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Monday, December 13 Nine Circles of Hell!
The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – for Monday, December 13, including a bonus story on Wikileaks concerning Israel, are:
50-year cholera epidemic now killing Haitians
Haiti not the first stop for cholera strain that’s killed 2,000
The cholera outbreak ravaging Haiti is part of a worldwide pandemic that began 50 years ago and should be easy to stop — with technology developed in the 1800s.
Haiti’s poor sanitation system, however, makes it vulnerable to a disease that first swept the United States and other parts of the world more than 150 years ago. The current global wave of cholera — the seventh in recorded history — made its way from Asia to Africa then Latin America, and is now back for its second strike at this hemisphere.
But as other countries in the region slowed the disease in its tracks by developing better sanitation and medical response systems, Haiti was blindsided by an organism not seen in the Caribbean since 1850 and that may have been introduced there by Nepalese troops serving as United Nations peacekeepers.
If history is a guide, the outbreak that has already killed at least 2,000 people in Haiti could take thousands more lives there over the next several years before it is contained, experts said. The disease has stricken perhaps 100,000 people, and U.N. officials say both the number of dead and ill may have been under-reported …
For years, the acute intestinal bacterial infection ravaged entire cities, killing 25 percent of its victims, many of them within hours.
“Cholera is still a regular feature of life in many parts of the developing world,” said Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases.
“In the 19th Century, it was a regular feature of life everywhere” …
Today, cholera sickens three million to five million people a year, killing up to 130,000 of them, said Peter Hotez, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, who wrote the book Forgotten People, Forgotten Diseases.
“It’s one of the fastest killers around,” Hotez said. “It produces toxins that damage the intestines and takes all the water out of a person’s body. A healthy individual can be practically at death’s door in a very short amount of time. It’s every bit as important as HIV, but has become one of those forgotten diseases.”
The chief symptom, Hotez said: “diarrhea from hell.”
In most countries, about 1 percent of the sick die. In Haiti, the death rate is 4 percent, suggesting that either patients are waiting too long to seek help or authorities have not managed to get adequate treatment and hydration supplies where they are most needed, experts said.
The current pandemic was first detected in 1961, Tauxe said. It languished in Asia for 10 years, and then spent a decade wreaking havoc in Africa.
“It affected almost all the inhabited world, except for maybe Australia,” said Tauxe, who began working on the disease in 1984. “We started waiting, thinking: When is it going to arrive in the West?”
The answer: January 1991, when cholera came to Chancay, a small village near Lima, Peru. It spread through Latin America and took a decade to contain. Sometimes dozens of passengers from South American flights would arrive in the United States sick.
“It was severe. It came to every country in Latin America except Paraguay and Uruguay,” said University of California anthropologist Charles Briggs, author of the book Stories in the Time of Cholera, which chronicled the epidemic’s toll among the indigenous people of Venezuela.
Experts agree that cholera is wildly unpredictable. When the disease swept Latin America, sickening a million people in the first five years, the Caribbean was left unscathed.
“The Caribbean braced for it — and it didn’t come even though people were dying in Venezuela, just seven miles from Trinidad.”
That’s one of the reasons Haiti was so unprepared for the current outbreak. While Peruvian doctors, like those in Bangladesh, became world masters at treatment, Haiti’s health corps had virtually no training in the disease, experts said.
“Cholera in this millennium should kill no one,” Briggs said. “It is easily prevented with clean water and easily treated with IVs. Cholera is still one of the clearest, most persistent and most repugnant ways to demonstrate the gaps between the haves and the have-nots.”
Where the ‘war on terror’ is at war with the ‘war on drugs’
The New York Times
Propping Up a Drug Lord, Then Arresting Him
When Hajji Juma Khan was arrested and transported to New York to face charges under a new American narco-terrorism law in 2008, federal prosecutors described him as perhaps the biggest and most dangerous drug lord in Afghanistan, a shadowy figure who had helped keep the Taliban in business with a steady stream of money and weapons.
