August 2008 Archives

"Torture Team" and "The Dark Side"

In "Torture Team", Phillippe Sands analyzes the Bush legal team's strategy to implement interrogation tactics at Guantanamo that defy the Geneva Convention. He first interviews the lower level lawyers who worked on the ground in Guantanamo, then works his way up to Cheney's immediate legal advisors.

At this point many Americans acknowledge that torture wasn't the action of a "few bad apples", rather something that was sanctioned at the top of the administration. Recognizing that fact makes the book no less interesting, rather it's even more chilling to see how the lawyers carefully pieced together a policy that would not only to obliterate the standard of international law but fly in the face of long standing wisdom on how best to deal with terrorism. Sands' position as an international lawyer who worked on Chile's Pinochet case and also a UK citizen who also saw first hand the failure of torture policies to stem IRA terrorism gives him a unique perspective to analyze the implications of Bush's policies.

Sands concludes that the most senior Department of Defense officials, the president, vice-president, and their most senior lawyers are directly implicated in the policies for Guantanamo detainees. He focuses particularly on the legal framework constructed for torture tactics used on the prisoners, and the six lawyers at the top who wrote those policies: David Addington, Jay Bybee, Doug Feith, Alberto Gonzales, Jim Haynes and John Yoo.

He notes that despite the public outrage propagated when the torture memos were revealed, none of the lawyers' "careers have suffered unduly". Jay Addington works for Vice President Cheney. Doug Feith teaches at Georgetown, and since Sands' book, published his own book and strode through the talk show circuit forcefully advocating his version of events. Alberto Gonzalez had not yet forfeited his position as Attorney General when Sands finished his book, a fact Sands attributed to his "poor memory and the personal support of the President". Perhaps now he's regaining a memory that will debut as a memoir. Jay Bybee was assigned to the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco by George W. Bush. Jim Haynes, having failed to be confirmed as a federal judge had announced his intention to leave DoD when Sands finished "Torture Team", is now working for Chevron, headquartered in the Bay Area. A third lawyer in the Bay Area, John Yoo, teaches constitutional law at the University of California, Berkeley. Their futures look bright, although Sands concludes:

"Thanks to the immunity from criminal process that has been built into U.S. law, and to which several of these lawyers contributed, they are presently free from criminal investigation at home. That immunity does not, however, extend beyond the shores of the United States. The members of this distinct group of six lawyers, and perhaps others, may decide wisely to think carefully about where they travel in the future."

Equally interesting is Jane Mayer's "The Dark Side" : The inside story of how the war on terror turned into a war on American ideals." Like Sands' book, her story pulls the bits and pieces of the new's we've heard together. She explains: "It's been hard even for someone paying close attention, like myself, to follow these developments. We have learned about them out of order - first perhaps with the pictures of Abu Ghraib- and only piece by piece later - did we get to read the legal memos that justified a whole new system of law and detention." Mayer describes how not only lawyers and top administration brought about torture, but how they involved psychologists and physicians in it's practice. She also describes how the system spread beyond Guantanamo to foreign countries, and how US citizens have also been imprisoned.

Sands' focus is on one prisoner and his specific treatment in the hands of his captors. While any sane person can read from his description a system of torture, the media have focused on what everyone agrees is barbaric, waterboarding. Mayers stresses that the media focus on waterboarding "deflected attention from what was truly the worst part of the program - the combination of many forms of physical and psychological pain together over time."

While Mayer's acknowledges the Red Cross determination that the torture committed constitutes war crimes, she also says that it "would take a political movement bent on punishing the most powerful members of the Bush administration for taking steps it thought necessary to protect the country. Right now, I have trouble imagining there will be the political appetite for this." She notes that ranking members of congress were briefed on "enhanced interrogation" techniques and are therefore also complicit. While torture is not historically new, Mayers says, the way it has been institutionalized in the United States violates not only civil liberties but "the spirit of The Enlightenment on which the country was founded. It's a very deep break with the founders' values."

Your Prescription Data Roams Free

Sell Your Own Data

There's a market for your prescription data. The Washington Post reported this week that insurance companies are buying prescription data collected from companies like Milliman Intelliscript and Ingenix to help them make insurance coverage determinations. Patients with particular drug profiles and whether to pay claims for other patients. Drug profiles are determined by the insurance companies, who assign them scores or color codes. In a red, yellow and green schema, red would correspond to an AIDS patient, who needs lots of drugs. Milliman Intelliscript, part of the Milliman company, collects data from Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) that are not covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA, Title II). Then insurance companies pay a small fee to obtain the data, which they use to deny or approve claim requests.

The Washington Post interviewed "an entrepreneur who built the database system that Ingenix acquired", who explained how it works. If someone is taking a high dose of cholesterol lowering medicine, said Richard Dick, then the insurance company would "know you had an intractable cholesterol test" and could deny "an expensive blood test".

Electronic records are necessary and will deliver a lot of the benefits and efficiencies. However as described, I'm sure doctors and patients are alarmed.

