Sunday, October 25, 2009

Craig Murray: UK Ambassador Sacked for Whistelblowing about torture in Uzbekistan

How a Torture Protest Killed a Career
by Craig Murray

Editor's Note: In this modern age - and especially since George W. Bush declared the "war on terror" eight years ago - the price for truth-telling has been high, especially for individuals whose consciences led them to protest the torture of alleged terrorists.
One of the most remarkable cases is that of Craig Murray, a 20-year veteran of the British Foreign Service whose career was destroyed after he was posted to Uzbekistan in August 2002 and began to complain about Western complicity in torture committed by the country's totalitarian regime, which was valued for its brutal interrogation methods and its vast supplies of natural gas.
Murray soon faced misconduct charges that were leaked to London's tabloid press before he was replaced as ambassador in October 2004, marking the end of what had been a promising career. Murray later spoke publicly about how the Bush administration and Prime Minister Tony Blair's government collaborated with Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov and his torturers. [See, for instance, Murray's statement to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Torture.]
But Murray kept quiet about his personal ordeal as the victim of the smear campaign that followed his impassioned protests to the Foreign Office about torture. Finally, on Oct. 22 at a small conference in Washington, Murray addressed the personal pain and his sense of betrayal over his treatment at the hands of former colleagues.
While Murray's account is a personal one, it echoes the experiences of many honest government officials and even mainstream journalists who have revealed inconvenient truths about wrongdoing by powerful Establishment figures and paid a high price.
Below is a partial transcript of Murray's remarks:

Craig Murray:

I was just having dinner in a restaurant that was only a block from the White House. It must have been a good dinner because it cost me $120. Actually it was a good dinner. Š

I've never, ever spoken in public about the pain of being a whistleblower. Partly because of the British stiff-upper lip thing and partly as well because if you wish to try eventually to get on and reestablish yourself then it doesn't do to show weakness. Š
I was sitting in this place on my own and feeling rather lonely. And there were a whole bunch of people in dark suits coming from government offices, in many cases in groups, and there they were with the men's suits sleek and the ladies, the whole office, power-politics thing going on, having after-dinner champagne in the posh bar.
And I was remembering how many times I'd been the center of such groups and of how successful my life used to be. I was a British ambassador at the age of 42. The average age for such a post is 57.
I was successful in worldly terms. And I think I almost never sat alone at such a place. Normally if I had been alone in such a place, I would have ended up probably in the company of a beautiful young lady of some kind.
I tell you that partly because this whole question of personal morality is a complicated one. I would never, ever, no one would have ever pointed at me as someone likely to become or to be a person of conscience. And yet eventually I found myself on the outside and treated in a way that challenged my whole view of the world.
Mission to Tashkent
Let me start to tell you something about how that happened. I was a British ambassador in Uzbekistan and I was told before I went that Uzbekistan was an important ally in the war on terror, had given the United States a very important airbase which was a forward mounting post for Afghanistan, and was a bulwark against Islamic extremism in Central Asia.
When I got there I found it was a dreadful regime, absolutely totalitarian. And there's a difference between dictatorship of which there are many and a totalitarian dictatorship which unless you've actually been in one is hard to comprehend.

There's absolutely no free media whatsoever. News on every single channel, the news programs start with 12 items about what the president did today. And that's it. That is the news. There are no other news channels and international news channels are blocked.
There are about 12,000 political prisoners. Any sign of religious enthusiasm for any religion will get you put into jail. The majority of people are predominantly Muslim. But if you are to carry out the rituals of the Muslim religion, particularly if you were to pray five times a day, you'd be in jail very quickly. Young men are put in jail for growing beards.
It's not the only religion which is outlawed. The jails are actually quite full of Baptists. Being Baptist is illegal in Uzbekistan. I'm sure that Methodists and Quakers would be illegal, too, It's just that they haven't got any so they haven't gotten around to making them illegal.
And it's really not a joke. If you are put into prison in Uzbekistan the chances of coming out again alive are less than even. And most of the prisons are still the old Soviet gulags in the most literal sense. They are physically the same places. The biggest one being the Jaslyk gulag in the deserts of the Kizyl Kum.
I had only been there for a week or two when I went to a show trial of an al-Qaeda terrorist they had caught. It was a big event put on partly for the benefit of the American embassy to demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-Uzbek alliance against terrorism.
When I got there, to call the trial unconvincing would be an underestimate. There was one moment when this old man [who] had given evidence that his nephew was a member of al-Qaeda and had personally met Osama bin Laden. And like everybody else in that court he
was absolutely terrified.
But suddenly as he was giving his evidence, he seemed from somewhere to find an inner strength. He was a very old man but he stood taller and said in a stronger voice, he said, "This is not true. This is not true. They tortured my children in front of me until I signed this. I had never heard of al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden."
He was then hustled out of the court and we never did find out what had happened to him. He was almost certainly killed. But as it happens I was within touching distance of him when he said that and I can't explain it. It's not entirely rational. But you could just feel it was true. You could tell he was speaking the truth when he said that.
And that made me start to call into doubt the whole question of the narrative about al-Qaeda in Uzbekistan and the alliance in the war on terror.
Boiled to Death
Something which took that doubt over the top happened about a week later. The West -- because Uzbekistan was our great ally in the war on terror - had shown no interest in the human rights situation at all. In fact, the opposite, going out of its way to support the
So the fact that I seemed to be interested and seemed to be sympathetic came as something of a shock and people [in Uzbekistan] started to come to me.
One of the people who came to me was an old lady, a widow in her 60s whose son had been killed in Jaslyk prison and she brought me photos of the corpse of her son. It had been given back to her in a sealed casket and she'd been ordered not to open the casket but to bury it the next morning, which actually Muslims would do anyway. They always bury a body immediately.
But she disobeyed the instructions not to open the casket. She was a very old lady but very determined. She got the casket open and the body out onto the table and took detailed photos of the body before resealing the casket and burying it. These photos she now brought to me.
I sent them on to the chief pathologist at the University of Glasgow, who actually now by coincidence is the chief pathologist for the United Kingdom. There were a number of photos and he did a detailed report on the body. He said from the photographs the man's fingernails had been pulled out while he was still alive. Then he had been boiled alive. That was the cause of death, immersion in boiling liquid.

