The Denver Post reports:
Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton will join oil giant Royal Dutch Shell as a general counsel in its exploration and production business in mid-January, working primarily out of Colorado.
Norton, who stepped down from Interior in March, is a longtime Colorado resident who served two terms as state attorney general in the 1990s. During her tenure at Interior, she drew fire from environmentalists and praise from industry groups.
Shell said in a statement Wednesday that Norton, 52, will "provide and coordinate legal services" for its unconventional-resources unit, which is developing and testing proprietary technology to recover oil from shale and extra-heavy oils.
Colorado, Utah and Wyoming have massive oil- shale deposits, with as much as 1.1 trillion barrels of oil technically recoverable.
Shell owns 40,000 acres of oil-shale deposits near Meeker on which it hopes to begin commercial production by about 2015.
When Norton left Interior after five years, she said her primary reason was so she and her husband, John Hughes, could return to "the mountains we love in the West," as well as return to the private sector.
Norton could not be reached for comment.
Royal Dutch Shell is a multinational oil company with corporate headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands. Its U.S. subsidiary, Shell Oil Co., is based in Houston. The Forbes Global 2000 ranked Royal Dutch Shell as the seventh-largest company in the world in 2006. Its revenues in 2005 were $307 billion.
As Interior secretary, Norton was attacked by environmentalists for her pro-development policies regarding oil and gas, coal and timber. She also reopened Yellowstone National Park to snowmobiles.
Matt Baker, director of Environment Colorado, said he was disheartened by Shell's hiring of Norton.
He said his organization has done a lot of work with Shell on sustainability issues, particularly development of wind-powered energy resources.
"I think it's unsettling if she's going to be working on oil shale. Shell has cultivated an image as a good environmental steward who wants to take its time and do it right," he said. "For them to hire someone like Gale Norton undermines that claim."
Industry advocates and Norton's fellow Republicans, however, have praised her as a realist willing to open public lands to drilling during a time of energy shortages that threatened the economy.
Before moving to Interior, Norton was senior counsel at Denver law firm Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber.
Steve Farber, one of the firm's founding partners, said Norton's move is win-win: Shell will benefit from Norton's skills, and Norton will have the opportunity to return to Colorado.
"She (has) a wonderful wealth of knowledge and experience, and she will be a great asset to the team at Shell," he said.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
The Denver Post reports:
Friday, December 22, 2006
For Psychology Today, Jay Dixit writes, "The Ideological Animals":
Cinnamon Stillwell never thought she'd be the founder of a political organization. She certainly never expected to start a group for conservatives, most of whom became conservatives on the same day—September 11, 2001. She organized the group, the 911 Neocons, as a haven for people like her—"former lefties" who did political 180s after 9/11.
Stillwell, now a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, had been a liberal her whole life, writing off all Republicans as "ignorant, intolerant yahoos." Yet on 9/11, everything changed for her, as it did for so many. In the days after the attacks, the world seemed "topsy-turvy." On the political left, she wrote, "There was little sympathy for the victims," and it seemed to her that progressives were "consumed with hatred for this country" and had "extended their misguided sympathies to tyrants and terrorists."
Disgusted, she looked elsewhere. She found solace among conservative talk-show hosts and columnists. At first, she felt resonance with the right about the war on terror. But soon she found herself concurring about "smaller government, traditional societal structures, respect and reverence for life, the importance of family, personal responsibility, national unity over identity politics." She embraced gun rights for the first time, drawn to "the idea of self-preservation in perilous times." Her marriage broke up due in part to political differences. In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, she began going to pro-war rallies.
In 2005, she wrote a column called "The Making of a 9/11 Republican." Over the year that followed, she received thousands of e-mails from people who'd had similar experiences. There were so many of them that she decided to form a group. And so the 911 Neocons were born.
We tend to believe our political views have evolved by a process of rational thought, as we consider arguments, weigh evidence, and draw conclusions. But the truth is more complicated. Our political preferences are equally the result of factors we're not aware of—such as how educated we are, how scary the world seems at a given moment, and personality traits that are first apparent in early childhood. Among the most potent motivators, it turns out, is fear. How the United States should confront the threat of terrorism remains a subject of endless political debate. But Americans' response to threats of attack is now more clear-cut than ever. The fear of death alone is surprisingly effective in shaping our political decisions—more powerful, often, than thought itself.
Abstract Art vs. Talk Radio: The Political Personality Standoff
Most people are surprised to learn that there are real, stable differences in personality between conservatives and liberals—not just different views or values, but underlying differences in temperament. Psychologists John Jost of New York University, Dana Carney of Harvard, and Sam Gosling of the University of Texas have demonstrated that conservatives and liberals boast markedly different home and office decor. Liberals are messier than conservatives, their rooms have more clutter and more color, and they tend to have more travel documents, maps of other countries, and flags from around the world. Conservatives are neater, and their rooms are cleaner, better organized, more brightly lit, and more conventional. Liberals have more books, and their books cover a greater variety of topics. And that's just a start. Multiple studies find that liberals are more optimistic. Conservatives are more likely to be religious. Liberals are more likely to like classical music and jazz, conservatives, country music. Liberals are more likely to enjoy abstract art. Conservative men are more likely than liberal men to prefer conventional forms of entertainment like TV and talk radio. Liberal men like romantic comedies more than conservative men. Liberal women are more likely than conservative women to enjoy books, poetry, writing in a diary, acting, and playing musical instruments.
"All people are born alike—except Republicans and Democrats," quipped Groucho Marx, and in fact it turns out that personality differences between liberals and conservatives are evident in early childhood. In 1969, Berkeley professors Jack and Jeanne Block embarked on a study of childhood personality, asking nursery school teachers to rate children's temperaments. They weren't even thinking about political orientation.
Twenty years later, they decided to compare the subjects' childhood personalities with their political preferences as adults. They found arresting patterns. As kids, liberals had developed close relationships with peers and were rated by their teachers as self-reliant, energetic, impulsive, and resilient. People who were conservative at age 23 had been described by their teachers as easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and vulnerable at age 3. The reason for the difference, the Blocks hypothesized, was that insecure kids most needed the reassurance of tradition and authority, and they found it in conservative politics.
The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000 participants. The researchers—John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkeley—found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.
The study's authors also concluded that conservatives have less tolerance for ambiguity, a trait they say is exemplified when George Bush says things like, "Look, my job isn't to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think," and "I'm the decider." Those who think the world is highly dangerous and those with the greatest fear of death are the most likely to be conservative.
Liberals, on the other hand, are "more likely to see gray areas and reconcile seemingly conflicting information," says Jost. As a result, liberals like John Kerry, who see many sides to every issue, are portrayed as flip-floppers. "Whatever the cause, Bush and Kerry exemplify the cognitive styles we see in the research," says Jack Glaser, one of the study's authors, "Bush in appearing more rigid in his thinking and intolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity, and Kerry in appearing more open to ambiguity and to considering alternative positions."
Jost's meta-analysis sparked furious controversy. The House Republican Study Committee complained that the study's authors had received federal funds. George Will satirized it in his Washington Post column, and The National Review called it the "Conservatives Are Crazy" study. Jost and his colleagues point to the study's rigorous methodology. The study used political orientation as a dependent variable, meaning that where subjects fall on the political scale is computed from their own answers about whether they're liberal or conservative. Psychologists then compare factors such as fear of death and openness to new experiences, and seek statistically significant correlations. The findings are quintessentially empirical and difficult to dismiss as false.
Yet critics retort that the research draws negative conclusions about conservatives while the researchers themselves are liberal. And it's true that over the decades, a disproportionate amount of the research has focused on figuring out what's behind conservative behavior. Right shift is likewise more studied than left shift, largely because most of that research has been since 9/11, and aimed at trying to explain the conservative conversions of people like Cinnamon Stillwell.
Even with impeccable methodology, bias may creep into the choice of which phenomena to study. "There is a bias among social scientists," admits Glaser. "They look for the variables that are unflattering. There probably are other nice personality traits associated with conservatism, but they haven't shown up in the research because it's not as well studied."
"There are differences between liberals and conservatives, and people can value them however they like," Jost points out. "There is nothing inherently good or bad about being high or low on the need for closure or structure. Some may see religiosity as a positive, whereas others may see it more neutrally, and so on."
By 2004, as the presidential election drew near, researchers saw a chance to study the Jost results against the backdrop of unfolding events. Psychologists Mark Landau of the University of Arizona and Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore sought to explain how President Bush's approval rating went from around 51 percent before 9/11 to 90 percent immediately afterward. In one study, they exposed some participants to the letters WTC or the numbers 9/11 in an image flashed too quickly to register at the conscious level. They exposed other participants to familiar but random combinations of letters and numbers, such as area codes. Then they gave them words like coff__, sk_ll, and gr_ve, and asked them to fill in the blanks. People who'd seen random combinations were more likely to fill in coffee, skill, and grove. But people exposed to subliminal terrorism primes more often filled in coffin, skull, and grave. "The mere mention of September 11 or WTC is the same as reminding Americans of death," explains Solomon.
As a follow-up, Solomon primed one group of subjects to think about death, a state of mind called "mortality salience." A second group was primed to think about 9/11. And a third was induced to think about pain—something unpleasant but non-deadly. When people were in a benign state of mind, they tended to oppose Bush and his policies in Iraq. But after thinking about either death or 9/11, they tended to favor him. Such findings were further corroborated by Cornell sociologist Robert Willer, who found that whenever the color-coded terror alert level was raised, support for Bush increased significantly, not only on domestic security but also in unrelated domains, such as the economy.
University of Arizona psychologist Jeff Greenberg argues that some ideological shifts can be explained by terror management theory (TMT), which holds that heightened fear of death motivates people to defend their world views. TMT predicts that images like the destruction of the World Trade Center should make liberals more liberal and conservatives more conservative. "In the United States, political conservatism does seem to be the preferred ideology when people are feeling insecure," concedes Greenberg. "But in China or another communist country, reminding people of their own mortality would lead them to cling more tightly to communism."
Jost believes it's more complex. After all, Cinnamon Stillwell and others in the 911 Neocons didn't become more liberal. Like so many other Democrats after 9/11, they made a hard right turn. The reason thoughts of death make people more conservative, Jost says, is that they awaken a deep desire to see the world as fair and just, to believe that people get what they deserve, and to accept the existing social order as valid, rather than in need of change. When these natural desires are primed by thoughts of death and a barrage of mortal fear, people gravitate toward conservatism because it's more certain about the answers it provides—right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, us vs. them—and because conservative leaders are more likely to advocate a return to traditional values, allowing people to stick with what's familiar and known. "Conservatism is a more black and white ideology than liberalism," explains Jost. "It emphasizes tradition and authority, which are reassuring during periods of threat."
