Sunday, September 29, 2013

Despite some hype, the yearly flu epidemic has NOT begun in the US yet/ CDC

From CDC: (the numbers at the bottom of the graph refer to the year followed by the week (by week number)).  Even in the midst of summer, there are about 100 positive tests reported per week, similar to today.

INFLUENZA Virus Isolated
From CIDRAP:  Though the flu season hasn't started in the United States, media reports are starting to pop up about outbreaks, including in the Los Angeles area and in South Carolina. Paul Biddinger, MD, medical director of Emergency Department Operations at Massachusetts General Hospital told reporters that his department has already treated a few patients who have been hospitalized with influenza infections.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ex-top US nuclear regulator counsels end to atomic power/ Japan Times

From yesterday's Japan Times comes a sobering piece quoting the last chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Jaczko only stepped down in 2012) suggesting there isn't any way to safely manage nuclear power in a world of earthquakes and natural disasters.
The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant is a sign that the world needs to seriously rethink nuclear safety and consider possibly ending its dependence on atomic power, the former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Tuesday in Tokyo. 
“When you look at what happened around the Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) area, it’s simply unacceptable,” as tens of thousands of people have been unable to return to their homes due to radioactive contamination, said Gregory Jaczko, who served as the top U.S. nuclear regulatory official for nearly three years until July 2012...

US informed by Iran in July 2012 that Syrian rebels had chemical weapons/ Christian Science Monitor

From the CSM, citing leaked diplomatic correspondence it had acquired:
... According to leaked diplomatic correspondence, Iran has been warning Washington since July 2012 that Sunni rebel fighters have acquired chemical weapons, and called on the US to send “an immediate and serious warning” to rebel groups not to use them. 
In a letter acquired by The Christian Science Monitor that was sent sometime in the spring, Iran told American officials that, as a "supporter" of the rebels, the US would be held responsible for any rebel use of chemical weapons...

Still shameless: Obama's silver, forked tongue at the UN

No proof has surfaced to assign blame for Syria's sarin attack of August 21.  The US government document that was supposed to lay out the proof was simply a litany of assertions, absent any evidence.  Robert Parry discussed the details, or lack thereof.  He points out that Bush's Iraq war 'dodgy dossier' had a lot more substance.

Then the US government made the fallacious claim that the UN report blamed the Assad regime for the attack. All the report really said was that sarin was used; it described rocket fragments, but failed to identify their provenance.  Various US government officials attempted to mislead us by pretending the use of sarin was proof it came from Assad. Tweeted Samantha Power@AmbassadorPower:

Haunting images of entire families dead in their beds. Verdict is clear: Assad has used CWs against civilians in violation of int'l norm 
New UN report confirms CWs were used in on August 21st; all signs show regime is culpable.  
Obama's oratory at the UN yesterday was less soaring than usual.  
"It's an insult to human reason and to the legitimacy of this institution to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack," the president said.
Samuel Johnson told us the last refuge of a scoundrel was patriotism.  Obama gave us two more refuges. He insulted the ability to reason of anyone who dared question his assumption.  The second scoundrel's trick was to challenge the "legitimacy of the institution [the UN]" -- were an esteemed diplomat to even suggest anyone besides Assad might have carried out the attack.

Consider: if Obama really had the proof, he wouldn't be working this hard to prevent us from thinking.  

Then the Prez went further out on a limb over enforcing international law.  Per AP:
President Barack Obama on Tuesday challenged the U.N. Security Council to hold Syria accountable if it fails to live up to pledges to dismantle its chemical weapons stockpiles. He said the United Nations' credibility and reputation is at stake."If we cannot agree even on this," Obama said, "then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws."
Yet the US has failed to comply with international law in the destruction of our own chemical weapons: sarin, VX and sulfur mustard, the same three held by Syria, with 3 times the tonnage that Syria has.  Our government says it can't get rid of our own stockpiles until 2023, 11 years behind the schedule we agreed to, a failure to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention.  We haven't asked the UN to enforce the treaty on us.  (Some journalists claimed the US had gotten a deadline extension, but they neglected to mention the extension ran out 17 months ago and the treaty forbade any more extensions.)
29 April 2012 marked the passing of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) deadline for possessors of chemical weapons  to eliminate their stockpiles. However, the United States maintains that it has destroyed 90 percent of its stockpile and will destroy the remaining 10 percent “as soon as practicable.”
Furthermore, the international agency in charge of verifying the destruction of chemical weapons and treaty compliance has never performed the function it is now being asked to assume.  So much for Obama's demand that the UN "enforc[e] the most basic of international laws":
"The OPCW is not designed for this," said David Chuter, a former disarmament expert with the British government. "The idea that a country at war might join the Chemical Weapons Convention and be inspected never remotely crossed anyone's mind." 
Finally, since Syria has never been a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (till it just applied), what right the UN has to enforce any inspections or sanctions on Syria over chemical weapons is questionable.  Does Obama really want the UN to enforce treaty compliance on all parties and nonparties to the treaty?  That would include Israel and North Korea, as well as the out-of-compliance US and Russia. What a hornet's nest that would be.

Journalist Dave Lindorff expands on US hypocrisy in all this.  If this was really about repugnant weapons that kill indiscriminately, especially children, then why has the US refused to sign UN conventions on the prohibitions of cluster weapons (2008) with 108 signatories and landmines (1999), for which 160 nations are parties? Why do we use these weapons?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Disposing of chemical weapons / BBC

You can hire mobile units to destroy chemical weapons (including those in munitions) from Eisenmann Corp. near Stuttgart, Germany if the US Army won't share its mobile units with Syria or with its own chemical weapons activities in Blue Grass, Kentucky and Pueblo, Colorado.   The US stockpile could be destroyed within a year if these handy mobile trucks set to work.  Bechtel, the Army contractor for building, testing and running chem weapons destruction palaces would be out a generous $10 Billion contract.  Why is the current plan so expensive and why will it take ten years?

