View from the Loft 

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Saturday, June 07, 2003

Just as We Suspected

Well, there you have it, folks: "American and British intelligence analysts with direct access to the evidence are disputing claims that the mysterious trailers found in Iraq were for making deadly germs."

It's not as if that's any surprise. Last weekend I tracked down all the information I could find about the trailers, including alternative explanations for their use, and ran it past my scientist husband. He agreed that the trailers didn't look like they were made for producing vast quantities of toxic biological substances. He also took issue with the constant reference to the trailers' "fermenters," because he said they were simply tanks that could be used for any chemical reaction--including fermentation, yes, but lots of other types of reactions as well.

The CIA issued a white paper on the trailers, and I have to say their evidence looked pretty weak even to this non-scientist. As Marc Pienaar pointed out, the CIA called hydrogen production a cover story for the trailers, but hydrogen production would have matched the trailers' equipment and capabilities exactly, while germ production requires many missing elements, including a couple of other trailers to carry more equipment necessary to producing biological toxins. The production of hydrogen for use in weather balloons was mentioned by Iraqi scientists as the purpose of the trailers.

The CIA made much of the gas-collection device, claiming that it was to capture the "signature" of the biological weapons being produced. This made no sense to my husband, who said that biological "signatures" are everywhere, since biological processes are going on continually in nature, and he didn't see any way that such a "signature" would reveal the existence of bioweapons. The more likely, but probably not the only, explanation is that it was meant to collect hydrogen gas in the hydrogen-generating process.

Even the CIA admitted that the equipment was consistent with hydrogen production, but they argued that hydrogen generators can be purchased, and that this would have been an inefficient way to produce hydrogen. And making toxic germs in trailers is efficient? A canvas-sided trailer would make a good lab for a process that needs a constant source of electricity, refrigeration, sterile water, heat, nutrients, etc., is efficient? How do you keep out all that desert sand?

We are also told in the white paper that the Iraqis had scrubbed down the equipment so as to erase all signs of biological production, yet this same paper refers to "slurry" found in the tank. If they were being so careful, wouldn't the slurry have had to go?

While the CIA stands by its report, the third of three different teams to have inspected the trailers, made up of "more senior analysts" according to the NY Times "divided sharply over the function of the trailers, with several members expressing strong skepticism." Some of the reasons for the skepticism, quoted from the Times:

The skeptical experts said the mobile plants lacked gear for steam sterilization, normally a prerequisite for any kind of biological production, peaceful or otherwise. Its lack of availability between production runs would threaten to let in germ contaminants, resulting in failed weapons.

Second, if this shortcoming were somehow circumvented, each unit would still produce only a relatively small amount of germ-laden liquid, which would have to undergo further processing at some other factory unit to make it concentrated and prepare it for use as a weapon.

Finally, they said, the trailers have no easy way for technicians to remove germ fluids from the processing tank

Some analysts also agree that hydrogen production is a far likelier purpose for the trailers than germ production.

While the dissenters are in the minority, it is well to remember that the analysts so far have all been British or American. And at least one expert has changed his mind. William C. Patrick III, who had worked in Washington's biological warfare program back when that was still legal, had once "tentatively endorsed" the CIA's theory, but the lack of steam sterilization has caused him to reject germ production as the purpose of the trailers.

The CIA has answers to all the objections raised by dissenters, but they seem absurd. "They could have done this," "they could have done that," "all they need is another trailer or two," etc. The fact is there are explanations other than the CIA's, and simpler ones.

Oh, and that "fermenter"? Hubby was right.

One skeptic questioned the practicality of some of the conjectural steps the Iraqis are envisioned as having taken to adapt the trailers to the job of making deadly germs.

"It's not built and designed as a standard fermenter," he said of the central tank. "Certainly, if you modify it enough you could use it. But that's true of any tin can."

Friday, June 06, 2003

Check out these movie poster parodies: "Trailers of Mass Destruction." Ha!

This is disgusting.

