It's been a while since I've done a politics post, but as I've been saving up interesting links for the past week or two, I thought it was time for antoher.
U.S. Bars Lab From Testing Electronic Voting (Jan 4, 2007):
A laboratory that has tested most of the nation’s electronic voting systems has been temporarily barred from approving new machines after federal officials found that it was not following its quality-control procedures and could not document that it was conducting all the required tests.
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The company, Ciber Inc. of Greenwood Village, Colo., has also come under fire from analysts hired by New York State over its plans to test new voting machines for the state. New York could eventually spend $200 million to replace its aging lever devices.
Experts on voting systems say the Ciber problems underscore longstanding worries about lax inspections in the secretive world of voting-machine testing. The action by the federal Election Assistance Commission seems certain to fan growing concerns about the reliability and security of the devices.
The commission acted last summer, but the problem was not disclosed then. Officials at the commission and Ciber confirmed the action in recent interviews.
Commission officials said that they were evaluating the overall diligence of the laboratory and that they did not try to determine whether its weaknesses had contributed to problems with specific machines.
Computer scientists have shown that some electronic machines now in use are vulnerable to hacking. Some scientists caution that even a simple software error could affect thousands of votes.
In various places, elections have been complicated by machines that did not start, flipped votes from one candidate to another or had trouble tallying the votes.
Until recently, the laboratories that test voting software and hardware have operated without federal scrutiny. Even though Washington and the states have spent billions to install the new technologies, the machine manufacturers have always paid for the tests that assess how well they work, and little has been disclosed about any flaws that were discovered.
As soon as federal officials began a new oversight program in July, they detected the problems with Ciber. The commission held up its application for interim accreditation, thus barring Ciber from approving new voting systems in most states.
FBI: Workers saw prisoner abuse at Guantanamo (Jan 2, 2007):
The FBI on Tuesday released documents showing at least 26 of the agency's employees witnessed aggressive mistreatment and harsh interrogation techniques of prisoners by other government agencies or outside contractors at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"On several occasions witnesses saw detainees in interrogation rooms chained hand and foot in fetal position to floor with no chair/food/water; most urinated or defecated on selves and were left there 18, 24 hours or more," according to one FBI account made public.
One FBI witness saw a detainee "shaking with cold," while another noted a detainee in a sweltering unventilated room was "almost unconscious on a floor with a pile of hair next to him (he had apparently been pulling it out through the night)."
Another witness saw a detainee "with a full beard whose head was wrapped in duct tape."
One FBI statement said that an interrogator squatted over the Quran and that a German shepherd dog was ordered to "growl, bark and show his teeth to the prisoner."
Another detainee was draped in an Israeli flag.
The FBI surveyed all 493 FBI personnel who had been assigned to the military prison facility in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and determined no FBI agent or support personnel had participated in any of the controversial practices.
Other actions FBI personnel reported either witnessing or being told about included:
# Placing a detainee in a darkened cell with the intent of interrogating him for 24 hours straight; the witness reported being told that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had approved this technique.
# Keeping detainees awake for days on end with strobe lights and loud music.
# Dressing as a priest and "baptizing" a detainee.
# Subjecting a detainee to a lap dance by a topless female guard.
# Interrupting detainees' attempts to pray by putting fluid on their faces and telling them it was menstrual blood.
# Beating a detainee who said he had recently undergone abdominal surgery.
U.S. military deaths in Iraq reach 3,000 (Dec. 31, 2006):
As 2006 came to an end, the toll of U.S. troops in Iraq hit another grim milestone, 3,000 dead.
Overall, the rate of military fatalities has remained relentlessly steady since the 1,000th death was announced in September 2004. But roadside bombs -- what the military calls improvised explosive devices -- have become much more deadly, accounting for about half of the last thousand U.S. troop deaths, compared to 38% of the second thousand deaths.
The most dangerous part of Iraq for U.S. troops remains Anbar province in the western deserts, but deaths in Baghdad have increased sharply since this summer, when the military increased patrols there in hopes of dampening the sectarian civil war that has gripped the capital and surrounding areas.
At least 111 American troops have been killed in December, making it the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the battle for Fallouja in November 2004. Overall, at least 820 U.S. military personnel were killed in 2006.
Bush commits 21,500 more troops: The president says past policies have not worked in Iraq and that changes are needed. (Jan 11, 2007):
A subdued President Bush, presenting his long-awaited new blueprint for Iraq, acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that his previous strategy had failed and said that averting defeat required more than 20,000 additional American troops and a different relationship with the government in Baghdad.
In a striking concession, Bush said that the last year in Iraq had turned out to be the opposite of what he had expected — an explosion of sectarian violence instead of growing national unity among the Iraqi people and a winding-down of American military involvement.
He said the reversal occurred in part because there had not been enough troops to provide security in Iraqi neighborhoods — a strong criticism of his policy since the earliest days of the invasion.
Bush did not say how long the increase would last. Military strategists have said that anything less than 18 months would probably be ineffective, but Democrats and some Republicans are eager to see troop levels begin to drop before the 2008 campaign season heats up. And administration officials noted that one benchmark the Iraqi government had set for itself was to take charge of security in Baghdad by the end of this year.
Poll: Two-thirds of Americans oppose more troops in Iraq (Jan 12):
Two out of three Americans oppose President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Friday indicates.
Nearly two-thirds of those polled also say Bush has no clear plan for Iraq.
