrians have become increasingly, even publicly, angry at his inability to defeat the militants.

(More here.)

Buoyant Dollar Recovers Its Luster, Underlining Rebound in U.S. Economy

By Landon Thomas Jr., NYT

September 25, 2014

President Obama’s handling of the economy may be reviled by his political opponents, but he is receiving support from a surprising quarter: foreign exchange traders.

The United States dollar, after one of its most prolonged weak spells ever, has now re-emerged as the preferred currency for global investors. Across trading desks in New York, London and elsewhere, analysts are rushing to raise their dollar forecasts based on the resurgence in the American economy.

In part, this bullish mood is tied to signals from the Federal Reserve that it will soon stop its bond-buying program — a change that would lift interest rates and buoy the dollar.

Yet the recent rally in the dollar — it has gained about 3.2 percent against the euro since Aug. 20, and about 8 percent against the yen since July 1 — underscores expectations that the United States economy will continue to grow at a faster clip than that of Europe, Japan and even large emerging markets, all of which are seeing their economies stagnate.

(More here.)

The Show-Off Society

Paul Krugman, NYT
SEPT. 25, 2014

Liberals talk about circumstances; conservatives talk about character.

This intellectual divide is most obvious when the subject is the persistence of poverty in a wealthy nation. Liberals focus on the stagnation of real wages and the disappearance of jobs offering middle-class incomes, as well as the constant insecurity that comes with not having reliable jobs or assets. For conservatives, however, it’s all about not trying hard enough. The House speaker, John Boehner, says that people have gotten the idea that they “really don’t have to work.” Mitt Romney chides lower-income Americans as being unwilling to “take personal responsibility.” Even as he declares that he really does care about the poor, Representative Paul Ryan attributes persistent poverty to lack of “productive habits.”

Let us, however, be fair: some conservatives are willing to censure the rich, too. Running through much recent conservative writing is the theme that America’s elite has also fallen down on the job, that it has lost the seriousness and restraint of an earlier era. Peggy Noonan writes about our “decadent elites,” who make jokes about how they are profiting at the expense of the little people. Charles Murray, whose book “Coming Apart” is mainly about the alleged decay of values among the white working class, also denounces the “unseemliness” of the very rich, with their lavish lifestyles and gigantic houses.

But has there really been an explosion of elite ostentation? And, if there has, does it reflect moral decline, or a change in circumstances?

(More here.)

Obama Can Still Earn His Nobel

Timothy Egan, NYT
SEPT. 25, 2014

You remember 2009 and the glow from Oslo — Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize winner. Wow. Less than a year into his presidency, he joined an elite group: Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama. And for what? As near as anybody could tell, it was the only Nobel ever given for future good intentions.

Now the president with the world’s most prestigious badge of nonviolence is forced to become the warrior again, killing religious extremists as he bombs his seventh Muslim country — one more, as Stephen Colbert noted with a rewards punch card, and he’s earned a free falafel.

But look ahead, with optimism, and you can see a design for long-term peace behind the president’s plan to simultaneously kill fanatics and force a religion to confront the sources of that fanaticism. With his blunt speech at the United Nations on Wednesday, Obama put on notice the Sunni Muslim nations that have allowed Sunni barbarians to spread.

He made it clear that it is a warped religious ideology — “the cancer of violent extremism” — that is behind the slaughtering of innocents, raping of young girls, beheading of aid workers and tourists. Yes, it was a lecture, with finger-pointing. It’s time for the duplicitous Saudis, the look-the-other-way Qataris, “those who accumulate wealth through the global economy and then siphon funds to those who teach children to tear it down,” to stop trying to have it both ways. He called out their “hypocrisy,” without naming names, because everyone knows who they are.

(More here.)

Obama Leads on ISIS: He Is Right to Take The Risk

A President Awakens

Roger Cohen, NYT
SEPT. 25, 2014

President Obama, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, presented a powerful picture of a world at the cusp, torn between forces of integration and disintegration, woven together by the very technology also used to deliver images of medieval beheadings, full of a “pervasive unease” despite material and scientific progress, obliged at the centennial of the outbreak of World War I to look again “into the heart of darkness.”

It was a strong speech from a president stirred from the wavering idioms of a season of uncertainty by the sudden advance out of the carnage of Syria of the organization that calls itself the Islamic State. “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force,” Obama said. He vowed to dismantle “this network of death” through military action and turning social media against the ISIS propagandists that use it to such effect.

On the same day, a French mountain guide, Hervé Gourdel, was beheaded in Algeria by a jihadi group that pledged allegiance this month to ISIS. Whether the president’s words or such potent images of savagery have greater global impact is an open question that points to the difficulties of the mission outlined by Obama and the giddying nature of a post-hierarchical world.

