Friday, August 7, 2009. Chaos and violence, continue, at least 69 are dead and 198 injured in today's violence, Nouri offers more nonsense, the US administration has no clues on Iraq and neither does the press assigned to cover them, and more.
Three US citizens were allegedly hiking and allegedly crossed from Iraq into Iran and are now -- the only point of the story which doesn't require "allegedly" -- being held by Iran. The issue was raised on the second hour of NPR's The Diane Rehm Show, where Diane was joined by McClatchy Newspapers' Nancy A. Youssef, Foreign Policy's Susan Glasser and National Journal's James Kitfield.
Diane Rehm: And what about the three Americans who were arrested for apparently crossing the border from Iraq into Iran, Nancy?
Nancy Youssef: That's right, that's right. These are three hikers in Iraq in Kurdistan who somehow crossed the border and we learned this week and again there's a question of what their fate is and what-what --
Diane Rehm: But they were warned. That's what bothers me. They were warned by Iraqis that they were getting close to the border.
James Kitfield: Can we -- can we put out an all points bulletin now: "Please American hikers don't go into the Kurdistan mountains near the border with Iran because that's not helpful. It's not helpful to you and it's not helpful to our diplomacy with Iran."?
Susan Glasser: And it's not helpful to Iraq which is so trying to change its image and saying that this is a place you can come to and this is a safe place and trying to revamp it's image and, um, this does not help it.
Diane Rehm: So what happens next or is there some ongoing communication, Susan?
Susan Glasser: Well, I think, unlike in dealing with North Korea, there is a much more established, you know, track record of Americans being able to engage with Iran through back channels. Europeans, of course, several countries actually have relations with Iran. So, you know, there's a much more filled out relationship that's ongoing even in times of stress than with North Korea for example. One question and I didn't see what the follow up was, I think these hikers actually were still being kept in Iranian Kurdistan which probably bodes well for their fate. You know, if they're trucked all the way to Tehran --
Diane Rehm: I see.
Susan Glasser: -- and they're put on trial as spies and that sort of thing, then they're going to -- you might need another President Clinton mission at that point to get them out. If it remains at that level, I think you're dealing with something, once the Iranians verify these do indeed seem to be semi-clueless students who were language students in the region in Syria, at least, a couple of them were. So perhaps they can still be handled at the level of clueless interlopers.
James Kitfield: History suggest they'll use them as pawns in whatever game in whatever diplomatic game they decide to play with us and eventually let them go. What-what I will say about this is interesting to me right now is that the clocks that are ticking on the Iran issue are almost out of sync. We -- Obama has set for next month, as a deadline for Iran to-to-to respond to his offer of engagement. A lot of people are saying we should have a tactical policy because you don't want to be engaging with a regime that's lost significant legitimacy because of these elections. On the other hand, the Israelis who are trying to sort of push them to peace negotiations are saying "You have got to at least put a deadline on your dealings with Iran and your sanctions because we think they're going to get the bomb sometime in the next year to sixteen months." So it's very difficult right now this-this problem, these internal problems with Iran, although interesting have really sort of skewed the diplomatic schedule that Obama has set for Iran and it's difficult to know how you put it back in sync.
We'll come back to that program in a bit but that is covering what's known about the three Americans. And it is, as serious news consumers know, The Diane Rehm Show that you count on to provide you information about Iraq. Each Friday, there's a strong chance it will be addressed in the second hour of the program (the international hour). (In addition, Iraq was touched on by the increasingly flaky Senator Barbara Boxer on Wednesday's program and it was addressed in much more depth by Diane and her guest Anthony Zinni on Thursday's program.) These are discussions, not 15 second headlines. And that needs to be pointed out because Pacifica can't do a damn thing on Iraq as is most obvious with Democracy Now! where Goodman wastes one hour after another each day. Camilo Mejia is on (this week) and maybe we'll get to hear about Iraq? Hear about Iraq? Goodman doesn't even know he's the chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Camilo has to correct on air. That's how pathetic and uninformed she is. Because one of the American citizens is a 'journalist' who filed a 'report' on Iraq six months ago for her program, Goodman re-airs that today. And that's supposed to thrill us all. Hey, maybe if Dahr gets detained, she can re-air one of his segments -- though she'd have dip back very far because she hasn't had Dahr on in forever, despite the fact that he's just released a new book. (We'll be noting Dahr's book later in the snapshot.) It's embarrassing and it's shameful and she, not Diane Rehm, claims to go "where the silences are." She, not Diane Rehm, rests her reputation -- in every public appearance -- on her supposed Iraq reporting. When it's time to beg for more money, she's on air reminding people that she did this on Iraq or that and my goodness what about the New York Times' Judith Miller????? It's about time someone told her she looks cheap, disgusting and flithy as she falsely uses the Iraq War to raise money for her increasingly useless program. If you're a serious news consumer considering making a donation to public radio before the end of the year, make a point to remember that it has been The Diane Rehm Show in 2009 which has regularly covered Iraq. Don't buy Amy's self-hype and self-promotion and posing. She's done nothing. So if you do have it to spare before the end of the year and you're wanting to donate to public radio, remember Diane Rehm's the only one who regularly covers the ongoing war.