Detailed discussion of the process for destroying chemical agents in Syria, as well as elsewhere, from the BBC yesterday:
Syria has been given until the middle of 2014 to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile.
But in a country torn apart by civil war, the disposal process is likely to be fraught with difficulties. So how will it work?How will it be done?Different techniques are used for destroying chemical munitions and chemical agents, but most methods involve either:
  • Incineration at very high temperatures to destroy the toxicity of the chemicals, or
  • Neutralisation of the chemicals by the addition of water and a product like caustic soda.
Destroying chemical weapons, armed with explosives, carries extra risks. One solution is the use of mobile destruction units, which can be moved into place relatively quickly and therefore avoid the dangers of transporting live weapons through a warzone.
Some of these mobile units destroy chemical agents by surrounding them with explosives and placing them in an armour-plated chamber, known as a "bang box". The explosion destroys the munition and the chemical agent.
The US military has developed a mobile unit, called the Explosive Destruction System (EDS), which uses chemicals to neutralise the toxic agent. It has been used to destroy more than 1,700 items in the US since 2001 and can handle up to six weapons at a time.
Infographic showing chemical rocket and rocket loaded into cradle with charge attachedRocket with chemical warhead is loaded into a steel cradle with an explosive charge attached.Infographic showing rocket loaded into chamberCradle containing rocket loaded into steel drum and explosive is detonated to release toxic contents. Chemicals are added and the drum is rotated to mix and neutralise contents. Infographic showing layout of mobile destruction unit.
Another system which may be employed in Syria uses so-called "hot-detonation technology". It heats the munitions inside a detonation chamber to about 550 degrees C - hot enough to destroy the weapon and its chemical contents.
This method has been developed by a Swedish company Dynasafe and is being used in the destruction of chemical weapons in China, Germany and the US.
Remains of rockets Remains of rockets destroyed by hot-detonation technologyA US Department of Defense spokesperson said no decision had been made yet on which technique would be used to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons, as the full details of the Syrian Chemical Weapons program had yet to be revealed.
Chemical agents that have not been loaded into weapons are simpler to deal with. The intense heat of the furnace transforms the agent into less harmful products that can be dealt with as hazardous waste at a commercial treatment centre.
But environmental concerns about incineration have meant that the neutralisation has grown in popularity as a process. The chemical agent is pumped into a tank, where water and caustic soda are added, which makes it less toxic and treatable either as hazardous waste or it can be incinerated in a second tank.Where will it be done?The chemical weapons could be destroyed in situ using mobile units, or moved to another location for large-scale processing.
Ralph Trapp, formerly with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body that recently carried out the inspections in Syria, said: "One thing I can say for sure is they are not going to do it the normal way, where you have the time and leisure to consolidate the stockpile... that is going to take a few years, they don't have the time to do that."
He suggests the Syrians may have to adopt a more "patchwork approach" where weapons are first put beyond use, by removing the charges and filling the payloads with concrete, or burying them in concrete.
View of Shchuch'ye plantSyrian chemicals could be sent to the Russian chemical weapons destruction plant at Shchuch'yeUnder the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), dumping chemical agents at sea or burying them deep underground is not allowed.
Destroying weapons by carrying out controlled explosions in deep pits - an approach used in Iraq in the 1990s - would also be excluded by the convention, because of the risks to the surrounding population.
Dr Patricia Lewis, research director on international security at Chatham House, said she would favour shipping the bulk agent out of Syria to a country like Russia.
"My sense is that one of the things they are going to have to do is ensure a temporary ceasefire... So I think the inspectors will have to work quite quickly while they have got the ceasefire, that is why moving them out makes sense to me," she said.
"Because Russia has taken the initiative here, they have that responsibility now to make sure it works."
Russia has a naval base at Tartus in Syria where the chemical weapons could be taken and then shipped to another location. But there may be concerns, under the CWC, about allowing the shipment of chemical munitions through foreign waters.
Russia already has a chemical weapons destruction programme, although it is currently operating at full capacity and still has a considerable amount of Russian weapons to destroy before its programme is complete.Where have weapons been destroyed before?Iraq and more recently Libya have both had chemical weapons stockpiles destroyed.
In Iraq, UN weapons inspectors located chemical weapons facilities and sealed them up. Once sealed they were effectively put beyond use.
Alastair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at Leeds University, said the Iraq model was a possible option.
"As long as these things are secure, that is the first guarantee and then you have to set about destroying them in the best way possible," he said.
The Libyan stockpile was much smaller and a disposal plant was built to deal with it - although a further stockpile of mustard gas was later uncovered after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime.How long will it take?Under the terms of the CWC, Syria has been given nine months to complete the destruction of its chemical weapons.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said he is committed to a plan to destroy his country's chemical weapons but warned it could take about a year.
Professor Hay said he hoped the Syrians should be given a bit of "latitude" - if the destruction programme falls behind: "If the work is going well, and for some technical reason there is a hiccup, or if the sheer volume of material cannot be processed in time, I am reasonably hopeful that if it is clear that Syria is not just stalling for time, then there will have to be some give in the deadline."Global stockpilesUS and Russia have the biggest stockpiles of chemical weapons-related equipment in the world.
Graphic. Background image shows stockpiles of chemical weapons in the US (2001)
According to the OPCW about 81% of the world's declared stockpile had been destroyed by July 2013. The US had destroyed about 90% and Russia about 74%.
However deadlines had already been extended from 2007 to 2012 and now Russia has pledged to complete its programme by 2015 and the US 2023.
Both Russian and the US are signatories to the CWC and enforcement of the convention is overseen by the OPCW, based in The Hague. The OPCW provided the scientists who carried out the recent weapons inspections in Damascus and it is likely it would oversee the destruction programme.
The chief UN weapons inspector, Ake Sellstrom, told the BBC it would be difficult to find and destroy all of Syria's chemical weapons, but he believes it is achievable: "It is doable, but of course it will be stressful work.
"Depending on the position by the Syrian government and the position by the opposition. Depending on how much they could negotiate. It could be done. It would be a difficult job."