(More here.)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Anti-Vaccination Epidemic

Whooping cough, mumps and measles are making an alarming comeback, thanks to seriously misguided parents

By Paul A. Offit Sept. 24, 2014 6:40 p.m. , WSJ

Almost 8,000 cases of pertussis, better known as whooping cough, have been reported to California's Public Health Department so far this year. More than 250 patients have been hospitalized, nearly all of them infants and young children, and 58 have required intensive care. Why is this preventable respiratory infection making a comeback? In no small part thanks to low vaccination rates, as a story earlier this month in the Hollywood Reporter pointed out.

The conversation about vaccination has changed. In the 1990s, when new vaccines were introduced, the news media were obsessed with the notion that vaccines might be doing more harm than good. The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine might cause autism, we were told. Thimerosal, an ethyl-mercury containing preservative in some vaccines, might cause developmental delays. Too many vaccines given too soon, the stories went, might overwhelm a child's immune system.

Then those stories disappeared. One reason was that study after study showed that these concerns were ill-founded. Another was that the famous 1998 report claiming to show a link between vaccinations and autism was retracted by The Lancet, the medical journal that had published it. The study was not only spectacularly wrong, as more than a dozen studies have shown, but also fraudulent. The author, British surgeon Andrew Wakefield, has since been stripped of his medical license.

But the damage was done. Countless parents became afraid of vaccines. As a consequence, many parents now choose to delay, withhold, separate or space out vaccines. Some don't vaccinate their children at all. A 2006 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that between 1991 and 2004, the percentage of children whose parents had chosen to opt out of vaccines increased by 6% a year, resulting in a more than twofold increase.

(More here.)

What's the Matter With Sam Brownback?

How the Kansas governor's red-state experiment could turn Kansas purple

By Patrick Caldwell, Mother Jones
Thu Sep. 25, 2014 6:15 AM EDT

One Wednesday afternoon in mid-August, Govs. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Chris Christie of New Jersey stopped for a photo op—and $54 worth of pork ribs and sausages—at Oklahoma Joe's, a gas station barbecue joint on the outer fringe of Kansas City. Along with hickory smoke and diesel fumes, there was a mild aroma of desperation in the air. Brownback's approval ratings hovered in the mid-30s, and one recent poll had his Democratic opponent, state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, beating him by 10 points. Now Christie, the chair of the Republican Governors Association, had parachuted in to lend some star power as Brownback made a fundraising swing through the wealthy suburbs outside of Kansas City. A day earlier, the RGA had announced a $600,000 ad buy in support of Brownback. "We believe in Sam," Christie assured the scrum of reporters who'd accompanied the governors to Oklahoma Joe's.

That the RGA had been forced to mobilize reinforcements in Kansas spoke to just how imperiled Brownback had become. After representing Kansas for nearly two decades in Congress, he had won the governorship in 2010 by a 30-point margin. Once in office, Brownback wasted no time implementing a radical agenda that blended his trademark social conservatism with the libertarian-tinged economic agenda favored by one of his most famous constituents, Charles Koch, whose family company is headquartered in Wichita and employs more than 3,500 people in the state. Other GOP governors elected in the tea party wave, such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker, garnered more ink for their brash policy maneuvers, but in many ways Brownback had presided over the most sweeping transformation.

Early in his tenure, he said he wanted to turn Kansas into a "real, live experiment" for right-wing policies. In some cases relying on proposals promoted by the Kansas Policy Institute—a conservative think tank that belongs to the Koch-backed State Policy Network and is chaired by a former top aide to Charles Koch—Brownback led the charge to privatize Medicaid, curb the power of teachers' unions, and cull thousands from the welfare rolls.

(More here.)

A Terror Cell That Avoided the Spotlight

SEPT. 24, 2014

WASHINGTON — Some time last year, a Kuwaiti man in his early 30s who had spent more than a decade hiding from the American government arrived in northwest Syria, where he met up with other members of Al Qaeda who had begun putting down roots in a country torn by two years of death and chaos.

American intelligence officials believe that the Kuwaiti, known sometimes as Muhsin al-Fadhli, had been sent from Pakistan by Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s leader, to take over a cell that could one day use Syria as a base for attacks in Europe and possibly the United States.

Unlike other jihadist groups that have come to prominence in recent years, the cell that Mr. Fadhli came to lead — known within intelligence and law enforcement agencies as the Khorasan Group — avoided the spotlight. It put out no slick Internet magazines and did not boast of its plans on Twitter.

The group’s evolution from obscurity to infamy has been sudden: The first time President Obama publicly mentioned the group was on Tuesday, when he announced he had ordered an airstrike against it to disrupt what American officials said was a terror plot aimed at the West.

