Need to Know transcript – July 9, 2010

Need to Know

Episode 110

Airdate: July 9, 2010

ALISON STEWART: I’m Alison Stewart.

JON MEACHAM: And I’m Jon Meacham. And here’s what you need to know.

ALISON STEWART: When equal justice means special treatment….the case for and against special courts for veterans who commit crimes.

JUDGE MARC CARTER: I’ve got soldiers out here that need a lot help and a lot of work and you know what, I worry about ‘em. I worry you know, are they going to make it?

JON MEACHAM: At the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, more environmental trouble.

STEVE ENGELBERG: And it took them 40 days, BP says, to recognize that they had dumped some 500,000 pounds of chemicals in the air…

ALISON STEWART: And you didn’t see them portrayed in the movie “The Hurt Locker”…but we’ll meet two very brave women who defuse bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan…

MARIE MARTINSON: I absolutely love my job. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

JON MEACHAM: And Andy Borowitz….

ALISON STEWART: Coming up on Need to Know.

ANNOUNCER: From New York…Alison Stewart and Jon Meacham.

ALISON STEWART: Hello everyone. Thanks for joining us.

JON MEACHAM: In this summer of overheated rhetoric about the perplexing issues of the day: our economy, our war policy, and which team Lebron James should have chosen…we begin the program by focusing on a quiet legal revolution that’s dealing with one of our most intractable problems…crime. All over the country, in every state, special courts called problem solving courts are dealing with specific kinds of criminal behaviors separate from the regular court system.

ALISON STEWART: There are drug courts, sex offense courts, mental health courts, and now, veterans’ courts. In veteran’s courts, soldiers who commit certain crimes after returning home with mental health disabilities are treated, well, differently than others who break the same laws and go through traditional courts. There are some judges who believe a vet’s service to the country merits special consideration by the legal system. Correspondent Maria Hinojosa went to Texas to find out more.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER):

Two years ago Marty Gonzalez got in trouble with the law. He was driving home near Houston, Texas when he passed out – and crashed his truck into a house. And he wasn’t alone – his three year old son was in the back seat.

MARIA HINOJOSA: You were doing some pretty bad stuff.

MARTY GONZALEZ: I…I don’t condone what I did at all. I…I regret ever driving with my son in the car or driving period.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): Gonzalez had taken pain pills – twice the prescribed amount. And though no one was injured in the crash, he was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated  with a child passenger.

That’s a felony in Texas, and it carries up to a two-year prison sentence. But that’s not what the judge gave Marty Gonzalez. Instead he got two years probation – no prison time – and a chance to have his record wiped clean.

Judge Marc Carter decided to give him a second chance. Because Marty Gonzalez is a veteran – a decorated marine who served in Iraq.

JUDGE MARC CARTER: He had no criminal history, all right. He’d never — the only thing that he’d ever done in his life up to that point was serve his country honorably.

MARIA  HINOJOSA: More and more veterans are showing up in criminal courts around the country. In fact, 10% of adults arrested in recent years have served in the military.  

SOT: Come forward, sir.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): Now there is a growing effort within the legal system to help these troubled vets.

SOT: You are a marine?

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): But this same effort has also raised challenging legal questions  – should veterans get special treatment in court?

JUDGE MARC CARTER: In the case of Marty Gonzalez, his, his service to this country was exceptional, was exceptional.

MARIA HINOJOSA: And so, he’s driving with a…with a three-year-old in the backseat of his car, and he’s high on painkillers, and because he served our country?

JUDGE MARC CARTER: Well, there’s… there’s more to the story.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): Carter says  – to understand why a judge might give a vet like Marty a break – you have to hear that story…from the beginning.

In 2004 – Marty Gonzalez was sent to Iraq, leaving behind his pregnant wife. Soon he was fighting in the battle for Fallujah. It was an intense urban combat mission, meant to take hold of the city street by street, house by house. A fellow marine was trapped by insurgents in one of those houses – and a firefight began.

MARTY GONZALEZ: We had to go get him. You know, we just — we don’t leave anybody behind.

During that process I was hit in the face with a grenade trying to get up those stairs, or the stairwell to get him. And I wasn’t, I wasn’t right, you know. I woke up and I remember bullets – the wall chipping off my face. And then I went right back to the stairwell.

In that house, we had two more marines fall trying to get the marine down. So you know, we continued - It continued all through the night. 

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): 5 marines died that day, but there was no time to grieve. The next morning, they were clearing more houses when Gonzalez found himself face to face with the enemy.

MARTY GONZALEZ: I realized what was coming down the stairwell was an insurgent and not one of my Marines. And as I was focused shooting this guy, I was shot. I —

MARIA HINOJOSA: Can you show me where you were shot?

MARTY GONZALEZ: I was shot through the elbow. It was basically a keyhole.  Basically what happened is it blew out here and it blew out here. So when — if you saw it when it happened, it was a little bit more open.

MARIA HINOJOSA: And this was 2004.

MARTY GONZALEZ: Yes m’am, 2004.

MARIA HINOJOSA: And it’s now six years later and when you talk about it, it —

MARTY GONZALEZ: It’s like yesterday.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): It took nine surgeries to prevent his arm from being amputated. When Gonzalez finally returned to Houston, he was called a hometown hero.  He received three purple hearts for his combat wounds and two bronze stars for valor.  And he had just become a father. Things should have been good.