Flu shots: 50% more costly this season; staff vaccinations have failed to protect nursing home residents; UK gov concedes swine flu shots caused narcolepsy; shots may make you sicker from flu: you do the math

You may have noticed that some flu shots are "stronger" this year, there are more brands available, and the newer ones cost more.  What should you know?

Stronger flu shots

This year the newer shots contain 4 antigens instead of 3 (2 each for influenza A and influenza B), although you can get shots with 3 antigens (2 flu A and 1 flu B) also.  You can also get a 4 antigen live virus vaccine sprayed up the nose (if you are aged 2-49 and not pregnant).  According to Reuters:

French drugmaker Sanofi, whose Sanofi Pasteur unit is the world's biggest supplier of flu vaccines, with sales of 884 million euros ($1.2 billion) in 2012, says it expects a premium of some 50 percent or more (for the 4 antigen vaccines)...
In Europe, roll out of the new vaccines will be slower as several products - including Sanofi's four-strain Vaxigrip - are still awaiting approval, although GSK's quadrivalent has a green light in Britain, Germany and France. 
A competing vaccine that is sprayed into the nose rather than injected, from AstraZeneca's MedImmune unit, is also cleared in the United States but not yet in Europe...
Does "stronger" mean better?  We don't know.  Are there more side effects?  We don't know. Why has approval been delayed in Europe?  We don't know.

Flu vaccine for health care workers

Stronger than what?  If you multiply something times zero it is still zero.  If recent year (3 antigen) healthcare worker flu shots failed to prevent deaths and hospitalizations in elderly nursing home residents, will 4 antigen shots be any better?  According to a meta-analysis by the Cochrane Collaboration (the world's most respected group performing meta-analyses of medical interventions), the older shots had ZERO benefit at preventing lab-confirmed influenza, pneumonia and hospitalizations in nursing home residents over 60 years old.  (In the US, it is CDC-recommended nursing home policy to vaccinate all nursing home residents as well as staff. Vaccinating both groups appears to have produced little.) The elderly comprise the target group for flu vaccinations: it is they for whom death from flu is most likely. Cochrane concluded:

There is no evidence that only vaccinating healthcare workers prevents laboratory-proven influenza or its complications (lower respiratory tract infection, hospitalisation or death due to lower respiratory tract infection) in individuals aged 60 or over in LTCIs and thus no evidence to mandate compulsory vaccination of healthcare workers...
The University of Minnesota's CIDRAP reviewed a similar study just out by CDC and an editorial that reviewed the same evidence and grudgingly concluded:
... that, for specific outcomes such as lab-confirmed influenza, the data showed little evidence of protection for patients. They agreed, though, that immunization is a good measure to take.
Why is it a good measure to take if it doesn't do what it is meant to?  Because CDC is charged with working with flu vaccine manufacturers to decide how many doses should be manufactured yearly, is responsible for purchasing most of those doses, and for generating advertising and media interest to increase flu vaccine uptake, it can hardly be expected to draw independent conclusions about the net benefit, positive or negative, of flu vaccine. 

Furthermore, a linchpin of CDC's flu strategy is to get Americans to think of a yearly flu shot the way they think about getting their teeth cleaned: you have to do it on schedule, forever.  (Here is one example of this propaganda.) Necessary to this strategy is minimizing information that gets out to the public on whether the vaccine  formulation is a good match to circulating flu strains (when it isn't) and what the side effects turn out to be (if surveillance identifies any).

If vaccinating the elderly and their caregivers does not prevent flu infections or hospitalizations, why are we doing it, and even mandating flu shots?  Possibly the profit motive plays a part:
... Contracts struck with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirm a hefty price jump for the new four-strain flu vaccine, with GSK's quadrivalent Fluarix, for example, costing $12.03 per dose against $8.08 for the standard version, according to the agency's website.
Those price premiums may feed through to higher revenues and accelerated growth in a global flu vaccine market that research group Datamonitor Healthcare estimates at around $3.7 billion a year...
Dodgy numbers

UPDATE Sept 26:  CDC also has a funny habit of using bad data to estimate flu vaccine uptake. Instead of counting doses distributed and doses returned, or using statistics from the VSD database (collected on millions of Americans by their HMOs) which CDC pays to use, CDC prefers to call people by phone and ask if they have been vaccinated.  This is acknowledged to be the least accurate method for determining how many people get flu vaccines.  Using this method, CDC estimated that 45% of the US population received a flu shot last year.  However, had 45% of Americans actually been vaccinated, it would have required 5 million more doses of vaccine than existed in the US.

