Monday, January 27, 2014

HUGE TURNAROUND: Republican National Committee goes FAR condemning NSA surveillance and seeks to hold officials accountable / Atlantic and TIME

From the Atlantic: 
... the GOP establishment is changing along with its elected officials; the RNC voted in a winter meeting to literally renounce NSA domestic surveillance. "It was passed by a voice vote as part of a package of RNC proposals," Benjy Sarlin reports. "Not a single member rose to object or call for further debate, as occurred for other resolutions." That's incredible, because it's almost impossible to exaggerate how unequivocally the resolution condemns the NSA... 
Here is the full text of the resolution that passed unanimously: 
WHEREAS, the secret surveillance program called PRISM targets, among other things, the surveillance of U.S. citizens on a vast scale and monitors searching habits of virtually every American on the internet;
WHEREAS, this dragnet program is, as far as we know, the largest surveillance effort ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens, consisting of the mass acquisition of Americans’ call details encompassing all wireless and landline subscribers of the country’s three largest phone companies;
WHEREAS, every time an American citizen makes a phone call, the NSA gets a record of the location, the number called, the time of the call and the length of the conversation, all of which are an invasion into the personal lives of American citizens that violates the right of free speech and association afforded by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution;
WHEREAS, the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which guarantees the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, that warrants shall issue only upon probable cause, and generally prevents the American government from issuing modern-day writs of assistance;
WHEREAS, unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society and this program represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy and goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act; and
WHEREAS, Republican House Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, an author of the Patriot Act and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee at the time of Section 215′s passage, called the Section 215 surveillance program “an abuse of that law,” writing that, “based on the scope of the released order, both the administration and the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court are relying on an unbounded interpretation of the act that Congress never intended,” therefore be it
RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to enact legislation to amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the state secrets privilege, and the FISA Amendments Act to make it clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity, phone records and correspondence — electronic, physical, and otherwise — of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court;
RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to call for a special committee to investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying and the committee should create specific recommendations for legal and regulatory reform ot end unconstitutional surveillance as well as hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance; and
RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to immediately take action to halt current unconstitutional surveillance programs and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s data collection programs.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Advisory panel says NSA surveillance program should be ended / NBC

A second official advisory panel tells the government its NSA bulk collection of data is illegal and furthermore, has shown no benefit in fighting terrorism.  From NBC:
A government advisory panel said Thursday that the bulk data collection program run by the National Security Agency is illegal and should be halted.  
Recommendations by the bipartisan Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which was created by Congress last decade with a mandate to conduct oversight and recommendations to preserve individual liberty, are sure to inflame the ongoing debate over the National Security Agency and its surveillance practices.  
Full text of the report (.pdf) 
Among the findings of the panel:
  • Section 215 the Patriot Act “does not provide an adequate legal basis” to support the NSA’s collection of records of telephone calls, branding the practice illegal in the panel’s view.
  • The NSA program violates a federal law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act which prohibits telephone companies from giving customer records to the government except in response to a specific search warrant. 
  • The data collection done under the Section 215 program “has shown minimal value in safeguarding the nation from terrorism.” The board members said that based on the classified briefings and documents they received, “we have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.”

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Detouring around evidence: CDC's new recommendations on treatment of anthrax exposures in pregnant and post-partum women

CDC just published new guidelines for treatment of anthrax exposure and anthrax disease in pregnancy and the postpartum period.  It is said the guidelines are based on meetings  "of national subject matter experts to review key clinical elements of anthrax prevention and treatment for pregnant, postpartum, and lactating (P/PP/L) women."

A lot of effort was made to involve 77 experts, convene 5 workgroups, and undertake a series of conference calls as well as a 2.5 day meeting. Then CDC created the new guidelines.

Sounds pretty impressive.  The only problem is that they had very little solid information to talk about, since the data on treatment of anthrax exposure is limited to 1-2 published studies of the 10-30,000 people who received antibiotics after the anthrax letters.  One hundred ninety-eight of them also received anthrax vaccine, most receiving 3 doses on an every two week schedule while taking antibiotics.  I have seen nothing published about any pregnant women who participated in the CDC post-exposure treatment trial of anthrax vaccine.

The only data on anthrax vaccine in pregnancy comes from a) a large epidemiological study done by Ryan et al. of female soldiers vaccinated during pregnancy, and b) a poorer quality study by Weisen et al, which looked at pregnancy outcomes after anthrax vaccinations, but had a very high loss to followup, including all pregnancies referred outside the military base when they became complicated.  Weisen's abstract admits, "this study did not have sufficient power to detect adverse birth outcomes," yet the supposed reason for the study was to detect them. However, his paper ends with a misleading conclusion, "Anthrax vaccination had no effect on pregnancy and birth rates or adverse birth outcomes."

