Monday, May 17, 2010

Knowledge, Truth and Human Action - America Hits the Wall

Knowledge, Truth and Human Action: America Hits the Wall

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"Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it. Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held. Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books. Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin. Believe nothing just because someone else believes it. Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true." [paraphrased Buddhist saying]

Americans have a problem with the truth. They seem to be unable to accept it, which is difficult to understand at a time in history when knowledge plays a larger and larger role in determining human action. Recognition of this problem is widespread. Beliefs and lies somehow always overwhelm truth, even when they are so contradictory that any effective action becomes impossible. A kind of national, psychological paralysis occurs. Nothing can be done because one belief contradicts another, and for some unknown reason, the facts don't matter. Even during those times when an overwhelming belief does compel action, Americans rush headlong into it neglecting the adage that headlong often means wrong.

The number of programs enacted by the Congress that don't work is huge. The war on drugs which began in 1969 has shown no measurable results; yet it continues unabated and has resulted in destabilizing other nations, especially Mexico. Various immigration reforms have proven so ineffective that the people are turning to their own solutions. Tough on crime programs have been enacted numerous times without any measurable reduction in criminal behavior. Educational reforms have proven to be illusionary. Inconclusive wars have been and continue to be fought. No one, it appears, ever wants to measure anything by its results. The nation continues to do the same things over and over again expecting different results, an activity Einstein described as insanity.

Paul Craig Roberts writes, "Today Americans are ruled by propaganda. Americans have little regard for truth, little access to it, and little ability to recognize it. Truth is an unwelcome entity. It is disturbing. It is off limits. Those who speak it run the risk of being branded 'anti-American,' 'anti-semite' or 'conspiracy theorist.' Truth is an inconvenience for government and for the interest groups whose campaign contributions control government. Truth is an inconvenience for prosecutors who want convictions, not the discovery of innocence or guilt. Truth is inconvenient for ideologues." Unfortunately he casts the blame on the characters of people: "economists sell their souls for filthy lucre. . . . medical doctors who, for money, have published in peer-reviewed journals concocted 'studies' that hype this or that new medicine produced by pharmaceutical companies that paid for the 'studies. . . .' Wherever one looks, truth has fallen to money."

Honoré de Balzac said, "behind every great fortune lies a great crime." So too, behind every dumb practice lies a dumb idea.

This debasement of truth stems from two misguided beliefs that many Americans hold. They affect much of American society and define the American psyche. One belief is that the truth emerges from a debate between adversaries. The other is the belief that everyone has a right to his/her own opinion.

Many American activities are based on the these beliefs. In law, the system is called adversarial. The prosecutor and defense attorneys are adversaries. Each side presents its evidence and the truth is somehow supposed to emerge. In journalism it is called balance. Two adversaries are asked to give their sides of an issue, and the truth is somehow supposed to emerge. In politics, it is called the two party system, where the majority party and the minority party, often called the opposition, are adversaries who present their sides of the issue. Again, somehow it is believed the truth will emerge and effective legislation will then be enacted. But it doesn't work, never has, never will.

Suppose two people who lived in the same community at a specific time in the past are talking about the weather on February 14th of some year. One says, "We had three inches of snow that day." The other says, "No, we had heavy rain and flash flood warnings." Who is right? Unless someone checks the weather bureau's records, the argument can't be resolved. And what if the weather bureau's records show that the weather on that day was clear with no precipitation? Neither adversary is right; the truth never emerges.

So do these adversaries have the right to their own opinions? The belief that everyone has a right to his/her own opinion is ludicrous. If your bank sends you a notice saying that you've overdrawn your account, can you counter with, "Not in my opinion"? If this maxim had any validity, truth and falsehood would have equal value. No dispute could ever be settled because the facts don't matter. Yet many in America seem to hold this view.

The point is that no debate between adversaries will reveal the truth if neither is willing to check the facts, or as is often the case in politics, just lying. But why would adversaries do that? In a legal action, because both sides want to win and will reveal only what is favorable to their sides. "As everybody knows, at least one of the lawyers in every case in which the facts are in dispute is out to hide or distort the truth or part of the truth, not to help the court discover it. . . . The notion that in a clash between two trained principle-wielders, one of whom is wearing the colors of inaccuracy and falsehood, the truth will always or usually prevail is in essence nothing but a hang-over from the medieval custom of trial by battle and is in essence equally absurd."

Peter Murphy in his Practical Guide to Evidence cites this story (likely apocryphal): A frustrated judge in an English adversarial court, after witnesses had produced conflicting accounts, finally asked a barrister, "Am I never to hear the truth?" "No, my lord, replied counsel, merely the evidence."

In politics, each side has a favored constituency to protect. In journalism, the journalist doesn't want to be accused of bias. In 2006, Dan Froomkin, former columnist at the Washington Post, wrote, "There’s the fear of being labeled partisan. . . ." But that fear would be dispelled if journalists checked the facts.

Listening to politicians or pundits debate issues should prompt listeners to ask, "Am I never to hear the truth?" The answer would always the same, "No, just our opinions." Yet basing public policy on the opinions of journalists, pundits, politicians, and even jurists is a hazardous endeavor. Since everyone has a right to his/her own opinion, why should anyone care about the opinions of others? None of us should, but somehow the establishment believes we do.

Consider so called experts, for example. Can two "experts," each with different points of view really be experts? "Expert" economists contradict each other all the time. One "thinks" this and another "thinks" that, but neither "knows" anything. Writing teachers routinely tell students, "Don’t tell me what you think. Tell me what you know." Apparently our economists never studied composition. Harry Truman once said, "If you took all the economists in the world and laid them end to end, they'd still point in different directions!" Right up until the economic crash of 2007, experts were telling us that "the economic fundamentals were sound." After the crash occurred, the logical thing to do would have been to conclude that the fundamental economic indicators were misleading at best and shouldn't be relied upon. Yet three years hence, economists are still basing their conclusions (estimates, opinions) on the same fundamental economic indicators. But suppose a chef had an oven that consistently undercooked his baking. Would s/he continue to rely on the thermostat's readings or would s/he replace it? How can such people be considered experts? Nevertheless they are.

Republican politicians, political consultants, and political commentators are fond of saying that Social Security was never meant to serve as a retirement program but only as a supplement. Ed Rollins made this claim on CNN even though the claim can't possibly be true, not even in one's wildest imagination, and Ed Rollins and others should know it. Social Security was signed into law in 1935, but in the 1930s, fewer than 25 percent of workers were covered by private pension plans. So exactly what was Social Security supposed to supplement? Only the pension plans of this 25 percent of workers? What about the 75 percent of workers not covered by private plans? Social Security certainly applied to them too, but they had no private plans to supplement. Even by 1960, only about 30 percent of the labor force had private pension plans, which means that 70 percent had no plans to supplement, and 1960 was a good year. Surely, in the 1930s Social Security was not meant to supplement personal savings, since there were hardly any, and IRAs were not authorized until 1974.Yet Ed Rollins, politicians, and political consultants are still considered "experts." No interviewing journalist ever questions their veracity even when all s/he would have to do is look up some facts.

Military officers, especially generals, are often cited as experts. But for every general who wins a battle there is another on the other side who loses. Is the losing general an expert too? And what general, facing a upcoming battle would have the integrity to say he can't win it?

By calling people with opinions experts and relying on adversarial debate between them, not only is the language debased, so is thought. Conclusions drawn from false premises are always false. Just as something cannot be created from nothing, truth cannot be revealed by falsehood. Belief never yields knowledge, but questioning belief often does.