MARTY GONZALEZ: I was shot December the 13th, my son was born January 13th and I can remember kind of being distant from him being born. I didn’t, it didn’t — it didn’t feel right to be happy. At that point there was a lot of, you know, stuff going on and, you know, the nightmares, the dreams, the — just everything that you can imagine. Anger. I…I was blaming myself for the deaths of my men, I guess I was ashamed of who I was or became.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): Gonzalez was diagnosed not only with post-traumatic stress disorder, but also with traumatic brain injury – a result of grenade explosions he experienced in Iraq. He was prescribed anti-depressents and migraine medicine, along with pain pills for his arm. But nothing seemed to help.

He remained depressed and in pain and his marriage was falling apart. Then one night, after taking too many pills, Marty Gonzalez decided to drive home with his son. That’s when he crashed his truck into a house.

MARTY GONZALEZ: I’m glad that I didn’t hurt anybody. But it reminds myself that, you know, you coulda very well hurt your kid, you know.

JUDGE MARC CARTER: Is this community better served by sending Marty Gonzalez to prison? Or is this community better served by taking this individual and showing some compassion for his service to this country? He wouldn’t be here. He would — he would never have walked into these courtroom doors but for that fact.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): Judge Carter required that Gonzalez go to the VA for therapy as part of his two-year probation.

The judge felt a special connection to this case  – because Carter is also a veteran – a former army captain. Made it his personal mission to help all vets that came into his court. He began making it a condition that they go to the VA for help – just like he did with Marty Gonzalez.

JUDGE MARC CARTER: But there, there was a problem with that. I couldn’t call over there and say, “Hey, is you know, this particular person taking his medications and going to treatment?” It was all privileged, they wouldn’t tell me.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): So he brought Gonzalez to the state capitol in Austin, to share his story with lawmakers  – in hopes that they would pass legislation to create a special court just for veteran offenders.

It would allow judges to monitor VA treatment as a condition of probation. Last year the legislation passed. Judge Carter’s became the first veterans’ court in Texas.

COURT OFFICER: All rise! Criminal court now in session, and Judge Marc Carter presiding….

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): It’s all part of a two-year pilot program, and here’s how it works:

First, the vet  has to be  eligible for probation, so no murderers or rapists allowed. A forensic psychiatrist must find that the defendant’s offense is tied to a treatable mental health problem – like PTSD.

Currently, there are 21 veterans enrolled in the program. Their cases range from DWIs to domestic assault.

JUDGE MARC CARTER: Like any volunteer program – if you don’t want to be here, you don’t have to be here. 

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): If they complete the program successfully, their felony charges will be wiped off their records. But some legal experts are skeptical that a veterans’ court is needed.

ANTHONY THOMPSON: Why do we need special courts to do this? Why aren’t judges doing that in traditional criminal courts? That’s one thing…one fundamental question about these courts.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): Anthony Thompson, a professor of clinical law at New York University, has written about the legal implications of creating specialty courts.

Thompson says that vets aren’t the only groups of people that could benefit from a court like this. Other people commit crimes as a result of a mental health problem like PTSD. 

ANTHONY THOMPSON: We actually see it often in police officers, we see it in victims of domestic violence, we see it in victims of child abuse. What we need to do now is not limit the filter of the court so that you must be a veteran to come in, but turn the lens and say if you suffer from this, you should have access to this court.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): Thompson is not alone in his criticism. In Nevada, California and Colorado, groups including the ACLU opposed veterans’ courts’ legislation. One state ACLU head said “We’re not anti-veteran, but creating a two-track system based solely on status is highly problematic.”

JUDGE MARC CARTER: I could understand that someone may feel that way – but do you want somebody to come back to your neighborhood who, who still suffers from, traumatic brain injury and — and has resulted in drug use and — and alcoholism to cope with that? Or do you want this person to come back into your neighborhood with — with the appropriate coping skills?

MARIA HINOJOSA: But you do understand why people will say, we’re just really worried about a slippery slope of creating special courts for special offenders.

JUDGE MARC CARTER: Well, you know what, if creating special courts for special offenders makes your community safer, then why not?

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): On this day  –  the defendants check in with Judge Carter on their progress.

JUDGE MARC CARTER: You have been a model participant in this program…

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): Most of the vets seem to be doing well in the program, showing up to therapy, staying clean and getting sober.

Most, but not all.

JUDGE MARC CARTER: One week I think you’re appropriate for the program and the next week, I think you don’t give a damn. 

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): This veteran failed a drug test – a violation of his probation. Judge Carter sends him immediately to jail

JUDGE MARC CARTER: Do you understand sir?

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): Pat McCann is a defense attorney assigned to the veterans’ court in Houston.

PAT MCCANN: Most of the people that I defend are horrifically damaged. If you have ever worked with someone who’s experienced multiple concussions, which essentially is traumatic brain injury, they have short-term memory loss, they have disorientation, they have aphasia, which is difficulties in speech. These people, often times to a casual observer or an officer, might appear intoxicated.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): He says vets with traumatic brain injury are set up for failure if they are put into regular probation.

PAT MCCANN: In a probation it’s very important that someone be on time for community service, always make your appointments. Well, guess what – the biggest difficulties that people with traumatic brain injury have? Remembering appointments. So the exact symptoms that they’re going through makes them a difficult candidate for a conventional probation without some awareness on the part of the probation officer that this is gonna require some different handling.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): McCann says that “different handling” is built into the veterans’ court.

PAT MCCANN: All we’re doing is setting up a way to recognize this and to provide a hookup with VA services where they recognize and can treat for PTSD and for traumatic brain injury and for depression related to service injuries or service.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): But Anthony Thompson worries that the long term impact of creating these special courts will weaken the ability of ordinary criminal courts to handle those same issues.

