Monday, September 7, 2009

Common Man News 9/2009


News for the common man because the elite already know!


Archive

09/13/2009

If You Think Corporations Run The Government

The United States of Plutocracy

Afghanistan and the Wages of Empire

Senate Panel OKs $128 Billion For Afghanistan

Katrina survivors’ struggle for justice

An Immoral Economic System

Watergate And Modern Scandals

Putin warns against Iran attack

Big Food vs. Big Insurance

Americans Are Getting Poorer, and It's Going to Get Worse

The real agenda behind Obama's health care "reform"

Throwing Bullets at Failed Policies: US Plans for New Bases in Colombia

U.S. poverty rate hits 11-year high as recession bites

Foreclosure Crisis Built on Racial Injustice

Camp Runamuck: A Providence Homeless Community

Profiting on death

Tightening the Corporate Grip: The Stakes at the Supreme Court

Group opposes Swine Flu quarantine bill

09/09/2009

“Surveillance Society” Poses Threat to Privacy and Individual Liberties

The Real News About Jobs and Wages

Secret US spontaneous human combustion beam tested

Maine governor proclaims civil emergency due

France to use swine flu to gut laws: report

Did Lehman Brothers Fall or Was It Pushed?

Ronald Reagan's Torture

United Nations' Conference Report calls for Global Currency to Replace U.S. Dollar

Mass outrage stops Detroit bus cuts

Hollow promises of economic recovery

US leads world in weapons sales

The Anti-Empire Report

09/07/2009

Administration Seeks to Keep Terror Watch-List Data Secret

H1N1 Swine Flu Pandemic: Iowa Contemplates "Forced Confinement" in a "Quarantine Facility"

US: Government study finds widespread mercury

Bush Chemical Exposure Rule Killed

Workers in America, Cheated

Obama Is Leading the U.S. Into a Hellish Quagmire

COIN Toss

Defense Department to Start H1N1 Flu Vaccinations

VA won't pay benefits to Marine injured by vaccine

Rally Against Wall Street's Health Care Takeover

House investigators target six health insurance companies for additional data

Reverse Bank Robbery

The Firestorm Ahead

Controversial Blackwater Security Firm Gets Iraq Contract Extended by State Dept

Bush's Third Term? You're Living It

Obama formalizes Bush policy on digital searches and seizures

Cheney defends torture policy and CIA torture

The Rise of Mercenary Armies: A Threat to Global Security

Facts Are First Casualty in Health Care Debat

China Invokes A “Stop Loss” On OTC Derivative

4 years after Katrina: Lessons from the Gulf Coast

Go to Pittsburgh, Young Man, and Defy Your Empire

Cheney May Resist Cooperation With CIA Interrogation Probe

Banks 'Too Big to Fail' Have Grown Even Bigger

"Emergency Control" of the Internet

Doctors Question WHO's Severe Swine Flu Warning



Administration Seeks to Keep Terror Watch-List Data Secret

Administration Seeks to Keep Terror Watch-List Data Secret

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The Obama administration wants to maintain the secrecy of terrorist watch-list information it routinely shares with federal, state and local agencies, a move that rights groups say would make it difficult for people who have been improperly included on such lists to challenge the government.

Intelligence officials in the administration are pressing for legislation that would exempt "terrorist identity information" from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Such information -- which includes names, aliases, fingerprints and other biometric identifiers -- is widely shared with law enforcement agencies and intelligence "fusion centers," which combine state and federal counterterrorism resources.

Still, some officials say public disclosure of watch-list data risks alerting terrorism suspects that they are being tracked and may help them evade surveillance.

Advocates for civil liberties and open government argue that the administration has not proved the secrecy is necessary and that the proposed changes could make the government less accountable for errors on watch lists. The proposed FOIA exemption has been included in pending House and Senate intelligence authorization bills at the administration's request.

"Instead of enhancing accountability, this would remove accountability one or two steps further away," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.

When the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center disseminates data from watch lists to state and federal agencies, the information is unclassified, though marked "for official use only." Officials said that the information could be obtained under a FOIA request and that such data has been released under FOIA.

Michael G. Birmingham, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said that the intelligence community is seeking "adequate protection from disclosing terrorist identity information" to the public because "no [such] exemption currently exists under FOIA." He said the goal of the proposed exemption was to keep sensitive unclassified information from unintended recipients, including terrorism suspects.

One intelligence official said the information's disclosure creates a host of difficulties.

"Here's the problem," the official said, discussing the matter on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. "If you've got somebody, including a suspected terrorist, who can FOIA that information, you're making intelligence-gathering methods vulnerable. You're possibly making intelligence agents and law enforcement personnel vulnerable. Suspects could alter their behavior and circumvent the surveillance."

David Sobel, senior counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, said the government has successfully used existing FOIA exemptions to deny requests for watch-list records. He cited a court case last fall brought by the EFF in which the government, in keeping with it policy, refused to confirm or deny whether a European Parliament member's name was on the terrorist watch list. The government claimed in part an exemption that bars disclosure of law enforcement information on "techniques and procedures" for investigations. The EFF, concluding that the government would win, withdrew the case.

Rather than expanding the list of FOIA exemptions, Congress should pay more attention to improving the procedures for helping people who have been improperly included on the watch list, Sobel said. "There's a serious redress problem," he said. "That's the issue that needs to be addressed."

On Tuesday, a coalition of privacy and transparency advocates led by OpenTheGovernment.org sent a letter to the leading members of the House and Senate intelligence committees urging that the measure be dropped. "We consider this provision unnecessary, overbroad and unwise," the letter said.

A consolidated government watch list was created in 2004 and is housed at the Terrorist Screening Center. As of last September, it included about 1.1 million names and aliases corresponding to 400,000 individuals. The TSC feeds names and other data to the Transportation Security Administration's air passenger "no-fly" list, the State Department's Consular Lookout and Support System list, and the FBI's Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File, as well as to state and local agencies.

A person is included in the list if he or she is "known or appropriately suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism," according to the TSC Web site.

A May report by the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General found the watch-list process to be flawed, with the FBI failing to "update or remove watch list records as required." In one instance, an individual remained on the list nearly five years after the after the underlying terrorism case had been closed, the report found.

The FBI later said it had implemented measures "to resolve all of the issues disclosed in the report."

In 2007, the FBI signed a memo with federal agencies to standardize the redress process and to ensure "fair, timely and independent review" of complaints, according to a statement by the bureau.

"We're constantly working to improve our redress procedures," TSC spokesman Chad Kolton said. "We're very proud of the work we've done so far."

Kolton noted that fewer than 5 percent of the 400,000 people whose names are on the watch list are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. "The vast majority of people on the watch list are not currently in the U.S.,'' he said.

Iowa Contemplates "Forced Confinement" in a "Quarantine Facility

H1N1 Swine Flu Pandemic: Iowa Contemplates "Forced Confinement" in a "Quarantine Facility"

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Iowa public health officials have acknowledged the existence of a blank template entitled FACILITY QUARANTINE ORDER in the case of a Novel Influenza A H1N1 pandemic. The official press release states, however, that there is no draft or text of a "Quarantine Order" by the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Reported by the Iowa Independent:

"A quarantine template created by the Iowa Department of Public Health and accessible through the Centers for Disease Control Web site should not be of great concern, according to a press release from health department officials. 'IDPH wants to make it clear that Iowa has not issued any isolation and quarantine orders for novel influenza A (H1N1), and has no plans to issue any this fall,' officials wrote in the press release. See Health officials: Iowa quarantine document not cause for concern, Iowa Independent, Sept 1, 2009‎

The IDPH suggests in this regard that the drafting of public health templates is a routine undertaking, while also confirming that "in preparation for public health emergencies,” ...“isolation and quarantine orders are only very rarely used in very specific situations.” (emphasis added).