Richard Dick is an electronic medical record pioneers and electronic consent advocate who contributed to this Institute of Medicine (IOM) publication on the subject in1997. He currently serves as the Chief Technical Officer at You Take Control (YTC), which sells an electronic consent management system. He has a Ph.D. in Medical Biophysics and Computing from "the University of Utah's world-class Medical Informatics M.D./PhD program (equates to a Ph.D. in CS + first 2 yrs Med School)."

ACLU Concerns

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought attention to this issue last month, voicing concern over H.R. 6357, the PRO(TECH)T Act of 2008. The ACLU says that

"Virtually all the pending bills lack important privacy and security protections for the online databases that would store patients' electronic health records and prescriptions."

Suggesting that lobbyists for the systems don't want privacy concerns to slow down system implementations, the ACLU asks Congress to "require strong privacy and security standards" to prevent "identiy theft; accidental publication of patients' sensitive or embarrassing personal information; discriminatory review by insurance companies or potential employers so they can avoid paying for people who might be expensive to insure or employ; invasive direct marketing to patients or doctors by competing drug companies; and commercial resale or misuse of personal health information." These concerns are clearly warranted.


Acronym Required wrote about the probable fluidity of forthcoming genetic information in What's Your Sign Code?"

Changing Its Stripes? The New(est) Green Conservatism

Newt Gingrich joined his party to promote drilling yesterday, warning Democrats who won't hold a vote on drilling that Republicans could shut down government. Gingrich is practiced at this, having led his party to two government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 that were criticized by voters.

Drilling in protected areas will not bring immediate relief from oil shortages, nor is it the best environmental strategy. But wasn't Newt the environmental guy? So confusing. Not more than a year ago, when the Republicans decided that Democrats were gaining too much support with their environmental positions, Newt was one of the first ones to try to reshape the Republicans as green. Faced with growing movement to stem carbon emissions, Gingrich wrote for the AEI in "We Can Have Green Conservatism - And We Should":

"...if the debate becomes, "Al Gore cares about the earth, and we're against Al Gore, we end up in a defensive position where the average American could end up perceiving conservatives as always being negative about the environment."

He asserted that liberal environmentalism was bad policy, bested by green conservatism, that is, "Green Conservatism", capitalized of course. Republicans (and him) went way back being green he wrote:

"In my commitment to the environment, I was echoing the conviction of two well known Republican leaders. The first was President Theodore Roosevelt, who said that "the nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets, which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value." The other was then Gov. Ronald Reagan, who upon the occasion of the first Earth Day said that "[there is an] absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment."

First he slyly claimed Teddy Roosevelt as his own, then he defined the "Green Conservative":

"For green prosperity and green development, we have to have a strategy that makes the transition from the unimproved fossil a new generation of clean energy that will: enable us, in national security terms, to be liberated from dependence on dangerous dictatorships; enable us, in economic terms, to be effective in worldwide competition; and enable us, in environmental terms, to provide for a much cleaner and healthier future."

He said "green" a lot, 23 times in a couple of pages. But that was then, April, 2007, and this is now.

So will all Republicans who denounced drilling changed their minds? The Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP) don't support drilling as of August 7th, posting articles such as "Quickest Way to Cheaper Gas Prices Is Not More Drilling." Will they change their minds? Will the Daily Green, another "green" Republican blog?

Campaign Flotsam and Jetsam

Flyboy Gall: Who Said "I believe God wants me to run for President"?

Issues and non-issues fly by fast as the campaign season winds up. The finale brings us bold lies, fantasy, and frankly, nausea. McCain aired an ad with Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea, inferring that Obama thought he was "the chosen one". The irony is that the current president, in whose shoes McCain proposes to step, is the one that said: "I've heard the call. I believe God wants me to run for President".

Is "Flyboy" spiraling downwards in a "festival of juvenilia" as Maureen Dowd called it"? Or is this just a swirl from the giant whirlwind of hot air sweeping us all up in its flotsam and jetsam. Just think, there we were a few months back, clamoring over science debates. McCain was probably chuckling to himself: "Stem cells? Henh? I'll be at the biker fair, Cindy in her denim shirt"

When Hilton Trumps McCain This Can't Be Good

In response to McCain's ad comparing Obama to celebrities, which many people took at face value, Bob Herbert set the record straight in Running While Black". He wrote: "Spare me any more drivel about the high-mindedness of John McCain." As an aside, I do I think people are long past thinking McCain is "high minded". Referring to the "slimey Britney and Paris Hilton ad", Herbert wrote: "The racial fantasy factor in this presidential campaign is out of control." He added that it's a well honed tactic used on previous candidates by Republicans, and "[i]t was at work in that New Yorker cover that caused such a stir."

"It's frustrating", he said, "to watch John McCain calling out Barack Obama on race. Senator Obama has spoken more honestly and thoughtfully about race than any other politician in many years. Senator McCain is the head of a party that has viciously exploited race for political gain for decades." Here's the full column.

