Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Stories of Chimpanzees Rescued from Research

Dr. Theo Capaldo of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, Nancy Megna, former laboratory caregiver, and Gloria Grow, founder and director of the Fauna Foundation titled "In Their Own Words: Stories of Chimpanzees Rescued from Research" given December 1, 2005 in Seattle, WA.

~ Provided By ~

Mosaic News - 3/11/08: World News from the Middle East

Was the U.S. Involved in Killing the FARC-EP Leaders?

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Was the U.S. Involved in Killing the FARC-EP Leaders?


While virtually every country in Central and South America, including the Caribbean, has waged in on the debate of the Colombian state conducting an illegal military campaign within Ecuadorian sovereign territory, resulting in the deaths of various high ranking officials in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP), the United States have remained virtually silent. Such silence from the US is quite perplexing consdiering the administrations of Ronald Regan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have wielded a twenty-two year old assault on this insurgency movement.

The United States have deemed the FARC-EP to be, what it considers, a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Therefore, would one not expect, during the so-called ’war on terror,’ some attention from Washington - other than a few sentences by state officials - following the deaths of both Comandante Raúl Reyes and Comandante Iván Ríos within less than six days of each other; two of the seven highest-ranking members of the organization (lest we forget the hourly visual barrage of images related to the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003 or his execution in 2006). The following makes a case that the United States’ silence has far more to do with a plausible connection to the deaths of Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos rather than simple disinterest.
The Case of Comandante Raúl Reyes (Murdered March 1, 2008)
It has become general knowledge that shortly after midnight on March 1, 2008, the President of Colombia Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón, and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos sanctioned an illegal air and ground assault against the 48th Front of the FARC-EP, which resulted in the death of Comandante Raúl Reyes, one of the members of the insurgency’s Secretariat of the Central High Command, Julian Conrado, a member of the Central High Command (and the insurgency’s most recognized cultural icon through his work as a revolutionary folk-musician), and twenty other members of the FARC-EP.

Hours after the assault had taken place Defense Minister Santos reiterated that Colombian forces began the operation with an air assault followed by a group of Colombian soldiers engaging in a ground combat against members of the FARC-EP Front. Santos expressed that recently obtained intelligence information related to a satellite phone used by Comandante Reyes enabled the Colombian military to pin-point the location of the encampment, subsequently enabling the campaign to take place.

During meetings of the OAS, state officials and representatives from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru condemned the assault. Unsurprisingly, one of the only backers of the illegal military incursion was the US. Nevertheless, President George W. Bush and J. Robert Manzanares, the United States’ representative during the OAS meetings, had very little to say about the greatest achievement ever realized by the United States’ principal ally in Latin America’s forty-four year old civil war with the FARC-EP.

When asked if the Uribe and Santos administration had informed Washington preceding the transgression on Ecuadorian soil, Tom Casey, a spokesman for the US State Department, hesitantly stated "No, I’m not aware that we found out about this other than after the fact". Less than assuring complete impartiality, Colombia’s Chief of Police, General Oscar Naranjo declared that "I can say for sure that the operation was autonomous". As General Naranjo continued his press conference he did however reveal that the United States had, in fact, been involved in operations connected to the Colombian military assault in Ecuador, albeit indirectly,.

General Naranjo asserted that no external forces were involved in the FARC-EP-targeted attack but he did offer that "it is no secret that … a very strong alliance with federal agencies of the US" exists between the Colombian military. Shortly following this statement, a high ranking official within the Colombian Defense Ministry leaked that the United States had been involved in the March 1, 2008 operation. In actuality, the US, through satellite intelligence gathering over southern Colombia and Northern Ecuador, had been able to retrieve signals from the FARC-EP’s 48th Front and handed over the identification of the satellite telephone being used by the insurgency to intelligence sectors of the Colombian police. The informant went on to add that it was only then that Colombian officials were able to process the data, thereby enabling the Colombian state to decipherer the exact location of Comandante Reyes. The informant’s account of the satellite phone effectively mirrors that made during Defense Minister Santos’ first press conference. The leaked information demonstrated that the US was, at the very least, indirectly involved in the actions of March 1, 2008. That was until March 7, 2008.

On Friday, Ecuador’s Defense Minister Wellington Sandoval announced that after further investigation of the area targeted during the March 1 attack it was revealed that the site had been bombarded with at least five bombs (’Smart Bombs’). All five detonations were within a 50-meter diameter during a nocturnal attack, a virtually impossible achievement when concerning the military capabilities and resources of the Colombian Air and Armed Forces. Sandoval claimed that the arms used during the incursion can only be deployed through the use of aircraft which have the capacity to fly at a considerable height and velocity, weaponry that is again not found within the Colombian Air Force. The only Air Force in the region with such an arsenal is the United States.

While the US and the Colombian governments claim that the United States were not involved in the attack that resulted in the death of Comandante Raúl Reyes, it is quite likely that the United States played more than an informal role in the aggression.

The Case of Comandante Iván Ríos (Murdered March 4, 2008 or March 7th, 2008)
On the afternoon of March 7, 2008, the country of Colombia was once again the witness of an interruption by Defense Minister Santos taking precedence on both television and radio. Similar to his announcement made six days earlier, Santos announced that a member of the FARC-EP’s Secretariat had been killed. To the great surprise of many, the Defense Minister claimed that Comandante Iván Ríos had been killed by another member of the FARC-EP named Rojas (in association with two other combatants associated with the insurgency) on March 4, 2008.

The Defense Minister proceeded to tell the press that after those deemed responsible had killed Comandante Ríos they severed his right hand in order to prove to Colombian officials that the youngest member of the Secretariat was dead. It was then stated that the three insurgents took the severed limb, along with Comandante Ríos’ laptop and identification and handed them over to members of the Colombian Army and the Colombian Attorney General Office’s Technical Investigation Body (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación, CTI). During a brief press conference related to this incident, Defense Minister Santos said that the Colombian army had launched an operation designed to capture Comandante Ríos on February 17, 2008 after (again) receiving intelligence that he was located in a mountainous region in the Department of Caldas. Unlike the March 1, 2008 press conference, however, Santos did not entertain any questions or reveal any additional information other than that listed above and that Comandante Iván Ríos had been officially pronounced dead.

Confusion immediately began to envelop the events presented by Defense Minister Santos. The reason for the uncertainty was that previous to the ’official’ pronouncement ofe Comandante’s Ríos death another state official within the Prosecutors Office of Colombia had given a different account concerning the death of the FARC-EP leader.

An anonymous official had prematurely contacted the press and reported that Comandante Ríos had been killed on March 7, 2008 during an attack carried out by a  unit of the Colombian Army in conjunction with members of the CTI in Aguadas, just outside the Samaná Municipality within the department of Caldas. This again mirrors events as revealed in the case of Comandante Reyes death; intelligence provided to state officials, upper level official presenting sanitized sanctioned accounts explaining the deaths of the FARC-EP’s high command, and lower-level officials disseminating alternative accounts of the actual on goings during said transgressions.

Another strange complexity related to Comandante Ríos’ death is simply, where is Rojas? One would think that the state would put forth details concerning who Comandante Ríos’ murderer was, what his social background or personal identification is, how the killing occurred, what has happened to Rojas, etc. Interestingly, however, nothing related to the above queries concerning Rojas were released.

If Comandante Ríos was, in fact, murdered by Rojas, such events surrounding the death are quite perplexing due to the actual structure and formation of the FARC-EP. It is difficult to understand how one FARC-EP combatant let alone three were capable of breaking rank and violently reacting against not only a highly-ranked officer but a leader within the FARC-EP’s Secretariat. Each Comandante associated with the Secretariat has a cadre of more than a dozen immediate personnel which are not only responsible for the Comandante’s protection but oversee the on goings of the guerrilla camp in which the leader is situated. From first-hand experience, all meetings and interactions with the Comandante are coordinated each day and formally scheduled. Prior to each meeting, the party invited must wait and ask for approval to enter the Comandante’s barracks. Once approval has been arranged it is only then that a member is escorted into the Comandante’s quarters by at least one other armed guard. How is it then that not only one but three armed FARC-EP combatants were able to violently enter into Comandante’s Ríos’ barracks directly in front of an entire FARC-EP Front, which includes two FARC-EP Companies and two FARC-EP Guerrilla Squads which contain, on average, at least twelve combatants per squad?