Certainly it wasn't the only occasion when we came across evidence of people being boiled alive. That was the most extreme form of torture, I suppose, but immersion in boiling liquid of a limb was quite common.
Mutilation of the genitals was common. Suffocation was common, usually by putting a gas mask on people and blocking the air vents until they suffocated. Rape was common, rape with objects, rape with bottles, anal rape, homosexual rape, heterosexual rape, and mutilation of children in front of their parents.
It began with that and became a kind of personal mission for me, I suppose, to do what I could to try to stop this. I spent a great deal of time with my staff gathering evidence on it.
Being a very capricious government, occasionally a victim [of the Uzbek regime] would be released and we'd be able to see them and get medical evidence. More often you'd get letters smuggled out of the gulags and detention centers, evidence from relatives who managed to
visit prisoners.
We built up an overwhelming dossier of evidence, and I complained to London about the conduct of our ally in rather strong terms including the photos of the boy being boiled alive.
'Over-Focused on Human Rights'
I received a reply from the British Foreign Office. It said, this is a direct quote, "Dear Ambassador, we are concerned that you are perhaps over-focused on human rights to the detriment of commercial interests."
I was taken aback. I found that extraordinary. But things had gotten much worse because while we were gathering the information about torture, we were also learning what people were forced to confess to under torture.
People aren't tortured for no reason. They're tortured in order to extract some information or to get them to admit to things, and normally the reason you torture people is to get them to admit to things that aren't actually true. They were having to confess to membership in al-Qaeda, to being at training camps in Afghanistan, personally meeting Osama bin Laden.
At the same time, we were receiving CIA intelligence. MI-6 and the CIA share all their intelligence. So I was getting all the CIA intelligence on Uzbekistan and it was saying that detainees had confessed to membership in al-Qaeda and being in training camps in Afghanistan and to meeting Osama bin Laden.
One way and another I was piecing together the fact that the CIA material came from the Uzbek torture sessions.
I didn't want to make a fool of myself so I sent my deputy, a lady called Karen Moran, to see the CIA head of station and say to him, "My ambassador is worried your intelligence might be coming from torture. Is there anything he's missing?"
She reported back to me that the CIA head of station said, "Yes, it probably is coming from torture, but we don't see that as a problem in the context of the war on terror."
In addition to which I learned that CIA were actually flying people to Uzbekistan in order to be tortured. I should be quite clear that I knew for certain and reported back to London that people were being handed over by the CIA to the Uzbek intelligence services and were being subjected to the most horrible tortures.
I didn't realize that they weren't Uzbek. I presumed simply that these were Uzbek people who had been captured elsewhere and were being sent in.
I now know from things I've learned subsequently, including the facts that the Council of Europe parliamentary inquiry into extraordinary rendition found that 90 percent of all the flights that called at the secret prison in Poland run by the CIA as a torture center for extraordinary rendition, 90 percent of those flights next went straight on to Tashkent [the capital of Uzbekistan].
There was an overwhelming body of evidence that actually people from all over the world were being taken by the CIA to Uzbekistan specifically in order to be tortured. I didn't know that. I thought it was only Uzbeks, but nonetheless, I was complaining internally as hard as I could.
The result of which was that even when I was only complaining internally, I was subjected to the most dreadful pattern of things which I still find it hard to believe happened.

I was suddenly accused of issuing visas in return for sex, stealing money from the post account, of being an alcoholic, of driving an embassy vehicle down a flight of stairs, which is extraordinary because I can't drive. I've never driven in my life. I don't have a driving license. My eyesight is terrible. Š
But I was accused of all these unbelievable accusations, which were leaked to the tabloid media, and I spent a whole year of tabloid stories about sex-mad ambassador, blah-blah-blah. And I hadn't even gone public. What I had done was write a couple of memos saying that this collusion with torture is illegal under a number of international conventions including the UN Convention Against Torture.
I couldn't believe [what was happening], I'd been a very successful foreign service officer for over 20 years. The British Foreign Service is small. Actual diplomats, as opposed to [support] staff, are only about 2,000 people,
I worked there for over 20 years. I knew most of them by name. All the people involved in smearing me, trying to taint me on false charges, were people I thought were my friends. It's really hard when people you think are your friends [lie about you].
I'm writing memos saying it's illegal to torture people, children are being tortured in front of their parents. And they're writing memos back saying it depends on the definition of complicity under Article Four of the UN Convention.
I'm thinking what's happening to their moral sense, and I never, ever considered myself a good person, at all. Yet I couldn't see where they were coming from and I still don't; I still don't understand it to this day.
And then these people - and I'm absolutely certain quite knowingly - tried to negate what they saw as these unpatriotic things. I was told I was viewed now as unpatriotic, by trying to land me with false allegations.
I went through a five-month fight and formal charges. I was found eventually not guilty on all charges, but my reputation was ruined forever because the tabloid media all carried the allegations against me in 25-point headlines and the fact I was acquitted in two sentences on page 19. It's extraordinary.
Lessons Learned
The thing that came out of it most strongly for me is how in a bureaucratic structure, if the government can convince people that there is a serious threat to the nation, ordinary people who are not bad people will go along with things that they know are bad, like torture, like trying to stain an innocent man.
And it's circular, because the extraordinary thing about it was that the whole point of the intelligence being obtained under torture was to actually exaggerate the terrorist threats and to exaggerate the strength of al-Qaeda.
That was the whole point of why people were being tortured, to confess that they were members of al-Qaeda when they weren't members of al-Qaeda and to denounce long lists of names of people as members of al-Qaeda who weren't members of al-Qaeda.
I always tell my favorite example which is they gave me a long list of names of people whom people were forced to denounce and I often saw names of people I knew.
One day, I got this list from the CIA of names of a couple dozen al-Qaeda members and I knew one really quite well, an old dissident professor, a very distinguished man who was actually a Jehovah's Witness, and there aren't many Jehovah's Witnesses in al-Qaeda. I'd even bet that al-Qaeda don't even try to recruit Jehovah's Witnesses. I'm quite sure that Jehovah's Witnesses would try to recruit al-Qaeda.
So much of this intelligence was nonsense. It was untrue and it was designed to paint a false picture. The purpose of the false picture was to make people feel afraid. What was it really about. Š
I want to mention this book, which is the greatest book that I've ever written. It's called Murder in Samarkand and recounts in detail what I have just told you together with the documentary evidence behind it.
But the most interesting bit of the entire book comes before the page numbers start, which is a facsimile of a letter from Enron, from Kenneth Lay, chairman of Enron, to the honorable George W. Bush, governor of the state of Texas. It was written on April 3, 1997, sometime before Bush became president.

It reads, I'll just read you two or three sentences, "Dear George, you will be meeting with Ambassador Sadyq Safaev, Uzbekistan's Ambassador to the United States on April 8th. Š Enron has established an office in Tashkent and we are negotiating a $2 billion joint venture with Neftegas of Uzbekistan Š to develop Uzbekistan's natural gas and transport it to markets in Europe Š This project can bring significant economic opportunities to Texas."
Not everyone in Texas, of course. George Bush and Ken Lay, in particular.
That's actually what it was about. All this stuff about al-Qaeda that they were inventing, extreme Islamists in Central Asia that they were inventing.
I have hundreds and hundreds of Uzbek friends now. Every single one of them drinks vodka. It is not a good place for al-Qaeda. They were inventing the threat in order to cover up the fact that their real motive was Enron's gas contract and that was the plain and honest truth of the matter.
Just as almost everything you see about Afghanistan is a cover for the fact that the actual motive is the pipeline they wish to build over Afghanistan to bring out Uzbek and Turkmen natural gas which together is valued at up to $10 trillion, which they want to bring over Afghanistan and down to the Arabian Sea to make it available for export.
And we are living in a world where people, a small number of people, with incredible political clout and huge amounts of money, are prepared to see millions die for their personal economic gain and where, even worse, most people in bureaucracies are prepared to go along with it for their own much smaller economic gain, all within this psychological mirage which is so much of the war on terror.
It's hard to stand against it. I do think things are a little more sane now than they were a year or two ago. I do think there's a greater understanding, but you'll never hear what I just told you in the mainstream media. It's impossible to get it there.
[For an early article about President Bush's Uzbek alliance, see "The More Things Change."]


