How the American opiate epidemic was started by one pharmaceutical company

Mike Mariani writes: The state of Kentucky may finally get its deliverance. After more than seven years of battling the evasive legal tactics of Purdue Pharma, 2015 may be the year that Kentucky and its attorney general, Jack Conway, are able to move forward with a civil lawsuit alleging that the drugmaker misled doctors and patients about their blockbuster pain pill OxyContin, leading to a vicious addiction epidemic across large swaths of the state.

A pernicious distinction of the first decade of the 21st century was the rise in painkiller abuse, which ultimately led to a catastrophic increase in addicts, fatal overdoses, and blighted communities. But the story of the painkiller epidemic can really be reduced to the story of one powerful, highly addictive drug and its small but ruthlessly enterprising manufacturer.

On December 12, 1995, the Food and Drug Administration approved the opioid analgesic OxyContin. It hit the market in 1996. In its first year, OxyContin accounted for $45 million in sales for its manufacturer, Stamford, Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma. By 2000 that number would balloon to $1.1 billion, an increase of well over 2,000 percent in a span of just four years. Ten years later, the profits would inflate still further, to $3.1 billion. By then the potent opioid accounted for about 30 percent of the painkiller market. What’s more, Purdue Pharma’s patent for the original OxyContin formula didn’t expire until 2013. This meant that a single private, family-owned pharmaceutical company with non-descript headquarters in the Northeast controlled nearly a third of the entire United States market for pain pills.

OxyContin’s ball-of-lightning emergence in the health care marketplace was close to unprecedented for a new painkiller in an age where synthetic opiates like Vicodin, Percocet, and Fentanyl had already been competing for decades in doctors’ offices and pharmacies for their piece of the market share of pain-relieving drugs. In retrospect, it almost didn’t make sense. Why was OxyContin so much more popular? Had it been approved for a wider range of ailments than its opioid cousins? Did doctors prefer prescribing it to their patients?

During its rise in popularity, there was a suspicious undercurrent to the drug’s spectrum of approved uses and Purdue Pharma’s relationship to the physicians that were suddenly privileging OxyContin over other meds to combat everything from back pain to arthritis to post-operative discomfort. It would take years to discover that there was much more to the story than the benign introduction of a new, highly effective painkiller. [Continue reading…]

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Leading climate-change denier was paid $1.2 million by fossil fuel industry

The New York Times reports: For years, politicians wanting to block legislation on climate change have bolstered their arguments by pointing to the work of a handful of scientists who claim that greenhouse gases pose little risk to humanity.

One of the names they invoke most often is Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain recent global warming. He has often appeared on conservative news programs, testified before Congress and in state capitals, and starred at conferences of people who deny the risks of global warming.

But newly released documents show the extent to which Dr. Soon’s work has been tied to funding he received from corporate interests.

He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq government combats ‘ghost soldier’ corruption

The Associated Press reports: The Iraqi government has identified and stopped payment of tens of millions of dollars in salaries previously disbursed to nonexistent troops, known here as “ghost soldiers,” as part of the prime minister’s vow to tackle corruption in the military and regain a foothold in the battle against the Islamic State group, two senior government officials said.

The initiative is part of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s plan to rebuild the U.S.-trained military which crumbled in the face of last summer’s onslaught by Islamic State militants.

Al-Abadi recently purged the military and interior ministry from a number of senior officials who were appointees of his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. While it is unclear whether any of the sacked officials are among those accused of collecting misappropriated funds, al-Abadi vowed to pursue the sensitive matter “even if it costs me my life.”

According to the two senior officials, authorities prevented the loss of over $47 million of improper military spending in November, mostly from salaries that were previously paid to soldiers who are dead, missing or did not exist and which were pocketed by senior commanders. The two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to media, said the money was the first of several tranches of funding to be regained by Iraq’s Defense Ministry. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi army had 50,000 ‘ghost troops’ on payroll

AFP/Jiji/Reuters reports: Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Sunday announced that an investigation has uncovered the existence of 50,000 “ghost soldiers,” and promised a widening crackdown on corruption.

“The prime minister revealed the existence of 50,000 fictitious names” in the military, according to a statement from al-Abadi’s office issued after a session of parliament.