But what the government did not say was that Mr. Juma Khan was also a longtime American informer, who provided information about the Taliban, Afghan corruption and other drug traffickers. Central Intelligence Agency officers and Drug Enforcement Administration agents relied on him as a valued source for years, even as he was building one of Afghanistan’s biggest drug operations after the United States-led invasion of the country, according to current and former American officials. Along the way, he was also paid a large amount of cash by the United States.
At the height of his power, Mr. Juma Khan was secretly flown to Washington for a series of clandestine meetings with C.I.A. and D.E.A. officials in 2006. Even then, the United States was receiving reports that he was on his way to becoming Afghanistan’s most important narcotics trafficker by taking over the drug operations of his rivals and paying off Taliban leaders and corrupt politicians in President Hamid Karzai’s government.
In a series of videotaped meetings in Washington hotels, Mr. Juma Khan offered tantalizing leads to the C.I.A. and D.E.A., in return for what he hoped would be protected status as an American asset, according to American officials. And then, before he left the United States, he took a side trip to New York to see the sights and do some shopping, according to two people briefed on the case.
The relationship between the United States government and Mr. Juma Khan is another illustration of how the war on drugs and the war on terrorism have sometimes collided, particularly in Afghanistan, where drug dealing, the insurgency and the government often overlap.
To be sure, American intelligence has worked closely with figures other than Mr. Juma Khan suspected of drug trade ties, including Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half brother, and Hajji Bashir Noorzai, who was arrested in 2005. Mr. Karzai has denied being involved in the drug trade.
Afghan drug lords have often been useful sources of information about the Taliban. But relying on them has also put the United States in the position of looking the other way as these informers ply their trade in a country that by many accounts has become a narco-state …
When asked about Mr. Juma Khan’s relationship with the C.I.A., a spokesman for the spy agency said that the “C.I.A. does not, as a rule, comment on matters pending before U.S. courts.” A D.E.A. spokesman also declined to comment on his agency’s relationship with Mr. Juma Khan.
His New York lawyer, Steven Zissou, denied that Mr. Juma Khan had ever supported the Taliban or worked for the C.I.A.
“There have been many things said about Hajji Juma Khan,” Mr. Zissou said, “and most of what has been said, including that he worked for the C.I.A., is false. What is true is that H. J. K. has never been an enemy of the United States and has never supported the Taliban or any other group that threatens Americans.”
A spokeswoman for the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which is handling Mr. Juma Khan’s prosecution, declined to comment.
However, defending the relationship, one American official said, “You’re not going to get intelligence in a war zone from Ward Cleaver or Florence Nightingale” …
The Justice Department has used a 2006 narco-terrorism law against Mr. Juma Khan, one that makes it easier for American prosecutors to go after foreign drug traffickers who are not smuggling directly into the United States if the government can show they have ties to terrorist organizations.
The federal indictment shows that the drug agency eventually got a cooperating informer who could provide evidence that Mr. Juma Khan was making payoffs to the Taliban to keep his drug operation going, something intelligence operatives had known for years.
The federal indictment against Mr. Juma Khan said the payments were “in exchange for protection for the organization’s drug trafficking operations.” The alleged payoffs were what linked him to the Taliban and permitted the government to make its case.
But even some current and former American counternarcotics officials are skeptical of the government’s claims that Mr. Juma Khan was a strong supporter of the Taliban.
“He was not ideological,” one former official said. “He made payments to them. He made payments to government officials. It was part of the business.”
Now, plea negotiations are quietly under way. A plea bargain might keep many of the details of his relationship to the United States out of the public record.
US aid fails as half of Afghans face not getting enough to eat
$52bn of American aid and still Afghans are dying of starvation
Past This is Hell! guest Patrick Cockburn writes …
The most extraordinary failure of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan is that the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars has had so little impact on the misery in which 30 million Afghans live. As President Barack Obama prepares this week to present a review of America’s strategy in Afghanistan which is likely to focus on military progress, US officials, Afghan administrators, businessmen and aid workers insist that corruption is the greatest threat to the country’s future.
