In-depth briefing
February 9, 2018

If his briefing habits are any indication, it's likely President Trump is more of an audiobook guy.

Trump has instructed his staff not to provide him written intelligence briefings, The Washington Post reported Friday, because he "rarely if ever reads" them. Instead, Trump indicated that he'd rather be updated on the intelligence matters du jour through "an oral briefing of select intelligence issues."

Traditionally, presidents receive a daily intelligence rundown known as the President's Daily Brief. All seven of Trump's direct predecessors have availed themselves of one, the Post notes, as it "lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world."

But officials "familiar with" Trump's morning briefings said that oral briefings are the most effective way to relay intelligence information because of his "famously short attention span," the Post explains. Rather than a supplementary written document, the oral briefings are "augmented with photos, videos, and graphics," the Post reports. And even the oral briefings are happening less frequently than usual: "The sessions have been taking place about every two to three days on average in recent months," the Post reports, per schedules released by the White House.

Aides to the White House dispute that the briefings are lacking, saying Trump is briefed in person "nearly every day." Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats denied to the Post that the president was neglecting his briefings, claiming that if anything, "President Trump engages for significantly longer periods than I understand many previous presidents have done." Kelly O'Meara Morales

February 16, 2013

Why is there a ban in the first place?
The airline industry and the Federal Aviation Administration worry that electromagnetic waves emitted by passengers' personal electronic devices — including MP3 players, laptops, tablets, and cellphones — could interfere with an aircraft's electronic controls, or avionics. Commercial pilots file dozens of reports every year detailing how their radios, GPS navigation systems, and collision-avoidance boxes suddenly went haywire, but began functioning again when passengers were asked to check that all their devices were turned off. That kind of circumstantial evidence led the FAA in 1993 to urge that laptops, audio players, and other electronic distractions not be used during takeoff and landing. Once an aircraft is above 10,000 feet, aviation officials say, a flight crew would have enough time and altitude to safely react to any electronic problem. The risk in allowing passengers to use their electronics at lower altitudes is tiny, said Boeing engineer David Carson, but since a freak occurrence could end in disaster, "why take that risk?" 

Is there any evidence to support this fear?
It's mostly theoretical. Any electrical device can generate interference as electricity flows through its wiring. Even those without wireless signals, like portable CD players, can emit potentially troublesome electromagnetic radiation. Devices that intentionally transmit radio waves, like cellphones, pose even greater problems. Some engineers think that such emissions could potentially drown out weak signals from radio navigation beacons on the ground or GPS satellites in space. Wireless industry spokesman Michael Altschul says such fears are baseless, since separate radio frequencies are assigned for aviation and commercial use. "Plus," he said, "the wiring and instruments for aircraft are shielded to protect them from interference from commercial wireless devices." In two decades of tests, government scientists and experts at Boeing and Airbus have bombarded planes with electromagnetic radiation, but have never succeeded in replicating the problems reported by pilots, or confirmed that electronic devices caused any equipment failure.

Do some fliers ignore the ban?
A recent survey found that 40 percent of air passengers didn't bother to turn their phones off during takeoff or landing; 7 percent left their devices' Wi-Fi and cellular communications functions active, and 2 percent surreptitiously used their phones to talk or text onboard. University of Illinois psychologist Daniel Simons estimates the odds of all 78 passengers on an average-size U.S. domestic flight powering down their phones completely as "infinitesimal: less than one in 100 quadrillion." If personal electronics were as dangerous as the FAA rules suggest, "navigation and communication would be disrupted every day on domestic flights," he said. "But we don't see that." In addition, flight crews now freely use iPads in the cockpit instead of bulky paper operating manuals. And above 10,000 feet, many U.S. airlines happily allow passengers to use the Internet via onboard Wi-Fi systems for a fee, with no reports of dangerous interference with airplane avionics.

Will the FAA ever ease up its rules?
It's considering doing just that. As more and more people replace books and magazines with Kindles, iPads, and smartphones, pressure is growing to lift the ban. The FAA announced last year that it would conduct a thorough review of its electronic device policy — but didn't say when that review would be completed. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D–Mo.) has warned the FAA that if it doesn't soon relax its rules on e-readers and other portable electronics, she will introduce legislation forcing it to do so. "I'm big on getting rid of regulations that make no sense," she said, "and I think this is one."