To test the theory, Jost prompted people to think about either pain—by looking at things like an ambulance, a dentist's chair, and a bee sting—or death, by looking at things like a funeral hearse, the grim reaper, and a dead-end sign. Across the political spectrum, people who had been primed to think about death were more conservative on issues like immigration, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage than those who had merely thought about pain, although the effect size was relatively small. The implication is clear: For liberals, conservatives, and independents alike, thinking about death actually makes people more conservative—at least temporarily.
Fear and Voting In America
Campaign strategists in both parties have never hesitated to use scare tactics. In 1964, a Lyndon Johnson commercial called "Daisy" juxtaposed footage of a little girl plucking a flower with footage of an atomic blast. In 1984, Ronald Reagan ran a spot that played on Cold War panic, in which the Soviet threat was symbolized by a grizzly lumbering across a stark landscape as a human heart pounds faster and faster and an off-screen voice warns, "There is a bear in the woods!" In 2004, Bush sparked furor for running a fear-mongering ad that used wolves gathering in the woods as symbols for terrorists plotting against America. And last fall, Congressional Republicans drew fire with an ad that featured bin Laden and other terrorists threatening Americans; over the sound of a ticking clock, a voice warned, "These are the stakes."
"At least some of the President's support is the result of constant and relentless reminders of death, some of which is just what's happening in the world, but much of which is carefully cultivated and calculated as an electoral strategy," says Solomon. "In politics these days, there's a dose of reason, and there's a dose of irrationality driven by psychological terror that may very well be swinging elections."
Solomon demonstrated that thinking about 9/11 made people go from preferring Kerry to preferring Bush. "Very subtle manipulations of psychological conditions profoundly affect political preferences," Solomon concludes. "In difficult moments, people don't want complex, nuanced, John Kerry-like waffling or sophisticated cogitation. They want somebody charismatic to step up and say, 'I know where our problem is and God has given me the clout to kick those people's asses.'"
Into The Blue
Studies show that people who study abroad become more liberal than those who stay home.
People who venture from the strictures of their limited social class are less likely to stereotype and more likely to embrace other cultures. Education goes hand-in-hand with tolerance, and often, the more the better:
Professors at major universities are more liberal than their counterparts at less acclaimed institutions. What travel and education have in common is that they make the differences between people seem less threatening. "You become less bothered by the idea that there is uncertainty in the world," explains Jost.
That's why the more educated people are, the more liberal they become—but only to a point. Once people begin pursuing certain types of graduate degrees, the curve flattens. Business students, for instance, become more conservative in their views toward minorities. As they become more established, doctors and lawyers tend to protect their economic interests by moving to the right. The findings demonstrate that conservative conversions are fueled not only by fear, but by other factors as well. And if the November election was any indicator, the pendulum that swung so forcefully to the right after 9/11 may be swinging back.
Tipping The Balance
Political conversions that are emotionally induced can be very subtle: A shift in support for a given issue or politician is not the same as a radical conversion or deep philosophical change. While views may be manipulated, the impact may or may not translate in the voting booth. Following 9/11, most lifelong liberals did not go through outright conversion or shift their preferred candidate. Yet many liberals who didn't become all-out conservatives found themselves nonetheless sympathizing more with conservative positions, craving the comfort of a strong leader, or feeling the need to punish or avenge. Many in the political center moved to the right, too. In aggregate, over an electorate of millions—a large proportion of whom were swing voters waiting to be swayed one way or the other—even a subtle shift was enough to tip the balance of the Presidential election, and the direction the country took for years. "Without 9/11 we would have a different president," says Solomon. "I would even say that the Osama bin Laden tape that was released the Thursday before the election was sufficient to swing the election. It was basically a giant mortality salience induction."
If we are so suggestible that thoughts of death make us uncomfortable defaming the American flag and cause us to sit farther away from foreigners, is there any way we can overcome our easily manipulated fears and become the informed and rational thinkers democracy demands?
To test this, Solomon and his colleagues prompted two groups to think about death and then give opinions about a pro-American author and an anti-American one. As expected, the group that thought about death was more pro-American than the other. But the second time, one group was asked to make gut-level decisions about the two authors, while the other group was asked to consider carefully and be as rational as possible. The results were astonishing. In the rational group, the effects of mortality salience were entirely eliminated. Asking people to be rational was enough to neutralize the effects of reminders of death. Preliminary research shows that reminding people that as human beings, the things we have in common eclipse our differences—what psychologists call a "common humanity prime"—has the same effect.
"People have two modes of thought," concludes Solomon. "There's the intuitive gut-level mode, which is what most of us are in most of the time. And then there's a rational analytic mode, which takes effort and attention."
The solution, then, is remarkably simple. The effects of psychological terror on political decision making can be eliminated just by asking people to think rationally. Simply reminding us to use our heads, it turns out, can be enough to make us do it.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Genarlow Wilson, 20, has been in prison for nearly two years.
The New York Times reports:
Genarlow Wilson, 20, is serving a prison sentence that shocked his jury, elicited charges of racism from critics of the justice system and even acknowledgment by prosecutors and the State Legislature that it is unjust.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison without parole for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a New Year’s Eve party, an offense that constituted aggravated child molesting, even though Mr. Wilson was 17.
With Mr. Wilson — a football player, honor student and the first homecoming king at Douglas County High School — nearing two years in prison, the Georgia Supreme Court declined last Friday to hear his appeal.
Mr. Wilson, who is black, is trapped in a legal vise intended to ensure severe penalties for child molesters and other sex offenders, navigating a maze of legal technicalities that for him seems to hold nothing but dead ends. Some critics of the sentence also say Mr. Wilson is caught in a system that metes out disproportionately harsh sentences to black defendants.
Disturbed by Mr. Wilson’s conviction, the Legislature changed the law in March to ensure that most sex between teenagers be treated as a misdemeanor. But the State Supreme Court said legislators had chosen not to make the law retroactive.
“While I am very sympathetic to Wilson’s argument regarding the injustice of sentencing this promising young man with good grades and no criminal history to 10 years in prison without parole and a lifetime registration as a sexual offender,” wrote Justice Carol W. Hunstein, “this court is bound by the Legislature’s determination that young persons in Wilson’s situation are not entitled to the misdemeanor treatment.”
The problem with that argument, legislators on the judicial committee said in interviews Monday, is that the State Constitution prohibits retroactive laws.
Even more confounding, at the time of Mr. Wilson’s offense, a so-called “Romeo and Juliet” exception had already been made for sexual intercourse between teenagers.
“Had Genarlow had intercourse with this girl, had he gotten her pregnant, he could only have been charged with a misdemeanor and punished up to 12 months,” said Brenda Joy Bernstein, Mr. Wilson’s lawyer.
Her client is not eligible for parole, only a reprieve that would not remove his name from the sex offender registry, Ms. Bernstein said.
The prosecutor, David McDade, the district attorney in Douglas County, west of Atlanta, says he has repeatedly offered Mr. Wilson the opportunity to resolve the case with a plea deal, adding that he would have to be treated similarly to the other defendants in the case, who are serving five- to seven-year prison sentences with a chance at parole. They, too, will have to register as sex offenders.
Mr. Wilson is adamant that he will not plead.
“Even after serving time in prison, I would have to register as a sex offender wherever I lived and if I applied for a job for the rest of my life, all for participating in a consensual sex act with a girl just two years younger than me,” he told a reporter for Atlanta magazine last year, adding that he would not even be able to move back in with his mother because he has an 8-year-old sister. “It’s a lifelong sentence in itself. I am not a child molester.”
On New Year’s Eve in 2003, Mr. Wilson and several friends rented a hotel room for a party at which they planned to have plenty of alcohol, marijuana and sex. One friend, goofing around with a video camera, captured much of the action on videotape. A 17-year-old girl reported after leaving the party that she had been gang raped. The tape showed that she was severely intoxicated.
A second girl, 15, also attended the party, but did not drink or smoke. She had what she later said was consensual oral sex with Mr. Wilson. But according to the law, a 15-year-old is below the age of consent. Mr. Wilson went to trial on charges of rape and aggravated child molesting.
After watching parts of the tape, the jury decided that Mr. Wilson had not raped the older girl. But it was bound by law to find him guilty of molesting the 15-year-old. Jurors said afterward they did not know that the charge carried a minimum sentence of 11 years, including 10 without parole.
Juannessa Bennett, Mr. Wilson’s mother, said her son was crushed by the Supreme Court decision.
“We’ve got people that is in power that don’t have no emotions,” Ms. Bennett said. “They don’t sympathize.”
Thursday, December 7, 2006
Stars and Stripes reports:
The Medal of Honor and other top military honors should not be reserved solely for troops killed in action, House members told defense officials Wednesday.
At a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on the awarding of military medals, several representatives expressed concern that the Defense Department has been overly cautious when it comes to honoring heroes serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for some honors, considering only acts that cost the servicemember his life.
“I am concerned that the military services may have introduced more stringent criteria into the Medal of Honor awards process than in the past,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y.
“During the current global war on terrorism there has been no lack of valorous actions. But since the end of the Vietnam War only four men have been awarded the Medal of Honor … two in Somalia and two in Iraq.”
Military officials said they haven’t been stricter with awarding that honor or other top military medals, but they do take the utmost care in investigating troops’ heroic actions.
“Each demonstration of heroism is unique, and often it becomes a tough judgment call,” said Michael Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel. “Our policies are designed to make sure to get it right the first time.”
The Defense Department has been conducting a review of military medals since July, focusing on awards given by all of the services, such as the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Officials said the goal is to provide more consistency in how the medals are awarded within each service, and to provide for standards across the services for related honors, such as the “V” device for valor.
For the highest honors — in particular the Medal of Honor — recipients must not only show courage and leadership but also selflessly risk their lives to save others.
“History shows injury, and even death, as a measure of the risk,” said Vice Adm. John Harvey Jr., chief of naval personnel.
Still, members of the subcommittee questioned why troops who survive a dangerous and heroic act are more likely to receive a service cross instead of a Medal of Honor.
Joseph Kinney, an author who has been researching the military honors process for several decades, testified before the subcommittee that Medals of Honor were awarded at nearly five times the rate during the Vietnam War than during the current conflicts overseas.