ANTHONY THOMPSON: You essentially siphon off cases and you move people out of the system. And the argument is to the extent that we specialize the courts we don’t force traditional criminal courts to address it and that’s where I think I see some of the problems.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): It’s still too early to know how successful the veterans’ court in Houston will be. But there are now 38 veterans’ courts around the country.

In Buffalo, NY – where the first veterans’ court began two years ago – 35 vets have graduated and none have committed new offenses. For now Judge Carter hopes the 21 vets in his program will turn out like Marty Gonzalez.

JUDGE MARC CARTER: I’ve got soldiers out here that need a lot help and a lot of work and you know what, I worry about ‘em. I worry you know, are they going to make it? That’s what I worry about, you know. There’s a lot of — you know, Marty —thinking about Marty Gonzalez keeps me going.

MARIA  HINOJOSA (VOICE OVER): And as for Marty Gonzalez, he has successfully completed his probation. He’s in school now and coaching little league for his son’s team. He’s also volunteering for a program to help police officers recognize the symptoms of PTSD.

MARTY GONZALEZ: I do what I do..  I just try to make it right. When you mess up, a lot of people may turn their back on you but there’s a veteran population out there that’s saying, “Hey, we’re, we’re not gonna turn our back on you, we’re gonna help you out and we’re gonna give you that second chance.”

JON MEACHAM: This story continues online with law professor Timothy Casey. He discusses the potential pitfalls of these so called “specialty courts” - including the unique role that judges play in the handling of cases. Listen to the podcast at the Need to Know site. 

ALISON STEWART: In our weekly Gulf disaster check in, BP has reached a milestone- a 3 billion dollar milestone. The tab to, quote, “make this right,” as BP’s chief executive once said, is at 3 billion. According to BP, that includes the cost of response, containment, relief well drilling, claims paid out and federal costs. Now BP has another environmental mess to explain. At its Texas City, Texas refinery, the site of a 2005 explosion that killed fifteen workers, there’s been an incident that resulted in hundreds of thousands of pounds of chemicals being spewed into the air. The event was reported by our colleagues at Frontline and the investigative non-profit newsroom ProPublica, after initial reporting by the Daily News of Galveston County. The event actually happened 2 weeks before the Gulf disaster. ProPublica’s managing editor joins us in studio, Stephen Engelberg.

Steve Engelberg, thanks for being with us.

STEVE ENGELBERG: My pleasure.

ALISON STEWART: I wanna break this down to three parts, ’cause this is, kind of, a big– a big thing to digest…the event itself, the aftermath, and then BP’s role within the oil community, and its history. This event took place on April 6, 2010. Tell me what exactly happened…that 17,000 pounds of benzene went into the air, 37,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides, and 186,000 pounds of carbon monoxide ended up in the air.

STEVE ENGELBERG: Well, refining petroleum, or refining oil in petroleum is a very complex process. And as it happened, at this refinery– there was a particular part in something called the ultra cracker, which malfunctioned. And BP, at that point, faced a choice. What they had was a process that was no– no longer really adequate. And the– chemicals were now gonna go somewhere. And what they chose to do, is continue running the refinery, and send the chemicals to a, sort of, gigantic incinerator, what’s called a flare– which is some 300 feet in the air, and they would incinerate– the byproducts of this process, which are very hazardous. Now, industry standards say that roughly two percent of what you incinerate gets into the air. So, it would seem that BP had a very good reason to know that some of this was going to escape. But that’s not the way they handled it. What they did, is rely upon the monitors at the– sort of, edge of the plant, which were– six foot fence, and– amazing enough, they didn’t show any problems.  And it took them 40 days, BP says, to recognize that they had dumped some 500,000 pounds of chemicals, including, as you say, 17,000 pounds of benzene, which is a cancer causing chemical, and…And at that point, they discover this, and they make a report.  Now, the reporting standard– in the state of Texas for the release of benzene is ten pounds. So, you can do the math yourself and see that 17,000 is– is a bit north of what it should’ve been.

ALISON STEWART: This went on for 40 days before BP contacted that they realized they had a problem?  Does that wash with you?

STEVE ENGELBERG: Well, to– to be fair to BP, what they told us, which I think only raises more questions, is that they had a second, more sophisticated way of monitoring the emissions, and that they informed the Texas authorities that they would be having this release, and that they would continue to do the monitoring, and report if anything happened. Now, what they say, is it took 40 days to analyze what they were seeing, and– and get it right. This is an explanation that we are probing into some more– I’m not a chemical engineer. It’s– it’s hard to know whether that’s credible or not. I will tell you that we called some other states, including California, and in California, the regulators there said we would not allow this to go on. If you had a broken part, and you had emissions, you could use a flare only in an hour– few hours of emergency. You certainly couldn’t do what these people did, which is for 40 days, continue to rely on this as a piece of normal production.

ALISON STEWART: Why not just shut it down?  Why not shut it down, take care of the problem, and then go back to regular production?

STEVE ENGELBERG: Well, that question is pretty– pretty– pretty much the point. I don’t know. Obviously, there is a lot of money involved here. But it’s worth keeping in mind that your– yours and my sense of what a lot is, is not really related to the oil business. I mean, BP– according to some estimates, makes about $45 million a day in profit. That’s $45 million every single day. We did some math on this particular facility, again, using industry estimates. We think that they probably– it might have cost them $25 million over 40 days to– to shut this down. That’s a very rough guess. But if you s– see that, it– it doesn’t seem like it makes sense to continue polluting the air over Texas City– given the kind of money you’re making.

ALISON STEWART: This brings us to the point of fines. This particular refinery had received an $87 million fine last year from OSHA. You described the kind of profits they make. Why would an oil company who makes that much money consider a fine a deterrent?