When might the ban end?
Conceivably, within a year, although bureaucracies can move very slowly. Current guidelines require each airline to test every make and model of each electronic device it wants the FAA to approve for each type of aircraft in its fleet. But the FAA is now seeking to bring together airlines, aircraft manufacturers, technology firms, and the Federal Communications Commission to streamline the certification process for tablets, e-readers, and other gadgets, so entire classes of devices could be approved at one time. The ban on using cellphones to make calls or send texts in the air, however, is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

Why single out cellphones?
The trouble there is possible interference with cellular networks, not with aircraft avionics. Cell networks operate on the principle that a cellphone is only within range of one or two cellular towers. A phone that's moving at 500 mph at 30,000 feet, however, can shower signals on any number of masts, confusing the network's software and potentially leading to dropped calls between land-based customers. Besides, surveys show that most passengers dread the thought of some jerk in the next seat being free to conduct annoying cellphone conversations from New York to Los Angeles. "An aircraft is one of the few places left on earth where you can actually escape from mobile phones," said aviation and travel writer Benét Wilson. "I hope it stays that way."

Sky-high punishments
Many passengers ignore the electronics ban in flight, but those who get caught — and remain defiant — can pay a serious price. Actor Alec Baldwin was booted from an American Airlines flight in 2011 after he ignored a flight attendant's repeated requests that he stop playing a game on his smartphone. Last November, half a dozen police cars raced onto the tarmac and surrounded a plane at New York's La Guardia Airport as if there were a terrorist onboard. They were there to arrest a 30-year-old passenger who had refused to turn off his phone during taxiing. Scofflaws on foreign flights can risk more than ejection. In 1999, oil worker Neil Whitehouse refused to switch off and hand over his phone to a British Airways flight attendant, earning a year in jail. A Saudi Arabian passenger who flouted the cellphone ban two years later received an even harsher punishment: 70 lashes. The Week Staff

February 14, 2013

"Republicans don't want to filibuster Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense," says Rachel Weiner at The Washington Post. "They just want to require a 60-vote threshold to end debate on his confirmation." Got it? On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed for cloture, or a motion to end debate and move to a vote on confirming the Nebraska Republican, starting the clock for a Friday showdown — and a Saturday vote, if Reid gets the 60 ayes to end debate — right before the Senate adjourns for a weeklong recess.

"This is the first time in the history of our country that a presidential nominee for secretary of defense has been filibustered," Reid said on the Senate floor, after Republicans wouldn't agree to an up-or-down vote. "What a shame, but that's the way it is."

It's worth noting that no presidential Cabinet nominee has ever been successfully filibustered — though two had to (easily) overcome 60-vote thresholds, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in 2006 and Commerce Secretary C. William Verity in 1987 — and that Republicans insist this isn't a filibuster. "We're going to require a 60-vote threshold," Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) tells Foreign Policy. But "it's not a filibuster. I don't want to use that word." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has said he won't filibuster the nomination, now says he'll support blocking a vote on Hagel — though he believes "a filibuster is a bad precedent," according to a spokesman.

So if it's not a filibuster — and most legislative experts say it is — what are Republicans doing? They say they are merely delaying the vote, or putting a "hold" on the nomination, using what leverage they have to get information out of an unresponsive Obama White House. Democrats are "are jamming the vote," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tells National Journal. "Our caucus believes that having cloture on Hagel this soon with this many unanswered questions and the administration stonewalling is inappropriate by Harry Reid."

Here's how Politico's Manu Raju and Tim Mak read the situation:

Senate Republicans see the writing on the wall: Chuck Hagel will get his job at the Pentagon.... But that doesn't mean they won't drag out the proceedings to extract every possible concession they can get and weaken the nominees and the White House in the process. Harry Reid knows this and has had enough.... If Reid can find five Republicans to join the 55 members of the Democratic Caucus, the Senate could approve Hagel quickly.... But if he can't, the White House could be forced to recalibrate its strategy as the nomination drags out into late February. And that could give the GOP more time to mount opposition to Hagel's nomination. [Politico]

So why not just mount a filibuster? "My theory?" says David Weigel at Slate. Many Republicans "are cool to the idea of an 'unprecedented filibuster' of a Cabinet-level nominee."

But if they can reframe the filibuster as something else — if it's merely a delay, and they can talk about approving him later — well, then, they get the recess to beat him up (or completely fail to beat him up, as happened this weekend) or beg the White House for more, more, more... information. [Slate]

That's essentially McCain's new pitch. "I've always said I just want an answer to the question," he tells CNN. "We deserve answers before we move forward with nominees. That's been the standard I've pursued for the past 26 years."