He said the “stinginess” of the military not only hurts morale, but it keeps the military from showing off the bravery of its troops.
“This nation desperately needs its heroes,” he said. “They’re there, but we haven’t acknowledged them.”
Kinney also criticized the time it takes for many of the medals to be awarded — the Marines took nearly three years to award a Medal of Honor to Cpl. Jason Dunham — saying the delay often lessens the chance any honor will be bestowed.
But the military commanders said combat conditions often delay timely filing of the proper paperwork, and the services’ thorough vetting process further postpones those awards.
The Defense Department review is expected to be completed sometime next summer.
Friday, December 1, 2006
The Boston Globe reports:
Outside his aqua-colored concrete house here, Rene Alvarez Rosales paused under an almond tree to answer questions about a subject with which he has surprising familiarity: Governor Mitt Romney's Belmont lawn.
For about eight years, Rosales said, he worked on and off landscaping the grounds at Romney's home, occasionally getting a "buenos dias" from Romney or a drink of water from his wife, Ann.
"She is very nice," said Rosales, 49.
About 6 miles away in Copado, a 37-year-old man who recently returned to Guatemala from the United States told a similar story, describing long days tending Romney's 2 1/2-acre grounds.
"They wanted that house to look really nice," said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous. "It took a long time."
As Governor Mitt Romney explores a presidential bid, he has grown outspoken in his criticism of illegal immigration. But, for a decade, the governor has used a landscaping company that relies heavily on workers like these, illegal Guatemalan immigrants, to maintain the grounds surrounding his pink Colonial house on Marsh Street in Belmont.
The Globe recently interviewed four current and former employees of Community Lawn Service with a Heart, the tiny Chelsea-based company that provides upkeep of Romney's property. All but one said they were in the United States illegally.
The employees told the Globe that company owner Ricardo Saenz never asked them to provide documents showing their immigration status and knew they were illegal immigrants.
"He never asked for papers," said Rosales, who said he had paid smugglers about $5,000 to take him across the US-Mexican border and settled in Chelsea.
The workers said they were paid in cash at $9 to $10 an hour and sometimes worked 11-hour days.
Romney never inquired about their status, they said.
In addition to maintaining the governor's property, they also tended to the lawn at the house owned by Romney's son, Taggart, less than a mile away on the same winding street.
Asked by a reporter yesterday about his use of Community Lawn Service with a Heart, Romney, who was hosting the Republican Governors Association conference in Miami, said, "Aw, geez," and walked away.
Several hours later, his spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, provided the Globe with a statement saying that the governor knows nothing about the immigration status of the landscaping workers, and that his dealings were with Saenz, who is a legal immigrant from Colombia.
Fehrnstrom said that Romney would look into the matter further.
"We'll see what happens from here on out," Fehrnstrom said. "If the Globe has information on people that are in the country illegally, obviously that would have to be verified. . . . We've already taken the first step in that direction by calling Mr. Saenz."
The situation underscores the extent to which illegal immigrants permeate the US economy. Even as Romney travels the country, vowing to curb the flood of low-skilled illegal immigrants into the United States, some of those workers maintain his own yard, cutting grass, pruning shrubs, and mulching trees.
Saenz said he met Romney through the Mormon Church and said Romney has used his company's services for a decade. Saenz said Romney never asked him if his workers are legal immigrants.
"He doesn't have to ask," Saenz said. "I'm a company."
Saenz asserted that all the workers he used were in the United States legally. Told by reporters that his employees said they were in this country illegally, Saenz responded: "What you've heard is not my problem."
Saenz said he had never requested any proof from his employees to show they are here legally.
"I don't need to tell them to show me documents," he said. "I know who they are, and they are legal."
Federal law calls for employers to examine the documents, such as green cards or Social Security cards, that establish an employee's identity and eligibility to work in the United States.
The Globe received a tip in July alleging that Romney was using illegal immigrants to landscape his property. Reporters then observed the lawn service workers outside Romney's house more than a dozen times, sometimes as frequently as twice a week.
Reporters tracked down four current and former employees of the company at their homes in Chelsea and in Guatemala. All had landscaped Romney's property while working for Community Lawn Service with a Heart, and their tenure ranged from one worker who had joined the company just a month ago to another who had worked there 10 years.
The workers said they found the jobs at the landscaping company through other Guatemalan immigrants after arriving in Chelsea.
Of the four interviewed, only one said he was in the United States legally, showing a reporter his Social Security card and a Massachusetts driver's license, which the reporter checked against public databases to verify its authenticity. The other workers acknowledged they had no genuine documents, though some said they purchased fake documents, and described harrowing trips to the United States, eluding authorities and paying thousands for their passage. The interviews were conducted in Spanish.
The undocumented workers appear to be a significant presence at the tiny company. Reporters who observed the company in recent months never saw more than three people working at any time. Typically two men were working on any given day.
Community Lawn Service also provides landscaping for a Massachusetts Port Authority property in Revere and public school grounds in Chelsea. The Globe reported in June that companies using undocumented workers had received state contracts, triggering intense debate on Beacon Hill. Romney and GOP lawmakers have supported an effort to prohibit the practice.
The workers who had landscaped Romney's property seemed unaware of the governor's support for stricter controls on illegal immigration. Several described casual encounters with Romney over the years and said he had never expressed any curiosity about their status.
Rosales recalled Romney sometimes waving as they tended to the grounds, which include a tennis court and swimming pool. Romney occasionally called out, "buenos dias," drawing good-natured laughter from the workers. Ann Romney was friendly, Rosales said, and he said she brought them water on one particularly hot day.
Romney has been critical of illegal immigration as he touts himself to Republican primary voters as a conservative alternative to Senator John McCain, who has teamed up with Senator Edward M. Kennedy to push for a middle ground approach on the issue.
Romney supports construction of a new 700-mile fence along the country's border with Mexico and stationing National Guard troops at the border until it is finished.
He also said that employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants should be penalized. After the Globe's story in June about contractors on public projects using illegal immigrants, the governor announced he would seek an agreement with federal immigration authorities to allow Massachusetts State Police to arrest illegal immigrants for being in this country illegally.
In September, on Fox TV's "The O'Reilly Factor," Romney said the border must be secured and restated his support for the fence along the Mexican border, prompting host Bill O'Reilly to dub it "the Mitt Romney Memorial wall."
The experience of the workers on Romney's property seems far removed from the political rhetoric.
The worker in Copado said a state trooper stationed in Romney's driveway once inquired about his immigration status, about six months ago. Saenz, the company owner, who was at the property at the time, told the trooper that the worker was in the country legally, but had forgotten his papers, the worker told the Globe. The trooper never inquired again, said the worker, who repeatedly returned to the governor's property but avoided the trooper. Saenz told reporters he did not recall the incident.
Both the Copado resident and Rosales said they took the landscaping jobs to earn money for their families back home. After making it to the US-Mexican border, they crossed the Arizona desert on foot. When they finally arrived in Chelsea, where friends and family lived, they did odd jobs and eventually found work at Community Lawn Service with a Heart.
They said they were grateful for the work. About 80 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, according to the US State Department. The workers said they made far more at Community Lawn Service than they could in their Central American homeland.
"It was a good job," said the worker in Copado, not far from a stream where local women wash their clothes. "I didn't make a lot, but I earned $16,000 working for that company." He said he returned to Guatemala after four years because he missed his wife and daughter and has used his earnings to buy a pickup truck and land on which to build a small house.
Another of the undocumented workers, who has been living in Chelsea for two years and joined the landscaping firm a month ago, is finding life here hard.
"The truth is, it's very difficult," the 46-year-old worker said. "One lives day to day."
The one legal Guatemalan immigrant interviewed by the Globe, who has done work at the Romney property numerous times, has been a constant presence at the landscaping company. But he said Saenz regularly hired illegal workers to work alongside him. He said exchanges with the governor on the property are rare.
"The one who talks to us is the wife," said the legal immigrant. "She asks how we are."
The issue of illegal immigrant laborers has been tricky and sometimes damaging to political figures. President Clinton's first two nominees for attorney general, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, saw their chances dim after it was reported that they had employed illegal immigrants as nannies.
In 1994, Republican Michael Huffington lost his bid for the US Senate after acknowledging he had employed an illegal immigrant as a nanny for five years.
Monday, November 6, 2006
Detroit Judge Dismisses House Democrats' Lawsuit Over $39 Billion Budget Bill
A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit filed by U.S. House Democrats trying to stop a $39 billion budget bill because the House and Senate did not approve identical versions.
House Democrats accused GOP leaders of abusing the legislative process and contend they were denied their right to vote on legislation signed into law by President Bush in February. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, sued in April along with 10 other House members to prevent the law from being implemented.
The Senate version of the bill said Medicare can pay to rent some types of medical equipment for 13 months. A clerk erroneously wrote down 36 months before the bill was sent back to the House for a final vote, and the language was approved by the House on Feb. 1.
When the bill was sent to Bush for his signature, the number was back to 13 months. The lawsuit said the oversight amounted to an additional $2 billion in spending, and the plaintiffs claimed that because they never had the chance to vote on the version signed into law, the law was invalid.
The Department of Justice had sought the lawsuit's dismissal, claiming the 11 House members lacked standing because they are not renters of medical equipment and were not in "any way personally affected or injured."
Messages seeking comment were left Monday night with Conyers' office and the Justice Department.
The White House and Republican leaders in Congress have said the matter is settled because the mistake was technical and top House and Senate leaders certified the bill before transmitting it to the White House.
Friday, November 3, 2006
Personal Data Will Be Cross-Checked With Terrorism Watch Lists; Risk Profiles to Be Stored for Years
The Washington Post reports:
The federal government disclosed details yesterday of a border-security program to screen all people who enter and leave the United States, create a terrorism risk profile of each individual and retain that information for up to 40 years.
The details, released in a notice published yesterday in the Federal Register, open a new window on the government's broad and often controversial data-collection effort directed at American and foreign travelers, which was implemented after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
While long known to scrutinize air travelers, the Department of Homeland Security is seeking to apply new technology to perform similar checks on people who enter or leave the country "by automobile or on foot," the notice said.
The department intends to use a program called the Automated Targeting System, originally designed to screen shipping cargo, to store and analyze the data.
"We have been doing risk assessments of cargo and passengers coming into and out of the U.S.," DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen said. "We have the authority and the ability to do it for passengers coming by land and sea."
