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.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

FDA seems willing to gamble on introducing gene-altered animals

News that U.S. food safety regulators were preparing to authorize the introduction of genetically altered salmon into the nation's food supply is another obvious failure on the part of the deteriorating Obama administration. Rather than order the Food and Drug Administration to be sensible and undertake an exhaustive examination of risks posed by the new science of altering animals genetically, the Obama administration apparently plans to sit this one out, too. FDA officials have scheduled a hearing Monday on the application by AquAdvantage Salmon to produce salmon injected with growth hormones that mature twice as fast as salmon without the hormones, according to Cable News Network (CNN). The altered salmon would grow faster and mature earlier than wild or farmed salmon. "The food from AquAdvantage Salmon that is the subject of this application is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from the consumption of food from this animal," FDA officials concluded, CNN said. But let's think for a minute. Even if what the FDA says is true, is a "reasonable certainty" justification enough to gamble the future of the ecosystem that supports life? That's crazy thinking, right? The executive director of the nonprofit Food and Water Watch called the decision "rushed" and said the FDA can't even protect the safety of the food supply without adding gene-altered foods to its already overcrowded agenda. "It's impossible to talk about the risks other than saying they haven't been properly assessed, other than process has been rushed and we don't know," Wenonah Hauter told CNN. Hauter also said the FDA based its decision on information provided by AquAdvantage and should be thoroughly checking the data instead of simply accepting it. That doesn't seem to be an unreasonable request, considering what's at risk if anyone makes a mistake.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

U.S. officials say BP oil well in Gulf of Mexico has finally been plugged

Finally, there's some good news from the Gulf of Mexico. After a nearly five-month nightmare of uncertainty, the U.S. Interior Department has confirmed that the BP oil well that spewed millions of gallons of crude oil into coastal waters has been permanently plugged, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). The largest oil spill in U.S. history devastated one of the richest fishing and tourism regions in the United States, and years of even more uncertainty remain over whether Gulf wildlife and the area's fishing industry will ever recover. "We can finally announce that the Macondo 252 well is effectively dead," said former Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the U.S. response to the disaster. The spill began April 20 with an explosion on the BP-leased oil rig Deepwater Horizon that killed 11 workers. BP, the international oil company formerly known as British Petroleum, has agreed to pay the costs of capping the well, cleaning up the environment and compensating the thousands of people and businesses whose livelihood depended on the Gulf. BP put up $20 billion to compensate individuals and companies in the region at the request of U.S. officials, but the final cost of the spill and resulting damage has been estimated at $32 billion. Of course, the economic cost of the disaster is not the only cost to the United States. The spill exposed gaping holes in U.S. regulation of offshore drilling, the effects of which will likely reverberate in the industry for decades. Investigations into the cause of the disaster and the federal government's response are ongoing by members of Congress and at least two U.S. agencies, and lawsuits seeking damages are likely to be in court for years.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Iran releases one of three U.S. hikers allegedly captured across border

Tehran insisted this week's release of U.S. hiker Sarah Shourd, imprisoned for more than a year after she and two friends allegedly crossed the border from Iraq illegally, reflected Iran's respect for women and was not an attempt to elicit favorable treatment from the United States. "We have no expectations," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on state-run television, according to Cable News Network (CNN). But there is reason to doubt. More likely, Iran is trying again to tweak "the Great Satan," like the leader of the country's 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, used to call the United States. That would be typical of Ahmadinejad, who came to power and has stayed in power despite his embarrassingly self-serving and contradictory views. In fact, Ahmadinejad also said, "naturally, morally, the expectation would be that the U.S. government would take a step to release a number of Iranians they took from other countries." Hmmm, that sure sounds like a quid pro quo, doesn't it? Not only that, Ahmadinejad said Shourd had been released after more than a year in prison without trial because Iranians had "a very special respect for women." That would be preposterous if it wasn't so serious. Iran has held Shourd for more than a year out of respect? Ahmadinejad also said he had given U.S. officials a list of Iranians behind held in U.S. prisons, and expected them to be released. That's just what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said about the two other hikers arrested with Shourd in July 2009. "It would be a very significant humanitarian gesture for the Iranians to release them as well," Clinton said in Washington.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Protests threaten Greece's financial stability plans

