Monday, March 3, 2008

Ahmadinejad: US power crippling in Iraq

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Insists US Power Is Crippling in Iraq

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Iran's firebrand president wrapped up his landmark visit to Iraq with a bit of added swagger Monday_ insisting that U.S. power is crippling the region and portraying himself as the enduring partner of Baghdad's Shiite-led government.

The parting words and posturing — like nearly every moment of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two-day trip — was powerful political theater seeking to emphasize Iran's growing bonds with its former enemy. U.S. officials had a front row seat.

Ahmadinejad, the first Iranian leader to visit Iraq since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, had no direct dealings with American envoys or the military. But Washington and its Sunni Arab allies were high on his agenda — taking every opportunity to send messages about Shiite Iran's rising influence in the region and its special ties to Iraq's Shiite majority.

For Washington, however, this is not a new lesson.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-heavy regime opened the door for Iran's inroads into the nation it battled during a horrific 1980-88 war that claimed an estimated 1 million lives. The United States — despite having no diplomatic ties with Tehran and accusing Iran of aiding Shiite militias — opened groundbreaking dialogue with Iranian officials last year that acknowledged the Islamic Republic as a critical player in Iraq.

The next step — from the vantage point of Washington and its Iraqi allies — is seeing whether Ahmadinejad's visit translates into a clearer Iranian role in helping stabilize Iraq at a time when violence is dropping and insurgents are under increasing military pressure.

"Iraq and Iran having been deadly enemies, and (Ahmadinejad's visit) shows they have turned a page," said Rand Corp. analyst and former U.S. diplomat James Dobbins.

Iraq's Shiite power bases — both in top posts and on the streets — will be the most closely watched barometers for any possible changes following the visit.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, may now have a more direct pipeline to Tehran for dialogue on Shiite trouble spots. Among the top worries: keeping a lid on Shiite factions clashing for control in the oil-rich south and breakaway Shiite groups that Washington accuses of receiving aid from Iran.

Iran already has appeared to cut its backing for radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who directs the vast Mahdi Army militia. Instead, Tehran has thrown its weight behind al-Sadr's rival, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the country's most powerful Shiite political insider and supporter of al-Maliki's government.

Ahmadinejad met with al-Hakim during his visit. In front of live TV crews, Ahmadinejad also held hands and exchanged kisses with the president, Talabani, who told Ahmadinejad to call him "Uncle Jalal."

While the U.S. military has said the flow of Iranian weapons into Iraq has slowed, it has stepped up its accusations that Iran is backing so-called "special groups" — the term for Shiite factions that have broken away from al-Sadr and are responsible for a flurry of deadly rocket attacks recently.

At the United Nations, meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council approved a third round of trade sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment that Washington and others worry could be part of a clandestine nuclear arms program. Iran claims it only seeks energy-producing reactors.

Ahmadinejad repeatedly referred to Iraq as a "brotherly" neighbor, but showed no gentler side toward Baghdad's American allies. He blamed the United States for spreading terrorism in the region, demanded the United States withdraw its forces and dismissed allegations that Tehran is training Shiite militants who target U.S. troops.

"The presence of foreigners in the region has been to the detriment of the nations of the region," Ahmadinejad said during a news conference. "It is nothing but a humiliation to the regional nations."

He even took a swipe at President Bush for the tight security bubble around his visits to the country.

Unlike Bush's trips to Iraq, Ahmadinejad announced his journey in advance, drove in a motorcade down Baghdad's airport road_ once known as "The Highway of Death" — spent the night and even traveled to a Shiite holy shrine in northern Baghdad, albeit under the cover of night.

"The visits should be declared and open. And all those who come on stealth visits, we should ask them why they visit this country in a stealth manner?" Ahmadinejad said.

Despite the beefed-up Iraqi security in some parts of Baghdad for Ahmadinejad's visit, at least 24 people were reportedly killed in two suicide car bombings in different parts of the city, police and hospital officials said. The U.S. military reported 11 people had died in the attacks. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.

U.S. officials have tried to brush aside the significance of Ahmadinejad's visit, and the White House on Monday disputed Ahmadinejad's statement that Iran was not aiding terrorists.

"Nice words for him to say in the middle of Baghdad, but the facts on the ground prove otherwise," Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for Bush's National Security Council, told reporters traveling with Bush back to Washington.

Richard Russell, who lectures on national security at the National Defense University, also raised suspicions about Iranian motives.

Iran's agenda includes establishing "a clandestine infrastructure in Iraq," and Tehran is "planning to have more influence domestically inside Iraq as Americans downsize their presence," he said.

Some Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shiites, say it is precisely that influence — and the power struggle between the Washington and Tehran — that worries them.

About 1,000 protesters in a Sunni-dominated neighborhood in Baghdad protested Ahmadinejad's visit Monday, a day after scattered demonstrations greeted his arrival.

"We do not want our country to pay the price of the current U.S.-Iraq disputes. The Iraqis' decisions should be independent and not tied to any other country," said Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

The Fed Releases Crisis Preparedness Video

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By Lee Rogers

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta this past January released a video on crisis preparedness. The timing of such a video being released is suspicious considering the prospect of bank failures and an inflationary collapse of the U.S. monetary system loom large. The U.S. Dollar is at all-time lows and many top economists are predicting that we are entering a very deep recession if not a depression. Although the video focuses in on a potential disaster like a terrorist attack or a weather related event, a financial disaster easily fits into the scope of this video. The focus of the video is on how the Federal Reserve can immediately bring cash back into an area affected by a disaster. During a financial calamity, this will be a key concern because physical forms of money will reign supreme. Runs on the banks occurred frequently at the start of the Great Depression and they could happen here on a frequent basis if things get worse. The Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke even made the prediction that we could soon see bank failures, so this is a concern not just coming from various economists and pundits but also from the top of this criminal banking system.
Below is taken from the press release issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Watch The Video Here
In the aftermath of a disaster, banks play a vital role, distributing cash to their customers and ensuring that their customers are able to meet the financial needs of their families and their businesses.
Drawing on the experience of bankers who have weathered crisis situations, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta developed Crisis Preparedness: Reconnecting the Financial Lifeline, a DVD designed to assist bankers with their institutions' emergency preparedness efforts. Each section of the DVD profiles a facet of crisis preparedness, from preparing and testing a plan to caring for employees to providing cash to customers to working with banks and first responders.
The DVD features interviews with bankers and Atlanta Fed staff. The examples featured in the DVD emphasize the need for crisis preparedness and practical steps institutions can take to be prepared. The DVD includes supplemental in-depth interviews with these featured bankers.
The DVD can be downloaded or ordered at the Atlanta Fed's Web site,
What’s interesting about the video is that it focuses in on how banks will need to be able to make cash readily available in case of a disaster. In the event of a disaster financial or otherwise that results in a run on the banks, banks will not have enough cash to back all the money that people will demand to have withdrawn. There are far more digital credits stored on computers than there are physical paper notes. This will be a huge problem and it appears as if they are trying to address this problem in the video under the guise of other types of disasters. Hurricane Katrina is referenced as a real life example that bankers were forced to deal with. They even talked about how they needed to dry out large quantities of Federal Reserve Notes in order to put them back into circulation.
Last year the U.S. Treasury Department conducted a disaster drill in preparation for a potential financial crisis. This video release appears to go hand and hand with the concerns that the U.S. Treasury has and this video shows that they want their employees to be aware of what steps they can taken in a potential crisis. Either way, it is clear that the U.S. economy is on the brink of a collapse with gold at all-time nominal highs and assorted commodities going through the roof in U.S. Dollar denominated terms. It is interesting that they would release this video at a time of great economic uncertainty. Why would the Federal Reserve release a video like this, if they didn't have concerns about a potential economic disaster? It is highly doubtful that they would release this video for the fun of it. One thing is for sure, the economy is not looking good and you do not want to trust the Federal Reserve or any of their member banks with your money. Buy gold and silver. These precious metals will protect you from the inflation driven depression that might be coming down the pipe more so than any crisis preparedness video.

For Palisades Native, War Trauma Ends in Suicide

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By Hannan Adely

Palisades, New York - After two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps Reserve, Steven Vickerman tried to resume a normal life at home with his wife, but he could not shake a feeling of despair.

His parents, Richard and Carole Vickerman of Palisades, went to visit him at a veterans hospital after he suffered a mental breakdown; they were in disbelief. The funny and adventurous baby brother had become sullen, withdrawn and full of anxiety. Vickerman, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, killed himself Feb. 19.

