Columbia's Last Flight

Cqolumbia's Last Flight" (November Atlantic) contains much useful information about the tragic accident that took the lives of our heroic Columbia astronauts and the subsequent investigation by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Our nation indeed owes the board and its leader, Admiral Hal Gehman, a debt of gratitude for clearly pinpointing the combination of technical, human, and process errors within NASA that led to the tragedy—errors we are committed to correcting.

I am concerned, however, that William Langewiesche's account presents an incomplete and often inaccurate view of NASA's response to the investigation.

From February 1 onward we took concrete actions to ensure that the accident investigation would be independent, thorough, and credible, no matter how bad the agency or people within it might look. Early on I modified the board's charter to give the panel more authority and the people it needed. I also modified the charter to ensure that the board's report would be issued at the same time to the White House, Congress, NASA, and the public. I never attempted, as Langewiesche asserts, to keep the report from being made available to the public. Further, throughout the board's work NASA willingly provided technical assistance to investigators and responded positively to every request we received for information or action—nearly 800 in all. This was not the behavior of an agency unwilling to face the truth.

Following the release of the board's report, on August 26, as promised, we have embraced the board's findings and its recommendations as our starting point for returning to safe shuttle-flight operations. Our return-to-flight plan lists specific actions that NASA will take to fully implement each of the board's safety recommendations, and additional actions we will take to raise the safety bar higher. A copy of the board's report and our return-to-flight plan can be found on the NASA Web site at www.nasa.gov. (Our Web site also details the important scientific research conducted by Columbia's astronauts. Viewed objectively, this information contradicts Langewiesche's assertion that no useful science took place on the STS-107 mission.)

In the aftermath of Columbia, NASA is taking other steps to develop an organizational culture that empowers open dialogue and rewards excellence in all aspects of our work. In November we opened a new Engineering and Safety Center that will draw on our best engineering and scientific talent to take a no-holds-barred approach to analyzing and acting on all safety aspects of our missions. We've also empowered a distinguished return-to-flight task group, led by the former astronauts Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey, to carefully evaluate and publicly report on our progress in implementing the board's recommendations.

I am disturbed by Langewiesche's assertion that no one at NASA "stepped forward to accept personal responsibility for contributing to this accident," "certainly not Sean O'Keefe." Following the accident I expressed my deep sense of personal responsibility and accountability for this horrible event. In a March session with reporters I said, "First and foremost, the responsibility begins with me for what happened on that day and everything leading up to it." I've repeated that and will continue to act in that manner every day of my tenure at NASA.

Sean O'Keefe


National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Washington, D.C.

William Langewiesche's portrayal of the Columbia's doomed flight is chilling and no doubt largely accurate as far as it goes. But his article fails to acknowledge or discuss the years of funding shortfalls and personnel reductions, as dictated by Congress and the Office of Management and Budget, that severely eroded the environment of safety that must surround the space-shuttle program if catastrophes like the loss of Columbia are to be avoided.

I served as a member of and a consultant to NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel from 1980 to 2001. The ASAP is a congressionally mandated advisory group established in the aftermath of the Apollo fire in 1967. Its task is to advise the NASA administrator and Congress on "the hazards of proposed operations ... with respect to the adequacy of proposed or existing safety standards." For many years we monitored the development and operations of the space-shuttle program as our priority concern. Each year, and more frequently if conditions warranted, we reported in writing and in person to the administrator, and occasionally to Congress, on a wide range of safety issues affecting the space shuttle. Most of our time was spent at NASA field centers talking to managers, engineers, contractors, and technicians about what was really going on. We spent as little time as possible at NASA headquarters watching view-graphs or PowerPoint presentations.

Since its earliest flight the space shuttle has been an R&D vehicle, despite sporadic attempts by NASA and the OMB to declare it "operational." The distinction is more than semantic. The space shuttle is the most complex machine ever conceived, built, and flown by humankind. This complexity means that utmost care must be expended at every stage of its operations and on every flight to avoid glitches and errors that in many cases could cause catastrophic loss of the vehicle and its crew. It must never be seen as "operational" in the sense that a Boeing 747 is operational. Above all, as the ASAP repeated over and over, "Safety first, schedule second" must be the space shuttle's operating mantra.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, in response to budget pressures emanating from the OMB (that is, the White House) and sustained on Capitol Hill, the resources—dollars and people—needed to operate this R&D vehicle safely were whittled away. Unrealistic and potentially disastrous personnel reductions were imposed on the space-shuttle organization, field centers (especially Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center, and Marshall Space Flight Center), and NASA contractors (especially the United Space Alliance). Toward the latter part of the decade and continuing into 2000, 2001, and 2002, approximately $300 million was shifted each year from the space-shuttle account to the floundering International Space Station project.

Thousands of experienced managers, engineers, and technicians were given pink slips or early retirement. Although any bureaucracy can usually make do with fewer people, these cuts went far beyond reasonable downsizing. Engineers who carried unique knowledge of the space-shuttle operating systems in their heads (each vehicle has its own peculiarities) were shown the door. In performing their highly complex and critical functions, technicians used to rely on a second set of eyes provided by NASA quality-control personnel; but many quality-control workers were eliminated in the layoffs. The technicians were given sole responsibility for making sure that many jobs were done correctly.

In its 1997 annual report the ASAP warned that "further erosion of the personnel base could affect safety and increase flight risk because it increases the likelihood that essential work steps might be omitted." The panel expressed similar concerns over the need to restore NASA's aging infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center.

In 2001 the ASAP's annual report noted that the panel's safety concerns had "never been greater":

Budget cutbacks and shifts in priorities have severely limited the resources available to the Space Shuttle and ISS for application to risk-reduction and life-extension efforts. As a result, funds originally intended for long-term safety-related activities have been used for operations ... The Panel has significant concern with this growing backlog because identified safety improvements are being delayed or eliminated.

It was in this resource-constrained environment that the decisions of NASA's space-shuttle managers must be seen. There appeared to be safety issues far more urgent than the loss of foam from the external tank. I have no reason to doubt that the space-shuttle program manager, Ron Dittemore, would gladly have authorized an updated alternative to the Crater model used to analyze the likely effect of foam strikes on the underside protective tiles. But with limited funds and people to invest in risk-reduction studies, the money went to more immediate needs. With limited analytical capabilities, the foam strikes came to be seen as annoyances rather than the life-threatening events they in fact turned out to be.

In retrospect, the NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe's determination to bring the ISS to initial completion no later than February of 2004 served to turn the ASAP's "Safety first, schedule second" on its head. The pressure was on to maintain space-shuttle flights in support of ISS construction. In this environment, and taking into account the resource cutbacks that had been occurring for at least five years, there existed little latitude for space-shuttle managers to investigate any but the most obvious safety concerns.

None of this absolves NASA or its managers from the catastrophic mistakes identified by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and recounted in Langewiesche's insightful reporting. NASA's management culture must achieve fundamental change. But it does suggest some additional culprits: namely, the OMB and Congress. These institutions created the environment in which safety took a back seat to schedule, and needed risk-reduction initiatives were forgone. And these institutions have now run for cover, more than willing to let NASA take full blame for the tragic events that unfolded over the western United States on February 1.

