Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Emails implicate Treasury Secretary Geithner in cover-up of AIG deal to bail out the banks

Emails implicate Treasury Secretary Geithner in cover-up of AIG deal to bail out the banks

Go To Original

A financial scandal has erupted that implicates Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in efforts to conceal the funneling of $62 billion in taxpayer funds to 16 large banks as part of the government bailout of the insurance giant American International Group (AIG).

The revelations coincide with the imminent announcement by the big US banks of their profits and year-end bonuses for 2009. Most of the major banks are expected to report huge profits—in the case of Goldman Sachs, its highest profits ever—and combined bonuses of $30 billion or more.

On January 7, Congressman Darrell Issa, the ranking Republican on the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, released emails he had obtained from AIG showing that between November of 2008 and March of 2009, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York pressed the bailed out company to delay or withhold critical details of arrangements between it, its major bank counterparties and the Fed.

The most important of these was the government’s decision to pay off the banks at 100 cents on the dollar for billions of dollars in credit default swaps they had purchased from AIG, which the company could not redeem.

Credit default swaps are a major part of the unregulated derivatives market, valued at $600 trillion at the time of the financial crash in 2008. Corporations and banks buy credit default swaps as insurance against the default of specific corporate bonds or other securities. The seller guarantees to back the face value of the insured securities in the event that they default. AIG was by far the biggest seller of credit default swaps, with bank counterparties throughout the world.

This so-called “shadow banking system” enabled the banks to vastly increase their borrowing, with the blessing of federal regulators, so they could make super-profits from bigger and more varied speculative bets, such as subprime mortgages. The vast and deregulated market in swaps played a major role in the breakdown of the US and global financial system.

The banking regulatory overhaul backed by the Obama administration and passed last month by the House of Representatives neither eliminates this market nor imposes serious oversight on it.

The backdoor bailout of the banks in the form of a government payoff for credit default swaps that had gone sour was part of the rescue of AIG, beginning with an $85 billion line of credit from the Fed in September of 2008, and now totaling $182.3 billion. The US government owns 80 percent of the insurance firm.

The banks had purchased the swaps from AIG to insure collateralized debt obligations backed by subprime mortgages. The value of the CDOs had collapsed along with the bursting of the subprime mortgage bubble, leaving major banks in the US and Europe holding worthless securities and facing bankruptcy in their own right.

Among the banks most exposed was Goldman Sachs, which was the largest customer for the insurance firm’s credit default swaps. Goldman was the biggest beneficiary of the government scheme to cover the banks’ bad investments with AIG, receiving $12.9 billion from the deal. Bank of America got $5.2 billion and Citigroup received $2.3 billion.

At the time of the government’s decision to pay off the banks at par value and the first series of emails pressing AIG to withhold information about the deal from the Securities Exchange Commission and the public, Geithner was the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, a post which he had held for five years.

He remained at that post until he joined the Obama administration as treasury secretary in early 2009. Both as president of the New York Fed and as treasury secretary, Geithner has played a key role in the multi-trillion-dollar bailout of the banks.

Now emails have been published that strongly indicate he was involved in a cover-up of a key aspect of the government’s rescue of Wall Street.

The emails also show that the New York Fed, during Geithner’s tenure as president, pressed AIG to conceal some $10 billion in so-called “synthetic” CDOs it owned or insured. Synthetic CDOs are bundles of derivatives rather than bundles of loans—i.e., securities one dimension further removed from any real value—and are now considered among the most toxic of speculative assets.

Releasing the emails last week, Issa said: “Inadvertent reporting errors are one thing. Directing a bailed-out company to withhold crucial information from a government agency in order to keep the American public in the dark is another. Whether or not the United States treasury secretary was directly implicated in the scheme is a key question. Either he didn’t know and he was negligent or he did know and presided over a blatant attempt to withhold information from the American people.”

Last week the Treasury and the New York Fed issued statements claiming that Geithner was not involved in the potentially incriminating emails because he had already been nominated by President Obama to become his treasury secretary and had recused himself from any direct dealings with bailed-out companies. Amid calls from some Republicans for Geithner to resign, Obama’s press spokesman, Robert Gibbs, on Friday said the president retained confidence in Geithner.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, Democrat of New York, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, announced that his committee would hold hearings next week on the AIG affair and invited Geithner to testify, along with the chief counsel for the New York Fed, Thomas Baxter. Senator Charles Grassley, Republican from Iowa, called for the Senate Finance Committee to hold similar hearings.

The claim that Geithner knew nothing about the efforts of the New York Fed to suppress information about the government bailout of AIG’s bank counterparties strains credulity. In fact, the first of the emails from the Fed to AIG was sent on November 24, 2008, only hours after Obama publicly nominated Geithner as his treasury secretary.

Obama’s choice for the post had been leaked by the press the previous Friday, sparking a celebration on Wall Street in the form of a 494-point rise in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Following the initial $85 billion bailout of AIG, the company sought to negotiate terms with its major bank counterparties, asking for discounts of up to 40 percent on its credit default swap liabilities. The banks flatly refused to accept anything less than face value, even thought the contracts would have fetched pennies on the dollar if sold into the market.

In late November of 2008, the New York Fed took over the negotiations between the banks and AIG, acting as the de facto broker for the major Wall Street firms. It set up a holding company, Maiden Lane III, which used taxpayer money to retire the banks’ credit default swaps with AIG and buy the underlying toxic subprime CDOs from the banks.

AIG told the New York Fed on November 24 that it planned to publicly disclose details about Maiden Lane III the following day. The same day, a lawyer with the New York Fed sent an email urging AIG to delay making such a statement.

AIG also planned to file a report on the deal, as required under law, with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Another New York Fed lawyer on November 25 sent the company an email saying, “We believe that the agreements listed in the index [naming the banks to be covered and the fact that they would receive par value for their swaps] do not need to be filed.”

Subsequent emails show that New York Fed lawyers struck out parts of AIG drafts of SEC filings including this information. In the event, AIG went public with the government bailout of its bank counterparties only in March of 2009, under pressure from some congressmen and the SEC.

One result of the New York Fed’s tactics was to delay public knowledge of the government bailout of AIG’s bank clients until after Geithner’s Senate confirmation hearings in January of 2009, sparing the nominee from embarrassing questions about his role in covering the bad investments of the banks.

The evidence of what amounts to a government conspiracy to rescue the banks and keep the public in the dark underscores the incestuous and corrupt relationship between the state and the financial aristocracy. All of the official institutions of American capitalism are implicated, from the White House (both the Bush and Obama administrations), to Congress, to the media and the courts.

Obama chose Geithner for his treasury secretary precisely because of Geithner’s long record of service to Wall Street. This service by no means ended with the establishment of Maiden Lane III and its concealment.