In a series of interviews, they paint a picture of a country where $52bn (£33bn) in US aid since 2001 has made almost no impression on devastating poverty made worse by spreading violence and an economy dislocated by war. That enormous aid budget, two-thirds for security and one-third for economic, social and political development, has made little impact on 9 million living in absolute poverty, and another 5 million trying to survive on $43 (£27) a month. The remainder of the population often barely scrapes a living, having to choose between buying wood to keep warm and buying food.
Afghans see a racketeering élite as the main beneficiaries of international support and few of them are optimistic about anything changing. “Things look all right to foreigners but in fact people are dying of starvation in Kabul,” says Abdul Qudus, a man in his forties with a deeply lined face, who sells second-hand clothes and shoes on a street corner in the capital. They are little more than rags, lying on display on the half-frozen mud …
US officials admit privately that the torrent of aid money that has poured into Afghanistan has stoked corruption and done ordinary Afghans little good. Afghanistan was identified as the third most corrupt country out of 178 in the world in a report released last week by Transparency International …
Afghan and Americans who have overseen aid projects agree that the “quick fix” approach has been disastrous. Schools are equipped with computers in districts where there is no electric power or fresh water.
The flood of money has had little success in reducing economic hardship. “It has all messed up into one big soup,” says Karolina Olofsson, head of advocacy and communication for the Afghan NGO Integrity Watch Afghanistan. Aid organisations are judged by the amount of money they spend rather than any productive outcome, she says.
“The US has a highly capitalist approach and seeks to deliver aid through private companies,” she says. “It does not like to use NGOs which its officials consider too idealistic.”
Big contracts are given to large US companies that are used to a complicated bidding process, can produce appropriate paperwork, and are well connected in Washington. The problem is that much of Afghanistan is far too dangerous for these companies to carry out work themselves or monitor subcontractors …
As winter approaches, half of Afghans face not getting enough to eat, according to the US Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
Heavily contaminated Chernobyl opening to tourism in 2011
Chernobyl: now open to tourists
From next year the heavily contaminated area around the Chernobyl power plant will be officially open to tourists with an interest in post-apocalyptic vistas, late-period Soviet history, or both.
Ukraine’s emergency situations ministry said today that visitors would be offered tours inside the 30-mile exclusion zone set up after reactor four at the plant exploded on 26 April 1986, showering northern Europe in radioactive fallout.
The disaster killed an unknown number of people – estimates for deaths from radiation exposure range from dozens to thousands – and forced around 350,000 people to leave their homes forever.
While the area remains heavily contaminated, a ministry spokeswoman said, tourism routes had been drawn up which would cover the main sights while steering clear of the dangerous spots …
It is already possible to visit the area with private tour firms, usually operating from Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, 60 miles south. The country’s government, however, says these are illegal and tourists’ safety cannot be guaranteed.
The itinerary of one such tour, which takes in the nuclear plant and even the remains of the number four reactor, contains elements as lunch (food is delivered from outside of the Chernobyl zone), passage through the Dytyatky control point and measuring of radiation.
Apart from seeing the remnants of one of the late 20th century’s most dramatic events, trips to the exclusion zone offer visitors a peek into a macabre, Marie Celeste world where tens of thousands of homes were abandoned. Particularly chilling is Prypyat, once a 50,000-strong city but now a ghost town, where books still sit on school desks and May Day decorations flutter in the streets.
The plant itself, which kept generating power until 2000, still has 2,500 staff making the site safe, working in strict shifts to minimise radiation exposure.
America’s embarrassing alliance with Azerbaijan
The US Befriends Azerbaijan’s Corrupt Elite
The women had dressed up for the special evening. The wife and two daughters of Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, were awaiting the arrival of Lynne Cheney, the wife of then-US Vice President Dick Cheney. She had accompanied her husband on a state visit to the country in September 2008 — and it was time for the evening meal.