"We're still in shock. Our son was a proud Marine. He served his country honorably, and we don't know what happened to him," said Carole Vickerman, who buried her son Tuesday at Rockland Cemetery in Sparkill.

As soldiers return from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, many are unprepared to deal with the anxiety and depression stemming from their experiences in war. Some seek help from the Veterans Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but become frustrated by paperwork and long waits for counseling and care. Others feel too proud or embarrassed to seek help at all, or believe they can tough it out with time. Despair drives many to take their own lives, according to reports and experts.

The Veterans Health Administration estimated in a May 2007 report that 1,000 suicides occurred per year among veterans who received care within the VHA and as many as 5,000 per year among all veterans. At the same time, the number of returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder is surging, according to studies and veterans advocacy groups.

Families like the Vickermans often feel overwhelmed by the guilt and helplessness that surrounds post-traumatic stress disorder. The Vickermans wanted to help their son but did not know where to look for support services or how to deal with the effects of the illness.

The VA, they believed, had failed their son. The services available, they said, were insufficient, and the government should do more to address the issue for returning war vets.

"There should be something that can be done, not only for the proud soldiers but also for their families," Carole Vickerman said. "When you hear the word 'stress,' it sounds so innocuous. It's not stress; it's a killer."

Steven Vickerman, a Tappan Zee High School graduate, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1998. A whiz at technical jobs and an electrician by trade, the staff sergeant served as a small arms technician with Marine Aircraft Group 49, Detachment B, at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh.

His first tour in Iraq was interrupted when he returned home to be with his older brother, who was dying of a brain tumor. Robert died at age 35. Vickerman served a second tour and was honorably discharged in 2005.

He returned to Pittsburgh, where his parents thought he was doing fine readjusting to civilian life. He graduated from a gunsmithing school and then went to Kansas to continue his education to become a small-arms engraver.

But in January 2007, he was taken to a hospital after suffering a mental breakdown and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He stayed in a veterans hospital in Kansas City for five days. Afterward, his wife, Karen, brought him to his parents' Palisades home so he could be close to the VA hospital in Montrose.

During the two months he stayed in Palisades, he had trouble sleeping and would sit and stare into space or at the television, his father recalled. He stuttered and his speech was broken, and he always looked on edge, as if he were looking out for enemy gunfire. Steven said nothing about his service - not what he did, what he saw or where he was stationed.

One night during dinner, he nearly hit the ground after he heard a truck slam into a pothole outside the family's home. The once take-charge soldier was unable to make decisions, his father said. He told his parents he did not know what was happening to him and that he did not think he would recover.

"Steve was a 6-foot, 200-pound guy, all muscle," Richard Vickerman said. "I can't believe that he went over and came back in the condition he came back."

Though he sought help in veterans hospitals in Kansas City and in Montrose, Vickerman was not happy with the care he received and did not want to continue, his parents said. He told them he believed the service was impersonal and that he did not connect with the older Vietnam veterans treated alongside him. One hospital staffer made him feel as if he was just out to get disability benefits from the government, he told his family.

With support from his wife, Vickerman continued to get help from a private therapist.

About two weeks ago, Vickerman's wife went on a business trip in New York City and could not reach her husband by phone. The Vickermans also could not reach him.

They called his therapist, who was scheduled to see him on a Wednesday, but Vickerman missed his appointment. The therapist called police, who found Vickerman dead at his home, where he had hanged himself.

Carole Vickerman thinks her son gave up hope after he became unable to work, go to school or get his mind and life back on track.

"All his dreams were gone, and he had to reinvent himself all over again," she said. "He was trying to find a new Steven, and he wasn't able to do that. I think the struggle got so hard for him at the end that he felt he was no longer a person, so what was the use."

The Vickermans said they wished they could have done more. They think there should be more support services for families whose children and spouses are returning from war, more specialists who deal with post-traumatic stress syndrome in the VA system, and more research done in the field to help returning soldiers. Richard Vickerman also said he believed the government should explore ways veterans could receive mental health benefits at private medical facilities.

Jerry Donnellan, director of the Rockland Veterans Service Agency, said it had been difficult for organizations like his to reach out to veterans and their families because the VA would not release information about returning service members, citing privacy issues. Rockland County has tried to get that information through the Freedom of Information Law, but that request was denied.

Donnellan has tried to get the word out to veterans through the media and community groups. Like other veterans advocates, he thinks the need is dire because repeat tours and long deployments are driving a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The issue of PTSD is worse than I have ever seen it, and I have been doing this for 20 years now," Donnellan said.

After a series of high-profile suicides and news reports about suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, the federal government has taken steps to improve mental health care. Congress held hearings on the topic last year, and President Bush signed the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention bill into law Nov. 25.

The bill, named for a soldier who committed suicide after returning from Iraq, requires suicide prevention counselors to be on staff at each VA facility and mental health training for all VA staff, and it supports education and outreach programs for veterans and families.

Richard Vickerman thinks that, with so many cases of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, Americans should continue to demand action for the soldiers who sacrificed so much to protect freedoms in the United States.

"Why the American people aren't hearing about this and raising the roof - that flag over there, the flag behind you, is the price that's being paid all over this country by families," he said, tearfully looking over at the folded flag that the Marines presented to him at his son's funeral. "It's not right."

The Senate Shills for Big Oil

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One of the major shortcomings in last year's admirable energy bill was its failure to extend vital tax credits to producers of wind, solar and other renewable fuels. This was entirely the doing of the Senate, which caved in to the oil companies and their White House friends.

The House had approved the credits but insisted - under the Democrats' pay-as-you-go rules - that they be paid for by eliminating the same amount in tax credits for oil and gas producers. Industry (which is rolling in cash these days) howled, President Bush lofted veto threats, and the Senate caved.

The damage was immediately apparent. New investment in clean, non-fossil-fuel energy sources - which need the help until they become competitive with older, dirtier energy sources - began to shrivel.

The Senate now has a chance to redeem itself. Last week, the House approved a new $17 billion package of credits, spread over 10 years, to encourage the development of renewable energy sources and to promote energy-efficient buildings and appliances.

As before, the House insisted that the credits be paid for by terminating an equivalent $17 billion in tax breaks over 10 years for oil and gas companies. And right on schedule, Senate Republicans began complaining that increasing industry's taxes would discourage investment in domestic oil and gas production.

What will it take to wake the Senate up? It should be clear to even the most obtuse members that a country that consumes one-fifth of the world's oil but has only 3 percent of its reserves cannot possibly drill its way to energy independence.

It should be equally clear that an industry whose five biggest producers generated $145 billion in profits last year can easily sacrifice $1.7 billion in annual tax breaks it does not need to help develop the cleaner fuels the country does need.

If those arguments aren't enough, we offer the Senate some words from President Bush. In a 2005 address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Mr. Bush spoke forcefully of the need for an energy strategy that looked to the long term and emphasized conservation and renewable fuels.

Of the oil and gas industry, he said pointedly: "I will tell you with $55 oil we don't need incentives to the oil and gas companies to explore. There are plenty of incentives. What we need is to put a strategy in place that will help this country over time become less dependent."

The question for Mr. Bush and the Senate is clear: If that was true at $55 a barrel, why isn't it even more valid and urgent at $100 a barrel?

UN Approves New Sanctions Against Iran

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By Edith M. Lederer

United Nations - The U.N. Security Council approved a third round of sanctions against Iran on Monday with near unanimous support, sending a strong signal to Tehran that its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment is unacceptable and becoming increasingly costly.

For the first time, the resolution bans trade with Iran in goods which have both civilian and military uses and authorizes inspections of shipments to and from Iran by sea and air that are suspected of carrying banned items.

The vote was 14-0; Indonesia abstained.
Iran's U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Khazee told the council before the vote that the government would not comply with the "unlawful action" against its "peaceful nuclear program."

"Iran cannot and will not accept a requirement which is legally defective and politically coercive," he said. "History tells us that no amount of pressure, intimidation and threat will be able to coerce our nation to give up its basic and legal rights."

Iran insists its enrichment activities are intended only for peaceful civilian purposes, but the U.S., the European Union and others suspect its real aim is to make atomic weapons. Enriched uranium can be used as fuel for nuclear energy or nuclear weapons.

The resolution introduces financial monitoring on two banks with suspected links to proliferation activities, Bank Melli and Bank Saderat. It calls on all countries "to exercise vigilance" in entering into new trade commitments with Iran.