Geithner played a major role in opposing demands for limits on Wall Street pay. In March of 2009, when public outrage erupted over news that AIG had allocated $1 billion in bonuses, including $165 million for its Financial Products unit—which sold credit default swaps and other derivatives—Geither, together with Obama’s chief financial adviser, Lawrence Summers, intervened to scuttle bills in Congress that would have imposed a surtax and other restrictions on bonuses issued by bailed-out firms.

Last month, Geithner’s “special master for compensation,” Kenneth Feinberg, agreed to allow AIG to raise the 2009 compensation of a top employee by $4 million. Both Feinberg and AIG have refused to divulge the identity of this recipient of government largess.

Geithner’s predecessor at the Treasury, Henry Paulson, helped engineer the AIG deal which paid off the company’s bank clients at taxpayer expense. It is hardly an accident that before joining the Bush administration, Paulson was the CEO of Goldman Sachs, the chief beneficiary of the secret deal.

When the government bailed out AIG in September of 2008, Paulson fired the CEO and replaced him with Edward Libby, who was then on the board of directors of Goldman. Libby, who has since resigned his AIG post, at the time owned more than 27,000 shares of Goldman Sachs, currently worth over $4.6 million dollars.

The Military-Industrial Complex is Ruining the Economy

The Military-Industrial Complex is Ruining the Economy

Go To Original

Everyone knows that the too big to fails and their dishonest and footsy-playing regulators and politicians are largely responsible for trashing the economy.

But the military-industrial complex shares much of the blame.

Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says that the Iraq war will cost $3-5 trillion dollars.

Sure, experts say that the Iraq war has increased the threat of terrorism. See this, this, this, this, this, this and this. And we launched the Iraq war based on the false linkage of Saddam and 9/11, and knowingly false claims that Saddam had WMDs. And top British officials, former CIA director George Tenet, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and many others say that the Iraq war was planned before 9/11. But this essay is about dollars and cents.

America is also spending a pretty penny in Afghanistan. The U.S. admits there are only a small handful of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. As ABC notes:

U.S. intelligence officials have concluded there are only about 100 al Qaeda fighters in the entire country.

With 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at an estimated yearly cost of $30 billion, it means that for every one al Qaeda fighter, the U.S. will commit 1,000 troops and $300 million a year.

Sure, the government apparently planned the Afghanistan war before 9/11 (see this and this). And the Taliban offered to turn over Bin Laden (see this and this). And we could have easily killed Bin Laden in 2001 and again in 2007, but chose not to, even though that would have saved the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars in costs in prosecuting the Afghanistan war. But this essay is about dollars and cents.

Increasing the Debt Burden of a Nation Sinking In Debt

All of the spending on unnecessary wars adds up.

The U.S. is adding trillions to its debt burden to finance its multiple wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, etc.

Two top American economists - Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff - show that the more indebted a country is, with a government debt/GDP ratio of 0.9, and external debt/GDP of 0.6 being critical thresholds, the more GDP growth drops materially.

Specifically, Reinhart and Rogoff write:

The relationship between government debt and real GDP growth is weak for debt/GDP ratios below a threshold of 90 percent of GDP. Above 90 percent, median growth rates fall by one percent, and average growth falls considerably more. We find that the threshold for public debt is similar in advanced and emerging economies...

Indeed, it should be obvious to anyone who looks at the issue that deficits do matter.

A PhD economist told me:

War always causes recession. Well, if it is a very short war, then it may stimulate the economy in the short-run. But if there is not a quick victory and it drags on, then wars always put the nation waging war into a recession and hurt its economy.

You know about America's unemployment problem. You may have even heard that the U.S. may very well have suffered a permanent destruction of jobs.

But did you know that the defense employment sector is booming?

As I pointed out in August, public sector spending - and mainly defense spending - has accounted for virtually all of the new job creation in the past 10 years:

The U.S. has largely been financing job creation for ten years. Specifically, as the chief economist for Business Week, Michael Mandel, points out, public spending has accounted for virtually all new job creation in the past 1o years:

Private sector job growth was almost non-existent over the past ten years. Take a look at this horrifying chart:

Between May 1999 and May 2009, employment in the private sector sector only rose by 1.1%, by far the lowest 10-year increase in the post-depression period.

It's impossible to overstate how bad this is. Basically speaking, the private sector job machine has almost completely stalled over the past ten years. Take a look at this chart:

Over the past 10 years, the private sector has generated roughly 1.1 million additional jobs, or about 100K per year. The public sector created about 2.4 million jobs.

But even that gives the private sector too much credit. Remember that the private sector includes health care, social assistance, and education, all areas which receive a lot of government support.


Most of the industries which had positive job growth over the past ten years were in the HealthEdGov sector. In fact, financial job growth was nearly nonexistent once we take out the health insurers.

Let me finish with a final chart.

Without a decade of growing government support from rising health and education spending and soaring budget deficits, the labor market would have been flat on its back. [120]

Raw Story argues that the U.S. is building a largely military economy:

The use of the military-industrial complex as a quick, if dubious, way of jump-starting the economy is nothing new, but what is amazing is the divergence between the military economy and the civilian economy, as shown by this New York Times chart.

In the past nine years, non-industrial production in the US has declined by some 19 percent. It took about four years for manufacturing to return to levels seen before the 2001 recession -- and all those gains were wiped out in the current recession.

By contrast, military manufacturing is now 123 percent greater than it was in 2000 -- it has more than doubled while the rest of the manufacturing sector has been shrinking...

It's important to note the trajectory -- the military economy is nearly three times as large, proportionally to the rest of the economy, as it was at the beginning of the Bush administration. And it is the only manufacturing sector showing any growth. Extrapolate that trend, and what do you get?

The change in leadership in Washington does not appear to be abating that trend...[121]

So most of the job creation has been by the public sector. But because the job creation has been financed with loans from China and private banks, trillions in unnecessary interest charges have been incurred by the U.S.So we're running up our debt (which will eventually decrease economic growth), but the only jobs we're creating are military and other public sector jobs.

PhD economist Dean Baker points out that America's massive military spending on unnecessary and unpopular wars lowers economic growth and increases unemployment:

Defense spending means that the government is pulling away resources from the uses determined by the market and instead using them to buy weapons and supplies and to pay for soldiers and other military personnel. In standard economic models, defense spending is a direct drain on the economy, reducing efficiency, slowing growth and costing jobs.

A few years ago, the Center for Economic and Policy Research commissioned Global Insight, one of the leading economic modeling firms, to project the impact of a sustained increase in defense spending equal to 1.0 percentage point of GDP. This was roughly equal to the cost of the Iraq War.

