Tag Archives: United States

$626 Million Worth of U.S. Weapons Have Gone Missing in Afghanistan

The United States’ Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction just released its “Afghan National Security Forces: Actions Needed to Improve Weapons Accountability” report for July.

The report revealed that a total of 747,000 weapons supposedly given to the Afghan National Security Forces by the U.S. Department of Defense are now unaccounted for.

According to the report, 465,000 of these weapons are small arms that include, “…rifles, pistols, machine guns, grenade launchers, and shotguns.”

The Department of Defense relies primarily on two programs to track the flow of weapons to Afghanistan’s security forces: The Security Cooperation Information Portal (SCIP) and the Operational Verification of Reliable Logistics Oversight Database (OVERLORD).

A chart showing how weapons are tracked. Click to enlarge
A chart showing the process of how weapons are sent from the U.S. Department of Defense to the Afghan National Security Forces. Click to enlarge

Both of these programs were found to have major errors and discrepancies. In fact, a whopping 43% of the serial numbers (used to identify and track each individual weapon) in the OVERLORD system were found to have, “missing information and/or duplication.”

On top of that, the report found that as of November 2013, the U.S. had provided Afghanistan’s Security Forces with nearly 113,000 more weapons than they actually needed (based on the “Tashkil”, the official list of requirements for the ANSF issued by the Afghan government).

The overage in weapons provided by the U.S. Click to enlarge

The SIGAR report also warns that these weapons could easily find their way into the hands of hostile groups like the Taliban, if they haven’t already:

“Without confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to account for or properly dispose of these weapons, SIGAR is concerned that they could be obtained by insurgents and pose additional risks to Afghan civilians and the ANSF.”

You can check out the full SIGAR report here.

NASA’s Opportunity Rover Just Set the Off-World Driving Distance Record

NASA’s Opportunity rover landed on the surface of Mars in January of 2004. As of Sunday (July 26), the Opportunity rover had driven a total distance of 25 miles (40 kilometers).

Opportunity took the top spot in total off-world distance traveled by surpassing Russia’s Lunokhod 2 lunar rover, which traveled a total distance of 39 kilometers across the surface of the moon between January and May of 1973.

The Russian rover helped to bring about a golden age of space exploration in the 70s. As a sign of respect, the Opportunity rover’s operators decided to commemorate the Russian rover by naming one of the first craters they encountered after it.

Tracing the path that Opportunity has taken since it landed on Mars in 2004. On the left rim of the large Endeavor Crater, you can see the Lunokhod 2 crater. Click to enlarge (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/NMMNHS)

The craziest part of this record is that the Opportunity rover was only expected to travel a short distance when it was first sent to Mars in 2004. Here’s John Callas, who manages the Mars Exploration Project at NASA’s Jet-Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California:

“This is so remarkable considering Opportunity was intended to drive about one kilometer and was never designed for distance. But what is really important is not how many miles the rover has racked up, but how much exploration and discovery we have accomplished over that distance.”

The Opportunity rover is collecting data on Mars as part of a long-term plan for a manned mission to the planet around the year 2030.

The infographic below compares the distances driven by different rovers throughout the years. Click to enlarge (courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech):

Read the original story from NASA here.

“Concrete Facts” and “Irrefutable Evidence” Aren’t Needed to Add Someone to the Terrorist Watch List

Recently, I reported on the rapidly growing terrorist watch list in the United States. In the past 5 years, the government has been adding names to the list at an increasingly fast pace, peaking last year with 468,749 names being added.

Well, it seems part of that ridiculously high number may be explained by a new set of counterterrorism guidelines that were quietly implemented last year.

The Intercept is an online media outlet founded earlier this year by the man who broke the Snowden story, Glenn Greenwald, after he left The Guardian. Recently, they obtained a copy of a 166-page document from the National Counterterrorism Center called the “March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance”.

The document outlined new guidelines for adding names to the terrorist watch list. One of the key sections outlined how to establish “reasonable suspicion”. The new guidelines state that,

“Although irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary, to be reasonable, suspicion should be as clear and as fully developed as circumstances permit.”

One of the charts in the report. Click to enlarge

This basically means that the Counterterrorism Center can place any individual, foreigner or American, on the terrorist watch list without any real evidence.

This “irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary” clause also allows the Center to designate individuals as members of specefic terrorist organizations without any evidence that they are actually connected.

Surprisingly enough, the guidelines are officially labeled as unclassified, meaning that the public is technically able to view them.

