Political Intelligence


Bidness Rules, but Don’t Eat the Fish WRONG REGIME CHANGE? Not many American news outlets have reported that Texas’ junior Republican Senator John Cornyn and Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum have filed the Iran Freedom and Support Act. It calls on the Bush administration to back “regime change” in Tehran and to fund alliances with opposition groups that denounce terrorism. The proposal certainly sounds like something the administration would do. After all, the neocons who hold sway over U.S. foreign policy pine for an Iran invasion, or at least a few bombings. President George W. Bush labeled the country part of the “axis of evil,” and Vice President Dick Cheney claims Iran is pursuing a “fairly robust nuclear program.” But that’s politics. Not to be confused with something important, like business. On January 11, several news outlets reported that longtime Bush-Cheney supporter, Houston-based Halliburton, had garnered a $310 million drilling deal with Iran. Halliburton will help Iran increase natural gas production from its South Pars field, believed to hold the world’s largest natural gas deposits. Increasing production from South Pars will result in dramatic increases in revenue for the Iranian government. The association with Iran’s mullahs is being conducted by a Halliburton subsidiary based in the Cayman Islands to dodge federal laws that prohibit American companies from dealing with countries that sponsor terrorism. Halliburton, which used to employ Cheney and is still sending deferred compensation payments to the vice president, insists that all of this Iranian business is just fine and dandy because the company’s subsidiary, Halliburton Products & Services, will be working as a subcontractor to another company, Oriental Kish Co. Is it beyond the realm of possibility that Bush, Cheney, or maybe even Cornyn, could call their pal, Dallas billionaire oilman Ray Hunt, who sits on Halliburton’s board, and ask him to keep Halliburton the hell out of Iran? Hunt has plenty of ties to the Republicans. He was a major fundraiser for Bush’s campaign in 2000. He’s given big donations to Cornyn and Bush. He also sits on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which advises Bush on intelligence issues. When contacted with this rather simple question, White House spokesman Taylor Gross said: “The White House doesn’t order companies to do X, Y, and Z.” (It’s abundantly clear who gets to do the ordering in this relationship.) The vice president’s office referred the Observer to Halliburton. Senator Cornyn didn’t reply. Ironically, Halliburton is already under investigation for its past dealings with Iran. Point of fact, Halliburton has been jumping back and forth between the despots in Iran and the despots in Iraq for decades. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect this ethically challenged company to change its spots just now. Or perhaps, it’s time for the U.S. to begin promoting regime change—at Halliburton. GAMBLING WITH THE TRUTH Every two years, the Texas Lottery Commission gives the Legislature a demographic study of who plays its games. The last two studies indicated the wealthy are most likely to play, and that no particular racial group is more prone to buy lottery tickets than any other. Since critics of the lottery contend it unfairly feeds off the disadvantaged, the study results have fit the commission’s official stance quite nicely. “It is important to note that those with the lowest levels of education and income were the least likely to play the games of the Texas Lottery,” wrote Linda Cloud, the commission’s executive director in 2001 in an introduction to the report that year. “These findings are consistent with previous findings and what we currently understand about our players, despite the participation myths to the contrary.” The 2003 report, under a different executive director, contained the same two sentences. But the commission’s latest report, presented at a January 7 meeting, reveals that high- and low-income Texans play at about the same rate but with far different consequences. “We didn’t see anything in our report that would lead to a conclusion that people in lower income categories are less likely to play the lottery,” said Brian Cannon, director of the Earl Survey Research Laboratory at Texas Tech. Cannon and others at the Earl Survey Research Laboratory did observe, however, that poorer people spend a greater proportion of their funds on lottery games. Players who earned between $20,000 and $49,000 burned more cash relative to their income than did players who earned between $50,000 and $100,000. The researchers also found racial differences the previous studies hadn’t revealed: Anglo players spend less each month than non-Anglo players. And Latinos are more likely than other racial groups to play the lottery. Spokesman Bobby Heith played down the study’s significance and said the commission wasn’t disappointed the results contradicted its rhetoric. “Really, that study belongs to Texas Tech,” Heith said. “It says what it says.” Dawn Nettles, who publishes the newsletter Lotto Report, was astounded to hear Cannon present the study to commissioners. “I was just sitting there in awe. He was confirming everything I’ve been saying,” Nettles said. “The commission was getting the truth on the people who play the lottery.” She said the commissioners, in fact, acted visibly disappointed. A transcript of the meeting shows that at least the chairman, C. Tom Clowe, Jr., admitted being worried. “I will have to say to you that, as a layperson, comparing what we’re seeing, because it is such a great change, I am less than satisfied to accept the results. I’m going to accept them because this is the report, and we’re going to deal with it,” he told Cannon, observing that the study left the agency vulnerable to charges of pandering to poor and minority Texans. MERCURY RISING Tens of thousands of Texas children could be at risk for mercury poisoning, say environmentalists pushing for state reductions in mercury emissions. Texas leads the nation in mercury pollution; in 2002 TXU Power’s Monticello power plant emitted the most mercury of any plant in North America, according to a report released in January by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, especially for young and unborn children. High levels of mercury exposure have been linked to learning disabilities, brain damage, and, in rare instances, death. In 2004, a study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency found nearly one in six U.S. women of child-bearing age showed blood levels of mercury high enough to endanger