Today Iraq was rocked by violence. Getting the most attention was a bombing outside of Mosul, targeting a mosque, in which Reuters counts at least 38 dead and and at least one-hundred-and-forty injured. (Despite that and despite the fact that the bombing was known early this morning, Amy Goodman didn't even include it in headlines. Typical.) Sam Dagher (New York Times) informs the bombing utilized 1 Kia truck with reports conflicting over whether it was parked or "was driven by a suicide bomber". Liz Sly and Saif Hameed (Los Angeles Times) report, "The massive bomb exploded as worshipers were leaving the mosque in the village of Shraikan after attending Friday prayers, officials said. The bombing, which demolished 10 nearby homes, is certain to raise tensions between Kurds, who control the area, and the Sunni Arab administration of Ninevah province, of which Mosul is the capital." Ernesto Londono and Dlovan Brwari (Washington Post) add, "Zuhair Muhsan Mohammed, the mayor of Mosul, said many people at the mosque were attending a funeral when the bombing occurred. He said the assailant, driving a Kia truck, got through a checkpoint by telling guards he was there to pay condolences to the dead person's relatives." They quote eye witness Hussein Abbas Farhat stating, "I was screaming, but I couldn'te ven hear myself scream." CNN provides this context, "Friday was the end of a Shiite Muslim celebration in Karbala celebrating the birthday of Imam al-Mahdi, the last of 12 historic imams revered by Shiites. Pilgrims participating in such celebrations have been the target of similar attacks by Sunni Muslims."
Turning ot some of the other reported violence today . . .
Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports 3 Baghdad roadside bombings which claimed 8 lives and left twenty-four injured, a Baghdad car bombing which claimed 6 lives (three were police officers) and left thirty wounded and a Mosul bombing attack on the home of a Christian family in which two women were wounded. (Some press reports say the Baghdad car bombing was a motorcycle bombing.)
Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports 1 police officer shot dead in Mosul, an attack on a Mosul checkpoint in which 2 police officers were killed, 1 woman shot dead on the street in Mosul, a Mosul home invasion in which 1 man was shot dead (silencers used on the guns) and a Sulaimaniyah Province checkpoint was attacked resulting in the death of 1 police officer and two more being wounded.
Reuters notes 1 corpse ("half-burnt") discovered in Kirkuk.
A huge day of violence in Iraq and yet the US State Dept didn't even mention the country during their press briefing and the reporters assigned to cover the State Dept didn't bother to ask. It was the same way at the White House where plus-size spokesmodel Robert Gibbs held court and avoided Iraq -- as you would if you weren't interested in ending the illegal war even though the man you work for promised to do that while campaigning -- and the press wasn't interested. Not only that, but Robert Gibbs, with no objections from the press, defined what he considered the legitmate scope of discussion for the press, "I think continuing to discuss the issues that are important -- ranging from health care to the economy to the war in Afghanistan -- I think those are things that are of great interest to the American people." Iraq was not mentioned. For those idiots who don't grasp it, the US military has approximately 130,000 troops stationed on the ground in Iraq. That's more than were present in Iraq before Bully Boy Bush began his 2007 'surge.' The numbers have still not gone down and Barack's now occupied the White House for over six months -- the man who promised one brigade out of Iraq each month if he was elected.
