The Power of Prayer

Brought to you without comment:

Worried about the safety of her family during a stormy Memorial Day trip to the beach, Clara Jean Brown stood in her kitchen and prayed for their safe return as a strong thunderstorm rumbled through Baldwin County, Alabama.

But while she prayed, lightning suddenly exploded, blowing through the linoleum and leaving a blackened area on the concrete. Brown wound up on the floor, dazed and disoriented by the blast but otherwise uninjured.

She said ‘Amen’ and the room was engulfed in a huge ball of fire. The 65-year-old Brown said she is blessed to be alive.

Consider this an open thread. If you have any ‘explosive’ issues you would like to talk about, post them here and I will try to get to them with ‘lightning’ speed. I pray you don’t have too many controversial topics.








Shock and Awe

This piece by Arwa Damon is worth reading:

It actually took me a while to put all the pieces together — that I know these guys, the U.S. Marines at the heart of the alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians in Haditha.

I don’t know why it didn’t register with me until now. It was only after scrolling through the tapes that we shot in Haditha last fall, and I found footage of some of the officers that had been relieved of their command, that it hit me.

I know the Marines that were operating in western al Anbar, from Husayba all the way to Haditha. I went on countless operations in 2005 up and down the Euphrates River Valley. I was pinned on rooftops with them in Ubeydi for hours taking incoming fire, and I’ve seen them not fire a shot back because they did not have positive identification on a target.

***

I was with them in Husayba as they went house to house in an area where insurgents would booby-trap doors, or lie in wait behind closed doors with an AK-47, basically on suicide missions, just waiting for the Marines to come through and open fire. There were civilians in the city as well, and the Marines were always keenly aware of that fact. How they didn’t fire at shadows, not knowing what was waiting in each house, I don’t know. But they didn’t.

And I was with them in Haditha, a month before the alleged killings last November of some 24 Iraqi civilians.

I’m told that investigators now strongly suspect a rampage by a small number of Marines who snapped after one of their own was killed by a roadside bomb.

Haditha was full of IEDs. It seemed they were everywhere, like a minefield. In fact, the number of times that we were told that we were standing right on top of an IED minutes before it was found turned into a dark joke between my CNN team and me.

This story confirms a great deal of what I already believe (but do not know for sure), and also illustrates the benefits and the downfalls of a press that establishes a personal relationship with the subjects they cover.

I really do think Damon is probably painting the most accurate description of events (at least from the evidence I have seen)- that it was, as she wrote, “a rampage by a small number of Marines who snapped after one of their own was killed by a roadside bomb.” This is what I think happened- a small group of frazzled Marines, under a great deal of stress and pressure, lost control when one of their buddies was killed and went on a “rampage.” It does not excuse their behavior, but it does help to explain it.

What is more interesting to me is the tone of this piece- the personal nature of it, and I think that reflects what is good and bad about reporters having an intimiate knowledge of their subjects. It is possible that this reporter (and those like her), having had the experiences she did with Marines being very careful to hold their fire, being careful to avoid collateral damage, etc., may have been slower than a reporter with no experience with these Marines to pick up on the massacre. However, on the positive side, her experiences with the troops gave her a depth of experience which allowed her to write such an interesting yet careful piece such as the one linked, rather than simply screaming that “Organized units of marines are systematically executing civilians!” as some jackasses have done in the comments section here.








Not Dead

In case you are wondering where I have been, I took the weekend off, and then at some point over the weekend,. I clear my internet cache, which removed my password from the WP login, so I have been effectively locked out of my site until now. I now have my password tattooed to my forehead.

Chalk one up to the never-ending wisdom of John Cole.








Bob Ney’s Abramoff Troubles Grow

You can file this under stuff that we more or less knew already, but the NYT has a brief preview of indictments-to-come:

Testimony in the trial of a former White House budget aide accused of lying about his contacts with the lobbyist Jack Abramoff is expected to result in new scrutiny of Representative Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican caught up in the influence-peddling scandal centered on Mr. Abramoff.

[…]Mr. Ney’s former chief of staff, Neil G. Volz, who has pleaded guilty to conspiring with Mr. Abramoff to give illegal gifts to Mr. Ney, has been called to testify this week at the trial of David H. Safavian, the White House aide. Mr. Volz is expected to describe how Mr. Abramoff organized a $130,000 golf trip to Scotland by private jet in August 2002 for a group that included Mr. Ney and three House aides.

