With the first autism case now being heard in federal vaccine court in Washington D.C., it makes sense to ask: Why is anyone even still debating the possibility of a link between vaccines and autism? After all, for years, many government health officials, advisors and vaccine manufacturers have said there's no association.
Here are a number of reasons why the question remains open:
1. While public health officials, government scientists, advisors and pharmaceutical companies have been responsible for innumerable lifesaving and life improving medical advances, they are not infallible.
• For many years, public health officials thought it was safe to use x-ray machines in shoe stores and allowed mercury in medicines. Doctors prescribed Thalidomide - a drug marketed as a sleep aid - to pregnant women to treat morning sickness. In the case of Thalidomide, it came with no warning against use by pregnant women and the drug maker apparently did not predict it could cause fetuses the devastating damage that it did. (The bulk of the injuries were outside of the U.S. because the Cincinnati phamaceutical company was denied a license to sell Thalidomide in the this country. At the time, according to news reports, the pharmaceutical company's representative complained that the FDA was being unreasonable and nit-picking in not quickly approving the drug). The medical establishment assured us Vioxx and Duract were safe painkillers, prescribed Rezulin for diabetics and then denied any of them were responsible for patient deaths. If we never questioned the presumed experts, we might not have discovered that Fen-phen and the dietary supplement Ephedra are not safe weight-loss products, that antidepressants in kids can lead to suicidality and Viagra can cause blindness. The list goes on.
Listen closely to the talk on Capitol Hill the next few days and you just may hear the sounds of immigration reform dying a slow death, at least until 2009. Here's why.
CBS News has learned a core group of Democrats and Republicans has been holding lengthy talks with White House officials. Their goal was to write a bill that, unlike last year's effort, would be a bipartisan work product at the outset and, in theory, stand the best chance of being embraced by all sides in the immigration equation.
The group includes key players in the debate: Senator Kyl-R, a chief opponent of last year's failed immigration reform bill; Senator Salazar-D, who wrote it; and Senator Isakson-R. who wants nothing done until the border is secured. Also in the meetings: Senators Graham-R, Kennedy-D, Menendez-D, Cornyn-R, Feinstein-D and Specter-R. The White House was represented by Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff.
The group met for hours two or three times a week for the past two months. They argued, negotiated, and compromised, and did it all without holding press conferences or spinning their positions. The details are still being finessed. But at last word, the plan included some important differences over last year's attempt:
The borders would be secured before any citizenship measures for illegals are triggered.
Security of the borders would be evaluated by tangible measures such as miles of fence built and number of border patrol agents hired.
After President Bush's veto of the emergency funding bill for the troops in Iraq, Democrats in Congress are moving into overdrive to firm up and pass Plan B: a bill the President will sign. Or one that has enough support to override a veto.
The plan emerging as the most popular among Democrats in the House of Representatives is one that would parse out money for the troops in two halves. Here's how it could work:
Step 1: $43 billion would be provided immediately, enough to fund the war through August.
Step 2: President Bush would have to give a convincing progress report to Congress in July.
Step 3: Congress would then decide whether to attach strings-- such as benchmarks and deadlines for troop withdrawals-- to $53 billion more in funds.
The White House doesn't like the idea a bit, and neither do some lead Republicans in Congress who say the plan treats the troops like children getting a monthly allowance.
House Democrats still have some details to work out, but they want a fast vote, possibly as soon as Thursday. If passed, it would go onto the Senate and then the President. If he vetoes it, everyone might just end up, once again, back at square one.
Meantime, even if a bill is passed and signed, it only resolves the issue of funding for the Iraq war for what remains of this fiscal year: in other words for the next four and a half months. Which means it won't be long before the whole fight over funding for the war starts up again.
Maybe it's his South Carolina roots. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has strong viewpoints on every important, controversial issue of the day, but manages to present them so logically and politely that it's hard to be offended, even if you disagree. In that understated fashion with the southern drawl, Sen. Graham talked exclusively with me about his recent experience serving as an active duty reservist in Baghdad: the first sitting U.S. Senator to serve in the Iraq War.