a fetus. The study estimated that as many as 630,000 children might be damaged by environmental mercury poisoning each year. “This is something we need to take seriously,” says Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition. “We can’t wait until a generation of children grows up before we act.” Most mercury pollution is released as a by-product of coal-burning power plants. In the air, mercury is relatively harmless. However, rain and snow carry it into lakes and rivers, where it is converted to far more toxic methylmercury and travels up the food chain. Big, predatory fish accumulate the highest levels of toxicity; unfortunately, those are the ones we like to eat most. A list of the species at highest risk for mercury contamination reads like an upscale menu: shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and yellowfin tuna. Five of the ten worst mercury-polluting power plants in the United States are in East and Central Texas. The lignite mined in East Texas has the highest mercury content of any type of coal. The EPA’s latest Toxics Release Inventory showed Texas releasing 9,840 pounds of mercury or mercury compounds—about 10 percent of the mercury released in the U.S.—into the air in 2002. (Two more coal-powered electric plants are proposed in Texas: one in San Antonio and one near Waco.) The Texas Department of State Health Services has issued mercury advisories and bans for 11 rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, and for the entire Gulf of Mexico. Currently, however, the state does not routinely test fish for elevated mercury levels. Officials from TDSHS, the EPA, the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department determine which lakes and rivers to test for mercury based largely on whether they are in areas with a history of mercury pollution. “It is a very resource-driven process,” says Kirk Wiles, director of TDSHS’s Seafood Safety Division. “We have this much money, so we’re going to test this many sites.” The EPA has proposed regulation changes to cut mercury emission, but environmentalists say the proposals are weak and significantly undercut the Clean Air Act. One EPA proposal would effectively revise the Clean Air Act to treat mercury as a non-toxic output. Other proposals would allow plants that produce too much mercury to purchase “credits” from plants that produce less. Opponents of the proposals say at best they would reduce emissions by 70 percent by 2018. The SEED Coalition is drafting legislation that would hold Texas to the Clean Air Act’s original standard, cutting emissions in the state by 90 percent by 2008, and prohibiting the purchase and sale of pollution credits. Hadden says the technology exists to make reductions of this size, even using lignite coal. The additional cost to the ratepayer would be in the neighborhood of $1.29 a month. At least one state Senator is reportedly interested in carrying the legislation. FROM SMALL BEGINNINGS On January 20, about 50 progressive activists met together at the AFL-CIO auditorium in downtown Austin for what was billed as a progressive summit. Most participants were drawn from Austin-based public policy groups spanning issues as diverse as the environment and reproductive freedom. Together, the groups claim to represent more than 800,000 Texans. While many are still smarting from a recent history of defeats, there is some hope that the possibility of pushing a progressive agenda to the forefront is within reach. The consequences of the policy failures of 15 years of Republican leadership in Texas are beginning to be felt by ordinary Texans. Organized by the People for the American Way, the summit’s sponsors hope eventually to create a continuing forum similar to what Grover Norquist and the radical right have achieved. (Norquist is famous for his weekly breakfasts at which invited representatives from different right-wing groups get together to share ideas and plot strategy.) The meeting began with brief remarks from several speakers, including Glenn Smith, the founder of DriveDemocracy.org, a virtual community modeled on MoveOn.org. Smith, who spoke about Berkeley professor George Lakoff’s work on framing issues [see, “Frame Wars, TO, November 5, 2004] urged participants to leave the silos of their own specific issues and network with fellow progressives. “There is no policy priority as important as unifying progressives and having them work together, “ he said. Panels followed the presentations as representatives of the progressive advocacy community talked about strategies for building membership, mobilizing people, and getting the message out. While progressives have experienced a degree of success in using the Internet as a means of organizing and exchanging information, many Texans, particularly minority communities, are still on the other side of the digital divide. “We have to do for the offline community what we’ve accomplished with the online community,” noted Smith. Presumably, just how to do that will be a topic of future meetings. RES IPSA LOQUITUR As they say in law school, “A thing so bad it speaks for itself.” That’s one response to “Harrassing, Annoying, and ‘Bad Guy’ Identifying Chemicals”—a 1994 government document that the Austin-based biological and chemical weapons watchdog, the Sunshine Project, recently obtained via a FOIA request. The document outlines a proposal for the development of chemicals that “can be sprayed upon enemy positions or onto infiltration routes used by enemy forces.” Among the bright ideas emanating from U.S. Air Force Wright Laboratory in Ohio was one for “Chemicals that effect [sic] human behavior so that discipline and morale in enemy units is adversely effected [sic]. One distasteful but completely non-lethal example would be strong aphrodisiacs, especially if the chemical also caused homosexual behavior.” The Project posted the memo on its website (www.sunshine-project.org), prompting a flood of commentary from Scotland to Australia to the syndicated “News of the Weird” column. A Defense Department spokesperson told Reuters that the proposal had been rejected “out of hand.” Not so, says Hammond. It appears on a 2000 CD-ROM prepared by DOD’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate. Leaving aside the obvious (homophobia and dubious science), he says, “These guys have a chemical dependency problem. They keep insisting on using mind-altering drugs as weapons. And it’s illegal.” Now he’s asking DOD to release a 1999 study comparing the effects of various chemical and possibly biological weapons on different ethnic, gender, and age groups. The Army acknowledges the report exists, but refuses to release it.