Public policy based on mere beliefs or opinions sooner or later crashes headlong into the wall of reality causing disastrous consequences, for in the end, the truth cannot be denied. "Trust, but verify," a phrase often used by Ronald Reagan when discussing relations with the Soviet Union is a translation of the Russian proverb Доверяй, но проверяй. Perhaps better maxims would be, "Reject when suspect" and "Belief brings grief." Yet the fundamental question that goes unanswered is why so many people continue to trust all those "experts" who have shown themselves to be inveterate liars? Has the populace really become that dumb? If the truth is emancipating, the false is enslaving. Indeed Americans are serfs ruled by an oligarchy devoted to the promotion of dumb ideas.

The specter of catastrophe returns

The specter of catastrophe returns

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In certain critical respects, the world of 2010 resembles the conditions that existed on the eve of World War I and World War II. Economic crisis, geopolitical tensions and social instability are greater today than at any time since 1945—report on “Perspectives and Tasks of the Socialist Equality Party,” January 2010

[I]t is clear that since September 2008 we have been facing the most difficult situation since the Second World War—perhaps even since the First World War. We have experienced—and are experiencing—truly dramatic times—Jean-Claude Trichet, president of European Central Bank, interview with Der Spiegel, May 15, 2010

In the late evening of Friday, May 7, 2010, an extraordinary scene unfolded in Brussels at a meeting of the leaders of the 16 eurozone member countries. A deadlock had developed between France and Germany over the feasibility and terms of a financial bailout of Greece. With the backing of the Obama administration, French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted that the EU fund a €750 billion safety net for the single currency. German Chancellor Angela Merkel continued to resist this demand.

Suddenly, sometime between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, the meeting exploded. President Sarkozy, according to observers, began “shouting and bawling,” banged his fists on the table, and demanded that Germany withdraw its opposition. If Merkel refused, Sarkozy warned, France would abandon the euro. He added, for good measure, that lasting damage would be done to Franco-German relations. Faced with this threat, which had been issued with the backing of the Obama administration, Merkel assented to the establishment of the safety net.

This confrontation took place on the very eve of the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe.

In the immediate aftermath of the agreement, the markets celebrated the latest “solution” of the expanding global economic crisis. The financial community was heartened by the pledges from the governments in Greece, Spain, Romania, Portugal and several other European countries that they would implement unprecedented and draconian austerity measures demanded by the European Central Bank (ECB). The agreement in Great Britain between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government and tackle the country’s massive budget deficits contributed to the market’s rebound. However, as the week drew to a close, the euphoria dissipated and markets again suffered substantial losses as the realization spread that the shotgun agreement between Sarkozy and Merkel had settled none of the underlying problems—and, indeed, will make the situation worse.

First, the austerity policies demanded by the European Central Bank in return for financial support will force a slashing of consumption in the targeted countries and drive them into recession. This, in turn, will lead to an erosion of important markets for EU-based manufacturers, particularly in Germany. Thus, the most likely outcome of the austerity measures demanded by US and European financiers is a continuation and deepening of the recession that began in 2008.

Second, the battle over the €750 billion safety net has shattered confidence in the viability of the single-currency project, little more than a decade after its inauguration. Merkel gave in to Franco-American pressure on the evening of May 7, but rumors are sweeping financial markets, according to a report in the British Guardian, “that Merkel is printing Deutschmarks in preparation for a split” within the eurozone.

The break-up of the euro does not mean merely the end of a currency. It threatens a devastating and potentially bloody breakdown of political relations between European states. The Süddeutsche Zeitung offered this scenario in its May 15 edition: “The European Union collapses, as its most important political clamp, the common currency, disintegrates. Twenty-seven nation states fight again for markets. Germany, as the largest country with a healthy industrial structure, acquires enemies, and is possibly boycotted: the specter of the ‘Hegemonic Power’ is revived.”

This is the context within which ECB President Trichet warned that the current world political and economic situation is the “most difficult” since 1939-1945, and, perhaps, even since 1914-1918.

One can be certain that a person who occupies so critical a position in international finance as Mr. Trichet chooses his words carefully. Speaking to a correspondent of one of the most widely read and influential news magazines in Europe, Trichet places the present crisis at a level comparable to the two major global catastrophes of the 20th century.

Mr. Trichet is not exaggerating. He is familiar with European history. The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 was the outcome of irrepressible political and economic conflicts between the major European capitalist states that had accumulated during the previous four decades of relative peace. The conclusion of the war in 1918, which cost the lives of 50 million people, resolved none of the contradictions that had caused the war. Rather, these unresolved contradictions festered and grew malignant, leading to the economic calamity of the Great Depression, the emergence of fascist dictatorships, and, finally, in 1939, the outbreak of World War II. During the six years of barbarism that followed, approximately 80 million human beings lost their lives.

In the decades that followed the war, the European ruling class—under the leadership of the United States—attempted to establish economic and political institutions that would make another catastrophic breakdown impossible. In particular, “peace” between Germany and France—which had fought three wars between 1870 and 1945—would be secured by welding the two countries together in a complex integrating network of cooperative economic relationships. The establishment of the European Union and, above all, the common currency, was the high point of this post-war effort to secure European stability.

Paradoxically, by the time the common currency was actually launched in 1999, the objective conditions that had sustained European economic growth and political stability were fast eroding. A major factor in this deterioration was the intensifying crisis of American capitalism, expressed most dramatically in the transformation of the United States into the world’s largest debtor nation and, consequently, in the protracted decline in the value of the dollar. Far from promoting European stability, the accumulating contradictions of American capitalism—which finally exploded in 2008—dealt a deathblow to Europe’s already fragile economic and political equilibrium.

Mr. Trichet recognizes the historical character of the crisis that confronts Europe. But neither he, nor the leaders of the governments in Europe, nor, for that matter, the Obama administration in the United States have any idea how to resolve the spreading crisis—other than to prepare for war, first against the working class and, inevitably, against each other.

In the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991—the outcome of the betrayal of socialism by the reactionary Stalinist regimes—the propagandists of global capitalism proclaimed the historic triumph of the market. The revolutionary struggles of the 20th century against capitalism had been futile and misguided efforts, aberrations from the “normal” process of history, doomed to failure. The Marxist materialist conception of history, and its analysis of the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, had been refuted.

Now, the refutations of Marxism have been refuted by the objective development of the crisis of world capitalism. This crisis has reached such an advanced level that the system’s leading representatives invoke the specter of catastrophes that, in the last century, cost the lives of tens of millions.

The events of the past two weeks are a warning and a challenge to the working class. The unfolding crisis that is sweeping the globe threatens mankind with a cataclysm of unimaginable dimensions. No solution can be found within the framework of capitalism. The survival of mankind depends upon the development of a politically conscious international revolutionary movement of the working class.

Which Household Cleaners Contain Secret Toxic Ingredients?

Which Household Cleaners Contain Secret Toxic Ingredients?

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The label on my shower spray cleaner claims it's supposed to smell like ylang ylang. To me it smells like, well, chemicals. I was curious to see whether any real ylang ylang actually made its way into my cleaner, so I looked up the ingredients online. No ylang ylang (or any other plant for that matter) in sight. Near the end of a long list of ingredients were the words "fragrance oil." Mysterious. Is my shower spray hiding something?

The environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice thinks it might be. Turns out that despite a New York state law that requires manufacturers of cleaning products to disclose the ingredients in their products, very few manufacturers are willing to cough up the full list. Earthjustice contacted dozens of companies and asked them to comply with the law, but four major manufacturers refused. (Full list of companies and products below.) Earthjustice and a coalition of other environmental groups responded by suing them (PDF). Jamie Silberberger is the director of programs and policy at Women's Voices for the Earth, another group in the coalition. "We know that there are chemicals in cleaning products that are linked to reproductive harm, asthma, and a whole host of other problems," says Silberberger. "But if consumers don’t know what’s in these products, they can’t make an informed decision about what to buy. We have the right to know what we’re being exposed to."