Those paying attention to reporting this week grasped that the Iraq War has not ended. Scott Fontaine (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) explains approximately "75 members of Fort Lewis' 602nd Forward Support Company" are receiving welding courses in prep for their deployment to Iraq. Writing for the Albany Democrat-Herald, US Spc Cory Grogan reports:
"Soldiers from the Oregon Army National Guard's 2-218 Field Artillery's First Platoon, 2nd Squad were reminded that Iraq is still a combat zone when they were struck by two separate improvised explosive devices last week." Monica Hernandez (Jackson, MS' WLBT -- link has text and video) reports on 170 members of the 114th military police command that is deploying to Iraq. Ruth Ingram (The Clinton News) reports on the departure ceremony, "The ceremony, moved from Arrow Field inside to the auditorium after clouds grew gray, attracted at least 1,000 supporters and family. The 750-seat room was filled; family and friends lined the walls, sat on steps to the stage, and even had to watch from outside the room." Erin Toner (WUWM, link has text and audio) reports on Russell Seager of the VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, a 51-year-old nurse who is deploying to Iraq. Henry Cunningham (Fayetteville Observer) reports, "About 3,500 soldiers of the 1st Brigade Combat Team have begun departing for a year in Iraq to advise and assist local security forces, the commander said Thursday." Conan Gasque (News 14, link has text and video) reports they'll be in Anbar and quotes Col Mark Stammer stating what everyone but members of the US Congress should grasp, "It's still a dangerous place down there." Also deploying to Iraq is San Diego's 10News' Angele Ringo who has already done one tour of Iraq. Yet Kimberly Page (WALB) reports that US House Rep Sanford Bishop just completed a for-show walk-around in Iraq and issuing laughable statements such as, "Things seem to be going very, very well. In fact, better than expected." He's claiming there's 'progress' and he's pleased with the 'withdrawal' thus far and generally making the sort of ass out of himself that the country regularly saw Republicans do under Bush. Putting the Democrats in power did not end the illegal war. Cindy Sheehan's latest column walks you through what could have been if the Democrats really wanted to end the Iraq War, or prosecute torture or shut down Guantanamo, Bagram and all the secret black ops sites. They were given the power in the 2006 mid-term elections (filibuster meant they always had the power to end the illegal war, even prior to 2006). They have control of both houses of Congress now and the White House and the Iraq War continues. Cindy Sheehan notes, "I see signs of this country coming out of the 'Hope'-nosis of Obama as positive change is not even in the forecast but the reawakening is not happening fast enough and we really need everyone to walk towards the light of truth and peace if we ever want to see any of my dreams become reality!"
Iraq events were explored on today's Diane Rehm Show:
Diane Rehm: James, tell me how we're doing with Iraq, after the US troop withdrawal from cities and towns?
James Kitfield: Well, you know, it's- it's a mixed bag. But I'll tell you there's a lot of concern on the American side that -- that we have Iraqi elections coming up for the prime minister next January and there's a lot of concern that Maliki, Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki is doing a lot of things to rush -- sort of putting Americans in the background because it plays really well politically. He's removing all the blast areas from Baghdad. [Kitfield means the blast walls, also known as Bremer Walls.] I can tell you, there's a lot of concern that that will lead to a renewal of these suicide bombs in the market places and those barriers do a couple of things for you. They keep the blast contained but they also make it hard for the bombers to-to escape, they make it hard for -- and they make it easy for people to regulate who comes through the main parts of the city. So it will be great if it works and there's not a whole lot of violence but there's concern that will lead to violence. There's concern also that he's taken all American checkpoints out of the Green Zone. He's basically taken -- the Green Zone is now all policed by the Iraqis themselves and the Americans are pretty much consigned to their embassy in the Green Zone.
Diane Rehm: And tensions with the Kurds, Nancy?