For any researcher, academic, environmentalist, or journalist who has spent any significant deal of time within FARC-EP-controlled territory since 2002, the Defense Minister’s ’official’ account of ’Rojas’ and two other so-called FARC-EP combatants being solely responsible for the murder of Comandante Ríos is highly problematic. The discussion of Comandante Ríos’ limb being removed by a FARC-EP member is greatly out of character to any informed analyst of the Colombian civil war. There has not been one confirmed case of any FARC-EP combatant in its forty-four years of existence of employing such tactics; however, such a tactic has been systemically employed by paramilitaries, privately funded ’security forces’, and right-wing civilian vigilantly groups dating back to the 1940s and increasingly carried out over the past decade.

Plausible Paramilitary Role in the Deaths of both Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos

Over the past two years the Uribe and Santos administration have increasing promoted the story that Colombian paramilitarism has come to and end with the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) throughout 2003-2006. Such proclamations are in direct contradiction to existing evidence, eye-witness reports, and escalating violence targeted at civilians critical of the Colombian state and political-economic structure. More accurately the AUC has decentralized its actions and activities through various small-scale organizations rather than that experienced between 1997 and 2006 where a single umbrella organization consolidated leading paramilitary organizations into one dominant structure.

The actions related to Comandante Ríos’ murder are symbolic of those carried out by Colombia’s many far-right paramilitary groups. However, if it was to get out to the general international public that paramilitarism has, in reality, continued within Colombia there could be awkward political and economic consequences.

The Colombian state cannot afford to have a paramilitary group claim responsibility for the murder of Comandante Ríos. This would, once again, demonstrate to the state has either failed in its political capacity to demobilize the paramilitary, or more accurately, that the state has been complicit in covering up the actions of Colombian paramilitarism which are rampant throughout the Colombian countryside.

Rather than supporting the claim that ’FARC-EP combatants’ committed the assault and subsequent amputation of Comandante Ríos’ hand it is more likely that what transpired was a tactic which has been widely utilized by the paramilitaries over the past several years. Countless researchers and journalists have exposed how reactionary forces dress up in fatigues, making themselves appear to be FARC-EP combatants. Paramilitaries have regularly presented themselves as members of the FARC-EP so as to commit atrocities against civilians in the hopes of creating false condemnations aimed at the insurgency.

Plausible US Role in the Deaths of both Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos

The Bush administration has had great difficulty in getting a new Free-Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia passed. Internal congressional protests by sectors of the Democratic Party have opposed the legislation, due to allegations and proven atrocities committed by the paramilitaries, crimes that the Colombian state has allowed to go unpunished. Many of these politicians argue that the Colombian state and the US government and military have failed to quell the illicit drug-trade or decrease the FARC-EP’s strength throughout the Colombian countryside even though billions of US dollars have been spent. Therefore, if the Bush administration was able to claim even the slightest victory over the FARC-EP than they could argue that their counter-insurgency funding has been successful and that a new FTA should be supported in Congress. 

There is a distinct possibility that the United States may have been involved in the actions leading up to Comandante Ríos’ death. US Special Forces and Marines have been illegally engaged in counter-insurgency campaigns within the country of Colombia for years. Even though the legal number of US troops cannot exceed 800 state forces (and 600 private forces), thousands have been operating in campaigns against the FARC-EP. For example, Peter Gorman published that as far back as 2002 roughly 1,100 US counter-insurgent troops were on "orders to eliminate all high officers of the FARC". This does not even highlight what possible actions private US-based contradicted counter-insurgent forces may be carrying out.

There is a two-fold psychological effect  inculcated by  propaganda related to the deaths of Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos, which is being disseminated through the centralized media, primarily El Tiempo.

1) Systemically exposing sectors of Colombia’s general public to photographs of the bullet ridden and mutilated corpse of Reyes on an hourly basis or the ’cooler’ containing Ríos’ severed limbs is a tool utilized to intimidate and to deter sympathizers with the insurgency, political activists, and state opponents within Colombia from criticizing the state’s political dominance and promotion of far-right economic policies.

2) Telling the world that Comandante Ríos’ was murdered by his own comrades is a tactic employed to decrease external solidarity from sectors of the international community, who may now falsely believe the argument that the largest and most powerful Marxist-Leninist revolutionary social movement in Latin America is loosing ground, power, and influence in the Colombian countryside. At the same time, such accusations are internally disseminated in the hopes of destabilizing the FARC-EP itself. Claiming  the rank-and-file have abandoned the leadership and that the movement is collapsing is a strategy to destabilize the insurgency’s many Squads, Companies, Columns, and Fronts.

James J. Brittain is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada and the co-founder of the Atlantic Canada-Colombia Research Group. He can be reached at

"All the Money You Make Will Never Buy Back Your Sou."

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"All the Money You Make Will Never Buy Back Your Sou."


Recently, the Boston Globe reported that the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) had set up an offshore company to hire close to half of the men and women working for KBR in Iraq as contractors.  According to the report, this enables KBR to avoid paying social security, unemployment insurance and other taxes.  When workers complained, they were essentially told that they had already signed a contract with the offshore company and therefore had no recourse.  On the other hand, at another time KBR argued that some of its workers that sued the company after being exposed to dangerous chemicals in Iraq were KBR employees and, because of laws granting contractors doing military work overseas, the company was not legally responsible.  Like the lawyer for the nine men suing KBR said, "When it benefits them, KBR takes the position that these men really are employees. You don’t get to take both positions."

Of course, this is exactly what KBR wants to do.  After all, this corporation and most other companies involved in what is euphemistically called contracting in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and "homeland security" are much more interested in making money than they are in being fair or even patriotic.  The bounty provided by what London and DC term the "war on terror" has moved the money grubbing of these corporations to an even higher level of greed.  The executives of these companies are not interested in seeing this war end.  If it did, then they would lose the gravy train it has become.

This is what Solomon Hughes makes quite clear in his new book War on Terror, Inc. Corporate Profiteering From the Politics of Fear just released by Verso.  Hughes is an investigative reporter that does that title proud.  His work has appeared in British newspapers and the journal Private Eye.  What he does in this book is nothing less than rip the mask of false patriotism and concern for the world’s well-being from the faces of the corporations that constitute a major part of the today’s war industry.  In the process, he exposes the shallow greed and willing corruption of the politicians and government bureaucrats who hand over their nation’s coffers to those companies, despite their public ineptitude and chicanery—not to mention the lies the whole shell game is based on.  Meanwhile, people die for no reason.
A topic of conversation amongst some Boston Red Sox baseball fans a few years ago was the revelation that a member of one of the ownership groups was a man named Philip Morse.  It seems that Morse owned at least one plane that was leased to the CIA for rendition flights.  This revelation didn’t cause any Red Sox fans that I know to end their support for their team -- given the irrational nature of sports fandom to do so would make too much sense -- but it did serve to illustrate just how connected the dots are between corporate American and US intelligence.  Furthermore, it showed that money is more important to those businesses involved in the military-industrial complex than morality or even legality.

