Archive for March 16th, 2011
Let’s see, “radiation levels 10 times higher than expected,” which the TSA says are “math mistakes,” but not to worry because even with these “math mistakes” the levels are still less than “a person absorbs through one day of natural background radiation.” Sure, I’ll take the TSA’s word on this, after all they are so forthcoming on a regular basis! Also, does the background radiation one absorbs in a typical day administered in a single dose focused directly at the uppermost levels of skin? Fine, I’ll say it, BULLSHIT! Please, please, please unionize TSA, so you will be around forever!
Straight from USA Today: “The Transportation Security Administration announced Friday that it would retest every full-body X-ray scanner that emits ionizing radiation — 247 machines at 38 airports — after maintenance records on some of the devices showed radiation levels 10 times higher than expected.
The TSA says that the records reflect math mistakes and that all the machines are safe. Indeed, even the highest readings listed on some of the records — the numbers that the TSA says were mistakes — appear to be many times less than what the agency says a person absorbs through one day of natural background radiation.
Even so, the TSA has ordered the new tests out of “an abundance of caution to reassure the public,” spokesman Nicholas Kimball says. The tests will be finished by the end of the month, and the results will be released “as they are completed,” the agency said on its website.
TSA officials have repeatedly assured the public and lawmakers that the machines have passed all inspections. The agency’s review of maintenance reports, launched Dec. 10, came only after USA TODAY and lawmakers called for the release of the records late last year.
The agency posted reports Friday from 127 X-ray-emitting devices on its website and said it would continue to release results from maintenance tests for the approximately 4,500 X-ray devices at airports nationwide. Those devices include machines that examine checked luggage. Of the reports posted, about a third showed some sort of error, Kimball said.
The TSA announced steps to require its maintenance contractors to “retrain personnel involved in conducting and overseeing the radiation survey process.”
Some lawmakers remain concerned, however.
The TSA “has repeatedly assured me that the machines that emit radiation do not pose a health risk,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a written statement Friday. “Nonetheless, if TSA contractors reporting on the radiation levels have done such a poor job, how can airline passengers and crew have confidence in the data used by the TSA to reassure the public?“
She said the records released Friday “included gross errors about radiation emissions. That is completely unacceptable when it comes to monitoring radiation.”
U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz also was troubled by the information posted by the TSA. Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairs a House oversight subcommittee on national security and has sponsored legislation to limit the use of full-body scans. He has been pushing the TSA to release the maintenance records.
At best, Chaffetz said, the radiation reports generated by TSA contractors reveal haphazard oversight and record-keeping in the critical inspection system the agency relies upon to ensure millions of travelers aren’t subjected to excessive doses of radiation.
“It is totally unacceptable to be bumbling such critical tasks,” Chaffetz said. “These people are supposed to be protecting us against terrorists.”
In the past, the TSA has failed to properly monitor and ensure the safety of X-ray devices used on luggage. A 2008 report by the worker safety arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the TSA and its maintenance contractors had failed to detect when baggage X-ray machines emitted radiation beyond what regulations allowed. They also failed to take action when some machines had missing or disabled safety features, the report shows.
Chaffetz said the TSA’s characterization of the maintenance mistakes “sounds like an excuse rather than the real facts.”
“I’m tired of excuses,” Chaffetz said. “The public has a right and deserves to know. It begs the question, ‘What are they still not sharing with us?’ These are things you cannot make mistakes with.” Chaffetz said he expects to address some of his concerns during a hearing Wednesday.
The full-body scanners, called backscatter devices, are supposed to deliver only a tiny amount of radiation — about as much as an airplane passenger gets during two minutes of a typical flight.
Peter Rez, a physics professor at Arizona State University, said Friday he wanted to scrutinize the 2,000 pages of reports the TSA posted. He has expressed concerns about the potential for the scanners to break and the importance of proper maintenance and monitoring.
“Mechanical things break down,” Rez told USA TODAY in December. Rez also has voiced fears about the potential for a passenger to get an excessive dose of radiation or even a radiation burn if the X-ray scanning beam were to malfunction and stop on one part of a person’s body for an extended period of time.
He said Friday that the contractor mistakes TSA identified only heighten his concerns.
“What happens in times of failure, when they can give very, very high radiation doses. I’m totally unconvinced they have thought that through,” Rez said of the TSA. “I just see a large, bumbling bureaucracy. Of course it’s not very reassuring.”
The TSA’s Kimball disputed such characterizations.