[…]Mr. Volz’s testimony is scheduled to take place in the wake of several embarrassments for Mr. Ney, who is facing a difficult re-election fight this fall. These include the disclosure last week that his current chief of staff and another former House aide were resisting defense subpoenas and threatening to assert their Fifth Amendment rights against compelled self-incrimination if called to the stand in Mr. Safavian’s trial.

To sum up: Abramoff is cooperating, Ney’s former chief-of-staff has already plead guilty to funneling illegal contributions to Ney, most of Ney’s staff plans to plead the Fifth and the Ken Lay/Jeff Skilling trials just proved that you should probably just give up if your only option is to play the blind-as-a-bat defense. If I was a prominent GOP campaign contributor I have no idea why I would donate to a campaign that would most likely end up using my cash for a legal defense. Maybe he’s calling the same suckers who gave to DeLay.

***Update***

On a similar note the AP’s John Solomon has another story purporting to make Harry Reid look bad. Just like before, there’s no meat in that bun. For the seocnd time running Solomon’s story boils down to Reid accepting a gift that breaks no legal or ethical guidelines and then voting against the people who supposedly bought his influence.

Let’s hold a brief ethics seminar for the slow and hackish. In order for a gift to raise eyebrows it has to break the existing rules, as was the case with the Safavian/Ney affair described above. In order for a gift to break the law it has to involve a clear quid pro quo where quo is a legislative favor offered in return for the illicit quid. Jack Abramoff, for example, gave a swank golf trip in return for inside information on government land and no expansion of workplace protections for his clients in the Marianas Islands.

Interestingly the recent Hastert indictment story has at least one important scoop that doesn’t involve whether Dennis Hastert is in legal trouble – prosecutors have decided that perfectly legal campaign contributions may constitute an illegal quo if they can attach it to a specific quid. That expands the potential reach of the Abramoff affair dramatically and may well wreck the entire K Street model of doing business. The LA Times:

[S]ome long-established practices — including one known as earmarking, where lawmakers slip favored legislation into spending bills — are coming under scrutiny. There is concern that they are being used for self-enrichment or payback to supporters and campaign contributors.

“In the past, the Justice Department turned its eye away from official conduct linked to campaign contributions. Now that premise is being questioned,” said Abbe Lowell, a Washington defense lawyer who has represented many members of Congress. He also represents Abramoff.

“It is a huge policy issue,” Lowell said. “It goes to the heart of the private [campaign] contribution system.”

This news no doubt has a pork king like Don Young shaking in his bed. For Reid, who did the opposite of what his solicitors wanted, not so much. Given Reid’s rectitude in an age of payback it seems like Solomon has chosen a strangely inappropriate target for smearing.








HIV Traced To Cameroon Chimpanzees

It seems like a safe rule to disregard any conspiracy theory that expects the government both to orchestrate prominent events/disasters flawlessly (cough) and to cover them up perfectly. When it comes to which insultingly-stupid theory irritates me the most I confess to going back and forth between the we-blew-up-the-WTC rumors and the idea that a government, apparently ours, somehow manufactured HIV. Thankfully we can finally put the latter, at least, to bed:

RESEARCHERS have traced the origin of HIV — the virus that causes Aids — to chimpanzees in southern Cameroon.

A virus identified in apes living in forests south of the Sanaga River is the closestfound to the human immunodeficiency virus.

The discovery bolsters the standard theory that the Aids epidemic began after an ape version of HIV crossed into people, most likely infecting a bushmeat hunter first.

Some conspiracy theorists have suggested that the virus was created in a bioweapons laboratory.

Another controversial hypothesis, advanced by the journalist Edward Hooper, holds that the epidemic began with a batch of contaminated polio vaccine in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Neither scenario fits with the latest evidence.

Like many other human epidemics (for example, ebola) the virus persists in its original host without causing any apparent harm:

As well as solving the mystery of the origin of the virus, the findings prepare the way for future work exploring the history and behaviour of the simian form of HIV in its natural host.

SIVcpz does not cause an Aids-like illness among chimpanzees, despite its similarity to the human virus and the very close genetic relationship between chimps and humans. Finding out why this is so could ultimately help scientists to understand the workings of HIV. Professor Sharp said: “We are currently working to understand which genetic differences between SIVcpz and HIV-1 evolved as a response to the species jump.”

