Global Notebook 8-17-05


UK to test RFID-tagged license plates

LONDON – Tracking of vehicles with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on licenses is about to be tested in Great Britain, and the U.S. government and businesses are watching closely as they consider the idea, Wired magazine reported last week. The high-tech license plates will contain microchips capable of transmitting unique vehicle identification numbers and other data to readers more than 300 feet away.

"We definitely have an interest in testing an RFID-tagged license plate," said Jerry Dike, chairman of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and director of the Vehicle Titles and Registration Division of the Texas Department of Transportation.

The U.K. Department for Transport gave the official go-ahead last week, and the trial is expected to begin later this year. But the government has been tight-lipped about the details.

So-called "active" RFID tags have built-in batteries, allowing them to broadcast data much farther than the small, passive tags used to track inventory at retail stores. The tags are already in limited use on U.S. roadways, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is issuing them to foreign freight and passenger vehicles as they enter the country.

The technology is also used in U.S. electronic toll-collection systems to automatically charge participating drivers who use unstaffed toll booths. In the San Francisco Bay Area, FasTrak toll transponders determine how quickly traffic is moving.

Proponents argue that making RFID tags mandatory is not only a logical move to guard against terrorists using the roadways, but also will help to catch insurance and registration scofflaws. However, since RFID plates can cost 10 times more than ordinary plates, the idea will need strong support from governors and state legislatures.

Privacy advocates like Jim Harper, director of information studies at libertarian Cato Institute and a member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee, warn that, "It’s too easy for (RFID license plates) to become a back-door surveillance tool." 

Civil libertarians don’t oppose an RFID automatic toll-collection system that guarantees anonymity, but doubt that the government will accept privacy protection measures. From a law enforcement perspective, "there is no reason to have privacy for anything," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

IMF and EU blamed for Niger starvation

NIAMEY – As shipments of emergency aid reach feeding centers in Niger, some aid specialists are blaming the economic policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Union (EU) for food shortages affecting up to 3 million people.

Johanne Sekkenes, who leads the efforts of Doctors Without Borders in Niger, has told The Independent, a British daily, that the current emergency could have been avoided. “This is not a famine in the Somalian way,” she explained. “The harvest was bad in 2004 and the millet granaries are empty. Yet there is food on the markets. The trouble is that the price of the food is beyond anyone’s reach.

The IMF and EU pressed Niger too hard to implement a structural adjustment program, she added. “No sooner had the government been re-elected [this year] than it was obliged to introduce 19 percent VAT [value-added tax] on basic foodstuffs. At the same time, as part of the policy, emergency grain reserves were abolished.”

Thomas C. Dawson, the IMF’s director of external relations, strongly objected to that characterization. In a letter to The Independent, he said ,”The IMF has never supported or encouraged the abolition of government grain reserves. In fact, the grain reserve is in place and has been used, to the best of our knowledge, to relieve the current food shortage.”

Niger‘s government and IMF staff did consider “steps to expand agricultural production” and expand the VAT to include milk, sugar, and flour, he acknowledged. “IMF staff specifically recommended that a poverty-impact assessment of the proposed measures be carried out. At any rate, the VAT extension was soon rescinded because of public protests and could have had little effect on the crisis,” he said. 

International agencies say the price of basic foodstuffs has risen between 75 and 89 percent over the past five years. During the same period, the sale price of livestock, the main income source for nomadic herders, has fallen by about 25 percent. Although the food emergency has been building since last autumn, when rains ended early and several towns of were hit by locust invasions that devoured crops, significant aid shipments began only in August.

“Rock concerts are all very well,” said former French health minister Bernard Kouchner, who recently visited the disaster area. “But while the bands were playing people were dying in Niger because there is never enough planning.” After a three-day visit, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy denounced the “sick avarice of rich countries, the lack of prevention and vision from the international community.”

Niger, a former French colony and the world’s third-largest uranium producer, has one of the most fragile economies in the world. Situated north of Nigeria, the Muslim country has a population of about 11 million and one of the highest birth rates in the world.

Last autumn, a first call for funds for Niger by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) garnered no pledges. In July, hoping to capitalize on the African focus of the G8 summit, the WFP renewed its call, requesting $30 million. Donors came up with one-third of that.

Iran, Venezuela discuss oil embargo

TEHRAN – "Oil is the lifeline of the West, and most of the West’s military industries are dependent on it,” the Tehran Times suggested in an editorial last week. Irritated by a recent resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that called for a halt to Iran‘s uranium conversion program, the newspaper suggested that oil-rich states form a united front and use oil as a tool to confront "western neocolonialist countries."

In Venezuela, Pres. Hugo Chavez has taken the idea a step further, threatening to halt oil exports if alleged attacks on his country continue, according to Agence France Press. Appearing last week as a witness at a symbolic “anti-imperialist court” in Caracas, Chavez said, “Washington‘s molestation may cause more serious problems; our two oil tankers going to the U.S. everyday may go to another country.” He added that the “Northern America market is not compulsory for us.” Venezuela exports 1.5 million barrels of oil to the United States daily.