“Numerous independent tests have confirmed that these technologies are safe, but these record-keeping errors are not acceptable,” he said. For instance, “the testing procedure calls for the technician to take 10 separate scans” for radiation levels, “add them up and then divide by 10 to take an average. They didn’t divide by 10,” Kimball said.
“We’re taking a number of steps to ensure the mistakes aren’t repeated,” he said, “and the public will be able to see for themselves by reviewing all future reports online.”
The TSA is responsible for the safety of its own X-ray devices. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said it does not routinely inspect airport X-ray machines because they are not considered medical devices. The TSA’s airport scanners are exempt from state radiation inspections because they belong to a federal agency.
Some of the records were written by employees of the machines’ maker: Rapiscan Systems. In a written statement, the company’s executive vice president, Peter Kant, said, “The mistakes were the result of calculating and procedural errors that were identified by Rapiscan management and have been corrected. In actuality, the systems in these airports have always been well below acceptable exposure limits.”
Rapiscan Systems said in a Dec. 15 letter to the TSA that company engineers who tested the backscatter machines were confused by inspection forms and instructions, leading them to make mistakes on the forms that vastly inflated the radiation emitted by the machines.
Rapiscan vowed to redesign its inspection forms and retrain its engineers.
The TSA released inspection reports from 40 backscatter machines, and reports for 19 of those machines had errors, including six that were deemed “considerable.”
In a written statement sent to USA TODAY, TSA Administrator John Pistole said the equipment is safe.
“Independent third-party testing has confirmed that all TSA technology is safe,” Pistole said. “We are also taking additional steps to build on existing safety measures in an open and transparent way, including commissioning an additional independent entity to evaluate these protocols.”
Straight from Fox News: “Critics of U.S. spending on the United Nations got a huge boost—and supporters of that spending, especially the Obama Administration, took a body blow—from an unlikely source this week: the British government, long one of the U.N.’s staunchest supporters.
In a sweeping and hard-nosed reorganization of priorities for its $10.6 billion multilateral foreign aid program, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron has pulled the financial plug entirely on four U.N. agencies at the end of next year, put three others judged merely “adequate” on notice that they could face the same fate unless they improve their performance “as a matter of absolute urgency;” and issued pointed criticisms of almost all the rest.
The major exception: UNICEF, the U.N. children’s aid agency, which got a strong endorsement and a funding increase.
The tough actions were revealed as the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, led by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairperson Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has been gearing up an extended critical look at U.N. funding as part of its overall budget austerity plan. The British revelations also came while U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice was on an extended cross-country tour, drumming up grass-roots support for U.N. funding in what is sure to be a protracted battle. Unveiling of the new British priorities undoubtedly will hearten her opponents on Capitol Hill.
Moreover, the British actions change the focus of the debate, from gauzy generalizations about the need for and importance of the U.N. to a realistic look at what it actually achieves.
The basis of that switch is the same urgent necessity hanging over almost every Western government: austerity. For Britain’s coalition government, however, the need to make dramatic domestic buts has been coupled with a promise to avoid cuts, and even make budget increases, in the money it sends to help the world’s poorest people—part of the price of bringing the minority Liberal-Democrats into the coalition.
But the outcome could be an international game-changer: to defend its relatively liberal position on global anti-poverty aid, the government is switching from publicly supporting institutions to publicly awarding and penalizing them on the basis of their results—an attitude that is likely to send a continuing shock wave through the sprawling, bureaucratic U.N. system.
Such an attitude is “long overdue,” in the opinion of Brett Schaefer, an expert on U.S. funding of the U.N. at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and a longstanding critic of unquestioning American support for the institution. “The taxpayers in developed countries and the poor in developing countries both deserve better than they have been receiving from the U.N.”
The U.S. pays 22 percent of the so-called”core” budget of the U.N. Secretariat, and 27 percent of peacekeeping expenses, but its so-called voluntary spending on U.N. agencies and programs goes far beyond that, to an estimated $6.3 billion overall.
Even that number is likely a significant under-estimation, since many U.N. bodes operate as “implementing agencies”—program managers—for U.S. funds that are channeled through non-U.N. institutions, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM), where the U.S. has donated $5.1 billion since 2002, and pledged an additional $4.4 billion. The implementing agencies typically charge a percentage for their services.
Most of the U.N. agencies that have gone fully under the British budget ax are relatively inconsequential in U.S. terms. They include:
– the Vienna-based U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), a so-called “specialized agency” that promotes industrial development in poor countries, with a budget for 2010-2011 of $517.8 million. The U.S. left UNIDO in 1996.