STEVE ENGELBERG: Well, that’s an excellent question. I mean, the– the question you have here, we’ve talked– in the economy about too big to fail. Have we now reached a point where some companies are too big to fine, where you really can’t get their attention? Now, we have reported– that the federal government is currently considering the question of whether to bar BP from federal contracts, all federal contracts on drilling on federal lands. That would be a very, very big decision for the United States government. If that happens– that will get BP’s attention.

ALISON STEWART: I wanna go back to the day to day operations of this refinery. People are going in and out. People are working in this refinery. Clearly, they know what’s going on. Why didn’t we, necessarily, have any whistle blowers? Is it that this is a one company town?

STEVE ENGELBERG: Well, it certainly is a one company town. But to look at the history of this– plant, I think there have been some whistle blowers. In 2005, there was a very serious explosion, which we looked into– in which 15 people died. And that’s what, eventually, prompted the $87 million fine, because not only did the explosion occur, but OSHA came back and said, you haven’t done the things that we told you back in 2005 you needed to do as a result of this terrible accident. Since the accident, there have been workers who have come forward, and described the conditions in the plant. And more interestingly– documents have become public through litigation, in which BP’s own internal investigators made clear, this is a dangerous, terrifying place. They had done a survey of workers right before the accident, in which workers said they were terrified to go to work every day. This is what they were telling– their own investigators. No less an authority than James Baker, after– the fact, was brought in to investigate what had happened in this place. And Baker and his panel concluded that this was a blind spot for BP. That safety, worker safety was a blind spot. That’s the word that was used. I think that’s startling. And then after that, they were fined the $87 million for continuing to fail to address this.

ALISON STEWART: But BP is also the company that puts food on these people’s tables?

STEVE ENGELBERG: Absolutely.

ALISON STEWART: They pay very good salaries? People make– can make a good living working for BP in this town?

STEVE ENGELBERG: There is no question about that. And that is– by far, this is the place where, from an economic perspective, you would wanna work if you lived in Texas City.

ALISON STEWART: Do we know what the environmental impact has been of this gas release, yet?

STEVE ENGELBERG: It’s very hard to know. We asked experts all over the country, what does it mean to put that much benzene in the air? And it’s a known carcinogen. It’s nothing you want. It doesn’t appear to cause any immediate health effects. But again, if you look at the standard, from the state of Texas, which is not a particularly tightly regulated state– ten pounds is the limit– after which, you have to report– so, I think the state of Texas is pretty clear, this is– much, much more than they wanna see.

ALISON STEWART: So, this is as much a story about BP, as it is about regulation?

STEVE ENGELBERG: Yes. I mean, we are in the company of our colleagues from Frontline, looking at the question of, is this, as Hayward has suggested– is this spill in the Gulf just a, sort of, one in a million terrible thing that happened to people who were trying their best, and otherwise, had a pretty good record? And we’re in early days on this reporting, but it appears that Baker may have a point, not only about Texas City, but about the whole company. Our question is, what is the culture within BP? And in answer to your earlier, sort of– observation about whistle blowers– we’re at ProPublica.org, and if anybody would like to get in touch with me and my colleagues, we’re happy to hear from whistle blowers from BP, because we think there are good people who work for the company who– wanna come forward.

ALISON STEWART: Does this Texas toxic release have any parallels to the Gulf disaster, in your opinion?

STEVE ENGELBERG: I think it does. I mean, I think it does in this sense. First of all– we start with an incident that BP knows is happening, and yet, massively under measures.  Well, that’s how the– the oil spill began. Second of all– we have already seen some early evidence from the congressional investigations that the oil spill in the Gulf resulted from very minor corner cutting. Now, in this case, what we’ve learned when the documents came out about Texas City, is that before the accident, they had really cut corners on safety. They took– they had a $50,000 reward for safety for the whole plant, that they were giving to workers who had sa– they cut that. They– they cut $40,000 for– for safety shoes for the workers.  I mean, these are– these are– when you think about, again, the, sort of, s– amounts of money we’re talking about that BP earns, these are piddling sums of money, but they’re important because they send a message. How do you communicate to a group of workers what you care about? And I think it’s what you cut, and what you emphasize. And what they emphasized was production.

ALISON STEWART: They will say– BP will say that they have spent one billion dollars since 2005 to improve plant safety, that they are changing their culture. How do you respond?

STEVE ENGELBERG: Well, I think that’s the test, isn’t it? I mean, what BP would say, is that after this terrible accident at the refinery– they are changing. And I think one needs to put that to the test, in all fairness. I mean, it is possible the company really did have some bad luck in the Gulf. The problem here, is that this incident happened at the very same time as the Gulf, under many of the same circumstances. So, it does give me a lot of pause about whether or not– to credit what they’re saying. I think the– the– the jury is still very much out on this. We don’t really know all the facts about– the company.  You know, we’ve done other reporting about their work in Alaska, where they were– also had problems.

ALISON STEWART: Other companies have had problems though, as well.

STEVE ENGELBERG: Yes, they have.

ALISON STEWART: Exxon has had problems in this area, as well as, I believe it was Shell had problems, they had to settle– it’s– $5.8 million Clean Air Act violations.

STEVE ENGELBERG: There is no question that the larger framework for this story is that the pursuit of hydrocarbons is dangerous and dirty, and bad for the environment, and bad for the workers who are in it, in that it is– it is so dangerous. Having said that, what we are exploring now, is the question of whether other companies– have similar issues.  And it’s– it’s– it– it’s early in our reporting, but it appears to us, at the moment, that BP does have some distinguishing factors in this area.

