Secret History

Top Secret

Enemies of America could destroy the CIA with FOIA - CIA director in 1975

In mid-1970s, feminist and peace movement activist Congresswoman Bella Abzug tore through the intel world, fearlessly taking on the CIA and the NSA for surveilling Americans. So I've been reading some of her hearings, and it turns out that the dynamics of the intelligence world (in this case the CIA) and its relationship with Congress and the public haven't changed at all. Today, journalist Jason Leopold is nicknamed a 'FOIA terrorist' by a 'certain government agency' because he files so many requests so effectively, and sues when they deny him the things to which he is entitled.

This was going on in the 1970s, right after FOIA was amended to allow requests to the intel community. Bella Abzug was one member who helped make that happen, with hearings and legislative initiatives to force various agencies to reveal who they were surveilling.

Abzug's tenure in Congress was short but incredibly influential - she was nearly redistricted out of her spot in 1972, and eventually was drummed out of politics in 1976. But wow did she leave a mark. Here's a hearing in 1975 during which she went after the CIA Director, William Colby, for keeping files on peace activists and members of Congress. It's a remarkable hearing, not just for the stunning and aggressive back and forth between Colby and Abzug, but also for the ass-kissing of the CIA by chief GOP ranking member Sam Steiger and how FOIA and information disclosure became the focal point of tension.

Here are two excerpts.


Medieval compass guided Vikings after sunset

© Copyright Proceedings of the Royal Society A; Balazs Bernath; Alexandra Farkas; Denes Szaz; Miklos Blaho; Adam Egri; Andras Barta; Susanne Akesson; and Gabor Horvath
The Uunartoq disc was discovered in an 11th century convent in Greenland in 1948. It is thought to have been used as a compass by the Vikings as they traversed the North Atlantic Ocean from Norway to Greenland.
Often regarded as ruthless robbers, the Vikings were also impressive mariners capable of traversing the North Atlantic along a nearly straight line.

Now, new interpretations of a medieval compass suggest the sea robbers may have skillfully used the sun to operate the compass even when the sun had set below the horizon.

The remains of the supposed compass - known as the Uunartoq disc - were found in Greenland in 1948 in an 11th-century convent. Though some researchers originally argued it was simply a decorative object, other researchers have suggested the disc was an important navigational tool that the Vikings would have used in their roughly 1,600-mile-long (2,500 kilometers) trek from Norway to Greenland.

Though only half of the wooden disc remains, it is estimated to have been roughly 2.8 inches (7 centimeters) in diameter with a now-lost central pin that would have cast a shadow from the sun indicative of a cardinal direction.

Researchers based at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary have studied the fragment in detail.

They concluded that although the disc could have functioned as a single entity, it was more likely used in conjunction with other tools - including a pair of crystals and a flat, wooden slab - to help navigate when the sun was low in the sky or even below the horizon.

"When the sun is low above the horizon, even the shadow of a small item can fall off the board, and such situations are frequent in the northern seas," said study co-author Balázs Bernáth.

Bernáth and colleagues think that, to help solve this long-shadow problem, the Vikings may have used a low-lying, domed object in the middle of the compass to create a wider, shorter shadow than a more typical sundial spike would. A wide hole within the center of the disk - previously interpreted as a place to grip the compass - could have served as a holding spot for this so-called central gnomon, the team suggests.

Bizarro Earth

Atmospheric history captured in sunset colors of old paintings

© WikiPaintings via European Geosciences Union
Old World artists captured the state of the climate in their paintings of the world centuries ago, according to a new study. Pictured is "The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, Fighting Bucks", by J. M. W. Turner (c. 1829)
Old World artists captured the state of the climate in their paintings of sunsets centuries ago, according to a new study.

Writing in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, a team of Greek and German researchers report that the colors of sunsets painted by artists in centuries past can be used to estimate pollution levels in Earth's past atmosphere.

The researchers cite the 1815 eruption of Tambora volcano in Indonesia, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The event sent a huge plume of volcanic ash and smoke into the air, and the particulate matter ejected by the volcano scattered sunlight in a particular way, making sunsets appear more bright red and orange in Europe for a number of years.

"Nature speaks to the hearts and souls of great artists," said lead study author Christos Zerefos, a professor of atmospheric physics at the Academy of Athens in Greece. "But we have found that, when coloring sunsets, it is the way their brains perceive greens and reds that contains important environmental information."

For their study, Zerefos and his team studied high-resolution photographs of paintings of the sunset made between the years 1500 and 2000. In this 500-year period, the world saw more than 50 large volcanic eruptions.