A team of seven people is finally going in to investigate the looting at the Tuwaitha complex in Iraq, where looting occurred in the general anarchy that followed the war. The team, from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has the job of determining what is missing, dealing with what is left and making it safe.

A number of Iraqis have fallen ill with what look like symptoms of acute radiation poisoning. Local people dumped out radioactive materials and used the empty barrels for washing clothes and even storing food.

But the United States, which should have secured the complex in the first place, is blocking the IAEA team from investigating reports of sickness, saying that that is the job of the United States. The Pentagon is the agency that limited the number of investigators to seven, and it has given them only two weeks to do their job. In addition, the U.S. is insisting that inspectors be accompanied by U.S. troops, and that the visit "sets no precedent for a future IAEA role in Iraq."

So first the U.S. fails to fulfill its duty by securing the complex, leaving it open to looting by local people and, possibly, by terrorists looking for uranium. Then it limits the scope of the inspectors' investigation and bars the inspectors from seeing the people who have fallen ill. The insistence that it is the U.S.'s duty to care for these people sounds mighty hollow to me, given that the U.S. neither guarded the hospitals nor helped get them up and running again in a timely wa. Sounds suspiciously like the U.S. has something to hide. It's atrocious that the U.S. insists on keeping the UN out of even this, as much as it can.

What to say to all those who ask, "Would you rather have left Saddam in power?"
Thank you, Billmon.

Not having found any weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. is desperately trying to find proof that Saddam Hussein is dead. To that end, a backhoe, two bulldozers, two cranes and 17 dump trucks are being used to excavate the site of a bombing. The army is searching for human remains that will then undergo DNA testing to see if those remains are Saddam's.

Why? And why now? According the NYTimes, "Some Western officials here have said Mr. Hussein's fate is of growing importance. In an interview with The Times of London published today, John Sawers, Prime Minister Tony Blair's special envoy to Iraq, said Mr. Hussein's fate was creating political uncertainty in Iraq. Mr. Sawers said the lack of proof of his death helped feed fears of a Baath Party resurgence."

U.S. intelligence officials also feel that such fears are keeping Iraqi scientists from disclosing information about WMD. Steven Black, who served with the U.N. inspection teams from 1992 to 1999, says, "Some of these guys did really bad things in the past and they don't want to own up to it. Or they're not convinced that Saddam is gone, and they know that when the U.S. goes, whoever talked will get dipped in an acid bath."

So it all comes back, once again, to WMD. I've no doubt that evidence of plans for weapons programs will be found in Iraq, but this would surprise no one. What will not be found are weapons themselves, in the huge quantities we were told were lying around in the desert somewhere.

Democracy turns out to be a mighty uncomfortable thing for the folks who, nonetheless, keep braying about their determination to impose it on the Iraqi people.

First, that interim government idea had to go. Instead of Iraqis selecting their own transitional government, Paul Bremer has decided on hand-picked advisors.

Then the occupiers decided that television broadcasts would have to be viewed in advance. Margaret Tutwiler and Dan Senor, according to "a foreign official in the U.S. occupation authority" are "effectively acting like the station manager and the news director."

The Americans say, "It's not censorship, it's advice." Yeah. And those two mobile labs are WMDs.

Now the media is going to have a "code of conduct" that sounds an awful lot like censorship to me.

"Coalition officials say the code is not intended to censor the media, only to stifle intemperate speech that could incite violence and hinder efforts to build a civil society. The country is just too fragile for a journalistic free-for-all, they say."

Uh-huh. But who decides what's "intemperate"? Who makes the decision on what might incite violence?

One thing for sure. It won't be the Iraqis.

Good thing (for him, anyway) that Dubya isn't planning to make the economy the centerpiece of his campaign.

The unemployment rate was at 6.1% in May, the highest in nine years. Nearly 9 million people were unemployed in May. Of course, we know that that figure doesn't include people who have given up looking for a job or have been at it for a long time.

Worse yet, even if the economy improves later this year, the unemployment rate is expected to go still higher--as high as 6.5%.

