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Bin Laden Coverup

Seymour Hersh, source of some big — although not necessarily accurate — stories, is alleging that the bin Laden raid did not go down as we were told:

The principal claims that Hersh’s article makes, which largely rely on the assertions of a single, unnamed, retired senior U.S. intelligence official, are:

• That the 2011 U.S. Navy SEAL raid on the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was hiding in northern Pakistan was not a firefight in which SEALs went into a dangerous and unknown situation, but a setup in which Pakistan’s military had been holding bin Laden prisoner in Abbottabad for five years and simply made him available to the SEALs who flew in helicopters to the compound on the night of the raid.

• An officer from Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency ISI accompanied the SEALs on the raid and showed them around the Abbottabad compound, and the only shots fired that night were the ones that the SEALs fired to kill bin Laden.

• A “walk in” to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad tipped off the CIA that bin Laden was living in the Abbottabad compound, and it was not true — despite the statements of multiple U.S. officials after the raid — that the CIA had traced back one of bin Laden’s couriers to the Abbottabad compound and built a circumstantial case that bin Laden was living there.

• Saudi Arabia was financing bin Laden’s upkeep in his Abbottabad compound.

• A Pakistani army doctor obtained DNA from bin Laden that proved he was in Abbottabad, proof that was provided to the States so that all the supposed uncertainty — cited by Obama administration officials after the raid — about whether bin Laden was actually living in the compound was a lie.

• The “most blatant lie,” according to Hersh, was that “Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders — General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI — were never informed” in advance of the U.S. raid on the bin Laden compound.

In short, according to Hersh’s account, President Barack Obama and many of his top advisers lied about pretty much everything concerning what is considered one of the President’s signal accomplishments: authorizing the raid in which bin Laden was killed.

In some way, I’m disposed to believe this story. It always did seem suspicious that bin Laden was right near a Pakistani military headquarters. And I wouldn’t put it past Obama to lie to us about it. The Administration has been milking the raid for propaganda since before it happened, including giving classified information to filmmakers for Zero Dark Thirty.

But after thinking about it, I have to say, like Peter Bergen, I am deeply skeptical of this. Part of this is Hersh. Yes, he broke My Lai story. But he also claimed that Bush intended to use nuclear weapons on Iran. So he’s not always in Earth orbit. Part of this is my general suspicions of conspiracy theories. Part of this is that it smells badly of a Killian Memo.

But mostly it because it contradicts well-established facts. You can read the details in Bergen’s piece. Notably, multiple witnesses, including Bergen, can attest to a bullet-riddled compound and multiple bodies. And there’s this:

Common sense would also tell you that if the Pakistanis were holding bin Laden and the U.S. government had found out this fact, the easiest path for both countries would not be to launch a U.S. military raid into Pakistan but would have been to hand bin Laden over quietly to the Americans.

Indeed, the Pakistanis have done this on several occasions with a number of other al Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational commander of 9/11, who was handed over to U.S. custody after a raid in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi in 2003. So too was Abu Faraj al-Libi, another key al Qaeda leader who was similarly handed over by the Pakistanis to U.S. custody two years later.

Ed Morrissey is suspicious of the story for similar reasons.

We’ll see what comes out. But I highly suspect Hersh is full of it. ISI may have known more than they were saying about bin Laden’s whereabouts. But a cover-up of this magnitude would also involve Seal Team 6 and multiple intelligence agencies. I find it highly unlikely a lid could be kept on such a conspiracy only to be blown by the likes of Hersh.

Science Sunday: Warp Drives

(Again, a bit late. But it’s still Sunday somewhere, right?)

One of the biggest problems facing space travel is that it is ridiculously expensive. Not just in terms of money, but in terms of fuel. Conventional rockets are wonderful but they require enormous mass to generate thrust. One of the reasons the Saturn rockets were so massive was not just because of the enormous amount of fuel needed to leave Earth orbit but the enormous amount needed to lift that enormous amount of fuel. And if you wanted to make a round trip to, say, Mars, you’d have to take gigantic quantities of fuel with you. Your cargo would be a few people, some food and water and vast amounts of rocket fuel.

There are many ways to overcome this. Some of our spacecraft now use ion thrusters, which are efficient but can’t produce the kind of impetus you need to reach orbit. Our spacecraft frequently used gravitational slingshots, essentially borrowing a tiny fraction of a planet’s orbital energy, to reach the outer parts of the solar system. There have been proposals for space elevators and magnetic catapults.

Well, how about warp drives?

