Monday, March 10, 2008

Mosaic News: 3/7/08 - World News from the Middle East

The Muslim Jesus

There was no manger, Christ is not the Messiah, and the crucifixion never happened. This ITV documentary - narrated by Melvyn Bragg -portrays Jesus as Muslims see him.

Kosovo’s independence a matter of Western oil interests, not democracy

Go to Original
By Aditya Ganapathiraju

Kosovo, a small territory where primarily ethnic Albanians reside, announced its independence from Serbia last month. While Western leaders have celebrated this unilateral secession as a great moment for democracy, the actual details of the secession paint a different picture.

In 1999, the United States led NATO in bombing the former Yugoslavia under the pretense of preventing Serbian aggression against Kosovar Albanians. Former president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, whom the United States once supported, played a key role in the aggression.

While bombing was said to be essential to prevent genocide, in 2005 senior Clinton official John Norris wrote differently in his novel Collision Course.

“It was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform — not the plight of the Kosovar Albanians — that best explains NATO’s war,” he wrote.

Bill Richardson, Clinton’s secretary of energy, also brought up underlying reasons for the bombing.

“This is about America’s energy security,” he said months after the bombing.

At the time, the U.N. Security Council passed resolution 1244, which guaranteed a commitment of all member states to the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Serbian and Russian political officials have said Kosovo’s declaration of independence was in gross violation of 1244 and a breach of international law, while the United States asserts that Kosovo’s independence was fully consistent with 1244, said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in a security council press release.

“I’m very torn,” said Stephen Zunes, a UC San Francisco professor of international studies, in an interview with “I have supported the Kosovo Albanians’ struggle for self-determination for quite a few years now, and yet … the nature of the current Kosovo-Albanian leadership and the hypocrisy and double standards of the United States and other Western powers makes this a time that should be one of celebration to one of, frankly, great apprehension.”

Zunes and others point to the hypocrisy of Western powers in supporting Kosovo’s right to secede but ignoring other regions with similar aspirations, like Tibet, Western Sahara, the Basque country in Spain, Kashmir, Taiwan, Palestine and Kurdistan.

Asia Times columnist Pepe Escobar said to look at Camp Bondsteel and the Albanian Macedonian Bulgarian Oil Corp. (AMBO) for answers as to why the United States is interested in Kosovo’s independence.

The $1.1 billion AMBO pipeline will take oil from the Caspian Sea, bypassing the heavily trafficked Aegean and Mediterranean seas and routing it through Macedonia to the U.S.-friendly Albanian port of Vlora, ultimately taking the oil to refineries in the United States for significantly less cost than it now incurs.

Camp Bondsteel will serve to provide “security” in the region, defending critical pipeline areas while also serving as “a sort of smaller — and friendlier — five-star Guantanamo, with perks like Thai massage and loads of junk food,” Escobar said.

Kosovo’s independence may have little to do with its autonomy. Officials in Brussels have confirmed that thousands of EU bureaucrats will be sent to the nation-state to form another “EU (and NATO) protectorate,” Escobar wrote.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdistan has been denied its independence. Turkey officials are furious at the precedent Kosovo has set and invaded Northern Iraq with 10,000 troops to show the world that Kurdish secession is not an option.

“An array of European analysts, not to mention Russians, has compared the current, dangerous state of play in the Balkans to Sarajevo in 1914 that led to the outbreak of World War II,” Escobar wrote.

How to End the Subprime Crisis

Go to Original]
By Paul Craig Roberts

Reforms often do more harm than good. This is currently the case with the “mark-to-market” rule, which is imploding the US financial system by requiring financial institutions to value subprime mortgages at their current market values.

This makes a big problem for balance sheets. These financial instruments became troubled prior to a market being established for them, as they were marketed direct from issuers to investors. Now that they are troubled and with their true values unknown, no one wants them. Their lack of liquidity assigns them a low value.

The result is tremendous pressure on balance sheets. The plummeting value of subprime derivatives is pushing institutions that own them into insolvency, destroying their own stock values and forcing the financial institutions to sell untroubled liquid assets, thus resulting in an overall decline in the stock market.

The solution is to suspend the mark-to-market rule. Instead, allow financial institutions to keep the troubled instruments at book value, or 85-90% of book value, until a market forms that can sort out values, and allow financial institutions to write down the subprime mortgages and other troubled instruments over time.

Suspending the mark-to-market rule would take pressure off the stock market and make it unnecessary for the Fed to lower interest rates in an effort to force liquidity into the economy through an impaired banking system. The problem is not a general lack of liquidity, but liquidity for poorly conceived new financial instruments. Low US interest rates could worsen the crisis by accelerating the dollar’s decline. Now that inflation has raised its head, more liquidity from the Fed adds to the economic distress.

It is mindless to allow a “reform” to cause a financial crisis, but that is what is happening. Unfortunately, there are people who argue that anything less than financial armageddon would create a “moral hazard.”

It is certainly true that securitized subprime mortgage instruments were a bad idea, that a lot of people who should have known better opened floodgates to greed and fraud, and that “somebody should pay.” But it shouldn’t be the general public and the economy that pays.

It is also true that without the Federal Reserve’s irresponsible low interest rate monetary policy, which produced a housing boom, the subprime instruments would not have been created, or at least not in such amounts. Rapidly rising real estate prices were expected to make the risky loans good. What were issuers and the Federal Reserve thinking?

No doubt but that greed, fraud, and bad policy all played their roles. But at the heart of the problem is a 1999 “reform” that repealed an earlier reform known as the Glass-Steagall Act.

In 1933 the Glass-Steagall Act separated commercial banking from the securities business. It prevented securities speculation from destroying bank capital and shrinking bank deposits from bank failures and runs on banks by depositors. Congress and President Bill Clinton foolishly repealed the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999.

The repeal of the 1933 law was driven by profit lust in the banking industry and by “free market” ideology, which claims the unfettered marketplace is always superior to regulation. In pushing the repeal forward, Congress and Clinton ignored warnings from the General Accounting Office that the banks needed to build up their capital levels before being permitted to enter a broad range of securities businesses. The GAO also noted that there were no regulatory structures in place to monitor the new financial networks that would result from removing the wall between commercial and investment banking.

However, greed and ideology won over sound advice. The result is a crisis that, if mishandled, will be calamitous.

Exclusive: Inside Gitmo with Detainee 061

Shortly after German-born Murat Kurnaz arrived at Camp Delta, intelligence reports show the plan was to let him go. What happened?

Go to Original
By Mariah Blake

IT WAS LATE September 2002, and construction crews were just finishing work on the main prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when three German intelligence agents arrived on the island aboard a U.S. military plane.

The reason for their visit was sensitive. The Pentagon was still arguing that those held at Guantanamo were "the worst of the worst" and "the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth," but behind closed doors CIA officials were coming to the conclusion that a number of detainees had no links to terrorism, and were working on a list of prisoners to be set free.

One of the detainees being considered for release was Murat Kurnaz, a German-born Turkish citizen who had been pulled off a bus in Pakistan the year before and turned over to U.S. forces. Since then, American security agencies hadn’t turned up any evidence that he belonged to a terrorist group or posed a threat to the United States. But before clearing his release, the CIA wanted the Germans to interrogate him and offer their stamp of approval.

After they arrived, the agents were led out to a trailer near the dusty sprawl of cell blocks known as Camp Delta. Inside, the air conditioner was on full blast, and Kurnaz, a stocky young man with blunt features and a thick red beard, was seated on one side of a long table, his hands and feet shackled to a ring in the floor. The men took turns questioning him—about the nightclubs he frequented in his wilder years, about his reasons for embracing Islam, about his journey to Pakistan and the heavy boots he bought before leaving—while a hidden camera rolled in the background.

All told, they spent 12 hours with him over two days, concluding by the end that he simply found himself "in the wrong place at the wrong time" and "had nothing to do with terrorism and al-Qaida," according to German intelligence reports.

They discussed their findings with CIA and Pentagon officials, then boarded a plane back to Germany. During a stopover in Washington, D.C., one of the agents visited the local branch of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, and reported back to headquarters via a secure phone line, saying: "USA considers Murat Kurnaz’s innocence to be proven. He should be released in approximately six to eight weeks." A few days later, a Pentagon release form for the detainee was printed and awaiting signature.

"At that point, the picture was clear," says Lothar Jachmann, a retired spy who headed the intelligence-gathering operation on Kurnaz for Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, and was briefed on the Guantanamo visit by one of the agents. "We had nothing on him, and we had gotten feedback that the Americans had nothing on him either. The plan was to let him go."

But Kurnaz was not set free. Instead, he spent another four years languishing at Guantanamo, where he was repeatedly designated an "enemy combatant," despite evidence showing he had no known links to terrorist groups.