The resolution also orders countries to freeze the assets of 12 additional companies and 13 individuals with links to Iran's nuclear or ballistic missile programs - and require countries to report the travels of those Iranians. It bans travel by five individuals linked to Iran's nuclear effort.

Most of the new individuals subject to sanctions are technical figures. But one, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, is prominent in the Revolutionary Guards, an elite military corps, and close to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The resolution says he has worked to get around previous U.N. sanctions.
Britain and France, who co-sponsored the resolution, delayed the vote until Monday in hopes of winning over four non-permanent council members who had raised a variety of concerns - Libya, Indonesia, South Africa and Vietnam.

One concern the countries raised is a recent International Atomic Energy Agency report saying suspicions about most past Iranian nuclear activities had eased or been laid to rest. The Libyan and Indonesian envoys had stressed that this indicated Iranian cooperation, and questioned the need for more sanctions.

The resolution adopted Monday does welcome Iran's agreement with the IAEA, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, to resolve outstanding issues about its past nuclear program.
It also reiterates that incentives offered by Germany and the five permanent council nations - the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France - in 2006 remain on the table if Iran suspends enrichment.

But the Americans and their European allies stressed that the report from the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran has continued to enrich uranium and demanded that Tehran suspend its uranium centrifuge program.

The IAEA also reported that Iran rejected new documents that link Tehran to missile and explosives experiments and other work connected to a possible nuclear weapons program. Iran called the information false and irrelevant, the IAEA said.

Monday's council meeting was delayed for nearly two hours because of a dispute over plans by Britain, France and Germany to present a resolution critical of Iran before the IAEA board.
Diplomats said Russia learned about the planned resolution and complained about not being informed.

Grigory Berdennikov, the chief Russian delegate to the IAEA, said in Vienna that "we are not happy about developments here in Vienna - we were not informed."
A European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russians asked that no resolution be presented in Vienna as a condition for voting on the sanctions resolution in New York. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

The resolution drafted by the Europeans would have praised progress made in the IAEA investigation, but noted that the investigation was incomplete because Iran had refused to answer questions about its alleged weapons experiments. It also said the IAEA board - not the agency's leaders - had the final authority to declare the investigation into Iran's past nuclear programs closed.

The council first imposed sanctions in December 2006, ordering all countries to stop supplying Iran with materials and technology that could contribute to its nuclear and missile programs. It also ordered countries to freeze the assets of 10 Iranian companies and 12 individuals.
Iran expanded its enrichment program, so the council imposed new sanctions in March 2007, this time banning Iranian arms exports and ordering countries to freeze the assets of 28 additional individuals and organizations.

US Debts Hurting UN Peacekeeping, Say Analysts

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By Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS - Further delay in the payment of past U.S. dues to the United Nations could lead to negative consequences for global peacekeeping operations and development programs, independent groups are warning.
“We need to confront the challenges we face together with our friends and allies. We can’t do that without the UN,” said Scott Paul of Citizens for Global Solutions (CGS), a Washington, DC-based policy think tank.
Like CGS, many other pressure groups that oppose a unilateralist approach to world affairs are pushing the Democrat-controlled Congress to agree to pay the United States’ outstanding debt to the United Nations’ regular budget and peacekeeping operations.
“We can restore our standing in the world only by being a good team player,” added Paul. “America is not a deadbeat nation; we act responsibly and do our part.”
Currently, U.S. past due budgetary obligations to the United Nations amount to $1.5 billion. This debt has been accumulated over the past many years, due to underfunding by the administration and the Congress.
Though the United States is the largest contributor to the UN budget, it has also become the largest debtor to the world body. Each year, Congress is responsible for approving the payments requested by the administration for U.S. assessed contributions to the UN regular and peacekeeping budgets.
The United States is assessed 22 percent of the UN regular budget and 26 percent for its peacekeeping programs.
Assessed contributions are payments made as part of the obligations that countries undertake when signing treaties. These contributions support a variety of UN initiatives, including peacekeeping operations that promote global security.
If the Bush administration’s budget passes as is this year, the United States will be another $610 million short of what it owes to UN peacekeeping operations, pushing the U.S. debt to the United Nations above $2 billion.
Analysts say the first and largest source of permanent U.S. arrearages to the United Nations is U.S. government underfunding of UN peacekeeping.
“This is debt that is being absorbed by allies that are providing troops for U.S.-endorsed peacekeeping missions — countries like India, Kenya, Pakistan, and Bangladesh,” according to the Better World Campaign, an international network of antipoverty organizations.
The debt keeps growing as Washington presses for more, renewed, and expanded peacekeeping missions, most notably the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission to Darfur.
The United States made some increases in budgetary funding for peacekeeping last year, but failed to include $334 million still needed for Darfur. Analysts now expect further cuts in funding for FY 2009.
Noting that the United Nations’ total regular and peacekeeping budget is only about $10 billion per year, analysts say these arrears have the potential to destabilize the world body’s operations, including already-overstretched peacekeeping operations.
“It threatens the only lifelines available to citizens in some of the most dangerous and unstable regions of the world,” says the Better World Campaign.
U.S. dues are obligations undertaken by signing the UN Charter and by voting for peacekeeping missions in the Security Council. The United States, along with the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China, has unique voting and veto rights within the 15-member Council to authorize or suspend any peacekeeping operation.
According to the Better World Campaign, U.S. debt in the regular UN budget has also increased recently; the U.S. now has $291 million in permanent arrears — an amount that is likely to grow by $60 million this year due to exchange rate losses.
Considering the powerful U.S. role in the Security Council, critics of the current U.S. policy are not only raising legal questions about U.S. obligations, but also moral concerns about its role in the international arena.
“Most Americans would be surprised to learn that of the over 90,000 UN troops and police currently deployed to 20 missions worldwide, only 293 are American,” wrote the the UN Foundation’s Mark Leon Goldberg recently in the British newspaper The Guardian.
Like other analysts, Goldberg asked why the United States approved mission after mission in the Security Council while not paying its dues fully.
Many believe the current U.S. policy is based on a policy of isolationism that it would be wise to give up.
“UN peacekeeping is effective and efficient — and far cheaper than acting unilaterally,” said CGS’s Paul. “Working through institutions like the UN allows us to share the burden of meeting global challenges.”

The Low-Income Homeowner Tax

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By Dean Baker

Forget about trying to get more kids health care insurance by expanding SCHIP or increasing government funding for child care. The new way the politicians plan to help moderate-income families is to have them pay a special 18 percent income tax to live in a home in which they have no equity.

Here's the deal. As we know, millions of moderate-income families are facing foreclosure on their homes because they have mortgages that they can't afford and they live in homes that are worth less than the amount on their mortgage. This is a situation where the banks would ordinarily take a huge hit since they have no hope of recouping anywhere near the amount owed on the mortgage when the home goes through the foreclosure process.

But the politicians are coming to the rescue. They want the government to step in and either guarantee or directly issue new mortgages to these homeowners. When these new mortgages are issued to pay off most or all of the prior mortgages, they will be giving the banks far more money than they can reasonably hope to get if the houses had gone through the foreclosure process.

This can be viewed as bad policy because it is giving tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to the truly rich. But it should be viewed as even worse policy because it is effectively taxing millions of low- and moderate-income families to live in homes in which they have no equity. This low-income homeowner tax can be demonstrated with simple arithmetic.

Typically, houses sell for about 14 times as much as what it would cost to rent the same unit for a year. The run-up in house prices in the bubble raised the ratio of sale price to annual rent to more than 20 to 1. While prices have begun to fall, in many areas the ratio of sale price to annual rent is still more than 20 to 1.

Working from this ratio, it is easy to see homeowners are almost certainly paying far more to stay in their houses than it would cost them to rent the same home, and these excess payments are a large share of their income.

Suppose a moderate homeowner gets a 6 percent mortgage, and then pays an additional 1 percent of the sale price each year on both tax and maintenance. This means their costs of "owning" the house is equal to 8 percent of the sale price, not counting any payments of principle on the mortgage. Since the rent of the home is just 5 percent of the sale price, the homeowner is paying 60 percent more in housing costs each year than they would if they were a renter.

Let's put numbers in this story. Suppose the house would sell for $200,000. The 20 to 1 sale to rent ratio implies it would rent for $10,000 a year or $830 a month. Instead, this homeowner is paying $12,000 a year in interest, $2,000 a year in taxes and $2,000 a year in maintenance for a total of $16,000 a year, or $1,330 per month.

