Month: May 2006

Blogging for a Cleaner Environment

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While we are waiting for Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, to open at The Flicks in Boise on June 30th, there is a clever way to help the environment from the comfort of our own blogs. DeepMarket.com, a stock-market analysis site, will offset one ton of carbon emissions for every blog that links to it. DeepMarket is doing a promotion through Carbonfund.org. When you go to DeepMarket, click through to Carbonfund. At their site, you can purchase offsets that translate to a carbon-neutral lifestyle. It’s pretty cool. There is more information about this at Treehugger.com.

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The Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq

In his commencement address to the graduating cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Bush claimed victory over terror in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Just as an earlier generation of Americans helped change Germany and Japan from conquered adversaries to democratic allies, today a new generation of Americans is helping Iraq and Afghanistan recover from the ruins of tyranny,” he said. “In Afghanistan, the terror camps have been shut down, and Afghans have chosen a new president and a parliament in free elections. In Iraq, last week, Iraqis made history when they inaugurated the leaders of a new government of their choosing. With the formation of this unity government, the world has seen the beginning of something new: a constitutional democracy in the heart of the Middle East.”

Bush spews these talking points in direct contradiction to what news sources are telling us. For example, on the Friday before Bush’s speech, Tom Lassiter, from Knight-Ridder, wrote a devastating article detailing the extent to which Iranian-backed militia have taken control of Southern Iraq.

Southern Iraq, long touted as a peaceful region that’s likely to be among the first areas returned to Iraqi control, is now dominated by Shiite Muslim warlords and militiamen who are laying the groundwork for an Islamic fundamentalist government, say senior British and Iraqi officials in the area.The militias appear to be supported by Iranian intelligence or military units that are shipping weapons to the militias in Iraq and providing training for them in Iran.

American military officials in Baghdad often point to the relatively low number of attacks against British soldiers in southern Iraq as proof that much of the country is stable.Last month, however, at least 200 people were killed in Basra, almost all of them by militia violence, according to an Iraqi Defense Ministry official there.A week with British troops in Maysan and Basra provinces and three additional days of reporting in the city of Basra made it clear that Iraqis here are at the mercy of Shiite militia death squads and Iran-friendly clerics who have imposed an ever-stricter code of de facto Islamic law.The city of Basra has largely come under the control of Shiite clerics, who have banned alcohol sales. A woman without a headscarf is a rare sight. Record shops have been replaced with stores selling Quranic recordings. It’s difficult to purchase chess or backgammon sets; the games are frowned upon by hard-line clerics.

What difference does this make? Again, according to Lassiter:

Iraq’s top Shiites acknowledge that they want to set up a regional government in the south, but they insist that the provinces involved would remain loyal to the central government in Baghdad. But an Iran-friendly Shiite government in the south could have far-reaching effects on Iraq and the Persian Gulf region and on the strategic position of U.S. military forces in the country.U.S. forces are dependent on a fragile re-supply line that runs from Kuwait north to Baghdad through southern Iraq. A regional government allied with Iran could pose a risk to that supply line.Such a government also would further agitate Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities, which could fragment the country, a development that Western analysts fear would destabilize the region.A Shiite regional government might also greatly enhance Iran’s regional influence by giving it a strategic Shiite partner with vast amounts of oil in a Middle East dominated by Sunni-run countries. Neighboring Kuwait’s population is about one-third Shiite, and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province are majority Shiite.

What about Bush’s claim that terror has been shut down in Afghanistan? According to Ahmed Rashid, one of the most insightful experts on the Taliban, this summer sees an unprecedented resurgence of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. In an article for the BBC, he says,

Nearly 400 Afghans have been killed in an unprecedented offensive by the Taleban, in a bid to pre-empt a major deployment by some 6,000 Nato troops this summer in southern Afghanistan.From just a few hundred guerrillas last year, Taleban commander Mullah Dadullah now claims to have 12,000 men under arms and control of 20 districts in the former Taleban heartland in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan. There is also a strong Taleban-al-Qaeda presence in the eastern provinces bordering Pakistan.

He puts the blame directly on the incompetence of the Bush administration.