What exactly do Republicans want? There are at least three camps.

First there's what Slate's Weigel calls the "ad hoc Filibuster Hagel Until We Get Benghazi Facts caucus." The key member is McCain, because other Republicans look to him for guidance on military issues. But the most active member is Graham. The question McCain refers to above was submitted to the White House this week by McCain, Graham, and the third charter member of the caucus, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.): Did Obama personally call Libyan officials on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, to request help for the under-assault U.S. diplomatic mission?

Until he gets that information, Graham says to Obama, "I'm gonna hit you and keep hittin' you! You're not going to get away with not answering basic questions." McCain says he's optimistic the White House will send over some new information before Friday's vote, but so far the White House hasn't been "treating Graham's constant requests with great seriousness," says Weigel. "There's just no confidence that it can deliver anything to him that would stave off additional threats."

The second group is demanding more information about Hagel's finances, including more information about who has paid him to give speeches. Democrats say that Hagel has turned over at least the same amount of financial information as previous nominees, but some Republicans in this camp suggest that Hagel may have a hidden conflict of interest. Regarding $200,000 that Hagel earned over two years from Corsair Capital, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked, rhetorically, if any of the money "came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea. I have no evidence to suggest that it is or isn't," he added, but it would be "relevant to know."

"There's nothing unusual about this" request for more financial disclosure, said Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, on the Senate floor Wednesday. "I don't want to string this out. I have places to go other than hanging around here. I'd vote tonight if we could just get the information that has been requested by the Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee."

Finally, there are the Republicans who "say they'll filibuster him just because they want to stop him," says Slate's Weigel. That faction includes Cruz, who said he opposes Hagel in part because of "Iran formally and publicly praising the nomination of a defense secretary," and Inhofe, who defended Cruz's critique, saying that Iran has "endorsed" Hagel and "you can't get any cozier than that." Other Republicans, like Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), don't like some of the speeches Hagel has given, and want to find others they think will make him toxic to a majority of senators, or at least 41 of them. "There is a 60-vote threshold for every nomination," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) tells Foreign Policy.

The big question, then, is whether 41 of the 45 Senate Republicans will support the move to at least delay the nomination — in other words, the filibuster. Republicans seem pretty confident they have the votes. "I think we will hold the line if there's a vote this week," Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) tells Politico. But few people, including Thune, think Republicans can keep Hagel from eventually winning confirmation. "I think in the end, ultimately he'll get his vote."

So, what's the point of this exercise? The last word goes to Slate's Weigel:

Republicans don't have the votes to kill the Hagel nomination, and are trying to cobble together the votes to delay it and coax more information out of the White House. If you read an apocalyptic headline like "GOP FILIBUSTERS HAGEL," it will be true, technically, and Democrats want that story out there.... The Democrats' best weapon is shame. And the Republicans' best weapon, as they wait for more Benghazi info or some miracle dirt on Hagel, is embarrassment. They make this as difficult as possible for Obama. [Slate] Peter Weber

February 10, 2013

What is an assault weapon?
The term is notoriously difficult to define. Colloquially, it is used to describe commercially sold semiautomatic rifles with military-style features, including pistol grips, flash suppressors, and large, detachable magazines. Like any semiautomatic gun, these rifles don't need to be reloaded after each shot; depending on the size of the clip or magazine attached, they can fire anywhere from 10 to 100 rounds, with each pull of the trigger firing a single round. Unlike military assault weapons, they are not automatic — that is, they do not fire continuously as long as the trigger is depressed. Automatic weapons — "machine guns" — are essentially illegal for civilian use. Second Amendment advocates argue that "assault weapon" is largely meaningless, since it refers principally to cosmetic features such as flash suppressors and pistol grips. Any semiautomatic hunting rifle or semiautomatic pistol, they say, is just as lethal in the hands of a criminal or madman.

How did assault weapons originate?
The first was the Sturmgewehr 44, or "storm rifle," developed in Nazi Germany during World War II and named by Adolf Hitler himself. The Russians used that design as the basis for their AK-47, still a popular template for many so-called "selective-fire" military assault rifles that work in both semiautomatic and automatic modes. In the U.S., the small-arms engineering company ArmaLite developed its own selective-fire weapon, the AR-15, in 1957. The firearms manufacturer Colt acquired that design and used it to produce the M16 for American forces in Vietnam, reserving the designation AR-15 for a semiautomatic version marketed to civilians. Many other manufacturers now make versions of the AR-15; Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster model in the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In killing 20 first-graders and six adults, Lanza fired hundreds of rounds, shooting each child three to 11 times.