What we do know: Many common ingredients pose risks both to humans and the environment. Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), which are used as "surfactants" to make cleaning solutions spread over a surface smoothly, are an endocrine disruptor and are banned in Europe. Ethanolamine, also a surfactant, can cause asthma attacks. Most troubling: Even chemicals that are relatively innocuous on their own can combine to create toxic substances. Ammonia and chlorine, for example, can form a toxic gas called chloramine, which can cause a whole host of respiratory symptoms. When all those chemicals end up in waterways, it's bad news for wildlife.

A few companies (including those being sued) have set up a voluntary ingredient disclosure agreement, but Silberberger says it is incomplete: manufacturers are allowed to simply use the words "dyes," "preservatives," and "fragrances" instead of actually listing the ingredients in the additives. Scary, considering fragrances often contain phthalates, among other potentially toxic chemicals. Another problem: Companies are only required to list "intentional ingredients," meaning substances created by combining two ingredients or added during the manufacturing process aren't listed. What's more, the website is controlled by the industry, meaning companies make their own rules. Points out Earthjustice's Kathleen Sutcliffe, "If they're listing their products on the website, then why are they still refusing to file them with New York state?"

There is some good news: S.C. Johnson has announced that it will list its product ingredients on a website. The California-based eco-cleaner manufacturer Simple Green reported its ingredients to Earthjustice (PDF). Or you could make your own. Earthjustice has a few recipes, and (contain yourselves) even instructions on how to host your own green cleaning party this week.

Are there mystery ingredients in your favorite cleaner? Here's a list of manufacturers being sued for noncompliance with New York state law, along with the cleaning products in question:




1. Ajax Fabuloso All-Purpose Cleaner

2. Dynamo

3. Murphy Oil Soap (wood cleaner, soap spray, soft wipes)

4. Dermassage

5. Palmolive (dishwashing soap)

6. Ajax Dish Liquid


7. Calgon

8. Vanish

9. Resolve

10. Spray ‘n Wash

11. Woolite

12. Lysol

13. Finish (dishwashing detergent)

14. Electrasol (dishwashing detergent)

Procter & Gamble

15. Joy

16. Cascade

17. Ivory (laundry detergent and dish detergent only)

18. Dawn

19. Mr. Clean

20. Swiffer

21. Tide

22. Cheer

23. Gain

24. Dreft

25. Era

Church & Dwight:

26. Brillo steel wool soap pads

27. Brillo Scrub 'n' Toss

28. Scrub Free Soap Remover

29. Scrub Free Mildew Stain Remover

30. OxiClean (stain removers for clothing and carpet)

31. Arm & Hammer Clean Shower

32. SNOBOL Toilet Bowl Cleaner

33. Parsons' Ammonia

34. Cameo Aluminum & Stainless Steel Cleaner

35. Cameo Copper, Brass & Porcelain Cleaner

36. Kaboom (various bathroom cleaners)

37. Orange Glo Hardwood Floor Care

38. Orange Glo Wood Furniture Cleaner & Polish

Got a burning question? Submit your econundrums to Get all your green questions answers by signing up for our weekly Econundrums newsletter here.

Canadian commander accused of murders and sex attacks

Canadian commander accused of murders and sex attacks

One of Canada's most senior military figures has been accused of being a sexual predator responsible for up to ten murders.

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In a case that has shocked and transfixed the nation, British-born Colonel Russell Williams has been charged with two killings but police think they may be more.

Detectives are re-examining up to eight unsolved murders and dozens of sex crimes across Canada stretching back three decades.

His arrest marked a fall from grace for the elite Canadian Air Force commander who once flew the Queen across the Atlantic.

Col Williams, 47, was the commander in charge of Canadian Forces Base Trenton, near Toronto, which is the country's largest military airbase and provides support for its operations in Afghanistan and Haiti.

The married father of four, has been relieved of duty and is being kept in jail ahead of a civilian trial.

The colonel was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, and his parents both attended Birmingham University.

His family emigrated to Canada when he was four and he later embarked on a highly decorated 23-year military career, spending a decade at the controls of VIP flights carrying the Prime Minister and Governor General.

In 2005, he picked up the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in the UK and flew them to Canada to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

He is charged with the first-degree murder of Corporal Marie Comeau, 38, who was a flight attendant under his command on VIP military flights. She was found dead at her home near the Trenton base in November.

He is also alleged to have murdered Jessica Lloyd, 27, a civilian who worked for a bus company. Her body was found by a roadside near the base in February. Both women were strangled.

The two sexual assault victims are alleged to have been attacked in their homes in September last year.

They were both bound with duct tape, blindfolded with pillow cases and tied to chairs by a masked intruder, alleged to have been Col Williams, who took photographs of them.

The colonel was an avid amateur photographer and police are examining his computer.

Another of his alleged victims has already lodged a £1.6 million civil suit against him, claiming she was sexually assaulted for two hours while her young daughter slept upstairs.

He also faces 82 charges of repeated break-ins at 47 homes in the capital Ottawa and Tweed, Ontario, a small town near the base where the colonel had a cottage.

Some of the break-ins were on Cosy Cove Lane, the road where he lived, and mostly took place on Friday and Saturday nights. He is alleged to have broken into one property nine times. Victims said their underwear drawers were rifled and lingerie stolen.

Col Williams was arrested after being stopped during a random police roadblock and police found the tyres of his Nissan Pathfinder matched a distinctive track in the snow near one of the murder scenes.

Among the previously unsolved killings now being reinvestigated is the 2001 rape and murder of a 19-year-old woman at the Trenton base.

They are also investigating unsolved crimes near Col Williams' previous postings.

Between December 2005 and June 2006 he was the commanding officer of Camp Mirage, a secretive Canadian military base near Dubai.

Since his arrest Col Williams, who has yet to enter a plea, has tried to commit suicide in prison by jamming a cardboard lavatory roll tube down his throat. He also began a hunger strike.

The charges against him have left Canada's military in a state of shock. He had been described by one superior as a "shining bright star."

General Walter Natynczyk, Canada's chief of defence staff, said: "Emotionally it's very difficult to deal with. We go forward, and we are proud to wear our uniform."

NY Judge: Torture no grounds to dismiss indictment

NY Judge: Torture no grounds to dismiss indictment

NEW YORK — A Guantanamo Bay detainee brought to the United States for trial on charges he helped the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa while he was an aide to Osama bin Laden cannot use allegations of torture by the CIA to dismiss the indictment, a judge said Monday.

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan made the ruling in Manhattan after months of consideration of documents, much of their contents redacted, that were submitted by attorneys for Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and the government.

Kaplan said that Ghailani might be able to sue the government for civil damages or seek criminal prosecution of those who abused him if he can prove his rights were violated by torture, but that he cannot eliminate an indictment charging him in the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies.

The ruling by Kaplan could set a precedent if other Guantanamo detainees are brought to the United States for trials in the civilian court system. Some of them also allege they were tortured. The judge said there were precedents set by other court cases for his findings.

He said a defendant would have to prove the government could win a conviction only by using information gained through torture for him to win dismissal of the indictment.

The judge noted that 224 people, including 12 Americans, died in the attacks on the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in August 1998. Already, four others are serving life sentences after a 2001 U.S. trial.

Ghailani was interrogated at a secret CIA-run camp abroad after his July 2004 arrest. He was later sent to Guantanamo Bay. Last June, he became the first detainee to be brought to the United States for trial in a civilian court.

Steve Zissou, a lawyer for Ghailani, declined to comment.

Ghailani was accused by the government of being a bomb maker, document forger and aide to Osama bin Laden, who is also charged in the indictment. Ghailani has pleaded not guilty and has denied knowing that the TNT and oxygen tanks he delivered would be used to make a bomb.

Ghailani's lawyers have said he was subjected after his arrest to enhanced interrogation for 14 hours over five days. The CIA as part of its enhanced interrogation program after the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks at one time used 10 harsh methods, including waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning.