In practice, he said, the government has not conducted risk assessments on travelers at land crossings for logistical reasons.
"We gather, collect information that is needed to protect the borders," Agen said. "We store the information we see as pertinent to keeping Americans safe."
Civil libertarians expressed concern that risk profiling on such a scale would be intrusive and would not adequately protect citizens' privacy rights, issues similar to those that have surrounded systems profiling air passengers.
"They are assigning a suspicion level to millions of law-abiding citizens," said David Sobel, senior counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "This is about as Kafkaesque as you can get."
DHS officials said that by publishing the notice, they are simply providing "expanded notice and transparency" about an existing program disclosed in October 2001, the Treasury Enforcement Communications System.
But others said Congress has been unaware of the potential of the Automated Targeting System to assess non-aviation travelers.
"ATS started as a tool to prevent the entry of drugs with cargo into the U.S.," said one aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "We are not aware of Congress specifically legislating to make this expansion possible."
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), yesterday asked Homeland Security to brief staff members on the program, Collins's spokeswoman, Jen Burita, said.
The notice comes as the department is tightening its ability to identify people at the borders. At the end of the year, for example, Homeland Security is expanding its Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, under which 32 million noncitizens entering the country annually are fingerprinted and photographed at 115 airports, 15 seaports and 154 land ports.
Stephen E. Flynn, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, expressed doubts about the department's ability to conduct risk assessments of individuals on a wide scale.
He said customs investigators are so focused on finding drugs and weapons of mass destruction that it would be difficult to screen all individual border crossers, other than cargo-truck drivers and shipping crews.
"There is an ability in theory for government to cast a wider net," he said. "The reality of it is customs is barely able to manage the data they have."
The data-mining program stemmed from an effort in the early 1990s by customs officials to begin assessing the risk of cargo originating in certain countries and from certain shippers. Risk assessment turned more heavily to automated, computer-driven systems after the 2001 attacks.
The risk assessment is created by analysts at the National Targeting Center, a high-tech facility opened in November 2001 and now run by Customs and Border Protection.
In a round-the-clock operation, targeters match names against terrorist watch lists and a host of other data to determine whether a person's background or behavior indicates a terrorist threat, a risk to border security or the potential for illegal activity. They also assess cargo.
Each traveler assessed by the center is assigned a numeric score: The higher the score, the higher the risk. A certain number of points send the traveler back for a full interview.
The Automated Targeting System relies on government databases that include law enforcement data, shipping manifests, travel itineraries and airline passenger data, such as names, addresses, credit card details and phone numbers.
The parent program, Treasury Enforcement Communications System, houses "every possible type of information from a variety of federal, state and local sources," according to a 2001 Federal Register notice.
It includes arrest records, physical descriptions and "wanted" notices. The 5.3 billion-record database was accessed 766 million times a day to process 475 million travelers, according to a 2003 Transportation Research Board study.
In yesterday's Federal Register notice, Homeland Security said it will keep people's risk profiles for up to 40 years "to cover the potentially active lifespan of individuals associated with terrorism or other criminal activities," and because "the risk assessment for individuals who are deemed low risk will be relevant if their risk profile changes in the future, for example, if terrorist associations are identified."
DHS will keep a "pointer or reference" to the underlying records that resulted in the profile.
The DHS notice specified that the Automated Targeting System does not call for any new means of collecting information but rather for the use of existing systems. The notice did not spell out what will determine whether someone is high risk.
But documents and former officials say the system relies on hundreds of "rules" to factor a score for each individual, vehicle or piece of cargo.
According to yesterday's notice, the program is exempt from certain requirements of the Privacy Act of 1974 that allow, for instance, people to access records to determine "if the system contains a record pertaining to a particular individual" and "for the purpose of contesting the content of the record."
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Former CIA Chief Joins The Board Of QinetiQ
George Tenet, the former head of the CIA and the man who reportedly said it was a "slam dunk case" that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, has joined the board of one of Britain's leading defence research companies.
Mr Tenet has been appointed as an independent non-executive director of QinetiQ, the company that apparently inspired the character Q, the boffin who equipped super-spy James Bond for battle in the field.
The Independent reports:
"I am extremely pleased to welcome George Tenet to QinetiQ. His extraordinary track record and experience in the fields of intelligence and security are particularly relevant as we continue to focus on the US defence and security market," QinetiQ's chairman Sir John Chisholm said.
Mr Tenet, who resigned as Director of Central Intelligence in 2004, said: "I am looking forward with great enthusiasm to working with the QinetiQ team. I am especially interested in the capacity of the company's technologies to meet a number of the challenges faced by our nations' military and intelligence personnel." QinetiQ is partly owned by Carlyle Group, the US private-equity firm whose advisers have included the former British Prime Minister John Major and the former US President George Bush Snr.
QinetiQ grew out of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA). The Ministry of Defence retains a 56 per cent share in the company, which has a 25-year contract with the MoD to manage military ranges. The company was publicly listed this year. QinetiQ has spent more than £300m purchasing US companies. This summer its chief executive, Graham Love, said further acquisitions were planned.
Critics of Mr Tenet have blamed him for failing to do more to prevent the 9/11 terror attacks. When he resigned in 2004 he was the second-longest serving CIA director and President George Bush thanked him for his support, saying: "George Tenet did a superb job for America."
Mr Tenet was subsequently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a move that was condemned by many senior Democrats.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Too few cluster points render Iraq casualty figure “bogus,” claims op-ed piece
For Stats.org at George Mason University, Rebecca Goldin, Ph.D., and Trevor Butterworth write:
In an opinion column for the October 18 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Steven E Moore argues that the Johns Hopkins researchers who conducted a survey of excess deaths in Iraq since 2003 screwed up – not through the statistical tools they used, which are sound, but through parsimony:
“…the key to the validity of cluster sampling is to use enough cluster points. In their 2006 report, "Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional sample survey," the Johns Hopkins team says it used 47 cluster points for their sample of 1,849 interviews. This is astonishing: I wouldn't survey a junior high school, no less an entire country, using only 47 cluster points…
…What happens when you don't use enough cluster points in a survey? You get crazy results when compared to a known quantity, or a survey with more cluster points….
…With so few cluster points, it is highly unlikely the Johns Hopkins survey is representative of the population in Iraq.”
On the face of it, this sounds like a fatal flaw. But unless the sample is actually biased, a smaller number of cluster points only has the effect of widening the confidence interval. Polls don't like large confidence intervals, but for the purposes of estimating large numbers of people, even the wide confidence interval of the Lancet study is informative.
The point is that the number of clusters relative to the size of the population is less relevant than whether the sample of clusters is representative of the population. So when Moore implicitly criticizes the Lancet study in relation to a similar study on Kosovo which used 50 cluster points, “for a population of just 1.6 million, compared to Iraq's 27 million,” the issue is not one of brute numbers, but whether the clusters chosen are representative of the overall population.
Research biostatistician Steve Simon (by way of Deltoid at Science Blogs, who is highly critical of Moore’s article) explains the principle:
“‘Every cook knows that it only takes a single sip from a well-stirred soup to determine the taste.’ It's a nice analogy because you can visualize what happens when the soup is poorly stirred.
With regards to why a sample size characterizes a population of 10 million and a population of 10 thousand equally well, use the soup analogy again. A single sip is sufficient both for a small pot and a large pot.”
Moore also argues that the Lancet’s figures would have been more trustworthy if the researchers had taken demographic data such as gender, age, and education.
Unquestionably, it would have been better if the Lancet study had added demographic
Information as it's possible that they didn't control for some demographic bias. But when Moore says this would have enabled them to compare results with “a known demographic instrument, such as a census,” he is quite possibly overestimating the accuracy and usefulness of the only other demographic instrument available to the researchers, the 1997 Iraq Census.
What the John’s Hopkins survey has in its favor is that it extrapolated its cluster points to the general population using the 2004 "UNDP/Iraqi Ministry of Planning population estimates".
In the end, Moore has opened up some interesting lines of inquiry, but he has ended up over-reaching in an effort to prove the Lancet figures “bogus.”
USA Today reports:
FBI Director Robert Mueller on Tuesday called on Internet service providers to record their customers' online activities, a move that anticipates a fierce debate over privacy and law enforcement in Washington next year.
"Terrorists coordinate their plans cloaked in the anonymity of the Internet, as do violent sexual predators prowling chat rooms," Mueller said in a speech at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Boston.
"All too often, we find that before we can catch these offenders, Internet service providers have unwittingly deleted the very records that would help us identify these offenders and protect future victims," Mueller said. "We must find a balance between the legitimate need for privacy and law enforcement's clear need for access."
The speech to the law enforcement group, which approved a resolution on the topic earlier in the day, echoes other calls from Bush administration officials to force private firms to record information about customers. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for instance, told Congress last month that "this is a national problem that requires federal legislation."
Justice Department officials admit privately that data retention legislation is controversial enough that there wasn't time to ease it through the U.S. Congress before politicians left to campaign for re-election. Instead, the idea is expected to surface in early 2007, and one Democratic politician has already promised legislation.
Law enforcement groups claim that by the time they contact Internet service providers, customers' records may be deleted in the routine course of business. Industry representatives, however, say that if police respond to tips promptly instead of dawdling, it would be difficult to imagine any investigation that would be imperiled.
It's not clear exactly what a data retention law would require. One proposal would go beyond Internet providers and require registrars, the companies that sell domain names, to maintain records too. And during private meetings with industry officials, FBI and Justice Department representatives have cited the desirability of also forcing search engines to keep logs — a proposal that could gain additional law enforcement support after AOL showed how useful such records could be in investigations.
A representative of the International Association of Chiefs of Police said he was not able to provide a copy of the resolution.
Preservation vs. retention
At the moment, Internet service providers typically discard any log file that's no longer required for business reasons such as network monitoring, fraud prevention or billing disputes. Companies do, however, alter that general rule when contacted by police performing an investigation—a practice called data preservation.
A 1996 federal law called the Electronic Communication Transactional Records Act regulates data preservation. It requires Internet providers to retain any "record" in their possession for 90 days "upon the request of a governmental entity."
Because Internet addresses remain a relatively scarce commodity, ISPs tend to allocate them to customers from a pool based on if a computer is in use at the time. (Two standard techniques used are the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol and Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet.)
In addition, Internet providers are required by another federal law to report child pornography sightings to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is in turn charged with forwarding that report to the appropriate police agency.