How many are out there?
Government data shows that there are approximately 310 million firearms in the U.S., including 114 million handguns, 86 million shotguns, and 110 million rifles. How many of the latter are "assault-style rifles" is uncertain, but some analysts have estimated that the number is about 4 million. There's no doubt that sales of assault-style rifles are booming: Smith & Wesson's sales of its M&P15 assault rifle exploded from 4,600 in 2006 to 100,000 in 2010. "That category of firearms has been a primary growth engine and profit driver for firearms companies for the last seven or eight years," said industry analyst Rommel Dionisio.

Why are these guns so popular?
Designed to look menacing, they're lightweight, can fire 50 or more rounds per minute, and are relatively easy to use, with a light kick. "Guns are fun," said Philip Van Cleave, a Virginia gun activist, "and some of them are much more cool than others." For many gun-rights defenders, however, the real appeal of assault weapons is that they are the closest a civilian can get to wielding military firepower. "The principle underlying the Second Amendment is resistance to federal tyranny," says David B. Kopel of the Cato Institute. "The weapons that would be most suited to overthrow a dictatorial federal government would, of course, be weapons of war, and not sports equipment."

How often are assault weapons used in crime?
Rarely. FBI data shows that in 2011, 6,220 murders were committed with handguns, compared with 323 committed with rifles — only some of which were assault rifles. Killers who set out to massacre large numbers of people, however, often choose assault weapons, including James Holmes in Aurora, Colo. (12 killed, 58 wounded), and Lanza in Newtown (26 killed). Killers used assault weapons in 25 of the 62 mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982, a Mother Jones analysis found — that is, in 40 percent of such crimes. Another study found that mass killers who use assault weapons and/or high-capacity magazines have more than twice the number of victims, with an average of 15.6 people shot. 

So how effective would a ban be?
It would have little impact on the 30,000 annual murders, homicides, accidents, and suicides involving firearms, since most are committed with handguns. The evidence, however, suggests an assault weapons ban might have some impact on mass shootings. During the decade the 1994 assault weapons ban was in place, mass shootings declined — with one notable exception, the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado (in which one of the perpetrators' four guns was an assault weapon). Since the ban expired, the annual average toll from mass shootings has more than doubled, from 21 victims per year to 55. Christopher Koper, a criminologist who conducted a Justice Department review of the 1994 ban, thinks a renewed ban would "modestly" reduce gun deaths "by reducing gun attacks with particularly high numbers of shots fired." He estimates that a ban would prevent more than 100 shooting deaths a year. Given the horror and fear that incidents like Aurora and Newtown evoke, Koper said, "I wouldn't consider this trivial."

Australia's semiautomatic rifle ban
In 1996, a disturbed Australian gunman named Martin Bryant used two semiautomatic rifles to kill 35 people and wound 23. Shocked by the scale of the killings, Australia reacted by banning all semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns. The ban was retroactive, so the government also funded a mandatory buyback program for all such weapons. Nearly 700,000 weapons were bought back. And what were the results? In the 18 years before the 1996 ban, Australia suffered 13 gun massacres — each with more than four victims — causing a total of 102 deaths. There has not been a single massacre since then. "Few Australians would deny that their country is safer today," says former Prime Minister John Howard. But Howard notes that Australia and the U.S. are very different nations. "Our gun lobby isn't as powerful or well-financed as the National Rifle Association," he says. "Also, we have no constitutional right to bear arms." For those reasons, an Australian ban-and-buyback plan would have virtually no chance of passing through Congress. The Week Staff

February 2, 2013

Who are the working poor?
They're the millions of people who have jobs that leave them mired at the edge of poverty. Their ranks include legions of retail clerks at chains like Walmart, fast-food workers, dishwashers, customer assistance representatives, home health-care aides, factory workers, and farm laborers. Some 46.2 million Americans now live in families where someone is working but earning less than the poverty line: $11,702 a year for an individual or $23,021 for a family of four. Many economists have a broader definition, saying that the working poor are those whose incomes do not cover basic needs: food, clothing, housing, transportation, child care, and health care. By that standard, there are more than 146 million Americans in the poor-but-working class. People in this category generally have no savings and survive from check to check, often filling in the gaps by going into debt. "Any little thing — a child getting sick, a car breaking down — those are quite significant events for these working families," said Brandon Roberts of the Working Poor Families Project.