Lawyers for Guantanamo detainees often argue that their clients are being held based on thin intelligence, but Kurnaz’s case is the first where the record clearly shows that evidence of innocence was ignored to justify his continued detention. His story, pieced together from intelligence reports, newly declassified Pentagon documents, and secret testimony before the German Parliament—much of it never before reported in the United States—offers a rare window into the workings of the secretive system used to hold and try terrorism suspects.

MURAT KURNAZ, the son of Turkish immigrants, was born and raised in Bremen, a rainy north German port city, where he lived with his family in a simple brick row house. His father, Metin, worked the assembly line at a Mercedes Benz plant, while his mother, Rabiye, stayed home with him and his two younger brothers. On Fridays he and his father attended the neighborhood Kuba Mosque, a storefront sanctuary with a barbershop, bookstore, and cavernous teahouse where old men in crocheted skullcaps huddle around plastic tables.

Mosque-goers remember Kurnaz as a shy, quiet boy who didn’t take much interest in religion. "He was a normal Muslim Turk, who prayed once in a while, but was not very observant," says Nurtekin Tepe, a local bus driver, who has known Kurnaz since he was a child. Instead, Kurnaz spent his time watching Bruce Lee movies, dreaming about motorbikes (he hoped to get one and drive it 110 miles per hour on the autobahn), and lifting weights, often with his neighbor, Selcuk Bilgin, who had many of the same interests, though he was six years older.

This began to change in the fall of 2000. Kurnaz, then 18, was working as a nightclub bouncer; Bilgin had a dead-end job at a supermarket. Some of their friends had started getting in trouble with the law. Feeling there must be something more to life, both men began to take a deeper interest in Islam. Before long, they had cut pork from their diets, grown their beards long, and started attending a new mosque, Abu Bakr, which was located in a dingy, fluorescent-lit office building near Bremen’s main train station and preached a strict brand of Sunni Islam.

Around this time, Kurnaz also started searching for a Muslim bride, and in the summer of 2001 he married Fatima, a young woman who hails from a rural Turkish village. The union was arranged by relatives, and the couple met only once before the ceremony. The idea was to bring her to Germany as soon as her paperwork was sorted out. Meanwhile, Kurnaz and Bilgin made plans to travel to Pakistan. The reason for the trip has been a matter of much debate, but Kurnaz claims he was worried that he didn’t know enough about Islam to be a good Muslim husband and wanted to study the Koran before Fatima’s arrival.

The flight was scheduled to depart Frankfurt on October 3, 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, but even before Kurnaz and Bilgin boarded the plane their plans began to unravel. Bilgin was stopped at passport control because of an outstanding $1300 fine levied after his dog ran away and attacked a bicyclist. Unable to pay, he called his older brother, Abdullah, in Bremen and asked him to wire the money. Instead, Abdullah phoned the Frankfurt police and urged them not to let Bilgin fly. "My brother is following a friend to Afghanistan to fight the Americans," he said, according to police reports. "He was stirred up in a Bremen mosque."

Questioned by police a few days later, Abdullah, who unlike his brother has a poor grasp on German, said his words had been taken out of context; he’d feared Kurnaz and Bilgin might get caught up in the conflict, but didn’t know for a fact that they had plans of fighting. But by that time, the wheels were already in motion. Bilgin was arrested and Bremen police launched a criminal investigation into him, Kurnaz, and two other men who attended Abu Bakr. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency also got in on the act, sending an undercover agent to the mosque to ferret out information.

Meanwhile, Kurnaz, who had gotten on the plane without Bilgin, was traveling through Pakistan, unaware of the commotion his departure had caused.

ON DECEMBER 1, 2001, Kurnaz boarded a bus to the airport in Peshawar, a smoggy city on the country’s northwest border, where he says he planned to catch a plane back to Germany. Along the way, the vehicle was stopped at a routine checkpoint. One of the officers manning it knocked on the window and asked Kurnaz something in Urdu, then ordered him to step off the bus.

Kurnaz expected to show his passport and answer a few questions before being sent on his way. Instead, he was thrown in jail. A few days later, Pakistani police turned him over to U.S. forces, who transported him to Kandahar Air Base, a military installation in the southern reaches of Afghanistan. The Taliban had recently been driven from the region, and the base, built on the rubble of a bombed-out airport, was little more than a cluster of bullet-pocked hangars and decrepit runways. Despite the subzero temperatures, prisoners were kept in large outdoor pens, and a number of them later claimed they were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics. Kurnaz says he was routinely beaten, chained up for days in painful positions, and given electric shocks on the soles of his feet. He also says he was subjected to a crude form of waterboarding, which involved having his head plunged into a water-filled plastic bucket. (The Pentagon, contacted more than a dozen times by email and telephone, would not comment on Kurnaz’s treatment or any other aspect of his case.)

One morning about two months after his arrival in Afghanistan, the detainee was roused before dawn and issued an orange jumpsuit. Then guards shackled and blindfolded him and covered his ears with soundproof earphones before herding him onto a military transport plane.

When the plane touched down more than 20 hours later, Kurnaz was led into a tent where soldiers plucked hairs from his arms, swabbed the inside of his mouth, and gave him a green plastic bracelet with number that would come to define him: 061. Finally, he was led to a crude cell block with concrete floors, a corrugated metal roof, and chain-link walls, which looked out on a sandy desert landscape. Inside his cell, he found a blanket and a thin green mat, a pair of flip-flops, and two translucent buckets, one to be used as a toilet and the other as a sink. He had no idea where he was.

Kurnaz later learned that he landed at Camp X-Ray, a temporary holding pen used to house Guantanamo detainees during the four months when the main prison camp was being built. Even before construction was done, Pentagon officials began to suspect that Kurnaz didn’t belong there. On February 24, 2002, just three weeks after his arrival, a senior military interrogator issued a memo saying, "This source may actually have no al-Qaida or Taliban association."

IN LATE SEPTEMBER 2002, the three German agents arrived at Guantanamo to interrogate detainee 061. During the trip, they were assigned a CIA liaison, identified only as Steve H., who briefed them on their mission and kept tabs on the interrogations.

Much of the questioning the first day focused on why Kurnaz would choose to travel to Pakistan when war was brewing in the region. The detainee explained that a group of Muslim missionaries had visited his mosque and told him about a school in Lahore where he could study the Koran. But when he arrived there, he found people were suspicious of him because of his light skin and the fact that he spoke no Arabic. Taking him for a foreign journalist, the school turned him away. So he wandered around, staying in mosques and guesthouses, until he was detained near Peshawar (something he also attributed to his light skin and the fact that he spoke German but carried a Turkish passport).

The German agents came away with mixed opinions, according to testimony they later gave before a closed session of German Parliament. (Many other details of their trip were also revealed through that hearing, transcripts of which were obtained by Mother Jones.) The leader of the delegation, who worked for the foreign intelligence service, the BND, saw Kurnaz as a harmless and somewhat naive young man who simply picked a bad time to travel. One of his colleagues, a domestic intelligence specialist, argued it was possible that Kurnaz was on the path to radicalization. But everyone agreed it was highly improbable that he had links to terrorist networks or was involved in any kind of terrorist plot, and none of the agents voiced any objections to letting him go.

Given this fact, Steve H. proposed releasing Kurnaz and using him as a spy, part of a joint operation to infiltrate the Islamist scene in Germany. The German agents apparently took this suggestion to heart, because on day two of their visit, they arrived at the interrogation trailer bearing a chocolate bar and a motorcycle magazine, and asked the detainee point-blank whether he would consider working as an informant. He agreed. (Kurnaz later claimed that he had no intention of actually spying—that, in fact, he would "rather starve to death"—but thought feigning interest might hasten his release.)

That evening, the agents were invited to dinner with the deputy commander of the prison camp. The leader of the delegation later testified that he discussed Kurnaz’s case with him, and according to an investigation by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, after the meal, the American official sent a coded message to the Pentagon. A few days later, on September 30, the release form for Kurnaz was printed out. The cover memo, obtained by Mother Jones, notes that Pentagon investigators had found "no definite link/evidence of detainee having an association with al-Qaida or making any specific threat toward the U.S." and that "the Germans confirmed that this detainee has no connection to an al-Qaida cell in Germany."

AROUND THE SAME TIME, in October 2002, German police suspended their investigation into Kurnaz and his fellow suspects. No evidence of criminal wrongdoing ever surfaced. "We tapped telephones, we searched apartments, we questioned a large number of witnesses," Uwe Picard, the Bremen attorney general who led the probe, told me when we spoke in his office, an attic warren stacked waist-deep in files. "We didn’t find anything of substance."