Over the last few weeks, people have been getting excited about the idea that NASA has discovered a warp drive, which could open vast areas of the universe for exploration at a tiny fraction of the cost we’re paying. Well, I hate to throw cold water on it but science is nothing if not a cold water thrower:

Last year, the Eagleworks lab—headed up by Harold “Sonny” White—said at a conference on propulsion technologies that they had measured thrust from an electromagnetic propulsion drive. The basic idea behind an EM drive, which is based on a design from a British engineer named Roger Shawyer, is that it can produce thrust by bouncing microwaves around in a cone-shaped metal cavity.

That would be awesome, of course, except it violates one of the fundamental tenets of physics: conservation of momentum. Saying that a drive can produce thrust without propellant going out the backside is kind of like saying that you can drive your car just by sitting in the driver’s seat and pushing on the dashboard.

Now, the last time this idea popped up it made a bunch of noise, which eventually settled down because of some pretty (ahem) obvious flaws in Eagleworks’ experiments. The physicists hadn’t run the tests in a vacuum—essential for measuring a subtle thrust signal. And while they had tested the drive under multiple conditions, one of them was intentionally set up wrong. That setup produced the same thrust signatures as the other conditions, suggesting that the signals the physicists were seeing were all artifacts.

This time around, Eagleworks researchers said they had addressed one of those problems. “We have now confirmed that there is a thrust signature in a hard vacuum,” wrote Eagleworks member Paul March in a forum. It was that post—all the way back in February—that led to most of last week’s hullabaloo.

So, the Eagleworks people have eliminated one of a myriad of problems with their experiment. But many remain, the work is unrefereed and, even if its real, we’re talking about very very tiny amounts of thrust that is barely above the detection threshold.

In other words, it sounds an awful lot like cold fusion. I’m glad someone is researching far-out ideas for changing space travel. But we shouldn’t mistake it for a breakthrough until there’s an actual, you know, breakthrough.

(These are the same guys who circulated an artist’s conception of a warp drive ship that many outlets mistook for an actual design from NASA.)

Right now, there is simply no way to make space travel easy. It would be nice if we could work an alternative. But so far, no luck.

(PS – If you want to see a movie that addresses issues of space travel in an interesting way, check out Interstellar.)

The UK Votes

The UK election is going tonight. It’s looking close. The Tories may win more seats by the Scottish National Party is set to win all of Scotland and may join with Labour to form a government (which may end up resulting in Scottish Independence).

I mildly support the Tories but the key word is mildly. Cameron has reigned in the out-of-control spending binge of the previous Labour government. But he has also supported some of the starkest internet censorship in the Western world.

We’ll see what happens.

Texas Shooting

Now that the facts are out, I have a a few random thoughts about Sunday’s shooting in Texas, which apparently involved two wannabe jihadis trying to shoot up a meeting where people would draw images of Muhammed.

First, I have no use for Pamela Geller and her compadres. They spew anti-Islamic invective whenever they can, are frequently factually challenged and hold events like this to be deliberately provocative.

That having been said, the blame for this is totally on the shooters and their vile religious beliefs. Every religion has its critics and its mockers. But you don’t see Christians, even fundamentalist ones, shooting up meetings of atheists or trying to murder Richard Dawkins. As Amy Alkon reminds us, there is no free speech in fundamentalist Islam. The radicals regard murdering “blasphemers” as their duty. We can never forget that.

Second, this event is protected speech no matter how much the pantywaists and thought-controllers try to pretend it isn’t. Our commitment to free speech is most tested with provocative or even insulting speech. And our commitment should stay strong even in the face of gunfire.

Third, according to Mother Jones, this was not a mass shooting stopped by someone with a gun. As I’ve noted many times, they require four people to be killed before it counts as a mass shooting or an attempted one.

And finally … Texas? Seriously? You guys thought you were going to win a shootout in Texas? When I lived down there, I was the least-armed person in my carpool lane.

The Party of “It Wasn’t Us!”

In the wake of the Baltimore riots and unrest, the Democrats are trying desperately to shift the conversation away from what happened and more toward … anything. One issue that they seem to have locked into is that the events in Baltimore aren’t a response to militarized policing or the War on Drugs or a poisonous relationship between the police and the community. No, it’s about … inequality. And they are proposing to address this with a raft of proposals that are basically Democratic Liberalism 101: more taxes on “the rich”, higher minimum wage, more spending on “infrastructure” and schools, etc. Barack Obama, in particular, has called on Republicans to embrace more spending and job training.