Dodgy language

Here is a CDC webpage for clinicians on flu vaccine safety. Note how the language is imprecise or deliberately misleads.  Examples:
"Because they have not been used in the general population yet, there are no post-licensure safety data for the new quadrivalent IIVs, ccIIV, and RIV. However, data from pre-licensure clinical trials indicate that these vaccines have similar safety profiles as trivalent IIVs."  (But CDC fails to state what that safety profile actually is.  CDC also confuses us: first saying there are no post-licensure safety data, then saying prelicensure trials showed safety. Are the safety data adequate?  Statistically significant? Are they for older vaccines or this year's vaccines? --Nass)

"In a study of more than 250,000 children aged below 18 years, the investigators did not identify risk for any clinically important adverse events after IIV." (I have no idea what "did not identify risk" means.  CDC fails to state what it considers to be a clinically important adverse event. No real data are presented.  Then, CDC acknowledges that for 2 of the last 3 flu seasons, vaccinated children had more febrile seizures than non-vaccinated.  The implication is that CDC does not consider a febrile seizure a clinically important adverse event, unlike the parents, children and clinicians who have to deal with them--Nass)

Flu shot safety:  narcolepsy, Guillain Barre and increasing flu frequency or severity

Note that most of the studies reviewed by CDC and Cochrane failed to look at flu vaccine safety.

This week, the UK government conceded that the 2009 swine flu shot Pandemrix (GSK, adjuvanted with ASO3) did cause narcolepsy in some recipients.  About 25% of the European population is felt to be genetically susceptible to this autoimmune condition. Approximately 100 people in the UK are believed to have developed the disease after receiving Pandemrix, with the largest affected group being children and teens, though all ages were affected.
... The government U-turn (on compensation) follows a major study of four- to 18-year-olds by the Health Protection Agency which found that around one in every 55,000 jabs was associated with narcolepsy. A spokesman for GSK said it had details of around 900 people from 14 countries who had narcolepsy and were vaccinated...
Why did it take so long to make this determination?  And why did the government deny it initially?  Perhaps because it was the government, not the manufacturer, that was on the hook for damages.  Such is the new legal regime for pandemic flu vaccines.  And now such is the legal regime for all vaccines given in the US.  The risk of developing narcolepsy in the UK was increased after vaccination by a factor of 10-16 (or at least 1,000%) in the six months after the shot.  The legal standard to assign causality in many countries would be just a doubling of risk; this ten-fold plus risk increase should have been rapidly identified and acknowledged, especially given the "enhanced" surveillance in the US and Europe to which the pandemic vaccines were subjected in 2009.

What is enhanced surveillance?  According to US government scientists
"The vaccine safety datalink (VSD), which is the USA's principal active surveillance system, was enhanced, several active surveillance systems that were at varying stages of growth were expanded rapidly (ie, databases from Medicare and the US Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs), and new adverse event monitoring systems were developed specifically for monitoring of influenza A (H1N1) vaccination — ie, the emerging infections programme (EIP), and the post-licensure rapid immunization safety monitoring (PRISM) network."
It begs the question of the effectiveness of routine flu vaccine adverse event surveillance when enhanced surveillance took 2-3 years following the mass vaccination program to yield actionable results despite a 1,000 plus percent increase in narcolepsy incidence.  We still have no information about changes in incidence for other conditions, apart from GBS, following pandemic swine flu vaccine. 

Guillain Barre Syndrome (GBS) was found to occur approximately 2-2.6 times as often as expected in the six weeks post US pandemic (nonadjuvanted) flu vaccinations, per independent researchers and per CDC, but not after Pandemrix.  This has been found in other years as well, in addition to 1976, when GBS occurred about 8 times as often as expected in the 6 weeks following swine flu vaccination.  However, CDC's discussion of this subject obfuscates the fact that, when you look for it, risk for GBS remains higher than expected following flu shots most years.

Last month, CIDRAP discussed new evidence from a study in pigs that a preceding flu shot could lead to a more severe flu illness than the illness seen in unvaccinated pigs.  This added to observations made by several groups (especially in Canada) that 2008 flu shots increased the risk of 2009 swine flu disease by about a factor of 2.  The reason is that vaccination may induce antibodies that potentially block a normal immune response as well as enhance it.  Other vaccines have occasionally caused a similar effect, increasing the incidence or worsening the illness they were intended to prevent.

Because vaccine science is actually more art than science, and the creation of new vaccines and adjuvants remains a matter of trial and error, we don't actually know until a vaccine is given to many thousands or millions of people whether potentially serious adverse events will occur.   See info on vaccine safety analysis from the American College of Physicians, CDC and FDA.

CDC acknowledges that:
Rare side effects and delayed reactions may not be evident until the vaccine is administered to millions of people.
All confirm that serious adverse events may only be discovered long after a vaccine has been marketed. Unfortunately, the science of vaccine adverse event detection is still at a very early stage.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Shameless, US insists UN report implicates Assad--except it doesn't / UN

 From the BBC:  US and UK insist UN chemicals report 'blames Syria'
The US, UK and France say a UN report confirming a chemical weapons attack in Damascus has vindicated their stance that Syria was to blame.
The US and UK ambassadors to the UN said technical details showed only the regime could have been responsible for the 21 August attack. Russia said claims that the rebels were responsible could not be shrugged off.
The report said sarin-filled rockets were fired. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called it a "despicable crime".

'Jumped to conclusions'The UN report did not attribute blame for the attack, as that was not part of its remit.
Mr Ban was asked at a news conference whether he knew who was behind the attack.
He replied that "we may all have our own thoughts" but it was for "others to decide" what steps should be taken to bring those responsible to justice...
The report describes the team's methods.  It estimates the direction the missiles came from and their range.  It includes pictures of missile parts that are alleged to have been part of the munitions, and which did contain sarin.  It was estimated that the missiles were able to contain up to 50 +/- 6 liters of liquid.  Markings are seen on the missile parts, but they are not linked to any nation or parts manufacturer.