Ryan's study found that for women vaccinated for anthrax during the first trimester, birth defects were increased by 18%.  Her full-text report can be found here.  I wrote a detailed analysis of her paper, and the context in which her study was done.  Her early data led to major policy changes regarding careful avoidance of anthrax vaccine during potential pregnancy. They furthermore led to a change in the anthrax vaccine label, changing the vaccine from Category C for pregnancy (Animal reproduction studies have shown an adverse effect on the fetus and there are no adequate and well-controlled studies in humans, to Category D (positive evidence of human fetal risk), where it remains.  Could the new guidelines be part of an attempt by CDC to remove the Category D designation?

I mention this because the latest anthrax vaccine label change downplayed the existing adverse event data on anthrax vaccine.  In one case, the label reduced the rate of serious adverse events in CDC's pivotal trial of anthrax vaccine by a factor of ten, from 15% of subjects to 1.5%. Although analysis of this trial was completed in 2009, the completed analysis has never been published, a hint that the results may be highly unfavorable for anthrax vaccine.

Of 14 known first-trimester pregnancies that received anthrax vaccine in this CDC trial, there were 2 miscarriages, a fetal death and an infant born with a club foot:  first trimester anthrax vaccination was associated with a 29% rate of serious adverse outcomes.

To return to the new guidelines, doctors can earn CME credit when they learn that women exposed to anthrax spores, but not sick, (where "high risk of exposure" is poorly defined) should be treated with both antibiotics and anthrax vaccine, whether pregnant, lactating or not. 

However, not a shred of evidence exists that vaccine adds to the 100% protection offered by antibiotics for exposure, if there are no signs of anthrax disease, since the only evidence was obtained after the anthrax letters.  Sure, next time it could be different.  

I would suggest that if the anthrax next time is resistant to available antibiotics that have good CNS penetration, then probably vaccine or (preferably) antitoxin/monoclonal antibodies should be used. Antitoxin works right away, and in some cases has also functioned to provide long-lasting antibodies against anthrax, like a vaccine. The existing vaccine, on the other hand, takes weeks to generate high antibody levels. This could be the basis for simple, straightforward guidelines that appropriately respond to the specifics of an anthrax spore exposure.

Neither Dr. Ryan nor Dr. Weisen were included in forming these guidelines. It took a lot of people who lacked experience regarding anthrax and pregnancy, a lot of meetings, a lot of money and nearly two years to create guidelines that don't make good medical sense.

In fact, the guidelines fail to offer any scientific justification for using the anthrax vaccine. What did the 77 experts and all those meetings actually conclude?  All their guidelines say is that a 2008 ACIP report authored by several of the same 77 experts from CDC said the vaccine was okay in pregnancy. The 2008 guideline authors blew off the admitted increased risk in pregnancy with the following fluff:
"... In addition, late recognition of pregnancy, a moderate risk factor for many birth defects, including ASD, might explain the number of women vaccinated during their first trimester. After review of these data and discussions with the authors of this study, ACIP concluded that AVA is safe to administer during pregnancy but recommended that pregnant women defer vaccination unless exposure to anthrax poses an immediate risk for disease."  
This is a "blame the victim" strategy.  If you got vaccinated while you were pregnant, the assumption is that you did not know you were pregnant, and therefore you were in a group with a higher than normal risk of adverse birth outcomes. And that was the problem, not anthrax vaccine!  What a convenient, non-data-driven assumption.

However, it was military policy to vaccinate women who thought they might be pregnant but had not proven it, before Ryan's research came out in 2001.  

CDC, what happened to "First, Do No Harm" and "Second, use your head"? 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

All digital content is recorded, and all snail mail envelopes are being photographed/ RT and WhoWhatWhy

I previously quoted former NSA official Russell Tice regarding NSA surveillance.

The website WhoWhatWhy has posted a transcript (and video) of Mr. Tice's July 10, 2013 interview on RT, and it contains some interesting tidbits.

Of course, with respect to NSA surveillance, the big question is who gets and uses the information; who is running this runaway train?  Tice suggested that specific surveillance on politicians, generals, judges was being set up at night to limit detection by NSA employees. He also mentions VP Dick Cheney's office, which a colleague suggested was behind the collections.