However, both the Bush and Obama administrations have fought to keep the watch-list criteria a secret. In a recent example, Attorney General Eric Holder went so far as to invoke the state secrets privilege to avoid disclosing the criteria (he was defending the government from a lawsuit brought by a number of Muslims who were placed on the no-fly list with minimal supporting evidence).

News of these new guidelines comes just a day after UK’s official counter-terrorism watchdog said that Britain’s new definition of terrorism, “could catch political journalists and bloggers”.

You can check out all 166 pages of the “March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance” here. Read a full report on the document’s full contents in this exclusive piece from The Intercept.

Visualizing Just How Fast People’s Names Are Being Added to the Terrorist Watch List

Lung cancer is the most common and most deadly form of cancer, accounting for 27% of all cases. This year, an estimated 224,210 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer.

Almost all of us can probably think of a family member or friend who has been affected by the disease in some way.

Keep that in mind when you read this next stat: last year, the U.S. government added 468,749 to the terrorist watch list. That’s more than double the number of people who will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year.

He has a hyper-speed sleigh powered by reindeer which are clearly genetically altered and he is able to go down every chimney in the world in one night. Definitely going on the watch list

Here’s another way to think about it. Last year, the most sold car in the U.S. was the F-150, selling 521,515 units.

Imagine 9 out of every 10 people who bought a new F-150 last year was put onto the terrorist watch list and you get an idea of just how quickly names are being added.

On average, more than 1,284 names were added to the watch list every day last year. And that number has only been rising in the past couple of years. In 2009, 227,932 names were added to the database. In fiscal 2010 it was 250,847. In 2012, it was 336,712.

In the past five years, more than 1.5 million names have been added to the list. To be added to the list, authorities must have, “a reasonable suspicion to believe that a person is a known or a suspected terrorist.”

Some of the United States’ most wanted terrorists

About 99% of the names submitted to the list are accepted, prompting many to criticize the system for being extremely loose with its classifications.

The figures were revealed in a hearing in Virginia on Friday involving a case from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) which challenges the Constitutionality of the no-fly list.

Gadeir Abbas is a lawyer for the CAIR. Following the hearing, he said,

“There aren’t 1 million people who are known or suspected terrorists. This suggests the standard the government is applying is wildly loose.”

In their defense, counterterrorism officials pointed out that names are regularly removed from the list as well. As of August 2013, there were about 700,000 names on the list.

Read the full story from Yahoo here.

True/False: The Last Time A President Signed Executive Orders Less Often Than Obama Was in the 1800s

In recent months, right-wing media outlets have been pushing the narrative of Obama as a dictator who simply signs an executive order whenever he can’t get Congress to do what he wants.

I disagree with plenty of Obama’s politics, but I decided to look into the numbers for myself. Here’s what I found, courtesy of The American Presidency Project at the University of California- Santa Barbara:

executive orders

The first column of numbers shows total executive orders. As of now, Obama is at 182. Since 1900, only two presidents, Gerald Ford (169) and George Bush senior (166) have signed less total executive orders. However, both of them only served one term.

The second column of numbers shows average executive orders signed per year. Obama is currently at 33.58 orders per year.

That’s lower than both Bush Sr. (31.5) and Gerald Ford (68.92). Both were conservatives who advocated small-government.

In fact, it’s lower than any president since Grover Cleveland was in the White House from 1885-1889. He averaged 28.25 executive orders per year during that time (he averaged 35 during his second term from 1893-1897).

If you want to attack Obama’s executive orders, attack their content, not their numbers. You can check them out on whitehouse.gov here.

NOTE: A number of websites seeking to take advantage of the executive order myth (like Western Journalism and Four Winds 10) have posted lists of Obama’s worst executive orders.

The problem is, the orders they list are from 10990-11921. That means they were signed by John F. Kennedy during the Cold War.

Obama’s first order was #13489. While some people claimed this order was essentially a sealing of his records (so nobody could check his birth certificate), it was pretty much the opposite.

It rescinded executive order 13233 (signed by George W. Bush) which let former presidents and even their family members declare “executive privilege” to block public access to White House records for pretty much any reason.

How These All-Female Lizards Are Able to Reproduce and Thrive Without the Help of Any Males

As far back as the 1960s, scientists were aware that a number of whiptail lizards in Mexico and the southwestern United States were made up entirely of females.

The most notable of these species, the New Mexico whiptail lizard, is able to reproduce healthy, well-bred offspring without the aid of male fertilization.