U.S. Still Using Illegal Private Spy Ring in Afghanistan and Pakistan

U.S. Is Still Using Private Spy Ring, Despite Doubts

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Top military officials have continued to rely on a secret network of private spies who have produced hundreds of reports from deep inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to American officials and businessmen, despite concerns among some in the military about the legality of the operation.

Earlier this year, government officials admitted that the military had sent a group of former Central Intelligence Agency officers and retired Special Operations troops into the region to collect information — some of which was used to track and kill people suspected of being militants. Many portrayed it as a rogue operation that had been hastily shut down once an investigation began.

But interviews with more than a dozen current and former government officials and businessmen, and an examination of government documents, tell a different a story. Not only are the networks still operating, their detailed reports on subjects like the workings of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan and the movements of enemy fighters in southern Afghanistan are also submitted almost daily to top commanders and have become an important source of intelligence.

The American military is largely prohibited from operating inside Pakistan. And under Pentagon rules, the army is not allowed to hire contractors for spying.

Military officials said that when Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in the region, signed off on the operation in January 2009, there were prohibitions against intelligence gathering, including hiring agents to provide information about enemy positions in Pakistan. The contractors were supposed to provide only broad information about the political and tribal dynamics in the region, and information that could be used for “force protection,” they said.

Some Pentagon officials said that over time the operation appeared to morph into traditional spying activities. And they pointed out that the supervisor who set up the contractor network, Michael D. Furlong, was now under investigation.

But a review of the program by The New York Times found that Mr. Furlong’s operatives were still providing information using the same intelligence gathering methods as before. The contractors were still being paid under a $22 million contract, the review shows, managed by Lockheed Martin and supervised by the Pentagon office in charge of special operations policy.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said that the program “remains under investigation by multiple offices within the Defense Department,” so it would be inappropriate to answer specific questions about who approved the operation or why it continues.

“I assure you we are committed to determining if any laws were broken or policies violated,” he said. Spokesmen for General Petraeus and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, declined to comment. Mr. Furlong remains at his job, working as a senior civilian Air Force official.

A senior defense official said that the Pentagon decided just recently not to renew the contract, which expires at the end of May. While the Pentagon declined to discuss the program, it appears that commanders in the field are in no rush to shut it down because some of the information has been highly valuable, particularly in protecting troops against enemy attacks.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the expanded role of contractors on the battlefield — from interrogating prisoners to hunting terrorism suspects — has raised questions about whether the United States has outsourced some of its most secretive and important operations to a private army many fear is largely unaccountable. The C.I.A. has relied extensively on contractors in recent years to carry out missions in war zones.

The exposure of the spying network also reveals tensions between the Pentagon and the C.I.A., which itself is running a covert war across the border in Pakistan. In December, a cable from the C.I.A.’s station chief in Kabul, Afghanistan, to the Pentagon argued that the military’s hiring of its own spies could have disastrous consequences, with various networks possibly colliding with one another.

The memo also said that Mr. Furlong had a history of delving into outlandish intelligence schemes, including an episode in 2008, when American officials expelled him from Prague for trying to clandestinely set up computer servers for propaganda operations. Some officials say they believe that the C.I.A. is trying to scuttle the operation to protect its own turf, and that the spy agency has been embarrassed because the contractors are outperforming C.I.A. operatives.

The private contractor network was born in part out of frustration with the C.I.A. and the military intelligence apparatus. There was a belief by some officers that the C.I.A. was too risk averse, too reliant on Pakistan’s spy service and seldom able to provide the military with timely information to protect American troops. In addition, the military has complained that it is not technically allowed to operate in Pakistan, whose government is willing to look the other way and allow C.I.A. spying but not the presence of foreign troops.

Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman, dismissed reports of a turf war.

“There’s no daylight at all on this between C.I.A. and DoD,” he said. “It’s an issue for Defense to look into — it involves their people, after all — and that’s exactly what they’re doing.”

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Pentagon has used broad interpretations of its authorities to expand military intelligence operations, including sending Special Operations troops on clandestine missions far from declared war zones. These missions have raised concerns in Washington that the Pentagon is running de facto covert actions without proper White House authority and with little oversight from the elaborate system of Congressional committees and internal controls intended to prevent abuses in intelligence gathering.

The officials say the contractors’ reports are delivered via an encrypted e-mail service to a “fusion cell,” located at the military base at Kabul International Airport. There, they are fed into classified military computer networks, then used for future military operations or intelligence reports.

To skirt military restrictions on intelligence gathering, information the contractors gather in eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas is specifically labeled “atmospheric collection”: information about the workings of militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan or about Afghan tribal structures. The boundaries separating “atmospherics” from what spies gather is murky. It is generally considered illegal for the military to run organized operations aimed at penetrating enemy organizations with covert agents.

But defense officials with knowledge of the program said that contractors themselves regarded the contract as permission to spy. Several weeks ago, one of the contractors reported on Taliban militants massing near American military bases east of Kandahar. Not long afterward, Apache gunships arrived at the scene to disperse and kill the militants.

The web of private businesses working under the Lockheed contract include Strategic Influence Alternatives, American International Security Corporation and International Media Ventures, a communications company based in St. Petersburg, Fla., with Czech ownership.

One of the companies employs a network of Americans, Afghans and Pakistanis run by Duane Clarridge, a C.I.A. veteran who became famous for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. Mr. Clarridge declined to be interviewed.

The Times is withholding some information about the contractor network, including some of the names of agents working in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A spokesman for Lockheed said that no Pentagon officials had raised any concerns about the work.

“We believe our subcontractors are effectively performing the work required of them under the terms of this task order,” said Tom Casey, the spokesman. “We’ve not received any information indicating otherwise.” Lockheed is not involved in the information gathering, but rather administers the contract.

The specifics of the investigation into Mr. Furlong are unclear. Pentagon officials have said that the Defense Department’s inspector general is examining possible contract fraud and financial mismanagement dating from last year.

In his only media interview since details of the operation were revealed, with The San Antonio Express-News, Mr. Furlong said that all of his work had been blessed by senior commanders. In that interview, he declined to provide further details.

Officials said that the tussle over the intelligence operations dated from at least 2008, when some generals in Afghanistan grew angry at what they saw as a paucity of intelligence about the militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan who were regularly attacking American troops.

In October of that year, Mr. Furlong traveled to C.I.A. headquarters with top Pentagon officials, including Brig. Gen. Robert H. Holmes, then the deputy operations officer at United States Central Command. General Holmes has since retired and is now an executive at one of the subcontractors, International Media Ventures. The meeting at the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center was set up to inform the spy agency about the military’s plans to collect “atmospheric information” about Afghanistan and Pakistan, including information about the structure of militant networks in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Mr. Furlong was testing the sometimes muddy laws governing traditional military activities. A former Army officer who sometimes referred to himself as “the king of the gray areas,” Mr. Furlong played a role in many of America’s recent adventures abroad. He ran psychological operations missions in the Balkans, worked at a television network in Iraq, now defunct, that was sponsored by the American government and made frequent trips to Kabul, Eastern Europe and the Middle East in recent years to help run a number of clandestine military propaganda operations.

At the C.I.A. meeting in 2008, the atmosphere quickly deteriorated, according to some in attendance, because C.I.A. officials were immediately suspicious that the plans amounted to a back-door spying operation.

In general, according to one American official, intelligence operatives are nervous about the notion of “private citizens running around a war zone, trying to collect intelligence that wasn’t properly vetted for operations that weren’t properly coordinated.”

Shortly afterward, in a legal opinion stamped “Secret,” lawyers at the military’s Centcom headquarters in Tampa, Fla., signed off on a version of Mr. Furlong’s proposed operations, adding specific language that the program should not carry out “inherent intelligence activities.” In January 2009, General Petraeus wrote a letter endorsing the proposed operations, which had been requested by Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan at the time.