The last statement of the IDPH is notoriously ambiguous: If indeed isolation and quarantine orders are rarely used, why then was a template prepared which explicitly contemplates an ORDER pertaining to a QUARANTINE FACILITY? Moreover, the template was issued on May 1st, at the very outset of the H1N1 swine flu crisis in Mexico, barely two days after the WHO declared a level 5 pandemic advisory on April 29th.

Are we playing on words?

The template already contains the essential features of a formal QUARANTINE ORDER, which suggests that quarantine procedures are contemplated within the Iowa Department of Public Health. The result of these procedures have led to the formulation of the blank template.

The issue, therefore, is not whether a quarantine order has been activated. The issue is

1) the State of Iowa has contemplated a policy of "forced confinement",

2) at some future date, in the next few months, the blank template entitled FACILITY QUARANTINE ORDER could be activated with a view to actually implementing the quarantine precedures.

Also of significance is the fact that this template entitled FACILITY QUARANTINE ORDER has been endorsed by the Atlanta based Center for Disease Control (CDC), which has published the document on its website.The CDC is the main federal agency responsible for H1N1 pandemic preparedness in coordination with other governmental agencies including FEMA, Homeland Security, State and municipal governments, as well as in liaison with the WHO.

There are two quarantine documents on the CDC's website. The first refers to HOME QUARANTINE ORDER, the second to FACILITY QUARANTINE ORDER. (pdf)

Click to access the CDC page, which identifies both templates as CDC reference documents. Media reports pointed to "rumors swirling after a quarantine form was found by someone on the internet..." (See report on kimt.com, September 1, 2009)

We are not dealing with rumors. The FACILITY QUARANTINE ORDER document posted on the website of the CDC, a federal government agency, envisages quite explicitly "forced confinement" in the case of the H1N1 swine flu:

"The Department has determined that it is necessary to quarantine your movement to a specific facility to prevent further spread of this disease. The Department has determined that quarantine in your home and other less restrictive alternatives are not acceptable because [insert the reason home quarantine is not acceptable, the person violated a previously issued home quarantine order, the person does not have an appropriate home setting conducive to home quarantine, etc.] The Department is therefore ordering you to comply with the following provisions during the entire period of quarantine:

1. Terms of confinement. You are ordered to remain at the quarantine facility, _____________________ [insert name and address of facility], from ___________ to ____________ [insert dates of quarantine].

....

4. Legal authority. This order is issued pursuant to the legal authority contained at Iowa Code chapters 135, 139A and 641 Iowa Administrative Code chapter 1, a copy of which is labeled Attachment B and is attached to this order for your review. The Department shall comply with the principles for quarantine contained in subrule 1.9(3) of this attachment when issuing and implementing this order.

5. Ensuring compliance. In order to ensure that you strictly comply with this Quarantine Order the Department or persons authorized by the Department may regularly inspect the quarantine facility.

6. Violations of order. If you fail to comply with this Quarantine Order you may be ordered to be quarantined in a more restrictive facility. In addition, failure to comply with this order is a simple misdemeanor for which you may be arrested, fined, and imprisoned."

This is an official document of the Iowa State government, which has also been endorsed by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). If it were a preliminary or internal draft, it would not have been published by the CDC. The question is whether similar quarantine procedures are being replicated in other states across America.


The full text of the controversial Iowa Template is indicated below: To access the pdf version of the Template on the CDC website, click FACILITY QUARANTINE ORDER

BEFORE THE IOWA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

DIRECTED TO: [insert full name and address of subject of order]

[insert case #]

FACILITY QUARANTINE ORDER

The Iowa Department of Public Health (Department) has determined that you have had contact with a person with Novel Influenza A H1N1. Novel Influenza A H1N1 is a disease which is spread from person to person and is associated with fever (greater than 100.0 F), cough, sore throat, rhinorrhea (runny nose), nasal congestion, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Novel Influenza A H1N1 presents a risk of serious harm to public health and if it spreads in the community severe public health consequences may result.

The Department has determined that it is necessary to quarantine your movement to a specific facility to prevent further spread of this disease. The Department has determined that quarantine in your home and other less restrictive alternatives are not acceptable because [insert the reason home quarantine is not acceptable, the person violated a previously issued home quarantine order, the person does not have an appropriate home setting conducive to home quarantine, etc.] The Department is therefore ordering you to comply with the following provisions during the entire period of quarantine:

1. Terms of confinement. You are ordered to remain at the quarantine facility, _____________________ [insert name and address of facility], from ___________ to ____________ [insert dates of quarantine].

2. Requirements during confinement. During the period of quarantine:

a. You must not leave the quarantine facility at any time unless you have received prior written authorization from the Department to do so.
b. You must not come into contact with anyone except the following persons:
(i) other persons who are also under similar quarantine order at the quarantine facility;
(ii) authorized healthcare providers and other staff at the quarantine facility;
(iii) authorized Department staff or other persons acting on behalf of the Department; and
(iv) such other persons as are authorized by the Department.
c. Your daily needs, including food, shelter, and medical care, will be provided for you during the period of quarantine at the quarantine facility. You should bring clothing, toiletries, and other personal items with you to the quarantine facility. You will have limited access to a telephone at the quarantine facility. You may bring your cell phone with you should you desire to have greater access to a means of communication.
d. You should inform your employer that you are under quarantine order and are not authorized to physically come to the work place, although you may work from the facility via electronic or other means if appropriate. You should be aware that Iowa law prohibits an employer from firing, demoting, or otherwise discriminating against an employee due to the compliance of an employee with a quarantine order issued by the Department. (Iowa Code Section 139A.13A)

3. Information about Novel Influenza A H1N1. You should review the information contained at Attachment A for information about Novel Influenza A H1N1. You should refer to information provided at the quarantine facility to address specific concerns and questions you have about Novel Influenza A H1N1. In order to find out more information about Novel Influenza A H1N1 and its symptoms and spread, you may also access the Department’s web-page at www.idph.state.ia.us. If you do not have access to the internet from the quarantine facility, you may contact the Department at 1-800-362-2736.

4. Legal authority. This order is issued pursuant to the legal authority contained at Iowa Code chapters 135, 139A and 641 Iowa Administrative Code chapter 1, a copy of which is labeled Attachment B and is attached to this order for your review. The Department shall comply with the principles for quarantine contained in subrule 1.9(3) of this attachment when issuing and implementing this order.

5. Ensuring compliance. In order to ensure that you strictly comply with this Quarantine Order the Department or persons authorized by the Department may regularly inspect the quarantine facility.

6. Violations of order. If you fail to comply with this Quarantine Order you may be ordered to be quarantined in a more restrictive facility. In addition, failure to comply with this order is a simple misdemeanor for which you may be arrested, fined, and imprisoned.

7. Your rights B appeal rights. While under quarantine you have the rights as described in subrule 1.9(8) of Attachment B. In addition, you have the right to appeal this order pursuant to subrule 1.9(7) of Attachment B.

(signed & dated)
DIRECTOR or MEDICAL DIRECTOR
IOWA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH
Lucas State Office Building
Des Moines, IA 50319

Attachments to this Order:
Attachment A — Facts About Novel Influenza A H1N1
Attachment B — 641 Iowa Administrative Code chapter 1


To access the second document click HOME QUARANTINE ORDER

US: Government study finds widespread mercury contamination

US: Government study finds widespread mercury contamination

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Mercury is polluting streams across the country with alarming frequency, according to a study published last month by US Geological Survey. More than two-thirds of fish samples in nearly 300 water bodies exceeded levels of concern for the environment, and a quarter exceeded levels safe for human consumption. Every single fish sampled was contaminated with some level of mercury.

Widespread mercury in the environment is not new. In fact, 48 states have mercury fish advisories in place, warning residents to avoid consuming local fish. Nonetheless, the study helps scientists gain a more complete picture of the extent of mercury pollution.

According to USGS Scientist Barbara Scudder, “This study improves our understanding of where mercury ends up in fish in freshwater streams. The findings are critical for decision-makers to effectively manage mercury sources and to better anticipate concentrations of mercury and methylmercury in unstudied streams in comparable environmental settings.”