Ghost soldiers are enrolled men who do not turn up and fight but whose salaries go into the pockets of the commanders. The phenomenon has been associated with the collapse of the army during the Islamic State militants’ sweep through the north.

A parliament statement said al-Abadi scrapped the 50,000 jobs, equivalent to almost four full army divisions.

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Mexico’s missing students draw attention to 20,000 ‘vanished’ others

The Guardian reports: They found the first grave in a thicket of spiny huisache trees clinging to the hillside outside the town of Iguala.

Under a pounding midday sun, about a dozen men and women watched as an older man plunged a pickaxe into the heavy soil. Some offered advice on where and how to dig; mostly they looked on in silence

When he turned up a human femur, Mayra Vergara turned her back and broke into silent tears. She had hoped that today she might find some clue to the fate of her brother Tomás, a taxi driver who was kidnapped in July 2012, never to be seen again. But whoever lay in the shallow grave, she said, they deserved more than this.

“Even if it isn’t my brother in there, it is still a person. A person who deserved a proper burial,” she said, her face contorted in anger and grief. “And the question is when? When are they going to do something for us?”

The disappearance and probable massacre of 43 student teachers after they were attacked and arrested by Iguala’s municipal police two months ago has focused world attention on the horror of Mexico’s drug violence – and the official corruption that allows much of it to happen.

A wave of protests triggered by the massacre put President Enrique Peña Nieto under acute political pressure.

But the incident has also lifted the lid on the open secret of Mexico’s many other disappeared: amid the drug-fuelled violence of recent years, some 20,000 people have simply vanished. [Continue reading…]

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Hustlers, con men & dupes cashing in on the war on terror

Jeff Stein writes: At long last we can retire Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as the icons of investigative reporting. With his second book probing the dark tunnels of the so-called war on terror, James Risen has established himself as the finest national security reporter of this generation, a field crowded with first-rank talent at The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Reuters, McClatchy Newspapers and the New York Times, his employer and sometimes bane.

Bane, because in 2004, the executive editor of the Times, cowed by Bush administration officials, twice spiked Risen’s story revealing that the National Security Agency had launched a massive, covert wiretapping program that was riffling through the personal communications of hundreds of millions of Americans without even a secret court order. Unbowed, Risen got a contract for a book that would reveal the NSA’s extralegal program. Only when the publication of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration appeared imminent did his editors, cornered, allow Risen to publish a version of it (co-authored with his colleague Eric Lichtblau) in the paper. And that disturbing saga provides the backdrop to Risen’s new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War.

After turning the last page of his latest volume, one might wonder what other important stories the Times has spiked in recent years. Although parts of Risen’s new revelations have been published in the Times or elsewhere, here they are fleshed out in richly reported chapters studded with eye-popping new charges. Read together, they offer an original and deeply disturbing perspective on the war on terror. It is, Risen writes, a story of “how greed and the hunt for cash have all too often become the main objects of the war on terror.”

In fine detail, he demonstrates how the courts, Congress and the national security and law enforcement agencies of the executive branches – aided and abetted by the high priests of the media – have been corrupted in the hugely profitable business of pursuing terrorists. “[T]he search for money and power have become the hallmarks of the war on terror,” Risen writes of one of the many unsavory episodes in the book. “The story,” he says of another episode, “shows how, during the war on terror, greed and ambition have been married to unlimited rivers of cash in the sudden deregulation of American national security to create a climate in which clever men could seemingly create rogue intelligence operations with little or no adult supervision.”

The U.S.-led war in Iraq, as we already know, was rife with lax supervision and thievery. But Risen adds an astonishing new chapter to that reprehensible folly. He tells the story of how billions of dollars intended to rebuild Iraq, shrink-wrapped in packets of $100 bills, were shipped out of a Federal Reserve warehouse in New Jersey to Baghdad and eventually made their way to secret Lebanese bunkers (an account excerpted by the Times last week).

“Approximately $2 billion of the money that was flown from the United States to Baghdad” to prop up the Iraqi government after Saddam Hussein was toppled, “was stolen and secretly transported out of Iraq in what may be one of the largest robberies in modern history,” he writes. “…In addition to cash, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold was stolen from the Iraqi government and is also being hidden in Lebanon, current and former U.S. officials have said.”