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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

David Bromwich: Obama's Pattern of Delay: His plan to continue the status quo

Obama’s Delusion
David Bromwich

Long before he became president, there were signs in Barack Obama of a tendency to promise things easily and compromise often. He broke a campaign vow to filibuster a bill that immunised telecom outfits against prosecution for the assistance they gave to domestic spying. He kept his promise from October 2007 until July 2008, then voted for the compromise that spared the telecoms. As president, he has continued to support their amnesty. It was always clear that Obama, a moderate by temperament, would move to the middle once elected. But there was something odd about the quickness with which his website mounted a slogan to the effect that his administration would look to the future and not the past. We all do. Then again, we don’t: the past is part of the present. Reduced to a practice, the slogan meant that Obama would rather not bring to light many illegal actions of the Bush administration. The value of conciliation outweighed the imperative of truth. He stood for ‘the things that unite not divide us’. An unpleasant righting of wrongs could be portrayed as retribution, and Obama would not allow such a misunderstanding to get in the way of his ecumenical goals.

The message about uniting not dividing was not new. It was spoken in almost the same words by Bill Clinton in 1993; and after his midterm defeat in 1994, Clinton borrowed Republican policies in softened form – school dress codes, the repeal of welfare. The Republican response was unappreciative: they launched a three-year march towards impeachment. Obama’s appeals for comity and his many conciliatory gestures have met with a uniform negative. If anything, the Republicans are treating him more roughly than Clinton. Obama appears securer only because the mainstream media, which hated Clinton beyond reason, have showed up on his side. Americans, however, attend to a congeries of substitute media, at the centre of which lie Fox News Radio and Fox TV, the Murdoch stations. From that source, in the late spring and summer, a message percolated through a crowd of 20 million listeners, a message that was coherent, detailed and subversive of public order. I listened a little every day, as I drove to work and back, and I saw what was coming. The talk aimed to delegitimate the president, and it gave promise of an insurrection. A floating army of the angry and resentful were being urged to express contempt for Barack Obama, and to exhibit their loyalty to principles they felt in danger of losing – the right to bear arms, the right not to pay for health insurance. When representatives from Congress addressed town-hall meetings in the late summer, men in several states came armed with guns in leg holsters. Their local grievance was hostility to Obama’s plan for healthcare, a plan which was detested sight unseen, and which has still not been explained with sufficient clarity to remedy the distrust of the rational. (Clinton made the mistake of handing the construction of a national health system to his wife and a group of advisers she consulted in private. Obama, to avoid that error, left the framing and elaboration of a bill to five committees of Congress: an experiment in dissociation that rendered him blameless but also clueless beyond the broadest of rhetorical commitments.) But beneath all the accusations was a disturbance no ordinary answer could alleviate. The America these people grew up with was being taken away from them. That formulation occurred again and again on talk radio. Barack Obama had become the adequate symbol of forces that were swindling the people of their birthright. ‘This guy’ – another common locution – didn’t have a right to give laws to Americans.

When the Clinton impeachment was going forward, Obama was a young Chicago politician with other things on his mind. He could have learned something then about how the Republicans work. The most questionable of his appeals in the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton was the endlessly repeated bromide with which he dissociated himself from ‘the partisan bickering of the 1990s’ – a piece of spurious evenhandedness if there ever was one. Bill Clinton, who gained his national stature in the conservative Democratic Leadership Council, had been as much a prudent adjuster and adapter as Obama. The fury of the attack on Clinton, which started a few months into his presidency, was not the bickering of two rival parties exactly comparable in point of incivility. Yet such was Obama’s convenient picture of the recent past.

Delays in the passage, first, of Obama’s ‘stimulus package’ to strengthen the economy after last September’s financial collapse, and, second, of his healthcare bill, have been due in large part to his public pauses to wait for Republicans to lend these measures a bipartisan glow. A few came along, at a high price, to vote for the economic stimulus. None has taken up the offer on healthcare. The Republicans stand in place, and give no sign, and watch as the president’s stature dwindles. His reason for waiting doubtless has something to do with fear. Obama receives four times as many death threats as George W. Bush did. Yet he is also encumbered by the natural wish of the moderate to hold himself close to all the establishments at once: military, financial, legislative, commercial. Ideally, he would like to inspire everyone and to offend no one. But the conceit of accommodating one’s enemies inch by inch to attain bipartisan consensus seems with Obama almost a delusion in the literal sense: a fixed false belief. How did it come to possess so clever a man?

Obama’s career up to now, lucky as it was, had been wanting in singular achievements for which he alone was responsible. His experience seems not to have taught him the law of natural selection in politics by which majorities are put together out of remainders. Any act that achieves something concrete will leave small multitudes of the disappointed keening but unheard. There are hurt feelings in politics, which only time can cure if anything can. This is a truth now staring at Barack Obama, on several different fronts, but he does not accept it easily. His way of thinking is close to the spirit of that Enlightenment reasonableness which supposes a right course of action can never be described so as to be understood and not assented to.

The Republican Party of 2009 is a powerful piece of contrary testimony. It has become the party of wars and jails, and its moral physiognomy is captured by the faces of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, faces hard to match outside Cruikshank’s drawings of Dickens’s villains, hard as nails and mean as dirt and with an issue still up their sleeve when wars wind down and the jails are full: a sworn hostility towards immigrants and ‘aliens’. The anti-immigrant bias – from which George W. Bush and John McCain were free, but which both were powerless to counteract – is an underground stream of the party that makes it a bearer of racist sentiments no longer avowable in public. I have been studying the ante-bellum South, for a course on the career of Abraham Lincoln, and have been struck by the resemblance between the Republicans today and the pre-Civil War Democrats. The model of the Republicans today is John C. Calhoun, the political theorist of the slave South and deviser of the rationale for local nullification of federal policies.

That the central lesson about his domestic enemies has not yet been learned by Obama is the mystery of the first eight months of his presidency. He has acted as if he were the leader of no party; as if patience and benignity of temper could bring out the best in everyone. This is part of a larger inward confusion about his role. He seems to speak at once, or rather he seems to speak at different times, as organiser and as mediator, national leader and national healer. There is something strange about the alternation of postures, from the point of view of empirical prudence. On the largest issues that he himself raised in his opening months – his decision to close Guantánamo, to press for a two-state solution of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and to reform healthcare with a national plan – his pattern has been the grand exordium delivered at stage centre, followed by months of silence. He has left his agents or his advisers or his party or both parties to mind the details. During the protracted delay, the very features that give the impress of his intention are sanded away. Thus, a new kind of pressure on Israel and a resolve to create a Palestinian state appeared to be signalled by his Cairo speech in early June. It was a thoughtful speech, and a courageous one, even if you took it as a series of propositions uttered at a certain time in a certain place. Simply to address the Muslims of the world without condescension was sure to make him unforgiving enemies on the American right – including the considerable body of Christian Zionists in the Southern and border states – and Obama went to Cairo and delivered his speech knowing that. Yet the four months since have seemed much longer than four months. Israel has sapped and undermined the settlement freeze. Binyamin Netanyahu gambled that he could trespass against objections by Obama’s negotiators, Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell, and the gamble has worked. The American desiderata were never backed by a sanction, and the Netanyahu government approved thousands of new units for the expansion of the Israeli colonies. This the Americans called ‘not helpful’.