This additional $6,000 a year in housing costs is likely to be large relative to the family's income. Housing costs average 30 percent of disposable income, so this sum would be equivalent to an 18 percent tax on the family's disposable income. This sum is also roughly what it would cost to insure two kids for a year, and more than enough to pay for child care for a kid for a full year.

Paying extra to own, rather than rent, a home could make sense if the homeowner was accumulating equity in the house. However, this is almost certainly not the case. House prices are falling rapidly and will likely to continue to fall until the overhang from the housing bubble is eliminated. The vast majority of moderate-income homeowners facing foreclosure will never see a dime in equity on their home. In other words, the excess housing payments are basically just a tax that gives no return whatsoever to these homeowners.

It is truly bizarre we are struggling to find ways to pay for health care and child care for kids in low-income families at the same time the government is encouraging these families to throw large amounts of money away so they can be called homeowners. Many of these families will still need help for their kids, but they would need much less if we ended the 18 percent homeowner tax. We need a housing policy designed to give people decent housing, not to fulfill ideological commitments to an "ownership society."

Buffett: US Essentially in Recession

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By Josh Funk

Buffett says US economy essentially in a recession, expects rough ride for insurers in 2008.
Omaha, Nebraska -Billionaire Warren Buffett said Monday that the U.S. economy is essentially in a recession even if it hasn't met the technical definition of one yet.
Buffett said in an interview with cable network CNBC the reports he gets from the retail businesses his holding company owns show a significant slowdown in purchases.
The chairman and CEO of Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc. said millions of people have also lost equity in their homes because home prices have dropped.
"I would say, by any commonsense definition, we are in a recession," Buffett said on CNBC.
But Buffett said it's not clear how far the recession will go because that is difficult to predict.
The technical definition of a recession most economists use is two consecutive quarters of negative growth in the nation's gross domestic product.
On Thursday, the Commerce Department reported that the gross domestic product increased at a low 0.6 percent pace in the quarter that ended Dec. 31.
In the July-September quarter, the economy grew at a brisk 4.9 percent.
Gross domestic product measures the value of all goods and services produced in the United States and is the best barometer of the country's economic health.
A survey released last week by the National Association for Business Economics showed that 45 percent of economists are predicting a recession in 2008.
But Buffett said the U.S. economy will be fine in the long run.
"Over time, my children are going to live better than I do, although they don't believe it," Buffett said.
Buffett's appearance on television came on the heels of his annual letter to shareholders, which he released Friday along with Berkshire's 2007 financial report.
In the letter, Buffett predicted that the insurance industry will see lower underwriting profit margins in 2008 because premium prices are down, and the industry's luck will certainly change.
"It's a certainty that insurance-industry profit margins, including ours, will fall significantly in 2008," he said. "Prices are down, and exposures inexorably rise. Even if the U.S. has its third consecutive catastrophe-light year, industry profit margins will probably shrink by 4 percentage points or so.
"If the winds roar or the earth trembles, results could be far worse."
Buffett said Berkshire's insurance group, which includes GEICO, reinsurance giant General Re and several other firms, generated $2.2 billion net income from insurance underwriting in 2007. That's down from the previous year when it posted a $2.5 billion underwriting profit.
When Berkshire's shareholders aren't worrying about insurance profits, they're likely fretting about who will run Berkshire after Buffett is gone. The 77-year-old Buffett offered a few new clues in his annual letter and during the CNBC interview.
To replace Buffett, Berkshire plans to split his job into three parts - chief investment officer, chief executive officer and chairman.
Buffett wrote in his letter that over the past year he identified four investment managers outside Berkshire who could take over managing the company's $75 billion stock portfolio and investing its $44.3 billion cash.
Buffett said on CNBC that none of the four CIO candidates is a woman and that very few women applied for the job.
Buffett has previously said that Berkshire's board had three outstanding internal candidates for chief executive. And Buffett's son, Howard, who already serves on Berkshire's board, will become chairman after Warren Buffett's death.
Buffett also said on CNBC:
That he doesn't agree on everything with his favorite presidential candidates, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and he wouldn't want either one to succeed him as Berkshire's chief capital allocater. "I would certainly appoint either one of them to run a business, but running a business is a little different than my job."
On why the U.S. trade deficit is a long-term problem. "Over time, it's like eating an extra 100 calories at every meal. You don't sit down at the table and get up and everybody says 'My God, you're fat.' But if you keep doing it over time, pretty soon they'll say, 'My God, he's gotten fat.'"
On stock bargains now: "Certainly, I find more things to look at now than I did six months or a year ago. But I would say it's changed more dramatically in the fixed-income market than it has in the equity market."
On the cause of the credit crisis: "The mistake was in lending unwisely. There were a lot of dumb lending practices."
Berkshire owns more than 60 subsidiaries including insurance, clothing, furniture, natural gas, corporate jet and candy companies. Berkshire also has major investments in such companies as Coca-Cola Co. and Wells Fargo & Co.

I Was Kidnapped by the CIA

Inside the CIA's extraordinary rendition program ­and the bungled abduction of would-be terrorists

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By Peter Bergen

For hours, the words come pouring out of Abu Omar as he describes his years of torture at the hands of Egypt's security services. Spreading his arms in a crucifixion position, he demonstrates how he was tied to a metal door as shocks were administered to his nipples and genitals. His legs tremble as he describes how he was twice raped. He mentions, almost casually, the hearing loss in his left ear from the beatings, and how he still wakes up at night screaming, takes tranquilizers, finds it hard to concentrate, and has unspecified "problems with my wife at home." He is, in short, a broken man.

There is nothing particularly unusual about Abu Omar's story. Torture is a standard investigative technique of Egypt's intelligence services and police, as the State Department and human rights organizations have documented myriad times over the years. What is somewhat unusual is that Abu Omar ended up inside Egypt's torture chambers courtesy of the United States, via an "extraordinary rendition"—in this case, a spectacular daylight kidnapping by the Central Intelligence Agency on the streets of Milan, Italy.

First introduced during the Clinton administration, extraordinary renditions—in which suspected terrorists are turned over to countries known to use torture, usually for the purpose of extracting information from them—have been one of the cia's most controversial tools in the war on terror. According to legal experts, the practice has no justification in United States law and flagrantly violates the Convention Against Torture, an international treaty that Congress ratified in 1994. Nonetheless, Congress and the American courts have essentially ignored the practice, and the Bush administration has insisted that it has never knowingly sent anyone to a place where he will be tortured.

But Abu Omar's case is unique: Unlike any other rendition case, it has prompted a massive criminal investigation—though not in the United States. An Italian prosecutor has launched a probe of the kidnapping, resulting in the indictment of 26 American officials, almost all of them suspected cia agents. It has also generated a treasure trove of documents on the secretive rendition program, including thousands of pages of court filings that detail how it actually works. Late last year, I traveled to Milan to review those documents and to Egypt, where Abu Omar now lives. What I found was a remarkable tale of cia overreach and its consequences—a tale that could represent the beginning of a global legal backlash against the war on terror.

An avuncular, portly man in his mid-40s clad in a turban and a floor-length blue robe, Abu Omar met me at a corner store near his home, the first time he had agreed to talk to an American magazine reporter. He took me to his tidy, cramped apartment near Alexandria's run-down Victorian rail station. The walls were bare other than some religious calligraphy. The screen saver on his computer was a picture of Mecca.

Abu Omar, whose full name is Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, served me pungent coffee and sugary biscuits prepared by his unseen wife. Then, leaning forward in a massive gilded chair, he told me how in the weeks before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, he'd felt he was being watched and followed as he walked the streets of Milan, where he'd been granted political asylum in 2001 following an earlier spell of imprisonment and torture in Egypt. A member of Egypt's militant Islamic Group and a part-time cleric, he had been waging a public campaign against the impending war; Italian authorities had been investigating his circle of acquaintances since mid-2002 and believed he might have been recruiting fighters to go to Iraq, a charge he denies.

A little before noon on February 17, 2003, Abu Omar was headed to his mosque, incongruously located inside a garage. He strolled down Via Guerzoni, a quiet street mostly empty of businesses and lined with high, view-blocking walls. A red Fiat pulled up beside him and a man jumped out, shouting "Polizia! Polizia!" Abu Omar produced his ID. "Suddenly I was lifted in the air," he recalled. He was dragged into a white van and beaten, he said, by wordless men wearing balaclavas. After trussing him with restraints and blindfolding him, they sped away.