Hughes’ book takes these connections even further, suggesting that the corporations’ drive for profits is what might very well drive the US government to attack a certain country, even if the government believes there might be other methods it could use.  Now, when I was younger a teacher once explained to me the difference between Soviet-style communism and fascism like this: under the former the state is the corporation and under the latter the state serves the corporations.  The litany of corporate involvement in war and preparing for war described in War On Terror makes it clear that the US and UK are certainly headed towards the latter.  Furthermore, Hughes suggests (and documents with a long list of supporting facts) that once the US is in a country, its policies are driven as much if not more by private contracting companies’ desire for profits than by a government policy that might actually make Washington’s intervention less bloody and shorter in duration.  An example of this scenario, suggests Hughes, can be found in the policy of separating societies along ethnic, religious and tribal lines.  This was done in the former Yugoslavia and continues in the case of the occupation of Iraq.  If one accepts this theory, what becomes even clearer is that the sectarianism now apparently rampant in Iraq is more the result of the US/UK intervention and its complementary use of mercenaries than it is from any intent by Iraqis to foment a civil war.  Whether or not this widening of the sectarian divide was Washington’s intention or not it no longer matters because it has created a situation Washington seems to prefer--a country divided amongst itself.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Hughes’ work is that one can see his thesis played out in the daily news.  Walls dividing neighborhoods in Iraqi cities.  Airbus gaining contracts to build refueling planes and being challenged by Boeing on the grounds of unfair business practices and a false patriotism.  Airplane charter services lending their services to Homeland Security to fly prisoners being held in private prisons by private contractors out of the country so they can be tortured in prisons overseas by private interrogators.  Just recently, a story crossed the wires about a $30 million dollar wall being built in Iraq to protect an oil pipeline from insurgent attacks.  This occurred despite several Iraqis (and others) stating that the work of guarding the pipeline could have been done much cheaper just by hiring local tribesmen to guard it.  Of course, the latter choice would not have put several millions into the coffers of whatever western corporation is building the wall.

War On Terror, Inc. works on at least two levels.  Hughes challenges the legality and morality of the roles played by these firms and, as mentioned above, he also exposes their sheer ineptitude and gross corruption.  The collaboration of western politicians in this conspiracy is something that should be front page news and provoke the outrage of every citizen of these countries.  The fact that it doesn’t is witness to the effectiveness of the neoliberal myth that privatization is better than anything any government could do.  The narrative in War on Terror, Inc. is proof that that myth is a brazen lie.

Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at:

US food prices increase sharply

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By Naomi Spencer

Over the past nine months, global food prices have soared 40 percent, while food reserves are at 30-year lows. The rising cost of food is becoming a major source of global social instability and economic hardship.

In the US, rising prices have compounded problems created by the collapse of the housing market, rising energy costs and stagnating wages for the majority of the population. Retail prices on staple American foods rose by double-digit percentages in the last year, according to new data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The cost of milk rose 26 percent, and egg prices grew by 40 percent.

A report Sunday in the Boston Globe suggested that food inflation could pose a more serious threat to consumers in the US than soaring oil prices. This is because food accounts for 13 percent of spending for average households, compared to about 4 percent for gasoline. "Rising food prices can be particularly corrosive to consumer confidence because people are so frequently exposed to the cost increases," the paper commented.

"It’s the biggest risk we face economically, and it might be the thing that does us in," Rich Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research Corporation, told the Globe. "There’s nothing really worse than having a job, making money, and forking most of it over just so you can have the same amount of food. You’re running in place, and it really weighs on you," he said. Rising food prices will have a broader economic impact, as consumers are forced to cut back their spending on other products.

Food costs rose by 5.8 percent last year, according to the BLS, and the US Department of Agriculture projects prices will increase by 4 percent this year. Another economic analyst told the Globe that the weakening dollar, coupled with record oil prices and rising demand for foodstuffs globally, would drive prices at higher rates over the next five years, by perhaps 7.5 percent annually.

Such predictions, of course, do not account for the possibility of major droughts, expansion of war into oil-producing countries, or other abrupt developments that would drastically exacerbate problems in the world food system.

However, federal data also suggest, even assuming no abrupt shifts, that US food inflation will continue and accelerate. The BLS reported that wholesale prices, which to a large degree drive retail costs, rose rapidly in the past month—wholesale egg prices rose 60 percent from a year ago, pasta rose 30 percent, and fresh produce increased 20 percent.

The increases have a direct impact on the diets of working and poor families. Already strained by high housing, energy and transportation costs, many households cut out more expensive foods such as cheese and fresh vegetables, or simply cut back on the amount of food they buy.

A number of anecdotes from around the country reveal these difficulties. The Globe article describes the situation for working New Englanders: a family of three in New Hampshire whose grocery bills rose from $125 per week to $200 over the course of the winter; a working mother earning under $40,000 per year in Massachusetts struggling to buy infant formula after it jumped up to $38 a case; families forced to cut out "snacks and fresh produce" and stretching "meat purchases by making soups and stews."

Other families turn to federal assistance programs. For the 26 million who receive food stamps, the monthly allotment, typically around $86 per person, is inadequate to meet family needs. The funding amounts, set once per year, are being far outrun by inflation, and family allocations frequently run out before the end of the month.

Food pantries around the country are straining to meet increasing demand while contending with food and fuel inflation themselves. A March 10 report from the Austin, Texas paper, the Austin Statesman, noted that local pantries had recently seen a significant increase in clients. "At El Buen Samaritano," a non-profit organization serving mainly working poor Hispanic families, "13,277 people visited the group’s food pantry in 2007, a 6.4 percent increase from the year before." The food charity for Saint Ignatius Catholic Church reported a 5.6 percent increase in clients in the past two months alone.

Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, the major pantry supplier, told the Statesman that high gas prices were eating into the organization’s budget. Last year, it spent $88,171 on gasoline to distribute food—nearly $10,500 more than in 2006. Food bank officials are also concerned that the recession will curtail donations from working families. "Obviously, if food costs more, it’s going to reduce donations," a Capital Area Food Bank spokesperson told the paper. "It’s a snowball effect."

The California Fresno Bee quoted a local dry foods wholesaler and bulk supplier Monday that was stockpiling foods in anticipation that the "inflationary spike is going to last for two crop years." Pacific Grain and Foods President Lee Perkins told the paper, "As warehouse inventories dwindle ... they are replaced by new crop harvests at record commodity prices that are being passed on to the consumer. My advice to a shopper today would be to gobble up all the breakfast cereal you can find at $2 a box, because packaged portions are going to get smaller."

There are a number of interrelated factors that are behind the spike in food prices. First, there is the relation of oil to grain prices. Record oil prices drive up transportation and processing costs for food production. Rises in the oil market also affect rises in other commodities markets, including grains and natural gas, from which the main component of agricultural fertilizer is extracted.

The recent sharp increase in oil prices—now close to $110 a barrel—has been driven in large part by the movement of investors from the more volatile stocks into commodity futures and derivatives. This has created a huge jump in "artificial demand," on top of the longer-term rise in demand from countries such as China and India.

As first the housing market and then the credit sector collapsed, much of the speculation shifted away from those areas and into the energy and commodities markets because they are seen as "safe bets" in terms of demand. People must eat—and burn gas getting to work—no matter how prices rise.

Second, this increasing demand for biofuels, particularly corn- and soy-based ethanol, has resulted in a major diversion of edible crops away from the human food system. It has also led to a diversion of acreage food production into biofuel crops production. Further, grains used for livestock and poultry feed has become more expensive, in turn pushing up the cost of beef, milk, cheese, eggs and other basic foods. Likewise, the cost of farmed seafood has increased by at least 10 percent in the US because of the cost of corn meal and mash.

Third, economic growth in China, India and other countries has generated increased demand for more than oil. These demographic shifts have spurred demand for more meat and dairy products, as well as more processed foods which require staple grains, especially corn for the production of corn syrup.

Fourth, primary growing regions in the US, Eastern Europe and Australia have all experienced multiple severe weather events associated with climate change over the past few years. In some areas, desertification of arable land and water shortages have devastated farmers and exposed populations to increasing food insecurity and dependence on international markets.

Fifth, the dollar’s decline against currencies of many importing countries—many of which have imposed export restrictions—has stimulated a US exporting frenzy, depleting stockpiles and driving up futures stocks on basic grains.

In effect, the perceived stability of the grain and oil markets has become a factor in their destabilization through speculation, and the profits turned off this volatility are extracted from the bellies of the world’s working and poor masses. The effect of this price inflation in basic commodities is to transfer wealth out of the hands of the working class into the portfolios of investors shaken by market turmoil.