Healthcare has been fretted according to a different schedule of neglect. Here, the undermining came first and Obama’s speech later. After a summer of radio coaching had rendered the opposition to healthcare so clamorous that many town-hall meetings erupted in disorder and some had to be closed early, Obama on 9 September addressed a joint session of Congress, and there, at last, he gave a measured and impressive presentation, which for the first time made the general case for his plan. It sent his approval ratings back above 50 per cent, and it was overshadowed only by the shout of a representative from South Carolina (Calhoun’s state), ‘You lie!’ – in effect a challenge to a duel with the president on the floor of Congress. This breach of protocol could hardly have come from a spontaneous welling-up of anger in Joe Wilson of South Carolina. To violate the hush of that monumental chamber required as much forethought and wild resolution as it would take to shout ‘God damn!’ in a cathedral. Wilson had done nothing previous of note, except mount a defence of the flying of the Confederate flag in the capitol of South Carolina. So the discord that the 9 September address was meant to salve showed its face again at the speech itself. There are people in America who sniff the taint of tyranny in every programme of the federal government; and a lot of them were listening to their radios in April, May, June and July. But there have also been grounds for fear that were genuine: a fact the prosperous neoliberal consensus lightly brushed off. Non-fanatical Americans of modest means have wondered how their children will pay for the emergency measures we are buying now but refusing to tax ourselves for.

Early suspicion of the bank bail-outs found a ready target of displaced resentment in the later demand for health insurance reform. Healthcare had never seemed a main concern of Obama’s as a candidate, and this looked like one more exorbitance. The new president had run up a staggering bill, close to a trillion dollars, to pay the brokerage houses to stave off a depression. He expected a gratitude he did not get. His choice of tactics could never have been easy to explain in a climate where so many bankers survived and so many ordinary people lost their homes and jobs. ‘And you are losing your health coverage, too!’ Obama says. But in a country where 85 per cent have coverage of some sort, more have been worrying about their homes and their jobs. Most people’s health insurance payments are taken out of their monthly pay cheques and put into private plans offered by their employers; when an employer cuts your job you lose the insurance too; but it betrayed a planner’s conceit in Obama to imagine that people would worry first, and most acutely, about the loss of their insurance. Many without a history of political resentment, some of whom voted for Obama, are startled that they keep being asked to foot the bill. It was easier to blame ‘big government’ than to say that the bankers and brokers and the whole financial establishment, with Goldman Sachs at its core, did not deserve the bail-outs. Obama’s speech on 9 September arrived too late to work as a counter-charm.

The pattern of the major announcement, the dilatory follow-up and the tardy self-defence has shown an alarming consistency in his administration. Obama ordered the closing of the prison at Guantánamo Bay as the first act of his presidency. Eight months later, Guantánamo remains open and unsolved, the date of its closing has been postponed, and the question of what to do with the prisoners has become the most explosive of all the matters that confront Obama’s authority. After signing the order in January, he took a long break; and his enemies rallied. Two elements of the syndrome should be distinguished. First, Obama is trying to do a great deal at once, not all of it thrust on him by the disasters of the previous administration. It is also beginning to appear that Obama has a slower ratio to the passage of time than most politicians. When he was attacked for the Guantánamo order, on the grounds that it placed the security of Americans in jeopardy, he let it be known that the issue was undergoing reappraisal; then, on 21 May, he gave a speech on law and national security at the National Archives: the worst speech of his presidency. He said that his paramount duty was ‘to keep the American people safe’: that word, safe, which was accorded a primacy by George W. Bush it had not been given by any earlier president, Obama himself now ranked ahead of the words justice, right, liberty and constitution. The National Archives speech was, more particularly, a response to the charges made by Dick Cheney over several preceding weeks.

In a speech delivered on the same day, 21 May, the former vice president, who has never really retired, gave a digest of his own published criticisms. The decision to release photos of the victims of torture, and to rule out ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ in the future, could only ‘lead our government further away from its duty to protect the American people’. Cheney intimated that if an attack occurred in the coming years, the fault would be Obama’s for having restored an antiquarian understanding of civil liberties and obedience to international law. Obama’s answer was sober and resolute in appearance, but, in detail, the National Archives speech was a capitulation on most of the points specified by Cheney. Prisoners would now be divided into five categories: those who could be freed because they were innocent; those who could be extradited to foreign countries; those who fell under the jurisdiction of military tribunals; those who could be tried in civilian courts in the US; and then a fifth category – those whom we lacked evidence to convict but who (it had been decided) were too dangerous to set free. These prisoners would be held indefinitely under a new legal dispensation still to be devised.

Preventive detention was a step President Nixon had proposed to Congress in 1970, but he never found the support or the temerity to put the programme into effect. Yet here was a Democratic president and professor of constitutional law doing what Nixon and for that matter Cheney and his assistants had only dreamed of. We have yet to see the final result, but the lesson of the encounter would seem to be: when you announce a great change, steal a march on your opponents by clinching the declaration with the deed. In no decision of his administration has Obama followed the wisdom of that Machiavellian precept. His government is also hampered by its want of a spokesman who can hit hard with words when the president wishes not to be seen to strike. Obama’s confidant David Axelrod, who managed his campaign and is often summoned to speak to the press on his behalf, emits a pleasant porridge of upper-media demotic. Another close adviser, Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago friend, is a technocrat to the bone, genially officious but lacking in any pith and point. These people are no match for Cheney, or for the president’s antagonists in the substitute media who speak under no restraint.

What Cheney and the radio demagogues sowed, the less gifted members of the Republican minority in Congress gratefully reaped. The minority leader of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, said on 17 September on the PBS show NewsHour: ‘We’re in the middle of a modern-day political rebellion in America.’ Interviewer: ‘Rebellion?’ Boehner: ‘Rebellion’. He repeated the word without compunction, and added: ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’ The tone of our public ‘conversation’ (he chose with malice the soft liberal word) Boehner pronounced to be healthy. He only hoped the crowds ‘would be civil’ or somehow would not become ‘too hateful’. But with Cheney at its head – a rebel against the constitution and a man above the laws since 2002 – the popular movement for nullification of the laws of the federal government has again become a force in American life.

Talk radio in the United States is a law unto itself. With the diffusion of authority that has followed wide adoption of the internet, Fox News Radio and Fox TV may be the only major outlets that still command a sizeable fraction of the audience of the old networks. The intuition of Obama and his advisers must have been that any protest in these byways of discourse was right-wing business as usual. That lazy assumption left them unequipped for the gravity of the challenge. They thought the anger would simmer and die down. It did not occur to them that it might simmer and boil. If a threat is seen to spring from a determined opponent, Obama’s inclination is generally to let it go. He will emerge (he trusts) in the long run as the man who takes long views. By the effects of these postponements, however, he is forever giving new hostages to the truckle of compromise; he is put in the position of backing away while his enemies pick up strength; and in a leader whose nature is conciliatory, this means that the declared scope of every undertaking slowly shrinks and recedes. Guantánamo will be closed but not as soon as we said. Israel must recognise the wrong of further expansion of the settlements, but Israel will not be required to stop soon. Healthcare will be passed on some terms or other, but government will not compete with the big insurers; price reductions will be conceived and executed by private consortiums; illegal immigrants will stay uninsured; and even legal immigrants will be prohibited from buying coverage.

