FDA spied on whistle-blowing scientists

FDA spied on whistle-blowing scientists

Eric Lichtblau and Scott Shane, New York Times
Updated 10:41 p.m., Saturday, July 14, 2012
  • House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. listens a left as Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 12, 2012.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press / SF
    House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. listens a left as Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press / SF

 

Washington —

A wide-ranging surveillance operation by the Food and Drug Administration against a group of its own scientists utilized an enemies list of sorts as it secretly captured thousands of e-mails that the disgruntled scientists sent privately to members of Congress, lawyers, labor officials, journalists and even President Obama, previously undisclosed records show.

What began as a narrow investigation into the possible leaking of confidential agency information by five scientists quickly grew in mid-2010 into a much broader campaign to counter outside critics of the agency’s medical review process, according to the cache of more than 80,000 pages of computer documents generated by the surveillance effort.

Moving to quell what one memo called the “collaboration” of the FDA’s opponents, the surveillance operation identified 21 agency employees, congressional officials, outside medical researchers and journalists thought to be working together to put out negative and “defamatory” information about the agency.

FDA officials defended the surveillance operation, saying the computer monitoring was limited to the five scientists suspected of leaking confidential information about the safety and design of medical devices.

While they acknowledged that the surveillance tracked the communications that the scientists had with congressional officials, journalists and others, they said it was never intended to impede those communications, but only to determine whether information was being improperly shared.

The agency, using so-called spy software designed to help employers monitor workers, captured screen images from the government laptops of the five scientists as they were being used at work or at home.

The extraordinary surveillance effort grew out of a bitter, years-long dispute between the scientists and their bosses at the FDA over the scientists’ claims that faulty review procedures at the agency had led to the approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies that exposed patients to dangerous levels of radiation.

Last year, the scientists found that a few dozen of their e-mails had been intercepted by the agency. They filed a lawsuit in September, after four of the scientists had been let go, and the Washington Post disclosed the monitoring in January. But the scope of the surveillance, its range of targets across Washington, and the huge volume of information that it generated were not previously known.

FDA officials said that in monitoring the communication of the five scientists, their e-mails “were collected without regard to the identity of the individuals with whom the user may have been corresponding.” The FDA said that those outside the agency were never targets of the surveillance operation but were suspected of receiving confidential information.

While federal agencies have broad discretion to monitor their employees’ computer use, the FDA program may have crossed legal lines by grabbing and analyzing confidential information that is specifically protected under the law, including attorney-client communications, whistle-blower complaints to Congress, and workplace grievances filed with the government.

Members of Congress were irate to learn that correspondence between the scientists and their own staffers had been gathered and analyzed.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for the FDA to be spying on employees who reach out to members of Congress to expose abuses or wrongdoing in government agencies,” said Rep.Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who has examined the agency’s medical review procedures.

The Welfare Work Requirement: Obama Obliterates Clinton’s Best Achievement, by Herman Cain