–UN-HABITAT, a Nairobi-based agency mandated “to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all.” 2010-2011 budget, about $396 million.
–the International Labor Organization (ILO), a specialized agency for overseeing international labor standards, based in Geneva. 2010-2010 budget: $1.1 billion;
–the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), another Geneva-based operation intended to coordinate disaster prevention efforts and “build resilient nations and communities as an essential condition for sustainable development.” 2010-2011 budget: about $28 mllion
In all four cases, the British verdict was harsh. Of UNIDO, the government said, a review, “could not find any evidence of UNIDO having a significant impact on global poverty.” Likewise, the review “did not find evidence that UN-HABITAT is leading the United Nations system to work more coherently to tackle urban challenges faced in developing countries.” The U.N.’s disaster reduction system “has not performed its international co-ordination role well.”
In the case of the ILO, the British government conceded that the organization “has a strong role to play in setting labor standards,” but “does not have a significant impact” on global poverty reduction goals. So partial funding in the future would be funneled through a different British ministry.
Other U.N. organizations got sharp critiques of their “poor value for money,” and stern warnings to shape up within two years or face deep funding cuts—or perhaps worse. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was slammed for “long-lasting historic underperformance.” The $1 billion International Organization of Migration (IOM), which manages refugee camps, among other things, “only fills a marginal gap in the international humanitarian architecture.” The $2.2 billion Food and Agriculture Organization, which the British government says has a “key role” to play on global food security issues, “does not adequately fulfill a critical role.”
Some of the mightier U.N. organizations, like the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP) and the World Health Organization, were deemed “critical” by the British in terms of their international role, but were rated merely “adequate” for their performance.
Others, like the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) –long a British favorite in the U.N. system–were given the nod as providing “good value for money,” but still criticized for their “weak” delivery of services and “weak” framework for producing results.
The most favorable British judgments came for UNICEF, which spends about $3.25 billion annually and has a “critical role” in delivering to combat poverty and other humanitarian objectives, and has greatly improved its focus on doing so. But even there, the government found room for additional improvement.
The reaction of U.N. organizations to the British shock tactics has been dismay—expressed as diplomatically as possible.
Kamdeh Yumkella, head of UNIDO, said he was “disappointed” by the British decision to withdraw funding, and claimed the review “undervalues” much of the agency’s contribution to British objectives and contained “inaccuracies.” The ILO declared that it “appreciates the commitment” of Britain to maximizing aid impact, before adding that it was “surprised by the conclusions.” A previous evaluation, the organization said, had recommended continuing support.The shock waves inspired by the British announcements may soon be followed by others.
Norway, for example, has long been one of the most reliable U.N. piggy-banks, giving a full 1 percent of its $380 billion GDP to foreign aid, often through U.N. channels. Its direct contributions to U.N. organizations are upwards of $900 million, not counting money channeled through U.N. affiliated development banks. It ranks as the U.N.’s sixth-largest donor.
Nonetheless, a spokesperson for the country’s development aid agency, Norad, told Fox News, “We are inspired by the new British review, and will look closely to see what lessons can be learned from it. Norway is a dear friend to the U.N. But it is important to be honest and let friends know when they don’t deliver what they promise.”
The chance to do that may come very soon. Norad this month is finalizing two separate studies on the U.N., including an analysis of how the world organization, in its sprawling array, spends its money. “If evaluations show that an organization performs badly,” the spokesperson said, “it will have consequences.” The evaluation would likely be released, she said, “in a couple of months.””
Straight from Fox News: “We are not alone in the universe — and alien life forms may have a lot more in common with life on Earth than we had previously thought.
That’s the stunning conclusion one NASA scientist has come to, releasing his groundbreaking revelations in a new study in the March edition of the Journal of Cosmology.
Dr. Richard B. Hoover, an astrobiologist with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, has traveled to remote areas in Antarctica, Siberia, and Alaska, amongst others, for over ten years now, collecting and studying meteorites. He gave FoxNews.com early access to the out-of-this-world research, published late Friday evening in the March edition of the Journal of Cosmology. In it, Hoover describes the latest findings in his study of an extremely rare class of meteorites, called CI1 carbonaceous chondrites — only nine such meteorites are known to exist on Earth.
Though it may be hard to swallow, Hoover is convinced that his findings reveal fossil evidence of bacterial life within such meteorites, the remains of living organisms from their parent bodies — comets, moons and other astral bodies. By extension, the findings suggest we are not alone in the universe, he said.