Whiptails aren’t the only species that reproduce asexually. In fact, there are 70 other vertebrate species that can do it. But the New Mexico whiptail may have unlocked the secret as to how it’s possible for a species that produces exclusively asexually to thrive.

Komodo dragons are among the vertebrate species that are able to reproduce asexually

Peter Baumann works at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri. He co-authored a study on the lizards that was published in the journal Nature back in 2010.

Baumann explains that parthenogenteic species (species that reproduce without fertilization), are genetically isolated because they only inherit the DNA of one parent.

This means that any genetic weaknesses, like susceptibility to a disease or physical mutation, can’t be “overridden” by healthy genes from a second parent. The shallower the gene pool, the more likely it is to produce sick or mutated offspring.

To deal with this issue, the all-female whiptail lizard species have evolved to start the reproductive process with twice as many chromosomes as their sexually-producing lizard relatives.

New Mexico whiptail lizards were actually the result of two different species of lizard (the western whiptail and little striped whiptail) interbreeding to form a hybrid species. Because of this, these all-female lizards are equipped with a very diverse gene pool.

Left: little striped whiptail. Middle: New Mexico whiptail. Right: tiger whiptail. Click to enlarge

Instead of combining homologous chromosomes (like sexual species do, getting one set from each parent), the lizards pair recombined sister chromosomes instead. This maintains heterozygosity in the offspring.

Here’s a more simple way to think about it. Every one one us has DNA from generations and generations of our ancestors. When we reproduce, we combine our DNA with our partner’s- the resulting offspring’s genetic codes contains parts of both parents’ DNA.

But since we have such vast genetic diversity from all of our ancestors, the exact coding of the genes we pass along when we reproduce isn’t always the same, which is why brothers and sisters don’t all look the same.

A basic way to visualize how genetic information is passed on in sexual reproduction. Note that the “marbles” passed on by each individual parent are different for the two children. Click to enlarge

So, rather than combining its genetic code with that of a male, the whiptail lizard combines two different versions of its own DNA code, ensuring that each pairing of sister chromosomes will have multiple alleles (different forms of a gene), which gives the offspring the genetic diversity it needs to be healthy.

This discovery means that,

“these lizards have a way of distinguishing sister from homologous chromosomes,”

says Baumann. How do they do this? The researchers aren’t sure yet, but it’s the next question they will be investigating, along with the question of how they evolved to start reproduction with double the normal amount of chromosomes.

Female whiptail lizards perform courtship rituals with one another to stimulate ovulation. The top lizard will lay smaller eggs while the one on the bottom will lay larger eggs. They switch spots every mating season. Click to enlarge

Though it may seem like asexual reproduction would eventually hurt a species in the long run, Baumann also pointed that,

“You’re greatly increasing the chances of populating a new habitat if it only takes one individual.”

It seems to be working pretty well for these lizard ladies.

Read the original story from the Scientific American here.

The Quickest Possible Explanation of the Current Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

For all of the coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it’s come to my attention that very few people actually understand what’s going on there.

This is by no means a complete history- it’s “the quickest possible explanation”. So if you think I’m missing an important piece of information, please don’t attack me, just add it to the comments section at the bottom! 

It all started after World War II.

With millions of Jews being displaced during the Holocaust, the United Nations was looking for a good place to establish a Jewish state.

At the time, Palestine was actually a British colony, and the UN figured that Palestine (which included Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish faith) was the best place to establish the new Jewish state of Israel.

So, in late November, 1947, the UN passed Resolution 181, which divided the Palestinian territory into Jewish and Arab states.

Israeli politician Eliahu Elath presents President Harry Truman with a ceremonial ark after Truman recognized Israeli statehood in 1948

The Palestinian Arabs who were living there at the time refused to recognize the agreement. They had been told (by the United States) that no decisions would be made without consulting them. They also felt that the agreement was too favorable to the Jews, at the expense of the local Palestinians.

So, as soon as the resolution was passed, fighting began, with Arab forces attacking Israeli territories that had formerly been part of Palestine before UN Resolution 181.

The fighting intensified when Israel declared independence a year later. The Arab-Israeli of 1948 ultimately displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs.

The fighting has pretty much been on and off since then. Israel, better funded and better equipped, has slowly been shrinking the Palestinian territory through settlement programs, which urge Israeli citizens to go settle in Palestinian territory, making it harder for Palestine to legitimize a claim on those areas.

Click to enlarge

In John Kerry’s first year as Secretary of State, he took a total of 14 trips to the region in an effort to broker a peace settlement. While he was unable to broker a deal, the talks did succeed in stopping the violence for a while.