The NY Times claims the UN report implicates "Syria," but it fails to implicate the Syrian government. More Newspeak from the NY Times? See U.N. Implicates Syria in Using Chemical Arms.

The US government continues to blame Assad for the attack on the basis that only the government, and not the rebels, could have such sophisticated weapons.  Yet the CIA supplied Afghanistan's mujahideen with hundreds of Stinger surface to air missiles (SAMs) in the 1980s, to use against Soviet planes and helicopters.  Yes, unsophisticated Afghanis used our sophisticated weaponry, acting as proxies against our enemy and theirs.

Claims have been made that the attack on the Benghazi US embassy had something to do with recovering 400 SAMs.  Claims have been made these or other originally US weapons were intended for Syrian rebels. SAMs are much more sophisticated than the missiles used for the CW attacks.

UPDATE October 8 from BBC: Libya's Prime Minister asks for help securing thousands of SAMS and other weapons loose in Libya.

What is stopping some rebels from obtaining chemical weapons and missiles?  Surely both can be purchased. Or transferred.  Or supplied by a nation with sophisticated weapons that needs a proxy.  In an interview on Flashpoint, Robert Parry provides reasons to think the Syrian rebels already have chemical weapons.

So far, the evidence has not implicated the guilty party.

UPDATE:  More shamelessness as Obama twists the truth in his 9/23/13 UN speech.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Did UK govt sanction sales of chemical weapons precursors to Syria last year? BBC and Independent

The Independent says sales were approved in 2012.  UK officials tell BBC that although sales were approved, approval was later revoked and no CW precursors went to Syria from the UK:
SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson said: "This is utter hypocrisy from the UK government - deploring chemical weapons in public whilst approving the sale of items needed to make them..."

Syria vs US Chemical Weapons Stockpiles--Same Agents, US supply 3 times larger

The US government acknowledges that chemical weapons remain at two US sites, where they will be destroyed by 2023. The sites are Kentucky's Blue Grass Army Depot and Colorado's Pueblo Chemical Depot.  Army documents reveal that Pueblo houses 2,611 tons of mustard agent.  The Blue Grass Army Depot houses 523 tons of sarin, VX and mustard agent.

According to the Daily Mail, French intelligence estimates the Syrian government stockpile (of exactly the same three chemical agents) to be 1,000 tons. US government officials told CBS News the same.

Too Many Holes in USG case / McClatchy

From McClatchy, a discussion of discrepancies in what the USG has asserted.  Read it all.  Here is just the beginning:
The Obama administration’s public case for attacking Syria is riddled with inconsistencies and hinges mainly on circumstantial evidence, undermining U.S. efforts this week to build support at home and abroad for a punitive strike against Bashar Assad’s regime. 
The case Secretary of State John Kerry laid out last Friday contained claims that were disputed by the United Nations, inconsistent in some details with British and French intelligence reports or lacking sufficient transparency for international chemical weapons experts to accept at face value...

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Current US Chemical Weapons Stockpile Comprises 3,134 tons-- But Some Has Leaked and Been Lost; Some More May be Buried

According to the US Army:

"The Blue Grass chemical weapons stockpile comprises more than 500 tons of blister and nerve agent in weapons."  
This stockpile includes sarin, VX and mustard, enough to (theoretically) kill millions of humans, packed into weapons and presumably ready for deployment.  The weapons are being held pending construction of a facility to destroy them. But this is an expensive undertaking.  How does $10.6 billion sound to destroy remaining US chemical weapons (only 10% of the original stockpile) at two sites?   

The Blue Grass facility currently employs over 1200 workers.  Destruction operations are scheduled to begin in 2020, despite the Chemical Weapons Convention agreement (signed by the US) that all weapons were to be destroyed by April 2012According to the Army:
The Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program’s mission is to destroy the last two remaining U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles – 2,611 tons of mustard agent in projectiles and mortars at the U.S. Army Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado, and 523 tons of mustard and nerve agent in rockets and projectiles at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. 
Here is the US Army's map of its stockpiles, including chemical munitions still in storage and those already destroyed.   It is not like the old days, when you simply put unwanted chemical weapons on board ships, sent them offshore and scuttled the boats and the chemical weapons.  Check out some of the many places the US admits it simply dumped chemical weapons in the ocean.  Reportedly 32 dumps were off US shores and 42 were off foreign shoresConsider the alternate method for getting rid of chemical agents at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a home of chemical weapons since 1942.  A 12,000 foot deep well was drilled in 1961 and unwanted chemical agents flushed down the drain.  After earthquakes (710 earthquakes in 3.5 years) started appearing, the army had to pump the chemical stew back up and find another way to get rid of it.
According to a 2006 CDC brochure, and recently updated CDC docs here and here, additional non stockpile CW materials include "recovered chemical weapons, chemical samples and binary chemical weapons":
The original stockpile contained 63 million pounds of chemical weapons disseminated at eight sites in the continental United States and at Johnston Atoll in the Pacific. Additional non-stockpile materiel, such as buried chemical warfare materiel, is located at more than 200 sites in the United States and U.S. territories.
Nowadays, ridding ourselves of the chemical weapons stockpile is totally different:  you build fabulously complex and expensive facilities before destroying a single weapon.  (But it is okay to let them leak on-site, endangering Americans; see below.) At this rate, assuming on-time performance, we might be rid of all our chemical weapons in another ten years.  And be at least $10.6 billion poorer.  
Although the US is paying a king's ransom to safely dispose of its remaining chemical weapons, it failed to prevent repeated leaks of sarin at the Blue Grass arsenal--at least 3 times in the last six years. The media reported as recently as last year, and also in 2007 and 2008, that sarin was leaking. When the international chemical weapons inspectors who verify destruction do an inspection, they will probably not find all 523 tons of agent on site to be destroyed, and the leaks may be cited as the reason why.  Might some "leaked" or buried agents have found their way overseas?  
My point is simply that accurately accounting for tons of chemical weapons is no slam dunk, here or elsewhere.  When you have leaks, agents can go missing despite controls.  With over 200 US sites that contained CW materiel, it is virtually impossible to have an accurate inventory.