July 16, 2012
The Welfare Work Requirement: Obama Obliterates Clinton’s Best Achievement
By Herman Cain
President Obama likes to blame everything on George W. Bush, but apparently he does not discriminate. This week, Obama obliterated one of the best things Bill Clinton ever did.
Conservatives don’t look back fondly at the Clinton years, and for good reason, although he looks decent compared to what we have today. But you have to give credit where it’s due: Clinton did some good things, and one of the best – at the prodding of Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress to be sure – was the signing of the 1996 welfare reform act.
The bill “ended warfare as we know it” as Clinton liked to say, and introduced stringent requirements that able-bodied welfare recipients either work or spend time preparing for work. It was a good idea and it reversed the expansion of the welfare rolls for the first time in decades. The key was that states were not allowed to waive the work requirements. Congress wrote this section of the law very carefully because they knew that some state bureaucrats would try to do just that.
Now the work requirement is gone, not because new legislation was passed to remove it, but because Obama once again decided the law does not apply to him.
On Thursday, the Obama Administration issued a directive allowing states to waive the work requirement – and only the work requirement. The directive explains: “The Secretary (Kathleen Sebelius) is interested in using her authority to approve waiver demonstrations to challenge states to engage in a new round of innovation that seeks to find more effective mechanisms for helping families succeed in employment.”
In fact, Sebelius has no authority to grant such waivers. The bill makes that very clear by limiting the allowance of waivers to one section only, and it very explicitly excludes the work requirement from that section. This was not an accident. The power of the bill, and of the whole idea, was that it would only succeed if the work requirement was mandatory for all states and for all recipients.
And there’s no need for the Obama Administration to “find more effective mechanisms.” Welfare reform has been a roaring success.
Of course, that depends how you define success. It only took four years after the bill had eliminated the old Aid for Families with Dependent Children program, and replaced it with the new Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, for poverty to plummet while welfare caseloads were cut in half, according to a report from the Heritage Foundation.
So why would Obama get rid of the work requirements? I can think of two reasons – one ideological and the other political.
The ideological reason is that liberals hated welfare reform from day one. They predicted it would push millions more children into poverty. When it did exactly the opposite, their hatred was not abated in the slightest. They are convinced that the only way for people to get by is the reliability of a check from the government, and to them, the notion that you would replace this security blanket with this strange thing called a job is simply absurd.
The political reason is cynical but simple. People who depend on the government to be their primary benefactor vote Democratic, and if their dependence is permanent, then they vote Democratic for life. Even if these folks don’t vote, expanding the welfare rolls will allow for the expansion of the programs all across the country – and the newly hired welfare bureaucrats will vote Democratic, because their subsistence is dependent on the government as well.
Ronald Reagan liked to say that he defined compassion not by how many people we help, but by how many people no longer need our help. Obviously, and not surprisingly, Barack Obama’s view is exactly the opposite. The more people who depend on government largesse, and the easier it is for them to get it and keep getting it, the more job security he creates – for himself.
And he’s even willing to grant waivers that the law expressly forbids in order to make it happen.
I wonder what Bill Clinton thinks about what Obama did to one of his most positive achievements. After all, Clinton (who was re-elected the same year he signed welfare reform) worked with a Republican Congress to pass this bill, to cut the capital gains tax and to balance the budget for several years running.
Now the first Democratic president to follow him is undoing all of the above, or trying to. It’s almost enough to make you wonder, when Clinton walks into that voting booth in November and closes the curtain behind him . . . what he will really do.

Ex-Syrian ambassador calls for foreign military intervention

Ex-Syrian ambassador calls for foreign military intervention
From Ivan Watson, CNN
updated 1:17 PM EDT, Sun July 15, 2012

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
Nawaf al-Fares, former Syrian ambassador to Iraq, is the highest-ranking diplomatic defector
The “totalitarian” regime is led entirely by Bashar al-Assad, al-Fares says
“They are aware that they are going to pay for it,” al-Fares says of the regime’s violence
Syria denies accusations of massacres and attacking civilians
Doha, Qatar (CNN) — The most senior Syrian diplomat to defect and publicly embrace his country’s uprising is calling for a foreign military intervention to topple president Bashar al-Assad. He also accused the Damascus regime of collaborating with al Qaeda militants against opponents both in Syria and in neighboring Iraq.
“I support military intervention because I know the nature of this regime,” Nawaf al Fares told CNN. “This regime will only go by force.”
Until a few days ago, Fares was Syria’s top man in Baghdad.
His defection marks a shocking about-face for an official who occupied a critically important post. Until Fares was sent to Iraq in 2008, Syria had no ambassador stationed in Baghdad for more than 20 years.
“I was at the top of the Syrian regime,” Fares said in his first interview with a U.S.-based TV network since his defection. “But what happened in the last year during the holy revolution, all of the killing, the massacres, the refugees, and the declaration of war by Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian people, stopped any kind of hope for reform or real change, which had been promised previously by Bashar al-Assad.
“I tried during the last year and a half to convince the regime to change its treatment of the people,” Fares added. “But I wasn’t successful, so I decided to join the people.”
Damascus confirmed news of Fares’ defection in a short article published by Syria’s state news agency SANA, which announced that the ambassador had effectively been fired for leaving the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad without official authorization.

Another domino: Municipalities going bankrupt

EDITORIAL
Another domino: Municipalities going bankrupt

Posted: Jul. 15, 2012 | 2:04 a.m.

The public employee compensation bubble burst in yet another city last week when nearby San Bernardino, Calif., declared municipal bankruptcy. The action highlights that the economic woes of California and its governments are not being exaggerated, and that Nevada would be wise to learn from its neighbor’s problems.

San Bernardino’s bankruptcy follows this month’s Chapter 9 declaration from Stockton, Calif. While Stockton’s budget problems were compounded by debt, the finances of that city and San Bernardino had much in common: generous salaries, benefits and retirement promises for municipal workers that couldn’t be sustained amid free-falling property and sales tax collections, union concessions notwithstanding.