According to the Islamic Republic News Agency, the Iranian newspaper’s editorial described oil as “the most potent economic weapon for settling scores,” and suggested an embargo on oil sales to the United States and European countries that are pressuring Iran to end its nuclear program. It also criticized what it sees as a double standard, noting that Israel, Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons, and that most of them have conducted tests.

In an interview with an Israeli TV station from his Texas ranch, Pres. Bush expressed doubts that the European Union’s diplomatic initiative to defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear activities would succeed, and refused to rule out the use of force. "All options are on the table," he said.

Israel has been prodding Washington to get tougher, charging that Iran resumed its nuclear activities because it sensed the "weakness" of the international community. "Iran made this decision because they are getting the impression that the United States and the Europeans are spineless," a senior official from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office told Agence France Press.

The IAEA’s resolution expressed "serious concern" at Iran‘s resumption of uranium conversion and set a Sept. 3 deadline for its report on the country’s compliance. “We want diplomacy to work,” Bush commented, “and, you know, we will see if we are successful or not. As you know, I’m skeptical."

Nebraska joins Cuba trade push

HAVANA – Arriving in Cuba on Aug. 14 with a delegation of a dozen business people, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said that his state hopes to normalize relations with the island nation. The group was invited by Pedro Alvarez, director of the Cuban Importing Company Alimport.

Alvarez noted that, despite of the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba, 34 states are trying to establish commercial links and the presence of U.S. business people and personalities increases everyday. Prensa Latina reports. A Vermont delegation visited the country a few days before Heineman’s group arrived.


Pentagon’s 9/11 walk gets media push

WASHINGTON – On the morning of Sept. 11, the Defense Department will stage a Freedom Walk from the Pentagon to the Mall near the Reflecting Pool, where a performance by country music star Clint Black will be broadcast to troops overseas. Some of the event’s co-sponsors are no surprise: Lockheed Martin, Subway, and the Washington Convention and Tourism Corp. But the donation of public service announcement by the Washington Post, WTOP radio, WJLA-TV, and News Channel 8 has drawn fire from anti-war activists.

"No common person will see this as not taking sides in this war," Adam Eidinger, a promoter of Operation Ceasefire, an anti-war concert planned for September, told the Post. "This is clearly support for the war because it’s being organized by the U.S. military."

The Pentagon has held previous 9/11 events, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Communications Allison Barber told he paper. "It’s to commemorate the victims of 9/11. It’s to honor our veterans past and present," she said.

In an article on the dispute, titled "Antiwar Activists Decry Media’s Role in Promoting Pentagon Event," the Post explained in its self-coverage that the media organizations drew a distinction between supporting the troops and supporting the war policy. They also reported that the sponsorships emanated from the corporate sides of the companies, not the newsroom.

"Our interest in the event is consistent with our past support of causes related to the victims of Sept. 11 and the veterans of wars past and present," said Eric Grant, spokesman for the Post. "The event was never presented to the Post as a rally to support the war. We would be disappointed if it took that approach."

Walk participants will have to register with the Pentagon via the department’s website. Barber said that requirement is only to give planners an idea of the crowd size for logistics and security.

Democrats get tough on defense

WASHINGTON – A new consensus is emerging among leading Democrats: Winning congressional and presidential races in the post-9/11 world requires candidates who are willing to use military might and keep the nation safe. The emerging strategy is to support a more aggressive foreign policy that focuses on threats being neglected by the Bush administration, but avoid taking a contentious stance on Iraq, according to an analysis published in the Boston Globe last week.

Even Democrats associated with liberal positions are calling for a larger military, proposing that threats of force be used to stop nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea, and pressing for potential military intervention to ease famine and oppression, according to the analysis.

Despite pressure from some liberal groups for a quick exit from Iraq, several of the party’s White House aspirants and congressional leaders have called for intensified efforts to stabilize the nation before troops come home.

“Having the strongest military in the world is the first step, but we also have to have a strong commitment to using our military in smart ways that further peace, stability, and security around the world," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY, argued last month at the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in Columbus, OH. Clinton, a possible 2008 presidential contender, has called for adding 80,000 troops to the armed services.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden, D-DE, also a potential presidential candidate, has laid out a doctrine of rebuilding alliances while making clear that “force will be used – without asking anyone’s permission – when circumstances warrant.”

The new message has grown out of a series of party caucuses, conferences on national security, and polling by Democratic think tanks. “If you’re not credible on security, it doesn’t matter if you have better ideas on health care and education and everything else," explained Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. 

Liberal groups such as are urging an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, while Howard Dean has mostly remained silent on foreign affairs since becoming chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

The top Democrats in the House and Senate issued a report in July that criticized Bush administration efforts to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. The report called for the United States to engage in more direct negotiations with Iran and North Korea, and for such talks to be reinforced with military pressure, including “the possibility of repeated and unwarned strikes.”

