Via Kottke.org: the Foreign Policy list of the ten most important news stories you hardly heard about in 2006. This is stuff the national media could have been covering all those times they respectfully rehashed Rove’s latest round of disinformation. Note: I’m going to be condensing these without proper ellipsis-markers.
10. Hackable Passports: In October, the U.S. State Department began issuing biometric “ePassports” that contain a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag under the back cover. The tiny chip holds the usual passport data, including a digital photo. A hacker with a laptop and a chip reader he bought for $200 found he was able to steal data from an encrypted RFID tag, potentially allowing him to clone an ePassport. A group of German hackers now recommends that people microwave the new passports to destroy their chips.Bruce Schneier and Cory Doctorow have been all over this one.
9. What’s Worse Than Bird Flu? The Cure: There were no confirmed deaths in developed countries from bird flu; but the alarm, fueled by Western media reports, did real damage. A rash of abnormal behavior, hallucinations, and even deaths was attributed to Tamiflu, the medicine marketed as a key drug capable of fighting the disease. Ten Canadians taking the drug died suspiciously. The FDA received more than 100 reports of injury and delirium among Tamiflu takers, nearly as many cases as were logged over the drug’s five-year trial period.But Cylert got taken off the market. Do I sound bitter? I’m bitter.
8. Petro Powers Drop the Dollar: Noticed how the dollar keeps slipping? The latest Bank for International Settlements quarterly report, which tracks the investment trends of oil-producing countries, indicates that Russia and OPEC countries are moving their holdings out of dollars and into euros and yen. OPEC cut its holdings in the dollar by more than $5 billion during the first and second quarter of 2006. Russia now keeps most of its new deposits in euros instead of dollars. This doesn’t just raise our gas prices. It may weaken our currency and drive up inflation.This development is the hurt that goes on hurting. The next time you hear some balsa-for-brains right-winger shooting his mouth off about how we don’t have to care what other countries think of us, check the international currency exchange rates.
7. The Gender Gap Gets Smaller: A report released in February by the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau found that the gender gap in secondary education is closing or has closed in most developing countries. Particularly in Latin America and Asia, girls are attending school at the same rate, or higher, than boys.We’ve all noticed how often these changes, supposedly intended to fight terrorism, are neither needed nor used for that purpose, and how almost all of them reduce our liberty and our protection under the law. This particular instance is like taking the brakes off an emergency vehicle so it’ll go faster, when the real problem is that nobody’s taking calls for assistance.
6. Iran and Israel Hold Secret Talks: While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent the better part of 2006 denying the Holocaust and threatening to destroy Israel, his country was sitting down with Israeli representatives to settle old debts. The clandestine talks, first reported by Israeli daily Haaretz this month, concern hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly owed to Iran for oil it supplied to Israel before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
5. United States Funds the Taliban: Some of the money the United States is spending to combat the resurgence of the Taliban is winding up in the hands of the Taliban. As recently as November, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting revealed that villagers in Afghanistan’s war-torn south were handing over U.S. cash meant for reconstruction projects to Taliban fighters, who then use the money to purchase weapons, cell phones, and explosives.
4. Russia Fuels Latin American Arms Race: Latin America has begun a new arms race. There’s been a sudden uptick in major arms deals in the region, largely between Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and their newest patron, Russia. The deals have left the region flush with shiny new tanks, fighter jets, and custom-built presidential helicopters.
3. Bush’s Post-Katrina Power Grab:: Overlooked in the $532 billion federal defense spending bill Bushed signed in October was a revision of a nearly 200-year-old law which restricts the president’s power during major crises. In December, Congressional Quarterly examined the changes, saying that the new law “takes the cuffs off” federal restraint during emergencies. Rather than limiting the circumstances under which a president may deploy troops to “any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy,” the 2006 revision expands them to include “natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident.” In other words, it’s now easier for the federal government to send in troops without a governor’s invitation.
Ostensibly, the move aims to streamline bureaucratic inefficiencies that left thousands of New Orleanians stranded last summer. Yet the Insurrection Act that existed when Katrina struck didn’t actually hinder the president’s ability to send federal troops. He simply chose not to.
Critics have called the changes an opening for martial law. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, one of the few to raise the issue in congress, says that “Using the military for law enforcement goes against one of the founding tenets of our democracy.”
2. China Runs up African Debt: The debt-relief deal struck at last year’s Group of Eight (G8) summit, where rich countries promised to forgive about $40 billion in debts owed by poor countries, was supposed to be a turning point in Africa’s development, a chance to wipe its economic slate clean. Then came China. The rapidly industrializing country has emerged as a top lender to poor African countries. The World Bank estimates that Chinese loans for African infrastructure already total more than $12.5 billion. In November, Chinese President Hu Jintao promised to provide another $5 billion in loans to Africa by 2009.Foreign Policy frets that these are commercial loans, not the long-term low-interest loans made by multilateral development banks, and that Africa may wind up even further in the red. Maybe. But the other big difference is that China’s loans aren’t backed up by the IMF, the First World’s debt collector. This is going to be interesting.
There’s a limit to how much we can say about this: China’s holding a lot of our debt, too.
1. White House Looks the Other Way while India Helps Iran Build the Bomb: The U.S. government usually takes a hard line against countries that assist Iran with its nuclear program. In 2006 alone, Washington sanctioned firms in Cuba, North Korea, and Russia for making it a little easier for Iran to develop weapons of mass destruction. Not so with India, a close American ally. Just after the U.S. House of Representatives voted in July to support a plan to provide India with nuclear technology, the Bush administration quietly imposed sanctions on two Indian firms for supplying Tehran with missile parts. Nor was the White House forthcoming with Congress about India’s other instances of nuclear proliferation: In the past two years, two other Indian companies have been penalized for allegedly passing chemical weapons information to Iran, and two Indian scientists who ran the state-run nuclear utility were barred from doing business with the U.S. government after they allegedly passed heavy-water nuclear technology to Tehran.My favorite wild-assed conspiracy theory about Iran is that Bush wants there to be as much evidence as possible that they’re building a nuclear bomb, because (1.) he wants a war with Iran; (2.) U.S. conventional forces are already stretched way too thin by Iraq and Afghanistan; and (3.) we have all those old nuclear weapons we’ve never used. An even loopier version says that the real reason he wants a war with Iran is that he’s privately concluded that he’s not going to win in Iraq, so he’s casting around for another war he can win before his term is up.
That theory’s too loopy even for me. I don’t believe it. I’m just amused by it. Sort of.
Anyway, there’s FA’s list. Other news-watchers might come up with a different list, or rank these ten items in a different order, but they’re all stories we needed to hear about. Maybe one of those news services or lagging newspapers out there will rechristen itself “News for Grownups” and go after my business.