John G. Stewart


Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, 1980-2001


National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Knoxville, Tenn.

William Langewiesche is dead wrong when he states as "fact" that allowing witnesses to be protected in Columbia Accident Investigation Board interviews was "arguably [Admiral] Gehman's biggest mistake," that many believed this wouldn't have an effect on what people said, or that people would have been willing to speak without privacy. As one who conducted a third of all the interviews, I saw firsthand that we gained invaluable information—information we likely would not have gained if the comments had been open to public scrutiny. Indeed, not unlike reporters protecting their sources, we had people offering testimony under privilege that could have cost them their jobs if made public. Such testimony, particularly when validated through multiple interviews, went on to help us piece together the dysfunctional communications within NASA, the organizational incongruities that had evolved, and even concerns about what the next accident cause could be—the next Challenger O-ring or Columbia bipod ramp.

As a board member, I also had the privilege of meeting with congressional leaders to discuss our investigation. When pressed to explain why we were doing privileged interviews (often the first question I was asked), I responded by giving examples of interviews in which witnesses put their jobs on the line with their responses. No further questions were asked.

Duane W. Deal


Brigadier General, USAF


Colorado Springs, Colo.

Cqolumbia's Last Flight" took as a given what should have been a major issue—the long-standing tendency of thermal-insulation foam to separate from the external tank and hit the shuttle (which it had seriously damaged, although not with fatal results, earlier). William Langewiesche has no doubt that the foam caused this disaster, but why does he not ask the obvious question: Why did NASA make no effort to cure this problem?

Here is the real scandal—not, as Langewiesche would have it, bureaucratic mismanagement within NASA. The customary insulation was foam made from Freon, which was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency to comply with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. As the Waterbury Republican-American of July 14, 2003, reported, in 1997 the maiden flight with the new foam had resulted in a big increase in foam-induced tile damage. This should have been a wake-up call for NASA engineers.

Surely Langewiesche should have addressed this issue—and he could have mentioned as well that many call the theory that chlorofluorocarbons (of which Freon is one) produce a thinning of the ozone layer junk science, and believe that the thinning is a natural, recurring, temporary phenomenon related to the wintertime decrease of sunshine, which interacts with chemicals to produce ozone.

Rael Jean Isaac


Irvington, N.Y.

According to William Langewiesche, some of the blame for the Columbia tragedy was put on NASA's reliance on PowerPoint presentations. It should be realized that this much-maligned Microsoft application is only as good as the message developed by the user. As an analyst, I can vouch for the effectiveness of PowerPoint. I fear that naive users of this software erroneously think that the medium is the message. To rely on this approach is to revert to the custom of blaming bad news on the messenger.

Philip Shiffman


Matawan, N.J.

I was surprised by William Langewiesche's description of Linda Ham. He writes that she was a "youngish, attractive woman given to wearing revealing clothes."

The Columbia flight did not end in tragedy because some engineer, rather than minding the computer readouts, was busy looking down Ham's blouse. I fail to understand why her dress code was included. One can make the point that she was a successful professional woman in a male-dominated industry without reference to fashion tastes. Ham committed egregious errors in management decision-making. To comment on what she was wearing when she made those errors detracts from the very real thrust of the article: seven people died because the organization charged with protecting them had an abysmal failure of communication at all levels.

Lori McKay


Highland, Md.

In reading William Langewiesche's fascinating and moving piece on the Columbia, I was startled to see the phrase "the smell of space." Space smells? Where does the odor originate?

Lisa Heller


Salem, Ore.

William Langewiesche replies:

The "smell of space" exists. It has an acrid or burned quality. But neither I nor the astronauts I've asked yet understand its origin.

College Admissions

As a college admissions officer and an Atlantic subscriber, I read the Atlantic survey in your November issue partly out of necessity but also out of curiosity, to see if you might offer a new approach to this vexing set of issues. I was hopeful that the survey would provide some useful and balanced insight into the complexities of contemporary college admissions. I am afraid I was disappointed on all counts.

I found your "experiment(al)" ranking list simplistic and hypocritical. Frankly, U.S. News does a better job by at least trying to measure many different institutional characteristics that have something to do with learning beyond admissions statistics. Ranking colleges solely on the basis of admissions statistics—ignoring the quality of the actual educational experience after a student has enrolled—encourages the ever increasing tendency to equate selectivity with quality. If, as you state, "a school's selectivity does not necessarily reflect the quality of the education it offers," why do you produce a ranking based solely on such statistics? Your "experiment" (perhaps it is intended as a parody?) is a disservice, because inevitably many students and families will give credence to the ranking.

Your survey was also incredibly narrow, skewed, and insular. The various sections relied almost exclusively on the views of admissions officers at highly selective colleges or teachers and counselors at elite private schools in the Northeast—precisely the populations among which admissions hysteria is most often manifested. Your reporters, and James Fallows in particular, should be aware of the need for balanced reporting. There are other regions of the country beyond the Northeast, where there are just as many talented prospective students but the mania over admissions is not nearly as pronounced.

Finally, your articles fail to capture the tremendous effort that most colleges and universities make to ensure that their selection processes are as fair and equitable as possible. The demographics of the national high school population are changing in a dramatic fashion. Dartmouth and many other colleges and universities are working earnestly on these issues in an effort to expand opportunity and create vibrant and diverse educational communities. Your survey failed to capture this central reality of today's admissions world. It serves only to heighten the paranoia of those who already feel entitled to attend the college of their choice.

Karl Furstenberg


Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid


Dartmouth College


Hanover, N.H.

The rankings in "The Selectivity Illusion," by Don Peck, are computed using a flawed metric, and mistakenly have Caltech at No. 3 instead of No. 1.

The rate of admission (fraction of applicants admitted relative to those who apply) understates the selectivity of small technical schools like Caltech. Applicants to Caltech undergo very strong self-screening, since the criteria for admission are largely quantitative, and only 300 or 400 students are admitted each year to fill a class of 200. (This makes Caltech only about a fifth the size of its close rivals in the rankings: MIT, the big-three Ivies, and Stanford.)

Self-screening accounts for the fact that Caltech's 20 percent admission rate is higher than those of the other top five schools. Many high school seniors will take a shot at getting into schools like Stanford and Harvard (and, increasingly, MIT), leading to a lower admission rate. Very few would try this at Caltech, where even elite freshmen are often unable to keep up with the required coursework, which includes two years of advanced mathematics and physics (even quantum mechanics) for all students. (The course requirements are much more rigorous at Caltech than at MIT, and consequently its retention/graduation rate is lower than those of the other top five schools, which hurts it in the U.S. News rankings.)