Global Insight's model projected that after 20 years the economy would be about 0.6 percentage points smaller as a result of the additional defense spending. Slower growth would imply a loss of almost 700,000 jobs compared to a situation in which defense spending had not been increased. Construction and manufacturing were especially big job losers in the projections, losing 210,000 and 90,000 jobs, respectively.

The scenario we asked Global Insight [recognized as the most consistently accurate forecasting company in the world] to model turned out to have vastly underestimated the increase in defense spending associated with current policy. In the most recent quarter, defense spending was equal to 5.6 percent of GDP. By comparison, before the September 11th attacks, the Congressional Budget Office projected that defense spending in 2009 would be equal to just 2.4 percent of GDP. Our post-September 11th build-up was equal to 3.2 percentage points of GDP compared to the pre-attack baseline. This means that the Global Insight projections of job loss are far too low...

The projected job loss from this increase in defense spending would be close to 2 million. In other words, the standard economic models that project job loss from efforts to stem global warming also project that the increase in defense spending since 2000 will cost the economy close to 2 million jobs in the long run.

The Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst has also shown that non-military spending creates more jobs than military spending.

So we're running up our debt - which will eventually decrease economic growth - and creating many fewer jobs than if we spent the money on non-military purposes.

But the War on Terror is Urgent for Our National Security, Isn't It?

For those who still think that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are necessary to fight terrorism, remember that a leading advisor to the U.S. military - the very hawkish and pro-war Rand Corporation - released a study in 2008 called "How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa'ida".

The report confirms that the war on terror is actually weakening national security. As a press release about the study states:

"Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism."

Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told the Senate that the war on terror is "a mythical historical narrative". And Newsweek has now admitted that the war on terror is wholly unnecessary.

In fact, starting right after 9/11 -- at the latest -- the goal has always been to create "regime change" and instability in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Lebanon; the goal was never really to destroy Al Qaeda. As American reporter Gareth Porter writes in Asia Times:

Three weeks after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld established an official military objective of not only removing the Saddam Hussein regime by force but overturning the regime in Iran, as well as in Syria and four other countries in the Middle East, according to a document quoted extensively in then-under secretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith's recently published account of the Iraq war decisions. Feith's account further indicates that this aggressive aim of remaking the map of the Middle East by military force and the threat of force was supported explicitly by the country's top military leaders.

Feith's book, War and Decision, released last month, provides excerpts of the paper Rumsfeld sent to President George W Bush on September 30, 2001, calling for the administration to focus not on taking down Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network but on the aim of establishing "new regimes" in a series of states...


General Wesley Clark, who commanded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign in the Kosovo war, recalls in his 2003 book Winning Modern Wars being told by a friend in the Pentagon in November 2001 that the list of states that Rumsfeld and deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz wanted to take down included Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Somalia [and Lebanon].


When this writer asked Feith . . . which of the six regimes on the Clark list were included in the Rumsfeld paper, he replied, "All of them."


The Defense Department guidance document made it clear that US military aims in regard to those states would go well beyond any ties to terrorism. The document said the Defense Department would also seek to isolate and weaken those states and to "disrupt, damage or destroy" their military capacities - not necessarily limited to weapons of mass destruction (WMD)...

Rumsfeld's paper was given to the White House only two weeks after Bush had approved a US military operation in Afghanistan directed against bin Laden and the Taliban regime. Despite that decision, Rumsfeld's proposal called explicitly for postponing indefinitely US airstrikes and the use of ground forces in support of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in order to try to catch bin Laden.

Instead, the Rumsfeld paper argued that the US should target states that had supported anti-Israel forces such as Hezbollah and Hamas.


After the bombing of two US embassies in East Africa [in 1988] by al-Qaeda operatives, State Department counter-terrorism official Michael Sheehan proposed supporting the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against bin Laden's sponsor, the Taliban regime. However, senior US military leaders "refused to consider it", according to a 2004 account by Richard H Shultz, Junior, a military specialist at Tufts University.

A senior officer on the Joint Staff told State Department counter-terrorism director Sheehan he had heard terrorist strikes characterized more than once by colleagues as a "small price to pay for being a superpower".

If you still believe that the war on terror is necessary, please read this.

Torture is Bad for the Economy

For those who still think torture is a necessary evil, you might be interested to learn that top experts in interrogation say that, actually:

Indeed, historians tell us that torture has been used throughout history - not to gain information - but as a form of intimidation, to terrorize people into obedience. In other words, at its core, torture is a form of terrorism.

Moreover, the type of torture used by the U.S. in the last 10 years is of a special type. Senator Levin revealed that the the U.S. used torture techniques aimed at extracting false confessions.

McClatchy subsequently filled in some of the details:

Former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration...

For most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there."

It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003 — according to a newly released Justice Department document...

When people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people to push harder," he continued."Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn't any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam . . .

A former U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, told Army investigators in 2006 that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility were under "pressure" to produce evidence of ties between al Qaida and Iraq.

"While we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaida and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al Qaida and Iraq," Burney told staff of the Army Inspector General. "The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results."

"I think it's obvious that the administration was scrambling then to try to find a connection, a link (between al Qaida and Iraq)," [Senator] Levin said in a conference call with reporters. "They made out links where they didn't exist."

Levin recalled Cheney's assertions that a senior Iraqi intelligence officer had met Mohammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, in the Czech Republic capital of Prague just months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The FBI and CIA found that no such meeting occurred.

In other words, top Bush administration officials not only knowingly lied about a non-existent connection between Al Qaida and Iraq, but they pushed and insisted that interrogators use special torture methods aimed at extracting false confessions to attempt to create such a false linkage. See also this and this.

Paul Krugman eloquently summarized the truth about the type of torture used:

Let's say this slowly: the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link.

There's a word for this: it's evil.

But since this essay in on dollars and cents, the important point is that terrorism is bad for the economy.

Specifically, a study by Harvard and NBER points out:

From an economic standpoint, terrorism has been described to have four main effects (see, e.g., US Congress, Joint Economic Committee, 2002). First, the capital stock (human and physical) of a country is reduced as a result of terrorist attacks. Second, the terrorist threat induces higher levels of uncertainty. Third, terrorism promotes increases in counter-terrorism expenditures, drawing resources from productive sectors for use in security. Fourth, terrorism is known to affect negatively specific industries such as tourism.

The Harvard/NBER concludes:

In accordance with the predictions of the model, higher levels of terrorist risks are associated with lower levels of net foreign direct investment positions, even after controlling for other types of country risks. On average, a standard deviation increase in the terrorist risk is associated with a fall in the net foreign direct investment position of about 5 percent of GDP.

So the more unnecessary wars American launches, the more innocent civilians we kill, and the more people we torture, the less foreign investment in America, the more destruction to our capital stock, the higher the level of uncertainty, the more counter-terrorism expenditures and the less expenditures in more productive sectors, and the greater the hit to tourism and some other industries.