Methylmercury is the most significant mercury pollutant because of its propensity to accumulate in animal tissue and its severe impacts on human health. A USGS fact sheet sums up these threats: “It affects the immune system, alters genetic and enzyme systems, and damages the nervous system, including coordination and the senses of touch, taste, and sight. Methylmercury is particularly damaging to developing embryos, which are five to ten times more sensitive than adults.”

Broad layers of the population are exposed to dangerous levels of methylmercury, especially in the critical years of early development. The National Research Council estimated in a 2000 study that each year over 60,000 children are born at risk for adverse neurological development due to mercury exposure. Another study by the Centers for Disease Control showed that 8 percent of women of childbearing age had mercury concentrations in the blood and hair exceeding the level considered safe by the federal government.

Human exposure to methylmercury comes primarily through ingestion of fish. Concentrations accumulate in fish faster than their bodies are able to eliminate methylmercury, leading to a magnification of contamination in species at the top of the aquatic food chain. Once eaten by humans, methylmercury is readily absorbed from the digestive tract and enters the blood stream, with potentially severe consequences. However protecting human health it is not simply a matter of avoiding fish consumption. Fish provide essential proteins and fatty acids not readily found elsewhere.

Methylmercury is typically not emitted into the environment directly. Rather, elemental mercury is emitted to the air, is deposited in soils or waterways and is subsequently converted by microbes into methylmercury. The elemental mercury emissions come mostly from anthropogenic sources, though some natural sources such as volcanic activity play a role. Researchers estimate that mercury levels in the atmosphere are three to six times the pre-industrial level.

In the US, coal combustion in power plants and industrial boilers account for the bulk of human-induced emissions. Other sources, including incineration of medical waste and other mercury-containing products, make a lesser though still meaningful contribution.

Many of the major emitters of mercury have exerted their influence to escape meaningful nationwide regulation for decades, despite the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990, which imposed mercury regulations. Cement kilns, coal-fired power plants and other sources continue to emit approximately 115 tons of mercury each year. Although new federal regulation is on the horizon for cement kilns and power plants, it is uncertain whether widespread human exposure to mercury will decline.

Andy O’Hare of the Portland Cement Association, in his comments on the proposed rules for cement kilns, pointed to some potential unintended consequences of national regulation. According to Reed Business Information, he stated, “If this rule is adopted, domestic cement supply will be constrained and investments in cement capacity expansion avoided…. Pushing cement production to other countries would ‘OPEC’ the industry and make the US dependent on cement imports. In addition, because these countries have fewer regulations global emissions of mercury and carbon dioxide could actually increase.”

This claim, though overstated and self-serving given that the cost of the technology in some cases is quite small compared to the cost of pollution control equipment already used, nonetheless points to the inability to protect the environment solely on a national basis.

Cuts in US emissions alone would not necessarily reduce exposure of Americans to mercury. Mercury pollution can be carried large distances in the atmosphere. One study has determined that mercury can travel 2500 kilometers in the atmosphere prior to deposition.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over half of the mercury deposited in the US originates elsewhere. Ocean currents can also transport mercury long distances after deposition. To make matters worse, soil and water surfaces can re-emit mercury, greatly enhancing the residence time in the environment.

Furthermore, world trade in fish has grown rapidly in the past 30 years, increasing more than sevenfold from 1976 to 2002. China has emerged as the largest single exporter of fish products. A significant and growing portion of fish consumed domestically is caught elsewhere.

These issues highlight the necessity of coordinated global action to address environmental issues. But the need for such coordination is stymied by the division of the world into rival nation-states, increasingly at odds with each other as a result of the economic crisis. National ruling elites around the world are jealously guarding any competitive advantage, even if it means poisoning masses of people.

Relatively cheap technology is now available to greatly reduce mercury pollution. A Government Accountability Office study of 14 coal-fired plants found that, on average, end-of-pipe technology could reduce 90 percent of mercury emissions at a cost of 0.12 cents per kilowatt hour, equivalent to less than a dollar a month on a typical consumer’s electricity bill. Even larger reductions can be achieved by switching to materials and fuels that don’t contain mercury, for example switching from coal-based power generation to alternative sources.

However what would seem completely rational measures to protect humanity from a devastating poison remain elusive under a capitalist system that subjugates all else to the accumulation of profit.

Bush Chemical Exposure Rule Killed

The Secret’s Over and Out: Bush Chemical Exposure Rule Killed

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It’s no secret now. The Bush administration’s clandestine move to loosen the rules on how much toxin or dangerous chemicals to which workers can be exposed—and to make it more difficult to issue new worker protection rules—is now officially dead.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced this week that the proposed rule was unnecessary and withdrew it. The rule came to be known as the [1] secret rule because of the Bush administration’s attempt to keep it off the public’s and media’s radar screen last year.

[2] In January, as one of its first official acts, the Obama administration ordered work halted on the chemical exposure rule and other last-minute regulatory changes the Bush administration tried to [3] ram through before leaving office.

Workers in America, Cheated

Workers in America, Cheated

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An important new study has cast an appalling light on a place where workplace laws fail to protect workers, where wages and tips are routinely stolen, where having to work sick, injured or off the clock is the price of having a job.

The place is the United States, all across the lower strata of the urban economy.

The most comprehensive investigation of labor-law violations in years, released Wednesday by the Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project and the U.C.L.A. Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, surveyed 4,387 workers in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Its researchers sought out people often missed by standard surveys and found abuses everywhere: in factories, grocery stores, retail shops, construction sites, offices, warehouses and private homes. The word sweatshop clearly is not big enough anymore to capture the extent and severity of the rot in the low-wage workplace.

Workers told of employers who ignored the minimum wage, denied overtime, took illegal deductions to pay for tools or transportation, or forced them to work unpaid before or after their shifts. More than two-thirds of them had endured at least one wage violation in the previous workweek. More than a quarter had been paid less than the minimum wage, often by more than $1 an hour. Violations typically robbed workers of $51 a week, from an average paycheck of $339.

The report paints an acute picture of powerlessness. Of workers who had been seriously injured on the job, only 8 percent had filed for workers’ compensation — a symptom, researchers said, of the power of employer pressure. Although 86 percent of respondents had worked enough consecutive hours to be entitled to time off for meals, more than two-thirds had had their breaks denied, interrupted or shortened. Workers who complained to bosses or government agencies or tried to form unions suffered illegal retaliation: firing, suspension, pay cuts or threats to call immigration authorities.

It is, of course, morally abhorrent that the American economy should be so riddled with exploitation. But it is also powerfully evident that there are practical consequences when the powerless are abused. Low-wage workers spend a high proportion of their income on necessities; when their paychecks are systematically bled by greedy employers, an entire community’s economic vitality is sapped as well.

The answers are basic, though too long ignored. Government needs to send more investigators to back rooms, offices and factory floors, and to enlist labor organizations and immigrant-rights groups as their investigative eyes and ears. Penalties for wage-law violations need toughening. Employees who have historically been denied basic labor rights — domestic workers and home health aides — need to finally be given the protection of wage-and-hour laws. Companies must not be allowed to skirt their legal obligations by outsourcing hiring to subcontractors, letting others break the law for them.

The report has particular significance for immigrant workers, who made up 70 percent of the survey (39 percent of them were undocumented). Workplace abuses are flourishing in the absence of a working immigration system, where illegal immigrants are vital to the economy but helpless to assert their rights.

The report upends the argument that the way to help American workers is to make illegal immigrants ever more frightened and exploitable. Only by protecting all workers will the country begin to rebuild a workplace matching its ideals of decency and fair play.