One might assume that U.S. officials would be deeply interested in finding out what happened to that money, not to mention eager to get it back. But, no. [Continue reading…]

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Conflict of interest: Senior NSA official moonlights for former NSA chief in private firm

The Guardian reports: The former director of the National Security Agency has enlisted the US surveillance giant’s current chief technology officer for his lucrative cybersecurity business venture, an unusual arrangement undercutting Keith Alexander’s assurances he will not profit from his connections to the secretive, technologically sophisticated agency.

Patrick Dowd continues to work as a senior NSA official while also working part time for Alexander’s IronNet Cybersecurity, a firm reported to charge up to $1m a month for advising banks on protecting their data from hackers. It is exceedingly rare for a US official to be allowed to work for a private, for-profit company in a field intimately related to his or her public function.

Reuters, which broke the story of Dowd’s relationship with IronNet, reported that the NSA is reviewing the business deal.

Since retiring from the NSA in March and entering the burgeoning field of cybersecurity consulting, Alexander has vociferously defended his ethics against charges of profiting off of his NSA credentials. Alexander was the founding general in charge of US Cyber Command, the first military command charged with defending Defense Department data and attacking those belonging to adversaries. Both positions provide Alexander with unique and marketable insights into cybersecurity. [Continue reading…]

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The ISIS peril clarifies what Arabs need

Rami G. Khouri writes: The startling developments in northern Iraq, where the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has taken control of Mosul and other cities, highlights several troubling trends that have been evident across much of the Arab World for years.

ISIS moved into Mosul and other cities swiftly and without any real combat because these underlying trends all played their role in this great unfolding drama that speaks to the troubling realities of the Arab world.

This is about much more than any individual issue such as spillover from Syria, lack of Western military assistance to anti-Bashar Assad rebels, growing sectarian tensions in Iraq, or the spread of extremist Islamist militancy. Iraq today has reached a momentous moment of reckoning for the weaknesses of modern Arab statehood and governance. External factors certainly played their roles, such as the Anglo-American war on Iraq in 2003, decades of Israeli meddling in Arab conditions, and Iran’s growing influence in the region.

These external factors, however, could only impact on conditions in Iraq because of the underlying structural problems whose consequences are now playing out before us every day. These underlying Arab-made structural problems include corrupt and incompetent governance, weak citizenship, brittle statehood, and a severe lack of cohesion among different ethnic and sectarian groups within countries.

The news that many locals have not resisted, and even often welcomed, the arrival of ISIS should clarify the intense problems that existed between the government and mostly Sunni local communities in northwest Iraq. Air attacks by the Iraqi government or military moves by foreign powers such as Iran or the United States will momentarily delay the expansion of ISIS-controlled areas. But military power in the long run remains helpless in the face of determined moves by disgruntled citizens to regain what they see as dignity, freedom and rights.

The best proof of this is the steady expansion in the numbers and capabilities of extremist Salafist-takfiri militant groups such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Nusra Front and dozens of other groups that have been repeatedly targeted by military strikes by local governments and the American armed forces. So, military attacks against ISIS and its local allies in Iraq would momentarily pause the current trajectory of the group’s expansion, but will not stop it in the long run.

The fact that some Iraqis would consider life under the draconian rules of ISIS preferable to the conditions they had endured under previous elected Iraqi governments shows how severe are the grievances of ordinary citizens under the rule of Arab tyrants. [Continue reading…]

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The overwhelming power of money in American politics

Al Jazeera reports: It’s not just your imagination: The influence of money in politics has indeed drowned out the voices of American voters, a new analysis shows, with runaway corporate lobbying and a lack of campaign finance reform to blame for giving much more political weight to the wealthy.

Researchers at Princeton University and Northwestern University compared the public’s influence on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002, finding that more often than not, the interests of wealthy groups and individuals won out over the demands of the general public. For instance, when 80 percent of the public asked for a change of some sort, they got their way only about 43 percent of the time.

The study, its authors say, points to the overwhelming power of wealthy lobbying groups and individuals backing certain interests in American politics, and the marginalization of voters and public advocacy groups.