Terrorism has contributed to a decline in the global economy (for example, European Commission, 2001).

So military adventurism and torture, which increase terrorism, hurt the world economy. And see this.

For the foregoing reasons, the military-industrial complex is ruining the economy.

Answering Helen Thomas on Why They Want to Harm Us

Answering Helen Thomas on Why They Want to Harm Us

Go To Original

Thank God for Helen Thomas, the only person to show any courage at the White House press briefing after President Barack Obama gave a flaccid account of the intelligence screw-up that almost downed an airliner on Christmas Day.

After Obama briefly addressed L’Affaire Abdulmutallab and wrote “must do better” on the report cards of the national security schoolboys responsible for the near catastrophe, the President turned the stage over to counter-terrorism guru John Brennan and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

It took 89-year old veteran correspondent Helen Thomas to break through the vapid remarks about channeling “intelligence streams,” fixing “no-fly” lists, deploying “behavior detection officers,” and buying more body-imaging scanners.

Thomas recognized the John & Janet filibuster for what it was, as her catatonic press colleagues took their customary dictation and asked their predictable questions. Instead, Thomas posed an adult query that spotlighted the futility of government plans to counter terrorism with more high-tech gizmos and more intrusions on the liberties and privacy of the traveling public.

She asked why Abdulmutallab did what he did.

Thomas: “Why do they want to do us harm? And what is the motivation? We never hear what you find out on why.”

Brennan: “Al Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents… They attract individuals like Mr. Abdulmutallab and use them for these types of attacks. He was motivated by a sense of religious sort of drive. Unfortunately, al Qaeda has perverted Islam, and has corrupted the concept of Islam, so that he’s (sic) able to attract these individuals. But al Qaeda has the agenda of destruction and death.”

Thomas: “And you’re saying it’s because of religion?”

Brennan: “I’m saying it’s because of an al Qaeda organization that used the banner of religion in a very perverse and corrupt way.”

Thomas: “Why?”

Brennan: “I think this is a — long issue, but al Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland.”

Thomas: “But you haven’t explained why.”

Neither did President Obama, nor anyone else in the U.S. political/media hierarchy. All the American public gets is the boilerplate about how evil al Qaeda continues to pervert a religion and entice and exploit impressionable young men.

There is almost no discussion about why so many people in the Muslim world object to U.S. policies so strongly that they are inclined to resist violently and even resort to suicide attacks.

Obama’s Non-Answer

I had been hoping Obama would say something intelligent about what drove Abdulmutallab to do what he did, but the President limited himself to a few vacuous comments before sending in the clowns. This is what he said before he walked away from the podium:

“It is clear that al Qaeda increasingly seeks to recruit individuals without known terrorist affiliations … to do their bidding. … And that’s why we must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al Qaeda offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death … while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress. … That’s the vision that is far more powerful than the hatred of these violent extremists.”

But why it is so hard for Muslims to “get” that message? Why can’t they end their preoccupation with dodging U.S. missiles in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Gaza long enough to reflect on how we are only trying to save them from terrorists while simultaneously demonstrating our commitment to “justice and progress”?

Does a smart fellow like Obama expect us to believe that all we need to do is “communicate clearly to Muslims” that it is al Qaeda, not the U.S. and its allies, that brings “misery and death”? Does any informed person not know that the unprovoked U.S.-led invasion of Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and displaced 4.5 million from their homes? How is that for "misery and death"?

Rather than a failure to communicate, U.S. officials are trying to rewrite recent history, which seems to be much easier to accomplish with the Washington press corps and large segments of the American population than with the Muslim world.

But why isn't there a frank discussion by America’s leaders and media about the real motivation of Muslim anger toward the United States? Why was Helen Thomas the only journalist to raise the touchy but central question of motive?

Peeking Behind the Screen

We witnessed a similar phenomenon when the 9/11 Commission Report tiptoed into a cautious discussion of possible motives behind the 9/11 attacks. To their credit, the drafters of that report apparently went as far as their masters would allow, in gingerly introducing a major elephant into the room:

“America’s policy choices have consequences. Right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world.” (p. 376)

When asked later about the flabby way that last sentence ended, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, Vice-Chair of the 9/11 Commission, explained that there had been a Donnybrook over whether that paragraph could be included at all.

The drafters also squeezed in the reason given by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as to why he “masterminded” the attacks on 9/11:

“By his own account, KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed … from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.”

Would you believe that former Vice President Dick Cheney also has pointed to U.S. support for Israel as one of the “true sources of resentment”? This unique piece of honesty crept into his speech to the American Enterprise Institute on May 21, 2009.

Sure, he also trotted out the bromide that the terrorists hate “all the things that make us a force for good in the world.” But the Israel factor did slip into the speech, perhaps an inadvertent acknowledgement of the Israeli albatross adorning the neck of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Very few pundits and academicians are willing to allude to this reality, presumably out of fear for their future career prospects.

Former senior CIA officer Paul Pillar, now a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the few willing to refer, in his typically understated way, to “all the other things … including policies and practices that affect the likelihood that people … will be radicalized, and will try to act out the anger against us.” One has to fill in the blanks regarding what those "other things" are.

But no worries. Secretary Napolitano has a fix for this unmentionable conundrum. It’s called “counter-radicalization,” which she describes thusly:

“How do we identify someone before they become radicalized to the point where they’re ready to blow themselves up with others on a plane? And how do we communicate better American values and so forth … around the globe?”

Better communication. That’s the ticket.

Hypocrisy and Double Talk

But Napolitano doesn’t acknowledge the underlying problem, which is that many Muslims have watched Washington’s behavior closely for many years and view pious U.S. declarations about peace, justice, democracy and human rights as infuriating examples of hypocrisy and double talk.

So, Washington’s sanitized discussion about motives for terrorism seems more intended for the U.S. domestic audience than the Muslim world.

After all, people in the Middle East already know how Palestinians have been mistreated for decades; how Washington has propped up Arab dictatorships; how Muslims have been locked away at Guantanamo without charges; how the U.S. military has killed civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; how U.S. mercenaries have escaped punishment for slaughtering innocents.

The purpose of U.S. “public diplomacy” appears more designed to shield Americans from this unpleasant reality, offering instead feel-good palliatives about the beneficence of U.S. actions. Most American journalists and politicians go along with the charade out of fear that otherwise they would be accused of lacking patriotism or sympathizing with “the enemy.”

Commentators who are neither na├»ve nor afraid are simply shut out of the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM). Salon.com’s Glen Greenwald, for example, has complained loudly about “how our blind, endless enabling of Israeli actions fuels terrorism directed at the U.S.,” and how it is taboo to point this out.