Obama Is Leading the U.S. Into a Hellish Quagmire

Obama Is Leading the U.S. Into a Hellish Quagmire

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America now has more military personnel in Afghanistan than the Red Army had at the peak of the Soviet invasion and occupation of that country. According to a Congressional Research Service report, as of March of this year, the U.S. had 52,000 uniformed personnel and another 68,000 contractors in Afghanistan -- a number that has likely grown given the blank check President Obama has written for what's now being called "Obama's War."

That makes 120,000 American military personnel fighting in Afghanistan, a figure higher than the Soviet peak troop figure of 115,000 during their catastrophic 9-year war. Just this week, General McChrystal, whom Obama appointed to command American forces in Afghanistan, is talking ofsending tens of thousands more American troops. At the height of the Soviet occupation,Western intelligence experts estimated that the Soviets had 115,000 troops in Afghanistan -- but like America, the more troops and the longer the Soviets stayed, the more doomed their military mission became.

We're also heading into the same casualty trap as the Soviets did. This summer has been the deadliest in the eight-year war for American troops. While the number of uniformed Americans killed in combat in Afghanistan may seem comparatively low -- just over 800, most of those since 2007 -- the Soviets also suffered relatively light casualties. Between December 1979 and February 1989, just 13,000 Soviets were killed in Afghanistan, a seemingly paltry figure when you compare it to the 20 million Soviets killed in World War Two, and the millions upon millions who died in the Civil War and Stalin's Terror. Unlike America, Russians have a reputation for tolerating appalling casualty figures -- and yet the war in Afghanistan destroyed the Soviet Empire. Which only proves that crude number comparisons explain nothing at all in warfare today, particularly when that war is an occupation of an alien environment like Afghanistan.

Why hasn't anyone pointed out that America's troop commitment now exceeds the Red Army's? For some inexplicable reason the corporate media has decided to shuffle the figures and exclude the US military contractors from the total figure of US military personnel. It makes no logical sense -- we still count the Hessians among the British forces in the War of Independence. It's as if the only thing left that Americans are capable of is accounting fraud -- the only talent we perfected over the past decade was how to move all the bad numbers off the official books, as if it's become an instinctive reflex.

But just as those accounting tricks didn't change all those banks' and funds' insolvency, so the American media's troop-counting tricks, in which contractors are "off books," can't make the disaster in Afghanistan disappear. We're already more deeply invested in our Afghanistan war than the Russians were, and as we head into our ninth year -- the magic number for when the Soviets pulled out and their empire collapsed -- President Obama is dragging the country deeper into that disaster. (Moreover, if you add in all the NATO personnel -- useless as they are as a "fighting" force -- the number of Western troops already far exceeds the number deployed in the Soviet Union's "unwinnable" war.)

The Afghanistan War has somehow escaped most of America's attention. People just assumed that since Obama is a decent guy with a sharper mind than Bush's, he must know what he's doing in Afghanistan, and his intentions can't be bad -- so why bother paying attention, when we have all these other problems here at home? Besides, war isn't a fun topic anymore. Thanks to Bush and Cheney, any talk of war is a total bummer, whether you're from the right or the left. And Americans don't like bummers -- instead, America is always "moving on" from its bummers. Nothing bums Americans out more than losing wars, which helps explain why Afghanistan is the most we've-moved-on subject of our time. The problem is that you can't move on from something while it's still a problem -- but try telling that to a nation of delusionals.

Remember how long after Vietnam it took for for Americans to "move on" and get their war appetite back on? It took a decade before we could talk about 'Nam again, and that probably would have gone on longer if it wasn't for the kick-ass performance by Robert Duvall as Col Kilgore stirring a new generation's blood lust. (For a taste of just how cinematic this budding tragedy could be,< href="http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2008/10/in_afghanistan_with_the_isaf.html">click here to check out these amazing photos.) We suffered then from "Vietnam Syndrome," which was a strange way of assigning a mental illness to a totally rational aversion to invading far-away countries. This time it's going to be even worse, though: given our 0-2 war record this decade, and the shameful way that America's pseudo-imperialists snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, like a nation of Bill Buckners, it's no wonder no one here wants to talk about Afghanistan.

Since we've already long ago "moved on" from Afghanistan, it means that our agony of defeat there will be far more painful than anything we've experienced before. The most frustrating thing is how obvious this catastrophe is: Obama is leading America into a predictable sequel of superpower-loses-in-hellish-Third-World-quagmire: he's doubling down troops in a war fewer people understand, a war that's growingincreasingly unpopularas the casualty count accelerates; investing more into a corrupt regime which just stole elections in a way that would make the hardliners in neighboring Iran blush; suicide bombers are beingdirected by the Afghan defense department to blow up American journalists, leading to a dusty version of the ol' "who's in charge here?" "I thought you were"; and now, the American right wing -- the only thing that approximates a real opposition this country -- is having a collective Walter Cronkite moment, withGeorge Will of all people leading the call for the West to pull its forces out now in order to limit the defeat's damage. George fucking Will as the conscience of our nation?! This must be what Marx meant by tragedy turning to farce.

And through it all, the Russians must beenjoying America's decline more than anyone, after all the gloating we did over their downfall: in our two nations' ongoing Tom & Jerry Show, America's looming defeat is shaping up to be Russia's revenge on America's revenge for what Russia did to America in Vietnam.

Which reminds me of an interview a couple of years ago I did with a former top Soviet advisor to the puppet Afghan government's General Staff, Pyotr Goncharov. I was still in Moscow then, and I was working on a story to counter the then-popular neocon meme that Iraq wasn't really the disastrous war that its critics said it was because after all, "only" 4,000 Americans died there. A lot of Russian nationalists still argue that they could have won the war in Afghanistan and that it wasn't going so badly, given the low body count--and yet the empire collapsed there. I was curious why even a police state like the Soviet Union collapsed, and what lesson America could learn from that.

And this is where it got strange, because the first thing Goncharov said to me when I met him was, "I just want to say to you that what the Americans are doing in Afghanistan is perfect. You're doing everything right that we did wrong over there. You're not making any of our mistakes, and with my experience there, I can only commend you." Goncharov told me he was the top Soviet advisor to the Afghan regime's joint chiefs of staff from 1986-9, the year of the pullout, and today he is a leading military analyst on Afghanistan issues for state RIA-Novosti. He wasn't interested in my line of questioning about why low body counts are so devastating to superpowers -- instead, all he wanted to talk about was what a great man John McCain is. "Everything he proposes for the war in Afghanistan is exactly right. He really knows what he's talking about," Goncharov said. Then his otherwise cheerful face took on a confused almost dour expression: "But I have to ask: is it really possible that Americans will elect Barack Obama? Because this would be a disaster for the world. If Obama is president and he withdraws from Afghanistan, the whole world will pay, much worse than we all paid after the Soviet pullout. It can't really be possible that Obama will win, could it? I can't believe America would do that."

Now we know how it really turned out: Barack Obama won the presidency, but in terms of dealing with Bush's war legacy it may as well have been McCain. Because Obama's Afghanistan War policy is indistinguishable from McCain's, which is why McCain has nothing but good things to say about Obama's conduct of the war. I always wondered after that interview with Goncharov what his reasoning was for supporting another Republican president, given the disaster America suffered under Bush: did he want America to get sucked into Afghanistan and collapse like his country did, out of vengeful spite? Or was Goncharov being sincere, as I think he was? My guess is that Goncharov really wanted McCain and genuinely liked him, because McCain was someone a military man like Goncharov could understand. And anyway, as intelligent and refined as Goncharov was, he proved what Obama is proving today: we never learn from our mistakes, as much as we pretend we do.

Call it "Afghanistan Syndrome": Twenty years ago, Afghanistan was Russia's "Vietnam"; today, Afghanistan is becoming America's "Afghanistan." Obama is walking into this disaster like one of the doomed victims from the Scream series: everyone, including the protagonists, knows that it's going to be a disaster, everyone's seen the script so many times they can recite it from heart. And yet Obama's leading the nation into the trap all over again. And Obama can't even be compared to LBJ, who at least managed to give millions of Americans Medicare. What will Obama's legacy be? The PPIP program? Protecting AIG's bonuses?