And here was a new fact I had never heard before, but of course it makes sense:  every bit of snail mail is being photographed to learn the addresses and who is connected to who...
RT:  ... who is administering the surveillance?
Tice: That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. It looked like, the plugging in of these phone numbers was being done in the evenings at NSA. So almost it was like being done on the sly even so that most NSA employees did not know what was going on. Now, a high-level person at NSA told me this was being directed from the vice president’s office. That would be Vice-President Dick Cheney. I don’t know that for sure but that’s what I was told from a very senior person at NSA.
Tice:  ... I noticed that the intelligence community is not being hit with the sequester, the intelligence budget. Well, how is that possible? Is there some kind of leverage that is being placed on our three branches of government, to make sure that the intelligence community gets what they want? In other words, is the intelligence community running this country, not our government? 
... Tice: What’s different about this is at the Orwellian scale. This is the everything scale. This is not just Richard Nixon going after a few, you know, enemies’ list. This is everybody and everything. And now NSA is literally tapping every communication, every digital communication in this country, content, not just the metadata, the content. And when they’re saying, “well, it’s not that far,”once again, they’re lying. They continue to lie about the full capability.
... Tice:  Well, I sort of consider this sort of a, the light police state. Because they’re hiding the fact that it is a police state. I mean the fact that they can literally go into all of our communications, all of the digital communications, the fact that … It’s been disclosed recently that the post office is now doing a cover on every tangible letter that goes to the post office. They’re taking the picture of everything. They’re looking at the return address and they’re looking at the main address at who is mailing something. And that is also being digitally stored. So every means of communication in this country, everything is being watched by the federal government. And that is Orwellian and that is a trademark of a police state. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

NSA able to attack computers that are never connected to the internet/NY Times

So much for keeping your computer safe from spying--or even insertions and deletions--by using it only as a typewriter and file cabinet.  Note the devices and programs used by NSA are at least 5 years old. Excerpts from the Times:
WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency has implanted software in nearly 100,000 computers around the world that allows the United States to conduct surveillance on those machines and can also create a digital highway for launching cyberattacks. 
While most of the software is inserted by gaining access to computer networks, the N.S.A. has increasingly made use of a secret technology that enables it to enter and alter data in computers even if they are not connected to the Internet, according to N.S.A. documents, computer experts and American officials.
The technology, which the agency has used since at least 2008, relies on a covert channel of radio waves that can be transmitted from tiny circuit boards and USB cards inserted surreptitiously into the computers. In some cases, they are sent to a briefcase-size relay station that intelligence agencies can set up miles away from the target...
Among the most frequent targets of the N.S.A. and its Pentagon partner, United States Cyber Command, have been units of the Chinese Army, which the United States has accused of launching regular digital probes and attacks on American industrial and military targets, usually to steal secrets or intellectual property. But the program, code-named Quantum, has also been successful in inserting software into Russian military networks and systems used by the Mexican police and drug cartels, trade institutions inside the European Union…
Over the past two months, parts of the program have been disclosed in documents from the trove leaked by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor. A Dutch newspaper published the map of areas where theUnited States has inserted spy software, sometimes in cooperation with local authorities, often covertly. Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, published the N.S.A.’s catalog of hardware products that can secretly transmit and receive digital signals from computers, a program called ANT...
Computers are not the only targets. Dropoutjeep attacks iPhones. Other hardware and software are designed to infect large network servers, including those made by the Chinese.

Most of those code names and products are now at least five years old, and they have been updated, some experts say, to make the United States less dependent on physically getting hardware into adversaries’ computer systems…
UPDATE from Mike Masnick:  these activities certainly seem more in line with what you'd expect the NSA to be doing, and raise (yet again) the question of why the NSA needs to "collect it all" when it appears that programs like these can be quite effective in doing targeted surveillance against those actually seeking to attack the US in some manner? 

Monday, January 13, 2014

More details on the Israeli anthrax vaccine settlement, including acknowledgement of illnesses/ Haaretz

A longer report was published in Haaretz, with an excerpt below: 
... In December 2008, the [Israeli Medical Association] investigative committee published a report, which found grave fault with the way in which soldiers were recruited for the experiment, and the unscrupulous methods for achieving the soldiers’ consent – which included failure to inform them of the risks associated with the experiment.
In 2010, 92 soldiers filed a lawsuit against the government, through attorney Boaz Ben Zur. The lawsuit’s complaint included a statement that the ordeal involved an “experiment on human beings” who did not agree to participate. 
Many participants have developed medical problems in the years subsequent to the experiment. The settlement agreement calls on the government to admit that side effects from the experimental inoculation have been found in some of the participants. These side effects were labeled by the government as “few and far between,” and included – among others – Crohn’s disease, thyroid inflammation, [both of which were strongly correlated with the vaccination in US troops--Nass] allergic dermatitis reactions and temporary kidney failure.
Although the settlement agreement did not force the government to take responsibility for the side effects, it was written that “in some cases, and in light of the specific circumstances of every case, it was determined, based on medical knowledge, that correlation between the aforementioned side effects and receiving the inoculation cannot be denied.”
... A letter for participants and their families from the Victims of Anthrax Experimentation committee read, “After seven years of long, difficult struggle, we won. We set out to combat the IDF’s moral image as a Jewish army; we were not seeking reparations. What we fought for is an IDF that does not experiment on human beings, its soldiers, as if they are lower than lab animals, and then evades responsibility for the consequences. We’ve returned honor to the IDF command, but it’s a shame we had to do so through the courts...”