Greenwald recently called attention to a little-noticed Associated Press report on the possible motives of the 23-year-old Nigerian Abdulmutallab. The report quoted his Yemeni friends to the effect that the he was “not overtly extremist.” But they noted that he was open about his sympathies toward the Palestinians and his anger over Israel’s actions in Gaza. (Emphasis added)

Former CIA specialist on al Qaeda, Michael Scheuer, has been still more outspoken on what he sees as Israel’s tying down the American Gulliver in the Middle East. Speaking Monday on C-SPAN, he complained bitterly that any debate on the issue of American support for Israel and its effects is normally squelched.

Scheuer added that the Israel Lobby had just succeeded in getting him removed from his job at the Jamestown Foundation think tank for saying that Obama was “doing what I call the Tel Aviv Two-Step.”

More to the point, Scheuer asserted:

“For anyone to say that our support for Israel doesn’t hurt us in the Muslim world … is to just defy reality.”

Beyond loss of work, those who speak out can expect ugly accusations. The Israeli media network Arutz Sheva, which is considered the voice of the settler movement, weighed in strongly, branding Scheuer’s C-SPAN remarks “blatantly anti-Semitic.”

Media Squelching

As for media squelching, I continue to be amazed at how otherwise informed folks express total surprise when I refer them to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s statement about his motivation for attacking the United States, as cited on page 147 of the 9/11 Commission Report. Here is the full sentence (shortened above):

“By his own account, KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experience there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.”

One can understand how even those following such things closely can get confused. On Aug. 30, 2009, five years after the 9/11 Commission Report was released, readers of the neoconservative Washington Post were given a diametrically different view, based on what the Post called “an intelligence summary:”

“KSM’s limited and negative experience in the United States — which included a brief jail-stay because of unpaid bills — almost certainly helped propel him on his path to becoming a terrorist … He stated that his contact with Americans, while minimal, confirmed his view that the United States was a debauched and racist country.”

Apparently, the Post found this revisionist version politically more convenient, in that it obscured Mohammed’s other explanation implicating “U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.” It’s much more comforting to view KSM as a disgruntled visitor who nursed his personal grievances into justification for mass murder.

An unusually candid view of the dangers accruing from the U.S. identification with Israel’s policies appeared five years ago in an unclassified study published by the Pentagon-appointed U.S. Defense Science Board on Sept. 23, 2004. Contradicting President George W. Bush, the board stated:

“Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States.

“Thus, when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.”

Abdulmutallab’s Attack

Getting back to Abdulmutallab and his motive in trying to blow up the airliner, how was this individual without prior terrorist affiliations suddenly transformed into an international terrorist ready to die while killing innocents?

If, as John Brennan seems to suggest, al Qaeda terrorists are hard-wired at birth for the “wanton slaughter of innocents,” how are they also able to jump-start a privileged 23-year old Nigerian, inculcate in him the acquired characteristics of a terrorist, and persuade him to do the bidding of al Qaeda/Persian Gulf?

As indicated above, the young Nigerian seems to have had particular trouble with Israel’s wanton slaughter of more than a thousand civilians in Gaza a year ago, a brutal campaign that was defended in Washington as justifiable self-defense.

Moreover, it appears that Abdulmutallab is not the only anti-American “terrorist” so motivated. When the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda announced that they were uniting into “al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula,” their combined rhetoric railed against the Israeli attack on Gaza.

And on Dec. 30, Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a 32-year-old Palestinian-born Jordanian physician, killed seven American CIA operatives and one Jordanian intelligence officer near Khost, Afghanistan, when he detonated a suicide bomb.

Though most U.S. media stories treated al-Balawi as a fanatical double agent driven by irrational hatreds, other motivations could be gleaned by carefully reading articles about his personal history.

Al-Balawi’s mother told Agence France-Presse that her son had never been an “extremist.” Al-Balawi’s widow, Defne Bayrak, made a similar statement to Newsweek. In a New York Times article, al-Balawi’s brother was quoted as describing him as a “very good brother” and a “brilliant doctor.”

So what led al-Balawi to take his own life in order to kill U.S. and Jordanian intelligence operatives?

Al-Balawi’s widow said her husband “started to change” after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. His brother said al-Balawi “changed” during last year’s three-week-long Israeli offensive in Gaza, which killed about 1,300 Palestinians. (Emphasis added)

When al-Balawi volunteered with a medical organization to treat injured Palestinians in Gaza, he was arrested by Jordanian authorities, his brother said.

It was after that arrest that the Jordanian intelligence service apparently coerced or “recruited” al-Balawi to become a spy who would penetrate al Qaeda’s hierarchy and provide actionable intelligence to the CIA.

“If you catch a cat and put it in a corner, she will jump on you,” the brother said in explaining why al-Balawi would turn to suicide attack.

“My husband was anti-American; so am I,” his widow told Newsweek. Her two little girls would grow up fatherless, but she had no regrets.

Answering Helen

Are we starting to get the picture of what the United States is up against in the Muslim world?

Does Helen Thomas deserve an adult answer to her question about motive? Has President Obama been able to assimilate all this?

Or is the U.S. political/media establishment incapable of confronting this reality and/or taking meaningful action to alleviate the underlying causes of the violence?

Is the reported reaction of a CIA official to al-Balawi’s attack the appropriate one: "Last week’s attack will be avenged. Some very bad people will eventually have a very bad day.”

Revenge has not always turned out very well in the past.

Does anyone remember the brutal killing of four Blackwater contractors on March 31, 2004, when they took a bad turn and ended up in the wrong neighborhood of the Iraqi city of Fallujah — and how U.S. forces virtually leveled that large city in retribution after George W. Bush won his second term the following November?

If you read only the Fawning Corporate Media, you would blissfully think that the killing of the four Blackwater operatives was the work of fanatical animals who got – along with their neighbors – the reprisal they deserved. You wouldn’t know that the killings represented the second turn in that specific cycle of violence.

On March 22, 2004, Israeli forces assassinated the then-spiritual leader of Hamas in Gaza, Sheikh Yassin — a withering old man, blind and confined to a wheelchair. (Emphasis added)

That murder, plus sloppy navigation by the Blackwater men, set the stage for the next set of brutalities. The Blackwater operatives were killed by a group that described itself as the “Sheikh Yassin Revenge Brigade.”

Pamphlets and posters were all over the scene of the attack; one of the trucks that pulled around body parts of the mercenaries had a large poster photo of Yassin in its window, as did store fronts all over Fallujah.

We can wish Janet Napolitano luck with her “counter-radicalization” project and President Obama with his effort to "communicate clearly to Muslims," but there will be no diminution in the endless cycles of violence unless legitimate grievances are addressed on all sides.

It would certainly also help if the American people were finally let in on the root causes for what otherwise gets portrayed as unprovoked savagery by Muslims.