Washington’s refusal to take state building in Afghanistan seriously after 2001 and instead waging a fruitless war in Iraq, created a major international distraction which the Taleban took advantage of to slowly rebuild their forces.# US-led coalition forces were never deployed in southern Afghanistan in sufficient numbers, even though this was the Taleban heartland and needed to be secured. Apart from a US base for 3,000 troops in Kandahar and a couple of fire bases, for four years there was virtually no military presence in three of the four provinces. US forces failed to secure even the major cities and highways in the south. The growing security vacuum in the south was steadily filled by the Taleban.

Rashid reiterates what many critics of the Bush administration and of the Republican Congress have pointed out, the Taliban resurgence is a direct result of the decision to direct our resources to the war in Iraq.

After being routed in 2001 the Taleban found a safe sanctuary in Balochistan and the North West Frontier province of Pakistan. They have been able to set up a major logistics hub, training camps, carry out fund raising and have been free to recruit fighters from madrassas and refugee camps. The Taleban have received help from Pakistan’s two provincial governments, the MMA, Islamic extremist groups, the drugs mafia and criminal gangs – while the military regime has looked the other way. Al-Qaeda has helped the Taleban reorganise and forge alliances with other Afghan and Central Asian rebel groups.

The main stream media has no interest in accurately reporting what is happening in Iraq or Afghanistan. Their pandering to power allows Bush to make outrageous double speak claims about “victories” and “turning points” and not call him on it.

Conservatives Get Their Kicks

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One of the funnier (more pathetic?) stories to flow through the blogisphere this week is the list of the “top 50” conservative rock songs as compiled by those really hip dudes at National Review.

The Rude Pundit and Pandagon do hilarious analyses of the list. There is one Idaho connection. “Kicks” by Paul Revere & the Raiders comes in at 19 with a bullet. It must be those patriotic uniforms.

The Taliban in Iraq

It is nice to know that we have reached another “turning point” in Iraq. Unfortunately, it appears that Islamic repression ala the Taliban is what is growing rather than democracy. Consider the report from Iraq that three members of the Iraq tennis team, including the coach, were killed for wearing tennis shorts. According to the Associated Press,

An Iraqi tennis coach and two of his players were shot to death this week in Baghdad because they were wearing shorts, authorities said yesterday, reporting the latest in a series of recent attacks attributed to Islamic extremists.

Evidently, wearing shorts is forbidden because they reveal “forbidden parts of the body.” A leaflet distributed by an Islamic extremest group warned Sunnis of what might result if they disobey the principles of Islam:

“Wearing shorts by youth are prohibited because it violates the principles of Islamic religion when showing forbidden parts of the body. Also, women should wear the veil,” the leaflets said.

The Trucker’s War

NPR had an interesting report on the “shadow army” of private contractors in Iraq. They point out that privately contracted truck drivers drive the most dangerous roads in the country and do so without adequate armour and unarmed. The company that hires them, KBR, is a subsidiary of Halliburton. KBR has 700 trucks on the road in Iraq on any given day. According to one driver, who quit and has no plans to return to Iraq:

“Every convoy we’d pull out on would get rocked or shot at or something. There was always some kind of conflict going on on every convoy,” Garsee says. “The good Lord saw fit to bring me home alive the first time. I’m not gonna contest him a second time.”

I was especially interested in the report, because one driver interviewed was from Idaho.

“The armor in the KBR trucks was not adequate to protect us at all,” says Terry Steward, of Weiser, Idaho. He almost died from gunshot wounds last year when his convoy drove into an ambush. Three drivers were killed. Steward believes most of the bloodshed could have been avoided that day if the trucks had been bulletproofed.”The issue of inadequate armor had been brought up by me and other people to KBR,” Steward says. “We needed something done.”

If his story has been reported in the local media, I haven’t seen it.

Data Mining

sandwichIt should surprise no one that Bush’s warrantless phone data collection will result in more than “spying on al Qaeda.” The project’s designers say the National Security Agency’s electronic warehousing of trillions of phone records from calls made by some 200 million Americans is intended to seek out “patterns” from conversations involving alleged terrorists and then to apply the digital outline to the stockpiled records.