The United States is certainly not the only country affected. The inflation of basic necessities has sharpened class antagonisms, sparking protests and riots around the world, as well as careful political and economic calculations from some ruling bourgeoisies. A wave of strikes and riots in oil- and mineral-producing countries has put particular pressure on national governments to alleviate some of the food and fuel price burdens. Recently, over a dozen people were killed in Yemen during riots over the doubling of food costs, and 34 were arrested in inflation-related riots in Morocco.

Riots over living costs and fuel prices have resulted in at least 40 deaths in Cameroon according to government officials. Human rights organizations suggest the violence has resulted in far more deaths throughout 31 towns. At least 1,500 have been arrested since February 25, and the local Maison des Droits de l’Homme (House of Human Rights) told Agence France Presse March 7 that government security forces were firing on demonstrators and threatening human rights organizations.

Bread rationing in Egypt is provoking anger, as the government seeks to limit outlays on food subsidies. Food costs in China have soared by 23 percent due to bad weather and general inflation, fueling social tensions in that country. According to a report in Reuters, "Pork prices soared 63 percent from a year earlier, vegetables climbed 46 percent, and edible oil rose 41 percent, adding to the burden on the 300 million people estimated by the World Bank to be living in poverty."

Rising commodity prices could well be a spark for major social upheavals in countries throughout the world.

Curbing our need for oil

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By David Lazarus

With oil prices at record highs and gas heading to the $4-a-gallon level, I was set to come roaring out of the gate today with a proposal that all vehicles be slapped with a conservation-promoting surcharge based on mileage, with proceeds going to public-transit projects.

As I visited several Westside gas stations this week, I felt confident this idea would help drivers eat their petro peas and carrots. Some are already doing it.

L.A. resident Morton Miller, 81, recently traded in a gas-slurping Jaguar convertible for a 2008 Toyota Prius that gets an estimated 48 miles per gallon in the city. "I want to be a green person," he told me as he filled his tank. "I saw the handwriting on the wall with gas prices."

But then I met Ontario resident Ignacio Villegas, 47, a construction worker who spends about $90 every time he fills up his 2005 Chevy Avalanche, a heavy-duty truck that gets about 14 mpg in city driving. Villegas showed me all the tools in his truck’s bed.

"What can I do?" he asked. "I can’t drive a little Toyota. I need this for work. It’s not a luxury. This is the only way."

Thud. So much for my surcharge scheme. Until I could address the legitimate needs of all the Ignacio Villegases out there, I had no business punishing them for simply trying to earn a living.

But clearly we need to do something. Oil was trading Tuesday above $108 a barrel after earlier topping $109.

At the pump, the national average for a gallon of regular gas hit a record $3.227. The average in California was $3.581 a gallon.

The United States imports about two-thirds of its oil, so we can’t do much about the supply side of the equation. What we can control is demand, and we can do that via greater fuel efficiency, conservation and increased transit alternatives.

Here are a few suggestions, first at the national level and then for beleaguered Southern California, where decades of failure on the part of elected officials in giving people alternatives to their cars have left consumers especially vulnerable to soaring gas prices.

Mileage standards: The most effective thing we can do as a nation to wean ourselves from our oil jones would be to significantly boost the minimum required mileage for new vehicles. As of 2004, new cars were required to get an average of 27.5 mpg and light trucks such as sport utility vehicles 20.7 mpg.

Late last year, Congress enacted the first major overhaul of so-called corporate average fuel economy, or

CAFE, standards in more than 30 years. Automakers will now be required to raise average mileage for both cars and light trucks to 35 mpg by 2020.

That’s good, but not nearly good enough. I say the nation’s minimum mileage average should be no less than 50 mpg by 2020.

Sure, automakers will whine that this is an unreasonable goal or that it would make their products too expensive for most consumers, but that’s bull. The Union of Concerned Scientists says existing technology, such as advanced metals and transmissions, could raise vehicle mileage to an average of 40 mpg without significantly affecting prices.

More important, why are we undervaluing good old-fashioned American ingenuity? If an ambitious CAFE standard of 50 mpg was our mandated goal, why would it be unreasonable to expect some of our most resourceful companies to meet it?

If American automakers can’t do it, they have no business in this business.

I have no doubt the Japanese and South Koreans are ready and able to meet this challenge.

Congestion tax: Drivers obviously face different conditions on L.A. freeways from, say, conditions in rural Montana. So a nationwide increase in gas taxes would be unfair.

I propose an urban congestion tax of at least $1.50 a gallon for all major metropolitan areas. This would make gas more expensive and thus compel more people to seek alternative ways of getting around.

It would also raise much-needed revenue for public transportation. Most proceeds from the congestion tax would be applied to local transit projects, such as L.A.’s long-long-awaited Subway to the Sea.

Because any such tax would be regressive in nature, hitting lower-income people disproportionately harder, a portion of the revenue should be applied to providing tax credits to people who fall below a certain income threshold -- say, $50,000 a year.

Lower speed limits: Fifty-five saves fuel and lives. It was true then and it’s true now. Don’t like it? Tough.

Oil subsidies: Nobody knows exactly how much the oil industry receives in government-funded tax breaks and other handouts. Greenpeace estimates the total at $15 billion to $35 billion a year. Whatever the amount, the companies don’t need it.

Last year, Exxon Mobil pocketed $40.6 billion in profit, the most by any company ever. Put another way, the oil giant earned nearly $1,300 every second throughout 2007.

For its part, No. 2 Chevron’s profit last year hit $18.7 billion. Factor in results from Shell and ConocoPhillips, and the industry’s four leading players collectively took in more than $100 billion.

Yes, yes, the industry will complain that oil is harder and more expensive to find nowadays, and that’s true. And it will point to its relatively modest profit margin of about 7.6% of revenue, although that’s a red herring; the real number is the oil industry’s very impressive 27% return on equity, a more reliable measure of a capital-intensive company’s performance.

Bottom line: They can afford an end to government gimmes. And isn’t that better than a windfall-profit tax?

Telecommuting: To get people off the roads in L.A. and elsewhere and thus ease the pain of runaway gas prices, businesses should be given tax breaks for encouraging and enabling employees to work from home.

In L.A. specifically, tax breaks also should be offered to businesses that create branch offices closer to workers’ homes, thus easing commutes and gas costs.

A downtown company (like, for instance, this newspaper) doesn’t need everyone under one roof. People who live on the Westside should work, at least part of the time, out of a Westside office. People in the Valley should work out of the Valley. People in Orange County . . . you get the idea.

The technology’s already in place. It’s crazy not to use it.

Public transportation: L.A. is choking to death in cars and our political leaders seem incapable of doing anything about it. The city’s limited metro system is slow and inconvenient, and the best we’re otherwise offered are half-baked ideas like making Pico and Olympic boulevards one-way thoroughfares.

How’s this: Close Olympic to all traffic weekdays from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The road would be exclusively dedicated during these hours to express, rapid and local bus lines.

If a Subway to the Sea can’t get built, we can at least have a Busway to the Beach.

Windfall-profit tax: What the hell, why not? A measly 1% levy would have produced an extra $1 billion last year for public transportation and research into alternative fuel sources. The oil majors can just figure out a way to scrape by on $99 billion in annual profit.

Fed move stokes huge rally in stocks

The Federal Reserve says it will lend up to $200 billion to financial institutions and will accept troubled debt, including mortgage-backed securities, as collateral.

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By Martin Zimmerman

Tuesday’s big rally on Wall Street has investors hoping the end is near -- in a good way, that is.

The Dow Jones industrial average rocketed 3.6%, its biggest one-day gain in five years, on news of the Federal Reserve’s latest move to shore up the nation’s financial system. The rally, which extended to other major market benchmarks, raised the possibility that stocks may be nearing the bottom of a slide that began last fall.

"This is the formula that investors have been waiting for," A.C. Moore, chief investment strategist with Dunvegan Associates in Santa Barbara, said of the Fed’s action.

The central bank, under pressure to break the logjam in the credit markets, said it would lend as much as $200 billion in Treasury securities to banks and other financial institutions and would accept troubled debt, including slumping mortgage-backed securities, as collateral.