But recently it started back up, as tensions over three Israeli teens kidnapped and murdered in Gaza sparked a heavy-handed response from Israel, who sent in military troops to scour Gaza for the perpetrators (killing five Palestinians in the process).

It’s important at this point to understand the Palestinian political scene.

The remaining Palestinian territory is made up of the West Bank and the Gaza strip.

A map of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. Click to enlarge

The Palestinians in the West Bank (which make up the bulk of the Palestinian population) are led by Mahmoud Abbas, who is actually quite moderate and has been very much in favor of trying to broker peace deals with Israel in recent times. Just this past Monday he wrote this op-ed piece explaining his vision of a peaceful relationship between Palestine and Israel.

The problem is Hamas, a militant Islamist group founded in 1988 with the sole purpose of destroying Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian state.

Militant groups like Hamas know that their power is rooted in the fear and anger of the people, so they do everything they can to keep Palestinians scared and mad. How? Launch a few missiles at Israel to provoke a response.

Hamas doesn’t want a peaceful settlement between Israel and Palestine because it will mean the loss of most (if not all) of Hamas’s power.

Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip

Hamas needs people to hate Israel, so they launch just enough rockets to get Israel to start air-raids which are disproportionately more deadly than the rockets fired from Gaza. There are even reports of Hamas encouraging people to go out onto their rooftops during Israeli strikes so as to increase the civilian death toll.

However, many media outlets are misrepresenting the conflict, making it seem like Palestine is raining down rockets on Israeli civilians while Israel is responding by carrying out precise and strategic targeted air raids.

Israel has an extremely advanced missile dome system to shoot down rockets, and almost all of the buildings there were built to withstand these kinds of attacks. Since the conflict ramped back up, there hasn’t been a single casualty on the Israeli side.

Click to enlarge

Palestine, on the other hand, is ill-equipped to do anything about Israeli air-raids. To make matters worse, Palestinian territories are extremely densely populated, meaning lots of collateral damage when Israel bombs a target. Air raids have killed 89 Palestinians and injured another 600+ so far since the fighting resumed.

Let’s be real here: both Israel and Hamas want conflict. For Israel, the ultimate goal is to eventually take over all of the remaining Palestinian territory and make it part of Israel.

Hamas rockets allow Israel to justify air strikes which inflict serious damage to the remaining Palestinian territories. They also allow Israel to justify their refusal to stop creating new settlements in Palestine.

On the other hand, Hamas would cease to be relevant if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ended, so they do everything they can to provoke harsh military responses from Israel. The more innocent Palestinians get killed during Israel’s air strikes, the easier it is for Hamas to recruit angry young men to their cause and garner support from Arabs in the region.

The only people really losing are the average, moderate Palestinians who are simply trying to make it in one of the world’s poorest and most violent regions.

History courtesy of the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian.

Most other un-cited information came from interviews from a recent episode of NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook about the resurgence in the conflict. You can listen to that interview in its entirety here.

Fatal Drug Overdoses Have Tripled In Russia Since 2012, Reaching 100,000 Per Year

Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service announced some chilling statistics on Russian drug use this past Monday.

The most frightening data was on the number of fatal drug overdoses per year in the country. Last year, that number climbed over 100,000, making it nearly three times higher than it was in 2012.

The Service also announced that of the 108,700 people convicted of drug-related crimes last year, 66% were between the ages of 19-29, and another 2% were minors.

Viktor Ivanov, head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service

Russia has the highest population of injecting drug users (IDUs) in the world at 1.8 million. A third of these IDUs are HIV positive and a whopping 90% have Hepatitis C.

To make the problem worse, Russia’s drug treatment programs are woefully inadequate. Many people open businesses masquerading as treatment center while using arcane “treatments” like flogging, starvation, and electric shock among others.

Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service has also admitted that more than 90% of Russians who check into a treatment center are using drugs again within a year.

A large portion of the intravenous drug users are addicted to heroin or other opioids. These drugs are derived from the poppy plant.

One factor that has contributed to the increasing use of these drugs is an increase in poppy production in Afghanistan.

Poppy production in Afghanistan. Click to enlarge

Cultivating poppies that can be processed into opium or heroin has been a lucrative business in Afghanistan since the 90s. But when the Taliban took power in 2001, the militant group outlawed the growing of poppies, reducing production to almost zero.

Since the U.S. invasion however, there has been a rapid resurgence of opium production in Afghanistan. Last year saw the highest poppy production in Afghanistan in the past 20 years. The level of production was nearly 3 times higher than the average levels before the Taliban’s time in power.