ALISON STEWART: While we’re talking about reporting, you are staying on this story, and you’ve had a photographer down there. And you had an interesting incident where he was taking pictures, a freelance photographer, of this refinery, and he was detained by police for a short time. But they wanted to see his pictures. People might say that makes sense. Someone’s taking pictures of a refinery, in a post 9/11 world. The thing about it that gave me pause was they shared his social security number with BP. In your years as an investigative reporter, does that concern you, and does this freelance photographer have any recourse?

STEVE ENGELBERG: Well, I don’t know what recourse he has. I think basically, he would like to just get on with his life, and continue to shoot photos. You know, one thing worth noting– in our modern world, this is almost very quaint, asking to see photographer’s photos. I mean, if one goes to Google Earth, and looks at the refinery, one can get an amazingly detailed sense of where everything is– far from more than– a photographer with a lens– even a telephoto lens could get from the street.

ALISON STEWART: One bit of housekeeping about this story, what happens next with this Texas City refinery incident?

STEVE ENGELBERG: Well, we are gonna continue to pursue this. I do not believe that the explanations we’ve had are complete. And we would like to understand better how the decisions were made. And given that BP has said, we had monitors that were sensitive enough– sensitive enough to detect the problem, why did it take them 40 days to detect it?

ALISON STEWART: Is there an investigation happening on the ground there?

STEVE ENGELBERG: Well, the Texas air quality authorities are looking into this.  And I think now that we’ve given it a little bit more, sort of, national attention, I can only hope that they will do a thorough– and very complete investigation.

ALISON STEWART: Stephen Engelberg from ProPublica, thank you so much for sharing your reporting.

STEVE ENGELBERG: My pleasure.

ALISON STEWART: Need to Know contacted BP and a BP spokesman told us the company followed state regulatory procedures and it issued a statement. Here’s a part of it:

“New analytical equipment has enabled us to better understand the unit’s emissions when the compressor is down, and a review is underway of procedures related to operating with a compressor outage on that unit.”

[Just so you know: “In fiscal 2010, BP is the Pentagon’s largest single supplier of fuel. The Pentagon will pay BP an estimated 980 million dollars – The Washington Post.”]

ALISON STEWART: Part of our mission at Need to Know is to make certain that the men and women who fight our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are never out of sight, out of mind, or off the radar. Today we want to introduce you to two EOD techs –that’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal. If you saw the film, “The Hurt Locker,” you were probably left with the impression that the military’s EOD team is a men’s only club.   Not so, as we discovered when we traveled to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

MARIE MARTINSON: The robot is my favorite tool… it’s my best friend. The goal is to never to have to go deal with something yourself, you know, with your hands. Never send my team leader down there and put him in that position. So we use the robot to take care of things from far away. It’s really important to have good robot driving skills. It’s your lifeline.

AMBER HANLON (in bomb suit): When you’re in a bomb suit, it’s somewhat restricting. It’s hot, heavy. You do have the fan going, you can probably hear it. But it doesn’t do much to cool you off.

VOICE OVER: Air Force Staff Sergeant Amber Hanlon and Senior Airman Marie Martinson are part of a new generation of women in the military….women on the frontlines. They work in explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD, an elite group charged with dismantling improvised explosive devices — the insurgents’ weapon of choice in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

MARIE MARTINSON: What do you hear about on the news? Pretty much everything that comes out of Iraq and Afghanistan is an IED went off, a bomb blew up, someone got killed, so we’re trying to fight the #1 killer of Americans out there.

VOICE OVER: EOD techs are the ones with the skill – and the nerve – to approach live explosives. They’re the ones featured in the Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker.” The EOD team in the movie was all male. In real life, of the forty-seven hundred EOD techs on active duty in all four branches of the military, approximately 140 are women.

MARIE MARTINSON: I absolutely love my job. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Growing up, I just always planned on being an artist. And I actually went to art school and it was, it was there that I decided that I didn’t want to do that for my whole life.

I looked into the different services settled on the Air Force and I just asked them, “What’s your most exciting job that you’ve got? Your most interesting? I want to do something different everyday.”

VOICE OVER: Martinson, who’s 27, had her first deployment last year: six months in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

MARIE MARTINSON: The place that we were at was like, the hot spot. It’s right in the middle of the action. That’s where everything’s going on right now. I absolutely love going out on missions. I don’t want to be sitting back at the base twiddling my thumbs. I love it when we get a call and when they finally say “Go. You’re on.” There’s nothing like that.

VOICE OVER: Martinson’s colleague Amber Hanlon, who is 24 and also based at Wright Patterson, feels the same way. Hanlon joined up at 17, hoping a career as an EOD tech would provide opportunity and excitement missing in her hometown of 9,000.

AMBER HANLON: It was my way out of Shepardsville, KY, essentially. I didn’t want something that would be normal, just you know, sit in an office or work in the hospital or anything like that.* Nothing against it, it’s just kinda not my style. My mom was scared. She didn’t know exactly what it entailed but I told her I would blow stuff up and she didn’t want me to do it at all. She wanted me to be a dental assistant.

VOICE OVER: Hanlon got the opportunity she was looking for – on top of her base salary of $37,000, she’s eligible for hazard pay of $325 a month while she’s in a war zone. She received a re-enlistment bonus of $30,000 in 2007 and could get a larger one if she re-ups again in 2012. Hanlon has already been deployed three times – once to Afghanistan, twice to Iraq.

She’s been out on about 500 missions, trying to prevent explosions like these – videotaped and posted on the internet by the insurgents themselves.