UPDATE Sept 12:  The NY Times yesterday agreed with me that "monitoring and securing unconventional weapons have proved challenging..."-- but the Times confined the challenge to Iraq, North Korea, Iran and Syria.  With no attribution, the Times cited a "Pentagon study" that claimed 75,000 troops would be needed to secure chemical weapons in a war zone.  Talk about a wild-ass guess.  Is the Times' reportage aimed at souring the US on Syria's offer to give up its chemical weapons?

Adding insult to injury, the same Times article misleads on the status of US compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  The CWC gave a few nations, including the US and Russia, an extension until 2012 to destroy all their chemicals weapons, with no permitted extensions beyond that time.  Both the US and Russia maintain several thousand tons of chemical weapons.  Each is noncompliant with the treaty.  However, the Times stated, "The nations with the biggest arsenals — the United States and Russia — have received deadline extensions"-- without informing readers the final deadline was missed and we do not plan to destroy all our CW for another ten years!

Taking A Clear Look at Syrian CW / The Atlantic

Finally, a knowledgeable former state department insider deconstructs the Syria situation. Read William R. Polk's entire article in the Atlantic, or just this crucial portion, part 4.

Who Are the Possible Culprits and What Would be Their Motivations?
            Since such information as we have is sketchy and questionable, we should seek to understand motives.  As a historian, dealing as one always does, with incomplete information, I have made it a rule when trying to get at the “truth” in any contentious issue to ask a series of questions among which are who benefits from a given action and what would I have done in a given situation?   Look briefly at what we think we now know in light of these questions:
First, who gains by the action.  I do not see what Assad could have gained from this gas attack.  It is evident that while the area in which it took place is generally held to be "disputed" territory, the government was able to arrange for the UN inspection team to visit it but not, apparently, to guarantee their safety there. If Assad were to initiate an attack, it would be more logical for him to pick a target under the control of the rebels. 
Second, to have taken the enormous risk of retaliation or at least loss of support by some of his allies (notably the Russians) by using this horrible weapon, he must have thought of it either as a last ditch stand or as a knockout blow to the insurgents.  Neither appears to have been the case.  Reports in recent weeks suggest that the Syrian government was making significant gains against the rebels.  No observer has suggested that its forces were losing.   All indications are that the government’s command and control system not only remains intact but that it still includes among its senior commanders and private soldiers a high proportion of Sunni Muslims. Were the regime in decline, it would presumably have purged those whose loyalties were becoming suspect (i.e. the Sunni Muslims) or they would have bolted for cover.  Neither happened. 
Moreover, if it decided to make such an attack, I should have thought that it would have aimed at storage facilities, communications links, arms depots or places where commanders congregated.  The suburbs of Damascus offered none of these opportunities for a significant, much less a knockout, blow. 
Third, as students of guerrilla warfare have learned guerrillas are dispersed but civilians are concentrated.  So weapons of mass destruction are more likely to create hostility to the user than harm to the opponent. The chronology of the Syrian civil war shows that the government must be aware of this lesson as it has generally held back its regular troops (which were trained and armed to fight foreign invasion) and fought its opponents with relatively small paramilitary groups backed up by air bombardment. Thus, a review of the fighting over the last two years suggests that its military commanders would not have seen a massive gas attack either as a “game changer” or an option valuable enough to outweigh the likely costs. 
So, what about the enemies of the Assad regime?   How might such an attack have been to their advantage? 
First, a terrorizing attack might have been thought advantageous because of the effect on people who are either supporting the regime or are passive.  There are indications, for example, that large numbers of the pathetic Palestinian refugees are pouring out their camps in yet another "displacement."  The number of Syrian refugees is also increasing.  Terror is a powerful weapon and historically and everywhere was often used. Whoever initiated the attack might have thought, like those who initiated the attack on Guernica, the bombing of Rotterdam and the Blitz of London, that the population would be so terrorized that they might give up or at least cower.  Then as food shortages and disease spread, the economy would falter.  Thus the regime might collapse. 
That is speculative, but the second benefit to the rebels of an attack is precisely what has happened: given the propensity to believe everything evil about the Assad regime,  daily emphasized by the foreign media, a consensus, at least in America, has been achieved  is that it must have been complicit.  This consensus should make it possible for outside powers to  take action against the regime and join in giving the insurgents the money, arms and training. 
We know that the conservative Arab states, the United States, other Western powers and perhaps Israel have given assistance to the rebels for the last two years, but the outside aid has not been on a scale sufficient to enable them to defeat the government. They would need much more and probably would also need foreign military intervention as happened in Libya in April 2011 to overthrow Muamar Qaddafi.  The rebels must have pondered that situation.  We know that foreign military planners have. (See “Military Intervention in Syria” Wikileaks reprinted on August 25, 2013, memorandum of a meeting in the Pentagon in 2011.) Chillingly, the just cited Wikileaks memorandum notes that the assembled military and intelligence officers “don’t believe air intervention would happen unless there was enough media attention on a massacre, like the Ghadafi [sic] move against Benghazi.” (See Time, March 17, 2011.)  As in Libya,  evidence of an ugly suppression of inhabitants might justify and lead to foreign military intervention. 
Clearly, Assad had much to lose and his enemies had much to gain.  That conclusion does not prove who did it, but it should give us pause to find conclusive evidence which we do not now have...