Where do they live and work? 
About half the working poor are white, mostly living in the South or Southwest. But African-Americans and Latinos are vastly overrepresented in their ranks: Over a quarter of blacks and Latinos live in poverty, while only a tenth of whites do. Most commonly they work for major national chains whose business models depend on very low labor costs — Walmart, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Target. In these hugely successful companies, most of the profits go to top management and stockholders. The top 50 employers of low-wage workers, a recent study found, paid their top executives an average of $9.4 million a year and have returned $175 billion in dividends to their shareholders since 2006. In contrast, the typical worker eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax break for low-income workers, has an adjusted gross income of $13,900. Since the Great Recession of 2008, about 60 percent of the jobs created in the U.S. have been low-wage ones. One out of four Americans now earns less than $10 an hour. 

Is the minimum wage too low?
There is a strong case that it is. 
The federal minimum wage has been frozen at $7.25 since 2009, and the cost of living has risen more than 7 percent since then. Some economists argue that paying workers more would mean fewer jobs as labor costs rose, but others say that basic economic principle doesn't hold at the low end of the job spectrum. Many of these service jobs can't be outsourced or automated. But thanks to globalization and the waning power of labor unions, workers have little leverage to press for higher salaries. 

Why are unions shrinking?
One major factor is that the manufacturing companies that were once a union stronghold have closed or sent their jobs overseas. But that's not the whole story. Canada's economy has seen similar changes over the past four decades, yet union membership there is still 30 percent, whereas in the U.S. it is 11.3 percent overall and less than 7 percent in the private sector. In the U.S., unions have dwindled partly because poor leadership has damaged their image, and partly because of "right-to-work" laws, now in place in 24 states, which effectively bar unions from organizing workers. 

Do the working poor pay taxes? 
They pay federal payroll taxes and sales taxes at the same rate as more affluent Americans, but they do not pay federal income taxes. Under tax programs that both Republicans and Democrats supported as a way to get poor people off welfare, workers with low incomes qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit and often the Child Tax Credit. Perversely, however, these special tax breaks serve as disincentives for the working poor to make more money. A single mother earning $18,000 a year loses tax credits and benefits as she climbs the income scale, so for each additional dollar she makes, she effectively keeps only 12 cents. She has little incentive to increase her hours and her income unless she can make a major jump in salary. 

Why not simply get a better job? 
The best way out of low-paying work is to get a good higher education. But most of the working poor come from struggling communities where schools are not well financed, and kids who attend bad elementary and high schools are far less likely to attend college. Even today, only 30 percent of Americans get college degrees. And for those with only a high school diploma, job prospects are more limited than ever; the average high school graduate today makes $12,000 less than the average high school graduate did in 1980. Men who are unemployed or in low-wage jobs tend not to marry, or if they do, are likely to get divorced, creating a vicious cycle: Their children often grow up in single-parent homes, which are far more likely to stay poor. "Folks in our state are working hard, but for many families, working hard just isn't enough," said F. Scott McCown of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. "Things need to change."

How taxpayers subsidize Walmart
Walmart is the largest private employer in the U.S. — and has the most workers on public assistance. In 2007, the company shifted from regular shifts to flexible shifts, a change labor activists said was designed to force full-time workers to downgrade their status to part-time, so they would not qualify for health insurance or other benefits. The result is that hundreds of thousands of Walmart employees rely on state benefits or Medicaid. Most of the company's warehouses are contracted out to temp agencies, so even if a warehouse loader works full-time in a Walmart warehouse for years, he gets no benefits. Walmart has also spent at least $1 billion since 2005 settling lawsuits over unpaid wages or illegal working conditions. One study estimated that Walmart workers cost taxpayers more than $1 billion every year.  The Week Staff

January 27, 2013

What is Hagel's background?
He comes from humble stock. Born in Nebraska, Hagel grew up poor and constantly on the move. His father was a World War II veteran who had bad health and a drinking problem, and died when Hagel was 16. The eldest of four boys, Hagel worked to help support the family, and took an early interest in politics. In 1960, he broke with his fellow Catholic schoolboys to support Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy. Hagel was a promising high school athlete, but a neck injury forced him to give up a college football scholarship. He drifted until his number came up in the draft in January 1967.

