The List

Scare Cuts

From an emboldened Iran to unsafe beef, the eight most hysterical warnings about how automatic spending reductions could harm U.S. national security.

Batten down the hatches! This week, Barack Obama joined the growing list of national security officials forecasting dire risks to the country's defenses if $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts are allowed to take effect March 1. In a speech on Tuesday at Virginia's largest industrial employer, Newport News Shipbuilding, the president said sequestration would damage the nation's economy and naval readiness. "The threat of these cuts has caused the Navy to cancel the deployment or delay the repair of aircraft carriers," he said. "Another might not get finished. Another might not get started at all."

The remarks added to a media blitz by officials including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who've offered a range of doomsday prophecies if Congress allows the automatic spending cuts known as "sequestration" to take effect.

Politically, the warnings are designed to ostracize Republicans who refuse to raise government revenues in a deal to avoid sequestration. But in practice, the dire predictions have come under scrutiny from independent and partisan critics who argue that they're baseless, or at least exaggerated. In other cases, Republicans have joined the chorus of warnings about specific earmarks in GOP-controlled districts going on the chopping block. So what's the nation supposedly in store for?

Drug Smuggling

In an overlooked alert, the Obama administration warned that sequestration could force a 25-percent reduction in what the Coast Guard does, "including everything from setting navigational aids to fighting drug smuggling and illegal aliens." Of course, the threat of drug smuggling has been used before -- and not in the most convincing way. In its Office of Management and Budget sequestration report, the White House warned that the National Drug Intelligence Center would lose $2 million of its $20 million budget. But it turned out, embarrassingly, that the National Drug Intelligence Center wasn't even functioning anymore -- it was closed on June 15, 2012.

Unsanitary Food 

The threat of hazardous meats jeopardizing the nation's security has entered the sequestration fray thanks to a Republican on the House Agriculture Committee. Last week, Rep. Michael Conaway (R-TX) sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warning of the risk to consumers if sequestration forces furloughs of meat inspectors. "This decision, if implemented, could disrupt the flow of commerce and the lives of millions of Americans, starting with meat and poultry industry and ending at America's dinner table," Conaway said. "According to the American Meat Institute, furloughing FSIS inspectors is estimated to cost $10 billion in production losses to the industry. This industry and American consumers depend on the services provided by FSIS inspectors to ensure a safe and healthy food supply."

A Second Pearl Harbor 

Summoning the memory of the 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie warned that cuts to the Navy could leave the state's naval base vulnerable to attack. "The plain fact is, that will undermine our capacity for readiness at Pearl Harbor," he told Congress on Saturday. He said the cuts could force a work-time reduction of nearly 19,000 full-time Pearl Harbor workers and made specific reference to the World War II assault. "At Pearl Harbor right now, which I hope everybody can understand symbolizes what happens when you're not prepared," he said, "we'll be laying off 19,000 people."

The reality? A once-in-a-generation surprise attack is probably not a realistic threat, as even Abercrombie later admitted. "I'm talking about institutionally," he said, adding that the cuts wouldn't pose "an immediate threat or anything like that."

An Emboldened Iran 

If Iran isn't afraid of U.S. military might, what's to stop it from developing a nuclear weapon? That's the scare theory proposed by Republican lawmakers who are worried about the redeployment of U.S. aircraft carriers from the Persian Gulf region due to budgetary woes. As it stands, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower will be the only aircraft carrier looming near Iran's shores. (There used to be three.) Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) on Wednesday accused the administration of believing "we don't have to do anything" to check Iran's nuclear progress. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) made similar remarks earlier this month. "I'm sure Iran is very supportive of sequestration," he said, referring to the budget cuts.

Others have suggested that Republicans are overstating their case. "Most nations, Iran included, don't have any carriers. And aircraft carriers do not travel alone: they travel in battle groups," wrote Wired's Spencer Ackerman. "The Eisenhower's includes eight aircraft squadrons; three guided-missile destroyers; and a guided-missile cruiser. Then there are all of the minesweepers, helicopters and patrol boats already in the region. Pretty much no other navy is capable of keeping that kind of seapower on station in a financial crunch." In other words, it's not as if the Navy is hoisting up a white flag off the Iranian coast.