San Bernardino, with more than 200,000 residents, had let its reserves fall below $200,000 and couldn’t make payroll going forward. Plenty of other California cities are budgetary basket cases. “We’re going to see more of these,” former California Finance Director Mike Genest, now a consultant, told the Oakland Tribune. “Many of us have been predicting a substantial number of municipal bankruptcies in California for quite some time, and those predictions are starting to come true. It comes as no surprise to see the dominoes beginning to fall for local government.”

The elephant in the room, of course, is California’s unfunded pension obligations, which total about $500 billion, according to studies by Stanford University, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. According to a February report from Stanford, pension spending grew more than 11 percent per year in California’s biggest cities and counties between 1999 and 2010, twice the rate of growth of public safety, social services, parks and other programs. San Bernardino’s pension burden had doubled in just five years, and Stockton’s payments, which had more than doubled in 10 years, are on track to double again in just five years, according to the report.

Pension debts cannot be erased or reduced through Chapter 9. Taxpayers are on the hook for those promises.

These problems aren’t limited to California. Earlier this month, Scranton, Pa., cut its employee salaries to minimum wage to balance its budget. The state of Michigan has taken over the finances of four cities, and three others, including Detroit, operate under consent agreements.

All this serves as yet another reminder to the Nevada Legislature that the state must get in front of this problem and not wait until it becomes impossible to address. Already, Nevada municipalities provide some of the highest public-sector salaries and benefits in the country, and the state’s unfunded pension obligations are between $10 billion and $40 billion, depending on the accounting standards used.

It’s brutally unfair to squeeze important services because the public must pay for salaries and retirement benefits that aren’t available in the private sector. Governments everywhere must significantly reform pensions for new hires, or a lot more cities and counties will be headed to court.

~Las Vegas Review-Journal

God Bless America

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.
God bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home
God bless America, My home sweet home.

~Irving Berlin

Activists Say Syrian Troops Massacre 200

It’s time to intervene to stop this bloodbath. Day

 

Activists Say Syrian Troops Massacre 200

 

July 12, 2012
Opposition activists say Syrian government troops using tanks and helicopters have massacred more than 200 people in the central province of Hama.

London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the massacre occurred in the village of Treimsa on July 12.

A rebel leader, Abu Mohamad, said the attackers used helicopters, tanks and multiple rocket-launchers.

The state-run SANA news agency said there had been clashes between the army and an armed “terrorist” group in the village but made no mention of a massacre and gave no overall death toll.

The head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Abdel Basset Sayda, expressed outrage at the massacre and called for a tough UN resolution that allows for military intervention against the Damascus regime.

The Observatory says more than 17,000 people have been killed since the uprising erupted in mid-March last year.

Ann Coulter: Fast and Furious is Not a D.C. Law Firm

FAST AND FURIOUS IS NOT A D.C. LAW FIRM
July 11, 2012
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Most Americans don’t care about whether Attorney General Eric Holder is hiding Fast and Furious documents because they don’t understand the story.

Until someone can tell us otherwise, there is only one explanation for why President Obama’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gave thousands of guns to Mexican drug dealers: It put guns in their hands to strengthen liberals’ argument for gun control.

Precisely because this is such a jaw-dropping accusation — criminality at the highest level of government to score a political point — Republicans refuse to make it.

But the problem with Republican rectitude in discussing this scandal is that as soon as they start talking about subpoenas and dates and documents, TV channels change across America. They’re never going to get answers unless they first explain to the American people why it matters.

Liberals have been dying to reinstate the so-called “assault weapons” ban, but they haven’t been able to for political reasons. (For more information on this, see the 1994 congressional elections.)

A typically idiotic Democratic scheme, the “assault weapons” ban prohibited the sale of semiautomatics that are operationally indistinguishable from deer rifles, but which looked scary to liberal women.

First, the Democrats tried lying about how American guns were being found in the hands of Mexican drug dealers — while demanding a renewal of the assault weapons ban.

Obama had barely unpacked at the White House, when he and high-level administration officials and Senate Democrats — Holder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Chuck Schumer — started railing about how our lax gun control laws were putting guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartels.

In 2010, even Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon demanded that the U.S. reinstate the assault weapons ban — on the grounds that Mexican drug violence was directly linked to the law’s repeal.
The claim was preposterous for many reasons, including the fact that the type and quantity of armaments being used by Mexican drug cartels can be obtained only from places such as North Korea, China, Russia, Venezuela and Guatemala.

The notion that most guns used by Mexican drug gangs came from the U.S. was a lie — exposed on about 1 million gun blogs and on Fox News.