Read more… »

Science Sunday: Why You Should Vaccinate, Part 457

One issue that I am fairly militant about is vaccination. Vaccines are arguably the greatest invention in human history. Vaccines made smallpox, a disease that slaughtered billions, extinct. Polio, which used to maim and kill millions, is on the brink of extinction. And earlier this week, Rubella became extinct in the Americas:

After 15 years of a widespread vaccination campaign with the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine, the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization announced yesterday that rubella no longer circulates in the Americas. The only way a person could catch it is if they are visiting another country or if it is imported into a North, Central or South American country.

Rubella, also known as German measles, was previously among a pregnant woman’s greatest fears. Although it’s generally a mild disease in children and young adults, the virus wreaks the most damage when a pregnant woman catches it because the virus can cross the placenta to the fetus, increasing the risk for congenital rubella syndrome.

Congenital rubella syndrome can cause miscarriage or stillbirth, but even the infants who survive are likely to have birth defects, heart problems, blindness, deafness, brain damage, bone and growth problems, intellectual disability or damage to the liver and spleen.

Rubella used to cause tens of thousands of miscarriages and birth defects every year. Now it too could be pushed to extinction.

Of course, many deadly diseases are now coming back thanks to people refusing to vaccinate their kids. There is an effort to blame this on “anti-government” sentiment. But while that plays role, the bigger role is by liberal parents who think vaccines cause autism (you’ll notice we’re getting outbreaks in California, not Alabama). As I’ve noted before, the original research that showed a link between vaccines and autism is now known to have been a fraud. This week, we got another even more proof:

On the heels of a measles outbreak in California fueled by vaccination fears that scientists call unfounded, another large study has shown no link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism.

The study examined insurance claims for 96,000 U.S. children born between 2001 and 2007, and found that those who received MMR vaccine didn’t develop autism at a higher rate than unvaccinated children, according to results published Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA. Even children who had older siblings with autism—a group considered at high risk for the disorder—didn’t have increased odds of developing autism after receiving the vaccine, compared with unvaccinated children with autistic older siblings.

96,000 kids — literally 8000 times the size of the sample Wakefield had. No study has ever reproduced Wakefield’s results. That’s because no study has been a complete fraud.

There’s something else, though. This issue became somewhat personal for me recently. My son, Hal 11000 Beta, came down with a bad cough, a high fever and vomiting. He was eventually admitted to the hospital for a couple of days with pneumonia, mainly to get rehydrated. He’s fine now and playing in the next room as I write this. But it was scary.

I mention this because one of the first questions the nurses and doctors asked us was, “Has he been vaccinated?”

My father, the surgeon, likes to say that medicine is as much art as science. You can know the textbooks by heart. But the early symptoms of serious diseases and not-so-serious one are often similar. An inflamed appendix can look like benign belly pain. Pneumonia can look like a cold. “Flu-like symptoms” can be the early phase of anything from a bad cold to ebola. But they mostly get it right because experience with sick people has honed their instincts. They might not be able to tell you why they know it’s not just a cold, but they can tell you (with Hal, the doctor’s instinct told him it wasn’t croup and he ordered a chest X-ray that spotted the pneumonia).

Most doctors today have never seen measles. Or mumps. Or rubella. Or polio. Or anything else we routinely vaccinate for. Thus, they haven’t built up the experience to recognize these conditions. Orac, the writer of the Respectful Insolence blog, told me of a sick child who had Hib. It was only recognized because an older doctor had seen it before.

When I told the doctors Hal had been vaccinated, their faces filled with relief. Because it meant that they didn’t have to think about a vast and unfamiliar terrain of diseases that are mostly eradicated. It wasn’t impossible that he would have a disease he was vaccinated against — vaccines aren’t 100%. But it was far less likely. They could narrow their focus on a much smaller array of possibilities.

Medicine is difficult. The human body doesn’t work like it does in a textbook. You don’t punch symptoms into a computer and come up with a diagnosis. Doctors and nurses are often struggling to figure out what’s wrong with a patient let alone how to treat it. Don’t cloud the waters even further by making them have to worry about diseases they’ve never seen before.

Vaccinate. Take part in the greatest triumph in human history. Not just to finally rid ourselves of these hideous diseases but to make life much easier when someone does get sick.

The IRS Lies, Steals, Extorts

Why do we need to outlaw asset forfeiture without trial? Why do we need to abolish structuring laws? Why do we need to burn the IRS down and salt the Earth?

