Weekly Roundup 6/27/2011

My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant
Jose Antonio Vargas, The New York Times Magazine, June 25, 2011

Synopsis: The stunning admission by the young Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas that he has lived in the United States since age 12 as an “undocumented immigrant” has provoked widespread comment since it went online at midweek (June 22). Vargas compellingly relates his immigration to the United States on what he later learned was a fake passport obtained by his mother in the Philippines and the difficulties since then while living in the United States with a fake “green card” obtained by his grandfather, a naturalized U.S. citizen. Vargas, now an unaffiliated journalist after having worked for the Washington Post and HuffingtonPost, has created a Web site, http://DefineAmerican.com, to promote immigration law reform.

Takeaway: Vargas’s “coming out” poses a host of questions: most significantly for him, whether the government will move to deport him, as some anti-immigrant conservatives have been urging. For journalists, the episode raises the question whether job applicants of Hispanic or Asian background will be more carefully scrutinized before being hired. The black online magazine The Root compiled some of the reaction here.

For background, see Alan Greenblatt, “Immigration Debate,” CQ Researcher, Feb. 1, 2008, updated Dec. 10, 2010.

-Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


Why Laying Off Ag Reporter Philip Brasher Is Bad for Food
Paula Crossfield, Civil Eats, June 24, 2011

As a veteran of the trade press, I know firsthand that, while reporting intended for an industry audience often breaks significant stories, trade papers’ content is skewed away from the interests of the general public toward the immediate concerns of business. Reporting on health care, I sat in many an overflowing room for a Medicare discussion…and many a nearly empty one for talk about Medicaid, whose low-dollar payments and low-dollar patients are of little interest to most medical providers. Beat reporters in the popular press are the only ones to cover many of the most far-reaching questions in every field, and that’s why this piece on the downsizing of a long-time Washington agriculture reporter from the Des Moines Register caught my eye. From farm subsidies’ effect on economies here and abroad to the conundrum of how to create food policies adequate to sustain us as energy shortages and climate change loom, agriculture policy grows only more crucial. I’m inclined to agree with Civil Eats editor Crossfield when she says: “I fear that without journalists like Brasher to shine a light on food policy, the public will remain critically uninformed and policy decisions will continue to be dominated by industry players in Washington.”

For related material, see my CQ Researcher report, “Global Food Crisis,” June 27, 2008, and Peter Katel’s report, “Food Safety,” Dec. 17, 2010.

-Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


The Invisible Army
Sarah Stillman, The New Yorker, June 6, 2011

Outside military circles – that is, for the vast majority of Americans – the consequences of the wars that U.S. forces have been fighting for nearly 10 years are easy to overlook. Of these consequences, perhaps the least-known involve the tens of thousands of contract employees who cook, clean, build and otherwise keep military bases running in some of the most dangerous places on earth. As Stillman notes in her vivid piece, the vast majority of these workers come from poverty-wracked countries in Asia and the Pacific, and many of them are women. At least some of them, Stillman’s reporting makes clear, are recruited under false pretenses – promised vastly more money than they’re actually paid, and not even told they’ll be working in war zones. And then there’s the serious sexual harassment, including rape, to which some of them are subjected. Told by one woman that she’d been raped repeatedly, Stillman writes that for several days, she called the Army’s sexual-assault hotline. “The number simply rang and rang,” Stillman reports.