A look at SAT scores in your ranking shows a statistically very significant difference between Caltech and less selective schools. The 75th-percentile number is not very useful, since the top 25 percent of Caltech students all scored close to 1600 (as is the case at one or two of the other top five schools), but the 25th-percentile number is very revealing, because it shows a large gap between Caltech and the other top five schools.

As someone who has either graduated from or been on the faculty of Caltech, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale, I can assure you that only a small fraction of students at the other top five schools in your rankings could manage to graduate from Caltech, even if admitted.

Stephen Hsu


Eugene, Ore.

I was surprised to see that the University of Michigan was not on your list of most selective schools. Michigan's Web site shows that the university had about 25,000 applicants in 2002. Twelve thousand were actually accepted. Of these, about 5,000 enrolled as freshmen. Ninety-seven percent of the freshman class had a GPA of 3.0 or higher. The 2002 SAT 25th percentile shows a combined score of 1180, and the 2002 SAT 75th percentile shows a combined score of 1380. Don't these statistics show that Michigan is more selective than some of the schools listed in your ranking? Thirteen thousand applicants were denied admission to Michigan. How many of the schools you listed even had 13,000 applicants?

James Stegenga


Kentwood, Mich.

Don Peck refers to the "Little Ivies" as Swarthmore, Amherst, and Williams. Actually, the Little (Three) Ivies, as they have been known since the official founding of the Ivy League, in 1954, are Amherst, Williams, and Wesleyan. (The Ivy League was first referred to as such in 1937, by the sportswriter Caswell Adams, of the New York Herald Tribune.) Swarthmore, with its solid Quaker underpinnings, is altogether of another ilk originally.

Donald De Bona


Asheville, N.C.

James Fallows and Don Peck reply:

Karl Furstenberg's reaction is typical of those we received from admissions officials who had read a New York Times story claiming that The Atlantic would be offering a new U.S. News-style college-ranking system. It is highly atypical of the reaction we received from the same people after they actually saw the issue. The magazine's intent was to explain the real function of the admissions system—"the subtle, subjective work of matching millions of students with thousands of schools"—and to contrast that with the trophy-hunt mentality that creates what Mr. Furstenberg calls "paranoia." In analyzing the preoccupation of many students and their parents—especially but not only in the Northeast—with admission to a handful of schools, we were hardly endorsing it; that is why one of our articles called it a "national hysteria." As the introduction to this section said, "In higher education, as in dating or marriage, individual tastes and needs differ. There are widely agreed-upon ideas of more and less attractive partners, but there is no single 'best' or 'right' choice. If one matchup doesn't work, many others are available. There are plenty of fish in the sea." For the record, most of the many college admissions officers that we interviewed in the course of our research were from schools outside the Northeast.

We agree completely with Mr. Furstenberg that most colleges and universities work very hard to make their admissions process as fair and humane as possible, and to create vibrant and diverse classes. Thanks largely to such efforts, the vast majority of students enjoy their college experiences, whether or not they end up attending their first-choice schools.

Stephen Hsu and James Stegenga are correct: if we measured "selectivity" differently (and there are many ways to do so), the "ranking" we produced would change. It's a pity they don't go further and say that any attempt to make meaningful judgments about schools based on where they sit on such a list—or whether they're even on the list—is foolish. That was the whole point of the article "The Selectivity Illusion," to which our brief ranking was attached in order to stimulate comment.

Donald De Bona is right: the schools traditionally described as the "Little Ivies" are Amherst, Williams, and Wesleyan.

Frankenfood

The short answer to the question asked by Jonathan Rauch's article "Will Frankenfood Save the Planet?" (October Atlantic) is, of course, no. Genetically modifying agricultural crops is a tool—and a potentially dangerous tool. Like any dangerous tool, it should be used carefully, and only when a safer tool won't do the job as well. But the Sierra Club has not called and does not call for banning the biotechnology. We call for testing it and ensuring that the benefits exceed the risks in a publicly accountable fashion.

Rauch seems to object that the Sierra Club has said we should stop growing—and eating—the present, inadequately tested varieties of genetically modified corn, soybeans, and potatoes. He says this would mean that "countless tons of polluted runoff and eroded topsoil would accumulate in Virginia rivers and streams while debaters debated and researchers researched."

Would it? Rauch admits that no-till farming can be done without biotech, but says that it is "more difficult and expensive." But maybe a little more expense would be a prudent insurance policy while we let the researchers actually do the research on these varieties. Many non-biotech crops tolerate Roundup, in moderate doses, quite nicely. Why not grow those along the Chesapeake for a few years? What's happening instead is that we are overusing Roundup Ready soybeans. Roundup-resistant weed strains are already emerging. We have no idea what we are doing to our health or the environment for these short-term fixes. We aren't investing in diverse agricultural strategies: crop rotation, conventionally bred varieties, integrated pest management, and, yes, further research into biotech crops that meet the urgent needs that Monsanto always talks about but never invests much in—such as salt-resistant barley for the coastal regions of North Africa.

Carl Pope


Executive Director, Sierra Club


San Francisco, Calif.

Wqill Frankenfood Save the Planet?" is a mixture of half-truths, distortions, and outright misinformation.

The author extols no-till agriculture as preserving soil biota and hence soil fertility (mostly true), but makes the patently absurd claim that no-till must depend on herbicide use (false) and that herbicide use also requires genetically engineered (GE) herbicide-tolerant crops (also false). Herbicides damage the same soil biota we are to preserve, and weaken even transgenic Roundup Ready crops, making them more susceptible to insects and diseases; low-lying, nitrogen-fixing non-GE cover crops—called green manures—and mulches do a much better all-around no-till job, without chemicals or genetically modified organisms.

Genetically engineered "Bt" cotton, which contains its own pesticide, has largely failed to control pests and is plagued by yield loss owing to mysterious "boll drop," as shown by Andrew Gutierrez, of the University of California, the world's foremost expert on cotton agro-ecosystems. GE Bt corn is an economic disaster for American farmers, who have lost perhaps $92 million over the past six years in higher seed costs that have not been compensated for by yield or pest-control advantages. In fact, already existing technological options offer better ways than GE crops to implement no-till and manage pests and weeds, and give higher potential productivity increases. Yet Jonathan Rauch seems to take the word of a pesticide-biotech company like Monsanto at face value, while ignoring mounting evidence that GE crops are ecologically and economically detrimental, and that there are better ways to achieve the same ends.

None of this even touches on the real truth that hunger is caused not by our inability to grow enough food but, rather, by poverty and inequality. Global overproduction is in fact the leading cause of rural poverty and hunger. GE crops would hardly help, even if they were a better way to grow more food in harmony with the environment—which they demonstrably are not.

Peter Rosset
Anuradha Mittal
Raj Patel


Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First)


Oakland, Calif.

The argument Jonathan Rauch makes for the environmental benefits of genetically engineered foods is interesting, but it doesn't address two larger questions: In a country of subsidized farming and surplus food supplies, does the United States really need more food? And, on a global scale, do we need more genetically engineered crops such as corn and soybeans, which are suitable only for temperate climates?