What could this attorney, this Senator, offer to the effort in Iraq? Sen. Graham volunteered for something called the Rule of Law Task Force. While soldiers are fighting bombs and bullets, there's a parallel effort underway to defeat the insurgency by establishing a credible judicial system: something Iraq hasn't ever really had. This is a nation where the police and military have served as judge, jury and executioner. The concept of a system of checks and balances, where defendants have rights including their day in court, where judges aren't biased, where people from different sects are treated fairly. It's all brand new.
If you're interested in knowing more about the Rule of Law Task Force, Sen. Graham does a great job explaining it so I've included excerpts from the interview below. Read about the very first hearings in a new courthouse built by American forces, in which accused criminals from rival sects each had their day in court. A landmark event for Iraq, happening quietly under the media radar screen.
Excerpts from my interview with Sen. Lindsey Graham:
The one thing I learned about the surge is that the military part of it knocking down doors and shooting Al Qaeda and arresting extremists is a part of it but not all of it. There is a surge going on on the law front. The Rule of Law Task Force was stood up on April first.
I looked at some detention issues, we have 19,000 people detained in American custody, and trying to create a better legal venue to hear their claims and keep the bad ones off the street who are a danger to our troops and the Iraqi government, and to let some of them go with supervision and to get the others tried in Iraqi criminal court.
One way to kill the insurgency beyond military force is to create a government that is fair to its citizens and the rule of law to me is about 'what you did' not 'who you are'. We're trying to break the politics of revenge and the cycle of revenge. Instead of killing someone who has killed a member of your family, we're trying to create a legal system that will hold Shiias, Sunnis and Kurds accountable when they try to topple the government or kill innocent people. The old legal system was there to serve the dictator. The new legal system has to be there to serve all people not just one group of people... a jury of peers will decide your fate, not politicians or dictators.
The problem in Iraq is out of control violence. The number one target of the insurgency are judges. If you're a judge in Iraq you're an incredibly brave person. Because they just don't try to kill you, they try to kill your family. So General Petraeus tried to build a compound in Baghdad for judges. Took an old army base, reinforced it, put housing on base for judges and their families and created a brand new courtroom a detention facility to hold people in the compound to give the judges confidence that if they did their job they could do it without fear. Within 60 days the American military took over this old Army base and just about completed all the housing as I speak, got the courtroom built in five days and reinforced the compound to provide security for the judges and their families.
With the President preparing to wield his veto pen on the Iraq war funding bill, both sides seem to be hinting that they are edging toward a compromise plan that includes benchmarks.
A Democratic source told CBS News that they think the President has signalled he would accept some benchmarks -- as long as they aren't tied to deadlines or specific withdrawal dates.
Meantime, the idea Rep. Jack Murtha floated (to fund the troops temporarily for just a few months and then try to push through another proposal) appears to be a non-starter. Our source told us it's "not being met with enthusiasm by (Democratic) House leadership or on the Senate side."
As for how long before a new Iraq supplemental gets done: we're told it will "probably" take a couple of weeks. But we may start hearing very soon how a compromise plan is shaping up.
Congress just passed its most aggressive challenge yet to the Iraq War and the way President Bush has run it. Attached to the bill that pays for the war are provisions that limit what the President can do. For example, the bill says the President can't extend troops beyond a one year deployment. He can't send them into Iraq without certifying in writing that they are fully combat ready (trained, rested and equipped). And the bill calls for troops to begin withdrawing as early as July but no later than October. When President Bush strikes it down with a veto, it will be the second of his presidency. There aren't enough votes in Congress to reject the President's veto. So he wins.
Or does he?
Veto or not, the bill and the debate over what it seeks to do have already left their mark. Democrats have known all along the President wouldn't go along with timetables and deadlines...with the legislative branch attempting to, in his view, run the war from 8,000 miles away. What Democrats really wanted was a public debate. To get their position aired on places like the Evening News. They got it.