-Peter Katel, Staff Writer

Ban on Violent Video Games for Minors Struck Down

By Kenneth Jost
Supreme Court Editor, CQ Press
      States cannot ban the sale or rental of violent video games to minors, the Supreme Court ruled in an end-of-term decision on Monday that strongly reaffirmed First Amendment rights for juveniles.
      The 7-2 decision struck down a 2005 California law that Justice Antonin Scalia called “the latest episode in a long series of failed attempts to censor violent entertainment for minors.” Noting the violence in children’s literature ranging from fairy tales to comic books, Scalia called the law “unprecedented and mistaken.”
      In a second important ruling on Monday, the court struck down an Arizona law that provided matching funds for candidates participating in the state’s public campaign financing system. The measure, approved by Arizona voters in 1998, raised the public subsidy for candidates running against higher-spending opponents. In an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the court held, 5-4, that the law unfairly burdened the political speech rights of privately funded candidates.
      The court issued the rulings and two other decisions that limited U.S. courts’ jurisdiction over foreign manufacturers in product liability suits as it ended the 2011 term and began a three-month recess. The justices will reconvene on the traditional first Monday in October with a docket that includes 40 cases so far, including 11 granted review on Monday. Among the new cases to be reviewed are the government’s effort to reinstate the Federal Communications Commission’s ban on so-called fleeting expletives on television (FCC v. Fox Television Stations, 10-1293).
      Scalia spoke for a mostly liberal majority in the video games case, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The ruling struck down the law because it represented what Scalia called an unjustified attempt to create a new exception to the general First Amendment rule against censorship.
      The law failed to survive the constitutional standard known as strict scrutiny, Scalia said, because California had failed to show that exposure to violent video games had harmful effects on minors. He also discounted the state’s other main rationale for the law — that it helped parents supervise their children’s use of video games.
      Four justices joined Scalia’s opinion: liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and the moderate-conservative Anthony M. Kennedy, traditionally a strong First Amendment supporter. In an opinion concurring in the result, conservative Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he would have struck down the law as vague but left other issues to be decided. Roberts joined his opinion.
      Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer dissented in separate opinions. Thomas, part of the court’s conservative bloc, argued that the First Amendment, “as originally understood,” did not give minors speech rights except through their parents. Breyer, a liberal who takes a pragmatic approach to First Amendment issues, said the California law imposed only “a modest” restriction on speech and was justified as an effort to help parents limit their children’s exposure to “potentially harmful, violent, interactive material.”
      The rulings on Monday ended a predominantly conservative term that saw the justices shut down a massive sex-discrimination lawsuit against the giant discount retailer Wal-Mart and limit lawsuits against mutual funds and generic drug manufacturers. The court upheld a tough Arizona law penalizing employers who hire undocumented immigrants and blocked states from suing electric utilities in federal court to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
      In criminal law cases, the court issued its third ruling in five years broadly limiting the use of the exclusionary rule to keep evidence out of criminal trials if obtained in illegal searches. It also blocked a former Louisiana prisoner from suing the New Orleans district attorney’s office for prosecutorial misconduct that kept him on death row for 14 years because of a wrongful murder conviction later overturned.
      Against the string of conservative rulings, the liberal justices’ most important victory came in a decision that ordered California prisons to reduce their population by as many as 30,000 inmates over a five-year period. In an opinion by Kennedy, the court said prison overcrowding resulted in “grossly inadequate” medical care that amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Dissenting justices argued that releasing thousands of inmates would endanger public safety.
      Many of the most controversial rulings came in 5-4 decisions that featured a conservative bloc of four Republican appointees led by Roberts and a bloc of four predominantly liberal Democratic appointees, including the two justices named by President Obama: Sotomayor and Kagan. Kennedy, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, held the balance of power between the two blocs, most often voting with the conservatives.
      Kagan, in her first term on the court and her first year as a judge, generally lined up as predicted with the court’s liberal wing. But she had to recuse herself in 28 cases, more than one-third of the total, because she had worked on them in her year and a half as solicitor general.

      For background, see Sarah Glazer, "Video Games," CQ Researcher, Nov. 10, 2006 (subscription required).

Wal-Mart Ruling Raises Bar for Job Bias Suits

By Kenneth Jost
Supreme Court Editor, CQ Press
      The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to throw out a major sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart will make it more difficult to bring job discrimination cases against major employers in the future, according to legal experts.
      The high court on Monday [June 20] rejected an effort to bring a class action against the giant discount retailer on behalf of up to 1.5 million women who have worked for Wal-Mart over the past decade.
      Dividing 5-4 along ideological lines on the most important issue, the justices said the plaintiffs had failed to produce sufficient evidence of a companywide policy discriminating against women in pay and promotions to justify a class action as opposed to individual suits.
      In opposing certification of the case as a class action, Wal-Mart maintained that it has a companywide policy prohibiting discrimination but grants wide discretion on personnel matters to individual managers at the company’s 3,400 stores nationwide. To counter the claim, plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case introduced affidavits alleging sex discrimination by 120 women along with statistics indicating significant gender disparities in pay and advancement.
      Writing for the majority in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, Justice Antonin Scalia found the evidence “worlds away” from what would be needed to charge Wal-Mart with a general policy of discrimination. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Scalia’s opinion.
      Writing for four liberal dissenters, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg found the evidence more persuasive. “The plaintiffs’ evidence, including class members’ tales of their own experiences, suggests that gender bias suffused Wal-Mart’s company culture,” Ginsburg wrote. Ginsburg was joined in the dissent by Justice Stephen G. Breyer and President Obama’s two appointees to the court: Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
      The justices were unanimous on a secondary issue: whether the plaintiffs could seek back pay in the suit as filed. The court ruled that back pay would generally be available only under a more complex class action rule that allows individual plaintiffs to opt out of the case and file their own suits.
      Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, could have faced hundreds of millions of dollars in back pay awards if the class action, originally filed in 2001, had been approved with the back pay claims intact. In a statement, the company said Monday it was pleased with the ruling and again claimed it has maintained “strong policies” against discrimination for years.
      “The Court today unanimously rejected class certification,” Wal-Mart’s statement read, “and, as the majority made clear, the plaintiffs’ claims were worlds away from showing a companywide discriminatory pay and promotion policy.”
      Experts in a telephone conference call arranged by the progressive American Constitution Society stressed that the court did not rule on the merits of the sex discrimination claim. “The ruling doesn’t in any way exonerate Wal-Mart,” said Cyrus Mehri, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents plaintiffs in discrimination cases. “The only way that could have been achieved would have been with a trial.”
      In the same call, Suzette Malveaux, a civil procedure expert at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, said the court’s decision creates “a new and higher burden” for plaintiffs to meet in job discrimination class actions against big employers. “Given all the evidence the plaintiffs put together, it’s difficult to imagine how any plaintiffs can come forward with a case that could challenge an employer like Wal-Mart,” she said.
      From the opposite perspective, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised the ruling as protecting companies from the threat of what it called “bet-the-business blockbuster class actions.” Robin Conrad, executive vice president of the chamber’s National Chamber Litigation Center, said the ruling “reinforces a fundamental principle of fairness in our court systems: that defendants should have the opportunity to present individualized evidence to show they complied with the law.”
      The suit, originally brought by six named plaintiffs, was certified as a class action by a federal judge in San Francisco in 2004. The federal appeals court for California upheld the decision in 2010 by a 6-5 vote.
      The Supreme Court’s ruling leaves the remaining three named plaintiffs in the case, including Betty Dukes, a greeter at the Wal-Mart store in Pittsburg, Calif., free to pursue their individual suits. Plaintiffs’ lawyers were not immediately available to comment on their next steps in the litigation, but Malveaux said the court’s ruling “killed this case as a class action.