Of course unlike Herbert, Paris Hilton actually did think it was about her celebrity and promptly eeked yet another 15 minutes of fame out of it. She suggested a compromise between the Democrat and Republican energy plans, a "hybrid", where

"offshore drilling carries us until the new technologies kick in." Since it would be years until offshore drilling comes to fruition however, and new technologies are readily available, her video wasn't the IQ turnaround some people cheered -- but hey she's got her brand to protect.

The Pitch: Drilling Won't Work but the "Psychological Effect" Would be "Beneficial?"

Arguments about energy this week, shallow though they may be, far surpass last weeks campaign chatter -- McCain dissing Obamas "fame", McCain offering his wife up for country fair "beauty" contests. In response to Obama's offhand comment that we'd save more gas by keeping our tires inflated optimally than McCain would by drilling under his feet, last week McCain sent gag gifts of tire gauges. He turned around this week and said this might be a good idea.

In what has been said was a "forceful pitch for his U.S. energy strategy", Barack Obama called for $4 billion in aid to auto companies to help them produce more fuel efficient cars, particularly electric ones. His Lansing, Michigan speech came after a Detroit News poll in July found that McCain and Obama had equal support from voters in Michigan and that people were concerned first about the economy and second about gas prices.1 Acknowledging the necessity of politics, if the computer industry had been coddled as much as the auto industry over the past couple of decades, there might be no such thing as a desktop computer or an internet.

Obama also decided to soften his formerly strong opposition to offshore drilling, saying off-shore drilling might be OK as part of a more comprehensive energy plan. Democrats including Obama urge leaders to open up current reserves.

Drilling wouldn't result in petroleum until 2030 according to the Bush's Energy Information Administration, and so Nancy Pelosi has stood ground in the House of Representatives against Republicans who present drilling as a solution. Like Obama Democrats in the House of Representatives also seek compromise, although they continue to flatly oppose drilling in protected areas.

Democrats heartily refute the Bush administration's presentation of offshore drilling as a solution to the pressing energy problem. Rather they say, drilling as a solution is an oil industry con that further shackles the population to oil dependency. Democrats argue, as does Obama, that the oil companies already have access to 68 million acres of permitted federal lands in the lower 48 and Alaska that they under-utilize. People view the oil industry's current push for drilling as a campaign by the oil industry to obtain more leases on potential drilling sites. This would give them even more control over the market energy market in the face of increasing demand, and would prolong oil dependency.

McCain was also opposed to drilling, but switched his stance. McCain's reason for drilling off the coast would have a . The psychological effect on voters would be to muffle their clamor for cleaner energies, which would extend legislators vacation on the issue, and allow petroleum companies to extend their energy monopoly. Apparently McCain's campaign was promptly gifted with an influx of donations from oil companies.

The Republicans, just off their successful rally to defeat the Democrats' "use-it-or-lose-it" legislation (H.R. 6615), are making a big production of calling the Democrats back from their "recess". H.R. 6615 would have prevented oil and gas companies from obtaining new federal drilling leases if they did not meet new government standards for development on leases they already hold, prevent them for collecting leases and using them as market leverage. The oil companies, as the multi-billion dollar beneficiaries of the "oil crisis" apparently yield some clout in this election, and citizens, who protest wildly about the price of gas on one hand, are willing to give them more power with the other.

What special treats will next week bring? This season's whirlwind campaign is tough to endure but I look forward to seeing lots of Harley's outside my poling station. Yeah.


1 Acronym Required wrote about the movie "Who Killed the Electric Car", and about the auto industry's failure to innovate in "The EPA: Mulish Days, Staring out to Pasture".

Global AIDS Funding to Pep the US Up

More Money for PEPFAR

Last week George Bush signed into law a bill to increase global HIV/AID, tuberculosis and malaria funding. The bill had been delayed while the Senate negotiated aspects of the funding, questions like how much would be allocated to drugs, versus infection prevention. After legislative deliberation and compromise, the House approved the bill and the president signed it last week. H.R. 5501, known as the Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008, sets out to expand the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) by increasing funding to $48 billion dollars for the three diseases and some miscellaneous appropriations. Further deliberations will determine whether the Act is fully funded.

In his remarks at the ceremony Bush said "Laura and I saw the hope on our trip to Africa. I wish every single America '[sic]' could have seen the tens of thousands of people who lined the streets during our visit, and they were cheering and waving American flags in gratitude to the generosity of the American people." (Bush made the same statement after visiting Ghana and four other African countries earlier this year.) He continued that he thought it "important for our fellow citizens to understand that PEPFAR is saving lives...showing the good heart of our nation...earn[ing] us respect and thanks around the world."

US HIV Infections

In other HIV/AIDS news, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released rates of infection information, based on revised methods used to determine time of HIV infection more accurately. As a result the CDC reports greater numbers of HIV infections in the US than previously reported. Previous data showed that 40,000 new infections occurred in the US every year, now the CDC has adjusted that number up to between 55,000 - 58,500 new cases each year. The full CDC report by Hall et al, "Estimation of HIV Incidence in the United States", is published in JAMA's August 6th issue. The CDC announced the news ahead of the international AIDS conference that started today in Mexico City. Funding for HIV/AIDS prevention has reportedly fallen relative to inflation.

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