COIN Toss

COIN Toss

Counterinsurgency failed before, but the United States is trying again.

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General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, is known to Americans primarily as the architect of "the surge," the increase in U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007.

But he is equally influential in military circles for his promotion of counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, of which the surge was only one manifestation. At Washington's posh Willard InterContinental Hotel on June 11, with 1,400 pairs of ears in the audience, Petraeus declared, "Counterterrorism actually requires a counterinsurgency approach."

A COIN campaign is defined by the U.S. Army as a mix of offensive, defensive and stability operations conducted according to the situation and mission. Counterinsurgents employ a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with nonmilitary agencies, such as establishing civilian institutions and building basic services. COINdinistas, as boosters like Petraeus are known, argue that counterinsurgency eschews the brutality of traditional warfare, and is a viable strategy for the United States in the 21st century.

In reality, however, COIN presents grave dangers to the United States. It is an enormously burdensome approach, extracting troops and money out of a country that has recently expended too much of both. Even more worrisome, the military's elevation of COIN to the level of doctrine will further fuel the military-industrial complex, making war a more attractive and likely option in the future.

Reviving failure

COIN is not new, and neither are the worries associated with it. In the United States, it first emerged as an intellectual force in the 1960s, as planners looked for a way to defeat the North Vietnamese. Military experts examined the British struggles against anti-colonial uprisings in Kenya and Malaysia and tried to apply their lessons to Southeast Asia. But after the defeat in Vietnam, the military rejected COIN, determined to never again get involved in protracted, asymmetrical combat in foreign lands. "It is embarrassing how little irregular warfare was taught within the services after Vietnam," concedes Roger Carstens, an Army Special Forces veteran and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

COIN was unexpectedly resurrected in 2003, when the Iraqi insurgency erupted in the wake of the initial U.S. invasion. Despite then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's multi-year denial of the insurgency's existence in Iraq, the military saw what it was facing and began to revive COIN. "It was strictly out of necessity," says Michael Mazarr, a professor of national security strategy at the National War College.

Though the military may have adopted the strategy reluctantly, its embrace of COIN is now comprehensive and ongoing. In his April budget recommendations, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates signaled his priorities by requesting that Congress transfer money away from future, expensive weapons systems to weapons and troops applicable to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This new focus has required a comparable shift in strategy.

For eight years, since the 2001 invasion, the United States spent approximately $45 million annually to support the eradication of poppies in Afghanistan, a major source of income for insurgents. But now, seeing that poor Afghan farmers depend on the poppies for their livelihood--and that efforts to stamp them out have failed--the United States is abandoning eradication as a goal. "The real difference as we move from how we were focusing on Afghanistan in the past [to] the president's new focus on counterinsurgency is that this is a policy that defines the strategic interest, that defines winning over the population" as the primary goal, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter-Narcotics and Global Threats William Wechsler told the Associated Press. Officials have also reportedly told allies that the United States will boost funding for alternative agriculture from tens of millions of dollars annually to hundreds of million. The Obama administration sent agronomists to Afghanistan this summer to beef up its civilian efforts.

But it doesn't seem to be enough. Generals in Afghanistan told National Security Advisor James Jones in June that they needed thousands more troops to fight the Taliban insurgency. One senior military officer told the Washington Post that at least 32,000 more troops will be required to maintain areas and towns after they are cleared of Taliban insurgents. General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, has declined to say whether he would recommend expanding American combat forces or increasing the number of military trainers, but he has not ruled it out either. President Obama, however, has openly said, "My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops."

COINdinistas would concede that Obama is correct--no counterinsurgency can be won by large troop numbers alone. But high troop levels are needed to protect a population, according to COIN theory. Contra Obama, hundreds of thousands of troops are not sufficient to effectively fight a counterinsurgency--but they are necessary. The 2006 U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, co-written by Petraeus, suggests that force size be calculated in relation not to the opponent, but to inhabitants. The manual recommends a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents. In Afghanistan, with its population estimated at 33,000,000, that would mean at least 660,000 troops--a number far greater than the 68,000 that will be stationed there by year's end.

War as a solution

Implementing a fully realized COIN strategy, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, requires the United States to occupy foreign nations for years, even decades. COINdinistas are often the first ones to say gigantic resources are required, Mazarr says. According to the field manual, "By its very nature, insurgency is protracted. The conduct of counterinsurgency always demands considerable expenditures of time and money." The United States is unlikely to be willing to put in that time and money often, if ever. And fighting a war halfheartedly is the surest way to lose one.

Most problematic of all, faith in the efficacy of COIN might encourage the United States to go to war more often, a menacing prospect for a country already unnecessarily engaging in wars. As the military becomes more adept at occupying and pacifying foreign countries, war will appear more attractive to policymakers and the American public. "COIN promotes a mindset that tends to view failed states as a problem that can be solved by American military power," Mazarr says. "A crisis in a failing state, or an emergency, could attract the U.S. to intervene in places we shouldn't." Moreover, as the military gets more training, operations, equipment and cultural training, senior officers are likelier to become persuaded that they can more easily rebuild foreign countries, Mazarr says. Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, argues that the United States has never needed COIN to intervene overseas, but he says that "to the extent the officer corps is convinced they have the formula to nation-build, senior military officers will come to the Department of Defense believing" they can solve nearly any international problem.

COIN indoctrinated

COIN undoubtedly has something going for it: It seems a more humane method of fighting than traditional warfare. Because it revolves around securing the consent of the population, it calls for using little brutality. In fact, the strong use of force is usually counterproductive to effective COIN implementation, since it alienates the very population needed for success. "An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if the collateral damage or the creation of blood feuds leads to the recruitment of fifty more," reads the field manual.

There is also little doubt that COIN has been effective in Iraq, in driving down both American and Iraqi casualties. To the extent that it assists in rebuilding shattered nations, and encourages the U.S. military to prioritize civilian safety when doing so, it is valuable. "It gives policymakers another tool with which to combat national security threats," Carstens says.

Nonetheless, these benefits seem small in proportion to the costs of COINing the military. But in any case, the institutionalization of COIN is already a fact. "[T]he foreign policy establishment and military have leapt aboard the COIN bandwagon as uncritically as many of them once supported tank warfare," says Ann Marlowe, who has reported frequently from Afghanistan and is working on a book about COIN's origins.

The theory is taught at all U.S. war colleges, and military personnel are trained in COIN at all levels. Even if COIN were somehow erased from military doctrine tomorrow, a generation of servicemen and women will have internalized its principles. COIN was revived as a way to fight insurgents in Iraq. But its emergence may haunt U.S. foreign policy for decades to come. 

Defense Department to Start Mandatory H1N1 Flu Vaccinations

Defense Department to Start H1N1 Flu Vaccinations

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All military personnel will be vaccinated against the H1N1 flu virus, and the vaccine will be available to all military family members who want it, a Defense Department health affairs official said today.

The H1N1 vaccination program will begin in early October, said Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Wayne Hachey, director of preventive medicine for Defense Department health affairs.

The vaccine, which has been licensed by the Food and Drug Administration, will be mandatory for uniformed personnel, the colonel said. "What we want to do is target those people who are at highest risk for transmission," he said.

Health-care workers, deploying troops, those serving on ships and submarines, and new accessions are at the top of the list. "Any place where we take a lot of people, squash them all together and get them nice and close and put them under stressful conditions will get the vaccine first," he said.

The department will use the usual seasonal flu vaccine distribution chain for the H1N1, Hachey said, noting that while the mass H1N1 vaccinations are new to the general population, the process for vaccinating against seasonal flu is old hat for the Defense Department. "We've been doing this for decades," the colonel said. "The system is tried and true."

The department initially will receive 1 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine, and another 1.7 million doses later in October.

Officials don't know yet whether people will need one dose or two, Hachey said. "The assumption right now is that people will need two doses, 21 days apart," he said. "That may change."