So, then the Obama administration did exactly what Democrats had been falsely accusing American gun sellers of doing: They put American guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartels.

The only explanation for Fast and Furious is that it was a program to prop up a losing gun control argument. The Waco and Ruby Ridge raids were monstrous, but they at least made sense as simple screw-ups: (1) ATF’s budget was about to be cut and it needed some showy raids; and (2) law enforcement officials detest private gun ownership on principle.

There is no conceivable law enforcement objective to giving Mexican drug dealers thousands of untrackable guns. It’s not even fun for the agents, like an armed raid on a private home. If there’s some other explanation, Holder isn’t telling.

Republicans refuse to state this clearly because they can’t prove it. Instead, they just keep chattering about the documents that haven’t been turned over and subpoenas that haven’t been answered.

Did Democrats wait for a smoking gun to accuse Karl Rove of treason for revealing Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent? It turned out Rove didn’t reveal it, and it wouldn’t have been a crime if he had.

Did they wait for proof to accuse Sen. John McCain of committing adultery? They had none, and yet that story ran on the front page of The New York Times.

Did they have any evidence before accusing the entire Republican House leadership of complicity in Mark Foley’s creepy emails to young male interns? See if you can guess. Take all the time you need. Feel free to call one of your “lifelines” if necessary.

Liberals just make wild-eyed accusations and demand Republicans prove themselves innocent. (Say, whatever happened to Karl Rove’s trial for treason for outing Valerie Plame? Can somebody call Lawrence O’Donnell and check on that?)

If conservatives were our only source of information about 9/11, no one would care about that, either. Somehow they’d make it about Osama bin Laden not answering a subpoena.

This isn’t just another government program gone bad — a $300 ashtray, stimulus money fraud, Solyndra or Van Jones.

It isn’t just a story about some government official refusing to testify.

It isn’t even a story about an American dying as a result of a government program, as outrageous as that is. Yes, Brian Terry died at the hands of a Mexican using a Holder-provided American gun. Pat Tillman died. Ron Brown died. People sometimes die as a result of government screw-ups. Fast and Furious is worse.

Innocent people dying was the objective of Fast and Furious, not collateral damage.

It would be as if the Bush administration had implemented a covert operation to dump a dangerous abortifacient in Planned Parenthood clinics, resulting in hundreds of women dying — just to give pro-lifers an argument about how dangerous abortion clinics are.

That’s what Fast and Furious is about.

COPYRIGHT 2012 ANN COULTER
DISTRIBUTED BY UNIVERSAL UCLICK

California Cities File Bankruptcy Due to Liberal Overspending

Rising costs push California cities to fiscal brink

Throughout the state, local governments are slashing services to avoid bankruptcy. For some, it’s too late.

San Bernardino Mayor Patrick J. MorrisSan Bernardino Mayor Patrick J. Morris says the city may have to dissolve its Fire Department or portions of the Police Department, an unavoidable reality when public safety accounts for nearly 75% of the general fund budget.(Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times / July 12, 2012)
By Phil Willon, Catherine Saillant and Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times

July 12, 2012

Facing the same financial stressors that pushed San Bernardino toward bankruptcy, cities across California are slashing day-to-day services and taking other drastic actions to skirt a similar fiscal collapse.

For some, it may not be enough.

San Bernardino on Tuesday became the third California city to seek bankruptcy protection in the last month and, while no one expects the state to be consumed by municipal insolvencies, other cities teeter on the abyss.
“There are likely to be more in the future, but it’s hard to know, since a lot of struggling cities may manage to work things out,” said Michael Coleman, a fiscal policy advisor for the California League of Cities. “Some cities may not go into a bankruptcy, but they may dissolve. They may cease to exist.”
Once rare, turning to bankruptcy has become a painful but enticing option for cities whose labor costs and municipal debt far outpace anemic tax revenues. The Bay Area city of Vallejo began the current trend in May 2008, filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection because, city leaders said, salaries and benefits for its public safety workers were eating up too much of the general fund.

Last month, Stockton became the largest city in the state to seek bankruptcy protection after it was unable to come to agreement with its employee unions and creditors on a plan to close a $26-million gap in its general fund. On July 2, the tiny resort town of Mammoth Lakes filed bankruptcy papers in part because it was saddled with a $43-million court judgment it couldn’t pay.

San Bernardino couldn’t close a $45.8-million budget shortfall and would be unable to make its payroll this summer. Days before Tuesday’s City Council vote, the city of 211,00 people had just $150,000 in the bank. The city barely scraped together enough money to cover its June payroll.