The move should increase investor confidence by making it less likely that bad debt related to the meltdown in the housing industry will sink a major bank or Wall Street firm, analysts said. Rumors have circulated in recent weeks about potential cash squeezes at big firms, including brokerage Bear Stearns Cos. and mortgage giant Fannie Mae.

Moreover, the Fed is moving in concert with central banks in Europe and Canada, which pledged to inject billions into their financial systems.

But Moore and others cautioned that past attempts by the Fed to shore up U.S. financial markets -- and investor sentiment -- since the credit crunch began last year have brought only temporary relief to stocks.

"It’s a short-term confidence booster for the market, but we’ve had several of these head fakes recently," said Paul Hickey, co-founder of Bespoke Investment Group. "Putting it in perspective, it’s a big day, but we’re pretty much right where we were Friday morning."

The stock market has been on a downward slope since October as the collapsing housing market, high oil prices, a nationwide credit crunch and worries of a recession put investors in a selling mood.

Before Tuesday, major market benchmarks such as the Dow and the Nasdaq composite index were either in bear market territory or very close to it, despite a series of interest rate cuts and other moves by the Fed.

Even with Tuesday’s rally, the Dow is more than 2,000 points, or 14%, below its all-time closing high of 14,164.53, reached Oct. 9. A bear market is usually defined as at least a 20% drop by major indexes from recent highs.

The Fed’s latest move should make banks and other institutions more comfortable about owning mortgage-backed securities, which in turn should loosen up lending to home buyers, said Kevin Marder, president of Marder Investment Advisors in L.A.

"Up until now, it’s been a game of hot potato -- nobody wants to hold them because the prices are going down almost every day," he said. "This should be looked at as a first step. Not the be-all, end-all panacea, but certainly a noteworthy first step."

Skeptics aren’t ready to concede even that. Housing prices are falling nationally for the first time since the Depression and the amount of bad debt in the hands of banks and other firms is still unclear, said Steven Romick, a partner and fund manager at First Pacific Advisors in Los Angeles.

"It’s only a stay of execution," Romick said. "It gives them some time to work through their problems, but it doesn’t solve their problems.

"We believe this euphoria is temporary."

On Tuesday, the Dow jumped 416.66 points to 12,156.81 and the Standard & Poor’s 500 index jumped 3.7% to 1,320.65.

The tech-heavy Nasdaq climbed 4% to 2,255.76.

The percentage gains for the Dow and Nasdaq were the biggest since the early days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The S&P had its sharpest one-day gain since October 2002.

Shares of lenders and brokerages surged, with the S&P financial index climbing 7.4%. Citigroup gained 9%, adding $1.80 to $21.49, and troubled mortgage lender Countrywide Financial of Calabasas jumped 17%, rising 75 cents to $5.11.

All but one of the 30 Dow stocks rose, with energy giants Exxon Mobil and Chevron, construction equipment maker Caterpillar and financial services firm American Express leading the way. Only Boeing, which recently lost a major defense contract competition, was down.

The fact that the Fed was working with Europe strengthened the dollar, which rose against the euro and the yen. The greenback had fallen to record lows against the euro in recent months as the Fed cut interest rates to bolster the U.S. economy while European bankers held their rates steady.

"The coordinated effort with the European central banks is important," Moore said. "It suggests some stability for the dollar."

Although the slipping dollar has been a boon for U.S. exporters, it has helped push oil prices to record levels because crude is priced in the U.S. currency. That has contributed to inflation worries and made investors less receptive to the Fed’s recent rate cuts.

Yields on Treasury securities rose sharply as investors shifted money into stocks from the perceived safety of government obligations. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note climbed to 3.6%from 3.45% late Monday.

And oil rose despite the stronger dollar, adding 85 cents to a record $108.75 a barrel.

Philip Agee and the CIA: A Man Who Told the Truth

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By Steve Weissman

The phone rang much too early. An American diplomat named Richard Welch had just been killed in Greece, the caller told me. Did Phil Agee and I have anything to do with naming Welch as the CIA station chief in Athens?

    This was just before Christmas 1975, and I had lived for less than a year in London, making my way as a magazine writer and TV researcher. In the course of several stories, I had gotten to know Agee, a former CIA operations officer and author of the best-selling "CIA Diary," in which he revealed the names and misdeeds of some 250 of his fellow spooks. His goal, quite simply, was to make it as difficult as he could for the CIA to continue doing its dirty work.

    My phone continued to ring furiously, but finally came the one call for which I’d been waiting. "What’s happening?" asked the well-modulated voice. If the Brits were listening in, as I had to believe they were, they would have no problem recognizing who was on the line. He was calling from Italy, where he was vacationing with his family in Italy.

    "Oh, it’s you," I answered. "Nice of you to call, Phil. Nothing’s happening - just an earthquake in Washington and a couple of hundred people trying to get in touch with you."

    "Shit," he said. "It’s bad, huh?"

    Phil published our conversation many years later in his book, "On the Run." The words, as he recalled them, seem a bit stilted, but he caught the gist of what I told him. With Welch’s body hardly cold, CIA spokesmen were already blaming Agee for the murder and using the outrage to fend off Congressional and media investigations of CIA activities.

    He asked if I knew anything about Welch’s name being published in Athens. I didn’t know before, I told him. But I had managed to piece the story together.

    In November, the English-language Athens News had published a letter from "a Committee of Greeks and Greek Americans" attacking the CIA for backing the harsh military dictatorship that had fallen just the year before. The letter identified ten CIA officers working in Greece. One was Richard Welch. I also told Phil that "Who’s Who in the CIA?" had identified Welch as early as 1968. The "Who’s Who" was published in East Germany, almost certainly by the KGB, and was so full of mistakes that we rarely bothered to consult it.

    Phil already knew that our American friends in the Fifth Estate, a group initially funded by Norman Mailer, had outed Welch when he was still serving as station chief in Lima, Peru. Their magazine - CounterSpy - had published his name, along with an article by Agee urging a worldwide effort to "neutralize" CIA people wherever possible. The CIA was now calling Phil’s words an invitation to kill, which was never his intent. With its backing for the Greek generals, whom many saw as fascists, the CIA itself had provided more than enough motivation for murder.

    Later, we learned two interesting side notes. A Maryknoll priest who had worked as a missionary in Peru had given CounterSpy a local publication that had earlier identified Welch. And when Welch moved to Athens, he insisted on living in a house widely known as the residence of the previous CIA station chief. As the story emerged in Congressional testimony, CIA headquarters had warned him not to live there, but poor Welch, supposedly a brilliant classics scholar, knew better. I don’t remember how long Phil and I talked that day, but we ended strangely upbeat. We agreed not to let the CIA’s counter-attack stop us from exposing the agency and what it was doing in Europe and around the world. Cambio 16 was about to publish a cover story I had written on the CIA in Spain, and I would come to Italy to write a front-page story for La Repubblica on the CIA station in Rome. "They’re going to burn your ass and Fifth Estate’s over Welch," he remembered my telling him. "But there’s no stopping that. So why should we stop?" Ah, the bravery of one’s younger years! Now older, if no wiser, I still think we made the right decision to carry on, but Phil paid a grievous price.

    The following September, he traveled to Jamaica to expose a CIA destabilization campaign against the government of Prime Minister Michael Manley.

    Phil’s work helped blunt the CIA effort, allowing Manley’s party win a second term. To my eyes, this was Phil’s finest moment. The Labour government in Britain took a different view and, with obvious prompting from Washington, began kangaroo-court proceedings to expel Phil from the country. I could easily write a book about the colorful campaign many of us waged to stop the deportation. But, after a fight, Phil had to leave, moving to Amsterdam, where the Dutch later kicked him out as well. In all, the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations kept him on the run for years, pressuring at least six European allies, including France, to either boot Phil out or ban him from entering.

    Over the years that followed, I managed to see Phil from time to time, including once in Florida, where my wife and I were then living. But, even without the unrelenting pressure, I think that Phil and I were destined to go our separate ways. We had never agreed politically about Cuba or what he ca me to call "the Socialist camp," and I thought it crazy when he and other friends publicly launched their Covert Action Information Bulletin from Havana.