While his numbers have inched up slightly on that question since the previous poll last week, Bush's address to the nation Wednesday night seems to have made little difference.
Nearly half of those who saw the speech say their minds were not changed, while the rest are evenly split over whether they'd be more or less likely to support his policies.
This is the first poll gauging Americans' positions on the strategy following Bush's address. The telephone survey of 1,093 adult Americans was conducted Thursday. The sampling error on all the questions in the poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
2nd tours are ahead for Guard, Reserve (Jan 12):
Confronted with the increasing demands of the Iraq war, the Pentagon announced plans Thursday to recall Army National Guard units that have already fought in Iraq to serve second tours, reversing a long-standing policy that allowed Guard members to return home for five years before being redeployed.
No new Guard units have been included in the first wave of forces going to Iraq as part of President Bush's 21,500-troop increase announced Wednesday night, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the change in policy was made independently of the Iraq buildup.
Other Pentagon officials have acknowledged that additional Guard and Army Reserve units are essential to sustaining Bush's increase in combat forces in Iraq over the course of the year. The military will probably need to tap previously deployed Guard units this fall to keep 20 combat brigades in Iraq, the level of the buildup.
Army Reserve units also are affected by the policy change.
"The reserve components are going to have to help bear the burden," said a senior military official, who discussed internal Pentagon decision-making on condition of anonymity. "I would presume by this time next year, we would be calling on our reserve-component brigades to contribute in Iraq."
Mystery billionaire pays $200m in back tax - and keeps a state afloat (Dec. 30, 2006):
Feeling nervous about your end-of-year tax bill? Already suffering from bouts of loathing towards Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs?
If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then consolation can be found in California, where a mysterious “Taxpayer X” has just come clean about his income and handed over $200 million in unpaid taxes — almost single-handedly eliminating the revenue shortfall of the state.
The tax payment is so large that it would pay the annual budget of California’s National Guard three times over. And it will close the gap between the state’s projected and actual revenues from $250 million to $47 million. This will put the finances of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the State Governor, back on track — a New Year gift to compensate perhaps for the leg that he broke while skiing during the holidays.
Congressman to Be Sworn in Using Quran (Jan 3, 2007):
The first Muslim elected to Congress says he will take his oath of office using a Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson to make the point that "religious differences are nothing to be afraid of."
Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, D-Minn., decided to use the centuries-old Quran during his ceremonial swearing-in on Thursday after he learned that it is kept at the Library of Congress. Jefferson, the nation's third president and a collector of books in all topics and languages, sold the book to Congress in 1815 as part of a collection.
"It demonstrates that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleamed from any number of sources, including the Quran," Ellison said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
"A visionary like Thomas Jefferson was not afraid of a different belief system," Ellison said. "This just shows that religious tolerance is the bedrock of our country, and religious differences are nothing to be afraid of."
Some critics have argued that only a Bible should be used for the swearing-in. Last month, Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., warned that unless immigration is tightened, "many more Muslims" will be elected and follow Ellison's lead. Ellison was born in Detroit and converted to Islam in college.
Internet Explorer Unsafe for 284 Days in 2006:
Security Fix spent the past several weeks compiling statistics on how long it took some of the major software vendors to issue patches for security flaws in their products. Since Windows is the most-used operating system in the world, it makes sense to lead off with data on Microsoft's security updates in 2006.
For all its touted security improvements, the release of Microsoft's new Internet Explorer 7 browser in November came too late in the year to improve the lot of IE users, who make up roughly 80 percent of the world's online community. For a total 284 days in 2006 (or more than nine months out of the year), exploit code for known, unpatched critical flaws in pre-IE7 versions of the browser was publicly available on the Internet. Likewise, there were at least 98 days last year in which no software fixes from Microsoft were available to fix IE flaws that criminals were actively using to steal personal and financial data from users.
In a total of ten cases last year, instructions detailing how to leverage "critical" vulnerabilities in IE were published online before Microsoft had a patch to fix them.
Microsoft labels software vulnerabilities "critical" -- its most severe rating -- if the flaws could be exploited to criminal advantage without any action on the part of the user, or by merely convincing an IE user to click on a link, visit a malicious Web site, or open a specially crafted e-mail or e-mail attachment.
In contrast, Internet Explorer's closest competitor in terms of market share -- Mozilla's Firefox browser -- experienced a single period lasting just nine days last year in which exploit code for a serious security hole was posted online before Mozilla shipped a patch to remedy the problem.
Lawsuit stirs up guacamole labeling controversy (Nov. 30, 2006):
Peanut butter is made from peanuts, tomato paste is made from tomatoes, and guacamole is made from avocados, right?
Wrong. The guacamole sold by Kraft Foods Inc., one of the bestselling avocado dips in the nation, includes modified food starch, hefty amounts of coconut and soybean oils, and a dose of food coloring. The dip contains precious little avocado, but many customers mistake it for wholly guacamole.
On Wednesday, a Los Angeles woman sued the Northfield, Ill.-based food company, alleging that it committed fraud by calling its dip "guacamole." Her lawyer says suits against other purveyors of "fake guacamole" could be filed soon.
If consumers read the fine print, they would discover that Kraft Dips Guacamole contains less than 2% avocado. But few of them do. California avocado growers, who account for 95% of the nation's avocado crop, said they didn't know that store-bought guacamole contained little of their produce.
"We think customers understand that it isn't made from avocado," said Claire Regan, Kraft Foods' vice president of corporate affairs. "All of the ingredients are listed on the label for consumers to reference."