When adopting its data retention rules, the European Parliament approved U.K.-backed requirements saying that communications providers in its 25 member countries-several of which had enacted their own data retention laws already—must retain customer data for a minimum of six months and a maximum of two years.
The Europe-wide requirement applies to a wide variety of "traffic" and "location" data, including: the identities of the customers' correspondents; the date, time and duration of phone calls, VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) calls or e-mail messages; and the location of the device used for the communications. But the "content" of the communications is not supposed to be retained. The rules are expected to take effect in 2008.
Rebecca Goldin of Stats.org at George Mason University writes:
A recent study published in the Lancet claims that over 650,000 “excess” deaths have occurred in Iraq since the invasion in March, 2003. STATS look at how scientists figure these numbers out, how their methods compare to other counts, and whether criticism of the numbers is justified. A companion article examines the media coverage.
See here for a separate analysis of Steven E. Moore's criticism of the number of cluster points used in the Lancet study.
If you want to know the number of people who died in 2005 from heart disease in the United States, you need go no further than a website hosted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which collects the information every year. Every death in the United States is recorded by the National Center for Health Statistics, as is the main cause of death.
There are, of course, imperfections. There can be more than one cause of death or the cause can be unknown; a suicide might have been a murder; sometimes a body is never found; there have also been times when this system fails, such as when AIDS first emerged.
War-torn countries do not have central registries to record deaths. People do not necessarily die in hospitals, and their bodies are not necessarily sent to morgues. While the press makes no claim to having actually seen all the deaths that occur, the website Iraq Body Count (IBC) keeps a database of “media-reported civilian deaths in Iraq that have resulted from the 2003 military intervention by the USA and its allies.” The IBC does not count excess deaths due to a deterioration of infrastructure, lack of hospitals or clean water. Nor does it count deaths not reported by the media. At least in theory, innumerable deaths occur quietly, under the radar screen of any accounting office.
The Iraqi health ministry also counts deaths. However, the BBC reported in 2005 that the recorded deaths were based on hospital records, which are unreliable when records and even hospitals are being destroyed. And in December 2003, the ministry ordered a halt to all attempts to count civilian deaths, according to the Associated Press. Currently, the official number of dead is about 50,000, based on hospital and morgue data.
Public health researchers have rejected this official tally of deaths in favor of an epidemiological approach. In a careful study published in the Lancet, a prestigious British journal for medicine, professors from Johns Hopkins University and the School of Medicine at Al Mustansirlya Univesity in Baghdad found through a random sampling of Iraqi households that over 650,000 deaths have occurred in Iraq since the invasion in 2003, that would not have occurred had there not been war.
While the Lancet numbers are shocking, the study’s methodology is not. The scientific community is in agreement over the statistical methods used to collect the data and the validity of the conclusions drawn by the researchers conducting the study. When the prequel to this study appeared two years ago by the same authors (at that time, 100,000 excess deaths were reported), the Chronicle of Higher Education published a long article explaining the support within the scientific community for the methods used.
President Bush, however, says he does “not consider it a credible report” and the media refer to the study as “controversial.” And even as the Associated Press reported mixed reviews, all the scientists quoted in its piece on the “controversy” were solidly behind the methods used. Indeed, the Washington Post points out that this and the earlier study are the “only ones to estimate mortality in Iraq using scientific methods.”
How can science be done by surveys and is cluster sampling nonsense?
Surveys are at the heart of epidemiological studies in which prevalence information (how often a disease or trait – or death– occurs) is not available through centralized sources. One of the most widely cited surveys in the US is the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey which estimates a variety of information, from how many Americans have Diabetes to who uses pesticides. This is carried out under the auspices of the National Center for Health, which is in turn under the CDC. While, in theory, some of this information is available through other sources – doctors, for example, could report how many of their patients are treated for diabetes – there is no way of centrally recording the information and making sure that everyone with diabetes is actually counted. As a consequence, statistics have been developed to solve this problem.
Cluster sampling is a well-established in statistics, and is routinely used to estimate casualties in natural disasters or war zones. For the Iraq study the researchers randomly chose people to interview about deaths in their families, interviewed a cluster of households around them, and then extrapolated the results to the whole population. There is nothing controversial in the method itself, though people can certainly question whether the sampling was done correctly.
As with all surveying, the result is still an estimate, not an exact number. That’s just because a sample of the population was interviewed instead of every person. Thus, the authors of the Lancet study didn’t find 650,000 dead people – they found some 547 deaths after talking to about 12,800 people and extrapolated to how many they would have found had they talked to 27 million. They compared this to how many would have died at previous mortality rates before March 2003. The estimate is only as good as the sample population approximates the whole population. But the more people you survey, the more accurate the estimate.
Thus, 650,000 deaths is only an estimate; the range of possible deaths is actually 392,979 to 942,636. What this means is that we can be 95 percent certain that the number of excess deaths is in this range, but our best estimate is 654,965. You can think of this as a bell curve, centered 654,965 where the curve is highest. The other values in the range are less likely than to be the “true value” though not as much less likely as a number outside the range.
How good is the science in this particular study?
There has been a wealth of material on the web attacking the Lancet study. Most of it is devoid of science, and ranges from outrage at the numbers (it’s impossible to believe it could be so high), to accusations of bias based on the authors’ views of U.S. foreign policy. Interested parties such as the Iraqi government responded quickly by calling the numbers “inflated” and “far from the truth”, rather than putting forward any real reasons why these numbers are unlikely to have occurred. The Washington Post reported that the Defense Department’s response was that coalition forces “takes enormous precautions,” and suggested that the deaths are the “result of insurgent activity”.
In statistics error does not mean “mistake” – it is, rather, a measurement of how certain we can be of the results. In the Lancet study, and studies of a similar kind, there are two types of possible error: one coming from built-in bias and one coming from the use of statistics itself. While bias can hardly ever be teased out if it is intrinsic to the study, there are many techniques to minimize the error due to chance. The Lancet authors took care to interview enough families (about 1800 households) so that the possibility that they randomly chose families more affected by violence than others would be small enough not to affect their overall message. That message is essentially that other estimates of deaths due to the war are off by an order of magnitude.
The error intrinsic to statistics is often a target of criticism: if there’s error no matter what we do, how can we know anything? That line of reasoning makes about as much as sense as saying “since I’m not going to get exactly half heads and half tails if I flip a coin, I can’t say anything at all about whether a coin is biased.” Of course we can: we can calculate the likelihood that flipping a coin will be heads or tails. We can even calculate that the likelihood of getting all heads or all tails when flipping a coin ten times is less than one in 500. This leads us to the conclusion: if someone happens to flip a coin ten times and gets all heads, the coin is probably biased.
Since a survey does not actually interview everyone, it is possible that, purely by chance, the sample does not represent the whole population. For example, in conducting a poll between two candidates who are actually neck-and-neck, a pollster could, inadvertently, interview only Democrats. The survey would then get the result that the public is hugely in favor of one of the candidates and not the other – contrary to what the population actually feels. However, the chance of this happening is practicallyzero if there are enough people surveyed. If there are only ten people surveyed, it wouldn’t be so surprising if they were all Democrats. But if 1,000 randomly chosen people are interviewed, it is practically impossible to end up with all Democrats.
In the same way, it is theoretically possible for the scientists in the Lancet study to have interviewed 1,800 households that just happened to be wracked by violence, while the rest of the country was not. Or it could happen that the specific regions randomly chosen by the scientists were more heavily affected by violence than the rest of the country. The main point here is that these scenarios are extremely unlikely to occur, even though no one can rule out that possibility.
The error coming from the use of statistics is found in the confidence interval. In the case of the Iraqi deaths study, the confidence interval for the number of excess deaths is 392,979 to 942,636 people. What this means is that, if the survey were conducted again, we could be 95 percent confident that the excess deaths would fall in this range again.
The most likely number of excess deaths is 654,965. In terms of probabilities, it means that re-doing the interviews would result in a number that is much more likely to be near this figure than it is to be near 400,000 or near 900,000. We can be very confident that the number of deaths is extremely unlikely to have been less than 392,000 (less than 2.5 percent chance). For those who question the very technique of sampling, Cervantes -- a medical and health sociologist -- explains how the methods are standard fare for those doing this kind of research, as does any basic text on how to conduct polls.
Does anyone disagree with the study based on scientific principles?
At The Questionable Authority, blogger Mike Dunford points out some possible bias that might have led the researchers to numbers higher than they should be. First, he argues that the Lancet study used population estimates obtained by a joint Iraqi/UN population study, rather than those of the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which the same authors had used two years earlier. Dunford points out that if the total population (estimated to be approximately 27 million people) is invalid, then so is the estimate of 650,000. This is certainly true, but there is no reason to suspect that these organizations would be biased towards reporting a larger population than thereactually is. Dunford seems to imply that there are vying estimates out there, but he only cites information from 18 months earlier. If Dunford is correct that the population has been overestimated by as much as 11 percent, then the excess deaths should actually be estimated at about 580,000 instead of 650,000.
Dunford also points out that the excess deaths attributed to nonviolent causes was not statistically significant, and that, therefore, they should not be included in the total. Here, this is simply a question of standard statistical protocol. The main purpose of the study is to measure excess deaths, without regard to cause. For this, the nonviolent causes are relevant, even if not statistically significant by themselves. The authors did find that the increase in violent deaths was (highly) statistically significant, which is why they are reported separately. Thus it would be difficult to argue from this study that Iraq’s infrastructure is falling apart and that people dying from a lack of hospitals. But the authors have not made such claims in their paper.
Flares into Darkness argues that the sampling method would invariably favor densely populated areas, and that these areas would have disproportionate levels of bombs. It is certainly true that densely populated areas are more likely to be sampled – but only proportional to their population. In other words, if ten times as many people live in Region A than live in rural Region B, then Region A is ten times as likely to be chosen as a sampling destination. Overall, this will not have the effect of oversampling cities; it will have the effect of sampling cities proportional to their population, and rural areas proportional to theirs. Flares into Darkness insists that the room that these scientists had to change who they interviewed based on perceived threats gave them just enough leeway to cheat and pick places with more deaths. But this accusation is tantamount to their fixing the data; it simply doesn’t address the core findings of the study.
Flares into Darkness also claims that overall rates of death could be affected by the fact that deaths with specific causes could be correlated: a car bomb, for example, could kill several people at once in neighboring houses. If the sample happened to take in a neighborhood that took a bad hit from car bombs, then it could lead to an incorrect extrapolation to the whole population, when, the researchers just happened to sample a badly-hit area.