    Was he, then, in the pay of the Soviets or Cubans?

    At the time I worked with him in the mid-1970s, I knew that he had lived several months in Cuba, where he must have talked to the Cuban security services. But my impression from other sources was that neither the Cubans nor the Russians felt they could trust him.

    I also came to know Phil’s "Russian contact," Edgar Cheporov, who worked in London as correspondent for the Novosti News Agency. I assumed Edgar was KGB and was reporting back to Moscow on what we were doing, but he never gave us any information or guidance that I saw. I must admit, I found Edgar extremely good company, and my wife and I often went to London jazz clubs with him. Alas, we always split the check.

    Even more to the point, Phil himself did not provide the original impetus for the rest of us to publicly out CIA officers. That came from a former State Department officer named John Marks, who wrote an instructive article in the Washington Monthly on "How to Spot a Spook?" As silly as it sounds, CIA officers working under diplomatic cover in American embassies always showed the same tell-tale career patterns. All we needed to identify them were the State Department’s Biographic Registers and Foreign Service Lists, which we found in the the library of the British Museum.

    In the end, I don’t really care whether Phil ever dined out on Havana or Moscow gold. Everything I saw him write or say about the CIA was true, as even the agency’s defenders had to admit. And, in telling the truth, he alerted millions of people to the threat the CIA’s covert actions continue to pose, as much to the United States as to other countries.

    My friend Philip Agee died in Havana in January. He was 72. May his work live on.

Study: Contractors Escape Ethics Laws

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By Anne Flaherty

Washington - The military hires so many private contractors that it should consider forcing them to disclose their financial interests so as to avoid any conflicts of interest, according to a congressional audit.

    In a report released Monday, the Government Accountability Office found that contractors outnumber Defense Department employees in many offices and perform such sensitive tasks as developing contract details and advising award fees. Yet unlike federal employees, contractors are not bound to most government ethics laws and regulations.

    Defense officials agreed that tougher standards are probably needed and said they were looking into it. Some officials told GAO privately that they were concerned about the cost of enforcing new rules, an argument GAO rebuffed as dangerous.

    The "costs of contractor employees constructing options for their personal gain - an outcome increasingly lik

    While the Defense Department has not determined the total number of contractors it employs, the numbers are substantial. For example, there are more than 163,000 contractors working in Iraq and some 36,500 in Afghanistan - about the same number of troops in those regions, a senior defense official told Congress in testimony last month.

    In its audit of 21 defense offices, GAO found that 15 of them had more contractors on staff than Defense Department employees. In several offices, including an Army human resources group and an engineering unit at the Missile Defense Agency, contractors comprised more than 80 percent of the workforce.

    Under federal laws and regulations, contractors are prohibited specifically from accepting bribes or kickbacks, and companies working with the military must have written ethic policies. Also, several defense offices have instituted ethics safeguards on a voluntary basis.

    But there isn’t a department-wide requirement that contractor employees be free from personal conflicts of interest. Further, most companies’ ethic policies prohibit an employee from having a financial stake in its competitors, but do not require them to disclose potential conflicts of interest as their work relates to the Defense Department.

    GAO recommended that the Pentagon establish requirements for companies to identify and prevent conflicts of interest. Included in the new code should be a prohibition of employees accepting gifts such as cash, meal or trips in connection to their jobs, GAO stated.

Austrian grand coalition in crisis

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By Markus Salzmann

Following months of conflict in the Austrian government coalition, a premature end of the coalition between the Social Democrat Party (SPÖ) and the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) seems increasingly likely. A debate has erupted within the SPÖ over how to deal with the extreme right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), with a layer of the social-democratic leadership now favouring a pact with the ultra-rightists.

Several high-ranking SPÖ representatives have spoken out for fresh elections. State Undersecretary Reinhold Lopatka (ÖVP) has already mentioned June 8 as a possible date for new elections. "We certainly cannot hold out until 2010 in the present form. This state of affairs is no longer acceptable," he told the Viennese Standard.

Previously, Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer (SPÖ) and the influential Viennese SPÖ had expressed their regrets at the continuous climate of conflict and indicated that the coalition could face a premature end. While the conservative vice-chancellor, William Molterer, has officially called for a continuation of the cooperation between Austria’s two main parties, the state leaders Josef Pühringer and Josef Pröll (both ÖVP) have declared that at present "all options are open."

The disputes between the SPÖ and ÖVP have increased enormously during the past few weeks. Both sides are threatening one other with committees of inquiry to investigate a series of scandals, such as the Eurofighter and Bawag affairs. These committees are a pure farce, under conditions where both parties are involved in obscure backroom manoeuvring in relation to both issues. The news magazine Profile quoted one SPÖ worker who retorted, "It would be like one cop blowing the whistle on another one."

The main point of dispute between the coalition partners is the planned tax reform. Gusenbauer and the SPÖ want to ensure that the measure comes into force in 2009, while the ÖVP prefers to wait until 2011—after the official date for scheduled parliamentary elections. The reform contains some minor tax exemptions for small and average wage earners in line with promises made by the SPÖ in its election campaign in 2006.

In the 1980s and 1990s the grand coalition in Austria was the accepted form of government. Both parties represented similar policies and the social democrats, in alliance with the trade unions, had the job of keeping the working class in check along the lines of the country’s system of "social partnership." The economic and social changes of the 1990s increasingly undermined such a form of politics, however. In response the ÖVP formed a coalition in 2000 with the right-wing Freedom Party led by Jörg Haider and the SPÖ went into opposition.

After six years of rule by the right-wing coalition the ÖVP was discredited and the Freedom Party deeply split and confronting financial ruin. Despite losses it was possible for Gusenbauer to re-establish the SPÖ as the party with the most electoral support. However, after entering once again into a grand coalition with the ÖVP, the SPÖ disillusioned its voters by allowing the conservatives to dictate policy. As a result the SPÖ broke all of its election promises, such as its plans to abolish student tuition fees and cancel the purchase of the Eurofighter.

This betrayal of the electorate rapidly accelerated the decline of SPÖ and led to a wave of resignations, with growing discontent characterising those who remained in the party. In local council elections held in Graz in February the SPÖ lost over 6 percent. With just 19 percent of the vote the SPÖ ranks only minimally above the Greens, and the SPÖ lost nearly 8 percent in last Sunday’s state elections in Lower Austria.

While the SPÖ is quite correctly being punished by the electorate for its antisocial policies, the ÖVP, which is nominally regarded as the junior partner in the coalition, has been able to profit from the situation—it has been able to dictate policy to the SPÖ. Any end to the coalition would certainly not entail a policy change on the part of the SPÖ. Chancellor Gusenbauer has affirmed on a number of occasions that his government would implement the demands put forward in its program. Any other coalition would carry out basically the same policies.

Up until the last parliamentary elections the Greens were considered the preferred partner of the SPÖ. But the lurch to the right by the entire political establishment in Austria has reshuffled the deck and in the meantime the Greens have switched their orientation primarily to the ÖVP. Coalitions between the Greens and conservatives already exist at the state level in Upper Austria and Bregenz and the same constellation is currently being put together in Graz—formerly a stronghold of the SPÖ and the Austrian Communist party. The ÖVP mayor Siegfried Nagl, along with many other party colleagues, sees in such a coalition "a new option at a state or federal level."

Under these circumstances the SPÖ is increasingly looking towards the extreme right as a potential partner. While Gusenbauer has sought to officially evade the issue of possible cooperation with the Freedom Party, other SPÖ leaders have not been so reticent and have intimated that they would be prepared to entertain an alliance with the FPÖ—now led by Heinz Christian Strache.

The chairman of the SPÖ in Vorarlberg, Michael Ritsch, declared that "one should not rule out any option.... I leave an option open for cooperation with the Freedom Party in the federal elections of 2009, as well as the communal elections in 2010," he stressed. And the state head of the Social Democrats in Steiermark, Toni Vulkan, declared that he was "open for discussions with all democratically elected parties."