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Defense Ministry to pay NIS 25m. to IDF soldiers subjected to anthrax experiment/ Jerusalem Post

From the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli MOD has settled with 100 former soldiers who were used in anthrax vaccine experiments and reported subsequent illnesses; money has been set aside to compensate other subjects in the trial who were not part of the original lawsuit.

The Israeli MOD's claim that the Israeli anthrax vaccine "is as safe as the anthrax vaccine developed by the US" provides scant support for Israel's vaccine.
Court approves compromise deal by which soldiers who were made part of experiment without their knowledge will be compensated.

The Defense Ministry will pay out tens of thousands shekels in compensation to every one of the 716 soldiers and officers who agreed to take part in a once secret anthrax vaccine trial, following a compromise deal to settle lawsuits filed by dozens of volunteers who suffered negative side effects after being injected.
The vaccine trial, named Omer 2, took place between 1998 and 2006, and sought volunteers from elite IDF units. Following the trial, a number of participants complained of side effects such as breathing problems and skin conditions.
Link:  MoD failed to supervise anthrax vaccine tests
Ninety one soldiers who sued the Defense Ministry will receive NIS 36,000 each, while the remainder of the trial’s participants will receive NIS 27,000 each, amounting to a compensation package of more than NIS 20 million.
In a joint statement released by the Defense and Justice ministries, the state denied wrongdoing, saying, “More than a decade ago, the defense establishment concluded that Israeli civilians and soldiers faced a tangible threat from anthrax attacks, possibly via missile attacks, and that defense measures were essential against this unconventional threat. In line with this assessment, the Defense Ministry began developing a vaccine in Israel which was based on an American vaccine, in order to provide a solution to members of the security forces and civilians.”
The statement added that military medical researchers who developed the vaccine “did not expect any dangerous side effects,” and that “the vaccine used in the research contains materials that exist in many vaccines given to babies on a regular basis, such as for tetanus and hepatitis.”
The research “was carried out in the safest way” on volunteers, the statement continued.
Defense figures said they took into account the fact that those who sued were volunteers, and as a result, the Defense Ministry decided to settle the issue through compensation, it said.
The Medical Research Administration, which operates under the IDF’s Chief Medical Officer, will provide care for volunteers, while a financial fund will be created to handle compensation payments.
During the trial period, a quarter of participants were given an American version of the vaccine, while 75 percent were injected with the Israeli vaccine, which had not been previously tested. Members of both groups went on to suffer side effects.
The trial program had in the past been severely criticized by the Israel Medical Association.
In 2009, the Defense Ministry, responding to lawsuits and criticism, said, “Thanks to Omer 2, Israel has a medical reply for the general public against a most severe threat.
We thank the volunteers and appreciate their willingness to take part in this important trial, and their contribution to the general security of residents of Israel.” It went on to say that the Israeli vaccine is as safe as the anthrax vaccine developed by the US.
Those who sued raised questions over the way the vaccine trial was conducted, and challenged the adequacy of the monitoring of volunteers and the subsequent care provided to them.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Distinguished scientists (including former NIH chief and former UK Health Ministry's Chief Scientific Officer) also question vaccine safety/ HuffPo