      For background see, Kenneth Jost, “Class Action Lawsuits,” CQ Researcher, May 13, 2011 (subscription required).

Weekly Roundup 6/20/2011

Why Europe no longer matters
Richard N. Haass, The Washington Post, June 19, 2011

Synopsis: Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent speech criticizing U.S. allies in Europe for lagging support for U.S. policies around the world was misplaced, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations argues, not because it was wrong, but because it was irrelevant. Europe’s influence on world affairs is limited, and it is in other regions – Asia and the Middle East – that the 21st century will be forged and defined.

Takeaway: “The answer for Americans is not to browbeat Europeans for this,” writes Haass, director of policy and planning at the State Department under President George W. Bush, “but to accept it and adjust to it.”

-Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


Where I Learned to Read
Salvatore Scibona, The New Yorker, June 13, 2011

Synopsis: American novelist and my fellow northern-Ohioan Salvatore Scibona, author of The End, a complex, poetic 2008 novel that chronicles immigrant life in early 20th-century Cleveland, describes life at the other venue he and I have in common – “the Great Books” school, St. John’s College (in Annapolis, for me, and in Santa Fe, for him). Couldn’t have said it better myself. (For more about The End, a 2008 National Book Award finalist, see www.nationalbook.org/nba2008_f_scibona.html)

Takeaway: “By senior year at St. John’s, we were reading Einstein in math, Darwin in lab, Baudelaire in French tutorial, Hegel in seminar. Seminar met twice a week for four years: eight o’clock to ten at night or later, all students addressed by surname. On weekends, I hung out with my friends. The surprise, the wild luck: I had friends. One sat in my room with a beer and ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit,’ reading out a sentence at a time and stopping to ask, ‘All right, what did that mean?’ The gravity of the whole thing would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so much fun, and if it hadn’t been such a gift to find my tribe. In retrospect, I was a sad little boy and a standard-issue, shiftless, egotistical, dejected teen-ager. Everything was going to hell, and then these strangers let me come to their school and showed me how to read. All things considered, every year since has been a more intense and enigmatic joy.”

-Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


Black Ops and Blood Money
Matthew Teague, Men’s Journal, June 1, 2011

Raymond Davis was front-page news only recently, the protagonist of a dramatic episode that soon faded from view. But the details that had dribbled out from the tale of a CIA contractor who had killed two armed men following him through the streets of Lahore, Pakistan, were enough to send reporter Teague in search of more. He provides a fascinating portrait of Davis, who grew up poor in the southwest mountains of Virginia, an existence he escaped thanks to the U.S. Army. For all the deprivations of his early, hardscrabble life, it gave him years of practice in hunting and shooting. As for the men whom Davis killed in Pakistan, Teague apparently did his best to dig into their pasts as well. He learned little, though enough to confirm that Davis’ shooting skills saved his life. Teague also fills in some blanks on Davis’ spy work in Pakistan, but precisely what he’d been doing in Lahore remains mysterious. The tracking of Osama bin Laden elsewhere in Pakistan was under way when the Davis case erupted. No direct links have emerged between the bin Laden project and Davis’ work. But the story of his case leaves no doubt about the intensity and depth of the CIA’s work in Pakistan.

-Peter Katel, Staff Writer

Is foreign aid necessary for national security?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report "Foreign Aid and National Security" by Nellie Bristol on June 17, 2011.


The importance of the connection between non-military foreign aid and national security is being supported strongly by what may be a surprising group: former and active members of the U.S. military. And the message is coming from the top: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. “It has become clear that America's civilian institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and underfunded for far too long relative to what we spend on the military, and more important, relative to the responsibilities and challenges our nation has around the world,” Gates said in 2008. [Footnote 11]

Gates sees civilian tools of “persuasion and inspiration” as indispensable to a stable world. “We cannot kill or capture our way to victory,” he said. “What the Pentagon calls ‘kinetic’ operations should be subordinate to measures to promote participation in government, economic programs to spur development and efforts to address grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies and among the discontented from which the terrorists recruit.”