This flood of poppies means cheaper prices for opium and heroin manufacturers and consequently cheaper prices for users, not to speak of the increase in availability.

About a quarter of the heroin manufactured in Afghanistan in 2010 ended up in Russia, and that percentage has only been rising in the past 3 years.

Click to enlarge

Though many people, like Viktor Ivanov, head of Russia’s Drug Control Service, like to blame U.S. involvement in Afghanistan for Russia’s drug problems, this simply isn’t the full story.

Heroin use has actually been on the rise in Russia since the early 90s, when the fall of the Soviet Union left high levels of unemployment and poverty across the country.

In the decade between 1994 and 2004, the total number of drug users in Russia rose an astounding 900%. The war in Afghanistan and the subsequent boom in the poppy supply has only poured gasoline on a problem that was already burning out of control.

Read the original story from RBTH here. Read more about drug abuse in Russia from DrugWarFacts.org here.

Did You Know… That the U.S. Almost Dropped A Nuke on the Moon During the Cold War?

After the end of World War II and the fall of Nazi Germany, two major global powers emerged: Russia in the east, and the United States (along with its NATO allies) in the west.

More than anything, the Cold War was an arms race. Both sides had built up their nuclear arsenals during the war, and both were fearful of having less firepower than the other. Many people thought that an all-out nuclear war was imminent.

During this period, the U.S. military came up with the idea of dropping a nuclear bomb on the moon as a show of force.

Leonard Reiffel was the physicist who headed the project at the U.S. military-backed Armour Research Foundation in the late 1950s.

Leonard Reiffel, who is now 86 years old

In 2000, he sat down for an interview with The Observer to tell the story:

“It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on earth…

The explosion would obviously be best on the dark side of the moon and the theory was that if the bomb exploded on the edge of the moon, the mushroom cloud would be illuminated by the sun.”

Reiffel also pointed out that a big influence on the idea was the fact that we were lagging behind in the “Space Race”.

In July of 1955, during the height of the Cold War, the United States announced that it would be launching satellites into space. Not to be outdone, Russia announced their own satellite project four days later. The U.S. lost that leg of the race when Russia launched Sputnik in October of 1957.

The front page of The New York Times on the day Sputnik was launched (October 4, 1957)

Reiffel voiced his concerns as a scientist about the idea of nuking the moon, but they seemed to fall upon deaf ears:

“I made it clear at the time there would be a huge cost to science of destroying a pristine lunar environment, but the US Air Force were mainly concerned about how the nuclear explosion would play on earth.”

In 1958, officers from the Air Force had asked Reiffel to ‘fast-track’ a project to investigate what a nuclear explosion on the moon would look like, and what it’s effects would be.

So he hired none other than a young Carl Sagan to do the calculation of how a nuclear mushroom cloud would expand in the low gravity environment on the moon.

Carl Sagan

Sagan, who pioneered for the study of potential life on other planets, would later become famous for popularizing science in mainstream culture with his show “The Cosmos”.

Despite the highly classified nature of the project, it was later revealed to his biographer that Sagan actually discussed parts of the project in his application for the prestigious Miller Institute graduate fellowship at Berkley (he got in, of course).

Either way, top-secret project A119: ‘A Study of Lunar Research Flights’, never came to fruition. Reiffel ended his story by saying,

“Thankfully, the thinking changed. I am horrified that such a gesture to sway public opinion was ever considered.”

A spokesman from the Pentagon would neither confirm nor deny the reports. Read the full story from the Guardian here.

Watch Astronauts Play Soccer and Do Goal Celebrations in Zero Gravity on the ISS (Video)

The World Cup is in full swing, with billions of people tuning in to watch the games all over the planet. But there are also a couple of guys watching the world’s largest sporting event from space.

To commemorate the start of the tournament, NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman and Steve Swanson joined German astronaut Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency to create this awesome video of them practicing some moves in zero-G.

Then yesterday they released this video of their best goal celebrations:

This is the second World Cup that astronauts have viewed from the International Space Station (they also tuned in for the 2010 Cup). It’s pretty fitting that the astronauts are watching a tournament that brings together countries from all over the world- the ISS itself was built by five different space agencies representing 15 different countries.

The German and American astronauts actually made a bet over yesterday’s game: if the U.S. won, they could draw a U.S. flag on Gerst’s bald head. But if the U.S. lost, both the American’s had to shave their heads. I hope Gerst isn’t rubbing in that German win too much though.

(h/t Space.com)