But police did turn up some troubling bits of hearsay. One of the students at a shipbuilding school Kurnaz attended told investigators that Kurnaz had "Taliban" written on the screen of his cell phone. Then there were the comments of Kurnaz’s mother, who, when questioned by police days after her son’s disappearance, fretted that he had "bought heavy boots and two pairs of binoculars" shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Seizing on these details, the German media dubbed Kurnaz the "Bremen Taliban." This was clearly unsettling to German officials, who just one year after the 9/11 attacks were still reeling from the revelation that three hijackers lived and studied in Germany without ever catching the attention of police or intelligence agencies. Many politicians had serious qualms about letting the German Turk back into the country.

The first sign of these doubts came in the form of a classified report on the Guantanamo visit, which was issued on October 8, 2002, and circulated through the top ranks of the German government. It argues that releasing Kurnaz and using him as a spy would be "problematic," in that he had "no access to the Mujahideen milieu." It also notes, "In light of Kurnaz’s possibly imminent release, we should determine whether Germany wants the Turkish citizen back and, given the expected media attention, whether Germany wants to document that everything possible was done to prevent his return."

Three weeks later, Kurnaz’s case was discussed at the presidential round, a standing Tuesday meeting held at the Germany Chancellery and attended by top officials from the foreign and interior ministries as well as the German security services. The group decided to block his return, and on October 30 the interior ministry issued a secret memo with a plan for keeping him out of the country, which involved revoking his residency permit on the grounds that he had been abroad for more than six months. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency later notified the CIA in writing of the government’s "express wish" that Kurnaz "not return to Germany."

FOR KURNAZ, the next two years were a blur of interrogations and hours spent locked in his cell. At one point, he claims guards roused him every few hours, part of a coordinated sleep-deprivation campaign dubbed Operation Sandman. He also says he was subjected to pepper-spray attacks, extreme heat and cold, and sexual humiliation at the hands of a scantily clad female guard, who he says rubbed herself against him.

On occasion, he says, punishments were doled out arbitrarily. Each morning a guard would appear at Kurnaz’s cell door and ask him to shove his blanket through the slot. Even when he did so, he claims, he was sometimes accused of not cooperating and given a stint in solitary confinement.

Still, the detainee continued to plead his innocence, telling interrogators at one point that the idea of someone thinking he wanted to fight the Americans "made him feel sick," according to Pentagon intelligence reports. He also offered repeatedly to take a lie detector test. When asked what he would do if released, he said he would bring his wife to Germany and buy a motorcycle.

Then in June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that U.S. courts had the authority under federal law to decide whether those held at Guantanamo were rightfully imprisoned. In a bid to keep detainees out of the U.S. justice system, the Bush administration created the Combatant Status Review Tribunals to determine whether detainees had been properly labeled enemy combatants.

Three months later, on September 30, 2004, Kurnaz was led out to one of the interrogation trailers on the fringes of Camp Delta, the main prison complex at Guantanamo. Inside, under the glare of florescent lights, sat three high-ranking military officers at a long table. The "tribunal president," or judge, was in a high-backed chair in the middle. At his side was Kurnaz’s "personal representative," who was assigned with helping the detainee argue his case, though he hardly said a word during the proceedings. As for the charges, the only information Kurnaz was given was a summary of the unclassified evidence, which the prosecutor—or "recorder" in Guantanamo parlance—reeled off at the beginning of the hearing. Most of it was circumstantial, like the fact that Kurnaz had flown from Frankfurt to Karachi just three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and that he allegedly received food and lodging from the Muslim missionary group Tablighi Jamaat. (An apolitical movement with more than 70 million members, it has no known terrorist links, but intelligence agencies worry that its strict brand of Sunni Islam may make it an ideal recruiting ground for jihadists.)

But Kurnaz was hit with one more serious allegation, namely that he was "a close associate with, and planned to travel to Pakistan with" Selcuk Bilgin, who the recorder said "later engaged in a suicide bombing." Clearly shaken by this charge, Kurnaz interrupted the session, blurting out, "Where are the explosives? What bombs?" according to transcripts of the hearing, which are not verbatim. The tribunal president responded that the details of Bilgin’s fate were classified. Then he asked if the detainee wanted to make a statement. Kurnaz replied, "I am here because Selcuk Bilgin had bombed somebody? I wasn’t aware that he had done that." Then he gave a meandering speech, mostly a reprise of things he had said during interrogations.

When he was done, the tribunal president asked him if he had anything else to submit, though it’s unclear what more he could have offered; detainees are allowed only limited documentary evidence, and calls for witnesses are generally denied. (Even if prisoners could present more information, it would likely be trumped by the government’s evidence, which, under the tribunal rules laid out by the Bush administration, is presumed to be "genuine and accurate.") Kurnaz said simply: "I want to know if I have to stay here, or if I can go home…If I go back home, I will prove that I am innocent."

Later that day, the tribunal determined by a "preponderance of evidence" that Kurnaz had not only been properly designated an enemy combatant, but that he was a member of Al Qaeda. According to the classified summary obtained by Mother Jones, the decision was based almost exclusively on a single memo, written by Brig. General David B. Lacquement shortly before the tribunal convened.

A version of that memo was recently declassified, albeit with large swaths redacted. Among the "suspicious activities" it said Kurnaz engaged in while at Guantanamo: He "covered his ears and prayed loudly during the U.S. national Anthem" and asked how tall a basketball rim was "possibly in an attempt to estimate the heights of the fences." U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green, who reviewed the unredacted version, later wrote that it was "rife with hearsay and lacking in detailed support for its conclusions."

In contrast to Lacquement’s memo, at least three assessments in Kurnaz’s Pentagon file point to his innocence. Among them is a recently declassified memo, dated May 19, 2003, from Brittain P. Mallow, then commanding general of the Criminal Investigation Task Force, a Pentagon intelligence unit that interrogates and collects information on detainees. It states the "CITF is not aware of evidence that Kurnaz was or is a member of al-Qaida" or that he harbored anyone who "has engaged in, aided or abetted, or conspired to commit acts of terrorism against the U.S." But the tribunal found these exhibits were "not persuasive in that they seemingly corroborated the detainee’s testimony." In other words, the Pentagon’s own evidence was ignored because it suggested the detainee was innocent.

What of the allegation that Kurnaz’s would-be traveling companion, Selcuk Bilgin, carried out a suicide attack? As it turns out, Bilgin is alive and residing in Bremen with his wife and two small children. I tracked him down in early January with three phone calls and a visit to his parents’ home, and we met a couple weeks later at his lawyer’s office near the city center. A stocky man with large, dark eyes and a wiry beard, he arrived in a white Audi station wagon with car seats in the rear and was wearing olive cargo pants with a thick black jacket that cinched at the waist. Following his arrest in Frankfurt, he explained, he was held for a few days and then released. "After that, two people from the intelligence services came to talk to me," he told me. "Some journalists called. Then I just went on with my life."

Indeed, Bilgin was never charged with any crime, although he was initially suspected of influencing Kurnaz to go to Afghanistan and fight. (Kurnaz’s parents also blamed him for their son’s ordeal, and the two men no longer speak.)

As for the attack Bilgin was accused of carrying out, identified by the Pentagon as the "Elananutus" bombing, it never registered with the media in Germany or the United States (though there is a record of a November 2003 attack on an Istanbul synagogue, allegedly by a man with a similar sounding name—Gokhan Elaltuntas). The Pentagon never bothered to run that allegation by German police; German intelligence agencies were apparently kept out of the loop, too.

"A suicide bomber?" Jachmann, who led the intelligence gathering on Bilgin and Kurnaz, asked incredulously when I explained the allegations. "As far as we knew, he was living right here in Bremen the whole time."

A WEEK AFTER HIS tribunal, Kurnaz received a visit from a balding thirtysomething man with wire-rimmed glasses who handed him a piece of paper with a handwritten note on it. It read, "My dear son, it’s me, your mother. I hope you’re doing well. This man is Baher Azmy. You can trust him. He’s your lawyer."

In the three years he had been at Guantanamo, this was the first word Kurnaz had heard from his family. Afraid that the letter would be taken from him, he crumpled it up and stuffed it under his shirt.

Azmy also delivered a second piece of news: He had filed suit against the Bush administration on Kurnaz’s behalf.

Three months later, in January 2005, U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green delivered a ruling on Kurnaz’s claim, and those of 62 other prisoners, challenging the legality of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. Finding that the tribunals were illegal, she used Kurnaz’s case to illustrate the "fundamental unfairness" of the system, particularly its reliance on "classified information not disclosed to the detainees." (Most of the passages of the ruling dealing with his case were themselves classified until recently, though they were briefly released through a Pentagon slipup and reported by the Washington Post in March 2005.) Green also argued that the tribunal’s choice to ignore evidence of Kurnaz’s innocence was among the strongest signs that the tribunals were stacked against detainees.