“I expected to find that ordinary Americans had a modest degree of influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups would serve to promote those interests,” Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton and a co-author of the study, wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.

“What we found instead was that ordinary Americans have virtually no influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups as a whole do not reliably side with the wishes of the average citizen.” [Continue reading…]

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Matt Taibbi — The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

AMY GOODMAN: Who was tougher on corporate America, President Obama or President Bush?

MATT TAIBBI: Oh, Bush, hands down. And this is an important point to make, because if you go back to the early 2000s, think about all these high-profile cases: Adelphia, Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen. All of these companies were swept up by the Bush Justice Department. And what’s interesting about this is that you can see a progression. If you go back to the savings and loan crisis in the late ’80s, which was an enormous fraud problem, but it paled in comparison to the subprime mortgage crisis, we put about 800 people in jail during—in the aftermath of that crisis. You fast-forward 10 or 15 years to the accounting scandals, like Enron and Adelphia and Tyco, we went after the heads of some of those companies. It wasn’t as vigorous as the S&L prosecutions, but we at least did it. At least George Bush recognized the symbolic importance of showing ordinary Americans that justice is blind, right?

Fast-forward again to the next big crisis, and how many people have we got—have we actually put in jail? Zero. And this was a crisis that was much huger in scope than the S&L crisis or the accounting crisis. I mean, it wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth, and nobody went to jail, so that we’re now in a place where we don’t even recognize the importance of keeping up appearances when it comes to making things look equal.

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The McCutcheon decision: If this is not corruption, what is?

Robert Reich writes: The supreme court is composed of five justices appointed by Republican presidents, and four appointed by Democratic ones. In the McCutcheon v FEC case decided on Wednesday, the five Republican appointees interpreted the first amendment to protect the right of individuals to pour as much as $3.6m into a political party or $800,000 into a political campaign.

The decision by those justices allows individual donors to buy – and federal officeholders to solicit – unparalleled personal influence in Washington. McCutcheon drowns out the voices of ordinary citizens.

Presumably, the individuals who were of concern to the majority of the court have incomes larger than the median US family income of roughly $50,000 a year and wealth in excess of the median American family’s wealth of approximately $70,000. It is very likely that these individuals have huge incomes and enormous wealth.

The decision rests on the court’s dubious finding that such spending does not give rise to corruption. That’s baloney, as anyone who has the faintest familiarity with contemporary American politics well knows. As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in his dissenting opinion: “where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard”.

The majority’s decision to open the floodgates to big money would be less important if the distribution of income and wealth in America were more equal. But it has become extraordinarily unequal. Together, the richest 400 Americans now possess more wealth than the bottom half of the American population. A handful of billionaires are, at this moment, deciding on whom to place their multi-million dollar bets in the 2014 midterm election. The McCutcheon decision makes it easier for them to do so than ever before. They don’t need to go through political action committees or so-called “social welfare” organizations. The rich can now make their bets directly.

We have returned to the gilded age of the late 19th century, when the lackeys of robber barons placed sacks of money on the desks of pliant legislators. If this is not corruption, what is? [Continue reading…]

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Supreme Court delivers another blow to American democracy

The New York Times reports: The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a major campaign finance decision, striking down some limits on federal campaign contributions for the first time. The ruling, issued near the start of a campaign season, will change and most likely increase the already large role money plays in American politics.

The decision, by a 5-to-4 vote along ideological lines, with the Court’s more conservative justices in the majority, was a sequel of sorts to Citizens United, the 2010 decision that struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions. But that ruling did nothing to affect the other main form of campaign finance regulation: caps on direct contributions to candidates and political parties.

Wednesday’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536, addressed that second kind of regulation.

It did not affect familiar base limits on contributions from individuals to candidates, currently $2,600 per candidate in primary and general elections. But it said that overall limits of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates violated the First Amendment, as did separate aggregate limits on contributions to political party committees, currently $74,600.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for four justices in the controlling opinion, said the First Amendment required striking down the limits. “There is no right in our democracy more basic,” he wrote, “than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”

Dissenting from the bench, Justice Stephen G. Breyer called the decision a blow to the First Amendment and American democracy. “If the court in Citizens United opened a door,” he said, “today’s decision may well open a floodgate.” [Continue reading…]

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China seizes $14.5 billion assets from family, associates of ex-security chief

Reuters reports: Chinese authorities have seized assets worth at least 90 billion yuan ($14.5 billion) from family members and associates of retired domestic security tsar Zhou Yongkang, who is at the centre of China’s biggest corruption scandal in more than six decades, two sources said.