FDA officials still are studying H1N1 and the vaccine, and the results should be known by the end of the month.

Seasonal flu vaccine already is available, and the Defense Department will begin giving those shots shortly, Hachey said. "That has been our message to immunizers: to try and get as many people as they can immunized against the seasonal flu early," he said.

Guidelines for giving priority to family members will follow those for the general population, Hachey said. The Department of Health and Human Services is buying millions of doses of the vaccine.

"Installations are going to register with each state as an immunizer," Hachey said. "They will tell how many people they care for. This includes dependents, retirees and so on."

The Centers for Disease Control will place the order and will ship the vaccine where needed. Family members will have multiple opportunities to get the vaccine, whether at Defense Department medical facilities or off post, Hachey said.

The CDC has established target groups for those at greatest risk for transmitting or being affected by the H1N1. They include pregnant women, health-care workers, those younger than 25 or older than 65, and those with pre-existing health conditions.

Hachey said previous plans are serving the Defense Department well. "We have been preparing for pandemic flu because of its potential impact on the mission," he said.

The symptoms of the H1N1 flu are almost the same as the seasonal flu: fever, sore throat, runny nose, nausea, muscle aches and feeling rundown. The 2009 H1N1 virus – formerly known as swine flu – is a pandemic virus, according to the World Health Organization. U.S. officials call the virus "troubling" and urge communities across the United States to take actions to mitigate the effects of it. The federal government is urging states and municipalities to begin preparing now for the fall flu season.

President Barack Obama addressed the H1N1 pandemic following a White House meeting today.

"As I said when we saw the first cases of this virus back in the spring, I don't want anybody to be alarmed, but I do want everybody to be prepared," he said. "We know that we usually get a second, larger wave of these flu viruses in the fall, and so response plans have been put in place across all levels of government."

But government cannot do it all, and the American people have a responsibility to stop the spread of the disease, Obama said. "We need families and businesses to ensure that they have plans in place if a family member, a child or a co-worker contracts the flu and needs to stay home," he said.

"And most importantly, we need everyone to get informed about individual risk factors, and we need everyone to take the common-sense steps that we know can make a difference," the president said. "Stay home if you're sick. Wash your hands frequently. Cover your sneezes with your sleeve, not your hands. And take all the necessary precautions to stay healthy. I know it sounds simple, but it's important and it works."

The H1N1 is a never-before-seen combination of human, swine and avian flu viruses, officials said. First detected in Mexico in February, it quickly spread around the world. According to July WHO statistics, there have been 94,512 H1N1 cases worldwide, and 429 people have died from it. In the United States, 33,902 contracted H1N1, and 170 have died.

VA Won't Pay Benefits to Marine Injured by Vaccine

VA won't pay benefits to Marine injured by vaccine

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It wasn't a bullet or roadside bomb that felled Lance Cpl. Josef Lopez three years ago after nine days in Iraq.

It was an injection into his arm before his unit left the states.

The then 20-year-old Marine from Springfield, Mo., suffered a rare adverse reaction to the smallpox vaccine. While the vaccine isn't mandatory, the military strongly encourages troops to take it.

However, it left Lopez in a coma, unable for a time to breathe on his own and paralyzed for weeks. Now he can walk, but with a limp. He has to wear a urine bag constantly, has short-term memory loss and must swallow 15 pills daily to control leg spasms and other ailments.

And even though his medical problems wouldn't have occurred if he hadn't been deployed, Lopez doesn't qualify for a special government benefit of as much as $100,000 for troops who suffer traumatic injuries.

The hangup? His injuries were caused by the vaccine.

"I could have easily died, or not been able to walk because of that," Lopez said. "It destroyed my world. It was pretty traumatic to me."

Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees the benefit program, said they're following what the agency has determined to be Congress' intent.

"It's for traumatic injury, not disease; not illness; not preventive medicine," said Stephen Wurtz, deputy assistant director for insurance at the VA. "It has nothing to do with not believing these people deserve some compensation for their losses."

The VA was unable to say how many claims have been rejected because of vaccine-related injuries. Wurtz and others familiar with the program said it probably wasn't a large amount.

As of July 1, the traumatic injury program has granted nearly 6,700 claims, a 63 percent approval rate, and paid $394 million in compensation, Wurtz said.

A representative for the Military Vaccine Agency, which oversees the vaccination of troops for smallpox, anthrax and other diseases, couldn't be reached for comment, despite repeated attempts.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and a member of the Armed Services Committee, drafted a bill named after Lopez to widen the program to include vaccine-related injuries.

She became aware of his plight when he and his mother stopped in her Senate office last year looking for help. Lopez had come to Washington to compete in the wheelchair portion of the Marine Corps Marathon.

"The program was created with a broad mandate to provide financial assistance to folks with serious injuries and given to VA to determine the outlines," said Stephen Hedger, McCaskill's legislative director and an Army veteran of Iraq. The VA "took a narrower approach and defined in greater detail what injuries and illnesses qualified for payment. Our view is it was way too narrow."

Lopez's health insurance through the military has covered all his medical expenses. The VA has paid for his medical costs since he was discharged in June.

What he didn't get were benefits from a program called TSGLI, or Traumatic Servicemember Group Life Insurance. Congress created it in 2005 to provide short-term financial help to severely injured service members until their disability benefits could kick in. The compensation is retroactive to injuries suffered since Oct. 1, 2001.

It's intended to cover expenses such as the costs of having a family member temporarily relocate while an injured service member receives treatment at a military hospital. Another might be the costs of retrofitting a service member's home to accommodate a wheelchair or other medical equipment.

The injuries don't have be the result of combat, however. Service members could be eligible because of a car accident on the way to the grocery store. The fee is an additional $1 each month on top of their regular military life insurance premium.

Lopez seemed to fit the profile. His injuries affected his normal daily activities, one of the criteria to obtain coverage. His family also met another: financial hardship.

His mother, Barbara Lopez, took a leave from her job as a high school secretary to move to Maryland to be with him while he spent six weeks at the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda. She also had to give up her second job, a part-time position as a cashier.

They'd to build a ramp and widen a door to accommodate his wheelchair at her home in Springfield, where he spent his recovery.

Barbara Lopez said she heard about TSGLI from families of other injured troops at Bethesda. Yet unlike many of them, whose wounds were obvious, her son's application was turned down. She still can't fathom it.

"In his spinal column, he has quite a bit of permanent scarring," Barbara Lopez said. "He takes medication to help his legs. He can walk unassisted, but never far, and he can't stand for very long. I kind of feel Joe was out there fighting the same fight they were. He should be just as eligible."

The military began the smallpox vaccination program in 2003 because of post-9/11 fears that terrorists might attack the U.S. with germ warfare. Plans for the invasion of Iraq were also under way. The military was concerned that Saddam Hussein might use biological weapons against American troops.

Smallpox is contagious and can be fatal. It has no known cure. However, on rare occasions, as in Lopez's case, the vaccine can be as dangerous as the disease. Side effects can range from a simple rash to swelling around the brain and heart, and even death.

Like the inoculation for anthrax, another pre-combat injection, troops are supposed to be informed of the side effects and told that taking the vaccine was optional. Many have said that it was made abundantly clear that refusing wasn't a good idea.

"No one said 'No,'" Lopez said. "I had no qualms. I had no reason not to."

Against Wall Street's Health Care Takeover

Rally Against Wall Street's Health Care Takeover

by Wendell Potter

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Saturday, August 29 I had the good fortune to speak at a community rally for health care reform in a city park in downtown Portland, Oregon. It was a broad-based and diverse group with many signs and placards supporting the 'public option' being debated by Congress, and others calling for 'single payer' reform like that working effectively in other countries such as Canada. Here is what I said:

I would like to begin by apologizing to all of you for the role I played 15 years ago in cheating you out of a reformed health care system. Had it not been for greedy insurance companies and other special interests, and their army of lobbyists and spin-doctors like I used to be, we wouldn't be here today.