Yet again, it is standard statistical protocol in a cluster sampling survey to take this into account. The authors adjust for the fact that there is higher correlation within clusters than across clusters. As the authors point out in their analysis section, “The SE (standard error) for mortality rates were calculated with robust variance estimation that took into account the correlation between rates of death within the same cluster over time.”
While the authors did consider the issue of correlated deaths, it should also be noted that even if the authors did not correctly account for these correlations, the affect would be to widen the confidence interval, not lower the estimate. For just as correlated deaths could mean that what the observers saw was a fluke, it could also mean that the observers didn’t see the truly bad parts.
The last criticism that has spread widely in the blogosphere is that the pre-war mortality rates were underestimated. Since this study used prewar death rates to estimate how many deaths would have occurred anyway – and subtracted these off to obtain the “excess deaths,” a lower pre-war death rate makes for a higher estimate of excess deaths. There is little compelling reason to believe that the prewar death rates were underestimated, as they were corroborated by the the study itself.
The study found a prewar death rate of 5.5 per 1000 people per year, which was roughly the same as that found by the CIA and the U.S. Census bureau, according to Gilbert Burnham, one of the authors of the study from John Hopkins University. In other words, the prewar death rate was not just “invented” or taken from an unreliable source; it was supported by data from the same interviews.
What should we not take from this study?
The Lancet study does an excellent job in counting the dead, but its purpose does not lie in pointing fingers. While the study reports that 31 percent of excess deaths were caused by coalition forces, it is possible that those reporting the crimes might be biased by anit-coalition sentiment. Those families may be more likely to believe and report that a violent death was attributable to coalition forces. Of course, bias could go the other direction as well – we simply do not know. We also cannot assess who died – civilians or those involved with the armed conflict. Again, it would be easy to see how bias would affect reports by family members.
The methods used by this study are the only scientific methods we have for discovering death rates in war torn countries without the infrastructure to report all deaths through central means. Instead of dismissing over half a million dead people as a political ploy, as did Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, we ought to embrace science as opening our eyes to a tragedy whose death scale has been vastly underestimated until now.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Monday, October 16, 2006
Iraq is sitting on a mother lode of some of the lightest, sweetest, most profitable crude oil on earth, and the rules that will determine who will control it and on what terms are about to be set. The Iraqi government faces a December deadline, imposed by the world's wealthiest countries, to complete its final Oil Law. Industry analysts expect that the result will be a radical departure from the laws governing the country's oil-rich neighbors, giving foreign multinationals a much higher rate of return than with other major oil producers, and locking in their control over what George Bush called Iraq's "patrimony" for decades, regardless of what kind of policies future elected governments might want to pursue.
At Alternet, Joshua Holland reports:
Iraq is sitting on a mother lode of some of the lightest, sweetest, most profitable crude oil on earth, and the rules that will determine who will control it and on what terms are about to be set. The Iraqi government faces a December deadline, imposed by the world's wealthiest countries, to complete its final Oil Law. Industry analysts expect that the result will be a radical departure from the laws governing the country's oil-rich neighbors, giving foreign multinationals a much higher rate of return than with other major oil producers, and locking in their control over what George Bush called Iraq's "patrimony" for decades, regardless of what kind of policies future elected governments might want to pursue.
Iraq's energy reserves are an incredibly rich prize; according to the US Department of Energy, "Iraq contains 112 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, the second largest in the world (behind Saudi Arabia) along with roughly 220 billion barrels of probable and possible resources. Iraq's true potential may be far greater than this, however, as the country is relatively unexplored due to years of war and sanctions." For perspective, the Saudis have 260 billion barrels of proven reserves.
Iraqi oil is close to the surface and easy to extract, making it all the more profitable. James Paul, Executive Director of the Global Policy Forum, points out that oil companies "can produce a barrel of Iraqi oil for less than $1.50 and possibly as little as $1, including all exploration, oilfield development and production costs." Contrast that with other areas where oil is considered cheap to produce at $5 per barrel, or the North Sea where production costs are $12-16 per barrel.
And Iraq's oil sector is largely undeveloped. Former Iraqi Oil Minister Issam Chalabi (no relation to the neocons' favorite exile, Ahmed Chalabi) told the Associated Press that "Iraq has more oil fields that have been discovered, but not developed, than any other country in the world." British-based analyst Mohammad Al-Gallani told the Canadian Press that of 526 prospective drilling sites, just 125 have been opened.
But the real gem -- what one oil consultant called the "Holy Grail" of the industry -- lies in Iraq's vast Western desert. It's one of the last "virgin" fields on the planet, and it has the potential to catapult Iraq to number one in the world in oil reserves. Sparsely populated, the Western fields are less prone to sabotage than the country's current centers of production in the North, near Kirkuk, and in the South near Basra. The Nation's Aram Roston predicts Iraq's Western desert will yield "untold riches."
Iraq also may have large natural gas deposits that so far remain virtually unexplored. But even "untold riches" don't tell the whole story. Depending on how Iraq's petroleum law shakes out, the country's enormous reserves could break the back of OPEC, a wet dream in Western capitals for three decades. James Paul predicted that "even before Iraq had reached its full production potential of 8 million barrels or more per day, the companies would gain huge leverage over the international oil system. OPEC would be weakened by the withdrawal of one of its key producers from the OPEC quota system." Depending on how things shape up in the next few months, Western oil companies could end up controlling the country's output levels, or the government, heavily influenced by the U.S., could even pull out of the cartel entirely.
Both independent analysts and officials within Iraq's Oil ministry anticipate that when all is said and done, the big winners in Iraq will be the Big Four -- the American firms Exxon-Mobile and Chevron-Texaco, and the British BP-Amoco and Royal Dutch-Shell -- that dominate the world oil market. Ibrahim Mohammed, an industry consultant with close contacts in the Iraqi Oil Ministry, told the Associated Press that there's a universal belief among ministry staff that the major U.S. companies will win the lion's share of contracts. "The feeling is that the new government is going to be influenced by the United States," he said.
During the twelve-year sanction period, the Big Four were forced to sit on the sidelines while the government of Saddam Hussein cut deals with the Chinese, French, Russians and others (despite the sanctions, the U.S. ultimately received 37 percent of Iraq's oil during the period, according to the independent committee that investigated the Oil-for-food program, but almost all of it arrived through foreign firms). In a 1999 speech, Dick Cheney, then CEO of the oil services company Halliburton, told a London audience that the Middle East was where the West would find the additional fifty million barrels of oil per day that he predicted it would need by 2010, but, he lamented, "while even though companies are anxious for greater access there, progress continues to be slow."
Chafing at the idea that the Chinese and Russians might end up with what is arguably the world's greatest energy prize, industry leaders lobbied hard for regime change throughout the 1990s. With the election of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2000 -- the first time in U.S. history that two veterans of the oil industry had ever occupied the nation's top two jobs -- they would finally get the "greater access" to the region's oil wealth after which they had long lusted.
If the U.S. invasion of Iraq had occurred during the colonial era a hundred years earlier, the oil giants, backed by U.S. forces, would have simply seized Iraq's oil fields. Much has changed since then in terms of international custom and law (when then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz did in fact suggest seizing Iraq's Southern oil fields in 2002, Colin Powell dismissed the idea as "lunacy").
Understanding how Big Oil came to this point, poised to take effective control of the bulk of the country's reserves while they remain, technically, in the hands of the Iraqi government -- a government with all the trappings of sovereignty -- is to grasp the sometimes intricate dance that is modern neocolonialism. The Iraq oil-grab is a classic case study.
It's clear that the U.S.-led invasion had little to do with national security or the events of September 11. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill revealed that just 11 days after Bush's inauguration in early 2001, regime change in Iraq was "Topic A" among the administration's national security staff, and former Terrorism Tsar Richard Clarke told 60 minutes that the day after the attacks in New York and Washington occurred, "[Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld was saying that we needed to bomb Iraq." He added: "We all said … no, no. Al-Qaeda is in Afghanistan."
On March 7, 2003, two weeks before the U.S. attacked Iraq, the UN's chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, told the UN Security Council that Saddam Hussein's cooperation with the inspections protocol had improved to the point where it was "active or even proactive," and that the inspectors would be able to certify that Iraq was free of prohibited weapons within a few months' time. That same day, IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei reported that there was no evidence of a current nuclear program in Iraq and flatly refuted the administration's claim that the infamous aluminum tubes cited by Colin Powell in making his case for war before the Security Council were part of a reconstituted nuclear program.
But serious planning for the war had begun in February of 2002, as Bob Woodward revealed in his book, Plan of Attack. Planning for the future of Iraq's oil wealth had been under way for longer still. In February of 2001, just weeks after Bush was sworn in, the same energy executives that had been lobbying for Saddam's ouster gathered at the White House to participate in Dick Cheney's now infamous Energy Taskforce. Although Cheney would go all the way to the Supreme Court to keep what happened at those meetings a secret, we do know a few things thanks to documents obtained by the conservative legal group JudicialWatch. As Mark Levine wrote in The Nation($$):
… a map of Iraq and an accompanying list of "Iraq oil foreign suitors" were the center of discussion. The map erased all features of the country save the location of its main oil deposits, divided into nine exploration blocks. The accompanying list of suitors revealed that dozens of companies from thirty countries--but not the United States--were either in discussions over or in direct negotiations for rights to some of the best remaining oilfields on earth.
Levine wrote, "It's not hard to surmise how the participants in these meetings felt about this situation."
According to The New Yorker, at the same time, a top-secret National Security Council memo directed NSC staff to "cooperate fully with the Energy Taskforce as it considered melding two seemingly unrelated areas of policy." The administration's national security team was to join "the review of operational policies towards rogue states such as Iraq, and actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields."
At the State Department, planning was also underway. Under the auspices of the "Future of Iraq Project," an "Oil and Energy Working Group" was established. The full membership of the group -- described by the Financial Times as "Iraqi oil experts, international consultants" and State Department staffers -- remains classified, but among them, according to Antonia Juhasz's The Bush Agenda, was Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, who would serve in Iyad Allawi's cabinet during the period of the Iraqi Governing Council, and later as Iraq's Oil Minister in 2005. The group concluded that Iraq's oil "should be opened to international oil companies as quickly as possible after the war."