National council president Barbara Prammer explained that the SPÖ had to "re-evaluate" its relationship to the FPÖ after the next elections, and the SPÖ leader Josef Cap is alleged to have already explored the concrete possibilities of cooperation in internal discussions with Strache.

Accordingly, an increasing number of SPÖ politicians are calling for the abolition of the so-called "anti- FPÖ resolution" passed by an SPÖ congress in 2004, which prohibited any co-operation with the FPÖ. In fact, this resolution was only window dressing because in the same year the SPÖ in Carinthia commenced collaboration with Jörg Haider at a regional level. But now any official impediment is to be done away with, and according to the SPÖ speaker on security issues, Rudolf Parnigoni, "No resolution lasts forever. Whether we change it will be up to the next Party Congress."

Sections of the trade unions are also preparing to change course. Union official Josef Muchitsch told the Standard, "If we want more options in the future then this resolution is no longer up-to-date." Since cooperation with the FPÖ works well at a district level, Muchitsch asked, "Why shouldn’t it also be possible at other levels?"

SPÖ speaker on constitutional affairs, Peter Wittmann, has even detected "a change taking place" within the FPÖ. In fact, the type of change became clear in recent weeks when the FPÖ transformed its election campaign in Graz into an anti-Islamic witch-hunt. Since splitting with the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), which was formed by a more "moderate" wing of former FPÖ members, the Freedom Party has been even more dominated by ultra right-wing extremists and openly fascistic elements.

For its part, the FPÖ has also made clear it is ready to cooperate with the Social Democrats. The division of labour between the two parties is quite clear. A government alliance consisting of the SPÖ and FPÖ would seek to steer increasing social discontent into reactionary nationalist and racist channels, with the Social Democrats channelling social protest with the help of the trade unions.

In 1999 the SPÖ denounced the ÖVP for forming a coalition with the former party of Jörg Haidar. Now, just a few years later, they are ready to increase the influence of the extreme right and strengthen the most reactionary forces. There could be no clearer indication of the degree of decline and rottenness of this party.

HUD Emails Refer to Retaliation

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By Carol D. Leonnig

High-level officials wrote of punishing Philadelphia housing director.

    After Philadelphia’s housing director refused a demand by President Bush’s housing secretary to transfer a piece of city property to a business friend, two top political appointees at the department exchanged e-mails discussing the pain they could cause the Philadelphia director.

    "Would you like me to make his life less happy? If so, how?" Orlando J. Cabrera, then-assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, wrote about Philadelphia housing director Carl R. Greene.

    "Take away all of his Federal dollars?" responded Kim Kendrick, an assistant secretary who oversaw accessible housing. She typed symbols for a smiley-face, ":-D," at the end of her January 2007 note.

    Cabrera wrote back a few minutes later: "Let me look into that possibility."

    The e-mails, obtained by The Washington Post, came to light as a result of a lawsuit provoked by HUD’s decision last September to strip the Philadelphia Housing Authority of as much as $50 million in federal funds. In December, it declared the agency in violation of rules that underpin its ability to decide precisely how it will spend federal housing funds. Kendrick was the official who formally notified the authority that she had found it in violation.

    HUD has argued publicly that this decision was not related to the demands by HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson that Greene turn over a $2 million vacant city lot to Kenny Gamble, a friend of Jackson’s. HUD officials have said that Greene was not punished for his defiance.

    But Greene and the Philadelphia authority have accused HUD and Jackson in a lawsuit of fabricating problems in the authority’s performance as a way to retaliate against Greene.

    The e-mails suggest that HUD leadership sought to punish Greene by threatening the authority’s funding. What is not explicitly said in the e-mails is why.

    On the date these e-mails were sent, HUD notified the housing authority that it had been found in violation of rules requiring that 5 percent of housing be accessible to disabled residents. The department later argued that because the authority refused to acknowledge it was in violation and to agree to a specific remedy, it was in violation of a broader agreement that put $50 million in federal funding in jeopardy.

    This week, Greene sent copies of the e-mails to Sens. Arlen Specter (R) and Robert P. Casey Jr. (D) of Pennsylvania. Greene called the e-mails evidence of HUD’s retribution for his refusal to give public property to Gamble. He urged the senators to demand that Jackson and his deputies explain their motives. Jackson is set to testify about HUD matters today before the Senate Banking Committee.

    Casey said that he has "serious questions" about the e-mails and that "80,00 low-income Philadelphians deserve answers."

    "This is the kind of stuff you read about in novels, not what you expect from government officials," Greene said in an interview. "It would appear they would carry out a vendetta against me even if it means damage to an entire city."

    HUD spokesman Jereon Brown declined to comment on the e-mails. "The judge presiding in the lawsuit has asked the parties not to speak to the news media," Brown said.

    The dispute between Jackson and the Philadelphia Housing Authority revolves around a city-led revitalization of the once-blighted Martin Luther King Jr. housing project in South Philadelphia.

    In 1999, Universal Community Homes, a nonprofit urban-development company founded by Gamble, and a for-profit developer won the first of a series of contracts from the city to develop 236 affordable, below-market units and provide marketing and counseling services to incoming residents. If they met the contract terms, they were to receive a nearby vacant property.

    Gamble complained to Jackson in 2006 that Greene would not give him the property, according to participants in a meeting. Jackson asked then-Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street to get Greene to turn over the land, but Greene said Universal failed to deliver on many of its promises, and he refused to hand over the land.

    In the following months, Jackson’s deputies, including Kendrick, assistant secretary for fair housing, repeatedly threatened in calls and in writing to find the authority in violation of both federal accessibility law and HUD’s redevelopment grant, according to the lawsuit. They said the authority would be in default on the King project unless it transferred the vacant land to Gamble.

    HUD agreed last fall to let the authority keep the property but found the agency in violation of the accessibility law and the larger funding contract.

    The authority recently told a federal judge in Philadelphia that HUD’s "capricious" decision would cost the authority $50 million, raise rents for most of its 84,000 low-income tenants and force the layoffs of 250 people. The judge agreed to temporarily stay HUD’s finding of a violation. The judge has said the authority can question some key HUD leaders under oath but not Jackson.

    Jackson’s office last week said in a written statement that he could not comment on Greene’s allegations because they are a subject of litigation. Jackson, who ran the District’s housing authority in the 1980s, joined HUD as a deputy secretary in 2001 and was named secretary of the agency in 2004.

House Democrats Reject Telecom Immunity

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Washington - Locked in a standoff with the White House, House Democrats on Tuesday maintained their refusal to shield from civil lawsuits telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on their customers without a secret court’s permission.

    But they offered the companies an olive branch: the chance to use classified government documents to defend themselves in court.

    House Democratic leaders unveiled a bill that they hoped would bridge the gap between the electronic surveillance bill passed by the Senate last month and a rival version the House approved last fall.

    The House bill also would create a bipartisan commission, modeled after the 9/11 Commission, to investigate the Bush administration’s secret wiretapping program.

    The legislation drew swift criticism from congressional Republicans and from Attorney General Michael Mukasey and National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, who said it fails to fix problems with the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that Congress is trying to update. They also said any bill that does not provide telecom immunity is unacceptable to the Bush administration.

    White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said the bill would impose "cumbersome" requirements on the intelligence agencies to conduct wiretaps. She also said the proposed investigative commission shows "House leaders are more interested in playing politics" than they are in preventing terrorist attacks.

    House Democrats point out that Congress still does not know what the telecommunications companies did that requires legal immunity because the White House has only allowed Judiciary and Intelligence committee members to read the secret documents that underpin the program.

    The 1978 FISA law dictates when the government needs court permission to conduct electronic eavesdropping inside the United States. The law has taken on particular importance in the global effort to thwart terrorists since the 2001 attacks on the United States.

    The most contentious difference between the two bills is whether they grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the government wiretap phone and computer lines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks without first getting approval from the FISA court. Congress created that court 30 years ago to prevent government abuse of its surveillance powers.

    The Senate bill would provide full immunity to the telecommunications companies. The House bill includes no such provision.