Study: More Families Using Food Stamps to Feed Kids

Study: More Families Using Food Stamps to Feed Kids

Go To Original

The United States has more poor children now than it did a year ago.

As recession-hammered families increase, more are using food stamps to feed their kids, according to a study by the Brookings Institution and First Focus, a bipartisan child advocacy group.

"They are a really good barometer, a kind of economic needs test," said Mark Rank, an expert on social welfare programs at Washington University in St. Louis. "If you're receiving food stamps and you're a child, by definition, you're in poverty."

Across the nation, 7 million people joined the food stamp rolls from August 2008 to August 2009, the study said. Users rose from 29.5 million to 36.5 million. Half were children.

States scattered coast to coast showed "very high growth" in food stamp caseloads. In Florida, almost half a million people joined the rolls, a 34 percent increase; in North Carolina, nearly 200,000, a 21 percent increase.

Other states that showed a high increase in the percentage of food stamp caseloads include Idaho, with a 36 percent increase; Washington state, up 32 percent; Georgia, up 27 percent; California, up 21 percent; and Texas, up 20 percent.

"As parents lose jobs and as work becomes scarcer, it's only natural to see your needs-based programs have more people applying for that assistance," said Scott Rowson, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Social Services.

The study appears to buttress a U.S. Census report last fall, which found that nearly one in five children live in poverty. Julia Isaacs, a Brookings scholar, said that could end up closer to one in four by 2012.

The food stamp program is now known as SNAP, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Participants use ATM-like cards instead of the old scrip.

The benefits always have been aimed at a broader audience of the poor than most anti-poverty programs are. To become eligible, generally one must earn less than 130 percent of poverty guidelines — below $28,665 for a family of four — and have no more than $2,000 in the bank.

Unemployment was 4.9 percent in December 2007, when the government pegs the start of the recession. Now it's 10 percent. Many workers have seen their paychecks cut and benefits such as health insurance disappear.

Despite the food-stamp safety net, experts worry.

"Children in households that experience poverty are at risk of other kinds of problems, so it's definitely something to be concerned about," Rank said. "It has bad effects on families."

State .........% increase in SNAP participants From Jan-June 2008 to Jan-June 2009

Alabama ......... 19

Alaska ........... 12

Arizona .......... 30

Arkansas ......... 9

California ....... 21

Colorado ......... 27

Connecticut ...... 13

Delaware ......... 22

DC ............... 15

Florida .......... 34

Georgia .......... 27

Hawaii ........... 19

Idaho ............ 36

Illinois ......... 13

Indiana .......... 14

Iowa ............. 16

Kansas ........... 17

Kentucky ......... 11

Louisiana ........ 8

Maine ............ 16

Maryland ......... 26

Massachusetts .... 25

Michigan ......... 14

Minnesota ........ 17

Mississippi ...... 13

Missouri ......... 16

Montana .......... 15

Nebraska ......... 10

Nevada ........... 37

New Hampshire .... 23

New Jersey ....... 14

New Mexico ....... 22

New York ......... 18

North Carolina ... 21

North Dakota ..... 9

Ohio ............. 18

Oklahoma ......... 11

Oregon ........... 24

Pennsylvania ..... 12

Rhode Island ..... 19

South Carolina ... 17

South Dakota ..... 15

Tennessee ........ 18

Texas ............ 20

Utah ............. 39

Vermont .......... 31

Virginia ......... 20

Washington ....... 32

West Virginia .... 10

Wisconsin ........ 30

Wyoming .......... 18

Source: SNAP data from National Data Bank Version 8.2 Public Use, adjusted by data on disaster assistance from the Disaster Report by Fiscal Year.


The Brookings Institution news release

The full report by the Brookings Institution and First Focus

Were Afghan Children Executed By Us-Led Forces And Why Aren't The Media Interested?

Were Afghan Children Executed By Us-Led Forces And Why Aren't The Media Interested?

Go To Original

Ignoring or downplaying Western crimes is a standard feature of the corporate Western media. On rare occasions when a broadcaster or newspaper breaks ranks and reports 'our' crimes honestly, it is instructive to observe the response from the rest of the media. Do they follow suit, perhaps digging deeper for details, devoting space to profiles of the victims and interviews with grieving relatives, humanising all concerned? Do they put the crimes in perspective as the inevitable consequence of rapacious Western power? Or do they look away?

One such case is a report that American-led troops dragged Afghan children from their beds and shot them during a night raid on December 27 last year, leaving ten people dead. Afghan government investigators said that eight of the dead were schoolchildren, and that some of them had been handcuffed before being killed. Kabul-based Times correspondent Jerome Starkey reported the shocking accusations about the joint US-Afghan operation. But the rest of the UK news media have buried the report.

After details of the massacre first emerged, Afghan President Karzai sent a team of investigators to the alleged scene of the atrocity in the village of Ghazi Kang in eastern Kunar province. Assadullah Wafa, a former governor of Helmand province, led the investigation. He told The Times that US soldiers flew to Kunar from Kabul, implying that they were part of a special forces unit:

"At around 1 am, three nights ago, some American troops with helicopters left Kabul and landed around 2km away from the village. The troops walked from the helicopters to the houses and, according to my investigation, they gathered all the students from two rooms, into one room, and opened fire." (Jerome Starkey, 'Western troops accused of executing 10 Afghan civilians, including children', The Times, December 31, 2009; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/Afghanistan/article6971638.ece)

Wafa continued:

"I spoke to the local headmaster. It's impossible they were al-Qaeda. They were children, they were civilians, they were innocent. I condemn this attack."

The Times reporter interviewed the headmaster who told him that the victims were asleep in three rooms when the troops arrived:

"Seven students were in one room. A student and one guest were in another room, a guest room, and a farmer was asleep with his wife in a third building.

"First the foreign troops entered the guest room and shot two of them. Then they entered another room and handcuffed the seven students. Then they killed them. Abdul Khaliq [the farmer] heard shooting and came outside. When they saw him they shot him as well. He was outside. That's why his wife wasn't killed."

A local elder told the Times reporter: "I saw their school books covered in blood."

The dead children were aged from 11 to 17.

In Kabul, the massacre sparked demonstrations with protesters holding up banners showing photographs of dead children alongside placards demanding "Foreign troops leave Afghanistan" and "Stop killing us".

Nato's International Security Assistance Force told The Times that there was "no direct evidence to substantiate" Wafa's claims that unarmed civilians were harmed in what it described as a "joint coalition and Afghan security force" operation. The spokesperson claimed:

"As the joint assault force entered the village they came under fire from several buildings and in returning fire killed nine individuals."

The slippery military response did not even get the number of victims right: it was ten, not nine.