There were plenty of people in December 2008 who nursed a prejudice against Obama but were still in search of reasons to back it. Rush Limbaugh was the radio talker who brought those people to a boil. Limbaugh’s style is a mixture of bluster, clowning and poison, in proportions hard to capture without his voice in your ear – a ‘fat’ voice, someone called it, that shifts in a beat from muttering to imprecation. It is always excited, always breathless, yet the pace is unhurried. Part of the appeal lies in a conscious and amiable egotism. ‘Rush Limbaugh,’ he will introduce himself after an ad, ‘with talent on loan from God.’ ‘El Rushbaugh, serving humanity (simply by being here).’ He tells people to believe him and believe no one else: ‘Shown by scientific study to be right 99.1 per cent of the time.’ He was capable, early, of nicknaming Obama ‘Bamster’ (to rhyme with ‘ham’), a semi-affectionate take-down in the parlance of fraternity boys. He nicknamed the health plan, with automatic sarcasm, ‘ObamaCare’. But the tone grew noticeably more bitter by late July. ‘You don’t know how difficult it is for me to say: the president of the United States is lying through his teeth.’ By 5 August it was ominous to the point of open menace: ‘The president of the United States, who is president of all of us, has decided to take aim at over half of the American people as political opponents.’

He was the scourge of Obama in the summer, a palpable challenge to his claim of legitimacy, as much as Cheney was in the spring. On his show of 27 July, Limbaugh could boast without exaggeration: ‘July is the month of horrors for Obama and the Democrats. And I am largely the reason why.’ In the absence of these accusers, the Republican Party would be adrift. With the impetus of such voices, it now stands a chance of winning the midterm elections in 2010. Limbaugh was placed on the defensive some months ago when he said that he wanted President Obama to fail. This seemed an insult to the office as well as the man. It also seemed to suggest a peculiarly self-separating definition of national loyalty. But he justified himself by remarking that Obama’s success would mean the end of America as we knew it. (The president had to fail for the country to succeed.) A link between Cheney and Limbaugh certainly exists. Limbaugh, unlike the other far right hosts, shuns the interviewing of guests, and yet Cheney, who for his part shuns interviews, was the guest of Limbaugh even when he was vice president. More recently Limbaugh has interviewed him in the role of ex officio party counsellor.

When I started taking notes for this piece at the end of the summer, violence was in the air. Has it passed? A protest march was shepherded to the Washington Mall and a monster rally of 100,000 was held on 12 September, the day after the anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. One message of the demonstration was a rebuke of Obama’s supposed offence against patriotic memory by his naming of 11 September as National Day of Service and Remembrance. Service – except for military service – is heard on the American right as a codeword or moral wedge for socialism: it is to socialism as doubt is to atheism. Probably they wanted something more like Pearl Harbor Day (though that is no longer commemorated). But when was there ever a rational fit between the size of a grievance flourished by an audience like this and a single cause the crowd can name?

‘They’ve taken on too much, too fast,’ Limbaugh said of Obama’s domestic curriculum, ‘and they’re not doing it right.’ That was in late spring; and it was close to common sense. By late summer the mood on the right was reminiscent of the rage against Kennedy in 1962, which passed through November 1963 unchastened, and attained a temporary climax with the nomination of Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964. It surfaced again in the run-up to the Clinton impeachment in 1996-97; but the fury of that time was allowed to take a detour through sex mania. Given the emotions he was up against, Clinton may have got off lightly.

Malthus’s doctrine on population and the necessity of many living in adversity, Hazlitt wrote, was a gospel ‘preached to the poor’. Equality in the United States in the early 21st century has become a gospel preached by the liberal elite to a populace who feel they have no stake in equality. Since the Reagan presidency and the dismemberment of the labour unions, America has not known a popular voice against the privilege of the large corporations. Yet without such a voice from below, all the benevolent programmes that can be theorised, lacking the ground note of genuine indignation, have turned into lumbering ‘designs’ espoused by the enlightened for moral reasons that ordinary people can hardly remember. The gambling ethic has planted itself deep in the America psyche – deeper now than it was in 1849 or 1928. Little has been inherited of the welfare-state doctrine of distributed risk and social insurance. The architects of liberal domestic policy, put in this false position, make easy prey for the generalised slander that says that all non-private plans for anything are hypocritical.

Afghanistan is the largest and the most difficult crisis Obama confronts away from home. And here the trap was fashioned largely by himself. He said, all through the presidential campaign, that Iraq was the wrong war but Afghanistan was the right one. It was ‘a war of necessity’, he said this summer. And he has implied that he would accept his generals’ definition of the proper scale of such a war. Now it appears that Afghanistan is being lost, indeed that it cannot be controlled with fewer than half a million troops on the ground for a decade or more. The generals are for adding troops, as in Vietnam, in increments of tens of thousands. Their current request was leaked to Bob Woodward, who published it in the Washington Post on 21 September, after Obama asked that it be kept from the public for a longer interval while he deliberated. The leak was an act of military politics if not insubordination; its aim was to show the president the cost of resisting the generals.

The political establishment has lined up on their side: the addition of troops is said to be the most telling way Obama can show resoluteness abroad. This verdict of the Wall Street Journal, the Post and (with more circumspection) the New York Times was taken up by John McCain and Condoleezza Rice. If Obama declined at last to oppose Netanyahu on the settlement freeze, he will be far more wary of opposing General Petraeus, the commander of Centcom. Obama is sufficiently humane and sufficiently undeceived to take no pleasure in sending soldiers to their deaths for a futile cause. He will have to convince himself that, in some way still to be defined, the mission is urgent after all. Afghanistan will become a necessary war even if we do not know what marks the necessity. Robert Dole, an elder of the Republican Party, has said he would like to see Petraeus as the Republican candidate in 2012. Better to keep him in the field (this must be at least one of Obama’s thoughts) than to have him to run against.

For Obama to do the courageous thing and withdraw would mean having deployed against him the unlimited wrath of the mainstream media, the oil interest, the Israel lobby, the weapons and security industries, all those who have reasons both avowed and unavowed for the perpetuation of American force projection in the Middle East. If he fails to satisfy the request from General McChrystal – the specialist in ‘black ops’ who now controls American forces in Afghanistan – the war brokers will fall on Obama with as finely co-ordinated a barrage as if they had met and concerted their response. Beside that prospect, the calls of betrayal from the antiwar base that gave Obama his first victories in 2008 must seem a small price to pay. The best imaginable result just now, given the tightness of the trap, may be ostensible co-operation with the generals, accompanied by a set of questions that lays the groundwork for refusal of the next escalation. But in wars there is always a deep beneath the lowest deep, and the ambushes and accidents tend towards savagery much more than conciliation.