What happened after that money began flowing to Afghanistan remains a matter of dispute. General McKiernan said in an interview with The Times that he never endorsed hiring private contractors specifically for intelligence gathering.

Instead, he said, he was interested in gaining “atmospherics” from the contractors to help him and his commanders understand the complex cultural and political makeup of the region.

“It could give us a better understanding of the rural areas, of what people there saying, what they were expressing as their needs, and their concerns,” he said.

“It was not intelligence for manhunts,” he said. “That was clearly not it, and we agreed that’s not what this was about.”

To his mind, he said, intelligence is specific information that could be used for attacks on militants in Afghanistan.

General McKiernan said he had endorsed a reporting and research network in Afghanistan and Pakistan pitched to him a year earlier by Robert Young Pelton, a writer and chronicler of the world’s danger spots, and Eason Jordan, a former CNN executive. The project, called AfPax Insider, would have been used a subscription-based Web site, but also a secure information database that only the military could access.

In an interview, Mr. Pelton said that he did not gather intelligence and never worked at the direction of Mr. Furlong and that he did not have a government contract for the work.

But Mr. Pelton said that AfPax did receive reimbursement from International Media Ventures, one of the companies hired for Mr. Furlong’s operation. He said that he was never told that I.M.V. was doing clandestine work for the government.

It was several months later, during the summer of 2009, when officials said that the private contractor network using Mr. Clarridge and other former C.I.A. and Special Operations troops was established. Mr. Furlong, according to several former colleagues, believed that Mr. Pelton and Mr. Jordan had failed to deliver on their promises, and that the new team could finally carry out the program first envisioned by General McKiernan. The contractor network assumed a cloak-and-dagger air, with the information reports stripped of anything that might reveal sources’ identities, and the collectors were assigned code names and numbers.

Obama's AfPak Flip-Flop

Obama's AfPak Flip-Flop

Obama’s Flailing Wars
A Study in BP-Style “Pragmatism”

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On stage, it would be farce. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s bound to play out as tragedy.

Less than two months ago, Barack Obama flew into Afghanistan for six hours -- essentially to read the riot act to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom his ambassador had only months before termed “not an adequate strategic partner.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen followed within a day to deliver his own “stern message.”

While still on Air Force One, National Security Adviser James Jones offered reporters a version of the tough talk Obama was bringing with him. Karzai would later see one of Jones’s comments and find it insulting. Brought to his attention as well would be a newspaper article that quoted an anonymous senior U.S. military official as saying of his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a reputedly corrupt powerbroker in the southern city of Kandahar: “I'd like him out of there... But there's nothing that we can do unless we can link him to the insurgency, then we can put him on the [target list] and capture and kill him." This was tough talk indeed.

At the time, the media repeatedly pointed out that President Obama, unlike his predecessor, had consciously developed a standoffish relationship with Karzai. Meanwhile, both named and anonymous officials regularly castigated the Afghan president in the press for stealing an election and running a hopelessly corrupt, inefficient government that had little power outside Kabul, the capital. A previously planned Karzai visit to Washington was soon put on hold to emphasize the toughness of the new approach.

The administration was clearly intent on fighting a better version of the Afghan war with a new commander, a new plan of action, and a well-tamed Afghan president, a client head of state who would finally accept his lesser place in the greater scheme of things. A little blunt talk, some necessary threats, and the big stick of American power and money were sure to do the trick.

Meanwhile, across the border in Pakistan, the administration was in an all-carrots mood when it came to the local military and civilian leadership -- billions of dollars of carrots, in fact. Our top military and civilian officials had all but taken up residence in Islamabad. By March, for instance, Admiral Mullen had already visited the country 15 times and U.S. dollars (and promises of more) were flowing in. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Operations Forces were arriving in the country’s wild borderlands to train the Pakistani Frontier Corps and the skies were filling with CIA-directed unmanned aerial vehicles pounding those same borderlands, where the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other insurgent groups involved in the Afghan War were located.

In Pakistan, it was said, a crucial “strategic relationship” was being carefully cultivated. As the New York Times reported, “In March, [the Obama administration] held a high-level strategic dialogue with Pakistan’s government, which officials said went a long way toward building up trust between the two sides.” Trust indeed.

Skip ahead to mid-May and somehow, like so many stealthy insurgents, the carrots and sticks had crossed the poorly marked, porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan heading in opposite directions. Last week, Karzai was in Washington being given “the red carpet treatment” as part of what was termed an Obama administration “charm offensive” and a “four-day love fest.”

The president set aside a rare stretch of hours to entertain Karzai and the planeload of ministers he brought with him. At a joint news conference, Obama insisted that “perceived tensions” between the two men had been “overstated.” Specific orders went out from the White House to curb public criticism of the Afghan president and give him “more public respect” as “the chief U.S. partner in the war effort.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured Karzai of Washington’s long-term “commitment” to his country, as did Obama and Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal. Praise was the order of the day.

John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, interrupted a financial reform debate to invite Karzai onto the Senate floor where he was mobbed by senators eager to shake his hand (an honor not bestowed on a head of state since 1967). He was once again our man in Kabul. It was a stunning turnaround: a president almost without power in his own country had somehow tamed the commander-in-chief of the globe’s lone superpower.

Meanwhile, Clinton, who had shepherded the Afghan president on a walk through a “private enclave” in Georgetown and hosted a “glittering reception” for him, appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” to flay Pakistan. In the wake of an inept failed car bombing in Times Square, she had this stern message to send to the Pakistani leadership: "We want more, we expect more... We've made it very clear that if, heaven forbid, an attack like this that we can trace back to Pakistan were to have been successful, there would be very severe consequences." Such consequences would evidently include a halt to the flow of U.S. aid to a country in economically disastrous shape. She also accused at least some Pakistani officials of “practically harboring” Osama bin Laden. So much for the carrots.

According to the Washington Post, General McChrystal delivered a “similar message” to the chief of staff of the Pakistani Army. To back up Clinton’s public threats and McChrystal’s private ones, hordes of anonymous American military and civilian officials were ready to pepper reporters with leaks about the tough love that might now be in store for Pakistan. The same Post story, for instance, spoke of “some officials... weighing in favor of a far more muscular and unilateral U.S. policy. It would include a geographically expanded use of drone missile attacks in Pakistan and pressure for a stronger U.S. military presence there.”

According to similar accounts, “more pointed” messages were heading for key Pakistanis and “new and stiff warnings” were being issued. Americans were said to be pushing for expanded Special Operations training programs in the Pakistani tribal areas and insisting that the Pakistani military launch a major campaign in North Waziristan, the heartland of various resistance groups including, possibly, al-Qaeda. “The element of threat” was now in the air, according to Tariq Fatemi, a former Pakistani ambassador, while in press reports you could hear rumblings about an “internal debate” in Washington that might result in more American “boots on the ground.”

Helpless Escalation

In other words, in the space of two months the Obama administration had flip-flopped when it came to who exactly was to be pressured and who reassured. A typically anonymous “former U.S. official who advises the administration on Afghan policy” caught the moment well in a comment to the Wall Street Journal. “This whole bending over backwards to show Karzai the red carpet,” he told journalist Peter Spiegel, “is a result of not having had a concerted strategy for how to grapple with him."

On a larger scale, the flip-flop seemed to reflect tactical and strategic incoherence -- and not just in relation to Karzai. To all appearances, when it comes to the administration's two South Asian wars, one open, one more hidden, Obama and his top officials are flailing around. They are evidently trying whatever comes to mind in much the manner of the oil company BP as it repeatedly fails to cap a demolished oil well 5,000 feet under the waves in the Gulf of Mexico. In a sense, when it comes to Washington’s ability to control the situation, Pakistan and Afghanistan might as well be 5,000 feet underwater. Like BP, Obama’s officials, military and civilian, seem to be operating in the dark, using unmanned robotic vehicles. And as in the Gulf, after each new failure, the destruction only spreads.