Greeks took to the streets again yesterday after Prime Minister George Papandreou announced new austerity measures designed to keep Greece from defaulting on its international obligations, which include a new 110 billion euro loan from other European Union countries. The unrest appeared to be led by the country's powerful labor unions, which feel under threat from proposals to end their control of some of Greece's most vital professions. "The battle we are waging is for the survival of Greece," Papandreou said in the northern city of Thessaloniki, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "This is not a battle that the prime minister or his government will win or lose. This battle, we will either all win it together or we will all sink together." Greece's huge civil servant union, ADEDY, called a nationwide strike Monday to protest the latest austerity measures, which include thousands of layoffs at the national rail company, OSE, CNN said. "Unions don't agree with the social and economic politics of the government," said Spyros Papaspyrou, ADEDY's leader, CNN said. Other measures put forth by Papandreou include cuts in corporate income taxes aimed at halting the decline of the Greek economy, which is expected to contract by 4 percent in 2010 and 2 1/2 percent next year. As a condition of the EU loan, Greece is obligated to bring its massive budget deficit, now around 14 percent of its gross national product, down to the European Union limit of 3 percent by 2014, CNN said.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Florida pastor cancels Koran burning after call from Pentagon

News from Florida that a Christian pastor had canceled a planned Koran-burning spectacle on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that had attracted worldwide attention should give everyone pause. Sure, it's great that this obviously outrageously provocative and disrespectful act did not go forward, even if it took a call from the Pentagon to stop it, according to the Reuters international news service. The very justification for the creation of the United States was and is religious tolerance -- and that is how we became a worldwide symbol of freedom and why we became rich and powerful. Why change our basic understandings because there are people who don't like us? And it's not as simple as that Muslims don't like us, since there are millions of Muslims who live in the United States and other countries who don't bear us any ill will or, if they do, are able to put those feelings into proper context. The simple truth is that all religions think they're correct and, by logical extension, think other religions are not. Why would anybody follow sometimes inexplicable traditions and practices if they thought they were wrong? Maybe the problem is that people like Terry Jones, the pastor of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, have grown accustomed to looking only at the surface of things and have forgotten that everything really has meaning. On the surface, yes, a group of Muslim radicals destroyed the World Trade Center in New York. But the real problem is much, much deeper. The al-Qaeda operatives were men -- does that mean all men destroyed the World Trade Center and killed thousands of people? Of course not. They were religious zealots -- does that mean all religious zealots destroyed the buildings? Of course not. Let's not be stupid about this. The United States has proven that human beings can form democratic societies based not on ethnicity or religion or even proximity, but on shared desires and values. We exist as a country because we wanted to, and continue to want to. But let's not sacrifice the very things that made us great out of some misguided and poorly considered lurch toward self-preservation. We're a lot better than that, and have always been.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Oh no -- Castro says Cuba's government control of economy no longer works

Could it be? Has the world's foremost nonconformist thrown in the red towel? That's certainly what it seemed like this week with news that Fidel Castro, the former ruler of Cuba whose 1959 revolution toppled a U.S.-backed dictator and whose Communist government proved a thorn in the side of every U.S. president since Eisenhower, said his country's economic model would have to be changed. Castro, who ceded power to his brother, Raul Castro, in 2006 because of failing health, made the statements to a reporter from The Atlantic magazine, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore," Castro said in the interview, CNN said. The 84-year-old Castro's remarks might be an endorsement of changes undertaken by his brother, who has expanded private enterprise for farmers and barbers in Cuba and has warned his citizenry that they should work harder and expect less from the government. Cuba's centrally controlled economy pays workers around $20 a day but guarantees free health care and education, and nearly free housing and transportation.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

U.S. taxpayers could lose money on General Motors stock offering

Reports from New York that insiders say U.S. taxpayers stand to lose money on the bailout of General Motors should come as no surprise to anyone. In agreeing to refinance the largest U.S. automaker back in 2009, albeit accepting a majority of the common stock of the bankrupt company, the federal government was obviously taking a huge risk and entering uncharted economic waters. But preparations for the expected return of General Motors shares to public trading later this year reveals a long list of unanswered questions that really should have been anticipated long before now. U.S. taxpayers still have more than $40 billion invested in the automaker, according to the Reuters international news service. Should shares in the revamped GM be sold at a discount to early investors in ordinary Wall Street practice, even though taxpayer money is at risk? Should shares in GM be pulled from trading if they fall to below the break-even point for taxpayers? If not, and shares fall, how much money should the government be willing to lose on the stock before halting trading? GM was able to eliminate $40 billion in debt and other obligations in bankruptcy, including its most unprofitable car lines, Reuters said, but still owes $26 billion to its employee pension fund. The new company needs to have a capitalization of at least $70 billion after its first public offering for taxpayers to recoup all of their investment, the news service said.