Hours later, when the van stopped, Abu Omar heard airplane noise. His clothes were cut off and something was stuffed in his anus, likely a tranquilizing suppository. His head was entirely covered in tape with only small holes for his mouth and nose, and he was placed on a plane. Hours later he was hustled off the jet. He heard someone speaking Arabic in a familiar cadence; in the distance, a muezzin was calling the dawn prayer. After more than a decade in exile, he was back in Egypt.

Abu Omar was taken into a building, put in a blue prison suit, freshly blindfolded, and presented to someone described as an important pasha, or government official. The pasha said he'd be released if he'd go back to Italy to spy on the militants at his mosque. He said no.

And so began Abu Omar's descent into one of the 21st century's nastier circles of hell. His cell had no lights or windows, and the temperature alternated between freezing and baking. He was kept blindfolded and handcuffed for seven months. Interrogations could come at any time of the day or night. He was beaten with fists, electric cables, and chairs, stripped naked, and given electric shocks.

His tormentors' questions largely revolved around his circle of Islamists in Italy, though every now and again they'd indicate that they knew he wasn't a big-time terrorist. They were detaining him only because "the Americans imposed you on us." When he asked, "Why, then, do you abuse me so much?" they replied, "This is our family tradition."

In the fall of 2003, Abu Omar was taken to another prison; it was here that he was crucified and raped by the guards. After seven more months of torture, a Cairo court found there was no evidence that Abu Omar was involved in terrorism and ordered him freed. He was told not to contact anyone in Italy—including his wife—and not to speak to the press or human rights groups. Above all, he was not to tell anyone what had happened.

After agreeing to the conditions, he was deposited at his mother's home in Alexandria. He promptly called his wife in Italy. It was the first time she'd heard from him in 14 months. Italian investigators, who'd been monitoring Abu Omar's phone in Milan for years, recorded the call. His wife asked him how he had been treated. He told her sarcastically, "They brought me food from the fanciest restaurant," though nearly three weeks later, he admitted to her, "I was very close to dying." He also spoke with a friend in Milan, Mohamed Reda El Badry, whose phone was also being tapped by Italian investigators. "I was freed on health grounds," he told El Badry in one of the recorded calls. "I was almost paralyzed; still today I cannot walk more than 200 yards.... I was incontinent, suffered from kidney trouble."

And then, just as suddenly as Abu Omar had reappeared, he vanished again. Egyptian authorities had gotten wind of his calls to Italy. This time he was imprisoned for three years. He smuggled out a letter describing his ordeal, which found its way to the Arab and Italian press and international human rights organizations. Inevitably, that led to more torture.

Was it illegal for American officials to send Abu Omar to Egypt? Yes, according to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which prohibits delivering someone to a country where there are "substantial grounds" to assume that he might be tortured. Were there substantial grounds to believe that transferring Abu Omar to Egypt would result in his being tortured? Plenty, according to a State Department report that detailed the methods used by Egypt's security services during the year that Abu Omar was abducted and confined, including stripping and blindfolding prisoners; dousing them with cold water; beatings with fists, whips, metal rods, and other objects; administering electric shocks; suspending prisoners by their arms; and sexual assault and threats of rape.

The White House has routinely claimed that when the United States renders individuals to other countries it receives assurances that, as President Bush stated at a press conference in March 2005, "they won't be tortured...This country does not believe in torture." Several months later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated, "The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured."

But in the case of Abu Omar, Rice's assertions are demonstrably false. According to a previously unpublished study conducted by Katherine Tiedemann of The New America Foundation and myself, the same is true of many of the extraordinary renditions going back to the program's beginnings in 1995. (See "Rendition by the Numbers," above.) Fourteen documented extraordinary renditions took place under the Clinton administration. Almost all of those prisoners were rendered to Egypt, where at least three were executed. After 9/11 the pace of renditions sped up and the program expanded dramatically. Prisoners were now also transferred to Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, and even Libya, Sudan, and Syria. In all, we found 53 documented cases of extraordinary rendition since September 2001; only one prisoner specifically said he had not been tortured. Of the sixteen men who have been released, eight claimed they were tortured and/or mistreated while in foreign custody; one died within weeks of being released. Nineteen of the rendered men have not been heard from since they disappeared.

Brad Garrett is a former fbi special agent who obtained uncoerced confessions from two of the most high-profile terrorists in recent American history: Ramzi Yousef, who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, and Mir Aimal Kasi, who shot and killed two cia employees outside the Agency's headquarters the same year. "The whole idea that you would send anyone to some other country to obtain the intel you want is ludicrous," he told me in an email. "If we want the intel, there are approaches that will render the information without torture. The problem is that someone in the U.S. government is convinced that torture is the way to go, and so if we are not allowed to do it, then send them to someplace where torture is sanctioned."

The extraordinary rendition program was not primarily intended to yield information, according to Michael Scheuer, the cia official whom the Clinton White House tasked with implementing it. "It came from an improvisation to dismantle these terrorist cells overseas. We wanted to get suspects off the streets and grab their papers," Scheuer explains. "The interrogation part wasn't important." He also claims that the program was overseen by congressional committees and "was lawyered to death." After 9/11, "The White House was desperate," Scheuer says. The rendition program quickly expanded because holding any but the most important Al Qaeda prisoners was a "burdensome proposition" for the Agency.

"Before 9/11 we never asked for some guarantee that prisoners would not be tortured or coerced," says Scheuer. The Bush administration says it has since sought such assurances, but Garrett, the interrogator, thinks those promises are worthless in any case. "In my view it is a shell game and a legal cya to say that the other country (Egypt—give me a break) will not use torture," he wrote. "We are unfortunately promoting terrorism by using these abhorrent approaches. Shame on us."

Milan's slate-grey skies glower over the city in both summer and winter, and charmless skyscrapers dominate the skyline of the financial, media, and fashion capital of Italy. It's an unlikely setting for the operatic tale of Abu Omar's cia kidnappers and their nemesis, Deputy Chief Prosecutor Armando Spataro.

Spataro may have launched the first-ever criminal case against American officials over an extraordinary rendition, but he's hardly a bleeding-heart Euro-liberal. A prosecutor for more than three decades, the affable 59-year-old has put droves of drug traffickers, mafia dons, and terrorists behind bars. When I asked him if he was anti-American, he laughed and asked, "What do you think?" gesturing around his massive office inside the gloomy, Mussolini-era Palace of Justice. The walls were festooned with photographs of marathons he has run in the United States, certificates of appreciation from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and reproductions of paintings by Warhol, Rockwell, and Hopper.

Spataro had been building a potential terrorism case against Abu Omar for months before his kidnapping; as a result of his investigation, a number of Abu Omar's acquaintances were convicted of terrorism offenses and in 2005 Abu Omar himself was indicted in absentia on charges that he had been recruiting fighters to go to Iraq. But his sudden disappearance into the bowels of Egypt's prisons had set back Spataro's probe dramatically.

I asked Spataro why he'd pushed so hard to investigate the snatching of a militant he himself was about to indict. In measured tones, he explained, "Kidnapping is a serious crime. It is important for European democracy that all people are submitted to the law. It is possible to combat terrorism without extraordinary means."

The prosecutor also didn't appreciate being lied to—American officials had let it be known around Milan that Abu Omar had likely fled to the Balkans. It didn't take Spataro long to get past the smoke screen and even track down an eyewitness to the abduction. But the bulk of his case would revolve around a rookie mistake made by the kidnappers: using cell phones, and unencrypted ones at that. Spataro's investigators reviewed the records from three Italian cell phone companies with relay towers in the vicinity of where the Egyptian militant disappeared and ran them through a commercial data-crunching program. Of the more than 10,000 cell phones in use during a three-hour window around the kidnapping, 17 were in constant communication with each other. The investigators also determined that soon after the abduction, some of the cell phones' users traveled to Aviano Air Base, a major American installation several hours east of Milan. And virtually all of the phone numbers stopped working two or three days after the abduction.

The suspicious cell phones had made calls to the American consulate in Milan and to numbers in Virginia (where the cia is headquartered). The phones, most registered under bogus names, also made many calls to prominent hotels in Milan—hotels where, the Italian investigators found, a dozen Americans had stayed in the weeks before the kidnapping. They registered under addresses in the Washington, D.C., area, and Spataro believes they used their real passports. Their movements matched those of the suspicious cell phones. Over the course of several weeks the Americans had blown more than $100,000 on easily traceable credit cards at hotels such as the Principe di Savoia, where rates start at $345 a night and which offers a special room-service menu for dogs. Others took side trips to Venice, where they stayed at the five-star Danieli and Sofitel hotels.