David Bromwich teaches literature and political thought at Yale. He writes on America’s wars for the Huffington Post.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pam Martens: Federals team up with Wall St to foreclose on families

October 5, 2009
A CounterPunch Special Investigation: Part One of a Series
Wall Street Titans Use Aliases to Foreclose on Families While Partnering With a Federal Agency


A federal agency tasked with expanding the American dream of home ownership and affordable housing free from discrimination to people of modest means has been quietly moving a chunk of that role to Wall Street since 2002. In a stealth partial privatization, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) farmed out its mandate of working with single family homeowners in trouble on their mortgages to the industry most responsible for separating people from their savings and creating an unprecedented wealth gap that renders millions unable to pay those mortgages. This industry also ranks as one of the most storied industries in terms of race discrimination. Rounding out its dubious housing credentials, Wall Street is now on life support courtesy of the public purse known as TARP as a result of issuing trillions of dollars in miss-rated housing bonds and housing-related derivatives, many of which were nothing more than algorithmic concepts wrapped in a high priced legal opinion. It’s difficult to imagine a more problematic resume for the new housing czars.

To what degree this surreptitious program has contributed to putting children and families out on the street during one of the worst economic slumps since the ’30s should be on a Congressional short list for investigation. HUD’s demand for confidentiality from all bidders and announcement of winning bids to parties known only as “the winning bidder” deserves its own investigation in terms of obfuscating the public’s right to know and the ability of the press to properly fulfill its function in a free society.

Despite three days of emails and phone calls to HUD officials, they have refused to provide the names of the winning bidders or the firms that teamed as co-bidders with the winning party. Obtaining this information independently has been akin to extracting a painful splinter wearing a blindfold and oven mitts.

That a taxpayer-supported Federal agency conducts a competitive bid program of over $2 billion and then refuses to announce the names of the winning bidders is beyond contempt for the American people. If the Obama administration does not quickly purge this Bush mindset from these Federal agencies, he is inviting a massive backlash in the midterm elections.

The HUD program was benignly called Accelerated Claims Disposition (ACD) and was said to be a pilot program. A pilot program might suggest to those uninformed in the ways of the new Wall Street occupation of America a modest spending outlay; a go slow approach. In this case, from 2002 to 2005, HUD transferred in excess of $2.4 billion of defaulted mortgages insured by its sibling, the FHA, into the hands of Citigroup, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns while providing the firms with wide latitude to foreclose, restructure or sell off in bundles to investors. HUD retained a minority interest of 30 to 40 percent in each joint venture. Citigroup was awarded the 2002 and 2004 joint ventures; Lehman Brothers the 2003; Bear Stearns the 2005. I obtained this information by reconciling the aliases used by these firms in foreclosures of HUD properties to the addresses of the corporate parents. I further confirmed the information by checking the official records at multiple Secretaries of State offices where the firms must register their subsidiaries to do business within the state.

What the program effectively did was allow the biggest retail banks in the country to get accelerated payment on their defaulted, FHA-insured, single family mortgage loans while allowing another set of the biggest investment banks to make huge profits in fees for bundling and selling off the loans as securitizations. Once the loans were securitized (sold off to investors) they were no longer the problem of HUD or the Wall Street bankers. The loans conveniently disappeared from the radar screen and the balance sheet. The family’s fate had been sold off by HUD to Wall Street in exchange for a small piece of the action. Wall Street then sold off the family’s fate to thousands of investors around the world for a large piece of the action.

HUD has attempted to spin this program as a win-win for everyone with the suggestion that families would have more options under this program. In a HUD February 17, 2006 report titled “Evaluation of 601 Accelerated Claims Disposition Demonstration,” a few kernels of truth emerged. It was noted on page 4 that the private partners “determine how best to maximize the return on the loan…Loans liquidated through note sales generally earn a higher return than property sales, so the JV [joint venture] has an incentive to maximize the share of note sales relative to property sales.” Rather than evaluating the success of the program on how many families were able to get a loan modification and remain in their homes, the report notes that “The benchmark for progress is the share of loans that have reached resolution.”

From its 2002 joint venture, Citigroup dumped en masse 2,599 loans in one securitization alone in August 2004. It sold another 1,177 at other unknown times. From its 2004 joint venture, it dumped 1,814 in one fell swoop. The 2006 HUD report notes that following securitization “there is no information available on the [home] retention after the sale.”

According to HUD’s web site, another major award of $400 million to $800 million in defaulted mortgages was slated for October 23 of last year in the midst of a foreclosure and eviction crisis. Lemar Wooley, in HUD’s Office of Public Affairs, advises that the deal never happened as a result of “no acceptable bids being received.” Given that we have been promised change we can believe in, I would have much preferred to hear: “We’ve sacked this program as an abhorrent example of privatizing profits and socializing losses while turning our backs on the neediest of our society.”

While this was clearly not a win-win for families in financial distress, two other red flags come to mind. The 2006 HUD report notes that to be eligible for this program, loans had to be four full payments past due (five full payments past due for the 2005 Bear Stearns deal). But to securitize the loans, the Wall Street firms had to bring the loans into performing status, that is, up to date in their payments. The question arises as to whether the investors in the securitizations were advised that these were heretofore defaulted HUD loans. One might be forgiven for pondering that as a material fact required in a prospectus since there is much data available showing that loans once in default tend to redefault. Some of these investors might unknowingly be you and your family members. The loans could be sitting right now in public employee pension funds, mutual funds held in 401(k)s, etc.

The second concern is that many of the homes in the deals were foreclosed on in 2006, 2007 and 2008. By HUD not keeping these loans and insisting on its legal mandate for lenders to attempt loan modifications, special forbearance or partial claims to bring the loans current, what impact did this program have on the foreclosure glut and overall property value declines.
It is worth noting what happened to the firms that HUD deemed qualified for this program: Lehman Brothers collapsed on September 15, 2008. Bear Stearns required a weekend rescue by JPMorgan Chase and the Fed on March 16/17, 2008. Citigroup, which got the lions share of the HUD deals, exists today only because of a $45 billion direct infusion from unwilling taxpayers (overruled by their Congress) and hundreds of billions of dollars more in various other government backstop operations – some still undisclosed despite Freedom of Information Act requests and litigation.
Future articles in this series will look at how these deals started under the Clinton administration with awards to Goldman Sachs, GE Capital, Blackrock and others, with the dubious protection of Merrill Lynch as the overseer for HUD. This program also went virtually unnoticed until charges of rigged computers and bid rigging erupted in headlines. We will also look at the human suffering resulting from this macabre rewriting of the social contract in America. The series begins today with the most unlikely candidate of all for helping people in need: Citigroup.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

NYRB: Steven Weinberg: The Missions of Astronomy

Volume 56, Number 16 · October 22, 2009

The Missions of Astronomy

By Steven Weinberg

A few years ago, I decided that I needed to know more about the history of science, so naturally I volunteered to teach the subject. In working up my lectures, I was struck with the fact that in the ancient world, astronomy reached what from a modern perspective was a much higher level of accuracy and sophistication than any other science.[1] One obvious reason for this is that visible astronomical phenomena are much simpler and easier to study than the things we can observe on the earth's surface. The ancients did not know it, but the earth and moon and planets all spin at nearly constant rates, and they travel in their orbits under the influence of a single dominant force, that of gravitation.

In consequence, the changes in what is seen in the sky are simple and periodic: the moon regularly waxes and wanes, the sun and moon and stars seem to revolve once a day around the celestial pole, and the sun traces a path through the same constellations of stars every year, those of the zodiac.[2] Even with crude instruments these periodic changes could be and were studied with a fair degree of mathematical precision, much greater than was possible for things on earth like the flight of a bird or the flow of water in a river.