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Syria: Claims Without Evidence, Expanding Obama's Mandate for War / NYT

Kerry persists today in making outsize claims that he fails to support.  My comments are in parentheses.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in his remarks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged Congress to vote in favor of the president ordering a military strike and argued that “the risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting...” [Really? Please explain why helping the side of al Qaeda and islamic mercenaries will reduce risk to the US.--Nass]
"We can tell you beyond any reasonable doubt that our evidence proves the Assad regime prepared for this attack, warned its forces to use gas masks,” Mr. Kerry said, referring to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. [Please provide the evidence, sir.--Nass]
“We have physical evidence of where the rockets came from and when,” he said. “Not one rocket landed in regime-controlled territory. All of them landed in opposition-controlled or contested territory. We have a map, physical evidence, showing every geographical point of impact — and that is concrete.” [But of course a false flag operation by rebel supporters would send its rockets to such targets.--Nass]
Mr. Kerry argued against any restrictions in the Congressional authorization, including whether ground forces would be prohibited. He emphasized that Mr. Obama had no intention to put “boots on the ground.” But he said that if Syria imploded and chemical weapons depots were at risk of being raided by militants, then ground troops might be required to secure those locations. He said such an action would most likely be undertaken with allies....  [So now we are saying no boots on the ground unless we change our this designed to ensure Congress will balk at an attack--or an attempt to gain carte blanche for the President to open up a new front in the so-called war on terror?--Nass]
Mr. Kerry warned that the turmoil in Syria, if not contained, might allow extremists to find haven in a country with chemical weapons. [Which, if you read my post below, could actually be the United States, which has failed to rid itself of all its chemical weapons by the agreed-upon 2012 deadline.] That nexus of chemical weapons depots and militant fighters tied to international terrorist organizations, he said, could threaten American allies that border Syria, American troops in the region and perhaps even United States territory...
Well, US chemical weapons (yes, sarin nerve gas) does threaten Americans at home--because US government stocks have been leaking on US soil, threatening soldiers and civilians!  As recently as last year, but also in 2007 and 2008 sarin escaped--repeatedly, at the same military base.  I guess we are really worried about the threat of sarin, except when it menaces our own bases and troops.  Why was there no commitment to properly house it -- on the same army base where billions are being spent to create a "safe facility" to destroy chemical weapons?
Mr. Kerry has been the administration’s most ardent advocate of military action, while General Dempsey has written to Congress warning of the potential costs and likely risks of significant intervention... 
General Dempsey told Congress in April that he was not sure the United States “could identify the right people” to equip in the Syrian opposition. “It’s actually more confusing on the opposition side today than it was six months ago,” General Dempsey said.

What are chemical weapons, who has them, are they in compliance with international law, and what can be done to protect people from such weapons?

There are many types of chemicals that have been designated as chemical weapons by the international body established by the UN to prevent the use of chemical weapons. It is called the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and is headquartered in the Netherlands.  Only seven nations are not parties to the OPCW.  Israel and Myanmar (formerly Burma) signed but failed to ratify the 1993 agreement.  Five other nations failed to sign it:  Syria, South Sudan, North Korea, Angola and Egypt.

Nations who are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention/OPCW agreed to destroy all their chemical weapons by May 2012, but most have failed to meet that deadline, including the United States.  Furthermore, it is by no means certain that all nations possessing chemical weapons declared them, so information on existing stocks of such weapons is incomplete.

Had all 189 nation members of the OPCW complied with the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention's required destruction of chemical weapons, there would be many fewer such weapons available that could be transferred and used.  The US still maintains large stockpiles of sarin and other chemical weapons.  This US Army map shows you where it was and where it still is located.

So when Obama says that we know Syria's Assad has chemical weapons, Assad could be saying the same thing about us!

From an OPCW report:

Chemical Weapons Destruction Under Way

The 7 States Parties (A State Party, Albania, India, Iraq, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, the Russian Federation, and the United States of America) which have declared chemical weapons must destroy 8.67 million items, including munitions and containers containing in total, 71,196 metric tonnes of extremely toxic chemical agents. Albania, India and a third country have completed destruction. By comparison, a tiny drop of a nerve agent, no larger than the head of a pin, can kill an adult human being within minutes after exposure.The OPCW verifies that the destruction process is irreversible. At the same time, States Parties in the process of destroying chemical weapons are obliged to place the highest priority on the safety of people and on protecting the environment.
55,939, or 78.57%, of the world's declared stockpile of 71,196 metric tonnes of chemical agent have been verifiably destroyed. (As at 28/02/2013)
3.95, or 45.56%, of the 8.67 million chemical munitions and containers covered by the CWC have been verifiably destroyed. (As at 28/02/2013)
The OPCW has developed an internationally unique, peer-reviewed, and certified analytical database, containing information on over 3,400 chemical weapons-related compounds. This database is essential for on-site verification activities of OPCW inspection teams, and is also made available to States Parties.
So, although although all 189 member nations agreed to destroy all chemical weapons in their possession by March 2012, less than half of CW weapons in munitions (those ready for immediate delivery to targets) had been destroyed by the deadline, including those possessed by the United States.

OPCW and CDC have posted instructions on how to protect oneself indoors from a chemical weapons attack.