More than 300 of Zhou’s relatives, political allies, proteges and staff have also been taken into custody or questioned in the past four months, the sources, who have been briefed on the investigation, told Reuters.

The sheer size of the asset seizures and the scale of the investigations into the people around Zhou – both unreported until now – make the corruption probe unprecedented in modern China and would appear to show that President Xi Jinping is tackling graft at the highest levels.

But it may also be driven partly by political payback after Zhou angered leaders such as Xi by opposing the ouster of former high-flying politician Bo Xilai, who was jailed for life in September for corruption and abuse of power. [Continue reading…]

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In China, brutality yields confessions of graft

n13-iconThe Associated Press reports: The local Chinese official remembers the panic he felt in Room 109. He had refused to confess to bribery he says he didn’t commit, and his Communist Party interrogators were forcing his legs apart.

Zhou Wangyan heard his left thigh bone snap, with a loud “ka-cha.” The sound nearly drowned out his howls of pain.

“My leg is broken,” Zhou told the interrogators. According to Zhou, they ignored his pleas.

China’s government is under strong pressure to fight rampant corruption in its ranks, faced with the anger of an increasingly prosperous, well-educated and Internet-savvy public. However, the party’s methods for extracting confessions expose its 85 million members and their families to the risk of abuse. Experts estimate at least several thousand people are secretly detained every year for weeks or months under an internal system that is separate from state justice.

In a rare display of public defiance, Zhou and three other party members in Hunan described to The Associated Press the months of abuse they endured less than two years ago, in separate cases, while in detention. Zhou, land bureau director for the city of Liling, said he was deprived of sleep and food, nearly drowned, whipped with wires and forced to eat excrement. The others reported being turned into human punching bags, strung up by the wrists from high windows, or dragged along the floor, face down, by their feet. [Continue reading…]

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How a careerist culture leads to military scandals

f13-iconKelley Vlahos writes: Popular culture reveres the U.S. military as an institution of pride and strength, as keeper of the American moral center. But a recent series of scandals suggests that, instead, ethical corrosion may be eating away at its very core.

Sarah Palin was in top rhetorical form when she told an assembled crowd of thousands on the National Mall in 2010 that soldiers were “a force for good in this country, and that is nothing to apologize for … for these men and women, honor was never lost.” But behind the partisan politics in which Democrats and Republicans have used the military as props, padded its budgets, and publicly deferred to its leadership in myriad ways over 12 years of war, there lies a complicated breakdown in its culture, military experts tell TAC. Without reform, they believe institution is headed for more embarrassment and transgression.

“I’m not surprised at all—one [scandal] relates to the other,” charges Donald Vandergriff, a retired Army officer who often lectures on leadership and reform, including in the service academies. A West Point grad and former deputy director of Army ROTC at Georgetown University, he wrote The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs, in 2002.

“The [military] system that’s evolved over the last 100 years does not test moral courage, it does not test strength of character, or the ability to tell the truth regardless of harm to one’s career,” Vandergriff added. “We don’t do things like that. We are looking at people who follow the process, fall in line, don’t cause waves, aren’t open to innovation, and these personality traits leave them open to scandal.” [Continue reading…]

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The high cost of the Pentagon’s bad bookkeeping

Part One — How the Pentagon’s payroll quagmire traps America’s soldiers:
As Christmas 2011 approached, U.S. Army medic Shawn Aiken was once again locked in desperate battle with a formidable foe. Not insurgents in Iraq, or Taliban fighters in Afghanistan – enemies he had already encountered with distinguished bravery.

This time, he was up against the U.S. Defense Department.

Aiken, then 30 years old, was in his second month of physical and psychological reconstruction at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, after two tours of combat duty had left him shattered. His war-related afflictions included traumatic brain injury, severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), abnormal eye movements due to nerve damage, chronic pain, and a hip injury.

