Friday, November 5, 2010

Dead and dying coral reefs in Gulf of Mexico blamed on April oil spill

News that large swaths of dying coral reefs have been found southwest of the wrecked oil rig responsible for the largest offshore spill in U.S. history should come as no surprise to anyone. Logic dictates that the effects of the colossal April 20 blowout and spill will be far-reaching and catastrophic, the protests of oil and fishing interests in the Gulf of Mexico notwithstanding. Scientists studying the spill's aftermath said the damage to the reefs was almost certainly due to exposure to toxic chemicals like oil, according to the New York Times. “I think that we have a smoking gun,” said Charles Fisher, a marine biologist from Pennsylvania State University heading a U.S. government-sponsored scientific mission to the Gulf. “The circumstantial evidence is very strong that it’s linked to the spill.” The damaged coral was found Tuesday by the government expedition, which launched a submersible robot to view the coral and obtain samples. Scientists expect to return to the Gulf floor in December using a Navy submersible that can carry three people to depths of 15,000 feet, the newspaper said. An estimated 5 million barrels of crude flowed into the Gulf for months after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, killing 11 workers.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Obama blames economy for election losses but misses the point

U.S. President Barack Obama's statement yesterday that the majority Democrats had taken a "shellacking" in Tuesday's election because of the tepid economic recovery was shocking. Sure, if in the two years since Barack Obama took office with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the U.S. economy had completely turned around and U.S. industries were crying for more workers, the opposition Republicans probably would not have won 60 seats to control the House of Representatives. Economic success would most likely have enabled the Democrats to retain a portion of the popularity they achieved in 2008, when Obama led his party back into the White House on a wave of public disgust over the performance of the Bush administration. But for all his vaunted political skills, Obama has repeatedly misread the American public since taking office. U.S. voters did not turn the Republicans out of the White House merely because the economy had been disastrously mishandled by his predecessor, they elected the first black president to repudiate the seemingly gleeful lawlessness of the Bush administration. The George W. Bush presidency broke a long list of the country's most-cherished legal principles and traditions -- eviscerating the constitutional separation of powers, overruling the U.S. Bill of Rights, disrespecting the sovereignty of other nations, ignoring the Geneva Conventions. For all the good Obama has been able to accomplish in reforming the way the country regulates itself, he has decidedly failed to address the biggest problem -- the one that has left the United States unsure of how to function. Bush and other officials in his administration, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, must be called to answer for their abuses of power. An investigation doesn't necessarily mean anybody is guilty of anything, although it seems so, it just means the United States is not afraid to examine its conduct and make corrections when warranted. The Congress should set up a commission, with the power to compel witnesses to testify, to figure out what went wrong during the Bush administration and how to prevent it from happening again. That is the only way for the United States to regain its footing as an international leader and for Obama to redeem his presidency.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Blackwater still swirling in aftermath of Iraq invasion

Word from Washington that the Justice Department decided Monday not to charge a Blackwater Worldwide employee with murder for a killing in Baghdad that he admitted appears to spell the end of U.S. efforts to address the some of the excesses that have come, sadly, to characterize the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The decision followed a line of failures in high-profile cases brought against employees of companies that were armed contractors for the U.S. State Department in Iraq, a still-questionable arrangement with dire constitutional implications that still have not been adequately examined. The most notable prosecution that failed, of course, resulted in the acquittal of five former Blackwater guards who opened fire on civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2007, killing 17, according to the New York Times. The Justice Department decision came in a case involving Andrew Moonen of Seattle, who killed a guard protecting Iraq's vice president on Christmas Eve in 2006. The case was complicated by a blanket grant of immunity to State Department contractors, like Blackwater, but not to Defense Department contractors, immunity granted to Andrew Moonen, the Blackwater employee, by a U.S. Embassy official and by Moonen's claim of self-defense. The Justice Department has investigated the case for four years, and already paid damages to Moonen's family. But the murky legal environment that finally prompted Justice to drop the case is no accident. The government of George W. Bush went to war on dubious evidence and corrupted longstanding legal and constitutional principles along the way. The only real surprises here are that is has taken so long for these cases to be dismissed and the subsequent Obama administration's refusal to investigate misconduct by his predecessor. It will take decades to repair the damage to the legal system of the United States, and may take even longer for the country to regain its moral footing unless such an investigation is undertaken. The issue is not whether anyone will have to prison, although it may come to that. The future of the United States is on the line here -- the sooner the reckoning begins, the better for everyone.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Clinton: U.S. wants to increase help for Mexico's fight against drug cartels

Can the United States really help Mexico succeed in its battle against drug cartels that have expanded their influence farther and farther south from the border between the two countries? From the safety of Northern California, hundreds of miles from Tijuana, it used to look as if the Mexican government was forced to fight corruption it its own police forces before it could engage the drug traffickers that had turned even peaceful cities into dangerous places. But years of unabated violence have made the lines of power a lot easier to understand. That's why U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the other day that the powerful Mexican drug cartels were behaving a lot like political insurgent groups than mere gangs. "This is one of the most difficult fights that any country faces today," Clinton told San Francisco's nonpartisan Commonwealth Club in a speech Friday, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "We are watching drug traffickers undermine and corrupt governments in Central America, and we are watching the brutality and barbarity of their assaults on governors and mayors, the press, as well as each other, in Mexico." Clinton said the United States could help Mexico rebuild its criminal justice system and retrain its police forces to fight the cartels, which she said were acting like terrorists. "For the first time, they are using car bombings," she said. "You see them being much more organized in a kind of paramilitary way." Clinton's comments were no doubt a reference to U.S. efforts to find the body of David Hartley, a U.S. resident believed to have been shot by drug traffickers on Mexico's border with Texas, CNN said.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