Since Bush took office, 2.7 million jobs have been lost. If he keeps up his current economic policies, perhaps he'll succeed in running the U.S. economy right into the ground, the way he did as head of those businesses. Way to go, Shrub.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Urgent Action

I've been trying to make Wednesday Action Day, but this can't wait.

On Thursday the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on a bill that would have a major impact on overtime pay. H.R. 1119 is being peddled as a family-friendly bill, as is apparent from its name, "The Family Time Flexibility Act," but in reality it is aimed at cutting costs for corporations. Even using the term "flexibility" is misleading, because the bill would allow employers to veto workers' decisions about when they could take that comp time.

The Economic Policy Institute says that the proposed legislation "doesn’t create employee rights, it takes them away. It does, however, create a dangerous new employer right—the right to delay paying any wages for overtime work for as long as 13 months." The EPI also says that the bill creates a strong financial incentive for employers to lengthen the work week.

Fax your representative about this issue now!

(A slightly longer version of this entry has been posted on Acts of Conscience.)

See Salon's excellent piece, "What the Bush Tax Cut Could Have Bought." For beginners, how about health insurance for all 41.2 million uninsured Americans ($98 billion)? Or Head Start for for 1.8 million kids who don't have it but need it ($25 billion)?

Why are we giving most of this money to people who already have wayyy more than enough? Why are we concentrating the wealth upward? Does anyone really believe this is the way to have secure and free people?

And yesterday's mail brought a fund-raising letter from Food First, which pointed out that the $75 billion approved for the war (excuse me, I meant battle) could have provided health care for 28 million Americans, reduced some of the state budget deficits ($35 billion in California alone), or have paid the salaries of 1.1 million U.S. teachers laid off in the states' fiscal crisis.

We need to beat some swords into plowshares. And we need to stop punishing the poor while we shower money on the already rich.

What's Wrong with the Tax Cut

Where to begin? How about with

Who's Left Out

First of all, we were told repeatedly that the tax cut would benefit "all Americans." What hogwash!

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 8 million people who file income taxes receive no benefit under the new cuts. Bush and his cronies have implied that only those so poor they do not pay income taxes at all would be left out.

Nearly half of all Americans who pay between $250 and $750 in income tax — 45 percent of such taxpayers — will receive no tax cut under the new law. The 8.1 million taxpayers who will receive no tax cut also include 1.8 million taxpayers who pay more than $1,000 in income tax. Says the Center,

The 8.1 million taxpayers left out of the legislation are 44 times the number of taxpayers who have incomes exceeding $1 million. Taxpayers with incomes over $1 million will receive an average tax cut under the new law of $93,500 in 2003, according to Tax Policy Center data. (Some 184,000 taxpayers have incomes of more than $1 million.) The taxpayers with income exceeding $1 million will receive approximately $17 billion in tax cuts in 2003 alone.

Forty-one per cent of of all head-of-household taxpayers in the nation who pay between $1,000 and $5,000 in income tax will receive no tax cut under the new law.

The NY Times points out that "6.5 million minimum-wage families — with nearly 12 million children — [will] not receive the $400-per-child increase in the child tax credit contained in the new law. The families were left out of the tax law in last-minute Congressional negotiations over how much to cut the tax on stock dividends and capital gains, while keeping the entire bill under the Senate limit of $350 billion." In other words, the poor took it in the neck in order to ensure the wealthy would not have to sacrifice their tax cut. The very families who need the increase in the child tax credit are the very ones left out!

If you figure in households which pay no income tax because they earn too little to file taxes, 50 million households — 36 percent of all households in the nation — will receive no benefit from the tax law.

There are 200,000 taxpayers with incomes of one million dollars a year or more, and they will get 44% of the law's tax benefits in 2005, while 8 million taxpayers will get no benefit. That's 40 times more ordinary families than millionaires, and yet nearly half the tax break goes to the wealthy.
The Bush administration and Republican senators argued that the tax cut would stimulate the economy by putting more cash into the pockets of consumers. Yet the very people who spend money rather than save are the ones who will receive no tax cut.