But in the end the ruling was just one salvo in an ongoing legal struggle over whether detainees can plead their cases in U.S. courts and had little impact on Kurnaz’s situation. In early November 2005, when the Administrative Review Board (ARB), which conducts annual reviews of detainees’ status, took up his case again, it voted unanimously to uphold his designation as an enemy combatant. According to internal Pentagon emails obtained by Mother Jones, the board failed to weigh evidence submitted by Kurnaz’s lawyers, including a notarized affidavit from Bilgin, which showed that a central charge against the detainee—his alleged association with a suicide bomber—was verifiably false.

Around this time, the tides began to turn on the other side of the Atlantic. German media had gotten wind of their government’s role in Kurnaz’s continued detention, and scandal was brewing. Politicians who had pushed to keep him out of the country were suddenly scrambling to distance themselves from the decision.

Then, in late November, Angela Merkel took over as German chancellor. Though a friend of the Bush administration, she has made no bones about her opposition to the indefinite detentions at Guantanamo. During her first visits to the Oval Office, in January 2006, she pressed President George W. Bush on Kurnaz’s case, the first in a string of negotiations over his fate. In June of that year, the Administrative Review Board reconvened and decided that, after nearly five years of imprisonment, detainee 061 was no longer an enemy combatant.

ON AUGUST 24, 2006, a C-17 cargo plane touched down at Ramstein Air Base, a U.S. military installation 44 miles southwest of Frankfurt. Shackled to the floor in its cargo hold was detainee 061, his face wrapped in a mask and his eyes covered by goggles with blacked-out lenses. Standing watch over him were 15 American soldiers.

On the tarmac, he was handed over to German police, who asked that his handcuffs be removed. Then they escorted him to a nearby Red Cross installation, where his family was waiting.

The reunion was bittersweet: His mother couldn’t stop crying, and his father was so withered and gray that at first Kurnaz mistook him for an older uncle. During the car ride home, a journey of more than 250 miles, Kurnaz learned that his wife, Fatima—the reason he says he traveled to Pakistan—had filed for divorce. All those years with no word from him were more than she could handle. Later in the trip, his father pulled over at a rest stop and his mother poured him some coffee from a thermos in the trunk. Kurnaz was so busy marveling at the stars, which had been drowned out by the floodlights at Guantanamo, that he forgot to drink it.

Kurnaz’s homecoming created a clamor in Germany. By early 2007, the widening scandal was threatening to topple Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who as head of the Chancellery under the previous administration was the highest official to formally approve the plan blocking Kurnaz’s return. Around the same time, a special investigative committee of German Parliament began probing Berlin’s role in Kurnaz’s continued detention. The ongoing inquiry has hit some stumbling blocks: CIA transcripts related to the case vanished, and an electronic data system with vital intelligence information was mysteriously erased.

Meanwhile, as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs the legality of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, Kurnaz’s ordeal is emerging as a key exhibit. Attorney Seth Waxman, who delivered oral arguments on detainees’ behalf last December, wrapped up his comments by recounting the salient details of Kurnaz’s case—a move intended to drive home his claim that the tribunals are an "inadequate substitute" for due process. A decision in the case is expected early this summer.

A reluctant political figure, Kurnaz has done his best to stay out of the fray, turning instead to his old interests. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, which kept tabs on him after his return, found only one item of note—that he had bought a motorcycle. (He has since shaved off his beard in favor of a biker mustache, started lifting weights again, and bought a cherry-colored Mazda RX-8 with double spoilers, custom alloy wheels, and black-and-red racing seats.) He has also written a memoir, Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo, which came out in Germany last year. An English version, with a foreword by rocker Patti Smith, is scheduled to be released in the United States in April, and a movie deal is already in the works. The television newsmagazine 60 Minutes has negotiated an interview exclusive timed to correspond with the book’s release. (Kurnaz declined to be interviewed for this story because of that arrangement.)

A plainspoken account, Five Years of My Life focuses on the daily humiliations and surreal texture of life at Guantanamo, a place where iguanas roam the cell blocks and trials take place in the same rooms as interrogations. In the closing pages, Kurnaz explains why he chose to speak out. "It’s important that our stories are told," he writes. "We need to counter the endless [official] reports written in Guantanamo itself. We have to speak up and say: I tried to hand back my blanket and got four weeks in solitary confinement." But Kurnaz doesn’t dwell on his own suffering. Instead he turns the spotlight on the plight of other detainees, including the ones who are still being held. "While I sit here eating chocolate bars and peeling mandarin oranges, they are being beaten and starved," he writes. "I can eat, drink and sleep much the same as I did five years ago, but I never forget that people are being abused in Cuba."

Click here for a timeline of Kurnaz’s case.

Subprime Lending's Smartest Guys in the Room

Former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo had a lot to answer for in today's House hearing.

Go to Original
By Nomi Prins

Corporations "restating" earnings; fawning business media; chief executives diverting the blame; Securities and Exchange Commission probes initiated after the damage is done. This Enron-WorldCom déjà vu is brought to us courtesy of America's housing industry, and the standard narrative is that irrationally exuberant buyers drove up home values while banks made too many loans to the wrong people. The truth, however, is that this latest boom-and-bust is about stock prices as much as housing prices—and that's where the real scandal lurks.

Skyrocketing home prices dominated the headlines during the boom, but they were nothing compared to the bubble experienced by Wall Street's housing sector. From early 2002 through late 2005, average home prices rose about 32 percent nationwide, but the paper value of companies like Countrywide Financial, Beazer Homes, and New Century Financial skyrocketed at least 10 times as fast, with their shares posting gains of 300 to 400 percent.

Now those stocks are in free fall—and lurking behind the hand-wringing about overextended buyers and dubious lending practices are the other key culprits: the ceos who misrepresented their books and cashed out before the public knew what was happening, and the credulous finance reporters and securities analysts who cheered them along until it was too late. And let's not leave out the sec—the body charged with protecting the stock-buying public from just this kind of trickery—which stood by and watched as the signs of trouble accumulated. Investigations of housing-sector fraud are only now ramping up, long after they should have. As Gary Aguirre, a former senior investigative counsel for the commission, told me, "It's only once news hits the headlines and the shock waves and consequences are out there that the sec will get involved."

It didn't take a genius to see this coming. Companies have to file key data about their performance with the sec each quarter, and business reporters as well as analysts should know perfectly well how to spot the gaps between rosy rhetoric and the hard financials. Digging into those numbers was something I did all the time as a managing director for Goldman Sachs and for other Wall Street firms. So I selected one big housing company as a test case, just to see what its filings might reveal.

Lennar Corporation is a Florida-based home builder (motto: "Everything you want. Everything you need.") that Fortune identified in 2003 as one of America's 100 fastest-growing companies. I started with its press releases: In March of 2006, Lennar ceo Stuart Miller cooed that his company expected a record year with earnings per share (a standard measure of corporate profitability) of $9.25—this at a time, remember, when headlines about the cooling housing market were already ubiquitous. The prediction also seemed highly ambitious given that Lennar's earnings for the first quarter of '06 were only a buck and change. Three months later, with the housing market still in the doldrums, Lennar reported second-quarter earnings of $2 per share, an impressive gain, though still far short of what Miller would need to meet his goal for the year. The company also reported that its revenues from home sales were up 53 percent from the second quarter of 2005—the peak of the building frenzy—and it boasted that it had delivered 40 percent more homes to customers, and increased prices 10 percent. All these sexy numbers made it easy to miss an ominous sign further down in the second-quarter press release: Lennar's profit per house sold was declining. Yet the company still predicted it would do better for the rest of the year than it had the first six months—with earnings per share totaling another $4.50 or so.

A month later, Lennar announced that it had worked out a deal with its bankers to add $1 billion to its credit line—an expanded safety net that could be seen as a sign of weakness in a contracting housing market. Then came the third-quarter results: new orders down 5 percent, profit per house down again, earnings per share a paltry $1.30—although the company led its press release with a 20 percent rise in revenues. After that, gains turned to losses, and Lennar quit touting numbers in the titles of its public statements. (All the while, analysts such as Citigroup's Stephen Kim urged people to buy Lennar's stock—Kim did so until July 2007, as the share price neared the midpoint of last year's 64 percent plunge.)

In November of 2007, the company formed a side partnership with a Morgan Stanley affiliate to purchase Lennar's stockpiled property—msr Holding Company paid only 40 cents for each dollar Lennar had ascribed to its real estate, raising the question of whether Lennar had overestimated land values, or was merely trying to cut its losses.