That public debate -- an extension of one that's been going on for some time -- has put pressure on the President, Republicans in Congress and the war commanders. They acknowledge it's helped push them in a different direction than they otherwise might have gone. President Bush has gone from full force support for the original strategies in Iraq, to admitting they didn't appear to be working as intended, to pledging a shift in tactics. That change didn't happen overnight, but if you compare where the Bush administration was two years ago to where it is today, there's a dramatic difference in attitude.
At the moment, it's unlikely Congress can force an end to the Iraq war on a certain date. But even with a Presidential veto of that idea, they just may have been successful applying pressure that will help it draw to a close sooner. We'd all like to think that will save American lives while leaving Iraq well-positioned to face its future. But nobody knows for sure whether that will be the case.
There's good news to report today.
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet with and tell the story of Staff Sergeant Sean Knudsen of Michigan. Injured in the Iraq War two years ago, he was approved for a Purple Heart in the field, only to be told some months later that the award had been mysteriously "disapproved" by someone in the chain of command on up the line. He was a sort of living, breathing oxymoron: he'd returned from the war certified as partially disabled from his combat injuries, while the same military seemed to deny he'd been injured in combat by refusing him the Purple Heart.
Knudsen isn't the only soldier who's fought a frustrating battle to receive the honor he deserves. No explanations have been provided by the decision-makers in the military. Congressman Mike Rogers took up his constituent's cause, contacting the Pentagon on Knudsen's behalf more than a year ago, but he says he didn't get any answers that made sense.
Purple Heart Politics
The Purple Heart is a special thank you from those of us who are protected by people like Knudsen; symbolic gratitude from a grateful nation to those who have done so in the past, and to those who will be called upon to protect us in future conflicts yet to be imagined.
With stem cells, it's hard to know exactly what to believe.
Like many Americans, I've done a lot of reading to try to learn the scientific facts. Some material makes it seem as though embryonic stem cells are the miracle cure of the future, that dramatic advancements are right around the corner if only more federal money can be committed to the research. Other material claims that advances are being made at such a quick pace, we will soon no longer have to consider using stem cells from embryos. Both sides seem to agree that any claims of quick cures in the near future are exaggerated. Nobody knows what will or won't ultimately come from embryonic stem cell research. Certainly many scientists are excited about the possibilities. Of course, it could be argued the researchers have a vested interest aside from purely humanitarian. More federal money in the pot leads to profitable lucrative careers for them. Then there are groups that are concerned women will be paid to create and donate embryos, turned into a sort of human parts machine for the sake of "research" that will provide huge profits for pharmaceutical companies.
No matter what, for some in Congress it's a Sophie's choice: should we spend public money experimenting on cells that are the essence of human beings.. that would've become a person if undisturbed? On the other hand, do we ignore the unknown potential of such research that could, in theory, someday, help people we know and love?
The Senate is once again debating the embryonic stem cell question this week. Tomorrow afternoon, they will likely pass a bill expanding federal funding for such research. The House already passed the bill in January. Next, it's onto the President who has promised a veto. That makes it a repeat performance of last year when the Republican-controlled Congress passed the same bill and President Bush vetoed.
So the outstanding question seems to be: will the Democrat-controlled Congress be able to muster enough votes to override the President's veto? It's not likely. It's very close in the Senate. According to our CBS News count, they are just a single vote shy of being able to override the President. But in the House, it's not really even close. There, dozens of members would have to suddenly change their minds to get the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
The Purple Heart story I reported for tonight's Evening News really tugged at my heartstrings.
Like most Americans, I suppose, I'm a big fan of the work our soldiers do for us every day. I've traveled and even trained with the military for stories. I embedded with the Air Force, flew on a combat mission over Kosovo on a B-52, flew on an F-15 Combat Air Patrol flight, and traveled to Peru with Army soldiers. The expectations put upon the young men and women who protect us -- and the extent to which they're able to deliver -- never ceases to amaze me.