AMBER HANLON: You have to be completely on guard all the time looking around to see, ya know, different aspects of the IED. Like what could be the trigger point, where could the trigger man be, or, you know, where could be a good place to set up an ambush or where could they be hiding a second IED. So you don’t really have time to have the heart-pumping adrenaline-racing kinda thoughts of like, oh cool I’m outside the wire on an IED, cause you’re thinking about a million things at once while you’re out there.

REPORTER: Can you recall what the scariest job that you were ever sent out on was?

AMBER HANLON: Yes. I’m not going to go into detail on that ‘cause my mom’s gonna watch this, sorry.

VOICE OVER: Hanlon says she and her colleagues are far more cautious than the bomb squads portrayed in “The Hurt Locker,” which she watched in Afghanistan.

AMBER HANLON: Normally I typically don’t watch war movies when I’m at war just because you’re experiencing it every day. I want to watch, you know, a comedy. But you know all the boys were watching everything blow up, and I’m like, “You just saw this 20 minutes ago when you were on a response, why are you watching it again?”

VOICE OVER: Just like in the movie, Hanlon and her colleagues sometimes wear a bomb suit: 80 pounds of flame-resistant protective gear, with a self-contained breathing apparatus, all designed to withstand high pressure explosives.

AMBER HANLON: This is the control panel for the helmet, there’s a whole operating system on the back of the helmet. It just runs on battery. Extremely glamorous. It’s all in a day’s work.

VOICE OVER: During her most recent deployment, a day’s work for Staff Sergeant Hanlon was spent as the only woman among a group of male soldiers.

AMBER HANLON: Normally the army infantry does not see women, so when they see women out on patrol with’em when we’re out on a mission with’em, it freaks’em out, you know? They’ll ask, “Why are you here?” When you come over the radio you’ll notice everybody gets quiet and they’ll listen, like, “What is a girl doing on the radio?”

But, I hung out with’em every day. I slept in mud huts with’em every day. I was on patrol with’em whenever they needed EOD assistance and we got along fine. I mean, never had an instance where it was, they thought of me as “that girl in the patrol.” It was always Sgt. Hanlon or Amber.

The skeptics, they were swayed, I guess you could say, like, ‘cause I always carried my weight. I always did what I had to do.

VOICE OVER: Marie Martinson was the only woman on most of her missions, too.

MARIE MARTINSON: On missions you couldn’t really tell that I was a girl, ‘cause I was wearing so much stuff. The sunglasses you could see about that much of my face. so hopefully nobody noticed.

MARIE MARTINSON: I heard a lot of people say that it’s distracting to the guys, that they feel protective over girls. I don’t know. It didn’t really come up too much for me. Only if we mess up, then, then it might be seen as “Oh, that girl she can’t handle it,” or if we’d be out rucking somewhere and I was like, “Oh, guys I need a break,” then it’s “The girl needs a break.” Which didn’t happen, by the way.

VOICE OVER: Technically, U.S. policy still excludes women from serving in ground combat. But IED attacks, the biggest killer of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, have blurred the distinction between what is combat and what isn’t. EOD techs, once an auxiliary role, are now squarely on the front lines.

JOHN HOFFMAN: Explosive ordnance disposal techs and Air Force are really seeing a lot of ugly stuff on the battlefield. They–they are probably the most injured doing our most dangerous missions because it’s the type of munition and type of warfare that this current enemy has decided to use.

VOICE OVER: Chief Master Sergeant John Hoffman supervises Hanlon and Martinson’s unit at the Wright Patterson base.

JOHN HOFFMAN: Literally they’re on the front lines and there is no, no difference male or female on–on  the battlefield.

VOICE OVER: The Air Force first accepted women into EOD in 1974. At that time, the EOD’s main task was to dismantle unexploded ordnance left over when the fighting had ended. Still, the decision was controversial.

JOHN HOFFMAN: I think that the Air Force culture years ago was kinda a little taken aback that we were going to allow women in the EOD. I think everybody that’s in a position of leadership now fully embraces women in all branches of the service and all forms of combat and those that don’t, are, you know, are quickly ushered out just because, you know leadership and the Air Force and the Department of Defense says “Hey make it happen” and our job at that point is to salute smartly and make it work.

VOICE OVER: And it doesn’t hurt that one of the leaders in this field today is a woman herself. Lieutenant Colonel Laurie Richter heads the Air Force’s entire EOD program.

LAURIE RICHTER: I will say there’s always challenges for women to break into leadership roles. However, the EOD career field has always been accepting of me personally as a female and hopefully I set a good example for others. We have airmen on the ground everyday. We have Army soldiers, we have Marines, and we have sailors on the ground showing that women can do their job in combat.

VOICE OVER: Of course as women’s roles expand, so do their risks. More than 500 American military women have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eighty have been killed. Two of those, soldier Kimberly Voelz and airman Elizabeth Loncki, were EOD techs.

Staff Sergeant Amber Hanlon, who knew Elizabeth Loncki from training, has the date Loncki died – along with two male EOD techs -tattooed on her forearms. But reminders of the danger don’t dampen her determination to get back to the battle.

AMBER HANLON: My mom’s not gonna like it, but I’m hoping to get another tasking for a deployment this fall, hopefully back to Afghanistan. I like the excitement, I mean I like to feel like I’m doing something every single day.

MARIE MARTINSON: A lot of people got killed while we were out there so to leave in the middle of that fight was kinda hard. I’m definitely ready to go right back out there.

ALISON STEWART: On the next Need to Know… it affects a staggering 195 million children around the world… the silent epidemic of childhood malnutrition.

RON HAVIV: And this one girl, very striking, pretty girl, she said she hadn’t eaten in three days. And I said, “How are you able to study?” and she said, “A lot of times I actually faint in class because I’m so weak and sometimes I can’t even come to school because I’m not able to walk.” And this was something that I found quite terrifying, this sort of idea that it was okay, that it was normal to grow up hungry. And if you survive, great, and if you didn’t, well, that’s just the way things are.