As with many companies, there's nothing in Lennar's public data that reeks of mischief. The point is that even as their market imploded, big housing companies were claiming puzzlingly positive results, playing down the mayhem any intelligent ceo knew was imminent, and ultimately setting up the economy for a rude awakening.

Sure enough, although the sec waited until last March to form a "subprime working group," indications of blatant misbehavior are proving plentiful. In October, the commission launched a probe of Countrywide, the nation's largest lender, regarding the questionable timing of a $130 million stock sale by ceo Angelo R. Mozilo. Around the same time, the commission began looking into reports that Beazer Homes, one of the nation's largest home builders, had exaggerated its earnings starting in 2004. The sec has also been looking at KB Home, the nation's fifth-largest home builder, over allegations that former ceo Bruce Karatz—paid $50 million at the boom's pinnacle in 2005—further inflated his compensation by backdating stock options, which is akin to betting on a horse race that's already been run.

Then there are the companies that have gone belly-up even as executives cleaned up: The founders of New Century Financial, once the nation's second-largest subprime lender, dumped millions of dollars' worth of stock just months before the company's April bankruptcy—the sec is now investigating the company. And last October, the fbi opened an investigation into criminal misconduct at American Home Mortgage, one of the nation's largest loan originators, which went bankrupt in August of that year. Shareholders have also filed more than a dozen civil suits claiming that American Home executives misrepresented the firm's finances; the sec, so far, has demurred. Spokesman Kevin Callahan would not comment on specific investigations.

The chattering classes still blame desperate borrowers for not reading the fine print, but perhaps they should reserve some vitriol for Wall Street's watchdog. If there's one lesson the commission should have learned long ago, it's that booms aren't fueled by market forces alone, but also by healthy doses of fraud, deception, and unchecked opportunism. And it's invariably everyday folks who pay the price. "The sec, instead of watching Wall Street, insulates it," notes Aguirre. "The subprime issue is a direct consequence of the sec's failure to act proactively to intercept fraud as it develops."

Bush vetoes bill outlawing torture techniques

Go to Original
By Joe Kay

On Saturday, US President George W. Bush vetoed a law that would have banned the CIA from using certain torture techniques. In doing so, he affirmed once again the utter criminality of his administration.

Bush’s veto sends back to Congress an intelligence authorization bill that would require the CIA to use only those techniques approved by the Army Field Manual. The effect of the bill would be to ban waterboarding, which involves the induced drowning of the prisoner, and other forms of torture.

In a radio address on Saturday, Bush defended his decision with the standard mix of lies and fear mongering. He said that the bill “would take away one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror—the CIA program to detain and question key terrorist leaders and operatives.” Without providing evidence, he claimed that the CIA interrogation program had stopped several terrorist attacks.

Bush went on to claim that the “specialized interrogation procedures” used by the CIA—that is, waterboarding and other forms of torture—are all “safe and lawful techniques.”

This is in fact a lie. These measures are all illegal under international and US law. UN special rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak insisted last month that waterboarding “is absolutely unacceptable under international human rights law.” As for the notion that it is safe, even US director of national intelligence Mike McConnell has acknowledged that “taken to its extreme, [the consequences of waterboarding] could be death; you could drown someone.”

Stating that he wanted the CIA to have the ability to use a wide variety of techniques, not just waterboarding, Bush said that the bill “would eliminate all the alternative procedures we’ve developed to question the world’s most dangerous and violent terrorists.” The Army Field Manual explicitly bans mock executions, forced nakedness and sexual assault, electric shock, and sensory and sleep deprivation. Bush did not indicate which of these techniques he considers necessary.

“We have no higher responsibility than stopping terrorist attacks,” Bush concluded. “And this is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven record of keeping America safe.”

Bush routinely argues that the “highest responsibility” of the US president is to protect the American people and prevent terrorist attacks. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has recently adopted similar language. In fact, the constitutional responsibility of the president is to uphold the Constitution and execute the laws passed by Congress.

In the last months of his administration, Bush is seeking to defend and consolidate the most odious and illegal practices that have been developed over the past eight years, including torture and domestic spying. Last month, the administration openly acknowledged for the first time that it had used waterboarding on three prisoners. The administration is pressing Congress to pass a law that will permanently expand domestic warrantless wiretapping powers while granting immunity to telecommunications companies that participated in the government’s programs.

The position of the Democratic Party reflects certain divisions within the American ruling elite over policy. In particular, there are those who believe that the open defense of torture—torture has long been used covertly in different ways under administrations of both political parties—is extremely damaging to the image of the United States at home and abroad.

In their remarks opposing the veto decision, leading Democrats repeatedly referred to the support given the bill by 43 retired generals and admirals and 18 former top government officials. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Bush had ignored the advice of these figures. “Torture is a black mark against the United States,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that Bush had rejected warnings that the CIA’s techniques “elicit unreliable information, put US troops at risk and undermine our counterinsurgency efforts.” The reference to “counterinsurgency efforts” is key. Reid’s concern is that the open use of torture only increases the hatred of millions of people in Iraq and other targets of US aggression, undermining US military efforts. Similarly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that the techniques “undermine our nation’s moral authority.”

The FBI has long opposed the use of waterboarding and similar methods on the grounds that they do not produce reliable information—since the prisoner will say anything to stop the torture.

There are a number of factors behind the administration’s insistence that no constraints be placed on the CIA’s interrogation policy. First, there is real concern that any move to make certain methods illegal would open up a debate over their previous legality. In ordering waterboarding, Bush and other administration officials stand guilty of violating domestic and international law, for which severe sanctions are included in the US War Crimes Act.

Second, the Republican Party is eager to run in the elections on the issues of “national security” and terrorism. It is significant that Republican candidate John McCain reversed his past association with anti-torture legislation by voting against the intelligence authorization bill because it included the language restricting CIA operations.

More fundamentally, the Bush administration is determined to defend the principle of unrestrained executive power in authorizing the US military and intelligence agencies to operate without any legal constraints. References to the “war on terror” and “national security” have nothing to do with supposed threats against the US or “ticking time bomb scenarios.”

Within the framework of the American political establishment, these are code words for the willingness to use military force to defend the interests of the American ruling class internationally. In particular, torture is not used to gain information from would be terrorists, but as a tool in suppressing and intimidating any opposition to American militarism—at home or abroad.

The great advantage of the Bush administration in its conflict with the Democrats is that the administration represents more directly the interests of American capitalism. Under conditions of economic crisis and growing challenges to US interests abroad, the utter ruthlessness of the Bush administration reflects its determination to use repression and violence wherever and whenever it is necessary.

The Democrats are no less committed to the defense of these interests than the Republicans, but they seek to posture as critics of the administration. They want the ends, but are worried about the domestic and international consequences of the means used to reach these ends.

For this reason, the Democrats are constantly vacillating, but always there when it counts to facilitate war and domestic repression. Leading Democrats have been complicit from the beginning in supporting the policy of torture. They are adamantly opposed to any measures that would hold anyone accountable for these actions, since they are themselves complicit in them.

Bush is confident, with good reason, that by ritualistically repeating the mantra of the “war on terror,” he will succeed in cowing the Democrats into abandoning their attempt to curtail presidential powers.

Leading Democrats in the House of Representatives have indicated that an agreement on wiretapping is likely to pass this week, and it will include everything demanded by the administration. While some Democrats are threatening to try to override the veto on the intelligence authorization bill, they know they do not have the required two-thirds majority in either house of Congress. In the end, Democrats will pass an intelligence bill without the language on torture.

US plot to overthrow elected Palestinian government exposed Part Two

Go to Original
By Jean Shaoul

See Part One

With Fatah’s social base almost totally eroded in January 2007, and without the funding promised by the Arab regimes, according to David Rose’s The Gaza Bombshell in Vanity Fair, Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan now had insufficient financial support to carry out the coup attempt Washington expected of him.

He used his new weapons to storm the Islamic University of Gaza, a Gaza stronghold, provoking Hamas to attack Fatah-held police stations. Even now, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas was unwilling to preside over a civil war. So he acceded to Saudi King Abdullah, who had long been trying to broker an agreement between the two factions, and went with Dahlan to meet Hamas in Mecca. On February 8, 2007, he struck a deal with Hamas for a National Unity government.

While Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh would remain prime minister, he would allow Fatah members to hold several key cabinet posts. Haniyeh did not agree to recognise Israel, one of the three tests required by the Quartet (the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia) for restoring economic aid. In return, the Saudi King Abdullah agreed to pay the Palestinian Authority’s salary bills.

While there was rejoicing on the streets of Gaza, the Bush administration was astounded by the news. This was not what it wanted or expected from its key ally in the region. According to a State Department official, “[Secretary of State] Condi [Condoleezza Rice] was apoplectic.”