Where did he serve?
Hagel initially received orders to go to Germany, but he asked for a transfer to Vietnam so he could fight in the war. Against protocol, he was placed in the same infantry squad as his younger brother Tom. Just four months into his tour, Hagel was caught in a mine blast, taking shrapnel wounds to his chest that his brother bandaged up. A month later, in April 1968, Hagel returned the favor after their troop carrier hit another mine. Hagel pulled Tom from the burning vehicle under heavy fire, sustaining serious burns to his face. (Hagel's wounds in the two incidents won him two Purple Hearts.) In 2007, he recalled what went through his head when rescuing his brother: "I told myself, 'If I ever get out of this and I'm ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.'"

How did he get into politics?
John Y. McCollister, a Nebraska congressman, brought the young veteran to Washington in the early 1970s; within 18 months, he was McCollister's chief of staff. Hagel's ascent in the Republican Party was similarly rapid, and soon after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, he was named deputy director of the Veterans Administration. But within six months, he quit in protest against cuts in benefits for his fellow Vietnam veterans. It was his first act of rebellion against the party, but far from his last. "He thinks with the clarity of an actuary," said Michael McCarthy, one of Hagel's longtime financial backers, "but decides with the heart of an Irishman."

What was his next move? 
He sold his car and joined two friends in investing in an industry no one knew about in 1982 — a cellphone company. It made him millions when it later went public. In 1992 he moved his family from Virginia back to his native Nebraska, where he was elected senator in 1996 in an upset victory after a high-profile endorsement from fellow Vietnam vet Sen. John McCain. But Hagel remained a party maverick. After the GOP's poor showing in the 1998 midterm elections, he excoriated the leadership for running "issueless campaigns" and "demonizing" ads. In the 2000 primaries, he backed his friend McCain, saying that George W. Bush had "sold his soul to the right wing." Two years later, he became an ever bigger burr in Bush's saddle.

What issue divided them?
The war in Iraq, which Hagel opposed from the get-go, earning himself a place on the "axis of appeasement'' compiled by the neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard. In 2002, Hagel delivered a thunderous speech on the Senate floor warning that "imposing democracy through force is a roll of the dice." The U.S., he said, did not truly understand the factional divisions among Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. He then voted to authorize military action in Iraq — a vote he attributed to his loyalty to the office of the presidency. As the war spun out of control, Hagel became an ever-fiercer critic of the Bush administration. He voted against extending the Patriot Act in 2005, and led opposition in the Senate to the Iraq surge of 2007, calling it the "most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."

Is that why many Republicans now oppose him?
Hagel's apostasy on Iraq is just one of the ways in which he has infuriated his party's hawks. He has opposed military action to stop Iran's nuclear program, and described the Defense Department as "bloated." He angered pro-Israeli Republicans by complaining about the power of Washington's "Jewish lobby," and alienated social conservatives by comparing them to "Know-Nothings." But arguably his greatest sin against the GOP was befriending Obama. The two bonded in the Senate over their contrarian views on Iraq. In 2008, Hagel declined to endorse John McCain, which brought a chill to the long friendship between the two Vietnam vets. Hagel did not endorse Obama either, but enraged McCain by traveling to Iraq with the Democratic presidential candidate in July 2008. Hagel retired from the Senate in 2009, but he will soon return there as Obama's nominee for defense secretary to face confirmation hearings headed by his spurned former ally. "The friendship, I hope, is still there," McCain said in January, "but I have very serious questions about whether he will serve in a way that I think serves America's best national interests."

The smoking gun on Vietnam
Although the Vietnam War left Hagel scarred, for decades he saw it as a righteous cause gone wrong, not an unjustified incursion. That changed in 1997, when the government released tapes from 1964 of Lyndon B. Johnson confessing that the U.S. couldn't win in Vietnam. Johnson had made a "cold political calculation" to stay in Vietnam to secure his legacy, Hagel came to believe, and he vowed to "never, ever remain silent when that kind of thinking put more American lives at risk in any conflict." His anti-war views hardened yet further in 2005, when a cousin unearthed long-lost letters his father had written to his family during his service in the Pacific. "If I thought I would ever have a son who would have to go through this," he had written, "I would never get married."  The Week Staff

January 20, 2013

Isn't our genetic legacy hardwired?
From Mendel and Darwin in the 19th century to Watson and Crick in the 20th, scientists have shown that chromosomes passed from parent to child form a genetic blueprint for development. But in a quiet scientific revolution, researchers have in recent years come to realize that genes aren't a fixed, predetermined program simply passed from one generation to the next. Instead, genes can be turned on and off by experiences and environment. What we eat, how much stress we undergo, and what toxins we're exposed to can all alter the genetic legacy we pass on to our children and even grandchildren. In this new science of "epigenetics," researchers are exploring how nature and nurture combine to cause behavior, traits, and illnesses that genes alone can't explain, ranging from sexual orientation to autism to cancer. "We were all brought up to think the genome was it," said Rockefeller University molecular biologist C. David Allis. "It's really been a watershed in understanding that there is something beyond the genome."