But there was another reason why astronomy was so prominent in ancient and medieval science. It was useful in a way that the physics and biology of the time were not. Even before history began, people must have used the apparent motion of the sun as at least a crude clock, calendar, and compass. These functions became much more precise with the introduction of what may have been the first scientific instrument, the gnomon, attributed by the Greeks variously to Anaximander or to the Babylonians.

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The gnomon is simply a straight pole, set vertically in a flat, level patch of ground open to the sun's rays. When during each day the gnomon's shadow is shortest, that is noon. At noon, the gnomon's shadow anywhere in the latitude of Greece or Mesopotamia points due north, so all the points of the compass can be permanently and accurately marked out on the ground around the gnomon. Watching the shadow from day to day, one can note the days when the noon shadow is shortest or longest. That is the summer or the winter solstice. From the length of the noon shadow at the summer solstice one can calculate the latitude. The shadow at sunset points somewhat south of east in the spring and summer, and somewhat north of east in the fall and winter; when the shadow at sunset points due east, that is the spring or fall equinox.[3]

Using the gnomon as a calendar, the Athenian astronomers Meton and Euctemon made a discovery around 430 BC that was to trouble astronomers for two thousand years: the four seasons, whose beginnings and endings are precisely marked by the solstices and equinoxes, have slightly different lengths. This ruled out the possibility that the sun travels around the earth (or the earth around the sun) with constant velocity in a circle, for in that case the equinoxes and solstices would be evenly spaced throughout the year. This was one of the reasons that Hipparchus of Nicaea, the greatest observational astronomer of the ancient world, found it necessary around 150 BC to introduce the idea of epicycles, the idea that the sun (and planets) move on circles whose centers themselves move on circles around the earth, an idea that was picked up and elaborated three centuries later by Claudius Ptolemy.

Even Copernicus, because he was committed to orbits composed of circles, retained the idea of epicycles. It was not until the early years of the seventeenth century that Johannes Kepler finally explained what Hipparchus and Ptolemy had attributed to epicycles. The earth's orbit around the sun is not a circle but an ellipse; the sun is not at the center of the ellipse but at a point called the focus, off to one side; and the speed of the earth is not constant but faster when it is near the sun and slower when farther away.

or the human uses I have been discussing, the sun has its limitations. The sun can of course be used to tell time and directions only during the day, and before the introduction of the gnomon its annual motions gave only a crude idea of the time of year. From earliest recorded times, the stars were put to use to fill these gaps. Homer knew of the stars' use at night as a compass. In the Odyssey, Calypso gives Odysseus instructions how to go from her island eastward toward Ithaca: he is told to keep the Bear on his left. The Bear, of course, is Ursa Major, aka the Big Dipper, a constellation near the North Pole of the sky (called the celestial pole) that in the latitude of the Mediterranean never sets beneath the horizon (or, as Homer says, never bathes in the ocean). With north on his left, Odysseus would be sailing east, toward home.[4]

The stars were also put to use as a calendar. The Egyptians very early appear to have anticipated the flooding of the Nile by observing the rising of the star Sirius. Around 700 BC the Greek poet Hesiod inWorks and Days advised farmers to plow at the cosmical setting of the Pleiades constellation—that is, on the day in the year on which the Pleiades star cluster is first seen to set before the sun comes up.

Observing the stars for these reasons, it was noticed in many early civilizations that there are five "stars," called planets by the Greeks, that in the course of a year move against the background of all the other stars, staying pretty much on the same path along the zodiac as the sun, but sometimes seeming to reverse their course. The problem of understanding these motions perplexed astronomers for millennia, and finally led to the birth of modern physics with the work of Isaac Newton.

The usefulness of astronomy was important not only because it focused attention on the sun and stars and planets and thereby led to scientific discoveries. Utility was also important in the development of science because when one is actually using a scientific theory rather than just speculating about it, there is a large premium on getting things right. If Calypso had told Odysseus to keep the moon on his left, he would have gone around in circles and never reached home. In contrast, Aristotle's theory of motion could survive through the Middle Ages because it was never put to practical use in a way that could reveal how wrong it was. Astronomers did try to use Aristotle's theory of the planetary system (due originally to Plato's pupil Eudoxus and his pupil Callippus), in which the sun and moon and planets ride on coupled transparent spheres centered on the earth, a theory that (unlike the epicycle theory) was consistent with Aristotle's physics.

They found that it did not work—for instance, Aristotle's theory could not account for the changes in brightness of the planets over time, changes that Ptolemy understood to be due to the fact that each planet is not always at the same distance from the earth. Because of the prestige of Aristotle's philosophy some philosophers and physicians (but few working astronomers) continued through the ancient world and the Middle Ages to adhere to his theory of the solar system, but by the time of Galileo it was no longer taken seriously. When Galileo wrote his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World, the two systems that Galileo considered were those of Ptolemy and Copernicus, not Aristotle.

There was one more reason that the usefulness of astronomy was important to the advance of science: it promoted government support of scientific research. The first great example was the Museum of Alexandria, established by the Greek kings of Egypt early in the Hellenistic era, around 300 BC. This was not a museum in the modern sense, a place where visitors can come to look at fossils and pictures, but a research institution, devoted to the Muses, including Urania, the muse of astronomy. The kings of Egypt supported studies in Alexandria of the construction of catapults and other artillery and of the flights of projectiles, probably at the Museum, but the Museum also provided salaries to Aristarchus, who measured the distances and sizes of the sun and moon, and to Eratosthenes, who measured the circumference of the earth.

The Museum was the first of a succession of government-supported centers of research, including the House of Wisdom established around 830 AD by the caliph al-Mamun in Baghdad, and Tycho Brahe's observatory Uraniborg, on an island given to Brahe by the Danish king Frederick II in 1576. The tradition of government-supported research continues in our day, at particle physics laboratories like CERN and Fermilab, and on unmanned observatories like Hubble and WMAP and Planck, put into space by NASA and the European Space Agency.

n fact, in the past astronomy benefited from an overestimate of its usefulness. The legacies of the Babylonians to the Hellenistic world included not only a large body of accurate astronomical observations (and perhaps the gnomon) but also the pseudoscience of astrology. Ptolemy was the author not only of a great astronomical treatise, the Almagest, but also of a book on astrology, theTetrabiblos. Much of the royal support for compiling tables of astronomical data in the medieval and early modern periods was motivated by the use of these tables by astrologers. This appears to contradict what I said about the importance in applications of getting the science right, but the astrologers did generally get the astronomy right, at least as to the apparent motions of the planets and stars, and they could hide their failure to account for human affairs in the obscurity of their predictions.

Not everyone has been enthusiastic about the utilitarian side of astronomy. In Plato's Republic there is a discussion of the education to be provided for future philosopher kings. Socrates suggests that astronomy ought to be included, and his stooge Glaucon hastily agrees, because "it's not only farmers and others who need to be sensitive to the seasons, months, and phases of the year; it's just as important for military commanders as well." Poor Glaucon—Socrates calls him naive, and explains that the real reason to study astronomy is that it forces the mind to look upward and think of things that are nobler than our everyday world.