Comment: More food for thought: Reassessing the Mystery Cloud of AD 536


Roman Emperor dressed as Egyptian pharaoh in newfound carving

© Marleen De Meyer, line drawing by Troy Sagrillo
A newfound stone carving reveals Roman Emperor Claudius dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh while wearing an elaborate crown. The hieroglyphs say Claudius is raising the pole of the cult chapel of Egyptian fertility god Min and suggests a ritual like this took place around the summertime.
An ancient stone carving on the walls of an Egyptian temple depicts the Roman emperor Claudius dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh, wearing an elaborate crown, a team of researchers has discovered.

In the carving, Emperor Claudius, who reigned from A.D. 41 to 54, is shown erecting a giant pole with a lunar crescent at the top. Eight men, each wearing two feathers, are shown climbing the supporting poles, with their legs dangling in midair.

Egyptian hieroglyphs in the carving call Claudius the "Son of Ra, Lord of the Crowns," and say he is "King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands." The hieroglyphs say he is raising the pole of the tent (or cult chapel) of Min (an ancient Egyptian god of fertility and power) and notes a date indicating a ritual like this took place around the summertime researchers say. It would have taken place even though Claudius never visited Egypt. A cult chapel is a place of worship and a tent could also be used for this purpose.

The elaborate crown on Claudius consists of three rushes (plants) set on ram horns with three falcons sitting on top. Three solar discs representing the sun (one for each plant) are shown in front of the rushes. Egyptian rulers are shown wearing crowns like this relatively late in ancient Egyptian history, mainly after 332 B.C., and they were worn only in Egypt. The Roman Empire took over Egypt in 30 B.C., and while the Roman emperors were not Egyptian, they were still depicted as pharaohs Egyptologists have noted.

Cow Skull

Humans have always been diminutive monsters of death and destruction

© Aaron Ufumeli/EPA
A dead elephant in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, thought to have died after poachers poisoned a salt lick with cyanide.
New research suggests that there was never a state of grace. We have always been the nemesis of the planet's wildlife

You want to know who we are? Really? You think you do, but you will regret it. This article, if you have any love for the world, will inject you with a venom - a soul-scraping sadness - without an obvious antidote.

The Anthropocene, now a popular term among scientists, is the epoch in which we live: one dominated by human impacts on the living world. Most date it from the beginning of the industrial revolution. But it might have begun much earlier, with a killing spree that commenced two million years ago. What rose onto its hind legs on the African savannahs was, from the outset, death: the destroyer of worlds.

Before Homo erectus, perhaps our first recognisably human ancestor, emerged in Africa, the continent abounded with monsters. There were several species of elephants. There were sabretooths and false sabretooths, giant hyenas and creatures like those released in The Hunger Games: amphicyonids, or bear dogs, vast predators with an enormous bite.


Earliest evidence of gigantism-like disease found in 3,800-year-old California skeleton

© Eric Bartelink/Phoebe Hearst Museum
The skull of the man found in the site known as Burial 37 bears the distinct marks of acromegaly, new research finds. The black arrow indicates where the man’s right eye tooth erupted just below his nose.
The remains of a man buried 3,800 years ago in a richly decorated California grave bear some unusual but unmistakable features - a protruding brow, a lantern jaw, thick leg and arm bones, and teeth so crowded together that at one point they erupt in rows three deep.

According to a new study of the ancient skeleton, they are signs of acromegaly, a rare disorder of the endocrine system that's similar to gigantism.

The California man is among the very few examples of acromegaly ever found in the archaeological record, and it's the oldest ever identified, according to Dr. Eric Bartelink, a physical anthropologist at California State University, Chico.

"It is the earliest evidence of this condition in humans, the only documented case from prehistoric California, [and] one of the more complete skeletons documented with this condition," he said in an interview.

Acromegaly has only been identified definitively at two other archaeological sites in North America, Bartelink said: in the remains of a male buried in New Mexico about 600 years ago, and an unsexed 1,100-year-old skull found in Illinois.

The newly found case in California adds to the scant literature of the disorder, he said, potentially improving how acromegaly may be diagnosed in other remains, and also shedding light on the history of the disease, perhaps even how it was interpreted in the ancient past.

The man, believed to have been in his mid-30s at the time of his death, was found in a burial mound with 176 other bodies near the Central Valley town of Elk Grove.

Labeled as Burial 37, the grave was originally excavated in the 1930s and dated to 3,750 to 3,950 years old.

The man was part of a hunter-gatherer culture known as the Windmiller, one of the earliest sedentary societies in the Central Valley, usually identified by its distinct burial practices, Bartelink said.

Windmillers typically buried their dead laying flat and face-down, rather than in a flexed position, with the heads pointing west. The deceased were also often sent off with a fine complement of grave goods, Bartelink said.