(More here.)

Amid a Maze of Alliances, Syrian Kurds Find a Thorny Refuge at the Border

SEPT. 24, 2014

SURUC, Turkey — Turkish tanks dot the hills here, guarding against Islamic State militants advancing just across the Syrian border. Lines of police officers fan out across fields, brandishing shields to stem the flow of Syrian Kurds fleeing the militants.

Tear gas mixes with wind-blown dirt as the police disperse refugees desperate to get into Turkey and Turkish Kurds trying to help them. The police also clash with Kurdish men equally desperate to cross in the opposite direction — Turkish and Syrian citizens bound for Syria to defend the Kurdish enclave of Kobani from an Islamic State assault.

Refugees who make it to Turkey sit on dry, loose earth, unsure where to find shelter as a hot wind whips grit into their faces. Behind a border fence, thousands have waited for days, some with herds of sheep and goats, which they say are in danger of dying of thirst.

The chaos on this one small stretch of the border illustrates the complexity of the conflict into which the United States is now inserting itself far more forcibly than ever before during three years of Syrian civil war.

(More here.)

Study Links Anxiety Drugs to Alzheimer’s Disease

By Paula Span, NYT
September 24, 2014 5:00 am

I swear I don’t go looking for alarming news about benzodiazepines, drugs widely prescribed for insomnia and anxiety. But it shows up with some frequency, so, mindful of your fervidly held views on the subject, I am donning a hazmat suit to bring you the latest findings from the medical journal BMJ.

They’re disturbing.

In previous posts, I reported that long-term use by older people of drugs called sedative-hypnotics, which includes benzos (like Ativan, Xanax, Valium and Klonopin) and the related “z-drugs” (Ambien, Lunesta), has for years caused concern among some researchers.

Some readers took exception, arguing that critics minimize the miseries of chronic sleeplessness, reflexively condemn all drug dependence or condescendingly assume older people can’t make smart decisions. “The Ambien I use is low dose and I am not an idiot,” commented a miffed Margaret Moffitt of Roanoke, Va.

(More here.)

More guns! More guns!! More guns!!!

F.B.I. Confirms a Sharp Rise in Mass Shootings Since 2000

SEPT. 24, 2014

WASHINGTON — A report released by the F.B.I. on Wednesday confirmed what many Americans had feared but law enforcement officials had never documented: Mass shootings have risen drastically in the past half-dozen years.

There were, on average, 16.4 such shootings a year from 2007 to 2013, compared with an average of 6.4 shootings annually from 2000 to 2006. In the past 13 years, 486 people have been killed in such shootings, with 366 of the deaths in the past seven years. In all, the study looked at 160 shootings since 2000. (Shootings tied to domestic violence and gangs were not included.)

Many of the sprees ended before the police arrived, the report said. In 44 of the 64 cases in which the F.B.I. was able to determine the length of the shooting, the gunfire lasted less than five minutes. Twenty-three shootings ended in less than two minutes. In 64 of the 160 total cases, the gunmen committed suicide.

The report was prompted by the spate of mass shootings in recent years, like those at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

(More here.)

Tech Firms and Lobbyists: Now Intertwined, but Not Eager to Reveal It

By Derek Willis and Claire Cain Miller
NYT, SEPT. 24, 2014

Silicon Valley’s relationship with Washington is becoming much cozier, at least as far as political contributions are concerned. Yet it can be hard to tell, because the tech industry is not eager to show it.

The industry has spent $71 million so far this year on lobbying, and last year spent $141 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Yet the information technology industry ranks near the bottom of an annual list that attempts to grade large corporations on how well they voluntarily and publicly disclose their political activities.

At the most secretive end of the spectrum, two tech companies, Netflix and, received a score of zero. At the most transparent end, three tech companies — Microsoft, Qualcomm and Intel — were ranked among the top five. Google, Amazon and Facebook all received below-average scores; Apple’s and Yahoo’s were slightly above average.

(More here.)

Welcome to Florida, where climate change is threatening Ferraris and Lexuses

Florida Goes Down the Drain: The Politics of Climate Change

Gail Collins, NYT
SEPT. 24, 2014

On Miami Beach, rising sea levels have interesting consequences. The ocean periodically starts bubbling up through local drainpipes. By the time it’s over, the concept of “going down to the water” has extended to stepping off the front porch.

It’s becoming a seasonal event, like swallows at Capistrano or the return of the buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio.

“At the spring and fall high tides, we get flooding of coastal areas,” said Leonard Berry, the director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies. “You’ve got saltwater coming up through the drains, into the garages and sidewalks and so on, damaging the Ferraris and the Lexuses.”