What is epigenetics?
The word literally means "on top of genetics," and it's the study of how individual genes can be activated or deactivated by life experiences. Each one of our cells, from skin cells to neurons, contains an identical DNA blueprint, yet they perform vastly different functions. That's because epigenetic "tags" block developing fetal cells from following any genetic instructions that don't pertain to their intended roles. That biochemical process, scientists have discovered, occurs not just during gestation and early development but throughout adulthood, switching genes on or off and altering our mental and physical health.

How does that affect who we are?
We're only beginning to find out. A woman's diet during pregnancy seems to have a major impact on her baby's epigenetic tags. Prenatal diets that are low in folic acid, vitamin B-12, and other nutrients containing "methyl groups" — a set of molecules that can tag genes and cause epigenetic changes — have been linked to an increased risk of asthma and brain and spinal cord defects in children. Stress, too, can alter fetal epigenetic tags. Pregnant women who were traumatized at the World Trade Center on 9/11 were far more likely than other women to give birth to infants who reacted with unusual levels of fear and stress when faced with loud noises, unfamiliar people, or new foods.

Can changes occur later in life?
Absolutely. Young children who are abused are more likely to have epigenetic changes that make coping with stress more difficult. T
wins may inherit a gene that predisposes them to cancer, but only one will develop the disease because diet, toxins, or smoking turn on that gene, while the other has different habits and goes cancer-free. "We're not completely at the mercy of our genes," writes health journalist Alice G. Walton. "In many ways, they are at the mercy of our health and lifestyle decisions and habits."

Are epigenetic changes hereditary?
To the consternation of strict Darwinists, they can be. Researchers used to think that when a sperm and egg combined, all their epigenetic tags were erased, leaving the resulting embryo with a clean slate. Now they know that about 1 percent of our epigenetic tags escape erasure and pass directly to our offspring — and potentially their offspring and beyond. Scientists have discovered, for instance, that a group of children conceived during the Netherlands' desperate wartime famine of 1944–45 tended themselves to have smaller-than-usual offspring. That suggests that what men and women eat and smoke, and what toxins and traumas they're exposed to, can affect their children and even grandchildren. University of Texas zoologist David Crews has done multigenerational studies with rats that led him to speculate that soaring obesity and autism rates could be due to our grandparents' exposure to "the chemical revolution of the 1940s," including the introduction of new plastics, fertilizers, detergents, and pesticides.

Are these insights yielding medical therapies?
Over the past five years, evidence that epigenetics plays a major role in cancer has become "absolutely rock solid," says Robert A. Weinberg, a biologist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass. Andrew Feinberg, director of Johns Hopkins University's Epigenetics Center, thinks it's a factor in autism and diabetes as well. Drugs are in the works aimed at undoing cancerous epigenetic changes. Even eating foods rich in gene-altering methyl groups — such as soybeans, red grapes, and green tea — might protect against disease by silencing detrimental genes. In one famous experiment, researchers fed a methyl-rich diet to pregnant female mice that carried a gene that made them fat, yellow, and prone to cancer and diabetes. Though their offspring carried the same gene, they were born slim, brown, and disease-free. But researchers are still trying to work out how to use this powerful tool to address specific health problems. "Did this change in diet increase cancer risk?" asks McGill University pharmacologist Moshe Szyf. "Did it increase depression? Did it increase dementia or Alzheimer's? We don't know yet, and it will take some time to sort it out." 

Darwin vs. Lamarck
Before Darwin laid out the principles of natural selection in On the Origin of Species, an 18th-century French naturalist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, proposed a very different theory of evolution. Organisms, he thought, could pass on traits they'd acquired over their lifetime. Lamarckism — typified by the (incorrect) idea that giraffes have long necks because they're constantly stretching them to reach high leaves — faced ridicule after Darwinism took hold. At the turn of the 20th century, August Weismann debunked the theory by chopping off the tails of mice to prove that their pups would not inherit their taillessness. But even though "Darwin was 100 percent right" about how creatures evolve, said Swiss bioengineer Renato Paro, epigenetics suggests that the Frenchman may have been on to something after all. "Passing on gained characteristics," he said, "fits more to Lamarck's theory of evolution." The Week Staff