Thanks to Lawrence Solomon, writing for Huffington Post, who explains that media's approach to those who question vaccine safety defies rational explanation.  Highly regarded scientists, whose job it was to review the safety of vaccines, have persistent questions about their safety in large, unscreened populations (as do I). 
Those who question vaccination programs are kooks or quacks, the press repeatedly tells us. The Globe and Mail, CBS News, Mother Jones and even scientific journals like Nature label skeptics as "vaccination deniers," much as global warming skeptics are called "deniers."
Slate magazine, citing the medical journal Vaccine, deplores "the global anti-vaccination movement [as] a loose coalition of rogue scientists, journalists, parents, and celebrities, who think that vaccines cause disorders like autism - a claim that has been thoroughly discredited by modern science." Commentary, a serious publication that covers politics, refers to skeptics as "vaccination truthers."
This wholesale demeaning of vaccine skeptics defies explanation. Granted, kooks and quacks exist in the vaccination field, just as they exist elsewhere. But why taint the skeptics as a whole, and fail to respectfully report dissenting views? No journalist would have had any difficulty finding dozens of distinguished skeptical scientists for the very few "rogue" scientists that the press has vilified.
How hard, for example, should it have been for the press to notice the views of Dr. Bernadine Healy, the former head of the National Institute of Health, the former head of the American Red Cross, and the former Chair of the White House Cabinet Group on Biotechnology, one of several White House positions she held in service to three U.S. presidents.
Dr. Healy criticized the public health establishment for being "too quick to dismiss [vaccine concerns] as irrational...The more you delve into it, if you look at the basic science, if you look at the research that's been done in animals, if you also look at some of these individual cases, and if you look at the evidence... what you come away with is that the question [of vaccine safety] has not been answered."
Dr. Healy's views would have been particularly easy to find because they were actually aired by one of America's leading journalists, Sharyl Attkisson of CBS News, in one of the rare instances in which the mainstream press fairly presented a skeptic's perspective on the vaccine issue.
Journalists should also have had no trouble finding Dr. Diane Harper, a lead developer of the controversial Gardasil vaccine and another interviewee of Attkisson's. Dr. Harper believes this vaccine, which is being recommended for teens and pre-teens to combat cervical cancer, is less effective than the common Pap smear, and that it may harm more children than it helps. "Parents and women must know that deaths occurred," she stated in arguing that parents need to know that they could be subjecting their children to needless risks.
Journalists might have sought the views of skeptics among academics. At the University of British Columbia, for example, researchers Chris Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic in the Faculty of Medicine state that the cervical cancer vaccine may lead to death among susceptible members of the population.
Their views have been quite public, as were those of Professor Walter Spitzer of McGill University, considered Canada's "dean" of epidemiology. In 2002 testimony to a U.S. Congressional committee hearing into the safety of various childhood vaccines, he matter-of-factly stated that, based on the evidence to date involving one of the vaccine combinations under scrutiny, "I cannot recommend it ... for my own grandchildren."
Finally, journalists who place special stock in the credibility of government scientists might have noticed the views of none other than Peter Fletcher, former Chief Scientific Officer at the UK's Department of Health.
Dr. Fletcher was also the Medical Assessor to the Committee on Safety of Medicines, and thus the very person who determined for the UK government whether vaccines were safe. Dr. Fletcher has several times gone public with his concerns over vaccines, and with his frustration that "no one in authority will even admit [a vaccine-related problem could be] happening, let alone try to investigate the causes."
Those who are labelled as anti-vaccination rogue scientists are hardly rogues -- they are found at the pinnacle of the medical establishment. And they are hardly anti-vaccination. All of the scientists that I mention in this article value vaccines for the great good that they can do. Their opposition is to mass vaccination of the population, which discounts the risk that people with certain predispositions can react badly to various vaccines, just as people with certain predispositions can react badly to various prescription drugs.
Identify the vulnerable populations, the skeptics say, so that all can be confident when vaccines are administered. For this, they deserve our appreciation, not our ridicule.

California Bill, passed by its Senate, would ban blanket NSA collection under Patriot Act/ CBS

California's state Senate voted 31-1 to ban state officials and state corporations from participating with federal agencies to collect electronic data on any persons in a sweeping, rather than individual, fashion. Silicon Valley entities like Google are located in California; they have been ordered by federal officials to participate in surveillance activities.  This bill, if passed by the Assembly, should thus set up a legal battle between federal and California state officials regarding the legality of such participation.

CBS News Reports:
LOS ANGELES  — A sweeping bill intended to rein in the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is making its way through the halls of Sacramento.
The California State Senate has voted overwhelmingly to approve Senate Resolution 16, which calls on lawmakers in Washington to take action against the NSA.
Passed in a bipartisan 31-1 vote on Monday, Senate Resolution 16 (PDF) bans state agencies, officials, and corporations from giving any material support, participation or assistance to any federal agency to collect electronic or metadata — including emails and text messages — of any person unless a warrant is issued that specifically describes the person, place and thing to be searched or seized.
 Sen. Ted Lieu, who co-authored SR 16 with Assemblyman Joel Anderson (R-San Diego), said the legislation comes in response to recent revelations of the NSA’s “massive phone and internet records collection program on Americans.”
“The NSA is violating our Constitutional rights on a daily basis by doing a blanket search-and-seizure of all our phone records of every American for the last several years, and I want to put a stop to that,” Lieu said...