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9/11 Commission Issues An Update On Anniversary Of Report

Jul 22, 2014

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Ten years after its landmark report on terrorism, the 9/11 Commission has released an update in which it notes continued problems. But in 2014, the dangers have shifted geographically - and online, the commission's former members say.

Noting that the world has changed "dramatically" since 2004, the report's authors write that "Al Qaeda-affiliated groups are now active in more countries than before 9/11."

And while they say the government must remain vigilant to prevent future attacks, they also state that leaders must do a better job of communicating with the public — including specifically explaining what is being done to prevent attacks.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports about the commission's update for our Newscast unit:

"Members of the committee said they were worried about three things:

  • The proliferation of terrorist groups, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
  • The prospects for the cyber equivalent of a 911 attack.
  • The fragmentation of Congressional oversight over the nation's security efforts.

"In their report, commission members said that in 2004, the Department of Homeland Security answered to 88 committees of Congress. Ten years later, the number of oversight committees is now 92. That number, the group said, needs to be winnowed down.

"Additionally, commission officials called on Congress to pass cybersecurity legislation that allows private companies to work with government against cyber threats."

On that last point, the commission wrote, "Companies should be able to share cyber threat information with the government without fear of liability." They added that Congress should consider giving private companies the authority "to take direct action in response to attacks on their networks."

As Dina notes, the original 9/11 Commission Report of 2004 was a thick book of nearly 600 pages that became a national best-seller. Members of the commission have updated some of their findings in a new slimmed-down 50-page report.

For its update, former members of the commission spent months speaking with current and recently retired leaders in national security.

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Retirees Mike Shane (left) and William Davis protest near the federal courthouse in Detroit on July 3. Workers and retirees approved pension cuts in Detroit's bankruptcy by a landslide, the city reported Monday. (AP)

Deal In Detroit Could Signal Cuts To Pensions Elsewhere

Jul 22, 2014

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It used to be that if you were a public employee, you knew your pension benefits could not be touched.

That's no longer the case.

Pensions have been under political attack in recent years, with some politicians arguing they can't afford to fund generous retirements at the same time they're cutting services. Numerous states and cities have trimmed the type of pension plans they're offering employees — mostly new employees.

But pension benefits already earned have always been sacrosanct, protected by federal law and, often, state constitutions. Retirees could rest easy, knowing their money couldn't be touched.

The vote Monday in Detroit by retired city workers to cut their own benefits by 4.5 percent calls all that into question.

"Detroit has raised it as a possibility," says Daniel DiSalvo, a political scientist at City College of New York who studies public sector labor issues. "I don't think that most people, maybe with the exception of some unions, think pensions are inviolable."

With several other cases pending, it's not at all clear whether federal bankruptcy law trumps traditional pension protections. Pensions continue to have strong legal protection, and there's not going to be any great rush among states and cities to test whether cutting benefits for current retirees is something that will necessarily fly with the courts.

But the vote in Detroit does suggest that at least some pensioners might have to give up more than they ever expected.

"I think the deal in Detroit is going to mean that other troubled Michigan cities are more likely to reach deals," says Kim Rueben, a government finance expert at the Urban Institute.

Judges Growing Skeptical

The reason a big majority of retirees in Detroit were willing to accept cuts is that they worried they might be hurt worse if they didn't.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes said late last year that federal bankruptcy law could override pension protections — including provisions in the Michigan Constitution.

Earlier this month, another federal bankruptcy judge, Christopher Klein, shared similar thoughts. He's presiding over the bankruptcy of Stockton, Calif.

In its recovery plan, that city has been protecting pensions. Klein did not issue a ruling, but he suggested at a hearing that pensioners might have to take a hit, along with the city's creditors.

"I might be persuaded that ... the pensions can be adjusted," Klein said.

What Bankruptcy Is For

Bankruptcy is all about adjusting contracts to reflect new realities. Bondholders who were expecting to be paid back a full dollar might only receive 25 cents, for instance, if that's what a bankruptcy judge determines a seriously strapped city can afford.

Up until now, pensioners didn't face that same type of threat. The Detroit and Stockton cases suggest judges might be ready to rethink matters.

"The problem you have is there may unfortunately be promises that have been made that are not realistic or affordable," says James Spiotto, a municipal bankruptcy attorney in Chicago. "Therefore, there is a need to adjust the pensions, hopefully for the short term."

There may be no rush to change pension law. The changes in Detroit — which Judge Rhodes will still have to approve — is something that pensioners were willing to accept, as opposed to something that was imposed on them through a legal judgment.

As the legal calculus does start to shift, however, it's possible that things will change more rapidly in political terms. Even the chance that pensions are at risk might be enough to make public employees accept more cuts at the negotiating table.

"That obviously raises new pressures when cities are negotiating with unions," says DiSalvo, who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership. "They can say that this is out there in a way that couldn't or wouldn't have been done before."