The simple reason for this is that the virus has burned its way through chimpanzee populations for thousands of years, a long enough time for the virions which do not kill their host, at least not quickly, to outcompete the most lethal strains. When a virus meets a new species for the first time it will burn through the immunologically-naive animals mercilessly, until a period of coevolution takes place in which resistance alleles spread in the host populations and the fiercest strains of virus lose out to strains which keep the host alive long enough to spread more widely.

Some human diseases have made that transition in the space of recorded history, for example over six hundred years syphillis declined from a horrific short-term death sentence to a treatable long-term nuisance. Populations suffering today can take minimal consolation in knowing that HIV will follow that trajectory as earlier epidemics before it, and further we simply cannot know the time course that the de-virulence process will take if we leave it to evolutionary chance. Now that science can study how exactly the current state of chimp-virus detente was reached at the very least we may have more opportunities to nudge chance along.








State Secrets

A football coach once said that if you make a big play, keep calling it until it stops working. I don’t know enough about football to say whether it’s a great idea, an apocryphal story or a crappy coach, but at least somebody listened:

The Bush administration asked federal judges in New York and Michigan to dismiss a pair of lawsuits filed over the National Security Agency’s domestic eavesdropping program, saying litigation would jeopardize state secrets.

In legal papers filed late Friday, Justice Department lawyers said it would be impossible to defend the legality of the spying program without disclosing classified information that could be of value to suspected terrorists.

National Intelligence Director John Negroponte invoked the state secrets privilege on behalf of the administration, writing that disclosure of such information would cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security.

The administration laid out some of its supporting arguments in classified memoranda that were filed under seal.

Apparently all the government has to do is invoke the term ‘State Secrets’ and the lawsuit hits in impassable brick wall. Boom, gone! Sounds like a handy tool that less-than-scrupulous administrations might be tempted to abuse. The problem is, how could you tell? One giveaway might be if the rate of invoking the priviledge went up by quite a lot relative to normal usage (via Drum):

When the government claims the “state secrets privilege,” the courts tend to look no further, and the cases are dismissed. It was invoked only four times in the first 23 years after the U.S. Supreme Court created the privilege in 1953, but now the government is claiming the privilege to dismiss lawsuits at a rate of more than three a year. The Justice Department describes this tactic as an “absolute privilege” — in effect, a neutron bomb that leaves no plaintiff standing.

So yes, the use of “State Secrets” has gone up by a hell of a lot, and assuming that the NSA litigation is far from over this could be the Secret-est year yet. If only I had the same tool when/if the IRS guy shows up to audit me. So you say that I failed to declare a second income as a tech consultant? Sorry, State Secrets. Bye now, thanks for stopping by.

Let’s pose a question for you constitutional scholars out there. Picture a hypothetical scenario where the president beat the crap out of an eight-year-old and then stole his bike, sans witnesses. It seems like he can either answer a bunch of embarrassing questions, or else just classify everything about the encounter and then invoke State Secrets when the kid’s parents sue. Boom, gone, as far as I can tell it might as well have never happened.

Of course most of the investigations right now have nothing to do with beating up an eight-year-old. Mainly they involve serial violations of Americans’ constitutional rights, which on the balance seems just as bad. Quite possibly these investigations don’t actually pose much threat to national security but they do pose an obvious threat to the administration’s job security. One way or the other we only have the word of the people under investigation to go on. Right, question. Obviously the administration would love to throw up this neutron-bomb roadblock whenever they feel like it. Can they? Does any third party ever judge whether a State Secrets invocation actually has merit? As far as I can tell the answer is no.








Reality Check

Congress has begun debating whether we should imprison journalists for publishing classified information. As usual Glenn Greenwald has the must-read commentary.

I would add, imagine that we had this debate one month after terrorists destroyed the WTC and part of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Let’s say that Congress had the balls to propose then what they are belatedly trying to do now. Should America respond to external danger by imprisoning reporters who anger the government? It would have been a short debate. In theory the idea sounds stupid and horrendously un-American. So why now and not then? Between then and now reporters have released blockbuster scoops which have forced resignations, ended careers and severely damaged the president and his party. No doubt the same investigative journalists are chasing down as many leads and more, and a party with exclusive claim to power has far greater opportunity to abuse it. If you want to test an American’s loyalty to our country’s fundamental values you don’t ask the question as an abstracted idea, you wait until his every political interest lies in violating them.

“I believe the attorney general and the president should use all of the power of existing law to bring criminal charges,” said Representative Rick Renzi, Republican of Arizona.

You flunk, Rep. Renzi. Who wants to join him?