The United States is overburdened with corn, wheat, and soybeans—coincidentally the most genetically engineered crops on the market. If anything, we need to reduce the excess food this country produces, or find a better system for distributing food to parts of the world that need it.

As for feeding the planet, wheat and corn are bumper crops only for temperate regions. Agribusinesses have little motivation to develop biotech crops for parts of Africa and Asia, because there is little economic gain for these companies. It is not likely that big business will develop suitable crops for developing countries out of good will.

Christine Cyr


Seattle, Wash.

Jonathan Rauch replies:

No-till (that is, ploughless) farming is indeed possible without using genetically engineered crops, as Carl Pope and Peter Rosset, Anuradha Mittal, and Raj Patel write—and as I said in my article. Biotech, however, makes the technique simpler, cheaper, and more effective, which is why no-till and biotech have advanced in tandem. "It's like the difference between using a paintbrush or a sprayer to paint your house," is how Dan Towery, of the Conservation Technology Information Center, puts it. In any case, no-till farming without biotech would require the use of more kinds of herbicides that are less environmentally benign. Why would environmentalists favor that?

"I did not say that," Andrew Gutierrez, of the University of California at Berkeley, responded when I read him the views attributed to him by Rosset et al. Gutierrez has argued that Bt cotton (which is genetically modified to resist insect pests) has been used too indiscriminately—not that it doesn't work. Walt Mullins, the technical manager of Monsanto's cotton products, says he has never heard of any link between Bt cotton and boll drop. "I'll be honest with you," he told me, "I have absolutely no idea what they're talking about."

If, as Rosset et al. maintain, Bt corn has been an "economic disaster" for America's farmers, someone forgot to tell the farmers: its use rose by 50 percent (to 29 percent of all U.S. corn) from 2001 to 2003. According to Leonard Gianessi, a senior research associate with the National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy, the claim that corn farmers lost $92 million on biotech assumes unrealistically high seed costs and fails to account for cost savings from lower pesticide use. His own analysis finds that the technology puts an additional $125 million into corn farmers' pockets in a typical year. And Bt crops reduce pesticide use by millions of pounds a year. Why would environmentalists oppose that?

Christine Cyr rightly points out that agribusiness has only limited commercial incentives to develop earth-friendly biotech crops for poor countries, where the need is greatest. That is precisely why my article argued that environmentalists should use their clout and money to support and guide, rather than retard, the development of such crops.

Interrogation

Mark Bowden's article "The Dark Art of Interrogation" (October Atlantic) is an important survey of calculated cruelty. But when Bowden argues that the Bush Administration's position on the legality of "torture lite" (so-called "stress and duress" interrogation) is ambiguous and should be, he is wrong on both points.

Bowden correctly notes that Administration officials said for months that no detainee was being "tortured," but failed to rule out "cruel, inhumane, or degrading" treatment. Both are prohibited by the U.S. Constitution and international law. Specifically, he cites an April letter from William J. Haynes II, general counsel for the Defense Department, to Human Rights Watch, which ruled out only "torture," and says, "Haynes's choice of words was careful—and telling."

Bowden seems unaware, however, that two months later the Bush Administration cleared up this troubling ambiguity by clearly affirming the illegality of both torture and other cruel or degrading treatment. In a June letter to Senator Patrick Leahy, Haynes provided the clarity his earlier letter lacked, agreeing that under Article 16 of the Torture Convention the United States "also has an obligation to prevent other acts of cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment." Haynes noted that when the United States approved the Torture Convention, it pledged that the "cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution" would be prohibited under the Torture Convention as well. As a result, "United States policy is to treat all detainees and conduct all interrogations, wherever they may occur, in a manner consistent with this commitment." That's exactly the language that Bowden and some human-rights groups said the Bush Administration had been avoiding.

Does the Administration's pledge rule out the "torture lite" techniques Bowden describes, such as binding prisoners in painful positions and making them stand for hours on end? Yes. In the recently decided Supreme Court case Hope v. Pelzer, the Bush Administration successfully argued that handcuffing an Alabama prisoner to a "hitching post" in the hot sun was so obviously cruel and inhumane that the prison guards must have known it violated the Constitution. Interrogators, take note: cruel and inhumane treatment of this kind is clearly illegal, no matter what the reason. The Bush Administration says so, to its credit, and the Supreme Court agrees.

Stephen Rickard


Director, Nuremberg Legacy Project


Washington, D.C.

Mark Bowden does a good job of discussing torture and "coercion" within the real-life context of protecting the public from violent crime, terrorism, and other evils that human beings unfortunately perpetrate on one another. The public is not well served, however, by absolutist statements regarding the use of force in interrogation. Clearly, the use of force may be justified in some contexts, and the real challenge is to keep ourselves from sliding down the slippery slope toward sadism and abuse. However, Bowden is playing with semantics when he refers to mental torture and moderate physical pressure as "coercion."

I have heard some former political detainees (in the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos) speak of their experience of torture, and they all said the same thing: The physical aspect of the torture (including severe beating, suffocation, and electrocution), hazardous to their physical survival though it was, did not leave a permanent mark in their lives. The memory of that pain eventually started to fade as their scars, bruises, and bones healed. However, the mental and emotional torture perpetrated by their military interrogators (using some of the very methods described by Bowden in his article) was, psychologically speaking, so severe that they still struggle with it even after all these years. One man told me that if he had to go through it all again, he would prefer to experience severe physical pain.

Perhaps governments are more worried about severe physical torture because it leaves more-tangible marks, preventing them from hiding or prettifying what they have done. Bowden shows us very clearly why "coercion" is much more effective than physical pain in making people talk, because it is more painful, more cruel, even though it leaves no visible scar. We already know that psychological and mental abuse cripples people for life, regardless of outside appearances. And to perpetrate such torture requires a sadistic streak that is equal to—perhaps even greater than—that of the "interrogator" who uses only his fists. There is, in fact, nothing "lite" about it.

Oona Paredes


Columbia, Mo.

Mark Bowden's "The Dark Art of Interrogation" proposes that state-sponsored "torture lite" can be justified because intelligence acquired through coercion saves lives. Even if we agree with the questionable morality of this position, we must at the very least wonder about its practicality. Bowden puts forth no hard evidence to support his assumption that torture saves lives. Rather, he relies on unverifiable government reports, fantasies of "ticking-bomb" rescues, and the boasting of professional torturers.

Is there any real evidence that more innocent lives can be saved through programs of torture than are destroyed in the process? Most likely Israeli torturers have coerced some information that has saved lives. But how many innocent families have been destroyed, and how many more terrorists have been spawned, in the process? Even if torture could be justified on a moral basis, where is the practical evidence to support it?

Ken Swensen


Pound Ridge, N.Y.