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Putting charter school research under a microscope. (Flickr)

Charters, Money, And Test Scores

Jul 22, 2014

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Reported by

Anya Kamenetz

The University of Arkansas today released what it calls a "first ever" study exploring the relationship between charter school funding and student achievement.Here at NPR Ed we get a lot of press releases for studies related to education—on everything from teacher turnover and financial aid access to social and emotional learning in preschool. But not all studies are created equal. It's important to understand not only what the study says but who the researchers are and how they arrived at their conclusions.

For today's study, researchers relied heavily on one standardized test, the NAEP (aka the "Nation's Report Card"). They took NAEP scores in reading and math from 28 states, then broke them down by schools' funding per student.The report found, as other research has shown, that student performance at charter schools is roughly on par with public school performance.

But, the researchers argue, because charter schools tend to have smaller budgets (according to previously published research from this same University of Arkansas department), "these differences amount to charter schools overall being 40 percent more cost-effective in math and 41 percent more cost effective in reading, compared to traditional public schools."

Patrick J. Wolf is the study's lead author and a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas. "The headline of this report is that the charter school sector in states across the country is more productive in generating desirable student outcomes at a lower cost than the traditional public schools," Wolf says.

That is, indeed, the headline. But the math behind it—and the conclusions Wolf and his team draw from it—may not be that simple.

Advocacy Research

Ted Kolderie is a senior associate with Education Evolving, an education policy nonprofit. Some call Kolderie the "godfather" of the charter school movement because of his work dating back to the late 1980s in Minnesota. He says he takes the findings of this new report with a grain of salt.

"This is the kind of quote-unquote 'study' we've been seeing for years that falls into the category of 'advocacy research,' " he says. "Pretty soon you'll have another study showing just the opposite."

Kolderie takes issue with the report's dependence on NAEP scores alone to make determinations about school effectiveness. The National Assessment Governing Board, which produces NAEP, was not involved in the study.

"This is a simple-minded notion, that performance is how students score on assessments," whether NAEP, the international PISA test, or state accountability tests, Kolderie says. "Is achievement, performance, success, quality really one-dimensional?"

The finding that charter schools are more cost-effective rests on the University of Arkansas group's earlier research claiming that charter schools have less money to spend per student than traditional public schools. According to a review by the National Education Policy Center, that report failed to take into account that charters sometimes depend on districts to help pay for school lunches, transportation, special education, and other services, and that they often serve a less needy population.

Wolf defends the design of the new report, saying "test scores are an important metric of effective education" and that, currently, NAEP scores are the only way of measuring student performance across state lines. He insists the study provides important evidence that "the money invested in charter schools is more productive than the money invested in traditional public schools."

The Department of Education Reform

Both the NAEP study and the earlier budget study came from the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. The Department's work often focuses on return on investment in public schools and promotes alternatives to the traditional public system. It was established in 2005 with help from outside donors including the Walton Family Foundation (which is also a donor to NPR).

The late philanthropist John Walton, son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, was an outspoken champion of charter schools and gave generously to the charter and voucher movements.

Patrick Wolf, the author of the new study, says today's findings aren't meant to be used as an argument to reduce funding to traditional schools. Still, he says, "Public policy in education can't ignore cost. Money is scarce, so it's a service to policymakers for them to know which education sectors are most productive."

Joe Nathan is the director of the Center for School Change in Minneapolis. Nathan helped write the nation's first charter school law in Minnesota in 1991. Like Kolderie, he too is wary of studies like this one: "I have been very dubious about research that has tried to compare charter schools and district schools," he says. "I think the charter idea is a brilliant idea, but we need to handle it responsibly...Trying to make sweeping statements about charter schools or district schools does not advance the overall cause of improving American public education."

The ultimate goal, Nathan says, should be to help all young people to be successful.

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The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl cover ( )

How Scientists Created A Typhus Vaccine In A 'Fantastic Laboratory'

Jul 22, 2014 (Fresh Air)

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Arthur Allen has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, Science and other publications.

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When Germany invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, Nazi commanders had another worry besides the Red Army. Epidemics of typhus fever, which is transmitted by body lice, killed untold numbers of soldiers and civilians during and after World War I.

As World War II raged, typhus reappeared in war-torn areas and in Jewish ghettos, where cramped, harsh conditions were a perfect breeding ground for lice.

So the Nazis employed Dr. Rudolf Weigl to produce a typhus vaccine. Weigl created a technique that involved raising millions of infected lice in a laboratory and harvesting their guts to get the materials for a vaccine.

Lice that had been infected with typhus bacteria would be allowed to feed on human volunteers, says Arthur Allen, who wrote the new book The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl. "And then, after about five days," Allen tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies,"[the lice] would be taken and dissected individually."

Scientists would pull out the "louse gut," where the typhus bacteria grow and multiply, put it in a pot and, basically, mash it up with a chemical solution to make the vaccine.

Weigl's lab in Lviv, Poland, sheltered Polish intellectuals and resistance fighters from the Nazis by employing them as lice feeders, meaning the volunteers allowed hundreds or thousands of lice — some infected with typhus, some not — to suck their blood. The lice were put in tiny cages that were attached to people's legs. To avoid catching the illness themselves, these human volunteers had to be clean, have healthy skin and be able to resist scratching.