Plan B—The plan for a coup

David Rose cites and posts on Vanity Fair’s web site an extraordinary series of documents to show how the US responded by redoubling the pressure on its Palestinian allies to oust Hamas, with the State Department drawing up an alternative to the new unity government: “Plan B.”

That these documents should have been leaked and authenticated by officials shows how bitter the internecine divisions in Washington have become.

According to a State Department memo, Plan B’s objective was to “enable [Abbas] and his supporters to reach a defined endgame by the end of 2007. The endgame should produce a [Palestinian Authority] government through democratic means that accepts Quartet principles.”

Plan B reiterated Walles’s ultimatum delivered in late 2006, calling for Abbas to “collapse the government” if Hamas refused to sign up to the Quartet’s conditions. Abbas was to call early elections or impose an emergency government.

Plan B set out explicit arrangements to suppress Palestinian militants and opposition to Abbas and prevent any attacks on Israel. While the unity government remained in office, Abbas had to maintain “independent control of key security forces.” He must “avoid Hamas integration with these services, while eliminating the Executive Force or mitigating the challenges posed by its continued existence.”

Washington clearly expected that the covert funding pledged by its Arab allies would be forthcoming, as the memo recommended that “Dahlan oversees effort in coordination with [US security coordinator for the Palestinians, Lieutenant] General [Keith] Dayton and Arab [nations] to train and equip 15,000-man force under President Abbas’s control to establish internal law and order, stop terrorism and deter extralegal forces.”

Vanity Fair’s sources confirmed that the State Department, in consultation with the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian government, developed the objectives of Plan B in a document entitled “An Action Plan for the Palestinian Presidency.”

The early drafts of the Plan emphasised the need to strengthen Fatah’s forces in order to “deter” Hamas. The “desired outcome” was to give Abbas “the capability to take the required strategic political decisions...such as dismissing the cabinet, establishing an emergency cabinet.”

Rose explains that “the drafts called for increasing the ‘level and capacity’ of 15,000 of Fatah’s existing security personnel while adding 4,700 troops in seven new ‘highly trained battalions on strong policing.’ ” The plan would provide “specialised training abroad,” in Jordan and Egypt, and pledged to “provide the security personnel with the necessary equipment and arms to carry out their missions.”

The budget for salaries, training and “the needed security equipment, lethal and non-lethal,” was estimated at a further US$1.27 billion over five years, a massive sum for such a small country.

The plan states: “The costs and overall budget were developed jointly with General Dayton’s team and the Palestinian technical team for reform”—a unit established by Dahlan and led by his friend and policy aide, Bassil Jaber.

Jaber told Rose that the budget was the result of the work he had done with Dayton and his team. He said, “The plan was to create a security establishment that could protect and strengthen a peaceful Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.” What it in fact meant was the launching of a brutal civil war against Hamas and any opposition to Israel and its Palestinian collaborators.

Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah drew up the final version, which differed from earlier drafts only in that it presented the plan as if it had come from the Palestinians, not the State Department and Jordan. It claimed the security proposals had been “approved by President Mahmoud Abbas after being discussed and agreed [to] by General Dayton’s team.”

Abbas had now explicitly signed up to a State Department blueprint for a coup against a government in which his own party was participating, an all-out civil war against Hamas and the suppression of all opposition to Israel. In return, he was given a vague promise of support for a non-contiguous mini-state, where Palestinian businessmen would have a licence to exploit their own working class as long as they did Washington’s bidding.

At the end of April 2007, part of an early draft was leaked and published by the Jordanian newspaper, Al-Majd. Hamas saw it for what it was: the blueprint for a US-backed Fatah coup.

The publication of the Action Plan ended the relative calm that the unity government had brought to the occupied territories. Bitter factional fighting broke out all over again. With fortuitous timing, Dahlan had left Gaza for Berlin where he had undergone knee surgery. As he had said about Fatah’s claim of strength, “I knew in my heart it wasn’t true.” On another occasion, his estimation was that “We are late in the ball game here, and we are behind.”

Tensions rose further when 500 of the newly trained Fatah National Security Force recruits arrived from Egypt, complete with new weapons, vehicles and uniforms. A frequent visitor from one of the Western aid agencies said, “They had new rifles with telescopic sights, and they were wearing black flak jackets. They were quite a contrast to the usual scruffy lot.”
Fighting escalated, with 250 Hamas members having been killed by Fatah since the beginning of 2007.

On May 23, Lieutenant General Dayton himself gave the issue a public airing by discussing the new unit in testimony before the House Middle East subcommittee. He insisted that all the aid going to Fatah at Washington’s behest was “100 per cent non-lethal.” This was manifestly untrue.

On June 7, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that Abbas and Dayton had asked Israel to authorise the biggest Egyptian arms shipment yet, which included dozens of armoured cars, hundreds of armour-piercing rockets, thousands of hand grenades and millions of rounds of ammunition.

A few days later, just before the next batch of Fatah recruits was due to leave for training in Egypt, Hamas began its counter-offensive in earnest.

Fawzi Barhoum, Hamas’s chief spokesman, told Rose, “Finally we decided to put an end to it. If we had let them stay loose in Gaza, there would have been more violence.” Mahmoud Zahar, the former foreign minister for the Haniyeh government, who now leads Hamas’s militant wing in Gaza, told Rose, “Everyone here recognises that Dahlan was trying with American help to undermine the results of the elections.... He was the one planning a coup.”

According to Zahar, Hamas’s original aim was fairly limited: “The decision was only to get rid of the Preventive Security Service. They were the ones out on every crossroads, putting anyone suspected of Hamas involvement at risk of being tortured or killed.”

When Fatah’s forces beat a speedy retreat, however, Hamas decided to get rid of them once and for all. The fighting was ferocious and savage. Within five days in June 2007, its forces had taken control of Gaza and routed Fatah, whose fighters either went into hiding or left for the West Bank.

Some Fatah personnel did not fight because they feared that, with Dahlan absent, his forces were bound to lose. “I wanted to stop the cycle of killing,” says Ibrahim abu al-Nazar, a veteran party chief. “What did Dahlan expect? Did he think the US Navy was going to come to Fatah’s rescue? They promised him everything, but what did they do? But he also deceived them. He told them he was the strongman of the region. Even the Americans may now feel sad and frustrated. Their friend lost the battle.”

Fatah was and is riddled with divisions. There were some who wanted to continue opposition to Israel and they also refused to fight Hamas. Khalid Jaberi, a commander with Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades told Rose, “Fatah is a large movement, with many schools inside it. Dahlan’s school is funded by the Americans and believes in negotiations with Israel as a strategic choice. Dahlan tried to control everything in Fatah, but there are cadres who could do a much better job. Dahlan treated us dictatorially. There was no overall Fatah decision to confront Hamas, and that’s why our guns in al-Aqsa are the cleanest. They are not corrupted by the blood of our people.”

Plan B backfired spectacularly on the Bush administration.

In Gaza, Hamas took possession of Fatah’s arms and ammunition—including the new Egyptian guns supplied under the covert US-Arab aid program. Other groups, if not Hamas itself, have continued to fire rockets into Israel’s southern towns.

Abbas and Fatah have been even more discredited. They were confirmed yet again in the eyes of the Palestinians as Jerusalem and Washington’s paid subcontractors. Such is the opposition to Fatah in the West Bank that Abbas and his so-called Fatah government now preside over little more than Ramallah.

Although it came to power as a result of popular disgust with Fatah over the latter’s collaboration with the Americans and the Israelis, Hamas is no political alternative for the Palestinian masses. It speaks for petty bourgeois and bourgeois Arab interests.

The political fallout

The scale of the leaked documents and interviews included in Rose’s Vanity Fair article and the confirmation of the evidence from so many official sources so soon after the events are extraordinary. They come from high-level Republicans, who support US militarism in the Middle East in furtherance of US’s geo-strategic interests, but who are furious at yet another fiasco in policy implementation.

This follows hard on the heels of the ongoing failure of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel’s failure to “take out” Hezbollah in the Lebanon and most recently, the Palestinians’ mass break-out from Gaza, which has profoundly destabilised social relations in Egypt and strengthened Hamas. To the extent that both Hamas and Hezbollah are viewed as proxies for Iran, then Washington has been unable to score any successes against Iran.

The failure of the attempted coup by Fatah has led to bitter recriminations within the Bush administration. The vice president’s office is clearly riven by divisions, and it, in turn, is at odds with Rice and the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA, all of whom are closely involved with the Israel-Palestine conflict.

David Wurmser, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Middle East Advisor, resigned his post within weeks of Hamas taking control. He assisted in preparing Vanity Fair’s article. His own assessment of the situation in Gaza contradicts the official Washington line that Hamas mounted an illegal coup against Fatah. He said, “It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen.”

