- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Times Herald-Record of Middletown on increasing scrutiny of plans for transporting oil by rail and barge through New York.

April 18

On the surface the plan to transport tar sands oil in rail cars to a terminal at New Windsor, heat it and then load it on barges and ship it down the Hudson River will get all the scrutiny such a complex and potentially hazardous operation requires.

This shows that public opinion is already having an effect. That should encourage those who have spoken out to keep talking and those who have watched in silent concern to become more active. Those we elect to represent us in Albany and in local legislatures should not stay silent on these issues either.

In response to a letter from environmental organizations this week, a spokesman for the governor said that the administration shares their concerns about the New Windsor operation. Similar caution and scrutiny also now are being applied to a similar proposal at a similar facility in Albany with all of the same potential for environmental harm.

Yet not that long ago, the Cuomo administration saw no need to be quite so cautious. In 2011, the state allowed a near-doubling of petroleum product shipments to almost 3 billion gallons annually.

Just last November, the state Department of Environmental Conservation decided that the Albany plan would not have any significant environmental effects. Then public opinion started to turn against such swift action as news about spills, inadequate safety on tanker cars carrying volatile products and train derailments with the potential for more major troubles and more consequences turned a quiet enviro-bureaucratic exercise into a true public issue.

All of a sudden, the swift approval was reclassified as “an interim review subject to a final future determination of (environmental) significance.”

The tanker cars that carry the oil have gone off the rails in a few incidents in New York. So far, none of the derailments have had the devastating consequences that have been evident elsewhere with massive spills and fires. If so much oil is going to continue to be transported to major population centers in New York, as it will, then the cars that carry it have to be much more secure. That’s one reason Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has been leading the fight to lower the speed of oil-carrying trains through populated areas such as Kingston and Newburgh and to replace the tank cars now in use with those that have more safety features to prevent and contain spills.

Some have tried to exploit a political angle on this, saying that if the federal government would approve the construction of the controversial Keystone Pipeline, New York would not be facing these difficult environmental choices. That would be true if the pipeline were going to carry this oil to New York, which it will not, or if it would be operating in a few months, which it also will not.

The Keystone project is worth debating on its own merits. And so is the plan to transport this oil on tracks that border the Hudson River and, therefore, raise a major environmental issue.

You don’t have to be an activist or a scientist to understand what is at stake here.




The Daily Gazette of Schenectady on going forward with the Common Core and teacher evaluations after revisions.

April 16

In an editorial last week, we criticized Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature for their decision to delay counting students’ Common Core test scores on their transcripts while continuing to count them in teacher evaluations. Since students will now be less likely to take the tests seriously, this is unfair to teachers, we said.

What we didn’t say is that the state should give up on the Common Core curriculum and teacher evaluations themselves - because it shouldn’t. Despite the controversies surrounding both, they are good ideas that will improve education in New York state.

Common Core is not a federal takeover of education, as tea party types claim. It’s a voluntary effort by the states (inspired by the failures of No Child Left Behind) to set what are basically national standards for what students should know and what skills they should have at each grade level. More is expected of students, who now must show evidence for their solutions and conclusions, whether in math, English, history or science, and articulate how they think. And more is expected of their teachers, who now must teach them to think critically and give them a deeper understanding of the material.

Critics of the standards say New York adopted them only to get $700 million in federal Race to the Top money. But Common Core was being developed by the states, including New York, before Race to the Top was conceived. And many states that didn’t get Race to the Top money continue to use it. That attests to its value.

The critics have a better point when they criticize its implementation here. Some teachers complained that they weren’t trained and didn’t have materials by the time they had to start teaching the new standards. The Education Department made no real effort to explain Common Core to parents and the public (what it is and what it is not, as Commissioner John King Jr. has put it), leading to a lot of misinformation and confusion. Perhaps most significantly, Common Core testing began before kids, teachers and parents had a chance to get used to the new standards - and when their children didn’t do well, many parents were unhappy and made it known.

It’s unfortunate that Common Core has now become a political issue, with lawmakers, the governor and the New York State United Teachers union all taking shots at it to varying degrees. Tweak it, delay grading based on it (for teachers as well as students), but don’t abandon it. Kids need what it has to offer.




The New York Times on a federal appeals court ruling requiring partial release of a Justice Department memo justifying targeted killings of Americans abroad.

April 21

For years now, the Obama administration has been playing a self-serving and duplicitous game over its power to kill people away from any battlefield and without judicial oversight or accountability. It has trotted out successive officials and doled out tidbits of information attesting to the legality of President Obama’s claim to unilateral authority to carry out such killings, while withholding information essential to evaluating that aggressive claim of executive power.

In an important unanimous decision on Monday, a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Manhattan refused to go along with that tactic. The ruling, written by Judge Jon Newman of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, reversed a disturbing 2013 decision by a federal district judge, Colleen McMahon, upholding the government’s claim to secrecy largely on national security grounds.

The new ruling ordered the release of portions of a classified Justice Department memorandum that provided the legal justification for the targeted killing of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who had joined Al Qaeda and died in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. It came in response to lawsuits filed under the Freedom of Information Act by The New York Times and two of its reporters, Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, and by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Essentially, the appellate panel reviewed the government’s overwrought claims of national security and found them seriously wanting. It concluded that the government had waived its right to keep the analysis secret, citing numerous public statements by administration officials and the Justice Department’s release of a 16-page, single-spaced “white paper” containing a detailed analysis of why targeted killings were legal.