If the Americans had only used encrypted satellite phones and paid in cash—standard tradecraft, according to cia veteran Robert Baer, the former operative who was the model for George Clooney's character in Syriana—Spataro would have had fewer leads to follow. Why the sloppiness? Very probably, say law enforcement sources in Milan, because the Americans had clued in senior Italian intelligence officials about their plans and thus felt safe.

Next, Spataro's investigators began reviewing records from Italian air-traffic control, nato, and the main European air-traffic facility in Brussels. They discovered that a 10-seat jet departed from Aviano a few hours after Abu Omar was abducted and flew to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. An hour after it landed, an Executive Gulfstream with the tail number N85VM departed Ramstein for Cairo. In March 2005, the Chicago Tribune reported that this jet was owned by Phillip Morse, a partner in the Boston Red Sox and one of a number of individuals whose planes are occasionally rented by the cia.

One of the suspicious cell phones had made hundreds of calls in the vicinity of both the Milan residence and the country house of the cia's station chief in Milan, Robert Lady. Armed with a warrant, Spataro's investigators searched Lady's country house in June 2005 and found that he'd gone on a 10-day trip to Cairo a week after Abu Omar's abduction. The investigators also found surveillance photos of Abu Omar taken on the street where he was picked up, as well as printed directions to Aviano Air Base. And they discovered a telling email sent to Lady from a former colleague in the Milan consulate: On Christmas Eve, 2004, as Spataro's inquiry was gathering momentum, she told Lady she'd received an email "through work" titled "Italy, don't go there"—an apparent reference to the investigation. She'd also heard that Lady, who has since retired, had relocated to Geneva "until this all blew over."

Even Arianna Barbazza, the court-appointed public defender for 13 of the 26 American officials indicted in the Abu Omar case, conceded that the case against Lady and his colleagues is substantial. Lady could receive a sentence of up to 15 years. (The trial is scheduled to start in March, although none of the indicted Americans is expected to show up. The cia has refused to comment on the case or its rendition program.)

Another important break came when Luciano Pironi, the mysterious Italian police officer who had first "arrested" Abu Omar on the street, began to cooperate with Spataro. Prior to Abu Omar's arrest, Pironi was found to have been "frequently and intensely" in contact with Lady. Pironi said that Lady had told him that the operation was approved by the Italian military-intelligence agency, sismi, and that Lady had received a tip that Abu Omar was planning to hijack a school bus operated by the American school in Milan—a claim Italian law enforcement officials say is false.

Lady, who speaks fluent Italian and had good relations with his local counterparts, emerges from this tale as something of a tragic figure. He had opposed the snatch of Abu Omar on the grounds that it was counterproductive; he knew that Italy's counterterrorism police had been trying to build a case against the Egyptian militant and had even warned a top Italian counterterrorism official, Stefano D'Ambrosio, that the cia was planning the Abu Omar operation. D'Ambrosio told Italian investigators that Lady considered the whole scheme "stupid." But Lady was forced to lead the operation by his bosses in Rome and Langley, who were under intense pressure from the White House to produce results in the war on terrorism. Lady told Pironi that he'd never have spent all his savings to buy a retirement house in the Italian countryside "unless he had been sure that no inquiry against him was under way."

Today, that house has been seized by Italian authorities and Lady, who fled to the States, is the subject of a Europe-wide arrest warrant. In a final twist of irony, Lady told a friend in the Italian police that in his retirement he'd hoped to work for a firm made up of former cia officers who specialize in negotiating releases for people abducted in South America.

In february 2007, Abu Omar was finally released—this time, it seems, for good. "Without the human rights and media campaign, I would still be in prison," he told me. The conditions of his release were that he stay in Egypt and keep quiet about his treatment. But realizing that notoriety might be his best protection, Abu Omar attended the trial of a 22-year-old blogger whom the Egyptian government accused of insulting President Hosni Mubarak. (He was sentenced to four years.) In the Alexandria courtroom, he paraded his scars before the cameras and talked about his years of torture. "Now I am a public figure," he told me. "It protects me."

Jobless and still monitored by Egypt's security services, Abu Omar now spends most of his time cruising the Internet and posting occasional comments on Arabic-language newspaper sites. Toward the end of our interview he pulled out a plastic bag stuffed full of Christmas cards with pictures of windmills and little red robins sent by people in the United Kingdom who'd learned about his case through a letter-writing campaign organized by Amnesty International. He told me he is happy that these kind people write, sending the message that someone out there knows he hasn't disappeared.

House Democratic Leadership: Not Just Complicit but Also Self-Destructive

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By Glenn Greenwald

The signs are unmistakably clear that what was always inevitable -- full compliance by the House Democratic leadership with Bush's demands on warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty -- is now imminent. House leaders spent the week floating their specific proposals for how they intend to comply in full, and yesterday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes went on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, refused to criticize the President or the Senate FISA bill, and repeatedly and meekly expressed his willingness "this week" to give what he called full "blanket immunity" to telecoms (C&L has the video of Reyes' astoundingly weak and incoherent answers in response to Blitzer's Bush-mimicking questions).
This is, of course, everything except surprising. No rational person who has watched Congressional Democrats since they took over Congress could possibly have expected them to do anything but what they always do: namely, whatever they're told to do by the White House. The last thing they were ever going to do was stand their ground over Americans' basic liberties and the rule of law, concepts about which they couldn't possibly care less.
The whole drama they started when they refused to pass the Senate bill by the deadline was never about anything substantive. They were just throwing a little petulant tantrum because they felt they were being treated unfairly again because they were given only a few days to comply with the President's orders, when they wanted a couple of weeks to comply.
And their irritation wasn't even directed at the President as much as it was at the Senate for being so unfair in waiting until the deadline to pass a FISA bill, thus giving the House only a small amount of time to capitulate in full (on CNN, Chairman Reyes refrained almost completely from criticizing the White House, instead reserving his criticism for the Senate over this procedural insult). The only "principle" the bulk of Congress believes in is the preservation of their own ceremonial customs. That's all this drama was ever about.
There's very little point anymore in writing about how the Congressional Democratic leadership is complicit in all of the worst Bush abuses, or about how craven they are. All of that is far too documented and established at this point to be worth spending any time discussing. They were never going to take a stand against warrantless eavesdropping or the destruction of the rule of law via telecom amnesty for one simple reason: many of them don't actually oppose those things, and many who claim to oppose them don't actually care about any of it. That's all a given.
But what is somewhat baffling in all of this is just how politically stupid and self-destructive their behavior is. If the plan all along was to give Bush everything he wanted, as it obviously was, why not just do it at the beginning? Instead, they picked a very dramatic fight that received substantial media attention. They exposed their freshmen and other swing-district members to attack ads. They caused their base and their allies to spend substantial energy and resources defending them from these attacks.
And now, after picking this fight and letting it rage for weeks, they are going to do what they always do -- just meekly give in to the President, yet again generating a tidal wave of headlines trumpeting how they bowed, surrendered, caved in, and lost to the President. They're going to cast the appearance that they engaged this battle and once again got crushed, that they ran away in fear because of the fear-mongering ads that were run and the attacks from the President. They further demoralize their own base and increase the contempt in which their base justifiably holds them (if that's possible). It's almost as though they purposely picked the path that imposed on themselves all of the political costs with no benefits.
Even with their ultimate, total compliance with the President's orders, they're still going to be attacked as having Made Us Less Safe -- by waiting weeks to capitulate, rather than doing so immediately, they opened up critical intelligence gaps, caused us to lose vital intelligence, made us less safe, etc. But now, they have no way to defend themselves against those accusations because, at the end of the day, they are admitting that the President was right all along, that telecom amnesty and warrantless eavesdropping are good and important things that the President should have had all along. So why didn't they just give it to him before the law expired? It was a loss for them on every level.
I doubt there are very many Americans who expect at this point that the Democratic leadership will take a stand against the President due to any actual beliefs. But shouldn't politicians be at least a little bit shrewd about their own political self-interest? As craven and ugly as their capitulation will be, the political "strategy" they chose is actually just more self-destructive than it is anything else. Obviously, they have no real political principles, but don't they have any strategic instinct at all?

Relief for Borrowers

Time is running out to avoid a wider housing bailout.