Nancy Youssef: That's right he went up to Kurdistan, met with [President Masoud] Barzani who just won his re-election there and this effort to reach out and deal with what the Americans say are the most divisive and long term issues facing Iraq: What to do with Kurdistan -- the autonomous region there, what to do with Kirkuk, the distribution of oil revenues? These are critical issues that frankly I think most people don't think can be resolved by the time the US troops withdraw by the end of 2011. And I think there's an effort and pressure on Maliki to get started on that now because this is something that will take years and years to resolve. If I can just go back to the blast walls because I lived in Iraq and Baghdad when those walls went up and it was really painful to watch. I mean, you just, you almost cried at the sight of it because it was such a sign of defeat when you went -- everywhere you went. In the middle of areas where people prayed, these huge 20 foot high blast walls and it was one of the most depressing times in Iraq, to see them go up. And so I think James is absolutely right, I think Maliki's taking a lot of political risks but I think those symbolize defeat and violence in Iraq in a way that most things didn't in terms of people's daily life.
Diane Rehm: But -- but are you concerned as James said --
Nancy Youssef: Of course -- of course. 37 Shi'ites were killed today in Mosul and Karbala. I mean the costs of that is extremely high. I just want to point out the political costs of those blast walls. They are tremendous.
With all the problems facing Iraq, including Nouri's announcement this week that he can't pay General Electric (Con-Ed would have turned off the electricity by now), Nouri finds the time for the 'important' things: pushing an anti-smoking law. White phosphorus and 'mini-nukes' and everything else that has been used in the last six years on Iraq have created a health hazard and nicotine really is among the least of the country's worries. Liz Sly and Caesar Ahmed (Los Angeles Times) report, "So news that the government plans to introduce a stringent, Western-style anti-smoking law has been greeted with surprise, and considerable dismay by Iraqis accustomed to lighting up wherever and whenever they choose. The draft law includes a ban on smoking in cafes, restaurants, clubs, and government and private offices, all places where life currently unfolds amid clouds of cigarette smoke. Penalties of $2,500 to $4,200 will be applied to violators." Ernesto Londono (Washington Post) speaks with Iraqis one of whom, Ala al-Kanini, wants Saddam Hussein back and another, Waleed Habba, states, "We have no electricity, no jobs, people still get killed. We all have to deal with anger issues here. That's the reason people smoke here, to run away from that."
Independent journalist Dahr Jamail's latest book was just released last month month and is The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Foreign Policy In Focus offers a book excerpt and we'll note the opening of it:
The phrase "Winter Soldiers" was adopted by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) when they organized the first Winter Soldier event in response to the human rights violations that were occurring in Vietnam. The event, called "Winter Soldier Investigation," was held in Detroit from January 31, 1971, to February 2, 1971, and was intended to publicize war crimes and atrocities perpetrated by the U.S. Armed Forces in the Vietnam War. VVAW challenged the morality and conduct of the war by exposing the direct relationship between military policies and war crimes in Vietnam. The three-day gathering of 109 veterans and 16 civilians included discharged servicemen from each branch of military service, civilian contractors, medical personnel, and academics, all of whom presented testimony about war crimes they had committed or witnessed during 1963–1970.
A smaller, modern-day incarnation of VVAW is IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against the War), which was founded in 2004. It seeks to offer a platform to those who have served in the military since September 11, 2001, to speak out against what they see as an unjust, illegal, and unwinnable war in Iraq. At the time of this writing, IVAW had more than 1,400 members in 49 states, Washington, D.C., Canada, and on military bases overseas. IVAW held a national conference called "Winter Solider: Iraq and Afghanistan" outside Washington, D.C., in March 2008. The four-day event brought together more than 200 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from across the country to testify about their experiences in both occupations. Although largely ignored by the corporate press, the event was of historical significance. For the first time since the invasion of Iraq in early 2003, former and current members of the U.S. military had organized with the specific purpose to make public the truth of their experience. It was hoped, in vain as it turned out, that the testimonies of veterans would provide the press with sufficient information to report on the truly catastrophic nature of the occupations and rouse people to take action.
At this first modern-day Winter Soldier event, I spoke with scores of veterans during breaks in the powerful panels of testimony. A constant refrain I heard was that individuals who had joined the military for honorable reasons were disillusioned upon sensing how they were being misused by the government of the country they had sworn under oath to serve and defend.
Hart Viges had felt compelled to join the U.S. Army the day after September 11, 2001, in the genuine belief that he could help make the world a safer place. Like other speakers at the Winter Soldier event, he admitted that U.S. troops routinely detained innocent people during home raids. "We never went on the right raid where we got the right house, much less the right person -- not once." He said it was common practice for troops to take photographs as war trophies. "We were driving in Baghdad one day and found a dead body on the side of the road. We pulled over to secure the area and my friends jumped off and started taking pictures with it, smiling. They asked me if I wanted to join them, and I refused. Not because it was unethical, but because it wasn't my kill. Because you shouldn't make trophies of what you didn't kill. I wasn't upset this man was dead, but just that they shouldn't be taking credit for something they didn't do. But that's war."