Mark Bowden replies:

I did note in my story that President Bush had reiterated America's opposition to torture in June, and had pledged adherence to international agreements, but I was not aware of Defense Department counsel William J. Haynes II's second, more expansive letter on the subject. My thanks to Stephen Rickard for pointing it out. I don't think it substantially alters my point. The Bush Administration has promised to play by the rules with its detainees, as it should. There is also little doubt that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other key figures are being subjected to interrogation methods that strain those rules. Interrogators who cross those lines are potentially liable to prosecution and punishment, although the likelihood of that happening appears exceedingly remote, given the Administration's refusal to participate with the International Criminal Court and the lack of jurisdiction for U.S. law enforcement. My point was that it is right for the nation to uphold bans on torture, in order that it not become commonplace, but also right for individual interrogators to use coercive methods in those rare cases when lives can be saved. Just because words on paper say it must be so doesn't mean that in the real world it is so—or always ought to be.

I think that Oona Paredes and I agree on the need to prevent the occasional mistreatment of prisoners from becoming routine—hence the importance of banning torture. No doubt there is a chance that the methods I lumped under "coercion" might do lasting psychological damage; but in the appropriate circumstances (such as trying to find a kidnapped child who is buried alive, or to prevent an act of mass murder) the consequences of not leaning on a prisoner are far worse. If al-Qaeda can be dismantled and even one of its future attacks can be stopped, I'm willing to accept that Sheikh Mohammed may have bad dreams about his interrogation. I make no claim to moral complexity, but to me there will always be a big difference between gouging out someone's eyes and keeping him awake.

As for Ken Swensen, what can I say? I did not advocate "state-sponsored 'torture-lite.'" I specifically opposed it. I wrote that torture in all its forms (including coercion) ought to be banned. My story gave specific examples of cases in which the need to break the rules was compelling, and I would argue that any case involving a suspect with information that could further dismantle al-Qaeda (an organization that is primarily engaged in planning and carrying out acts of mass murder) falls into that category. Again, I believe that interrogators (not the state) must accept responsibility for breaking the rules. Moral courage requires accepting consequences.

Anarchy at Sea

Although I found William Langewiesche's "Anarchy at Sea" (September Atlantic) interesting and largely accurate, I don't agree with the comment "there is no obvious technological solution." In fact we have technological tools that can be used now without bankrupting maritime commerce. Compared with the expense that the nation's air carriers have incurred, the sums are minuscule. For years we've been able to track cars with satellite transponders. Why not ships? In fact, many responsible vessel operators are already using satellite technology to ensure that their vessels are proceeding on course and on schedule. This practice should be required for all vessels calling on U.S. ports, with the information provided to the Coast Guard and other agencies involved in maritime security. Unfortunately, the U.S. Coast Guard is loath to require that vessels trading with the United States participate in a satellite tracking system, because of the costs and the need to receive international acceptance. This requirement can be put in place for the cost of a latte a day, $3.00, and will track a vessel anywhere in the world! In most cases no special equipment is needed, because the required satellite communications equipment is already on board most major vessels engaged in international trade.

Existing international agreements require vessels to have Global Marine Distress Safety System equipment that has the satellite communications capability needed to provide long-range tracking. These agreements have been in force since 1999. I can only speculate that bureaucratic gridlock is the real reason the Coast Guard has not yet acted on this issue. Our maritime policy ought to be that any country wanting to trade with the United States should be told, "We want you to participate in our vessel-tracking system so that we know where your ships are and where they've been before they are allowed in our ports." The United States could track all 8,000 deep-draft vessels, which make some 60,000 port calls a year in our country, for about $10 million a year with no cost to the vessel operator at all. This is a fraction of the cost of the automatic identification system that the Coast Guard is building, which when completed, several years from now, will provide coverage for only about 20 percent of the waters subject to U.S. jurisdiction and will not be able to show where vessels have come from overseas.

Ed Page


Captain (Retired), U.S. Coast Guard


Juneau, Alaska

Regarding William Langewiesche's thorough examination of the underbelly of international maritime shipping: In my view, the heart of the problem lies with what has happened in world shipping over the past fifteen years. The article touches on but does not address in depth the proximate or immediate causes for disasters like that involving the Kristal. Langewiesche writes that the maritime registries (of flag states) are no longer dominated by strong maritime nations but, instead, are populated by "flags of convenience." The FOC states (Liberia, Malta, Panama, the Bahamas, and others) are clearly more interested in revenue generation than in creating a safe maritime environment. They have delegated and, in fact, relegated the safety of vessels under their flags (and thousands of human lives) to classification societies. The "big five" classification societies do most of the "contract" certification work for FOC states worldwide. Herein lies the rub. One of the items lacking from the author's careful factual description was the name or names of the classification societies involved with the "bottom feeder" vessel the Kristal.

The American Bureau of Shipping is one example of a classification society involved with ships like the Kristal. The ABS is nominally a private organization that has contracted with virtually all the FOC states to act in matters concerning marine safety. It is authorized by most of them to determine, on their behalf, compliance with various international conventions developed to increase the safety of property and life at sea and to protect the environment.

The ABS and other classification societies have been doing this work for decades, but we are no longer living in a world where strong maritime nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Sweden are shipping powers watching over the seaworthiness of vessels flying their flags. None of the FOC states maintain adequate marine-safety departments; they have retained classification societies and then granted to them their own sovereign immunity from prosecution. This, in my view, is why you have outrageous casualties like the Kristal.

Brian D. Starer


New York, N.Y.

Saint Peter's Bones

Regarding Tom Mueller's article "Inside Job," in the October Atlantic: This summer, on a tour of the scavi underneath Saint Peter's, our group was treated to a picture of the skeletal reconstruction of the bones, lost and then found, of Peter, which were almost complete, excepting the feet—a reference used to demonstrate the authenticity of the bones as belonging to the crucified saint. Surprisingly enough, there was no reconstruction of the skeleton of the mouse found alongside these human remains. Nor was any explanation offered for the presence of other animal bones, a more perplexing issue. The secrecy of the excavations, and the reticence about the original discovery of no bones underneath the altar of Saint Peter's, were attributed to fear at first of German interference. Anyone who saw the traveling "Treasures of the Vatican" exhibit, which I saw in Houston in May, was treated to an even more whitewashed version of the archaeological discoveries, with only a reconstruction of the aedicula and copies of the inscriptions on the adjoining wall. Any difficulty in finding or identifying Peter's bones was strictly ignored.

Tom Mueller's piece does not make the point clearly enough that the current presentation by the Vatican of the archaeological excavations under Saint Peter's is unscientifically biased in favor of the pious conclusion that Saint Peter's is truly built over Peter's burial spot—as if a denial of this ancient tradition might somehow damage the credibility of the Church and the faith. Though I respect the piety of those who find spiritual comfort in the presence of Saint Peter's relics, my faith in the Church does not stand or fall on the authenticity of those bones. They might or might not be Peter's. The liturgy, the sacraments, the Scriptures, and the living faith do not depend on such a minor element. I do find disconcerting the effort to establish their authenticity beyond doubt. For a religion that holds that reason and faith are in harmony, this seeming dismissal of scientific methods of investigation and presentation is disappointing to say the least, though certainly not unexpected.