Jerome Starkey published a follow-up report, recounting President Karzai's vain plea for the gunmen to face justice. ('Karzai demands that US hands over raiders accused of village atrocity', The Times, January 1, 2010).

But the rest of the British media appear to have shown virtually zero interest in either refuting or confirming the report of schoolchildren being executed. As far as our media searches can determine, there were only three press reports in major UK newspapers that mentioned it; and even then, only in passing.

In a brief weekly news digest, the Sunday Telegraph devoted 45 words to accusations of the atrocity, repeating the propaganda version of it as "a raid in which US forces shot dead 10 people at a suspected bomb factory." (Walter Hemmens and Alex Singleton, 'The Week; that was', Sunday Telegraph, January 3, 2010).

A 136-word item in the Mirror led, not with accusations of the execution of schoolchildren, but with the deaths of American civilians killed elsewhere in a suicide attack at a military base in Afghanistan (Stephen White, 'Base blast kills Eight US civilians', The Mirror, January 2, 2010).

The Guardian spared 28 words at the end of a report on the death of a British bomb disposal expert to note that: "The Afghan government says that 10 people were killed, including eight schoolchildren, in a village in eastern Kunar province in a night raid by international forces last weekend." (Adam Gabbatt, 'British bomb disposal expert dies after Afghan blast: "His sacrifice and courage will not be forgotten": Death brings the total toll to 245 since war began' Guardian, January 2, 2009). As ever, the headline summed up the priorities precisely: British lives count; Afghan lives are of lesser importance.

To the corporate media's shame, it was left to the US-based journalist Amy Goodman to interview Times correspondent Jerome Starkey on her excellent independent news programme, Democracy Now! The programme reported that a preliminary investigation by the United Nations reinforced Afghan claims that most of the dead were schoolboys. (Jerome Starkey interviewed by Amy Goodman, 'US-Led Forces Accused of Executing Schoolchildren in Afghanistan', Democracy Now!, January 6, 2010; http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1/6/us_led_forces_accused_of_executing)

Goodman asked Starkey what had been the response of NATO forces to the allegations. He said

"Well, initially, US and NATO forces here were very slow to say anything at all, and that possibly reflects the most secret nature of this raid. The fact that, according to Afghan investigators, these troops appear to have flown to the scene from Kabul appears to confirm speculation that this was an operation carried out by some sort of Special Forces unit, possibly even by some sort of paramilitary unit attached to one of the intelligence agencies, the foreign intelligence agencies, which operate occasionally out of the capital."

Starkey emphasised again that he had spoken to the headmaster who had given him the names and school registration numbers of all of the dead pupils. An additional tragic detail was that the headmaster was an uncle of the eight children.

The Times correspondent was candid that it had not proven possible to verify all of the details of the reported massacre:

"Given the nature of the environment, we haven't been able to travel there ourselves, and we've been relying on telephone interviews with people who are there and people who've visited the scene."

But he also made it clear that the US-led occupation authorities were giving out very little information, and had refused Afghan requests to provide details of the gunmen or to hand the men over.

The reported events are sickening. But we have been unable to find a single mention of the alleged atrocity on the BBC website. We emailed news editors at the BBC, ITN and Channel 4 News, asking why they had not reported these serious allegations of schoolchildren being executed in a US-led operation. None of them have replied. The lack of interest shown by the British news media in pursuing this story is damning indeed.

The famous maxim of the three wise monkeys who 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' is an apt description of the corporate media's response to evidence for Western atrocities.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Mark Thompson, BBC director general
Email: mark.thompson@bbc.co.uk

Helen Boaden, BBC news director
Email: helenboaden.complaints@bbc.co.uk

Please send a copy to the Chair of the BBC Trust which is responsible for ensuring that the BBC upholds its obligations to the public:

Michael Lyons
Email: michael.lyons@bbc.co.uk

David Mannion, editor-in-chief, ITV News
Email: david.mannion@itn.co.uk

Jim Gray, editor, Channel 4 News
Email: jim.gray@itn.co.uk

A fuller list of media contacts can be found at:

Please copy your emails to us
Email: editor@medialens.org

Cancer Risks Debated for Type of X-Ray Scan

Cancer Risks Debated for Type of X-Ray Scan

Go To Original

The plan for broad use of X-ray body scanners to detect bombs or weapons under airline passengers’ clothes has rekindled a debate about the safety of delivering small doses of radiation to millions of people — a process some experts say is certain to result in a few additional cancer deaths.

The scanning machines, called “backscatter scanners,” deliver a dose of ionizing radiation equivalent to 1 percent or less of the radiation in a dental X-ray. The amount is so small that the risk to an individual is negligible, according to radiation experts. But collectively, the radiation doses from the scanners incrementally increase the risk of fatal cancers among the thousands or millions of travelers who will be exposed, some radiation experts believe.

Full-body scanners that are already in place in some airports around the country and abroad use a different type of imaging technology, called millimeter wave, that uses less powerful, non-ionizing radiation that does not pose the same risk.

But those machines also produce images that are less clear. And in the wake of the attempted bombing of an airplane traveling to Detroit from Amsterdam on Dec. 25, the United States is turning to backscatter scanners for routine security checks. Congress has appropriated funds for 450 scanners to be placed in American airports. On Thursday, President Obama called for greater use of “imaging technology” to spot weapons and explosives.

Some other countries may follow suit. Britain plans to use whole-body scanners and may test the backscatter system. On Friday, the French government said it would begin testing a few scanners of the millimeter wave type at Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, for flights bound for the United States. Italy and the Netherlands also plan to use the millimeter-wave scanners.

Most discussion about full-body scanners has focused on privacy issues surrounding the nude images that would result. The American Civil Liberties Union has denounced the practice as a “virtual strip search.”

Some experts argue that the broad use of the scanners raises the same question that pertains to any other routine exposure to small doses of radiation: Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

“The guiding principle is not whether Mother Nature is going to kill you one day,” said Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear physicist. “It’s whether we can justify doing something to each other based on the benefit you’re going to get.”

Officials at the Transportation Security Administration say they have already tried out a handful of backscatter scanners. They could acquire 450 from the manufacturer, Rapiscan Systems, by the end of September. The agency has a contract under which it could buy 900 of the scanners. The machines have been used for years at prisons and other places where the authorities look for weapons, including at nuclear power plants.

In a 2002 report on the safety of backscatter scanners, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, which is highly influential in setting regulatory standards, said it “cannot exclude the possibility of a fatal cancer attributable to radiation in a very large population of people exposed to very low doses of radiation.”

One author of that report, David J. Brenner, a professor of radiation biophysics at Columbia and director of the university’s Center for Radiological Research, said that risk might be increased as the transportation agency moves from using the scanning machines as a second-round check after metal detectors and hand searches to using them as a first-line screening system.