The city had largely patched over its growing fiscal ills, exacerbated by the struggling economy, by tapping out its reserves over the last several years, according to a fiscal report submitted to the council before Tuesday’s vote.

That 4-2 decision to file for bankruptcy protection was the easy part, San Bernardino Mayor Patrick Morris said Wednesday. Now the city has to pull together a plan to emerge from its fiscal crisis. It has already cut its workforce by 20% over the last four years.

Morris, a former judge elected on an anti-gang platform, says the city may have to dissolve its Fire Department or portions of the Police Department, an unavoidable reality when public safety accounts for nearly 75% of the general fund budget. The city would then contract with county and state agencies for those services.

“I think all possibilities should be on the table,” Morris said. “That includes privatizing services; that includes regionalizing services.”

Steve Tracy, a fire engineer and spokesman for the city firefighters union, said San Bernardino’s labor groups already gave up $10 million in concessions. He blamed the financial crisis on the mayor and former city manager spending money on such pet projects as a new downtown movie theater.

“Before you start putting blame on the labor groups, get your own fiscal house in order,” Tracy said.

Vallejo was in a similar bind when it filed for bankruptcy four years ago. Now Mayor Osby Davis wonders if the painful road to recovery was worth the cost.

The Bay Area city of 112,000 was forced to shut down two of its fire stations and today fixes just 10% of its crumbling roads. Its workforce, including police and firefighters, is about half its pre-bankruptcy size and those people left are “insanely” overworked.

Meanwhile, Vallejo spent $10 million on legal fees. It ended up with employee contracts that Osby thinks the city could have struck more cheaply if it had stayed out of bankruptcy court and turned to the bargaining table.

His advice to other cities on the financial brink? Don’t do it.

“It takes an enormous toll on everyone,” Davis said. “And you have the stigma of being a bankrupt city. How do you come out of being labeled a bankrupt city to one that is a desirable place to live?”

The San Bernardino City Council meets Monday to hash out the painful road ahead, including how to scrape together enough money to sustain city services before officially filing for bankruptcy protection. That could take a month or longer.

The city is expected to declare a fiscal emergency, which would trigger an “emergency exit” clause in the new state law that governs municipal bankruptcies. Otherwise the city would be forced to mediate with labor unions and creditors, an expensive, months-long process that Stockton slogged through without arriving at any agreement.

Karol Denniston, an attorney who helped draft the state bankruptcy law, said the emergency exit was designed for cases such as that of Orange County, which in 1994 became the largest county in the United States to go bankrupt, largely because of an unanticipated downturn in its risky investments.

Meanwhile, San Bernardino is likely to be scrutinized over how it managed to come to the brink of disaster, seemingly so quickly. City Atty. James Penman said budget figures submitted to the council had been fabricated for 16 years. Interim City Manager Andrea Miller was less harsh, saying the city’s budget was erroneously said to be balanced for the last two years.

“The real horrible question here is: How do you end up with 30 days of liquidity?’ Denniston said. “You have city leaders saying fiscal information was not accurate or reliable. This could create multiple layers of litigation that hurts creditors, employees and taxpayers for a very long time to come.”

Rising public pension costs are one of the catalysts pushing cities into fiscal peril. In San Bernardino, the city’s obligation to its employee retirement system rose from $1 million in the 2006-07 fiscal year to nearly double that in the current budget year. In three years, those costs are expected to swallow up 15% of the budget.

Pension spending grew an average of 11.4% a year in the state’s biggest cities and counties between 1999 and 2010, roughly twice as fast as spending on public safety, social services, recreation, health and sanitation, according to a February report by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

Joe Nation, a Stanford economics professor and co-author of the February report, thinks that for at least some cities, insolvency is inevitable unless they can wrest much bigger concessions on salaries and pensions from public employees.

“I think this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the problem,” Nation said. “Stockton was spending $12 [million] or $13 million on pensions 10 years ago. By 2010, it was $30 million … and will double again over the next five years, unless something is changed.”

Meanwhile, as news of the bankruptcy wafted though San Bernardino on Wednesday, residents feared for the city’s uncertain future.

“People are losing their homes because they have no jobs. It’s been really tough, so it doesn’t surprise us,” said Rose Garcia, 46.

But Garcia, a stay-at-home mother, said she and her husband, a dispatcher for Vulcan Materials, are anxious about potential cuts to public safety.

“It’s an uncertain feeling we have right now,” she said. “We’re actually talking about moving.”

phil.willon@latimes.com

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

abby.sewell@latimes.com

Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times