For all the policy reviews and shuttling officials, the surging troops, extra private contractors, and new bases, Obama’s wars are worsening. Lacking is any coherent regional policy or semblance of real strategy -- counterinsurgency being only a method of fighting and a set of tactics for doing so. In place of strategic coherence there is just one knee-jerk response: escalation. As unexpected events grip the Obama administration by the throat, its officials increasingly act as if further escalation were their only choice, their fated choice.

This response is eerily familiar. It permeated Washington’s mentality in the Vietnam War years. In fact, one of the strangest aspects of that war was the way America’s leaders -- including President Lyndon Johnson -- felt increasingly helpless and hopeless even as they committed themselves to further steps up the ladder of escalation.

We don’t know what the main actors in Obama’s war are feeling. We don’t have their private documents or their secret taped conversations. Nonetheless, it should ring a bell when, as wars devolve, the only response Washington can imagine is further escalation.

Washington Boxed In

By just about every recent account, including new reports from the independent Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is going dreadfully, even as the Taliban insurgency gains potency and expands. This spring, preparing for his first relatively minor U.S. offensive in Marja, a Taliban-controlled area of Helmand Province, General McChrystal confidently announced that, after the insurgents were dislodged, an Afghan “government in a box” would be rolled out. From a governing point of view, however, the offensive seems to have been a fiasco. The Taliban is now reportedly re-infiltrating the area, while the governmental apparatus in that nation-building “box” has proven next to nonexistent, corrupt, and thoroughly incompetent.

Today, according to a report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), the local population is far more hostile to the American effort. According to the ICOS, “61% of Afghans interviewed feel more negative about NATO forces after Operation Moshtarak than they did before the February military offensive in Marja.”

As Alissa Rubin of the New York Times summed up the situation in Afghanistan more generally:

"Even as American troops clear areas of militants, they find either no government to fill the vacuum, as in Marja, or entrenched power brokers, like President Karzai's brother in Kandahar, who monopolize NATO contracts and other development projects and are resented by large portions of the population. In still other places, government officials rarely show up at work and do little to help local people, and in most places the Afghan police are incapable of providing security. Corruption, big and small, remains an overwhelming complaint."

In other words, the U.S. really doesn’t have an “adequate partner,” and this is all the more striking since the Taliban is by no stretch of the imagination a particularly popular movement of national resistance. As in Vietnam, a counterinsurgency war lacking a genuine governmental partner is an oxymoron, not to speak of a recipe for disaster.

Not surprisingly, doubts about General McChrystal’s war plan are reportedly spreading inside the Pentagon and in Washington, even before it’s been fully launched. The major U.S. summer “operation” -- it’s no longer being labeled an “offensive” -- in the Kandahar region already shows signs of “faltering” and its unpopularity is rising among an increasingly resistant local population. In addition, civilian deaths from U.S. and NATO actions are distinctly on the rise and widely unsettling to Afghans. Meanwhile, military and police forces being trained in U.S./NATO mentoring programs considered crucial to Obama’s war plans are proving remarkably hapless.

McClatchy News, for example, recently reported that the new Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), a specially trained elite force brought into the Marja area and “touted as the country's best and brightest” is, according to “U.S. military strategists[,] plagued by the same problems as Afghanistan's conventional police, who are widely considered corrupt, ineffective and inept.” Drug use and desertions in ANCOP have been rife.

And yet, it seems as if all that American officials can come up with, in response to the failed Times Square car bombing and the “news” that the bomber was supposedly trained in Waziristan by the Pakistani Taliban, is the demand that Pakistan allow “more of a boots-on-the-ground strategy” and more American trainers into the country. Such additional U.S. forces would serve only “as advisers and trainers, not as combat forces.” So the mantra now goes reassuringly, but given the history of the Vietnam War, it’s a cringe-worthy demand.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has officially widened its targeting in the CIA drone war in the Pakistani borderlands to include low-level, no-name militants. It is also ratcheting up such attacks, deeply unpopular in a country where 64% of the inhabitants, according to a recent poll, already view the United States as an "enemy" and only 9% as a “partner.”

Since the Times Square incident, the CIA has specifically been striking North Waziristan, where the Pakistani army has as yet refrained from launching operations. The U.S., as the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill reports, has also increased its support for the Pakistani Air Force, which will only add to the wars in the skies of that country.

All of this represents escalation of the “covert” U.S. war in Pakistan. None of it offers particular hope of success. All of it stokes enmity and undoubtedly encourages more “lone wolf” jihadis to lash out at the U.S. It’s a formula for blowback, but not for victory.

BP-Style Pragmatism Goes to War

One thing can be said about the Bush administration: it had a grand strategic vision to go with its wars. Its top officials were convinced that the American military, a force they saw as unparalleled on planet Earth, would be capable of unilaterally shock-and-awing America’s enemies in what they liked to call “the arc of instability” or “the Greater Middle East” (that is, the oil heartlands of the planet). Its two wars would bring not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but Iran and Syria to their knees, leaving Washington to impose a Pax Americana on the Middle East and Central Asia (in the process of which groups like Hamas and Hezbollah would be subdued and anti-American jihadism ended).

They couldn’t, of course, have been more wrong, something quite apparent to the Obama team. Now, however, we have a crew in Washington who seem to have no vision, great or small, when it comes to American foreign or imperial policy, and who seem, in fact, to lack any sense of strategy at all. What they have is a set of increasingly discredited tactics and an approach that might pass for good old American see-what-works “pragmatism,” but these days might more aptly be labeled “BP-style pragmatism.”

The vision may be long gone, but the wars live on with their own inexorable momentum. Add into the mix American domestic politics, which could discourage any president from changing course and de-escalating a war, and you have what looks like a fatal -- and fatally expensive -- brew.

We’ve moved from Bush’s visionary disasters to Obama’s flailing wars, while the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq continue to pay the price. If only we could close the curtain on this strange mix of farce and tragedy, but evidently we’re still stuck in act four of a five-act nightmare.

Even as our Afghan and Pakistani wars are being sucked dry of whatever meaning might remain, the momentum is in only one direction -- toward escalation. A thousand repetitions of an al-Qaeda-must-be-destroyed mantra won’t change that one bit. More escalation, unfortunately, is yet to come.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books), will be published in June.

[Note on Sources: Let me offer one of my periodic appreciative bows to several websites I rely on for crucial information and interpretation when it comes to America’s wars: Juan Cole’s invaluable, often incandescent, Informed Comment blog, (especially Jason Ditz’s remarkable daily war news summaries), the thoughtful framing and good eye of Paul Woodward at the War in Context website, and Katherine Tiedemann’s concise, useful daily briefs of the most interesting mainstream reportage on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the AfPak Channel website. A special bow to historian Marilyn Young, author of the classic book The Vietnam Wars, who keeps me abreast of the latest thinking on all sorts of war-related subjects via her own informal information service for friends and fellow historians.]

How Big Is the Spill?

How Big Is the Spill?

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“I have to say though I did not appreciate what I considered to be a ridiculous spectacle,” President Obama said this morning. He was talking about the testimony of executives from BP, Halliburton, and Transocean, the companies behind the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (and not, say, about his own game of make-believe with Hamid Karzai). “The American people cannot have been impressed with that display, and I certainly wasn’t.” So what is he going to do about it?