Retired Adm. James M. Loy, former deputy secretary of Homeland Security and Coast Guard commandant, traces the shift in approach to September 11. Since the attacks, he says, “the very definition of national security is much broader in scope.” While pre-9/11 security operations might have involved the White House, the National Security Council and the State and Defense departments, they now include participants ranging from the Treasury and Justice departments to the Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency.

“Who would have thought we'd ever pine for the good old days of the Cold War, with the simplistic notion of a couple of superpowers keeping client states under their wing and in order, all fostered by the notion of mutually assured destruction?” says Loy, now co-chair of the National Security Advisory Council at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a network of business and nongovernmental leaders that advocates increased use of civilian power. In today's more complicated world, he adds, “We're still trying to understand it.”

Investment in civilian operations is considered a “best buy” by J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). It is much cheaper to send specialists in health or elections to a country than to fund a military intervention, not to mention saving the lives and limbs of soldiers, he notes. Supporters of development as a national security tool acknowledge that definitive results for the approach are hard to find, mostly because it's difficult to measure what would have happened absent the aid. But, Morrison argues, “there's the kind of presumptive, wise, forward investment in creating a form of human security, accountability and transparency that will make for a better-functioning world.”

Afghanistan is frequently cited as an example of how aid would have protected the United States. When the Russians left in 1989, after nearly 10 years of war and occupation, the United States didn't follow through in rebuilding. Such actions can have serious consequences, comments Adm. Loy, who says, “Often when we've watched [foreign aid] fall, we've paid the price shortly thereafter.”

But not everyone agrees. James Roberts, a research fellow for economic freedom and growth at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, warned that “out of control federal spending” leads to a national security threat and that traditional development assistance “does not work, at least not if the goal is to foster sustainable development in poor countries.” [Footnote 12] He said development is better accomplished through private organizations. He did, however, laud humanitarian aid delivered under U.S. global HIV/AIDS programs.

Justin Logan, associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says strategic aid is unnecessary and counterproductive. “I think we're secure, independent of these efforts to try to tinker with the balance of power in other regions,” he says. He calls a lot of aid, especially to problematic allies such as Egypt and Pakistan, “bribery.” “I don't buy the Rube Goldberg theory that regional instability everywhere will always come back to bite us, [a view] I think is quite prevalent in Washington,” he adds.

U.S. willingness to engage throughout the world has made other countries less motivated to provide services for their citizens or even shore up their own defenses, Logan says. The U.S. tendency to pick and choose when and how to get involved in conflicts internationally “taints the image of America as a beacon of liberalism and democracy to the rest of the world and in some cases causes actual animosity and terrorism against the United States,” he adds.

Significantly, among those not fully convinced by the development aid-as-national security argument are lawmakers influential in budget matters. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., developed a 2012 budget plan that would have cut international affairs funding, which includes foreign aid, by as much as 28 percent. [Footnote 13]

And Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, chair of the House Appropriations Committee's State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee, said that given the country's constrained economic circumstances, foreign aid needs to be focused on “direct national security.” [Footnote 14]

While she acknowledged the connection between foreign aid and national security in long-term U.S. commitments to Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Mexico, she suggested other, less pressing development investments would be a lower priority in the current climate. “We have to look at our national security, particularly in foreign aid, and say, What is in our national security interest?” she said.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., makes the most extreme case against foreign aid, saying all aid should be cut, even to longtime ally Israel. Citing a Reuter's poll, Paul said, “71 percent of the American people agree with me that when we're short of money, when we can't do the things we need to do in our country, we certainly shouldn't be shipping the money overseas.” In making his case, Paul said that while he's sympathetic to challenges faced by developing countries, aid money too often goes to unscrupulous leaders. “You don't want to just keep throwing money to corrupt leaders who steal it from their people,” he argued.

Moreover, Paul said, U.S. aid to Israel is matched by aid to Islamic countries, possibly contributing to an arms race in the region. “I don't think that funding both sides of an arms race, particularly when we have to borrow the money from China to send it to someone else — we just can't do it anymore. The debt is all-consuming, and it threatens our well-being as a country.” [Footnote 15]

The Issues:

  • Is foreign aid necessary for national security?
  • Does the U.S. benefit from foreign aid spending?
  • Does the United States give too much aid to authoritarian governments?
Click here for more information on this CQ Researcher report [subscription required] or purchase the PDF.


[11] Robert Gates, speech to the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign, July 15, 2008, Washington, D.C., www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1262.

[12] James Roberts, “Not All Foreign Aid is Equal,” Backgrounder, The Heritage Foundation, March 1, 2011.

[13] “The Path to Prosperity: Restoring America's Promise, Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Resolution,” House Committee on Budget, http://budget.house.gov/UploadedFiles/PathToProsperityFY2012.pdf.