Bodyguards and diplomats from the US Embassy in the capital Baku were also waiting for the guests. They wanted to keep an eye on Aliyev’s family — particularly the influential first lady, Mehriban. But which of the three women was she?
Mehriban and her daughters, the Americans knew, are very fashion-conscious and don’t shy away from a bit of provocative evening wear. Making things more difficult, US diplomats noted, was the fact that Azerbaijan’s first lady is thought to have undergone cosmetic surgery more than once. Since then, they note in a dispatch to Washington, she looks quite a bit younger, but can hardly move her face. Finally, one said: “Well, logically the mother would probably stand in the middle.”
The account of the encounter is included in a secret memo from the US Embassy in Baku — and reads like a sarcastic description from US diplomats who feel like they are stranded in some banana republic in the middle of nowhere.
But the reality is very different. Azerbaijan, which lies in the Caspian basin and has a population of 9 million, is one of the US’s strategic energy partners, despite being located within Russia’s sphere of influence. The country boasts proven energy reserves of roughly 7 billion barrels of oil and 1.3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. Millions of barrels of these natural resources flow to the West each year via a pipeline connecting the Azerbaijani capital with Ceyhan, a Turkish port on the Mediterranean Sea.
The Cheneys were in Baku to befriend the Aliyevs in exactly the same way that Richard Morningstar, US special envoy for Caspian energy development, has been doing in the Obama era. Morningstar already served under former President Bill Clinton, who recognized Azerbaijan’s strategic importance back in the 1990s. Morningstar helped shape the vision of the €2.5 billion ($3.4 billion) Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. The Americans even sent experts to show the Azerbaijanis how to protect, for example, the underwater sections of the expensive pipeline from saboteurs.
The “Great Game” is what the 19th century battle between the British and the Russians over Central Asian influence was called. These days, the Americans are also on the frontlines of this battle — and the potential rewards are much larger. Unfortunately, as the State Department’s classified documents make clear, the price that American diplomats have to pay is also much greater.
Like the other oil-producing countries around the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is an embarrassing partner to have. The country’s corrupt institutions are unable to deal with the oil boom and the billions of dollars it brings into the county, while the average annual growth rate of almost 15 percent is a much higher priority than enforcing and improving law and order. Independent media outlets are restricted, and dissidents are violently suppressed. Shortly before his death, Heydar Aliyev, the dictator who ruled Azerbaijan from 1993 to 2003, naturally handed over power to his son Ilham, who does things exactly the way his father did …
The American documents leave no doubt that the diplomats know exactly who they are courting. Cables bear titles like “Who owns what?” in which they provide portraits of the country’s most powerful families. “Observers in Baku often note that today’s Azerbaijan is run in a manner similar to the feudalism found in Europe during the Middle Ages,” one such cable reads. “A handful of well-connected families control certain geographic areas, as well as certain sectors of the economy.”
The memo continues: “By and large, this seems to be the case, with general agreement among leading families to divide the spoils and not disturb one another’s areas of business or geographic control. The families also collude … to keep out foreign competitors” …
While a few Azerbaijani clans are getting richer and richer, thanks to all the dollars pouring into the country, the rest of the population is barely scraping by. Over 40 percent of the country’s inhabitants are living in poverty; the average monthly income is just €24. As Lala Shevkat, the leader of the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan, says: “Oil is our tragedy.”
The Americans, however, have not let such problems frighten them away. On the contrary, they are even pushing for greater cooperation on security. Following the visit of an American envoy to Baku, one diplomat noted with satisfaction that he “underscored to President Aliyev the value that the US government attached to the relationship with Azerbaijan.”
Australia freaking out about coming Middle East nuclear war
Australia feared Israeli strike on Iran could spark nuclear war, WikiLeaks cables reveal
Australian intelligence agencies feared that Israel may attack Iran and that such an attack could set off a nuclear war in the Middle East, the Australian newspaper The Age reported on Monday.