I'm ashamed that I let myself get caught up in deceitful and dishonest PR campaigns that worked so well, hundreds of thousands of our citizens have died, and millions of others have lost their homes and been forced into bankruptcy, so that a very few corporate executives and their Wall Street masters could become obscenely rich.

But It was only during the last few years of my career that I came to realize the full scope of the harm my colleagues and I had caused, and the lengths that insurance companies will go to increase their profits at the expense of working families.

As I told the Senate Commerce Committee two months ago, the higher up the corporate ladder I climbed, the more I could see how insurance companies confuse their customers and dump the sick - all so they can satisfy those Wall Street masters.

I described for the senators how insurers make promises they have no intention of keeping, how they flout regulations designed to protect consumers, and how they make it nearly impossible to understand -- or even to obtain -- information consumers need.

I also told the Committee how the industry has conducted duplicitous and well-financed PR and lobbying campaigns every time Congress has tried to reform our health care system -- and how its current behind-scenes-efforts may well shape reform in a way that benefits Wall Street far more than average Americans.

I noted that, just as the industry did 15 years ago when it led the effort to kill the Clinton reform plan, it is using shills and front groups to spread lies and disinformation to scare Americans away from the very reform that would benefit them most.

Make no mistake, the industry, despite its public assurances to be good-faith partners with the President and Congress, has been at work for years laying the groundwork for devious and often sinister campaigns to manipulate public opinion.

The industry goes to great lengths to keep its involvement in these campaigns hidden from public view. But I know from having served on many trade group committees that industry leaders are always full partners in developing strategies to derail any reform that might interfere with their ability to increase their companies' profits.

My involvement in those activities goes back to the early ‘90s when insurers joined with other special interests to finance the activities of an organization called the Healthcare Leadership Council, which led a coordinated effort to scare Americans and members of Congress away from the Clinton plan.

A few years after that victory, the insurers formed a front group called the Health Benefits Coalition to kill efforts to pass a Patients Bill of Rights. While it was touted as a broad-based business group, the Health Benefits Coalition in reality got the lion's share of its funding from Big Insurance.

Like most front groups, the Health Benefits Coalition was set up and run out of a big and well-connected PR firm. One of the key strategies developed by the PR firm as the coalition was gearing up for battle in late 1998 was to stir up support among conservative talk radio hosts and other media.

The PR firm formed alliances with groups like the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council and persuaded them to send letters to Congress and to appear at press conferences. The firm also launched an advertising campaign in conservative media outlets. The message was that President Clinton owed a debt to the liberal base of the Democratic Party and would try to pay back that debt by advancing the type of big government agenda on health care that he failed to get in 1993. Those tactics worked. Industry allies in Congress made sure the Patients' Bill of Rights would not become law.

The insurance industry has funded several other front groups since then whenever the industry has been under attack. It formed the Coalition for Affordable Quality Healthcare to try to improve the image of managed care in response to a constant stream of negative stories that appeared in the media in the late ‘90s and the first years of this decade.

It funded another front group when lawyers began filing class action lawsuits on behalf of doctors and patients.

The PR firm the industry hired to create that front group, by the way, had planned and conducted a similar campaign for the tobacco industry a few years earlier.

The insurance industry hired that same PR firm again in 2007 to help blunt the impact of Michael Moore's movie, "Sicko." It created and staffed a front group called "Health Care America" specifically to discredit Moore and to demonize the health care systems featured in the movie.

Among the tactics the PR firm used once again was to enlist the support of conservative talk show hosts, writers and editorial page editors to warn against a "government-takeover" of the U.S. health care system. The term "government-takeover" is one the industry has used many times over the years to scare people away from reform.

Health Care America also placed ads in newspapers. One of those ads carried this message, "In America, you wait in line to see a movie. In government-run health care systems, you wait to see a doctor."

With this history, you can rest assured that the insurance industry is up to the same dirty tricks, using the same devious PR practices it has used for many years, to kill reform this year, or even better, to shape reform so that it benefits insurance companies and their Wall Street investors far more than average Americans.

Americans need to be alert to how the industry and its allies are working to influence their opinions and lawmakers' votes. I know from years as an industry PR executive how effective insurers have been in using scare tactics to turn public opinion against any reform efforts that would threaten their profitability.

I warned earlier this year that Americans and the media should pay close attention to the efforts insurers and their ideological buddies would undertake to demonize health care systems around the world that don't allow for-profit insurance companies to have the free reign they have here.

Americans must realize that the when they hear isolated stories of long waiting times to see doctors in Canada and allegations that care in other systems is rationed by government bureaucrats, the insurance industry has written the script.

And Americans must realize that every time they hear we will be heading down the "slippery slope toward socialism" if Congress creates a public insurance option to compete with private insurers, some insurance flack like I used to be wrote that, too.

Every time you hear about the shortcomings of what they call "government-run" health care, remember this: what we have now in this country, and what the insurers are determined to keep in place, is Wall Street-run health care.

And know that we already have one of the most insidious means of rationing care in the world -- not by people we can hold accountable on election day but by insurance company executives who answer only to a few wealthy investors and hedge fund managers who care far more about earnings per share than your health and well-being.

If Congress goes along with the "solutions" the insurance industry says it is bringing to the table and fails to create a public insurance option to compete with private insurers, the bill it sends to President Obama might as well be called the Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act.

Some in the media believe the health insurers have already won. That's not only because the debate over reform seems to have been hijacked recently by insurance company shills and people who believe the lies they have been spewing, but because of the billions of dollars the insurers have been spending to influence votes on Capitol Hill.

Folks, it is not too late to keep the insurers from winning, but time is running short. We need to think of the coming weeks as some of the most important weeks in the history of this country. We need to think that way because they will be, and we must redouble our efforts to make sure members of Congress put our interests above those of private health insurers and others who view reform as a way to make more money.

If we want to take back control or our health care system from the big for-profit companies that have wrecked it, we must take back control of this debate. We must begin to talk in ways that reach our friends and neighbors who have been influenced by the lies.

We need to tell them that we can continue to have a system that allows 20,000 Americans to die every year because they don't have insurance, or we can have a system that will make sure their sons and daughters are not one of them.

We should ask the skeptics of a public option, who are afraid that giving people a choice of a government-run plan will lead to socialism, if they would want to go back to the day when Americans had to buy private fire insurance.

Tell them if they lived in Ben Franklin's day and they didn't have a shield on the outside of their house indicating they were insured, their town's private fire insurance companies would let their house burn down. The private insurance companies would keep your fire from spreading to your insured next-door neighbor's house, but your house would soon be nothing more than a pile of ashes.

We must remind our family members and our friends and neighbors why we are having this debate in the first place. If they tell you they don't think their tax dollars should be used to pay for someone else's coverage, point out to them that they already are paying for the care uninsured people receive when they go to the emergency room and can't afford to pay the exorbitant bills they get from the hospital. Those of us who are insured pay an extra thousand dollars in premiums every year just to cover that uncompensated care.

If they say they don't want to saddle their children and grandchildren with additional taxes, ask them if they have thought what might happen to their children and grandchildren if they found themselves among the millions of people without health insurance or, maybe more likely, among the underinsured.

Ask them how they would feel if their daughter came down with breast cancer soon after she and your son-in-law moved into their dream house and just as your grandchildren were beginning to think about college.

Ask them how they would feel if their daughter and son-in-law learned that the insurance they thought would be there when they needed it required them to pay so much out of their own pockets that they couldn't afford to pay for their daughter's cancer treatments and also make the house payments.

Ask them how they would feel if their children and grandchildren were forced out of their dream home and into bankruptcy, and ask them how they would feel if their grandchildren had to give up their dreams of going to college.