"All the intellectual life basically migrated to Weigl's laboratory," Allen says. "There were ... tables full of mathematicians who would be doing their work as mathematicians while lice fed on their blood."

The lab sent weakened vaccines to the German army. And Weigl helped smuggle the stronger product to Jews in a Polish ghetto.

Allen says there was also a black market for the vaccine.

"It was one of the most valuable black market commodities," he says, "because it was thought as being one of the only ways you could save yourself from typhus in the ghetto."


Interview Highlights

On typhus symptoms and how it spread

Typhus would begin with a terrible headache and back pains, leading to fever, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea; and around the time the fever began, there would be a rash that often broke out on the abdomen that was described as looking like little red jewels. ... And eventually you would have deafness, terrible hysterical fits of laughter and tears, and sometimes suicide. ... And sometimes the long-term effects could include things like loss of limbs — people were known to lose toes and fingers or a penis from gangrene.

... Back in the day ... everyone was carrying lice. And they were as much a part of our armature as our clothes. Typhus could happen in a number of different places where people were wearing their clothes and didn't change them.

... But basically, ... starting in the late 19th century, early 20th century, when people [started bathing more regularly], it became a disease that was really only associated with these very extreme situations of war — concentration camps, barracks, ghettos, places where people really didn't have running water, didn't [have] access to changes of clothes. And then it spread very quickly in these kinds of environments.

On how the disease is transmitted

People originally thought it was because of the bite, because the louse sticks a little needle into you to extract your blood. But it turns out that the mouth of the louse is actually sterile. And what happens is that as the louse bites you, it excretes, and you scratch because it itches. And when you scratch, you're sort of inoculating yourself with the bacteria that are in the louse poop, as it were.

On the Nazis' use of louse imagery

The Nazis ... always described the Jews as "vermin" and sometimes used the word "lice." ... And this was an ideology that was belittling and obviously also associating Jews with, sort of, filth and contamination, parasitism — all of these things that you metaphorically can link lice to.

[The Nazis] made it very concrete after they took over the first Polish cities. ... There were signs that went up all over Warsaw, for example ... that would have a picture of a bearded Jew with a louse that said, "Lice, Jews, typhus," to make that association in the minds [of] Poles — the idea of keeping them from protecting Jews, [of] seeing Jews as part of this invasive, parasitic, dangerous force that they had to avoid and exterminate.

On the underground community associated with Weigl's lab

During the interwar period, all of the intellectual life in Lviv, [Poland], was in the cafes. Well, the cafes were all closed during the Nazi occupation, or only Nazis went there, or collaborators. And all the intellectual life basically migrated to Weigl's laboratory.

People would go in there. ... There were geographers, poets, all kinds of biologists, every kind of walk of life. In particular, there were many university professors and students who worked there. There were also people from the Polish underground who worked there.

It was a perfect cover, to be an underground organizer because you had this pass that said "typhus institute" on it. You showed that to a Nazi S.S. person. And, on the one hand, they were terrified that anyone having to do with this typhus institute could be infected with typhus, was dirty, was associated with Jews and lice. ... And, on the other hand, [the Nazis] were told not to bother these people because they were making a product that was key to the German health defense.

On the Weigl vaccine going to the German soldiers

There was a certain amount of sabotage that went on in the lab, where the doses of the vaccine that were headed for the Eastern front [to Germans] were sometimes weakened.

... In general, this was legitimate vaccine that did go to protect [the Jews'] enemies.

This is a conundrum and a paradox that's unavoidable and it was something that everyone who worked [at the laboratories] had to struggle with. The fact was they were able to employ very few Jews of any kind in the laboratory.

And while this laboratory was protecting many people who were key Poles and key intellectuals and resistance fighters, the destruction of the ghetto was going on at the same time. ... It's something that everyone who worked there — everyone whose life was saved — had to deal with ethically, morally after and during the war.

On the approximately 30,000 vaccine doses that made their way to the Jewish ghettos

It was smuggled in various ways, but one method that Weigl had for doing this was to tell his bosses that they needed to do some experimental work with the vaccine to make sure that it was up to snuff, that it was working well. So this would be a pretense for bringing it into the ghetto and vaccinating people. ... This went on throughout the war.

On Weigl's reputation and legacy

Throughout his life and even into the '80s, there would be occasional remarks about [Dr. Weigl] in the press or in articles that he had been a collaborator.

It wasn't until after the fall of the Soviet Union [in 1991] that his reputation was rehabilitated. Some of the people who had gone to the United States or were still in Poland began to write articles.

... Then, eventually, word got to the Israeli authorities ... who recognized gentiles who did work to protect Jews during the Holocaust. [Israel] gave [Weigl] recognition belatedly in 2003 — he was named as "righteous among nations."

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The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl cover ( )

Fresh Air Remembers Actress And Singer Elaine Stritch

Jul 22, 2014 (Fresh Air) — The Broadway star used to describe herself as a Catholic, diabetic, alcoholic. She died July 17 at the age of 89. In 1999, she talked with Terry Gross when she was starring in a revival of Sail Away.

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Arthur Allen has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, Science and other publications.

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