The report, based on cables released by WikiLeaks and provided exclusively to The Age, said that Australian intelligence believed that Iran’s nuclear program was intended for deterrence and that viewing Iran as a rogue state would be a mistake.
”The AIC’s [Australian intelligence community's] leading concerns with respect to Iran’s nuclear ambitions center on understanding the time frame of a possible weapons capability, and working with the United States to prevent Israel from independently launching uncoordinated military strikes against Iran,” a cable sent to Washington last March from the U.S. embassy in Canberra read.
”They are immediately concerned that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities would lead to a conventional war – or even nuclear exchange – in the Middle East involving the United States that would draw Australia into a conflict.”
Another leaked U.S. cable, this one from July 2008, showed that former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was “deeply worried” that Iran’s intransigence on its disputed nuclear program meant that Israel might feel compelled to use “non-diplomatic” means.
In December 2008, then chief of the Australian intelligence agency ONA Peter Varghese held a meeting with U.S. State Department official Randall Fort. According to a leaked U.S. cable on the meeting, Varghese said that the ONA was telling the Australian government that it would be a mistake to consider Iran to be a rogue state …
Another cable shows that in March 2009 the U.S. embassy reported to Washington that Australia was concerned that nuclear proliferation in the Middle East could prompt southeast Asian countries to pursue nuclear capabilities that would pose a threat to Australia.
- If you missed it, Salon.com reported, “Don’t trust Israel on Iran.” Justin Elliott’s work at Salon.com is worth checking out:
A couple of items from the WikiLeaks trove suggest that State Depatment officials do not take particularly seriously Israeli predictions about when Iran will obtain a nuclear weapon.
That’s because those predictions are so often wrong.
US helped Nazis avoid justice more than earlier reported
The New York Times
Declassified Papers Show U.S. Recruited Ex-Nazis
After World War II, American counterintelligence recruited former Gestapo officers, SS veterans and Nazi collaborators to an even greater extent than had been previously disclosed and helped many of them avoid prosecution or looked the other way when they escaped, according to thousands of newly declassified documents.
With the Soviet Union muscling in on Eastern Europe, “settling scores with Germans or German collaborators seemed less pressing; in some cases, it even appeared counterproductive,” said a government report published Friday by the National Archives.
“When the Klaus Barbie story broke, about his escaping with American help to Bolivia, we thought there weren’t any more stories like that, that Barbie was an exception,” said Norman J. W. Goda, a University of Florida professor and co-author of the report with Professor Richard Breitman of American University. “What we found in the record is that there were a fair number, and that it seems more systematic” …
The report, “Hitler’s Shadow: Nazi War Criminals, U.S. Intelligence and the Cold War,” grew out of an interagency group created by Congress to identify, declassify and release federal records on Nazi war crimes and on Allied efforts to hold war criminals accountable. It is drawn from a sampling of 1,100 C.I.A files and 1.2 million Army counterintelligence files that were not declassified until after the group issued its final report in 2007.
“Hitler’s Shadow” adds a further dimension to a separate Justice Department history of American Nazi-hunting operations, which the government has refused to release since 2006 and which concluded that American intelligence officials created a “safe haven” in the United States for certain other former Nazis.
Like earlier reports generated by the group, this one paints a grim portrait of bureaucracy, turf wars and communication gaps among intelligence agencies. It also details blatantly cynical self-interested tactical decisions by Allied governments and a general predisposition that some war crimes by former Nazis and their collaborators should be overlooked because the suspects could be transformed into valuable assets in the more urgent undercover campaigns against Soviet aggression.
The American intelligence effort to infiltrate the East German Communist Party was dubbed “Project Happiness.”