The story is about a soldier injured in combat and approved for a Purple Heart, but denied the award further up the chain of command. It's happened to more than just one soldier. Why and how many? It's hard to say. The Pentagon doesn't track how many Purple Hearts are "disapproved" or the reasons. But we found pockets of cases, and evidence that at least five members of Congress have tried to intervene on behalf of various troops.
For the soldiers, it's not just about getting honor or glory. You have to get inside their heads a little bit and imagine what they've gone through. The mental and physical energy they've used to get through day after week after month in tense combat situations with their lives in danger. The time they've given up with their lives, their families, their businesses. A brush with death in the form of a combat injury--one that often renders them permanently disabled--is a known risk. But once they've made that sacrifice, they're promised that a grateful nation recognizes them with a Purple Heart: something tangible they can look at when they suffer the emotional and physical effects of their national service.
To have a justified award denied-- whether due to bureaucratic bungling, lost paperwork, or other reasons-- sends them into an emotional tailspin. It's difficult enough to morph back into civilian life and cope with ongoing injuries. I would guess most of them don't have the wherewithal to try to battle the how's and why's of the denial. And why should they have to beg for something to which they're entitled?
If you know someone else who's possibly been denied a legitimate Purple Heart, I'd like to know about it. You can e-mail me at the CBS Evening News address: email@example.com.
To seven former U.S. Attorneys, it'll also be remembered forevermore as the "pre-Christmas firing massacre".
One by one, last December 7th, each of them received a telephone call giving them their walking papers. It's not that they were swept up in scandals or wrongdoing. Quite the opposite. For example one of them, Carol Lam of San Diego, was best known for successfully leading the high-profile corruption prosecution of Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham.
Now, first you should know that it's not really unusual for federal prosecutors to get fired. U.S. Attorneys are Department of Justice political appointees, serving at the pleasure of whichever party happens to be in the White House. When a President who's a Democrat is replaced by a Republican, the Democrats' U.S. Attorneys are typically replaced with Republicans. It's all part of the job.
What's unusual about the "pre-Christmas firing massacre" is that it wasn't triggered by any change in administration. The Republican administration fired seven of its own Republican-appointed prosecutors. Some of the prosecutors have told us they were left angry or puzzled.
But Republicans-firing-Republicans might have amounted to nothing more than a family squabble if it weren't for all the political innuendos that have been circulating. Maybe, some whispered, these prosecutors hadn't been doing the Republicans' bidding. Maybe they were fired for political reasons. Speculation became something more than that yesterday when one of the ousted prosecutors, David Iglesias of New Mexico spoke publicly and said he might have been fired for refusing to cave in to political pressure.
The way Iglesias tells it, last October he got phone calls from two members of Congress (whom he hasn't publicly identified). In those phone conversations he says he felt pressured to speed up a certain criminal investigation of a certain state Democrat (whom he hasn't publicly identified). He didn't think it was coincidental that this all happened right before the November election. He says he resisted the pressure. Maybe that, he theorizes, is why he got shown the door.
All of it is just far too juicy for Democrats to stay out of. Yesterday, they led a House Judiciary subcommittee vote to subpoena Iglesias and three of the other former U.S. Attorneys. They'll appear at a hearing next week. Some of them, at least, seem eager to talk. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee say they want to hold hearings, too.
Maybe under oath, Iglesias will reveal the names of those two members of Congress who called him about investigating that Democrat. Somewhere, two members of Congress are probably squirming uncomfortably.
U.S. Prosecutors ousted on Dec. 7:
Kevin Ryan in San Francisco(Bud Cummins in Little Rock was asked to resign in June and also left in December).
Carol S. Lam in San Diego
John McKay in Seattle
David C. Iglesias in New Mexico
Daniel G. Bogden in Nevada
Paul K. Charlton in Arizona
Margaret Chiara in Michigan