    The compromise proposed Tuesday by House Democratic leaders is expected to be brought to the floor for a vote Thursday. It would allow the roughly 40 lawsuits that are pending against the companies for their participation in the secret wiretapping program to go forward.

    "We are not going to cave in" on immunity, said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich.

    The companies are hamstrung from defending themselves in court, however. The Bush administration is invoking the "state secrets" privilege to block the companies from revealing secret documents that might bolster their argument that the eavesdropping program was legal.

    The House compromise bill would encourage the federal district judge hearing the telecommunications lawsuits to review those classified documents in secret to determine whether the companies acted legally.

    Judges in criminal cases often hear classified evidence in secret, but judges in civil cases do not, said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

    President Bush has vowed to veto any bill that does not grant the companies full retroactive immunity from lawsuits.

    Democratic leaders say they are trying to strike a balance between protecting the country against terrorist attacks and protecting civil liberties.

Does GDP Really Capture Economy’s Health?

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By Mark Trumbull

A Senate hearing Wednesday will revisit the debate on the economy’s best known measure.

    America’s so-called gross domestic product is an enormous number and an important number, but is it the right number?

    That’s the question that comes before the US Senate Wednesday in an unusual hearing on the far from perfect science of measuring economic activity.

    Few numbers have the cachet of GDP. The announcement of its growth rate each quarter provides a speedometer of economic growth or - perhaps in the next few months - recession.

    And few numbers have the scale of the GDP. By latest tally, the annual production of goods and services in the United States has grown to about $14 trillion.

    Yet economists readily concede that GDP is not a one-number-fits-all view of what’s going on. Some suggest changes to make it more useful and more accurate. Even at its best, they say, it should be used more as a gauge of activity than of overall progress.

    "What we need to end up with is two separate accounts [of the economy] - a market price account and a quality of life account," says Rob Atkinson, an economist in Washington.

    Creating such a system would be controversial and subjective, he says. "But still it is an opportunity to think more accurately about our economic well-being."

    The GDP numbers, he explains, are rooted in the economy of the marketplace - totaling up the dollar value of big activities such as business investment and consumer spending, as well as government activity. It’s useful in as far as it goes.

    But economists point to several shortcomings: It focuses on aggregate numbers, not individual experience. Much useful activity that’s not a money-based transaction is left out. And the report is a summation of quantity, not quality.

    "Not everything that is in the monetary economy is of equal value," says Mr. Atkinson, who heads the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a public policy research group.

    Spending money to clean up an oil spill in Alaska, he says, is not the same as building a faster Internet connection. One is an investment in a more productive future, while the other is an effort that, while necessary, would have been best avoided in the first place.

    Economists see room to improve lots of numbers tracked by the government, not just GDP. But this overview number has long faced criticism.

    Wednesday’s hearing, in fact, comes 40 years after Sen. Robert F. Kennedy delivered a speech that, in poetic phrases, called the numbers into question.

    "It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country," Senator Kennedy said in 1968. "It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

    Some economists say the critique is not wholly fair. If a $5,000 computer offers a 10-fold improvement on a $500 computer, then quality shows up when those purchases are counted as consumer spending. And much learning goes into making those computers.

    But Kennedy’s overall point is as relevant today as then - some say maybe more so given that the system was developed for an industrial era. Today, the economy is increasingly service oriented. And with growing concern about climate change and species extinction, the impact of economic activity on the environment - something not measured by GDP - may be increasingly important for human survival.

    "If the country has natural resources and you cut the forest down, that increases GDP," says Yoram Bauman, who teaches environmental economics at the University of Washington in Seattle. "But it’s not clear that the wealth of society has increased, because the value was there all along in the trees."

    Living standards, for many people, also include the gratification of a home-cooked meal. Yet unpaid work at home isn’t counted as part of GDP, even though it produces real goods and services.

    Various alternatives to measures of economic progress have been formulated. The United Nations tracks various indicators of human progress as a country-by-country gauge of living standards.

    Private sector organizations have developed other measures, such as the index of sustainable economic welfare (ISEW) or the genuine progress indicator (GPI).

    For drama, Wednesday’s panel in a Senate subcommittee on interstate commerce may not beat congressional hearings with accused baseball players or embattled mortgage lenders. But it could kick-start some fresh economic thought.

    "If I had 10 hours to spend lobbying for something, I would lobby for a carbon tax," not a revise of GDP, says Mr. Bauman. But better stats wouldn’t hurt.

Spitzer’s Shame Is Wall Street’s Gain

Go to Original
By Robert Scheer

Tell me again: Why should we get all worked up over the revelation that the New York governor paid for sex? Will it bring back to life the eight U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq that same day in a war that makes no sense and has cost this nation trillions in future debt? Will it save those millions of homes that hardworking folks all over the country are losing because of financial industry shenanigans that Eliot Spitzer, as much as anyone, attempted to halt? Perhaps it provides some insight into why oil has risen to $108 a barrel, benefiting most of all the oil sheiks whom our taxpayer-supported military has kept in power?

Sure, the guy, by his own admission, is quite pathetic in all those small, squirrelly ways that have messed up the lives of other grand public figures before him, but why is an all-too-human sin, amply predicted in early Scripture, getting all this incredible media play as some sort of shocking event? The answer is that, while having precious little to do with serious corruption in public life, it does have a great deal to do with stoking flagging newspaper sales and television ratings.

The sad truth is that reporting on major corruption, say, the rationalizations of a president who has authorized torture, doesn’t cut it as a marketing bonanza. Just days before this grand expose, the president vetoed a bill banning torture, and instead of being greeted with horrified disgust, the president’s deep denigration of this nation’s presumed ideals was met with a vast public yawn. Torture, unlike paid sex, doesn’t have legs as a news story.

Sex sells, and frankly it would seem far more exploitative for the news media to pimp this tale to the public than anything that VIP escort service did with the pitiable governor. His behavior was not really any more wretched than messing around with a young and vulnerable White House intern who didn’t even get paid for her efforts, yet Bill Clinton survived that one, whereas Spitzer was presumed dead on the arrival of this "news." The New York Times, which editorially has supported the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, whose vast White House experience clearly did not include corralling her husband, now editorializes contemptuously about Spitzer’s betrayal of the public trust as well as about his exploitation of his "ashen-faced" wife, who, like Hillary, stood by her man.

The media consensus from the opening salvo was that Spitzer must resign and he will be thrown to the dogs, which is unfortunate because, like Clinton, he has done much valuable work in the public interest, and the outrage over this personal dereliction, tawdry in the extreme, is excessive. I certainly never wanted Clinton to resign, let alone be impeached, but why is Spitzer’s paying for sex more disgraceful than ripping it off? Yes, Spitzer allegedly broke a law that shouldn’t be on the books, and his resignation in disgrace is inevitable, but it bothers me that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney remain in office despite having violated enormously more serious laws.

Frankly, I don’t care what any of these politicians do in their personal lives as long as the practice is consensual, and the thousands of dollars that exchanged hands in this case would provide a presumption that the lady in question was indeed a willing partner in this commercial transaction. True, Spitzer is an outrageous hypocrite for having prosecuted others caught in what should not be considered criminal behavior, but since when is hypocrisy on the part of a politician, particularly as to sex, so shocking?

I wouldn’t have written this column had I not read The Wall Street Journal’s Page 1 news story headlined "Wall Street Cheers as Its Nemesis Plunges Into Crisis." The article begins with the crowing statement "It’s Schadenfreude time on Wall Street" and goes on to quote those whom Spitzer went after over what should be considered the criminal greed that has predominated on Wall Street. It was Spitzer, as much as anyone, who sounded the alarm on the subprime mortgage crisis, the obscene payouts to CEOs who defrauded their shareholders and the other financial scandals that have brought the U.S. economy to its knees.

The best rule of thumb these days is that ordinary Americans should be mightily depressed over any news that Wall Street hustlers cheer, for they have been exposed as a dangerous pack of scoundrels quite willing to rob decent, hardworking people of their homes. And of course no one on Wall Street ever paid for sex.