The shamelessness of their behavior does not seem to have sunk in for BP and the others. One of the many remarkable things about the question of just how much oil is pouring out is BP’s insistence that it just doesn’t matter. According to the Times, “BP has repeatedly said that its highest priority is stopping the leak, not measuring it.” That’s like a politician wishing that everyone would stop looking into a scandal so he could “get back to work for the American people.” But BP’s work, in this case, is the spill. How can its size possibly not matter? Don’t they need to know how many tons of dispersants (or hay) they need, or whether that giant hose they are now thinking of sticking into the much bigger broken well has any hope of channelling the flow? Not according to what a BP spokesman e-mailed the Times:

The estimated rate of flow would not affect either the direction or scale of our response, which is the largest in history.

The only way that isn’t totally illogical is if BP is saying that its response is as big as it’s going to get, and so it doesn’t matter if the spill is any bigger—like a debtor saying that it doesn’t matter if he owes a thousand or a million, because he’s only got a hundred, and that’s that. But that’s not that, and not acceptable. BP does have more, and, if not, we need to know how much help has to come from other directions. And to do that we will need to know how dirty the water is getting.

That brings us to BP’s third rationale for not finding out how big the spill is. From the Times:

“There’s just no way to measure it,” Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, said in a recent briefing.

That’s pure sophistry. We can’t tell exactly how big a giant blob quivering in the gulf might be. But we can make some good and helpful estimates, both of the extent of the spill and of the rate at which oil is still—maddeningly—being added to it. The most sensible seem to show that the number we’ve been working with—five thousand barrels a day—is laughably small. NPR spoke to scientists who “say there are actually many proven techniques” for measuring the quantity of oil leaving the well. Using some of them, they came up with an estimate of fifty-six thousand to eighty-four thousand barrels—per day. The entire Exxon Valdez spill was two hundred and fifty thousand barrels.

You can get a glimpse of the size in the Coast Guard flyover video above—it looks like an undiscovered underwater country. And that was filmed eight days ago, before perhaps two more Exxon Valdezes were added to the mix.

One also wonders whether BP’s agnosticism about the size of the spill has anything to do with concerns about future litigation, and the credibility of the assurances they gave before this well was drilled. The Times also has a dismaying story on how broken the Minerals Management Service has been in recent years—ignoring its own scientists, giving companies approvals to drill without environmental permits. One of those dispensations went to BP, for the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Ten-mile oil plume found beneath Gulf of Mexico surface

Submerged oil plumes suggest gulf spill is worse than BP claims

Scientists believe marine 'dead zones' being created; firm succeeds in blocking rig riser pipe with siphon

Oil in the Gulf of Mexico

Oil in the water at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/Pool/EPA

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Ocean scientists in the Gulf of Mexico have found giant plumes of oil coagulating at up to 1,300 metres below the surface, raising fears that the BP oil spill may be larger than thought – and that it might create huge "dead zones".

Members of the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology have been traversing the area around the scene of the Deepwater Horizon, the rig that exploded and sank on 20 April.

Using the latest sampling techniques, they have identified plumes up to 20 miles away from the Deepwater Horizon well head that continues to spew oil into the water at a rate of at least 790,000 litres a day. The largest plume found so far was 90 metres thick, three miles wide and 10 miles long.

Samantha Joye, marine science professor at the University of Georgia, who is working on the project, told the Guardian: "The plumes are abundant throughout the region. I would say they've become characteristic of this environment."

BP last night announced the first good news in several days in its efforts to contain the spill, saying it had succeeded in inserting a tube into the riser, the broken pipe from which most of the oil is gushing, allowing oil and gas to be siphoned off into a drill ship at the surface. The procedure, likened to threading a needle, failed early on Sunday morning, but a second attempt succeeded.

Kent Wells, a BP executive, said he had no idea how much oil and gas was now being safely siphoned off. The firm intended slowly to increase the volume until they had reached the maximum possible, he said, though no figures could be put to that either.

Wells added that in the next 10 days BP would try to block off the entire riser using heavy materials which, if successful, would kill the leak for good.

The presence of huge strings of oil deep underwater has puzzled scientists on board the research vessel Pelican, back in dock after almost two weeks at sea. The assumption had been that the oil would rise to the surface, but instead it has formed into multiple layers suspended in varying thicknesses deep in the water.

There is speculation that the plumes, first reported by the New York Times, might be forming as a result of BP's use of dispersants injected close to the source of the spillage at the sea floor.

The technique has never before been used, and scientists are now wondering whether the dispersants are causing the oil to coagulate into relatively large clumps which are then heavier than water and remain suspended below the surface of the sea.

One concern linked to the plumes is that the oil will reduce oxygen levels in the water as micro-organisms work to decompose it. In some parts of the Gulf, oxygen levels are already almost one-third below normal. If they fall below levels needed to support life, dead zones devoid of all marine creatures could be created.

The Pelican scientists, from the University of Mississippi, have been using a range of gadgetry to detect the plumes. They include fluorometers that spot oil using colour measurements, a remotely operated vehicle that they submerge to describe oil aggregates at up to 75 metres below the surface, and equipment that records oxygen levels. They have set up a long-term acoustic monitoring device on the sea floor that will pick up marine mammal calls to help track the impact on population sizes over time.

As knowledge grows of the environmental impact, pressure is mounting on both BP and the Obama administration.

The oil giant has been accused of trying to withhold the full scale of the disaster. Some experts who have studied video footage of the oil spewing from the wellhead have estimated the rate of spillage at up to 13m litres a day – 14 times greater than BP's figure.

The US government is also coming under scrutiny for the way it has handled the crisis, and for having had too relaxed an attitude towards offshore drilling before the disaster happened.

One environmental group, the Centre for Biological Diversity, has threatened to sue the administration for having bypassed regulations in approving new drilling sites. The centre says that more than 300 drilling operations have been given the go-ahead since Obama took office in January 2009, without obtaining proper permits relating to protection of whales and other marine mammals.

Giant Plumes of Oil Found Under Gulf

Giant Plumes of Oil Forming Under the Gulf

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Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.

“There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”

The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes.

Dr. Joye said the oxygen had already dropped 30 percent near some of the plumes in the month that the broken oil well had been flowing. “If you keep those kinds of rates up, you could draw the oxygen down to very low levels that are dangerous to animals in a couple of months,” she said Saturday. “That is alarming.”

The plumes were discovered by scientists from several universities working aboard the research vessel Pelican, which sailed from Cocodrie, La., on May 3 and has gathered extensive samples and information about the disaster in the gulf.

Scientists studying video of the gushing oil well have tentatively calculated that it could be flowing at a rate of 25,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil a day. The latter figure would be 3.4 million gallons a day. But the government, working from satellite images of the ocean surface, has calculated a flow rate of only 5,000 barrels a day.

BP has resisted entreaties from scientists that they be allowed to use sophisticated instruments at the ocean floor that would give a far more accurate picture of how much oil is really gushing from the well.

“The answer is no to that,” a BP spokesman, Tom Mueller, said on Saturday. “We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.”

The undersea plumes may go a long way toward explaining the discrepancy between the flow estimates, suggesting that much of the oil emerging from the well could be lingering far below the sea surface.

The scientists on the Pelican mission, which is backed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that monitors the health of the oceans, are not certain why that would be. They say they suspect the heavy use of chemical dispersants, which BP has injected into the stream of oil emerging from the well, may have broken the oil up into droplets too small to rise rapidly.

BP said Saturday at a briefing in Robert, La., that it had resumed undersea application of dispersants, after winning Environmental Protection Agency approval the day before.

“It appears that the application of the subsea dispersant is actually working,” Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, said Saturday. “The oil in the immediate vicinity of the well and the ships and rigs working in the area is diminished from previous observations.”

Many scientists had hoped the dispersants would cause oil droplets to spread so widely that they would be less of a problem in any one place. If it turns out that is not happening, the strategy could come under greater scrutiny. Dispersants have never been used in an oil leak of this size a mile under the ocean, and their effects at such depth are largely unknown.