Ask them how they would feel if their granddaughter fell into the wrong crowd and died of a drug overdose just as her high school friends were graduating from the college she herself had once dreamed of graduating from. Ask them how they would feel when they found out that this all happened because their daughter's private insurance company forced her to pay more for her care than her family could afford just so it could continue to pay its CEO $30 million a year and meet Wall Street's profit expectations.

Folks, I believe we Americans by and large are a compassionate people. Yes, we believe in individual responsibility, but we also believe in the Golden Rule.

I don't know a single American -- or at least I hope I don't -- who would knowingly wish the future I just described on anyone's family. But the sad reality is that many of the people who have become unwitting spokespeople for the insurance industry -- the people who are objecting to a public insurance option because they have bought into the lies the insurance industry's shills are telling them -- will ensure that that horrific future is a reality for millions of Americans, including their loved ones, if the insurance industry wins this debate again.

So over the coming weeks, we must tell our conservative friends who are worried needlessly about a government-takeover of our health care system that what we all should really be concerned about is the Wall-Street takeover that has occurred while we were not paying attention.

It is that takeover that has led to more and more working Americans being forced into the ranks of the uninsured. It is that takeover that has forced millions more of us into the ranks of the underinsured because insurers are making us pay thousands of dollars out of our own pockets before they'll pay a dime.

It is that takeover that has forced many of our neighbors out of their homes and into bankruptcy. And it is that takeover that is causing more and more small businesses to stop offering coverage to their employees because of the exorbitant premiums that greedy, Wall-Street-driven insurers are charging them.

I want to close by thanking you for being here today and for the hard work you've already been doing to try to persuade members of Congress to do the right thing. But as I pointed out earlier, the coming weeks will be some of the most important weeks of our lives.

Let's pledge to each other that we will work even harder to ensure that America joins the rest of the developed world in making sure that ALL of its citizens -- our brothers and sisters, our sons and our daughters, our neighbors and our co-workers -- have good coverage we can all have the peace of mind knowing will be there when and if we need it. Thank you.

Six Health Insurance Companies Investigated for "Purging" Small Businesses

House investigators target six health insurance companies for additional data

By Jared Allen

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Two House committees asked six large health insurance companies for information about the “purging” of small businesses from their plans.


Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who chairs the Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, asked the companies for data regarding the purging of small businesses when the employees of those businesses become ill and the companies’ health insurance claims increase.

The additional information was requested from Aetna, UnitedHealth Group, WellPoint, Humana, Medica, and Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“I began looking into the practices of the health insurance industry in the last Congress and was deeply disturbed by what we uncovered,” Waxman said in a statement. “As part of our ongoing investigation, we are now looking into the practice of health insurance companies terminating the coverage of small businesses when their employees become ill and their health insurance claims increase.”

“We need to better understand how widespread this harmful and destructive practice has become, and how it is impacting small businesses and their employees across the country,” Waxman said.

Earlier this month, Waxman and Stupak penned letters to 52 private health insurance companies demanding volumes of data related to executive compensation, profits, re-payments from Medicare and other government subsidized plans, and company spending on corporate retreats.

The two gave the companies until Sept. 4 to turn over documents related to how they compensate any employees — including executives and board members — who made more than $500,000 between 2003 and 2008, and until Sept. 14 to supply information going back to 2007 on how much they spent on any events held outside company grounds.

When the executive compensation letters were released, Waxman and Stupak said through statements that they were part of a broad, ongoing investigation into the practices of the private health insurance industry.

They painted the investigation into small business purging as part of that same effort.

“We have documented examples of insurance companies raising small business premiums by an unsustainable amount or canceling a policy once it is discovered a covered employee is sick,” Stupak said in a statement. “To better understand how prevalent this practice is and precisely how many small businesses are impacted, we are asking some of the largest insurers to provide information on their small business policies.”

The pair gave the six companies until Sept. 14 to turn over the relevant information, and until Sept. 8 to inform the committee if they intend to “provide the requested information voluntarily.”

Each company except for Medica was asked to turn over executive compensation and profitability documents by the Sept. 4 and Sept. 14 deadlines.

A committee spokeswoman was not immediately available to say how many of those documents have been turned over in advance of the first Sept. 4 deadline.

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for the private health insurance industry called the new request “just a continuation of a politically-motivated fishing expedition in an attempt to justify a new government-run insurance plan.”

“Health plans are already highly regulated at both the federal and the state level, and the overwhelming majority of Americans are satisfied with their current health care coverage,” said Zirkelbach, the spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans. “The inconvenient fact is that health plans strongly support health care reform and have been working collaboratively with the business community to advance reforms that meet the specific needs of small businesses.”

Reverse Bank Robbery

Reverse bank robbery

No wonder America's banks are making profits again: the US government is bribing them to borrow its own money

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Most of us work for a living, the rest are bankers. These days the news is filled with great tales about how America's banks are coming back.

Even that giant corpse Citigroup is showing signs of life. Its stock is now selling for more than five times the lows it hit earlier this year. Its market capitalization is up near $57bn, a bit more than the $45 billion that the government lent them through the Troubled Assets Relief Programme, or Tarp. Some are even expecting that the government will make a profit on its Citigroup investment.

These hopes are probably somewhat premature. Citigroup still has many bad assets on its books which it has not yet written down. Furthermore, the government is directly on the hook for $300bn of these bad assets, having offered a guarantee as part of its "December Citigroup Rescue Special".

In this case, Citigroup may be able to prevent losses and boost the value of its government-owned stock because the government is picking up its bad debts. This is a case of money going into one pocket but out of the other one; that's not the way that most investors make money.

In fact, much of the story of the return of bank profitability has this character of money in one pocket and out the other pocket. To make the story as simple as possible, banks can now borrow money short-term at near zero cost from the US Federal Reserve. The Fed has pushed rates to near zero in order to boost the economy. On the other side, banks can buy up US government bonds that are currently paying around 3.5% interest.

This means that we lend the banks the money that they lend back to us, albeit at a considerably higher interest rate. To take round numbers, let's say that the banks have borrowed $1 trillion from the Fed's various lending facilities. (The Fed's total loans are now over $2trn.) Suppose they pay an average interest rate of 0.2% on this money. If the banks then buy up government bonds that pay a 3.5% interest rate, they can pocket the difference of 3.3 percentage points. On a trillion dollars of lending, this will give the banks $33bn a year in net interest or profit. This is the extra money that the government is paying the banks to borrow back the money that it lent them through the Fed.

Of course this is not the whole story of the banks' return to profitability. We also have the shrewd traders like the Goldman Sachs crew. They take the money that they borrowed, either directly from the government or with the government's guarantee, and use it to speculate in items like oil and other commodities.

These folks are betting that they can outguess the markets. For example, the Goldman boys might catch oil on the way up, so that consumers pay higher gas prices somewhat sooner to cover Goldman's trading profits. Alternatively, they might short a commodity like oil. This will cause the price to drop more quickly than would otherwise be the case, leaving producers with somewhat less money than if Goldman hadn't stepped into the market.

In either case, Goldman's gains come at the expense of other actors in the market. There is not anything necessarily wrong with speculation; informed speculation can provide useful information to the markets. However, in this case the taxpayers are financing it, and taking the risk if it goes bad.

It turned out Goldman's bets were winners in the second quarter, so this means that the taxpayers paid for Goldman's profits with the higher gap between the prices paid by gasoline buyers and other consumers and the money received by oil companies and other producers. Of course, if Goldman's bets had gone badly, taxpayers would have been forced to cough up the money to make up the losses directly through the Treasury. Either way, the taxpayers get to pay.

That is the basic story of the banking industry. These folks have the system set up so that they should be able to make money pretty much regardless of what happens, with the risk of bad outcomes all placed on the taxpayers.

Many people are outraged that the banks intend to pay their top executives large bonuses. But these unthinking populists simply don't recognize these people's extraordinary talent. After all, it is not everyone who can get the government to subsidise them to the tune of several billion dollars a year. These people may not fare very well in a market economy, but these bank executives get huge rewards in an economy like the one we have in the US.