Meanwhile, the US antiwar movement founders in the wake of a substantial part of its membership giving their collective soul to the Democratic Party. Since November 2008, it's as if the bloodshed perpetrated by US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan is okay because Barack Obama is leading the charge instead of George Bush. Besides the National Assembly's call for local and regional protests against the Iraq occupation and Afghan war in October, there has been barely a peep from other national antiwar organizations. This is despite the fact that Congress and Obama have approved several more billion dollars for the wars and the size of the US force in Afghanistan has nearly doubled while the promised withdrawal of US forces in Iraq has not even begun.
It is the opinion of many antiwarriors that veterans have a key role to play in any organized resistance. After all, it was their presence in the movement against the Vietnam war that shook the conscience of the US public in that war's later years. However, as Dahr Jamail and his subjects point out again and again in The Will to Resist, the strength in numbers and the political power of the GI movement against the war in Vietnam was directly related to the strength of the greater antiwar movement. So, despite the commitment of today's GI and veteran resisters profiled in Jamail's book, that commitment is limited by the weakness of the antiwar movement as a whole.
Jamail highlights the various organizations organizing GI resistance, from the Iraq Veterans Against the War to the group Courage to Resist. He also commits a chapter to each of the primary forms of resistance and reasons for that resistance. He describes instances of individual resistance and the refusal of entire units to carry out missions. He also explores the nature of the sexist culture of the military and the immorality of the wars themselves. One of the most interesting chapters in The Will to Resist is titled "Quarters of Resistance." It describes the mission and interior of a house in Washington, DC run by a couple veterans. The purpose of the house is to operate as a sort of clearinghouse for the GI resistance movement. At times, the house has provided shelter for veterans and GIs attending antiwar activities in DC. It is also a place that the founder of the house, Geoffrey Millard, calls a "training ground for resistance." In addition to these quarters, Jamail discusses the beginnings of a coffeehouse movement slowly developing outside major US military bases.
Jamal's book is also about his learning to understand and appreciate the humanity of the US soldier. Originally inclined to consider them all killers without conscience, his conversations and other interactions with the young men and women who have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan to kill in America's name have led him to understand that many of these folks struggle with their souls on a daily basis. With this growing understanding of folks who are essentially his contemporaries, The Will to Resist becomes more than just another collective biography of troops who discover their conscience under the duress of war.
Tuesday's snapshot reported on the Democratic Senate Policy Committee's hearing on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tuesday night, Kat covered it at her site and noted how the whole thing struck her as for-show. The hearing was chaired by US Senator Byron Dorgan and, in the hearing, Dorgan noted the government's inability to take accountability from time to time such as with Agent Orange or, more recently, the repeated denials about KBR's shoddy electrical work in Iraq which led to the deaths of US service members. In an update to the electrical work story, Braden Reddall and Eric Beech (Reuters) report, "The U.S. Army has found that the death of Staff Sergeant Ryan Maseth, who was electrocuted while showering at a Baghdad base in January 2008, was accidental, the Defense Department said on Friday." The reporters note the May hearing of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. That's a May 20th hearing. From that day's snapshot:
"Today's hearing is a result of this committee's continuing investigation into the deaths of some US soldiers by the death of electrocution in Iraq," explained Senator Byron Dorgan who chaired this morning's Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing "Rewarding Failure: Contractor Bonuses for Faulty Work in Iraq."
Senator Byron Dorgan: That investigation has led us to internal Pentagon documents showing that in 2007 and 2008, contractor KBR received bonuses of $83.4 million for work that, according to the Pentagon's own investigation, led to the electrocution deaths of US troops. Let me repeat that: The Pentagon gave bonuses of $83.4 million to KBR for work that resulted in the electrocution deaths of American soldiers.