“When we were looking at these a few years back, it was always going to be as a secondary screening tool,” he said. “In that scenario, I don’t think there’s too much concern.” But, he said, if millions or tens of millions of passengers a year were scanned with the backscatter X-ray, he said, the risk would be higher.

The health effect of small doses of radiation is not observed, but inferred from the visible effects of higher doses. Dr. Makhijani said that if a billion passengers were screened with the dose assumed by the radiation protection council, that would mean 10 more cancer deaths a year.

Those deaths would represent only a tiny increment over the existing cancer rate, he said, just as the extra dose was a tiny fraction of the natural background dose of radiation people get from everyday exposures, but he added that they should still be considered.

Edward Lyman, a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the additional deaths would be indistinguishable from cancers resulting from other causes. But he said, “Just because they can’t be attributed in an epidemiology study to the additional radiation, it doesn’t mean they’re not there.”

Other experts, however, including David A. Schauer, the radiation council’s executive director, disputed the idea that collective doses of radiation increased risks significantly.

Doses divided into tiny portions among millions of people are not the same as those concentrated on a few people, Dr. Schauer said.

“I personally don’t buy it,” he said. “From a public health point of view, it’s a bit of a stretch.”

The radiation council sets standards for doses to radiation workers and to the general public, but does not set a standard for a collective dose.

Robert Barish, a radiation consultant in New York and the author of a 1996 book, “The Invisible Passenger,” said the doses delivered by the scanners were tiny by any standard, and passengers would get the same dose in a few minutes in a high-altitude jet, where most of the earth’s atmosphere is not available to shield people from cosmic rays.

A spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, Kristin Lee, said that even for pregnant women, children and people whose genetic makeup made them more susceptible to X-ray damage, “It would take more than 1,000 screenings per individual per year” to exceed radiation standards.

According to a blog published by the Transportation Security Administration, the radiation dose from the scanner is about the same amount as an average American receives from natural background sources in four minutes on the ground.

But Dr. Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that at one point the blog had listed a much higher dose for the scanners. When the discrepancy was pointed out, the agency corrected the blog to the lower figure.

Backscatter scanners work by shooting a beam of X-rays at a subject. But rather than making an image from what passes through the body, as a doctor’s diagnostic X-ray machine does, backscatter machines measure what bounces back, producing an image of the passenger without clothing. The X-rays are a form of ionizing radiation, that is, radiation powerful enough to strip molecules in the body of their electrons, creating charged particles that cause cell damage and are thought to be the mechanism through which radiation causes cancer.

After review, scientists urge end to mountaintop mining

After review, scientists urge end to mountaintop mining

Go To Original

The consequences of this mining in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and southwestern Virginia are ""pervasive and irreversible," the article finds. Companies are required by law to take steps to reduce the damages, but their efforts don't compensate for lost streams nor do they prevent lasting water pollution, it says.

The article is a summary of recent scientific studies of the consequences of blasting the tops off mountains to obtain coal and dumping the excess rock into streams in valleys. The authors also studied new water-quality data from West Virginia streams and found that mining polluted them, reducing their biological health and diversity.

Surprisingly little attention has been paid to this growing scientific evidence of the damages, they wrote, adding: "Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science."

New permits shouldn't be granted, they argued, "unless new methods can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy these problems."

The Science article cites a number of potential health risks from removing mountaintops and filling in valleys, including contaminated well water, toxic dust and fish that are tainted with the chemical selenium. It also looked at environmental damage to the mining and fill areas and to streams below them, the reasons that forests are difficult to re-establish on mined areas and increased risks of downstream flooding.

"The reason we're willing to make a policy recommendation is that the evidence is so clear-cut," said Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland, the lead author of the Science study and a specialist on the ecology of streams. Her co-authors were experts on chemistry, biology, engineering and health from Duke University, West Virginia University and other institutions.

Palmer said she started studying mountaintop mining's effects on streams in Appalachia, then sought help from the others to pull together scattered studies. Her family is from western North Carolina, and she spent much of her childhood there.

The assessment came days after the Environmental Protection Agency approved a permit under the Clean Water Act for Patriot Coal Corp.'s mountaintop Hobet 45 mine in West Virginia. The EPA reached a deal with Patriot to change the original plans. Instead of burying six miles of streams, the company will bury three. The EPA said that other changes would reduce stream contamination and protect public health.

At the same time, the agency acknowledged the environmental costs.

Mountaintop-removal mining has destroyed roughly 2,040 square miles of land in Appalachia and buried more than 2,000 miles of streams, EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said in an e-mail.

In a statement about the Science article, the EPA said: "This report underscores EPA's own scientific analysis regarding the substantial environmental, water and health impacts that result from mountaintop mining operations. EPA's responsibility under the Clean Water Act is to ensure that mining activities do not degrade the quality of water used by communities, and we intend to ensure this requirement is met.

"EPA will continue to rely on the latest scientific information to inform our Clean Water Act review of mountaintop mining permits. We look forward to reviewing the details of this latest study and considering carefully its recommendations."

The EPA's approval of the Hobet 45 mine, announced Tuesday, was the first major mountaintop mining permit the agency has approved from a batch of 79 that it said raised concerns. The mine is expected to employ 460 unionized miners.

Environmental groups condemned the decision and said that even with the changes, the mine would destroy forests and streams.

The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act calls for balancing environmental protection with the nation's need for coal. Half the nation's electricity comes from burning coal. According to the Department of Energy, coal also contributes 36.5 percent of the nation's emissions of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas that's accumulating in the atmosphere.

Mountaintop mining has increased because it's good for coal companies' bottom line. In a recent commentary, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, 92, the longest-serving U.S. senator in history, noted that mountaintop removal allows companies to employ fewer miners to produce the same amount of coal.

The scientists' review of other scientific reports and their own new study of state-government data on streams in West Virginia found that chemicals released into the streams from mining dumps harm plants and animals.

Many of the streams had toxic concentrations of selenium. The chemical, which occurs naturally in coal, leaches from it and from the rocks that are dumped into the streams. Fish and birds with high levels of selenium have been found to have reproductive failures. State advisories warn people about eating too much selenium-contaminated fish.

The pollution remains long after the mining ends, the article says. Palmer said that no stream ever had been fully restored.

"The changes in water chemistry have never been shown to be fixable," she said in an interview. She and her co-authors wrote that companies are required to take steps to make up for lost stream habitat and functions but these steps don't work to protect or restore water quality.

The EPA has the authority to veto mining permits and it enforces rules that govern how mountaintop mining is conducted. In 2002, the agency changed a definition of valley fill and in 2008 it changed a rule about a buffer zone around streams. Both changes worked in favor of companies that wanted to fill streams with mining debris. Environmental groups are pressing the Obama administration to reverse the decisions.