But the problem that loomed largest that holiday season was different. Aiken had no money. The Defense Department was withholding big chunks of his pay. It had started that October, when he received $2,337.56, instead of his normal monthly take-home pay of about $3,300. He quickly raised the issue with staff. It only got worse. For all of December, his pay came to $117.99.

All Aiken knew was that the Defense Department was taking back money it claimed he owed. Beyond that, “they couldn’t even tell me what the debts were from,” he says.

At the time, Aiken was living off base with his fiancee, Monica, and her toddler daughter, while sharing custody of his two children with his ex-wife. As their money dwindled, the couple began hitting church-run food pantries. Aiken took out an Army Emergency Relief Loan to cover expenses of their December move into a new apartment. At Christmas, Operation Santa Claus provided the family with presents – one for each child, per the charity’s rules.

Eventually, they began pawning their possessions – jewelry, games, an iPhone, and even the medic bag Aiken used when saving lives in Afghanistan. The couple was desperate from “just not knowing where food’s going to come from,” he says. “They just hit one button and they take your whole paycheck away. And then you have to fight to get the money back.”

Aiken’s injuries made that fight more difficult. He limped from office to office to press his case to an unyielding bureaucracy. With short-term and long-term memory loss, he struggled to keep appointments and remember key dates and events. His PTSD symptoms alienated some staff. “He would have an outburst … (and) they would treat him as if he was like a bad soldier,” says Monica. “They weren’t compassionate.”

They were also wrong. The money the military took back from Aiken resulted from accounting and other errors, and it should have been his to keep. Further, even after Aiken complained, the Defense Department didn’t return the bulk of the money to Aiken until after Reuters inquired about his case. [Continue reading…]

Part Two — Behind the Pentagon’s doctored ledgers, a running tally of epic waste:
Linda Woodford spent the last 15 years of her career inserting phony numbers in the U.S. Department of Defense’s accounts.

Every month until she retired in 2011, she says, the day came when the Navy would start dumping numbers on the Cleveland, Ohio, office of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the Pentagon’s main accounting agency. Using the data they received, Woodford and her fellow DFAS accountants there set about preparing monthly reports to square the Navy’s books with the U.S. Treasury’s – a balancing-the-checkbook maneuver required of all the military services and other Pentagon agencies.

And every month, they encountered the same problem. Numbers were missing. Numbers were clearly wrong. Numbers came with no explanation of how the money had been spent or which congressional appropriation it came from. “A lot of times there were issues of numbers being inaccurate,” Woodford says. “We didn’t have the detail … for a lot of it.”

The data flooded in just two days before deadline. As the clock ticked down, Woodford says, staff were able to resolve a lot of the false entries through hurried calls and emails to Navy personnel, but many mystery numbers remained. For those, Woodford and her colleagues were told by superiors to take “unsubstantiated change actions” – in other words, enter false numbers, commonly called “plugs,” to make the Navy’s totals match the Treasury’s.

Jeff Yokel, who spent 17 years in senior positions in DFAS’s Cleveland office before retiring in 2009, says supervisors were required to approve every “plug” – thousands a month. “If the amounts didn’t balance, Treasury would hit it back to you,” he says.

After the monthly reports were sent to Treasury, the accountants continued to seek accurate information to correct the entries. In some instances, they succeeded. In others, they didn’t, and the unresolved numbers stood on the books.

At the DFAS offices that handle accounting for the Army, Navy, Air Force and other defense agencies, fudging the accounts with false entries is standard operating procedure, Reuters has found. And plugging isn’t confined to DFAS (pronounced DEE-fass). Former military service officials say record-keeping at the operational level throughout the services is rife with made-up numbers to cover lost or missing information. [Continue reading…]

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How the pharmaceutical industry deceives doctors and patients

Fake pharma ad for "Havidol"

Ben Goldacre writes: In 2010, three researchers from Harvard and Toronto found all the trials looking at five major classes of drug — antidepressants, ulcer drugs and so on — and then measured two key features: were they positive, and were they funded by industry? They found over 500 trials in total: 85 percent of the industry-funded studies were positive, but only 50 percent of the government-funded trials were. That’s a very significant difference.