“Whatever protection the legal analysis might once have had,” Judge Newman wrote for the panel, “has been lost by virtue of public statements of public officials at the highest levels and official disclosure of the D.O.J. White Paper.” Still, there seems to be a very good chance that the secret analysis will reveal critical aspects of the government’s justification for its actions, well beyond what the public has been told. Otherwise, why would the administration have refused to disclose the memo for years?

Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, stresses the decision’s value in rejecting “the government’s effort to use secrecy, and selective disclosure, as a means of manipulating public opinion about the targeted killing program.”

The administration’s attempt to have it both ways in this instance - cherry-picking information to share while keeping its underlying legal reasoning secret - recalls its response to the revelations of widespread phone-data surveillance by the National Security Agency.

In both instances, the administration has shown itself to be more interested with its public relations crusade than with being open and honest with the American people about significant acts carried out in their name.

Instead of appealing Monday’s ruling to the full Second Circuit or the Supreme Court, President Obama should see the wisdom of allowing it to stand - and allowing the conversation the country needs to have.




The Times Union of Albany on striking the proper balance between national security and freedom.

April 20

The unit that the New York Police Department formed to spy on Muslims, in what proved to be a fruitless and destructive attempt to gain anti-terrorism intelligence, is no more. But America’s reflection on the boundaries of public safety, personal privacy, and civil liberties is far from over.

We remain a society torn between our desires to be safe and to be left alone, free from government intrusion and snooping into our personal lives.

We second-guess the government for failing to flag the Boston Marathon bombers before the fact, but grouse about data gathering by the National Security Agency and having to take off our shoes in airports and submit to a body scan.

We rail against a surveillance society and the prospect of drones in our skies, but applaud the same technology when it helps police catch criminals or scares motorists into stopping for red lights in our communities. Until, of course, one of those red light cameras catches us, and we find there is no arguing with Big Brother.

We argue about whether a whistle-blower who exposed rampant government spying on citizens is a hero or traitor, even as we hail the public disclosure of that information as a public service in the best traditions of journalism - information without which we would not even be able to have this debate.

We are, in short, still searching for that comfort zone in which where we’re both free enough and safe enough to enjoy the blessings of liberty.

But for the most part, we know when the line has been crossed, as it was by the NYPD.

As The Associated Press reported in 2011, the NYPD set up a “Demographics Unit” shortly after 9/11. While it officially focused on “ancestries of interest,” its main mission was to gather intelligence on Muslims and Muslim groups. It kept tabs on and infiltrated mosques, social groups, and other institutions, and its work went well beyond New York City, reaching into private and public campuses in New York and surrounding states, including the University at Albany.

Not that the ends would justify the means, but by the department’s own admission - once it stopped denying the unit even existed, that is - this operation generated not one lead, for all the bad relations and distrust it fostered.

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton has now disbanded it, and is looking at the department’s other intelligence-gathering operations, as well.

Amid this commendable introspection comes another development - Pulitzer prizes awarded to The Guardian US and The Washington Post, and a Polk award for The Guardian US journalists, for their reporting on widespread secret surveillance by the NSA and the failure of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to rein it in, largely thanks to a trove of documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Mr. Snowden’s reward? Exile, and the ongoing threat of arrest and prosecution in the U.S. as he remains in asylum in Russia.

So goes the schizophrenic state of the Union, as we struggle to find the elusive sweet spot between freedom and security.




The Syracuse Post-Standard on the federal government’s release of data about Medicare spending in 2012.

April 17

The April 9 release of a vast trove of data about how Medicare spent $77 billion in taxpayer money in 2012 is a watershed moment for government transparency and accountability.

The database includes 880,000 health care providers who billed the federal insurance program for people age 65 and above. Now, for the first time, everyone can see how much doctors billed Medicare and what services and procedures they billed for. Public scrutiny will ignite a discussion of what our health care dollars are buying, and may expose fraudsters in the bargain.

For more than 30 years, the American Medical Association fought to keep the data out of the public domain, citing the privacy rights of doctors and the potential for the data to be misinterpreted. Dow Jones & Co., publisher of the Wall Street Journal, argued that Medicare is funded by taxpayers and taxpayers ought to know how their money is spent. The paper sued and won.

Among the early findings: According to the Journal’s analysis, 1 percent of doctors received 14 percent of Medicare dollars. The specialties with the highest average payment per individual biller were hematology/oncology, radiation oncology and ophthalmology.

The pitfalls of the data quickly became apparent. For example, eye doctors receive large Medicare payments to cover the cost of expensive drugs to treat macular degeneration. Now that we know, let’s move on to examining other outliers.

Medicare has a history of using its sheer size to change the way medicine is practiced in the United States. Twenty-five years ago, it shifted the way hospitals are reimbursed to discourage long, expensive hospital stays. More recently, it instituted penalties for hospitals that have too many patient complications and readmissions. Now, the release of billing data opens a new window onto our health care system. We may gain insight into why drug prices are so high, for example, or doctors who may be overtreating patients compared to their peers.

Insurers, regulators, researchers, policymakers and fraud investigators are going to find the database useful. Will patients? That depends on how well Medicare explains it. Journalists have a role in that, too.

All data are subject to misinterpretation. This should not be an excuse to withhold it. It’s an opportunity to educate the public. With greater understanding, citizens can be better participants in the debate over health care policy and better participants in their own health care.




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