“I interpret it as indicating that life is more broadly distributed than restricted strictly to the planet earth,” Hoover told FoxNews.com. “This field of study has just barely been touched — because quite frankly, a great many scientist would say that this is impossible.”
In what he calls “a very simple process,” Dr. Hoover fractured the meteorite stones under a sterile environment before examining the freshly broken surface with the standard tools of the scientist: a scanning-electron microscope and a field emission electron-scanning microscope, which allowed him to search the stone’s surface for evidence of fossilized remains.
He found the fossilized remains of micro-organisms not so different from ordinary ones found underfoot — here on earth, that is.
“The exciting thing is that they are in many cases recognizable and can be associated very closely with the generic species here on earth,” Hoover told FoxNews.com. But not all of them. “There are some that are just very strange and don’t look like anything that I’ve been able to identify, and I’ve shown them to many other experts that have also come up stumped.”
Other scientists tell FoxNews.com the implications of this research are shocking, describing the findings variously as profound, very important and extraordinary. But Dr. David Marais, an astrobiologist with NASA’s AMES Research Center, says he’s very cautious about jumping onto the bandwagon.
These kinds of claims have been made before, he noted — and found to be false.
“It’s an extraordinary claim, and thus I’ll need extraordinary evidence,” Marais said.
Knowing that the study will be controversial, the journal invited members of the scientific community to analyze the results and to write critical commentaries ahead of time. Though none are online yet, those comments will be posted alongside the article, said Dr. Rudy Schild, a scientist with the Harvard-Smithsonian’s Center for Astrophysics and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Cosmology.
“Given the controversial nature of his discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5,000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis,” Schild wrote in an editor’s note along with the article. “No other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough vetting, and never before in the history of science has the scientific community been given the opportunity to critically analyze an important research paper before it is published, he wrote.”
Dr. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, said there is a lot of hesitancy to believe such proclamations. If true, the implications would be far-reaching throughout the fields of science and astronomy, the suggestions and possibilities stunning.
“Maybe life was seeded on earth — it developed on comets for example, and just landed here when these things were hitting the very early Earth,” Shostak speculated. “It would suggest, well, life didn’t really begin on the Earth, it began as the solar system was forming.”
Hesitancy to believe new claims is something common and necessary to the field of science, Hoover said.
“A lot of times it takes a long time before scientists start changing their mind as to what is valid and what is not. I’m sure there will be many many scientists that will be very skeptical and that’s OK.”
Until Hoover’s research can be independently verified, Marais said, the findings should be considered “a potential signature of life.” Scientists, he said, will now take the research to the next level of scrutiny, which includes an independent confirmation of the results by another lab, before the findings can be classified “a confirmed signature of life.”
Hoover says he isn’t worried about the process and is open to any other explanations.
“If someone can explain how it is possible to have a biological remain that has no nitrogen, or nitrogen below the detect ability limits that I have, in a time period as short as 150 years, then I would be very interested in hearing that.”
“I’ve talked with many scientists about this and no one has been able to explain,” he said.”
Straight from Fox News: “When the airline industry took a nose dive a decade ago, executives at global carriers scrambled to find a quick fix to avoid financial ruin.
What they came up with, according to federal prosecutors, was a massive price-fixing scheme among airlines that artificially inflated passenger and cargo fuel surcharges between 2000 and 2006 to make up for lost profits.
The airlines’ crimes cost U.S. consumers and businesses — mostly international passengers and cargo shippers — hundreds of millions of dollars, prosecutors say.
But the airlines caught by the Justice Department have paid a hefty price in the five years since the government’s widespread investigation became public.
To date, 19 executives have been charged with wrongdoing — four have gone to prison — and 21 airlines have coughed up more than $1.7 billion in fines in one of the largest criminal antitrust investigations in U.S. history.
The court cases reveal a complex web of schemes between mostly international carriers willing to fix fees in lockstep with competitors for flights to and from the United States.
Convicted airlines include British Airways, Korean Air, and Air France-KLM. No major U.S. carriers have been charged.
The price-fixing unraveled largely because two airlines decided to come clean and turn in their co-conspirators.
In late 2005, officials with German-based Lufthansa notified the Justice Department that the airline had been conspiring to set cargo surcharges. By Valentine’s Day 2006, FBI agents and their counterparts in Europe made the investigation public by raiding airline offices. After those raids, British-based Virgin Atlantic came forward about its role in a similar scheme to set fuel surcharges for passengers.
Investigators eventually found a detailed paper trail laying out agreements, stretching back to 2000, to set passenger and cargo fuel surcharges The probe expanded to airlines doing business between the U.S. and Europe, Asia, South America, and Australia.
The Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic mea culpas allowed them to take advantage of a Justice Department leniency program because they helped crack the conspiracies.
Former Associate Attorney General Kevin J. O’Connor, who oversaw Justice’s antitrust division in the late 2000s, said he doesn’t know why they confessed, but the result “demonstrates the effectiveness of that amnesty program.”
Now in private practice, O’Connor said companies that confess for amnesty may be wisely trying to limit liabilities from illegal conduct.
“Generally speaking, if they have an inkling they might get caught, they come in,” O’Connor said. “The theory might be that eventually these things will be exposed and why risk continuing.”
Federal prosecutors and investigators declined to discuss details of the cases because they are still investigating.
“Lufthansa Cargo fully cooperated with the investigation launched by DOJ,” Martin Riecken, Lufthansa’s director of corporate communications for the Americas said. Virgin Atlantic referred all questions to the Justice Department.
Airlines and executives who didn’t come forward were charged with violating the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Two former airline executives were sentenced to six months in prison; two others were ordered to prison for eight months. Charges are pending against 15 executives, nine of whom are considered fugitives.
Bruce McCaffrey, one-time vice president of freight for the Americas at the Australian carrier Qantas, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to restrain trade. He was sentenced to six months in prison in 2008. He admitted working with other airlines to fix cargo fuel surcharges between 2000 and 2006.
Keith H. Packer, a former senior manager of sales and marketing for British Airways, pleaded to conspiracy to restrain trade and was sentenced to eight months in prison in 2008. He admitted joining the cargo conspiracy in 2002 and participating until February 2006.
British Airways and Korean Air pleaded guilty to violating the Sherman act; each was fined $300 million in August 2007.
British Airways admitted fixing cargo surcharges from 2002 to 2006 and passenger fuel surcharges from 2004 to 2006. Korean Air admitted fixing cargo and passenger surcharges from 2000 to 2006.
Announcing four guilty pleas in June 2008, O’Connor said the case “conservatively, has affected billions of dollars of shipments. Estimates suggest that the harm to American consumers and businesses from this conspiracy is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“As an example of the impact of the conspiracy, fuel surcharges imposed by some of the conspirators rose by as much as 1,000 percent during the conspiracy, far outpacing any percentage increases in fuel costs that existed during the same time period,” O’Connor said.
In one of several lawsuits by passengers and cargo shippers now being heard in a California federal court, San Francisco-based lawyer Christopher Lebsock and others allege airline officials routinely gathered at industry meetings to discuss fuel costs and how to make up losses.
Lebsock said they agreed to add or increase the fuel surcharges that are tacked onto passenger fares and cargo fees.
“We have seen in public documents that they were concerned and wanted to raise revenue to offset the increasing price in fuel,” Lebsock said.
According to published notes of an October 2005 meeting of airline representatives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a host of executives openly spoke about surcharges already in place. One official, identified in meeting minutes only by the initials” GF,” suggested the group create “a subcommittee to study this subject and come up with a joint proposal.”
According to published notes of another meeting of airline representatives in Saudi Arabia in September 2004, “the participants agreed to make uniform policy for such (insurance and fuel) surcharges to be applied.”
Not all airline officials at these meetings agreed to join the conspiracies.
During a 2004 industry meeting in Thailand, executives from U.S. based-United Airlines and Northwest Airlines left the meeting when others started discussing setting fares and fuel surcharges, according to a court filing by lawyers in one class action suit.
Warren Gerig, an international manager for United when he walked out of that meeting, declined to discuss the case. The Northwest executive was identified only as Sarathool M. and could not be reached.
While meeting notes make it appear the discussions were open to anyone who accidently walked into the wrong ballroom, Lebsock and Justice officials believe executives were more careful to hide their activities.
“My sense is they weren’t really open to the public,” Lebsock said. “They weren’t that stupid.”
Lebsock said documents obtained in pretrial discovery make clear that many surcharge discussions carried over from large group meetings around the world to more private office settings and e-mail discussions
According to one passenger lawsuit, several Asian airlines — including Cathay Pacific Airways, Japan Airlines, and All Nippon Airways — confined many discussions to phone calls and e-mails. Lebsock said evidence shows some airline executives tried to hide or destroy incriminating documents and e-mails.
Lebsock believes the conspiracies were so well hidden that it’s possible they would have continued undetected had Lufthansa not come forward.
“In the absence of someone coming forward, and ratting it out, it is very, very difficult to establish that there was a (conspiracy),” Lebsock said.”