The human brain excels at pattern recognition. The mischief lies in the meaning we make of those patterns and the action we take based upon those “meanings.” For example, you might see a pattern that resembles a face in a grilled cheese sandwich, but are you willing to call the face that of the Virgin Mary? Do you take that as a sign from God? To me the face resembles my third grade teacher, Mrs. Merrell. I recall having a crush on Mrs. Merrell, so that might account for it. In other words, the patterns we see and the meanings we make of those patterns are largely dependent on our prior experiences and our expectations. How many “degrees of separation” are you from a known terrorist? Now that the NSA has the data base and the computer programs that allow them to conduct “social-network analysis,” we should all be worried. The process is described in an article from the Washington Post:

“Let’s say lots [of data] comes in and we don’t see anything interesting,” the source said. “Tomorrow we find out someone is communicating with a known terrorist. When you go back and look at the past data, there may be information that you missed. A pattern that was meaningless suddenly makes sense.”

Unlike the human brain that sees patterns in holistic “Gestalt” moments of recognition, social-network analysis makes connections based upon proximity and frequency. Consequently, an innocuous phone call you made to your cousin in Portland, who happened to call a friend in Egypt, who called a friend in Saudi Arabia, who knows someone who has possible terrorist ties, could put you into a social-network that makes you a potential suspect.
Data Mining
I have been thinking about this potential for “mischief making” after playing around with a powerful new “data mining” tool that Google has just made available called “Google Trends.” Of course, Google has a massive data base of internet searches that can be mined in the same way as the NSA phone records. Google trends is an analysis tool that allows you to see how often specific search terms are being entered into the Google search engine. Data can be sorted by time, language and geographic location. For example, if you do a search for NSA, you get a graph of volume over time and a number of articles that you can access by clicking the link. This has the potential to be a very powerful research tool.

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If you have a powerful tool, it is only natural that you will use it. Like the NSA social-network analysis, Google Trends shows you all sorts of interesting “patterns” and the potential for mischievous meaning making is somewhat overwhelming. For example, if you do a search for “pornography” and “top cities,” you get the following results:

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So, sorting the volume of searches for the term “pornography” based upon cities, Salt Lake City ranked third behind two cities in India. I will leave it to you to “make meaning” of that particular pattern.

Big Brother and the MSM

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According to ABC News, the government is tracking phone numbers of ABC reporters in order to identify confidential sources.

A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we (Brian Ross and Richard Esposito) call in an effort to root out confidential sources. “It’s time for you to get some new cell phones, quick,” the source told us in an in-person conversation.

ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls.

So much for the claim that the phone data they are collecting is only targeted at al Qaeda.

Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation.

This should surprise no one who can recall recent history. Nixon had his “enemies list” and Bush has his “evil doers” be they foreign or domestic. Where is Frank Church when we need him?

A Mother for Peace

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Happy Mother’s Day! I wonder how many Americans know that Julia Ward Howe, the mother behind Mother’s Day, was a pacifist? In fact, she envisioned Mother’s Day as a time when women would unite against war. In 1870, she published her “Mother’s Day Proclamation” which said, in part:

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:”We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe our dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

Do you imagine that the boys of the Bush administration will be talking about the true meaning of Mother’s Day when they call mom tomorrow? I am guessing- -not.

Tweedle Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest

Republican candidates for Congress appeared at a forum in Caldwell sponsored by the Idaho-Press Tribune Wednesday. Although each of the five candidates (Skip Brandt, Keith Johnson, Bill Sali, Norm Semanko, Shela Sorensen and Robert Vasquez) tried to separate him/herself from the pack, there was little to distinguish one from the other when it comes to blind ignorance about the issues.

For example, all five spoke with a common voice concerning global warming. Human-caused pollution has nothing to do with it.

“The science is anything but certain on this,” Semanko said.

“The science is mixed,” claimed Johnson. “A single volcano could change things.”

Sali said “The jury’s still out on this.”

Brandt said, “mother nature will just cycle.”

Sorensen said we should be “cognzant of our environment,” but Kyoto was not fair to the United States.

Vasquez said perhaps summer is global warming and winter is global cooling. “I’m worried,” he said, tongue in cheek.