Ah, climate change. A vast majority of scientific studies that take a stand on global warming have concluded that it’s caused by human behavior. The results are awful. The penguins are dwindling. The polar bears are running out of ice floes. The cornfields are drying. The southwest is frying.

(More here.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed

SEPT. 24, 2014

BAGHDAD — Caliph Ibrahim, the leader of the Islamic State, appeared to come out of nowhere when he matter-of-factly proclaimed himself the ruler of all Muslims in the middle of an otherwise typical Ramadan sermon. Muslim scholars from the most moderate to the most militant all denounced him as a grandiose pretender, and the world gaped at his growing following and its vicious killings.

His ruthless creed, though, has clear roots in the 18th-century Arabian Peninsula. It was there that the Saud clan formed an alliance with the puritanical scholar Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. And as they conquered the warring tribes of the desert, his austere interpretation of Islam became the foundation of the Saudi state.

Much to Saudi Arabia’s embarrassment, the same thought has now been revived by the caliph, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the foundation of the Islamic State.

“It is a kind of untamed Wahhabism,” said Bernard Haykel, a scholar at Princeton. “Wahhabism is the closest religious cognate.”

(More here.)

The battle against the Islamic State is not ours to fight or win

By Bernard E. Trainor September 24, WashPost

The writer, a retired Marine lieutenant general, is co-author of “The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his band of Islamic State zealots received international attention for their brutality and lightning sweep across Iraq, but the United States should know better than to respond with a clarion call to battle. We have already been burned trying to solve the Rubik’s cube of the Middle East. U.S. actions in the region should remain calculating, patient — and detached.

The Islamic State presents a problem to be managed, not a war to be won. Much of what it occupies in Syria and Iraq is useless desert. The situation is stabilizing, largely because of limited U.S. airstrikes, and the immediate crisis is over. The Iraqi Kurds have stiffened their defenses, and Shiites backed by Iran are defending Baghdad. Even Anbar Province’s Sunni tribes pose a problem for the interlopers.

The Islamic State blitzkrieg can be seen as the latest iteration of the struggle for ascendancy by radical Muslims, but at the core it is a local matter, and brutality is unfortunately part of the package. The U.S. role should be limited to helping Kurdish forces and the new Baghdad government better organize to keep the pressure on, with U.S. airstrikes contingent on their progress. The president’s attempt to form an international posse to assist makes sense, and the results have been reasonably encouraging. France and a fistful of Arab states are already actively engaged.

(More here.)

Secret G.O.P. Records Reveal Corporate Donors Paying for Access to Governors

SEPT. 24, 2014

WASHINGTON — In politics, it is sometimes better to be lucky than good. Republicans and Democrats, and groups sympathetic to both, spend millions on sophisticated technology to gain an advantage.

They do it to exploit vulnerabilities and to make their own information secure. But sometimes a simple coding mistake can lay bare documents and data that were supposed to be concealed from the prying eyes of the public.

Such an error by the Republican Governors Association recently resulted in the disclosure of exactly the kind of information that political committees given tax-exempt status normally keep secret, namely their corporate donors and the size of their checks. That set off something of an online search war between the association and a Washington watchdog group that spilled other documents, Democratic and Republican, into the open.

The documents, many of which the Republican officials have since removed from their website, showed that an A-to-Z of America’s most prominent companies, from Aetna to Walmart, had poured millions of dollars into the campaigns of Republican governors since 2008. One document listed 17 corporate “members” of the governors association’s secretive 501(c)(4), the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, which is allowed to shield its supporters from the public.

(More here.)

The Ancestors of ISIS


CAMBRIDGE, England — IN the last few years, there has been a dramatic rise of a seemingly new type of polity: the Islamic rebel state. Boko Haram in West Africa, the Shabab in East Africa, the Islamic Emirate in the Caucasus and, of course, the Islamic State in the Middle East, known as ISIS, or ISIL — these movements not only call for holy war against the West, but also use their resources to build theocracies.

Though in some respects unprecedented, these groups also have much in common with the Islamic revivalist movements of the 18th century, such as the Wahhabis on the Arabian Peninsula and the great jihadist states of the 19th century. They waged jihad against non-Muslim powers, and at the same time sought to radically transform their own societies.

One of the first groups to engage in anticolonial jihad and state-building was the fighters led by Abd al-Qadir, who challenged the French imperial invasion of North Africa in the 1830s and 1840s. Qadir declared himself “commander of the faithful” — the title of a caliph — and founded an Islamic state in western Algeria, with a capital in Mascara, a regular army and an administration that enforced Shariah law and provided some public services. The state was never stable, nor did it ever encompass a clearly defined territory; it was eventually destroyed by the French.

(More here.)