Dorgan spoke of Ryan Maseth, a Green Beret and Army Ranger with the rank of Staff Sgt who died in Baghdad January 2, 2008 from taking a shower in KBR's 'safe' facilities. Dorgan noted that in the July hearing, "we obtained testimony that KBR had known of this very electrocuting hazard since at least February 10, 2007, 11 months before Ryan Maseth's death. In fact, the prior occupant of Staff Sgt Maseth's room was shocked in the same room four to five times between June and October 2007, in the very same shower were Ryan was killed. According to his sworn affidavit, each time this soldier was shocked, he submitted a work order to KBR." In fact, $34.4 million of KBR's $83.4 million in bonus pay was paid after Ryan Maseth was killed by their shoddy, cheap work and the military's investigation, as Dorgan noted, now lists the death as due to negligent homicide.
That's took place in May along with much more. The Reuters' report today reduces the May hearing to basically two sentences and the excerpt above provides more context than the Reuters report which also failes to note that KBR has been found responsible for other electrical deaths in Iraq this year.
Turning to TV notes. Bill Moyers Journal begins airing tonight on most PBS stations. Hi s guests tonight are Chris Jordan and Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. The shows head writer Michael Winship explores "Neighborhood Watch on Planet Earth:"
For a bit of change, let's talk about a different kind of health care reform - the kind that affects the health of the planet.
The other evening, I was listening to All Things Considered on NPR. Robert Siegel was interviewing Dr. Hal Levison, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, about the king-sized comet that slammed into Jupiter a few weeks ago.
The comet's impact - it punched a hole the size of the Pacific Ocean, and would have annihilated a lesser planet, like Earth - was discovered by an amateur astronomer in Australia. Siegel asked how such an event escaped the notice of the world's great observatories.
"There are only a few really large telescopes," Levison explained. "They're hard to get time on, and so they're dedicated to particular projects. And the amateurs really are the only ones that have time just to monitor things to see what's happening."
"Part of the Neighborhood Watch looking out the front door," Siegel suggested.
Neighborhood Watch. Dr. Levison liked that analogy and so do I. Combined with the recent passing of space enthusiast Walter Cronkite and the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, it got me thinking about the value of exploring the cosmos at a time of economic destitution on the ground and a national deficit that makes the word "astronomical" seem inadequate.
As a kid, I was in thrall to the space program. Squinting into the night above rural upstate New York, my family and I sometimes could see those early, primitive satellites traverse the dark sky, and my younger brother, a skilled amateur astronomer to this day, would haul out his telescope for us to look at the craters of the moon, or Jupiter or Saturn's rings.
In the auditorium of my elementary school, a modest, black and white television set was placed on the stage so we could watch the space flights of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, and for a class project in the sixth grade, I tracked the mission of astronaut Gordon Cooper, dutifully moving a tiny, construction paper space capsule across a map of the world as Cooper orbited the planet 22 times.
Six years later, in 1969, we sat downstairs in the family room of our home and watched the mission of Apollo 11. I remember Cronkite's exultant, "Oh boy!" as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the lunar surface, and staying up through the night to watch the first moonwalk. (Years later, editing a TV series on the history of television, colleagues and I noted how, in his excitement, Cronkite almost talked over Armstrong's "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.")
As time went by, America became blasé about space exploration. The budget for moon landings was curtailed after the first few, and flights of the space shuttle became commonplace save for the horrific, fatal explosions of Columbia and Challenger.
We speak now of returning astronauts to the moon and manned missions to Mars yet efforts to do so seem half-hearted. But there can be no denying the greater understanding of the universe gained from the amazing images obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope, and data from satellites and unmanned interplanetary probes. And beyond the jokes about Tang and Velcro, NASA and the space program have generated advances in a range of technologies.
Which brings us back to that notion of the Neighborhood Watch, for one of the most valuable contributions of our exploration of the skies has been the knowledge gained from being able to examine our own earthly neighborhood from the distance of space.
Invaluable information is obtained from satellites monitoring weather and the damage created by drought, floods, fire, earthquakes and climate change. But that fleet is aging and few new satellites are being launched to replace them.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Jane Lubchenco, the new head of the National Oceanic and Administrative Administration (NOAA), was quoted in the British newspaper The Guardian. "Our primary focus is maintaining the continuity of climate observations," she said, "and those are at great risk right now because we don't have the resources to have satellites at the ready and taking the kinds of information that we need... We are playing catch-up."