JON MEACHAM: As we simmer along with an unemployment rate of 9.5 percent, a number that would be higher if so many people hadn’t given up looking for work, the argument over what to do about it seems to break down like this. Spend more to stimulate the economy, or cut spending to reduce the deficit.  Smart people on each side of that argument will tell you why they’re right.

Left in the middle are hundreds of thousands of Americans whose unemployment benefits have run out, with no relief in sight from a Congress that refused to extend those benefits before going on recess. President Obama is also in an awkward position. Does he try to summon the political will to push for more spending, or make a turn and support the growing sentiment that says, “Focus on deficit reduction.”

Which direction is politically expedient? And which makes more economic sense? And are these questions mutually exclusive? Joining us to weigh the policies and politics is Chrystia Freeland, global editor at large for Reuters. Welcome.

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Thanks, Jon, great to be here.

JON MEACHAM: You just came back from the Aspen  Ideas Festival, where–

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: I did.

JON MEACHAM: You wrote on your blog that– one of the interesting threads of the debate out there was the fear that America’s days as the land of opportunity, particularly for the middle class, may be numbered. Expand on that.

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: I– no, I– I think that’s right.  I mean, the– there was a panel at Aspen addressing this. And I think it’s really the central political issue right now in the medium-term, is this question of are the good middle class jobs, those jobs when we think about that sort of idealized post-World War II era…I think that was an era when you really felt, sure, if you were super-brilliant, super-successful, you could be a millionaire.

But if you were just hard-working, willing to put your shoulder to the wheel, you could have a good life for yourself and your family in the middle class. You didn’t need to be a genius. You need– didn’t need to luck out to have a reasonable, decent life. And I think a lot of people are really, really worried about– the worries have been there for a few decades, I think. But this financial crisis and the huge job loss which it triggered is really leaving a lot of people asking, “Will those middle class jobs come back?”

JON MEACHAM: And what do you think?

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Well, I think that there is a real possibility that there has been a structural shift in the world economy. And, you know, it’s not rocket science what that shift is. That shift is the technology revolution. That shift is globalization. We’re accustomed to the idea that those processes have eaten away at some of the blue collar, middle class jobs, you know, that great Detroit, middle class job. But I think one of the things that we’re starting to discover is there are also white collar jobs that are just– we don’t need them anymore. We have computers.  You don’t need as many secretaries. You don’t need as many real estate agents. You don’t need as many people to analyze x-rays. These things can either be done by computers, or they can be done by people in other countries, India, China, emerging markets that don’t need to be paid as much. And the tricky thing is, I mean, you have talked about the policy choices. And those are important. But I think there is a bigger, really difficult issue which no one really wants to confront. Which is, maybe even if you have the ideal policy, you are going to be looking at an economy in which there– are lots of jobs, lots of success, lots of opportunity at the very, very top. Those captains of industry who can do great Silicon Valley startups, who can navigate globalization.

And actually, I think the situation is not too bad at the bottom, either. People who do the jobs that can’t be done by machines, or by someone in a call center in India, you know, someone who mows your lawn, cuts your hair, chops up vegetables. But all those jobs in the middle, which I think is where most of us are– I– I think the prospects for high-paying jobs there– are pretty dim.

JON MEACHAM: Tell– about your Willy Wonka economic philosophy.

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Well, I– I think part of what’s going on– and we see this in the income distribution, right?  Even prior to the financial crisis– just to give you one statistic. So, between 2002 and 2006, 75 percent of the increase in income went to the top one percent. Think about that for a minute. 75 percent of all of the gains, and that was– those were really good times, right? 75 percent went to just the top one percent.

And that’s not– that’s not capital. That’s just the increase in income. So, part of what I think is happening is, there’s sort of a winner-take-all, or winner-take-the-most phenomenon happening in the economy. And it– it is very frightening and frustrating for people. An– an analogy– that I use is there are– it’s like I have kids, you have kids, a lot of us have kids. So, it– it’s a little bit like the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” situation, where there were five golden tickets. And we are a really meritocratic society right now. Globalization and the internet have lowered barriers to entry. So, people who have the skills, who have the get-go can all go out there and compete, you know, try to start the next Facebook. But there’s only one Facebook. There’s only one Google.

And so, there are only five of those golden tickets. And we all, you know, we h– there– there’s this paradox where the barriers to entry are lower, but only five people, only that top one percent is winning the golden ticket. And for the rest of us, for the rest of society, I think there’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of uncertainty. I think some of that we see expressed in the Tea Party, for instance. A feeling that, you know, it’s– it– it’s just the opportunities maybe aren’t there anymore.

JON MEACHAM: Gallup Poll in June had nearly four out of five Americans saying that the federal debt was very serious or extremely serious, a problem. Terrorism’s the only thing that came close. What is it about the — awareness of the deficit that’s going on? And the tension with the– energy, the political energy to try to spend more on the stimulus side to create some jobs, at least in the short-term?

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Well, just to address your opening question, you know, in this debate between stimulus versus deficit reduction.  I think if you talk to someone like Larry Summers, who’s inside the administration, but also to economists outside the administration, the ideal technocrat solution for the U.S.  right now would be stimulate a little bit now, but be ready to pull back as soon as it looks as if the economy has escape velocity.

That’s complicated, though. That’s a complicated political message, to say to people, “You know what?  We really need to spend a lot of money for the next six months, and then we need to start saving.” And it’s a complicated message– also for the markets.  Because to have credibility in the medium-term, to say, you know– it’s– it– it’s like that– St. Augustine, right?  Like, “Lord, make me good, but not yet.”