French ban on Islamic face coverings ruled constitutional

So, is it merely nervy or something worse that France has made it a crime for women to wear Islamic face coverings in public? The county's top legal authority, the French Constitutional Council, decided Thursday that the so-called burqa ban, approved overwhelmingly by the legislature earlier this year, was legal under the country's constitution. Councilmembers ruled that the ban, which makes the wearing of the burqa full-body covering or the nigab face-covering punishable by a fine, was constitutional because it did not prevent the free practice of religion in a place of worship, according to Cable News Network (CNN). How could this happen in a place as modern and aware as France, which had the wisdom to oppose the United States' occupation of Iraq from the outset? Easily, it turns out. More than 80 percent of the country supported the ban in a poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project earlier this year, CNN said. Residents of Germany, England and Spain also backed the ban by large majorities but those countries have not imposed one, CNN said. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. residents oppose such a ban. The French government, which backed the ban, called the wearing of Islamic head coverings by women "a new form of enslavement that the republic cannot accept on its soil." France barred the wearing of all overt religious symbols, including Islamic headscarves, in the nation's public schools in 2004. CNN said 3.5 million Muslims -- 6 percent of the population -- live in France.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Passage of NASA funding bill highlights doubts about space program

Congressional approval of a $19 billion reauthorization bill for NASA on Wednesday would be a lot better news if the space agency were not proceeding with planned layoffs on Friday nor with President Barack Obama's plans to focus future efforts on commercial endeavors. Much of the $19 billion will be used for a last shuttle mission in June, to extend the life of the space station five more years and to build a new launch vehicle, according to Cable News Network (CNN)on. That's okay on the surface, but not beyond that. Overtly focusing the program toward commercial development is troubling, because that is a corruption of the space agency's purpose and what has repeatedly gotten NASA into trouble before. "We want to thank Congress for NASA's future," Lori Garver, NASA's deputy administrator, said on Thursday. "It puts NASA programs on a more sustainable future." That is disingenuous at best, because it is classic bureaucrat-speak. NASA gets into trouble, and astronauts die, when it thinks of itself as a business geared toward profit and not as an agency using public resources to advance scientific exploration. In the past, NASA generated huge public support because people were willing to use the nation's financial resources in quest of cosmic understanding. The first person on the moon, the first teacher in space -- these developments were embraced by the public in the interest of knowledge, not profits. And when things occasionally went tragically wrong, like when Apollo 13 burned on the launchpad in 1967 or the shuttles Challenger and Colombia were destroyed in 1986 and 2008, the entire nation mourned the loss. But the new NASA, trying to generate income by hiring itself out to major companies instead of advancing science, has managed to generate primarily indifference from the public. The shuttles blew up in flight because inspectors missed things or made bad decisions -- were these errors mere bad luck or at least partially the result of time pressure felt by NASA managers trying to complete no-gravity experiments being funded by U.S. or overseas corporations? We'll never know, because we allow federal bureaucrats nearly total immunity for bad decisions and their agencies try harder to protect their annual budget allocations than serve the public that pays for them. What is needed is a reordering of priorities that puts commercial applications at the bottom, not the top of the list. Commercial applications are fine, but they must be studiously kept behind safety and science -- and anyone, even senior government officials -- should be fired if they ever forget that again.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Obama government retreats to Bush-era state secrets dishonesty

Just how important is it that the United States, with the world's most powerful military and the world's most enduring democracy, engage in conduct overseas that would be patently illegal within its own borders? That question arose again yesterday, as it has repeatedly in the rather disturbingly slow dismantling of widely discredited George W. Bush-era policies, when the Obama administration invoked the state secrets doctrine in an effort to convince a federal judge in Washington to dismiss a lawsuit accusing the military of trying to kill a U.S. citizen in Yemen. According to the New York Times, the New Mexico-born citizen, Anwar Al-Awlaki, is living in Yemen and is associated with al-Qaida, the radical Islamic terrorist group blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. that killed thousands. His father, Nasser al-Awlaki, filed the lawsuit seeking an injunction to block the U.S. government from killing the son, the Times said. U.S. government lawyers completed a legal brief Friday contending the lawsuit should be dismissed because litigating the could result in the disclosure of confidential information -- the so-called state secrets -- and other grounds. The doctrine was invoked successfully numerous times during the last administration to short-circuit claims against the government for allegedly illegal activities in the war on terror. No one seriously questions whether the government has the right to keep secrets when disclosures would put innocent lives at risk. But that does not give the government the right to maintain secrecy when it wants merely to escape consequences for illegal activity. What we saw during the last administration, when the federal government eviscerated long-established constitutional principles to advance a dubious political agenda, should give everyone pause. There has to be a serious accounting. The Obama administration's most serious mistake so far was its refusal to review the previous government and to bring alleged lawbreakers to trial. Everything that happens now, including the Al-Awlaki case, is built upon that miscalculation. This time, the Times said, Obama-appointed Attorney General Eric Holder personally approved invoking the state-secrets defense. “It strains credulity to argue that our laws require the government to disclose to an active, operational terrorist any information about how, when and where we fight terrorism,” said Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman. That's logical, but only in the abstract, and it's a bad mistake to invoke it merely to justify other bad mistakes. If this is going to continue to be a government of laws, those laws are going to have to be enforced -- even if it means some well-known government officials will have to stand trial.