Much about the situation below the water is unclear, and the scientists stressed that their results were preliminary. After the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, they altered a previously scheduled research mission to focus on the effects of the leak.

Interviewed on Saturday by satellite phone, one researcher aboard the Pelican, Vernon Asper of the University of Southern Mississippi, said the shallowest oil plume the group had detected was at about 2,300 feet, while the deepest was near the seafloor at about 4,200 feet.

“We’re trying to map them, but it’s a tedious process,” Dr. Asper said. “Right now it looks like the oil is moving southwest, not all that rapidly.”

He said they had taken water samples from areas that oil had not yet reached, and would compare those with later samples to judge the impact on the chemistry and biology of the ocean.

While they have detected the plumes and their effects with several types of instruments, the researchers are still not sure about their density, nor do they have a very good fix on the dimensions.

Given their size, the plumes cannot possibly be made of pure oil, but more likely consist of fine droplets of oil suspended in a far greater quantity of water, Dr. Joye said. She added that in places, at least, the plumes might be the consistency of a thin salad dressing.

Dr. Joye is serving as a coordinator of the mission from her laboratory in Athens, Ga. Researchers from the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi are aboard the boat taking samples and running instruments.

Dr. Joye said the findings about declining oxygen levels were especially worrisome, since oxygen is so slow to move from the surface of the ocean to the bottom. She suspects that oil-eating bacteria are consuming the oxygen at a feverish clip as they work to break down the plumes.

While the oxygen depletion so far is not enough to kill off sea life, the possibility looms that oxygen levels could fall so low as to create large dead zones, especially at the seafloor. “That’s the big worry,” said Ray Highsmith, head of the Mississippi center that sponsored the mission, known as the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology.

The Pelican mission is due to end Sunday, but the scientists are seeking federal support to resume it soon.

“This is a new type of event, and it’s critically important that we really understand it, because of the incredible number of oil platforms not only in the Gulf of Mexico but all over the world now,” Dr. Highsmith said. “We need to know what these events are like, and what their outcomes can be, and what can be done to deal with the next one.”

Scientists detect miles-long streaks of submerged oil

Scientists detect miles-long streaks of submerged oil

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A research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico discovered up to four underwater “plumes” of oil Saturday trailing from the BP disaster, strengthening claims that the spill is leaking far more oil than reported by the government. The largest of the plumes was reported to have a volume of 1.7 cubic miles, trailing thirty miles southwest into the Gulf of Mexico.

The findings bolster the claims of scientists and captains who stressed the dangers of submerged oil traveling long distances with ocean currents.

They also weaken claims by the US government and BP that most of the oil has risen to the surface, with only negligible amounts under water. Officials have used this assumption as the basis of their claim that the spill was only leaking 5,000 barrels of oil per day, according to surface photographs.

On Thursday night, National Public Radio reported claims by several scientists that the Deepwater Horizon spill was 14 times worse than officially reported, releasing 70,000 barrels per day and putting it in the running for the worst oil spill in history.

“I don’t know if the government is willfully misleading the people, or they just don’t know what they’re doing,” said Richard Steiner, a former professor of marine conservation at the University of Alaska. “But I suspect the former; they’re trying to cover up for the inadequate response of the federal government, just like BP has been trying to cover up its own negligence.”

BP said Saturday that it will resume the use of dispersants underwater to prevent oil from reaching the surface, after winning approval for their use from the EPA. Dispersants, which may be as toxic as crude oil, have been a major part of BP’s program to downplay public consciousness of the spill by keeping most of the oil hidden underwater.

RescuersRescue workers prepare to search an island in the Mississippi delta for oiled birds

Despite the immense quantity of oil that has sunk to the bottom through the use of dispersants, or never made it to the surface in the first place, surprisingly little effort has been done to study submerged oil. The R/V Pelican, which found the plume, was the first research ship to arrive at the spill site, but it only set sail on May 3, two weeks after the disaster. “That’s two weeks of vital and unprecedented data that was completely lost,” said Steiner.

The Pelican, which houses up to sixteen scientists from multiple universities, was preparing to conduct deepwater coral studies when it was called in to research the spill. Another science vessel was recently sent to the spill site, bringing the total to two.

“The Pelican happened to hit that particular plume, but I suspect that there are many, many more,” Steiner said. “At different water depths, the plumes will likely be going in different directions; they have only looked at one or two dimensions so far; there is an immense impact that is almost completely unstudied.”

He added that he had told NOAA, the Coast Guard, and other officials to assign more boats to track underwater oil but they failed to do so. “The federal government was as unprepared for this as BP was. There was simply no contingency plan,” he said.

Among Gulf Coast fishing and charter boat captains, the existence of such plumes was widely assumed. Chris Henderson, a charter boat captain in Venice, Louisiana, said in an interview Wednesday that he expected the use of dispersants, which sink oil from the surface to the depths of the ocean, to produce just such a phenomenon.

“The ocean currents beneath the water are much stronger than they are at the top, and the oil that’s still submerged is going to travel in big streams,” he said. “The submerged oil can pop up anywhere when it hits warm water; and wherever that happens, people are going to be in for a surprise.”

The plumes, which are likely composed of a semi-buoyant, “emulsified” mixture of oil and cold water, are toxic to any animals, including plankton and crustaceans, which come into direct contact with them. But scientists are worried that once the plumes rise closer to the surface, where they can be digested by aerobic bacteria, they will deplete the oxygen in the surrounding water and create huge “dead zones” suffocating marine animals who come into contact with them.

Even as these findings came out, BP, the US government, and the media have continued to downplay the significance of the spill. There have been a continual series of editorials and news stories published seeking to quiet public outrage over the event. Among the most egregious was a May 3 New York Times analysis titled, “Gulf Oil Spill Is Bad, but How Bad?” The latest effort comes from an article in the Washington Post, which seeks to paint the spill in harmony with nature.

After noting the significant quantities of oil leaked “naturally” into the Gulf of Mexico, the article ends by bizarrely hinting that the oil spill has an upside: coral will grow on the sunken rig. “Less than a mile from the uncapped well, now upside down, is the hulk of the Deepwater Horizon rig. It is now, in effect, an artificial reef, destined to become another garden of the deep.”

When he read the passage, Steiner exclaimed, “That is some of the most twisted logic that I have ever heard.” He added that, even though millions of gallons of oil are released into the gulf every year—both through natural seeps and chronic pollution—they are broken down by sunlight and bacteria relatively quickly because they exist in such small quantities. But the concentrations of oil now snaking their way through the Gulf of Mexico will simply kill everything they come into contact with. “There’s no way around it; with this amount of toxic oil, millions of organisms have already been killed,” he said.

Meanwhile, BP succeeded Sunday in inserting a suction tube into one section of the leaking drill pipe, after an initial failure. The company said it has begun funneling oil and methane out through the pipe and into a tanker on the surface, but has not disclosed the amount of material being recovered.

It is still likely that this latest experiment will suffer the same fate as BP’s previous efforts. If water mixes in with the methane and oil gushing through the leak, the mixture will freeze and crystalize, blocking the pipe. This was what caused the failure of the “containment dome” that was lowered over one of the leaks earlier this month.

But even in the best-case scenario, the tube will only siphon off a small portion of the leak. If this attempt, too, fails, BP has another device, called a “top hat,” in reserve that it will try to lower over another leak. After that, there are at least two equally unlikely measures that it can attempt, including shooting golf balls and other debris into the pipe.

These steps, completely untested and improvised, are mostly for show. They are being put forward so BP can continue to claim that it will have the spill under control “in about a week,” week after week. The reality is that it will most likely take months for a serious solution—the drilling of relief wells to intercept the leak underground—to be put into place, if at all. By that time, according to scientists, the spill will have released over six million barrels of oil, making it 25 times worse than the Exxon Valdez.