IT'S MUCH easier to identify well-intentioned housing policy proposals that might make the situation worse than to craft ones that will help. An example is the Democratic plan -- stymied, for now, by the threat of a Republican filibuster in the Senate -- to let federal bankruptcy judges rewrite mortgages for distressed homeowners. If enacted, the law might spur lenders to do more of what they should already be doing: voluntary loan modifications to keep financially capable subprime borrowers out of foreclosure. But lenders would also price the risk of bankruptcy litigation into interest rates, making it harder for everyone to afford a house. Yes, it seems odd that creditors' claims to primary residences should be sacrosanct, when debtors can often protect yachts and second houses. Congress wrote the law that way, however, to keep home loan rates down.
All right, what next? A few basic principles must guide government's approach. The vast majority of today's market meltdown is attributable to business decisions that grown-ups entered into voluntarily. The people who made those decisions should have to face the painful consequences, just as they would have profited if the market had worked out differently. At the same time, as long as lenders and borrowers feel enough pain, it does not have to be the maximum possible pain. Foreclosure is the costliest outcome for all concerned. Subprime lending was marked by shoddy underwriting and the steering of underfinanced borrowers into loans they could not possibly afford. Policy should take such abuses into account.
Ideally, then, government relief would focus on a relatively narrow category of Americans: borrowers of modest means whose payment record on their current subprime loans shows that they could have handled a fixed-rate loan, perhaps backed by the Federal Housing Administration, but who now face foreclosure because of increases in their subprime "teaser" interest rates that are impossibly high. No aid should go to the many subprime borrowers who couldn't even pay their teaser rates -- or those who used subprime financing for speculative investments.
By these criteria, current proposals are relatively indiscriminate. In one way or another, most of the alternatives, such as plans being floated by the Office of Thrift Supervision, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), involve the government's buying up distressed mortgages or mortgage-backed securities at a discount and then moving homeowners into lower-cost government-backed mortgages. This would cost the government tens of billions of dollars. But such ideas do promise to stem the subprime crisis quickly; their costs, though high, are at least measurable and transparent.
The public should not have to pay for even a carefully calibrated bailout except as a last resort. For now, the wisest approach is to give the Bush administration more time to push the financial services industry into modifying the loans of needy and capable borrowers. Though loan modifications have been modest so far, the program has been in operation for only a couple of months. New progress reports are due out soon. If, after a fair chance, the administration's policy fails, there may be no choice but to try it Congress's way.

Loan blame game now in court

The sub-prime debacle is spurring a big-money litigation free-for-all.

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By Walter Hamilton

NEW YORK -- Insurance lawyer David Grais has been poring over equations in finance books to get up to speed on his new specialty: lawsuits stemming from the sub-prime mortgage debacle.

With his traditional insurance practice slowing down, the 55-year-old partner at a small New York firm began segueing into sub-prime in June, after a friend predicted at lunch that it would become the next legal blockbuster.

"This whole area is a new dawn" for lawyers, Grais said.

First came the sub-prime mortgage boom. Next was the bust. Now, as surely as day follows night, come the lawsuits.

All large-scale financial scandals spawn mountains of litigation, but the sub-prime fiasco stands out because of the complexity of the system that funneled more than $1 trillion from investors around the world through Wall Street and mortgage lenders to borrowers with dicey credit.

As losses mount on those loans, the scene of the blame game is shifting to the courts.

Sub-prime borrowers are suing loan brokers and lenders, accusing them of deceptive practices. Wall Street firms that bought now-delinquent sub-prime loans are trying to force lenders to buy them back.

Investment-bank shareholders are going after those firms' managers, saying they took excessive risks by loading up on bonds backed by sub-prime mortgages. And investors are suing money managers whose sub-prime-laden funds have suffered hefty losses.

"Somebody described it to me as, 'Everybody's standing in a circle shooting at each other,' " said Kevin LaCroix, a lawyer who writes a blog on sub-prime litigation.

In all, the 278 civil sub-prime-related cases filed in federal courts last year already amounted to half of the 559 actions brought during the entire savings-and-loan crisis from 1989 to 1995, according to research firm Navigant Consulting Inc.

"The pace of filings has just accelerated dramatically," said Navigant Managing Director Jeff Nielsen.

The data don't include the unknown number of suits filed in state courts -- or the probes by federal and state regulators and prosecutors, who are bearing down on many of the key players in the mortgage industry, looking for evidence of wrongdoing.

The sub-prime meltdown is likely to overtake the S&L crisis as the civil litigation record-holder this year, Nielsen said.

"We're at the stage now of throwing a lot against the wall and seeing what sticks," said Therese Pritchard, a securities law partner at Bryan Cave in Washington.

In one novel case that began in January, the city of Cleveland sued 21 major banks under Ohio's public nuisance law, accusing them of reckless lending that is burdening the city with a mass of foreclosures.

Grais, of Grais & Ellsworth, said the legal intricacies of the sub-prime disaster are what appealed to him. He has been taking classes to understand how Wall Street pieces together exotic mortgage-backed securities.

"This is the most interesting stuff I've studied in 30 years as a lawyer," he said.

Of course, as with most legal free-for-alls tied to financial blowups, most of those suing in the sub-prime mess aren't hoping to go to trial. The goal is compensation in an out-of-court agreement.

"The plan for plaintiffs is to get a settlement out of the case," said Michael Perino, a securities-law professor at St. John's University in Queens who studies class-action litigation. "That's the exit strategy."

Plaintiffs' attorneys contend that their investor clients suffered enormous losses because lenders made loans to unqualified borrowers, and investment banks, hungry for fees, packaged the toxic debt into bonds.

"The wrongdoing is absolutely awful," said Sal Graziano, a partner at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann in New York. "Some of our clients have lost easily tens of millions of dollars."

Graziano's firm has sued money manager State Street Corp. on grounds that its supposedly conservative bond funds were irresponsible in buying sub-prime securities.

Some companies are bracing for possibly being on the hook for sizable settlements. State Street said recently that it would record a $618-million pre-tax loss to cover potential legal liability stemming from sub-prime losses in some of its investment funds.

Many homeowners who believe they were defrauded by sub-prime lenders, as well as small investors with related losses, are likely to end up in class-action lawsuits with hundreds or thousands of others.

Although participating in class actions saves the time and cost of pursuing cases individually, plaintiffs typically recover only pennies for each dollar of losses they allegedly incurred, legal experts note.

A wild card in the litigation frenzy is whether the numerous investigations by state and federal prosecutors turn up proof of wrongdoing that could bolster suits by investors, homeowners and others.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department, the FBI and many state attorneys general all are conducting sub-prime-related probes. Partly because companies feel compelled to cooperate with regulators, the government may have the best chance of uncovering incriminating evidence, experts said.

"The government is apt to get to the truth of what companies knew faster and more effectively than a civil litigant," said Maria T. Galeno, a white-collar defense lawyer at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in New York.

A key issue in many cases is sure to be whether the lenders and securities underwriters fully disclosed the risks to borrowers who took out sub-prime loans or to investors who bought securities backed by them.

"It's, 'What did you know when you sold me this stuff, and what did you tell me about it?' " said Bill Sullivan, chairman of the securities-litigation practice at Paul Hastings in Los Angeles. "Marrying up what was disclosed versus what was known will be an important inquiry in each case."

The banks are likely to argue that sub-prime bonds were bought by sophisticated investors who understood the dangers and that it was impossible to foresee the turmoil that upended the housing market.

But if government regulators show that banks didn't adequately disclose the risks, it "would put this litigation into an entirely different and far more serious category," said Jonathan Macey, a securities-law professor at Yale University.

"That would take these from 'kind of improbable to win' to 'How many zeros are we talking about on the check?' "

Israel mounts bloody offensive against Gaza

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By Jean Shaoul

In the last few days, Israel has mounted a massive offensive against the political leadership of Hamas and its military wing as well as the civilian population of Gaza. The attacks, claiming the lives of over 100 Palestinians, including many civilians, presage a full scale aerial bombardment and a possible ground invasion. Israeli officials are already describing the conflict with Gaza as a “war”.

Early Sunday morning, Israel’s air force demolished the office of Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, in Gaza City, wounding five people, and hit seven weapons depots in northern Gaza, killing five militants. While the office was empty at the time of the air strike, there was no mistaking its message to the Hamas leadership—the same given to Yasser Arafat in April 2002 when his Ramallah compound was demolished—that nothing but total submission to Israel’s diktats will suffice. It was one of a dozen targets of a dawn raid by the Israel air force.