John M. Norris


Theology Department


University of Dallas


Dallas, Texas

I congratulate Tom Mueller, whose essay brought back the sights and smells of my own tour of the Vatican necropolis. I must take exception, however, to the conclusion of an otherwise well-researched article. The assertion that there were temples on the Vatican Hill left me scratching my head. Perhaps Mueller meant to say "tombs" or "mausolea"—an understandable confusion given that the term aedicula, "little house," could apply to a shrine as well as a tomb. And Mueller appears to have conflated the artificial lake created for naval battles—which was actually located farther east, in what is now Trastevere—with the circus that Nero completed. The Emperor Augustus built the former, supposedly on the site where the legendary hero Cincinnatus dropped his plough in answering the call to lead the army of Rome. The spectacular fights staged on the lake would have been fought by condemned prisoners, not gladiators. In the circus, meanwhile, gladiators might have provided entertainment between chariot races; but so, too, did singing rope dancers, in an act presumably something like that of the frog in the Warner Brothers cartoon—if the wire were not as high, the performer human, and the "Michigan Rag" sung in Latin or Greek.

Christopher Barnes


Department of Classics


Brooklyn College


Brooklyn, N.Y.

Tom Mueller's generally excellent article on the search for Saint Peter's tomb was marred by some serious errors concerning the accounts of Peter in the Bible. It is not true that Peter "disappears from the biblical narrative [in A.D. 44] with such finality that some scholars take the delivering angel to be a euphemism for death." The incident Mueller describes occurs in Chapter 12 of the Acts of the Apostles; Peter appears alive and well in Chapter 15, where he takes a leading role at the meeting later named the Council of Jerusalem. He also appears in the letter of Saint Paul to the Galatians, where he meets with Paul at Jerusalem and quarrels with him at Antioch. These events are dated to fourteen years after Paul's conversion—somewhere around A.D. 50, according to most scholars: six years after Peter's supposed death.

Nor is it precisely accurate to say that the New Testament makes "no reference" to Peter's martyrdom. It is true that there is no direct narrative of the event, but Mueller ignores Jesus' prophecy to Peter in John 21:18: "Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go."

As the Evangelist comments in 21:19, "This [Jesus] said to show by what death [Peter] was to glorify God." It is hard to interpret this in any other way than as a reference to Peter's death by crucifixion.

James Kabala


Dudley, Mass.

In his preface to the Vatican report issued in 1951, Monsignor Ludwig Kaas (the former head of the German Catholic Center Party and a friend of Pius XII's) assured its readers that the excavation was conducted in accordance with the "strictest scientific principles"; yet we know that he wandered through the empty scavi early in the morning and late at night collecting bones and who knows what else. It's anybody's guess as to what was really found where; in this sense Tom Mueller's puzzling statement that nothing was found directly under the aedicula is a valid guess. I'd like to add my own: The person whose name was etched in faint marks on the famous red piece of plaster that Antonio Ferrua happened to find in the empty marble cavity behind the graffiti wall (an early example of "you've got mail") was not Peter but Proclus, in town to see for himself the tropaion that Gaius had written to him about in A.D. 200.

Edward Kislinger


Santa Monica, Calif.

Tom Mueller replies:

I agree with John Norris when he says that evidence exists linking Peter with Rome. Yet, as I argued in my article, the early evidence is obscure where it ought to be explicit; more-detailed evidence emerges only much later, with the rise of the martyrs' cult and the monarchical episcopate—when, that is, the presence, teaching, and relics of the Prince of the Apostles had become rich prizes.

Though Christopher Barnes is baffled by my reference to temples in the Vatican, the Phrygianum, or sacred compound of Cybele, is known from copious literary and epigraphic evidence to have stood close to Saint Peter's basilica; Biering and Von Hesberg site its central temple just a few meters south of the transept. Other sources mention a temple of Apollo nearby, and a Gaianum, which Paolo Liverani, the foremost authority on Vatican topography, explains as a sacred compound to the Greek earth goddess Gaia. Concerning the artificial lakes for mock naval battles, or naumachiae, the fourth-century Regionary Catalogues list two in the Regio XIV where the Vatican lay, and the term recurs frequently in Vatican documents and toponymy. Though their precise location is unknown (Trastevere is only one theory), two likely sites are just west of Castel Sant'Angelo and north of Saint Peter's Square, near the former church of San Pellegrino in Naumachia. The contestants were certainly "gladiatorial" in the broader sense of "one who fought with a sword or other weapon at public shows," and not all of them were condemned prisoners—the first shows, in the time of Julius Caesar, featured soldiers.

The "serious errors" James Kabala finds in my treatment of the biblical Peter are interpretations shared by scholars of note. My point about Acts has been argued in detail by Donald Robinson ("Where and When Did Peter Die?", Journal of Biblical Literature 64) and Warren Smaltz ("Did Peter Die in Jerusalem?," ibid 71), among others, who contend that Peter's imprisonment and subsequent disappearance "to another place" in Acts 12 signify his death. The chronology of Acts is, as the historian Robin Lane Fox has observed, "pleasantly erratic," just as the dates of meetings between Peter and Paul mentioned in Galatians remain, pace Kabala, far from certain. And although Jesus does prophesy Peter's imprisonment in John 21:18, his words do not necessarily imply martyrdom, much less crucifixion; the great Rudolph Bultmann argued that "stretch out your hands" indicated a forward extension of the arms (for example, as a prisoner), and specifically excluded crucifixion.

That nothing was found underneath the aedicula is not my "guess," as Edward Kislinger writes, but the conclusion of Antonio Ferrua's official report. And the famous inscription begins with the (Greek) letters "PET," which makes the name "Proclus" a bit of a stretch.

Hitchens on Books

In his otherwise brilliant article "That Blessed Plot, That Enigmatic Isle" (October Atlantic), Christopher Hitchens calls those who believe that the seventeenth Earl of Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare "lonely ... crackpots." He thus bestows that description on Felicia Londré, the Curators' Professor of Theatre at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and a recent president of the American Theatre and Drama Society; Sir Derek Jacobi, Britain's leading thespian; many university Ph.D.s; and a host of laypeople who have weighed the evidence and found the case for the Stratford man Will Shaksper breathtakingly bankrupt. In fact, Oxford is becoming the leading authorial candidate, for good reason. One can only hope that Hitchens is being facetious when he writes that Oxfordians "rest their case" on Oxford's intimate knowledge of Italy—an intimacy that is reflected in the plays. In fact there is a mountain of persuasive evidence in favor of Oxford, including the fact that Hamlet (which scholars have long insisted is Shakespeare's most autobiographical play—whoever the Bard was) is essentially Oxford's biography. In contrast, there is virtually no evidence whatever that the man from Stratford had anything to do with the writing of the plays. Everything we know of the man himself suggests that he was illiterate. As for being "lonely," the Oxfordian theory gains scores of new adherents every year, both within the academy and without. The largest Oxfordian conference, at Concordia University, in Portland, Oregon, grows each year and features intelligent presentations by researchers from UC Berkeley, the University of Washington, and other institutions. I hope that Hitchens will abandon an opinion that, his comments suggest, is uninformed, and will join the debate in Portland this year.