But the execs from Big Oil didn't just want access to Iraq's oil; they wanted access on terms that would be inconceivable unless negotiated at the barrel of a gun. Specifically, they wanted an Iraqi government that would enter into Production Service Agreements (PSAs) for the extraction of Iraq's oil. PSAs, developed in the 1960s, are a tool of today's kinder, gentler neocolonialism; they allow countries to retain technical ownership over energy reserves but, in actuality, lock in multinationals' control and extremely high profit margins -- up to thirteen times oil companies' minimum target, according to an analysis by the British-based oil watchdog Platform (PDF).
As Greg Muttit, an analyst with the group, notes:
Such contracts are often used in countries with small or difficult oilfields, or where high-risk exploration is required. They are not generally used in countries like Iraq, where there are large fields which are already known and which are cheap to extract. For example, they are not used in Iran, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, all of which maintain state control of oil.
In fact, Muttit adds, of the seven leading oil producing countries, only Russia has entered into PSAs, and those were signed during its own economic "shock therapy" in the early 1990s. A number of Iraq's oil-rich neighbors have constitutions that specifically prohibit foreign control over their energy reserves.
PSAs often have long terms -- up to 40 years -- and contain "stabilization clauses" that protect them from future legislative changes. As Muttit points out, future governments "could be constrained in their ability to pass new laws or policies." That means, for example, that if a future elected Iraqi government "wanted to pass a human rights law, or wanted to introduce a minimum wage [and it] affected the company's profits, either the law would not apply to the company's operations, or the government would have to compensate the company for any reduction in profits." It's Sovereignty Lite.
The deals are so onerous that they govern only 12 percent of the world's oil reserves, according to the International Energy Agency. Nonetheless, PSAs would become the Future of Iraq Project's recommendation for the fledgling Iraqi government. According to the Financial Times, "many in the group" fought for the contract structure; a Kurdish delegate told the FT, "everybody keeps coming back to PSAs."
Of course, the plans for Iraq's legal framework for oil have to be viewed in the context of the overall transformation of the Iraqi economy. Clearly, the idea was to pursue a radical corporatist agenda during the period of the Coalition Provisional Authority when the U.S. occupation forces were a de facto dictatorship. And that's just what happened; under L. Paul Bremer, the CPA head, corporate taxes were slashed, a flat-tax on income was established, rules allowing multinationals to pull all of their profits from the country and a series of other provisions were enacted. These were then integrated into the Iraqi Constitution and remain in effect today.
Among the provisions in the Constitution, unlike those of most oil producers, is a requirement that the government "develop oil and gas wealth … relying on the most modern techniques of market principles and encouraging investment." The provision mandates that foreign companies would receive a major stake in Iraq's oil for the first time in the thirty years since the sector was nationalized in 1975.
Herbert Docena, a researcher with the NGO Focus on the Global South, wrote that an early draft of the Constitution negotiated by Iraqis envisioned a "Scandinavian-style welfare system in the Arabian desert, with Iraq's vast oil wealth to be spent upholding every Iraqi's right to education, health care, housing, and other social services." "Social justice," the draft declared, "is the basis of building society."
What happened between that earlier draft and the Constitution that Iraqis would eventually ratify? According to Docena:
While [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay] Khalilzad and his team of US and British diplomats were all over the scene, some members of Iraq's constitutional committee were reduced to bystanders. One Shiite member grumbled, 'We haven't played much of a role in drafting the constitution. We feel that we have been neglected.' A Sunni negotiator concluded: 'This constitution was cooked up in an American kitchen not an Iraqi one.'
With a Constitution cooked up in DC, the stage was set for foreign multinationals to assume effective control of as much as 87 percent of Iraq's oil, according to projections by the Oil Ministry. If PSAs become the law of the land -- and there are other contractual arrangements that would allow private companies to invest in the sector without giving them the same degree of control or such usurious profits -- the war-torn country stands to lose up to $194 billion vitally important dollars in revenues on just the first 12 fields developed, according to a conservative estimate by Platform (the estimate assumes oil at $40 per barrel; at this writing it stands at more than $59). That's more than six times the country's annual budget.
To complete the rip-off, the occupying coalition would have to crush Iraqi resistance, make sure it had friendly people in the right places in Iraq's emerging elite and lock the new Iraqi government onto a path that would lead to the Big Four's desired outcome.
With 140,000 U.S. troops on the ground, the largest U.S. embassy in the world sequestered in Baghdad's fortified "Green Zone" and an economy designed by a consulting firm in McLean, Va., post-invasion Iraq was well on its way to becoming a bonanza for foreign investors.
But Big Oil had its sights set on a specific arrangement -- the lucrative production sharing agreements that lock in multinationals' control for long terms and are virtually unheard of in countries as rich in easily accessible oil as Iraq.
The occupation authorities would have to steer an ostensibly sovereign government to the outcome they desired, and they'd have to overcome any resistance that they encountered from the fiercely independent and understandably wary Iraqis along the way. Finally, they'd have to make sure that the Anglo-American firms were well-positioned to win the lion's share of the choicest contracts.
Dealing with the most likely points of opposition began almost immediately. While the Oil Ministry, famously, was one of the few structures the invading forces protected from looters in the first days of the war, the bureaucracy's human assets weren't so lucky. With a stroke of the pen, Coalition Provisional Authority boss L. Paul Bremer fired hundreds of ministry personnel, ostensibly as part of the program of "de-Baathification." But, as Antonia Juhasz, author of "The Bush Agenda," told me, "it wasn't an indication that they were a party to Saddam Hussein's crimes … they were fired because they could have stood in the way of the economic transformation." Some fraction were certainly hard-core Baathists, but they were all veterans of the country's oil sector; they knew the industry, they knew what the norms in neighboring countries were and they had no loyalty to the occupation forces. Some had to go.
That was true at the top as well. Serving as oil minister in the Iraqi Interim Government was Thamir Ghadbhan, a British-trained technocrat who at one time had been chief of planning under Saddam Hussein and was widely respected for his political independence and his opposition to the previous regime (Saddam had ended up imprisoning him at Abu Ghraib). But despite working closely with American advisors, Ghadbhan was replaced with Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, a close associate of Ahmed Chalabi, the exile favored by some war planners to run the country as a kindler and gentler -- but no doubt just as corrupt -- version of Saddam Hussein.
According to Greg Muttit, an analyst with the British oil watchdog Platform, Uloum at first seemed to be a malleable figure. He told the Financial Times that he personally favored PSAs and giving priority to U.S. oil companies "and European companies, probably."
But Uloum would later publicly protest the elimination of fuel subsidies, a key provision of the country's economic restructuring, saying, "This decision will not serve the benefit of the government and the people. This decision brings an extra burden on the shoulders of citizens." He was, as the Associated Press reported, given "a forced vacation." It was, in the end, a permanent vacation; Chalabi, who was deputy prime minister at the time, took over the job himself (as "acting" minister for 30 days, but his term would last a year). Chalabi had no previous experience in the oil biz, but was a reliable, pro-Western figure with little in the way of nationalist zeal to get in the way of being a good lap dog. As leader of the Iraqi National Congress, he had said he favored the creation of a U.S.-led consortium to develop Iraq's oil fields. "American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil," Chalabi told the Washington Post in 2002.
According to Alexander Cockburn, Chalabi also orchestrated the ouster of Mohammed Jibouri, executive director of the state's oil marketing agency, who had offended the Swiss giant Glencore by telling its executives that they couldn't trade Iraqi oil after their extensive dealings with Saddam Hussein.
An emerging, although still fragile, civil society was another source of potential trouble. Iraqi trade unions were a thorn in the side of the CPA -- shutting down the port of Khor az-Zubayr in protest of a rip-off deal with the Danish shipping giant Maersk, halting oil production in the south to demand the rehire of laid-off Iraqi workers and kicking Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root out of their refineries. Perhaps it's not a coincidence, then, that the only significant law that Paul Bremer left on the books from the Hussein era was a prohibition against organizing public-sector workers. Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi analyst with the NGO Global Exchange, told me, "They're having a lot of legal problems."
Of course, none of that guaranteed that the Iraqis would stay on the preferred path, especially after the election of an ostensibly sovereign government.
And that's where the most common -- almost ubiquitous -- tool of neocolonialism, debt, came into play. In this case, massive, crushing debt run up by a dictator who treated himself and his cronies to palaces and other luxuries, spent lavishly on weapons for Iraq's war with Iran -- fought in part on behalf of the United States -- and owed Kuwait billions of dollars in reparations for the 1990 invasion.
To put Iraq's foreign debt in perspective, if the country's economy were the size of the United States', then its obligations in 2004, proportionally, would have equaled around $55 trillion, according to IMF figures (and that doesn't include reparations from the first Gulf War).
Clearly, that amount of debt was unsustainable, and the Bush administration launched a full-court press to get creditor nations to forgive at least part of the new government's debt burden. Former Secretary of State James Baker, long the Bush family's "fixer," was dispatched on a tour of the world's capitals to cut deals on behalf of the Iraqis.
The administration raised eyebrows in the NGO community when it adopted the language of debt-relief activists to frame their pitch. Bush, and Baker, called it "odious" debt, debt that financed the whims of a brutal dictator and used against the interests of the Iraqi population. Under international law, "odious" debt, in theory at least, doesn't need to be forgiven; it's written off as a dictator's illicit gains. As one might expect, wealthy creditor nations have long resisted the concept.
Debt-relief activists Basav Sen and Hope Chu wrote that the move "seemed inexplicable at first." But it soon became clear that Iraq's debt-relief program was, in fact, a way of locking in Iraq's economic transformation.
The largest chunk of debt, $120 billion, was owed to the Paris Club, a group of 19 industrialized nations. Baker negotiated a deal whereby the Paris Club would forgive 80 percent of Iraq's debt, but the catch -- and it was a big one -- was that Iraq had to agree to an economic "reform" package administered by the International Monetary Fund, an institution dominated by the wealthiest countries and infamous across the developing world for its painful and unpopular Structural Adjustment Protocols.
The debt would be written off in stages; 30 percent would be cancelled outright, another 30 percent when an elected Iraqi government accepted an IMF structural reform agreement and a final 20 percent after the IMF had monitored its implementation for three years. This gave the IMF the role of watchdog over the country's new economy, despite the fact that its share of the country's debt burden was less than 1 percent of the total.