JON MEACHAM: Not yet.  (LAUGHTER)

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: So– so I think that’s the complexity. I think the politics are really interesting, too, because if you think back to the 1990s– the situ– in the Clinton era, in the Democratic Party, you had sort of the Reuben– Democrats, the technocrats, the market guys all saying, “Deficits, deficits, deficits.” And you had the political guys, the sort of the James Carville guys saying, “No, no, we need to spend, we need to spend on our, you know, working-class constituency.”

The situation is reversed right now.  And you have the technocrats, the economists saying, “We need to stimulate the economy. We need to remember the lessons of the Great Depression. And that there is a real danger of, if not a double-dip, if not a second recession, at least very, very tepid growth.” What you’re hearing from the political guys in the White House is, “That is not where the American public is.” And that the American people are very worried about government spending right now.

JON MEACHAM: We’re at 9.5 percent unemployment. Talk about– a little bit about the extension of benefits, the Senate’s refused.  And what do you think’s gonna happen between now and the midterm?

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Well, this– the extension of unemployment benefit for me, actually, is a huge mystery. There is, you know, in the academy– a real debate about, you know, exactly how much more stimulus should here be, how long should it run, that sort of thing. When it comes to unemployment benefit, when I talk to sort of, you know, your card-carrying credentialed economists, I can’t find anyone who is opposed to the extension of unemployment benefit.

An example I’ll give you is Ken Rogoff, professor of economics at Harvard. He is a right-wing guy. He identifies himself as a right-wing guy, and he genuinely is. And if you ask him, he says, “This is a no-brainer.  We really should extend unemployment benefit. And the argument is two-fold. You know, one is, you know, there’s simply the human argument, that this is a tragedy for people. There’s also a much more cold-hearted economic argument, which says, ‘That is an incredibly effective stimulus. People who are unemployed and who have been unemployed for a long time–

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Right, yeah.  They have what economist call a very high marginal propensity to spend. Which means, they need to spend all the cash that they can get. So, that would seem to be economically a smart thing to do. Part of the public debate, though, and I think that this gets into some of the things that you were talking about about populism is I think people do have this feeling that opportunities are shrinking. And I think they’re right.

I think people have this feeling that there’s more of a distributional struggle over resources than maybe Americans have felt for some time. And I do think there is a sense, among a lot of Americans, that if unemployment benefit is extended, if government spends more, it’s not gonna be good for me and my family.  Sure, it might be good for the economy in general. It might be good for the guy next door who’s unemployed.  But people are really anxious about themselves. And I think they feel like, “I will get the bill. But is the spending gonna be on me?”

JON MEACHAM: That’s the key question. Chrystia Freeland of Reuters, thank you.

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Pleasure.

JON MEACHAM: Please come back.

JON MEACHAM: This week online: get a first look at a story we’re working on in Wyoming, where a bird stands in the way of renewable energy development.

DAVID SKELLY: The sage grouse sits metaphorically in the shadow of the spotted owl.

JON MEACHAM: The power of the Endangered Species Act. This week online. And that’s our take on the week that was, but we’re not quite finished…

ALISON STEWART: As you know we also provide you with the week that will be, and to do that we have a satirist in residence, Andy Borowitz. Andy?

ANDY BOROWITZ: Thank you, Alison, thank you, J-mo. And welcome to a very special summer movie edition of “Next Week’s News.” What’s playing at the multiplex this summer? A serious case of cinema derivate. Sequels, like “Shrek 4” and “Toy Story 3.” Remakes like “Karate Kid,” “the A-Team” and “Saved by the Bell: The Revenge of Screech.” And even the movies that are supposed to be original seem to be based on recent events in the news. For example, let’s take a look at the upcoming Angelina Jolie spy thriller, “Salt.” In “Salt,” Angelina plays a CIA agent who is accused by her bosses of being a Russian spy. Sound familiar? You got it: it’s a thinly veiled adaptation of the Elena Kagan confirmation hearings. It’s the exact same story, only Kagan is a solicitor general who’s accused by republican senators of being a liberal. And here’s the biggest similarity: when both women are interrogated, they refuse to reveal anything. Now, let’s take a look at the latest Tom Cruise action comedy, “Knight and Day.” In the film, Tom Cruise plays a rogue agent who seems to be working for the government, but then turns out to be totally out of control. Heard this one before? That’s right: another name for this film could be, “The Stanley McChrystal story.” Now, given Hollywood’s current penchant for plotlines that have been ripped from the headlines, it’s surprising that no one’s made a summer movie about the BP oil spill. But maybe that’s because it’s already been done: the 1998 Michael Bay classic, “Armageddon.” In that movie a team of oil company employees led by Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck try to stop a catastrophe – an asteroid headed for earth. The only difference between “Armageddon” and the BP story is that in “Armageddon” they succeed, and it only takes them two hours. And finally, what about the latest adventure of those sexy “Twilight” vampires, “Eclipse”? Is it really worth your twelve dollars? I don’t think so. If you crave entertainment starring a super-sexy stud, then wait until fall: CNN’s got a new show with Eliot Spitzer.

Man, I want to see that in 3-D! Well, that’ll do it for this special summer movie edition of “Next Week’s News.” Alison, JJ?

ALISON STEWART: Andy, thank you. And thanks to you for joining us for Need to Know on the air.

JON MEACHAM: We’re always online with new stories, video reports, blogs and more. There’s even a quiz up now to test your knowledge of the Supreme Court Justices.

ALISON STEWART: Have a great week.

 

Comments