How about heath care? What solutions do the Republican candidates have for a broken system where nearly 46 million Americans lack health insurance, and millions more struggle to pay premiums that are growing five times faster than wages?

Sali said, “The government should get out of the business of health care.”

Johnson said, “Government should emphasize personal choice and responsibility in people’s health.”

Brandt said, “Individuals should be responsible for their own health.”

Vasquez said he had been a longtime user of the heath care system and there are problems. “Yes, we need to review that,” he said.

Did any of the candidates have a solution besides “individual responsibility?” Well, Semanko, who had obviously not read this current research, advocated tort reform. Sorensen, a nurse practitioner, prefers “health savings accounts.”

The only issue where the five seemed to disagree was immigration. But the disagreement was really over whether Vasquez “owns” the issue just because he was among the first to fight “illegal” immigration. When it comes to workable solutions to difficult problems, the Republican party is bankrupt. The Idaho Republican five prove that point with depressing unanimity.

Big Brother and Ma Bell

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There is a long and detailed article in USA Today contradicting the Bush administration’s claim that NSA telecommunication spying was confined to external sources.

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans – most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime.

“It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA’s activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency’s goal is “to create a database of every call ever made” within the nation’s borders, this person added.For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made – across town or across the country – to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others.

The timing of this revelation will make the conformation hearing for Air Force General Michael Hadyen as director of the CIA even more interesting as Hayden headed the NSA from March 1999 to April 2005. In that post, he would have overseen the agency’s domestic call-tracking program.

Last year Bush admitted that he had authorized NSA to eavesdrop on international calls and e-mails without obtaining FISA warrants. He insisted, however, that the program did not include domestic communication.

Sources, however, say that is not the case. With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans. Customers’ names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over as part of NSA’s domestic program, the sources said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.

Big-Brother-Bush According the the USA Today article, NSA’s domestic program began soon after the Sept. 11 attacks. NSA representatives approached the nation’s biggest telecommunications companies, AT&T, BellSouth, Verizon and Qwest, with the urgent message that their help was needed to protect the country from attacks. The agency told the companies that it wanted them to turn over their “call-detail records,” a complete listing of the calling histories of their millions of customers.

In addition, NSA wanted the carriers to provide updates, which would enable the agency to keep tabs on the nation’s calling habits. The sources said the NSA made clear that it was willing to pay for the cooperation. AT&T, Bell South, and Verizon agreed to help the NSA.

Qwest was the only company that refused to cooperate. According to USA Today’s sources, NSA exerted tremendous pressure on Qwest.

Trying to put pressure on Qwest, NSA representatives pointedly told Qwest that it was the lone holdout among the big telecommunications companies. It also tried appealing to Qwest’s patriotic side: In one meeting, an NSA representative suggested that Qwest’s refusal to contribute to the database could compromise national security, one person recalled.

In addition, the agency suggested that Qwest’s foot-dragging might affect its ability to get future classified work with the government. Like other big telecommunications companies, Qwest already had classified contracts and hoped to get more.

Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was proposing, Qwest’s lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA court. According to the sources, the agency refused.The NSA’s explanation did little to satisfy Qwest’s lawyers. “They told (Qwest) they didn’t want to do that because FISA might not agree with them,” one person recalled. For similar reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest’s suggestion of getting a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general’s office. A second person confirmed this version of events.

Is it just a coincidence that AT&T and Verizon are the telecommunication giants pushing against Net Neutrality, while Qwest is not? I don’t think so.

Will these latest revelations finally bring about congressional oversight? According to the Associated Press:

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would call the phone companies to appear before the panel ”to find out exactly what is going on.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the panel, sounded incredulous about the latest report and railed against what he called a lack of congressional oversight. He argued that the media was doing the job of Congress. ”Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with al Qaeda?” Leahy asked. ”These are tens of millions of Americans who are not suspected of anything … Where does it stop?” The Democrat, who at one point held up a copy of the newspaper, added: ”Shame on us for being so far behind and being so willing to rubber stamp anything this administration does. We ought to fold our tents.”

Of course, the Republican controlled Congress has been exactly that, a rubber stamp for the administration. We will see if this latest news changes anything. I doubt it will. The only hope is that the voters will fold a few tents for them this November.