Andrew Werth


Everett, Wash.

A review of my book The Singular Mark Twain, by Christopher Hitchens, appears in the November Atlantic. I've exercised sufficient discipline not to read it, but others have told me that it is a meanspirited, hostile, and ignorant review. The author and I were once friendly. But Hitchens is a Gore Vidal acolyte, even worshipper, who treasures his relationship with Vidal. He was apparently miffed when I did not think his relationship with Vidal important enough to interview him at length or to give him any sort of prominent role in my biography of Vidal. In regard to anything to do with Vidal, he certainly seemed his usual combination of fawning and aggressive. When I declined, in line with the terms of our written agreement, to allow Vidal to vet my biography of him and exert pre-publication censorship, Vidal turned on me and the book. So did Hitchens. Unfortunate, but no big deal. However, Hitchens's Atlantic review is apparently payback.

In the end very few people will actually take seriously a review by Hitchens of a serious and substantial literary biography. Hitchens is a political, not a literary, man, and he always has a political agenda. But there are two aspects of this that are serious. The first is that The Atlantic may have published this review unaware of Hitchens's relationship with me through my Vidal book. The second is that it isn't professionally acceptable to run a review a month in advance of the publication date (the November issue of The Atlantic probably appeared on the stands in mid-October; the book's publication date was November 21). The Atlantic's pre-publication review runs the risk of appearing to be agenda-driven and an attempt to damage the book. Or is this a case of the Hitchens tail wagging an innocent Atlantic dog? Hitchens apparently feels that he has good reason to be hostile and to indulge his dark side, but The Atlantic has standards to uphold. Your reviewer's predecessors—like William Dean Howells—in the now less-than-august literary chair of The Atlantic would be disturbed.

Fred Kaplan


Boothbay, Maine

Christopher Hitchens replies:

I happily accept Andrew Werth's reassurance that the Oxfordians are now joyously proliferating. I have met and conversed with both Tom Bethell and Joseph Sobran, Oxfordians extraordinaire, and though I think they might not mind being termed "mavericks" or "eccentrics" (or even "right-wing Catholic oddballs"), I have no excuse for having used the opprobrious and also lazy term "lonely crackpots."

Fred Kaplan's letter would stand out in any collection of pompous letters that typically begin, "If your reviewer had troubled to notice ..." But it also belongs, as far as I know, in a class all by itself, since on his own admission Kaplan has not read my review. I myself gave up responding to bad reviews some time ago, and also to angry letters from readers, unless I was charged directly with something like racism or child abuse, or unless I was accused of outraging the facts: in other words, unless silence might be construed as my having nothing to say in reply. But Kaplan can have no complaint of this sort against my reading of his book, because (after allowing me to shoulder my way, with many a sigh, through all his scurvy pages) he will not deign to glance in return at what I wrote.

When a man thinks any stick will do, he tends to pick up a boomerang. Kaplan's imputation to me of questionable motives is simply risible. For one thing (and just to begin with), he and I were never "friendly"—indeed, I do not think we have ever met except briefly and in company. I was most willing to help him with his biography of Gore Vidal when he approached me, and was slightly sorry that we were never able to arrange the interview—"slightly" only because I had not played much part in Vidal's life and could have been of little assistance.

To say that I am an "acolyte, even worshipper" of Mr. Vidal is false on its face. Even when our relations were much closer, I wrote some quite critical stuff about Vidal, and in places where I know Kaplan would have been likely to see (if not, I now realize, necessarily to read) it. I did get from Vidal the nicest review/blurb I have ever received, most generously naming me as his successor or "Dauphin" or delfino, and did make haste to plaster this on the covers of my books. But after a grave but inevitable disagreement between us on both the causes and the consequences of the war against Islamic nihilism, Mr. Vidal withdrew this endorsement in a speech that was quite widely televised, and I have with regret told my publishers that future editions of my books must drop the great man's imprimatur.

Kaplan imagines himself the victim of an occult committee that is willing to degrade the standards of a nationally renowned magazine just to give him un mauvais quart d'heure. This boast is enough on its own to make a cat laugh. I say nothing about the mad extent to which it promotes and overstates my influence: it ought to be plain to any reader that the editors of The Atlantic are spoiled for choice when it comes to books, and cannot hope to review them all, and have no time for vendettas against writers of the second rank. Kaplan was lucky in his choice of subject, and that's it. For him to complain further about being reviewed early is a self-promotion from mere solipsism to something more like full-blown megalomania.

The Age of Murdoch

As a former employee of a major media company, I read James Fallows's article "The Age of Murdoch" (September Atlantic) with great interest. I want to shed some additional light on the FCC's recent relaxation of the national TV-station-ownership rule—one of the several media-ownership regulations Fallows uses as a backdrop in analyzing Murdoch and his empire.

Amending the national TV-ownership rule, which currently limits the proportion of U.S. households that an entity's TV stations can reach to 35 percent (as calculated by the FCC), does not reduce the number of so-called voices that any household in the United States can access, as some suggest. Raising the cap does not concentrate ownership in a local market but merely allows an entity to own a TV station in additional local markets. This has no impact on the number of distinct voices in that local market, and thus does not reduce diversity. The FCC used this logic, in part, in deciding to increase the national TV-ownership cap to 45 percent in June. (The FCC's ruling has since been enjoined, courtesy of the Third Circuit of the U.S. Appeals Court.)

It is important for diversity proponents to understand that very little of a local station's programming—its so-called voice—is truly local. Most major-network affiliates produce just four to six hours of local programs a day, 75 to 100 percent of which is local news consisting of traffic, weather, sports, and emergency incidents (police/fire). Needless to say, local news is a format that allows little room for diverse expression—the purported goal of having a variety of voices. The balance of a station's schedule outside of local news is consumed almost entirely by network and syndicated programs, regardless of market or station ownership.

The most vocal opponents to raising the national cap are those network affiliates not owned by the companies that own the broadcast-TV networks. These affiliates do not want the networks to own a larger percentage of the networks' footprints, because the affiliates believe that would give the networks more leverage to end the lucrative "affiliate compensation" payments of $100 million to $150 million that the major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) pay their affiliates each year. The broadcast networks have tried to unwind the outdated affiliate-comp system, created in an era before cable networks began their assault on broadcast-TV ratings. But the networks have been foiled by a concentrated affiliate group that accounts for 65 to 75 percent of each broadcast network's national reach. The affiliates fear that if the networks were to acquire more affiliated TV stations, the balance of power would shift to the networks. Eventually the networks would have enough leverage to eliminate affiliate comp, a key source of revenue and profits for many affiliated stations.

The affiliates have found serendipitous allies: the diversity crowd. The National Association of Broadcasters, a trade and lobbying group consisting mostly of affiliates, disingenuously drapes itself in the self-righteous rhetoric of diversity, public discourse, and free speech, when in fact it is pursuing economic self-interest so nakedly it would make Charles Beard blush.