This is why:

Last October, in response to the outrage provoked by “structuring” cases in which the government took people’s money because their bank deposits were too small, the IRS said it would no longer do that unless there was evidence that the money came from an illegal source. In March the Justice Department announced a similar policy for seizures based on structuring, which entails making deposits of less than $10,000 with the intent of evading bank reporting requirements. Yet both the IRS and the DOJ are continuing to pursue the forfeiture of $107,000 that belongs to Lyndon McLellan, the owner of a convenience store in rural North Carolina, based on nothing but suspicion of structuring.

As in other structuring cases, McLellan lost his money because of well-intentioned but bad advice from a bank teller. The teller told McLellan’s niece, who usually handled L&M Convenience Mart’s deposits, she could save the bank burdensome paperwork by keeping the deposits below $10,000, the reporting threshold. Based on the resulting pattern of deposits, the IRS cleaned out McLellan’s bank account a year ago, even though there was no evidence that the money came from anything other than his perfectly legal business, which combines a store with a gas station and restaurant. The Institute for Justice, which is suing the IRS and the DOJ on McLellan’s behalf, notes that “the government filed its forfeiture complaint in December 2014, two months after the IRS announced it would not forfeit money in cases like this one.”

Reminder: when Elliot Spitzer, who had prosecuted people for structuring, structured payments to his madam to avoid detection, he wasn’t punished at all. This law is frequently applied to people who can’t afford to fight it or make a ruckus. The only reason McLellan can fight this is because the IJ — one of the more singularly awesome organizations in the country — is fighting on his behalf.

It gets worse. North Carolina congressman George Holding grilled the IRS commissioner about this case. This pissed off the federal prosecutor. You see, the warrant is under seal by the court. Ostensibly, this is to “protect” the defendant but in reality it protects the government from having their scumbag behavior exposed (see here for where these seals have been used to silence Scott Walker supporters when they have been subjected to midnight raids and fishing expeditions to try to find some evidence … any evidence … of wrong-doing). Similar gag orders were used to try to silence the late Siobhan Reynolds when she opposed government efforts to crack down on pain-killer use.

Of course, when sealed records are leaked by prosecutors — such as when Barry Bond’s sealed testimony in the BALCO case was leaked — no one cares.

Anyway, the prosecutor’s response has to be read to be believed:

I’m a bit concerned. At your request, I provided you a copy of the application for seizure warrant, which remains under seal with the Court, and now it appears it has been made available to a congressional committee? I do not know who did that, and I am accusing no one, but it was not from our office and could only have come from your clients. That was certainly not my intent in making this available. My intent was for you and your clients to be able to actually know the facts so you could review them and have an intelligent discussion with me. Whoever made it public may serve their own interest but will not help this particular case.

Your client needs to resolve this or litigate it. But publicity about it doesn’t help. It just ratchets up feelings in the agency.

Not unreasonable. But … wait for it.

My offer is to return 50% of the money. The offer is good until March 30th COB.

In other words, “shut the hell up and we’ll give you back the half the money”. And remember, if it weren’t for the support he’s receiving from the IJ, this would likely be the best outcome for McClellan.

A few weeks ago, John Oliver — whose commentary I normally find funny and occasional insightful — defended the IRS. He pointed out, correctly, that they didn’t make the tax law so ridiculously byzantine and that they barely have the resources to deal with the ungodly mess Congress has handed to them. He pointed out that for every dollar we spend on the IRS, we get six back. I don’t find it particularly persuasive since that means more money extracted from our citizens (sometimes in error and frequently at the expense of people like McClellan, who can’t afford to fight).

But this illustrates perfectly why people hate the IRS and the prosecutorial machinery that surrounds them. This is an agency that once had “Seizure Fever — Catch It!” posters printed up. This is an agency that zealously uses the unconstitutional powers Congress gives them. This is an agency that has happily complied with Presidential requests for targeted political audits and harassment. And now it is an agency that lied about what they were doing, seized someone’s assets and threatened him when he went public with it.

So yeah, we need to burn the tax code down. Yes, we need to pass laws to stop asset forfeiture — it’s clear that we can’t rely on the agencies to do it on their own. But once we do that, we also need to tear down the IRS and replace it with something else. They are too used to using and abusing the power our Congress and our Courts have stupidly given them.

Officers Charged

That was fast:

Six police officers have been charged in the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said Friday. One officer — the driver of the police van — has been charged with several counts, including second-degree depraved-heart murder. Another officer has been charged with several counts, including manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Two other officers have been charged with several counts, including involuntary manslaughter. An additional two officers are charged with several counts, including second-degree assault.