December 23, 2012

What's the origin of the Nativity story?
Some of it is in the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew mentions the Wise Men and the Star of Bethlehem, while the Gospel of Luke describes awestruck shepherds and says that Jesus was born in a stable because all the inns were full. Over the centuries, the customary Nativity scene was embellished with other lore, giving us the image of the baby Jesus lying in a manger and surrounded by his parents, Mary and Joseph, as shepherds, oxen, asses, and three Wise Men look on. But we have it on no less an authority than Pope Benedict XVI that the traditional crèche tableau has little basis in fact. There were, for example, likely no animals present, the pope writes in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. The tradition of the ox and ass stems from early Christian teachings that even animals recognized Jesus as the Son of God. Benedict is not alone in casting doubt on the popular version of Christ's birth. "It's virtually impossible to reduce the accounts to a single core narrative," said religious historian L. Michael White.

When was Christ born?
Almost certainly not 2,012 years ago or on Dec. 25. Matthew places Jesus' birth in the final years of the rule of Judea's Rome-backed king, Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C. Pope Benedict writes that Christ was probably born less than two years before that, putting his birth in 5 or 6 B.C. The Roman Catholic Church chose Dec. 25 as Christ's birth date in the 4th century, in order to co-opt a pagan feast day. To define Christ's actual date of birth, scholars look to when the Star of Bethlehem might have appeared.

What was the Star of Bethlehem?
There are various theories. According to Matthew, the Wise Men saw a bright light in the heavens and followed it to Jesus' birthplace. Some say it was a nova, or the explosion of a white dwarf star, recorded by Chinese sky-watchers in 5 B.C., while others suggest it was the planet Jupiter, which would have appeared to be drifting westward in the sky from September of 3 B.C. until the following May. Astronomer John Mosley of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles recently theorized that the Star of Bethlehem was actually a convergence of Jupiter and Venus that took place on June 17 in 2 B.C. "The two planets had merged into one single gleaming object in the direction of Jerusalem as seen in Persia," he said.

So the Wise Men were Persian?
The Gospel of Matthew says only that they came from the East and refers to them as "Magi." That term can apply to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic Persian religion whose adherents seek guidance in the stars. The idea that there were three of them, and that they were kings, originated in much later texts identifying them as Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar, kings of Arabia, Persia, and India, respectively. Biblical scholars say this element was incorporated into the Nativity tale to reflect the Christian tradition that all peoples recognized Christ's divinity. University of Oklahoma theology professor Brent Landau has identified an 8th-century text that purports to be the Magi's own account of Christ's birth. In it, a dozen religious mystics travel, probably from China, to Bethlehem to witness the event. "There are no other early Christian writings that provide such a complete explanation of these mysterious figures," said Landau.

Where was Jesus born?
Most scholars agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem — but not in a stable. The Gospel of Luke says that Mary laid Jesus in a manger because there was no room in the inn. But the word "inn" in the King James Bible is commonly agreed to be a mistranslation of a Greek term for "spare room" — and in those days, most families kept their animals inside the house, not in a separate outhouse. So Jesus was most likely born, according to historian R.T. France, in "the main living room of a peasant house, where animals are brought in at night."

Should these discrepancies bother Christians?
The pope says no. "The aim of the evangelists was not to produce an exhaustive account," he writes, "but a record of what seemed important for the nascent faith community in the light of the word." The Nativity story emphasizes Christ's humility, and the wonder of God taking on human form. The accounts of Jesus' life are not intended as histories, said Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, but as gospels — "proclamations of the good news." The true meaning of Christ, he says, lies not in "what really did happen," but in "what really does happen, in the lives of those who believe that stories such as these can convey a greater truth."

What did Jesus look like?
The Gospels say nothing about Jesus' ethnicity other than that he was Jewish. But scholars have painted him in many colors. As early as 1836, the English historian Godfrey Higgins suggested that Jesus was a dark-skinned Indian. Some African-American Christians, including Jesse Jackson, have claimed he was black, arguing that Mary descended from a tribe of African Jews. The earliest surviving images of Jewish people date to the 3rd century, so we have little historical record to go on — though it's unlikely Jesus was the blue-eyed, fair-haired man of Western tradition. An anthropological study in 2001 concluded that it was most likely Jesus had olive skin; short, dark curly hair; and a swarthy appearance. The West's inaccurate impression, said theologian Charles D. Hackett, is "a reminder of our tendency to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values." The Week Staff

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