Colin Campbell


Boston, Mass.

James Fallows replies:

I appreciate Colin Campbell's points. They illuminate one reason why the FCC ownership struggles of last summer were so intense and politically so strange.

In themselves many of the rule changes being debated had only modest impact. As Mr. Campbell points out, the change in the 35 percent cap would matter much more to local broadcasters than it would to most viewers. A more consequential change was the dramatic lowering of barriers to cross-ownership between newspapers and TV stations. Under the new rules, in most cities the dominant newspaper could own the dominant TV station or vice versa.

But even that change would not by itself have explained the ferocity of the discussion. For reasons I tried to explain in the article, a debate that could have been narrowly technical instead became an arena for concerns about the historic shift toward a corporatized, highly concentrated media business. That is also why Rupert Murdoch became an icon in this fight. He was not seriously affected by the rules being discussed, but he personified the concentrated media power that many critics feared.

Advice & Consent

I loved Cullen Murphy's September piece on unheralded inventors ("On Second Thought"), successful and failed. A category he might have included is inventors who almost, but not quite, succeeded. I remember Victor Borge's story of the beverage chemist who developed 4-Up, 5-Up, and, finally, 6-Up, but died alone and broke, never realizing how close he had come ...

Arkie Koehl


Honolulu, Hawaii

Jack Beatty's "The One-Term Tradition" (September Atlantic) contains a number of surprising assertions. For example, "We now know that everybody in the Administration above the rank of messenger—except the President—knew that the documents linking Saddam Hussein to an effort to obtain uranium from Niger were forgeries." So what? The President never said anything about uranium in Niger. He said British intelligence had learned that Saddam was trying to obtain it from Africa. This is quite true, and both British and American intelligence still believe that. This opinion never rested on the forged document from Niger, and Niger was never one of the primary suspects, as anyone can see who bothers to read Tony Blair's remarks on the African issue before the war.

"We know that the intelligence agencies cast doubt on Saddam's continued possession of WMD and on his supposed ties to Osama bin Laden." No, what we know is that it was the consensus of the intelligence agencies that Saddam had WMD. Beatty says "the intelligence agencies doubted" when what he means is "somebody or other in the State Department is supposed to have doubted." Nobody in the Administration ever claimed that Saddam had direct ties to Osama. There is plenty of evidence that he had some ties to al-Qaeda.

"If Bush had leveled with us" he would have said, according to Beatty, "We are pretty sure he has no current ties to al-Qaeda." That would have been a lie. The true and relevant way of putting it would have been "We are sure he has supported terrorist networks, and has some kind of relationship with al-Qaeda"—which happens to be what Bush essentially said. "We know he had nothing to do with 9/11." No one in the Administration ever said he did. Beatty thinks the President should have "leveled with us about the millennial strategy behind his war." But Bush did make it clear long before the war that the modernization and democratization of Iraq was part of his strategy. He put more emphasis on WMD because he had decided to go through the UN Security Council, all of whose resolutions against Saddam had been concerned with eliminating Saddam's WMD (whose existence the UN inspectors did not doubt).

"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a lie?" So far the American public does not appear to care beans about the phony issues raised by Beatty. They know Saddam had to go, that the President acted in good faith, and they attribute the so-called "scandal" to partisan smears. It might be added that to raise accusations of "lying," when what is meant is "maybe the President acted on faulty intelligence, though we can't prove even that much," is to poison the wells of public discourse in a fashion one does not expect from a journal with the reputation of The Atlantic.

Doyne Dawson


Professor of Asian Studies


Sejong University


Seoul, South Korea

The "primary source" of the September Agenda piece on climate change was a study funded by the oil industry that casts doubt on the mainstream view of how recent global warming, primarily caused by air pollution, compares with natural climatic changes over the past 1,000 years.

This study, headed by the Harvard astrophysicists Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas, has been sharply criticized by the scientific community. The recently appointed editor in chief of the journal that published the study declared that it never should have been printed. He and two other editors have resigned over the issue, as recently described in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

The most striking aspect of this study is that in evaluating temperature records derived from tree rings, corals, ice cores, and other proxies, it does not calculate global average temperatures but instead applies vague and inconsistent criteria to determine whether each location supports "unusual 20th century warming" and a "Medieval Warm Period." The many flaws in this study are described in recent issues of Scientific American, New Scientist, Discover, and EOS, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. The latter cites several quantitative studies concluding with 95 percent confidence that current temperatures for the Northern Hemisphere are higher than any in the past 1,000 years, with an unprecedented rapid rate of warming for the past few decades.

Careful scrutiny of the oil-industry study is called for, especially since it was embraced by Senate leaders and by political appointees who attempted to insert its conclusions into an EPA report after removing scientific data on global warming. The news media should actively investigate their sources and avoid being a passive conduit for flawed "studies" designed to advance the agenda of special interests.

Edward Zubek


Oregon State University


Corvallis, Ore.

In "Waterworld" (July/August Atlantic), Jen Joynt and Marshall Poe explain that tempering demand and expanding supply can resolve water shortages, and that in the case of rivers we can build more dams and reservoirs. Unfortunately, this will not solve the problem of the Nile.

The human populations completely dependent on the Nile will more than double by 2050. Joynt and Poe point out that today its waters are almost completely drawn off before the river reaches the Mediterranean. The population of Ethiopia, source of the Blue Nile, grew from five million in 1900 to more than 71 million today, and is projected to reach 173 million in 2050. Ethiopia's forests have all but disappeared, water scarcity is severe, and in the 1990s its government announced plans to build 110 dams on the Blue Nile. The Sudan, with the White Nile flowing through it, has 38 million people, and its projected 2050 population is 84 million. Egypt, at 72 million, is projected to reach 127 million by 2050. Collectively, these three countries are expected to grow from 181 million today to 384 million in 2050.

In response to the many people who say we just need to manage our natural resources better and population growth is not a central problem, we have here a situation where water management and more dams (many proposed Ethiopian dams would be a disaster for Egypt) will not solve the problem, which is almost purely about human population growth. In all these countries women's access to family planning is constrained in a number of ways. Competition over the waters of the Nile is not likely to be resolved by any regional water authority; more likely the growing scarcity will contribute to strife in the region, as water scarcity does elsewhere. If we were less timid about letting people, particularly women, have all possible means to achieve the number of children they want (which is always fewer than the current average), we might avoid a great deal of pain in the future around water.

Martha Campbell


University of California


Berkeley, Calif.

I opened the September Atlantic! I had just returned from a family reunion in Indiana. The short story "Mudlavia" was indeed a sentimental journey. Beautifully written. It truly caught that era to perfection.

R. Gregory-Gromeeko


Gilroy, Calif.

Mqudlavia," by Elizabeth Stuckey-French, is the best story I've read in a long time. I'd love to see more of her work in The Atlantic Monthly.

Angela Lehman-Rios


Richmond, Va.

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