Rose cites comments from neo-con critics who formerly played leading roles in the Bush administration, including both Wurmser and former UN Ambassador John Bolton, who blame the State Department for seeking to use a local strong man to do their work.

Bolton told Rose that relying on local proxies such as Muhammad Dahlan is “an institutional failure, a failure of strategy.” He blamed Rice, who he said, “like others in the dying days of this administration, is looking for a legacy. Having failed to heed the warning not to hold the elections, they tried to avoid the result through Dayton [the US security coordinator who reached the agreement with Dahlan].”

Bolton has written a book entitled SurrenderIs Not an Option, in which he criticises the Bush administration for changing its foreign policy objectives during its second term.

The Vanity Fair article appeared just as Rice set off for yet another visit to the Middle East and was clearly timed to undermine her position.

The article has provoked angry denials from the Bush administration. Bush’s spokesperson Dana Perino said, “There is no accuracy to that story.” State Department spokesperson Tom Casey called the piece “absurd,” “untrue” and “ridiculous.” Rice herself dismissed the Vanity Fair article as “ludicrous,” while making clear that the US has funded and continues to fund the PA and supply it with weaponry. “If the answer is that Hamas gets armed by the Iranians and nobody helps to improve the security capabilities of the legitimate Palestinian Authority security forces, that’s not a very good situation,” she said. “As long as Iran funds Hamas, the US will back security funding for the Palestinian Authority.”

The Gaza Bombshell reveals the degree to which political life in the United States has become a series of intrigues, in which small cliques within the ruling class fight out critical questions and use a servile media to manipulate public opinion and obscure the real issues.

The nominally liberal media barely reported the revelations by Vanity Fair, relying on a short précis of Rose’s article. None of these media outlets made a comment as to the significance of Rose’s article or any reappraisal of their analysis of US foreign policy in the Middle East that accepts the claims of Bush and Rice to be acting as peacemakers between Israel and the Palestinians.

In Britain, the Guardian—the sister paper of the Observer, for which Rose writes—had access to the documents, but apparently made no effort to commission Rose to do an exposé. We know the Guardian saw the documents because of a brief comment made in passing by the newspaper’s columnist and associate editor Seumas Milne: “As confirmed by secret documents leaked to the US magazine Vanity Fair—and also passed to the Guardian...” Had Milne not written this, no one would have been aware that this was the case.


Suicide rate at 25-year high for middle-aged Americans

Go to Original
By Naomi Spencer

The number of middle-aged Americans who committed suicide annually rose by nearly 20 percent between 1999 and 2004, a recent federal analysis of national death data has found. The finding is one more reflection of the social distress that has been deepening throughout the past decade, a period defined by tremendous polarization, indebtedness, and the erosion of working class living standards.

The data, collected in the National Vital Statistics System, had reflected an overall increase in injury mortalities of 5.5 percent over the period. This rate was fuelled by suicides and unintentional drug overdoses, according to a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in the December 10 edition of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

In 2004, there were 16.6 suicides per 100,000 deaths recorded among Americans aged 45 through 54. This is the highest rate recorded by the CDC since 1980, when it began keeping figures on suicide. Among women of that age group, the suicide rate rose by 31 percent. In all, some 32,000 deaths were recorded as suicide in 2004, of which 14,600 were among the middle-aged.

In comparison, suicides among other age groups did not increase substantially. Among 15 to 19 year-olds—a group often considered to be at highest risk for suicide—the rate increased by less than 2 percent. The suicide rate decreased among those 65 and older.

Military veterans represented a significant segment of those who committed suicide. According to a Veterans Affairs study published in October in the American Journal of Public Health, veterans took their own lives at a rate of nearly 90 per 100,000 between 1999 and 2004. Younger male veterans were found to be particularly at risk for suicide in that study.

In contrast, VA mental health director Ira Katz told the New York Times in an article published February 19, that middle-aged veterans had the highest suicide risk, accounting for perhaps as many as one in five suicides annually. Independent analysis by CBS News of nationwide state death records for 2005, indicated that at least 6,256 veterans had committed suicide over that single year alone.

Taken together, all the data on veterans suggest that members of this subset of the population commit suicide at far higher rates, and those deaths are under-represented in federal reports.

Since the CDC report was published, health officials and the media have offered a variety of possible explanations for the midlife suicide rate increase. Most range from the superficial to the absurd.

The February 19 New York Times piece (Midlife Suicide Rises, Puzzling Researchers), for example, describes trying to understand the increase “like discovering the wreckage of a plane crash without finding the black box that recorded flight data just before the aircraft went down.” For officials, the rising number of suicides is “a surprising and baffling public health mystery.”

The Times commented that “although an unusual event might cause the suicide rate to spike, like in Thailand after Asia’s economic collapse in 1997, suicide much more frequently punctuates a long series of troubles—mental illness, substance abuse, unemployment, failed romances.”

Health researchers cited by the paper suggest “the prime suspect” for suicides is the use of prescription drugs. In a separate report, the CDC reported that poisoning from prescription and illegal drug overdoses increased by 62 percent over the five-year period to 2004. Among the middle-aged population, the poisoning mortality rate grew 87 percent.

A “sudden drop in the use of hormone-replacement therapy by menopausal women,” “higher rates of depression among baby boomers,” and “a simple statistical fluke” have also been suggested by some experts, the Times noted.

While all of these factors no doubt have roles in suicides and depression, there is a relation of personal troubles—mental illness, substance abuse, unemployment, even failed romances—to broad social developments.

One personal example in the Times piece touched on the economic realities of modern American life. Linda Cronin, a 43 year-old employed at a gym, took a lethal dose of prescription drugs in 2006. “After attempting suicide before, she had checked into a residential treatment program not long before she died,” the article explained, “but after a month, her insurance ran out. Her parents had offered to continue the payments but, ... Ms. Cronin did not want to burden them.”

Although suicide is a personal, psychological act, it is also a social and cultural phenomenon. Individuals are very much the product of their social conditions, and the psychological distress in massive numbers of people cannot be explained away as a statistical fluke or baffling mystery.

Rather, like other ills—addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, bankruptcy, school shootings, and on and on—suicides must be understood within the context of a society, and an entire social system, in distress. All have their personal components and complexities, but in a larger sense they are the product of what Marx called the “law of the increasing misery,” an inevitable consequence of the drive by the ruling class to accumulate wealth by squeezing as much profits as possible from the labor of the working class.

Workers’ health, safety, security, happiness, mental stability, intellectual potential, free time, life expectancy—all are subordinated to widening profit margins. “[I]n proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the laborer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse,” Marx wrote in Capital. “The law ... rivets the laborer to capital more firmly than the wedges of Vulcan did Prometheus to the rock. It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality [and] mental degradation at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.”

In an effort by corporations to continually boost profit margins in the past decade, workers have been burdened with more work, slapped with layoff notices, or forced to endure devastating cuts in compensation. Labor productivity figures increased at record rates as workers worked more hours and carried more responsibilities.

Meanwhile, wages stagnated or declined relative to rising living costs. The possibility of unemployment haunted industrial workers. Between 2000 and 2004, more than three million decent-paying, pensioned jobs were eliminated. Jobs that were created to replace them were by and large in the low-paying retail sector, where workers are frequently uninsured and have little to no job security.

The period of 1999 to 2004 saw an enormous escalation in social inequality. As trillions of dollars were diverted in the form of tax cuts and income gains to the top tenth—and especially the top 1 percent—of the population, less wealth was spread about in the rest of society. The credit market exploded, and millions of working class families began tapping their home equity for extra income.

In the past two decades, the average work year for employed couples has increased by 700 hours, the equivalent of 17.5 extra workweeks over the year, according to the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Not surprisingly, a large proportion of the working population experience psychological and physical exhaustion.

Government data from 2004 suggests that 8 percent of American adults, or about 17 million people, had suffered at least one “major depressive episode” during that year. Low wages, mounting job insecurity, and the erosion of benefits all contribute to anxieties and psychological troubles.

Poorer workers are particularly confronted with few career opportunities and multiple family obligations. Many middle-aged blue collar and low-income workers must care for children or make child support payments while simultaneously acting as caregivers for elderly parents.

In the event of a traumatic life event such as a death, divorce, or accident, wage earners do not have the time and cannot afford to grieve or recuperate properly. Without insurance, therapy is out of financial reach. Millions turn instead to prescription drugs, alcohol, or other drugs to manage depression, often aggravating social alienation and doing nothing to remedy the underlying causes of distress.

Since 2004, all the factors driving the increasing social misery have intensified and new ones have developed. The housing market, upon which millions of families relied for extra income, has collapsed, wiping out billions of dollars in home equity. Credit is harder to access, and consumer inflation is steadily rising.