“Tracking and punishing war criminals were not high among the Army’s priorities in late 1946,” the report says. Instead, it concludes that the Army’s Counterintelligence Corps spied on suspect groups ranging from German Communists to politically active Jewish refugees in camps for displaced people and also “went to some lengths to protect certain persons from justice” …
The report cites other cases that parallel the experience of Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon. He cooperated with American intelligence agents who helped him flee to Argentina …
In 1952, the report says, the C.I.A. moved to protect Mykola Lebed, a Ukrainian nationalist leader, from a criminal investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He would work for American intelligence in Europe and the United States through the 1980s, despite being implicated in guerrilla units during the war that killed Jews and Poles and being described by an Army counterintelligence report as a “well-known sadist and collaborator of the Germans.”
Banned cellphones fuel “organic” peaceful prison protest
The New York Times
Prisoners Strike in Georgia
In a protest apparently assembled largely through a network of banned cellphones, inmates across at least six prisons in Georgia have been on strike since Thursday, calling for better conditions and compensation, several inmates and an outside advocate said.
Inmates have refused to leave their cells or perform their jobs, in a demonstration that seems to transcend racial and gang factions that do not often cooperate.
“Their general rage found a home among them — common ground — and they set aside their differences to make an incredible statement,” said Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther leader who has taken up the inmates’ cause. She said that different factions’ leaders recruited members to participate, but the movement lacks a definitive torchbearer.
Ms. Brown said thousands of inmates were participating in the strike.
The Georgia Department of Corrections could not be reached for comment Saturday night.
“We’re not coming out until something is done. We’re not going to work until something is done,” said one inmate at Rogers State Prison in Reidsville. He refused to give his name because he was speaking on a banned cellphone.
Several inmates, who used cellphones to call The Times from their cells, said they found out about the protest from text messages and did not know whether specific individuals were behind it.
“This is a pretty much organic effort on their part,” said Ms. Brown, a longtime prisoner advocate, who distilled the inmates’ complaints into a list of demands. “They did it, and then they reached out to me.” Ms. Brown, the founder of the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform in Locust Grove, Ga., said she has spoken to more than 200 prisoners over the past two days.
The Corrections Department placed several of the facilities where inmates planned to strike under indefinite lockdown on Thursday, according to local reports.
“We’re hearing in the news they’re putting it down as we’re starting a riot, so they locked all the prison down,” said a 20-year-old inmate at Hays State Prison in Trion, who also refused to give his name. But, he said, “We locked ourselves down.”
Supernova of Bethlehem, Christ’s Spring birth, and parthenogenesis
The Science of Christmas: the First Noel
Virgin birth, the star over Bethlehem – you know the story. But does it have a basis in scientific fact? We take a look.
The Star of Bethlehem …
Two possible explanations are: a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, which would have taken place about 2BC, and would have appeared as a single bright star; and a supernova, which was recorded by Chinese astronomers in 5BC. Since it turns out that King Herod, in whose reign Christ was supposed to have been born, died in the spring of 4BC, we can probably rule out the planetary conjunction theory.
So, you heard it here first: the Star of Bethlehem, if it really happened, was, probably, a supernova. Or a divine miracle, obviously.
If the planetary-conjunction hypothesis is correct (we know we’re suggesting it’s not, but bear with us), we can put an exact date on Jesus’s birth – 17 June, 2BC. Which would make Jesus a Gemini. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, King Herod, who plays a significant part in the story, was almost certainly dead by then.
The more plausible supernova hypothesis places Christ’s birth in March or April 5BC, making Jesus either Pisces, Aries or Taurus.
Virgin birth (parthenogenesis) …
… parthenogenesis does happen in the animal world. Insects do it all the time, notably some species of bees and wasps, as do various crustaceans and molluscs. Further up the complexity scale, sharks and some reptiles – including the mighty Komodo dragon and boa constrictor – have been known to give birth without the input of a male. At least one species of lizards, the New Mexico whiptail, has no males at all.
Among our fellow mammals, alas, it doesn’t happen, at least not in nature, although it has been induced in the laboratory. But if the Virgin Mary was a Komodo dragon – which the New Testament at no stage denies – the story is entirely plausible.