The paper went on to report that, "Even before her warning, scientists were saying that America, the world's scientific superpower, was virtually blinding itself to climate change by cutting funds to the environmental satellite programmes run by the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. A report by the National Academy of Sciences this year warned that the environmental satellite network was at risk of collapse."
This news comes on the heels of a NOAA report that the world's ocean surface temperature for June was the warmest on record and the release of more than a thousand spy satellite photographs of Arctic sea ice that were withheld from public view by the Bush Administration.
On the morning of July 15, the National Research Council issued a report asking the Obama administration to release the pictures; the Department of the Interior declassified them just hours later. A source told the Reuters news service, "That doesn't happen every day... This is a great example of good government cooperation between the intelligence community and academia."
The images are remarkable. You can see a selection of them online at http://gfl.usgs.gov/ArcticSeaIce.shtml. Arctic ice is in retreat from the shores of Barrow, Alaska, along the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and west of Canada's Northwest Territories, and from the Bering Glacier, among many other sites.
"The photographs demonstrate starkly how global warming is changing the Arctic," The Guardian noted. "More than a million square kilometres of sea ice - a record loss - were missing in the summer of 2007 compared with the previous year. Nor has this loss shown any sign of recovery. Ice cover for 2008 was almost as bad as for 2007, and this year levels look equally sparse."
One reason, of course, for the Obama White House's release of the dramatic photographs is to bolster support for the climate change bill narrowly passed by the House and now awaiting action in the Senate.
The bill's a thin soup version of what many believe needs to be done. It inadequately reduces emissions, gives away permits and offsets to industry, and, as Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth recently told my colleague Bill Moyers on Bill Moyers Journal, strips away the Environmental Protection Agency's authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
But even this watered down version of the climate legislation is in jeopardy, collateral damage from the health care reform fight. "A handful of key senators on climate change are almost guaranteed to be tied up well into the fall on health care," the Web site Politico.com reports. "Democrats from the Midwest and the South are resistant to a cap-and-trade proposal. And few if any Republicans are jumping in to help push a global warming and energy initiative."
If true, it's hard to imagine a bill passing before December's UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. Harder still, without a law of our own, to imagine the United States being able to convince China, India and developing nations to pass climate regulations and change polluting behaviors.
In other words, there goes the neighborhood.
NOW on PBS rebroadcasts a show from the first of the year:
Will the green energy dream come to fruition? This week NOW explores obstacles to the promise of renewables--energy generated from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, and rain.
As America looks to dramatically increase its use of renewable energy, an inconvenient reality stands in the way: the need to upgrade the country's antiquated electricity grid. Part of that overhaul involves the construction of gigantic and expensive long-distance transmission lines to carry clean energy from remote sites to population centers.
NOW travels to California, which has the most ambitious clean energy plan in the nation. But the state's efforts face stiff opposition from property owners and conservationists who prefer renewable energy from "local sources," such as photovoltaic rooftop solar panels.
Complicating the matter are claims that the transmission lines are not actually carrying renewable energy at all, but represent a thinly-disguised strategy to stick to old energy practices.
On Washington Week, Gwen sits around the table with John Harwood (New York Times), Peter Baker (New York Times) and Martha Raddatz (ABC News). Bonnie Erbe and her guests explore population growth on this week's edition of PBS' To The Contrary. Check local listings, all four PBS shows begin airing tonight on many PBS stations. And turning to broadcast TV, Sunday CBS' 60 Minutes offers:
The Price Of Bananas Chiquita Brands International says it paid murderous paramilitaries in Colombia to protect the lives of its employees there, but the families of civilians killed by the paramilitaries say the company is responsible for their deaths. Steve Kroft reports. Watch Video
Brain Power People who are completely paralyzed due to illness or trauma are getting help communicating with a new technology that connects their brains to a computer. In the future, brain computer interface, or BCI, may restore movement to paralyzed people and allow amputees to move bionic limbs. Scott Pelley reports. Watch Video
Swimming With Sharks Because tour operators use food to attract sharks for their "shark tourist" customers, critics say surfers and swimmers are in more danger now because the dangerous fish are associating humans with food. Bob Simon reports.
60 Minutes Sunday, Aug. 9, at 7 p.m. ET/PT.