Reflecting this, an October survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that one in three Americans reported being under “extreme stress.” Economic pressures were far and away reported as the primary source of psychological distress. Heavy financial obligations preclude annual vacations for many families; more than one in four US workers take no vacation time at all in a given year, according to the NIOSH.

Fixing Iraq, and a refinery

Helping restore a 1930s oil facility will take local planning and teamwork.

Go to Original
By Tony Perry

HAQLANIYA, IRAQ -- — The ragged oil refinery in a barren corner of Anbar province looks more like something out of a post-apocalyptic Mel Gibson movie than the centerpiece of an ambitious energy project.

The plant, known as K-3, was built by the British in the 1930s, allowed to slip into disrepair for three decades under Saddam Hussein, then bombed by the Americans in 1991 and 2003.

Now repairing the refinery and increasing its capacity could be the easy part.

The more difficult job, according to U.S.-led coalition forces, is getting the layers of the Iraqi government to cooperate. On top of that, the coalition must help Iraqi officials transform the centralized planning adopted under the Hussein regime that stifled local initiative.

"The whole mind-set has to change. That's proving to be the longest pole in the tent," said Canadian Brig. Gen. Nicolas Matern, a counterterrorism specialist.

It is a common concern throughout Iraq, where dozens of reconstruction projects, funded in large part by the U.S., are underway. Without Iraqi buy-in, many projects are doomed to flop, officials concede.

"It's an easy task to trash a country," said British Lt. Gen. William Rollo, second in command to U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus. "It's bloody difficult to rebuild it."

Despite its wrecked appearance, K-3, located in the desert about 100 miles northwest of Baghdad, is still functional. It shut down three years ago because of squabbling among Iraqi officials. The workforce remained on the payroll, with many living on site.

With the world's second-largest oil reserves, Iraq is looking at an economic future that's inextricably linked to questions of how to extract the substance from the earth, how to exploit demand and how to divide the profit and other benefits, such as electricity. Oil is also one of the most volatile political disputes among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions.

If K-3 can be revived, perhaps with the help of U.S. contractors, it could provide energy and income for Anbar and decrease the sense of alienation many feel toward the central government in Baghdad.

That alienation is worrisome, they said, because it might provide openings for insurgents seeking to regain control along the Euphrates River corridor.

Some of the power lines streaming from the massive, Soviet bloc-built Haditha Dam toward Baghdad have been destroyed. The chief suspects are Sunni Muslim tribal sheiks who are angry that resources flow from their region to Shiite-dominated Baghdad with little in return.

On paper, the project looks straightforward: Bring crude oil from the Kurdish region in the north by rail or truck to K-3. Refine it into kerosene (for heating oil), naphtha(for road building) or diesel fuel.

Then get the product to a diesel-run power plant at Tahadi or to markets in Syria and Jordan.

A tanker-truck facility and a rail-loading platform are within a few hundred yards of K-3. The rail lines will need repair as will roads and bridges to accommodate 60-ton tanker trucks.

But in a bit of staffing serendipity, two reserve officers from the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment assigned to the area just happen to be oil industry specialists.

Capt. Matt Mayo, an energy consultant, and Maj. Gordon Hilbun, a Royal Dutch Shell executive, have been assigned to the K-3 project. As a technical matter, they said, upgrading K-3 shouldn't be much more difficult than restarting U.S. refineries hit by Hurricane Katrina.

The Marines brought a variety of Iraqi officials to the area recently to view K-3, the truck facility and the rail station. Among them were an Oil Ministry official who had not been in the area for 15 years, a transportation official who only recently emerged from hiding in Syria and Anbar Gov. Mamoun Rasheed.

Rasheed was buoyant. "Yes, it's going to happen," he said. "I want the factory to be running seven days a week, 24 hours a day."

On one point, he was insistent: "We need more security." In recent weeks, an insurgent attack near the Baiji oil refinery, 125 miles north of Baghdad, killed more than 25 people, and a mysterious fire struck the oil facility at Basra, the country's southern port city.

There were other concerns.

One of the foremen at the truck facility told U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Martin Post that his workers needed strong clothes and thick boots. Post turned to an aide and told him to make a list.

"We're going to finish this project together," Post told the foreman, Abpalwhab Ruef Samarey.

"I hope my god keeps you safe," Samarey replied.

After the daylong tour, the Marines provided a chow hall dinner for two dozen Iraqi officials. Quietly, the Marines left the room and let the Iraqis discuss the project.

Rasheed, a linebacker-sized man with a similarly outsized personality, fired off orders. "Don't tell me you have 12 trucks unless you've counted them yourself," he bellowed at a transportation official.

Officials have learned to be wary of displays of enthusiasm that can wane when difficulties arise.

"We need to live this project every day," Matern said.

In the post-combat phase of the U.S. mission in Iraq, Marines have had to also learn patience. The meetings that led to the gathering of Iraqi officials were drawn out and detailed.

"These people need our help," said Marine Lt. Col. David Bellon, commander of the 3-23.

"And this beats the hell out of fighting them."

Our three-decade recession

The American quality of life has been going downhill since 1975.

Go to Original
By Robert Costanza

The news media and the government are fixated on the fact that the U.S. economy may be headed into a recession -- defined as two or more successive quarters of declining gross domestic product. The situation is actually much worse. By some measures of economic performance, the United States has been in a recession since 1975 -- a recession in quality of life, or well-being.

How can this be? One first needs to understand what GDP measures to see why it is not an appropriate gauge of our national well-being.

GDP measures the total market value of all goods and services produced in a country in a given period. But it includes only those goods and services traded for money. It also adds everything together, without discerning desirable, well-being-enhancing economic activity from undesirable, well-being-reducing activity. An oil spill, for example, increases GDP because someone has to clean it up, but it obviously detracts from well-being. More crime, more sickness, more war, more pollution, more fires, storms and pestilence are all potentially positives for the GDP because they can spur an increase in economic activity.

GDP also ignores activity that may enhance well-being but is outside the market. The unpaid work of parents caring for their children at home doesn't show up in GDP, but if they decide to work outside the home and pay for child care, GDP suddenly increases. And even though $1 in income means a lot more to the poor than to the rich, GDP takes no account of income distribution.

In short, GDP was never intended to be a measure of citizens' welfare -- and it functions poorly as such. Yet it is used as a surrogate appraisal of national well-being in far too many circumstances.

The shortcomings of GDP are well known, and several researchers have proposed alternatives that address them, including William Nordhaus' and James Tobin's Measure of Economic Welfare, developed in 1972; Herman Daly's and John Cobb's Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, developed in 1989; and the Redefining Progress think tank's more recent variation, the Genuine Progress Indicator. Although these alternatives -- which, like GDP, are measured in monetary terms -- are not perfect and need more research and refinement, they are much better approximations to a measure of true national well-being.

The formula for calculating GPI, for instance, starts with personal consumption expenditures, a major component of GDP, but makes several crucial adjustments. First, it accounts for income distribution. It then adds positive contributions that GDP ignores, such as the value of household and volunteer work. Finally, it subtracts things that are well-being-reducing, such as the loss of leisure time and the costs of crime, commuting and pollution.

While the U.S. GDP has steadily increased since 1950 (with the occasional recession), GPI peaked about 1975 and has been relatively flat or declining ever since. That's consistent with life-satisfaction surveys, which also show flat or dropping scores over the last several decades.

This is a very different picture of the economy from the one we normally read about, and it requires different policy responses. We are now in a period of what Daly -- a former World Bank economist now at the University of Maryland -- has called "uneconomic growth," in which further growth in economic activity (that is, GDP) is actually reducing national well-being.

How can we get out of this 33-year downturn in quality of life? Several policies have been suggested that might be thought of as a national quality-of-life stimulus package.

To start, the U.S. needs to make national well-being -- not increased GDP -- its primary policy goal, funding efforts to better measure and report it. There's already been some movement in this direction around the world. Bhutan, for example, recently made "gross national happiness" its explicit policy goal. Canada is developing an Index of Well-being, and the Australian Treasury considers increasing "real well-being," rather than mere GDP, its primary goal.

Once Americans' well-being becomes the basis for measuring our success, other reforms should follow. We should tax bads (carbon emissions, depletion of natural resources) rather than goods (labor, savings, investment). We should recognize the negative effects of growing income disparities and take steps to address them.

International trade also will have to be reformed so that environmental protection, labor rights and democratic self-determination are not subjugated to the blind pursuit of increased GDP.

But the most important step may be the first one: Recognizing that the U.S. is mired in a 33-year-old quality-of- life recession and that our continued national focus on growing GDP is blinding us to the way out.