A Practically Empty Pentagon

Last week, Panetta warned Congress that sequestration could force the Pentagon to furlough the "vast majority" of the department's 800,000 civilian workers. "There is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force," Panetta said. Of course, if you're picturing vast swaths of empty cubicles, that's probably the wrong visual: The belt-tightening would mean workers lose one workday per week and 20 percent of their pay for 22 weeks starting in April.

A Porous Border

Lock your doors! Cuts to the Department of Homeland Security will reduce personnel guarding the border, Napolitano said yesterday. "I don't think we can maintain the same level of security at all places around the country with sequester compared to without sequester," She said. Specifically, she mentioned a "rollback in border patrol" agent time. "If you roll that back, you make [the area] between the ports of entry less secure than the record security that has been there in recent years," she said. On Tuesday, U.S. officials released hundreds of detainees on supervised leave from immigration detention centers across the country to save money ahead of the sequestration deadline -- a move some Republicans denounced as yet another scare tactic.

A Decimated Air Force

In a detailed rundown of cuts, the Air Force delivered an ominous presentation to Congress earlier this month. As The Air Force Times' Jeff Schogol reported, the presentation said "sequestration would cut about 203,000 flying hours [and] Civilians could be furloughed for 22 days, translating into a roughly 20 percent loss in bi-weekly pay for each furloughed civilian." In all, the report said that it would take six months to recover from the loss of readiness.

A Blow to Disaster Relief

Besides leaving the U.S. vulnerable to a terrorist attack -- a threat Napolitano outlined yesterday -- the Homeland Security secretary also said natural disaster preparedness would be compromised. "It will reduce the disaster relief fund by nearly $1 billion, potentially affecting survivors recovering from Hurricane Sandy, the tornadoes in places like Tuscaloosa and Joplin, and other major disasters across the country," she said. "Threats from terrorism and the need to respond and recover from natural disasters do not diminish because of budget cuts."

Indeed -- if U.S. officials are to be believed -- these threats are only going to increase.

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The List

The Skeletons in Benedict's Closet

A guide to the sex abuse scandals under Pope Benedict XVI's watch.

If a report on Thursday, Feb. 21, in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica is to be believed, Pope Benedict XVI's recent decision to resign just got a whole lot more interesting. The paper claims that around the time that Pope Benedict decided to step down, the pontiff learned of a faction of gay prelates in the Vatican who may have been exposed to blackmail by a group of male prostitutes in Rome. The revelations allegedly appeared in a 300-page report by three cardinals that the pope commissioned to investigate the release of internal documents by his butler, the so-called "Vatileaks" scandal. (A Vatican spokesman has refused to confirm or deny La Repubblica's claims, and the internal Vatican report is reportedly stowed away in a papal safe for Pope Benedict's successor to peruse.)

Seen in the context of Pope Benedict's career in the Catholic Church, it is difficult to understand why revelations of yet another sex scandal would push him to resign. For over a decade, he has served as the church's point person for responding to allegations of abuse. From 1985 until his election to the papacy in 2005, Benedict served as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a powerful Vatican body charged with policing church doctrine. In 2001, Pope John Paul II transferred responsibility for dealing with the sex scandals enveloping the institution to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's office. In that role, Ratzinger received tens of thousands of complaints alleging sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. Those documents often went into lurid detail, and Ratzinger is said to have been deeply affected by the experience.

As a theologian and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict gained the not-so-flattering nickname "God's Rottweiler" for his rigid interpretations of doctrine and his stringent enforcement of church rules. In practice, he has frequently displayed a preference -- both as a pope and as a cardinal -- for confronting predatory priests behind closed doors and protecting the church's reputation at the expense of public accountability.