The fate of teenagers in medieval Europe

Today, there's often a perception that Asian children are given a hard time by their parents. But a few hundred years ago northern Europe took a particularly harsh line, sending children away to live and work in someone else's home. Not surprisingly, the children didn't always like it.

Around the year 1500, an assistant to the Venetian ambassador to England was struck by the strange attitude to parenting that he had encountered on his travels.

He wrote to his masters in Venice that the English kept their children at home "till the age of seven or nine at the utmost" but then "put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people, binding them generally for another seven or nine years". The unfortunate children were sent away regardless of their class, "for everyone, however rich he may be, sends away his children into the houses of others, whilst he, in return, receives those of strangers into his own".

It was for the children's own good, he was told - but he suspected the English preferred having other people's children in the household because they could feed them less and work them harder.


Newly discovered document reveals former President Nixon wanted 'dirty tricks' to cover up My Lai Massacre

© AP
One of the most shameful chapters in American military history, the 1968 massacre of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops, just got worse

This past week marked the 46th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, in which 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians were massacred by U.S. troops in 1968. It's one of the most shameful chapters in American military history, and now documents held at the Nixon Presidential Library paint a disturbing picture of what happened inside the Nixon administration after news of the massacre was leaked.

The documents, mostly hand-written notes from Nixon's meetings with his chief of staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, lead some historians to conclude that President Richard Nixon was behind the attempt to sabotage the My Lai court-martial trials and cover up what was becoming a public-relations disaster for his administration.

One document, scribbled by Haldeman during his Dec. 1, 1969, meeting with Nixon, reads like a threatening to-do list under the headline "Task force - My Lai." Haldeman wrote "dirty tricks" (with the clarification that those tricks be "not too high a level") and "discredit one witness," in order to "keep working on the problem."

Cloud Precipitation

You think it rains a lot in Ireland now - Wait till you hear about 2345 BC...

New evidence has shown that Ireland experienced 20 years of non-stop rain in 2345BC, around the same time as Noah's great flood.

© Shutterstock
Did you know that Ireland experienced non-stop rain for 20 years?

While our less-than-brilliant weather may make this feel like a very recent event, it actually happened way back in 2345BC.

According to evidence uncovered in this Sunday's 'Secret's of the Irish Landscape' programme on RTÉ One, this period of non-stop rainfall makes it possible that the biblical story of Noah's great flood really did happen.

Professor Mike Baillie from Queen's University in Belfast has proven that the 20-year flood coincided with the traditional date for Noah's flood.

"According to the ancient Annals of the Four Masters, the whole of Ireland had to be evacuated at this time," Baillie said.
We believe this global event was caused by a big explosive volcanic eruption which loaded the atmosphere with dust to reflect the sunlight away and cause widespread cooling at the earth's surface.
Baillie has also discovered that freak weather events such as these tend to happen every thousand years or so.

With Ireland experiencing its last one in 540AD - when it rained for 10 years straight - the downpour to end all downpours is long overdue.

Comment: For more information on Baillie's research, see:

New Light on the Black Death: The Cosmic Connection
Justinian Plague and Black death: Review of evidence for comet impact in 536 AD


Justinian Plague and Black death: Review of evidence for comet impact in 536 AD


A global climatic downturn has previously been observed in tree-ring data associated with the years AD 536ȓ545. We review the evidence for the explanation of this event which involves a comet fragment impacting the Earth and exploding in the upper atmosphere. The explosion would create a plume, such as was seen during the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter. The resulting debris deposited by the plume on to the top of the atmosphere would increase the opacity and lower the temperature. We calculate the size of the comet required, and find that a relatively small fragment of only about half a kilometre in diameter could be consistent with the data. We conclude that plume formation is a by-product of small comet impacts that must be added to the list of significant global hazards posed by near-Earth objects.

The Earth is bombarded every day by debris from space. The majority of this debris takes the form of very small particles of dust. These objects are known as meteoroids which, as they run into the Earth's atmosphere, produce meteors − also known as shooting stars. Such objects are rarely hazardous. However, there are also much less frequent collisions with larger objects ranging in size from tens of metres to kilometres across, which may be asteroids or comets. Asteroids are primarily rocky or metallic in composition, whereas comets are composed mainly of a variety of ices with some rock. Objects of this size are generally more of a hazard. In fact, the UK government even set up a Near Earth Object Task Force to evaluate the risks of impacts from such objects (Atkinson et al. 2000). Depending on the size and strength of the material of the meteoroid, it may explode in the atmosphere before reaching the ground. Such an event is known as an airburst. An airbursting object releases energy in the form of a shockwave, which can devastate large areas and trigger forest fires. Airbursts can also produce a high-altitude haze of particles, such as was seen in the 1908 Tunguska event.