In 2007, researchers looked at every published trial that set out to explore the benefit of a statin. These are cholesterol-lowering drugs which reduce your risk of having a heart attack, and they are prescribed in very large quantities. This study found 192 trials in total, either comparing one statin against another, or comparing a statin against a different kind of treatment. Once the researchers controlled for other factors (we’ll delve into what this means later), they found that industry-funded trials were 20 times more likely to give results favoring the test drug. Again, that’s a very big difference.

We’ll do one more. In 2006, researchers looked into every trial of psychiatric drugs in four academic journals over a 10-year period, finding 542 trial outcomes in total. Industry sponsors got favorable outcomes for their own drug 78 percent of the time, while independently funded trials only gave a positive result in 48 percent of cases. If you were a competing drug put up against the sponsor’s drug in a trial, you were in for a pretty rough ride: You would only win a measly 28 percent of the time.

These are dismal, frightening results, but they come from individual studies. When there has been lots of research in a field, it’s always possible that someone — like me, for example — could cherry-pick the results and give a partial view. I could, in essence, be doing exactly what I accuse the pharmaceutical industry of doing by only telling you about the studies that support my case while hiding the rest from you.

To guard against this risk, researchers invented the systematic review. In essence a systematic review is simple: Instead of just mooching through the research literature, consciously or unconsciously picking out papers here and there that support your pre-existing beliefs, you take a scientific, systematic approach to the very process of looking for scientific evidence, ensuring that your evidence is as complete and representative as possible of all the research that has ever been done.

Systematic reviews are very, very onerous. In 2003, by coincidence, two were published, both looking specifically at the question we’re interested in. They took all the studies ever published about whether industry funding is associated with pro-industry results. Each took a slightly different approach to finding research papers, and both found that industry-funded trials were, overall, about four times more likely to report positive results. A further review in 2007 looked at the new studies that had been published in the four years after these two earlier reviews: It found 20 more pieces of work, and all but two showed that industry-sponsored trials were more likely to report flattering results.

I am setting out this evidence at length because I want to be absolutely clear that there is no doubt on the issue. Industry-sponsored trials give favorable results, and that is not just my opinion or a hunch from the occasional passing study. This is a very well-documented problem, and it has been researched extensively without anybody stepping out to take effective action, as we shall see. [Continue reading…]

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Trapwire: It’s not the surveillance, it’s the sleaze

Noah Shachtman reports: Ever since WikiLeaks began releasing a series of documents about the surveillance system Trapwire, there’s been a panicked outcry over this supposedly all-seeing, revolutionary spy network. In fact, there are any number of companies that say they comb through video feeds or suspicious activity reports in largely the same way that Trapwire claims to do. What’s truly extraordinary about Trapwire was how it was marketed by the private intelligence firm Stratfor, whose internal e-mails WikiLeaks exposed.

The documents show Stratfor being less than straight with its clients, using temporary jobs in government to set up Trapwire contracts, and calling it all a “wet dream.” In their e-mails, executives at Stratfor may have been hyping up a surveillance technology. But what they really did was provide reconnaissance on the $25 billion world of intelligence-for-hire that’s ordinarily hidden from public view. In this case, the sunlight isn’t particularly flattering.

On Nov. 4, 2009, Fred Burton, the vice president of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, co-wrote an essay on emerging terrorist threats and the means to stop them. Particularly impressive, Burton wrote, was a new software tool called Trapwire, which works “with camera systems to help detect patterns of preoperational surveillance … to help cut through the fog of noise and activity and draw attention to potential threats.”

The essay was typical of the trend analyses, news summaries, and hot tips that Strator provides every day to its customers in government and in industry. For these services, Burton’s clients pay his firm handsomely; a single Stratfor enterprise license costs more than $20,000 (.pdf). These customers rely on Burton and his team to provide the latest word from flashpoints worldwide — and to explain what this torrent of information all means. They count on Stratfor to help make sense of the world.

What his customers reading that November 2009 essay may not have realized was that Burton was also marketing them a product. On Aug. 17 of that year, Stratfor and Trapwire signed a contract (.pdf) giving Burton’s company an 8 percent referral fee for any business they send Trapwire’s way. The essay was partially a sales pitch — a fact that Burton neglected to mention. [Continue reading…]

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