At the DLC convention Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, noted that John Kerry lost the presidential race in 2004 primarily “because we did not have a compelling national-security message." He urged Democrats to return to the foreign policy visions of Democratic presidents Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy. “We must be prepared to strategically use our military, as a party, for good, and against other transnational threats in addition to the threat of terrorism," he said.

Study: Lies can aid weight loss

IRVINE, CA – Dieters have tried drugs, surgery, exercise, counseling, creams and even electrical fat-burning belts to lose weight. Now psychologists have a new idea – lying.

According to an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of scientists led by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, successfully created aversions in patients to sweets like strawberry ice cream by tricking them into believing it made them sick when they were kids. The scientists also planted positive memories about nutritious foods like asparagus.

If perfected, the method could induce people to eat less of what they shouldn’t eat and more of what they should, Loftus said. Good memories about fruits and vegetables could be implanted, along with bad ones about low-nutrient, high-calorie foods.

Weight control experts are expressing interest, but Stephen Behnke, director of the ethics office of the American Psychological Association, says that addressing the unhealthful aspects of the U.S. diet requires a holistic cultural approach. Implanting false memories "raises profound ethical questions," he told the Organic Consumers Association.

Loftus acknowledged the ethical issues, but noted, "People kind of cringe at the idea that anyone would suggest that they lie to their children, but they do it all the time when they tell them Santa Claus exists."

Detroit crowned most liberal city

BERKELEY, CA – An examination of voting patterns in 237 U.S. cities with populations of more than 100,000 has revealed that Detroit is the most liberal, while Provo, UT, is the most conservative. "Detroit and Provo epitomize America‘s political, economic and racial polarization," explained Jason Alderman, director of the Bay Area Center for Voting Research in California, which compiled the data and developed the list.

"As the most conservative city in America, Provo is overwhelmingly white and solidly middle class. This is in stark contrast to Detroit, which is impoverished, black and the most liberal," Alderman said.

The second most liberal city was Gary, IN, followed by Berkeley, Washington D.C., and Oakland, CA. Texas, home to Pres. George W. Bush, has three of the five most conservative cities, including Lubbock, Abilene, and Plano. Hialeah, FL, was ranked fourth.

Anti-war activists to protest air show

BRUSWICK, ME – When the Navy’s “Blue Angels” flight team comes to Naval Air Station Brunswick (NASB) to perform on the anniversary of 9/11, 100,000 people will be there to view the show. But one day earlier, Maine Veterans for Peace plans to respond in advance by staging a peace march from the downtown mall to the air base.

Among the special guests at the counter-event will be Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness and Cindy Sheehan, the mother of Army Specialist Casey Sheehan who was killed in Iraq, and has been conducting a vigil outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, TX. The march will begin at , followed by a rally.

Navy planes from NASB routinely fly surveillance and reconnaissance missions over Iraq, calling in air strikes, “many of which kill innocent Iraqi civilians,” the veterans’ organization noted in a press release. “At these air shows our children are taught to idolize these ‘gods of metal,'” the group said.

Co-sponsors of the statewide mobilization include Pax Christi Maine, PeaceWorks, Maine WILPF, Peace Action Maine, Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, Witness for Peace, and five local peace and justice coalitions.

Explaining the purpose of the march, Veterans for Peace said, “As we face massive social spending cuts in our state and nation, the time has come for the public to say that we must convert our huge military industrial complex to peaceful and sustainable production.  Over 50 percent of every tax dollar now goes to fight ‘endless war.'”

Cable critics call for cap

WASHINGTON – If Comcast takes over Adelphia in a proposed merger, it will have 29 percent of all U.S. cable TV subscribers. But according to the Media Access Project, before that happens the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should cap a single cable company’s reach at 25 percent.

Last year, the public-interest law firm helped defeat then FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s effort to relax broadcast ownership rules. Now it is focusing on establishing a cap before the Comcast-Adelphia merger. The website Multichannel News reports that MAP attorney Harold Feld recommends preemptive action because he doesn’t expect the FCC to call for retroactive enforcement. “Given the commission’s reluctance to order divestitures, we don’t think divestitures are likely,” he said.

After a long struggle, the U.S. Congress told the FCC in 1992 to limit the size of cable companies. The law required the agency to set “reasonable limits” on the number of subscribers served by a single cable company, and called for a cap on the number of channels an operator may fill with its own programming. Due to court challenges and bureaucratic delays, however, the rules have rarely been implemented and the government has declined to block cable operator mergers.

Former FCC chairman Michael Powell didn’t challenge the status quo, but his successor, Kevin Martin, who took office in March, announced in May that the agency will attempt to put new rules on the books and defend them in court.

According to Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America and Free Press, those rules should assign greater value to urban than to rural subscribers. Their objective is to break up markets and regions dominated by a single cable company. 

“Setting a meaningful horizontal limit on the national reach of cable operators based on an advertising market weighted measure of subscribers would be a major step in the right direction,” noted the consumer groups, adding that their formula would require Comcast to sell 4 million subscribers and back away from the Adelphia deal.