Among a number of provisions in the IMF agreement, along with privatizing state-run companies (which resulted in the layoffs of an estimated 145,000 Iraqis), slashing government pensions and phasing out the subsidies on food and fuel that many Iraqis depended on, was a commitment to develop Iraq's oil in partnership with the private sector. Then-Finance Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi said, none too happily, that the deal would be "very promising to the American investors and to American enterprise, certainly to oil companies." The Iraqi National Assembly released a statement saying, "the Paris Club has no right to make decisions and impose IMF conditions on Iraq," and called it "a new crime committed by the creditors who financed Saddam's oppression." And Zaid Al-Ali, an international lawyer who works with the NGO Jubilee Iraq, said it was "a perfect illustration of how the industrialized world has used debt as a tool to force developing nations to surrender sovereignty over their economies."
The IMF agreement was announced in December of 2005, along with a new $685 million IMF loan that was to be used, in part, to increase Iraq's oil output. The announcement came a month after Iraqis went to the polls to vote for their first government under the new Constitution in order, according to the Washington Post, to spare Iraqi "politicians from voters' wrath." That was a wise idea; immediately following the agreement, gas prices skyrocketed and Iraqis rioted.
The icing on the cake is that the deal James Baker negotiated with the Paris Club refers to Iraq as an "exceptional situation"; no precedent was set that would allow other highly indebted countries saddled with odious debt from their own past dictators to claim similar relief.
The deadline the Iraqi government must meet for the completion of its final oil law in December is a "benchmark" in the IMF agreement.
In an investigation for the Nation, Naomi Klein discovered that Baker had pursued his mission with an eye-popping conflict of interest. Klein discovered that a consortium that included the Carlyle Group, of which Baker is believed to have a $180 million stake, had contracted with Kuwait to make sure that the money it was owed by Iraq would be excluded from any debt-relief package. When Baker met with the Kuwaiti emir to beg forgiveness for Iraq's odious debt, he had a direct interest in making sure he didn't get it.
Another major creditor was Saudi Arabia. The Carlyle Group has extensive business dealings with the kingdom and Baker's law firm, Baker Botts, was representing the monarchy in a suit brought by the families of the victims of 9/11.
The most recent IMF report (PDF) shows how successfully he failed: "While most Paris Club official creditors have now signed bilateral agreements, progress has been slow in resolving non-Paris Club official claims, especially those of Gulf countries," it says. It's likely that Iraq, a country occupied for three years, devastated by 12 years of sanctions and with a per capita GDP of $3,400, will end up paying reparations to Kuwait, a country with a per capita GDP of over $19,000, for the five months Saddam occupied his neighbor in late 1990 and early 1991.
Iraq will still face a mountain of debt even if it meets all of the "benchmarks" required of it -- the IMF expects the country's debt service to equal five percent of its economic output in 2011 and warns that even a minor price shock in the oil market "would require significant borrowing from the international markets to close the financing gaps."
"Sovereign" debt is transferable between governments; if a new strongman arises or Iraq becomes a loose federation, the debt will remain on the books and defaulting on it, while a possibility, has serious long-term consequences.
All of this is about bringing different forms of pressure onto Iraq's nascent government, not controlling it, and it's an important distinction. Before and since the "handover" to Iraq's government, the Green Zone has been overrun with "advisers" from Big Oil. Aram Roston wrote, "It's clear that there is not just the one Iraqi Oil Ministry, but a parallel 'shadow' ministry run by American advisers." In business, that's known as "positioning."
Phillip Carroll, a former chief executive with Royal Dutch/Shell and a 15-member "board of advisors" were appointed to oversee Iraq's oil industry during the transition period. According to the Guardian, the group "would represent Iraq at meetings of OPEC." Carroll had been working with the Pentagon for months before the invasion -- even while the administration was still insisting that it sought a peaceful resolution to the Iraq crisis -- "developing contingency plans for Iraq's oil sector in the event of war." According to the Houston Chronicle, "He assumed his work was completed, he said, until Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called him shortly after the U.S.-led invasion began and offered him the oil adviser's job." Carroll, in addition to running Shell Oil in the United States, was a former CEO of the Fluor Corp., a well-connected oil services firm with extensive projects in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and at least $1.6 billion in contracts for Iraq's reconstruction. He was joined by Gary Vogler, a former executive with ExxonMobile, in Iraq's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.
After spending six months in the post, Carroll was replaced by Robert E. McKee III, a former ConocoPhillips executive. According to the Houston Chronicle, "His selection as the Bush administration's energy czar in Iraq" drew fire from congressional Democrats "because of his ties to the prime contractor in the Iraqi oil fields, Houston-based Halliburton Co. He's the chairman of a venture partitioned by the … firm."
The administration selected Chevron Vice President Norm Szydlowski to serve as a liaison between the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Oil Ministry. Now the CEO of the appropriately named Colonial Pipeline Co., he continues to work with the Iraq Energy Roundtable, a project of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, which recently sponsored a meeting to "bring together oil and gas sector leaders in the U.S. with key decision makers from the Iraq Ministry of Oil."
Terry Adams and Bob Morgan of BP, and Mike Stinson of ConocoPhillips would also serve as advisors during the transition.
After the CPA handed over the reigns to Iraq's interim government, the embassy's "shadow" oil ministry continued to work closely with the Iraqis to shape future oil policy. Platform's Greg Muttit wrote that "senior oil advisers -- now based within the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO) in the U.S. Embassy ... included executives from ChevronTexaco and Unocal." After the handover, a senior U.S. official said: "We're still here. We'll be paying a lot of attention, and we'll have a lot of influence. We're going to have the world's largest diplomatic mission with a significant amount of political weight."
The majors have also engaged in good, old-fashioned lobbying. In 2004, Shell advertised for an Iraqi lobbyist with good contacts among Iraq's emerging elites. The firm sought "a person of Iraqi extraction with strong family connections and an insight into the network of families of significance within Iraq." According to Platform, just weeks after the invasion, in a meeting with oil company execs and Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in London, former British Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind promised to personally lobby Dick Cheney for contracts on behalf of several firms, including Shell.
Meanwhile, major oil firms were positioning themselves so that they'd have the best contacts in the new government. According to the Associated Press, "The world's three biggest integrated oil companies" -- BP, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch/Shell -- "struck cooperation or training deals with Iraq" in 2005. "It's a way to maintain contact and get the oil officials to know about them," former Iraqi Oil Minister Issam Chalabi told the AP. And it seems to have worked; in May, Iraq's current oil minister, Husayn al-Shahristani, said that one of his top priorities would be to finalize an oil law and sign contracts with "the largest companies."
Washington has its hands all over the drafting of that law. Early on, in 2003, USAID commissioned BearingPoint, Inc. -- the new name for the scandal-plagued Arthur Anderson Consulting -- to submit recommendations for the development of Iraq's oil sector. BearingPoint was the firm that designed the country's economic transformation under a previous USAID contract, so it was no surprise that its report reinforced the preference for PSAs that "everybody [kept] kept coming back to" during meetings of the State Department's "Future of Iraq Project."
In February, just months after the Iraqis elected their first constitutional government, USAID sent a BearingPoint adviser to provide the Iraqi Oil Ministry "legal and regulatory advice in drafting the framework of petroleum and other energy-related legislation, including foreign investment." According to Muttit, the Iraqi Parliament had not yet seen a draft of the oil law as of July, but by that time it had already been reviewed and commented on by U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman, who also "arranged for Dr. Al-Shahristani to meet with nine major oil companies -- including Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and ConocoPhillips -- for them to comment on the draft."
All of these points of pressure are only what we can see in the light of day. There is certainly much more occurring under the table. Raed Jarrar told me that he "was personally familiar with the kind of intimidation that can be brought by both the U.S. military and civilian" personnel, and that he would be shocked if "multiple millions of dollars in bribes" were not changing hands. The IMF noted in its latest report (PDF) that "corruption related to the production and distribution of refined fuel products was rampant." Last March, 450 Oil Ministry employees were fired for suspected corruption, and Mohammed al-Abudi, the Oil Ministry's director general for rrilling, said that "administrative corruption" was pervasive. "The robberies and thefts are taking place on a daily basis on all levels," he said, "committed by low-level government employees and by high officials in leadership positions of the Iraqi state." The same day that the U.N. legitimized the occupation, George Bush signed Executive Order 13303 providing full legal immunity to all oil companies doing business in Iraq in order to facilitate the country's "orderly reconstruction."
Yet, despite a five-year effort, Big Oil still sits on the sidelines, wary of the disorder and violence that's plagued the country. Ironically, it appears that China may well receive the first deal in post-Saddam Iraq (although it's one negotiated with Hussein's government before the war). The Kurdish autonomous zone has signed three PSAs -- none with the majors -- although there is some dispute about their validity (and, at this writing, there are reports that the Kurds are in negotiations with Royal Dutch/Shell and BP, among others).
At this point, the situation is very fluid. Last week, Iraqis were shocked when a controversial measure that might lead to the country's effective breakup was passed by Parliament by one vote. The major Sunni parties and Muqtada al Sadr's ministers boycotted the vote in outrage. Muddying the waters further is a heated debate about whether a somewhat ambiguous provision in the Iraqi Constitution already gives provincial governments the right to hold on to oil revenues rather than send them to the central government. The results of all of these debates will have an enormous impact on Iraq's chances to build an autonomous and potentially prosperous country down the road.
It's possible that the administration and its partners badly overplayed their hand. Iraq's new government stands on the verge of a complete meltdown, faced with a crisis of legitimacy based largely on the fact that it is seen as collaborating with American forces. Overwhelming majorities of Iraqis of every sect believe the United States is an occupier, not a liberator, and is convinced that it intends to stay in Iraq permanently. "If you go in front of Parliament, Raed Jarrar told me, "and ask: 'who is opposed to demanding a timetable for the Americans to withdrawal?' nobody would dare raise their hand." The passage of a sweetheart oil law could prove to be a tipping point. It's also possible Iraq's government won't make it to December; at this writing, rumors of a "palace coup" are swirling around Baghdad, according to Iraqi lawmakers.
What is clear is that the future of Iraq ultimately hinges to a great degree on the outcome of a complex game of chess -- only part of which is out in the open -- that is playing out right now, and oil is at the center of it. It's equally clear that there's a yawning disconnect between Iraqis' and Americans' views of the situation. Erik Leaver, a senior analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, told me that the disposition of Iraq's oil wealth is "definitely causing problems on the ground," but the entire topic is taboo in polite D.C. circles. "Nobody in Washington wants to talk about it," he said. "They don't want to sound like freaks talking about blood for oil." At the same time, a recent poll asked Iraqis what they believed was the main reason for the invasion and 76 percent gave "to control Iraqi oil" as their first choice.