The previous day, in the deadliest attack since Israel supposedly “disengaged” from Gaza in August 2005, Israeli ground forces entered northern Gaza, targeting militants in and around Jabaliya refugee camp. They killed 61 Palestinians, at least two dozen of whom were civilians, including a baby, and wounded about 200, 14 of them critically.

“We are in the middle of a total war. We hear the rockets and the explosions everywhere... we cannot leave our homes,” a Jabaliya resident, Abu Alaa, told the BBC. “They’re shooting at everything that moves.”

Gaza’s streets are deserted. Universities and schools have closed.

The latest attacks bring to at least100 the number of Palestinians killed since Wednesday last week. This compares with 80 Palestinians killed and 82 injured in January, with deaths running at the rate of at least 20 a week in the last few months. In 2007, 379 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces.

The number of Israel casualties testifies to the grossly unequal balance of forces. Two Israeli soldiers were killed and seven were injured in the operations over the weekend. While the injured soldiers were airlifted for treatment to a hospital in Beer Sheva, where six of them are reported to be in a good condition and the seventh in a moderate condition, wounded Palestinians face a desperate situation where the hospitals have little or no power or medication as a consequence of Israel’s economic blockade of the territory. Only 100 Palestinians are to be allowed to enter Egypt for medical treatment.

Added to this, there is now the threat of water borne disease. Gaza’s water authority has urged people to boil their drinking water as Israel has withheld essential supplies such as chlorine. Water contamination, now a very real threat, could lead to a health disaster for Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel would press on with military action against Gaza rocket squads, saying the current operation would not be halted even for a second.

“If anyone in Gaza has illusions that extending the range of rocket fire will bring our operations to an end they are sorely mistaken,” Olmert told ministers in a cabinet meeting. “Let me be clear, Israel has no intention of stopping the fight against terror for even a second, and we will act according to the blueprint set by the government at a time and intensity of our choosing, in order to strike the terror organizations and those who provide them with cover and the ability to operate.”

The immediate pretext for Israel’s declared intention of wiping out Hamas’s political leadership by targeted assassinations and of destroying its military capabilities is the ongoing firing of Qassem rockets from Gaza against Israel’s southern towns. Most of the rockets are inaccurate, with less than half reaching Israel. But they have caused 13 Israeli deaths, numerous injuries, and considerable damage and disruption since 2001. Sederot, which borders the Gaza Strip, has faced daily rocket attacks.

In January, 267 rockets and 256 mortars were fired at Israel, injuring nine Israelis. In February, three children were wounded, one of whom lost his leg. Last Wednesday, a 47-year-old Israeli was killed by a Hamas fired rocket, the first fatality in Sederot in nine months. On Saturday, six Israelis were injured.

On Thursday, in a new development, a rocket hit a block of flats in Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 inhabitants, ten miles north of the Gaza Strip, breaking through the roof and slicing through three floors below. While no one was injured in that incident, another rocket landed near a school, wounding a 17-year-old school girl.

The greater range and accuracy of these latest rocket attacks has raised the possibility that Hamas has obtained more lethal weapons from Iran, possibly during the Gaza breakout in January.

The former army general, Matan Vilnai, utilised this unproven threat to warn that Israel was close to launching a full scale military operation against Gaza and that the Palestinians “would bring upon themselves a bigger holocaust because we will use all our might to defend ourselves”. His remarks were particularly significant as he used the Hebrew word shoah which is usually reserved for the Nazi genocide of six million European Jews.

On Thursday, February 28, Defence Minister and Labour Party member Ehud Barak, speaking in Ashkelon, said that a response was “required”. “Hamas bears responsibility for this deterioration and it will also bear the results,” he continued. Yesterday, Barak made it clear that Israeli Defence Force (IDF) was intending to escalate operations against Gaza. He said that the IDF operation against Gaza rocket fire would broaden, and reiterated earlier comments that a major ground offensive was a real and tangible option. “We are not happy about it [referring to the Palestinian civilian casualties], we won’t shy from it,” Barak told Israel Radio. “There are many considerations about the timing,” he said, without elaborating.

In a separate interview on Army Radio, Barak said, “This is not the broad ground operation, but whoever says there will not be a big ground operation speaks on his own behalf.”

Any broad incursion into Gaza would seek to crush militant rocket squads and also “weaken the Hamas rule, in the right circumstances even bring it down,” he said.

Israel’s Kadima coalition cabinet, including Labour Party members, support such an escalation, with many calling for a full scale invasion. Eli Yishai (Shas party), Haim Ramon (a former Labour party member who joined Ariel Sharon’s Kadima party in 2005), and Ami Ayalon (Labour) have gone so far as to propose that the IDF fire on residential areas from which the Qassem rockets are launched after warning residents to evacuate their homes.

Such a policy in fact flows inexorably from former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s policy of “escalate, escalate, escalate” in pursuit of the Zionist aim of a Greater Israel at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population (and of the Israeli working class, who have borne the costs)—an aim that can only be achieved by military means. It was for this purpose that he formed the Kadima party from both the Likud and the Labour parties, with the backing of Washington.

While the government is determined to press ahead with its attacks on Gaza and Hamas, yet another opinion poll indicated that 64 percent of Israelis want an end to the conflict and favour direct negotiations with Hamas to secure a ceasefire and the release of Gilad Shalit, the young soldier captured by Hamas in June 2006.

Hamas has indicated that it is willing to negotiate a ceasefire in return for the release of prisoners held in Israel and a lifting of the blockade on Gaza.

The broader context of Israel’s military offensive against Gaza is Washington’s increasingly threatening stance against Iran, which backs Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Syria. The US decision to deploy the USS Cole and other warships off the coast of Lebanon has also been linked by Nabih Berri, the Lebanese parliament speaker and opponent of the pro-Washington government of Fouad Seniora, to Israel’s raids in the Gaza Strip.

“The target [of US warships] is Gaza. It is aimed to allow what must happen in Gaza to happen without anyone moving to support [the Palestinians],” he said. “This is a real threat, not merely a muscle-flexing.”

Berri also said that the US military move was designed to focus attention on Lebanon “in order to cover up the massacres being committed in Gaza” He added, “This [US] fleet comes to back Israel so that it can complete its plan.”

Israel’s actions drew perfunctory condemnation from the European Union, while the Arab regimes were also muted in their criticism. The United Nations Security Council voiced its concern at the events. The US, which as a permanent member can veto any resolution, would not accept any criticism of Israel’s actions.

The White House made clear its support for the Israeli onslaught. While issuing a formal call for an “end to violence,” national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe, speaking from Bush’s Texas ranch, stressed, “There is a clear distinction between terrorist rocket attacks that target civilians and action in self-defence.”

Both Democratic presidential contenders chimed in with support for the Israeli attacks. “Israel has a right to defend itself,” declared Senator Barak Obama, while Senator Hillary Clinton criticized the White House for failing to take “a more active role in bringing international pressure on Hamas.”

Riyad Mansour, the Permanent Observer of Palestine to the UN, accused the international community of an “unjustifiable and unacceptable” silence on events in Gaza.

Gazan schoolteacher Tawfek Shaban, a 44-year-old father of five, summed up the reaction of the people of Gaza when he told the Associated Press, “Shame on the Arabs, shame on the Muslims, shame on humanity ... When they will act to stop Israel?”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who lost control of Gaza to Hamas last June, condemned Israel’s operations on Saturday, calling Israel’s pounding of Gaza a “holocaust” and “genocide” and suspended peace talks. These recent attacks on Gaza threaten to unleash a backlash against him in the West Bank. In Ramallah, thousands of schoolchildren demonstrated against Israel. Some accused Abbas of being an Israeli agent, and protesters threw stones at cars and burned tires, forcing shopkeepers to close their stores.

Violent protests erupted near Jerusalem, as Palestinians in Atarot, Har Adar and Qalandia began throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at IDF troops. Spontaneous demonstrations took place throughout the West Bank at checkpoints, watchtowers and patrol routes and there were angry clashes with the IDF. In Hebron, hundreds of Palestinian youths threw stones and bottles at an Israeli checkpoint in the city centre. Israeli troops fired on the crowd, killing a teenager and wounding two people.

Later, about 2,000 angry Hamas supporters marched through the city, waving copies of the Quran and green Hamas flags and chanting, “Revenge. Revenge. Retaliate in Tel Aviv”. Demonstrations also took place in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.