[14] Kay Granger, “PBS NewsHour,” March 10, 2011, www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/jan-june11/foreignaid_03-10.html.

[15] Matt Schneider, “Sen. Paul Rand: We Should End all Foreign Aid to Countries, Including Israel,” Medialite, Jan. 30, 2011, www.mediaite.com/tv/rand-paul-we-should-end-all-foreign-aid-to-countries-including-israel/.

Weekly Roundup 6/13/2011

Special Report: After Japan, Where’s the Next Weak Nuclear Link?
Nick Carey, Margarita Antidze and John Ruwitch, Reuters, June 9, 2011

Synopsis: U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks reveal worrisome details about plans for nuclear power expansion in developing countries, such as Azerbaijan and Vietnam, according to a team of Reuters reporters. Political corruption, security issues, a lack of independent watchdogs and a spotty record for competent public services could compromise safety at proposed power plants throughout the developing world, where most nuclear plants currently in planning stages would be located.

Takeaway: Today, Vietnam has one small research reactor in operation but plans to open eight nuclear power plants by 2030. Experts question whether the country has the infrastructure and expertise to run the plant and respond to a nuclear accident, especially given how the Japanese, with a highly developed corporate and governmental infrastructure, struggled after the Fukushima accident, Reuters reports. "The safety of a nuclear power plant does not depend on the equipment, the technical aspects or the design, but mostly on the people who are running the plant,” Pham Duy Hien, one of Vietnam's leading nuclear scientists, told the reporters. Of Vietnam’s plans for eight nuclear plants, Hien said: "This is mad. We don't have the manpower, we don't have the knowledge, we don't have the experience.”

For more, see my CQ Researcher report, "Nuclear Power" [subscription required], June 10, 2011.

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


Under suspicion: American Muslims search for identity after Sept. 11
Marc Fisher, The Washington Post, June 12, 2011

Synopsis: The Post’s award-winning enterprise reporter-editor opens a planned series on Muslims in America with a story weaving together portraits of individuals representing the different ways of combining their Islamic faith with an American identity:

- Fawaz Ismail, a Palestinian immigrant who operates a store selling American flags but dropped his Americanized nickname after 9/11 to emphasize his Muslim identity;
- Yahya Hendi, Georgetown University’s first imam, who bristles at the strictures that are being imposed on young Muslims in the name of the faith;
- Sadaf Iqbal, wife and mother of four children, who religiously wears a head scarf in public – conscious of the stares that she gets for doing so;
- Zehra Fazal, an aspiring writer-actress, whose one-woman show, “Headscarf and the Angry Bitch,” equally mocks prevailing attitudes in America toward Muslims and such tenets of the faith as no-sex-before-marriage.

Takeaway: Of the estimated 2.4 million Muslim Americans, Fisher writes, “Some have reacted to a decade of stares, cutting comments, airport humiliations and disturbing incidents of homegrown terrorism by drifting away from their religion, some by deepening their faith, and a few by turning to the very extremism that sparked the mistrust they encounter.”

For CQ Researcher coverage, see these reports: Sarah Glazer, “Radical Islam in Europe,” CQ Global Researcher, November 2007; Kenneth Jost, “Understanding Islam,” CQ Researcher, Nov. 3, 2006.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


When It Comes to Scandal, Girls Won’t Be Boys
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times, June 12, 2011

I presume you have been following, or at least are aware of, the sad business of Rep. Anthony Weiner, the newly married Democratic House member from New York who admitted sending salacious photos to young women.

It’s not a joking matter, notwithstanding the (equally salacious) hilarity that comedian and fake newsman Jon Stewart has had with it for several “Daily Show” programs.

So many questions come to mind, perhaps starting with, “What’s wrong with men?” The New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg has a good take on that question.

But to me, the nagging question is, “What about his poor wife?” Forget the fact that she is a heck of a beautiful and classy lady who was wooed by George Clooney. What gets me is that she is newly married, pregnant and married to a clearly troubled man. As someone who has been married for nearly 40 years (to the same gal), I can only imagine the pain she is in.

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor


The Monster and Monterrey: The Politics and Cartels of Mexico’s Drug Wars,”
Nik Steinberg, The Nation, June 13, 2011

As barbarous violence in northern Mexico (and some other zones) grinds on, news coverage tends to be episodic. The result is that readers and viewers may not get much of an idea of the forces driving the killing, most of it seemingly perpetrated by semi-militarized drug gangs. But The Nation, a longtime left-liberal weekly, gave Steinberg, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, the space to probe that question. He focuses on Monterrey, Mexico’s industrial and corporate center, long considered the dynamo of the country’s modernization efforts. Steinberg reports that the Mexican military’s response to the drug cartels can be just as horrific as the drug syndicates’ rampages. But Steinberg’s report is no apologia for either side. And he reports growing public support for violent reprisal against the drug gangsters. For anyone trying to follow events in Mexico, Steinberg’s piece is a must-read.

--Peter Katel, Staff Writer

Is nuclear power too dangerous?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report "Nuclear Power" by Marcia Clemmitt on June 10, 2011.