UPDATE Sept. 26:  From the Anniston, Alabama Star:  A detailed history of the US chemical weapons stockpile, leaks and destruction. An excerpt:
For years, workers in chemical suits dealt directly with the chemical weapons, taking them out of storage, moving them to destruction facilities where they could be destroyed or neutralized through a chemical process. 
It was, by all accounts, dangerous work. The chemical munitions were indeed munitions, capable of exploding. The M55 chemical rockets that made up much of the arsenal, both in Anniston and elsewhere, were known to be leaky. News accounts from the 1990s and onward refer to the dangers of the aging rockets in the stockpile. But a history written by officials at Edgewood arsenal states that the rockets first started leaking in 1966, shortly after they were built. Abrams also confirmed that the rockets began leaking a few years after they were built...
Monteverde said the design of the weapons has made destruction a difficult problem at every facility.
"They were never designed to be disassembled," he said. "It was always thought, at the time of their manufacture, that they were designed to be used." 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Disingenuous John Kerry: NOW we can prove sarin was used

Washington Post today:  Sarin gas used in Syria attack, Kerry says

That's great, John.  But -- does that mean you were trying to drum up support for an attack before you could prove chemicals weapons were used?

Come on, John, you know this is not the real question that needs to be answered.  What we need to know is who actually sent the sarin.  Why are you steering this debate in the wrong direction?

UPDATE Sept 5:  The BBC's Washington bureau explains the various methods that are being used by the Obama administration to convince a recalcitrant Congress and American people to start a new military adventure.  It also highlights the skeptics.

Method Number 6 is:  Get your lieutenants to present the case

Do the lieutenants seem to be enjoying this job?

John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey

The 2011 LA Times tells us that the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures weren't cheap:  2.5 Trillion $ and counting.  About $10,000 for each American.  It was all borrowed.  When will we have to pony up?  What will Syria cost?  And what will Syria look like after we join the fray?  Anything like our 'successes' in fractured Iraq and Afghanistan?

The 2013 LA Times ups the ante:

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost between $4 trillion and $6 trillion, with medical care and disability benefits weighing heavily for decades to come, according to a new analysis.
The bill to taxpayers so far has been $2 trillion, plus $260 billion in interest on the resulting debt. By comparison, the current federal budget is $3.8 trillion.
Sorry, $20,000 for each American.  Consider these wars your second mortgage.  And it's collecting interest.  How much are you willing to pay for Syria?

Congressman Raul Grijalva: If America wants Assad to respect international law, it must respect it, too / Fox

From Fox News comes this piece from progressive Democratic member of Congress Raul Grijalva:
Now that President Obama has made up his mind about taking America to war with yet another Muslim country, he wants Congress to get on board. 
To his credit, he’s seeking congressional authorization, as required by the War Powers Act of 1973, but he has given every indication that he’ll invade Syria irrespective of approval by majorities in the House and the Senate. 
Presidents have done it before, without congressional authorization, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton.
This would be a shame. Not only would it mean that the U.S. would be flouting, somewhat ostentatiously, international law, but it would also mean that this would be the eighth Muslim-majority country with which America has been at war during Obama’s term as president. Count them: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, Libya, Somalia, and now Syria.
This weekend, the White House came courting to Congress, showing evidence and secret intelligence to make the case for military action. What was remarkably lacking, however, throughout all the pomp and circumstance, was any other tool in their intervention toolkit.
  • No talk about exhaustive diplomacy with all stakeholders involved. 
  • No talk about violence prevention. 
  • No talk about the International Criminal Court. 
  • No talk about working with the U.N. Security Council. 
In fact, quite the opposite: as evidenced by Secretary Kerry’s speech on Friday and Obama’s speech on Saturday, an implicit dismissal of all of these options. In fact, Kerry directly dismissed the U.N.’s role and its Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, as did the president.
This is unprecedented, especially for a Democratic White House. This also puts the president’s main argument – that the violation of international law, vis-à-vis chemical weapons usage, is the main pretext for invasion – in a precarious position.
Why, because the president, unless he gets clearance from the U.N. Security Council before/after he gets clearance (or not) from members of Congress, will also be in direct violation of international law.
That means that our president is going to war with another country’s president for violating international law while our president is fully prepared to violate international law. How’s that for international norm setting and standard bearing?
America must remember that, at present, there is no international legal justification for an attack on Syria. 
America would need a United Nations Security Council resolution, backing the invasion, which it has yet to secure. 
This is a clear double-standard and one that erodes the ethical fabric forged in 1945, within the United Nations Charter, and before, in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928.
America should care about international law and justice, and we should use all necessary measures and mechanisms in place for such legal enforcement, to hold Assad – and possibly some of the rebel groups --accountable for crimes against humanity and war crimes...
Secretary Kerry once agreed with this thinking, reaffirming, during his confirmation hearings in January 2013, “a U.N. resolution is a necessary ingredient to provide the legal basis for military action in an emergency”. 
And while this crisis in Syria is undoubtedly an emergency, in light of the concern that the Assad government used chemical weapons on his people, we have had plenty of time – and tens of thousands of deaths – to make the legal case to the U.N. Security Council and to the US Congress, something the Obama administration has failed to do.
If the administration wants to avoid undermining almost a century of international law, and four decades of Congressional legislation, President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and Ambassador Samantha Power are going to have to make the case to Congress and to the Security Council.
America, that is the hard work that is necessary. There is no excuse for a half-baked case and there is no excuse for claims of urgency when tens of thousands of Syrians have already died with little fanfare in Washington.
If America wants the Assad government – or any other government for that matter – to obey by the strictures of international law, the West must set the standard for responsible adherence.
Invading Syria now not only fails on that front but also further undermines the West’s ability to forge agreement around this entire premise. And what a crime that would constitute.