Bush's Argument: a Lesson in Illogic

Michael Kinsley, writing in Time, points out that Bush's publicly avowed program of putting more money into people's pockets so that they will spend that money and thus create jobs is the same "demand-side" economics that "Republicans have sneered at" for the last 25 years. A corollary of that theory, however, is one that he has chosen to ignore: that money needs to go to low-income people, who are more likely to spend it.

In fact, Bush is simply doing more of the same old supply-side--that is, trickle-down--economics the Republicans have so enthusiastically embraced these past couple of decades, the claim that helping the wealthy will help the poor. The cuts that the less-than-wealthy receive are just a cover: "For a few hundred dollars, the government buys your support for a plan worth millions to those who already have millions."

All this hoo-ha about the "double taxation" of corporate dividends, a taxation he wanted to do away with entirely (instead, such taxation will be capped at 15%), is, as Kinsley writes "disingenuous." Supposedly, taxation is "doubled" because the corporation already pays corporate income tax, so that to tax shareholders' dividends makes it a double tax. In fact, those corporate income taxes have been shrinking and shrinking over time, as companies find loopholes or are granted deductions. And as Kinsley says, "If taxing the same income twice bothers the President so much, why doesn't he start with ordinary working wages, which are subject to both the income tax and payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare?"

Promises, Promises

The Bush camp told us that the tax cut would result in one million news jobs; the Heritage Foundation predicts two million. Considering that nearly 3 million jobs have been lost in the private sector since Bush took office, this is less than awe-inspiring.

Many economists dispute the idea that the cuts will generate jobs. Greg Fields of the Miami Herald explains that while the cuts may bring about growth, they won't necessarily bring about jobs. Growth and jobs are no longer hand-in-hand; the economy can grow while the labor market shrinks. This has been the case for the past two years, and it's resulted in some of the longest job hunts in decades for some people. The average length of unemployment is now 19.6 weeks, the longest since 1983; 21 percent of jobless workers have been unemployed for more than six months.

Bush's first tax cut was supposed to generate more jobs. But we've been losing jobs at the rate of 74,000 a month since 2001.

And the tax cut guarantees an ever more swiftly growing deficit. Coming in on the heels of surpluses in the last four years of the Clinton administration, Bush has managed to get us to a deficit expected to be $300 billion for this year alone. In four years the deficit could be as high as $4 trillion. Bush recently signed legislation raising the federal debt limit by $984 billion, up to $7.4 trillion.

Remember all the Republican angst over deficits once upon a time?

So what's the real reason for the cuts?

Paul Krugman quotes the "normally staid" Financial Times: "The lunatics are now in charge of the asylum." The Financial Times suggests that extreme Republicans have finally found a way to trash social programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. While it may be politically unfeasible to suggest doing away with these programs, a fiscal crisis that forces them out is less politically risky: "We hate to do it, but we have no choice!"

Says Krugman, "Once the new round of cuts takes effect, federal taxes will be lower than their average during the Eisenhower administration." How will the government pay for Medicare and Medicaid, which didn't exist in the 50s, and Social Security, which is getting ever more expensive as the population ages? Well, it can't:

The government can borrow to make up the difference as long as investors remain in denial, unable to believe that the world's only superpower is turning into a banana republic. But at some point bond markets will balk — they won't lend money to a government, even that of the United States, if that government's debt is growing faster than its revenues and there is no plausible story about how the budget will eventually come under control.

At that point, either taxes will go up again, or programs that have become fundamental to the American way of life will be gutted. We can be sure that the right will do whatever it takes to preserve the Bush tax cuts — right now the administration is even skimping on homeland security to save a few dollars here and there. But balancing the books without tax increases will require deep cuts where the money is: that is, in Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.

Do you think for one minute that millionaires will be troubled by the lack of Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security? They'll have the bucks to take care of themselves. But what about the rest of us?

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