Even critics of nuclear power are split: Some argue that because every exposure to ionizing radiation increases one's risk of cancer, nuclear plants are impossible to accept under any circumstance. Others remain open to nuclear plants as long as industry and government take tough safety measures. Meanwhile, nuclear-power advocates contend that accidents involving major radiation releases have been rare worldwide.

“You will never eliminate all risk, but there is tremendous work being done in reducing that risk,” says Neil Wilmshurst, vice president for nuclear activities at the power industry's Electric Power Research Institute. Because it's widely expected that most U.S. power reactors will receive extensions on their operating licenses rather than be replaced by newer designs, the group's current research mainly focuses on safely extending the life of older plants, such as determining how construction materials degrade with age, he explains.

“Nuclear engineers are extremely conscientious, and we teach the culture of safety,” says Georgia Tech's Sjoden. “None of us wants to be the person out there with our name in lights for allowing a major problem to happen.”

Pietrangelo of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) says the industry takes a systemwide approach to safety. “We are all inextricably linked together” because the power industry knows that a problem at one nuclear plant raises public fears about all plants, he says. U.S. nuclear plant operators now spend one week in every six in training, he points out. If 80 percent of NEI's member companies agree that a safety action is of top priority and relates to all plants, “it becomes binding on everybody,” he says.

Consolidation in the power industry has increased safety because with fewer companies managing the same number of reactors, the companies are better able to accrue “the human infrastructure, the software, the knowledge about exactly what's going on” that aids safe operation, says Paul Joskow, a professor emeritus of economics at MIT and a board member at Exelon, the nation's largest operator of nuclear power reactors.

“I don't think there's any question that things are safer than they were 15 to 20 years ago,” says David A. Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an environmental research and advocacy group. “Near misses,” such as small mechanical breakdowns that could lead to radiation-releasing accidents if they worsened, “are way down” in recent years, he says.

Reforms that followed both the Three Mile Island accident and 2001 terrorist attacks have made nuclear power safer in the United States, some analysts say.

“Most changes involve how employees manage plants,” says Per F. Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Today, workers report in writing every problem they notice, such as a slightly sticking valve, and “share it with all the other plants in the country,” he says. Furthermore, “you record why you did a fix in a certain way so that down the line you don't make some other change that inadvertently regenerates an earlier problem.”

Many analysts point out that while nuclear power arouses public dread, other power sources also have dangers — including radiation, which, for example, coal-burning power plants regularly release in small quantities in the form of “fly ash.” [Footnote 10]

The global intergovernmental group Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that in 2000 alone, 960,000 people around the world died prematurely from lung and heart problems and other diseases caused by airborne particulates, some 30 percent of which came from coal-burning power plants and other energy sources. [Footnote 11]

Furthermore, OECD argues, humans already face a relatively high risk of cancer from naturally occurring background radiation from the sun, foods such as bananas, medical procedures such as X-rays and CT scans and other sources, so that the additional risk incurred from nuclear power is modest. OECD analysts calculated that about 33,000 people will ultimately die because of radiation released by the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe. But they also calculated that “natural background radiation” will cause “about 50 million” cancer deaths over the same period. [Footnote 12]

But none of these arguments is persuasive for nuclear power's staunchest critics. “The idea that the atom is safe is just a public-relations trick,” says Greenpeace's Riccio, quoting a quip often attributed to James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA. “If it were safe, you wouldn't need a whole agency to regulate it, you wouldn't need to try to ensure protection out to 250,000 years or evacuate people out to 50 miles” to avoid it, Riccio says.

Since 1972 the National Academy of Sciences has issued seven reports — dubbed the BEIR, or Biologic Effects of Ionizing Radiation, reports — which make clear that “you want to avoid doses of radiation, period,” says Riccio.

He charges that the NRC has a disturbing record of “rewriting the rules” to make it easier for plants to meet safety standards. That's especially troubling today because U.S. nuclear plants are aging, he argues. As they get older, oversight should increase, he says.

In his 1982 book Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America's Experience with Atomic Radiation, environmentalist and investigative reporter Harvey Wasserman argued that any breach of safety in a nuclear plant poses a dire health threat. “No matter how small the dose, the human egg … or embryo or fetus in utero, or newborn infant, or weakened elder has no defense against even the tiniest radioactive assault,” he wrote. “Science has never found such a ‘safe’ threshold, and never will.” [Footnote 13]

After Three Mile Island, “infant death rates soared in nearby Harrisburg,” and an increase in “the death and mutation rate among farm and wild animals was also thoroughly documented by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture,” Wasserman wrote. [Footnote 14] Pennsylvania's Health and Agriculture departments verified the increases but did not conclude that they were linked to the nuclear accident, however. [Footnote 15]

Many analysts are somewhere in the middle, saying the picture of nuclear-power safety is mixed.

Countries vary in the level of attention they pay to safety issues, says MIT's Lester. “Lots of communication and lots of learning goes on across national borders, but it's voluntary, and some countries pay more attention [to lessons from abroad] than others,” he says.

Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists says different U.S. power companies have very different safety records and, surprisingly, the most financially efficient managers tend to be safest. “We had thought that cost-efficiency might result from cutting corners on safety,” but a UCS study found that, in fact, the most cost-effective plants “were very aggressively looking at safety problems.” It appears that other owners may have let the same problems slide until they worsened, thus likely costing them more to fix while also compromising plant safety, just as a small faucet drip that a homeowner doesn't fix can end up causing extensive damage, he says.

The Issues:

  • Is nuclear power too dangerous?
  • Is the United States prepared for a nuclear-plant emergency?
  • Is nuclear power needed to meet future energy needs?
Click here for more information on the CQ Researcher report on "Nuclear Power" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF.


[10] For background, see Mara Hvistendahl, “Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste,” Scientific American, Dec. 13, 2007, www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste.

[11] “Comparing Nuclear Accident Risks with Those from Other Energy Sources,” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Nuclear Energy Agency, 2010, www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/reports/2010/nea6862-comparing-risks.pdf.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Harvey Wasserman, “‘Safe’ Radiation Is a Lethal Three Mile Island Lie,” Common Dreams website, March 28, 2011, www.commondreams.org/view/2011/03/28-1.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Report Doubts Infant Death Rise from Three Mile Island Accident,” United Press International/New York Times, March 21, 1981, www.nytimes.com/1981/03/21/us/report-doubts-infant-death-rise-from-three-mile-island-mishap.html, and “Health Studies Find No Cancer Link to TMI,” American Nuclear Society website, www.ans.org/pi/resources/sptopics/tmi/healthstudies.html.

By the Numbers: Yemen and the Arab Spring

The photo in Monday’s Washington Post of jubilant Yemenis dancing in the streets at the news that President Ali Abdullah Saleh had left the country was dramatically different from the cover photo in the CQ Global Researcher’s May 3 in-depth report on the Arab Spring. Our photo also showed Yemenis in the streets, but they were not celebrating. They were the picture of unmitigated fury as they protested the government’s recent sniper killings of a dozen unarmed protesters. Our report described the underlying causes of the region’s political unrest and the historical context in each country of the different tribal and ethnic roots of the turmoil. As readers of our report learned, the half-dozen Arab leaders being challenged in this year’s uprisings have been in power for a total of 168 years:

No. of years in power for leaders of:

Libya – 42

Syria (Assad family) – 40

Yemen – 33

Egypt – 30

Tunis – 23

More than 13,000 people have been killed this year in the Arab countries with the worst political turmoil, according to media reports and human-rights groups.

Number killed:

Libya – 10,000-plus*

Syria – 1,270-1,546

Yemen – up to 434

Egypt – 846-plus

Tunis – 223

*As of April 19, 2011

--Kathy Koch, Managing Editor, CQ Global Researcher

Weekly Roundup 6/6/2011

"A Second Look at America’s Economic Reality"
Rachel Martin, All Things Considered, NPR, June 4, 2011

"Average Length of Unemployment at All-Time High"
Catherine Rampell, Economix, NYTimes.com, June 3, 2011

Synopsis: Two downbeat looks at employment and unemployment in the United States follow the government’s monthly job report that shows unemployment ticked up to 9.1 percent in May with a meager 54,000 jobs created. Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon tells NPR’s Rachel Martin that he cannot foresee the unemployment rate falling below 7 percent. Catherine Rampell, founding editor of The New York Times’ Economix blog, shows that the average length of unemployment – 39 weeks – is now the highest since the government began tracking the figure in 1948.

Takeaway: Despite the downbeat assessments, NPR’s White House correspondent Scott Horsley says not to expect a jobs stimulus from the federal government. “There's really no appetite now in Washington, even among Democrats, for a repeat of that kind of big aggressive government intervention in the economy,” he says.

For background, see these CQ Researcher reports (subscription required): Peter Katel, “Jobs Outlook,” June 4, 2010; Peter Katel, “Vanishing Jobs,” March 13, 2009.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man
Barry Bearak, The New York Times Magazine, June 2, 2011

The Times’ co-bureau chief in South Africa was shown a video of members of a shantytown mob killing a man. Some of the mob members believed that their victim had been part of a criminal gang that had marauded through the settlement, killing two people. Bearak’s exhaustive investigation of the event showed conclusively that the man was innocent. The account of that investigation illuminates not only the horrifying event, but the society in which it occurred. Bearak doesn’t hide his outrage, but doesn’t let it stop him from interviewing two of the mob’s key members to try to understand what impelled them to act as they did. The must-read piece is also a model of journalistic inquiry.

--Peter Katel, Staff Writer


"The International Education Divide"
John Merrow, Huffington Post, May 26, 2011

Synopsis: A new paper from standards-based-schooling advocate Marc Tucker argues that no country whose K-12 schools are top scorers on international-comparison tests uses any of the “silver bullets” that current U.S. school reformers advocate, such as charter schools, certification of teachers without professional education training or pay for performance. Instead, they focus on drawing their teacher corps from the top ranks of college classes, boosting the status of teaching as a profession and making sure students with the most hurdles to overcome get the best teachers.