Although surprises are always possible, my own main research area, elementary particle physics, has no direct applications that anyone can foresee,[5] so it gives me little joy to note the importance of utility to the historical development of science. By now pure sciences like particle physics have developed standards of verification that make applications unnecessary in keeping us honest (or so we like to think), and their intellectual excitement incites the efforts of scientists without any thought of practical use. But research in pure science still has to compete for government support with more immediately useful sciences, like chemistry and biology.

Unfortunately for the ability of astronomy to compete for support, the uses of astronomy that I have discussed so far have largely become obsolete. We now use atomic clocks to tell time, so accurately that we can measure tiny changes in the length of the day and year. We can look up today's date on our watches or computer screens. And recently the stars have even lost their importance for navigation.

In 2005 I was on the bark Sea Cloud, cruising the Aegean Sea. One evening I fell into a discussion about navigation with the ship's captain. He showed me how to use a sextant and chronometer to find positions at sea. Measuring the angle between the horizon and the position of a given star with the sextant at a known chronometer time tells you that your ship must lie somewhere on a particular curve on the map of the earth. Doing the same with another star gives another curve, and where they intersect, there is your position. Doing the same with a third star and finding that the third curve intersects the first two at the same point tells you that you have not made a mistake. After demonstrating all this, my friend the captain of the Sea Cloud complained that the young officers coming into the merchant marine could no longer find their position with chronometer and sextant. The advent of global positioning satellites had made celestial navigation unnecessary.

One use remains to astronomy: it continues to have a crucial part in our discovery of the laws of nature. As I mentioned, it was the problem of the motion of the planets that led Newton to the discovery of his laws of motion and gravitation. The fact that atoms emit and absorb light at only certain wavelengths, which in the twentieth century led to the development of quantum mechanics, was discovered in the early nineteenth century in observations of the spectrum of the sun. Later in the nineteenth century these solar observations revealed the existence of new elements, such as helium, that were previously unknown on earth. Early in the twentieth century Einstein's General Theory of Relativity was tested astronomically, at first by comparison of his theory's predictions with the observed motion of the planet Mercury, and then through the successful prediction of the deflection of starlight by the gravitational field of the sun.

After the confirmation of General Relativity, for a while the source of the data that inspired progress in fundamental physics switched away from astronomy, first toward atomic physics and then in the 1930s toward nuclear and particle physics. But progress in particle physics has slowed since the formulation of the Standard Model of elementary particles in the 1960s and 1970s, which accounted for all the data about elementary particles that was then available. The only things discovered in recent years in particle physics that go beyond the Standard Model are the tiny masses of the various kinds of neutrinos, and these first showed up in a sort of astronomy, the search for neutrinos from the sun.

eanwhile, we are now in what it has become trite to call a golden age of cosmology. Astronomical observation and cosmological theory have invigorated each other, to the point that we can now say with a straight face that the universe in its present phase of expansion is 13.73 billion years old, give or take 0.16 billion years. This work has revealed that only about 4.5 percent of the energy of the universe is in the form of ordinary matter—electrons and atomic nuclei. Some 23 percent of the total energy is in the masses of particles of "dark matter," particles that do not interact with ordinary matter or radiation, and whose existence is so far known only through observations of effects of the gravitational forces they exert on ordinary matter and light. The greatest part of the energy budget of the universe, about 72 percent, is a "dark energy" that does not reside in the masses of any sort of particle, but in space itself, and that is causing the present expansion of the universe to accelerate. The explanation of dark energy is now the deepest problem facing elementary particle physics.

Exciting as all this is, both astronomy and particle physics have increasingly had to struggle for government support. In 1993 Congress canceled a program to build an accelerator, the Superconducting Super Collider, that would have greatly extended the range of masses of new particles that might be created, perhaps including the particles of dark matter. The European consortium CERN has picked up this task, but its new accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, will be able to explore only about a third of the range of masses that could have been reached by the Super Collider, and support for the next accelerator after the Large Hadron Collider seems increasingly in doubt. In astronomy, NASA has cut back on the Beyond Einstein and Explorer programs, major programs of astronomical research of the sort that has made possible the great progress of recent years in cosmology.

Of course, there are many worthy calls on government funds. What particularly galls many scientists is the existence of a vastly expensive NASA program that often masquerades as science.[6] I refer, of course, to the manned space flight program. In 2004 President Bush announced a "new vision" for NASA, a return of astronauts to the moon followed by a manned mission to Mars. A few days later the NASA Office of Space Science announced cuts in its unmanned Beyond Einstein and Explorer programs, with the explanation that they did not support the President's new vision.

Astronauts are not effective in scientific research. For the cost of taking astronauts safely to the moon or planets and bringing them back, one could send many hundreds of robots that could do far more in the way of exploration. Astronauts in orbiting astronomical observatories would create vibrations and radiate heat, which would foul up sensitive astronomical observations. All of the satellites like Hubble or COBE or WMAP or Planck that have made possible the recent progress in cosmology have been unmanned. No important science has been done at the manned International Space Station, and it is hard to imagine any significant future work that could not be done more cheaply on unmanned facilities.

It is often said that manned space flight is necessary for science because without it the public would not support any space programs,[7] including unmanned missions like Hubble and WMAP that do real science. I doubt this. I think that there is an intrinsic excitement to astronomy in general and cosmology in particular, quite apart from the spectator sport of manned space flight. As illustration, I will close with a verse of Claudius Ptolemy:

I know that I am mortal and the creature of a day; but when I search out the massed wheeling circles of the stars, my feet no longer touch the Earth, but, side by side with Zeus himself, I take my fill of ambrosia, the food of the gods.

[1]This article is based on a talk given on September 25, 2009, at the Harry Ransom Center for Humanistic Studies of the University of Texas at Austin, to commemorate its exhibition "Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works," on view September 8, 2009–January 3, 2010.

[2]Of course the stars are not visible during the day, but some of them can be seen just after sunset, when the sun's position in the sky is still known.

[3]A gnomon is different from a sundial, because the pole that casts a shadow in a sundial is not vertical but set at an angle chosen so that the pole's shadow follows about the same path during each day of the year. This makes the sundial more useful as a clock, but less useful as a calendar.

[4]It may be wondered why Calypso did not tell Odysseus to keep the North Star on his left. The reason is that in Homer's time the star Polaris, which is now the North Star, was not at the North Pole of the sky. This is not because of any motion of Polaris itself, but because of a phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes, discovered by Hipparchus. In modern terms, the axis of the earth's rotation does not keep a fixed direction in the sky, but precesses like the axis of a spinning top, making a full circle every 25,727 years. It is a measure of the accuracy of Greek astronomy that the data of Hipparcus indicated a period of 28,000 years.

[5]I say "direct" applications because experimental and theoretical work in particle physics that pushes technology and mathematics to their current limits occasionally spins off new technology or mathematics of great practical importance. One celebrated example is the World Wide Web. This can provide a valid argument for government support, but it is not why we do the research.

[6]I have written about this at greater length in "The Wrong Stuff," The New York Review, April 8, 2004.

[7]This opinion was most recently expressed by Giovanni Bignami, the head of the European Space Agency Science Advisory Committee, in "Why We Need Space Travel," Nature, July 16, 2009.