Here's how Benedict tackled some of the most prominent scandals to have struck the church during his career.

Peter Hullermann, Germany, 1980
While serving as the archbishop of Munich, Ratzinger may have played a role in shielding a pedophile priest, Peter Hullermann, from prosecution, transferring him to different parishes when parents complained that he had abused their children. In 1980, Ratzinger approved a plan to send Hullermann, who was facing allegations (that he did not deny) of abusing children in the German city of Essen, to Munich for therapy. Over the objections of a psychiatrist who was treating the priest, the German archdiocese permitted Hullermann to resume his pastoral work shortly after beginning therapy and did not inform the priest's new parish of his history. In 1986, Hullermann was convicted of sexual abuse in Bavaria.

Lawrence Murphy, United States, 1996
As head of a Wisconsin school for deaf boys from 1950 to 1974, Father Lawrence Murphy is alleged to have molested upwards of 200 children. Yet when the case was presented to Ratzinger in the mid-1990s, he declined to defrock the priest. In 1996, Ratzinger ignored letters from Rembert Weakland, the archbishop of Milwaukee, seeking guidance from the cardinal on how to proceed against Murphy and another priest. Eventually, the church initiated a canonical trial against Murphy, but when the priest personally appealed to Ratzinger for clemency, saying that he was in poor health, the cardinal intervened to stop the proceedings against him.

2001 Letter to Bishops
After being tasked in 2001 by Pope John Paul II to assume responsibility for sex abuse allegations, and after gaining access to a trove of documents that laid out allegations against abusive priests, Ratzinger took action. He did so in a 2001 letter sent to every one of the church's bishops. In it, Ratzinger laid out the church's guidelines for investigating claims of sexual abuse, which asserted that the church -- and not civil authorities -- still held primary authority over investigations and that the church had a right to keep evidence in such cases confidential until 10 years after a minor turned 18. That assertion led to charges by victims' rights advocates that Ratzinger had committed worldwide gross obstruction of justice, a charge that critics saw as compounded by Ratzinger's assertion in the letter that such cases required absolute secrecy. Breaking the code of silence carried a range of penalties, among them excommunication. Ratzinger's order effectively removed the possibility that sex abusers would be brought to justice in lay courts and guaranteed that the church would retain its investigatory prerogative.

Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field, Ireland, 2010
In an attempt to help bring closure to victims affected by sexual abuse in the Irish Catholic Church, two auxiliary bishops, Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field, accused of helping to cover up rampant abuse offered Pope Benedict their resignation in 2010. In a move that stunned critics of the church and victims' rights groups, the pope rejected their resignation and informed the bishops that they would be allowed to stay on in the church, despite the fact that other priests accused of covering up the scandal were allowed to resign. "By rejecting the resignations of two complicit Irish bishops, the Pope is rubbing more salt into the already deep and still fresh wounds of thousands of child sex abuse victims and millions of betrayed Catholics," said Barbara Blaine, president and founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, in a statement. "He's sending an alarming message to church employees across the globe: even widespread documentation of the concealing of child sex crimes and the coddling of criminals won't cost you your job in the church."

2010 Apology to Ireland
By 2010, the hard-line strategy advocated by Pope Benedict became unsustainable. Explosive and wide-ranging reports of abuse -- including allegations against Ratzinger himself during his time in Munich -- put the church firmly in the cross-hairs of public opinion. Detailed investigations by the Irish government unearthed widespread abuse, and Ireland became something of a ground zero for the scandal. In response, Pope Benedict issued a public apology to his parishioners in Ireland. "You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured," the pope wrote. "Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen." Priests read the letter aloud in church.

But if the apology to Ireland signaled a willingness within the church to more openly confront its past, subsequent guidelines to bishops quashed that notion. In 2011, Pope Benedict issued new guidelines that reaffirmed bishops' authority in adjudicating cases. Although that letter underscored the importance of stopping the abuse of minors, victims remained dismayed at the lack of an enforcement mechanism.

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