Takeaway: “Reporters like me weren't allowed to attend the deliberations” at a May meeting in Washington where the paper was discussed, reports PBS education journalist John Merrow. “But I have been told by several people who were on hand that it was a wake-up call for [Obama Education Secretary Arne] Duncan and his staff to learn that no other country was doing what we are betting on.”

For a related story, see my recent CQ Researcher report, “School Reform,” April 29, 2011.

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer

Does decriminalization encourage marijuana use by teens?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report "Teen Drug Use" by Peter Katel on June 3, 2011.


Politicians and drug-policy experts have been arguing since the 1970s about whether softening laws against marijuana possession would increase drug consumption by teenagers. Linking decriminalization and rising use seemed plausible because teen consumption was at a record high during the '70s.

However, teen use declined during the 1980s, when the same laws were in effect. And after 1996, when California voters approved what is still the nation's most open-ended medical-marijuana law, researchers found no evidence of increased teenage drug consumption.

The researchers, who run an annual survey of middle and high school students for California's attorney general and the state's departments of Education and Alcohol and Drug Programs, wrote in 2008 that alcohol and drug use rose in the early and mid-1990s but leveled off in 1997. “In 1999, overall prevalence of use … mainly declined, markedly for some of the most commonly used substances,” Gregory Austin and Rodney Skager reported. [Footnote 12]

Since that report was issued, however, California was embroiled in 2009-2010 in an intense debate over legalizing marijuana outright, — and several more states enacted medical-pot or decriminalization measures.

“We have predicted, indeed, that there would be increases in marijuana consumption in surveys because of the significant attention that the potential use of marijuana as a medication has generated in the public,” Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), told a press conference last December at which the most recent MTF results were announced. [Footnote 13]

“We cannot but wonder,” she said, “if the concept of marijuana as medicine could have harmful effects.” And, in fact, “we're seeing a decrease in the number of teenagers perceiving marijuana — regular marijuana use — as harmful.” [Footnote 14]

Yet Beau Kilmer, co-director of the drug-policy research center at RAND, a nonpartisan think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., says no data confirm that more teens are using pot because they believe that if it's safe for sick people, it must be safe for them. “There is very little research, and none of it is definitive,” he says. “We don't have solid, peer-reviewed evidence to say that that's happening.”

A major reason for the lack of data, Kilmer adds, is that MTF and the National Household Survey don't include questions on where respondents live. That information would allow researchers to examine connections between drug use and, say, the enactment of a medical-marijuana law in some respondents' states, and the absence of such a law where other respondents live.

Like Volkow, many who support prohibition in one form or another concede the absence of hard evidence. But Dr. Andrea Barthwell, an addiction specialist, says her talks with young people back up the thesis that the medical-marijuana boom has led to more consumption. She recalls, “One of the things I heard from kids was, ‘Of course marijuana is safe. It helps sick people; why would it be harmful to me?’” Barthwell, CEO of Two Dreams Outer Banks, a private addiction-recovery center in Corolla, N.C., was a deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in the George W. Bush administration, which took a hard-line anti-marijuana stance.

Now that the medical-marijuana cause has gained greater traction, Barthwell says, advocates have gone further, claiming that marijuana is not associated with domestic violence and traffic fatalities and therefore is safer than alcohol. For teens, she says, the logical conclusion is that pot “is not only helpful but safer than something that's out there and legal.”

Legalization proponents see a strategy at work in attempts to connect marijuana decriminalization with increased teen usage. “The bottom line is always ‘the kids,’” says Marsha Rosenbaum, former San Francisco director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a national organization advocating decriminalization. “That's why we can't reform our drug policy.”

A medical sociologist and former researcher on heroin addiction and other issues, Rosenbaum argues that teen drug consumption rises and falls for reasons that have little to do with policy developments. But she adds, “Teenagers today have basically grown up in a country where legal medical marijuana has been a reality since they were born, even if not in their state. So of course their views on this substance are going to reflect a kind of growing acceptance that marijuana is not the demon drug it has been portrayed as for decades.”

The Issues:

  • Does decriminalization encourage marijuana use by teens?
  • Are anti-drug advertising campaigns effective?
  • Is “zero tolerance” an effective anti-drug approach?

Click here for more information on the CQ Researcher report on "Teen Drug Use" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF.



[12] Gregory Austin and Rodney Skager, “Twelfth Biennial Statewide Survey of California Students in Grades 7, 9 and 11, 2007-08,” California Attorney General's Office, Fall 2008, pp. 3, 16, www.adp.ca.gov/Prevention/pdf/CSS_12th_Compendium_Tables.pdf.

[13] “National Institute on Drug Abuse Holds News Conference on Teenage Drug Abuse,” CQ Newsmaker Transcripts, Dec. 14, 2010.

[14] Ibid.