There’s been a lot of information flying around the last few days, such as claims that Gray had recent neck surgery (which proved false) or that he somehow broke his own neck (which is dubious and now contradicted by other sources). As I noted earlier this week, the Baltimore PD have a long and ugly history with giving prisoners “rough rides”.

We will see what comes out at trial.

Don’t Silence Mumia

Last year, the State of Pennsylvania passed the Revictimization Relief Act, a bill designed to allow crime victims to sue if criminals engage in speech that causes them mental anguish. Perhaps the best way to illustrate what the law is about is to look at why it was passed: Mumia Abu-Jamal had given the commencement address at Goddard College. He gave this via videotape because Abu-Jamal is in prison for the murder of Daniel Faulkner. And Faulkner’s family is getting a little tired of seeing his murderer bruited about as some great public intellectual.

Let’s get one thing straight: I think Mumia is guilty as hell. Faulkner was shot by a gun consistent with Mumia’s revolver, which had fired five shots and was found next to him. Mumia was himself shot by Faulkner. Four witnesses placed him at the scene. To believe Mumia is innocent, you have to believe … actually, I’m not sure what you have to believe because the theories of his innocence make no sense and Mumia has not given a consistent account of what happened. Maybe a one-armed man ran in, grabbed Mumia’s gun, shot the cop and left.

The protestations of his innocence revolve around him being an intellectual and a supposedly peaceful man. That’s as maybe but anyone is capable of murder. We don’t convict people of murder because they’re the kind of people who would probably kill someone and we don’t acquit because it’s, like, totally not like them to gun down a cop. I tend to focus my attention on the evidence, which was and is damning.

I also have little time for Mumia’s supporters. It’s not just that they lavish praise and support on him (and, in some cases abuse on Faulkner’s widow and accusations of corruption against Faulkner). It’s that they do so while ignoring the hundreds of innocent people who have languished in prison and on death row for decades but aren’t celebrities.

That all having been said, the Pennsylvania law crosses me as blatantly unconstitutional. And it was struck down by a federal court this week. Volokh and Randazza have a breakdown of the decision. Bottom line:

First Amendment protection extends to convicted felons. The Act is in violation of the First Amendment as it is content based, overbroad, and vague in its coverage of “offenders” and speech “conduct.” Victims have other forms of redress and can use their own free speech to combat that of inmates.

Call Mumia a murderer. I’ll do that right now: he’s a murderer. Call the school that invited him to do their commencement idiots. I’ll do that, too: they’re idiots. But restraint of his speech and those who want to promote his speech is wrong and unconstitutional. As we like to say, it’s the speech you hate that needs the most protection.

Baltimore Erupts

The city of Baltimore is in a state of emergency right now. Riots have erupted over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Gray, who was arrested for possessing a switchblade, was put into a police van. When he emerged, his neck was shattered and he would later die of severe spinal injury. And this isn’t the first time someone has been seriously injured by a Baltimore PD van ride:

Relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who was left a paraplegic after a 2005 police van ride, won a $7.4 million verdict against police officers. A year earlier, Jeffrey Alston was awarded $39 million by a jury after he became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a van ride. Others have also received payouts after filing lawsuits.

For some, such injuries have been inflicted by what is known as a “rough ride” — an “unsanctioned technique” in which police vans are driven to cause “injury or pain” to unbuckled, handcuffed detainees, former city police officer Charles J. Key testified as an expert five years ago in a lawsuit over Johnson’s subsequent death.

Christine Abbott, a 27-year-old assistant librarian at the Johns Hopkins University, is suing city officers in federal court, alleging that she got such a ride in 2012. According to the suit, officers cuffed Abbott’s hands behind her back, threw her into a police van, left her unbuckled and “maniacally drove” her to the Northern District police station, “tossing [her] around the interior of the police van.”

“They were braking really short so that I would slam against the wall, and they were taking really wide, fast turns,” Abbott said in an interview that mirrored allegations in her lawsuit. “I couldn’t brace myself. I was terrified.”

In fact, the city of Baltimore has paid out $6.3 million in settlements for police brutality just since 2011. Report indicate rampant and widespread abuse. When you add in the city’s problems with crime and lawlessness, it has been a powderkeg for a long time. There is some evidence that complaints are down under the new Mayor. But I suspect this situation will not resolve any time soon, especially if the officers involved are not indicted or are acquitted.

The protests since’s Gray’s death have been peaceful. But starting over the weekend, hooligans have been taking advantage of the situation to engage in looting and violence, which has exploded into today’s chaos. The police are also claiming they have “credible threat” that gangs intend to retaliate against the police. Let’s hope some order can be brought to the situation.